The Heart of Mindfulness   

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by: Jon Aaron 

For our retreat coming up in June, we were inspired to call it “The Heart of Mindfulness,” which has a nice double meaning. 

On one hand, this retreat explores the core teachings which form the basis of most mindfulness practices offered today whether through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or other programs. Even shiny new meditation apps are often utilizing these core teachings, which go back 2600 years or so.  

The heart of mindfulness also refers to non-judgment—or heartfelt curiosity.  This is a crucial component of mindfulness practice. Without heartfulness, mindfulness is hardly more than paying attention. When this element of compassion is integrated with the mind’s capacity to sustain attention then things start to change. Yet too often, in the rush to develop “productivity” or “focus” in our culture, this dimension gets lost. 

The danger of titles is that they reify what they name. We might start to think of mindfulness as a “thing” to obtain (in only 8 weeks! 28 days!) or an instrument we can call into service when needed. In truth, mindfulness is a capacity that we were all born with before life interfered and various habits got in the way of its flourishing. Rather than taking this quality and turning toward our experience more fully, we’ve been trained (knowingly or not), to turn away from our experience.  Worse, we’ve taken on such absurdly busy lives that we forget to attend to what’s right in front of us.  

The “heart” of mindfulness is this quality we were born with to be fully present with our direct experience.  As this quality is “re-awakened,” compassion—another human capacity—is awakened as well. 

The heart of the teachings which allow us to break down obstructions are most clearly defined in two interwoven Buddhist sutras—the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta) and Mindfulness of Breathing (Anapanasati). 

These comprehensive teachings, which have been passed down to us by generations of meditators, offer tools to both help us see these obstacles clearly and recognize when they have fallen away. At any point, the fruition of our practice can shine through. In the case of the Anapanasati sutra, there are 16 steps to follow. In the first couple of steps as we learn to know the body breathing, and we begin to see both the obstructions and their falling away more clearly. Even in these early stages, we can start to have insights into the nature of reality. This strengthens our mindfulness, which in turn brings more opportunities for insight…   

In a retreat setting, we have few day-to-day external distractions and are supported by the practice of noble silence. As a result of this slowing down and reduction in input, the process of seeing obstructions with kindness, and experiencing them falling away (at least momentarily), is more accessible to us.  We see more, and this provides greater confidence. Add to this the support of practicing with others, and the heart of mindfulness shines through.

About the Author: Jon Aaron

Jon Aaron is a leading MBSR teacher, teacher trainer and mentor and dharma teacher in New York where he teaches at New York Insight and other centers.  He is a co-founder of the MBSR Teacher Collaborative of Greater New York and a founding member of the Global Mindfulness Collaborative. He has been leading retreats in the US and elsewhere for the past seven years. Recently with his partner Upayadhi, he established, an online community for meditators which started in the context of the pandemic and have been thriving ever since.

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