Common Myths About Mindfulness: Part 1

Myth #1 Choiceless Awareness is the “Purest” Practice of Mindfulness

This belief is strongly associated with the mistaken idea of non-conceptual awareness. Often the same yogis who believe that concepts are a problem for meditators also believe that intentionally directed mindfulness corrupts their experience of reality.

The moment by moment change in focus that consciousness experiences is entirely conditioned by a variety of dynamics within the mind such as sensory stimulus, inner forces of desire or aversion, associative memory, fear, restlessness, and of course intention. Directed intention is only one among many possible factors conditioning the attention. Nor is it necessarily the strongest one, as experienced when our mind wanders against our will. No matter how hidden these conditioning processes might seem, they are always present.

Intention itself, as a conditioning mental factor is not in any way a barrier to the development of wisdom and concentration. It does not occlude the recognition of any aspect or function of conscious experience, including its own. Even in so called “choiceless” awareness, the subtle presence of intention occurs as embodied in reactive mind states such as desire, anger or thought. These too are volitional mental formations. All such mind states that “have an agenda” contain the quality of intention within themselves. In reality “choiceless awareness” is only attention whose conditioning is unpenetrated by mindfulness and insight, and unaccompanied by clear comprehension.

Additionally, allowing one’s attention to float free in this way, will make three things particularly difficult: the development of concentration, the development of energy and insight into intention and its associated conditioning.

The development of concentration will be more difficult because the undirected mind lacks stability, an essential feature of one-pointed stable attention. Volitionally directed attention is first embodied by applied thought, vitakka, which becomes the basis for the development of the other jhana factors as they mature towards ekagatta one-pointedness. Without the development of vitakka requiring effort, energy will lag, leaving the mind burdened with dullness or stiffness. Because intention is not consciously deployed in the practice of so called choiceless awareness, the intentions that are operating in the mind are less clearly seen. Without seeing them, the yogi will be slow to recognize the nature and function of the preceding formations that condition the arising of that intention. Without the sharper focus provided by intentionally directed attention it is also harder to recognize the vanishing of volitional mental formations and how their disappearance changes the experience of the mind stream. In other words, without the use of directed intention, insight into conditionality is greatly hampered. Without a full spectrum of insight into the conditioning processes of our subjective reality, the Progress of Insight may fail develop properly. The environment of undirected attention is therefore anemic of concentration, energy and the insight, three of the five controlling faculties responsible for the successful evolution of our practice.

When practice matures into Knowledge of Equanimity Towards Formations, a kind of choiceless awareness becomes possible, in that the illusion of the one who directs attention is now absent, and all states either directed or undirected by volition are spontaneously seen as ownerless. At this stage the mind is sufficiently developed so as to see little difference between directed and undirected attention. The presence or absence of volitional mental formations are simply different expressions of the conditioned processes of impermanent formations.

The path along which our minds must evolve to come upon the experience of the Unconditioned is quite precise. The ability to discover this precise point of balance in the development of the mind’s faculties is one of the features that makes the Theravada teachings so unique, leaving no room for personal predilections or intellectual prejudice. To be successful, we must train our attention so as to achieve the necessary balance and development of the faculties. Because of this very precise requirement and the defiled mind’s natural tendency to go astray, the meditator’s efforts must be regularly adjusted by the teacher to ensure that progress remains on course. In the end, it is not the method itself that achieves the goal, but the carefully balanced evolution of the faculties that leads the mind to emergence from the conditioned series. This precision requires refined tuning, something that does not naturally evolve from free-floating awareness.