Mindfulness of Coffee

Saturday June 5, 2010

Turkish Coffee

Last weekend, I was sitting in the Yesim Turkish Café, my all-time favourite Leicester watering hole (it’s at the town end of the Narborough road, for those readers who are local, and it’s thoroughly recommended). I ordered a Turkish coffee, and when it arrived I got into a conversation with the proprietor about the art of carrying coffee. The trick, he said, is not to focus on the coffee. If you look at the cup, then the coffee will spill. Instead, you must look ahead, towards your destination, and the coffee will almost miraculously (speaking as a bit of a klutz myself) stay where it should, in the cup.

This information, alas, came too late to address the many shortcomings in my brief and unsuccessful career as a waiter, back in my student days. Who knows, perhaps if I had known this then, I’d now be a head waiter at some high-class restaurant, rather than a writer of obscure novels and philosophy books. But what it did start me thinking about was a idea I’ve been interested in for some time, and that is the idea that you can see mindfulness as a kind of suppleness of awareness and of mind.

“Mindfulness” of course, is itself a supple term, and is used to translate a whole range of terms that in turn have various shades of meaning. Rather than attempting an essentializing definition of mindfulness that can take account of all these, I’m going to pass over these complexities to look more closely at this question of suppleness of attention. Let me go back to the Turkish coffee. As a bad waiter (I speak from experience), one might think that to carry a full cup of coffee the best thing would be to focus exclusively on the coffee itself, to keep one’s eyes firmly on the coffee, to make sure that one is constantly aware of the distance between the top of the coffee and the rim of the cup. There is an appropriately ghoulish Buddhist text that imagines an analogous situation:

“Suppose, monks, that a large crowd of people comes thronging together, saying, ‘The beauty queen! The beauty queen!’ And suppose that the beauty queen is highly accomplished at singing & dancing, so that an even greater crowd comes thronging, saying, ‘The beauty queen is singing! The beauty queen is dancing!’ Then a man comes along, desiring life & shrinking from death, desiring pleasure & abhorring pain. They say to him, ‘Now look here, mister. You must take this bowl filled to the brim with oil and carry it on your head in between the great crowd & the beauty queen. A man with a raised sword will follow right behind you, and wherever you spill even a drop of oil, right there will he cut off your head.’ Now what do you think, monks: Will that man, not paying attention to the bowl of oil, let himself get distracted outside?”
(From Access to Insight)

I love that “Now look here, mister!” Anyway, the question is how should this monk, having found himself in such an implausible situation, successfully navigate? The answer that the proprietor of the café might give – that he should focus on where he is going, and not on the bowl itself – is not immediately intuitive. But the reason this works better is that, presumably, the business of carrying a cup of coffee (not to mention a bowl of oil through a jostling crowd, with a swordsman at your back) is a complex one – think of all those mental and physical processes – and if your attention is narrowed down onto the bowl or the cup alone, then you risk closing down your awareness of the broader environment; and this is precisely the kind of awareness you need to be able to navigate at all.

Mindfulness, then, is not just a question of degree (how mindful am I, on a scale of one to ten…?), but it is also a matter of fluidity, of a kind of responsiveness to the situation in which one finds oneself. The fact is, we cannot be completely aware of everything that is happening at any one time. Anybody who tells you that we can is, I would suggest, simply mistaken. The brain just isn’t built like this. If I am mindful of something, I am also necessarily unmindful of other things. Attention is selective. So it is a question of how we deploy the capacity for awareness that we have, to be able to navigate well through our lives.

Sometimes you come across a certain kind of Buddhist comportment (or even, as Bourdieu would say, a certain habitus – but you don’t want me getting all Bourdieu on you, do you?) that can pass for a kind of superior mindfulness – the slow movements in which you sense that every single gesture is being noted, the careful speech – but which seems strangely dissociated from the world. There is attention here (as Nyanaponika Thera points out, attention is an ordinary human faculty), but when attention becomes ossified like this, it seems to me that it is risks closing itself down to much of life, rather than opening up an awareness of the world. There may be a place for fixity and continuity of attention; but there is also a need for fluidity. And perhaps it is in the balance between the two, constantly shifting in relation to the environment, that is the fullest expression of that thing we call – loosely and fluidly – mindfulness.

# · Ted Bagley

I think a lot of ‘Buddhists’ could use a good Bourdieu slapping.
You contrasted a lot of Mindfulness talk’ nicely, thank you.

# · Stefan

Methinks “fluidity” is a good way to put it. There’s the story about people who built the steel framework for skyscrapers, and they just walk along a steel beam, with nothing but a sheer drop either side. They say to just look ahead and walk, and let your feet handle the rest.
It is the same with the cup. I am telling my body what to do, but all the physical processes involved, from calculating balance to keeping my heart pumping, is all done automatically. There’s some very interesting conditions that physiotherapists have to deal with when something is wrong with the wiring, and the body is really fooled about what and where it is.
When you learn to drive, you really do think, “press the brake… which one is that.. oh it is that pedal..” but eventually that becomes automatic and unconsciously handled by the body. When I was learning to drive, my instructor said, “you don’t seem scared of the other cars?”, and that surprised me. Why would I be scared? My body sees them there, I am here, there is a distance between us… what else is there?
It still leaves this issue about what does “mindfulness” mean… and I guess there’s several things. I would imagine that one meaning is actually the reverse of focussing on the cup, ie. to not be distracted by the cup. If we can rest in our natural awareness, without being distracted by scary or attractive objects, then we are more open and free, which includes, free to act.
That might be the Zen Swordsman thing, perhaps — not be so distracted by the fear of death that you get your head cut off anyway!

# · william

I have never met a person that would not keep their eye on the oil.

the fear would overwhelm them.

a drop of oil would spill.

count on it.

# · Sadie Small

I enjoy the conciseness of your entries. In a way, I think your writing exemplifies the idea of fluidity. It seems like you focus on the idea in front of you, instead of the cup full of individual words.
You might also take this analogy a bit further— a bit wider, if you will. Maybe the specific details of your life, the foamy dramas, the sloshing stresses, all comprise the cup that might spill if you agonize over the details. In focussing ahead, instead of on yourself, you begin to produce right thought, which leads to right action. Yes?

# · ezzirah

Well put! mindfulness is not the same as bare attention, IMHO, and I think you put that idea forth very well.


# · Anreal Perception

And isn’t it wonderful then to encounter a teaching that has as its basic tenet “Give up the Disease of effort” :)

Lovely analogy with the cup.

I’m new to your site and its a pleasure to read such lucid and unfettered opinions. thank you.

Indeed if we only remember that the MIND is like space…it becomes very clear that to remain in the Natural State of the Mind has nothing at all to do with ‘focus’ as such … but only undisturbed – ‘ness’

# · piers

I’m interested in your idea that it’s ‘a question of how we deploy the capacity for awareness that we have.’ I would poke a sharp stick at the issue by saying: WHO exactly is it that has this awareness? It seems to me some schools of Buddhism spend a lot of time focussing on the minutiae of meditative techniques and philosophical speculations, without asking that one truly penetrating question, upon which the whole house of cards rests.

Excellent blog the way, I much enjoy it.

# · Toast

The true sage would simply dump the oil out of the bowl and then wear it as a hat.

# · Penelope

This is a really cool advice. I always have trouble waiting any sort of drinks. I will certainly try focusing on the destination, not the item I carry.

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