Saturday June 5, 2010
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.
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