The purposes of mindfulness (or, why bother being mindful, and motivation)

I just took a little time to share some old notes from my meditation practice about “The purpose of mindfulness.” Or, stated another way, instead of asking about the purposes of being mindful you might ask, “Why bother being mindful?”, or “What is the motivation for practicing mindfulness and meditation?”

The purposes of mindfulness

In the following sections I describe the reasons/motivations for practicing both mindfulness and meditation.

I don’t know how many people know Ram Dass or have read his writings, but I updated the first motivation here based on his work, because if you really get into mindfulness and meditation, what he states is the end goal.

1) “Perfected beings are pure awareness”

If you really, really, really get into mindfulness and meditation, the end goal is exactly what Ram Dass states:

“Perfected beings are pure awareness.”

In this state, all ego has fallen away, and perfected beings — think saints — act from a state of “no ego.” When I talk about ego here, I mean all forms of attachments and aversions you may have: things you like, things you dislike. You get to a point of having no wants and no desires, and all of your actions come from a point of performing service (seva).

If you have ever meditated deeply, you know that you can reach this state in deep meditation, where your body drops off, and you are pure consciousness. You aren’t a “perfected being” at this point, but you are pure awareness.

That being said, I want to add two points:

  1. First, don’t believe me on this point. By this I mean that you can prove this to yourself by really getting into meditation and mindfulness, so you don’t have to have faith in my writing or what Ram Dass has written. This requires zero faith. Just prove it to yourself.
  2. Second, until you get to the point where you can reach those meditation states, the following points can be other motivations for your meditation practice.

2) Get your awareness in sync with your body

A preliminary goal of mindfulness is to get your consciousness/awareness into perfect sync with what your physical body is doing in the present moment. Many practitioners have a practice they call noting, and it goes like this:

  • When you are washing the dishes, you only think, “washing the dishes.”
  • When you are walking, you think, “walking.”

As you get better at doing this you can get more intense at it:

  • When you start walking you think, “picking up foot.”
  • Then you think, “placing foot down,” etc.

I’ll write more about this over time, but if you google for phrases like “Shinzen Young noting practice” or “Mahasi Sayadaw noting”, you will find some good resources. Note that many other people teach noting practices, these are just two that I know.

3) Mindfulness gets you to be focused and single-minded

Similarly, it gets you to be single-minded. Rather than having a “monkey mind” and trying to think of multiple things at one time, you only think about one thing (what you are actually doing in the present moment)

On a personal note, when I get very sick with mast cell disease, I am very good at focusing on one thing at a time, because that’s basically all that I can do.

4) Improve your “concentration muscle”

Concentration is a skill that anyone can learn, and by concentrating all day — being mindful — you improve that skill. Over time, this creates new wrinkles in your brain, and eventually your practice will take on a life of its own.

5) Mindfulness helps your seated meditation practice

Being mindful and concentrating all day makes it easier to start concentrating when you get on the meditation cushion. Unlike most people who sit down with a scattered, “monkey mind,” when you sit down your mind is already in a focused state, so after a few breaths you can get into a great seated meditation state.

6) Use your concentration skill on other tasks

Your concentration skill will help you move to the next stages of your meditation practices. First you build the concentration muscle, then you apply that muscle to whatever you want to focus on.

What do you want to improve in your life? Play tennis or pickleball better? Focus more when you’re reading, writing, or working? All of these become easier, and you are more focused, because your concentration and focus is better.

7) The day becomes something that happens within your meditation

Eventually, you will learn to be in a mindful and meditative state all day. As Shinzen Young wrote, “In the beginning, meditation is something that happens within your day. Eventually, the day becomes something that happens within your meditation.”

When most people start, being mindful all the time is hard and it takes practice. Again and again you have to remind yourself to come back to the present moment. But once your practice takes on a life of its own, one day you will find that you are being mindful all the time, and then your day is something that happens inside your meditation practice.

8) Stress management

As I’ve written elsewhere, at the beginning of a session I used to not like starting to meditate or starting to practice yoga — it felt like a waste of time — but by the time I finished the session I didn’t want to stop because I felt so relaxed and good.

9) Pain management

Yoga is great for pain management, and similarly you can learn to manage pain through meditation. As Anandamayi Ma said one time when people asked her if she was suffering while she was dying, and she said, “This body suffers, but I do not.” There are many similar stories like this about people who learn to meditate deeply.

Conversely, things like desire and worry keep you from truly being in the present moment. If you find yourself saying, “I worry about ___”, you are not being mindful; you are thinking about the future. As Eckhart Tolle said, “You cannot be both unhappy and fully present in the Now.”

Updates

As I think of more reasons about being mindful — motivations for being mindful throughout your day — I’ll share them here. But for now, given what I know, I hope this is a good start.