Mindfulness matters

If one doesn’t object strongly to the term, I feel that what we might call ‘non-sectarian mindfulness’* is one of the simplest and most useful things we can do in the face of all the problems and crises we currently face in the world.

What is non-sectarian mindfulness?

It is present-centred, non-judgemental awareness.

It can also be called open presence, open awareness, open monitoring, choiceless awareness, or just awareness.

What is open awareness?


It is a state of broad, receptive awareness in which you are open to all sensory experiences, thoughts, and emotions without focusing on any specific object. It involves being fully present and receptive to everything that arises in your awareness, without interference or judgment.

What is choiceless awareness?


It is awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and sensations without making choices or judgments about them. It involves simply being aware of whatever arises in the present moment without trying to change or control your experiences.

[*There are sectarian forms of mindfulness - associated with certain conservative forms Buddhism - that interpret mindfulness to mean something quite different, but these do not concern us here.]

Some traditional forms of meditation and mindfulness involve the element of control, effort, and directed attention or focus. But in open awareness or choiceless awareness there is no justification or condemnation of what is observed, no attempt to control or interfere with what is observed, no particular effort. This is actually pretty revolutionary.

One gets a feeling for this from a conversation with Allan Anderson called ‘Understanding, not controlling desire’, in which Krishnamurti says

Discipline is a form of suppression and control of desire - religious, sectarian, non-sectarian, it’s all based on that, control. Control your appetite. Control your desires. Control your thought. And this control gradually squeezes out the flow of free energy…

[So] how to live with desire? You can’t help it, desire is there. The moment I see something - a beautiful flower, the admiration, the love of it, the smell of it, the beauty of the petal, the quality of the flower and so on, the enjoyment - one asks, is it possible to live without any control whatsoever?

I think this is such an interesting perspective. Can we observe our feelings and reactions without any effort to control or shape them?

My understanding is that ‘open awareness’ is object-free, and ‘choiceless awareness’ is not. With open awareness you are aware but not of any thing, with choiceless awareness you are aware of and you attend to whatever thing happens to arise. GPT seems to agree.

Is your understanding different?

I would like to take this opportunity to apologise for asserting that some amazing kensho insight experience into the nature of self was necessary to help us see the nature of our reality - mainly because thats just like my opinion dude… and also because as a zen practitioner I gotta respect what Dogen said :

“When even for a moment you express the Buddha by sitting upright in samadhi, the whole phenomenal world becomes the Buddha’s seal and the entire sky turns into enlightenment…
all beings in the ten directions and the six realms, including the three lower realms, at once obtain pure body and mind…
Because earth, grass, trees, walls, tiles, and pebbles all engage in buddha activity,
All this, however, does not appear within perception, because it is unconstructedness in stillness-it is immediate realization. If practice and realization were two things, as it appears to an ordinary person, each could be recognized separately. But what can be met with recognition is not realization itself, because realization is not reached by a deluded mind. In stillness, mind and object merge in realization and go beyond enlightenment”

So who am I to argue - if when noticing that I am acting violently, the violence immediately dissapears, this is obviously magical and miraculous awareness blessing all things.
If I see the necessity of giving up all effort, if even for a moment, this is insight into self.

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Terms such as open awareness, open presence, open monitoring and choiceless awareness, etc, each communicates a different nuance, and perhaps to some people quite different meanings - but for me each term is pretty inclusive, and the state to which they point is fluid. In the academic study of mindfulness open awareness (and open monitoring) is often used to distinguish it from focussed attention (what Krishnamurti calls concentration).

For myself, the terms open awareness and choiceless awareness communicate a fluid state of awareness in which perceived objects and sensations and feelings and thoughts can be present, and there can be a more ‘foreground’ awareness of these qualities as they manifest; but there can also be an awareness of the ‘background’ space in which these qualities and perceptions arise. There is a fluid movement between these two aspects of awareness. So, in my understanding, both are aspects of choiceless or open awareness.

Maybe for some brains there can be a state of pure attention in which there are no objects present at all, and there is simply pure awareness without any content whatsoever - whether internal or external. This is not excluded from open awareness or choiceless awareness, but it is not the common or usual state of brain.

Probably, if we wished to pursue that matter coherently, I would begin to use different terms - such as a state of emptiness or nothingness or complete silence of the mind. This is certainly the way Krishnamurti seems to have used language - modifying his terms when directly addressing the state of brain that exists when thought - including all suffering - has completely ended. But this is not the ordinary state of a human brain.

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Lovely quote Douglas. Perhaps we have an intuition of this sometimes when we are open and aware, or when we are immersed in nature.

There is an anonymous Chan poem I like which conveys something similar -

Lush groves of emerald bamboos,
Are wholly suchness

Luxuriant clusters of chrysanthemums;
Nothing is not prajna

You are using the terms synonymously, two ways of pointing to the same state of fluid mind.

Yes. I am of course aware that for more sectarian followers of Dzogchen this is a point of contention, and there are also disputes between different lineages about these terms. I am also aware that Krishnamurti’s language around awareness was fluid and changed over the course of his life - so that he began to make a distinction between awareness and attention for example (with attention being a state without any centre, implying that ordinary awareness still operates from a centre). But he was quite fluid about these terms in general, and choiceless awareness can very easily be understood to be synonymous with attention.

The Dzogchen approach with which I am more familiar is one where one is encouraged not to do anything in particular with one’s mental state, one’s state of mind. As with certain forms of Chan and Zen, ‘ordinary mind’, ordinary awareness is valued and left untouched, with the mind permitted to act spontaneously in whichever way it happens to, without being grasped at, attached to, or being condemnatory of its activities.

There are also distinctions in language and approach between the Mahamudra ‘style’ of open awareness and the Dzogchen ’style’ - with Mahamudra valuing more the noticing of thoughts as they arise, while Dzogchen emphasising the significance of the sky-like background of awareness itself. But these differences in emphasis do not interest me in particular.

Obviously, there are sectarian Dzogchen folk who want to limit the nature of open awareness to pure awareness without any objects - but this is mostly for reasons of dogma, because certain views about awareness (Rigpa) have become central to the tradition. Broken down by analysis, what these sectarian Dzogchen folk call ‘open awareness’ is in fact no different (in essence) from the classical Buddhist understanding of nirodha samapatti, the state of “cessation of perception, feelings and consciousness”. But in classical Buddhism this is only something that can be ‘experienced’ by a person who is completely empty of all thought, feeling, and self-consciousness (usually a Buddha). Even if sectarian Dzogchen folk believe this to have been a frequent occurrence within their own lineages (as believers usually do), it is still nevertheless somewhat of a rare event, and does not characterise the ordinary mind in a state of open awareness.

So I use the term more fluidly - as is done in wider culture (if you google ‘open awareness’ you will find most people using it in this way).

Don’t forget that there are sectarian Theravada Buddhists who continue to reject the characterisation of mindfulness as being present-centred and non-judgemental. This is because they have a narrow sectarian understanding of the Pali word Sati (meaning memory) - from which the Buddhist thinking around mindfulness arose - in which memory and ethical judgements play a key role. But this more conservative sectarian understanding of mindfulness does not interest me either.

Open awareness - like choiceless awareness - communicates to me a state of awareness that has no fixed border, that embraces and accepts any particular aspect of experience without judgement, like the sun shining in the sky filling it with light and warmth - even when the sky is full of clouds and weather. This is how I use the term.

Wow, Jimbo, with all that in your mind it’s a wonder you have room for anything else!

Y’know, every time I see the word mindfulness I wonder if there is a word mindemptyness but I’ve never come across one so perhaps there isn’t.

I see desire as the feeling responsible for self-centered identity, psychological thought, the feeling that led humanity to take the wrong turn. But in the quote, K is saying that desire is unavoidable so it’s a mistake to think of desire as good or bad - it just is - so live with it.

To that I would add, be mindful of what thought can do under the influence of pleasure. K gives the example of “a beautiful flower, the admiration, the love of it, the smell of it, the beauty of the petal, the quality of the flower and so on, the enjoyment”.

Pleasure and enjoyment give meaning and purpose to life, but when the brain isn’t aware of how pleasure can influence practical thought to devise ways and means to seek and cultivate particular pleasures, the wrong turn is taken.

Pleasure is good. What would life be without it? But what needs to be understood is that the essence of pleasure is the element of surprise: pleasure can’t be summoned or repeated. Unless this is understood, pleasure becomes something to pursue and practice, to do repeatedly, which turns out to be increasingly disappointing at best, and harmful and damaging at worst.

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It’s only because I’ve studied Buddhism a bit, and the person to whom I was replying has participated in Buddhist retreats and forums where this kind of thing is highly contentious - so consider it a private footnote for those few who may feel these particular concerns :slightly_smiling_face:

In China and Japan they have used the term ‘no-mind’. But for most people this won’t immediately communicate anything meaningful.

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The issue of pleasure and desire probably needs its own thread. There is a lot to unpack there - especially as religions have traditionally said that desire and pleasure must be denied, suppressed. So it’s interesting that K’s approach is more nuanced than this. The aspect of ‘no control’ is what struck me. Neither indulgence nor condemnation of one’s instinctive reactions.