We recently had a thread or two on "mindfulness". My teacher, Nishijima Roshi, rightly comments that the word "mindfulness" is bandied about a bit too much in the Western Buddhist world, and is overplayed. People have a very idealistic, unrealistic image of "mindfulness" in Zen practice.
"Mindful" can have a couple of different meanings in "Zen-glish". Some folks think it means (1) just to be aware of what they are doing in that moment, doing one action at a time. Some folks even think that the point of our practice is to be "mindful" of our every single activity all through our waking day, perhaps trying to live by doing one task at a time (when you eat, just eat ... when you walk, just walk). It is "being in the moment", and aware of the moment, one moment at a time.
Some folks think that it is (2) to develop an awareness of our motivations, psychological reactions and emotions in each situation.
Both those are good skills for Buddhists (especially 2), and I do not mean to say that we should not develop such abilities. But, on they other hand, they are only tools on our toolbelt, to be pulled out for use sometimes when appropriate. We are not to be that way 24/7, in each and every moment and situation.
I recently wrote the following on the subject of "mindfulness" ... I had just come back from hiking in the mountains near here with our Sangha member Hans ...
As I was walking down Mt. Tsukuba with Hans yesterday, on a really steep incline of small muddy stones, I had to be mindful of what I was doing right there ... all to avoid falling on my butt in the mud
That's when I started thinking, "ah, yes, this is a time of mindfulness (type 1), there is balance of bodymind and I am present in this moment ... and I must tell the Treeleafers about it!" At which point, so filled with such wonderful thoughts was I, that I became distracted ... and slipped in the mud. (Fortunately, not enough so that butt hit stone).
I think that there are times to be mindful in our practice in that way, and great lessons are to be learned there ... drinking a cup of tea as the only and perfect act in the whole universe of that moment, the same for "Oryoki" meals during a Sesshin, "just being" in the moment, when washing the floor "just washing the floor". I think it does have the simplicity that Will and Alberto describe, and I think it is much like the "Mindbodyfull-ness" that Harry coined ... Harry is a musician, solo-ing on stage and all that, so he knows something of the topic.
But the one point I really really really wish to emphasize to folks is not to be too idealistic about what "mindfulness" is, or set it up as some unrealistic goal. I described it recently when I said this ...
[Folks encounter lots of Zen teachings like the one mentioned by Master Seung Sahn, "when you eat, just eat. When you sleep just sleep..."] But I think that Master Seung Sahn's phrasing, like many Zen books and expressions, can sound rather idealistic if it implies that we must be "mindful" or in "Zen Mind" 24/7. My view is more balanced I think, namely, "when mindful of one thing, just be mindful of one thing ... when distracted, overwrought and multi-tasking, just be distracted, overwrought and multi-task". There is a time for everything, and we cannot be "mindful" each minute. All of it is life.
However, one of the great fruits of our Zen Practice is that, even when we are distracted, overwrought and multi-tasking, feeling completely miserable and off balance ... and even when "Zen Mind" feels very far away ... we can still know it is 'there' even if we do not feel it at that moment [the blue sky always behind the clouds]. So I say, when feeling completely "miserable and off balance", just be "miserable and off balance" in that moment ... it too is a temporary state of mind.
So, in other words, have a balanced and realistic view of life ... even a balanced view of sometimes or frequently being unbalanced, overworked, distracted and such.
When falling on your butt in the mud because you were thinking about "mindfulness" ... JUST DO THAT! IT TOO IS A PERFECT ACT IN THAT MOMENT!!
Let me mention, before we go, the other common meaning of "mindfulness" in Zen-glish that, I believe, is perfectly valid (type 2). That is to develop some recognition and awareness of the causes and conditions of our mental states, the arising and passing of the various thoughts and emotions that pop in and out of mind. For example, developing a sensitivity to feelings of anger as they begin to arise within us, and before they grab hold of us.
I think that this is also a fundamental practice of Buddhism, right back to some of the first words out of the Buddha's mouth in Jetta Grove. It enables human beings to have some control over being prisoners of our thoughts and emotions, and we can more easily find balance and moderation, some self-control. So, it is a good awareness for a Buddhist. We come to see our experience of the world as largely a bit of theatre created by whatever emotions and ideas are floating through the brain at a given moment.
However, this too (in our Zen view) is not to be taken to extremes. Mindfulness of this type is a useful skill, but only sometimes. Most of the time we can just think and feel without having to be particularly analytical about it, or focused on being aware of it. There is a time for everything.