This is one of the questions I get asked most frequently these days. This happens especially in the book launch sessions I’ve been leading, mainly on zoom, since ‘Uncontrived Mindfulness: ending suffering through attention, curiosity, and wisdom’, was published at the end of March 2021.
The question is usually followed by ‘if there is uncontrived mindfulness does this mean that there is also such a thing as contrived mindfulness’?
And, yes, I think there is. So, I want to tell you what I tend to say on those occasions when I talk about contrived and uncontrived mindfulness.
Most of us already know what contrived mindfulness can feel like, especially in the early stages of our practice. It can happen when we’re trying a bit too hard, we’re being a bit forceful and the mind – and often the body too – become tense. Over time we can create a loop where we get frustrated at not being able to ‘do’ mindfulness and this brings about more tension and ‘trying’. What we are calling mindfulness feels a strain and not very pleasurable at all!
This is clearly where our ‘contriving’, or in other words, our trying to make something happen, is unhelpful although it can be a useful experience to know what mindfulness isn’t! But I think contriving can also be a part of wholesome mindfulness where we gently and persistently set up the conditions for mindfulness to come into being in a much more natural way. In this way ‘contriving’ relates to encouraging and cultivating mindfulness. We strengthen our intention to be aware through reminding ourselves, in the present moment, and through remembering to be aware. Gradually more moments of mindfulness string together, on and off the cushion. We start to build momentum in the practice.
Momentum gives rise to mindfulness that has a different feel and flavour to what has gone before. There is no need to actively (even in a receptive way) cultivate mindfulness. It’s like riding a bicycle – when you start out you have to keep peddling or you’ll stop and perhaps fall off! However, once you’ve got going you don’t need to peddle much at all, just the occasional push will keep you going.
With uncontrived mindfulness it is like the awareness is happening on its own. There is a sense of flow and ease. No contriving is necessary at this stage of the practice. We just have to get out of our own way as the mind is naturally aware and knowing what is happening. There is no need for personal effort as the qualities of mindfulness and some clear seeing have become strong in the mind – in a similar way to a muscle becoming strong through repetition of a certain exercise.
When mindfulness is uncontrived, we can lose the feeling that there is someone solid and whole who is doing the practice. We lose what we can call the feeling of me. And in its place can be a felt understanding that there isn’t anyone thinking, directing, or controlling experience. This understanding includes the sense that everything – including awareness – is simply happening on its own terms.
When mindfulness and wisdom are cultivated, they are what predominate in the mind. When greed or anger or disappointment are cultivated (through dwelling and proliferating on them) they are what become strong forces in the mind. The difference is that when awareness and wisdom are cultivated, they are capable of understanding how the mind really works, whereas craving and co. will only reinforce the delusion of a separate self.
Other words for uncontrived are ‘uncultivated’, ‘unconstructed’ or ‘unfabricated’ are used in different Buddhist traditions and these are commonly found in translations. But it was only recently I was directed to a translation where ‘uncontrived’ was used instead. The hermit yogi Milarepa repeating in the last line of one of his songs, ‘the uncontrived mind is so blissful indeed!’
If you would like to dive into exploring the bliss of the uncontrived mind, check out the online retreat, I’m running for Order Members & Mitras from 25th September to 1st October .