Recently, a solid little book has appeared that provides solid and accessible information about mindfulness, what it is and how to cultivate it. The book is called Mindfulness in Plain English by Ven. Gunaratana. While based on the perspectives of the Vipassana tradition (i.e., of Buddhism as it is practiced in South East Asia) the discussion is applicable to all traditions of meditation in Buddhism.
In the first chapter, he goes to great lengths to dispel some of the many common misconceptions about meditation. Here are the ones he notes along with some brief observations of my own.
The author points out the relaxation is a component of meditation, both as a way to approach it and as one of the results. But Buddhist meditation goes further, seeking to cultivate awareness as well. This awareness is what differentiates a meditation practice or a mindfulness practice from a relaxation technique or stress management methods.
Trance is usually associated with some kind of mental blankness or deadness. This is quite contrary to the alive, awake, and clear quality that we seek to cultivate. There is often confusion about states of clear, present attention and states in which there is little or no thinking but also little awareness or wakefulness. In our practice, we seek to be present with our experience without distraction, not oblivious to what is going on.
Well, yes and no! It can’t be understood simply in words, in intellectual terms, but it most definitely can be understood experientially. We are used to understanding things only through words, only through concepts. This form of understanding is limited both in its effectiveness and power. The knowing that comes through meditation is direct and doesn’t depend on thought or concept.
Again, the purpose is to uncover awareness, not to levitate or read minds. Our trying to cultivate special powers only reinforces a sense of self-image of being different in some way. Through meditation we come to know ourselves intimately and understand directly the processes of thought and feeling. We share these processes with all other human beings. This intimate knowledge becomes the basis for a quite extraordinary capacity for empathy.
Perhaps it is dangerous in the sense that it uncovers how little of the life available to us we actually live. When we recognize this we either become willing or unwilling to live that unlived aspect of our experience. That means, the ordinary pleasures and goals that we have taken for granted as being 'enough', suddenly seem less compelling. That doesn't mean we stop aiming for something. But in that way, mindfulness can upend our previous, cherished conceptions about how we live our life. Some people embrace this. Some turn away.