Joseph Goldstein’s “Mindfulness”: Chapter 2 Clearly Knowing

Tonight we’ll continue to explore ideas in Joseph Goldstein’s Mindfulness book. Last week we discussed what the Buddha cited as the first essential quality of mindfulness: ardency. Joseph’s second chapter, titled Clearly Knowing: Cultivating Clear Comprehension, examines the second quality: clearly comprehending what we are doing and what our purpose is in any given moment.

Clear knowing comprises the aspects of investigation and wisdom in mindfulness, which entails more than merely being present. With clear comprehension, we understand the underlying motivation for our actions, and we know how appropriate they are. When we act with full awareness, we can notice our motives and then consider whether or not our intended action is skillful and useful.

The format for our Insight Meditation Houston meetings comes from my own experience about what supports a clear mind. We start with Qigong exercises to embody the grounding and alignment that is conducive to clear knowing. Even though many of you are familiar with the basic instructions for Vipassana meditation, weekly repetitions of the instructions subliminally connect us more deeply to the practice. Sitting together and practicing for a half hour allow for increased receptivity of the Dharma talk, whose themes are anchored in consciousness during the discussion period.

The more we become aware of our motivations, the more we realize that our practice is not only for ourselves, but also for the happiness of all beings.  By understanding ourselves, we come to understand others. Gradually we comprehend the commonality of our human condition, and of what creates suffering and what liberates us from suffering.

When I mourn the death of a hospice patient whom I have accompanied as a Buddhist chaplain intern, I feel connected to all those who have ever lost a loved one, and I know that I am not alone in suffering from being attached to an impermanent being. I do not wish to escape such suffering by shutting down my heart to prevent loving and losing the objects of my love.

In a book called Separate Lifetimes, Irving Townsend comments,

We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached…. we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan….

As I was recovering from painful foot surgery, I felt profoundly grateful to those of you in our meditation sangha who held me in your Metta prayers, sent sympathy cards, brought nourishing meals and soothing ointment, and carried grocery bags to our kitchen. I am increasingly aware of how interconnected we are. We cannot flourish as isolated and alienated beings.  On the Dharma path, we recognize how much we need one another’s compassion and care.

Here are some pertinent excerpts from Anna Quindlan’s little book A Short Guide to a Happy Life:

We have an embarrassment of riches. Life is good…. I never think of my life, or my world, in a big, cosmic way. I think of it in all its small component parts: the snowdrops, the daffodils…. Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of grey cement…. We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love [those moments], and to live, really live…. [I have] learned to love the journey, not the destination. I learned that this is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get. I learned to look at all the good in the world and to try to give some of it back, because I believe in it completely and utterly…. Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.

By transforming how we are in our daily lives, our practice benefits those around us. As we become more peaceful and accepting and less judgmental and selfish, we contribute those qualities to the world. The vibrational resonance of our energy system affects all those whom we contact. The venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that on a boat amidst a big storm, a single calm person with a clear mind can remind other passengers of their inner resources and help everyone survive. As Joseph says, the world is like that boat, tossed about by storms of greed, hatred and delusion. We can learn to be one of the people who help to promote safety and to provide refuge.

Through building upon many moments of clear comprehension, we can connect with the common human capacity for clear knowing. In her book, Words at the Threshold: What We are Saying as We’re Nearing Death, Lisa Smartt points out that “those who are dying are often perceived as having access to truths and revelations not available to those who are living.” By reflecting upon what might be their last words, Buddhist practitioners can deepen acceptance of life’s impermanence and remember to savor the present moment. Traditionally, Buddhist masters offer their disciples words of wisdom, and some monks even compose poems in their final moments— remarkable expressions of clear knowing.

Lisa asserts that her father’s last words radically changed the course of her life. Before his terminal illness, he had been a skeptic and a rationalist, proclaiming, “We are all headed for the same afterlife, six feet under.” Suddenly, in the last weeks of his life, he accurately predicted the timing of his own death with these words: “Enough… enough… the angels say enough… only three days left.” As a linguist, Lisa was amazed by her father’s sudden use of metaphors and analogies that had previously eluded him. After he died, she founded the Final Words Project to document and decipher the last words of hundreds of people. In her research, she found numerous instances of telepathy and clear comprehension in the numinous realms at the end of life.

Let us follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, who challenged his first sixty enlightened disciples in this way:

Go forth, O Bhikkhis, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit and happiness of gods and men….Preach, O Bhikkhus, the Dharma, excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, excellent in the end…”

 Now close your eyes and take a moment to reflect upon a time when you had a moment of clear knowing that connected you to others. Turn to a partner to share your reflections.