A couple weeks ago, Devon and I taught a mindfulness workshop in Key West. While there were many takeaways for me - the Caribbean is the color of pleasant dreams; there are more than a thousand kinds of palm trees in Florida - the biggest recognition was something both simple and, for me at least, very clarifying . . .
In short, mindfulness is sustained intimacy.
Here's how I'm thinking about it. What we generally call mindfulness in secular presentations is actually two interrelated capacities. In Pali, these are called sati and sampajanna. Sati (mindfulness) is simply the capacity of the mind to direct (vitakka) and sustain (vicara) attention.
So you can place your attention, right now, on your left big toe. You can also hold that attention steady on your big toe for a few seconds. With training, this ability to sustain attention on a particular object increases. Experts can do this, more or less uninterrupted, for long periods.
Sampajanna (clear knowing), on the other hand, is the monitoring capacity of the mind. It's the dynamic of knowing what something is like. So you know that the big toe is hot or cold. You know that it hurts or it doesn't. Or, more to the point of classical Buddhist practice, you know when an experienced mind state is beneficial or if it leads to suffering.
Right. End of didactics. So what does this have to do with intimacy?
Intimacy, in my current view, is just the ability to stay with something. It's the ability to stay with physical pain, for instance, and to know it clearly and calmly. It's also the ability to stay with another person - without checking out, without pushing them away, and without collapsing into them.
Intimacy, then, requires balance. Mindfulness trains that balance.
In my experience, my ability to be intimate with another - with Devon, with my friends, with family - is directly correlated with my ability to hold my own experience. (For psych geeks, I'd put this relationship at r=.8) If I can sustain attention and warmth with my own difficult emotions, with the generally awkward aspects of being alive, then I can stay connected with others, even when things get awkward.
So every time I sit down to meditate, I'm sitting down to train intimacy. And that training not only benefits me, it benefits everyone I'm close with. It also likely benefits the patients I treat at the inpatient psych unit. Maybe it even benefits people I see on the bus. Who knows.
So for these reasons, I'm currently thinking of mindfulness as the practice of sustained intimacy. And I'm looking forward to our next workshop in Key West, which we'll be announcing soon!
For information about upcoming mindfulness workshops with Devon & me, please click here.