Mindfulness Practice, in a Spiritual Context

Meditation is another word for mindfulness practice, but at the beginning of Mindfulness Works courses, when participants often ask about the difference, I say that It’s not a word I tend to use because of the spiritual/religious connotations it carries. I explain that the 4-week introductory course presents mindfulness practice as a tool to improve well being and reduce stress, as something sensible to do for one’s health, like eating good food or exercising. In saying this, I’ve framed up mindfulness practice as secular — meaning nothing to do with spiritual matters. But there is a lot to say about practising in a wider sense than the personal. In this article, I’d like to explore mindfulness as a spiritual practice, which is of course where it has its origins.
If you ask what I mean by ‘spiritual’, I would have to point to something that can’t be known or grasped by the mind, or expressed in words. Something that can’t be seen with ordinary eyes, or heard with physical ears, or felt in any usual kinaesthetic sense. I would have to talk about the mystery of the force of life itself, that animates and gives breath to your body for the short time we call an individual life. The force that lends you an inherent radiance of spirit, that exists prior to the conditioning and points of view imbibed from your culture, family, schooling and religion. This radiance is a spontaneous and unpretentious quality of being, which is eclipsed by fear, stress, conditioning and identification with roles. It is your original nature.
I call this mysterious force of life, Love. So does Jeff Foster, modern day spiritual teacher. He asks:
Do you know how vast your heart is? How your heart was formed with all these other hearts in a place of unbearable pressure at the core of a dying star? How your heart is made from the same stuff as my heart, the heart of every living being? The dinosaur, the mollusc, the whale, the creatures of darkness that crawl in the ocean's depths. The saint and the sinner. How it is all actually the same heart, beating, the heartbeat of a universe, expansion, contraction, gain, loss, birth, death, rebirth, a cycle as ancient as life itself, reinventing itself in every moment. Do you know a love so huge it would spill out of itself as an entire cosmos, burning, burning, raging for itself, devouring itself, chasing itself, seeking itself, beckoning, crawling, destroying all that it is not — and creating that too, and delighting in the creation? An utterly destructive, infinitely creative love that you can feel pounding in you in every moment? A love that will never let you settle for anything less?
Grandmother disappeared into it. They all did. The billions that came before. The ones who left. The ones you tried to forget. They all returned to your heart, nourished you.
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At a recent retreat I led in Northland, a woman said during the first evening that, all her life, she had been someone else’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, sister, carer … and had defined herself completely through these roles. She said she’d like to use her mindfulness practice during the 3-day retreat to consider who she really is.
And I remember, in my 40’s, being completely preoccupied with knowing what my purpose (with a capital P) is — what I’m here to do, what my ‘true’ role is. In the last decade, I’ve begun to feel that my purpose here — and anyone’s — is simply to radiate the force of Life as fully as possible, in whatever unique expression of body and mind we’ve been given. This requires a transfer of my attention from the quality and content of ‘doing’ and achieving, to the quality of ‘being’, or the state of me, regardless of what I’m doing.
I have found the natural world a fabulous teacher in this regard. I watch trees ‘being’ with no care for productivity quotas, no rushing to grow, no comparisons with larger or more elegant trees. I watch flowers blossoming fully whether they’re being appreciated, or not. I watch the congruity of animals in their natural habitat and the knowing in their eyes, of ‘being’ fully and utterly whatever they are. A gorilla, being fully gorilla, an elephant being fully elephant, a cat being fully cat.
Spiritual practice is not synonymous with religion. A human being begins spiritual practice when they have first intuited the presence of a unifying force that endures beyond any one fleeting individual life, and aside from any doctrine or dogma. Then, mindfulness begins, the mindfulness of our real Nature, along with all the mind content and tendencies that get in the way of knowing or practising that. The intuition of impersonal Love cannot be mandated or called up according to a schedule or technique. However, the concentration practices of the sort we teach in Mindfulness Works introductory courses are a useful first step. By learning to strengthen the muscle of present moment awareness — using our own body, using our own breath, sounds, the witnessing of thoughts and all that arises — we can then turn that muscle towards the discipline required to contemplate our original Nature. In the truest sense, meditation as spiritual practice is a remembering, more and more, who we really are, waking up to the Love that in truth lives in each of us. And as such, it is a continual process, not a 12- or 20-minute one.
Formal meditation becomes then a relationship with the force of Life, rather than a strategy for relaxation, though relaxation is a fruit that often comes as a side effect. One sits, with the attitude of opening to Love. Watching everything arise, the way it always does — sounds, thoughts, judgments, doubts, boredom, discomfort, sensations, the breath — but letting oneself be as surrendered as possible to something which cannot be ‘got’, some sense of simply ‘being’, a softening, a deep gratitude that is nothing to do with current conditions, some knowing that we are no less, or no more, important than any other living creature on the planet we share, a sense of connection with the Life we are all.  
I think that over time, it then becomes more obvious, practically speaking, what Life wants of us. I think it becomes obvious that practical wisdom is less to do with what I want as an individual, and everything to do with what sustains and nourishes the whole.
Again, Jeff Foster:
Forget your fantasies of love, friend. Love will come for you there on the cross. Under the Bodhi tree. On the dirty streets of Calcutta. In the prison they say you'll never leave. On the operating table. The killing fields. Love cannot be destroyed, yet destroys the dreams of the mind. Love cannot be lost, cannot be taken, yet allows the loss too, outlives all that is not you. Love is not a feeling because feelings come and go, and love does not, or else it is not love.