Letting Go of Mindfulness

I’ve been asked how mindfulness has worked out for me. Here’s a synopsis.

It began as a meditation thing in my teens. I locked my bedroom door, put on a Ravi Shankar LP, and closed my eyes. My mind wouldn’t empty, so I tried astral travel, whizzing around the universe to the gradually accelerating sitar raga. It made sense at the time, being an Indian thing and all, and it was fun. When I finally opened my eyes though, I knew I’d made it up.

I read like crazy: occultism, shamanism, Buddhism. Mindfulness must have been in there, but it wasn’t on my radar. I wanted to silence my mind, not watch it. Magical powers were part of the deal. I was totally cool with that. I met Mahayana Tantric Buddhists, not just Tibetans but Westerners. It was a fit.

We were galvanized by the promises of meditation — bliss, omniscience, nobility. We were impatient. We wanted Enlightenment, the faster the better. Three years and three months they told us, handing out secret initiations. In their minds they were seeding us for future lifetimes, but we wanted to master them now. By contrast, anchoring our attention to the breath would take ages. Literally.

There were stories of lamas who boiled
skull cups of nectar in their bare hands

Still, the lamas didn’t mince words. You had to be in shape to tread the fast track to Enlightenment. It was for those who were ready, who’d ripened themselves in previous lives. I couldn’t remember my previous lives, but why would I have encountered Tantric Buddhism in this life if I wasn’t ready? It made sense, right? We looked at each other and nodded, as if we could rationalize it into happening.

The practices were immensely complex. Even our teachers spent hours a day reciting long texts, visualizations we were supposed to master in some future lifetime. The texts said those who were worthy could reach out and touch their thoughts transformed into enlightened matter. It made us shiver. There were stories of lamas who boiled skull cups of nectar in their bare hands.

Eventually, my inner voice spoke up. It wasn’t going to happen. My limitations were limitless. My teachers were human, my brothers were dreaming. I needed a cold shower.

I woke up. At least, I stopped dreaming. I was now in Sri Lanka, in an old-fashioned retreat, letting go of impatience. While watching the breath, I noticed the mind. How much effort I’d put into shaping it. Why? Bit by bit I let go of all the rationalizations and theoretical teaching. I stuck to what I could actually do. Much of what I’d worked so hard for fell away like a snake skin, dry and empty. I breathed. It was good. Once I dared to doubt, I wondered why I’d believed in the first place. The fear was gone. The stillness was awesome.

I was free — freer, anyway. I no longer had a place, but belonging had served me, got me back on track when I lost my way. To not belong now was hard, but I had to forge my own path. It was high time. I went freelance.

I hoped to maintain the pure values of the monk’s subsidized life, but that was impossible. Having now to earn a living, I became a consumer like everyone else. To exist you must eat. To work you must play.

What matters is where you are, not where you’re going

I fit in, or tried to. I felt like someone without a past; rather, with a past that wouldn’t connect. I knew I had a say in who I was, but few ideas about what sort of person that might be. Most people identify with their worldly skills, but I had none. I took work in places I didn’t belong. I married badly.

And yet I was doing better than others. Everyone put on a show of holding it together, but scratch at the surface and things come tumbling out. They were as scared as me. I remembered the Buddha: “The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realized the nature of the world.”(1)

I didn’t feel wise. Ignorant more like, though not in a bad way. No one knew any more or less than I did. That wasn’t the point anyway. What matters is where you are, not where you’re going. I felt light.

I hardly noticed it turning into a habit, this letting go. To be honest, I thought I’d given it up. There were still times I sat in silence, as still as a rock. It felt fine, but returning to the cushion seemed a chore. If it was really working for me, shouldn’t I be glued to it?

There were venal periods too, mistake piled on mistake. I pleasured and suffered like everyone, but carried it less, put it down more easily. I had a sense of watching the world go by, right through me really. Hopes and dreams evaporated. People say that’s not good, but it was. With clarity came appreciation.

Seek and ye shall find. Perhaps, but what about the stuff you’re not seeking, that you brush to one side? What if it’s what you need?

All states of minds are contingent. Clarity’s no exception, and craving returned cyclically. It appeared mostly as a sense of seeking, though for what I couldn’t exactly say. It wasn’t fully conscious. The more I watched though, the less it possessed me.

These were insights and I knew it, but something was still missing. I’d pursued freedom from material life, from the bonds of family and social constraints. Now I saw how the pursuit itself could be a reflex. My version of the noble quest had in some ways bound me. People provoked feelings, and feelings were complicated. My preference for quiet, systematic mindful practice was conveniently heroic, but also an escape. Speaking of his own teachings the Buddha said about ‘worthless men’ that, “Their wrong grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term harm & suffering.”(2)

For decades I denied I was human, built to connect. To some it’s self-evident, but others are shy and introverted. For them, society is painful. I was like that. At great cost I found solitude. Imagine my shock when, settling down to savor it at last in a mountain retreat, I experienced a deep and ancient loneliness.

Which fear was I to face — seclusion or society?

I’m not a religious man. I don’t believe in grace, and yet I have no other word to describe my change of heart. I’d been in a vicious circle, craving the love I denied myself. That day I woke up to love, not just as something to feel but something to do. Henceforth, I would no longer wait to be let in. I would open doors.

From this vantage point I saw my friends in a new light. I stepped back from them. In my efforts to be eclectic, I’d become indiscriminate. Now I learned anew to discern right from wrong, good from bad. Back to basics.

I found mindful practice in life’s mundanity

I listened to others, watched myself listening and felt connected. I saw that empathy and compassion were not about pity and sorrow. Seeing unsentimentally from others’ point of view taught me to commiserate, and that touching someone with understanding is a happy thing, no matter the pain.

Empathy just extends mindfulness. I don’t believe in True Love, or in The One. I don’t believe in destiny. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe that God is a person, or is nice. I now met someone, however, who enabled me to gaze beyond myself. We became a family.

Romance is a bonus, not the point. Opening the door to what I’d long avoided was just the first step. It was followed by a return to teaching, to caring for those I taught and even caring for business clients. I shared myself, and it gave me courage. I grew vulnerable, raw, ready to fail. My cravings to be alone came into focus. I had used them to rationalize timidity and the false perfection of taking no risks.

I found mindful practice in life’s mundanity. For the first time I accepted the limitations I’d always had. I did what everyone does. I was no longer spiritually special. To work a job, pay a mortgage and raise a child is to extend your boundaries, to face things you’d never choose, to willingly accept imbalance in your life. After knowing mindfulness, it’s irrational.

Mindfulness brings insight. Love brings
heart. The two bring balance.

Active love tests mindfulness and extends it. To include others is to relinquish control, to forego the rhythmic pleasures of the breath and the acute taste of silence. It is forged in chaos. It is profoundly imperfect. The failures of love are abject.

When I raise my voice unfairly I am stricken by guilt, rightly, and then I move on. One step at a time: the cliché that encapsulates everything. The destination that’s never reached. Mindfulness brings insight. Love brings heart. The two bring balance.

Has mindful reflection brought me magical powers, victory over life and death, an end to suffering? No, something more real. It’s shown me what to let go of and what to reach out for. By accepting my human limitations I’ve inherited my human blessings. It’s taught me that I can rediscover my mind every day, that it’s a faulty, discerning, immeasurable gift. Is enlightenment next? I don’t trifle with impossible questions. Mindfulness is a tool. I’m still learning to adapt, to count every moment, to let go of everything and to never give up. Where we’re headed we’ll never know, but by knowing where we are, we leave ourselves open to wonder.

(1) Salla Sutta: The Arrow Sn 3.8 PTS: Sn 574-593 trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu
(2) Alagaddupama Sutta: The Water-Snake M. 22, i 134, p. 227 trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

23 thoughts on “Letting Go of Mindfulness”

  1. I profoundly identify with this, yet I’ve hardly followed such an intense and focused path. The mystery and simplicity of enlightenment and life leave so many questions.

    1. Hi Alex: Well, it sounds focused when you put forty years into seventeen hundred words but the point is, we’re all in the same boat.

  2. I can wholeheaertedly agree with your post here. I ran the gamut of the New Age Metaphysical BS and back again. It was after a horrible incident in my life that I came around and left behind the world of the mystic for one of a more normal man. I love connecting with others, seeing them for who and what they are and how incredibly complex and multifaceted we are as human beings.

    I consider myself a Zen Buddhist, but I am also an Atheist as well. I see no reason to beleive in a deity which has not proven itself to exist whatsoever. I still respect those who are entrenched in their religious zeal and I listen without comment.

    And yes we are all in the same boat. Its time to connect with others. I enjoy my quiet and solitude, but it is but one aspect on my lifes. I have my quiet sanctuary, my home, but I also engage with my neighbors and friends and coworkers on deeper levels which opens up doors for less suffering for all.

    Enjoy your journeys and what you find there in watching your mind.

    I can say this though, my years of meditating with trancing gave me the patience to learn and to understand how to deal with lengthy meditation. I only meditate about 1/2 hour per day, but on the weekends I also meditate for about an hour or so on Saturday or Sunday.

    Best Regards


    1. Hi Jeffrey: Yes, the steps on the way are a mystery, but that’s good, right? Life has to be a bit of fun. As for people believing in deities or magic, I think what’s important is not what they/we believe but why. Follow that and we really get to the heart….

    1. Thanks Ron: I struggle constantly with the urge to retell abstract Truths. They make for easy writing, but they’re no use if nobody can relate to them. The only way to test this stuff is through personal experience.

  3. I love this blog and it speaks to my own story. Thank you for it. I appreciate the simple practice of mindfulness because of the inner stability it brings to the ordinary life.
    I have been teaching mindfulness to combat veterans at the VA for almost 3 years. To invite them to bring their breath and awareness to their war wounds and moral injuries requires a humble honoring. They are my mindfulness teachers now. I am not a Buddhist or a believer or any of those things anymore. My use of contemplative techniques are practical and heartfelt. Enlightenment revealed itself to be the shiny object of consumerist spirituality.

  4. A few years ago I decided to give up on all types of magical thinking – all the religions from childhood and beyond, the failed attempts at meditation and the new age hokum about self-help and personal growth. My whole life felt like a journey in personal growth, but the questions about arrival and goals and destinations and how much is enough followed me everywhere. And they were not good company.

    Came rather as a voice in my head laughing at me, telling me it was all probably just a big cosmic joke. That we are all already enlightened, all already fine and good enough just like we are. There’s no salvation, there’s no enlightenment…this is all there is. Period. This moment, in this day, in this place, with these two hands and heart and mind etc. It’s been a roller-coaster ride at times, and I understand why people don’t get how you can be a complete non-believer and still want to get out of bed every morning and do good work. IMHO no path is the hardest path there is but i am more content – like there’s a deep pool of joy down underneath all the surface emotional turmoil.

    Just watching it all happen now and accepting that this is all there is can sometimes seem very empty, but there are “magical” moments every day that I’m grateful for. Pulling over to the side of the road to watch that amazing sunrise before I get to the office, knowing that nothing else really mattered more, is enough.

    So on a day when I am again questioning my absence from a path with a goal, and where I should go, what I should do next, I truly appreciate this “magic moment” of your words. “… how the pursuit itself could be a reflex.” Craving IS cyclical, and I know it will pass.

    Thank you, Stephen.

  5. thankyou. guess it’s all about just turning up and feeling (rather than thinking) the connection to all life especially other species who live in the now unlike us human beings with all our agendas and rackets and inflated sense of self. it is good to reach a point where i can be on the way to nowhere.

  6. stephen tell that to my dog when he is sitting beside fridge ‘wondering’ if he is going to get fed!
    even if we presume animals do not wonder we as ‘wondering’ humans have made a jolly good mess of things. at times i repudiate my own species.

  7. Thank you again Stephen. Its comforting to know that all forms of the wanderlust are present in everyone.

    The fact that simply gazing at a sunset or the night sky places me in a deep and curious, inexplicable trance, is enough cosmic-craziness for me these days. Today, I don’t even want to analyze it anymore. Maybe I will again tomorrow? For me, not understanding is the most beautiful aspect life, for the moment.

    “Where we’re headed we’ll never know, but by knowing where we are, we leave ourselves open to wonder.” Quote of the decade Stephen. You should be a writer 😛

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