Takeaways: Gil Fronsdal's Intro to Mindfulness, Class 5, Daily Life Practice

I’m listening to Gil Fronsdal’s five Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation podcasts, which were recommended to me as good listening for novice meditators.  My prior posts were about “Posture and Breath”“The Body”“Emotions”, and “Thinking”.  This post is about the final lesson, Week 5, “Daily Life Practice”.

Despite its title, Fronsdal waits till this lesson's final ~15 minutes before focusing on ways to be mindful outside of meditation.  And before that comes Q&A, lecturing, and a guided meditation.  It isn't the best lesson in the series—it doesn’t present clear new ideas, and doesn’t offer much by way of summation—but there are ideas that stuck out to me or that I felt were useful for to remember.

Notes and Takeaways

On the trap of making an effort: 

A student mentions how she feels like she meditates best only after the end of a meditation—a bell rings to mark the end of the sitting, and only then does she relax and go deep into her meditation.  Fronsdal explains why this might happen:

"What happens to some people is that there is a certain kind of self-conscious effort, a task, to do the meditation.  [And people bring their way of doing things to this task, telling themselves,] 'I have to be successful, I have to prove myself', whatever.  And that kind of effort interferes with the relaxing deeply, and so when the bell rings, the effort to be a good meditator drops away, and then you settle in. ... It's possible, for some people, that their meditation really takes off when they stop trying to do it well."

On breaking habits by analyzing their benefits:

Another student notes she hears music in her head, while meditating, and it keeps going on even as she tries to focus back to her breathing.  It distracts her and she can't seem to stop it.  Fronsdal says a few things about this, but he’s most interesting when explaining one approach that I think could be applied to any persistent mental tic: 

"Sometimes music, during meditation or even in daily life...is an attempt for our minds to get some kind of benefit.  And so one of the things to look at is what benefit you get from the music.  [For] some people, it's soothing, sometimes it's protective, sometimes it's distracting from other things…  So only if you understand the benefit you’re trying to get can you [recognize there may be other or better ways to get that benefit]. ...If it's very persistent or recurring, [you can] bring careful attention to what happens just before the music begins."

Easy to say, hard to do, but an interesting approach.  This question resonated with me.  I often hear music, it seems to fill in any empty space in my thoughts, such that there's rarely silence in there.  I'm not sure it's occurred to me before that there was something there to understand, a hood to look under.

On the ultimate aim of meditation (and the ultimate weakness of these five lessons):

"Some people who meditate think the point of meditation is just to get calm, but in mindfulness meditation the point is not just to get calm, there's a kind of a higher purpose which is to really understand yourself well, and then through that understanding to be free."

This quote is a small example of a vagueness that's threaded through all five lessons of this course: whenever Fronsdal tries to explain the benefits of meditation beyond the easily described short-term benefits like stress reduction, he falls into vague or fuzzy territory.  

In this case, the vagueness is in the phrase "to be free", which is close to a meaningless statement, but this just one example of many.  Here is Fronsdal elsewhere in this lesson, again discussing long-term benefits:

"With time, as people meditate, two primary things becomes stronger: ...one is, people become calmer.  There's more stability, steadiness, in the mind. ... And the other thing that gets stronger is our capacity to be mindful, to clearly recognize what's happening in the present moment, not by thinking about it but just, you see it, you feel it, what's going on, you're really there for it…"

Do you see what I’m saying?  Is it just me?  I can't be just me.  This is vague.

Granted, being calm is a specific benefit that is understandable, but there are many ways to achieve calm, and it is unfathomable to me that this very specific thing—mindfulness meditation—is meant to be done, daily, for your entire life, primarily for the benefit of being calm.  You want to be calm, take a bath, get a massage, pet a cat.  There are easier ways to be calm, and there must be more to mindfulness than this.

And furthermore, the statement that the benefit of mindfulness is that it builds up "our capacity to be mindful" is extremely annoying, because it's a tautology (or is it circular reasoning? I can't recall the difference.)  Yet it's the sort of statement Fronsdal makes many times throughout the course.  In fairness to him, the last quote does have a bit more clarity in context, but I can't shake the feeling that, at the least, it leaves a lot unsaid.

In Fronsdal's and the course's defense, I'm not sure that explaining long-term benefit is the aim of this course.  I suspect the participants are already sold on mindfulness meditation, so the aim here is more to introduce the practice to them in close enough detail that they can begin to do it, and be somewhat sophisticated with it, on their own.  And the course does this well.

On being like a flower (and on self-help affectation):

"You're like a flower."

Fronsdal says this at one point, and it’s in moments like this that I find myself truly trying to practice mindfulness: I note my annoyance, my desire to roll my eyes, but I do not roll them.  Rather, I am just with my annoyance.  I observe it.  I do not add to it.  I keep it simple.  I let it be.

In fairness to Fronsdal (again), I took this flower line a little out of context so that I could poke fun at him with it, but also to highlight something: this course, like I suspect many a mindfulness course, occasionally falls into what sounds like self-help territory.   If you're skeptical, like me, of the world of self-help and of people with self-helpy affectations, I understand that, and I'm with you, but I’d also suggest checking the skepticism and giving the course a chance.  The tone is sometimes self-helpy, but the content is serious.

On the falseness of comparisons:

The flower line from the prior takeaway comes from a long anecdote Fronsdal gives, an illustration on the difference between our experiences and the intellectual overlays we might place upon them.  This felt to me like the strongest part of the lesson.  

"We often overlay our experience with a concept, an idea.  And then we start seeing that the idea we have, it might be accurate, but it's still an overlay on the experience." 

I’m not sure how accurate the rest of what I transcribed is, so what follows isn't exactly a quote.  And since it's not a quote, I'm going to shorten and paraphrase it.  I’m still going to set it apart in its own block, but only for visual clarity:

Fronsdal mentions a flower.  (Writing this up now, I don't recall whether he actually had a flower with him or not.  It doesn't matter.  Imagine a flower, a nice one.) Then, he mentions a second flower, and it's also nice.  But when the two come together, suddenly one looks big and the other small.

Before the two flowers where together, you probably wouldn't have thought about either flower's size, or considered either flower inadequate for being too large or too small.  It would have been its own thing.  Now, however, there's a comparison being made.

Big and small, he says, are not inherent properties of these flowers.  They are properties of your mind, ideas you bring to the table.  They are a consequence of thinking.

Similarly, if you compare yourself to others, you might think you're either worse or better, and you don't only think this, you probably feel it deeply, you know it.  But it's not really true.  You're just you.  You don’t inherently exist in comparison to others.   And in that comparison comes suffering.

Over time, being mindful, you begin to see the comparison for what it is.  It's extra, it doesn't help.

I really liked the distinction being made here between a comparison of things, and the things themselves.  The comparison is not inherent, but is "an intellectual overlay".  Even if the comparison is accurate (i.e. yes, one flower is bigger, one is smaller, and maybe one is more suitable for some task than the other) it's still not quite got to do with the individual flower.  The flower didn't bring this judgement with it.  You did.  

The ultimate point here is not, I think, to be benign about your own deficiencies or strengths and be okay with them whatever they are.  Maybe you're part of a team, and you're not doing well compared to the others on it.  That's a comparison and it's not invalid.  I don't think Fronsdal is saying you should ignore its implications.  I don't think he's trying to ignore the realities of competition, or the idea that sometimes you are being judged by others and you need to be aware of that and perhaps to care about it.  It might be that the comparison is very important, because if you don't do better, maybe you'll be cut from the team, and maybe you really want to be on it, or will benefit greatly from being on it.  That's all valid.  You shouldn't ignore that or just be okay with being cut.  I think he's saying only that you should recognize the comparison for what it is: 

It is just a thought, and it does not change what you are—you were the same before and after it was made, and you can choose to act on it or not to.  Instead of getting wrapped up in the comparison and letting it define you, or defining yourself by it, you can instead recognize it, and act accordingly.  The comparison is the comparison.  The comparison is not you.

(There's something I'm missing here, I think.  I'm feeling strong skepticism of my own understanding of this point, but at the same time, something about it rings true to me, and I wanted to try and remember it for later.  Hence its inclusion in this write-up.  If it sounds remotely interesting to you, listen to the lesson yourself to get Fronsdal’s original version.)

On being mindful in daily life, and picking one activity per week:

The final 15 minutes of this lesson focus on trying to be mindful in daily life.  There's a lot to this and it’s not bad to listen to, but the summary might be reducible to just this: try to be present when you're doing stuff!  And this is a point that’s been made in these lessons before.

How do be present amounts to trying to explicitly focus on the thing you’re doing.  Fronsdal suggests setting a goal of doing it for one week for a chosen activity.  Whatever the activity is—walking the dog, doing the dishes, showering, driving to work—do nothing else when doing it, really focus on it, for one week.  To borrow from Fronsdal himself in an earlier lesson: imagine you paid a lot of money to do this activity, and you really don’t want to miss out on it.

And if you do this, after a year, you'll have gone through many activities in this mindful way, and the benefit of that will be… 

Actually, I don't know.  You'll be more mindful, of course, but the concrete benefits are, again, left vague.  Fronsdal does promise benefits, however, and the promise is summed up by this one great quote:

"Life works a lot a better if you're really present for it."