Two Mental Faculties: Mindfulness and Meta-Alertness

Three qualities. Mindfulness remembrance has to have three qualities:

▪ The observed object should be familiar.

▪ What to do is, one should not forget the object.

▪ It’s function is to keep you from wandering.

Alan Wallace uses the word ‘mindfulness’ and calls it, ‘the ability to sustain voluntary attention continuously upon a familiar object without forgetfulness or distraction.’ I think it is a very nice way of using that term. Of course mindfulness is used in other contexts as well, like the mindfulness meditation. Therefore, I usually used the word, ‘remembrance.’

Meditation has to be on a familiar object, because if the object is not familiar, you can’t meditate on it. That’s why, when we recommend a Buddha image, we recommend you first to look but then build a mental image and get used to that. That makes it familiar to the person. Focusing on a new object is difficult; a familiar one is easier.

Remembrance, or has to have continuation. There should not be any forgetfulness or distraction at all. That is a big thing; it is a black and white cut here in the meditation. If you forget your object of meditation you are not meditating. You may be sitting very nicely in the meditation posture, but you are not meditating, because you have lost the focal point. Even if you sit only for five minutes, within those five minutes you may have three hundred sessions of meditation. Nothing wrong. For us, that is usual, very normal. If you try to follow the thoughts, how long you can do it?

For me personally, when waking up in the morning, when the clock goes and you don’t want to wake up, that’s a nice time to see where the thoughts are going. The thoughts are going towards going to sleep and you trace them. And then alertness comes up: you have to get up! That’s an situation where you can easily follow your thoughts, because there are only two little things going on, so easy to keep track of. On the other hand, when you are sitting in the plane or driving, your thoughts can go for a long run and you don’t even know where your mind has gone.

So the quality of remembrance or mindfulness is a continuous voluntary attention. It should be voluntary, because otherwise you have to force something and that wouldn’t work. It should be continuous, without forgetfulness, without distraction. If there’s distraction, then the clarity is lost. If you forget your object of meditation, you are gone. And if you have to force it, it becomes faulty meditation. Then it’s not like a big bird soaring, but like a hummingbird trying to stay in one spot in the air with a huge effort.

Meta-alertness. This is another technical term. If you have that stable focus, as a result you will get some interesting little extra mental faculty, which will be able to watch whether you are focusing or not. You are looking at the mind. And when you look at the mind at that time, you see that different thoughts are coming up. So you have to stop all the thoughts, and I’ll tell you how.

Somebody once told me it is like peeling an onion: you keep on peeling and peeling the layers. Likewise when you have stopped all other thoughts you are left with the raw mind. The raw mind itself is what you are trying to remember, to recognize and focus on all the time.

So, when you keep on focusing with this mindfulness for a longer period, as the result you will develop another mental faculty which is sort of watching, like a spy. Alan used the term meta- alertness. That is academic language, I believe. It describes ‘the ability to monitor the quality of attention, swiftly recognizing whether it has succumbed to either excitation or laxity’. The job of this particular mental faculty is to watch whether you are gone in the direction of one of the two problems: wandering-excitation or sinking-laxity.

These two mental faculties are the key for meditation.

~ Gelek Rimpoche, GOM, 2005, P. 80

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