Mindfully Awakening – When Useful, When Dangerous – Reflections

A friend, with considerable practical experience as well as intellectual knowledge of the emphasis on developing mindfulness in both G.  I.  Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way work and in Buddhism recently wrote me about attending a conference on neurophysiology and meditation, where one speaker reported on the positive effects of meditation on a person who was a fighter pilot, but who warned that you shouldn’t engage in something like meditation when you’re trying to land your airplane on a carrier at sea.  She remembered a similar admonition years ago in the Gurdjieff work to not try to be mindful when driving on the freeway.  As a well-known advocate of mindfulness, what did I think of that? 

The question roused so many interesting thoughts in me, that I thought I would write about them here.  These are ongoing thoughts and reflections, of course, not any final answers.  Lately my wife Judy and I have been talking a lot about what’s been the outcome of a lifetime of spiritual striving and practice.  Anything concrete?  Lots of hope, but a waste of practical time?  Or?

My first reaction to my friends question was what was meant by “meditation?”  I’ve been speaking and writing about this word “meditation,” for years, complaining that the word meditation is and was being used to mean so many different things that the word is almost useless.  The best I can make of it in a general sense is that when someone says they meditate, they mean they sometimes do something with their mind that they consider special.  Then an enormous variety occurs in terms of what they actually do.  One of the most common uses, however, is meditation means you get into a very relaxed and calm state of mind.  Body relaxed, mind thinking little or nothing, emotions calm, feeling good.  But if your current situation requires very complex (and hopefully well-trained!) and fast reactions or you die, focusing on calmness may indeed kill you.  Don’t try to land your airplane while trying to induce that state!

The usual way I think about it is that we have a limited amount of “mental real estate.”  Only a few things can remain clear in consciousness at once, simultaneously.  A very common example is that telephone numbers are generally limited to a maximum of seven digits, seven is the maximum number of discrete things we can keep in mind at once.  In this case, if you try to saturate consciousness with calmness and relaxation when really you need your lightning, trained reflexes to land on that pitching aircraft carrier, you are being stupid and will probably die.

Ditto for “meditating” (not quite the same as being “mindful”) when you are driving down the freeway.  You too often can’t afford the time to build up calm, either your automated responses are good enough or else….with funny variations where time seems to slow down…you crash.  Hopefully training or genetically inbuilt human responses instantly throw the irrelevant stuff out of consciousness and use your thinking power to do something useful when a sudden crisis occurs while you’re driving.

On the other hand, my best understanding of Gurdjieff’s statement that “Man is asleep,” or the similar Hindu and Buddhist ideas that we live in maya or somsara, in a condition of illusion, is that it is far too often the case that our limited mental real estate is taken up with things that are not really relevant to the actual situation we are in, we’re pretty lost in “our story,” and thus we don’t have room to pay adequate attention to things that are essential and/or are ongoing.  It’s too often a rather neurotic story about poor me, which tends to distort our perceptions in highly maladaptive ways.  I elaborated on this ordinary condition’s drawbacks a great deal in my first and subsequent mindfulness books, Waking Up, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science, adding in what we now know psychologically about specific defense mechanisms which involve distorting perceptions (lost in a maladaptive form of what Tibetans call the seventh consciousness, rather than having adequate perception of immediate reality, sixth consciousness).  I think modern knowledge of psychopathology adds detail and specificity here that the spiritual traditions did not have.

So being mindful in life can mean you need enough calmness to have room, mental real estate, for what’s essential to perceive, but you don’t focus particularly on calmness per se or try to make it get bigger or more pleasurable (except for the special cases where you know you’re so agitated that you can’t perceive things clearly, and so you need to take specific steps to calm down, and hope you have time to do this).  There is a Tibetan Buddhist saying, “Meditation made by the mind is the deceiving enemy”  And yet….our lives are hectic, we want to experience calm, peace, and pleasure, so we tend to think meditation is about making those things happen.  Whereas I think the way those things should happen is as a kind of side effect of becoming more mindful and living a good life.  Feeling good after you escape a predator or help someone who is suffering is much more adaptive than making yourself feel good as the predator leaps toward you or as you ignore the suffering person to focus on your feel-good exercises.  Forcing your mind into a specific kind of consciousness is fine if the situation is indeed one which that kind of conscious can deal with effectively, but otherwise it creates difficulties.

We would like to think that our training for life has given us relatively automatic and optimal responses for all situations we are liable to encounter, but, as common sense and the spiritual traditions remind us, reality tends to keep changing, sometimes in obvious ways, often in subtle ways that may not be immediately perceptible, but require a quite different response.

Let me continue these reflections from a larger perspective.  Back in early 1966, I was reading P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous for the first time, and thought about the idea of self-remembering, about the arrow of attention going in two directions, in and out, about a higher level of mindfulness.  This was all very intellectually interesting, but didn’t really mean anything to me.  Then one day, for whatever reasons (who could remember anything exactly from that long ago?), I actually self-remembered, and I woke up!  Suddenly I was vividly there, alive, perceptive, real, aware of how intensely clear and aware I was!  I had never experienced anything like it in my life!  After just a few seconds, I was back in my ordinary state.  I could then go on to intellectually talk about these ideas in very smart ways for a long time, without ever actually experiencing that change in state again…  It was only many years later in one of the Gurdjieff-type groups I was in that I learned to self-remember in a fairly consistent way and experienced similar increased vividness of reality.

With the wisdom of hindsight and scientific caution, I look back and say that I became relatively awake back then.  For a few seconds.  I have no idea what “awakening” means in some absolute sense, I haven’t experienced anything like that, but, compared to my ordinary and culturally “normal” state of walking around thinking, thinking, thinking all the time, without much attention to what was actually happening, and probably with lots of neurotic (Dragon Dictate transcribed the previous word as erotic, which of course is quite true when you’re younger!) overlay and distortion, I did indeed “wake up” in a relative way way back then.  This “happened” many times (brought about, I like to believe, by my systematic self-remembering efforts) for years when I was more intensely involved with variations of the Gurdjieff work, especially when I was teaching people about mindfulness and awakening.  There’s nothing like having all that attention on you to remind you that you’re trying to be present!

Now, switching emphasis, let me clarify my terms a little, lest this be one more example of ambiguous use of terms like “meditation” and “mindfulness.”  The way I have practiced self-remembering, the way I’ve tried to teach it to others in workshops, may be somewhat different than is usually done by meditation teachers.  A common theme from many meditation teachers and writers, especially Buddhist ones, is that this world is a terrible place.  Samsara is not simply a description of a mental state but of the actual state of the world, great suffering is inevitable, so of course the goal is to not suffer any more, and the method to do this is, in a sense, to withdraw your mind from the world.  So on one dimension you try to lead a simpler life, renunciation: if there are fewer things you really want, they are less likely to distract you.  If I don’t care, what they think and say can’t hurt me!  On another dimension you try to learn to recognize attractions and aversions as they arise and not give them energy, either through specific antidotes to particular desires/aversions and/or by developing a certain “coolness,” of being aloof, of not being sucked in by things.  My own bias, on the other hand, is that while there is indeed lots of suffering in this world, there are lots of good things too, and I basically believe in Progress.  My ancestors were peasants and factory workers: I’m a college professor!  That’s amazing!  That’s Progress!  By developing greater mindfulness, both in formal sitting meditation practices and in the course of daily life, we can avoid some of the stupid things that create avoidable suffering, and we can develop attitudes that reduce our experiential suffering when unpleasant things nevertheless happen.  I can find support for this attitude in Gurdjieff’s writings when he talks about becoming a helper of God and higher beings, rather than just being caught up in trying to get away from suffering, going for Progress, rather than simply escaping suffering.

I can see I’m ranging too widely, so let’s see if I can focus better….But there’s so many interesting aspects to this!

Okay, one of the things I learned from my own self-remembering practice, and that I since make central in teaching any kind of class or workshop on mindfulness, is that a most fundamental aim of self-remembering, is clearer perception of immediate reality, not creating good feelings.  Good feelings are best as unintended side effects.  That is, I and my students doing self-remembering practice sometimes, perhaps even usually, feel good, happy from our moments of relative awakening.  As a side effect of self-remembering, that’s fine, but when you make feeling good the primary aim of the practice, you’re no longer doing self-remembering, tuning in better into ongoing reality, at least as I understand and experience it.  You’re trying to shape your consciousness the way it was when you felt good on some previous occasion.  Similarly, my current best understanding of being in rigpa as Tibetan Buddhists’ describe an enlightened state, is that if you’re trying to feel some special way, “enlightened” or whatever, that’s meditation made by the mind, not the more fundamental experience of being present to whatever is manifesting at the moment without twisting, distorting, attaching, rejecting.  (This does not mean, a deep matter which we do not have time to go into here, that enlightenment is about not having any feelings and not making any attempts to improve your reality situation.)  The big problem with trying to make yourself feel good by directly creating good feelings is that you can conjure good feelings that way (Gurdjieff’s kundabuffer in operation?), but they distract you from reality, you behave inadequately, and then bad things happen as consequences of your stupid behavior.

Specifically, as I learned self-remembering and as I teach it, the essence of it begins with (largely implicit) attitudes of wanting to understand yourself and reality better and, of course, wanting to be free from unnecessary suffering and more competent in dealing with reality and your own psychological states.  These attitudes may or may not be held consciously, but I think they’re always there implicitly.  (If the attitudes you go into mindfulness and meditation practices with are different, then the same processes can result in different experiences and outcomes.)  Then we go on to actual technique.

As I learned Gurdjieffian self-remembering (with all the secrecy of Fourth Way groups I’m not sure it’s taught the same way everywhere), the essence of the practice is exerting a moderate amount of conscious control over the way your attention is used.  A small amount of your attention, very roughly 10%, is used to keep track of body sensations, sensing, usually just sensations in your arms and legs.  This has the effect of anchoring part of your attention in the here-and-now, since that’s where and when body sensations occur.  Then the rest of attention is divided between our two major sensory channels, listening, 20 to 30%, and looking, the rest of your attention.  Sensing, Looking and Listening, SLL.  I would add that a small amount of your attention is being used to monitor and control this division of attention process also.  The actual ratios of division of attention can vary a lot from moment to moment.  I also suspect that the intentionality of this process is one of its most important aspects, rather than the specifics of how it is done.

This SLL is much easier to describe than to actually do, of course, and a most important part of Fourth Way work is providing practice situations and reminders to learn more skill in this kind of division of attention.

When one can self-remember in this way, even moderately effectively, it uses up a lot or most of mental real estate, so there’s simply little or none left over for one’s usual compulsive, automatized, neurotic story, and its associated feelings of self-pity, etc.  At its best, the result is a state (again varying moment by moment) where your attention is implicitly controlled by an “I want to know” attitude, and consciously, deliberately distributed between your own body and your major sensing thoughts.

In Tibetan Buddhist terms, I’m tempted to talk about this as focusing on the sixth consciousness, sensory registration, which then has the effect of taking energy away from the automatized elaborations of seventh consciousness, and, since there is a deliberate focus on the world around you, makes you more perceptive about the state of the external world and, as a result, often more intelligent and competent in dealing with it.  Also in Tibetan terms it could be formally described as shamatha with support, the deliberate concentrative focus on perceptions and body sensations, but my finding is that it readily shades off into shamatha without support, which is supposed to be very close to being in rigpa.

Although I concentrated on this kind of mindfulness practice for many years, I seldom do it consciously for much of the day anymore, but I have noticed an enduring aftereffect of those years of practice.  One way of saying it is that I wouldn’t say I’m “awake,” but I would say that I’m a lot less “asleep.”  That is, I habitually (but far from always!)  pay more open-minded and accurate attention to what’s happening around me, while simultaneously picking up on my internal reactions (since they have body feeling correlates) quickly and while they are of low intensity, and so I have more opportunity to understand and sometimes control my reactions.  This quick pick up on internal reactions also provides many opportunities for psychological insight into myself, something I value highly.  Another way I’ve often expressed it is that while there is nothing “special” about my ordinary consciousness anymore, it’s more spacious, there are momentary gaps between perceptions, thoughts, and reactions, which allow more intelligent comprehension, so I’m not as automatic, as automatized as I used to be.

So many more interesting aspects to describe and develop….out of time…




  1. charles, this is charles. (charliepfitz@gmail.com)

    I found an ISHK (psychologies east and west) box set 3 at my town dump, a constant cross section of “unwanted” things from a certain cross section of humanity in Massachusetts.

    I’m glad to see you are still going after these kinds of issues, on the tape you spoke directly to my experience. This is not intended as a compliment, rather a complement. Lately, most everything is speaking to my experience and I was hoping to get your take on this.


  2. Sometimes I am not sure if self-remembering is a concept of Ouspenksy more than from Gurdjieff. At least, the best explanation I have ever received was from Ouspenky. Anyway it is for me the best example of practice consciousness. ¿What can be it more important than remembering yourself?

    What impress me more is how I forget myself (all ‘myselfs’). Ouspensky explains in a very vivid way once he was trying not to forget himself and he awoke hours after while having a walk. This must be an universal experience.

    Just check this:

    What is the plural for myself?

    Even now in our culture there is a strong belief about only one self. Not to mention about remembering or recurring forgetfullness.

    Thanks for you brilliant essays.

    [I have linked you from <a href="http://aninteriorforest.com/blog/dont-crash-the-plane/"An Interior Forest | Don't crash the plane]

  3. I have done a 10day vipassana course since the last time I posted and read here…

    To me meditation is practice, mostly in controlling and focusing attention. Mindfulness is using that attention. Or perhaps meditation is also self inquiring mindfulness….

    It’s possible to drive down the freeway with full attention, or on automatic. It always scares me when my attention snaps back to the present moment and I find I have driven miles with no recollection of it!

    But then that is what the automatic systems of a mind are set up for anyway, doing the stuff we are too lazy or bored to deal with!

    It is nice though to have the ability to bring a lot of attention to bear when needed or wanted. For participating in reality, or for ignoring it and dreaming!



  4. Hi Charley,

    In recent months I’ve practiced mindfulness when driving, with a self-remembering balance between visual, aural, and sensory inputs. I witness whatever chatter goes thru my mind, using the immediacy of my task to not get lost in the thoughts, plans, and dialogues of this nananananah.

    I have no conscious prejudice for feeling calm in the process. That’s handy when someone tailgates you. However the more important quality for me is non-attachment to avoid dwelling on my righteous judgements of the other driver’s dangerous behavior. That takes up too much mental space when driving and can result in retaliatory driving–braking to flash a back-off signal, etc.

    Perhaps a more “enlightened” automaker like Volvo could sponsor mindful driving ads?

  5. I believe that samurais, being educated in Zen, were quite mindful and keenly aware of their surrounding while anticipating all those opponents around them.

  6. I don’t know where to send a message on here. I suffered a near death experience a few years ago, since then my life has changed to the extreme. Dreams guide my life, I encounter unusual experiences during my sleep….I’ve dreamed of people who I traced back to have died way before I was ever born. I was directed to follow a teenager one day, she showed me a missing girls poster, then she took me to a field where a small square hole was, in that hole where her remaining’s and all I saw was her small fragile bones. I’ve seen life thru the eyes of a slave black woman wanting to clear her name generations later…..at the beginning I thought I was going crazy, it was very upsetting….in time I’ve learned what they are trying to tell me or where the dreams are leading me. During the day, I meet people, and I suddenly know everything they have in their wallets, purses, or everything about them, and I have never met them…..sometimes I speak out of place and scare them……I need help figure this out.

  7. Existence cannot be conceptualized because it is prior to thought. If existence cannot be conceptualized it is not an object. If not object, then not subject time.

    When man sees that man is an idea, peace on Earth. For if no thought, identify the enemy.

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