The following is excerpted from Shift into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness, published by Sounds True.

In his book Rainbow Painting, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche says that in Dzogchen there are six kinds of mindfulness, and then he talks about the two main categories: “There are two types of mindfulness: deliberate and effortless.” 1 He suggests that we can use deliberate mindfulness as an initial practice leading to a more profound practice of effortless mindfulness. However, he also suggests that we can begin our meditation training with effortless mindfulness, an option which still enables us to get all of the benefits of deliberate mindfulness practice. Let’s begin by clarifying the distinction between these two categories of mindfulness.

Deliberate mindfulness is the basic form of mindfulness most of us have encountered. The Theravada Buddhist word for mindfulness (in the Pali language) is sati, often translated as “remembering.” But this does not mean remembering in the sense of recalling past events. When used in the context of deliberate mindfulness, sati means remembering to return to the object of your focus when your attention wanders. Deliberate mindfulness requires us to continuously return — re-remembering and re-attending.

The two most common practices of deliberate mindfulness are one-pointed attention and nonjudgmental witnessing of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Traditionally, deliberate mindfulness refers to both: shamatha (“calm abiding”) and vipassana (“insight”). Researchers have extensively studied both these types of deliberate mindfulness in recent years, and they refer to shamatha as “focused attention” (FA) and vipassana as “open monitoring” (OM).

Beginning with deliberate mindfulness, some people report feeling frustrated in their inability to be able to stay focused. However, the reason we cannot stay continuously focused is not from a lack of willpower or effort. The reason we lose focus is because the level of mind that we are looking from, our everyday mind (sem, Tib), is always moving and changing. In deliberate mindfulness, we must continuously reapply ourselves to our task by actively re-creating not only the focus but “the focuser” over and over within our everyday mind.

Effortless mindfulness — the second type of mindfulness — is also called innate mindfulness. Effortless mindfulness does not mean that we don’t need to make an initial effort. You aren’t being asked to “do nothing” or to “try to be effortless.” (Trying to be effortless can be quite an effort!) Here, the adjective “effortless” refers to the discovery that awake awareness (Tibetan rigpa) is spontaneously aware without our help or effort. Effortless mindfulness is a description of the way we naturally engage with life when operating from awake awareness.

We find that there is no need to willfully concentrate from effortless mindfulness. Instead, we see that awake awareness is the foundation of the awake-aware mind— which, unlike the everyday mind, is not made of moving thoughts. This is why you can focus and attend to things effortlessly. Our way of knowing is no longer located in the contents of our consciousness.

Consider the difference between effortless breathing and deliberate breathing. Imagine having to remember every time you needed to take a breath. Noticing effortless mindfulness is like noticing that our breathing happens by itself. When looking from awake awareness, we need no effort to be effortlessly mindful. Effortless mindfulness empowers us with the natural capability to be with our thoughts and emotions, without constant monitoring them. We find effortless mindfulness by shifting to spacious awareness and then focusing from there.

In the gradual path many meditative approaches offer, effortless mindfulness is considered an advanced practice. However, I contend that it can be just as easy for beginners to learn as deliberate mindfulness. Mingyur Rinpoche describes beginning with the effortless mindfulness approach to immediately find calm and insight:

“We access the mind of calm abiding through recognition. What do we recognize? Awareness: the ever-present knowing quality of mind, from which we are never separated for an instant…Discovering our own awareness allows us to access the natural steadiness and clarity of the mind.”2

Effortless mindfulness is like riding a bicycle on a gradual, downward-sloping road: once we learn to balance, we can coast without deliberately pedaling. In the Mahamudra tradition, the deliberate mindfulness way of focusing is called the “event perspective” because we’re looking at events or the contents of our mind. Effortless mindfulness uses a method of focusing called the “mind perspective” because we change the direction of our focus to look back at the nature of our own mind. Effortless mindfulness often begins with the practice of awareness of awareness. This turning around of awareness is called an “orientation instruction.” The effortless mindfulness practice of looking from spacious awareness is called “king of samadhi” and is described as a soaring eagle looking back at its nest.

With effortless mindfulness, we have shifted levels of mind, and can view the world from awake awareness. At this level of mind, we find that we are stable, calm, and able to remain naturally undistracted. Awake awareness has the ability to effortlessly observe the arising of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and even subpersonalities — without needing to identify with them, or to judge, deny, oppose, or project them onto others. Like space itself, awake awareness can be neither increased nor diminished by any forms arising within its field; there is only a natural acceptance of everything. Effortless mindfulness is first experienced like a mirror that reflects without judgment. This experience leads to the recognition of interconnectedness; one comes to know that awake awareness is inherent within everything.

The Tibetan phrase for recognition translates as “looking back at your own face.” Awake awareness is as familiar and close as your own face. Many people report that “it feels like returning home” when they first recognize awake awareness. Turning around to look and recognize awareness is not the physical process of looking with our eyes. The ability of awake awareness to know itself has been called reflexive awareness. The word reflexive means “directed or turned back on itself.” On the ultimate level there is only awareness itself, always aware of itself like a light bulb that is always on. Reflexive awareness emphasizes that awake awareness is inherent within so that when it is obscured it can recognize itself. In order for awareness to be our primary way of knowing, seeing, and being, we need to discover how to find the inherent local awareness that can know itself.

Effortless mindfulness is not a matter of progressively stepping back farther and farther, like an infinite regression to a bigger and bigger witness. It begins with turning awareness around to look backwards through the mindful meditator. You are making the first U-turn (or You-turn) in awareness and identity, in which you turn away from looking up to thoughts, out at the world or down at the contents of your mind. The result is that you may discover that awareness is already aware of itself, by itself. Once you are abiding as awake awareness, you can make the second “You-turn” include the contents of your mind and body from an effortless big sky like witness. Next, awareness recognizes itself within our body as embodied presence. This wisdom first sees that form is emptiness, and can then experientially recognize that emptiness is also form. We experience the one taste of the unity of all things. We are then naturally grounded in bodhicitta, an active open-hearted awareness, from which we can create and relate, feeling an unconditional loving connection to all.

GLIMPSE 1: Effortless Mindfulness

In this glimpse, you’ll use your visual sense to become aware of awareness. You can use the words on this page as the object of focus while you’re reading, or you can learn the exercise first and then try it with another object, like a cup.

  1. Become aware of the words on this page as objects.
  2. Notice your normal way of seeing the words on the page: looking outward from subject (“I-sense”) to object (words). Notice: “I am aware of seeing the words.”
  3. Now reverse the process. Notice the words as the seen.
  4. Next, be aware of light reflecting off the page and coming to your eyes as seeing.
  5. Now follow your awareness back to rest as awareness that is aware of seeing.
  6. Let your awareness move backwards from the seen…to seeing…and then through the “I” to rest back as that which is aware of seeing.
  7. Let awareness move back from the page to discover the awareness behind and within that which is already aware and looking.
  8. Allow awareness to rest back until it discovers the awake awareness that is effortlessly reading the words and aware of the movement of your internal thoughts, feelings and sensations coming and going.

GLIMPSE 2 Awareness of Awareness

Simply be aware of the space in front of you (between you and any object); then be aware of space between your eyes; then aware of space between your ears; then rest as the spacious awareness behind your head that is already spontaneously aware within and all around.

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Works Cited

  1. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Rainbow Painting, trans. Erik Pema Kunsang (Hong Kong: Ranjung Yeshe Publications, 1995), 110.
  2. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche with Helen Tworkov, Turning Confusion into Clarity: A Guide to the Foundation Practices of Tibetan Buddhism (Boston: Snow Lion, 2014), Kindle locations 329-336.

Teaser image by Crispin Semmens, courtesy of Creative Commons license.