Nowadays, much is made of "mindfulness" in the literature on meditation. Mindfulness is usually described as the practice of giving careful attention to whatever is happening now, whether the object of that mindfulness is the mind, the body, or the objects of the external world. Especially when referring to time spent off the meditation cushion, teachers will say, "Mindfulness in all of your day-to-day activities is the key to a spiritual growth" or, more simply, "Mindfulness is all." In my experience, it is fine to remind yourself to be mindful in all the activities of your day-to-day life (it's only common sense to be fully present when, for instance, you're driving a car). But real mindfulness, inspired mindfulness, comes gradually, after years of sitting meditation. It's like building a house. First you lay the foundation. Then you build the walls. Finally you put on the roof. You can't put the roof up before you have walls, and you can't put the walls up before you have a foundation.
It's pointless trying to practice what so many spiritual authors blithely refer to as "mindfulness in everyday life" before you've discovered what mindfulness really is.

In the same way, it's pointless trying to practice what so many spiritual authors blithely refer to as "mindfulness in everyday life" before you've discovered what mindfulness really is. If, in your day-to-day life, you remind yourself to "be mindful," as if you could accomplish that in an instant, as a meditative act of will, then you are only playing an elaborate game with yourself. It is much better just to be natural and meditate a lot. Then, in time, real mindfulness will come, in the way it has always come to meditators--breath by breath by breath.

Years ago, when I was living in a Zen Buddhist monastery, I saw an example of mindfulness that has stayed with me ever since. That day, the monastery caught on fire. It turned out that somebody was burning trash in the cook stove, and a piece of flaming paper floated out of the chimney onto the wood-shingled roof, which was very dry because of a drought.

As luck would have it, when the fire started, all the able-bodied men and women in the monastery were in the main building taking a yoga class taught by the head monk, so we were able to put the fire out right away. Later, when the volunteer fire department showed up (they were 15 miles away), they told us that if we had lost just three minutes more in responding to the fire the entire monastery would have been lost.

Who noticed the fire? As it turned out, it was the Roshi, the Japanese abbot himself. At the moment the fire started, he had just sat down to make a phone call when he happened to glance out the window at the roof. One might think that he was being very mindful in that moment, but the truth is that his glancing up was merely chance (or, as he later suggested, because the deities that guarded the monastery had made him do it). No. The real mindfulness came a moment later, when he rose from his chair and walked calmly to the door of the room where the yoga class was in session.

"Ah...excuse me," he said to the head monk. "Could I speak with you for a moment, please?"

"Yes. In just a moment, Roshi," the head monk replied. "We're just finishing up the asana."

"Ah...excuse me," he tried again. "Just one quick word now, please."

The head monk later said that he'd still been grumbling about the interruption as the Roshi led him down the hallway and into the meeting room where, positioning him squarely in front of the large sliding-glass window and pointing to the roof, the Roshi said, "FIRE!"

That night, after cleaning up all the debris from the fire, the head monk waylaid me on my way into the meditation hall.

"I've been thinking," he whispered. "He just came and got me and calmly walked down the hall ahead of me, and I'm thinking 'Great! So now he's interrupted yoga practice to take an inspection tour of the monastery!' But then we go into the meeting room, and the next thing I know he's turning me by the shoulders to face the window--and there it was!"

"So?" I inquired.

"Well, think of the time we'd have lost if he'd just shouted "fire" to everyone. Think of the time we'd have lost if he'd tried to explain to me exactly where the fire was."

"Three minutes," I said.

"Would you have been able to respond that way?" he asked me.

I thought for a moment and answered truthfully. "No," I said. "Probably not."

"Me neither," he admitted. And together, for the hundredth time that training period, we bowed and entered the meditation hall.

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