Mindfulness Meditation

Ordinary Mind

When we meditate we seek to focus the mind on the breath.  This takes great effort.  The mind wanders, necessarily, as the mind is conditioned to cling to aliveness, and must wander to assess for any potential threat to its continued existence, leading to a state of anxiety.  The anxiety of living is proportional to our history of exposure to threat, real or perceived.  This anxiety is omni-present, and the root of the wandering mind.  As we focus the mind this anxiety lessens of its own accord.  At the same time, as our anxiety lessens, whether through reason or experience, the capacity for the mind to remain focused strengthens.

When the mind is focused it has reached a state one can call ordinary mind.  As the mind nears this state, the diminishment of anxiety and its concomitant behavior, clinging, feels rather extraordinary, and the mind may even conjure up images and bodily feelings and suppositions that seem rather extraordinary in response to this progression.  Do not be deceived by these seemingly extraordinary occurrences, which are simply mental (neurobiological?) artifacts of the process of letting go.  An ordinary mind finds itself in a state of comfort and ease, and knows there is no need to pursue any other mind state.

When we meditate we often feel quite pleasant.  This is in large part due to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system as our minds become more and more focused on a single object, whether the breath or some other object of attention (i.e. the sensation of stretch when doing yoga).  This pleasant body state in turn encourages the meditator to both formal and informal meditation practices with greater frequency and commitment.  However the process of meditation will often lead to realizations of the workings of the mind, which may include rather unpleasant memories, thoughts, and bodily affects.  All of these unpleasant mental objects can be worked with, but sometimes the meditator will experience these events as some kind of failure of the meditation session.  With this mindset the meditator may declare meditation itself a failure, or, perhaps worse yet, rededicate him/herself to having pleasant meditation experiences.  Neither alternative is helpful; to avoid meditation all together leaves one bereft of this pathway to the ordinary mind and freedom, and the pursuit of pleasant experiences in meditation builds new illusions about the nature of things and can actually become a form of servitude to another form of clinging.

The ordinary mind is free.  It knows no boundaries, as it can turn toward all experiences with equanimity, whether those experiences are pleasant or unpleasant.  The ordinary mind responds to living experiences with expansiveness, as it has seen all possibilities in the hours it spends in meditation and joined awareness with acceptance.  Stated more clearly in his “Asian Journal,” Thomas Merton spoke of ordinary mind when he wrote:

…There is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery.”  All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear.  The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya*…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.



*Sanskrit for the “cosmical body of the Buddha,” interpreted as referring to that which is most essential in all beings.

By Jim Walsh

I am a Pastoral Counselor in private practice in Wilmington DE. I teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction as part of my work as a therapist.

4 replies on “Ordinary Mind”

Hello Jim, may I share with you in response to “ordinary mind” that you recently posted (thank you.) I marvel at how each and every human being, throughout history, from every culture, race, gender, social position, and indeed even those in distress, stunted, twisted or otherwise “damaged” has an incredible “brain” that processes experience, interprets, chooses, responds, interprets, and produces. There are and have been so many human beings it staggers my own mind to realize that each individual is a great treasure house of experiences….and this I think is true even when an individual lives in a society that programs the mind of it’s members….because while responses can be deemed acceptable or incorrect, in fashion or not, no government or religion or media can entirely control human experience and, as you know so well, each day, each hour, each instant is so rich if we are open to consciously experiencing all it offers (and even if we are NOT open to it, our unconscious is still experiencing and storing it)….we become vessels, storehouse, rich mines of precious gems and metals stored away, sometimes under pressure….so what I am meaning to say is that there is a great treasure inside each of us that we can explore, mine, excavate and enjoy privately or share. This is the precious gift of being alive….life is the most incredible gift and it is always a blessing to “wake up” and experience the moment and also, in a moment, if we so choose, explore the storehouse of our mind and experience wonder at our own unique complexity that connects us to cosmos as well as to a tiny leaf blowing by the window.
To be thankful and grateful is praise enough and to be conscious as fully as we can is the most sensible use of mind. If we could each do that, everything, I think, would fall into perfect place. Just imagine…everything fully awake, aware, empathetic and compassionate. If there IS a heaven, this is what I think it would be. Yes, we all can be Glory bound!

Hi Karen, you’ve described the awe that arises with spontaneity and grace when the mind finds stillness, and releases its grip on illusions and ego. It is a blessing to “wake up” and experience the moment; the only moment we have. Thank you for sharing so generously!

That was the clearest explanation I have ever heard! This will help me explain ordinary mind to my clients. Thank you!

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