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The Everyday Mindfulness Practice of Direct Experience

When I first started practicing Zen meditation years ago, I thought it was to make me more calm. Then it was to make me less reactive. Then to make me less attached to things.

These things all happen if you meditate regularly, as many of you know. But one of the most helpful things I’ve done is to drop the goal of meditation and mindfulness. And just be with my experience.

I think of this as the mindfulness practice of direct experience, and it’s something you can do every day, as many times as you can remember. It’s quite ordinary, and also quite a bit magical.

The practice of meditating on the breath is how this starts, of course: you stay with the direct experience of feeling your breath, in and out, the sensations of breathing your breath. Your mind wanders, you notice, you come back. If you like, you can label it “thinking” before you come back to the breath. But you keep coming back, even if you’re sidetracked for 5 minutes.

That is practice for direct experience of everything.

The thing is … our lovely minds get in the way.

The Mind’s Commentary Habit

If direct experience is like a movie that’s playing all the time, the mind is like a person who adds subtitles and commentary to the movie. Imagine a movie with commented text constantly plastered all over the screen — all over the place, all the time. You’d never actually see the movie!

That’s what our minds do. We have this miraculous reality right in front of us, and our minds block it all out with constant commentary and fantasties.

A few of the things our minds are constantly doing include:

  • Judging whether something is good or bad
  • Labeling things — pleasant, unpleasant, unhappy, unfair, idiotic
  • Judging whether we’re good or bad, whether other people are good or bad
  • Getting caught up in a narrative about something that happened earlier
  • Getting caught up in fantasy or worry about what might happen later
  • Getting caught up in a story about what’s happening now, why it should or shouldn’t happen

These things also get us irritated, frustrated, angry, sad, worried, anxious. These are not terrible things, but they come from these commentary habits of the mind.

What would it be like if we dropped the commentary habit? What if we just experienced the movie without all the extra things overlaid on top?

The Practice of Direct Experience

Here’s the practice of direct experience, laid out simply:

  1. Notice the sensations of this moment. It might be sounds. Or light. Or sensations on you skin, or in your body. Just notice whatever you notice.
  2. Experience these sensations directly, without any thoughts, labels, commentary, fantasies, narratives, judgments. Just the experience.
  3. If you are doing any of these things, just notice, and come back to the experience. Over and over.
  4. Relax into the experience, just as it is. It’s not good or bad, it’s just experience. We don’t have to do anything about it. It doesn’t need to be changed. Be curious about it — what is it like right now?

You can just have the direct experience of life as it is. What a wonderful thing.

What will this practice get you? Calm, focus, peace, happiness? Maybe, probably, sure. But the thing the practice really gets you is just experiencing reality as it is. It’s wonderful, full stop.