Living the Mindful Life - cover


Charles T. Tart



There is a story that I remember hearing in my childhood in Tibet, about an old woman who came to the Buddha and asked him how to meditate. He told her to remain mindful, present, and aware of every movement of her hands as she drew the water from the well each day, knowing that if she did so, she would soon find herself in that state of alert and spacious calm that is meditation. The practice of mindfulness, simple yet powerful, is the heart of meditation, and the supreme antidote to distraction. For, as the Buddha taught, the root of all our suffering is ignorance, but the root of ignorance itself is our mind's habitual tendency to distraction. So mindfulness is the gateway to liberation. Buddha said:

The practitioner who focuses on mindfulness
Advances like a fire,
Consuming the chains of bondage
Both great and small.

What is it then that mindfulness brings? It allows all the warring and fragmented aspects of ourselves to settle and become friends; it gradually defuses our negativity; and it removes the unkindness in us, revealing our true nature, our compassionate Good Heart. One of my masters, Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, calls mindfulness "the fortress of the mind" and "the friend of wisdom," for in its magical simplicity come a presence and a peace which are sane and grounded, clear, joyful, and awake, and full of compassion and wisdom.

When I first began to teach in the West, I found to my surprise that many spiritual practitioners today lack the knowledge of how to integrate their meditation practice with everyday life. But nothing could be more important. It cannot be said too strongly or too often: to integrate meditation in action is the whole ground and point and purpose of meditation. Here-too mindfulness holds the key, for the true discipline of meditation is to maintain the thread of mindfulness throughout our everyday life. It is the continual application of that presence of mind that can bring about a deep change in a person's life, and become a source of real healing. Isn't it extraordinary though, how difficult it is, as we go about our lives, simply to remember to be mindful and to bring the mind home whenever we catch ourselves lost in distraction? I created a slogan which my students find helpful: Remember to remember, when you remember.

So to integrate meditation with life, the Buddhist masters tell us, there is no substitute for regular practice, for only through real practice will we be able to taste unbrokenly the calm of our true nature of mind and so be able to sustain the experience of it in our everyday life. This is why developing stability in spiritual practice is so important, through first practicing in the right environment and in proper practice sessions, and then mixing the experience of practice with everyday life.

I have known Charley Tart for many years now, as a friend, as a student, and as someone whom I meet at conferences around the world. He is someone who has always impressed me with his humor and eloquence, but above all with his sincerity and spirit of indefatigable inquiry. I have always admired his clear-sighted desire to help make the wisdom teachings more accessible to Western minds and to build bridges between the scientific and spiritual communities. We both share, I think, the belief that these teachings can be practiced and understood at the deepest level by people born and brought up in Western culture.

In Living the Mindful Life, Charley Tart shows, from his own experience with the teachings of Gurdjieff and of Buddhism, the tremendous benefit of applying mindfulness in everyday life. He presents his ideas and findings in a deceptively casual way, though in fact the effect that more and more people living a life of mindfulness would have now on the world would be nothing short of revolutionary. We live in a world governed by mindlessness and dominated by distraction, where people are deprived of spiritual nourishment and given little help to explore their true nature, the innermost nature of their minds. I am sure that the exercises Charley Tart presents here have much to offer people of any kind of background or spiritual inclination, in enabling them, throughout every aspect of their lives, to live in that most powerful and wonderful and healing of places, the present moment. I am sincerely moved by his aspiration to help others, and I pray that his work may reach and benefit as many beings as possible!

                                                                     Sogyal Rinpoche
                                                                             April 1994




There are many times when I, like all of you, feel deep pain and sorrow about the sad state of our world. Is the end of the cold war to be nothing more than an opportunity for the horrors of "ethnic cleansing," the chance for each little social group to slaughter its traditional enemies without interference? And are we, our children, and our very earth to die slowly as the toxins accumulate and we mindlessly over-breed?

Making the pain of this perception worse is frustration. I want to help, but nothing seems to work! What can I do to help? Do my actions mean anything? What can the community, the nation, the world do? You read the papers or watch TV and there are all those wonderful plans to save the world that raise our hope and energy and then . . . do little or nothing. I, like all of you, sometimes get excited about movements, leaders, programs, and plans that look like they can help, but they then usually turn into bureaucracies that at best accomplish nothing and too often make our problems worse.

It is tempting to despair about the state of our world, our nation, our community, our friends, our very selves. Yet despair won't accomplish anything either, and the problems won't cure themselves. How can we accomplish something, even a tiny something, that will actually help and not just be another one of those good ideas that go astray?

An old question asks, What is the best form of government for an insane asylum? A republic? Democracy? Socialism? A monarchy with an enlightened ruler? A meritocracy? Communism? A dictatorship?

Our mind can start to get caught in this question, but it quickly becomes clear that it's not really a relevant question. An insane asylum does not lack for ideas, passions, and creative energy. The real problem is harnessing the available human energy. The place is full of crazy people! No matter how good the ideas and intentions, their execution invariably becomes warped, crazy, and destructive. What we need to do is cure the widespread insanity, to bring people to their senses, to help them live in reality instead of illusion. If we could do that, probably any one of those forms of government could be made to work rather well in promoting the general good, and a sane community could then discuss intelligently the issue of the best form of government.

Sometimes ideas and movements accomplish some good in our world, at least temporarily, but since in too many ways our world is a big insane asylum complete with insane ideas about what constitutes sanity things and people keep going bad. I speak of the world at large here, but this statement all too often applies quite well to our personal world as well.

Personally, I do not have a sense of social vision, a feeling that I know what national or global programs will solve the world's problems. But I am convinced, from personal experience as well as my psychological studies, that anything that helps individuals become a little saner, a little more perceptive, a little more awake to reality and to our deeper spiritual nature is bound to help. People who are less asleep, less intoxicated by ideas and feelings, can be more effective when they act in the world while trying to help, can stop contributing to the vast reservoir of negative feelings that fuels so much destructiveness, and can inspire others to also come to their senses.

In the course of my personal development and professional studies of human consciousness and potentials, I have learned some useful things about helping people to become more awake, more mindful, more sensible. Sharing these in this book is, I hope, at least a small contribution toward helping our suffering world.

Let's think about four ideas, four human conditions, namely, sleep, mindlessness, mindfulness, and awakening.

Sleep. A person can be inert to the world about him or her, just lying there. That is a fairly harmless state, as long as the world makes no demands.

But a person is not always completely inert. About 20 percent of ordinary sleep is occupied with dreaming. We are inert on the outside, but inside we are going places, doing things, hoping, fearing, triumphing, failing. Dreaming is a very active condition, even if the vast majority of dreaming is forgotten by most people on waking

The outside inertness is actually a forced paralysis. If you dream of walking, for instance, or grabbing something, all the necessary nerve impulses are sent to your muscles to walk and grab. Fortunately, as soon as you go into the dream state, a special part of the brain sends signals to the muscles that paralyze them, which keeps them from responding. Otherwise the night would be impossibly dangerous, with people's minds in another world but their bodies acting in this one.

Suppose the paralysis were broken, so you acted in this physical world but with your senses perceiving only the dream world and with your mind operating in the common dream manner that often seems strange and irrational by waking standards. Suppose our ordinary state of consciousness has a lot more in common with dreaming than we believe. Suppose there is a very real sense in which our minds and senses are far away, while we nevertheless act in the physical world. Suppose this is at least partly true for many people when they think they are working to help our world.

Mindlessness. A word, a string (I mistyped "sting," which is very apropos) of letters that calls for considerable contemplation. The word refers to a real class of actions that creates immense suffering in our lives. 

Let me give three personal examples of mindlessness, roughly in order of intensity. The other morning, while getting some breakfast food from a kitchen cabinet, I started to turn around and stepped on my cat Sparky's tail. He meowed loudly in pain and kept clear of me for a while after that. I felt terrible about it, a supposedly superior human being like me inflicting pain on a tiny creature! And, unfortunately, it's not the first time I've done this. After my mind finished mechanically running its standard excuse that cats should know better than to get underfoot of big, clumsy humans like me I remembered, for the umpteenth time, that a little mindfulness remembering I'm in a room with Sparky, who isn't smart enough to not get underfoot and taking half a second to glance around before I turn would prevent this.

It's not the first time I've vowed to be more mindful and not step on either of my cats.

A few weeks ago in my university class on humanistic and transpersonal psychology, I made a comment on a woman student's remark that came out sounding quite sexist. I realized the possible implications of what I was saying about three quarters of the way through the sentence, too late to stop it effectively. Several students immediately made other remarks about the topic we were considering, and the discussion went on. I intended to come back and apologize as soon as an appropriate moment occurred, but I got involved in the discussion and forgot about my intention.

A few days later, another student came by my office to tell me that she had been upset by my sexist remark, and that several other women in the class had been, too. It was not only upsetting in and of itself but totally out of character from what they had come to expect of me. I apologized in class that afternoon and was able to use my slip as a salient example of the suffering caused by mindlessness, but meanwhile, several people had felt bad about it for several days.

I rate this second example as causing more suffering. My cat seems to forget my stepping on his tale after a few minutes, but the pain we cause other humans through mindlessness, through lack of simple, basic consideration of others' feelings, can go on for a long, long time. I inadvertently added a little to the reservoir of human suffering. Did some of those I hurt take some of their feelings out on others, thus multiplying the suffering even more.

A couple of weeks later, I joined several other transpersonally oriented psychologists and psychotherapists, a scholarly Christian bishop, and noted scholar of comparative religions in a discussion that touched on the nature of evil. Now evil is not a word with which I'm comfortable. There's no doubt that people occasionally act in terrible ways and hurt each other badly, but I try to see and encourage the higher possibilities in people, their better sides, as much as possible.

When my turn came to say something about what evil is, I apologized for not having a clear grasp of it and not liking to deal with it. The best I could say at that moment was my feeling that evil is more than just a matter of hurting others; it has something to do with enjoying hurting them, with feeling powerful and getting pleasure from knowing you're hurting them. I confessed that I had enjoyed hurting people at times in my life and was particularly disgusted by and afraid of that kind of feeling, even though I had to admit that I had the capacity for it. But I insisted, truly, that I tried to never indulge in that pleasure.

The next day I was driving in the fast lane on the freeway, trying to be mindful of the world around me and my internal state. This practice of mindfulness in the midst of daily activities and some formal sitting meditation are my fundamental spiritual practices at this stage of my life. I wasn't being very successful at it just then: a moment of mindfulness, ten minutes of mind wandering.

I noticed that a man was trying to pass me, but I was blocking the fast lane and there was too much traffic in the other lanes for him to go around me on the right. Well, I felt I was going fast enough and it was just too bad if he would have to wait a minute to get around me. Suddenly, I realized that, for all my claimed aversion, I was indulging in evil. I was enjoying another's suffering and feeling powerful and satisfied with what I was doing and feeling.

Admittedly, this was a pretty petty evil as evil goes in the world, but it was nonetheless evil by my own understanding. I had not been mindful of my own convictions. On a deeper level, I had not been mindful of my real, deeper nature, which is, I believe, something that is not totally separate from others. So the suffering I was causing the man in the other car was also suffering I was causing myself. I was mindless of our fundamental connectedness, of my own belief that in some real sense we are all one and that to hurt another is to hurt oneself.

So we can have levels of mindlessness, ranging from simple inattention to the immediate physical world through insensitivity to our interactions with others we care about to a deep and fundamental mindlessness about our most important values and real nature.

G. I. Gurdjieff, the Middle Eastern mystic and teacher, said repeatedly that "man is asleep." At our worst, we live in a tangled and neurotic fantasy world, a waking dream. Unfortunately, we still act, stupidly and mindlessly, in the physical world, creating enormous amounts of suffering for ourselves and others. There is no paralysis circuit, as there is in nighttime dreaming, to keep us from acting out mindless and harmful actions.

To the extent that we are mindless robots, stupidly creating suffering, there is only one question that really matters: How can we awaken?

Mindfulness. Ordinary levels of functioning can involve a reasonable amount of politeness and consideration for others, habits of functioning that make life better for all. But in too many cases they are simply habits, ways of being conditioned, like Pavlov's dogs were conditioned. A conditioned way of perceiving the world categorizes situations simplistically and evokes habitual responses, both inwardly and outwardly. Reality is constantly changing, though, and subtle shades of differences in situations are often undetected. Thus, our habits of perception, thought, feeling, and acting lead us into many mistakes.

Yet it is possible to learn to be mindful in our daily lives, to see more accurately and discriminatingly and so behave more appropriately toward others and toward our own inner selves, as well. The results cannot be fully described in mere words, but words and phrases like freshness, attentiveness, beginner's mind, perceptual intelligence, or aliveness point in the right direction. A stale, narrow life of habit and conditioned perceptions, feelings, and actions can slowly be transformed into a more vital, more caring, more effective, and more intelligent life.

Awakening. "Man is asleep." But what would life be like if we could really transcend our conditioning? See the world with eyes as fresh as a child's but with the intelligence and power of an adult? Free our vital energy from blocks erected by old traumas, defensiveness, and habit? Quiet the incessant racket in our minds and begin to perceive who we really are? Be mindful on the deepest levels?

For most of my life I have been trying to discover who I really am, who we really are. My journey has taken me through years of rigorous scientific work on the psychology of altered states of consciousness (ASCs), psychic phenomena, and human potential; to Buddhist retreat centers; to Christian churches; to growth training centers; to dojos where Aikido, a Japanese martial art, is taught; to circles of friends sharing Sufi stories; and to many other exotic gatherings, not to mention many apparently "dead-end" roads, many places and processes that were valuable to others but not suitable for me.

I have been lucky that my personal search has also stimulated my scientific career, so that my psychological researches have sometimes been useful to others in their personal growth searches. It's also lucky that the scientific training I have had, which can be considered a specialized kind of "mindfulness" training, taught me to be clear in my thinking and to watch out for biases that could distort my understanding. In a very real way, increasingly, I have tried to put the desire for truth, as best as I could perceive it, above the desire for happiness. Yet there is a very satisfying kind of happiness that comes from looking for the truth above all. 

Don't misunderstand. I am not someone who has the "truth," or who is "awake" in any absolute sense. My ignorance and limitations are all too apparent to me. But I have learned some useful things about being less deluded, less mindless, more in touch with both inner and outer worlds, and being at least a little more awake.

In 1986 I shared some of the best results of my search in Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential. I was able to use my knowledge of modern psychology to expound (and I hope expand in some small ways) one of the great mindfulness training traditions, the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff. That book has been the most important of my works.

Waking Up is a systematic, thorough presentation of the nature of waking sleep and a systematic technique for beginning to awaken. It was aimed at both the psychological audience of my peers in transpersonal psychology and at the general audience of anyone trying to become more mindful and awake. Judging from letters I received from readers, it has been very helpful to some people.

Since 1986 I have continued to try to understand and practice mindfulness in everyday life and have added a regular meditation practice that allows deeper moments of mindfulness and insight. I'm not sure I've learned anything drastically new since writing Waking Up, but I have become more flexible in life and practice and, perhaps, a little more sophisticated, yet simpler, about what I know.

For the last nine years, I have been studying the Dzogchen teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, with several Tibetan lamas, particularly the well-known Sogyal Rinpoche. For me, for now, it is the right extension of my earlier work. The emphasis on mindfulness that is basic to the Dzogchen teachings reinforces much that I knew previously about mindfulness and awakening, and the Dzogchen emphasis on developing compassion and devotion to the highest degree is giving me an education of the heart that I have always needed. The Dzogchen teachings go profoundly deeper than my own understandings, and I hope that they will lead me much deeper in my understanding and practice of life.

In the fall of 1991, Sogyal Rinpoche asked me if I would give a workshop on my psychological approach to mindfulness as a benefit to the Rigpa Fellowship, the organization that facilitates Rinpoche's teaching in the United States. The format that I developed for that workshop beginning with an intense day of background and basic mindfulness techniques, followed by three evenings for students to get coaching on how to actually apply mindfulness in their everyday, personal lives proved very useful. Participants came with a wide variety of previous experiences in formal meditation and psychological growth practices and with a variety of vocations, including engineer, physicist, nurse, social worker, carpenter, and school teacher. One had spent two years in an experimental training group of mine learning to increase her mindfulness in daily life. These students' questions on what to do in specific situations and their reports on what occurred as they tried to be mindful in real life, their "successes" and their "failures," were especially rich and stimulating. Fortunately, everything was tape recorded.

People tell me that my style of teaching at a workshop is fairly different from my normal writing style. It's less formally organized but richer, more dynamic, more alive. Thus this book. I have done a little editing and adding of material for better understanding, but I've kept quite close to the flavor of the workshop. In a workshop, the same material is sometimes covered from several angles as students actually work with it, but I almost never do this in formal writing, as I am compulsively efficient. Yet I know it is good for learning. Experiential exercises and basic mindfulness practices that were used in the workshop are described in enough detail to be useful to you readers, who weren't there. I still recommend my Waking Up for a systematic exposition of mindfulness techniques, but combining it with this one will make the whole presentation richer.

I have added two appendices, which were not part of the workshop. The first is an article of mine that originally appeared in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology dealing with specific exercises for extending into everyday life the mindfulness sometimes developed in formal meditation and with the general principles of such exercises. This more formal presentation should supplement many of the themes in the main part of this book. The second appendix is suggested readings on mindfulness in daily life and in formal meditation.

I cannot, however, stress strongly enough that, while reading about mindfulness is helpful, ideas about mindfulness are not mindfulness. Thinking about being present is not being present. The ultimate value of this book lies in the degree to which you try out the mindfulness practices and apply them in your life. Otherwise, the material herein, instead of starting to grow into a reality, will remain only pleasant fantasies about what could be. While I have tried in this book to keep the flavor and dynamics of the workshop setting as much as possible, writing cannot really capture the flavor of actually being there. Further, working with other people who are trying to become more mindful, preferably under the direction of a teacher who is more mindful than you, is extremely helpful. I will later discuss at some length this and some of the pitfalls associated with group work.

While the informality of this book makes it easily accessible to the general reader, I should note that it is also addressed particularly to my colleagues in transpersonal psychology. Accurate and deep observation of internal psychological processes is essential to the development of our field. The methods for self-observation and self-remembering in this volume can be used in a wide variety of transpersonal investigations and applications.

I hope that all readers who want to help improve the sad condition of our world and to live more mindful lives will find the following material useful.


Pine Aerie, Mendocino County, California 

4 July 1993


Living the Mindful Life