MEDITATION III – Mindfulness or Witness Consciousness

      Hookena rocks & sand


“Mindfulness” has become a catch-word in some circles in recent years. Some of those who use the term understand it and some don’t. It’s a Buddhist term that is differs very litttle from the Yogic term “witness consciousness.” Both involve noticing, moment-by-moment, what your mind is doing.

Many who try to meditate with witness consciousness or mindfulness get stuck because they have overlooked the previous step, concentration. Only when you have the ability to notice your mind in action and focus it where you want to does real mindfulness actually become possible. Its essence is the ability to, in a sense, “stand behind” your mind and notice what it is doing. Most of us most of the time are caught up in our thoughts that are darting here and there like clothes that are caught up inside a washing machine, going this way and that as the washer spins or agitates them.  In other words, we are identified with our thoughts. As a result, we have little choice about what we think  and feel. Our thoughts run in old patterns, like an old fashioned record player’s needle stuck in the same old groove, replaying the same thought pattern over and over again. A problem with this is that we see and think only what we already think we know. When new information comes along, we tend to reject it, in order to be able to think that we were “right” all along. Sometimes it’s an ego thing to protect our self-esteem. Other times it’s just easier for our neural impulses to follow their usual paths (see the blog on Tolman’s cognitive maps.)

By contrast, with witness consciousness or mindfulness, at each moment we notice what our mind is doing (whether it is focused on a thought, feeling, physical sensation, or event outside ourselves, which includes other peoples’ actions, opinions, and attitudes). In a sense, I detail one small part of my mind to watch / listen to / witness / be mindful of / what the rest  is doing. (This is called “two-pointed attention” in the Zen tradition.)  When I am actually aware of what my mind is doing, I can choose whether to let it keep on doing that in the same way,  or examine it and what lies beneath it more deeply, or do something else. This is useful both when I am with myself and in conversations with others. The reason people often sit in a particular position without moving for a period of time while meditating is because that makes it easier to watch the mind. Watching it  (or if you prefer, listening to it) opens many windows on the world that I didn’t know were there.  It makes it possible to move from being a denier (of everything I didn’t already believe) to being an inquirer (who’s interested in finding out what’s actually going on, inside or outside himself or herself.

So just sit. Balance, then breathe, then release unneeded tension. Then count your breaths or recite your mantra until you feel as centered and focused as you sense that you’re likely to get right then. Then do nothing but observe and listen. You’ll probably want something like a flower or candle flame six feet or more in front of you to bring your attention back to when it drifts off. Notice what you think, feel, and sense.  When you notice your body drooping instead of sitting straight up, it’s a signal that you’re no longer witnessing or being mindful.  Regain your centered sitting position and bring your gaze back to the physical object in front of you (unless you’re using an eyes-closed meditative practice.)  If you do this for more than ten or fifteen minutes, your body may start to feel painful and uncomfortable. That’s good. It makes it hard to think about anything else. Just notice the pain — where and how you experience it. Continue in this way until the end of your session, “just noticing” everything that occurs inside you or outside you.   Then again count ten breaths as you did during the starting sequence, moving your eyes to a different object with each breath, as you make the transition back to everyday consciousness.

Once you become quite skilled at this, you may be able to do it in the midst of some of your everyday activities. Also, when you can do it fairly reliably, you will be ready to put your concentration and mindfulness or witness consciousness together and move into a contemplative meditation.  (If you try contemplative meditation without having first developed these abilities, your mind is likely to use all kinds of clever avoidance tactics when you feel uncomfortable.  Concentration and mindfulness give you a method to notice and releace that avoidance.)

And remember two points. First, often it’s at least as more important to notice your emotions and physical sensations as your thoughts. Second, a runner in training will have days when everything seems easy and to go well and days when everything seems difficult. Meditation is the same way.  Whether a session seems “good” or “bad” is not important. Each moment of each session is just how it is. It’s all training. It’s all useful.

For much greater depth and detail about all this, see <> 

cover of Matrix Meditations

cover of Matrix Meditations


Cognitive Maps and Edward Chace Tolman

Edward Chace Tolman

Edward Chace Tolman

Who would have thought that studying white rats in mazes could really tell us much about human behavior? For decades in the mid-twentieth century it was all the rage, and a lot of that work turned out to be up blind alleys. But one of those investigators came to some keen insights.  Today, however, few even know his name. That’s rather odd, because in todays “cognitive behavioral psychology,” which is highly influential in the USA, we find the strange phenomenon that Edward Chace Tolman (1886-1959) is seldom mentioned, even though the whole cognitive-behavioral approach has been built largely on the foundation of his ideas. When the classical behaviorism of the mid-20th century ran out of new ideas, blending it with Tolman’s insights about cognition added a new dimension.

        Tolman said essentially, “rats think, just as people think.” But in his behaviorism-dominated era, he went on to say, “And to ensure that we are objective scientists, we will discover what and how they think by studying their observable behavior.”

         Rats and people, he said, live in worlds of paths and tools, obstacles and by-paths. In most matters both rats and people prefer short or easy means to a goal over long or difficult ones. And any description of goal-directed behavior is always about getting toward something or getting away from something. That includes what the person or rat is doing, what he, she, or it is trying to do, and where it is going.

But to me, none of that was as intriguing as his statement that rats, people, and other creatures form what he called cognitive maps of the physical and social environments within which they live, think, and navigate. A cognitive map describes the mental and physical routes a person takes, and what rewards and punishments exist along various physical or mental corridors. In retrospect, it’s obvious. Sitting here at my computer, there are some routes (sets of procedures to make the computer behave in specified ways) that I kinow very well, some that I sort of know, and many others that I don’t know at all. This desktop computer has the capacity  to do thousands of things that I don’t know how to tell it to do. It does only what falls within the compass of my cognitive map of it.

        In almost every area of life the same is true. We live within the confines of our cognitive maps (a concept that has much in common with what gestalt psychologist and field theorist Kurt Lewin called the “Life space.”)

       When the expectations that are defined by our cognitive maps are not fulfilled, we can get quite upset.  A psychologist named Tinklepaugh hid a piece of banana under a cup, allowing a monkey to see him do it.  At that point the monkey’s cognitive map included “there is banana under that cup.” But Tinklepaugh, the sly devil, secretly substituted a piece of lettuce, a less–preferred item. When the monkey lifted the cup and found the lettuce, it threw a tantrum.

       Human beings often do likewise. We expect things to be a certain way and blow our cool when they’re not.  I like to use the terms “inquirers” and “deniers”  for two different kinds of responses when something is not as we expect it to be. An inquirer responds to new evidence that shows that his or her belief or attitude about something is wrong by exploring other possibilities and trying to find out what’s really so.  A denier redoubles his or her attachment to the mistaken belief or attude or habit and seeks to get others to confirm that the wrong is right.  That’s where a lot of our problems come from.

       “Very interesting,” you may say. “But what’s the practical payoff of all this?”

       Very simply, You can become an observer of  your own cognitive maps. Notice where your mind goes and what it does, and where and what it does not go and do. This is an kind everyday awareness practice that is related to meditation.  As you try it, you are likely to start making fewer dumb mistakes, and to more often act in ways that are helpful both to you and to others.  In a sense, this is ongoing mindfulness (Buddhist term) or witness consciousness (Yogic term) carried on in the midst of everyday life.

       And you can also begin to see other people’s cognitive maps.  A few questions can tell you a lot about where a person’s mental and emotional energy flows and where it doesn’t.

       As a result of seeing or hearing where your cognitive maps fit reality and where they don’t, you’ll see when and where and how you need to change them. This is important in our daily lives and our larger cultural narratives. If you don’t ever stand back and look at your own cognitive map, you probably end up imprisoned in the “dominant narrative” of your culture, which is the story that the power elite who controls much of what happens wants you to believe.

       If all this intrigues you and you’d like to know more about some very contemporary ancient history in psychology, read Tolman’s Behavior and Psychological Man. If you and want just  a little more, you can look at my old lecture notes on Tolman at:


         En el espanol puede mirar la biografia Edward C. Tolman por Jaime Ernesto Vargas Mendoza, publicado por la Asociación Oxaquena de Psychología en 2008.

          Doing any  of those three things will enlarge your own cognitive map at least a bit.

MEDITATION: THE ESSENCE II – Concentration & Focus


Basic Meditation Instructions, Part II

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Concentrative meditation develops your ability to know what you are doing with your attention at any given moment and to focus your attention (and often that of others with whom you are conversing) where you wish.  This ability has been shown to be useful in diverse areas of life.  It is also essential to witness consciousness or mindfulness meditation, which will be described in Part III. Two different forms are described here, and you can choose the one you prefer or use them both at different times.

Counting style.  Choose any object to focus your eyes on. As you did just above, count from one to ten.  This time silently count one number on each incoming breath, from one to ten. Then count the same number ten times on each outgoing breath.  Like this: 1-1, 2-1, 3-1, etc. up to 10-1.  Then take a single  breath in which you do not count.  Then count a second sequence of ten, like this:  1-2, 2-2, 3-2, etc. up to 10-2.  Another empty breath, then ten breaths with the number 3 on your exhalation, etc.  Ideally you will do this for 110 breaths, up to 10-10.  Then do ten more snapshot breaths to end your session.  Whenever you lose count, continue from the last pair of numbers you can remember clearly. If you don’t have time or don’t want to count up to 10-10, stop whenever you wish and end your session with ten snapshot breaths.

On each outbreath, notice all the chatter and images that have formed themselves in your mind and imagine them flowing out of you and away as you exhale, leaving your mind calmer and clearer. Whenever you notice that you have forgotten your counting or you are no longer looking at the object you chose for your visual focus, first notice where your mind has gone in case it’s to something important you need to remember (you might want to keep a pad and pen to jot down a word or two as a reminder when things occur to you.) Then gently move your mind back to your counting. Don’t try to keep things out of your mind – just bring your mind back to your counting, again and again if needed.

Mantra style.  Select a mantra that feels agreeable and useful to you.  You can find one by looking at the index at this link, or by doing a web search for “Sanskrit words” or “mantras.” Or even choose a word or phrase in your native language that refers to a quality you want to cultivate. Just as with the counting above, choose an object for your visual focus. On each inhalation, silently repeat your mantra to yourself.  On each exhalation, you can either (1) count the same number for ten numbers as described just above, and then move to a second number for the next set of ten breaths,  or (2) just repeat the mantra on your inhalation and let your mind go silent on the exhalation, allowing the thoughts that have formed themselves to flow away.  When you notice that you are no longer repeating your mantra, return your thoughts to it. DO NOT, however, use repetition of the mantra to try to “push” other thoughts, feelings, or sensations out of your mind. You could end up pushing out things you very much need to notice or hear. Just notice where your mind has gone, jot down a reminder of that if it’s important and you wish to, then bring your attention back to your mantra. Here too, ten snapshot breaths are a good way to end your session.


OR, you can regard the starting sequence and a period of concentrative meditation as the first two stages of your sitting, and then go on to mindfulness / witness consciousness meditation or to a contemplative meditation.

Part I of this series of five mini-articles offered an introduction to what meditation can do for you and presented a useful meditation “starting sequence.”

Part II describes concentrative meditation.

 Part III will describe witness consciousness (yogic term) and  mindfulness meditation (Buddhist term) and They overlap considerably but not totally. (not yet posted)

 Part IV will describe contemplative meditation. (not yet posted)

 Part V will be on everyday awareness practices. (not yet posted)

All this is just “the essence.” If you’d like this and many advanced practices all in one handy place, you will enjoy Matrix Meditations, by Victor Daniels and Kooch N. Daniels. Click on the cover to go to the book’s home page. You can get the e-book for under $10.00, and used copies online for little more than postage. Of course, a brand-new hardcopy (from your local bookstore, the publisher, or another online vendor) is a treasure. 


Matrix Meditations: A 16 Week Program to Developing the Heart - Mind Connection

Matrix Meditations: A 16 Week Program to Developing the Heart – Mind Connection