The foreground and the background of mindfulness

During a mindfulness meditation we bring our attention to a variety of things: thoughts, sounds, the breath, sensations in the body, emotions. We hold these things in the foreground of our awareness. It is important during mindfulness practise to not create a tension between what we are holding in the foreground of our attention and everything else that is happening. The idea of allowing all other activity, internal and external, to be there in the background is a useful one; we do not try to exclude, for example, sounds from our awareness whilst we try to focus on our breath. To do so would be counterproductive in that it would add tension to the mind rather than be relaxing, and it would be an attempt to deny the present moment by trying to exclude part of it from our awareness; mindfulness is about embracing the present and all that is occurring from moment to moment.

There is a further use of this idea of a background to our awareness. Whilst holding sounds in the foreground of our awareness, for example, we can after a while begin to notice that there is a background to sounds that we can also begin to get a sense of. This background to sounds is a quietness, a silence, from which sounds emerge and then return. This world is a world of opposites and sound can not exist without its opposite of silence. When we become acutely attentive to sounds we will simultaneously begin to be more aware of its opposite – silence.

If we become completely and wholly aware of something we can no longer be within it, we must be outside of it. When we are inside a room we can only see one wall or one corner at a time, we must turn to look at the opposite side of the room and then the first side is no longer within our field of vision; our view is always partial. If we step outside of the room so that we are above and beyond it and adopt a bird’s eye view, then we can see the entire space, all four walls and corners; we are outside the room and so can be aware of its totality.

Similarly, if we can become totally aware of sounds, completely attentive to each and every sound as it comes and goes through our awareness, then we must no longer be within sound, we have stepped beyond sound, without making any effort to do so. By being fully aware of sound we can begin to notice we are somewhere else, we are listening to sounds from a place where there is no sound, from within an experience of silence. We can then shift our awareness slightly so the sounds start to move to the background of our awareness and the silence becomes the foreground; we can begin to allow ourselves to be absorbed by silence.

The same can be experienced with our thoughts. If we have our thoughts in the foreground of our awareness, being extraordinarily attentive to and welcoming of each and every thought that arises and passes through our mind, then we can begin to get a sense of the opposite of thought existing in the background of our awareness. This is an immense inner spaciousness out of which thoughts arise and fall, an emptiness that we can move into the foreground of our awareness, letting our thoughts move into the background. This can lead to a feeling of the mind being utterly free and entirely complete.

Next, take the sense of sight and hold the objects, including our body and the limits of space around us, in the foreground of our awareness. Everything we see, the limited objects and spaces are all held by an unlimited background that we can bring into the foreground of our awareness, an unlimited non-physical consciousnesses that contains all limited physicality.

Hold all the sensations of the present in the foreground of your awareness from moment to moment. Get a sense of how change is the one constant thing as time passes by. Become totally aware of the process of things changing: sounds, thoughts, sensations, all continually in flux, never remaining still. Begin then to get a sense of the background to this foreground awareness of the changing nature of all experience. This background is the opposite of change, it is changelessness, it is timelessness, it is permanence, it is the unchanging fundamental ground of experience and consciousness that is beyond all the senses and beyond all thoughts and beyond all limits. Bring this into the foreground of your awareness and let change move to the background and experience how this brings a feeling of great connectedness and wholeness beyond any sense of separarateness.

This is how the simple act of becoming mindful of whatever is in the foreground of your awareness can lead to deep and transformative meditative experiences of the absolute background of all experience.

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