Experimentation and Liberating Insight

Liberating insight comes from testing, experimenting. This is how we learn about the world to begin with. If we weren’t active creatures, we’d have no understanding of the world at all. Things would pass by, pass by, and we wouldn’t know how they were connected because we’d have no way of influencing them to see which effects came from changing which causes. It’s because we act in the world that we understand the world.

The same holds true with the mind. You can’t just sit around hoping that a single mental quality—mindfulness, acceptance, contentment, oneness—is going to do all the work. If you want to learn about the potentials of the mind, you have to be willing to play—with sensations in the body, with qualities in the mind. That’s when you come to understand cause and effect.

And that requires all your powers of intelligence—and this doesn’t mean just book intelligence. It means your ability to notice what you’re doing, to read the results of what you’ve done, and to figure out ingenious ways of doing things that cause less and less suffering and stress: street smarts for the noble path. Mindfulness allows you to see these connections because it keeps reminding you always to stay with these issues, to stay with the causes until you see their effects. But mindfulness alone can’t do all the work. You can’t fix the soup simply by dumping more pepper into it. You add other ingredients, as they’re needed.

This is why it’s best not to load the word mindfulness with too many meanings or to assign it too many functions. Otherwise, you can’t clearly discern when a quality like contentment is useful and when it’s not, when you need to bring things to oneness and when you need to take things apart.

So keep the spices on your shelf clearly labeled, and learn through practice which spice is good for which purpose. Only then can you develop your full potential as a cook.

Source: Based on “Mindfulness Defined”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 1 December 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/mindfulnessdefined.html (Title of article changed by Alexander Peck.)