Mindfulness

Mindful among the mindless, awake while others dream, swift as the race horse he outstrips the field, by watching. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

Mindfulness is the practice of open attention to the external and internal experiences occurring in the present moment.[ii] It is often cultivated through meditation but can be practiced in any situation. Mindfulness is fundamental to the practice of Buddhism, and it is a source of Shakespeare’s genius. Though he never cultivated mindfulness within the context of a Buddhist practice, Shakespeare was extraordinarily mindful of his surroundings, his fellow creatures, and his interior mental states.

He must have been mindful of his surroundings, because his writings abound in details drawn from nature. No fewer than fifty-seven species of birds inhabit his works,[iii] together with 180 flowers, trees, fruits and vegetables.[iv]

Shakespeare’s masterful description of nature is exemplified in Hamlet when Queen Gertrude begins her report of the drowning of Ophelia.

There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream. (IV.vii.190-191)

The essayist, William Hazlitt, has noted that:

The leaves of the willow are, in fact, white underneath, and it is this part of them which would appear “hoary” in the reflection of the brook.[v]

Details such as the white undersides of willow leaves reflected in a brook bring nature convincingly to life. Only a mindful observer would notice such details, remember them, and turn them into poetry.

The Bard must also have focused intently on the people around him, soaking up their personal quirks, idiosyncrasies, and manners of speech.  Shakespeare’s close observation of human behavior has given us: the dissolute, fat, and loveable old reprobate, Falstaff; the silly, prattling, amoral Nurse of Romeo and Juliet; the vain and puritanical Malvolio of Twelfth Night; and the officious, meddling, and garrulous Polonius of Hamlet. It is not only for such “character” parts that Shakespeare stands out. In character after character Shakespeare gives us personalities that are as convincingly real as the people we know. To quote Hazlitt again:

Each of his characters is as much itself, and as absolutely independent of the rest, as well as of the author, as if they were living persons, not fictions of the mind.[vi]

In the following lines from Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare has Ulysses praise the very quality of mindfulness, the “watchful state,” that the playwright so well exemplifies:

The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plotus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deep… (III.iii.205-207)

The watchful state misses nothing. It discerns every grain of the gold of Plotus, the Greek God of wealth. What Shakespeare describes here is not only mindfulness of outward appearances but also mindfulness that looks within and plumbs the depths. From such a “watchful state” he excels not only at depicting nature and outward human behavior, but perhaps more importantly, at depicting the operation of the mind. This is illustrated by Sonnet 113.

Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind;
And that which governs me to go about
Doth part his function and is partly blind,
Seems seeing, but effectually is out;
For it no form delivers to the heart
Of bird of flower, or shape, which it doth latch:
Of his quick objects hath the mind no part,
Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch:
For if it see the rudest or gentlest sight,
The most sweet favour or deformed’st creature,
The mountain or the sea, the day or night,
The crow or dove, it shapes them to your feature:
Incapable of more, replete with you,
My most true mind thus makes mine eye untrue.

The speaker tells us that his obsession with the absent friend to whom the poem is addressed is so great that he is “partly blind” to the world around him. So preoccupied is his mind with the friend, that birds, flowers, shapes, mountains, seas, day, and night are seen by the eye but do not register in the heart or mind; they only appear as the form of his friend.

If mindfulness is the practice of open attention to what is happening in the present moment, it might seem at first that Shakespeare is offering an example of how not to be mindful. On further consideration we can see that this is not the case, because mindfulness includes attention to our internal as well as our external experiences. The speaker mindfully observes and movingly conveys the state of mind that constitutes his internal experience in the moment, even if that experience is one of obliviousness to the outside world. He might be oblivious to the birds and flowers, but he is mindfully observant of the operation of his mind.

Shakespeare’s greatness as a playwright owes much to his insight into the operations of the mind, as we will see in the following section.

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[i] Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 9.

[ii] Kabat-Zinn, Jon (1994), Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review, by Ruth A. Baer, p. 4. available at http://www.wisebrain.org/papers/MindfulnessPsyTx.pdf

[iii] Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare: General Q & A, Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (26 May, 2016) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/faq/birdsshakespeare.html>

[iv] de Bray, Lys. Fantastic Garlands: An Anthology of Flowers and Plants from Shakespeare. (Poole, Dorset: Blandford Books, Ltd., 1982), ix.

[v] Hazlitt, William, Shakespeare and Milton (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1923), 2.

[vi] Ibid. 3.