Which symbol represents mindfulness?
July 3, 2007 8:20 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a symbol that represents mindfulness, as in "awareness of the present moment without conceptualizing it or adding anything to it".

So far I've come up with the following ones:
  • A bodhi leaf. However, this seems to be linked to the Buddha reaching enlightenment. Even though his teachings aren't really religious, I'd like to avoid the Buddhist connection.
  • An eye. However, vision is only one way of experiencing reality; I'd like to have a symbol that encompasses all senses.
Any suggestions?
posted by koenie to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
A burning candle
posted by pmbuko at 8:35 AM on July 3, 2007

posted by Webbster at 8:50 AM on July 3, 2007

Two concept you describe sounds very similar to the martial concept of zanshin. The term, which is Japanese, literally translates as "left-over mind".

Zanshin is the concept of lingering awareness - the awareness that remains immediately after a martial situation has been encountered, wherein the martial artist is relaxed but ready for whatever may occur immediately after encountering an opponent.

More information can be found on Wikipedia, along with the kanji that expresses the concept.
posted by ellF at 8:54 AM on July 3, 2007

posted by xo at 9:00 AM on July 3, 2007

A lotus flower.

A person in lotus pose - could find a way to abstract this visually.
posted by warble at 9:06 AM on July 3, 2007

Best answer: The Ensō or Great Empty Circle:

Ensō is perhaps the most common subject of Japanese calligraphy, symbolizing enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and the void; it is also an "expression of the moment".
posted by vytae at 9:19 AM on July 3, 2007

Further explanation - I'm not sure how much of this I'm remembering from what I've read/was told, and how much of this I've made up. The Ensō is a fantastic symbol that you can read a lot into.

As a circle, it is all-encompassing, as you would want your awareness to be. The circle is also a symbol of the cyclical nature of life, but as traditional calligraphic representations of it often don't quite complete the circle, it can also represent that things aren't as cut-and-dried as we might like.

The fact that the circle is empty represents that you are not conceptualizing or adding anything to your experience. Things are just as they are.

There is a stark simplicity to the circle that provides much of its beauty, but at the same time the vagaries of the calligraphic art mean that there are subtle details that also add to its beauty. In this way it is much like life, and I find it to be an inspiration to be aware of and appreciate all of life at many levels.
posted by vytae at 9:27 AM on July 3, 2007

a symbol that represents the antithesis of symbol-making?


on the other hand, I like that phrase 'open your mind as wide as the sky'

so maybe a symbol of the sky?
posted by DarkForest at 9:31 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

2nd enso, didn't know there was a name for it, but that's what i was going to describe. there are somewhat different looking versions of it around, on a similar theme.
posted by lgyre at 9:51 AM on July 3, 2007

Eye of the medicine man.

I think you could could also get a lot of mileage out of a person in lotus/meditation pose with a third eye on their forehead, even though it's not a symbol so much as just a drawing.
posted by anaelith at 9:53 AM on July 3, 2007

Your request is a little contradictory. A symbol is X representing Y. You portray one phenomena in the language of another to introduce it and make it understandable. In the process you distort it. Since awareness is about countering this trend of the mind, when most people talk about it as a subject they avoid using a consistent set of images.

Because of this I don't think you can do much better than the Enso. Its association with awareness is culturally dependent. If you want a symbol that doesn't rely on a given culture maybe a plain empty circle would work. However, I wouldn't expect anyone else to have an idea of what you were making reference to.

Some Zen practitioners are been fond of clouds and water, others mountains and rivers. But these aren't symbols that directly transfer meaning.
posted by BigSky at 10:18 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't think there are any, really. Being fully mindful is the opposite of something that can be represented as something else--it is being totally present. A symbol of that would be a reminder of something which one cannot be reminded of.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:29 AM on July 3, 2007

On preview, what everyone else said. Where'd all these Buddhists come from?
posted by Ironmouth at 10:30 AM on July 3, 2007

the ouroboros (the snake eating its tail represents among other things that each moment created is the destruction of the previous moment: so there is only the present)
posted by Furious Fitness at 10:33 AM on July 3, 2007

Response by poster: a symbol that represents the antithesis of symbol-making?

Your request is a little contradictory.

I don't think there are any, really.

Yes, you're all right, of course, the very concept of a symbol contradicts the naked experience. However, I find this very amusing, like that story about people watching the finger instead of the object it points towards. However, this contradiction does not necessarily imply that such a symbol is useless. I came into contact with this practice via words, which are also symbolic in nature, yet they helped me experience naked reality. Similarly, I intend to use the symbol as a reminder for a different way of being.

Thanks for the enso suggestion, it comes pretty close to what I had hoped.
posted by koenie at 12:25 PM on July 3, 2007

posted by Alabaster at 4:37 PM on July 3, 2007


posted by Alabaster at 4:42 PM on July 3, 2007

Thanks to the OP for asking the question, and to everyone who mentioned 'enso'. I've put it up as my desktop, and it really is a peaceful thing to look at.
posted by happyturtle at 1:25 AM on July 4, 2007

My first thought was also the ensho (and I similarly wasn't aware of the Japanese name).
Perhaps another possibility would be one of the traditional mudras; I'm thinking particularly of the dhyana mudra.
However, this contradiction does not necessarily imply that such a symbol is useless. I came into contact with this practice via words, which are also symbolic in nature, yet they helped me experience naked reality. Similarly, I intend to use the symbol as a reminder for a different way of being.
This reminds me of a reply I saw by a teacher when asked if the use of Buddha images wasn't tantamount to idolatry and God-worship - the teacher said something very similar to you; that they should serve as reminders of right practice and any veneration should be of that spirit in ourselves rather than of any historical personage or supernatural power.
posted by Abiezer at 7:05 AM on July 4, 2007

Those who mention OM or AUM are close to what you are looking for.
Wikipedia has a common, classical glyph image at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Om.svg
There are literally dozens of meanings to the Sanskrit word, spelled either way.
My favorite has to do with Aum being the Supreme Mantra, the Mother of All Mantras.
Mantras are not necessarily something we repeat, over and over, perhaps 108 times.
They are much more.
Aum incorporates the sounds of the three fundamental forces of the Universe, the gunas [the three fundamental forces of this Universe, of which ALL of this Universe is a play].
What I mean is that all of the created Universe is a play of these three forces, described sometimes as tendencies. In the perspective of Ayurveda, especially related to the constitutional types, or doshas, tendencies is an appropriate meaning.
Yet, at a more organic, elemental level, they are not tendencies, they are the forces themselves. There are only these three (noted: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guna ; http://www.britannica.com/eb/topic-249385/guna). So, when you either look at the glyph or say the word, especially each of the three sounds, you are given these three in the construction of the glyph itself or the sound itself.
Another powerful image is the sri yantra.
posted by Himavat at 7:29 PM on February 26, 2008

« Older Advice for starting a tenure track science job.   |   Babymoon in Charleston: please suggest eats and... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.