Mindfulness as a general awareness of the present moment receives a lot of attention these days. This kind of awareness is sometimes labeled "bare attention" or "present moment awareness." Some, however, teach mindfulness as one aspect of a practice that aims to do more. In certain yoga traditions, for instance, the ultimate goal is to still the fluctuations of the mind. Paradoxically, the most effective way to still the mind often requires more than just sitting still, and finding out what methods work requires experimentation. This article explores one method that many people find useful to cultivate mindfulness: the simile of the gatekeeper.
A yogi or meditator using the gatekeeper simile imagines the mind as a city surrounded by a deep moat and strong walls that cannot easily be penetrated. At a single gate leading into the city a wise and competent gatekeeper is posted. The diligent gatekeeper does more than simply pay attention when thieves attempt to enter the city, but rather keeps watch, distinguishing friends from enemies.
The Buddha used this simile of the gatekeeper to represent mindfulness:
"Just as the gatekeeper in the king's frontier fortress is wise, competent, and intelligent, one who keeps out strangers and admits acquaintances, for protecting its inhabitants and for warning off outsiders, so too a noble disciple is mindful, possessing supreme mindfulness and alertness, one who remembers and recollects what was done and said long ago. With mindfulness as his gatekeeper, the noble disciple abandons the unwholesome and develops the wholesome, abandons what is blameworthy and develops what is blameless, and maintains himself in purity." (Aṅguttara Nikāya 7:67)
This simile helps draw attention to the close connection between mindfulness and memory. To be mindful is to have a strong memory. The gatekeeper remembers that enemies — any thoughts about the past or future — are not welcome.
The gatekeeper stays focused on what comes into the city without needing to understand the entire inner-workings of the city. In his 5th century treatise on meditation, the Visuddhimagga ("Path of Purification"), Buddhaghosa describes how the gatekeeper metaphor helps us stay focused on the present moment:
"Just as a gatekeeper does not examine people inside and outside the town, asking, 'Who are you? Where have you come from? Where are you going? What have you got in your hand?' — for those people are not his concern — but he does examine each man as he arrives at the gate, so too, the incoming breaths that have gone inside and the outgoing breaths that have gone outside are not this bhikkhu's concern, but they are his concern each time they arrive at the [nostril] gate itself."
To develop mindfulness requires that we provide the gatekeeper with clear instructions and that we trust the gatekeeper. After telling the gatekeeper to stay focused on the present moment, we trust the gatekeeper to keep out the enemies. The Theravada monk Ajahn Brahm compares the trust we place in the gatekeeper to the trust we place with a taxi driver:
"Instruct your gatekeeper as you would instruct a taxi driver. You just say clearly where you want to go, then you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. You trust the driver knows how to get there. But imagine what would happen if you kept telling the driver every few seconds, 'Go slower ... go faster ... turn left here ... now go into third gear ... look in your mirror ... keep to the right.' After driving a few hundred yards the taxi driver would throw you out."
Training the mind in this way requires effort, but it is also a process of letting go. The results of the effort can lead to a calm mind. The mind is not inherently good or evil, but can be trained to recognize good and evil. It can pay attention to the thoughts that cause suffering and learn not to admit those thoughts. Moving closer to a calm mind requires consistent effort using the right tools, such as, perhaps, the gatekeeper simile.
If you feel inspired to explore this technique, try this guided meditation from Pretty Good Meditation:
Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Complete Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012, p. 1078.
Brahm, Ajahn. Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator's Handbook. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006, p. 55.
Brown, Michael. The Presence Process: A Journey Into Present Moment Awareness. Vancouver: Namaste Publishing, 2010.
Buddhaghosa. The Path of Purification: The Classic Manual of Buddhist Doctrine and Meditation. Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli. 3rd ed. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 2010, p. 275.
Nyanaponika Thera. The Power of Mindfulness: An Inquiry into the Scope of Bare Attention and the Principal Sources of Its Strength. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1986.