I have become confused about the practice of mindfulness. When one engages in any activity mindfully, do you step back a bit from yourself and, for example, realize "I'm washing the dishes" or do you become so engrossed in washing the dishes that you don't even know you are observing yourself wash the dishes? I don't know if I said that clearly, but the second is more like the idea of "being in the flow." *
Perhaps it will help to identify three different kinds of meditation: Samatha, Vipassana, and Shikantaza. In Samatha meditation, you focus the mind on an object; the purpose of this is to teach the mind to concentrate. This concentration calms the mind. In Vipassana, you cultivate "bare awareness": you notice what the mind is doing without any judgment or evaluating. This awareness is mindfulness, a state of relaxed, insightful attention that leads to freedom.
In Zen's Shikantaza (what many people mean when they use the term "zazen"), there is no object of meditation, nothing you intend to pay attention to. This leads to realization of that emptiness which is fullness.
Vipassana and Shikantaza have the same purpose, but Samatha is more limited. It's necessary in order to practice the others, but they are the principal tools for the awakening that the Gautama was talking about when he called himself "Buddha" which means, one who is awake.
For more on Vipassana, see Mindfulness In Plain English, by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana (here are my bibliography comments on the book) a book which the author has made available completely online as well as in print. Particularly relevant to this question I think are Chapters 13, "Mindfulness (Sati)" and 14, "Mindfulness Versus Concentration."
I think perhaps when you become so engrossed in washing the dishes that you lose awareness of all else, you are using Samatha. But there are also similar states, where we are swept away by something, that are closer to addiction. It's popular to value "going with the flow" but I think it's important to realize that in neither of these two cases are we Awake.
*This question came from Cynthia Webb on 11 February 2002, on The Karma Kafe, the support-group email list of Amazenji, the womyn's Zen center.
©copyright Catherine Holmes Clark, 2002; last updated 9 March 2002