LIFE: in the Frame of Mindfulness
2010 Dhamma Talk Series
Notes on the first talk:
A Matter of Mindfulness
The theme this year – Mindfulness – is a hot topic in the world of psychology and therapy. The other hot topic by the way, is consciousness … but as yet the field of study has failed to investigate the highly specific model of consciousness found in Buddhism.
The Buddha was quite well versed in the philosophies of his time, and had likely studies the Vedas in depth. He had the idea of the ‘Amata’ or deathless – which is an aspect of existence that does not ‘die’. This is not immortality of the body. It should be quite clear that people’s bodies cannot last forever. But more importantly it does not mean immortality of the mind either – in Buddhism it is a fundamental teaching that the mind is also impermanent.
Still, there is a quality that can be discovered and touched, that is unchanging, or in Buddhist terms ‘Unconditioned’. This is enlightenment.
It’s all well and good hearing about it, and learning all kinds of hymns and vedas dedicated to this ‘Amata’, but how to actually see it and know it directly? Until that point it is just a philosophy.
The message of this enlightenment had disseminated throughout Asia and Europe with the Ariyan Peoples, who had a highly specified tradition of story telling. It’s important to recognise that this idea needed to be around – if you never heard of it, or the path of practise, there would probably not be anyone attaining and teaching it.
The Buddha then, set out to pursue the other main spiritual tradition of the time, the Samana life – that of a renunciate living in the forest. This tradition predates the Ariyans arrival in India, and seemed focussed on emulating the life of forest animals, with all kinds of ascetic practices. By the Buddha’s time it had developed into a vast array of groups and practises.
When ascetic practises failed to reveal anything ultimate, the Buddha abandoned them and attained enlightenment by himself under the Bodhi tree.
Shortly afterwards, having been invited to teach what he had discovered he declared
Open for those who [wish to] hear are the doors to the deathless (Amata)
The Pali Text Society makes a note here “the ‘quest’ in folklore and in the great early religious traditions alike is for immortality, the undying. Early Buddhism is in line with these traditions”
The Buddha also points out at this point that
this Dhamma won by me, is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand, peaceful, excellent… but for a generation that delights in sense pleasure, it is hard to understand – that is the calming of habitual tendencies, renunciation of attachment, destruction of craving, dispassion, stopping, nirvana.
There is a body of modern intellectual ‘seekers’ who try and teach that sense desires should be indulged, and that ‘Buddhism’ should not be the exclusive realm of renunciate ordained Sangha. Well, you don’t have to be ordained, but Buddhism is all about attaining to that which lies beyond mere sense pleasures. Too many people turn Buddhism, and other religions into a philosophy.
One way to describe this importance of the practical path, is an ‘orthopraxy’ vs an ‘orthodoxy’.
An orthodoxy is a set of teachings that should be believed. Emphasis is on understanding correctly and accepting.
An orthopraxy is a way of practise. It is concerned with the right way to practise, and the right action to follow.
This is why Ajahn Jayasaro calls Buddhism an ‘education-system, not a belief-system’ – something we have invited him to talk about on November 2nd 2010.
The Difficulty of Teaching
What the ego creates, is more ego. Swapping one set of ideals for another is still just an activity of the ego, or self-centric mind. Yet how else can change be made, how else can you come to something new?
Worldly values focus on learning, exams, qualifications, husband/wife/family, jobs, pensions …. all of which are fine and not at all blameworthy.
Swapping these for spiritual values however, is still an activity of the ego. Do you want to be a spiritual guru? Do you think you can have endless compassion? Or unconditional loving kindness? Or a real direct knowledge of life after death .. or some other such thing? What the ego can gain is just a set of ideas, a set of opinions. And that is what orthodoxy is all about.
So we need a tool. Something that can make a change that the ego cannot envision. Buddhism is all about tools. Practical tools that will work on the willing participant. The Buddha said that if you focus on the right aspects of experience, wisdom will arise. It is Wisdom that does the work for you.
If for example you focus your attention on what you like, what you want, you will have increased desire for those things. You are fostering desire, not wisdom. If you focus on what you don’t like, you will develop the angry, non-accepting mind. If you focus on your fears, you will develop jealousy and grasping.
Focussing on the right aspects, the mind naturally changes and grows.
The main tool of Buddhism, is called Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the almost universal translation of the word Sati-sampajannya. There are other better translations, but ‘mindfulness’ is the one that has stuck.
Some descriptions of mindfulness :
*Seeing and knowing what is happening in the present moment
*’Witnessing’ the body and mind.
*A non-judgemental acceptance and willingness to experience.
There are many such definitions, that can be googled up.
‘Sati’ really means to recall, or remembering. It is not the same as memory – which has a much wider meaning (sannya in the Pali), but is one aspect of it. It is the deliberate calling of something to your mind. So for example, marana-sati is ‘mindfulness of death’ or keeping in mind your own mortality (as a practise to set proper priorities). You can call different things to mind.
‘Sampajannya’ is the feeling of awareness. In English we might say the feeling of being ‘conscious’, but as the word ‘consciousness’ has a different and very specific meaning in Buddhism we should stick to awareness.
Most of the time, you are caught up in what you are aware of. The feeling of ‘yourself’ is lost. Take a chess player – totally absorbed in the game. The chess player is highly conscious, and acutely aware of the game. Awareness itself is different. You know yourself as present. In fact everyone has many moments of this awareness every day, but because it is not pointed out, you don’t really notice it.
It is like gravity – no one noticed it until Newton. Or like the Greek [which one was it?] who first realised that air is a substance. Awareness is always there, but until you talk about it, teach it, look for it, it will be overlooked.
Focussing on awareness, you separate the object of mind from the observing of it. So you see the desiring mind, rather than just what you desire. You see the angry or complaining thinking, rather than just being caught in what you think etc.
It may be uncomfortable at first, to be aware of yourself. Humans like to be absorbed in things. Conversations, movies, books…. you feel more comfortable when you are not aware of the subject, you yourself (no need to get confused with non-self, this will become clear in other talks).
This ability to step back from your experience and observe what is actually happening is what we develop with mindfulness practise. Over the last decade it has become an important therapeutic tool in psychology – but stripped of its original context. There has been a lot of research into it, with proven results.
Look up the MBSR program for the longest running study. Effects on blood pressure, gene expression, healing and a variety of physical markers can be measured and catalogued. One study found that treatment of cirrhosis is 4x faster if the patients follow mindfulness practise while receiving treatment. Cortisol, the stress hormone that dampens down your digestive and immune systems, is measurably reduced by mindfulness practise. The medical profession has paid attention and there are a number of books being published on mindfulness from their perspective. The Mindful Manifesto is one, and you can even pay for courses in mindfulness via their website (Buddhism has been teaching it for free for 2500 years!).
There are lots of guides to practising mindfulness meditation around. There are different systems, but don’t get confused between them. The method varies, but the quality itself is what is developed.
The most common way to develop mindfulness in meditation is to use an object of attention like the breathing. Focus on it. As the attention wanders away, bring it back. It is the catching of the mind that wanders that is important – so the more times you catch it, the better. Don’t worry about absorbing into the breathing too much. It is a practise of interrupting your usual tendency to get absorbed in activity.
Coming back to the breath you can then observe your object of attention – observe the thought that is trying to get your attention. Observe the pain that is trying to distract you. Observe the sleepiness or inherent tiredness in the mind. From observation comes wisdom – this is real. There is no orthodox set of beliefs needed here – you are directly observing your own experience.
You can see this process of detaching from the object of attention, and recalling into mind awareness (=mindfulness). This is detachment in Buddhism. It is immediate. It is not some philosophy that you should try to force fit on to your life.
So many people think that ‘attachment’ is a bad thing ….. if your kids come home hungry you don’t tell them to feed themselves because, hey man, you are not attached. You don’t fail to turn up for work because you don’t want any attachments! You still live and act in the world exactly as you did before, but internally you have this willingness and ability to observe, or witness what is happening in your body and mind directly.
We have skipped through several different topics …. many of which deserve a lot more detailed attention. Not least, the method of mindfulness meditation. But the idea is to get an overview of what mindfulness is, why it is important in Buddhism, and what kind of effects it has.
Over the next 5 weeks, the Dhamma Talk Series will go into more details and explore some of the fascinating insights that come from this practise. It is all a Matter of Mindfulness.