|Thai meditation hut, or kuti, turned into a devotional shrine (Richard-Perry/flickr)|
Friday, July 25, 2014
What is Mindfulness Meditation? (video)
(meditationrelaxclub) New Age mantra relaxation music for the early stages of meditation
What does it mean to be mindful of the breath? It is something very simple: keeping the breath in mind. How do we keep remembering (which is the literal meaning of sati) the breath each time we breathe in, each time we breathe out, and -- during intensive practice -- all the time in between?
The British scholar who coined the translation of the Pali word sati as “mindfulness” was probably influenced by the Anglican prayer to be ever mindful of the needs of others -- in other words, to always keep others' needs in mind. Even though the word “mindful” was probably drawn from a Christian context, the Buddha himself defined sati as the ability to remember (be vigilant, conscientious, conscious, and have presence of mind), illustrating its function in meditation practice with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (satipatthanas).
“And what is the faculty of sati? A meditator, a disciple of the noble (arya, the enlightened) ones, is mindful, highly attentive, remembering, able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago. [And here begins the Four Foundations of Mindfulness formula:] One remains focused on the body in and of itself -- ardent, alert, and vigilant -- setting aside greed and grief with regard to the world. One remains focused on feelings (sensations not emotions, which come under formations or sankaras) in and of themselves... the mind in and of itself... mental objects (or qualities) of themselves -- ardent, alert, and vigilant -- setting aside greed and grief with regard to the world” (SN 48.10).
The full discussion of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (DN 22) starts with instructions on the simplest exercise of 14 mentioned to be ever mindful of the breath.
Directions such as “bring bare attention to the breath,” or “accept the breath,” or whatever else modern teachers tell us that mindfulness is supposed to do, are actually functions for other qualities in the mind. They're not automatically a part of sati but should nevertheless be brought along wherever they are appropriate.
One quality that is always appropriate in establishing mindfulness is being watchful or alert, attentive or vigilant. The Pali word for alertness (sampajañña) is another term that is often misunderstood. It does not mean being choicelessly aware of the present or comprehending the present. Examples in the Pali canon show that "clear comprehension" (sampajañña) means being aware of what we are doing in the movements of the body as well as the movements in the mind.
After all, if we are going to gain insight into how we cause suffering (disappointment, distress, dissatisfaction, ill, woe), our primary focus always has to be on what we are actually doing. This is why mindfulness and alertness should always be paired as we meditate.
In the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutra (Satipatthana Sutta, literally the "Discourse on the Fourfold Setting Up of Mindfulness") they are combined with a third quality, ardency. Ardency means being intent on what we are doing, doing our best to do it skillfully. This does NOT mean straining and overexerting -- which is out of balance and retards and often derails practice -- just that we are persistent, dedicated to continuously developing skillful habits and as well as abandoning unskillful ones.
Bear in mind that, in the Noble Eightfold Path to freedom, right mindfulness grows out of right effort, which itself has four features. Right effort is exerting ourselves skillfully (with balanced effort). Mindfulness helps that effort along by reminding us to stick with it without lapsing, without letting it drop. We would not be able to sustain overexertion and would instead lapse, but balanced effort can be maintained until it is brought to fruition, to culmination, to perfection.
All three of these qualities get their focus from what the Buddha called "wise attention" (yoniso manasikara). Wise attention is appropriate attention, not bare attention, which is mindfulness free of evaluation, thinking, and judging. The Buddha discovered that the way we attend to things is determined by what we see as important, such as the questions we bring to the practice, the problems we want the practice to solve. No act of attention is ever completely bare.
If there were no problems in life we could open ourselves up to choiceless awareness of whatever came along. But the fact is there is a big problem in the middle of everything we do -- the suffering that results from acting in ignorance. This is why the Buddha does not tell us to view each moment with a beginner's eyes. We have got to keep the issue of suffering and its cessation ever in mind.
Otherwise inappropriate attention will get in the way, focusing on questions like, “Who am I?” “Do I have a self?” -- questions that deal in terms of being and identity. Such questions, according to the Buddha, lead us straight into a meandering thicket of views soon stuck on thorns.
The questions that lead to freedom, on the other hand, focus on comprehending suffering, letting go of the cause of suffering, realizing that there is indeed freedom from suffering, and developing the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.
Our desire for answers to these four ennobling questions is what makes us alert to our actions -- our thoughts, words, and deeds -- and ardent to perform them skillfully (beneficial or at least harmless to ourselves and others).
Mindfulness is what keeps the perspective of wise attention in mind. Modern research in psychology shows that attention comes in discrete (separate, distinguishable, composite) moments. We can be attentive to something for only a very short period of time and then we have to remind ourselves, moment after moment, to return to it if we want to keep being attentive. In other words, continuous attention -- the type that can observe things over time -- has to be stitched together from short intervals. This is what mindfulness is for. It keeps the object of our attention and the purpose of our attention in mind.
Popular books on meditation, however, offer a lot of other definitions of mindfulness, a lot of other duties it is supposed to fulfill -- so many that the poor word gets stretched completely out of shape, becomes a catchall term, and loses meaning. In some cases, it even gets defined as enlightenment or awakening, as in the phrase, “A moment of mindfulness is a moment of awakening” -- something the Buddha never said nor would say, because mindfulness is conditioned whereas nirvana is not.
These are not merely minor matters for nitpicking scholars to argue over. If we do not see the differences among the qualities we are bringing to our meditation, they glom together, making it hard for liberating insight to arise. If we decide that one of the factors on the path to enlightenment is awakening itself, it is like reaching the middle of a road and then falling asleep right there. We will never get to the end of the road, and in the meantime we are bound to get run over by old age, sickness, and death (which are also manifestations of suffering). So we need to get our directions straight, and that requires, among other things, knowing what mindfulness is and is not.
Some even refer to mindfulness as “affectionate attention” or “compassionate attention,” but affection and compassion are not the same as mindfulness. They are separate things. If we bring them to our meditation, let us be clear about the fact that they are acting in addition to mindfulness, because skill in meditation requires seeing when qualities like compassion are helpful and when they are not. As the Buddha says, there are times when affection is a cause of suffering, so we must watch out.
Sometimes mindfulness is even defined as appreciating the moment for all the little pleasures it can offer, the taste of a raisin in the sun, the feel of a warm cup of tea in our hands, and so on. In the Buddha's vocabulary, this kind of appreciation is called contentment. Contentment is useful when we are experiencing physical hardship, but it is not always useful in the area of the mind. In fact, the Buddha once said that the secret to his own enlightenment was that he did not allow himself to rest contented with whatever attainment he had so far reached. He kept reaching for something higher when there was something higher yet to attain until there was no higher to reach. So contentment has a time and place: coming too soon, it may way derail our efforts. Mindfulness, not mismatched with contentment, can help keep that fact in mind.
Other teachers define mindfulness as “non-reactivity” or “radical acceptance.” If we look for these words in the Buddha's vocabulary, the closest we find are equanimity and patience. Equanimity means learning to set aside our preferences so that we can watch what is actually there. Patience is the ability to refrain from getting worked up over the things we dislike, to stick with difficult situations even when they do not resolve as quickly as we would like them to. But in establishing mindfulness we stay with, tolerate, and stand by unpleasant things not only to accept them but to watch and understand them. Once we have clearly seen that a particular state, like aversion or lust, is harmful to the mind/heart, we do not stay patient or equanimous about it. We have to make whatever effort is needed to rid ourselves of it and to nourish skillful qualities in its place by bringing in other factors of the Noble Eightfold Path like right resolve and right effort. More