Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Power of Mindfulness (bare attention)

Ven. Nyanaponika Thera; Seth Auberon, Ashley Wells, CC Liu (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly
The best meditation halls are quiet, sparse, bright, orderly, and clean (
The Buddha mindfully walking (sdhammika)
[It all begins with mindfulness. Then mindfulness in another form, as systematic insight practices, brings us to realization and enlightenment. Next comes effort. What are the elements of effort?

The effort will be to sustain mindfulness. But what is "mindfulness"? We hear the word so much, but does anyone ever define it, explain what it is and why it is so vital to enlightenment and the Buddha's teachings?]

The Power of Mindfulness: An Inquiry into the Scope of Bare Attention and the Principal Sources of its Strength
Is mindfulness actually a power in its own right as claimed by the title of this essay? Seen from the viewpoint of the ordinary pursuits of life, it does not seem so.

From that angle mindfulness, or "attention," has a rather modest place among many other seemingly more important mental faculties serving the purpose of variegated wish-fulfillment.
Here, mindfulness means just "to watch one's steps" so that one may not stumble or miss a chance in the pursuit of one's aims. Only in the case of specific tasks and skills is mindfulness sometimes cultivated more deliberately, but here too it is still regarded as a subservient function, and its wider scope and possibilities are not recognized.
Even if one turns to the Buddha's doctrine, the "Dharma," taking only a surface view of the various classifications and lists of mental factors in which mindfulness appears, one may be inclined to regard this faculty just as "one among many."

Again one may get the impression that it has a rather subordinate place and is easily surpassed in significance by other faculties.

Buddha in Burma (Camer30f)
Mindfulness in fact has, if we may personify it, a rather unassuming character. Compared with it, mental factors such as devotion, energy, imagination, and intelligence are certainly more colorful personalities, making an immediate and strong impact on people and situations. Their conquests are sometimes rapid and vast, though often insecure.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is of an unobtrusive nature. Its virtues shine inwardly, and in ordinary life most of its merits are passed on to other mental faculties, which generally receive all of the credit. One must know mindfulness well and cultivate its acquaintance before one can appreciate its value and its silent penetrative influence.
Mindfulness walks slowly and deliberately, and its daily task is of a rather humdrum nature. Yet, where it places its feet it cannot easily be dislodged, and it acquires and bestows true mastery of the ground it covers.
Mental faculties of such a nature, like actual personalities of a similar type, are often overlooked or underrated. In the case of mindfulness, it required a genius like the Buddha to discover the "hidden talent" in the modest garb and to develop the vast inherent power of that potent seed.
It is, indeed, the mark of a genius to perceive and to harness the power of the seemingly small. Here, truly, it happens that "what is little becomes much." A revaluation of values takes place. The standards of greatness and smallness change.
What's so great about mindfulness (sati)?
Through the master mind of the Buddha, mindfulness is finally revealed as the Archimedean point where the vast revolving mass of world suffering is levered out of its twofold anchorage in ignorance and craving.
The Buddha spoke of the power of mindfulness in a very emphatic way:
"Mindfulness, I declare, is all-helpful."
- Samyutta Nikaya, 46:59
"All things can be mastered by mindfulness."
- Anguttara Nikaya, 8:83
Further, there is that solemn and weighty utterance opening and concluding the Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta):
"This is the only [or at least the direct and sure] way, meditators, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of pain and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of nirvana, namely the four foundations of mindfulness."
In ordinary life, if mindfulness (attention) is directed to any object, it is rarely sustained long enough for the purpose of careful and factual observation.

Generally, it is followed immediately by emotional reaction, discriminative thought, reflection, or purposeful action.
In a life and thought governed by the Buddha's teaching, too, mindfulness (sati) is mostly linked with clear comprehension (sampajañña) of the right purpose or suitability of an action and other considerations.
Thus again it is not viewed in itself. But to tap the actual and potential power of mindfulness it is necessary to understand and deliberately cultivate it in its basic, unalloyed form, which we shall call bare attention.
Bare Attention
Golden Buddhas, Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma (JH_1982/

Meditation light show is not mindfulness.
[(Wisdom Quarterly) Bare attention is something we almost never engage in. Instead, we quickly fill up the mind, attention, consciousness, and awareness with discursive thinking, pondering, speculation, worry, fear, aversion, attraction, commenting, and evaluation -- How does this serve me? Bare attention is the opposite, the awareness of something and nothing else, not reacting, not evaluating, not commenting, not judging, not retracting from with aversion, or advancing toward with attraction, but instead just seeing what is there for a sustained period of time. Is it ultimately permanent, pleasant, or personal? These are the questions beyond looking at experience through the lens of the Four Noble Truths. The ultimate problem in life is ignorance. It is on account of ignorance that greed and hatred come to be. The ultimate cure is wisdom, but the immediate antidote is mindfulness. When we are mindful of the present moment and just this, there is no confusion, delusion, wrong view, or ignorance. As soon as we move beyond bare awareness, we begin to enter a thicket of views, and suffering begins.]
By "bare attention" we understand the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception.
It is called "bare" because it attends to the bare facts of a perception without reacting to them by deed, speech, or even mental comment.
Ordinarily, that purely receptive state of mind is, as we said, just a very brief phase of the thought process of which one is often scarcely aware.
Slow down. Sit down. Calm down. Set up mindfulness in front of you.
But in the methodical development of mindfulness aimed at the unfolding of its latent powers, bare attention is sustained for as long a time as one's strength of concentration permits. Bare attention then becomes the key to the meditative practice of the fourfold-setting-up-of-mindfulness (satipatthana), opening the door to mind's mastery and final liberation.
Bare attention is developed in two ways. (1) as a methodical meditative practice with selected objects or (2) as applied, as far as practicable, to the normal events of all day-to-day activities, together with a general attitude of mindfulness and clear comprehension. The details of the practice have been described [in The Heart of Buddhist Meditation], and need not be repeated here.
The primary purpose of this essay is to demonstrate and explain the efficacy of this method, that is, to show the actual power of mindfulness.

Particularly in an age like ours, with its superstitious worship of ceaseless external activity, there will be those who ask: "How can such a passive attitude of mind as that of bare attention possibly lead to the great results claimed for it?"

In reply, one may be inclined to suggest to the questioner not to rely on the words of others, but to put these assertions of the Buddha to the test of personal experience. But those who do not yet know the Buddha's teaching well enough to accept it as a reliable guide may hesitate to take up, without good reasons, a practice that just on account of its radical simplicity [simple but not easy] may appear strange to them.

In the following a number of such "good reasons" are therefore proffered for the reader's scrutiny. They are also meant as an introduction to the general spirit of the foundations of mindfulness (satipatthana) and as pointers to its wide and significant perspectives.

Furthermore, it is hoped that one who has taken up the methodical training will recognize in the following observations certain features of one's own practice and be encouraged to cultivate them deliberately:

Four Sources of Power in Bare Attention
Mindfully walking (Pallabbanerjee/flickr)
We shall now deal with four aspects of bare attention, which are the mainsprings of the power of mindfulness.

They are not the only sources of its strength, but they are the principal ones to which the efficacy of this method of mental development is due. These four are:

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