The Dhamma & Modern Mindfulness

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This is an article on the similarities and significant differences between The Dhamma & Modern Mindfulness.

A dictionary definition of mindfulness is:

1. The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.

2. A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique. (Credit Google Search)

Modern applications of mindfulness would generally agree with these definitions. It is beneficial to be aware of what is occurring as life unfolds, although an over-emphasis on being mindful of the present moment can develop additional distraction and tension. As anicca, impermanence, is the defining characteristic of life, anything that would promote clinging, including clinging to the “present moment” will lead to further confusion, delusion, and stress.

There are two formal applications of mindfulness that have been studied for their effectiveness in developing heightened well-being while diminishing pain, anxiety, and stress.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, MBSR, begins a definition of mindfulness first by describing meditation as “paying attention in a systematic way for no reason other than to be awake.” He then describes mindfulness as “presence of heart.” MBSR uses various meditation techniques to develop “paying attention in a systematic way” to bring awareness to habitual thought patterns that both develop stress and contribute to stress that is present.

MBSR also uses body-based movements to address the effects of a sedentary life and to bring awareness to the body. This is a very simplistic description of a system that has proven highly effective in diminishing the effects of stress and minimizing chronic and acute physical and emotional pain, and has proven effective in treating depression and anxiety.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy uses many of the same techniques to specifically address depression and ways to re-pattern thinking. MBCT has also proven to be very effective in its application of mindfulness.

The Buddha also used very specific applications of mindfulness, “sati” in the ancient Pali language that the original teachings of the Buddha were first preserved. He first referred to sati not as “Sati Meditation” or Mindfulness Meditation, but as what to be mindful of while engaging in Shamatha-Vipassana meditation.

Shamatha-Vipassana meditation is the meditation method that the Buddha consistently taught for the 45 years of his teaching the Dhamma, the path to human awakening. He taught shamatha-vipassana meditation within a larger framework known as the Eightfold Path. Meditation is one of the eight factors of this path.

The Buddha taught mindfulness, sati, not so much as an action of the mind but as a quality of mind. In the Satipatthana Sutta, the sutta on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha taught to “remain mindful of the breath in the body, ardent and aware, free of greed and distress in relation to the world; remain mindful of feelings and thoughts arising and fading away, free of greed and distress in relation to the world; remain mindful of the quality of mind, free of greed and distress in relation to the world.”

In this sutta the Buddha teaches a specific application of how to develop samadhi, deep concentration or non-distraction by first being mindful of the breath in the body. In meditation, as the mind quiets and feelings and thoughts arise and fade away, remain with a quality of mind of dispassionate observance, free of attaching a “self” to feeling or thoughts, or the need to analyze feelings or thoughts. When attachment is noted, return focus to the breath. This interrupts the self-reflective pattern of thinking that originates and proliferates stress in a direct and effective manner. Very quickly the ability is developed to then observe the over-all quality of the mind.

These are aspects of a Shamatha-Vipassana meditation practice. As you sit and place awareness on the sensation of breathing, your mind quiets. As your mind quiets a dispassionate observance of feelings, physical or emotional, becomes possible. Insight into the impermanence of all things mental and physical arises.

Meditating in this manner deepens concentration. A well-concentrated mind can than be supportive of, and be supported by, the other seven factors of the Eightfold Path.

In the Appamada Sutta King Pasenadi asked the Buddha:

“Is there one quality that develops understanding (of The Four Noble Truths) both now in this life and for all time?” The Buddha responded: There is one quality that develops understanding in this life and for all time. That quality is mindfulness.”

The Buddha then offered this verse:

For one who desires
long life, health, nibbana
The wise praise mindfulness
of the Eightfold Path.

When mindful and wise
You develop understanding
Now and for all time.

By breaking through
To your own understanding
You are called enlightened.

The buddha used mindfulness repeatedly throughout the forty-five years of his teaching the Dhamma and always in two general ways: The meditation method that the Buddha taught, Shamatha-Vipassana, is grounded in mindfulness of the breath-in-the-body, feelings, and thoughts, and the impermanence of these three (of four) foundations of mindfulness. The fourth foundation, being mindful of mind is holding in mind a dispassionate view of the first three and the present quality of mind.

Reaction to feelings and thoughts brings disturbance to the mind. Dispassionate observance of feelings and thoughts brings calm and insight.

The Buddha also taught to remain mindful of the Dhamma and in particular The Four Noble Truths, including the Eightfold Path. Relating mindfulness to the Eightfold Path the Buddha taught:

•Be mindful to abandon wrong view and enter and remain in Right View

•Be mindful to abandon wrong intention and enter and remain in Right Intention

•Be mindful to abandon wrong speech and enter and remain in Right Speech

•Be mindful to abandon wrong action and enter and remain in Right Action

•Be mindful to abandon wrong livelihood and enter and remain in Right Livelihood

As mindfulness of The Four Noble Truths develops, agitated or confused mind states will be recognized as a distraction from mindfulness. As Dhamma practice deepens all impermanent distractions will be recognized and abandoned. Eventually, with wholehearted practice of mindfulness of the Dhamma, all causes of confusion and unhappiness will be put aside and lasting peace and happiness will be seen as the abiding quality of a well-concentrated mind.

A more appropriate definition of mindfulness in this context is to dispassionately observe what is occurring without distraction. Dispassion is free of any judgement that events should be any different than what is occurring. Distraction is caused by reacting to events with passion, with the desire that events be different than what is occurring.

Mindfulness is to dispassionately hold in mind what is occurring, and to recollect the framework of the Eightfold Path. This then leads to an appropriate mindful presence. If a response is called for the response will be a skillful and compassionate response.

As can be seen, mindfulness as is generally applied brings a more meaningful life experience. The more “clinical’ applications of mindfulness have proven to bring great physical, emotional, and mental benefits.

The entirety of the Buddha’s teachings are to develop a refined way of thinking. The quality and focus of mindfulness as mindfulness is applied to his teachings is to remain mindful, to hold in mind, the Four Noble Truths and The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The second application of mindfulness that the Buddha taught is be mindful of, or to recollect, the Eightfold Path.

These two mutually supportive applications of mindfulness develop the refined thinking that results in recognizing and abandoning all thoughts that would continue stress and unhappiness. The Eightfold Path directly develops the understanding, the wisdom, to know what to be mindful of and what to gently remove focus from.

This type of refined mindfulness is developed by the practice of shamatha-vipassana meditation within the framework of the Eightfold Path. Substituting other types of “mindfulness” meditation, including “mindful walking” will not develop the refined mindfulness of the Dhamma as the context for understanding is lost.

As the refined mindfulness of the Buddha’s teachings is developed, the effectiveness of using appropriate mindfulness becomes apparent. Being mindful of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness brings this quality of mind to shamatha-vipassana mediation.

Being mindful of the Eightfold Path as life occurs develops the refined quality of mindfulness of dispassionate observance to the events of life. Engaging mindfully with life from the framework of the Eightfold Path, insight into impermanence, the ego-self, and the arising and cessation of stress and confusion is developed.

As thoughts and thought-constructs that once were distractions from what is occurring as life unfolds are abandoned, the confusion, delusion and underlying stress and tension are also easily abandoned. A life of lasting peace and happiness is a direct result of the refined mindfulness of the Dhamma.

The Last words of the Buddha, spoken moments before his death:

“Impermanence is relentless, decay inevitable. Work diligently for your own salvation. Mindful you should dwell, clearly comprehending. This I exhort you.”

My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings  (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland and Maurice Walsh, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.

I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.

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