THE WONDER THAT IS MINDFULNESS
Mindfulness is Big. Today it has become a great buzzword and gained widespread interest and enormous popularity. Googling the word “mindfulness” I came up with 18,800,000 results.
It was 2,500 years ago that the Buddha first made mindfulness the seventh factor of his Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha called it "Right Mindfulness" (samma-sati). Mindfulness has since come a very long way and has been taught, studied, learned and practised in a variety of cultures worldwide.
Three American spiritual seekers, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg, returning from Asia to the United States in the mid seventies, started making mindfulness popular in the West when they led vipassana retreats and established the now world renowned Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts.
In 1979 Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn launched his groundbreaking Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the Stress Reduction Clinic in the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Over the years MBSR has become hugely popular and spread worldwide with many instructors having been trained to teach the art of mindful living.
Many famous Buddhist teachers such as the late Mahasi Sayadaw, Sayadaw U Pandita, Dipa Ma, Goenka, Munindra-ji, Bhante Gunaratana, and Ven Thich Nhat Hahn played an important key role in the increased interest and practice of mindfulness and meditation.
In this essay I would like to explore the question: “What is mindfulness and how can it benefit us in our everyday life?" and elaborate on the finer details of mindfulness, especially in the original context of the Buddha's teachings.
Mindfulness is presence of mind – knowing what is happening in us and around us in the present moment. “How are you now? What is your state of mind? Is it calm, peaceful? Can you know it just as it is? How is your body? Can you be aware of the body and the sensations occurring in it?"
Why is it important and beneficial to know our state of mind? If we are unaware, we can land ourselves in big trouble. A simple example: if there is anger arising in us, and we didn’t catch it in time, we are liable to react in some way that will cause us to regret it later. However, if we are mindful, we might be able to nip the anger in the bud before it escalates and causes damage. Mindfulness interrupts the flow of angry thoughts and gives us an opportunity to check the destructive emotion.
By paying careful attention to our mind and heart we can, over time, learn a lot about ourselves – how we think, the types of thoughts that arise in us, our intentions and motivations, our habitual tendencies and behavioural patterns, our moods, feelings and emotions. If we don’t observe and study our mind and its mental processes, we are liable to perpetuate some deluded forms of behaviour. Through mindfulness we can realize what causes suffering in us and what brings about happiness. We can recognize both our strengths and weaknesses, our positive and negative traits. Then we can focus on strengthening the wholesome thoughts and positive qualities in us while weakening the negative. This is the way to increase happiness in our life and reduce suffering.
Our body is with us all the time. So naturally we can also be mindful of the body and the sensations present in it. For example, when we are angry we can observe how our body is affected – the shortness of our breath, the beating in our heart, the frown on our face, the tension in our body. This awareness can help us to calm down both our body and mind.
The body is one of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness taught us by the Buddha, the other three being feeling, consciousness and certain phenomena and principles that we need to pay particular attention to.
Why observe the body? For one thing we tend to live too much in the head. All day long trains of thoughts are racing through our mind. We are constantly thinking, planning, worrying, wondering, imagining, fantasizing, day-dreaming. All this mental activity tires the mind. Furthermore, obsessive negative thoughts create stress and anxiety. Developing the habit of bringing our mind back to the present moment by paying attention to the body can create many moments of calmness and peace in us.
Thus, it is good to cultivate more body awareness. This can help us to be more grounded in the present moment. We can, for example, be aware of our breathing. This brings us back to the present moment and has a calming effect on the mind. For instance, when we are seated on a chair we can be aware of the sensations of hardness, softness, warmth and cold between the buttocks and the seat and between our back and the backrest of the chair.
When walking we can be mindful of the steps we are taking. Before getting up from our seat, we can note first the intention to get up and then the way our body is rising up, following closely the movement and the sensations accompanying it. We do the same when we are sitting down – we notice the intention followed by the lowering of the body and the sensations involved.
When opening a door, we notice the intention, the arm stretching out and the hand touching the door knob and turning it. When switching on or off a light, we are mindful of the intention, the hand stretching out, the finger touching the light switch and pressing on it. In an article I wrote on metta (lovingkindness) practice, I have suggested that we can, as we turn the door knob or press a light switch, think the thought, “May all beings be happy.” This simple thought can help to uplift and gladden the mind.
Mindfulness of the body can be extended to many activities – getting up from bed and washing our face in the morning, answering nature’s calls, putting on clothes, preparing and eating breakfast, noticing the chewing, tasting, and swallowing of the food; mindful when washing dishes, sweeping the floor or vacuuming the carpet, gardening, stirring a cup of coffee, answering the phone, etc. Anything and everything can be done with awareness of the physical movements, actions and accompanying sensations.
The intention preceding the action can be noted. It is a good practice to notice intentions as this conditions the mind to be more aware of itself and what is motivating it. By being more observant of the purpose behind our actions we can exercise wisdom in choosing wholesome pursuits and reducing unhealthy and frivolous activities.
The state of mind with which we are doing something is important. Are we doing it calmly, peacefully and cheerfully with right understanding and thoughts of goodwill and lovingkindness? Or are we doing it reluctantly and grumpily with lots of negative thoughts and aversion? If so, we must remember that we want to foster a positive attitude as we go about doing what needs to be done daily, paying particular attention to always cultivate wholesome actions, not unwholesome ones that hurt or harm others.
We can maintain a healthy balance between mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of the mind. Our mindfulness moves back and forth between the two in such a way that we feel calm, peaceful, cheerful, relaxed, focused, concentrated, absorbed and stable.
Slowing down is helpful and important for our mental sanity. We have become a very fast and impatient society that insists on instant gratification. As the lyrics of a song sung by the late Freddy Mercury go, “I want it all and I want it now!” We are in a hurry and we simply cannot wait.
We should notice our rush and impatience and how this is causing us stress. Living in this way is neither fun nor good for our heart. Realizing that we are rushing, we should note, "rushing, rushing" or “impatience, impatience” and slow down. We can remind ourselves, “patience, patience,” take a deep breath, smile, and be more present with our mind and body.
Which is more important – doing things at a slower, moderate or reasonable pace and preserve our mental sanity or rushing about and getting all stressed up and going berserk? Is not the quality of life measured by the quality of our mind and heart? During all those moments when we are rushing about agitatedly we have lost the mental composure and serenity that we so want to maintain. We are also reinforcing and perpetuating that habit of rushing. We are neither being smart nor skilful.
There's truth in the proverb, "More haste, less speed." When rushing, we are liable to forget or overlook something or make mistakes that will in the end cause us more time loss. Worse still, we might break something or hurt ourselves, sometimes seriously. We can understand if there is the occasional need to rush but if this 'need' is constant and habitual, then we ought to do something about it as it is detrimental to our mental health.
When driving, are we in the habit of going fast and being impatient with the car in front of us? Again we must remember our focus is on the quality of our life, mind and heart. Having our body reeling from the frequent rush of adrenalin (the fight or flight syndrome) is not good for our health. If it takes us an extra five or ten minutes to reach our destination, it is fine. It is better to be safe than to be sorry after an accident has occurred due to our rush and impatience.
Instead of taking traffic lights as some kind of "enemy" obstructing our path, we should regard them as an opportunity for us to enjoy a pause, come back to the present moment, relax, take mindful breaths, smile, radiate metta (may all beings be happy!), exercise wise reflection, think wholesome thoughts, etc. This is all part of our practice of staying calm and cool in all situations throughout the day. It is good to reflect that all roads lead but to the grave. Are we all not heading towards death? Shouldn't we be more circumspect and live a thoughtful and meaningful life instead of rushing mindlessly through it?
Earlier, we defined mindfulness as “knowing what is happening in us and around us.” What do we mean by around us? In his "Discourse on The Establishment of Mindfulness", the Buddha said we should be mindful both internally and externally. The Commentary to the discourse has explained that “internally” refers to oneself and “externally” to others.
How can we be mindful of others? We can notice the reactions of others, how they are affected by us and others. We notice changes in their facial expressions and body language which may tell us their state of mind – whether they are restless, worried, sad, upset, angry, nervous, puzzled, insecure, impatient, happy, joyful, calm, peaceful, relaxed, content, etc. We can notice over time the characteristic traits, behavioural patterns and schemas, the likes and dislikes, idiosyncracies, temperaments, mental dispositions and world views, of our close ones, friends, colleagues, and people we regularly engage with. Being sensitive to and observant of others’ feelings, emotions and mental states can help us to become more understanding, tolerant and skilful in our response towards them. It can go a long way to promote compasionate, harmonious, beneficial, constructive and healthy relationships.
Observing both internally and externally we can notice our similarities and differences. Furthermore, the Buddha said we understand that all of us are subject to the same laws of nature, i.e., we bear the three marks of impermanence, suffering and not-self.
In the Buddha's dispensation, mindfulness plays a vital and essential role in the liberation of the mind from suffering. In his Discourse on The Establishment of Mindfulness (Satipatthana sutta), the Buddha proclaimed mindfulness as the “direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and distress, for the attainment of the right method, and for the realization of Nibbana.”
He instructed practitioners to observe the body, feelings, consciousness and "dhammas", i.e., certain phenomena and principles which he further listed as the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six-sense bases and their corresponding objects, the seven awakening factors, and the four noble truths.
We should make this observation of the body, feelings, consciousness and dhammas, not in a half-hearted manner but ardently, clearly comprehending and mindful, overcoming both craving and discontent with regard to the world.
As regards the body, the Buddha said we can sit in the meditation posture and be mindful of the in- and out-breath and, as we do so, we will come to experience the whole body and calm it down.
We can be mindful of the four elements of earth, water, fire and air in the body. These are material qualities of solidity (hardness and softness), fluidity and cohesion, temperature (heat and cold) and motion, distension and vibration.
Furthermore, we should be mindful of the body in all postures, whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down. In whatever way our body is, in that way we should know it. In all our daily activities we should act with clear comprehension and understanding.
The Buddha also taught a meditation on the unattractiveness of the body, dissecting it into individual parts, such as body hair, head hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bone, bone marrow, kidneys, etc, in order to see the unattractive aspect for the purpose of cutting down on lust and attachment to the body.
There was also a practice in the Buddha’s time of contemplating on a corpse in various stages of decomposition in the charnel ground and reflecting on one’s mortality, that one’s body, too, is of the same nature and is not exempt from that fate. Again, this is to motivate the monks, nuns and practitioners to reduce attachment to the body and strive for the ultimate goal and liberation of Nibbana.
Coming to feeling, the Buddha said we can know whether we are experiencing a pleasant, painful or neutral feeling. We can also differentiate between worldly and spiritual feeling. Worldly feelings are those connected with our striving for sensual pleasures and material goals while spiritual feeling relates to our quest for wisdom and meditative bliss which is a non-sensual kind of happiness.
As regards consciousness, the Buddha said we should know our state of mind – whether it is with greed or without greed, with anger or without anger, with delusion or without delusion, whether it is concentrated or distracted, sleepy or awake, liberated or unliberated from unwholesome states and so on. The principle is to know the mind as it is and to cultivate jhanas (deep mental absorption) that can purify the mind and develop insight into the true nature of phenomena.
The section on “dhammas” (phenomena) is wide. We should know the five hindrances – sensual desire, ill will, laziness and drowsiness, restlessness and worry, and sceptical doubt – when they are present or absent. We should know how they arise, how they are abandoned and how they can be prevented from arising in the future.
We should understand that this psycho-physical being is constituted of five aggregates – material form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. We should see their impermanence, how they are constantly arising and passing away, and understand their suffering and insubstantial nature.
We should understand how experience arises through the contact between the sense bases and their corresponding objects and consciousness. When eye, visible object and consciousness meet there is seeing consciousness. Similarly, there is the process involving ear, sound and hearing consciousness; nose, smell, and smelling consciousness; tongue, taste, and tasting consciousness; body, touch, and touching consciousness; and mind, thoughts, and mind consciousness.
The Buddha said we should know the fetter that arises at the moment of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. There are ten fetters that bind us to samsaric existence – (1) wrong view of a self or soul, (2) doubt or uncertainty regarding the non-existence of the self, (3) attachment to rites and rituals thinking they can free one from suffering, (4) craving for sensual pleasures, (5) ill will, (6) craving for existence (rebirth) in the non-sensual fine material realm, (7) craving for existence (rebirth) in the non-material formless realm, (8) conceit, (9) restlessness, and (10) ignorance.
After understanding how each of the fetters has arisen at the point of contact, we should know how to abandon them and how to prevent their future arising.
We should know the seven awakening factors – mindfulness, investigation, effort, rapture, tranquility, concentration and equanimity. We should know when they are present or absent in us. We should know how to arouse, develop and perfect them till they lead us to our final goal of awakening.
The section on dhammas culminates with the penetration of the four noble truths. The practitioner understands suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering.
The Buddha assured that this practice of the four establishments of mindfulness can lead the conscientious practicioner to the attainment of final knowledge, i.e., the extinction of greed, hatred and delusion. One who attains this state is called an “arahat”. This term, meaning literally “a worthy one,” is also translated as “an accomplished one.” She or he has achieved the goal of the holy life, done what has to be done, laid down the burden of the five aggregates, and attained Nibbana, the cessation of all becoming.
According to the Buddha, if one fails to achieve the final goal in this life, one can still attain the penultimate stage of a non-returner (anagami), i.e., one will not return to this world but will be reborn in a fine material or immaterial plane of existence from where one will attain final Nibbana.
Throughout the discourse, the practitioner is instructed to observe the impermanent nature of body, feeling, consciousness and phenomena. We should see their constant arising and passing away and should not identify with them as a self but regard them as merely body, feeling, consciousness and dhammas. The aim is to develop mindfulness and knowledge into their empty and insubstantial nature and thereby loosen our attachment to them.
In this way the practitioner dwells “independent, without clinging to anything in this world.” The Commentary explained “independent” to mean “one who is not dependent on craving and ignorance.”
We can see here that for the Buddhist practitioner the main purpose of mindfulness practice is to weaken and uproot craving and ignorance and make an end of rebirth and suffering. And while progressing to this final goal the practitioner also experiences all the many benefits that mindfulness brings to everyday life.
A detailed and excellent analysis and commentary of the Buddha’s Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness can be found in the book, “Satipatthana – the Direct Path to Realization” by Bhikkhu Analayo.
The ancient commentary to the Buddhist text has a methodical approach when it comes to analysing mental factors. They explain them by way of their characteristic, function, manifestation, and proximate cause.
Mindfulness has the characteristic of not wobbling, i.e., not floating away from the object, or non-superficiality; its function is non-forgetfulness or the absence of confusion. It is manifested as guardianship or as a state of coming face-to-face with the object. Its proximate cause is strong perception or the four establishments of mindfulness.
Mindfulness’ characteristic of not wobbling means that during meditation the mind does not stray away from the object. Rather, it sinks or penetrates into the object. A simile given by the Commentary, depicting a wobbling mind, is that of a pumpkin bobbing on a water surface being tossed here and there by the waves. The mind that does not wobble is like a stone that is thrown into the water. The stone sinks to the bottom where it lands and stays put. Similarly, the meditator’s mind is firm, staying with the object and penetrating into it. Mindfulness knows the object not in a superficial way but thoroughly, deeply and profoundly.
Mindfulness’ function of non-forgetfulness means that it does not lose sight of the object. This in turn gives rise to clarity and non-confusion. During meditation, mindfulness notices and brings the mind back to the meditation object every time it wanders off.
Mindfulness’ manifestation as guardianship means that it acts as a protection for the mind. It is like a watchman guarding the mind from unwholesome states. It alerts the mind to the intrusion of unwholesome mental factors, giving it an opportunity to check them. Whenever the five hindrances arise during meditation it is mindfulness that notices and dispels them.
The other manifestation of mindfulness is the bringing of the mind face-to-face with the object. This enables the mind to perceive the object clearly and understand it fully.
Mindfulness’ proximate cause is firm perception because if perception is shaky and unsteady, mindfulness cannot arise and stay with the object. The other proximate cause is the four establishments of mindfulness: as we place our attention continuously on the body, feeling, consciousness, and dhammas during meditation, our mindfulness will be aroused, sustained and increased.
“Mindfulness” is the English translation of the Pali word “sati.” It is the word that was first chosen by the late English Pali scholar Dr T W Rhys Davids in his translation of the Maha Satipatthana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya (The Long Discourses of the Buddha) around 1910.
Commenting on this choice of word, the late Maurice Walshe in his translation in 1986 of the same discourse, said, “The rendering ‘mindfulness’ by RD was a brilliant one which is almost universally used (though ‘recollection’ or ‘recollectedness’ is occasionally found). ”
During Rhys Davids’ time scholars had difficulty deciding which English term to use in rendering “sati.” They employed words such as ‘conscience,’ ‘attention,’ ‘meditation,’ ‘memory,’ ‘contemplation,’ ‘insight,’ and ‘thought,’ for sati. Thus we can appreciate the “brilliance” of Rhys Davids to hit on the word, ‘mindfulness,’ which has since gained universal acceptance.
The word, “sati,” is related to the Pali verb “sarati” – to remember. It has both a connotation of memory and of remembering to stay in the present. The Buddha used the word “sati” more in the latter sense, i.e., as “presence of mind,” particularly to be aware of what is occurring in the mind and body in the present moment.
The late German monk, Ven Nyanaponika Thera, in his classic book “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation,” succinctly defined mindfulness as “the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at the successive moments of perception.”
The compound, “satipaṭṭhāna,” is composed of two words, “sati” and “paṭṭhāna” or “sati” and “upaṭṭhāna.” “Paṭṭhāna” means foundation or domain and “upaṭṭhāna” means to set up or establish. Scholars hold that the latter meaning of “establishing” is more appropriate in the context of satipaṭṭhāna though "foundation" is still used in some context. “Upaṭṭhāna” can also mean “to be present”, “to be waiting on” or “be in attendance.” Thus mindfulness is present, attending to its objects which are the body, feeling, consciousness and phenomena.
In its role as facilitating memory, “sati” is stated in the Buddha’s discourses as being able to assist the person having it to recall what was said and done long ago. If we are paying close attention to what we are doing in the present moment, that will enable us to recollect the event later on. A simple example: if you were to put down a key mindfully, noticing as you do it and making a mental note of where you have placed it, you will remember later on where the key is. On the other hand, if you have just thrown down the key somewhere unmindfully with your mind being pre-occupied with something else as you do it, later you will have difficulty remembering where you have put it.
In the Buddha’s teachings, mindfulness also comes into play in the practice of recollecting the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, one’s morality, liberality (generosity) and heavenly beings. These are basically contemplation and reflection exercises which bring about their own specific benefits. For example, recollection of the Buddha (Buddhanussati) is a very popular practice among Buddhists in the traditional Theravada Buddhist lands of Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. Practitioners recite the nine qualities of the Buddha in Pali and contemplate on their significance. The practice arouses faith, awe and appreciation of the Buddha’s qualities and attainment of Awakening and inspires and motivates us to practise the Dhamma, i.e., his teachings, in order to realize the awakened state and liberation for oneself.
There is mindfulness on death (marana-sati). By reflecting on death and the uncertainty and brevity of life we can be motivated to live a meaningful life of lovingkindness and compassion and strive for the highest peace and happiness of Nibbana.
There is the recollection of peace (upasama-sati) which is bringing to mind the qualities of Nibbana by reflecting on various relevant passages from the text, such as: “This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishment of all substrates of existence, the extinction of craving, fading away, cessation, Nibbana.”
Another passage on Nibbana for reflection: “Monks, whatever dhammas there are, whether formed or unformed, fading away is pronounced as the best of them, that is to say, the undoing of vanity, the elimination of thirst, the severing of attachment, the termination of the round (of rebirth), the extinction of craving, fading away, cessation, Nibbana.”
In his famous Discourse on Lovingkindness (Metta Sutta) the Buddha also mentioned that the practitioner should sustain his mindfulness on metta throughout the day while standing, sitting, walking or lying down. This means we should cultivate a mind of goodwill at all times.
In the realm of higher knowledges, mindfulness, when grounded in the fourth jhana (deep absorption) gained during meditation, is a factor that enables a practitioner to recollect his or her previous lives. Anuradha, an arahat disciple of the Buddha, when asked about his prowess in supernormal powers, attributed it to his practice of the four establishments of mindfulness. When asked about how he could bear illness with equanimity and how his facial countenance always radiated happiness and serenity, Anuradha’s reply was: “It is, friends, because I dwell with a mind well established in the four establishments of mindfulness.”
Thus we can see the many applications, benefits and potency of mindfulness. However, as long as one has not fully mastered “satipatthana” one is considered a trainee (sekha). Only arahants who have completed the training and uprooted craving, aversion and delusion are regarded as “adepts (asekha).” They are said to have crossed to the farther shore while we are still running up and down the near bank.
In “The Questions of King Milinda” a famous Buddhist Pali work written in the first century BC, the sage Nagasena likened mindfulness to a confidential adviser of the king who instructed him in good and evil: “These things are bad for the king and these good, these helpful and these the reverse.” And thus the king makes the evil in himself die out, and keeps up the good.”
Similarly, Nagasena said, the spiritual practitioner, having mindfulness as his adviser, knows: "Such and such qualities are good, and such bad; such and such qualities helpful, and such the reverse.’ Thus does he make what is bad in himself disappear, and cultivates what is good.”
Besides being like a confidential adviser, mindfulness has also been likened to a gatekeeper that keeps out unwholesome mental states while letting in wholesome ones. This is the manifestation of mindfulness as “guardianship” mentioned earlier above. The Simile of the Gatekeeper is given in the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya) as follows:
“Just as a royal frontier fortress has a gatekeeper — wise, experienced, intelligent — to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does, for the protection of those within, and to ward off those without; in the same way, a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, endowed with excellent proficiency in mindfulness, remembering and recollecting what was done and said a long time ago. With mindfulness as his gatekeeper, the disciple of the noble ones abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless and maintains himself in purity.”
From this we can see that mindfulness is not just sitting back and looking passively at what is going on with detachment and indifference. A modern simile given by the prominent monk and Dhamma teacher Ajahn Brahm is that when a burglar is breaking into a house and carting things away, a watchman does not stand by and do nothing, insisting that his job is just to watch what is going on impartially and objectively. No, on the contrary, the duty of the watchman is to raise an alarm and, if possible, apprehend the burglar.
Thus, mindfulness has a pro-active component which is to restrain the mind from unwholesome states and spur the mind onto wholesome states. Only when the mind is going well with wholesome states does the practitioner look on with equanimity and let things run its course. Even then mindfulness will approve of the mind being in a wholesome state and perhaps even cheer it on.
Hence, in the “Visuddhimagga”, the Path of Purification, a fifth century Buddhist meditation manual, it is stated: “Mindfulness, like salt in all dishes, like a minister well-versed in the king’s affairs, is needed everywhere. Without mindfulness, there is no restraining or spurring of the mind.”
Sometimes in the West, mindfulness is taught in such a way as to make it appear that the practitioner does not need to do anything else apart from being mindful. It is as if just by observing the mind alone, everything will somehow fall into place.
Often, one is cautioned by these teachers against being judgmental and to welcome and embrace every experience or mind state as having some kind of right or legitimacy to be present and that it should not be pushed away but should be accepted and honoured and not be judged as good or bad.
I can well understand non-judgmental as not being overly and unfairly critical or harsh in judging oneself or others. However, to suspend judgement on the wholesomeness or unwholesomeness of a thought or a state of mind and to do nothing at all about preventing and dispelling unwholesome states is definitely not something taught or approved by the Buddha.
On the contrary, the Buddha's teaching is directed precisely towards the cultivation of the wholesome and abandonment of the unwholesome. It is therefore important and crucial to understand the difference between the two types of mind and be able to recognise them when they arise.
In the Discourse on the “Two Types of Thoughts” (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 19), the Buddha said that before his Awakening, while he was still a bodhisatta, he practised by dividing his thoughts into two classes, i.e., wholesome or unwholesome.
Whenever an unwholesome thought, such as one of ill will arose, he reflected thus, "This thought leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbana." Having reflected thus, he said, "whenever a thought of ill will arose, I abandoned it, removed it, did away with it."
The Buddha said he saw in unwholesome states "danger, degradation, and defilement, and in wholesome states the blessing of renunciation, the aspect of purification." He therefore cultivated wholesome states of mind. He said, "There was need for me only to be mindful that those states were there. Tireless energy was aroused in me and unremitting mindfulness was established, my body was tranquil and untroubled, my mind concentrated and unified."
He then entered into jhanas, deep states of mental absorption, and purifying his mind of all mental taints, attained his full awakening. He declared: "I directly knew: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being."
From this discourse we can see the importance of cultivating wholesome states and abandoning unwholesome states and to be able to know the difference between the two and recognise them as soon as they arise.
Thus judgment and discriminative discernment play an important role. It is part of our wisdom faculty that can differentiate, know, or sense what is right or wrong. Of course, there are sometimes grey areas when things are not always that simple or clear-cut. It is not black or white, as we say. Under such circumstances, we can look at things in a balanced way and place them in proper perspective. Sometimes a person’s hand may be forced and compromises have to be made. One may have to choose the lesser of two evils.
However, often times what is wholesome and unwholesome is quite clear and we don't have to think hard about it. For example, when anger arises, our wisdom faculty knows that anger is an unskilful and unwholesome response. Even if our anger seems justified it is still unskilful as it causes suffering to oneself and others and it normally acts out in a destructive way.
We know a sage is a person who keeps her calm even when provoked. In many a teaching the Buddha has given no room for doubt that anger can ever be considered a wholesome or desirable state of mind. The wise person will maintain her calm and respond with wisdom. It does not mean that she does not act. She acts, but from a calm state of mind. At times she may choose to remain silent but that, too, is a choice that comes from wise consideration.
The mind of the spiritual practitioner is "pre-proprammed" not to respond with anger. Rather, she is predisposed towards friendliness and cheerfulness. Thus, often times she remains cool and is not easily irritated. However, should annoyance arise, her mindfulness is quick to spot it. She will nip it in the bud if she can. If she can't she will try to maintain mindfulness and calm herself down in the shortest time possible. She will exercise wise reflection to help her overcome her annoyance and regain her composure.
Of course, she will exercise wisdom in looking at things in proper perspective. For example, she will not judge herself harshly for losing her cool. She knows she is still a trainee and far from perfect. She accepts her lapses and less than perfect control of her mind. She forgives herself but resolves to be more careful in future. She is humbled and all the more determined to work harder to tame the mind.
As a wise practitioner she is gentle, kind and compassionate not only to others but also to herself. Her mindfulness, like the good adviser and friend, reminds her of her many beautiful qualities. She acknowledges and celebrates her goodness and feels more positive and encouraged. However, she is not complacent or conceited. She sees that there is still a long way to go in her spiritual work of purifying her mind.
We have explained the pro-active role of mindfulness, that it is not just a detached observer but also an active participant in directing the mind on the right path and exercising the critical faculty of wisdom. Actually, mindfulness does not act alone. Other wholesome mental factors of clear comprehension, wisdom, intelligence, right effort and diligence co-arise with mindfulness to help the practitioner overcome unwholesome states and strengthen wholesome ones.
The Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path. Mindfulness occupies the seventh place in the sequence. The eight factors of the path in their traditional order are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
Mindfulness should be informed by right view and led by right intention. Then right speech, right action and right livelihood will naturally follow. Mindfulness alerts us to what is happening in the present moment but then we have to make an effort to change or do the appropriate thing. Effort and mindfulness are also responsible for the development of concentration during meditation. Meditation gives rise to wisdom which confirms the initial right view and understanding. The practitioner's conviction of the truth of the Dhamma is now unshakable. Thus we can see that the Buddha taught a holistic and comprehensive path and that mindfulness is practised in concert with the other factors of the path.
In its role as remembrance, mindfulness reminds us to have the right view, right intention, right speech, etc. In this sense, too, it plays a particularly important role in the eightfold path.
What else should our mindfulness remind us of? What should we often bear in mind? Our commitment to live a life based and focused on values rather than on materialism; recalling with gratitude the many kindnesses we received from others; remembering to be grateful for all the blessings in our life so we won’t take them for granted; remembering the Buddha’s liberating teachings on impermanence, suffering and not-self and all other good teachings that we have learnt; remembering to radiate metta every now and then, wishing for the happiness of beings; remembering to live in the present moment rather than in the past or future; remembering to meditate daily or regularly; remembering to practise all the right and skilful attitudes; remembering to stay peaceful and cheerful; remembering to love, to be kind, to be generous, to give and share, to be patient, to forgive, to be diligent, etc. And the list goes on. There are so many things we should remember to keep ourselves on the right path. Mindfulness is our good friend, reminding us to live a meaningful life and making a beautiful garland of it.
Is there wrong mindfulness? According to Buddhist Abhidhamma, mindfulness is always wholesome. However, in the Suttas (discourses) the Buddha spoke of wrong mindfulness (miccha-sati) as opposed to right mindfulness (samma-sati); for example, in the Sallekha sutta (Majjhima Nikaya sutta No. 8), the Buddha said, "Others will be of wrong mindfulness; we shall be of right mindfulness here;" and in MN 117, "In one of right mindfulness, wrong mindfulness is abolished." The Buddha stated that the noble eightfold path factors all have their opposites, i.e., wrong view, wrong intention, etc. This makes perfect sense. Thus, the Abhidhamma's contention that mindfulness must always be wholesome is untenable.
If an assassin pulls a trigger very mindfully to kill somebody, that is wrong mindfulness. He may be fully aware of what he is doing, feeling the sensation on his finger as it pulls the trigger, but his mindfulness is with the unwholesome intention to kill. It follows that the effort and concentration he brings to the task will also be unwholesome. In fact, we can give many examples of wrong mindfulness. Whenever our deeds are motivated by greed, hatred and delusion, the effort, mindfulness and concentration that we apply in doing those deeds will be classified as wrong or misplaced. Hence, our emphasis on living an ethical or virtuous life so our mindfulness will be more of the wholesome or right variety.
We have come to the end of our survey on mindfulness. Bearing in mind the many applications and benefits of mindfulness, let us diligently cultivate this mental factor which does not only immensely improve the quality of our everyday life but also leads us all the way to the end of suffering and the realization of the highest peace and happiness of Nibbana.
"The Buddha's teaching is directed precisely towards the cultivation of the wholesome and abandonment of the unwholesome. It is therefore important and crucial to understand the difference between the two types of mind and be able to recognise them when they arise."
“Just as a royal frontier fortress has a gatekeeper — wise, experienced, intelligent — to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does, for the protection of those within, and to ward off those without; in the same way, a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, endowed with excellent proficiency in mindfulness, remembering and recollecting what was done and said a longtime ago. With mindfulness as his gatekeeper, the disciple of the noble ones abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless and maintains himself in purity.” - Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya
“Mindfulness, like salt in all dishes, like a minister well-versed in the king’s affairs, is required everywhere. Without mindfulness, there is no restraining or spurring of the mind.”
-Visuddhimagga, The Path of Purification
"This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and distress, for the attainment of the right method, and for the realization of Nibbana, namely, the four establishments of mindfulness."
- Buddha, Satipatthana Sutta