Insight Meditation Houston

Mindfulness: Gateway to Wisdom

A number of weeks ago, we discussed the first two chapters of Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness. Tonight I’ll be reviewing ideas in the third chapter: Mindfulness: The Gateway to Wisdom.

In addition to ardency and clear comprehension, mindfulness is the third quality of mind that the Buddha listed as essential for awakening. In the ancient Pali language of the Buddha’s era in India, sati has several meanings, most commonly understood as “present-moment awareness, presence of mind, and wakefulness.” Whenever we are lost or confused, we can simply return to whatever we are experiencing in the present moment.

Mindfulness also has the connotation of bare attention or non-interfering awareness. When I listen to music, my mind tends to be open and attentive, without trying to control notes that have already sounded or those that are yet to come. When we develop the capacity to listen with deep receptivity, intuitive wisdom can arise. Joseph recounts a story about Mother Theresa, who was asked about her dialogues with God when she prayed. She replied, “ I don’t say anything. I just listen….He doesn’t say anything. He just listens.”

On another level, sati means, “remembering,” and refers to the practice of wholesome recollection that provides support and energy on the Dharma path. In Buddhism, these recollections include one’s own generosity and ethical conduct, as well as the three refuges of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Reflecting on the qualities of the three refuges arouses confidence and faith that bolsters ongoing practice.

Most of us have occasional ethical lapses, and our willingness to acknowledge them and to recommit to not harming ourselves and others keeps us on the Dharma path. The Buddha taught that spiritual progress occurs when a practitioner recognizes “transgressions as such and makes amends in accordance with the Dharma by undertaking restraint in the future.” Instead of focusing on non-productive emotions of guilt, Buddhism offers a healthy and beneficial way of dealing with unskillful thoughts, words and deeds.

We recall that on the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha faced Mara’s forces of desire, aversion, restlessness, sleepiness and doubt. When we sit here practicing Insight or Vipassana meditation on Monday nights, we confront those same five classic impediments, and like the Buddha did, we practice returning over and over again to the refuge of mindfulness of breathing. In this process of purification of the heart and mind, a sense of inner peace develops.

Mindfulness serves to balance what the Buddha called “the five spiritual faculties”: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Mindfulness helps us to be aware when any of these faculties are deficient or excessive. Whereas too much effort without concentration leads to restlessness and agitation, excessive concentration without sufficient energy leads to a state of lethargy that the Buddha called “sloth and torpor.”

When we have overabundant faith, we can become dogmatic and attached to our viewpoints. In daily news about violent struggles around the world, it is apparent how blind belief leads to conflict and suffering. If faith is not balanced by wisdom, we can become overly enthusiastic about pleasant meditation experiences. “Pseudo-nirvana” refers to attachment to expansive and joyous states, when meditators forget to be mindful and to simply note the experience. On the other hand, understanding insights without the balancing faculty of faith can enmesh us in wrong views, and prevent us from opening to what is beyond our current level of comprehension.

Last year, I had this kind of incomplete insight. A day after traveling from Houston at sea level, I led a meditation retreat in Puebla, Mexico, at an altitude of 8000 feet. Although I suffered from a persistent migraine headache, nosebleeds and insomnia, I felt happy to be with members of the meditation sangha that Mark and I founded over 15 years ago, and I enjoyed teaching the Dharma in Spanish in what I consider to be my “soul country.”

An insight came to me: “Now I understand the Buddha’s teachings about the liberation associated with not reacting to unpleasant or pleasant sensory experiences. I’m no longer afraid to die, because I can simply watch uncomfortable bodily sensations arising and passing away, without identifying with them as ‘me’ or ‘mine.’” I became quite attached to this insight.

Nine months afterwards, back in Houston, I had a second foot surgery. Anticipating that I would have about the same level of pain as I had experienced during the operation on my left foot, I requested only local anesthesia for my right foot. As Mark was driving me home from the surgery, the anesthesia wore off, and I started to scream in agony. He phoned the podiatrist, who urged us to come immediately to his office. There it took ten injections of painkillers to calm my tears. I humbly accepted the doctor’s prescription for Demerol and did not hesitate to medicate the strongest level of pain that I have experienced on the physical plane to date. My insight about simply noting uncomfortable sensations as “unpleasant, unpleasant” was valid for a certain degree of discomfort, but I quickly abandoned my arrogant assumption about being ready to face whatever suffering comes during the dying process.

Aside from balancing the spiritual faculties, mindfulness guards the sense doors by keeping us aware of what is arising through the senses. As it protects us from getting lost in proliferating sensual desires, mindfulness allows us to rest peacefully in our lives. Joseph uses the example of noting the difference between unmindful and mindful seeing when we are window-shopping. If we are not guarding the sense door of seeing, the mind constantly reaches out with desire for seductive things on sale, and we become mentally agitated. But with mindful seeing, we can simply look non-reactively at items on display.

Mindfulness also protects the mind from other unskillful thoughts and emotions. Without mindfulness, we act out various conditioned habits. Ajahn Sumedho, a senior Western monk in the Thai forest tradition, cautions that our aim should not be to follow the heart but to train the heart. We all have mixed motivations, and not everything in the heart is wise or wholesome. Mindful discernment allows us to abandon what is unwholesome and to cultivate what is healthy and good. This kind of discernment contributes to our happiness and wellbeing.

As the Buddha noted, whatever we think of frequently will become the inclination of our minds. Mindfulness has the power to reveal what kinds of thoughts are arising, so that we can let go of unskillful ones. The practice of noting how thoughts of sensual desire, ill will and cruelty lead to affliction for oneself and others motivates us to abandon such unskillful thought patterns.

With wholesome states of mind, mindfulness can become less actively engaged. The Buddha compared this aspect of mindfulness to a cowherd guarding cows after the crops have been safely harvested, when it’s no longer necessary to be extra vigilant about the grazing cattle. Likewise, we can use mindfulness with a light touch when the body is calm, and the mind is concentrated and unified.