In this Dharma talk series, we have examined 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.
By noting carefully what is actually happening in this very moment, we can find clarity amidst confusion. When we are lost in thoughts, returning to the present moment interrupts the process of recycling repetitive themes.
Simply reconnecting with our breath helps us exit from the movies that we create in the mind.
In moments of tension, we may notice that we’re holding the breath and experiencing unpleasant body sensations such as clenched fists or a tight belly. When we exhale and pay close attention to these sensations, we observe how they change naturally. Letting go of worries is reflected in the body as it releases tightness and tension. After observing our sensations and emotions repeatedly arising and passing away, we gain the insight that outer problems will also be resolved at their own rhythm.
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 hold onto notes that have already sounded or to anticipate those yet to come. As 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. To arouse confidence and faith that bolsters ongoing practice, we can reflect on the qualities of the three refuges—our innate human capacity for awakening, wise teachings that guide us towards truth, and spiritual friends to accompany and encourage us.
Most of us have occasional ethical lapses, and our willingness to acknowledge them and to recommit to not harming others and ourselves keeps us on the Dharma path. The Buddha taught that spiritual progress occurs when we recognize transgressions and make amends 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.
On the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha faced Mara’s forces of desire, aversion, restlessness, sleepiness and doubt. When we sit here practicing Vipassana meditation on Monday nights, we confront those same five classic impediments, and like the Buddha did, we return 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.
Take a moment to check in with your own level of energy right now. If you are forcing yourself to pay attention, can you open into a state of receptive awareness? If you notice a low level of energy, can you bring more effort to sitting with alertness? 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.”
Just as we can balance our energy, so we can develop equilibrium in the other four spiritual faculties. When we are attached to 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. Without wise equilibrium in Dharma practice, 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. A balanced faculty of faith can protect us from developing wrong views.
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. 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 ill will lead to suffering for ourselves and others motivates us to abandon such unskillful thought patterns.
With sufficient mindfulness, meditation becomes a refuge from trying to resolve problems in our daily life. We can stop obsessive thoughts (about what has been left undone and about what still needs to be done) by asking ourselves, “What is the truth right now?”
When we pay attention fully, we often feel complete in that moment.
We let go of preferences or desire to change the reality of the situation that we are facing. When we’re in this moment exactly as it is, we avoid the habitual tendency to lean forward, hoping that the next moment will be better.
Not only do we accept what is happening now, but we also develop a slower rhythm and an interest in what is occurring. Little by little, we learn that each moment deserves our attention, and that we can learn valuable lessons in difficult or unpleasant moments. If each moment seems enough, we can cultivate a feeling of contentment.
Sometimes I think that I need something more to make me feel happier, but I’ve learned that it’s better to stay with what I already have and to connect with whatever is contributing to my wellbeing in that moment. The task is to be truly present with whatever arises.
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.
Careful attention activates our natural curiosity and sense of wonder. There is magic around us if we pay attention. Practicing meditation intensively on retreats cultivates mindfulness of daily wonders. A poem I wrote on a retreat describes a period of walking meditation. I call it “Impermanence: Casting Shadows,”
The lingering late afternoon sunlight
Traverses the wooded path at a sharp angle.
I walk methodically back and forth
In the diminishing slice of pale light.
My shadow leads me towards
The swirling waters of a stream
And follows as I retrace my steps
To the spacious meditation hall.
With each round trip,
The patch of sunlight shrinks,
And my shadow lengthens like an El Greco figure,
Until the head and torso stretch as far
As the hillside beyond the brook.
It is only a matter of time
Before the shadow elongates into nothingness,
Merging with the dusk.
EX: Sit facing a partner. Take turns. Close your eyes and mindfully scan your body from feet to head, reporting aloud the sensations that you notice.