Tonight we will end our exploration of components on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path with a discussion of Right Mindfulness. We first examined Right View and Right Understanding, which are the category of wisdom, and then Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, in the category of morality. Recently we’ve addressed Right Effort and Right Concentration, which fall into the category of concentration, where Right Mindfulness also belongs.
Mindfulness refers to being completely in touch with and aware of the present moment, as well as taking a non-evaluative approach to inner experience. A mindful approach to our inner experience is simply viewing “thoughts as thoughts” instead of judging certain thoughts as positive or negative.
The Buddha described two types of mindfulness: The first kind is “bare attention,” which refers to knowing directly and precisely the essentials of an experience without any interpretation. The second kind of mindfulness is “general comprehension,” which refers to understanding the purpose for an undertaking. When we meditate, we use bare attention to observe our breath and any experiences relating to the body and mind. General comprehension helps us understand why we are meditating at all. In daily life it’s the main form of mindfulness. When we leave home, we want to know where we are headed and why.
Mindfulness in either form illuminates our experience, brings it into focus, and maintains the focus. Meditation teacher Arinna Weisman compares mindfulness to turning on car headlights at nighttime. Mindfulness helps us see what is occurring without distortions, and it cuts through confusion and fogginess. We need to see clearly to know that we are on the right path and that we are not careening towards a crash and suffering.
Mindfulness is a quality that is at the center of all Buddhist meditation. We try to bring careful attention to what is happening in this very moment, without wishing that it were different, without grabbing onto pleasant experiences when they are changing, and without rejecting unpleasant experiences or fearing that they will last forever. By paying close attention, mindfulness can fortify healthy mental states, and it can weaken unhealthy ones by helping us to quickly let them go.
Let’s examine 4 aspects of mindfulness:
If we don’t exaggerate, dramatize or minimize our experiences, we can be honest with ourselves about what is happening. Many of us keep pushing ourselves to perform even when we are exhausted. These days, when I feel tired, I’m practicing giving myself permission to sense the reality of that tiredness. With mindful acknowledgement, I can plan fewer activities and set aside more time to rest. Then I have more energy to enjoy pleasurable moments.
As Mark and I prepare to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary, I feel connected with how much I love this man who has shared my life for so long. I am mindful about feeling grateful for our relationship.
As Thich Nhat Hanh taught, “In the light of consciousness, each thought and each action becomes sacred. I may wash the dishes more slowly than other people, but I live fully and happily in each moment.” If we learn to enjoy ordinary events, life no longer seems bland or boring, and we tend to remember our daily activities more vividly. Instead of seeking special moments and ignoring the rest of life, we can bring mindful appreciation to whatever task we do.
In their book How We Choose to Be Happy, Rick Foster and Greg Hicks write that appreciation is a mindfulness practice: “Happy people have an ability to view life clearly with all its diversity. They notice the beauty of a flower and the ugliness of poverty… They combine consciousness of what is happening in each moment with an intention to live fully. They take time to note details, to breath deeply and to savor what is occurring. Nothing is taken for granted. Happy people perceive life as a gift that they appreciate immediately.
*EXERCISE: Pause to reflect upon everything you can appreciate in this moment. Observe how you feel when you are concentrating on appreciation of blessings that you normally ignore…. Try not to judge yourself when you lose contact with the present moment, and simply appreciate whenever you’re conscious of what is occurring.
Before I took a trip to Denver, John, a friend who lives in Boulder, surprised me by phoning and offering to meet my plane. I accepted his invitation, relieved that I wouldn’t have to take the city bus from the airport to Boulder.
A few days later, John left me an apologetic message saying that he couldn’t meet my flight because his boss had invited him to discuss an exciting new job opportunity at that hour. On one hand, I was disappointed to miss visiting with John and riding in the comfort of his car. On the other hand, I felt pleased about my friend’s good fortune and understood his priorities.
I ended up with the same reality that I’d been facing before interacting with John. With mindfulness, I could watch the circumstances changing without becoming attached to preferences.
In the Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr states: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.” When we can’t do anything to change reality, we have the option to fantasize about how life could have been different and to feel frustration, or to accept the real situation and respond in the best way possible. With mindfulness, our normal vision expands so that we can notice what is beneficial or interesting in our surroundings. If we are mindful, we can interrupt negative habits of thinking so that we are not lost in thoughts that can create confusion, fear or longing.
In her book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey writes about a debilitating chronic illness that mystified her doctors and left her bedridden for years. While struggling against the hard reality of her circumstances, she began to observe the slow movements of a snail that a friend had given her in a pot of violets. No longer absorbed in her own suffering, Bailey befriended the snail and provided for its wellbeing.
Eventually her mindful attention led to a fascinating journal about the multiple talents and resources of snails.
Signs in Las Vegas casinos read: “You must be present to win.” The same rule is true in our daily lives. If we want to enjoy our lives, we need to be present for small moments.