27 November 2014

Beyond Mindfulness to the Heart of The Path

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Now it is great to see an initiative to teach mindfulness in schools and workplaces. But in extracting it in isolation from the context in which it was originally taught, we may well have missed the wood for the trees.

A lot of research has been done into how mindfulness is helpful in bringing our minds back into an organised and coherent state from one of stress, dysfunction, and disorder. And indeed Mindfulness has been at he heart of meditation and spiritual practice since the Buddha brought it so dramatically to the forefront in this famous discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

What is Mindfulness?

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Mindfulness is basically “Awareness”, it is the present awareness of what is going on within us and around us at a level of feeling and sensory perception. It is to pay attention to the experience we are actually having instead of getting lost in the abstract inner world of dialogue, thinking, imagination and fantasy that many of us spend much of our time lost in. In short Mindfulness is to remain present in the moment and it opposes what we might call ignorance, or simply “not paying enough attention”

Is it the way out of suffering?


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[groups_member group=”Registered”]Mindfulness is basically “Awareness”, it is the present awareness of what is going on within us and around us at a level of feeling and sensory perception. It is to pay attention to the experience we are actually having instead of getting lost in the abstract inner world of dialogue, thinking, imagination and fantasy that many of us spend much of our time lost in. In short Mindfulness is to remain present in the moment and it opposes what we might call ignorance, or simply “not paying enough attention”

Is it the way out of suffering?

Now the Buddha explained that it is ignorance that is the core root of our suffering. And that the other roots of greed/attachment, and anger/ill-will, are in truth merely conditioned by ignorance, or not seeing what is really going on. Even for those who do not meditate and have not learned Dhamma, it is a reasonably compelling argument. But once we really start to pay attention, not just with mindfulness but deep concentration, we see for sure that greed and anger, which appear to be the causes of suffering, are in truth merely conditioned states of mind that are born of confusion and not seeing how things really are. It is easy to see therefore why we might come to the conclusion that the path out of suffering would simply be to learn to pay attention. In doing so we would come to see what it is we have not seen before, and gradually our greed and anger would fade and with it our suffering.

The movement to teach mindfulness to the masses is a wonderful first step in the direction in which we all, I am sure, would like to be heading: less ignorance, less greed, less anger. And certainly we have to start somewhere if we are going to turn around the roller coaster juggernaut that is the direction in which our world appears to be heading.

There are catches however.

Firstly it takes real determination to change in ways that might be inconvenient to us, that determination is itself a strength of character, and secondly once our minds become fixed upon a view, position or standpoint and cling to that position, a certain stiffness sets into the mind that is resistant to change itself. This is what we mean by narrow mindedness. As a result, when we are asked to start to pay attention, we tend to do so only to the point that we aren’t too inconvenienced. In effect we are only inclined to pay attention in a way that suits us, and continue to turn away from any ‘inconvenient truths we may come across. This is why the Buddha made mindfulness only one branch of his eight branch path out of suffering.

I was recently approached about putting together an 8 week course in Mindfulness. I had to deliver it in 8 bite-sized chunks of 15 to 20 minutes. The problem as I see it is two fold. Firstly we seem to be looking for a way in which we can extract something of a palliative from these time tested traditions that might act as a balm for our our present, more modern predicament. We don’t have the time that people used to, so we have packaged it up into occasional evening classes and an 8 week online program we can do when we get home from work. Secondly we don’t actually appear to really want to change, we seem simply to want someone to show us ways to cope better with being where we are.The problem isn’t that we aren’t coping but that we aren’t changing; not coping is itself a sign that we have reached an unmanageable position and things have to change.

Let’s put some perspective on this so we can ask ourselves if we are being realistic. Buddha himself was born a prince at a time free of strife when the planet was relatively un-vexed by our presence upon it. When he looked out upon the world and saw just how prone to suffering we are as humans, so vexed was he by the degree that we bring suffering upon our self and become bound up by it, that he made a determination to seek an end to it.

Now when he went forth to seek the end of suffering, he did so as a Prince, with everything in his favour, he was extremely intelligent and physically strong. Even from his relatively position of ease he could see that he had to change. By the way we view good fortune and the lack of it in our modern society, we might be inclined to think he was the last one who needed to change. So if 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day was going to cut the mustard for anyone, it was him. Well, he actually spent six years ardently meditating in search of his goal and when he did find it, he spent the rest of his life teaching the path he had taken to others. For over forty years he taught countless others, who like he, freed themselves from the affliction of suffering.

Unlike times past when even finding a teacher who could guide us often required an act of determination, today we have unlimited and almost instant access to thousands of teachings of the Buddha to which we can refer should we wish to follow his advice. In most of them he talks of what he called his Noble 8 fold path out of suffering, as being the eight branch process of refinement of character that leads in stages to the gradual fading of the roots of suffering, namely ignorance, greed and aversion. Now although mindfulness (right mindfulness) is indeed one of these branches, it is only one. The others being:

Right Speech ( Honesty and truthfulness)

Right Action and Right Livelihood (not to harm self or others in our actions and livelihood)

Right Effort (to surmount the unwholesome roots of our mind and mature the wholesome ones)

Right Mindfulness (to learn to pay attention to things as they actually are and not get lost in imagination)

Right concentration (to learn to pay attention undistracted so that we MIGHT be able to observe things clearly.)

Right Thought (which is right intention with regards to the wellbeing of others ie thoughts of harmlessness)

Right View (Which in order to not get too involved here, basically means to come to the sure knowledge that we ARE accountable for our actions, that what we do always has an effect (seen and unseen) upon how things play out in the future.)

Today, as is our tendency with everything, we have looked for a convenient solution to what appears to be our problem. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or despondent in our modern western lives and Mindfulness the new great white hope. Now I am extremely enthusiastic that there is a move to teach mindfulness in schools, but the sad thing is that we have chosen to do so in isolation instead of looking more deeply into what it was that the Buddha was really trying to point out to us.

He spoke of the refinement of character and the lack of it as the root factor in whether we flourish and progress or struggle and regress as we embark on the journey that life puts our way. It wasn’t personality what was the mark of us but these 10 aspects of character that come to maturity in one who flourishes and moves forward and are lacking in one who struggles. Interestingly he did not even include Mindfulness in his list, for on its own it does not constitute strength of character. His list of the 10 Paramis (refinements of character) is as follows:

1 Generosity

2 Virtue

3 Willingness to relinquish what is harmful

4 Wisdom

5 Effort/ Energy

6 Patience

7 Truthfulness/ Honesty

8 Determination

9 Loving Kindness

10 Equanimity

I am sure we are all capable of recognising the merit of instilling such values in our children at a young age, and likewise if we were to adopt them in our own lives and workplaces. When asked what is the fastest way to free oneself from suffering the Buddha advised, that “ He who is of few needs and easy to serve, is close to already being happy. Indeed if we are honest, it is those who display these qualities intrinsically whose needs seem to be fewer, and those who lack them who are hardest to please.

While it is good news to see at least that Mindfulness is worthy of our attention, the question remains; why have we insisted on taking it in isolation when clearly it was just one of many factors that make for a less vexing life. Mindfulness alone will prompt us to pay attention to the point that we recognise where we are not coping, and hopefully point us towards some changes that will allow us to do so. But is coping with where we are currently at really a step forward? What of overcoming our unwillingness to change? Do we not think that the other 7 branches of the Buddha’s path equally had something to show us? Might it actually be the case that we have run out of convenient solutions and may even have to be willing, perhaps not as completely as the Buddha, to accept a degree of inconvenience in our efforts to surmount the real challenges we are facing or free ourselves from real suffering.

Education / Conclusion

I am sure it was necessary to remove all hints that these teachings came from the Buddha, in order for them to be approved for introduction in schools but in doing so was it necessary to remove the very essence of what he was really offering us, which is the encouragement to reaffirm basic human ethical principals as the bedrock of the value system that we govern our lives by. What we are actually being offered is a road map to take the rite of passage out of the narcissism of adolescence into the maturity of real adulthood. This is neither fluffy new age jargon, nor dogma or idealism.

What has happened to us that we aren’t willing to take on some honest home truths and get stuck in to what is really needed of us.

We are all faced with a universal predicament as fellow human beings; view, dogma and religion have no part in the simple process of self honesty that is required if we are going to really learn to pay attention to what is going on. We are all humans living on the same planet, and it is not the case that the universe behaves one way for some of us and another way for others. It is a single process that we are all a part of. Yes indeed, we are all in this together. So if our lives do feel in a bit of a muddle, the process by which we got there is not personal. The question is, whether our challenges will turn out to be our undoing, or our making…and that, in the end will be our rite of passage and a real test of our character.

Now I dare say it might be encouraging in some way that we can now study mindfulness as a degree course, but I do have mixed feelings. When the Buddha went on his journey it was a proper rite of passage. The journey that truly puts us in touch with ourselves always is. When he died those close to him asked what was his final advice, to which he did not reply; “There are the universities and the degree courses, there are the learned professors”…no he said;

“There are the shaded groves, the forest thickets, there are the empty huts and the roots of trees…go forth and Meditate less you regret it later.”

It is not and never has been about watching your breath or your thoughts arise. It’s about putting ourselves truly in front of what it is to be alive and entering utterly into it. It might yet take a little more resolve than 15 minutes in the lunch break or on the train home at night. Rudyard Kipling may have been closer to the point with his call to the heart in his famous Poem. If…

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son![/groups_member]


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