What is Mindfulness in Buddhism?
What does it mean to be mindful? And what does that mean in the Buddhist context?
Mindfulness is a word that seems to have become a popular buzzword, however there may be multiple meanings to the term mindfulness.
Essentially, mindfulness can be described as a state of active attention to the present, while we observe our thoughts and feelings from a distance (first person perspective) without judging them but by noticing the thought or feeling and then letting go of it.
So while we observe how we are reacting to day to day events, we can begin to see patterns in our minds those habit patterns we have accumulated during our time on earth.
These patterns give us insight into why we behave and think the way we do and it’s always because of either dwelling on the past or future. It is also an opportunity to respond instead of reacting out of past habit.
Mindfulness gives us the “inner space” needed to come back to the present without berating ourselves for what we perceive as failure to be mindful.
It can also be described as focused relaxation in which we allow our thoughts to come and go without the usual participation in thinking. Although this may seem impossible to some, one simply needs to keep practicing and anyone can achieve this “mind-state”.
However this kind of experience should not be seen as attainment of Nirvana. Nirvana is a much deeper and is beyond arising and passing away when we become completely selfless taking action only for the sake of relieving the suffering of others and as well as to “perceive” the true nature of ultimate reality.
Types of Mindfulness
In Buddhist thought, mindfulness is one of the branches of the Eightfold Path appearing as ‘Authentic or Wise Mindfulness’ (often mistranslated as ‘Right Mindfulness’) in the Buddha’s teachings.
It is the seventh step in the Eightfold Path. In order to achieve ‘Authentic or Wise Mindfulness’ one must first cultivate the Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort before we get to Right Mindfulness.
It is the process of coming to know who we really are and finding our true nature as devoid of inherent self-hood.
We are often so caught up in the mental dialogue, trying to project onto the world what we think it should be and what we think it shouldn’t be and as a result we suffer. When we are mindful we are not caught up in these judgements, because we notice them and then we let them go.
Although usually people think of mindfulness is an all-inclusive term, there are several types of mindfulness to take into consideration:
Mindfulness of the body – This is when we are aware of all parts of our bodies, how it moves, posture, position of your body parts, our breathing, the feel of grass gently grazing the skin. Simply become aware of your body.
Mindfulness of the emotions – Simply become aware of how you’re feeling? Don’t label anything good or bad, just be aware of your feelings as they are and acknowledge them, let them come and let them go
Mindfulness of the mind – Become aware of the inner dialogue of your mind, the largely “unobserved mind”. Carefully observe your mind and witness how our thoughts are just as fleeting as our bodies are.
Mindfulness of Dukkha (suffering) – Here we need to observe our lives and interactions with other humans to see the truth of suffering and the causes of suffering and that we can overcome suffering by walking the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, the Middle Way.
How To Be Mindful
So how do you know if you are really practicing mindfulness and not just thinking about mindfulness in a distracted state?
There are a variety of mindfulness practices that you can engage in such as walking meditation, performing a mundane task repeatedly, or meditation. What all of these practices have in common is that is requires us to focus our awareness within and notice what is going on inside of us and around us at this very instant.
However, this is easier said than done since our minds are engaged in habit-patterns and fills itself with often negative chatter. But keep in mind that you need to train yourself to be mindful and it won’t happen all at once, so don’t expect it to.
- Now take a break and become mindful of what you’re doing. Notice your feelings, sensations, smells, take it all in as deeply as you can in the next thing that you do. When you come back reflect on the following:
– “Were you thinking about being mindful instead of being mindful?”
– “Were you truly engaged at the task at hand, or were you reflecting about what you did today? Or you may have been fantasizing about something or thinking about this post?
Take a look at the below TED talk given by Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe who talks about mindfulness:
Mindfulness In the Modern World
Mindfulness as a popular term nowadays partly because of the popularity of Buddhism among psychotherapists who started noticing similarities between psychology and Buddhism which in itself is essentially the psychology of Nirvana.
The most recognized name in this area is Jon Kabat-Zinn who is associated with the famous Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. He started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program out of the University of Massachusetts which has enjoyed much success over the years
What he did was basically strip mindfulness of its Buddhist context, and Kabat-Zinn defined it as “moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, characterized mainly by “acceptance” – attention to thoughts and feelings without judging whether they are right or wrong. Mindfulness focuses the human brain on what is being sensed at each moment, instead of on its normal rumination on the past or on the future.”
Now you can see how all references to the Buddha’s teachings have been removed and reduced to a materialistic practice where we are just noticing our brains. In Buddhism we are not just mindful of our individual thoughts but we are also mindful of life being suffering, and mindful of the causes of suffering and its “cure” (the Eightfold Path). By Right Mindfulness we are being mindful that even our brains are ephemeral and fleeting. I feel this is missing from the present understanding of the term.
But even so, mindfulness practices have been embraced by many gyms and health clinics and have helped millions of people cope with their day to day stresses which means that people felt more in tune with their lives than previously.
As you can see there is a little bit of difference when it comes to mindfulness in a clinical context versus mindfulness in the Buddhist context.
I think that although Kabat-Zinn’s method does work, if you consider the Buddhist context you will see that it doesn’t focus on reducing stress but rather seeing and responding to the world in a completely different way, in a more deep way with love and compassion. To me Kabat-Zinn’s method is like presenting the HOW of mindfulness without taking a look at the WHY.
But for people in other religions this does work since they can incorporate into the religious practices that they already do.
I will close this article with a quote about mindfulness from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, found in the book The World of Tibetan Buddhism :
“Whether we are doing something good and worthwhile with our lives or not, time never waits but keeps flowing. Not only does time flow unhindered, but correspondingly our life too keeps moving onward all the time. If something has gone wrong, we cannot turn back time and try again. In that sense, there is no genuine second chance.
Hence, it is crucial for a spiritual practitioner constantly to examine his or her attitudes and actions. If we examine ourselves every day with mindfulness and mental alertness, checking our thoughts, motivations, and their manifestations in external behavior, a possibility for change and self-improvement can open within us.
Although I myself cannot claim with confidence to have made any remarkable progress over the years, my desire and determination to change and improve is always firm. From early morning until I go to bed and in all situations of life, I always try to check my motivation and be mindful and present in the moment. Personally, I find this to be very helpful in my own life.”
May we realize perfect Buddhahood for the sake of all living beings!
Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions in the comments below!