River Valley Insight Meditation Community

A welcoming Buddhist Sangha in western Massachusetts

The Magic of Mindfulness

Talk given at Insight Meditation Center of Pioneer Valley

April 4, 2018

We hear a lot about mindfulness when we come to a meditation center or read about Buddhism.  It is a very important factor in our practice, and I’d like to spend some time going into more depth about what it is and how to create the conditions for its arising.

When mindfulness arises in the mind, we are present and connected with what is going on in our lives.  We are not lost in thoughts about the past, future or present moment.  We understand the difference between the actual physical experience of our lives, and our thoughts about it.  Even if what we are doing is mundane, it feels alive and precious.  Folding the laundry can be a sacred task.

Thich Nhat Hanh washing the dishes – When we wash the dishes, can we be fully present the in washing, and just wash the dishes?

When mindfulness arises, in that mind moment there is no desire or aversion.  We are free from the grasping mind which causes us suffering.  There is a sense of openness.  In this moment, there is a little taste of freedom.

I remember one time earlier in my practice when I was trying to do mindful walking.  I was trying so hard to be aware of every little sensation in the feet that I was tying myself up in knots.  It was very unpleasant, and that wasn’t mindfulness!  Mindfulness isn’t something that we can force to occur.  We do have the ability to direct our minds to something and pay attention to it, and sometimes we take that ability as the whole of mindfulness.  However, that is just part of the picture.

There are basically two ways that we are able to know something in our experience.  One is by paying close attention to it, which is what we do 90% of the time.  The other way of knowing, is through peripheral awareness, which is taking in everything around us and inside of us at the same time, but we are not focusing specifically on any one thing.  The neuroscientist, John Yates, Ph.D., says that mindfulness it is the optimal interaction between peripheral awareness and attention.  In other words, both of these mind factors are at play in a moment of mindfulness.

For instance, if I am chopping vegetables, and paying very close attention to the chopping, I might miss the fact that the pot on the stove is starting to boil over. Or, if I am simply being aware with very broad peripheral awareness, I might not be paying enough attention to my chopping, and could cut my finger! So, you can see that both awareness and attention are necessary for optimal mindfulness. In some cases, there may need to be more attention on a particular object, such as a sharp knife. In other cases, peripheral awareness may be primary, such as when you’re driving and need to be aware of the traffic around you. There may be less attention on the physical sensations of your hands on the steering wheel, and more peripheral awareness of the entire situation.

Let’s look at our meditation experience in order to point out these moments of mindfulness.  First, we sit down to meditate bring up the intention to pay attention to a particular object, such as the sensations of the breath or sound, or body sensations, or loving kindness phrases.  Naturally, after a few moments or minutes, attention will move to something else.  It could be objects such as a thought, sound, or a body sensation.  Since we initially had the intention to have our attention on something specific, at some point, a moment of mindfulness will arise where we are aware of the fact that our attention has drifted away from the initial object, and is focused on something else. 

In that moment, we are present and aware.  We see what is happening, specifically that our attention drifted away, but we are aware that we are still sitting here in the room with the intention to meditate.  We also see what it was that attracted our attention, and sometimes remember a series of thoughts or events that occurred after our attention drifted away.

So if we are either fairly new to meditating, or we have the habit of beating ourselves up when mindfulness arises, the goal at this point is to be aware of the moment of mindfulness itself. Notice the presence and awareness that are in the mind.  When we first start meditating, this is not very obvious, and we are simply aware of what it was that the mind jumped to, what caught our attention.  But we want to take a step back and notice the mindfulness itself.

What ever we pay attention to increases.  The way we increase mindfulness is by acknowledging it, feeling happy that it is here, maybe even giving ourselves praise that the mind had a moment of mindfulness, and continuing to bring up the intention to be mindful.

I would like to invite you to pay attention to every moment of mindfulness that comes up during this talk.  Inevitably, your mind will drift away to something else, and that some .mindfulness will arise and you will feel present again.  Notice that, and be happy about it!

If we do the habitual thing that most people in our culture do, which is to immediately beat ourselves up because the mind drifted away, it actually deconditions mindfulness.  Because mindfulness just arose, and then we beat ourselves up, it is less likely to arise in the future.

So, a skillful practice to develop in order to condition more mindfulness, is the habit of noticing moments of mindfulness and then praising the mind for being mindful.  There are also times when it is useful to notice what the mind has gotten caught in, but especially initially in practice, because we want to cultivate more moments of mindfulness, it may be more beneficial to pay attention to the moments of mindfulness themselves, rather than what the mind has gotten caught in.  There certainly are times where we need to start to be more aware of our habitual patterns, and want to pay attention to what the mind gets caught in, but we don’t want to leave out praising the positive, in order to just look at problems.

So, we can have these moments of what is called introspective awareness, where we see what’s happening in the mind, or we can have extrospective mindfulness of the outer world.  This is the type of mindfulness I was aiming for when I was grasping after the sensations of the feet. A wiser way of setting up the intention for that would have been to relax my body and mind, to just notice what sensations are already there and can be felt without any grasping. 

This is the same thing that we want to do when we are trying to be mindful of sensations of the breath. We can direct our attention to the sensations of the breath, but we don’t have to grasp after them to try to feel them. It’s just like we are resting our hands on our lap. We just naturally feel sensations in our hands when we do that, and don’t have to force it.

Although we believe that there is the possibility of continuing attention to the sensations of the breath, everything is rapidly arising and passing away in our experience. In other words, body sensations arise, are felt and are known by the mind moment after moment. There is no continual feeling of a particular sensation. It simply seems that way because things arise and pass away so quickly, and because of the way perceptions arise and we believe them to be reality. This is similar to watching a movie, and even though the we know there are individual pictures being projected, we don’t see the individual pictures, and simply see the movement being projected on the screen.

One of the key points here is that intention is of extreme importance. We need to continue practicing skillful intentions over and over again, until they start to bear fruit in our practice. We cannot just say to ourselves once, “okay, I’m going to follow the breath”, and then expect that attention will stay with the breath. However, if we keep bringing up the intention to notice mindfulness, and then redirect our attention to the sensations of the breath, eventually, the mind will start to settle.

If I want to try to balance the mind so that there is optimal attention and awareness, I would open up peripheral awareness to know everything else that’s going on as well as paying specific attention to the sensations in my feet.

We can build the power of the mind by having the intention to do both of these things concurrently.  So I’m able to walk and notice the sensations of the feet, and notice how they change, and with the type of per referral awareness which is introspective when the mind drifts away, I notice when that moment of mindfulness arises.  If there is something major which has caught my attention, such as a beautiful bird if I am walking outside, I can simply stop and direct my attention to the bird and be present with seeing and mindful of seeing, and then at some point redirect my attention back to the sensations in the feet.

In this way, there is no problem with anything that arises in our experience, whether it is external or internal.  It can all be used as part of our practice.

Here is what Bhante Gunaratana has to say about mindfulness.

One trap that we want to avoid is the expectation that we should be able to be mindful all the time.  At some point, once we are a Buddha, mindfulness will be continuous.  But, if you look at it carefully, the reason that we are not continuously mindful, is because there is some grasping, aversion or delusion in the mind.  When these hindrances arise, in that moment, there is no mindfulness.  Once we are free of the hindrances, then mindfulness is always present.

Let’s look at mindfulness in day overall teachings of the Buddha.

Mindfulness is one of the factors in the eightfold path

It is one of the seven factors of awakening.

And, it is the subject of the Satipatthana Sutta, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which is one of the main Buddhist teachings on meditation.

Right Mindfulness samma sati

from Access to Insight

© 2005

Right Mindfulness is the seventh of the eight path factors in the Noble Eightfold Path, and belongs to the concentration division of the path.

The definition (the four frames of reference)

“And what is right mindfulness? There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. This is called right mindfulness…

“This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of Unbinding — in other words, the four frames of reference.”

Thanissaro Bikkhu

“For the past several decades, a growing flood of teachings has advanced two theories about the practice of mindfulness (sati). The first is that the Buddha employed the term mindfulness to mean bare attention: a state of pure receptivity—non-reactive, non-judging, non-interfering—toward physical and mental phenomena as they make contact at the six senses.

The second theory is that the cultivation of bare attention can, on its own, bring about the goal of Buddhist practice: freedom from suffering … In the past few years, this flood of literature has reached the stage where even in non-Buddhist circles these theories have become the common, unquestioned interpretation of what mindfulness is and how it’s best developed.

These two theories are highly questionable and—for anyone hoping to realize the end of suffering—seriously misleading. At best, they present a small part of the path as the whole of the practice; at worst, they discredit many of the skills needed on the path and misrepresent what it actually means to taste awakening.

 The main aim of this book is to show that the practice of mindfulness is most fruitful when informed by the Buddha’s own definition of right mindfulness and his explanations of its role on the path. As he defined the term, right mindfulness (samm›-sati) is not bare attention. Instead, it’s a faculty of active memory, adept at calling to mind and keeping in mind instructions and intentions that will be useful on the path. Its role is to draw on right view and to work proactively in supervising the other factors of the path to give rise to right concentration, and in using right concentration as a basis for total release.”

The seven factors of Enlightenment are:

  1. Mindfulness (sati)
  2. Keen investigation of the dhamma (dhammavicaya)[3]
  3. Energy (viriya)
  4. Rapture or happiness (piti)
  5. Calm (passaddhi)
  6. Concentration (samadhi)
  7. Equanimity (upekkha)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *