This is the seventh in a ten part series on my interpretation of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path…. or ‘eight things you should do to realise enlightenment’.
Parts 1-7 available here:
- Part 1: The Noble Eightfold Path: An Introduction
- Part 2: Right Understanding
- Part 3: Right Intention.
- Part 4: Right Speech
- part 5: Right Action.
- Part 6: Right Livelihood
- Part 7: Right Effort.
Aspect Seven – right mindfulness
“In our practice we have no particular purpose or goal… The way to practice is to limit your activity, or to be concentrated on what you are doing in this moment… then you can express your true nature” (Suzuki 1998).
Right mindfulness means to be aware of all that we do, minute by minute. It involves intense presence of mind and focus on what it is that you are doing, or ‘not doing’ in this moment. This means giving yourself fully to what you are doing in this moment, simply accepting what must be done and concentrating intently on just that. The difficult part of right mindfulness is the not-doing part, because right mindfulness proper means being aware of what is going on at the level of bare attention without being carried away by the mental constructs we associate with certain objects, people and experiences.
This is in fact very different to how most people go about their daily affairs. Most people tend only to focus on the activities they enjoy doing, which may well only add up to a relatively few hours each week. For most other tasks, namely work and mundane chores, people’s minds are often turned away from the present object of attention, rarely concentrated wholeheartedly on what it is they are actually doing.
We may think we are being aware of what we are doing, but quite frequently at work, for example, what we are doing now is full of anxiety about deadlines, or irritated feelings of tedium, and many of our interactions with colleagues may well be tainted by ill-will. If one is really honest with oneself, even on those occasions when one is doing what one wants, or being with the people one has chosen to be with, there are plenty of moments when one’s mind is elsewhere, not paying attention to what is going on, to what another person is saying, and thinking of something else: Any time spent watching Television is likely to be unconscious, time spent social networking nearly always entails residing in an inflated idea of your own importance, while many relationships are buoyed up by discussing plans for the future for example, all of which, in different ways, mean not being in this present moment.
Bikkhu Bodhi (2000) provides a useful explanation of the Buddha’s ‘four foundations of mindfulness’: Contemplation of the (1) body, (2) feelings, (3) states of mind and (4) phenomena. These contemplations centre on the observer holding increasingly subtle experiences at the level of bare attention.
Contemplation of the body
Is almost certainly going to be the easiest starting point for most of us to start with our mindfulness practice which is concerned with the material side of one’s existence.
The primary practice within this framework lies in formal breath meditation and loving kindness meditation, both of which we will return to in aspect eight.
Contemplation of the body also means being aware of how one uses the body. Traditional Buddhist instruction is to be aware of four basic bodily states: Walking, standing, sitting and lying down. In other words, whatever it is you are doing, you should be aware of your bodily self: If you are getting out of bed, just get out of bed, don’t think about breakfast, if you are washing up then pay attention to the washing as well as how you stack the plates, if you are opening the door, then just open the door rather than thinking about what is on the other side.
A final aspect of this practice is to contemplate the body’s unattractiveness and contemplation of the decay and death of the body as a means of reducing attachment to physical attractiveness. This will undoubtedly seem unsavoury to most, but it is something all of us are ultimately going to have to deal with in the latter half of our lives if we wish to be happy because, to put it bluntly, physical attractiveness deteriorates with age.
Contemplation of feelings
Means being aware of whether one has a positive feeling about something, i.e. whether one is attracted to someone or craves something, whether one has a negative feeling about something or someone, i.e. feelings of aversion, disgust, fear or anxiety, or whether one has a neutral feeling about something.
Practicing mindfulness here means paying attention to how these feelings arise without being carried away by them. Eventually, according to Bikkhu Bodhi (2010), all feelings pass and we come to realise that our ‘feelingful’ existence is just a flux of ‘pleasant – unpleasant – neutral’ and thus we realise the impermanent nature of these feelings. It is the development of this insight-wisdom that allows us to become less obsessed with striving after ‘pleasant’ or avoiding ‘unpleasant’ feelings. Whatever objects of attention give rise to such feelings; they are after all, just impermanent feelings.
Contemplation of states of mind
This is where right mindfulness starts to get extremely subtle. In this stage of the practice, we are just bringing to attention ‘general states of mind’, of which the Buddha identified 16, which encompass the entirety of mind-experiences(Wettimuny ND). As with many other elements of Buddhist ontology, these 16 states of mind are split into eight pairs.
– The mind with or without lust – The mind with lust refers to wanting not only physical objects and pleasurable sense sensations, but also the lust for higher states of consciousness.
– The mind with or without aversion – Remember that aversion includes not only anger and fear, but also subtler feelings such as jealousy, ill-will and dislike.
– The mind with or without delusion – A deluded mind is one which is concerned with ‘I-making’.
– The cramped or scattered mind – The former is a slothful state where the mind is lethargic, typically brought about by drugs or alcohol, while the later is a restless mind which flits from the present to the past to the future, or to different objects of attention.
– The developed or undeveloped mind – The developed mind is firmly established in right mindfulness, concentration and equanimity. An undeveloped mind is one that is overtaken by one or more of the five hindrances.
– The surpassable or unsurpassable mind – The surpassable mind is one which has a state that is superior to it, which is all states of mind other than the unsurpassable mind which is a mind in complete in detachment, meaning that that there is not the slightest trace of clinging or the slightest trace of resentment and one which does not hold to anything in the world. In such a mind, detachment is complete and that is the mind without a state superior to it.
– The concentrated or unconcentrated mind – A concentrated mind is one which is free of the five hindrances, even temporarily, while the unconcentrated mind is one which is taken over by one or more of the five hindrances.
– Whether the mind is in an ‘unfree’ state or a free state – The free mind refers to a mind which is free from fetters which prevent it from progressing to further refinement and vice-versa for the unfree mind. There are ten such fetters which include i) personality view, (ii) adherence to rites and rituals, (iii) doubt, (iv) desire for the pleasures of the senses, (v) aversion, (vi) desire for form, (vii) desire for the formless, (viii) the inherent tendency towards “I making” and “mine making” (ix) restlessness, (x) ignorance.
As with the later stages of the seven enlightenment factors, the later three elements of the sixteen states of mind may seem quite similar to each-other, and I’m guessing because contemplation of these is much more likely to be the kind of thing which more advanced mindfulness practitioners get into. For most of us, mindfulness of states of mind will almost certainly be rooted in developing our awareness of the first five sets of elements.
The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to help us realise that the mind, just like physical objects and feelings of pleasure, pain and neutrality, is also something that arises and ceases and it is not a permanent entity.
Contemplation of phenomena
This final aspect of mindfulness involves the contemplation of bare reality itself. According to Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000) this primarily centres on the observation of the five hindrances and the seven enlightenment factors in the context of being on the path to enlightenment. In this stage of mindfulness, we note when craving, aversion, tiredness, anxiety or doubt emerge and drill down into where they come from and how they disappear. Similarly with the Enlightenment factors, we here make a special effort to be mindful of how mindfulness leads to investigation and that to rapture and tranquillity and so on.
Right mindfulness is an important strategy to be employed to attain deep happiness because mindfulness is about brining your awareness closer to the present moment, and it is this present moment, that contains deep peace and clarity, rather than our own fantastical and illusory worlds of the past and future.