What Mindfulness Is And Isn’t

One of my favorite books about Buddhism, is an old, obscure tome named The Way to Buddhahood by the late Chinese master Yin-Shun. It’s a broad book that covers many subjects, but in meditation he has this to say:

Why should one practice meditation? There are many reasons, but the most important is that in this sinful world meditation is the only means of curing two big problems: attachment to sensual pleasure and scatteredness. Humans are attached to various sensual pleasures: material goods and agreeable sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and sex. They cling to present sensual pleasures; they think about past sensual pleasures; they seek blindly for future sensual pleasures. When people are without sensual pleasures, they struggle to get them; when they have them; they are afraid of losing them; after losing them, they become utterly miserable. Do not all the problems in the human world — social, economic, and political — exist because of desire for sensual pleasure? One should not be attached to the sensual pleasures, for they are like the honey on a knife blade; the honey has a sweet taste, but tasting it causes pain.

The human mind is scattered, much more so than the restless movements of monkeys, and because of this people easily become emotional, unable to clearly recognize reality (those who are extremely scattered cannot even understand worldly knowledge), unable to control themselves, and continually influenced by their changing environments.

trans. courtesy of Dr. Wing H. Yeung

This may be a wet blanket, especially to IT companies and other proponents,1 but please let me elaborate on this a bit.

The Buddha taught in the sutras that much of the human experience (and the experience of other sentient creatures too) is largely defined by two states:

  • Seeking of pleasure
  • Aversion to things we don’t like.

In the Buddha’s description of eight sufferings, he explains in one sutra, supposedly his first sermon (emphasis added):

“Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.

translation by Ñanamoli Thera

Further, the Buddha hinted at this over and over again in such texts as the Dhammpada:

369. Empty this boat, O monk! Emptied, it will sail lightly. Rid of lust and hatred, you shall reach Nibbana.

371. Meditate, O monk! Do not be heedless. Let not your mind whirl on sensual pleasures. Heedless, do not swallow a red-hot iron ball, lest you cry when burning, “O this is painful!”

translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita (also from the Dhammapada)

Hence, the point is that mindfulness meditation, at least in the Buddhist context, is a tool to help extricate gradually oneself from the extremes of craving and aversion by increasing mindful awareness, thereby. Lightening the load, so to speak, or avoiding the hot iron ball.

Implicitly, this was largely intended for renunciants (monks and nuns), since the whole point of renouncing the world was to give up the attachment to material life anyway. Being a lay person, living a normal mundane life, and yet practicing meditation, tend to be at odds with one another. To work around this, some lay people in the past (and even today) traditionally set aside days to practice with monks and nuns as a form of “temporary renunciation” called Uposattha, a kind of Buddhist sabbath.2

Further, Buddhism has traditionally viewed the Buddhist path as a kind of tripod with three legs:

  • Self-conduct – following the Five Precepts, your lifestyle, etc.
  • Cultivation – chanting, meditation, visualization, etc.
  • Wisdom – learning the Dharma from teachers, etc.

Doing mindfulness meditation without the other two “legs” just becomes kind of fruitless in the long run. The three legs support one another and taken together, even as a lay person, bear a lot of fruit over a long span of time.

So, I guess the point of all this is that if you want to help yourself, your kids, whatever, rather than banking on mindfulness, try a more balanced approach. Learn to be kinder to others, in speech and in thought, strive for honesty even when others aren’t around, and study the Dharma if even a little, and put it into practice (seriously, even a bit of chanting per day is kind of underrated, to say nothing about 5 minute meditation here and there).

I don’t push meditation or Buddhism in general on my kids, because I want them to be able to make their own choices, but at the same time, I really try to be a good role model for them, and live a clean (even if a bit boring) life and also be a “nice dad”.3 For me, the more holistic Buddhist approach (i.e. the “tripod”) has been a more useful approach and avoids putting all one’s eggs into a single basket.

1 I worked in IT at Amazon for almost 10 years (left the company 6+ years ago), and for a long time, I tried dealing with the stress there by meditating daily, 15-20 minutes or so. And you know what? It didn’t really help. I still had acid-reflux issues due to stress and worked long hours oncall for a job that didn’t really pay any better than other competitors. In the end, I left Amazon, and my life got noticeably better. That’s why I don’t trust Google and other companies that promote mindfulness in the workplace: it’s just putting a layer of silk over a pile of shit. In the end, the solution for me was a change in environment. The Buddha also taught the importance of environment in Buddhist practice as well.

2 I like to think of it as “live like a monk/nun” day, or even just for an evening. For a long time I blocked out every Tuesday night (no particular reason, just fewer things happening on Tuesday anyway) to live like a monk. Usually this meant abstaining from games, TV shows, etc, and do something Buddhist. I forget why I stopped, but maybe I should put that back on the calendar.

3 Dad jokes included.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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