July 16, 2012
Of course, there isn't one single Buddhist context for mindfulness either—scholars have great discussions about what the word actually means, and don't always agree, while different sanghas use different language and forms to point people in the direction of mindfulness. Understandings and practices are likely to vary between Buddhist communities, as they are likely to on mindfulness courses that aren't labelled Buddhist. And ultimately, the experience of mindfulness goes beyond the definitions of the word—it's something we engage with personally in our own minds and bodies and which the definitions, practice instructions and forms can only point us towards. So maybe painting this as Buddhist vs. secular isn't always helpful—there are many shades of presentation, but awareness is awareness—it isn't Buddhist or secular.
When we're mindful, what are we mindful of? Can you give me an example of what that looks like? It can look a little different according to how we're directing our attention. When we're practicing a formal meditation, we're being mindful of whatever we're paying attention to as part of our practice—that could be the breath, sensations in the body, sounds, sights, thoughts or something else. So in meditation, we train our mindfulness using different objects, paying attention to them and gently replacing our attention on them whenever our minds wander away, as they tend to do. However, this training is generally undertaken as a way of cultivating our ability to pay attention consciously outside of 'formal practice.' We can be mindful of a task we are engaged with, mindful of how we feel in our environment, mindful of the effect of our actions on others, and mindful of how we think, feel and behave leads or does not lead to a life of greater well-being for ourselves and others. All of this attending—which is an experiential sensing more than a thinking about—offers us useful information about our lives, giving us the capacity to work with each situation more skillfully than if we were not paying attention in this way. So, by training gently and patiently with different objects of attention—sometimes focusing more narrowly, or inwardly, sometimes more widely, or outwardly, and sometimes practicing receiving what is coming into our awareness in a very open, unlimited way, we can develop some choice and flexibility with our minds. What this looks and feels like is a more expansive, fully present knowing of what's really going on in our internal and external world, and a greater freedom from being compelled to act out our habitual, automatic patterns of perceiving and relating when those patterns aren't serving us.
How is the practice of mindfulness suited to helping us, individually and collectively, deal with the problems of modern life? To live well, we need to be able to see what's happening, in us and around us. We also need to know how not to get impulsively drawn into unskillful, reactive patterns of behavior that don't serve us or those around us well. Mindfulness offers us a way of paying attention to what's actually going on, to know what's happening at an experiential level. And that is something that we tend not to train ourselves in these days—instead our education system, our workplaces, our media, our governments, all tend to train us in creating and valuing concepts or products—we get stuck at a head level and a doing level, driven by thinking and activity. There's nothing wrong with ideas or products, but there's an imbalance in our culture whereby a more intuitive knowledge is ignored, or just not cultivated, and it is this kind of intuitive awareness that mindfulness practice can help us to unlock. So mindfulness could be a way for us to restore balance—to help us recalibrate in a way that enables us to connect with our deepest, most heartfelt values and to act in accordance with them more often. That in turn, could lead to us living happier, healthier lives in a happier, healthier world.