The Deeper Meaning of Mindfulness

One of the people who visited our Buddhist monastic community,
Sravasti Abbey, kindly made signs for the other guests. At the tea
counter she wrote, ‘Please clean up spills. Thank you for your
mindfulness.’ A sign on a door said, ‘Please close the door
quietly. Thank you for your mindfulness.’ I began to wonder what
she meant by mindfulness. It seemed it had become another
one of those Buddhist buzzwords, like karma, that many people use
but few understand.

Then I read an article in which mindfulness was applied
to eating an orange-paying attention to its sweetness and texture,
the experience of eating it. In a discussion group, I heard the
word used to describe the experience of watching one’s grandchild
play and appreciating those moments of joy.

While some of these examples are valid and beneficial uses of
mindfulness practice, do they lead to enlightenment? Are they
examples of mindfulness as understood in traditional Buddhist
texts, where mindfulness is an essential component of the path to
liberation?

Mindfulness is a comfortable word for Americans;
renunciation is not. Renunciation conjures images of living in a
damp cave and eating bland food, with no companions, iPod, or
credit cards. In our consumer culture, renunciation is seen as a
path to suffering. As the Buddha defined it, renunciation is a
determination to be free from dukkha, the unsatisfactory
conditions and suffering of cyclic existence. Renunciation is being
determined to give up not happiness, but misery and its causes.

Because our minds are clouded by ignorance, we often don’t have
a clear understanding of dukkha and its causes. The remedy
is to be mindful of how things actually are. In the Vipallasa
Sutra, the Buddha described four basic ways we misconstrue our
experience-known as the four distortions of mind because things are
grasped in a way that is opposite to how they actually are.

Holding the Impermanent as Permanent

Although intellectually we may know that our body is aging every
moment, our deeper feeling is that this body will last forever and
that death won’t really come to us-at least not anytime soon.
Similarly, we see our relationships as being fixed, and when dear
ones die, we are shocked. We wanted to be with them forever and
clung to the hope that we would be.

We can learn to deal with impermanence gracefully, but this
occurs only when we recognize the erroneous preconception of
permanence and are mindful of the transient nature of people and
things.

Trusting That Unsatisfactory Things Bring
Happiness

What gives us pleasure also brings us problems: The perfect
partner leaves us, our beloved child rebels, the promotion that
elevates our status increases the hours we must work. The pleasures
of cyclic existence continually let us down, yet we keep coming
back for more, thinking that this time lasting happiness will
ensue.

Through being mindful of the second distortion, we realize that
most of what society has taught us about happiness is simply
untrue. We must seek lasting happiness through eliminating the
actual causes of misery-afflictive emotions and the actions (karma)
motivated by them.

Believing the Unattractive to Be Attractive

The ‘body beautiful’ is one of our favorite fixations. But if
the body is so attractive, why do we go to so much effort to change
it? ‘Staying young’ is a major commercial enterprise in this
country. But what if we harmonized ourselves with reality? We are
aging. Can we learn to be joyful with wrinkled skin, gray hair,
lack of sexual interest, and sagging muscles? Aging doesn’t have to
be distressing, but our wrong view makes it so.

Grasping at Things That Have No Inherent
Self

The most detrimental distorted view sees a self in the body and
mind. We think and feel that there is a real ‘me’ here, and that I
am the most important ‘me’ in the world. We create an image of a
person and then obsess about living in accord with this
fabrication: We pretend to be who we think we are. Yet even at a
superficial level, many of our thoughts about ourselves are
incorrect: We are not inherently ugly, beautiful, talented,
inadequate, lazy, stupid, inept, or any of the other charming or
disparaging qualities we attribute to ourselves.

Not only do we believe that there is a real, enduring ‘me’ who
is (or should be) in control of our bodies, minds, and lives, we
also believe that other people and objects have some findable
essence. We trust that things exist in the way they appear to
exist. Thus we believe that someone who appears to be an enemy is
inherently despicable and dangerous. We fight to protect our
possessions as ‘mine.’ Due to the ignorance that imputes a solid
and unchanging essence to selfless and changing phenomena, a host
of afflictive emotions arises, and we fall under the sway of
craving, fear, hostility, anxiety, resentment, arrogance, and
laziness.

By being mindful of the opposites of the four
distortions-impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, unattractiveness, and
selflessness-we clearly see the problems the four distortions
cause, and a powerful wish to be free from them emerges. This is
renunciation.

This kind of mindfulness gives us the courage and ability to
oppose our habitual, self-centered ways. Looking around, we see
that all other beings are just like us in wanting happiness and
wishing to be free of suffering, and thus arises the altruistic
intention to work for their benefit. Being mindful of the benefits
of cherishing others opens our hearts to genuine love and
compassion. Our deep interconnection with others gives rise to the
intention to eliminate all obscurations from our minds and to
develop our capabilities limitlessly so that we can best benefit
them. That is how mindfulness leads to liberation.

Thubten Chodron is an American-born Tibetan nun and abbess
of Sravasti Abbey, a Buddhist monastic community near Spokane,
Washington. Her most recent book is
Cultivating a
Compassionate Heart (Snow Lion, 2006). Reprinted from the
Buddhist magazine
Shambhala Sun (Sept. 2006).
Subscriptions: $17.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 3377, Champlain, NY
12919; www.shambhalasun.com.

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