Once we move beyond McMindfulness, as discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this blog series, we can explore the nature of mindfulness from its core teachings.
In this part, I develop a pedagogy as a foundation for awakening. I’ve selected the most relevant core teachings, topics, and resources of mindfulness from the Dharma to represent the “ground of mindfulness.”
NOTE: To support the learning in this blog series, we’ve created a page of terms, citations, and resources. Items in the blog followed by a number (1) or letter (a) are found on the resource page. Items with a lower roman numeral [i] are found in the endnotes below.
The Ground: Truth, Suffering, and Liberation
The ground of mindfulness is awareness of truth in each moment. By contemplating truth, we recognize its liberating nature. Whether scientific, historical, or personal, truth satisfies us when revealed, even if it might initially be uncomfortable.
As stated by Sōtō Zen priest Dainin Katagiri, “As human beings, we are currently present in the truth, but we are doomed not to know the truth exactly.”
We focus on the truth of suffering because it also holds the remedy. Exploring suffering requires examining how our ego-clinging mind can and will sidestep that truth. With grounded practice, the Dharma teaches us to investigate the clinging nature of attachments (to objects or ego) or identification (with experiences). Both are developed below.
The danger of secular mindfulness and McMindfulness is that it obscures the causes of suffering (see Part 1). We escape, rather than confront, the true nature of our suffering.
In his book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood (16) introduces the concept of spiritual bypassing as a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” In an interview with Wellwood, he states the following:
When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to … rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.
When we begin mindfulness, pain, suffering, and discomfort will surface. That is the point, not the problem, as stated by Atlantic writer Arthur Brooks in “Mindfulness Hurts. That’s Why It Works.” Brooks writes, “Facing the painful parts of life head-on is the only way to feel at home with yourself.”
Still, rather than address the truth, some focus solely on the circumstances or on others as the sole source of suffering without also looking inward. Many others use Buddhist teachings such as impermanence, karma, and compassion to avoid rather than confront pain.
People may avoid issues by claiming that “it will pass,” “that’s karma,” or invoke compassion to avoid their own discomfort, hence, enabling rather than feeling pain.
Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön calls this form of compassion “idiot compassion”: Instead of offering a friend medicine, bitter though it may be when ingested, you feed them more poison—and you don’t take away the cause of the pain.
The Four Noble Truths
Buddhist philosophy begins with the Four Noble Truths:
- The truth of suffering: there is dukkha (Pali for un-satisfactoriness or suffering),
- The truth of the cause of suffering; dukkha has root causes (greed, ignorance, and hatred),
- The truth of the end of suffering, or freedom from dukkha, and
- The truth of a path leading to freedom from suffering is the Eightfold Path.
1- The Truth of Suffering
This truth acknowledges a fundamental aspect of the human experience.
The Buddhist idea of suffering (dukkha) includes the entire range of human dissatisfaction and anguish beyond the clinical disorders described by psychiatry.
Buddhism mostly refers to the emotional or mental aspects of suffering rather than physical suffering, per se. The feeling of suffering here is more like a general dissatisfaction, akin to feeling off-kilter. Ever drive a car with a wheel out of alignment? Notice the extra effort required just to keep the car in your lane? This extra exertion feels uneasy, restless, and even stressful. This is dukkha.
Meditation master Chogyam Trungpa [i] reminds us of this paradox, ”at the same time, because of the clarity of mind, the pain itself becomes more pronounced — not because the pain is more, but because the confusion is less.
Mindfulness supports remembering this state as part of our common humanity. All beings share the desire to be happy while experiencing hopes, fears, anxieties, and confusion. We all want to relieve our dissatisfaction.
These “truths” show us the way.
2- The Truth of the Origin of Suffering
Dukkha also refers to that which is temporary, conditional, and (inter)dependent on other causes and conditions. Even something precious and enjoyable is dukkha because it will end.
Chögyam Trungpa (15) reminds us that “the practice of meditation is not designed to develop pleasure, but to understand the truth of suffering…” The general cause or truth of suffering is greed or desire. From the Dharma, the word “tanha” more accurately translates as “thirst” or “craving.”
There are three types of dukkha:
- The suffering of suffering (dukkha-dukkha) refers to the physical and emotional discomfort and pain all humans experience in their lives.
- The suffering of change (viparinama-dukkha) refers to suffering that arises from an inability to accept change. People cling to pleasurable experiences and feel sad when these moments pass. They cannot accept the truth of impermanence.
- The suffering of existence (sankhara-dukkha) is best described as a background of suffering caused by judgments, thoughts, and anxiety simply by things not being how we want them to be rather than how they exist.
Finally, continued dukkha is called Samsara, or a cycle of suffering. In general, this unsatisfactory state is perpetuated by desire and avidya (ignorance) and the resulting karma.
Investigating dukkha surfaces the conditions that create attachments and identifications, revealing these causes of suffering.
Attachment is grasping or clinging to some object, self, or identification with an experience. Non-attachment does not suggest giving up things; rather, we release our “clinging” or attachment to things.
Identification is like attachment and can be knotty. When we experience a failure, loss, or any emotion such as sadness, our singular self concludes that we are a failure, unlovable or sad person. Mindfulness brings awareness to identifying with our experience as “me” and “mine.” Non-identification releases our experience from “me.”
Joseph Goldstein (2) describes non-attachment as “simply not holding on, not grasping, whereas detachment implies a distancing from experience, a pulling away, a stance of someone who is being detached.” Although non-attachment connects to experience, detachment disconnects us from it—often occurring as indifference.
“Facing the painful parts of life head-on is the only way to feel at home with yourself.”
—Arthur Brooks, Atlantic Magazine
Karma is also connected to this truth. Westerners too often think karma means “fate” or some cosmic justice system. For example, someone might say John lost his job because “that’s his karma.” This is not a Buddhist understanding of karma, however.
Karma is a Sanskrit word that means “action,” more specifically, volitional or willful action. Things we choose to do, say, or think set karma into motion. Therefore, karma is the law of cause and effect, as laid out by Jon Kabat-Zinn (4) in his 1994 book, Wherever You Go There You Are:
[Karma] means the sum total of the person’s direction in life and the tenor of the things that occur around that person, caused by antecedent conditions, actions, thoughts, feelings, sense impressions, desires. Karma is often wrongly confused with a notion of fixed destiny. It is more like an accumulation of tendencies that can lock us into particular behavior patterns, which themselves result in further accumulations of tendencies of a similar nature.
One of my teachers, Zen teacher John Daido Loori, said, “Cause and effect are one thing. And what is that one thing? You. That’s why what you do and what happens to you are the same thing.”
In her book The Original Buddhist Psychology, Beth Jacobs (3) describes karma as the “inherent activity of every process; actions of consciousness by the carriers of karma.”
3- The Truth of the End of Suffering
The Third Noble Truth offers a remedy.
In his book, Joyful Wisdom, Mingyur Rinpoche (9) asserts that “the ‘positive prognosis’ of the Third Noble Truth is that the limited or limiting ideas we hold about ourselves, others, and every other experience can be unlearned.”
The solution to dukkha is to stop clinging (to ego-self) and attaching (to objects and experiences). It requires more than technique, knowledge, or willfulness to “let go” of clinging.
The seeds of our suffering are embedded via deep, habitual attachments and karmic patterns that remain concealed from us. We cannot merely vow not to crave anything. Moreover, clinging to things to be happy or keep us safe or grasping fleeting experiences cannot satisfy us for long because all of this is impermanent.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (4) reminds us of this:
It is easy to become imprisoned by our karma and to think that because it always lies elsewhere — with other people and conditions beyond our control, never within ourselves. It is always possible to change your karma. You can make new karma.
Only discerning these experiences can begin to liberate us. Emotional afflictions obscure us from seeing clearly.
Nineteenth Century Tibetan scholar, poet, and artist Jamgön Kongtrül [i] reminds us that liberation comes awareness of our suffering; “the ultimate understanding of pain is not that you can get rid of your pain, but you can have a higher understanding of pain.”
This is where mindfulness and a clear path of practice can support us—hence, the Fourth Noble Truth.
4- The Truth of the Path that Frees Us from Suffering
A large part of Buddha’s teaching was about the Eightfold Path: eight broad areas of practice that range from wisdom to ethical conduct to mental discipline or moment-to-moment mindfulness. The path encompasses every action of body, speech, and mind to explore and walk for the rest of our life.
The roots of mindfulness can be found in the Eightfold Path. The eight factors are divided into three progressive and interdependent stages a) the development of ethical discipline, integrity, and virtues (sīla); b) the development of concentration (samādhi); and c) the attainment of wisdom (prajñā) leading to liberation (nirvana) as follows:
I- Wisdom (prajñā or paññā):
- Right View (understanding): Insight into the true nature of reality.
- Right Intention (thoughts): The selfless wish to realize enlightenment.
II- Ethics or wholesome lifestyle (sīla):
- Right Speech: Use compassionate speech. Thich Nhat Hanh (11) notes that “deep listening is at the foundation of Right Speech.” [ii]
- Right Action: Using wisdom to manifest compassion.
- Right Livelihood: Making a living through ethical means that do not cause harm.
III- Mental Discipline or Meditation (samādhi):
- Right Effort: Bringing diligence and joy to cultivate wholesome qualities and to release unwholesome qualities.
- Right Mindfulness: Expand and deepen the whole body and mind awareness.
- Right Concentration: Through meditation and discernment, develop a deep, single-point focus.
Essentially, “the Path” involves recognition and integration of the dharma. Below is one model of the integrated path. This Triadic Mindfulness Model by Ron Purser (f) illustrates the “interdependent, bidirectional interactions between right view, right effort, and right mindfulness—key path factors in understanding how Buddhist mindfulness is a path leading toward skillful mental states and ethical behavior.”
In his book, Ethical Mindfulness, Dharma Punx (14) teacher David Smith advocates teaching mindfulness in the context of the Eightfold Path, which involves wisdom (prajñā), ethics (sīla), and mental discipline (samādhi), as part of the Four Noble Truths.
The Mind in Mindfulness
Whether we apply mindfulness to challenge structural issues in corporations or society, decrease stress, deepen connections, dissolve ego-clinging, or access spiritual insights, we must first learn to recognize and accept our mind (beyond Western “materialistic” notions of the brain or conceptual notions of our “head”).
This can be hard for many who see “external” issues as separate from the mind. The dharma recognizes what Swami Prajnanpad has said, “Everything is different, nothing is separate.”
Buddhist psychology focuses on the direct experience, consciousness, awareness, mind, and subjectivity of the individual. This is a descriptive phenomenology of mind, a science of experience.
Scholar Andrew Olendzki reveals this core Buddhist insight embedded in the practice of mindfulness:
The mysteries of the human condition can be explored in the subjectivity of the present moment. The stream of consciousness is a field of investigation. By studying the mind, we come to know ourselves.
As a practice, mindfulness reveals the subtle workings of our mind. To liberate our mind from the emotional afflictions clouding our perceptions requires cultivating awareness and recognizing the afflictions in our lives.
Indeed, the Buddhist practice of mindfulness practice can change karma, as stated by Kabat-Zinn (4):
When you sit, you are not allowing your impulses to translate into action. For the time being, you were just watching them. Not feeding or reacting to impulses, you come to understand their nature as thoughts directly. … Mindfulness can thereby refashion the links in the chain of actions and consequences, and in doing so, it unchains us, frees us, and opens up new directions for us through the moments we call life.
The Power of Mindfulness
In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (11) says that right mindfulness is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching: “When Right Mindfulness is present, the Four Noble Truths and the other seven elements of the Eightfold Path are also present.”
Indeed, Mindfulness connects to many parts of the dharma. In addition to the Eightfold Path, it’s part of the five spiritual faculties, five powers, and seven factors of enlightenment.
The Pali word for “mindfulness” is sati. Sati also means “to remember,” “recollection,” or “alertness.” To be mindful is to be fully present, not lost in daydreams, anticipation, indulgences, or worry.
Joseph Goldstein (2) offers this fuller view of sati:
Not forgetting. The first application of mindfulness is the quality of not forgetting. Not losing what is before the mind in the present moment, mindfulness stays firmly with the object without wobbling or drifting off. … [It] also strives to bring us back to the object each time we get lost, like a signpost.
Presence of mind. The second aspect is the quality of standing near the mind, which manifests as being face-to-face with whatever is arising rather than giving it only sidelong glances.
Remembering. Here, mindfulness calls to mind or remembers what is skillful and what is not, … and what is beneficial and what is harmful. … Mindfulness makes it possible to follow the Buddha’s instructions to let go of and abandon what is unskillful and to develop and cultivate what is skillful.
Goldstein continues that mindfulness is a key to our inner moral compass:
If we don’t remember and call to mind what is wholesome and what is not, then we simply toss about on the waves of habitual mind states, often acting out the latent tendencies of different defilements.”[iii]
“… because of the clarity of mind, the pain itself becomes more pronounced — not because the pain is more, but because the confusion is less.”
— Meditation master Chogyam Trungpa
Integrating Sati with “Right Mindfulness” from the Four Noble Truths, as detailed by Ron Purser (f), “[clarifies] not only the meaning of sati as described in both the Abhidhamma and the early sutta literature but also the role and function it plays in the larger scheme of the Buddhist path of liberation.”
Within this context, we can begin to explore the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as established in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta.
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta that we study for mindfulness means the “establishment of mindfulness.” These four foundations cultivate awareness of bodily sensations, emotional afflictions, mental obscurations, and awareness of phenomena that support seeing the nature of reality.
1. Mindfulness of the body (Pāli: kāyagatā-sati; Skt. kāya-smṛti).
By observing the breath, by counting breaths, we can focus on the whole body. When thoughts or sensations arise, we note them as “thinking” and come back to breaths. Body awareness is also taken into body movement.
- With awareness and practice, we can dissolve clinging to the body or bodily sensations.
2. Mindfulness of feelings (Pāli vedanā-sati; vedanā-smṛti)
By observing feelings and sensations as pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral, we note feeling tones. Observing feelings, we experience their nature as they arise, endure, and fade away.
- With awareness and practice, we can dissolve clinging to feelings.
3. Mindfulness of the mind (Pāli citta-sati; citta-smṛti)
By focusing on mental activity, we observe unwholesome mental states of the three poisons (desire, delusion, and anger) and Kleshas. We learn to observe our mental states without judgment or opinion and notice their fleeting nature.
- With awareness and practice, we can dissolve clinging to mental activity.
4. Mindfulness of mental qualities or phenomena (Pāli dhammā-sati; dharma-smṛti)
Through discerning awareness, we begin to see a “natural law” (another meaning of the term, dharma) with interdependence, interconnectedness, and inter-existence. The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta also includes further technical categories[iv] to assist practitioners in exploring the inner landscape of mental experience to achieve insight.
- With practice, we can dissolve clinging to concepts and experiences that can hold us back as we develop awareness and compassion.
The four foundations of mindfulness support the insightful awareness of truth in every moment.
By increasing awareness during meditation and recognizing awareness in post-meditation, we can begin releasing cravings and attachments. This includes dropping the mental habit of judging everything according to whether we like it or not.
Being fully mindful means being fully attentive to everything as it is, not filtering everything through our subjective opinions.
Through our study of the Eightfold Path and the discipline and patience we bring to the Four Foundations, we can practice mindfulness in a way that allows us to observe and release habits of mind that maintain the illusion of a separate self.
Our belief in a separate self is the source of our ignorance. We will focus on this view of the self in Part 4 of this blog.
Reading Time: 13.5 min. Digest Time: 18 min.
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[i] This section on “The Four Noble Truths” includes material from Chogyam Trungpa and Jamgön Kongtrül (pg 395) from the text, The Path of Liberation (see reference page).
[ii] Thich Nhat Hanh (11) addresses the importance of Deep Listening as core to Right Speech, expanding this teaching: “Compassionate listening brings about healing … we feel some relief right away. When no one listens to us or understands us, we become like a bomb ready to explode” (pp 86-88.)
[iii] Defilements is a technical Buddhist term for “unwholesome” or “confused mental states.”
[iv] The Fourth Foundation (Establishment) of Mindfulness involves discerning several dharma teachings: five hindrances, five skandhas (aggregates of clinging), six sense bases, ten fetters, seven factors of awakening, and Four Noble Truths.
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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.
As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.