In this final blog, I connect a few important concepts related to restoring wisdom to mindfulness via Buddhist psychology.
Recall that, in Part 3, I introduced the Four Noble Truths. We see mindfulness in the training category of “mental discipline” in the Eightfold Path. The ethics of mindfulness is in the training category of “ethical conduct.”
Wisdom is the overlooked category in Western learning. This begins with our socialization and education. Wisdom simply gives way to practical knowledge in the American worldview. Yet without wisdom, we lack grounding, a compass, or clarity.
Wisdom Beyond Knowledge
In times of volatile change and growing complexity, “objective” knowledge cannot do the heavy lifting required of wisdom. The depth and complexity of this training informs the Eightfold Path through “view” and “intention.” Developing this training category is unlike the other training categories.
- Mental discipline (samādhi) involves meditation practice and training to develop right mindfulness, right concentration, and right effort.
- Ethical conduct (sīla) involves a focus on self-management and behavior, embodying the principles of right speech, right action, and right livelihood.
- Wisdom (prajñā) involves subtle perceptions, thoughts, and understanding. Wisdom, or Prajna, develops a penetrating discernment that cuts through the fog of our lives and informs ethical conduct and mental discipline.
Indeed, the very rise in popularity (and acceptance) of mindfulness these past few decades mirrors the increasing levels of change and complexity and breakdown of our other knowledge-based learning systems in society.
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A Glimpse of Wisdom
In Buddhist thought, wisdom integrates right view with right intention.
The Eightfold Path is not a series of progressive steps but rather a part of an interdependent whole. Here, right view shapes the commitment to these other steps.
Right view focuses on discerning the correct way to look at existence. This involves a view of the self and phenomena that is interdependent, impermanent, and empty of intrinsic meaning (which is explored later in this blog). It results in seeing things as they are.
Right intention focuses on the thoughts that shape our experience. We cultivate three aspects: 1) dissolving indulgences and attachments to counter desire, 2) increasing goodwill to counter ill will, and 3) developing wholesomeness to counter harmfulness.
Unlike knowledge, which involves adding content and concepts, wisdom involves letting go (intention) and seeing (view) through concepts to create space for wisdom to emerge.
1- Awakening Wisdom
Wisdom means deeply knowing or understanding the truth to penetrate distortions.
Wisdom is the missing link for what ails us today. Hence, we must learn to cultivate, recognize, and access the wisdom available via the core teaching of mindfulness.
How do we cultivate wisdom?
We develop wisdom through a cycle of discovery, inquiry, application, and realization that circles back to discovery.
In Buddhist psychology, the Three Prajnas (wisdoms) lay out a cycle of hearing, contemplating, and meditating. As is typical with Buddhist psychology, these terms have different implications for the Western mind.
The wisdom embedded in the three prajnas is common among traditions.
The Three Prajnas
Each subsequent stage emerges from the previous one as a cycle of discovery and awakening.
- Hearing. The Tibetan word “thöpa” means “to hear,” as in hearing intellectual studies. This involves listening, observing, and studying knowledge. Hearing invites exploration to understand new terminology and concepts. At first, this may seem like a blur of thoughts, feelings, and sensations all running together.
- Contemplating. Here, “sampa” means “to think about” and involves our experiences as we apply and digest knowledge. We experiment and discover many flavors and feelings of learning to distinguish concepts. We reflect on our experiences and engage in activities such as journaling, discussions, developing questions, discovering enhancements, and even gaps.
- Meditating. The third wisdom principle, “gompa,” means “to familiarize” or “to habituate to.” Here, we bring knowledge into the heart and mind to metabolize insights beyond a conceptual understanding. From the intellect to the heart, knowledge gives way to flashes of insight and realization, integrating it with different experiences to habituate a way of being. Instead of using knowledge, we are now used by knowledge.
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This cycle reduces suffering by releasing one’s expectations to know and understand everything. It allows us to be where we are. There are two essential insights:
- First, this cycle normalizes a process that involves confusion. Letting go of goals and expectations, we can appreciate the confusion that precedes clarity.
- Second, we learn to accept that wisdom requires awareness and discovery. The initial “hearing” of teachings is the first round of learning that develops the foundation for future cycles.
This is quite different from the linear manner that Americans learn. Typically, we add more knowledge to memorize rather than metabolize – without the reflection necessary to discover or integrate experiences or to release outmoded views or beliefs.
Buddhist psychology requires a circular, embodied approach to digest and transcend its lists, frameworks, terms, and concepts in our lives. These blogs offer a tiny slice of the Dharma. No doubt, you may have already experienced some confusion. Be where you are.
2- Buddhist Psychology
Buddhist psychology is primarily about awakening via self-knowledge, understanding our decisions, actions, thoughts, feelings, and so forth. It aims to challenge our worldview by addressing the root of our psychological functioning, our sense of who we are, and our relationships with others and with the world.
The primary concern of Buddhist psychology is alleviating human suffering, distress, and dissatisfaction. Our psychological state depends not so much on particular things or circumstances but more on how we relate to what life brings our way. It acknowledges that pain—whether physical or emotional—is an unavoidable part of life, and with that pain comes some suffering.
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However, as human beings, we tend to add additional layers of psychological suffering through how we engage with our experiences. Specifically, we desire to control things—to hold on to what we want and push away the unpleasant.
The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path (Part 3) teach us to cut through the dualistic separation (ignorance) of grasping and aversion that produces attachments. They offer a post-meditation way to increase awareness and openness. We cultivate generosity by appreciating this moment and practicing non-judgment and compassion toward whatever arises (see the diagrams above and below).
Mindfulness is not about throwing out all worries and simply “living for the moment.” Nor is it a recipe for passivity or a self-improvement technique that focuses solely on a separate, solid, and singular self.
Rather, mindfulness is connecting fully with the here and now, recognizing there is a past and future but not fixating on these.
The practice of mindfulness cultivates awareness, openness, and clarity to be less reactive, creating more space to make choices about things such as what perspectives to feed (or release) and what actions to take (or not take). Mindfulness helps us lead wiser and more fulfilling lives.
Self in Buddhist Psychology
Western psychological models relating to human functioning view the self and phenomena existing as solid, separate, and singular. Buddhist psychology (and much of the Eastern view) relates to the self and all phenomena as impermanent, interdependent, and complex.
Physicist David Bohm[i] once said there are no nouns, only slow verbs. In the West, we tend to view the self as a noun (thing), while the East views it more as a verb (fluid). These different views or normative ideals highlight the confusion over the “self” involved in mindfulness, clouding the way many Westerners teach, practice, research, and even talk about mindfulness.
Terms such as shame, pride, guilt, attachment, detachment, karma, dependent, emptiness, mind, self-esteem, peace, and happiness, to name a few, have the opposite or no meaning in Eastern cultures. This confusion stems from the Western view of our habitual self as separate from its environment, solid with a core, and fixed as immutable.
To restore wisdom to mindfulness involves expanding beyond our habitual, binary view of self, as discussed in the three pillars below.
3- Three Pillars of Self and Phenomena
In his book Joy of Living, Mingyur Rinpoche (8) reveals the conditioning of “an independent or inherently existing self and independently or inherently existing others.” Informed by a belief in separation, we seek to satisfy and protect this view.
Mindfulness reveals these qualities of self: a) impermanence (always changing), b) interdependence (causes and conditions all related to each other), and c) multiplicity (many different parts and pieces). NOTE- These qualities support an understanding of emptiness, Shunyata (Sanskrit), or spaciousness, a concept beyond the scope of this blog.
The Western notion of permanence views the self as lasting and inherently fixed, so we expect constancy, no surprises. Holding onto my view of the self or reality offers comfort that things will remain the same—as expected.
Impermanence, however, views change as normal and inevitable, eliminating any notion of a fixed or “inherently existing self.”
Our resistance to impermanence leads to suffering. We strive to hold onto our beliefs and pleasures, which must evolve and pass, and we avoid the pain of the unknown and uncertainty that come with change (see the video by Alan Watts). <!—chinese farmer alan watts -->
Accepting impermanence allows for endings that honor arising, abiding, and passing. This applies to all phenomena: rocks, buildings, flowers, animals, feelings, concepts, business processes, and products.
In his book Conscious Business, author and mindfulness practitioner Fred Kofman (6) eloquently states, “Endings make things unique and valuable. They highlight the preciousness of experience. They remind us to stay conscious at every step of the process.”
Mindfulness increases awareness of the arising, abiding, and passing nature of all experiences and phenomena. We discover more spaciousness for the unknown.
Mindfulness meditation enables us to navigate the nature of change and prepares us for a post-meditation life. We find ourselves more grounded and present.
The West prizes the self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and control of independence, rejecting the notion of depending on anyone. We go it alone.
Interdependence, however, reveals how life arises, exists, continues, and ceases. These insights release any attachment to control and view reality as mutually dependent (not co-dependent) on numerous causes and conditions. (See the Twelve links of dependent origination for the traditional concept of the 12 Nidanas, which is beyond the scope of this blog). The awareness of conditioning and existence reveals the interconnected nature and leads to deep insights, appreciation, and gratitude (see this video). <!—Giving thanks: A.J. Jacobs on his gratitude journey cbs sunday morning -->
The wholeness of thought and experiences includes transcending the barrier between subject and object and all conditioning, including temporality and intergenerational existence.
The human body, for example, is mutually dependent on the wind, sun, oceans, plants, and animals. Each offers us the vitamins and energy to breathe in and out of the cycle of life.
Mindfulness cultivates openness to dissolve any delusion of our solid, separate self into a fluid co-arising process of thoughts, emotions, and sensations with experiences.
Interdependent awareness accepts that we can never fully know all causes or conditions of aggression, sadness, anxiety, and so forth. Thus, we develop the awareness and humility to appreciate the unknown, loving–kindness to be gentle with our speech and actions, and compassion to relate to all sentient beings as part of our experience.
The Western view holds a discrete and singular view of the self, creating a strong sense of me and mine. Perfectly American, the self is unique, special, and different from others. I navigate life by comparing myself to others and competing with them.
There’s just one of me, so I must be the best. Even my suffering is mine, unique and different from others. Me and mine separate us from “others.”
This view deludes us into believing that we know who we are, that we know which “me” is “mine.”
In his book Joy of Wisdom, dharma teacher Mingyur Rinpoche (9) explains that “from the delusion of permanence arises the idea of singularity”:
… the belief that the “essential core” that persists through time is indivisible and uniquely identifiable. Even when we say things like “that experience changed me” or “I look at the world differently now,” we are still reaffirming a sense of “me” as a single whole, and inner “face” through which we gaze at the world.
Multiplicity understands that the self includes many pieces and parts: we exist in contexts, roles, positions, commitments, relations, moods, and so forth.
Multiplicity honors all the conditions and processes that respond to the fluidity and changeability of the self and reality. Recognizing these parts and processes in ourselves supports seeing them in others, enabling us to connect with and understand others.
Mindfulness surfaces and dissolves ego-clinging that supports a unique self.
Mindfulness loosens our fixation on emotions. We feel our experiences, examine strong emotions, and investigate whatever obscures our perception rather than bypassing any discomfort.
Three Gems and Sangha “Eyes”
Developing mindfulness beyond an individual, solitary, and isolated enterprise requires practice in accepting interdependent awareness.
Buddhist thought offers the three gems, representing an interdependent whole:
- the Buddha (the teacher or example),
- the Dharma (the teachings or path), and
- the Sangha (the community or companions).
Appreciating the “three gems” requires unlearning two socialized elements that undermine community: our individualistic worldview and our competitive mindset.
We often seek out a good teacher, purchase the suggested material, and go off and learn alone to avoid becoming vulnerable. The wisdom of mindfulness developed thus far has addressed some of these habitual patterns.
Community —whether a formal setting or informally with companions—is key to developing a mindfulness practice that we bring into post-meditation life.
According to Zen scholar Thich Nhat Hanh (11) (what is Sangha) “community gives us ‘sangha eyes’”:
When a sangha shines its light on our personal views, we see more clearly. In the sangha, we won’t fall into negative habit patterns.[ii]
Scholar and author Peter Senge,[iii] elaborated on this understanding with his notion of the “Community Nature of Self,” suggesting that the “constitution of the self can only happen in community”:
When we reify the self, we set ourselves up as objects for use. We then treat encounters with others as transactions that can add or subtract to the possessions of the ego. In this process we treat community as nothing more than a network of contractual commitments for symbolic and economic exchanges. Community is much more than that. Community supports certain ways of being and constrains others. Community as context ultimately determines what it is to be a person.
As we see, in this context, community transcends the individual yet mirrors the self to support the experience of being.
Foundation for Awakening
As we end this series, we return to the beginning: developing an ethical foundation of mindfulness.
What is the purpose of a foundation? If we examine the 104-story Freedom Tower in New York, it requires a 70-foot foundation. The foundation holds the weight and function of a building.
In the same way, foundations are critical for any learning. The original function of mindfulness is nothing short of immense: to awaken our minds, not to adopt another self-help technique.
In times of volatile change and growing complexity, “objective” knowledge cannot do the heavy lifting required of wisdom.
Mindfulness offers many wholesome qualities:
- It enables us to navigate the nature of change and prepares us for post-meditation life.
- It increases awareness to cultivate openness and space, which, when applied to right speech, right action, and right livelihood, can bring peace.
- It surfaces and dissolves ego-clinging and attachments to loosen our fixation on grasping, aversion, and ignorance.
These teachings have evolved for 26 centuries, preserving the commitment to awakening our minds with compassion and wisdom.
Parts 1 and 2 of this series detailed and critiqued the rise of McMindfulness. Mindfulness has become popular at the expense of losing the very wisdom so necessary for what ails us today.
What is missing is a foundation for awakening.
Understandably, mindfulness was introduced in America as a secular practice to become accepted by the health profession and by mainstream society. This choice separated the means of mindfulness from its ends. Such a separation will not achieve our end, as stated by Martin Luther King (5):
We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.
Parts 3 and 4 of this series focused on several teachings, which, when studied, practiced, and lived, will embody mindfulness as not forgetting, presence of mind, and remembering.
These teachings include 1) the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, 2) the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and 3) teachings on self (and reality).
Two additional contextual teachings—1) the three wisdoms and 2) three gems—support the kind of learning that cultivates wisdom, which is core to mindfulness.
These five teachings from the Dharma and Buddhist psychology support mindfulness practice. Representing a tiny slice of Buddhism humbly, these represent a beginning path that has guided me (see journey). I learned first to honor the wisdom in these teachings and then apply it to the changing conditions in society.
The wisdom of mindfulness—call it spiritual, philosophical, or psychological—has taught me to appreciate the patience and discipline of foundation. We must first focus on developing this wisdom to create any “collective awakening.”
These times of volatile change, increasing complexity, and disconnection demand wisdom. Without wisdom, we lack the grounding or clarity to discern or grow beyond our current level of consumerism, attachments, and fragmentation.
Finally, this commitment involves acknowledging the potential innate wisdom in conscious beings to “realize” or “awaken” above and beyond the power of greed, aggression, and delusion, which are acted upon out of ignorance.
Cultivating mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom uproots and abandons ignorance to realize this deeper potential of the mind.
Reading Time: 13 min. Digest Time: 17.5 min.
Anyone interested in studying Buddhist psychology, please see our Small Sangha.
1- See our webpage for Terms and Resources for support.
2- See the Author’s Personal Journey
3- See our Commitment to Buddhist Psychology.
4- View our related blogs:
- Evolving Mindfulness, Part 1: The Rise of McMindfulness
- Evolving Mindfulness, Part 2: The Demise of Wisdom
- Evolving Mindfulness, Part 3: The Truth of Suffering
- Community: The Missing ‘Gem’ in Learning
[i] David Bohm is considered one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century, contributing to quantum theory, neuropsychology and the philosophy of mind. Some of his books include “Thoughts as a System,” “Wholeness and the Implicate Order,” and “On Dialogue.”
[ii] This quote by Thich Nhat Hanh is from his book, “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings.” The link enclosed in this section is from his more recent published thoughts on “sangha.”
[iii] Peter Senge and Fred Kofman authored the seminal paper, Communities of Commitment, The Heart of a Learning Organization. Peter Senge also co-authored the widely acclaimed text, “The Fifth Discipline,” as well as, “The Dance of Change,” and “Presence.”
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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.
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