The unexamined life is not worth living.
Mindfulness has gone mainstream. No longer the preserve of ancient and inscrutable oriental monks or bearded hippie weirdos, it is now being taught in schools. Several leading US companies are providing training to their workers and it is touted as the cure for many of the ills that affect modern man. Even the United States military are training their soldiers in mindfulness techniques.
Adapted from Buddhist teaching and increasingly applied to psychology and then to the mundane world, mindfulness is advertised as helping all psychological disorders from depression, where it is described as being as effective as antidepressant medication, through eating disorders and drug addiction to ADHD. Although it is less helpful for physical disorders, if you believe the newspapers and the internet, it is said to help with heart disease, cancer, lowering blood pressure, chronic pain, sleep and a myriad of other conditions. It leads to a longer life, better health and a much greater sense of wellbeing. Mindfulness boosts the immune system, leads to sporting prowess and better parenting, reduces anger and sets free creativity. The scientific evidence suggests that it is a key element in happiness.
Has mindfulness become a twenty first century panacea?
One of the problems with language is that the same word can have many different meanings, some of the differences can be quite subtle. Because of this it would be very easy to confuse modern mindfulness practices with the Buddhist meditation system from which they have been developed.
Mindfulness, as a spiritual practice, has been around for thousands of years and was in use as a meditation technique even before the Buddha’s time. It is one of the systems of meditation that he learnt when he was seeking an answer to human suffering, he found it to be insufficient on its own, needing additional elements to be able to be truly helpful.
Mindfulness is a process of moment by moment awareness of the world, in the present moment, without judging our experience. The way it is carried out, and the depth to which it is explored are different in the two systems.
In Buddhism, mindfulness, and other forms of meditation, are part of a threefold system of personal development. The three branches being ethics, meditation, and wisdom. Each is practiced in parallel with the other two, and like the strands in a rope, make the whole stronger than the sum of its parts. Each allows the further development of the others, each element is a means to an end. The end being Enlightenment or Wisdom. Mindfulness is supported and enhanced by the other two strands.
Buddhist ethics is based on the idea of skilful and unskilful action. Skilful actions aid our spiritual journey, acting intelligently to contribute to our own happiness as well as that of others. Unskilful actions are those that hinder our spiritual development and act against our best interests..
There is no list of commandments in the Buddha’s teachings. Instead, as practitioners, we choose to follow a moral code to support our practice, and set out to organise our lives around this framework. This is often summarised as a set of precepts. We aspire to live up to the precepts because they are seen as skilful and not out of fear of punishment. We do this because it helps us on our path, growing towards enlightenment.
One of the main areas on which Buddhists focus is in the development of positive emotional states. Such actions lead to a reduction in negative emotions and to freeing ourselves, not only from unhelpful habits, but also from learnt ways of being. This is all about acting sensibly in our own self-interest. Choosing to live in the best interests of our real selves. This involves living in harmony with the rest of the world, not solely acting out of narrow self-interest. Allowing us to set up the right conditions for our spiritual development.
Buddhist precepts are a set of guidelines to help us on our path, there is no threat of eternal damnation should we fail to keep them. There are several different formulations of precepts, including rules for monastic living, but one of the commonest forms is the five precepts which have both a negative and a positive slant.
- To refrain from causing harm to another living being. The positive take on this is to act out of kindness and understanding. This is the reason that many Buddhists are either vegetarian or vegan.
- To refrain from taking the not given. This goes well beyond just not stealing. This would include taking up peoples’ time unnecessarily, or using more than our fair share of resources. With the corollary of being generous and open handed with ourselves and other people.
- To refrain from sexual misconduct. Here the emphasis is on not misusing our relationships to exploit others. To develop contentment, and to avoid being driven by craving. Sexual craving being representative of all other cravings, for power, money, possessions, status etc. To act out of craving can cause a great deal of suffering to ourselves and to other people.
- To refrain from untruthfulness. Not just lying but also in misleading ourselves and others, gossiping or spreading rumours. Instead we are encouraged to be courageous and open and straightforward in our communication with ourselves and others. To develop an understanding of ourselves “Warts and All”.
- To avoid clouding the mind with drink or drugs. This highlights the need to be aware as much as possible under all circumstances. It is about avoiding anything that dulls the senses, be it alcohol or mindless TV watching or shopping, just to fill a void.
Mindfulness is applied to the Buddhist life with an ethical underpinning which allows the practitioner to cope with the self awareness that comes from practicing mindfully. The mind is very busy with thoughts and many of them are not pleasant. To become aware of the nastier parts of our mind can be very distressing, and runs the risk of causing harm both emotional and psychological. In the western world in particular there is a lot of self hatred to be found, and this can be fuelled by mindful awareness in some people. Ideally the mediation student would have a teacher who would take the time to explain such experiences, and help in understanding them, so that they can be integrated into the practice as a whole.
This self awareness helps us to develop the necessary wisdom to travel along our chosen path. We need to move beyond a mere intellectual understanding of the things that we know to be true about ourselves, and to be consistently mindful of these facets of ourselves and to live our lives without letting them get in the way. Are we prone to anger or envy? What are the circumstance’s under which we show certain behaviours? How do we behave? What false beliefs do we have about ourselves and the world?
Developing moment by moment awareness of our own mental state allows us freedom to act in response to the reality of the present moment, and not to have our mind and actions clouded by childhood or other experiences that force their way to the front of our mind, causing us to react to historical events rather than the present moment.
For me the advantage of traditional Mindfulness over modern “medical” mindfulness is the ability to get beyond a simple relaxation response and instead to use this to gain self awareness and self understanding. To be able to understand what really what makes me tick, both for good and bad, and to allow myself the freedom to leave behind any unhelpful habits, and self beliefs learnt early in my life and that have had no practical use for over fifty years. This permits a greater freedom to act and relate in the world based on reality rather than guesswork, resulting in more fulfilling relationships both with others and with myself.
For me this is the real basis of happiness.
If you separate from . . . everything you have done in the past, everything that disturbs you about the future . . . and apply yourself to living the life that you are living—that is to say, the present—you can live all the time that remains to you until your death in calm, benevolence, and serenity.
Marcus Aurelius, “The Present Moment”
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