What is Mindfulness?

Meditation, essentially, is a mental activity developed through the systematic training of the mind. In this practice, awareness, concentration, effort, dedication and patience are some of the many qualities that need nurturing and cultivation. Even after having all these requirements established, to some extent, we still find that meditation does not work as one expects. This is because meditation is not something that derives benefits like indulging in physical exercise. It is mental purification which demands genuine commitment, dedication and self-restraint. A sense of fulfilment of the preliminaries can be of immense help to benefit from this practice.   If someone has not fulfilled these preliminaries or does not care for them much, progress can be frustratingly slow.

Discipline is the key and the secret of success in many fields; be that may in a business, a profession, sports or any other field. if we do not abide by certain rules and essential guidelines no one can succeed. It is the same principle in meditation, as well. As meditation is something to do with the mind, strict moral discipline is vital. These can be summed up under three categories;

  1. Restraint in the disciplinary code.
  2. Restraint of the senses.
  3. Guilt-free satisfaction of livelihood.

1.   Restraint in disciplinary code

Countries and societies are governed by certain rules and laws. We cannot act freely, doing whatever we want, without concern for fellow human beings, animals, the environment and the world around us, as a whole. We should always respect the legal system of the country; the general rules and accepted norms of a society which are, sometimes, not included in the judicial system but enshrined in our societies, cultures, traditions and faiths. Killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, taking intoxicants, cheating, offending, slandering, backbiting, intruding into others’ lives and, in general, all the behaviour that harms and causes unease for people, harms animals and the environment, is unacceptable and reprimanded in any civilised society.

A person should not transgress these laws simply because they are censored by the law and society but because of the consequences, one has to face afterwards. It would be much wiser if we think about the indelible marks they leave in the mind such as guilt, regret, worries, fears, tension, agitation and many more unwholesome states. If you observe very sincerely, any wrongdoings you did for somebody in the past, you may see clearly you are the first victim of that offence. One cannot kill a person without having killing intensions, anger and all the unwholesome states of the mind needed to commit that crime. It is the same for all intentional actions of our life, no exceptions.

2.  Restraint of the senses.

Our life is what we grasp through the six senses (eye – forms, ear – sounds, nose – smells, tongue – flavours, body – touch and mind - thoughts). What is meant by restraint of the senses is, “not reacting”, neither liking nor disliking.

An analogy would be a pond which has only inlets but no outlets. The pond is continuously supplied with water through six natural springs and it never dries up. Underground, if something disturbs the natural flow of the stream then the water gets murky. If it is undisturbed the water remains crystal clear.

Our mind is also like a pond with an uninterrupted supply of water throughout life, until the last breath. But this pond is mostly polluted, murky and dirty due to the unclean and muddied water. When we react to stimuli with unwholesome states of the mind such as anger, desire, greed, lust, attachment, jealousy, ego and delusion, the mind is filled with polluted murky water, not with clean water. When the mind reacts either with liking or disliking the mind gets dirty.  It may have intermittent intervals of clean water supply. That is when the mind is not reacting. Then the mind is clear, calm and peaceful. But this happens very rarely.

Our minds have the common feature of being attached to the pleasant forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touches and beautiful thoughts and dreams; while rejecting the opposite experiences. But, when the mind pursues the attractive it ends up in attachment; and when it rejects the unattractive it results in aversion; both detrimental for our wellbeing.

For example; watching something you really like on television will make you think of that for the rest of the day or days, perhaps weeks and months. However, accidentally, if you came across something that you really hate, it will haunt in your mind for days weeks months and sometimes for years leaving you in a state of unhappiness, as well as physical and mental unease. If one can restrain the senses by applying the strategy of neither liking or disliking, it will not only keep the mind calm and peaceful but it also will tether the mind to be in the present moment without letting it to go to the past and future.

3. Guilt-free satisfaction of livelihood.

We all study, then work hard to earn a living to have a happy and enjoyable life. All people in the world work with that same goal in mind and there are numerous ways to earn a living and make ends meet. Majority of our fellow human beings work very hard, tirelessly to have a good life for themselves and for their families. 

But not all choose the correct, acceptable paths; some rely on easy ways of making money without bothering about the harm they cause to other human beings, animals and the environment. The whole world has to pay for their inconsiderate and greedy intentions. Sometimes, that way of making money is much easier than doing a proper and decent job.

At the end of the day, everyone makes some money, maybe enough or not enough to live on. Some may think, why bother about the others? Let’s get the job done by hook or by crook. Unfortunately, this attitude is getting popular and, as a result, this, the world of ours is getting to be a very unsafe and dangerous place to live in. if you can read the minds of those people who make money in unscrupulous ways, you definitely will find how unhappy and guilty they feel within themselves, let alone the consequences one has to face if this proverb is really true; “what goes around comes around”. Therefore, satisfaction in our livelihood is of great importance when it comes to our wellbeing, peace and happiness of the mind.

These preliminaries are things that need to be done before beginning the practice of meditation, in our daily life. These are not part of the meditation, but they provide a strong foundation on which the meditative practice can be built on. If the mind is free of guilt, free of thoughts and worries, it is ever so ready to pick up things quickly. And that person does not have to do much to find even greater happiness and peace or, perhaps, the culmination of the practice.  

Misconceptions about Mindfulness Meditation

With the worldwide interest in Mindfulness Meditation and, indeed, Mindfulness as a concept, it is no surprise that many misconceptions have arisen. Further, unbridled capitalism being what it is, it should not come as a shock that some have turned Mindfulness Meditation into successful commercial ventures. However, that should not deter the attempts of many well-meaning, who wish to share the concept and a practice, discovered by the Buddha, for the good of many, all around the world, transcending man-made religious boundaries. In my previous writings, I mentioned that ‘purists’ may take objection to this and, therefore, am not surprised to read some of the comments in the thought-provoking piece written by Prof N A de S Amaratunga; ‘Scientific proof of Mindful Meditation (The Island, March 28). I am no expert in meditation, having directed my attention only after retirement, but writing as someone who gained a lot with the little meditation I practice under the expert guidance of Venerable Teldeniyaye Amitha of Shanthi Vihara and Meditation Centre in Nottingham. Therefore, comments from the learned are most welcome as it encourages me to think and search, which I have done after reading Prof Amaratunga’s piece.

Vedic traditions of Meditation

Vedic tradition undoubtedly deserves the credit for introducing meditation, long before the time of the Buddha, but it was ‘Samatha’ mediation. It is translated as One-pointedness Meditation or Concentration Meditation where the objective is to develop ones’ ability to remain calm, focussed and grounded. It leads to tranquillity but not insight (Vipassana). It was a part of Yoga, a union of physical, spiritual and religious practices encompassing breathing techniques (Pranayama), exercises and postures (Asana) in addition to meditation. It probably started about 5000 years ago in Northern India.

Kundalini Yoga, perhaps, is the best-known tradition which contains specific, practical tools that carefully and precisely support the mind, and guide the body through the use of breath, mantra, mudra (hand position), and focus.

Primordial Sound Meditation, a recent introduction, is a silent practice that uses a mantra, which is supposed to be the vibrational sound of the universe at the time of the practitioner’s birth, calculated using Vedic mathematical formulae.

Transcendental Meditation (TM)

Another form of Vedic Meditation that was the rage in the sixties and seventies is Transcendental Meditation. It was popularised by the charismatic guruMaharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had famous followers like the Beatles. It is a seated meditation that uses a Mantra or series of Sanskrit words to help the practitioner focus during meditation, instead of following the breath as done in ‘Anapanasati’ Meditation. The Mantra given to the student varies, depending on a number of factors including the year in which the student was born and, in some cases, their gender and the year in which the teacher was trained. The teacher is usually given a list of Mantras to use and this varies depending on which year they received their instructions.

Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist and the author of many books including ‘The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape’ and a blog, ‘On Spiritual Truths’ wrote, in a piece for The Huffington Post entitled "How to Meditate": "Even an organisation like Transcendental Meditation, which has spent decades self-consciously adapting itself for use by non-Hindus, can't overcome the fact that its students must be given a Sanskrit Mantra as the foundation of the practice. Ancient incantations present an impediment to many a discerning mind (as does the fact that TM displays several, odious signs of being a cult)."

Perhaps, he has a point; TM courses are not free, costing around $1000 in the USA and anything from £190 to £490, depending on the personal income, in the UK. This, in spite of the organization having a vast portfolio of real estate and assets valued around $ 2 to 5 billion. After all, some of us remember Maharishi mostly for his fleet of Rolls-Royce cars!

Vipassana Meditation

As mentioned by Prof Amaratunga, Prince Siddhartha, in his quest for the truth, went to a multitude of teachers, the last of whom being Alara Kalama and UddakaRamaputta who taught him meditation of the Yogic tradition. Though higher states of consciousness (Jhana) could be achieved with this type of Samatha Meditation, Siddhartha realised it will not lead to ‘Ultimate Detachment’. Thus, He persevered and discovered that it could only be achieved through Vipassana. These states of mind that need to be experienced are difficult to be named and labelled, not merely the difficulty in translating Maghada or Sanskrit words to English or, for that matter, even to Sinhala. Many terms are used to describe Vipassana including Awareness, Insight and Mindfulness, the term used most often.

Mindfulness Meditation practised in the West is mostly based on the work of S N Goenka and many others who have learned the tradition in Myanmar and Thailand. Therefore, it goes without saying that it is a Buddhist concept though sometimes practised in a secular setting.

When Goenka was asked "Though you say Mindfulness Meditation you teach is secular before every course you get the participants to observe the Five Precepts. Why is that?"

His reply was: "Without that basic morality you cannot achieve Mindfulness. I ask them to observe the Five Precepts only for the duration of the course but what they do afterwards is none of my business"

To satisfy the ‘purists’ we can limit the term Vipassana for meditation Buddhists employ to attain Nibbana and use the term Mindfulness to all other techniques based on the concept of Vipassana: ‘Living the moment’, certainly not ‘living for the moment’ which is the extreme of attachment. But, is this necessary? More importantly, is that in keeping with Buddhist principles and attitude?

Anapanasati Meditation

Anapanasati or ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ is the most widely practised form of meditation, which is not surprising as we all breathe, whether aware or not, and the inevitable happens when we stop breathing!A lot of confusion has arisen as some consider it to be a Samatha practice, as it is for sharpening of the mind, in spite of the translated term which implies that it is a Vipassana practice. As I needed clarification, I turned to my teacher, Venerable Amitha. His explanation was that it is both, depending on your objective and how you use it. If you concentrate just on breathing you can achieve tranquillity but if you continue to observe then you realise that breathing is also impermanent, attaching and soulless. Then it becomes Vipassana. It is not what you do but how you do it.

Differences between Samatha and Vipassana

The explanation is given by the Canadian Buddhist Monk, AjahnYuttadhammo in ‘buddhism.stackexchange.com’ is simple yet comprehensive:

"Meditation for the purpose of seeing clearly requires one to focus on ultimate reality; the only way to understand reality is to observe it. Any meditation practice that does not take ultimate reality as an object is called "Samatha meditation" because it leads only to tranquillity, not insight.

Besides the difference in meditation object, meditation for insight will also obviously have different results; it will be less tranquil on the whole, as one is forced to experience all the inherent problems with ultimate reality, specifically that it is impermanent, unsatisfying, and uncontrollable."

(http://buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/3547/what-exactly-differentiates-vipassana-from-samatha-meditation)MRI

Research publications

Prof Amaratunga has questioned whether the research publications I referred to were all on Mindfulness Meditation. The two meta-analyses, analysis of the results of a number of trials lumped together, I referred to about clinical benefits of meditation may have included publications on other types of meditation though most were on Mindfulness Meditation. However, the key studies showing how meditation works; MRI studies by Sara Lazar and studies on telomeres and telomerase by Elizabeth Blackburn are both on Mindfulness Meditation. What I showed is that the method the Buddha introduced, in addition to guiding Buddhists towards Nibbana, works at the mundane level too and that there are scientific explanations as to how it works.

Buddha’s followers

Prof Amaratunga questions: "I wonder whether Buddha’s method could be practised while leading a rich luxurious life."See" which is a prerequisite for the next stage "Samadhi" cannot be practised in an affluent background, and without "Seela" there cannot be "Samadhi" that Buddha preached."

From what I have gathered, Buddha’s followers, who attained higher states of consciousness including Enlightenment, were a mixed bag ranging from prostitutes, thieves and murderers to the nobility and kings. What was important was not the life-style but the desire to explore the mind and follow the path He laid.

Prof Amaratunga states: "It may be true that Buddha has given the freedom to examine the Dhamma before one accepts it, but not the freedom to modify it to suit one’s lifestyle. Further, it may not be correct to call any meditation Buddhist, if it does not conform to the method given in the "Arya AstangikaMarga".

I look upon this from a different perspective. True, in’ Kalama Sutta’which is considered by many to be the first "Charter for Free Thinking" the Buddha gave us the right to question, a right we should not misuse. In using a concept He introduced for the benefit of many, we are not modifying His Dhamma. After all, Dhamma encompasses eternal truths which are not modifiable. What we should be concerned about is not the label but the benefit for many; "Bahu Jana Hitaya, Bahu Jana sukhaya"

The Buddha showed the path. It is a long one. Perhaps, the longest expressway ever! Some may be able to travel the full length but others may be able to do only a short hop. Is it not better to do that at least, and encourage others to do so, than do nothing at all?

Mindfulness of Breathing