The Meaning and Practice of Mindfulness

Mindfulness Practice

by Jayaram V

A student asked the Zen master Ichu, "So what does this word attention mean?" The master replied, "Attention means attention."

There is that mountain with the evening sun on it; to see it for the first time, to see it, as though it had never been seen before, to see it with innocence, to see it with the eyes that have been bathed in emptiness, that have not been hurt with knowledge,- to see then is an extraordinary experience. Jiddu Krishnamurthy.

From the time we wake up till we go to sleep, we receive so much of input every day through our senses that we hardly have time to pay attention to what is going on. Our minds devise their own methods and shortcuts to deal with the vast amount of information that keeps coming in all the time. To manage our cognitive experiences arising from our interaction with the reality surrounding us, we develop coping mechanisms such as selective perception, habitual thought patterns, stereotyping, generalizing and plain insensitivity. We shut down parts of us to avoid information overload. Not all the information that we receive from various sources is important. But unless we pay attention, we do not know what is necessary or how much is sufficient for our survival in this world. Unless we know how we are responding to various situations and what consequences are arising from our responses, we cannot resolve the problems arising from our actions and understand the nature of our suffering and its ultimate remedy.

There are three ways in which people tend to cope with the suffering and the problems that arise from their interaction with the external world: avoidance or withdrawal, resistance or suppression and acceptance or understanding. The first alternative is rather difficult to practice for long because the distractions are everywhere and if we escape from one, out of fear or discomfort, another one will resurface. The second method is practiced in some traditions in the form of severe austerities to burn our desires and weaknesses in the heat of self-denial and self-torture. The Buddha tried it and found it be ineffective. The third approach is to accept things as they are, without judgment, and understand them and their influence upon us comprehensively through pure, objective and non-judgmental attention, free from selective perception, conditioning and habitual thought patterns. In that understanding and unadulterated awareness we find the means to cut our bonds of attachment and become free.

About 2500 years ago the Buddha suggested such a vastly useful and ingenious method to his followers. Having practiced it himself during his search for answers to the problems of old age, sickness and death, he advised his followers to cultivate the wonderful state of mindfulness to break themselves free from their ignorance and existential suffering through awareness, compassion, acceptance, love and understanding. The practice of mindfulness rests on the pillars of the highest ideals to which the mankind aspires. While cultivating this supreme virtue, we do not treat ourselves harshly or cruelly or aggressively. Rather we apply the principles of love, acceptance, compassion and understanding to our knowing and becoming aware. The use of cruelty and punishment whether for a greater cause or a selfish cause, whether directed towards others or at ourselves cannot be justified on any grounds because they imply the use of violence, cruelty and bad karma. Besides such an approach is directly in conflict with the teachings of the Buddha who advocated non-injury both to oneself and to others. The practice of mindfulness, tempered with compassion, detachment and understanding, is in tune with the teachings of the Buddha on the Eightfold Path.

The meaning of mindfulness

Mindfulness means to be now and here and perceive with clarity what is going on in your mind, body and environment. It is to be aware of all the things that are happening to you simultaneously. It is to be consciously aware of your cognitive experiences mentally and physically, using bare attention in the present moment. Mindfulness is whole body awareness. There is nothing ethereal or surreal or otherworldliness about it. It is a down-to-earth, universally verifiable practice, rooted in the immanent and the existential domain of each human being.

Mindfulness has three identifiable characteristics: it is non-judgmental, moment to moment and disinterested. In the practice of mindfulness we learn to observe things are they are, without comparing and contrasting, without projecting ourselves, our thoughts and prejudices and without our conditioning, memory, choice or expectation. Mindfulness of the right kind is an all encompassing and all inclusive observation,, in which you try to observe as much as possible through the normal channels of perception.

Mindfulness and concentration are different practices but they compliment each other. In mindfulness you include as many objects as possible for your observation where as in concentration you try to exclude as many as possible to focus on just one. However we cannot practice of concentration successfully unless we learn to remove the hindrances and distractions to perfect concentration by taming our minds through the practice of mindfulness. The Buddha mind does not arise through concentrated mindfulness unless we tame the monkey mind through concentration and mindfulness.

Two conditions are imperative for the practice of mindfulness. The first condition is it can be practiced only relationship with something. Mindfulness is not a process of shutting down the sense organs but letting them go forth freely and perceive things as they are. So there can be no mindfulness if the observer is unaware of the observed. Secondly, mindfulness has to arise from the actual awareness of the thing observed, not form the imagination or projection or recollection of the mind. In other words has to be rooted in and arise from reality.

For example I can say I am mindful when I am breathing and simultaneously aware that I am breathing, I am feeling and simultaneously aware that I am feeling, I am acting and simultaneously aware that I am acting; and when I see the breath in my breath, the feeling in my feeling and the action in my action. (If you confused with these expressions, let me clarify. Seeing the breath in the breath means, to be in the present and see the the breath as it enters or goes out at that precise moment and in that precise location, that is from the tip of your nose right up to your lungs. It should not be something that you realize or make up later.)

Most of us perform our actions rather absent mindedly. It is more so in case of routine tasks, such as switching on that light in your bedroom or changing the gears of your car or applying soap to your body in the bathroom. In mindfulness practice, when you are breathing, you are aware that you are breathing. When you are cleaning are aware that you are cleaning and when you are feeling you are aware that you are feeling. In mindful state, your actions and your awareness happen simultaneously in the exact space and time where and when they happen, without imagination, recollection or superimposition of your accumulated knowledge. When you are mindful you live in the present, enjoying the moment, accepting life as it comes, letting go of things and flowing free with the river of change and transformation. You become free from the concerns and anxieties of your mind, as you come to accept them as mere mechanical responses of your mind to external events. You become equal to all situations in your life, accepting your joys and sorrows and your pain and pleasure alike.

The purpose of mindfulness

The Buddha declared the purpose of mindfulness to be, "For the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana."

Mindfulness is practiced in Buddhism to understand the process of becoming, the nature of suffering caused by the desires, how the cause and effect create and sustain the reality we experience and subject us to different mental states and the subtle nuances of change and transformation. We accept the forming, becoming and changing that shape our destinies upon earth as the norm of our lives, despite the suffering that accompanies them. Through mindfulness we come to know our selves, the basis of our actions and reactions, attachments, preconceived notions, habitual thought patterns and the conditioning that is interwoven in our whole consciousness. Through such awareness, we learn to control our minds and bodies, our thinking and actions and our future. Most importantly through mindfulness we come to accept the world as an ever changing and impermanent place, a great flux which cannot be relied upon or taken for granted. Through mindfulness when we realize the futility of our existence in this transformative world, we return to the path that leads to ceto-vimutti or the release of the mind, In other words, nirvana or freedom from becoming. The practice of mindfulness is also the basis for vipassana or insight into things and our own existence.

The Four Immeasurable Minds

The Buddha taught that the practice of mindfulness would lead to the development of Four Immeasurable Minds or the four Brahma Viharas (dwelling places of Brahma). They are:

  • Cultivation of metta or maitri (feelings of love and friendship) that knows no hatred or enmity towards anyone.
  • Cultivation of karnua (compassion) that knows no distinction between the suffering of oneself and of the others.
  • Cultivation of mudita (pure joy) that rejoices at the good fortune of others with no consideration for oneself.
  • Cultivation of upalekha or upeksha (equanimity or forbearance) that accepts the equality of all beings and favors none

The practice of mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness, although sounds easy, is rather difficult, because the restless mind does not confirm to a pattern of behavior without adequate preparation and strong commitment. It may take years before you understand the full implications of the practice and experience some level of perfection and insight in your mindfulness.

At the most basic level, as the Buddha himself suggested, mindfulness can be practiced using our most common daily tasks such as walking, eating, cooking, cleaning, sweeping, talking, breathing, "while stretching one's limbs" or even "bending over."

You may practice it formally during a particular time of the day and at a particular place or whenever it is convenient for you. You may do it with your eyes wide open or closed. In the beginning you may require definite procedures and practices and the help of a master. But as you make progress you may extend the practice into your mundane life.

In other words, with some discipline, guidance and preparation, mindfulness can be practiced anywhere and everywhere by anyone. We do not require expensive gadgets or accessories to practice it. We do not have to change our daily routine, except for some minor adjustments here and there.

In the comfort of your own environment, you can use the ordinary events and activities in your life to practice it. All that you require are pure and simple attention and detachment. With these two you can climb the steps of the heaven which is hidden in your consciousness or go beyond it into the transcendental states of samadhi.

The Buddha gave instructions for the practice of mindfulness to his followers based upon his own experiences. What he preached them was not his invention, but the knowledge of ancient practices which he brought to light. His teachings on this subject are recorded in two early Buddhist sutras, namely Anapanasati (awareness of breathing) and Satipatthana (establishing mindfulness) sutras.


Anapanasati is a very useful technique, which the Buddha himself declared as an effective means to cultivate Perfect Mindfulness on the Eightfold Path. The technique is recorded in the Anapana Sutta. In its most elementary form anapanasati (apana means breath) is mindfulness of in and our breathing. It can be practiced either sitting, standing, reclining or walking, However the body should remain erect all the time. The Buddha suggested that a monk should practice it sitting cross-legged either under a tree, a forest or a secluded place. In other words there should be less distractions and disturbances. Then he should begin observing his in breathing and out breathing continuously with undivided attention using one of the following four frames of reference.

  • Mindfulness of the body in & of itself
  • Mindfulness of feelings in and of themselves
  • Mindfulness of the mind in and of itself
  • Mindfulness of mental qualities in & of themselves

There are said to be eight stages in the practice of anapanasati which lead to the attainment of nirvana. Of these last three or four are related to advanced stages of practice in which mindfulness leads to deeper concentration, insight and wisdom. These eight stages are:

  • Counting the breaths (ganana);
  • following the breath (anubandhana);
  • Establishing contact with the breath when it becomes subtle (phusana);
  • Fixing the breath in a state of deep concentration (thapana);
  • Observing the breath with insight in a state of tranquility (sallakkhana);
  • Turning away the process of bondage and the cycle of births and rebirths (vivattana),
  • Purification of the seven defilements which cause our suffering and lamentation (parisuddhi); and
  • retrospection (patipassana). T

Satipatthana Meditation

In Buddhism there is yet another powerful meditation technique to practice mindfulness. It is known as the Satipatthana, which is derived from the name of the sutta (sutra) bearing the same name. In this method, the following four forms of mindfulness are recommended for practice.

  • Mindfulness of body. It is practiced in reference to the breathing, body postures, body parts, impurities or defilements of the body and elements of the body. It is practiced in reference to one's own body, other's bodies and the body itself in the context of the four elements of which it is made up of, namely the earth, water, fire and air.
  • Mindfulness of feeling (vedana). It is practiced in reference to pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings and neutral feelings as each feeling arises in the present, fades or weakens in the present and passes away in the present
  • Mindfulness of mind (citta). It is practiced in reference to the mind alone, the mind in relation to the sense objects and the mind in relation to the four elements. It is also practiced in reference to the three modes, namely raga (passion), dosa (disturbance) and moha (delusion).
  • Mindfulness of mental objects. It is practiced in reference to the five hindrances or obstacles, which are responsible for our suffering and bondage. They are ssensuality (kama-chanda), malevolence (byapada), indolence (thina-middha) restlessness(uddhacca-kukkucca) and uncertainty ( vicikiccha).

Mindfulness on the Eightfold Path

Just as the asanas (postures), dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) cannot be practiced in isolation without reference to the other aspects of Patanjali's yoga, mindfulness cannot be practiced in isolation without reference to the overall purpose which the Buddhist Dhamma aims to reach, which is the liberation of the individual being from the ubiquitous problem of suffering and bondage to the cycle of births and rebirths. In Buddhism mindfulness is the means to success on the Eightfold Path. The practice of mindfulness leads to Perfect View (samyag drishti), Perfect Effort (samyag vyayama) and Perfect Mindfulness (samyag smriti). It results in the purification of the being, overcoming of sorrow, destruction of pain and grief, staying on the path and reaching Nirvana. Mindfulness grounds the mind in the present and keeps it firmly entrenched in the being.

The practice of mindfulness eventually resolves into equanimity, where by the mind comes to repose or perfect equilibrium. You realize the true meaning and purport of the Four Noble Truths through your own awareness, independent of what has been taught to you or learned by you. You begin to see the deep connection between the cravings of your own mind and the suffering that arises from them. You will realize how the great flux of change and transformation is effected through simple acts of your mind and body and how you have become a problem to yourself. In that supreme awareness you will find the means to end your suffering.

The practice of mindfulness is useful even if you are not a Buddhist and do not intend to practice the Eightfold Path. By practicing it you will gain better awareness and insight into your own behavior and thinking.

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