Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Mindfulness: Introduction


For this section I have taken inspiration from Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh is a spokesman and elder of mindfulness; a Vietnamese Zen monk, and international figure in promoting world-peace and civil rights. He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace prize by Martin Luther King and he is probably the world’s most famous Buddhist after the Dalai Lama, although this certainly does not detract from the potency of much of his teaching. At times his works are seemingly geared towards the mass-market, but within his books are many real gems, especially regarding mindfulness, and he has been forthright in transmitting a heartfelt form of Buddhism to a much wider audience whilst making mindfulness popular and accessible to all.
Mindfulness is a rich and varied topic central to the world of Buddhism. It has become increasingly popular and widespread, being incorporated into hospitals, prisons, major businesses such as Google and Apple, and has been implemented in the cure of depression and recognised by the medical establishment for its validity and comparability with antidepressants. Much research has been undertaken on the beneficial effects of mindfulness practice and this has led to a great variety of books being published that extol its virtues, usually aimed at as wide a market as possible.
This is all great news and certainly needs to be commended. It is important though to consider the intent behind this popularisation of meditative technology practice as intent is paramount in shaping the experience of actual practice and the capacity for it to move us in one direction or another. Mindfulness used to manage difficult emotions and feelings, and mindfulness used to help one focus one’s mind in order to work more effectively are not the same as mindfulness used as an ongoing path for liberation, radical freedom and change.
Perhaps it would be useful at this point to make a distinction between Non-Buddhist Mindfulness and Buddhist Mindfulness, between mindfulness stripped of any overt Buddhist leanings, and of mindfulness practised within the Eightfold Path, or any path for that matter, with the intent of waking us up. We can consider the latter as Right Mindfulness for the sake of simplicity and this post.

Right Mindfulness
‘Right Mindfulness is at the heart of the path of awakening and radical change. It is the basis for awakened living. Growth must emerge from awareness of what needs changing and mindfulness, with time, gives us direct access to the patterns that keep us from experiencing our lives more consciously, and more directly.’
So, what is mindfulness? Well, within that word we have three clues. The first is mind, the second is full and the third is –ness. We have then a fullness of mind. Mindfulness is primarily concerned with bringing attention to the present as fully as we are able. It has a second and third function. Its second function is developing the capacity to bring attention and awareness to all areas of experience, without exception. Its third function is integrating and developing inclusiveness. This means we stop pushing certain experiences away and we give up discounting areas of our experience as unworthy of our attention, or time.
Mindfulness is practiced both on and off the cushion. On the cushion we engage in formal sitting practice. We can experiment with any technique we like, but formal practice is best when guided by an experienced meditator and competent teacher. 
 Mindfulness however we practice it is a developmental process. It is not an instant cure, but the developing of the capacity to bring our energies back to where we are in as full a manner as possible. It has a lot to do with retraining our impulsiveness and confronting dualistic drives such as the classic attachment/aversion dynamic that informs so much of our experience.
When mindfulness is developed it pulls in the other factors of the path. This is a very useful point to know. Mindfulness allows us with time to experience directly what is Right Speech, Right Action, and so on, without having to rely on prescriptive or abstract descriptions.
Mindfulness is typically aimed at four targets; the body, feelings (sensations), mental formations (or states) and phenomena. These are the basis of our experiencing presence in the world. In practising mindfulness it is useful to work with these four factors in the order they are presented. The first field of mindfulness is the body, and for good reason. 

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