Buddhist mindfulness

Many of the concepts and practices of mindfulness which are now taught in secular mindfulness courses come from the Buddhist tradition. This doesn’t mean mindfulness is uniquely Buddhist – all cultures have various practices which encourage a state of mindfulness. However, mindfulness, or sati, as it’s called in Buddhism, has been researched and developed for more than 2500 years in the Buddhist tradition since it forms a fundamental part of what is known as the ‘eight-fold noble path’. It is considered a key element of the Buddhist way of life, together with ethics and insight. The Buddha emphasised sati as a foundational practice, one of the keys to learning how to become less entangled in our self-centered thoughts and delusions. He also understood that mindfulness takes diligent practice – it’s not something to be learnt so much as practised again and again. In Buddhism, sati is practised not to help us feel better or become more efficient at work, but to support realisation into the fundamental nature of existence, such as impermanence, no-self and emptiness. It assumes a world view where these concepts are accepted. And although modern physics seems to show some interesting parallels with Buddhist concepts, the Buddhist notions of no-self and emptiness are quite different to Western secular or Christian understandings of the self and the spiritual path. Sati helps to deconstruct our sense of self until we understand that there is no independently existing self – every aspect of who we are is contingent on external forces and conditions.

Sati is also closely linked to ethics in Buddhism – our speech, our jobs, our intentions and actions are all part of the eight-fold path. Buddhist teachers sometimes criticise secular mindfulness teachers for taking mindfulness out of the ethical context in which it is taught in Buddhism. My experience in teaching and practising mindfulness is that a more mindful life does lead to greater awareness of how our behaviours impact on ourselves and others. Many of my students have reported choosing their words more carefully, for example, when they’re having that difficult conversation with their teenager or their colleague, and how this led to a much better outcome for all. I do agree though with Buddhist teachers and also with Jon Kabat-Zinn that mindfulness is a way of life, not a method. When mindfulness becomes no more than a tool to achieve an immediate end, such as reducing staff absenteeism, then most of its gifts and richness are lost.

We are fortunate nowadays that we don’t need to be a Buddhist or join a sect or follow some guru in order to learn meditation and experience its benefits. The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and others who have brought mindfulness from the Buddhist context into the Western clinical setting has made learning mindfulness accessible to many more people, and this has been of tremendous benefit. Very few of those learning mindfulness now would want to become a signed-up Buddhist, and they don’t need to be. Yet we can learn from Buddhism and allow mindfulness to be within our own ethical, spiritual and philosophical framework, rather than just something we want to learn as a quick-fix to a particular problem in our life.

Weekly practice idea:

Do you see mindfulness as a way of life rather than a method? What does this mean for you? Allow yourself twenty minutes to reflect on this question – what emerges for you?

Anja Tanhane

Right effort – Part 1

One of the eight components of the eight-fold path in Buddhism is called ‘right effort’. When we hear the phrase ‘right effort’, we may immediately sit up more straight and feel that we have to work harder. And while this may well be the case in some parts of our lives, it could also be that in other areas, we are trying too hard. We all have a limited amount of time and energy, and learning to use it more wisely can make a very positive difference to our health and wellbeing. Yet knowing when to push ourselves harder, and when to ease off, is not always easy. Between the two extremes – barely bothering to get out of bed vs driving ourselves to the point of a mental and physical breakdown – lies a large grey area where there are few rules. Trying too hard, or not hard enough, can both become habits which are difficult to break. And what was true for us on Monday may not be the case on Tuesday. Perhaps on Monday we really did need a day at home to rest, but by Tuesday we would have been better off dragging ourselves to work. When our mood is low (as opposed to clinical depression, which is different), we might like to rest on the couch for a while and feel better for it. But other times, forcing ourself out of the house and going for a brisk walk in fresh air may quickly lift our mood 100%.

Right effort also applies to our meditation practice, whether it’s a formal practice, such as daily sitting meditation or yoga, or a more informal way of including mindfulness into our everyday life. One of the core attributes of mindfulness is non-striving, and it’s certainly true that we can’t strive for results during meditation – it just doesn’t work. On the other hand, it’s very easy to drift off into daydreams or convoluted thought patterns during meditation. We might be sitting still in a beautiful erect posture for thirty minutes, but are we actually meditating, or simply stewing over something a colleague said four days ago and organising our shopping list?

There is no doubt that a considerable amount of effort is required if we want mindfulness to become part of our lives. Yet there is also a sense of ease, of flow, about being more mindful. On the one hand, we hold the intention to be mindful, and remind ourselves regularly to be more present. On the other hand, we don’t want to go around muttering to ourselves, ‘come on, be mindful, okay now, mindfulness remember, are you paying attention here, mindful, mindful, BE MINDFUL!’

Right effort can apply to so many areas of our lives – how we use our bodies, what we focus on, how resilient we are, whether we are fulfilling our potentials or frittering them away. It’s a complex area, but reflecting regularly on right effort, and how we use it in different areas of our lives, can really help us to live more effectively and with more ease.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose one hour where you are engaged in a regular activity, and during this hour pause from time to time and ask yourself – am I putting in too much effort, or not enough? What would right effort look like for this activity? And how might that apply to other areas of your life?

Anja Tanhane