Mindfulness of Attitude

Mindfulness of Attitude

by Gil Fronsdal

The English word “attitude” comes from the 17th century French word of the same spelling,
which referred to the way someone was positioned in a work of art. Given its capacity for great
beauty, the mind might be seen as a work of art — perhaps as a kind of painting. The attitudes
we hold determine the composition of this painting. Some attitudes contribute to its beauty,
while others detract from it. The Buddha taught that it is possible to “adorn the mind”
(cittalankara), and also that the mind can be radiant like pure gold, provided it is purified, just
as gold is purified of its dross.

Mindfulness of our attitude is at the heart of meditation practice. We can think of our attitude
as the soil in which meditation develops and in which the heart and mind are transformed. If
the soil is infertile, dry, or impenetrably hard, nothing useful can grow. If toxins seep through
the soil, its growth will be stunted and its richness will die. If, on the other hand, the soil is soft
and moist with humus, wonderous life of all kinds can flourish.

But just what do we mean when we refer to our “attitude”? Our attitude is the manner in
which we feel, think, and respond to our experiences. It can operate as a filter through which
we see that can have a great influence on what we do, say, or think. An attitude may be
situation–specific, or it can be an ongoing disposition influencing how we are in most situations.
Attitudes may be short lived or persist for years and decades. When they persist for a long time,
they shape our temperament. When deeply engrained, they may seem so normal they become
invisible to us.

One important function of mindfulness meditation is to discover the attitudes we bring to
meditation. Because many of our everyday attitudes can be more obviously counterproductive
while meditating than in daily life, meditation is a valuable arena in which to notice unhelpful
attitudes. In fact, any time we believe meditation is not going well is the right time to consider
whether our attitude is the real issue that needs to be addressed.

If we do not notice debilitating attitudes, they can fester and build tension. An attitude may
cause only mild tension or stress in any given moment, but if it is chronically reinforced, the
tension and suffering can become great. Becoming aware of debilitating attitudes is the first
step of becoming free of them.

Some common attitudes that hinder meditation are ambition, striving, having expectations,
needing to be in control, and impatience with challenges. Attitudes about oneself that are not
helpful are conceit, lack of confidence, self–criticalness, self–indulgence, self–deprecation, and
self–preoccupation. Also unhelpful is to be aversive toward any of these unhelpful attitudes.

Unhelpful attitudes from daily life that may be carried into meditation include aversion, anxiety,
drives for comfort and pleasure, chronic analyzing, fear of failure, holding ourselves to high
standards of success, and needing to prove ourselves.

When any of these or other hindering attitudes occur in meditation, it’s all too easy to be pulled
so strongly into the world of thinking (and perhaps criticizing) that we spend very little time
actually meditating. These attitudes can contribute enough agitation to interrupt the continuity
of mindfulness and to prevent the mind from settling. Even more challenging can be the sense
of frustration they may evoke.

If we only learn a particular meditation technique without learning the basic attitudes that are
supportive of meditation, our habitual attitudes can easily persist and, without our knowing,
undermine our practice. But if we learn helpful attitudes for practice, we can apply them when
we meditate.

Many different attitudes can support us in our meditation practice. Some are appropriate for
particular circumstances or for particular phases of practice. Some are antidotes or medicine
for the attitudes that undermine us. Once we become familiar with the attitudes that hinder
our practice, we will, over time, acquire a growing knowledge of the attitudes that are useful.
Here are examples of basic attitudes that are conducive to mindfulness meditation:

  • It is enough to clearly recognize what is happening; nothing needs to be fixed or changed.
  • Have patience with all that happens; being in a hurry is a form of greed.
  • There is nothing to prove or resist in meditation; every occurrence is a time to learn
    something new about being peaceful.
  • You are a valuable person, your well–being is important, and your capacity for attention is a
    treasure; no message that you are less than beautiful is worth believing.
  • Trust the awareness that flows out of stillness.

The common element in these five attitudes is that they promote a calm, non–reactive
attention (including a calm, non–reactive attention to our reactivity). They do not involve trying
to change what is happening; they are part of finding a useful, meditative way of being aware
of what is happening.

Other, more active attitudes may also be useful to cultivate.. An attitude of kindness,
compassion, or letting go can be helpful. Tapping into the confidence that comes from
whatever faith or trust we have in the practice is another useful mindset. So too is a sense of
blamelessness for living a life of ethical integrity. Not only do these attitudes function as
antidotes to their opposites, they are also nourishing in and of themselves. Nourishing
ourselves with skillful attitudes is an important pleasure of meditation.

As meditation develops, each person will learn for themselves which attitudes are most useful.
Often, we discover that what is helpful at one phase of practice is no longer useful later.
Sometimes a firm, unwavering commitment is beneficial; other times a soft, relaxed attention
that allows things to unfold on their own is most helpful. When we are developing our
mindfulness, different attitudes may be more useful than when we are cultivating
concentration. For example, it’s useful to avoid believing there are such things as distractions
when doing mindfulness meditation; instead these are seen as appropriate subjects to hold in
awareness. In doing concentration practice, on the other hand, it might be helpful to recognize
distractions as something to be let go of or as something to ignore in favor of more fully
focusing on the object of concentration.

A useful way of becoming mindful of our attitudes is to distinguish between what is happening
at any given moment and our relationship to what is happening. Seeing this distinction can
create space or a pause between the two. This space is a doorway to peace. Seeing the
distinction between what is happening and our relationship to it also allows us to consider
whether or not the attitude embedded in the relationship is skillful.

Liberation is a shift in the relationship we have with experience. It is this relationship that is
liberated from craving, clinging, and attachments. The attitudes that support the path of
liberation are those that share in some of the qualities of liberation itself. For example, an
attitude of equanimity shares some of the non–reactivity that becomes complete in liberation.
An attitude of inclining toward letting go of clinging matures into the mind’s thorough letting go
that is liberation. An attitude of non–contention or non–conflict with whatever happens in
meditation is a foretaste of the peace of liberation. In these ways we may understand that
attention to one’s attitude is not only central to meditation practice but central to the path of

If meditation is the art of beautifying the mind, attending to our attitudes is key to this
beautification. This includes being kind, patient, equanimous, and without conflict as we attend
to our attitudes. There is no path to freedom if the traces of the goal are not found in the path
to the goal.