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 liberation. 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.