Chapter 3: The Practice of Mindfulness
Attentive among the inattentive,
Wide awake among the sleeping.
The wise one advances
As a swift horse leaves behind a weak one.-Dhammapada 29
In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the scripture that records the Buddha’s last teachings, the Buddha summarizes what he discovered with his awakening and what he taught during his 45 years as a teacher. Significantly, he does not recount a set of doctrines or a belief system, but rather gives a list of practices and spiritual qualities that grow with a spiritual life. By teaching practices instead of “truths,” the Buddha offered methods to help us uncover our potential for peaceful, compassionate and liberated lives. In a sense, Buddhist practice is concerned with discovering what is truest for each of us in our own hearts and bodies rather than what tradition, scriptures or teachers may tell us is true.
Insight meditation, or Vipassana, is one of the central teachings of the Buddha. It has continued as a living practice for 2500 years. At the heart of insight meditation is the practice of mindfulness, the cultivation of clear, stable and nonjudgmental awareness. While mindfulness practice can be highly effective in helping bring calm and clarity to the pressures of daily life, it is also a spiritual path that gradually dissolves the barriers to the full development of our wisdom, compassion and freedom.
The word Vipassana literally means “clear seeing.” Cultivating our capacity to see clearly is the foundation for learning how to be present for things as they are, as they arise. It is learning to see without the filters of bias, judgment, projection, or emotional reactions. It also entails developing the trust and inner strength that allow us to be with things as they are instead of how we wish they could be. Mindfulness practice does not involve trying to change who we are, instead it is a practice of seeing clearly who we are, of seeing what is happening as it unfolds, without interference. In the process, even without trying, we can be transformed.
Mindfulness relies on an important characteristic of awareness: awareness by itself does not judge, resist, or cling to anything. By focusing on simply being aware, we learn to disentangle ourselves from our habitual reactions and begin to have a friendlier and more compassionate relationship with our experience, with ourselves, and with others.
However, awareness is often confused with self-consciousness, in which we judge what we are experiencing against our opinions and image of ourselves.
For instance, if we get angry during a period of meditation, a self-conscious response might be “Shoot! I’m angry again! I hate myself for always being so angry.” With mindfulness practice we cultivate an awareness that recognizes anger’s presence without judging it – we would be mindful that “There is anger.”
If we see a beautiful flower, with awareness we simply appreciate the flower. A self-conscious response might be “That’s a beautiful flower, and I want it for myself so people will know I have good taste and they will admire me.”
A foundation stone of Buddhist practice and teaching is a great appreciation for the present. This includes the recognition that the most wonderful things that we have in life happen only if we are in the present moment. For friendship, joy, generosity, compassion, and appreciation of beauty to arise, we have to allow ourselves the time and the presence to be aware.
Appreciating the present moment involves learning that the present moment is trustable if we are present for it. If we can be wholeheartedly mindful and non-reactive to what is going on in the present, then we will learn to respond appropriately.
Having appreciation and trust is not always easy. Part of Buddhist practice is to discover what prevents us from trusting and appreciating the present moment. What is our actual frustration, what is our resistance, what is our suffering, what is our mistrust? When these are operating, the job of mindfulness is to clearly recognize them and then to hold them non-judgmentally with our awareness.
Buddhist teachings suggest that when we find the thing that keeps us from appreciating the present, the thing that keeps us from trusting, the very thing that causes us suffering, it is a gate to freedom, to awakening. We learn to live with openness and trust rather than with a self-image and all the self-criticism, aversion and pride that can come with it. In mindfulness practice, none of our humanity is denied. We are discovering a way to be present to everything-our full humanity-so everything becomes a gate to freedom, to compassion and to ourselves.