FOUR APPLICATIONS OF MINDFULNESS
One establishes mindfulness around him…abides
thus diligent, ardent and resolute. MLD 119.4
The Buddha’s teachings point to a radical shift in the priorities of human beings. He took everyday themes
and explored them in depth. He referred to the application of mindfulness as a limb in the body of the Dharma, neither exaggerating its importance not dismissing it.
Monotheistic religion, especially, has made faith a key concept, an unmistakable characteristic. The concept of faith implies a belief in that what I cannot know or directly confirm for myself. For example, a Christian may have faith in the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ and belief in the after-life. If I am Jewish, I may have faith that the Torah is the word of God and in the various rules that the Torah has laid down as important to observe and maintain. If I am a Muslim, I may have faith in the power of Allah (the Arabic word for God). A non-theistic may have faith in rebirth. If I perform good deeds, if I engage in meritorious action, I will be reborn with a better opportunity for awakening. This is faith. There is the act of faith in revelation, the prophet, the master, the incarnation, the avatar, the book or the tradition.
Just as the mother weans the baby off dependency on the breast, the Buddha weaned us away from religious faith. He did not use the word ‘faith’ in such a context. He took a different approach with an encouragement to make a primary shift in emphasis, by focusing on the value of being conscious of what arises. He endorsed a thorough exploration of human factors including mindfulness, investigation and meditation. He told us, as much as possible, to stay alert to our experience. This vigilance offers the potential insights about ourselves according to what arises as well as the views that arise connected with the experience. Mindfulness with clear comprehension (sati-sampajanna) sheds light on any process that unfolds.
During my years in the Thai monastery our daily mindfulness/insight meditation practice began at 4 am when a monk rang the very large gong. Originally, the gong was a bomb destined for North Vietnam which had accidentally fallen out of a B52 bomber jet after taking off from the American air base in Thudong, northern Thailand, during the time of the American war on Vietnam. Perhaps the military forgot to close the hatch door! Local villagers found the unexploded bomb in a field. After removing the explosives, the villagers offered the bomb as a dana (gift) to my teacher, Ajahn Dhammadharo, and a truck brought it to our monastery, Wat Chai Na in Nakornsridhammaraj, southern Thailand. There is a certain ironic justice when a bomb becomes a bell to wake up nuns and the monks in a monastery. A genuine transformation in the material world.
For the first couple of years, I was the only Westerner in the monastery. I developed much love and appreciation for the practice of mindfulness. I witnessed the refinement of the mindful monks and the nuns. Their way of being mindful being reflected and revealed a beautiful presence that showed in the way they walked, ate food and cared for every moment of the day. I found it an inspiration for practice and the application of mindfulness from the wake up to the end of the day around ten o'clock in the evening or later. A mindful way of life through the variety of human experiences brings grace and dignity to our lives.
Mindfulness is an important limb in the large body of the Dharma. However, we can too easily neglect or forget all the other limbs of the Dharma such as ethics, lifestyle, use of resources, letting go, service, acts of compassion, depths of meditation, total transformation and liberation. Having said that, the practice of mindfulness can become a stepping-stone to explore further if mindfulness teachers make that explicitly clear. Anything that is a stepping-stone to a greater vision has to count.
We apply mindfulness to see world of objects as clearly as possible, undistorted by projections. This is a feature of the practice. The phrase ‘to see things as they are’ is an imprecise translation of what the Buddha said. He taught us to ‘to see and know what has become.’ The awakening factor of mindfulness applies to formal meditation, to sitting, walking, standing and reclining. It also applies to communication with another, to all the senses, and every aspect of inner life whilst knowing clearly the changing dynamic of everything, inwardly and outwardly, slowly and rapidly.. It doesn't allow us to grab hold of a moment and keep it because no moment is static. The vibrant unfolding process of nature never stands still. It is an enormous challenge to be in tune with the unfolding process.
If I think for one moment that I can see someone as they are, and that view is fixed, then I'm really deluding myself, and deluding others. No human being can hold onto a specific state of mind. There are too many contingent factors, forces and events involving change. It is a challenge for mindfulness to stay steady in this process of becoming. It is easier to apply mindfulness in some situations and much harder in others such as great excitement or great fear.
I might have seen myself or someone else or the situation rather clearly yesterday but my perceptions may have become distorted today. The old image and the story become unrelated to what's happening now. And where we are today maybe quite unrelated to where we are tomorrow.
Some yogis practice Dharma in India. They see inner change and then return to the West only to have to face their old miserable self again unless deep realizations have arisen while in the East or on a retreat in the West. They wish to share the value of their experiences with others, friends or family. Those other people's lives, which are so busy they don't show any interest. The yogis have come to insight and understanding while in India. They don't want to return home as a Buddhist missionary, but nobody shows any interest, anyway!
I spent ten years and ten days away from England from April 1967 to early May 1977. I told my parents I would come home to meet them rather than they meet me at the airport. I didn't want a tidal wave of tears flooding the arrival lounge. While walking home on the Sunday morning, with the same backpack for all these years, a man digging up weeds in his garden spotted me, “Been on holiday?” I replied: “You could say that.” My dear father, who never lived more than six miles from the house he was born in, apart from fighting Germans in World War 2, never asked a single question about my ten years, ten days away from home – not once.. I suspected it was too painful for him. My mother wrote a letter every single week during my 10 years overseas, except for a 100 day period when I took a vow in the Thai monastery not to read nor write a word, nor speaks except to the Abbot, the teacher.
The opportunity to share experiences with others and to listen mindfully to the other person's responses can shed more light on experiences and situations. The exchange of first-hand experiences contributes to the development of understanding of others and ourselves. When we speak honestly and openly about our experiences and listen with full attention to others, we have the opportunity to discover fresh insights. What we had not seen in the practice, we see through the avenues of communication.
Application of Mindfulness to the Body
Mindfulness works in the field of the defined and limited with interest in four primary objects – body, feelings, states of mind and sense objects. There is much to appreciate with regard to the body as an expression of nature, a remarkable capacity for movement and activity, a wonder of organic life and often a thing of beauty evident in the baby, the child, the young adult, middle age and in the very elderly. Happiness brings the beauty out of people.
Yet perceptions of the body can trigger negative reactivity, projections and fears. It is these problematic aspects of views about the body that concerned the Buddha. He used the term ‘asubha’ It literally means ‘not beautiful.’ The tradition has sometimes translated asubha as loathsome – perhaps stemming from a judgemental, if not anti-life view. The Buddha lists 32 parts of the body with many falling into the category of the ‘not beautiful.’ In is discourse on Mindfulness, he said: “There are in this body head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestines, intestinal tract, stomach, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, nasal mucus, synovium (oil lubricating the joints), urine and brain in the skull.”
The Buddha acknowledged the body as an organic process of elements and diverse sensations and it is easy to project and cling to views of youth, health, physical ability and beauty that can change gradually or quickly. Clinging to the past appearance of the body can produce unhappiness and despair through change.
Beautiful women and men can find their beauty difficult, not knowing if another has a deep interest in their inner life or whether sexual attraction determines their interest. A beautiful person can experience insecurity and vulnerability when desire from another dominates conversation. The bathroom mirror tells us little about our ‘selves’ What do we see in the mirror? How do we describe what we see in the mirror? What stimulates any negative reactions? Of what use is it to grasp and project onto different features of the body or all of it? The interpretation of the image in the mirror matters more. The viewer takes priority over the viewed. Another person only knows a picture of us in their mind. If someone says: “You look well. I didn't realize you are 35, I thought you were only 33,” it makes our day.
Health and lifestyle also impact on physical life. We practice mindfulness and clear comprehension otherwise, as years go by, the level of anxiety and fear around loss of youth, health, physical ability and beauty increases. Practice includes staying in tune with the aging process, as well as developing ways to stay calm in the face of sickness and pain. Neglect of mindfulness and insight into bodily issues become problems in the mind. The Buddha said the suffering then doubles – pain in the body and suffering in the mind. Ill health in the body can trigger anxiety in the mind. The body ages every second of every day. I started with fair hair as a child, then it became dark hair and now I have a completely new hair look! From fair, to salt and pepper, to just salt, and then for some men to neither salt nor pepper hair. When there is a light above my head, I can see in the mirror the hair has thinned. Hair is now growing out of my ears and out of my nose. Is my hair falling off my head and taking root in my ears? It wasn't doing that 40 years ago!
The single grey hair served as the advance messenger of what was to come. Mindfulness includes moment-to-moment observation of change while remembering to treat change with some lightness and humour. Nothing is static. The resources of medication for extreme pain in the body and the resources of mindfulness meditation keep the mind clear. Then there is no doubling of the suffering. Even if medical scientists found a total cure for cancer, heart disease and dementia, it only means the body will die from something else. There is no ageless, deathless body. People who believe this delude themselves and others.
Application of Mindfulness to Feelings
The Buddha’s teachings on feelings are extensive. No spiritual teacher in the history of humanity has examined feelings as much as the Buddha. He spoke about the great importance of feelings. He explored comprehensively the range of human feelings.
The Buddha said life comes together in feelings due to contact. Our thoughts, our states of mind, our activities, what we do, what we say, the way we act, make feelings a primary condition whether we realize it or not. Feelings are indispensable, even if the person is a theorist, an abstract thinker lost in their head. The professor, scientist and philosopher also reveal the feelings that support their views. Listen a little bit more – the feelings to support the views are there, somewhere.
The Buddha referred to the dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, suffering) of feelings: painful, difficult feelings of body, heart, mind and the sukkha (satisfactoriness, happiness) of feelings: happy, welcome feelings, spiritual and worldly. He spoke about the pursuit of pleasure and the danger to peace of mind through pursuit of pleasure. He pointed to natural happiness, not bound to any particular cause or condition. The Buddha encouraged the exploration of feelings, both surface or superficial feelings and the inner deeper feeling, with the obvious strong encouragement to look at the deeper inner feeling.
For example,: you chat with a friend. Pleasant and unpleasant feelings weave through every single word. You stop for a moment. There is the human display of the range of our surface feelings revealed in words and body language. In the stopping for a few moments, you become mindful of a deeper inner feeling. This immediately has a moderating and steadying response on any words gushing out of your mouth. In his great discourse on the Four Applications of Mindfulness, the Buddha said" See the feeling in the feeling." There are the outer feelings with the story, images, and pictures to support these feelings. Am I getting lost in my outer feelings? There is the inner feeling, the bare feelings without all the story. Am I in touch with the depth of the bare, inner feeling? Projections and infatuations generate the outer feeling, the externalized feelings that we grasp. What is this deep feeling, this deep sense? Why is it important? If we free ourselves up from the story, a negative drama, it may be that the bare feeling itself is simply unpleasant, endurable rather than horrible.
The same principle applies to pleasant feelings. We can get high on the story with a pleasant feeling and then an unwelcome change can bring about a crash unless we have developed equanimity towards changes that come our way.
In his discourse on mindfulness, the Buddha made an important statement. He said: “Mindfulness is established to the extent necessary for bare knowing. And one abides without dependency, not clinging to anything in the world.”
The Buddha makes it clear here that he does not expect anyone, including himself, to have the capacity to be mindful every single moment of the day and even mindful in the night through dreams. Like everything else, the presence of mindfulness depends on different factors. We can initially apply mindfulness to the extent necessary to safeguard against accidents, carelessness and blind spots. We can go deeper with mindfulness to look into pleasure and pain, success and failure, health and sickness, the secular and the spiritual experience. Through mindful application to important matters, we can reveal insights and find wisdom. It is too high an expectation to be mindful round the clock but we can become mindful to the extent necessary, as the Buddha said, to safeguard us from suffering.
I remember the first time I read this in the application of mindfulness sutta when I was a monk. It gave me great relief since the practice does not demand constant moment to moment mindfulness. It is easy for practitioners to exaggerate the place of mindfulness to such a degree we become identified and attached to being mindful all the time - in every moment. This is impossible. We need to be mindful to the “extent necessary” to abide freely in the world.
Application of Mindfulness to States of Mind
The third application of mindfulness refers to states of mind - inwardly and outwardly, towards others as well as yourself.
Practice includes seeing a state of mind as a state of mind, whether emerging from within or without. No matter what you or the other person says, no matter how it is said, no matter what the tone, the attitude, the statement, it is a state of mind. It's a huge challenge to acknowledge honestly and humbly your state of mind, no matter what the inner experience. It is equally challenging to see other’s state of mind without blindly reacting. Clear comprehension of a state of mind shows a measure of non-attachment to it, a certain space to enable the opportunity to develop a healthy state of mind and change the unhealthy state of mind.
Sometimes we think other people should be more developed than they are. We have expectations of them. We expect others to be mindful. We express the notorious one-liner, “You know me well enough. You should intuitively know that something is going wrong with me.” Why should he or she know? Why do we expect those close to us to know intuitively what's going on with us? Once we think we know somebody, we use our memory instead of our perceptions in the moment.
Application of Mindfulness to the Dharma
Mindfulness of the Dharma is the fourth application of mindfulness. This refers to bringing the Dharma to the world, to all events involving senses and sense objects. There are limits to mindfulness. It's a frame, a model, a methodology, a priority. Mindfulness of body, feelings, states of mind and objects of Dharma addresses all of that. The general language of “I'm working on myself” intended to liberate you can become your prison cell, full of bars and mirrors.
Attachment to self imprisons you. Identification with your story will imprison you. The whole purpose of the path is reaching the end of it. Some practitioners hold onto the path - forgetting the path is only a metaphor and therefore empty of substance. If you hold onto the path, you hesitate to risk full engagement with life.
Let’s sit, walk, stand, recline with no interest whatsoever in holding onto any idea, deep or shallow, of working on oneself. The object – breath, body, feelings, states of mind and Dharma – defines mindfulness. Mindfulness of an object serves as the means to see clearly what arises. The subject and the object abide in peace with each other. This provides the opportunity to discover the unformed, unconstructed and the limitless.
It is such a lovely, precious, sweet freedom. One is free because liberation shows no construction. I can't put together freedom, I can't make it come together. This freedom is precious and powerful in its expression. This freedom confirms the emancipating force of the human being.
May all beings see the formations and constructions in life,
May all beings appreciate the value and limits of mindfulness,
May all beings know clearly the limitless.