The Application of Mindfulness
50 Questions and Answers
Questions 1- 20
Here are 50 questions and answers on the application of mindfulness according to the teachings of the Buddha. I address such questions and concerns in the annual teaching programme. More answers attend to issues around mindfulness, calm and insight meditation. There are also questions dealing with some of the statements of the Buddha in the Four Applications of Mindfulness Discourse (Satipatthana Sutta). Buddhists rightly regard this discourse (sutta) as a master statement of insight. I also address various questions from daily life concerns to expressions of enlightened living. I have written several questions that you might ask if you had the opportunity.
1. Why is there so much mention of practice in the Dharma (teachings) of the Buddha?
It is important to recognise the importance of practice. Practice, practice, practice. There is no substitute for the practice. Without the practice of mindfulness, everything that you read will simply be a theory. You will see through your direct experience the value of practice. Research shows that the daily practice of mindfulness overcomes confusion, stress and unhappiness. There is the practice to realise a greater freedom of being and there is the freedom of being to explore the depth of practice. Those who cllng to practice will never know freedom. Those who reject practice will never know freedom.
4. Some mindfulness courses have made no mention of the Buddha. Why have you quoted the Buddha in every week of the 13 weeks?
I endeavour to keep as close to the Buddha’s teachings as possible. His discourse on mindfulness offers very practical steps for the application of mindfulness. I believe it is valuable to address, as the Buddha encouraged in his discourse, the wealth and the limits of the spiritual, as well as conventional experiences. If you exclude spiritual experiences from the application of mindfulness, with no reference whatsoever to the spiritual, then mindfulness becomes limited to a branch of psychology. Mindfulness certainly makes a valuable contribution to inner well-being. Mindfulness also involves an authentic exploration of consciousness and its contents, conventional and spiritual. Scientists have long since recognised that we only employ a small percentage of our potential. If you are to find access to the deeper levels of your inner life, you will know that psychological well-being functions as one step on the ladder of authentic transformation.
5. Is there a difference between calmness meditation, vipassana meditation and mindfulness meditation?
I would say that all three of these meditation practices belong to the same family. Firstly, they originate from the direct teachings of the Buddha and the Theravada tradition. The tradition has always recognised the value of such meditations on the path of realisation. In the East, calmness meditation (samatha) refers to meditation leading to a depth of serenity, inner absorption and an established equanimity. Vipassana literally means insight. These meditations refer to the insights that have the potential to emerge in a meditation practice. Strictly speaking, vipassana is not a technique but rather an emergence from mindfulness and meditation. In samatha meditation, the meditator generally focuses on a particular object. Meditators may also focus on an external object, a candle flame, a plant or religious image. In vipassana, the meditator focuses on the characteristics of the object such as impermanence, unsatisfactory aspects (to cut through clinging) and impersonal nature (not I, nor mine). Calm and insight meditation and mindfulness work together in the process of transformation.
6. How do I know when I am practising samatha meditation?
Samatha develops with the capacity to focus moment to moment on the object enabling relaxation and a settled sense. Most meditation practices with a method actually consist of the development of samatha. As you develop peace of mind, your also generation the potential for other insights to arise. The Buddha made it clear that mindfulness, calm and insight support each other on the path.
7. Some Buddhists seem to be very serious meditators. Their practice seems to make them very serious people. If I practice a lot, will I also become a very serious minded person?
I tend to agree with your general perception. Samatha meditation includes the experience of happiness, joy, rapture and bliss, as well as beautiful experiences of the heart. Some Western meditators forget the importance of happiness. Perhaps such Buddhists have identified themselves with concentration, equanimity and the perception of the three characteristics of existence, namely impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self. Any identification with these perceptions inhibits the natural arising of happiness and ecstasy in meditation, as well as at other times. Mindfulness practice includes the recognition of the importance of the connection between mindfulness and happiness. Application of receptivity to the variety of subtle and gross experiences of happiness matters. We can delude ourselves into thinking that happiness expresses some kind of attachment to a perception, experience of event. We might think happiness is the outcome of fulfilled desire. We explore meditation to experience natural happiness - a happiness not dependent on achieving personal goals.
8. How deep can we go with mindfulness practice?
Happiness plays an important part in emotional, psychological and physical well-being. Happiness expands the cells enabling us to feel more, breathe more easily and enjoy the awe and wonder of the ordinary and the everyday. The path of transformation certainly includes the path of happiness. There is access to various kinds of depths. We may explore through meditation, reflection or with another or others, the depth of happiness, the depth of absorbed presence, range of formless experiences as well as the depth of any suffering.
9. What do you mean by stress?
Stress has become one of the most frequent expressions of dukkha, a Buddhist word that covers the entire expanse of suffering from expressions of unsatisfactoriness in particular and general ways to the greatest forms of suffering imaginable. Dukkha includes stress, depression, despair, unhappiness, anxiety, emotional numbness, anguish, obsessions, unresolved aggression and relentless thinking. These are gross expressions of dukkha but there are subtle expressions as well. These reflect in various attitudes that make it difficult to handle change, certain thoughts or inability to get tasks completed. Some people have the habit of constantly comparing of themselves with others, favourably and unfavourably. Naïveté expresses itself with the belief that our experiences will change once we get our life together. The practice of mindfulness points to the application of our attention to the inner life. We examine our attitudes, as much as to the circumstances around us that also contribute to forming our existence. Mindfulness is a factor towards unravelling the complexities and pressures that form our mind states.
10. What are the forces within that contribute mostly to stress?
The two forces that trigger stress show as the desire to get things complete and the fear of not getting things done. These two forces rub up against each other. We call the result stress. Stress also reveals itself as thinking too much about something. Practice includes inquiry into these two forces so we relate to our tasks, commitments and concerns with wise attention. The movement of pleasant feelings and desire form attraction towards the object. We feel attraction to the idea of getting something done and completed. We feel aversion to our mind when we prevaricate. Such forces of attraction and aversion inhibit creative expression and fulfilment. We often find fault with time. “I don’t have enough time.” That thought is a statement of stress. It is the signal that we have to change our attitude and organise our lives differently.
11. What is the problem with attraction and aversion?
Mindfulness of the forces of attraction and aversion contributes to knowing ourselves. There is a tension in the force of attraction when we drive ourselves to what we want or engage in fantasies around the object of attraction. The force of attraction also undermines much else truly worthy of acknowledgement and appreciation. Love and beauty, so dear to human experience, goes deeper than this compelling conditioning of attraction, often a product of something lacking within. The more we experience fulfilment the less we find ourselves caught up in attraction and aversion. The spell of attraction can blind us to wisdom, renunciation and a stress free presence. If you blindly follow through with the force of attraction, due to lack of mindfulness, you may experience later deep regret and guilt. Love moves us in a different way from attraction. We easily confuse the two.
12. Won't we become rather dull, if not lifeless, if we train ourselves to be free from attraction and aversion?
Emotional numbness, heaviness of thought and feeling empty within bear a direct relationship to attraction and aversion. Unfulfilled desires and constant negativity burn us out. We feel exhausted, lethargic and resistant to creative initiatives. Memory plays an important part in all of this. Dukkha from the past can play havoc with our perceptions and views of what unfolds here and now. We become morbid and feel unfulfilled due to the accumulation of images and views stored up from the past. Mindfulness includes mindfulness of the influences of the past. We should not think of that in terms of painful influences exclusively. We also can draw initiative and inspiration from the past, especially those times when we have extended ourselves beyond our usual limits. “I have done this before and I can do it again.”
13. The Buddha spoke of the four requisites. What is the connection of mindfulness to the four requisites?
Four requisites consist of food, clothing, shelter and medicine. Moderation in the material world enables us to live with a certain peace of mind. It is hard to apply our attention to emotional, psychological and spiritual concerns if we do not have enough to eat, nor enough clothes to keep warm, nor shelter from harsh climates, nor the necessary medication to deal with sickness and pain. The Buddha has made it clear that mindfulness applies as much to our relationship with the material world as it does to our psychological life. Psychotherapy, Buddhist psychology and courses often neglect to address projections, desire and longing in consumer culture.
14. I do not see much reference in the Buddha’s teachings to diet.
The Buddha does refer to diet briefly from the perspective of the social reality of his era. It is one of the weak spots in his teachings. He names the kind of animals householders can eat. He says that the spiritual wanderers should not eat animals specifically cooked for them. I believe the Buddha did not give full attention to diet. He was more concerned with what came out of our mouths rather than what went into our mouths. What do we eat? Do we eat anything with a face - animals, birds of fish? Is the ethic of being a vegetarian or vegan a worthwhile value contributing to our health, welfare of creatures and productive use of land? Or, is it that we do not concern ourselves with such concerns? Do we ignore the stressful impact of eating meat and use of abattoirs on animals and birds? Do we prefer the view that being vegetarian or vegan has nothing to do with ethics? Is it a matter of choice like buying a white shirt or a black shirt? On website, you will see on the menu “Environmental Ethics.” I have included some details about mindfulness of diet.
15. What about clothing, home and medicine?
At the time of the Buddha, natural products served as the raw material for clothing. The Buddha had little regard for lavish adornment in dress. What would he say about designer clothes with labels? Mindfulness of clothing includes what we buy, intentions, the material and knowledge where it comes from. Do we want to be walking advertisements for the companies in the cloth industry? What is the relationship to our home? Do we make things last? Do we own so much stuff that we find ourselves looking for a bigger place? How much are we reliant on medicine to relieve sickness and pain? Do we see the importance of diet, posture and exercise as meaningful practices for a healthy way of life? Do we consider alternative forms of medicine before embarking upon medicine prescribed by the pharmaceutical industry?
16. Don't you think it sounds like an enormous task to apply mindfulness to the four requisites?
I see little point in amputating some areas of the application of mindfulness simply because it feels uncomfortable, if not daunting, to practitioners. I agree that it does appear a major undertaking to enquire into food, clothing, shelter and medicine. Initially, you may have to engage in research, perhaps using the internet. You may have to examine how you use your money. Having examined such use, you may realise you have to renounce or change some forms of expenditure for attunement with a wise lifestyle and use of requisites. The four requisites and our psychological life bear an intimate relationship. If we live in accordance with moderation of use of resources, it will considerably reduce, if not resolve, any stress associated directly, or indirectly, with any or all of the four requisites. I feel it is better to recognise a growing community of men women and children applying real concern to the requisites and feel to be a member of such a community, rather than an isolated individual trying to make a difference. As a society, as a nation, as members of an international community, we develop mindfulness of the four requisites as an indispensable feature of our practice.
17. Where would I start if I felt inspired to apply mindfulness to food, clothing shelter and medicine?
It is important to keep things as simple as possible. For example, you might go through every item of food that you have at home. Nutritious food obviously takes the priority. Are there items of food that you need to stop buying, buying less of or finding out about its content? Can you give priority to buying food in your local market, local shop and reducing any visits to the supermarket? The same principle applies to clothes and household goods. Mindfulness practice includes wise attention, and skilful use of resources, as well as generating a healthy lifestyle. It does not take long before you experience an appreciation for such mindfull application to the requisites. You will save on the use of resources, save money and enjoy the benefits of much less clutter in your home. Mindfulness practice requires initial effort but then appreciation emerges. Such mindfulness transforms itself into effortless application. You will enjoy living with moderation as old habits fade. Buddhist monks and nuns observe the austerity of their tradition. They can carry all of their possessions on a single, outstretched arm. We, householders, have neither the interest nor the need to live with so little in the material world. Yet, we can live with much less, be content with less and enjoy what we use.
18. Is there a danger of becoming judgemental to others who show no interest in mindful living? Isn't there a danger of becoming a missionary for mindfulness as if mindfulness was the answer to everything?
Yes, it is easy to grasp onto mindfulness. If we do, it will show itself through approval of those who act in similar ways and disapproval, if not rejection, including giving ourselves a hard time. The grasping onto what we conceive of as positive certainly has the potential for a negative influence. We become a seditious moral authority of mindfulness either to the face of people or behind their back. We make negative and judgemental comments as a means to boost our own sense of self-importance. There is no substitute for kindness. Some appear fearful to speak about the personal and social benefits of mindfulness practice. Perhaps such people are afraid of being misunderstood. Are we afraid to speak up about our concerns about lifestyle? Does the language of choice, such as "that's his (her, their) choice" keep us quiet. A practice includes finding skilful ways to talk about areas important to us with the trust that others understand our intentions.
19. Do you address these questions and issues in the Mindfulness Training Course?
I have endeavoured to apply mindfulness to most of the major areas as emphasised in the Buddhist Dharma. We wish to encourage people to join the MTC. Whether you join or not, these questions and answers serve as a contribution towards enquiry into value, lifestyle and enlightened living. Mindfulness and meditation are powerful resources for the inner life. The teachings and practices are like a farmer tilling the ground of a vast field. He ploughs the old plants back into the soil, plants new seeds, waters them, tends to the weeds and watches a whole new crop grow that gives nourishment to many. The fruits of tilling the soil, planting and watering seeds show the wise application of ethics, meditative concentration and a liberating wisdom. It is not as some might imagine a self-indulgent activity. Far from it. Not surprisingly, the Buddha insisted his teachings were concerned with non-self rather than self, non-ego rather than ego. The ego forms through grasping. The ego dissolves through letting go of grasping. The Dharma endorses a truly selfless way of life.
20. Some people claim that meditation is a trance, a kind of self- hypnosis. Others claim meditation is only about being in the here and now. Others say you cannot meditate. They claim meditation happens to you in unexpected times. Do you find yourself more sympathetic to one of these views than the others?
Let us not set limits on meditation. Let us not define meditation in one way or reject others definitions of meditation. There is no inherent meaning in a word. Its meaning comes through agreement. Yes, meditation can show itself as a trance. Yes, meditation is being in the here and now. Yes, meditation comes upon us, such as when we experience a deep intimacy with everything within and without. Meditation also refers to being deeply mindful of what is unfolding connected with the past, present or future, spiritual or conventional, inner or outer. Meditation sheds light upon what arises with a view to understand more clearly. We give care and attention to anything whatsoever. We will then notice more about the object and the subject’s relationship to the object. Mindfulness functions as a contribution towards discovery. In the MTC, I have included 25 definitions of mindfulness. That does not mean to say that what we find out will please us. Sometimes mindfulness uncovers aspects of ourselves that disturb us. We feel embarrassed, a failure, a conditioned individual. Yet, what stands out, no longer remaining hidden from view, has the potential to change and to dissolve.