The Application of Mindfulness
50 Questions and Answers
Part 2. Questions 21-40
21. Can we be mindful and happy at the same time?
Be careful not to confuse mindfulness and formal insight meditation as only meaning observation. We welcome waves of happiness and joy allowing such experiences to flow through our being. Ironically, some meditators become attached to detached observation. Happiness and joy can then dry up. There are two common kinds of mindfulness experience. The subject (consciousness) gives attention to the object. We may witness a space between the observer and observed. The observer seems apart from the observed. The observer (also called the meditator, the witness or the practitioner of mindfulness) and the observed still share an intimate connection since they confirm each other. The observer may carry old patterns that project onto the object colouring and distorting it. At times, it is valuable and necessary to stand back from the object of interest so that steadiness arises with the observation. Calmness, equanimity and presence enable us to witness clearly our object of interest. We also have the valuable capacity to be thoroughly absorbed in the object of interest. Being fully absorbed in creativity is one example. It shows itself in freedom of expression, making of love and various expressions of the expansive heart. It would be unfortunate if we endeavoured to stand back from such absorbing experiences. Our practice of mindfulness includes the witness and includes absorption. The capacity to witness and the capacity for absorption enable happiness to emerge. In absorption, mindfulness reveals itself as a quiet and clear knowing of the experience of laughter, ecstasy and totally enjoying the magic of life.
22. I have read spiritual books that state all thought is a problem. Spiritual teachers claim that those who work on their thoughts are stuck in their mind. These spiritual teachers say we have to go beyond our mind. Is this the ultimate aim of mindfulness practice?
I hear regularly this viewpoint. The viewpoint arises from the mind. Any view that arises has its origins in the inner life. There are no views outside of the mind. It is not necessary to have such a reaction to thought. I remember in the 1980’s J. Krishnamurti, a respect Indian teacher, saying in an interview on BBC television. “All thought is corrupt.” I remember I responded with the thought: “Well, that thought, sir, is corrupt.” We could claim that every utterance shows limits since it depends on the mind for its expression. I take a different view. There is no need to reject the mind and proclaim a transcendent state beyond or outside of the mind. Religion and gurus have frequently advocated this viewpoint. The abandonment of this viewpoint does not leave us stuck in thought but rather stops the spiritual reaction to the mind.
23. Why does it stop the reaction to the mind?
By claiming a transcendent state, beyond the mind, we give far too much importance to the mind. We then think the mind is a problem. Certain spiritual teachers proclaim the mind or thought, as a block, hindrance or impediment to transcendence. The adoption of such a view imprisons us. It makes the gap between thought and beyond thought. The practice of mindfulness has a variety of purposes. One of them is to end the gap, to see through the apparent division between thought and transcendence.
24. Are you saying that we do not have to end thought? Are you saying that thought has the capacity to neither obscure transcendence nor reveal it?
My response is “yes” to both questions. We can regard thought as a friend, as a useful function to reveal and describe while recognising its validity and its limits. That doesn't mean to say we have to swing to the other extreme and reject all thought. Various experiences in and outside of meditation can certainly bring temporarily a sudden end to the thinking process. On such occasions, the loss of thought, of words reminds us directly of the limits of the conceivable. The capacity to offer an adequate conceptual response ends. Profound experiences often leave us humble and wordless. Mindfulness contributes to skilful working with thoughts and stays receptive to experiences where all conceptions seem unhelpful. Mindfulness of thought constitutes an important practice since it neither exaggerates the purpose and function of thinking nor rejects it as some kind of distraction. Meditation serves as an excellent resource to understand the field of thought. Meditation may be the most direct approach available to follow a sequence of thought, examine pressurised thoughts, the scattered mind and any stress or intensity that accompanies our views. The Nobel Prize committee may award us with a great prize for our expertise in science, economics or literature. It does not mean that we have the capacity to know a wise and clear relationship with our thoughts and the profusion of knowledge that accompanies the thoughts. An incredible brain and the tyranny of sleepless nights can work together revealing a real disharmony in the inner life.
25. Is it useful to discern healthy thoughts from unhealthy thoughts or should we treat all thought alike?
It is definitely useful to discern healthy thoughts from unhealthy thoughts. Healthy thoughts lead to wise action or non action depending on the circumstances. If we do not follow up on healthy thoughts, then these thoughts remain in the pool of good ideas and nothing more. What are the conditions that trigger unhealthy thinking? What's the mood? Is there another way to think about the situation? Do we have to draw any hard and fast conclusions despite the prevalence of unhealthy thoughts at the time? Wise judgement makes clear whether certain streams of thought show a healthy or unhealthy mind. Such a judgement contributes to putting us on a clear and direct path. That doesn't mean to say that we should always place all of our thinking in either one box or the other. As we see more clearly, thoughts simply express the movement of the inner life. Just as leaves come from trees so the thoughts come from the mind. Wisdom points out that thought merely confirm thoughts. A succession of thoughts is a succession of thoughts. Nothing more. Nothing less.
26. Why is it so important to see a thought as a thought?
We have the capacity to think about what we need to think about and, equally important, we have the capacity not to think what we don't wish to think. The first capacity allows clarity to determine what we think and how long we think about something. We can start thinking about something but lack the capacity to stop thinking about the matter. The thoughts go on and on. The self becomes a victim to the brain’s production of thoughts that seem to persecute the self. If there is the wisdom to see the thought as a thought, there is natural, immediate peace of mind. Mindfulness of thought, regardless of the content of thought, matters as much as the content in the thought. We often overlook this. Thoughts are just thoughts bearing no real weight, no substance, nor inherent authority. A thought is empty, transparent and lacking any real capacity to make us act or do anything through body, speech or mind. Once again, it is easy to make such statements on the emptiness of our thoughts but we must confirm thoughts as merely thoughts through the practice of witnessing them directly. Such a practice contributes immensely to our well-being and peace of mind.
27. Isn't meditation practice rather selfish?
Skilful meditation practice offers a real service to others. If you reduce your stress, anger and fear, others will directly and indirectly benefit. You will be much less demanding on them, place less pressure on family, friends and colleagues. You will have a greater capacity to listen to their needs and their issues. We easily delude ourselves when we believe we know what is good for others, especially if we're not deeply in touch with ourselves. Mindfulness functions as a two-way street. We recognise what flows from within to without and learn to handle with clarity what flows from without to within. Mindfulness practice does not contain some romantic ideal of the wish to see only what is good within us or within others but remains committed to knowing what actually takes place, as it happens. Some spiritual masters will proclaim positively “I am pure Consciousness.” He or she then turns to their disciples and says: “You are pure Consciousness.” What’s the point? Disciples may respond with a yes, no or don’t know. Let us take a domestic example. Our partner launches into a personal attack upon us. He or she makes comments cruel, unkind and unfair. It would be very easy to carry the memory around with our resentment gradually building up. Mindfulness practice reminds us of a simple truth. "She (or he) said these words to me at this time." This serves as a simple reminder that harsh words exist in time and place. That does not mean to say that there is blind acceptance and submission to such an onslaught. The issue needs handling as mindfully and sensitively as possible. If we hold onto the outburst of rage, then the negativity and the resentment will build up. This gives much pointless authority to the words of our partner. We burn up inside through grasping what he or she said. Why give such authority to somebody else? If there is truth amidst the negativity, then mindfulness practice will contribute to the discernment of the truth from the blame.
28. What is the difference between calm and insight meditation and the Judeo-Christian tradition of meditation?
The Judeo Christian tradition relies on prayer as a means for communication with their God. Prayer may take the form of gratitude, a request or as a response to events. Such prayer acknowledges the limits of the self, the inner life, and so consciousness turns its attention to a transcendent element. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, meditation often refers to a reflection on a passage from a religious text, such as the Torah, the Bible or the words of Jesus. Followers of that tradition also reflect and meditate on the words of the saints and prophets for inspiration and insight. Contemplation in this tradition often refers to a state of silent receptivity where consciousness remains still and alert to the sense of communion with something greater than itself. It is important to remember again that different traditions will use concepts in different ways. There is no belief whatsoever in the Dharma of a personal God who loves us and has the capacity, if He or She wishes, to intervene in our supplications and fervent meditation. We recognise the inner benefits of such beliefs. For example, these beliefs offer a genuine consolation and comfort through the stages of dying and death for all concerned.
29. Why do you say “their God?” There is much conflict between science and religion. What is the approach of the Dharma to these two influential institutions?
I regard it as inappropriate for followers of a faith to claim that their God is everybody’s God. I do not see the evidence to confirm that their God is everybody’s God. The Buddha’s Dharma is not everybody’s Dharma. Why should it be? Followers of a religion have their view about a personal God. I do not share their view. Believers in their God may not share my view. Perhaps the God for many people is what they think about most. Emotions, money, security, self, the future, past or present may function as our God in our lives. Dharma seeks to find a middle way between the extreme position of belief in a loving creator on the one side and belief in scientific materialism on the other side. The long-standing tension between science and religion does not concern Dharma teachings and practices. Dharma invites us to explore the unfolding process of life, our relationship to it, and what ties us down and what frees us up. The engagement in the process referred to as dependent arising, takes a real priority for practitioners. We do not have to rely upon the authority of science or religion. We can find out through our own realisations about the causes and conditions that make circumstances dependently arise and pass. The unfolding process does not have anything inherently problematic about it. What human beings project generates the conflict and suffering in this world. The practice of mindfulness contributes to waking us up, freeing us up while staying in tune with what unfolds.
30. In the Noble Eightfold path, the Buddha referred to right mindfulness. What is meant by the word “right” in this context? Surely, you are saying mindfulness is important in every moment.
The Pali word for “right” is “samma.” It carries a twofold meaning. It means right in the sense of skilful and appropriate, free from any intention to cause harm or suffering for oneself or others. Samma also refers to a deep sense of fulfilment. We develop every link in the eightfold path to know what it means to live a noble way of life, nourishing and fulfilling through our meditations, communications and actions. During the 1990’s, a 20 year old burglar entered three houses in my street in the middle of the night while occupants slept upstairs. He stole a variety of goods as he felt desperate to make money. He told his mother he knew the house where I lived. His mother came to see me. She told me: “My son told me that he knew where you lived so he didn’t break into your home.” Thank you. No doubt, the foolish burglar remained extraordinarily mindful every moment he tiptoed around downstairs in other people’s homes. Some days later, he felt very guilty and handed himself over to the police. The court still gave him an 18 month prison sentence, even though it was his first offence. Right mindfulness includes intention, the second link in the eightfold path as well as action and results of what we do.
31. At times, we are mindful of how much we all have in common. One of the Buddhist chants says that all beings are subject to birth, ageing pain and death. Sometimes we are mindful of the differences between humans and as well as between humans and other sentient creatures. Is it better to hold to the oneness view or to dwell on the differences?
Positivity and negativity, hope and fear confirm the judgemental mind. The perception and experience of unity, of oneness, of cosmic harmony uplifts the spirit. It is a precious perception where we see and know unity. Some teachers proclaim that as the true reality. Unity or Oneness is supreme while differences and multiplicity belong to the mundane. The Dharma does not adopt such a hierarchical view. In a survey in the USA years ago, more than 85% of the population said they had a profound experience of Oneness at some point in their life. It didn’t stop around 95% of the population making a hard division between “us” and “them” to support the war on the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. Dharma recognises perceptions and experiences form the views of oneness and separateness. And that's all. The oneness view can gloss over the differences, a coating of a spiritual pleasantness through everything in the great field of existence. The view of differences can lead to blame, prejudice and envy. Unity and differences, oneness and multiplicity, harmony and diversity simply confirm each other. One cannot exist without the other. One experience is no more, nor less important than the other is.
32. Many mindfulness and meditation teachers tell us to take a non-judgemental approach to whatever arises. What is your response to this attitude?
It is vitally important to distinguish the difference of making a judgement from being judgemental. For example, the determination to apply mindfulness to the various daily situations contains a judgement. We have the sense, perhaps based on past experience, or not, that benefits will arise from giving more attention to what is happening with body, speech and mind. Similarly, we can look at outer situations, personal social or political, recognise what contributes to suffering and stress, and make judgements about the necessary action to resolve the situation. This is totally in accordance with the core message of the Buddha of the four truths of the noble ones, namely suffering, causes and conditions for it, a resolution and the means to resolve. The judgemental mind simply reacts. Such a mind may produce negative views and opinions or sugar-coated views and opinions that confirm a judgemental view whether negative or positive. The judgemental mind can hide itself in a question "well, that's your choice." Such a statement that often carries a judgemental tone to it. If there is frequent encouragement to be non-judgemental, the outcome can generate a passive, distant response to situations. It is very common in the Buddhist world and other spiritual traditions, East and West, to avoid making any judgements about events due to fear of sounding judgemental. We make numerous judgements every day. Let us bring wisdom to bear on these judgements and not be afraid of making them. Let us also be equally mindful of the judgemental mind caught up in some measure of reactivity that tells us more about ourselves than anything else.
33. What is meant by the non-returner?
At the end of the discourse on the four foundations of mindfulness, the Buddha referred to noble ones who have completely resolved any dukkha of their inner life and live in accordance with dependent arising. The non-returner never slips back into negative and destructive old patterns. There is no returning to such problematic ways of living. He or she continues to work on themselves to dispel any unresolved blind spots and any conceit usually springing from making comparisons of oneself with others. “I am superior to you.” “I am inferior to you.” “I am your equal.” Incidentally, the Buddha also referred to other kinds of noble ones. There is the stream enterer. He or she lives an ethical way of life free from any intention to cause deliberately suffering to others. The stream enterer knows the taste of liberation and has significantly reduced any greed, negativity and delusions. He or she has tasted the fulfilment of practice and this leaves no doubt. Such noble ones no longer holds to views about so-called personality since a personality essentially refers to certain kinds of repeating habits and patterns that become familiar to oneself or others. Noble ones know much freedom of the spirit in their daily life, whether householders or wanderers. The second kind of noble one has dramatically reduced further any stress, suffering and poisons of the mind that impact upon perceptions, as well as what is said and done. The teachings on the four kinds of noble ones, stream enterer, once returner, non-returner and arahant are worthy of interest since they show the nature of realisations while acknowledging work in progress, except for the arahant.
34. The Buddha said that we have the potential to be fully realised human beings within seven days, not seven years. Does he really mean it?
Yes. Definitely. A week is more than enough time. Some spiritual practitioners cling to the idea of becoming perfect. The language of purity has certain usefulness. We sometimes come to know a person who appears very pure in heart. In a way, they belong to the Sangha of Angels on this Earth. If we attach onto the notion of becoming spiritually pure, through rules, methods and views, it will lead to the judgemental mind. We can spend years and years trying to purify ourselves. We might even imagine that we are more pure and others display impure vibrations. We might think our approach to practice is pure while others deceive themselves. We need every reminder that the Buddha offers teachings of liberation from all conceited views. Yes, we have the potential as human beings to live a fully realised life, free from problems, unbound to the process of mind and body. The Buddha does not teach perfectionism. Enlightenment does not follow purity. We can know an authentic liberation yet still experience unresolved issues, inwardly and outwardly, still see impure thoughts within ourselves. The sun still shines even when some dark clouds move across the sun. Seven days is a long time. A single moment can transform our lives.
35. How can I know if there is such a thing as enlightenment?
People regularly ask me this question. Buddhists and various spiritual seekers have charged the concept enlightenment, often making it seem far out of reach. It gives the impression that there is a self who can become enlightened. Let us state the question in another way. Is there enlightened activity? Yes. It reveals itself through freedom of expression, application of wisdom and love, non-dependency on results and a genuine sense and appreciation of the infinite. It is not necessary to restrict our understanding of enlightenment down to a single experience. This common view primarily arose due to the events under the bodhi tree 2500 years ago. The Buddha attributed the time of his awakening to the events of a single night. Understandably, it left the impression that spiritual exploration is the journey towards a single, unique, transformative experience. Yes, major turning points through the profound experience transform people's lives. It is not necessary to experience a single major event. There are people who have no recollection of such an event in their personal lives. Yet their way of life shows an engagement in enlightened activity. Drop the concept enlightenment and realise enlightened action.
36. Would the person know that that their way of life is enlightened?
I have the privilege of contact with such people who genuinely show a mindful and conscientious way of living. I know people who express an enlightened way of living. Most would not be presumptuous as to make any claims about expressing an enlightened activity in their daily lives. Such people show a rather natural humility. They never think of themselves this way. They know a true sense of freedom of being in their way of life. Home, work, children, travel neither makes that freedom nor limits it. The convenient constructs and metaphors of path and goal have lost significance. Others think of themselves as having achieved enlightenment, point to a particular event, yet we find it difficult to sense any difference in that person between the time before enlightenment and the time after it. Our view may express our judgemental mind or it may express an authentic concern about a naïve claim of enlightenment.
37. The Buddha said an application of mindfulness overcomes grief and despair. What is the relationship between mindfulness and such emotional pain?
It is important to distinguish grief and despair from sadness. Grief is sorrow fused with desire for such a loss not to be that way. Despair relates to anguish and intense feelings of helplessness and desperation. Sadness simply reveals the sense of loss or change. A Buddha mind and ordinary mind experiences sadness over loss of someone or something that matters to us. A Buddha mind is free from grief and despair. Application of mindfulness includes a deep wisdom about change about people and events dependently passing and the power of love and equanimity to handle unwanted situations.
38. The Buddha says the practitioner establishes mindfulness around him. What does he mean?
The Buddha showed that the concept sati (mindfulness) has a clear association with anupassati. This word means to “see repeatedly and to observe closely what happens.” Through the diligence in the practice, the clear knowing stands out as an important function of the inner life. Clear knowing reveals a certain awakening of this knowing. Mindfulness lends itself to clear knowing and awakening. The Buddha used the parable of the king who told several blind men to touch different parts of an elephant. Each gave a different report of what they touched. None realised they had touched an elephant. It was a warning from the Buddha to be careful about claiming direct knowledge through personal experience. Mindfulness contributes to wisdom. We place mindfulness all around us. It includes experience, the interpretation of experience, the immediate experience at hand and connection with the sources that contribute to clear knowing and direct knowledge.
39. How do we know if we exaggerate the place of a mindfulness technique whether counting our breaths, walking slowly or washing a dish, one at a time?
Methods of mindfulness and meditation have a genuine value but should not overshadow the Buddha’s reminder to establish mindfulness all around us. Mindfulness includes all that makes up our life and all that we inter-act with through our senses. Mindfulness includes the present moment, our past and the Dharma for recollection. The Buddha made it clear that mindfulness alone will not eradicate unhealthy patterns such as negativity, though it will curb the impact. It is a major commitment to lead as mindfully as possible. Mindfulness includes and extends beyond a technique. There are signs of clinging to a technique as a single methodology applied to all situations.
1. A resistance to employ other techniques or apply mindfulness without a technique.
2. Believing there is something special about one’s method.
3. Confining mindfulness to a particular form such as the sitting and walking posture.
4. Feeling stuck in a technique.
Mindfulness reveals more than what first appears. If I focus upon a plant, I will notice far more about its appearance, its nature, and its place in the nature of things. I will see much more about my relationship to the plant. Mindfulness is the process of discovery, inner and outer. Our Mindfulness Training Course offers teachings and practices to apply mindfulness all around us. A conscious and mindful human being applies an appropriate method or technique when suitable.
40. The Buddha referred to the application of mindfulness internally and externally. There are different interpretations of inner and outer. What does this mean?
There has been much analysis in the Theravada tradition on what this means. One view is that inner refers to oneself and the outer refers to the world around. Another view is that the outer refers to the outer appearance. For example, the outer body shows itself as size, shape, age, colour, weight and appearance. Inner body shows itself as bare sensations, vibrations, raw experience, pleasant, painful or in-between. We can spend much of our life engrossed in the outer body making favourable and unfavourable judgements about it. I believe the application of mindfulness communicates both views. The Buddha said see “body in body, see feelings in feelings, see states of mind in states of mind and see Dharma in Dharma.” It means going deeper than the outer appearance of body, feelings, states of mind and Dharma whether our “self” or another “self” or “selves.” Outer Dharma is knowledge, information, theory. Inner Dharma is insight, clearly knowing and realisation.