Mindfulness and meditation are powerful practices. Right from the start we sense we’re engaging with something very profound – and also very simple. In this post and the linked talk I suggest how these experiences can become a path to liberation
Listen to the Talk. Cardiff Buddhist Centre on Thursday 5 December.
Lets get the basic orientation of Buddhist practice clear. From the practitioners perspective, we could sum up Buddhism’s two main teachings as:
- The importance of the mind . The mind is the fundamental reality of our lives and it effects everything, but we often spend little time noticing or looking after our states of mind.
- Our minds are is conditioned
The Buddha constantly emphasised the second of these points. It may sound abstract, but it means is that the cause of our mental states – the reason we feel a certain way – lies in how we use our minds. We are affected by what happens to us, but mindfulness shows us the importance of how we respond to that. In that way we shape our minds and remake our experience. As the Buddha says in the opening verses of The Dhammapada:
Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows even as the cart- wheel follows the hoof of the ox (drawing the cart).
Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.
Seeing that our experience is conditioned is the key to liberation. We can’t make ourselves different, any more than we can make a flower grow. But we can establish new conditions, gently and skilfully, that will gradually change our experience. But there’s a difficulty — perhaps it’s the central paradox of our lives. The state of our mind is the cause our problems, but we can only engage with it using the mind itself. As the Buddha put it, it’s like trying to light a fire using damp wood. This problem is a particularly acute when we get stuck in a very difficult state of mind like depression or anger: our emotions prompt thoughts that reinforce our emotions, and both of them shape our interpretations or views of what is happening. That’s how a state of mind like depression becomes a trap. That’s an extreme example, but the difficulty of seeing what’s happening in our minds affects all of us all the time.
This is why it helps to have guidance from a figure such as the Buddha, who claimed to have fully mastered the forces at work in his own mind. He identified certain aspects of consciousness that help us gain perspective on our experience and taught many practices, including meditation, that let us access these. That’s what we’re doing when we engage with meditation and mindfulness practices that come from the Buddhist tradition. We’re learning skills that let us actively shape our minds
We can think of these skills under two headings: stilling the mind and reflecting on our experience. The third element, which is important whether we are stilling the mind or exploring it, is our intention, so meditation also includes cultivating skilful intentions. This is what we’re doing the very first time we meditate, so these are very practical, down to earth skills. Again, Buddhist teachings are helpful in letting us see how far-reaching their significance really is.
The practice of stilling the mind comes from the discovery that attention has a limited capacity. When we place our attention on a soothing or settling focus, such as the breath or body, we withdraw it from other activities. That includes thinking worrying or resenting and so on. The principle is very simple; the practice isn’t quite so straightforward. Even settling the mind a little is helpful. It turns out that we can settle the mind more and more completely, taking us into states of refund absorption. Buddhist tradition describes these states (jhana or dhyana) in great detail, and it is encouraging to know that our minds have this capacity and that we can learn to develop it. The Buddhist word for this process is samatha.
Investigating and reflecting on our experience is connected with mindfulness, which means noticing what’s happening in our experience. It starts with awareness of the body, but includes awareness of thoughts and feelings. Practising mindfulness brings the mental freedom to relate differently to thoughts and feelings and it can grow into something very profound, especially when it’s combined with the concentration and stillness of samatha. The Buddhist term for the process of seeing and then living with the real nature of our impermanent, insubstantial lives is vipassana.
The third element, which is important whether we are stilling the mind or exploring it, is our intentions. Emotionally-inflected intentions are constantly present in our experience, and we start working with them when we practice non-judgmental awareness or encourage a more kindly response. The Buddha directed people to attend to their intentions, as he had learned to do for himself, cultivating skilful states of mind and letting of of unskillful ones. There’s an ethical dimension, too, because the way we act depends on our states of mind.
All of this has a bearing on whether or not Buddhism is a religion. In one sense it is. But it’s key elements are simply developments of what we can observe in our immediate experience right now.