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The Way of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is rapidly being taken up in the modern world in psychology and psychotherapy, health care, mental health, education, the prison system and even government. There are today, in mid 2015, more than a hundred British Parliamentarians that have taken mindfulness training programs, and similar programs are available in the Dutch, EU and other parliaments. Thousands of research studies have been published on it. We hear about ‘Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction’ (MBSR), ‘Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy’ (MBCT), mindfulness clinics in all major US medical centres, mindfulness in improving well-being and happiness in the workplace, and of course mindfulness as a spiritual technique. There is no doubt about its capacity to reduce pain, stress, mental disturbance and a variety of forms of human suffering, yet as with all deep teachings that reach mass culture, it has arrived often as a superficial and limited technique, disconnected from it rich sources, having lost a great deal of its subtlety and power on the way.

We need to constantly be reminded of the power and potential of authentic mindfulness, and we need to hear it from the most authoritative, wise and reliable source. We can hardly imagine a text more fitting for the task than this small book, Sammasati, and from such an authority as the Venerable Payutto, acknowledged to be one of the leading sages writing on Buddhism today.

Mindfulness is a translation of the word sati in the Pali language of the early Buddhist texts. Sati means to be aware of, to bring to mind, or to hold an object in our attention: it has an element of being present, and an element of returning or remembering. It’s opposite is distraction, forgetting and disconnecting. Before the translation to the English word mindfulness, the old-fashioned English word ‘recollection’ was used, which also suggests a movement of coming back to ourselves. It is a central practice of all Buddhist traditions, and indeed, in one form or another, the practice of being aware is part of all spiritual traditions.

On a basic level Mindfulness is the antidote to the tendency to be completely and endlessly caught up and controlled by events and by all contacts with the world through the senses, especially by things we like or do not like. If we have a pain, we become completely absorbed with dealing with it, struggling against it, trying to remove it and in being the victim of it. If we have emotional or relationship issues, they keep arising, going round and round our minds and triggering anger, frustration, despair or depression. It is as if we are under an enchantment, and we forget the changing, dynamic and free nature of our real experience in the present moment. For example, we forget that we breathe unless we have asthma, or forget that we are standing on this earth when we are waiting impatiently in line at the bank. Mindfulness has found an extraordinarily useful role as therapy to mental disturbances which seem devastating because of the level of identification. For example it is now used effectively in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or some cases of depression, by training the person to be able to be a fair witness, to stand back and detach themselves from toxic and destructive and untrue thought processes. Mindfulness whether as therapy or as spiritual practice, gets us out of the prison of identification with mental content and thus helps us to live more freely, lightly and joyfully.

In the early texts it is very clearly described: when you breathe in a long breath you know it is a long breath, when a short breath you know it is a short breath…. when stretching out the arm you know it, when turning, walking, sitting, eating you know it…and so on. You know sounds and tastes touch and smells. That is on the level of body. It gets subtler of course. When a thought arises you know that you are thinking and you know what kind of thought it is. You know the conscious ground from which the thought arises, like the ocean which gives rise to waves. You know when you are attracted or pulled towards something pleasant or pushed away from something unpleasant. You know the arising of intentions and will, of moods and states of mind. You know the inner emotional climate, subtle or gross forms of anger, joy, love and every other feeling. You know what it is like to be you at every moment, to be an engaged participatory witness of your life. To come back home.

This is no easy task, and it is usual to take it step by step, staying steady for longer and longer periods with some slice of our sensory impressions in the present moment. If, for example, the breath is used as the point of focus, the training is to stay closely observing the breath, in all its dimensions and journeys. After a period, the mind is distracted and goes off on its usual tracks. One lets the mind go, and returns to the breath. The contact of the foot with the ground while walking, of the body on the floor while lying, or the taste of the food while chewing, are examples of places to train our mindfulness. Gradually, mindfulness becomes established and we live the day fully present with whatever comes up, with the flow of ever-changing impressions and experiences. Getting closer to this truth, and allowing things to be just as they are, we begin to feel fully and wonderfully alive, much as we were when we were children, timelessly seeing every moment as full of wonder and interest. And with that same innocence, if something is painful we can cry, but immediately afterwards we have moved on and the sun shines again. Continued practice can bring us to a deep spiritual transformation as life opens itself up to our penetrating attention.

In this book, Venerable Payutto guides us to the many dimensions of Mindfulness in its traditional senses, in its application, in its psychological, social and spiritual roles and in its relationship to awakening. As it is the application of steady attention on mind, body and world, it also has an ethical dimension, since most harm is done by illusion, by ignorance and by lack of care and empathy. We may have good intentions, but as William Blake said: ‘The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions”. In taking responsibility and seeing clearly what is going on in the inner life, mindfulness acts as a guardian and watchman of the quality of our stream of consciousness and therefore the quality of our speech and actions.

Sati helps us to be steady and independent and fearless in the face of the changing circumstances of our life. It does so by increasing calm, clarity, ease, relaxation, and detachment. But it needs a direct and penetrating witnessing of what arises, not distracted or just thinking about it. Payutto takes the famous Satipatthana sutta as one of the teaching texts to show how this is done, and unpacks its traditional language. We shine the light of awareness on the object, such as a judgemental thought in the mind, be clear about the nature of this thought, be wise about the suffering it brings, and know clearly that it passes and is not owned by us. The power of Sati to reveal even the most difficult mental, emotional or physical experiences as just passing phenomena, frees us from the imprisonment of conditioning. We are able to witness them and so we are not them and no longer controlled by them. As Payutto states: “It establishes the mind in a new mode of being, as a light bright stream, free of inner knots, tendencies and attachments. It is the birth of a new personality.”

Sati, Mindfulness, is not the whole Buddhist path to liberation. It is only one of the Eightfold Path, one of the Five Spiritual Powers, and only one of the Seven Factors of Awakening. Though it always goes with other qualities, practices and insights, it is hard to imagine awakening without it.

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