DT-Eightfold Path-Right Mindfulness

Tonight, we’ll continue our series of dharma talks based on Gil Frondsdal’s book, Steps to Liberation: The Buddha’s Eightfold Path. The seventh factor on the path is Right Mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is paying attention to what is actually arising in the present moment. Usually, the present moment changes so quickly that we are barely aware of it. Bhante Gunaratana compares each mental moment to a series of pictures passing through a projector. The pictures represent sense impressions, memories, and fantasies. Mindfulness helps us freeze the frame so that we can observe our experiences as they truly are, free of social conditioning and habitual reactions. 

Bhante explains that unless we are mindful, we perceive ourselves and the world through thought patterns that are limited and distorted by delusions. With mindfulness, we suspend temporarily our concepts, value judgments, opinions, and interpretations. A mindful mind is precise, steady and penetrating, like a mirror that reflects clearly whatever it views. Mindfulness allows us to notice thoughts and feelings without being caught up in them. It gives us time to prevent and subdue negative patterns of thinking and to cultivate and sustain positive ones. 

Gil reminds us that mindfulness refers to the presence of mind that is necessary for strong and balanced awareness. Mindfulness practice combines mental presence with zeal, clear comprehension, and willingness to set aside preoccupations with worldly things. Clear comprehension is essential in this practice because it allows us to understand the object of our awareness. 

Our mind lacks clarity when we are consumed with greed and desire or upset by aversive thoughts. Mindfulness practice requires us to shift our attention from what we want or what is distressing us. Instead, we notice moment by moment what is occurring in our body, feeling tones, and mind in relation to our greed or distress. 

Here’s an example of this kind of shift in attention: A few weeks ago, someone stole one of our checks from the mail, scrubbed it, and replaced the name of the recipient and the amount of the check. Although our bank caught the fraud attempt, Mark and I were alerted about bounced checks and had to open a new bank account. After dealing with financial hassles, we cooked a vegetable stew for lunch. My mind was so filled with unfinished banking business that I was not a mindful sous chef. In a rush to add sundried tomatoes to the stew, I missed the pot entirely and threw them all over the stove and the floor. The bright red mess jolted me back to the present moment. As I cleaned up the kitchen, I consciously slowed down the tempo of my movements and my breathing. By lunchtime, I felt more grounded and embodied, so that I could savor our stew. 

In one of his discourses, the Buddha described Right Mindfulness: “Here a practitioner abides focused on the body in itself, on feeling tones in themselves, on mental states in themselves, and on mental processes in themselves, ardent, clearly comprehending, and mindful, having put away greed and distress for the world.” 

Right Mindfulness occurs when our practice is directed towards the four foundations of mindfulness. First, we develop mindfulness of the body, becoming aware of breathing, physical sensations, changes in posture, and physical activities. The Buddha recommended that we begin with mindfulness of breathing. While the breath is consistently present, it is changeable in depth, length and rhythm. When the mind is united with the breath, we focus naturally on the present moment. 

Bhante Gunaratana points out that breathing with mindfulness teaches us how the mind works. Each time we breathe in or out, we experience a bit of calm. But if we try to prolong the calm feeling by holding the inhalation or exhalation longer than usual, we experience tension. TRY IT. Amidst the breath cycle, we can observe how our desire for lasting serenity and our aversion to tension cause suffering. If we release our attachment to feeling calm, the mind relaxes enough so that we can experience the impermanence and selflessness of the breath.

When we pay mindful attention to posture—to lying down, sitting, standing and walking—we see that our physical movements are always changing. By slowing down our pace, we can catch a moment of intention before each shift in posture. If we hold still, we sense the heart pulsing and the lungs expanding and contracting. It’s clear that we have no control over internal movements and less control than we’d like over outer ones. During the last Olympic gymnast competitions, we witnessed how even someone as physically disciplined and highly trained as Simone Biles cannot always control the body’s performance.  

Bringing mindfulness to particular body parts helps us to drop deluded notions about the body and to view it as it really is, neither rejecting nor clinging to it. The Buddha suggested that meditators mentally dissect the body into 32 parts, twenty solid ones and twelve liquid ones. The practice entails contemplating, in an emotionally nonreactive way: head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, undigested food, feces, and brain. The contemplation continues with a review of the liquid parts: bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, mucus, oil of the joints (synovial fluid), and urine. 

The second foundation of mindfulness is the particular feeling tone of our direct, present-moment experiences. We note if those tones are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It soon becomes obvious that feeling tones are impersonal. We see that all beings suffer from reacting to them. When we practice meditation, we make an effort to guard the sense doors so that pleasant feeling tones don’t lead to attachment and craving, unpleasant ones don’t solidify into aversion, and neutral ones don’t evolve into dullness, boredom, and delusion. 

NOTE what feeling tone is predominant now. 

With mindfulness, it is possible to distinguish tones that arise because of our contact with the outside world from those that arise due to what is happening in our mind and heart. Whereas sensations of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch come from external stimulation, sensations associated with moods and mental states can occur independently. For example, a meditator who is deeply absorbed in concentration can feel pleasant sensations that are not based in the senses. It’s possible to experience a mental state of meditative joy even in the midst of physical discomfort. 

The third foundation of mindfulness is awareness of our mental states—the overall mood or attitude of the mind. This includes not only the emotional state of the mind, but also the mental quality of contraction or expansion, clarity or dullness, and restriction or freedom. We learn to watch mental states arise and pass away and to experience different mental qualities such as a greedy or a open mind, an ignorant or a discerning mind, and a distracted or a focused mind. Eventually we realize that the mind is not a solid, permanent entity. Instead, there is a constant flow of changing movements of mind. 

The fourth foundation of mindfulness is awareness of mental processes that operate in relation to our mental states. As we practice with the fourth foundation, we realize how unwholesome mental processes like the five hindrances cause suffering, and we learn to let them go. On the other hand, we recognize that wholesome mental processes like the seven factors of awakening alleviate suffering by calming and liberating the mind. This recognition motivates us to cultivate mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration and equanimity. The fourth foundation allows us the possibility of clear and direct insights into the Four Noble Truths. 

Bhante Gunaratana adds that mindfulness leads to opening the inner eye of wisdom to see the true nature of reality. With this insight, we stop seeking peace and happiness outside ourselves, and we realize our innate capacity to cultivate wisdom. He tells a traditional story to illustrate this point:

Once there was a divine being who wanted to hide an important secret—the secret of happiness. He considered hiding the secret at the bottom of the sea, or in a cave, or on the highest mountain. But he thought, “Human beings are very clever. One day they will find it.” At last, he devised the perfect solution. “Ah! I know the place where no one will ever look! I’ll hide the secret in the human mind.”

The goal of mindfulness is to find the truth within our hearts and minds. 

Gil proposes some reflections to help us connect more fully with the four foundations of mindfulness:

What is your relationship to mindfulness of the body?

Is it difficult for you to be aware of your body? 

What are some of the lessons you learn from careful attention to your physical experience?

In what areas of your life would it be useful to be more mindful of your body? 

In your daily life, how are you affected by the three feeling tones—pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral? 

Are you more affected by one of these than the others? 

Which of the three most influences your behavior?

Which tends to agitate you the most?

What are some beliefs you have about pleasure and pain?

What wisdom have you gained about relating to what is pleasant or unpleasant?

How does it feel to turn your attention from activities that bring you pleasure and to focus on actions that bring satisfaction, meaning and happiness to your heart?

Mental states or moods tend to last longer than particular thoughts. 

Where does your current mental state fit on a spectrum from expanded, light and open to contracted, heavy and closed. 

Be aware of how and when you shift along that spectrum.

What are the three most common mental states or moods that you experience?

What causes those moods to arise?

What causes them to persist?

What causes them to pass away?

What stories do you tell yourself about particular mental states?

Mental processes include attitudes, beliefs and mental behaviors that either bring inner freedom or lead us to become caught up in attachment. 

What are some of the reasons that you become attached?

Does mindfulness of a particular attachment help you let go of it?

What are some of the psychological benefits of letting go? 

What a some of your stronger attachments that are difficult for you to release?

When you think of the seven factors of awakening, which ones can you evoke most easily? (mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, equanimity)