Questions from meditators on mindfulness/meditation/practice.
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 get what we want or engage in fantasies around the object of attraction. The force of attraction undermines acknowledgement and appreciation. Love and beauty, so dear to human experience, goes deeper than the force 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, letting go 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 and clarity move us beyond attraction and aversion.Won’t we become 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.”
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, desires and longing in consumer culture. Let us live with moderation so we can go deeper into our experience of life.
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. He names the kind of animals householders can eat. He says that his nomadic Sangha should not eat animals specifically cooked for them. The wandering bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (men and women) of India lived a vegetarian life because the religious culture did not offer meat to such Sanghas, and still does not. The Buddha seemed more concerned with what came out of our mouths than what went into our mouths. What do we eat? Do we eat anything with a face – animals, birds or fish? Is the ethic of being a vegetarian or vegan a worthwhile value? Does plant based food contribute to our health, welfare of creatures and productive use of land? Do we concern ourselves with such values and compassion? Do we ignore the stressful impact of eating meat and use of abattoirs on animals and birds? Do we take 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? Do we support ethics in diet, rights for animals and environmental ethics?
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 fashion 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, exercise and lifestyle 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? Mindfulness, lifestyle and ethics bear a close relationship.
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 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. You may have to examine how you spend your money. The four requisites and our psychological life bear an intimate relationship. If we live in accordance with moderation of use of resources, it can considerably reduce any stress associated directly, or indirectly, with any or all the four requisites. As a society, as members of an international community, we develop mindfulness of the four requisites as an indispensable feature of our practice for the welfare and benefit of people, animals and the natural world. Western mindfulness tends to focus on the reduction of psychological stress and other patterns of mind. The Dharma leaves no stone unturned.
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 mindful 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 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.
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 a self-righteous attitude towards those who act differently. The grasping onto what we conceive of as positive 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 making judgemental comments to boost our own sense of self-importance. There is no substitute for clarity and 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.
Can anyone practice mindfulness and meditation?
A person often needs a teacher, mentor or guide as questions can arise from time to time. 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. 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. We should not exaggerate mindfulness. The Buddha listed five powers of mind with each one equally important – trust, mindfulness, meditative concentration/unification, energy and wisdom. None of the five can stand alone. I am currently giving a Zoom course on these Five Powers of Mind and their inter-dependence.
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 the 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 unexpectedly upon us, such as when we experience a deep intimacy with everything within and without. Yes, we can develop meditation employing methods and techniques or not. 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/meditation and reflection can reveal much which remains hidden from view in the far corners of our mind.
Can we be mindful and happy at the same time?
Some meditators become attached to detached observation. Happiness and joy can 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 our object of interest. We also have the valuable capacity to be thoroughly absorbed in the object of interest, absorbed in the depth of meditation. The meditator and the depth become one. Being fully absorbed in creativity is another example. Depth 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 as love, sublime joy/appreciation, ecstasy and totally engaged in the magic of life.
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 must go beyond our mind. Is this the ultimate aim of mindfulness practice?
I regularly hear 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 respected 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. Liberation knows no limits. It is beyond thought, with thought and reveals as a thought.