What IS Mindfulness? A Perspective that the Buddha Taught.

http://rodger-r-ricketts.blogs.it/2014/02/23/what-is-mindfulness-a-perspective-as-taught-by-the-buddha-17809430/

There is confusion among professionals about the meaning and application of the practise of Mindfulness. This 'blog' explores that topic and comes to the conclusion that the Buddha meant Sati or Mindfulness to mean a function similar to what is now called meta-cognition or executive brain function: There is a discrepancy between the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness and the definition of mindfulness as stated in much of the current the original intent of the use of mindfulness, and the modern, popular one. Several examples of well-known phrases define mindfulness as: paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally; involves a kind of non-elaborative, non-judgemental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is; and finally, the practice of meditation and mindfulness will clear away the dullness of being on autopilot and free you to live more fully than you ever have before. This blog is an exploration of what the Buddha really intended in the practice of Sati (the Pali word for mindfulness), as different from the previous definitions. The Buddha was the originator of the practice of Sati and it is clear that he meant meditation as the “Royal Road” for all people to potentially attain a transpersonal psychological experience named enlightenment, or awakening. In Buddhism, meditation is more often referred to as bhavana or mental culture, which emphasizes the holistic nature of mental cultivation associated with the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Mindfulness is one of the eight factors of the Eightfold Path. For a fuller explanation of the Buddha's teachings from a cognitive science perspective, I recommend my book, The Buddha's Teachings: Seeing without Illusion (revised edition, 2013). The Eightfold Path is the Buddha's goal-oriented program with specific systematic procedures or instructions for psychological transformation. Like any learning program, there is advancement from basic to more refined concepts and practices. The beginning of the Eightfold Path is Right View, or perspective, and it is an orientation to the values and ideas of the program as presented in the Four Noble Truths. This is crucial, as the conceptual Right View gives the basic foundation and principles of the Buddha’s teachings. It is the correct framework of the problem and how to solve it; therefore, the Right View gives direction and coherence to the program rationale. The next factor of the Eightfold Path is Right Effort. The Buddha taught from his enlightenment to his passing away to “strive with earnestness”. So fundamental was this teaching, that these are reported to be his last words. He also said, “All wholesome things are founded on earnestness, converge on earnestness, and so earnestness is to be considered as the most important of all. Clearly to reach any goal, whether psychological, academic, commercial, etc., and to earnestly practice any program, requires energy, and in the case of the Eightfold Path, Right Effort concerns making conscious practices to positively shape cognitions and thoughts and, therefore, the mental world.” Right Effort in Buddhism is commonly ranked in an ascending order from: (1) Prevent unwholesome mental states. (2) Abandon unwholesome mental states. (3) Arouse wholesome mental states. (4) Maintain and perfect wholesome mental states. Mind training through these four interventions takes time and effort. Right Effort is also considered “right endeavouring” and it is the Buddhist practitioner’s continuous effort to keep his or her mind free of thoughts that might impair or be a hindrance to their ability to put into practice the other elements of the Eightfold Path which can eventually lead to enlightenment. Right Effort includes the skilful, appropriate, and balanced exertion of energy and intensity that is needed for different skill applications as they arise. Now that one has the right schema and intentions as well as a willingness to skilfully exert a balanced effort, the next three path factors of Sila, or moral discipline, become the focus; these are: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Living. These factors of Sila interact and support each other, and while outwardly are actions of kindness and benefit to others, are in fact, by controlling one’s behaviour, also modulating one’s thinking and training one’s cognitions. For it is impossible for unwholesome actions to originate from wholesome thoughts and vice versa. We have seen that in Right Effort, the four rankings of cultivation of wholesomeness and their application to Right Sila is obvious. To practice Right Speech in a wholesome and kind manner, we must, for example, prevent and eliminate speaking with the unwholesomeness of anger, slander, and deceit. At this point along our journey on the Path, we are following the program of the Buddha to begin to purify our minds with wholesomeness and to use skilful actions through the practice of Sila. We have more trust and confidence in the program because we see the beneficial results of our becoming happier, having a better relationship with the world, and experiencing uplifting and positive thinking. Therefore, we continue to exert a balanced effort into the application of wholesome “right” skills to achieve further positive results. So now we are ready to move into another phase of the path, and that is Right Concentration, or meditation, which in Pali is known as Samma Samadhi. Right Concentration is intensified concentration that results from a deliberate intention and mental effort to raise the mind to a more purified level of awareness. The main function of Samadhi, as wholesome concentration, is to collect the ordinary scattered stream of mental states to create a unified mental state. The mind trained in concentration can remain absorbed on one point without distraction and this induces the more serene mind to better insight. Traditionally in Buddhist meditation, one passes through the eight “Divine Jhanas” which are fully immersed meditative states of profound stillness, and which in the end one experiences the height of mental concentration. However, this experience still lacks the wisdom of insight and is not sufficient for gaining enlightenment. Next (while not in a strictly linear sense but for ease of discussion) we need to adopt the skill of Right Mindfulness. In our present, hypothetical scenario, we would now be working the Buddha’s program well. We have a “right” perspective, desire, effort, energy, and intention to skilfully maintain wholesome thoughts and behaviors; we can now collect our ordinarily scattered stream of mental states and create a unified mental state. This induces an open and serene mind more available to insight as we strive to be honest and objective with ourselves about our intentions. However, to not only gain and practice new skill applications but also generalize and maintain any previous “right” skills acquisition, one needs also to be able to become heedful, maintain a balanced, watchful mind, and be aware of oneself in an objective, non-attached mindful manner; to do this is a vital factor in the Buddha’s program of mental purification. We can now see that the function of Right Mindfulness is not only observation and attentiveness, but also the skill of discrimination, refinement, and maintenance between having wholesome vs. unwholesome and skilful vs. unskilful thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, and the integration of all skill acquisition with the other right factors of the Eightfold Path. An example of this is shown by the explanation of the Buddha: “One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view. This is one's right mindfulness... One is mindful to abandon wrong resolve & to enter & remain in right resolve: This is one's right mindfulness... One is mindful to abandon wrong speech & to enter & remain in right speech: This is one's right mindfulness... One is mindful to abandon wrong action & to enter & remain in right action: This is one's right mindfulness... One is mindful to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter & remain in right livelihood: This is one's right mindfulness...” — MN 117 The commentary of a verse in the Dhammapada further explains: “The wise person is always mindful. Through this alertness he discards the ways of the slothful. The monk, as the seeker after the truth, is frightened of mindlessness because he knows that if one is unmindful, one is caught up in the unending suffering of samsara. Therefore, he forges ahead diligently and mindfully burning away those bonds that fetter people to worldliness.” We see clearly that Right Mindfulness has the function of not only present moment awareness, but more importantly, self-regulation. In fact, often in the Dhammapada the word “heedfulness” or “heedful” - which means having or showing a close attentiveness to avoid danger or trouble - is substituted for “mindfulness”. Throughout the suttas or Buddhist texts, it is clear that Buddha taught a skills acquisition, goal oriented, introspective bhavana or mental cultivation program. We can say it is an introspective program, because its primary orientation is the observation and examination of any number of one's own mental states, including sensory, bodily, cognitive, emotional, and so forth. Regarding mental cultivation, the Buddha said, “The training of the mind is good, a mind so tamed brings happiness”, “The tame mind brings bliss”, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought; it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts”, and finally, “We will develop mindfulness immersed in the body. We will pursue it, hand it the reins and take it as a basis, give it grounding, steady it, consolidate it, and undertake it well. That is how you should train yourselves.” Here the taming of the mind that the Buddha is talking about is actualized through mindfulness, which has a function similar to that of the trainer who tames an unruly animal. Therefore, what is being discussed in the early Buddhist description of mindfulness is not a passive, sense-based, non-judgemental skill, but more accurately involves metacognition. Metacognition engages in self-reflection and refers to a regulation of cognition or a level of thinking that involves active control over the processes of thinking that are especially used in learning, and it enhances problem solving ability. Metacognitive regulation refers to processes that coordinate cognition. These include both bottom-up processes called cognitive monitoring (e.g., error detection, source monitoring in memory retrieval) and top-down processes called cognitive control (e.g., conflict resolution, error correction, inhibitory control, planning, resource allocation) (Nelson & Narens, 1990; Reder & Schunn, 1996). Metacognition is closely related to executive function, which involves the ability to monitor and control the information processing necessary to produce voluntary action. Metacognition refers to any knowledge or cognitive process that monitors or controls cognition. Metacognitive skills have been identified as: Planning the appropriate selection of learned strategies; the correct allocation of psychic resources that affect learning; self-monitoring of understanding and task performance; and finally, evaluating or appraising the final results of a task and the efficiency at which the task was performed. Other metacognitive skills or executive functions are maintaining motivation and effort to see a task to completion, and the ability to become aware and skilfully intervene when both distracting internal and external stimuli occur. Engaging in self-reflection or introspection enhances metacognition through monitoring lapses in knowledge and addressing them, or through judging knowledge availability and feelings of accuracy. Right Mindfulness, understood as Metacognition, plays a critical role in successful “right” skills acquisition, “right” skills consolidation and application training, and the generalization and maintenance of the right factors of the Eightfold Path. So to summarize, mindfulness as metacognition involves both executive management and strategic knowledge. Executive management processes involve planning, monitoring, evaluating, and revising one's own thinking processes and products, while strategic knowledge involves knowing what (factual or declarative knowledge), knowing when and why (conditional or contextual knowledge), and knowing how (procedural or methodological knowledge). “Both executive management and strategic knowledge metacognition are needed to self-regulate one's own thinking and learning” (Dunlosky, J. & Bjork, R. A. Eds). H. J. Hartman (2001) has written about other benefits of mindfulness, such as, “promoting executive-level functioning in detecting when the mind has wandered (meta awareness) further reduces lapses in attention. Mindfulness practice promotes a form of meta-cognitive insight of learning to emotionally disengage from distracters (frustration; anxiety). This form of top-down cognitive control leads the Mindfulness practitioner to more readily focus on the present task leading to better performance.” Now that we have explored briefly the idea that mindfulness is really describing metacognition and executive function which includes the abilities that help us learn new information, remember and retrieve information we've learned in the past, and use this information to solve problems of life, let’s see more examples of this idea in Buddhist writings. The early Buddhist definition of Sati as memory is indicated by such terms as: calling to mind; remembrance; bearing in mind; and recollection. In the Dhammapada, mindfulness is compared to the treasurer of a king who reminds the king of the royal possessions in detail, daily, at night and in the morning. Also, the mindfulness of the aspirant to enlightenment reminds them of Virtue, Concentration, and Wisdom, which constitute the three pillars of the teachings of the Buddha. The value of the recollected activity of mindfulness is seen in the increasing awareness of the essentials of “right” living in the aspirant's mind, and the growing strength of purpose for realizing these within him or herself. Thānissaro Bhikkhu also emphasizes the memory aspect in this comment: “As he [the Buddha] defined the term, right mindfulness is not bare attention. Instead, it's a faculty of active memory, adept at calling to mind and keeping in mind instructions and intentions that will be useful on the path. Its role is to draw on right view and to work proactively in supervising the other factors of the path to give rise to right concentration, and in using right concentration as a basis for total release.” So, mindfulness is the bringing or keeping of something in (to) awareness, but it is not solely awareness. Mindfulness can be used to bring any mental quality to mind. Bhikkhu Bodhi offers us another perspective of mindfulness and its function as executive function: “There are certainly occasions when the cultivation of mindfulness requires the practitioner to suspend discrimination, evaluation, and judgment, and to adopt instead a stance of simple observation. However, to fulfill its role as an integral member of the eightfold path, mindfulness has to work in unison with right view and right effort. This means that the practitioner of mindfulness must at times evaluate mental qualities and intended deeds, make judgments about them, and engage in purposeful action.” In Satipatthana, The Direct Path to Realization, Venerable Analayo wrote that we need to distinguish clearly between a first stage of observation and a second stage of taking action. Calmly assessing a situation without immediately reacting enables us to undertake the appropriate action. Thus, Sati provides the information for the then wise use of Right Effort, and it will oversee the countermeasures by noting if these are right and balanced, not too much or too little. Soma Thera, in his short book, The Way of Mindfulness, The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary (1998), it is also quite clear that mindfulness involves what we are now referring to as metacognition and executive functions. To quote at length: “Mindfulness is the activity that takes care of the mind and protects it. It is compared to a wagon driver who ties the oxen to the wagon's yoke, greases the axle, and drives the wagon, making the oxen go gently. In this activity mindfulness looks to the smooth working and movement of the mind and takes notice of the processes both skilful and not, taking place in the consciousness. In the more complex forms it is the selective and integrative action of the mind. The selective activity has been compared to the work of the Chief Adviser of a King. As the Adviser is instrumental in distinguishing the good from the bad, and in getting the good and avoiding the bad, so mindfulness distinguishes the worthy from unworthy things, avoids the unworthy and obtains the worthy. The integrative character of mindfulness is like the Minister-of-all-work of a King. He is wanted in putting through every project of the King. He is commissioned to organise and combine the workers and execute the tasks. Mindfulness is also like that Minister. It is the organizing activity of the mind necessary for the development of wholesome states of consciousness. It combines the various other qualities which compose those states, puts them to their appropriate tasks and keeps them in proper working order. By the strength of integrating mindfulness a conscious state of skill functions harmoniously and becomes a well-knit unity. This activity of mindfulness makes the work of the aspirant complete at every stage of his progress. Integrating mindfulness sees all lacks and deficiencies, brings in the needed qualities and suitably applies them. It is called the highest wisdom of mindfulness [parama satinepakka], and constitutes the core of the Mindfulness that is included in the Real Way [Ariya Magga Pariyapanna Sati], of the Way Factor of Mindfulness [Sati Magganga] and of the Enlightenment Factor of Mindfulness [Sati Sambojjhanga]. It is Right Mindfulness [Sammasati] in the full sense of the term.” Other, shorter quotes from Soma Thera's book that indicate the executive function of mindfulness include: “That it is mindfulness that holds things together in the mental flux, brings them up, and prevents them from floating away, getting submerged, forgotten and lost. Without mindfulness there will be no reconstitution of already acquired knowledge and consciousness itself would break in pieces, become fragmentary, and be unable to do properly the work of cognition.” “Strong mindfulness ignores the unnecessary, by adhering to the center of the business in hand, and extends its view to important peripheral conditions, with a wide spreading watchfulness resembling that of the sentinel on a tower scanning the horizon "for the glint of armour. By such a balance between width and depth mindfulness steers clear of the extremes of lopsided vision and practice.” “In the sense of overcoming mental conflict, and in the sense of getting rid of all unclarity, all incapacity to judge aright and indefiniteness due to mental unquiet, mindfulness is a controlling faculty [indriya]. The controlling faculty of mindfulness makes for the absence of confusion [asamussanata] and produces lucidity of thought, sound judgment, and definiteness of outlook. Mindfulness accompanied by keen understanding appears as the controlling faculty of mindfulness.” “Mindfulness accompanied by sustained energy is mindfulness considered as a spiritual power [bala] and is the quality of earnestness [appamada] which destroys the wavering of negligence [pamada]. Negligence is the wandering of the mind in objects of fivefold sense-pleasure, repeatedly: it is the absence of thoroughness, of perseverance, and of steadfastness in doing good; the behavior that is stuck in the mire of worldliness; the casting aside of the desire to do what is right; the casting aside of the duties which belong to one; the absence of practice, development, and increase of wholesome qualities; the lack of right resolve, and the want of application. Earnestness is the opposite of all that negligence connotes. According to meaning, earnestness is the non-neglect of mindfulness [atthato hi so satiya avippavaso]. Indeed, earnestness is the name for mindfulness that is always active, constantly at work.” To conclude our discussion, we have seen that contrary to the simplistic, popular definitions of mindfulness in the Buddha’s teachings, mindfulness is really considering the executive functions and metacognition of the learning program called the Eightfold Path. In other words, the early Buddhist definition of mindfulness as memory, which is an executive function, is indicated by such definitions as: calling to mind; remembrance; bearing in mind; and recollection. We have seen that to proceed on the Eightfold Path, practitioners need to assess whether or not retrieved information is relevant to the life experience they are trying to skilfully master. “Successful differentiation of relevant from irrelevant memories is key to problem solving, planning, and other complex tasks. Planning requires reflecting on which course of action is necessary to achieve a goal, and as such planning is part of metacognition” (Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, & Campione, 1983). Action planning requires establishing both a main goal (enlightenment) and a hierarchy of sub-goals that must be satisfied for the main goal to be obtained (ethical behaviour, concentration, learning the Four Noble Truths, etc.). The main goal usually guides the sub-goals, which is considered Right View. So we can adopt a definition of mindfulness as a method by which we skilfully and intentionally focus our attention on our behaviors, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and mental phenomena in the present moment, with the right intention of purifying the mind as prescribed in the Eightfold Path.


(My publication)Posted:Dec 31 2013, 05:00 PM by rodgericketts
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