Mindfulness is a huge buzzword at the moment. Hundreds of clinical studies are run every year, looking at how it might benefit our health and wellbeing. It’s being used for stress management, pain management, addiction treatment, and to help people become better leaders.
But let’s go back to basics and ask, what is mindfulness anyway? Yes, Jon Kabat-Zinn says that it’s “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” And that’s true.
But to me the essence of mindfulness is observation. When we’re unmindful there’s no sense, or only a very distant and insignificant one, of us being an observer of our experience. We’re so caught up in our experience that there’s no part of us outside of it.
So we might be angry. You know what that’s like. There are angry thoughts. Our body tenses. Our endocrine glands release stress hormones, pushing up our blood pressure and raising our heart-rate. We raise our voice and us vocabulary that’s critical, sometimes designed to hurt, and say things that are often not entirely true. There’s lots going on. But there’s no significant portion of us that’s stepping back, observing all this happening, and asking the very important questions, “Is this really what I want to be doing right now? Is this helpful for my long term benefit and wellbeing?”
Everything changes when we’re mindful. Now there’s a part of us that’s observing and monitoring our experience. We notice an angry thought arising. We notice tensing in the body, the presence of unpleasant feelings in the gut, signs of stress building. We notice that this is unpleasant. We might notice that perhaps the thought isn’t entirely true, but contains an element of exaggeration, which is contributing to our stress. We can ask those questions: “Is this what I want to be doing? Does this serve my wellbeing?”
We can let go of some of the anger, take a breath, come back to balance.
Now we’re able to sort though the anger response — to know better what it is we’re angry about and whether there’s something in the world around us that we might like to see changed. And we might be better equipped to do that in a way that’s sensitive to others, straightforward, and effective — at least compared to when we simply let off steam.
Now we all have the capacity to be mindful, but we spend a lot of time being unmindful as well, and so our habits of unmindfulness are well developed. We have to train ourselves to be mindful. It’s a practice.
At first our practice can be very bumpy. It can actually make our inner turmoil seem worse. Say we’re now observing all the things I mentioned up above: the angry thoughts, the tensing, the unpleasant feelings. We’ll often find ourselves getting upset because this isn’t how we want to be. And so we might switch from being angry at someone to being angry with ourselves (or perhaps being disappointed, doubting ourselves, or anxious). This can happen at first. But we learn to be mindful of that too, and to let go of it and simply be with and observe our experience.
All of this is deeply transformative. Mindfulness is a portal to a more conscious and purposeful approach to life. Mindfulness itself is not curious, but it allows curiosity to arise. Mindfulness itself is not kind, but it allows kindness space to manifest. Mindfulness is not itself wise, but it opens a doorway through which wisdom can make an appearance.
Mindfulness much more than a “relaxation technique,” a therapy, or a way to become a better leader. It’s the foundation for a life of spiritual practice, a life based on the conscious intent to be the best possible version of ourselves.
Hi Bodhipaksa, I enjoyed reading your commentaries. I started meditating some time ago and I plan on keep doing it. I had a question about Karma and Karmic effects. I read a lot on it and I’m curious about your thoughts. From what I understand our life is influenced by Karma from previous lives and experiences. I also read commentaries on how to change Karma. So is it possible to manipulate Karma? For example through meditation, awareness, and the right thinking? This gets into the situation like, can we change our surroundings through mental power? I know we can change our own actions using mental power but what about changing things that are not under our detect control? For example there is a term in Buddhism that describes development of character (I forgot the name). So through mindfulness and insight you become more capable of influencing events that occur and thus creating new Karma. For example could Bhudda change Karma? I know he could travel in different dimensions etc. I’ve read some literature on it but still didn’t find a specific answer. Thank you!
I think we might see karma in very different ways. Karma means “action that shapes our character.” In other words, how we decide to act, and especially the underlying emotional motivation for our actions, changes who we are. Do we act out of love or fear, out of selfishness with regard to the wellbeing of others, out of anger or compassion, mindlessly or with mindful attention? By exercising certain habits they become stronger, and repeated habit becomes character. As the Buddha said, “karma is intention.”
You seem to be presenting karma as some kind of mystical force in the universe — as something that’s external to us. You ask if we can manipulate karma. Yes, since karma is action we’re “manipulating” it with every decision we make.
This can change things in the outside world, but not in the mystical way you’re thinking. If you do something blameworthy, for example, people will be angry at you or not trust you. That affects your wellbeing. That’s not karma, but the result (vipaka) of your karma. If, having done something blameworthy you then see the error of your ways, apologize, and make amends, then people’s attitudes to you will change. They’ll become more forgiving and accepting. And that will improve the quality of your life.
I think it’s far better to think of karma in these terms than it is to think of it in quasi-mystical terms.