Just as Zen became a buzzword in the ‘90s, mindfulness is traveling a similar route into our 21st-century vernacular. Madison Avenue and social media have discovered that we like our diets, our magazines, our businesses, our relationships, and even our fashion to be mindful.
Oversaturation does not mean that mindfulness is a bad thing. It’s accessible, simple (although not always easy), and inexpensive. By truly engaging it, we can transform our society and ourselves. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan has shown the implications for government in his book A Mindful Nation, its potential to reduce prison recidivism has been drawing recent attention, and the proven brain and health benefits are myriad.
What we generally call mindfulness comes from the Buddhist vipassana (insight) tradition, and one of the first people to bring vipassana to an American audience was Joseph Goldstein. Since 1967, he has studied and practiced different forms of meditation with eminent teachers from India, Burma, and Tibet. He has been leading retreats since 1974 and is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and the Forest Refuge. His books include A Heart Full of Peace (Wisdom, 2007) and One Dharma (HarperOne, 2003).
In this excerpt from his most recent book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (Sounds True, 2013), Goldstein explains and illuminates what mindfulness can bring to our lives.
Mindfulness…is the translation of the Pali word sati, and it holds a central place in every Buddhist tradition. It is what makes any spiritual path possible. Mindfulness has several meanings and functions, all of which are key to the growth of wisdom. Understanding this richness of meaning opens up new potential for its power to transform our lives.
The most common understanding of mindfulness is that of present-moment awareness, presence of mind, wakefulness. This is the opposite of absentmindedness. Whenever we’re lost or confused about what to do, we can simply come back to the present-moment experience.
After one of my public talks, a woman who had been on several retreats came up to me and said she had recently been on a cruise, and in her room was a map of the ship with an arrow and caption saying, “You are here.” She said that for the rest of the voyage, wherever she was and whatever she was doing, those words became the reminder to simply be present: “You are here.”
Mindfulness in this aspect is the quality of bare attention, of noninterfering awareness, which we’re familiar with from our enjoyment of music. When we’re listening to the music, our minds are open and attentive, not attempting to control what comes next, not reflecting on the notes just past. There is a great power when we learn how to listen; it is this quality of receptivity that allows intuitive wisdom to arise. An interviewer once asked Mother Teresa what she says to God when she prays. “I don’t say anything,” she replied. “I just listen.” Then the interviewer asked her what God says to her. “He doesn’t say anything,” said Mother Teresa. “He just listens. And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.”…
Protector of the Mind
Besides balancing the spiritual faculties, mindfulness acts as the guardian of the sense doors, because it keeps us aware of what is arising through the senses and helps us to not get lost in the proliferation of desires. When mindfulness is present, we abide more peacefully in our lives.
Mindfulness of seeing, for example, can be particularly helpful in the midst of daily life situations. I had an illuminating experience walking down Fifth Avenue in New York, looking in store windows and seeing many seductive things for sale. After some time, I noticed that my mind was continually reaching out with desire for one thing after another. Although this reaching out was enjoyable in one way, when I looked more deeply, I saw that the mind filled with wanting is not at ease; there is an ongoing edge of agitation. It happened that, some weeks later, I found myself on the same street, but this time for some reason there was more mindfulness. I was seeing everything in the store windows, but I was just seeing. It was a much happier and more peaceful way of being.
Mindfulness also serves to protect the mind from other unskillful thoughts and emotions. Without mindfulness, we simply act out all the various patterns and habits of our conditioning. Ajahn Sumedho, one of the senior Western monks of the Thai Forest tradition, quite aptly pointed out that, contrary to some popular beliefs, our aim should be not to follow the heart but to train the heart. All of us have a mix of motivations; not everything in our hearts is wise or wholesome. The great power of mindful discernment allows us to abandon what is unwholesome and to cultivate the good. This discernment is of inestimable value for our happiness and well-being.…
The Buddha applied the same application of mindfulness to thoughts of ill will and cruelty. With recurring unskillful thoughts, we need an actively engaged mindfulness, because, as the Buddha pointed out…whatever we frequently think of and ponder, that will become the inclination of our minds. Mindfulness has the power to show us what kinds of thoughts are arising, and in the case of unskillful ones, what we may have unknowingly been inclining our minds toward. The simple reflection that these thoughts actually do lead to one’s own and others’ affliction and difficulty, away from wisdom and awakening, is an effective tool to use in those times rather than being just a phrase to read.
Excerpted from Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, by Joseph Goldstein. Copyright © 2013 Joseph Goldstein. Published by Sounds True. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.