Mindfulness: The Effectiveness of Attention Relocation.

The mind as an apparent internal device is influenced by the environment within which it exists.  This environment is not only the outer world of separate, disparate people and events, but also includes the body itself.  The body and the surrounding environment (of what might be referred to broadly as ‘society’), are subject to the awareness of the conscious mind itself, so that the psychic substance of the mind, and the actual physical matter that comprises the world, appear to reconcile at a certain point, in such away that allows ‘mind’ to still appear as a distinct psychic entity, and for the world of matter to continue to function as if it where separate and distinct from the mind that perceives and interacts with it.  The awareness of ‘emptiness’ (sunyata), is the Buddhist philosophical experience that serves as the basis that allows the functioning interaction of ‘mind’ (void), and ‘matter’ (form), with no apparent contradiction within the experience itself.  Often, in such an enlightened state, phenomena are described as rising and falling away within a pristine, reflective, space-like continuum.  This state is realised that the apparent movements of the mind are ‘stilled’ through the use of a concentrative method.  This method invariably involves a withdrawing of attention from the senses – which in Buddhist philosophy also includes the mind itself – so that inner tendencies, habits of response, continuous cycles of thoughts and feelings, are reduced through the breaking of contact with the obvious physical circumstances (i.e. ‘causes’) which trigger the inner (i.e. ‘effect’) responses.  Simultaneously with this effort is applied a system of behaviour modification (i.e. ‘the precepts’) which serves to limit the scope of detrimental physical actions, which have their origination within the mind itself.  The inner mind and outer body is thus aligned through an effort of will that seeks to create a mind free of delusion, and a body free of error.

The Buddhist teachings explain the attainment of the state of enlightenment from the perspective of ‘what it is not’.  It is the state of mind that is manifest, when the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion are thoroughly ‘cut-off’ at their root in the mind itself.  Although the environment creates, through its influence via the senses, confusions and lamentations in the mind, it is the creation of defilements in the mind that the various modes of Buddhist meditation seek to uproot and prevent from re-arising.  The body and social conditions are taken care of through the precepts for the monastic and the lay person alike.  Therefore, the body and outer environmental conditions are regulated in such away so as to allow for extended hours of quiet, seated meditation practice.  Such a regulation allows for the attention of the mind to be re-located away from the concerns of triviality, and toward the contemplation of the inner mind itself.  At the beginning of such a practice, the individual’s concentration is weak and undeveloped.  As a consequence, the outer conditions that would normally serve to divert the mind’s attention toward living fully within the concerns of the ordinary world, are modified so that the immediate environment is free of the need for the obvious trials and tribulations associated with the struggle for survival.  In this developmental environment, the emphasis is upon an inner struggle only, with the need to acquire food and shelter met within and through the meditating community itself.  The individual meditator is freed from the daily grind of the mundane requirement to accumulate wealth to sustain him/her and a family within a worldly existence.  The material effort usually required by an individual is taken-over by the community and replaced with an effort designed solely to develop and free the mind.  This is of course, relevant to the ‘Sangharama’, the holy places provided to spiritual teachers and their students, by kings who wished to encourage pockets of intense spiritual practice within their kingdoms.  Such places consisted of a specific geographical area, whereby the incumbent community of ascetics were immune from secular, taxation and military conscription.  In return for this social freedom, the communities had to apply themselves to their Dharmic studies and not get involved in the ordinary world, or participate in any movements to oust the king and his administration.  Such behaviour was considered a treasonous act and responded to accordingly.  These official holy spaces were often situated in parks or forested areas.  However, individuals not part of these kinds of communities often went alone into the wilderness and through non-attachment to the worldly concerns of regular food and shelter, renounced the concerns of the world and applied themselves to various modes of yoga and meditative practice – much like the Buddha before his enlightenment.  These holy people simply moved physically away from direct physical contact with the ordinary, everyday world of trials and tribulations.  The entering of the natural world, away from the structures of developed society, commerce and other people’s minds, allowed the aspirant’s mind to detach itself from its own habitual reactions, conditioned over years of association.  The natural world offers a different set of concerns – food to live, the elements and wild animals to survive, and diseases to avoid, etc.  The securities offered by developed human society are tainted by the deluded human minds that create them.  Human society, with its need to survive, is the product of greed, hatred and delusion.  Therefore, its developed physical structures and cultural norms are implicitly contaminated by greed, hatred and delusion.  The physical and psychic fabric of ordinary society is polluted by these defilements, and holy people, either living within special spiritual communities, or by themselves in the forests or other open spaces, have taken the decision to replace one set of social conditions with another, with the intention of changing or reducing the obvious outer influences of greed, hatred and delusion.

There is, of course, the third option of remaining within society itself, and through the finding of relatively quiet surroundings, such as a room, a city temple, or an urban park, whereby the most powerful effects of greed, hatred and delusion are not so evident, and a meditative space within the mind is established.  The reality of physical relocation must only be a temporary requirement, if the enlightenment sought is believed to permanently free the experiencer from worldly suffering.  The requirement for outer relocation pre-empts the meditative technique of ‘attention’ relocation, which is, in effect, an inner repositioning of awareness toward a specific objective.  Initially, both the ‘inner’ attention and the ‘outer’ position are re-aligned toward a spiritual endeavour that is fuelled by energy that has been withdrawn from the usual rigours of engagement with outside world, and channelled instead, toward the inner realm.  The volition required for this endeavour, is a practical demonstration of the need to break with habits of behaviour and habitual patterns involving thoughts and emotions.  As an antidote to corrosive habit, meditation as a distinct practice, is thoroughly revolutionary in both principle and practice, for it seeks, as a method, nothing less than the complete transformation of the individual mind, and through this metamorphosis, ushers in a profound reformation of perception and conception, and in so doing, obliterates the definitional boundaries and limiting parameters of the previously deluded viewpoint.  In this regard, the meditational method derives from the perspective of the achieved spiritual objective.  The methodology developed, is always from the expanded conscious perspective, and is designed to lead a practitioner from the state of non-enlightenment, to that of the state of full enlightenment and the perfected understanding such a state represents.  The success of the meditative method is attested to by the mind that has created it, as such a mind is a living example, (in respect of a demonstrable realisation), of the validity of the enlightened path it represents.  A person manifesting such an achievement appears to possess a calm mind and an unusual wisdom.  Furthermore, there also exists a certain indifference to social climate and the various sensations associated with it, as if the being in question is so immersed in a higher plane of conscious existence, that the act of bare sensation itself is transformed beyond the usual (and expected) subject-object dichotomy.  Pleasure, neutrality and pain are each clearly perceived for what they are, and due to a superior insight, are not responded to either mentally or physically in a manner that elicits the karma producing reactions of greed, hatred and delusion.  This reaction is now a complete impossibility in the enlightened state of being, as the conditions, and the propensity to give rise to such conditions, no long exists.

The instruction that contains guidance upon the foundational method of Buddhist meditation is found in the Satipaṭṭhāna (Presence of Mindfulness) Sutta (MN 10), and the Maha-Satipatthana (Great Presence of Mindfulness) Sutta (DN 22), as well generally throughout the Pali Canon.  The Buddha considers this teaching as a direct method to achieve nirvana – the cessation of greed, hatred and delusion.  The Satipatthana Sutta appears in Chinese as ‘念處經’ (nian4chu4jing1).  The first ideogram ‘念’ (nian4) is written as a ‘mouth’ (今-jin1), over a ‘heart’ (心-xin1), and carries the meaning of a present awareness (or mindfulness) that is used in the act of study.  Although ‘心’ is drawn literally as a human heart, in ancient Chinese thought, the anatomical heart and the conscious mind were thought to be one and the same.  In reality, this concept is thought of as representing the centre of conscious being, as well a righteous and virtuous moral nature.  With ‘今’, an open mouth is depicted, currently in the act of speaking, this act is existential and in progress, giving the associated meaning of ‘now’ or ‘presently’.   This can also refer to the act of chanting, and reading aloud a text, as well as remembering a text.  The second ideogram’處’ (chu4) is written as a ‘tiger’ (虍-hu1), a ‘person’ (儿-ren2), and ‘foot’ (夂-zhu3), and carries the meaning of a ‘special quality’, a ‘place’, a ‘spot’, a ‘point’ and a ‘distinguishing mark’.  It has the further interpretive meanings of ‘to be faced with’, ‘to manage’, ‘to handle’, and ‘to live’.  These meanings may well stem from the idea that a tiger walks around a person, keeping that person in a particular place, but as the tiger does not press home an attack the situation is successfully faced, managed and survived.  The meaning here, seems to be of that of holding to a single ‘point’ or position, designed to achieve a specific objective.  The third ideogram ‘經’ (jing1) is a term commonly used to denote a classical book of authoritative text.  Written as the ‘warp of a fabric’, it denotes the orderly collection of rules, regulations and guidelines.  Books described as ‘jing’ are considered to contain a special knowledge that has originated from virtuous sages.  The term ‘經’ is believed to have developed from the practice of books written on bamboo strips, being bound together using a twisted thread (糸-mi4).  The ‘念處經’ then, translates literally as ‘’Current Mind Place/Point Classic’, and transliterates as ‘Present Mind Concentration – Classic’.

Satipatthana – the establishing of mindfulness – is the prime Buddhist method of observing phenomena originating from both within and without the body and mind.  It is the quality of mind that clearly perceives without error, and does not tire over-time.  It is the practice of a continuous, non-judgemental awareness, that nevertheless, precisely distinguished between phenomena that are in nature pleasurable, neutral and full of suffering.  This practice is one of a clear discernment that does not lapse for a single second.  Satipatthana has four categories of application:

1)     Body – Breathing, postures, repulsiveness, and material elements,

2)     Sensations-Feelings – Pleasant, neutral and painful.

3)     Mind-Consciousness – greed, hatred, delusion.

4)     Mental Phenomena – Five Hindrances, Seven Factors of Enlightenment, etc.

Through the cultivation of an awareness that perceives the inner, outer and integrated states of these four categories, a profound ‘detachment’ is developed, regardless of the nature of the phenomena being observed.   In this manner and through this practice, the attachment and suffering implicit in the physical and mental world is transcended, and the state of ‘extinction’ of passion, (nirvana) is achieved.  Through this development of non-attached awareness, the mind’s attention is relocated away from an outer world (situated outside of the body) of frivolous attractions, and is gathered together and reigned in.  This ‘gathering together’ is essentially a wilful ‘pulling’ of psychic energy into a single, concentrated point.   This is the initial disentangling from the world of conditioned events, and the turning inward of awareness.  The body and mind are controlled through concentration upon the breath.  The breath begins at birth and ceases at physical death, but its presence is usually undetected to any great degree by the average person.  Through the focus upon the breath, the body and mind are calmed.  This in-turn allows for the development of tranquillity and insight in equal measure, as each of these two attributes develops in the shadow of the other.  Although the Buddha teaches awareness of a number of psychological and physical states, the awareness he advocates remains constant and does not change in quality from one attribute to the next.  The concentration of awareness is built-up through the contemplation of the array of differing bodily and mental phenomena until a permanent breakthrough in the mind is achieved.  The disparate nature of the ever changing objects of contemplation ensure that the power of concentration is kept ‘even’ at its base, regardless of the changing of the object being contemplated.  The objects of the mind and body are viewed from the perspective of an underlying essence or observer.  It is this observatory essence that gives rise to concentrative power, and maintains the discipline of the practice in relation to the contemplated world of disparate phenomena.  The cessation of the inner generation of greed, hatred and delusion, and all the hindrances based upon them, coincides with the development of the perception of ‘emptiness’.  However, the Buddha’s path does not stop at the perception of ‘emptiness’ in relation to the existence of a separate physical world of matter.  The state of enlightenment involves the transcending of even the experience of ‘emptiness’, so that no dualistic tendency survives.  Emptiness and the consciousness of emptiness, as such, ‘ceases’.  Again, this is an example of the Buddhist tendency of explaining enlightenment through what it is not.

What is clear is that Buddhist meditation can be practiced by focusing attention upon a bodily aspect – such as ‘breathing’ – or upon mental content.  It is also clear that both methods can be used simultaneously, as well as separately.  As the underlying reality of all mental or bodily phenomena is the (empty) cessation of the nirvanic state, it follows that in reality, both methods of Buddhist meditation stem from the same enlightened essence.  That is to say that the different attributes of ‘breath’ and ‘lust’, by way of example, are both perceived equally from the perspective of the mind ground.  It is a matter of focused attention that breaks through the barrier of delusion, so that the common perception of duality is thoroughly transcended.  In developed Buddhism, practices such as chanting, visualisation and methods such as the gong-an of Ch’an, all serve to focus the mind in exactly the same manner as the Satipatthana.  A method of bare attention is used through the agency of extensive concentration, to eventually break through the barrier of delusion in the mind, and thus free the practitioner from the suffering of the experience of duality based upon greed, hatred and delusion.  The Buddha’s teaching preserved in the Pali Canon is an exercise in the application of minute attention to detail, which is a testament to the understanding of his enlightenment.  From this exact foundation, Buddhist meditation has developed into a variety of distinct aspects that all claim authenticity from the early teaching.

The Satipatthana teaches that there are seven attributes of mind that are required to be present (i.e. ‘cultivated’) for effective progress toward enlightenment, listed under the ‘Mind Phenomena-Events’ category

a)     Mindfulness.

b)     Investigation.

c)     Energy.

d)     Bliss.

e)     Tranquillity

f)      Absorption.

g)     Equanimity.

Mindfulness, investigation and energy, collectively develop the mind so that a break through is achieved and states of ‘bliss’ and ‘tranquillity’ realised.  With further effective training in mindfulness, tranquillity and bliss give way to absorption and then equality of mind.  Non-mindfulness, non-investigation and non-energy represent the conditions of the ordinary deluded mind.  Mindfulness, investigation and energy all support one another.  Without energy, for instance, there can be no investigation, and therefore no establishment of mindfulness.  Without the inclination to investigate, mindfulness can not be established, regardless of the presence (or not) of energy.  If the initial three attributes are reversed however, then the presence of inclined energy gives rise to the appropriate desire to investigate, which in turn eventually creates the conditions for the creation of a firm foundation in mindfulness.  By reversing bliss and tranquillity into ‘tranquillity’ and ‘bliss’, then bliss becomes the ‘effect’ of the establishment of tranquillity, which becomes the ‘cause’- suggesting that tranquillity leads to the condition of bliss.  The concept of ‘absorption’ (jhana), is categorised into eight levels of attainment, four material and four non-material.  The attribute of equanimity is present in seven of the eight jhanic (i.e. ‘meditative’ states), with the last state being beyond the ability of language to adequately describe.  Interestingly, ‘equanimity’ (upekkhā), is the fourth of the four levels of attainment described in the Brahmavihara teaching – loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  In this (Brahmavihara) Sutta the Buddha teaches that by generating these attributes (in turn) and directing each toward oneself, toward every being in the immediate environment, and every being in the universe without discrimination.  These ‘divine abodes’ (Brahmavihara) are taught by the Buddha as a means of mind purification.  Here, it is clear that although ‘equanimity’ is divine, it is not yet considered full enlightenment.  Therefore it is probable that equanimity should precede absorption in the list of the seven attributes of enlightenment.  Lists are often reversed in the collection of Buddhist texts, possibly due to a particular method of memory organisation from an earlier time, when the teachings were passed on by word of mouth from teacher to student through the generations.

Mindfulness is presence of awareness, as gentle as it is strong.  In the deluded state the mind is routinely scattered, disorganised and full of angst – this is the state of non-mindfulness, as mindfulness is not present.  To make mindfulness present, the mind must be brought into a unified state by an act of will.  This is, in essence, motivated by a desire for enlightenment, a desire which is considered correct within Buddhist thinking, as it is a desire that has no other consequence than the eventual cessation of greed, hatred and delusion.  Such a gathered mind focuses physical and mental energy.  This energy is withdrawn from the social environment and is thus preserved for the spiritual effort.  It is not the case that mind energy should not be situated in the outer environment, but rather that in the deluded state, energy is placed outwardly in a haphazard and inefficient manner.  A previously scattered and uneven awareness is levelled and refined so that all that comes into its presence is perceived with an inherently ‘equal’ and clear cognition.  Once achieved, the surface turmoil of the mind recedes so that a calm state of mental being is manifest.  This calm (or tranquil) state allows for an ever greater clarity of perception and thought, and thus leads to the wisdom associated with advanced states of absorption.  In these states, gross energy is refined into a constant, purified stream of physical and mental empowerment.  Boundaries that once limited the scope of thought and compassion fall away and insight follows insight without end.

This leads to an assessment of what exactly ‘mindfulness’ is within the Buddhist context.  This can be a problematic issue that is over simplified or over complicated, by suttas comprising of exhaustive lists of terms, categories definitions, preferences, warnings and prohibitions.  This rich diversity stems from the Buddha’s habit of teaching the same message in a number of variations to different individuals or groups of people.  The underlying message is consistent with what might be broadly identified as a ‘doctrine’.  The existential reference for this body of work is of course the Buddha’s enlightenment itself.  This understanding emanates from the wisdom that is conveyed in the words that are recorded in the teachings.  By comparison to the three dimensional presence of the Buddha, the recorded words must, by comparison, appear philosophically ‘dry’ within the format of their written preservation.  The speaker has long departed from this world, but the spiritual shadow of his achievement lives on through the written word.  This does not, in any way undermine the value of the preserved words themselves, but instead serves to clarify that the one person who could bring an instant and immediate order to the disparate suttas is no longer present in physical form.  With well over two thousand years separating this time from that, interpretation of the teachings themselves are reliant upon Buddhist traditions and the schooling they offer.  Of course, with the advent of the internet, individuals can now access the digitalised sacred texts in a manner unavailable to all previous generations.  Not only this, but expert advice can be acquired from Buddhist monastic experts and teachers from around the world, without the need to travel.  Mindfulness for a postmodern age often breaks down unnecessary barriers that were once thought unbreakable.  Many people in the world today live in urban settings, and this includes Buddhist lay and monastic practitioners.  The world, with its asymmetric distribution of wealth, sees an affluent West juxtaposed to the relative poverty of the developing world.  The Buddha’s essentially anti-greed message is at odds with that of capitalism and the inherent exploitation demanded by it, and yet this form of economics has spread throughout the world, including the Buddha’s own country ofIndia.  Certain modern Buddhist organisations in the world today, are happy to sell the Buddha’s teachings (that they do not own) for money, without any sense of irony, or the appreciation that the Buddha would simply have categorised this activity as delusional, adharmic and ‘unmindful’, thus undermining the claims of these organisations as being truly ‘representative’ of the Buddha’s compassionate teachings.  The Buddha taught the Dharma because it was right to do so, as he believed that he was relieving human suffering as a result.  He made a point by example of abandoning wealth in his youth.  Nowhere in the teachings does it say that wealth is an important aspect of the Buddha-Dharma – far from it, wealth, and its pursuit is a product of a lack of correct ‘mindfulness’.  In this respect, the endless lists of things that should be done in the suttas, serve to clearly define what the Buddha’s path ‘is’, and equally clearly, define what it ‘is not’.  This is an important point that is essential to the analysis of proper ‘mindfulness’, and through it, the correct interpretation of the unfolding, meditative path.  If the foundation is not correct, it follows that the path will unfold incorrectly and suffering will not be relieved.  Today, it is often the case that bare attention is not withdrawn from the outer world, as it should be, but rather that the outer world is mistaken for the inner world, and attention not correctly withdrawn from it.  This creates the inversion of the Buddha’s teaching whereby a reinforced deluded ego is re-interpreted as an enlightened mind.  No levelling out of conscious has occurred, and any apparent peace of mind achieved is based solely upon a stable social environment sustained by a flow of money.  In this model, Buddhism has become a ‘business’, with exactly the same rationale applied to its distribution throughout society, as if it where a consumable product produced in a factory.  People wishing to study Buddhism are treated as ‘customers’ purchasing goods.  The entire commercial premise for this attitude is thoroughly against the Buddha’s teachings on ‘mindfulness’, and conforms to the Buddha’s definition of ‘deluded’ behaviour – that is actions motivated by greed, hatred and delusion.

The Buddha, during his lifetime, withdrew his mind’s attention away from the privilege of his royal position, (i.e. of social leadership), and out of, and away from the social oppression of the caste system his social privilege depended upon.  In entities so doing, he disinvested his mind of its social conditioning.  The enlightened mind perceives in very different manner to that of the deluded mind.  A totality of awareness manifests whereby the apparent dichotomy of subject-object carries no real meaning.  The mental essence and the material essence no longer appear to be different, and mind and world are reconciled.  Prior to this state however, individuals are born into a world of external social entities that demand empowerment from projections into the environment, of mental energy that is seized and stored.  Individual minds are implicitly trained to partake in this process which splits the mind into an apparent (disempowered) individual subject, and an apparent (powerful) external State.  The individual experiences one half of his mind as estranged, and the other as disempowered.  The estranged aspect is the experience of external State power reflected back onto the individual in a manner that is highly oppressive and exploitative, doubly so as without the projection of power from the individual, external social entities would possess no power at all.  This sets the conditions for the delusive mind to manifest, as these inherent contradictions allow for greed, hatred and delusion to exist.  A human mind estranged from itself is set adrift in a world uncertainty and impermanency.  More than this, however, through the condition of estrangement it seeks permanency in the unstable and the untenable.  Logic is turned upon its head and the world of apparent reality is mistaken for the real world, and not recognised for the distortion that it really represents.  The Buddha saw that this situation sets all experience as ultimately unsatisfactory and therefore prone to produce suffering through alienation.  For mindfulness to be established, the mind must be made whole again and mental energy withdrawn from the delusionary world and re-integrated back into the fabric of the mind, so that the mind and world reflect one another, such is the power of attention relocation.

In this respect, mindfulness is the establishment of an ‘even’ awareness that clearly perceives the objects of phenomena as they appear before its perception.  This perception is sharp, clear and discerning, and it firmly establishes each object for what it is, and what it is not.  There is no margin for error if mindfulness is to be effective as a means toward meditative development.  It is equally important in mindfulness training that the absence of exact phenomena is also clearly perceived.  For instance, through the appropriate application of mindfulness, the presence of sexual desire is clearly discerned, and through the appropriate application of mindfulness, the non-presence of sexual desire is discerned.  This includes the arising, establishing and diminishing of each phenomenon through the process of its creation and demise within the mind itself, and any corresponding external circumstance.  Mindfulness in its refined form allows the practitioner to experience the world through the developed awareness of an expanded conscious perspective.  This state is in fact simply the normal conscious extent of the mind’s awareness applied to itself and through the body, and which is extrapolated through the senses, into the environment, unhindered by deluded thought constructs and emotional turmoil.  Mindfulness is the effect of a calmed mind that perceives the full extent of its innate sensory ability, and that through this unencumbered awareness, is focused by the will, so that correct attention, (defined as a gathering of energy at a single specific point of reference), can be firmly applied to the object of focus itself.  Continuous familiarity with this technique allows for the mind to become re-orientated so that this process becomes normalised.  That is to say, the mind itself becomes perfectly and continuously calm (tranquil), and in so doing facilitates a greater understanding (through efficient attention), of all phenomena travelling through its awareness parameter.  It is only in the initial stages of mindfulness training that an intense effort of will is required to make the transition from ordinary consciousness to enlightened consciousness.  Nevertheless, this beginning stage is arguably the most difficult, as the everyday functioning of the mind is literally being reformed away from its previously normal functioning, to that of a spiritually advanced state.  Once this transition has been successfully established, the new state of insight is maintained by the act of continuous mindfulness itself, which has progressed from the ‘entry’ stage, to that of full manifestation.  Tranquillity and insight, of course, form the basis of the Buddhist enlightenment tradition, and at the highest realisation, all the distinctions of the path designed to transport a practitioner from the deluded ‘here’, to the enlightened ‘there’, lose their validity as their function is fully realised.  Mindfulness transcends itself, so that ‘mindfulness’ and ‘non-mindfulness’ reconcile in the state of enlightenment itself.  The Buddha’s teachings, not being of a dogmatic nature, contain within themselves, their own redundancy.

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