Friday, May 20, 2016


Far too many modern writings on the subject of mindfulness over-emphasize the importance of staying alert and awake and being fully present in the now. Of course, those things are not unimportant. Indeed, they are of great importance. However, there is much, much more to mindfulness than just those two things.

There is a phrase often used in writings on mindfulness—‘choiceless awareness’. I often use that phrase but I was not its originator. I think I first heard the phrase used in the talks of the Indian spiritual teacher J.Krishnamurti [pictured left] but I can’t be even sure that he was the originator of the phrase. Actually, it doesn’t matter who first used those words. The important thing is what the words mean.

Choiceless awareness. The word ‘choiceless’ is of paramount importance. The task before us is to be aware of whatever may form the content of our awareness. The content—thoughts, feelings, memories, images, bodily sensations and so forth—is constantly changing. To be choicelessly aware is to be aware of whatever may be our internal and external experience. We cease to label that experience, or any part of it, as good or bad or indifferent. It just is. Such is life.

The American Buddhist monk Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu [pictured right], in a short essay titled ‘Mindfulness Defined’, writes:

Equanimity means learning to put aside your preferences so that you can watch what's actually there. Patience is the ability not to get worked up over the things you don't like, to stick with difficult situations even when they don't resolve as quickly as you want them to. But in establishing mindfulness you stay with unpleasant things not just to accept them but to watch and understand them. Once you've clearly seen that a particular quality like aversion or lust is harmful for the mind, you can't stay patient or equanimous about it. You have to make whatever effort is needed to get rid of it and to nourish skillful qualities in its place by bringing in other factors of the path: right resolve and right effort.

Equanimity is a beautiful word. It even sounds lovely. Equanimity is defined as a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind. Serenity is another word meaning more-or-less the same thing. When we are disturbed by someone or something, our equanimity comes goes out the window. In order to have equanimity we must learn to simply stay with what is. We must learn to look, observe, and be prepared to ‘watch what’s actually there’. That means we must ‘put aside [our] preferences’. Ordinarily, we choose to be aware of some things and not others, and we refuse to watch those things we label as bad or even indifference. True mindfulness is staying with whatever may be the content of our moment-to-moment experience, without labelling or judging that content as good, bad or indifferent.

All this requires patience, as Ajahn Thanissaro points out. Patience is not something we develop overnight. I know that. I am 61 years of age and I am still trying to learn to be more patient. That’s where mindfulness practice can help. As we practise mindfulness we become more patient over time. I still need a lot more practice. I hope I live long enough.

Ajahn Thanissaro provides a helpful working definition of patience—‘the ability not to get worked up over the things you don’t like’, and ‘to stick with difficult situations even when they don't resolve as quickly as you want them to’. We all know that we are upset not so much by what happens but by our reaction to what happens. It’s our reaction that hurts us, and often our reaction is automatic and self-defeating. We all need more patience. The next time you find yourself upset, may I suggest that you do the following. Watch what’s happening. Stay with it. Follow it through. Self-observation leads to self-knowledge, and self-knowledge leads to self-cure. If you can stay with and simply observe the content of your experience, rather than run away from it, and not label or judge that content, you will gain insight into the workings of your mind. You will come to understand that you have always been your own worst enemy, for you, and you alone, are the originator and cause of your self-defeating behaviour.

Letting go is very important, but so is sticking with difficult situations that we would rather not face. Life just is.

Ajahn Thanissaro refers to ‘right resolve’ (also known as ‘right intention’ and ‘right mindedness’) and ‘right effort’ (also known as ‘right diligence’). Those two things are just two of the eight path factors in the Noble Eightfold Path. Right resolve leads to right understanding, right effort, and right attentiveness. It means, among other things, watching our thoughts, for as we think, so we are. Right resolve also means reflecting upon our thoughts, words and deeds. Are they true? Are they necessary? Are they kind? (That threefold test of the rightness or wrongness of any proposed words or deed is known as 'The Three Gates'.)

Right effort is fourfold in nature and involves the effort to prevent unwholesome qualities from arising, the effort to extinguish unwholesome qualities (for example, greed, anger and resentment, and lust) that already have arisen, the effort to cultivate skilful or wholesome, qualities (especially generosity, loving kindness, and wisdom) that have not yet arisen, and the effort to strengthen the wholesome qualities that have already arisen. Whether you are a Buddhist or not, right resolve and right effort are of extreme importance.

True mindfulness is more than just a calm acceptance of what is. It means being prepared to change what needs to be changed in one’s life and making the effort to make those changes. 

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