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Mindfulness

(This is the final message in a series on the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.)

In studying the different world religions, I have found that each has its strength. Buddhism very strongly brings the concept of mindfulness into the spiritual equation which I find sorely lacking in Christianity. We can occasionally find echoes of the practice of mindfulness in scripture; Philippians 4:8-9 encourages people to be “wholly directed to all that is true.” But, personally, I believe that even this falls short.

The Fourth Noble Truth directs us to the Eightfold Path which offers the guidelines to help free us from suffering and attachment. In this final message in this series, we'll explore right awareness or mindfulness, right effort and right concentration.

Mindfulness, Jack Kornfield tells us, is non-judging and respectful awareness. It is the ability to experience life without expectation, knee-jerk reactions or uncontrolled and unbidden streams of judgement, opinion and criticism. For example, studies show that in the first 7 seconds we meet someone new we’ve made 11 judgments about them. Mindfulness would allow us to meet them and experience their presence without that immediate judgment.

The key to mindfulness is stopping. In Buddhism, meditation is a foundational practice because it helps ground one in reality, brings clarity and awareness. The Bible mentions meditation many times, but it is always in the context of meditating on the scriptures or on the laws, rather than for the purpose of working on our inner life, finding understanding and clarity. Traditional and conservative Christianity has been very suspect of meditation, but centering prayer and mantras are very similar.

Even if you don’t see yourself practicing meditation, I believe it is possible to cultivate more mindfulness in our lives by living more consciously and less on auto-pilot. It is sort of like taking a step back to observe our own lives, removing ourselves somewhat from a situation so that we can see it more clearly. Then perhaps we can choose the best way to act or respond, if that is even needed.

Mindfulness invites us to approach life with a beginner’s mind as if we don’t have all the answers. Mindfulness means letting go of ego and attachments so that when we speak or act we are doing so with awareness, and so with right speech or right action.

There is a story about Buddha teaching his attendant, Ananda, about mindfulness and the importance of waiting for the correct reaction to surface. The two are walking through a forest on a hot summer day when Buddha turns to Ananda and asks him to go back to a river they crossed some miles back to get some water to drink. Ananda trudges back, but when he gets there some carts have just crossed the river, making it muddy. Ananda walks back to Buddha empty-handed. When he reaches him Ananda tells Buddha that they need to wait a little longer. He has heard that there is a river a couple of miles ahead of them; he will get water there and bring it back.

Buddha’s reaction? He tells Ananda to go back to the first river. If the water is still dirty, Ananda is to sit on its banks and watch. Sooner or later the water will clear. Sure enough, when Ananda goes back the river is almost clear. He watches it clear completely and then gets some water. By the time he makes it back to Buddha he understands the value of waiting mindfully until the correct response to a situation becomes obvious. (from The Chocolate Cake Sutra, by Geri Larkin)

Mindfulness or awareness begins to pull all the pieces together that we’ve talked about – suffering, attachment, waiting, right speech, and right action.

Picture for a moment the person in your life who makes you the most uncomfortable, or the one person who really pushes your buttons, or someone you really struggle with but have to deal with.  Now, imagine that the next time you see this person you approach them from a place of mindfulness. What does that mean? It means that you will not take anything they say personally, but you will simply observe what they say from a non-judgmental place. It means that you will not get sucked into your prior judgments of whether you like, dislike, or can’t stand this person. Instead, you will observe them, be aware of them, as another human being who has their own suffering (dukkha), who has their own fears and ego, and who very likely is operating in reaction to those things without even knowing it.

In this place of mindfulness, you then seek to look past their words or actions to understanding – especially understanding that if they are abrasive, controlling or angry, it is not immediately your fault, it does not have to cause you to be defensive.  In our mindful state, if they say something that starts to annoy you or make you angry or feel diminished (in other words, if you get tweaked, or your buttons get pushed), you will simply note your reaction non-judgmentally so that you can look at that later and determine what attachments you have that are causing that reaction. Then you let it go, take a deep breath and go back to awareness, waiting for clarity before speaking or acting.

I wonder how our lives and our world might be different if we all operated more from a place of mindfulness. But I understand that it is hard to achieve, and even harder to maintain.

I read one story of a woman who said her husband, a well-known Hindu teacher, came home from his last visit in India "in an amazing state. He was enlightened for 6 months, until he spent time with his mother.”

I tell you, if it's not one thing, it's your mother.

So, this brings us to the principle of right effort… continuing to practice and keep trying. Don’t give up.

In traditional Christianity, when we make mistakes or mess up, it is considered a sin. When we’ve put effort into our spiritual practices or spiritual discipline and don’t meet the goals, we have failed. Buddhism has a completely different take on things. Faith Adiele, who spent a year as a Buddhist nun in Thailand says that, "Buddhism is about the practice, not sin." 

So, these guidelines of right speech, right action, right awareness, right livelihood, and so forth, are not set down so that one can be judged against them as worthy or unworthy, as saint or sinner, they exist to help one find a spiritual freedom or enlightenment.

Right effort says if you fail, just keep trying. We have an amazing young cellist in our community who has a sticker on his cello case that says, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” Well, how do you get to a place of mindfulness, freedom and peace?  Practice, practice, practice.

Finally, when we can hold onto our mindfulness or awareness, right concentration becomes possible.  The more mindful we are, the more we are able to concentrate without distraction. This ability to mindfully focus without worry, fear or panic means that we will experience more peace and serenity no matter what life throws at us.

As always, you can take or leave all of this, but I truly believe that all of these spiritual principles that we’ve been talking about for the last four weeks have the ability to bring greater peace and fulfillment to our lives, greater depth to our spiritual journey, and greater love to the world.

Namaste,

Kaye