Sarah Palmer, The Bomb (Also) Is A Flower, 2010.
Sarah Palmer, The Bomb (Also) Is A Flower, 2010.

One of the many controversies growing up around the notion of mindfulness is whether or not one can be mindful of unwholesome states, such as anger or hatred. On one hand there is the view that one can be mindful of anything, and that it is precisely by becoming mindful of unwholesome states that one is able to abide in such states without having to judge them, suppress them, or act on them. On the other hand there is the view that since mindfulness is a wholesome state and anger and hatred are unwholesome states, and since one cannot experience two such opposite states in the same mind-moment, it follows that what appears to be mindfulness of unwholesome states is actually the rapid modulation between one and the other—moments of mindfulness and moments of anger, for example.

I would like to argue in defense of the second position and offer an effective method of a positive “bait and switch” that allows us to neutralize unwholesome states and steer the mindstream toward the cessation of suffering. What view we take of the mechanics of liberation is ultimately less important than having the ability to employ it in our own experience to bring about transformation.

There can be little doubt that when one looks very closely, one is not able to hold two things in mind in the very same moment. When it appears that we are doing this, we are using a kind of “peripheral thought” (much like peripheral vision) to hold some information in short-term memory or below the threshold of conscious awareness, but when we drill down into the experience we will find that to know one thing very clearly we need to withdraw attention from other competing data. As the Buddha put it: “If one frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of ill will, one has abandoned the thought of non–ill will and one’s mind inclines to thoughts of ill will.” (Majjhima Nikaya 19)

There can also be little doubt that mindfulness is a wholesome state. It is a sankhara, a volitional response or attitude toward the object of experience cognized by consciousness. Mindfulness is an attitude of confident equanimity, a presence of mind in which the object is neither favored nor opposed. Anger and hatred are also sankharas, as are all the other unwholesome states, but these are responses characterized by aversion—a very different emotional tone than mindfulness. One simply cannot experience aversion and equanimity in the same moment, for they are vastly different qualities of mind. Yet one may be able to cycle quickly between these two states, as the mind so habitually does in many of its processes.

When we say we are mindful of aversion, for example, what we really mean is that we are aware of aversion, or that we are giving our attention to the state of aversion. One of the casualties of the success of mindfulness as a trend in psychotherapy and as an object of scientific study is that it often gets confused with mere attention. According to the models of Buddhist psychology, it is possible to pay attention to unwholesome states of experience, and even to do so deliberately and in a disciplined manner. But attention is able to mature into mindfulness only in the absence of unwholesome states. When we are angry we can know very well that we are angry. But this kind of knowing is not transformative. We only become mindful of that anger when it becomes an echo or shadow of itself in a subsequent mind-moment, at which point it can be examined as a thought object with an attitude of interest and nonattachment—in other words, with mindfulness.

This is how the bait and switch works: If you are furious, it will not work to simply “be mindful of your anger.” The force of the anger is so strong, and its emotional momentum so compelling, that it is not capable of clearing out of the mind for a moment to allow true mindfulness to emerge. However, you can pay attention to bodily manifestations of the anger—how does your body feel when you are angry? When you are invited to explore these physical symptoms in greater and greater detail, an attitude of careful investigation can gradually develop—for example, you might consider how the nuanced texture of the constriction of your jaw muscles change in subtle ways from one moment to the next.

Using this bait and switch model, you can loosen your hold on the thought or memory that provoked the anger and experience some consecutive moments of mindfulness of the body. With some wholesome momentum thus established, you can gradually steer your attention toward investigating the emotion of anger itself. Now that anger is no longer the burning emotional charge that regards all objects of experience with ferocity but rather has become a thought or memory of the emotion and is thus a mind object rather than a sankhara, it can be examined with equanimity and with mindfulness. The anger no longer holds the mind in its grip, but is regarded at arm’s length, so to speak, as an object of interest.

It is only under such circumstances that mindfulness becomes transformative. You can pay attention to your anger all day, allowing it to manifest “without judgment” as it burns its way deeper into the heart. But it is not until you are able to abandon that anger, if only for a moment, that the stage becomes available to mindfulness, and it is only when mindfulness is given a chance to settle itself deeply into your habits and character traits that the ground becomes gradually less hospitable for the cultivation of anger and more fertile for the growth of wisdom. You gradually see, with ever-increasing clarity, that anger is just an impermanent and impersonal emotional state, fueled by a selfish and fearful self, and that it only gives rise to suffering. With such insight, unwholesome states gradually arise less often and with less intensity.

Attention needs to evolve into mindfulness, if mindfulness is to evolve into wisdom.

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