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.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.