The Buddha’s path is a path of action. As dharma students, we learn that our happiness in this life depends on our actions. What we do is what matters. This is the central law upon which the Buddha’s teachings rely: the law of karma.
There’s a common tendency to evaluate our practice based on how much time we’ve spent on the cushion or how many retreats we’ve attended. Or we may gauge our progress on what we regard as the fruits of sitting practice: calmness, tranquility, less stress, and so on. But in the end, our attainment is reflected in our actions, whether we’re acting in a way that will lead to suffering or one that leads to the happiness of the heart. This includes not only the actions we’re taking toward others, but also the actions we take in an effort to fulfill our own deepest wish to be happy.
Thus the greatest challenge for dharma students is not to put time and effort into meditation but rather to take action in their lives. How can we develop a practice devoted to action, a practice intent on taking action that leads to true happiness? We can find the answer to this question in the way we practice mindfulness. We put ourselves on the path of action when we practice mindfulness in the way the Buddha taught.
When we look at the Buddha’s teachings as found in the Pali canon, we discover that the Buddha’s practice of mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness that has become prevalent in recent times are not quite the same. We might even say that there are two “mindfulnesses.” The version of mindfulness that has become so popular in recent years and has taken a variety of forms—everything from mindful eating to practicing mindfulness in sports and business—is something different from what the Buddha taught. The influence of mindfulness in contemporary culture is almost certainly a good thing. But it’s helpful to know that there is another sort of mindfulness.
In its recent, popular form, mindfulness generally means paying attention to our experience of body and mind in the present moment without judging it. Essentially, this refers to being aware of our experience: mindfulness is a quality of awareness. In practicing this form of mindfulness, the individual plays a passive role, simply being aware, receiving experience. The Buddha’s mindfulness, on the other hand, is highly proactive. It’s an active process of putting the mind on an object—a sound, sight, physical sensation, thought, emotion, and so on—and remembering to keep it there. Engaging in this process as dharma students, we are involved in a conscious intentional effort to put our mind on an aspect of our experience. We aren’t passively noticing experience. We are making a choice about where to put the mind and following through on that choice. We are doing something, with a sense of purpose.
The Buddha, of course, didn’t teach simply “mindfulness.” He taught a focused kind of mindfulness known as right mindfulness, one of the eight branches of the noble eightfold path. In practicing right mindfulness, the individual makes an effort to keep his attention on particular objects, the so-called four foundations of mindfulness. (The Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu sometimes translates this as “four frames of reference.” It’s a fitting way to think about right mindfulness: these are the frames through which we look or direct our attention.) If we do this, the Buddha tells us, we’ll move away from suffering toward true happiness. In fact, the Buddha makes it clear that our happiness is dependent on remembering to keep our mind on these specific objects.
When I began to practice a more proactive form of mindfulness, I learned to take action not only in meditation, but also in all the areas of my life.
The first foundation of mindfulness is the body, and as dharma students we learn, first and foremost, to keep our mind on the body by using the breath as the anchor point. We make a conscious effort to keep our mind on the breath not only in formal sitting meditation but also in all postures and during all of our activities. We keep the breath in mind at all times.
By keeping the mind on the body, we’re able to maintain present-moment awareness. A good way to think about it is that we’re moving our attention from the head to the body. When we’re not present, when we’re “outside” the body, we’re indulging in thinking. The mind enmeshed in thinking, lost in thought, traveling incessantly down pathways of thought, is the mind removed from the present moment. It’s the mind in a dream state. It’s a mind that is invariably in a state of suffering, either blatant or subtle. So our first job as dharma students is to keep the mind in the body, which isn’t easy. In order to do this, we need to take forthright measures.
The Buddha’s mindfulness, then, is a proactive process of putting the mind on specific objects, beginning with the breath. What does this process entail? How do we put the mind on something? The question may mystify us, but the answer is quite simple: We put the mind on the breath, or any object of mindfulness, by telling ourselves to put the mind there. We use the thinking mind. The term the Buddha uses is “directed thought.” In the Buddha’s lexicon it falls under the heading of “internal verbal fabrication.” In order to keep the mind on the object, we need to keep telling ourselves, using internal verbal fabrication, to stay there. We need to keep reminding ourselves. We need to keep remembering.
When we understand how mindfulness works, we’re able to practice mindfulness with much greater effectiveness. Dharma students, using directed thought, are able to keep the mind where they want to keep it. As dharma students, following the Buddha’s instructions, we learn to keep our mind on the body, in the present moment. But not only that. We also learn to shape our experience of the present moment. In developing the steps for mindfulness of breathing, as practitioners we (1) put our mind on the breath; (2) are mindful of the quality of the breath, noticing what the breath is like, where in the breath there’s dis-ease, where there’s ease; and (3) put our mind on the easeful quality in the breath, focusing our mindfulness there, being mindful of how the easeful breath energy pervades the breath. Through our mindfulness, we cultivate an easeful breath. Then we expand our mindfulness: we’re mindful of our full body. Mindful of the full body, having what the texts call an “enlarged awareness,” we put our mind on the easeful, pleasurable qualities in the body, and we allow the easeful breath energy to spread, permeating the body.
As we practice mindfulness of breathing, we shape our experience. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says, “Experience is purposeful.” This shaping of our experience of the breath and body is essential if we are going to maintain ourselves in the present moment. Our capacity to maintain present-moment awareness, in the final analysis, will depend on our ability to cultivate an easeful, pleasurable abiding in the body. Most of us would rather not remain present in the body, in large part because we perceive it as an unpleasant, perhaps painful place to be. What the Buddha came to realize is that we won’t be able to keep our mind on the present moment until we’re able to cultivate a pleasant experience of the moment, the body.
When we’re able to establish a center in the body, a pleasurable refuge, what the Thai master Ajaan Lee called “a home for the mind,” then we’re in a position to look at things that may be difficult to look at: the difficult emotions, the difficult circumstances of our lives, sickness, aging, and death.
Much of the emphasis of the contemporary form of mindfulness is put on being mindful of the various emotions. But if we haven’t established a quality of inner well-being, it will be exceedingly difficult to objectively and compassionately be mindful of the more painful expressions of the mind. In order to effectively observe our experience, particularly the more challenging aspects, we need to do this from a place of strength.
Mindfulness, according to what the Buddha taught, is a practice of conscious decision making. It’s a practice of making choices. It’s purposeful. Our decision making—beginning with the decision to put the mind on the breath—is based on the Buddha’s map that leads us to a true happiness. A passive mindfulness, the simple awareness of experience, is a practice that forsakes decision making. This, of course, is our tendency. We surrender our capacity to make decisions. We go with the flow. We conform. From day to day, we live in the same grooves. We live robotically. In practicing Buddha’s mindfulness, we learn to make decisions. We shape our lives. We make our lives.
At a certain point in my own dharma practice—by then I’d been meditating for more than ten years—I realized I’d hit a wall. I wasn’t making progress. I needed to change what I was doing, and it was then that I learned to practice mindfulness in the proactive fashion I’ve just described. Gradually, although more quickly than you might imagine, as I engaged in the practice of directly and purposefully putting my mind where I decided to put it, I began to develop much stronger concentration. In turn, I began to develop the ability to look at my suffering in a way that I hadn’t been able to before, with calmness, space, and equanimity.
We transcend the absurdity of life, the seeming meaningless of a life in which we’re bound for death, by taking action.
Then something interesting began to happen. As I practiced mindfulness in a more proactive manner, I began to live my life more proactively. I reclaimed my agency. For most of my life, I had lived a passive existence. I wasn’t inclined to take action. I was perhaps the classic example of the high school guidance counselor’s lament: I didn’t live up to my potential. There were things that I wanted to do that I didn’t do. I was hesitant to express myself, to put myself out there. Meditation, for someone like me, was an ideal pursuit. I didn’t have to engage; it was a way by which I might remove myself from life. Meditation, of course, isn’t meant to be a vehicle for removal. Just the opposite. If practiced properly, it’s a practice through which we learn to express our truth in the world, just like the Buddha who traveled through northern India and taught for all those years. (The Buddha, raised in a warrior family, wasn’t a passive sort.) As for me, when I began to practice a more proactive form of mindfulness, I learned to take action not only in meditation, but also in all the areas of my life.
If I might be so bold as to bring Nietzsche into the discussion, I’d like to suggest that perhaps what the much-misunderstood philosopher was referring to when he talked about the “will to power” isn’t dissimilar to what we’re talking about here: the purposeful process of putting the mind on an object, conscious decision making, the assertion of our human power in support of bringing meaning to our lives. It may be in the very exercise of our will to power where we find that meaning: in other words, in the “doing-in-itself.”
As the existentialists put it, we transcend the absurdity of life, the seeming meaningless of a life in which we’re bound for death, by taking action. Camus describes the process poignantly in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Life is akin to pushing a massive boulder up a hill again and again. But we find happiness in the pushing, in taking action. “The struggle itself toward the heights,” Camus tells us, “is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
In the dharma tradition, this sentiment is found in the principle of “doing what has to be done.” Dharma practice is hard. Life is hard. But we find joy in making the effort, in choosing to do something, in action. Here we find dharma joy, in this doing-in-itself.
The “happiness” that’s often mentioned by proponents of the contemporary mindfulness practice is the happiness found in the reception of pleasant sense experiences. So we might hear teachers describe how, being mindful, we’re able to fully experience the exquisiteness of a sunset or a piece of music or a cup of tea. The now-classic example of this happiness conferred by mindfulness is offered in the mindful eating of a single raisin. New students of mindfulness are often given this exercise—for many years, as a teacher, I gave it—as a way of showing how to be mindful, as a way of showing how mindfulness enables us to know sense experience more intimately, as a way of showing the benefit of practicing mindfulness. But as dharma students, following the Buddha’s example, we’re asked to understand the limitations of sense experience. What the tastes, sounds, and sights offer, at best, is a temporary happiness. The sunset is short-lived. The raisin, alas, is quickly consumed, chewed, swallowed, gone. The Buddha-to-be, as a young prince (and a consumer of the most pleasant sense experiences available to him) questioned the happiness that sense pleasure offered. After much struggle, he found a greater happiness, one that transcended the happiness that came from the reception and acquisition of external sense pleasure.
In the Buddha’s scheme of things, it’s through taking action that we come to know a greater happiness. In practicing right mindfulness, we’re asked to take action; we’re asked, specifically, to take action in support of the heart. As we walk down the street, engaging in a painful inner narrative, caught in an afflicted state, we can begin to recognize our suffering and in turn put our mind on our breath. We keep our mind there. In doing so, we’re taking an action informed by love and compassion, and training the mind to do so. Conversely, when we practice a passive mindfulness, we don’t develop our ability to make conscious decisions that are informed by love and compassion. We don’t train the mind. We don’t develop the heart. The “heart muscle” atrophies.
Our ability to love is determined by the decisions we make to act in a certain way. When we surrender our decision-making, we deny our greatest strength: our capacity for love. As the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing suggests, this is what Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov means when he says, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” When mindfulness is taught as open, nonjudgmental reception of all experience, “everything is permissible.” We relinquish our ability to choose to take action guided by the heart. We deny the heart. As a result, we find ourselves in an environment in which mindfulness is taught to support endeavors that in the end may have little to do with taking action informed by love and compassion. Mindfulness is taught to soldiers for the purpose of mindful killing. Mindfulness is taught to business leaders for the purpose of increasing profits. Mindfulness is taught to lawyers for the purpose of winning more cases. The examples are seemingly endless.
As we learn to take action informed by the heart, we begin to see what we previously may not have been able to see. A world of possible actions opens up for us. Before we learn to consciously choose our actions, we tend to go along with the course prescribed for us by the vicissitudes of history, our upbringing, the culture, and so on. We go with the flow. We remain, as Nietzsche would say, with the herd. As we learn to make decisions proactively, determined by what’s in the best interests of our heart, we often find that the actions we’re moved to take are patently countercultural. That is to say, when we decide to not simply go with the flow, with what the culture is dictating, we find that what constitutes an expression of self-love may be something quite different from what the culture is telling us. The American Catholic writer and monk Thomas Merton makes this point most exquisitely when he says, “What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as ‘play’ is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously.” Indeed, action that we choose based on the dictates of the heart may very well be more akin to play. As children we knew what we had to do; we knew where happiness was found. We knew the happiness of the heart.
We may have lost our way. We may have lost our connection to the heart. We may have given up trying to know the way of the heart. We may have abandoned the effort to take conscious action informed by the heart. We may have surrendered our agency. But there is a way back to what’s most important about us. And it may, for us, as students of the dharma, begin in the simple practice of mindfulness, the proactive, purposeful mindfulness that the Buddha taught.
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