Mindfulness is the thin edge of a wedge that, if inserted deeply enough into our minds, will open them to wisdom. Whether or not this actually happens, however, depends on various causes and conditions.
Some say the process is natural and inevitable, that once the practice of mindfulness is taken up its power of transformation is inexorable. This can sound similar to the monkeys-and-typewriters theory, though, and indeed there is usually a footnote in small print invoking countless lifetimes over multiple aeons. Most others acknowledge that mindfulness is a tool whose effectiveness requires such things as right view, diligent practice, long-term retreats, the guidance of a good teacher, a strong ethical base, and a karmic, if not genetic, predisposition for spiritual progress.
There is considerable enthusiasm for mindfulness these days, as long as it does not threaten to make us wise. Corporate tycoons would like to bring mindfulness into their world to help them achieve a competitive edge, as long as they do not have to spend too much of their valuable time meditating, and only if they can be reassured that they will not lose their killer instincts and get all mushy and compassionate. And they are interested in training their workers in mindfulness, as long as it makes employees more accepting about what they are required to do and does not raise troublesome ethical questions or throw their workers into a midlife crisis that leads them to drop out in order to do something more meaningful with their lives.
The military are always likewise interested in producing a more effective soldier. You have to be careful, though. I knew a guy who quit his job as a police officer after getting involved with mindfulness meditation because he realized that now he would hesitate to shoot if he had to draw his weapon. This was a threat to his fellow officers, he knew, and so he resigned. His personal transformation was part of a larger engagement with Buddhist thought and practice, but still—if this is the effect of mindfulness training, it clearly will not do for the armed forces. Yet we know how effective such training was for the samurai, and ethical difficulties did not seem to intrude at the critical moment when launching an offensive war in the middle of the last century. Perhaps the wedge can be used to pry things open a little, without allowing the process to go too far.
When “mindfulness” is defined in contrast to “mindlessness,” it roughly means “attention,” and this is the sense in which the word is most commonly used outside Buddhist circles these days. In an age when attention is a rare and precious commodity, even as it is spread around so promiscuously, training in attention skills is an understandably popular program. The ability to hold awareness upon a chosen object with some stability or to return it to a primary object once it has strayed, and to do so without agitation, self-blame, or frustration, is a useful skill to learn. It is also the leading edge of the mindfulness wedge as described in the classical Buddhist texts.
But the crux of mindfulness training is found in the chorus that repeats 16 times in the brief Satipatthana Sutta, “The Establishment of Mindfulness Discourse”: “One abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.” True mindfulness training involves learning to entirely disengage from, disidentify with, and become non-attached to the phenomena under review. Neither favoring nor opposing, neither liking nor disliking, the Great Way is not difficult for one with no preferences (to cite the later Chinese text Trust in Mind). Such disengagement is incompatible with corporate, military, and many other secular applications of mindfulness training, however, since it is the very move that opens the way for wisdom.
The mind is habitually caught up in some very deep reflexes of craving and aversion. Wanting what pleases us and wanting to do away with what causes us distress is part of a primordial operating system that has served all creatures on this earth quite well for aeons. Buddhism is pointing to an evolutionary step requiring us to abandon this reflex and replace it with a more mature mental state: equanimity. Classical mindfulness, unlike popular mindfulness, is all about the cultivation of equanimity. One is able to experience both pleasure and pain without clinging to anything in the world. One can be aware of what is gratifying and distressing, and still abide independent, not needing things to be other than they are.
According to Buddhist analysis, reflexive craving and aversion keep us bound up with suffering. Any moment of desire, by definition, is a moment of dissatisfaction, because desire is an experience of lacking something. And the desire can never be satisfied, for even when our wishes are granted it is always in the next moment. Look for the truth of this in your own experience. Even when it feels like we get what we want, we immediately worry it will slip away, yearn for more of it, or move on to wanting the next thing.
No amount of attention training is going to help us escape this cycle. In fact, incomplete mindfulness practice, focusing on attention but neglecting equanimity and the insights it brings, may serve only to strengthen the bonds that bind us. When King Menander asks about this, the sage Nagasena tells him, “Goats, sheep, cows, buffalos, camels, and donkeys have attention, but they do not have wisdom.” He goes on to offer this analogy: “As a barley-reaper grasps a handful of barley in the left hand and a sickle in the right and cuts it off with the sickle, even so does the earnest student, taking hold of the mind with attention, cut off the defilements with wisdom” (Milinda Panha 2.1.7–8).
Paying close attention to what is happening under our gaze is an important first step, but let’s not get stuck with a handful of barley and our backsides up in the air. Attending with an unattached attitude that allows us to understand the impermanent, interdependent, and selfless nature of it all is what cuts the attachment and is truly transformative. Not everyone is ready for such a transformation, so handle this tool with care.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.