Noble Eightfold Path: Right Mindfulness

Uposatha Day Teaching for the Full Moon

Right Mindfulness is perhaps the best known of the Eight Folds of the Noble Path. But few understand exactly what mindfulness is.

Let’s look in on our master potter once again. There he is spinning a pot on the potters wheel, with his eyes fixed on his fingers, and his fingers carefully and slowly shaping the clay. We notice that he is not listening to music in his studio. His cell phone rings and he ignores it, in his mind just notes that it rang and lets it go. Suddenly there is a loud pop, the door of his kiln flies open and flames shoot out. He carefully removes his fingers from the clay without disturbing what he has acheived so far, carefully detaches the fire extinguisher from the wall and advances to the site of the new mishap.

Mindfulness is simply to remember what it is you are doing, it is staying on task or taking up a new task at the proper time. It is an extremely important skill , in fact it underlies almost any other skill. In Buddhist training we cultivate mindfulness as the basis of all of the other factors of the path. The opposite of mindfulness is distraction, so we can think of mindfulness as a kind of guard for the senses and for what arises in the mind. It is the nose in the little slot on the door of a speakeasy that demands a password. Many people think of mindfulness as awareness, but actually it is more a matter of choosing what to be aware of.

How do we train ourselves to be mindful? Seated meditation is the simplest way. In meditation you are given a task, most generally to focus the attention on some object. For instance, your task might be to focus on the breath. We quickly discover that this is difficult, because the mind wants to wander off to more interesting or pressing things. We forget, sometimes for minutes at a time, but when we remember we bring the mind back to the breath. We are practicing mindfulness, or failing to practice it as the case may be. The breath is the only thing that should know the password, but we get distracted. With practice we actually get very good at it; we still get distracted but only for seconds rather than minutes at a time, and less and less frequently.

The beginning meditator is surprised and delighted to discover that the ability to stay mindful carries over to other tasks off of the cushion, generally to simple clearly defined physical tasks which do not require much thought. In fact, a lot of the things a potter does. For instance, if you are cutting potatoes that can be a mindfulness opportunity. Keep you mind on the cutting and nothing else for the few minutes you are engaged in this task. In fact, make the task a little more challenging: try to cut the potatoes into pieces of equal size; if you drop your mindfulness the sizes will drop their uniformity.

Mindfulness becomes difficult when there is too much going on at once: when the kids are barking at you, the dog needs a ride to his piano lesson, the TV is trying to sell you something that is whiter than white, your cell phone is ringing and you don’t know how you are going to pay the mortgage. So, we cultivate simplicity wherever we can. This tends to reduce potential distractions. One way we can do this is by actually simplifying our lives: don’t make too many commitments, don’t live beyond our means (don’t have debt), don’t own a lot of things that just clutter up our living spaces, and require cleaning and maintenance. Another way is to make a habit of doing one thing at a time; yes you can give up your addiction to multitasking. If you are working in the kitchen, DON’T listen to the radio. DON’T leave the TV on all the time. DON’T talk on the phone while driving. The basis of Soto Zen meditation is shikan, “just.” Shikantaza, for instance is meditation, just sitting, and in fact in this technique we simply let go of everything that arises that is not sitting, even the breath. For many a daily task X we can practice shikan-X: just walking, just chopping potatoes, just brushing teeth, even just driving when you get good at mindfulness. This is great mindfulness practice.

Another way to create opportunities for mindfulness is to have something to be mindful of. Mindfulness is remembering what we are doing, so it is important to be able to define exactly what it is we are doing. We actually spend a lot of time not knowing what we are doing and hoping something important will come to snatch us away from it. Instead, ritualize your activities. Religious rituals are very good for mindfulness practice, that is probably their main function: in a religious ritual there is no doubt about what you should be doing when (unless you have not learned the ritual functions, in which case you are on the spot because you know others have no doubt about what you should be doing when). However everyday activities can be ritualized: Get up at the same time, do the morning things in exactly the same order every morning, etc. A blanket rule is often taught in Japanese Zen: Leave No Trace. This means, if you cook, then you have to clean up. If you sit down to write letters then you have to put your things away before you move on to the next things. This creates automatic clarity about what your task is, and how thoroughly you should perform that task: NO trace. Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, as many Christians are aware. Why? Because it gives a great opportunity to cultivate mindfulness. If you finish sleeping, it is time to make the bed. At the completion of every task, check to make sure it is really complete. This means that if you open a door, walk through it and close the door, you should make sure the door is really securely closed. You can use your own imagination to find ways to ritualize your day.

We live in a culture that actually discourages mindfulness. We love to multitask and think that life is boring if a lot of things are not going on at once. We get addicted to the dispersed mind. This is not a Buddhist way of being, which is to relish simplicity. We love to drink alcohol, which disperses the mind so much we forget our cares, often while fostering new ones. Most of what we call modern conveniences are actually just ways to avoid being mindful. For instance, we have different buzzers that go off to remind us of something we would otherwise have had to be mindful about, such as fastening a seat belt. We think ritual is boring in our culture. When we walk through a door our minds are already on the other side before we even touch the door. Where did our task go?

One of the most important of the Buddha’s teachings is the Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta, which is the basis of Insight Meditation or Vipassana. In this the Buddha recommends the cultivation of mindfulness in attending to specific objects of meditation that foster penetrating insight into the nature of reality, that is a direct experience of Right View. These include mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of elements, of skandhas, of states of consciousness, of phenomena and so on, particuarly with regard to arising and falling.

5 Responses to “Noble Eightfold Path: Right Mindfulness”

  1. Branko Says:

    Nice series on the Noble Eightfold Path. So practical, without too much of theorizing. I really like it. Thanks Bhante ❤

  2. Randy Collins Says:

    One of, not the only, but one of, the things I liked best about talking with you is the clarity with which you are able to express concepts in an understandable way without what not infrequently seems almost a conscious attempt to inject confusion and contradiction into the expression.

    Short of permanent nirvana, which one might say, from one viewpoint, is already the state of things, a certain amount of rational thought seems desirable in the course of navigating through the dream?

    Then again…

    “Consider the lilies of the field…”



  3. Terasi Says:

    Thank you, the description of that potter really helps to understand what mindfulness actually is. And the steps are very practical, thanks again.

  4. Terasi Says:

    I am still mulling over mindfulness, I am very interested because for me it is the gate to attempt the other Paths. Bhante advises to make a habit of doing one thing at a time / shikan-X. I find this extremely hard in arranging both the habitual activities and in mind. The mind is always trying to grasp several other things at one time.

    Then this morning there’s an article about a new book “The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember” by Nicholas Carr. It says the Net’s constant distraction and interruptions undermines our ability to process information deeply/contemplatively. ‘Only when we pay close attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it ”meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory”, writes the Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Such associations are essential to mastering complex concepts and thinking critically.’

    The problem is that effect won’t go away even after we switch the computer off. ‘Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again’. The Net form us into false multi-taskers, but these so called multi-taskers are not more efficient, they are distracted by everything. The article says ‘the Roman philosopher Seneca may have put it best 2000 years ago: ”To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

    I remember long ago when I was a high school student – no Internet, I was more able to focus and understand an article or a book. Nowadays, the mind is always so restless. When I read something, I skim through the paragraphs to form some sort of estimation of the content (which is often wrong) to decide whether I want to read again more carefully or not. And all the time my mind is already on what I should read after this. The result is I don’t actually understand what is in the article.

    So one of the factors forming this kind of scattered mind could be the heavy use of Internet. It’s my own choice to use Internet so much, and this choice affects the way my mind works. This makes me think that probably it is harder for Internet users to develop mindfulness.

    Ah and I should put the link.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Sorry; I forgot to reply to this earlier and just remembered. Thanks so much for the reference to the article on Internet multitasking. I agree completely with the findings reported there; this is something you can observe for yourself, and something I have been concerned about with my own computer habits. Multitasking is not conducive to a still mind, nor to much else that is useful; it is the modern equivalent of idle chatter.
      It is important to set constraints for yourself if you use the Web a lot, so that you do not spend hours every day mindlessly clicking and following links. As mentioned, doing one thing at a time is emphasized quite a bit in Zen, “When chopping wood, just carry wood, when carrying water, just carry water.” (Some Zen students caught their master eating breakfast while reading the newspaper, he said, “When eating breakfast and reading the newspaper, just eat breakfast and read the newspaper.”) Manual tasks lend themselves most easily to shikan-X. Studying, paying bill, etc. less so. Begin practicing with manual tasks; have a routine, do one thing at a time, and try even to keep the mind from wandering to other things. It is hard, but it can become habitual. Of course, it is important not to have the TV or radio on when doing some other task.

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