Tuesday, July 14, 2009


In Asia, one of the most important of the Buddha's legendary discourses is called Foundation of Mindfulness. It has to do with awareness, and therefore with understanding.

Understanding of self, and of all existence.

Foundation of Mindfulness begins:

"There is this way that leads to the discernment of beings, to the overcoming of sorrow and distress, to the disappearance of pain and sadness, to the gaining of the proper path, to the realization of Nirvana. This way is based on the four foundations of mindfulness."

The four foundations the Buddha referred to are areas of life that, jointly, make up one's total experience. They are:

1. Body

2. Feelings

3. Mind

4. Objects of mind

In his time the Buddha visited many teachers, but he followed no one master. There was no single person to guide him, to challenge him, or to inspire him.

As an aside, these days individuals travel halfway around the world looking for a spiritual leader, a counselor who will tell them what to do.

The Buddha's self realization—which we refer to as enlightenment—came about as a result of his own, solitary effort.

He thought for himself.

Think for yourself.

The Buddha advised individuals who sought awakening to follow four think-for-yourself actions:

1. Go alone to a quiet place,

2. Sit still,

3. Breathe regularly,

4. Pay attention to breath.

He referred to this simple course as mindful breathing.

It depends on you, and you alone.

Action number four is “Pay attention to breath.” Be mindful of it.

Here is how mindful breathing works.

If you inhale a long breath, be aware that you are inhaling a long breath. If you exhale a long breath, be aware that you are exhaling a long breath.

If you want to count breaths, go ahead and count them. But do not attempt to control your breathing in any way. Be aware of the “now” of the experience. Do not interfere—mentally or physically—with the "now" of the experience. A long breath is a long breath; a short breath is a short breath. No more, no less.

This sounds straightforward, doesn't it?


There is always a however.

I once studied Japanese brush painting under sumi-e master, Takahiko Mikami. Occasionally, after examining one of my efforts, sensei Mikami would say, "Jack, you are a genius. However, . . . ."

There is always a however.

No matter how straightforward mindful breathing seems, your mind usually refuses to lie still. Instead, it starts playing games.

No matter how earnest you are, in being aware of your breath and only your breath, your mind begins to cavort. You think about buying a quart of milk, or filling your car's gas tank, or going to the library or to the coffee house. You lose your focus.

You lose your mind.

Damn, you think. And your mind goes flying off in various directions.

Speaking of directions, everyone knows the four compass directions of north, south, east, and west. But in the old days of sailing a new crewman had to learn the thirty-two points of the compass card.

I won’t rattle off these thirty-two directions, even if I could remember them, but they start with North and proceed clockwise: North, North by East, North-Northeast, Northeast by North, and so on around the compass.

I digress.

When you think too much, as I said, your mind goes flying off in all directions.

You realize what's happening, and you probably make an effort to control such interrupting thoughts. But that effort makes your mind jump to something else. And off it goes, seemingly out of control.

The first step in practicing mindful awareness is self-acceptance. That is, you realize what's happening, but instead of trying to tame your wandering mind, you mentally shrug and say to yourself, "So what."

The Buddha spoke of his teaching as "going against the stream." Mindful awareness makes us realize how much we swirl around in the stream of past-conditioning and habit.

I like to think of self-acceptance, and therefore mindful awareness, in terms of an image I learned from my Zen painting master.

"Bend like the bamboo."

In other words, don't try to oppose the stream. Don't struggle against human nature.

When meditating, be aware of yourself, including your thoughts and your breath. Let them be what they are.

Training yourself to focus single-mindedly on your breath enables your mind to become more still. This may not take place immediately, but it will happen.

One more “however.” Such quietness is not an end itself. It’s a state from which to observe what is taking place within. It leads to understanding that a restless mind is the result of conditioning and habit.

The Buddhist scholar and writer Stephen Batchelor said in his book, The Awakening of the West, "Such meditative understanding is experiential rather than intellectual, therapeutic rather than dogmatic, liberating rather than merely convincing."

Batchelor went on to say that the aim of mindful awareness is the understanding that frees one from delusion and craving.

A good writer on mindfulness is John Kabat-Zinn, author of the book, Wherever You go, there You Are.