Right Mindfulness is the second practice in Mental Discipline on the Eightfold Path and involves being aware of the present moment with a clear focus. Right Mindfulness is the heart of Buddhist practice and applies across the whole Eightfold Path. When you’re mindful, your thinking is Right Thought, your speech is Right Speech, your actions are Right Action, and so on.
The principle of mindfulness is very simple but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. All you have to do is pay attention to whatever you’re doing or experiencing without judging or interpreting, and without any unnecessary thought chatter. But it’s only when you try to stay present in the here and now that you realise what a challenge that can be.
Lost in Thought
You probably spend most of your time living in your head. Most people do, whether they realise it or not. You ruminate over problems, things you should’ve said or done, things you shouldn’t have said or done, and things you’d like to say to do. You worry over things that may never happen, and go over and over things that have already happened that you can no longer change. You rarely live in the present moment.
Right Mindfulness brings your attention back to what’s right in front of you and enables you to be less distracted. You can then see what’s really needed in any situation and act appropriately.
Sometimes when you see how out of control your thinking has become, you believe you have to stop thinking altogether. But mindfulness isn’t about sitting with an empty head contemplating nothing. Thinking isn’t the problem – mindless thinking is.
Right Mindfulness is about cultivating mindful thought as much as mindful action or mindful speech. With the correct use of mindfulness you’ll be able to remain present and focused on whatever arises.
You’re always paying attention to something – unless you’re in a state of deep sleep – but Buddhism makes a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate attention. Appropriate attention (yoniso manaskara) is when you focus on the present moment and whatever it contains, while inappropriate attention (ayoniso manaskara) is what your mind is doing the rest of the time – i.e. most of the time (including right now, although you probably think you’re concentrating on reading this!).
Right Mindfulness is the kind of attention that reflects whatever it sees and accepts everything equally without judgement. Your attention should include everything that you’re aware of – not just what you can see or hear, but the way your body feels too: the way you’re sitting or moving around, the feel of the air on your skin, an itch, the twinge in your knee that plays up when it’s cold, and so on.
It’s important to bring mindfulness down to earth and back into the body otherwise the danger is that you float off into a dream-like trance state. Mindfulness isn’t about sitting passively absorbed into bliss or non-being – that’s an advanced form of Right Concentration, and not the point of mindfulness practice.
The idea behind the practice of Right Mindfulness is to stop your mind running away with itself. But if you try to stop it by controlling your thoughts or by forcing your mind to be still, there’ll be a kind of backlash and your mind will start spinning even faster. The more you try to control it, the more it will resist. So you need to approach it in a compassionate and open spirit – just watch and see what’s there and let it be. Imagine your thoughts are like clouds and let them come and go without holding onto them.
The truth is that behind the mayhem in your mind, awareness itself is an infinite open space. As my favourite Pema Chodron quote says:
“You are the sky. Everything else, it’s just the weather.”
In time, your mind should begin to calm down of its own accord and you should find it easier to enter the present moment with less resistance. You can practice mindfulness by watching your breath while sitting on a cushion or chair, but if you really want to free yourself from suffering, you need to apply mindfulness to everything you do. So you can practice all the time – just remember to come back to the present moment, no matter what you’re doing.
In the Discourse on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutra) the Buddha gave four objects to use in your practice:
- Body – Kayanupassana
- Feelings – Vedananupassana
- Mind – Cittanupassana
- Dharmas – Dhammanupassana
Practising mindfulness of your body will help you to stay grounded in the present but also encourages you to make friends with your body. You can’t be happy and free from suffering if you’re fighting against yourself or dislike your body. This practice is especially helpful when you’re ill or in pain.
Practising mindfulness of your feelings also helps you to make friends with whatever arises and just let it be. Feelings can be either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and the idea is to stop avoiding the darker or more difficult feelings and learn to accept them.
Practising mindfulness of your mind means watching the ‘mental formations’ of thoughts and emotions (emotions are what you think about what you’re feeling, the story you tell yourself about your feelings). This is how you work with the wholesome and unwholesome seeds that we looked at in Right Effort. Mindfulness encourages the helpful seeds to grow and the unhelpful ones are returned to the unconscious to be transformed.
Practising mindfulness of the dharmas means watching the phenomena or objects of your mind. Each mental formation has an object. If you’re angry, for example, the object is the cause of your anger. This practice helps you to see the interdependence of everything and leads to the realisation of the true nature of reality.
By practising Right Mindfulness you can develop stillness and equanimity which allows the true nature of reality to be revealed in all its glory. Mindfulness will help you to contact and live through your inner Buddha, or true Self – the ‘goal’ of the Eightfold Path.
“A Buddha is someone who is mindful all day long. We are only part-time Buddhas.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Next time: Right Concentration