How Does Mindfulness with Clear Comprehension from the Early Teachings of the Buddha Cultivate Wisdom?
As the concept of mindfulness is understood from multiple perspectives, many practitioners of it are still attempting to clearly define it. The word “mindfulness” is originated from a Pali-English dictionary published in 1882 by Rhys Davids, a British scholar, as the translation of the Pali word satipatthāna. Davids studied the Buddha’s teachings in Sri Lanka while it was a British colony, and its primary language was not English. Rhys Davids can be commended for his excellent efforts in introducing the Buddha’s teachings to the Western world. However, the word “mindfulness” has been erroneously assigned to mean satipatthāna, and the necessity for clarifying its actual meaning and adopting a more suitable term for it has risen.
Satipatthāna, which has been commonly translated as “mindfulness” has three sub-words contained in it: sati (attention/awareness/alertness), upa (inside), and thana (to place). Considering the meanings of these sub-words that make up the term satipatthāna, the more suitable English term for it is “introspection” (not mindfulness). In an age where people’s minds are filled with various kinds of information, the original practice of mindfulness (i.e., introspection) aids emptying people’s minds. With the five senses, humans are reacting to the world, instead of reacting with it; therefore, people are in need of bringing the attention inside.
According to the Buddha’s teachings that introduce the practice of introspection, there are no two elements called the body and the mind. Historically, Western philosophers have presented multiple views on the relationship between the mind and the body. John Lock, who introduced materialism, said that the mind does not exist but the result of the body and the nervous system along with the activities of the brain is called the mind. George Berkley, the Christian bishop who introduced idealism, said that only the mind exists because one understands matter that Lock was describing only through one’s senses. David Hume, who introduced phenomenology, said that both Lock and Berkley were only partially correct regarding the mind and the body—he said that only the experiences of the senses (smelling, tasting, hearing, seeing, touching, and thinking) exist. The position Hume held is the same that the Buddha took approximately 2,500 years earlier.
The Buddha’s view on the mind included three aspects, namely vinnana (perception), mano (intellect), and chitta (emotion). This view is similar to the view by Sigmund Freud, which involved id (emotion) and ego (intellect) and the more recent view by Leon Festinger, which was named cognitive dissonance where one’s emotion and intellect diverge and result in stress. In the Buddha’s teachings, cognitive dissonance is called vichikichcha (in Pali).
To understand introspection clearly, one has to consider a modern concept—an organism.
An organism is similar to a machine and the body of a human being works like a machine. For example, breathing, eating, and heart beating are activities. As the senses of a human being are stimulated by the environment, the human being reacts to stimulations. Ergo, organisms are reacting to stimulations. According to the Buddha’s teachings, this reaction is what is called the mind.
The first part of the reaction is the perception, i.e., eye perception, ear perception, tongue perception, nose perception, and body perception (sensory activity). Perception includes sensory activities such as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. After perception, the act of thinking takes place—activity of the brain, also known as the cerebral cortex. the Buddha called it mano and Freud called it ego.
For example, when light falls on the eye, the light stimulates the eye, a reaction, seeing, takes place. Similarly, when sounds enter one’s ears, it stimulates the ear, and the reaction of the organism results in hearing. This reaction is what is called the mind in the Buddha’s teachings.
On the other hand, when one opens his/her eyes and sees something, seeing is the perception and the interpretation of what is seen is the intellect. For example, if one becomes angry by seeing an unethical or immoral action by someone. That is the intellectual aspect based on the interpretation of what has been seen (the perceptual aspect). This intellectual aspect is the mano element mentioned above.
After the interpretation in the above example, a message is sent to the glands, (e.g.: the adrenal gland) hormones are released and the organism experiences anger. The arousal of anger, i.e., change taking place in the body, is the “emotion” that the Buddha called chitta and Freud called id.
In stress management courses, learners are taught that tension remains if it is not released. Unreleased tension is stress. In the modern world, people cannot release tension the way they wish. To get rid of tension, one needs to be conscious of oneself and experience conscious relaxation. Becoming conscious of oneself is the satipatthāna which is commonly translated as “mindfulness.” It is necessary for one to train oneself to gain control over emotions. The technique for gaining this control is the satipatthāna (introspection).
In 2021 a guided mindfulness (introspection) workshop as a part of a doctoral research (following the action research methodology and the Gioia method) was conducted over three months for 22 participants. These participants held leadership positions in various organizations, including Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies. The workshop was guided by four Buddhist monks to facilitate the practice. The workshop ensured religious neutrality (i.e., keeping religious aspects of Buddhism) and focused on meditation practices and the original form of mindfulness (satipatthāna). The participants, who were considered knowledge agents (according to the Gioia method), maintained journals and participated in personal interviews to provide data on their experience of the practice.
By analyzing the data collected according to the Gioia method, 157 first-order themes and then 16 second-order themes were derived. Those themes were further analyzed to obtain 4 aggregate dimensions that connected with the Supernormal Eightfold Way, the key mechanism involved in the practice of introspection:
1. Sense of values (relates to Harmonious Perspective)
2. Deeper capacity for empathy (relates to Harmonious Perspective)
3. Value-driven behavioral change (relates to Harmonious Orientation)
4. Greater capacity for understanding (relates to Harmonious Attention)
Harmonious Perspective, Harmonious Orientation, and Harmonious Attention are three of the eight steps in the Supernormal Eightfold Way
This research involving the workshop demonstrated that there are more steps one needs to pass before effectively reaching mindfulness which is the seventh step of the Supernormal Eightfold Way.
As some people have indicated, today many concerns are raised about the practice of mindfulness found in the Western world. The negative effects some people claim to be associated with the practice are a result of the Western practice ignoring the first six steps involved in the original practice and simply following only the 7th step of the 8-step process.
A summary of the original practice of mindfulness (satipatthāna)
Organisms are experiencing the world through the five senses (the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, and the body). When the focus is on the perceptions, reactions take place. Organisms react positively to pleasant stimulations, and they react negatively to unpleasant stimulations, resulting in reacting only instead of calming the mind.
Therefore, it is necessary to learn to take one’s attention away from what is seen, heard, smelled, tested, and touched and turn the mind inwards. Turning the mind inwards is called introspection (not mindfulness).
When turning attention inward, there are four aspects to consider:
1.Looking at the body using the mind (instead of eyes)
When one focuses attention on the body, moments and tension are observed.
For example, if one opens his/her eyes and looks at something, the body will begin to move if it is something pleasant. Noticing what happens to the body not by looking with eyes but with the mind is an important aspect of the practice of introspection.
It is necessary to notice how the body feels—whether it is comfortable or uncomfortable. That means if there is tension in the body, it becomes uncomfortable and if the body is relaxed, it is comfortable.
Noticing whether the emotions are excited or not is essential. For example, if one is angry, one can observe it in his/her body. Regardless of the emotional agitation, by closing one’s eyes, he/she can become aware inside. Being aware of one’s mood is crucial.
4. Focusing on the thoughts in the mind
Focusing on what one is thinking and the kind of thoughts in one’s mind is important. For example, one should think about whether he/she is thinking of what happened on the previous day, what is going to happen the following day, or what is happening at the present.
In the modern world, almost everyone experiences stress every day. Leon Festinger referred to it as cognitive dissonance and the Buddha called it vichikichcha. This occurs when people’s emotions and intellect diverge. the Buddha offered a solution for this divergence, and he called it samadhi (cognitive consonance), a state where the emotions and the intellect are unified in the mind. The technique to unify one’s mind or reduce stress is the 8-step Supernormal Eightfold Way, in which mindfulness is only the 7th step.