Is Mindfulness Enough?

“Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste — the taste of salt — so in the Dhammavinaya [these teachings] there is but one taste — the taste of freedom.”  — Buddha

Over this past year, all four of our sitting groups have been studying the Eight Fold Path, a core teaching in the Buddhist tradition. The Path itself is the fourth aspect of the Four Noble Truths, an explanation of the human condition which summarizes the insight the Buddha had on the night of his awakening: he saw clearly that human strife or distress, which seems to endlessly repeat itself, actually has a beginning and an end. He realized that there is a specific cause for suffering and a way to stop it. This understanding and the quest for less suffering in the lives of all beings set the context for and the direction of the set of teachings called the Dharma.

Our three local groups have finished this study, but our fourth sitting group, which has been meeting regularly for 14 years in the chapel of the Northern NH Correctional Institute for Men (a.k.a. the NH State Prison) has just reached the investigation of the Seventh Path Factor, Mindfulness.  In our meeting there earlier in June, in the first two of our three hours together, we practiced honing our mindfulness techniques through the teaching called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This is a tool that uses our experiences of the body, the hedonistic nuances of our feelings, and the felt-sense of mind/heart both to sharpen attentional skills and to use these same skills to explore the nature of our lived reality. After the practice, we discussed what we knew of mindfulness and the role of this “awareness in the present moment” in our own lives.

The conversation quickly evolved towards the place of mindfulness in the commission of a crime.  A long-term group member, who is in prison for life for murder and who has brought this subject up before, said he was mindful in every moment and in every decision that led to his killing another human being.  When he first spoke of this over five years ago, I replied with the question, “Was there any wisdom present?” He said there wasn’t, and that was the end of the discussion. This time we pursued it further.  All of us agreed that their crimes were wrong. The question was whether mindfulness itself had an ethical quality that might have prevented them from acting unwisely.

There is a teaching in the later Theravada Buddhist tradition which claims that whenever mindfulness is present, the moment is a wholesome one. Is this true in our experience? The prison conversation continued with others expressing their own thoughts and experiences.  One person said he also was fully aware even as he set about attacking someone with a gun. He went on to explain that he was motivated by resentment and hatred, and he knew that at the time too. This motivation clearly was not in line with the “Path Factor of Right Intention”; and the comment led us to remember that we are learning to practice “Right Mindfulness” as a Path Factor and that it is not the first Factor.  It is the seventh and it is colored by “Right View,” which is constantly weighing whether an action leads to less or more suffering; and by “Right Intention,” which has everything to do with relinquishing resentment, hatred, ill will and cruelty. If any mindfulness were present for these men at the time of their crime, it would not be considered mature or informed mindfulness.  Mindfulness itself is an ordinary factor of mind, present for all of us at times.  The cultivation of mindfulness as a Path Factor makes it an extraordinary tool capable of turning “an obstacle to our path into an object that can be known” and thereby related to in a way that supports less suffering.

The first speaker, who knew nothing of the Buddhist teachings when he committed murder, said he didn’t reflect on the effects of his actions on the victim, the victim’s family, himself and others until the moment after he had committed the crime. He was in that very moment filled with remorse and shame.  He turned himself in immediately and first felt the longing for a life free from such violence. He has spent many of his 40-plus years in prison trying to understand his actions in order to never do any act of harming again.  He feels strongly that he needs more than mindfulness to accomplish this.

We talked a bit about mindfulness as it is being taught in the world today.  Mindful tennis, mindfulness for CEOs, pilots, the British parliament, mindfulness for personal stress reduction: all are clearly playing an important role in people’s lives.  But without strengthening the aspects of the Eight Fold Path, the practitioners don’t have the strong ethical commitment that is built into the “Right Mindfulness” of the Dharma. There has been some recent discussion among secular mindfulness trainers about the need to establish a foundation in ethics along with the mindfulness skills.  And there has been some controversy about the teaching of mindfulness in the military, where part of the basic training is sometimes the dehumanization of those perceived as the enemy.  The same problem may exist in mindfulness training for the police force.  Certainly, bringing clarity and some calm to those engaged in these very necessary professions has some value. Is there some danger in it as well?

“Right Mindfulness” can be a powerful force in creating the conditions for human flourishing both for others and for ourselves.  It can help with seeing and diminishing the power of unwise intentions, such as resentment and hatred. It can reinforce the “Right Speech, Actions and Livelihood”, which give rise to the quality of our collective lives; and it can help us skillfully navigate “Right Effort” and support the emotional maturity stabilized with “Right Concentration”; but it cannot stand alone in the Path towards freedom from the continual perpetuation of suffering (personally, nationally and globally) laid out in “Right View.”
“At every level the flavor of the Teaching is of a single nature, the flavor of freedom. It is only the degree to which this flavor is enjoyed that differs, and the difference in degree is precisely proportional to the extent of one’s practice.   Practice a little Dhamma and one reaps a little freedom, practice abundant Dhamma and one reaps abundant freedom. The Dhamma brings its own reward of freedom, always with the exactness of scientific law…”

“It must always be borne in mind, however, that true freedom — the inward autonomy of the mind — does not descend as a gift of grace. It can only be won by the practice of the path to freedom, the Noble Eightfold Path.”  — Bhikkhu Bodhi

This and the top quotation from: “The Taste of Freedom”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 5 June 2010.

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