Our Good Friend and Protector, Mindfulness

Instead of turning the cultivation of mindfulness [sati] into a stressful and demanding chore, we see sati as a good friend to whom we return, with whom we like to spend as much of our time as possible.
–– Bhikkhu Analayo, Satipatthana: A Practice Guide ––

The wise mindfulness of which Analayo is speaking is, in Buddhist teachings, part of the Ennobling Eightfold Path. It doesn’t stand alone. It is supported and nurtured by the other path factors of wise understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, and concentration. Increasingly, as it develops, it in turn supports these other liberating factors. Mindfulness has this same “mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship” with other aspects of Dharma training, especially with the four Brahma Viharas: kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity, a balanced steadiness of heart.

This working relationship between mindful awareness and the development of a benevolent heart is especially clear in our Sangha member Carol Holly’s contribution to the Voices of the Sangha section in the November 2021 newsletter. Her essay, titled “Supermarket Metta,” is definitely focused on bringing about, and stabilizing, the Brahma Viharas of kindness and compassion in her actions, speech, and mental attitude. Her story is also filled, overflowing, with our dear friend mindfulness. Through Carol’s years of formal and informal practice, Sati, a loving, open awareness, has become reliably accessible. With its qualities of nonjudgmental interest and receptive gentleness, this mindful knowing is always carefully, quietly monitoring the effects of Carol’s actions. At ease and content to be present without fanfare, mindfulness is becoming the water Carol swims in––her default mode, her friend and great protector.

Buddhist philosophy is actually a philosophy of ethics, one in which our primary task is to refrain from harming ourselves and others. Established upon the very basic fact that no one wants to suffer pain and that, indeed, all beings want to be happy, these teachings are designed to foster human flourishing, and they offer specific ways though our actions (bodies), hearts, and minds to accomplish this. Our friend, the wise mindfulness of the Eightfold Path, is part of the Buddha’s initial teaching about the importance of locating, naming, understanding the nature and reducing the stress of anxiety, anger, fear, and other challenging emotions that can arise when we come into the inevitable difficult situations of our very human lives.

This is the underlying basis of the ordinary ethical problem that Carol is dealing with so beautifully in her experiences of the supermarket frustrations. She is well practiced. We read of her wise and mindful efforts beforehand, in her formal, consistent practice of Metta; during the events, in the direct awareness of physical and mental discomfort generated in the store; and afterwards, in her “mindful post mortem” (Jill Shepherd) of the events at the checkout line.

Buddhist practice is about transformation. We are changing from being someone who is swept up in the “floods of life” to a person who is not dependent upon outer circumstances for happiness––someone who is happier, more content, and who suffers less from life’s inevitable ten thousand sorrows and ten thousand joys. Celebrated neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has pointed out that, given recent findings in the brain’s functions, we have more choice than we think we do over what kind of person we are, as well as over what we want our effect on others to be. You can see this choice and the transformation it allows taking place in Carol’s story. You can also see the necessity of mindful awareness in this unfolding of her freedom.

Consider a mountain stream where the water is quite clear, and seems placid and still. But if you place a stick into the water, a small wake around the stick shows that in fact the water is flowing. The stick becomes a reference point that helps us notice the movement of the water. Similarly, the practice of mindfulness is a reference point for noticing aspects of our lives that we may have missed.  –– Gil Fronsdal

Mindfulness is said to be the “great protector.” It makes us aware of what is happening in our subjective world (internally), in the world around us (externally), and in the quality of the relational field between us (both). Without judgment, it monitors our behavior and sees its effects on these three aspects of our experience. Always accessible, it provides a sense of safety, which allows an increased openness and more creativity in our response to the moment.


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