Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mastering the mind (2) - Meditation and Mindfulness



Today there is an explosion of interest in meditation. A 2012 study in the US, published by the National Health Institute, found that 8% of the population practiced some form of meditation that year. Among them, mindfulness was the one growing the most.
As a student and teacher of meditation for over 40 years, I can only feel happy that many people are having contact with this very ancient practice. Given the chaos in our world and lives, there is a repressed demand for it. At the same time, I'm a little wary of the marketing that surrounds meditation.

In the question of mindfulness-type meditation, there is a multitude of books flooding the market. It appears as a panacea for many areas of society. Titles like "Mindful Something" abound. Just replace Something with Work, Eating, Exercise, Leadership, Child, Teenager, Parenting and we have the promise of a wonderfully aware world. 
Doing all these things in a more 'mindful' way obviously brings benefit. Unfortunately, like so many of the therapies that appear from time to time, none of them can be the answer to everything. The way mindfulness is presented, makes it look like something newly invented. As if the practice of meditation had not existed for thousands of years! We know that meditation in different ways has been available for millennia to solve the problems of life.

To complete the insertion of mindfulness into the Western mainstream, even the word meditation has been dropped by many, so that it is no longer associated with any spiritual or religious practice, according to its Buddhist roots.

Exponents of mindfulness say that their goal is not to control the mind. According to popular belief and the reasons described in the previous blog* about our "flaccid mental and emotional muscles", they say that it is not possible. Instead of controlling thoughts, the idea is to just observe them. In this way we calm down the mind's activity, learn to deal with anxiety, and so on.

This is all true. Just taking meaningful breaks in our frantic lives and concentrating on the regular in and out of our breathing, as we observe the movement of the mind, body, and world around us is a definite way to slow down and feel calm.

Trying to do it in the face of a major crisis is another story. For example, in the face of:

  • News related to someone's terminal illness (or your own)
  • A natural or human calamity
  • Death of a loved one
  • Being robbed of all your money and documents
  • Going through a divorce
  • Losing a job
  • Getting involved in a serious traffic accident

The ability to stabilize the mind in a second in such situations requires long practice and a more complete understanding of the reasons behind things and especially the inner working of the being, through the mind and intellect. Deeply rooted personality traits cannot be transformed just by calming down. It requires what the ancients referred to as tapasya - an intense state of concentrated understanding and connection with the self and the divine that can burn the seeds of weaknesses. 
In other words, it is possible to change basic aspects to our character, but, as they say in India, it´s not as easy as going to your aunty's house

What many may not know, is that mindfulness is related to the practice of Sati, one of seven steps to enlightenment in Buddhism. In 1881, Thomas William Rhys Davids, a British magistrate in what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), had to adjudicate many Buddhist ecclesiastical conflicts. On analyzing sacred texts in Pali, the ancient language of Theravada Buddhism, he suggested for the first time the word “mindfulness” as a synonym for “attention” and as an approximate translation of the Buddhist concept of sati.
Sati, and its Sanskrit counterpart, smṛti, basically mean awareness, or ¨that which we remember" or even more simply, “remembrance”. It can also mean consciousness, depending on the context. One of the first steps in ancient Vedic traditions of meditation, was to stabilize the smriti through various techniques. Since Buddha came along hundreds of years after Vedic meditation had taken root, he and his followers may have been familiar with these traditions, as can be seen in many of the similarities, especially concerning sati.

By isolating sati from the other six steps to enlightenment, and by Westernizing it, like so many other spiritual paths, we may have lost its essence. With so much trivialization, courses and "experts" on mindfulness seeking new ways to earn money, we may be only fooling ourselves that feeling good will actually solve our deeper issues. And our minds continue just as uncontrolled as ever. 

After all, one of the central tenets of Buddhism is that we do not escape suffering. We must understand and come to terms with it. This requires quite a bit more work than just developing a state of attention. The other six steps were in fact, essential to complete this journey. 

In the next blog I will share about one of the greatest meditation masters of modern times, Swami Vivekananda, who takes the whole question of controlling our minds from a different angle. We will see how hours and smriti were exactly the same thing. Stay tuned.

*Previous blog.