Mindfulness meditation is an excellent Buddhist practice but is only the first step to dealing with the negative states of mind which we all have. How can we use this awareness to reduce the suffering we experience in life?
When we first start practising the cultivation of awareness it may appear that we are becoming more rather than less affected by our delusions such as desire (attachment) and anger(aversion). What is usually happening is that we are actually noticing these emotions more rather than unconsciously acting and reacting to everything our mind puts out. Just as we are unable to treat an illness until we are aware of its presence, though, so we cannot tackle the negative aspects of our mind until we have seen them with our own inner eye.
The Tibetan lorig teachings list 11 wholesome and 20 unwholesome mental factors and the state our mind is in will affect our actions and how we behave in the future. As Nagarjuna put it:
“All actions of body speech and mind created with an attitude of greed, hatred and ignorance lead to suffering. From all actions created with the opposite attitudes of love, compassion and wisdom, only happiness comes.”
A similar message can be found in the first two verses of the Pali Dhammapada:
“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of mind. If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheels of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.
What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of mind. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his own shadow.”
By being mindful of our state of mind and aware of our reaction to strong emotions, we can greatly increase our ability to respond appropriately. This will reduce the future suffering of both ourselves and those whom we come into contact with. Anger and hatred can be averted and we can instead seek to act with a wholesome mental attitude. Further, acting appropriately provides a model for others in how to handle human interaction and teaching by example rather than lecturing others can be a very powerful way to change behaviours.
I find that since I have begun meditating I am more aware both of my unwholesome mental states, and also of their consequences. When I am with my children and they are misbehaving, acting out of anger or frustration rarely produces a good outcome. Even if they do curb their behaviour, it is usually done resentfully. With an attitude of compassion and love, I can often manage to get around them using humour (and occasional bribes of chocolate!) which both changes their behaviour and leaves us all happy with the situation.
The cultivation of mindfulness, and appropriate response based on that awareness, can enable us to treat both good and bad situations without attachment and aversion respectively, much as is alluded to in the Rudyard Kipling poem ‘If’ and advised by Geshe Potowa in his lojong teaching ‘Seven Verses for Thought Transformation‘:
“Endure whichever situation arises, good or bad”
If we are able to do this through practice, we can greatly reduce the degree of feeling generated through contact with sensory objects which will lead to reduced levels of attachment to worldly things. In human existence it is an error to expect to always encounter favourable conditions and we would be wise to prepare for inevitable setbacks to our plans and personal loss of both possessions and people close to us.
Despite the many benefits which arise from being more mindful in our daily life, the downside of using mindfulness meditation to reduce our unwholesome mental factors is that we must always maintain our level of mental alertness to avoid falling prey to negative emotions. This is hard even for the most committed Buddhist. Even monks have off-days.
Dealing with each mental factor as it arises is akin to treating the symptoms of a disease without tending to its causes. We can maintain our mindfulness throughout our life and thus reduce our negative reactions to a great degree but we will still remain in the cyclic existence which causes so much suffering. Fortunately, Buddhism teaches a more permanent method to achieve lasting happiness.
The root of suffering is ignorance and unless we put an end to our ignorance of how things exist we are going to continue to experience suffering. Primary to destroying ignorance is developing the understanding that the mind that grasps at the inherent existence of our own self is the cause of all that is unsatisfactory in our lives. Once we have the firm and unmistaken view that our self is purely a label we place upon an ever-changing body and mind, events can be allowed to arise and fall away without attachment to them. As anyone who has looked at this may know, however, destroying the attachment to self and ego is not an easy process. Few worthwhile things in life are.
Meditation on emptiness is the means of destroying the demon of self-grasping and the Tibetan Lam Rim teachings set out exactly how this can be achieved. Similar techniques for seeing reality are also found in instructions for zazen, insight meditation (vipassana) and mahamudra. This is a central practice in all Buddhist paths, and with good reason. By repeatedly contemplating the lack of inherent existence of all phenomena, in whatever way we choose, we can gradually become aware of the true nature of mind and the world around us. This frees us from seeing what happens as anything other than clouds which move across the sky; they obscure the sun for a short while but soon pass by. We can remain as still and impartial as a mountain as the winds of worldly concerns blow about us. Notions of separation between our ‘self’ and others are removed and everything is seen as it really is – the impermanent ebb and flow of energy and matter.
At a personal level I practice meditation on emptiness daily during the practice of Guru Yoga (a type of Tibetan puja which cultivates reverence for the guru as the transmitter of authentic dharma teachings). This is slowly bringing the realisation that my body, speech and mind all have no inherent existence but are fundamentally dependent on numerous other people and things. This enables me not to take so much offence when people insult or criticise me and to realise that my possessions, reputation, health and even existence is subject to impermanence as are all things. That said I am clearly not enlightened yet, as anyone who knows me can readily testify!
Realisation of emptiness and the generation of a compassionate mind are the two parts of the path to enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism. Mindfulness and equanimity are very good methods to transform our negative mental factors into more positive states of mind, but the true goal is to achieve the body, speech and mind of a Buddha. This is what we need to work towards on the Buddhist path while not neglecting our present state of being and ensuring that our current, unenlightened, actions are working for the benefit of all.