This is Post 7 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
There is a mysterious and powerful word in the Buddhist texts: Sati in Pali, and Smrti in Sanskrit. This word refers to a spiritual practice advocated by the Buddha, that was like a great overarching principle which guided and informed all the other practices that he taught. These words are usually translated, following T. W. Rhys-David’s Pali translations in 1881, as ‘Mindfulness’, a word that had come into the English language several centuries earlier, and which seemed suitable. As Rhys-David acknowledged however, both Sati and Smrti (pronounced smRti), literally mean ‘to remember’.
The fact that these words clearly refer to the act of remembering in other ancient Indian texts, has not troubled most English-speaking Buddhists, or the many Clinical Psychologists who have become interested in Mindfulness. There have however been about a dozen attempts at better translations into English, which might better express the Buddha’s intention. Some of these have been based on an examination of how contemporary Buddhists understand the remembering practice, leading to translations along the lines of ‘concentrated attention’. Other translators and commentators, have been more courageous, and have instead proposed new non-literal translations that are entirely un-related to the word ‘remembering’ but much closer, I believe, to the Buddha’s intention – words like ‘reflective awareness’, ‘self-recollection’, and ‘presence’. Such is the confusion that we are bound to ask ‘What was it that the Buddha was asking his students to remember?’
What was the Buddha asking his students to remember?
The answer to this question is obvious, but it is often not well explained when people encounter Buddhism. The Buddha was asking his monks to remember to notice the ever-present field of Consciousness, in the midst of their activities of daily life. Clearly the act of turning Consciousness back on itself, and resting as Consciousness in the midst of the activities of life is as difficult to express in a single word, as it is to do – so the Buddha did not even try to encapsulate it in a single word or phrase, but simply asked his students to ‘remember’. The thing to be ‘remembered’ did not need to be explicitly stated because the Buddha’s students already understood the importance of resting as, and embodying Consciousness in the midst of all activities, and of noticing the Consciousness in which their sensations, thoughts, feelings, and intuitions were arising. And they had been taught repeatedly by the Buddha, that this Consciousness, though it was not personal and cannot be located, was the source of their liberation.
This is a very common phenomenon in regard to spiritual teachings, and non-duality teachings are especially easily lost – as in the case of Jesus. An understanding that was taken for granted by the first generation of students is often not clearly grasped by the tradition only a few generations later, even if it was written down – which the Buddha’s teachings were not (not for 400 years). This loss of meaning in regard to ‘Mindfulness’ is a particularly tragic example of the many problems of language in spiritual discourse. It is particularly tragic because this mysterious ‘remembering practice’ was the very core and essence of the Buddha’s teaching.
Unnatural Mindfulness – Distortions of Practice and Conceptualisation
There is a particular social dynamic to do with the pressures on Buddhist monastic communities that has strongly influenced, and I would say, distorted, the way that ‘Mindfulness’ has often been practised. It is an unfortunate social reality that monks and nuns that are supported by a lay community, have a need to to ‘earn their keep’ – to justify their ongoing economic support by the host community. Because of this, there is a need for monastics ‘to be seen to be doing something’. There has even been a need to make the practice of Mindfulness seem like a unusual activity that requires enormous effort, and many years of special training, when it is actually a completely natural activity – and is best conceived as a very relaxed approach to experiencing in which we ‘rest as’ or ‘relax back into’ Consciousness, either in sitting meditation, or in the midst of activities.
All this has contributed enormously to the confusion around the practice of Mindfulness and the way it has been conceptualised, so much so that I find myself having to avoid the term – preferring the more descriptive term ‘resting as Consciousness’. The practice that the Buddha taught, and that we now call mindfulness, is a very subtle practice and very difficult to teach or describe.
Tentatively, we can say that Mindfulness can be characterised as a form of diffuse, inclusive, and balanced attention that includes Consciousness itself whilst also attending to the internal and external objects of Consciousness. It involves a sense that Consciousness is the space in which experiencing is happening, so that we give primacy, or at least equal weight, to Consciousness, in the perceptual process. The state of inward alignment and inward attention that the Buddha was advocating certainly cannot be achieved simply by increasing the intensity of awareness that we bring to the objects of our perceptions, as is often suggested.
Why is it that only Buddhists practice Mindfulness?
Students of comparative religions have asked ‘Why did the Buddha teach this mysterious, difficult-to-define, practice of ‘remembering’ that does not seem to have obvious parallels in Christianity, Islam, and other religious traditions?’ This question takes us to the heart of the difference between the great monotheistic religions of Europe and the Middle East, and Buddhism, the great non-theistic religion of Asia. The equivalent practice in the monotheistic religions is the remembering of the presence of God in the midst of the activities of life, a practice that is implicit and even taken for granted (and therefore unfortunately also forgotten) in those traditions.
In Buddhism, which presents us with a much more subtle and non-theistic conceptualisation of the Divine, it was necessary to specifically establish and emphasise the value of remembering to be aware of Consciousness in the midst of the activities of life, as a foundation practice. And this was the Sati/Smrti practice that we now know as ‘mindfulness’. The term mindfulness is clearly here to stay, but let’s be aware of its limitations as a translation of ‘remembering’. In my view, the simple literal ‘remembering’ is the more meaningful translation. The Buddha was inviting his students to recognise and acknowledge the mystery of Consciousness. He was inviting them also, to notice the way the apparent subject in all perceptions is non-locatable and actually ’empty’ of the personal quality that we habitually and unconsciously attribute to it.
Remembering Consciousness, remembering the Divine
The idea of remembering the universal Consciousness in the midst of daily life, is particularly powerful and relevant for our modern world. It is precisely this ability to rest in, and reconnect deeply with this unifying, transpersonal dimension of all experience, that has been most challenged by scientific materialism, by our individualistic psychologies, and by the increased pace of life that has been brought about by the course of technological progress.
In the modern world incredible feats of sustained and concentrated attention are demanded of the human population: as we work at their computers and mobile phones, or attend business meetings, or sell products, or operate machinery, or drive motor vehicles in congested traffic, or watch our television screens. Despite this intense and sustained concentration, what is absent from these activities, is what the Buddha called sati, or mindfulness, the remembering of the Divine, and the recognition of the inherently ethical nature of Consciousness.
The Buddha’s world was free of the particular mental demands of the modern world, but he would have observed the same incongruity – a capacity for intense concentration without any inward attention or acknowledgement of the Consciousness that is the ultimate observer. He observed the fact that the hereditary Hindu priests of his time were usually not inwardly connected with the Divine, and were not behaving ethically, however deeply committed they were to their traditions and their practices. He saw that what is most important was being overlooked. He saw a tragic neglect of what is most essential in human life, and he felt very keenly the multiplication of suffering that this was inevitably leading to.
Aligning with the evolutionary energy of Consciousness
The Buddha’s response was to work tirelessly all his life to establish a new spiritual tradition that would make the actual human experience of Consciousness the central pillar of a true spiritual life. He urged his students to remember to notice the presence of Consciousness in all the activities of life especially the simple ones like walking or eating – or just sitting still and breathing. He fully accepted that at least at first, his students would not be able to sustain this awareness continuously – that they would forget to acknowledge, and rest as, Consciousness. That is why he called the practice ‘remembering’ – he was inviting us to remember to return to an identification with Consciousness whenever we notice that we have forgotten – or just whenever we remember to do so.
The capacity to know Consciousness is inherent in Consciousness, and is an ability with enormous evolutionary advantages attached. Consciousness is the force that has driven the evolution of our species – Homo Sapiens is optimised for Consciousness. Our personal need to ‘be Conscious’, or to ‘be mindful’, or to ‘rest as Consciousness’, is inherent in Consciousness – we only need to attend to that in us which loves and deeply desires to be conscious, and it will develop, seemingly without effort.
To counter the misunderstanding that often surrounds Mindfulness practice, it needs to be emphasised that Consciousness is completely natural to us and ever-present. When we ‘develop’ it, we do not so much cultivate it as progressively remove the obstacles to it in our psychological patterning. But even this does not necessarily require direct effort. Rather our embodiment of Consciousness is best achieved by appreciating, valuing, and responding to the naturally arising desire for it.
I shall be returning in future articles to this important distinction between the universal Consciousness which is ever-present, unchanging, and cannot be cultivated, and the experience of embodied Consciousness, or Presence, which is developed – developed seemingly effortlessly, as we learn to rest receptively in, and ‘as’, that universal Consciousness. The attitude of receptivity is an important characteristic of the process. In general we can say that, that which is cultivated by a great effort of will is not Consciousness.
Once we have been truly recognised Consciousness, we naturally choose to rest ‘as’ Consciousness, either in meditation, or in the midst of the activities of life as we practice Mindfulness. And when we rest as Consciousness regularly – even just for short moments whenever we remember – we inevitably reach a point where the choice to remember Consciousness is automatic and no longer chosen. Rather we find that, having consistently chosen to enter the stream of the evolutionary energy of Consciousness, we are being swept along by the flow of that transpersonal force. There is a dimension of the neuroplasticity, or neurological brain-training, in the establishment of this recognition of Consciousness – but there are much deeper energetic processes at work, which I shall be exploring systematically and in detail in further articles.
Consciousness beyond the Brain
Although it is very difficult to conceptualise, I will be talking more about Mindfulness in future posts – highlighting its different dimensions via the mandala framework. The experience, the philosophical attitude, and the approach to life that the word Mindfulness refers to, is supremely important. We cannot afford to allow its meaning to be diluted and subverted by inaccurate commentators who would reduce it to fit into narrowly conceived brain-based psychologies that rest comfortably in contemporary materialism and individualism, but fail to recognise that Consciousness is, at least in part, an objective and transpersonal reality that is independent of the brain.
I have several very good friends who are Clinical Psychologists, and it is perhaps for that reason that I find myself needing to express my conviction that, in my view, the Psychology profession has, even as it has embraced Mindfulness, for the most part failed to recognise its full potential as a healing modality – primarily because it has been unable to step out of constraining mindset of scientific materialism, and has failed to integrate the psychological implications of Quantum Physics. We can perhaps imagine that the Buddha would be happy that so many people are attempting to embrace his teachings – but probably somewhat saddened by our modern narcissism, and by the often deluded and superficial nature of our engagement.
For summaries of the other articles in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series click here.