Real practice of mindfulness | Daily News


Real practice of mindfulness

As mindfulness becomes an increasingly popular concept, it is often mistaken for just “being in the moment.” Andrew Olendzki examines the Abhidharma teachings to uncover what mindfulness practice really is and how it works.

The English language is rich in many ways, particularly when explaining the features of the material world, but it is remarkably clumsy when it comes to articulating the nuanced terrain of inner experience. This is one of the reasons the current conversations about consciousness, meditation, and psychology in general can be somewhat confusing.

One of the satisfactions of studying the languages and literatures of India is the exposure it offers to a richer and more precise vocabulary for speaking about internal states of mind. At the time Greek philosophers were seeking to identify the universal substances out of which all matter is constructed, their counterparts in India were exploring, empirically and directly, the textures of consciousness. By the time Socrates suggested that care of the soul was an appropriate thing for philosophers to attend to, a detailed and highly developed map of the mind and body as a system of lived experience had been delineated by the Buddha and his immediate followers.

Part of the literature containing this lore is the Abhidhamma. It is an attempt to extract some of the Buddha’s core teachings about the phenomenology of experience from the narrative context of the dhamma and to organize it into a more systematic and consistent presentation. I’d like to offer a taste of this greater precision by considering the question, “What is mindfulness?” As the term grows in importance in contemporary discourse, its meaning seems to be becoming less rather than more clear. Fortunately, the rich vocabulary and meditative insight of the Abhidhamma tradition can help us understand better what the word “mindfulness” is referring to. In the process, this excursion will also include some general observations about how the mind functions and how these functions are augmented by the deliberate practice of meditation. Moreover, it will touch on the relationship between the cultivation of mindfulness and the emergence of wisdom.

According to the Abhidhamma, consciousness arises and passes away each moment as a series of episodes in a continuing process. It is not a thing that exists, but an event that occurs—again and again—to yield the subjective experience of a stream of consciousness. Consciousness itself is rather simple and austere, consisting merely of the cognizing of a sense object by means of a sense organ. This event serves as a sort of seed around which a number of other mental factors crystallize to help consciousness create meaning from the stimuli presenting themselves so rapidly and relentlessly at the doors of the senses.

Like a king with his entourage, as the classical image has it, consciousness never arises alone. It is always attended by a number of other mental factors that help structure, shape, and direct rudimentary consciousness in various ways. The idiosyncrasies of our experience come from the unique configurations formed by all these supporting mental factors as they interact each moment with the changing data of the senses and the synthetic constructions of the mind. Altogether, fifty-two of these mental factors are enumerated in the Pali Abhidhamma. (The Sanskrit Abhidharma tradition has a somewhat different list, but we will not get into that here.) Scholars have tended to dismiss this exhaustive catalog of mental states as the product of scholasticism run amok, but many people with a mature practice of vipassana meditation are thrilled by the precision with which this literature describes the interior landscape. It is the child of two parents: its mother is deep empirical observation of meditative experience, while its father is a brilliant organizing intellect. - Lion’s Roar

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