Not long ago, someone forwarded me a link to a blog by a California psychologist who had concerns about the practice of mindfulness in psychotherapy. He had watched a video on the topic by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the developer of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and was confused and more than a little critical: Isn’t mindfulness, he wondered, with its emphasis on nonjudgmental awareness of one’s thoughts and emotions, really just “mind-less-ness?”
During a course I gave in Rational Buddhism about that time, a participant wondered if maybe I was off track with the idea of analyzing one’s thinking. As a lifelong Buddhist, she had learned about mindfulness as a way to transcend and transform stress. “I don’t believe you can ‘think’ your way out of emotions,” she said. Wouldn’t “judging” the rationality of her thoughts clash with the practice of mindfulness?
These two concerns highlight a problem, but the problem is not with mindfulness as a practice. Rather, the problem is one of context. If you look closely, you find that mindfulness and rationality go hand-in-hand. In fact, they’re not only complementary—each is almost useless without the other.
Mindfulness as a practice entered the western vernacular with Vipassana meditation groups, the writings of teachers like Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddhist practitioners like Kabat-Zinn, who adapted it for secular applications. In Buddhism, however, mindfulness is only one part of an eightfold path of practice. The problem arises when we try to separate it from the rest of the practice.
When I describe mindfulness—or more accurately, Right Mindfulness—I describe it as being fully aware and fully in the present. In their MBSR workbook, Kabat-Zinn colleagues Bob Stahl, Ph.D. and Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. call it “being fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment, without filters or the lens of judgment.” Thich Nhat Hanh explains mindfulness as knowing what is going on within and around us, and “touching deeply” the present moment.
None of these definitions explain very well what mindfulness is, how to practice it or its potential benefits. As used in Buddhism, the word “mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali word sati, which means to remember or keep in mind. So if we’re practicing mindfulness of breathing as a meditation, for example, we remember to keep our attention on our breath.
To practice Right Mindfulness isn’t just to be aware—it is to use awareness to gain control over the mind. A good way to start, as MBSR teaches, is to be aware of what’s happening without the filter of judgment.
However, it doesn’t end with that. Eventually, we also need to evaluate whether our mental actions lead us toward living in harmony with our surroundings or toward causing difficulties for ourselves and others. We will also be compelled to make changes in our views and intentions, and then to remember—to be mindful—of how well we’re maintaining control over the mind.
This does not contradict MBSR, Zen Buddhism or other mindfulness practices. However, a lot of people who read the books and start trying to practice mindfulness get to the part about bare attention to the present moment, and they get stuck there.
Right Mindfulness is a very important factor of the Buddhist path; the Buddha himself said it was necessary to enlightenment. In Buddhism, however, as well as in its secular applications, mindfulness is the axle around which a lot of other activity revolves.
Consider the concept of Right Livelihood, for instance. Before you can practice Right Livelihood, you need the wisdom to know whether or not the way you make your living will lead to stress and suffering for yourself and others. You will then need to set your mind (concentrate) on living in a way that not only supports yourself and others who depend on you but that treats your surrounding community with compassion. You make an effort to create such a livelihood for yourself, and you continually, mindfully monitor your activities to make sure you’re still living in a way that aligns with these values.
People like Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh know mindfulness works in context with other factors, and working with cognitions and behaviors accompany the practice of bare attention in both MBSR and Zen Buddhism. Neither would ultimately discount the value of examining one’s thinking and the role it plays in creating stress and suffering.
In Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh includes a cognitive process in his approach to dealing with unskillful emotions that arise during meditation. It is a five-step method: recognize the emotion; become one with it; calm it; release it; and look deeply into it.
The first step, recognition, means to notice the emotion with bare attention. To do that, you name it. Once you have recognized something as what it is—anger, anxiety, etc.—you have some control over it. You stop feeding it by focusing on the external or internal circumstance that activated it, and shift your awareness to the emotion itself.
The idea of becoming “one with it” sounds exotic and mystical, but it really means to accept it, and this is as much a rational process as a mindful one. Often, before we can deal more rationally with our stressors, we first need to un-stress about being stressed. We get anxious about our anxiety, get angry at ourselves for getting angry at someone else, or we simply try to shove our emotion into the dark, denying it all together. It’s much better to accept that we are human and that emotions—including unpleasant and unskillful ones—come packaged in that karmic bundle.
Once we recognize it and accept it, we are already beginning the process of calming the set of feelings and fabrications that make up the emotion. As we observe the flow of thoughts, sensations, etc. that we identify as “anger” or “anxiety,” we begin to let them slow down and settle. Then, finally, we can let it go.
Afterward, or if the emotion continues to arise, we can do what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “looking deeply” into the emotion. We ask ourselves, “What is this emotion?” and begin to look for its cause. Invariably, the cause originates in our view of the world—as an aspect of our view that is not in harmony with reality.
So in this final step, we again turn our attention to our thinking, analyzing and disputing the views that lead to unskillful emotions and actions. In Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy terminology, we might say we replace irrational beliefs with rational ones; in Buddhism we would say we cultivate views and intentions that align with the dharma.
However, we are not yet done with mindfulness: We continue to observe the unfolding of our thoughts, words and actions. And when we notice—nonjudgmentally and compassionately—that we have strayed, we patiently return ourselves to the path to inner peace.