Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
By Joseph Goldstein
Publisher: Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, Inc., 2013
‘Mindfulness’ is a popular concept among many spiritual seekers today, but it is often misunderstood or interpreted in a superficial way. In Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, Joseph Goldstein brings the concept and practice of mindfulness back to its Buddhist roots by describing its systematic instruction in the Satipatthana Sutta.
The Satipatthana Sutta is the Buddha’s Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and one of the core texts of classical Theravada Buddhism, written in the Pali language. Goldstein says, “In the Satipatthana Sutta … there is a broad range of instructions for understanding the mind-body process and different methodologies for freeing the mind from the causes of suffering.” Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada Buddhist monk, states that this sutta (sutra in Sanskrit) “is generally regarded as the canonical Buddhist text with the fullest instructions on the system of meditation unique to the Buddha’s own dispensation.” Goldstein quotes copiously from the sutta, and includes at the end of the book a full translation by Analayo, a German Buddhist monk who has studied the sutta extensively.
The sutta begins with what Goldstein calls an “amazingly bold and unambiguous statement”: “This is the direct path for purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of nibbana (in Sanskrit, nirvana) – namely the four foundations of mindfulness.” The term ‘mindfulness’ is a translation of the Pali word sati which means ‘to remember.’ Goldstein states that “the most common understanding” of sati is “present-moment awareness, presence of mind, wakefulness,” or “a quality of receptivity that allows intuitive wisdom to arise.” Sati also means ‘to see clearly’. According to Goldstein, mindfulness is one of the key practices to achieve freedom. “Without mindfulness, we simply act out all the various patterns and habits of our conditioning.” Contrary to popular belief, our aim should be “not to follow the heart but to train the heart.” We have a mixture of motivations, and not everything in our heart is wise. “The great power of mindful discernment allows us to abandon what is unwholesome and to cultivate the good. This discernment is of inestimable value for our happiness and well-being.”
The chapters of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening follow the format of the sutta, discussing in turn each of the four foundations of mindfulness – mindfulness of body, of feelings, of mind, and of dhammas. Mindfulness of the body includes mindfulness of breathing, of meditation postures, of physical characteristics, and of the intentions and motivations behind our physical actions. In the Buddha’s teachings, as Goldstein explains them, mindfulness of the body is the “simplest and most direct way for overcoming the onslaughts of Mara, the forces of ignorance and delusion in the mind.… In the midst of endless thought proliferation, of emotional storms, of energetic ups and downs, we can always come back to just this breath, just this step.”
Mindfulness of feelings means mindfulness of “that quality of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neutrality that arises out of the contact with each moment’s experience.” Goldstein explains that mindfulness of feeling is one of the “master keys that unlocks the deepest patterns of our conditioning.” He points out that the Buddha elaborates on mindfulness of feelings “when he talks of two kinds of people: the uninstructed worldling and the instructed noble disciple. When the uninstructed worldling is contacted by a painful feeling, he/she feels aversion to it, feels sorrow and grief, and becomes distraught.” The uninstructed worldling reacts to life with conditioned, habituated tendencies, rather than exercising the “wisdom of non-reactivity” of the mindful disciple. Interestingly, the feelings of pleasantness, unpleasantness, and neutrality can be either worldly or unworldly. Pleasant unworldly feelings are generosity, compassion, concentration, insight, and awakening; unpleasant unworldly feelings – which lead to spiritual seeking – are awareness of suffering, loneliness, longing, and loss of self; and neutral unworldly feelings include equanimity and balance.
Mindfulness of mind refers to an awareness of wholesome and unwholesome states of mind. The three roots of unwholesome states of mind in Buddhism are greed, hatred, and delusion, and the three roots of wholesome states of mind are concentration, loving-kindness, and compassion. The Buddha says that understanding how the unwholesome states condition our minds enables us to discern whether our actions, thoughts, and attitudes are skilful or unskilful. That which is skilful leads to happiness and liberation, and that which is unskilful leads to suffering.
The instructions in the sutta help the practitioner to work with the unwholesome states in a productive way. “Instead of drowning in the defilements through identification with them, or judging them, or denying them, the Buddha reminds us to simply be mindful of them both when they are present and when they are not, remembering that they are visitors.” But we can also be too focused on the unwholesome states of mind. It is important, Goldstein says, to be equally mindful of the wholesome states of mind:
For some reason, we are more likely to dwell on the difficulties and we often overlook the presence of the wholesome states of mind. This has a major effect on how we view ourselves. In this section of the Satipatthana Sutta the Buddha is giving equal importance to being mindful of each.
Mindfulness of the dhammas is the fourth and final foundation of mindfulness and is often translated as mindfulness of mental objects. The Pali word dhamma (in Sanskrit, dharma) has a wide range of meanings, including “truth,” “the law,” or “the teachings of the Buddha.” Indeed, in the spirit of the latter meaning, the Buddha included in this part of the sutta a comprehensive list of the basic organizing principles of his teachings: the Five Hindrances, the Five Aggregates of Clinging, the Six Sense Spheres, the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. “Mindfulness of the dhammas” helps us to transform the doctrines that we have understood as theory into knowledge that we perceive and know through our own experience. “It is this transmutation of doctrine into direct perception that brings the teachings alive for us. Instead of a philosophical analysis or discussion, the Buddha is showing us how to investigate these truths, these dhammas, for ourselves.”
Mindfulness, in addition to being a concept and mental faculty to be cultivated in all the four foundations, is also specified as one of the Seven Factors of Awakening which incline the mind toward nibbana or freedom. The seven factors are mindfulness, discrimination, energy, rapture, calm, concentration, and equanimity. Among these, mindfulness has a unique role, as it serves to balance the other six factors.
Goldstein stresses that the key to mindfulness is practice. “Whatever we repeatedly practice begins to arise more and more spontaneously.… From the repeated effort to be mindful in the moment, there comes a time when the flow of mindfulness happens effortlessly for longer periods of time.” Bhikkhu Bodhi goes further:
Liberation … is bound to blossom forth when there is steady and persistent practice. The only requisites for reaching the final goal are two: to start and to continue. If these requirements are met, there is no doubt the goal will be attained.
Joseph Goldstein is one of the foremost American teachers in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, also known as vipassana meditation practice. He spent seven years studying Buddhism in India with a number of eminent teachers from India, Burma and Tibet. When he returned to the U.S. in the 1960s, as one of the growing number of Americans interested in Eastern spiritual beliefs, he began teaching Buddhist meditation practice at Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado. Goldstein co-founded the Insight Meditation Society and the Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts. He has written a number of influential books about Buddhism including Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom, and One Dharma, which integrates the three main traditions of Buddhism – Theravada, Tibetan and Zen.
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