According to Buddhist psychology, the fundamental state of the mind is one of clarity and stillness. It is through life experience, sense desires, learned emotions and habits that this pure state becomes muddled. The goal of the Buddhist practitioner is to return the mind to its original state of clarity. This is achieved by following what Buddhists refer to as the Noble Eightfold Path: right or appropriate view, intention, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, concentration and mindfulness. The crux of the path lies in the cultivation of mindfulness both internally and in daily living.
Knowing the Mind
The Buddhist meaning of mindfulness is to know the mind and to be aware of its capacity. It means to pay attention in a very particular way to the mind and the body as well as the experience of daily life. When an awareness of the present moment is cultivated, intention becomes clear. It is believed that to know the intentions behind thoughts and actions is to know the self.
Cultivating mindfulness can be understood as a type of mental training. It reveals to the practitioner conflict within the self and within human relationships that is due to the inconstant nature of the world. Through awareness of the body, mind and emotional life, the practitioner begins to see that all things are transient. Just as day will inevitably turn to night, all of a person's various emotional states, problems and joys will pass. When a person can let go of attachment to things that are ultimately temporary, they experience freedom from suffering. In this way, the Buddhist practice of mindfulness allows for liberation.
The tradition of mindfulness meditation is an exercise in awareness. Most commonly, meditators will sit in silence and focus on the rising and falling of the breath, although other points of focus can be utilized such as visualizations and mantras. The goal is to maintain focus for as long as possible while being aware, for example, of the length or force of the breath. When the mind wanders to other thoughts, the practitioner is instructed to bring his or her awareness back to the point of focus, to the present moment, without judgment. Once the mind can do this exercise with ease, then the individual is better equipped to live a mindful life.
Vietnamese Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh promotes mindful living as the path to self-understanding and inner peace. From mundane activities to complex relations, he encourages practitioners to see every moment life gives as an opportunity to gain insight into the self. Every activity, from washing the dishes to drinking tea, can be utilized to develop present moment awareness. Anything in life can be an object of meditation, and through constant practice the practitioner learns to live a more content, clear and honest life.
Rachel Alexander is a cultural and political area specialist of South Asia and the Middle East. She received the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship in 2011, and again in 2012, to live in northern India and study advanced Hindi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Loyola University of Chicago.