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Lions Roar : September 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2006 25 The Right Kind of Mindfulness “Mindfulness” has become quite a buzzword, says the American Buddhist nun THUBTEN CHODRON, but people interpret it in different ways. While being mindful of every bite you take is a worthwhile practice, she says, the mindfulness that leads to enlightenment is much more challenging. ONE OF THE PEOPLE who visited Sravas- ti Abbey kindly made signs for our guests. At the tea counter she wrote, “Please clean up spills. Thank you for your mindfulness.” A sign on a door said, “Please close the door quietly. Thank you for your mindful- ness.” I began to wonder what she meant by mindfulness. It seemed it had become another one of those Buddhist buzzwords, like karma, that many people use but few understand. Then I read an article in which mindful- ness was applied to eating an orange—pay- ing attention to its sweetness, its texture, and the experience of eating it. In a discussion group, I heard the word mindfulness used to describe the experience of watching one’s grandchild play and appreciating those mo- ments of joy. Another person used it to mean being aware of what was happening in the present moment: “I was mindful of anger arising. I was mind- ful of the intention to speak angry words. I was in the present moment, undistracted and mindful when I spoke them.” We also hear of mindfulness helping to deal with chronic pain. While some of these examples are valid and beneficial uses of mindfulness practice, do they lead to enlightenment? Are they examples of mindfulness as understood in traditional Buddhist texts, where mindfulness is an essential component of the path to liberation? “Mindfulness” is a comfortable word for Americans; “renun- ciation” is not. Renunciation conjures up images of living in a cold, damp cave, eating bland food, remaining with no com- panions and no TV, iPod, cell phone, computer, credit cards, or fridge. In our consumer culture, renunciation is seen as a path to suffering. Like mindfulness, renunciation is not well understood in America. As the Buddha defined it, renunciation is a determination to be free from dukkha, the unsatisfactory conditions and suf- fering of cyclic existence. Renunciation is being determined to give up not happiness, but misery and its causes. Because our minds are clouded by ignorance, we often don’t have a clear understanding of dukkha and its causes. The remedy is to see clearly—without evasion, denial, or whitewashing—the situation we are actually in, to be mind- ful of how things actually are. This requires a degree of hon- esty that challenges how we think of ourselves. In the Vipallasa Sutra, the Buddha described four basic ways we misconstrue our experience. These are known as the four distortions of mind—“distortions” because things are grasped in a way that is opposite to how they actually are. The four distortions are: 1. holding the impermanent as permanent, 2. trusting that things that are unsatisfactory or suffering by nature (dukkha) bring happiness, 3. believing the unattractive to be attractive, and 4. grasping at things that lack a self or inherent essence. HOLDING THE IMPERMANENT AS PERMANENT Did we wake up this morning thinking that we’re one day older and one day closer to death? Although intellectually we may know that our body is aging moment by moment, our deeper feeling is that this body will last forever and that death won’t really come to us—at least not anytime soon. This attitude is an example of grasping our body as permanent. Similarly, we see our relationships as being fixed and when a dear one dies, we are THUBTEN CHODRON is an American-born Tibetan nun and ab- bess of Sravasti Abbey, a Buddhist monastic community near Spokane, Washington. Her most recent book is Cultivating a Compassionate Heart (Snow Lion Publications).