Mindfulness in the Context of Insight Meditation

Garlanded Buddha in Burma

The most basic activity of every person, occurring constantly in a person’s life, is cognition of sense impressions by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. With cognition there is an accompanying sensation, of either pleasure, pain, or a neutral feeling. With the arising of such sensations there are reactions in the mind: if the object is pleasant there arises desire and delight; if the object is unpleasant or painful there arises annoyance and aversion. With delight a person wants to repeat the experience or wants to obtain something. With aversion the person wishes to avoid the experience or wishes to get rid of or eliminate something. This process occurs continually; some experiences are faint and pass by without a person taking notice, while other experiences are powerful and pronounced, with a clear impact on the mind and with long-lasting consequences. These powerful or unsettling experiences tend to generate protracted, proliferated thinking. If these thoughts do not cease in the mind they erupt as verbal and physical actions, both minor and major. Small, seemingly insignificant events and processes occurring in people’s lives can thus have an important effect on how they live, the roles they play in society, and on human interactions.

From the perspective of wisdom, allowing the mind to blindly follow the process described above, of delighting in pleasure and being annoyed by pain, acts as an impediment and prevents discernment of things as they truly are. This is because the mind when given free reign without restraint has the following characteristics:

  • The mind gets stuck at such delight and aversion; it falls under the sway of attachment or aversion; it is obstructed by likes and dislikes; it sees things from a biased perspective, not according to how they truly are.
  • The mind falls into the past or projects itself into the future; when a person experiences a sense impression and either delight or aversion arises, the mind gets stuck at the point or feature that he finds agreeable or disagreeable. He then creates a mental image of these agreeable or disagreeable features, harbours this image, and creates all sorts of fanciful ideas about it. Getting stuck at agreeable or disagreeable features and clinging to mental images of an object is equivalent to slipping into the past; and a proliferation of thoughts about this object is equivalent to drifting off into the future. A person’s understanding of the object—the mind-created images based on likes and dislikes, or the embellished ideas about the object—is not an understanding of the object as it truly exists in that moment.
  • The mind is subject to proliferated thinking, which interprets the object of cognition or the experience according to one’s upbringing or ingrained habits: according to cherished views, opinions, and values. The mind is at the mercy of these proliferations; it is unable to see things objectively and purely as they are.
  • Besides being swayed by pre-existing mental biases and habits, the mind adds the embellished mental images stemming from new experiences to these biases and habits, thus compounding them.

These mental processes are not limited to just coarse and superficial aspects of a person’s life. The Buddhist teachings emphasize the impaired workings of the mind on a refined, subtle level, which lead unawakened people to see things as stable, solid, and inherently beautiful or loathsome, to attach to various conventional realities, and to overlook the all-encompassing law of causality. These mental processes are deeply ingrained in the mind as habits and tendencies which people have accumulated over a long period of time, even since birth—for twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years or more—and many people have not developed any training in cutting the cycle of these habits. Dealing with and rectifying this situation is thus not easy. At the moment of receiving a sense impression, if a person does not establish mindfulness and curb the habitual tendencies, the mind will automatically follow the course of habit. Solving this problem is not only a matter of cutting the cycle of reacting through delight and aversion and of proliferated thinking, but is also a matter of modifying the powerful surges of habit and personal disposition. Mindfulness is an essential factor for clearing the way and for marshaling other forces in respect to both cutting the cycle of reactivity and altering habits. Practice in accord with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness has this objective: when mindfulness keeps pace with experience in every moment and sees things as they truly are, it is both able to eradicate unwholesome mental cycles and to modify old habits, along with cultivating new modes of mental behaviour.

(An excerpt from chapter 16 of Venerable Phra Payutto’s book Buddhadhamma, on the Path factors of mental collectedness.)

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