Buddhism as Religion Versus Philosophy

“At its etymological root, religion is what rebinds or reunites us with the sacred. Many of us long for this return from exile and then discover that it leads us toward existential danger —  the deconstruction and rearrangement of our very sense of self and reality. In common usage, religion often refers to the belief systems and institutions that surround this longing.” ~ Joan Sutherland Roshi

Buddhism can be and is practiced as a religion by many people who don robes, ring bells and burn incense as they bow, chant and meditate.

Yet as the popularity of meditation continues to advance in mainstream culture, an ever-growing number of secular Buddhists practice mindfulness meditation without incorporating any the bells and whistles (er, gongs) of traditional monastic systems such as Zen.

In light of this evolving understanding, Buddhism can be considered a living, breathing religion that promotes leading of a conscious life for the benefit of all beings.

Many people associate “religion” with Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism exclusively.

Buddha dharma demands interactivity from its practitioners. They are prompted to doubt, question and investigate the teachings for themselves. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha states:

“Do not accept anything on (mere) hearsay — (i.e., thinking that thus have we heard it for a long time).

Do not accept anything by mere tradition — (i.e., thinking that it has thus been handed down through many generations).

Do not accept anything on account of mere rumors — (i.e., by believing what others say without any investigation).

Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures.

Do not accept anything by mere suppositions.

Do not accept anything by mere inference.

Do not accept anything by merely considering the reasons.

Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your preconceived notions”

Blind faith is not an option here. Nothing is to be taken for granted just because a holy or learned man said so.

Krishnamurti echoes these sentiments:

“The many religions throughout the world have said that there is an enduring, everlasting truth, but the mere assertion of truth has very little significance. One has to discover it for oneself, not theoretically, intellectually, or sentimentally, but actually find out if one can live in a world that is completely truthful.

We mean by religion the gathering together of all energy to investigate into something: to investigate if there is anything sacred. That is the meaning we are giving it, not the religion of belief, dogma, tradition or ritual with their hierarchical outlook. But we are using the word ‘religion’ in the sense: to gather together all energy, which will then be capable of investigating if there is a truth which is not controlled, shaped, or polluted by thought”

Religion, then, takes on a meaning distinct from the mainstream definition. Religion is the movement toward personal and collective transformation, and it is not bound to any particular institution or church.

Like all of major religions, Buddhism offers an ultimate reality, whether it is labeled as nirvana, satori or our buddha nature. The key is that each individual human being has the innate potential to awaken and become a buddha. The multitude of schools and sects of Buddhism all offer a clear path to the attainment of ultimate reality. From the noble eightfold path in Theravada Buddhism to the bodhisattva path of Mahayana, Buddhist practitioners are always provided with a framework of daily life practices and meditation techniques that culminate in enlightenment. Buddhists who approach or attain the experience of ultimate reality become transformed by their experience — their ethics and behaviors change organically as they become more conscious, present, kind and compassionate.

The modern classic, Mindfulness in Plain English, identifies Buddhism as a whole to be “quite different from the theological religions with which Westerners are most familiar. It is a direct entrance to a spiritual or divine realm, without assistance from deities or other ‘agents.’ Its flavor is intensely clinical, much more akin to what we might call psychology than what we usually call religion”. While it is notably distinct from most other major religions in terms of deity and dogma, Buddhism is still a religion, in the newly defined sense of the word explored in this essay.

At the start of his spiritual quest, Prince Siddhartha left his sheltered life seeking answers to life’s big questions. Are we born just to suffer, grow old, and die? What’s the point? After years of experimenting with a wide array of ascetic religious practices, he abandoned all beliefs and doctrines and finally understood the workings of the mind in a state of clear awareness and sublime bliss under the bodhi tree. From then on, during the four decades until his death, the Buddha taught what he had learned through so many years of trial and error.

The Awakened One discovered the ultimate truth of authentic religion when he let go of organized religion, and Buddhist practitioners both secular and religious continue to follow his wise path.


The #1 Mistake You Don’t Know You’re Making in Yoga.


And by “yoga,” I mean life.

I know, because I did it for years in my own yoga practice, without even realizing I was doing it. Then I realized I was doing it and I still did it for years, but less and less so over time.

I still make this mistake, sometimes: Beating myself up inside.

It can happen in any moment, anywhere, no matter what situation or what stage of life we are in. As well, it can happen on the yoga mat, and often does.

This internal assault can happen in a variety of ways. Maybe it’s through fed thoughts — those thoughts we dwell on and obsess about and overanalyze, as opposed to the natural, inevitable thought flow that is always passing through our consciousness. Maybe it’s through negative self-talk (“I can’t believe how much I suck“) or destructive behaviors, attitudes and addictions.

About ten years ago, I was at the peak of my physical prowess. Twenty four years old, a bendy, budding Buddhist living the dream in California, eating a raw vegan diet and really falling in love for the first time. A few years later, having gained about 20 pounds, mainly around my midsection, I was no longer able to go as deeply into forward bending and twisting yoga poses.

As I deepened my mindfulness and meditation practices and became more aware of my running inner dialogue, it dawned on me that I was beating myself up in my yoga practice. Sometimes the voice was loud and shrill, other times nothing more than a subtle but condemning whisper, but it was almost always there. I hated my stomach. I hated my body. I hated my lack of discipline which led to the weight gain. I despised my flabbiness and resented it.

Gradually, though, that hatred and resentment softened. I learned to watch the thoughts and self-talk about my body, my fatness, my weaknesses. I learned to notice them without getting all wrapped up and perpetuating thinking about them more.

Eventually, I accepted my body. To accept one’s body sounds like common sense but for many of us (Americans, women, people, almost everyone?) negative self-image is so pervasive in our psyches that we are unaware of it.

I recently read Cyndi Lee’s memoir, May I Be Happy. Cyndi Lee is a well-known NYC (and international) yoga teacher whose studio/brand/style is OM Yoga. She’s Buddhist. I’ve been to her Manhattan studio but have never taken her class. I took a workshop from her husband, Buddhist/musician David Nichtern, in 2004 in SF. He taught us the beloved metta meditation technique.

I could barely get through the first half of the book. It had more to do with body image (namely Cyndi’s extremely negative self-image of her own fit, healthy body) than with yoga or Buddhist practice.

But, the latter half made up for the whiny and self-absorbed tone in the first part. Transformation happens. The most important takeaway from the book—and this article—is this:

There is nothing wrong with you.

Take that, go forth, and practice yoga and live life.

Seeking: Healers—Inquire Within.

“Few of us are satisfied with retreating from the world and just working on ourselves. We want our training to manifest and be of benefit.

The bodhisattva-warrior, therefore, makes a vow to wake up not just for himself but for the welfare of all beings.”

~ Pema Chodron

A Bodhisattva is one whose aspiration is to attain Buddhahood (enlightenment) for the benefit of all sentient beings. Although the concept comes from Mahayana Buddhism, I believe Bodhisattvas can come from any (or no) faith tradition.

Bodhisattvas are healers. Compassionate, kind, real, patient, mindful and intelligent.

As Bodhisattvas, we take vows—we set the intention of serving others. We aspire to be of benefit to all beings, including ourselves.

Kind of a lofty goal, right? As Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal suggests, rather than thinking of the Bodhisattva concept as some huge ideal, we can think of it as the only thing we can do.

There are famous Bodhisattvas like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, but the beauty of the Bodhisattva is that it is available to each one of us. There are countless souls working anonymously, right now, for everybody’s liberation and enlightenment. Will we join their ranks?

Here are some of my own favorite renditions of the Bodhisattva vows. If they resonate, write them down on a piece of paper and post them in your house where you will see them every day.

The traditional vows:

Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is insurpassable; I vow to become it.

From Pema Chödrön’s The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

Throughout my life, until this very moment, whatever virtue I have accomplished… I dedicate to the welfare of all beings.

May the roots of suffering diminish. May warfare, violence, neglect, indifference and addiction also decrease.

May the wisdom and compassion of all beings increase, now and in the future.

May we clearly see all the barriers we erect between ourselves and others to be as insubstantial as our dreams.

May we appreciate the great perfection of all phenomena.

May we continue to open our hearts and minds, in order to work ceaselessly for the benefit of all beings.

May we go to the places that scare us.

May we lead the life of a warrior.

The Dalai Lama’s explanation:

The vow of the Bodhisattva is that she will not go into Nirvana until every single suffering being has entered Nirvana. One has to understand what this means.

Our awakening is not a personal triumph. We do not have to win a spiritual sprint. We are one mind. Awakening is to penetrate more and more deeply into this truth.

The world is alive. And as long as there is suffering then this living whole is shattered. Whether it is my suffering or the suffering of another, when seen from the perspective of the Bodhisattva makes no difference, because, seen from this perspective there is no ‘me’ or ‘another.’

In the Diamond Sutra, “Although the Bodhisattva saves all sentient beings, there are no sentient beings to save.”

These vows are practiced in three ways: restraint from harmful actions, doing wholesome deeds and working for the benefit of others.

How can we cause no harm in our actions? What kind deeds can we do for someone today? How are we working for the benefit of our fellow beings? As MLK put it, “The most important question is: what am I doing for others?”

The world wants—and needs—more Bodhisattvas. Inquire within; are you up to the task?

Pema Chodron is a national treasure.

Pema Chodron is a national treasure.

Pema is a beacon of love, light and practical wisdom.

She is a 77-year-old bestselling author who has been a devoted teacher and student of the Shambhala tradition and a fully-ordained Buddhist nun for decades.

Born in New York in 1934, she found the Buddhist teachings in the wake of her second divorce, when her personal illusion of reality crumbled. Her main teacher was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche from 1974 until his death in 1987. She now studies with the Venerable Lama Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. She is the director of Gampo Alley, a Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia.

I first started reading her books about ten years ago, and she is probably my single favorite spiritual nonfiction author. Her words are like medicine and her advice is genuine, touching and practical–and not just in a sweet grandmotherly way. Some of the teachings are tough, but Pema presents them in an extremely digestible form.

If you don’t know Pema, I hope these inspiring quotes from several of her books will whet your appetite for more Tibetan Buddhist teachings and meditation practices.

If you do, surely you’ll appreciate these tidbits and reminders as well.

Give up the seeking.

From Radical Acceptance, a great and accessible Buddhist book by Tara Brach:

Our original and true nature is described in Mahayana Buddhism as prajnaparamita, the heart of perfect wisdom… the Mother of all Buddhas, ´the one who shows the world as it is.´ She is called ´the source of light… so that all fear and distress may be forsaken.´When we are in touch with our true nature, we are completely free of the trance. No longer afraid or contracted, we know our deepest essence as the pure, wakeful awareness that beholds, with love, all of creation.

One really good question posed by the book:

Do you really trust that you are a Buddha?

And some truly great and inspiring quotes…

…from Sri Nisargadatta:

The real world is beyond our thoughts and ideasñ we see it through the net of our desires divided into pleasure and pain, right and wrong, inner and outer. To see the universe as it is, you must step beyond the net. It is not hard to do so, for the net is so full of holes.

… from Lama Gendun Rinpoche:

Happiness cannot be found through great effort and will power,
But is already there, in relaxation and letting-go.
Don´t strain yourself, there is nothing to do…
Only our search for happiness prevents us from seeing it…
Don´t believe the reality of good and bad experiences;
They are like rainbows.

Wanting to grasp the ungraspable,
you exhaust yourself in vain.
As soon as you relax this grasping,
space is there — open, inviting, and comfortable.

So, make use of it. All is yours already.
Don´t search any further…
Nothing to do.
Nothing to force,
Nothing to want,
–and everything happens by itself.

… and even from the controversial spiritual teacher, Osho:

…if you accept yourself as you are, the ideal can be filled immediately–with no time gap, right this moment, here and now, you can realize that you are perfect; it is not something to be attained in the future, it is something that you have always been carrying within you.

One has to learn how to be effortless, in a state of surrender, in a let-go. The greatest secret in life is the secret of let-go, of surrender, of trusting existence. All that is great comes as a gift. Don´t strive for it, otherwise you will miss.

No Self, No Suffering?

I’ve been practicing hatha yoga since I was a young teenager (almost 20 years now!) and teaching yoga and mindfulness for the past decade. I started a Buddhist meditation practice in 2004 and have absorbed more and more of the Buddhist teachings through reading and practicing over the past eight years.

I’d had occasional glimpses of the selfless state, but they were few and far between. I was eager to pierce the illusion, drop delusions and live presently… something I’d been doing with increasing consistency, especially over the past three years of living abroad (in Guatemala) and integrating my spiritual practice into my daily life.

But I needed a push.

At the ideal time, I stumbled across the story of fellow Elephant Journal blogger, Lori Ann Lothian. Her personal chronicle of liberation after an overnight “awakening” peaked my interest in the possibility of illumination to the illusion of self sooner than later. I linked from her blog to a website called Liberation Unleashed and soon read the e-book, Gateless Gatecrashers: 21 Ordinary People, 21 Extraordinary Awakenings by Ilona Ciunate and Elena Nezhinsky.

At Liberation Unleashed, they:

guide the seeker to pass through what is often called the ‘Gateless Gate’ or in classical terms, Stream Entry to Enlightenment or Truth Realization, [using] the Direct Pointing method, which consists of a dialogue between a guide and seeker. The guide poses very specific questions in order to focus the attention on the seeker’s experience of the present moment. This triggers the awakening insight often referred to as ‘seeing no-self’.

I was a bit skeptical but figured I had nothing to lose. (Astonishingly, there is absolutely no cost to subscribe.) Seekers may enter into a one-on-one dialogue with a guide, either via private discussion board or Facebook group. One of the co-authors of the ebook, Elena (EN), replied to me (MF). I share excerpts of our dialogue here, with the hope that it may be of benefit to you!


EN: Welcome, Michelle Fajkus, great to hear your story! Simple question for you here: what is “I” for you? What is it that you call self? Describe.

MF: “I” is my ego, my identity in society. “I” am a teacher, a yogini, a friend, a daughter, etc. Self is that entity known as Michelle Fajkus who appears to be functioning in society and daily life… waking up, working, breathing, writing. But it’s an illusion covering the truth of interconnectedness.

EN: do you exist?

MF: “I” do not exist. “I” am no more real than my facebook profile… just a collection of colors and concepts that cluster together to create the illusion of Michelle. I get this intellectually but the gut-level understanding comes and goes. It feels like I am pulling away subtle layers of delusion… but I’m still somewhat involved in the storyline of “me.” In looking around with this new perspective, I see how pervasive the concept of “I” is in pop spirituality. It feels liberating to even begin to lift this veil!

EN: “I get this intellectually but the gut-level understanding comes and goes.” Realizing the truth is not a feeling in a gut or in a head, it’s life lived out of the understanding that Life is all there is, no separate I, just an illusion, and in whatever form it may be. So when you say “understanding comes and goes” — that is how life is unfolding itself. So nothing needs to be improved in the understanding. The only what needed is clear seeing of what is. So if you look right now, can you tell me what is missing?

MF: The only thing that is missing for me now is the acceptance of zero control. This quote from poet Wendall Berry came to my inbox this morning: “You can’t know where life will take you, but you can commit to a direction.” The first part is fine (“You can’t know where life will take you”) RIGHT, because there is NO YOU to know. The second part is problematic (“but you can commit to a direction.”) I still feel this to be true, and I am clinging to the desire for it to be true, that my “character” can commit to a direction in “her” life… Even though it cannot be if there is no self to commit to a direction.

EN: so how do you experience the “issue of control”? how does it feel in the body? what are sensations? thoughts?

MF: It feels like clutching to something I’ve been told/learned — that I am an American and I am responsible for taking action and making good decisions that direct and “manifest” my life as desired. Tense neck and shoulders. Thoughts are of anger, irritation, impatience. A few times over the past few days there has been clarity and tears of gladness at the truth of the illusion of self.

EN: When that tense neck, shoulders and anger and impatience come up, look right there into the physical tension and the strong emotion. There are corresponding thoughts there that evoke the body go into contraction. Let’s do this. Invite all the tension and feelings closer, even closer. When you feel like it’s all over you, peek behind the anger, look behind all the tension. I want to hear what is there, honey. If you can’t look behind, call it to come closer; no worries, nothing will happen, but we are used to stopping feeling just at a safe distance, therefore we are like a witness constantly. Let it engulf, let it ripple in the body so you are lost, you are confused, you are one raw gobble of feeling. Then you quietly ask the tension what it is here to protect. Then listen. Breathe steady and be quiet. Listen to what will surface in the mind. Let me know what came up for you.

MF: On Friday morning, I lost my temper with one of my students. The anger came because I felt disrespected. My ego was attacked, and my image as a calm, collected teacher was ruined. It took me a whole day to let go of the irritation and subsequent neck tension, even though when I looked behind the anger and the superficial offense, there was absolutely nothing. As I traveled through various airports later that day, looked at strangers and saw us all as expressions of universal energy. Now I’m in my hometown for the weekend, because a friend died recently. My best girl friend was very close to the deceased, and she is so identified with her “self” and suffering so much as she clings to every memory and possession of her dead friend. I’ve been talking to her about no-self and universal energy. Noticing direct experience and not taking things personally. There is no desire to drink or smoke, which is unusual, especially under the current circumstances (grieving, being around my Catholic mother, being with friends who are using). There is only the flow of moments and the diverse surprises each one brings.

EN: So what is still missing? Be very honest. Describe in detail, if needed.

MF: Apologies for the delay. My life has changed in a more dramatic way than ever, as I found out (on April 29) that I am pregnant. Or, I should say – pregnancy is happening. This morning I finished reading Gateless Gatecrashers. I feel that much of the time I am able to see through the illusion of self… though there are still moments when my ego lashes out. Overall though, this experiencing of each present moment without the addition of a self needing to do anything is super helpful right now, as a flood of overwhelming emotions and sensations overtake this physical body.

EN: Michelle, it’s great news. This is so awesome to conceive a life inside a life! So let’s chat more and see if anywhere you get stuck. We do not want you to be stuck at the gate. We want you through and to serve others. I will give you some questions. You ponder, look and reply as detailed as possible, okay? So here they are:

1. You said: “though there are still moments when my ego lashes out.” What does it really mean? Do you feel not awakened at those moments? Please elaborate on this.
2. Describe in a simple words to somebody who is searching what is awakening is.
‎3. Do you feel liberated? Tell in details.
4. What comes up if I tell you “You do not exist”? Read it, feel it, look at this phrase, look and tell me.

MF: Thank you so much, Elena. Here are my answers.

1. The moments when my ego lashes out, I do not feel awakened. It’s like my mind is clinging to an old storyline and fears letting go completely of my identity. Behind the fear is emptiness but nevertheless it happens (for example, when I am in traffic and get ‘road rage’) but it is seeming to happen less and less frequently.

2. Awakening is plainly and simply seeing through the illusion of having a separate self. It is experiencing the flow of life from moment to moment without attaching to our judgments, stories, fantasies or any of our fleeting thoughts or emotions. Liberation is available to everyone, because it is just a matter of being what we already are.

3. And yet… I do not feel liberated. I think I am stuck at the gate. I accept and am grateful for the truth of no-self, but I am still living 50% of the time from my limited ego view and I don’t know how to get unstuck.

4. When you tell me I do not exist, there is pure relaxation, gratitude, joy and utter trust in the flow of Life. Resistance melts away.

EN: you are talking a lot about ego. At the same time you are talking about flow of Life is all there is and seeing that is an awakening. Is there ego and egoic self outside of the flow of Life?

MF: No.

EN: So when the ego arises, what happening to Life? Life disappears, Life becomes less, Life becomes more? What is happening?

MF: It feels like life constricts… gets narrower… less spacious and not enjoyable.

EN: Life not enjoyable for whom? Is there anybody outside of Life?

MF: Oooh, good question. Life is not enjoyable for ME — the fiction of me — only when I believe that fiction to be fact. There is no one and nothing outside of Life! No self, no suffering.

EN: what is egoic self you mentioned? do you suffer from it?

MF: The egoic self is the separate, individual identity… Which is an illusion. I can’t compose this sentence without the word I, but I think I made it through!

EN: Are you liberated, Michelle? Go ahead and write more.

MF: It’s so subtle, but I think so. Liberation is here. Your last question… “life not enjoyable for whom?” helped push me through. As well as the experience of getting pregnant (which was unplanned and unintended) and now being pregnant… it makes “me” see in a deeper way than ever before that there is nothing to hold on to, that my “self” is a process and not a fixed entity, that I am not in control of anything, and that Life is just Life, always moving and changing and unfolding each moment as it comes. I still have strong emotions, and I have been crying often, but not identifying with the thoughts or emotions anymore. Much love and gratitude to you!!!

EN: I am glad to read that, Michelle. I appreciate that you took the time with me here. Much love to you too, and best wishes! Motherhood is one of hell of an experience! What an amazing journey to motherhood with clear seeing!

Wise Concentration: Moving Away from Multitasking

May you be wise.
image source: loveyourchaos.tumblr.com

{part eight of the eightfold path series}

We live in a distracted way, in a digitized modern world.

“The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague,” according to Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch. He said that in 1905.

Over a century later, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton claims that “silence has become an endangered species,” and in any twenty-first century city or suburb, that’s hard to refute. Our ownMindfulness Manifesto here at elephant urges reader to stop, unplug, do nothing, and relax at least a little bit more each day.

The eighth and final “step” of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, wise concentration, is to cultivate a mind that is not multitasking but rather directed toward a single-pointed purpose. The Sanskrit termsamadhi can be broken down thusly: sam = “with” and “adhi” = to stand. Samadhi is to stand with a solid foundation.

There are two categories of concentration: one-pointed focusing and moment-to-moment concentration, which is also known as mindfulness. All forms of meditation employ both concentration and mindfulness; what varies is the emphasis on each and the specific technique of instruction.

Single-pointed concentration practice

Also known as samatha or calm-abiding meditation, this is a wonderful practice for beginning meditators and for anyone who needs to quiet the mind at the beginning of a sitting session. It is done by simply choosing an object to pay attention to and using mindfulness to notice when the mind slips away. The most common and most readily available object is the breath, but others could be a candle flame, a mantra, the image of a deity, a flower or a waterfall. Rather than using force, we practice letting go of everything except the object of concentration. Concentration puts the five hindrances at bay, but it doesn’t uproot them. That’s why incorporating mindfulness is essential.

Present moment concentration

Mindfulness is simply watching the unfolding of life from moment to moment. As we watch the flow of physical and mental phenomena, we begin to see why we suffer. We see that there are no fixed things, only processes. We realize in our innermost core that there is actually nothing to hold on to. Through the concentrated, mindful mind, truth becomes integrated into our very veins and touches every aspect of our lives. The mud begins to settle and the factors of concentration begin to emerge. Paradoxically, it takes practice and wise effort, but it’s also available to each of us at every moment.

The following five qualities of concentration start to arise with both categories of concentration practice:

1. Initial application: aiming of the mind to the object of concentration (e.g. hitting the gong)
2. Sustaining the connection: holding the mind on the object of concentration (e.g. the resonance of the gong’s sound)
3. Rapture: delight, joy and interest (e.g. seeing a distant oasis in the desert)
4. Happiness: the pleasant feeling that accompanies deep concentration (e.g. arriving at that oasis and drinking the cool water)
5. One-pointed attention

Each of these five factors is said to directly counter one of the five hindrances. Initial application counters sleepiness. Sustaining connection counters doubt. Rapture is the antidote for ill will. Happiness is the antidote for restlessness. And one-pointed attention eradicates sense desire. (Unless, of course, your object of concentration is that sticky desire.)

It’s important to note that concentration is a double-edged sword. Just as a knife can be used to create beautiful carvings or to injure or kill another being, concentration can be directed toward good or evil.

Concentration is the last aspect of the Eightfold Path, yet it is not the culmination of the path. The wisdom of the integration of all eight aspects could be considered the culmination—the way to full liberation.

{Deep gratitude to Andrea Fella of Insight Meditation Center for her clear and lovely Dharma talk on wise concentration.}

Wise Mindfulness: Everything is in Constant Flux.


“Believing that we have to get to somewhere special in order to be free sets us up for suffering. But we can realize that wherever we are, we can come back to the breath, come back to the moment. It does not matter where we just were, it does not matter how bad it was. We just drop all that and come back to the breath.”

~ Cheri Huber

{part seven of eightfold path series}

Mindfulness. The word, like all words, is just a finger pointing at the moon. And yet, it is what we must do in order to live fully. It is the means and the end. Of what is the mind full? Of whatever is happening in the present moment. Bare attention.

According to Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana,

“Mindfulness alone has the power to reveal the deepest level of reality available to human observation. At this level of inspection, one sees the following: (a) all conditioned things are inherently transitory, (b) every worldly thing is, in the end, unsatisfying; and (c) there are really no entities  that are unchanging or permanent, only processes.”

The Buddha’s teachings on Right (or Wise) Mindfulness outlines four foundations—training in these four frames of reference can be thought of as looking through four different windows into our experience.

1. The physical body

Start with attention to the breath going in and the breath going out. It is best to start with sitting meditation. We can always connect mindfully with the breathing. From there, we expand to paying attention to posture, daily activities, interactions, and ultimately every single thing—all by connecting to direct experience, the physicality of what’s going on in the body and what is being perceived by the five senses.

We start to recognize what is body and what is mind. Look at your hand. You have a concept of “hand.” Then close your eyes and feel your hand from the inside. This is the elemental, pre-conceptual experience of “hand.”

2. The feeling of our experience

Notice how each and every fleeting experience is either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We typically like and want the pleasant, dislike and avoid the unpleasant. This foundation of mindfulness enables us to begin to understand the process of reactivity.

3. The state of mind

The third foundation involves exploring experience through the state of the mind. What color lens are we looking through? Anger? Mindfulness? Sadness? Happiness? Notice whether greed, aversion, desire, delusion, distraction and concentration are present or absent. This practice moves us in the direction of non-reactivity and non-judgment.

4. The dharma

Finally, the fourth foundation views experience through the lens of the Buddha’s teachings. We can be mindful of the hindrances (sense desire, restlessness, sleepiness, hatred, doubt) and constantly notice their presence or absence. What factors lead to the creation—and to the cessation—of these hindrances? Likewise, we observe what supports the arising and sustainability of the factors of enlightenment, which include mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration and equanimity.

The good news is that when the mind understands what causes suffering and what leads to happiness, the mindfulness will naturally move toward happiness by letting go of clinging and craving. This unfolds naturally.

May all beings be happy.