Meditation theoryThis is the material on mindfulness that I have developed which has formed the theoretical basis for beginner’s meditation courses at the Manchester Buddhist Centre over the last two years and forms the theoretical background to my book on mindfulness, called Mindfulness: its origin, theory and practice in the Buddhist tradition, which is coming to completion.
My model is simple, rational yet authentically Buddhist. It explains how mindfulness and compassion are envisioned within the Buddhist conception of mind. As my material has developed it has become very simple. He argues that the bottom line for all living beings is that they all want happiness. But to bring happiness into the world we need two things: we first need to want it for ourselves and others, which comes in the form of the metta bhavana meditation: the cultivation of loving kindness. Secondly, we need to know how to bring it about, which comes in the form of mindfulness. While the common definition used, that mindfulness is: “being aware on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” gives a sense of how we practice mindfulness, what the Buddha adds to that is he says exactly what we should bring mindfulness to: namely the four foundations of mindfulness, which are body, feelings, mind and views. The four foundations of mindfulness can be seen in the following diagram: we can think of them as like Russians dolls nesting one inside the other, and within the overall context of time and space:
These four areas are what makes up a human being, so if we can bring mindfulness to them and turn them from being sources of suffering to being sources of happiness, we can attain Nirvana. This is why the four foundations of mindfulness are called the direct path to Nirvana.
We can think of meditation as the process of withdrawing from our normal activities, usually to a quiet place where we will not be disturbed, in order to become aware of our situation. That situation includes becoming aware of what our experience is, as well as becoming aware of how we are responding to that experience, as each of these has a bearing on whether we are bringing happiness into the world.
Time and space, body and feelings constitute our experience; and mind and views constitute our response to our experience. So for instance if we bring awareness to our body to see if it is a source of happiness or suffering, if it is relaxed it is a source of happiness and if it is tense it is a source of suffering. So by stopping and bringing mindfulness to the state of our body and seeing where it is tense and then relaxing that tension, we turn the body from being a source of suffering to being a source of happiness.
Likewise with feelings. If we bring mindfulness to our feelings we can tell what our feelings are, including whether we are happy or not; and we can also try to be aware about whether acting on certain feelings is a good idea or not. If we chase sensual pleasures we end up in the mire of addiction, and the suffering that brings; but to bring happiness we may also need to work on our sensibility. Can we feel what others are feeling and therefore are able to empathize with them? These are some of the issues in terms of mindfulness of feelings and future happiness. With our mind we can ask ourselves if the way we are responding to events in terms of how we attend to them, whether we think about them and the emotions that we have in relation to them – yes, Buddhism puts emotion in a different category to feeling, seeing it as an aspect of ‘mind’ – are productive of happiness or suffering. And likewise with our views.
These four areas not only are sources of happiness or suffering in themselves, they also indirectly support happiness or suffering in each other, under the Buddhist Law of the Conditionality.
To clarify feelings and emotions: feelings are aspects of experience which exist in the moment and which we cannot change. They are the experience of pleasure, pain or neutrality. Emotions though are responses to experience and are seen as aspects of the mind as conceived in Buddhism. When we experience a pain, that is a feeling; but when we try and get away from that pain that response is the emotion of aversion. Emotion then is something we always have a choice over: we might choose for instance to not run away from the pain but to hold it instead within awareness, but feeling is just presented to us in the moment and as such we do not have a choice in the matter. Body too is an aspect of our experience in any moment. In that moment it represents the form our experience takes.
A way that the body influences the mind and emotions to be a better condition for happiness is called meditation posture in Buddhism. When we are able to allow our body to support our mind through adopting a stable yet comfortable position, then that ‘posture’ has a positive effect on the mind’s ability to be aware, and awareness is a source of happiness. Also, our views can influence our mind and emotions to be a better condition for happiness. If we can change our view of a person from seeing them as an object in our way to seeing them as a human being full of hopes and aspirations then our emotional response towards them will change from indifference or hostility to a more caring response. This is the basis for the metta bhavana meditation: the cultivation of loving kindness.
In using the four foundations of mindfulness as his basis I make this way of teaching mindfulness overtly Buddhist, but because the model is such a rational model it is also easily acceptable to non-Buddhists. Non-Buddhists attending the introductory meditation course at the Manchester Buddhist Centre accept the material quite readily.
If you are coming from a background in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) you may have a question about the above model, saying that ‘body’ is something we can control and that it has an important effect on our mood (feeling.) This is true. In this model though we are looking at a snapshot of experience. In any moment the body will be in a particular state, say of vitality or lethargy and it is this state that has an effect on our mood. The area of agency that can change that bodily state is the mind. What we choose to do with our mind will always manifest in our body and exercise may be one choice we make.
If you are coming from a background in Mindfulness-based Approaches (MBAs) this model can easily explain familiar concepts such as acceptance and cognitive defusion.
Mahabodhi introducing Mindfulness Origins theory at the Manchester Buddhist Centre, focusing on the cultivation of loving kindness – 18 minutes