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Wooden monkReading a brochure from the Laz-y-Boy company the other day, I came upon the claim that Laz-y-Boy, Inc. is “being mindful” with respect to the environment. I was heartened to find that reassurance, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the company was voicing an authentic concern or merely striking a fashionable attitude.

Over the past two decades, the practice of mindfulness has assumed a prominent place in American life. In the vernacular of our times, mindfulness has gone mainstream. American corporations, particularly those situated in Silicon Valley, have embraced the practice, chiefly as a means of reducing stress and increasing productivity. So have the military academies, the health-care system, the prison system, and, more gradually, public schools and higher education. Yet, as the practice has gained in acceptance, it has sometimes lost sight of its origins in Buddhist meditation, and a central component has often been left behind.

That component is the ethical dimension, especially as it pertains to the practitioner’s emotional life. In his book Living with Awareness, the Buddhist monk and scholar Sangharakshita (formerly Dennis Longwood) reminds us of this important dimension of the practice:

To be human is to inhabit a realm in which ethical responsibility is not only possible but requisite. Thus mindfulness must be understood to be more than simple concentration: we need to be as clear as we can about the nature of what we are doing and why. A murderer intent upon his victim is certainly concentrating, but that kind of single-mindedness is very different from the ethical attentiveness that characterizes a state of true mindfulness.

As these remarks suggest, “ethical attentiveness” begins with awareness of what we are doing at any given moment and the impact of our actions on the rest of the world. If, for example, we are playing loud music or talking into a cell phone in a public space, true mindfulness will remind us that we are contributing to noise pollution and diminishing the peace and well-being of other people. Merely by being present for our actions, we can recognize when we are causing harm and when we are not.

Beyond this basic social awareness, the practice of mindfulness can also awaken us to the ethical content of our feelings, thoughts, and states of mind. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutra), a core text for the practice, enjoins us to identify our present, transitory feelings (that is, sensations) as “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” or “neutral.” We are also directed to examine the “roots and fruits” of our feelings, distinguishing between “worldly,” ego-based feelings such as craving and aversion, and “unworldly” feelings such as compassion and sympathetic joy, which are grounded in selfless awareness.

By watching our feelings in this way, even as they are arising, maturing, and disappearing, we can learn to observe how pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations engender our emotions and mental states, which last much longer than feelings and often result in speech and action, whether harmful or beneficial. We can note how a spark of anger can become the flames of rage, or a tinge of melancholy spiral into depression. With practice, we can also learn to distinguish between so-called “unwholesome” mental states, such as craving, hatred, and delusion, and “wholesome” states like concentration, loving-kindness, and equanimity. By bringing awareness to our unwholesome states of mind, we decrease their potential to harm ourselves and others. Fully aware of our lust or anger, we are less likely to translate those mental states into speech or action. Conversely, by recognizing and actively contemplating our wholesome states of mind, we can strengthen their force in our daily lives. In Buddhist meditative practice, specific contemplations are devoted expressly to that purpose.

The English word mindfulness is a translation of the Pali word sati, which derives from a root meaning “to remember.” In part, the practice of mindfulness consists of remembering to be present for the present moment–to “keep our appointment with life,” as Thich Nhat Hanh would put it. But in its deeper, original context, the practice also consists of remembering to recognize, identify, and monitor our changing feelings, emotions, and states of mind and their influence on the conduct of our lives. “One thing you need to remember and understand, ” observes the Burmese master Sayadaw U Tejaniya, “is that you cannot leave the mind alone. It needs to be watched constantly. If you do not look after your garden, it will overgrow with weeds. If you do not watch your mind, defilements will grow and multiply. The mind does not belong to you, but you are responsible for it.”

Continuously responsible, I might add, even when you are surfing the internet–or relaxing in your Laz-y-Boy recliner.

_____

Sangharakshita, Living with Awareness: A Guide to the Satipatthana Sutra (Windhorse, 2012), 14-15.

Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s comment is quoted by Joseph Goldstein in Mindfulness (Sounds True, 2013), Kindle edition, 103.

Photo: Figure of a Monk. Artist unknown. Wood. 9th-10th century. Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Allan Lokos

Allan Lokos

In the Parable of the Burning House, a revered text in the Zen tradition, a grand but dilapidated mansion catches fire. At the time, the wealthy owner is standing outside the gate, but inside the mansion, his three sons are playing with their toys, oblivious of the encroaching conflagration. Rushing into the house, their father implores them to get out, but they ignore his admonitions. To entice them, he promises to give them jeweled, ox-drawn carts if they will leave. By these “expedient means” he achieves his purpose, and his sons escape “the burning house of the threefold world.” Soon afterward, their father presents them with magnificent carriages adorned with gold, silver, and pearls and drawn by stalwart, pure-white oxen. Released from the burning house and their former attachments, his sons enjoy safety and freedom.

I was reminded of this parable while reading Allan Lokos’s new book Through the Flames, which recounts Lokos’s experience of a horrific plane crash and his near-miraculous survival and recovery. In December, 2012, Lokos and his wife, Susanna Weiss, were enjoying a ten-day holiday in Mynanmar. On Christmas Day, they boarded a short flight from Mandalay to Inle Lake. As their low-flying plane approached its destination, it struck electrical wires, burst into flames, and crashed in a rice field. Susanna jumped to safety from a side exit, but Allan, who was just behind her, caught his foot on something and suffered burns to a third of his body before he could escape. In the anguished days that followed, doctors in Myanmar, Bangkok, and Singapore informed Susanna that her husband, whose burns were massive and bone-deep, could not possibly survive, let alone recover. Continue Reading »

Baltimore_Oriole_eating_orangeBrowsing the Internet one summer afternoon, I learned that Baltimore Orioles relish grape jelly. Cut an orange in half, my source instructed me, and place a dollop of grape jelly at the center of each half. Hang the halves from a branch, and you will soon have those beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Enticed by that prospect, I put grape jelly on our grocery list. And before long, I found myself in Aisle 10B at Wegman’s Supermarket, searching for that elusive product.

“What are you looking for?” asked a petite, white-haired lady standing nearby, as she deposited a jar of Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves in her cart.

“Grape jelly,” I replied. “Baltimore Orioles like it.”

“They do?” she asked, giving me a wary, quizzical look, as though I had just said something very strange. “I never heard that. I used to live in Baltimore.”

Realizing what had just occurred, I hastened to explain. “I mean the birds, not the baseball team.”

“Oh,” she sighed, visibly relieved. Meanwhile, I was imagining the Orioles in their dugout, passing around a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Perhaps that image had crossed her mind as well. Continue Reading »

156. The Book of Janet

730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible. Continue Reading »

155. O great mystery

Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life. Continue Reading »

ASC trackHere in the village of Alfred, New York, those of us who like to walk can often be found on the Alfred State College track. Situated on a high elevation , the track affords a panoramic view of the surrounding wooded hills. Designed though it was for athletic competition, the track is also an excellent venue for walking meditation.

On a windy day last summer, I took a walk on that firm but forgiving track. Above the line of trees, the blades of the college’s wind turbine were revolving briskly. And on the tall flagpole near the entrance, the American flag was flapping audibly. I was reminded of an old Zen story, which features a pair of quarrelsome monks and the enlightened master Eno, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Continue Reading »

153. Not two, not one

Inside_Looking_Out_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767556“Up!” implores my granddaughter, looking up at me and raising her arms. Allegra is fifteen months old. Up was one of her first words.

I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.

Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.

As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality: Continue Reading »

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