You do not have to study Buddha’s teachings for very long to understand that the very heart of his teachings centre around the mind. Sometimes the essence of his teachings is reduced to three points:
If you cannot help, at least do not harm them;
And calm your mind.
These three points form a graded sequence of steps that leads you from an external practice to the essential internal practice. If we want to reduce our suffering, we cannot do it just by knowledge and meditation alone. We need to live a responsible life by understanding that we do not live in a vacuum and our actions influence others, as their actions have an effect on us. We should look upon Buddha’s teachings as a bird. On one wing there is ethics, and on the other there is the calming of our mind. The bird cannot fly with just one wing and, likewise, we cannot reduce our suffering with only one part of the teachings.
This is what Buddha said to his monks in the Vatthupama Sutra regarding defilements of the mind:
Why is a simile of a soiled piece of cloth used in this discourse? It is because the cloth is naturally pure, so it is possible to remove the dirt by washing it, as it is not permanently stained by the dirt. The same can be said for our mind. The defilements have not permanently stained our mind; they have just temporarily polluted it. The defilements can be cleansed, but as with cleaning the cloth, it will take effort on our part. However, before we can start cleansing our minds we have to first understand that our minds are defiled, as Buddha stated in the Pabhassara Sutra:
Before I talk about what the defilements are I must point out that we are not trying to stop the defilements from arising; I believe this is not possible, or even desirable. We are also not trying to repress them either, as that again will not be desirable. What we are aiming at here is being aware of the defilements when they arise and having a strategy to deal with them. I will talk more on this later.
Depending on what book you are reading, defilements can range from three to one hundred and eight. The three defilements are known as the base defilements and are clinging desire, anger or aversion and unawareness—the three poisons. What I want to go through here are the ten defilements. These form the basis for all the other defilements.
Briefly, the ten are:
Clinging desire—holding on to sensual objects, thinking they are going to bring us permanent happiness.
Anger or aversion—getting thoughts of hatred towards others and discriminating against certain people and material things.
Unawareness—not understanding the concepts of impermanence, nonself and cause and conditions.
Conceit—believing yourself to be better than others.
Wrong views—thinking things are permanent, there is a solid and lasting self, and believing whatever you do will not have any consequences.
Doubt—when something does not seem to agree with your experiences.
Torpor—inactivity resulting from lethargy and lack of vigour or energy.
Restlessness—when your mind is hopping about like a demented frog and cannot settle on anything.
Shamelessness—behaviour marked by a bold defiance of what is considered right and proper.
Recklessness—the trait of giving little thought to danger towards yourself or others.
The defilements arise in our mind and, if we want to reduce our suffering, we need to focus our work on the mind. As these unhelpful mental states run beneath the surface of our stream of consciousness, we have to exert sustained effort to be aware of them when they start to arise.
The process of becoming aware of the defilements starts with self-understanding, and we can do this in a daily reflection session. Before we can work on the defilements, we must first learn to know them, to notice them at work penetrating and influencing our day-to-day thoughts and lives. In today’s world we strive for instant results, but this is not possible with the defilements. It takes patience, time, and perseverance. We have to systematically understand each defilement, what the consequences of them are, and then work out a strategy where we can let them be without engaging with them. Luckily, there are antidotes for each of the defilements and I have listed some below, but it has to be noted that different things will work for different people. So, this is just a list of suggestions.
Clinging desire—see that everything is impermanent and so our happiness with the sense object is not going to last. If we love someone and we get attached to them, when they want to move on, we suffer. Just enjoy your time with the person while you can but understand that one day it will come to an end.
Anger or aversion—when we let anger and aversion arise they lead us into inappropriate speech and action. We must understand that in these states of mind nobody wins. It is better to walk away or not let yourself get involved in the situation.
Unawareness—we have to study and reflect so that we understand the concepts of impermanence, nonself and cause and conditions. It is no good just intellectually knowing these three key concepts; we must reflect on them, so they become a part of our lives.
Conceit—if we believe ourselves to be better than others, we are going to lack compassion as we will not care for what others think or feel. We are actually denying others their opinions because we believe our opinions are more valid. We will also not be making ourselves very popular as conceit is not a good trait to have. So, listen to others with an open mind and welcome their point of view. This way we will not become conceited.
Wrong views—First, if we see things as permanent we will suffer when they change. So, understand that all things are impermanent. Second, if we think we have a solid and permanent self, we will waste our time and money on pampering it and trying to reinforce this sense of self. This will make us suffer when we become old or sick. See that this body is just a vehicle to carry us through this life. It is made up of innumerable parts and so is impermanent. Whatever we experience in this world is not through a sold self, but through the five aggregates, which are form, feeling, conception, action and consciousness. Finally, we need to see that any action we take is going to have a consequence. This will steer us towards helpful actions and away from harmful ones.
Doubt—this can really eat at us if we do not resolve it satisfactorily. When doubt arises ask questions, reflect on it, look in books or on the Internet for answers, whatever is best for you; don’t just leave it, as it will grow and eventually become a real obstacle.
Torpor—when we allow this to take hold we become lazy and cannot be bothered with anything. If you start to feel like this, take a walk, splash cold water on your face, have a break. Again, it is for you to see what works best, but do not just follow the torpor or you will end up a couch potato.
Restlessness—usually we get restless when our minds are stuck in the past or drifting off to the future. It may be caused by stress or anxiety. The best thing to do is a breathing or body scan meditation. This will relax you and bring you back to the present.
Shamelessness—this behaviour shows that you really do not care for yourself. It could be that you have low self-confidence or have reached a low point in your life. If you leave this unchecked it could lead to an addiction, such as alcohol or drugs, and even may land you in prison. You need to look at the cause of these feelings of self-worth. You may need to seek professional help, such as a therapist.
Recklessness—when our thoughts are of a reckless nature, our actions will also be of the same nature. This is dangerous for you and those around you. As with the defilement above, you really need to find the root cause of this behaviour. Having compassion for others will help here, as you will be able to see that your actions may bring harm to them.
During a daily reflection practice, look at a situation where a defilement arose. See what caused the situation to arise. After a while you will begin to see patterns emerge. Certain defilements associate themselves with certain situations. Armed with this information, you will be able to apply the appropriate antidote. What we are aiming at is to be able to spot the defilements when they arise and deal with them. As I said before, we are not ever going to stop them, and we shouldn’t try to repress them. Just spot them and apply the antidote.
If we are not aware of the defilements, they will arise and we will unwittingly follow them. Remember what I have spoken about all the way through this series on the Mangala Sutra: first we think and then we act. Keeping this in mind is the key to reducing our suffering.
The more we get caught up in negative patterns of behaviour and mental states, the more they become engrained. This means they become stored in our subconscious, and we act in certain ways without consciously thinking and we become overwhelmed by our mental states, such as anger, jealousy, pride, without noticing it.
It is said that most people spend 70% of their lives living in the survival mode, the fight or flight mode, which means they are living in stress. They are always anticipating the worst-case scenario, based on a past experience, selecting the worst possible outcome and beginning to emotionally embrace it with fear and conditioning their mind into a state of fear.
This conditioning becomes a pattern of behaviour, a habit, which is a set of automatic unconscious thoughts, behaviours and emotions that’s acquired through repetition. A habit is when you’ve done something so many times your mind now knows how to do it unconsciously.
If these habits, behaviours, and mental states are positive and helpful, there’s no problem. But if they are negative and counterproductive, they can cause us untold problems. We need to be aware of our actions and mental states, so we can make changes, and become the best version of ourselves. It will also ensure we have a peaceful state of mind and find true inner happiness.
We can start to change by following the process I have called ‘Eliminate what is holding you back.’ This consists of seven steps, which are realisation, study, conviction, determination, action, effort, and time.
Realisation: we first need to realise our actions and mental states are causing us, and others, to suffer. This is a key point because if we don’t know we are sick, we won’t go to the doctor. So, if we are unaware of negative behaviours and mental states, we will not try to find a solution.
Buddha’s very first teaching was the four noble truths, and the first truth is life brings about suffering. He then talked about the causes and the path out of suffering. So, to be able to make changes in our life we need to first understand that things do not have to be like they are. There is a better way to live our lives. That is the realisation we are looking for here.
We have to become aware if we are living in the survival mode or the creation mode. The survival mode is the fight or flight mode, and the creation mode is the rest and digest mode.
Living in stress is living in survival. Now, all of us can tolerate short term stress but when we turn on the stress response and we can’t turn it off, we are headed for disease because no organism in nature can live in emergency mode for an extended period of time.
living in creation is when we are conscious of our actions, behaviours, and mental states. It is when we can make changes and become the best possible version of ourselves. We begin to utilise our huge frontal lobe, which is 40% of our entire brain and it’s where we plan, organise, become productive and creative. So, living in creation means using our frontal lobe to make conscious choices to change.
Firstly, we need to understand when we are in survival and when we are in creation mode. Once we understand the damage we are doing to ourselves and people around us by following old patterns of behaviour, we can start the process of change.
To bring awareness to our lives it is important we remain with a calm mind. Here are 10 ways we can easily do that.
Study: now we need to learn about how we can change, such as learning about impermanence to stop our attachment to people and things or learn antidotes to our anger. Studying is going to show us that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It is going to help us move on to the next stage of this process. It will also help us to keep our goals and aspirations realistic. So, I would suggest you study Buddha’s foundation teachings, especially the four noble truths.
Do not over study, as that will make the process of change an intellectual one, which it certainly is not. We need to study so we can practice and not just to make ourselves more intelligent. So, we need to strike the right balance between study and practice.
Conviction: we then need to be convinced that what we have studied will work. This will give us hope that the change will help us become the best possible version of ourselves. If we have doubt, it will stop our conviction. So, doubt needs to be cleared up during the study stage. There is nothing wrong with doubt but left unattended it will sit in our minds like a poison. It will hold us back. So, clearing up any doubts will give us the conviction to move on.
It is at this stage we have some type of expectations. We need to be careful here. If our expectations are too high, we are going to set ourselves up to fail, and none of us like failure. If our expectations are too low, we will not be challenged and will not work hard to achieve our true potential.
Determination: we need to be determined to carry on no matter what obstacles appear. We will probably come up against these five at sometime during our journey on the path.
Sensory desire: seeking pleasures through our five senses. This
means we would become distracted, and our focus will be disturbed.
Resentment: feelings of hatred and bitterness.
Laziness: our actions will be half-hearted and lack focus.
Worry: our energy will not be focused, and our minds will not be calm.
Doubt: if we didn’t clear up our doubts at an earlier stage or new doubts appear, we will lack conviction.
This is why we require determination, as that will motivate us.
Psychologists talk about three types of motivation, namely biological needs that must be met for survival; stimulation and information; need for success, power, and status. But I am talking about a spiritual motivation, which is not based on worldly pursuits but in pursuit of higher goals, such as compassion, inner happiness, peace of mind, kindness, and spiritual development.
Action: Before we can learn new patterns of behaviour, we must unlearn the old patterns, which means, before we relearn, we have to break the habit of the old self, so we can reinvent the new self.
The best way to start this process is during meditation. We need to sit down, close our eyes, focus on the breath, and disconnect from our outer environment. This means we will be having less sensory information going to the brain, so there’s less stimulation. We have to inform the brain that we will answer the emails, post on social media, eat lunch, watch Netflix after the meditation, but for now, we are just sitting.
During this time our mind will want to go back to its emotional past, it’s old way of thinking, and we will become aware that our attention is on those emotions and thoughts. Our minds are taking us out of the present moment and back into the past. Every time we become aware that we’re doing that, and our minds are craving those thoughts and emotions, we bring our awareness back to the breath and settle it back down into the present moment.
If we keep doing this repeatedly, just like we are training a dog to sit, the mind will eventually surrender and just sit.
We can then mentally isolate different aspects of our negative behaviour or mental states and engage in a dialogue between the person you are and the person you wish to be. The negative behaviour is rooted in our subconscious mind, so actually the dialogue is between our conscience and subconscious mind. The more we bring our subconscious into the conscious, the more we will change.
For example, we may be a person that becomes angry very easily. So, during meditation, we look at what triggers our anger, what it feels like when we are angry, imagine what others feel like when we are angry towards them and so on. That is our old pattern of behaviour. Now, look at the person we want to become. A person that does not react to the triggers, that feels good because they are not constantly angry and a person that does not harm others with their anger. This will, after some time, become our new way of acting and feeling.
Our lives are not going to change very much if we keep having the same thought process, as that just leads to the same choice, the same choice leads to the same behaviour, the same behaviour creates the same experience, and the same experience produces the same results. So, the act of becoming more aware of how we think, how we act, and how we feel is called metacognition. That is important because the more conscious we become of those unconscious states of mind, the less likely we’re going to go unconscious during the day and those old thought patterns are not going to slip by our awareness unchecked.
So, the more we become familiar with the thoughts, the behaviours, and the emotions of the old self we’re retiring, the more we wire new thoughts and condition the mind into a new emotional state.
Effort: we need effort and commitment to keep moving forward, no matter how difficult or frustrating the process becomes. We all know change is not easy.
Once we start to make a different choice, we don’t feel the same way. Our mind is telling us we have been doing this for so many years and it’s going into the unknown, and that’s scary. It will try it’s hardest to return to familiar territory. It starts to try and influence us by telling us we can start tomorrow. If we give in and listen to the mind we will never change, as the same thought will lead to the same choice, and we slip back into old patterns of behaviour.
This is why we need to put in great effort, so we can override the old way of being and build a new, more beneficial way of being.
Time: this is an extremely slow process, and we shouldn’t expect quick results. Change is never going to come easy, so we need to constantly remind ourselves that we are in this for the long-haul.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and our patterns of behaviour and mental states will not miraculously change overnight.
So, in a nutshell, if we want to change, we first need to realise there is a better way to live our lives. This will then encourage us to study and find out what that change looks like and how we can make that change a realisation. We then need to have conviction and determination, so we do not get side-tracked. After that, we need to put what we have learned into action, and we do this through meditation. Finally, we need to put in an enormous amount of effort and time, so we get the results we desire.
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is traditionally based on the four foundations and that is what I want to
address here, but before I do that, I want to discuss an issue I have with the
modern mindfulness movement. To be more specific, their definition of
mindfulness. People who know me will tell you that I am not a traditionalist
and my issue is not about secularism versus traditionalism, it is solely about
cannot be summed up in a single statement, it is too vast for that, yet that is
what has happened. Their definition is:
Mindfulness is an awareness of what
is happening in the present moment, brought about by purposefully paying
attention in a non-judgemental way.
was never meant to be a standalone practice. It was part of the three basics of
the path, namely ethics, awareness and wisdom. The above definition only covers
one of these basics of the path; awareness. A thief breaking into your house, a
solider on the battlefield about to kill someone and a person putting poison
into someone’s food are all examples of being aware of what is happening in the
present moment. All of them lack ethics and wisdom.
next gripe concerns the part that reads, ‘Paying attention in a non-judgemental
way.’ I wonder if that is even possible and I certainly think it is not
beneficial. We make judgement calls all the time, from what we wear, what we
eat, the job we do and so on. It is impossible to live without some form of
I am harming someone and I bring myself back into the present moment and I
don’t judge what I am doing, how am I going to change my behaviour?
mindfulness is going to be affective it needs to cover all three aspects of the
basics of the path and that is why I have devised a practice called AWARE. I
feel this can be a bridge between traditional and secular mindfulness.
bring yourself into the present moment by using a breathing exercise, focusing
on your senses or bringing your awareness back to your body. Once you are in
the here and now, you can start the AWARE practice.
stands for Attention, Why, Assess, Reality, Examine
bring your clear attention to what you are doing. Are you on autopilot? Are you
being led by unconscious habits, behaviour or biases? This covers the awareness
aspect of the three basics of the path.
ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing it. What is my motivation, what is my intention?’
This covers the wisdom aspect.
assess if your behaviour is beneficial. Is it ethical, is it helping me to be
the person I want to be? Is it compassionate or hurtful to myself and others?
This covers the ethics aspect.
is it based in reality? Or am I generalising, catastrophising or letting my
imagination run wild? This covers the wisdom aspect.
examine a more mindful, beneficial and compassionate way to act. A way that is
based in fact and not fantasy. A way that helps support me and others. This
covers all three aspects.
personally believe by adopting the AWARE practice once you have brought
yourself back into the present moment, you will be able to make changes to your
behaviour, you will be able to change and grow. That, I feel, is the whole
purpose of mindfulness. So, now let’s look at the four foundations.
The four foundation practices of
mindfulness are of being aware of our bodies, of our feelings, of our minds and
of our mental states.
The purpose of these practices is to
get to know ourselves better. It will help us understand what is working for us
and what isn’t. This will allow us to change more effectively and positively.
The first practice is for the body.
We need to be aware of our body and all the actions carried out by it. But we do not need to see it as
‘my’ body. If we think of it as ‘my’ body, it could lead to attachment
and give us a false sense of identity. Reflect on the time and effort we spend
on this body just to look good. Imagine how much money is spent each year on
plastic surgery and beauty products. It would appear we are completely obsessed
with our bodies. We might be mindful of how the body looks but very rarely
spend time on observing the actions it carries out.
There are many ways of contemplating
the body, but a simple and effective one is doing a full body scan. You can
find guided body scan meditations on my website.
In today’s world, we always seem to
be running from pillar to post, so this meditation will help you get back in
tune with the body and calm your mind at the same time. I am sure you will be
surprised at how much tension you are carrying around with you and what
different sensations you have in various parts of the body.
The full body scan is one of my
favourite practices and I am always surprised at the sensations I am carrying
around. Over the years I have noticed certain sensations correspond to
different emotions and experiences. When I was young, I started to have asthma
and I noticed that 10 to 15 minutes before an attack I would start to get an
itching sensation under my chin. This gave me ample time to take my tablet and
prevent the attack from taking hold. Many sensations in the body are there for
a reason, but unfortunately, we have lost the art of reading our bodies and
rely too much on our minds. This application of mindful awareness will bring
you back in touch with your body.
As we become more in touch with our
bodies you may ask how can we integrate this awareness into our daily practice?
Whatever you do with the body affects you and those around you. So, this is
where a daily reflective practice will help you. Look back on the day and see
what actions you have carried out with the body. The ones that are conducive to
responsible living should be noted. This will ensure that, through repetition,
they can become spontaneous. The ones that are not conducive to living
responsibly should also be noted and a clear effort should be made to refrain
from doing them again. It is through staying mindful of our bodily actions that
we will be able to live responsibly.
Another application for mindful
awareness is feelings. Now, I am not talking about emotions here, many people
get the two mixed up. Emotions are mental states whereas feelings arise when
our senses coming into contact with something. There are three types of
feelings, namely pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. One of these three are
present during every moment of our experience. They may be strong or weak, but
they are always present.
Here are some examples of how
feelings occur. You may be walking down the street and you pass a good-looking
person; this brings up pleasant feelings. As you walk further, a dog barks at
you and unpleasant feelings arise. A bit later, you walk past a group of people
you do not know, none of them are of interest to you, so you have a neutral
If we are not mindful and leave our
feelings unchecked, pleasant feelings can lead to clinging desires, painful
feelings to hatred and neutral feelings to apathy. When paying attention to feelings, the important
thing is simply to notice them, become aware of them, without either clinging
to them or pushing them away.
Here are two ways we can mindfully
get in touch with our feelings. Firstly, during meditation, after you have
spent some time watching your breath, notice what comes into your mind and
observe what feeling is attached to that experience. Don’t try to change or
judge the feeling, just become aware of it and then let it go on its way. Then
do the same with the next object that comes into your mind. You can do this for
as long as you like and then return back to your breathing awareness. This practice helps you notice how
you feel and what’s going on with you. It also helps you to understand that a
feeling is present in every experience you have.
As with your awareness of your body
you can also review your feelings during your daily reflective practice. When
you think of an incident that happened that day, check to see what feelings it
invoked in you. Did it bring up pleasant, painful or neutral feelings? Don’t
try to control the feelings, just be mindful of them.
Being watchful of our feelings helps
us see what desires we are chasing when a pleasant feeling is present and what
is being invoked by our unpleasant feelings. We can also learn to simply
observe an experience, without getting all tangled up in it. This will help us
to form neutral responses, instead of getting attached to pleasant feelings or
repelled by unpleasant feelings.
The next area of focus is on our
minds. We can apply mindful awareness to explore deep into our minds. If I am
honest, this was always the most difficult for me to get my head around. How
can the mind look at itself? The answer that came to me is that we look at the
mind as though we are looking in a mirror. When we talk about the mind we tend to think of it as a
single thing, but it is actually a sequence of instances that arise from moment
to moment in response to the perceptions coming to us from the six senses –
things we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch and from internal mental states.
The mind is a process and cannot exist alone. So, when we look at the mind, we
are actually looking at the processing going on in the brain.
We rarely stop and spend time
observing our minds. We just let thoughts, hopes, fears and dreams come and go
unchecked. But our minds, if left unrestrained, can lead us into all kinds of
situations. So, we practice simply observing our minds. We do not engage with
what we see – we just allow it to arise and go. I understand that this is
easier said than done, but with practice, patience and effort, it is
During your meditation or a daily
reflective practice, observe your mind and see what state it is in: is it
tired, lazy, angry, happy or disturbed? Note the state, but don’t try to change
it. Ask yourself, “How is my mind at the moment?” “Is it full of desire, full
of anger, or full of ignorance. Is it present in the moment or distracted?” We
need to look at our mind in this way, and just see it as it is, not pass any
judgement or think of it as ‘my mind’.
You can also focus your awareness on the way each thought arises,
remains and then moves away. This helps us to stop blindly following one
thought after another. We gain insight and understand that we are not our
thoughts and we do not need to chase after each and every one. In fact, we
cannot find any part of our mind to identify with, it is just a constantly
Once you have learned how to
dispassionately watch your mind, whenever your mind is disturbed, you should
firstly examine it and then, with calmness, act in a proper way – a way that is
not going to harm yourself or others. Developing awareness of the mind will
help us lead a life where we are not becoming disturbed or disturbing others. We come to know the mind as it
really is – a process.
Awareness of mental states
The final application of mindfulness
is concerning mental states. A mental state is an awareness of objects that
come in contact with our senses, which occur on a moment to moment basis. As we
bring awareness to these moments of consciousness, we begin to strengthen our
ability to take mindfulness into our daily lives.
There are pleasurable mental states,
such as happiness, compassion, empathy, contentment, and painful mental states,
such as greed, apathy, anger, selfishness and so on.
We are not looking to oppose these
mental states, but just become aware of them, acknowledge them, learn from them
and let them go. There are several ways of letting the mental states go and
here are the ones that have worked for me.
You can change the painful into a pleasurable,
such as replacing greed with generosity or hatefulness with compassion.
Thinking of the consequences of the painful mindset can be another way of
letting go. If we understand that this mindset is leading us down a wrong path,
we should not follow it. We could for example bring to mind the insight that
all things that arise are impermanent, the painful mental factor is not going
to last, so just let it go. All of these practices are not easy, but they are
doable, it just takes effort.
We should also look to reflect on
mental factors and here is a suggested practice.
comfortably and place your awareness on your breath.
mental state arises, and it will, if it is strong enough to disrupt your focus
on the breath, rest your awareness in that new state, allowing yourself to be
aware of what the state is, such as joyful mind or angry mind, fearful mind or
contented mind, until it naturally subsides. If the mental state is strong,
notice what it feels like in the body. Is there tightness,
discomfort, pain? Where is it located?
Now look at
the consequences of this mental state. Will it lead to a sense of peace in your
life or lead to more difficulty?
mental state arises and is strong enough to hold your attention, continue to
practice with it. If one doesn’t, then return to watching your breath until
your meditation session has finished.
This brings us to the end of the four foundations of mindfulness. If we are going to be mindful and live a responsible life, we have to be fully aware of, but not tangled up in, our bodies, our feelings, our minds and our mental states. By being mindful, we will be able to take full responsibility for all of our actions. This will ensure that our minds become calmer and we spend more time in the present moment, not being tossed backwards and forwards from past to future. Being mindful means being conscious of every thought, feeling, emotion and action. Repeatedly during the day, take a few moments to bring mindful awareness to your breath, body sensations, mind, feelings and mental states. Then use the AWARE practice as this is a good way of helping yourself to settle down into the present moment and to expand your formal meditation practices into your everyday life.
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