The Deeper Meaning of Mindfulness

By Thubten Chodron, Shambhala Sun, January / February 2007 Issue

At the root of the latest Buddhist buzzword lies a challenging path to enlightenment

Spokane, Washington (USA) -- One of the people who visited our Buddhist monastic community, Sravasti Abbey, kindly made signs for the other guests. At the tea counter she wrote, "Please clean up spills. Thank you for your mindfulness." A sign on a door said, "Please close the door quietly. Thank you for your mindfulness." I began to wonder what she meant by mindfulness. It seemed it had become another one of those Buddhist buzzwords, like karma, that many people use but few understand.

Then I read an article in which mindfulness was applied to eating an orange-paying attention to its sweetness and texture, the experience of eating it. In a discussion group, I heard the word used to describe the experience of watching one's grandchild play and appreciating those moments of joy.

While some of these examples are valid and beneficial uses of mindfulness practice, do they lead to enlightenment? Are they examples of mindfulness as understood in traditional Buddhist texts, where mindfulness is an essential component of the path to liberation?

Mindfulness is a comfortable word for Americans; renunciation is not. Renunciation conjures images of living in a damp cave and eating bland food, with no companions, iPod, or credit cards. In our consumer culture, renunciation is seen as a path to suffering. As the Buddha defined it, renunciation is a determination to be free from dukkha, the unsatisfactory conditions and suffering of cyclic existence. Renunciation is being determined to give up not happiness, but misery and its causes.

Because our minds are clouded by ignorance, we often don't have a clear understanding of dukkha and its causes. The remedy is to be mindful of how things actually are. In the Vipallasa Sutra, the Buddha described four basic ways we misconstrue our experience-known as the four distortions of mind because things are grasped in a way that is opposite to how they actually are.

Holding the Impermanent as Permanent

Although intellectually we may know that our body is aging every moment, our deeper feeling is that this body will last forever and that death won't really come to us-at least not anytime soon. Similarly, we see our relationships as being fixed, and when dear ones die, we are shocked. We wanted to be with them forever and clung to the hope that we would be.

We can learn to deal with impermanence gracefully, but this occurs only when we recognize the erroneous preconception of permanence and are mindful of the transient nature of people and things.

Trusting That Unsatisfactory Things Bring Happiness

What gives us pleasure also brings us problems: The perfect partner leaves us, our beloved child rebels, the promotion that elevates our status increases the hours we must work. The pleasures of cyclic existence continually let us down, yet we keep coming back for more, thinking that this time lasting happiness will ensue.

Through being mindful of the second distortion, we realize that most of what society has taught us about happiness is simply untrue. We must seek lasting happiness through eliminating the actual causes of misery-afflictive emotions and the actions (karma) motivated by them.

Believing the Unattractive to Be Attractive

The "body beautiful" is one of our favorite fixations. But if the body is so attractive, why do we go to so much effort to change it? "Staying young" is a major commercial enterprise in this country. But what if we harmonized ourselves with reality? We are aging. Can we learn to be joyful with wrinkled skin, gray hair, lack of sexual interest, and sagging muscles? Aging doesn't have to be distressing, but our wrong view makes it so.

Grasping at Things That Have No Inherent Self

The most detrimental distorted view sees a self in the body and mind. We think and feel that there is a real "me" here, and that I am the most important "me" in the world. We create an image of a person and then obsess about living in accord with this fabrication: We pretend to be who we think we are. Yet even at a superficial level, many of our thoughts about ourselves are incorrect: We are not inherently ugly, beautiful, talented, inadequate, lazy, stupid, inept, or any of the other charming or disparaging qualities we attribute to ourselves.

Not only do we believe that there is a real, enduring "me" who is (or should be) in control of our bodies, minds, and lives, we also believe that other people and objects have some findable essence. We trust that things exist in the way they appear to exist. Thus we believe that someone who appears to be an enemy is inherently despicable and dangerous. We fight to protect our possessions as "mine." Due to the ignorance that imputes a solid and unchanging essence to selfless and changing phenomena, a host of afflictive emotions arises, and we fall under the sway of craving, fear, hostility, anxiety, resentment, arrogance, and laziness.

By being mindful of the opposites of the four distortions-impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, unattractiveness, and selflessness-we clearly see the problems the four distortions cause, and a powerful wish to be free from them emerges. This is renunciation.

This kind of mindfulness gives us the courage and ability to oppose our habitual, self-centered ways. Looking around, we see that all other beings are just like us in wanting happiness and wishing to be free of suffering, and thus arises the altruistic intention to work for their benefit. Being mindful of the benefits of cherishing others opens our hearts to genuine love and compassion. Our deep interconnection with others gives rise to the intention to eliminate all obscurations from our minds and to develop our capabilities limitlessly so that we can best benefit them. That is how mindfulness leads to liberation.

Thubten Chodron is an American-born Tibetan nun and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, a Buddhist monastic community near Spokane, Washington. Her most recent book is Cultivating a Compassionate Heart (Snow Lion, 2006). Reprinted from the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun (Sept. 2006). Subscriptions: $17.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 3377, Champlain, NY 12919;

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