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Mindfulness: A Secularized Buddhist Practice in the West

by Dr. Daya Hewapathirane, Lankaweb, Aug 5, 2014

Richmond BC, (CANADA) -- Mindfulness is a technique that is integral to the Teachings of the Buddha. It is the seventh element of the Noble Eightfold Path which encapsulates the principal teachings of the Buddha.Mindfulness or ‘sati’ is a whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. It is awareness of body, feelings, thoughts and phenomena that affect the body and mind.

It is the detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment. Being fully mindful means being fully attentive to everything as-it-is, not reacting to or generating thoughts on what one experiences at the moment. In the practice of mindfulness the mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, focused on the present moment and to accept one’s thoughts and responses without judgement.

All judgments and interpretations of feelings and thoughts are overlooked or just registered and dropped. To be mindful is to be fully present, not lost in daydreams, anticipation, indulgences, or worry. It is a mental mode of being engaged in the present moment without evaluating or emotionally reacting to it.

Regular mindfulness training helps to enhance and strengthen the brains ability to pay attention. As with any skill, regular practice of mindfulness enhances the skill so that it arises naturally and spontaneously.

Mindfulness involves self-discovery and becoming more compassionate to self and then ultimately towards others. Mindful living leads to a more fulfilling and grounded life, being able to understand oneself and one’s environment without judgement.

It is about waking up to your life and enhancing mental and emotional resilience. Mindfulness helps to create harmony in heart and mind and therefore in the world around you as well. Mindfulness is becoming a lifestyle among some sections of the Western society. It has become an element in their daily routine bringing them benefits similar to those of physical exercise and sound relaxation.

In a society characterized by unpleasant and unhealthy effects of excessive competition, impatience and stress, mindfulness practice makes people recognize the need to slow down and pay attention. Among many people, As a remedy to an uneasy, unbalanced, troubled, discontented, distressed and unhappy mind characterized by negative mood and stress, mindfulness exercises have been found to be of much help to develop a happier, healthier and fulfilling life. Mindfulness is the most direct way to overcome sorrow and lamentation, end pain and anxiety, and realize the highest form of inner happiness. 

Mindfulness practice has been subject to much research in several disciplines in recent years and publications on mindfulness has proliferated in the Western world. The efficacy of mindfulness is supported by a growing body of scientific research. Applied research has shown that mindfulness has a positive impact on people’s health and wellbeing. 

In particular it has a positive impact on the human brain. Studies have shown that it can alter brain patterns and behavior. Hospitals and community centres have started to offer courses on Mindfulness practices. Mindfulness entered the medical mainstream in the 1970s.

Today, Mindfulness is taught and practiced in many prominent hospitals in the USA, Canada several other Western countries. Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction” practice (MBSR) developed by the Medical School of the University of Massachusetts in USA has been used successfully to treat a wide variety of illnesses.

Mindfulness exercises have helped alleviate suffering from psychological illnesses such as anxiety, panic disorders and phobias. They have become clinically proven methods for alleviating stress and chronic pain. An increasing number of Medical Centres worldwide now offer mindfulness based therapies for mood and other disorders.

Many studies have revealed the effectiveness of  mindfulness practices in reducing psychological stress. They have led to improvements in both mental and physical health, alleviating depression, anxiety, loneliness and chronic pain.  

In recent years there has been a growing interest in the practice of mindfulness as part of psychotherapy. Researchers are using brain imaging techniques to investigate the neurobiological mechanisms by which mindfulness practices work. Some psychotherapists find that mindfulness meditation as an adjunct to counseling and other treatments can help troubled people learn to release negative emotions and thought habits.

After receiving mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, patients report noticing that negative thoughts lose their power over time. Mindfulness techniques were used to help children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to concentrate, and for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder recover and now for professionals of various fields as a technique for developing focus, clarity and compassion. Research has shown that Mindfulness practice can be effective in managing depression. It can be as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.

Its ability to improve performance is one of the primary reasons for greater attention on Mindfulness practice in the West. Professionals and those of the corporate culture, but also institutions, companies, and nations are adopting ‘mindful’ practices and associated ‘compassion’ and listening to others as management practices to an increasing extent. 

Among some of these institutions are Google, the USA Military, especially the US Marine Corps, prisons, Social services work, LinkedIn networking site. In the US military mindfulness training includes ‘brain calming’ exercises to improve performance. Snipers benefit from mindfulness training.

It enhances attention, concentration and aim. It is gaining ground as a useful practice  among prominent sports personnel including Olympic athletes and movie stars. Students who want to boost their performance and also parents, teachers or caregivers wishing to be more attentive to others’ needs may  all find mindfulness training highly useful.

Buddhist Ethical Principles underlying Mindfulness Practice

Although lectures and public talks and discussions, publications, workshops, forums, seminars, courses, retreats and other forms of intense interactions on the subject of Mindfulness practises are conducted in the West, it is rarely that these Mindfulness Trainers and Experts” in the West, acknowledge the fact that they have learned these wholesome  practices from Buddhism.

One reason may be the fact that these practices may not be of much appeal to the ordinary Westerner, if religion” or a faith tradition is associated with it.  Most Westerners perceive erroneously that Buddhism is a religion or a belief system in the conventional sense.  The trend among modern day Westerner  is to distance themselves from religion which some perceive to be a corrupt outmoded and outdated institution which is generally corrupt and has a divisive effect on society.

In this light, the Buddhist Bhikkhu communities of the different Buddhist traditions should be in the forefront highlighting what the Buddha Dhamma or the teachings of the Buddha is all about, how it differs from the conventional theistic faith traditions and the overall spiritual benefits that could be attained through Buddhist practices such as Mindfulness as propagated in Buddhist teachings.

It is a pity that our Buddhist Bhikkhus who are found in abundance in the Western world are not actively involved in this popular trend in the West, highlighting the spiritual aspect of Mindfulness practice, and showing that spirituality associated with Mindfulness practice involves no belief system but is focused on inner transformation leading to calm and peacefulness. It will help one to deal effectively with everyday difficulties and to live a richer, happier and a fulfilling life. But more importantly, it will help one to develop a state of consciousness leading to a state of awakening to realities of life, to the ultimate meaning of life.

Mindfulness meditation helps one to develop emotional intelligence, self regulation, and empathy necessary for successful relationships. It is remarkably useful for facing interpersonal challenges.

In the Western corporate culture, in the rush to secularise it, Mindfulness have been turned into a technique divorced from ethical responsibility. In fact, its training and promotional ventures are highly commercialized often associated with a high price tag.

Mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition is to transform one’s sense of self. It is not about attaining personal goals attached to personal desires. The goal of mindfulness practice is to liberate oneself from greed, ill will and delusion (loba, dosha moha” or the three main defilements in Buddhist teachings) and not to achieve stress reduction.  The real focus of Buddhism is on awakening, on coming to some insight or wisdom about our true nature. Without that, we cannot get at the real source of our ‘dukkha’or suffering. 

From the Buddhist perspective, the ‘mindfulness movement' that is becoming increasingly popular in the Western World is not addressing the most deep-rooted forms of human suffering or ‘dukkha’. In fact, it seems to be reinforcing the kind of self-centred individualism that seems to be the basic problem in Western society.

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