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Mindfulness as A Means Not An End

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Mindfulness has become a huge part of the spiritual and popular lexicon over the last 10 years or so. Everyone from celebrities to TV anchors to Fortune 500 companies are looking to mindfulness as a way to reduce stress and bring greater happiness. It is a powerful process in of itself, but we should never forget that mindfulness is only part of a multifaceted method. Mindfulness is a means, not an end, and mindfulness divorced from the moral precepts that accompany it only gets us halfway home.

Modern mindfulness is a process taken from classical Buddhist Vipassana meditation. We sit and notice our inner experience including our thoughts, our feelings, and the physical sensations of our bodies. We watch these experiences whatever they are. We allow them to pass through us rather than immediately reacting to them. We just watch. This process helps to give us perspective, shows us how to relate to our thinking and our lives in different ways, and allows us to see our experience with greater clarity.

Mindfulness is the necessary beginning of the process. Until we have some ability to be aware of our own internal world, we cannot create effective change. But the stress relief we experience from the mindfulness process is temporary. The goal is not a life where we need constant mindfulness to soothe internal stress; the goal is a life where we no longer feel so much internal stress. We need a road map for this second half of the process. Once we are mindful and see aspects of ourselves that need to change in order to reduce suffering, then we need a plan to help us do things differently. The Buddha’s road map for the second half of the journey is The Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path
1. Right understanding (Samma ditthi)
2. Right thought (Samma sankappa)
3. Right speech (Samma vaca)
4. Right action (Samma kammanta)
5. Right livelihood (Samma ajiva)
6. Right effort (Samma vayama)
7. Right mindfulness (Samma sati)
8. Right concentration (Samma samadhi)

It is very difficult to implement the moral precepts of The Noble Eightfold Path until we are aware of what we are already doing. For example, it is very difficult to implement “Right Speech” if we already have a habit of reactivity and speaking in hurtful ways. So we need mindfulness that helps us, in an impartial way, to see what we are already doing. We also use mindfulness to help us not judge ourselves for what we are doing, but simply to see it.

Here’s the really important part:

Once we see what we are doing that is causing suffering, we are now accountable to change that behavior.

This is the way that in a more lasting way we reduce suffering in our lives. It is not easy to change our ingrained habits. We have a to have a great deal of compassion with this process. We will not do this perfectly. But when we have a road map that helps us, then we have guardrails that keep us heading in the direction of more lasting ease and happiness.

So when we divorce mindfulness from the many facets of the Buddha’s teachings we only get halfway home. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a really important step. We must first be aware before anything can change. But once we are aware, we need to have a map to make better choices. The Noble Eightfold Path is one such map, and there are many others one could use that are certainly not limited to the teachings of Buddhism.

And in the end none of this is saying that we are bad, or wrong, or in need of fixing. It’s actually saying the opposite. It’s saying once we see we are doing things that are harmful to others, and ourselves, then out of love we naturally want to do better. Mindfulness helps us to see what we are doing, and processes like The Noble Eightfold Path help us to do things differently. Accountability is the real end result of mindfulness. If we can love ourselves enough to be accountable, then we have a true path home. Even more than the stress relief and calm, this accountability is the true gift of mindfulness. It is the way we really create lasting and mature change so we don’t need mindfulness stress relief to hold us together. It is the way we really make our way out of habitual suffering.

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