If you care to live only what you are going through, that is, the present, you can live the time that remains until death, without disturbance, with kindness and serenity.

– Marco Aurelio

In this article I will explain some considerations about the Mindfulness theme, providing first, a general introduction then suggesting some ideas about its point of strength and weakness; The final part underlines how the mindfulness, generally, conceived as contemplative approach to life, can help us to renew those serenity and happiness we all wish to find, above all in our society where frenzy and craving rule.

A Set of natural qualities to nurture:

Below, I’ll give you a general introduction to Mindfulness approach with some thoughts that can be summarized in 5 points:

  1. Mindfulness is not a new fashion from The United States, even if the protocols MBSR(Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy)have been developed and confirmed as practices for the management and stress decrease and for psychological therapy in Anglo-Saxon world.
  2. Even though Mindfulness derives from  theories and  meditative techniques, that  we know and practice today in Western Culture thanks to Buddhism, it is not considered as oriental mystical-esoteric tradition.
  3. It is not a new discovery of Medicine and Psychology, although for the last few years a deep scientific research has been done on the beneficial effects of mindfulness practice and the scientific protocols have been based on this meditative practice to improve and to cure many psychic and physical pathologies.
  4. Mindfulness practice consists in cultivating a natural quality or in training a set of natural qualities that let us to live better, that involve  the totality of our existence, our way to approach ourselves, the others and the world.
  5. Being these qualities natural, so characteristics of each human being, their nourishment can be found also in our western philosophical tradition, even if we have lost the techniques and the spirt of them in times.

Therefore, I would like to start from point number 5  to underline, with the words of the French philosopher Pierre Hadot, how the training of attention and of the mental presence was a basic part for the philosophical training in ancient times:

Abbiamo detto che l’atteggiamento fondamentale del filosofo stoico o platonico era la prosochè ( προσοχε) l’attenzione a se stesso, la vigilanza di ogni istante. L’uomo “vigile” è sempre perfettamente cosciente non solo di ciò che fa, ma anche di ciò che è, ossia della sua posizione nel cosmo e del suo rapporto con Dio.

By reading “Meditations” written by Markus Aurelius, the roman emperor but also a Stoic philosopher (II century), it can be found how he is constantly referred to the importance of living the present time, as it has been underlined above in the first quote of the article.

We can find a constant presence, but always hidden or not well known, of the emphasis of living the present time in the western history of thought, in literature, in poems, as the following quotes from Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, prove:

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. 

Or as it is expressed by Goethe in the passage below:

Ora per ora 
La vita ci è data con gesto amico. 
Il lascito di ieri è poca cosa, 
e il sapere di domani è proibito.
[…] Fai dunque come me, e guarda
con letizia del saggio l’attimo negli occhi. Non indugiare.

Vagli incontro rapido, benevolo, ricco di vita,

sii così nell’agire , così per la gioia nell’amare.
Dovunque sarai sii tutto questo, come un bambino,
così sarai tutto, da nessuno sarai vinto.

Goethe – Elegia

bimbo e oche

In 1881, Thomas William Rhys Davids, the Pali language researcher( 1843-1922) was the first to translate the word palisati with the word mindfulness: since that moment this English word has been used as one of the possible translation; in fact the word sati can be translated in English with “attention” “presence” “awareness” like in Italian.

As it can be noticed, even though this meaning is referred to a particular quality of attention and way of being in the present time, the semantic field is really vast and complex. In fact, it’s been 2500 years that, in Buddhism, in addition to practising mindfulness, its various aspects and characteristics have been discussed. Generally, we can state that there are two main aspects involved: the first one is the mental presence, the reporting and the conservation our mind in the present. The second one is the knowledge, re-identification of what we are experiencing in a precise moment, as it is well and efficiently explained by Achaan Chan, great master of the Thai Buddhist forest tradition:

Sati is the ability to bring us back to this, as when we ask, “What am I doing? ‘”.
Sampajañña is the realization that at this moment I’m doing this or that.

In the ‘70s Jon Kabat-Zinn begun to formulate and then to teach the stress reduction method based on awareness (MBSR-Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) at the Stress Reduction Clinic (where he was the senior manager) of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

This method consists in eight weeks course during which three techniques are taught and practiced:

  1. Awareness Meditation (derived from Vipassana and Chan-Zen meditative traditions)
  2. Yoga positions (asana)
  3. Body Scan, intended as our body exploration or awareness rotation. This is a practice, made in supine position, that consists in moving the awareness inside different parts of the body. We find it presented in different forms in many traditions.

In the 80s the MBSR protocol was widely used, becoming affirmed in the American sanitary assistance field; in the 90s MBCT ( Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy)was developed by three researchers and psychiatrists ( Mark Williams, Zindel Segal and John Teasdale). At first, it was applied for the treatment and prevention of depression, then for other pshycological issues. Recently, the practices based on Mindfulness became widespread. They were used not only in medical and psychological field, not only proposed in the most important Universities as degree courses, but even in the Education field, as in prisons. After the fact that Google offered its staff a Stress Management and Reduction course, called “Search Inside Yourself”, since 2007 many companies have followed this example.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines Mindfulness as “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.” Suzuki Roshi, one of the most important Japanese zen master in the West of the last century, states: “We pay attention with respect and interest, not in order to manipulate, but to understand what is true. And seeing what is true, the heart becomes free.”

Summarizing and finishing this introduction, we can state that with the word mindfulness, we refer to three concepts at the same time:

  1. A set of natural qualities, possessed by every human being, at least from a skills point of view;
  2. The nourishment process of these qualities, that are techniques and the way of implementation of these ones.
  3. The result, the outcome of our practice : if we grow carrots we harvest carrots, if we nurture awareness, tranquillity, happiness, equanimity, kindness, empathy, we are these qualities.

Strength and weakness of the present western approach to Mindfulness.

Undoubtedly, the MBSR and MBCT protocols have many important and evident merits:

  1. First of all, thanks to the great commitment of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his devotees, the meditation and Yoga practices were accepted by the scientific community( both medical and psychological) , showing effectiveness, forcefulness and benefits of these thousand-year-old practises with hundreds of scientific research: for example, try to think that , since 2013, 549 of scientific publications about Mindfulness have been counted: works with the collaboration of the most important academic, medical or psychiatric centres, above all in the United States and England.
  2. To achieve this outcome the contemplative practises were shaped on our laic and scientific culture: adapting them, for example, to our society and to the 21st century language, metaphors, symbols proposed by the tradition.
  3. With undeniable success, the meditative practice was proposed, principally as a reduction stress technique and as a psychotherapy form.
  4. In this way, Buddhism and Yoga practises were made accessible to a wide range of people that, however, would have not been interested in and, therefore, would have not benefited it.

These strong points, if observed from a different point of view, can be considered also as weaknesses, critical aspects on which need a consideration.

Pietro Thea 3In Buddhism we speak about “right Mindfulness” or, we could say, also “correct Mindfulness”: we can deduce from this that, since the times of Buddha, it was recognized an inappropriate and unhealthful use of mental presence.

We could provide simple examples: a thief or a killer must be deeply concentrated, but their concentration is not considered right for themselves or for the community they live in. Therefore, the mental presence, to be right, to be a benefit for the self and for the others, cannot be detached from other aspects of the path ( for example, from those of ethical cognizance and wisdom).

During the process of making the Buddhist practises approachable in Western culture, very often it has been underestimated (sometimes completely eliminated) the teaching of ethical sensitivity, which is important in Buddhism as well as in the West.

What about teaching Mindfulness to the employees of a multinational company destroying the planet? Is it right or is it not? Of course, its stressed workers can take advantage of the stress reduction courses: this make the multinational company to destroy the planet more efficiently.

And what about teaching stress reduction to military staff members? Is it right ?

Having integrated the Buddhist contemplative practice in a scientific vision of the world and still dominated by the Cartesian dualism, by the mind-body split, by the subject-object split, by a mechanistic and reductionist point of view, made it possible for the academic world and for a wide audience to accept such practices, but it has perhaps changed the profound nature. For example it has gone from pursuing awakening to promote stress reduction, it has gone from the pursuit of liberation to a self-help technique that does not question the problems of society in which we live. What is the limit up to where it is useful and appropriate to simplify and adapt the teachings of the Buddhist traditions and Yoga without degenerate them? The challenge in our time is to present the teachings and practices in a manner suited to Westerners, without distorting the essence, maintaining its principles. The MBSR and MBCT protocols really respond to this challenge, or, focusing mainly on the improvement of the attention on the present moment awareness, and stress reduction not overly restrict the scope of the Buddhist teachings?

I think that the Buddhism and Yoga life point of view are really different from the atomistic and mechanistic ones still dominating the scientific world: I conclude this part with a greeting, formulated in his last conference by Gregory Bateson, one of the best western thinkers and important figure for anthropology, psychology, cybernetics and epistemology of the last century: I think maybe the monstrous disease atomistic individual level, family level, national level and international level – the pathology of wrong thinking in which we all live – can eventually be corrected by the magnificent discovery of those relationships that are contained in the nature and that make up the beauty of nature.

Expanding Mindfulness horizon: a contemplative approach to life

The how is the art of life, and life is always the art of the impossible. – Raimon Panikkar

Having on the personal horizon goals like the stress reduction or the no relapse into depression or the improvement in managing some psycho-physical pathologies , it is actually valiant , but, in my opinion, it seems to limit our capacities. The contemplative approach( Mindfulness in itself) has always had, since ancient times, as aims a happy, joyful, serene, no turmoil life to live.

In the East as in the West, at least for 2500 years, all the various contemplative traditions recognize the basic human desire for happiness. Two thousand years ago, in the Manual of Epictetus, philosophical text of the Stoic tradition, we read: “Do not try to make sure that what happen happens as you wish, but wish that what happens flows as it is supposed to do, and the course of your life will be happy.”

It is echoed by the contemporary philosopher Pierre Hadot: “Happiness is precisely the moment when the man is entirely in accord with nature.”

In the three philosophical traditions Stoic, Epicurean and Skeptical, although there were some very different worldviews, so a different philosophical practice, is recognized as a fundamental objective ataraxia, whose meaning is peace, absence of agitation, disturbance: a happiness expressed as a lack of that frenzy, worry, anxiety, emotional reactivity that characterize our daily lives.

Pietro Thea 1

The contemplative medieval philosopher Ramon Lullo states: “Philosophus semper est laetus”, the philosopher is always happy; makes echo of this Raimon Panikkar, contemporary contemplative philosopher, who exhorts us to rediscover that “we were invited to the banquet of life”; the poet E.B. White writes: “There are two ways to navigate through this world: one is to improve the lives and the other is to enjoy life.”

In our society, we are obsessed with wanting to improve ourselves and our lives: this leads us to have a constant tension that does not allow us to really find out who we are and to enjoy life, to enjoy life fully, to give value to be human being as unique and most valuable asset. If life is a banquet, then it is always a joyful dimension that is very important to rediscover and with which you can tune; as in a banquet we are served the dishes that we like and others we do not like, but this does not diminish the joyfulness of the banquet, so in life we have both pleasant and unpleasant experiences, but this does not nullify the joyful dimension of life: indeed, it is because of unpleasant experiences, then we can enjoy the pleasant ones; the unpleasant exists in relation to the pleasant, and the pleasant exists in relation to the unpleasant. The one “defines” the other mutually.

The joy is that sense of wonder that appreciates and welcomes the totality of our experience, but unfortunately we tend not to be attuned to this dimension of life. Lucretius, the Roman poet, wrote:

First, the bright and pure color of the sky and what it contains in itself, the wandering stars in every part, and the moon and the sun with the splendor of bright light; if all these things, now, for the first time, suddenly appeared to men, where ever you might say greatest wonder, something that no one before he even dared to believe possible? Nothing, I think, would be nothing less remarkable than this, so the view would be wonderful. Yet, for fatigue to see it constantly, now no one deigns to lift the eyes to the bright times of the sky.

So Lucretius, who lived in the first century before the Christian era, lamented the inability of human beings to be amazed by life: today it is equally important to stress the importance of awakening within us the ability to tune with this way of feeling , which allows us to reconcile us and appreciate our existence, in everyday life, that is to rediscover the beauty and the wonder in the ordinary experiences. It’s a feeling of inner contentment, a happy heart that appreciates what we are, as we are, who appreciates what we do, as we do, appreciating the circumstances of life, as they are.The last century Indian master Maharaj stated: The wonder is the dawn of wisdom. Constantly being amazed is a sadhana (practice).

Sometimes meditative practice, the practice of mindfulness, is proposed as a tool to achieve a purpose which is presented as far away, something that is not here and now, but in the future: Although not entirely wrong, this view is partial and, in some ways, misleading.

Contemplative practice has no purpose, if not herself, if not the development of a contemplative attitude towards life: the awareness, peace, joy, equanimity, kindness, compassion are the results.

Therefore, I would like to conclude with a quotation from Nisargadatta Maharaj who reconciles us with the flow of life, with the simplicity and naturalness of its development:

When you realized that the destination is the way and that you are always on the road, not to reach its destination, but to enjoy its beauty and wisdom, life ceases to be a duty, and it becomes easy and natural, a bliss in and of itself.

by Pietro Thea

translated by Giulia Silvestri