Working like a physician in his diagnosis of disease and treatment prescription, Buddha teaches us that suffering in this world is due to too much attachment to one’s desires. To eliminate the cause of our suffering, he prescribes the Eightfold Path (Smith, 1991). The Eightfold Path is a moral compass leading to a life of wisdom (right intent, right views), virtue (right speech, conduct, livelihood), and mental discipline (effort, mindfulness, concentration).
Mindfulness is one of the key elements of the Eightfold Path and it has been practised by followers of Buddha in the East for over 2500 years as a way to achieve enlightenment. However, until the 1980’s, mindfulness had been a relatively unfamiliar concept in much of the western world (Kabat-Zinn, 1982). This is probably due to the language barrier and wariness about Buddhist doctrine. Increasingly, however, many people in the scientific world have found Mindfulness training a useful supplementary tool in mental health treatment. According to Salmon et al (1998), over 240 hospitals and clinics in the United States and elsewhere have been offering stress reduction programs based on Mindfulness training as of 1997. Mindfulness training is also a central component of dialectical behavior therapy (Linehan, 1993a and 1993b), an increasingly popular approach to the treatment of borderline personality disorder. Teasdale et al (2000) have demonstrated that it is possible to prevent relapse/recurrence in major depression by Mindfulness Cognitive Therapy. At the Tihar Jail Complex in New Delhi, the introduction of regular Vipassana Meditation retreats for inmates as well as wardens has helped to alleviate the stress from overcrowded, and often inhuman, conditions (Garfinkel, 2005).
But what about the rest of us who do not have (or refuse to acknowledge that we have) any personal and/or personality problem? Do we not all suffer stress in our daily life? Stress at work? Stress at home due to marital problems or problems with the children? There is no doubt that Mindfulness training can help in stress reduction as many of the participants in Mindfulness training courses would attest to. If we are able to develop a certain degree of Mindfulness, we would be able to handle the stress in our daily life much better and in practical terms, make each of us a happier person who is at peace with himself.
To attain a state of constant Mindfulness is not easy for mere mortals like most of us who have to work to sustain a living and pay the mortgage. However, we can do what little we can to cultivate Mindfulness in our daily life: while walking, or waiting to be served at a restaurant or at the bank etc. Since many of us also do various types of physical exercises for the purpose of “relaxation”, it is the purpose of this booklet to describe how we may cultivate Mindfulness while engaging in some of these activities.
To enable us to get rid of our suffering, the Buddha said we must have “awareness”. Vipassana Meditation is a form of exercise of the mind that would allow us to have a deeper understanding of our thoughts and feelings so that we become more “aware”. Vipassana Meditation can be considered the tool or the path to the development of Mindfulness.
It is not exactly easy to explain Mindfulness in a few words. In fact, the state of mindfulness has to be experienced for one to fully understand it. However, for discussion purpose, we do need a working definition such as the one given by John Kabat-Zinn (2003): that Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose and non-judgmentally, to one’s experience of the immediate present as it unfolds moment by moment”. It is important to recognize the fact that Mindfulness is not simply concentration although one does require a certain degree of concentration to achieve Mindfulness. A concentrated mind, as what we have when we are fully immersed in a book or golf or tennis, is a pure, simple and collected one. Such a collected mind is the first step in the development of Mindfulness, which requires one to watch one’s mind intensely and non-judgmentally, which in turn would lead to development of insight or awareness. Mindfulness is also not just relaxation, although the state of mindfulness can be relaxing and many people do become relaxed after Mindfulness training exercises.
To cope with the stress of modern life, many of us engage in regular daily or weekly “relaxing activities” (like hiking, swimming, playing tennis or golf or doing yoga, chi-qong, tai-chi, etc. that require concentration. In fact, we enjoy the period of concentration and we feel very relaxed after such activities. For many of us, being able to rid ourselves of worldly troubles and to escape into a world of pure concentration on the present activity and forget the outside world for a short period of time is refreshing and relaxing. Unfortunately, this approach is pure escapism, because all the worldly troubles will come back to us in full force once such activities are over.
Many people go to retreats where the environment is very conducive to meditation and the development of Mindfulness. However, once the retreat is over and they return to their “jungle in the city”, they find it hard to face reality when they are back on the “old treadmill” and the retreat together with what peace and relaxation they have experienced then seem far and distant. In fact, what they should do is to apply what they have learned in the retreat to become ever Mindful in their everyday life. In particular, they can apply the techniques of Vipassana Meditation to some of their regular “relaxing activities” (like hiking, swimming, golfing etc.) to gain greater “awareness”.
But what is the benefit of doing it? On the superficial level, Mindfulness practice will help us deal with our daily stress so that we, being more aware of our feelings and thoughts, would not succumb to instinctive reactions to external circumstances or stimulations, such instinctive reactions being able to put us into more trouble than we are already in. For golfers, for example, Mindfulness practice will allow them to play the game with confidence and concentration by focusing their minds on positive thoughts. On a much higher level, of course, the ultimate goal of the development of full Mindfulness will result in the development of insight and wisdom with total liberation from suffering and ability to live in peace and harmony with the universe.
But, then, like the little ants building a molehill, big things often start with humble beginnings. We can begin our journey in Mindfulness by adding just a little more effort to some of the things that we are already doing and enjoying to a certain extent. In time, we can graduate to higher goals.