Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Early Buddhism: The roots of mindfulness meditation


The historical Buddha was a Hindu prince who, according to the traditional account, renounced his luxurious life to find answers to the mystery of suffering, old age, and death. After practicing asceticism and yoga for many years, he decided that rejecting the world and mortifying the flesh would not lead to the understanding he sought. Instead, he sat down under a tree and began looking deeply into his own mind. After seven days and nights of intensive meditation, he woke up to the nature of existence — hence the name Buddha, or “the awakened one.”

The Buddha taught that we suffer because we cling to the false belief that (a) things are permanent and can be relied upon for happiness and (b) we have an abiding self that exists independently of other beings and makes us who we are. Instead, he taught that everything changes constantly — our minds, our emotions, our sense of self, and the circumstances and objects in the external world.

To be free from suffering, he counseled, we must liberate ourselves from ignorance and eliminate fear, anger, greed, jealousy, and other negative mindstates. The approach he prescribed involves both practices for working with the mind and guidelines for living in the world in a virtuous and spiritual way. Meditation lies at the heart of the historical Buddha’s approach. The practice of meditation he taught, known as mindfulness, involves wakeful attention to our experience from moment to moment.
Here are the four traditional foundations of mindfulness:
  • Awareness of the body
  • Awareness of feelings
  • Awareness of thoughts and mind-states
  • Awareness of the laws of experience (the relationships between what we think and what we experience)
Departing from the other teachers of his day, who generally recommended withdrawing from the world to seek ecstatic union with the Divine, the Buddha taught the importance of gaining direct insight into the nature of existence and into how the mind creates suffering. He likened himself to a physician who offers medicine to heal wounds, rather than a philosopher who provides abstract answers to metaphysical questions.

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