Have we reduced Buddhist psychology to mindfulness training? What might have been lost in the translation?

The core teaching of the Buddha has always about how to reduce human suffering. The freedom or liberation his teachings refer to is freedom from suffering. It isn’t an abstract metaphysical ideal, some state that transcends from normal living. 

The Buddha was a very practical teacher. NIrvana as a place of freedom is described in the texts as a mind that is free of greed, hatred and delusion.

This all sounds very down-to-earth and maybe not very attractive. 

Furthermore he teaches that the main root of suffering lies in our attachment to the concept of ‘I’ ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ Our misunderstanding of who we are, and how our sense of self has been built, is the core problem that creates endless misery. 

How does this relate to modern mindfulness practices, where we train in watching our bodily sensations, our feelings and emotions, our perceptions and our thoughts?

Within a Buddhist perspective we allow all experience to come into being and pass away naturally, of its own accord. We come to see that all our experience, every last mote of it, is impermanent and, as such, not worth grasping after. Furthermore we start to notice that in all our experience there is no experience of a fixed, solid self. What we take to be ourselves is a continuously changing field of sensations, feelings, perceptions, emotions and thoughts. When we look into the direct experience of all these phenomena there is no enduring self entity to be found.

This is radical. This unravelling of identity is not what most people have in mind when they learn to meditate. Most people are wanting a respite from their busy overactive minds and lives. They are wanting to learn how to become calm and peaceful and happy.

When greed, hatred and delusion are absent, these beautiful qualities naturally arise in our minds. The practice of mindfulness can be seen as the setting aside of difficult mental and emotional states to allow the radiant qualities of the mind to naturally manifest.

As we learn to disengage from difficult states in meditation, we find we are able to contact calm, open states in daily life as well.  We are not so troubled by our unruly thoughts. They are seen as merely phenomena that come and go.

Is this true?

Certainly the Buddha taught that freedom is not possible without mindfulness

This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely, the four foundations of mindfulness.

Through mindfulness practices we begin to see into the impermanent nature of all phenomena. Suffering arises by trying to hold onto and maintain what is essentially impermanent. Even though we can clearly understand the impermanent nature of all things we still hold on, and in this grasping create immense suffering for ourselves.

Why is this so? 

Maybe it has to do with what the Buddha talked of as ‘I’ ‘me’ and ‘mine ’ – the structure of the ego and our relationship to it. Ego is the sense of who we are as an entity that is separate from the rest of life. This ego is a mental experience that has been constructed out of memories, the development of our likes and dislikes, our mental tendencies, our beliefs etc. 

As we grow we become very attached to this sense of self, it becomes our sole identity and we defend it against all threats. Greed hatred and delusion arise as a result. The ego and the world have become clearly separated out and the world is seen as food for the ego or a threat to its survival. The requirements of the actual organism and its real relationship to life have faded from view.

The first step of the Buddha’s eightfold noble path to liberation is related to right view. One erroneous view we have is that we are a permanent, self-existing entity. Another erroneous view is that we are separate from the world around us.

While we cling to wrong views, the practice of mindfulness can only bring limited results. The small freedoms we discover will inevitably be used to create a new ‘better’ self image, which will in turn produce further seeds of suffering.

While the practice of mindfulness is required to see clearly into our actual situation, without investigating the views we bring to meditation we are trying to walk the path on one leg.

Calming the mind through meditation is a wonderful first step. However seeing clearly into the nature of the mind and the ego is essential to any lasting freedom. When the practice of meditation is decoupled from a study of Buddhist Psychology, it can’t do the work it is meant to do. The calm mind, temporarily disentangled from difficult emotions and thoughts in the moment, is still fundamentally shaped by these tendencies. The core issue of the ego has not been attended to and so we stay trapped in self referencing, narcissistic bubbles of thought, even though we long to be set free. 

Dyana Wells, September 2019