The Power of Mindfulness – Intro 2

Introduction to The Power of Mindfulness by Nyanaponika Thera, part 2 of 2 (see previous post for part 1):

The Buddha spoke of the power of mindfulness in a very emphatic way:

“Mindfulness, I declare, is all-helpful” (Samyutta, 46:59). “All things can be mastered by mindfulness” (Anguttara, 8:83).

Further, there is that solemn and weighty utterance opening and concluding the Satipatthana Sutta, the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness:

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

In ordinary life, if mindfulness, or attention, is directed to any object, it is rarely sustained long enough for the purpose of careful and factual observation. Generally it is followed immediately by emotional reaction, discriminative thought, reflection, or purposeful action. In a life and thought governed by the Buddha’s teaching too, mindfulness (sati) is mostly linked with clear comprehension (sampajañña) of the right purpose or suitability of an action, and other considerations. Thus again it is not viewed in itself. But to tap the actual and potential power of mindfulness it is necessary to understand and deliberately cultivate it in its basic, unalloyed form, which we shall call bare attention.

By bare attention we understand the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception. It is called “bare” because it attends to the bare facts of a perception without reacting to them by deed, speech or mental comment. Ordinarily, that purely receptive state of mind is, as we said, just a very brief phase of the thought process of which one is often scarcely aware. But in the methodical development of mindfulness aimed at the unfolding of its latent powers, bare attention is sustained for as long a time as one’s strength of concentration permits. Bare attention then becomes the key to the meditative practice of satipatthana, opening the door to mind’s mastery and final liberation.

Bare attention is developed in two ways: (1) as a methodical meditative practice with selected objects; (2) as applied, as far as practicable, to the normal events of the day, together with a general attitude of mindfulness and clear comprehension. The details of the practice have been described elsewhere, and need not be repeated here.

The primary purpose of this essay is to demonstrate and explain the efficacy of this method, that is, to show the actual power of mindfulness. Particularly in an age like ours, with its superstitious worship of ceaseless external activity, there will be those who ask: “How can such a passive attitude of mind as that of bare attention possibly lead to the great results claimed for it?” In reply, one may be inclined to suggest to the questioner not to rely on the words of others, but to put these assertions of the Buddha to the test of personal experience. But those who do not yet know the Buddha’s teaching well enough to accept it as a reliable guide, may hesitate to take up, without good reasons, a practice that just on account of its radical simplicity may appear strange to them. In the following a number of such “good reasons” are therefore proffered for the reader’s scrutiny. They are also meant as an introduction to the general spirit of satipatthana and as pointers to its wide and significant perspectives. Furthermore, it is hoped that he who has taken up the methodical training will recognize in the following observations certain features of his own practice, and be encouraged to cultivate them deliberately.

[to be continued…]

Full article can be found here:

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The Power of Mindfulness – Intro 1

Friends – As I’ll be away from my computer for a while, I’m presenting a classic essay by Nyanaponika Thera called “The Power of Mindfulness” in this and a couple of subsequent posts. With repeated readings, the essay has provided inspiration and deepening understanding to me. I hope it does the same for you.

Introduction (part 1 of 2)

Is mindfulness actually a power in its own right as claimed by the title of this essay? Seen from the viewpoint of the ordinary pursuits of life, it does not seem so. From that angle mindfulness, or attention, has a rather modest place among many other seemingly more important mental faculties serving the purpose of variegated wish-fulfillment. Here, mindfulness means just “to watch one’s steps” so that one may not stumble or miss a chance in the pursuit of one’s aims. Only in the case of specific tasks and skills is mindfulness sometimes cultivated more deliberately, but here too it is still regarded as a subservient function, and its wider scope and possibilities are not recognized.

Even if one turns to the Buddha’s doctrine, taking only a surface view of the various classifications and lists of mental factors in which mindfulness appears, one may be inclined to regard this faculty just as “one among many.” Again one may get the impression that it has a rather subordinate place and is easily surpassed in significance by other faculties.

Mindfulness in fact has, if we may personify it, a rather unassuming character. Compared with it, mental factors such as devotion, energy, imagination, and intelligence, are certainly more colorful personalities, making an immediate and strong impact on people and situations. Their conquests are sometimes rapid and vast, though often insecure. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is of an unobtrusive nature. Its virtues shine inwardly, and in ordinary life most of its merits are passed on to other mental faculties which generally receive all the credit. One must know mindfulness well and cultivate its acquaintance before one can appreciate its value and its silent penetrative influence. Mindfulness walks slowly and deliberately, and its daily task is of a rather humdrum nature. Yet where it places its feet it cannot easily be dislodged, and it acquires and bestows true mastery of the ground it covers.

Mental faculties of such a nature, like actual personalities of a similar type, are often overlooked or underrated. In the case of mindfulness, it required a genius like the Buddha to discover the “hidden talent” in the modest garb, and to develop the vast inherent power of that potent seed. It is, indeed, the mark of a genius to perceive and to harness the power of the seemingly small. Here, truly, it happens that “what is little becomes much.” A revaluation of values takes place. The standards of greatness and smallness change. Through the master mind of the Buddha, mindfulness is finally revealed as the Archimedean point where the vast revolving mass of world suffering is levered out of its twofold anchorage in ignorance and craving.

(Introduction – part 2 of 2 in next post)

Full article is here:

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Getting off the hamster wheel

This phrase occurred to me during a day of silent meditation. It refers both to physically removing oneself from daily chores and concerns and, once physically secluded, gently removing those activities from the mind as well. If successful, a quiet calm prevails.

Our discussion of Right Speech has caused me to reflect on the lived experience of changing the way I listen and speak. There is so much momentum to normal superficial interactions; we often speak without listening deeply to others and without thinking deeply (or at all) about what we say. When we’re just floating along, all the talk seems to pass by unnoticed, like background music. It’s the pauses, the slowing down, that allow space for mindfulness. If we rest on a core of silence, choosing what to allow into our consciousness at a deeper level, a calm steadiness may grow in our hearts.

For some, the hamster wheel feels so familiar that getting off it might be an upsetting idea. One friend used to say he was like an ancient boiler, held together with string and band-aids, and if he stopped chugging along, it would be the end. It takes courage and patience to try something different. We may not be particularly good at it to begin with, but we are also somehow aware that staying on a superficial “call and response” level is not enriching us.

How to find an opening? One way is to identify the moments during the day when we’re not running as fast as we can. We can track the speed of our physical/mental momentum and notice when the intensity is high and when it’s lower. We can notice that although we may not be entirely still, sometimes we’re pedalling less furiously. Simply being aware of this fluctuation through the day will improve our mindfulness.

Another possibility is to make a determination to try to take a full in-breath and out-breath each time before speaking. This might feel like deliberately tripping ourselves, but we could be surprised at how others adjust to a slightly different rhythm. If we relax a little, others will often do the same in response.

We can all design our own techniques for slowing down enough for mindfulness to have a look-in. Speech is a particularly useful object for study because we do so much of it, and because it can seem so automatic.

It would also be useful and kind if we all took extra care with our written communications, proofreading them before sending. Auto-correct sometimes does unexpected and embarrassing things (joke: “I hope the inventors of auto-correct burn in hello”). It’s always wise to carefully re-read before sending texts and emails (or, heaven forbid, Tweets). If the message is laden with emotion, set it aside for several breaths (at least) and then take another look. Great harm can be avoided by minding our words; we can become a source of peace and kindness in the world.

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Speech that has value

The last of four sub-types of right or skilful speech (after truthful, harmonious, and gentle speech) is refraining from empty chatter; not gossiping or blathering just to fill a silence. Useless speech could be defined as words that cloud rather than clarify a situation. Thinking and talking about what might happen in the future instead of factual information also falls into this category. Pouring forth our unfiltered thoughts is meaningless speech.

Meaningful speech nourishes us and others, clarifies our vision, helps us understand our actual conditions. Silences give us room for reflection, to establish mindfulness before speaking. We can observe, investigate, and improve our understanding before we compose our thoughts. In the suttas, the most valuable speech is connected with the Dhamma, or the way things are.

Sometimes people wonder how this squares with general politeness. In France, for example, one would never start a conversation or any interaction without first saying “bon jour” – it’s just not done. I’ve been told that a polite question when greeting others in some African countries is “How did you sleep?” – an eminently reasonable way to discover whether someone is open to further conversation. Other cultures have other customs, but for all of us, it doesn’t feel right to just barge in with our question or comment without creating a little “on ramp”.

“When the greetings and polite conversation were over …” is a phrase used near the beginning of many Pali canon suttas. It is a respectful approach to teachers, among peers, with anyone. What’s going on here?

When we meet someone we know or someone we don’t know, it is wise to check in before launching our intended conversation. It’s a way of discerning whether this is the right time for your topic to be introduced. Perhaps the other person is preoccupied or distracted by a personal worry, or is hampered by a physical or mental problem. We want to have meaningful exchanges, but usually it’s a good idea to pause and see if the two participants are on a similar wavelength, ready to speak and listen.

If we approach others with this baseline respect, we’ll avoid creating embarrassing or awkward situations. We can also use our eyes; sometimes people are obviously not available or in a bad mood, and we should take that into account. It is also useful to consider before conversing whether what’s on our mind actually needs to be shared. Too often, we assume that something we find amusing or interesting must be of interest to others. Perhaps we can use discernment instead of assuming.

When standing in a queue (or a line) or seated next to a stranger in an airplane or bus, it may seem natural to converse, but it’s not necessary. Many people would prefer to be left alone with their thoughts, book, or (more likely) their smartphone.

Thoughtless chatter can support unwholesome mind states and block inner peace. Exercising an intention to speak in a meaningful way will lead us to a deeper level of self-awareness and a calmer heart.


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Speaking gently

A third element of Right Speech, after truthfulness and harmonious speech, is gentle speech, that is, avoiding all the many ways we could indulge in harsh speech. Harsh speech might be too loud, threatening, sarcastic, inappropriate in a particular setting, crude, swearing, belittling speech, or anything similar. We might think of it as bullying speech, intentionally or not.

Whatever the norm was in our growing up years will likely sound and feel natural to us, but it’s worth taking a step back and seeing if we can reframe what we consider normal talk. We could begin by noticing that there are different styles of talk practiced in different places and times. At a sporting event, we might shout at the players or the referee (even if this means yelling at the television); within military service settings there is a formalized way of address (and an informal way among peers); in some families, there is love in every sentence and every look; in public, a minimum level of civility smooths our way. Are we the same person in all the different places we find ourselves? Or do we adjust, consciously or unconsciously, to mimic those around us? Do we have “upper and lower boundaries” of what we allow ourselves to say?

For most of us, it is pleasant to speak with or listen to someone whose talk is similar to ours or a little better in terms of vocabulary, enunciation, and tone. We are strained by hearing voices that are inarticulate, heavily accented, or incoherent. Kindly speech is always more welcome than crude or rough speech.

For some, giving up swearing takes a similar amount of effort to giving up smoking, especially if those around us have no intention of changing their habits. But forswearing swearing can have health benefits just as giving up smoking does. We can raise ourselves in our own estimation and that of others. It is an act of kindness to speak in a way that doesn’t make others wince or force them to steel themselves against our words.

From Lama Yeshe (

Then harshly speaking. However the words might be nice sounding but it is hurting to other people’s mind, sometimes the way the person says, kind of sounding nice, but it hurt the other person. 

So, harsh speech can be in a soft tone of voice, but if there is intentional harm behind the words, it falls into this unwholesome category. If we check for compassion and care in our hearts before we speak, we will avoid ill-intentioned, ungentle speech.

We can become an oasis of verbal peace for the people we encounter. All it takes is remembering to keep centered on gentle speech.

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Divisive or harmonious speech?

A second category of Right Speech (after truthfulness) is harmonious speech, or refraining from saying things with the intention of dividing people or groups from each other. It is a challenging moment in history, in many places, to hold to this principle. Our public discourse seems to have descended to a level where hardly anything can be said without someone objecting.

Behind this trend is an increasing strain of “us vs. them” thinking, writing, and talking. It is human nature to prefer “our own” people to those who seem different, whether by dint of language, class, education, nationality, color, ethnicity, age, gender, political position, etc. The boundaries between groups are variable (not fixed), and in any given moment we can create or destroy categories in our own mind. In some situations a particular “us-them” divide arises and in other situations it dissipates. When others express strong opinions, sometimes we may be infected with a divisive mind-set. Likewise, we may feel inspired when we witness harmonious speech.

Extra-terrestrial invasion was a theme of 20th century science fiction, in some cases specifically in order to create an “us” out of world-wide humanity. It seems as if we only pull together if there is an outside threat of some sort, whether from a natural disaster or other causes. But we don’t need an enemy, real or imagined, to consider ourselves “us” with every living being. We have the option of remembering that we are all in the same situation with respect to old age, sickness, and death. We are all subject to the vagaries of weather, bad luck, and the random nature of our world. We are all trapped together in saṃsāra.

Saṃsāra: The word literally means “wandering through, flowing on”, in the sense of “aimless and directionless wandering”. The concept of saṃsāra is closely associated with the belief that the person continues to be born and reborn in various realms and forms [Wikipedia]. This is our condition, wandering aimlessly in search of comfort and fleeing discomfort, never reaching any resting place except temporarily. 

It’s our actions and words that make our world, not how we feel about a particular person or group of people. In the end, only kind intentions and the words and actions that come from them are beneficial.

So when we are tempted to righteous indignation, to denigrating or dismissing others, we would do well to pause and consider: How would words spoken in anger, even (or especially) righteous anger, be received? Would they bring about healing or hurting? Would they persuade others to our position or harden their opposition? Are we able to bring enough awareness to our speech to avoid divisiveness?

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Truthfulness first

The third factor of the Eightfold Path is Right Speech, that is, cultivating speech that will lead us and others towards peace and away from unwholesome results.

Of all the guidelines about speech, the most fundamental is truthfulness. Without being truthful we cannot be trustworthy; if we’re willing to bend the truth for our own advantage, then (the Buddha said) there is nothing we wouldn’t do. How closely do we attend to our speech on a regular basis?

Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters – Albert Einstein

There are two parts to training in this path factor (which is also one of the five precepts): first, we try to get better at refraining from speaking any falsehood. We can always choose to remain silent if we’re unsure about the truthfulness of our intended statement. Second, we can take scrupulous care so that when we do speak, what we say is true.

In the Pali suttas, there is special mention of truthfulness when being asked questions in an official setting, and the instruction is simply that if we know, we must say what we know, if we don’t know, we must say that we don’t know.

INTENTION — If one speaks something false believing it to be true, there is no breach of the precept as the intention to deceive is absent. Though the deceptive intention is common to all cases of false speech, lies can appear in different guises depending on the motivating root, whether greed, hatred, or delusion. Greed as the chief motive results in the lie aimed at gaining some personal advantage for oneself or for those close to oneself – material wealth, position, respect, or admiration. With hatred as the motive, false speech takes the form of the malicious lie, the lie intended to hurt and damage others. When delusion is the primary motive, the result is a less pernicious type of falsehood: the irrational lie, the compulsive lie, the interesting exaggeration, lying for the sake of a joke. (Bhikkhu Bodhi, from The Noble Eightfold Path)

Often, we speak from habit rather than thoughtfulness, unaware of the damage we may be doing. Sometimes we jump in before another person has finished speaking, or we repeat information from untrustworthy sources. It can be challenging to speak well when people around us speak carelessly, but if we bring a measure of clarity and seriousness to our conversation, it will brighten whatever environment we’re in.

Lying, like any type of cheating, is situational. We humans are constantly calculating the costs and benefits of being truthful or not. But we can make the calculation and choose, every time, to be honest, even when it is inconvenient.

Practicing Right Speech, and truthfulness in particular, starts with examining our motives. By pausing, taking a breath, and asking ourselves “Is this true? Is it beneficial? Is it the right time?”, we can choose with wisdom to speak or keep silent.



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