do I have to be Buddhist to benefit from mindfulness?

Updated On — 11th Oct, 2022

 

What is mindfulness meditation, and do I have to be a Buddhist to benefit from practicing it?

 

I am frequently asked if someone needs to be a Buddhist to benefit from Buddhist meditation. My answer is a qualified no. I say qualified because if I simply said no and left it at that, then mindfulness meditation would be no different from mindfulness as therapy, workplace stress reduction or a way to get an edge in the cut-throat corporate world.

why miss out on the fully transformative potential of mindfulness?

Not that there’s anything wrong with these applications, although some conservative Buddhists might disagree. I just feel it is a pity to miss out on the depth and powerfully transformative potential when mindfulness is not appreciated within its original framing.

I mean, if you are already into mindfulness, why sell yourself short?

The response I hear the most is having zero interest in metaphysical concepts, and being turned off by anything vaguely suggestive of religion, dogma or worship.

OK, fair enough. But what if you dig a little deeper and see that none of those objections hold water?

what is mindfulness? See the original framing of the eightfold path
Traditional stupa in Sri Lanka

what is mindfulness?

The original framing of mindfulness, in the Early Buddhist presentations, emphasizes a radically pragmatic approach centered around a core commitment to non-harming. The Buddha encouraged people, through mindful awareness in daily life, ethical practices, formal sitting and walking meditation, and community support, to alleviate the suffering of all beings, including oneself.

Worship and dogma were not a thing for Early Buddhism. Nor were the notions of a savior, or anything like a Judaeo-Christian heaven.

so when are you going to nirvana?

One of my relatives, aware of my Buddhist monk training, once quipped “Hey, so when are you going to nirvana?” I couldn’t let that go. There was a little bit of a dig there, so I asked with as soft a tone as I could muster, if we could explore this question a little. Surprisingly, he agreed.

Turns out his notion of “nirvana,” by his own admission, was “you know, like the Viking Valhalla.” I am running out of space to take this one apart, but you see what I mean? It’s amazing how many intelligent people hold such uncharitable opinions of Buddhism based on, well, nothing.

(OK, short answer, nirvana refers to completely eradicating greed, hate, and delusion from our minds–the “three roots” of our pervasive discontent according to the Buddha. The “place” of nirvana is always right here).

What is mindfulness? to answer this one must look at the original context of mindfuless--the eightfold path.
The original framing of Mindfulness within the eightfold path

the original framing is the eightfold path

The illustration above is original framing of Buddhist mindfulness I have been talking about- a set of eight areas we work on called the eighfold path. You’ll notice the mindfulness is just one of these eight “folds.” Within this context each fold of the path supports and affects all other parts.

The Buddha is sometimes looked on as a doctor or healer. The disease he set out to heal was our discontent, frustration, and existential malaise. He had one prescription he gave out throughout his 45 years of teaching, this eightfold path, an eight step course of treatment leading to radical well being.

Here is a simple, twelve minute introduction to the eightfold path.

 

When mindfulness is practiced without regard to the other seven folds, instead of purifying the mind and heart of these three poisons, mindfulness could unwittingly strengthen these negative qualities.

pitfall–mindfulness in the service of the ego

Without close oversight from the other seven folds, the ego can co-opt the practice of mindfulness for its own aggrandizement. This happens a lot if you don’t train with a wise and mature teacher.

In the coming weeks, we’ll explore these topics a little deeper. But let me leave you with an example of what I am getting at.

the practice of right speech

If you look at the diagram here, the first area of the ethical behavior group is “right speech.” (Note: some translators use the words “wise” or “correct” instead of “right”).

Right speech is an incredibly rich and nuanced mindfulness practice. And full disclosure here– this is an area I am really, really working on improving, one I have trouble with!

Let’s say we challenge ourselves to spend this next week practicing wise speech. The idea is we use our mindfulness skills to recognize what we are about to say before we say it so we have a greater choice of what to say, when to say it, how to say it, and even if we should say it.

To do this, we consider what would be unwise speech which the Buddha defined as “refraining from false speech, malicious, or harsh speech”, as well “idle chatter that just wastes time.”

the five factors of right speech

The Buddha gave us simple way to evaluate our practice of right speech, saying there are 5 factors to consider when we speak, as follows:

A statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken, blameless and not faulted by wise people. Which five? It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken politely. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.

—The Buddha (AN 5:198)

We practice holding our tongue in moments of anger, or hostility. But along with the practices of loving-kindness and compassion, we train ourselves step by step to “incline towards wholesome states such as love, kindness and empathy.”

will you take the challenge with me?

There is so much to talk about here! Will you take up this challenge with me until next week? Just keep this in mind this week before speaking, reflect mindfully as you pause:

Is what I’m about to say factual, helpful, spoken with good-will, endearing, and timely?

Talk to you next week.

 


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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

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