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Mindfulness is the continuous observation of moment by moment internal and external experience, culminating in awakening to one’s true nature of pure awareness and happiness (also known as “Nirvana”) and elimination of dissatisfaction or suffering. It is the unifying thread of Buddhist teachings, which are a set of pragmatic, proven practices and not a specific “religion.”

What “experience” is being mindfully observed, so that one might awakened and be liberated from dissatisfaction? Buddhism identities four areas toward which mindfulness is directed through one or more of the six senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, sensing, and thinking or feeling):

The Body

  • Breath
  • Postures
  • Physical characteristics (including iThe body’s destiny of decay and death)

Feelings (physical sensations, emotions, thoughts)

  • Pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral
  • Grounded in skillful (virtue, generosity, love) or unskillful (craving, aversion, delusion) mind states

Mind States (attitudes, perceptions, moods, which Buddhists also call “mental factors” or “mental formations”)

  • Grounded in skillful (virtue, generosity, love) or unskillful (craving, aversion, delusion) habits of thinking, speaking, and doing

Categories of Experience (what Buddhists call “Dharmas”)

  • 5 Hindrances to Mindfulness (desire, aversion, sloth or torpor, restlessness or worry, and doubt), and how they can arise, be removed, and be prevented
  • 5 Aggreggates of Clinging to Delusion of “Permanent Self” (physical elements, feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousness), and how they can arise, be removed, and be prevented
  • The 6 senses mentioned above
  • 7 Factors of Awakening (mindfulness itself, investigation of experience, energy, rapture, calm, concentration, and equanimity)

The 4 Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are also classified as categories of experience, but deserve special attention since they form a framework of all the Buddha’s most essential teachings:

The 4 Noble Truths:

  1. There is dissatisfaction
  2. The cause of dissatisfaction is craving
  3. One can be liberated from dissatisfaction
  4. There is a path for achieving this liberation

The Noble Eightfold Path:

  1. Right View: Ease and liberation through a clear understanding of the 4 Noble Truths
  2. Right Thinking or Intent: Determination to be liberated from dissatisfaction through renunciation of unskillful habits, loving-kindness, and compassion
  3. Right Speech: Mindful listening, truthfulness and helpfulness, refraining from slander, gossip, and useless chatter
  4. Right Action: Practicing the 5 Precepts of protecting life, generosity, truthfulness, sexual virtue, and non-intoxication)
  5. Right Livelihood: Engaging in work that promotes life and is beneficial to all created beings and the earth herself
  6. Right Diligence or Effort: Disciplined practice of nurturing skillful habits and removing unskillful habits
  7. Right Mindfulness: This entire piece of writing!
  8. Right Concentration: Direct perception of reality through focused attention on one object or several objects as they come and go

Impermanence, Dissatisfaction, and Selflessness

Even more important for awakening than “what” is observed is “how” things are observed.

Mindfulness looks through the lens of the impermanence of all created phenomena (covering the four areas mentioned above). Everything is in flux, in a constant process of arising, changing, and passing away. Nothing created remains the same, not even for a second. Mindfulness observes this reality in a simple, minimalist, balanced manner called the “middle way.” The process of change matters more to the mindful eye than the content of what is changing.

Because all things are impermanent, they are also—as mindfulness observes—inherently dissatisfying, with suffering as the result of unskillfully insisting that they be permanent or change in a certain manner.

Furthermore, nothing lasts long enough to have a permanent state of being—including any of us having, or being, a permanent “self.” Selflessness is the condition of all created things. Clinging to this illusion of a permanent, separate identity also creates ongoing dissatisfaction or suffering.

The 5 Mindfulness Trainings

I find it helpful to reflect daily on how I’m practicing, through the lenses of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls The Five Mindfulness Trainings (and Valerie Brown’s recent reinterpretation of these trainings through the framework of racial justice amid the COVID-19 pandemic).

These trainings align with Buddhism’s teachings on “The Five Precepts,” and make up the heart of “Right Action” on The Noble Eightfold Path. These short definitions of the trainings are my own summaries of Hanh’s and Brown’s writings:

  1. Reverence for Life: Eliminate all forms of violence against one’s self, other human beings, animals, and nature.
  2. True Happiness: Practice gratitude and generosity and avoid stealing from or exploiting others.
  3. True Love: Cherish and celebrate others and practice sexual virtue in romantic relationships.
  4. Deep Listening and Loving Speech: Practice active listening and kind, helpful speech in order to facilitate equitable and peaceful relationships.
  5. Nourishment & Healing: Eat and drink in a manner that avoids bringing toxins or diseases into the body, and consume media of all forms in moderation.

These five trainings also dovetail with non-violent approaches emphasized by Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., some of the final words of Robert F. Kennedy, and the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) model.

Retraining the Mind

Mindfulness is no less than retraining one’s mind with the ultimate goal of awakening to the Nirvana that is already present. Deliberate mindfulness practice gradually transforms moment by moment reactions and choices, as one learns to understand and accept the impermanence, dissatisfaction, and selflessness of all conditioned existence.

This training does not lead to indifference or nihilism, but instead unveils the loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity that characterize who we really are beneath the clutter of our dissatisfying habits.

John M. DeMarco is a writer, executive coach, and activist based in Nashville, Tennessee.