What is Mindfulness in Buddhism (Zen) – How is Mindfulness practiced in Zen Buddhism (how do they do it)?

Mindfulness is commonly associated with the Pali word sati (smrti in Sanskrit; and denpa in Tibetan) (Rapgay & Bystrisky, 2009). In classical Buddhist understandings, the concept of mindfulness differs slightly from the scientific understanding of it. While slight variations exist in its interpretation between different Buddhist traditions, they also share several features.

First and foremost, in Buddhist understanding, mindfulness is understood as “close, clear-minded attention to, or awareness of, what is perceived in the present” (Quaglia, 2014). However, texts differ with regard to their focus on either awareness or attention, and in some cases these concepts are used interchangeably.

Second, while mindfulness in psychology is often viewed as a way to distance oneself from thoughts and emotions, Buddhist interpretations view thought as an important component of being mindful. Thus, through mindfulness, we become more lucidly aware of the things we experience, and we develop a deeper understanding of the nature and qualities of the world.I n this way, awareness and reasoning are intertwined processes and together they lead to insight.

Scholars have also proposed that only the basic expression of mindfulness involves sustained attention to perceptual objects, and serves as a basis for developing insight when comprehension is also added to the mix.

This latter practice is called ‘wise mindfulness’ and this is where mindfulness has the potential to lessen suffering, according to Buddhist understandings of the term. Thus, “the practitioner of mindfulness must at times evaluate mental qualities and intended deeds, make judgments about them, and engage in purposeful action.” (Bodhi, 2011; p. 26).

Several functions of classical mindfulness (Rapgay & Bystrisky, 2009) are detailed below. The two forms of awareness are at the core of mindfulness and serve as a basis for developing the other functions.

Attention with concurrent awareness: The objective in this function is to develop stability in one’s attention, the ability to hold an object in attention steadily and in a sustained manner. It is only when this is achieved that the object can be fully experienced, and it can be identified and labeled appropriately (e.g., an emotion).

Introspective awareness: The main function of awareness in mindfulness is to notice experiences that arise in consciousness while one is maintaining focused attention to an object or a process (e.g., breathing). It is called introspective or observational awareness because it involves using the observing ego to monitor one’s immediate experiences.

Labeling: This refers to notating “the mental function that generates the content of an experience.” (Rapgay & Bystrisky, 2009) Thus, when a thought occurs, the practitioner can label the process as “thinking.” Labeling helps separate process from content and thereby helps distancing oneself from the content of thoughts and emotions, and it also helps us realize that much of our daily experience is driven by mental processes such as thinking, feeling, recalling, etc.

Perceptual and cognitive regulation: When this function has been mastered, the practitioner can repeatedly switch between attention and introspective awareness experiences. One trains to let go of one experience fully in order to be totally open and present to the new experience of awareness.

Repeated practice of letting go is likened to that of a child learning to let go of the mother’s hands in order to take the first steps on its own, and enables the practitioner to terminate his or her current experience in order to approach a new one. At the heart of letting go is the need to give up control in order to be fully present to a new experience.

Bodhi. (2011). The Noble Eightfold Path Way to the End of Suffering. Chicago: Pariyatti Publishing. Retrieved from http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=828161

Rapgay, L., & Bystrisky, A. (2009). Classical Mindfulness: An Introduction to Its Theory and Practice for Clinical Application. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172(1), 148–162. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04405.x

Quaglia, J. T., Brown, K. W., Lindsay, E. K., Creswell, J. D., & Goodman, R. J. (2014). From conceptualization to operationalization of mindfulness. Handbook of mindfulness: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Guilford.

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