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Often as part of mindfulness meditation (at least the Westernized form with which I am familiar) we can practice awareness of breath, parts of the breath, arising thoughts etc.

However, if the aim of mindfulness is to be in pure consciousness, how can we at the same time be directing attention to something? Wouldn't this constitute a 'doing' which arises from thought rather than from consciousness?

EDIT: I have accepted an answer that seems to be the most useful for me right now, but I can see that this a complex subject and I will certainly not ignore the content of the other answers.

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The word "mindfulness" means "recollection"; to "remember" or "bear in mind". MN 117 says:

One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one's right mindfulness.

So yes, the aim of mindfulness is to keep the mind free from craving; thus to keep the mind in pure consciousness. Pure consciousness means a consciousness without unwholesome defilement.

When this is done, yes, attention is never directed onto anything (apart from to keeping the mind free from craving). Attempting to direct attention onto something, such as the breathing, is probably the greatest obstacle to stream-entry and properly practising Satipatthana.

When there is no directing of attention, if consciousness is pure, it will automatically connect with the breathing (because the breathing is the grossest sense object for a pure consciousness). Although the suttas describe observantness of breathing, feelings, mental states & Truth, the sutta do not teach to direct attention (except to having no craving).

MN 118 & SN 48.10 say, for example, the development of mindfulness, concentration & jhana relies on letting go ('vossagga') rather than the directing of attention. Mindfulness remembers to abandon craving; to let go. When this letting go of craving occurs, consciousness will be relatively pure and can automatically progress to greater purity.

Ajahn Buddhadasa explained:

As for samadhi, an empty mind is the supreme samadhi, the supremely focused firmness of mind. The straining and striving sort of samadhi isn't the real thing and the samadhi which aims at anything other than non-clinging to the five khandas is micchasamadhi (wrong or perverted samadhi). You should be aware that there is both micchasamadhi and sammasamadhi (right or correct samadhi). Only the mind that is empty of grasping at and clinging to 'I' and 'mine' can have the true and perfect stability of sammasamadhi. One who has an empty mind has correct samadhi.

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From a traditional Buddhist perspective, the purpose of mindfulness is threefold:

  • At a superficial level, the level of mere beginner or layperson, we pay attention to what we do and how we do it, evaluating it against the basic Buddhist guidelines, in order to overcome our basic unwholesome habits.

  • On a deeper level, the level of dedicated practitioner, mindfulness is viewing everything through the prism of Dharma, which means our basic frame of reference we use to interpret all of our experience is superseded with the Buddhist system.

  • On the deepest level, mindfulness is practiced as a way to cultivate tathata or suchness. This is when we learn to observe phenomena with no judgment or taking sides. In the absence of taking sides our experience becomes pure reflection of whatever is happening, with no conflict of interest generated when experience mismatches the expectations of the side we took.

As you can see, nowhere on this ladder do we try to "be in pure consciousness" without directing or doing. What we try to do is change our frame of reference and indeed our identification to free ourselves from all traces of existential conflict.

This means that "doing" and "thinking" is not your enemy, it's not your goal to stop them or to go without them - not at all. Your goal is "cessation of craving & attachment", meaning to not take sides or boundaries in any way that would lead to experience of suffering.

Your entire mental machine - including thoughts, emotions, and impulses - should keep functioning, it's only your attitude that must undergo purification and "liberation" (from mind-made boundaries).

Among other things this means that at some point you even stop judging your own thoughts and taking sides wrt them. But of course, there is a fine line here between allowing your mind go unbounded vs letting the pathological urges and neuroses drag you around. The standard Buddhist approach is, first you liberate yourself from crude types of conflict, then gradually move onto more and more subtle kinds.

In general my advice is, as you go around your day, your mindfulness should be in how you don't get involved in maintaining drama - not in trying to avoid controlling anything at all. Your level of involvement in drama is something you must control, all the way until this very control remains the only extant drama, at which point you drop it too - but not before that.

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The practice progresses and starts with directed attention, which is subsequently relinquished. This process is detailed in AN8.63 as it is applied in its entirety to different focuses of meditation:

AN8.63:3.1: When this immersion is well developed and cultivated in this way, you should develop it while placing the mind and keeping it connected. You should develop it without placing the mind, but just keeping it connected. You should develop it without placing the mind or keeping it connected. You should develop it with rapture. You should develop it without rapture. You should develop it with pleasure. You should develop it with equanimity.

Another translation of the same passage offers similar advice:

When you have developed this concentration in this way, you should develop this concentration with directed thought & evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought & a modicum of evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought & no evaluation, you should develop it accompanied by rapture… not accompanied by rapture… endowed with a sense of enjoyment; you should develop it endowed with equanimity. an8.63/en/thanissaro

In general:

We can agree that the training progresses gradually, from coarse to more subtle. This includes using such aids such as auto-suggestion, thematic thinking, directed attention, and effort&control - useful in the beginning, dropped as we go along. – Andrei Volkov♦ 3 hours ago

  • The translation above is questionable. – Dhammadhatu Jan 8 at 22:07
  • Thank you. Added Ajahn Thanissaro's translation, which is similar in progression. – OyaMist Jan 9 at 0:33
  • Its still a wrong translation. Vitakka in jhana does not mean "directed thought". – Dhammadhatu Jan 9 at 2:18
  • Ah. Please let Ajahns Sujato and Thanissaro know. I do not know Pali. I just study the suttas. – OyaMist Jan 9 at 2:27
  • 1
    Well then. What can we agree on? – OyaMist Jan 9 at 5:17
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Maybe it’s an irony that the more you try, the more you fail. I used to be a Buddhist and it hurt me to think that I can’t do what the teachings want me to.

Yet, I think there is something to your question, to walk so much in tune with a mind that you exactly what it wishes or the same thing it is doing with you.

Maybe you are seeking a Who rather than a What. I hope that helps.

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"However, if the aim of mindfulness is to be in pure consciousness, how can we at the same time be directing attention to something?"

As Andrei said, the premise of your question is wrong. That is not the aim of developing single pointed concentration.

  • @Yeshe Tenley Could you elaborate on a plausible alternative? Just stating that X is wrong doesn't help a lot. – Erik Jan 9 at 6:18
  • Hi Erik, I wish I could’ve been more helpful, but the question lacked detail as to how the faulty premise came to be. – Yeshe Tenley Jan 13 at 16:06

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