Mindfulness Matters

Martin Seligman is one of the biggest names in the field of psychology. He did the original research ont he concept of learned helplessness and has now helped to found the field of positive psychology with concepts like learned optimism. He, and the field, have come full circle from a view of humanity that has shifted from “what is wrong with you” to “what is right with you.” Humorous and enlightening, this talk provides an historical overview of the field. 

Seligman presents three considerations for happiness: pleasant emotions, engagement, and meaningfulness. Mindfulness is mentioned in the context of pleasant emotions, and while not specifically mentioned in the engagement portion of happiness it is present there too. The concept of “flow” is a mindful state — there is no separation between you and the activity; no self consciousness. The third path of meaningfulness emerges from being involved with something larger than your self. Mindfulness as part of the path to awakening is critical to this path of self-transcdendence.

A recent Tricycle Daily Dharma (click here to receive these daily emails with brief excerpts of writing from Tricycle Magazine) the great Thai teacher Ajahn Chah gave the metaphor of plowing your own field. 

When people genuinely meet the dharma, they realize it directly within themselves. So the Buddha said that he is merely the one who shows the way. In teaching us, he is not accomplishing the way for us. It is not so easy as that. It’s like someone who sells us a plow to till the fields. He isn’t going to do the plowing for us. We have to do that ourselves. Don’t wait for the salesman to do it. Once he’s made the sale, he takes the money and splits. That’s his part.That’s how it is in practice. The Buddha shows the way. He’s not the one who does it for us. Don’t expect the salesman to till your field. If we understand the path in this way, it’s a little more comfortable for us, and we will do it ourselves. Then there will be fruition.

We are a culture of convenience. Look at all the inventions designed to make our lives easier. In spiritual circles we can succumb to the same mentality. Instant enlightenment. Instant transformation. There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of self-help gurus (myself included) who promise transformation.


And as Ajahn Chah reminds, no one can do the work for you. Not even the Buddha. I’m reminded of the Buddha’s admonition, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Beware of teacher’s promising instant transformation. Change is hard and requires long effort. Real change requires a fundamental restructuring of our concepts — the deep frames and metaphors that shape how we see ourselves and the world.

I have found that meditation practice is a reliable way to do this restructuring. We deconstruct our concepts and stories when we sit and familiarize ourselves with unfolding phenomenological reality that lives furtively beneath the stories. We can reconstruct ourselves in a way that is more free. 
The Buddha’s wisdom and emphasis on mindfulness can be the plow that allows us to do this work.


It’s Stress Reduction Sunday. Read my weekly post in the Connecticut Watchdog, This week’s entry, Sleep-Deprived Society :: The Critical Importance for Sleep in Managing Stress

In previous entries we’ve explored the nature of stress and how paying attention to the present moment through mindfulness can be an effective antidote to stress. Today we’ll begin to explore how sleep plays a role in stress and what we can do to improve sleep quality and quantity. What I’d like to impress is how important sleep is.

Sleep is critical to well-being. It’s one of the “Big Three” of what I call “Exquisite Self-Care” along with exercise and nutrition. Yet sleep is pervasively undervalued. We are a sleep deprived society according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Surveys conducted by the NSF (1999-2004) reveal that at least 40 million Americans suffer from many different sleep disorders and 60 percent of adults report having sleep problems a few nights a week or more.

This past summer I stood in the
reference library at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies staring at the Pali
Canon. It occupies an entire bookshelf, standing 2.5 by 8 feet tall, comprised
of 140 volumes on six and one half shelves. 

I’d tell you how many
pages there were, but I can’t read the Pali script. Suffice to say there are
tens of thousands (I estimate 30,000). This version is published by the
Vipassana Research Institute in Burma and is in the original Pali. These 
gold leaf-embossed maroon
volumes with their Sanskrit-looking characters (Pali and Sanskrit are closely

These volumes represent
the teachings of the Buddha. Known as the Pitakas (“baskets”) they
consist of the Vinaya (monastic code of discipline), the Suttas (the popular
discourses), and the Abhidhamma (“a compendium of profound teachings
elucidating the functioning and interrelationships of mind, mental factors,
matter, and the phenomena transcending these.” 

The Pitaka was the written
down version of the oral tradition that persisted at the time of the Buddha and
in the years after his death. Recitation of the canon persisted even after it
was written down and continues to do this day. Contemporary Burmese master Mahathera
Vicittasarabhivamsa can recite the Tipitaka from memory. 

Over the centuries,
the Pali Canon has been preserved in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Cambodia
and the versions that emerged in these different countries are meaningfully the
same, attesting to the validity of their contents.

“The Sangha clearly
demonstrates that in Dhamma there is no place for blind faith, emotional
devotion, or the logician’s hair splitting intellectual acrobatics. The Dhamma
is immensely practical.”

Six Dhamma Councils
(Dhamma-Sangitas) “Dhamma Recitations” have taken place over the centuries. “The basic teaching of
the Buddha were first recited by an elder monk and then canted after him in
chorus by the whole assembly. The recitation was considered to be authentic
when it was unanimously approved by all of the monks in attendance.” (from
the Preface of the Pali Canon) The recitations were committed to words at the
Fourth Council some 500 years after the Buddha’s death.

The first council, 500 monks worked for seven months. 100 years later
the second council was convened and settled disagreements regarding the
monastic rules. The third council was convened in326 BCE by King Ashoka with 1000 monks
working for 9 months. The fourth council took place in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE with 500 monks writing
it down for the first time. 

Jumping ahead, the Fifth Council took place in
Mandalay in 1871. 2400 monks labored for five months inscribing the Tiipitaka
onto marble slabs. The sixth council took place in Rangoon in 1954 with 2500 monks
from all the Theravada countries.

The Pali Canon is a rich and fascinating repository of the Buddha’s teachings. From time to time, I will present passages from the Canon.