I saw this advertisement on my Facebook feed recently and did a double-facepalm.
People often assume that Buddhist meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, is a practice to calm the mind, attain peace and by extension happiness. Peace of mind and happiness are central to Buddhism, but it’s also important to understand how Buddhism approaches the issue, and where mindfulness meditation actually fits into that.
Buddhism approaches the issue of life from the perspective of dukkha, which is a Buddhist term for things like stress, unease, dissatisfaction, pain, strife, etc. It’s a pretty big term, but as mentioned in a recent post, describes a lot of things in life. Further, while some aspects of dukkha are just a part of life (you can’t control the weather for example), a lot of it is self-inflicted because we are infatuated with ourselves, and always expect things to go our way. When someone else gets promoted and we don’t, we get mad, jealous and resentful. Maybe they were the better candidate (objectively speaking), but we don’t see it that way because we naturally tend to see things from our self-centered world-view.
Or, we inflict dukkha on ourselves because we tend to indulge in things we shouldn’t, or we indulge in something without moderation. Chocolate is good. Too much chocolate will give you indigestion. This is not because we are necessarily stupid or anything. A lot of smart people still inflict a lot of dukkha on themselves. Instead, it’s because people want their happiness “fix” without realizing that there’s often a hidden cost. At the very least, you’ll get dissatisfied again and chasing happiness once more, but oftentimes there’s the upfront cost too that you had to do to get that “fix” in the first place.
This is why meditation alone won’t bring peace. Meditation will calm your mind, and give you some clarity, but if you still live a lifestyle geared toward chasing happiness (either physical gratification, or more cerebral/emotional gratification) you’ll be unhappy again soon. Ironically, using meditation to make you happy will just repeat the cycle of chasing after happiness, and when that fades, chasing after it again. It’s just another fix, but a more cerebral one.
The Buddhist approach to getting out of this endless cycle of chasing happiness, temporary gratification, sense of loss, and chasing again is to not get yourself in that cycle in the first place. This requires a kind of dedicated, lifetime training of the mind not to knee-jerk react whenever we encounter something we want (e.g. craving), or something we don’t like and want to avoid (e.g. aversion).
This training requires a kind of three-pronged approach:
- Conduct – Buddhism spends a lot of time talking about personal conduct. This means curtailing the more egregious behavior we do, using guidelines like the Ten Wholesome Acts.1
- Practice – Buddhism has a wide array of practices to help cultivate wholesome states of mind, and to help facilitate conditions to help continue following or advance along the Buddhist path.
- Wisdom – This helps create the right frame of mind for the other two. Or, the other two help give rise to wisdom. They go hand in hand.
The nice thing is that these three things are kind of mutually reinforcing, so it’s best to start building all three of them.
Mindfulness meditation falls under “practice”, because the intention is to train your mind to be able to step back and think rather than react blindly to things you encounter. This can lead to happiness over time because you avoid self-destructive behavior (i.e. maintain conduct) and maintaining wholesome conduct does further and further create peace of mind, because you are not wracked with guilt, regret and such.
But mindfulness meditation is only a small part of the Buddhist path. It is a holistic path that covers many aspects, and if you don’t follow the path in entirety, you’ll only gain temporary benefits.
1 The Ten Wholesome Acts are:
- Abstain from destroying life
- Abstain from taking what is not given
- Abstain from sexual misconduct (adultery, abuse, etc)
- Abstain from false speech
- Abstain from slander
- Abstain from harsh speech
- Abstain from idle chatter (gossip, inappropriate conversations, etc)
- Abstain from greed
- Abstain from ill-will
- Abstrain from wrong views (e.g. view that don’t align with the Dharma)
The key with the Ten Wholesome Acts are to treat them like a gold-standard to work towards. You may not get them right the first time (or first hundred or so), but you keep at it. Like rehearsing for a play.