The term mindfulness is something that’s talked about a lot in Buddhism, but if your new to Buddhism, it may not make a lot of sense. This is made more confusing when people talk about “being in the moment” or “no past, no future”, blah blah blah. All mindfulness really means is being mindful of what you’re doing. As Ven. Walpola Rahula wrote in the book What The Buddha Taught, mindfulness isn’t about suppressing angry or cravings when they arise, but just being aware that you are angry or craving something. Interestingly, if you try that, you’ll see that angry or craving dissipate once you’re aware of it.
Since we’re born, we live life in a constant state of reaction to external forces. When we’re hungry, we go eat something; when we see a hot girl, we want to be around her; when someone yells at us, we get angry. From birth to death, it’s a constant string of reactions to external and internal forces, and we suffer from a kind of tunnel vision. It’s not really your fault, since conception, you’re bombarded with input and you have to construct your world based on the limited input you receive. If you received different input (i.e. different environment), you would construct your world a little differently. This is what the Buddha referred to as conditioning: all beings have a conditioned existence, and our minds are deeply conditioned.
Mindfulness is training yourself to not just react to things, but to consider things first, then take action. For example, if your husband or wife yells at you, your first instinct is to yell back louder (eye for an eye, and all that), but if you think about it for a moment, yelling more won’t solve the conflict, it will just throw gasoline on the fire. So, if you are aware that you’re angry, you’ll keep yourself from just blindly yelling back. Instead, that extra half-second of thought will give you time to come up with a more rational response.
All this is well and good though, but how do you become mindful of your actions? This is a life-long process, like following the five moral precepts; no one gets it right the first time, or even the first hundred or thousand times. The point is is that you keep trying. As the Japanese say: nana korobi ya oki (seven times down, eight times back up).
I know this from personal experience. I never took the precepts seriously or mindfulness seriously until after Baby was born. I remember very early on that I resolved to make myself as good a father as I could, but I have a lot of bad habits such as swearing, self-centered personality, and so on. So I’ve had to make gradual changes to my behavior (i.e. train the mind) to be aware of what I am doing, and to think about what I say before I say it. This often fails, especially when I am tired and sluggish, but in the last two years, I’ve noticed small, small changes. I practically never swear anymore, even when at work not at home, and I used to dread cleaning the toilet, but having a new perspective on it makes me much more willing to do it. Those small changes give me the confidence to keep going, even when I screw up.
This is also true with the five precepts. I used to forget them all the time, but through gradual training, I am more mindful of the precepts, and am much less inclined to swat an ant or bug than before. I am also less inclined to talk about people behind their back, and praise myself while disparaging others. These are small gains granted, I still can be pretty immature and selfish, but any progress gained is better than no progress at all.
Now, how to become more mindful is tricky, and I am not an expert at this, but let me offer some advice:
- Reciting something like the five moral precepts, a certain Buddhist mantra,* or a small quote from a Buddhist sutra on a daily or weekly basis helps reinforce wholesome habits. One can certainly recite a little of each.
- Meditation techniques, like focusing on your breath, help keep your mind focused, and not get distracted so easily.
- Study, study, study the teachings of the Buddha. The more you are aware of bad behaviors, and the problems they cause, they more motivated and mindful you will be to avoid them. The more you are aware of positive behaviors, and their benefits to you and others, the more motivated and mindful you will be to try to practice them.
* – I have always liked the Mantra of Light myself, but many like the famous mantra oṃ maṇi padme huṃ.