Reflections On Mindfulness

An interview with Shaila Catherine

Question from Interviewer: What is mindfulness?

Shaila Catherine: Mindfulness practices are derived from the Buddha’s teaching and are taught and practiced to reduce suffering, explore perception and spark liberating insight. I usually describe mindfulness as the capacity to be aware of what is without reactivity, desire or aversion distorting that experience. So if we’re really present to perceptions of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought, we are aware and mindful of that perception without the distortion of personal preference, judgment, and reactivity.

Q: How does mindfulness help people manage their emotions and thoughts?

Shaila: Most people perceive things through the distortion of desire, aversion, or delusion; grasping for objects with thoughts, “I like this, I don’t like this,” or grasping for self with assumptions of “I am this, I am not this.” It is our predisposition and assumptions that distort perception. For example, we might be basically aware that we are experiencing sadness, yet there is a difference between being able to say “I am sad” and being mindful of sadness. When somebody is just generally aware that they’re sad, they may be caught in the story of it. They may be judging their experience or be caught in a reaction to the experience. That is not mindfulness.

Mindfulness implies an equanimous and clear relationship to what is actually happening. Mindfulness helps people settle and know precisely what’s actually happening. It is very matter of fact.

Q: How is this matter-of-fact perception beneficial for people dealing with suffering? What is the importance of this kind of awareness in therapeutic situations?

Shaila: Mindfulness has a great value because when we’re actually seeing our experience unfold, and there is a continuity of mindfulness moment by moment, we know how we are relating to experience. So we’re seeing not just the object of experience – for example, sadness – but comprehending our relationship to it. With mindfulness as a basis, we are able to understand cause and effect. We can investigate the processes that create suffering rather than just imagine a story about past, present and future. We see how suffering is created. We see how suffering is perpetuated by dwelling in feelings of sadness. We see how suffering grows through desire or craving. At some point we start to recognize the repeating patterns. When we understand how craving repeatedly causes suffering, then we have the opportunity to free the mind from all suffering.

Q: So even though the experience of the moment might be an emotion, bringing mindfulness to it is relating to it directly rather than struggling with


Shaila: That is the first step. Mindfulness develops strength of character; but on a more profound level, mindfulness allows us to have a direct perception of the causes of suffering. Otherwise, when we learn what causes suffering, it will be intellectual only — a story. We won’t actually be perceiving in the present moment, right now, how suffering is caused. It is in the present moment that we discover the possibility to free the mind.

From the perspective of mindfulness, it does not matter if experience is pleasant or unpleasant. First we bring the mind into a clear relationship with the object. Very quickly we see that it is just seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, emotions – the dynamics of body and mind. We then start to be mindful of the patterns of body and mind, and we see how those patterns cause or end suffering.

Just knowing what our experience is has little value in the Buddhist tradition. We could just walk around knowing feeling, feeling, and be able to track our emotions and sensations moment by moment, but that capacity has no inherent value. Mindfulness is a skill, a tool. It is the capacity that we have to be aware of experience for the specific purpose of understanding the causes and the end of suffering.

So often we are not mindful of our experience. We habitually think about our experience, and we don’t actually have a direct knowledge of our present moment experience. When mindfulness appears in the teachings, it occurs in conjunction with other factors. In the Pali discourses of the Buddha, we rarely find the term sati, translated as mindfulness, standing alone. It is usually paired with wisdom, clear comprehension, full awareness, or concentration.

Q: If we were to look at those other factors, clear comprehension and wisdom in particular, what would they look like as a practice in conjunction with mindfulness.

Shaila: Clear comprehension is an integrated understanding. If, for example, we examine an emotion like sadness, we wouldn’t just notice that this is sadness. We would know what sparked it. We would know how it affects and conditions the mind. We would recognize how sadness is reflected in the body. There might be physical sensations that are associated with sadness such as quivering, weakness, contraction, or heat. So we have a fuller awareness and bigger picture, rather than singling out one particular thing labeled “sadness.”

Q: The new mindfulness-based therapies are talking more about change at the level of process or the level of relationship with one’s thinking. It represents a shift from cognitive restructuring which encourages a change in the content of thinking. What are your thoughts on these approaches?

Shaila: There are many approaches to freeing our minds from suffering. If people have been attached to and identified with their experience for most of their lives, letting go may seem difficult. A multitude of strategies are needed.

There are a number of discourses in which the Buddha taught different strategies for letting go. One discourse refers to three ways of abandoning. For example consider a difficult, painful, unhealthy thought pattern that we know we want to be free from.

The first way of abandoning is called “factor substitution.” That is where you remove an unwholesome thought pattern by replacing it with a better one. This may be the Buddhist equivalent of congnitive restructuring. Let’s say there is a thought of ill will. You might abandon ill will with the support of a replacement thought of goodwill by practicing loving kindness. If there is a thought of stinginess, you might replace it with the practice of generosity. Improving the thought patterns represents one valid way of abandoning unwholesome thoughts that obsess the mind.

The second way is the cultivation of mind through concentration. When wholesome states like concentration, equanimity, joy, and delight grow stronger, then unwholesome states don’t arise. There is no space for them, no cause for their occurrence. A person may apply an antidote to certain patterns, and might cultivate positive states, like deep concentration and loving kindness so that they won’t be troubled by those patterns in the future.

The third way is the way is to liberate the mind through insight by understanding the causes of suffering and the end of suffering. It is purifying the mind through wisdom. Whenever we find that we are suffering because of a particular conditioned pattern, we can free the mind from the attachment at the root of suffering. We have the power to change.

Q: You mentioned antidotes, and cultivating wholesome states. Could you say a little bit more about the differences between those two.

Shaila: For instance, in the first approach I might notice that a state of anger has arisen in the mind. I might abandon it and replace the thought with a thought of kindness and care. So I literally take that thought away and put in its place a thought of loving kindness. That is factor substitution. But if I was aware that my mind frequently inclined toward anger, then I would be motivated to develop concentration based on loving kindness. Loving kindness as a concentration object creates a general quality of the mind that diminishes anger and unwholesome states. But the object of concentration wouldn’t have to be loving kindness. Any state that is deep enough to be called samadhi permits no unwholesome states. In the moment that a mind is rightly concentrated, it is at least temporarily pure and not creating more suffering.

Q: Using that same example with the third way, how would liberation through insight work? For example, if somebody had anger arising, how would that person work with it by liberating through insight?

Shaila: This approach may require an accumulation of mindfulness when we repeatedly see how anger causes suffering and pain, and we feel the suffering. We have the capacity then and there not just to let go of that particular momentary thought that triggered the anger, but to shift the quality of our consciousness such that we abandon all anger. This profoundly purifies the mind of defilement. We’re not so concerned with a particular story, or a particular moment of anger, but see what’s really happening in the present moment; and we cut through not just that story of anger, we cut the root where anger is formed. Attention settles deep into the workings of consciousness where the sense of self is created in relationship to experience.

Q: So we would be looking at what gave rise to anger in that moment and also within the broader context of one’s life — the immediate stimulus and also the underlying tendency to anger.

SC: We would see the whole pattern of anger, and it wouldn’t really have to do with the thing that happened, the story that we’re telling, the event, or the emotion. We’ll observe the conditioning of anger itself, and then profoundly let go.

Q: Do you think mindfulness is sufficient in and of itself for people to change?

SC: No. In the Buddhist tradition mindfulness is always combined with other factors and other practices. Mindfulness might clarify renunciation. Mindfulness might join clear comprehension and wisdom. Mindfulness arises with effort, energy and concentration. It never exists independent and alone. Otherwise we could sort of walk through the world knowing our present moment experience thinking we were practicing the teachings. The Buddha wasn’t concerned with people knowing their present moment experience. He was concerned with the cause of suffering and the end of suffering.

When we are mindful, we are very mentally balanced. We are present, and because we are present we’ll naturally see the interactions of things. We’ll figure out how the mind releases its hold on things.

I think of mindfulness as a mental factor that we can cultivate. We have the capacity to be aware, but usually that capacity is clouded by stories, thoughts and conditioned habits. Therefore we develop mindfulness as a skill. It’s a mental factor, a capacity that we definitely all have, but needs to be purified and refined.

Q: What are the qualities of this aspect of mind? You mentioned earlier non grasping.

Shaila: Mindfulness is equanimous. This balanced attention brings an undistorted perception to the present moment. When we are mindful, we are not careening between desire and aversion, pleasant and unpleasant. Mindfulness is non-preferential. The Buddha did not use words like receptive and accepting, but actually when we are mindful, it feels like that. It feels like we’re receiving experience. We accept the truth of the matter at hand. We open to what’s actually happening now. The Buddha didn’t use that kind of language, but that’s how it feels.

Q: Some contemporary therapies create a distinction between mindfulness exercises such as feeling the wind on the face, feeling a pen in the hand and awareness while eating, and formal sitting meditation. What are your thoughts on that kind of a distinction?

Shaila: The teachings on mindfulness have never been relegated to just the sitting posture with the eyes closed. That is a misperception of what the Buddha taught. The Buddha taught much more than sitting meditation. He taught how to free the mind. He taught how to live in the world with the continuous impact of all the senses with a free mind. He instructed his disciples to be mindful when using tools, reaching for objects, lifting things up, bending, talking, walking, and all kinds of movements of the body, engagements of mind, community activities and even urinating and defecating. Now we translate those into contemporary conditions, teaching students to be mindful in picking up the telephone, driving a car, typing on a computer keyboard, or flossing our teeth. We practice mindfulness when we interact with a painful situation and also when we hear good news, when we engage in a mundane daily chore and also a formal spiritual ritual.

In my beginning meditation courses I include instructions in eating meditation, mindfulness in the workplace, mindful speech, and driving meditations. I use the same instructions that the Buddha gave, except instead of walking to the village for alms, I say driving to work in the morning. Mindfulness training has always included the whole range of experience: eating, tasting, seeing, doing activities, listening. Sitting meditation is one important component of these practices. Sitting meditation should not be excluded from contemporary training, but it is not the only way to develop mindfulness.

Q: What is your understanding of the difference between mindfulness and concentration?

Shaila: Whenever we develop mindfulness, we’re simultaneously developing momentary concentration. For that moment that we are mindful of something, we are concentrated.

So, mindfulness and concentration in practical experience occur together. When I teach concentration, I teach the capacity to stay steady and attentive to a single object. When I teach mindfulness, I teach a clarity of knowing what is present. So they are slightly different. When I teach mindfulness, I use changing objects like sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought. When I teach concentration, I emphasize a fixed focus to encourage the mind to stay steady and connected. That distinction is made to facilitate explanation, teaching, and discernment. In reality we experience and cultivate them together.

When you develop mindfulness, you’ll grow concentrated and equanimous. These factors coexist so frequently that it is difficult to tease them out, and not so necessary to try to separate them.

In teaching concentration, once the attention is consistently connecting and sustaining with the object of meditation, I don’t encourage the perception of change. Instead, I encourage continued and penetrating focus on that fixed object. Happiness, stability, and joy increase with sustained attention on a fixed object. Both mindfulness and concentration are based on the development of the capacity to connect and sustain attention. These are the primary tools we refine.

Q: Are there any other tools that you think are specifically important?

Shaila: For mindfulness specifically? Investigation! Most people have weak investigation skills. Sometimes students have spiritual experience but don’t know how to extract the insight from the experience. They don’t know what significance it has. They don’t allow it to transform their lives. What do you do with a connected mind? What do you do with your mindfulness? How do you use a concentrated attention?

You don’t just walk around saying, ‘I’m mindful.’ You investigate what happens in any moment of perception. In the moment of contact you’re not just mindful of contact, you investigate the process of perception. Is perception clear or distorted? Is there a basis for attachment, self construction, suffering, or the end of suffering? Classically, the first step of investigation is to notice change. So a mindfulness class would include exercises to investigate how experience changes.

Sometimes people remove themselves from their direct experience by telling themselves a story about their experience — sort of narrating a blow by blow account of their lives. Why do we keep entertaining ourselves with our own story? Usually what people find in their thoughts is just a continual re-creation of ‘I am here, this is me, this is what I am, this is what I am not’. In other words — the chronic construction of self. Until one stops recreating self, the mind won’t settle, we won’t know peace. It is important to let go of the process of self construction and let the mind rest.

Q: So that would be something that you would actually mention as a practice — to watch the process of self construction that is going on with most people all the time.

Shaila: In the Buddhist tradition, self construction is understood as a simple process. It is not a big mysterious or esoteric ogre. It’s not a complex construction that needs to be analyzed in minute detail. It is just a process of attachment to a concept of self. That attachment occurs repeatedly and rapidly when we have a distorted perception of things.

Conceiving of ourselves through our personal stories is one of the basic ways perception is distorted. For example we might see a friend and position a sense of ourselves through the thought: “I see that person, and I am her friend,” or “I smell a fish, and I don’t like the smell of fish.” Right on the heels of contact with anything, we might take a personal stance in relationship to the perception, deciding if it is favorable or unfavorable to my image. It is that viewpoint of “I” that initiates the basic distortion of self grasping. Meditation helps clarify attention so that we meet our experience prior to the distortions of self concept and attachment. With mindfulness we connect with the fact of experience, rather than a notion of how we think things are or should be. We are present for our life and not just living in the story we imagine.