Mindfulness Practice on Anatta or No-Self in Buddhism

Mindfulness Practice

by Jayaram V

Author's note: This article has the potential to bring a paradigm shift in your thinking. The ideas presented in it are very complex and difficult to understand, unless you are familiar with eastern religions or you are ready for the knowledge. It has been written in a state of enlightenment and a sudden opening of the mind. Please read it carefully, if necessary two or three times, not to learn about mindfulness, but to know who you really are. - Jayaram V

In Buddhism the practice of mindfulness or satipatthana is recommended not for self-realization but for the realization of the non-Self (anatta). Non-self realization is the realization that name and form (nama rupam) or the idea of "Me" or "I" are mere delusions of the mind. According to Buddhism, the individuality which we try to project and defend so vigorously is like a temporary formation in the space of existence, created either by chance or the coming together of diverse elements which create the illusion of an individuality having an existence of its own.

A being comes into existence due to the activity of various phenomena, just as any other physical phenomenon that happens in the world due to the modifications of Nature. Nirvana is the realization of this truth in a state of pure awareness that is free from the notions of individuality and ownership. In the course of its existence, each individual being suffers from an exaggerated sense of self-importance attributing all the causes to itself or its actions. This sense of ownership gives it the illusion of having control over things and the duality of pain and pleasure. However, if you can detach yourself from the world and pay close attention to the diverse components of your own personality, you realize that what you believe to be a holistic individual is in reality an aggregation of unrelated parts that play upon our minds to give the impression of unity and individuality. You are a mirage. You do not exist as you think you are.

Your self-image or what you consider is you is just a notion or a mistaken belief based upon your selective perceptions. Just as you see an animal or a figure in the night sky by connecting several bright dots according to your convenience, you create a mental picture of yourself by carefully selecting a few thoughts and memories from the countless experiences you have gone through and believe itself to be true. In brief, this is the concept of non-self in Buddhism.

Modern theories of brain based on the neurological studies do confirm that our self-concept arises from the activity of the neurons and the information stored in the brain cells. Those who suffer from brain injury or Alzemeirs disease often forget who they are or what happened to them. Such cases support the view that the brain plays a vital role in creating the concept of self by putting together diverse pieces of information stored in its cells to create the idea of self, which may disappear partially or completely when the cells are damaged or when their interconnections are seriously impaired.

According to Buddhism individuality is an illusion. A person realizes this truth only after numerous births and after going through a gradual process of unraveling or unbecoming in which he or she becomes minutely aware of the essential nature of the mind and its movements. The Buddha suggested that one could hasten this process through a progressive four step practice of mindfulness. Properly practiced, mindfulness practice has the ability to bring a paradigm shit in our understanding of who we are and how we create the illusion of individuality and try to perpetuate it in every possible way.

However, mindfulness should not be practiced in isolation or out of a desire to resolve some worldly problem. The practice of mindfulness should be done in conjunction with the remaining aspects of the Eightfold Path. The Buddha assured his followers that whoever practiced mindfulness for seven consecutive days would achieve nirvana. Many who attend mindfulness training sessions realize that it does not happen always. For some it just happens, whether they attend mindfulness practice sessions or not.

The problem is not with the mindfulness practice, but with the preparation and the background of the initiates. It is not possible to be mindful or peaceful, when one is attached to the worldly things or when one's mind is constantly pulled in different directions by worldly desires. Mindfulness practice is effective only when it is practiced in the context of the Four Noble Truths and as part of the righteous living on the Eightfold Path. Mindfulness is neither meditation nor concentration. It is paying attention to the object of focus with insightful awareness.

In mindfulness practice you use your attention like a beam to focus upon a particular area of your mind or body and learn to see it truthfully without the intervention of yourself or your thoughts and desires. You reach this level through several initial stages of preparation such as present moment awareness, silent moment awareness, awareness of the incoming and outgoing breaths and so on. In these initial stages you learn to stabilize the mind and keep it focused on the object of your attention for sustained periods of time. While doing so you learn to break the usual habits of your mind and body and their tendency to avoid pain and seek pleasure or comfort. The four step practice of mindfulness and how it may lead to the realization of the non-Self is described below.

Mindfulness of the body

It is easier to practice mindfulness with the things that you always carry around with you. What better object can there be in this regard than your own body? The body is always looked upon with disdain by spiritual people because attachment to name and form is considered a major obstacle in achieving self-realization. However, let us not forget that the body is also a great vehicle provided to us by Nature for our living as well as for our liberation. There is one place upon earth from which we can never escape, except through death and it is the body. Unfortunately, we cannot be entirely aware of our bodies. We can only see or feel certain parts of them; but even that is a blessing because it gives us a great opportunity to practice mindfulness.

The Buddha suggested that one should begin the practice of mindfulness with the body, the playground where a lot of things happen, paying attention to breath, bodily postures, physical activities, the structure and composition of the body, the body in its elemental aspects, and the body in a state of disease or decomposition (which is also known as corpse meditation). These preliminary practices help us to calm the mind and the body and cultivate dispassion and detachment towards the physical attractions of life. Paying attention to breath is immensely helpful in cultivating present moment awareness and experiencing peace and stability. It also prepares us to face the hardships of spiritual life with patience and tolerance.

Since self-knowledge and self-image are very closely associated with name and form, contemplation of the body and its various aspects helps us greatly in unraveling the mystery concerning ourselves. we realize that our actions and physical movements are not caused by our individualities but by circumstances and natural phenomena.

Mindfulness of feelings and sensations

In the second stage of practice, we have to turn our attention from the body and its parts and functions towards the mental experiences (vedana), especially the feelings, that happen in us almost continuously, like waves in an ocean, as we interact with the external world and its phenomena. Although vedana is loosely translated as feelings and sensations, it is a more comprehensive term which includes whatever we experience in our minds consciously in response to the world and people around us or in response to the movements and afflictions (vrittis) that arise and subside within ourselves. It is done usually by paying close attention to the entire gamut of conscious experiences that we tend to classify as pleasant (sukha) or unpleasant (dukha) or in between. When we do it persistently, we realize why and how we label our experiences and react to the circumstances accordingly. We understand our feelings and experiences better when we are detached from them and when we are mentally free from all desires and cravings.

When you practice mindfulness of your conscious experiences, you realize through observation that all your experiences are fleeting, have a beginning and an end and that happiness is but a brief interlude or an interruption in a life that is full of sorrow and suffering. Sukha (happiness) and dukha (unhappiness) are the dual states of phenomenal world, in which if dukha represents continuity, happiness represents a brief interruption; and if dukha represents the ocean of existence, sukha represents a mere wave of temporary duration.

When you become mindful of your feelings and sensations you will realize that you do not own them, you do not cause them, you cannot keep them and you are not responsible for them. You will also realize that they are the mechanical and natural reactions of your mind and the body in response to certain events and circumstances and you will be better off if you let them do their work without interrupting them, manipulating them or trying to control them.

Mindfulness of the subject of the mind

In the third stage of mindfulness practice, you go a little deeper into your consciousness (citta) and try to become mindful of your mind itself. You focus upon the mind in its purely subjective and self-absorbed state. Compared to the previous two practices, mind contemplation is more challenging because you have to know your mind with your mind, without the duality of the subject and object. Besides to know its pristine state, your have to strip it of its conditioning and accumulated memories, its dependence upon authority, acquired knowledge and memories, and separate it completely from the senses with which it is deeply connected. To observe your mind in its most fundamental aspect, you not only have to silence your senses but also remain mindful of what is happening inside the mind. You can accomplish such a difficult and almost impossible task, only when you reach a high level of inner purity and detachment through right living.

To observe the mind as it is, without using your senses is perhaps the most difficult part of mindfulness practice. However, it is central to the entire practice and to arrive at the truth concerning yourself by peeling away layer upon layer of ignorance and delusion with which your consciousness is enveloped. As you practice mind contemplation, you become aware of the nature of citta (pure consciousness) and how it presents you the illusion of you. You will realize how you create yourself and the illusion of continuity and permanence by putting together numerous distinct, disconnected, even false and imaginary events, memories, feelings and experiences to create the notion of substance, materiality, continuity, personality and individuality.

The truth is the notion of "you" or "me" is just an idea. Your beingness is just an assortment of fragmented things glued together by your mind out of habit and its need for comfort and security. Your individuality is but a belief that rests upon the ignorance of details. Your becoming is but a modification of preexisting things that create the mirage of progress, transformation and acheivement. Just as the night sky may appear like one continuous whole, whereas in truth it is made up of numerous cosmic phenomena and unrelated objects, you may assume yourself to be an individual person but in reality you are made up of numerous individual experiences. The night sky as an entity is an illusion. So is the individuality. Both illusions are created by the mind which has the tendency to associate things to make sense of the world and relate with it.

Mindfulness of the objects of the mind

In the final part of the four stage mindfulness practice you turn your attention to the objects of the mind and become aware of the truth that neither the mind nor its objects have anything to do with you and they neither represent you nor you represent them. You realize that the sum total of experiences with which you identify yourself and which you attribute to yourself out of your eagerness to be someone or something is a mere illusion created by the aggregation of things. You arrive at this great realization by focusing your attention upon the objects of the mind, the five hindrances of the mind and various aspects of your personality. The five hindrances, as stated by the Buddha, are lust, anger or ill will, sloth or torpor, remorse, and doubt. These hindrances are responsible for our ignorance and delusion and our inability to see the truth concerning ourselves and actions. They also interfere with our awareness and mindfulness and prevent us from seeing the consciousness independent of the five senses. When you contemplate upon these five hindrances, you realize that you are not responsible for them and you do not create them.

The concept of non-self

One of the greatest blessings of mindfulness practice is that it eventually leads to the knowledge that you do not exist. This takes away so much burden from your shoulders that you feel immensely free and unencumbered. That you exist and you are responsible for your life and actions is the idea which your mind and society pushes upon you constantly and oppressively. It leads to bondage and suffering. That you do not exist and you are not responsible for the experiences that happen or do not happen is the concept of non-self, from which arise the jhana, the blissful awareness of non-becoming or emptiness. We suffer, struggle and strive to perpetuate ourselves and our possessions because of the false belief that there is something permanent and lasting about us. Basically this attitude is responsible for most of our ills. When you realize that the personality or individuality around which we build our lives, hope and aspirations is a mere ghost or an apparition, it frees us at once from the self-imposed shackles of life and the self-induced obligation to be someone or to accomplish some goal.

Other traditions such as Hinduism recognize the ego as a false self different from the real Self. Buddhism recognizes the ego not as an entity but as a formation, while it completely rejects the notion of an immortal Self existing over and above the egoistic Self. In a way there is no contradiction between the two, because Buddhism confines its study and understanding to the mind only, while Hinduism looks beyond the mind and the senses to make sense of our existence. Even if we assume that the immortal Self exists, the egoistic individuality which we create out of our experiences is still a delusion and needs to be disintegrated. Besides, the immortal self never participates directly in earthly life and never communicates with the mind or the body. It exists as an entity in itself, untouched and undisturbed by life and its numerous modifications. The immortal Self is always immortal, unchangeable and indestructible. Delusion and bondage are for the non-self only, which needs to be transformed for the freedom to arise. Even from a purely mental perspective we can never experience the immortal Self, while individuality is an immediate reality with which we all are familiar and which we can resolve with some effort. Therefore, it makes sense to focus on the non-Self and deal with it before we become aware of any transcendental reality that may exist beyond the mind and the senses.

Buddhism presents us with a simple and practical solution to understand who we are and to overcome our craving and clinging so that we can live freely without the compulsion of having and becoming. Through mindfulness practice we arrive at the most fundamental truth that we are a sum total of all our experiences, thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, desires, ideas, concepts and actions. Their coming together either by chance or by intention creates the illusion of the individuality of the self, which is responsible for our suffering and bondage. It ceases to exist the moment we realize that the so called individuality is just notion which we superimpose upon them. Such realization dawns upon us in the pauses and silences of our minds or when we break free from from the habitual thought patterns of the mind and learn to see things as they are. When you bring your mind under the intense focus of your own attention and dissect it minutely, you realize that what appears to be an entity in itself is actually a cloud of dust, each particle in it representing a particular aspect of your life and your consciousness. You realize that the notion of self is a burden that we all carry under the false notion that it belongs to us and that we need to protect it and perpetuate it for our survival and success.

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