Modern people like to believe they are more advanced than humans from antiquity. Indeed, the amount of information we have today is much larger and distributed wider than in the past, but this did not bring us deeper knowledge nor made us essentially more advanced or happy as a humans.
Prosperity, culture and technology do not make us suffer less, just seemingly for different reasons, but at their core, the problems we are experiencing today, are the same as ever. It is our ignorance that makes us believe that comfort always brings happiness. Yet, though our homes and cities are more comfortable than caves and jungles, and we have in general an easier life, if we take a closer look it becomes clear that the cities are just the modern jungles and that even the most comfortable home can not protect us from loneliness or depression.
Our surrounding has changed, as has our lifestyle, but our biological processes are essentially the same as 2000 years ago. Nevertheless, our strongest tool and the subject of constant growth and development – mind, is increasingly shifting from its original role. Although, it can open invisible doors, make us imagine unimaginable and make impossible possible, it can also work against us - once, the foundation of our survival, it begins to work towards our extinction.
Much like the knife that cuts best when sharpened, our minds can only cut through the information we are constantly exposed to when it is sharp enough. But, just as a sharp knife can hurt others and us if we do not guide it with the steady hand, our mind will perform its function without harming others and ourselves only if managed rightly. In other words, much of our suffering is due to our own mind, which either is not sharp enough or it is not steadily managed.
Already in antiquity philosophers and spiritual teachers have tried to understand the source of the suffering and the ways to defeat it. However, unlike modern humans, they were closer to nature and therefore had a clearer insight into its laws what essentially served as the basis for the development of doctrines, teachings, and religions. In fact, ancient practices are used to bring the mind into the state, which enabling it to fulfil its original function, and to lead to wisdom and realisation. For this reason, the wisdom of ancient teachings, such as Buddhism, Taoism or Yoga, which have survived millennia, is of tremendous importance also to modern mankind.
The philosopher Slavoj Žižek once called Buddhism the perfect remedy for a consumer society. Nevertheless, a modern lifestyle makes most people impatient for deeper immersion in ancient teachings. The information overflow makes them believe they are knowledgeable, even when information remains superficial. They judge or reject ‘the boring bits’ of an established teaching (doctrine, religion) picking the bits that are easy to perform, fashionable or somehow attractive.
And yet, regardless of how much people may underestimate the importance of ancient teachings, the fact is that it has evolved through accumulated experience, contemplation and knowledge over many generations and that even the seemingly unimportant or eccentric practices, including the way the teachings are transmitted, serve a vital purpose that is often hidden from the non-believers.
As a consequence of using only the set of selected practices (approach in contemporary training) instead of an originally developed system in its full form (approach in ancient teachings), some concepts used in contemporary training move away from their ancient origins. One of these is the concept of sati that is usually translated as mindfulness.
In the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha’s teachings, sati is used in two overlapping ways: as the mental faculty and as the practice.
The mental faculty of sati is a capacity of being aware. It is an important mental condition that is induced or developed by certain awareness-generating practices. To understand this mental faculty, it is useful to know that the contemporary translation of sati as mindfulness is not the most accurate. Translated from Pali, sati is associated with memory, recognition, witnessing, what means that sati is about “witnessing”, “taking mental note” “memorising” everything that happens. Yet, it is also important to understand that sati is not a mental activity in which is person intentionally engaged, but rather something what a person possesses, or better, a state that person achieves through “witnessing”.
This “witnessing” without intention is a natural human ability that exists at a young age but is not as easy achievable for adults who are filled with the concepts, categorisations and opinions. It takes some practice to get back to that “beginner mind”, meaning that the meditator attains sati only in advanced stages of meditation, but not by actively doing or applying mindfulness; rather, sati “appears”, it is simply present.
So when the Buddha instructed monks to strive to develop sati (mindfulness) or to evaluate whether it is developed in them, he is not telling them to engage in the activity of sati (mindful practice), but rather urges them to engage in activities that strengthen the faculty of sati. In other words, sati is the result of different practices and at the same time includes a combination of practices and faculties in it.
Buddha describes the practice of the Right Sati, with words:
“What, friends, is right mindfulness? Here dwells a monk who abides contemplating the body as body, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away the craving and grief for the world. He abides contemplating feelings as feelings, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away the craving and grief for the world. He abides contemplating mind states as mind states, ardent fully aware and mindful, having put away the craving and grief for the world. He abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away the craving and grief for the world. (MN 141.30)”
In other words, the Buddha points out that sati practice involves contemplation of experience related to the body, feelings, mind states, and mind-objects, that is performed in the state of full awareness, and detachment from worldly cravings and grief.
Regardless of how we translate the ancient Buddhist words, the aim of sati practices is to establish a high degree of pure awareness, which is the direct path for the purification of beings, overcoming grief and lamentation, the disappearance of suffering and grief and for the realization of Nibbāna (Ni is a negative particle and vana means craving, in that it is a departure from the craving and lust).
Although Buddhism considers sati to be one of the seven factors of enlightenment, for understanding of the contemporary practices that have mindful state as a target, it is even more important to understand that sati is one of the fundamental Buddhist practices of the Noble Eightfold Path (right view, right intention, right speech, right conduct or action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right Samadhi).
From a Buddhist perspective, each part of the Path supports and influences other parts equally. In light of this, a state of mindfulness cannot be achieved if practiced in isolation. This is one of the biggest trade-offs of secular variety of mindfulness trainings that meanwhile got in popularity. Although rooted in Buddhist meditation techniques such as Zen and Vipassana, mindfulness, as it is usually taught today, rejects its Buddhist context and is used more as an active practice of directed attention, which differs from the traditional meaning of sati.
Contemporary mindfulness practices, often sold as a direct road to happiness, focus primarily on recognizing and interrupting unhealthy tendencies, and are mostly performed through mindfulness meditation. Indeed, it often use methods of relaxation instead of meditation and thus can deviate from the Buddhist meditation in which it is rooted. But meditation is not about relaxation. From the beginning, in the Indian Vedic tradition, people meditated to realize insight and wisdom, and to unite with Oneness, not to relax. Further on, the spiritual-meditative journey is for the longest period hard and far from being relaxed. Even blissfulness, which can be achieved after years of consistent practice, can not be compared to the state of relaxation.
The ancient meditation practices (Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism, Yoga…) are very powerful and are reaching the deepest corners of our sub-consciousness. When we engage in such meditation, our brain synapsis can be triggered to cause hallucinations, extreme emotions, or panic. This was nothing unknown to ancient meditators, which is why over the course of millennia, meditation masters have established practices that could properly cope with such effects and use them to climb the spiritual mountain.
In modern times, secular mindfulness is often thought by the counsellors who usually did not experience the full spectrum of the effects of meditation, what makes them unprepared for giving proper advice when such effects occur.
Without a deeper understanding of the meditative process, the quality of the various practices is often measured by the means of the western linear thinking culture – taking into account the short-term effects, promoting practices that are instantly improving emotional state (although, are improvements sometimes only a short-term) and reject these that are bringing up deeper emotional issues (what, when skilfully managed, can bring a long-term benefit).
Thus, interpretations of the effects of mindfulness training and meditation are often biased. Samples are often limited and not randomized, many of the effects of relaxation are mistakenly attributed to meditation, and missing effects are attributed to failed meditation and not to the failed meditator. This can lead to an underestimation of the importance of deeper, intertwined and non-isolated practice. Understanding this bias is essential, especially because of the growing interest to include mindfulness meditation in the regular psychotherapeutic counselling. The methods that teach the patient to deal with and release negative emotions and habitual thoughts must include an intact, secure net for situations in which the intensity of the emotions exceeds acceptable level.
This does not mean that secular mindfulness practice is not good or should be abandoned. It just means that it should address more than just self-awareness or self-esteem. A human system does not exist in isolation, and so are emotional and mental issues a product of many internal and external factors. Self-awareness and self-confidence without consideration of this interconnectedness can lead to opposite effects, as we are striving for.
But not only the understanding of the complex path to the state of mindfulness is crucial for success, but also the understanding of interaction between modern culture and the human biological system.
Stress symptoms that plague every aspect of modern life are usually the product of today's consumer culture, which leads to the reinforcement of internal automatism that creates habitual patterns of thoughts and emotions.
This automatism gives the impression that our reactions to stress are entirely a natural, inherited and predetermined way that eludes our control and which we can not escape or change. But, in fact, our reactions are a consequence of the internal or external conditioning of our biological system, which is particularly strong if we are unaware of our own nature and complexity of the connections between the inner and the outer world.
The unawareness of our own nature leads to a progressive alienation and decoupling of the inner world (self) from the outside world (others, the environment). This gives the impression that both worlds are constantly moving at different speed, which increases the stress level. Nevertheless, although the new technologies are accelerating the outside world and call for faster adaptation of the internal one, neither speed nor technology per se is a problem. The problem is rather caused by our separation from our own core, which is reinforced by today's culture.
Our profit-oriented culture cleverly drives our attention through marketing strategies that make us believe that we consume what we need. What really happens is that even the smallest behavioural pattern and tendencies that we do not express under normal conditions are captured, boosted, and directed toward predefined marketing targets. That way we are thought to need things that in reality we don't need at all. We are no longer mere consumers captured by chance by rather by skilful marketing.
Using people’s tendencies and preferences to create business opportunities is nothing new, but in the past, it was only reserved for people who were attentive enough and able to put it into action. At the present time, technology, analytical methods and information overload, seem to create opportunities for all, replacing natural attentiveness with models and information. However, an opportunity that is implemented without a well-founded basis and without awareness of the short and long-term consequences will cause more damage in the longer term, as well as at the individual level (stress) so at economic level (economic bubbles).
Through the power of corporate media, advertising, video games, music clips, Hollywood movies or social media, contemporary economy had begun to determine who we think we are, and how we present and think about ourselves. We become subjects and products of algorithms, technology or marketing tools that sample our moods and the most personal preferences. The collected information is analysed and fed back into the system, creating an uninterrupted loop used for another market circle in every area - film industry, investment, music, food preference, fashion, body shape, pharmacy, car industry and everything else. At the same time, well-targeted marketing strategies create a circular mechanism that assesses and reinforces Ego driven preferences and promotes consumer behaviour.
More and more, we are becoming identified with the life of consumers that is reduced to reinforced tendencies, addictions and emotional feedbacks, what closes the circle: the alienation from our own nature makes manipulation of our tendencies possible, and increased manipulation leads to a further alienation from our own nature. We become unable to assess our true needs and enter into a spiral of toxic emotions, misconduct or health issues that we try to get rid of at all costs.
The secular mindfulness practices are designed to support people’s struggle to comply with the pressures of modern society and its demands for increased workplace productivity and personal performance. However, using the practice only to mitigate the negative effects of the modern society can reinforce suffering. We still did not fully realise that by focusing solely on our wellbeing in separation from the others, makes us sick as a humans, society and the world in general.
Unfortunately, secular mindfulness training is too often presented and taught in isolated manner and without acknowledgement of other related practices. This may result in a practitioner being unprepared to act appropriately once he enters the most dangerous place - the core of his own self, where his personal demons are dwelling.
Without contextual roots that are an integral part of the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, secular practices can make the sources of suffering from which the Buddha sought to free himself and others, even greater. However, when properly approached, mindfulness can help to identify and combat sources of internal and external suffering, and can not only be a gateway to happier individuals, but also can promote ethic and lead to a healthier society.