Right Mindfulness through Diagrams: Experimentation beyond Bare Attention

Nobo Komagata


December 30, 2015 (First written: October 22, 2014)


Many of us who practice mindfulness meditation would no doubt appreciate its benefits. For example, we may be less irritated/angry, able to tolerate creepy creatures, or increasingly more comfortable with thinking about our own deaths. Each one of us must be able to provide a list of benefits.

However, we may still be overwhelmed at times with certain negative feelings, e.g., virtually subconscious resistance to rejection, an often-camouflaged desire to revenge, or a subtle sense of pride. These could happen even when we think we are with non-judgmental, present-moment awareness (e.g., Kabat-Zinn, 1990; Gunaratana, 2002), also referred to as “bare attention” (Nyanaponika Thera, 1965). In addition, we may still speak and act in a destructive manner, again even when we think we are with bare attention. In a sense, the development of bare attention may be leading us to the realization that bare attention alone cannot eliminate these unhealthy mental conditions and actions altogether. That is, while bare attention may be an effective introductory step, there may be limitations inherent with this notion. Of course, there must be meditation teachers who teach mindfulness through bare attention and are able to guide us beyond such a stage. So, it may simply be the problem with us, the meditators/learners. In any case, mental training with bare attention would at least let us notice all these things; most (other) people are not even aware of anything like these most of the time. So, we must have made a progress. However, there must be more to explore.

While the idea of mindfulness as bare attention proliferates in many fields (e.g., Williams and Kabat-Zinn, 2013), a relatively small number of Buddhist monks started to voice warning (e.g., Bodhi, 2011; Sujato, 2005; Thanissaro, 2012; Wallace and Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2006). Some people complain that “mindfulness” is not the correct translation of the original Buddhist term, “sati.” However, it is not really a translation issue; there seems something fundamental involved in this discussion. And for us, serious meditators, this can be a major turning point. In particular, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2012) points out the importance of understanding “right mindfulness” in the context of the original Buddhist tradition, emphasizing that mindfulness is not really passive, as associated with the notion of bare attention, but more active. Inspired by this point, this essay sketches my journey through a gradual transition along this line, using a lot of diagrams (schematic representations).

This essay is basically the study note for my own mental training. As such, there are certain limitations. There is a risk of oversimplifying complex processes and even making a mistake. In addition, there also are inherent limitations associated with the use of diagrams. Just like words, they are simply “concepts” and can only be a crude first approximation. They can never correctly represent the essence involved in a process. Furthermore, touching upon the original ideas of the Buddha mainly through Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s interpretation and exposition (2012), this essay uses a radically simplified and modernized version of diagrams (if we can follow the originals without the help of additional materials, that must be better). A potential benefit of the present approach would be that the material be more readily understandable by people without a lot of Buddhist background; at the same time, a potential drawback would be that the presentation be inaccurate. Finally, the ideas and diagrams in this essay have been revised substantially over the past several years. Thus, the current ones too will surely be revised (and may be abandoned) in the future. In this sense, this essay will always remain as a preliminary version. Hopefully, the content is still useful for some meditators and for further discussion.

This essay will proceed in two parts. In Part 1, we gradually introduce diagrams using our own terminology, consisting of mostly modern, everyday terms. On the way, we hopefully generate sufficient thrust to shift our focus from bare attention to a more “active” approach to mindfulness. In Part 2, we discuss “right mindfulness” and other relevant Buddhist ideas in connection to the development in Part 1.

Note: The rest of the document can be read at https://archive.org/details/Komagata14RightMindfulness and is also available in the PDF format: https://archive.org/download/Komagata14RightMindfulness/Komagata14-RightMindfulness.pdf

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