Training in mindfulness is not just watching our mind, but actively improving our mind by keeping it focused on a positive object. This practice involves three main mental factors: mindfulness, alertness and conscientiousness.
Mindfulness is a mental factor that functions both to keep the mind on an object that has not been forgotten and to bring the mind back to an object that has been forgotten.
We can understand what mindfulness is by considering its object, nature and function:
- Object: Mindfulness focuses on an object with which the mind has previously become acquainted
- Nature: The nature of mindfulness is not to forget the object but to hold onto it
- Function: The function of mindfulness is to prevent the mind from being distracted – from wandering away from the object it is holding
The mental factor alertness is a type of wisdom that knows what is a fault and what is not a fault.
When we place our mind on an object with mindfulness, alertness checks occasionally to see if our meditation is progressing well or if interruptions and obstacles have arisen. This spy-like function of the mind is alertness. If it discovers that the mind has become distracted or has fallen under the influence of mental sinking or excitement we can grasp onto the object once again with mindfulness and continue our meditation.
Alertness is the fruit of mindfulness and has a very close connection with it. While mindfulness holds onto its object, alertness observes if there is any wandering from that object or not.
Upcoming Meditation Courses at the World Peace Temple in Morden
Conscientiousness is a mental factor that cherishes what is virtuous and guards the mind from delusion and non-virtue.
There is no practice more important than keeping our mind free from negativity. Normally we take great care to protect our body from injury, but it is much more important to protect the mind.
Conscientiousness should be practised in conjunction with mindfulness and alertness. With mindfulness we tie our mind to a virtuous object. A virtuous object is any object that has a positive effect on our mind. We should try to keep our mind on virtuous objects all the time. If through alertness we discover that a delusion is about to arise we should immediately prevent it by recalling the faults of delusions. This is the practice of conscientiousness.
Mindfulness in and out of meditation
Delusions are mental factors that arise from inappropriate attention and that function to make the mind unpeaceful and uncontrolled. They are the source of all our suffering and problems.
If we wish to avoid falling under the influence of delusion, we must guard our mind and keep it from wandering. We cannot follow our moral discipline purely if we have an unguarded mind. If we can learn how to protect our mind from delusion and yoke it to the practice of virtue, our moral discipline will grow in strength and eventually be perfected. If we neglect to guard our mind, however, many faults will arise.
If we let a wild elephant loose in a populated area it will cause massive destruction, but the uncontrolled wild mind can cause much more harm than such a crazed beast. If the deluded, wild elephant of our mind is not subdued, it will create much suffering for us in this life and will cause us to experience the sufferings of the deepest hell in the future. In fact, if we investigate we can see that the creator of all the sufferings of this and future lives is nothing but our unsubdued mind. To subdue this wild beast is much more important than bringing a jungle elephant under our control.
Many benefits follow from taming our mind. If we take the rope of mindfulness and tie our elephant mind securely to the post of virtue, all of our fears will swiftly come to an end. All positive and wholesome attainments will fall into the palm of our hand. If we wish to elevate our mind we must merge it with the practice of virtue by steadily applying the power of mindfulness. This is the very heart of meditation.
If we do not develop mindfulness our meditations will be hollow and empty. There will be nothing to keep our wild elephant mind from running back and forth in its customary, uncontrolled manner between objects of attachment, anger, jealousy and so forth. While we are sitting on our meditation cushion our mind may be miles away, wandering through distant cities or visiting our family and friends. Just as a potter needs two hands to shape his wares, so do we need mindfulness and alertness if we are to meditate properly and gain realizations along the spiritual path.
Where do the terms come from?
The terms ‘mindfulness’, ‘alertness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ were used by Buddha when he taught how to understand and control the mind. Later great scholars such as Vasubandhu and Asanga in India and Je Tsongkhapa in Tibet wrote commentaries to Buddha’s teachings, clarifying the precise meaning of these terms.
The term ‘mindfulness’ is a translation of the Tibetan word ‘drenpa’ (དྲན་པ) which can also be translated as ‘remembering’ or ‘recollecting’
The term ‘alertness’ is a translation of the Tibetan word ‘she shin’ (ཤེས་བཞིན)
Conscientiousness is a translation of the Tibetan word ‘pag yod’ (བག་ཡོད), which can also be translated as ‘concern’ or ‘caution’ or ‘carefulness’.