The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Mindfulness

Reading time: 6 minutes

One day, the Buddha and his followers were hot and thirsty after a long day of travel. They went to fill a jug to drink, but some oxcarts had crossed recently and muddied the water. The Buddha said… 

Wait a second. Sorry, I lost my train of thought. I’m a bit hungry, so I was thinking about what I’m going to eat for dinner… pizza? Maybe a salad? No, definitely pizza. But the last time I ordered from Giorgio’s, they really messed up my order, and I can’t believe how rude they were… 

Oh, I did it again. Back to Buddha.

The Buddha told his followers to wait by the river. So they sat. After a while, they filled a jug with water from the river. And… 

Hold on a second, did I leave the tap running in the bathroom? Or is that the neighbors? These walls are so thin… Darn it, sorry, forgot about the story. 

Ok, where was I? Oh yeah, the Buddha and the jug of water. Sure enough, after waiting calmly, the water had settled. The mud drifted back down once the frantic activity subsided, leaving the water clear.

This heavy-handed demonstration of a distractable mind might be slightly exaggerated. Still, if we’re honest, it’s not all that exaggerated. It’s safe to say that our minds are frequently like the muddy water: the frantic activity of our busy days churning in our minds a froth of past, future, praise, blame, good, bad, and everything in between. 

Only through calming the mind, allowing the “mud” to settle, can we experience its clarity.

To use another common analogy, we suffer from “monkey mind.” It is as if a little monkey were jumping from branch to branch in our minds, chasing after bananas and shiny things and throwing things at passersby, laughing hysterically all the while. Ok, that’s probably just my monkey mind. Nonetheless, the general experience is the same: our minds bounce around wildly from one thought to another. We typically lack control over where these wild monkey thoughts will take us next. We fixate on the past, fantasize about the future. We grasp tightly to our hopes, fume about our fears and aversions.

This is the realm of right mindfulness: an active process of consistently training our minds to recognize awareness, to know what our mind is doing at any moment.

How to train a monkey mind

While mindfulness is often misused as a synonym for meditation, it is indeed a common and foundational meditation practice. There are other forms of meditation, such as contemplative practices that involve an in-depth mental exploration of various concepts, often leading to developing insight. It’s hard to attain wisdom, though, when a monkey rules our minds. We must first calm the mind.

As a modern Tibetan Buddhist teacher named Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche likes to say, we have to “give the monkey a job to do.” Ordinarily, we have two approaches to the monkey: we either go along with it (“yes, sir!”), or we forcefully try to suppress it (“get out, you crazy monkey!”).

Instead, Mingyur Rinpoche teaches, we have a third option: making friends with the monkey. We give it a job, such as focusing on our breath or sounds in our environment. In essence, we help to tame the monkey by resting our awareness on various kinds of “objects” for prolonged periods. 

As a good start, the Buddha presented four objects for the practice of mindfulness: body, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions.

To rest our awareness on the body, we can observe the breath as it goes in and out. We can watch the rise and fall of our chest with each breath. Feel the cool air coming into our nostrils and the warm air as we exhale. We can notice the feeling of a cushion underneath. Or even rest our minds on pain or discomfort in the body — merely observing the sensation without judgment.

The next technique is to be aware of feelings or emotions. Instead of being swept away by the feeling, we can watch it arise and pass over us. We can label it as “happy” or “afraid” or “angry.” In doing so, we might notice a gap arise between the feeling and our reaction to it. Rather than grasp onto the “good” emotions and push away the “bad” ones, we can just sit with them. Observe where they are in our body, watch thoughts or impulses arise.

Feelings tend to rise in close combination with thoughts, the next object of awareness. A great deal of ordinary thinking is involuntary, taking us on a mental trip through the past and future and around the world. When thoughts occur (and they absolutely will), we might notice some thoughts have a “wholesome” quality, such as thoughts of joy or gratitude. In contrast, other thoughts have an “unwholesome” quality, such as jealousy or resentment. The important thing is that we practice recognizing that “this is a thought.” Or we can just say in our minds, “thinking.” We don’t have to act on the thought; we don’t even have to believe it. Simply be aware that we are thinking.

Finally, we can practice being aware of our perceptions, including sounds, visual objects, smells, or other sensory experiences. When a lawnmower starts up outside our window, we can pause to hear the hum of the engine — to just listen. We can look at a flower, noticing its color and shape. Whatever is happening around us can be an object of meditation. We simply have to observe these perceptions, recognize that we are aware. When judgment arises (this is a “good” sound or a “bad” one), we can notice that judgment and continue observing the object.

One of the great things about these practices is that they’re available anytime. A formal sitting meditation practice is helpful. But we can also pause throughout the day to observe our breath, sounds in the environment, or feelings as they arise in our chests. 

As Mingyur Rinpoche says, we can “meditate anywhere, anytime; for a short time, many times” a day.

Right mindfulness and the SDGs

Mindfulness has become trendy in recent years. But its trendiness doesn’t take away from its time-tested potential to improve our mental well-being and make us happier and more effective people. Anecdotal evidence over many centuries points to the benefits of mindfulness. Recent science corroborates these personal experiences, adding a credible body of evidence on mindfulness meditation’s positive impacts. These benefits include better memory, greater focus and attention, reduced stress, and even improved sleep quality.

For those individuals committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, these qualities will serve us well. Work of any sort can be stressful; dealing with some of humanity’s most pressing challenges certainly falls into this camp. And improving our mental clarity and ability to think through complex issues will undoubtedly help.

Beyond just the benefits we might gain as individuals, what about the benefits of right mindfulness on a larger scale? Can we apply any of these practices or insights to function more effectively as organizations, institutions, or communities?

It is possible that adopting a “mindful” cultural mindset could improve how we think as teams. Imagine starting every meeting with a period of silent contemplation. This practice would potentially set the stage for calmer, more productive discussions. This could involve a reflection on “where is our ‘mind’ as a team or organization?” What are we doing now, and why are we doing it? Are we intentional and proactive in what we’re doing, or are we reacting to temporary conditions? Are we moving fast? Slow? Responding appropriately to the context we’re in? Are the actions we’re taking now aligned with our mission and values? 

To dive deeper into these ideas, we could conceivably apply the four objects of mindfulness practice to observe the various parts of the system in which we operate. We could contemplate the “body” of our area of work: what are the physical features? How do they connect? In what ways do they affect the people and systems living in this area? We could examine the “feelings” of the organization, project, or culture: what are the emotional reactions to our work? How do our teams, partners, or other stakeholders feel about our efforts? We could look at the “thoughts” arising now or regularly in our work: what are some of the prevailing beliefs, value systems, or narratives? How are these ideas or everyday exchanges affecting our work? And finally, we can always pause to look deeper at “sensory perceptions” in our field: examining the context in which we work, including the ecosystems, physical infrastructure, geographic conditions, weather patterns, and so forth. 

These are just some basic examples of the kinds of questions and concepts an organization embodying “right mindfulness” might explore. The main idea is to engage in consistent and intentional observation of what is happening right now. To practice this kind of awareness is ingrained in the way we work.

We could say much more about right mindfulness and explore many more questions to consider how we might apply it in our lives. This practice is ultimately at the heart of the Eightfold Path — one of the fruits of dedicated practice.In the next post, we’ll add another layer to this, looking at right concentration.