Almost certainly the oldest Buddhist practice, and one that permeates all Buddhist traditions, is the practice of Mindfulness.
The Buddha himself stated that he knew of no other factor that had such capability to transform the mind. Western psychology has increasingly validated this opinion and forms of mindfulness practice are now authorised by NICE for the prevention of repetitive depressive episodes.
We need to be a little careful about how we use the English word mindfulness. This has had a long history (from the early 16th century it seems) before it came to be used as a translation equivalent for the Buddhist Pali language term Sati and the Buddhist Sanskrit term Smrti. And of course it has a long natural history in English alongside that specialist use of the word.
The mental activity of ‘mindfulness’, when used to translate Sati or Smrti, just refers of the ability of the mind to stay with its object, focused and undistracted, for as long as someone wants.
The modern mindfulness movement and its techniques such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction mean something different when they talk about mindfulness.
For them, at its basic level mindfulness practice creates some inner space from the thoughts and emotions that tend to endlessly circle in our minds. From this standpoint of greater inner space it is then possible to get a better sense of proportion about our problems. This type of practice does not require any specifically Buddhist beliefs.
You will find classes in both Buddhist meditations that use mindfulness (in the Buddhist sense) and in the ‘mindfulness’ that is found in modern secular techniques as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction: Introductory Buddhist Meditation classes and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses are both available.
Buddhist placement and analytical meditations both use and develop mindfulness (in the Buddhist sense of strengthening the natural ability of the mid to stay with its chosen object without wandering off or becoming dull and listless).
Training in ‘placement’ meditation is sometimes known as Calm Abiding, which translates the Tibetan words ‘Shi Nay’. In Sanskrit the word Shamata emphasises the calming aspect of the technique.
As an ancient technique it is practised across various Eastern traditions. It is said to enable the practitioner to access and develop very deep states of restful awareness which are often described as blissful. The ability to rest for long periods on a particular contemplation is a key requirement for most meditation practices and so some form of Shamata sits at the heart of most meditation techniques.
The Buddhist analysis of Shamata is that while it may give you the ability to concentrate deeply and while it may enable you to access deep blissful states of peace it does not directly deal with the inner mental causes that keep you unenlightened. These are merely temporarily suppressed during the period of concentration.
To do this you must couple your Shamata Practice with analytical meditation. The Training in analytical meditation takes many forms but at its core lies the ability to develop insight into the meditator’s own experience of internal and external things and events. This is known as Vipassana in the Pali Language of Theravada Buddhism and Vipashyana in Sanskrit. Vipassana is insight meditation.
Insight into what? Insight into the nature of being, the nature of physical things and the nature of mental objects, insight into the nature of the mind.
Usually the meditator practices a combined form of Shamata/Vipassana that refines mindfulness and uses the deep still power of the mind to look at its very nature. In doing so the reality of the three marks of unenlightened life are revealed; impermanence, selflessness and lack of satisfaction. Great peace comes from realising that ordinary unenlightened existence, based on lack of knowledge of the true nature of things and events coupled with attachment and aversion, can never truly satisfy. There are many flavours of insight meditation utilising mindfulness, i.e developing and maintaining the ability of the mind to stay with the chosen object.
With thanks to Jamyang Buddhist Centre, London