Mindfulness: Aspiration and Best Practices

Discussion notes: Bruce Cantwell

As we discussed the intro to the Satipatthana Sutta, some ideas for setting an aspiration and mindfulness best practices emerged. Here’s a brief summary.


Redefining Nibbana

Initially, the end-state of the mindfulness practice was nibbana (Pali) or nirvana (Sanskrit), which had great significance to its original students. This word is often translated as enlightenment or awakening, but those are pretty abstract for us to use as aspirational goals.

Here are some modern definitions to help motivate us to practice:

a. Matthieu Ricard: "By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it."[1]

b. Shinzen Young: "The ability to take care of conditions in an optimal way, both individually in one's life, and globally over the planet."[2]

c. Robert Wright: "The view that carries none of my selfish biases, or yours, and that in a certain sense isn't even a particularly human perspective, or the perspective of any other species.

The view from nowhere can–and, I'd argue, should–involve concern for the well-being of all people (and, if we're going to be true to Buddhist teaching, and to fairly straightforward moral logic, concern for the well-being of all sentient beings). The point is just that the concern would be evenly distributed; no one's welfare is more important than anyone else's."[3]

d. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity, resulting in loss of one's sense of space and time.[4]

Feel free to mix and match aspects of the definitions to come up with one that you can aspire to. If nothing appeals to you. Never mind. :)

Best Practices


The purpose of defining an aspirational goal is to motivate us to practice.

For maximum effectiveness the method of practice should be ardent. 

If that word doesn't do it for you, try: wholehearted, enthusiastic, keen, eager, avid, committed, or dedicated.

Starting out, it's challenging to muster enthusiasm for everyday objects, so, as with physical exercise, it's more beneficial to start with short, focused workouts (perhaps one minute, five times a day) than with longer, less focused ones (ten minutes of mind wandering).

Clearly Comprehending

Whether the object of contemplation is the constituents of the body, feelings, the mind, or experience, we can observe three things each has in common. Every object is:  

Impermanent: constantly changing.

Unsatisfactory: (for creating lasting happiness or suffering) precisely because it is changing.

Selfless: (not autonomous) dependent on causes and conditions.    

Pausing Worldly Concerns

Another reason it's best to start with short periods of practice is that we're supposed to temporarily set aside desire and discontent in regard to the world. 

It's not easy to set aside thoughts concerning our:

Good or bad reputation.

Gain and loss. 

Praise and blame.

Pleasure and pain.

Considering these things is the default setting of our brain!  

Bare Knowledge and Repeated Mindfulness

Bare knowledge means knowing an object without the voice in our head commenting on it.

For example, if we’re looking at vegetation, our internal narrator isn't trolling for its Latin name, deciding whether it's pretty, ugly, or bland, or deciding whether it needs to be nurtured, uprooted, or ignored.

[1] Arreola, Gonzalo. “Happiness Is a State of Mind.” Exploring Your Mind, 13 Feb. 2019, exploringyourmind.com/happiness-state-mind/.

[2] Young, Shinzen. The science of enlightenment: Teachings & Meditations for Awakening through Self-Investigation. Sounds True, 2005.

[3] Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism Is True: the Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Simon & Schuster, 2018.

[4] “Flow (Psychology).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology).

Bruce Cantwell