The Dhammapada’s opening lines point to the importance of mind in creating the lived experience of our world:
Our life is shaped by our mind;
all actions are led by mind; created by mind.
Duhkha follows an unskillful thought
as the wheels of a cart follows the oxen that draw it.
Suhkha follows a skillful thought
as surely as one’s shadow.
The Buddha taught that actions are preceded by volitions that can create wholesome or unwholesome consequences. This is the teaching of karma; there are consequences to our actions. The Zen ceremony of atonement (at-onement) reminds us that we are ultimately the authors of our “fate.” When we are at one with our actions, we can never think of ourselves as victims. Rather than blaming external conditions for duhkha, we realize that the ultimate cause of duhkha is found in the mind – the same place liberation is found.
In turning attention to the activity of the mind, all psychological phenomena, the contents and activities of mind are included: emotions, perceptions, conceptualization, imagination, and discrimination – the citta-samskara or “mental formations.” Citta or mind is the totality of these ever-changing psychological phenomena, not a thing, or unchanging subject.
With mindfulness of the mental formations, the Buddha directs us to “know” when a mental formation is present and when it is not present. Mindfulness itself is a mental formation, so we can be aware when mindfulness is present, as well as when it is not. When not mindful of mental formations, we believe and identify with them. As soon as we recognize a mental formation as a mental formation, it loses much – or all – of its power over us. When mindfulness is there, the mental formation has already been transformed. No longer is there only anger, now there is also mindfulness of the anger. The situation is changed as soon as we are mindful of it, no longer lost in forgetfulness, no longer identified as anger.
While practicing asana, mindfulness of the mental formations provides a wonderful opportunity to observe and recognize our mental patternings and how they condition our habitual tendencies. The body is not completely symmetrical. You may find one side in a posture easier than the other side. Noticing how quickly the mind categorizes experience into “good” and “bad” can free us from believing these potentially limiting notions. As an old Zen saying puts it, “with one thought, heaven and hell are created.”
Pain or discomfort often arises during asana practice. Much discomfort is really just a reaction to novelty, and much pain is the pain of change. Such pain can provide an opportunity to grow in mindfulness. Truly injurious or excessive pain should never be ignored, but the truth is, most of the pain that one experiences in asana practice is merely discomfort and not injurious. With discomfort, it is fruitful to drop out of your aversive reactivity and bring a gently embracing quality of mindfulness to the discomfort. When we do this, we see for ourselves that there really is a difference between pain and suffering – the misery and mental anguish that we add to the experience because of our aversion. This is an important insight with real benefit to life off the mat.
We practice with the discomfort and pain that arises in asana practice so that we can remain free from suffering throughout our life. Yes, if we feel discomfort in our shoulders while doing Warrior Two all we need do to relieve the pain is lower our arms. But if we always do this, what will we do with the pain that we cannot avoid through such a simple strategy? What if you are injured in an accident? Or you lose your lover? How will you face your own sickness, old age and death? Whether emotional or physical, embodiment means pain is inevitable. Working with mindfulness of the mind means that when the inevitable losses of life occur, you can just feel the pain and not add suffering as well.
The Buddha encourages us to notice the mind when liberation or “letting go” is present. But first, we need to have clarity about what a grasping mind feels like. Yoga is not an ideology, philosophy or moral code about the “goodness” of letting go and the “badness” of attachment. Letting go is what happens when the suffering of holding on is felt and recognized.
The most obvious attachment is to material objects and sensory pleasures, including possessions, sensual, and sexual sensations. Attachment to particular “feel good” experiences like the potentially seductive enjoyment of stretching and moving the body, or the excitement of accomplishment, are some examples, as is the “yoga buzz” many practitioners seek in their practice. There’s nothing wrong in enjoying physical pleasure, but if we are dominated by our attachment to pleasure, we will suffer when it dissipates.
Another type of attachment is to opinions, beliefs, views, and theories. While practicing asana, we may find ourselves attached to ideas about what we “should” be able to do, what we “should” be feeling, and the correct form of the asana. We may find ourselves caught in a belief about what we cannot do or what we will “never be able to do.” Again, ideas and opinions are not the issue; it’s the degree of our attachment to them that creates suffering. If we are attached to strong ideas about what we need in order to be happy and free, the attachment to those very ideas becomes an obstacle to happiness and freedom. We place ourselves in bondage to our ideas and concepts, missing the possibility for happiness and freedom here and now.
There can be attachment to practice itself! The Buddha strongly warned against getting attached to ritual and traditional practices – secular or religious. It is possible to become so attached to a particular form of practice that you remain in your comfort zone, never testing your edges. The form becomes a trap rather than a tool for liberation. To appreciate and be firm in one’s commitment to a particular practice is one thing, but if we become overly attached and obsessive with the form, we can all too easily lose the liberating spirit of the practice.
The most challenging attachment includes everything that we can identify as “I,” “me,” or “mine.” Even becoming attached to our identity as a yogi can become a source of duhkha if we develop a holier-than-thou attitude, causing us to see ourselves as separate and superior to others.
Mindfulness shows how one creates a sense of self through reactivity, belief patterns, and dramatizing story lines. It happens in the instant a student marks out “her” spot in the practice room with her mat. The more attached we are to our stories of self, the more tension and suffering we create, but it’s not until we really see this for ourselves that any opening can occur.