I’m turning my mind to a retreat I’m running soon over New Year for Order Members and Mitras. Some of you reading have already booked for it and I look forward to seeing you in the zoom space. The theme is Uncontrived Mindfulness: a beautiful mind.
You may well have different responses to the idea of a beautiful mind. Qualities of the beautiful (kalyana is the word in Pali) mind are often associated with positive emotions such as kindness, compassion, and generosity. It sounds inspiring, and delightful to have a quality of mind that is enjoyable and pleasurable to experience, and beneficial to others to be around.
But you might respond by feeling a bit daunted or put off because you know that the quality of your own mind is often far from the ‘ideal’. That’s all very well, you might think, but what about all the times when I feel grumpy or depressed or struggling to get through all I’ve got to do. What about the times when I’d just prefer to go shopping or eat pizza?
It’s natural that we all have times when the mood is low or we feel unmotivated to practice, and it is easy to think with this type of mind that we can’t practice or feel doubtful or despondent about our own ability to change and grow spiritually. We might think we just have to try harder, to make more effort, and turn the mind state around to something more ‘positive’. While it is natural at times to feel doubt, aversion, or a lack of motivation, using our will to try and change what is happening is not always helpful and can sometimes lead to tension and frustration.
There are lots of qualities of the beautiful mind that are not obviously altruistic or happy. What the beautiful mind qualities have in common is that they are all ethically skilful. And because of this, they reduce suffering in our experience. The particular qualities we’ll be exploring on the retreat are from a Buddhist ‘list’ known as the 5 Spiritual Faculties and in their own distinct ways they all benefit us whenever we experience them. They are faith, energy, wisdom, concentration/stability, and the central factor, within the mandala of the 5 faculties, mindfulness.
There is much I could say – and will say on the retreat – about each faculty, but for now I simply want to address the conundrum of having an ideal of a ‘beautiful mind’ with, at times, the reality of a distinctly unbeautiful mood. If we are to avoid polarising with ourselves into spiritually acceptable or unacceptable parts we need to think in a skilful way about our practice. By thinking in a way that is in accord with the Dharma we no longer need to reject what we don’t like or over-identify with the parts we think are positive and good.
We can use the five spiritual faculties working together to do this, but for now, I want to bring in just one way in which mindfulness forms part of that helpful perspective on the broad range of our experience. With mindfulness we are cultivating a quality of mind that is spacious and at ease with whatever it observes. Some part of the mind is always ‘knowing’ or observing what is happening. If we can get curious about that part of the mind, we allow it to grow and become stronger. We ‘grow’ a skilful awareness that recognises a disgruntled mind, a self-pitying mind, or an over-intoxicated mind but without indulging in it or opposing it.
When we give more attention to the quality of mindfulness, we are less interested in the ‘objects’ of experience, than with the mind that is knowing what is happening. Mindfulness recognises unskilful or unhappy mind states for what they are, without judging, and uses them as simply more experiences that can be known in awareness. The knowing of each experience is like using a mindfulness muscle that becomes stronger and more flexible with each new object. Whether the object is a neutral one like the breath, or a more obviously pleasant or unpleasant one matters not a jot to awareness. Any object does the job of helping grow mindfulness.
On the retreat we’ll look more at how the other spiritual faculties of faith, energy, wisdom, and stability support mindfulness to ever greater freedom. And there is a freedom when we’re released from the tyranny of always having to have ‘good’ or ‘pleasant’ experiences and can fully appreciate that we can have difficult and unpleasant moods and mind states without the need to get rid of them.
You can find more about the practicalities of the retreat on the info page – here