Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness, and Love

STEPHAN BODIAN
San Bernardino, Calif.: Waterfront Digital Books, 2014.
136 pp., paper, $9.99.

We live in a world of benefits. With everything we do, we want to know: what will I gain from it? But spiritual practice does not talk about benefits. The Bhagavad Gita says, take action but do not expect any fruits. My revered Thai Buddhist teacher told me, “Your job is to only practice.” My Zen teacher threatened to hit me thirty times if I asked once more about benefits.

So I am a little leery when spiritual approaches are compared in terms of their benefits. Dilution of spirituality scares me. Mindfulness practice is getting more attention than any other meditative approach today. The popular show “Sixty Minutes” aired a segment on a three-day mindfulness retreat attended by the television anchor Anderson Cooper. California’s Spirit Rock Meditation Center offers on-line courses on the subject. Companies like Google hold conferences on it that are attended by thousands of employees. Of course, this could not happen if people did not feel some benefits in their day-to-day lives.

Mindfulness practice is a continued attention to the arising and passing away of experiences at all levels of sensation and feeling. It is said to lead to a penetrating insight into the impermanent nature of the material world. Mindfulness retreats allow one to delve deeply into the “sure heart’s release” from suffering. Seeing things as they are from moment to moment, and not as we want them to be, is the key. In addition to reducing stress, offering relief from depression and anxiety, and creating more harmonious relationships, mindfulness practice has been shown to change the brain in significant and positive ways. The therapeutic benefits for chronically ill patients have been proved by research papers. 

Stephan Bodian, author of Meditation for Dummies and former editor-inchief of Yoga Journal, is a well-known meditation teacher. In this book he points out that mindfulness practice has its pitfalls. The practice can become laborious and stagnant, and one may start to look for more spontaneous ways to be present. The practice of deliberate attention may introduce a new type of ego identity as a detached observer, giving one a sense of separateness. One may also use mindfulness to avoid or suppress uncomfortable emotions, so that it turns into a kind of escape from life’s challenges. Instead of using penetrating insight towards a deeper understanding, the practice turns into a sort of addiction (not a bad one to have, but an addiction nonetheless!). Bodian argues that these obstacles can stop you from experiencing abiding peace, spontaneity, freedom, and authenticity. 

The next natural step after mindfulness, Bodian says, is “awakened awareness.” In the Buddhist tradition, it is called “True Self” or “Big Mind” or “Clear Light.” Here is the big difference, as Bodian sees it: awakened awareness is not a state of mind, because states of mind come and go. Awakened awareness abides all the time.

The author uses two terms in this regard: “ground of awareness” and “awakened awareness.” The ground of awareness is the openness in which everything arises (somewhat like your computer screen). Awakened awareness
dawns when you realize that this ground awareness is your natural state. That is what you truly are. This is your background of everyday living, unchanging and self-sustaining. 

The key attributes of living with awakened awareness, as Bodian describes them, are: no sense of center, periphery, or self; no sense of separation between self and others; an awareness that everything is perfect and meaningful just as it is; the absence of effort; responding only to the situation at hand; and, finally, an experience of mystery beyond description.

There is a paradox here. How can you become what you already are? If awakened awareness is your natural
state, then why do you need to approach it? The answer is that you continue to suffer because you do not consciously recognize that you are this awareness. Awareness has to awaken to itself.

Basically the author makes this distinction: mindfulness emphasizes objects of awareness; the “direct approach,” as he calls it, emphasizes the ultimate subject, awakened awareness itself. The book includes a chapter devoted to practicing awakened awareness in everyday life. Suggestions include spending time each day sitting quietly; enjoying your time with loved ones; spending time away from digital devices; and finding time away from e-mail and social networks to be still. These guidelines brought a smile to my face as I wondered what the ancient teachers would have thought of them.

The Upanishads taught this perennial truth: I am That (aham brahmasmi). The Vedantic teachings concern the
ultimate identity of the individual soul with the Supreme Soul. Vedanta is intended to enable the seeker to have
the direct experience of his or her true nature, and it holds that each and every one of us is qualified to have that highest illumination, if we are willing to put forth sincere and intense effort. J. Krishnamurti spoke about “choiceless
awareness.” Is this any different from what Bodian is talking about? I ask the question under the eternal threat of
thirty hits from my Zen teacher.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.


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