Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — How Modern Authors Distort an Ancient Teaching

In our current enthusiasm for mindfulness, we can easily forget that this practice is grounded in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Self-help authors distort this teaching when they ignore its historical context and try to mix mindfulness with New Age ideas.

Following are two examples. Neither of these ideas have anything to do with mindfulness.


Reincarnation is based on the belief that:

  • We have an essence — a permanent identity, soul, or self.
  • This essence moves from body to body over the course of many lifetimes.

The Buddha explicitly denied both points. He taught that the elements of our experience — including thoughts and feelings — are constantly changing. And by definition, anything that changes constantly cannot have a permanent identity. Anything that is impermanent cannot remain “itself.”

This means that there is no soul to pass from body to body. There is nothing to reincarnate.

This point is worth exploring in detail, and there’s no way that I can do it justice here. To learn more, check out Joe Goldstein’s talk on impermanence. Then listen to Gil Fronsdal on “no-self”.

Living with “intention”

Many self-help authors tell us to focus on setting goals and achieving them. Not happy? No problem. Just do two things:

  • Determine what you want.
  • Change your thinking behavior to “manifest” or “attract” what you want.

The result is “abundance.”

According to the Four Noble Truths, all this is delusion. In fact, living with this kind of intention is a prescription for suffering (dukkha).

The enlightened person lives without any intention except freedom from dukkha. Though most of us will find this teaching counter-intuitive, it is perfectly consistent with the Four Noble Truths.

Consider this: Setting a goal in order to become happy means identifying yourself as fundamentally incomplete and separate from something that will complete you.

This, however, is an illusion. When you’re mindful of your present moment experience, all you see is just one never-ending, ever-changing stream of sensation. At that level, nothing is separate. There is no “self.” There is no “other.” There is just an unbroken Whole.

This also means that there is nothing “out there” to “get” that will “make” you happy. As the poet Basho reminds us, “No amount of sitting will turn you into a Buddha.”

The practice of mindfulness reveals that you already are a Buddha. When you see yourself as part of the Whole, you act appropriately in the moment without self-centered intention. Wisdom and compassion arise spontaneously.

To make our happiness depend on achieving goals is to impose conditions: I’ll be happy when and if I get [fill in the blank with something that you want].

In contrast, mindfulness reveals fulfillment without conditions — an unshakable serenity, now.

Posts in this series:

Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — The Fourth Noble Truth

The Fourth Noble Truth is that we can live in a way that ends craving. This way of life is called the Eightfold Path:

  1. Right view is understanding the Four Noble Truths.
  2. Right intention is a strong resolve to awaken — the kind of intention you’d have if your hair were on fire and you wanted to put it out.
  3. Right speech is avoiding deception, rudeness, crude conversation, and speaking ill of others.
  4. Right action flows naturally when we release craving and selfish intention.
  5. Right livelihood is making a living in ways that do not harm other people.
  6. Right effort in meditation avoids the extremes of laziness and exhaustion by following a “middle path” — being relaxed and alert at the same time.
  7. Right concentration is the ability to focus attention during meditation.
  8. Right mindfulness is to using attention see impermanence at work in the present moment.

Please note a few things:

  • The Eightfold Path is not a journey to future destination. To practice the path is to be liberated now.
  • Each step in the path begins with the word right. However, this word is not used in the sense of right versus wrong. Right in this context means effective and in tune with reality.
  • Though we list the elements of the Eightfold Path as separate steps, they are not separate in practice. To take any step is to practice the whole path.

Posts in this series:

Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — The Third Noble Truth

The Third Noble Truth is that when craving ends, dukkha ends.

When we see and accept the impermanent nature of all things, we are liberated. We see that it’s pointless to grasp at any experience with the hope of making it permanent. We understand the futility of clinging to anything that constantly changes.

Third Noble Truth reminds us that Buddhism is not a religion in any traditional sense. Buddhism is not based on belief in God — or belief in anything else, for that matter.

The Buddha saw beliefs of any kind as a form of craving — holding on to fixed ideas about fluid realities. Beliefs generate disagreement that can harden into conflict and violence.

The Buddha was not interested in theology or grand intellectual schemes.

He was interested only in one thing: The end of dukkha.

Posts in this series:

Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — The Second Noble Truth

The Second Noble Truth is that dukkha has a source — our tendency to grasp at pleasure and repress pain.

The Buddha called referred to this tendency as tanha, which we can translate as craving.

To understand craving is to make a life-changing discovery: Dukkha does not result from painful circumstances in life or the behavior of other people. Rather, dukkha arises with craving.

Also, craving is an “inside” job. It is something that we add to our experience. Craving is something that we do.

The Buddha talked in detail about how craving arises. He pointed to five basic stages in the process (which he called the five aggregates):

  1. Matter is physical form. This includes the human body. However, craving is not ultimately about mind, not matter. The other four aggregates are all aspects of mind.
  2. Perception is pure awareness of our moment-to-moment experience without any effort to describe it or change it.
  3. Sensation is pure feeling rather than complex emotions. Sensations exist on a simple continuum — from pleasant to neutral to unpleasant.
  4. Conception is the realm of thinking and language. Conception separates perceptions and sensations into distinct categories: Self versus other. Past versus present versus future. And much, much more. However, distinctions exist only in thinking. At the level of pure perception, there is just one unbroken stream of experience. Nothing is separate from anything else.
  5. Intention is the realm of motivation. Once we separate experience into separate things, we compulsively move toward the things we like and move away from the things we dislike. This hardens into longing and loathing, greed and hatred — in short, craving.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to craving. The Third and Fourth Noble Truths explain.

Posts in this series:

Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — The First Noble Truth

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that dukkha exists.

Unfortunately, the word dukkha is untranslatable. It is often rendered in English as suffering. But this misleading. Even sukkha — satisfaction, or pleasure — falls within the realm of dukkha if we relate to it in an unwholesome way.

We’ll better understand dukkha when we remember two things.

The deeper meaning of dukkha

Dukkha has layers. The most obvious is pain — physical and emotional. Yet there’s much more.

Dukkha also points to the fact that everything changes. Our experience is pure flux. Even the most intense pleasures fade away.

We ignore this fact, however. We try to make some experiences last forever and other experiences end forever. The result is that we are duped and constantly at odds with reality.

That’s dukkha in a deeper sense. It’s a profound dissatisfaction with a basic fact of our existence — impermanence.

Dukkha is not inevitable

You’ll often see the First Noble Truth rendered as “life is suffering.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The whole message of Buddhism is that dukkha is optional. We don’t have to suffer. We don’t have to struggle with change.

In fact, we can relate to impermanence in a way that liberates us.

The rest of the Noble Truths explain how.

Posts in this series:

Returning to the Roots Of Mindfulness — The Four Noble Truths

I’m astonished at the impact of Buddhism on Western culture. Psychologists and business leaders are churning out books that mention mindfulness. Twenty years ago, I would have never predicted this.

In all the hoopla we can forget that mindfulness — the precise and nonjudgmental awareness of our present-moment experience — is ancient. It comes directly from the Four Noble Truths taught two millennia ago by the Buddha.

When an idea such as mindfulness ignites so quickly and spreads so widely, we benefit by returning to its historical origins. Then we can check for current misunderstandings.

The biggest danger is that we’ll cherry-pick the ancient teachings that align with our desires for success, sex, and money — and ignore anything else. (See this for an example.)

Preventing this outcome is my reason for writing about the Four Noble Truths.

Please note that my understanding of the Four Noble Truths has been shaped by Steve Hagen, author of Buddhism Plain and Simple. I highly recommend this book.

Meanwhile, here’s what’s coming (I’ll add links as I post them):

Finding Credible Self-Help — Where to Start

Plenty of people — teachers, preachers, researchers, psychotherapists, coaches, and consultants — offer guidance about how to be happy, healthy, and wealthy.

Some of these people give away their teachings. Others charge a hefty fee. Some are truly selfless. Others are all about self-promotion.

Our job is discover who we can trust and find out what really works — to think critically and creatively about self-help.

This means balancing open-mindedness with healthy skepticism — looking closely at published work, asking questions, and testing ideas in the laboratory of daily life.

I agree with Jeffery Martin, a psychologist whose motto is: Stick with the researchers who write well. Go with academics who stay close to the data and have a source of income beyond speaking fees and book royalties.

For starters, check out the work of these people:

In this blog, I’ll continue to reflect on my experience with books for behavior change. I am not a psychologist or spiritual teacher. But I am an intelligent non-expert.

More importantly, I am a mortal human being who wants to live with a little more wisdom and compassion.

I’ll alert you to ideas that excite me, confuse me, or alarm me. I invite you to stick around for the ride and join me in the conversation.

The Case Against Goals — and an Alternative

Goal setting is touted in many self-help books as a sure path to success and happiness. Ironically, such widespread agreement makes me want to question the whole strategy even more.

Turns out that there are plenty of people willing to join me.

Goals can fail to satisfy 

Start with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his well-researched, entertaining book Stumbling On Happiness.

We often set goals based on what we think will make us happy in the future. The problem, says Dan, is that we are lousy at predicting how we will feel in a decade, a year, or even a month from today. This means that we can achieve our goals without getting the emotional payoff that we originally wanted.

Several psychologists are researching this phenomenon, which is called affective forecasting. Dan’s site lists some relevant studies.

Goals depend on sustained effort

Jeff Goins argues that “goals are a waste of time” because they seduce us into relying on planning.

How well do you act on your plans to achieve your goals? If you struggle with procrastination and follow-through, then the odds are against you.

Many achievements are unplanned

In addition, many wonderful things happen to us — such as making friends, falling in love, or finding a dream job — without planning. Focusing exclusively on our goals can blind us to surprise opportunities.

Goals highlight the gap between what we have and what we want

Shane Parrish notes that setting our sights on a long-term goal highlights the discrepancy between our current state and our ideal state:

Goal-oriented people mostly fail. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, you will constantly think that you are not at your goal until you reach it. If you fall short you’re still a failure. The only way to reach your goal is to lose the 20 pounds. It’s a state of near perpetual failure.

Replacing goals with daily practices

Fortunately there is a way to overcome these obstacles: Let go of your goals and focus instead on small, daily behavior changes.

I’m actually skeptical about long-term goals that don’t lead to daily behavior change.

This idea is developed in a quirky and delightful book by cartoonist Scott Adams — How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. According to Scott, “goals are for losers” and “systems are for winners”:

If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.

The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system.

Why delay gratification? 

That last paragraph is crucial. Every time that you do your small daily behavior, you experience immediate success. And if that behavior is something you enjoy, then you can savor the process of behavior change as much as the results.

My friend Judy put it this way: “Each day is whole and good all by itself. I can still accomplish things and NOT locate myself on an arduous path of incompleteness and frankly, pain.”


Where to learn more

If you want to further explore the pitfalls of goal setting and play with some alternatives, check out the following:

Also listen to this podcast, in which James Altucher urges us to forget about goals and base our daily activities on themes instead.

I wish you daily success and fulfillment.

Ditch Generic Advice for Self-Help That Really Helps

Orin Davis

Orin Davis

I’m not a huge fan of TED Talks, but here’s one worth watching. It’s by Orin Davis — principal investigator at the Quality of Life Laboratory, adjunct professor of psychology and management at Baruch College, and lecturer in Critical and Creative Thinking at UMass Boston.

Some juicy quotes:

These are a bunch of people that want you to pay them for the privilege of telling you what to do. How does that sound?

Most of the advice that you’re reading is rather generic. It’s not really tailored to you. The people who write this, they have no idea who you are. They have no idea what your life is like. They have no idea how you’ve bent, contorted, twisted yourself to deal with the contingencies that you call life. 

Even those of us who do research in positive psychology — our results are based on inferences that come from averages. Yes, they may be randomized controlled trials. And yes, we may be finding an effect across the mean. But they’re still averages. 

So as much as our results are theory-based, data driven, and jargon-laden, your mileage may vary. 

The other problem we run into in the advice industry is this thing called “best practices” — the idea that if we can find all the successful people and we figure out what made them all successful, then if we do that, we’ll be successful, too. 

The problem is the people who tried the very same strategies and failed, and we don’t know who they are. Because if you fail, you fall off the radar. We don’t track you. We don’t know how you failed. We don’t know why you failed.

How willing would you be to try these best practices if you found out that only 10 percent of the people that use them succeed?

How similar is your definition of success to that of the people we studied? Do you want what they have? Do you want to be like them? Because their contingencies are different. Their lives are different. Their goals are different. 

You’ve got your own path. You should walk it yourself. 

The most important thing we need to do is be fearless.

Also see these articles by Orin:

Making Self-Help Effective

Reverse Engineering Positive Psychology

Discovering What Works — Testing an Author’s Ideas for Yourself

Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable and conform your conduct thereto — BUDDHA

Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own — BRUCE LEE

These quotes often come to mind when I pick up a book written by someone with instructions for changing my behavior. On the one hand, I feel a sense of possibility and hunger for new ideas. At the same time, I brace for disappointment.

In book publishing, the self-help and business genres are plagued with two intractable problems:

  • Even well-researched and tested ideas might not work for you. Writers and speakers are often appealing to the masses. Authors splatter a lot of ideas on their audiences, cross their fingers, and hope that the content resonates with as many people as possible. This is about as precise as painting a barn door by throwing open cans of paint at it. Individual differences get ignored. Techniques that work for someone else might fall flat for you.

One solution is to consistently ask three questions about any idea:

  • Is this idea worth taking seriously? Be open-minded and skeptical at the same time. Yes, expose yourself to new perspectives. At the same time, keep your crap-detector handy.
  • Does this idea call on me to do something? What’s the overall outcome or big result that the author promises me? What’s the very next action that I take to achieve that outcome?
  • Did that idea work for me? As you experiment with an author’s suggestions, collect data. Monitor your new behaviors and their results. You’ll experience the power of precise awareness — and discover what truly works for you.