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.

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