Why Mindfulness Isn’t Enough

Scholar Sarah Shaw explains why mindfulness must work together with ethics, compassion, and wisdom — in Buddhism and in life.

Sarah Shaw
1 November 2020
Photo by Andrea Roth.

The modern mindfulness movement has swept through international culture, and, like many Buddhists, I have felt intrigued and pleased about this. Mindfulness is, as the Buddha said, a way to happiness. It puts the responsibility for our mental state right where it belongs: in ourselves. It is a powerful way to work with and feel comfortable with our own minds.

As the basic practice of mindfulness becomes more widespread, it is helpful to consider what Buddhist philosophy—specifically the noble eightfold path and the early teachings on psychology called the Abhidhamma—says about mindfulness and what it can do. In Buddhism, mindfulness is more than the stand-alone practice of bare attention, as beneficial as that is. Right mindfulness is a key part of the complete path to enlightenment.

Right mindfulness is inclined to be friendly, to smile at problems.

During the present pandemic crisis, one ancient Buddhist image for mindfulness keeps on coming to my mind. Mindfulness, in this metaphor, is like a gatekeeper who guards a city that is on a dangerous border. It watches carefully who comes in, protecting the city from thieves and enemies and letting in visitors and goods the city needs to survive and for people to be happy. The city is compared to the mind: the ramparts at the top are like wisdom, and the food and other supplies like the reserves of meditation practice. Everyone in the city needs to work together to keep well, just as factors in our mind do.

Living in the world of the pandemic has felt like being in that besieged city. We are all at risk, having to be careful about what comes in and out of our house. We all have to work together to get through it. We are in one sense solitary—we are in the end the only ones responsible for our mental state, the “city”—but as social creatures we need human warmth and friendliness.

The Buddhist system of psychology known as the Abhidhamma expresses this need for interaction and of the whole mind working together very well. It says that when mindfulness is present, a number of other factors come into being too, quite naturally. For Buddhists, this is very good news: that the different factors of awakened mind help each other and can grow together.

Many of these factors concern how we relate to others in daily life. So there is an ethical sense, in the presence of two factors called self-respect (hiri) and regard for consequences (ottappa). These arise when mindfulness does.

These ethical factors are called “the guardians of the world,” the intuitive controls that come into play when there is mindfulness. They watch over our own mental states and how we interact with others: they prevent us from doing or saying something that could cause harm to ourselves or others. They are rather like inbuilt ethical instincts that come into action when mindfulness is present.

This works in daily life too. Let’s look at a very basic example. If I go to the supermarket, I need to be alert and mindful, to choose just what I want and find the right things. But I also have to be aware of others and how I interact with them. It is not just mindfulness of me! If I barge in front of someone about to buy some cat food and just ignore them to get the last few tins for myself, according to the Abhidhamma I have stopped being mindful. I am not being ethical either—I have ignored the needs of the other person.

The Abhidhamma says that if there is mindfulness of one’s own feelings and body, then this includes the feelings and bodies of others too. And in social situations, if there is mindfulness of feeling, you will be less inclined to make that nasty remark, because you are mindful of the effect it would have on the mind of the other person, and on your own mind.

Another factor that the Abhidhamma says arises with mindfulness is a sense of balance. Often in life we have to be aware of a number of things that are going at the same time. If I am cooking, I need that sense of balance so I can keep track of the pans bubbling, how to manage to chop things in time for the meal, and how to answer the phone if need be.

Balance, in Pali tatramajjattata, literally meaning “being right there in the middle,” helps us to do this. This feels a bit like the equipoise of steering a bicycle through the wobbly events of the day. Simply being aware of the breath as a mindfulness practice during the day will help us start to do this.

Something that is said always to arise, even if only a little, with mindfulness is confidence. If you are feeling nervous before meeting someone or giving a public talk, the Abhidhamma says that trust will arise if you are mindful of that feeling. Mindfulness of the situation will produce confidence and help you in what you are doing.

When there is mindfulness, Abhidhamma says one of the four brahmaviharas, or “divine abodes,” will also arise. The four are loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, and the one will arise that is appropriate for the situation. If there is a need for friendliness toward oneself, loving-kindness will come; if there is a need just to let go and be equanimous, that will arise. It is as if mindfulness finds the reserves that are needed at the time. Another ancient image compares this to a treasurer of the king, who finds the money that the king requires when it is wanted. Mindfulness, according to the Abhidhamma, helps steer us to the qualities we need as the situation demands.

The fourth noble truth, the path to the end of suffering and enlightenment, says there are eight ways we can keep the middle way and ensure that our minds and bodies are happy and in good shape. We need to get a good “view” of events, and not be ill-disposed to others, so right view and right intention keep the city of the mind safe.

We need ethical behavior, in the form of right speech, right livelihood, and right action, to keep the peace. And to ensure the mind is happy and protected, we need what is loosely termed “meditation,” but could be seen now as forms of mind development: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Stillness could be another translation for concentration, which lets the mind come to rest, recharge itself, and experience the revitalizing effects of quiet and a meditation practice.

So “right mindfulness” in the Abhidhamma is something different from just noting or being basically aware. The Abhidhamma says that as we become aware, our mind tends to naturally find other positive factors too. Mindfulness needs and thrives on them, just as they need mindfulness to keep them fresh and awake.

This complete right mindfulness helps in daily life. If I have a friend who is unhappy at losing her job, doing the right thing to help her—what could be called right action—also needs mindfulness. She might suggest we go out and get blind drunk. But it is clear that would not help her, or me. So I need to be alertly resourceful and suggest a way to cheer her up, like going for a meal, where she will feel better, not worse.

As we see in this example, right mindfulness is intuitively ethical, which is not the same as judgmental. It is inclined to be friendly, to smile at problems, and be aware of other people’s needs as well as one’s own, and to find skillful solutions.

In Buddhist psychology, the “skillful,” or healthy and awake mind, is accompanied by many factors. Mindfulness supports and is supported by the others, like one instrument is supported by the others in a chamber music group. In Buddhism, mindfulness never plays solo.

Sarah Shaw

Sarah Shaw

Sarah Shaw is Khyentse Foundation Reader in Buddhist Studies at the University of South Wales, a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, and author of Mindfulness: Where it Comes from and What it Means.