Afflictive States of Mind

Dear Friends,

Living a skillful and happy life depends on what we pay attention to and how we pay attention. The Buddha tells us that by regularly giving careless and unwise attention to afflictive mind states, we cause them to re-arise and increase. These obsessive patterns are a waste of time and a cause of stress and suffering. When we are angry at someone, for instance, we may habitually bring to mind the exact thoughts or memories that trigger the anger. We then relate to those thoughts with a strong identification: “This happened to me!” It feels personal and important, so the mind repeats this stressful pattern again and again. The Buddha encourages us instead to bring wise attention to those aspects of the present moment that diminish the stressful pattern. This is a pragmatic approach to mental activity, learning what leads to the mind’s release.

It is possible to weaken afflictive states of mind by mindfully observing the stressful consequences that inevitably follow when the mind is caught up or fixated. Clear seeing weakens unskillful habits. Learning what to pay attention to and with what attitude depends on mindfully tracking one’s mental experience. Otherwise, the strength of our habits will make these choices for us. Buddhist practice is about respecting the central importance of wise attention. Most people understand the ethical implications of killing and stealing. In a more subtle way, we must also understand the ethical implications of our mental activity. The Buddha’s teachings point to a profound freedom arising from careful and continuous mindful attention to what the mind is doing.

Wishing us all a peaceful New Year,

Mark Nunberg

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