Placing mindfulness within the Buddhist Culture


Mindfulness and Buddhist Culture

It is valuable to consider the benefits of mindfulness (and its relevance to potentially decreasing dark side of flow) in the greater context of Buddhist philosophy. Groves and Farmer (1994) indicate “Buddhist doctrines deal in detail with craving and attachment, how they arise, the forms they take, their results, and also how they can be managed” (p.183). The Four Noble Truths—one of the oldest articulations of Buddhist doctrine that is said to be the first discourse given by the Buddha after his Enlightenment—depicts how craving and attachment lead to suffering (Groves, & Farmer, 1994).

The Four Noble Truths are (1), suffering exists; (2), there is a cause of suffering, and the cause of suffering is craving; (3), there is the cessation of suffering which is Enlightenment; and (4), there is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering which is the Noble Eightfold Path (right view/understanding, right intention/thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) (Van Gordon, Shonin, Griffiths, Singh, 2015). Marlatt (2002) described the Four Noble Truths as being at the heart of all Buddhist practice. 

The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering (dukkha). Dukkha is usually translated as suffering, but includes misery, change, pain, imperfection or a lack of satisfactoriness (Marlatt, 2002). Marlatt (2002) stated, “the first truth is that the experience of suffering is universal; it is part of the human experience to have periods of physical, emotional, or psychological distress” (Marlatt, 2002, p. 45-6). This type of all encompassing suffering can be considered an existential dissatisfaction.  Buddha detailed “birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering” (Van Gordon, Chonin, Griffiths, Singh, 2015, p. 10).

Beyond the present moment experience of suffering, Buddha described how there is also potential suffering, that is, fear that something may happen to cause future unhappiness (Groves, Farmer, 1994).  This category of enduring and covert suffering is known in Buddhism as “all-pervasive suffering” (Van Gordon, Chonin, Griffiths, Singh, 2015, p. 11).

The Second Noble Truth is that the root cause of suffering is caused by attachment to either pleasurable experiences (craving) or attachment to avoiding unpleasant experiences (aversion) (Groves, & Farmer, 1994; Marlatt, 2002). Groves and Farmer (1994) state, “craving is said to arise in dependence on vedana, usually translated as feeling [emotions], which may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral” (Groves, Farmer, 1994, p. 185).

Marlatt (2002), elucidating Buddhist doctrine, described how “engaging in drug use or other addictive behaviors is a "false refuge" [from suffering] because it is motivated by a strong desire or "craving" for relief from suffering, despite the fact that continued involvement in the addictive behavior increases pain and suffering in the long run” (p. 46). In this regard, addictive behaviors such as flow provide a temporary refuge by enhancing positive emotional states and/or eliminating individuals’ experience of negative emotional states, but they do not provide an ultimate solution (refuge) (Marlatt, 2002).  In this perspective, it can be hypothesized that the rewarding and transcendental experience of flow may provide a false refuge.

Buddha illumined an additional challenge with attachment that is relevant to our exploration of action and adventure sport athletes. As outlined by Marlatt (2002) “addiction is enhanced to the extent that the individual becomes increasingly dependent on or "attached" to the behavior that appears to offer refuge and relief from suffering”  (p.46).  And, as individual’s attachment to their addictive behavior grows, “the individual is likely to experience increased "craving" for the anticipated relief associated with engaging in the addictive behavior” (Marlatt, 2002, p. 46). Action and adventure sport athletes therefore may become trapped in suffering when they cling to their flow-inducing sport as the only source of relief from suffering. This may be an important consideration given the praise and drive that action and adventure sport athletes receive from others which may further assert their (false, in the Buddhist sense) self.

Regarding the Buddhist etiology of suffering, Shonin et al. (2013) formulated the concept of ontological addiction to describe this nuanced and complex concept. Ontological addiction is defined as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief” (Van Gordon, Shonin, Griffiths, & Singh, 2015, p. 13).  As described prior, Buddha taught that afflictive mental states arise as a result of the false belief in an inherent sense of “self” which unremittingly craves after items it considers to be attractive or projects dislike towards objects it considers to be unattractive (Van Gordon, Shonin, Griffiths, & Singh, 2015).

In Buddhist philosophy, suffering ultimately arises “due to an individual’s ignorance as to the ultimate nature of self and reality” (Van Gordon, Shonin, Griffiths, & Singh, 2015, p. 12). This is an important consideration to keep in mind when reviewing how flow theory describes the notion of the ‘self’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

The Third Noble Truth is that it is possible to be free from suffering and that there is a path to alleviate suffering. The truth of the cessation of suffering is described as “the complete fading-away and extinction of this craving, its forsaking and abandonment, liberation from it, detachment from it” (Groves & Farmer, 1994, p. 186). The complete cessation of suffering is synonymous with Enlightenment or Nirvana, and is considered taking true refuge (Groves & Farmer, 1994).

The Fourth Noble Truth is that the end of suffering is contained in the Noble Eightfold path. The Noble Eightfold path includes: (1) right view/understanding, (2) right intention/thoughts, (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, (8) right concentration (Van Gordon, Shonin, Griffiths, & Singh, 2015). While it is beyond the scope of this project to delineate the complexity of the Noble Eightfold path, the concept of the Noble Eightfold path that is particularly relevant to our current discussion is how a fundamental wrong view that happiness can be achieved through worldly existence (such as in the accomplishments that result from flow) can lead to happiness (refuge). Moreover, an important view central to Buddhism is ‘impermanence’, that all things change, including, therefore, flow state (Groves, Farmer, 1994).