Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland


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Buddhist Psychology, Classical Mindfulness and the Healthy Mind

by Tapio Malinen

”To be civilized is to become yourself. But to become yourself is to become other than you were before starting to become yourself. Søren Kierkegaard


In the past few decades, the use of mindfulness has, especially within psychotherapy but also outside of the therapy world, become a sort of trend. We are told to live in the present moment, eat, make love, parent mindfully, be there, banish our stress and enrich our personal experience with the help of mindful presence. Mindfulness, in the spirit of neo-liberalism, is becoming or has already become an external consumer or brand product, along with other products that accentuate our individuality. Our self has become a target of constant product development for the Western person; all of our time goes into the constant modification and training of the self. Instead of seeing the skill of mindfulness as a central practice leading to a full awakening and a good life, it has been made “capitalist spirituality” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2000; Cohen, 2003; Grossman, P, 2010), one of many practices maintaining our external happiness.

Detached from the whole of Buddhist psychology, mindfulness can easily be seen simply as a mechanical, one-dimensional technique. However, such a view and the practices derived from it are not enough to liberate us from suffering.  Simply being in the now – even though it brings temporary relief – is not enough to change dysfunctional thought and belief habits that have been conditioned over a long time (Rapgay & Bystrisky, 2009). What we need is constant long-term practice, so that bare attention and clear understanding can be used in a way that helps us acknowledge the effects of wholesome or skillful and unwholesome or unskilled states of mind on our well-being. When this happens, we may active fresh neural paths in our brains and, little by little, bring into our lives loving kindness, compassion and equanimity. That is when it is possible to stop our selfish, suffering-maintaining, unquenchable “ thirst”.

Nowadays, the term mindfulness is often translated as “conscious, non-judging and accepting presence”.  What is emphasized here is just one trait of being mindful, the viewpoint of acceptance and non-judgement. However, from the framework of classical Buddhist mind practicing, this is not the end-all, be-all of skill of mindfulness practice. (Klemola, 2012). According to Buddhist psychology, the skill of mindfulness always contains a whole of intellectual, emotional, social, and ethical dimensions. It is important to pay attention to these aspects to properly understand what the practice of mindfulness actually entails in the epistemology of Buddhist psychology. We do not simply practice accepting, non-judging attention of emotions and other mind contents, but our goal is also to cultivate positive emotions and mind contents.  

In the following, I will attempt to introduce the canonic idea of mindfulness (sati) , included in the basic concepts of Buddhist psychology, as well as its connection with the healthy mind. I do this partially for myself, but also for all of those who are dealing with this skill in this moment, or will be dealing with it in the future. Thus we may perhaps understand how extensive this issue is, and through this understanding, our own experience of it may become richer and more multilayered. First, however, a brief glimpse of how this concept and the practices related to it have landed in the Western world.

In this article, the terms of Buddhist psychology will be written in the language of Pali. It is the language used by Buddha, and it was used to write down his teachings from the oral tradition four hundred years after he died. I use these terms to arouse interest for the original concepts, which are sometimes impossible to fully translate.

On the History of Buddhist Psychology

As a whole, Buddhism forms a very extensive wisdom tradition. There are many separate schools, which however contain several universal and shared views. In this presentation, I will keep to the oldest one, i.e. the so-called Theravada tradition. It is a psychology, which in fact can be called a psychological-philosophical ethic. It was gathered from oral tradition to a unified whole approximately 400 years after the death of Buddha, and it has been introduced in a canonic text, or basket, titled Abhidhamma. The Abdihamma is composed of seven books written in the language of Pali. It is the language that was spoken in India from the sixth to the third century before the beginning of our chronology. Its systematically and empirically proven, extensive theory of the human mind and the phenomenology of experience may, nowadays, also be seen as a postmodern, neurobiological proven model of human consciousness (Siegel, 2012). This model is based on the view that our mind is a self-organizing, embodied process arising from interaction and regulating the flow of energy information. The view emphasizes the idea of phenomenal interdependence.

According to American philosopher Ken Wilber, a knowledge of history may hold two types of meaning (Wilber,1999, p. 27). It may provide a home for a lonely self. On the one hand, it may be a mind-blowing metamorphosis, the death of all external beliefs. In this case, it turns a person’s consciousness into a more genuine one. History as an interpretation, a translation, provides the separate self with the experience of meaningfulness and significance. We may attach ourselves to the greater whole, give our lives meaning. We may create an embattlement and be protected. On the other hand, getting to know history may start a change. It may break, obliterate, thrust us into darkness. By doing this, it profoundly changes our world of meanings. The Believer dies, the Seer is born; we may transcend what is given. For me, getting to know the history of Buddhist psychology has provided an opportunity to rejoice of its roots without grasping, and at the same time, to see its truthfulness in the relative reality.

Buddhist psychology has a long past, but a short history. It can be roughly divided into four phases: the archaic, the classical, the modern and the postmodern (Kwee, 2010). The archaic phase begins in the teaching speeches of Buddha. At this time, it was a philosophical-ethical teaching, Dhamma, a sort of empirical-phenomenological science of the mind and experience. The goal was to end the suffering, the thoroughgoing unsatisfaction, related to human life. At this time, psychology itself was still an unknown concept. After the death of the historical Buddha, Siddhārta Gautama Sākyamuni, in the fourth century, these teachings were written by unknown scholars into the Abhidamma, one of the three canonical basket of early Buddhist literature.

It is estimated that the classical phase began with the first World Parliament between religions, in 1893 (Kwee, 2010). That was the beginning of the official dialogue between Buddhism and Western psychology. The psychology, philosophy and ethics of experiential reality, which were widely and systematically described in the Abhidhamma, were first translated by Caroline Rhys Davis in 1900. The Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics was born. In 1903, William James, the founder of American psychology, invited Dharmapala, a Sri Lankan scholar, into Harvard University to give a lecture on one central part of Buddhist pscyhology, the so-called khandas. They are psychological modalities, which are assumed to be the components of our experience. At the time, James predicted that this psychology will be studied by everyone in the West within 25 years. The prediction did not quite come true. However, James might be pleased with the wide-spread interest in and research of Buddhist psychology that has sprouted in the West in the last four decades.

The so-called second generation Buddhist psychologists, starting with Jung, have created a modern Buddhist psychology through their numerous scientific articles and books. An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology written by de Silva in 1979, as well as The Principles of Buddhist Psychology by Kalupahana from 1987, have been the beginning of the extensive scientific action that is currently building, in the words of neuroscientist Francisco Valera ”a contemplative, compassionate, and rigorous experimental science of the mind which could guide and inform medicine, neuroscience, psychology, education and human development” (Kwee, 2010, p. 33). Since then, some participants in making this science have included D.T. Suzuki, Carl Jung, Trungpa Rinpocke, Eric Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, just to mention a few. Buddhist psychoanalysts like Mark Epstein, Jeffrey Rubin, Jeremy Safran, Joseph Bobrow, Robert Langan, Harvey Aronson , and Barry Magid have also helped enrich both psychoanalysis and Buddhist psychology with their studies that emphasize mutuality.

In 1979, American medical professor Jon Kabat-Zinn founded a pain clinic into the medical school of the University of Massachusetts. This clinic adapted mindfulness into the treatment of chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). After this, this central term of Buddhist psychology and related practices have become perhaps the most widely used ones in a Western context. The scientific research of mindfulness has also exponentially grown within the past few years: in December 2011, PsycINFO (www.apa.org/pubs/databases/psycinfo/ index.aspx) listed 1760 studies that had the term mindfulness as their starting point.  In 2005, there were only 364 such quotes. At the moment, the most extensively studied program adapting the skill of mindfulness is Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), i.e. the use of conscious and accepting presence specifically for stress reduction (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, Stahl & Goldstein, 2010). Other third-wave cognitive approaches based on empirical evidence are the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) (Segal, Williams & Teasdale, 2002), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) (Linehan, 1993), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) (Hayes, Strosahl & Wilson, 1999), Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) (Gilbert, 2010), Metacognitive Therapy (MCT) (Wells, 2009) and Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) (Bowen, Chawla & Marlatt, 2010).

Within the last ten years, in the postmodern phase of Buddhist psychology, a new wave called new Buddhist psychology has been born. It is “translating” the Dhamma into one unified psychology integrating social constructionism, constructivism, clinical psychology and neuropsychology. The most central pioneer of this process is  Maurits Kwee, a Dutch clinical psychologist and professor currently working in Europe and Asia  (Kwee, 2011). It is fascinating to observe how closely the Buddhist concept of self resembles those of e.g. social constructionism or the interpersonal view of modern neurobiology. In all of these lies the assumption that we generally form a story of our lives. Through this story we define who we are, as well as build the world and reality we live in. We are constantly constructing ourselves in the stories we create of ourselves in interaction with other people. According to the postmodern view, there is no hidden interpretable “self”. Instead, the “self” is a story, a construct or image of the mind, an illusion that we hold onto and use to define who we are (Lax, 1996). This closely resembles the Buddhist concept of non-self, or anatta, which I will introduce later on in this article.

A Brief Introduction to the Basics of Buddhist Psychology

If “psychology” is used to mean exploring “the psyche”, and if “psyche” is used in its original meaning, “the soul”, we cannot combine Buddhist tradition with psychology. This is because Buddhist tradition denies the whole concept of the soul. However, if we use the word “psychology” to mean “the empirical-phenomenological science of the mind, experience, and behavior”, then Buddhist tradition offers a significant addition to Western psychology   (Olendzki, p.9, 2005).

In order to understand Buddhist psychology in general and its concept of mindfulness in particular, it is good to know something about the basic tenets of the Buddhist wisdom tradition, the Dhamma. According to Timo Klemola, the actual basis of mindfulness is exploring and understanding the suffering nature of life and becoming free of suffering (Klemola, 2013).

This tradition describes our ordinary, conditional existence through three empirical signs  (Rahula, 1974).

  1. Life as it is usually lived cannot give us a perfect and lasting satisfaction, because our existence contains a thoroughgoing dissatisfaction, which causes suffering (duhkha).


  1. Life is a constantly changing energy network of interdependent phenomena. All conditional things and events exist only as a result of the combined effects of reasons and consequences. Phenomena and things are temporary, unstable and impermanent (anicca).
  1. Nothing has its own, stable, innate nature. The “self” is also not a stable, static being. Instead it is a process, an event that we have identified with and grasped during our lives (anatta).


The basis of Buddhist thinking is also traditionally expressed through the so-called Four Noble or Ennobling Truths (Nyanaponika Thera, 1962).

  1. Human life, in its conditioned nature, is unsatisfactory. The feeling of throughgoing dissatisfaction, that something is constantly missing out of the tapestry of life, causes us inner suffering


  1. The reason for this suffering is our constant, unquenchable and selfish “thirst”(tanhā), our desire to hold onto self-centered wanting.
  1. We may be liberated from suffering by understanding the nature of our wanting and changing our relationship to our “thirst” and  unchangeability in a world that is in a state of constant change.


  1. There are eight strategies (the Noble Eightfold Path), with which we may be liberated from the suffering brought on by selfish wanting. This path combines wisdom, ethicalness and  mind practising in a way that provides us with the opportunity to enlighten our delusions and wake up to a good life.

These basic tenets of Buddhism contain certain assumptions about the human mind and practicing it.

  1. People are often unaware of experiencing the present moment and act reactively, on so-called autopilot.


  1.  Being unaware of the processes and contents of the mind creates the foundation for misunderstanding, delusions and suffering.
  1. We have the skill to develop and practice a non-judging, accepting and clear understanding, which offers us more awareness of the contents of our minds.


  1. Usually, this skill develops little by little, and it takes constant practice.
  1. The rich feeling of living comes from being aware of our experience that changes from one moment to the next, and of how it is constructed. When our unconscious and reactive actions are replaced with appropriate responses, we are also more free to make choices.


  1. This sort of tenacious and non-judging attention of mind contents makes it possible to perceive reality as it is.
  1. When our skill of perception with both internal and external stimuli has advanced to a more precise level, that is a level that corresponds to reality, we may also act more freely and purposefully in any given situation.


The Structure of Experience

Buddhist psychology describes the structure of our experience with five categories, called khandas or the five aggregats. These include the material form or the body, emotion, perception, mental formations (e.g. intentions) and consciousness. When analyzing any given experience, we notice that it is always possible to interpret them as ever-changing combinations of these aggregates.  From this process, born out of the constantly changing stream made by the basics of experience, we do not find any firm “self”. This understanding is usually in the beginning simply an intellectual event, but by practicing mindfulness regularly and deepening it, our understanding generally turns into an experiential one. This is when it has a particularly profound impact on our lives.

This experience and practicing mindfulness begins when we are in contact (phasso) with what happens in the now. For instance, what arises in our sensing doors during inhalation. Can I hear birdsong outside the window? Can I feel an itch in my left cheek? Can I observe my memory images from the hiking trip last summer? etc. Consciousness (viññana) is  born when “sensing doors” are in contact with the target of attention, that is, out of the interaction of organism and environment. Our sensing doors are not alive unless they are connected to consciousness. According to the Abidhamma, consciousness arises and disappears every moment, as a process-like series of various intellectual-emotional episodes. It is not an object, but an event that continues and is recreated from moment to moment, a process that gives birth to a personal experience of the so-called stream of consciousness (Olendzki, 2008). This process may be seen as a sort of seed, around which numerous different mind factors crystallize, giving meaning to stimuli that appear at different sensing doors at a rapid pace. Like the kings of bygone times, consciousness cannot arise without the court. “The king” is always followed by a group of other mind factors, which in many ways aid consciousness to gain its structure, shape and direction at any given moment. The basic traits of our experience are born out of this unique, constantly changing process created by sensation and mind functions, where various different mind factors are interacting (Olendzki, 2008). The Abidhamma classifies and names 52 different factors that define individual consciousness states and their reason-consequence relations. Mindfulness (sati) is number 29, so only one among many (Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2007).

Our sensations are also always followed by a certain feeling-tone (vedanā).  It might be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, powerful or only very subtle. Each sensation is unique and tells us what it feels like to have the experience in question right now. Mindfulness, however, helps make us aware that the stimulus and the feeling-tone related to it are two different things.

Another factor of mind, which arises with different consciousness (the consciousness of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and mind), is the perception (sañña). Its function is to interpret what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling or thinking, at any given moment. Through a wide net of association, memories, analyzing, learned perception categories, and linguistic functions, we create knowledge from each object of perception. This knowledge manifests itself as representations, symbols, words, images that we form while interpreting sensory information as thought categories that contain meanings.  Usually, this happens completely automatically below our stimulus treshold. With the help of mindfulness we may, however, increase our attentiveness of this process, and with this, our perceptions may become more and more precise.

So far, I have discussed four out of the five khandas or aggregates labelled by the Abidhamma: material form, consciousness, emotion, and perception. They respond to questions like:  “What is happening?”, “How may I understand my experience?” The fifth of the aggregates is directed at a very different question: “How am I reacting to all this?”, “Which intention am I forming out of all this?” The untrained mind usually pushes an unpleasant experience away and easily glings onto a pleasant one. According to Buddhist psychology, this aggregate is called ”sankhara”. Where emotion (vedanā) and perception (sañña) represent the two first of the 52 mind factors recognized by the Abhidhamma, the remaining fifty are all part of the fifth aggregate, the mental formations of our minds.

According to Buddhist thought, all unwholesome or unskillful mind formations are based on the ”three poisons (klesa)”:greed, hatred and ignorance. Ignorance (avidyā) does not mean that we know nothing, but rather that we consider the perishable, unclean, painful and non-self eternal, pure, happy and self. Ignorance is the first of the twelve explanations or reasons (nidānas) that cause for the Wheel of Life to spin reactively, causing us suffering. Practising mindfulness gives us the opportunity to learn to enlighten the formations of our mind, so that we may gradually move away from automatic reactions to creative, compassionate action governed by the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex (Siegel, 2012).

Figure 1

Structure of experience


Therefore, what we usually call the self is, according to Buddhist pscyhology, a process made of five dynamic, psychophysical phenomena groups or aggregats. This process is constantly recreated while we are in contact with a constantly changing environment (Olendzki, 2005).  Every time a sensory contact, perception, emotion or conditioned reaction is born, the “self” is also born. This process of selfing is recreated again and again as we create a purposeful order for external and internal information. Theologists might express this by saying: as we move from chaos to cosmos.

From this viewpoint, the ”self” is not a solid entity, the unchanging center of an onion, but rather a continuous process, in which we are realized over and over again. When we verbalize this event and describe ourselves through social roles, strengths, weaknesses, and desires, we are making this living process solid. Our mind creates the illusion of continuity from separate, momentary experiences, somewhat similarly as a film’s separate still images create the illusion of constant movement (Malinen, 2011).

The wide-reaching description of human experience and analysis introduced in the Abhidhamma has become a particular object of interest for Western human sciences lately. Because of its great intellectual preciseness and systematicness, it offers a dynamic, process-like view of experience as a series of cognitive effects taking place in interdependence. These episodes, happening at a great speed, arise and disappear again each moment, as our senses come into contact with energy coming from outside of our bodies. The task of the mind is to control this information and use it to build a world of inner meaning, which we then respond to with our emotions and actions  (Olendzki, 2011).

Mindfulness in the Context of the Buddhist Canon

Buddha’s teachings about the four foundations of mindfulness have been introduced in the sutta, or holy writing, titled Mahāsatipatthāna  (Anālayo, 2003; Vipassana Research Institute, 2006; Mahasi Saysdaw, 2006; Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2011). Mahā, in Pali, means ”great”. The term “satipatthāna” is composed of two words:”sati” means mindfulness, bare attention, and ”upatthāna” literally means presence. The term sati can also be derived from the verb sarati, which means remembering. In satipatthāna meditation, when sati or bare attention is present, it is possible for the meditator to remember what is often forgotten: the moment of presence. ”Satipatthāna” can thus be translated as the presence of mindfulness. In Satipatthāna meditation, then, we practice the presence of mindfulness through four different categories of attention: those of the body, emotions, mind, and mental factors and categories.

Mindfulness (sati) has a very central significance among the different categories of Buddhist psychology (Table 1). In addition to being a mental skill, a wholesome and skillful mind quality that arises only in certain special situations, it is also an important component among the seven qualities leading to enlightenment and the separate inner powers. When in connection with ardency (ātāpi) and clear comprehension (sampajañña) and when aimed at the body, emotion, mind, and the central mental factors (dhammas) of Buddhist psychology, it becomes “right mindfulness” and forms an important part of Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. In this context, “right” does not mean the opposite of “wrong”, but rather a wholesome activity.

Table 1

Sati in buddhist categories

The Pali term for meditation is bhavana. It means the development of skillful mind states. This reminds us of how, in its original form, mindfulness is not passive, all-accepting, non-judging attention, but instead a very proactive sort of action with a certain mission. Mindfulness is simply the bare attention of how the mind produces experiences of acceptance and aversion and the reactive reactions related to them (Mikulas, 2010). Our mission, then, is to wake up into reality as it is, as well as illuminate our minds so that we may be liberated of the suffering caused by our selfish wanting (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2010).

Therefore, mindfulness does not simply mean being there in the now, but rather being aware of our body, emotions, thoughts and mind. In addition, it means an experiental understanding of the instability of conditional phenomena, the thoroughgoing dissatisfaction related to existence, and the concept that no phenomenon – not even one’s own self – has its own constant, innate nature.

“Right mindfulness” (samma sati) is divided into two aspects. They are “bare attention” (sati) and “clear comprehension” (sampajañña). Bare attention is, then, followed by comprehending the object. By practising our minds, slowing down our process of awareness, we may become aware of the way in which our concepts and understanding are born out of phenomena. We learn to see reality as it is, not as we would wish to see it, or as it appears in our prejudices. This is practising “right mindfulness” (samma sati). As a result of this practice, clear comprehension steps in the place of our prejudice. We may recognize the shift from the untrained mind’s process of awareness towards a trained mind, from ignorance (avidya) towards wisdom (pañña) (Klemola, 2012).
In Buddhist psychology, clear comprehension means an understanding of the nature of conditional reality: impermanence (anicca), thoroughgoing dissatisfaction (dukkha), and the lack of self (anatta). In addition, it means the skill to evaluate the consequences of our actions, both with our reason and our heart; the skill to flexibly recognize their appropriateness and significance in different situations, as well as the skill to understand the meaning of practice in one’s everyday life.

There are four specific mental factors involved in practicing the Satipatthāthana. They are ardency (ātāpi), clear comprehension (sampajañña), mindfulness (sati),  and attention free of wants and dissatisfaction (vineyya abhijjhādomanassa). According to Buddhist psychology, it is good to understand the significance of these terms for functioning meditation practices. This understanding also prevents Western therapy culture from adapting an overly bare version of mindfulness.

Sati or mindfulness is seen as the most central facet in practicing satipatthāna. Atāpi, ardency or energy, refers to that inner power that we consciously need when we begin to meditate. Sampajañña, clear comprehension, acts as a bridge between the attention related to mindfulness and realization skills or the wisdom resulting from it.

So that mindfulness may lead us to the development of wisdom, Buddhist psychology recommends that we recognize the following factors born out of regular practicing:

  1. By paying attention to the constant disappearance and reappearance of phenomena in the different areas of our experience, we may gradually reach a visceral understanding of the impermanence of our minds, worlds, and selves.
  2. By observing our each experience from both an external and an internal viewpoint, we may gradually begin to understand the interaction of our sense organs and the objects of sensing, as well as the way in which our minds build the inner world of experience in this process.
  3. By practicing pure attention of our experience, without conceptualizing, interpreting, or valuing, we may catch a glimpse of ever-changing reality. Out of the components of this reality, we build the stories of our lives.
  4. As our wisdom gradually develops, we may response to each component of our experience with calmness of mind; without clinging to it, becoming attached to the pleasant or rejecting the unpleasant (Olendzki, p.130, 2012).


The Four Foundations of Mindfulness  

”Monks, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realization of Nibbana, namely, the four satipatthānas”(Anālayo, 2003, s. 3).

This is the opening of  Satipatthāna Sutta, where Buddha introduces mindfulness in the four-part satipatthāna meditation. In addition to body awareness – which I will describe in more detail in the following chapter – traditional meditation focuses on the emotional tones of experience: the pleasant, the unpleasant, and the neutral. In Buddhist teachings, the word ”emotion” (vedanā) is used to mean both bodily sensations and mental emotional states. In addition to this, mindfulness is practiced by becoming aware of the mind’s ethical qualities. The goal is to observe at each given moment, whether the arising mind content (thought, memory or mental image, intention etc.) is wholesome/skillful or unwholesome/unskillful. Does it arise from greed, hatred and ignorance, or from generousness, loving kindness and wisdom? The fourth object of attention and mindfulness in the Satipatthāna Sutta are the various mental categories that help define Buddhist psychology. These are the five hindrances to enlightenment, the seven factors of awakening (it is not possible to describe these in more detail in this context), the five aggregates, the sense-speres, and the four noble truths. Mindfulness may now be defined as the skill of observing from moment to moment, how the three basic traits of conditional existence – instability, thoroughgoing dissatisfaction and the lack of self – manifest themselves in the various meditation objects of the satipatthāna.

Body Awareness

“And now, monks, does he in regard to the body abide contemplating the body? Here, gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut,he sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.
Breathing in long, he knows, ´I breathe in long,´ breathing out long, he knows ´I breathe in long.´ Breathing in short, he knows ´I breathe in short,´ He trains thus:´I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body,´ he trains thus: ´I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.´ He trains thus: ´I shall breathe in calming the bodily formation,´ he trains thus: ´I shall breathe out calming the bodily formation.´ (Anālayo, 2003, p. 126).

Observing one’s breathing in the way Buddha guides us to do is perhaps the most central and traditional area of mindfulness. In its most developed form – as described in the so-called  Anāpānasati Sutta – breathing is separated into a very detailed 16-step process that leads the meditator’s focused attention gradually into deep joy and happiness (Anālayo, 2003, s. 135).

Another area of body awareness in satipatthā meditation is the awareness of various body positions. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we stand, we know we are standing. When we sit or lie, our proprioceptic awareness tells us about the various sensations of our bodies, which are objects of close attention.

The third traditional area of body awareness in Buddhist psychology are the various functions of the body. We may practice mindfulness in all the informal meditation situations of everyday life: when we direct our eyes to the front or back, when we stretch or bend our bodies, when we eat, drink, defecate, urinate, walk, fall asleep, wake up, talk, or as we are quiet. In all these situations, we may act clearly knowing what we are doing at any given moment.

The fourth and fifth areas,  awareness of the body’s anatomy and elements, gives the meditator an opportunity to use mindfulness to make an analysis of the detailed structure of his or her body.   

”Again, monks, he reviews this same body up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the hair, enclosed by skin, as full of many kinds of impurity thus: ´in this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, bowels, mesentery, contents of the stomach, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.´  (Alnālayo, 2003, p.146).

“Again, monks, he reviews this same body, however it is placed, however disposed, as consisting of elements thus: ´in this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.´(Anālayo, 2003, p. 150).

The traditional Indian mandala of the four elements represents the four states of matter: solidity, liquidity, temperature and movement. In a longer-lasting contemplation, a person may realize how the body – outwardly so apparently solid – and with it the whole material world, are completely selfless and empty of innate essences. 

The final part of body awareness, awareness of the body’s destruction and death, is realized through visualization or reflection. In this phase, we are guided to compare our own body with bodies rotting in the cemetery.
The instructions go as follows:
”Again, monks, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground – one, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter… being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, or various kinds of worms… a skeleton with flesh and blood, held together with sinews… a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, held together with sinews… a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together with sinews… disconnected bones scattered in all directions… bones bleached white, the colour of shells… bones heaped up, more than a year old… bones rotten and crumbling to dust – he compares this same body with it thus: ´this body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate´(Anālayo, 2003, p. 153).

Contemplating on death functions acts as a useful preparation for the real death. Death is frightening only as much as we identify with our bodies and egoes. With the help of widely understood and experienced mindfulness, it is possible to realize our body’s real, perishable nature as well as the delusion-like nature of the self, and to not attach oneself to these in an egocentric way. Thus we may also be freed of the fear of death.

Mindfulness and the Healthy Mind

While practicing mindfulness, we experience, in addition to our intellectual understanding, we understand the mutual dependent origins of the phenomena of our bodyminds, as well as gradually realize that no phenomenon exists based on an independent, inner identity. Through this experience, the concept of peace of mind opens up in a new light. “The self” does not need to seek peace. It is in itself peace, only the mind is restless. There is no such thing as peace of mind. The mind only feels restlessness in its many forms and gradations: the mind equals restlessness. Peace can only reign when restlessness, or the mind, is left behind. The one who realizes that no separate self exists, no longer asks “what must I do to be free?” He or she understands that the question is faulty, because it implies the existence of an experiencer that doesn’t exist. Nothing can, or needs to be, done because there is no one to do it, and more importantly, there is also no one to leave it undone! (Nisargadatta, 2012).

When practicing mindfulness regularly and for longer periods of time,  the meditator usually gains a new relationship with his or her mind contents and reality. We are freed of our conditional identity, “the little self”, and we may identify more with a non-dualistic consciousness, vidya. This non-dualistic openness contains an endless capacity to be in that which is as it is. This natural state comes before all striving, clutching and avoidance. It is always free of suffering and as if it only waits silently to be perceived and experienced. It is not difficult to reach this state, rather it is impossible to avoid (Wilber, 2009).

In non-dualistic awareness, we feel we are perfectly in this moment, perfectly there. We feel we are in peace in a timeless time; we feel joy, creativity, playfulness. Thoughts, feelings, actions are happening as if by themselves without the impact of a separate self. Thoughts do not need a separate “doer”, nor do actions need a separate “actor”. Action simply happens in a purposeful way that suits the situation. However, such spontaneity is not automatic. Rather, the action always corresponds to the demands of the situation. In fact, one of the goals of mindfulness is to build, instead of representations of the self, an identification to awareness itself, which ends suffering created by the mind. The assumption is that we are already at our destination at all times, our task is simply to become aware of our original nature. This experience is usually connected to a deep peace of mind, joy, and compassion for all sentient beings. In the egocentric world of the conceptual mind, health is defined conceptually. In addition to a conceptual experience of reality, we also have a conceptual experience of health. Health experienced in this way may be called relative health  (De Wit, 1990).
As relative reality is real in our experience, the relative health one experiences is also true in one’s mind. For instance, if we believe that physical exercise is healthy, we experience an enhancement in our health after strenuous physical exercise. Or if we think that intercourse twice a week is a sign of health, our sexual well-being may decrease if we have not realized this concept during some weeks. We easily feel that the situation is problematic, and it worries us. Modern market economy-based advertising, which appeals to health, maintains this conceptual health based on the constant yearning of our minds. However, according to the contemplative tradition, everyone that has not freed him- or herself of the conceptual world can only experience relative health.

Liberating ourselves of the virtual world created by our minds happens when we see it as it is, in its suchness. Mental health, then, is the perfect and unconditional acceptance of the realities of human life. Such openness of the mind, openness that is capable of a connection with the pain and incompleteness of human life with an unconditional, compassionate attitude may be called “absolute health” (De Wit, 1990). In  the words of Buddhist rhetorics: by seeing the samsara directly as it is = nibbana. Seeing the samsara indirectly through the ego = experiencing the suffering of the samsara. In a state of absolute health, even happiness is a state of mind that comes and goes, much like joy, sadness, or depression (Klemola, 2012). Despite these changing states of mind, we may be content with our lives and experience it as a good state of constant fulfillment (sukha), after we have liberated ourselves of the blindness and conflicting feelings of the mind.

Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapies have very different understandings of suffering. In the former, it is used to mean mainly so-called existential or ontological suffering (De Witt, 1990; Engler, 2003).  This is born when we deny or push out of our consciousness the three basic traits of conditional existence: the through going dissatisfaction related to life (duhkha), the impermanence of phenomena (anicca), and the non-self (anatta).

There are three kinds of suffering related to duhkha. It may be pain related to being born, dying, being sick, or dying. It might also be inner pain because we cannot always get what we want, or we get what we do not want. Or it might be pain related to our strivings to get what we do want, or our trying to hold onto what we like.

Suffering brought on by the instability of everything is, in Buddhist rhetorics, called viparanamaduhkhata.  The third form of suffering (samskaraduhkhata) is born out of the conditional nature of being, when we see our egocentric, delusion-like experience of reality as actual reality.

In Western psychotherapies, ”suffering” is used mainly to refer to so-called psychological or neurotic suffering. They are psychological functions we use to shield ourselves against existential suffering. We generally escape it reactively and automatically, fight or reject it. In Buddhism, the various forms of suffering are described as the Six Realms (De Wit, 2000). They may be understood as inner states, forms of emotional-affective clinging with which we attempt to control existential suffering. The common factor in both of these forms of suffering is that they are born out of the unskillful moves of our minds. When we do not experience existential suffering, there is also no psychological suffering. And when our minds are filled with psychological suffering, there is no existential suffering. Thus we may realize how both are born out of the same mind movement: rejection.

According to Buddhist thinking, our egos are born out of a lack of trust we have for our human existence, a difficulty to accept the basic emptiness of our existence, i.e. that no phenomenon or state of affairs has an absolute identity. All conditional things come into being only through the network that has a connection to this thing. In Western psychology, ego is often imbued with the meaning of inner strength and self-esteem. In Buddhist psychology, however, it is seen as a complex survival mechanism rooted deeply within the structure and function of our brains – which can change with experience, just like all the other mechanisms (Yongey, 2007). The Buddhist concept of non-self, however, does not mean minimizing the strengths of normal pscyhological functions or the self. Buddha also had a rich and functioning psychological self! Critique of the Buddhist concept of anatta is only directed at the so-called ontological self, not the pscyhological self. In other words, the feeling or belief that there is an innate, ontological center in the core of a separate identity (Aronson, 2004).


Long before the current postmodern therapists, Buddhist “psychologists” would develop methods that helped deconstruct, open conceptual structures of the self. This was not done in a theoretical or philosophical sense to figure out what reality is. Instead, the goal was to liberate the one practising them from what could nowadays be called pathogenic beliefs or suffering-causing cognitions. These unhealthy or unskilful perception-related, perishable cognitive-affective events that arise in the moment, as well as their opposites, could be observed systematically with the help of mindfulness. They have also been elaborately categorized in Buddhist pscyhology.

Table 2

Mind States Related to Perception, Cognition, and Emotion


According to Buddhist psychology, the distinctive feature of a healthy mind is the ability to transform the negative mind factors into positive ones, and thus psychological well-being is the presence of these wholesome and skillful mind factors  (kusala.) Buddhist practices contain a great number of mind techniques for achieving this.

At their most ideal, healthy and skillful states of mind manifest themselves in the life of an enlightened person, or arahat. In the world of such an ideal person, unwholesome mind states have entirely disappeared and been permanently replaced by motives, perceptions, and actions brought on by wholesome mind states. In the mind of the arahat, there is no greed for sensual pleasures, no anxiety, hatred, or fears. There is no dogmatism for the “real” truth, no avoiding of losses, pain, or scolding, no inner suffering. No need for acceptance or praise, no need to gain something other than what is necessary. In his or her mind, there is in all situations – even in supposedly completely ordinary and boring ones – a calmness and a restful alertness. An arahat can easily experience a strong feeling of compassion and loving kindness, and he or she is capable of quick and precise perception and action. He or she is also open to other people and able to respond to their needs.
(Goleman & Epstein, 1983).


Psychotherapeutic methods are very culturally bound. They receive their power from the belief systems dominant in each culture at any given time. The healing methods of Maori culture have had only very little practical use in Helsinki, and psychoanalysis has been poorly suited to the Oriental societies of the globe. Our inner, psychological life is clearly connected with the culture we live in. Penicillin, on the other hand, works and heals us despite culture, because the biological structure of human beings is by nature a universal whole. It is nearly impossible to show a similar universality when it comes to psychological structures. However, there is something that also unites us on a mental level.

It may be that the interest in Buddhist psychology and its methods, ever growing in Western science, tells us of one common fact and the longing related to it: suffering that is part of human life, and the wish to be free of it. It universally unites every sentient being on the Earth. Our most important goal, which affects everything else we go, is the wish for inner satisfaction, joy and peace, a good life. As long as we make sure that in our interaction of Buddhist psychology and Western science, we act ecologically rather than ego-logically, and that we understand mindfulness from a wider perspective, we may move into an entirely new era of removing suffering in the future. This work is only beginning.

Tapio Malinen
Psychologist, psychotherapist/teacher in psychotherapy, supervisor, Helsinki Psychotherapy Institute.
E-mail: tapio.malinen@tathata.fi




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