Mindfulness, vigilance and … a loophole! Each and every verse resonates with me, but I feel that in particular verses 35 and 36 are the heart of the 37 practices. As I said in the post on these verses, linked above, each of the preceding practices in fact depends on mindfulness and vigilance. To review: mindfulness knows what will help us awaken and what will dig us deeper into samsara; and vigilance knows which one we are doing.
We’ll get to the loophole in a bit.
For example, if we are sitting in meditation using the breath as a support, mindfulness knows our job is to not lose track of our breathing, and vigilance recognizes when we get distracted.
To use a mundane example, if we are ill and have been prescribed a medication, mindfulness knows we’re supposed to take it with every meal in order to recover, and vigilance keeps track of when it’s time to take it.
“Engage the watchman of mindfulness.” Though it’s important to understand what these terms mean, mindfulness and vigilance are not mere concepts to know about, they are a practical skill set, a function without which there is no dharma practice. This simple skill set is applicable to everything we think, say, or do from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep at the end of the day. Mindfulness and vigilance should be our constant companions, keeping us in touch at all times with our state of mind (verse 36) and whether we are distracted or awake (verse 35). In fact, one of the daily practices we learn in three-year retreat begins, “Be not distracted. Be not distracted. Engage the watchman of mindfulness.” I recite these words early each morning.
Mindfulness knows that our main task as a practitioner is to watch our mind. Vigilance is needed when we get distracted and have no idea what our mind is up to, for example when we are starting to get irritated, perhaps because we are tired or hungry or overheated; mindfulness knows we need to increase our alertness in these circumstances so the irritation doesn’t develop into full-blown anger.
However — there is a tiny loophole in this system in case you’re looking for one. You can be vigilant and know you’ve stopped following the breath and are lost in a storyline or fantasy, or that you are stressed and about to reach for the ice cream or a drink or the remote control, or yell at your loved one; and mindfulness can kick in and remind you to go back to the breath or to work directly with your emotions rather than self-medicate or act out and cause suffering for yourself and others.
But … what makes you actually do what mindfulness tells you to? Theoretically, both mindfulness and vigilance could be fully operative, and you could still not do the right thing. What is it that makes you ignore the voice of ego and habit that is saying, “Forget it, I’d rather eat the ice cream — and furthermore, I know it will make me happy this time!”
Though this is not the presentation in the 37 practices, mindfulness and vigilance are often presented as two components of a triad, the third of which is usually called carefulness or conscientiousness. I think another good word for it is integrity, defined as “uncompromising adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.”
The pig in the garden: In A Guide to the Words of My Perfect Teacher, Khenpo Ngawang Palzang explains: “Use mindfulness, vigilance, and carefulness as a shepherd to watch over your actions, words, and thoughts. In particular, use them to examine your mind, whose thoughts may be positive, negative, or neutral, and when a negative thought occurs, to flatten it, like hitting a pig on the snout with a pestle or extinguishing moxa with the tip of one’s nail.”
We won’t go into moxa here (it’s used in acupuncture) but now we know what to do when the pig gets into the garden! Applied to a destructive emotional reaction, it is vigilance that notices the thought arising, mindfulness that knows what remedy to apply, and carefulness or integrity that follows through and applies it, in this case taking action to flatten or overpower the reaction before it affects our speech and actions, as we are instructed to do in verse 35.
Togme Zangpo kindly gave us the benefit of the doubt — that mindfulness and vigilance are enough and that of course it is the practice of a bodhisattva to always do the right thing if we know what it is. But just in case, other teachers have suggested we also cultivate carefulness or integrity to close any loopholes our mischievous ego might grasp onto.
The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.
Next post: the wrap-up
The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)