Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Curiosity versus detachment

What is the attitude to take towards what shows up while we meditate?

Several academics, following the tradition of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, have put forward a two-component operational definition of mindfulness (Bishop et al, 2004).  In this definition, the first component involves paying attention to immediate experience "in the present moment."  The second component involves adopting a particular orientation to our experiences, an orientation that is characterized by "curiosity, openness and acceptance."  The idea of curiosity being essential to mindfulness meditation is itself curious. 

Curiosity implies some kind of interest in the object before one.  I once had a client who showed a lot of curiosity.  I told her a story of how I had once been on retreat and had a remarkable experience of having a whole series of connected events from my life unfold before me as if on a video-tape.  She was a professional fiction writer and was clearly intrigued by this idea.  She reported to me in subsequent sessions viewing virtual video-tapes of her experiences as she meditated.  After several sessions in which she reported her experiences, I said to her that I thought she was a little too interested in these video-tapes and should let them go.

Nyanaponika Thera, in his classical work, The Power of Mindfulness, describes mindfulness as involving both activating and restraining forces. Mindfulness makes the mind active and alert, but it also restrains.  As he states, in its restraining aspect, mindfulness makes for "disentanglement and detachment."  He focuses the remaining discussion on this restraining aspect of mindfulness.
Curiosity, in contrast to detachment, appears to lack this restraining force.  It goes beyond the root function of mindfulness, which is to remember or recognize the object of meditation.  One can think of what shows up in meditation as having a wave-like character of coming to be and passing away.  We should be quick to see the rising of the wave and quick to let go as the wave subsides.  Curiosity is not a letting go or releasing, but an engagement with the phenomena that appear and, as such, would interfere with the process of letting go.

On the other hand, recommending curiosity about what appears while we meditate may have a useful pedagogical function in the initial stages of learning.  I use the "Mind Watch" exercise to introduce the concept of observing the mind.  Those who have never meditated may not have noticed or given much thought to how active their minds are, how there is a churning, buzzing, turmoil just below the surface.  When they turn inward to observe the mind and tune into it with curiosity, they are often amazed by what they discover.  This often motivates them to start a meditation practice in the interest of quieting the mind.  This attitude of curiosity continues for some time to have a function as a motivating factor in discovering the essential character of the mind.  However, over the long term, curiosity needs to be replaced with detachment.

Detachment has several bad connotations in English.  In some of its connotations it is associated with indifference or even callous disregard.  Clearly, mindfulness is neither.  This can be shown by an analysis of equanimity, which is one of the other wholesome mental factors that arises with mindfulness.

Equanimity has a number of different meanings in Buddhism.  The most relevant in this context is that of calmness in the face of whatever shows up, in other words, imperturbability or non-reactivity.  The constant change, the continually shifting of ups and downs, can be a source of suffering and reactivity.  However, with equanimity, you simply see things arise and pass away.  Bhante Khippapanno in Experiencing the Dhamma uses the example of pain:  "When painful sensation arises, you note “pain, pain.” You will see that the silent mind is neither saddened nor angry with that painful sensation. It just makes a note of that painful sensation and lets it go. If you keep practicing like that, gradually the silent mind will become more balanced, steady and stable. That is the mental state called Equanimity."  Bhante Khippapanno's remarks clearly illustrate that equanimity and the detachment of mindfulness are closely allied.

In a broader sense, equanimity is distinct from indifference in that, with equanimity, we understand that reacting with excitement or irritation is inappropriate, whereas with indifference we do not respond because we are unaware, don't care or can't be bothered.  Whereas equanimity comes from awareness, indifference comes from ignorance and selfishness.  

Sometimes the term non-attachment is preferred to detachment to describe the appropriate attitude in meditation.  It is thought that this avoids the unfortunate connotations of detachment.  However, the terms attachment and non-attachment carry with them all sorts of connotations both negative and positive.  In fact, sorting out what attachment means and why we should be non-attached is one of the more difficult tasks in explaining Buddhism.  For that reason alone, I am not sure the term non-attachment is an improvement on the term detachment .  I will leave the task of analyzing the nature of attachment to a future post.

Bottom line:  Let's be careful about curiosity as part of the operational definition of mindfulness.

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  1. Here is my take on this. If we are to use the word, "curiosity" is directed to knowing the workings of phenomena, their co-dependant arisings. Correct curiosity aims to see the antecedents, certainly not to identify objects in order to possibly relish them, which would be wrong curiosity.

  2. Curiosity implies a motivated interest and goes beyond a simple registration of phenomena. The trained observing mind becomes like a camera capturing (and releasing) the passing phenomena.