Once upon a time, in a kingdom in the north of India lived a man named Gotama who had become known as Buddha, the Enlightened One. The ruler of the kingdom, King Pasenadi, often consulted with Gotama. The following story is told by Stephen Batchelor:
“Unable to shake off the drowsiness occasioned by over-eating, [King Pasenadi] went to see Gotama and paced back and forth before him with a weary look. When asked what was the matter, he replied that he was always in pain after finishing a meal. Gotama helped him manage his diet so that the king reduced his intake of food, which resulted in his losing weight and gaining an alert mind.”
– – Stephen Batchelor, “After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age”
So what do we get from this story?
1. Let’s not forget the basics. They ground us in reality. There is more to mindfulness than just paying attention to how much you eat or what it takes to maintain wellness… But no definition of mindfulness can be correct if it doesn’t include paying attention to those deceptively simple things.
2. Is this actually too trivial? I mean, everybody knows that eating too much has those effects. Well, the point is we tend to be blind to what is blindingly obvious. Even today, when we are bombarded with information about welness, we do not necessarily do what we know is good for us. So mindfulness means being aware that there might be blinders that prevent us from seeing what should be blindingly obvious.
3. Does the story mean that all it took to change King Pasenadi’s life was to simply be told that obvious truth? Any of us who has ever struggled with keeping a good diet, or exercising regularly, will know that it is not so simple as: “Just Do It”. It takes a mindful process to change deeply ingrained habits. And this, of course, is in keeping with the tenets of Buddhism, and the importance of ongoing practice. So the likely situation is that, for King Pasenadi, realizing that he needed to change his diet was only the very beginning of a long and probably difficult process.
This brings us to the point of the difference between a process and a state, a verb and a noun. When we use the noun “mindfulness”, we think of being in a certain state. In contrast, a verb describes what we do, i.e. bringing mindful attention to how we eat, and how it affects our lives.
Of course, bringing mindful attention to something (your breath, for instance, when you’re meditating) is what induces a state of mindfulness.