Vignette from Indian Literature — Challenges in Being Mindful

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

I remember in my teens my older brother who raised me yelling at me while I was reading a Tamil weekly. I did not respond, not out of disrespect — that was simply not an option — but only because I did not hear him. Any explanation would have only made the matter worse. So I meekly went about doing the chore I should have done days earlier.

Only when I became an adult did I realize that when we are fully en­grossed in whatever we do and fully engaged in that one activity, we forget about ourselves and our surroundings. Examples: struggling to understand a difficult subject, or fully immersed in singing practice, landscape paint­ing, or during the critical stages in cooking.

Pilots during landings and takeoffs are so fully engaged in what they do, they forget about everything else. Surgeons during the critical stages while performing their “procedures” do not hear the piped music in the operating room.

In the Buddhist tradition this faculty is called Sati or mindfulness. It is the state of being fully engrossed in our present moment, and not doing things mindlessly like an automaton. This faculty, acquired by prac­tice and emphasized in all “Dharmic” religious traditions that originated in India, is the foundation of all Asian meditation practices, whether it is Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, or Sikh.

As is the case with anything worthy of accomplishing, recognizing the difficulty in being mindful is the first step to become fully mindful. Pattinattar, the 10th century Saivite mendicant and ascetic poet puts this nicely in self-deprecating humor. Here is his 4-line alliterating and rhym­ing verse* in Tamil:

Here is a non-poetic translation:

O, The One Who Destroys the Burden of [people’s] Karma,
How can You accept my Puja (worship) done while 
My hands do one thing, eyes follow another object;
The mind chases after yet another thing,
And the treacherous tongue lies in whatever it says;
The body made of flesh goes after something else,
And ears listen only to what they want to hear?
How can You accept my worship [done with so many distractions]?

Pattinattar’s technique of composing the verse in the first person — How can You accept my worship… My hand etc. — also makes it non-judgmental in the minds of readers.

If he had composed the verse in second person singular (your hands, your mind, etc), it is condescending and intimidating. However, by composing in the first person singular, he takes the sting out of it, thus giving hope for people struggling with distractions.

Pattinattar is not alone here. Many of the Indian Bhakti poets, including Adi Shankara, Kabir and many others have used this technique.

*Source: Pattinattaar Paadalgal —Vilakkavurai by Thiru Vi. Ka. Gangai Puttaga Nilayam, Chennai 2006.

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