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 king, Pasenadi, often consulted with Gotama. Stephen Batchelor tells the following story:
“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 the matter was, 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 too trivial? I mean, everybody knows that overeating has those effects. Well, the point is we tend to be blind to what is blindingly obvious. Even today, when we get flooded with information about wellness, 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 tell him that obvious truth? Any of us who has ever struggled with keeping a proper diet, or exercising regularly, will know that it is not so simple as: “Just Do It.” It takes a mindful effort 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 arduous process.
There is a difference between a process and a state, i.e., a verb versus a noun. When we use a noun (“mindfulness”), we think of being in a given 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.