The Attitudinal Shift of Care

How the Buddhist concept of appamada permeates all other levels of the eightfold path The post The Attitudinal Shift of Care appeared first on Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

The Attitudinal Shift of Care

At the foundation of Buddhist ethics lie the four brahma-viharas—loving-kindness (Pali: metta), appreciative joy (Pali: mudita), compassion (Pali: karuna), and equanimity (Pali: upekkha)— and yet all of these qualities would be incomplete without care and consideration. An often neglected and misunderstood element of Buddhist practice, care (Pali: appamada) is often translated as heedfulness or a kind of diligence. 

In the following excerpt from Tricycle’s upcoming online course The Good Life: Understanding Buddhist Ethics, Bodhi College’s John Peacock and Akincano Weber lay the groundwork for understanding the eightfold path in terms of care and consideration rather than simply as techniques that we apply mechanically. By centering our lives on appamada, one experiences a shift where every waking moment has the potential to become a wholehearted practice.

The following excerpt was edited and adapted for clarity and concision.


Akincano M. Weber (AW): One of the distinctions the Buddha makes between a path seeking nobility and a path seeking that which doesn’t ennoble it is an attitudinal shift. That attitudinal shift is not a technique or a method but an attitude. It’s important to make that distinction. The Buddha named this as an attitude of care. The term for this is appamada. This is a negation of pamada, which means something like negligence, carelessness, imprudence—it implies a lack of circumspection, a danger. It is that which leads to death, as we are told in the Dhammapada. And the deathless, that which leads to the place where death does not occur anymore, is the attitude of care, of appamada.

Care is an attitude that is rich, that is relational, and that leads to nobility according to the Buddha. Think of this as a watershed moment in one’s attitude. It’s important to distinguish this attitude from specific skills, like mindfulness. One’s attitude cannot replace the act of mindfulness, but the act of mindfulness can also not replace the attitudinal dimension of appamada. 

We cannot reduce these things to saying “just be mindful” or “just be careful” or “just be prudent.” That wouldn’t do the job. We have to combine both circumspect awareness—traditionally, Buddhist teachings would refer to this as sampajanna (situational awareness)—and the attitude of care. 

We have a distinct and topical act of mindfulness that creates the relationship between an experiential subject and the particular situation—an inner or outer process—and we have an attitude of appamada that refers to a generic shift in the way we attend to things. This is a shift in the way we direct attention, the way we understand ourselves, and in the way we open ourselves to other people, other objects of our experience, and the situation in which we live. John, do you think that appamada applies to all of the eightfold path, or is this just one part of it?

John Peacock (JP): Appamada is implicit in every part of the eightfold path. It applies to every dimension. 

Now, if we think of the eightfold path as covering every dimension of our lives as much as can be—so it’s taking up our intentional life, it’s taking up our contemplative life, it’s taking up our ordinary life—then appamada can easily be seen, for example, within sati (mindfulness, present-moment recollection). We can take the most basic meaning of sati, not as mindfulness but as having an aspect of remembering, recalling something, and we can take appamada in one of its basic meanings as being nonforgetfulness.

Let’s transpose it into another area that is really important to our lives, and particularly the ethical frame of our lives: consider appamada and speech. Remembrance of what we’re saying and nonforgetfulness is absolutely essential to right speech, and I would widen this out in the 21st century, not just as speech but [as] communication. We could say, “What is appropriate communication?” It’s remembering how to communicate in the most appropriate fashion, and that requires appamada. 

What’s going to happen in our speech if we don’t have appamada? It’s going to lead to forgetfulness. It’s going to lead to unskillful activities. What is an unskillful action perhaps of view—well, [that] would be fixed dogma [or] holding on to my view. [That means] forgetting that there are other perspectives in [a] room. If I’m sitting in this room here, your perspective is different from mine. From a physical perspective, you’re looking over there. I’m looking over here equally, so in our intentional life as well. Appamada is opening up something that’s relevant to every dimension of the eightfold path.

AW: So, John, you spoke about appamada, and one aspect is recollection. I’ve heard you say recollecting the present moment as a translation for sati. Let’s look at what happens when we are not doing appamada, we’re doing negligence. How does negligence actually translate? 

The first thing that comes to mind is [that] I forget things. I lose things. Complexity gets reduced. I’m preoccupied with individual things at the expense of other things. If I’m negligent, things get burnt. Things fall on the floor. Things hurt in some way. Negligence actually hurts.

“Negligence actually hurts.”

So as a contemplative practitioner seeking nobility and, unfortunately, engaging in negligence, how does that actually look?

I lose complexity. I lose others. I lose my long-term goals. What I maximize is my immediate comfort level. What I maximize is my immediate emotional climate. What I maximize is what is most dominant in my sensory field, and my reactiveness to my sensory fields. These are the things that preoccupy me most.

So when I lose care and prudence and circumspection, my world shrivels and my practice becomes preoccupied with momentary comfort-seeking, maximizing sensory happiness, avoiding anything that is difficult, avoiding things that are maybe immediately unpleasant, and I will probably lose long-term goals. I will probably lose other people. I will probably lose the larger situation. I am more likely to affirm the fixity and the universality of my particular viewpoint right now.

JP: Lacking care and wakefulness, we sleepwalk through life and practice. If I put this back into the language of the original Pali texts, the path of forgetfulness (pamada) leads to death. All the things Akincano has spoken about so far [are] talking about loss and constriction, about making something that is fluid and dynamic into something static. And so actually, what we’re talking about is not death in a physical sense but the death of the way that we are in life. And, without appamada being infused into every dimension of the eightfold path, what we get is simply a parody, I would say, of walking the eightfold path. 

“Lacking care and wakefulness, we sleepwalk through life and practice.”

In other words, I turn communication or language into a habit. I turn my meditational practice into a habit. I turn every dimension of the eightfold path—and this, I think, is the origin of the word that we use to translate samma: right—each dimension of the path becomes “right.” It becomes fixed. It becomes static. And as a practitioner, what we want to do is bring things to life, both in a metaphorical sense and in a literal sense.

And if pamada leads to death, then appamada leads to life, and what we’re getting is a basic sense of forgetfulness of being, of forgetting what the task of being in this world is. That task is engagement and fluidity; we live in an everchanging world, so [we need] to be engaged with that world as [much] as possible. In a way, the eightfold path, although it’s not totally comprehensive, engages different dimensions to bring us to life. As Akincano said, this path is not operating in a linear sense; it’s like eight parallel tracks that lead to waking up or being alive. 

If I were taking those metaphors of deathlessness and death, we could have death in life. And the deathless is actually living, rather than talking about immortality, or some of the strange ideas we often get when people are trying to discern this. It really is just the Buddha saying, “Wake up, otherwise you are dying.” Not necessarily physically, but I think it was  Benjamin Franklin who said that most people are dead by the age of 21, they’re just not buried until 70.

AW: So if you’re [inquiring into your own level of appamada, you may want to ask yourself]:

—How alive am I?

—How engaged am I? 

—How much availability is there in my mind?

—What’s the level of my energy?

—What’s the level of my interest? 

—What’’s the level of my engagement?

—What’s the level of my focus right now? 

And just asking these questions may reveal to you that something in you has gone on automatic pilot or that vitality has left you. 

It helps to ask such questions. Sometimes just the prompt of such a question makes us stop in our tracks and say, “Well, if I’m not interested in this, what am I interested in?” And whatever it is, you’re better off knowing what you’re interested in. Even if you find “I’m interested in things that I deem to be totally immoral, totally impossible, totally inappropriate,” you’re way better off [knowing] that you’re interested in these things than to not notice that your current declared preoccupation has very little focus, engagement, or interest, and large parts of you are in the shadow, split off, and preoccupied with some fantasy. You’re better off knowing the fantasy. Your chances of actually bringing appamada to this situation are way better when you know what parts of you are in the shadow.

Tricycle’s six-week online course, The Good Life: Understanding Buddhist Ethics, is an essential program for anyone looking to deepen their knowledge of Buddhist ethical principles and learn practical tools for wise engagement. This is an enlivening journey that also brings happiness, purpose, and solace with it. Seen in this way, the whole of the Buddhist path becomes an ethical project. The Good Life begins July 8.