by Tim Burnett, October 2018
LECTURES FROM THE BUDDHIST ROOTS OF MINDFULNESS RETREAT, OCTOBER 2018
In October 2018, Mindfulness Northwest director and leader teacher Tim Burnett led a 7-day silent mindfulness retreat with co-teacher Karen Schwisow. Tim gave daily talks exploring the early Buddhist teachings on mindfulness as expressed in the Satipatthana Sutta – The Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
The primary texts for the lectures were:
- Thich Nhat Hanh’s Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness
- Rodney Smith’s Touching the Infinite: A New Perspective on the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness
- Andrew Oldenski, The Real Practice of Mindfulness (9/2/2016 Lion’s Roar Magazine)
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
Talk 1 – Monday 10/14/18 – What is Mindfulness and Where Did it Come From?
[Note that Tim often departs significantly from his notes when speaking but the notes themselves might be valuable to read]
Welcome and acknowledgement of their efforts so far to be mindful, aware, and awake.
Our intention in the teachings and practices this week is to deeply explore mindfulness. We’ll be exploring a central text from Early Buddhism called the Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness – called Satipatthana Sutta in Pali which is less exotic than it sounds: sati means mindfulness, patthana means foundations or areas. It’s a teaching attributed to the Buddha on foundations or areas of themes of mindfulness training.
I’m very grateful to be able to offer retreats like this. The format and style is not particularly Buddhist – universal and everyday, what we’re doing is a little unusual in terms of a typical American routine I guess but there’s nothing weird to it really: we’re just living a quiet life together for a week paying attention to what we notice. It’s a week of experiencing.
We call this “retreat” because that seems to be the world people use for this kind of event but it’s not a retreat like retreating away from the enemy or the trouble in our lives actually. It’s not a retreat, it’s not a charge either, it’s a standing still right in the middle of our lives. Sometimes you hear people in the mindfulness world talking about “leaning in” as if that were a generally good idea which has always sounds odd to me. Maybe a little leaning in can be helpful to explore something that arises but other times you discern that there’s something here it’s better to stay well clean of and “leaning out” is better in that moment but the basic orientation here this week is neither leaning in or leaning out: it’s more like being upright or being present or just being and forget about all of this strategic leaning and figuring out and refining and doing it right. So we aren’t retreating,we aren’t advancing, let’s make space to find out what this week turns out to be through experience itself, though paying attention, through curiosity, through awareness. I appreciated what Karen said last night about not knowing what the week will hold whether you’ve done a boatload of these retreats or it’s your first one.
Back to the format. We won’t do any religious rituals from Buddhism or anything but we will live in simplicity and quiet for a week and that’s full of rich possibilities. And perhaps a few challenges.
But Buddhism is clearly an important source from which this way of practicing, this ordinary everyday quiet way of living, stems. Every religious tradition has prayer and contemplation but the Buddhists are famous for meditation and a certain kind of way of understanding our minds and understanding the world our mind is interpreting and generating. So much so that I think its fair to say the Buddhist practice as it’s expressed itself in the modern era gave birth to contemporary mindfulness practice. That baby has other parents – positive psychology, neuroscience, poetry, a kind of humanist philosophy – but Buddha does seem to be an important parent.
Because of this and because I have the training to do this reasonably faithfully to the original intent of these teachings: in our Roots of Mindfulness and Roots of Compassion retreats we offer daily teachings from the Buddhist tradition. We listen to these teachings and try them on for size in this quiet container of practice.
You definitely don’t need to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness. And to be truthful I don’t know if you need to identify with anything to do this – I’m not sure I quite think of myself as a Buddhist actually but I am ordained as a Soto Zen priest so I definitely pass the duck test: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s probably a duck.
But the funny and ironic thing there is that the teachings of Buddhism are exactly about the dangers and suffering that come from identifying with things. The pain that comes with insisting that you’re this kind of person and not that kind of person who believes these ideas and not those ideas – that is a recipe for suffering Buddha taught.
We all need an identity it seems, it’s kind of like the vehicle we drive around in our lives, but we get so hung up on it. When we’re too loyal our personal brand we get rigid and narrow minded and we end up suffering a lot and we can end up creating a lot of suffering for others.
So whether I’m a Buddhist or not I do think these are incredibly helpful teachings that have been passed down, but to be truly useful in our lives we need to take them in and experiment. To try them on for size. And to try them on with some persistence and patience. Since we’re already convinced we’re something we’re not, these teachings suggest, it’s going to take a while before we see the true utility of these teachings. So on the one hand the Buddhist tradition does say “don’t take it on faith, try these teaching out” on the other it encourages us to not be too quick to judge either. Maybe you put the shirt on backwards is the reason it doesn’t fit so well and it’s nothing inherent in the cut of the cloth.
So that’s our intention this week: to study our ordinary experience in a quiet, simplified lifestyle for a week and to do so in light of some Buddhist teachings. To really try them on for size. To practice with some new ideas and ways of being and see what we find out for ourselves. It doesn’t really matter in this context what you believe in but I guess you do have to have some degree of trust, or faith, in a process of being, in a process of meditation practice that in the long haul will be beneficial even if there may be sticky points and difficult days and trouble along the way. And these teachings suggest that the trouble is very much a part of it. That the trouble is not just a distraction or something to get through but a part of the path. That the trouble is the rich mud at the bottom of the lake where the lotus plants sink their roots enabling the lotus flower to eventually open at the surface of the water. “No mud, no lotus” they say.
One thing we experience and may be able to shed a little more light on this week is how deeply conditioned to try to have positive experiences all the time and wriggle our way out of unpleasant experiences. As we went around the circle last night and heard some people talk about feeling happy and grateful and others feeling nervous or worried did you notice that you had a preference. This is human: we want happiness and we don’t want to suffer. Nothing wrong with it. The trouble is the way we relate to the situation. We try to grab on to the happiness – this is good, I like this, how do I keep this going? – and we try to push away and get rid of the unhappiness – this is icky how to get rid of it as soon as possible. We all loved Carol’s enactment of this with John next to her didn’t we? If only the happiness could rub off on us – we could just seek surround ourselves with happy people all the time and never have anxiety, fear, shame, depression, or pain.
That a major topic in the teachings this week: that the play of mind between happiness and unhappiness goes deep and that we can learn and benefit from everything that arises whether it’s a state we prefer or detest. Everything’s included – moment by moment just noticing and accepting as best you can what come along. Meeting our moments with curiosity and patience. And also holding it all lightly as best we can. There’s something profound to be learned from our edginess and pain – this is really true – and it’s just edginess and pain, don’t worry about it so much!
My Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, used to say that it’s important to get interested in the workings of your mind but not too interested. It’s important – your mind is thinking and experiencing and emoting away – your mind! – and your noticing more – but it’s also just a mind doing what a mind does under the circumstances of your life at this point at this rich intersection between the past and present between the culture, family, group, and the individual. So it’s all bigger than any idea of “me” anyway. That me that might try to decide “am I a Buddhist” or “am I a mindfulness practitioner” or am I a whatever it is you think you are.
The Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is a kind of deep meditation on what mindfulness is. It moves through four major areas of practice and contemplation but through that whole journey it’s essentially the same practice. The practice of what is it to be fully here.
AND: what is the nature of that fully hereness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s post-Buddhist formulation of mindfulness is worth considering here on our first day:
Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.
Maybe you’ve heard that. Maybe you’ve contemplated it quite a bit.
This week let’s examine some of the deeper questions implied in this definition.
For instance: who’s paying attention? Is it you? Is your mind? If you are the mind that’s paying attention who is it that’s having these experiences you’re noticing and observing? Is that another version of you? Who is this sitting here? Who is doing this life? Who is this life happening to?
Is this me the same me as it was yesterday? Seems pretty much the same. But how about the me of 5 years ago or 10 years ago or the me that was a baby – are we all the same me? Or one me that changes and grows and evolves? What does it mean to be “me” really? These teachings encourage us to get more curious about the presumed me that we’re hanging around with all the time. That we’re identifying with. This is the big kahuna of indentifications. More powerful and all consuming that identifying with our religious affiliation or our gender identification or our professional or ethnic group or anything like that. The deep one is an identification with “me” and it has in some way the same utility as all of those other identifications – useful to be sure – but also limiting and not completely true.
This stuff is hard to think about of course because who’s doing the thinking about it? Me.
And another question: whoever this “me” is what is it that he or she or they are paying attention to?
To what should this present-moment non judgmental attention be pointed?
And why? What’s the point anyway?
So there’s a big implied “what” question along with the implied “who” question in this idea of paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally. Sorry Jon but we can’t help but see quite a few judgments implicit in this way of talking if we think about it.
And the “purposefulness” in there, let’s not give that a free pass. Can we really be in charge of our attention in a purposeful way? That brings us back to first question: who’s the one sitting behind that spotlight of attention with her hands on the handles directing it around. And is the person moving the attention in that model or the attention moving the person? Do we reallu select what we pay attention to – the breath for instance – or is it more a matter of fluidly accepting whatever it is our attention lands on?
I watched a debate between an anthropologist and a neuroscientist around the idea that we can notice when our mind was wandering and bring it back to our object of attention. Is that what happens? Of course we use that language all the time. But at retreat and with the support of this text we can explore some other possibilities.
We can be curious whether it is true that we can see that our mind is off somewhere else – thinking about something or in a dreamy state of some kind – and then we can choose to bring it back? That’s the model of the “me” controlling attention.
Or is it more the case that the attention goes off where it goes and after it dumps the “me” back into conscious awareness the “me” says “oh right! I’m here controlling the attention cool, I’ll point it at my breath”? And then the “me” assumes that it’s the one who brought us back – Oh I just noticed my mind was wandering. Or that just telling ourselves a story. Is that assuming control that we don’t really have. Is it really the case that some deep current in our mind which we do not control just chose that moment to dump us out of whatever else was happening with consciousness and give the “me” at least the appearance of control for a while?
I’ve always loved the metaphor of a play and the stage lighting for consciousness – maybe because I did Stage Tech in high school – when we’re lost in the action of a good play we forget ourselves completely. We’re in the characters and the story. We even forget that they are actors playing parts. And we forget that we’re sitting here in a seat in a darkened room with a few hundred other people – we’re on the roof with Tevya. And then sometimes something shifts and we remember where we are in this other sense. Oh I’m sitting here in the dark watching some people over there. But our attention is largely captured by the action as it’s revealed by the lighting on stage.
In the opening scene of the play War Horse we see just our hero and his horse (Albert and Joey) center stage – there’s a top light and a spotlight on them – all else is dark – and Albert sings the opening verse of the first song:
Faded away like the stars in the morning,
Losing their light in the glorious sun—
Thus would we pass from this earth and its toiling,
Only remembered for what we have done.
and then the chorus arises from everywhere on stage – this vast range of voices – and the lights come slowly up and we see that he’s surrounded by the rest of the cast.
Only remembered, only remembered,
Only remembered for what we have done;
Thus would we pass from this earth and its toiling,
Only remembered for what we have done.
We saw one reality on stage but really there was a much bigger reality there.
So let’s imagine that we’re the spot light operator of our own personal theater. Are you lost in the action of your own inner drama and does the drama pull the light of your attention around or can you feel your hands on the two handles of the spotlight and move it somewhere else even when the action is really compelling. And what’s the most compelling for us most of the time? Our own suffering. Our fears. Our doubts. Our anxiety. Or maybe our pride and judgement of other people which more or less amounts to the same thing. Does the action pull the lighting or does the “me” direct the lighting and get to choose the action to pay attention to.
It’s an open question really. In the argument between the anthropologist and the neuroscientist they ended up agreeing to disagree. We don’t really know how consciousness works. And we’re here this week to explore. Not just to calm down and find some peace within our usual presumed reality of me, me, me – although that was be a fine outcome – but to also explore more deeply. What are we really? And what is the true reality of our lives? Might there be more in the darkness around us. And might we also be much more than we think we are.
So the text begins as all Buddhist texts does with a little setting the scene. This is a kind of play too really.
[paragraph 1 -3]
One of the learned commentaries on this text suggests that what’s translated here as “most wonderful way” – the Pali term ekayana magga – is literally “one-way path”: so once you’ve touched the healing of mindfulness you can only move forward. That’s kind of reassuring. There’s no back sliding. What about when you have a really rotten day at retreat? Well that’s actually part of the path so no worries, that’s not back sliding either. What’s shifting here is not your experiences exactly but how we relate to them. So you stop having grief and sorrow about your crappy day doesn’t mean no more crappy days at least for quite some time.
Then the Buddha asks a retorical question which he’ll spend the rest of the text answering:
“What are the four foundations?”
[read next 4 paragraphs]
And so we start with the first foundation. The body. If you’ve taken MBSR you might have noticed that strangely we start with all this body stuff. There’s hardly anything that looks like the usual kind of meditation for the first 3 weeks of the class. Body scans. Mindful movement. Encouragement to eat more mindfully. Feeling the body throughout the day.
The interesting thing that I really treasure about this translation is the way it says “the body in the body.” So it’s not the mental me doing the mindfulness of the body. The invitation here is to enter the body more completely. To give space for the body to know itself.
And how does the Buddha suggest we begin this project?
[next two paragraphs]
So we start with the breath. This physical interaction between body and it’s environment. Suzuki Roshi talks about the breath as a gate. Watching the swinging of this fluid gate between inside and outside. This gate that is never slammed shut or locked. Maybe sometimes the hinges get a little rusty but the gate just keeps moving – opening and closing, opening and closing but never fixed in any one position- never staying open, never staying closed.
The Buddha starts us off with just watching the breath. But watching with some intelligence and discernment.
We usually pair Jon’s definition of mindfulness with one from Shauna Shapiro and Linda Carlson:
Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, in the present moment, in an open, kind and discerning way.
This awareness of the length of the breath – and that implies awareness of all of the qualities of breathing – that’s discernment. That’s a kind of deep intimacy and in touchness with the breath.
This morning I kind of started us at the end of the journey – opening to everything in heaven and earth – but let’s for the next day invite forward awareness of the breathing in everything we do. Not to control it, but to know it.
And yes sometimes you’ll get a little tired of all of this. The gate may actually get stuck for a while at times. But that too changes. We can take refuge in change.
Lets end with some wisdom from George Harrison:
Sunrise doesn’t la-st all moRN-ing
A CLOUDburst doesn’t last all da-y
Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning
It’s not ALwa-ys going to be this gra-y
All things must pass
All things must pass away
Sunset doesn’t la-st all EVENING
A MIND can blow those clouds awa-y
After all this, my love is up and must be lea-ving
It’s not ALWAYS going to be this gra-y
All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
None of life’s strings CAN la-st
I must be on my way and face-another-day
Now the darkness only sta-ys at NIGHT-time
In the MORNING IT will fade a-way
Daylight is good at ARRIVING at the right time
It’s not ALWAYS going to be this gra-y
All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
All things must pass away
Talk 2 – Tuesday 10/15/18 – Mindfulness of the Body (First Foundation)
[Note that Tim often departs significantly from his notes when speaking but the notes themselves might be valuable to read]
It’s worth noting that our text, the Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, is 20 pages long in English translation and of those 20 pages, 8 of them are about the first foundation: awareness of the body and breath. Clearly the Buddha felt that becoming more aware of our body is central and important. And isn’t it interesting that that’s a bit surprising to us. We think about the life of the mind. And we use the term mind-fulness. Being full in our mind. They did have different words for body (rupa) and mind (citta) but I don’t think they had as much of a sense of separation as we do. I’m sure they had some – humans do perceive a kind of free-floating life of the mind and I’m sure they always have – but we’re mastered the separation of mind and body. Sitting at your desk working on keyboard and screen you completely lose track of your embodiment for long stretches right? And not just then. When walking around. When driving. Even when doing quite physical activites, even activites that are very rich and stimulating to the sense, we can be lost to the physicality of the world and lost in thought: planning, worrying, musing.
There is nothing inherently wrong with thinking that’s for sure. Sometimes meditation is misunderstood as the enemy of thinking. “I can’t meditate!” people say, “my thoughts just keep racing around.” There are many kind of meditation and in fact some of them are interested in changing the patterns of thinking, but the mindfulness movement chose not to go there. In our meditation here we aren’t trying to stop the thinking but get interested in it’s true nature. It’s a truly liberating thing to once in a while see a thought as just a thought – a mental phenomena that arises according the conditions that are present – and these include conditioning that carries forward from the past, perhaps neurological encoded in patterns in your brain. If you do a lot of one kind of thinking you get good at it. An addage we like is, “what you practice grows stronger.” We’ve been propogating a very minor internet meme about this too: there’s a video of a young man, about 10 or 11 years old, who appears to be from India and he gives a pithy 2 minute Dharma talk on this. He opens the video by saying: “today I want to ask you: what do you practice?” What are you practicing in your mind and heart. He goes on to say, “if you practice worrying you will be very good at it, everywhere you go you will worry.” And then I always hear a chuckle where he makes some kind of reference to an old Buddhist text or maybe to rural life now in India saying, “you will even worry about the buffalo you do not have!”. And then to mix up it up he talks about being jealous of someone else getting a better seat on the airplane if you’re practicing jealousy.
I’ll try to remember to send you this video in the post-retreat email. We’re recording these talks – audio and video this time! – and we also keep track of the poems we share. You’ll get a care package on the email from us a few weeks from now. So if that helps you release a little from any mental habits of covetousness around the materials you’re hearing that’s good. Just let it go. I’ll send you a YouTube of George Harrison singing All Things Must Pass too. I really butchered the verses of that by the way, sorry George. He has a really unusual melody in those verses which signing along with the recording i thought I had. Sounds so natural as it probably came straight out of his mind. The mind is an amazing space isn’t it? Capable of such creative leaps and brilliance and such repetitive drudgery. Amazing!
Anyway all this stuff in your mind – can we see it as just so much stuff?
Or at least move the needle a little bit from the starting place of “every thought I have is really imporant, every mood is central, every opinion or idea I have for improving things around here must be expressed” and so on to something a little closer to “ah: a thought”, or “hmm…tough mood hanging around in me right now, ouch.”
We’ll talk more about the mind in a few days when the Buddha gets to it in the text but one more point about meditation. It’s not about stopping your thoughts, but it’s also not right to say that thoughts are endless and constant and never stop. We may have a mental habit of belief in the dogged constant nature of thinking but actually there are all kinds of gaps in that thinking. It’s a kind of mirage that’s part of how we weave this idea of me to think that thoughts are constant and it’s the sole function of the mind to generate them. I worry sometimes that in trying to make mindfulness sound very accessible to people some of our modern mindfulness teachers promote a misperception that thoughts never stop. Sure they do. They come and they go. yes there are a heck of a lot of them sometimes but nothing is constant or unending. It’s just that when our identity is tightly woven into our thinking there’s not a lot of awareness present for moments of non-thinking so we don’t always notice when the mind is quiet. So meditation isn’t about stopping your thoughts but that doesn’t mean they don’t stop. So I invite you be curious about the ebbing and flowing of the thinking mind this week. Sometimes it’s really loud, sometimes it’s quieter. Everything changes.
Awareness of the body helps us see this in another way. It gives us a kind of different platform to stand on that just me-the-thinker. We can be me-the-feeler. And that allows a broader perspective and a more subtle awareness of the comings and goings of mental phenomena. And ultimately we can turn down the “me” part of the equation and just notice the arising and falling away of thining, the arising and falling away of sensations in the body, or sounds, of tastes, of sensations that touch the skin. One of the ways they think about thinking in Buddhist psychology is that the thinking mind is just one more sense. The 6th sense. It’s the sense that contacts thoughts – that notices thoughts. The eyes are the sense that contact visual perception that noticing what’s seen and the thinking mind is the sense that sees the thoughts.
This is very helpful and potentially liberating actually. We don’t think that what we see is “me” do we – we may have all kinds of preferences and opinions and analysis of what we’re seeing – we do a lot with that information but we don’t think “the seeing is me” do we? That makes no sense.
And yet we habitually and with great certainty might think, “this thinking is me.” The question this practice and this text is implicitly asking us is whether that’s true. Is that thinking you? Or is it just thinking? Or maybe something more subtle is going on than the idea that the thinking is you OR the idea that the thinking isn’t you.
When Karen has reminded us to ask ourselves, “are you aware? what are you aware of?” which is a great question to toss out there from time to time I’ve been wondering if we need the “you” in there so much now that we’re starting to settle into the practice of mindful awareness. How about just “aware?” or “is there awareness?” and “what’s the awareness…I dunno emcompassing?” which sounds all wonky in English so we’ll stick with “are you aware? what are you aware of?” but let’s just remember the important side of that sentence is the “aware” part not the “you” part. She’s not asking, “how are you doing? are you doing a good job?” which might be where our mind goes so quicky and automatically when anyone asks us anything at all about our current state. Ut oh, you’re talking to me, dang I was doing a bad job of…whatever it is. A bad job of being a person I guess.
Back to our sutra. The analysis of this section on mindfulness of the body is that he offers us fourteen different practices to help us understand the body and merge with the body more deeply. Not all of them are applicable to us here and many of them overlap so I’m going to highlight a few of them.
Yesterday we looked at the encouragement to know that we’re breathing directly and fully. After sitting down carefully in front of a tree: She breathes in aware that she is breathing in, he breathes out aware that he is breathing out.
That’s a major practice of a life time all by itself. Knowing the breathing. Being conscious of the breathing. Feeling the difference between breathing in and breathing out.
And then discerning more about what the breath is really like: breathing in a long breath, she knows ‘I am breathing in a long breath.” Or to drop the “I’s” out of it: feeling a long breath, knowing this is a long breath.
This instruction on short and long breaths is also understood to be a practice of following the breath through the whole breath cycle. That implied in identifying long or short is seeing the beginning, middle, and ending of each breath. (As I said this is religion so we can read all kinds of things into the text, but of course that reading here is informed by many generations of meditation practice not just making stuff up).
This is a great practice really noticing the beginning of the exhale, feeling the air come out and the front body settle down as the exhale progresses, staying aware of the very end of the exhale – there’s a subtle little pause there, have you noticed? – and then kind of magically without you having to do anything, the inhale begins – the air flows in the front body opens and rises to receive the nourishment of the breath. Another micro pause – my experience is this pause is much shorter – and a new exhale begins. This is a powerful practice I really recommend. Following the breathing. Following the whole cycle. Part of the art of this is seeing if you can follow without controlling which is hard to do. We associate observation with manipulation in a tightly coupled way because of our self-centeredness I think. Our basic conditioning may be something like, “if I’m paying attention to it I’m going to find something that needs improving with it so why wait, just start improving it.” Until we turn our attention to something else.
So that’s a powerful part of the healing process of awareness of breathing in general and I think particularly following the breathing. We start to gradually uncouple observing and controlling. We let the body breathe up. We surrender our urge to improve and control. It’s a deep habit and not so easy to soften. We can’t make ourelves not control as that’s just another exertion of control. Mostly I think we just practice patience. We keep breathing. We keep noticing if we’re subtly manipulating the breathing and we keep resetting our intention to let go. A great point in my experience of freedom is that little moment at the end of the exhale. Really letting the exhale go and letting the inhale come when it’s ready. Don’t rush the breathing. Let the breathing set it’s own pace.
Another way is to get interested in the rhythm of breathing. So there’s a quality of listening, like listening to music. When you listen to a piece you know and love sometimes you’re anticipating what comes next really strongly and that’s okay but you appreciate the song less, don’t you think? It’s when you really lose yourself in the song, hearing subtleties that perhaps never heard before and allowing yourself to be surprised by the music, even if you’ve heard that song a thousand times before, that’s when you really are swept away by the joy of music right? Do you know what I mean?
So listen to your breath that way. Follow is as a the joyful and brilliant and unique song it is. A song that your body and all of nature is creating for you in real time all the time. You are in your own private symphony of breathing written by the best composer ever, what a shame it would be not to listen with deep appreciation.
Wow. Have a little enthusiasm there, Tim. Okay anyway following the breath.
The next section is feeling the breath in the whole body:
She uses the following practice: ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.’
Of course there is not a hard line between following the breath and feeling the breath in the whole body. They go together. It’s a question of emphasis. Play with this: focus more on the cycle of the breathing for a while, see how that is. Then retaining awareness of the whole cycle of breathing feeling the breath as a whole body experience. And I’d encourage you to not be so sure the body stops at wherever you imagine it stops. The skin I guess? You might experiment with a larger and more spacious sense of the body as you breath in aware of the whole body and breathe out aware of the whole body.
And then we have a passage that looks a lot like manipulation which I’ve been saying this isn’t about:
And then, ‘Breathing in, I calm the activites of my body. Breathing out, I calm the activities of my body.’
Well it turns out that the Pali term that Thich Nhat Hanh is translating here as “activites of the body” is a bit unclear to us what the Buddha meant. The verb in the sentence does mean to calm or calming. Maybe I’ll take the perogotive to gloss this teaching as: “breathing feeling the calming nature of breath in body, breathing out feeling the calming nature of breath in body.” There may be plenty of agitation present but I think its pretty clear than when breath and awareness are in a good relationship there’s a calming influence. So not to try to force yourself to calm down. If there’s upset in the body, mind and heart to meet it and allow it to be here but also to be curious about how the calming quality of awareness of breathing holds that upset. Maybe it doesn’t calm it down exactly as hold space around it. Or maybe the calming influence of breathing makes it more possible for you to bear the pain in the neck or wherever it is even if it doesn’t seem to make it better. In fact it’s better not to expect the breath to make it better because that’s putting a kind of directive and mission onto the breath that’s a form of grasping and that does not help in my experience. If there’s pain in the body it’s essential to allow it, even to get curious about it’s dimensions and more subtle aspects – does is change and move? it is piercing or coarse? it is hot or cold? – and…and!…I’m still breathing and that has a calming quality to it even if it doesn’t guarantee me a calm and peaceful mood or mind state.
Pain is a big topic and some of us I know are practicing with plenty of it. Some are working with other qualities of experience and physical pain is not up so much. We’re diverse that way. But that’s one suggestion for practicing with pain.
Another is to forget about the pain for a while as best you can. Sometimes we go one way, sometimes it’s skillful to go the other way. Let go of all that concern for the senstations coming from the body and drop into the breathing. Just breathe. In and out. In and out. You might add counting. 1….2….3…. oh my neck, ahh… 1…2…
Another support is a simple meditation poem – Thich Nhat Hanh is famous for these – here’s one we use in our classes all the time:
(breathing in) I’ve arrived
(breathing out) I am home
(breathing in) In the here
(breathing out) and the now
Or shortening it to just the key word in each line: arrived….home….here….now. Or just one half of the stanze is plenty: arrived….home…..arrived…..home…..
If you’re in the market for another, my favorite is a little bit wordier. And I will write both of these on the white board in the dining room later:
(breathing in) calming body and mind
(breahting out) smiling with joy
(breathing in) living in the present moment
(breathing out) knowing it’s the only moment.
I practiced with that very intensely for a few years when I was really suffering and it’s in my DNA now somehow even though it doesn’t come up as words often. It makes me shiver to say it actually. And it too can be simplified to a key word in each line: calming…smiling…living….knowing…. or calming…smiling…present moment….only moment….
One more section of the sutra and then we’ll consider the first foundation at least well touched on. We could do a whole 7 day retreat on just this first quarter of this text easily.
Moreover, when a practitioner walks, he is aware, ‘I am walking.’ When she is standing she is aware, ‘I am standing.’ When he is sitting, he is aware, ‘I am sitting.’ When she is lying down, she is aware, ‘I am lying down.’ In whatever position her body happens to be, he is aware of the position of his body.
And not just aware of the so called four noble postures of standing, walking, sitting, and lying down, but all the time as Karen was suggesting to us this morning. He goes on:
[middle paragraph on p 6]
So we carry this awareness of the body off the chair and cushion. And this is a huge advantage of retreat like this. This is so much more accessible to us – we can establish a continuous awareness of the body which is a big part of how we invite our practice to permeate our entire lives when we’re not on retreat. So let’s really get interested in this. How does it feel in the body right now – to ask that steadily all day.
And the next part of the section on mindfulness of the body is all about what the body’s made of. There’s a section on contemplating the elements and parts of the body which is written in different language than we’d think about the body now as that was a different time and culture so it’ll save that for you to read later. But the cool thing there is we’re examining the body in detail each day with our body scan practice. That practice totally fits the Buddha’s instructions here.
The very last part is about the impermanent nature of the body. It’s a famous and long passage and a little gross to our ears. I think instead of digging into that – but it’s available to you if you want to study this later – I’ll bring up instead a a short Buddhist saying that has basically the same intention: Considering the rarity and preciousness of human life, remember that death is inevitable, only the time of death is unknown.
This human body is rare and temporary. How will use this life? There are some other aspects to this final section on the impermance of the body and how there’s not point getting to attached to it’s appearance or anything like that but it all comes down to instilling in us a little healthy urgency. It’s time to practice. This is the only body we get. And we won’t have it long. So what to do? And when to do it? The answer to which might be: practice….now.
I’ll close my talk with this lovely little passage from Thich Nhat Hanh about the benefits of breath awareness. He has such a gift for saying things from a deep understanding with very simple and gentle language.
Talk 3 – Wednesday 10/16/18 – Mindfulness of Feeling-Tone (Second Foundation)
[Note that Tim often departs significantly from his notes when speaking but the notes themselves might be valuable to read]
The second foundation of mindfulness as describe by the Buddha is really fascinating to me and something I’ve been trying to study and understand for many years. It’s another point where Buddhist psychology and Western psychology don’t line up very well. Another idea where we don’t have a good word for English to label what they’re encouraging us to understand and being people of words that makes it a little harder for us to access. But I think this foundation is really important to our well being individually and to our well being as a society and a planet. Understanding this foundation more clearly really and truly leads to a better world in my view.
The second foundation is called vedanā in Pali and Sanskrit both. It’s most often translate into English and “feeling” or “sensation” but neither of those is quite right as we’ll see. Sometimes it’s translate as “feeling tone” which is closer but has other problems.
What vedanā is it the powerful ability of the mind to flavor every moment of experience with a mild to strong taste. The taste can be positive, pleasure, or negative, unpleasant, or just neutral kind of unflavored in our experience but it’s still been through ths flavoring process. It’s described as depositing the three flavors of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral but it’s more accurate to say that the flavors are infinitely varied along a continuum with super delicious at one end, neutral no real obvious flavor in the middle, and super icky and unpleasant and gross at the other end.
So something can be very mildly pleasant, or basically neutral but kind of slighly unplesant and so on.
But here’s the important thing about this: this is understood as something the mind does right away very early in the process of cognition. An object is perceived, recognized as an object of some kind, flavored, and then we realize we like it or we don’t like or we have no opinion about it, and then the mind starts cooking up all the reasons why our preferences and opinions and judgements make perfect sense.
We tend to spend out waking hours at the outbox of that process. Oh I really dislike that, or her, or this way of doing it, and here’s the reason why. Or wouldnt it be great if we changed our schedule here and were outside more or there were more talks or fewer talks or more or fewer words in the guidance during practice and so on. I’m talking about the kinds of opinions and views that we have all the time. And I think during retreat you can experience their awesome power to move you around.
What this is saying is those ideas and perceptions which we tend to take for granted as kind of complete and sensible are actually layers and layers of construction that our mind has wrapped around an earlier moment.
And it’s saying that this mental factor, or mental process, they call vedanā is what kicked off the whole chain of events.
So a study of vedanā is moving our attention from the outbox of the process to the inbox and seeing if we can watch how the mind adds layers and layers to this initial moment of experience. And then we can start wondering if that process is serving us and our world very well.
So you can see why “feeling” isn’t quite the right translation as feeling implies emotions and emotions are part of this little assembly line. They get wrapped around the experience after it’s been flavored as pleasant or unpleasant. I’m sure it varied radically from person to person and from time to time but maybe the typical order is:
1) have an experience of some kind
2) the mind dips it’s paint brush into the pleasant or unpleasant flavor pot and paints a flavor on the experience
3) depending on it’s flavor we wrap an emotional response around it
4) depending on the interaction between the flavor and the emotion we wrap a cognitive layer around it
And that cognitive layer can be all kinds of things: a theory, a plan, a judgement, an opinion, an expectation, some kind of resistance like the thought “this should not be happening!”
The cognitive layer can be positive or negative to our way of thinking about positive or negative. “This is awesome, I can’t believe it! Yahoo!” might be wrapped around an experience that gets flavored as very pleasant and wrapped with a mix of joyful emotion and expectations and hopes that this pleasant experience will continue.
And you can see in that example how this system has a kind of “waiting for the other foot to fall” quality to it. What if this wonderful thing isn’t the lasting change in our life that we wrapped some hopes for around it? What if it stops or goes away? What if it all proves fleeting or phony in some way? And you can see how in this system this second unpleasant step is not so much that we’re revealed the true essence of the original experience but that something shifted that caused the mind to wrap the next moment in unplesant flavoring which triggered a cascade of less happy-making wrappers.
So the downstream mind we experience as our usual thought and option filled head full of stuff in Buddhist psychology can be thought of a kind of wrapping factory. In the middle of the tasty wrap there’s some kernel of direct experience but boy you can’t really feel it any more.
But the total package is not as real as we think it is. It’s constructed. By our mind. And not by ourmind as a stable fixed process that always runs consistently and like scientifically and logically but by our mind as an ever changing process that colored and conditioned by everything in the universe!
As an aside the different schools of Buddhism then went on to argue for some millenia about whether this original nugget of experience that gets the flavoring and all the wrappings wrapped around it is itself real and stable or is that just an even more subtle confabulation that’s itself conditioned and constructed. It’s a little like atomic physics getting things down to neutrons, electrons and positrons and then along comes high energy physics to say well it looks like from this data that there’s a heck of lot more going on intside those particle. And are those particles really there in any kind of consistent existent way or are they a side effect of the measuring process. But before I get myself in trouble by talking about quantum physics which I know nothing about I’ll stop with that. But just to cast a little healthy doubt on the idea that anything actually exists in a separate stable way. Just for fun.
Regardless of the ultimate nature of reality I have found inquiring into the process of this second foundation of mindfulness profoundly helpful. As you get glances at this process of flavoring and layering taking place it really helps you lighten up. It’s profoundly liberating. And it’s not just an idea although we are in the realm of words and ideas right now as a way of pointing our minds towards this next level of inquiry. But that’s a little like the famous metaphor of the finger pointing to the moon. Figuring out the right words for this and having an academic understanding is useful as we need to know which way to point the finger but it’s not the moon. It’s not the liberative experience of feeling into this process more directly.
And just like with the mindful movement the invitation is here to not worry about this stuff AT ALL. My first 6 or 7 years of meditation practice were solely devoted to counting my breath and I seem to have come out kind of okay. Staying with breath in the body all week is fabulous. Is essential actually. Part of me is a little embarassed to be going on about this fabulous metaphors – flavors! wrapping! – as it may all just be a distraction from settling more deeply into the felt sense of each moment. Okay?
So the chapter in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutra on vedanā is so short that we can read the entire thing:
The really radical thing in here which makes a lot of sense when we’re talking about it – when we’re finger pointing – but quickly falls apart against the weight of our conditioning is that nothing whatesoever has an essential flavor right out of the box.
With foods this is obvious enough. I don’t like peanut butter so I could say “peanut butter tastes bad” which is my experience actually but that is not a true statement is it? My actual experience, so far, is that when I eat something with peanut butter in it I’ve noticed that I consistently have an unpleasant eating experience. But you might love peanut butter meaning not that there’s a stable “you” who loves something that’s always the same exact experience called “eating peanut butter” it’s that the results have so far been consistent enough. You’ve come to associate peanut butter with a pleasant experience. And even that’s not a simple thing if these teachings are to be believed. There is a vast number of moments when you eat anything – remember doing the raisin exercise in MBSR if you’ve take that class? – and that in most of those experiences the mental flavor painting apparatus painted “pleasant” on those moments and then you added a positive emotion or a possitive association or a judgment or even an anticipation of the next moment of experience – we say to ourselves in the middle of one bite “this is so good!” which helps to condition the next bite actually. We’re like a walking self-fulfilling prophecy all the time.
But it’s all so conditioned and relative and personal isnt it? Oh man I saw Scott ruin a percectly good piece of raisin bread last night with a huge slab of peanut butter – gross! And I bet he was having a very different perception of the same time. This rich and complex experience we call “peanut butter.”
Another important point her is you know how in Western thinking we make a huge distinction between thought and matter. Or basically matter – physical stuff – and everything else.
Well in Buddhism they don’t make that distinction. That’s pretty radical all in itself but I’ll refrain myself from going too deep into that beyond saying that in Buddhism the mental bit of experience and physical bits of experience are all in the same pot. They are all just exeriences, each one a conditioning agent that affectt he next one. So in the case of peanut butter it might be that I have a different structure to my taste buds than Scott does, that’s possible. And in Western science and culture we’d say “ah ha!” that’s the reason why Tim doesn’t like peanut butter. Mystery solved. Excellent.
But in this system a moment of experience that’s meditated by my taste buds is not any different from a memory from my paste or an opinion or my mood. Every moment of experience is a coalescence of every one of these factors and many many more besides. It’s all happening moment by moment and some of these factors trigger others in little chains which creates the illusion of continuity in our selves. And there’s ANOTHER huge difference between the Buddhist system of thinking and our dominant default way of thinking. The very idea of our self having the kind of stability we think it does. Back to this question of “who” – who is doing all of this experiencing is that person “me” in the way I think of myself or as the “me” just the really big downstream result of all of these mental processes of exeriences conditioned by other experiences flavored by the mind and wrapped up by the mind in a so so so many layers of thought, emotion, conceptualization and so on.
Ooh I do enjoy this stuff I admit it. But it is helpful is what matters. So here’s the invitation:
Keep working on slowing down and paying attention to each moment of experience as best you can. And here we include experiences of all six senses – the five usual ones plus the thinking mind – every thought is an experience too. No different from a taste or a sight or a sound.
See if you can tune in to moment of experience more fully and as you watch slip on some magnifying glasses that are set to pleasant-neutral-unpleasant. Feel and notice a moment and be curious if it’s flavored at it’s core with pleasant flavoring or unplesant flavoring. And then refrain from letting your attention be carried downstream to all of the reasons why you are perfectly justified in your analysis here. That mental stream carries us away from direct experience. So paddle your way back upstream to the source. And do that again and again. Just another way of working with attention just like bringing your awareness back the breath. Bringing your awareness back bare experience with it’s flavor coating. Yum. Yuck. Yuck. Yum. I actually do think the English words pleasant and unpleasant are really helpful here. They’re kind of mind and have less “me” in them. Better than like or dislike or positive and negative. It’s kind of not big deal that something is a little unpleasant and once you get used to that it becomes no big deal that something’s really unplesant. You develop the ability to stay with the experience and just note is as “unpleasant.” And maybe that’s enough. Stop there. Let that experience go. Free up your attending apparatus to notice the next moment. Maybe the next moment will also be unpleasant. But then again maybe it will be neutral. Or maybe it’ll even be pleasant. But same thing with pleasant. Note it “pleasant” and then let that go too so you’re available for the next moment. So easily we toss a rope of thoughts and concepts around a pleasant moment like a lasso: “excellent! finally a plesant meditation, how’d I do that, how do I keep this going?”
But then here the thing you’re no longer having that pleasant experience that point. At that point what are you doing? Thinking! Right. And a special category of thinking called grasping which Buddhism has quite a bit to say about. Generally grasping thinking is…unpleasant and conditioned with fear and various other things.
Aren’t we special! It’s like the mind is almost designed to turn lemonaide into lemons over and over again. This is part of why practice in general and retreat especially can be difficult.
But the good news is everythings conditioned and everything’s changing. With increased awareness and curiosity and patience gradually the patterns of wrapping and reacting and refraining from wrapping and reacting become more skillful and more oriented towards an overall sense of wellbeing. The pleasant and unpleasant don’t have to push us around so much and what is a huge relief. We can just be with what is with more kindly and gently and with a lot more resilience and acceptance that’s for sure.
Whether with practice the mind tends to flavor more things pleasant or not I really don’t know. I think in the full expression of the tradition upon becoming a Buddha this particular mental faculty just comes to rest. The paint brush is set down and the lids are tightened onto the flavor pots never to be opened again. But that’s Buddhism, we’re here for more practical matters and this is a very practical matter.
Probably the most famous Zen poem was composed early in the emergence of the Zen tradition in China where it’s called Chan. It starts with these powerful lines:
The great way is not difficult,
simply set aside picking and choosing.
The great way is our life. If we’re less moved by the pleasant and unpleasant flavoring our mind is painting onto experience it’s easier and easier not to pick and choose. To just meet what arrives moment after moment.
And that’s the opportunity of these days on retreat. Just meet what’s offered. Set aside picking and choosing even if you ideas are just right on and sensible about how it should be different. When you find yourself carried really far downstream with some resistance or opinion or judgement, when you find yourself really strongly pick and choosing how you think you should be or the practice should be or what Karen or I should do our say, when you are captured by picking and choosing…take a breath. Smiling a little helps. Noticing tention int he body helps that’s a great indicator of the results of this process when it’s caught you: you almost always get tense. Maybe always actually.
[logistical note on interviews and there will be an opportunity to talk to Karen and me. Appreciation for the cell phone stewardship. Open door at the nurses’ cabin if something is really challenging you but if it’s more you’re feeling tight around an opinion or plan – picking and choosing – maybe practice with that for a while before you come see us or write a note].
Such a blur of words and explanation in this talk. We need a poem or a song or something. Thanks – no air quotes intended – for your song requests. Some good ones! Topical about silence and about the way the mind constructions reality.
But I’m going to attempt to channel Tracy Chapman and sing a love song instead. Lest we think this whole topic of vedanā is some kind of intense analytical process only. It’s actually about love. Loving our experience as it is. Loving this world. Loving each other.
If you…..wait for me.e.e
then I’ll…….come for you
Although I’ve trav…eled far
I always hold….. a place for you….in my heart
If you….think of me.e.e
If you miss me….once in a while
Then I’ll return to you
I’ll return and fill that space….in your heart
Your warm embrace
I’ll find..my way…baaack to you
If you’ll be wait-ate-ting
If you…dream of me
Like I-I-I…dream of you
In a place that’s warm and dark
In a place where I….can feel the beating of your heart
Your warm embrace
I’ll find my way…back to you
If you’ll be wait-ate-ting
(oh) I’ve….longed for you
And I….have desired
To see your face, your smile
To be with you wher-e-e-e-ver you are
Your warm embrace
I’ll find…my way…back to you
Please say you’ll be wait-ate-ting
It would feel so good to be [up]
In your arms
Where all my journeys end [up]
If you can make a promise
If it’s one that you can keep
I VOW to come for you
If you-u wait for me
And say you’ll hold
A place…for me
In your heart.
A plAce for me, in your heart.
A plAce for me, in your heart.
A plAce for me, in your heart.
Talk 4 – Thursday 10/17/18 – Mindfulness of the Mind (Third Foundation)
A few more notes on the 2nd foundation of vedanā before we move on to the 3rd foundation.
Firstly I the entire chapter on this foundation in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutra is very short – less than a page – so I wanted to share it with you. It’s good to get a flavor of these ancient texts I think:
[Transformation and Healing p. 11-12]
So three sections there:
1) First: be aware of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings – and remember here feelings means this low level, upstream, feeling of first contact with each experience. Pretty much what we went over yesterday.
2) Second: notice that the feelings seem to originate, broadly, from the mind and from the body. I’m not entirely sure why he makes this distinction. Thich Nhat Hanh says it’s to encourage us to be curious about the roots of the feelings. The roots of this way we interact with experience. Some experience flavoring interactions are roots in the physical world, some in the mental world and everywhere in between. Just being curious about origin and roots is a way of investigating.
3) Third: notice the way you can take different perspectives on these conditioned experiences and reactions you can look at them from this angle or from that angle – you don’t have to just be lost in the middle of them. And, and this is very important, you can actually watch them come and go. One moment your mind is one thing, some memory, a sensation in your belly, whatever and the next thing you know you’re having a big reaction to somebody rustling around next to you in the meditation hall: an unpleasant feeling arises. And sometimes as I said you just notice that and move on. And in that moving on effectively what’s happening is that unplesaant feeling has faded away. Even if you neighbor is still rearranging their seatings – remember that the feeling is something extra added to the actual experience. And other times you do the whole emotion and thought wrapping thing and keep that unpleasant feelings around for quite a bit longer. But still even in the most obsessive thought loops eventually it stops or at least pauses and you find your mind on something else. Feelings, these flavored nuggets of experience, always come and go like everything else. To notice their cessation is sometimes tricky but it’s more like you’ve just forgotten about them once the mind gets obsessed with something else but with practice you can notice this. Ah….that unpleasant feeling has ceased. How nice – perhaps the moment of noticing itself is pleasant!
The third foundation of mindfulness is a very familiar space for us. It’s mindfulness of mind – of the thinking and emoting mind. This section is also short. Which is surprising considering how elaborate our mind tends to be and how essentially baffled by it we are.
Today we get a deeper taste of the language of this teaching which is great. Here’s the chapter on the 3rd foundation:
So that’s simple enough.It fits with my comments about including “just” in your understanding of experience. If your mind is full hate, just know ‘my mind is full of hate.’ Easier said then done perhaps?
It might be helpful to go back to the opening summary at the beginning of the sutra when he gives a little formula around how to approach each of these four foundations. Let’s look at the first one as the example:
She remains established in the observation of the body in the body, diligent, with clear understanding, mindful, having abandoned every craving and every distate for this life.
That’s not a throw away line is it? A lot more there than just a general encouragement to pay attention to the working of our mind.
First you remain established. You commit. You stick with it. The quality of effort is something to consider carefully as we’ve been saying if you push this too hard it backfired and folds in on itself. It does seem like it’s generally best if the effort is light, gentle. With lots of patience. Giving this lots of time. Far more than 7 days. Maybe 7 years? 7 decades? 7 lifetimes if you believe in that kind of thing? And for our purposes being a bit deliberate about how you approach each block of practice feels important here. I’m going to follow my breathing, I’ll remain strongly established in that until the bell rights. Then it’s probably not so skillful to say “when, done! time for some daydreaming!” but to just continue but with a lighter touch. That’s one way to approach. “She remains established in observation of the body in the body” and to honor the next word, “diligent.” What’s a healthy kind of diligence. This way of living has some discipline to it as perhaps you’ve noticed. We want you to take care of yourself but we also do strongly encourage you to live a very disciplined live this week with this support of this schedule. And actually all of us live very disciplined lives every week with the support of some kind of schedule or intention. So this isn’t something new or religious or hard core but an application of the strong discipline we are already quite capable of.
Then it says “with clear understanding, mindful.” So some clarity around what we’re doing and why. Of course that’s an emerging story for each of us – me very much included – clarity comes and goes and perhaps over time gradually sharpens a little. Even though we may feel quite discouraged at times, and easeful at other times, our sense of what this is about and why we’re doing gradually has a sense of clarity to it. That is NOT always the same as being able to talk about it with words intelligently though! It can be more of a wordless inner clarity. The way there are something that are so hard to understand but you just know, right? You have confidence in them.
That’s a common question in the interview room actually. “I’m getting so much out of this but I really don’t know how to talk about it! What do I say to my spouse or kids or friends or colleagues when I see them after the retreat?” You know they’re going to ask you about it. Or maybe they’ll express some assumption or idea they have about it. A common one might be: “oh I hear you went on a meditation retreat, that must have been sooooo peaceful!” And then what do you say?
My own pattern with my wife when I was starting out was that after stumbling around and blubbering a bit I said, “it was really great, and really hard.” More or less, “I learned a lot but I don’t know how to explain what I learned.” That was helpful. Then the next few times I went away on retreat she could just say, “great and hard?” And I’d feel the permission to just say “yup!” or if I wanted to try to describe some interesting or challening moment or something I learned I would but I could always just fall back on “great and hard.”
It says “with clear understanding, mindful” – the mindful here means two things. Jon and MBSR and all of this modern mindfulness uses a really broad meaning for mindful to more or less mean this entire system of practice but here in Buddhism it means the ability to self-monitor attention and return attention to the object in a wholesome, healthy way. So we know about that.
It’s the last line that’s the super kicker epecially for the 3rd foundation of mindfulness of the mind in the mind: “having abandoned every craving and every distate for this life.” You’ve all done that right? Checked that off our list. No craving for anything to be different from the way it is with you and the world? And no distaste either right? No resistance. You’ll eat the peanut butter cookie regardless right?
Well the thing that’s difficult here about the text is the way it’s written like a pre-requisite with the word “having.” So I think we’d better take the liberty of massaging this a bit from having to “continuing” or something to acknowledge that this is an ongoing project and it’s especially relevant as we study our minds.
Perhaps we can put these words in the Buddha’s mouth, “continuing to abadon craving and distaste as they arise.” Noticing it, feeling it, letting it go.
Because in the craving and distaste is where the real charge is for all of the mind states he lists. A moment of anger or hatred without any craving or distaste is just a mind state. And it’s a lot more possible to note to yourself “just anger” or “anger arising” or “feeling of anger, here is is, breathe, ahh there it goes, what’s next?”
And of course the second foundation is a big part of the process of craving and distaste isn’t it so you can see why the Buddha put them in the order he did. First get grounded and in the body, feel the space, establish the stability of mind that awareness of breathing supports, then notice the way the mind flashes and colors and flavors everything: pleasant, unplesant, neutral, pleasant, pleasant, pleasant, unpleasant, woah really unpleasant, huh just neutral.” That way of approaching our experience leaves less hooked exposed for desire and aversion and craving and distaste to hook in.
One way to look at the transition here from the 2nd to the 3rd foundation is to get curious about where the flavoring of feeling-tone, of vedanā leads to. Okay it looks like I couldn’t stay with just noticing unpleasant, where is the mind now? What arose. What did I assemble in my little mental reality assembly line since i didn’t pluck it off the line when it got to unpleasant? Oh the system kept going and it became “strong opinion” or and then it kept going and became “derision” oooh…harsh…. and then the mind generated a whole dialog about what I’m going to say to that person after the retreat. Yikes. OKAY…letting go and starting over, what’s next?
Another way of working with mindfulness of mind in the mind is the wonderful practice of noting [explain noting]. Karen and I will bring this up again from time to time today to remind you about this practice if you’d like to do it.
Another way of looking at the mind is to be really impressed and wonder at the way our mind generates the world. I’ve been thinking a lot for the last few days about a family I know and support in Kenya. I’m not completely sure this is helpful to share but it’s so strongly on mind that I’ll have faith that it might be. It’s not so much the details of this story and I’m not soliciting anything from you by telling it – but that the mind is also our tool for broadening our understanding and developing compassion and wisdom as much as it can be a tool that goes sideways and drives us nuts or fuels depression or anxiety. And the mind when it runs off the rails strongly enough is fatal too right? Suicide is up all over the country and public health folks don’t seem to understand why. And statisically with 32 of us here we have several people sitting with us who have been touched by the suicide of others or been at risk of suicide themselves. I do like to joke around a little to entertain you (and myself!) when discussing the wildness of our minds but we do know it’s also a very serious business.
So I’ll tell this story briefly and then a little about what happened recently that’s got this family so much on my mind. It’s a story of hope and also a story of sadness.
• Tim Costello – AIDS activist, South Africa conference, meeting a Kenyan doctor with minimal supplies and support
• Sending expired meds and misc medical supplies & getting in trouble for it
• Realizing that the AIDS pandemic has left millions of orphans, the girls especially vulnerable
• showing Janet and I Mercy’s file – $800/year to get her to boarding high school. Total.
• Mercy aces high school, qualifieds for university with scholarships but doesn’t have the rest – how can Janet and I not continue helping?
• She graduates – lovely pictures of her family dressed up in Nairobi. Not really getting it at the time what a big deal that was.
• Mercy goes into a Master’s program – Masters in Human Development. Working and scholarships almost supporting herself.
• Close to graduation with her MA: gotta go. But just me.
• Two whirlwind weeks in Kenya – Nairobi, Homa Bay area, Kagan village, vacation with her on the coast north of Mombasa which was also culturally powerful.
• A great sense of inguenuity and need. Somehow visiting multiple orphanages and clinics and slums and everyone needs help (but none are begging).
• Big feast at the homestead – simple place, no plumbing a couple of beds for the extended family, the stove is 3 rocks.
• Walking down to the farm, Wellington explaining the failed corn crop – the little rains didn’t come in January – but a flowing stream right there. No way to afford the 5,000 ksh to buy a pump and hoses to move the water.
• How many millions are living this way? Subsistence farmers?
• Going home very glad I went but deeply conflicted. Are doing enough?
• Finding out Mercy’s energy helped her twin brothers get into university on scholarships and they were getting by without a check from me. Benefits of education, especially girls education.
• Getting home and telling the story of the pump to the sangha.
• Connie, no money but a moment of heart and compassion, why don’t we put the pump? How much does 5,000 ksh come to? $500? There are 30 of us us here. $20 each and we change lives.
• Things do go wrong with these projects – read a long report recently about a chartity started by an enthusiastic young American women to rescue girls from a slum in Liberia where it turns out the charismatic local man she hired to help her was raping the girls. Things go wrong. Would the pump create problems in the village?
• Talked to a USAID development expert who weirdly appeared a few weeks later at the sangha and she said it’s all about strength of relationship, communication, and trust. Sounds like you have that.
• Pump saved the tomato cash crop for Wellington and his neighbors next season. Success!
• Futher fundraising in the sangha got Mercy’s younger sister Donneter into uniersity and her youngest sister Sharon into a private high school. Lots more success.
• And then this:
The Death of Brilly Ouma
[could just share this with the sangha as November’s Responding Gate]
Wellington’s daughter died suddenly and weirdly:
Have you ever thought of having a topic on dealing with sudden death in your classes?Wellington’s daughter died today in a very surprising manner,she complained about stomach pains,but she could walk,, talk and even play.Wellington then decided to take her to the hospital today morning,so she wakes up,takes porridge then waits to be taken to the hospital,just before she steps outside the house,she fell down and was pronounced dead.
It is sad,am travelling home to facilitate burial arrangements.
Maybe you can write an article on this?how best can we deal with death?Is it okay when people tell you it shall be well when you’ve lost a loved one or a child?What are we supposed to tell the grieving parties?What are the best words,best encouragement to use?
And I wrote a letter to the family that Mercy read at the Eulogy and said she was reading over and over and it helped. So grateful but also so sad to be so far away from this family. Sad also that Janet hasn’t really been able to have such heart-access to these folks.
Words can not express my sadness at the loss of Brilly Ouma. A parent should never have to bury their child. I have tears in my eyes as I think of her loss and the great pain Wellington and Chenza must be feeling along with everyone else in the family.
I don’t know why terrible things happen and yet they do. I do know that when there is pain we must feel it. To try to deny it or push it away does not help. And I do know that we can help each other when there is pain. I know this is a time to come together. To mourn together. And to remember how much we love and care for each other. We are all connected in such deep ways and when we can feel the pain and mourn together in an open way there is the best chance for healing.
Brilly was a beautiful little girl and like all of us a fragile living thing. We don’t know how long each of us has to be on this Earth. So many things must continue for each of us to live another day. We are lucky to be alive because being alive we can know joy and love. I don’t know much about God but I know that being alive and in this world must be the only way to love God and know God’s love for us.
Life is short but that does not make life less beautiful.
With the pain of a terrible loss like this still the beauty of the world and the kindness and caring of so many people continues. On the same day as a tragic event like this the sun rises and the sun sets. People get up and care for each other. So many things go right every day and so many things happen that express our joy and love every day.
And still there is loss and pain.
How do we hold it all? The human heart is a mystery. It can be so big. It can be so resilient. And can also shut down into fear and pain.
Know that I and our family here send all of our love. We are very lucky to be connected to such a wise and loving family in our sister land of Kenya. To know a little bit the Akumu/Ouma family of the Luo people in Kagan. We admire your courage and strength and kindness for each other. We admire how you continue against so many challenges. And here is a new one. One of the hardest. You have all of our love and admiration.
May your courage and strength and kindness sustain you in this difficult time.
May Brilly’s spirit live on in all of us as we continue our work to live well and live in love and live in kindness and make this world a little better every day.
Mercy let me know
Wellington and the wife Chenza appreciated your deep concerns and your encouraging word from the previous e-mail and this.I keep on reading this over and over again full of encouragement at the same time a reminder that pain.is inevitable but what strike me most is togetherness when things are tough and even when we are in our comfort zones making the most of our lives.That it is okay to mourn when pain becomes unbearable.I love the part where you explain the mystery behind the human heart.
I read it to the mourners and printed it as part of Brilly Euology.I had to explain to everyone (non family members)who Tim is.It is a wonderful message and those who listen or read it learnt a lot ,were encouraged and appreciated the gift of life and love
Thanks for this.
I guess why I bring this up is how much my mind has shifted and changed from the relationship with this family, from being invited into their home – I was the first mzunga (white person) ever to visit there they told me. I grew up a middle class American taking things like indoor plumbing and decent health care for granted – sure our health care system’s a mess but we do have one – they have one too, there are little neighborhood clinics in the towns but not so much in rural areas where they live so there’s something there but this death makes me think of when our son was 3 and had what turned out to be a febrile seizure – he just collapsed one way – slack jawed and out. We called 911 and highly trained and kind EMTs were there in about 5 minutes, whisked him off to the hospital, gave him IV fluids right away, a bunch of tests. Everything fine. Spend the night for observation, on with his life. Could he have died if he was waiting for me to go and rustle up a motorcycle from a neighbor to drive him with Janet clinging to my back for dear life clutching him as the bike bounced around the dirt roads to the cinic? Maybe not. Maybe so.
It’s just such a powerful reminder of how vast and broad the world is I guess. And it’s a world I create in my mind. I take in new experiences, like reading this incredible sad email from Mercy about her neice’s death, and continue to grow and evolve it but it’s actually something that I hold in my mind. The mind is so vast.
There’s a Zen story that’s relevant
Dizang asked Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”
Xiushan said, “From the South.”
Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the South these days?”
Xiushan said, “There is extensive discussion””
Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?”
Xiushan said, “What can you do about the world?”
Dizang said, “What do you call the world?”
So the mind is not just a collection of emotions and impulses is it? It’s a world creator. And it’s important that we learn how it works on both levels. This week we zoom in a bit on the moment by moment creation of thoughts, impulse, emotions and how they’re colored by craving and aversion. That’s helpful. But I think we don’t loose sight of the way the mind is operating at this other level of world creation all the time.
I’ve got another song for you with a surprising link in here.
• Putamayo lullaby discs: Brazilian lullabies (duerme negrito…) and African lullabies. This was years before we knew who Mercy was or thought much about Kenya but I’ve aways appreciated African music and this one lullaby really got me. I used to sing this walking around the kitchen island in the middle of the night with Walker in my arms.
• I knew the singer was someone named Ayub Ogada from Kenya
• What I didn’t know then was there are 30 recognized tribes each with it’s own language in Kenya. Ayub Ogada and this song turn out to be in the Luo language which is the second largest group after the Kikuyu who tend to run the government – there are issues.
• But here’s the wild thing. Mercy and her family are Luo. So before I’d ever met them I had memorized a lullby in their language. Wild.
I won’t translate it but it’s basically a straight up lullby so you’ll get the gist.
Nyandolo obembere mwana
Nyandolo obembere mwana
Lipo ni kalle kamsenje
Lipo ni kalle kamsenje
Omwesi papa…papa wasenje
Omwesi mama…mama wasenje
Nyandolo obembere mwana
Nyandolo obembere mwana
Lipo ni kalle kamsenje
Lipo ni kalle kamsenje
Omwesi dunia…dunia wasenje
Omwesi dada…dada wasenje
Nyandolo obembere mwana
Nyandolo obembere mwana
Lipo ni kalle kamsenje
Lipo ni kalle kamsenje
Omwesi nkosi…nkosi wasenje
Omwesi mwana…mwana wasenje
Nyandolo obembere mwana
Nyandolo obembere mwana
Lipo ni kalle kamsenje
Lipo ni kalle kamsenje
Omwesi papa…papa wasenje
Omwesi mama…mama wasenje.
Talk 5 – Friday 10/18/18 – A Map of the Mind and Beyond the the Mind (Third & Fourth Foundations)
Okay I’ve received several kind of technical questions about the workings of the mind so I’m going to dip us into some technical Buddhist analysis of how the function of mind is mapped. Taking our assembly line of consciousness to a deeper level – that here are a lot of little robot arms dropping in and out of our assembly line turning the different objects around and linking them to each other and so on. I bring this up with some trepidation because it would be very easy to lose ourselves in the intellectual sorting out of this model. Or of any model.
And really the thing that matters to us here is this continuous application of mindful awareness. As we’re learning it helps to take a little inner step back and then just watch. Watch with curiousity, watch with openness, watch with surprise, watch without thinking you know how it all goes so much, watch with fewer assumptions about one thing or another having any inherent qualities. Watch how we take in inputs – sights, sounds, thoughts, memories – and map them onto the world generating new worlds every moment.
Some of these technical questions about the mind seem to imply that someone knows for sure how the mind works. And that presumably if I’m a meditation teacher I’m in on that deeper knowledge and can tell your for sure this is how is works. Well it might be I’m just not deep enough or clear enough – which is probably very true – but I’m not so sure anyone really knows how the mind works.
I’m not so sure there’s anyone who can give you a definitive answer to even some fairly simple sounding questions like, “why does the mind wander?” – sometimes in our MBSR classes we answer this with the intent to normalize it and reduce people’s anxiety about it by saying, “it’s the mind’s nature to wander!” we say that with a lot of confidence as if we knew what the mind is and what’s nature is. As if we knew for sure the mind has something called “a nature” which describes it in a systemmatic and meaningful way. But of course we don’t really know what the mind is or what it’s nature is in that kind of way of know why and how exactly it all works.
Or maybe we invoke the great God of Neuroscience as say “it’s the pathways in your brain!” and mention the default mode network – which is more less a set of interconnected brain regions that are active when you’re just hanging out, just spacing out – these brain areas seem to be associated with mind wandering, day dreaming, and what they so eloquently call “self-referential processing” – in other words there seems to be a set of brain regions, now called the default mode network, that’s all about me, me, me: how am I doing right now? did I remember everything I’m supposed to do? do I look okay? how should I answer that question? do we have groceries for dinner? and soon.
The the super cool exciting thing is that some initial studies show that experienced meditators when hanging out show less activity in those regions. Maybe the me, me, me, blah, blah, blah does get quieter over time if you practice.
Personally it’s hard for me to say if that’s so because when I’m wondering about that I am existing in that same me, me, me realm trying to remember if before I did all this meditation there was more mind wandering. I WANT to think that’s true, I actually do BELIEVE that’s true. I’ve had a few moments where it seems like there must have been qualitiative change in the way my mind works.
For instance one time I went to a little conference in Seattle with a promient mindfulness & psychology guy named Ron Siegel – if you are in the area you can go to these, there’s an organization called FACES that puts them on. They’re ok. Anyway Ron Siegel is talking about the habitual patterns of the mind and making a point about how inevitable they seem to be and puts up a slide with just a word on it. I forget which word is was, and then says with great confidence: your mind cannot help but see this as a word and only a word and then your mind makes all these associations from that word’s meaning. And I was curious so I softened my gaze and invited awareness of breath and body forward a little more fully and I was quite able to see the image before me as shapes in a pattern of black and white. Kind of curvy shapes mostly, a few straighter lines. I don’t know how stable that is and it wasn’t like I didn’t know it was a word but I could most definitely experience is not a word.
I chose not to raise my hand and argue with him -how egotistical would that be – but it was interesting to see that the mind with practice has maybe more variability than some of the so-called experts giving the lectures are saying. So maybe that’s evidence that the brain has changed assuming our consciousness really does arise from the brain which is something actual neuroscientists will caution us about: there definitely seem to be associations between different cognitive functions and different areas of the brain – or more accurate seems to be to say connected regions of the brain than individual areas – but that’s all they are: associations. It seems we need a brain to have consciousness but that’s not the same thing as saying the consciousness is caused by or formed by the brain.
I saw YouTube lecture of a meditation scientist named Willobough Britton who’s at Brown University and she said she did some kind of little informal study around how authoritative people saw her lectures by giving more or less the same talk to different audiences and collecting feedback forms later. In half of the talks she showed a slide of the brain – just showed it, didn’t really explain it or fold it into her talk – in the other half of the talks she didn’t show the slide of the brain. Then she looked at the feedback forms. Guess which half of the talks were seen as more informating and authoritative? You guessed it: the half in which she showed a brain slide!
But anyway even if the mind does qualitatively change with practice and one can take in all of these teachings and try to apply them over time – I was lucky enough to start young with this project – that doesn’t make you an expert or a genius or somehow better than anyone else. So I definitely don’t have all the answers about how the mind works and the real point I’m trying to make is I’m not so sure there ARE definite answers to these questions.
So I’m saying all of this to encourage, I hope, a healthy sense of not-knowing. Neuroscience doesn’t know how the mind really works and even though I love these models from Early Buddhism about how consciousness works there’s something a bit too tidy about them. Reality is infinitely varied, complex, and subtle. No model can capture it.
And it’s also helpful to recognize that we all already have a model of consciousness that we’ve built up over the years. My teacher used to say, “everyone’s a philosopher.” Weach have our own personal philosophy of consciousness which we take to be true and predictive of reality. And we’re very good at gathering evidence that our model is correct. In our own inner mind science we have a powerful version of what they call “comfirmation bias” in science which is just what it sounds: we tend to find evidence to confirm our own conclusions again and again. And then it’s really upsetting to us when something happens that’s big enough and clear enough to mow a path down the middle of our assumptions about how and what we are. Something this is from a terrible suffering, other times it’s from a kind of ah-ha waking up experience, either way can be quite destabilizing which is part of why we’re practicing: we’re cultivating a stability and openness of mind that will hopefully help us to be able to stay upright and open when the ground drops from beneath us and a new reality opens us. And hopefully we can stay curious and with a good dollop of not-knowing so that we don’t immediately form a new model of reality right away. The real point of all of this is there is no one stable model of reality. Everything changes and everything is conditioned by everything else – this has incredibly deep implications.
So I think we’ll go ahead and dive into a detailed description of the Early Buddhist model of the workings of the mind. Not because it’s “correct” and will help us figure out our mind so much as because I might support our insight and exploration. Or at least it’ll pass the time and I don’t have it in me to give another deep personal story today! So this model is pretty much a small scale blueprint of the assembly line we’ve been talking about in which the 1st foundation, 2nd foundation, and 3rd foundation are contributing to in order to create what we call a moment of experience. A moment of me!
But wait! What about the 4th foundation? What the heck can that be? We already have a body, a flavoring system, and a mind, what else is there?
So just to prevent too much cognitive disonnance about the 4th foundation – the mind might start screaming at me from inside your mind, “wait! what IS the 4th foundation!” and that would get a bit distracting for you and for me, so I’ll give a short version now as best I can. Problem is it’s hard to speak about the 4th foundation briefly.
On the one hand it’s awareness of the deep patterns of arising experience. The 4th foundation at this level is the stuff of the universe that the 3rd foundation, the mind, is interacting with and that the 2nd foundation is coloring and flavoring, and that the 1st foundation is like the embodied host of.
We could also see the 4th foundation as mental patterns or habit-patterns. If the 3rd foundation is the mind-moments, the 4th foundation is the ways they coallesce into patterns and theories and actions. Our famous “autopilot” is a 4th foundation manifestation of the 3rd foundation (thoughts), the 2nd foundation (feeling tone), and the 1st foundation (the body that hosts the existence of this whole process and can act). And a deeper level the very idea of “me” is a 4th foundation pattern made up of elements from the other 3 foundations. The point being it’s not “me” really: it’s a pattern. Or it might be more accurate to say the 4th foundation is the space in which that pattern called “me” operates.
Because there’s also a deeper kind of way of looking at the 4th foundation as the nature of reality. In this way of exploring the 4th foundation there’s an deep invitation to notice something important about how we function. We study how compelling the objects of mind are. That’s what we focus on right? Mind objects. And here we can see the so-called physical objects as mirrored in the mind as mind-objects. It’s not really a tree we’re seeing, for example: it’s our conceptualization of a tree inspired by an image of a tree. In the study of the 4th foundation we soften our focus and notice that although the objects get our attention habitually there is also space all around those objects – we notice more clearly the way the mind-objects arise from somewhere and disappear to somewhere, and we shift our inner gaze from the mind-object’s materialization to the hazy space in which they are materializing. We move our attention from what they call form to what they call formlessness.
Form here is all the stuff, and this includes mental stuff, of life. Everything we can conceptualize is form. Everything that has characteristics and qualities to it is form. Everything we can manipulate, think about, wonder about, or describe is form. With the 4th foundation the Buddha is bascially saying like on an infomercial: am I dating myself here? “And wait….there’s more!” And the more is the non-form. The formless. Dipping back into physics with a dash of astronomy maybe this non-form, the formless, is the dark matter of our lives. It must be there to balance things out. In astrophysics, as I understand it, dark matter is matter that simply MUST be there to explain the shape and gravitational characteristics of the universe. There just isn’t enough detectable matter to make sense of the way the universe behaves so there must be dark matter. And in some celestial areas there seems to be more than in other areas which further suggests it’s existence. Or maybe it’s present non-existence because how do you think about matter than you can’t detect in any way? Does it make sense to call that “matter”? Maybe the scientists are assuming eventually they’ll figure out instruments than can detect dark matter, I don’t know.
It’s the same with this deeper quality of our lives which the 4th foundation points to as the kind of substrate of our lives. There’s this knowable experience where our thinking mind hangs out and there’s an unknowable backstory. Sometimes it’s called emptiness. Other times space. We talk about “feeling the space” and that does have a meaning to us doesn’t it? There’s a feeling to spaciousness. It’s hard to describe. And maybe if it really is spaciousness isn’t literally impossible to describe. It’s the part of life beyond language, concept and knowing. The mystery side of life if you will.
In the Zen tradition we have a lot of respect for this aspect of experience and the non-knowing it encourages. A famous Zen story tells us: “not knowing is most intimate.” How does that ring for you after 5 plus days of silent practice? “Not knowing is most intimate” – what’s the felt sense of that statement?
Another way of thinking about the 4th foundation is to have more curiosity about the space in which it all happens. You can’t see it, smell it, touch it, or feel it as a physical sensation but somehow you can feel it in another way. There’s a sense to it. I don’t know how else to say this. Sometimes you know you’re in contact with it because of the qualities it seems to support: spaciousness as we mentioned, also flexibility, curiosity, pauses in the chattering mind. There’s a stable kind of joyfulness to it actually, and an incredibly powerful sense of stability, peace, and equanimity. Maybe it’s most central characteristic is trust. You just trust life more when you’re in a fuller relationship to the formless nature of life. And that is a weird thing to say about something that’s without characteristics but you have to say something I guess.
Now we’re back to my story from yesterday about the great Zen Masters sitting down in the teaching seat and not saying a word: you can see why!
Because here’s the thing: the desiring mind hanging out in the 3rd foundation can’t force itself into this realm of the formless through force of effort or technique or any other brilliant method no matter how subtle or insightful because the world of form can’t call forth the world of the formless. And yet by following these practices patiently and over time and being reslient through the many twists and turns of the path we become more intimate with the formless.
Sometimes a little rush of intimacy with it floods up in us – very exciting – a flash of openness or peacefulness or something like that – other times it’s more the the dawn in the northern latitutes – it’s really hard to tell the moment when night gives way to first light isn’t it? I love that about starting before dawn here. See if you can notice tomorrow morning when the light first starts to rise. And you might give birth to a desire for us to NOT be inside this building at that moment tomorrow morning so I’ll take that to the retreat leader maybe we’ll try something different tomorrow morning (dress warmly) – but it’s really impossible to tell when dawn starts exactly and yet you know when there’s light.
This all sounds very exotic and far out but it’s not, it’s deeply ordinary. It’s the simplest thing in the world. This is just different language for something that’s always been a part of your life. I worry about telling you this stuff as it’s potentially very confusing and also a powerful kind of food for the desiring, grasping mind which wants things to be different. But oh well. It’s a part of the Buddhist tradition so here we are.
The way this is talked about and how much it’s emphasized varies widely. The original text of Four Foundations of Mindfulness doesn’t say anything like this directly but it’s implied, some say. In later Buddhist teachings it’s brought up very strongly but with lots of cautions about not misunderstanding it.
Maybe I’ll park this here as: the 4th foundation is both the deep patterns of the mind AND the deeper pattern of reality that’s beyond the conscious knowing of the mind: the space in which it all arises. And a caution not to try too hard to figure this out as our conscious mind it patterned to focus on that which arises not the space in which is appears. Pretty much the best thing is to stay steady and practice. We can certainly be curious about the deeper patterns of mind, that’s a more accessible level of the 4th foundation. But all this formless stuff! Best is to respect it and leave it alone. Kind of like just now I made a trip to the kitchen for more coffee and I was overcome with a feeling of gratitude for the effort of our cooks. I looked in the kitchen and say how quiet and focussed they were. Steady on their tasks. And I realized that hollering out “thank you so much!” would actually be disruptive. It’s a little like that with this formless quality of the 4th foundation of mindfulness. If gratitude and appreciation and spaciousness arises, that’s nice, but you don’t have to go hollering at it.
So back to the 3rd foundation – how do we understand this mind and how it works? But as we go there always remembering that the 4 foundations of course are not separate – they support each other and our lived experience is a product of all four together.
So here’s an article by the Buddhist scholar Andrew Oldendski – I think he is a kind of independent Buddhist scholar-practitioner not an academic and he’s a big fan of the early Buddhist model of the mind which was built just a little later than the Buddha gave these teachings on the foundations of mindfulness.
This is long enough given my long preamble that probably we’ll do half of it today and the other half tomorrow. And along the way I’ll see about weaving in some teachinings on the 4th foundation of mindfulness.
The Real Practice of Mindfulness
BY ANDREW OLENDZKI| SEPTEMBER 2, 2016 | LION’S ROAR MAGAZINE
The English language is rich in many ways, particularly when explaining the features of the material world, but it is remarkably clumsy when it comes to articulating the nuanced terrain of inner experience. This is one of the reasons the current conversations about consciousness, meditation, and psychology in general can be somewhat confusing.
One of the satisfactions of studying the languages and literatures of India is the exposure it offers to a richer and more precise vocabulary for speaking about internal states of mind. At the time Greek philosophers were seeking to identify the universal substances out of which all matter is constructed, their counterparts in India were exploring, empirically and directly, the textures of consciousness. By the time Socrates suggested that care of the soul was an appropriate thing for philosophers to attend to, a detailed and highly developed map of the mind and body as a system of lived experience had been delineated by the Buddha and his immediate followers.
Part of the literature containing this lore is the Abhidhamma 1. It is an attempt to extract some of the Buddha’s core teachings about the phenomenology of experience from the narrative context of the dhamma and to organize it into a more systematic and consistent presentation. I’d like to offer a taste of this greater precision by considering the question, “What is mindfulness?” As the term grows in importance in contemporary discourse, its meaning seems to be becoming less rather than more clear. Fortunately, the rich vocabulary and meditative insight of the Abhidhamma tradition can help us understand better what the word “mindfulness” is referring to. In the process, this excursion will also include some general observations about how the mind functions and how these functions are augmented by the deliberate practice of meditation. Moreover, it will touch on the relationship between the cultivation of mindfulness and the emergence of wisdom.
The Nature of Consciousness
According to the Abhidhamma, consciousness arises and passes away each moment as a series of episodes in a continuing process. It is not a thing that exists, but an event that occurs—again and again—to yield the subjective experience of a stream of consciousness. Consciousness itself is rather simple and austere, consisting merely of the cognizing of a sense object by means of a sense organ. This event serves as a sort of seed around which a number of other mental factors crystallize to help consciousness create meaning from the stimuli presenting themselves so rapidly and relentlessly at the doors of the senses.
Like a king with his entourage, as the classical image has it, consciousness never arises alone. It is always attended by a number of other mental factors that help structure, shape, and direct rudimentary consciousness in various ways. The idiosyncrasies of our experience come from the unique configurations formed by all these supporting mental factors as they interact each moment with the changing data of the senses and the synthetic constructions of the mind. Altogether, fifty-two of these mental factors are enumerated in the Pali Abhidhamma. (The Sanskrit Abhidharma tradition has a somewhat different list, but we will not get into that here.) Scholars have tended to dismiss this exhaustive catalog of mental states as the product of scholasticism run amok, but many people with a mature practice of vipassana meditation are thrilled by the precision with which this literature describes the interior landscape. It is the child of two parents: its mother is deep empirical observation of meditative experience, while its father is a brilliant organizing intellect.
As I review the Abhidhamma perspective on meditation and mindfulness, I will identify each mental factor by its Pali term and its number on the list for the sake of clarity, but will not consider all the mental factors nor treat them in their strict canonical order.
Universal Mental Factors
Meditation starts with getting in touch with experience at the point of its inception. We literally make contact (phasso, 1) with what is happening in the present moment. If we are daydreaming or worrying or wondering what to do next, we let go of that for the moment and get grounded at one of the sense doors. What is the actual physical sensation arising this moment at the body door as I begin to draw an in-breath? Can I get right to the cutting edge of the sound produced by that chirping bird outside the window? Dropping down from the level of “thinking about” something to “getting in touch” with what is actually occurring right now is referred to as making contact with the sensation just as it first arrives at one of the sense doors.
We immediately notice that this sensation is always accompanied by a feeling tone (vedana, 2) that can be grossly or subtly pleasant or unpleasant. This is a strand of experience that brings with it a sense of embodiment, an awareness of visceral sensitivity. Every sensation comes with its own distinct quality, with a sense of what it feels like to be having that experience right here and now. Even when it is not obviously pleasant or unpleasant, there is nevertheless an affect tone that strings our moments of experience into a continuous flow of feelings, much like the cognitive flow of the stream of consciousness, and contributes to the feeling of being a living organism. Meditation can focus on discerning the distinction between bare sensory contact and the feeling tone that colors the sensation. The stimulus is one thing, while the feeling tone that gives it depth and flavor is another.
Perception (sañña, 3) is another mental factor occurring with every moment of consciousness. Its function is to interpret what it is that we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, or thinking in any particular episode of cognition. Perceptions puts together knowledge about the presenting object based upon a wide network of associations, memories, analyses, learned perceptual categories, and linguistic labels. These manifest as representations, symbols, words, icons, or other images we might form to interpret the sense data into meaningful categories of thought. This happens automatically and subliminally in every moment, but meditation can bring a heightened attentiveness to the process, so that we become more consciously aware of our perceptions, and the perceptions themselves can become more acute.
[To be continued…]
Talk 6 – Saturday 10/19/18 – More on the Map (Third & Fourth Foundations)
Okay in yesterday’s installment of the Early Buddhist Map of the Mind we had the beginnings of our assembly line of awareness – I was about to say assembly line of consciousness but remember in this system the word “consciousness” has a narrower meaning that our overall sense experience of being aware. Often we call “consciousness” this whole show.
We had first contact (phasso) with a sense object, and here we always include contact with a mental object too, so we hear or see or think something. But at this point “we” in the conventional sense of our discurive thinking mode doesn’t yet know we’re seen or heard or thought something. It’s below the radar still. Then there’s the coloring or flavoring of feeling tone (vedanā) that associates itself with that perceived object. And then there’s perception (sañña) and the mind starts to distinguish that there’s a namable object here.
I was thinking here about how the limbic system – you know the mid-brain earlier-evolved emotion center of the brain where everyone’s favorite brain area, the amygdala, is – can recognize a limited number of objects as part of it’s threat detection system. The neuroscience I’ve read says they think the hippocampus which is connected to the amygdala is able to store images of about 100 objects that are threatening to our well being – like snake-like shapes on the ground in front of you. If it’s really a rope laying there it takes another few seconds for the more complex memory centers in your Pre-Frontal Cortex to send the message back to the limbic system that everything is cool, it’s not a dangerous snake after all.
So I tend to assume, and here of course I’m mixing our models together, that the mental factor of perception (sañña) in Early Buddhism is more like this first level of perception and identification – very fast and simple – what kind of object is as a general case rather than too specific or tied into lots of past knowledge and and subtle classification.
Anyway be that as it may, Andrew Oldenski goes on to say that:
So far we have referred to four of the five khandas, or aggregates (skandhas in Sanskrit): material form, consciousness, feeling, and perception. Contact is the coming together of the organs and objects of sensation, both materially based, with consciousness, the mental act of knowing one by means of the other. Feeling and perception expand upon this data to fill in a richer picture of what we are experiencing. All four aggregates work together to answer questions like, “What is happening here?” and “How am I to understand what is arising in my experience right now?”
Here he’s talking to an insider audience referencing a sub-model in Early Buddhism called the skandhas or khandas. That word literally means “heaps.” This is the rather unglorious Early Buddhist model of what the self really is. The teaching is that all we really are is a collection of impulse-experiences that fall into five categories, five heaps. The five heaps are the material form heap, the feeling-tone heap – yes the same vedanā, the perceptions heap, the mental formations heap which is a pretty diverse category of mental experiences, and the consciousness heap – which here again is the simpler idea of consciousness being more like an little inner light that flickers one when our a sense and a sensed object come together.
To detour into the way they understand consciousness for a moment: the idea is that when the eye makes contact with a see-able object there’s a visual consciousness that flickers on for an instant to process it. This also lines up with neuroscience where there’s an area of the brain that usually is active – in the back of the brain somewhere – when we’re seeing something that they call the visual cortex. And a weird, but important aside about that: the visual cortex is also active when we’re visualizing something in our imagination. So the neuroscience and Buddhism do line up in lots of areas. Our main is creating the world in all kinds of ways. And by the way there are later Buddhist maps of the mind that do include types of consciousness that are more like the way we think about consciousness and there’s even one that has a version of Jung’s collective unconscious as a way to help solve that tricky problem of why we have this sense of continuity over time.
But anyway the idea of this 5 skandhas / 5 heaps model is that there is no separate existent me really and the way you can experience this to be true is you learn about these 5 categories of experience and you study every moment that comes up in your mind. And you will eventually see that actually everything that happens which you think of as “me” can be explained by this model, that everything you experience is just a bullet point on one or the other of these 5 lists so the idea of a me must be something you’re assuming on top of all of that. This is supposed to release you a bit from self-clinging. Or more than a bit: ultimately it’s supposed to release you completely.
So what was I doing this morning saying “just be yourself” if there’s no self you might ask? Well because I think that’s an important step in this longer arc project letting go of yourself in my experience: first you just settle on your self without so much extra stuff that you’re piling on top of even these five heaps. If that makes any sense. And plus I personally don’t think the 5 heaps model at least as it’s narrowly interpreted as all that helpful. But that’s another lecture.
The Real Practice of Mindfulness
BY ANDREW OLENDZKI| SEPTEMBER 2, 2016 | LION’S ROAR MAGAZINE
He explains a bit further:
Of the fifty-two mental factors listed in the Abhidhamma, two of them (feeling and perception) are aggregates in their own right [in these five heaps], while all of the remaining fifty are part of the fourth aggregate, formations (sankhara). These address the very different question, “What am I going to do about it?” or “What intentional stance do I take toward this?” Whereas consciousness, feeling[-tone], and perception are all based on words built upon the verb “to know,” the word for formations is rooted in the verb “to do” and covers the wide range of our emotional responses to what is happening.
So that’s interesting: a few mental factors which are always present are just a sensing of what is but the vast majority of mental factors are all about what to do about this whole deal. That matches our experience I think!
He goes on:
The mental factor of intention (cetana, 4) is the active mode of the mind by means of which we exercise our volition or will. Meditation can be understood as an intentional action of paying attention, of being present with, or of otherwise choosing to be aware of what is arising and passing away in the field of experience. Even if one is trying not to direct the mind too much, as in the proverbial “choiceless awareness,” there is nevertheless a specific intention to attend carefully to whatever arises. Intention encompasses the executive function of the mind, the faculty by means of which decisions are made and karma is produced. An important nuance of Buddhist thought is that this executive function does not necessarily require an agent exercising it. Choices are made, but there is nobody who makes them—but this is a matter for another forum.
One of the key decisions made by intention is where and how to place one’s attention (manasikaro, 7), the next mental factor to consider. More than anything, meditation has to do with deliberately directing attention to a particular object of experience. Attending to the breath, attending to an intention of loving-kindness toward all beings, attending to the vast sky against which thoughts come and go like clouds—all involve the function of pointing or steering the mind in some non-ordinary way. The definition of daydreaming seems to be allowing attention to wander wherever it will, from one association to another; meditation is a mental discipline wherein the attention is trained to be more selective. Most meditation instructions include such instructions as “Allow the attention to settle on…” or “Bring attention to bear upon…” something or other.
A particular way of doing this is by having attention[al] focus (ekaggata, 5) or concentration upon a single point. This mental factor seems essential to any type of meditation, for by focusing the mind one increases its power significantly. If the mind skips from one object to another in time, or flits from this or that object in space, it can’t possibly generate the depth or stability to see anything clearly. One-pointed focus of mind—of consciousness, of intention, or of attention—is a way of harnessing the capacity of the mind to a particular purpose. The Buddhist tradition contains concentration meditations that specifically build upon this function, such as the jhanas, or absorptions, but all forms of meditation seem to require some level of focus.
So that’s interesting we haven’t even mentioned the mental factor of mindfulness yet, and remember it has a different meaning in traditional Buddhism than we’re used to but there are three interlocking systems of attention at play even without mindfulness arising yet: intention (cetana) sends attention (manasikaro) it’s marching orders and attentive focus (ekaggata) holds attention on the desired object of attention.
And this is remarkably in alignment with modern theories of attention. This is another vast field I know only a little about but my understanding is that the most common theory is that there are three systems of attention that work together to create this sense we have of being able to attend to something: the selecting system, the orienting system, and the alerting system. I’ll put a link to a reference on this in the notes [http://razlab.mcgill.ca/docs/attentionalnetworks.pdf] although the next Google link after the review article on attention I looked at was entitled “Do The Three Attentional Networks Really Exists?” so we do have to remember when we dip into science as a non-specialist we never really have the full context but briefly my understanding is that the alignment here with the Buddhist factors is crazy close.
The selecting system is involved in selecting which perceptions to pay attention to – just like the factor of intention – and the orienting system has to do with placing our attention there and the altering system has to do with noticing when we’re attending to something else or whether we should be paying attention to something else. It’s kind of amazing that this all works: think about having a conversation at a noisy party as an example. You choose to attend to the words of your conversation partner because that’s the polite thing to do, maybe you’re even interested in what they have to say, and then somehow you can hear their words and ignore the many other words all around you not to mention the loud music, and then you can also notice both when your attention wanders away – alert, alert! attention wandering – but you’re actually also monitoring all of that background sound for any potential threats or problems so that if someone says “That Tim really upset me at the retreat” my mind somehow picks that out and brings attention to it, often without those words appearing in the level of conscious awareness! More likely I’d suddenly lose track of what my friend is saying and look up, “what was that?” So attention isn’t all self-conscious in fact probably a lot of it isn’t.
Which brings me to an important teaching from my teacher about mindfulness, he said one time to us: “mindfulness is exactly not self-consciousness.” I’m just going to let that rattle around in your brains for later I think. It’s bigger than self is one way to give that jarring statement a little room maybe. Mindfulness is exactly not self-consciousness.
But back to systems of attention .We have several dear colleagues in our group who’ve suffered from various kinds of traumatic brain injuries and this is one of the systems that’s often affected, I understand, so it might be much harder for some of us to wade into a cocktail party than others. Our brains and minds and consciousness are doing so much complex stuff all the time it’s amazing! Or at least trying to.
So attention is a big deal. The review paper I was glancing at says:
One of the oldest and most central
issues in psychological science, attention
is the process of selecting for active
processing ideas stored in memory
in our minds, or aspects of our
physical environment, such as objects.
The study of attention has become
a huge enterprise; last year
alone about 300 articles were published
on attention (Fig. 1)
Olendski goes on:
So, are we meditating yet? Remarkably, no. According to the Abhidhamma, all the above mental factors mentioned are present in every single mind moment, whether we are meditating or not. All six factors (there is a seventh, but it is not immediately relevant) need to—and automatically do—participate in helping to shape and direct each moment of consciousness. If any one of these factors was absent, we would not be capable of ordinary coherent experience. Even when totally spacing out, or committing a heinous crime, some basic level of contact, feeling, perception, intention, attention, and focus is operative. The presence, and even the cultivation, of these factors alone does not sufficiently account for the practice of meditation.
So these first six steps in the assembly line are happening all the time: contact, feeling-tone, perception, intention, attention, and attentional-focus. All this just happens all the time whether we’re on autopilot or in the deepest states of meditation.
The next section is:
The Abhidhamma next considers a number of factors that are not routinely present in the mind, but may be. When these are absent, we continue to function normally, but when they are present we manifest certain additional capabilities. There are six of these so-called occasional factors, which can arise individually or in various combinations. They are also called ethically neutral factors, because they are not inherently wholesome or unwholesome; they can contribute equally to beautiful or horrific states of mind.
The first of these mental factors is initial application (vitakko, 8). This is not a particularly elegant English rendering of the term, but it suits the meaning well enough. It refers to the capability we have to consciously and deliberately place our mind on a chosen object of experience. When you work through a math problem, retell a detailed story, or find your mind drifting during meditation practice and (gently, of course) re-apply it to the breath, you are exercising this function of applying the mind in a particular way. All discursive thinking is based on this ability to take charge of the mind’s attention, so to speak, and is responsible for our prodigious planning and problem-solving skills.
Having directed the mind to a chosen object, another factor is needed to hold it there; this is sustained application (vicaro, 9). As you may have noticed, there are considerable forces working to distract your mind and keep its attention moving from one object to another. No doubt this promiscuity of attention has survival value in a rapidly changing environment, but there is also something to be gained by exercising the ability to hold the mind on something long enough to fully understand it and its implications. Concentration meditation, in which one attempts to hold attention steadily on the breath, for example, will be effective only if this focus can be sustained without interruption.
Ah maybe I was too quick to line up intention, attention and attentional-focus with the three psychological systems of attention as here come more layers of subtlety. applying the mind and sustaining the mind on our chosen area of focus.
Both initial and sustained application work together to help train and discipline the mind around certain specific practices, such as breath awareness, guided Brahmavihara practice, and all forms of visualization. Additionally, they may or may not be further supported by energy (viriyam, 11). We know what it feels like to do something with or without energy. Sometimes the mind stays easily on course and no particular effort is needed. Other times it is recalcitrant as a mule and needs a good kick. Energy is a mental factor that is not naturally always present, and in common idiom we talk about putting forth energy, arousing energy, or otherwise conjuring it up when needed.
Three other factors are considered ethically variable occasionals: decision (adhimokkho, 10), joy (piti, 12), and impulse (chando, 13). Each of these three adds something else to the texture of consciousness, and manifests under different circumstances. Decision, literally “releasing toward,” also means conviction or confidence, and functions when we do or think something with an attitude of decisiveness or determination. Joy is an intense mental pleasure, which can manifest, alas, in either wholesome or unwholesome contexts. And impulse, it is important to note, simply refers to an ethically neutral urge, inclination, or motivation to act, and not to the desire (greed, hatred) rooted in unwholesomeness. If the Buddha eats a meal at the appropriate time, for example, we can say he is prompted to act toward that end without being driven by desire or lust for food. In experience, chando can be discerned as the impulse preceding even the most simple and functional actions.
So how we see elements we think of as in the realm of compassion. Affective and ethical components. Decisiveness. Joyfulness. And this could-go-either-way mental factor of impulse. How do we direct our attention and what are the results of those many little decisions about how we orient our mind?
Are we practicing mindfulness yet? We have already seen that if I sit with my legs crossed and back straight, get in touch with the physical sensations of the breath, and intentionally direct my attention to a single point, I am not necessarily meditating. These are all factors that will manifest spontaneously in any endeavor and are not unique to meditation. If I further apply my mind and sustain its attention on the in-breath, put forth energy with determination, joy, and a selfless inclination for the well-being of all living creatures, I may well be meditating—but that does not necessarily mean that I am cultivating mindfulness.
And then at last we have:
Mindfulness and its Associated States
Mindfulness (sati, 29), according to the Abhidhamma, is a wholesome mental factor that will arise only under special circumstances. In most of the conventional ways we use the term these days, we are likely to be referring to any number and combination of the factors already mentioned. In the classical texts, especially the Satipatthana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya, 10), one goes to an empty place, crosses one’s legs, straightens one’s back, and then establishes mindfulness (sati-upatthana) as an immediate presence. The Abhidhamma offers a fourfold definition of mindfulness, following the convention of the classical commentaries: 1) its characteristic is not wobbling, or keeping the mind from floating away from its object; 2) its function is absence of confusion, or non-forgetfulness (the term saticomes from a word for memory); 3) its manifestation is the state of confronting an objective phenomenal field; and 4) its immediate cause is strong perception or the four foundations of mindfulness (i.e., body, feeling, consciousness, mental objects). These definitions all suggest an enhanced presence of mind, a heightened attentiveness to objects of experience in the present moment, a special non-ordinary quality of attention. We can learn a lot more about it by looking at the company it keeps.
To begin with, it is an axiom of the Abhidhamma system that wholesome and unwholesome mental factors cannot co-arise in the same moment of consciousness. Mindfulness is a wholesome factor, so true mindfulness will arise only in a moment of consciousness if there are no unwholesome factors present. There are fourteen unwholesome factors, including greed (lobho, 18), hatred (doso, 21), and delusion (moho, 14), and a number of other afflictive emotional states deriving from various combinations of these three roots. This means that if we are feeling envy (issa, 22) or avarice (macchariyam, 23), for example, these states have our consciousness firmly in grip for the moment; they have hijacked our intention and all the other co-arising mental states, and are directing them to acting and creating karma in an unwholesome way. There can be no mindfulness in such a moment.
This point that wholesome and unwholesome mental factors can’t arise at the same time in our conscious awareness is a very big deal for the well being of us and our world. We tend to impute a kind of personality trait on people: he’s an evil leader, she’s a compassionate health care worker. And although this system through a kind of intricate web of causality does have ways of explaining those tendencies it focusses most on moment to moment experience. And a moment of positive oriention in even the most troubled mind is a moment in which an afflictive mental state like hatred or greed cannot be present.
This is also the affective mechanism for why mindfulness helps with depression or anxiety. A moment of grounded present-moment awareness cannot be a moment of rumination, cannot be a moment of fear. Even if the contents of awareness in that moment are pretty ordinary to our way of looking at it like the feeling in the bottom of your foot as you stand it’s also a moment of freedom and healing.
The moment immediately following [even a moment of unwholesome mental states arising], however, is a whole new beginning. Here we have the option, if we are trained and skillful in the establishment of mindfulness, of taking the envy or avarice that has just passed away as an object of the new moment, with an attitude of mindful investigation. Every moment of consciousness, we might say, has two major components: the object, and the intention with which that object is cognized. A mental object can be almost anything, including unwholesome intentions from previous mind moments; the intention with which it is held here and now will be shaped by the fifty-two mental factors. This means that we cannot be envious and mindful in the same moment, but we can be envious one moment and mindful of that fact the very next moment. Indeed, much of what is called spiritual development consists of first becoming aware of what states are arising and passing away in experience (no small challenge in itself), and then of learning how to regard them with mindfulness rather than remaining lost in them or carried away by them (an even more daunting, but not impossible, task).
One of the more astonishing insights of the Abhidhamma is that mindfulness always co-arises with eighteen other wholesome mental factors. We are used to thinking of these factors as very different things, but the fact that they all arise together suggests they can be viewed as facets of the same jewel, as states that mutually define one another. By reviewing the range of wholesome factors that co-arise with it, we can get a much closer look at the phenomenology of mindfulness.
First, there is equanimity (tatra-majjhattata, 34). The Abhidhamma actually uses a more technical word for this (literally “there-in-the-middle-ness”), but it is functionally equivalent to equanimity, an evenly hovering attitude toward experience that is neither attracted nor repelled by any object. It is therefore also characterized by non-greed (alobho, 32) and non-hatred (adoso, 33). This is the generic Abhidhamma way of referring to generosity or non-attachment on the one hand and loving-kindness on the other.
You can see how these three work together on a continuum to delineate perhaps the most salient characteristic of mindfulness. When true mindfulness arises, one feels as if one is stepping back and observing what is happening in experience, rather than being embedded in it. This does not mean separation or detachment, but is rather a sense of not being hooked by a desirable object or not pushing away a repugnant object. There in the middle, equidistant from each extreme, one encounters a sense of freedom that allows for greater intimacy with experience. It may seem paradoxical, but this system suggests we can take an attitude toward the objects of experience that is at the same time both equanimous and benevolent. Loving-kindness manifests as a deeply friendly intention toward another’s well-being, but it is not rooted in any selfish desire for gratification. Similarly, generosity co-arising with equanimity indicates that a deep intention to give something valuable to another can manifest without a desire for reciprocal gain.
So the super great thing here is that mindfulness in this sense is a very positive, wholesome thing. And an odd thing in some of the discussions of mindfulness by earlier Western Buddhist scholars was that mindfulness is the same thing as “bare attention” – totally neutral of other factors – and while mindfulness in this system is certainly a much more direct awareness of what is without layers and layers of narrative and story sitting on top of it it’s far from “bare attention.”
Also engaged [[when mindfulness arises] with all these mental factors are the twin “guardians of the world,” self-respect (hiri, 30) and respect for others (ottappam, 31). I find these translations preferable to the more common “moral shame” and “moral dread,” for obvious reasons—such English words carry with them unfortunate baggage that has no place in Buddhist psychology. The first of these constitutes an indwelling conscience, by means of which we know for ourselves whether or not an action we are doing or are going to do is appropriate. The second term is more of a social or interpersonal version of conscience. As mammals, I think we have adaptive instincts for empathy toward other members of the group and reflexively understand whether we are thinking, speaking, or acting within or outside the social norm. These two factors, self-respect and respect for others, are called guardians because they are always operative in all wholesome states, while their opposites, lack of self-respect (ahirikam, 15) and lack of respect for others (anottappam, 16), are present in every single unwholesome state.
Next, we have faith (saddha, 28) always co-arising with mindfulness. Every moment of mindfulness is also a moment of confidence or trust; it is not a shaky or tentative state of mind, and is the antithesis of unwholesome doubt (vicikiccha, 27). There remains only to consider a group of six associated factors, each referring to two mental factors (numbers 35–46). These terms can be taken almost as adjectives of mindfulness: tranquility, lightness, malleability, wieldiness, proficiency, and rectitude. Experientially, these qualities can serve as useful indicators to when true mindfulness is manifesting. If you are regarding an object of experience during meditation with any restlessness, for example, or with heaviness, or with rigidity, you can be sure that mindfulness is not present. By the same token, mindfulness is sure to be present when all six of these qualities arise together, each mutually supporting and defining one another. It is all at once a peaceful, buoyant, flexible, effective, capable, and upright state of mind.
This factor of faith or trust is really important and also often left out of modern mindfulness as it sounds too religious. But if you actually look the way people meet these practices in our classes and workshops and retreats it’s really clear that there’s a tremendous degree of faith and trust that arises – sometimes a bit haltingly to be sure and there is often quite a bit of doubt there but as the classes go along and the participant becomes more confident in the teacher, the group, and the process it’s not just that they “see for themselves that this works” actually although they may have some positive experiences early on but that they somehow develop tremendous faith that allows them to go forward with the practice. I think it’s this faith and trust that has carried each of us through some of the stickier patches this week, don’t you think? If you were totally rational and evaluating each moment in a kind of trust-free zone when things got rough earlier or if they’re rough right now, wouldn’t the logical thing to do be to go start packing? To see this through you wouldn’t then generalize and say “mindfulness is no good” you would recognize there’s been some benefit but at the moment it’s not working so I might as well leave. Getting some work done today or spending time with my family is more important than sitting here suffering. Thanks Tim and Karen, I appreciate it but I’m done. Bye.
And by the way you might have noticed that Janine Shea has left. Our wonderful late morning coffee maker among many other things. Janine was starting to notice some medical symptoms that she was concerned about, talked to her doctor, and the recommendation was it’d be wiser to move closer to home just in case things got worse. So she did not suffer from a loss of faith so much as applied her mindfulness practice to current situation and made a decision that seemed best for her well being. She sends her best.
Well there’s one more section of Andrew Olendski’s article that I think we’re going to have to save for after you get home. Does that lead to a little suffering in some of your minds: “wait I want it all!” It might lead to some relief in other minds here though “boy that’s dense stuff and it’s stressing me out trying to make sense of it all”. That’s something to remember when you get into that fixer mode about a group retreat like this – you tend to think that everyone else is having the same experience you’re having, but chances are half of them are having the opposite experience. That’s why Karen and I talk so funny sometimes with lots of maybes and invitations and in-case-it’s-helpful-to-yous. We can’t help but be biased by our own experience but we’ve trained ourselves to try to remember that your milage may vary. I fell afoul of this just yesterday it turn out when I said something like wow, wouldn’t it be great if we could just live this ongoing. So natural and peaceful this way of life right? Someone came to see me and said: “NOT!” but that she’s willing to keep working with the challenges of this until tomorrow at noon.
Sorry about that. I get enthusiastic sometimes about this way of practicing and lose my felt sense of how hard it can be. I remember sometimes too – quite viscerally – this is a really challenging thing this practicing like this all week: it takes courage and steadiness. AND it’s also actually quite wonderful too. We could each day line up in a line with the people most stressed out at the moment at one end the people most joyful at the moment at the other end. If that wouldn’t be so shame inducing and embarassing it would actually be kind of interesting because I bet we’d see some interesting patterns. Some people probably moving left and right between joy and challenge pretty far each day other people pretty steady where they are in that spectrum. Just remember it’s not your fault really!
How you’re feeling this week has something to do with your efforts and choices to be sure but it has a whole lot more to do with the conditioning you carried here with you in that big sack we all have slung over our shoulders. The nature of this kind of event is you can not longer just keep charging forward and not feeling what you have in there. The sack tends to open up and the joys and sorrows that your life has stored in there – that society has tucked in when you weren’t looking, that your parents and their parents gave you, that the state of the world dribbles in there – all that stuff is your responsibility it seems since you’re the one carrying the sack, no one else can actually carry it for you – they might be able to take a look and if they have a little wisdom and you have some trust in them they might be able to point out a few helpful things – “woah there’s some heavy stuff in here” – but they can’t empty your sack for you or fill it full of helium to lighten it or anything like that. I love the phrase, “it’s not your fault but it is your responsibility.” Reality – life – gave you this load. Now what?
We’re still all here for another 24 hours so I hesitate to say that this is my last talk helping to fan the flames of short-timer syndrome we tend to get into but there is another important person in our community who’s leaving after lunch so I want to honor and thank her.
[thank yous] Karen, Community of Christ, our cooks, John and Sandy Vanderwalker, Samish Indian Nation, Norman Fischer, the MNW staff most of whom are right here amazingly enough, my fellow sangha members at Red Cedar Zen where I cut my teeth and continue learning.
Keep the silence. Reel your mind back from the future around how this will end and what you need to do next. That’s mostly a trust practice, not fighting your mind, trust that it all will go just as it needs to go without you trying to influence the future from your seat here.
A few interviews this afternoon – just a few so I’ll come get you individually and not worry about attempting high efficiency shell games. MTTP I’ll announce when we gather – probably at 4pm but just follow the schedule and I’ll let you know.
Give Karen the mic.
[If time] And as an antidote to all these mechanical figure out how your mind works models here’s another model:
Rosemerry Trommer – One Morning
we will wake up
and forget to build
that wall we’ve been building,
the one between us
the one we’ve been building
for years, perhaps
out of some sense
of right and boundary,
perhaps out of habit.
we will wake up
and let our empty hands
hang empty at our sides.
Perhaps they will rise,
as empty things
by the wind.
Perhaps they simply
will not remember
how to grasp, how to rage.
We will wake up
and we will have
misplaced all our theories
about why and how
and who did what
to whom, we will have mislaid
all our timelines
of when and plans of what
and we will not scramble
to write the plans and theories anew.
On that morning,
not much else
will have changed.
Whatever is blooming
will still be in bloom.
Whatever is wilting
will wilt. There will be fields
to plow and trains
to load and children
to feed and work to do.
And in every moment,
in every action, we will
feel the urge to say thank you,
we will follow the urge to bow.
[the rest of the article by Andrew Olendski]
The Cultivation of Mindfulness
With all that has been said, it may seem that mindfulness is a rare occurrence, arising only under the most exotic of conditions. In fact, however, it is something we all experience, often in one context or another. The cultivation of mindfulness as a meditation practice entails coming to know it when we see it and learning how to develop it. The Pali word for development is bhavana, which simply means “causing to be.” The core meditation text Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta) offers simple instructions on how to do this:
As mindfulness is internally present, one is aware: “Mindfulness is internally present in me.” As mindfulness is not internally present, one is aware: “Mindfulness is not internally present in me.” As the arising of unarisen mindfulness occurs, one is aware of that. As the arisen mindfulness is developed and brought to fulfillment, one is aware of that. (Majjhima Nikaya 10:42)
In mindfulness meditation, we work to create the conditions favorable to the arising of mindfulness, relaxing the body and the mind, focusing the attention carefully but gently on a particular aspect of experience, while producing sufficient energy to remain alert without losing a sense of ease and tranquility. Under such conditions, properly sustained, mindfulness will emerge as if by some grace of the natural world, as if it were a gift of clarity from our deepest psyche to the turbid shallows of our mind. When it does, we gradually learn how to hold ourselves so that it lingers, to relocate or re-enact it when it fades, and to consistently water its roots and weed its soil so that it can blossom into a lovely and sustainable habit of heart and mind.
As much as the scientific community currently enthralled with mindfulness would like to ignore the ethical component of the Buddhist tradition to focus their studies on the technology of meditation, we can see from this Abhidhamma treatment of the subject that true mindfulness is deeply and inextricably embedded in the notion of wholesomeness. Although the brain science has yet to discover why, this tradition nonetheless declares, based entirely on its phenomenological investigations, that when the mind is engaged in an act of harming it is not capable of mindfulness. There can be heightened attention, concentration, and energy when a sniper takes a bead on his target, for example, but as long as the intention is situated in a context of taking life, it will always be under the sway of hatred, delusion, wrong view (ditthi, 19), or some other of the unwholesome factors. Just as a tree removed from the forest is no longer a tree but a piece of lumber, so also the caring attentiveness of mindfulness, extracted from its matrix of wholesome co-arising factors, degenerates into mere attention.
One final question remains to be asked: As we practice the true development of mindfulness, are we also cultivating wisdom? If meditation (samadhi) is the bridge between integrity (sila) on one hand and wisdom (pañña) on the other, does mindfulness lead inevitably to wisdom? The discomforting answer to this question is again, no. The Abhidhamma lists wisdom (pañña, 52) as the last of the mental factors. Wisdom is certainly a wholesome factor, but it is not a universal wholesome factor and so does not arise automatically along with mindfulness and the rest.
Wisdom, understood as seeing things as they really are, is the crucial transformative principle in the Buddhist tradition. Just as you can practice meditation without manifesting mindfulness, so too can you practice mindfulness all you want without cultivating wisdom. If mindfulness is not conjoined with insight (another word for wisdom), it will not in itself bring about a significant change in your understanding. Real transformation comes from uprooting the deeply embedded reflex of projecting ownership upon experience (“this is me, this is mine, this is what I am”) and seeing it instead as an impermanent, impersonal, interdependent arising of phenomena. Cultivating mindfulness is a crucial condition for this to happen, but it will not in itself accomplish that end. As one text puts it, mindfulness is like grabbing a sheath of grain in one hand, while wisdom is cutting it off with a sickle in the other.
As with the arising of mindfulness, so also for the arising of wisdom: it cannot be forced by the will or engineered by the technology of meditation. Yet the conditions that support the emergence of wisdom can be patiently and consistently cultivated, moment after mindful moment, until it unfolds as of its own accord, like the lotus bursting out above the water or the moon flashing suddenly from behind a cloud.
This is hardly the last word on the subject, but I suspect the foregoing analysis raises the bar somewhat on how we use mindfulness as a technical term. Two things at least seem quite clear: there can scarcely be a more noble capability of the mind than mindfulness, and its cultivation must surely be one of the more beneficial things we can do as human beings.
1 This refers to the Abhidharma of the Theravada school, which is composed of seven books and written in Pali. Some parts differ from the Sarvastivada school, written in Sanskrit.