THE BUDDHIST ROOTS OF MINDFULNESS 2023
In October 2023, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett co-led a 7-day retreat on the Buddhist teachings on mindfulness. Tim deeply explored the traditional Buddhist text that is the central inspiration for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta)
You can read or print the full text of this teaching here: Satipattahan Sutta, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh
The commentaries Tim was studying for these talks were:
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness
- Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
Talk 1: Introduction, how to practice the mindfulness sutra
Well I’ve had an interesting time watching my mind around this retreat over the last couple of weeks. And at the moment I am just so happy to be here with you and enjoying that feeling.
Mindfulness Northwest is a non-profit which has so far been almost all fee for service. We’ve never had the bandwidth or luck or whatever it takes to find sources of funding beyond some generous donations (so grateful) so really it’s registration fees that float the boat and keep the organization and it’s 10 staff members going. We’re also committed to accessibility. I know this retreat is a pretty good chunk of change even so, but we keep it as modest as we can, have developed a relationship with this more affordable retreat center, and offer the sliding scale and scholarships. Do what we can without that constrained reality. MONEY (pink floyd)
And here a pause of deep gratitude for those who’s means and generosity made it possible to give higher on the scale, that helps so much. Makes our scholarships possible. And as is such wonderful custom we have no way of knowing who helped who in that way in our little group and we can feel good I think knowing that either you helped someone else here be here or one of these other humans helped make it possible for you to be here. That’s true for all of us one way or the other, especially including me. Your coming and your contributions are my livelihood and make it possible for me to do what I do. I can’t say thank you deeply enough.
Anyway the pricing is designed for the event to break even financially for us at around 20 people and obviously we have fewer. A few of our wise and devoted staff members were wonderful if we should cancel it. Maybe the time for 7-day retreat has passed. It’s a big commitment. Our weekend retreats are doing great. 30 to 35 people in those. So easily it all becomes a numbers game, and the numbers do matter. We do our best to pay a living wage to our staff for one thing, and to not use the manipulative idea that if you work for a non-profit you’re doing that out of love and should be cheerful about low wages so we try to be close to prevailing wage across all industries. So tricky operating in an unjust economic system no matter how you slice it though.
So I was trying to hold the line anyway. We have so many devoted people committing to this, let’s go ahead even if we “lose money”.
And by the way we are planning to take a fresh run at diversifying our funding sources next year. Freeing up one of our folks to dig into grants, strategic partnerships and fundraising.
So I’m holding that line but I’m also trying to process and weigh and balance in my head and heart as this retreat approaches. And eventually I land on well, if we did let it go after this year it sure would lighten my Fall schedule a bit, that’d be nice, and we can give the shorter retreats more energy and maybe they’ll do well. And I’m adding a new 5-day retreat regularly in May here – a few of you went to the May one we did on Orcas Island (and I do wish it made sense to head out there again but there are a lot of reasons why this site works a lot better for us).
So there I am thinking about the future. Imagining different futures. Trying to feel my way and I was hanging out in that version of the future for a while. This as the last 7-day retreat. Recognizing that it’s hard to let go. We’ve been offering this retreat every October since at least 2015! Even managed to keep it going as an online retreat during the pandemic. But I thought I felt a feeling of release and letting go that I trust. So…letting it go.
And showing up here I think there was a little touch of mourning in me. Kind of sad, last time. And these sweet people who are so devoted to this – several you have been to many of those annual retreats, and the new folks seeming so happy to be here. I felt like I was keeping a big icky secret too which was uncomfortable.
And as we arrived, and connected and shared a bit from the heart last night, and came down here to sit in the cool dark evening and joining again to move and sit before dawn with such steadiness and heart I felt my heart-mind shifting again.
This retreat is just too important to let go of so easily. One year of lower enrollment doesn’t have to be the end of it! So now my mind is back in an imagined future reality of doing this year after year until I’m too old to keep at it, or even then passing it one to someone else. And that also felt so good. Settled, joyful, generous. This is in fact one of my most favorite things to do in the whole world: sharing this practice in this deep form of retreat!
Of course: who knows what’s going to happen?
It’s a busy mind in there isn’t it? Maybe you’ve been gyrating between different futures too? I bet you have. How can we know which course is right? I try to listen to my logical mind and my heart both but the whole system is operating amidst an unknowable future with everything influenced by so many factors so beyond my control.
I can only try to be kind and graceful with myself, and with my colleagues. And request their kindness and grace with me when as leader of the organization my see-saw mind causes the plan to flip back and forth a few times. Luckily we’re a very understanding bunch. Everyone who works for Mindfulness Northwest does practice mindfulness. And we’re also all humans with opinions and triggers and history too.
Why am I sharing all of this with you? Well I guess just to normalize the planning mind and it’s intensity. What a convincing story it can tell us about what the right course of action is. And next thing you know the opposite idea seems absolutely right.
And what a great opportunity sustained practice is to watch all of this coming and going. And a great protection we have this week is being offline. You won’t send an email to your colleague or a text to your friend or partner about your brilliant new plan only to have to walk it back later. Or even worse to be too embarrassed to walk it back later and feel trapped in your own craziness. You can just watch it all ebb and flow. The passions. The ideas. The insights. The confusion. I love the big tides we get to see here, it’s a great metaphor for that mind. Ideas flow in with great energy sometimes, covering intertidal landscape of your heart. And then next thing you know it’s ebbed away and your gut is exposed and you don’t know which idea is right.
Maybe we can watch this not just with plans and ideas and views but with our very sense of who we are. Oh I’m this! Oh wait, maybe I’m not? We can watch it with preferences: darn it why did I take a serving of that it has such-and-so in it that I don’t like. Alright I’ll try it. Huh, not bad.
And everything that emanates from the mind reflects back on our conception of who we are. A complex process like a hyper spider constantly weaving and re-weaving a web. I thought I was the kind of person who likes this-or-that, so if I don’t actually dislike it maybe I’m a different person from who I thought I was in some way? Huh? Who am I anyway?
The Buddhist roots them I chose for us this year is a classic. The Mindfulness Sutra – written down in the Pali language long ago it’s title is Satipatthana Sutta. The teaching on the four foundations of mindfulness.
You might have been here in a previous year and heard me teaching about it. Maybe with one of my teaching partners like Robin Boudette – who sends her best by the way, she’s needing to be close to her mom in New Jersey these days. Maybe I’ll be able to talk her into coming back out again once that become possible for her.
It’s not a long text as you can see – fits on a 6 page handout.
And yet it’s a core teaching that’s been commented on and translated and re-translated into many languages and cultures for 2000 years. And it’s a foundational (pun intended) teaching underlying the MBSR class for sure as you’ll see.
A little back story on Buddhism. Firstly that although there are many, many written teachings it is not a “religion of the book” like Christianity of Islam. Is a religion of many books I guess you could say. I think actually it’s better to say Buddhisms plural than Buddhism singular. The different schools and expressions in different cultures over time as so very different. Different things are emphasized and they don’t all agree on everything.
But there are some core ideas that are pretty well in harmony and the teachings in this text are, I think, in that category. This is from the earlier Buddhism. Supposedly the words on this page were what the Buddha himself actually said one time to a group of students. And it become from then on an important framework for practice.
Supposedly because we can’t know for sure in that historical scientific way. The text this was translated from was written hundreds of years after the Buddha passed away. For the first century or 4 the sayings of the Buddha were memorized and repeated and retold and remembering in an oral transmission. Was it all completely accurate to the “original” or more like a really long game of telephone? And we don’t even know when exactly the Buddha lives either the estimates are plus or minus about 80 years so there’s a rough consensus. Most traditions come up with his live being from 563 to 483 B.C.E. but scholars think it could be as much as a century later. There’s pretty good agreement the there was such a person who was a remarkable teacher and religious leader and quite possibly he did have a profound physic-spiritual transformational experience that inspired these great abilities but as a scholar I really respect says, “the actual words of the Buddha are unrecoverable.”
Which is sad in one framework but also kind of liberating in another. We really don’t know. And there are teachings attributed to the Buddha encouraging us to really investigate the felt meaning of these teachings for ourselves. That’s an aspect of the Buddhist canon that really appeals to Western culture I think. “think for yourself!” sounds like of American even. But there are actually many more teachings on studying for a lifetime to understand our fundamental ignorance of deep patterns of how things are, to do slow and gradual practices, to live a life with great discipline in exploring all of this, and to really listen to teachers including living in intense hierarchical religious organizations.
And, very sadly, although the Buddha and his movement were more inclusive of women than many others at the time, and much more so now, there is absolute a deep misogynist root and all Asian Buddhist traditions are controlled by men pretty much. We’re doing a bit better in America but the layers and layers of that go deep and as a privileged white cis man in front of the room I just want to say I’m really sorry about that aspect of all of this, that I know there’s much I don’t know about how I’ve perpetuated this, and that I’m doing my best to learn and understand and listen. And in fact I have so far with my Zen teacher hat on ordained more women than men by a pretty good margin so…some little progress there.
And here we have this treasure from an imperfect tradition. So let’s dive in.
[opening section, settling the scene, daily life of practice of the celibate monastics]
[repeated formula of how we can practice each of the four foundations or establishments]
[Commentaries: Thich Nhat Hanh vs. Joseph Goldstein, from different Buddhist schools and cultures, pros to each and they are quite different.
Give a flavor of Thay’s by reading all of p. 37, opening of Methods of Practice]
Qualities to bring to the practice of mindfulness. The Buddha’s version here of effort and ease.
EFFORT: Diligent – being ardent supported by 1) reflect on the preciousness of this opportunity 2) reflect on impermanence including of our own bodies & lives 3) reflect on karma – the unknowable vast power of the choices we make
SETTLEDNESS OF THE EFFORT: Clear understanding (Smapanañã) – clear intentions, aware of what we’re doing, what motivates you to come to practice
EASEFUL QUALITIES OF THE EFFORT: Mindful 1) strong present moment awareness 2) the practice of remembering (including remembering our ethical intentions, best selves) “The time will come when you will greet yourself arriving and you own door….” 3) protector of the mind – knowing when we stray into unhealth mind states and find skillful ways to deal – being here helps, following the retreat guidelines fully helps
EASE AROUND OUR BIG COLLECTION OF ISSUES: having abandoned every craving and every distaste for this life (or this situation, or this world): Meaning a concentrated and stable mind, not pulled by desire or aversion inspired by the many layers of our circumstances – able to set it all aside for a time and study our own heart-mind process deeply.
First practice in the first foundation – knowing the breathing. Again, if breath is triggering for you you’re in a tricky spot here I know. Strong triggers are not nothing, they are powerful, but they are also not permanent, we do change. And sometimes if there’s enough support and you intuit the inner resources are there going into that which is triggering can be healing. It’s a cautious experiment that you are in control of pretty much. Do you felt to ease into this – touching it very lightly, taking plenty of internal breaks? Giving yourself permission to stand up and move if you’re flooding? Or maybe the time isn’t right and you stay in the feelings of the body like Annie was bringing attention to in the body scan earlier. Or just relax and do your own thing when there are a bunch of breath oriented suggestions. You can’t do it wrong here as Annie was reminding us last night. Just being here and doing your best is an amazing thing.
Non-controlling aspect but some manipulation to “prime the pump” can help.
“Letting your breath breathe you” can be a good way to flip self-control around.
Lightly including breath counting or gatha work can help.
Much patience is called for.
The great opportunity here for continuous practice. Aware of breathing from our first waking breath to the last breath before we call asleep. Maybe even while sleeping?
Including, studying (but not too heavy into problem solving) when mental formations pull us away. Notice when the mind has absolutely NOT “abandoned every craving and every distaste for this life”. Not a failure but information, but a mindfulness bell. We’ll study labeling or noting practice a lot this week, that’s very helpful.
Here’s a brief homage to the body & breathing from Joseph Goldstein: middle p. 26.
And the part about where we practice and how we position the body is important too.
[practicing somewhere peaceful but accepting everything – Josh and I did MBSR together at a King County meeting room for instance with bright fluorescent lights that I’d turn off and then it would be dark and gloomy and you’re with a bunch of co-workers at work with the buzz of a busy HR office in the background, not perfect!]
[posture – show bench, cushions, chair – balancing again effort and ease]
[no you don’t have to cross your legs but if you’re half way to that it is possible to open the hips a bit.]
[the mystery of “establishes mindfulness in front of her”: nostrils and spirit of a gateway into the body? the energy connected to rising and falling in the bell? maybe some connection there to Qi energy (AKA prana: life energy) which we’ll explore a little more in our Qi Gong?
In any case a sense of setting up an attending present stance.
and a little more advice from another Sutta:
“They seat themselves cross-legged, sets his body erect, and establishes mindfulness in front of her. Do not occupy the mind with self-affliction, or the afflictions of others, or the afflictions of both; sit with the mind set on your own welfare and well-being, on the welfare and well-being of others, and on the welfare and well-being of both, even on the welfare and well-being of the whole world.”
No a neutral technique at all. A loving offering to self and others. And there too: balancing effort and ease – not forcing some kind of emotional something here, but inviting and allowing joy – making space for joy and loving -kindness to arise and maybe it will in a noticeable way or maybe it won’t but there’s more here than just a breath in this breath awareness practice!
Let’s close with a song how about? I think everyone knows this one to some extent:
Blackbird singing in the dead of night Take these broken wings and learn to fly All your life You were only waiting for this moment to arise
Blackbird singing in the dead of night Take these sunken eyes and learn to see All your life You were only waiting for this moment to be free
Blackbird, fly Blackbird, fly Into the light of the dark black night
Blackbird, fly Blackbird, fly Into the light of the dark black night
Blackbird singing in the dead of night Take these broken wings and learn to fly All your life You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise You were only waiting for this moment to arise
Catch that reference to the moment arising? Kind of perfectm eh?
I don’t know what powerful something those four young men were tapping into that took the entire world by storm. Paul McCartney was 26 years old when he wrote that with help from John Lennon. Amazing thing the human mind.
Talk 2: Mindful of the Body in the Body
One way to look at what we’re up to here is a process of merging. Merging with our lives as they are. This can show up in so many manifestations. I thought of it while walking the light rain this morning: merging with the rain. You know how sometimes when we go out in the rain we’re a bit resistant to rain, people hunch their shoulders and rush to the car or the next shelter. A tension is added. Merging is letting go of tension, letting go of resistance.
Sometimes my upcoming schedule overwhelms a little. That happened this summer a bunch as I was looking ahead at the Fall calendar. All great stuff teaching mindfulness classes and retreats, Zen retreats, meetings with people. Too much! And maybe it is, that’s not necessarily untrue: I probably should lighten my schedule a bit, but it’s like hunching before going out in the rain, I’m upsetting myself with what’s coming up before it’s even happened. I’m predicting stress, exhaustiong and a prevailing tone of “too much!” But actually as I arrive at each thing – like here, whew how wonderful to be here together, it’s not too much, it’s not exhausting. It’s joyful. Sure I get a little tired sometimes – who wouldn’t, that’s a natural thing. If we choose to do something meaningful we’re exerting ourselves and we’ll get tired. Then we rest. This schedule allows for enough time to sleep and rest. It’s okay. One thing at a time, merging with my life and the schedule that I think when I look at it defines what’s going to happen – kind of, but not really.
We use the word acceptance a lot in mindfulness. And non-judgment. Our two favorite definitions of mindfulness are worth bringing up:
Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Nothing there actually about being calm or joyful it’s being present and accepting.
Shauna Shapiro and Linda Carlson add a little more warmth but still leave plenty of room for the mystery of it all: “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises out of intentionally paying attention in an open, kind, and discerning way.”
Open and kind is a way of talking about merging I think. When we’re resisting, anticipating, and catastrophizing we aren’t open and kind with ourselves. There’s a lot of friction there, not merging. Open and kind is low friction.
And discerning I love: being intelligent about this thing. Where should I put my energy and attention. And I think I should indeed keep working on being more discerning in how I schedule myself, but sometimes I may choose to schedule more heavily for all kinds of reasons. To serve people mostly and ’cause I gotta work like everyone else.
Discerning in how we choose to use our off time here at Samish. Rest? Going on a walk? Just sitting in a relaxed way on a chair in the dining room looking out at the view with a cup of tea? Feel free by the way to take an extra mat to your room if you want to do some yoga or stretching in your room. You’re also welcome to come down here.
Sometimes our personal time may include some inner restlessness – the spaces we often fill with distraction or entertainment or even reading for learning and personal development – it’s not all frivolous or anything, but we’re taking a break from feeding our minds any new input and the mind can be hungry for input.
So then there’s a practice challenge: merging with restlessness, feeling the desires connected to it, noticing if the thought loops ramp up about what would, your mind thinks, be just the thing to keep you happy right now. Question those thought loops a little maybe, “ah is that so?” Maybe it’ll settle down after a while.
I was appreciating Annie’s encouragement thing morning to make invite a feeling of integration after we move the body. That’s another example of merging. Merging with what we’re doing with our bodies, in our bodies.
The body in the body is a curious and important phrase in our teaching from Buddha.
After juicing up our effort and ease as he suggestions in the 4 ways he lists in the left column of page one over and over again – and those are to review: 1) bringing up diligence and energy – and remember you can give yourself a little pep talk about impermanence and how rare this opportunity is if that’s helpful. 2) calming down a little and seeing clearly 3) being as fully present and mindful as we can be 4) releasing from concerns about life and the world (so Tim, drop it about worrying about your schedule!)
Then the Buddha asks a rhetorical question: how does one practice mindfulness of the body in the body?
The body in the body. Not like you’re up here our out there watching, studying, and manipulating your body like a string puppet or a subject of study but being away of the body from the inside. Merging with the body. Being the body. Not every translation of this sutra uses this phrase “the body in the body” but I think it’s really powerful and important. It might be a little less literal though. The new translation superstar in the American Vipassana world, a German born monk named Analayo has, “How does one someone in regard to the body abide contemplating the body.” I love Thich Nhat Hanh’s “observation of the body in the body” a lot more. Neither of these guys is a native speaker of English interestingly.
But anyway, the answer he gives the monastics on how go about it starts with logistics:
Go to the forest to the foot of a tree or to an empty room – a big empty room like this one how about – and sit down. Sit down cross-legged in the lotus position – meaning pay attention to how you sit, the benefits of this practice are not determined by whether your hips are open enough for lotus posture. Hold your body straight – open and extend the posture – and establish mindfulness in front of you.
Establish mindfulness in front of you has intrigued students and scholars for thousands of years. Just take a moment with those words; what might it be to establish mindfulness in front of you.
Maybe instead of our prevailing notion of this whole world out there being in front of us there’s mindfulness as a kind of lens or like the super thin material of a theatrical scrim in front of us. A way of remembering there’s a process happening when we perceive this world. It all runs through the mind. We are not a tiny being inside our heads looking out through windows called eyes. The eyes are light sensors hooked to our brains and our minds are really fast at assembling images and naming them and defining them and having opinions about them. We’re already looking through a kind of scrim of conditioned existence so what if we held up mindfulness there?
I’m reading two commentaries. One I’ve read a zillion times by Thich Nhat Hanh that I recommend so deeply. Touches my heart again and again. The other by the American Vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein that I’m enjoying too but it’s quite different in tone with lots of interesting digressions. Joseph says his Burmese and Thai teachers said holding mindfulness in front of you connects to awareness of the breathing at the nostrils. There’s a kind of active alertness there.
And then we have our first meditation instruction but it’s good not to skip over all of this set up. And the set up can be the project of a decade of meditation in itself.
Then this famous refrain, “breathing in aware of breathing in, breathing out aware of breathing out.”
One obstacle you may hit sometimes in practice is a sense of wanting something more. Is that really it? Just being aware of a breath? Really?
In one sense there is incredible richness and depth to every moment so yes it’s so much more than this breath. But in a deep way it actually is just this moment of breathing. Just to be fully present right here and now. To fully merge with this moment. Everything drops away – or was everything else exactly real in the first place?
In the intro the Buddha made a really huge claim didn’t he?
This is a most wonderful way to help use realize purification, overcome grief and sorry, end pain and anxiety. Not reduce stress a bit and feel more grounded: end pain and anxiety. Total release. Here’s where religious practice is willing to stake out a much bigger territory than a secular intervention based on religious practice is. We would never say in MBSR: so do this faithfully and you’ll be completely free from pain and anxiety. But Buddhism actually does say that. And I’d encourage you not to worry too much about whether that’s reasonable or not actually: that kind of debating isn’t so helpful especially in this case. But just to underline the enthusiasm here. The depth of potential that’s being discussed. The potential power of fully merging with our lives.
But just by tuning into the body in the body? Just by knowing the inhale and exhale? Here’s how Thich Nhat Hanh talks about this process in the book:
READING: flavor of Thay’s understanding: Transformation and Healing all of p. 37, opening of Methods of Practice
And the next part looks very simple too
She breathes in, aware that she is breathing in. She breathes out, aware that she is breathing out. When she breathes in a long breath, she knows, ‘I am breathing in a long breath.’ When she breathes out a long breath, she knows, ‘I am breathing out a long breath.’ When she breathes in a short breath, she knows, ‘I am breathing in a short breath.’ When she breathes out a short breath, she knows, ‘I am breathing out a short breath.’
As Annie pointed out at one point though there’s a profound implication to that: that all kinds of breath are okay, there’s no right kind of breath. And by extension all of your experience is okay, there’s no right or right experience, and the logical conclusion: you’re okay there’s nothing wrong with you (or right with you
An important thing here is back to effort: this isn’t a passive process. We show up. We know the breath is short or long, we are tuned into to our lived experience, we know. Knowing is an active verb. It’s not the knowing of knowing lots of stuff intellectually, it’s the knowing of direct grounded experience. Maybe feels is a better verb in some ways but there’s an element of wisdom here so knows is probably still the best.
And this breath-knowing is embodied. He goes on;
‘Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I calm my body.’
Body scan practice! Maybe with that sense of examining the details of the body, maybe more of an overall felt sense of the “body-ness” of the body. Feeling the whole body breathing.
The body scan can be surprisingly relaxing right? Sometimes people conk right out – I hear that may have happened here yesterday morning and that’s fine. Effort and ease again. The effort of being aware, the ease of calming.
Then we’re back to short and long breaths – repetition means it’s important remember. And an analogy that highlights the skillfulness of this – the discernment of it – just like a potter at the wheel shaping a block of clay into a cup.
“Just as a skilled potter knows when he makes a long turn on the wheel, ‘I am making a long turn,’ and knows when he makes a short turn, ‘I am making a short turn,’ so a practitioner, when she breathes in a long breath, knows, ‘I am breathing in a long breath,’ and when she breathes in a short breath, knows, ‘I am breathing in a short breath,’ when she breathes out a long breath, knows, ‘I am breathing out a long breath,’ and when she breathes out a short breath, knows, ‘I am breathing out a short breath.’
And back to the body – repetition.
“She uses the following practice: ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I calm my body.’
And the last part for today helps us bring this practice off the cushion.
“Moreover, when a practitioner walks, he is aware, ‘I am walking.’ When he is standing, he is aware, ‘I am standing.’ When he is sitting, he is aware, ‘I am sitting.’ When he is lying down, he is aware, ‘I am lying down.’ In whatever position his body happens to be, he is aware of the position of his body.
Retreat is so perfect for developing this aspect of practice! Feeling your body in space. Remembering you’re in a body.
And it’s a body that’s walking and looking around and bending over and doing stuff. This isn’t not mindfulness practice, it’s all mindfulness practice.
“Moreover, when the practitioner is going forward or backward, he applies full awareness to his going forward or backward. When he looks in front or looks behind, bends down or stands up, he also applies full awareness to what he is doing. He applies full awareness to wearing the sanghati robe or carrying the alms bowl. When he eats or drinks, chews, or savors the food, he applies full awareness to all this. When passing excrement or urinating, he applies full awareness to this. When he walks, stands, lies down, sits, sleeps or wakes up, speaks or is silent, he shines his awareness on all this.
Let’s leave it with that beautiful phrase: shines their awareness on all of this. This whole life shining in awareness. Beautiful. And we can shine awareness on sorrow too, and pain. The idea here isn’t to talk yourself into some fantasy world where everything’s pleasant and nice. But neither does the great pain of this world and the deep cycles of suffering and addiction and oppression need to knock us insensible. We can sit and stand in the middle of this world and shine awareness in all directions. Not always easy but possible. And remember Buddhism always set it’s sites really really high. Total kind open responsive composure in the face of joys and sorrows. Shining the light of awareness.
Another song to close. The Beatles as I’m sure you know were totally dominated by Paul and John who were best buds from the second they met at a church fete in Liverpool. The other guitarist George Harrison was younger and often felt left out. Ringo joined later and was older – I think he was mostly pretty content to play the drums and be part of a superstar group without getting too worried about anything. In their last years they listened more to George, he started writing some of the songs and after they broke up, I think, he really came into his own. Here’s a George Harrison song I love that feels mindfulness appropriate. Imagine kind of warm minor chord progression on the piano (dun dun dun dun, dun dun dun dun), little guitar licks grooving in and out, and a horn part “da da ta da ta da”
Sunrise doesn’t la-st all moRN-ing A CLOUD burst 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 blo-ow 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
[Chorus] All things must pass All things must pass away All things must pass None of life’s strings CAN la-st So……………. 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
[Chorus] All things must pass All things must pass away All things must pass All things must pass away
Talk 3: Snow Geese and Breath
Hey so the snow geese have arrived! Somewhat high pitched voices going pretty continually as they fly over. V’s of birds. Medium sized goose. White bodies with black wing tips. So happy to see and hear them. Here are a few facts and figures with some enthusiasm from the Nature Conservancy:
Snow Geese come to western Washington’s greater Skagit Delta by the tens of thousands! When these flocks take off en masse – say, because a bald eagle flies overhead – they are so noisy and dizzying to behold that it’s easy to lose one’s balance.
Our snow geese spend their summers on Wrangel Island in Russia. From there they travel approximately 3,000 miles to the Stillaguamish and Skagit river deltas, where they begin to arrive in late September.
Worldwide, snow geese were reduced to only a few thousand around 1900. But they’ve made a remarkable comeback, and now are one of the most abundant waterfowl in the world. They’ve been so successful, in fact, that in some areas they are starting to destroy their own habitat as they tear vegetation out of the ground to eat.
And back to us on the ground here in these bodies that don’t fly having this unique experience of a mindfulness meditation retreat.
I want to say a few things about difficulty.
My goal here is not to create a perfect experience for every person who comes meeting all wishes and desires. As of course this would be impossible. We have here 15 different humans with different needs and desires. Not to mentions the limitations of what I know and can express or share or lead. I’m a pretty good retreat teacher, I think, but I only know what I know. I’m learning and growing all the time but still.
So it’s completely to be expected that you will have some feeling of an unmet need, or something not being to your liking, of wanting more of something, less of something else, of wanting a different version of something we are offering.
When we encounter a moment like this – I don’t like this – of course it’s an opportunity. There’s a choice point there.
I want to be very careful here. I experienced recently someone very hurt and reactive when she even thought she heard me saying that a difficult thing that happened was “good for your practice” – the idea that imperfect and difficult circumstances are practice opportunities is tricky and can be misused.
I do care deeply, you all know that. I want this to be the best mindfulness meditation retreat it can be. The most helpful. Very safe and supportive. Kind. Non-manipulative and open. Room for you to do you and explore in your own way. And with the right amount of structure to create a holding environment and a community experience.
When there’s a logistical problem, like trouble hearing us, of course we’ll do our best to make it better and we’re glad to know if you’re having trouble hearing or whatever it is. But once we’ve done our best, we have. Even what seems like a simple matter usually isn’t. Like room temperature that suits one person is too cold or too warm for another. With being able to hear: sound and hearing are complex things. This big room has it’s own unique acoustic challenges as grateful as I am that it’s here. Annie and my voices have different combinations of pitch and timbre. The sound system we use with larger groups helps some people but actually makes it harder for others to hear. So I decided to try an “unplugged set” and sit closer together. If you are still struggling to hear we do feel badly, of course we do, but from there it’s in the realm of how do you meet that challenge not in the realm of something to fix. At least not this week. Maybe we’ll source a better sound system, maybe there are better hearing aids to use. Or an assistive device. But that’s for later as so many things that catch and hold our attention when we’re here: they are for later. Back to now.
This is a tricky matter, working with what we feel aren’t working. And yet it actually is quite true that difficulty is also opportunity. Sometimes it’s an opportunity we need to pass on, that’s fine. Sometimes something’s too much or triggers something traumatic in us and we just need to go to a habitual defense. Maybe zone out, maybe we just have to persist in trying fix the situation, maybe we opt out of something that we don’t like. Maybe we have to leave altogether.
But sometimes we encounter difficulty and we discover it’s transformational power. It’s a rare and valuable thing when this lines up. Perhaps we see the urge to resist, to go to an annoyed inner narrative or the resulting urge to break silence and try to get something fixed. But we don’t go there. We feel that energy. We experience the unpleasantness of it – the deep familiar suffering of it. And we let it go. Like catching an unwanted fish and releasing it – letting it go.
The way I was trained in meditation was a narrower path. You didn’t move. You didn’t complain or ask for what you want. You sat with it. Not to utter extremes and for the most part no one chewed me out or anything like that. I was at the gentler end of the American Zen tradition. But still it’s was a narrow path and there’s a power to that even if it also has it’s problems. But even it’s problems were helpful to me in the long run. What I learned and what I had to unlearn were helpful.
I don’t say all this because I think there’s a lot of trouble going on here!
I don’t know everything that’s going on here and I think for the most part we’re humming along just fine. But of course there are, there will be, difficulties, preferences, strong views, judgments that come up and we’re in a protected situation here. The opportunity to turn reactivity into wisdom and freedom is more likely here. It’s part of what’s precious and important about retreat practice: the so-called bad moments are actually like shit that can transform into gold. Sometimes anyway. Sometimes if conditions are right and we’re up for doing the work. It’s a kind of sloughing off of some of the stickiness of our self actually. And this doesn’t come easily. When a layer of is slides off in a healthy way it’s such a relief though, such joy. I didn’t need to that bit of opinionated righteousness.
And small trouble is actually really great. A more accessible thing to chew on. Grist for the mill that really can be ground into flour for delicious bread.
And it’s complex like all things human. There’s also a kind of false shadow side of this kind of thing that can be tricky. A kind of denial of needs and feelings, that’s not it. You can usually tell, sooner or later, by paying attention to stress and suffering. Is it less or more?
We this process of facing difficulty and letting go in a healthy way happens it does actually feel good. Maybe not immediately but there’s a lightening and an increase in freedom. It can include sadness and even anger too though.
I hope that made some kind of sense. I mostly am trying to say that our purpose here is richer and deeper than having a nice peaceful time and having the best meditation experience we can. There’s potential for something transformational and deep and more often than not, in my experience the door in includes some reactivity or challenge or inner pain. We can explore in our one-on-one meetings too as it’s very individual and unique to each person and situation too.
The value of trouble.
The Buddha does talk about this in a zillion ways in his teachings but it’s not always explicit. In our teaching here he gives a series of practice instructions but doesn’t say a lot about what you might encounter in the process.
We left off in our teaching on mindfulness of body position and body activity.
It’s really worth literally following his directions here to say to yourself, silently, ah: I am standing, ah: this is walking, ah: this is pausing to take in the view. I sounds kind of silly but it’s a kind of remapping experience out of our heads. Hard to remember to do actually. Remembering is the core of this whole enterprise and it takes practice.
“When a practitioner walks, she is aware, ‘I am walking.’ When standing, they are aware, ‘I am standing.’ When sitting, he is aware, ‘I am sitting.’ When lying down, aware, ‘I am lying down.’
Sounds a little silly but actually I think our meditation practice helps us see our normal default blah blah blah commentary on everything under the sun is kind of silly too. Thanks default mode network for helping us not lose track of our opinionated anxious conception of self. It’s a useful construct for sure to think we’re a person and have this person to navigate around in the world through. But it sure becomes a bit nutty in there sometimes.
And this all sounds like in the meditation hall stuff so far right: sitting, walking, standing and nowadays even lying down (in early American Zen that was not done but now it is in most places and in all mindfulness style retreats and class I sure hope it’s fine to lie down). Anyway we’re starting out in here.
And then Buddha takes it out into every aspect of our lives. That’s the intention of the next part.
When the practitioner is going forward or backward, he applies full awareness to his going forward or backward. When he looks in front or looks behind, bends down or stands up, he also applies full awareness to what he is doing. He applies full awareness to wearing the sanghati robe or carrying the alms bowl. When he eats or drinks, chews, or savors the food, he applies full awareness to all this. When passing excrement or urinating, he applies full awareness to this. When he walks, stands, lies down, sits, sleeps or wakes up, speaks or is silent, he shines his awareness on all this.
And we’re back to how this isn’t just a kind of study, neutral observation or something. It’s shining the light of awareness. It’s bright and luminous. There may be plenty of heaviness in the process of practice but sooner or later you can feel the incredible lightness of being too to crib a little from the Czech novelist Milan Kundera.
Next the Buddha encourages us both become more aware of the body but also to deconstruct the concept of “my body” or even “a body”. You’ll see here some resonance with the body scan.
“Further, the practitioner meditates on her very own body from the soles of the feet upwards and then from the hair on top of the head downwards, a body contained inside the skin and full of all the impurities which belong to the body: ‘Here is the hair of the head, the hairs on the body, the nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, mucus, synovial fluid, urine.’
“all the impurities which belong to the body” – this impurities business is a bit challenging. In our society most of us have a great need for healing our difficult relationship with our bodies – body image and all of that. And the complexity too of the binary gender definitions of the body. It’s good for us to find a health way to love, appreciate and accept our bodies it seems to me. To really treasure them and take care of them. Precious vehicles for our life and work as they are.
But early Buddhist teachings encouraging this ultimate kind of freedom work in a different way. There’s strong encouragement to not be attached to the body. There is overlap for sure: to be free from needing the body to be pretty or perfect in some way. But rather than encouraging what would seem to us a healthy new realistic relationship with the body – an appreciation for the body as it is, early Buddhism encouraged folks to be disgusted by the body as a path to freedom.
An obvious side bar here: Buddhism is a world religion from another time and culture. It isn’t somehow the perfect precursor to all we want modern mindfulness to be. Early Western encounters with Buddhism either demonized in as an anti-Christian abomination OR tried to sanctify it as not a religion at all but a wonderful meditative science of the mind. It’s neither or both depending on how you look at it.
On the one hand there is a great value in being open and non-judgmental here. To be curious about all of these teachings and really explore them deeply. Not to pick and choose.
And on the other there may be some areas of Buddhist teaching that simply don’t suit us. Here we might have one of those. Joseph Goldstein tells a story:
Years ago, the well-known Cambodian monk Maha Ghosananda came to the Insight Meditation Society (in Massachusetts) during one of our annual three-month retreats. During one sitting period, he led the meditators in an unusual guided meditation. He had people visualize some food in front of them, reaching for it, putting it in their mouths, then visualizing what happens to the food as we chew…He continued guiding people to see what happens as we swallow, as the food is being digested in the stomach, and finally as it is eliminated as waste. Not all that appealing.
What was interesting was the reaction on the part of the meditators. One of them asked Maha Ghosananda, “Why do you have so much aversion to food?” In fact, he didn’t have any aversion at all: he was simply guiding us through the process of what actually happens. But some people were projecting their own repugnance and distaste for visualizing the unattractive aspects of eating.
Maybe so. Can we open ourselves to all aspects of our living?
And the Buddha goes further. Breaking the body down into component parts using metaphor, observation, the anatomy they had at the time. And then breaking things down even further into the four elements of the ancient world: earth element, water element, fire element, and air element. And just to make this last part more visceral encouraging us to imagine an animal being butchered which has probably surprised students of Buddhism for 2,500 years. The early Buddhists were indeed vegetarian for the most part: you could eat meat that was offered to you if it wasn’t butchered for you was how the rules were nuanced. Much harder to trace the meat we can get back to the motivations of the person, or factory, that butchered the animal. But perhaps back then you could.
The last long section of these teachings of Mindfulness of the Body in the Body are intense and interesting.
I’m on the third page now. The Buddha wants us to really get it about life and death. About how brief this time in this body we have it. And that the nature of our amazing bodies is impermanence. I find the poem I read by Jane Champion a lot easier to take in. We all woke up this morning alive, but “it might have been otherwise.” And one day it definitely will be otherwise. And none of us knows if that day will be tomorrow or decades from now.
Anyway these teachings are the famous cemetery contemplations. Indian burial customs were for an open burial – as is still true I think in many cases – the body set out and eventually cremated. Wrapped in a shroud maybe. I’ve done ceremonies at modern cremations and the body is inside a box, hidden from view. These are real bodies out in the open to see and study. And the Buddha recommends taking in bodies in progressively more decayed states. Wow.
I have done a version of this going to our cemeteries and I recommend it. Read the name and dates on the gravestone and contemplate the decomposed body beneath the grass in front of you. As the poet Naomi Shihab Nye says:
You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Well not this could be you, this will be you. This is absolutely certain. A powerful and simple phrase from a later Buddhism is, “Death is certain, only the time of death is uncertain.”
And remember how remembering the impermanence of our life and the precious rareness of being in a good situation for mindfulness practice is a way to strengthen our diligence for practice. Gives some fuel to our effort. (Just remember to include the ease…).
Before we go I want to introduce the idea of the next section. The second foundation of mindfulness. Mindfulness of the feelings in the feelings. The English word “feelings” isn’t the perfect term to translate this concept. The underlying Pali word is “vedanā” and it refers to a very specific aspect of our minds. Sometimes the hypenated phrase “feeling-tone” is used which is a bit better. There’s a modern psychological term hedonic tone which is kind of close too.
What this is talking about is how in the process of every moment of contact with the inner or outer world the mind has this tendency. A strong reactive tendency to push away or pull towards. Or to leave alone. That the mind very quicky starts us down a road towards I don’t like this and here’s why. Or ooh, I want more of that how do I get it? A sorting sorting sorting of all experience into pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. There are often resulting thought-value-preference results like I was just saying but what’s being pointed to is what happens before that. Upstream in consciousness. The initial “ugh” or “ahh” or “mmm”. I think of this as kind of flavoring or perfuming all experience by the mind. Sometimes a very strong flavoring, often very mild but it influences everything that comes after.
So you can see this is the root of A LOT. A root of trouble. A root of a certain kind of happiness. A root of all kinds of opinions and judgments and ways we separate things out.
And in meditation, especially in a retreat setting where we’re taking on being mindful continually through all of our activities. We can start to notice these trend lines of the heart much sooner, earlier. We can notice unpleasant moments and sometimes we can just leave them be. Just flagging them as “unpleasant” and bringing awareness back to the breath or what else is happening in this moment. They don’t have to be fuel for trouble. And the same with “pleasant” just to savor a pleasant moment and let it go. Catch and release. Not start up the strategies for how to enhance and preserve pleasant experience. Not revving up a strategy for having a really enjoyable mindfulness retreat. Such strategies are pretty much doomed to failure but we try them anyway.
And the last thing I’ll say about all of that is a little pro-tip that I discovered through much trouble and many retreats. You know what the best strategy is for having a good retreat?
No strategy at all. Noticing the urge to strategize and letting it go. It always seems to come back to the basic mindfulness instructions in the end: notice and let go, notice and let go. Awareness and acceptance. Effort and ease.
No song today I don’t think but here’s that poem again. What a lovely day she had. And it seems an appreciation for the impermanence of this life gave that loveliness some real depth.
Jane Kenyon – Otherwise I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. I took the dog uphill to the birch wood. All morning I did the work I love.
At noon I lay down with my mate. It might have been otherwise. We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. It might have been otherwise. I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.
I’ve been trying to puzzle out what happened in bed at noon and then no mention of the afternoon. Maybe they took a nap together ;). With that I’ll leave you be. Thank you again for your patience attention.
Talk 4: Mindfulness of Feeling-Tone (vedanā)
Good morning again. I appreciated Annie’s greeting to us this morning, didn’t you? She said something like, “I can feel a tumble of words wanting to pour out of me this morning, but just to say I hope you too appreciated the crescent moon.” Such good encouragement to tune in to the incredible universe all around us and the kindness to not impose her experience. We each are having our own experiences of retreat. To remember that although it looks like we’re doing the same thing and having the same experiences we’re really not. My moon viewing is different from your moon viewing. Or maybe your attention was somewhere else that seemed important to your mind when you walked down here first thing this morning. Did you miss something important not seeing the crescent moon? Is there anything to miss if we are each of us just deeply in our own lives? Sometimes our enthusiastic sharing is an inspiration to others, other times it causes suffering. I do love how when we’re quiet there is room to wonder if half the words we usually say are all that helpful. So I enjoyed Annie’s enthusiasm and her silence both. Similarly I could rattle on about my aesthetic experience with the moon, Venus, the profile of the tree line behind with first dim glow of dawn behind them….but I’ll stop there!
So, at the end of each of the four sections of practices in the Mindfulness Sutra the Buddha repeats a similar refrain. Repetition means it’s important so let’s take a look at the last chapter of the section on mindfulness of the body in the body:
“This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the body in the body, observation of the body from within or from without, or both from within or from without. He remains established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the body or the process of dissolution in the body or both in the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, ‘There is a body here,’ until understanding and full awareness come about. He remains established in the observation, free, not caught in any worldly consideration. That is how to practice observation of the body in the body, O bhikkhus.”
There are three sections in this dense paragraph:
1) “observation of the body from within or from without, or both from within or from without” 2) “remain established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the body or the process of dissolution in the body or both in the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution.” 3) Or be mindful of the fact, ‘There is a body here,’ until understanding and full awareness come about. Remain established in the observation, free, not caught in any worldly consideration.
1) “observation of the body from within or from without, or both from within or from without” Encouragement to be really thorough and creative in the stance we take. Feeling the body from the inside out. From the outside in. Using all of the senses to examine the body. Internal sensations, external. Sounds and experiences of the body. Smells. The rich process of eating is a powerful opportunity to observe the body within and without as food makes that journey. Including the eyes, and even using a mirror – that was a fascinating moment of awareness of the body for me yesterday seeing my face reflected back in the computer screen (we get that a lot in Zoom these days too). And somehow I saw that image of a face with fresher eyes than usual. Wow.
2) “remain established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the body or the process of dissolution in the body or both in the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution.”
The exploration of body is such rich soup of experiences. A sensation appears, we notice it, and sooner or later it’s gone. Buddha encourages us to stay present for this whole process. This is an interesting challenge in sustained attention. To notice when something we’re feeling fades away to stay with it. Listening is an interesting practice here – also a body practice awareness of the incredible function of ears and mind as sounds from all around meet the body and the body meets those sounds. Can you notice the vanishing of the sound as well as the arising of the sound.
This is a core reality that’s emphasized in Buddhism and science both: we sometimes try to ignore change somehow but everything’s changing all the time. Everything comes and goes, arises and fades away. Sometimes we don’t notice that change is happening either because we aren’t paying attention or because we can’t perceive all of the signs of change all the time but changing it is.
One of my favorite examples is cars actually. Cars these days are more reliable maybe, but the first few cars I had broke down regularly and it was always so shocking when the car wouldn’t start or it suddenly was stuttering or making a horrible noise and I’d have to pull over and try to figure out what to do. It seemed to me like it was working fine, I’m cruising along, and then suddenly it’s not working. Very upsetting to me! But actually under the hood there was something gradually happening, the loose distributor was gradually rotating a tiny bit maybe until there was enough of a change from the point of failure to where the whole system wouldn’t work anymore and the car cuts out (the distributor twisted enough that the timing was so far retarded that the chain reaction of little tiny explosions in the pistons stopped happening). I guess nowadays it’ll probably be that the car’s computer picked up a bug from it’s on board internet or something.
If we notice change more clearly and continually we are less surprised by it. We suffer less. It becomes harder to fool ourselves that there is ever a moment when things aren’t changing. Maybe to our minds change is a good thing sometimes – this difficult state won’t last forever “all things must pass…all things must pass away” or change is a bad thing this wonderful thing I enjoy doing – the 7-day October Roots of Mindfulness Retreat say – won’t be here forever. I hope we’ll keep it going but one day you may go to the website and it’s not there. Change. Other retreats will probably be there but even that’s not guaranteed. How do you know Mindfulness Northwest will be here next year, I tend to assume that but I don’t know it. Change is a deep teaching for us.
And then we’re back to the Great Change: it might be otherwise. We will all be gone sooner or later. Only the time of death is uncertain there.
3) Or be mindful of the fact, ‘There is a body here,’ until understanding and full awareness come about. Remain established in the observation, free, not caught in any worldly consideration.
This seems like the simplest possible instruction but it’s profound. To really really really know there is a body here. To maintain awareness of that solidly, clearly, and continually. The Buddha tells us this supports a total transformation in us: understanding and full awareness come about. We think we know there’s a body here but notice the next time you get lost in answering email or scrolling social media or just spacing out wherever you are – do you know in that moment “there is a body here” actually? Or are you “caught in worldly consideration”?
We’ll see this 3-part refrain at the end of each of the four sections of the sutra.
And that comes up pretty quick in part two about feelings – feeling tone. This is one where I think it might actually be helpful to memorize the original Asian word: vedanā in the Pali language. Here’s the entire section:
“Bhikkhus, how does a practitioner remain established in the observation of the feelings in the feelings?
“Whenever the practitioner has a pleasant feeling, she is aware, ‘I am experiencing a pleasant feeling.’ The practitioner practices like this for all the feelings, whether they are pleasant, painful, or neutral, observing when they belong to the body and when they belong to the mind.
“This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the feelings in the feelings, observation of the feelings from within or from without, or observation of the feelings both from within and from without. She remains established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the feelings or the process of dissolution in the feelings or both in the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution. Or she is mindful of the fact, ‘There is feeling here,’ until understanding and full awareness come about. She remains established in the observation, free, not caught in any worldly consideration. That is how to practice observation of the feelings in the feelings, O bhikkhus.”
There is something really startling about the core simplicity of these teachings isn’t there? The Buddha isn’t saying we should figure out what triggered the pleasant or unpleasant feeling or what kinds of thoughts ideas and likely confusions they lead to when they do arise. He’s not presenting awareness of the feelings as a mindfulness tool with an acronym that you can bring up when things get hot in a relationship or at work. He’s just coaching us to notice. To really pay attention. To see what’s happening. End stop. That’s it. Just notice.
It’s hard for our complex brains in the middle of our complex lives to quite believe it I think. Okay, I notice an unpleasant feeling, now what? How do I “work with it” or how do I “hold it” or where did it come from? Is past trauma involved.
And I’m not myself saying those aren’t valuable lines of inquiry sometimes but probably not all the time. All that figuring stuff out is another busy activity we get into. The Buddha in this text and in the whole mindfulness movement it inspired that appears to have inspired or helped you (or I don’t know what you’re here really) there’s value in just that. Just noticing. Just making a little mental note maybe, “unpleasant.” And opening up to the next moment’s arising. Does unpleasant moment #1 mean there will automatically be an unpleasant moment #2?
I remember a great realization by a student in one of our Mindful Self-Compassion classes. She said that she was really surprised to learn, with the support of the exercises and meditations from class I guess, that when something bad happened during the day she didn’t have to consider the day done and dusted. That didn’t have to mean it was from that moment on very bad day. That actually somethings things turn around pretty quickly. That she could have a good-and-bad day. One small profound realization that could give her half a day of freedom. Amazing. That’s what this is pointing to. Just an unpleasant moment. Let’s see what happens next.
Sometimes, sure, you need to take action but we’ve put ourselves in a situation here where by design you pretty much never need to take action. Just notice and keep watching. Keep going. Keep breathing. Curiosity and wonder are great companions.
None of this is to minimize our dumb anything down either. Quite the opposite.
[describe Zen pain study]
Maybe in the quiet of retreat, just like with the Zen meditators in the study, you feel an unpleasant moment MORE strongly. But then it’s gone. Gone. What’s next?
The Buddha makes an interesting distinction between sensations born in the body and those born in the mind and of course they often chain together. A pain in the knee, unpleasant body sensation, the thought “what if I’m damaging the cartilage?” an unpleasant mind sensation, fear arising, unpleasant again. But then next thing you know your mind is somewhere else or you feel the softness of the breath rising and falling in the belly – pleasant.
Thich Nhat Hanh sums this up in a wonderful way:
[Transformation & Healing p69 – 70]
So let’s keep sitting, walking, breathing, and studying feelings come and go. Pleasant, unpleasant. The neutral feelings tend to slip by but maybe you’ll notice those too – there are literally so ordinary you take them for granted and assign them little importance but they are important too. Especially in our retreat practice and all of this is a kind of radical rebalancing of our minds and hearts that will help us so much in the more usual busy circumstances of life. You will forget most of what you think you “learned” in this retreat pretty soon after you get home actually, but don’t worry: the experiences of being you touch deeply are always there. Even such deeper knowledge isn’t always accessible to your conscious mind but it’s there. Waiting patiently. Just like your breath is always patiently inviting you to tune in.
Talk 5: Mindfulness of the Mind
Here’s a story around practice with distractions:
Maggie Weisberg, 99, is a resident at the Willows Senior Living Community here in Bellingham. She’s a long-time member of the Meditation Group there. This group grew out of a class on mindfulness I taught in about 2015 and has thrived ever since. Losing a few members to moving away or death, gaining a few among new residents at the Willows. Maggie shared with me the following account. I think it’s such a great example of the freedom from reactivity that mindfulness practice can help us with.
REFLECTIONS ON MINDFULNESS
A few weeks ago, I decided to meditate outside, on my deck. It was a beautiful day, a slight breeze rustling through the trees, birds twittering, sky a startling blue, with no clouds. As I was adjusting myself in the special seat I had prepared, with the pillow just in the right place supporting my back, focusing on my breathing, I was startled by loud, terrible noises. I had somehow forgotten the major construction going on next door, where Peace Health is building a parking garage, and enlarging a wing of the Hospital. Apparently lunch hour was over, and everyone was back at work: Jackhammers digging, trucks roaring, beeping as they backed up, hammers banging, cranes dumping loads of concrete. I was furious — filled with righteous anger. How am I supposed to meditate with this awful noise. It’s not fair! They’re ruining this beautiful day, etc.etc. I kept fuming, trying to ignore the noise, and concentrate on my breath.
Somehow, a phrase came to mind: “make everything the path”. It was suddenly clear that the only thing I had was this moment, and this moment was noise, and it didn’t matter if I liked it or not this is what was here —right now, — how was I going to live this moment? I could continue to stew and try to meditate anyway. I could go inside and close the windows so the noise was muted. I could meditate later when they stopped working. But I didn’t want any of these — I recognized I just wanted to be mad… I had a right to be mad! And then I got curious. Was it possible not to be mad. Was it possible to accept the noise — to allow it to be— to let it become part of me —to just listen without judging — to just be there with the noise. Something shifted. I began to distinguish different sounds: to really hear the roaring, the swishing, the beeping, the banging, scraping, screeching, plopping — a whole orchestra of sound. And I could still hear the birds, and the wind, and be acutely aware of the blue sky. And in sinking into the listening, and breathing and being, I could feel my forehead relaxing, my jaw unclenching, my shoulders lowering, my toes uncurling. I was actually smiling at how right — how good everything felt. I The longer I listened, the more the noise became just another kind of sound, as natural as a waterfall, a woodpecker, pouring rain. These were the sounds of humanity: men and women doing important, needed work, glad to have good paying jobs to support their families.
I sat my usual 30 minutes, focusing on the sounds, not analyzing or identifying them, just listening, amused and amazed at the sheer variety of tone and texture. I felt powerful and peaceful and alive.
I often meditate outside now. Sometimes there’s noise, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s people talking, or dogs barking; sometimes it’s absolutely silent — a different challenge to accept. There is so much to experience…
So if you’ve been distracted or reactive to things there’s a little inspiration for us. Probably wasn’t jackhammers that were bugging you.
We’re at a really important place for us in this teaching of Buddha. We took an initial look at the pleasant/unpleasant feeling-tone or filter of the mind and next we’ll be looking at the resulting mind states and their many associated thoughts and emotions. Of course these the moment of feeling and the connected mind states and thoughts are not really separate. It’s all part of one process. But it can be helpful to think about sequentially: the mind has some initial response to something and thoughts & emotions unspool from there according to both current conditions and all of the conditioning from the past each of us is carrying around.
So I woke up this morning with a sense of gratitude arising. I’d slept pretty well, I was actually surprised to be waking up to Josh’s ringing of the wake up bell. Usually I’m up earlier. I love having early morning time to myself too but somehow this felt just right this morning and I was grateful.
Anyway I had gratitude in mind when I sat down to prepare this talk and I saw Joseph Goldstein says it’s important in practice tuning into the pleasant mind states that are born in the mind.
We can also study pleasant (and unpleasant) mind states that come more from the body, from our senses – a yummy bite of food for instance. But, Goldstein says, don’t get too hung up there – get interested in the more subtle stuff.
Remember how the Buddha broke feeling out into two categories? Feeling born in the body and feeling born in the mind. Our translation says “belong to”.
Whenever the practitioner has a pleasant feeling, she is aware, ‘I am experiencing a pleasant feeling.’ The practitioner practices like this for all the feelings, whether they are pleasant, painful, or neutral, observing when they belong to the body and when they belong to the mind.
Goldstein lists off several pleasant feelings that originate in the mind, a traditional list I assume. He points out how pleasant it is when the mind touches states like gratitude. He mentions generosity, love, and feeling stable & focused. These are wonderful feelings.
At first we might think that everything we feel has a direct connection to some tangible experiences. And certainly a feeling born in the body can connect to a feeling in the mind. I see the trees and I feel grateful to be here. A root in the body: seeing; and a root in the mind: grateful.
And we also hold all kinds of powerful memories and impressions in our minds that can inspire and move us without a direct experience. That’s why loving kindness meditation can be so helpful. We can bring to mind an image or feeling of someone who inspires us, or someone we love, and we can feel inspiration, warmth and love enough though the person isn’t here. This is possible even if the person has passed away. Imagination and memory are so powerful.
There’s another effort and ease kind of koan working with the mind: you can’t really make the mind do anything. You can direct attention, you can encourage the mind, teachers sometimes talk about “inclining the mind” maybe you can kind of tilt in one direction and notice if there’s a habit to tilt in a less helpful direction. Sometimes the mind pushes right back of course!
Maybe a good way to frame this is to just bring up curiosity.
Is there any anything I’m grateful for right now? Not to talk yourself into something in some fake way, like well I’m supposed to be grateful that I’m alive but actually life is really hard right now. There is suffering, there are tough times. Mind states are not really in our control. But we can come up for air and wonder is there gratitude? Is there love and appreciation? Is there the pleasure of a bit more stability in the mind – concentration they call that in the Buddhism but it’s not the concentration we think about being narrowly focused on one task or idea: a stable open balanced kind of concentration.
What I just said sounds like a lot of tweaking and effort, trying to get your mind to shape up. So let’s consider ease in being in feelings and mind.
There’s a naturalness to all of this.
When I woke up this morning I didn’t see a post it note on the nightstand saying “remember gratitude” – gratitude was just there. But probably all of the meditation made it more possible for me to notice that it was there. To experience and appreciate the gratitude. Not to immediately start thinking about how stressful the upcoming day will be or just have habit say to myself “ugh, I don’t like Mondays” or something.
Practicing with the mind is the practice of noticing. We set up decent circumstances for the mind to settle and heal but we can’t make it settle and heal. We can notice when things are moving in a positive direction though. And that’s what this section of the Sutra is all about.
“Bhikkhus, how does a practitioner remain established in the observation of the mind in the mind?
“When his mind is desiring, the practitioner is aware, ‘My mind is desiring.’ When his mind is not desiring, he is aware, ‘My mind is not desiring.’ He is aware in the same way concerning a hating mind, a confused mind, a collected mind, a dispersed mind, an expansive mind, a narrow mind, the highest mind, and a concentrated and liberated mind.
In early Buddhism they tended to express the good things as a negation of the bad things, it’s a funny way of talking. But noticing “my mind is not desiring” is a very pleasant thing. It’s a contented mind, a relaxed mind, it’s freedom.
I love this poem by the local poet Holly Hughes for talking about the mind that desires and thus we can wonder about the mind that is not desiring. The mind at rest and in appreciation for all that is.
She lives in Port Townsend and I’ve always imagined she was out on one of those big wide Olympic beaches on a gray day when she wrote this:
Holly Hughes – Mind Wanting More
Only a beige slat of sun above the horizon, like a shade pulled not quite down. Otherwise, clouds. Sea rippled here and there. Birds reluctant to fly. The mind wants a shaft of sun to stir the grey porridge of clouds, an osprey to stitch sea to sky with its barred wings, some dramatic music: a symphony, perhaps a Chinese gong.
But the mind always wants more than it has — one more bright day of sun, one more clear night in bed with the moon; one more hour to get the words right; one more chance for the heart in hiding to emerge from its thicket in dried grasses — as if this quiet day with its tentative light weren’t enough, as if joy weren’t strewn all around.
Buddha says just notice. As she does here. She noticed the mind was wanting more. And as she studied this she remembered that “this quiet day with it’s tentative light” is enough and that “joy is strewn all around.” Beautiful.
It can challenge our minds that the main thrust here is just noticing. Being patient. Watching. It’s the effort here is to return to a state of ease, not to figure out the mind and trace back every thought to it’s source.
It’s a practice of just sitting, just breathing, just walking, just listening, we’re just here letting all of the stuff that gets in the way settle out of the way. And a week is a good amount of time to let that process unfold. Here’s another way of looking at why we are encouraging a thorough silence practice without any conversation or reading or devices. Those activities stir the pot. Get in the way of this quiet subtle process.
Here from a Zen teacher I appreciate: “When we are sitting, our brain does not stop functioning. . . Just sitting, without being concerned with the conditions of our mind, is the most important point of meditation. When we sit in this way, we are one with Reality, which is beyond thinking.”
This is an essential element of our mindfulness practice and one it’s literally hard to get our minds around.
Jon Kabat-Zinn recognizes this aspect of it all, he in his somewhat geeky way, calls it the “non-instrumental” aspect of mindfulness.
Meaning that there are all kinds of things that are instrumental – meaning things to do and understand and try that should lead to good outcomes. Stuff to do. The effort side. You chose to come to this retreat, an instrumental kind of decision. If you hadn’t come it would have led to a different experience this week right? And hopefully this is a useful and helpful experience resulting from that instrumental decision.
But then, while here, we recognize that the practice itself isn’t all instrumental. Isn’t all effort or figuring out it out or doing it right. It’s also about letting go. About just being. About trusting. And all of that isn’t instrumental in that way, it’s this non-instrumental aspect. The ease part.
In a fundamental way there’s nothing at all to be done here. Just be here. Just allow whatever happens to happen. Relax into that. It can be surprisingly hard for us to do this because we are so deeply, deeply conditioned that the instrumental stuff is the important stuff. We say with a lot of need, “How do you do it?” we don’t run around and say, “hey could you help me relax and not do anything?” Well maybe we go to a spa – my wife is a body worker and now I’m learning about spas – the body workers and the sauna and everything do help us a bit with non-doing so it’s not some weird meditation thing only.
Jon who has written and spoken many zillions of works on what mindfulness is and how to do it also formulated a list of 7 aspects to this that he called the attitudinal foundations – the man has a penchant for long words to be sure.
These 7 are worth considering as we get into studying feeling and the mind. I think basically they are helpful to protect us from driving ourselves too batty trying to figure out the mind and how to improve it. I’ll share some little summary blurbs a colleague wrote for their website about them.
1. Non-Judgment – The attitude of cultivating the ability to understand things around us without automatically assigning them labels of good or bad, so that we can experience them as they truly are 2. Patience – The attitude of understanding that things happen in their own time, including our own experiences. Patience with oneself is an act of acceptance and wisdom. 3. Beginner’s Mind – The attitude of intentionally seeing things around you as if for the first time, by shedding our expectations and preconceptions and welcoming the possibility of a new moment, one that has never been seen before. 4. Trust – The attitude of trusting that the body will support its own life, that the breath will support itself, that the organs will continue to function, and that the mind and heart can heal and support themselves. 5. Non-Striving – The attitude of not seeking anything in particular in the practice of mindful awareness. There is no special state of relaxation, well-being, or anything to achieve or fix in your mindfulness practice. 6. Acceptance – The attitude of actively recognizing that things are the way they are, even if they aren’t the way we want them to be. 7. Letting Go – The attitude that is the opposite of clinging or grasping. Letting go means accepting that things that are pleasant will end, in a manner of letting things be as they are.
He started with those 7 but later on he added too more. So now there are 9. Including the feeling I was talking about starting the day with:
8. Gratitude – The attitude of appreciating even the simplest things in the present moment, such as the basic automatic functioning of the body. 9. Generosity – The attitude of giving oneself over to life, and giving to other people what would make them happy, for the sake of the joy it brings them.
And so the entire section of our Buddhist teaching on the thoughts and emotions in the mind is also read here it is again with the usual closing refrain to look at this from all angles, to notice mind states coming and going, and just in a fundamental way to remember how central and powerful the mind is. “There is a mind here” – an odd phrase but really, really powerful and easily forgotten in an odd way. When we’re in one of the many flavors of righteousness or in despair or depression at some level we’ve lost track of that truth. It’s all mind.
“Bhikkhus, how does a practitioner remain established in the observation of the mind in the mind?
“When his mind is desiring, the practitioner is aware, ‘My mind is desiring.’ When his mind is not desiring, he is aware, ‘My mind is not desiring.’ He is aware in the same way concerning a hating mind, a confused mind, a collected mind, a dispersed mind, an expansive mind, a narrow mind, the highest mind, and a concentrated and liberated mind.
This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the mind in the mind, observation of the mind from within or from without, or observation of the mind both from within and from without. He remains established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the mind or the process of dissolution in the mind or both in the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, ‘There is mind here,’ until understanding and full awareness come about. He remains established in the observation, free, not caught in any worldly consideration. This is how to practice observation of the mind in the mind, O bhikkhus.”
Talk 6: Mindfulness of “the way things go”
Did you see a bit of the eclipse in your special glasses? Kind of neat seeing the disc of the moon covering up the sun but of course all that’s safe to see is a silhouette, just a few circle shapes. Cool but also no big deal (and maybe we’re a bit messed up by the special effects in Science Fiction movies or the enhanced images NASA shares from their space telescopes – much more dramatic visuals). And actually the sunlight didn’t seem to dim much at all, it dims more when a cloud passes across, it’d be totally possible to have not even noticed.
No surprise that I see some analogies to our mindfulness practice there. Kind of special and amazing, and not what you expected when you tune in, and totally possible to miss it and keep chugging along. It’s very special doing what we’re doing this week, and it’s also really quite ordinary and no big deal in a really fundamental way. Like being alive you know? It’s an utter miracle and it’s just another day at the same time. Every day is ordinary and every day is a miracle. Every moment is this way.
We’ve been studying these teachings given to Buddhist monastics so long ago, so I thought we’d include the voice of a modern Christian Monastic. I want to share some words on gratitude from Brother David Steindel-Rast, he’s an Austrian born Franciscan monk who has become a leading advocate for the practice of gratitude. We were talking yesterday about how gratitude can show up with an object of gratitude – I am grateful for, or just on it’s own: I just feel grateful. He likes the term “gratefulness” to emphasize this without-needing-an-object quality.
Here’s come coaching on gratefulness from Br. David. There are also a few videos with images and music and his voice reading these words you can watch. Very beautiful.
You think this is just
another day in your life?
It’s not just another day.
It’s the one day
that is given to you today.
It’s a gift.
It’s the only gift
that you have right now,
and the only
If you learn to respond
as if it were the first day
in your life
and the very last day,
then you will have spent
this day very well.
Begin by opening your eyes
and be surprised
that you have eyes you can open.
That incredible array of colors
that is constantly offered to us
for pure enjoyment.
Look at the sky.
We so rarely look at the sky.
We so rarely note
how different it is
from moment to moment
with clouds coming and going.
Open your eyes.
Look at that.
Look at the faces of people
whom you meet.
Each one has an incredible story
behind their face,
not only their own story,
but the story
of their ancestors.
All that life from generations
and from so many places
all over the world
and meets you here
like a life-giving water
if you only open your heart
Open your heart
to the incredible gifts
that civilization gives to us.
You flip a switch,
and there is electric light.
You turn a faucet,
and there is warm water
and cold water,
and drinkable water.
It’s a gift that millions
in the world
will never experience.
And so I wish you
that you would open
to all these blessings
and let them flow through you,
whom you will meet on this day
will be blessed by you,
just by your presence.
Let the gratefulness overflow
into blessing all around you.
And then it will really be
a good day.
So we aren’t looking into each others faces as much (in the videos they show a wonderful variety of faces from all over the world) but you we can visualize each other’s faces and the faces of others we know and maybe steal a few unobtrusive glances in the meal line or at the tables of our little collection of humanity and then tomorrow we’ll emerge into a wider array of amazing humans: ordinary and special in the same manner.
The last section of our text has a confusing title. The underlying term the Thich Nhat Hanh translated as “mind objects” is dhammas, you’re probably heard dharmas which is the Sanskrit version and what rolls of my tongue. The term Dharma points to a deep idea in Buddhism which is that deep freedom comes from living in alignment with how things really are, getting free from our own biases and assumptions and desires and just meeting reality as it is in some way.
So with that in mine it might make a little sense to learn that “Dharma” means both the Buddha’s teachings and a moment of existence. The Dharma is teaching, a dharma is a moment of experience. A thought or feeling is a dharma. A sight is a dharma. You can see why “objects of mind” was chosen but that sounds like thoughts and we were already looking at the mind with it’s feeling-tone coloring and it’s desires and judgments and their connected thoughts.
My own view is that something like “patterns of mind” or “habits of mind” is a better title for this last section. Or maybe broadening that further to “patterns of life” or “tendencies of experience” – nothing is quite exactly right.
The Buddha actually doesn’t say a thing in general about this area for mindfulness practice. This 4th foundation of mindfulness. Instead he teaches with examples. There are six different famous early Buddhist lists of mind patterns here. The first few tend to lead to more suffering, the next few lead to more light and understanding – to freedom. So you have here a little crib sheet of Buddhist fundamentals.
In Joseph Goldstein’s big long book on this teaching about 3/4 of the book is taking each of these lists of mind objects/patterns of the mind and exploring each item in each list in detail. It’s slow going but quite interesting.
I thought we’d focus a little on first one with is a famous list of mental factors that mess us up called the Five Hindrances. This list of 5 is especially brought up around experience in meditation but they all apply all the time. There are two pairs of mental factors for the first four and an overarching one that kind of sits on top.
The first 2 of the 5 Hindrances are desire and aversion.
We’ve already been studying these this week. Sometimes they arise, sometimes they aren’t so strong. We wish something was different from the way it was: desire. And if a teaching on desire sounds familiar it’s what the Buddha led off the last section with, remember this?
When his mind is desiring, the practitioner is aware, ‘My mind is desiring.’ When his mind is not desiring, he is aware, ‘My mind is not desiring.’
Again, and again and again, the emphasis is on just noticing. Not fixing, analyzing (where’d THAT come from?), trying not to pile on too much (wow how embarrassing that I’m letting that little thing bug me so much).
It’s hard to faith in this simple approach. Just noticing and coming back. Just noticing and coming back but that’s what he’s saying and it’s worth giving this some juice and seeing what happens.
AND I think it’s a big mistake to ever thing that any one way is the only way. For sure you could compliment this with deeply pondering past conditioning, dysfunctions in your family, societal trauma and injustice, all of the many layers. And working with these things in all kinds of ways: somatic therapy seems like it’s gaining a lot of momentum and with good reason, the body holds so much.
And if we can honor multiple approaches then we can do the one we’re doing more whole heartedly is my idea. Right now you’re at the mindfulness retreat, we’re studying this roots text that says very specifically “just notice” just feel, just watch. So we try that. Not that we’re being bad if we flash on a realization about something that happened in childhood or write a few thoughts in our journals, that’s fine but why not give the simple approach a lot of space to see what happens. And to be patient as what happens might not be very apparent, it may seem like nothing is happening but the mind doing back again and again and again so that same place. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s encouragement around trust comes to mind. Who knows maybe you feel like you spent your week here doing nothing but judging judging judging and then you find yourself at work or on the bus or out somewhere and there’s someone acting in a way that’s always triggered judgement and your mind doesn’t go there. It goes more to Br David’s:
Look at the faces of people
whom you meet.
Each one has an incredible story
behind their face,
not only their own story,
but the story
of their ancestors.
Wow, every face is the deep human story: so rich and complex.
It can go that way, so-called “progress” is often not apparent with this method. There may not be many big ah-ha moments. Sometimes they come and that’s okay but often they don’t.
Desire and aversion the first two the five hindrances are two sides of the same coin. Same inner workings towards and away from experience. Usually all kinds of unpleasant feeling-tone in there.
The next two are energetic: dull drowsiness and agitation. Sometimes we meet reality by shutting down. It may seem like we’re just tired and that’s often part of it but the mind also has a powerful ability to zone out. To space out and nod off. To enter a state where physically we just can’t focus or even keep our eyes open sometimes. My former sister in law has an incredible ability to go lie down and drop instantly into a nap when she feels threatened by something.
So we can notice that: this is dullness and drowsiness. It’s hard not to try to fix these challenging states.
And it’s the opposite of dullness is agitation – Thich Nhat Hanh casts it as agitation and remorse which is interesting. Goldstein has restlessness and worry. Have you been in a worried agitated state some this week? Not unusual. Again, can we just be with it. Feel it. Include it.
The practice I was suggesting this morning of mental noting is a powerful tool here. A kind of pulling out of the content of the mind – the thing you’re worrying about or agitated about – and noting the mind state itself. That’s the idea here. Just noting “agitation” and taking a breath. Staying out of rehearsing that phone call or rehashing that awful email exchange.
5 Hindrances, lovely mind states. First pair is desire & aversion. Second pair is dullness & agitation.
Then the top of the pyramid is doubt. A really slippery one. Sometimes we are wisely assessing that something isn’t working and we should put our energy somewhere else. Other times we’re just in a funk and caught by doubt which can undermine just about anything. Again a quality of hanging in there is super helpful but hanging in forever isn’t so wise either. Thinking in terms of making a commitment to try something for such-and-so long can be a great approach. And sometimes that unit of commitment is pretty clear like signing up for the 7-day retreat.
More than one of us were vulnerable enough to share with me that you considered leaving the retreat. And somehow the doubt didn’t win the day. All 15 of us are still here, at least here at the camp. As I mentioned a few people have realized they need to modify the schedule quite a bit which we do our best to be flexible with. For most of us it does seem like following the schedule, whether you always quite feel like it or not – and there can be a mild doubt or aversion or restlessness right? Bell rings and you don’t feel like coming down here. What kinds of things have popped into your mind about why you really should consider skipping this one or geeze at least coming late?
5 Hindrances: desire & aversion; dullness & agitation; and doubt. The Buddha’s read on the mind in some ways was just so spot on don’t you think? Yeah: he’s talking about us in 2024 somehow.
Okay we’ll skip over the “five aggregates of clinging” which is an early Buddhist explanation of our experience of self. Kind of cool and a bit bizarre actually. And then there’s an analysis of how the senses interact with consciousness. Perception and interpretation of self and the world is obviously pretty darn relevant. And let’s land below the second line on the left column with the “Seven Factors of Awakening.”
In contrast to the Five Hindrances describing mind states that take us down down down, these are mind states to nurture, to incline towards, that are all about rising up into freedom.
One time Robin Boudette and I did the entire 7-day Roots of Mindfulness retreat on this list of seven. Talking about each one for a full lecture so obviously we won’t get that into it. Those recordings are on our website though. And pretty much everything I’m saying has been said a million times about these core early Buddhist teachings. There are literally thousands of recorded discourses, teachings, of the Buddha and this one on the four foundations of mindfulness is definitely one of the most commented on. Lots more stuff to look into if this has struck a chord.
So in super brief the seven factors of awakening that we can also notice the presence and absence of in this simple practice are listed at the bottom of the column after the Buddha runs the usual pattern on the first one. Notice it’s present, notice it’s not present. Notice that it comes and goes. 1) Mindfulness – balanced, open meeting of reality – is that happening right now or not? Am I open? 2) Investigation – is curiosity present right now? Or no, the mind is pretty much locked down and I know exactly what’s going on here? 3) Diligence – am I engaged or….nope! Come on bell ring, damn you, ring. Let’s get out of here. 4) Joy – am I happy, energized and uplifted. This can be a quite brief state. Nice to notice and enjoy it when it arises. Other times no, not so joyful. 5) Ease – is the more grounded kind of happiness – the long peaceful exhalation of everything is just….fine…. Or not: remember about agitation? 6) Concentration – remember that doesn’t mean doing a math problem it’s when the mind feels balanced and stable, attention stops flitting all around but can be very wide open. Internally more quiet but not dull at all: engaged. I like to say “relaxed and alert”. 7) Equanimity – a lot of overlap with concentration. Unruffled, resilient. Also doesn’t mean dull and blanked out there’s plenty of feeling and connection in equanimity, it’s like a really sensitive balance beam in a science lab, a little speck of something lands on one tray and the scale shifts but it’s a self-aware scale and it knows how to adjust again so it wouldn’t be so great for weighing out reagents actually. Sorry that’s a very science geeky explanation. Balanced and responsive would have been plenty of words.
And then…there are one more helpful practice lists (the famous four noble truths) and the closing formula about coming to be and dissolution and just knowing there are these mind patterns being so powerful…and then…. ta da!….we get to the conclusion of the teaching.
Bottom of the right column on the last page – there a few technical terms in here about the way they looked at stages of accomplishment in this practice but the gist gets across just fine:
“Bhikkhus, he who practices the Four Establishments of Mindfulness for seven years can expect one of two fruits – the highest understanding in this very life or, if there remains some residue of affliction, he can attain the fruit of no-return.
“Let alone seven years, bhikkhus, whoever practices the Four Establishments of Mindfulness for six, five, four, three, two years or one year, for seven, six, five, four, three, or two months, one month or half a month, can also expect one of two fruits – either the highest understanding in this very life or, if there remains some residue of affliction, he can attain the fruit of no-return.
“That is why we said that this path, the path of the four grounds for the establishment of mindfulness, is the most wonderful path, which helps beings realize purification, transcend grief and sorrow, destroy pain and anxiety, travel the right path, and realize nirvana.” The bhikkhus were delighted to hear the teaching of the Buddha. They took it to heart and began to put it into practice.
The shortest he got there was that we get this great benefit, the fruits, if we practice this for half a month but let’s assume a week is pretty darn great too.
Thank you again so very much for listening to all of this. Remember that it’s all recorded and I even post my talk notes (which aren’t always exactly what I say but useful I think). All will be on the website in a few weeks.
And meantime: you know what I’m about to say: we just continue. Noticing. Breathing. Keeping it simple. The thought “this is almost over” will almost certainly arise and we can notice that. It’s true in a conventional time kind of way but it’s also just a little poof of mental noise also. This practice unfolds one moment at a time and that moment is happening right now always. Another way of experiencing time is not that way: it’s profoundly all just happening right now completely and fully. Why would we miss a moment looking ahead at some imaginary future? Be here now friends. And accept fully when you don’t!