Roots of Mindfulness: Satipatthana - 1

Talk 1 - Monday 10/14/18 - Mindfulness and the Mind - Prepared Talk by Tim Burnett © 2018

Talk 1 audio recording


Talk 1 notes 

[Note that Tim often departs significantly from his notes when speaking but the notes themselves might be valuable to read]

Welcome and acknowledgement of their efforts so far to be mindful, aware, and awake.

Our intention in the teachings and practices this week is to deeply explore mindfulness. We'll be exploring a central text from Early Buddhism called the Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness - called Satipatthana Sutta in Pali which is less exotic than it sounds: sati means mindfulness, patthana means foundations or areas. It's a teaching attributed to the Buddha on foundations or areas of themes of mindfulness training.

I'm very grateful to be able to offer retreats like this. The format and style is not particularly Buddhist - universal and everyday, what we're doing is a little unusual in terms of a typical American routine I guess but there's nothing weird to it really: we're just living a quiet life together for a week paying attention to what we notice. It's a week of experiencing.

We call this "retreat" because that seems to be the world people use for this kind of event but it's not a retreat like retreating away from the enemy or the trouble in our lives actually. It's not a retreat, it's not a charge either, it's a standing still right in the middle of our lives. Sometimes you hear people in the mindfulness world talking about "leaning in" as if that were a generally good idea which has always sounds odd to me. Maybe a little leaning in can be helpful to explore something that arises but other times you discern that there's something here it's better to stay well clean of and "leaning out" is better in that moment but the basic orientation here this week is neither leaning in or leaning out: it's more like being upright or being present or just being and forget about all of this strategic leaning and figuring out and refining and doing it right. So we aren't retreating,we aren't advancing, let's make space to find out what this week turns out to be through experience itself, though paying attention, through curiosity, through awareness. I appreciated what Karen said last night about not knowing what the week will hold whether you've done a boatload of these retreats or it's your first one.

Back to the format. We won't do any religious rituals from Buddhism or anything but we will live in simplicity and quiet for a week and that's full of rich possibilities. And perhaps a few challenges.

But Buddhism is clearly an important source from which this way of practicing, this ordinary everyday quiet way of living, stems. Every religious tradition has prayer and contemplation but the Buddhists are famous for meditation and a certain kind of way of understanding our minds and understanding the world our mind is interpreting and generating. So much so that I think its fair to say the Buddhist practice as it's expressed itself in the modern era gave birth to contemporary mindfulness practice. That baby has other parents - positive psychology, neuroscience, poetry, a kind of humanist philosophy - but Buddha does seem to be an important parent.

Because of this and because I have the training to do this reasonably faithfully to the original intent of these teachings: in our Roots of Mindfulness and Roots of Compassion retreats we offer daily teachings from the Buddhist tradition. We listen to these teachings and try them on for size in this quiet container of practice.

You definitely don't need to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness. And to be truthful I don't know if you need to identify with anything to do this - I'm not sure I quite think of myself as a Buddhist actually but I am ordained as a Soto Zen priest so I definitely pass the duck test: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it's probably a duck.

But the funny and ironic thing there is that the teachings of Buddhism are exactly about the dangers and suffering that come from identifying with things. The pain that comes with insisting that you're this kind of person and not that kind of person who believes these ideas and not those ideas - that is a recipe for suffering Buddha taught.

We all need an identity it seems, it's kind of like the vehicle we drive around in our lives, but we get so hung up on it. When we're too loyal our personal brand we get rigid and narrow minded and we end up suffering a lot and we can end up creating a lot of suffering for others.

So whether I'm a Buddhist or not I do think these are incredibly helpful teachings that have been passed down, but to be truly useful in our lives we need to take them in and experiment. To try them on for size. And to try them on with some persistence and patience. Since we're already convinced we're something we're not, these teachings suggest, it's going to take a while before we see the true utility of these teachings. So on the one hand the Buddhist tradition does say "don't take it on faith, try these teaching out" on the other it encourages us to not be too quick to judge either. Maybe you put the shirt on backwards is the reason it doesn't fit so well and it's nothing inherent in the cut of the cloth.

So that's our intention this week: to study our ordinary experience in a quiet, simplified lifestyle for a week and to do so in light of some Buddhist teachings. To really try them on for size. To practice with some new ideas and ways of being and see what we find out for ourselves. It doesn't really matter in this context what you believe in but I guess you do have to have some degree of trust, or faith, in a process of being, in a process of meditation practice that in the long haul will be beneficial even if there may be sticky points and difficult days and trouble along the way. And these teachings suggest that the trouble is very much a part of it. That the trouble is not just a distraction or something to get through but a part of the path. That the trouble is the rich mud at the bottom of the lake where the lotus plants sink their roots enabling the lotus flower to eventually open at the surface of the water. "No mud, no lotus" they say.

One thing we experience and may be able to shed a little more light on this week is how deeply conditioned to try to have positive experiences all the time and wriggle our way out of unpleasant experiences. As we went around the circle last night and heard some people talk about feeling happy and grateful and others feeling nervous or worried did you notice that you had a preference. This is human: we want happiness and we don't want to suffer. Nothing wrong with it. The trouble is the way we relate to the situation. We try to grab on to the happiness - this is good, I like this, how do I keep this going? - and we try to push away and get rid of the unhappiness - this is icky how to get rid of it as soon as possible. We all loved Carol's enactment of this with John next to her didn't we? If only the happiness could rub off on us - we could just seek surround ourselves with happy people all the time and never have anxiety, fear, shame, depression, or pain.

That a major topic in the teachings this week: that the play of mind between happiness and unhappiness goes deep and that we can learn and benefit from everything that arises whether it's a state we prefer or detest. Everything's included - moment by moment just noticing and accepting as best you can what come along. Meeting our moments with curiosity and patience. And also holding it all lightly as best we can. There's something profound to be learned from our edginess and pain - this is really true - and it's just edginess and pain, don't worry about it so much!

My Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, used to say that it's important to get interested in the workings of your mind but not too interested. It's important - your mind is thinking and experiencing and emoting away - your mind! - and your noticing more - but it's also just a mind doing what a mind does under the circumstances of your life at this point at this rich intersection between the past and present between the culture, family, group, and the individual. So it's all bigger than any idea of "me" anyway. That me that might try to decide "am I a Buddhist" or "am I a mindfulness practitioner" or am I a whatever it is you think you are.

The Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is a kind of deep meditation on what mindfulness is. It moves through four major areas of practice and contemplation but through that whole journey it's essentially the same practice. The practice of what is it to be fully here.

AND: what is the nature of that fully hereness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn's post-Buddhist formulation of mindfulness is worth considering here on our first day:

Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.

Maybe you've heard that. Maybe you've contemplated it quite a bit.

This week let's examine some of the deeper questions implied in this definition.

For instance: who's paying attention? Is it you? Is your mind? If you are the mind that's paying attention who is it that's having these experiences you're noticing and observing? Is that another version of you? Who is this sitting here? Who is doing this life? Who is this life happening to?

Is this me the same me as it was yesterday? Seems pretty much the same. But how about the me of 5 years ago or 10 years ago or the me that was a baby - are we all the same me? Or one me that changes and grows and evolves? What does it mean to be "me" really? These teachings encourage us to get more curious about the presumed me that we're hanging around with all the time. That we're identifying with. This is the big kahuna of indentifications. More powerful and all consuming that identifying with our religious affiliation or our gender identification or our professional or ethnic group or anything like that. The deep one is an identification with "me" and it has in some way the same utility as all of those other identifications - useful to be sure - but also limiting and not completely true.

This stuff is hard to think about of course because who's doing the thinking about it? Me.

And another question: whoever this "me" is what is it that he or she or they are paying attention to?

To what should this present-moment non judgmental attention be pointed?

And why? What's the point anyway?

So there's a big implied "what" question along with the implied "who" question in this idea of paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally. Sorry Jon but we can't help but see quite a few judgments implicit in this way of talking if we think about it.

And the "purposefulness" in there, let's not give that a free pass. Can we really be in charge of our attention in a purposeful way? That brings us back to first question: who's the one sitting behind that spotlight of attention with her hands on the handles directing it around. And is the person moving the attention in that model or the attention moving the person? Do we reallu select what we pay attention to - the breath for instance - or is it more a matter of fluidly accepting whatever it is our attention lands on?

I watched a debate between an anthropologist and a neuroscientist around the idea that we can notice when our mind was wandering and bring it back to our object of attention. Is that what happens? Of course we use that language all the time. But at retreat and with the support of this text we can explore some other possibilities.

We can be curious whether it is true that we can see that our mind is off somewhere else - thinking about something or in a dreamy state of some kind - and then we can choose to bring it back? That's the model of the "me" controlling attention.

Or is it more the case that the attention goes off where it goes and after it dumps the "me" back into conscious awareness the "me" says "oh right! I'm here controlling the attention cool, I'll point it at my breath"? And then the "me" assumes that it's the one who brought us back - Oh I just noticed my mind was wandering. Or that just telling ourselves a story. Is that assuming control that we don't really have. Is it really the case that some deep current in our mind which we do not control just chose that moment to dump us out of whatever else was happening with consciousness and give the "me" at least the appearance of control for a while?

I've always loved the metaphor of a play and the stage lighting for consciousness - maybe because I did Stage Tech in high school - when we're lost in the action of a good play we forget ourselves completely. We're in the characters and the story. We even forget that they are actors playing parts. And we forget that we're sitting here in a seat in a darkened room with a few hundred other people - we're on the roof with Tevya. And then sometimes something shifts and we remember where we are in this other sense. Oh I'm sitting here in the dark watching some people over there. But our attention is largely captured by the action as it's revealed by the lighting on stage.

In the opening scene of the play War Horse we see just our hero and his horse (Albert and Joey) center stage - there's a top light and a spotlight on them - all else is dark - and Albert sings the opening verse of the first song:

Faded away like the stars in the morning,

Losing their light in the glorious sun—

Thus would we pass from this earth and its toiling,

Only remembered for what we have done.

and then the chorus arises from everywhere on stage - this vast range of voices - and the lights come slowly up and we see that he's surrounded by the rest of the cast.

Only remembered, only remembered,

Only remembered for what we have done;

Thus would we pass from this earth and its toiling,

Only remembered for what we have done.

We saw one reality on stage but really there was a much bigger reality there.

So let's imagine that we're the spot light operator of our own personal theater. Are you lost in the action of your own inner drama and does the drama pull the light of your attention around or can you feel your hands on the two handles of the spotlight and move it somewhere else even when the action is really compelling. And what's the most compelling for us most of the time? Our own suffering. Our fears. Our doubts. Our anxiety. Or maybe our pride and judgement of other people which more or less amounts to the same thing. Does the action pull the lighting or does the "me" direct the lighting and get to choose the action to pay attention to.

It's an open question really. In the argument between the anthropologist and the neuroscientist they ended up agreeing to disagree. We don't really know how consciousness works. And we're here this week to explore. Not just to calm down and find some peace within our usual presumed reality of me, me, me - although that was be a fine outcome - but to also explore more deeply. What are we really? And what is the true reality of our lives? Might there be more in the darkness around us. And might we also be much more than we think we are.

So the text begins as all Buddhist texts does with a little setting the scene. This is a kind of play too really.

[paragraph 1 -3]

One of the learned commentaries on this text suggests that what's translated here as "most wonderful way" - the Pali term ekayana magga - is literally "one-way path": so once you've touched the healing of mindfulness you can only move forward. That's kind of reassuring. There's no back sliding. What about when you have a really rotten day at retreat? Well that's actually part of the path so no worries, that's not back sliding either. What's shifting here is not your experiences exactly but how we relate to them. So you stop having grief and sorrow about your crappy day doesn't mean no more crappy days at least for quite some time.

Then the Buddha asks a retorical question which he'll spend the rest of the text answering:

"What are the four foundations?"

[read next 4 paragraphs]

And so we start with the first foundation. The body. If you've taken MBSR you might have noticed that strangely we start with all this body stuff. There's hardly anything that looks like the usual kind of meditation for the first 3 weeks of the class. Body scans. Mindful movement. Encouragement to eat more mindfully. Feeling the body throughout the day.

The interesting thing that I really treasure about this translation is the way it says "the body in the body." So it's not the mental me doing the mindfulness of the body. The invitation here is to enter the body more completely. To give space for the body to know itself.

And how does the Buddha suggest we begin this project?

[next two paragraphs]

So we start with the breath. This physical interaction between body and it's environment. Suzuki Roshi talks about the breath as a gate. Watching the swinging of this fluid gate between inside and outside. This gate that is never slammed shut or locked. Maybe sometimes the hinges get a little rusty but the gate just keeps moving - opening and closing, opening and closing but never fixed in any one position- never staying open, never staying closed.

The Buddha starts us off with just watching the breath. But watching with some intelligence and discernment.

We usually pair Jon's definition of mindfulness with one from Shauna Shapiro and Linda Carlson:

Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, in the present moment, in an open, kind and discerning way.

This awareness of the length of the breath - and that implies awareness of all of the qualities of breathing - that's discernment. That's a kind of deep intimacy and in touchness with the breath.

This morning I kind of started us at the end of the journey - opening to everything in heaven and earth - but let's for the next day invite forward awareness of the breathing in everything we do. Not to control it, but to know it.

And yes sometimes you'll get a little tired of all of this. The gate may actually get stuck for a while at times. But that too changes. We can take refuge in change.

Lets end with some wisdom from George Harrison:

Sunrise doesn't la-st all moRN-ing

A CLOUDburst doesn't last all da-y

Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning

It's not ALwa-ys going to be this gra-y

All things must pass

All things must pass away

Sunset doesn't la-st all EVENING

A MIND can blow those clouds awa-y

After all this, my love is up and must be lea-ving

It's not ALWAYS going to be this gra-y


All things must pass

All things must pass away

All things must pass

None of life's strings CAN la-st


I must be on my way and face-another-day

Now the darkness only sta-ys at NIGHT-time

In the MORNING IT will fade a-way

Daylight is good at ARRIVING at the right time

It's not ALWAYS going to be this gra-y


All things must pass

All things must pass away

All things must pass

All things must pass away

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