Roots of Mindfulness: Satipatthana - 5

Talk 5 - Friday 10/18/18 - A Map of the Mind and Beyond the the Mind (Third & Fourth Foundations) - Prepared Talk by Tim Burnett © 2018

Talk 5 audio recording


Talk 5 notes 

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

Okay I've received several kind of technical questions about the workings of the mind so I'm going to dip us into some technical Buddhist analysis of how the function of mind is mapped. Taking our assembly line of consciousness to a deeper level - that here are a lot of little robot arms dropping in and out of our assembly line turning the different objects around and linking them to each other and so on. I bring this up with some trepidation because it would be very easy to lose ourselves in the intellectual sorting out of this model. Or of any model.

And really the thing that matters to us here is this continuous application of mindful awareness. As we're learning it helps to take a little inner step back and then just watch. Watch with curiousity, watch with openness, watch with surprise, watch without thinking you know how it all goes so much, watch with fewer assumptions about one thing or another having any inherent qualities. Watch how we take in inputs - sights, sounds, thoughts, memories - and map them onto the world generating new worlds every moment.

Some of these technical questions about the mind seem to imply that someone knows for sure how the mind works. And that presumably if I'm a meditation teacher I'm in on that deeper knowledge and can tell your for sure this is how is works. Well it might be I'm just not deep enough or clear enough - which is probably very true - but I'm not so sure anyone really knows how the mind works.

I'm not so sure there's anyone who can give you a definitive answer to even some fairly simple sounding questions like, "why does the mind wander?" - sometimes in our MBSR classes we answer this with the intent to normalize it and reduce people's anxiety about it by saying, "it's the mind's nature to wander!" we say that with a lot of confidence as if we knew what the mind is and what's nature is. As if we knew for sure the mind has something called "a nature" which describes it in a systemmatic and meaningful way. But of course we don't really know what the mind is or what it's nature is in that kind of way of know why and how exactly it all works.

Or maybe we invoke the great God of Neuroscience as say "it's the pathways in your brain!" and mention the default mode network - which is more less a set of interconnected brain regions that are active when you're just hanging out, just spacing out - these brain areas seem to be associated with mind wandering, day dreaming, and what they so eloquently call "self-referential processing" - in other words there seems to be a set of brain regions, now called the default mode network, that's all about me, me, me: how am I doing right now? did I remember everything I'm supposed to do? do I look okay? how should I answer that question? do we have groceries for dinner? and soon.

The the super cool exciting thing is that some initial studies show that experienced meditators when hanging out show less activity in those regions. Maybe the me, me, me, blah, blah, blah does get quieter over time if you practice.

Personally it's hard for me to say if that's so because when I'm wondering about that I am existing in that same me, me, me realm trying to remember if before I did all this meditation there was more mind wandering. I WANT to think that's true, I actually do BELIEVE that's true. I've had a few moments where it seems like there must have been qualitiative change in the way my mind works.

For instance one time I went to a little conference in Seattle with a promient mindfulness & psychology guy named Ron Siegel - if you are in the area you can go to these, there's an organization called FACES that puts them on. They're ok. Anyway Ron Siegel is talking about the habitual patterns of the mind and making a point about how inevitable they seem to be and puts up a slide with just a word on it. I forget which word is was, and then says with great confidence: your mind cannot help but see this as a word and only a word and then your mind makes all these associations from that word's meaning. And I was curious so I softened my gaze and invited awareness of breath and body forward a little more fully and I was quite able to see the image before me as shapes in a pattern of black and white. Kind of curvy shapes mostly, a few straighter lines. I don't know how stable that is and it wasn't like I didn't know it was a word but I could most definitely experience is not a word.

I chose not to raise my hand and argue with him -how egotistical would that be - but it was interesting to see that the mind with practice has maybe more variability than some of the so-called experts giving the lectures are saying. So maybe that's evidence that the brain has changed assuming our consciousness really does arise from the brain which is something actual neuroscientists will caution us about: there definitely seem to be associations between different cognitive functions and different areas of the brain - or more accurate seems to be to say connected regions of the brain than individual areas - but that's all they are: associations. It seems we need a brain to have consciousness but that's not the same thing as saying the consciousness is caused by or formed by the brain.

I saw YouTube lecture of a meditation scientist named Willobough Britton who's at Brown University and she said she did some kind of little informal study around how authoritative people saw her lectures by giving more or less the same talk to different audiences and collecting feedback forms later. In half of the talks she showed a slide of the brain - just showed it, didn't really explain it or fold it into her talk - in the other half of the talks she didn't show the slide of the brain. Then she looked at the feedback forms. Guess which half of the talks were seen as more informating and authoritative? You guessed it: the half in which she showed a brain slide!

But anyway even if the mind does qualitatively change with practice and one can take in all of these teachings and try to apply them over time - I was lucky enough to start young with this project - that doesn't make you an expert or a genius or somehow better than anyone else. So I definitely don't have all the answers about how the mind works and the real point I'm trying to make is I'm not so sure there ARE definite answers to these questions.

So I'm saying all of this to encourage, I hope, a healthy sense of not-knowing. Neuroscience doesn't know how the mind really works and even though I love these models from Early Buddhism about how consciousness works there's something a bit too tidy about them. Reality is infinitely varied, complex, and subtle. No model can capture it.

And it's also helpful to recognize that we all already have a model of consciousness that we've built up over the years. My teacher used to say, "everyone's a philosopher." Weach have our own personal philosophy of consciousness which we take to be true and predictive of reality. And we're very good at gathering evidence that our model is correct. In our own inner mind science we have a powerful version of what they call "comfirmation bias" in science which is just what it sounds: we tend to find evidence to confirm our own conclusions again and again. And then it's really upsetting to us when something happens that's big enough and clear enough to mow a path down the middle of our assumptions about how and what we are. Something this is from a terrible suffering, other times it's from a kind of ah-ha waking up experience, either way can be quite destabilizing which is part of why we're practicing: we're cultivating a stability and openness of mind that will hopefully help us to be able to stay upright and open when the ground drops from beneath us and a new reality opens us. And hopefully we can stay curious and with a good dollop of not-knowing so that we don't immediately form a new model of reality right away. The real point of all of this is there is no one stable model of reality. Everything changes and everything is conditioned by everything else - this has incredibly deep implications.

So I think we'll go ahead and dive into a detailed description of the Early Buddhist model of the workings of the mind. Not because it's "correct" and will help us figure out our mind so much as because I might support our insight and exploration. Or at least it'll pass the time and I don't have it in me to give another deep personal story today! So this model is pretty much a small scale blueprint of the assembly line we've been talking about in which the 1st foundation, 2nd foundation, and 3rd foundation are contributing to in order to create what we call a moment of experience. A moment of me!

But wait! What about the 4th foundation? What the heck can that be? We already have a body, a flavoring system, and a mind, what else is there?

So just to prevent too much cognitive disonnance about the 4th foundation - the mind might start screaming at me from inside your mind, "wait! what IS the 4th foundation!" and that would get a bit distracting for you and for me, so I'll give a short version now as best I can. Problem is it's hard to speak about the 4th foundation briefly.

On the one hand it's awareness of the deep patterns of arising experience. The 4th foundation at this level is the stuff of the universe that the 3rd foundation, the mind, is interacting with and that the 2nd foundation is coloring and flavoring, and that the 1st foundation is like the embodied host of.

We could also see the 4th foundation as mental patterns or habit-patterns. If the 3rd foundation is the mind-moments, the 4th foundation is the ways they coallesce into patterns and theories and actions. Our famous "autopilot" is a 4th foundation manifestation of the 3rd foundation (thoughts), the 2nd foundation (feeling tone), and the 1st foundation (the body that hosts the existence of this whole process and can act). And a deeper level the very idea of "me" is a 4th foundation pattern made up of elements from the other 3 foundations. The point being it's not "me" really: it's a pattern. Or it might be more accurate to say the 4th foundation is the space in which that pattern called "me" operates.

Because there's also a deeper kind of way of looking at the 4th foundation as the nature of reality. In this way of exploring the 4th foundation there's an deep invitation to notice something important about how we function. We study how compelling the objects of mind are. That's what we focus on right? Mind objects. And here we can see the so-called physical objects as mirrored in the mind as mind-objects. It's not really a tree we're seeing, for example: it's our conceptualization of a tree inspired by an image of a tree. In the study of the 4th foundation we soften our focus and notice that although the objects get our attention habitually there is also space all around those objects - we notice more clearly the way the mind-objects arise from somewhere and disappear to somewhere, and we shift our inner gaze from the mind-object's materialization to the hazy space in which they are materializing. We move our attention from what they call form to what they call formlessness.

Form here is all the stuff, and this includes mental stuff, of life. Everything we can conceptualize is form. Everything that has characteristics and qualities to it is form. Everything we can manipulate, think about, wonder about, or describe is form. With the 4th foundation the Buddha is bascially saying like on an infomercial: am I dating myself here? "And wait....there's more!" And the more is the non-form. The formless. Dipping back into physics with a dash of astronomy maybe this non-form, the formless, is the dark matter of our lives. It must be there to balance things out. In astrophysics, as I understand it, dark matter is matter that simply MUST be there to explain the shape and gravitational characteristics of the universe. There just isn't enough detectable matter to make sense of the way the universe behaves so there must be dark matter. And in some celestial areas there seems to be more than in other areas which further suggests it's existence. Or maybe it's present non-existence because how do you think about matter than you can't detect in any way? Does it make sense to call that "matter"? Maybe the scientists are assuming eventually they'll figure out instruments than can detect dark matter, I don't know.

It's the same with this deeper quality of our lives which the 4th foundation points to as the kind of substrate of our lives. There's this knowable experience where our thinking mind hangs out and there's an unknowable backstory. Sometimes it's called emptiness. Other times space. We talk about "feeling the space" and that does have a meaning to us doesn't it? There's a feeling to spaciousness. It's hard to describe. And maybe if it really is spaciousness isn't literally impossible to describe. It's the part of life beyond language, concept and knowing. The mystery side of life if you will.

In the Zen tradition we have a lot of respect for this aspect of experience and the non-knowing it encourages. A famous Zen story tells us: "not knowing is most intimate." How does that ring for you after 5 plus days of silent practice? "Not knowing is most intimate" - what's the felt sense of that statement?

Another way of thinking about the 4th foundation is to have more curiosity about the space in which it all happens. You can't see it, smell it, touch it, or feel it as a physical sensation but somehow you can feel it in another way. There's a sense to it. I don't know how else to say this. Sometimes you know you're in contact with it because of the qualities it seems to support: spaciousness as we mentioned, also flexibility, curiosity, pauses in the chattering mind. There's a stable kind of joyfulness to it actually, and an incredibly powerful sense of stability, peace, and equanimity. Maybe it's most central characteristic is trust. You just trust life more when you're in a fuller relationship to the formless nature of life. And that is a weird thing to say about something that's without characteristics but you have to say something I guess.

Now we're back to my story from yesterday about the great Zen Masters sitting down in the teaching seat and not saying a word: you can see why!

Because here's the thing: the desiring mind hanging out in the 3rd foundation can't force itself into this realm of the formless through force of effort or technique or any other brilliant method no matter how subtle or insightful because the world of form can't call forth the world of the formless. And yet by following these practices patiently and over time and being reslient through the many twists and turns of the path we become more intimate with the formless.

Sometimes a little rush of intimacy with it floods up in us - very exciting - a flash of openness or peacefulness or something like that - other times it's more the the dawn in the northern latitutes - it's really hard to tell the moment when night gives way to first light isn't it? I love that about starting before dawn here. See if you can notice tomorrow morning when the light first starts to rise. And you might give birth to a desire for us to NOT be inside this building at that moment tomorrow morning so I'll take that to the retreat leader maybe we'll try something different tomorrow morning (dress warmly) - but it's really impossible to tell when dawn starts exactly and yet you know when there's light.

This all sounds very exotic and far out but it's not, it's deeply ordinary. It's the simplest thing in the world. This is just different language for something that's always been a part of your life. I worry about telling you this stuff as it's potentially very confusing and also a powerful kind of food for the desiring, grasping mind which wants things to be different. But oh well. It's a part of the Buddhist tradition so here we are.

The way this is talked about and how much it's emphasized varies widely. The original text of Four Foundations of Mindfulness doesn't say anything like this directly but it's implied, some say. In later Buddhist teachings it's brought up very strongly but with lots of cautions about not misunderstanding it.

Maybe I'll park this here as: the 4th foundation is both the deep patterns of the mind AND the deeper pattern of reality that's beyond the conscious knowing of the mind: the space in which it all arises. And a caution not to try too hard to figure this out as our conscious mind it patterned to focus on that which arises not the space in which is appears. Pretty much the best thing is to stay steady and practice. We can certainly be curious about the deeper patterns of mind, that's a more accessible level of the 4th foundation. But all this formless stuff! Best is to respect it and leave it alone. Kind of like just now I made a trip to the kitchen for more coffee and I was overcome with a feeling of gratitude for the effort of our cooks. I looked in the kitchen and say how quiet and focussed they were. Steady on their tasks. And I realized that hollering out "thank you so much!" would actually be disruptive. It's a little like that with this formless quality of the 4th foundation of mindfulness. If gratitude and appreciation and spaciousness arises, that's nice, but you don't have to go hollering at it.

So back to the 3rd foundation - how do we understand this mind and how it works? But as we go there always remembering that the 4 foundations of course are not separate - they support each other and our lived experience is a product of all four together.

So here's an article by the Buddhist scholar Andrew Oldendski - I think he is a kind of independent Buddhist scholar-practitioner not an academic and he's a big fan of the early Buddhist model of the mind which was built just a little later than the Buddha gave these teachings on the foundations of mindfulness.

This is long enough given my long preamble that probably we'll do half of it today and the other half tomorrow. And along the way I'll see about weaving in some teachinings on the 4th foundation of mindfulness.

The Real Practice of Mindfulness


The English language is rich in many ways, particularly when explaining the features of the material world, but it is remarkably clumsy when it comes to articulating the nuanced terrain of inner experience. This is one of the reasons the current conversations about consciousness, meditation, and psychology in general can be somewhat confusing.

One of the satisfactions of studying the languages and literatures of India is the exposure it offers to a richer and more precise vocabulary for speaking about internal states of mind. At the time Greek philosophers were seeking to identify the universal substances out of which all matter is constructed, their counterparts in India were exploring, empirically and directly, the textures of consciousness. By the time Socrates suggested that care of the soul was an appropriate thing for philosophers to attend to, a detailed and highly developed map of the mind and body as a system of lived experience had been delineated by the Buddha and his immediate followers.

Part of the literature containing this lore is the Abhidhamma 1. It is an attempt to extract some of the Buddha’s core teachings about the phenomenology of experience from the narrative context of the dhamma and to organize it into a more systematic and consistent presentation. I’d like to offer a taste of this greater precision by considering the question, “What is mindfulness?” As the term grows in importance in contemporary discourse, its meaning seems to be becoming less rather than more clear. Fortunately, the rich vocabulary and meditative insight of the Abhidhamma tradition can help us understand better what the word “mindfulness” is referring to. In the process, this excursion will also include some general observations about how the mind functions and how these functions are augmented by the deliberate practice of meditation. Moreover, it will touch on the relationship between the cultivation of mindfulness and the emergence of wisdom.

The Nature of Consciousness

According to the Abhidhamma, consciousness arises and passes away each moment as a series of episodes in a continuing process. It is not a thing that exists, but an event that occurs—again and again—to yield the subjective experience of a stream of consciousness. Consciousness itself is rather simple and austere, consisting merely of the cognizing of a sense object by means of a sense organ. This event serves as a sort of seed around which a number of other mental factors crystallize to help consciousness create meaning from the stimuli presenting themselves so rapidly and relentlessly at the doors of the senses.

Like a king with his entourage, as the classical image has it, consciousness never arises alone. It is always attended by a number of other mental factors that help structure, shape, and direct rudimentary consciousness in various ways. The idiosyncrasies of our experience come from the unique configurations formed by all these supporting mental factors as they interact each moment with the changing data of the senses and the synthetic constructions of the mind. Altogether, fifty-two of these mental factors are enumerated in the Pali Abhidhamma. (The Sanskrit Abhidharma tradition has a somewhat different list, but we will not get into that here.) Scholars have tended to dismiss this exhaustive catalog of mental states as the product of scholasticism run amok, but many people with a mature practice of vipassana meditation are thrilled by the precision with which this literature describes the interior landscape. It is the child of two parents: its mother is deep empirical observation of meditative experience, while its father is a brilliant organizing intellect.

As I review the Abhidhamma perspective on meditation and mindfulness, I will identify each mental factor by its Pali term and its number on the list for the sake of clarity, but will not consider all the mental factors nor treat them in their strict canonical order.

Universal Mental Factors

Meditation starts with getting in touch with experience at the point of its inception. We literally make contact (phasso, 1) with what is happening in the present moment. If we are daydreaming or worrying or wondering what to do next, we let go of that for the moment and get grounded at one of the sense doors. What is the actual physical sensation arising this moment at the body door as I begin to draw an in-breath? Can I get right to the cutting edge of the sound produced by that chirping bird outside the window? Dropping down from the level of “thinking about” something to “getting in touch” with what is actually occurring right now is referred to as making contact with the sensation just as it first arrives at one of the sense doors.

We immediately notice that this sensation is always accompanied by a feeling tone (vedana, 2) that can be grossly or subtly pleasant or unpleasant. This is a strand of experience that brings with it a sense of embodiment, an awareness of visceral sensitivity. Every sensation comes with its own distinct quality, with a sense of what it feels like to be having that experience right here and now. Even when it is not obviously pleasant or unpleasant, there is nevertheless an affect tone that strings our moments of experience into a continuous flow of feelings, much like the cognitive flow of the stream of consciousness, and contributes to the feeling of being a living organism. Meditation can focus on discerning the distinction between bare sensory contact and the feeling tone that colors the sensation. The stimulus is one thing, while the feeling tone that gives it depth and flavor is another.

Perception (sañña, 3) is another mental factor occurring with every moment of consciousness. Its function is to interpret what it is that we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, or thinking in any particular episode of cognition. Perceptions puts together knowledge about the presenting object based upon a wide network of associations, memories, analyses, learned perceptual categories, and linguistic labels. These manifest as representations, symbols, words, icons, or other images we might form to interpret the sense data into meaningful categories of thought. This happens automatically and subliminally in every moment, but meditation can bring a heightened attentiveness to the process, so that we become more consciously aware of our perceptions, and the perceptions themselves can become more acute.

[To be continued...]

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