Talk 6 audio recording
Okay in yesterday's installment of the Early Buddhist Map of the Mind we had the beginnings of our assembly line of awareness - I was about to say assembly line of consciousness but remember in this system the word "consciousness" has a narrower meaning that our overall sense experience of being aware. Often we call "consciousness" this whole show.
We had first contact (phasso) with a sense object, and here we always include contact with a mental object too, so we hear or see or think something. But at this point "we" in the conventional sense of our discurive thinking mode doesn't yet know we're seen or heard or thought something. It's below the radar still. Then there's the coloring or flavoring of feeling tone (vedanā) that associates itself with that perceived object. And then there's perception (sañña) and the mind starts to distinguish that there's a namable object here.
I was thinking here about how the limbic system - you know the mid-brain earlier-evolved emotion center of the brain where everyone's favorite brain area, the amygdala, is - can recognize a limited number of objects as part of it's threat detection system. The neuroscience I've read says they think the hippocampus which is connected to the amygdala is able to store images of about 100 objects that are threatening to our well being - like snake-like shapes on the ground in front of you. If it's really a rope laying there it takes another few seconds for the more complex memory centers in your Pre-Frontal Cortex to send the message back to the limbic system that everything is cool, it's not a dangerous snake after all.
So I tend to assume, and here of course I'm mixing our models together, that the mental factor of perception (sañña) in Early Buddhism is more like this first level of perception and identification - very fast and simple - what kind of object is as a general case rather than too specific or tied into lots of past knowledge and and subtle classification.
Anyway be that as it may, Andrew Oldenski goes on to say that:
So far we have referred to four of the five khandas, or aggregates (skandhas in Sanskrit): material form, consciousness, feeling, and perception. Contact is the coming together of the organs and objects of sensation, both materially based, with consciousness, the mental act of knowing one by means of the other. Feeling and perception expand upon this data to fill in a richer picture of what we are experiencing. All four aggregates work together to answer questions like, “What is happening here?” and “How am I to understand what is arising in my experience right now?”
Here he's talking to an insider audience referencing a sub-model in Early Buddhism called the skandhas or khandas. That word literally means "heaps." This is the rather unglorious Early Buddhist model of what the self really is. The teaching is that all we really are is a collection of impulse-experiences that fall into five categories, five heaps. The five heaps are the material form heap, the feeling-tone heap - yes the same vedanā, the perceptions heap, the mental formations heap which is a pretty diverse category of mental experiences, and the consciousness heap - which here again is the simpler idea of consciousness being more like an little inner light that flickers one when our a sense and a sensed object come together.
To detour into the way they understand consciousness for a moment: the idea is that when the eye makes contact with a see-able object there's a visual consciousness that flickers on for an instant to process it. This also lines up with neuroscience where there's an area of the brain that usually is active - in the back of the brain somewhere - when we're seeing something that they call the visual cortex. And a weird, but important aside about that: the visual cortex is also active when we're visualizing something in our imagination. So the neuroscience and Buddhism do line up in lots of areas. Our main is creating the world in all kinds of ways. And by the way there are later Buddhist maps of the mind that do include types of consciousness that are more like the way we think about consciousness and there's even one that has a version of Jung's collective unconscious as a way to help solve that tricky problem of why we have this sense of continuity over time.
But anyway the idea of this 5 skandhas / 5 heaps model is that there is no separate existent me really and the way you can experience this to be true is you learn about these 5 categories of experience and you study every moment that comes up in your mind. And you will eventually see that actually everything that happens which you think of as "me" can be explained by this model, that everything you experience is just a bullet point on one or the other of these 5 lists so the idea of a me must be something you're assuming on top of all of that. This is supposed to release you a bit from self-clinging. Or more than a bit: ultimately it's supposed to release you completely.
So what was I doing this morning saying "just be yourself" if there's no self you might ask? Well because I think that's an important step in this longer arc project letting go of yourself in my experience: first you just settle on your self without so much extra stuff that you're piling on top of even these five heaps. If that makes any sense. And plus I personally don't think the 5 heaps model at least as it's narrowly interpreted as all that helpful. But that's another lecture.
The Real Practice of Mindfulness
BY ANDREW OLENDZKI| SEPTEMBER 2, 2016 | LION'S ROAR MAGAZINE
He explains a bit further:
Of the fifty-two mental factors listed in the Abhidhamma, two of them (feeling and perception) are aggregates in their own right [in these five heaps], while all of the remaining fifty are part of the fourth aggregate, formations (sankhara). These address the very different question, “What am I going to do about it?” or “What intentional stance do I take toward this?” Whereas consciousness, feeling[-tone], and perception are all based on words built upon the verb “to know,” the word for formations is rooted in the verb “to do” and covers the wide range of our emotional responses to what is happening.
So that's interesting: a few mental factors which are always present are just a sensing of what is but the vast majority of mental factors are all about what to do about this whole deal. That matches our experience I think!
He goes on:
The mental factor of intention (cetana, 4) is the active mode of the mind by means of which we exercise our volition or will. Meditation can be understood as an intentional action of paying attention, of being present with, or of otherwise choosing to be aware of what is arising and passing away in the field of experience. Even if one is trying not to direct the mind too much, as in the proverbial “choiceless awareness,” there is nevertheless a specific intention to attend carefully to whatever arises. Intention encompasses the executive function of the mind, the faculty by means of which decisions are made and karma is produced. An important nuance of Buddhist thought is that this executive function does not necessarily require an agent exercising it. Choices are made, but there is nobody who makes them—but this is a matter for another forum.
One of the key decisions made by intention is where and how to place one’s attention (manasikaro, 7), the next mental factor to consider. More than anything, meditation has to do with deliberately directing attention to a particular object of experience. Attending to the breath, attending to an intention of loving-kindness toward all beings, attending to the vast sky against which thoughts come and go like clouds—all involve the function of pointing or steering the mind in some non-ordinary way. The definition of daydreaming seems to be allowing attention to wander wherever it will, from one association to another; meditation is a mental discipline wherein the attention is trained to be more selective. Most meditation instructions include such instructions as “Allow the attention to settle on…” or “Bring attention to bear upon…” something or other.
A particular way of doing this is by having attention[al] focus (ekaggata, 5) or concentration upon a single point. This mental factor seems essential to any type of meditation, for by focusing the mind one increases its power significantly. If the mind skips from one object to another in time, or flits from this or that object in space, it can’t possibly generate the depth or stability to see anything clearly. One-pointed focus of mind—of consciousness, of intention, or of attention—is a way of harnessing the capacity of the mind to a particular purpose. The Buddhist tradition contains concentration meditations that specifically build upon this function, such as the jhanas, or absorptions, but all forms of meditation seem to require some level of focus.
So that's interesting we haven't even mentioned the mental factor of mindfulness yet, and remember it has a different meaning in traditional Buddhism than we're used to but there are three interlocking systems of attention at play even without mindfulness arising yet: intention (cetana) sends attention (manasikaro) it's marching orders and attentive focus (ekaggata) holds attention on the desired object of attention.
And this is remarkably in alignment with modern theories of attention. This is another vast field I know only a little about but my understanding is that the most common theory is that there are three systems of attention that work together to create this sense we have of being able to attend to something: the selecting system, the orienting system, and the alerting system. I'll put a link to a reference on this in the notes [http://razlab.mcgill.ca/docs/attentionalnetworks.pdf] although the next Google link after the review article on attention I looked at was entitled "Do The Three Attentional Networks Really Exists?" so we do have to remember when we dip into science as a non-specialist we never really have the full context but briefly my understanding is that the alignment here with the Buddhist factors is crazy close.
The selecting system is involved in selecting which perceptions to pay attention to - just like the factor of intention - and the orienting system has to do with placing our attention there and the altering system has to do with noticing when we're attending to something else or whether we should be paying attention to something else. It's kind of amazing that this all works: think about having a conversation at a noisy party as an example. You choose to attend to the words of your conversation partner because that's the polite thing to do, maybe you're even interested in what they have to say, and then somehow you can hear their words and ignore the many other words all around you not to mention the loud music, and then you can also notice both when your attention wanders away - alert, alert! attention wandering - but you're actually also monitoring all of that background sound for any potential threats or problems so that if someone says "That Tim really upset me at the retreat" my mind somehow picks that out and brings attention to it, often without those words appearing in the level of conscious awareness! More likely I'd suddenly lose track of what my friend is saying and look up, "what was that?" So attention isn't all self-conscious in fact probably a lot of it isn't.
Which brings me to an important teaching from my teacher about mindfulness, he said one time to us: "mindfulness is exactly not self-consciousness." I'm just going to let that rattle around in your brains for later I think. It's bigger than self is one way to give that jarring statement a little room maybe. Mindfulness is exactly not self-consciousness.
But back to systems of attention .We have several dear colleagues in our group who've suffered from various kinds of traumatic brain injuries and this is one of the systems that's often affected, I understand, so it might be much harder for some of us to wade into a cocktail party than others. Our brains and minds and consciousness are doing so much complex stuff all the time it's amazing! Or at least trying to.
So attention is a big deal. The review paper I was glancing at says:
One of the oldest and most central
issues in psychological science, attention
is the process of selecting for active
processing ideas stored in memory
in our minds, or aspects of our
physical environment, such as objects.
The study of attention has become
a huge enterprise; last year
alone about 300 articles were published
on attention (Fig. 1)
Olendski goes on:
So, are we meditating yet? Remarkably, no. According to the Abhidhamma, all the above mental factors mentioned are present in every single mind moment, whether we are meditating or not. All six factors (there is a seventh, but it is not immediately relevant) need to—and automatically do—participate in helping to shape and direct each moment of consciousness. If any one of these factors was absent, we would not be capable of ordinary coherent experience. Even when totally spacing out, or committing a heinous crime, some basic level of contact, feeling, perception, intention, attention, and focus is operative. The presence, and even the cultivation, of these factors alone does not sufficiently account for the practice of meditation.
So these first six steps in the assembly line are happening all the time: contact, feeling-tone, perception, intention, attention, and attentional-focus. All this just happens all the time whether we're on autopilot or in the deepest states of meditation.
The next section is:
The Abhidhamma next considers a number of factors that are not routinely present in the mind, but may be. When these are absent, we continue to function normally, but when they are present we manifest certain additional capabilities. There are six of these so-called occasional factors, which can arise individually or in various combinations. They are also called ethically neutral factors, because they are not inherently wholesome or unwholesome; they can contribute equally to beautiful or horrific states of mind.
The first of these mental factors is initial application (vitakko, 8). This is not a particularly elegant English rendering of the term, but it suits the meaning well enough. It refers to the capability we have to consciously and deliberately place our mind on a chosen object of experience. When you work through a math problem, retell a detailed story, or find your mind drifting during meditation practice and (gently, of course) re-apply it to the breath, you are exercising this function of applying the mind in a particular way. All discursive thinking is based on this ability to take charge of the mind’s attention, so to speak, and is responsible for our prodigious planning and problem-solving skills.
Having directed the mind to a chosen object, another factor is needed to hold it there; this is sustained application (vicaro, 9). As you may have noticed, there are considerable forces working to distract your mind and keep its attention moving from one object to another. No doubt this promiscuity of attention has survival value in a rapidly changing environment, but there is also something to be gained by exercising the ability to hold the mind on something long enough to fully understand it and its implications. Concentration meditation, in which one attempts to hold attention steadily on the breath, for example, will be effective only if this focus can be sustained without interruption.
Ah maybe I was too quick to line up intention, attention and attentional-focus with the three psychological systems of attention as here come more layers of subtlety. applying the mind and sustaining the mind on our chosen area of focus.
Both initial and sustained application work together to help train and discipline the mind around certain specific practices, such as breath awareness, guided Brahmavihara practice, and all forms of visualization. Additionally, they may or may not be further supported by energy (viriyam, 11). We know what it feels like to do something with or without energy. Sometimes the mind stays easily on course and no particular effort is needed. Other times it is recalcitrant as a mule and needs a good kick. Energy is a mental factor that is not naturally always present, and in common idiom we talk about putting forth energy, arousing energy, or otherwise conjuring it up when needed.
Three other factors are considered ethically variable occasionals: decision (adhimokkho, 10), joy (piti, 12), and impulse (chando, 13). Each of these three adds something else to the texture of consciousness, and manifests under different circumstances. Decision, literally “releasing toward,” also means conviction or confidence, and functions when we do or think something with an attitude of decisiveness or determination. Joy is an intense mental pleasure, which can manifest, alas, in either wholesome or unwholesome contexts. And impulse, it is important to note, simply refers to an ethically neutral urge, inclination, or motivation to act, and not to the desire (greed, hatred) rooted in unwholesomeness. If the Buddha eats a meal at the appropriate time, for example, we can say he is prompted to act toward that end without being driven by desire or lust for food. In experience, chando can be discerned as the impulse preceding even the most simple and functional actions.
So how we see elements we think of as in the realm of compassion. Affective and ethical components. Decisiveness. Joyfulness. And this could-go-either-way mental factor of impulse. How do we direct our attention and what are the results of those many little decisions about how we orient our mind?
Are we practicing mindfulness yet? We have already seen that if I sit with my legs crossed and back straight, get in touch with the physical sensations of the breath, and intentionally direct my attention to a single point, I am not necessarily meditating. These are all factors that will manifest spontaneously in any endeavor and are not unique to meditation. If I further apply my mind and sustain its attention on the in-breath, put forth energy with determination, joy, and a selfless inclination for the well-being of all living creatures, I may well be meditating—but that does not necessarily mean that I am cultivating mindfulness.
And then at last we have:
Mindfulness and its Associated States
Mindfulness (sati, 29), according to the Abhidhamma, is a wholesome mental factor that will arise only under special circumstances. In most of the conventional ways we use the term these days, we are likely to be referring to any number and combination of the factors already mentioned. In the classical texts, especially the Satipatthana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya, 10), one goes to an empty place, crosses one’s legs, straightens one’s back, and then establishes mindfulness (sati-upatthana) as an immediate presence. The Abhidhamma offers a fourfold definition of mindfulness, following the convention of the classical commentaries: 1) its characteristic is not wobbling, or keeping the mind from floating away from its object; 2) its function is absence of confusion, or non-forgetfulness (the term saticomes from a word for memory); 3) its manifestation is the state of confronting an objective phenomenal field; and 4) its immediate cause is strong perception or the four foundations of mindfulness (i.e., body, feeling, consciousness, mental objects). These definitions all suggest an enhanced presence of mind, a heightened attentiveness to objects of experience in the present moment, a special non-ordinary quality of attention. We can learn a lot more about it by looking at the company it keeps.
To begin with, it is an axiom of the Abhidhamma system that wholesome and unwholesome mental factors cannot co-arise in the same moment of consciousness. Mindfulness is a wholesome factor, so true mindfulness will arise only in a moment of consciousness if there are no unwholesome factors present. There are fourteen unwholesome factors, including greed (lobho, 18), hatred (doso, 21), and delusion (moho, 14), and a number of other afflictive emotional states deriving from various combinations of these three roots. This means that if we are feeling envy (issa, 22) or avarice (macchariyam, 23), for example, these states have our consciousness firmly in grip for the moment; they have hijacked our intention and all the other co-arising mental states, and are directing them to acting and creating karma in an unwholesome way. There can be no mindfulness in such a moment.
This point that wholesome and unwholesome mental factors can't arise at the same time in our conscious awareness is a very big deal for the well being of us and our world. We tend to impute a kind of personality trait on people: he's an evil leader, she's a compassionate health care worker. And although this system through a kind of intricate web of causality does have ways of explaining those tendencies it focusses most on moment to moment experience. And a moment of positive oriention in even the most troubled mind is a moment in which an afflictive mental state like hatred or greed cannot be present.
This is also the affective mechanism for why mindfulness helps with depression or anxiety. A moment of grounded present-moment awareness cannot be a moment of rumination, cannot be a moment of fear. Even if the contents of awareness in that moment are pretty ordinary to our way of looking at it like the feeling in the bottom of your foot as you stand it's also a moment of freedom and healing.
The moment immediately following [even a moment of unwholesome mental states arising], however, is a whole new beginning. Here we have the option, if we are trained and skillful in the establishment of mindfulness, of taking the envy or avarice that has just passed away as an object of the new moment, with an attitude of mindful investigation. Every moment of consciousness, we might say, has two major components: the object, and the intention with which that object is cognized. A mental object can be almost anything, including unwholesome intentions from previous mind moments; the intention with which it is held here and now will be shaped by the fifty-two mental factors. This means that we cannot be envious and mindful in the same moment, but we can be envious one moment and mindful of that fact the very next moment. Indeed, much of what is called spiritual development consists of first becoming aware of what states are arising and passing away in experience (no small challenge in itself), and then of learning how to regard them with mindfulness rather than remaining lost in them or carried away by them (an even more daunting, but not impossible, task).
One of the more astonishing insights of the Abhidhamma is that mindfulness always co-arises with eighteen other wholesome mental factors. We are used to thinking of these factors as very different things, but the fact that they all arise together suggests they can be viewed as facets of the same jewel, as states that mutually define one another. By reviewing the range of wholesome factors that co-arise with it, we can get a much closer look at the phenomenology of mindfulness.
First, there is equanimity (tatra-majjhattata, 34). The Abhidhamma actually uses a more technical word for this (literally “there-in-the-middle-ness”), but it is functionally equivalent to equanimity, an evenly hovering attitude toward experience that is neither attracted nor repelled by any object. It is therefore also characterized by non-greed (alobho, 32) and non-hatred (adoso, 33). This is the generic Abhidhamma way of referring to generosity or non-attachment on the one hand and loving-kindness on the other.
You can see how these three work together on a continuum to delineate perhaps the most salient characteristic of mindfulness. When true mindfulness arises, one feels as if one is stepping back and observing what is happening in experience, rather than being embedded in it. This does not mean separation or detachment, but is rather a sense of not being hooked by a desirable object or not pushing away a repugnant object. There in the middle, equidistant from each extreme, one encounters a sense of freedom that allows for greater intimacy with experience. It may seem paradoxical, but this system suggests we can take an attitude toward the objects of experience that is at the same time both equanimous and benevolent. Loving-kindness manifests as a deeply friendly intention toward another’s well-being, but it is not rooted in any selfish desire for gratification. Similarly, generosity co-arising with equanimity indicates that a deep intention to give something valuable to another can manifest without a desire for reciprocal gain.
So the super great thing here is that mindfulness in this sense is a very positive, wholesome thing. And an odd thing in some of the discussions of mindfulness by earlier Western Buddhist scholars was that mindfulness is the same thing as "bare attention" - totally neutral of other factors - and while mindfulness in this system is certainly a much more direct awareness of what is without layers and layers of narrative and story sitting on top of it it's far from "bare attention."
Also engaged [[when mindfulness arises] with all these mental factors are the twin “guardians of the world,” self-respect (hiri, 30) and respect for others (ottappam, 31). I find these translations preferable to the more common “moral shame” and “moral dread,” for obvious reasons—such English words carry with them unfortunate baggage that has no place in Buddhist psychology. The first of these constitutes an indwelling conscience, by means of which we know for ourselves whether or not an action we are doing or are going to do is appropriate. The second term is more of a social or interpersonal version of conscience. As mammals, I think we have adaptive instincts for empathy toward other members of the group and reflexively understand whether we are thinking, speaking, or acting within or outside the social norm. These two factors, self-respect and respect for others, are called guardians because they are always operative in all wholesome states, while their opposites, lack of self-respect (ahirikam, 15) and lack of respect for others (anottappam, 16), are present in every single unwholesome state.
Next, we have faith (saddha, 28) always co-arising with mindfulness. Every moment of mindfulness is also a moment of confidence or trust; it is not a shaky or tentative state of mind, and is the antithesis of unwholesome doubt (vicikiccha, 27). There remains only to consider a group of six associated factors, each referring to two mental factors (numbers 35–46). These terms can be taken almost as adjectives of mindfulness: tranquility, lightness, malleability, wieldiness, proficiency, and rectitude. Experientially, these qualities can serve as useful indicators to when true mindfulness is manifesting. If you are regarding an object of experience during meditation with any restlessness, for example, or with heaviness, or with rigidity, you can be sure that mindfulness is not present. By the same token, mindfulness is sure to be present when all six of these qualities arise together, each mutually supporting and defining one another. It is all at once a peaceful, buoyant, flexible, effective, capable, and upright state of mind.
This factor of faith or trust is really important and also often left out of modern mindfulness as it sounds too religious. But if you actually look the way people meet these practices in our classes and workshops and retreats it's really clear that there's a tremendous degree of faith and trust that arises - sometimes a bit haltingly to be sure and there is often quite a bit of doubt there but as the classes go along and the participant becomes more confident in the teacher, the group, and the process it's not just that they "see for themselves that this works" actually although they may have some positive experiences early on but that they somehow develop tremendous faith that allows them to go forward with the practice. I think it's this faith and trust that has carried each of us through some of the stickier patches this week, don't you think? If you were totally rational and evaluating each moment in a kind of trust-free zone when things got rough earlier or if they're rough right now, wouldn't the logical thing to do be to go start packing? To see this through you wouldn't then generalize and say "mindfulness is no good" you would recognize there's been some benefit but at the moment it's not working so I might as well leave. Getting some work done today or spending time with my family is more important than sitting here suffering. Thanks Tim and Karen, I appreciate it but I'm done. Bye.
And by the way you might have noticed that Janine Shea has left. Our wonderful late morning coffee maker among many other things. Janine was starting to notice some medical symptoms that she was concerned about, talked to her doctor, and the recommendation was it'd be wiser to move closer to home just in case things got worse. So she did not suffer from a loss of faith so much as applied her mindfulness practice to current situation and made a decision that seemed best for her well being. She sends her best.
Well there's one more section of Andrew Olendski's article that I think we're going to have to save for after you get home. Does that lead to a little suffering in some of your minds: "wait I want it all!" It might lead to some relief in other minds here though "boy that's dense stuff and it's stressing me out trying to make sense of it all". That's something to remember when you get into that fixer mode about a group retreat like this - you tend to think that everyone else is having the same experience you're having, but chances are half of them are having the opposite experience. That's why Karen and I talk so funny sometimes with lots of maybes and invitations and in-case-it's-helpful-to-yous. We can't help but be biased by our own experience but we've trained ourselves to try to remember that your milage may vary. I fell afoul of this just yesterday it turn out when I said something like wow, wouldn't it be great if we could just live this ongoing. So natural and peaceful this way of life right? Someone came to see me and said: "NOT!" but that she's willing to keep working with the challenges of this until tomorrow at noon.
Sorry about that. I get enthusiastic sometimes about this way of practicing and lose my felt sense of how hard it can be. I remember sometimes too - quite viscerally - this is a really challenging thing this practicing like this all week: it takes courage and steadiness. AND it's also actually quite wonderful too. We could each day line up in a line with the people most stressed out at the moment at one end the people most joyful at the moment at the other end. If that wouldn't be so shame inducing and embarassing it would actually be kind of interesting because I bet we'd see some interesting patterns. Some people probably moving left and right between joy and challenge pretty far each day other people pretty steady where they are in that spectrum. Just remember it's not your fault really!
How you're feeling this week has something to do with your efforts and choices to be sure but it has a whole lot more to do with the conditioning you carried here with you in that big sack we all have slung over our shoulders. The nature of this kind of event is you can not longer just keep charging forward and not feeling what you have in there. The sack tends to open up and the joys and sorrows that your life has stored in there - that society has tucked in when you weren't looking, that your parents and their parents gave you, that the state of the world dribbles in there - all that stuff is your responsibility it seems since you're the one carrying the sack, no one else can actually carry it for you - they might be able to take a look and if they have a little wisdom and you have some trust in them they might be able to point out a few helpful things - "woah there's some heavy stuff in here" - but they can't empty your sack for you or fill it full of helium to lighten it or anything like that. I love the phrase, "it's not your fault but it is your responsibility." Reality - life - gave you this load. Now what?
We're still all here for another 24 hours so I hesitate to say that this is my last talk helping to fan the flames of short-timer syndrome we tend to get into but there is another important person in our community who's leaving after lunch so I want to honor and thank her.
[thank yous] Karen, Community of Christ, our cooks, John and Sandy Vanderwalker, Samish Indian Nation, Norman Fischer, the MNW staff most of whom are right here amazingly enough, my fellow sangha members at Red Cedar Zen where I cut my teeth and continue learning.
Keep the silence. Reel your mind back from the future around how this will end and what you need to do next. That's mostly a trust practice, not fighting your mind, trust that it all will go just as it needs to go without you trying to influence the future from your seat here.
A few interviews this afternoon - just a few so I'll come get you individually and not worry about attempting high efficiency shell games. MTTP I'll announce when we gather - probably at 4pm but just follow the schedule and I'll let you know.
Give Karen the mic.
[If time] And as an antidote to all these mechanical figure out how your mind works models here's another model:
Rosemerry Trommer - One Morning
we will wake up
and forget to build
that wall we’ve been building,
the one between us
the one we’ve been building
for years, perhaps
out of some sense
of right and boundary,
perhaps out of habit.
we will wake up
and let our empty hands
hang empty at our sides.
Perhaps they will rise,
as empty things
by the wind.
Perhaps they simply
will not remember
how to grasp, how to rage.
We will wake up
and we will have
misplaced all our theories
about why and how
and who did what
to whom, we will have mislaid
all our timelines
of when and plans of what
and we will not scramble
to write the plans and theories anew.
On that morning,
not much else
will have changed.
Whatever is blooming
will still be in bloom.
Whatever is wilting
will wilt. There will be fields
to plow and trains
to load and children
to feed and work to do.
And in every moment,
in every action, we will
feel the urge to say thank you,
we will follow the urge to bow.
[the rest of the article by Andrew Olendski]
The Cultivation of Mindfulness
With all that has been said, it may seem that mindfulness is a rare occurrence, arising only under the most exotic of conditions. In fact, however, it is something we all experience, often in one context or another. The cultivation of mindfulness as a meditation practice entails coming to know it when we see it and learning how to develop it. The Pali word for development is bhavana, which simply means “causing to be.” The core meditation text Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta) offers simple instructions on how to do this:
As mindfulness is internally present, one is aware: “Mindfulness is internally present in me.” As mindfulness is not internally present, one is aware: “Mindfulness is not internally present in me.” As the arising of unarisen mindfulness occurs, one is aware of that. As the arisen mindfulness is developed and brought to fulfillment, one is aware of that. (Majjhima Nikaya 10:42)
In mindfulness meditation, we work to create the conditions favorable to the arising of mindfulness, relaxing the body and the mind, focusing the attention carefully but gently on a particular aspect of experience, while producing sufficient energy to remain alert without losing a sense of ease and tranquility. Under such conditions, properly sustained, mindfulness will emerge as if by some grace of the natural world, as if it were a gift of clarity from our deepest psyche to the turbid shallows of our mind. When it does, we gradually learn how to hold ourselves so that it lingers, to relocate or re-enact it when it fades, and to consistently water its roots and weed its soil so that it can blossom into a lovely and sustainable habit of heart and mind.
As much as the scientific community currently enthralled with mindfulness would like to ignore the ethical component of the Buddhist tradition to focus their studies on the technology of meditation, we can see from this Abhidhamma treatment of the subject that true mindfulness is deeply and inextricably embedded in the notion of wholesomeness. Although the brain science has yet to discover why, this tradition nonetheless declares, based entirely on its phenomenological investigations, that when the mind is engaged in an act of harming it is not capable of mindfulness. There can be heightened attention, concentration, and energy when a sniper takes a bead on his target, for example, but as long as the intention is situated in a context of taking life, it will always be under the sway of hatred, delusion, wrong view (ditthi, 19), or some other of the unwholesome factors. Just as a tree removed from the forest is no longer a tree but a piece of lumber, so also the caring attentiveness of mindfulness, extracted from its matrix of wholesome co-arising factors, degenerates into mere attention.
One final question remains to be asked: As we practice the true development of mindfulness, are we also cultivating wisdom? If meditation (samadhi) is the bridge between integrity (sila) on one hand and wisdom (pañña) on the other, does mindfulness lead inevitably to wisdom? The discomforting answer to this question is again, no. The Abhidhamma lists wisdom (pañña, 52) as the last of the mental factors. Wisdom is certainly a wholesome factor, but it is not a universal wholesome factor and so does not arise automatically along with mindfulness and the rest.
Wisdom, understood as seeing things as they really are, is the crucial transformative principle in the Buddhist tradition. Just as you can practice meditation without manifesting mindfulness, so too can you practice mindfulness all you want without cultivating wisdom. If mindfulness is not conjoined with insight (another word for wisdom), it will not in itself bring about a significant change in your understanding. Real transformation comes from uprooting the deeply embedded reflex of projecting ownership upon experience (“this is me, this is mine, this is what I am”) and seeing it instead as an impermanent, impersonal, interdependent arising of phenomena. Cultivating mindfulness is a crucial condition for this to happen, but it will not in itself accomplish that end. As one text puts it, mindfulness is like grabbing a sheath of grain in one hand, while wisdom is cutting it off with a sickle in the other.
As with the arising of mindfulness, so also for the arising of wisdom: it cannot be forced by the will or engineered by the technology of meditation. Yet the conditions that support the emergence of wisdom can be patiently and consistently cultivated, moment after mindful moment, until it unfolds as of its own accord, like the lotus bursting out above the water or the moon flashing suddenly from behind a cloud.
This is hardly the last word on the subject, but I suspect the foregoing analysis raises the bar somewhat on how we use mindfulness as a technical term. Two things at least seem quite clear: there can scarcely be a more noble capability of the mind than mindfulness, and its cultivation must surely be one of the more beneficial things we can do as human beings.
1 This refers to the Abhidharma of the Theravada school, which is composed of seven books and written in Pali. Some parts differ from the Sarvastivada school, written in Sanskrit.