This is one of a series of transcripts of contemporary talks which have particularly resonated with me.
This talk was made available by Dharma Seed.
Satipaṭṭhāna (Satipatthana) as a map of experience and practical orientation.
So. I’d like to request your kind attention. You’ve been doing well. Second day. Yet another scratch on the walls of your cave tonight. Another five to go.
I was thinking of giving you some kind of a map today. It’s no secret that early Buddhist teachings favors meditation. When we actually look at what is said about meditation, it comes as a surprise that A), we don’t have a clear word for the Pāli, in Pāli language, in the canonical language of early Buddhism, for what we translate with “meditation”. Meditation is a funny word, coming from the Christian tradition. Meditare means “to think”. And it seems somewhat ironic that precisely this term has been chosen to convey what many of you will, I’m sure agree with me, is not really about thinking, but about a particular relationship to thinking.
So I don’t really know who invented this “meditation” business as the translation for a number of possible terms that are candidates to be “meditation” in Pāli. Maybe the most common one, I think Christina has already mentioned it, is a term called “Bhavana”. Which basically comes from agriculture, and it means “Cultivation”. “Calling into being”.
There’s lots of kinds of cultivation in early Buddhism. There’s cultivation that has to do with our relationship to the physical world. Kāya Bhavana. Anything from starting with this body to our planet. All this would be a dimension of what the Buddha thinks is worthy to be cultivated. Then we have a second type of cultivation w which refers to our social world. Our relationship to the social context in which we live, called Sila Bhavana. Which has something to do with ethics, and what we do with others and what others do to us, and how we hold and manage this. It’s also a big topic; not necessarily covered by the term meditation, I believe. And then we have a third big domain called “Cultivation of Mind”. Citta Bhavana. Which, in this context, means learning to still the mind and learning to create the paradigms of empathy. Those famous four Brahmavihāras. Which, in my understanding of Buddhist teaching, become more and more and more important as my life goes on. Initially I thought Brahmavihāras, that was basically for people who couldn’t meditate. At least they could be nice, you know? So it was kind of the soft option, you know? There was this samadhi, and then there was, you know, those who were nice. I was quite snooty about this, and I was also growing up in two traditions which are not very famous for having made much of the Brahmavihāras. One is Japanese Sōtō zen, which has many virtues, but it isn’t exactly famous for having a lot to say about four-fold dimensions of universal empathy. And the other one is the Thai Forest Tradition who, again, also has many virtues, but you have to actually walk quite far to find teachers who explicitly teach, not just one, but all four of those Brahmavihāras. Some of these people exude them, but by natural means more than by studious application of the Forest Tradition’s teachings.
The second part of that third type of development, cultivation, is about stillness. It’s basically, the practice is called Samatha, the result is called Samādhi. The result is sweet; the practice is not always sweet. The result has to do with integration, in a big way, and unification. And the practice often has to with some degree of repetitiveness. And with a voluntary, deliberate focusing and, for at least a part of the time, narrowing one’s focus. So this is a big area of development that the Buddha placed great great weight on.
And finally the fourth area of development is called “The Development of Wisdom”. “The Cultivation of Wisdom”. Paññā Bhavana. So you have these four huge areas of development: one about our physical relationship, one about our social relationships, one about stilling the mind and making the mind empathetic, and the fourth one, learning to understand. From asking good questions to complete transformative wisdom.
Now the point is simply that if we look at what we think by “meditation”, what “meditation” has come to mean, it seems that we have lost a little bit of the breath of these tasks. What is there to be cultivated? If we boil down meditation to be sitting in formal practice on a cushion, practicing mindfulness, observing my thoughts… we’ve lost a few bits along the way there. So it makes sense to be archaeologists of what “meditation” meant to the Buddha. And if we are trying to do archaeology of what meditation meant to the Buddha, we find these peculiar phenomena that one of the most common patterns, how meditation is described, in fact it’s found over two dozen times in the suttas, in the discourses, this is a little story that keeps coming up.
And the little story generally runs as follows: it starts with a young man… it’s always a man… with black hair, from good family, who has faith and goes forth, shaves off hair and beard, becomes a monastic, and then starts to practice meditation, goes on alms rounds, eats his food, washes his alms bowl and his hands, and then sits down, crosses his legs, keeps his body erect… that’s where we get really fascinated, ‘now, what is he doing?’… and he establishes mindfulness in front of him.
And then we say, ‘Wonderful. So far so good.” And then we’d expect a great detail, and fine granularity of explanation. But nothing of that comes. You know, we are told this young man of good family with shaven head, having satiated himself with his alms food, washed his hands and found a suitable place, at the foot of a tree, on a little bundle of grass, in the open, in a cave, with upright body, this young man suddenly puts down all of the five hindrances, realizes jānas, you know, starts developing extra-ordinary powers, and not long after he started off, finishes what there was to be finished.
And we wonder, have we missed an important bit here? Can we have that again in slow motion, please? Let’s go over the details. I’m with you when he crosses his legs… I’m with you when he’s upright… I’m with you when he breathes in and breathes out… when he establishes mindfulness… and then, next bit, all those hindrances go out of the window, all those jānas come into the window; he’s basically done after that. And it becomes obvious when you read the story, it’s obvious that we are missing pieces there. So some of the pieces that obviously take place… I say that as somebody who has crossed his legs for a few years now, and made his body upright, and established a little bit of mindfulness in front of me; it has become obvious that there are bits missing in that description. Something is amiss. And it seems quite clear that the Buddha’s thought, and his people, maybe following an Indian suspicion that the really important bits you can’t put into text. The really important bits of learning take place within a relationship. A relationship that takes into account who you are, what you bring to this practice, what your particular hangups, but also what your virtues are. Where you stand in your process. And that is a bit a text cannot deliver.
So it seems that, like many other traditions also, Buddhists have ultimately not given a lot of trust to writing things down. In fact, the writing down part has happened a lot later in Buddhist teaching. However you are gonna turn it, between the death of the Buddha, around the year 400BC, and the appearance of the earliest Pāli texts, you have three hundred years. So in those three hundred years, the texts as we have them, the discourses as we have them have been written, have been compiled, have been collated, have been anthologized, have been grouped, and quite clearly have sustained editorial processes in that.
Although it is hard for us to imagine that the human mind could transmit, with some accuracy, textual material over a long time, you have to understand that in India, there was already an existing tradition that was offering training in mnemonic techniques, in phonetic transmissions. The Vedic and Upanishadic traditions the Buddha found himself surrounded by, and much of his teaching refers to those teachings of Vedic teachings, Upanishadic teachings, but also other Indian traditions. The Jains, for example, all these people knew how to learn things by heart. Their handing down of information, of teaching, was oral. So the Buddha made use of these techniques; in fact he collectivized these techniques. While in a Vedic tradition you have a teacher/disciple relationship where one recites and the other learns by rote and rehearses, in the Buddhist tradition you have groups of people that become responsible for handing down texts. So if you do ever listen to chanting then you know that this is where it came from. That was an initial mnemonic technique of how teachings can be transmitted. A disciple in the words, literally of the Buddha, is “Somebody who listens”. Is a listener. A hearer. So learning happened by hearing.
Now, we have a great exception to this dearth of actual detail, how we go from folding our legs to putting down the hindrances, we have the fortune that we have a huge amount of discourses, the Buddha’s teaching was forty-five years and he has said many things in those forty-five years. And thanks to the textual, oral tradition that handed these teachings down, collected these teachings, collated these teachings, anthologized these teachings, grouped these teachings, we have access to bits and pieces of meditational detail. That deviate from that story I just gave you, namely leaving out the detail.
One of those detailed maps of how to meditate is a group of teachings called “Satipaṭṭhāna”. Satipaṭṭhāna means literally, establishing presence of mind. And there are some key texts to that. Famous are some of the Pāli versions, the “Foundations of Mindfulness” is one translation, “Establishments of Mindfulness” is another translation. So basically the Pāli tradition alone has already three of those. And there are several in the Chinese lineage and there are bits and pieces of which have made it into the early Mahāyāna literature, which is actually a lot earlier than we think. Until recently we believed that this is much later, but now we know that the writing down of Buddhist texts began with the movement of Mahāyāna and it is very likely that the Pāli tradition was later in the game. They had to keep up.
So we are in the first century BC and we have, by now, several hundred years of discourses and teaching pieces on how to establish mindfulness. There is a huge body of teachings. Maybe the more interesting pieces of teaching on Satipaṭṭhāna are not in the Satipaṭṭhana Suttas themselves, but outside. There are other groups of discourses which hold over a hundred small-ish, often golden, glimpses of how to practice Satipaṭṭhana.
What I would like to do tonight is, rather than go into the detail of the individual exercises that we are given in these Satipaṭṭhana teachings, I would look at the overview of Satipaṭṭhana. Satipaṭṭhana as a map of experience. There aren’t that many maps of experience in Buddhist teaching. One of the maps is the six sense realms; looking at our experience in terms of which of our sense fields are affected. Much of analytical Buddhism is looking at experience in terms of: where does it originate? In which sense field? Does it start with touch? Does it start with smell? Does it start with sight? Does it start with listening? Does it start with thinking? Remember, Buddhism has as a sixth sense field, the mind base. That means what you think is not transcendent. That’s a very big difference to some of Western thinking and Western philosophy. Thinking is, amongst other things, also a mere sensory experience from a Buddhist point of view. I agree; from the point of consciousness. Thinking is a sensory experience. So whether you sink your teeth into a hamburger, or whether you think about the resolution of a mathematical formula, both forms are sensory experiences. You can get hooked on them, you can be appalled by them, you can get indignant, or attached to them. All of this is sensory experience. So, the Āyatanas, the six sense field, is one big map.
Another big map is the five aspects of experience, or the five aspects of experience if clung to. The five Khandas. Which is a way the Buddha speaks about empirical personality. And he uses this model, or this map, particularly to undo notions of identity. Identity in the sense of a soul; in the sense of a core essence. Psychologists in here, don’t get nervous. We are not going to preach psychosis and get people out of their identities. It’s about a particular notion of “Who I Am” that is at much of the core of our suffering. The map of the Khandas is about dealing with the notion of self. The notion of who I am and how solid I am.
Another map, obviously, is the Four Ennobling Tasks. The four basic patterns of how we can approach the givens of our reality:  understanding that there is pain,  understanding where that pain comes from,  understanding that that pain can be arrested, brought to cessation, and  understanding the nuts and bolts of how to get out of the pain. That would be another big map.
And my understanding is that the Satipaṭṭhāna are yet another map. For what we would call “Experience”. So these Satipaṭṭhānas tell us that, basically, there are four huge areas in our experience in which we are encouraged to skillfully cultivate, first Attention, and then Mindfulness. Let me be clear, Attention and Mindfulness is not the same. It’s important to make a distinction there. The Buddhist psychology is crystal clear in that distinction. One is called Manasikāra; Attention is called Manasikāra. It is something that happens every moment. It’s a factor of mind that takes place every moment of our conscious experience. The other is called Mindfulness. In Pali this is Sati. The Sati of Ānāpānasati, the Sati of Satipaṭṭhāna, the Sati of Kāyagatāsati. It occurs many many times. It’s about as famous as a word can get in Pali. It’s on so many charts.
Pali, like many oral literatures, loves charts and lists. And Sati holds basically the top place on being as many many lists.
So, attention [Manasikāra] is something we do all the time. We are generally episodically attentive, and we are topically attentive. So, we do it in little spurts and spots. We are quite spotty in our attention. Usually we attend to things that are new, or that are interesting, or that are particularly loud, or particularly unexpected. So this is called “Involuntary Attention”. Most of our attention is Involuntary Attention. It feels as if our attention is pulled out of us by the objects of our attention.
The newer jargon for this is “Incentive Salience”. Salience is an interesting term. It means “Something that jumps forth”. It means something that is jumping forth in respect to its context. So you have a hundred green lights and then you have a red light in the middle. And guess where your attention goes. This red light has incentive salience. It means our attention just runs to it. Most of our involuntary attention functions along those lines. It just runs to it.
The reason why you are tired after a day of sitting around, basically, is because you are trying to stem the tide of involuntary attention. Whenever you practice deliberately attending to something, like the breath, or your feet, or metta practice, you make an effort. And you make an effort that goes against the habit formation of your involuntary attentional patterning. And that is effortful. That’s why you’re tired after sitting around all day. Meditation takes a lot more effort than it looks like. If you just look at it from outside.
So, our four Satipaṭṭhānas, let me name them.  The first one has to do with body. It’s called… the actual exercise is called Contemplation of Body. But let’s just consider it, the Body Dimension. We are encouraged to pay appropriate and skillful attention to Dimensions of the Body.  The second of those Satipaṭṭhānas is called Vedanā. And this refers to the degree of pleasure, displeasure, and indifference we experience in our lives. It’s important to understand this term correctly. Vedanā is not an emotion. It is not about the affective dimension of our experience. And Vedanā is also not a sensation. It’s not about the energetic or the somatic part of our experience. Vedanā is about one thing and one thing only. It’s a spectrum term on the axis of pleasure to pain. And somewhere in between is indifference.
My translation of Vedanā after much pondering of this, and picking up some scholars that have begun in the late 80s of the last century to speak about Vedanā in those terms. My preferred translation is Hedonic Tone. Hedonic, Hēdonḗ, from Greek, Pleasure. It’s a bit technical, I admit, but I cannot reconcile myself to the common translations of Feeling or of Sensation. Because they are not just inaccurate, they are plain wrong. To be honest with you.
It’s important to understand the second dimension, we are encouraged to pay close and skillful attention to is to how we experience pleasure and how we experience displeasure and what happens when we are meeting with indifference. Very very powerful formation in the mind. We have a lot of conditioning around maximizing pleasure; psychologists call this “Appetitive Behaviour”. Approach Behaviour. And we have a lot of conditioning around avoiding displeasure and discomfort, things we don’t like. Psychologists call this “Avoidance Behaviour”. So this is the second dimension, we are encouraged to learn to practice forms of mindfulness that are both continuous and that are transformative and that are helpful, salubrious.
 The third dimension, the third of the Satipaṭṭhānas is about Citta. Now the Citta here is basically States of Mind. It is the Climate of Mind. That means Mood, it means things like Forms of Intention, Wanting Things and Not Wanting Things; in fact Liking and Disliking Things is already part of that [Citta] dimension. This is an interesting piece. One of the things that we can learn from this map is that the experience of Pleasure and the experience of Like often occur in sequence with each other, but they are not inevitably connected. It is possible to be pleased by something without having the mind inclining through like and following. That’s a very very important piece that makes a lot of sense. When your mind becomes more still you begin to understand there is a junction that you have a choice whether you are going to follow something that you like or whether you are going to avoid something that you dislike.
That third dimension is a huge area. It has to do with anything that moves our affective life. The color of our mind, the climate of our mind, the mood of our mind. The forms, the states that we experience. And you’ll notice, your mind is capable of going through a number of states during a day. You keep coming you keep going, you do some walking, you do some sitting. There isn’t much drama in this, there isn’t much change in this. And yet, what you experience are totally different states, isn’t it? After a while you sit here and you realize you are inspired, elated, and other days you do exactly the same things and you are bored, you are despondent, you are angry, you may be going through all kinds of emotional differing states. And yet, what you actually do, on the outside, for an observer, it just looks like, well, she’s coming, he’s going, there isn’t much difference. But, for you, there is a lot of difference. So the third of the Satipaṭṭhāna areas is a huge and crucial piece. It’s the piece where we go to when we are asked, “How do you feel?”.
 The fourth of the Satipaṭṭhānas is about specific contents of our experience. It is not Mind State, but Mind Content. The term for it is Dhammā. The term Dhammā has two meanings here. One of them is a plural with a long “A”; it’s not the Dhamma of the Buddha. That will be his teaching. But it’s Dhammā in the sense of phenomena. States; the content of my thought, concepts, ideas, any object of mind is a Dhammā. So that’s one reason why this fourth category is called … Mind Content. The second meaning of the term Dhammā is absolutely untranslatable. Dhammā is the term for a category of which Buddhist traditions think it is useful to apply to the experience of a human being. So it refers to specific groups of categories that Buddhist teaching thinks are necessary to contemplate.
These groups are, for example, the five Khandas I just mentioned, the five aspects of experience. The five hindrances are such a group of Dhammās. The seven awakening factors are such a group of Dhammās. The six sense fields, the Āyatanas I just mentioned before, those would be categories that Buddhist teaching thinks: it makes sense to use these categories to think about the world [about human experience of the world?]. They are useful think tools. When we meet experience.
So, what is left you ask? In fact, nothing is left. All of your experience fits into these four categories. That’s why this thing is a map of all of our experience. Think of those four areas as not too separate. You know, you don’t get four buckets. And then all of your experience is either in this bucket or in that bucket. When you get an event in your experience, it always courses through all four of those dimensions. So you never get one Satipaṭṭhāna alone.
Think of this like TV Channels. I don’t know what TV Channels you have here in the US, but let’s call them for simplicity’s sake Channel One, Two, Three, Four. So, like with TV, these channels are broadcasting all the time. But what makes you tune into a particular channel is your mindfulness. So by tuning into one of these channels, you choose what type of experience you prioritize. What type of experience you give center stage in relating to your experience.
So Buddhist teaching suggests it makes A) sense to get a distinction between these four areas. Just to know, “I am now dealing with a physical sensation.” “I am now dealing with something that is pleasurable or displeasurable.” To know, “Now, this is a mood. This is an impulse that is coming up.” “I am now dealing with a Citta-type experience”. Or “I am now dealing with thought. This is Channel Four. I’m actually thinking.” Already to know this is immensely useful. Because usually, when we don’t choose where our attention goes, our attention goes to places that we are habituated [to]. In most cases it goes to Channel Four. That’s where the story happens. The story is Me. I am the narrative. I am the drama. I am the important thing here. Me and my life. Me and what I want, Me and what I never got, Me and what I’ve been deprived of, Me and where I succeed in, Me as opposed to you. So we have a lot of conditioning, from our educational systems and from our habits [and from our evolutionary psychology] to end up in Channel Four. Yes, we pay attention to the body; we like it to be comfortable. We enjoy when the body has pleasure. We pay attention to it if it has pain. But frankly, for most of the time for most of the people I know, they’re pretty bored with their bodies if they are neither experiencing pleasure or pain. There’s a huge piece in the middle where most of us probably prefer not paying attention to… how you digest your supper or those gentle peristaltic movements that take place right now in your abdomen. This is generally not something that you find overt fascination. You don’t really pay attention to what’s happening in your renal cortices or so on. We all want to feel, does this body feel warm, does it feel fed, we love pleasure, I hope you love sex, you love things to enjoy. We differ how we enjoy, how much and how intense and all this we can have widely diverging opinions about what is pleasing to us. But that we seek to maximize the experience of comfort and pleasure, I would expect all of us share that to some extent.
We pay attention if the body hurts, if it is sick, if it is injured. But there is a huge segment in between where we don’t pay attention. We prefer having ideas. Following ideas. Following our thoughts.
But even that seems slightly tricky. We are not as unanimous that thinking our stuff is actually pleasing. There was experiments they did three years ago, the Boston Globe spoke about it… two years ago… Task was to sit in a chair, to basically think something to yourself. That was the task. Not even meditate, or be aware. Just think. And there was this little device that was giving hits of electric current that were clearly painful. This was demonstrated to the people who did the experiment. And then they were left with that little piece of equipment that could give them electric hits and the task to sit there fifteen minutes in a chair. Not read, not play with their smartphones, and just think something of their choice. More than sixty percent of all the men used this electric device and inflicted something painful on themselves in preference to just sit there and think something of their choice. And over one-third of the women did that as well. Just sitting in a chair and thinking doesn’t seem to be such a terribly attractive prospect. Not attractive enough that we wouldn’t feel tempted to do something which is in a proven way painful to us. We are quite strange people. One guy used this thing ninety times in fifteen minutes. So think about it, that the wandering mind is a painful mind.
So body plays a central role. And when we meditate, all Buddhist meditation traditions, in fact all meditation traditions I’m aware of, have understood the centrality of somatic experience. So Channel One, somatic experience, is something we cultivate as a refuge in our Satipaṭṭhāna practice. We never really go away from that first Satipaṭṭhāna.
The second one, Channel Two, that pleasure, that’s a neat channel. We love being there, but things are very short. Pleasure experiences, they spike and then they are over. It goes very quick. We generally are more preoccupied, not with experiencing and appreciating pleasure, but we are much preoccupied with anticipating getting the hit. Very quickly it will become more attractive to anticipate the hit rather than actually getting the hit. Addiction research tells us people don’t get addicted to gratification; they get addicted to anticipated gratification. Anticipated gratification gets your dopamine system going, while actual gratification is more of an opioid process. It’s a different part of your brain. The addiction thing kicks in on the dopamine. On the anticipation. In fact, we can get addicted to stuff we have long stopped liking. That’s the really sad thing. There’s nothing under the sun you couldn’t get addicted to. There’s a German neuroscientist who made a very playful example of how you develop an addiction pattern to sunsets. It goes something like this: you start off appreciating sunsets. And then you find yourself looking forward to going to areas where you have really good, long views. Then you find yourself parking your car in the bay so that you can linger there and see the sun going down. Your ultimate hit is a plane ride westward; for beginners you can say Amsterdam to Exeter, which is directly into the western sinking sun, which is delightful. But you obviously could do that more programmed and you’d go for a long-haul flight. Eek out fourteen hours of sunset, as this sort of ecstasy of your addiction. The problem is not the sunset, the problem is that you are beginning to think about sunsets when you don’t have any sunsets. The problem is that you begin to anticipate when you will have your next sunset. And what you will do and how good it will feel. And you begin to organize your life around sunsets. You begin to devalue the rest of your life because it doesn’t hit the same spot. You begin to strategize and this becomes bigger and bigger and bigger in your life. So that is the addictional pattern. And it’s clear that it’s harmless enough with sunsets, but we recognize ourselves in this. This begins to become an organizing principle in our lives. So, Vedanā is a powerful force in our lives. Even if you’ve never heard the word, it still operates. It operates right now in your mind. Every moment of our experience, every event in our experience has a hedonic flavour. Sometimes it is pronounced, and we recognize it and anticipate it, appreciate it. Sometimes it is subtle and we may not even be aware that it is there. But every event in your experience has a hedonic flavour, as it has a somatic flavour, by the way.
Every event in our experience, Channel Three, has a mood flavour. We are never neutral. We always have a mood. There is always something there. We are always in a state. That state has deep implications. Our well-being, our self-image, our perceptual functioning, we are always in a situation. And in that situation we are hungry or not. If we are hungry, then a plate of spaghetti looks very different to us than if we are not hungry. The objective value of a plate of spaghetti we never get. If you are hungry then that looks a lot more attractive than if you’ve already eaten two of them. If you are forced to eat another one you are probably looking at this with nausea and retching. So you never actually have a continued relationship to a world out there because you keep being in a variety of different states, in a variety of different needs and those needs inform how this world looks to you. So mood, Channel Three, is crucial. And learning to be with moods, learning to identify moods, learning to purify moods, learning to cultivate qualities that are unifying, that are freeing the mind, is a key piece of Satipaṭṭhāna practice.
Channel Four, a lot of action there. The movement in Channel Four is fast. It is highly associative. And it’s always narrative. It always tells me a story. It’s discursive.
Satipaṭṭhāna exercises suggest a number of things. A) to identify these areas in our life [experience]. That’s tonight’s project. Being able to be clear, “This is about body.”
“I’m hot. This is a somatic experience. This is a Channel One type of experience.”
“This is unpleasant. Being hot right is unpleasant. This is a hedonic experience. I experience a degree of displeasure about this.”
The evaluation that takes place very very quickly. This evaluation is not through choice. It’s not volitional. That’s an important piece. You don’t actually have a choice whether you experience something as pleasant or unpleasant. One of the few things in Buddhist teachings… so much of Buddhist teaching is all intentional. It’s all about volition it’s all about [calling on] forces of the mind. But Vedanā is not. Vedanā, you don’t actually have a choice. What you get as pleasant or what you get as unpleasant has nothing to do with ethics. It has nothing to do with morals. It has nothing to do with choice. The only choice you have is, how honest are you going to be … whether you are pleased by it or whether you are displeased by it. It’s a key piece.
Channel Three will, if you find it pleasing, or in the case of being hot, find it displeasing, it is quite possible that what is somatically hot, what is hedonically displeasing becomes affectively a source for a grumpy mood. Or impatience. “I’ve got to get out of here”. Now it translates into a state of mind. We don’t just have a topical body experience. We don’t just have an evaluation of that bodily experience as unpleasant, we are now having a mood. “I’m getting stroppy.” Or, “I’m getting impatient.” Or, “I feel helpless.” Or I start to hate the guys who made me sit here. The chair of the board who keeps soliloquizing because he likes to hear himself while I just sit here and gradually dissolve in a puddle of sweat. And are forced to bare an unpleasant feeling by his power and his unfeeling thoughtlessness.
Now I’m not just having a discomfortable body sensation, I’m having a highly uncomfortable mental state. Compounded with rage and childhood memories of elder brothers and so forth. Things are getting worse. And now I start, on Channel Four, I start having corresponding hate fantasies going. Depending on what kind of temperament I am I wish he would just self combust or I think he might just disappear; his big imposing chair might just drop out of the floor. Or I pray for an alien abduction of his person. All kinds of things can come up into your mind when you sit there in a puddle of sweat, apparently at the beck and call of this unfeeling guy holding power over the meeting.
So you realize how things move from channel to channel. And I end up with this story. The story is the story of my helplessness which goes seemingly without a change from my early childhood right up to this board meeting and it is unlikely to change. There will always be some powerful guy who keeps me here, chained to my chair, sweating, dissolving, helpless.
Often enough, Satipaṭṭhāna or Sati practice can help us negotiate that. And say, okay. Where does this start? Can I stay with an unpleasant physical sensation called “heat”? Yes. Doesn’t kill me. It’s not really pleasant, true, but I don’t need to go down into my childhood. I don’t need to project on this guy. Project intentionality on this guy. I don’t need to put on my whole story onto this. I can just stay and learn to bare the unpleasantness of the heat. Or just the unpleasantness of not being at ease in my body right now.
If I’m willing to do this, end of story. No drama. No big mood states, no hate fantasies, my life is a lot easier. I just have an unpleasant physical sensation; I have an unpleasant hedonic experience. I can let it end there. I don’t have to ride the whole carousel.
So being able to make choices, this map should help us to make better choices. Where to place our attention. Because that is where we have a choice. We always have the choice where to place our attention. Even if it seems we don’t have choices, we have a choice how we relate to this experience. If we learn to move from Channel Four, where the story is most rampant, to move back to the Channel One where we simply have maybe a degree of boredom of indifference, or a degree of discomfort, as in my little example with the sweating person, if we can do that, our life becomes a lot more simpler. We can spare ourselves a lot of drama, a lot of involvement. So the use of this map is to make sure that we are not helpless in respect to our habitual patterns. How we attend to things. You will find that much of meditation practice consists of basically switching back from Channel Four, where I get lost because there are many things happening, thoughts, they are moving fast, they have many many friends, back to Channel One. Where the movement generally is slower. Body sensations don’t associate like thoughts. So the kettle of fish I’m dealing with on Channel One is a very different kettle of fish. Channel Four is more piranha-type of territory. And Channel One is more like goldfish kind of thing. Or catfish, maybe. Or koi-carp. Whatever you like. Something sedate.
So when I’m willing to be prepared to hold something unpleasant, hold it in the body, the very same experience is actually a lot more manageable. Than when I have the whole angst and the whole childhood history that kicks in on Channel Four. So learning to make choices where to usefully place attention is a crucial piece of the Satipaṭṭhāna thing. We will go into various exercises in the coming days, but for tonight, I wanted to read you a couple of quotes.
One of them is a very terse version of those four establishments of mindfulness. This is canonical Satipaṭṭhāna text.
“The four establishing of mindfulness, what four? Here, a practitioner with regard to the body dwells contemplating the body. She is ardent, comprehends clearly, is possessed of mindfulness and overcomes both desire for and discontent with the world. With regard to hedonic tone, he dwells contemplating feeling tones. He is ardent, comprehends clearly and is possessed of mindfulness and overcomes both desire for and discontent with the world. With regards to mind states, she dwells contemplating mind states. She is ardent, comprehends clearly, and is possessed of mindfulness and overcomes both desire for and discontent with the world. With regard to mind objects, he dwells contemplating mind objects. He is ardent, comprehends clearly, is possessed of mindfulness and overcomes both desire for and discontent with the world. That is probably the shortest and tersest formulation of this.”
I want to read you two or three very short pieces that say, I believe, salient things about forms of mindfulness and forms of attention. The first passage comes from the Theravada Abhidhamma tradition.
“What is Right Mindfulness (Samma Sati)?”
Sati means to bear in mind or bring to mind. Sati is the state of recollecting. The state of remembering. The state of non-fading. The state of non-forgetting. Interesting. One of the echoes of Sati is the word “recall”. Memory. Recollect. Our friend John Peacock calls this “Recollection of the present moment”.
This one is from the Abhidharma-samuccaya, that’s an early Indian text. Roughly, the latest compilation is in the fourth century AD.
“What is Mindfulness (Smrti)? [Sati in Pali.] It is non-forgetting by the mind with regard to the object experienced. It’s function is non-distraction.”
And now in distinction to attention:
“What is Attention (Manasikāra)? It is mental tenacity. It’s function consists of keeping the mind on the object.”
So attention, [the] function is tenacity. And its function is keeping the mind on the object. So it has the adherence power to stay with something. In other words, rather than just being episodically present for some things, and then “whoop!” there’s appearing something somewhere, it actually has staying power. That’s where the magic begins. Attention begins to become transformative and begins to become powerful when it gets fluid. When we are capable of attending to something beyond maximizing pleasure. Beyond approach behaviour and beyond avoidance behaviour. If we are capable of having a type of attention that is independent of gratification and avoidance. That’s where things start to really become magic. Every genius has this type of attention. When you see people who are really good at something, you will see that they cultivate attention on whatever they do that is generally more long, more enduring, than other people. Whenever you do that in your life, whenever you stay with something long enough, you figure things out. There is something that you begin to twig [?]. And much of what we miss, as learning opportunities, basically because we are not deep enough. We are not patient enough. We are not observant enough. We are not having enough staying power. We are to flitting. Too speedy. Too skimming. Too restless. Too impatient or too superficial. You can name many things. But whenever you go in to something, and stay with that… more closely… a longer time… beyond the gratification curve. You will understand something.
Another one, very short … This here identifies Mindfulness as explicitly having a taming function, and not just an observing function. Much of Mindfulness teaching is teaching Mindfulness as a mere observant quality. But as you will hear from us, Mindfulness is much more engaging than just observing. It’s important to be able to observe. But Mindfulness is not exhausted just by observing activity.
This is a passage from the Sutta Nipāta, very brief one. …
“Whatever streams are in the world, Ajita, it is Mindfulness that hinders and restrains them. And it is by wisdom that they are cut off.”
Whatever streams are in the world… these are the streams of energy flowing out.
“Whatever streams are in the world, Ajita, it is Mindfulness (Sati) that hinders and restrains them. And it is by wisdom that they are cut off.”
So. If you want to forget everything from tonight, please keep two things. One of them, Mindfulness and Attention are related. You need Attention to cultivate Mindfulness. But they are not identical. Attention happens every moment of our conscious experience, Mindfulness is a lot more rarified. It is something that we need to cultivate. We have something called “involuntary attention” that happens automatically. That is given to us by evolution. And we have something called “voluntary [attention]” that has to do with our deliberate choice. What we attend to. That needs to be cultivated and trained. That second type of attention is the raw material for Mindfulness. It’s when that attention, that voluntary attention, becomes fluid… has enough staying power to stick with something for a while, to follow a changing pattern, a thought, a melody, a process inside our outside. When it is able to do that, it becomes possible with a few other add-ons that this becomes Mindfulness. These add-ons have to do with Empathy, they have to do with Ethic, and they have to do with a Type of Purpose. What makes Mindfulness different from attention is that it is always geared to purification, clarification, and awakening. What makes Mindfulness from different from attention is that it is always ethical. You never have clinically neutral mindfulness. Mindfulness is always ethical. You are always in an ethical relationship when you are mindful. Even if you are absolutely alone, you are still in relationship to your own experience. That is an ethical experience.
Mindfulness is connected to wisdom. It turns up the things that are emergent. It is that which pushes out the boundaries between the known and into the unknown. Mindfulness tells you always things that are not yet fully known. Attention doesn’t necessarily do any of these things. Anything you do with some focus is kind of attention. That doesn’t mean it’s ethical. You can be highly unethical while being totally attentive. If you have a habit of cleaning bank safes, I would recommend you do so very very attentively. Because your chances of not getting caught are higher. But that doesn’t mean that your activity is an ethical activity. It is not particularly connected with liberation or awakening. In fact it jeopardizes some of these projects. So the fact that we can attend to things does not make this a mindful activity. For attention to become mindfulness it needs fluidity, and it needs to be connected to ethics, to Brahmavihāras. To Wisdom. And preferably to the body.
Good. We’ll follow up on this. For tonight it’s enough. Thank you for your kind attention.
Note: Text in bold I found particularly instructive. Text in [square brackets] is either redacted or commentary by me. When the public decides there is massive demand for greater clarification, I will happily supply it.