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.
Vedanā, Practice on Attention and Sati.
Gaia House : Stillness and Insight
Good. I’d like to ask for your attention. A few clarifications of our exercise.
We have started identifying aspects of breathing, have started taking up the exercise of returning attention to a chosen process, to a chosen quality of our experience. Sometimes we simply and confusingly speak of “a meditation object” as if the sensations of breathing was [sic] really an object. This is just shorthand speaking. This is not an object. The things we choose to be the focus of our attention, they can be events, they can be sensations, they can be processes. So, if I say shorthand “meditation object”, that may mean all of the above. So don’t be fooled.
Second disclosure, the word “Attention” is probably an understatement for what The Buddha meant by a quality called Sati. Which is essentially the mind’s capacity to be present with something. “Attention” sounds kind of neat and clean. Psychologically sound. Mindfulness, although an old word, I have found it in Wycliffe’s Bible, and then in King James’ Bible, and then later made famous by a Welsh [Ethnologist?] who used it as a key translation for the Buddhist psychological term called “Sati” which is the Sati in Ānāpānasati meditation. Or the Sati in Satipaṭṭhāna meditation. Basically that’s the main line, the main meditative line in early Buddhism. And in fact in later Buddhism as well.
So this Sati is rather more than simply Attention. Just to be honest with you. The term Mindfulness is a very nice term. English speakers are to be applauded for having the meaning of this term coined more or less by Buddhists by now, but the term Mindfulness is so popular nowadays that, basically, Buddhists are no longer having the say in what Mindfulness is. Twenty years ago it was us who basically said what Mindfulness was. So we defined it in a Buddhist way. But nowadays things have changed. Mindfulness is in the hands of Cognitive Behavioural Therapists nowadays and Buddhists have no longer the sole word on what that word means. Since I am slightly partial to the Buddhist notion of things, as you can suspect, although I have respect for the work of Cognitive Behavioural Psychology and I have greatly benefited from some other psychological clarifications, I do sense the depth and scope in the Buddhist psychological notion of Mindfulness that has yet to be, say, appreciated by more recent developments on the Mindfulness front.
It is important to me that you are approaching these terms as if they were … in apostrophes. Attention is not just attending. It is a relationship. Mindfulness is a relationship. It’s not a neat little cognitive technique, something that basically has to do with no-judgment and it’s not a clean cognitive intervention technique to handle obstreperous little thought patterns in your head. That’s a side-effect of it. Mindfulness, as it is understood in Buddhist teaching, is many things. One of the things it is under all circumstances, it is a relationship. It is a willingness to relate to your present experience. It’s not just a technique to step back and let it all happen and go to someplace where it can’t hurt you, distance yourself from it. That is not what The Buddha meant by Mindfulness. However useful such a technique may be in the face of depression, in the face of anxiety, in the face of anger, this alone is not what The Buddha meant.
Part of our capacity to attend is choice. There cognitive behavioral psychologists and the Buddhists are absolutely of one opinion. Mindfulness is intentional. Sati is intentional. If that intention is only to stay in the present. If we don’t have that intention, then drift will take over. There is a sound and then there is a word that connects the sound with the bird and then we ask, “Is this a female or a male, is this the right season? No no no. When did I last hear?” And the bird is gone and the thought goes this way. That’s what I mean by drift. Buddhist psychology calls this Papañca, conceptual proliferation. We know it all. If you are unfamiliar with the term, I’m sure you are very familiar with the experience. It means that the mind, what it perceives sensorially, it conceives of and creates a discursive echo. And as we are strongly mentalized creatures, we spend a lot more time with the echo than with the actual stuff the echo is about. So while the bird is gone long time we still think about when we last heard the bird, with whom we were, and that the season was gorgeous and the weather was fine. If only the food had been a little… and so forth. So this is the drift.
The prime intention in Mindfulness is to bring the focus of that attention back to the present. The present… and in our exercise, the present of sensory awareness. The present of sensory, bodily, embodied reality. That is the first… you have to understand this. _Theoretically_ you have to understand this. Otherwise our little exercise makes, maybe, sense right now. But when you are twenty minutes in your next emotion it doesn’t really make that much sense anymore. So you need _theoretically_ to understand that redirecting attention to somatic, present-time experience is a crucial ingredient. You see the mind is, in many ways, complex. And in many ways it is very simple. The whole of Buddhist meditation practice hinges on a simple principle: that the mind begins to resemble the things it attends to and picks up and spends time with. It starts resembling that. That’s a simple principle. If I put my attention onto the breath, if that breath is becoming more calm because the body sits still, and I follow the sensations of that calming breath, that itself calms the mind. Simply by putting my attention continually to something that is soothing, the quality of what I attend to starts to color the quality of mind. Call it mimicry, call it emulation or whatever. That simple principle is at the root of Buddhist meditative practices. If we want to still the mind, we have to give it something that allows it to become still. Something that demands a certain degree of refinement. If your breath becomes more fine, if you want to still feel it, you need to become more fine in your attention. That refinement will help your mind to go even further into stillness. These are very very simple patterns. You know that. If you are around with children you know that. If you spend some time with yourself, just seeing how you are being affected you will know that.
Buddhist Kāyānupassanā practice makes principle of this. Instead of trying to sort out or thoughts and the themes that are behind our thoughts, we try to cool the system. We try to settle the mind. Because we realize it works more profoundly, it works more reliably, if it is still. If it is equanimous. If it is quiet.
Buddhists often don’t admit this, but actually one of the first jobs of greater Sati, of greater Mindfulness is the more accurate operation of the perceptual process. Buddhists always say, well, Sati is the raw material for Samādhi, for collectedness of mind. Collectedness of mind you need to gain insight. Insight is what liberates the heart. That’s true. And generally perception in Buddhist psychology gets bad press because perception is always slapping bits of the past onto bits of the present. Present sensory experience is what we experience _now_. And then there is this magic moment where we have a speechless, immediate experience and then the next moment is we have a label. We have a memory. We have filed it somewhere. We know this is a farm or this is a cow or this is a de-horned cow. Because we have seen such things. We recognize it. We re-cognize it. This is the moment of perception in Buddhist psychology which is a mixed blessing. Because it is partly fresh, immediate, and partly it is already filed under the heading of something we believe to be knowing. Dubious.
Not just, do we have a label for it somewhere in our files, we also have all kinds of emotions about it. Our labels are not neutral. We have labeled these things not just as “cow” or “de-horned cow” or something like that. We have labeled it as “good de-horned cow”. “Bad de-horned cow”. “Horrible de-horning of cows”. “Great safety”. “Necessary evil”. And so forth. We have a whole super-structure. It’s not a clean label. That label has a color. We like it, we don’t. It reminds us of. There’s a story. Any label has a little story.
So all this comes up. While we meet the cow, we meet first the cow-ness of the cow. Then we see, “Ah. This is a cow.” Then, this is a de-horned cow. And then we have our story about what we think about cows or de-horning of cows… Ted Hughes describing the de-horning of cows in one of his poems, and so forth. And all this gets suddenly compacted into our experience of the cow. And in a moment it has less and less to do with the cow and more and more to do with your story. Your past. Your way of having handled poetry and agriculture and your ecological consciousness and your belief in animal rights and so forth. And the poor cow still stands there and basically is having to face your story.
And that’s what we do with much of reality. That’s what we do to the people close to us. That’s what we do to the things we engage with in life. Believing them to be the things we make them to be. But Roman man, forgot who it exactly was, says, “It’s not the things that really disturb us. It’s the thoughts we have about the things.” Very truly elegant Latin insight into a fundamental pattern of our relationship that we are faced with any moment.
The mind, the brain technically, is anticipatory. Sometimes this is very useful. You are in front of a traffic light. You know, It’s red. I don’t have to do anything other than wait. After a while it’ll be green again. We’ve been through that. You know, you don’t have panic, what happens now. Or you don’t feel you need to go and shake the traffic light. You just sit there and wait. Your brain is anticipatory enough and says, “You know, it has been red for a while. So after a while, it is always turned green. There’s a good chance that this one [will] turn green as well. All I have to do is just wait.” In such a moment [the] anticipatory nature of the brain is very useful. In other moments it’s not so useful. We believe we know what’s coming. But, in fact, it may not. It may not be as straight forward as it is the case with most traffic lights. Even with some of the traffic lights. I’ve met some, they’ve stayed red.
The way to return attention to the now-ness of our experience gets us out of this anticipatory process of apprehending or anticipating the world. Getting back in touch with what actually takes place. And often enough this is surprising.
One of the major tasks, returning attention, focusing attention to somatic attention, body, breath, is this getting out of me making sense of the world. Me running a commentary on life. On the universe. Because that commentary is a lot more a product of my past history and my interpretation of that world, than it is about the actual world as it unfolds right now in my psychological experience.
The breath is a profound process in which we can engage with an aspect of reality in our lives because it stills the cognitive process. The breath is not something we can really do perfect and then stop. There is no such thing as a perfect breath. However perfect your breathing is, you will need to keep doing it. It’s not something you finish with. The breath is something you are likely to be doing as long as you live. I would wish for you to. It’s something you’ve always with you. It is both subtle and yet it is of a frequency that the body and the mind can attune to. You could, if you were particularly gifted feel the pulse of your long tide in your spinal fluid, but, not many people do that without training.
Breath is a lot more reliable. You can see other people breathing. Sometimes this is the last thing you can do. You can connect with somebody’s breathing. If he’s lying in a coma, or if he’s not conscious. Maybe you can still attune to somebody’s breath. You are likely to have probably done that. With kids, with lovers, people who are very ill. This is what we do. We establish a connection by attuning to breath. This is not just something we can do with ourselves. All of the things you are learning here are things that are applicable to both your relationship to yourself and your relationship to others. That’s what’s so fantastic about teaching around Sati. Is that it is catching up on a fundamental reality of relationship. And obviously the depth and the quality and the attunement of relationship I can muster to attend to in relating to myself will be something I can offer to be relating to others. To the degree I am incapable of being with myself, or have a relationship to the quality of my experience, I am very likely to be impaired in my relationship to what’s going on for others.
… You can’t really do this without this [being] of any use for the place where you are. Or with whom you are. That’s why anybody who is aspiring in his attempt to understand [the] nature of his own experience will inevitably raise the consciousness in the context he or she lives in.
So. What can happen to this Mindfulness? Obviously the drift, the cognitive drift, is one thing that can happen. Sometimes intensity of my experience can make me collapse. My [attention] is fixated on one aspect. A thought. Or it is fixated on a particular sensation. Or it is fixated on an emotion. Just rage. Or anxiety. Are classical examples. Lust can be pretty obsessive as well, but generally it is less flooding than, say, anxiety or anger.
Sometimes my awareness or my attention can be taken hostage by [a] particular intensity in my experience.
There isn’t really much you can do, unless you have already established some kind of clarity [about] what has taken place. You just kind of have to ride it out until … it kind of lets go and the space becomes wider again. As a meditator, you can prepare. One way of preparing is establishing the space, establishing a spacial quality of attention. You will have noticed that you can attend to things. Small things. A sensation in your knee. A particular twitch at the tip of your nose. You will also have noticed that you can make your attention wide. You can let it increase. You get the bit in the knee but you also get your whole leg. Rather than just focusing your attention on a pinpoint in your knee, you can focus your attention on your leg. Of which the knee is part of. You insist that your attention does not collapse onto the most intense part of your experience. That’s an interesting exercise. When we try to attend to things we feel are non-dominant in our experience, we are exercising this capacity. Trying to widen the minds capacity to attend to things that are not the loudest. Not the shrillest. Not the most intense.
For today I’d like you to exercise with me to refine attention to the breath. You understand, breathing is much more than a simple physiological function. Breathing is what connects body and mind. Every big culture has understood that. The Japanese and the Chinese with their Qi, they have understood that. The Greeks with their Pneuma, the Indians with their Prāna, they have understood that breath is the way you can modulate body and mind. … It is the messenger between the two. We can still the mind by stilling the body by putting our attention onto a bodily process called breathing and the continuity in our attention, in doing so, will still the mind. We can translate the body’s stillness via the breath to be stillness of mind. That’s the basic principle.
Breathing is also, on a symbolic level, something we keep having to do. It is something which has to do with receiving and with letting go. Receiving and letting go. Now this is deeply symbolic process that happens throughout our lives. The things that really count, your health and your happiness and your love, you can’t really control. However good you get at the things you try to be good at, or you have learned to be good at, there are so many things in your life you cannot really control. You can help a bit, but you can’t really ultimately control. We make ourselves believe that we control. I think we are quite inflated around this. There is so much inflation around our capacities of control and the promise that things can be controllable or manageable. Actually, most of the things that will probably make you happy or unhappy, you have very little overt control over.
Being capable of receiving, of welcoming, of letting in is a major task all of us face in life. Some things will be nice. Delightful. Exquisite. Some things will be unpleasant, or truly horrifying. Disturbing. And then we have to let go of them again. We have to let them in, and we let them go. That’s a fundamental truth about our lives and about the happiness in our lives. And like we… we don’t stop eating just because we have diarrhea or we don’t stop loving just because we get hurt in the process. Because we realize that if we stop doing that, to control, that this never happens again, it is a verdict, isn’t it? It takes life out of or lives. It’s grotesque to stop eating just because you have indigestion or diarrhea. You become more cautious, obviously. More circumspect. You try to recover. Certain measures are needed until you get back. But you don’t stop eating because of this. The same is true for this whole process of adapting to accepting, taking in, allowing that this invades you, inhabits you, and being able to let go. To let it go its way. Because we cannot control. This fundamental truth about life is in many ways deeply manifest in every moment of breathing in and breathing out.
Physiologically breath is a fascinating movement because it can be utterly controlled. Both of our nervous systems can take complete control of it. We can either completely forget it and it’s in our autonomous nervous system, in fact we are all still alive because we still breathe even though we forget the breath, and we can completely control our breath. Use the other nervous system for it. And control every aspect of it. There’s probably no other function of body which we can equally control or equally leave over to the autonomous nervous system.
There are a few other reasons which I won’t go into. Today’s exercise, you would like to start with body posture. Start with scanning, receivingly, your state of what it is that you can feel of yourself right now. You then go to the breath, where that breath is in a tactile way, showing itself in you. If you are unsure, go to the belly. And you settle your awareness there. You don’t follow the breath in and out. You don’t try to make it small, you don’t try to alter it, control it. If you find yourself controlling the breathing or influencing the breathing, try to make the space wider. Try to be less focalized. Let the breath be big. Imagine that the breath comes in to both of your palms. And that with every in-breath you feel the weight, feel its pulse, feel its expansion. You are willing to be big in your awareness. That helps against the attempt to control.
If you feel that you are never the less controlling, just feel how painful it is, or how much effort there is, or how unpleasant it is. And see whether you can let go a little bit. Whether you can make the space a little bit bigger. Whether you can not reproach yourself for doing the controlling bit. Just try to be allowing. Even if it is unpleasant. Even if you feel you disagree with that part of yourself that does the controlling. Try to allow even that bit. You don’t have to say, “Yes, you’re good.” You just have to say, “Yes. This is as good as you can be right now. I allow. This is makable. This is do-able. This is allowable. For it to be that way.”
And then try, next practical step, try to lengthen the period of inbreathing. Not as a lengthening of the breath, but as a lengthening of your attention. Can you catch that breath earlier? What is the beginning, the middle, the end of an in-breath? Beginning, middle, the end of an out-breath. Can you actually get a feeling for the duration of this? Mindfulness is measured, generally in two simple ways. One of them is duration. We’re all mindful, we are all having topical attention. There’s nothing outrageous about this. And it’s not terribly dramatic. It’s not a meditative achievement; it’s not a profound realization. We’re all topically and episodically mindful. The real magic starts happening if mindfulness is continuous. Then things are getting more interesting. … If the duration … staying mindful with things longer than we would usually according to our habits already brings us into a very interesting territory. Staying with the taste beyond what we usually would. Staying with a sound until it really disappears. Staying with a sensation until it _really_ subsides. Trains the duration factor.
The other factor is obviously space. So we can speak of the area of our awareness. Which we’ll do some later. Added today, if you find that you are not doing what you have agreed with yourself of doing, Plan B, not just do you bring back your attention to the body, but you ask yourself, what it was that has taken you away. Or where you have found yourself. Is this a thought? Is this a sound? We ask two questions regarding the nature of our distraction. The first question is: Is it mental, or is it sensory? Mental, is it everything that isn’t to do with sound, taste, touch. In other words, does it come from inside the mind, has it popped up as an image or a memory or a fantasy or a thought? Or has it come from outside? A bell ringing, a bird creaking [sic], a door slamming. Somebody coughing. A cold draught hitting my neck. These would be sensory experiences. So you ask yourself; first question: Is the reason that I am not mindful of the breath right now, is this a physical or a mental reason? Second question: Is this pleasant to me? Do I like this? Is this agreeable? Or is this disagreeable? In other words, the sound that has distracted me, is this a pleasant sound or an unpleasant sound? The thought that has popped up in my mind and has taken my attention away from the breath, is this a pleasant thought or an unpleasant thought?
If you are unsure whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, just give it one second glance and if you’re still unsure, let it slip. They’ll be enough to come. Don’t spend fifteen minutes figuring out whether what you really have felt about this bird, quarter of an hour ago. Just forget about it. You’ll be having plenty of distractions. You’ll be having plenty of pleasant and unpleasant experience.
Theoretically there are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences. For the aficionados amongst you, the Adukkham-asukhā Vedanā, is a theoretical possibility. Practical experience seems to show that we generally don’t even pick up on the subtly pleasant and subtly unpleasant of our experience, let alone on the genuinely neutral type of experience. So, while we acknowledge the theoretical possibilities of neutral experiences and our capacity to perceive neutral experiences, right now for the exercise we are about to embark, the pleasant ones and the unpleasant ones are a lot more important.
What you want is a little statistic [at] the end of your day. Just scratch marks, okay? Pleasant, unpleasant. Pleasant, unpleasant. Pleasant thought, pleasant sound. Pleasant thought, unpleasant sound. And so forth. No big analysis. No big investigations. No profound fathoming of the nature of your experience. Just when you find yourself distracted from the breath, which is our primary object, notice: is that distraction pleasant or unpleasant? Is it mental or is it sensory? And then back to the breath.
Good. Let us exercise.
[Silent meditation followed by a bell at 56:37.]
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.