This is one of a series of transcripts of contemporary talks which I have found particularly instructive.
This talk was made available by Dharma Seed.
The meeting of Dukkha and Sati — a transformative encounter.
Insight Meditation Society — Forest Refuge : August 2014 at IMS — Forest Refuge.
Good. Tonight I’d like to say something about Dukkha. And about Sati, Mindfulness. Recollection of the present moment, as a friend of mine calls it. And their relationship.
Dukkha is what Buddhists are famous for. That’s what they keep harping on about. Unsatisfactoriness. Suffering. Pain. It’s not really a great topic if you want to sell a religion, is it? When I was a monk in England, and religious education started to open up to non-Christian types of teaching, monasteries were flooded with requests of monks going to schools, just to ordinary schools, and teach Buddhism. And there were some really frightening books out there pertaining [sic] to claim they were teach[ing] Buddhism. Generally well intended, but completely ill informed about Buddhist teaching. I remember seeing one of them which had an account of what Buddhists believed. And Buddhists believe in Dukkha, and that meant in translation, “All life is evil.” That was followed by the story of how the elder Mahākassapa went on alms-round and received food from a leper. And while he [was] receiving alms food in his alms bowl from the leper, a limb, a part of a thumb, of the leper fell into Mahākassapa’s alms bowl and it was said that Mahākassapa didn’t blink an eye. Just walked off and ate his alms food. So within half a page you have Buddhism proclaiming to be basically, “Life is evil” and then proclaiming cannibalism. It was understandable that English school kids were somewhat skeptical about this Buddhist undertaking.
So, Dukkha. Let’s get a few facts straight. The term Dukkha comes from Indian tradition. Indian settlers, a bunch of people that were deemed to be Arian tribes from Asia Minor. They walked into the Indian sub-continent somewhere in probably the former part of the second millennium BC. We don’t quite know when. There are quite a number of nationalist Indian historians who claim this has never happened, India was never invaded. A fascinating topic but we’re not going to go down this alley tonight.
And these Arian invasions they brought with them their horse carts, their cattle carts. They were good at riding. That’s probably what made them capable of invading and out-doing some of the indigenous cultures. And they used words like “Su” and “Dus” [sp?] and that meant “good” or “bad”. “Good” was the “su” bit and “bad” was the “dus” bit. And “ka”, a term that, nowadays in Sanskrit means, basically, “ether” or “sky”, in the very first layer of that language, was referring to the notion of a hole. Particularly an axle hole. The axle hole of a horse- and cattle-cart-riding people. So Sukha meant having a good axle hole, leading to a comfortable, smooth journey, and Dukkha meant having a bad axle hole, leading to a bumpy ride. Leading to a dis-comfortable journey. That’s where the term originally comes from, that’s its oldest notion we can trace. And if you want to play around with this metaphorically a little bit, then Sukha means being in a good hole, and Dukkha means being in a bad hole.
Dukkha is not the objective stuff that happens to you. Dukkha is what affects the mind if the mind meets with things that are not wanted. That are discomfortable. That are unpleasant. That may be an important thing to bear in mind. Dukkha is not the objective thing that happens. But Dukkha is what assails the mind when it meets with what it doesn’t like, what it doesn’t find pleasant, what doesn’t conform to its expectations.
Buddhist traditions [have] lots of classifications of Dukkha. Famous is a kind of tripartite classification of Dukkha-dukkha, as in pain, then Viparinama-dukkha [sp?] the Dukkha, the unsatisfactoriness that is inherent in change, and Sankhara-dukkha [sp?], aspect of Dukkha that is inherent in all conditioned things.
This would be a fascinating topic, but not for tonight. I’m interested in looking in different ways at Dukkha tonight.
If our happiness comes from gratification of senses, from experiencing pleasure, comfort, and things we like, then there are many things that can go wrong in our project of gratification. Many things can go wrong. Let’s just look at a few of them. The very simple thing that can go wrong is, if I look for gratification via an experience, in other words, something I see, feel, taste, touch, smell, think, if I look for gratification in that, then I might simply not get it. The result of this, emotionally, would be some form of frustration, maybe disappointment, maybe anger, maybe despondency. Often, when I pin my hopes on success, I just don’t get what I want. And I have the dukkha of disappointment, the dukkha of frustration, the dukkha of not being gratified to the extent I was hoping, or I was expecting.
There are other ways things can go wrong. Even if I do get what I want, I may simply find out that it doesn’t do what I was expecting it would do for me. In fact, I do _exactly_ get what I want, but it turns out it doesn’t deliver what I was expecting from it. In other words, while I got the experience, the experience didn’t actually produce the effect on my mind [that] I had in mind would take place. That is often the case. We’re not just hot on particular things. We’re actually _really_ hot on the states those things give us. If you look closely, we’re not actually really interested in a particular taste or a particular experience, we’re interested in getting the feeling this particular experience gives us.
Nobody wants a car, for God’s sake. It’s costly, it takes parking space, it’s rusting away. It needs lots of maintenance, you need to worry and take care of it. But we all want the freedom to move, we want the independence, we want the mobility, we want the prestige, maybe. We want being able to go places. We want that stuff. Nobody wants one and a half tons of metal that rusts aways and costs insurance. But we want what that thing symbolizes for us. In many ways we are not actually interested in the _thing_. But we are interested in the feeling the thing, at least has given us, or has made us believe that it will give us that feeling if we get the thing. So that’s why we keep piling on stuff in our lives. That’s why my place fills up with books. I’ve only just started buying books again after twenty years of monastic life. I fill my place up with books because I like books. I think books are nice. But it’s very unlikely that any new book will do something any of the books I already have hasn’t done to me. If all the books I have, and I have quite a number, maybe not as many as you have, but I have made quite some headway in nine years of collecting them, it’s very unlikely that any new book will do something that any of my old books hasn’t already done. And yet, still, I have a feeling it’s important that I get this new one. This may have another idea in there. Or I may need it someday. Or it will make a good read. Or, yes, that’s what good Buddhist teachers have at home, this kind of book. And yet, it’s kind of silly in a way, isn’t it? If all the books I have… have so far not made me happy, why would it look even remotely realistic that any new book I don’t yet have is gonna make something that all my old books don’t have… manage to do with me? It somehow seems slightly weird, if put out that way.
And you can fill in the blanks for you, maybe it’s not books for you, maybe it’s something else. We all keep accumulating stuff because it promises to give us particular feelings. Feelings of safety, feelings of confidence, feelings of gratification and pleasure, feelings of contentment, feelings of beauty. And we all find out that even if we get these things and they are exactly as we imagined that they somehow, they don’t seem to deliver the experience we had hoped for. That’s one possibility.
Or, we find out, actually, they do deliver. How beautiful. But maybe not enough. It hits the spot, but not quite enough. We need another book. Another pen. Another recipe. We try new sort of cookies. Or whatever your pet passion is. Climbing equipment, baking ovens, sports stuff, clothes. Human beings have endless possibilities nowadays. We’ve cultivated this longing and wanting and wishing and becoming discerning customers. That’s the polite way of calling greed. We have endless ways of going about this. So we find out, it does something, we get some gratification, but the gratification, somehow, does not correspond to our expectations. We’re not quite getting it, it’s not quite enough. And the usual response is, we want more of it.
Sometimes we get things, it does deliver, and something really bad happens. We get bored with it. Yesterday it was an anticipated experience. Today it was great when I had it. Tomorrow it’s good. And the day after, I’m getting slightly bored with it. And the day after I’m getting weary of it. And the day after it starts collecting dust. And I forget it. Even if I get gratified, and even if it does deliver, somehow the law of diminishing returns kicks in. I can’t maintain the intensity of gratification with the same thing. And the thing that came in on the promise that it would deliver me from longing and it would make me happy and it would leave me gratified, starts to pale and collect dust somewhere on my shelves.
So we have … not getting it. First form of suffering. Second type of suffering, getting it, but it doesn’t do what I expected it would do. Getting it but not enough of it. Getting it and it starts to bore me. Or getting it, it does exactly what I wanted, and then I’m getting afraid I might lose it. Or somebody might take it from me. Or the neighbors might get a bigger one or something like that. So even if I do get what I want, there’s many possibilities of suffering that might creep in on my little gratification project.
A good translation for Dukkha is probably not “suffering”. Because the English word suffering, like many other European words, are a lot smaller in meaning than the Buddhist notion of suffering. The Buddhist notion of Dukkha is not just what hurts. But also what inherently holds disappointment. Dukkha is anything from the slightest degree of unsatisfactoriness of something not quite there, something I’m missing, something not perfect, right down to bone-crushing agony. The whole gamut of meanings is called Dukkha in Buddhist teaching. The word “suffering” only seems to cover part of this. Many people might think that they are not actually very much suffering right now. If you ask me, do I suffer? I would say, No. I’m not really suffering. But then you ask me, Are you perfectly happy and awakened right now? And I say, no, actually. I’m not. So the discrepancy between how you are now and how you would be if you were perfectly happy, ecstatically happy and incontrovertibly content, that is Dukkha. The gap between what it is now and what it could be. [Akrasia…] According to Buddhist teaching, your birthright is complete happiness. Complete understanding. Complete freedom. The difference between what it is now and that possibility, that is Dukkha.
Sometimes that Dukkha has psychological flavors: discontent, disappointment, frustration. Sometimes that Dukkha has bodily flavors: discomfort, pain, lack, deprivation. Sometimes that Dukkha has mental flavors: as in meaninglessness or depression, as in experience of helplessness, cynicism. … There’s many forms of Dukkha. Spiritual forms of Dukkha, psychological forms of Dukkha, bodily forms of Dukkha, emotional forms of Dukkha. And usually they come not neatly separated with clear tags around their neck telling us exactly what sort of Dukkha they are and what tools we need for them. Generally they come in with a sort of a knotted feeling, some density in my heart or in the pit of my stomach or some heat in my mind. And I am settled with this.
Even if your life is very privileged, even if you are successful, healthy, beautiful, rich, surrounded by good friends and people who love you and who receive your live, you will still experience a considerable amount of pain, disappointment, that is woven into your life experience. One of the people referred to [it] as if, somehow, everything we experience never quite measures up to what we expected it to be. This feeling, when it feels good, that we don’t feel this is goodness. We feel, This is the beginning of goodness now. Now the good bit is just starting. We’re now getting to the beginning of the good bit. And that will go deeper and deeper and longer and longer and bigger and bigger. Something in us that does not want to acknowledge the fragility of our happiness, the evanescence of our joys, the frailty of the stuff that gives us good feelings. Whenever we get in touch with those we think, Ah! Now I have learned how to get there. This is only the beginning of that. I remember thinking that way. Time and again. And it seems to be that this is not the case.
And much of our strategy, much of our self-construct to be more precise, is an attempt to avoid pain. Or to cope with pain. Or to survive pain. Or to never have a particular type of pain again. Much of the way our self is organized is a kind of contraction away from our first experienced forms of pain. Or the first threat of such pain. It doesn’t even have to be truly experienced pain. It can be sometimes only the menace of that pain, the menace of that type of suffering much of our self is a defense reaction against actual or perceived forms of pain. Very early on in our life. And then we get some more savvy and become more rational and we fortify our positions and we strategize our behaviour. And we learn tricks. And we become vigilant for the tell-tale signs that we are getting into danger zones which might evoke or trigger or catalyze our particular pet pain. And so we form our personality, we form a structure, we learn modus operandi how to be in this world in the hope that our strategy would avoid that type of pain. Avoid the repetition of that pain. And in many ways, much around our self-notion, our self-construct, is based around fear, based around defense, based around avoidance of things that frighten us or that have hurt us, or that might have hurt us if we hadn’t taken care.
The long and short of it is, it doesn’t work. The strategies don’t work. And while we might avoid a couple of instances of pain, obviously such avoidance usually comes at a considerable price. We may stave off a few devils, but unfortunately we are also keeping the angels at bay. We lose vitality, in our strategizing, we lose learning possibilities, we lose the power to belong, we lose the our heart, basically. That’s what happens. We lose much of our heart in our attempts to avoid pain.
Buddhist teaching tells us to do something really counterintuitive. It tells us to actually meet pain. Tells us to not just acknowledge pain and meet pain, but it tells us to turn into pain. It tells us to, rather [than] do what we instinctively do when painful things happen, retreat, shrivel back, recoil, and contract, Buddhist teaching encourages us to actually extend relationship to that which is painful. Which is a weird statement to do. It’s really weird to say that. If any piece… even a mono-cellular creature, a single cell, has ways of defending against being impinged upon in ways that it doesn’t like. Even the most simple cellular structure will try to bend in some way or defend against things. We have powerful images of simplest forms of life, or earliest forms of life, you see little embryos defending against the syringe that takes some of mother’s amniotic fluid to identify the sex of the baby. You see scans of little babies pushing away this syringe needle with their little hands. You have powerful imagery of human beings, long before they have cognitive strategies of defense, trying to defend against pain. And in the face of such profound organismic defense against pain, it seems a really strange suggestion to tell people, look, liberation comes if you actually, not just [not] run away, or not just bare the pain, but in fact if you get _interested_ in pain. If you get interested in what freaks you. If you get interested in what produces these unsatisfactory feelings in your heart. If you take an active and steadied interest in that which threatens you, your happiness.
That is a real strange teaching. And you can understand that we have a marketing problem here. A real marketing problem. Because, how are you gonna sell this pain thing? And yet the powerful thing is, it works. It is the capacity to meet that which is suffering in our lives, and it’s the capacity to hold as I said this morning, and it’s the capacity to transform that which is threatening, that which is possibly overwhelming, that which is painful, that is discomfortable, that which we don’t like. It is the capacity to be with that, to relate with that, to engage in creative and in effective ways, that makes transformation of this possible. And it is definitely the punchline of early Buddhist teachings that your power of transformation is as big as your power of actually meeting that which you are afraid of, that which you fear, that which you do want to not have anything to do with.
And much of meditative and introspective practice is about cultivating both the capacity to do and to engage with difficult things, but also the capacity to gain strength, so that you feel confident for such an engagement, and practical skills in how you can transform things that are not making you happy. But that do allow you to learn. And that do allow you to grow. And if you once enter into that process, that actually provide a very viable path to transcend the very position you have started off from. Namely a position of vulnerability, a position of need, a position of liking and not liking. And this is a powerful teaching.
And one of the key functions in that teaching is a capacity of mind called mindfulness. The Buddha calls it Sati. And that mindfulness is a seed quality in our mind. It’s at the root of our development of stillness. The stability aspect of Sati, the capacity to stay with something. The capacity to fix the mind on something and to bring it into a deeper and more intimate connection with an object, a process, a situation, a quality. That will be the basis for the whole development of Samādhi. So Sati as a seed quality, as a facet that deals with stability. The suttas image for that stability is the image of a post rammed into the earth. And onto that post are shackled six wild animals. [SN 35:206] They’re all chained to that post. And the animals are trying to get each into their respective domains. Crocodile wants to go to the water, jackle wants to go to the forest, dog wants to go to the village, bird wants to fly up into the sky, and so forth. These wild animals are our senses. And the post that is rammed into the earth and that allows the wild animals to tire and become tame and docile and peaceful and cooperative, that post is Sati. It’s an interesting image, isn’t it? A post rammed into the earth, with-holding those wild animals of our senses. All wanting to be stimulated, all wanting to go to their … respective pastures. That aspect of Sati is easily understood to be the Sati facet that makes the stability, the calm, the stillness of mind possible.
But Sati has other aspects than that. Another aspect of Sati is perspective. It’s the image of a man who climbs on the bench of his cart, of his ox-cart, and holds the reins and drives his oxen and his cart, with a cartload of stuff. And he sees both his animals, he sees the reins, he sees the roads, he sees maybe the people that are on that road with him, and Sati suddenly has this quality of panoramic, open, un-fixed vision. There are many such images in the suttas. In one image a man climbs on top of his roof, on the roof of his house, and if you’ve been to India, you know much of the life in the hot season happens up on top of the roof, where you have shade, particularly these are women’s area[s] traditionally, and it’s quite pleasant to be outside of the house, in the shade, on top, outside of the dust, and in the privacy of your dwelling. And you have an overview. You have a kind of panorama. There are several of those images where Sati is referred to in terms of its open awareness quality. Its panoramic vision that allows you to have an overview of things.
Then Sati has yet other dimensions. One of them is the dimension of inquiry. Of investigating into. As you know, there are many virtues referred to in the Pāli teachings that speak of inquiring, investigating, reflecting upon, researching into, looking closely. Many many terms. Yoniso Manasikara, Patisanka [sp?], Vicara [sp?], Dhammavicaya, Vīmaṃsati, many many terms speak of, basically, a whole range of investigative, researching, inquiring practices. In other words, it’s kind of the thing, it’s the quality that goes to the edge of the known. Sati is liminal. Sati is something at the edge of the known. Is Sati tells you things you already know, it’s probably not Sati that is speaking, but something else. [I don’t know. That last sentence seems to me too much. I believe that Sati can be investigative, can be revealing, but I also think that Sati can tell me about the easy feeling of my body rising and falling with the breath… which does not feel liminal, but it feels very much like Sati.] So Sati is that which takes you to the very verge of that which you already know, but you have not yet conceptualized.
The image in the suttas is a poignant one, it’s the one of a surgeon who gets delivered a man with an injury, an arrow injury, I believe I spoke of that some time ago here. And that person has a… shaft is broken off, the arrowhead is in the man’s flesh, buried, invisible to the surgeon’s eye. And he uses a probe to put into the wound to get a tactile experience of the shape, the size, the depth of that foreignous part stuck in our man. And it is by that probe that he has an idea where he has to cut and how deep he has to cut and how big he has to make his cut. And Sati is likened to that probe that is inserted into the wound that goes to where the eye does not reach. Where the characteristic of what is to be investigated is not visible. And Sati, the probe, investigates that which is not visible to the naked eye. [MN 105] That’s a powerful image, isn’t it? Very different from the stability part. Very different from the panorama part. Sati goes right in there in almost painful ways.
So we have Sati, not just as the seed quality of Samādhi, of stillness of mind, we have Sati also as the seed quality of insight. Of Vipassanā, of Paññā, of Ñāṇa. Then we have Sati as the seed quality of the universal forms of empathy, we have Sati as the seed quality of the four Brahmavihārās. As I said, Sati is fundamentally relational. It is about establishing relationship to things, people, states, objects, events, inside and outside. And that relational quality of Sati is amplified in the Brahmavihārās. So Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity are _relational_ qualities. They are qualities for the human realm. Even Equanimity, these are not just meditative states, they can also be meditative states, but that’s way down the line.
The major message of these Brahmavihārās is not the Brahmavihārās as meditative exercises, but the Brahmavihārās as virtues, the Brahmavihārās as fundamental possibilities of the heart. Capable, for every human being. Not something to develop, not something to fear that you might lose it, not something as a reward of hard practice. Something that constitutes your humanity. As a potential, all human beings are capable of that. Some of us have developed that, some of us have forgotten about it. Some of us have pushed it aside. But it’s… the potential is there. That is a _real_ message of the Brahmavihārās which we find not in some of the teachings where the Brahmavihārās are only meditative tasks or meditative objects. On a second level, these Brahmavihārās are virtues. That means they are things we can practice, we can see. We can admire. We can strengthen. We can affirm. We can try to spend much time in such a state. And on a third layer, Brahmavihārās are meditative exercises. That’s maybe the tradition has made the most famous for. They’re practices, specific contemplative exercises.
In all of those, particularly in those last meditative exercises, but also as virtues, Sati is already there. At the root of each Brahmavihārā is the seed quality of Sati that has a strong relational component. And of which the Brahmavihārā is nothing else but the developed and accentuated, particular form of empathy. Maybe more loving, or more equanimous. Maybe more compassionate or maybe more joyous. And then it is refined by deep stillness. Brahmavihārās are refined by the jahnas to be immeasurable. While at the root of it, the seed quality is Sati again.
And finally we have Sati at the root of the development of ethics. We have Sati at the root of the development of Sīla. It is Sati that makes us aware of where we move. It is Sati that brings to our notion how we are connected to other beings. How our happiness is connected. How our behaviour, our intentionality, is the foundation for our happiness. Or our misery.
So however you are gonna play it, at the root of four huge dimensions of Buddhist mind-development, stillness, insight, Brahmavihārās, and ethics, you have Sati as a seed quality. And Sati has already facets of each those. Sati has a feeling quality. Sati has a stability quality. Sati has an inquiring quality. So it’s… the lists in which Sati occurs in Buddhist teachings are quite numerous. There’s probably no single other quality that occurs so many times in the [??] known Buddhist charts of wholesome qualities.
And I’d like to look in some psychological way at how Sati transforms Dukkha. How that actually, practically, could work. This is not canonical. But I do think it is quite legitimate and quite useful to look at it in non-canonical terms. So how does Sati transform suffering? How does Sati transform Dukkha? One simple way is, Sati allows me to choose where attention goes. So Sati can change the content. In choosing where my attention goes, in choosing where my mindfulness is applied to, I can actually direct Sati to associate with a particular aspect of my experience. That [act of choosing] may be wholesome or it may be unwholesome. It may be unwholesome insofar as I get something unpleasant and I just distract myself from it. I just distract myself. I get something that I don’t like to see and then I look for something that is more interesting and I try to do this [instead]. I have to respond to an unpleasant email, and instead of responding to an unpleasant email, I just decide [to] go and read the newspaper. Simply change [the] choice of attentional focus away from the unpleasant task over to the pleasant task. To the pleasant pursuit. That will be probably a not very useful or an even unwholesome type of change of content.
But I may also have an angry thought coming up in my mind, and some angry ideation taking place in my mind and instead of doing that, giving my attention to that process, I may decide, because I have learned to focus my attention on bodily processes, I may decide that rather than thinking these angry thoughts, I may go from Channel 4, thinking about something, to Channel 1, body sensation of that very same experience. [See this excellent talk on an explication of Akincano’s map of the Four Channels of Experience.] So rather than thinking that angry thought, I look for the bodily locus of that angry experience. And I will end up somewhere in the pit of my stomach and breathing into something warm or hot, tight, knotty, unpleasant. And instead of thinking the anger in my head, I will feel the anger in the body. And if I’ve learned that, and bear the unpleasantness of this, which is not inviting, but with a little training this is perfectly do-able, I will find out that my anger does not continue.
The anger is a lot more short-lived when I am with that anger in the pit of my stomach than when I try to be with that anger somewhere in my head. Because while in the head, many many angry thoughts come up and I will remember other situations where I was angry, or I will remember other situations where the same person has made me angry and I might actually end up feeding that very angry emotion that I would like not to have. When I stay with that anger on the level of my belly, or the pit of my stomach, or wherever I feel that in my throat or in my neck, or where you happen to feel your anger, and you’d better find out where you feel anger, I find that after a while, there’s just pain [that] passes away. It just disappears. Because the anger is not fed on the level of physical sensation. You cannot feed anger on the level of physical sensation. You don’t believe? Try. Try to stay angry when you’re not thinking. Try to stay angry just by sitting with yourself in the body, holding an angry sensation. Try to stay angry. I bet you have not much success. It’s really difficult to stay angry without perception. Without thinking. Without rumination. Without fantasizing, without memorizing. It’s very difficult to stay angry.
You have sort of stimulating, brisk, frisson maybe, sixty seconds, eighty seconds if you’re good, but then you kind of lose it. Because an anger without an object, an anger without a story, an anger without a culprit is really not much of an anger. That includes your own person, by the way. That if you’re not thinking about others, it’s also you’re not thinking about yourself as an object of your anger. I’m not suggesting [that] instead of directing your anger to others [that] you direct it to yourself. That’s not my suggestion. My suggestion is that holding the unpleasant physical component of the experience of anger, in other words, holding the Kāya part of the four Satipattahanas of your angry moment, rather than the Dammha part, and hover with that angry sensation. And see how long it lasts when you don’t feed it with further ideas or further stories. That might be an attempt to just transform Dukkha by changing the object of my Sati in a wholesome way.
The practice is, obviously to remember that I have such choice. Often I forget that I have choice. I just follow my habits and the possibilities where I could opt out are not acknowledged. And six hours later I am still ruminating about the situation that made me angry, or actually I may have moved on to fifteen other situations and forgotten the first one, but the anger is still there somehow. That’s often how it works. So the first way Sati is capable of transforming Dukkha is by changing the object of that which my attention has as a focus. I think that’s fairly straightforward.
Most of the time our attentional focus is not deliberate. Our attentional focus is governed by habit. Governed by pleasure seeking and avoidance from unpleasantness. Governed by Vedanā, basically. It’s Vedanā that rules much of our attentional patterning. One of the reasons why we study Vedanā, the occurrence of the pleasant and of the unpleasant, is that it gives us a much better choice when it comes to what we bestow our mindfulness to. Where we direct our mindfulness towards, what we let it associate with. What we choose to be the object of our awareness. And it’s that choice which constitutes our biggest freedom. Nowhere is our freedom bigger than in our choice where and what we attend to. And how. [A detailed explication from Akincano on Vedanā here.]
We don’t generally have much choice what the stuff is that appears in our attention, but we do have, always have, a choice what of the many things that happen to appear in our experience, we give prime attention, secondary attention, peripheral attention. Continual attention. We do have a lot of choices in there. Ultimately it’s making that choice more consciously that … reclaims authorship for our lives. Rather than being governed by our habits or conditioned into by the strongest sensory impingement that just keeps going, or by a strategized series of distractions that keep us nicely entertained. Until we are so tired that we can fall asleep. So deliberate choice of where my attention my mindfulness, if it is cultivated, go towards, is the first step in which mindfulness can transform suffering. Making better choices.
The second way in which mindfulness transforms suffering, transforms dukkha, is not in the choice of the content, but it is in a change in the how of my relationship with the thing I have to deal with. In the first case, I actually change the content. In the second case, I am changing the relationship I have to my experience. It may be unpleasant, and I may not be able to get away from it, but I may actually allow it. Rather than simply resent it, or wish it would not be there. I may consciously allow. I may consciously go towards it. Utterly counter-intuitive. When everything says, “Go away, not interested, doesn’t happen, off with it.” I turn into it and say, “Well, I’m going to extend friendliness towards you. Although you seem unpleasant, I’m going to extend friendliness. I’m going to show interest.” I’m not trying to get it over with. I’m not trying to get rid of it, I’m actually willing to have it.
That, by the way, is the lowest denominator of Metta. Lowest denominator of Metta is, “I am willing to have this experience. I’m not going to kick you out of my consciousness. I allow your co-existence.” That’s the cheapest form of Metta. Anything cheaper isn’t Metta. I allow you to be there, I’m not going to threaten you or the legitimacy of your existence. I’m not going to throw you out. That’s what is necessary between human beings. That’s absolutely necessary. If human beings are not willing to accept each other’s presence, it’s very difficult to take it from there. If you meet people and you give them the feeling that it would be better if they weren’t here, that’s a really bad start for your relationship. If one group is predicated on trying to get rid of the other group, then that is a very bad start for a relationship.
Look for the Middle East [to] see the outcome of bad governance, on both sides actually. At least one group actively having it constitutional that the existence of the other group is to be stopped. The task of my group is the annihilation of the other group. If you have that as a position, already written into your own strategies, then it will be very difficult to get on with people. Both individually or as family systems, as corporations, as states.
So the minimal Metta is, I allow co-existence. You are allowed to be where you are. When I say that to a part of my experience, “You painful knee, I allow you to be there.” Then that’s a beginning. We can meet. It’s not exactly romantic love, but it’s a beginning. I can start to meet the pain in my knee. I don’t need to fall in love with it, but I’m starting to acknowledge it’s there and I don’t challenge its right to be there. That generally means it’s possible to start engaging in some more constructive ways. Something’s gonna happen there.
That transformation of relationship is the second big key in Sati. Sati, learning to be in different ways with the event, the object, the process, the situation, the other. Powerful. Not easy. Learning to overcome one’s own unwillingness and turn this into some form of tolerance, or even active interest, or even welcoming in, is difficult to achieve. It seems to go against one’s grain, it goes against habits, it may mean the challenging of ingrained fears, and yet. As soon as we start doing this, generally something powerful takes place. We enter into a relationship and in that relationship transformation becomes possible.
I am not who I thought I was and the thing is not what I thought it was. And somehow something powerful takes place. It can be really an empowering experience to notice that we can transform relationships. We can transform our relationship to something. We don’t have to be the same person in relationship to that thing or to that person or to that situation as we know ourselves to be.
That takes us straight to the third dimension of transformation of Sait and Dukkha: the third dimension, while the first looks at the change of object, the second looks at the change of relationship, the third looks at the change of how I hold the big situation. How I hold myself in that situation. In the first I change the object, the second I change the relationship, in the third third form of how Sati transforms I change my relationship to the receiving end of the experience. In other words, the relationship to self is changed. It’s the notion of self, being the victim, or being the person that is at the receiving end of the experience, _that_ undergoes change under the influence of Sati. So Sati begins to soften my edges. Sati begins to poke holes into the solidity of my self-construct. Sati suddenly makes it more possible for me to allow admitting that this receiving end is not a solid, not as immutable, not as vulnerable, maybe. Not as fixed as I pretended it was.
And by suddenly, the self part, of the receiving end of the experience, becoming more spacious, more formable, more malleable, less substantial, more adaptable, or, if you go deep enough, becomes insubstantial. Becomes process-like. Becomes dynamic. And as that, it loses its essential fixity … and all the fears that go. Sati, directed to self-construct, in an experiential situation, means that I stop being in a contracted position. I stop being in a fortified position. I stop being locked into my notions of myself and what I need and what I fear and what is dangerous and what I have to have and what I don’t want and what i want.
That’s maybe the most powerful type of transformation, when that self-construct starts to unravel. Starts to become a process, starts to become manifest in its dynamically, in its conditioned, in its essentially empty nature. So I am no longer who I thought I was and who I thought I needed to be. And that makes it possible [that] things change between you and me. I can be somebody else. I don’t have to be the incarnation of my fears, my horrors, my traumas, my anxieties, and my cherished defense strategies and compensatory numbers and my avoidance patterns and all this. I don’t have to be all this anymore. I don’t have to be in control anymore. I may be able to extend connection. I may be able to tolerate things I never thought I was capable of handling.
And all this is due to Sati suddenly starting to identify and gently unravel, gently undo, some of my fixtures. Some of my solidity. Some of my… the way I think, the way I conceive myself, the way I project myself. The way I defend myself. That’s a powerful way of how this can be transformative. It doesn’t demand that the thing change, it doesn’t demand that the relationship change, it suddenly becomes possible that this apparent protagonist suddenly has changed, has altered, is no longer a protagonist. Is a participant. Is not the major guy in here. It’s just a participant. It constellates itself, continuously in new ways. And it means it doesn’t need so much protection, it doesn’t need to be so demanding, it doesn’t need to be defined in terms of its needs, it doesn’t need to be assuaged that its fears are not gonna manifest, it doesn’t need to be in control, because it’s so insecure. There’s a powerful way that the Sati can start to gently undo my trench warfare. My trench warfare self.
I think all that can happen through cultivation of mindfulness. Mindfulness of the thing, mindfulness of the relationship and mindfulness of the apparent recipient of the experience.
Contemplate this. See whether you can extend some of your notions of Sati; Sati is more than just attention, as I like to say. Recall that Sati has many dimensions. One of them is just to be mindful, to recall what is taking place in the present moment. One aspect is stability, one aspect is inquiry, one aspect is understanding, one aspect is continual relationship, staying in touch with something that is changing and moving. One aspect is the relational dimension of it. And this can be turned towards the object, it can turn towards the relationship between this me and the object, and it can obviously turn towards the me-ness protagonist, the self at the receiving end of experience. And Sati is a powerful transformer. A powerful grounding, anchoring, at the same time undoing structures. Undoing fixities. Undoing solidifications. Undoing the pernicious reification of experience.
So. Ponder this, and I leave you.
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.