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.
Re-contextualising Mindfulness. Sati in Buddhist Psychology, sati in Mind-development, Images of sati. Establishing the Fourfold Mindfulness: (satipaṭṭhāna) as map and as four channels of experience.
This is the time when one of us gives the Dhamma talk. I know it can be a little confusing if you started tuning to the schedule. But that’s what’s happening now for about the next hour. So, ready yourself.
It is my wish for tonight to do some justice to the teachings of mindfulness. Part of the purpose of this retreat is to contextualize the term of mindfulness, “Sati”, in a Buddhist understanding, or an understanding as it comes down to us from early Buddhism. You as native English speakers are fortunate to have, I think, a very fortuitous translation with the term “Mindfulness” of this Buddhist concept called “Sati”. You may, or may not know, that this word Mindfulness is more or less artificially coined. In the late 19th century by a Welsh scholar, a bored civil servant out in Sri Lanka who had to cope with the property laws and that got him into connecting to monasteries. Because monasteries under the British Empire in Sri Lanka, or then Ceylon, were actually land owners. They weren’t intended to be land owners. But by that time they had become land owners. In part through the efforts of the British who couldn’t cope with the concept of land being owned by a monastic community of the present and of the future. That notion was legally not tenable. So the British attributed the land in the monasteries to the abbot of the monastery which immediately led to nepotism because monks couldn’t have kids but at least they could bequeath their property to distant family members.
Anyway. Long foot note. Rhys Davids got to study the property laws with monastics in Sri Lanka and thereby discovered the discourses of the Buddha. And was very delighted. He learned some Palī and was raving. Writing his letters back home saying [that] what he had discovered in these texts would be no less fascinating than Platonic dialogues. So this is one of the beginnings of Palī scholarship. A bored civil servant. A lawyer who turns linguist. And who had the social organization skill to then organize that hitherto unknown Middle-Indo-Aryan dialect, was established as part of Indological studies in the UK. And he continued to translate with much dedication and continued to lecture, even in the States here, early part of the 20th Century, he was having a hold. He broke into the North American lecturing circle and lectured Americans about Buddhism.
He is the one who coined that term “Mindfulness”. The word existed in the English language until then, but it had practically no meaning. I’ve managed to trace it down in some French/English dictionary. Where Mindfulness was the translation for the French “pensée”. The adjective “mindful” was very well known. It was in the King James’ Bible. But the noun “Mindfulness” practically didn’t exist. We can easily establish now with the help of Google’s Ngram Viewer where you can scan across the corpus of twenty million books or so. And you can actually identify that the term barely existed before that. So I think Rhys Davids coined that term in analogy to the adjective “mindful”. In the sense of being mindful of the needs of others. Prudence, circumspection, care.
And he used that term “mindfulness” to translate this Buddhist psychological function called “Sati”. So Mindfulness is right from the beginning in its career in the English language, connected with the Buddhist term Sati. That’s the Sati of Satipaṭṭhāna. Chris mentioned today it’s the Sati of Anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing.
So. Mindfulness is the full presence of mind. It’s a lovely notion. When we are trying to find out what role this mindfulness takes in Buddhist teaching, it becomes quickly obvious that mindfulness is a team player. Buddhist psychology understands mindfulness to be indispensable, but on its own, not terribly powerful.
It is situated squarely in a project that Buddhist teaching calls “Mind Development”. Bhavana. Or maybe more beautifully, “Bringing into Being”. That’s what Buddhists call “Mind Training”. “Mind Development”. This mind training has many facets, one of them is about body. Our relationship to the physical world. One of them is about social relations, our relationship to the human world. And maybe the world of animals. It is about training the mind in terms of stillness. Samatha aspect. And in terms of the universal forms of empathy, the Brahmavihāra, which are so crucial in Buddhist teaching and which have so much to offer to Western society. Because they, in some way, would be very profoundly useful and are profoundly transformative when we relate with mindfulness infused with empathy. Forms of empathy. Friendliness, compassion, joyousness, and equanimity.
So we have [four] segments of this big project of mind cultivation. Body, relationship to the physical world, finally our planet. Sila, relationship to the social world, everything to do with others. The other. Stilling the mind and infusing it with the paradigms of empathy. And finally, developing forms of wisdom. Wisdom and understanding that is transformative and clears the mind. Buddhist definition of wisdom is always a wisdom that is helpful to make us happier and that clears the things that trouble the mind. Usually one of the subforms of Greed, Hatred, or Delusion. [^1]
[^1] In an email from Akincano, he clarified this section as follows:
- Body, our relationship to the physical world – (kāya bhāvanā)
- Ethics, our relationship to the social and animate world (sīla bhāvanā)
- Mind training in stillness and empathetic response (citta bhāvanā)
- Mind training in wisdom and emancipatory insight (paññā bhāvanā)
So Mindfulness has a role to play in this mind training. It’s an indispensable quality that has a role to play in the development of wisdom. And the development of ethics, in the development of stillness. And in the development of empathy.
So it’s a fairly central word; it’s a word and a notion of mind function that, if you want to chart of Buddhist qualities, mindfulness is probably the word that occurs in most of the charts. Early Buddhist teachings go back to an oral tradition, and as in any oral tradition, you have lots of lists. Because that’s the way to remember things. You have lists. If you don’t have contents pages, glossary, indices, if you can’t just turn back and re-read page fifteen again, after you’re on page two hundred and seventy one, you need to learn things by heart. So any oral tradition, not just Buddhist traditions, but any oral tradition has lots of lists. And repeats things. It has stock phrases. Biblical scholars would call that pericopes. Things that return in more or less verbatim ways in many text passages.
So Sati, Mindfulness, turns up in a whole number of contexts. It’s one of the awakening factors, it’s one of the Indriyas, the spiritual faculties. It’s one of the members of the eight-fold path. It’s many many times referenced. It has lots of teachings given on its development, or on its function. Sometimes it appears in negative ways, when there is no Sati, we are rated to be superficial, or we are rated to be forgetful, or we are rated to be unaware. Many things testify to the value of such Sati.
Now, rather than dragging you through a long list of possible definitions, and you know Buddhists have not always been in one mind over this. Buddhist teachings have taken many many different tacks. And over the centuries, Buddhist traditions themselves have debated on the nature of mindfulness in quite controversial ways. So, depending on what time you look for this, it doesn’t always exactly mean the same thing. But, the centrality of that teaching is huge. There is a huge agreement across Buddhist traditions about the centrality of this mind function. Now we could try to look for a definition of this mind function, but definitions are tricky, and as will become very quickly obvious, one of the features of mindfulness that it is rather refractory to definitions. If you want to define things, you need to take them out of their context in some way. To isolate. You want to address their singularity in some ways. And precisely that Sati is somewhat refractory to. It’s in the nature of mindfulness, according to early Buddhist understanding that you cannot take it out of its context without completing depleting its power. That is a challenge in itself.
Maybe more useful would be to look at some of the imagery in the similes with which early Buddhist teachings speak when they refer to this quality of mind. As you know, definitions hinge on a lot of cognitive gymnastics. You need to know something about the context before a definition starts to make sense. So images and similes seem to travel more easily. You have to understand that the source of these texts is quite a long time ago. These texts they do not speak to us in the language of Jack Kornfield or Thích Nhất Hạnh or Jon Kabat-Zinn. These are texts that are two and a half millennia old. To understand, to work, to tease out meaning from these texts is a type of work that is beyond bedtime reading for most people. I don’t know what your bedtime reading is, but it’s beyond my bedtime reading.
There may be comparisons. Think of other texts coming from this time. Greek comedies. Maybe we have Greek scholars in here … people who are fond of Aristophanes. If you read Aristophanes, or try to play him, enact him, bring him on stage, you having big problems. Because the guy’s about as old as the text from Buddhist teachings. And his jokes are no longer funny. If you want to make his jokes funny you have to really sit down and re-write this stuff. Because what was funny then, all the wit, all the sarcasm, all the ingenuity with which he portrayed and caricatured his contemporary Athens society of the fourth Century BCE, all this is lost on you if you grow up in Brooklyn. Unless you have had a strong penchant from fairly early on for Attic comedy. Which is probably unlikely.
So, these is the distance culturally and time-wise where these teachings come from us. But it is maybe worth considering, even if you don’t want to become a Buddhist, or if you think Buddhists are to be taken with a pinch of salt, if you are into Mindfulness, it is probably worth looking or thinking and pondering some of what a tradition has to say that has actually developed a whole psychology on the basis of contemplative experience. Unlike Western psychology, Buddhist psychology has grown out of contemplative introspective experience. The very language, the very notion of mind is contingent on the fact that these people were introspectives. It is introspective exercises that have given Buddhist psychology its name.
So whether you are interested in Buddhists or in Buddhism or in becoming a Buddhist is completely beside the matter. If there are people for two and a half millennia have been dealing with a particular type of practice and experiential procedures that hinge on Mindfulness, and you are into Mindfulness, then it is probably worth looking at what these guys have come up with in those two and a half millennia. So that’s, I think, one of the reasons why it makes sense to look at some of the teachings and basically the treasures [troves] of a contemplative tradition, even from a non-religious point of view.
So if we look at some of the images in which Sati is spoken of in early Buddhist teachings, it’s quite fascinating. So we have a number of images. A very simple, and maybe famous one, is about body awareness. The image is a man has to carry a bowl of oil on his head, brim full. And he has to walk across a crowd who has assembled to watch the Belle of the country sing and dance. You have to assume that this is a crowd not terribly mindfull of our man with the bowl of oil on his head. And to make matters worse, there is another man behind him with a sword drawn, threatening to lop off his head at the first drop of oil is shed. And then the question is, would this person risking his life with the slightest unaware body movement, would this person be lacking in bodily awareness, in Sati for the body? And the story is a narrative frame in which Buddha speaks to his monks and they duly answer him, no. No, this person would be highly mindful. From a psychologist’s point of view he would say, this person is likely to be in a state of upper hyper vigilance probably. To rescue his life.
So one aspect of this body awareness is this rather dramatic and somewhat almost punitive image. I think … it’s a state of heightened presence. Not just for what I feel, but actually also for my motor movements, what I anticipate happening to me. Some of the cheering crowd may be more attentive to the Belle of the country rather than to me. And me risking my life, I have to anticipate this. So I think a very stark image. It’s not something we want to replicate here. We don’t release cobras or walk up and down with swords drawn when you start to give off the first sign of a slight nod. Although some Buddhist traditions have made much of this. Some of the Japanese tradition, you may notice, have the “Staff of Awakening” where I began with. Is an instrument that sometimes descends on you if you are found wanting in wakefulness. And indeed that staff usually hits your shiatsu points up here in your shoulder and wakefulness comes easy after you’ve been hit with one of these. This is not something we practice or even recommend. But it is clearly… there is a lineage there. It’s a clearly discernible lineage, I think, between this image and somewhat martial take on mindfulness.
We have other images, maybe more peaceful images of mindfulness. One image speaks of mindfulness in its role of stability. I guess an often under-estimated aspect of mindfulness is that it is the raw material for mental stability. For calm. What Buddhists call Samādhi. Not to be mistaken with concentration. Concentration is not Samādhi. It has very little to do with Samādhi. Concentration in my book is a kind of effortful, continued strenuous type of attention. It’s not even proper mindfulness. It’s a strained type of attention that can only be very short lived. Generally induces migraine and pain in the neck. The calm Buddhist teachings speak of is not something that can be attained by straining attention. It is a calm that is instilled in the mind because the mind likes to coalesce. It likes to unify. So the proper word for deeper stillness, for Samādhi, Samādhi is the experience, Samatha is the practice that leads to this experience, is Unification. A unification that cannot be willed, but that can be prepared. You can do things that help the mind more likely to become unified. To become still and experience deepening states of tranquility and calm. Sati, mindfulness, is the raw material for this deepening stillness. That’s one powerful example.
So the image that goes with this is we have a post. Sati is likened to a strong, firmly implanted post. And on that post you have a number of ropes. And these ropes are tied to animals. One of these animals is a crocodile, one of them is a snake, one of them is a jackal, a dog, a bird, a monkey. And these animals represent our senses. Five outer senses and in Buddhist psychology the mind, also among other things, is a sense organ. Not just a sense organ, but also a sense organ. There’s nothing inherently transcendent in thought. Unlike in some of the branches of Western philosophy, where thought at least has a transcendent property, in Buddhist psychology thought is a sensual experience as tasting or as hearing. Your relationship to thought objects, concepts, images, anything conceptualized, is essentially the same relationship as that of your tongue to a taste. Or of your ear to a sound.
So we have six senses. These six senses are these six animals. And these animals, as you can imagine, they don’t like to be tied to that post. They want to go back. The crocodile into the water, the jackal onto the charnal grounds, the dog into the village, the bird into the air, the snake wants to disappear in an anthill. So the post holds these animals back. That post is Sati. Because that post does not [?], is stable, the animals become gradually more quiet. They stop pulling, they stop jumping up and down. They stop trying to get away. And increasingly they become peaceful. And Sati is likened with the capacity of mind that begins initially by restraining the senses and finally these senses become calm and peaceful and stop dragging us into different directions.
The notion of sense, and sense organ is an interesting one. Maybe we’ll speak about this on another evening. But it is a power that makes us do things that we don’t necessarily want to do. We all experience sensitivity and these senses make us jump. Somebody bangs a door, we jump. Somebody walks in front of our nose with a strong perfume and something in us either delights or feels insulted. Somebody wears the wrong kind of socks and we feel this is really a bad fashion statement. Or we start fantasizing or envying or feeling… all kinds of things get going. So we are susceptible. We are sensitive. And through this sensitivity we are susceptible to all kinds of impingement. And that is something that takes the mind away from stillness. So Sati is the post that helps the mind to have the necessary stability.
A very powerful image is the image of a surgeon. A wound surgeon who gets delivered a patient who has an arrow wound. The arrow shaft is broken off. So there is our surgeon with a man who has an arrowhead stuck somewhere in his flesh. And he doesn’t see that arrowhead. So the surgeon uses an instrument to probe into the wound. He uses a probe to touch into the wound to get an idea how deep the arrowhead is buried. What shape it is, what size it is. So that he can then minimally invasively open the wound and remove that arrowhead. Sati is likened to that probe. Sati is likened to that which makes us capable of getting in touch with what we don’t yet see. What is hidden to the eye. And Sati, in this painful image, is that which takes us beyond what we can already know. Clearly in the role of examining, investigative, fathoming type of function.
So already we have very different functions. One of them is body awareness, heightened vigilance. One of them is stability, and now suddenly Sati is likened to examining, probing in to investigating.
There are more images. There’s a few images that speak of Sati in a sort of panoramic, open, spacious awareness. Man climbing on top of his house and overlooking the land. Or another man sitting on the bench of his oxcart and overlooking his draft animals, his road, the cartload, and holding the reins. So Sati is likened to that panoramic overview. Which is probably one of the most easiest recognizable images for Sati.
But then there are other images. Sati is described with a cowherd boy who has to look after his cows. And these cows, there are two takes. Take one shows these cows while the fruit in the field nearby is ripe. And the cows want to run into the ripe field and thereby eat some of the fruit and trample the rest of the field, which the boy has to avoid. And to do so, he has a stick. He jumps up and down. He screams, he shakes his arms, and he runs around to keep these cows at all costs out of the field. This practice is called “protection”. It’s not called mindfulness, it’s called protection. Then we have another take. That the field is harvested. The cows don’t really run anywhere; they just stand. And our cowherd boy just lies in the shadow, lifts his head occasionally and sees, “Oh, my cows are still there. Nothing is happening. I don’t really need to do anything.” And this practice is called “establishing mindfulness”. Very inviting, isn’t it?
Maybe interesting not to forget that the first activity, shaking your hands, screaming, using the stick and jumping up and down, is also deemed a necessary practice. Although it is not called mindfulness, it is still necessary. So if your cows are running around madly, it may be necessary that your lofty definitions of mindfulness need to be parked for a moment and you need to make sure that your cows don’t run away. By whatever means it takes to keep them from running away.
We have images of Sati, very interesting image, as a gatekeeper. Two images, one image speaks of Sati as a gatekeeper at the gate. Awaiting two messengers coming from a distant place. And the gatekeeper awaits them so that when they arrive, tired, and not familiar with the town, that he can take them on the straightest and most direct way to the governor of the city. Sati has the job of efficiency, of economy, and making things go unhindered. Very interesting image of Sati. So a gatekeeper that awaits the messengers, they by the way are called Samatha and Vipassanā, and takes these messengers to the governor of the city, to the Citta.
Then we have another image of a gatekeeper, somewhat different spin. This time the gatekeeper looks closely at all the people wanting to enter the city. Those he knows, he lets in. And those he doesn’t know, he actually scrutinizes and questions what their business is in town. Some of them he lets in and some of them he doesn’t let in. That’s an interesting state, isn’t it, for Sati? It sounds a bit judgmental, for something that is supposed to be nonjudgmental. Sati is likened here to a quality of awareness that is capable of protecting the heart. That’s the city. From influences that are detrimental to that heart. So Sati has a clearly protective function in this image.
Then we have some images where Sati is likened to salt when it comes to foods, to the preparation of foods. As salt is said to bring out the flavour of all foods, so Sati brings out the qualities of what the mind experiences. An amplifier of experience. Very interesting. Something that brings to awareness what we actually experience.
Then there is a very interesting image where Sati is likened to a plow and to a goad. So we have a plowman who, you have to imagine this to be a little simpler than this will be the case here, two oxen pulling a very simple wooden contraption, maybe sheathed with a little bit of metal at the point where it goes into the earth. If you go to Bihar today you will probably still see such things. Twenty years ago when I was there I still saw such things. This is not a very complicated structure. So you have your two draft animals yoked together, they pulled along. And you are tilling a furrow behind them. And your job is to make sure that you have enough weight on that plow. This is called attuned application. Enough weight on that plow so that it digs deep enough to really make a nice furrow. If you do it too much, it gets stuck, and will probably be torn apart by your oxen. If you don’t press it down enough, it will only scratch the surface and not properly break the earth. So we are told that Sati is like that plow and turns the earth. So that that which was not visible becomes obvious. The commentary then glosses that this means that the three hallmarks, impermanence, conditionality, impersonality, will become obvious in all things experienced.
The second instrument is the goad with which you keep your oxen straight. Because oxen not necessarily favor to be straight. They just do what they like to do. And if you want your furrow to be a straight furrow, you need some clear direction. So the double task of Sati, of mindfulness, to work with attuned application, so to get the weight right which you place with your feet and your body’s weight on that plow, and to make sure that there is a clear direction for your two draft animals. It’s an interesting image. Attuned effort and clear direction.
Let me see. One image speaks of what happens when you throw a pumpkin into water. The pumpkin floats away. The gourd, is an Indian pumpkin, somewhat smaller. Imagine there’s a little rivulet and this gourd is thrown in and there is a drift, and that the gourd just floats away. And Sati is described to be not like a gourd that you throw into water. But to actually enter, rather than floating away, it is described to enter the object it associates with. So the property of not floating away. And as meditators you will know there is plenty of drift usually in a human mind on which one can easily float away. Float away for quite long times at a time. Sometimes it floats away a few breaths and sometimes it floats away a long time. And sometimes, next moment of consciousness is a bell that is being rung.
So we have quite a number of images here. We have Sati in this role as a protector, one gatekeeper. Sati in the role of a panoramic, spacious openness, as in the cowherd. We have Sati in the role of efficiency and economy, in the image of the second gatekeeper. We have Sati, in the image of the post planted in the ground, as a symbol of stability. We have Sati, in the wound surgeon’s simile, where it is likened to the power of investigation, examination, fathoming. We have Sati as not floating away, we have Sati as the man who climbs on his tower.
So how do we understand this function of mind? There is no psychological notion of a mind function that covers all these things, is it? It’s very obvious. And yet, the contemplative tradition has obviously found a coherence in these images, to identify a function of mind that we have all experience knowledge of. That exists. That we can practice. We all know how that feels. And the Buddha, being a spiritual pragmatist, realized that the major evil that assails the human mind, and is the major source of suffering, is not just desire and hatred, but it is the empirical wrong understanding that underpins our willingness to believe that if we follow desire, and if we follow aversion, that our chances to happiness are good. That false understanding he deemed to be the major culprit in the big pandemonium of Buddhist demonology, if you so want.
So the really bad thing is really only under the sway of ignorance do we actually come to the conclusion that greed takes me to happiness, if I fulfill that greed. Or that anger, when I enact that anger, can make me happy. Only under the sway of ignorance. So rather than preaching, “we shouldn’t be greedy and we should be hateful”, he has also preached that he has actually taken another tack and suggested that addressing the major evil of ignorance, you need practical tools. And one of these practical tools is called the training of, first, attention, and then mindfulness.
And this practical training of mindfulness he has given much much time. He has given many many teachings. The famous teachings are: in the Palī there is three versions of the Satipaṭṭhāna texts, discourse on the establishing of mindfulness. These three versions are not quite the same, but they are largely the same. Then we have many many other texts speaking about this pattern, what he calls the Satipaṭṭhāna teachings. Some of the most famous, and maybe some of the most beautiful of these teachings are actually not in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. And have preoccupied Buddhist traditions for about eight hundred years. You can find them in Sanskrit translation, you can find them in Chinese translations, you can find them anthologized, for the first eight hundred years of Buddhist teaching these Satipaṭṭhāna teachings have been the practical instruction to meditate.
So let’s look at that scaffolding very briefly. These Satipaṭṭhānas are something… think of them as four channels. Think of them as something that happens in your experience all the time. Any moment of your experience has the four dimensions that are outlined in the teachings of Satipaṭṭhāna. They are quickly named: The first channel has to do with body. It’s called Kāyānupassanā. Technically, “the contemplation of body”. Body phenomena. The second one has as the theme, the contemplation of Hedonic Tone. This is about pleasure and displeasure. It’s sometimes translated “feeling”, but “feeling” is such a useless term, if you want to be precise, that this is only misleading. Important here, this is neither an emotion, nor is it a bodily sensation. That second channel is about the degree of subjective pleasure experienced with any moment of experience. Greek word, Hēdonḗ, from “pleasure”, is a little technical, but it actually hits the mark. It is exactly that. There are basically three types of these, there’s pleasant ones, there is unpleasant ones, and there is ones that are not strong enough to lean either way. [In later talks, he does not categorize, but rather says this is a spectrum term. That more nuanced approach feels more correct to me.] So that’s the second channel. The dimension of the pleasurable or displeasurable of my current experience.
The third channel is about impulses, it’s about emotion, it’s about the volitional dimension in my experience. Big one. It’s called Cittanupassana, or the practices associated with them are called Cittanupassana.
The fourth one, is about the content of my experience. The cognitive and discursive content of my experience. It’s the objects of my experience. Not the states, not the flavour, but the actual objects. The thought, the mental image, and the individual discursive notion. There’s a whole gamut of exercises associated with that which, right now I’m not interested in. Right now I’m just interested in establishing these Satipaṭṭhānas as a map of human experience. There aren’t that many maps in Buddhism about human experience. Satipaṭṭhāna is one of them.
So the raw material for these four areas in which we are encouraged to develop mindfulness, are somatic, they are hedonic, they are affective, and they are cognitive. Very simple. This is not difficult. Now imagine you don’t get these things separated. If you have any event in your experience, it will always have all four of those aspects. You may not be aware of this immediately, but if you have an apple in your hand, you don’t just get its color. When you get an apple you get a color, you get a texture, you get weight. You get size. You get sweetness. If you have any genuine apple, all these things are in that apple. You never just get the skin alone. Or the color alone. Or the sweetness alone. If this is a genuine apple, it’s gonna display all of the features. Sometimes it makes sense to talk about the color of apples or the size of apples or their respective sourness or sweetness of apples; it makes a lot of sense to distinguish them according to this. But any genuine apple will have all of these qualities. Makes sense? It’s not rocket science.
The Satipaṭṭhānas are exactly the same. So think of Satipaṭṭhānas being something like tv channels. They are broadcasting all the time. But you can choose on which channel you are actually surfing; what you are actually watching.
Now, we have some habits. Our Sati, our attentional focus, decides more or less on which channel we are. Habitually we really like what’s happening in Channel Two, the pleasure/displeasure bit. That really is a powerful governing force in our attentional economy. But actually what we most often do is we got to Channel Four. That’s where the story goes. That’s where the “me” comes in. That’s where the narrative is running. So most of us, most of the time, are on Channel Four. If you don’t train your mind, you keep defaulting to Channel Four. Even if you enjoy something, the enjoyment lasts very brief. And then you start thinking about it. With whom you enjoyed something similar last time, or whether you will get it again tomorrow, or how much it will have cost, or you want to share it with somebody. I find that myself, lovely sunset and I think, Oh. I only wish she saw this. That’s a very natural thought. I’m leaving the sunset and I’m starting to think of somebody who is not here whom I would like that she was here, and then I could share this sunset. So that’s a clear shift from Channel Two to Channel Four. So most of us, most of the time, are spending time on Channel Four.
The problem is, on Channel Four, things are happening rather fast, and despite our fixation on stories and narrative and all this, we are not actually very happy there. [Also, it is straight up Metaphysics. It is something that is not happening right now in the physical world we are in. It is something we are wondering about or wanting to be different. It’s Metaphysics.] We are not very happy as thinkers. You may have heard of this quite astounding few tests, the Boston Globe was speaking of, I think two years ago. Not too far from here if I remember right; it was research on people, they were asked to sit fifteen minutes in a chair. Not even to meditate. Just sit in a chair and think whatever they like. Completely free to think anything they like. But they were not allowed to play with their smartphones, they were not allowed to stand up and do things. And then, they were introduced to a little device, which would give them electric hits. These hits were harmless but unpleasant. And they were said, they could use this instrument if they wanted to. That was the only thing they were allowed to do if they did not feel okay just thinking something of their choice for fifteen minutes. And they were given to try how this felt. And it was unpleasant. They were asked, if I recall properly, whether if they had money, whether they would pay money to not be inflicted with these electric stimulation, and I forgot what percentage, said they would give money to not get this stimulation.
And what turned out to be that a sizable number of people this test was done with, two-thirds of the men, basically ended up using this device on themselves because they felt, obviously, sitting in a chair and thinking something of your liking was less pleasant than stimulating yourself with an electric shock that you knew was going to be decidedly unpleasant, you had tried out. One guy actually used this thing ninety times. The women were still one-third, a good third of the women were also in to this.
So thinking, Channel Four, seems to be, however obsessed we are with that stuff, and habituated and hypnotized by it, it doesn’t seem to actually render us terribly happy. Remember these people weren’t even asked to meditate or think nice thoughts. They could be just thinking their ugly thoughts if they wanted. But even that didn’t seem to be so attractive that it kept two-thirds from the men and one-third of the women from actually using something they knew was going to be painful. And was actually physically painful. Now this says something about thinking, isn’t it?
So for a meditation practitioner that means [that] much of what we learn when we do Satipaṭṭhāna practice is we learn to switch channels. From Channel Four to Channel One. Because Channel One, anything somatic is crucial for us to be in the present moment. The body is the guarantor that we are actually dealing with the present moment. Because you’ve realized that you never get tomorrow’s knee pains, isn’t it? Or yesterday’s migraines. When you deal with the body, whether it be pleasurable or whether it be painful, you always deal with present tense experience. Body only exists now. There is no tomorrow body, there is no yesterday body. Even if you recall yesterday body, this arises now. Even if you apprehend or anticipate tomorrow body, this happens now. [I think this wold be better articulated if he said, if you get a feeling of pain or pleasure when recalling or anticipating, still that feeling you get is in the present. The thoughts about the past for future is not the present.] So if you associate your attentional focus with a bodily process, you have the guarantee that you are in the present moment. A guarantee you cannot have when you are on Channel Four. Because what you think may never have happened. It may never happen. It may be utter fantasy. It may be totally delusional. It is very likely different than you remember it. You may not have been terribly mindful when it happened in the first place. That will not have made your perception very accurate. The duration between the actual event and the recall will not have sharpened your accuracy. And the fogginess in which you try to recall it will make matters even worse. [I don’t think this argument is well handled.]
So the Buddhist insistence on focusing awareness, stabilizing attentional focus on the body, that’s Buddhist traditions across the board, see this as the safest way to make sure that we actually attend to the present moment. Because only the present moment enables us to truly understand something. To truly learn something. To truly participate in something. To truly enjoy something. To truly be compassionate. [To act, yeah?] The more we are not in that present moment, the more we miss out on the stuff that we basically long for. If we spend most of our attentional focus, and remember attention is finite. It is limited. We have not eternally time. We are mortal. And our attention capacity is not unlimited. There is only so much that our system can take up. If that is clogged up with games in Channel Four, past games or future games, anecdotal evidence has it that if I’m young I’m spending more time fantasizing about the future, and as I’m getting older I’m spending more time reminiscing and remembering the past. The more I am not in that present moment, the less likely it is that I can truly enjoy, truly learn, truly participate, truly laugh, truly be compassionate. Truly transform. Transcendence is only possible for things I have truly arrived at. If I want to transform patterns in my mind, I need to arrive at them. Simply deflecting, denying, distracting, is not going to make this transform.
So for me to be able to grow, to participate, to enjoy, to understand, to empathetically connect, I need to be here. In the present moment. That’s not a tiny little dot. I’m not speaking of a now. Now is a Buddhist fantasy. There is no now, to be honest with you. This is kind of a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Depending on how mindful you are, now is a much larger or a much larger segment. Think of now not as something where you can just move in and nothing bad will ever happen. This is a sort of Buddhist fantasy. Think of the present moment as a dexterous… think of the path as a huge mountain range and then you have a deep deep deep gorge. And then at the other side you have another mountain range called the future. And the present moment is a little bridge between the two. The idea of a “now” at the bottom of the gorge is a little fantasy.
Any moment in that “now” is constructed. There is no “now” that is not constructed. We construct “now” by our previous experiences, by our needs, by the sharpness of our senses, by the degree of spaciousness and Samādhi. So the present moment is not a safe place. It’s simply the only place where transformation can take place. Where I can get a foot in. Where I can have a say. Where I can become someone else.
So the more time we spend there, skillfully, the better our chances are that we can learn, grow, flourish. So Buddhist meditation traditions, the Satipaṭṭhāna particularly, teaches and encourages and helps us to bring back attention that is lost in Channel Four to Channel One. That’s the stage we are in. That’s what we are doing today, that’s what we will be doing tomorrow.
So. Enough of map-making tonight, thank you for your attention, I’d love to end on this. Maybe a little quote from an old tradition… A very early attempt at a definition and a distinction between mindfulness and attention. A distinction which we will have to spend a little more time on.
“What is Attention (Manasikāra)? It is the mental tenacity. It’s function consists of keeping the mind on the object. What is Mindfulness (Sati)? It is the non-forgetting by the mind with regard to the object experienced. It’s function is non-distraction.”
These are texts from the third century AD, and a first definitory attempt from the Abidharmma tradition. Interestingly they have a very different flavour from the images I have given you. I read them again:
“What is Mindfulness (Smṛti)? It is the non-forgetting by the mind with regard to the object experienced. It’s function is non-distraction.”
“What is Attention (Manasikāra)? It is the mental tenacity. It’s function consists of keeping the mind on the object.”
My friend John [Peacock] sometimes refers to mindfulness as the “Recollection of the Present Moment”. I like this phrase. I personally think of mindfulness as a type of intelligent relationship to one’s experience. An attuned, embodied attentional relationship to my own experience. We all are at least attentive. We are not necessarily mindful. But all of us are attentive. But we are attentive in episodic and in topical ways. And the task seems to be, at this early stage in our retreat, come from episodic attentional moments to an embodied, fluid, and established mindfulness.
Yeah. Enough for tonight. Thank 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. Please comment with corrections. Thank you.