Turn Toward Your Pain (The Social Media Sutra, Part 4)

In a series of six posts (here’s a link to the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 5) I’m explaining, using teachings from the early Buddhist scriptures, how we can free ourselves from our addiction to social media. These teachings are found in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which outlines five strategies for overcoming compelling urges.


“Vitakkasanthana Sutta” literally means “The Discourse on Quieting Thinking,” but I’m calling it “the Social Media Sutra.”

“Thinking” here means not just our inner verbalization or self-talk, but the emotional urges that accompany those. So the urge to compulsively use social media or to surf the internet is, in this context, a form of thinking.

The first tool is turning our attention to something that’s skillful in our experience. The second is looking at the drawbacks of our unskillful activities. The third is learning how to reduce temptation.

So let’s now look at the fourth tool from the Vitakkasanthana Sutta and see how it can help us deal with social media addiction.

Stopping the Formation of Thoughts

This fourth tool is what’s called “stopping the formation of thoughts.” That sounds great if you can do it. I think we’d all love to be able to find an off-switch for our thinking, or at least to have access to a dial so that we could turn it down a bit.

So what does the discourse actually say about this tool? It tells us that if none of the other methods have quieted our unskillful thoughts and urges, and

…unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion keep coming up. The practitioner should focus on stopping the formation of thoughts. As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end. Their mind becomes stilled internally; it settles, unifies, and becomes immersed in mindful absorption.

So that’s maybe not too helpful.

The Image

But as always there’s an image, and this can give us a better feel for what the Buddha’s talking about:

Suppose there was a person walking quickly. They’d think: ‘Why am I walking so quickly? Why don’t I slow down?’ So they’d slow down. They’d think: ‘Why am I walking slowly? Why don’t I stand still?’ So they’d stand still. They’d think: ‘Why am I standing still? Why don’t I sit down?’ So they’d sit down. They’d think: ‘Why am I sitting? Why don’t I lie down?’ So they’d lie down. And so that person would reject successively coarser postures and adopt more subtle ones.

Understanding What’s Driving Us

The important thing to note here is that we find ourselves bombing along at high speed, and then we realize that there are mechanisms at work causing this to happen: something is propelling us. And by becoming more aware of what’s driving us, we can let go of it and thereby slow down and come to rest.

Similarly, when the mind is giving rise to thoughts and urges that prompt us to get involved — or to stay involved — in compulsive online activity, there is a mechanism that’s driving this. As we begin to look at the causes and conditions that are driving our actions, we can choose to let the mind come back to rest.

So if we’re literally surfing the web rather unmindfully, then we might realize that there’s a sense of anxiety driving us. This feeling feeling might be like a tight prickly ball of unpleasant sensations in the gut. One part of the brain is producing this sensation in the body because it thinks that being bored or missing out is a threat to our well-being. And it’s using this unpleasant sensation as a way of alerting us to this threat.

And other parts of the brain, reacting to the unpleasant feeling, create the impulses that cause us to move from web page to web page, from social media post to social media post. Those impulses might be accompanied by verbal thoughts, such as “Just one more article. OK, maybe two.” Both the urge to surf and the inner speech accompanying that urge are the “thought” that we’re trying to slow down.

Everything Converges on Feelings

Feelings are crucial in Buddhist practice. The Buddha said that “everything converges on feeling,” because of the pivotal role that feelings play in our experience.

It’s the unpleasant feeling that’s central to our experience in the example I’ve just given. It’s what’s driving our behavior.

As we become mindful of the feeling that’s driving us — that the mind has been reacting to — we realize that we don’t have to react to it and be driven by it. Instead, we can simply observe it, and recognize that it represents a part of us that is suffering, and perhaps have compassion for that part of us.

And this attitude of mindful self-compassion toward our feelings creates a kind of gap, or sacred pause, in which we’re able to find a kinder, wiser way way of acting.

In the case of internet addiction, there’s always an unpleasant feeling driving us. So what is that feeling? Well, that’s going to vary. There might be a sense of boredom, or hollowness, or dread, or maybe anxiety.

But whatever the feeling is, we can train ourselves to turn toward our discomfort and to accept it. We can train ourselves to respond to our pain with kindness and compassion. And this helps us to pivot from reactivity to responding in a more creative, mindful, and wise way.

Responding to Feelings With Or Without Mindfulness

Very often when I find myself glued to my computer, obsessed by reading articles online, I’ll use the approach I’ve just described. I’ll realize that I’m suffering and then turn my attention mindfully to the feelings that are present. Usually there’s a sense of something unpleasant in the gut.

When I’m not mindful, I take those unpleasant feelings as a signal that there’s something wrong. I need to fix something. I need to escape some threat, like loneliness or boredom. And the way to do that is to go online to find a fix.

Of course these reactions aren’t thought out or planned. They’re very instinctual.

When I’m being mindful, I recognize that the unpleasant feeling is just a sensation in the body. It’s simply a sensation created by some part of the brain that thinks that my well-being is threatened. And I don’t need to act on it. I can simply observe it. And perhaps I can compassionately recognize that a part of me is suffering and offer it some kindness and compassion. Touching my belly, or wherever the unpleasant feeling is most prominent, I can say: “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace.”

In acting out social media or internet addiction, we’re driven by a desire to escape emotional pain. There is no way to free ourselves from this kind of addictive urge until we learn to turn out attention toward our pain and embrace it with mindfulness and compassion.

Cutting the Cord of Attachment

When we crave something, it’s like there’s an invisible cord running between us and it — a cord through which our emotion flows. But when we turn our attention mindfully to the painful feelings that underlie our cravings, it’s as if that cord has been cut.

So when I do this — when I become mindful of my painful feelings — it’s as if my emotional connection with the internet, and with social media, weakens, or is broken. And I can simply put down my phone or close the lid of my laptop, and do something more wholesome than mindlessly scrolling through other people’s social media posts.

So that’s the fourth tool, or at least it’s part or it. This is the approach of focusing on stopping the formation of unskillful urges. We see what feelings are driving our thoughts and urges, and we find a more wholesome way of responding to those feelings, so that we no longer act in a reactive way. And this helps free us from the compulsion to be engaged with social media.


So what have we learned today?

  • We’ve seen that if we catch ourselves in a moment of addiction, we’ll see that we’re being driven by some underlying painful feeling.
  • Our compulsive activities are an attempt to escape this feeling, but only cause us more pain.
  • We can attend to these painful feelings with mindfulness and compassion.
  • Mindfully and compassionately attending to painful feelings creates a “gap” in which we can choose to let go of compulsive activities.

To read Part 5 of The Social Media Sutra, click here: Staging a Coup Against Social Media Addiction.

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The seven top frustrations for beginning meditators (and how to overcome them)

Recently I was asked to contribute a couple of paragraphs on top frustrations for beginning meditators (and how to overcome them). The link’s at the bottom of this article. I was in good company, with Tara Brach and Andy Puddicombe, for example. But two paragraphs isn’t enough to do justice to this topic and I thought I’d take the opportunity to come up with my own list.

So here it is: The seven top frustrations for beginning meditators, and how to overcome them.

1. Expecting instant results

A lot of people are looking for a quick fix. They hope that meditation is going to do something to them. Something good, of course. But meditation is actually us working with our own minds. And this takes time. We’ve built up habits of overthinking, reacting, self-judgment and so on over many years. We bring those habits into our meditation practice, and we have to learn first to identify them and then to work with them. It takes time to unlearn old habits. It takes time to develop newer, more helpful habits.

The solution: Understand that meditation is like exercise; you don’t go to the gym and become instantly fit. It’s something that you need to do regularly in order to see the benefits.

2. Realizing that the mind is so busy

It’s a very common experience to sit down to meditate and discover our minds are all over the place, with thinking going on almost non-stop. We sometimes call this “monkey mind” after the image of a monkey swinging from branch to branch, not settling down anywhere but instead always focusing on something new, until that’s abandoned for the next new thing. When we’re beginning it’s often not just hard to find any calmness, but actually impossible.

The solution: Accept that the mind is busy. Even people who have been meditating for years have times when their minds are thinking almost non-stop. The difference is that they don’t bother about it. They don’t see it as a sign that something is wrong. They know to accept that this is what the mind is like, sometimes. So they don’t get frustrated when lots of thoughts arise. They simply let go of the thinking, over and over again, and return to the meditation practice.

3. Physical discomfort

At first we may not know how to sit comfortably for meditation. This may happen when we try to force ourselves to sit in a cross-legged position when we don’t have the flexibility to do so. Or we may not have very good equipment, and we’re sitting on very soft cushions that can’t support our weight. Or even if we have a good posture and the right equipment, but it may just be that we’re not used to sitting that way for very long. The discomfort that comes from sitting in a posture that doesn’t work for us can make a meditation session sheer torture.

The solution: An experienced teacher can help you to find a good posture (and we have an online guide to posture right here on Wildmind. They can also help you choose the right equipment; some people need to use chairs, or special meditation benches, rather than try to sit on cushions. And once you have all that sorted out, your body will learn to be more at ease and you’ll be able to sit for longer without discomfort.

4. Getting bored

Boredom is a common problem for beginning meditators. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Are we there yet?

Boredom happens when we’ve begun to calm the mind down, but haven’t yet learned to appreciate the simply beauty of our experience. A lot of us are in our heads: we spend so much time thinking that we forget how to experience the body. And so when our thinking starts to slow down there’s just not much left for us to appreciate. And it’s hard to stay motivated doing something that we find boring, and so we just give up.

The solution: In the long-term, interoception (the ability to sense what’s going on in the body) is something that we get better at with practice. As we continue meditating we find that our experience of the body becomes richer, more detailed, and more pleasurable. Eventually the body can be a source of source of pleasure in every waking moment. If we just keep going, this will happen. On the way there, it’s helpful for us to let go of the idea of paying attention to the breath, and instead to be aware of the breathing. This opens up the way for us to have a much richer, fuller, and more enjoyable experience in meditation. The breathing involves the entire body in a dance of interwoven sensations. When we begin to experience it this way, we’re no longer bored. And we find that our interoceptive ability improves rapidly, so that we have a fuller and more satisfying experience of the body.

5. Not seeing progress

It’s natural to want your meditation practice to do something for you—to bring you benefits. And you wonder when it’s going to start doing that. Why is my mind still full of thoughts? you might wonder. The thing is that being overly concerned about where you hope meditation might take you actually interferes with your ability to experience and enjoy the present moment. Often people aren’t able to fully experience the degree to which they’re changing; other people may see them becoming calmer and happier, but they themselves don’t. Why? Because we’re so close to ourselves, we don’t see ourselves clearly.

The solution: You’ll make more progress if you aren’t so concerned about progress. Just be present. It’s like a family on a long car ride: the kids in the back are constantly asking how long is it going to be until we get there, while the adults are better able to relax into the journey, without wanting to be elsewhere.

6. Believing your doubts

Placing too much trust in the thoughts that the mind creates is something that affects experienced meditators as well as beginners. They can be a little or not so little voice saying things like, “You’re not very good at this. Other people are, but not you. You’re not really cut out to be a meditator. In fact you’re a terrible meditator. You might as well give up.” If we believe these voices, it can be very hard for us to continue with our practice.

The solution: It’s radical to realize that we don’t have to believe our thoughts. Thoughts are just stories. Sometimes they’re reasonable and helpful stories, but sometimes they’re just rationalizations of our fears. There can actually be parts of us that are afraid of changing in positive ways. And those parts of us can try to derail our practice by telling us how bad we are at it. So learn to step back and to treat your inner storyteller with skepticism. These kinds of negative monologues are what we call the hindrance of doubt. Once we learn to identify this hindrance, we’re less likely to be taken in by it.

7. Setting up a regular practice

It can be very hard indeed to set up a daily meditation practice. This is true even when meditation is going well for us and we’re enjoying it! We can find that we’re just too busy, or that there’s resistance even if we do have the time to sit. Sometimes this causes people to gradually give up meditation. They don’t sit for a few days, then maybe a couple of weeks go by and they forget to even try.

The solution: First, commit to sit, even if it’s just for five minutes a day. It’s better to meditate for a short time daily, than to do longer sits and skip days. It’s much better to do a little meditation than none! Second, try out my mantra: “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.”

Here’s a link to the original article.

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When your meditation practice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere…

Buddha statue head embedded in a tree

I often hear from people who are worried because their meditation practice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I think it’s good to be aware of the different ways that change happens when we meditate since your practice hitting a plateau may not be a problem, but just part of a natural process.

Sometimes change happens rapidly. This may happen early on, or at any point in your practice. One striking example was told to me by a friend who owns a health club. One of his employees was very prickly and hard to work with, but my friend realize that this woman had really mellowed out, almost overnight. She was now relaxed and friendly. The prickliness and aggression had just gone. He asked one of his other employees if the woman was on medication, and was told, “No, it’s meditation!” This woman had only been meditating for a couple of weeks. Sometimes that’s how it goes.

This isn’t just a phenomenon that affects beginners, though. Sometimes you’ll have a breakthrough in your practice and change happens rapidly. At those times there can be a sense of excitement about getting on the cushion.

But people are equally likely to find that change comes slowly, or appears not to be happening at all. The meditation itself may be OK, but there’s no sense of it going anywhere. And that can be boring, or downright worrying.

So here’s what I think’s going on during those phases of fast and slow change.

First, we often have untapped resources in the mind. For example there may be pathways that allow us to regulate our emotions, but we’re not aware that they’re there, or that we can use them, or we simply forget to use them. Perhaps quite suddenly, we realize that we have choices about how we think, act, and feel. Maybe a word that we can drop into the mind, or the sensations in a particular part of the body, remind us to come back to this mindful state of awareness in which we are able to regulate ourselves and in which we feel more relaxed, spacious, calmer, kinder — whatever it is that’s changing.

But after this period of rapid change, things settle down. They might settle down in a good place, but there isn’t the excitement of rapid change.

Second, there’s the slow, gradual change of developing a habit, in which new pathways are being established in the brain, old pathways and habits are being unlearned. Some parts of the brain are developing new neurons, while other parts of the brain, because they’re being misused, are shrinking away. This is the result of regular practice — working at developing mindfulness and lovingkindness, for example. Day by day, habits becoming, on the whole, stronger.

Some people are fine with slow, gradual progress. The Buddha described this as being like a tool wearing away over time. In any given day you don’t see much change, but over a longer timescale you see transformation taking place. But some people feel frustrated, and think that there’s something wrong with them or with their practice.

So you can accept that change is sometimes slow. If you’re putting any effort at all into your meditation practice then it’s working. Change is happening, but on a slow scale. If you glance at the hour hand of a watch you don’t see it change, do you? It looks like it’s just sitting there, unmoving. You need to look away and them look back a while later if you want to see any change. So you can learn to trust the practice; trust that effort plus time equals progress.

If you think that meditation should be exciting, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. Nothing in life is always exciting.

Slow change and fast change are not unrelated. Sometimes the slow change of laying down new pathways in the brain takes you eventually to a “tipping point.” Possibly what happens is that you realize that you’ve developed new abilities, or you have a new-found clarity about what you’re working on in your practice — and so we’re back to the fast change of realizing that we can act and feel differently. Then that’s exciting for a while, but then inevitably things settle down again, and you’re back to the slow construction project of daily meditation.

But you need to make sure that you are, in fact, making an effort. You need to make sure you are clear about what you’re doing in meditation. You need to have a purpose, or goal. And you need to be making some effort to realize that purpose or goal. Without that, you may not even be on a plateau; you might just be coasting downhill.

So the takeaway message is this: practice will have its ups and downs. It’ll also have flat, boring stretches. Don’t thing there’s something wrong because you’ve hit a boring patch, but do make sure you have a clear purpose and are actually engaging with your practice rather than just coasting. Things will change.

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Aversion: the far enemy of joyful appreciation (Day 59)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’m sure you can think of days when you’ve been driven crazy by someone else’s good mood. They’re happy, and smiling, and bopping around with a spring in their step, and you’re inwardly grumbling; “What’s he so happy about!” That’s what Buddhism calls arati.

Sometimes we’re resentful of others’ good fortune. I remember to my shame being with some friends when I was in my twenties, when they won the main prize in a raffle — a flight to Paris for the weekend, plus hotel accommodation. Susie, who was one of the people who won the prize, came dancing up to me with her eyes sparkling and a huge smile on her face. “I won a weekend in Paris!” she said, almost exploding with joy. I was so jealous and resentful I couldn’t even smile back. That’s also what Buddhism calls arati.

And there’s the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” It seems there’s always someone willing to criticize when you volunteer to do something that benefits others. That’s arati too.

Arati is what’s called the “far enemy” of mudita, or joyful appreciation. The “far enemy” is a term meaning “the quality that is the direct opposite of the quality being considered.”

I’ve been referring to from time to time to a first century meditation manual called the Path of Liberation (the Vimuttimagga) as we explore lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and joyful appreciation (mudita) — the first three of the so-called “immeasurables” or “divine abodes” (the fourth being equanimity, which we haven’t reached yet).

The Path of Liberation, which may be Buddhism’s most ancient meditation manual, says that the manifestation of joyful appreciation is “destruction of dislike.” So dislike (arati) is the opposite of joyful appreciation.

A later commentarial text, the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) says something similar, namely that aversion (arati) is joyful appreciation’s far enemy. Aversion is an enemy in that it destroys joyful appreciation. And therefore joyful appreciation destroys aversion.

Arati is a Pāli word with a gramatically negative construction: it combines the negative prefix a- (not, or un-, or dis-) with the word “rati” which means love, attachment, pleasure, liking for, fondness, or even delight. (The Pāli expression “ratiṃ karoti” means “to make love”!) So we’re talking about the lack of all those qualities.

The far enemy of joyful appreciation isn’t as strong an emotion as ill will or hatred, which is the far enemy of lovingkindness. Arati is milder. It’s more like discontent, or even just a lack of engagement. It’s an inability to take pleasure in something wholesome, a lack of interest in it, or a turning away from it.

This becomes clear in a comment that the Path of Purification makes about arati:

So gladness should be practiced free from fear of [aversion]; for it is not possible to practice gladness [joyful appreciation] and be discontented with remote abodes and things connected with the higher profitableness simultaneously.

What the Path of Purification is getting at here is that we can’t have joyful appreciation if we can’t enjoy simple things (“remote abodes”) and if we don’t value and appreciate the good (“things connected with the higher profitableness”).

But arati can be more subtle than this. It can be any kind of resistance or aversion to beneficial things. When you can’t be bothered meditating, even though you know it’s good for you and makes your life better, that’s arati.

When we’re in a state of arati beneficial things are perceived as dull, or as an annoyance, or as a source of painful boredom. The Path of Purification talks of an inability to enjoy “remote abodes”; our modern-day equivalent might be a day retreat at our local Dharma center, which seems like a great idea when you reserve your place in advance, but as the day approaches your heart sinks. Going on retreat now seems like a dull chore. And yet, if you overcome your resistance and go to the event, you find that a day hanging out with cool, interesting, emotionally positive people is a delight. You find that practicing and talking about the Dharma is engaging and inspiring.

One thing you can do to overcome aversion is simply experience the resistance with mindfulness, letting go of and choosing not to believe all the stories you generate about why you’re tired, and it’s going to be boring, and you really need to catch up on your laundry, and you just do the good thing you know is best for you; feel the aversion and do it anyway!

Arati is a state of suffering, so you can notice this suffering, being aware of where it’s located in the body, and send it thoughts of compassion: “May you be well, may you be happy.” This can help soften and dissolve the closed off tight feeling that comes with arati, and open us up to feeling genuine joy for the other person.

Or you can reconnect with gratitude and appreciation in order to counteract your disengagment. You can consciously call to mind the positive. I’ve talked of various ways we can do this. We can name the positive qualities of other people and wish that those qualities, and the happiness that comes from them, grow and develop. We can count our blessings, saying an inward “Thank you” for all the things we normally take for granted, ignore, or even grumble about. We can bear in mind people with positive qualities and allow ourselves to be inspired by their example. Even just wishing ourselves well, reminding ourselves that we want to be happy and want to avoid suffering can help.

This is all work that we need to do to overcome the mind’s negativity bias. But it’s noble work. And it’s necessary if we’re to live joyfully.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Sitting without a sitter: the practice of “Just Sitting”

When I was on my first ever meditation retreat — two weeks of intensive meditation in the Scottish Highlands — I’d sometimes hear the instruction, “And now we’ll just sit.” No further instruction was given! And we’d sit there for a period of time — maybe ten minutes, maybe thirty minutes.

It was at first deeply confusing. I was sitting there waiting for further instruction. I wanted to be told what to do. Then I’d get bored and restless. Thoughts would come and go and I’d get caught up in them.

As the retreat went on sometimes those thoughts would begin to clear, and the mind would become alive and yet alive and vibrant. I wasn’t focused on any one part of my experience. It was as if my senses were wide open, and I was aware of everything at once: sounds, light, space, the sensations arising in the body, my emotions, and the odd stray through that would pass through.

There was a “field of experience,” and if there was a center to this field, it was the breathing, but it was there as a lightly held focus. It was there as one experience among many, and just happened to occupy the center by reason of its centrality in the body. But often it would seem as if there was no distinct center to the field of experience. There simply was a field of experiences, which would arise and pass away. There’s no “activity” going on when this state arises (although there may be activity leading up to this state appearing).

Sometimes our mindfulness gets to the point where it’s well established, and it’s time to stop doing and simply be. In the earliest Buddhist texts this is called apanidhaya bhavana, or non-directed attention. It’s also known as “choiceless awareness.” In the Zen tradition this meditation is called shikantaza, or “Just Sitting.” In Tibetan meditation there are similar meditations in the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) and Mahamudra (Great Seal) traditions. All have the characteristic of simply allowing experience to arise. There is little or no activity going on. You’re neither meditating nor not-meditating.

This might all sound rather mysterious, but there are ways that help us enter this kind of meditation — activities that we do in order to get to the point of non-activity. And we can also begin and end our meditations (including mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana) with Just Sitting.

Beginning and Ending Meditations

At the beginning of meditation I encourage people to develop an expansive awareness of the world around them, and to allow a sense of equanimity to develop. We notice the sound and space and light around us. We’re simply accepting whatever is arising, and we’re not doing anything with what arises beyond noticing it.

In a sense, noticing isn’t even an activity. The mind is “noticing” all the time, in that impulses are continually flowing along nerves into the brain. It’s paying selective attention that’s the activity — for example focusing our attention on the computer screen in front of us — and it’s this selective attention that causes us to filter out other perceptions that are arising. For example, when we’re reading on a computer screen, as you probably are now, we often filter out what’s happening in the world round about us, so that we fail to hear someone talking to us, and we tend to filter out sensations from the body, including sensations of discomfort that are arising because of the way we’re sitting. But the sensations are still arising, even if we’re focusing on something else. The mind is naturally open and spacious, but we fail to notice this because we narrow down our field of awareness.

In Just Sitting we let go of our narrow focus, and simply become aware of these sensations that are already arising. You don’t need to find those sensations. You don’t need to make an effort to discover them. They’re already coming to you. You just need to stop avoiding them.

Sometimes at the beginning of meditation, we’re able to include an awareness of both our inner experiences (the body, mind) and our outer experiences (contact with the world) at the same time. I encourage people to do this if they can. But sometimes people find the have to let go of our contact with the world in order to focus on the inner world. That’s fine. But having cultivated an open, expansive, and equanimous state of mind, we then move into focusing more narrowly on the breathing, or on cultivating lovingkindness.

At the end of the practice we reverse this narrowing process. We let go of any activity we’ve been making in the meditation, and we gradually allow more and more of our experience to come into conscious awareness. We move from, say, noticing mainly the breathing, to noticing the rest of the body, our emotions, our state of mind, our contact with the world.

And — and this is a very important part of Just Sitting as the conclusion of a period of meditation — we allow ourselves to become aware of the fruits of the practice. Sometimes we’re so busy doing that we don’t notice the effects of what we’re doing. It’s not uncommon to think your meditation isn’t going well, or hasn’t gone well, only to realize that there’s an emotion of joy present, or that the mind is actually very clear and still, or that there are pleasant sensations in the body. Simply opening up to what’s present allows us to appreciate what’s happened as a result of our practice. Sometimes this is full of surprises.

Our meditation practice can become a bit imbalanced, with too much emphasis on doing and not enough on being, with too much emphasis on activity and not enough emphasis on receptivity. If our practice does become unbalanced, we call this willfulness. We end up focusing on what we expect to find, and don’t pay attention to other aspects of our experience. For example, we might be trying so hard to focus on the breathing that we don’t notice that we’re feeling tense, and that in fact our effort is making us tense. We may bot actually be mindful of the breathing at all, but just paying attention to what we expect the breath to be, noticing only a few token sensations. We may even be trying so hard to cultivate lovingkindness that we don’t notice the actual emotions that are present! This ends up being the opposite of mindfulness. We cultivate a narrow focus and inadvertently repress, or at least ignore, other aspects of our experience.

Activity needs to be balanced by receptivity. In fact, any activity in meditation needs to take place within a context of receptivity. This isn’t saying anything revolutionary. It’s just saying that our meditation ideally should involve mindfulness (sati) as well as focus (samādhi).

Active meditation — cultivating mindfulness or metta, for example — while often enjoyable, can also be tiring. The mind needs periods of spontaneity and freedom, and beginning and ending meditation sessions with Just Sitting helps it to be spontaneous, free, and rested.

We can also periodically check during meditation to see what’s going on, broadly, in our experience. We can let go of any narrow focus, allow the full breadth of our experience to enter awareness, and then return to focusing again. In this way a session of active meditation is interspersed with short breaks in which we Just Sit. If we’re doing the mindfulness of breathing in four stages, or the development of lovingkindness in five stages, then the transitions from one stage to another are an opportunity for us to let go of our narrow engagement with the object of meditation (the breath, our emotional relationships), and to open up to everything else that’s going on. We may find there are things we want to change (adjustments to our posture, changes to our attitude). We gently make any necessary changes, and then move on to the next stage of the practice.

Just Sitting as a Practice in its Own Right

We may Just Sit as a separate practice (or non-practice) for anything between a few minutes or (on retreat) for a few hours.

Just Sitting may be a practice that we do in order to balance activity and receptivity. The flow of our practice may go: mindfulness — just sit — metta — just sit — mindfulness — just sit — metta — just sit.

Many people, after some years of practice, find that Just Sitting becomes the main form of meditation that they do.

When we Just Sit, we begin the meditation, as I’ve explained above, with opening up to the breadth of our experience. But that’s where we stay. We don’t move on to focusing more narrowly, as we do in the mindfulness of breathing and development of lovingkindness meditations. We simply stay in touch with our wide open field of awareness in a non-directed way. Or at least that’s what we do in theory…

In practice, there are several stages we may move through:

  • At first, the mind may need some time to settle. There may be considerable inner distraction. The mind may go on long meanders through thought and memory. At this stage we may have to make an effort, although it’s a gentle one as far as possible. We need to let go of any trains of thought, and relax into the breadth of our awareness. But over time the mind clears and our thoughts settle.
  • Boredom may appear. Ideally we just note boredom as another experience that is arising. We can have confidence that this experience of boredom will pass in time, and that our experience will become more interesting. This is an opportunity for faith (in ourselves) and for patience (with the mind, the practice) to emerge.
  • We find ourselves watching, and taking an interest in our experience. The mind may gravitate toward particular experiences that are either pleasant or difficult. We may find that we do some “creative thinking.” This doesn’t have the same feel as the raw distraction that arose earlier. In fact it feels quite positive, and because of that it’s seductive. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this, but we can notice that it’s happening, make a mental note of any “good ideas” that have arisen, and return to the breadth of our awareness.
  • Then there is the stage of clarity. We are just watching, with no distractions, not even positive ones. Thoughts still arise, but we notice them pass by without any engagement with them. We may consciously note that all of our experiences are arising and passing away. They’re all impermanent. We’re no longer caught up in them because we’re no longer identifying with them.
  • Then there’s the stage of non-self. This is a state of complete non-activity, and yet of complete aliveness and spontaneity. Experiences are arising, and we realize that they are just happening. We’re not making these experiences happen. Even the realization that experiences are just happening is just another experience that’s arising. There’s no sense that these experiences are owned by anyone, or that there’s anyone to do any owning. There is just seeing, with no one who is seeing. There is no action, and no one to do any action. There is no effort. And yet this is an emotionally warm state. There is a sense of openness and stillness. There is a sense of meaningfulness and clarity. But there is no longer any “self-ing.”

And then at some stage we find ourselves starting to return to a more normal way of being, and the meditation comes to an end.

The Just Sitting practice is in the end tremendously encouraging and life-affirming. Through simply not-doing, we find that the mind naturally clears itself and reveals a gentle and compassionate energy. It’s like water in which mud has been mixed; all you have to do is leave it undisturbed, and it will settle down. The water will become clear and pure all on its own.

Once a certain amount of momentum has developed in our mindfulness, positive qualities such as joy, compassion, and awareness begin to arise spontaneously. At a certain point “we” no longer need to meditate. In fact there is no longer any “us” there to meditate. Meditation is simply happening. Just sitting is happening, but there’s no sitter.

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A little calmness can go a long way

I just read a news story about an 18-year-old woman whose car went out of control and hit a dump truck. The woman and her 10-month-old son were killed. On her phone was a half-finished text message.

Now, not all multitasking is as catastrophic as that. We do it all the time, don’t we?

But why do we do it? Sometimes we say it’ll make us more efficient, but if you’re trying to type a report and keep interrupting yourself to send text messages and check Facebook, you’re not exactly being very efficient. It seems to me that what’s really going on is that we’re being anxious, and trying to find a distraction from our anxiety by looking outside of ourselves.

We’re not taking an interest in ourselves, so we hope someone out there is taking an interest in us. Maybe someone’s sent a text message, or has phoned us, or has replied to an email. Maybe we can say something funny or even annoying on Facebook, and get a response. As soon as we’ve finished checking one source of stimulus, we move on to another.

So we keep cycling through all these different things — anything to take us away from the rather boring experience of just being ourselves.

And none of this actually helps with anxiety. In fact it makes it worse.

Research by psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey of Harvard University says that all this multitasking and overstimulation can lead to what they call Pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder, where we’re constantly seeking out new information, but when we find it were not able to concentrate on it. So we keep surfing the web, for example, looking for really interesting stuff, but when we find it our minds just can’t get engaged, and then we’re off looking for the next thing.

So what does help? We can learn to be happy with our own experience. That’s what helps.

Meditation is a way of learning to be comfortable with ourselves. Its a way of learning to really value our experience.

And one important thing about meditating is that it’s a form of “uni-tasking.” We’re more and more just doing one thing. It’s a bit like defragging your computer’s hard drive so that it runs more efficiently.

This is one reason that we feel refreshed and calm after meditation. We have calmed the mind by just focusing on one thing, and by letting go of some of the crazy pointless maddening thinking that we do.

It’s good, at least sometimes, to take that into our daily lives as well.

So here is a practice for you — one that you can take into your daily life. It’s just one example.

Next time you’re brushing your teeth, for example, just brush your teeth. Don’t check your cell phone. Don’t read something. Don’t wander around. Just brush your teeth. Pay attention to the movements in your arm. Notice the feeling of the bristles on your teeth and gums. Notice the taste of the toothpaste. Notice your breathing. Notice thoughts arising, and let go of them. Notice how you feel. Notice if you feel bored or restless, and just allow yourself to feel that way. Don’t feel you have to run away from boredom. Be patient with whatever you find. Relax. And just brush your teeth.

You can do this with many things. Not just brushing your teeth, but walking, driving, taking a shower, cleaning the house, preparing food, eating.

Paying attention to your experience in this way will bring a little calmness into your mind, and even a little calmness can go a long way. It might even save your life.

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The four foundations of mindfulness as a dynamic process

Four foundations of mindfulness

The other day I was preparing for the fifth session of a six-week Introduction to Meditation and Buddhism class I’m teaching at Aryaloka, my local dharma center. I’d been running through the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, which of course is a key teaching, and in glancing over some of the suttas (scriptures) that deal with mindfulness — the seventh aspect of the Eightfold Path — I had a series of thoughts about the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (cattāro satipaṭṭhāna), which are the standard explanation of “Right Mindfulness.”[1]

The Problematic Satipaṭṭhānas

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are a crucial teaching in the Buddhist tradition. As well as constituting the definition of Right Mindfulness in the Eightfold Path, they feature in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10) and the Mahā-Satipatthana Sutta (DN 22). The four Satipaṭṭhānas form an important part of the Ānāpānasati Sutta, which is itself a key teaching. Additionally there is whole section on the satipaṭṭhānas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, containing 104 discourses. The satipaṭṭhānas are of course frequently referred to by many teachers, and entire books have been based around them. Lastly, the practice of the four satipaṭṭhānas is described in the canon as the “direct path” to Nibbāna, emphasizing their importance.

We might expect that such a key teaching would be clearly and consistently understood, but despite their central importance in Buddhist practice, the four satipaṭṭhānas are problematic. One only has to look at the variety of translations of the four terms kāya, vedanā, cittā, and dhammā, in various accounts of this teaching. The following are chosen more-or-less randomly:

  • Bhikkhu Thanissaro has Body, Feelings, Mind, and Mental Qualities
  • Joseph Goldstein (One Dharma): Body, Feelings, Mind & Mental States, and Dharma
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi (Middle Length Discourses): Body, Feeling, Mind, and Mind Objects
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi (A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma): Body, Feelings, States of Consciousness, and Mental Objects
  • Sangharakshita (Know Your Mind): Body, Feelings & Emotions, Thoughts, and Ultimate Reality

Even one author will not be consistent in their explanations. Bhikkhu Bodhi has two subtly different version above, and Sangharakshita has also parsed the Four Foundations as Body, Feelings, Thoughts, and Objects of the Mind’s Attention.

The only one of the satipaṭṭhānas that is universally straightforward is the first: the body (kāya). While I’ll describe each of the four satipaṭṭhānas in more detail later, we can note that the second, vedanā, is best described as “feeling” and not as “sensation”[2] (as is sometimes seen) or (with the greatest respect to Sangharakshita) “feelings and emotions.” The third satipaṭṭhāna, cittā, means “mind” and of course this involves both thought and emotion. It’s the last term, dhammā, that causes most confusion. For one thing, the word dhammā is famously broad. For example, it can refer to “reality,” or it can refer to the system of paths and practices that lead to the perception of that reality, or it can refer to something more like “things” or “phenomena.” Some interpreters (Goldstein, Sangharakshita) have chosen to go with the interpretation of “dhammā” as meaning “reality.” Others (Thanissaro, Bodhi) have gone with the interpretation of dhammā-s as being mental phenomena. Some writers leave it untranslated, which may or may not be helpful.

The Purpose of the Teaching

I will review the canonical account of the satipaṭṭhānas to get a clearer idea of what the four foundations are, but before doing that I want to look at how the four satipaṭṭhānas are understood collectively. What, in other words, is the point or purpose of the teaching of the four foundations of mindfulness?

In Wings to Awakening, Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains them as “a set of teachings that show where a meditator should focus attention and how.”

Narada Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi, in A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma have them as “a complete system of meditative practice for the development of mindfulness and insight,” and in The Middle Length Discourses Bhikkhu Bodhi describes them as a “comprehensive system … designed to train the mind to see with microscopic precision the true nature of the body, feelings, states of mind, and mental objects.”

Sangharakshita describes them as a tool for “the development of a continuity of mindful positivity across the whole field of human consciousness.”

Joseph Goldstein describes them as “four comprehensive fields of attention.”

Nyanaponika Thera, in The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, refers to the satipaṭṭhāna method of being an “all-comprehensive domain.”

While these descriptions are selective, the four satipaṭṭhānas seem to be regarded primarily as a handy way of breaking down the totality of our experience so that mindfulness can be developed in a comprehensive manner. The word “comprehensive” is in fact used frequently to describe the four foundations. While it’s true that the satipaṭṭhānas are comprehensive, I think that to see them primarily in this way is a distortion of their true nature, which is as a way of observing a process.

But before returning to how the satipaṭṭhānas can be seen as a way of observing a process, I want to examine what each satipaṭṭhāna is, or at least how it is described in the suttas.

The Traditional Account of the Satipaṭṭhānas

1. Body (kāya)

The monk is to “remain focused on the body in and of itself.” According to Thanissaro “in and of itself” means “viewing the body on its own terms rather than in terms of its function in the context of the world.” In other words we see the body without reference to our judgments of whether others may see the body as strong or weak, ugly or beautiful, etc. This means that we are primarily sensing the body, and also reflecting on the impermanent nature of the body. This involves, according to the Satipaṭṭhāna and Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Suttas, of paying attention to the breathing, to the body’s postures, movements, and anatomical parts, as well as to the elements of which is composed and its impermanence (through comparison of one’s own body with decomposing corpses).

It’s not always explicitly noted in the suttas, but in paying attention to the body we are of course paying attention to the sense organs — both the internal sense organs that allow us to know the breathing, etc, and the sense organs that allow us to perceive the external world.[3]

2. Feelings (vedanā)

Feelings include painful, neutral, and pleasant feelings that may be “of the flesh” or “not of the flesh.”[4] But this brings up the question of what feelings (vedanā-s) are.

The two things vedanā-s need to be distinguished from are sensations and emotions. The coolness and firmness experienced in touching a cool surface on a hot day are sensations. These are direct sense impressions. However, such a contact will tend to be experienced as pleasant, and the pleasant quality of such a contact is a vedanā. And so on with the other physical senses. (Nocioception — the perception of pain — as when one pricks one’s finger would be a painful vedanā “of the flesh,” but is also a sensation. However, sensations more generally are not themselves vedanā, although they may be accompanied by them).[5]

Vedanā-s “not of the flesh” are represented by what we would call “gut feelings.” Vedanā-s are our way of telling ourselves what value we see in particular experiences. Daniel Goleman explains, in his recent The Brain and Emotional Intelligence, how the part of the brain that encodes our internalized “rules” about what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable — a primitive piece of circuitry called the basal ganglia — has no direct connection with the verbal centers in the cortex. How the basal ganglia communicate with the higher centers in the brain is via nerve centers in the gastrointestinal tract. Vedanā-s “not of the flesh” seem quite literally to be “gut feelings.”

3. Cittā

Cittā means “mind” but not in an exclusively intellectual sense, since it includes emotions as well as mental qualities such as expansiveness, concentration, etc.

In mindfulness of cittā we are told that the monk knows when the mind has has passion or is without passion, has aversion or is without aversion, has delusion or is without delusion, is constricted, scattered, enlarged/unenlarged, surpassed/unsurpassed, concentrated/unconcentrated, released/not released. Cittā might best be described as “the mind and mental states” or just as “mental states” since it doesn’t seem to be possible to experience the mind independently of its constituent mental states.

4. Dhammā

We now begin to encounter one reason why understandings of the satipaṭṭhānas are so variable, for the details we’re given of the dhammā-s we’re to notice seem partly to duplicate the category of cittā. According to Thanissaro, in the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga and in the Sarvāstivāda version of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, only the five hindrances and the factors for Awakening (bojjhaṅgā) are enumerated as objects of mindfulness. But what are these if not factors of cittā, the earlier satipaṭṭhāna?

In the Pāli Satipaṭṭhāna and Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Suttas, other lists are also given in addition to the hindrances and bojjhaṅgā-s: the five aggregates and the six senses (the usual five plus the mind sense). Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out that some scholars consider the Sarvāstivāda and Vibhaṅga accounts to be closer to the original understanding of the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna, the Pali sutta accounts having been expanded. It strikes me as quite likely that those scholars are correct.[6]

The term “dhammā” is sometimes translated in this context as “Reality” — perhaps in order to overcome this duplication — but more often commenters realize (correctly, I think) that it is mental factors that are being referred to, even though this would seem to add redundancy to the list. And perhaps it’s that redundancy that leads some writers to ignore the traditional descriptions of the satipaṭṭhānas; after all, it’s natural to assume that the satipaṭṭhānas are a coherent system, and therefore to make them systematic, even if that means fudging the terminology.

The First Three Satipaṭṭhānas as Awareness of a Process

If we bear in mind that the body is the seat of the sense organs, and therefore is the vehicle for phassa (sense contact) we have a sequence that is perhaps beginning to look familiar: contact, feeling, mental events.

We can recall the well-known “12 nidāna-s” — a series of cyclical conditionality that includes the nidāna-s of contact, feeling, and craving. Contact arises on the basis of the body and its sense organs. Feeling arises on the basis of these sense contacts, as we seek to divine value (positive, negative, or neutral) among those contacts. In the 12 nidāna-s, the mental state of craving is described as arising on the basis of feeling. The craving that arises on the basis of vedanā (as enumerated in the list of twelve nidāna-s) is however just one of many emotional/cognitive states that can arise on the basis of vedanā-s.[7] Typically an unpleasant vedanā will give rise to emotional states of aversion or ill will (and accompanying thoughts). A pleasant vedanā will typically give rise to emotional states of craving (and related thoughts). And neutral vedanā-s will tend to give rise to boredom, restlessness, or confusion (plus, of course, the thoughts that accompany those states).[8]

While the function of vedanā-s is to assign value to sense contacts, the function of our emotional and cognitive states is to generate action. To give just one example, when we see (a sense contact) a driver suddenly pass us at high speed, we may experience a knot of tension or fear (a vedanā) arise, and in response to that we feel anger (an emotion) accompanied by thoughts such as “how dare he!”[9] These thoughts and emotions may lead to our yelling abuse at the vehicle that is by now vanishing into the distance. This ties in with the next link in the nidāna cycle: grasping. Again, grasping is just one example of an action — one that arises on the basis of craving — but all of our actions arise from emotions.

The chain of contact -> feeling -> emotion/thought is the prime driver of our experience, and is arguably the most important contribution that Buddhism has made to the field of psychology. As we’ll see shortly, it’s by first being aware of that dynamic, and second by intervening intelligently in it, that we can shape our experience and move from the generation of unskillful to skillful states of mind and, eventually, from Saṃsāra to Nibbāna.

The point I would like to stress now, however, is that the first three satipaṭṭhānas correspond to the contact-feeling-emotion series. Those three satipaṭṭhānas would then seem to be, at the very least, a training in the recognition of a crucial aspect of psychology. They represent a progressive training in recognizing each of the three stages in the formation of our mental states — our emotional and cognitive “inner climate.” And since it is this inner climate that leads to our actions, cultivating an awareness of the first three satipaṭṭhānas would lead to our being more aware of the process that leads to our actions (kamma, both skillful or unskillful) in the world.

Because the nature of contact is to condition feeling, and the nature of feeling is to condition emotion and thought, and the nature of emotion and thought is to condition action, in cultivating each of the first three satipaṭṭhānas we are in fact cultivating, stage by stage, an awareness of a process. This, I believe, is the true purpose of the first three satipaṭṭhānas. They are not merely a convenient way of slicing up our experience so that we can examine it in a comprehensive way. Rather, they are a way of coming to recognize how we generate action (skillful or unskillful), and the inner climate of experience that leads to our actions.[10]

This may or may not be a novel way of seeing the first three satipaṭṭhānas, but I haven’t come across any previous explanation of the foundations of mindfulness that recognize that we are learning to pay attention to a process, rather than merely to three aspects of our experience.

The Dhamma Satipaṭṭhāna as Awareness of Spiritual Dynamics

But what about the fourth satipaṭṭhāna of focusing on dhammā-s, with its seeming duplication of the contents of the cittā satipaṭṭhāna?

The fourth satipaṭṭhāna, you’ll recall, includes (at least) the five hindrances and the seven bojjhaṅgā-s, or factors of awakening. The five hindrances are a catalog of unskillful mental states (sense desire, ill will, restlessness & anxiety, sloth & torpor, and doubt). These states hinder us from achieving jhāna, or the progressive unification of the mind that ends in the (temporary) experience of deep peace (also known as equanimity, or upekkhā).

The seven factors of awakening on the other hand are a progressive series of skillful mental states (mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity). These factors are shorthand for a process starting with becoming mindfully aware of one’s experience (whether skillful or unskillful) and cultivating jhāna, which culminates in equanimity. Jhāna itself is a prerequisite for Awakening (bodhi) and so the bojjhaṅgā-s are factors that lead to Awakening. The name bojjhaṅgā is in fact a compound of the two words bodhi (Awakening) and aṅga (factor).

The five hindrances and the seven bojjhaṅgā-s are in several places in the Pali canon seen as antitheses. One set keeps us from jhāna, while the other leads us through jhāna into equanimity. One set represents unskillful states that bind us to Saṃsāra, while the other is comprised of skillful states that lead to Nibbāna. It’s the neatness of this pairing that leads me to wonder whether the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna section of the Pali Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas have been affected by what I’d call “commentator bloat” (i.e. the tendency of commentators and oral reciters of the texts to include other material that they deem relevant to the topic on hand), whether or not it’s strictly relevant.[11]

The Fourth Satipaṭṭhāna as the Observation of Spiritual Dynamics

But we’re still left with the problem that this satipaṭṭhāna appears to duplicate the cittā satipaṭṭhāna, in which we observe the presence of greed, hatred and delusion in the mind, as well as the presence of more positive (skillful) factors such as expansiveness and concentration. The appearance of duplication is just that: an appearance. A crucial aspect of the fourth satipaṭṭhāna is found tucked away at the end of each list. We observe the hindrances and bojjhaṅgā (and, in some sources, other mental qualities) “with reference to the four noble truths.”

What does this mean, to observe the hindrances and positive mental factors with reference to the four noble truths? The Satipaṭṭhāna and Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Suttas tell us:

And how does he remain focused on mental qualities (i.e. dhammā-s) in and of themselves with reference to the four noble truths? There is the case where he discerns, as it has come to be, that ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the way leading to the cessation of stress.’

The Buddha said he “only taught one thing: suffering and the end of suffering.” The four noble truths are an enlargement of this principle, and point to what causes suffering and what leads to freedom from suffering. Observing the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna thus means not merely recognizing the presence or absence of skillful mental states (the bojjhaṅgā-s) and unskillful states of mind (the hindrances) but in recognizing the dynamic whereby the latter keep us in a state of suffering while the former free us from suffering.[12]

While the first three satipaṭṭhāna are a training in recognizing how sense contact via the body leads to feelings, and feelings lead to the inner climate of mental states, the fourth satipaṭṭhāna is a training in recognizing how our mental states and processes lead us deeper into or lead us away from the experience of suffering. The fourth satipaṭṭhāna involves cultivating mindfulness of both the unskillful dynamics that arise as we cycle among the hindrances, and the skillful dynamic that emerges as we still our mental turmoil and move, via the jhāna-s, toward equanimity.

The essence of the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna, I would argue, is not any particular list of positive or negative mental states, nor any particular combination of such lists. Instead, I believe the essence of the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna is the principle of observing the four noble truths as they manifest in the mind: observing suffering and how it is caused, and observing the cessation of suffering and how such cessation comes about.

There is therefore only an apparent duplication in the third and fourth satipaṭṭhānas. The third satipaṭṭhāna (cittā) involves mindful awareness of mental states as they arise on the basis of vedanā-s. The fourth satipaṭṭhāna is a mindful observation of the process by which these mental states lead toward, or away from, suffering, and toward, or away from, Awakening. While the cittā satipaṭṭhāna involves noticing the mind and its mental states, the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna involves noticing the spiritual-psychological dynamics in which mental states are involved. The five hindrances and the seven bojjhaṅgā-s “work” as examples of these suffering-creating and suffering-overcoming tendencies, but they are just examples, and other examples would be equally useful.

The satipaṭṭhānas are therefore not a simple “comprehensive schema” for the development of mindfulness. They involve the observation of the dynamic whereby contact gives rise to feeling, which gives rise to mental states. They also involve the observation of the dynamic whereby those mental states lead toward or away from liberation.

Again, this may or may not be a novel observation, but I’m not aware of other commentators having regarded the satipaṭṭhānas as a training in the observation of psychological dynamics. My interpretation, however, seems to draw greater meaning from the teaching than can be gleaned by seeing them as simply four areas of experience to be examined mindfully. In fact, the more common way of seeing the satipaṭṭhānas results in the confusion of terms that I highlighted above, where it is hard to explain the relative roles or status of the cittā and dhammā satipaṭṭhānas.

It might be objected that the traditional account of the kāya (body) satipaṭṭhāna does not neatly tie in with my contention that this foundation of mindfulness is primarily about observing sensations, or sense contacts, as they arise and pass away. Indeed, this aspect of mindfulness is not highlighted in the Satipaṭṭhāna or Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna suttas. Additionally, some of the approaches to mindfulness of the body outlined in these suttas, such as the cremation ground and four element reflections represent a “higher level” awareness of the overall impermanence of the body. But in general the approach of observing the body in its various postures is nothing more nor less than observing the body’s sensations.[13] I would not be surprised if the kāya satipaṭṭhāna section in the two major Pali suttas on the Satipaṭṭhāna had also suffered from “commentator bloat” in the same way as their dhammā satipaṭṭhāna sections appear to have.[14] In fact, in the Satipaṭṭhāna-vibhaṅga Sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, we are offered a more stripped down version of all the satipaṭṭhānas, where the monk simply

remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, remains focused on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, remains focused on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the body.

It’s likely here that “origination” and “passing away with regard to the body” refers to the ongoing arising and passing away of physical sensations, rather than to the arising and passing of the body as a whole. This more stripped-down account may be closer to the original intent of the teaching of the satipaṭṭhānas, which I would argue focuses on the arising and passing away of sense contacts, which contacts lead to the arising and passing away of feelings, which in turn lead to the arising and passing away of mental states. The arising and passing of mental states would, in the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna, be observed in terms of whether they were trending in a Samsaric or a Nibbanic direction.

No discussion of the sequence of contact, feeling, and mental states would be complete without reference to the “gap” that exists between feelings and mental states. When we are unmindful, mental states tend to proliferate in response to the underlying vedanā-s that are coming into being and passing away. In an example I gave above, the perception of a vehicle passing us on the road at high speed leads to an unpleasant vedanā, which leads to anger and the action of yelling. With the presence of mindfulness — or to be more accurate, with the equanimity to which mindfulness conduces — we are able simply to observe sense contacts and their associated vedanā-s with the mind (cittā) “decoupled” so that our basic tranquillity is not disturbed.[15] An extreme example of this is given in the Mahā-hatthipadopama Sutta (MN 28):

If other people insult, malign, exasperate, & harass a monk, he discerns that ‘A painful feeling, born of ear-contact, has arisen within me. And that is dependent, not independent. Dependent on what? Dependent on contact.’ And he sees that contact is inconstant, feeling is inconstant, perception is inconstant, consciousness is inconstant. His mind […] leaps up, grows confident, steadfast, & released.

And if other people attack the monk in ways that are undesirable, displeasing, & disagreeable — through contact with fists, contact with stones, contact with sticks, or contact with knives — the monk discerns that ‘This body is of such a nature that contacts with fists come, contacts with stones come, contacts with sticks come, & contacts with knives come. Now the Blessed One has said, in his exhortation of the simile of the saw [MN 21], “Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding.” So my persistence will be aroused & untiring, my mindfulness established & unconfused, my body calm & unaroused, my mind centered & unified.

This, then, is the ultimate purpose of the teaching on the satipaṭṭhānas. We learn to observe sense-contacts (sensations) giving rise to feelings, with our mental states “de-coupled,” the mind imbued with equanimity, remaining at peace despite the most extreme provocation. And this outcome arises from first training ourselves to observe the dynamic of contacts giving rise to feelings, and feelings giving rise to mental states, and then observing the dynamics within our mental states, and encouraging the unfolding of jhāna states that support the arising of insight.

The four satipaṭṭhāna-s are not observation of mere categories of experience that, taken together, offer a comprehensive overview of our experience. Rather, they are the observation of two important spiritual dynamics: our unfolding experience, and its movement toward or away from nibbāna.

1. For example, DN 22: “What is right mindfulness? There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. This is called right mindfulness…”

2. The word sensation, although not inaccurate since feelings are sensed, tends to make one think of the more basic perceptions of color, sound, touch, etc.

3. SN 36.7, for example, tells us that feeling arises in dependence upon the body, but the nearly identical SN 36.8 tells us feeling arises in dependence upon (sense) contact. We can take it that in regard to the arising of feelings, “the body” and “sense contact” are synonyms.

4. Some translators interpret “āmisā” and “nirāmisā” as meaning “worldly” and “unworldly,” but there seems to be no scriptural support for taking them as meaning anything more than being literally “of the flesh” and “not of the flesh.”

5. The Buddha was neither a physiologist nor a neuroscientist, and so it’s not surprising that the categories he used don’t overlap exactly with those of modern science.

6. It actually doesn’t make any difference to my argument whether the list of dhammas has been expanded or whether, in these other sources, a larger list has been pared down. The essential point, as we will see, is that our mental states are to be examined in the light of a mindful awareness of the Four Noble Truths: how does the unfolding of our experience contribute to the presence or absence of suffering?

7. In its essence, this sequence of nidanas should be read as: contact – feeling – emotion – action (including the next nidana of “grasping” and seeing it as just one example of action).

8. e.g., see SN 36.3: “In the case of pleasant feelings, O monks, the underlying tendency [anusaya] to lust should be given up; in the case of painful feelings, the underlying tendency to resistance (aversion) should be given up; in the case of neither-painful-nor-pleasant feelings, the underlying tendency to ignorance should be given up.”

9. Actually, the feeling of anxiety may pass so quickly into an emotion such as anger in this kind of situation that we may not notice the vedana at all. However, with training the vedana can be detected underlying the emotion even after the emotion is established, and with further training the vedana may be detected even before the emotion becomes established.

10. This is not to suggest that the more common way of looking at the satipatthanas — as various aspects of our experience, collectively allowing us a comprehensive overview of ourselves — doesn’t “work.” It’s clearly useful to become aware of the body, the feelings, and the mind. However, it’s even more useful, I would argue, to be aware of the body, and to notice the body’s sensations giving rise to feelings, and those feelings sparking off thoughts and emotional states.

11. Again, it doesn’t affect the point I’m making here even if the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta has been added to. The addition of the khandhas reminds us that that system of analysis is yet another instance of a dynamic process being turned by the commentarial tradition into a “comprehensive” but static overview of our selves (see for example, Matthieu Boisvert’s “The Five Aggregates: Understanding Theravāda Psychology and Soteriology.” And the other list, the “sixfold internal and external sense media” is a vital part of the creation of our experience. Both the khandhas and the senses play important roles in the construction of our experience — including the creation of suffering and of non-suffering.

12. This principle is beautifully spelled out in the first two verses of the Dhammapāda:

1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

13. See Note 3, above.

14. However, I don’t wish to suggest that these other ways of paying attention tot he body are any less valuable. Mindfulness begins with an awareness of the body and of its sensation, postures, and movements. Awareness of the body helps to still the mind and pacify our more unruly emotions.

15. See, for example, SN 36: “If a monk has given up the tendency to lust in regard to pleasant feeling, the tendency to resistance in regard to painful feelings, and the tendency to ignorance in regard to neither-painful-nor-pleasant feelings, then he is called one who is free of (unwholesome) tendencies, one who has the right outlook. He has cut off craving, severed the fetters (to future existence), and through the full penetration of conceit, [i.e. the conception of having a permanent and separate self] he has made an end of suffering.”

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Brains of Buddhist monks scanned in meditation study

Matt Danzico: In a laboratory tucked away off a noisy New York City street, a soft-spoken neuroscientist has been placing Tibetan Buddhist monks into a car-sized brain scanner to better understand the ancient practice of meditation.

But could this unusual research not only unravel the secrets of leading a harmonious life but also shed light on some of the world’s more mysterious diseases?

Zoran Josipovic, a research scientist and adjunct professor at New York University, says he has been peering into the brains of monks while they meditate in an attempt to understand how their brains reorganise themselves during the exercise.

Since 2008, the researcher has been placing the minds and bodies of prominent Buddhist figures into a five-tonne (5,000kg) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

The scanner tracks blood flow within the monks’ heads as they meditate inside its clunky walls, which echoes a musical rhythm when the machine is operating.

Dr Josipovic, who also moonlights as a Buddhist monk, says he is hoping to find how some meditators achieve a state of “nonduality” or “oneness” with the world, a unifying consciousness between a person and their environment.

“One thing that meditation does for those who practise it a lot is that it cultivates attentional skills,” Dr Josipovic says, adding that those harnessed skills can help lead to a more tranquil and happier way of being.

“Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising Read the rest of this article…

because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn’t know previously was possible.”

When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Dr Josipovic says.

And this reorganisation in the brain may lead to what some meditators claim to be a deep harmony between themselves and their surroundings.
Shifting attention

Dr Josipovic’s research is part of a larger effort better to understand what scientists have dubbed the default network in the brain.

He says the brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic, or default, network.

The extrinsic portion of the brain becomes active when individuals are focused on external tasks, like playing sports or pouring a cup of coffee.

The default network churns when people reflect on matters that involve themselves and their emotions.

But the networks are rarely fully active at the same time. And like a seesaw, when one rises, the other one dips down.

This neural set-up allows individuals to concentrate more easily on one task at any given time, without being consumed by distractions like daydreaming.

“What we’re trying to do is basically track the changes in the networks in the brain as the person shifts between these modes of attention,” Dr Josipovic says.

Dr Josipovic has found that some Buddhist monks and other experienced meditators have the ability to keep both neural networks active at the same time during meditation – that is to say, they have found a way to lift both sides of the seesaw simultaneously.

And Dr Josipovic believes this ability to churn both the internal and external networks in the brain concurrently may lead the monks to experience a harmonious feeling of oneness with their environment.

Scientists previously believed the self-reflective, default network in the brain was simply one that was active when a person had no task on which to focus their attention.

But researchers have found in the past decade that this section of the brain swells with activity when the subject thinks about the self.

The default network came to light in 2001 when Dr Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in the US state of Missouri, began scanning the brains of individuals who were not given tasks to perform.

The patients quickly became bored, and Dr Raichle noticed a second network, that had previously gone unnoticed, danced with activity. But the researcher was unclear why this activity was occurring.

Other scientists were quick to suggest that Dr Raichle’s subjects could have actually been thinking about themselves.

Soon other neuroscientists, who conducted studies using movies to stimulate the brain, found that when there was a lull of activity in a film, the default network began to flash – signalling that research subjects may have begun to think about themselves out of boredom.

But Dr Raichle says the default network is important for more than just thinking about what one had for dinner last night.

“Researchers have wrestled with this idea of how we know we are who we are. The default mode network says something about how that might have come to be,” he says.

And Dr Raichle adds that those studying the default network may also help in uncovering the secrets surrounding some psychological disorders, like depression, autism and even Alzheimer’s disease.

“If you look at Alzheimer’s Disease, and you look at whether it attacks a particular part of the brain, what’s amazing is that it actually attacks the default mode network,” says Dr Raichle, adding that intrinsic network research, like Dr Josipovic’s, could assist in explaining why that is.

Cindy Lustig, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan, agrees.

“It’s a major and understudied network in the brain that seems to be very involved in a lot of neurological disorders, including autism and Alzheimer’s, and understanding how that network interacts with the task-oriented [extrinsic] network is important,” she says. “It is sort of the other piece of the puzzle that’s been ignored for too long.”

Dr Josipovic has scanned the brains of more than 20 experienced meditators, both monks and nuns who primarily study the Tibetan Buddhist style of meditation, to better understand this mysterious network.

He says his research, which will soon be published, will for the moment continue to concentrate on explaining the neurological implications of oneness and tranquillity – though improving understanding of autism or Alzheimer’s along the way would certainly be quite a bonus.

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Learning to live in the moment

A few boys twitch and are reluctant to close their eyes. It’s not easy to get those aged 10 to 12 to keep still, let alone stop their minds from racing.

But it doesn’t take long before the soothing words of meditation teacher Janet Etty-Leal have lulled this class of grade 5 and 6 students into a different mental space.

Lying in a circle, they are practising a form of meditation known as mindfulness that has become core curriculum at Yarraman Oaks Primary School. This school in Noble Park is one of a growing number that have embraced the technique to improve focus and stress management.

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Principal Bill Liston was so taken with mindfulness after attending sessions by Ms Etty-Leal at a principals’ conference four years ago that he asked her to train his staff so they could run weekly sessions for all students.

“It is a lifetime strategy to help them cope with the day-to-day relationships with other children, with the pressure to achieve these days,” he says. “It allows them to get things into perspective, and to do things in a calmer manner.”

Sometimes the meditation sessions run at the start of school or after a…

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break to help students to concentrate. Teachers also run shorter meditation sessions called “capsules” to break up two-hour classes.

Once regarded as alternative, or New Age, meditation has become mainstream. Ms Etty-Leal has run mindfulness programs at more than 40 Victorian schools in recent years. She has also trained school principals, careers teachers and counsellors and Education Department staff, as well as running programs for healthcare professionals and for many companies, including Australia Post and Tattersall’s.

Her recent book, Meditation Capsules, a mindfulness program for children, brings together the techniques she has taught in schools. It adds to a growing body of international literature and research on mindfulness.

Dr Craig Hassed, deputy head of Monash University’s department of general practice, has been teaching mindfulness techniques to trainee doctors and GPs since 1991.

Research shows that it reduces stress and improves work performance.

He also provides mindfulness training to staff and students at many Melbourne secondary schools, but particularly independent schools such as Carey Baptist Grammar, Melbourne Grammar, Geelong Grammar and St Michael’s Grammar.

Each week he flies to Canberra to run training sessions for staff at the Australian National University.

Put simply, mindfulness involves sitting or lying down, closing your eyes, and focusing the mind on breathing and on different parts of the body (for example, the weight of your clothes, the pressure of your shoes). This can be for as little as a minute or for five minutes or longer. Thoughts that come and go are observed and acknowledged, but are not reacted to or judged. “You watch the train [of thought] go by but you don’t get on the train,” Dr Hassed says.

Most people need to learn to live in the moment, he says, and to do so they must recognise which thoughts are worth giving attention to. “We must gently unhook attention from the tendency to ruminate and worry.” Reacting to a negative thought or feeling amplifies it. “A mindful perspective would note, ‘That’s an interesting observation’. If the person cultivates a different non-judgmental attitude to a negative thought, it starts to recede by itself,” he says.

Research has shown that this technique can improve focus, which is why doctors, who have heavy workloads, have found it so useful. More recently, schools such as Methodist Ladies College have used it to help students focus during VCE study and exams.

Dr Hassed says Ms Etty-Leal has adapted mindfulness techniques for children so that the practice is taught through play, games and activities. “Shehas a special way with children.”

Ms Etty-Leal says mindfulness is essential for primary-age children, particularly with the increasing incidence of syndromes such as attention deficit disorder. “If children are unable to settle and manage emotions such as anxiety, then they are not learning.”

Children face many distractions, she says, such as mobile phones and digital technology, which makes it difficult to think deeply. “Neural pathways can become scrambled and less effective, which disrupts learning. When moments of sustained focus, silence and stillness become rare experiences, some children even find them uncomfortable, associating them with negative feelings such as boredom and disconnection.”

Ms Etty-Leal runs sessions at many secondary schools, including an eight-week annual program at Geelong Grammar. She has also undertaken training at Geelong Grammar in positive psychology, developed by US psychologist Martin Seligman, which she finds complementary to her mindfulness program.

More than a decade ago Ms Etty-Leal was a high school art teacher who dealt with a bout of depression by learning to meditate. She went on to complete meditation training with Ian Gawler, a cancer survivor who runs healing retreats, and established her own consultancy in 1999.

Over the years she has refined her techniques using images, props, quotes, poetry, music and stories to keep students aged from four to 18 interested. “There has to be some novelty. You want to imbue the meditation class with a sense of fun and joy. You have to really engage them.”

South Australian psychologist Carmel Wauchope plans to use Ms Etty-Leal’s meditation capsules as a base for her PhD research on the effect of mindfulness on adolescent anxiety and depression. She says at least 200 high school students will be tested before, during and after completing a meditation course based on Ms Elly-Leal’s program.

Ms Wauchope trains her clients in mindfulness in her practice, Astute Education. “I’m amazed by the results, particularly with young people with drug and alcohol issues. They say that meditation is better than using drugs because of the kind of space it puts them in, away from stressors. It is exceptionally useful for a range of situations.”

Ms Wauchope decided to undertake the study after learning of the positive findings of a study at the University of South Australia.

In 2008, Michael Proeve, who was then working at the university as a senior psychology lecturer, was involved in a study of master’s psychology students who had taken an eight-week mindfulness program. “The trainee therapists found it had a stress-management effect and that they were more ‘present’ and attentive with their clients,” he says.

Psychiatrist Kaveh Monshat is testing the benefits of mindfulness as part of his PhD research. He is working with Dr Hassed to devise an online program called Mindful Awareness Education and Training (MATE), which will be offered through the website later this year.

He has already asked 13 young people aged 16 to 26 to critique a demonstration website. Half of those had previously been diagnosed with a mental illness.

Those interviewed believed young people would prefer an online mindfulness program as it is private and takes less time than face-to-face contact.

Mindfulness has long been used by psychologists but has gained momentum in the past five years following studies by Oxford University researcher John Teasdale and others, which showed its use halved the relapse rate in people with recurrent depression. It is also used to treat eating disorders.

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With no effort or practice whatsoever, Enlightenment is here

In all sects of Buddhism, meditation is a prevalent practice,  but Buddhist teachers from different sects use different language to teach meditation.

There are meditations that focus on awareness and insight; meditations that focus on our breath, our body, our feelings, our minds and our mental qualities; and meditations for developing loving kindness within our minds and hearts.

It is easy, when learning a form of meditation, to just focus on the form and then judge whether or not we are doing it “right”.

There is freedom from this judging and striving in Dzogchen practice. Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), one of the great luminaries of Tibetan Buddhism in the twentieth century,  was a highly realized and accomplished master dedicated to the transmission and preservation of Tibet’s spiritual legacy and a principle teacher of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Here is a list of some of the teachings on meditation from Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche:

  • “In meditation we can see through the illusion of past, present and future – the past is only an unreliable memory held in the present. The future is only a projection of our present conceptions. The present itself vanishes as soon as we try to grasp it.
  • We should free ourselves from our memories and preconceptions of meditation. Each moment of meditation is unique and full of potential.
  • Simply meditating in the moment, with our whole being, free from hesitation, boredom or excitement is Enlightenment.
  • Everything is naturally perfect just as it is,  we are naturally perfect as we are, a symbol of Enlightenment.
  • Everything and everyone is constantly changing, nothing is permanent. When we want things or people to remain the same, we suffer. When we want something different from what we have, we suffer.
  • With no effort or practice whatsoever, enlightenment is already here – it is not something or somewhere outside of ourselves. Striving for Enlightenment obstructs our free flow of energy.
  • The everyday practice of Dzogchen is just everyday life itself. Each moment is a moment that can be a moment of mindfulness, gratitude and meditation… there is no need to behave in any special way or attempt to attain anything above and beyond who we already are.
  • When meditating, we should feel it to be as natural as eating and breathing… we should realize that meditation transcends effort, practice, aims, goals and the duality of liberation and captivity. Our practice should be without effort, without strain, without attempts to control or force and without trying to become ‘peaceful’.
  • Therefore we should be natural and spontaneous, accepting and learning from everything.”

There is an expression in Dozgchen, emaho, which means each and every moment provides an opportunity to be kind, generous, honest, mindful, grateful and loving.  Emaho!

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