Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Our online meditation event, “Living With Awareness,” starts Sunday

yogd2015-LWALiving With Awareness is a 28 day meditation event exploring the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with our experience. When we’re not mindful, we get carried away with our thoughts and emotions, which leads to stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and distractedness.

When the quality of mindfulness is present, we have a greater ability to choose our thoughts and emotions. It has been clinically proven to reduce stress, promote feelings of wellbeing, and improve mental and physical health.

Signing up for this 28-day event gives you access to:

  • Emails (three times a week) with practice suggestions
  • Access to guided meditations
  • Support in our online community

We’ll be exploring the practice of mindfulness not only in meditation but in daily life, through the lens of the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” in which we cultivate mindfulness of the body, feelings, the mind, and patterns of mental states.

This event is suitable for people of all levels of experience, including complete beginners.

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How to Register

Registration for Living With Awareness (Feb 1–28) is now open!

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A silent journey to the centre of the self

wildmind meditation newsDebra Black, TheStar.com: Reporter Debra Black attends a six-day silent retreat, where she practices yoga and mediation and tries her best to live in the moment.

“When we relax the breath, the mind temporarily becomes relaxed. The breath is free from greed, hatred, delusion and fear. Relaxing the breath, breathe in. Relaxing the breath, breathe out. The joy arises naturally.” Bhante Gunaratana, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English.

It is odd to eat in silence. I’ve lined up for today’s lunch — miso mushroom soup; cold vegetarian rolls of rice noodles, cabbage and avocado; and fresh fruit — without uttering a …

Read the original article »

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The Mindful Manifesto, by Dr. Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell

The Mindful Manifesto presents — and represents — the continuing move of mindfulness practices into the mainstream of western culture. And mainstream it is. Almost daily, news articles appear highlighting the various ways that meditation is being taken up by ordinary people living ordinary lives, and used by veterans and trauma survivors, and adapted by clinicians to treat depression, stress, obesity, behavioral disorders in children, to give just a few examples. A constant stream of scientific papers appear from researchers, investigating — and confirming — meditation’s ability to do everything from slowing cellular aging to promoting growth in the brain, to improving our sex lives.

The authors are Ed Halliwell, a writer who has contributed columns on meditation for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, and Jonty Heaversedge, who is a family doctor who also presents on medical topics on television and radio. Halliwell is the main contributor, and his writing is clear and lively.

The Mindful Manifesto is both a guide — in very accessible language — to the practice of mindfulness, and a fascinating history of how the west has come to embrace meditation. The authors state their dual intensions in saying “we’d like to invite you to learn more about mindfulness, through an exploration of its history, philosophy, science, and practice. We’d like to invite you to see how it could make a difference — in your own life, and to our stressed-out world.”

Title: The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less and Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive in a Stressed-Out World
Author: Dr. Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell
Publisher: Hay House
ISBN: 978-1-4019-3536-8
Available from: Amazon.co.uk and UK Kindle Store, and Amazon.com and US Kindle store.

The authors say that their book is not a “manifesto” in the traditional sense of a grand plan for overhauling society, but behind that denial is a plainly visible (and quite natural) yearning for meditation to be more widely adopted. They imagine how different the world might be if politicians, for example, sat down to connect with their inner wisdom and compassion before discussions, or how healthcare might be transformed if every patient had access to meditation instruction. But there’s no concrete plan. So in what sense is this book a manifesto? The word “manifesto” is used here more in the sense of “to make manifest” or “to show plainly” (the original meaning of the word) and stands for “an invitation to let go of doing, at least for a time, and learn how to be, right now, in the present moment.” It also makes for a very catchy title.

So, how well do the authors succeed in their invitation, both to communicate how to be mindful, and to communicate meditation’s history, philosophy, and science? I think they do remarkably well in both. As a long-time practitioner of meditation (thirty years this summer) I benefited from the freshness of the Manifesto’s approach. The writers successfully translate the sometimes clunky and unappealing language of meditation (“delusion,” “attachment”) into more contemporary and accessible language (“denial, “addiction”). They take traditional Buddhist teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and relate them to life as it’s lived in the west. This is a very approachable book.

The authors present numerous examples and case histories, showing how meditation has actually benefitted ordinary people. They in fact regularly slip into the first person to offer accounts of how meditation has helped them with their own personal difficulties. These examples will no doubt help many people to recognize that meditation can benefit people like them. The book offers clear instructions for eight meditation practices. Some of these are traditional, such as mindfulness of breathing, while others, like an ice-cube meditation and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s famous raisin experiment, are more contemporary. Of course it’s not really possible to follow detailed meditation instructions from a book, but the site for the Mindful Manifesto does offer audio downloads (for an extra fee). It would have been good if these were available in a streaming format, or if a CD had been included with the book. Practitioners who have an established practice will probably benefit more from the written guidance, because it’s easier to take on board “nuggets” and integrate them into what you already do than it is to read, digest, and remember whole paragraphs.

One omission that I think is unfortunate is that there’s no lovingkindness instruction given. It’s not that lovingkindness is absent from the book. Lovingkindness is mentioned in terms of having kindness and compassion to oneself, and is woven throughout every topic that’s considered, but it’s barely touched on in an explicit way. When it is mentioned by name, it’s in the language of “self-parenting” as a way of developing emotional security. While this language is both contemporary and very useful (thanks, guys, I’ll be stealing that phrase for use in my own teaching!) it’s very much to do with “self-metta,” which is only the first stage of lovingkindness practice. Lovingkindness techniques for enriching our connections with loved ones, developing more empathy for strangers, and overcoming antipathy — in other words the traditional format of lovingkindness meditation — would have made a valuable addition to The Mindful Manifesto.

The book is largely structured around a modified form of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which the authors render as mindfulness of body, mind, feelings, and life. These headings don’t really match with the traditional understandings of the satipatthanas, but practically speaking the schema works well as an instructional tool. The approach throughout these chapters is very much rooted in science, and in the clinical applications of mindfulness, so that mindfulness of the body, for example, is treated very much in terms of dealing with painful sensations in the body, using approaches made popular in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. The history of the development of such approaches is woven through this material, and is, to my mind, fascinating. Although a book on practicing mindfulness technically doesn’t have to include the historical perspective, the techniques being explained are given an extra weight of authority when put in the context of their scientifically tested applications.

The section on the fourth foundation of mindfulness departs most from the traditional descriptions. Rather than “mindfulness of dhammas” (in my view best described as “a wise understanding of the workings of the mind”) Heaversedge and Halliwell discuss “mindfulness of life.” But although the treatment is non-traditional, it nevertheless performs a valuable service in showing how mindfulness, although it begins with a focus on our selves, can be applied to the way we interact with our world :”mindfulness takes us out of the limitations of self — by connecting us to a wider view, it shows us how we can fruitfully inter-relate with others.”

I found The Mindful Manifesto to be a fascinating and enriching read. While beginners to mindfulness and meditation will undoubtedly benefit from read the book, it’s probably even more valuable to the established practitioner, who will find the contemporary language to be helpful in seeing their practice with fresh eyes, and who will gain extra confidence from the reading about the many scientific studies that confirm in great detail the many ways in which meditation can help us be happier, healthier, and more engaged individuals.

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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.


Notes:
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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“Living With Awareness: A Guide to the Satipatthana Sutta,” By Sangharakshita

Living With Awareness Sangharakshita

Available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

The Satipatthana Sutta is generally regarded as the single most important text expounding the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness, and systematically takes us through a series of reflections on mindfulness of the breath and the body, mindfulness of actions, and mindfulness of impermanence.

Adapted from recordings of Sangharakshita in seminar with his students, this book is a sheer delight — rather like listening to a favorite, well-traveled and extremely knowledgeable uncle chatting by the fireside. Because of the adapted nature of the text, this commentary is somewhat of a ramble around the Satipatthana Sutta, although Sangharakshita deals with the text with great thoroughness.

Sangharakshita’s many years of experience as a practitioner and teacher are evident in the practicality with which he discusses exactly how to go about developing the various aspects of mindfulness. And mindfulness has many aspects, he points out. While many contemporary teachers of meditation stress that mindfulness is awareness in the moment, Sangharakshita emphasizes that it is indeed awareness in the moment but that it is also an awareness in the moment with reference to the past and present. As Sangharakshita puts it, “Everything we do should be done with a sense of the direction we want to move in and of whether or not our current action will take us in that direction”. Mindfulness integrates our experience so that we recognize the effects of the past on our present (and can thus learn to live more skillfully) and also integrates the present with the future, so that we act now with reference to where we would like to end up.

In the course of discussing the Sutta, Sangharakshita demonstrates his ample skill as a storyteller, drawing on tales from the Buddhist tradition, from his own personal experience, and from western literature. I doubt anyone could read this book without wanting to rush out and buy a few volumes of Charles Dickens, having had some of the perhaps unexpected spiritual wisdom in his writings pointed out to them. These digressions, rather than being a distraction, are actually a highlight of the book, and I can imagine that the editors had their work cut out for them deciding which of the divagations should be consigned to the cutting room floor, and which should remain.

Particularly striking as an example of Sangharakshita’s lucid thinking is a chapter on how to reflect — a topic on which many of us need guidance. Amongst other things we are advised to set aside specific time for sitting down and thinking, seeking out the company of people with differing views from our own in order to learn to organize and articulate our thoughts more clearly, and to practice reflecting through writing. This chapter could well stand alone and I can well imagine it becoming a minor classic in its own right.

For anyone interested in exploring the practice of mindfulness more deeply I would highly recommend this book.

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