Mind states

The four frameworks for cultivating mindfulness, according to the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta (MN10), are:

  1. Body
  2. Feeling (pleasant, unpleasant, neither)
  3. Mind states
  4. Phenomena (hindrances, awakening factors, etc.)

We’re up to the third of these, training ourselves to be aware of what is occupying our minds in the present. To do this well, we need to bring along the first two frameworks, an awareness of our bodies and feelings, as context. Only by staying anchored in whole-body awareness can we keep our thoughts from sweeping us away.

One knows a mind with lust to be “a mind with lust”; or one knows a mind without lust to be “a mind without lust”; or one knows a mind with anger to be “a mind with anger”; or one knows a mind without anger to be “a mind without anger”; or one knows a mind with delusion to be “a mind with delusion”; or one knows a mind without delusion to be “a mind without delusion”; … (from the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, translated by Anālayo Bhikkhu)

There are other qualities we can be alert to, but the leading ones are greed, hatred, and delusion. We can ask ourselves at any time whether greed or lust is present or absent in our minds, we can ask whether anger/hatred is present or absent. It is easy to recognize when greed or hatred is present in the mind, but it is also important to notice when these are absent. It is one definition of internal peace when the mind is free of the unwholesome roots, and it happens perhaps more often than we realize.

More from Ven. Anālayo: “[The] task is to see through a particular train of thought and its related associations in order to discern the underlying mental current. … Recognizing the feeling tone of our current experience … draws our attention to our subjective involvement in whatever is happening. In this way we learn to attend to the baseline condition of the mind rather than to the details of particular thoughts.”

In other words, we can learn to know our thoughts both subjectively and objectively. We see the details as we imagine they affect us; at the same time we can know whether the flavor of the internal conversation (or monologue) is kind or unkind, clear or fuzzy, heavy or light, tending towards selfishness or generosity.

The transition from cultivating mindfulness of our bodies and feelings to learning to be mindful with whatever thoughts appear in the mind is something of a leap. We are so accustomed to identifying with our thoughts, to taking our thoughts to be our selves, that the idea of stepping back from that can be daunting. Yet, anchoring our awareness in our bodies, noting feelings as they rise and fall, makes the task more approachable. We can simply check throughout the day: “Is there anger or no anger in this mind right now?”; and “Is there greed or no greed in this mind right now?” There’s no right or wrong answer, just knowing what’s true.

To be continued …

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Mindfulness of feeling

When feeling a pleasant feeling, one knows: “I feel a pleasant feeling”; when feeling a painful feeling, one knows: “I feel a painful feeling”; when feeling a neutral feeling, one knows: “I feel a neutral feeling”. (From the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, MN10, translated by Anālayo Bhikkhu)

The second foundation or framework for developing mindfulness is vedanā, usually translated as “feeling”, although in English the word “feeling” is fraught. In Pali there is a very limited definition: (1) pleasant feeling, (2) unpleasant feeling, or (3) neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant feeling. Vedanā means only these three movements of the mind; all further mental proliferations (judgments, explanations, etc.) come later. If we attend closely to our bodies in a holistic way, we will notice that every sensation and mental flutter is accompanied by a subtle or strong desire to move towards or away from the contact or thought.

These three responses are pretty much non-negotiable; we cannot prevent ourselves from liking or not-liking. What we can do is notice our feelings as they come up and stop them from absolutely determining our actions and words; that is, we can apply wisdom in the moment and mitigate our greed and hatred where and when they arise. We can take a smaller piece of cake, even if our greed is raging; we can be patient and kind, even with someone we find annoying.

An exercise: When we experience unpleasant physical sensations, how do we react? Do we immediately assume that something has gone wrong in the world, that we’re not supposed to suffer pain? Does our mind leap to outrage at the unfairness of stinging, burning, aching, or other impingements? Can we back up and investigate what is actually happening in the body? Shinzen Young teaches several methods for re-directing our attention back to our experience, away from our reactions to that experience. One of those methods is to name (to ourselves) the specific flavor of the painful sensation every few seconds, checking on its characteristics and intensity. Is it increasing or diminishing? Has it moved or is it only in one place? How deep under the skin is it registering? Are there secondary sensations (dizziness, nausea, e.g.)?

While everyone is subject to all three types of vedanā, most of us have a proclivity towards either greed or aversion. Have a think: are you more driven to acquire pleasant experience or to avoid unpleasant? It can be useful to know which direction we’re most likely to lean in.

Pleasant feelings cause us to be drawn to them, leaning towards wanting more; unpleasant feelings usually cause resistance or annoyance. Neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant feelings are similar to boredom, so they often cause us to hunt around for more stimulating input. By placing our attention on the feeling-tone layer of experience, we can become intimate with what moves us, we can see how volatile and unpredictable our feelings are. Once we know our feelings better, we can befriend them and be confident that they are informative but do not have the power to push us around.

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Freedom from (fear of) death

In order to dwell independently and not cling to anything, it is helpful to identify our dependencies and what we cling to. Whenever it stings, wherever there is agitation, it is right there that dependencies and clinging show up. It is right there that an opportunity manifests for gradually letting go of them. (Anālayo Bhikkhu, Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation: a Practice Guide p. 90-91)

… Human beings share with animals the instinct for self-preservation. The case of human beings takes on a special turn because we are aware of the fact that death is unavoidable. The combination of the instinctive drive for self-preservation and the knowledge of the inevitability of death creates the potential for paralyzing terror. As soon as death comes within range of attention, human beings tend to react with various defense mechanisms. The most common ones are trying to distract oneself or else pushing the problem of death into the distant future. (Anālayo p.85)

Let’s pause here to check on our own comfort or discomfort level with the knowledge of our own mortality. Our life experience will certainly have a bearing on our current thinking, and it will be helpful to assess our starting point.

There are some graphic descriptions in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta of a human corpse in various stages of decay, and we are invited to imagine our own bodies after death, exposed to the elements, being picked at and scattered by scavenging animals. Anālayo Bhikkhu recommends a contemplation more accessible to modern humans, since most of us will never observe a rotting human corpse in any stage of decay.

Neither the corpse contemplation nor this simpler meditation should be undertaken by people with suicidal tendencies, as the terror of projecting our own deaths may be overwhelming for some. Please use caution.

We know that we cannot stay alive for long without our breath, without oxygen, and we can use the in-breath and out-breath that we experience (this one, now this one, now this one) to reflect on our dependency on oxygen. This very breath is the one that’s keeping us alive right now. When we practice mindfulness of breathing, we are at the cutting edge of knowing impermanence. This is one reason many people find trying to be aware of breathing uncomfortable; we prefer to look away from our need to expel CO² and take in oxygen. We tell ourselves it’s boring, but really it is our most immediate, urgent requirement, even when it is happening subconsciously.

When practicing, we can reflect that we don’t know when our last exhalation will come. It may take us by surprise or it may be expected. In either case, we know that it will come sometime, and now is the time we have to prepare, by experiencing each breath intimately and completely.

Facing our own mortality squarely, adjusting our mental framework to this reality, will clarify our thinking. It will allow us be more present to others; we can respond to life more whole-heartedly. Even if we are young now, what do we want our legacy to be?


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Desire – sensual or the other kind?

In the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta there are a few “mindfulness of the body” exercises that are recommended specifically to help us address our sexual/sensual compulsion. The first of these is contemplation of our body parts; we imagine dividing ourselves into our component organs and features and mentally examine each one in turn. The analogy in the sutta is: “It is just as a man with good eyes who has opened a double-mouthed bag full of different sorts of grain, such as hill rice, red rice, beans, peas, millet, and white rice, which he would examine: ‘This is hill rice, this red rice, these are beans, these are peas, this is millet, this is white rice’.” (translation Anālayo Bhikkhu).

Take a deep breath and consider: head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, bowels, mesentery (a set of tissues that attaches the intestines to the posterior abdominal wall), contents of the stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.

The first time we try this exercise, it might be natural for disgust to arise. There are plenty of things about our actual bodies that are not lovely, that we overlook because they don’t please us. And yet, this is the reality of living in a body. Even when we’re well and clean, many of our parts are unattractive. And yet, there is no living human who is not made up of these parts.

Anālayo Bhikkhu recommends that rather than taking up the full list from the sutta, laypeople compress it into three items: skin, flesh, and bones.

The point of this exercise in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta is not to make us hate life, but to help us accept the reality of our bodies, their fragility and complexity. More specifically it is designed to discourage us from believing that how our (and others’) bodies look is a measure of our (their) worth.

Sensual attraction is a reality in our lives; we can learn to recognize and manage it rather than feel imprisoned by it. We can minimize the damage that sexual/sensual compulsion creates, for ourselves and others.

Desire itself is not the problem. “The desire to develop ourselves and to progress on the path is certainly praiseworthy. … The problem with sensual types of desire is simply the mistaken belief that true happiness can be found by gratifying the senses. … The primary function of the present exercise [is to act as a] medicine, a cure to enable the experience of a greater and more refined happiness than we could ever achieve through sensual indulgence. In a way it offers a shift towards developing intimacy within, rather than embarking on the quest for intimacy through external sexual union.” (Anālayo Bhikkhu, Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation: a Practice Guide, p. 51)

One of my responses to this principle is to substitute inner beauty for outer beauty as a personal goal. We can cultivate our inner beauty without limit, unlike the outer kind.

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“Bare awareness” mindfulness

Continuing from the last post, the four activities that form the “refrain” in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta are:

  1. Internal and external contemplation of body, feeling, mind, and mind-objects (the four foundations or frameworks)
  2. Arising and passing away of experience in each foundation
  3. Mindfulness that “there is a body” (there is feeling, etc.) is established in one just for the sake of bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. 
  4. Abiding independently, not clinging to anything in the world.

Regarding “establishing mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ just for the sake of bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness”, Anālayo Bhikkhu says this:

I understand this to imply that in the present context sati is not so much something that we do, but rather something that we are. … The different contemplations in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta serve to establish mindfulness. What we do is to know, to examine, and to compare. All of these activities contribute to, converge on, and have their grounding in being mindful. Mindfulness itself here does not stand for an activity, but rather for a quality.

This is a subtle but important point. We have a good idea of how to DO things, we do things all the time: moving, thinking, talking, working with our hands, etc. But being something? How can we do that?

When we are cold, we know we’re cold, we’re not “doing” cold. When we feel sleepy, we’re being rather than doing something. In the same way, we can be (or not be) mindful. By consciously tracking body sensations, feelings, mental objects, etc. internally and externally; by bringing our attention to the arising and passing nature of experience; by clearly knowing that this body is in one position or another, here and now, we come into a state of mindfulness. We can collect our attention and learn to hold it in or near the ever-changing present and then we can notice that the result is a pervasive experience of mindfulness, full contact with our experience, unmediated and uninterrupted.

The last of the four parts of the refrain encourages us to “live independently, not clinging to anything in the world”. This is a step beyond mindfulness. We can mindfully know how grasping and aversion feel and we can evaluate and investigate our tendency towards obsessive attachment. More than one teacher has said that we must experience clinging fully, at the time it’s happening, because it is precisely at this point that we have the opportunity to free ourselves from clinging. It’s not a theoretical process; we can’t talk ourselves into letting go. With mindfulness we inhabit our experience with our whole body and mental energy. If we look into the phenomena we experience through the lens of understanding clinging and its cessation, then we have a chance to actually let go and live independently. At least for a while.

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Four ways to be mindful

Anālayo Bhikkhu illuminates the Buddha’s instructions for us by describing the “refrain” in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, that is, a four-part formula that is applied to each of the four bases or frameworks for cultivating mindfulness (body, feeling, mind, mind-objects). In his own translation, here’s what it says, using mindfulness of the body (first framework) as the example:

In regard to the body one abides contemplating the body internally, or in regard to the body one abides contemplating the body externally, or in regard to the body one abides contemplating the body internally and externally.

One abides contemplating the nature of arising in the body, or one abides contemplating the nature of passing away in the body, or one abides contemplating the nature of arising and passing away in the body.

Or mindfulness that “there is a body” is established in one just for the sake of bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness.

And one abides independently, not clinging to anything in the world. (from MN10)

What does it mean to contemplate the body “internally” and/or “externally”? There is some disagreement about exactly what this points to, but generally we think it means whole-body awareness internally and an observational contemplation of others’ experience through their bodies. This is not so far-fetched. The more sensitive we become to the workings and fast-changing characteristics of our own bodily experience, the more we may be able to tune in to what other people are experiencing. This practice can link us directly to understanding that our experience is not necessarily unique in the world, that others have felt and do feel cold or hot, pain or pleasure, hungry or full, tired or rested, etc. A lot can be read in others’ body language if we are paying attention.

We’ll take up how this refrain might be used to develop mindfulness of feeling, mind, and mind-objects as we go along. For now, we’re focusing on developing a whole-body awareness that can accompany us throughout our days.

In considering the arising and passing away of bodily sensations, it is difficult or impossible to recognize in each instant what is coming and going. But the Pali text states we can cultivate awareness of the “nature of arising” and the “nature of passing away” in our experience. We don’t live one instant at a time; causes and conditions come together that make us feel sick or well, weak or strong, and we can only perceive most of this complex of causes in “immediate retrospect” (my term). Some sensations come and go very quickly, others linger so we have an opportunity to investigate what might have caused their arising and passing away.

If we take the time, we can know directly that our experience is not static, that subtle or gross sensations come into being in our awareness, they change, and eventually subside and are replaced in our awareness by other experiences. This knowledge can lead us to a profound understanding of anicca, the truth of unrelenting changefulness.


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Mindfulness defined

Bhikkhus, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for the attainment of the true way, for the realisation of Nibbana — namely, the four foundations of mindfulness.

What are the four? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu [practitioner] abides contemplating the body as a body, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating feelings as feelings, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating mind as mind, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. (from MN10, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Anālayo Bhikkhu calls this part of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta the “definition” of mindfulness, and says that practicing each of the four frameworks for developing mindfulness (also called foundations or satipaṭṭhānas) requires bringing into being these four qualities:

  • diligence
  • clear knowing
  • mindfulness
  • freedom from desires and discontent (literally covetousness and sadness) with regard to the world

It is a bit circular to say that mindfulness is one of the qualities we have to bring to the development of mindfulness, but there it is. We could think of it as needing a seed of mindfulness to be present so that a more complete or deeper mindfulness can be developed.

Anālayo Bhikkhu goes on to say that

  1. diligence or ardency is the quality we need to maintain an active interest in the the present moment, just as it is.
  2. Clear knowing (fully aware) acknowledges the changing nature of our experience.
  3. Perceiving the changing nature of our experience allows us to see and acknowledge dukkha, which can lead us to free ourselves from desires and discontent (covetousness and grief) with regard to the world. 

This may seem like a tall order, and it is, but this is what the Buddha recommended as the primary method for developing mindfulness. It’s more than “trying to stay in the present”, although it is that. There are some very specific ways to be in the present that keep pointing us towards deeper and deeper realizations.

All three of these qualities are challenging to achieve or maintain. To stay in active contact with our changing experience is at least something most of us can do and can recognize when we’re doing it. But being “free from desires and discontent” is more like a realization than a practice. Those moments when we are free of clinging may not jump out at us, we may miss them because there’s nothing there to hang our hats (egos) on.

Developing mindfulness based on the four frameworks outlined in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta (body, feelings, mind, mind-objects) is not like memorizing the times tables. It requires continuous evaluation against a number of criteria. Training our attention to stay in, or at least close to, our bodies is reliable way to create this fundamental change in how we relate to the world.


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