Contemplating mindfully

The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN10) describes how to develop mindfulness. There are a lot of separate instructions within the sutta; different objects of meditation are offered sequentially. In between each separate instruction is a “refrain” that is repeated; whatever object of meditation we’ve chosen, this refrain is the same. The refrain, as translated below by Analāyo Bhikkhu, must have been important or it wouldn’t have been repeated again and again.

In this way, in regard to the body [feeling, mind, phenomena] he abides contemplating the body internally, or he abides contemplating the body externally, or he abides contemplating the body both internally and externally. He abides contemplating the nature of arising in the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of passing away in the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.

We are advised to contemplate our object (in this first case, the body):

  1. internally, or
  2. externally, or
  3. both internally and externally.

We are then advised to contemplate:

  1. the nature of arising in the object (body), or
  2. the nature of passing away in the object, or
  3. the nature of both arising and passing away in the object.

Importantly, the last two sentences of the refrain tell us that we don’t have to have perfect concentration to do this practice. Sustainability rather than intensity is the goal. If we have at least part of our awareness on the object, we can follow along the rising and passing changes to it. We can bring our attention lightly to our body position, for example, or to pleasant and unpleasant sensations that come and go, or to the “stickiness” of our thoughts, etc.

“Not clinging to anything in the world” I take to mean that we stay in the present; we notice the ordinary, subtle things that we usually overlook, like the sensation of clothing  on skin, breath moving in and out of our bodies, background sounds, temperature.  We don’t spin stories that take us into the past or the future; we don’t ascribe causes and motives to what is happening, we simply notice things as they change, in their mostly undramatic ways.

Teachers I trust say that contemplating internally means “within our own bodies/minds”, and that contemplating externally means noticing or acknowledging that the bodies and minds of others work more or less as our own do. Sensations and thoughts come and go, and we take them more or less to heart; we cling to them to different degrees at different times. Sensory inputs and thoughts flow through us, sometimes easily, sometimes uneasily. The path to less clinging and greater ease begins with noticing and acknowledging how it is, for us and others, in the present.

When a wise monk was asked, “How do I know if I’m meditating correctly?”, he responded, “Is your experience changing?”

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