Advice on mindfulness (3)

A Single Excellent Night

Let not a person revive the past
Or on the future build his hopes;
For the past has been left behind
And the future has not been reached.
Instead with insight let him see
Each presently arisen state;
Let him know that and be sure of it,
Invincibly, unshakeably.
Today the effort must be made;
Tomorrow Death may come, who knows?
No bargain with Mortality
Can keep him and his hordes away,
But one who dwells thus ardently,
Relentlessly, by day, by night –
It is he, the Peaceful Sage [the Buddha] has said,
Who has had a single excellent night.
— from MN 131, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Now we come to the heart of the matter. Once we’ve recognized our obsession with past and future, we turn our attention to the thing that is neither, i.e., the present. The entire cryptic instruction is to “know each presently arisen state”. This is quite a challenge; it requires leaving behind any storyline we can construct, our preferences, our whole history and context. It is possible, but nothing else in our experience has trained us to be fully, completely, irrevocably present. The invitation is to investigate each sensory input, as it comes in, and discover it as if it were an entirely new experience, which it is. Sayadaw U Tejaniya once said we should imagine ourselves to be a satellite dish; accepting all data from our sense gates (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touch) but not analyzing it; allowing our inner wisdom to know what’s important and what’s not and to assemble meaning as needed. I’ve found this to be a useful image.

There are a few things we can try, to help focus our attention on the present. One is to simply be aware of what position our bodies are in: upright? walking? sitting? lying down? moving? Tracking this dimension of our experience can bring mindfulness to each moment.

Another possibility is to focus on the sense of touch, that is, any physical sensation we have through our skin, muscle, or internal happenings. The classical elements of sensation are: hard/soft (earth), wet/dry (water), cold/hot (fire), expansive/contractive movement (air).

Another approach is to track each in-breath and out-breath from beginning to end, including any gaps in between. If other sensory inputs become dominant, we allow them, attend to them fully, and when they fade, return to the breathing. As we discover again and again, this takes deep and sustained concentration, which we can develop over time.

The remainder of the verse is an exhortation to apply ourselves right now, with all our energy. It’s true that we can’t know when our death will come, so we ought to feel some sense of urgency if we intend to develop the Buddha’s path. And if we do practice mindfulness in this fully embodied way, persistently, relentlessly, we can be satisfied that we are doing something the Buddha would call excellent.

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Advice on mindfulness (2)

Let not a person revive the past
Or on the future build his hopes;
For the past has been left behind
And the future has not been reached.
Instead with insight let him see
Each presently arisen state;
Let him know that and be sure of it,
Invincibly, unshakeably.
Today the effort must be made;
Tomorrow Death may come, who knows?
No bargain with Mortality
Can keep him and his hordes away,
But one who dwells thus ardently,
Relentlessly, by day, by night –
It is he, the Peaceful Sage [the Buddha] has said,
Who has had a single excellent night.

We’re still considering the first four lines of this verse (from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of MN 131). If we can take in their meaning, it will set us up for practicing mindfulness in a meaningful way.

In parallel fashion to the previous post, we reflect on our thoughts about the future. Any  future we can imagine includes ourselves in a starring role, possibly as the sole source of interest. Even if we’re pining for someone else, the heart of the matter is how WE feel.

And how, Bhikkhus, does one build up hope upon the future? One finds delight there thinking, ‘May I have such material form in the future!’ One finds delight there thinking, ‘May I have such feeling in the future!’ … ‘May I have such perception in the future!’ … ‘May I have such [mental] formations in the future!’ … ‘May I have such consciousness in the future!’ That is how one builds up hope upon the future.

This is a normal part of life for those of us “unskilled in the Dhamma”; we imagine our successes in the future, how delicious our next meal will taste, how happy we’ll feel when someone praises us or when we go to a show that we expect to enjoy, how some annoyance will be removed. We are inexorably drawn to these thoughts, these images, in a continuous parade; we can’t tear our attention away from them.

But – these delights have no substance; they are not real; they are all imagined and even if the future does occasionally resemble our imagining, we’ve probably forgotten that we were hoping for this very feeling. The downside is that while we are dreaming of an attractive and satisfying future, our attention is drawn away from our present reality. We miss the actual surprises we’re presented with; there’s no freshness to our experience.

And how, Bhikkhus, does one not build up hope upon the future? One does not find delight there thinking, ‘May I have such material form in the future!’ One does not find delight there thinking, ‘May I have such feeling in the future!’ … ‘May I have such perception in the future!’ … ‘May I have such [mental] formations in the future!’ … ‘May I have such consciousness in the future!’ That is how one does not build up hope upon the future.

So we bring ourselves back to the present, first by noticing how often we’re seduced with ruminations of our remembered past and imagined future. If we contemplate our obsession with “the story of me”, we have a chance to see beyond it.

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Advice on mindfulness

In the Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha, MN 131 (the Bhaddekaratta Sutta) is called “A Single Excellent Night”, or in Sujato Bhikkhu’s translation, “One Fine Night” (https://suttacentral.net/mn131/en/sujato).

This classic sutta is worth exploring for its pithy summary of how to become awakened. It opens with the Buddha saying he’ll teach the summary and exposition of “One who has had a single excellent night.” Clearly, the Buddha is not referring to an evening’s two-hour activity, but to a 24-hour period of intense concentration. That said, here’s the verse, in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation:

Let not a person revive the past
Or on the future build his hopes;
For the past has been left behind
And the future has not been reached.
Instead with insight let him see
Each presently arisen state;
Let him know that and be sure of it,
Invincibly, unshakeably.
Today the effort must be made;
Tomorrow Death may come, who knows?
No bargain with Mortality
Can keep him and his hordes away,
But one who dwells thus ardently,
Relentlessly, by day, by night –
It is he, the Peaceful Sage [the Buddha] has said,
Who has had a single excellent night.

This is a poetic way of saying we should stay in the present moment at all times if we want to know complete inner peace. The sutta goes on to help us understand how we can accomplish this feat.

How, bhikkhus, does one revive the past? One finds delight there thinking, ‘I had such material form in the past.’ One finds delight there thinking, ‘I had such feelings in the past’ … ‘I had such perception in the past,’ … ‘I had such [mental] formations in the past’ … ‘I had such consciousness in the past.’ That is how one revives the past.

Those of us familiar with the Buddha’s teachings will recognize the five aggregates of clinging in this list. For the rest of us, it is an excellent introduction to the five ways that we create and sustain our sense of a separate self. We remember ourselves as we (think we) were physically in the past; we recall feelings we had; images and scenes from the past; emotions, preferences, and choices we’ve made; and we remember being alive and feeling like “me”. The past may be decades ago or it might be last week or ten minutes ago. The continuity of the compulsive story of “me” that we tell ourselves, often repeating the same scenes, makes our sense of a solid, unchanging self inescapable.

The lesson continues:

And how, bhikkhus, does one not revive the past? One does not find delight there thinking, ‘I had such material form in the past.’ One does not find delight there thinking, ‘I had such feelings in the past’ … ‘I had such perception in the past,’ … ‘I had such [mental] formations in the past’ … ‘I had such consciousness in the past.’ That is how one does not revive the past.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? We just stop running the movies of our life as it was (or as we like to think it was) through our minds. Huh? But what fills our mind instead?

To be continued in the next post…

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Mettā sutta – part 4

The conclusion of the mettā sutta goes like this:

Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down; free from drowsiness, one should sustain this recollection. This is said to be the sublime abiding.

These sentences invite us to maintain a steady state of radiating mettā all day long, from the time we wake up in the morning, through all of our activities; while typing at our computers, cooking, eating, cleaning, working, traveling, using the bathroom, grooming, etc. until we fall asleep at night. If we can do this and our energy doesn’t flag, we will be in a sublime (mental) abiding. Given the choice, wouldn’t we prefer to be in this blissful state? Or if not fully maintain it, attempt some continuity with it? If it is our intention to  train ourselves so that mettā is our home base throughout the day, we’ll gradually be able to sustain the attitude more and more steadily.

The last sentence of the sutta seems to shift gears. It goes like this:

By not holding to fixed views, the pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision, being freed from all sense desires, is not born again into this world. 

First off, many people don’t love the idea of not being born again, so let’s have a look at what’s actually meant by these words. My resident Pali scholar confirms that “not born again into this world” refers to the state of ultimate freedom from any clinging; having uprooted greed, hatred, and delusion so they cannot arise in the future; that is, nibbana.

Some of us would be content to stop short of nibbana because we love our attachments too much to even imagine being without them. However, our experience of releasing clinging, the happiness of letting go, inclines in the direction of nibbana. This is a process that we can trust to continue leading us in a direction that will only become more appealing as we progress.

The caveat here is that mettā by itself cannot quite get us there. “Not holding to fixed views, the pure-hearted (i.e., non-clinging) one, having clarity of vision (i.e., having seen the truth of impermanence, dukkha, and not-self)” is automatically freed from all sense desires and has reached nibbana.

I have it on good authority that practicing mettā, a lot or continuously, is an excellent platform for developing concentration and loosening the bonds of clinging. This makes practicing insight (inquiring into the nature of experience directly) more accessible, but active inquiry is a necessary step (different from cultivating mettā) towards the elimination of clinging.

The mettā sutta is a powerful encouragement to develop an attitude of kindness towards all beings, and at the end of the sutta, we’re reminded that seeing things as they are is the final liberation.

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Mettā sutta – part 3

In the previously posted section of the mettā sutta, the Buddha suggested what we should do if we wish to purify our hearts; in the next section he suggests what we should avoid doing:

Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none, through anger or ill-will, wish harm upon another. Even as a mother protects with her life, her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings. Radiating kindness, over the entire world, spreading upwards to the sky and downwards to the depths, outward and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.

As the Buddha recommends elsewhere, cheating or deceiving others creates harmful results for ourselves and others. When we allow and encourage our negative impulses to take the lead, our hearts close up.

On the other hand, if those small-minded inclinations are set aside, a limitless kindness is possible. Some would say that a mother’s love for her child is the most unselfish category of human caring. Whether this is true or not, the image is a powerful invitation to adopt every sentient being in the world as our family, as worthy of our protection and concern. This is not to say we can actually MAKE everyone (or anyone) feel safe and cherished, but we can plant those intentions in ourselves. We can feed and nourish those energies, which already exist within each of us.

A beautiful image appears in this section of the sutta: “radiating kindness over the entire world”. In this case it is our individual hearts that can be the source of these waves of mettā. Above, below, and all around – there’s no limit, and the more we rest in this wish for the well-being of ourselves and others, the more our limitations disappear.

This illustration and poem from Australian artist/poet/philosopher Michael Leunig describes one way that mettā works. The happiness that grows in us when we bless and love others freely is naturally spread wherever we go.

Leunig metta

To be continued …

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Mettā sutta – part 2

The next part of the Mettā sutta describes a form of blessing. It is a wish, not a demand; we recognize the place in our heart that wishes others well, and we give it space and encouragement to grow into our central desire.

… wishing: In gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease. Whatever living beings there may be, whether they are weak or strong, omitting none; the great or the mighty, medium, short or small; the seen and the unseen; those living near and far away; those born and to-be-born; may all beings be at ease. 

The aspect of mettā being emphasized here is its universality. We can cultivate mettā for a particular person or situation, but here we establish an intention to exclude no one.

It’s not clear whether our scope of concern is all sentient beings or all beings of any kind. It may be simplest to first think of all human beings, since that is the category we tend to divide up into “us and them”, or at least those we consider deserving and those we think are not.

If our heart is open, then mettā radiates as if we were a glowing furnace. The heat is not directed at any individual more or less than any other; whatever the intensity of the energy, it isn’t impeded by any judgment or preference. Even people with various forms of power, with whom we might strenuously disagree – they are included as well.

If we can start by imagining a form of love that is indiscriminate, that is unbounded and endless, then we can build on that feeling. If we can set aside (temporarily) all forms of clinging, then the sublime mental state of mettā is available to us. It is a type of super-power; it can penetrate our doubts about ourselves and our aversions to others.

Sometimes we find it difficult to experience mettā even when we want to. Rather than force the issue, we can repeat some phrases that have meaning for us to help us remember our intention. For example:

May I be well, may I be happy,
May I be free from harm and suffering.
May all of my good purposes be fulfilled.

If it’s easier, we can direct our good wishes towards a specific person: “May s/he be well…” etc.

Eventually, this can be expanded to all beings: “May all beings be well, …” etc.

For clarification, the last line refers to all of our good spiritual purposes. It’s not about fulfilling any material desires or plans, but about purifying the heart and all the beneficial actions and words that come as a result.

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Mettā sutta – part 1

The Mettā sutta (from the Pali language) has been chanted for millenia, by many people, in many languages. In the next few posts, I’ll be looking at it in sections (in English) and reflecting on why it is so important in the Buddha’s teachings. The translation I’ve chosen is one that was collaboratively arrived at decades ago by a group of nuns and monks in the Ajahn Chah tradition. It begins:

This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness, and who knows the path of peace. Let them be able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech; humble and not conceited; contented and easily satisfied; unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways; peaceful and calm and wise and skillful, not proud and demanding in nature; let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove. 

All these instructions are a preamble describing what our attitude and conduct should be before we bestow our blessing (mettā) on others. The first sentence says that we should be living ethically (according to the five [or more] precepts) and have cultivated a calm(er) mind.

“Able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech” refers to a pervasive sense of honesty, directness, and gentleness in our relations with others.

“Humble and not conceited” means what it says – to not hold ourselves to be special or “in charge” or in any way superior to others. Humility can be learned at deeper and deeper levels. And “contented and easily satisfied” is a reminder to orient our lives towards simplicity, not to spend our energy arranging for our own comfort and entertainment as a central concern.

“Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways” — Many of us need to heed this advice more closely. Being busy is highly valued in most of our cultures; “doing nothing” is looked down upon. However, to cultivate a peaceful mind requires time and space, so if that’s what we want to do, we need to be “un-busy” for periods each day. This phrase encourages us to look inward rather than outward.

“Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful, not proud and demanding in nature” — If we are practicing mindfulness and setting aside as many material concerns as possible, we will, as a consequence, become more peaceful and calm, which sets the stage for wisdom to arise. With wisdom, we are likely to be more thoughtful and less likely to require attention and praise from others.

“Let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove.” With this last descriptor, we’re encouraged to be our own judge. We can ask ourselves, “Is this action we’re contemplating for the benefit or harm of myself and others? Is it something we would approve of if someone else did it?”

It seems that some purifying of our minds and behaviors is a pre-requisite for practicing mettā in the way the sutta describes.

[The full translation of the Mettā sutta is available from a link to the right of this post.]

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