The Evolution of Mindfulness 1.
Week 1. The Way of the Śramaṇa – Early mindfulness
I love the word Śramaṇa, it means ‘ascetic’ but a more fun way to translate it is ‘spiritual drop out’. The story of the Buddha’s life is not a true history as we would think of it. He was not a prince, he did not live in a palace nor did he probably suddenly come across old age, sickness and death when out for a chariot ride – but he certainly did make the decision to leave home and in the woods begin to practice meditation, to become a spiritual drop out. What we are going to look at this week is what the Buddha discovered in the woods and what he subsequently taught.
The Buddha describes his fellow drop outs in the Samaññaphala Sutta, “The Fruit of Contemplative Life,” They have a variety of views – some deny karmic consequences for our actions, some say we are powerless in the face of fate, some say be happy now as there is nothing after death, some that the soul is eternal, some that we must live a life of restraint and finally some say that no one can know anything. Against this back drop the Buddha sets out his own teaching: There are consequences to our actions. We have the power to effect our own salvation. After death comes an infinitude of unsatisfactory rebirths until these are brought to an end by awakening. There is no eternal soul (atman), every part of us is in continuous change. Restraint is good but it must be a middle way between blind indulgence and extreme austerity. And finally, once awakened we know exactly how everything is.
The means to achieve these insights is via meditation. The Buddha gives general instructions for how to do this is a number of suttas.These are:
“the meditator – always a ‘monk’ or bhikkhu – should find a secluded spot – the forest, the root of a tree, a mountain, a rocky ravine, a cave, cemetery, forest grove, the open air, a pile of straw or a deserted house; he should sit down cross-legged, straighten his body, and establish mindfulness ‘in front of him’.”
What should then happen?
“The meditator abandons the hindrances and attains the four jhȧnas—states of heightened joy, happiness, mindfulness and equanimity; he develops various powers, such as the ability to walk on water or fly through the air, and various knowledges, including that of past lives and, although less exciting in its description none the less more religiously significant, understanding of suffering, its arising, its cessation and the way leading to its cessation, otherwise understood as knowledge of the four truths or ‘enlightenment’.”
What is surprising about this is that there is an enormous jump from sitting ourselves down to finding ourselves in possession of very significant meditative accomplishments. It’s as if we sit down and suddenly ‘bingo!’. Some believe this is because the actual instructions were something that primarily passed between teacher and students – very much in the style of the Indian sub-continent even up until this day where one learns directly from ones Guru. However this is not entirely true as within the early discourses are a small group of suttas that explicitly and in great detail lay out the entire path of meditation leading to awakening. These principally include the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and the Ānāpānasati Sutta – respectively; the discourse on ‘establishing mindfulness’ and the discourse on ‘in and out breathing’.
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta has been until recently translated as, ‘The Four Foundations of Mindfulness’, but it is more accurately translated as ‘The Four Establishings of Mindfulness’ – which, though more accurate, is nonetheless odd sounding. I think of it more simply as ‘Establishing Mindfulness’. So how is this done?
We are to establish mindfulness in four areas – the body, feeling, mind and patterns of mental events that either obscure or reveal the awakened mind. This last set of ‘mental factors’ are called dhammas. The sutta also tells us that it is the direct path leading to the end of lamentation and sorrow. That the four qualities that enable contemplation are ardour, mindfulness, clear seeing and concentration. That the reason we may want to put so much effort in is that through our contemplation of the unsatisfactory and transitory nature of all experiences, renunciation is cultivated and this leads to awakening. And finally that the efficacy of the path is such that sooner or later it will undoubtedly be realised. So let’s look at the four areas of mindfulness more closely.
The body section – one of the largest – comprises mindfulness of the breath, the body postures, physical activities, parts of the body, the five elements that the body and mind are constructed from and finally, our corpse in decay. The start of this process is very familiar to us – I frequently quote or paraphrase the first couple of lines when I lead a practice:
Breathing in long, he knows ‘I breathe in long,’ breathing out long, he knows ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he knows ‘I breathe in short,’ breathing out short, he knows ‘I breathe out short.’
This simple awareness of the feeling of the breath moving in and out of our body and the calming effect this has is extended to the next two objects of mindfulness – posture and activity. Mindfully being aware of whether we are sitting, standing or laying and the movement through space our body is making at any one time. So whether it is our breath, our posture or our movement we are mindfully present and then distracted and unconscious and then, in the moment we recognise our distraction – “thinking”, we immediately return to awareness. However the next objects of mindfulness are different – particularly mindfulness of body parts and the corpse in decay, because they also require the use of imagination and visualisation. Here is the instruction for the body parts:
Again, monks, he reviews this same body up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the hair, enclosed by skin, as full of many kinds of impurity thus: ‘in this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, bowels, mesentery, contents of the stomach, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.
A list no less gory then that given for the corpse in decay:
Again, monks, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground – one, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, or various kinds of worms … a skeleton with flesh and blood, held together with sinews … a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, held together with sinews … a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together with sinews … disconnected bones scattered in all directions … bones bleached white, the colour of shells … bones heaped up, more than a year old … bones rotten and crumbling to dust – he compares this same body with it thus: ‘this body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’
So here it is clear that the act of mindfulness is broader than simply staying present with a sensation, sometimes it requires we use our imagination.
This becomes more so when we come to the next area of mindfulness, feeling. ‘Feeling’ is not a particularly good translation of the term ‘vedanã’. Feeling is too easily interchanged with the words emotion or affect which is not what is meant here. Some translate it as ‘hedonic tone’, which though accurate suffers from virtually no one knowing what hedonic means. So feeling here means whether we feel a sensation outside or inside us as pleasant, unpleasant or neither. Just this, nothing more. In terms of mindfulness practice this is quite simple – resting my attention in my body I notice without judgement or a desire to change anything simply what I am feeling. Is this pleasant, unpleasant or neither? Of course what becomes immediately apparent is that perhaps the majority of sensations are quite unpleasant and that we are continuously manipulating our bodies and environment to make ourselves more comfortable – replacing what is unpleasant with what is pleasant. This leads to a deeper level of insight. What motivates me to change things is the three poisons – remember from our eight week course, the pig, snake and chicken? The desire to not engage along with greed and hatred, wanting and not wanting. These are considered ‘worldly feelings’ whilst those that arise from renunciation, the pleasure of meditation, equanimity and longing for a spiritual life are all considered ‘unworldly’. The point I am pulling out here is that, along with being simply mindful, another element has entered which is discriminating between worldly and unworldly. This is not a judgement – right or wrong – but it is an assessment.
In the split second that our psych-physical system registers a sensation as pleasant, unpleasant or neither this is instantly followed by a reaction to the experience. Again the sutta talks of unwholesome and wholesome reactions – unwholesome are those that are driven by ignorance, greed and hatred (most of them!) and wholesome is when these motivators are absent. The sutta also introduces two new mental states – contracted and distracted. Contracted relates to the problem of sloth and torpor and distracted to agitation and restlessness which results from chasing sensual satisfaction. So collectively four of what Buddhism describes as the ‘five hindrances’ – grasping, aversion, sloth and torpor, agitation and doubt. A group that the sutta returns to in its last mindfulness of dhammas section.
In terms of practice this is a relatively accessible meditation because any and each of the unwholesome mental states are quite easy to notice as they tend to be quite strong emotional reactions. During the mindfulness course we have talked about these as all being distractions and all having the felt sense of contraction within the body. It is important then not to misunderstand that here contraction and distraction mean something different – being sleepy or jumpy respectively. I also want to emphasise that the element of assessment remains very strongly. I am noticing what mind states are arising in me and if they are driven by ignorance, hatred, greed, sloth and torpor or agitation then my mindful awareness acts as an antidote to their poison by stepping back from identification and acting out. Mindfulness is here not just presence, but joined with clear knowing, is proactive in guarding my mind from colonisation by unwholesome emotions and thoughts.
This brings us to the last, and another large area to establish mindfulness. The dhammas this section describes are mental states / qualities / understandings that either obscure and hinder the path to awakening or facilitate and express its insights. These are the five hindrances, the five psychophysical components of the person, the six sense spheres, the seven awakening factors and the four noble truths. (Yes, Buddhism loves lists).
The five hindrances
These we have already explored in the mind section – they are now joined by doubt – doubt in our ability to travel the path or doubt in the path itself. What is interesting here is not that we are being asked to rest our attention on a hindrance, making it our object of mindfulness and keeping on returning to it when distracted (like the breath). But rather, when a hindrance arises, noticing it for the distraction it is and in that moment seeing it dissolve in the light of awareness. So effectively using a more precise tool to understand and counter what is happening in me when I can’t settle to my practice when formally sitting or when caught up in difficult and painful mental states during the rest of my day. In fact it is possible to name these states when observed, saying to oneself, “desire”, “aversion”, “sleepy”, “agitated”, “doubting”, instead of our usual coverall term for distraction, “thinking”.
The five psychophysical components or ‘aggregates’
These five consist: 1. physical form 2. feeling (as seen above) 3. cognition 4. volitions 5. consciousness. The idea is that in any split second sensory information, as it pours in, is instantly registered as pleasant, unpleasant or neither, then categorised in terms of previous experience which in turn gives rise to further actions and reactions, which are all known by the consciousness existing in that moment. This then becomes a loop, endlessly fuelling our interactions with ourselves and our environment.
The surprising thing about this is that it is jolly close to the contemporary descriptions of what’s going on in us given by neurobiology. Both describe an incredibly fast processing happening all the time and which – this is the key point – has no ‘self’ at its centre. This then is the point of being mindful of our senses, our feelings, our complex associations, our actions and even consciousness itself. If the definition of a ‘self’ is something that remains the same, stable, in the centre of change, then within these five aggregates no self may be discovered – they are all continuously transitory.
This in fact mirrors the empirical meditation of the Buddha. When in deep meditation he looked inside and could find no eternal self. No where within the five aggregates, which made up the entirety of his person, was there anything other than the aggregates themselves. The Buddha seeing this then turned it to his advantage – if this is true then any grasping at his sense of identity, trying to protect it from unwanted change, was doomed to failure and this being so would only cause suffering – best then just let it go. Here mindfulness is pure insight into how things really are.
The six sense spheres
The six sense spheres in many ways offer an alternative analysis of how we work. So the six are our five senses and the mind as a central hub. What the Buddha is directing us to do here is notice how what he calls ‘fetters’ attach themselves to what we experience within and outside of ourselves and also how they pass away. The 10 fetters (another list!) are: 1. belief in a self 2. doubt or uncertainty 3. attachment to rites and rituals 4. sensual desire 5, ill will, 6.lust for material existence, lust for material rebirth, 7. lust for immaterial existence, lust for rebirth in a formless realm 8. conceit 9. restlessness and 10. ignorance. Effectively, what we have here, is an enlarged list of the hindrances. Doubt, sensual desire (lust), aversion (ill will), restlessness and ignorance (a form of sleep) are joined by conceit. We could also see them more simply as the emotional and cognitive ‘stuff’ that fuels unnecessary and painful autopilots.
Personally I particularly like this meditation because the fetters are described as ‘underlying tendencies’ that cloak and distort our perceptual processes. As a psychotherapist this immediately makes me think of what I would call ‘complexes’ or ‘core wounds’ and how these colour what we are experiencing. In many ways our adaption of the standard MBSR and MBCT courses, so that the emphasis is on mindfulness of emotions, is justified by the existence of the mindfulness of the sense spheres and their fetters found in this sutta. The truth is we don’t see/ hear/ feel/ understand things as they really are and the bigger the trauma around the thing the greater the not seeing clearly. However, while I might like this analysis because it supports my own psychoanalytic perspective what the Buddha was really getting at is something much bigger. He is not just saying that we distort our experience with our personal hurts, the ‘buttons’ that get pressed. But rather all our experience is distorted all of the time when we continue to be ignorant of the enlightened mind. To be unenlightened is to not see things as they really are.
The seven awakening factors
If we have five hindrances then we must have awakening factors to counter them. These are: 1. mindfulness 2. curiosity 3. energy 4. joy 5. tranquility 6. concentration and 7. equanimity. However, unlike the hindrances that pop up in random patterns here there is a definite progression as one quality builds to support the next. The meditation here is to recognise when each is present and know what actions lead to their arising and, if arisen, what causes their further development and perfection. Strong mindfulness leads to clearly discriminating what is wholesome from is what not and is the antidote to doubt. This in turns creates the desire to practice – antidote to sleep and laziness. This then generates joy, tranquility and a deeper concentration – antidote to agitation. And finally this arrives at equanimity – the antidote to craving and aversion.
In practicing this meditation, like the hindrances, we are not making any one mental state our object of mindfulness but rather have a general awareness of when these states are present or not and also the knowledge that by establishing mindfulness they will inevitably grow out of it. We do not, say notice a feeling of joy, and then focus on it. To do this would be a mistake because, remembering the bigger picture that this all about seeing the transitory nature of everything, there is a real danger of being seduced by attachment to the pleasure of the state. However, warning given, the awakening factors – these lovely states of mind – are the natural outcome of being mindful and are the path to awakening.
The four noble truths
The last of the dhammas to be contemplated is the four noble truths. In a way it is strange that we should end here as these four truths are a complete set of instructions in themselves. The first describing the unsatisfactoriness of experience, the second its cause – craving. The third awakening, nibbāna, as the cure all, and fourth, the path that makes this possible. This path in turn encompasses wisdom, ethical and meditational instructions. Wisdom – right view and intention. Ethics – right speech, action and livelihood. Meditation – right effort, mindfulness and concentration. Although the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is principally a discourse on the practice of contemplation it nonetheless has present throughout it right view and intention as these give it its context of meaning. That is, we do this for awakening and the benefit this will bring to others. It also has implicit the ethical element – all the mindfulness and clearly knowing of what is wholesome and what is not, what is skilful and what isn’t. And of course in multiple ways it repeatedly bangs the drum for clearly seeing what is happening in our minds and making wise choices, which is enabled through mindfulness and the deep a clear calm that arises from sustained concentration.
The Ānāpānasati Sutta
Like the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the Ānāpānasati Sutta is a clear description of how to use meditation to arrive at awakening. The text says through mindfulness of our breath we will achieve perfection of the four establishments of mindfulness, which in turn will lead to the seven awakening factors, that will then lead to insight and ‘deliverance’. The sutta divides the mindfulness of breath practices into four sections identical to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – body, feeling, mind and dhammas – and like the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta’s body section, starts with the sensation of the breath, noticing whether it is short or long and its calming effect. However it does not have any of the body practices that require we imagine our insides or death and similarly the fourth section on the Dhammas is without the complex cognitive elements – the thinky-ness – found in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Speaking personally this was the first teaching I read from early Buddhism and its simplicity was a pleasure – just think, from breathing in and out mindfully everything will naturally follow!
The Ven. Anālayo, our principle guide to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, summarises the different meanings of mindfulness found in the early Buddhist texts that best represent the historical Buddha’s teaching. It’s a surprisingly wide and nuanced collection of meanings.
Mindfulness and memory
It is a bit of a sore point and a problem that the Pali for mindfulness is the word sati which means remembering. Remembering seems to be about the past so how can sati be about being in the present? Anālayo comments that in the early discourses mindfulness does sometimes include the recollection of the Buddha and what he teaches – so in the present reaching into a memory from the past. Furthermore, once we have established full awareness in the present that does mean we will remember what happened more clearly in the future. There is also the issue of mindfulness itself being a wholesome or skilful (two interchangeable words) mental state, dhamma, which causes an odd problem. Because subsequent monks believed that only one dhamma can be present in any single moment, in that moment I become aware of either a wholesome or unwholesome mental state, I am actually being aware of something that has just become the past. My mindfulness has caused it to vanish. So in that sense mindfulness is always remembering the the most recent past and never the present! Conundrums aside, Anālayo concludes that it is better to understand sati as remembering to come back to the present when distracted. Simple.
Other aspects of mindfulness
Sati as presence of mind, fully awake in each moment, having present moment awareness. Sati as ‘collectedness’ which is the opposite of distraction. Sati as a ‘breadth of mind’ that enables many things to be held in mind simultaneously. Sati as calm and detached observation. Sati as ‘bear attention’ and ‘choiceless awareness’.
And picking up the assessment aspect of sati when paired with clearly knowing: Sati as that which monitors and guards the senses, sati as protection, the ‘gate keeper’ and the ‘shepherd’. Sati as that which ‘probes’ for insight and ‘prepares the ground’ for wisdom. Sati as a firm foundation, giving stabilisation.
Finally the way of the Śramaṇa found in the Satipaṭṭhāna and Ānāpānasati Suttas is frequently summarised as replacing the hindrances with the awakening factors and this results in the realisation of nibbāna. Given that we are tracing the development of mindfulness over the last couple of thousand years it is important that we recognise that mindfulness as taught by the Buddha – the chap who invented it – along with just being present with whatever is arising is also quite an active thing, watching and assessing the mind and making choices encouraging some mind states while discouraging others. In this it is full of intention and preferences. Without a notion of sin it nonetheless has implicit right and wrong. It also sometimes requires we imagine things we can’t actually see in the present but only in our imagination. Actually Buddhism does not really have a word that can easily be translated as ‘meditation’, the original Pali speaks of ‘bhȧvanȧ’ which more literally translates as ‘mind training’. And this seems right. What the early suttas are doing is laying out a system of mind trainings (strangely quite CBT like) that first calm the mind and then bring transforming insight to its dark and sometimes unhappy workings. Further more, there remains a strong whiff of the austerities that the Buddha had been so dedicated to prior to his awakening. Though the Buddha is clear that mortification of the flesh does not lead to enlightenment he does believe that when we see the unsatisfactory nature of existence and finally give up preserving our sense of being an unchanging person in the middle of experience, we will renounce it all and thereby enter the path. Renunciation is central, monks and nuns, for the Buddha, were the real pro’s while his lay followers were, with many notable exceptions, ‘pro’s in waiting’.
Anālayo, 2003, Satipaṭṭhāna, The Direct Path To Realisation, Windhorse Publications.
Anālayo, 2018, Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation, A Practice Guide, Windhorse Publications.
Larry Rosenberg, 2004, Breath by Breath, Shambhala, Boston.