The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 7.
The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 7.
The Sense Spheres
If the last satipaṭṭhāna concerned how we add an unnecessary ‘self’ to the experience of who we are then this satipaṭṭhāna explores how we add unnecessary ‘stories’ to our experience of ourselves, others and the world around us. It also gives an alternative break down of how we function, this time primarily focusing on the interaction of our senses with the environment and how these interactions are received and (mis)interpreted.
Story (or a personal narrative)
What do I mean by story? We all constantly make sense of ourselves, others and the world we all live in – our life story – it’s the way we work and without it we would be in chaos. However – as we will see – our story of how things are is deeply influenced by collective and individual filters that only let in a limited amount information. This perhaps would not be too much of a problem were it not for the fact that other peoples stories do not always tally with our own and this creates conflicts. Two parts of ourselves perceive things differently Two partners cannot agree. Nor two political parties. Nor two countries. Further more, finding our story under threat we protect it and then we have a second problem – a clung to partial story about how things are that is being eroded away.
The Satipaṭṭhāna starts off where we left mindfulness of the aggregates, systematically undermining the illusion that there is an ‘I’, an independent experiencer behind the senses, who is having the experience. This is what the text says:
He knows the eye, he knows forms, and he knows the fetter that arises dependent on both, and he also knows how an unarisen fetter can arise, how an arisen fetter can be removed, and how a future arising of the removed fetter can be prevented.
He knows the ear, he knows sounds, and he knows the fetter that arises dependent on both, and….
He knows the nose, he knows odours, and he knows the fetter that arises dependent on both, and….
He knows the tongue, he knows flavours, and he knows the fetter that arises dependent on both, and….
He knows the body, he knows tangibles, and he knows the fetter that arises dependent on both, and….
He knows the mind, he knows mind-objects, and he knows the fetter that arises dependent on both, and he also knows how an unarisen fetter can arise, how an arisen fetter can be removed, and how a future arising of the removed fetter can be prevented.
So we have six sense spheres which consist of the six senses and what they each perceive. The six senses are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and finally the mind which acts as a central hub into which the other senses feed. The job of the mind is to make sense of the sensory information.
We are also directed to be mindfully present with the wide variety of reactions that occur within the mind to the experience of our senses. These are the ‘fetters’ – conflicted emotions and thoughts that when conditioned by ignorance, grasping or aversion tie us to further suffering and unhappiness. We are to know where these come from, what to do with them and how to prevent them happening in the future.
What this is pointing to in its slightly aspergic fashion is that we never experience anything ‘as it really is’ because our perception is coloured – distorted – by our own subjectivity. Evidence for this is absolutely everywhere but if an example is needed just think of a highly controversial subject – why is it that you and another person can so fundamentally disagree over it? The object is the same but the subjective reaction is not. An example of this that particularly impressed me was an experiment in which a person looked at a complex painting showing people in a room while wearing glasses that could track their eye movements while looking. This revealed that there were large areas of the painting they never even looked at and when asked what they saw, entirely unconsciously, made up things that simply were not there. In the eight week course the first intimation of this astonishing fact is demonstrated by the ‘walking down the street’ exercise that reveals how we make up reality – and further more frequently make it up through the lens of our own psychological wounding.
This second aspect – our psychological wounding – is particularly important because wounds tend to be persistent and pervasive. Deep within us they intrude everywhere colouring everything. Within the satipaṭṭhāna the first indication of our wounds is found in the presence of the fetters. As already indicated a fetter is any ‘unwholesome’ emotion and thought that occurs in reaction to what we sense outside or inside us. Anālayo says that the notion of fetter is widely found in the suttas and basically means anything that binds us to the wheel of suffering. However there are a list of ten fetters that are commonly given:
The fetters that bind us to the wheel of suffering:
belief in a substantial and permanent self,
dogmatic clinging to particular rules and observances,
craving for fine-material existence,
craving for immaterial existence,
If we continue with the idea that the fetters reveal our wounding for a moment it may seem a little unkind to call them “unwholesome” because this could imply we are ‘bad’ for having them. This of course is not the case. If we look at the list of ten it is pretty clear that these emotions, thoughts and behaviours – whatever their origin – have a contracting quality to them that we have frequently connected to a central feeling of fear. A contraction that is unwholesome because it harms us further. Looked at this way we simply have an account of how our relationship to our world is usually driven by a deep need to be safe and comfort ourselves while at the same time sensing just how impossible this is to achieve in the face of an impermanent and often hostile environment. The more I create a fortress attempting to keep things out, the more self-protective I become and the more angry and insecure when this is all threatened.
The second stage of this practice is simply to bring mindfulness to this whole process. Confronted with an unpleasant and unwanted experience, (or for that matter a pleasant experience that I grasp at), I notice the emotional reactions this engenders, and not adding any further reactions – through replaying the story and adding more material to it – I notice how it all begins to cool down and fade away. Further more, with repeated attempts to be mindful, I also begin to learn how to not react anymore and with this prevent further reactions occurring. Again this is the key skill that our eight week course has emphasised. Recognise and acknowledge the emotion arising. Locate it in the body, drop the story line, and rest our attention on the ‘felt sense’. Breath. Remain present without attempting to change anything. Let the felt sense change itself. And having done this once do it innumerable times more.
Another way to look at this is as a diagnosis, cure and prevention. Recognise that I am reacting in an unhelpful way. Become mindful of the sensations this creates. And then do this again and again.
Of course, when the Buddha taught this, he was not thinking about psychological wounding in the same way we do. He had simply noticed that we react in a whole variety of ways that are deeply influenced by the three root poisons of ignorance, greed and hatred and this causes us to be dissatisfied and unhappy. However, whether he thought in terms of psychological wounds or not, there is no doubt in my mind that he spotted exactly the same psychological processes that we now believe come from developmental arrests during the first years of our lives and traumas that occur either during this time or afterwards.
The Ven. Anālayo says that the Buddha was particularly interested in the process of perception. He recognised that everything is conditioned by what has happened before. He describes this process of perception in stages that initially overlap with the aggregates we have already met:
conceptual proliferation (papañca)
proliferations and further cognitions (papañcasaññãsaúkhã)
First we sense something either outside or within our body or mind and immediately register it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This is instantly accompanied by a recognition of what we are perceiving (naming it) followed by all our personal associations and the reactions these trigger. This in turn then triggers further reactions until in a split moment we have a proliferation of associations concerning the past, present and future. Click the switch and the monkey mind flicks on!
If we look at our reactions to what we sense in the context of this sequence we see that our subjective bias enters immediately we receive a sense impression and register it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and recognise it by attaching a name. This is then compounded by further thoughts linking it to other unpleasant (or pleasant or neutral) experiences which then expand into an endless train of further associations. So think here of a pink car. You may like pink cars but I do not. My not liking is entirely subjective, there is nothing intrinsically bad about them. Seeing a pink car I am immediately repulsed remembering a girl friend I once had who ran me over in one of the same colour. I then start thinking of all my previous girlfriends and their similar murderous tendencies and my terror of women in general. All this from an entirely innocent car that just drove by!
This is of course a silly example (please believe me) but exactly the same process is present in, say, a soldier suffering from a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here, for example, a sudden bang may cause him or her to be instantly terrified, their body flooded with adrenalin and victim to horrific memories. The Buddha described this as a latent or underlying tendency (anusaya) that can surface during the process of perception. A bang happens and the soldiers traumatic reaction, held in the bodies memory, is triggered. Of course this is also true for everyone of us – although not necessarily in so painful a fashion. All of us have our own set of memories, bad and good, many of them unconscious, and when these are triggered by similar events they flood up and colour our experience of what is happening – adding the past to what is happening in the present. The underlying tendencies are given as seven but I suggest that like the fetters we could see these as central examples rather than an exhaustive list. And this must be so – it would be impossible to list all the unconscious memories people have lurking in their minds ready to be triggered at any moment.
The underlying tendencies – ‘unwholesome’ inclinations in the unawakened mind that can get triggered during the perceptual process.
craving for existence,
Looking at this list it is difficult to see how they were arrived at – particularly if, as I am doing, we emphasise their traumatic origins. However I don’t think we need to get too picky here – as I have already said a full list is impossible – but I think we can see some themes. Some are plainly emotional reactions. Being irritable, and personally insecure, while being opinionated and conceited, are all symptoms of a vulnerable and narcissistic personality. And addiction to drugs, pornography and compulsive sensuality in other forms can be a defence against our undeniable fragility in the face of impermanence. As for ignorance – well this is the basic hurt that expresses not knowing how things really are. Anālayo p.223 adds an interesting point, he says in their dormant stage, the underlying tendencies are already present in newborn babies. It seems from the Buddhist perspective it is not just those first five all important formative years that count, plus any horrors on top, but also a whole infinitude of previous lives, each with its own set of experiences, that in each moment, given the rights conditions, will come tumbling out!
And deeper still
Continuing to consider how we colour our experience with subjective bias’s there is one more level to go. The Buddha also observed that through our basic ignorance of how things are, combined with placing our attention either on things that do not bring wellbeing or in a scattered and distracted way, we become prey to three ‘influxes’.
The three types of influx are:
desire for existence,
An influx (ãsava) is a ‘flow’ (ãsavati) of unwholesome mental states into our perceptual process, influencing it beyond our conscious intention. This is really to repeat what has been said already about both the fetters and the underlying tendencies. With the influxes, all three ideas essentially describe how perception is subjectively influenced. However, my feeling about the influxes is that here the Buddha is putting his finger on the heart of it. Anālayo p.224:
Sensual desire and desire for existence come up also in the second noble truth as main factors in the arising of dukkha [suffering] while ignorance forms the starting point of the “twelve links” depicting the “dependent co-arising” of dukkha. These occurrences indicate that … desire for sensual enjoyment, desire for becoming this or that, and the deluding force of ignorance, are those “influences” responsible for the genesis of dukkha.
What I think the Buddha is saying is that to be human is to suffer (one way or another) and that this is created by the three influxes. In this there is nothing personal, everyone of us craves for what we want and fights for our continued existence, everyone of us, being ignorant, starts chains of events that lead to further suffering. However each of us has our own individual experience of this that arises out of our personal stories. This is the underlying tendencies that unconsciously pervade a persons body and mind. Expressions of suffering that have been tailor made through the journey of our particular life (or lives). These underlying tendencies then reveal themselves in each moment as the fetters. The underlying tendencies fettering us to further suffering … unless … awareness intervenes!
Influxes – the universally shared mind states that cause suffering.
Underlying influences – our accumulated personal experience of the influxes.
Fetters – the underlying influences showing themselves in each moment.
NB: Reading this again I think the idea of connecting the influxes, underlying influences and fetters to psychological wounding works very well – particularly as this is the place where we frequently trip up and cement in deep hurts – however I don’t think this goes far enough. As we have learnt, the fundamental observation that Buddhism makes is that our emotions and cognitions obscure how things really are. This is much broader than what I have suggested here. The influxes, underlying tendencies and fetters all have within their lists pleasurable experiences as well. I have interpreted these as covering over a deeper pathology, but if we take them at face value then another message comes out. That even superficially pleasurable experiences, when felt as if a solid person is having them and not being conscious of their impermanent and unsatisfactory nature, also distort our perception and create suffering. This insight goes much further, is much broader. As our senses take in information, the subjective colourations that instantly occur, not only come from places of hurt but more widely from the deep sea of ignorance that we have explored in different ways – the three poisons, the hinderances, misinterpreting experience as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ and here as influxes, latent tendencies and fetters. Put like this, all these systems are just saying the same thing in different ways – emotions and thoughts hide our awakened nature.
Joseph Goldstein p.217ff. picks up the pervasive impact of the fluxes and all the rest in his description of “The Four Hallucinations of Perception”:
Taking what is impermanent as permanent. This we have heard many times and undoubtedly agree with it but a close observation of ourselves will probably reveal that the majority of us behaves in entirely the opposite direction.
Taking what is unattractive to be attractive. Our society deeply conditions us to perceive some things – especially types of bodies – as desirable. There is a lot of money in it. And it is also true that deeper down some facial and body shapes are seen to signal reproductive superiority. However, as we have seen in the first Body satipaṭṭhāna, however lovely, our body will become a putrid corpse, rotting back into the ground …
Taking what is unsatisfactory to be happiness. Apart from the obviousness of this observation – here I am back with Amazon packages – I think I also hear the ascetic element in the Dharma. The Buddha loved quiet groves of trees with nothing going on. These he perceived as as happiness, not raves or discos.
Taking what is not-self to be self. This we have already looked at in mindfulness of the aggregates. This is incredibly profound but I think an easy entry point is to remember “it’s not all about me”.
Given this it is not surprising that the whole purpose of the Buddhist path is to recognise and overcome our fetters, underlying tendencies and influxes. Once this is achieved (perhaps sometime next week?!) then awakening dawns. The path to achieve this is through training the way we cognise things – remember here cognition simply means the moment we recognise and name something in our mind. An entirely automatic and largely unconscious activity that is flawed by subjective distortions.
Cognition as such is not the problem, if fact without it it is impossible to imagine how we might function. Rather it is unwholesome cognition that does the damage. What is unwholesome cognition? It is a cognition that is under the influence of grasping and aversion, a cognition that sees something not as it really is. So back yet again to not recognising impermanence and unsatisfactoriness.
The thing with cognition is that through mindfulness training it can be raised into awareness and its misperception corrected. As we have seen in the lists of fetters, underlying tendencies and influxes, there are many mind states that initially may seem desirable or quite neutral but which actually cause much harm. Having a few doubts, occasionally being irritable or a bit conceited seem fairly innocent but from the perspective of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta they cause bad karma and obstruct realisation. However, catching them as they occur and stepping back, beginning to notice how things really are and developing a deep equanimity, we begin to create new habitually wholesome and skilful cognitions. The Ven. Anālayo p.229 sums this up beautifully:
In this way, receptive and detached sati applied to the early stages of the perceptual process can make habitual reactions conscious and enable an assessment of the extent to which one is reacting automatically and without conscious deliberation. This also reveals the selective and filtering mechanisms of perception, highlighting the extent to which subjective experience mirrors one’s hitherto unconscious assumptions. In this manner, through satipaṭṭhāna contemplation, it becomes possible to access and redress a central cause of the arising of unwholesome cognitions, and thereby for the activation of influxes, underlying tendencies, and fetters, by de-automatising or deconditioning habits and sub-conscious evaluations.
From our perspective this begins by becoming aware of our automatic reactions to things – particularly those that touch off our ‘buttons’. We have a large blackboard in the kitchen that has written on it NOT NECESSARILY SO – just to remind us that we are continuously making up stories about our friends motivations and things that happen that we have absolutely no evidence for. Close observation of the mind reveals a stream of emotionally charged thoughts in which we reaffirm our familiar reality. It could be we are always in the right or always get it wrong. It could be we are unfairly treated or misunderstood. Unrecognised or impossibly idealised. We may feel lost, depressed or always in charge and responsible. Whatever it is we paste it onto events, over and over again, taking a wide open reality and making it smaller with each repetition. In the eight week courses this unskilful way of being is challenged repeatedly. Mindfulness teaches us to stand back from believing all our thoughts – thoughts are not facts. Nor are emotions – things can feel real while not being true. Distorting thought patterns can be recognised – catastrophising, ruminating, generalising. Caught up in a long fantasy where we are playing out the certainties of our story we suddenly come back to presence and name it – “thinking”. In this way mindfulness interrupts and makes conscious the process of perception and the proliferation of thoughts. It creates a space – it is OK not to know something and as we found out during our first mindfulness practice – the raisin exercise – something unnamed, savoured slowly, can be an amazing experience.
Imagine you are sitting on your meditation cushion or chair. As you sit, through your eyes you are aware of everything you can see. Through you ears you can hear sounds. Through your nose you can smell warm breeze. Through your tongue you can taste your cup of mint tea. Through your body you can feel your seat and the air around you. And through your mind you are aware of sensations, emotions and thoughts. All of your senses are all working together and being received and processed.
Now notice your reactions to all these sense stimuli. On the deepest level of the influxes there is a pervasive sense that there is something not quite right or enough about your experience, you would like something unspecified but more. This is the shared human experience of dissatisfaction that arises from spiritual ignorance. There is also something disturbing about what is happening, perhaps having to sit still without any distraction makes us uncomfortable in some way, amplifying the basic discontent with more personal associations – your underlying tendencies – perhaps thoughts about how difficult just sitting still is overlying deeper emotions about our inadequacies and harsh self judgements. Emotions that have been felt many times before and may be dated back to early childhood. And finally, as your senses receive all the impressions, clouded by the shared sense of dissatisfaction, added to by personal material, together these create reactions to your experience – the fetters – that cloak it in emotional and cognitive distortions. Emotions and thoughts that cover over how things really are, that further entrench the influxes and underlying tendencies.
Now one last step if we become mindful. As we sit we may notice a reaction happening. Noticing this we quickly catch what has triggered it. If we catch ourselves embroiled in a reaction – probably caught up in a long distraction – then we know how to step back. Be mindful. And having stepped back from that distraction we know how to maintain this – by continuing in mindfulness.
I think this is in some ways even more immediately important than contemplation of the aggregates because it is more accessible – less alien – than the concept of not-self. The nature of reality, how we can’t see it and what it’s like when we can, obsesses Buddhism and all its major philosophic revolutions are concerned with just this. However, even though this can become eye watering in its complexity it is also essentially simple – we make up stuff that makes things worse but we can catch ourselves doing it and stop. Simple.
Things to do
1. Identify habitual stories about yourself and others and say out loud – “Thoughts are not fact” and “Feels real, not true”. Every time you reassert the old habits catch and challenge them. Do this over and over again.
2. Write up somewhere big NOT NECESSARILY SO… and frequently read it.
3. Use the mindfulness of emotions practice – this is where we see the fetters and the underlying tendencies emerging.
4. This is also a lovely practice – in a very calm and easy way being present with experience of our senses and adding nothing more. Beautiful.