Mindfulness : The First Stage
Mindfulness is the second intention faculty, in that it governs the actions you’re doing as you meditate. This is a fact that’s often overlooked. Mindfulness is sometimes defined as just being in the present moment, accepting everything, without doing anything. But the Buddha’s own picture of mindfulness is much more proactive. It grows out of persistence—in fact, it actually includes persistence within it. From there it forms the theme for right concentration [§7]. It’s something you do.
Here’s the Canon’s definition of mindfulness. Notice that it falls into two parts. The first part describes mindfulness itself; the second describes the establishing of mindfulness.
First, mindfulness: “There’s a case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful. He’s endowed with excellent proficiency in mindfulness, remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago.” That’s the part on mindfulness.
Then the second part, on the establishing of mindfulness: “He remains focused on the body, in and of itself—ardent, alert, and mindful—subduing greed and distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings, in and of themselves… the mind, in and of itself… mental qualities, in and of themselves—ardent, alert, and mindful—subduing greed and distress with reference to the world.” [§1]
Notice in the definition of mindfulness that it’s a faculty of your active memory. As the passage says, you remember and call to mind things done in the past. Now in the practice, this means that you’re calling to mind things that are relevant to what you need to do in the present moment. There’s another passage, in Majjhima 117, that talks about the role of mindfulness as being able to remember to abandon unskillful qualities and to remember to give rise to skillful ones. In other words, we’re not simply being aware and accepting things as they arise and pass away. We’re actually making some things arise and keeping others from arising, just as we’re making some things pass away while we’re trying to keep others from passing away. This is made clear in a passage in Aṅguttara 4:235, which defines mindfulness as a governing principle [§6]. Its role as a governing principle is to make skillful qualities arise and then to keep them from passing away.
There are several analogies from the Canon that make this point. For instance, there’s the image of a man with his head on fire who is mindful to put out the fire as quickly as possible. In other words, he remembers to put it out. He doesn’t just accept the fact that his head is on fire or try to enjoy the color of the flames. The role of mindfulness is to remember you’ve got to put the fire out as your top priority.
Another analogy from the Canon compares mindfulness to a wise gatekeeper for a fortress on the edge of a frontier. He has to know who to let in and who not to let in. He can’t just sit there and watch people coming and going, because he has to recognize who’s a friend and who’s a foe. The fact that he’s sitting there might keep some of the foes out, but a lot of them will not be discouraged, and so will slip right into the fortress as he’s watching.
So the question is: Why is there the common misunderstanding that mindfulness is simply passive awareness? It comes from an interpretation of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta that views the sutta as providing a full explanation of mindfulness practice. Actually, though, the sutta sets out to explain only one part of the mindfulness formula. Its purpose is to explain what it means to keep focused on something in and of itself. It doesn’t address the rest of the formula. In particular, it says nothing about ardency. If you see the sutta as a complete explanation of mindfulness, this might lead you to believe that you don’t need to use ardent effort. But if you look at other suttas in the Canon, you see that the Buddha explains again and again how ardency and the rest of the formula should function—and in a very proactive way. It’s for this reason that, in order to understand mindfulness practice, you have to look elsewhere in the Canon to complete the picture.
After defining mindfulness, the above passage tells what it means to establish it. The formula describes two activities: one is remaining focused on x in and of itself, and the other is subduing greed and distress with reference to the world. These are the basic activities of getting the mind into concentration: You give yourself an object to gather the mind around, and then you keep everything else out of the mind.
The formula also mentions three qualities of mind that are brought to both activities: ardency, alertness, and mindfulness.
So let’s look at these aspects of establishing mindfulness in more detail.
First, with the activities. Keeping focused means that you stick with one topic in the midst of everything else that’s going on in your awareness. It’s like following a thread through a piece of cloth. The image given in the Canon is of a man with a bowl of oil on his head. I gave you part of the image the other day but the full image is this: The man is carrying a bowl of oil on his head, filled to the brim. There’s another man following behind him with a sword raised, ready to cut off the head of the first man if he spills a drop of oil. On top of that, the man with the bowl of oil on his head has to walk through a crowd of people. On one side there’s a beauty queen who is singing and dancing, and on the other side is a crowd saying, “Look! The beauty queen is singing and dancing!” So this man has to keep his mind precisely on the bowl of oil. That’s what it means to keep focused.
As for the object of your focus, the formula mentions four frames of reference: body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities. These four can be divided into two sets.
The first set includes the first three frames of reference—body, feelings, and mind—which are the three component factors of your concentration. You’re trying to fill your body with your awareness and also with the feeling of pleasure or equanimity. You try to bring all of these factors into balance because these three things form the world of the becoming that you’re trying to create in your state of concentration.
First, under the body, there’s a list of meditation themes that surround the body. The very first one is the breath. The next two are being conscious of the postures of the body and the movements of the body. Another one is being aware of the different properties of the body, i.e., earth, water, wind, and fire. Then there’s an analysis of the body into its many parts, such as hair, teeth, flesh, etc. And finally, there’s the contemplation of its inevitable decay after it dies.
Notice that some of these themes are exercises in simply being aware of the presence of the body in the present moment, but some of them are not. The inevitable decay of the body after death, for instance, is something that’s going to happen in the future. The purpose of this last contemplation is to help deal with specific defilements that come up in the mind right now, particularly to get past any sense of pride or shame or lust you may have around the appearance of the body. This helps you get past any unhealthy attraction or aversion you may have toward the body so that you can focus on what good things can be done with the body, such as the practice. That’s the first frame of reference.
The second frame of reference is feelings. These are feeling-tones of pleasure, pain or neither pleasure nor pain. The Buddha divides each of these three feeling-tones into two sorts: what he calls feelings of the flesh and feelings not of the flesh. It’s a strange terminology, but basically feelings of the flesh are any feelings related to the five senses. Feelings not of the flesh are feelings that surround the practice of the path. For example, pleasures not of the flesh are the pleasures of concentration. Pains not of the flesh are the mental pains you feel when you think about how much further you have to go on the path. The Buddha actually says that this is a useful pain. It’s better to focus on that sort of pain than on pains of the flesh, because at least it gives you motivation to keep practicing.
Now, when we’re dealing with feelings, it’s important to note that this is not simply an issue of which feelings arise willy-nilly on their own. After all, remember the teaching on kamma: There are potentials coming in from the past, and at any moment there are many things you can choose from. What you actually experience will depend on what you choose to do in the present with those potentials. Some of those potentials are for feelings of these various sorts. Because feelings can have an impact on shaping the mind for good or for ill, we try to focus on encouraging the potentials that will be useful, whether they are of the flesh or not of the flesh.
Remember, the Buddha didn’t reject all pleasures of the senses. As long as they don’t give rise to unskillful mental states, they’re okay. Some of the examples given in the Canon include the pleasures of being in nature, the pleasures of being in seclusion, and the pleasures of having harmony in society. These pleasures are all fine. Also, as long as the pleasure doesn’t require unskillful activities to give rise to it, then it’s okay. This is why right livelihood is part of the path.
As for the third frame of reference, the mind, this covers mind states. The Buddha gives a list pairing different skillful and unskillful mind states, and the list goes in ascending order as your practice develops. The message of this list is that you don’t just sit there with unskillful states. You try to abandon unskillful ones and develop skillful ones. For example, the mind state that’s unconcentrated is paired with a concentrated mind; a restrictive mind state is paired with one that’s more expansive. In each case, you obviously want to develop, out of the potentials coming in from the past, the positive alternative.
So those three frames of reference—body, feelings, and mind—form the first set of frames of reference.
The second set is mental qualities. It sounds like one frame of reference, but actually the Buddha gives a list of many different frames of reference within this category. For example, he talks about unskillful mental qualities like the five hindrances; the fetters based on the six senses; the five clinging-aggregates, which is the first noble truth; and craving, which is the second noble truth. Other frames of reference list skillful mental qualities, such as the seven factors for awakening, the abandoning of craving, and the noble eightfold path, which are the third and fourth noble truths.
Now these mental qualities are things you have to either abandon or develop to help bring body, feelings, and mind into a state of concentration or—if you’re already in a state of concentration—to develop the concentration even further so that it can become a basis for your discernment. We’ll be discussing these mental qualities in more detail tomorrow.
So, those are the four frames of reference: the four things you can keep in mind as you’re practicing concentration.
Now it’s important to notice right off the bat that even though it sounds like these categories are four different meditation themes, in practice they all come together. When you’re focused on the breath, for example, your feelings and your mind states are right there. And then you use your memory of skillful and unskillful qualities to clear away unskillful qualities that would get the mind away from the breath and to nurture the skillful qualities that would foster your concentration on the body even further. Ajaan Lee calls this a practice of four in one, and one in four. All four come together right at one thing: the breath.
Also notice that you’re focusing on these things in and of themselves. In other words, you’re not focusing on the body in the context of the world outside—for instance, whether it looks attractive to other people or is strong enough to do the work you need to do in the world. You’re simply dealing with the body in and of itself, on its own terms.
The Canon gives several analogies for this part of the practice. It’s like a post for tying an elephant down when you want to train it. Or it’s like a post for tying down six animals. This image is particularly interesting. There’s a crocodile, a bird, a dog, a hyena, a snake, and a monkey, and each of them is tied to a leash. Now if you just tie the leashes to one another, the animals will try to go off in the direction they want: The monkey wants to go up the tree, the bird wants to fly up into the sky, the dog wants to go into the village, the snake wants to go into the ant hill—I’ve never known snakes to go after ants, but who knows?—the hyena wants to go into a charnel ground, and the crocodile wants to go down into the river. As the Buddha says, whichever animal is strongest will pull the other animals in its direction. And, of course, it’ll be the crocodile. It’ll pull all of the other animals down into the river where they’ll all drown. That’s what it’s like when you go around with your senses not guarded. Your goodness gets drowned.
However, if you have mindfulness of the body as a post and you attach the leashes to the post, then no matter how much the senses pull toward attractive things, nobody gets pulled away from the post.
So the purpose of keeping focused on the body in and of itself in this case is to keep the mind firmly in place so that you can practice restraint of the senses, remembering the frame of reference that deals with the fetters arising at the six senses.
Another analogy that the Buddha gives is of a quail. The story goes that a hawk swoops down, catches a quail, and carries him off. The quail bemoans his fate, “Oh, my lack of merit! If only I had been in my ancestral territory, this hawk would have been no match for me.” Piqued, the hawk asks him, “What is your territory?” The quail says, “A field that has been newly plowed with stones piled up.” So the hawk tells him, “Okay, I’ll let you go. Go back to your territory, but even so, you won’t escape me.” So the quail goes down into his territory, he stands up on a stone, and he taunts the hawk: “Okay, come and get me, you hawk! Come and get me, you hawk!” So the hawk swoops down again. When the quail sees that the hawk is coming at full speed, he hides behind the stone, and the hawk crashes into the stone and dies.
In the Buddha’s explanation of this image, the quail’s ancestral territory stands for the four establishings of mindfulness. As for the territory that’s outside of his ancestral territory, that stands for when you’re fantasizing about the pleasures of the five senses. The hawk represents Māra—the king of death—which means that if you’re wandering around in the pleasures of the senses, Māra’s going to get you.
That covers the activity of keeping focused on the four frames of reference.
The other activity of establishing mindfulness is subduing greed and distress with reference to the world. This is basically abandoning anything that would be distracting you from your topic of concentration: in other words, the beauty queen and the crowd.
Those are the two activities in establishing mindfulness.
Now let’s look at the three qualities you bring to these two activities: ardency, alertness, and mindfulness. We talked about these qualities some this morning. Remember that mindfulness means remembering where to stay focused and what to do with whatever comes up: what to abandon, what to develop, what to prevent, what to bring to culmination—in other words, all the duties of persistence.
Alertness means being clearly aware of what you’re doing while you’re doing it, along with the results of what you’re doing. This means that you’re not choicelessly aware of just anything at all in the present moment. You’re focused on your actions.
Ardency is the quality of persistence. You put your whole heart into doing this right. This is where you’re actually fabricating your sense of the present moment.
Now, all three of these qualities gain guidance from discernment. Discernment teaches mindfulness what to keep in mind, it tells alertness where to stay focused in the present moment, and it teaches ardency what you’ve got to do.
Ajaan Lee, however, when he’s focusing on these three qualities, pinpoints ardency as the main discernment quality among these three, the discernment lying in your realization that all the Buddha’s teachings that you’ve heard are not just to talk about or to think about. They’re truths that carry duties. If you’re wise enough to sincerely want to put an end to suffering, and wise enough to realize that the end of suffering is going to depend on your own actions, the desire to become more skillful in your actions is what lies at the essence of wisdom. In terms of the noble eightfold path, this connects with right resolve.
So how do these three qualities apply to the two activities of establishing mindfulness? With regard to keeping focused on, say, the breath in and of itself, mindfulness reminds you to stay with the breath. It also reminds you of the various ways of dealing with the breath that you’ve learned from the past that will make it easier to stay with the breath. Alertness watches over both the breath and the mind to make sure they stay together. And ardency is the whole-hearted desire that makes you extra alert—with more sensitivity to the breath and the mind—and more consistently mindful.
In terms of subduing greed and distress with reference to the world, if you find yourself wandering away from the breath, alertness is what actually sees that; mindfulness reminds you to return to the breath—or, if the mind doesn’t want to return, it reminds you of why you should want to return. Mindfulness also reminds you of the various strategies for returning, as we discussed the other morning. And ardency is the desire to get back to the breath as quickly and as effectively as possible.
Now, you’ll notice that, as you assemble these elements of establishing mindfulness together, you’re creating a state of becoming. You’ve got the body, feelings, and the mind as your world, as your frames of reference. Your sense of yourself is your identity as the meditator trying to keep your mindfulness, alertness, ardency, and concentration solid and to pull yourself back out of other becomings that would lure you away from the world of your concentration.
The more alertness you can bring to this process—especially, being alert to any signs that you’re about to wander off—the better.
I’ll give you an analogy that’s not in the Canon. This is another one from a science fiction story. I didn’t read all that much science fiction when I was young, but once when I was in Bangkok I happened to open a cabinet in the room where I was staying, and there was a book in English, a book of science fiction stories. At that point, I was starved of English, so I read the whole book. My favorite story involved a spaceship that moved, not by using fuel, but by changing its frame of reference. If its frame of reference was the Earth, it would stay on Earth. If its frame of reference was the Sun, it would move away from the Earth at the speed that the Earth is revolving around the Sun. If it made its frame of reference the center of the galaxy, it moved really fast. If it made its frame of reference the center of another galaxy, it was out of this galaxy entirely. The plot of the story revolved around the fact that the inhabitants of the rocket ship would blank out for a little while as the ship changed its frame of reference.
The reason I liked the story was because it reflected how the mind functions. First we’re with one desire as our frame of reference, but if we then make another desire our frame of reference, we move into an entirely new world, while we fall unconscious for a brief moment as we switch worlds—somewhat in the same way that, during a play, they pull the curtain down as they’re changing the scenery to help maintain the illusion of reality in the sets.
So what we’re trying to do here as we meditate is to take this ability to change our frame of reference and learn how to use it skillfully, without blanking out. We try not to blank out as the mind begins to exhibit signs that it wants to leave the world of the breath. And we try to be extra careful as we come back to the body as our main foundation, remembering to do so in such a way that the mind will want to stay.
So all of this—the two activities and the three qualities of mind—are what we do to establish mindfulness to the point where it becomes concentration. For example, as you focus on the breath in and of itself, you put aside any distractions, any other mental worlds, that would interfere. Another duty of mindfulness is to remember to stay with the breath and to keep in mind any techniques you’ve learned from the past. That’s how to stay here. You also remember how to give rise to a sense of pleasure with the breath. The duty of alertness is to be alert both to the breath and to the mind. The duty of ardency is to keep coming back to the breath when you see that you’ve slipped away, and to be extra sensitive to the breath while you’re with it so that you can find pleasure in it.
All of these factors come together and strengthen one another. When they get strong enough, the mind enters the first jhāna. In Ajaan Lee’s explanation, mindfulness becomes the factors of directed thought and singleness of preoccupation, alertness and ardency become the factor of evaluation that adjusts the breath and uses the pleasure from the breath to give the mind a good place to settle down. When these causes come together, then they give the results, which are pleasure and refreshment or rapture.
It’s in this way that your persistence, your mindfulness, and your concentration all work together to create the skillful state of becoming that is the path.
We’ll talk more about mindfulness tomorrow, but for now, let’s meditate.
Q: Which other suttas complete the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta?
A: There’s no one particular sutta that completes it, although the Ānāpānasati Sutta, MN 118, is a good one to start with: It shows how working with the breath in a proactive way brings all four establishings of mindfulness to completeness. From there, you have to bring information in from several other suttas. The English book, Right Mindfulness—which is available on dhammatalks.org—contains the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and the Ānāpānasati Sutta together with passages from other suttas that help to flesh out the teaching on establishing mindfulness, in particular, ardency. The translation of the Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, DN 22, on dhammatalks.org, also has footnotes containing sutta passages that flesh out the topic. From there, you can take the numbers of the suttas, either in the book or in the footnotes to DN 22, and you can look those passages up in the French translations.