day six : evening

Mindfulness : The Second Stage

Last night we talked about the first stage of establishing mindfulness. Tonight we’ll talk about the second stage. This is the stage in which your mindfulness matures to the point of mastering concentration as a skill. This means learning to bring the mind to concentration not only when the conditions inside and out are good, but also when they’re far from ideal. The analogy for this phase is the wise, experienced cook who knows how to read his master, providing what the master likes, noticing how his likes will change, and also keeping away things that will be bad for the master. In terms of getting the mind into concentration, this means seeing what does and doesn’t work in trying to get the mind to settle down, and learning to provide what the mind likes and needs to get and stay concentrated regardless of the situation.

The texts describe this stage in these terms:

“There is the case where a monk remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, remains focused on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, remains focused on the phenomenon of origination and passing away with regard to the body—ardent, alert, and mindful—subduing greed and distress with reference to the world.” [§1]

The passage goes on to say the same thing for feelings, mind states, and mental qualities.

Notice the word “origination” here in the phrase, “focused on origination.” It doesn’t mean arising. It means causing. You’re focused on what causes things to arise and causes things to pass away. Remember your classes in science: You didn’t learn about causation just by watching things passively. You learned by fiddling with potential causal factors to see what changes would give rise to what results.

This is a principle that doesn’t apply only to science. For example, in cooking, you want to learn about eggs. You don’t just sit and watch the eggs. You learn by making egg dishes out of them. Concentration is like making the mind into a soufflé. You learn about the eggs and you get to enjoy the results of your efforts at the same time. Ajaan Lee uses the image of taking care of a baby: It requires the same three qualities that we’ve been talking about in the course of the week. You have to be mindful to look after the baby all of the time, remembering what’s worked in the past when a problem comes up; you have to be alert to what results your actions are getting in making the baby happy and healthy; and you’re ardent to do your best. This includes using your ingenuity to figure out how best to solve problems as they come up with the child: when to feed the child, when to give it something to play with, when to let it cry itself out. The same principles apply to meditation.

Last night when we talked about the four frames of reference, we noted that the first three—body, feelings, and mind—are the component factors of getting the mind into right concentration, whereas dhammas or mental qualities, are supplementary factors to watch out for, that you develop or abandon so as to bring the other three into a good balance, where the body is suffused both with awareness and with a feeling of pleasure. These dhammas are the factors that you use in this second stage of the practice to get the mind into concentration.

As we said yesterday, this fourth frame of reference actually includes several different frames of reference: the five hindrances, the seven factors for awakening, the six sense media, the five clinging-aggregates, and the four noble truths. Tonight we’ll focus on all of these dhammas except for the four noble truths, which we’ll save for Saturday night.

Let’s start with the five hindrances. These are the things you need to clear away when you’re trying to get the mind into concentration. The first hindrance is sensual desire, second is ill will, third is sloth and torpor, fourth is restlessness and anxiety, and fifth is uncertainty. Dealing with these hindrances comes under the factor of putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. There are three steps in dealing with each of these hindrances.

The first step is to recognize them as hindrances. This, in and of itself, is an important accomplishment, because usually when sensual desire arises, for instance, the first thought is not, “Ah yes, this is a hindrance.” The first thought is, “Let’s go for it.” The same with ill will. When you have ill will for someone, all you can think of is how much that person really deserves your ill will. Similarly with sloth and torpor: When you’re getting really sleepy, the thought is, “My body really does need to rest.” When you’re worried about things, you tell yourself, “I really do have to worry about this.” And when you’re uncertain about things, you feel that your doubts are justified. Instead of seeing these things as hindrances, you side with them.

When you’re trying to get the mind into concentration, you have to switch sides. Recognize that these are hindrances to getting the mind settled down. That’s the duty of alertness and mindfulness: noticing that the hindrance is there, and recognizing that it is a hindrance.

The second step is to then develop the desire to be free from them. This is the duty of ardency, and it starts with seeing their dangers. For example, when you’re sleepy and you think, “I should go to sleep,” you have to remember that nobody ever gained awakening while asleep, and as they say in Thailand, if you tried to count the number of years you’ve been sleeping in all of your many lifetimes, you find that those years are uncountable. So in this second step you tell yourself, “Maybe I should fight this. Maybe tonight I should stay awake.” You can use a similar sort of contemplation with the other hindrances.

Once you’ve gotten past these first two steps—recognizing the hindrances as hindrances and deciding to fight them—then you’re ready for the third step, remembering and then applying the different techniques for undercutting specific hindrances as they arise. These are the further duties of mindfulness and ardency. We talked about these techniques the other day when discussing the approaches for dealing with distracting thoughts, so let’s review them briefly. The first approach is changing the topic that you’re thinking about, to see whether you need to gladden the mind, to make it steadier, or to release it, and then using the appropriate technique. The second approach is to examine the drawbacks of that hindrance even further; the third approach is to ignore the hindrance, in other words, just let it go off to the side of your mind, while you give more attention to your meditation object. The fourth approach is to relax around the thought-formation of the hindrance. And then the fifth approach is to just force the mind down and say, “I’m not going to think that thought.”

When you’re thinking about gladdening or steadying the mind, you might bring in other topics that are supplementary to the breath. For example, recollection of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha, generosity, virtue, or the brahmavihāras—the sublime attitudes: These are themes to gladden the mind. For steadying the mind, you can use equanimity or recollection of death. As for techniques for releasing the mind, we’ll discuss those Saturday night.

The Buddha says that, in addition to focusing on these dhammas inside yourself, you can also focus them outside, on other people. You can’t see the dhammas in their minds, of course, but you can reflect on the fact that their situation is similar to yours and yours is similar to theirs. For instance, as an example of extrapolating from self to others: You’re subject to aging, illness, and death, and so is everybody else. This gives rise to a sense of saṁvega and also takes away the sting of, “Why is this happening to me?”

You can also extrapolate from others to yourself. For example, if you’re feeling very strong sensual desire or ill will, think about other people whose lives have been ruined by sensual desire or through their ill will, and this could also happen to you.

There’s one sutta where the Buddha talks about when the mind is unable to settle down, it’s because it has a fever in the body or a fever in the mind. So whatever way of thinking gets rid of that fever is perfectly fine. Then, when the mind has been made calm and peaceful with these methods, you can simply return to the breath and stay with the sense of ease around the breath, and that counts as right concentration. Those are the five hindrances.

The second frame is the seven factors for awakening. These are actually factors that go into the concentration itself. They fall into three sets. The first set contains only one member, which is mindfulness. That’s a factor that’s always useful. The other two factors are useful at particular times: when the mind has too little energy or when it has too much.

The second set includes what’s called analysis of qualities, which is how you evaluate what’s going on in the mind; persistence, which is the same as ardency; and then finally rapture or refreshment. These three qualities are energizing, so they’re useful to develop when the mind is too slothful or its energy is low. If, for example, you’re feeling sleepy, you make the effort to analyze what’s going on in the mind. You ask yourself, “How do you know you’re sleepy? Where do you feel the symptoms? Are they around the eyes? Are they around your forehead?” Analyzing these things in this way stirs up some energy in the mind that helps to pull you away from the symptoms of sleepiness. You find another part of the mind that’s not really sleepy now and use it to help pull you out.

One technique that I’ve found that works well is when I wake up in the morning and I tell myself I need some more sleep, part of me will say, “Wait a minute, you’ve said this before.” And so then it poses the question, “Which part of the body is too heavy to get up? Try lifting the arm.” The arm goes up. “Try the other arm. How about my head? How about my legs? And finally the torso?” Then when the torso is up, I’m up. So that’s a very simple instance of analysis of qualities.

The remaining three factors for awakening, though, are calming: serenity, concentration, and equanimity. These are useful when the mind has too much energy and needs steadying. If you find, for instance, that you’re worried about something, you can ask yourself, “What if I died right now and I were a dead spirit, looking at the things I was worried about when I was alive, and realizing that these things can’t touch me anymore?” Then look to see: “Is there a part of my mind that’s not touched by these things even now while I’m alive?” Then you just stay right there. That calms things down. This is called making use of serenity and equanimity.

Again, you can use external examples to help you with this. When you think about how difficult it is to practice, remember other people went through these difficulties before: They were able to do it, why not you? Another example from my own practice: People would sometimes come to our monastery and say, “Ah, there’s a Western monk here. Now, can they really understand things?” Western monks there are sometimes regarded like dancing elephants: It’s amazing that they can dance at all, but you don’t really expect them to dance well. So, something inside me would say, “I’ll show them”—in other words, using a defilement to spark my persistence. I always liked Ajaan Fuang’s response one time when a person asked, “How could a Westerner ordain?” He said, “Don’t Westerners have hearts?”

The next frame of reference is the six sense media. These are directly related to the practice of sense restraint because you’re not simply aware of the fact that you have an eye or ear or nose or whatever, but you’re more focused on the fact that fetters can build up around those senses, and those fetters are not coming from sights, sounds, smells, or tastes. They come from within. They’re your own greed, aversion, and delusion. If you’re letting your greed, aversion, and delusion do the looking and listening, etc., during the day, then they’re going to be hard to expel from the mind when you sit down and meditate. So you have to exercise restraint throughout the day.

Now, this doesn’t mean not looking or not listening to things at all. It means learning to look at your engagement with the senses as part of a causal process: Why are you looking, what is your purpose in looking, and what results are you getting from looking at things in that way? If you see that there are any unskillful states acting either as causes or results, then you’ve got to look or listen in another way.

For example, if you see someone who’s really beautiful and attractive, you have to ask yourself, “Is there an unattractive side to that person?” Or if there’s somebody you really hate, “Is there a good side to that person?” Or if you see an object that’s attractive that you would like to buy, then stop and think about it: “When I buy this, then I’m just adding one more item to the pile of junk in my house.” Then think about all the problems of ownership. Remember the BMW Chill? Suppose you get your new BMW and someone takes a key and scratches the side of the car out of spite. The fact that you’ve bought the BMW opens you up to that kind of thing. But if you stick with your old car, nobody would be tempted to want to key it.

In other words, you look at things in another way in order to pull yourself away from them. Ajaan Lee has a nice image for all this. You can remember that not only do you live in your body, but there are also other beings in your body as well, such as all the germs going through your blood system, or the worms down in your intestines. When you look at something that makes you really hungry, who’s looking? Is it you or the worms?

Now, having this kind of restraint requires a certain sense of well-being in the body. Otherwise, you’re going to be so hungry for quick pleasures that you won’t have the patience to engage in restraint. This is why the Buddha gave the image of the six animals tied to a post: the bird, the dog, the hyena, the monkey, the snake, and the crocodile. The post isn’t there just to hold them through force. You’ve got food around the post: the pleasure of concentration. If you can stay with the sense of pleasant breath energy in the body as you go through the day, you’re not going to be so quick to run into the village or down into the river or over into the cemetery. You maintain that sense of well-being throughout the day without having to indulge in pleasures that are harmful for the mind.

Remember, a basic principle of kamma is that you have many potentials in the present moment. So in terms of talking about sense restraint, the Buddha is actually making you aware that you have more potentials for pleasure, more skillful pleasures, than you might have thought of otherwise. So, don’t think of sense restraint as confinement. It’s actually opening you up to more possibilities. You can also think about the fact that if you’re falling for something that you’re hearing or seeing, you're becoming a slave to those things. If you’re not falling for them, you’re free. That’s the third frame of reference.

The next one—and the last one we’re going to talk about tonight—is the five clinging-aggregates. This is going to require a fair amount of analysis.

What are the aggregates? They’re five activities. Sometimes you hear that the Buddha says that you are the five aggregates, but that’s very much not true. What he actually says is that we create our sense of self out of the aggregates. But that’s only one way that we cling to them, and it’s in the clinging that we suffer.

So let’s look at these five activities, because we’re going to find that they don’t have to be suffering. If you learn how to use them properly, they can become part of the path. The first activity in the aggregates is form, which is your sense of the body. This is an activity in that you have to actively work at maintaining your sense of the form of the body. The second activity is feeling. The third is perception, the labels you apply to things: when you look at this and you say “microphone,” you look at what’s above you and you say “ceiling.” Those are perceptions. Perceptions either are individual words or individual images that you apply to things, identifying them and giving them a meaning—as when you see a red light, and you think, “Stop.” The fourth aggregate is fabrication, which covers all the intentional ways you put things together in your mind. For example, when you think about the ceiling, you tell yourself, “They did a beautiful job.” That’s a fabrication. Other kinds of fabrication are when you get something and you ask yourself, “What can I do with this?” Like this mallet: I could hit the bowl, or when Than Lionel is swaying back and forth in meditation, I could hit him. All of that is fabrication. And then finally there’s consciousness, which, as we discussed earlier today, is a process: It’s our awareness of the six senses. Those are the five aggregates.

The question often comes up: Why did the Buddha, when analyzing the functions of the mind, focus on these five things? After all, he could have talked about other functions of the mind as well. Why does he focus on these? And it turns out that these are the functions associated with the way we eat. There’s an interesting passage in the Canon where the Buddha says that once you take on the identity of a being, you have to feed. Feeding is what defines us, and these five activities surround the way we eat.

For example, form: You’ve got this body that you’ve got to nourish, and there are other material, physical things out there that you’re going to feed on. Those are form. Feeling: First, there’s the pain of hunger and then there’s the satisfaction of pleasure that comes when you’ve fed yourself well. Then perception: First, you want to perceive what kind of hunger you have—are you hungry for bread, are you hungry for water, are you hungry for cheese? Then you look out at the world out there to perceive: “Where are the objects that would assuage my hunger right now?” In fact, figuring out what we can eat, what we can perceive as edible, is the primary way in which we first engage with the world. When a baby crawls across the floor and finds something new, where does it go? Right in the mouth. That’s how we first learn about the world: what’s edible and what’s not edible. And this is not just physical hunger that we’re talking about here. There’s also mental hunger—and mental feeding—as well. For example, we go through the world figuring out who is edible and who is not edible, emotionally. That’s perception.

Fabrication: You try to figure out how to find something to eat. Once you find it, what do you do with it? If you have a potato, you can’t just eat it whole. You have to do something with it. That’s fabrication. It’s the same with people as well. You find a person you’re attracted to, but he or she is not quite perfect: “How can I change this person to be more to my liking?” That’s fabrication. Finally, of course, there’s consciousness, which is your awareness of all these processes. The Buddha says we cling to these activities because this is how we feed our way through the world.

So those are the aggregates.

Then there’s clinging. It turns out that the word for clinging, upādāna, also means to feed as well, so basically there are two levels of feeding going on: feeding through the aggregates and feeding on the aggregates.

Clinging comes in four types. The first one is sensuality. Sensuality, remember, is not simply our desire for things outside. We’re actually more attached to our fantasizing about the pleasures we can get from them, and the Buddha said that this is where we really cling. An example might be your desire for wine. You can think about wine for days, you can read magazines about wine, but when you actually drink the wine, how long does it take? Not that long. But then after you’ve drunk it, “It was a wonderful wine!” You can talk about that for another hour. That’s sensuality.

The second way of clinging is that we cling to our habits and practices, which means being stuck on our habitual ways of doing things for no good reason. Have I told you the story about the goose? Do you want to hear it again? There was an Austrian biologist who raised a goose that gave birth to a gosling. The mother goose died, and so the gosling immediately fixated on the biologist. Everywhere the biologist went, the gosling followed him. This went on through the summer. Of course, the gosling grew into a goose. As winter was beginning to come, the biologist realized that he was going to have to bring the goose into the house. So one evening, at the time that he would usually feed the goose, he didn’t feed it. He just walked into the house. The goose followed him into the house. Now, on the ground floor of the house, there was a hall that went to a window, and halfway down the hall was a stairway that went up to the right, leading to where the biologist lived on the next floor up. So the biologist went up the stairway. However, the goose was freaked out by the fact that it was in the house. It saw the window and so went running for the window, thinking it could escape through it, but then it realized it couldn’t get out that way. The biologist called to it, and so the goose turned around and went up the stairs.

Every day after that, when the goose went into the house, it would go first to the window and then back to go up the stairs. As time went on, the journey to the window got shorter and shorter until it finally got to the point where the goose would get to that side of the stairway, shake its leg at the window, and go up the stairs. But one night the biologist came home very late. The goose was very hungry, so when the biologist opened the door, the goose went running immediately up the stairs. Halfway up the stairs, though, it stopped and started shaking all over. Then, very deliberately, it went down the stairs, went over to the window, and then came up the stairs.

That’s clinging to habits and practices: You’re listening to your inner goose. That’s the second form of clinging.

The third form of clinging is views. When you hold to a view regardless of whether it’s good for you, simply because you believe you have to believe in it or that it makes you a better person than other people because you hold to it, that’s clinging to views.

Then finally there’s clinging to doctrines of the self. In other words, you define your self around the aggregates. You could define your self as being identical with the aggregates, or that you own the aggregates, or that you are in them, or that they are in you. Any way you define your self around these aggregates counts as a way of clinging to them.

If you cling to any of the aggregates in any of these four ways, that counts as a clinging-aggregate. For example, even if you have a sense of a cosmic self—in other words, you feel you have the body or any of the other aggregates inside you, while your sense of self is infinite, surrounding them—it still counts as a kind of clinging.

The Buddha’s basic definition of these five clinging-aggregates is that they lie at the essence of suffering. They’re the essence of the first noble truth. If, when you’re suffering, you want to comprehend it, you have to figure out which aggregate you’re clinging to, and which kind of clinging it is.

However, it turns out that as we’re creating a state of concentration, we’re also using the aggregates, and we’re also using three out of the four kinds of clinging. In that way, we turn the clinging-aggregates from the first noble truth into the fourth.

How do the aggregates play a role in the state of concentration?

Form is the breath.

Feeling is the feeling-tone of comfort, pleasure, ease, or well-being you’re trying to create by staying with the breath.

Perception is the mental label you hold in mind to keep yourself with the breath and also to make the concentration easier. For example, if you have a perception of the breath coming in and out only through the nose, it can make the breath more constricted. But if you think of the body being like a large sponge, and the breath can come in and out all the pores of your skin, that’s going to change your sensation of the breathing. Similarly, if you think of the breath starting inside you—which is what the breath-energy does—instead of having to be pulled in from outside, that will lessen the tension around the breathing. That’s perception.

As for fabrication, when you use directed thought and evaluation around the breath—focusing your thoughts on the breath, and trying to figure out which ways of breathing are easiest to stay with and provide the greatest sense of ease—that counts as an aggregate of fabrication.

And, of course, consciousness is aware of all of these things.

It’s particularly important that you learn how to see these aggregates as component factors of your concentration because, after all, the five aggregates are related to feeding, and concentration is food for the path. When the Buddha compares the practice to being in a fortress—with mindfulness as the gatekeeper, with discernment as the wall around the fortress that’s covered with plaster so that none of the outside soldiers can get in, with right effort as the soldiers, and your learning as the weapons—concentration is the food that feeds the soldiers and the gatekeeper to keep them strong. The sense of ease that you create within makes it easier to say No to pleasures outside.

Those are the aggregates in concentration practice.

As for the forms of clinging we use on the path, we don’t use sensuality but we do develop and hold on to the habits of the precepts and to the practice of concentration: just sitting and focusing on the breath. It’s a good form of clinging. As for views, we hold to right views about kamma and the four noble truths. And as for a doctrine of the self, we don’t need to define ourselves very precisely, but we do need to develop a sense that we are capable of doing this and that it’s going to be good for us to do it: the self as provider and the self as consumer.

So those are forms of clinging that actually help you stay on the path. As we said earlier, if you think of the path as being a raft going across the river, you hold to these habits and practices, you hold to these views, you hold to this sense of self as you’re crossing the river, and that’s what gets you across. When you get to the other side, you can let all these things go.

So these lists of teachings—the five hindrances, the seven factors for awakening, the six sense media, and the five clinging-aggregates—are some of the frames of reference you can keep in mind as you try to learn how to master concentration, so that concentration is not just a random thing. It becomes a skill that you get more and more under your control.

That’s mindfulness as a faculty. We’ll continue to discuss concentration tomorrow, but right now, let’s do it.

Q: I’m still not so clear about the fourth foundation of mindfulness, the dhammas. It’s not the case that I like to stick to the lists—that doesn’t help so much during the experience—but sometimes it’s presented as the contents of the mind, mental phenomena. In that case, the third, the mind, would be the tone or the state of mind? In the other case, the fourth foundation consists of the things to contemplate as the four noble truths and so on. In that case, is it like a discursive meditation, investigation on the topic and how it applies to our lives?

A: As I was saying earlier, it’s useful to think of the first three foundations of mindfulness or the first three frames of reference as one group, and the fourth as another group. The first three, basically, are the component factors of concentration. In other words, you have the breath, which is the body; the feelings, which are the feelings of pleasure you’re trying to create and spread through the body; and then the mind, which is the awareness you’re spreading throughout the body. You’re trying to get all three of those to interpenetrate one another. The fourth frame of reference provides different frameworks that you can use to apply to the problem of trying to get the body, feelings, and mind together in such a way that the mind can settle down. These frameworks help you to remember what’s unskillful and what’s skillful so that when something comes up, you recognize it and know what to do with it.

For example, say that sensual desire comes up. You remember that it’s not something that you just go into. You remember that it’s one of the hindrances, and then the duty with regard to it is to watch it for a while, to understand it, and to counteract it with the purpose of eventually letting go of it. And so on with the other skillful and unskillful qualities of the different lists.

As for the framework of the six senses, this is a good frame of reference to use as you’re going through the day. When you’re looking at something or listening to something, ask yourself, “Am I creating a fetter for my mind around this and, if so, is there some way that I can let go of that fetter?” For example, you’re walking down the street, you see somebody attractive, so you ask yourself, “Is there some other way that I can look at this person so that the sight of this person doesn’t pull my mind away?”

That’s how you use the fourth frame of reference to adjust the other three.