day three : morning

Mindfulness Practice,
Stage One

May 19, 2015

Yesterday, we talked about mindfulness. This morning we will talk about the establishing of mindfulness. This is the fullest description of the way in which mindfulness becomes right mindfulness. There are basically four frames of reference or four objects that you keep in mind. But the establishing of mindfulness is more than just the objects. It’s actually a process that you apply to each of these four. Here is the formula:

“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.” [§22]

Let’s go through the formula phrase by phrase. First, the phrase, “to remain focused”: This is a quality of concentration. You try to keep your awareness focused continually on your object. For example, if you’re focused on the body, you can be focused on the breath. Try to stay with the sensation of the breath as continuously as you can.

The phrase “the body in and of itself” or “feelings in and of themselves, the mind in and of itself, mental qualities in and of themselves” means that you don’t think of these things in any other context. For example, you’re focused right now on the body. You’re not concerned with how this body is viewed by the world, nor are you concerned with the body’s relationship to the world. You’re not concerned with how it looks; you’re not concerned with whether it’s strong enough to do work in the world. You’re simply concerned with the experience of the body right here and right now. The same principle would apply to the other frames of reference.

Then there are the three qualities that we mentioned yesterday: “ardent, alert, and mindful.” Ardent, as we said earlier, means putting your whole heart into it. You try to do it as skillfully as you can. If you see anything unskillful coming up in the mind, you try to get rid of it as quickly and as effectively as possible. You put your heart into developing skillful qualities in its place. Here’s a description of ardency from the Canon:

“And how is one ardent? There’s a case where a monk, thinking, ‘Unarisen, evil, unskillful qualities arising in me would lead to what is unbeneficial,’ and so arouses ardency, thinking, ‘Arisen, evil, unskillful qualities not being abandoned in me… unarisen, skillful qualities not arising in me… or arisen, skillful qualities ceasing in me would lead to what is unbeneficial,’ he arouses ardency. This is how one is ardent.” [§23]

This is an aspect of mindfulness practice that often gets overlooked. One of the reasons for this is that the Canon contains a very long sutta on the establishing of mindfulness, the Mahā Saṭipatthāna Sutta. Because it’s so long, many people assume that it’s a complete description of mindfulness practice. Yet that sutta doesn’t say anything about what one does with events that arise from the body, feelings, the mind, or mental qualities. It just says to be mindful and alert to them. So people assume that you don’t do anything with them. You just watch them arise and pass away.

It turns out, however, that the sutta was not intended to be a complete description of the practice. At the very beginning of the sutta, the Buddha gives the full formula for the establishing of mindfulness, and yet he then answers questions only about one part of the formula, the part concerning what it means to remain focused on any of these objects. This way of introducing the sutta implies that explanations for the remaining parts of the formula will not be discussed in the sutta. To find those explanations, you have to look in other suttas. And one of the unexplained parts of the formula is ardency.

You won’t find any explicit discussions of ardency in the Mahā Saṭipatthāna Sutta, but many other suttas in the Canon do talk about what it means to deal ardently with skillful feelings and mind states, etc., or with unskillful feelings and mind states, in terms of right effort. So a complete understanding of the establishing of mindfulness requires that we include right effort in the topic as well, because right effort is the same as the quality of ardency: putting all of your heart into doing this skillfully. If something unskillful arises in the mind, you try to find the most effective way of getting rid of it. If something skillful arises in the mind, you try to keep it going. You don’t just let it pass away.

That’s ardency.

Alertness is the second of the three qualities. This doesn’t mean simply being aware of the present moment. It’s a more focused type of awareness. You’re focused on what you’re doing and the results that are coming from your actions [§§24–25].

For instance, right now you’re focused on your breath and you’re trying to see what results come from the way you’re focused. As for other things that are happening right now, you don’t have to pay any attention to them. The mosquitoes flying past your ear, the beam of sunlight coming through the window, the little dog running outside the door: Those are all in the present moment, but they are not what you’re alert to. You want to be alert to your activity of being focused on the breath and to notice the results you’re getting. You bring in ardency to correct your actions if you find that you’re not getting good results.

What this means is that we’re focused on being in the present not because it’s a wonderful place to stay. We’re focused here because this is the place where suffering is being caused through our ignorance. This is also the place where work can be done to put an end to that ignorance and so put an end to suffering.

When the Buddha talks about the importance of focusing alertness on the present moment, his emphasis is always on the fact that you don’t know how much longer you have yet to live. Death could come at any time, so you focus on the essential work that has to be done right now, so that if death did come, you would be ready to go without any regret.

The actions you’re doing right now include, one, your intention; two, your attention; and three, the perceptions you’re using to stick with your breath and to understand it. So you focus on doing all three of these things skillfully. These, as we will explain in a later talk, are aspects of present kamma that are shaping your experience of the present moment.

To be alert to these forms of kamma: That’s alertness. Then you combine it with ardency to stay focused on doing all three of these things—your intention, your attention, and your perceptions—skillfully.

Mindfulness is the third quality you bring to the practice. This, as the Buddha often says, is the directing quality or governing quality, reminding you of what good lessons you’ve learned from the past, how to stay alert, how to be effective with your ardency—not simply to be aware of things arising and passing away, but to give rise to skillful qualities and to make unskillful qualities pass away faster [§27].

These are the three qualities we need to bring to the practice so as to turn mindfulness into right mindfulness.

Finally, the last part of the formula: ”subduing greed and distress with reference to the world.” This has to do with letting go of anything else that comes up to disturb your focus. You put everything else in the world aside.

I’ll tell you a story. There was a woman who came once to stay at our monastery in Thailand. Her plan was to stay for two weeks. The second day, though, she came to my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, to say goodbye because she had to go home. Ajaan Fuang asked her, “Why do you need to go home?” She replied that she was worried about her husband and children. She was afraid they couldn’t live without her. Who was going to fix the food? Who was going to clean the house? And so Ajaan Fuang said, “Tell yourself that you’ve died. If you really did die, they would know how to fix food and clean the house themselves.”

So she took that as her meditation theme: She was already dead. And that was how she was able to overcome greed and distress with reference to the world, especially greed and distress with reference to her house. As a result, she was able to stay for the full two weeks.

In the same way, while you’re here focused on your breath, allow the whole rest of the world to fall away. All of your other responsibilities: Remember that when you die, you have to let them go anyhow, and the world will be able to live without you. This allows you to stay focused on where the important work is right now.

That’s the formula for right mindfulness: keep focused on one of these topics, develop the three qualities—being ardent, alert, and mindful—and put aside greed and distress with reference to the world.

Now the suttas also describe three stages in mindfulness practice. For the rest of this morning’s talk, I’ll discuss the first stage. We’ll discuss the other two stages later in the week.

The purpose of the first stage is to get the mind firmly established in its frame of reference and to learn how not to move your awareness away from where it should be. There are a couple of analogies in the Canon to describe this stage. The first one:

“Suppose, monks, that a large crowd of people comes thronging together saying, ‘The beauty queen! The beauty queen!’ And suppose that the beauty queen is highly accomplished at singing and dancing, so then an even greater crowd comes thronging saying, ‘The beauty queen is singing! The beauty queen is dancing!’ Then a man comes along, desiring life and shrinking from death, desiring pleasure and abhorring pain. They say to him, ‘Now look here, mister, you must take this bowl filled to the brim with oil and carry it on your head in between the great crowd and the beauty queen. A man with a raised sword will follow right behind you, and wherever you spill even a drop of oil, right there he will cut off your head.’ Now, what do you think, monks, would that man, not paying attention to the bowl, bring heedlessness outside?” “No, lord,” they said. “I have given you this simile to convey a meaning. The meaning is this: the bowl filled to the brim with oil stands for mindfulness immersed in the body.” [§31]

When you maintain mindfulness of the body, you cannot let your emotions pull you away: That’s the crowd. You cannot let yourself get distracted by things coming in through the senses from outside: That’s the beauty queen. You have to be right here with the sensation of the body: That’s the bowl of oil on your head. Your mindfulness of the body has to be very firmly established. And you need to be heedful to keep it established: That’s the sense of the man following behind you with a raised sword. That’s one analogy.

The second analogy is quite long but it’s an interesting one:

“Once, a hawk suddenly swooped down on a quail and seized it. The quail, as it was being carried off by the hawk, lamented, ‘Oh, just my bad luck and lack of merit that I was wandering out of my proper range and into the territory of others! If only I had kept my proper range today to my own ancestral territory, this hawk would have been no match for me in battle.’ [You can imagine what the hawk was thinking!] ‘But what, quail, is your proper range?’ the hawk asked. ‘What is your own ancestral territory?’ ‘A newly plowed field with clumps of earth, all turned up.’

“So the hawk, proud of its own strength, without mentioning its own strength, let go of the quail. ‘Go, quail, but even having gone there, you won’t escape me.’ Then the quail, having gone to a newly plowed field with clumps of earth, all turned up, and climbing on top of a large clump of earth, stood taunting the hawk, ‘Come for me now, you hawk! Come for me now, you hawk!’ So the hawk, proud of its own strength, without mentioning its own strength, folded its two wings and suddenly swooped down toward the quail. When the quail knew ‘The hawk is coming at me at full speed,’ it slipped behind the clump of earth, and right there the hawk shattered its breast.

“This is what happens to anyone who wanders into what is not his proper range and is the territory of others. For this reason, you should not wander into what is not your own proper range and is the territory of others. In one who wanders into what is not his proper range and is the territory of others, Māra gains an opening, Māra gains a foothold. And what, for a monk, is not his proper range and is the territory of others? The five strings of sensuality. Which five? Forms cognizable by the eye, agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing, sounds cognizable by the ear, smells cognizable by the nose, tastes cognizable by the tongue, tactile sensations cognizable by the body, agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. These, for a monk, are not his proper range and are the territory of others.

“Wander, monks, in what is your proper range, your own ancestral territory. In one who wanders in what is his proper range, his own ancestral territory, Māra gains no opening, Māra gains no foothold. And what, for a monk, is his proper range, his own ancestral territory? The four establishings of mindfulness. This, for you, is your proper range, your own ancestral territory.” [§32]

So while you’re meditating, stay away from sensual thoughts—even such simple things as what you’d like the cooks here to fix for lunch. If you get involved in those thoughts, you’re not putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. You’re opening yourself up to let more greed and distress come in.

Normally, as you’re developing mindfulness, you should be developing it internally, in other words, focused on your own body, your own feelings, your own mind states, and your own mental qualities. However, you can also use mindfulness to deal with others’ bodies, and feelings, etc., in a way that helps bring you back more firmly inside. In other words, sometimes you find yourself distracted or you lose your motivation to practice, and you need to correct that state of mind. If you remind yourself of the body and feelings and mind states and mental qualities of other people in the proper way, it can bring you back to your focus inside and reinforce your motivation. The Buddha calls this keeping focused externally on the body, feelings, mind states, and mental qualities in and of themselves.

For instance, if you find yourself jealous of other people, you can think about the fact that they have bodies just like yours. They, too, have pains and illnesses, so there’s nothing special about the way they are. That helps to get rid of your jealousy. If you think of someone else who is beautiful, and you feel not nearly as beautiful as that person, remind yourself that human beauty is only skin deep. If you were to take off that person’s skin, then even if she were a beauty queen, she wouldn’t win a competition. She wouldn’t even be allowed in the door. That equalizes things, and helps you to come back to the present moment.

What we’re doing is changing our state of mind by developing perceptions that open up to a larger perspective. This is one of the reasons why we begin the meditation with thoughts of goodwill. We think of our own desire for happiness and then we remind ourselves that everyone else in the world has the same desire. We’re suffering, they’re suffering, and so we want to make sure our desire for happiness doesn’t cause anyone any more suffering. We want a happiness that harms no one. This is our motivation for practicing.

This contemplation also helps put our practice into context. It helps us to see that our own suffering is not as large or special as we usually think it is. We are subject to aging, illness, death, and separation from those we love. All other beings are subject to the same things. There’s nothing special about our sufferings that would make them worth holding on to.

When we use this external focus for mindfulness as a way of reinforcing our internal focus for mindfulness, it parallels the Buddha’s experience on the night of his awakening.

He gained three knowledges in the three watches of the night. His first knowledge consisted of knowledge of his own past lives.

The second knowledge came after he asked himself, “Does the fact of previous lives apply only to me or does it also apply to other people?” So he inclined his mind in the second watch of the night to think of all beings. He saw all beings dying and being reborn. And the way they were being reborn was dependent on their kamma. Their kamma, which was their intentions, also depended on their views. This was how he was able to see the general pattern in the relationship between kamma and rebirth.

Once he saw the pattern, he was able in the third watch of the night to apply the knowledge of that pattern to his own mind in the present moment. That was where he was able to see how his own views and own intentions had an effect on the state of his mind. And he discovered what were the most skillful views and skillful intentions that would enable him to go beyond birth and death entirely.

The general pattern of those three knowledges was that he started with his own story—and if you think when you’re sitting here with a lot of stories, think of all the stories the Buddha had when he could remember so many thousands of lifetimes: many, many more stories than you have. Then, to get beyond that, he looked at the general pattern of all beings. That gave him the knowledge enabling him to return to the present moment and to solve the problem of suffering right there.

In the same way, when you find yourself having trouble staying with the present moment, you can start thinking about all beings, seeing that they have similar problems to you, and that wherever you go in the universe, there’s still the problem of suffering. This reminds you that the only place to solve the problem of suffering is not out there, but right here in the present moment. That motivates you to focus back inside.

Another way of using mindfulness of others skillfully is when you’re having a bad meditation and you think that you’re a hopeless meditator. Call to mind the universe as a whole and you’ll realize that there are very few people out there who have the opportunity to meditate at all. So at the moment, you’re in a better position than they are, because you at least have the opportunity to meditate. That should give you some encouragement to get focused back on your breath with some confidence that you can overcome any difficulties you encounter.

So that’s the first stage in mindfulness practice, which deals with the techniques in getting your mind firmly established in its object of mindfulness, whether internally or externally. That’s what we’re working on right now. As for the other two stages in the practice, we will talk about those later in the week. For the moment, try to stay focused on your breath, ardent, alert, mindful, and if you have trouble staying here, try to think of things that will help encourage you to come back to the focus. Those thoughts also count as right mindfulness.

Q: When we talk of putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world, this seems to me at a height inaccessible to human beings—of course, without any real evidence—and it gives me an impression of being an inaccessible star of separation from sadness and discouragement. What are the best ways to think about this?

A: The attitude of putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world actually can happen in mundane activities as well. You can be reading a book, you can be absorbed in thinking about something abstract, and be cut off entirely from your concerns with regard to the rest of the world. They just don’t occur to you. So this attitude is not unattainable. But in the course of the practice, we want to be able to attain that state at will. When you attain that state, it doesn’t mean that you’re unfeeling. It’s simply that, at that moment, you’re not feeding on the world. For instance, when you’re with the breath and the sense of comfort is very satisfying, you can easily put aside your concerns for the world at that point because you’re feeding on the comfort of the breath and you feel no need to feed on the world.

This analogy of feeding is very important to keep in mind. It’s very central to the Buddha’s teachings, for as he says, it’s because we feed on things that we suffer, and that we cause one another to suffer. If we can live with the world without feeding off of it, then we can live in the world without suffering, and at the same time we’re actually freer to help other people instead of seeing other people as food. Really. It’s true. We can then see them clearly as individual beings with their own suffering. And when you’re not concerned with your own suffering—because you have this sense of inner sufficiency—then you’re in a better position to help people with the things they actually need.

Q: When we think of the fact that so few people in the world meditate, does it put us in the position where we risk becoming elitist or proud?

A: That thought is useful when you’re feeling very depressed about yourself. If you’re already feeling proud about yourself, then think of all the people who are meditating better than you are. In other words, try to use a thought that is useful for bringing balance into your particular situation right now. Your thinking, like your speech, should have a sense of the right time and place.