day five : morning

Mindfulness of Feelings & Mind States

May 21, 2015

Yesterday, we talked about the first frame of reference, the body. Today, we’ll talk about the second frame and the third: feelings in and of themselves and mind states in and of themselves. These are the frames of reference most often described as entailing passive awareness, simply watching feelings and mind states arising and passing away without doing anything with them. However, the Buddha did not describe these frames in this way. Feelings and mind states are both fabricated: fabricated by present intentions working with potentials coming in from the past.

You may have noticed this yourself: If you don’t give continual attention to the breath, the breath will feel one way, will create one kind of feeling tone in the body and mind; but if you pay careful attention to the breath, it will create a different kind of feeling tone. This shows the extent to which your feelings depend on your actions in the present.

The Buddha wants you to take advantage of this fact, and to apply ardency to it: trying to shape the most skillful approach to feelings and mind states here and now.

When we’re focusing on feelings, we want to see them as part of a process: to discern what kind of actions they come from and also where the feelings lead. When we look for the causes of feelings, our primary focus is on present kamma: What kind of present actions will emphasize pleasure, and what kind of present actions will lead to more pain? As for the question of where feelings lead, our primary focus is on what sort of effect they will have on the mind. Some kinds of pleasure are actually good for developing concentration and discernment, and some kinds are bad. Some pains are good for developing concentration and discernment, and some are bad. When you know where these feelings come from, then you can manipulate the causes so as to have a good effect on the mind.

This is the meaning of the middle way in dealing with pleasure and pain. The term “middle way” doesn’t mean that we go for middling pleasures or middling pains. Instead, we regard only one pleasure—the pleasure of nibbāna or unbinding— as the true goal, and we try to perceive or attend to other pleasures and pains in terms of whether they lead to that goal or away from it. So we aim at pleasures that come from skillful actions and that lead to skillful mind states. We also learn how to relate to pains in ways that will lead to skillful mind states—as in the instructions I gave for dealing with pain the other day.

Here it’s useful to think again of the image of the good cook who can take even bad ingredients and still make good food. Cheese is a good example. What is cheese? Moldy milk solids. Normally, we wouldn’t eat mold, but it tastes good—right?—when we eat cheese. This means that someone in the past discovered how to take mold and make it into good food. We want to be able to deal with our pleasures and pains in a similar way.

When the Buddha talks about pleasures and pains, he talks about two main kinds. On the one hand, there are what he calls pleasures of the flesh, pains of the flesh, and feelings of neither-pleasure-nor-pain of the flesh. On the other, there are pleasures, pains, and feelings of neither-pleasure-nor-pain that are not of the flesh.

Feelings “of the flesh” are feelings related to input from the senses: the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and the mind as it relates to sensory input. Feelings “not of the flesh” are feelings related to the practice of concentration and the noble attainments.

In terms of pleasures of the flesh—which are sensory pleasures—the Buddha says that we ordinarily get obsessed with passion around those pleasures. With ordinary pains of the flesh, we become obsessed with irritation—in other words, we want to get rid of them. As for feelings of neither-pleasure-nor-pain of the flesh, we tend to be ignorant of them, i.e., we don’t pay them any attention. We’re more interested in the pleasures and pains. If we begin to pursue pleasures and pains of this sort, we become obsessed with either passion or irritation.

So what the Buddha has us do instead is to develop pleasures, pains, etc., that are not of the flesh. These have to be consciously developed. Here pleasure not of the flesh is the pleasure of concentration. The same holds true for equanimity not of the flesh. As for pain not of the flesh, that’s the frustration we feel when we find ourselves on the path but we haven’t reached the goal. This pain is actually something the Buddha encourages us to develop. Sometimes you hear that the desire for awakening is an obstacle to awakening, so you should just be happy right where you are—but you’ll never get to the end of the path that way. The real obstacle to awakening is an immature relationship to your desire for awakening. When you become mature in your relationship to that desire, it actually becomes part of the path.

What this means is that you see you have a goal, and there is a road going to the goal. An immature attitude focuses on the goal, gets impatient, and loses the path. It’s like driving to a mountain on the horizon. If you’re driving in that direction and keep your eye on the mountain all the time, you’re going to drive off the road. But if you know that this road leads to the mountain, then you focus on the road and follow it carefully. That’s a mature relationship to your desire. In other terms, you focus on the causes, and the causes will lead you to the results. So these are the pleasures, pains, and neither-pleasures-nor-pains that the Buddha has us pursue: the pleasure and equanimity of concentration, and the pain of wanting to be enlightened.

To apply this to your meditation: When you’re dealing with feelings as you’re sitting here right now, there will be some potentials for pains in some parts of your body, and potentials for feelings of pleasure or neutral feelings in other parts of the body. You have the choice of where you’re going to focus your attention. Most of us tend to focus on pains and we miss the fact that there are potentials for pleasure in other parts of the body. One of the skills in meditation is learning how to focus on the more pleasant parts and to develop them.

This is very similar to a book printed in America several years ago, called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The right side of the brain is the side that tends to focus not on words but on preverbal sense impressions. The book teaches you how to use your preverbal sense impressions to draw a face. The author points out that most people, when they try to draw a face, will draw eyes, nose, mouth, and so on, but their drawings tend not to look realistic because they tend to draw their idea of eyes or their idea of mouths. So instead, she recommends that when you draw a face, you draw the spaces between these things, i.e., the parts of the face that you don’t normally pay attention to and for which you don’t have ready names. For example, she has you draw the space between the mouth and the nose, between the nose and the eyes, between the eyes and the eyebrows, between the eyebrows and the hairline. She found that when people do this, even if they aren’t trained artists, they can draw very realistic faces, because they’re drawing something for which they don’t have a word. It’s as if they’re seeing those spaces for the first time, and they’re rendering their immediate impression.

When you focus on the body while you’re meditating, you have to take a similar attitude. In other words, don’t focus on the pains. Focus on the spaces in between the pains and you’ll see that there’s actually a feeling of pleasure there. It may be very mild, but if you pay continual attention to it, that sense of mild wellbeing will grow stronger. This is one of the ways in which we deal with the potential for feelings in the present moment: You can develop a sense of pleasure that is actually conducive for concentration.

In another sutta—Majjhima 137 [§36]—the Buddha talks about different ways of relating to pain, pleasure, and equanimity. There’s the pain, pleasure, and equanimity of a householder on the one side, and the pain, pleasure, and equanimity of a renunciate on the other. The pain of a householder is not getting what you want in terms of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and mental events. That’s householder pain. The pleasure of a householder is getting what you want in terms of the six senses. The equanimity of a householder is being determined that your mind will not be affected by any of the input of the six senses. Now, for most of us when we encounter householder pain, we try to find householder pleasures. But the Buddha said that a more skillful way of dealing with householder pain when you meet with it, is to go for renunciate pain, which is what I mentioned before: the desire to reach the goal, which at the moment is painful because you’re not there yet.

The same with householder equanimity: In the sutta, this is described as being nonreactive to all six senses. This would also apply to the practice of simply letting things go without reacting to them and trying to find a sense of peace there. Now, if you just stop there, you’re still staying on the householder level. In order to go beyond that level to renunciate pleasure and equanimity, you have to realize that you can’t just stop with non-reactivity, for even though it carries a subtle sense of wellbeing, it’s still on the level of fabricated experience. It’s not going to last. If you want to find something more lasting, you have to understand how the mind fabricates that experience and be able to take that apart totally. Only then can you find the greater pleasure and equanimity of nibbāna.

This means that, even when feeling that state of non-reactive equanimity, you have to develop renunciate pain: the sense of having a goal that lies beyond where you are right now. The purpose of this is to motivate us to do the practice. When we do the practice, we can reach the pleasure of the renunciate, which is the pleasure that comes from reaching the goal. Even though renunciate pain is a kind of pain, it’s like the tension in the string of a bow. Only when there’s tension in the bowstring can the arrow fly a long distance. Otherwise, if we just stay with householder pain and householder pleasure, we don’t go anywhere. It’s like a bow whose string is slack. It may be relaxed, but it doesn’t accomplish anything.

So, when the Buddha’s talking about feelings as a frame of reference for establishing mindfulness, he wants us to see where our pleasures and pains are, where they come from—in particular, what present actions they come from—and where they go. Then we can use that understanding to develop the pleasures and pains that will actually lead to awakening. This is the role of ardency when dealing with feelings.

When we’re dealing with mind states, the same principles apply. The mind has the potential for greed and also the potential for non-greed. There’s the potential for aversion and the potential for non-aversion. There’s the potential for delusion and the potential for non-delusion. We usually don’t look for these potentials, or see them as potentials, because normally the mind is focused outside and doesn’t really look at itself. It’s like sitting in a movie theater and focusing entirely on the screen.

But when you’re practicing mindfulness of mind states, it’s like going to the side of the theater, and instead of looking at the screen, you look at the audience. You see that there’s a flickering light-beam over their heads, flashing many different colors on the screen. Now if you were part of the audience and were watching the screen, you would perceive that there are people on the screen in different locations, with a story that makes sense. But when you look from the side of the theater, you just see all these things simply as flashing colors, and you see instead the audience laughing and crying, all simply because of flashing colors.

In a similar way, you want to look at the audience in the mind and see where their states of mind are going to lead them—where they come from, where they go. In other words, you’re looking at the mind as it’s engaged in the world, but you’re not engaged along with it. You simply want to pay attention to what present actions these mind states come from, where they lead, which ones should be developed, which ones should be abandoned.

When the Buddha is teaching breath mindfulness, and talks about being aware of the mind states as a frame of reference, he doesn’t say that you just watch mind states coming and going. He actually recommends that you do something with them.

“He [the meditator] trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in gladdening the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out gladdening the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in steadying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out steadying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in releasing the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out releasing the mind.’” [§37]

What this means is you don’t just sit there and watch the mind. You become sensitive to the mind first, and then see what needs to be done with it—as in the instructions I gave the other day for dealing with distracting thoughts. If you see that the mind’s in an unskillful state, you do what you can to put it in a skillful state. For instance, in the terms given in the passage just now, if the mind is lacking in energy or feeling discouraged, then you try to find ways of gladdening it. If the mind is too scattered or unsteady, you try to make it steady through whatever meditation methods will work. If the mind is being trapped by something such as sensual desire, ill will, sleepiness, restlessness or anxiety, or uncertainty, you try to find a way to release it. And in this way you bring the mind into a state that’s more conducive to being on the path.

So, when you’re focusing on mind states, you’re not simply watching them come and go. If they’re unskillful mind states, you try to find ways of making them go away faster. If they’re skillful, then you try to find ways of getting them to come and stay [§27].

In both of these cases—with feelings and mind states—the act of taking them as frames of reference means watching them as they are happening and being less concerned with the object of the feeling or the object of the mind state, and more concerned with the role of the feelings and mind states as parts of a process: where they come from, what results they produce. Then you ardently try to direct them in a skillful direction. This is how using these two frames of reference actually becomes part of the path.

When the Buddha discusses these two frames of reference in connection with mindfulness of breathing, he doesn’t advise leaving the breath when you focus on them. Instead, he has you stay with the breath, and watch feelings or mind states in relationship to the breath. This is one of the ways in which you can use the breath to direct your feelings and mind states in a skillful direction because, as he said, when you pay careful attention to the breath, that will create feelings of pleasure. Those feelings of pleasure will have a good influence on your mind state, leading to greater concentration. At the same time, staying with the breath strengthens your mindfulness and alertness, so that you can see more clearly what you’re doing and remember the lessons you learn from your actions.

So when you’re paying attention to these two frames of reference, don’t abandon the breath. It’s one of the tools that you can use as you’re being ardent, alert, and mindful to develop your sensitivity to all these frames of reference in a way that leads you further and further along the path.

Q: How can one nourish joy? You’ve already told us about goodwill, are there other skillful methods?

A: There are quite a few skillful methods, such as the contemplation of your own generosity and the contemplation of your own virtue. Seeing that you have made progress on the path is a skillful form of pride. So when you’re feeling that you’re a no-good meditator, call to mind times in the past when you were generous when you didn’t have to be, to remind yourself that you do have some goodness to you. Similarly with your virtue: Think of the times you could have broken the precepts but you didn’t. Again, that gives you a sense of your own goodness.

Another way of giving rise to a sense of joy is to think of some aspect of the Buddha, the Dhamma, or the Saṅgha in whichever way you find inspiring. For example, if you’re inspired by the Buddha’s wisdom or by his kindness and compassion, think about those themes for a while. That can be a source of joy. If you’re feeling very discouraged in your practice, read passages about the members of the Saṅgha. Some of the arahants in the past described their experiences and in particular talked about the difficulties they went through. Some of them had been so discouraged in the practice that they were ready to commit suicide. You can remind yourself that you’re not that bad off. If someone like that can attain awakening, so can you.

Q: Once you come back to a sense of joy, how do you maintain or heighten this sense of joy in the face of all the suffering of all the living beings in the world when you become very sensitive to it?

A: The first thing to remember is that taking on the sorrows of others does not alleviate their sorrows. If you have a sense of inner joy, you’re actually in a better place to help them. Probably the worst enemy of this joy is the sense of feeling guilty that you’re being happy when they’re not. This sense of guilt may come from our Christian background. So when that thought comes up, remind yourself that there’s no need to feel guilty, and that your ability to maintain inner joy gives you more strength which, if you want, can provide you with the stamina to help other people where you can.

At the same time, you have to realize that there are many people you can’t help, and in this case, the most skillful attitude is one of equanimity. One point that I forgot to mention during the last talk is that to maintain equanimity, you have to be able to follow those five ways of dealing with distracting thoughts that I mentioned the other day. The mind has the tendency to want to make you feel guilty for being equanimous even when equanimity is the wisest attitude to develop. You have to very quickly cut those thoughts off.