Mindfulness – Developing presence of mind
Initially we can see how the practice of Dhamma arises naturally out of the effort to be mindful, to keep the mind in the present moment, to develop presence of mind. We must be careful of the word effort however. Actually this is an effort to relax in order to return to a natural presence. It is something that we remember, not that we do.
This state of presence is very pleasant and naturally motivates us to go further to strengthen it, to explore it. We get a taste, a feeling for it. As we practice mindfulness more and more then we discover what supports it and what weakens it. We learn to live simply and in a spontaneous way. Patience is the key support, it is like silence. Generosity is important too, mindfulness means giving the mind to something. We find that neutral, ordinary things develop our mindfulness best. When the mind remains still and calm it stays with the present.
Until we get a sense for mindfulness in itself then we use an object of meditation to show us its presence or absence. We can use concentration on an object to strengthen it.
Mindfulness becomes most firmly established when the mind is free of both the regrets that draw us into the past, and the desires that draw us into the future; the establishment of mindfulness is, at the same time, the emergence of the spirit.
We recognize how important it is to have a mind free of regret so virtue and restraint becomes natural. So our virtue is not moralistic, we truly see virtue as skilful for ourselves rather than right or good, and a lack of it as unskilful rather than wrong or evil.
Moreover, we restrain or compose the senses, because to seek sensory pleasure feeds the craving that takes the mind into the past or future. We learn to tolerate discomfort when this is not harmful for the same reason. Also, patiently tolerating harmless pain changes our relationship to pain and in time can change the pain itself.
All this is how we can progress without trying to force the mind. If we do force it, it will resist. Yet we can also take a lot of this on faith, commit ourselves to the five precepts out of faith, for example. This can really speed us on the path.
We practice in order to get into a good space, a pure space. There are lots of different spaces we can get into through our practice. Some are higher than others and therefore are more pleasant. Some are freer than others and therefore last longer. Which is the highest space? When the mind lets go through wisdom our focus naturally opens into the highest space. We can then abide in this space and hold this space open for others.
There are two ways or purposes for attention, sensual interest or wisdom and compassion. Calming bodily and mental reactions of the former gives us full access to this use of mind and body for the latter.
Useful questions in trying to free this space are: “Do I really need this?”, “What am I holding on to with aversion or attraction?” and “Can I find a more balanced view that could help me let go?”
As long as mindfulness is the central theme then the practice will be natural and peaceful. If any other factor takes over then we have a problem, an attachment. Mindfulness is an attachment we can allow because its nature is to overcome attachment by maintaining the flow of the mind from one moment to another.
The opposite of mindfulness is proliferation. Here the mind is not applied to something in the present but spinning around in the past and future, lost in itself. To simply watch the proliferation of the mind, (although seemingly this detaches it from the proliferation to become the observer of it,) is counter-productive; here we are merely watching our delusion rather than developing wisdom.
The proliferation is like our automatic pilot, tuned to seek pleasure and avoid pain. More important is that we do wholesome things with our minds, not the unwholesome things that stir up our greed, hatred or delusion. In these ways Dhamma is preventative medicine, good karma (merit) is the curative medicine. We gradually see that it is worth giving up craving for the future to win perfect mindfulness because mindfulness is such a pleasant state. When we are ready then acting, talking and thinking in the opposite direction to craving is what really seems to count.
As we continue we can see how presence of mind has a centre or a source, at the heart, and extends from there if mindfulness is maintained. As we practice we feel our minds closer and closer to this source, which is not a feeling but a brightness or presence. This centring enables us to see that everything is outside. Inside the mind is empty – so mind objects and real objects are essentially the same. Then it is possible to extend the inner emptiness to the outside.
If we have such awareness we do not need to make the distinction between what is real or not real or what is in the mind or not (e.g. ghost or imagination), or whether stuff is our stuff or not etc., etc. We can instead make the distinction we need to make between skilful and unskilful – leading to happiness or suffering. This has many other implications. We can change our perception of mental objects in the same way as outer objects, for example, and one will effect the other. So a benevolent thought about a person in our imagination will lead us to have the same on next contact.
We can also see that feelings are the results, (kamma-vipāka,) of the outgoing mind. The contemplation of feelings thus gives us the opportunity to reflect on the results of our actions of body, speech and mind. In terms of karma, specifics do not need to be resolved, a positive balance takes in a positive direction. Clearing the mind/conscience leads us to emptiness.
Overall we must be careful with our analysis – if looking for meaning turns into giving importance, then we can add stress to life rather than take it away. Rather than being drawn into emotions, we need to draw the emotions into us. In this way, gradually coarser feelings are relinquished for a more open awareness. This in itself feels very pleasant.
In terms of thought it is usually wrongly assumed that feelings as the motivator of the mind must also be king, but perception (knowing) is king, the first cause. The connection between thought and the deeper realisation is the mental image or words as they come back to us. The most powerful perceptions, however, are without thought.
In clearing our minds we do not fight with ourselves but with the hindrances, and indirectly not directly. Although the hindrances are obstacles to the development of meditation or wisdom none of these necessarily have an unwholesome or unskilful root, they may have no greed or aversion associated, they are not bad or wrong, they are merely disturbing. This is perhaps most important to realise in the cases of lust and anger. Anger without ill will is very common and blameless. Sexual desire too is also blameless, (within the boundary of the five precepts). A committed practitioner, however, may look for situations in which both of these can be avoided, amongst others with similar commitment, either temporarily or permanently. Even a temporary deepening of their practice can have a lasting result whatever their future life situation. The mind that has gone deeper will incline more easily to further practice.
Knowing and being
The fruit of the practice is to become at One with the world but through the heart, not through the senses, not even through the sixth sense of the thinking and emotional mind. The senses are dependent on the body which can never itself find union or stability. Hence the need for the mind to detach from the body and the senses and abandon thought and emotion, through seeing their impermanent nature.
The mind ultimately must stand independent and then embrace the world. We must not merely fall for any illusion of ultimate Union provided by the open, passive senses or by thought and emotion. Even though such experiences may help us overcome specific attachments, they will lead to further, more subtle attachment.
Then through practice we come to either fully know our being or fully be our knowing. These are two routes come together to the same destination, the same freedom, of being ‘the one who knows’. In terms of the path, our being is already pure, no effort is required to purify it. So our passive state is pure. The pure state of just being can be experienced most clearly through absorption samādhi where this is all we are experiencing. The mind with wisdom, that is similarly free from the hindrances, can detach from things and the same state of being is experienced without withdrawal. Yet this wise being does not have the centre or sense of self that samādhi has – any sense of self maintains the division between subject and object.
Thus it is our knowing, our active side, which is the side that potentially can be at One with everything, but its nature is that it is dependent on the objects that it knows, therefore changed by them and therefore unstable, impermanent. This knowing needs to find independence for the mind to find freedom. But this is not withdrawal. There is no independent state of withdrawal but there may occur both release and union at the same time, detachment. This is achieved through contemplation of the body.
When the body is contemplated and let go of, the sense of self disappears from this being. Putting it another way – the brightness of our sense of being is a source of pride, in common parlance it is our ego. So if we do not cool this through body contemplation then our practice of mindfulness will just end up feeding this ego. It is also the second state, without a sense of self, into which unwholesome states can find no entry and that requires no effort to sustain. It is the stable state where the roots of craving have been cut, including the possibility of delighting in the sense of existence, yet this state is not annihilation. There is no sense of existence, yet there is existence.
The result of all this is an existential shift in which it becomes apparent that separation is not achieved through withdrawal. Freedom and independence is freedom from desire and results in detachment. It comes about through dispassion, not through passion. Passion's feelings are always both separate from and dependent on an object. The cessation of such feeling is not an insensitive state, it is the most sensitive, it knows and sees the mind and states of mind clearly.
Also note that there is a common misunderstanding here that cessation (nirodha) means ending. It actually means non-arising. So in talking about the possibility of the cessation of suffering the Buddha is not pointing at the fact that it arises and ceases but that the very causes of its arising are cut off.
While there is the perception of the body as 'attractive' then, through grasping, there will always be a mingling of physical and mental feelings – one with another. With the perception 'unattractive' the mind detaches and we become the observer of physical feeling rather than the one who experiences it. While this lasts proliferation and its related suffering ceases. Body contemplation also generates natural, spontaneous compassion, bringing our spiritual and human sides together into a seamless whole. We naturally empathize, but without attachment.
Let’s pause for a moment. It is true that such spiritual experiences generate interesting ideas and feelings but if we attach to ideas and over-rationalize or attach to feelings generated by such thoughts we cannot see or realise states that go beyond these conceptions. These states involve reactions or qualities that are contrary at the level of thought or feelings, like disgust and compassion for the body that can arise together. More generally, we cannot make a perception or a change of perception just through thought for the same reason. We find instead ways of looking afresh. A summary of the path is that perception, knowing, gets raised by mindfulness to the higher level of wisdom.
Perception or knowing is made more powerful than thought and emotion. We do not raise up our thoughts or emotions. Analysis at these lower levels, trying to integrate thought and emotion, can block the process of a perception change. Also if we are problem-solving through thought, we end up with a fault-finding mind, holding with aversion.
In the experience of body contemplation, for example, holding on with disgust or letting go are clearly not the same. Letting go requires calm. Out of that calm compassion also arises. In practical terms if we continue to care for a sick person as a whole, we do not just centre on the body, whilst also avoiding any aversion to the body, then detachment will arise. The more the realities of the body are seen the more the mind will detach from it. This is not an ‘all-or-nothing thing’, nor is detachment necessarily a stable state.
The skill here is to be able to bear the body in mind at all times, not to always focus on it. Where visual (top-down) and physical feeling (bottom-up) views of the body come together is where mindfulness of body is strongest, clearest. When the body is present in the mind then it will automatically recognize other bodies as the same and empathy naturally arises.
The human situation
So here we are with this body which is not who or what we are but to which our mind has become attached, dependent. The pains and pleasures of the body both disturbing the mind. It is continuous awareness of this situation that defines the spiritual path for us. If we see things like this we have no need of theory or ideas. We see that we need to strive to gain freedom for the mind from attachment to the body and its related senses and feelings. We are motivated to do so seeing the impermanence of the body. We walk the middle way to minimize the disturbance to the mind and seek simplicity.
This wise attention can ultimately prevent the arising of further craving. It is important to understand that suffering is prevented in this way, not resolved. This leaves the way open to seek the resolution of suffering, the mundane path, at the same time and without any confusion. Our suffering becomes our guide to the positive path of virtue, its positive nature helping us to tolerate any suffering on the road out of suffering.
So in a sense it is our body and mind together but detached that show us the way, not just the mind. It is going too far to take the lead of the mind alone or to see the body as merely another object in the mind. Yet the body is a source of perception and feeling other than the mind. There is an act of faith here. Instead of creating wholesome states we pay wise attention to the body and allow them to arise on their own. We find that there is no suffering in the (empty) mind as a mind or in the body as a body. All the suffering lies in the attachment between the two. Consider in this respect how the body holds a unique existential position as part of our being but not part of our mind. We can let go of it.
In terms of contemplation, sooner or later we need to look at our own body to win detachment. Although it is not possible to see through your own skin to see what lies underneath, it is possible that such an image can appear on its own, as a kind of vision. I found, for example, contemplating the hair on the head that a mental image would occur that, amazingly enough, was correct, seeing the hair as long or short as it was, or not there at all the day after shaving the head. So the mind can be aware of the body (and breath) in a way that we cannot understand from the common point of view – the mind must be different from what we had thought.
This new body-image does not arise until the heart is ready, until it is still and all obstructive movement has calmed. The image is bathed in the light of the pure mind, the deathless, so if we see death through seeing the body in this way we also see the deathless and there is no fear but instead release, bliss, emptiness.
As mind states re-arise we see the distinction between what is wholesome and unwholesome. We see that when the mind is not perfectly calm and open, everything that arises there is unwholesome, how we can either add to this or calm it with our deliberate thought. We also see how these operate differently, have different effects on the mind. We see how the unwholesome is tightly bound up with physical form, (due to the coarse nature of the associated feelings) the wholesome is not and may or may not be bound to form but remains bound to impermanence, to existence.
In a sense we can also see that the less real things become the better we are doing. It is when we enter more into material reality, especially the reality of the body, that it becomes less real – please understand that what I am describing is a fruit of the practice, not just an idea; as merely an idea this would be dangerous. The more we try to escape the body through practices, fantasy or ideas, the more the reality has to come as a rude awakening. It is through a wisdom in which compassion also arises naturally. Then we can have the confidence to let go and see the reality that everything is in the mind, the dream-like nature of a reality where the heart is unhindered, unobstructed, not limited by desire.
In terms of method we keep the breath in mind so that we have space in mind, we need to see the body in space in order to see it within the mind. We need not have the intention to see inside the body, our intention can be one of centring or of compassion. Then if we do seem to see inside directly we – momentarily at least – resolve the problem completely. The body is both very real (and naturally evokes compassion) in that we see the real nature of it – and completely unreal in that it is seen as a vision, as just in the mind (and this evokes a wisdom that will mature into release). We see the body and mind as separate things. The body in the mind rather than the mind in the body. Or we could say that desire cannot see the true nature of the body, therefore it cannot see the true nature of the mind whereas a mind free of desire sees both realities. It is as though through the body we see conventional reality and ultimate reality simultaneously. We cannot fall into denying the reality of conditions and acting without compassion. We cannot be blind to the ultimate truth that we are not our bodies. We truly become spiritual beings trying to be human, not human beings trying to be spiritual. We take all the effort and moralizing out of our practice of virtue.
In terms of contemplating bodies other than our own, if we see a dead body often we see that the corpse is no longer the person. We may even see that the body was never the person in the first place. Seeing a dead body as not self can be very liberating; with enough faith our grief can even disappear. Or we can consider the effects of brain dysfunction. This can effect any of our ability or character and yet the underlying state of mind, especially of a meditator, remains stable. There is a kind of still presence there behind it all.
Yet the image of the body within the body is necessary because this brings the heart, the deathless and death together in the same mind moment. Then the heart can let go.
Looking for material reality. Is it real and does it really matter?
Coming at this same consideration from another direction, if we reflect perhaps we can accept that our experience of material reality is not that reality itself. It is a perception constructed by the senses. The body is subjectively perhaps our closest contact with matter. Yet if we search in our minds for the body, actually we never find the real thing. First of all we find feelings, sight, sound, taste or touch that indicate its presence, but in the same way these are not the actual body. Or we can build an imagined picture of the body.
We can find the subjective experiences of the elements of earth, air, fire and water, but these are not separate from the surrounding elements, so as soon as we can sense the body in this way we lose it again, but in a good sense, into the larger reality. This is how looking for material reality takes us to emptiness – but not an emptiness separate from reality.
Liberation isn't merely the letting go of things in order to enter into space – it is seeing through things, seeing that there is only space. It is the non-arising of things in the heart-mind. It is the full emergence of the spirit until only the body and empty mind remain and the practitioner is left to seek a harmless way to live out their residual physical karma.
So our various images of the body are constructed by the mind. The real body cannot be found, actually it does not exist in the mind. We discover no material reality in our subjective experience but we still clearly experience the results of this material existence, the karma of our existence, in terms of feelings and needs. Our ability to see the body and feelings as separate opens up the possibility of abandoning care for the body in and of itself, temporarily or for good, liberating us from both fear and desire. Yet at the same time we remain able to seek relief from painful feelings. This is non-attachment in action.
Conversely, it is therefore the creation of karma that keeps our minds limited to the human form with its associated feeling; the possibility to end all karma formation is our escape from this limitation. All that would remain would be the karma of the physical body – old age, sickness, death, the result of birth – what we discover when are truly mindful of the body is that if we don't mind, it doesn't matter. Furthermore, we see that all the contents of our minds are dependent on the presence of the material body. If we understand all this we realise that to see everything that happens in the world as karma is incorrect, but to see that everything that arises in the mind is karma is correct and thus, in the perfected mind, nothing arises.
I have described how meditation can form a different kind of body image, different to all the others, where the body seems very real, floating in the light of the empty mind; this image lacks any material substance, it has no feelings associated with it. In some sense this is the most real because letting go of it has a liberating effect on the heart, it lets go of the real body, completely – so it would seem that there is some kind of representation of the real body in the mind or heart and that our relationship to this, in existential terms, is the same as to the real thing.
Contrast this with sculptural representations of the body that depict the changes or distortions that occur in the mind's image due to thought (the depiction of an idea or ideal) or of feelings and emotions. This can be a way in which we depict these states of mind or an understanding of the nature of a relationship between body and mind.
Traditional Buddhist art usually depicts the Buddha as a serene, composed physical form with a surrounding aura showing a still, empty mind. The contents of the mind are pictured as external objects. This is a depiction of detachment. Not to overly try to explain or rationalise we can see this detachment as like some kind of magic that shows us the mind and material world are ultimately parallel existences. Truth is already transcendent. Life lies not in the cell or the beating heart. Life lies in a truth that is not apart; and transcendence is not passivity or inaction.
The highest truths
The most important truth to see is simply that of the suffering of existence...if we can see the suffering we will not have the suffering
Seeing suffering in the present moment makes the mind want to withdraw. Then the way to withdraw is not through pain (austerity) or pleasure (even that of the withdrawal of samādhi) but by seeing impermanence (from a calm, neutral place), because that which sees impermanence and detaches (rather than withdrawing) is permanent and stable.
It is through the body that we see impermanence in the present moment by seeing its mortality. Watching the mind, we see impermanence only over time but not in the here and now; this is the reason why the body is so essential for all of this. Also, ultimately, as we detach the mind from the phenomenon of the senses to return to the body, our thoughts and feelings cease – we realise that they seem to be within us but actually they are all outside this innermost space, just the same as the sense objects. We see that when the mind detaches from the senses (into samādhi) the spirit seems to emerge to the full but it is only when this same spirit detaches from the body (in the presence of the body image, rather than when the body disappears) that it finds its greatest brilliance. This transcendent spirit is the One who Knows. This spirit is still not withdrawn from things but only detached from them and is free of the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion.
Thus, ultimately, bare awareness of the body and mind together (in the absence of mental hindrances) will teach us all we need to know for this liberation. To become aware of the realities of the body is the challenge. We have to work through the hindrances and attachment to feelings to be able to see it clearly – we have to overcome the defence mechanisms set up by our own misperceptions of the relationship between body and mind.
The Buddha sometimes refers to the body as kāya (body) and sometimes as rūpa (form). This is seldom given much significance, and yet to see the body as merely another form in the mind can be viewed as the goal of contemplative practice. This requires that the mind be unobstructed and the body seen as a nimitta or vision.
To put this into an explanation of dependent origination: Ignorance (avijjā) is the misperception of the relation between mind and body that creates a deluded, absolute sense of need (taṇhā) and leads to the creation of corresponding, automatic, unquestioned, values (saṅkhāra). Through extension this becomes associated with all the senses to form sense bases (saḷāyatana). The relation between the body and the senses then means that sense contact elicits feelings, pleasant or unpleasant and these in turn become the motivators of the mind. We go beyond what we need to what we want. This is usually taken in the teaching to be the beginning of greed but if we follow the train of conditioning back to the beginning we could see that greed goes much deeper. Our wish to survive in a material form could be seen as a matter of greed rather than of need; and yet to see like this the mind must have gone beyond its attachment to the senses – essentially our independence is won by our first moment of samādhi.
Consciousness is an open system not a closed one. So if it closes it gradually disappears. This is how we go to sleep and the senses, perception and feelings close down. This gives the impression that consciousness is dependent on an object. Yet it is possible to be conscious in the absence of perception or feeling as long as the mind remains open. This is samādhi.
One might ask: “Before samādhi, has the mind ever experienced real freedom from attachment to the senses?” If not then our minds are inextricably caught up. Whenever the objects of the senses fade (including here those of thought and feelings), then the mind will lose consciousness. Is this not the case for the ordinary man? Doesn't this point at our situation as beings lost in saṃsāra. Yet if we see the body as suffering, as unattractive without doubt the mind will let go and experience the bliss of samādhi. After this the person will never want to experience attraction again and will instead be eager to see all the faults.
At the very least, if our sense of need is seen in the context of that which needs – that is the body – then we have sanity, or more than this: we have a source of natural ethics. This is a natural way to purify the mind, to guide our life in the world. It provides conventional wisdom. But the very same act of mindfulness is also, at the same time and in the same way, a source of ultimate wisdom. The two kinds of wisdom, Dhamma and Vinaya, come together through the body.
Mindfulness in action
In order to apply the framework of satipaṭṭhāna to form the full picture we must first realise that within this scheme:
The mind is not thought – thoughts are objects within the field of the mind.
The body is not feelings – feelings are the result of having a body and (grasping) mind together. If we confuse the first and second satipaṭṭhāna – body and feeling – we can sensitize ourselves to feelings only to become neurotic. In contrast to this the flesh and bone body doesn't mind anything, it has no pain or suffering in and of itself.
In terms of mindfulness in the outer world, Ajahn Chah associated the establishment of mindfulness so strongly with the body that he defined it in this way:
We develop presence of the body in the mind (citta) and this in turn effect feelings as reactions of pleasure and displeasure and the content, movements of mind (dhammas). The ultimate result of the practise is that the body is fully present in the empty mind (citta). Mental feelings (dhammas) and emotions as (the result of) the mind in the body, cease – they no longer arise within.
To merely see the impermanence of a feeling or thought is not to see the impermanence of the whole process of thought or feelings as such. Seeing the body (and its impermanence) is to see this. To see all khandhas in the context of the body is to see the impermanence of them all. Thus always the body or form is the first of the khandhas to be considered. All the other khandhas are seen in the context of this.
Interestingly the study of the relationship between mind and body is often assumed to be concerned with developing mental power over matter in some way or another. In the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta (SN 22.59) the Buddha first points out that the body cannot be controlled, hence also the other khandhas, perhaps because the five first disciples were striving for this – to direct the khandhas toward liberation rather than letting go of them.
In summary mindfulness or satipaṭṭhāna is getting into a knowing space in the present and bearing in mind the realities of our body and mind throughout our daily lives. Allowing the body to be simply present develops simple, humble presence of mind but also takes the mind much deeper over time.
I offer this for your reflection.
The method used in teaching Dhamma is for the listener to meditate and to empty the mind so that the teacher's words can enter fully. The teaching can then have an immediate impact on the listener, taking their mind deeper. If we recognise this as the method then when this direct effect is not happening we will be wondering why. We can be comparing our experience with that of the speaker in order to understand their message in a more indirect, analytical way.
We can be thinking, for example,
"This teacher is emphasising concentration. This is difficult for me right now. I will try to remember his advice when I go out into the country at the weekend."
As meditators we can realise that it is possible to consciously place thoughts anywhere within our field of awareness. We tend to do this unconsciously in the way we think. Sometimes this is helpful, sometimes not - in psychology there is a growing literature on 'cognitive metaphors' that function like this. Events in the future are not literally ahead of us but if we imagine them there this makes sense so it is a useful way of thinking that orients us clearly. As meditators we can see more subtle implications of the perceived position or movement of mind states. For example there is a real sense in which more refined states of mind are higher, raising the mind in space is purifying because we are drawing it away from its attachment to its material ground.
Discovering these mental dynamics gives us all kinds of new ways to work with our minds.
Also revealed is the true relationship between the mind and the body.