How would it be if someone gave you a big bag of bones and told you that your job would be to carry them around for your whole life? What about if, on top of that, you had to be very careful not to break one. This does not make life in the body sound too good does it? Actually having a body, if you really pay attention, is at times a very humbling thing to have. The innocent honesty of children in relation to the body can be a lovely light reminder also of how embarrassing the body can be.
And yet looking after the body with mindfulness can be just like looking after another person’s body – except that we can directly feel what is happening.
In developing such mindfulness it can be enormously valuable to nurse others. When we look after another person’s body the absence of direct feeling can show us the bodily predicament very clearly and make caring for another a deeply contemplative experience. We can reflect on what it is like to have a body without the feeling element that tends to affect the mind so much one way or the other. We get a very neutral sense of the body as distinct from feeling. This can really help the mind to calm down over the bodily experience yet, of course, we are concerned for the feelings of the other person at the same time. We are concerned for feeling but not directly effected by it.
This can also mirror the ideal in terms of our relationship to our own bodies, training us to care in a calm and peaceful way.
Also, from such a calm perspective, we can find that looking after another person and looking after their body can be two very different experiences that we shift between. This helps us to see the mind and the body as two different things although they are dependent on each other. This deepens our sense of a healthy, caring detachment where we can look after ourselves or others with compassion but without suffering.
I offer this for your reflection
It is important in terms of Dhamma that there is an image of the body that can be formed in the mind and that is independent of the five senses and of sensations of pleasure and pain. This means that this image can remain in its pure form when the mind is withdrawn from the senses in samādhi. This is the way that an image is held and examined in a place where the mind is pure. This is the way we see the truth of the body and can let go of attachment to it and consequently attachment to all the rest. This is the end of inner suffering.
This inner image is then compared with the outer image of the body, our own and other people's bodies as seen from the outside. In this way we transform this image as well, allowing us to let go of desire related to the bodies of others as well as our own. This is freedom from suffering, inner and outer.
This body image, which is thus at the very heart of the quest for liberation, is formed through a combination of awareness of the movement, posture and elements of the body. Meditation experience (and also evidence from neuroscience) shows us that the mind has sources of the relevant information on these aspects of the body which do not involve the five senses or feelings of pleasure or pain. There are the sensations of the hardness of bones or the softness of the belly that are neutral, neither pleasant nor painful and that through awareness form an image over time of a part of the body in the mind. Then there are neural receptors in our joints that tell us the position of our limbs, giving us information on movement and posture. There are sensors of heat and cold and a sense of the position of the body in relation to gravity.
All this information can form a neutral image in the mind of the real body, in the same place as the real thing, which is not imagined but arises spontaneously. We then find that we can examine and manipulate this image and that this takes our samādhi deeper and deeper until we let go of the body completely.
This is the end of all stress. This can become established as a natural state and a permanent end to stress. Also, if we believe those who have realised such a state, it is clear to them that this is also the end of the cycle of rebirth and therefore an end to all future suffering.
‘Just watch your mind’
Very many teachers of Buddhism are now teaching people as they see all their ‘stuff coming up’ to ‘just watch their mind, accept and let go’. This is a good teaching if we realise that what we are watching is our karma coming up. Then we can keep moving forward but also be noting it all as the results of our actions of body and mind, past and present, seeing it all as feedback and altering our course accordingly.
Where we can go wrong is:
1. If we see what is arising as our minds, not our karma and try to fix it all. Then we will have a hard job fixing the past. In a sense the practice of ‘just watching’ is a good remedy or balance to the fixing that can become endless therapy but it can be hard not to try to get rid of unpleasant feelings - after all that is natural enough. The answer is simple in theory but not so easy in practice. If we have enough patience we can we bring together the element of just watching or rather acceptance and skilful action of one kind or another to alleviate our suffering in the present.
2. If we do not make the discrimination between what is old karma and what is the active mind in the present we can:
a) become the passive watcher and miss the opportunity to steer things in a good direction in the present
b) fail to realise that we are already doing something to contribute to the karma that is arising through the way we are watching. As we passively watch we can then fall into the illusion that the watcher is somehow beyond, already enlightened even and we overestimate our minds, selling ourselves short of the highest goal. In the truly enlightened mind we are not watching our suffering, there is no suffering arising.
What helps is if we also at times hold an object in our formal meditation – we meditate in a more active way. We use the mantra ‘Buddho’ for example. This helps us to clearly see the difference between the two sources of thought – what we are thinking in the present (our mantra) and the flow of karma, our automatic pilot as it were, that comes to interrupt us. In the active, untrained mind feeling and perception, past and present, get mixed up with each other. As we practise formal meditation past and present separate out.
3. If we watch the mind and not the body then the mind can lack feeling and also neglect the purely physical part of our existence as human beings. Also, can we just watch the body if it falls down or do we fall down with it?
We all start off using different techniques of meditation, this is like learning to drive a car using a simulator. We learn all the different elements of the skill separately (steering, gears, brakes etc.) and then later on we combine all these as we drive.
All techniques should have an element of watching (vipassanā) and an element of peacefulness (samatha). These are both necessary elements for progress. If we do not learn to combine these early on our minds will always be vacillating, trying to decide which one to do, when with patience it can be perfectly natural to be doing both at the same time. When we are concentrating on driving a car, for example, we keep our eyes on the road ahead, this is like following a meditation object to calm the mind. We also need to be aware of what is happening on the periphery of our attention, this is like keeping an eye on what else is going on in the mind. An experienced driver automatically uses the controls (the different techniques) while keeping his eyes on the road.
This is also a training relevant to the rest of our lives. We then keep our minds on whatever we are doing whilst being aware of what else is happening, this is balanced attention. We can be effective and also receive the feedback that is coming back to us from our actions. we are aware of both our thoughts and our feelings.
Keeping our mindfulness
Staying in the present moment is not as easy as it sounds. It is mostly a matter of ‘relaxed discipline’: The more we are mindful of something one time, the more we can relax into it, the more likely we will be mindful of it next time.
It is difficult to notice how and when we lose our mindfulness. When we are lost we are lost. So the art is not to give so much attention to when or how we lose mindfulness but how to maintain it. The formal meditation practice helps a lot. When we are meditating we have the object of our meditation, if we are watching the breath it is the continuous presence of the breath in and out that shows us we are mindful. What we need to look for as we meditate more is some kind of sign that our mindfulness is established other than this object – something we can be aware of whatever we are doing. This sign will vary for different people (e.g. brightness in the eyes, a faint ringing in the ears, a sense of ‘presence’). This sign can then become like an anchor for us, holding us in the present moment. This anchor can become something very significant, almost magical or mystical in our lives, an opening into another dimension, another world – the world of mindfulness or 'mind fullness'.
Our whole experience of mindfulness hinges first of all on what we understand or experience the mind to be. What is not explained by the Buddha in his discourse on mindfulness (the satipaṭṭhāna sutta) but taken for granted is the understanding of the mind current at that time. This understanding was formed by the experience of samādhi. This experience was well known, commonplace, in spiritual circles at the time of the Buddha. Now it is very rarely experienced, even mentioned.
The modern perception of the mind is of thinking and emotion. Even if we have studied the Buddha’s teachings and we have all kinds of ideas about the spacious mind, when we come to start actually practising we are quickly back to our usual way of experiencing the mind and its operation. We end up merely thinking about ourselves.
The ancient perception was of a brightness at the heart, shining out to encompass the world and also creating a space in which thought and emotion arise and cease. If we understand the modern perception to be influenced by an objective view of the mind, as being centred in the nervous system and the ancient view to be purely subjective, then they need not contradict. We are just left realising, perhaps, that if we do not impose an objective view onto our subjective experience then it is not the same.
In terms of practice we can understand the development of mindfulness outlined in satipaṭṭhāna as an awareness of our world, inner and outer, based on this understanding of the mind and thus one that accompanies and supports this experiencing of samādhi, the unified mind. Thus in satipaṭṭhāna our purpose is to build up a unified experience of life. We do not focus and analyse one element at a time. Centring strongly on the body we open up to feeling, to the space of the mind and thought in that order. Within the unified experience these latter three elements emerge as the mind expands from its true centre at the heart.
The Buddha further points out that this apparent centre is not the ultimate. The mind expands to the degree that this centre is lost and that this is the ultimate non-dual state.
So, far from aiming at a highly focussed point of analysis, the practise of mindfulness is one of an expansion of the mind. We begin with the body and with a point of emptiness or space developed through concentration but then expand this point to include the world.
Of course I am not the first to point all this out. Many meditation teachers do the same. Yet we can also think that the solution is to merely form a different view of things rather than striving for the actual experience of samādhi. This is like reading the book rather than doing the practice, we fall into armchair Buddhism, much easier. The view will, however, never substitute for the experience.
The traditional spiritual path is virtue, then concentration, then wisdom. We begin with the ‘mundane’ path of virtue. We are learning first of all to tune in to our minds with a moral intention. Then, as we empty out the mind through concentration, we see that it becomes more and more wholesome. In this way we learn for ourselves, in our own experience, that everything that comes to interfere with our concentration, that arises automatically in the mind, is unwholesome. At this point there is no longer a need to discriminate on a moral basis.
Having seen this, we can add contemplation to concentration as a way to let go of all these states and to empty out the mind. Then we are not dependent upon concentration practise to keep the mind clear. Once we have developed, through contemplation, the stable perception of the automatic mind as unwholesome, the mind will become automatically self-clearing. Then we can apply our wholesome minds fully to other things. Developing wholesome perceptions of the world will then cut off at the root any tendency for the unwholesome to arise.
I hope this explains the connection between the two kinds of right mindfulness in the Buddha’s teaching – mundane and supramundane. Mundane right mindfulness is to see the wholesome or unwholesome nature of things, it is a moral discrimination. Supramundane right mindfulness contemplates the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self nature of things.