The Eightfold Path, part 7
This article is the seventh in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're taking a look at the seventh factor of the path, right mindfulness. In the quotation above, the Buddha unpacks right mindfulness into what are often called the 'four foundations of mindfulness' - the body, feelings, the mind, and phenomena. These four categories are explained in much greater detail in the Satipatthana Sutta, and I've already done a series of articles on that discourse, so for today's article we'll instead take a look at why we might want to practise mindfulness at all, particularly through such an elaborate scheme as the four foundations.
The 'four foundations' of mindfulness, or four ways of attending with mindfulness
(Skippable linguistic aside: in the early translations of the Pali canon, the word 'Satipatthana' was understood as a compound of 'sati' (mindfulness, awareness) and 'patthana' (foundation or establishment) - perhaps not unreasonably. But scholars such as Bhikkhu Analayo have argued that it should instead be 'sati' plus 'upatthana', which means something like 'placing near' - and as such 'satipatthana' should be understood as 'attending (to something) with mindfulness'. The four categories of 'right mindfulness' are thus simply four types of experiences that can be attended to with mindfulness, as opposed to four 'foundations' of mindfulness. I prefer the 'attending with mindfulness' interpretation but you'll come across 'four foundations of mindfulness' very frequently, so I thought I'd mention what's going on there!)
The core of mindfulness is to cultivate one's present-moment awareness - that is, to be here now, rather than lost in worries, memories or irrelevant thoughts. That's not to say that we should never think of the future or the past - we should, when it's useful to do so. But very often we find ourselves carried away by trains of thought without any conscious intention on our part to do so - going through our lives absent-mindedly, not really noticing what's going on. As we do so, we easily fall prey to habitual patterns of mental reactivity, allowing ourselves to be led around by the nose rather than having sufficient presence of mind to choose how we would prefer to respond to the situation at hand.
So how do we achieve this state of mindfulness? Through training - in particular, through mindfulness meditation. In meditation, we typically take some object of focus - the breath, the sensations of the body, or some other aspect of our experience - and pay close, continuous attention to it. When we notice that the mind has wandered, we disengage from whatever has caught our attention, and return to the object of mindfulness. Repeat. Simple, right? But, of course, as anyone who has tried this will know, it's easier said than done. Nevertheless, over time, the practice bears fruit. Our minds become trained, better at focusing for longer periods of time, and more sensitive to their own condition (so that, for example, we know when we're getting too tired to concentrate on something and need to take a break).
Now, even a single meditation technique, such as paying attention to the sensations of the breathing, will help us to cultivate mindfulness, and as we practise more and more, we'll start to find the benefits showing up in the course of our daily lives as well. Some of the world's great spiritual traditions take the approach of going deep with a single technique - Soto Zen, for example, relies exclusively on Silent Illumination (aka shikantaza, 'just sitting').
The historical Buddha, however, seems to have valued a wide range of techniques and approaches. He emphasised not just one but four fields of mindfulness, emphasising different aspects of our experience and giving us multiple different ways to explore each of these. In the Satipatthana Sutta, we have:
But if we're just trying to learn to be more in the present moment, why do we need all this stuff? Some of those categories sound pretty weird and complicated - isn't the breath enough?
Three kinds of wisdom
Mindfulness is a powerful tool in its own right, but mindfulness is also the primary vehicle through which we can develop wisdom - a deeper, clearer understanding of what's actually going on in our experience. (There's more about this in the first article in the series, on right view.)
There's an especially tedious discourse in the Pali Canon, Digha Nikaya 33 in the Long Discourses, which is basically one gigantic list of lists. It starts with all the lists of one thing (of which there aren't very many), then all the lists of two things (of which there are lots and lots), then three things, and so on, all the way up to the lists of ten things. It's sort of like an index to the Pali Canon - there's no explanation, just lots of lists.
One of the lists of three things is 'three kinds of wisdom' - given in the Pali version as 'wisdom produced by thought, learning and meditation', although in the Chinese version the order is 'learning, thought and meditation', which makes more sense to me.
We can understand 'wisdom produced by learning' as the kind of wisdom we hear from other people. Someone tells us something interesting, and we store it away as an interesting little factoid. This sort of wisdom is akin to a borrowed possession - someone else came up with it, and now we've put it into our brains for safe-keeping.
At this point, however, the wisdom isn't really ours. It's second-hand - and that becomes very quickly apparent if we repeat it to someone else who doesn't agree. A fairly common occurrence for me is that I'll hear something interesting on a podcast and mention it to my partner - only to discover that she isn't as easily impressed as I am. 'But that's ridiculous,' she'll say, 'what about this, and this, and this, and this?' And I'll flounder, not having a counter to any of her points, because none of them have occurred to me - I was just uncritically repeating what I heard from someone else.
If we want to go beyond second-hand wisdom, we can spend some time thinking about it for ourselves, and arrive at 'wisdom produced by thought'. This is a largely intellectual process of thinking through various angles and ramifications, experimenting with possible criticisms, trying to find holes in what we've been told, and so on. Along the way we may discover that we have genuine objections to it - or we might find that, actually, it does appear to hold water, and now we can defend the idea against criticisms if we're challenged. The wisdom is no longer second-hand - it's become our own intellectual property, if you like.
However, it's quite common for intellectual wisdom to remain at the level of thought only, just 'an idea' that doesn't really impact the way we see the world from day to day. In the meditation world this is a real trap for clever people, since they're more than willing to do the hard work to think through something to reach the satisfying intellectual payoff, but then tend to think that that's it - they're done. They understand the thing now - what's the big deal?
It turns out that there's a third type of wisdom - 'wisdom produced by meditation'. This goes beyond just 'thinking about' the topic, and invites us to explore the reality of what's being discussed in our own subjective experience. It's the difference between seeing a picture of someone eating a melon and actually eating one ourselves - no matter how much information we get about a particular experience, it's no substitute for having that experience ourselves. When we do that, the experience becomes viscerally real for us in a way that can never be matched, or even approximated, by mere thought.
So when Buddhists talk about weird ideas like impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, emptiness, suchness, non-duality and so on, these are meant to be experienced - tasted - not just understood intellectually as a kind of complex eastern philosophy. The trouble is that it's difficult to have those experiences! Unconsciously, we cling to our current way of seeing things, which prevents us from opening up to different perspectives. So, in order to have those experiences, we'll usually need to pay very close attention to some aspect of our experience for quite a while before things open up for us - and that's where mindfulness comes in.
So we have these four categories of mindfulness because the Buddha is inviting us to look at many aspects of our experience, not just the breath. Buddhist teachings are wide-ranging, and it's often very helpful to explore a concept like 'impermanence' through multiple different lenses - noticing, for example, the impermanence of the breath, of feelings, of mind states and so on. While our exploration is only partial, our understanding may likewise remain partial - in the case of impermanence, for example, we might think 'Well, everything I've looked at so far has been impermanent, but I still know there's something permanent out there, I can feel it.' Well, go look for it! Look absolutely everywhere - leave no stone unturned. That's the kind of thoroughgoing investigation which will allow us to make that difficult transition from intellectual knowledge to experiential wisdom - and truly change our lives.
May you be mindful!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!