Don't be like Sisyphus
(In case you're wondering about that title, yes, I've been watching the fourth season of Stranger Things. No spoilers please!)
This week we're continuing our exploration of the Satipatthana Sutta, the early Buddhist discourse on mindfulness practice. Previously we've looked at the sections on mindfulness of breathing, the body scan, and the Four Elements - all aspects of the first satipatthana, mindfulness of the body. This week we'll conclude the first satipatthana and also cover the second, and perhaps make sense of the title and subtitle of this article along the way.
Let's get into to it!
The nine charnel ground contemplations
Again, monks, as though [one] were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground – one, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter, [one] compares this same body with it thus: ‘this body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’
Again, monks, as though [one] were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, or various kinds of worms … a skeleton with flesh and blood, held together with sinews … a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, held together with sinews … a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together with sinews … disconnected bones scattered in all directions … bones bleached white, the colour of shells … bones heaped up, more than a year old … bones rotten and crumbling to dust – [one] compares this same body with it thus: ‘this body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’
Yikes! The Buddha isn't messing around.
As we've discussed previously, impermanence is a major theme in Buddhism - one of the Three Characteristics, no less. (Hui-Neng, the Sixth Ancestral Master of Zen, equated impermanence with Buddha Nature.) But whereas in the previous Satipatthana meditations we've primarily focused on moment-to-moment impermanence - of the breath, the bodily postures and activities, sensations in the parts of the body, and the four elemental aspects of the body - the charnel ground contemplations invite us to take a longer view.
As the saying goes, the only certain things in life are death and taxes. But Western culture typically goes to great lengths to conceal the realities of death from us. Every funeral I've attended here in the UK has been what an American would call 'closed-casket' - there's a coffin, which presumably contains the body of the person who has died, but really we're all just assuming that; we don't open it up to check it out. And in American open-casket funerals, the body generally undergoes a long process of preparation - being cleaned, dressed in nice clothes, makeup applied and so on - to hide the ugly realities of death, and give people a chance to see the dead person one last time as they remembered them in life, rather than as they are now.
The practice that the Buddha is suggesting here invites us to move beyond the polished, delicate, polite rituals we have in the West, and stare death in the face. We are asked to imagine that we are walking through a charnel ground - a place where dead bodies are discarded in the open air rather than buried, a practice which was commonplace in the time of the Buddha and which still occurs in India and other parts of the world today - and bring to mind corpses in various states of decay, and then reflect that our own body will undergo a similar process after our own death. (The Visuddhimagga, a key commentarial text in Theravada Buddhism, goes one step further and recommends visiting a charnel ground in person to do the contemplation 'in the flesh', no pun intended.)
If we've never seen a human corpse, this can be tricky. (Hollywood's various presentations don't count.) Even so, there are a couple of options open to us. If you can get out into nature, you can often find the corpse of an animal that has died (either of natural causes or due to predation), and if you then return over the next few days and weeks, you may have the opportunity to observe the process of decay. A slightly different option is to go to the ever-reliable YouTube and watch some videos of autopsies. It's an interesting experience.
Once again, we have the standard refrain that follows all of the practices in the Satipatthana Sutta.
In this way, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body internally … externally … both internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising … of passing away … of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body.
We first consider our own death. What effect does that have on us? What are the implications? How should we live in light of this knowledge?
Then we consider the deaths of others. Everyone in our lives will die someday. Again, what are the implications of that?
Finally, we shift to a broader perspective, acknowledging the impermanence of life in general, both our own life and the lives of others. Again, what are the implications of that?
We've already talked extensively about impermanence, but again we're invited to explore it in detail. As death arises, life passes away. As each stage of decay arises, the previous stage passes away. As each moment arises, the previous moment passes away. Is anything stable?
An aspect of this refrain that we haven't discussed so far in these articles is the 'bare knowledge' part.
Generally speaking, the Satipatthana meditations, and insight meditation more generally, are intended to encourage us to look at the nature of our experience rather than its content. In other words, we should focus on seeing clearly the impermanent nature of life and the inevitability of the process of death and decomposition, rather than allowing ourselves to be drawn into the emotions and stories around how terrible it might be to die, how we don't want to die and still have so much to live for, how so-and-so was taken before their time, and so on.
Death contemplations can be challenging. They can bring up a lot of psychological material, especially if we've lost someone recently, and I'm not saying that there's no value in working with that material. But insight meditation is not therapy, and if we're interested in the cultivation of insight, we should make sure that that's what we're doing, at least some of the time, rather than focusing entirely on working through our issues. Both are beneficial activities, with different intentions and different outcomes. By all means pursue therapy if that's something that will be helpful for you - I have, and I highly recommend it. But insight meditation is helpful as well, and I highly recommend that too.
That's it for the first satipatthana!
The nine charnel ground contemplations bring us to the end of the first satipatthana, the section on mindfulness of the body. Now we move into the second satipatthana, the section on vedana (to be defined shortly). After the extensive first satipatthana, the others are pretty terse by comparison - especially the second and third, which only have one practice each. So let's take a look at the second satipatthana now.
Mindfulness of vedana
And how, monks, does [one] in regard to vedana abide contemplating vedana? Here, when feeling a pleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel a pleasant vedana’; when feeling an unpleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel an unpleasant vedana’; when feeling a neutral vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel a neutral vedana.’
First question: what the heck is a vedana?
This is actually a hotly debated topic, to the point that the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in the U.S. actually held a 'Vedana Conference' in 2017 to discuss it. I'm not going to get into all the different definitions today - that would be an article in itself - but if you're interested, the papers from the conference are freely available online.
I'm going to follow my teacher Leigh Brasington interpretation of vedana, and his practice of leaving the word vedana untranslated. We don't really have an everyday concept in English to describe vedana, and the various translations that are popular in the Buddhist world are usually either misleading (feelings, sensations) or require enough explanation (valence, feeling tone, hedonic tone) that they might as well have been left untranslated in the first place. Without further ado, then, I'll get into the explanation.
Vedana is simply that aspect of experience which categorises any arising phenomenon as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant, i.e. neutral. That's it. Something happens, it strikes you as nice, nasty or neither, that's your vedana right there.
So the basic practice being described here is one in which we attend to the quality of our experience related to the sense of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It sounds simple, but it's a fascinating practice, with many layers. Indeed, the discourse goes on to describe a second layer to the practice right away.
When feeling a worldly pleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel a worldly pleasant vedana’; when feeling an unworldly pleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel an unworldly pleasant vedana’; when feeling a worldly unpleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel a worldly unpleasant vedana’; when feeling an unworldly unpleasant vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel an unworldly unpleasant vedana’; when feeling a worldly neutral vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel a worldly neutral vedana’; when feeling an unworldly neutral vedana, [one] knows ‘I feel an unworldly neutral feeling.’
So, what do 'worldly' and 'unworldly' mean? Again, there's some debate. There are two major interpretations:
I'm going to use the latter interpretation, partly because (as a Zen guy) I'm not super-excited about talking about renunciation, and partly because exploring the body/mind duality is a very interesting practice.
When we start to look closely, it turns out that we don't actually spend much time at all with that five-sense experience. Rather, we see, hear or feel something, and that triggers some thoughts; those thoughts then trigger more thoughts, which trigger even more thoughts, and pretty soon we're on the fast track to papanca, 'mental proliferation'. Apparently something like 80% of our mental activity is in response to other mental activity, rather than sensory experience.
This gets pretty interesting, because under normal circumstances we tend to experience both the sensory phenomena and the mental phenomena as a kind of gestalt - one giant tangled hairball of 'thing'. As we explore vedana, however, we can start to distinguish between the vedana of the five-sense aspect of experience and the vedana of the ensuing conceptual interpretation, and thus we can start to separate our five-sense experience from our mental experience. Unravelling which parts of experience are due to the body and which are due to the mind is a key step on the path of insight.
Here's that refrain again
“In this way, in regard to vedana [one] abides contemplating vedana internally … externally … both internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising … of passing away … of both arising and passing away in vedana. Mindfulness that ‘there are vedana’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to vedana [one] abides contemplating vedana.
(Notice that the refrain has the same form but is slightly different this time around - we're in the second satipatthana rather than the first now, so references to body have been replaced by references to vedana.)
Again, we start close to home, exploring our own vedana. Then, when we have a thorough appreciation of our own vedana, we start to notice how others respond to their vedana. The vedana of others isn't always the same as our vedana! There are people in this world who enjoy the taste of aniseed, but I am not one of them. Conversely, I enjoy heavy metal, but that's pretty much a minority interest in terms of the global population - some people even claim to find the music indistinguishable from noise. Vedana can be deeply subjective, as it turns out - which begins to explain why there are so many people holding views which to us seem ridiculous and obviously wrong.
Once we have familiarised ourselves with our own process of vedana and observed that process unfolding for others, we can again shift to a broader perspective, noticing the key role that vedana plays in the unfolding of the world at large. How much of society is built up around the so-called 'hedonic treadmill', endlessly running up that hill (see what I did there?) chasing more and more pleasant vedana in the hope that it will ultimately fulfil us?
Continuing on from the previous contemplation, there's plenty of interesting material to explore here too.
First, notice the arising of vedana. It's quick! Unless you're unusually concentrated and really focusing on watching the fine details of your experience unfolding, vedana is usually 'baked in' to what we experience - and not just the initial five-sense vedana, but the subsequent vedana of the mental conception too. As a result, it's really central to our experience, and merits its place in the scheme of the Five Aggregates (which we'll discuss in more detail in the next Satipatthana article).
Then notice the passing away of vedana. Like everything else, vedana is impermanent. It doesn't last. Even the really good stuff wears off sooner or later. The new car, the new house, the new job, the new partner -sooner or later, the shine will begin to tarnish. That isn't to say that those things weren't worth having; it's just that novelty always wears off in the end.
As we recognise this, we can move to a broader contemplation of the impermanence of vedana. As we do so, the futility of the hedonic treadmill becomes apparent. Chasing pleasant vedana in the hope of making it stick that way and turn into permanent lasting fulfilment is a bit like playing keepy-uppy with a football and expecting it to hover in the air if we can just figure out how to do it right. We're like Sisyphus, the figure from Greek mythology who was cursed to spend all eternity rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll all the way back down each time he was about to reach the top.
Worse, there's also a kind of pendulum effect. The more we've tried to grab on to our pleasant vedana and pull it toward us, the further away from us it will swing when it finally slips out of our grasp, and we feel more bereft than before. Similarly, the harder we push unpleasant vedana away from us, the greater the momentum the pendulum has when it slips beyond our grip and swings back to hit us in the face. When we define ourselves in terms of what we want to get, we cannot help but notice all the ways in which we lack that very thing or quality, and conversely.
Working with vedana can be a powerful way to be present with our experience with some degree of equanimity - not pushing it away, but not getting sucked into it either. By attending to the quality of vedana in the experience, we're paying attention to what's going on, but we're focusing on its nature rather than its content. We can also use this in the other direction - if we notice that we've just spent the last five minutes trying to work out why something is triggering unpleasant memories, that can serve as a kind of mindfulness bell to return to simply noticing 'unpleasant'.
So far, we've looked at the impermanence (anicca) of vedana, and how, as a result, chasing pleasant vedana can never be a source of lasting happiness - in other words, vedana are ultimately unsatisfactory (dukkha). That's two of the Three Characteristics - what about the third?
Central to our sense of self is the feeling of agency. It feels to me like I make decisions - I'm in charge, I get to decide what I do next, how I respond to what's happening, and so on. A great deal of my experience is therefore nothing to do with me, because it isn't under my control - the sounds of birds outside my house, or that one neighbour with the unnaturally noisy lawnmower, for example.
So what about vedana? Is that something I control? Do I cause vedana to arise, or to pass away? Can I decide what type of vedana I would like to have? Can I stop vedana from happening entirely? Or do vedana simply continue to arise, moment to moment, spontaneously co-arising with other phenomena, and taking on a positive, negative or neutral tone regardless of how I might like them to be?
Check it out!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!