The components of self, and other Satipatthana teachings
This week we're continuing our exploration of the Satipatthana Sutta, the early Buddhist discourse on how to practise mindfulness. Previous articles in this series have looked at the first two topics of exploration: the body (mindfulness of breathing, scanning the body, the Four Elements) and vedana (the way each experience strikes us as pleasant, unpleasant or somewhere in between). This week we'll cover the third section (mind states) and make a start on the fourth (dhammas - see below).
It's going to be a jumbo-sized article this week (in an ideal world I would have split it over several weeks, but unfortunately my schedule in preparation for next month's retreat won't permit that), so let's jump right in! You can always take a break after each practice and come back in a day or two - if nothing else, it's good for my website stats to get repeat visitors...
The third satipatthana: mindfulness of mind states
And how, monks, does [one] in regard to the mind abide contemplating the mind? Here [one] knows a lustful mind to be 'lustful', and a mind without lust to be 'without lust'; [one] knows an angry mind to be 'angry', and a mind without anger to be 'without anger'; [one] knows a deluded mind to be 'deluded', and a mind without delusion to be 'without delusion'; [one] knows a contracted mind to be 'contracted', and a distracted mind to be 'distracted'; [one] knows a great mind to be 'great', and a narrow mind to be 'narrow'; [one] knows a surpassable mind to be 'surpassable', and an unsurpassable mind to be 'unsurpassable'; [one] knows a concentrated mind to be 'concentrated', and an unconcentrated mind to be 'unconcentrated'; [one] knows a liberated mind to be 'liberated', and an unliberated mind to be 'unliberated.'
The passage above (taken from Ven. Analayo's translation) talks about 'contemplating the mind', but it's perhaps better to think of this one as 'contemplating mind states'. Unlike perceptual 'events' such as body sensations or their associated vedana, mind 'states' don't necessarily have any one single sensation or thought by which they can be identified. Rather, we determine our mind state by examining what's happening over time. For example, if you're experiencing a seemingly never-ending stream of negative thoughts toward someone, it may well be that you are experiencing 'an angry mind'. If most days you can stay with the breathing for a minute or so before the mind wanders, but today you barely make it five seconds without the mind drifting, it's likely that you're experiencing 'a distracted mind'. And so on.
Developing awareness of our mind states is both important and very helpful. Sometimes focusing very precisely on exactly what sensations are present right now is exactly what we need to be doing, but sometimes it can be used as an escape from something we need to deal with but would prefer to avoid, and even on a good day we miss a lot of important information about what's going on with us overall if we're solely focused on our experience in this particular microsecond.
It's perhaps worth noting that the practice recommended here is simple awareness of what's going on. If you're experiencing anger, simply notice 'oh, anger'. This willingness to recognise what's going on without immediately taking the next step into '...and here's how I'm going to fix it' is a very important part of mindfulness - it's how we cultivate the skill of equanimity. That's not to say that we should never take any active steps to extricate ourselves from negative mind states or cultivate positive ones, simply that the practice being suggested here is not about changing what's going on, but merely observing it. My Zen teacher Daizan often says that simply bringing awareness to what's going on within us can often be enough to start a process of release and healing, without needing any additional 'strategy' or 'technique', so it's well worth developing this ability for yourself and giving it a try.
Unpacking the list of mind states
The list above is not meant to be exhaustive (although later Buddhist practitioners did attempt to construct exhaustive lists of mind states - see the Abhidhamma if that kind of thing is more interesting to you than it is to me), but there are some interesting qualities in there, and a couple of odd ones, so let's take a look.
Greed (=lust), hatred (=anger) and delusion are central to Buddhism - variously known as the Defilements, Poisons or Fires, they represent the three roots of unwholesome states and behaviour. So we're starting the list with something pretty basic: 'Hey, am I in the grip of lust right now - is that why I want this particular thing?'
Once we start to examine our motives, we rapidly discover the extent to which greed amplifies our wants and hatred amplifies our aversions. We might catch ourselves reacting more strongly to something than is really appropriate or necessary, for example. In that moment, we have the opportunity to pause, let things calm down a bit, and then ask ourselves again whether this is really the right course of action. Often simply taking a moment is enough for the urge to pass, but sometimes the drive can be more deep-seated, in which case it can take a bit more patience. Keep at it!
The third one is a bit trickier, though. How are you supposed to know whether you're deluded? After all, what does it feel like to be wrong? The answer is that it feels pretty much the same as it does to be right, at least right up until the moment when you find out that you're wrong! If it felt obviously different to be wrong about something, we'd probably spend less time doing it...
However, people who've been doing this practice for a while tend to find that they've started to accumulate insight - into themselves, into their lives, into the way things work at a pretty deep level. And yet, despite having seen clearly what's going on, we don't always act in alignment with that insight. The power of our old habits can be ferociously strong, easily overwhelming the prompting of our new insights. So, in much the same way that we can check in from time to time to see whether our wanting is being fuelled by greed, or our aversion by hatred, we can periodically stop and ask ourselves 'am I really living in accordance with the insights from my practice, or have I forgotten them again?' It can be helpful to keep a practice diary and write down any key insights that come up for you, and then go back and review them from time to time to see whether those insights are becoming integrated into your actions, or whether they've been left at the side of the road.
Many of the terms in this discourse are just kinda thrown out there with no further explanation, so it isn't always totally obvious what 'contracted' and 'distracted' mean here. We've just had three pairs of terms where the bad one ('a mind with lust') is contrasted with the good one ('a mind without lust'), so potentially this could be the same - 'contracted' might be intended as the opposite of 'distracted', so meaning something like 'focused' or 'concentrated'. Then again, 'concentrated' and 'unconcentrated' come up later in the list, so it would seem redundant to have the same idea twice in the list.
Alternatively, 'contracted' may refer to 'dullness' - when the mind starts to lose energy and sink into a kind of grey void of unawareness. That contrasts well with 'distracted', because dullness and distraction are the two pitfalls either side of the middle way of focus that we look for in meditation. I've done a whole bit on dullness and distraction in my article on the Elephant Path, so check that out if you want more detail.
This pair is also a bit of a mystery. The commentaries suggest that it's to do with the size of the space pervaded by your meditation practice - so if you're doing something like the boundless radiation of loving kindness, you're pervading a 'great' area, whereas if you're focusing on the breath at the nostrils, you're pervading a 'narrow' area. Shrug.
Meditation can lead us to a lot of interesting places. Experiences of bliss, joy, contentment and so forth can be achieved in a variety of ways. None of these experiences are the ultimate point of the practice, however - so, at least until we're fully awakened, it's a good idea to keep in mind that, no matter how amazing and blissful this experience you're having right now might be, it isn't the end of the story.
There's also a more technical and specific meaning to this instruction which often comes out in discussion of jhana. The first jhana is really nice... but the second is more concentrated, more stable, better as a preparation for insight practice. So the first jhana is a surpassable mind state, with the second jhana being higher. And so on down the line, all the way to the total cessation of feeling and perception, which (pretty much by definition) is an 'unsurpassable' mind state, because you've reached the end of the road of the human experience at that point.
Try to follow your breath without the mind wandering - how long do you last? If the answer is measured in a small number of seconds, yeah, you're pretty unconcentrated. If the answer is measured in a small number of minutes, you've definitely made significant progress in concentrating the mind. If the answer is measured in hours, you're probably either a concentration master or well on the way to becoming one.
Why is it important to be aware of how concentrated you are? Well, for one thing, it can help to give yourself a break if your mind is wandering frequently. You aren't necessarily doing anything wrong, and you certainly aren't a terrible meditator - you just have an unconcentrated mind state. Similarly, if you hit a patch of inner peace and everything is super-focused, it doesn't necessarily mean you're the next Buddha - you just have a concentrated mind state. Good to know!
Traditionally, liberation refers back to the defilements that started this list. Since we've already examined the mind to see whether greed, hatred or delusion are present, we can take this final step in one of two ways.
Looking over a long period of time, we could see 'OK, my mind doesn't have any greed, hatred or delusion present right now - but how often do they come up?' In other words, to what extent has your mind become liberated from the defilements? Are they a major factor in your experience, or are they losing their bite? Measuring one's progress on the spiritual path is a tricky business, but a simple metric like 'how caught up in greed, hatred and delusion am I compared to five years ago?' can be a useful way to check in and see how things are going.
On a more immediate level, it's one thing to check for the presence or absence of each of greed, hatred and delusion, but do we actually stop and recognise those moments of our lives where we're free from all three at once? The Third Noble Truth invites us to see for ourselves the cessation of suffering, to taste - even for a moment - freedom from struggling against life. The more we take time to notice and appreciate those moments of freedom, the more likely they'll be to come up more often, as our mind-body system learns that this is a beneficial direction in which to develop.
As usual, the discourse then continues with the familiar 'refrain':
In this way, in regard to the mind [one] abides contemplating the mind internally ... externally ... internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising ... of passing away ... of both arising and passing away in regard to the mind. Mindfulness that ‘there is a mind’ 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 is how in regard to the mind [one] abides contemplating the mind.
So: recognise that you are subject to mind states which condition your thoughts, speech and actions; recognise that other people are also subject to mind states; and then reflect on the universality of conditioned mind states. Notice the arising of mind states, notice their cessation, and then reflect on the impermanence of mind states (and thus their unreliable nature). Simply notice what's going on, without automatically attempting to change your mind states to your liking. And, by doing this, cultivate greater and greater mindfulness from moment to moment, until you can rest in cool flow at will.
The fourth satipatthana: mindfulness of dhammas
'Dhamma' is a word with many meanings. With a capital d, it usually refers to the teaching of the Buddha. With a lower-case d, it means something like a law (in the sense of a law of nature) - the way that something works. And when it's pluralised, it means 'phenomena' or 'things'.
In the case of the fourth satipatthana, there's possibly a bit of wordplay going on. The fourth satipatthana covers several different lists of phenomena, whose operation we will examine in terms of cause and effect, thereby furthering our understanding of the Buddha's teaching. In other words, we're going to look at dhammas, in order to investigate the dhamma of each one, for the purpose of exploring the Dhamma. Ba-dum tish...
This week we'll look at the first two categories in this section, the Five Hindrances and the Five Aggregates. Next time (two weeks from now) we'll look at the remaining categories in this section - tune in then for more details!
The Five Hindrances
And how, monks, does [one] in regard to dhammas abide contemplating dhammas? Here in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas in terms of the five hindrances. And how does [one] in regard to dhammas abide contemplating dhammas in terms of the five hindrances?
If sensual desire is present in [oneself], [one] knows 'there is sensual desire in me'; if sensual desire is not present in [oneself], [one] knows 'there is no sensual desire in me'; and [one] knows how unarisen sensual desire can arise, how arisen sensual desire can be removed, and how a future arising of the removed sensual desire can be prevented.
[and similarly for aversion, sloth-and-torpor, restlessness-and-worry, and doubt]
I've previously written about the Five Hindrances, so I won't repeat that material here - this article is already too long! Instead, let's get into the distinctive feature of this practice, as opposed to a discussion of the Hindrances more generally.
Cause and effect
The first part of the practice here looks a lot like the mindfulness of mind states that we saw in the third satipatthana. The Hindrances are, after all, unwholesome mind states.
But what's different here is that we start to bring in an exploration of cause and effect. A major theme in early Buddhism is dependent origination, which can be thought of as a deep exploration of the nature of cause and effect.
Here, the Buddha is suggesting that we explore cause and effect in relation to the Hindrances. Can we identify what causes each one to arise? Can we identify how to let go of it when it's arisen? And can we figure out how to avoid it coming up again in the future?
We're now building a very helpful toolkit for ourselves. By learning what triggers each of the Hindrances in ourselves, we're getting some valuable information about how we can organise our lives and our practice environment in a supportive way - establishing conditions which will be less likely to send us spinning off into the Hindrances rather than doing our meditation practice.
In the next article, we'll see a complementary practice - cultivating the Seven Factors of Awakening, which are the Jedi to the Hindrances' Sith. Come back in two weeks for details of that one.
Yup, the refrain again.
In this way, in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas internally ... externally ... internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising ... of passing away ... of both arising and passing away in dhammas. Mindfulness that 'there are dhammas' 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 is how in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas in terms of the five hindrances.
Now on to the next - and, for today's article, the last - practice.
The Five Aggregates
Again, monks, in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas in terms of the five aggregates of clinging. And how does [one] in regard to dhammas abide contemplating dhammas in terms of the five aggregates of clinging? Here [one] knows, 'such is material form (rupa), such its arising, such its passing away; such is feeling (vedana), such its arising, such its passing away; such is cognition (sañña), such its arising, such its passing away; such are volitions (sankhara), such their arising, such their passing away; such is consciousness (viññana), such its arising, such its passing away.'
The Five Aggregates give us a way of dividing up our subjective experience into categories. (The word usually translated as aggregate, khanda, literally means 'heap', so you could think of this as carving up experience into five heaps of stuff.)
The suggestion - which we'll explore in a moment in a contemplation practice - is that these Five Aggregates comprise everything which makes us who we are - in other words, we can't find ourselves outside these Five Aggregates. And yet, when we examine the aggregates, all we find is change. The aggregates are fundamentally impermanent, unreliable and not totally under our control. So... who the heck are we?
Before we get into the contemplation, though, let's take a moment to define the aggregates, so we know what we're looking at.
The first aggregate, rupa, refers to material form. In terms of ourselves, that means the body, and we've already spent a lot of time working with the body in this discourse - we've looked at mindfulness of breathing, postures, activities, parts of the body, aspects of the body such as solidity, liquidity, movement and temperature, and the inevitability of the body's death and decay.
Sometimes the first aggregate is also used to cover our experience of materiality more generally, so that would include things like your experience of the solidity of whatever device you're using to read this article, or the ground beneath your feet.
The whole second satipatthana is devoted to vedana, and I wrote extensively there about what exactly it is, so go back and check out that article if you aren't sure. In a nutshell, though, vedana is the quality of 'pleasantness' of experience - whether something is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
Simply put, vedana is 'how something feels' - whether you like it or not.
If vedana is the 'how' of experience, sañña is the 'what'. Sañña is the process by which our sensory experience (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, thoughts) is woven together to make the 'things' that we experience. So the 'solid sensation' combines with the 'patch of brown' to become 'tree trunk'.
When we're newborn, we don't have any concepts by which we can understand the world, so we're totally helpless and dependent on others. As we develop, we learn how to 'make sense' of the world around us - we pick up concepts unconsciously from our environment, and use them to build conceptual frameworks that 'explain' what's going on and enable us to navigate the world independently without too much trouble. As we grow older we can also choose to seek out knowledge that's of interest, and thereby enrich our store of concepts deliberately. Thus sañña applies both on the moment-to-moment level (in terms of helping us to understand what's present in our environment right now) and on a broader level (in terms of having a sense of who we are, what we're doing in life, what's going on in the world around us, and so on).
The word 'sankhara' is used a few different ways in early Buddhism, and I've already written way too much to want to get into a discussion of that right now!
In the context of the aggregates, sankhara refers to our sense of having the ability to act in the world, so it includes our intentions (what we want to accomplish with the things around us) and our impulses (the things that occur to us to do). How do I want to respond to this thing that has just appeared? How could I use that thing for my own ends? Ooh, chocolate, I want some!
'Consciousness' is another of those words that mean different things in different contexts. In the context of the aggregates, it very specifically refers to our 'knowing' that something is present.
Here's an example. Suppose you're sitting at a table in a cafe, and a friend comes in and sits down opposite you. Right at that moment, you have no consciousness of what's in your friend's pockets, because you haven't seen what (if anything!) is in there yet.
Now your friend takes a bunch of keys out of a pocket and puts them on the table. Now, you are conscious of the keys - you can see them (eye-consciousness) and you have conceptualised them as a bunch of keys (sañña, leading to mind-consciousness - the thought that says 'keys!').
Then your friend puts the keys back into the pocket again. Now the situation is slightly different - you can't see them any more, so you no longer have 'eye-consciousness' of the keys, but it only happened a moment ago so you can clearly remember that the keys were there, and you saw them go into your friend's pocket, so you still have 'mind-consciousness' of the keys.
Hopefully that makes sense! In particular, I'm trying to distinguish this meaning of 'consciousness' from something like 'the vast spacious field of awareness in which experience comes and goes', or alternatively 'the animating force that makes humans different from rocks'.
The kind of consciousness meant by the aggregates is closely related to 'presence of mind'. If you're doing a task but you aren't paying much attention and make a mistake, that mistake likely occurred because you weren't conscious of what you were doing at the point of the mistake.
The Five Aggregates in a nutshell
(With thanks to Ven. Analayo, from whose book I pinched this example)
Suppose you encounter a tall, solid, pleasant, shady tree, which you could lie under to escape from the heat, and you can see the tree right now.
In this way, in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas internally ... externally ... internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising ... of passing away ... of both arising and passing away in dhammas. Mindfulness that ‘there are dhammas’ 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 is how in regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas in terms of the five aggregates of clinging.
On which note, let's contemplate the Five Aggregates!
Contemplating the self in terms of the aggregates
We've talked about contemplation practice before - again, go check out the previous article if you aren't familiar with the term. What I'll do to close out this article is simply to offer some themes of contemplation in regard to the aggregates, and in particular how our sense of self relates to them. I suggest setting aside some practice time, taking a while to get settled, and then spending at least a minute on each bullet point in each section, ideally longer. (For bonus points, come back to some version of this contemplation every day for a few weeks - it's a really profound source of insight.)
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.