2022-01-31 Satipatthana (20) Beauty in Mindful Activity
3:55PM Jan 31, 2022
Hello everyone. We are continuing to go through the discourse on the four foundations for mindfulness, for awareness. These exercises are ways of developing a heightened sense of attention and awareness in four different domains or areas of our life. We bring attention to these different areas of our being so that our capacity to be awake and aware becomes stronger and stronger, clearer and clearer, and simpler and simpler – all at the same time.
We are doing the third exercise in the 13 exercises. It goes like this: "A practitioner is one who acts in full awareness when going forward and returning; who acts in full awareness when looking ahead and looking away; who acts in full awareness when flexing and extending the limbs; who acts in full awareness when wearing their robes or carrying their outer robe and bowl." This is for monastics, but for laypeople, this means giving full awareness when wearing our clothes, carrying our plates and silverware, and when eating.
It continues that a practitioner is one: "who acts in full awareness when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting; who acts in full awareness when defecating and urinating; who acts in full awareness when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent." This is mindfulness in activities.
When I was first studying the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, I probably came with a strong influence from the Zen training I had done. So I read the text selectively for the passages that emphasized not doing anything more than just being aware. I thought that just being aware was enough – just to be present for what is, without any attempt to change it, or do anything with it, or judge it. Just to be aware. A kind of receptive or somewhat passive awareness, in a sense.
But as I studied this text and the teachings of the Buddha more and more, I saw that the Buddha's teachings are very centrally rooted and grounded in action – action of body, speech and mind. I saw that without understanding the role and place of action in our practice, we might not really find our way to freedom, or realize its full potential.
The first three exercises of the text include a lot of action. The text begins with breathing. It says, "Breathing in, I know I am breathing in." It does not say, "I know breathing is happening." Breathing is not seen as just a passive thing going on. Instead, it says, "I know 'I' am breathing."
Then it says, "experiencing one's whole body." That is a bit receptive and open, but it implies a choice to use the mind to receive and experience the body – to really feel the full body. Then it says to relax the body. That clearly is an activity.
The second exercise begins with focusing on walking – knowing you are walking when you're walking, standing when you're standing, sitting when sitting, and lying down when lying down. These are called "postures," but they are also activities. We put ourselves in these postures.
The third exercise is all about activities. It is about what we are doing. I like to think that the text begins this way because we are starting to get the hang of how to pay attention to the way that we act, the actions we do. So, this practice is about more than mindfulness of sitting quietly in meditation with the eyes closed, and then later we learn how to practice in daily life. The practice of satipaṭṭhāna begins right here with activities, with our daily life. With all the things we do in our daily life, we infuse them with mindfulness and attention.
It is not a distraction to do this. It distracts us from our distractions. If you prefer to be distracted, then don't practice mindfulness. But in a funny way, to practice mindfulness is to do something different than being distracted. To be present for the activities we do while we are doing them – and to be present from the inside out.
There is not just simply knowing that we are doing activities – knowing that I am reaching for something, for example – but we are also infusing. If I reach for something, like the bell that is here next to me, I can do it mindlessly. I can do it while I am talking, and not really pay attention to what I'm doing. Or I can really slow down and put my attention in my arm, feel the stretching out, feel the weight of the bell, feel my hand gripping it, and then feel what it's like to lift it up – and infuse this with sensations.
Initially, this kind of attention might seem like a distraction from living your life. But over time, we can live our life and be infused with this kind of attention. We are infusing ourselves with embodied awareness, which gives us access to a much wider range of who we are. A wider range of intelligence, perception, sensitivity, and wisdom than if we are only living in our heads, thinking, planning ahead, reacting to things, and reviewing things in the mind.
When we start dropping down and allowing the body to be the foundation from which we engage, our awareness becomes more holistic. Our whole being, with all our different capacities and functions, can begin to be martialed together for the purpose of being present – and wise.
The text talks about practicing "full awareness." I like this expression quite a bit. But I think the Pali word sampajāna means more – something like "with a clear recognition." To really recognize what we are doing when we're doing it. But what do we recognize? Certainly, the activity in and of itself. But "full recognition" includes our intentions and purpose in doing something, and the context we are in.
This wider intelligence and wider sensitivity can arise from the body, because we are really present for our experience as we do it. Not at the exclusion of everything else, but because we are more here and we are more attentive and sensitive to what goes on around us.
We also pay attention, in this full awareness, full clear recognition, to the effect or influence our actions have on us. If I grab my bell out of out of greed – quickly grab it and hold it tight – "this is mine" – there is tension and tightness in holding it and grabbing it. If I pay attention to the influence this has on me, it is not very good. It is awkward and brings more tension. But instead, I can reach for the bell in a relaxed way – respecting the bell, feeling the bell when I first touch it – not grabbing it right away. And then holding it with just enough tightness in my grip, and lift it without gripping it. Just holding it, lifting it up, and feeling it. I can feel the coolness of the metal against my hand. And it feels nice to do that action. There is simple pleasure in reaching for the bell and holding it.
This is a hugely important part of mindfulness practice: we can become mindful of the influence, the effect our actions have on ourselves – and on the world. Is what I am doing nourishing me? Is it benefiting me? Is it pleasant? Is it enjoyable? The concept that is most important here is: "Is it wholesome? Is it helpful for us?"
The Buddha's teachings on action encourage us to do actions that are beautiful. The idea of infusing attention into all our activities can also mean doing the activities in a way that is beautiful. What that beauty means for any individual is very personal. But what would you do – how would you reach for something if you wanted to reach in a beautiful way? What if you ate, chewed, and tasted in a beautiful way in order to experience this as beauty – or as a wholesome pleasure?
I love the word "beauty" because it is different than "pleasure," which many people associate with physical pleasure that is just skin deep, because it tastes good or feels good physically. But beauty is a pleasure which is deeper. It is like dharmic pleasure. Beauty is a deep feeling of resonance with what feels right, good, wonderful, clean, and ethical within ourselves.
The word for beauty here is kalyāṇa. Some of you know the word, kalyāṇamitta, often translated as a "good spiritual friend." But kalyāṇa's first definition is "beautiful." So, kalyāṇamitta literally means "beautiful friend."
When one does actions, to infuse them with awareness and with attention. But there is an even more wonderful possibility.We can not only be present for experience so we really know it, but we can also do it in such a way that we are sensitive to the influence it has on us. We can be sensitive to the quality that comes with doing the activity – and it is possible to do things beautifully.
One acts in full awareness: when going forward beautifully; when returning beautifully; looking ahead beautifully; looking away beautifully; flexing and extending one's limbs beautifully; wearing one's clothes beautifully; eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting beautifully; defecating and urinating beautifully; walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent beautifully.
Exactly what beauty is, is personal. But it has a feeling of goodness or deep pleasure – dharmic pleasure. Beauty feels like: "This is worthwhile to do with all my being. This is a healthy thing to do." It requires being attentive to the present moment.
This is the kind of attention I hope you will begin to see your life flower and blossom around. It does not take you away from your life, but rather infuses it with a great sense of purpose and value. This kind of awareness lays the foundation for living a full life in the world in a way that is beautiful – in a way that is peaceful and moves us towards awakening and appreciation. Beauty as a foundation for the path to awakening. The Buddha's teachings on action have an emphasis on beauty – kalyāṇa.
So, may you explore the activities you engage in – your everyday things. May you take a heightened interest in them today and see what you can learn about heightened awareness of activities. But more so – is it possible to do activities in a way that has a positive influence on you? In a way that feels good? Maybe they are beautiful?