Satipaṭṭhāna (23) Activities as Mirrors
3:53PM Feb 3, 2022
In the teachings of the Buddha, he often lists our experience in terms of body, speech, and mind – or our activities as being activities of body, speech, and mind. Usually the activities of body are mentioned first in these lists. Part of the reason for that is that our physical activities, such as walking, talking, and eating are the most obvious to notice. They can be seen by other people. They are more obvious to be aware of than our speech – and certainly more obvious than awareness of our mind and mental activities.
Being more aware of our activities of body, speech, and mind, we also have more choice. We may have more ability to do something about our bodily activities than our speech – or especially our mind – which sometimes seem to be on automatic pilot.
So the training in Buddhism classically begins with attending to our actions, because that is where it is easiest to bring mindfulness and to see clearly. It is the easiest place to have some choice about what we do with our actions.
In the discourse of the Buddha on the Four Foundations for Awareness, the first foundation is the body. The beginning exercises for the body have to do with activities. The first one, breathing, is a physical activity. When we sit still, it is the usually the largest activity of the body.
Experiencing the breathing, then we experience the whole body – just taking in the body in whatever way it comes. Then we relax and calm the body. We might not be able to calm our mind. But we might be able to calm and relax the body to some degree. It is often more accessible.
Next we become aware of our postures. Then the third exercise is to be aware of our activities. Most of these activities involve the whole body, or much of the body. We can observe, watch, and train ourselves to be attentive to these activities. We are establishing the ground, warming up the mind, and strengthening the mind.
At some point, we can be aware of something much more fickle, more slippery – the mind itself. In a sense, mindfulness of activities are preparing the ground for a fuller experience of mindfulness.
But mindfulness of our physical activities has another very important role. Our activities are a mirror for what is happening for us – a mirror to see ourselves better. The idea of activities as a mirror goes back to the Buddha's teachings to his own son, when his son was relatively young. The Buddha encouraged him to use his activities of body, speech and mind as a mirror to understand himself. He also offered specific criteria of what to see in this mirror.
Part of what we want to see is whether what we are doing is causing harm to ourself or to others. To see this ethical component of mindfulness is very important. We want to see whether what we are doing is wholesome or not wholesome. Whether it is nourishing. Whether it brings a sense of goodness, warmth, or nourishment – or does the opposite. We also want to know whether it brings suffering or happiness.
Reflection about the impact and result of our activities is part of the role of seeing our activities as mirrors. The exercise is not simply about being aware of the activity in and of itself. It can be quite delicious just to be there fully. But as we develop the capacity for mindfulness, our awareness can also take in the impact, influence, or effect of our activities.
When the Buddha talks about full awareness of activities, using the activities as a mirror is important. Then, with the activity is a mirror, we can see what we have choice about. If we are hurrying to do something, and we ask if this is nourishing us or not, then we see that actually we are not being nourished. We are not taking in the full experience by being present in a way that offers some deep support for our being. Rather, we are draining or shortchanging ourselves.
For example, while eating food, take your time to eat. Not only to take in the food properly, but to enjoy it. Take in the nourishment of it, and feel and sense the goodness – or caring. Maybe someone has cooked for you. To notice what it is like for the body to process the food and to take it in.
Yesterday, I had a delicious soup for lunch. I was hungry and it just felt so wonderful to take it in and feel it. It felt almost like medicine. It felt good to be there, present for it – as opposed to reading emails while I eat, and not really taking it in.
We have the ability to make a choice: "I am not going to read emails. I am going to be there with the soup, and just be with that." Rushing anywhere – if you are driving your car and are rushing, is that a way to be nourished? Is that a way to be benefited, to feel the growth of attention, or feel good about being in your own skin? Probably not. Rushing probably takes you out of your skin or disconnects you in some way.
So, we can use the activities as a mirror of something deeper and more important for us as we go through life. Sometimes in certain schools of mindfulness, the emphasis seems to be so much on just being present for things as they are – to just feel the immediacy of experience. And there is no emphasis on taking in the bigger picture – the impact or influence it has on us. But if we take in this bigger impact, then we can make choices about what to do and what not to do.
Learning to do this with our physical activities is also preparing the ground for later, when we do it for speech. After that, we do it, more importantly, for the mind. The mind is really the origin and the source for our physical and speech activities.
We get a sense for what it is like to shift gears – to move in a wholesome direction, and to move away from that which debilitates or drains us in our mental activities as well. That is coming. It is much more difficult. But to learn to do that in terms of physical activities prepares the ground and gives us a sense of how to do it.
Then, if we do this in a relaxed way, it builds awareness, which then becomes stronger over time. It is as if we are developing a muscle. At the right time, that muscle can be applied to the mind. But if we live mindlessly in the activities of our life, then we are not developing that capacity. In Buddhist practice, that capacity is eventually directed to the mind itself and to mental activities.
We will see, as we get into this, that mental activities get more and more subtle. But their subtlety is not inconsequential. This is where the core operating principles are for our lives. So to be able to touch into those, use them as a mirror, and have some choice about them. What to let go of and what to encourage is a very important part of this practice. The message for today is that in mindfulness training, developing awareness of physical activities is phenomenally important for what comes later, as mindfulness practice develops further.
You can try this in your daily life. Be present for the activities you do – but not just the activities in and of themselves. Be present for them as a mirror, so you are opening up to a fuller picture. And you see: "What impact does this activity have? What impact does the way you do the activity have on you? Is it healthy for you? Is it wholesome? Is the way you do it beneficial ? If not, can you find a way to do it that feels good?"
To repeat what I said a few days ago, one of the guidelines for what is wholesome and beneficial is that which is beautiful. To live in beauty, to act in beauty, and to see how to be in the world with beautiful activities. How would you walk down the sidewalk in a way that was beautiful – not for other people, but for yourself? How would you clean your dishes? How would you clean your your home? How would you go about if your activities had the capacity to really nourish you, support you, and develop something beautiful and wonderful inside?
I hope that you will stay closely mindful and attentive to the activities of your day, and see how that supports some wonderful possibilities for you, and for what you can offer other people.
We will do one more day on mindfulness of activities tomorrow. Then on Monday we will start with a whole new orientation on the fourth exercise of Satipaṭṭhāna. Thank you.