2022-01-05 Satipaṭṭhāna (3) The Journey of Mindfulness
4:02PM Jan 5, 2022
Probably this will be the last more introductory talk on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. This is the discourse on the four foundations for awareness – the foundations upon which we can grow a particularly valuable form of awareness.
The text begins with this confident statement that there is a direct path, direct way, direct journey – maybe more like a direct "going" to freedom, to liberation. "What is this direct way?" the text asks and then the Buddha then describes it.
In shorthand, he first says to observe the body in its own terms – the body in terms of a body; to know feelings in terms of feelings; to know mental states in terms of mental states; and to know mental processes in terms of mental processes.
The phrase "in terms of," if you translated it literally, would be: "The body in the body, feelings in feelings, mind states in mind states, and mental processes in mental processes." But this word "in" or this grammatical form which gives us "in," can also mean "in terms of," "in regard to," "in respect to." The usual interpretation for this is that the observation is meant to be very simple.
The word "observe" here is such an important one. It describes our ability to settle back in a nice, comfortable easychair and just see what is happening, without judging it, fixing it, or doing anything with it – this very spacious and peaceful way of just watching, just seeing.
Seeing the body in terms of the body means not in terms of our judgments, in terms of our memories, in terms of other mindstates, in terms of mental processes, but just a radical simplicity, being with the body. So, to observe it. That is the way to do it.
I use the example of sitting in an easychair and just watching it as a kind of reference point. But the text actually says to do it ardently. I love the word "ardent." To do it with a certain kind of engagement like, really there. And then, do it with awareness. Do it with clear comprehension, clear recognition of what's happening, having put aside covetousness and distress for the world.
Now, it suddenly becomes kind of a tall order, this whole thing. It is not easy to be able to observe without judging, interfering, thinking about things, reacting, let alone being in the present moment. It is not easy to apply a certain kind of healthy, peacemaking ardency. It is not easy to maintain continuity of awareness, continuity of clear comprehension. And it is not easy to put aside the greed we have, the covetousness, the wanting we have, or the distress we have.
But what this text is saying is there is a path to freedom – a way to go. This is the way to go to freedom. But maybe recognizing that it is not easy to do that. Then the text goes on, offering thirteen exercises for how to get there. The first one is the first tetrad of ānāpānasati, which is being attentive to breathing in a certain way. We will go through that over the next few days.
As a person learns this exercise, the exercise is onward leading. Things move and you are part of the journey, this going, this movement. The Buddha's teachings are full of movement. It is not only about going nowhere, being no one, doing nothing, which is a wonderful teaching in a limited way of understanding it. But it is not the full teaching. The Buddha's teachings have an ongoing quality.
Imagine you went to a playground and saw a child on top of a slide, and said to the child: "Let me give you some profound spiritual teaching. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to be. Just sit. Just sit and do nothing." The child would just be perplexed. A child knows what they are there for. The child is there for the fun, the process of going down the slide. They are up there to do that. They are probably not greedy for it. They are not trying to prove themselves to anyone. They are not trying to accomplish any great thing, like they would be the best slider in the world. They just go down the slide for the fun of the slide.
I use that as a reference point. There is a kind of leaning into – into the slide, onto the slope of mindfulness, of this practice. It is not only about staying exactly where you are and nothing ever changes. The language of change, though, that the Buddha uses is bhāvanā, which means (as I understand it) something like "to cultivate" or "to develop" – as a farmer or a gardener would cultivate a plant.
Or as a parent, who would help a child develop by feeding them and treating them well. Then, in a healthy way, they can physically and psychologically develop. The parent is not stretching the child so they grow faster. They are allowing a natural process to unfold.
It is the same way with mindfulness practice, there is a radical simplicity – being aware of the body in and of itself, being aware of breathing – just the simplicity of breathing, knowing it. Allowing for the possibility that you are on a slide, or there is a growth or development that goes on here.
The text begins with a promise (some people call it a promise) that there is a direct way to freedom. The way you do it is observing. There is a very strong, mature place of mindfulness: to observe the body in and of itself, as with feelings, mental states and mental processes. But the heart of the text is the exercises it gives. We will go through the thirteen exercises.
After each exercise, there is a refrain (usually called a refrain). That is the part that gets repeated over and over again. For those of you who were here on Monday, when I read my synopsis of this whole process, the refrain was represented by the expression "observing change in the body, abiding, not clinging to anything in the world."
The refrain itself continues a journey. It is actually a four-part journey – a three- or four-part journey. It describes an unfolding that goes through observing change in such a way that awareness gets more and more clarified, purified, and simplified – until awareness becomes lucid.
It is so lucid that then we can relax into it. It is kind of like relaxing into a long, wonderful, comfortable slide down a hill. Then the process takes over. The process of deepening meditation takes over and this leads to non-clinging, to freedom.
It is important not to be in a hurry to go through all this. It is important not to get discouraged. Actually, I find it phenomenally inspiring – the idea that the Buddha describes a process of growth, a process of unfolding. We are not expected to be free so quickly like, "Okay. Instant enlightenment" (as some people would like to have it).
But rather, there is something very mature and maturing about settling down for the long term. Beginning to put the steady pieces in place of developing, cultivating, growing awareness – our ability to be more and more present in the present moment, with awareness, with attention. To learn the art of resting there and opening to it, so that it is peaceful, inspiring, happiness-producing, and has a sense of goodness – which we open up to as we cultivate and develop the simple capacity to be aware.
As we go through the text, different faculties of attention are called into play at different times. I think of attention as the Swiss army knife of the mind. It has all these different tools that can be used. At different times, we learn these different tools and apply them. Each of them is useful in different circumstances to help us be present with our experience.
And not only to be present – but to have the kind of awareness that is onward leading, and has space and peacefulness. It is not complicated by our expectations, our pushing, and our wanting. It is like making space for the organic cultivation, development, and maturation that leads to freedom.
Today, the emphasis was on discovering more and more about this quality of knowing and recognition – in a way that knowing and recognizing things has power, beauty, and peacefulness.
Sometimes naming something gives it some space in the heart, the mind: "Oh, it's been named. Oh, it's like that. Yes. That's how it is." Someone might say, "There's a lot of tension here in the group." And then, "Oh! Someone named it finally. Oh, yes, that's what's happening." Then everyone relaxes a little bit.
So, to do that with breathing. Establish attention, establish awareness with breathing, and then know the breathing. As we know it, we begin discovering some of the qualities of knowing. Or we discover how to know, so that knowing is unburdened of all the baggage we carry with us.
It is so simple to feel the delight, the peace, the freedom, or the disentanglement of that simple knowing. At first it might seem like it is nothing – like, "What's the big deal?" But it is a big deal to develop this capacity to know – a beautiful thing to do.
So thank you. Or in Norwegian, "Mange takk." "Molto grazie." I look forward to our time tomorrow.