2022-04-08 Satipaṭṭhāna (56) Sense Doors: Thoughts
6:11PM Apr 8, 2022
This week we are talking about the Buddha's instructions for how to practice with the sense doors.
It is to be aware of each door – the object that each sense door takes in. For eyes, it is sight objects. For hearing, it is sounds. For the tongue, it is taste. For the nose, it is smells and for the body, it is tactile experiences. And for the mind, it is thinking.
The word for mind here is "mano", m-a-n-o, which is closely associated with the thinking part of the mind. It goes along with the other senses. The mind produces thoughts that are registered or known by the mano – by this part of the mind that recognizes there is thinking.
In addition to that, there is mindful knowing. It is not just being vaguely or somewhat aware that there are thoughts going on. This knowing of mindfulness is a clear, definitive: "Oh, this is thinking. This is just thinking." You do not necessarily have to say those words to yourself. There is a way in which we step back, or turn around and look thinking directly in the eye and say: "I see you thinking. This is thinking." Then observe it.
I think this idea of being a naturalist of thinking conveys the idea that thinking is natural, a natural phenomenon. We are observing it, but not necessarily defining ourselves or identifying ourselves with the thoughts. This is a fascinating and wonderful thing to allow a thought to arise, but to not place ourselves in the thought.
Some people live in their thoughts. Their whole identity – their feeling or sense of amness, I am, I exist – has taken up residency in the middle of thinking. It is inconceivable to think about not thinking. Who would I be if I was not thinking? It is almost like some people feel lost if they are not living in their thoughts.
We do not have to live in our thoughts. We do not have to take residency in our thoughts. We can have thoughts just be a phenomena that arises and is no different than going outside for a walk.
A leaf blows off a tree and blows down next to you. You do not take the tree as you. You do not define the leaf as you. You do not define yourself by the leaf. You do not necessarily get involved with wanting to take the leaf home and deciding that you are a great leaf selector, or that you need to let everyone know what a great capacity you have for selecting leaves from the sidewalk. You do not get involved. A leaf just falls and it is nice.
In the same way, in thinking thoughts, we can have the same relationship to them. We take up residency, not in thinking the thoughts, but in the awareness of them, the knowing of them. That is a little bit tricky, because knowing them could be seen as a thought itself. We are talking about different levels of thinking – different kinds of thinking. The very simple thought that knows: "Oh, that is thinking. That is just a thought." That is also a natural phenomena, but that is a natural phenomena that supports this freedom – supports this disentanglement
This whole thing about the sense doors is quite fascinating. The more we are able to be present at the point of the sense contact, we can recognize the knot, the entanglement, the bias, the leaning into or pulling back. We start seeing our bias, our prejudices, our desires, the influences we bring on top of it. We are seldom innocent observers. We often have preferences – wantings and not wantings. It can be very, very subtle.
I told this story before. When I was a teenager, I went to Morocco. I do not know how it is now, but when I was there, the men wore yolapas, these vertically striped gowns. As I was walking around, after some while being in Morocco, I had this funny feeling that my mind was lighter, clearer. There was a little different feeling in my mind.
As I tried to understand what was going on, I came to the conclusion that in the United States, I pegged people. I did not just see people. I had a judgment about people because I recognized something about them. That was a jock. That was some kind of businessman or that was this or that. I had little judgments about them. The judgments were not exactly conscious, but they were there.
In Morocco where all these men were wearing yolapas, I had no context or understanding about them, about their professions, what they did, their politics, all kinds of things. And so my mind was lighter from not making any extra judgments.
So to not live in ordinary thinking, but to live in awareness – the awareness in which thoughts arise – and to see the entanglement, the knot. A big part of the the knots, the entanglements we have, is in fact to thinking. If I see something, I do not automatically get entangled to that, but I do have a thought about it. It is a thought that I get caught in. This is the knot around the thing that I am seeing.
To be able to settle back, and observe thinking. To be aware of thinking. To be quiet enough, still enough, open enough, present enough to see the birth of a thought. To see a thought appear. There it is. It is just a thought. Are you entangled with it? Do you chase it? Do you find a follow up thought and a follow up thought? Or do you just allow the thought to just be there like a leaf – this single leaf that is falling from the sky? Just a thought.
That kind of freedom that comes of seeing and not being involved in thoughts gives us a freedom to then choose what we think. And there are things to think about. Some of the things to think about are goodwill, kindness, friendliness, support to others or to to appreciate people. I think that it is all too easy for people to have a negativity bias and for all kinds of reasons be predisposed to seeing what is wrong and what is not right. If we can choose what we are thinking about, maybe we can choose appropriate ways to really appreciate people and see their beauty and their wonderfulness. We can choose to think about how to support people and be friendly to people.
It may seem like a lot of work and extra to do – a little artificial – but it might be better than the alternative. If you are watching your mind carefully, choose the best alternative for the mind. Do not choose the alternative, the option that is to your detriment – thinking critical, judgmental, harsh, unkind thoughts. It is not really healthy.
Thinking, thoughts – mano. This level of practice that we are talking about this week is where we are tuning into the knots. We begin to start seeing the conditions for how we get knotted – the desires that arise, the aversions that are there, the frustrations, the stresses we are living under. The stress we have are the conditions for us to more likely get knotted up. Knowing those conditions, then we can adjust those conditions so it is easier to know how to let go of the knots. We do not necessarily have to let go of the thought. We let go of being involved and caught in it.
This is a wonderful thing, to let go of knots – to dissolve or untie the knots in the mind. One of the reasons it is wonderful is that knots take up a lot of space in the mind, a lot of energy, a lot of bandwidth. When that bandwidth is not preoccupied with the knots, there is then more open space for the factors of awakening – for some natural phenomena that is some of the great treasures that are within us.
These are the seven factors of awakening. That is the next exercise for the Satipaṭṭhāna text. It goes from the six sense basis to the seven factors of awakening. We make a transition now, to looking at what leads to liberation to freedom.
We get the hang of the aspects that keep us from being free – the hindrances, the aggregates that we talked about last week, and now the fetters, the knots that we get. We know what those are well. Those are the things that keep us from being free. As we release them, and free ourselves from them, this new energy, these new possible states can come that are onward leading towards freedom.
This is one of the great rewards for doing mindfulness practice. When we get to that point in practice, we start flowing in these beautiful seven factors of awakening: mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration and equanimity.
That will be the topic for two weeks. Next week, Matthew will be here, Matthew Brensilver, doing the 7 am. teachings while I am away. The following week, I will be back. I will not be here at IMC, but I will be back on YouTube and we will do The Seven Factors of Awakening. Thank you