2022-02-15 Satipaṭṭhāna (30) Choiceless Awareness of Sensations
3:52PM Feb 15, 2022
This will be the last talk on this fifth exercise of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. The exercise is on mindfulness of the elements. I like to call it mindfulness of the properties: the earth property, the water property, the fire property, and the air property. This is a meditation of mindfulness of sensations. The basic sensory awareness exercise is to just be present for the sensations that are direct and immediate as they occur.
There are a variety of ways of practicing this. One is the way we practiced in the meditation today. Some people find this easier than meditating on their breath. That is to just be grounded in the sensations of the body. If the mind wanders off, come back to the body and the flow of sensations. The attention is not anymore directed to the breath, but to the whole body. It is just rooted in the body, floating, roaming around, and touching into the present moment with the different sensations as they flow through and come into being.
Some people find that breathing actually works as a better anchor to the present. If they stay there, they can develop their stability, concentration, and mindfulness. This is also a sensation meditation. It is the same meditation, but now we are aware of all the sensations that come into play as we breathe.
Technically, the four elements meditation is what we are doing in vipassana when we are tuning into the breathing. Now, the attention is in a much narrower, smaller area of our body – just in the area where the breathing occurs, or where the breathing is predominant. We are there with the flow of sensations. We let the attention float within the location where we are focusing on the breathing. We let the sensations come into that floating awareness or – let the floating awareness settle on the ripple of sensations that come into play.
As we get quieter and quieter, and the breathing gets stiller, it is easier to just stay with the simple sensations that come and go as we breathe. It is still a sensation meditation. It is still this four element meditation that we are doing, but because it is rooted in a particular place, some people find it easier. The mind does not wander off as much. It is easier to settle in – simpler that way. As I said, some people find it simpler to do the whole body meditation.
Sometimes in mindfulness meditation, I like to teach that we are rooted in the breathing. It is like the default. That is the place we cultivate stability and steadiness of mind – to stay in the present moment. But if some other sensation arises in the body that is more compelling, then we contentedly, relaxedly, let the attention float to that other place. We begin doing the sensation meditation in that place, in the knees, or the back, or wherever the sensations might be strong.
There too, the idea is not to fixate the attention. Let it roam around. Let it collect as if you are touching a cave wall in the dark. You can't see it, but you let your hand go around and feel the wall, the texture, the temperature – whatever it might be.
The direction this is going with sensation meditation is the same direction as all the different exercises of the Satipaṭṭhāna: to be steady and stable enough in the present moment so that the mind is not wandering off anymore. We are right here in the present moment. We are just feeling the experience. Because the mind is now stable and not wandering off easily, we can settle back and just observe the experience.
The idea of observing the experience is meant to be peaceful. We are not interfering or making a lot of work. It is very receptive, allowing, just observing as the flow of sensations, of experience comes through. In particular, as we settle back and there is more and more stability in the present moment – we are right in the present moment – then we see that in the present moment, everything is passing, everything is moving.
I do not know if it is a good analogy, but take an old film that is made up of all these little squares, and have it pass by a little slot. Each frame comes in front of the slot. Then another one comes in front of the slot. You settle back and watch. Then you see that one comes, one comes, and one comes. You see that they come and they go, they come and they go. In some relaxed, flowing way, we start seeing more and more things just come and go – come and go. This opens us up to deeper places of letting go and not clinging.
That is the direction we are going, but how do we get there? One way in the tradition is that you look at the simile that is used for this particular exercise. The simile is that we do the four elements meditation, being aware of the sensations and these four categories. It is like – I am sorry for this little graphic – a butcher who has cut up a cow. They put out the different pieces of the cow for people to come and buy. At this point, people are not relating to the pieces of meat as the cow. It is just pieces of meat. They see the pieces of meat independent of the cow.
I think it is unfortunate for many of us – this graphic kind of analogy. The idea is that we often are living in thoughts and ideas that we take as our whole self. We identify with ourselves in a particular way. Some of the identities are accurate enough, but if we live in the whole identity, then we miss the parts. This is a meditation to not be in the idea of the whole. Rather we begin tuning into particular elements, parts, that make up the whole or that we apply our concepts and ideas to.
For example, if I was to think I am a lousy person, that is a generalization. If I then feel the sensations in my hand, the sensations themselves are just sensations. There is no lousiness in the hands, in those sensations. If I think I am a great person, that is a generalization just as if I think I am a lousy person, whatever it is.
The idea is to have an experience of ourselves, where we drop below the coarser identities – the coarser ideas of who we are. Often those ideas are sources of suffering. Even if they are sources of happiness, they can also limit us from dropping into this deeper, settled, relaxed, observing place – observing the present moment as it flows by.
By beginning to look at the sensation level of experience, we are looking at the parts of the cow, not the cow as a whole. We are looking at the parts of ourselves, not the generalizations of who we are. We are dropping down to a deeper level.
This can be quite healing, quite healthy to do. Some of the ideas and attachments to ideas that we have involve contractions and tightness. They all involve a disconnect with our lived, flowing bodily experience. To be able to drop down into the lived bodily experience, and let the sensations flow, move, and not be bottled up – not be restricted or contracted – is really healthy spiritually and physically. It is a healthy thing mentally to be in this of flow of sensations where the mind is not fixated on its painful ideas – or whatever ideas it has.
The idea of dropping down into the parts, into the direct experience of what is actually happening – more than the ideas and thoughts about things – is what this exercise is about. It helps us to bring the mind and body together in harmony. If the mind is thinking about tomorrow or yesterday, thinking about fantasies, delusions of grandeur, delusions of poor me, we tend to be disconnected from our bodies.
The body is always in the present moment. The task of meditation is to harmonize the body and mind, to let the mind join where the body is. Since the body has a lot to do with sensations, that is where we can find the harmony. That is where we can find the meeting, the joining – better than if we just stay conceptually thinking about how wonderful the body is, and celebrating the body with ideas. In the sensation level of experience is where this harmony happens, this coming together.
As we move on in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, this becomes really helpful. We connect to deeper dimensions of our heart, and deeper dimensions of our inner life. We will get there.
Tomorrow we will start doing a few sessions on the sixth exercise of Satipaṭṭhāna. Maybe I should warn you that this involves a contemplation, maybe even a visualization of a corpse. I am not going to make it graphic. It will be very simple, but this is the exercise. There is actually nine different contemplations on the progressive decay of a corpse. I do not think it is meant to be gruesome. It is meant to somehow, in its own way, help us value the present moment – to really show up here in the present moment. There is a qualitatively improved aliveness to our attention and dedication to this present moment experience.
So hopefully, this will be supportive for you to spend a couple of days on these corpse contemplations. It is a long tradition in Buddhism to contemplate death. We will do that for a few days as part of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. So, thank you.