2022-01-18 Satipaṭṭhāna (11) Observing Knowing and Feeling
3:52PM Jan 18, 2022
Today I am going to continue talking about the refrain of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the place where some of the fruits of mindfulness practice occur – where we start having insight and start seeing in a new way. The refrain begins with the line: "One observes the body in terms of the body internally, and one observes the body in terms of the body externally." As I have emphasized, the word "observe" is actually the fruit of being gathered, settled, and centered here in the present moment, so the tendency to be distracted and wander off in thought is pretty minimal.
I think of the process as like a large bowl, and any marble you drop in the bowl will roll back and forth around the bowl. But eventually, it will always come to rest at the center. In the same way, as we practice, our attention eventually comes to rest at the center, which is the present moment. The sides of this bowl, where attention is not very stable, are the future and the past. If we end up on the sides, inevitably, if we relax, we will come back and rest in the center. It takes effort and energy for the mind to be pushing the ball up the sides, this way and that. Sometimes it takes a little while for it to settle. But eventually it settles in the bottom of the bowl.
Likewise, our attention settles in the present moment. As it does so, then at some point we can simply observe, and the knowing and experiencing are not as important anymore. They still occur, and it is important that they occur. But we are settling back, and the movement of awareness is more that of observing and just watching freely, relaxedly. Not entangled or enmeshed in what is happening – just seeing it. Not being for or against anything, just perceiving it with the mind's eye – or the mind's ear, if you prefer the the metaphor of hearing. Feeling and sensing in the body can also be like this. This is an inner way of perceiving that is deeper than the direct experience of the senses.
Experiencing internally and externally. One way I interpret this for myself is that the external way is to experience things cognitively. So the "knowing" at the beginning of breath meditation – "knowing the breath" – is a cognitive experience of recognition. We know we have a long breath or a short breath. A shallow breath or a deep breath. A breath that is is fast or slow. We know there is expansion as we breathe in, and contraction as we breathe out. We may know pressure as we breathe in, and perhaps the release of that pressure as we exhale. There may be tightening, pulsing, or vibration. All these things are known.
To know is a mental or cognitive act. And you know that know when you could describe it to someone – when you have the words to say, "Oh, that was expansion. That was contraction. That was long. That was short." To have those words requires that awareness goes through the cognitive functioning of the mind: the recognition. I think of that as the external mode.
The internal mode is to sense and feel the experience of something. For example, if I press my my thumb and my first finger together, and I look at it, I can recognize that the fingers are touching. I can recognize – I can see – they are pushing against each other. And that is the recognition part. But as I touch my fingers together, I can also feel the warmth, the pressure, and the elasticity of the skin a little bit. I feel the hardness and pressure as I push hard. I can recognize those cognitively, but I can also feel those sensations. The feelings are happening within the fingers, and that is the inside.
So the experience of the fingers touching can be known in two different ways: cognitively as a recognition – knowing that the fingers are touching. Knowing that it is pressure, warmth, or elasticity that I am feeling. The experience can also be known from the inside. I can be aware of it in the location in the fingers where touching is happening. I can just know, from the point of view of the fingers, how it feels.
So, we have these two ways of knowing: to recognize and to feel. To recognize and to experience. The two are closely connected and are mutually supportive. They can occur together. It is not one or the other. There is a natural back and forth in the mind between experiencing and knowing, and knowing and experiencing. When the mind is settled and relaxed, this is like the example I like so much of watching a river flow by. Standing on the bank, watching the river flow by. Maybe you see little currents or waves. But the eyes don't fixate on any one thing – because everything is moving, and the eyes are moving along with it.
It turns out that when the eyes are locked, there is usually tension in our psychophysical system. In their natural relaxed state, the eyes flow and move around here and there. They do not hold still on a single thing. It is actually hard work to find a little point in front of you and hold your eyes there fixedly without letting them go. Rather, you can let the eyes just wander around the thing. It does not have to be a big thing – it could just be a small thing. The eyes naturally move around and take in every part of that thing.
In the same way, we can watch the river go by. One of the reasons it can be relaxing to watch something like this is because the eyes will naturally move with the flow. When people are stressed or afraid, if they are visually locked into it, therapists sometimes will encourage them to look around a room and just look at the corners and look at lines. Sometimes when I am on the computer a lot, maybe on Zoom, for a while I will look at the edge of the monitor and just trace the edge of the monitor. There is something about just tracing it in a calm way that feels relaxing, and it loosens up something deeper inside.
It is the same way with our inner awareness – our mindfulness. If it is locked in, it is actually kind of tense. But a healthy way to get settled, concentrated, gathered in, and unified is this very simple – not willful or intentional, but natural – movement of feeling and knowing, knowing and feeling. There is something helpful about gently and relaxedly allowing each to be mutually supportive. To know I am breathing, and to feel the breathing. To know the in-breath, and to feel the in-breath. To feel the in-breath, and to know the sensation.
It might seem like it is busy-work – and there is a lot going on. But you can actually recognize that it is probably happening all along. You might prioritize one. It might be mostly knowing originally, in the beginning – like in the exercises. Or it might mostly be feeling or experiencing. But each one includes the other. "Observing the body internally and observing the body externally" is to recognize the simple, relaxed, inconstant, constantly changing, and shifting modes of awareness. Sometimes feeling, sometimes knowing.
The process is about recognizing that the mind – our system – is doing that. More than following instructions to do it. Because the instructions are just to observe.
As we open up our perception to what is happening, we are becoming aware not only of what the experience of the body is, but also that it is being known in different modes. Experience is being known in the mode of knowing or recognition, and in the mode of feeling. Then you get the best of both of those worlds – both of those ways of being. Both are profound and meaningful. And it is important not to prioritize one over the other as being 'the' thing – 'the' way of doing mindfulness.
But one of them might be an easier way for you to get centered and focused. So if you know yourself well enough to know that you get more focused using the knowing faculty, great. Go for it. If you get more focused by the feeling faculty, go for it. And if you get more focused by using the relaxation instruction of this first exercise: relaxing the bodily formations – go with it. But the overall movement is to come to the place where we can just observe.
One of the ways that I found helpful in observing the body internally and externally is to recognize the shifting – the natural, relaxed shifting – that goes on between knowing and experiencing. It is like sitting down at the riverbank, watching the stream go by: "Oh, look at that – it's just this constant shifting and moving." In this way, it can be relaxing too, because there is no fixation.
So I hope that made sense. If it doesn't make sense, maybe it will one day, and in the meantime, don't worry about it. This first exercise of meditating on the breath is phenomenally useful. If you just keep doing it, then it probably will keep opening up and opening up. Just the simplicity of doing the breath meditation, without trying to do too much, or trying all the techniques at once.
Today's teaching is the foundation for the teaching tomorrow and the next step in the refrain. In the meantime, throughout the day, maybe you can study the shifting nature of when you know something cognitively and when you know something experientially – and how closely connected they can be if you relax. Thank you very much.