2022-01-28 Satipaṭṭhāna (19) Awareness in Activity
4:09PM Jan 28, 2022
Today we are going to begin discussing the third exercise in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the discourse on the four foundations for mindfulness. One way of reading this text is that these first three exercises are progressive, meaning that one can lead to the next.
The first exercise is meditation practice centered on breathing. As we get focused, concentrated, and settled here in our breathing – calm, settled, and very present – we bring that calm presence with us into our activities. The simplest way to practise this is to know our postures. When we stand, we know we're standing; as we walk, we know we are walking, and so forth.
If we can stay mindful and present, inhabiting awareness as we begin our activities after meditation, rather than giving only a half or a quarter attention to the activity we do, there can be a delightful calm presence for the activity. This presence may be here to such a degree that it is actually enjoyable to just be here and feel and experience the simplicity of what we're doing. This is more enlivening, more rich, and more beneficial than the alternative of wandering off in thoughts and concerns with the activities of the day. We do things better when we have that kind of presence and attention.
I'll read you the passage. The exercise is one of the longer ones.
"A practitioner is one who acts in full awareness when going forward and returning, in looking ahead and looking away; who acts in full awareness when flexing and extending the limbs; who acts in full awareness when wearing their robes and carrying their outer robe and bowl"– this is referring to monastics, so it applies to us, but not quite the same – "who acts in full awareness when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting; who acts in full awareness when defecating and urinating; who acts in full awareness when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent."
These are all ordinary daily activities that many people do. Here, the text uses the word "full awareness". The Pali word is sampajāna. I love this translation of "full awareness". I am not completely sure what it means, but I have a good sense from my own experience. I love the feeling of fullness of awareness as we go through our lives, in all that we do.
In the tradition it is viewed as being a fuller understanding of what we are doing. So as we come out of meditation and start doing activities, we are aware of more than just the activity itself. If we are doing walking meditation, we are just settling in and doing walking, and that is all we are doing. But if we're walking to our kitchen, we know we are going to our kitchen as well. We are not just walking. There is also the knowing of going to the kitchen. If we are reaching for a cup to have tea, we know that we are reaching for the cup in order to have tea – for the purpose of having tea. If we are reaching for the faucet to put water in the tea kettle, we have a sense that we are doing this for a purpose – both to have water come out to fill the kettle to make tea, and because we are thirsty and it is good to be hydrated.
In the immediacy of awareness, there are a number of things that are clear: the purpose, or why we're doing something, and the context in which we do it. When we walk into some place, planning to walk through the room, we know there are other people in the room. We are not just walking as if our walking is all that is going on. We take into account the context of the people. Maybe we walk around them, rather than walking through them, or expecting them to move.
So full awareness takes in much more. We are beginning to use a little more of the intelligence of the mind. But we are not using our intelligence to fantasize about tomorrow, or to get lost in fantasy and thoughts about something else as we do an activity. For instance, as we reach for the faucet, perhaps we know we are doing it, if someone asks us about it later. But we are not really present. There is not the full awareness of the activity, and the context and purpose. Maybe we already started thinking, "Can't wait for lunch. I wonder what we should have for lunch" – and we haven't even had breakfast.
This exercise is a call to bring our mindfulness into our daily activities – into all our activities. I love that it ends with both talking and remaining silent, and puts them both on the same level of importance. To have full awareness means to know when we are talking, to know why we are talking, and to know the context for why we are talking. The same way with silence – to know why we are silent, the context and purpose of our silence – and its appropriateness.
The tradition says that full awareness also means that one knows in what part of ourselves we need to stay grounded as we do the activity. It explicitly tells us to stay connected to the four foundations for mindfulness. For example, sometimes we know we enter into the world of the activity very much with our bodies. Some of these activities are physical. Sometimes we are present for our mind states – the quality of our mind. Sometimes we are aware of the feeling tone, and sometimes of the mental processes involved. These are all among the exercises we will be talking about as we go through this sutta. We practice mindfulness with all these different aspects of ourselves.
Mindfulness that keeps us here, rooted and grounded in the present moment, and capable of taking in the fuller context, purpose and value of what we are doing – as well as the impact of what we are doing – the influence on what is happening and the influence on us of what we're doing.
It is one thing to walk and be aware that we are walking. It is another thing to feel that we are walking in such a hurry that we are getting tense. Full awareness would notice that tension. Or maybe we are walking in a way that feels nourishing. It feels delightful and satisfying to walk. Then we walk with that satisfaction and feel that.
One way of understanding this practice is to see it as mindfulness in activity. It is very common among English-speaking practitioners to refer to it as "mindfulness in daily life." That is a great concept; however, it is very abstract. "Daily life" means too much. For the Buddha, the words in his instructions are more concrete, more specific, more tangible.
In the sutta, daily life awareness is defined as "mindfulness in action." It directs us to infuse our activity with awareness, with attention. It is not so much that we have to think actively about the context or the purpose. Rather, we have a relaxed, open awareness, where the context or purpose are taken into account – and are also seen and understood as the activity arises. It is a rich world.
The activities I just read are generally pretty simple ones: eating, defecating, urinating, extending your arm, and doing many different activities like falling asleep and waking up.
Over this weekend, you might look for simple activities you do, which you can use to practice full awareness and full understanding of what is happening – without searching or analyzing them. Is there some way of being really present for the activity you're doing, so that there is a clear knowing of the context, the purpose, and the influence the activity has on you because you are so present for it? Being present so that your system can take in the context or purpose, register it, and know it as part of the full picture of your present moment experience. Then you can abide in the present moment, calm and confident, available to take in the fuller picture of what the activity is about and how it is going.
So choose a few activities through the day, maybe washing dishes, or sweeping the floor, or driving – something simple that you can practice and experiment with, so that mindfulness or awareness can begin growing, expandin,g and spreading into more of your life.