Good day, this Monday in March. Today we are beginning the fourth foundation for awareness – fourth support for developing a heightened sense of clarity, awareness – that begins to move us into our potential for liberation and freedom.
All along this is the direction that the Satipaṭṭhāna, mindfulness practice, is going. It is going to greater clarity, so that there is really clear mindfulness. I like the expression, "lucid mindfulness." It is not just a simple knowing experience. There is something about the knowing that has qualities of clarity, lucidity, stillness, freedom, nonreactivity, and equanimity. Something is special about the knowing, the awareness itself, that comes from being settled, concentrated, and calm, and having a heightened capacity to be aware. Almost like awareness and knowing are a muscle to get stronger.
Also that comes from being less preoccupied with our attachments and concerns. Then the natural capacity for knowing, for awareness, can shine, can be there. To have the naturalness of it, the spontaneity and simplicity of it, just arising and being there, without a lot of agency, is one of the stepping stones of developing mindfulness. At first there is more agency and then over time, it is more a matter of getting out of the way and letting go.
We come to the fourth foundation for mindfulness. Like the second and third, there is a journey through this. At the beginning, it talks about three different ways that the mind gets caught up, attached, entangled with experience. Then it talks about two ways in which the mind moves towards disentanglement, towards freedom. So there is a journey, from being attached to becoming free.
That journey goes first through what are called the five hindrances. Then it goes through what are called the five aggregates, then the six fetters – the six ways that we get entangled or fettered, knotted up, in the experiences of the senses. Those are the ways we get caught up. Then the freedom has to do with the seven factors of awakening, and the Four Noble Truths.
There is a journey through this and I love that we start with the ways we get caught up, hung up. We want to understand that. The idea is to become wise about this. If you feel like you are supposed to quickly get to some beautiful state, wonderful state, it might be that you are not going to take the time to know yourself in a deep way. To know how you get entangled or know the entanglement itself, so that in the future, you are not going to get tricked by it. If you know it well, you will not be tricked and pulled into its orbit, make mistakes and all that.
Taking our time – this week is the five hindrances. We will do one day on each hindrance, and today a bit of introduction for it. In the teachings of the Buddha, the hindrances are often paired with the seven factors of awakening. These are beautiful qualities of mind that arise as we practice – awareness itself, mindfulness itself, investigation, effort, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. In many texts the Buddha teaches, he puts these together where one is the problem, one is what we are overcoming, and the other is what grows and develops as a result, instead of that.
These two have different impacts on us. The hindrances cover over our wisdom, make wisdom difficult to access. They contract the mind. They limit the mind. The seven factors of awakening allow for the functioning of wisdom, allow for an expansive, open, free mind. One pulls us down, and one lifts us up, in a certain way. An image, in the suttas, used for this covering over effect of the hindrances, is that of a tree growing in the forest. There is a larger tree covering it over so that the smaller tree does not get any light. It is stunted. It does not grow and develop.
The hindrances are that stunting, that covering over that keeps the light of awareness from operating clearly. When the light of awareness is free, then the tree of Bodhi, the tree of awakening, can grow within us. Some people will call the sap of that tree, the seven factors of awakening. The light of awareness lets it grow and develop. The idea is to let go of, or be free of, these obscuring qualities of the hindrances, so that something beautiful can grow and develop instead, in that space, that clearing in the forest.
The first hindrance, in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, is sensual desires. In the teachings of the Buddha, sometimes it is alternatively called "avariciousness," wanting things. The usual one is "sensual desire," wanting pleasure, sensual pleasures of all kinds. The alternative is wanting things, to acquire things, more and more stuff. Both can be a big entanglement. Sometimes people just call it "desire," the first hindrance, to cover all those things.
The problem with calling it desire is not all desires are problematic. The desire to be free of the hindrances may be healthy and appropriate. Sensual desire and wanting things – wanting sensual pleasure and wanting things. There are innocent versions of this kind of desire. It is innocent to want something – I've run out of toothpaste, so I would like to have a new tube of toothpaste. Innocent, maybe beautiful ways of desires for pleasure, that are simple and easy. You want to cook your broccoli, just to the right tenderness, the right way, so that when you eat it, there is pleasure in eating it. It feels nourishing, delightful, and fresh to eat it. It can be innocent.
What is not innocent, are desires that we are grabbed by, caught by, preoccupied by. There is sometimes a strong biological force within us behind that desire. Sometimes it is strong enough to be like a propellant, fuel for a rocket. It is so powerful. Some forms of sensual desire are hard not to follow along with the strength of it. For the purposes of Satipaṭṭhāna, it is not like it is immoral, bad or wrong to have sensual desire. It just happens to be that it makes it difficult for this clarity of awareness to grow. This openness, expanded mind to grow. This quiet, still space of freedom to show itself.
Since that is the direction we are going, we want to learn how to be mindful of sensual desire, so it supports that direction. It does not support freedom, to go along with sensual desire – spend time in meditation thinking about sexual fantasies, thinking about food, thinking about trying to make meditation as pleasant and enjoyable as you can. Like to recapture past meditation experience where there was all kinds of wonderful bliss in meditation. The desire for that bliss again is just another desire for sensual pleasure.
What we do, rather than negating them or condemning them, is a very clear, purposeful and dedicated mindfulness, "Oh, this is sensual desire. Sensual desire is present," and then getting to know it, feel it. I find it very useful to feel it physically. There is something about feeling the physicality of desire that, for me, very quickly shows me the downside of it. The way in which the body, it is not really pleasant to be caught in the force of sensual desire. Even sensual pleasure might be pleasant, the force of this drive for it is not. There is a loss, an alienation from my self in having it there.
Know when it is absent. There are times, as meditation deepens, that there is no sensual desire at all. This is very important to register that, to take that in. Get to know what that is like. Know the benefits – the way there is clarity, freedom or ease, you can breathe more easily, or you are not being pushed by some kind of inner force.
The instructions are to know when it is present and know when it is absent. As we know the absence of it, that gives us a new possibility. This is getting down to the heart of the insight of the whole purpose of Satipaṭṭhāna. That is to see, to be present, still, or clear enough, to see how any phenomenon at all, any experience at all, see it arise, see it appear.
Nothing is there all the time. When anything that qualifies as an experience is in perception for a while, it appears and then it disappears. When the mind is quiet enough and not involved in thoughts, you can start seeing this arising of sensual desire, and you might see its passing. Seeing the arising, it is easier to have a very different, freer, more disentangled relationship with sensual desire, when you see it first arise, than if it is already there full blown.
To be right there and see, "There it is," then it is easier to just leave it alone. It is easier to abandon it, to let go of it. Exercising our capacity to let go – let go of the clinging, the wanting, the reaching for – is a wonderful thing to cultivate and develop.
The way the Buddha describes working with sensual desires, "One knows sensual desire is present when it is present. One knows it is absent when it is absent. One knows that it is arising, when it arises. One knows the abandoning of it, letting go of it, when it is let go of." If that is thorough enough and deep enough, then it can lead to a deep freedom, where we realize that the sensual desire is no longer there, and is not going to rise again. Maybe at least in that meditation session. There is such a clarity, such full clarity, peacefulness, and settledness. It is like, "Wow, this is so good. Sensual desire is not going to arise in this context, because it feels so free. The freedom is so good."
To become wise about the hindrances. To become wise about how the hindrances obscure wisdom. The Buddha said, "Fools who know they are fools, to that extent they are wise." To use that, practitioners who know they have lost their wisdom are starting to become wise.
For the next 24 hours, until we meet again, I would encourage you to notice sensual desire – desire for sensual pleasures, desires for comfort – that might exist for you. There are lots of them through the day for most people. See if you can notice when it is present, when it is absent. Particularly see what is the opportunity, what happens for you, when you see it when it just arises. "Oh there it is." That is a fascinating place.
Hopefully you will get wiser over these next hours around sensual desire and then we will continue tomorrow. Thank you.