Forest SanghaNewsletter October 1997

Wings of the Eagle; Ajahn Jayasaro
Living in Faith; tudong - faith & vulnerability.
Universal Loving Kindness; Ajahn Sumedho, 1996.
Beyond Belief; Ajahn Candasiri
Mindfulness & Clear Comprehension, Ajahn Sucitto
Peace on Earth; Ajahn Candasiri
Signs of Change:


Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension

In 1993, Ajahn Sucitto gave a series ofclasses at Cittaviveka covering basic themes of meditation practice. This isthe first section of his talk.

In considering mindfulness and clear comprehension we see that these twoterms are often conjoined. They support and amplify each other. Mindfulnessis the ability to attend in a particular way, to turn the mind on tosomething and feel it out. Clear comprehension is the thing that helps todetermine what we should be mindful of and how. These two together form ahelpful practice for the arising of understanding. There are varioustechniques and ways in which to develop and cultivate mindfulness, butsometimes what happens is that people consider mindfulness to be developedonly through refining the preliminary object of meditation. For example, theymay become attentive to particular refined sensations – but what they reallyneed to be mindful of is motivation. A rather facile example might be that aperson could be mindful of the feelings in their hand, when maybe they shouldbe more mindful of the fact that they are holding a gun, with which they areabout to blow someone's brains out! In terms of meditation, motivation can becorrupted with a kind of self-importance or alternatively self-denial, and wetend to be mindful of things that accord with these habits. So we recognisethat clear comprehension is very important as a determinant for mindfulness.

Mindfulness is also the power of the mind to attend objectively; themind just opens up to something, without any particular angle or anyparticular ambition – and it's not in a hurry. When conjoined with clearcomprehension it is not dependent on the quality of the object, instead itestablishes a continuity of knowing attention. It has the quality ofdispassion, rather than attending only to things that we feel are dramatic;therefore an important development of mindfulness is in its extension.

Most of us can be fairly attentive to things when we are threatenedor in danger – then we become extremely attentive – but most of the timethere is no mindfulness. We live in a kind of fairly all right ordinarystate, or else things become habitual; we barely notice them because we'vegot so used to them. Life seems to operate in terms of routines and habits:the same place and the same people – things changing very slowly – same oldbody doing more or less the same things every day. So we need skill todevelop mindfulness in this, because normally the mind is only attentive tothings that are dramatic, painful, searing or intense, wonderful or luminous.
"Even in meditation, unless it comes through mindfulness, concentration willnot be endowed with the skilful mental attributes that ripen to give rise tosamadhi"

Such a bias affects our meditation, and so we feel that we can't be mindfulbecause we can't find anything special to be mindful of. We can tend toimagine that mindfulness is a state of being concentrated on an object, sothat if we're fully concentrated upon the breath or upon a sensation thenwe're very mindful of it. But concentration without mindfulness is fixation,rather than samådhi: it doesn't take into account an awareness of the mind'sresponses to an object, so only a fraction of the mind gets involved.Limiting mindfulness in this way is also unproductive if, for most of theday, we can't be mindful of breathing in and out because of being occupiedwith other things. It's not possible to have mindfulness in a controlled way,because life tends to be multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. We are alwaysgoing from the eyes to the ears, to the brain and the body and then back tothe brain, the thoughts and memories. The attention has to keep swivellingaround in order to function with things. However we can be mindful of theawareness (citta) which receives impressions and comes up with skilfulresponses, so flexibility in choosing a suitable place for attention is veryuseful. The reason that often people feel that they can't be mindful is thatthey can't relate mindfulness to the active states of consciousness when themind is moving around, but this is getting confused between mindfulness andthe ordinary understanding of concentration.

Concentration alone does tend to alter the consciousness: it makes itbecome more refined and take on the quality of what is concentrated on. So ifwe concentrate on beautiful music then we may feel very patriotic, orromantic, or excited – the mind takes on that particular mood. If weconcentrate on a calm sign, like breathing, the mind becomes calm; but ittends to fix on that, and then when we can't concentrate on the breath we'reall at sea again. Even if we can sustain it over a long period of time, whichis difficult, that practice tends to make the mind take on the quality of thething that it's conjoined with and not much more. So in terms of our `view'or perspective, we remain very much affected by whatever we are in contactwith. For much of the day most people have to be in contact with things likenewspapers, traffic, duties, telephones, so then if we're just concentrating,associating the mind with the thing it is conjoined with, it gets veryagitated and frazzled. Even in meditation, unless it comes throughmindfulness, concentration will not be endowed with the skilful mentalattributes that ripen to give rise to samådhi.

Mindfulness has the ability to notice something dispassionately andto maintain a state of coolness, of dispassion, by referring to and workingwith the mind's responses; this is a highly focused but not fixated state.For example, on hearing a sound we can notice what that sound does to us.When we hear a powerful sound, like a chainsaw or some machine screechingaway, we can feel the mind tensing up. But then if we're mindful, keeping asense of coolness about that, the mind actually relaxes; we hear the soundsimply as a sound, and we don't get this build-up of stress. So in some ways,although it's rather undramatic, this is a very valuable practice. Now we'renot saying, "The way to meditate is to go and listen to a chainsaw" or, "Goand sit in front of a spin drier all day long", but it's a way of dismantlingthe compulsiveness – the ways that we get caught with things – not byantagonism, but by just staying objective and dispassionate. With anunpleasant experience, the mind habitually tenses up and to tries to push thefeeling away, but with a pleasant sound or taste the mind tends to go towardsit and tries to hold on to it and linger in it, or gobble it up. But then,through simply noticing that, we begin to find a sense of calm composure inourselves so that, no matter what comes into consciousness, we are able toregister it for what it is and to maintain the emotional mood of dispassion,of objectivity. We see that whatever we experience comes, and then goes. Ithas the nature to arise, and then cease. It is impermanent, it's transient.Now although that's a very obvious statement, it's not an obvious experience.Most of us don't experience the ending of something. When something ends themind jumps to the next thing. We don't notice a sound fading away. Instead,we notice the sound and we think about it, and then either forget it as we goon to something else, or the mind argues with it and proliferates around it:"Oh that's very nice, I wonder where that's coming from." Or with a smell,you think, "That's a nice smell, that reminds me of so and so..." or,"Where's that pong coming from? I don't like that..." We engage with things.
But to be mindful means that we notice the sound or the smell come intoconsciousness, and then, instead of pushing the sense impression away orholding on to it, we're aware of how the mind reacts. We stay centred andnotice that the impression and the feeling that arises comes, and then goes.We can actually watch and feel the mind's inclination to lunge out towardssomething that's pleasant, whereas before it would simply lunge out, graspand then proliferate about it. With mindfulness we can notice the movement ofthe mind arise and then, when we don't engage with it, we see it fallingaway, ceasing. We see that it comes and goes in a wave pattern, and we beginto experience a steadiness underneath the waves.

So in this respect mindfulness has two qualities. Firstly, it isdispassionate; it has no particular ambition, it's neither rejecting orashamed of anything, nor is it fascinated by anything. Secondly, it noticesthat things arise and cease.
If mindfulness covers the context in which apparent phenomena appear, we getin touch with motivations and responses that would otherwise be screened out,which are the source of the hindrances that can afflict us. If we can ceaseengaging in a blind way, we develop perspective. Rather than fighting withourselves, saying we shouldn't feel this or think that, we can just noticeall of the sounds, the sights, or the tastes or the touches, and what themind makes of each impression. We see that they are all of the same nature inthat they arise and cease. This is the function of mindfulness. It leads toinner composure and freedom, because we're not rejecting anything, nor are wegrasping after anything. We see that it's like this. There is a levelness, agroundedness in which the rich qualities of awareness can begin to revealthemselves.