Forest SanghaNewsletter January 1998

The Path to Peace; Ajahn Chah
A slice of life; Kathryn Guta
Remembering our Goal; An interview with Ajahn Pasanno
Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension; Ajahn Sucitto
Four Fold Assembly; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:
Trust News:


Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension

In 1993, Ajahn Sucitto gave a series of classes atCittaviveka covering basic themes of meditation practice. This is the secondsection of his talk.

Effort in meditation is a vital factor. The Buddha said that right view,right effort and right mindfulness accompany and develop every aspect of thepath. With mindfulness, we can experience the immediate results of right andwrong effort - and of no effort. Is the mind just rambling on all the time?Are we feeling strained or rigid?... These are signs of wrong effort.Mindfulness helps to check and link up moments of right effort to form acohesive flow of bright energy and an abiding in a skilful state. We becomegrounded in a meditation object and can study it, as well as experience calmand well-being.

A systematic way of looking at this sense of groundedness is in termsof mindfulness, and this has four bases or foundations. This is a means ofapplying mindfulness in a specifically focussed way that will develop bothcollected tranquillity - samadhi - and insightful wisdom. The first and mosteasily accessible of these foundations is the body. When we're doing formalmeditation practice we keep bringing attention back to the body - in its ownterms. Notice what gives rise to the impression that there is a body here. Sothis meditation centres on the breath, which is a physical experience; or onthe body walking up and down, or on it sitting or standing. To do this in asustained way - and to discard other experiences - is the first foundation.

Now say we're meditating, sitting there, and coming back to itsassociated sensations, but then the mind drifts off onto something that seemsmore pressing or more urgent - worries, doubts. Even so to just keep comingback to that foundation is a way of unravelling a lot of the mental stuff ofthe day. Mindfulness is a moment-by-moment thing; the main technique of sucha practice is to set it up - to make that the intention - then to keepre-establishing it. A lot of grief and distress in meditation comes fromexpecting ourselves to be fully mindful of one particular thing in anunbroken succession, when actually that isn't always possible.
Recognise that things change, they are impermanent, don't expect the mind tostay still in one place. Then one is less likely to get stuck in the moodsthat occur, or jump to conclusions that it is either a complete waste of timeor that one is a failure.

What is important to sustain is the coolness of it so that when the mindwanders off, as it does almost incessantly at first, one can learn from whathappens then; three minutes later, or ten minutes later, when lost in a trainof thought and emotions, when suddenly 'Oh! Where am I?' We recognise that wewere supposed to be sitting here feeling our breath... so then whathappens?... we get irritated, thinking, 'I can't do this', or 'Oh, shut upand get back to the breath!'

Now this is actually where a lot of learning can occur; not justthrough sustaining the attention on the object, although that's important,but also in how we go about doing that. I guess it's rather like training adog or puppy. We might want to train it to fetch a stick, or to stay at heel.Of course, having it stay at heel may be one's aim, but recognise that avital aspect of the training - and in learning about yourself - is how onereacts to the puppy continually running away. We can start to replace theimpatient and negative traits of the mind with more positive and peacefulones. We can ask, 'Where am I now?', 'Who is thinking?', or 'What about thebreath?'.... This is a constructive means of re-establishing awareness of themeditation object - in a patient way, rather than bullying or naggingyourself. Then mindfulness is endowed with some degree of wisdom andresponsiveness, and it becomes accordingly much firmer.

But all of this can only occur when we have established mindfulnessas our aim: mindfulness, to be dispassionate, to stay cool, to keepreflecting. Recognise that things change, they are impermanent, don't expectthe mind to stay still in one place. Then one is less likely to get stuck inthe moods that occur, or jump to conclusions that it is either a completewaste of time or that one is a failure. These ideas and perceptions that comeup also have the nature to arise and cease. In training and bringing the mindto attention in this way, we begin to discover that the judgements we makeabout ourselves and about life, the apparent obsessions of the mind - thethings we seem to be stuck with permanently are, in fact, only impermanentthings that we're not being mindful of. One allows oneself to get caught inthem because at that moment, one is not bringing mindfulness to bear. Butthat can change right now: mindfulness can be brought to bear, when there'sthe intention to do so.
Two very common themes of body meditation are 'body-sweeping' and'mindfulness of breathing', both of which require a patient and thoroughpractice. I can only give a brief outline here. Body sweeping is the practiceof 'sweeping' awareness over the body and recognising the quality ofsensation at each moment. We can do this in a refined and systematic way -say focussing on one toe at a time, and then the ankle of one leg and so on;or in a simpler broader way, such as one leg, then the other; or by'touching' chosen points in the body in a regular sequence - such as rightelbow, right shoulder, left shoulder, left elbow, right hip, left hip, and soon. It can also be good to notice one point - say, a finger tip - and how itrelates to the general flow of sensations in the hand and the arm. Movingattention around in this way helps to release blocks; numb patches becomemore sensitive, a balance of body vitality is achieved.

With mindfulness of breathing, the field of attention is trained tocover the entirety of the breathing as it is experienced in the present. Thismay change in character but I think it is important to fully receive what isfelt, rather than search for what one thinks one should feel. If we searchtoo hard we establish trying, rather than awareness. So to be receptive, andextend and tune that receptivity is more conducive. Thus the mind is capableof knowing the physical, and then the mental, feelings that are associatedwith the breathing. To return to the foundations: mindfulness of feeling isthe second. It refers to the particular pleasant, unpleasant, or neutralphysical or mental feelings that arise. We can note the feeling in the bodyas pleasing, or displeasing, or just nothing special. Or with the mind, wecan notice the feeling that may be associated with boredom, or low energy.Then, rather than just getting involved in the state itself, we can just keepobserving the associated feeling. We may not like it. But rather than justhanging on to that reaction, we can actually contemplate the not liking - theunpleasant feeling - knowing it that way. So then, rather than rejectingunpleasant feelings and trying to find a pleasant one, we can realise thatunpleasant feelings come and go, and do not have to be sustained by mentalreactions. The very quality of mindfulness achieves a state of peace andnon-attachment with unpleasant feelings.

So if we can establish a steady mindfulness through the range offeeling, we will have overcome a major obstacle to meditation. This takes usto the third foundation, which is the mind. We can be mindful of the mind;whether the mind-set is gloomy, distracted, free, bright, luminous,constricted - just getting a reference to the mood of the mind. If we come tothis, if we learn to get attentive to the mood - it helps us to understandand to be aware of what the mind creates. So if the mind-set is dark andgloomy, then naturally that's going to affect our energies, the way we think,the way we talk; it's going to affect the way we see and experience things.But if there can be mindfulness of that mood, then we can recognise, say,feeling depressed, feeling gloomy, feeling nervous and stay cool about thatrather than fighting it, justifying it, or getting involved with it. We seethat mood also has the nature to arise and cease.
The fourth foundation is called mindfulness of dhamma - meaning mentalprocesses. This means we begin to look at the personality, psychologicalstates, hang-ups, problems - our life situation - in an objective way. Whenwe look at it objectively we see that really it amounts to a set up ofwanting pleasure, wanting happiness, wanting peace, and being irritated bythings we don't like; sometimes feeling dullness, worry and restlessness, ordoubt.... There are these qualities, and they are centred in the ground ofpersonal interest; everyone's personal interest - so they are universalqualities. So rather than making personal problems out of these, we start tosee them as impersonal. They come around because of causes and conditions.That helps to remove the ground which harbours these hindrances, rather thanfurther add to the intensity of identification.

The details of clearing the hindrances are based on this clearperspective. This makes it possible to get in touch with the spiritualqualities that will repel afflictive states and be conducive to deep clarity.These enlightenment factors - mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy,tranquillity, collectedness and equanimity - also are dhamma. They are thingsrather than ourself. When mindfulness and clear comprehension have developedto the point of being able to recognise, develop and use these faculties tocombat the hindrances, this can be called satipanna - mindful wisdom.Mindfulness of dhamma evolves to include everything.

As we train ourselves to witness and experience body, feelings andmind and its states as impermanent, coming and going, changing, we find thatwe have a more centred and reflective view upon our life. Instead of seeingit in such fragmented, circumstantial and personal ways, we see ourselves andothers in very much the same light - there's this body, there's that body,they all have the same qualities; a pleasant equanimity arises. We arrive ata sense of universality which is peaceful and compassionate.