In Part 10 of this series I want to begin discussion of the third of the meditation practices of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” which is mindful awareness of the general state of mind.
As noted in earlier parts of this series, one need not be a Buddhist to study this Buddhist approach to meditation. These basic practices can easily be adapted to your current beliefs whether you are one who believes in God, one who does not, or one who is not sure what to believe.
Please read the earlier posts of this series, at least the previous one or two posts, to be aware of the principal themes and practices offered so far.
To recap: the first of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is the practice of mindful awareness of the sensations of the body, such as the changing sensations of the act of breathing in and out. The sensations of the body as you sit in meditation, or as you move about the active hours of your life, are other good examples. In general, be aware of the sensations that pour into the mind through the eye, ear, nose, taste, and touch. Begin to see how these different streams of experience are some of the components of your conscious experience. Begin to see how each of them is changing, constantly changing, whether that change is slow or quick.
The second of “The Four Foundation of Mindfulness is the practice of mindful awareness of feelings. As noted in earlier posts, by feelings the Theravada Buddhist teachers refer to only three basic feelings: satisfied, unsatisfied, or neutral. At first seeing the differences between these three choices may be much more clear during the active efforts of eating, or having sex, or going on holiday, or buying new clothes, or working with others, or going to dinner parties etc. During any or all of these activities you can begin to be more aware of whether the experiences you are having are satisfying, unsatisfying, or somewhat neutral. This assessment can continue, although usually on a more subtle level during times of formal sitting practice as well.
The third practice of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is the practice of mindful awareness of the general state of mind. Please refer to the text of the Satipatthana Sutta for the exact words used. The following is language I am working on to try to convey to 21st century people how to think about this practice. The development of this language is a work in process, but here are a few ideas:
Is there a strong sense of aching hunger and grasping for “more” or is the mind free from aching hunger and the grasping for “more”?
Is there a strong sense of anger, resentment, and frustration, or is the mind free, or relatively free from anger, resentment, and frustration?
Is there a strong sense of “I”, and “me” and “mine”, or is the mind free from gross self-centered preoccupations and sense of entitlement, conceit, vanity, pride, or righteous indignation?
Is the experience of the mind (and body) tense and constricted, or is the mind (and body) calm and loose with a feeling of relaxed ease and spaciousness?
As you try to mediate are you finding you are constantly being distracted into one interior movie after another or is your mind steady and calmly focused on the inhale and exhale of the breath or whatever you are using for a mantra?
Do you feel you have reached the deepest states of peace and insight? Or is it clear you are still in a lower stage of peace, experience, and insight?
Do you feel you are making progress towards your goal of liberation or are you stuck or sliding backwards into old unskillful patterns?
In all of these observations there is one consideration of great importance. Don’t judge yourself as being a “bad meditator” if you are having experiences of aching desire, anger, self-centeredness, or just plain being stuck in a hazy or cloudy mind. Don’t judge yourself as being a “good meditator, if you are having experiences of being free from aching desire, anger, self-centeredness, or having really fulfilling experiences of clarity, calm, and freedom.
The different efforts of these basic practices of mindfulness will give you the tools to see with greater clarity and precision what is happening in the mind, as emotions and thoughts and general states of mind arise and pass away. Learning to distinguish sense impressions such as sights and sounds from general feeling tones is a good beginning. Seeing with greater clarity the three different base feeling tones of satisfaction, unsatisfaction, and neutral reactions is the next basic step. Seeing the relationship between these three base feeling tones and the basic tendencies of grasping or aversion that arise from them is the next level of observation.
All of this will help you see more clearly the intricate triggering that happens between bodily sensations, emotional feeling states, and various thoughts, judgements, and mind states.
The lucidity and suppleness of mindfulness that arises from these calisthenic kinds of exercises will prepare you for the later work of working with unwholesome states and thoughts and the cultivation of wholesome states and thoughts.
You will have the tools you need for sophisticated work.
For now it is enough to observe with a simple, innocent curiosity and to note: mind filled with desire, mind free from desire, mind filled with anger, mind free from anger and so forth. Just make a mental note of what you are observing as the general state of mind you are experiencing. The time to take action to mold, or supplant, or disperse unwholesome states and to cultivate wholesome states will come about in the various efforts of the fourth practice of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”. For now it is enough to be more aware of the general tone of consciousness, which is to say the general tone of your state of mind with as little judgement and evaluation as possible.
Before proceeding to the fourth practice, I need to back up a little to discuss one important aspect of the feeling states of satisfying, unsatisfying, or neutral. That important aspect is the ability to make a distinction between two categories. The first category is satisfying, unsatisfying, or neutral experiences that arise from sensual experience such as eating or going to a movie.
The second category is satisfying, unsatisfying, or neutral feelings that arise from the non-sensual experiences such as forsaking excessive desire, the act of full and free forgiveness, the freedom of accepting difficulties with grace and dignity, acts of genuinely selfless charity and the like.
This is an important distinction and I will discuss the very important nuances of this distinction next week. After that we can move on to outline the highlights of the fourth practice of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”. There is no easy way to translate the Pali word that describes the fourth practice, although it is often referred to as mindfulness of mind objects, or mindfulness of dhammas.
But next week we can spend some time on the above mentioned distinctions relevant to the subtler practice of the mindful awareness of the feelings and thoughts that arise from sensual experiences as compared with the feelings that arise from non-sensual experiences.
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