The Four Foundations of Mindfulness Part 14

To recap for those whose may be just joining in, and for those who have been following along these past few months,  before reading this post, please note the blog from 10-6-13 which is Part 13 of this series “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”. Part 13 of this series provides a good summary of the first three of the four practices I have been writing about.

As noted in earlier posts of this series, one need not be a Buddhist to study these Buddhist approaches 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.

I did not realize when I started writing an introduction to “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” how vast a subject it is. It is easy to see how one could misunderstand how much material there is to work with. The Sutta, which is #22 of “The Long Discourses of the Buddha”, is only 15 pages long (Wisdom Publications translated by Maurice Walshe).

While the subject matter is profound this Sutta is not a dense read and can be read in one or two sessions. But what was not so evident to me at first is the fact that these fifteen pages cover almost all of the Buddhist teachings in condensed form.

There are several modern commentaries that write about this Sutta at length. The writers are all very senior monks or lay teachers with excellent scholarly skills and are very skillful practitioners of the teachings in this Sutta.

“The Heart of Buddhist Meditation” by Nyanaponika Thera, “The Direct Path of Realization” by Venerable Analayo, and the recorded talks of Joseph Goldstein are the three works I have studied closely in addition to a careful read of the Sutta itself. I believe Joseph Goldstein will soon publish a book on the subject. I look forward to reading it very much. An interview with Alan Wallace from Tricycle (Spring 2008 Page 60) is also quite informative on the differences between Mindfulness and Bare Attention.

Each of these authors offer important insights. Each of these books, in my opinion, also skips over some key aspects of actual practices of this Sutta. Perhaps they assume a person is reading their book in the context of regular personal interviews with a skilled teacher who could fill in the gaps. That certainly is an appropriate assumption. Perhaps they feel the subject is so basic that most people understand more quickly than I do as to what they are saying. In this regard, I realize my slowness is not a basis for criticizing their well-regarded work. Still, I was often left confused about how to actually engage the practices or understand the philological studies and definitions they present.

One example of the issues that surfaced for me is this: In Nyanaponika Thera’s book “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation” (Samuel Weiser Inc.) he devotes a significant amount of time making the distinction between Bare Attention and Clear Knowing (See chapter 2). It is a focus on a better understanding of what Bare Attention is and how to engage this practice, at least in preliminary form, that is the subject of this blog post. (Of course I realize this blog post is, like all my others, much too long. Thanks to anyone who perseveres with this process where I am working through certain questions by writing about them. At some point I will need to simplify this series and cast it into a separate book).

Here are some quotes from Nyanaponika Thera’s book:

“Bare Attention is the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at the successive moments of perception.”  (page 30)

“Bare attention consists in a bare and exact registering of the object.” (page 32)

“Bare attention is concerned with only the present” (page 40)

From the various descriptions, I gather that Bare Attention is a process of making a brief, general mental note about the phenomena being experienced. One makes a bare observation shorn of interpretations, if possible, and a brief mental note about what is arising in the mind. But how exactly is one to make this note. How does the noting process change when focused on sense impressions, for example as distinct from feelings or desires?

Nyanaponika Thera touches briefly on what system of noting to use but does not further delineate the specific details of the mental noting system.  Venerable Analayo, unless I missed something, also does not go into any detail of the specific mechanics of mental noting to be developed. More importantly, how to engage Bare Attention in each of the different practices of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is not, in my opinion, as clearly delineated as one might hope. This is important because at some point Bare Attention gives way to Clear Comprehending as the primary way of processing the material noted. This is especially the case regarding the fourth practice.

Joseph Goldstein’s comments on the specifics of Bare Attention in the talks I heard were more extensive and I could gain a better sense of the specific ways he uses the mental-noting in his mindfulness practice. But at key points in his presentation I found his comments a bit hard to follow. This is unfortunate as I feel his commentary on this Sutta, is among the clearest and most accessible of anything written on the subject.

One source for extensive commentary on a system of mental-note making can be found in “Living Dharma” by Jack Kornfield (Shambhala) pages 55-66. These pages cite comments from his profile on Mahasi Sayadaw who is a pivotal figure in the 20th century revival of the Burmese approach to “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”. The system Mahasi Sayadaw uses for making mental notes is very extensive but may be so detailed as to be quite intimidating or overwhelming to many who are new to practice. Certainly, he does say this is used mostly for intensive practice while on retreat and that it needs to be attenuated for practice in everyday life.

Many may feel the subject is too arcane for serious reflection and study. But for me that is not the case. Often knowing the nuts and bolts details of a practice allows me to better understand how to actually engage a practice, especially one as subtle yet profound as the use of Bare Attention in the various stages of “The Four Foundations of Practice”.

I will continue to search for simple clear ways to discuss this issue as we continue to reflect on the first three practices, and as we prepare for the work of the fourth practice. I will continue to search for ways to understand the differences between Bare Attention and Clear Comprehending and Mindfulness.

For now the following is an interim solution as to how one can view and engage the practice of Bare Attention. This approach is far from perfect, but one which at least provides a bit of clarity and useful direction until a more comprehensive articulation can be developed.

When a new sense impression arises in the mind, you can make the general note, sight, or sound, or taste, or touch, or smell. Take a moment to notice that very, very quickly the label or name of that object is fetched from memory as to what the specific sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell is. This happens so fast it is likely you will not see any time between the moment the sense impression first arises in the mind, and the time that you remember what it is and apply the appropriate label, i.e. to name the phenomena in question.

But one of the first ways to approach the practice of Bare Attention is to begin to realize there is a gap between when a sense impression first arises in the mind and the time it takes the mind to remember the label or name and apply it. The practice of Bare Attention will allow you to see this process as a series of stages each of which you can study with care.

For some examples: I am walking down the street. I see someone. It is someone I know. Their name is Steve or Susan. Before the name of the person is re-cognized, I make the mental note: “seeing.”

I am sitting in a meditation center in the city. I hear something. I know it is a siren. Before I re-cognize that the sound is indeed a siren, I make the mental note: “hearing”.

I walk through the food court of a mall. I smell something. I know it is the smell from Cinnabon. Before I re-cognize that the smell is a cinnamon roll, probably from Cinnabon, I make the mental-note: “smelling”.

One can further refine the practice in this way. One can see even that making a note seeing, or hearing, or smelling is a cognition. Even making this general a distinction indicates the discriminating and remembering mind has been engaged. After all the mind has determined which of the five senses has been engaged with sensory input. Is this really Bare Attention?

One could simply make the more general note: “sense impression”. This note distinguishes that a sense impresion is different from feeling, or thought, or general state-of-mind. But, is this really Bare Attention?

Still one can further refine the practice in this way. Even making a note distinguishing a sense impression from a feeling or a thought or a general state-of-mind is a cognition. Is it not an indication the discriminating and remembering mind has been engaged? After all the mind has noted the difference, and named the difference, between a sense impression and either a feeling, or a thought, or a general state-of-mind. Is this really Bare Attention?

One can further refine the practice in this way. One can suspend all language-based mental-noting and labeling and discursive thought. One can simply dwell in a state of open wordless awareness. This seems to me to be Bare Attention though I am sure the earlier preparatory stages of practice also are covered by the term.

In this way I believe I can see that one way to engage Bare Attention is through a series of  progressive refinements. The noting becomes more and more general as the focus of the mind becomes more and more finely honed and less and less specific discriminations are made. The goal being that the mind settles into a very concentrated state of wordless, calm and tranquility. This concentrated state of mind is another central feature of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”.

The question of how to define Bare Attention as compared to Clear Seeing, and Mindfulness is a good one. It was from a question from the friend who helps with the proof-reading of this blog that the importance of the question was clarified to me.

I am very grateful for her efforts and for this interesting question .

Please call or email with questions or corrections you may have. I am glad to know what your thoughts on these subjects are.

Will Raymond 774-232-0884

Author of the Simple Path of Holiness

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