The Four Foundations of Mindfulness Part 15

To recap for those whose may be just joining in, and for those who have been following along these past few months, please read the post from 10-6-13 which is Part 13 of this series “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”. Part 13 provides a good summary of the first three of the four practices I have been writing about. Part 14 introduces the question, and offers various reflections on the difference between the terms bare attention, mindfulness, and clear comprehension.

The differences between these terms are more important than semantic hair-splitting.

Understanding the differences between these terms and the different ways they are applied is an important prelude to how one uses different tools of practice at different points of practice. Looking back at Part 14, though, I can see I attempted to cover too much ground and that I may have further muddied the waters, rather than cleared them.

If you do read Part 14 and have questions, please just send me an email or call and I will be glad to discuss the questions you have. In the meantime I want to see what I can do to simplify the descriptions of bare attention, mindfulness, and clear comprehension.

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.

It is easiest to think of bare attention on the context of the five senses: touch, sight, sound, taste, and smell. In terms of Buddhist descriptions of the senses the mind is the 6th sense. But commenting on how to apply bare attention to the mind as the 6th sense might only confuse things for the present. This is an important subject to return to at a later time but for now let’s just focus on applying bare attention to the impressions arising in the mind from the five senses.

The first way to think of bare attention is that it is a simple noting of the first micromoments when a new impression arises in the mind. Bare attention in this application is an attempt to see the difference between the initial sense impression as compared with the later stages of feelings, labels, concepts, memories, judgements, thoughts, and reactions that arise from the sense impression.

The goal is to stop at this very first link in the chain of arising experience.

For example, you see several people whom you know walking down the street. The impression arises from sight, or possibly sound if you hear them talking. The mental note is “seeing” or “seeing and hearing”. The words you use are up to you. What is important is to see if you can stop before the next stage of experience arises where you think, reflexively within yourself, “I like these people”, or “I don’t like these people”, or “I don’t have much of an impression about who these people are”.  See also if you can pause before memory is activated and kicks in with the name…”Oh that is Peter, or Juan, or Monica.”

See if you can pause before you notice and subjective thoughts like, “O that person is Caucasian”, or “That person is “African American”, or that person seems poor, or that person seems to be wealthy. Or that person is attractive or that person is quite homely.

See if you maintain a disciplined focus on just the bare facts of the initial sense impression: “seeing” or “people”.

See if you can forego the usual proliferation of feelings, labels, names, thoughts, and judgements etc., which naturally arise from sense impressions when the mind and memory and feelings and language faculties of the mind are fully triggered and engaged.

Please do not think that I am saying this is some easy thing to do. What I am saying is that it is possible to develop the acuity of mind to restrain the tendency of the mind to proliferate from initial impressions into feelings of “like”, “dislike”, or “neutral” and all the steps or perception that follow after that.

If the sense impression does give rise to a feeling, or the name of the object you are seeing comes to mind (as it most probably will) then the following step can be taken:

Apply bare attention to the feeling and simply note “feeling has arisen within me” or “feeling of like” or “feeling of dislike” or “neutral feeling has arisen in me”. Then return to the bare attention of whatever sense impression might be present at the moment. The limiting of bare attention to sense impressions in the nano-seconds before feelings, thoughts, and desires arise in the mind is a primary application of bare attention. Making a bare mental note of feelings, thoughts, and desires that do arise and then returning back to a bare noticing of sense impressions as soon as you are able is another application of bare attention. Bare attention can also be applied to the other practices of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”. But those details need to wait until later posts. The means described above offer a good beginning to this practice.

If you are meditating with your eyes closed the predominant impressions will most likely be related to sensations of the breath or the body, all of which tend to be touch impressions. On occasion the sense impression might be the sounds outside the center, or the sound of someone on the meditation class coughing or breathing too loudly etc., or the sound of the teacher offering some guided meditation.

While you are on retreat, the process can continue as you get up from the cushion or chair but generally on a more selective and less detailed basis. When you return to the active hours of your life, the application of bare attention can continue as you go through the day, but the practice will be even more selective as you go to work and discharge the other responsibilities and activities of everyday living. But when possible slow the process of perception down. Look closely when a new sense impression arises. See the arising or a feeling or “I like” or “I don’t like” or “I have no strong reaction” arises. See if you can catch the swiftly moving river of perception to notice that your memory digs up the distinguishing characteristics of the object and then applies a name or general label to it.

Regrettably, my ongoing studies to understand the differences between bare attention, mindfulness, and clear comprehension continue to proceed slowly. I am surprised how differently various writers define these terms. They also suggest variations on how to apply various aspects of these tools to meditation practice.

But the above definition of bare attention is a good working definition. I will have to spend more time understanding how different teachers define the similarities and differences between bare attention, mindfulness, and clear comprehension. I will also have to spend more time understanding how different teachers apply these tools in the context of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”.

I do wish this was simpler process. But a detailed comparative study of Nyanaponika Thera’s book “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, Venerable Analayo’s work “Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization”, B Alan Wallace’s notes in a Tricycle article (spring 2008), and Joseph Goldstein’s commentary on CD is a valuable process. I understand there probably is no single correct set of definitions or process of application. Nevertheless, as arcane as this inquiry may appear to be, I can tell I certainly am learning a great deal by studying the varying nuances and practice instructions of these very competent scholars and teachers.

More next week

Please call or email with any questions or constructive criticisms.

Will Raymond  774-232-0884  or 

Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness”

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