Unite the tip of the ring finger and the thumb, and you bring together the elements of fire and earth. This mudra represents energy and health, and it provides us with a feeling of balance. It can also help with bringing positive changes into our lives.
– Ajahn Thiradhammo
Teachers in the Forest Tradition talk about awareness and wisdom. They don’t talk much about scriptural wisdom or intellectual wisdom; they talk about ‘awareness wisdom’, the wisdom which comes from direct seeing, direct experience. This is what the faculty of awareness becomes in its more developed sense. Normally our awareness is just being aware of what we want to be aware of; it’s very subjectively controlled. We only want to be aware of the body when it’s comfortable, but in the course of meditation, when we have committed ourselves to sit for a certain time, the body may become uncomfortable. We can’t escape from the discomfort, so we become more aware of it, developing that side of the awareness equation too. Thus we become more aware of the unsatisfactory nature of bodily experience. Previously we only paid attention to the body when it was comfortable, and as soon as it became uncomfortable we moved it back to comfort again. But that selective awareness is only seeing part of how the body is. If we can develop awareness so that it becomes a power in itself, it becomes less controlled by this selectivity of our preferences. This is when awareness breaks out from the limitations of subjectivity, and then we can be aware of a much fuller range of body, not just what we want to notice when it feels comfortable for us. We begin to experience the body in a whole range of situations beyond personal preferences. This is what the development of awareness can do. And of course, as we become more aware of the body, we also notice its relation to our feelings and states of mind, which is a very good foundation for developing awareness of the other themes of mindfulness.
AWARENESS OF FEELING TONES
The second of the attendings with mindfulness is feeling tones. ‘Feeling tone’ is the translation of the Pali word vedanā. It is the general emotional tone of our experience, whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The scriptures mention up to 108 different feeling tones, but we will keep it simple with just three: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Try to appreciate the difference between these definitions of feeling. If we ask how someone is feeling, they don’t normally answer, ‘pleasant’, ‘unpleasant’ or ‘neutral’. It’s usually, ‘I’m feeling great’, or ‘I’m feeling terrible’, or ‘I’m feeling fine’. For most people, feeling refers to the emotions, but in Buddhist terminology vedanā is that general feeling tone of emotion as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is a very important topic, because these feeling tones are the whole basis of what motivates us. Very simply, we can say that most people’s main motivation in life is to experience pleasant feeling tone and get away from unpleasant feeling tone, and they don’t know or are unclear about neutral feeling tone.
If we have neutral feeling tone we just sit there with not much happening, but when pleasant feeling tone comes, we think, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice? How can I get more of that?’ An unpleasant feeling tone comes along and we think, ‘How can I get away from this?’ These three feeling tones sound rather insipid: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. They don’t amount to ecstasy or hell. But they are the fundamental motivating influences of our lives – towards the pleasant and away from the unpleasant. So becoming more aware of them is very beneficial, because we can begin to see just how we are being impersonally controlled by them. If we investigate feeling tones in the course of a sitting, for example, we’ll notice how much they change. If our whole life is built on feeling tones though they’re so ephemeral, so unreliable, our life will also be pretty unreliable. If I’m just living for pleasant feeling tone and it’s changing so quickly, I’ve essentially built my life on sand. By developing awareness of feeling tones, our direct seeing gives us understanding of them, insight into their true nature and how they motivate us.
There are also a variety of ways to distinguish feeling tones. For example, there are feeling tones that arise from bodily sensations and feeling tones from conditions of mind. In the discourses on the development of mindfulness an important distinction is made between ‘worldly’ feeling tones and ‘non-worldly’ feeling tones; that is, it is very important to be able to determine whether certain feeling tones arise from a spiritual source. This is especially relevant when we come to the topic of joy as a factor of awakening, as the Buddha recognized the significance of pleasant spiritual feeling tone on the path to awakening.
AWARENESS OF CONDITIONS OF MIND
The third theme is conditions of mind. Actually, this theme is rather hard to define, because a ‘condition of mind’ suggests a condition with a definite boundary. In my experience many conditions of mind are not so easily distinguishable; they often flow together. The word translated as mind, citta, means the contents of our mind, what’s going on mentally. As you will probably appreciate, quite a few different levels may be involved. As we observe our condition of mind, for example, whether the mind is busy or not, we may also observe what sort of busyness is going on in the mind, or what types of thoughts or memories are arising.
The theme on conditions of mind specifically refers to a range of sixteen mental conditions, but these are by no means the only ones which can occur. Is the mind obsessed with aversion, for example? Are we carrying aversion with us from some event which happened last week or last year? Or is there some greed, some longing or desire for certain things, like wanting to have that new car we saw today? Or is there just delusion, states of confusion, doubt and uncertainty crowding into our life? We can also notice the lack of those things. Maybe on the one hand things look a bit negative – I’m carrying this aversion around with me – but on the other hand there’s no greed. I find it helpful to look at what is not in the mind, when the mind is not obsessed by greed or aversion or delusion. This does happen sometimes, actually more often than we imagine. When I was experiencing my backache I had no serious aversion; there was a little irritation with the backache, but I had no greed to go to my hut and lie down. It wasn’t very deluding because there was some clarity in observing it. So we’re also able to be aware when those qualities are not there, those times when the mind is not obsessed with greed, aversion, or delusion.
There are, of course, a great variety of conditions of mind. Some of those specifically mentioned in the scriptures are whether the mind is contracted or distracted, exalted or closed in, incomparable or not, concentrated or not and liberated or not. To be aware of these conditions we may need to step back from the specific contents to observe the prominent overall condition, similar to taking a weather check. Conditions of mind also include emotions. In Buddhist terminology emotions come in the category of conditions of mind or mentality. Emotions are very energized thoughts or memories, and that energy can be harnessed. If we are able to non-reactively observe the energy behind aversion or greed, we may be able to tune into it. Trying to resist it drains energy away – ‘Poor me, I’ve been meditating for twenty years, I shouldn’t have greed or aversion.’ But if we can open to emotions and receive them as they are, what is that like? It doesn’t mean we grasp and indulge them, but rather that we tune into them. It’s like bringing our hands closer to the fire, but taking care not to get burned. We have to know the right distance – too far away and we don’t get warm, too close and we’re burned, and this depends on our degree of collectedness and our development of awareness.
If we are still functioning in a reactive mode, we can be pulled into the energy, or we don’t want to see this greed, aversion and delusion; we want to blot it out or sit there with a blank mind. But when awareness is sufficiently developed, it steps outside those old habitual reactions. It has a power of its own rather than being controlled by our preferences. Awareness can look at this stuff, because that’s what comes on the screen. Our old habits don’t want to see it, they want a blank screen. But then we are choosing the kind of awareness that suits us, rather than allowing awareness to be its own power.
I find it helpful to see these conditions of mind as ‘mental weather’. In the same way as we observe the changes in the weather, we can observe the changes in mental conditions, and behind that is our ‘mental climate’. Maybe our mind’s general climate is windy and wet. Something comes up and we make it wet, we put a wet blanket on things. When we ask some people how they are, it’s always, ‘Very well, very well!’ Others always say, ‘Not too bad.’ That’s their general disposition, their mental climate – not too bad (wet climate), or wonderful! (sunny climate). And then there’s the mental weather. Somebody can be generally of a sunny disposition, but then an emotional storm comes in and they’re not so sunny any more. That’s just the passing weather. We can be very even-minded, but then some crisis arises in our life and all kinds of strange things come up, all kinds of atypical reactions may manifest. Someone who is normally unflustered can become very flustered when their ‘buttons are pushed’. However, if we have developed this exercise of awareness of mental conditions, we may be able to step back into the observing mode rather than getting caught up in a reactive mode which not only affirms the condition, but also leads to further mental conditions, and on and on.
AWARENESS OF THE DHAMMAS
The fourth theme is called dhammas. This word ‘dhamma’ has many different meanings in different contexts, but here it means phenomena or categories. This theme of dhammas comprises five topics: the Hindrances, the Aggregates, the six senses and sense objects, the Seven Factors of Awakening and the Four Noble Truths.
There’s a progression in this teaching, moving on to more and more refinement of awareness. If we observe the whole range of conditions of mind, we begin to see patterns emerging. For example, we observe which conditions pull the mind down, distract the mind, cloud the mind. They’re subsumed into a category called the Five Hindrances.3 Likewise, we begin to see that these Seven Factors of Awakening are also in the mind. That’s useful to know – the Seven Factors of Awakening are in our mind already; we just need to observe them, be mindful of them, be aware of them in their context. We can be aware of certain qualities, tranquillity for example. We have tranquillity sometimes, but do we really appreciate it in its context as a Factor of Awakening? When tranquillity rises, we may think we ought to be doing something. Why be tranquil? There’s this pile of books to read. We could do something else rather than just be tranquil. But by realizing that tranquillity is one of the factors of awakening, we can begin to appreciate it in the right context. Tranquillity inclined towards laziness may just be wasting time, but tranquillity as a positive factor that calms down mental and bodily activity becomes an important factor for awakening.
It’s a matter of observing and watching for these factors to come together. If we can carefully watch all these conditions arising in the mind, it can be like watching sheep being herded in the right way – Hindrances over there and Factors of Awakening over here. We begin to recognize what to watch out for.
If we aren’t aware of the Hindrances as Hindrances and don’t know what they do to us, we may actually be cultivating them. Maybe we’re cultivating laziness and thinking it’s tranquillity, sitting there snoring and thinking we’re tranquil, when it’s actually sleepiness we’re cultivating. That’s a Hindrance, not a Factor of Awakening!
But one person’s tranquillity may be someone else’s laziness – it’s very individual. A common experience in the heat of Thailand is the Hindrance called sloth and torpor. Even when the teacher was teaching, some monks would be torpid. People would think that sleeping during the talk was not very respectful, but one teacher said, ‘Their ears are still open, it’s OK, they’re still hearing.’ Maybe they were not in a sleep state, just a very tranquil state of receptivity. Their ears were open, and they heard the teaching and it went very deep, whereas if they were sitting upright there might have been a lot of self-consciousness blocking or judging what they heard, so they didn’t actually receive it openly. We can’t judge other people’s awareness by their physical expressions.
Another theme of the dhammas is developing awareness of the activity of the six senses: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind as a sense organ. It is through the senses that we put a ‘world’ together and then create our interpretations, opinions and reactions. This is a very rich area of investigation and a deep source of wisdom.
A further theme is to see our experience in terms of the Five Aggregates, the basic psycho-physical aspects of our self, i.e. materiality, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. Clearly seeing these constituent parts of our being and how they arise and pass away can give very deep insight into non-self or impersonality.
The last dhamma is the contemplation of the Four Noble Truths, the uniquely Buddhist teaching on suffering, its cause, its cessation and the Eightfold Path to the cessation of suffering. With the deepening of this realization, a comprehensive understanding of the entire extent and profundity of the Buddha’s teaching is attained.
The development of each of the exercises is further explained to encompass four general principles. The first one is to contemplate them internally (within oneself), externally (in another person) and both internally and externally. This allows a broadening out of awareness to include their more general nature as opposed to specific details. The second principle is contemplating the nature of arising, the nature of passing away and the nature of both arising and passing away relating to each exercise. Thus one is encouraged to actively contemplate the universal characteristic of impermanence, one of the ultimate truths of insight. Next we are reminded to establish mindfulness just for the purpose of knowledge and continued mindfulness. Finally, the practitioner is directed to ‘abide independent’ and ‘not cling to anything in the world’. These two phrases are often used to refer to an advanced state of spiritual attainment for which the practice of mindfulness is specifically prescribed.
It takes some degree of study to know what these four attendings with mindfulness are. That’s part of what the Buddha’s teaching provides for us. It’s like having a recipe: we can just go into the kitchen, throw some things together and hope the dish comes out all right, or we can look in the recipe book and get the proper recipe. Maybe we still can’t follow the recipe, but at least we know how it should be. That’s the benefit of having the Buddha’s teachings; he gives us this recipe for awakening, the development of mindfulness. So once we know what the recipe is, we can apply it, we can do our best with it. If we don’t know that there is this diverse range of topics, we might struggle to try to develop body awareness for years, but get nowhere. And then we might begin to work with the feeling tones and really benefit from that; we might have a special ability to work with the feeling tones. Others who are more analytically inclined may need to work with some of the dhammas. If they look at conditions of mind they may not see anything but a blank window. But what about the Five Hindrances, what about sloth and torpor? They know that. Once they receive some direction, this can lead them into a more direct experience of their mind through recognizing those Hindrances. Others can be inspired when they recognize what the Factors of Awakening are. So by having a broad knowledge of what these instructions are we have many openings, many ways of entering into this teaching and finding what suits us, finding some accessibility to it. Otherwise we may just hear different bits and pieces of the teachings and think that’s all there is.
By knowing what these different aspects of the Buddha’s teachings are, we also see the diversity of mindfulness practice. At the very beginning of the scripture about mindfulness, the Buddha is quoted as saying that this is the ‘direct path’4 to realizing awakening. The scriptures outline many different ways of practice which lead to awakening, but mindfulness is the main one. The practice of mindfulness brings together all these factors: body, feeling tones, conditions of mind; all these categories, the Five Hindrances, the Five Aggregates, the six senses and sense objects, the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Four Noble Truths. It’s the primary way, the main way to the realization of awakening.
So the practice of mindfulness is a very comprehensive summary of so many aspects of the Buddha’s teachings. I think that’s why the Buddha said it is the direct path to realizing awakening. Mindfulness is a very important foundation of the teachings. If we’re able at least to recognize its breadth intellectually and then put it into practice, we can realize its depth as well. Seeing how this body and this mind really are can lead us to experience the way things really are directly, in the ultimate sense of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and impersonality. We start with awareness in an elementary sense, and once developed it becomes mindfulness, which I interpret as ‘full awareness of mind’. When we’re aware of the body, we start off with a sense of ‘I’ doing it. First of all it’s, ‘I’m being aware of my body’; that’s the first level. The next level is, ‘I’m being aware of the body’. It’s not so much mine anymore, just the body as physical conditions. Then comes, ‘I’m just being aware; and finally, just awareness, with nobody being aware. If there still is a sense of ‘I’ being aware, it’s not full awareness of mind, there’s still a bit of ‘me’ in it. But once awareness is developed in the fullest sense, there’s fully complete awareness of mind. The mind is fully aware, without any need for a sense of self to know it, to be aware, to be present. And this full awareness of mind can penetrate through the ignorance of selfhood and reveal the truth of impersonality. That’s the highest development of mindfulness or awareness, pure awareness.
So this is a practice, a development of awareness, which then becomes wisdom. We have the wisdom to know the way things really are: impermanent, unsatisfactory and impersonal. We’ve seen it directly. We don’t need to read a book about it. We’ve seen it for ourselves.
This is only the beginning of the Factors of Awakening, but already we’re well on the way.