– Ajahn Tiradhammo
Take up a reasonably comfortable sitting position, keeping the back upright.
Begin by bringing attention to the body sitting here, sensing into the body, becoming aware of the sensation of body. Is any sensation particularly strong? Settle your attention there for a moment. Is this sensation familiar, or is it quite new? As you observe it, is there some sense of whether it is fairly constant or merely passing? Do you have some sense of how it came to be, or what might cause it to pass?
Now bring attention to the sensation of natural breathing. Is this experience familiar to us or is it something new? Are we aware of the sensation of breathing directly, or is it more of a concept? Is this sensation reasonably constant or do you notice it changing?
Now bring attention to the general feeling tone at this moment. Is it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? Is it body-based or mind-based? Is this a familiar feeling tone or a new one? Does it seem to be quite constant or do you notice changes?
Now bring attention to the condition of the mind right now. What condition of mind is most prominent at the moment? Is this condition of mind familiar to you, or is it something new? Are you able to get a sense of its persistence, or constancy, or perhaps its fragility? Are you able to notice when and how it arises, or when and how it passes?
We’ll Look at Four Ways to Investigate:
OBSERVATION, DISENGAGING, ENGAGING and SEEDING THE MIND
Now we are looking at ‘Investigation of Dhamma’. The word ‘dhamma’ has a number of meanings, depending upon the context in which it’s used. It can mean Dhamma as the Buddha’s teachings, or it can just mean things or phenomena. Often both these meanings are meant simultaneously; that is, one sees phenomena in relationship to the Buddha’s teaching. In this particular context, coming as it does after the topic of Mindfulness, ‘Investigation of dhamma’ usually means investigation of the phenomena which the development of mindfulness has revealed. We may be aware of certain aspects of body, feeling tones, and conditions of mind. However, some of these phenomena may require, or at least benefit from, deeper investigation, examination or enquiry. Knowing as we do that all things arise from causes, it may be that some phenomena of which we become aware are only the effects of an as yet unclear cause, and can only be ultimately resolved by uncovering their fundamental root cause.
There are different stages in the development of awareness. Usually awareness is very subjective. For example, I don’t like looking at my stupid thoughts – I like the intelligent ones. But every once in a while a stupid one comes along, and then the mind reacts – ‘Oh! Don’t look at that’. So what I look at, what I’m aware of, can be quite subjective. But when awareness has more strength, we become aware of many more aspects of our experience. And the more awareness can be developed, the less there is of this subjective bias. For example, you begin to see thoughts in general, rather than just ‘my thoughts that I like’. And when you observe thoughts in general, you start to notice certain patterns emerging.
The investigation of phenomena involves having enough awareness to be able to observe without judging. This observation isn’t analyzing or thinking about anything; it is rather a clear, silent seeing of the actual condition of body and mind. Sometimes just seeing certain habits of body or patterns of mind clearly may make it possible to resolve them. Other times, however, they may persist – they may keep coming back again and again, and then just observing phenomena isn’t quite enough. What we’re actually seeing then is only the tip of the iceberg of a much more extensive causal process. Our awareness has only developed enough to see part of that much deeper process, so this investigation requires some ability to probe into things. It’s like sending awareness into some particular specialized area of our experience, investigating it more thoroughly. And if it’s coming out of the practice of mindfulness, then it’s examining things that are very relevant to us and that are happening right now.
I’ll take an example, such as the sensation of having hunched-up shoulders while you’re sitting meditating. Maybe you relax when you first notice it. But then it may come back again. A personal rule of thumb I have is that if something comes back more than three times, perhaps it needs some special attention. And there are various stages in which you can give it that attention. The first stage is just settling our attention on it for a moment or so, rather than going back to the breathing. Maybe that resolves it. Maybe it just wants attention! But sometimes, if it comes back again, it may need some special attention – openly observing – what is it really? What is it on a deeper existential level? Sometimes we may think that we know the sensation, and we give it a name, we label it. So with the example of hunched-up shoulders, maybe that’s how we label the sensation, but the label’s just a comfortable or acceptable term to use. Maybe in reality they’re more like ‘beaten-down’ shoulders, which don’t sound so appropriate – implying I’m beaten down by life isn’t so acceptable!
So it is helpful to have a humble, enquiring attitude if we begin an investigation, asking, ‘What is this really?’. Are my shoulders really hunched-up, or is my neck hunched down? Or maybe my neck is sticking out forward? And we can deepen this awareness by investigating the tension in the neck, or by looking to see if the sensation relates elsewhere physically, such as in the lower back or other parts of the body. We can also extend our observing to the realm of feeling tones. What’s the feeling tone? Maybe its physical aspect is unpleasant – an unpleasant feeling tone (unless you particularly like hunched-up shoulders). But if you look at it from the mental or emotional point of view it can be pleasant. Then we investigate why that is. Maybe it’s something to do with feeling emotionally secure, a sense of safety or being defended. But it’s good not to be too speculative, but just to question without judging. Allow awareness to answer the enquiry.
Or we could observe from the point of view of conditions of mind. Maybe you notice that your condition of mind is hunched-up as well. Your mind isn’t very spacious and the body follows suit. So now you’re investigating the mental condition as it is linked with a physical expression. Or we can use the template of greed, aversion and delusion. Maybe this sensation is associated with greed. Maybe it’s an outward movement that has been inhibited, like a slap on the hand – ‘Don’t reach for it!’. Or maybe it’s related to aversion, like pushing something away, that ‘got-my-back-up’ feeling. Or maybe it’s associated with delusion –‘I don’t know’. That’s one of my familiar ones! Or it could be resignation – ‘I really don’t know, and don’t care either’.
A further development is to observe enquiringly in terms of what is the beginning or origin of the phenomenon. For example, with the hunched-up shoulders – are they there at the beginning of the sitting, the middle, the end? If all three, they’re pretty consistent! Is it there when we wake up? When we go to sleep? Or maybe it’s only there in certain circumstances, such as when we’re on the way to work, or when we have to talk to our boss. Or maybe it grows stronger when we go home to our family. How about when it ceases? Does it eventually fade away or end? Maybe the phenomenon only eases if we really relax into it, or breathe into it.
Another aspect of investigation of dhamma is disengaging from a direct subjective relationship with phenomena. Usually we relate to phenomena from the subject-object perspective, which locks into our own subjective habits, interpretations and presumptions. We keep relating from a limited, self-affirming approach, which continues to affirm the phenomenon in the same familiar way. To investigate more clearly, openly and honestly, we need to be able to move beyond this familiar frame of reference. Thus an attitude of disengaging from phenomena can be useful, though of course we need to be careful that this is not dissociating or disconnecting from them, but rather a stepping outside the usual subject-object relationship. Among the ways of creating this are by relating from an attitude of curiosity (what is this?) or disinterest (just a thought), or by de-emphasizing (it’s all passing) or dis-identifying (just mental activity).
An attitude of curiosity or sense of wonderment allows disengagement into a more investigative mode by stepping outside conceptualizing – ‘Hey, that’s interesting!’ – and we can cross-reference this through awareness of sensations, feeling tones and conditions of mind. Disinterest is not a tuning out or turning away, but rather the attitude that this is not really important – it is there, but not important right now. If it is really important, it will continue to be there in some form. De-emphasizing can be useful when something tends to dominate or obsess the mind. For a time we can fix our attention on something else, and then go back to it, hopefully from a different perspective or with a more spacious mind. Dis-identifying is stepping back to a less personalized relationship. For example, rather than focusing on one particular thought, we step back to observe thoughts in general. Rather than seeing only ‘my thought’, we observe the train of thoughts.
A practical example of this for me was during a period when I was practising in Thailand and was bothered by the phenomenon of people’s faces coming up in meditation. They were not usually frightening, but just bothersome and distracting. I wasn’t sure what this meant or what caused it, and became somewhat preoccupied with it. One teacher I knew, who was renowned for his deep concentration practice and supposed psychic powers, said that I was picking up the consciousness of soldiers who had been killed in a World War Two battle nearby. That was spooky! However, it did not feel quite right to me, partly because I did not think my meditation was so advanced, but also because the faces were sometimes female, children or elderly people, and not only young men. Later I was fortunate to be able to ask Ajahn Chah about this. He called it ‘mental phenomena’, and said, ‘Just observe it, and don’t be fascinated by it. Know it and go back to the breathing.’ We can become attracted by such things because they’re new and interesting. He said that I might either become quite excited about them, thinking I had psychic powers like precognition, seeing the face of someone who next day might offer food, or I might think that maybe ghosts were haunting me. But they were just mental phenomena.
All kinds of things like this can happen in meditation, and if you can recognize them and be more objective, less personally involved with them, eventually they just fall away. They’re like tricks the mind plays to attract you into believing in it – me and my face stories again. But they are just mental phenomena, images arising and passing away, thoughts coming and going. If you can put yourself in this more objective state, rather than personalizing the phenomena, eventually they fade away. And that’s what finally happened for me, the faces went away. Also, by being more objective about the phenomenon, I could see what the cause was. I realized that at some time very early in my life, maybe even when I was lying in the cradle, my mind started taking photographs of people’s faces – ‘That’s Dad, that face is Mum, I don’t know who that face is’. It became a habit and I kept on like that, taking pictures of faces all the time, click, click, click. I did a lot of travelling for two years and took many mental pictures of peoples’ faces, all those strangers. This allowed me to become quite proficient at recognizing people by their faces, although I was hopeless at remembering names. Then, however, I saw how this habit was having the effect of a photo replay when the mind calmed down. With this insight I then ‘turned off the camera’ and the popping-up faces faded away. Unfortunately, however, now I am not only hopeless at remembering names, I am also hopeless at remembering people’s faces!
An important point to understand is that disengaging is not dissociating or ‘spacing out’. Nor is it about depersonalizing in the schizoid sense of thinking ‘this is not me’. All these phenomena are aspects of you, but they are not yours. They are just phenomena expressed as you. When we truly see this, these phenomena are viewed as personal, but not identified with as the ultimate ‘me’.
Another point is that many of these phenomena are merely parts of the cause-effect continuum. We wake up to one part of it, think that this is the thing itself, and then become involved with it and try to solve it, when in fact it is just one aspect of the continuum. If we can step back somewhat, that is, disengage from the ‘thing’ itself, we are able to have a wider, fuller perspective, which can reveal the underlying cause of the phenomenon so that real resolution can take place.
We can also investigate through what I call ‘engaging’, that is, engaging with these phenomena. We have to be a little careful here, because if we engage with something we can actually reinforce it or affirm it. After all, the Buddha pointed out that grasping was one of the root causes of our suffering. However, in order to investigate something we have to come to grips with it in some way, but we have to hold it just right. Maybe an appropriate image is handling an egg. If we hold it too tightly, it goes ‘squish’, if we don’t hold it tightly enough it falls to the floor. So we engage with phenomena in a suitable way, as a means of facilitating a deeper investigation.
So if your shoulders are hunched, you can try to accentuate this. Hunch them even more, and see what happens to your mind and body. Or you can try going the other way, de-accentuating the hunching, and see what happens. You could even do some kind of mindful moving or active meditative exercises. Maybe there are just some blocked muscles or some tension. Sometimes when things really persist on the physical level, we have to take them a little more seriously and engage with them in earnest.
On the emotional level we can enquire, ‘If this phenomenon had a voice, what would it say’ (besides ‘ouch’)? Would it say ‘Relax’ or ‘Be kind to me’, or ‘Don’t push so hard’? Or we can be a little more creative, and enquire, ‘What colour is this?’, or ‘What song does it sing?’, ‘What dance does it do?’, ‘What movement would it make?’
And then we can engage with the feeling tone. If it seems to be very unpleasant we can accentuate it, make it more dramatic. For example, we all know that anger is not very pleasant, but it still comes up sometimes. So if you happen to be in front of a mirror one day, make an angry face, really accentuate it. It’s so absurd how ugly and how ridiculous you look that it just makes you laugh! So sometimes taking phenomena to their extremes turns them around. Walking around with your shoulders hunched all day is absurd. If you’re unaware of it people won’t say anything, but if you do it intentionally they’ll begin to ask, ‘Hey, have you got a problem or something?’
So in this way we need to be creative and a little more engaging – engaging in a skilful way with some of these experiences so that we’re actually working with them, playing with them, rather than affirming them. We’re working gently with them rather than against them, all from a basis of awareness.
SEEDING THE MIND
Maybe a more advanced stage is to be able just to ‘seed the mind’. This is a process of keeping some connection with these phenomena, but then going back to the calm or the focused attention. The point of this is to create more objectivity, and the more deeply calm the mind is, the more clearly we can see into it. As Ajahn Chah once said, ‘The deeper the calm, the deeper the insight.’
The reason we often can’t see the true nature of things is that we’re involved with them too subjectively and are afraid of what they might reveal about our egos. But if we step back from these phenomena, they become not so much ‘my story’ as just ‘a story’. It’s similar to watching a movie that’s extremely enjoyable – when it ends you can say, ‘Well, that’s not my story. That’s not me.’ You may have been taken through all kinds of impassioned human emotions (if the film is really good), but then you can go peacefully back to your own ordinary life.
So we ‘seed the mind’ with the relevant phenomenon, for example, the hunched-up shoulders. We sense into it clearly and vividly, and then settle the mind on the calm breath. Sometimes, when the measure of the level of calm is right, things are revealed. This allows something to arise from a deeper level of our consciousness, a deeper level of our psyche, perhaps the intuitive level. A subtler level of self-knowing has been revealed. And when things are fully conscious, you can let them go.
It takes a certain amount of trust for the process to work, but when the time is right, things may shift. Sometimes, though, we don’t have an instant answer – maybe it won’t be revealed to us right now. This may mean that we need to develop more of the other Factors of Awakening, more tranquillity or more energy, for example.
So to investigate is to be able to go outside our comfort zones, our familiar territory. We usually just see things in a way that’s familiar, a way that’s comfortable for our egos. But it’s very likely that the sources of some of these phenomena are quite unpleasant for the ego. Investigation may reveal your negativity, or your guardedness, or something else which your ego isn’t ready to accept, to recognize, to receive. And this comes from our awareness practice. Most of us probably associate investigation with our thinking – ‘Is it this, is it that?’ But what we are talking about here is investigation based on direct experience – it’s not just intellectualizing, although sometimes engaging our brain can allow a teasing out, so that we can get a sense of what’s behind a phenomenon.
And we can apply this investigation to everything – to emotional habits, to thought patterns and so on. We can bring awareness to the deeper levels of all these. And we can see with Buddhist insight that all things arise because of a cause, and when we go back to the root cause things are finally resolved. The Buddha’s teachings can give us an overview or a template, which we can then apply to our experience. We can see how things fit and find ways to work with them.
If you observe sensations with consistent attention over a period of time, you notice that they’re always changing – fortunately! So if we can see how things are always changing, how things arise and cease, how something initiates a phenomenon and causes it to change; we know about cause and effect. And who is the owner of all this? No one. There are just these various phenomena arising and passing away.
So we consistently observe these phenomena – not to affirm them, but rather to enquire into them, to investigate, to search, to discover, to find out what they’re really like, what their real essence is. This kind of understanding, then, is on a deeper level. This is wisdom – seeing the fuller picture which is more integrated, a fuller understanding. Thus in its most developed form, investigation of dhamma arrives at wisdom.