MINDFULNESS & CLEAR COMPREHENSION: Sati Sampajañña

It can be easy to think that all we need to do to walk the Noble Eightfold Path is to be mindful. Although mindfulness is the cornerstone of all Buddhist practice, it alone is not enough. We want to be mindful of what is happening, and then investigate what is happening. One form of investigation is to notice whether there is reactivity or Equanimity in the heart/mind in relation to whatever it is that we are being mindful of. The clear comprehension part (or at least one aspect of clear comprehension) is to know what our relationship is to the object of mindfulness. 

For example…

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AVERSION

Aversion covers a wide variety of mind states and emotions that include: Frustration, annoyance, anger, ill will, rage, fear, irritation, fury, resentment, disappointment, dissatisfaction, and more. 

Aversion includes all the mind states and emotions where the mind is saying “NO” to whatever is happening. It is a form of reactivity and therefore, the opposite of equanimity. Of course, when there is aversion in the heart/mind, there is suffering, which is why we want to know when it’s present. This way, we have a chance to let go and stop suffering. 

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DOUBT

In some ways, Doubt is the most difficult of the Hindrances. One of the reasons is because it can be difficult to be aware of its presence.  Doubt has an ability to appear in many different guises and forms. Just when we think we know what it looks like, it changes into something else ....

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DESIRE

Includes: Wanting, Needing, Lust, Longing, Craving, Thirst, Yearning, Wishing for, Addiction

This is the quality of mind that wishes for something to be happening, usually pleasant, that isn’t happening in the moment. It’s the sense that things as they are right now are somehow not OK. It can range from the slightest movement towards something more pleasant than what’ is happening, to the most severe addictive qualities of mind.

When working with Desire or any of the Hindrances, using the R.A.I.N. acronym can be helpful:

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THE FIVE HINDRANCES

The Hindrances are mind states that are deeply habituated in us. Without mindfulness, they arise in the mind and dominate our experience without us even knowing they are present, let alone being aware of the results.

These mind states are called “Hindrances” because they hinder or occlude the arising and development of Samadhi (the non distracted mind) and clear seeing, which means seeing the truth of the way things are (Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta).

The five Hindrances include: Desire, Aversion, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness, and Doubt. We will explore these in detail, including how to work skillfully with each of them in the coming months, but for now, just a few words about each Hindrance.

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DOES "NOT SELF" MEAN THERE IS NO SELF?

It is very common for people to believe that Anatta means that there is “no self,” but the Buddha never said this. In fact, when asked whether the self existed or not, he refused to answer. Why? Because the question of whether a self exists or not is not directly related to freedom from suffering. The only reason the Buddha taught about Anatta was because it is directly linked to freedom from suffering.

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The Connection Between Anatta-Not Self and The Other Characteristics (Anicca –Change and Dukkha – Unstable, Unsatisfactory)

I like to think of the Three Characteristics as three different ways to describe one truth, the truth of the way things are. A good analogy is the way light goes through a prism. It manifest as different colors, but, it is only one light. The truth of the way things are manifests in Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta, but it is only one truth. Each characteristic is composed of the other two.

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FOUR SKILLS A MEDITATOR NEEDS TO DEVELOP: NUMBER FOUR: Keeping the three Universals in Mind -- Dukkha, Anicca, Anatta

It is said that understanding change is the gateway to understanding Stress and Not Self. This is because change is an integral part of Stress and Not Self. One could say that these three characteristics are three angles in on one truth. Similarly to the way light goes through a prism and reveals itself in different colors, the truth of the way things are reveals itself in Change, Stress and Not Self. Yet, it is still just one truth. The three characteristics can’t be separated.

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THE FOUR SKILLS A MEDITATOR NEEDS TO DEVELOP: SKILL NUMBER THREE - MOVE FURTHER AWAY FROM EXPERIENCE --PART TWO

In a nutshell, we want to know when and how, to move away from experience.

We want to have the clarity that knows this is not right or good for me, as well as the self care that knows I deserve to not be in such a difficult or unhealthy and/or dangerous situation. Both these forms of Wisdom and Compassion need to be present.

We’re not talking about moving away from experience just because we don’t like it, or just don’t want to deal with it anymore. This is about experience that is so difficult for us that it overwhelms our ability to be with it.

Before going further, it’s important to understand what do we mean by overwhelm? It means that we are totally overtaken by experience and have no ability to step back and witness what is happening. For example, when we are so angry that we are just acting out the anger and have no ability to know, “I’m angry right now”.

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WORKING WITH THE HINDRANCES

You may be wondering why, in the middle of exploring the four skills a meditator needs to develop (Calming the heart and mind, moving closer to experience, moving farther from experience, keeping the three universal characteristics in mind), we have gone on a two month tangent with the Hindrances? The answer is two-fold:

First, in order to accomplish skills one and two, you need to be able to work with the Hindrances. That is, to not have them totally running the show all the time.

Second, is that if there were to be a fifth skill a meditator needs to develop, it would be working with the Hindrances!!

Here are the details of working with the Hindrances I spoke of during our May 13, 2017 practice together:

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THE FOUR SKILLS A MEDITATOR NEEDS TO DEVELOP: SKILL NUMBER THREE - MOVE FURTHER AWAY FROM EXPERIENCE -- PART ONE

Given that Skill Number Two is "moving closer to experience" and that Skill Number Two arises from Skill Number One, which is "calming the heart and mind," folks can be confused as to why we would want to move farther from experience. Shouldn’t we simply continue to move closer to experience, so that we can understand its true nature (Skill Number Four)?  Well, yes and no. Let me explain:

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PRACTICING THE FOUR SKILLS A MEDITATOR MUST DEVELOP: First Skill

Practicing With the First Skill: Calming and Collecting the Heart & Mind

Two things come to mind that can be helpful:

  • DO IT! You can’t learn how to play an instrument by looking at it, you have to pick it up and practice with it. Same holds true for cultivating a heart & mind that is somewhat steady and at ease. Take time to practice formally every day. There’s no getting around this. Don’t fall into the trap of, “I practice by being mindful of what I do during the day.” Yes, we want to be mindful during the day, but it’s not a substitute for the clear intentionality of sitting still, not talking, not doing anything, and cultivating presence.

  • Having said that, you do want to also practice during the day. To be mindful of what you are doing, yes. Also, and just as importantly, to find moments of being present, when you can connect with the body and allow it to relax. Keep the attention on this relaxation process and enjoy whatever level of stillness manifests. This could be three seconds or a few minutes. The idea is to do it often. Start to get into the habit of the heart and mind settling frequently. This can pick up momentum and being to happen more spontaneously over time. 

PRACTICING THE FOUR SKILLS A MEDITATOR MUST DEVELOP: Second Skill

Practicing With The Second Skill: Moving Closer to Experience

There are many meditation suggestions, teachings and instructions in this arena. To simplify things and add some structure, I want to offer a template of sorts that can be helpful. We can apply this template to any experience that arises.

The idea is that we want to stay away from two opposite extremes of how we could relate to experience. On one side of things there is repression, denial and suppression. We literally don’t connect with it. One way or another, the experience is pushed or kept out of consciousness. The opposite extreme is being lost in, identified with and overtaken by experience. We’re not really with it, we’ve become it!

The middle ground is that we are aware that the experience, (naming it is very helpful) is happening, so in this way, we’re not repressing it. And yet, we’re not carried away by it. There’s something that is not the experience that is knowing it. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel the experience or aren’t affected by it. It means we know it’s happening and aren’t totally lost in it.

One area where most people find difficulty moving closer to experience is when the experience is unpleasant, especially with unpleasant or difficult emotions. I want to offer you a very simple way to practice with this particular arena of experience. First is to name the difficult emotion. Jealousy, anger, lust, fear, etc. The reason to do this is because if you can name it, it means, at least for that moment, you are not completely identified with it (one of the extremes we want to stay away from), and it means you are aware of it and not suppressing it (the other extreme we want to stay away from).

Once you can name the emotion, then bring your attention to your body and see if you can notice where the emotion is manifesting in the body. Is it anger manifesting as tight stomach? Fear as a clenched jaw? Anxiety as a rapid heart beat? Etc. Sometimes you will be able to notice the emotion in the body, sometimes you won’t. It almost doesn’t matter as the reason we want the attention in the body is so that it’s not caught up in the looping thoughts and stories that often accompany difficult emotions. As long as the attention is in the body feeling the emotion, or trying to feel the emotion, it won’t be caught in the mind.

Now, if you can ascertain where the emotion is in the body, then let your attention stay with the sensation that you feel. Perhaps name them. Tightness, pressure, vibration, etc. Stay with the sensations and notice how they change and notice when they are no longer there.