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Practicing with the body – the first “Foundation” of mindfulness

At a recent Sunday Sangha, in response to one of your questions, I spoke about how to cultivate stability and continuity in awareness throughout the day.

I referenced the root text on the practice of mindfulness, the Satipatthana Sutta also known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness which describes in very clear language how to practice with all of life.

As practitioners, it may be useful to familiarize yourself with this text so that you have a sense of the scope and tenor of the practice in its most pared-down presentation. You can read the source text ‘The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha’ (PDF version here) You will need to scroll down to find discourse #10 on page 145.

We modern-day teachers are continuously adapting and refining this methodology to make it more accessible and effective in terms of application in our culture and context and we keep looking for new and skillful ways to language the teaching to be truer to the spirit of the teaching than the exact wording of the text. This is subject to interpretation of course but it is additionally important because you will read the text in translation.

A main theme in the talk was using the body as a support for awareness, the body is the first “Foundation” of mindfulness.

Your body is a great support for awareness because it is always present and fairly stable and tangible. Everything you experience, which includes all of the “foundations”, is happening in the present, but the body is more stable experientially than your thoughts, feelings, and emotions and for that reason is a useful primary anchor, foundation or support for awareness as you move through the day.

We use the breathing body as an anchor in sitting meditation which helps you establish some stability and not be pulled away by every sound, thought, or sensation that comes along. From this place of stability, with the breathing body as an ongoing support, we then breathe with and open up to the ongoing flow of experience it is unfolds in the vast space of awareness.

As you move about during the day, you can apply the practice as outlined in the sections on the “Four Postures”, and “Full Awareness” in the body section of the Sutta.

A more full-body awareness will most likely be a better anchor or support than the breathing when you are moving around and engaged in activities. When you are present in (or with) the body, you are more likely to also be present with whatever else is arising.

In the text, as it is translated, the word “knowing” is used as in, “When standing one knows, ‘I am standing’”, “When sitting one knows, ‘I am sitting’”. This “knowing” does not mean conceptual knowing. It is not the same as thinking, “Oh, I am standing”. It is the direct apprehension of the experience of standing here and now. This wordless apprehension is what is meant by the word “knowing”.

It is ok to have words arise but don’t let them obscure or take the place of the direct experience of standing, sitting, walking, talking, remaining silent, seeing, hearing, etc.

Being fully present in whatever you are doing is a simple and a powerful way to cultivate continuity.

We could update the list of activities to include washing dishes, standing in a long line outside a grocery store, trying to get your kids to listen to their teacher in a Zoom classroom, rushing to get to your work meeting when it is only in the other room, etc. When rushing can you “know”, “I am rushing”. Can you be fully present with this experience? Can you “know” it directly, immediately here and now? And can you let it be as it is?

The other foundations of mindfulness are equally important but to get a solid start we can emphasize the first foundation, the body. This is the first foundation because it is the most stable, the most tangible, and the easiest to connect with.

The key point is that these aspects of experience, the body, pleasant, unpleasant and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant feeling tones that come with every experience, mind states (which includes emotions), and really anything that can be experienced in awareness, becomes foundations for mindfulness and supports for your meditation. They become the support for presence (when included) rather than the things that catch you up or take you out of awareness.

In this way, we can practice with what is here and now and gradually transform our relationship to all of life.

Inquiry inspired by Hamlet

In last Sundays talk I referenced a line from Hamlet that is particularly timely: 

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams”

Questions for you:

  • Do you sometimes feel yourself bounded in a nutshell these days?  Do you ever experience space or spaciousness (whether infinite or not) even when you are limited in what you can do physically, even when you are in a small physical space? What factors or elements of experience are present when you can access that spaciousness and what elements are present when you cannot not?
  • What are the “bad dreams” that Hamlet is talking about? What are they for you?  Do they limit your access to a sense of space or spaciousness? How? Do they always diminish the space or only sometimes?  If only sometimes, what determines the difference?
  • When you allow your “dreams” to arise and witness them in awareness, what happens to the space?
  • Do the dreams (thoughts) appear within the space or does the space appear within the thoughts (dreams) or both?  

Let these questions live with you through the day. Have a light touch with them.  Let interest and curiosity lead. If this inquiry is driving you crazy or causing you to get lost in rumination, drop the questions and simply be present, awake, aware!

Hamlet had insight into the vast (seemingly infinite) nature of consciousness/being/awareness and into one of the great causes of mental suffering and limitation (Being ruled, shaped, dominated by, identified with thoughts/waking dreams), but did not have access teachings or a path of practice to help him work with his dreams directly or to understand the nature of his own infinite space.   He had insight into suffering and its cause but not into (inner) freedom and its cause.

One could say that he understood something of the first, second and third Noble Truths but did not know about the fourth (see below).  He knew there was infinite space but imagined it could only exist in the absence of thought.

  1. Suffering (Dukkha)
  2. Cause (Samudaya)
  3. Cessation (Nirodha)
  4. Path (Magga)

 May you continue to practice with all aspects of life through these challenging times and meet your own experience and that of your fellow humans with awareness and love. 

Practicing amidst our rapidly changing environment

We are all in the midst of a rapidly changing outer and inner landscape. I imagine your attempts to adjust to the rapid outer changes leave some of your inner frameworks feeling outdated or inadequate. This alone can lead to disorientation and heightened anxiety even leaving aside the fear that comes with the specific content.

In ordinary day to day life, it can sometimes be hard to perceive our mental models and conceptual frameworks, to realize how set and stable they are. Our view about the way things are is based to a large degree on how it was yesterday. We don’t see our frameworks because they work well enough until they don’t. We get used to the way things have been (in our concept) and experience disorientation when things change. When old expectations no longer fit and conditions are changing rapidly it can be like having conceptual jet lag.

Right now, some of the unsettledness you feel could be in part the attempt (natural and normal) of the mind to try to find a framework that makes sense of the new landscape. This desire to orient is adaptive and is what drives our search for information. There is a functionality to this as we need information to make informed decisions, but it can also lead to a restless and relentless searching that never gets enough information to make it settle. Notice when getting new information helps you feel oriented and clear and when it feels like drinking salt water, leaving you more and more thirsty. Notice when you are restlessly checking the news or just consuming the stream as a default mode.

See what it is like at times to pause, take a short break from trying to find a satisfying conceptual understanding of the way things are right now. Look around at the trees and the houses, listen to the birds, to the wind, to the traffic. Let the outer stability of the analog world help you to land. Your thoughts are moving rapidly but the world around you is just here. It is your thoughts that are moving quickly not the world or the nature of mind.

Pay attention to how many times a day you check the news. I would encourage you to read it only once or twice a day at specific times so that you are not letting yourself just be pulled along by the flow of reporting which has new and scary information coming in by the minute. This does not mean burying your head in the sand. It means paying attention to what helps you stay sane and aware in the midst of a crisis. Clear minds lead to clear action. If you don’t take responsibility for your own mind no one else will. The news cycle was not designed for your balance of mind or nervous system.

Keep one foot in the analog world or visit it regularly and stay awhile. Spend most of your time here, and then stay informed in a deliberate way. Check the news in a way that supports you rather than runs you.

Your own natural wakefulness is the true ground, the groundless ground of all “inner” and “outer” experience, of the analog and the digital, anything that we call experience. The mind-stream (thoughts, perceptions, mental formations) flows within this awareness, not the other way around. The ground does not move with the river.

When a strong mind-state, thought, or emotion arises, meet it with awareness. When you are awake to what is appearing in the mind and body, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, it becomes an aspect of experience rather than the whole of it. It becomes an object to you. It arises within something that is bigger, a space so vast that it can include whatever comes. With awareness, that which arises becomes an object “in” experience. This makes all the difference. When not witnessed in awareness, mind and body states, thoughts and feelings, views and opinions, have total shaping power. Without awareness you effectively become the experience, the experience becomes the “way things are.” It shapes your consciousness. It shapes the world.

When you meet strong mind-states with awareness you can use your feelings, your fear, anxiety, as useful information but not let them take over your mind. We need clear minds in times of crisis so that we can help each other, so that we can meet the conditions of the moment with wisdom, clarity, and love. Notice if there is a tendency to project your fear onto others or onto groups of people. Pandemics historically can lead to harmful “othering”, to racism and xenophobia. The whole world appears within your own being, your natural awareness. This is the true ground of connection and connectedness.

If you are working from home or practicing “social distancing” (as I hope you are), you can use this as a time of self-retreat. Self-retreat can include your family, housemates, partners, pets or houseplants. When awareness is functioning, whatever appears becomes the path. If you are still working out “in the world”, take all appearances as the path. If you work in a hospital or on the front lines of this crisis, arm yourself with awareness, and clear seeing, tend to your body and your tender heart. We hope you can feel our support and appreciation. Let’s all wake up to our own deepest nature and work to relieve all beings from suffering.