('Jeez, are they gonna get this one?' Chagdud Tulku; great beard, great guy)
Wow! These posts keep getting longer and longer. This one will be divided into at least two parts, maybe three. If you're reading these that's either good news, or bad news. Take your pick and dive on in. This one's a good 'un. Comments are always welcomed and I'm still waiting for someone to complain about my freehand in dicing up more traditional approaches to presenting these core Buddhist teachings. Maybe you're the guy to start?
The fourth and final Foundation of Mindfulness is of phenomena. You might be asking yourself right now, ‘But aren’t the body, the feelings and mental activity phenomena too?’ and you would be right. This is an indicator of the way that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness function as progressive steps of integration of awareness within the totality of our individual experience. The idea that these Four Foundations exist separately is false. They are simply steps or stages of working with specific aspects of our experience. As with the previous three Foundations, Mindfulness of phenomena includes not only a resultant and integrative dimension, but also an active, volitional path of techniques and material to work through and integrate. And the key term is integration: when we have full awareness of the body, we have awareness of feeling and phenomena and the quality of mental states too. We break down perception into specific perceptual frames first, and then we build up an integrated perceptual outlook that is inclusive and cognisant of the interdependent nature of all phenomena within our field of perception. We work through the foundations individually because our experience of each of them is polluted by conditioning, patterned and therefore partial living, and our gross and subtle conceptualisation of experience.
The volitional half of this fourth step involves working with quite an array of arenas and material. As per usual I shall try to discuss them in a more contemporary and accessible vernacular based on my own experience and insights, which are not authoritative, so don’t get your knickers in a twist if I seem a little brazen.
In order to start off on the right foot we need to establish a shared understanding of what is meant by phenomena. The Free Online Dictionary (A dictionary that sounds cut-price, but is actually great) defines it as:
1. An occurrence, circumstance, or fact that is perceptible by the senses.
2. An unusual, significant, or unaccountable fact or occurrence; a marvel.
3. In the philosophy of Kant; an object as it is perceived by the senses, as opposed to a noumenon (strictly mental or intuitive).
4. An observable event.
The key point made by both dictionary and Kant is that phenomena is ‘perceptible by the senses’ and thus being observable, we can actually relate to it. It does not exist solely in our imagination or amongst our thoughts. Phenomena as experience do not exist solely in someone else’s imagination either, so we are dealing with experience and not theory. So, to make it extra clear: phenomena imply that which is perceptible and that which can be experienced through our five senses first hand.
The five senses are called doors because our relationship with the phenomenological world takes places through these doors of perception. Our perception works two ways; information comes in and our energy goes out and interacts with experience, flavouring the subjective nature of our interpretative tendencies. This applies whether it is sight, hearing, taste, touch or smell as they are a form of perception. They are multi-sensorial and layered that is to say our sense of relating to experience is built upon the accumulation of sensory data from a variety of our senses operating at different depths and levels.
Part of the art of ongoing practice is the expanding ability to break down experience into its seemingly individual elements and then integrate and harmonise those elements by allowing them to naturally co-exist. As a teacher of mine from the shamanic world once said, ‘Sure, it’s important to take apart Matthew, but it’s equally important to build.’ In a way she was reminding me in my more de-constructive days that our growth and evolution must mirror the natural tides of creation and destruction that mark the natural world which surrounds us. If we only allow for one of these primal forces to exists, we are denying the possibility for renewal to occur in practice and we are blinding ourselves to what impermanence means, which not only tells us that everything ends, but that everything is also born and this includes our breath, our blood cells, our thoughts, our feelings and pretty much everything else.
Followers of the earliest, remaining school of Buddhism, the Theravada, often leave a sense in their texts and practices of a highly de-constructive and reductionist approach to the Buddhist path that in my experience, at least so far, seems to lack something. What I find myself coming back to again and again with these blog posts is the need to embrace seeming opposites and contradictory approaches to relating to experience. Perhaps this is the famous Middle-Way that so often features in Buddhist speech? Form and emptiness are standard word play in Buddhist circles and yet within the essence of selflessness there is a pregnant space of bliss and fullness and I wonder how we can reduce that to the linguistic waste land of ‘emptiness’?
If we are to include the second of Free Dictionary’s definitions into the equation then we must be willing to assign all phenomena significance and thus worth our attention in the way of mindfulness. I would be tempted to leave aside ‘unusual’ but I don’t want to so I’ll give it the sense of ‘unique’ and add with ‘significant’ as a label for each moment of experience. We cease to make certain events special based on arbitrary valuation if we are willing to level the playing field of desirable phenomena. It’s important not to make that playing field a very large grey area.
Special becomes a form of favouritism that alienates or prioritises certain experience over others and this is actually a major part of the problem as far as suffering is concerned. Allowing the uniqueness of each unfolding moment of our day to be appreciated on its own terms opens up experience and the mundane gains greater worth and therefore potential, to lead to a ‘marvel’.
I will add that taking such an approach can be a useful strategy for initiating a deeper engagement with the world, when the time is right. We do not engage in a profound appreciation of their presence in our experience. I feel this body, and I know I am alive. I feel the sensations that make up my experience and I know I am alive. I am aware of my shifting moods, thoughts and states and I know I am alive. I feel a profound connection to all phenomena around me and I know I am part of the great web of experience that is life. This does not need to be romanticised or forced. It is a timely, natural arising of deep appreciation for the moments and days of our short existence in this body and in this life that runs counter to the impulsive urge to make experience something it has not yet become.
Thich Nhat Hanh demonstrates a profound and vivid understanding of the integrative approach through many of his books. His encouragement and instruction to smile at the parts of our body and welcome the connection to our past and future ancestors strikes me as profound, deeply human and wise. It is, in many senses, a shamanic approach to understanding our place in human history; we are part of the great unfolding of the human experiment, linked through a long unbroken line of births and deaths that is our family lineage. Because life is so short, each moment must become profoundly important, and in making them so, our lives become both smaller in importance and greater in worth at the same time opening us to feeling our connection to all life.
To change gears slightly. When considering active practice this Foundation has two principles; working through the five main obstacles to meditation practice, and the generation, or cultivation, of seven factors that constitute an awakened experience of the world.
The Five Obstacles are actually mental states we can find ourselves slipping into during ongoing meditation practice. They are traditionally called hindrances and are as follows;
1. Desire for particular sensual stimulation e.g. to manipulate what is
2. Anger/frustration/irritation e.g. annoyance at what is
3. Sleepiness/laziness/disinterest e.g. boredom with what is
4. Worry/stress/anxiety e.g. excessive concern with what is/or is not
5. Sceptical doubt/cynicism/dismissiveness e.g. distancing and judging what is
These are a selection of core mental states that tend to interrupt practice. Like just about anything that arises within the practice context though, they are the material to work with when they arise since they each constitute a strategy for avoiding what is and mindfulness never implies control, or pushing away what is. They are features of our off-cushion living too so learning to work with them in practice means learning to live more successfully with them outside of the confines of sitting meditation. In fact, with time, we begin to unravel the complex knots of instinctive patterns that cause us to manipulate experience in order to avoid numbers two and four, and indulge in the others. Also, for those who hold on to the idea that meditation should take us to happy, blissful heaven every time we sit, this is a nice reminder that although meditation has the potential to bring bliss and may even do so often, bliss is not the goal of the Buddhist path. Seeing experience as it is proves to be much more valuable as we mature, and bliss is simply the inevitable result of freeing ourselves from the patterns that create and sustain suffering.
When sitting, intent guides our practice; it gives it direction and a container within which our experience can unfold more clearly. These states can reveal material that requires our attention and needs to be worked with: what we might define as personal, psychological material. When sitting though we need to give purpose to our practice sessions. If our practice is to deepen insight, our ability to be in the process of the unfolding present and wake up to experience, then these mental states do not act as an invitation to explore that personal, psychological material. That needs to be shifted instead to another context and time. Allocating appropriate time later to explore this material and affirming that to yourself can disarm the intensity with which these obstacles can emerge. It took me a long old time to learn this lesson myself.
When our intent is clear and strong it can pull us through the negative influence of these states so that they don’t become ongoing blocks, and it lead us to more successful engagement with these facets of practice. We simply acknowledge the experience of these states as they arise and allow them to pass like the wind. They have an impact on the body and our feelings of course and including awareness of this impact allows their energy to move into and out of our field of awareness without causing a fight or flight reaction. They are as impermanent as anything else and will pass and are in reality inevitable components of engaging with ourselves more deeply.
As with the first three factors, Mindfulness of Phenomena means applying the Seven Factors of Mindfulness to the Five Obstacles. Here they are in case you missed them in the last post in which they were discussed:
1. Being present and deeply engaged with what is present (& what we are doing)
2. Bridging the gap to experience: non-judgement & intimacy
3. Appreciation for experience: acknowledging & honouring your life as an unfolding process
4. Relieving of unsatisfactoriness & reducing separation: letting go, feeling connected & an essential part of it all
5. Looking deeply: penetrating experience to see clearly what is real and important, releasing our natural intuitiveness
6. Gaining insight & direct understanding through being grounded in experience & fully open
7. Transformation: growth, healing, opening, freedom
These states can be countered actively when they become too persistent, because as we can all recognise, sometimes it can all get a little bit too much. We mustn’t forget to be kind to ourselves whilst always avoiding the temptation for self-indulgence. Our patterns of avoidance can be very seductive, so rather than letting these blocks become excuses for not meditating or applying attention to what we’re doing, we can take them as invitations to adjust our approach to practice.
1. Desire for particular sensual experience; meditation on the body. This gets us back in touch with the immediacy of the present. Relating to our body with intimacy means gaining appreciation for the simplicity of where we are. This moment is truly all there is right now, so why resist it? Enjoy simply being in your body, as it is, right now. Open and appreciate whilst engaging with the raw sensations of being incarnate.
On another note, sexual arousal during meditation is not a problem in the slightest; how we relate to it during can be though. If we start fantasising about having sex, or try to speed up the practice so we can go and take care of a strong sexual urge, we have allowed ourselves to be absorbed by the content of practice. If we feel we should somehow suppress the sexual urge, we are in reaction to experience too, and neither approach is appropriate. Meditating on the body means connecting to the experience of feelings within the body. Observing, acknowledging, allowing and breathing with the experience allows the energy to do its thing without us having to engage with the content of the experience. This applies equally to sexual energy. It can be extremely refreshing, especially for men, to simply enjoy the arousal and allow it to charge the body with pleasure. No need to go anywhere with it.
2. Anger/Frustration; loving-kindness practice. This means opening to the world outside of the confines we’ve established and that define ‘us and them’. Often anger, frustration and irritation are a sign we are separating from unpleasant experience i.e. avoiding something. We can sit with these experiences and use mindfulness to gain insight into the deeper layers of our resistance to experiencing the circumstances that give rise to such states, or we can use loving kindness to transform this painful content into an act of care towards the world. Either is a skilful means of addressing what is inside of you in a given moment. Much of our anger at the world is based on the belief that we can, or need, to separate from particular aspects of the seemingly separate world. By reconnecting to the bigger picture, we disarm the urge to separate that accompanies anger, or the desire to destroy which is so often about forcefully pushing away.
3. Laziness/sleepiness/disinterest; connecting to the body often shifts this state, or you can try changing posture. The quality and intensity of light will also affect the presence or absence of this block. Grounding breathes, or switching technique to resting attention on the abdomen can help. A strategy of prevention can be employed through choosing a time of day when you are more awake. This at least will help you to determine whether it a form of resistance or genuine fatigue. It may also bring up a hidden habit of giving meditation practice a low priority in your life. If you want to progress and develop, this has to change, sooner or later. Commitment makes the difference in practice!
4. Worry/stress/anxiety; mindfulness of breathing is key. Using deep, belly-full breathing whilst really relaxing and letting go with the out breath can help us to loosen off the tension of worry and stress. These states are very often about potential futures. The breath brings us back to where we are, to simplicity and the grace of being alive this day. Yes, that job/appointment/conversation/issue/etc is important, but so is your physical, emotional and mental well-being and this moment is right here waiting for you to join it.
5. Doubt; can refer to a variety of experiences. Understanding clearly the technique you are working with, its purposes, function, peculiarities and intended consequences are essential if you are to be armed with the right understanding when doubt comes along. Doubt is actually one of the chief reasons we need a teacher or guide to work with. It is easy to get lost in unanswered questions regarding practice and experience for years, as I did. Study can help if we have access to the right materials, but often we need a wiser or more experienced ally to help us make peace with our insecurities or gain answers to important personal questions that arise as a result of practice and that may not fit into a traditional framework for understanding unfolding experience in practice and its consequences on our family, or work lives. What we experience is always valid and doubt is an inevitable part of the dropping away of old patterns and beliefs. Doubt has a light face too, which is the active questioning that emerges when we challenge the status quo of our old patterned existence.
('Ah, great. I feel better for that.')