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3. More than our Feelings

Beings free from addiction to sensual pleasures
know a unique form of delight.

Dhammapada, verse 99

As followers of the Theravada Buddhist tradition we might feel like we have heard so much and read so much on the subject of mindfulness that any more on it could put us to sleep. If we have such reaction, however, it is because we assume that we already know as much about mindfulness as we need for the work in which we are involved. On this occasion I would like us to try to put all assumptions aside and consider anew our understanding of this spiritual faculty.

I should say from the outset that in talking about this area of practice, I don’t feel confident that any one English word really does the job of translating the Pali word sati. This important word has many subtleties of meaning. Accordingly I sometimes use the words ‘mindfulness’, ‘awareness’ or ‘attention’ synonymously. Sometimes I use the word ‘knowingness’. Although this last word is clumsy, I find that it adds a helpful dimension of meaning that can be missing from more orthodox translations. It might also be helpful to know that the word sati originally meant ‘memory’ or ‘recollection’.

However we choose to translate this word sati, it refers to a faculty that the Buddha often spoke about as having profound spiritual significance. Other spiritual faculties – faith, energy, concentration and understanding – are taught in various great religions of the world; but the Buddha was unique in making it clear that the practice of mindfulness was essential to our liberation. In the scriptures there are many images given as an aid for us to grasp the essence of this aspect of the teaching. We are encouraged, for example, to cultivate a quality of attention in the present moment as though we were walking around with a barrel of boiling tar on our heads. It is necessary to be awake and alert, with the faculty of awareness fully activated, so that we are not waylaid or confused by any thoughts and feelings that we may experience while going about our daily business.

Being mindful, we are aware of the world just the way it is. This sensitive organism encounters its world through the various impressions it receives through the eyes, ears, tongue, nose, body and mind, and all of this we remain aware of. We are also taught to maintain an awareness of the nature of this sensory existence, being subject as it is to constant change. The Buddha wanted us to understand that if there is the right kind of mindfulness, or right quality of attention, then we don’t mistake these impressions for being more than they are. It is because we mistake these impressions for being more than they are that we suffer. If we don’t want to suffer, if we don’t want to be confused and unhappy, then what we need to do is correct the way we understand our lives.

With various metaphors and words of encouragement the Buddha taught how to cultivate a particular quality of attention that can be applied in every moment. He advised us to apply this attention while sitting or standing, walking or lying down, in short, in whatever posture we find ourselves. We might think that spiritual practice is something that we do in a special place, like a Dhamma hall or retreat centre, or that it’s a special activity, like sitting on a meditation cushion. Of course, these things play an important role in the formal aspect of practice, but properly speaking our ongoing spiritual practice is being fully present in every moment, whatever is happening. It means not dividing up our experience into that which is worthy of mindfulness and that which is not.

Identifying with pleasure and pain

In his own lifetime, the Buddha experienced the limitation of being identified with and caught up in his sense-impressions. The traditional story is that he spent the first part of his life cultivating pleasure in every way possible. Then around the age of twenty-nine he encountered old age, sickness and death, and these really unsettled him and he fell into despair. Having been caught up during his early years in defining himself in terms of pleasurable experience, he went to the other extreme and became an ascetic. He found a new identity by defining himself in terms of painful feelings, to see how much pain he could put up with; he embraced the popular religious view of the time that self-mortification would purify and liberate you.

These sorts of attitudes are not unusual, even today. People try to get as much pleasure as possible from sensory experience in order to define themselves. How pleasant can ‘I’ make ‘my’ house? How much pleasure can ‘I’ get out of ‘my’ relationship or the environment in which ‘I’ live in? I’ll have nice fragrant smells in the bathroom and agreeable sensations, textures and experiences in my life. This attitude is based on a perfectly natural and understandable preference for pleasure, and to varying extents we’ve all experienced it. But it can be taken to an extreme whereby if we are not feeling pleasure then we feel like we’re failing.

We all know on some level that pleasure comes and goes. If we maintain an awareness of this, then whenever we have a pleasant experience we simply know that the experience is agreeable. We do not become lost in or cling to the pleasure of that experience. For instance, in the last few weeks the weather here has been very agreeable indeed. As summer draws to a close and autumn arrives, living here in Northumberland can feel quite wonderful. The fragrances of the countryside, the mellow colours of the late summer evenings, the harvest, the blue sky, the birds and the fruit are glorious. And with such nice people around and friendly visitors to the monastery, one can experience a comfortable, pleasant feeling of well-being. If there is presence of mind in the moment, however, then when there is this good feeling, there’s also a ‘knowingness’, an awareness of the pleasure in experience. And this knowingness doesn’t detract from the pleasure.

Just as we can define ourselves in terms of pleasure, we can also do so through pain, with disagreeable physical or emotional sensations. For the Buddha-to-be, identifying himself with pleasurable sensations hadn’t liberated him, so he thought that identifying himself with pain might do the job. He became an ascetic. His self-mortification consisted in fasting, not drinking and even in not breathing for sustained periods of time, as well as other forms of asceticism that increased the sense of physical frustration.

Most of us don’t attempt the extremes of asceticism to which the Buddha-to-be subjected himself, but we do much the same when we allow ourselves to become lost in depression or anger. I meet many people who for years have been dwelling in anger – their resentment is painful to see. These people may say they want to let go of their anger, but it is sometimes quite clear that they have a commitment to dwelling on it. They find a sense of security in defining themselves as unhappy or angry – at least some sense of safety-with-the-familiar can be found in it. We can even get addicted to feeling afraid, if it gives us the sense of being somebody. Without any other perceivable way of establishing ourselves in a feeling of safety we are unable to let go.

In the absence of informed awareness, when we encounter pleasure we tend to define ourselves in terms of the pleasant feelings that arise. We become addicted simply to being our feelings. Even having a bad feeling makes us feel like we’re somebody. Not feeling anything can appear very threatening.

The Buddha-to-be’s own investigation into his relationship with his feelings eventually showed him that indulging in painful feeling took him to the same place as his years of indulging in pleasurable feelings – unhappiness. He realised this wasn’t a way to liberation either. Instead, he discovered a Middle Way between a life identified with pleasure and one identified with pain, which involved this quality of awareness he called Right Mindfulness – regarding all of experience with a presence of mind that meant that he wasn’t deterred from investigating experiences, mental, physical, emotional, subtle, coarse or anything else.

On this Middle Way, we are encouraged to cultivate mindfulness so that we don’t misperceive things. When pleasure comes along there is ‘knowingness’ – ‘this is pleasure.’ We don’t get lost in that pleasure. When there’s pain and misery, or disappointment and a sense of failure, or we are visited by fear or anxiety, we feel it but we don’t identify with it. In the short term we may wish to ‘escape’ from the reality of that pain – feeling perhaps that we cannot bear it, that we don’t like it, we don’t want it, we don’t deserve it – yet the Buddha teaches us to experience the reality of that pain out of compassion for our long-term well-being. We are not diminished by the experience of that pain.


Sometimes people mistake the teaching on mindfulness, confusing it with a psychological state of being out of touch or being split off from experience. A reason for making this mistake could be that there was a lack of predictability in early-life experience. Given the mobility of families these days and the various other forms of instability, children often fail to learn a healthy, trusting way of relating to their peers. If this disposition remains unaddressed such children grow into adults whose underlying response to life is one of mistrust. Such individuals don’t know how to fully surrender themselves into experiences of any kind. It’s as if they’re standing back and looking at themselves living life. ‘This is me doing this, this is me doing that.’ Spontaneous self-surrender is not a possibility; there’s always that standing back and watching oneself.

This is not an uncommon perspective to have. Many people grow up with such a sense of limitation, desperately wanting to be able to engage fully with life but having a paralysing self-consciousness. Hence many Westerners approach the Buddha’s teachings from the perspective of feeling once-removed from life. And unfortunately they read the teachings of mindfulness as endorsing this alienation. They try to turn this dysfunctional aspect of their mind’s watching itself into a spiritual practice. But certainly this is not what is being advocated. Right mindfulness does not mean that we split off from our experience; it means that we experience it more fully and accurately – without any obstruction. Feelings of pleasure we really feel as pleasure. When we eat a good meal, we know that there is pleasure. If we experience pleasure and we are in a state of ‘not-knowing’ that we are experiencing pleasure, we can be storing up problems for ourselves. The next time we experience something that is not pleasant the ‘not-knowing’ state is there again and this is where our suffering expresses itself. If we have the presence of mind to receive experience as it is, undiluted, uninterrupted, then everything can teach us. If we always stand back and relate from our ‘safe’ perspective of ‘watching’ everything we are going to find it difficult to learn.

Pleasure and pain in perspective

We might think, ‘I am willing to be mindful of pain, but I don’t want to have to spoil the experience of pleasure by being mindful of it.’ This is a common misunderstanding of practice. If we hear what the Buddha is saying clearly then we understand that when there is pleasure we just ‘know’ and don’t allow ourselves to indulge in it. Similarly when the situation has changed and there is disappointment, we don’t get overwhelmed by that either. In the practice of Right Mindfulness we learn to not get thrown by the extremes of pleasure or suffering.

This kind of ‘knowingness’ means that we are able to appreciate things in new ways. We are learning to see and hear more deeply. We know for example the impermanence of sensations, of perceptions, of feelings. Somebody turns up whom you haven’t seen for a long time and it is such a pleasure to see them. We feel it in the heart, in the body, feel a real joy and delight at seeing an old friend – we experience the warmth and friendship of good company. Now, if there’s right knowingness and developed attention, then there’s also a not-getting-lost in the experience. There is a silent inner knowing that eventually this person that we’re so pleased to see will leave. We appreciate the reality that the pleasure of this meeting is an impermanent condition.

It’s difficult to talk about this subject without it seeming that mindfulness somehow detracts from the experience. As if, when we meet that dear friend again, being mindful of the transitory nature of experience means that somehow we can’t fully enjoy the meeting.

Often, when teaching about mindfulness, the Buddha would use another word, sampajañña in Pali, in conjunction with sati. Sampajañña means ‘clear comprehension’. Each of our experiences – pleasant or unpleasant – we understand with wisdom, knowing, ‘This experience will not last for ever.’ It is important to get a feeling for the subtleties of the quality of mind being encouraged. Mindfulness is a quiet knowing, a quiet presence, and clear comprehension is the aspect that sees things in perspective. The gentleness and balance of mind fostered in this practice actually enhances the beauty of pleasant experience. And in the face of that which is unpleasant, it equips us with the right kind of strength to endure.

Free to see clearly

An image that’s often given to help us develop the right understanding of practice is that of a vast empty room with an open window, through which a shaft of light is passing. In the shaft of light we can see specks of dust which, although floating everywhere in the empty space, are highlighted in the light. The shaft of light is the light of attention. The vast empty space is the nature of the mind. The specks of dust are the sensory experiences of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches and mental impressions. The dust floats through empty space and if there’s right awareness, right mindfulness, we see it in perspective. Even if it’s gold dust we can’t afford to get it into our eyes, or we’ll become blinded by it. If it’s foul objectionable dust we don’t get lost in our reactions to that either. We know the dust for what it really is. This is part of the function of mindfulness and clear comprehension: to know things the way they really are, to see the relativity of things – to see things in perspective.

After hearing this advice, we may ask what use this teaching is with respect to the bigger issues of the world. No doubt it is very subtle and good, but how does it all relate to the fact that such and such a country might be building up for another war with yet another foreign country? What good does it do to know that sensory experiences are specks of dust floating through the empty space of the mind? Well, this practice can have a very positive effect on these wider issues. Thinking about a build-up for a war can produce strong emotional responses. Not only might we feel inner anxiety, fear or indignation, but we might also have all sorts of thoughts directed outwards about the various leaders of the countries involved. I’m sure we all know how enraging the subject of politics can be. If we get caught up in such thoughts and feel righteous, we find ourselves convinced by them. ‘We shouldn’t go to war!’ we think; ‘War is bad, and generosity, kindness and peace is good.’ If we don’t have these feelings with mindfulness and right understanding then we lose perspective. If we get caught up in them, we become them, and then our emotional reactions tend to be excessive. Our thoughts, words and outward behaviour are determined by our stance, and our lack of mindfulness leads to wrong action and wrong speech. It goes like this: wrong view, wrong thought, wrong speech, wrong action. I mean ‘wrong’ here not in the moral sense but from the perspective of reality. When things are like this, our passionate nature functions in service to fixed and limited views, not in service to sensitivity and understanding.

If there is a cultivation of rightly informed mindfulness, we may continue to feel indignant without any harm being caused to ourselves or others. We can feel what we feel about the very real risk that there may be a war in the near future. We can think whatever thoughts come into our head about this or that leader. We can think what we think and feel what we feel, but we know these thoughts and feelings as thoughts and feelings – we don’t lose ourselves in reactions. We stay in a position of optimum responsibility. We are not trying to stop feeling things or thinking things.

We might find in reflecting on the possibility of war that we think, ‘So and so is a rogue and a monster. We should just nuke the guy, get rid of him, get him off the planet. And we should execute all those terrorists.’ Then we catch a glimpse of ourselves and react with, ‘Oh my goodness, how could I be having such thoughts?’ We then start feeling guilty and think, ‘I shouldn’t be having thoughts about wanting to harm other people.’ If there is right mindfulness then even if we start having biased, one-sided thoughts or the guilty thoughts that come afterwards, we can let them be, without interfering with them. By experiencing them in such a manner we can come to understand their nature and what lies behind them. It is certainly not okay to act on them and promote war or hatred, but when those thoughts arise we don’t have to be upset by them. We don’t have to blindly react and try to block them off. In fact we can learn from them. If they are received with mature awareness they teach us how to empathise with those we might otherwise call our enemy.

One of the greatest teachings that I ever heard is that there is only one thing that we need to be afraid of and that is the length of time it takes for us to be mindful. I encountered this teaching in my first year as a monk during a period of particularly intense struggle. Instantly it made tremendously good sense to me; I believed it, I trusted it. And I still do.

It doesn’t matter what passes through that empty space; the nature of those specks of dust is that they are all specks of dust. Right understanding, right speech and right action will come, so long as we remember to become rightly aware of our experience.

Balancing the faculties

It is good to practise morality and to develop concentration. It is of benefit to study wise teachings and to develop energy for practice. All these spiritual activities are very important, but the Buddha made it clear that mindfulness was supremely important. Without it we lose balance, even with the virtue that we cultivate. If we are heedless we can start to smell badly of becoming very good. If there’s mindfulness then there can be a recognition of where we’re going out of balance. For instance, if we are cultivating generosity, morality or kindness – or any of the other forces of goodness – and we have mindfulness, then there is alertness and recognition when conceit starts creeping in, when the perception arises that ‘I’m generous’ or ‘I’m better than them’. With mindfulness well developed we can see such taints developing. Without mindfulness we might cultivate the virtues but lose perspective, get lost and spoil the results of practice.

With right mindfulness one recognises the relativity of experience. We don’t have to take sides with our experiences; we don’t have to take sides for or against pleasure or pain. Because we are experiencing misery and a sense of failure it doesn’t mean to say that we are a failure. We don’t have to become a failure because we are experiencing the perception of failure. We may fear humiliating ourselves in public, but without mindfulness we can really get caught up in that fear. With mindfulness we can feel the feeling of fear of humiliation; or even feel really worthless and disrespected and allow it to be – allow it to highlight the next step we need to take towards freedom or balance.

Learning from criticism

I received a letter today from a young monk I know who is currently living out in Asia. He wrote that his whole practice these days is just to feel what it feels like to be totally disrespected. He’s living in a situation where he’s misunderstood, where people are not supportive of him, and yet he’s committed to staying there for the three months of the vassa. He can’t get out! He’s not starving or going without, but it is humiliating him. In his letter he writes with equanimity and clarity, “My practice is just learning what it feels like to feel disrespected.” This is not a situation that one would set up for anybody, but learning how to feel what it feels like to be disrespected will be invaluable. If he becomes a respected monk and teacher, he will undoubtedly receive a lot of praise, with people telling him how wonderful he is; but there will be well-informed mindfulness of what it feels like to be respected. He won’t get so lost in being respected.

So it is with praise and blame. When people blame and criticise us, we can ask ourselves what it feels like to be mindful of blame and criticism. If someone praises us, telling us how wonderful we are, we may lose our sense of proportion. They butter us up, we buy into it and then they can manipulate us, and we feel conned and used. We don’t like ourselves and we also resent them. But why did we get caught up in the first place? Through a lack of mindfulness, a lack of perspective. So the next time we are blamed and criticised, if we can be mindful and feel the feeling of criticism, even feel what it feels like to fail, then the next time we are succeeding or being praised we’ll be able to maintain mindfulness in that too.

Sometimes there is clarity and confidence and at other times there’s chaos and confusion. If we give priority to the cultivation of mindfulness, not to what’s passing through the mind, not to the specks of dust, then, when we’re experiencing clarity, there’s a sense of presence there too. If we are feeling confident and together, thinking, ‘I’ve really got it sorted’ then we can be aware that that’s what it feels like right now. We are riding a wave but we remember the ocean. We don’t become the wave. There can be clarity and order in our lives, but we are aware that it’s not a sure thing, because everything is constantly changing. The encouragement we have from the Buddha in support of mindfulness is to reflect on the reality that everything is changing. So when clarity and confidence changes, for whatever reason, and instead there is chaos and confusion, disorder and lack of confidence, we don’t get lost in it. We realise then that that was the point of our effort.

Inhibiting unmindful tendencies

Often when we are making an effort to be restrained in our attention, not to just heedlessly follow things, we can’t really see the point of doing it. It’s only later on that we realise the benefit.

A young monk once went down to Bangkok to renew his visa and while he was there he was asked to speak at one of the biggest universities in Thailand. To his surprise he handled the talk and the question-and-answer session with confidence and ability. On returning to the forest monastery he asked Ajahn Chah, “How can it be that most of the time when I am here my practice seems like rubbish? I feel like I am wasting my time. Then, in a situation like that, I can come up with the goods?” Luang Por Chah answered saying, “Our practice is like being a gong. Most of the time you are just here, doing what you do, being mindful of the simple things like sweeping leaves, pulling water from the well, walking up and down on your meditation track, feeling like nothing is happening. You are simply doing what you need to do to stay mindful of the present moment. Then someone comes along and strikes this gong and the sound is beautiful. However, we are not supposed to be sitting there worrying about what our sound may be like.”

When, in formal meditation we’re focusing attention on the sensation of the breath, so many interesting things come along for us to think about. ‘I could be developing this, I could be building that. I could rewrite that program like this,’ or ‘I could arrange for that deal’. While we’re sitting in meditation, some of these creative ideas can seem so inspiring and attractive. We are encouraged to learn how to say no to them, to learn to inhibit our tendencies to follow them. Only when we can choose not to follow our tendencies, can we know we are not compelled and driven by them. Meanwhile, we inhibit the tendencies and come back to the meditation object of the breath, the simple, clear, neutral sensation of the body breathing.

We want to think about things and follow our attractive, profound thoughts so that we can develop them. Can we say ‘no’ to this tendency? There is often a fear that manifests that if we say ‘no’ to this profound thought or this beautifully, exquisite creative fantasy that is just emerging, then it will die and we will lose our wonderful idea forever. We’ll lose our intelligence and the consequences of that could mean losing our self-esteem and dignity. We’ll lose our potential, we’ll lose our superior ability to think profound thoughts. This is traditionally understood as Mara coming in, threatening us, and saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t practise restraint.’

We shouldn’t ignore Mara. The Buddha didn’t ignore Mara; he just said, ‘This is Mara.’ In our case we can call such thoughts Mara, or we can say, ‘There is a fear that I will lose my creativity if I inhibit this tendency to follow this fantasy, but I don’t really know.’ We don’t blindly or forcefully return to focusing on our meditation object. We carefully restrain our mind, attending to it with patience and return to the meditation object. We learn to say no to distracting impulses so that we’re in the centre of our lives. This practice means that we can choose to offer attention to the heart; we can give ourselves into something without the mind being compulsively distracted this way and that.

Later we may discover that suddenly, without our expecting it, there is a complex problem that arises in everyday life – a challenging conversation or a difficult decision that needs to be made – but we’re really right there. There is a strength of mind there that has come directly and proportionately from our good practice. We may not have seen that strength building up in the moment of restraining our attention from following its habitual tendencies, but all that effort we have made to restrain the mind – over and over again coming back to the meditation object – has generated real strength of presence, strength of mindfulness, sati. When we need that strength, it spontaneously and selflessly manifests.

In this way, we become inspired and encouraged to keep on cultivating mindfulness in this discipline of attention. I use the word discipline not in some brutal regimental way but in a sense of giving direction to something that’s dynamic and alive. So long as our minds are still swayed by deluded preferences, if we give no direction to our attention then it will just go anywhere and everywhere.

Mindfulness and confidence

With feeling, with skill and with sensitivity, we learn to apply the discipline of attention, and so we discover for ourselves a naturally increasing strength of mindfulness. Experiencing this brings with it an increase of faith and confidence. Even when there are very difficult and challenging situations, whether global, individual, inner, or outer, there is a feeling of strength there with which we can meet those situations. When we have developed mindfulness we won’t turn away from them. We won’t necessarily like them of course, but our conditioned likes and dislikes will no longer determine how we respond.

If we discover this power of mindfulness, we won’t feel so threatened. It’s like having a back problem; your back is giving out all the time, and there are lots of things that you can’t do because of this weakness in your back. You find yourself a good physiotherapist who teaches you some exercises that give you just the right sort of strength in the right place, and you find that you’ve got your confidence back again. You can do things that you weren’t able to do before. As you experience physical strength, so you feel confidence. So it is with spiritual strength. Through the cultivation of the spiritual faculty of sati or mindfulness, confidence and trust in life grows.




© 2005 Aruna Publications