Monday, June 4, 2012

Don't believe everything you think

Say you smell the odor of a hamburger cooking. That's just a sensation. Quickly you have a reaction -- you're hungry and you like it; in fact you want one. Or you're a vegetarian and you're repulsed. Or things are fine the way you are and it doesn't make much of an impression.
The pure sensation is mindfulness of body.
The unpleasant-pleasant-neutral overlay is mindfulness of feeling tones.
And the thought about the sensation is mindfulness of mind.
Why does this matter?
These are the components of experience. This is how we interpret the world and how we respond to the world.
As with most of the Buddha’s teachings, the foundations form a logical progression.
We practice mindfulness of body to see what our experience is in this moment in a real, tangible way. Our form, our body, is what we experience as reality. We are with the sensations of what’s happening within the moment, rather than through ideas we have of it. When we are present with our body in this moment – without visualizing or interpreting or worrying – we are meeting reality with full integrity.
The experience of sensation usually is followed by a feeling tone, a subtle mental experience that’s present in every moment. It precedes conscious thought or emotion – no matter how much we think that emotional reaction just happens, the feeling tone comes first.
If it’s pleasant, we want more or we want it to stay as it is, and we manipulate experience or reality to try to make that possible. This leads to grasping and craving, which leads to suffering. Unpleasant and we run from it or push it away or push it down, or bring in something else, something we perceive as pleasant, to try to dislodge it. This gives rise to fear and anger and other negative reactions. Neutral and we look elsewhere – or go to sleep.
Seeing the link between attraction or aversion and the mind’s immediate response is liberating, the Buddha says. And liberation is the path to nirvana.
The Buddha says that an “untaught, worldly person” – most of us – who experiences an unpleasant body sensation, such as pain, worries about it, grieves, gets upset, gets resistant, gets angry. When we do that we actually experience two kinds of unpleasant feelings – the physical pain and the mental pain. In the Buddha’s example, the physical pain is like being struck by an arrow; then when you react with anger and resistance, it’s as if you’ve been struck by a second arrow: the unpleasant mental feeling.
An awakened being will still feel unpleasant sensations, but that person recognizes that it’s an unpleasant feeling and dodges the second arrow, the self-inflicted one of worry and anger and resistance. When you can just be with things as they are, there’s freedom and ease.
Or let’s say the original sensation is like a string around your wrist that’s gotten tangled and is too tight and becomes uncomfortable. When you stay with that discomfort, you notice it, you may notice it changes, and you may decide that the skillful action is to unwrap it or cut it off. But when you’re caught in your reaction, it’s like wrapping more string around your wrist so that it gets tighter and tighter and you panic or become paralyzed, unsure how to get out of the trap.
Which leads to the third foundation, mindfulness of mind, or consciousness of consciousness. In Buddhist terms, consciousness is the sixth sense; it is a moment of knowing – seeing, hearing, smelling. When consciousness arises with a particular mental factor, an emotion or quality, the mental factors color it. So in Mindfulness of Mind, we’re talking about knowing a moment of consciousness AND what’s coloring it.
The traditional teaching, taken from the Sattipattana Sutta, is about mindfulness of mind states. The Buddha outlines a bunch of specific ones.
A monk knows the consciousness with lust as with lust; the consciousness without lust as without lust; the consciousness with hate as with hate; the consciousness as without hate as without hate …
Through lust, hate, ignorance, the shrunken state of consciousness, the distracted state, the concentrated state, the freed state, and their opposites.
Note that the Buddha doesn’t judge the value of the mind states. He doesn’t talk about hating the mind with lust and loving the mind free from lust, or even seeking to develop the mind free from lust. He talks only about knowing what is there. The mind is contracted or the mind is spacious; the mind is full of ill will or free from it.
Think of being in love. Particularly newly in love. The world is bright and shiny. Everything is beautiful. Has everything changed? No. Your mind state has.
Think of when you are grieving or sad. The world is dull. Sunlight is too bright and washes out the colors instead of enhancing them. In the cartoon strip "Mary Worth," there’s a story line about a young woman who’s boyfriend has broken up with her and who has a new girlfriend. In every panel that she appears, this young woman is lying on the couch saying, “Life is brutal.”
If we’re not aware of the mind states that are coloring our perceptions, we think that our perceptions are true.
Contemporary western teachers often teach this as Mindfulness of Thoughts, rather than mind states. The thoughts are the signs that point us to the mind states.
(Think of the mind as bartender or an ice cream store clerk, and thoughts are the customers – the mind welcomes thoughts, observes them, hears what they want, takes care of them, and move on. Do they come in a big rowdy group? Alone? You can’t spend all night waiting on one customer, but that’s what we do with our thoughts, stay with one and worry it to death.)
Most of the time we don’t see our thoughts as visitors. We just believe them.
“Nobody likes me.”
“I can’t do this.”
“This is too hard.”
And then we act from those thoughts.
If you believe the thought that no one likes you, you’re less likely to open up to others and your life becomes contracted. You become isolated.
If you believe you can’t do something or that it’s too hard, you won’t try. You give up – or you don’t start.
There is a real difference between the thought “my back is killing me” and the sensation of back pain.
When we watch the quality of mind, we become less identified with the thought or the emotion. We still feel anger arising, but we don’t leap to the judgment that we are angry people – and therefore always act with anger. We feel fully angry, in body and mind, but we know that it’s not who we are. Because we pay attention to the state of consciousness, we see that it changes. We may experience conflicting emotions coming up very rapidly.
The terrible, horrible, very bad day does not have only negative things in it, if you pay attention moment by moment. There’s something good there – the smell of coffee, the quality of light, the one person who smiled at you. Every state of mind is transitory. It’s only by noticing them in detail that we truly appreciate it and let go of our tendency to identify with any particular one. Then we can be with whatever happens without becoming so tightly wound that we can’t move.

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