By John Pendall
In the last column, I talked about grabbing hot coals.
That analogy was inspired by mindfulness. While practicing mindfulness, it became astonishingly clear how often we grasp, hold onto, and release things throughout the day. I’ve never counted the instances, but there have to be dozens if not hundreds of them. Yet we never think about it because it’s such an ordinary, habitual activity. Maybe it’s so habituated that we believe we can grab and hold onto our thoughts and feelings the same way?
The word mindfulness is tossed around a lot in Buddhist and non-Buddhist circles alike, but what is it exactly? We’re told to be mindful, but what is it we’re supposed to be mindful of? Well, that’s really up to you. I encourage practitioners to test out several different methods before diving fully into a certain one.
The method I’m sharing today goes back to the Maha-Satipatthana Sutta. Satipatthana is especially useful if you have an intellectual or analytical mind. Unlike some other types of mindfulness meditation, Satipatthana doesn’t force us to ostracize our thoughts. In this style, we’re actually encouraged to use our thoughts to our advantage. Mindful thinking is very different from the way we usually think. It’s about basing thoughts on what’s happening right now.
A wandering mind is a suffering mind.
Back when we were still in diapers, we learned to talk by observing the ramblings of adults. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we can’t observe people’s thoughts. Since we can’t hear people’s inner monologues rattling away, we can’t learn to think. With no template to follow, our thoughts come to follow the same pattern that our speech does. That’s one of the reasons our minds wander.
Have you ever went on an uninterrupted rant before? Ever notice how you jump from one topic to another like a type of verbal leap frog? In that same way, our thoughts become a stream of free association throughout our lives. In our minds there’s no one to reply to our words except us, so we live our lives engaging in a perpetual internal rant.
This is unskillful and causes suffering.
When our thoughts wander, we depart reality as it is and venture into a private dream world. In this dream world, we form views and preferences and then superimpose them onto reality. I used to suffer from panic attacks when I was younger. They were caused entirely by my delusional, wandering thoughts.
“I don’t want to go to gym class, I’m fat and I know the other kids make fun of me. I can’t hear them doing it, but I know they’re thinking it.” If I were mindful, my thoughts would’ve looked more like this during gym class: “Walking, walking, walking, changing clothes, walking, walking, jogging, jogging, playing basketball, running, running, sweating, walking, changing clothes, walking, walking.”
That’s one of the main techniques of satipatthana. Instead of wandering thoughts, we use directed thoughts. If we’re walking, we think “walking.” If we’re reaching for something we think, “reaching.” If we’re peeing we think, “peeing.” At the same time, we focus on the sensations occurring along with the activity.
If I have a great cup of coffee I could think, “This coffee is delicious!” Instead I think, “There is pleasure. The rising of pleasure, the fading of pleasure.” If I stub my toe, I think, “There is pain. There is the rising of pain, the fading of pain.”
If I form a view about something like, “I hate this freaking song!” then I am mindful that it’s a view and I think, “There is a view. There is the rising of a view, and the fading of a view.” Everything follows that bell curve; rise, stabilize, decline and dissolve.
That’s the nature of impermanence and interdependence. Satipatthana helps us dispel wandering thoughts and come this moment so that we can see the true nature of things.
The Sutta suggests a view different ways to view things as well, but I won’t go into that here because this column is already getting a bit drawn out and I’m convinced you’ve all fallen asleep by now. Since you’re asleep, I can finally say that I’ve never seen Titanic. That’s right, I’ve never seen it and I have no intention of watching it anytime soon.
Anyway, satipatthana is a still a new practice for me, so I’m not sure where it’s going yet. After meditating the other day, I did realize that it may become more and more refined over time. Instead of, “Walking, walking, walking,” I began to naturally think of it as, “Touching, touching, touching.” So maybe the practice slowly changes as new experiences inform it. Eventually seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, etc. may just be, “Sensing.”
Then the directed thoughts might disappear altogether, leaving the pure awareness of suchness.
Editor: Dana Gornall