Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension - Part 1

Ajahn Sucitto

In considering mindfulness and clear comprehension we see that these two terms are often conjoined. They support and amplify each other. Mindfulness is the ability to attend in a particular way, to turn the mind on to something and feel it out. Clear comprehension is the thing that helps to determine what we should be mindful of and how. These two together form a helpful practice for the arising of understanding. There are various techniques and ways in which to develop and cultivate mindfulness, but sometimes what happens is that people consider mindfulness to be developed only through refining the preliminary object of meditation. For example, they may become attentive to particular refined sensations – but what they really need to be mindful of is motivation. A rather facile example might be that a person could be mindful of the feelings in their hand, when maybe they should be more mindful of the fact that they are holding a gun, with which they are about to blow someone's brains out! In terms of meditation, motivation can be corrupted with a kind of self-importance or alternatively self-denial, and we tend to be mindful of things that accord with these habits. So we recognise that clear comprehension is very important as a determinant for mindfulness.

Mindfulness is also the power of the mind to attend objectively; the mind just opens up to something, without any particular angle or any particular ambition – and it's not in a hurry. When conjoined with clear comprehension it is not dependent on the quality of the object, instead it establishes a continuity of knowing attention. It has the quality of dispassion, rather than attending only to things that we feel are dramatic; therefore an important development of mindfulness is in its extension.

Most of us can be fairly attentive to things when we are threatened or in danger – then we become extremely attentive – but most of the time there is no mindfulness. We live in a kind of fairly all right ordinary state, or else things become habitual; we barely notice them because we've got so used to them. Life seems to operate in terms of routines and habits: the same place and the same people – things changing very slowly – same old body doing more or less the same things every day. So we need skill to develop mindfulness in this, because normally the mind is only attentive to things that are dramatic, painful, searing or intense, wonderful or luminous.

Such a bias affects our meditation, and so we feel that we can't be mindful because we can't find anything special to be mindful of. We can tend to imagine that mindfulness is a state of being concentrated on an object, so that if we're fully concentrated upon the breath or upon a sensation then we're very mindful of it. But concentration without mindfulness is fixation, rather than samådhi: it doesn't take into account an awareness of the mind's responses to an object, so only a fraction of the mind gets involved. Limiting mindfulness in this way is also unproductive if, for most of the day, we can't be mindful of breathing in and out because of being occupied with other things. It's not possible to have mindfulness in a controlled way, because life tends to be multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. We are always going from the eyes to the ears, to the brain and the body and then back to the brain, the thoughts and memories. The attention has to keep swivelling around in order to function with things. However we can be mindful of the awareness (citta) which receives impressions and comes up with skilful responses, so flexibility in choosing a suitable place for attention is very useful. The reason that often people feel that they can't be mindful is that they can't relate mindfulness to the active states of consciousness when the mind is moving around, but this is getting confused between mindfulness and the ordinary understanding of concentration.

Concentration alone does tend to alter the consciousness: it makes it become more refined and take on the quality of what is concentrated on. So if we concentrate on beautiful music then we may feel very patriotic, or romantic, or excited – the mind takes on that particular mood. If we concentrate on a calm sign, like breathing, the mind becomes calm; but it tends to fix on that, and then when we can't concentrate on the breath we're all at sea again. Even if we can sustain it over a long period of time, which is difficult, that practice tends to make the mind take on the quality of the thing that it's conjoined with and not much more. So in terms of our `view' or perspective, we remain very much affected by whatever we are in contact with. For much of the day most people have to be in contact with things like newspapers, traffic, duties, telephones, so then if we're just concentrating, associating the mind with the thing it is conjoined with, it gets very agitated and frazzled. Even in meditation, unless it comes through mindfulness, concentration will not be endowed with the skilful mental attributes that ripen to give rise to samådhi.

Mindfulness has the ability to notice something dispassionately and to maintain a state of coolness, of dispassion, by referring to and working with the mind's responses; this is a highly focused but not fixated state. For example, on hearing a sound we can notice what that sound does to us. When we hear a powerful sound, like a chainsaw or some machine screeching away, we can feel the mind tensing up. But then if we're mindful, keeping a sense of coolness about that, the mind actually relaxes; we hear the sound simply as a sound, and we don't get this build-up of stress. So in some ways, although it's rather undramatic, this is a very valuable practice. Now we're not saying, "The way to meditate is to go and listen to a chainsaw" or, "Go and sit in front of a spin drier all day long", but it's a way of dismantling the compulsiveness – the ways that we get caught with things – not by antagonism, but by just staying objective and dispassionate. With an unpleasant experience, the mind habitually tenses up and to tries to push the feeling away, but with a pleasant sound or taste the mind tends to go towards it and tries to hold on to it and linger in it, or gobble it up. But then, through simply noticing that, we begin to find a sense of calm composure in ourselves so that, no matter what comes into consciousness, we are able to register it for what it is and to maintain the emotional mood of dispassion, of objectivity. We see that whatever we experience comes, and then goes. It has the nature to arise, and then cease. It is impermanent, it's transient. Now although that's a very obvious statement, it's not an obvious experience. Most of us don't experience the ending of something. When something ends the mind jumps to the next thing. We don't notice a sound fading away. Instead, we notice the sound and we think about it, and then either forget it as we go on to something else, or the mind argues with it and proliferates around it: "Oh that's very nice, I wonder where that's coming from." Or with a smell, you think, "That's a nice smell, that reminds me of so and so..." or, "Where's that pong coming from? I don't like that..." We engage with things.

But to be mindful means that we notice the sound or the smell come into consciousness, and then, instead of pushing the sense impression away or holding on to it, we're aware of how the mind reacts. We stay centred and notice that the impression and the feeling that arises comes, and then goes. We can actually watch and feel the mind's inclination to lunge out towards something that's pleasant, whereas before it would simply lunge out, grasp and then proliferate about it. With mindfulness we can notice the movement of the mind arise and then, when we don't engage with it, we see it falling away, ceasing. We see that it comes and goes in a wave pattern, and we begin to experience a steadiness underneath the waves.

So in this respect mindfulness has two qualities. Firstly, it is dispassionate; it has no particular ambition, it's neither rejecting or ashamed of anything, nor is it fascinated by anything. Secondly, it notices that things arise and cease.

If mindfulness covers the context in which apparent phenomena appear, we get in touch with motivations and responses that would otherwise be screened out, which are the source of the hindrances that can afflict us. If we can cease engaging in a blind way, we develop perspective. Rather than fighting with ourselves, saying we shouldn't feel this or think that, we can just notice all of the sounds, the sights, or the tastes or the touches, and what the mind makes of each impression. We see that they are all of the same nature in that they arise and cease. This is the function of mindfulness. It leads to inner composure and freedom, because we're not rejecting anything, nor are we grasping after anything. We see that it's like this. There is a levelness, a groundedness in which the rich qualities of awareness can begin to reveal themselves.

Ajahn Sucitto

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