Effort in meditation is a vital factor. The Buddha said that right view, right effort and right mindfulness accompany and develop every aspect of the path. With mindfulness, we can experience the immediate results of right and wrong effort - and of no effort. Is the mind just rambling on all the time? Are we feeling strained or rigid?... These are signs of wrong effort. Mindfulness helps to check and link up moments of right effort to form a cohesive flow of bright energy and an abiding in a skilful state. We become grounded in a meditation object and can study it, as well as experience calm and well-being.
A systematic way of looking at this sense of groundedness is in terms of mindfulness, and this has four bases or foundations. This is a means of applying mindfulness in a specifically focussed way that will develop both collected tranquillity - samadhi - and insightful wisdom. The first and most easily accessible of these foundations is the body. When we're doing formal meditation practice we keep bringing attention back to the body - in its own terms. Notice what gives rise to the impression that there is a body here. So this meditation centres on the breath, which is a physical experience; or on the body walking up and down, or on it sitting or standing. To do this in a sustained way - and to discard other experiences - is the first foundation.
Now say we're meditating, sitting there, and coming back to its associated sensations, but then the mind drifts off onto something that seems more pressing or more urgent - worries, doubts. Even so to just keep coming back to that foundation is a way of unravelling a lot of the mental stuff of the day. Mindfulness is a moment-by-moment thing; the main technique of such a practice is to set it up - to make that the intention - then to keep re-establishing it. A lot of grief and distress in meditation comes from expecting ourselves to be fully mindful of one particular thing in an unbroken succession, when actually that isn't always possible.
What is important to sustain is the coolness of it so that when the mind wanders off, as it does almost incessantly at first, one can learn from what happens then; three minutes later, or ten minutes later, when lost in a train of thought and emotions, when suddenly 'Oh! Where am I?' We recognise that we were supposed to be sitting here feeling our breath... so then what happens?... we get irritated, thinking, 'I can't do this', or 'Oh, shut up and get back to the breath!'
Now this is actually where a lot of learning can occur; not just through sustaining the attention on the object, although that's important, but also in how we go about doing that. I guess it's rather like training a dog or puppy. We might want to train it to fetch a stick, or to stay at heel. Of course, having it stay at heel may be one's aim, but recognise that a vital aspect of the training - and in learning about yourself - is how one reacts to the puppy continually running away. We can start to replace the impatient and negative traits of the mind with more positive and peaceful ones. We can ask, 'Where am I now?', 'Who is thinking?', or 'What about the breath?'.... This is a constructive means of re-establishing awareness of the meditation object - in a patient way, rather than bullying or nagging yourself. Then mindfulness is endowed with some degree of wisdom and responsiveness, and it becomes accordingly much firmer.
But all of this can only occur when we have established mindfulness as our aim: mindfulness, to be dispassionate, to stay cool, to keep reflecting. Recognise that things change, they are impermanent, don't expect the mind to stay still in one place. Then one is less likely to get stuck in the moods that occur, or jump to conclusions that it is either a complete waste of time or that one is a failure. These ideas and perceptions that come up also have the nature to arise and cease. In training and bringing the mind to attention in this way, we begin to discover that the judgements we make about ourselves and about life, the apparent obsessions of the mind - the things we seem to be stuck with permanently are, in fact, only impermanent things that we're not being mindful of. One allows oneself to get caught in them because at that moment, one is not bringing mindfulness to bear. But that can change right now: mindfulness can be brought to bear, when there's the intention to do so.
Two very common themes of body meditation are 'body-sweeping' and 'mindfulness of breathing', both of which require a patient and thorough practice. I can only give a brief outline here. Body sweeping is the practice of 'sweeping' awareness over the body and recognising the quality of sensation at each moment. We can do this in a refined and systematic way - say focussing on one toe at a time, and then the ankle of one leg and so on; or in a simpler broader way, such as one leg, then the other; or by 'touching' chosen points in the body in a regular sequence - such as right elbow, right shoulder, left shoulder, left elbow, right hip, left hip, and so on. It can also be good to notice one point - say, a finger tip - and how it relates to the general flow of sensations in the hand and the arm. Moving attention around in this way helps to release blocks; numb patches become more sensitive, a balance of body vitality is achieved.
With mindfulness of breathing, the field of attention is trained to cover the entirety of the breathing as it is experienced in the present. This may change in character but I think it is important to fully receive what is felt, rather than search for what one thinks one should feel. If we search too hard we establish trying, rather than awareness. So to be receptive, and extend and tune that receptivity is more conducive. Thus the mind is capable of knowing the physical, and then the mental, feelings that are associated with the breathing. To return to the foundations: mindfulness of feeling is the second. It refers to the particular pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral physical or mental feelings that arise. We can note the feeling in the body as pleasing, or displeasing, or just nothing special. Or with the mind, we can notice the feeling that may be associated with boredom, or low energy. Then, rather than just getting involved in the state itself, we can just keep observing the associated feeling. We may not like it. But rather than just hanging on to that reaction, we can actually contemplate the not liking - the unpleasant feeling - knowing it that way. So then, rather than rejecting unpleasant feelings and trying to find a pleasant one, we can realise that unpleasant feelings come and go, and do not have to be sustained by mental reactions. The very quality of mindfulness achieves a state of peace and non-attachment with unpleasant feelings.
So if we can establish a steady mindfulness through the range of feeling, we will have overcome a major obstacle to meditation. This takes us to the third foundation, which is the mind. We can be mindful of the mind; whether the mind-set is gloomy, distracted, free, bright, luminous, constricted - just getting a reference to the mood of the mind. If we come to this, if we learn to get attentive to the mood - it helps us to understand and to be aware of what the mind creates. So if the mind-set is dark and gloomy, then naturally that's going to affect our energies, the way we think, the way we talk; it's going to affect the way we see and experience things. But if there can be mindfulness of that mood, then we can recognise, say, feeling depressed, feeling gloomy, feeling nervous and stay cool about that rather than fighting it, justifying it, or getting involved with it. We see that mood also has the nature to arise and cease.
The fourth foundation is called mindfulness of dhamma - meaning mental processes. This means we begin to look at the personality, psychological states, hang-ups, problems - our life situation - in an objective way. When we look at it objectively we see that really it amounts to a set up of wanting pleasure, wanting happiness, wanting peace, and being irritated by things we don't like; sometimes feeling dullness, worry and restlessness, or doubt.... There are these qualities, and they are centred in the ground of personal interest; everyone's personal interest - so they are universal qualities. So rather than making personal problems out of these, we start to see them as impersonal. They come around because of causes and conditions. That helps to remove the ground which harbours these hindrances, rather than further add to the intensity of identification.
The details of clearing the hindrances are based on this clear perspective. This makes it possible to get in touch with the spiritual qualities that will repel afflictive states and be conducive to deep clarity. These enlightenment factors - mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquillity, collectedness and equanimity - also are dhamma. They are things rather than ourself. When mindfulness and clear comprehension have developed to the point of being able to recognise, develop and use these faculties to combat the hindrances, this can be called satipanna - mindful wisdom. Mindfulness of dhamma evolves to include everything.
As we train ourselves to witness and experience body, feelings and mind and its states as impermanent, coming and going, changing, we find that we have a more centred and reflective view upon our life. Instead of seeing it in such fragmented, circumstantial and personal ways, we see ourselves and others in very much the same light - there's this body, there's that body, they all have the same qualities; a pleasant equanimity arises. We arrive at a sense of universality which is peaceful and compassionate.
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