‘(An) unchanging, unitary, autonomous self is non-existent. Our existence is nominal. Devoid of an owned, inherent nature.’ Allan Wallace.
‘All our anxieties and difficulties come from our inability to see the true face, or true sign of things.’ Thich Nhat Hanh
If Buddhism denies a permanent self, then how do we deal with the issue of identity? Who are we really? What is the basis of our sense of being ‘a somebody’ that does indeed appear to exist in the world – to have relationships, work, eat, sleep, piss about on Facebook and read Buddhist books? In Wallace’s words we are informed that there is not a permanent, fixed self; yet a self of some kind does exist, even if it is simply seen at first as the process of moving and shifting reference points, preferences, relationships and roles.
Initial questions in response to the teachings of no-self tend to emerge from the insecurity, doubt and fear that arises in response to the idea that no-self =‘I don’t exist’, when you quite clearly do. You’re reading this, right? Underneath such potential insecurities is the existential fear of non-existence, of being nothing and therefore believing somehow that there is no meaning in our existence. This is a fear I have experimented personally and I am fully aware of how unnerving it can be. However, no-self does not mean that we are merely a mass of biological processes, a cog in the wheel of organic life. Such perspectives on existence constitute a form of Nihilism, which is one of the great mistaken views in Buddhism. So, we can relax knowing that at least in Buddhism, this is not the intended meaning of no-self.
The questions should perhaps be then, not whether you exist, but ‘How do I exist?’ and ‘If there is no permanent central core within me somewhere, then what am I really?’ Discovering that a solid, core self is non-existent should not lead us to deny what we do wake up to each day. Our lives stand before us each morning. A tangible world that starts with our bed, the walls of our bedroom, the home that we inhabit, the street below, the feelings and sensations of warmth and of cold, and so on. The Buddhist path is not about denying life and existence. I like to think of it as the establishing of new rules of engagement and enquiry outside of our conditioned, patterned, personal history and collective blindness in order to see and experience things as they are, unconditioned. We are usually so driven to find final, definite answers that we often lose a sense of what the real issue is. Does it matter what we believe? Sure. Does it matter which position we adopt? Certainly. But do we need to be so concerned with getting the ‘right’ philosophical, religious or psychological belief, the final answer, to define ultimate reality or the end game of existence and life? No. At least I don’t believe so. To do so might simply be another mental construct we use to define our sense of self and position ourselves against, or for, a particular side in the endless debates about the true and ultimate nature of things. It is much more useful and relevant to explore directly the mechanisms within you that shape the reality you experience and live. In this way your personal experience takes precedence over the adoption of particular philosophical stances and the idea of no-self becomes an open invitation to explore the ramifications of such a possibility on your life, not only on the meditation cushion, but also in the moments in-between.
The fourth and final Foundation of Mindfulness is of phenomena. You might be asking yourself right now, ‘But aren’t the body, the feelings and mental activity phenomena too?’ and you would be right. This is an indicator of the way that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness function as progressive steps of integration of awareness within the totality of our individual experience. The idea that these Four Foundations exist separately is false. They are simply steps or stages of working with specific aspects of our experience. As with the previous three Foundations, Mindfulness of phenomena includes not only a resultant and integrative dimension, but also an active, volitional path of techniques and material to work through and integrate. And the key term is integration: when we have full awareness of the body, we have awareness of feeling and phenomena and the quality of mental states too. We break down perception into specific perceptual frames first, and then we build up an integrated perceptual outlook that is inclusive and cognisant of the interdependent nature of all phenomena within our field of perception. We work through the foundations individually because our experience of each of them is polluted by conditioning, patterned and therefore partial living, and our gross and subtle conceptualisation of experience.
With Mindfulness of the mind we are learning to recognise and acknowledge the whole range of mental formations as they arise in our experience. Feelings were defined as qualitative sensations of experience and are mental formations in themselves, but what constitutes mental formations exactly? They are the content and activity of the mind. The mind itself doesn’t exist as a separate entity, or permanent fixture, so we can only really know the mind by being conscious of its content. Consciousness allows us to be aware of mental formations. The mind then is understood as the flow of mental activity which is subject to frequent change.
The idea of the mind and consciousness can become complicated rather quickly and lead one down the road of philosophising. As these blog posts are primarily concerned with the experiential dimension of practice and enquiry, let’s accept for now that there is consciousness and there is content and that mindfulness here means bringing awareness and insight to the latter, which I have placed into categories below;
1.Mental processes; thinking, imagining, fantasising, judging, reasoning, desiring, remembering, and forgetting, and so on. It includes mental formations such as beliefs, ideas, doubts, and views and more.
2.The quality of attention and awareness; sharpness, drowsiness, sleepiness, distraction, concentrated, unconcentrated, open, curious, disinterested, scattered, cramped, aware, unaware, etc.
3.Mental/emotional states; jealousy, irritation, annoyance, boredom, bliss, delusion, aversion,desire to harm, desire to help, excitement, etc.
4.Emotional states; love, anger, fear, courage, empathy, compassion, etc.
Basically anything that you can define within personal experience is a mental formation of some form or other. Each has its own distinct form and flavour. None of them constitute a self or me and none of them are permanent. They have a duration and their intensity waxes and wanes. Some can be considered as explicitly positive and negative. Some are preferable to others. Some we covet and others we push away, or may not have met yet. In practising mindfulness the content is not so important. What matters is how you relate to it. The 7 factors of mindfulness remain the same as does our need to apply them to each of these phenomena as they arise in our everyday experience.
‘Feeling is present at every moment of experience.’ Bikkhu Bodhi
What does it mean to feel? We often take feeling for granted, never really taking the time to investigate what is really going on when we say we feel this or that. We often fail to appreciate the richness, complexity, and also potential simplicity of the process of feeling, and yet, feeling marks each and every experience we have, have ever had, and will ever have. Our beliefs, ideas, self-image, are all infused with particular ranges of feelings and we use our feelings to judge whatever takes place both within and without as good, bad, or unimportant. For many, feelings are the gateway to truth, to authentic understanding and self-expression, whilst for others, especially my grandparents’ generation, feelings are unimportant, a form of self-indulgence, perhaps even weakness.
Feeling leads to the formation of emotions, but feelings are not emotions. Feelings are the sensations we experience, and for mindfulness practice, they are the quality of sensation in the body and can be labelled simply as positive, negative, or neutral. This threefold category is traditionally applied to practising mindfulness of the feelings. That is we use our attention, our awareness, to observe how we have an impulsive tendency to react to feeling by labelling it as positive, negative, or neutral causing us to act accordingly. Feeling is rarely allowed to be as it is; instead it is subjectively made important, or unimportant. We charge feelings with meaning. Taking interpretation of what is felt as a determining factor in how we choose to go forward and act. Feelings actually function as an elaborate code through which we forge the direction our lives take.
Ultimately, separation between body, feelings, emotions, states and phenomena doesn’t exist. One flows into the other. They are profoundly interrelated. These categories though act as convenient method for defining experience and working with its more recognisable dimensions. The body feels for example, or rather we feel through the body, and emotions are felt within the body, and are accompanied by feeling. Emotions and other mental states are within the body, infused with feeling and directly related to phenomena. Our feelings are stimulated by the physical in the form of our body and the ‘external’ world. So, an important understanding to make clear here is that these four realms of experience are really not separate.
In contemporary society we generally have a very dysfunctional relationship with our bodies. We treat our bodies badly, we often eat wrongly, push our bodies excessively, or fail to give our body the degree of care and attention it needs. Addiction is incredibly widespread and nail biting, skin picking, excessive gum chewing, and other nervous habits, are all signs of a dysfunctional connection to the physical environment in which we partake. Then, added on to this, we have all of the distorted images of the body given to us by advertising and consumerist culture, by celebrities, comics, and pornography; a mass of illusions of how we are supposed to appear and present ourselves to the world. We often look at our bodies in a very distorted manner, or even refuse to look at our naked form out of fear, or shame. The commodification of the body and the falsification of body images have the function of collectively disassociating people from the simplicity and immediacy of how their bodies really are and how wonderful they are in their diversity. The general obsession with external image often causes us to seek to present our bodies in specific postures, poses and shapes. How often do you either strike a model’s pose when you look at yourself in the mirror, or refuse to look honestly and deeply at your naked body without tightening up or judging it? These are all aspects of the collective baggage that we carry around and filter our perception of our body through.
Because the body is the starting place for mindfulness and because of the complexity of the issues I have just laid out, it is important to realise that mindfulness is a very rich and profound pursuit of re-engaging with experience based on very new rules. Mindfulness is not just being present, but it is also looking deeply at things to see how they really are and how we are relating to them. In this sense it is truly a path of freedom, because if we are brave enough to go all the way with it, it can free us from the mess we are in collectively and individually with regard to our bodies.
What follows are the seven factors of mindfulness. They immediately illustrate a more complete and holistic picture of deep mindfulness practice. They also show us that mindfulness is not just something you do on a cushion in a safe, quiet space, but is rather an adventure that is embarked on that can result in the radical change and gaining of freedom that I have pointed to in several previous posts. Below is my own non-traditional wording of the seven factors.
Seven factors of Mindfulness
1.Being present and deeply engaged with what we are doing
2.Bridging the gap to experience: non-judgement & intimacy
3.Appreciation for experience: acknowledging & honouring your life as an unfolding process
4.Relieving of unsatisfactoriness & reducing separation: feeling connected & part of it all
5.Looking deeply: penetrating experience to see clearly what is real and important, releasing our natural intuitiveness
6.Gaining insight & direct understanding through being grounded in experience & fully open