Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Four Circles of Mindfulness

As I'm entering my fourth week at Gampo Abbey, I can observe myself slowly beginning to settle into practice. It is as if pieces of myself that were trailing somewhere behind me, still in New York City perhaps, are now arriving one by one, and joining the rest of me here. Many days these past three weeks, meditation has been a struggle between me and my own mind, an encounter with what Buddhists refer to as 'monkey mind.' But over the past few days, I've noticed the monkey beginning to quiet down and settle into being in this new zoo.

One thing that has helped me a great deal with this, in terms of meditation practice, is working with what are traditionally called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. I had always thought of the Four Foundations as a long practice that unfolds in sequential stages over the course of weeks or months or years, and in viewing it that way I'd always struggled to relate to it (no wonder!). In fact, in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha even advises his monks to practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness for seven years. But this week, I have stumbled upon a way of bringing the Four Foundations into my meditation sessions in a much more immediate, practical way. Others, no doubt, have been practicing this way for years, but it came as something of a revelation to me. I've begun to apply them as an actual meditation technique, on the spot, and it seems to have a powerful settling effect on the mind.

Here's how I've been working with them:

FIRST, close your eyes and bring a gentle awareness to what is going on in your body at this moment. Notice your posture, and the connection between your body and the ground beneath you. Feel your torso and your legs and ankles and feet, your shoulders and arms and hands, your neck and head and face. Scan over your body and note any places where you might be holding tension, and gently let it go wherever possible. Bring a soft attention to the sensations of your body breathing, and to whatever other bodily sensations you may notice. This is the first foundation, Mindfulness of Body.

SECOND, open your eyes but keep your gaze directed downward, about three to six feet in front of you. While maintaining an awareness of what is going on in your body, gradually expand your awareness to notice how you experience sensations and phenomena as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is the second foundation, Mindfulness of Feeling. The word 'feeling' is a problematic translation here, because we usually think of 'feelings' as emotions -- but that's another layer of the onion (coming up next). Here we are quite simply looking at the very basic way in which we categorize everything that arises in our experience in one of three ways: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Developing a mindfulness of this is so important because we are so strongly programmed to react to these three ways of perceiving our experience: we pursue and grasp at what is perceived as pleasant, we recoil from and struggle against what is perceived as unpleasant, and we tune out or ignore what is perceived as neutral. From a meditative point of view, that's where all our problems really begin. One of the interesting things we discover when we work with this level of mindfulness is that our labels of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral are often, to a greater or lesser degree, projections onto experiences that are actually pure sensation arising, beyond categorization, beyond label or concept. Sometimes if we disengage from our habitual storyline about that pain in our back or our knee, rather than dwelling on it and feeding it by constantly slapping it with the "unpleasant" label, it begins to lose much of its force and we experience it in a different way.

THIRD, raise your gaze a little further, about six to twelve feet in front of you. While maintaining an awareness of the body and of sensations that are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral, expand your awareness to include the thoughts and emotions that are passing through your mind. This is the third foundation, Mindfulness of Mind. Thoughts and emotions come and go all the time, passing through our minds like bicycles without riders. Normally what we do is to jump on each and every bicycle that passes by and start pedaling, pedaling, fueling the thought and building it up into a storyline or a fantasy that swamps our awareness. Some thoughts and storylines are so juicy that we clear a whole space for them and set them up like stationary bikes or hamster wheels, and we just keep coming back to pedal away on them. If we just watch the illusory bicycles come and go without jumping on them and pedaling, they peter out eventually and fall down, dissolving back into the nothingness from which they arose. As it says in the Sadhana of Mahamudra, "Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish like the imprint of a bird in the sky." (This line has become something of a mantra for me, and I find it's worth memorizing and repeating frequently.)

FOURTH, raise your gaze completely so that you are looking out at the horizon (or, if you're feeling daring, even a little above the horizon, into open space). While maintaining an awareness of body, of feelings and sensations experienced as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral, and of thoughts and emotions passing through the mind, expand your awareness outwards to include all the "dharmas" of phenomenal experience: sights, sounds, smells, and so on. Simply be present in your environment with a relaxed, all-encompassing awareness that embraces whatever is happening in your surroundings. This is the fourth foundation, Mindfulness of Dharmas. Gradually the distinction between internal and external experience begins to blur and dissolve, and mindfulness-awareness becomes open, spacious and relaxed.

Instead of calling these the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which sounds very linear and hierarchical, I prefer to think of them as Four Circles of Mindfulness, with each circle building out upon the previous one, extending mindfulness outward through concentric circles of increasingly expansive awareness. You can picture them like a radar screen, starting with the innermost circle of body, the second circle of feelings, the third circle of mind, and the fourth circle of dharmas. Mindfulness-awareness becomes like the sweeping arm of the radar, scanning each of these concentric circles and noticing when a new blip appears somewhere on the screen: an itch or a sensation experienced in the body as unpleasant, a new thought that emerges into awareness and passes through the territory of conscious mind.

Sometimes a blip will seem to appear in one area and cross over into another: someone sneezes in the shrine room and it startles you (unpleasant), and then you begin to actively think about sneezes and germs, then you begin to feel anxiety and fear about getting sick. At that point you've basically lost the thread -- no problem, simply come back and start again at the innermost circle, mindfulness of body, and work your way back out.

I think of this practice as being somewhat like the Shambhala practice of invoking Windhorse, for those who are familiar with that set of teachings. It's a way of dispelling the various layers of resistance and obstacles to being present, and invoking a sense of confident, self-existing awareness and presence that embraces all the various layers of our experience. Applying these circles of mindfulness doesn't need to take very long -- you can spend as much time as you want or feel that you need to in each circle, but running through the sequence doesn't need to take more than a few minutes, or even half a minute once you get the hang of it. Gradually it becomes a less sequential exercise as you develop a thread of awareness that runs across all four circles.

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