Lessons from a Satipathhana meditation class: life on the cushion, life off the cushion
… where I list the main lessons and takeaways
(this is a work in progress)
The aim is to live a life ALWAYS in a balance: neither too excited nor too sad, but in between, treading a middle path. Essentially, this means that we go about in life unfazed (dwell independently) with a complete mindfulness of the body (see Ven. Analayo’s work on Satipathhana meditation: this post is derived entirely from his work, and his course, but it may also contain some other pieces).
We often start with a bodily feeling such as a physical pain that triggers an emotion. It could be a mental feeling such as a bad news or an insult. This in turn leads to bodily feeling. It could also be a mental feeling to start with and stays that way, making us sad. Regardless, what happens, there is a connection between body >> feeling >> mental issues and this is a sequence worth discussing. So we start with the body and then we will come back to this theme again.
With the body, we have three points:
- Meditate on the skin, flesh, and bones. — What this means is that, let’s think of sitting on the cushion. We sit in a relaxed manner and then contemplate from toe to head and back from head to toe. First, think of the skin of the body that covers us. Then go a little deeper and start thinking of the flesh inside (the muscles, nerves, and the fat we have). Then we go further deeper and start sensing the bones that form the skeleton. Remember that the skin is the membrane around us that separates us from the outside world, the flesh is the softer parts of the body and the bones is the harder or tougher parts of the body
- Meditate on the elements (earth, water, fire, and wind). — These are the four elements of the universe or outer nature that is ALSO present in our own selves. The earth is anything that is heavy or anything that is solid (think of the bones in the body context). Water is anything that corresponds to the fluid elements. So, outside think of an ocean, a river, a lake. Inside the body we think of tears, saliva, urine that flows out of us and water or other drinks that flow into us. Fire is any movement or sensation of energy that we sense, and wind is also something similar. As we meditate on this inside us and outside of us, within us and without us, we sense that we do not have a self separate from everything outside of us and this realisation is important.
- Meditate on death and decay. — This reminds us that we are not going to last forever, this moment is important, and this breath that I am taking is taking me one breath closer to my death. Like everything else, I will decay and die as well. This is the basis of impermanence to emphasise that nothing lasts forever.
The next two meditations are meditations on feelings and mind. Ven Analayo says in the Satipathhana Sutta that feelings are the connectors between the body and the mind. The following two points are about feelings and mind. There are both internal and external manifestations exactly as we were discussing about the body:
- Meditate on the feelings that arise. — These feelings could be pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Pleasant feelings are the ones that make me happy, unpleasant feelings are the ones that make me sad, and neutral ones are the ones that make me bored. Pay particular attention to the ones that make me bored, as there is a case to go deeper and see what is behind the neutral or no-feelings sensation. The feelings are the gateway between the body and the mind. Feelings are also referred to as Vedanas.
- Meditate on the mind as we go deeper. — This is where we explore in depth as to the origin of the feelings in the mind. Where do the feelings originate? What is the state of the mind that allows the surfacing of the feelings. Part of it could be from the body that leads to the feelings but what lies deeper? There are again three of these: Anger or aversion or a feeling of avoidance. If there is a painful feeling that has arisen because deep down I wanted to avoid something or I was angry about something, or something that hurt me. Lust or sensual desire is something that leads to a pleasant feeling or something that I want to last as long as it can. Then there is the feeling if delusion that dulls me or I do not know how to handle it. At the least, delusion indicates my broken sense of belief or understanding of the world (we will refer to this as Vipallasa).
The next two meditations take off from the mind and we delve deeper into the ‘dharma’ of the world around us and within us. Now that we have meditated on the body and realised that the body may give rise to pain and sufferings and we have then checked in with the feelings and realised that the feelings can be pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral; then we delved deeper into the mental states and realised that we have issues around Anger, sensual pleasure or lust, and delusion that in turn leads to these sensations or feelings, it’s time to delve deeper into what underlies those states of Anger, delusion, and lust as well. We started with the body that is as coarse as it can get, and usually almost the most tangible aspects, then we delved progressively deeper. This is the stage where whether we are on the cushion or off the cushions, we dive into the dharmas of the world that interact with us and lets the arousal of the mental state that in turn lets into the arousal of the feelings and the feelings then map on to the body.
- Meditate on the hindrances. — Hindrances are the opposing forces that manifest in one or more of the five ways: anger or aversion (note that anger is a term we reserve for avoidance, aversion, being angry etc), lust or sensual pleasure (or craving; for instance, the uncontrollable urge to go for an extra serving or an uncontrollable urge to go and kiss someone, etc), sloth and torpor (this is mental sluggishness, laziness, or something similar: real mental tiredness is different; we can be exhausted after prolonged work, this is not it; it refers to plain sleepiness or mental tiredness in the sense that we are otherwise healthy but we do not want to do something, a sense of resistance), fidgetiness or excitement or restlessness (this can manifest in many different ways such as restlessness, or attention deficits, or hyper activities, etc, that we cannot control ourselves and we get agitated), and finally doubt (we are not sure of what we are doing, this is common in on-the-cushion situations, where we question ourselves and say inwardly something like, ‘what’s the point of doing this, get up’ or something similar). What is the present hindrance that I am dealing with? Which one? This is a good way to check the current state of mind
- Meditate on the awakening factors. — This is the real deal as we need to be always in a state of awakening. There are seven of these but basically the pivot is mindfulness: this mindfulness essentially means that we are AWARE CONSTANTLY on the shifting state of mind moment to moment but we are not distracted or we do not put a value judgment on it: non-judgmental moment to moment awareness at every stage on the state of the mind. Now, inevitably, as mindfulness of the body or the feelings or the mind kicks in, it alerts us to one of the two states: a negative state or slowed down state or depressing state, OR a state of excitement or hyperactivity. There are six balancing factors. For slowed down states, the balancing factors are: investigation, energy, and joy. Investigation basically tells us that we will introspect and check in as to what is at the source of this slowness or sagging down, energy is where we spontaneously repeat or refuse to give up again and again investigation process (also referred to as viriya), and joy refers to a VERY subtle sense of deep satisfaction or fulfilment. This brings us back to a stable state. On the other hand, when we are excited, there are three other balancing awakening factors: concentration (basically going back to the states of meditation of the body, feelings, mind, dharmas), tranquility where we see with clarity as to where we are and where we are heading, and equipoise that essentially helps us to ‘let go’ of the state and restores ourselves back.
In the next section, we will use case studies to see how I can put this into real world practice as the world throws challenges at me.