How the Sutta works (Chapter 15)

In the last chapter I described sati as sustained, purposeful attention. I will now explain how it is applied throughout the Sutta. Before I do so, I have to address an uncomfortable issue. The Buddha’s techniques are exquisitely practical, but his values are not ours. Above all, he was a monk with little sympathy for the ‘householder’ life. If you read the Pali Canon texts, it is obvious that seeking Nirvana entails physical seclusion, emotional detachment, a horror of sensuality and an indifference towards the world.

Hardly anyone swallows this original Buddhist formula whole nowadays. It is far too cold and bitter, and the benefits don’t seem to justify the enormous sacrifices involved. This is partly why the Sutta and the original texts are so neglected. Every writer on Buddhism draws lines between what they accept from the tradition and what they don’t, even though they hardly ever admit this. Popular writers often water down the Buddha’s doctrine to homeopathic levels. ‘Nirvana’ gets reduced to ‘happiness’. The Buddha’s take-home message gets summarised as ‘friendliness’ and ‘altruism’. His energetic drive for Enlightenment is replaced by a kind of passive ‘presentism’.

I’m not going to do anything like this. I think that it shows the Buddha far more respect to state his teaching and values as faithfully as possible, even if I (and you, my readers) vehemently disagree with him. The Buddha was a keen, systematic and original thinker and he deserves to be heard in his own tone of voice. Any human being, even a criminal in a law court, deserves this simple courtesy. I find it ironic that I probably explain his views more clearly than many of his most vocal supporters. I’m not a Buddhist, so I disagree with him in many respects, but I do admire him as a philosopher.
In this and later chapters I’ll try to draw the demarcation lines as clearly as possible. It took me several years, but I now find it fairly easy to separate his mind-training methods from his beliefs and goals. I will particularly highlight where our paths and purposes diverge from his.

Continuous mindfulness

The Satipatthana Sutta is a DIY training manual. It is designed to help an itinerant monk develop the habit of continuous self-observation in the pursuit of Enlightenment. As is obvious in the Sutta, seated meditation was only part of his practice. The monk may have spent less than half his waking day sitting down. He didn’t need to be ‘meditating’ to be mindful. His real discipline was to focus inwardly and to cultivate his mind in every situation.

The Buddha divided the objects of attention into four general groups: the body, emotions, states of mind and thought. Each of these has subdivisions, and we could always add others if we wanted to, such as ‘Mindfulness of Action’. Regardless of the object, the act of focusing always has a similar quality. We ‘hold the object in mind’. We hold it ‘distinct’ from related matters and potential distractions. When we focus well, something clicks into place. We know that we’ve got it. We sense it in sufficient detail to evaluate it more accurately and confidently than we did at first.

All this is true whether the object remains in consciousness for a few seconds or an hour; whether it is something as exact as a thought, or opaque like a mood; whether it is simple, such as a sound or an itch; or complex, such as a philosophical question or a life choice.

It takes years to become equally proficient across this vast range of mental objects. We may be skilled at focusing on the breath, but to accurately sense a mood or a problem is a different challenge altogether. Nonetheless, the gut-feeling of getting a clear, uncluttered mental representation of something is much the same in all cases.


In earlier chapters, I introduced a technique called ‘Naming the Distraction’. That was just one specific application of the way that ‘naming’ is used in the Sutta. The Buddha said that we are mindful if we can hold any one of the above objects ‘in mind’ and describe it to ourselves (i.e. ‘name’ it). The gold standard of mindfulness is thus the ability to verbally identify the object. This ensures that there is nothing vague or approximate about being mindful. This deliberate use of language guarantees metacognitive awareness. The prominent use of naming throughout the Sutta also gives the lie to those writers who claim that mindfulness is a precognitive and nonverbal kind of perception.

This technique is called ‘naming’ or ‘labelling’ or ‘categorising’ or ‘noting.’ Like the good teacher that he was, the Buddha gave many examples. Here are some from the ‘Mindfulness of the Body’ section.

‘When the monk is breathing in, he knows, “I am breathing in.” When he is breathing out, he knows, “I am breathing out.” When his body is calm, he knows, “This is a calm body.” When he is walking, he knows, “I am walking.” When he is eating, he knows, “I am eating.” ’

Here are some examples from the ‘Mindfulness of Emotion’ section. ‘When the monk experiences a pleasant sensation he knows, “This is pleasant.” ‘When the monk experiences an unpleasant sensation he knows, “This is unpleasant.” When he is angry he knows, “This is anger”.’

Here are some examples from the ‘Mindfulness of States of Mind’ section. When the monk is energetic, he knows, “This is energy.” When his energy is depleted, he knows, “This is lethargy.” When his mind is tranquil, he knows, “This is tranquility.”

The Buddha’s examples of labelling are all short and simple. Naming something is not an invitation to speculate on it. Its purpose is to help ‘hold’ the object for appraisal. When modern meditators name, they typically use just single words: ‘calm, pleasant, anger, pain, confusion.’ This captures the object for just long enough to evaluate it and choose a response. This is usually but not always a non-response (don’t go there), or an acceptance of what can’t be changed (stop fighting it). If the object is particularly useful in the context of your goals and values, you try to boost it. If it is useless or worse, you try to disengage from it.

Meditators nowadays tend to name an object only when they feel it is useful to do so. It is an excellent device for managing distractions, for example. However the almost physical sense of ‘holding’ an object in mind is more important than literally naming it. This is paradoxically reliant on also being firmly grounded in one’s body. As the Buddha says, the monk ‘focuses on the breath in front of himself’. The Buddha regarded body-mind stillness (passaddhi) as indispensable for steady attention and clear evaluation.

We can also hold an object in the form of an image or a feeling once we know how. Using language doesn’t always help. For example, we can consciously grasp a musical phrase so vividly that it lodges in memory for several seconds thereafter, but there is no way to usefully name it.

As a technique, naming has considerable limitations. It is impossible to label more than a fraction of what arises in the mind. Many mental phenomena such as moods, intuitions and reflections are far too subtle to be named. Naming doesn’t help much with tranquility meditation, and some scholars argue that naming can obstruct other faculties such as absorption (samadhi).

However the basic principle stands up very well. The gold standard for mindfulness is that you can briefly describe to yourself what you are doing, thinking or feeling at any moment. You are mindful if you can ‘name’ what is dominant in your mind.

In the Sutta, naming is used to evaluate an object prior to a response. Thus we do respond differently to stimuli according to their importance. We are not trying to freeze them all indiscriminately. We are looking for an appropriate response rather than none at all. For example, the sound of background traffic is easier to handle than a nagging problem with a child. Conversely we might need to sit with a mood of rising sadness or regret for several seconds before it ‘clicks’ into place and we ‘know’ it. Nor is there any need to ruthlessly disengage from an affectionate thought, or a sudden memory that gives us pleasure. We can still focus well on the body and deepen our inner stillness throughout all of this gentle background activity.

In modern Vipassana under the influence of Mahasi Sayadaw, naming is used for a slightly different effect. Mahasi suggests ‘naming’ (twice!) whatever arises at random in the mind as a continuous practice. A meditator might thus name hundreds of different objects in a single session.

This is not the nuanced ‘name, evaluate and respond’ method of the Sutta. It is to ‘name and dismiss’ virtually everything equally, based on the presupposition that nothing at all will be worth attending to. It aims for a far more complete and uncompromising dismissal of cognitive activity and engagement with the world. It targets a universally passive, non-reactive, mirror-like state of mind that is much closer to the Modern Mindfulness (MM) model than that of the Sutta.
The Mahasi, MM and Zen models usually posit a naive duality of mind and matter. If we disengage from matter (i.e. thoughts and sensations), we can return to our original state of ‘Pure Consciousness’ or ‘Bare Attention’ or ‘Emptiness’. Our mind can function like a mirror, seeing things ‘just as they are’, uncontaminated by thought or feeling or memory. I think that this is a scientifically dubious idea and that when people practice this meditation they are actually doing something else altogether.

Nonetheless, both the Mahasi approach and that of the Sutta have the similar effect of slowing us down and discouraging action. Over time, experienced meditators typically shift the bias of their response from over-reactivity towards under-reactivity, from over-arousal to passivity. Through many hours of practice, they set a default of responding no more than necessary to any sensation, thought, emotion or mood. This somewhat defensive but liberating stance is the mental equivalent of their physical immobility.

Within a meditation, this non-reactivity has an immediate payoff. It leads to a peaceful, detached disposition towards whatever arises in consciousness, and the body and mind can become exquisitely still. This body-mind stillness (passaddhi) is the basis for other ideal mindstates described in the Sutta. It supports the bliss of piti, and the contentment and acceptance of sukha. It contributes to states of flow and absorption (samadhi).

This inner stillness finally consolidates as upekkha, usually translated as Equanimity or Serenity. This state of emotional detachment is idealised in Buddhism and that attitude can trickle over into daily life. At its best, it manifests as a kind of calmness under fire, a relaxed, stoic tolerance of inner and outer stressors.

Arising and Passing Away

There is a refrain throughout the Sutta that goes: “He carefully observes how sensations [or emotions, or states of mind or thoughts] arise and pass away, and what causes them to do so. He observes this both in himself and in others.” The Buddha believed that to calmly observe an unhelpful thought or behaviour would diminish its power on the spot, and help to eradicate it in the future. To amplify this effect, he also asks that we notice not just the object, but also how it “arises and passes away”.

For example, we shouldn’t just notice ‘anger.’ We should also notice whether it is increasing or fading away, and store that episode in memory. Over time, this will help us understand the causal factors: what initiates anger and what helps it fade. Similarly, we see what contributes to healthy states of mind, and what helps sustain them.

Another aspect of the Sutta is observing exactly the same phenomena in others: “He observes this both in himself and others.” In other words, the Buddha was a people-watcher! We can learn about the birth and decay of sensations, thoughts, emotions and behaviours by observing the process in others as well as ourselves. This is one reason we read stories, go to movies and gossip: it is educational as well as fun.

A stage-by-stage path

The Foundations of Mindfulness is based on two complementary skills. The first is a ‘procedural’ skill, like riding a bicycle or learning a sport. This is the ability to relax quickly and be calm under all circumstances. This is the subject of the Mindfulness of the Body section of the Sutta and Chapters 1-8 of this book.

The second skill is cognitive, namely ‘attention’. Sati-sampajjana is the ability to consciously focus on and evaluate any body-sensation, action, emotion, state of mind or thought as it happens. The monk was encouraged to develop a keen sense of what was good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, ‘skilful’ or ‘unskilful’ in relation to all the objects of attention.

The four training foundations are like the levels of a pyramid. An ascetic lifestyle supports a calm body which supports a calm mind. This supports the extinguishing of the emotions, which supports the positive mental factors necessary for absorption states (jhana). With these foundations in place, the monk can aspire to deep, sustained thought and profound insight into the nature of life itself. This is why people hope for breakthroughs on retreats when they can become virtual monks for a while. As the first sentence of the Sutta says, the systematic cultivation of mindfulness throughout all four foundations is the only way to achieve Nirvana.

We can read the Sutta in five minutes, but that would miss the point. It is a ‘how to do it’ skill-training manual consisting of thirteen graded exercises. They are based on abilities most adults already have. You and I can always notice and describe any strong sensation, emotion or thought that captures our attention but we rarely train that ability systematically. Consequently, we are unlikely to develop the broad-based, present-time, self-monitoring awareness that leads to a disciplined life and to the absorption states (jhana) that depend on this.

A monk of the Buddha’s day however would have practiced most of those thirteen exercises thousands of times over months and years. He would have become expert in noticing his thoughts, emotions and impulses as they arose on the spot, so improving all his responses. We can do much the same if we want to. It just takes practice, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that focusing on the breath and watching thoughts dispassionately is all there is to know about mindfulness. Those thirteen exercises are systematic and cumulative, and they need to be practiced individually for real accomplishment.

What is this path of training for?

The Sutta has two goals. The first is upekkha which is usually translated as Equanimity or Tranquility. It involves a high degree of emotional and philosophic detachment from the world. Above all, it implies the end of Suffering now and in the future. Upekkha is certainly attainable, and similar ideals are found throughout Western philosophy and early Christianity. Achieving this is the task of the first three foundations of mindfulness: mindfulness of body, emotion and states of mind.

The second goal is Nirvana, which is complete Enlightenment. The monk can only achieve this through profound insight into the Buddha’s theory of Existence. This is the task of the fourth foundation of the Sutta: Mindfulness of Thought.

The Buddha’s philosophy is encapsulated in two straightforward and logically sound formulae. These are the Four Noble Truths and the Three Characteristics of Existence. The first of these is sufficient for Equanimity. The second is the doorway into Enlightenment.

The Four Noble Truths are: Life is suffering. The cause of suffering is desire. Desire can be extinguished. The eightfold path of training extinguishes desire and leads to the end of suffering. The word ‘desire’ in the sentence above is also variously translated as ‘delusion, craving, clinging, lust, attachment or passion’, all of which are canonically acceptable. This formula is often stripped down to: ‘Nothing is worth clinging to.’
The Three Characteristics of Existence are much tougher nuts to crack. They are counterintuitive and pretty grim. The Buddha said we are deluded in thinking that we have individual personalities and that life is basically good, stable and enjoyable. ‘That is not true’, he said, ‘and it is no wonder that you suffer as a result of your delusions.’
The Three Characteristics of Existence are: Impermanence (anicca), Suffering (dukkha) and No-Soul (anatta). His argument goes like this. All things are impermanent. Attachment to what is impermanent is the cause of all suffering. Above all, we suffer because of our attachment to our sense of self, which is also impermanent. The only solution is to renounce the world and our sense of self utterly. By doing so we can weed out the seeds of our evil karma that would otherwise ripen as suffering in this and future lives.

It is hard to regard the Three Characteristics as a coherent argument any longer. Above all, it requires a belief in karma and reincarnation to make any practical sense. If this is our only lifetime, there are far less draconian ways to avoid suffering. In modern Buddhism, the Three Characteristics operate more as a source of mystical ideas, philosophic speculation and mind-games than as a useful guide to behaviour.

Although the Buddha’s techniques are marvellous, it is obvious that his goals are not ours. He was an ascetic who despised all worldly pursuits. Doing nothing, resisting temptation and watching without reacting might make us more peaceful but it is hardly a recipe for an attractive life. Nor is Nirvana, which entails extinguishing all affective responses to the world, a marketable prospect nowadays.

We are bound to use sati and moment-to-moment self-awareness for many purposes that the Buddha himself would despise. Our goals may include stress relief, better health and relationships, sensual enjoyment, clarity of thought, wealth, technical skills, better judgment and decision-making, social virtues such as empathy and love, the acquisition of knowledge or mastery, or the appreciation of beauty and the arts.

This means that our most highly cultivated mindful states may not feel or look particularly Buddhist. Quite the opposite in fact: they won’t necessarily exhibit serenity, detachment and stillness. Excellence in any field can only be achieved with strong, self-monitoring attentional skills. Athletes, judges and connoisseurs all require well-trained, discriminating awareness. Of course they also make mistakes but who doesn’t? However we can’t say they’re not mindful just because they don’t meditate or profess sympathy for Buddhism.

The Buddha’s techniques can teach us how to drive the vehicle of mindfulness, but we don’t have to adopt his goals. We can go to destinations that are more important to us. Nearly everyone who practices mindfulness does this, whether they admit to it or not.

Chapters 1-8 described the first foundation of the Sutta, Mindfulness of the Body. In coming chapters I will describe the graduate levels: Mindfulness of Emotions, States of Mind and Thought. The Buddha’s instructions are so lucid that it is easy to see where our uses branch out from his. For example, his systematic instructions for dissolving destructive emotions are quite superb, but he says almost nothing about the active cultivation of good ones.

Nonetheless, we can easily use his techniques to amplify and refine emotion rather than extinguish it. His instructions are perfectly clear. Although he would be disgusted with us, we can easily use mindfulness to enhance and refine the pleasure we take for example in family life, music or natural beauty. In the following chapters, I explain what he says about emotions, states of mind and thought, and how we can tailor his techniques to our divergent purposes.

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