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The Radical Inquiry of Buddhist Mindfulness

One of the most prolific and brilliant Buddhist scholars of our generation is the German Theravāda monastic, Ven. Anālayo. His vast research on the texts and doctrines of Early Buddhism has transformed both the academic study of Early Buddhism and the practice of meditation and mindfulness in lineages connected to it, especially Insight Meditation.

His dissertation on Satipaṭṭhāna is the most solid (if dry) commentary on traditional Early Buddhist mindfulness and inquiry around, and his follow-up book comparing the Pāli discourses on Satipaṭṭhāna with their Chinese parallels has assembled the clearest picture scholars have yet proposed around what the historical Buddha may have taught.

And in his latest book exploring the practice of Satipaṭṭhāna meditation, he offers an elegant and precise set of meditations that bend intractably toward the renunciation-based insight the early tradition so beautifully lays out. I’ve been practicing these meditations for some time now and love their directness, simplicity, and uncompromising clarity of vision.

This is a mindfulness practice with its gaze set firmly on insight and liberation. It deconstructs the body and mind in crisp and kind ways, indulging little of the postmodern western conceits to which popular mindfulness has become accustomed, as well as none of the Mahāyāna mysticism that has become embedded in western Theravāda—no Buddha Nature, no Being Here Now, no non-judgmental self-acceptance, no cuteness about how you’re already perfect but just need a bit of work. (You probably need more than a bit. Just saying. I sure do.) This a Buddhism that lays bare the animal body, the elemental body, the death-inevitable body, and the mind that mostly plays out restless, craving-fueled ego habits.

It unfolds as a series of 7 contemplations that take the meditator through all 4 Foundations of Mindfulness, or satipaṭṭhānas:

  1. Anatomy
  2. Elements
  3. Death
  4. Feeling
  5. Mind
  6. Hindrances
  7. Awakening

Ven. Anālayo lays out the practice in this book, and offers guided meditations on the series of practices on the publisher’s website here. He also has a good guided meditation on YouTube here, and one on the Death Contemplations (maraṇasati) here.

We’ll look at each of the practices in turn, week by week through March & April.


Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation 1: Anatomy

Meditation: Body scans as inquiry into the parts of the body, using skin, flesh, and bones as an abbreviated form of the classical list of the 32 Parts. (3.5.19)

Talk: Body mindfulness, ideas, and inquiry. How to think about body parts practice as non-monastics. Also some background to the whole series. (3.5.19)


Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation 2: Elements

Chant: I mostly don’t record the opening chanting we do, but I did this evening. (3.12.19)

Meditation: Continuing with the simple body scan structure, this time sweeping once each for the sensations and core qualities associated withe the Four Great Elements:

  1. Earth: solidity, hardness-softness, pressure. Sensing earth based on the hardness of the skeleton. The body pervaded by earth.
  2. Water: liquidity, cohesion. Sensing earth based on the liquidity of flesh, and the liquids of the body. The body pervaded by water.
  3. Fire: heat-coolness, temperature. Sensing fire based on temperature at the skin. The body pervaded by fire.
  4. Wind: movement. Sensing wind based on the movement of the body with breathing. The body pervaded by wind.

Talk: Mindfulness of the elements. How understanding ourselves as expressions of these universal qualities found in nature opens toward identification with nature, as nature. The insight into selflessness and emptiness. (3.12.19)


Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation 3: Death

Meditation: this one we often do lying down. Sweeping attention through the body to sense its nature as a body, as the elements, then seeing the image of the skeleton, flesh dried up and blown away. This is a simplified version of the sequence of visualizations given in the classical sequence (and you can find a full version of Anālayo guiding the Death Contemplations (maraṇasati) here). Then resting with full-body awareness, and the breath, aware that each in-breath could be one’s last, and each out-breath a letting go. (3.19.19)

Talk: discussion on the implications and experience of the death contemplation. (3.19.19)


Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation 4: Affect

Meditation: starting with basic body scans from the 1st Foundation, then connecting with pleasant-unpleasant-neutral tone in the body. (3.26.19)

Talk: Building on the body practices, and the wisdom reflections they initiate, starting to look at the basis for suffering via the experience of Affect, or vedanā, the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral charge that accompanies every sensory experience. And how these 3 basic affect categories give rise to the 3 great defilements: grasping/lust, aversion/hatred, delusion/ignorance. (3.26.19)


Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation 5: Mind States

Meditation: It was the first week of the month, so I did a meditation on mind states, the 3rd Foundation, but also made it a simple guided meditation on mindfulness of body, mood, and emotional states. (4.2.19)

Talk: Again because there were beginners there, I went back to the beginning of the Satipaṭṭhāna sequence and built up the series from Mindfulness of the Body, but also looped further back to weave in the trauma and cultural preliminaries: safety, sustenance, shelter, medicine; ego structure, etc… So the discussion of the actual 3rd Foundation was skimpy. Maybe I’ll stick with this next week and say more before we go on to the 4th. (4.2.19)

Mind States, continued: Working with the Poisons

Meditation: Establishing the base of embodied awareness. Sensing the whole body in its posture, the breath in the whole body, then the seeds of heart-mind (citta) states, mindfulness of your mood and energy. From this basic check-in, the formal practice of the 3rd Foundation: feeling for the presence or absence of the 3 Defilements: greed, hatred, delusion; and the subtler states of concentration and energy. (4.9.19)

Talk: Working with the Poisons! Sensing not just big emotional greed, hatred, and delusion, but the subtle, water-we-swim-in varieties. This leads into using the 3 as personality types, and how that can help us become aware of our deeper patterns. All of this embedded in the limb of Wise Effort: uplift the wholesome and diminish the unwholesome. Ended with some discussion of greed-hatred-delusion as synonyms for fight-flight-freeze. (4.9.19)


Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation 6: Hindrances

At this point in the series, I’m having this problem where if there are some new people in the sitting group that night, and there usually are a few, I feel like I have to go back to the beginning and give a slam bam version of the whole sequence before I can get on to the topic at hand. This is really slowing down progress through the set, but maybe it’s helpful for folks in their absorption of the material.

So here’s two weeks on the 5 Hindrances, the set of qualities (dhammas) in the 4th Satipaṭṭhāna that are to be seen with clarity and diminished through Wise Effort. The first week talks about them in the context of the whole Satipaṭṭhāna model, and the second on them as Autonomic Nervous System symptoms based in self-protective motor responses to the perception of threat. The second talk ends with the sweetest thing I think I’ve ever said about Doubt, everyone’s least favorite hindrance. (4.16.19 and 4.23.19)

Meditation: Bringing awareness to the whole body, the mind states present, and the hindrances if present. (4.16.19)

Talk: The 5 Hindrances in Satipaṭṭhāna practice, part 1. (4.16.19)

Meditation: Whole body awareness, whole body breath, attention to the pleasant and strategic inattention to the unpleasant as Wise Effort. (4.23.19)

Talk: The 5 Hindrances in Satipaṭṭhāna practice, part 2. (4.23.19)


Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation 7: Factors of Awakening

Meditation: full body breath and presence, then scanning for the 5 Hindrances and 7 Factors. (4.30.19)

The 7 Enlightenment, or Awakening, Factors are the positive counterpart to the list of the Hindrances. This is the Buddha’s list of the qualities that when strong, lead directly to liberation. They come in 3 types: balancing, activating, and deactivating, in that order.

1 that’s all about balanced presence: Mindfulness;
3 good kinds of activation: Exploration, Energy, Rapture;
3 good kinds of deactivation: Calm, Immersion, Equanimity.

Let’s translate that into Polyvagal language: 1 for ventral vagal connection, 3 for sympathetic action, 3 for dorsal vagal chill.

Talk: the Hindrances and Awakening Factors as nervous system states, how the 7 Factors are a perfect parallel to the primary states in Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. (4.30.19)


Thanks for listening in, folks faraway, and for sending notes saying that these are helpful for you. Blessings in your practices always.

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