Chapter 9 of The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English is titled “Mental States”, and it delves into the specifics from the discourse, where we are instructed to know whether the mind is
- greedy or not greedy
- hate or not hateful
- deluded or not deluded
- contracted or distracted (or not)
- great or narrow
- surpassable or not surpassable
- concentrated or not concentrated
- liberated or not liberated
The Entering the Path class describes this section as “recognition without self-deception”.
Bhikkhu Anālayo it’s just about recognizing – we don’t have to do anything about it at this point. We need to first recognize it. He says,
If as soon as I recognize that I’m angry, I immediately bash it out, and next time I recognize, I immediately bash it out, next time, I won’t recognize it anymore, because I have trained myself in the fact that recognizing any defilement in myself, I’m going to bash myself. It’s a negative experience. …
We have to learn, first of all, to simply be aware of a defilement in the mind and accept that condition. It doesn’t mean that we want to be angry or try to encourage it. It just means we are training ourselves in honest recognition. …
If we lose this element of honest recognition, we start to deceive ourselves and expend a tremendous amount of energy rationalizing, explaining it away, or worse, turning it back on ourselves with self-criticism.
This moment of simple recognition is the basis from which we can get out of unskillful states. Just holding it is the task of mindfulness.
In a talk from the Essential Buddhist Teachings course, Mark Coleman suggests using the phrase “is like this”, e.g. “Anger is like this. Greed is like this.” This is a way to notice what’s happening without getting caught in the story.
Anālayo also reminds us that the instructions say to know when the mind is not in unskillful states. We don’t want to only notice when there is greed, hatred, and delusion, but also when these states are not in the mind. What does it feel when anger is not in the mind? Anālayo calls this “a foretaste of liberation”.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem So Much Happiness describes how this can be difficult to do:
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records . . .
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.
As an exercise, at the end of the day make an inventory of as many unskillful and skillful states as you can remember. For the times when unskillful states were not present, how did that feel in the body, heart, and mind?
I welcome you to share your reflections in the comments, or send me an email.
With best wishes,