Some questions and answers from a recent retreat.

Just a few of the questions from the Beautiful Mind retreat held online over New Year 2020.

Could you sum up, if possible, in three main points what you’d like us to take away from the retreat to help us deepen our practice of mindfulness.

My rather active mind kept coming up with different groupings of 3 main points. There were these three points but then there were also these three points but in the end I settled on these three!

  1. The importance of recognising that we can be aware of anything and at anytime. That awareness is always available, if we remember. In a sense this is already more than one point. We can be aware of anything – and awareness is always available. And, part of the same point, is that mindfulness always has an effect on the quality of the mind.  
  2. The second of the three points is to remember to ‘settle back’. If you like, we’re remembering the quality of energy, the quality of effort to use, to settle into being aware. It’s a very simple idea but I think it has quite a big effect. We relax into the present moment, and we relax into awareness.
  3. And then the third thing is Right View. Just checking in with ourselves: how am I relating to experience? And there not being a right answer to this, we’re checking to see where the mind is coming from, what is its point of view? Is the mind relating to what’s happening with this quite strong personal sense? Or is there a lessening of that subjectivity and more objectivity? Right View is always encouraging us to train the ‘dharma lens’, the wisdom perspective – and strengthening that. We learn a particular application of the dharma perspective from this practice but of course we already have a lot of dharma knowledge from our broader practice and our study of the dharma. So in the meditation it’s really just accessing that Right View on a moment to moment basis. We’re recognising the lens through which we’re seeing what’s happening.

Can you say something about the relevance of this practice to our broader training within Triratna, especially Ordination training?

Sangharakshita talked of us needing to ‘watch our minds’ and that’s always useful, referencing back to awareness, referencing back to the importance of mindfulness. And perhaps particularly in daily life practice, we can ask “what is the mind knowing?”. What is the mind knowing? Within a communication with someone or sitting down to eat or answering an email. We can know what the attitude in the mind is towards what’s happening. So all those sort of activities can be known with broader mindfulness.

Again, with spiritual receptivity in relation to the quality of effort or energy used, seeing when we’re using more energy than is needed or is helpful. Being able to settle back. It’s important for all of us within our practice to have an element of ‘Just Sitting’ or more formless practice. And while this Satipatthana practice we’ve been doing is more of a ‘just sitting with bells on’ – that’s sometimes how I describe it, there is a need to balance activity and conceptual understanding, it’s essential also to have an element of receptivity from just sitting type practice.

There are many other relevant area,s but I’ll leave it with these two for now. One useful document is some new guidelines for Ordination training that talk about the need to have ways of working with difficult mental states that arise, and the practice of ‘staying with’ without buying into the emotional state and without supressing it is very useful.

A few days ago, you talked about awareness being impartial, while also having some understanding of what does or does not lead to suffering. You said if you allow what’s arising to arise, at some point, when there’s enough awareness, it will say ‘you don’t need to go there’.

The question is – can awareness lead to skilful mental states spontaneously without going through a choosing process?

This is actually a very big question, because it brings in the whole area of ‘choosing’ and deciding. It brings in the whole area of volition, and to what extent we ever choose or decide. And if what we take to be ‘me’ or ‘myself’ choosing or deciding, if, as the Buddha says, there is a big question mark over that then what is choosing, who is choosing or deciding.

There are different models of mind within the Buddhist tradition and we’ve been working within one on this retreat. Subhuti in his book ‘Mind in Harmony’ and Sangharakshita in ‘Know Your Mind’ are using a very similar model – that of mental factors. Volition, or we could say intention, or that move to action or samskaras or mental formations – whichever word we use – we mostly act through our habitual behaviours. What we think of as our choices are often more inevitable than we might think. Because they’re made on the basis of certain mental factors working in the mind, and they’ve been working in different formations, they line up in different faculties in the mind, in the moment.

We have energy behind our habits and choices, we have volitional energy behind our habits. We also have the present moment, and to the extent we can be aware in the present moment we can influence what happens. It’s often what’s talked about in a slightly different way as the point of freedom, or ‘the gap’.

I almost see it as if you’ve got these little characters in any given moment. You’ve got the character of ‘little greed’ manifesting in the moment, or you’ve got ‘little frustration’ or ‘little aversion’ and you’ve got lots of these characters including ones like a certain amount of calm. And like with the 5 spiritual faculties we’ve been working with and with mindfulness, if it’s present, we have some sense of what is happening with all these characters. So mindfulness is quite influential in the present moment.

So, to relate all this to the question – can mindfulness lead to skilful states spontaneously without going through a choosing process? Well mindfulness is a skilful mental state, so if it’s present, it will have some influence on the moment, but it also depends quite a lot on those historical, habitual mental factors and which of those are also present. Perhaps in the moment in question if you’ve been meditating for a while or you’ve been on retreat, you can feel you’re in a positive mental state, well, there will be a lot of positive mental factors in the mind in that moment. There are skilful factors, including awareness itself which is a skilful mental factor. The presence of awareness leads to the encouraging and prioritizing of those skilful factors in the mind, and takes the mind in a more positive direction without going through a conceptual ‘choosing’ process. Because the orientation of your being in that moment is supported by a preponderance of positive qualities this is influencing whatever decision is made.

As I said, this area of intention is a big one and on a longer retreat, probably an in-person retreat we would address intention more fully and practice with it. The more awareness we have the more, the more kalyana, beautiful qualities of mind the more ‘choice’ we have over following a direction that is in-line with our values.