Looking At Mind: Meditations on That Which Knows

Looking At Mind: Meditations on That Which Knows

May I respectfully remind you
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes quickly
And opportunity is lost.
Awaken!  Awaken!  Take heed!
Do not squander your life.

A Zen Chant


This is a collection of practices aimed at discovering the nature of mind.  In the Buddhist Theravada tradition, there is considerable emphasis placed on the practice of insight meditation according to the four foundations of mindfulness.  These are body, feelings, mind, and dhammas. I have observed that most practitioners I know neglect the foundation of mind, perhaps because it is seen as too difficult or because its importance is not fully appreciated.  In my own practice, on the other hand, meditation on mind has become of primary importance, and I feel it to be one of the most revealing of all practices.

What I have attempted to set down here is both a discussion of several known Buddhist contemplations on mind, as well as adaptations and some methods that have organically emerged from own practice.  My objective is primarily to share with you some things that have been helpful to me, not to represent what I think is necessarily the “best” way to practice contemplation of mind.   

Finally, I would like to acknowledge that any errors in interpretation or presentation of the Buddha Dhamma are completely my own.  Rather, this is an invitation to experiment and see for yourself if you might find your own ways to sense the presence of mind so that it is a living experience, a comfort and a refuge.  

First Things About Meditation

First, it is important to know that any kind of meditation must be learned from a point of innocence.   This involves accepting that I do not know how any particular meditation is going to turn out or how the mind is going to present itself.  This starting point of innocence, when further cultivated, can lead to a fresh and sincere curiosity and acceptance. 

With insight or mindfulness meditation, one expands the range of attention to include the full context of what is being experienced.  If concentration practice is a vertical process in which there is a diving into the object, so to speak, then mindfulness practice is a more horizontal approach with a wider scope of attention.  In concentration practice there is a unification of mind, a lessening of sensory input, and a slowing or stopping of time.  In insight practice, one sees the multi-fold aspect of experience as it flows in time and is conditioned by the senses.  One gets to see not necessarily new things, but things anew.  In addition, the sense of “thingness” may evaporate completely such that nothing comes into view as a thing separate from its context.

For the purpose of looking at the mind (“cittanupassana” in the ancient Pali language) according to the Satipatthana Sutta, I advocate blending the instructions with an heuristic approach.  With this additional feature, the important question becomes, “What is the experience of….”.   This heuristic approach to Satipatthana cittanupassana can apply conventional technique but also bring mindfulness to your direct experience from the inside, so to speak.  In this way, you may practice without a great deal of conceptual overlay and goal orientation.  Such an approach can be helpful in learning how the experiences of suffering, greed, anger, and delusion fundamentally are for you. This will be discussed in greater detail in the sections below.

Knowing Suffering

Most of our really painful suffering occurs in the mind.  It is the mind that we need to understand.  How does mind work, and what is its relationship to a sense of self?  We start learning about mind by first learning about suffering.

We are, each of us, quite frightened to be here in this bewildering world.  We are afraid of our past, we are afraid of the future, and we are most afraid of the present in which we suffer.  Furthermore, it is difficult, in fact terrifying, to acknowledge just how frightened we are!  Yet one of the gifts of Buddhadharma is the understanding that what we fear is merely what we have made solid for ourselves.  We come to see that what we have somehow imagined to be solid things flowing through time are actually no things at all, leaving only the flow itself.  And, of course, this is the same with regard to the no thing we call “I”.  

There is suffering in this world, and a good deal of it.  However, this does not mean that suffering predominates in every moment, since suffering is impermanent like every other phenomenon.  Indeed, momentary awakening, which is a temporary relief from suffering that occurs daily throughout our lives, is to be appreciated for what it is.  Yet awakening momentarily with a mind free of suffering is not nearly as difficult as stabilizing the experience throughout the day, which is the real work of dharma practice.  

Yes, there is an end to suffering! This is the good news, and the Buddha’s message was especially focused on this fact.  Buddhadharma, then, is not some kind of nihilistic teaching about how awful things have to be, but rather just the opposite.  The Buddha insists that there can be freedom from suffering, and that this can be reached by anyone, regardless of outward circumstances.

Putting an end to suffering requires that we stop being passive recipients of it, that we take active steps toward our liberation.  And we need to do this all while being exhausted, even nauseated, from the circular and seemingly endless patterns of suffering that confront us and in which we engage. The Buddha points out the trailhead, but we have to do the hike.

The first thing, sometimes the only thing, that is needed in order to dispel suffering in any  moment is merely to recognize it.  Yet sometimes this can be so painful to do because we are often already off-balance and stumbling from the pain that is coming at us.  Under these circumstances it is indeed a wonder that it ever happens at all!

In order to begin to free ourselves, we learn to look at our suffering in a particular way, especially seeing its impermanence as a reflection of the insubstantiality of all phenomena.  The fragility of phenomena is not just a curiosity or a quirk of our world but rather the very fact of our lives, the basis for how things really are.  Looking without turning away, we realize that no thing, including the “I”, can establish itself within the stream of time.  And when we see this clearly and directly, we take this fact to be enough for us.  After the initial shock of this revelation, insubstantiality then can become not a prison but rather an important key to our liberation, even something quite beautiful in its own way.  As we observe the instability of all phenomena we experience firsthand how they cannot serve as a lasting source of happiness.  We have been looking for peace in all the wrong places.

The direct seeing of the instability of all phenomena as they pass through awareness clearly reveals not only that nothing can be held onto but that it is painful and even reckless of us to habitually try to do so.  Ignorance can be seen as the unwillingness, out of fear, to look directly at impermanence and how we cling.  First, there is the fear of looking; then there is the fear evoked by seeing the flow for what it is; and finally there is the liberation from this form of debilitating fear!  At this point we have stopped trivializing our lives, endlessly seeking out various forms of entertainment for the purpose of distraction and emotional numbing.

In the practice of contemplating suffering, it is skillful to simply note its presence or absence.    This can actually be done at any time during the day and in virtually any activity.  You may ask, “Am I suffering right now? What is the experience of suffering for me such that I can describe it to myself?   And how does this description fall short of the actual experience?  This approach adds dimension to our inquiry and is a way of getting at direct seeing without undue reliance on concepts.  I’ll say more about this later.

Postures of Mind 

We tend to assume that the mind is the abode of the “I”, the one who knows, thinks and directs our experience.  Nevertheless, we rarely feel its presence in a direct way.  Instead, we look outwards and see only appearances.   Yet all of our most painful experiences of suffering originate and are perpetuated in the mind.  

Mind precedes thoughts, mind is their chief, their quality is made by mind,
if with a base mind one speaks or acts,
through that suffering follows him like a wheel follows the ox’s foot.
Mind precedes thoughts, mind is their chief, their quality is made by mind,
if with pure mind one speaks or acts,
through that happiness follows him like a shadow which does not depart

Dhammapada 1, 2, translated by Bhikkhu Anandajoti

Identification with Mind

If we do not establish a practice of looking directly at mind, we will tend to unknowingly identify with it or with the brain that we believe produces it. I have sometimes gone through a practice of imagined removal of parts of the body, one by one, with a gathering of meditators.  When asked to what extent the remaining body husk still feels like theirs or who they are, almost always it is the removal of the brain that causes the sense of greatest loss of identification and ownership.  This is, of course, mainly due to the notion in most people that the brain is where the mind is housed.  Whether or not this is true is perhaps a matter for debate, but the point is that mind is where most people feel they live.  

Satipatthana Contemplation of Mind  

Now, the most basic and perhaps direct way to look at the mind in the Theravada tradition comes directly from the Satipatthana sutta:  

  • And how does a mendicant meditate observing an aspect of the mind?,
  • It’s when a mendicant knows mind with greed as ‘mind with greed,’ and mind without greed as ‘mind without greed.’ They know mind with hate as ‘mind with hate,’ and mind without hate as ‘mind without hate.’ They know mind with delusion as ‘mind with delusion,’ and mind without delusion as ‘mind without delusion.’ They know constricted mind as ‘constricted mind,’ and scattered mind as ‘scattered mind.’ They know expansive mind as ‘expansive mind,’ and unexpansive mind as ‘unexpansive mind.’ They know mind that is not supreme as ‘mind that is not supreme,’ and mind that is supreme as ‘mind that is supreme.’ They know mind immersed in samādhi as ‘mind immersed in samādhi,’ and mind not immersed in samādhi as ‘mind not immersed in samādhi.’ They know freed mind as ‘freed mind,’ and unfreed mind as ‘unfreed mind.’ 
  • And so they meditate observing an aspect of the mind internally, externally, and both internally and externally. They meditate observing the mind as liable to originate, as liable to vanish, and as liable to both originate and vanish. Or mindfulness is established that the mind exists, to the extent necessary for knowledge and mindfulness. They meditate independent, not grasping at anything in the world.             
  • That’s how a mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of the mind. 

Satipatthana Sutta,  Majhima Nikaya 10.3,  translated by Ajahn Sujato

The above sutta points to what I call “postures of mind”.  I call them postures to differentiate them from a deeper, background part of mind that simply knows and does not express itself in any other way.  Neverthless, we may come to understand that even this mind is impermanent and does not constitute a self in any way. 

In my own practice of cittanupassana, I often start (and sometimes end) here.  The most powerful parts of this meditation tend to be the noting of the presence or absence of greed, hatred and delusion.  Working primarily with these energies has the advantage that they are easy to remember and relatively easy to check during meditation.  Each of these requires a bit of explanation, which we will cover in discussions below.

Just working with these three mind states is sufficient to see that mind is not so much a camera that reliably records what is “out there”.  Rather, mind sees through filters and textures of its own making.  There is nothing objective about mind at all!  As in the above instructions from the Buddha, mind is understood as “mind with greed”, for example.  It is not as a thing in itself but rather a series of impressions dependent on countless influences, all rising and falling together.  With such view of this complex dance, we become much less likely to reify mind or make it “mine”. 

If present, any of these will then become the lens through which we experience. If we find they are not present, we rest right there!  What is the experience of freedom from these painful energies?

A Practice

Now I would like to describe one of the main practices to which I have gravitated when I want to look at mind during sitting practice.  

Establish mindfulness of the breath either at the tip of the nose or the diaphragm.  Eyes are either closed or partially open with a soft gaze.  Stay with the breath until something pulls the attention away.  If the distraction is either a sound, sight, sensation in the body, or a thought, notice the reaction of the mind to it.  And here is the key: pay more attention to the reaction in the mind than to the distracting object itself.  

As we saw in the Dhammapada quote above, mind precedes thought. If the distraction is specifically a thought, we ask which mind state the thought came from.  Was it born of greed, aversion, or delusion?  Often, mental distractions come from one of these three, don’t they?  If the thought comes from greed, it may be tinged with various forms of wanting, craving, and clinging.  If it comes from aversion it may bear a degree of pushing away of experience, ranging perhaps from boredom to outright ill will.  And if it comes from delusion, it will likely be colored with forms of confusion, restlessness, worry and doubt.  

Finally, whatever distraction arises to pull attention away from the breath, know it to be impermanent. See it for yourself and return with gratitude to the breath.  The distraction has performed its function as a potential object of awakening! 

As an alternative, you may simply carry on with your normal practice while periodically checking in on the state of the mind with regard to greed, aversion and delusion, unrelated to any distractions that may occur.  Also, please know that these three energies can express themselves in very subtle ways.  Simply look, then look again.

What is the experience of greed?

This takes a little unpacking.  Nobody can tell you what your own personal experience is in relation to these states.  So to understand for yourself the experience of these three mind states beyond a purely conceptual view, you need to really look closely at how they present themselves in a very basic way.  

As discussed above, the experience of mind with greed is different for every person, but often there will be a sense of urgency to have, to control.  Time may speed up or it may in any case be a prominent component of experience.  Because mind wishes to own what it wants, you may notice a pronounced sense of self who would be the owner, yet an owner who simultaneously feels somewhat unsure of its ability to do so.  There can be both an urgency as well as a sense of inadequacy.

As the “I” is strongly felt in the experience of greed, there will also be accompanying stories in which the I is essentially the center of the felt universe, with all of its needs being primary.  The I will even argue that it deserves and needs the object of its desire and may make the object into a kind of fetish, giving it imagined magical powers such as the power to make everything safe and knowable.  

Greed is considered an unwholesome state in the teachings of the Buddha because it leads to suffering, not because it is sinful or some kind of moral failing.  This is very important to understand.  Greed is not a sin!  It is simply a mistake to continue to act it out in the same old habitual ways we have gravitated to. 

What is the experience of aversion or anger?

Next, let’s ask, “What does mind feel like when hatred or anger is present”?   Often, anger has the feeling of extreme agitation in the mind.  Sense of a self comes forth strongly, and although it is surely an illusion, a self appears to be generating the thoughts as well as the intention to strike out or otherwise manipulate the object.  In addition, the sensation of separation between subject and object snaps firmly into place.  In the case of anger you can actually see this happen, whereas with greed one may not be so fully aware of the subject/object split.  

As with greed, there is a flurry of thoughts about why the anger is justified and how its strategies are to be carried out.  Hatred or anger, as experienced in the body, usually comes through as heat, tension, and quickness of action.

And here again, as with greed, it is important to remember that anger is not a moral failing, just unwholesome in the sense that it causes suffering.  Anger is not a sin.

What is the experience of delusion?

Then what is the feeling of delusion (ignorance)?

In the context of cittanupassana, delusion is the unwillingness to look directly at impermanence as well as the belief that a self is receiving the various sense impressions and producing the greed and anger (among other phenomena).  It also includes the belief that there is a self that inhabits and owns the mind.  Mind appears to be mine, and all mental phenomena seem to come from it, generally felt as located in the head.  In addition, mind with delusion wanders around so much that it is unable to rest in its own experience.

So the primary experience of delusion is the appearance of a self to which all experience is referred.  I find a good way to investigate this form of delusion is to go through the so-called “aggregates” (the parts or characteristics of a human being according to the Buddha) put forth in the Anattalakkhana Sutta.   When one goes looking for the self, all that is found is the collection of aggregates, including consciousness itself:

The Characteristic of Not-Self 

At one time the Buddha was staying near Benares, in the deer park at Isipatana. There the Buddha addressed the group of five mendicants: 


“Venerable sir,” they replied. The Buddha said this: 

“Mendicants, form is not-self. For if form were self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction. And you could compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’ But because form is not-self, it leads to affliction. And you can’t compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’ 

Feeling is not-self … 

Perception is not-self …

Choices are not-self … 

Consciousness is not-self. For if consciousness were self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction. And you could compel consciousness: ‘May my consciousness be like this! May it not be like that!’ But because consciousness is not-self, it leads to affliction. And you can’t compel consciousness: ‘May my consciousness be like this! May it not be like that!’ 

What do you think, mendicants? Is form permanent or impermanent?” 

“Impermanent, sir.” 

“But if it’s impermanent, is it suffering or happiness?” 

“Suffering, sir.” 

“But if it’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?” 

“No, sir.” 

“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?” … 

“Is perception permanent or impermanent?” … 

“Are choices permanent or impermanent?” … 

“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” 

“Impermanent, sir.” 

“But if it’s impermanent, is it suffering or happiness?” 

“Suffering, sir.” 

“But if it’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?” 

“No, sir.” 

“So you should truly see any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all form—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’

Any kind of feeling at all … 

Any kind of perception at all … 

Any kind of choices at all … 

You should truly see any kind of consciousness at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all consciousness—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ 

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness. Being disillusioned, desire fades away. When desire fades away they’re freed. When they’re freed, they know they’re freed. 

They understand: ‘Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.’” 

That is what the Buddha said. Satisfied, the group of five mendicants were happy with what the Buddha said. And while this discourse was being spoken, the minds of the group of five mendicants were freed from defilements by not grasping. 

Anattalakkhana Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 22.59,  translated by Bhikkhu Sujato

Another related description of delusion is that it is ignorance of conditionality such that things seem to be completely independent of other phenomena for their identity.  This constitutes a belief in the thing-in-itself, which from the Buddhist perspective is a faulty habit of mind because it ignores the vast web of conditionality from which each and every appearance is born and on which it is dependent.  

The final form of delusion I would like to discuss is that of mental proliferation.  One might say that there are two patterns of thinking that occur in the mind.  The first pattern of thinking is one that appears to be generated from within and which leads to a further proliferation of mental events.  It is something that I produce.  Because of this, it also seems to be loaded with meaning.  If I sit down to think about something, I do so in order to understand my world as a place that makes sense and has order.  The proliferation itself is referred to in Pali as “papanca”.  Yet papanca is a form of delusion insofar as we believe there to be an independent and abiding self which formulates the intention to think and then carries out the thinking.  

Taken in by such confusion, we lose sight of a thought’s inclination toward “vanishing” as described above, a disappearance over which the I has absolutely no control. If thoughts can slip over the horizon of awareness even when we would like to retain them, what sort of control does the I really have over the thinking process?  In addition, the I itself is constantly in a state of flux, arising and vanishing momentarily of its own accord!

The second pattern is a kind of thought that appears to be a random event.  It is a thought that “just comes to us”.  We didn’t order it, and it seemingly just appears on its own. It is seen as something that is presented at the doorstep of the self.  It is this form of thought that especially presents a deep and abiding mystery, naturally leading to the question, “Who, then, owns this thought and this mind”?

Liable to originate, liable to vanish

After having noted the presence or absence of greed, anger, and delusion, we undertake looking at them in a particular way, according to the Satipatthana Sutta.  We turn to seeing the mind as “liable to originate, as liable to vanish, and as liable to both originate to originate and vanish”.  This points out the impermanence of mind, rendering it as “no thing” rather than a thing held “back here”, separate from the flow of experience.  And this leads the practitioner to an open gate, which if entered with sincerity and effort is onward leading to liberation and an  enduring peace.  

The vanishing of a thought, just like its origination, happens completely on its own terms.  What sort of control did the I ever have with regard to this process?  The thought is already gone and did not ask for permission to leave nor announce its pending departure. I happens like poof! The I, then, is revealed as almost completely ineffectual.  No wonder it has always felt vulnerable, alone, incompetent!  Yet lovingkindness, compassion, joy for another’s happiness, and equanimity can all blossom from this sense of vulnerability if attention can be turned toward the mind that is not involved in greed, aversion or delusion at all!   Fortunately, awareness of this mind is definitely within our reach.


Here is a next step, should you wish to take it.  I have, on occasion, helped people with this in a group setting.  The basic technique, in this case, is to keep inquiring about what is the experience of each phenomenon that predominates in your experience.  Let’s take the experience of greed as an example.   When asked, a meditator may say that greed has a feeling of heat, or stickiness, or some other subjective description.  The questioner keeps going with this, asking about other ways in which greed presents itself in the mind.  The questioner may then ask what the experience of stickiness or heat really is at a primal level.  At some point, the responder will run out of ways to describe her experience.  

By running out of concepts and categories with which to describe her experience, she finds herself looking directly at the unexpressed elemental nature of mind itself, a crystal clear knowing.  At this point, she has reached the limits of language and concept and has directly seen the incomprehensibility of all experience!  Here is awe, joy, and freedom.

This process reveals how important it is to look beneath our learned conventional perceptions.  Looking a little deeper, we see the truth of our experience.  Even though we often would like to share our experience with others, in doing so we are always describing our surface perceptions.  Conventional perceptions are created by the mind, consisting of no more than constructed superficial designations and aided by memory. If we look beneath them, we come closer to the world as it really is for us. 

It is simple and very fruitful to be one’s own questioner.  It works in the same way as with questioning another person.  Just keep asking yourself to attempt to pin down your experience by the use of concept, in the way described, ultimately seeing its futility. Try it and see for yourself what happens!

Liberation by Contemplating Feelings / Liberation by Contemplating Mind

Contemplation of feelings (simply that which is experienced as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral), is important to satipatthana meditation in that it reveals how we get pushed around by unattended mental events.  If unattended, feelings lead to difficult mind states we have been discussing above. However, even if this does occur, when the yogi is assaulted by craving, anger, or confusion she can come to know that these states have arisen dependent on feeling and that they map perfectly to each other.  Craving arises dependent on pleasant feeling; anger or aversion arises dependent on unpleasant feeling; and delusion arises dependent on neutral feeling.  

It is a wonderful practice to follow craving backward in time and see that it has arisen dependent on pleasant feeling.  Such practice can be an illuminating part of contemplation of mind in that it reveals the simple fact that mind states do not just arise out of nowhere.  They are not independent of the web of causation in which they exist and, in that sense, are not autonomous forces.  Instead, we see very clearly that these mind states are not conspiratorial enemies of our peace but have come naturally from simpler events, such as feelings, to which we have not attended.  In a sense, feelings drive the whole show.  And while contemplation of feelings is an entire practice of its own, it also has deep ramifications with respect to cittanupassana.  

In the case of both feelings and more developed mind states, it is very important to understand that they need to be brought onto the path.  When I am relatively happy, that experience is brought onto the dharma path and likewise, when I am unhappy that is also brought to the path.  Otherwise, when I am happy I might feel that dharma practice has been successful and I can simply lie back and enjoy the happiness without the dharma path.  Or, when I am unhappy I may not even remember the possibility of attending to it in the context of dharma and may feel overwhelmed by life.  Therefore, in both “good” times and “bad”, I practice with what is presented.  Otherwise, there may never be time for practice!

Finally, let me repeat something I have already said, which is that it is extremely important to  know when greed, anger and delusion are absent from the mind stream.  When we see this to be the case, we should notice the feeling of partial freedom from suffering.  What is the experience of such release?  It happens for each of us many times over the course of a day!  Why have I not noticed it before?  Let us not overlook such experiences, especially since when they can be stabilized they will reliably form the basis for a more lasting freedom. 

At the center of all movement is stillness.
All states of body and mind are in natural motion
But at the center, with no extension in time or space
Is only peace. 

Look Directly At The Knowing (Mind)

We now turn to a practice of directly sensing the knowing process.  In what has been summarized so far, we have noted, in accordance with the Satipatthana Sutta, whether or not greed, aversion and delusion are present and then have simply assigned those states to the conceptual category of “mind”.   We say, “Oh yes, that is mind”.  But in doing so, are we really feeling the presence of mind?     

What if we were able to actually sense the presence of knowing?   That would make all the difference, wouldn’t it?  As it turns out, we can indeed become aware of the presence of mind that is of a different nature from its objects.  As soon as I am aware of hearing, for example, then I know there is something that is hearing.  And this something that knows hearing is mind. 

Because we have a natural tendency to think of awareness as coming from the head, when the presence of awareness is first perceived it may seem that it resides in the area around the head or somewhere behind it.  And it may seem that the awareness is looking outward toward that which is in front of the body.  If this is how it is most strongly perceived, that is fine.  Simply stay with it for as long as possible.  From this perspective, it may be helpful to conceive of looking at mind as a looking backward instead of forward into the world.  Simply turn the attention around toward the perceiver, as if turning around in a movie theater to see the projector behind you.  Eventually, the location of this awareness will be called into question the more we practice.  But for now, any way in which this awareness can be perceived is good.

As we look at mind, we eventually see that is not to be thought of as a thing, but rather as the process of knowing.  It is a very mysterious phenomenon.  What really is it?  How does it happen that anything at all can be sensed?  And what does it mean to become aware of something?  I believe these kinds of questions should be asked with sincerity and without the insistence on arriving at a definitive, conceptual answer.  Instead, we can let such questions point out the depth of the mystery of knowing.  It is good to practice with a sense of wonder.

Even very experienced meditators may believe that a practice aimed at directly sensing the presence of knowing mind is just too difficult.  Please know that such practice is possible and completely within our reach.  Bringing attention to both subject and object, one can direct attention selectively to the knowing itself.  Mind that knows has been your reliable companion all of your life, arising whenever you have become vividly aware of your own experience. 

To begin with, soften your attention on an object.  Any object will do.  Then, with softened attention on the object, turn your awareness toward the subject, which is the knowing mind.  Don’t try too hard.  That which knows seeing and hearing can actually be “felt”, so to speak.  And once you feel it, you cannot unlearn the feel of it.  Sometimes it is most readily felt  when engaging in an activity like walking.  Just walk along naturally, aware of either that which is seen or heard.  In a moment when a sound or a sight is seen or heard, soften the attention on the object and then simply sense the presence of the mind that knows seeing or hearing as it occurs. 

For some people, mind may be easier to sense when noting hearing.  Simply know that hearing is occurring and then draw attention to that which knows the hearing.  If you are walking, there may be a sound such as a bird singing, for example.  As soon as the mind picks up the sound and knows it, become aware of the knowing itself.  For some people, this may be easier with hearing as opposed to seeing because hearing is generally experienced as a more passive sensory mode.  Because of this, the mind that knows hearing may adhere less strongly to its object.  

Or perhaps know the sensations of the body as it moves, such as the feeling of air on your face or the contact of the feet with the ground. For some of us, these sensations of touch on the body can be of lesser strength than seeing and hearing, making it less likely that the sensory object will overpower the mind that knows it.  

As you note events in the world, look softly at them, thereby making it easier to see the subject that knows.  This practice should be maintained throughout the day as much as possible.  With continuous practice mind simply becomes aware that it is aware.  With reduced attention on the sense object itself, one also notes what happens with the sense of identification with the object.  Is it likewise weakened? 

There is a practice in the Girimananda Sutta that I find to be very helpful in this respect.  Normally, for most of us, there is unconscious identification with sense objects.  As this occurs, the I acts as if glued to the objects that come into its field of awareness.  

In the following excerpt, the Buddha recommends a practice to relinquish that sense of self as one discerns the process of sensing:

And what is the perception of not-self? It’s when a mendicant has gone to a wilderness, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, and reflects like this: ‘The eye and sights, ear and sounds, nose and smells, tongue and tastes, body and touches, and mind and thoughts are not-self.’ And so they meditate observing not-self in the six interior and exterior sense fields. This is called the perception of not-self.

Anguttara Nikaya 10,  Translated by Bhikkhu Sujato

In this translation, the interior sense fields comprise the capacity for sensing with the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind, while the exterior sense fields are the objects of those sense organs.  

Specific details of outward experience become much less important than the presence of awareness itself.  Also, of course, we must avoid the tendency to strongly identify with the mind.  It is not who we are.

As we look at objects softly, they seem less solid.  The less solid an object is, the more readily we can see how mind co-creates experience.  And the more this co-creation is acknowledged, the more the I starts to feel in unity, inclusion, and peace with its universe.  Here is real healing, real community within the heart.  One looks at the world with less fear and clinging.

Sitting with Breath and Awareness

One way to bring awareness of mind into a sitting practice is start with the breath, staying with it for several minutes.  Notice whether attention to the breath is more or less continuous.  How do you know you are breathing?  Is it the sensation of air at the tip of the nose, the upper lip or the nostrils?  Is it the sensation of rise and fall of the abdomen?  In any case, the way you know you are breathing is that a sensitive part of your body is making contact with a part of the environment through the sense of touch, and this is registering at the sense door of touch as it is met by that particular sense consciousness.  If attention is then brought to this sense door, you know you are breathing.  

This all seems pretty simple and readily confirmed. However, note that there is an awareness that knows you are aware, an awareness that checks in at the sense doors.  This awareness can be discerned through the practice of cittanupassana.    

  1. Bringing awareness to that which knows the breath can be a good way to bring a sense of wonder and openness to your practice.  This involves turning the attention back toward the perceiver, rather than focusing intensely on the object. To do this, first establish strong mindfulness of the breath, both the in breath and out breath.  Once you have established comfort in doing this, bring attention to that which knows the breath in its fullness.  You may feel as if you are looking at nothing, and there may even be discomfort and confusion in looking at that which perceives because it will feel more difficult to “see”, more diffuse and certainly less solid than the breath as an object. 

As you bring more attention to this awareness itself, the attention on the breath will soften further and recede into the background, although there may still be mindfulness of it. You may find that as soon as attention is turned to subject (that which knows), awareness of all else collapses and there is just that which knows.  Rest there.  It is a profound experience.

Now, start over again and note that there is a natural space at the bottom of each outbreath where nothing much is happening.  It can be a place of profound peace and stillness, although this is also where practitioners often lose mindfulness to some extent.  Look directly at the stillness in this space as it presents itself in the natural breathing cycle.  As you do this, you will probably find that there is not much to look at during the bottom of the outbreath.  All you may notice is awareness itself.  Now, bring this new awareness of awareness to the rest of the breathing cycle so that it is with you more continuously.  

Without engaging in intellectual conjecture, simply keep sensing the awareness itself.  You may also do this throughout the day off the cushion as you bring attention to the breath during routine activities.  I find that this practice, over time, brings about a deep sense of letting go of that which is “out there”.  I rest in something which is so close that I previously couldn’t see it.  This is peace.

Giving up a fixed sense of spatial relationships

Vipassana instructions for beginners often set up the experience of an observer “in here” and the observed world “out there”, and although this can initially be a skillful mindset with which to practice, it also over time will seem to confirm the belief that this is fundamentally how the world is with respect to me.  This can lead to a sense that I need to consciously establish a distance from the world so that I can view it from a more detached perspective, and this subtle distancing can itself become another form of suffering.  

To counteract these tendencies, we can choose to practice as follows:  Give up all sense of spatial relationship between observer and observed.  Do not consider the meditator to be “here” and the rest of the world to be “there”.  Simply do not think in spatial terms.  Let the distinction between here and there go completely.  It is just a concept, an unnecessary model, an opinion.  In fact, it is best to completely give up notions of “watching” or “observing” while meditating.  Instead, just let experience pass through.  Experience flows but is not necessarily located in space.  Instead, ride on the flow of experience as you would a wave.  Practicing like this, the mind opens up to a space of clarity, brilliance, and peace.  

Breath and Mind are of different natures

It can be very helpful to notice the very simple fact that breath and mind have different natures.  Seeing this in a sitting can help separate them so as to facilitate then turning attention toward the mind.  When mindfulness is not particularly strong this difference may not even otherwise be noticeable.  Here is how Ajahn Fuang, who was Ajahn Thanissaro’s teacher,  describes this practice:

Once the mind is firmly established in the breath, you then try to separate the mind from its object – from the breath itself.  Focus on this:  The breath is an element, part of the wind element.  Awareness of the breath is something else.  So you’ve got two things that have come together.  Now, when you can separate them – through realizing the breath’s true nature as an element – the mind can stand on its own.  After all, the breath isn’t you, and you aren’t the breath.  When you can separate things in this way, the mind gains power.  It’s set loose from the breath, and is wise to the breath’s every aspect.  

“Awareness Itself”, by Ajahn Fuang Jotiko, compiled and translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November, 2013.  Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Non Commercial 4.0 International License.

This serves as very skillful means for sensing the presence of mind, which in breath meditation is that which is not the wind element.   Ultimately, mind becomes the true refuge.  It is Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, all there in their formless presence.

Directed and Undirected Practice

What about the fact that sometimes objects arising in meditation are so troubling that they overwhelm our ability to directly notice the presence of with that which knows?  There is a little-known sutta that suggests it can be skillful to temporarily turn attention toward a more pleasant object under certain circumstances of bodily or mental distress while practicing with mindfulness.  The temporary balm of bringing attention to a more pleasant object allows the meditator to regain his composure and ability to remain mindful, after which he can resume practice in the way he was previously doing it:

The venerable Ananda arose early one morning, and taking up his robe and bowl approached a certain settlement of nuns, where he sat down on a seat that had been prepared. A number of nuns approached the venerable Ananda, and after greeting him, sat down to one side. So seated, these nuns said this to the venerable Ananda: “There are here, Ananda sir, a number of nuns who abide with minds well established in the four foundations of mindfulness. Their understanding is becoming ever greater and more excellent.”

“So it is, Sisters, so it is!” replied Ananda. “Indeed for anybody, Sisters, whether monk or nun, who abides with a mind well established in the four foundations of mindfulness — it is to be expected that their understanding becomes ever greater and more excellent.”

[Ananda later relates this exchange to the Buddha, who approves of his response and then elaborates:]

Here, Ananda, a monk abides contemplating body as body — ardent, fully aware, mindful — leading away the unhappiness that comes from wanting the things of the world. And for one who is abiding contemplating body as body, a bodily object arises, or bodily distress, or mental sluggishness, that scatters his mind outward. Then the monk should direct his mind to some satisfactory image. When the mind is directed to some satisfactory image, happiness is born. From this happiness, joy is then born. With a joyful mind, the body relaxes. A relaxed body feels content, and the mind of one content becomes concentrated. He then reflects: “The purpose for which I directed my my mind has been accomplished. So now I shall withdraw [directed attention from the image].” He withdraws, and no longer thinks upon or thinks about [the image]. He understands: “I am not thinking upon or thinking about [anything]. Inwardly mindful, I am content.” This is directed meditation.

And what is undirected meditation? Not directing his mind outward, a monk understands: “My mind is not directed outward.” He understands: “Not focused on before or after; free; undirected.” And he understands: “I abide observing body as body — ardent, fully aware, mindful — I am content.” This is undirected meditation.

And so, Ananda, I have taught directed meditation; and I have taught undirected meditation. Whatever is to be done by a teacher with compassion for the welfare of students, that has been done by me out of compassion for you. Here are the roots of trees. Here are empty places. Get down and meditate. Don’t be lazy. Don’t become one who is later remorseful. This is my instruction to you.

Bhikkhunupassaya Sutta (SN 47.10): Directed and Undirected Meditation, translated from the Pali by Andrew Olendzki

Calling in Lovingkindness While Looking At Mind

I often begin a sitting by establishing a level of concentration, followed by simply noting the natural flow of events as presented to the six senses.  I then turn attention to the inclination of the mind, limiting the practice to noting whether greed, hatred, or ignorance are present.  As already discussed, these energies may include  a) any movement to cling to or claim ownership of experience;  b) any movement to push away experience; and c) either unwillingness or indifference to noting impermanence in the flow of events.   As one or more of these mind states are noted, I then sometimes bring in the practice of lovingkindness (“metta” in Pali) for the I that identifies with its experience and yet is particularly fearful of seeing impermanence for what it is. 

The I raises its head from the flow of conscious events and wants to claim control over what is happening, even if it means grabbing onto any flotsam or jetsam that floats by.  It feels itself to be flimsy, and through identification, wants to make itself more solid.  But reification is going in just exactly the wrong direction!   This sense of I is somewhat relieved of that tendency during sitting practice by bringing forth the comfort of lovingkindness, which can allow for a calming of the I’s frantic efforts to become a somebody.

I discovered the power of this meditation one afternoon while receiving an infusion of chemotherapy.  During the infusion I was telling myself, “No problem.  I’ve got this.”  The I was claiming control over the situation and was completely unwilling to acknowledge its own vulnerability.  In its view, it owned the moment.

As I sat in meditation and extended lovingkindness to this self, I noted that the lovingkindness also effortlessly began to spread to others in the room as well as eventually to the entire cancer hospital.  This, it seemed to me, was an opening to an impersonal and timeless mind that included all of us there but which was not generated from a specific source.  Rather, it seemed we were all enveloped and held by the same mind.  

Later, one afternoon, I was offering metta to myself and in one moment it occurred to me to ask the question, “Who or what is offering this metta to myself?”  The offering of metta to myself had always previously felt a little artificial, like a magician’s trick.  Yet immediately as soon as I posed this question, all boundaries between individuals disappeared and I was unable to find anyone who was doing the offering.  It certainly did not seem to be coming from me! There was suddenly the overwhelming presence of a mind that extended without limitation in all directions.  And there I was simply experiencing, but not creating it.  

I have had the same experience many times while meditating with metta since that day.  I often begin the meditation thinking that I am generating lovingkindness for myself and others, but it very quickly turns to an experience of lovingkindness without a center, without someone who is radiating it.  Then when I ask the open question, “Who or what is offering me lovingkindness”?, there again, almost unfailingly, a vast mind opens up.  In those moments, there is only mind in all its “isness”, the only thing that feels truly alive.  I rest in its presence.

I hope this meditation may bring you a measure of happiness, should you decide to try it.  Again, it consists of:

  • Radiating metta to oneself and others
  • Checking to see if it seems the metta has a source (the I) or is centerless
  • Asking, “Who or what is offering metta to myself?”
  • Resting in the resulting experience

Seeing the Broad Extent of Mind at the Sense Doors

As we have discussed, sense consciousness arises spontaneously upon introduction of an object to be sensed.  And in addition, there is a mind that knows that such consciousness is occurring at each sense door.  One way that I find helpful in bringing  this knowing mind out is to become aware of the arising of sense consciousness at each  sense door.  During a sitting, simply check in with the sense of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, and mind events as they are occurring.  It might be necessary at first to move slowly from one door to the next, but this process can later be sped up.  

The reason this is helpful is that you can readily see first-hand the function of this knowing mind. It has an overall view of what is going on at the sense doors, whereas individual sense consciousness events do not talk to each other.  Unlike the knowing mind, they do not have a broad intelligence, but instead are rather like motion detectors.

Simply sit and bring attention to each sense door, noting the mind that is knowing the entire array of senses.  There are many levels of mind.

Twilight Practice

It is also a wonderful practice to bring mindfulness to the breath as one is entering twilight sleep.  With practice, it is possible to remain for longer periods of time in the twilight state before sleep, where it is easier to see the presence of mind because objects are less stable and overpowering.  This is done simply by letting go of the breath and noticing mind as it reveals itself and comes to the forefront.  Simply rest in the experience, watching how delightfully mind expresses itself in the form of twinkling lights, luminous forms, faces, spiritual symbols, and so forth.  This is the mind at play!

And So…….

We have practiced noticing the various energies running through the mind, looking especially at  the presence or absence of greed, aversion, and delusion.  We have done this in order to get a better understanding of our inner environment and the ways in which these energies color our experience.

And second, we have practiced looking directly at knowing itself.  Knowing is that which is awake to the world, luminous and unobstructed.  There is an “isness” to this knowing, which feels like the one thing that is truly alive above all other things in this world. 

Mind and its “external” objects co-arise and depend on each other for their identity.  Contact between the knowing and the known is an intimate moment by which the world is revealed.  The nature of this contact should be acknowledged for the sacred truth that it is. 

See awareness as the turning of the rose to the sun,

The bending of the mind toward objects,

The beating of the heart,

The dancing of the bees.

The sacred knowing of this world.

“Looking at Mind” by David Lawson, April 29, 2021.

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Looking At Mind: Meditations on That Which Knows by David Lawson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

You are free to copy, adapt, and share this work.  It is not to be used in any way for commercial purposes and must be attributed as indicated above.

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