Mind Object Contemplation


Objects of the mind are the last of the four focuses of mindfulness. The mind objects listed in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta are the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six senses, the seven enlightenment factors, and the four noble truths. I understand this list to represent examples of mind objects, and therefore other mind objects not mentioned in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, such as thought and emotions, may also be included.

Contemplating the Five Hindrances

As I’ve explained regarding contemplation of feeling (vedanā), the five hindrances must be abandoned before you can effectively contemplate anything. But how can you contemplate the five hindrances after you have abandoned them? As I stated above mindfulness can take as its object an experience that has already passed. Mindfulness includes memory. So superpower mindfulness can take up, for example, a previous example of sloth and torpor and hold that past experience still in its strong light long enough to see into its true nature. What you apprehend with superpower mindfulness is that these five hindrances are mere instances of images on the screen, that they are not yours or anything to do with you, as the following simile demonstrates.

An old school friend visited Jamaica many years ago. He went to see a movie in a drive-in theatre in a remote town well known for its violence. He was surprised to see that the screen was a two-foot thick reinforced concrete wall. It must have cost a fortune. People of that town, it turns out, were very fond of Westerns. However, when the story came to the inevitable gunfight, many members of the audience took out their own guns and joined in the action! If they didn’t like the sheriff, they shot at his image on the screen, or they blasted away at the Indians, or whomever else upset them. The owner of the theatre could not stop them from joining in the gunfights, and he had replaced so many bullet-riddled canvas screens that he built this indestructible concrete screen. Then his audience could join in the gunfights without ruin.

If, like these moviegoers, you identify images on the screen as real, you will want to shoot them. With mindfulness, however, you will see them as having nothing to do with you. When you see the hindrances merely as images on the screen of consciousness, you will not bother you ever again. You will be free.

Contemplating thought

Thought, the inner conversation, is an object of the mind that can generate immense suffering. It can manifest as restlessness, remorse, doubt, desire or ill will. As such, remorse is at the heart of the five hindrances. Persistent pessimistic thoughts lead to depression, even suicide. Obsessive fearful thoughts lead to paranoia. It should be obvious that there are great benefits to be won through contemplating thought according to this fourth satipaṭṭhāna.

Again, only superpower mindfulness can see through the con game that is thought. With ordinary mindfulness you tend to believe in the thinking, get caught up in it, even worship it as more truthful than reality. A hungry man goes to dine at an expensive restaurant and is handed the menu. He eats the menu, pays, and leaves. He is still hungry. The menu is not the food any more than thoughts are reality.

Superpower mindfulness sees that thought, at best, is one step removed from reality, and at worst it is completely removed. Ill will bends thought into anger, sensory desire inflates thoughts into lust, and restlessness twists thoughts into frustration. When seen clearly, thoughts can’t be trusted. Not even this one!

When satipaṭṭhāna sees thinking for what it truly is, a makeshift approximation,  then  we  experience  dispassion  with  regard  to  our  thinking.  The  sign  of  such dispassion and wisdom is that you can let go of thoughts at any time. The proof of such insight is your ability to be silent. In the suttas, a term for an enlightened one is santamuni, “silent sage.”

Contemplating Will

Another important mind object that I wish to discuss here is “will” (cetanā), which comes under the contemplation of the five aggregates (khandha) in this fourth satipaṭṭhāna. Will is “that which does” or the doer. As I mentioned above the will is one of the two last resorts of the illusion of self, along with the knower (citta). Contemplating the will, the doer, and seeing it as anattā is therefore crucial to the experience of enlightenment.

Years ago I was an active member of the Psychic Research Society at Cambridge University. Every year we would hire a professional hypnotist to demonstrate his craft, often to the great amusement of us students. Once the hypnotist put a receptive volunteer student into a deep state of hypnosis. In front of all the students the hypnotists told him that later in the evening when the hypnotist touch his left ear the student was to stand up and sing the British national anthem. And later after coming out from the hypnotic trance, when the hypnotist touched his left ear the poor student arose and sang “God Save the Queen”! He sang alone accompanied by great laughter. The most fascinating part of this demonstration was that, when questioned, the student was of the firm opinion that he had freely decided to sing the national anthem and gave some convoluted reason for it. It showed that even brainwashing appears to the brainwashed as free will.

You are deluded to think you are reading this of your own free will. My friend, you had no choice but to read this! Will is not the action of a being, it is the end product of a process,

When superpower mindfulness takes a recent experience of jhāna as its object it sees that will, the “doer” has completely ceased within that state. It has vanished for long periods of time. Contemplating a fully mindful state that is free of will allows you to see that “will”, “choice”, and the “doer” are not me or mine, not a self. Whatever you do is just a result of complex programming.

When I talk like this people get frightened. Such fear is a symptom that something you are so attached to, your will, is about to be taken away. We in the West are so attached to the delusion of free will, in fact, that we enshrine the illusion in our constitutions and declaration of human rights. You may raise objection that if there is no free will, why bother to generate the great effort needed for enlightenment? The answer should be obvious. You put forth great effort because you have no choice. It is only superpower mindfulness that has the strength to penetrate the barrier of fear erected by attachment and observe the process of will as it truly is. Like the thousand-petaled lotus, when the layer of petals that represent the “the doer” fully opens up, you see the unexpected, that there is no one in here doing all this. The will is anattā. Craving begins to unravel at this point.

Contemplating Emotions

The last of the mind objects that I want to discuss here is emotion. Emotion is that texture of mind categorized as depressed or inspired, guilty or forgiving, worried or serene, angry or compassionate, and so on. Emotions toss us around, and this often hurts. Emotions are mind objects, things that appear on the screen of consciousness, and are part of this fourth satipaṭṭhāna.

When I was already a young Buddhist I went to see the movie West Side Story. There is a heartbreaking scene at the end when the hero, Tony, runs to his lover, Maria, under a New York City streetlight, is shot, and dies in Maria’s arms. As their doomed relationship is tragically rent, they sing, “There’s a place for us. Somewhere a place for us.” Many in the audience began sobbing uncontrollably. Why did they cry? It was only a movie after all, just the play of light on a cloth screen.

When you are deluded by emotions you take them to be important, real, “mine”. You get so sucked in that you seek even unpleasant emotions like sadness repeatedly. Why is it that so many people go to a movie with a box of tissues knowing, from the reviews that it is a tearjerker? It is because they are attached to emotions, delight in them and identify with them. They don’t want to be free.

Superpower mindfulness focused on the emotions uncovers the reality of whether you want to be free or not. It pushes aside your preferences. You recognize that the emotions are seductive sirens beckoning you to their treacherous rocks. But in their essence they are but mind objects, causally conditioned like weather fronts passing overhead, having nothing to do with you. When you see the truth, you are detached from emotions and free from their tyranny.

Whatever is an object of the mind, whatever appears on the screen of consciousness – whether it be the five hindrances, thought, will, or emotions – can be put under the unremitting and penetrating beam of superpower mindfulness. There you will realise the completely unexpected. You will see what the Buddha saw under the Bodhi tree. The realization will dawn that all these events on the screen of consciousness, are just the play of nature not the play of God, not the play of a soul. There is nothing here. There is “nobody at home”. These mind objects are empty. They are no-self (anattā). The illusion has been seen through. You are now free, unaffected by any mind object.

The Buddha promised that anyone who practices the four satipaṭṭhānas diligently will reach the  state  of  either  the  non-returner  or  full enlightenment  in  seven  days.  Perhaps  you  now understand why many meditators have  been  disappointed  that  after  many  more  than  seven days  they’re  still  not  enlightened.  As  I  said  earlier,  the  reason  is  that  they  have  not  been practicing   satipaṭṭhāna   following   the   Buddha’s   instructions.   Try   it   and   see.   Develop superpower mindfulness generated by jhāna so you know for yourself how impotent ordinary mindfulness is. Put the citta (the knower) or cetanā (the will) under the spotlight of superpower mindfulness,  courageously  going  beyond  the  comfort  of  your  views.  Await  the  unexpected. Don’t second-guess truth. Wait with patience until the thousandth petal of the lotus fully opens to  reveal  the  heart.  That  will  be  the  end  of  delusion,  the  end  of  saṃsāra,  and  the  end  of satipaṭṭhāna.

Image: Buddha statue under construction at Khai Nguyen Pagoda, Vietnam, 2019, Photo credit MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Continued next week 4 March 2022 with “The Jhānas I: Bliss”

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