MCTB Mindfulness as First Factor of Enlightenment

Mindfulness has already been covered above, but in terms of practice I will say that mindfulness can be really useful in sorting out what is mind and what is body, as mentioned on the section on impermanence in the Three Characteristics. You might want to read that one again, as it is really relevant to practically applying these first two factors of enlightenment. Basically, we need to know the basic sensations that make up our world. This is the crucial foundation of insight practices. Not surprisingly, the first classic insight that leads to the others is called “Knowledge of Mind and Body” and arises when we learn to clearly distinguish between the two as they occur.

So with mindfulness we sort out what is physical, what is visual, what is mental, what is pleasant, what is unpleasant, what is neutral, and all of that. We can know what is a mental sensation and what is a related physical feeling. We can know what specific sensations make up our emotions. We can know each thing and the mental impression of it that follows it. We can know the intentions that precede actions and thoughts. We can know where sensations are in relation to each other. We can know exactly when they occur and how they change during their very brief stay. We can and should sort these out as best we can. Be patient and precise. Become fluent in the sensations that make up your reality.

While I have tried to avoid advocating one specific insight tradition or technique over any other, there is an exercise that you might find helpful when trying to do this. It is commonly called “Noting,” and it has its origins in the Pali Canon in Sutta 111, “One by One as They Occurred”, of The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (very worthwhile reading). It is used primarily in the Mahasi Sayadaw insight tradition from Burma, though related exercises are found in various Zen traditions, notably Soto Zen and Korean Chan, and probably in Tibetan Hinayana traditions as well.

Noting is the practice that got me the most breaks and insights in my early practice, particularly when coupled with retreats, and my enthusiasm for it is understandably extreme. I still consider it the foundation of my practice, the technique that I fall back on when things get difficult or when I really want to push deep into new insight territory. Thus, of all the techniques and emphases I mention in this book, take this one the most seriously and give it the most attention. Its simplicity belies its astonishing power.

The practice is this: make a quiet, mental one-word note of whatever you experience in each moment. Try to stay with the sensations of breathing, noting these quickly as “rising” (as many times as the sensations of the breath rising are experienced) and then “falling” in the same way. This could also be considered fundamental insight practice instructions. When the mind wanders, notes might include “thinking,” “feeling,” “pressure,” “tension,” “wandering,” “anticipating,” “seeing,” “hearing,” “cold,” “hot,” “pain,” “pleasure,” etc. Note these sensations one by one as they occur and then return to the sensations of breathing.

Here are some valuable tips for successful noting. Don’t get too neurotic about whether or not you have exactly the correct word for what arises. The noting should be as consistent and continuous as possible, perhaps one to five times per second. Speed and an ability to keep noting no matter what arises are very important. Anything that derails your noting practice deserves aggressive and fearless noting the next time it arises. Note honestly and precisely. So long as you note whatever arises, you know that you were mindful of it. Noticing each sensation and those that follow, you will see their true nature. Seeing their true nature, you will gain profound insights.

What the sensations are doesn't matter one bit from the point of view of noting practice. What is important is that you know what they are. The difference between these two perspectives should be clearly understood. This practice is directly related to Koan practices such as “what is it?” and is loosely related to breathing exercises where you count breaths from one to ten.

One of my very best insight meditation teachers, a monk from Singapore, would hold interviews every two days. I was on my third retreat. It was a beautiful center in Penang, Malaysia that was very conducive to practice. I would come in and describe all sorts of experiences that I was all excited about, and he would simply listen calmly to me go on and on and then finally ask, “Did you note it?”

That was almost all he ever said. It was amazing how easy it was to forget that simple instruction, and equally amazing how extremely useful it was when I remembered to follow it. He didn't seem to care about anything other than that I get to know my reality as it was with great precision and consistency. I knew very little theory then, but during those two weeks I practiced noting quickly all day long and made the fastest progress I have ever made in my life, getting all the way to the very brink of first awakening in a mere fourteen-day retreat. Since that time, I have been a big fan of this particularly direct and down-to-earth method.

There are many techniques for waking up to the truth of our experience, of which noting is just one. I have found it to be extremely powerful and fast, but each person must find what works for them. The trick is to get to know one's reality as it is, and what techniques one uses to do this do not matter much so long as they work and bring results. What is meant by “results” will be clearly spelled out in The Progress of Insight in Part III.

MCTB Investigation of the Truth