Dwell, Practitioners, with your hearts well-established in these four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.
– The Nikāya Buddha.
Some people might think that the intention of ‘memento mori’ – of remembering death – is to make us think about what will come after we die. That would make it a ‘later’ thing, even if only a heartbeat away. But, remember, we are wondering, in this project, if the essence of death is an inner process; and, indeed, if that makes the essence of death right here, now.
If the presence of death is as close as your present breath, then it may not be the unmitigated disaster that your untamed thoughts have it; and there can be a sane and life-affirming way, a life-enhancing way, to find out if death is the ‘sacrament’ which some say it is.
However, if you take up the invitation (which the fact of death offers), there will be many voices – both inner and outer – who will try to dissuade you from disturbing the conventional trance of the false-’I.’ This is the consensus trance.
On the other hand, there’ll be those who’ll encourage you, when you need it. I remember, when despair about loss pierced me through in the mid-seventies, I had a chance meeting with a Catholic nun, one night, in a taxi cab. I asked her what she thought of the big questions, and of the quest for awakening. We talked for about half an hour, and I recall how she glowed with joy when she heard what my despair was about.
She didn’t lecture, try to convert me, or patronise me with ‘Christian’ advice. Instead she said, with palpable kindness, “Oh, yes, those questions are on the right track. Keep going. Don’t give up.”
Her warm heart gave me the support I needed right then, and the inspiration to treasure the journey. She affirmed that though such possibilities weren’t taught in the regular culture, there was a real transformation possible. I felt less alone, and fortified for the next steps in my journey.
It is tragic really, this trance going on right here in these bodies; tragic that we don’t encourage deep inquiry into experiencing. This is one reason why we don’t get our relationship with nature right, and are destroying our home, the planetary ecology that originally gave rise to us.
It’s tragic when we ask the big questions, and get nonsense in reply from others; nothing straight-forward. We should help each other with the truth, even when we don’t know truth. As poet Bill Stafford wrote:
“the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”
The way forward, though, is always right at hand, even if we don’t see it. It’s as close as eating, walking, running, laughing, sleeping, spewing, crying, feeling sad or happy, lying down, or turning-somersaults. It’s at the heart of our life – with its actual processes of seeing, thinking, smelling, tasting, touching and feeling. At Sāvatthī, the Nikāya Buddha spoke about this to his bhikkhus.
“Practitioners, dwell with your heart well-established in the four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.
“What are the four? Here, a practitioner dwells contemplating the body in the body… feeling-tones in feeling-tones… psyche in psyche… and the dynamics of phenomena in the dynamics of phenomena – ardent, comprehending clearly, present, having removed hankering and distaste with regard to the world. Dwell, Practitioners, with your hearts well-established in these four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.”
– The Deathless (Amata Sutta: SN V.41) Translated by Christopher Ash
(In this translation, I’m not entirely satisfied with the word ‘psyche,’ because it’s a word rarely used these days – and it can be associated with occultism. Nevertheless, I’ll use it until we explore more of what ‘mind’ can mean, and until the Pāli word ‘citta’ can take over. I’ll go into these distinctions, later, an explain why I used it here.)
So, it bears mentioning again: I am not primarily investigating physical death. I see that as a simple matter. Culture can complicate it, but not stop it. Death will, from that side, will be easy. The body will do that well: heart stops, breathing stops, life-systems close up shop. From that angle, death is a breeze.
Can you feel as I say that “It will be easy”? Can you sense what happens in your body? While I’m not wrong, something’s missing in that picture, right? As an experience – that is, in the psyche – there’s more to it, right? And there just might be something we can learn to prepare us. And, along with that preparation for physical death, what physical death means to us while we’re living: that depends on how we’ve met our psychic death.
Being Here with Purpose
What do we mean by ‘knowing’ and ‘knowledge’? How do we know anything? Mindfulness, of course, is a kind of way to know. I’ve always been troubled by the feeling that there is more to mindfulness than ‘being fully present in the moment’; as though such present-moment awareness could be neutral with respect to accumulated knowledge.
For a start, the phrase ‘present moment’ points to time, and most people’s perceptions of ‘time’ start out by being shaped by their training (via their parents and their schooling). We bring those structures, and their further shaping activity to our mindfulness.
We are trained from very young to apply a particular temporal structure to experience; and, therefore to knowledge. This temporal structuring shapes our sense of reality. So, when we approach ‘the present moment’ we don’t do so without this unconscious shaping. This is something that mindfulness can, itself, reveal, of course.
In other words, one particularly illuminating thing about being mindful, if we stick to it, will be our failure – our failure within the present time structuring. The depth of ‘the present moment’ will involve an uncovering, by revealing our conditioned structuring of time, space and knowledge. If we are willing to experience a changed reality, then we can go deeper.
The secular mindfulness and meditation ‘movement,’ backed by cognitive science, psychotherapy, and a passion for independence from religions, frequently quotes Jon Kabat-Zinn on mindfulness: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
That ‘on purpose’ bit is important to note. Mindful attention is never without intention. Consciousness is always intentional, if by intentional I can mean: carrying-forward the life process of the organism, in some way. Attention is, by its nature, self-reflexive. Not even ‘pure’ awareness of our senses is without all the past moments of awareness carrying forward in this moment’s attention.
Consciousness is by its nature a kind of ‘kind-ing’ process. It is oriented to knowing ‘kinds’ of experience, and so consciousness ‘kinds’ everything it comes into contact with. Even something entirely new, something entirely out of the range of previous knowledge, is encountered as ‘that kind of thing’ – that is, it is of ‘an un-kinded kind of thing or process.’
That’s the nature of consciousness, and this is the reason why the Nikāya Buddha doesn’t see consciousness as providing completeness. So, if having a purpose is inescapable, we need to choose our purposes for mindfulness carefully.
If we think that there is some objective, un-kinded kind of way to have contact with a flower, a bird, a cloud, or another human, then that’s going to be an ideal that gets brought to each encounter. It seems to me that there’s no way around the fact that a flower is a flower precisely because it is in interaction with human consciousness. As Wordsworth meant, when he spoke of “all the mighty world/ Of eye, and ear,- – both what they half create,/ And what perceive…”
So, ‘on purpose’ gets to be important. What is the kind of motivation we have when we are ‘paying attention’? Are we mindful to improve our health and mental balance? That’s a positive motivation. Do I wish to go to the root of divisions in human society, by understanding the division-making in my own mind? That may have even more important ramifications, for the kind of society we create.
Do I practice mindfulness because I want to be true to human process, be a real human? Or, because I want to engage in purifying human knowledge processes and know the nature of mind?
To penetrate the depths of mindfulness, it won’t be enough to only cultivate relaxation, and less stress. These are good motivations in themselves, especially because they are aimed at a reduction of human suffering.
However, to know the roots of human freedom we need to go deeper. So, regarding ‘purpose’ – what kind of commitment will you cultivate? What commitment is needed to fulfil the species’ next step in human growth (remembering that you and I are its leading edge, because we are here now)?
Relaxation and stress reduction can help me to die more peacefully, and mindfulness in support of spiritual inquiry can turn death, the inevitable guest, into an opportunity to enter the deathless element, the unsurpassable host.