I’m reading Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening—signed by the author!—and am finding it extremely helpful. It’s about the Buddha’s instructions on The Four Foundations of Mindfulness: four categories of things you can pay attention to.
The four categories are the body (e.g., the breath, among other possibilities), or feelings (specifically this means to notice whether things are pleasant, unpleasant or neither), or the mind (such as knowing when there is greed in the mind and when there is not), or to various other categories of phenomena (the five these things, the five those things, the seven other things, etc.)—overall, the list is quite long and you can choose whatever suits you. Any one of them will be fruitful. I’ve many times heard Buddhist teacher Eugene Cash say that just attending to the breath will take you all the way to full awakening, or however exactly he puts it.
Since I quite often have thoughts of ill will or aversion—so lucky!—I thought I’d work with noticing when there is ill will in the mind. What typically happens is that I get angry about someone doing whatever, and then blame and judge them at length, and/or worry about what I’ll do if they do it again, mentally draft some remarks to deliver or not, and then, finally, beat myself for being such an unkind and intolerant person.
Sometimes I can notice I’m angry and drop the story and feel the physical experience (a la Ezra Bayda), or consciously generate kind wishes for the person (which is unlikely to result in actual kind feelings, but at least stops the blaming and judging); often neither. Lately there was yet another iteration of this, with me ending up frustrated when the angry feelings didn’t abate quickly enough.
Since starting to read Joseph’s book, I decided that maybe I should for the time being forget about sending good wishes (metta) to the other person and just send myself good wishes when I notice I’m angry—after all, the person who’s actually suffering is me. The other person is probably perfectly happy.
Having practiced mindfulness meditation for more than 20 years makes it pretty easy to notice what’s happening in the mind. But what exactly constitutes having ill will there? What’s the mind, anyway? Is it the brain? I think they’re not the same things. What kind of experiences can the mind have?
It’s helpful to remember not to “identify with” the experience, as Buddhist teachers will often say. This means thinking that something is I, me, or mine. I am angry. That is my feeling (or my sandwich). Taking things to be I, me, or mine introduces a lot of unnecessary misery, but before we get into that, a word about the relative versus the absolute. Relatively speaking, you are you and I am me. You live where you live and I live where I live, etc., and it’s perfectly reasonable and fine to talk about “you” and “me.”
On the absolute level, there is no me, there never was, and there never will be. If you were to examine every single cell in a human body with a microscope, you’d see mostly space, and that every part is in flux, changing quickly or slowly. Plus, every bit of it is dependent on conditions being a certain way. Nothing in the body could exist if it were truly on its own, and every bit of it is mutable. There is no unchanging entity anywhere that we can correctly call “me” or “you.”
This is why Joseph Goldstein once told a meditator who was bothered by a lot of thinking, “Pretend the thoughts are coming from the person next to you.” I love that. It’s funny, but it points to the helpful truth that “I” am no more to blame for my thoughts than I am for your thoughts! The latter point is obvious; when we don’t see the former, we can be lost in self-judgments that may last a lifetime.
This is not to say that “I” am not responsible for “my” actions. I am, no question. But the actual, literal truth is that I am not thinking a given thought, because there is no I to do so. When conditions support a certain thought arising, it arises.
The reason this is so helpful is that when I remember not to identify with a thought—not to take it to be “mine”—I am also more likely to notice the thought as a thought and may be able to skip the whole part about believing the thought, belaboring it endlessly, taking (possibly unskillful) action based on the thought, judging myself harshly for having had the thought, and so on.
Instead I can think, “Ah, based on past conditions, such-and-such thought has arisen. Now, am I sure this thought is actually true? What action, if any, should I take based on this thought?” Very different thing.
The thought in question might be, “This person is stupid and a big jerk.” Is having that angry, judgmental thought the same as having ill will in the mind? What sorts of things can the mind experience and how do I tell one from another?
I may feel that my stomach is in a knot and that my eyes are strained slits, but what about the mind? Can’t answer this, but it’s what I’m dedicating myself to learning about right now, so I was all excited when this happened Friday morning:
The phone rang at 6:44 a.m. and a lawyer started to leave a message about a person who lives in my building. Months ago I got a similar voice mail and just ignored it; possibly it was a debt collection thing. I don’t know that it was, but I know (not from personal experience) that some debt collectors will stop at nothing.
I leaped out of bed and picked up the phone and said, “I have nothing to do with such-and-such person. It is 6:44 in the morning. This is unacceptable. Do not call me again,” and I hung up, and I was angry and upset for about two minutes, and then I was like, “Hey! This is excellent! I’m angry and upset. What is it like? What is my body doing? What is my mind doing? What’s the mind, anyway?”
I noticed the tension in my body: check. And I noticed angry thoughts: check. And once I was noticing the angry thoughts as thoughts—aha, here is an angry thought—it was pretty hard to stay angry (not that that was a goal). The emotion naturally faded. As far as I can tell, that was the whole experience: a certain physical state, and certain thoughts. When the thoughts were noticed as thoughts, they very rapidly changed and the content ceased to be angry. Instead of the thought, “How dare that person call me so early, and how did he get my number, anyway?” there was the thought, “What exactly is going on in my body and brain?” And while the former thought supports feeling angry, the latter thought does not at all support feeling angry.
It seems that the mind can either be lost in a story or aware of the story. Those are two things the mind can definitely do. What else can it do? It can steadily focus on an object, or not so steadily, or not at all.
And that’s all I have to say about that right now, except that, in regard to how the attorney got my name and number, I think attorneys hang around with private investigators, who can easily find out who all lives at a given address and what their names and phone numbers are. This attorney probably assumed he was calling a cell phone that would be silent if I were asleep, but I have a good old landline that woke me right out of a sound sleep. I guess I showed him.