Friday, September 06, 2013

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 10

Part 9 here.

The last three folds in the noble eight-fold path of the fourth noble truth are about spiritual effort and practice.

Right Effort is, on its face, rather simple and uncontroversial: It is to avoid unwholesome thoughts and desires, and to cultivate wholesome thoughts and desires.

However, it is not particularly clear as to what "effort" means here.  If one is angry or lustful, does "Right Effort" include suppression of this anger or lust?
He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen.
There is nothing particularly wrong with patiently riding off a bad feeling without acting on it.  In many mindfulness practices (such as Vipassana, or the "Choiceless Awareness" of J Krishnamurti), one is not to judge or choose one's mental state.  One is to observe a feeling or a thought dispassionately and remain unmoved as it arises, and ultimately passes away.

That dispassion might require some effort, because the normal tendency is to act upon a feeling.  But "not acting" upon a feeling is rather different from trying to rid oneself of that feeling, which is quite opposite to the teachings of mindfulness.  Which brings us to the next fold.

Right Mindfulness is to purely observe phenomena in the body and mind.  However, it is a limited kind of observation in Buddhism.  Instead of investigating the mental contents or the body processes, one is to "simply" observe the arising and passing.

This kind of mindfulness will lead naturally to the realization that physiological and mental processes do not last forever and give way to other processes.  Not a very groundbreaking realization on its own, but if one interprets this to be a confirmation of Buddhist impermanence (anicca) and that there is no persisting "self" since all is fleeting, then it can become a significant basis of one's ideology.

It is not quite clear that something insightful comes out of mindfulness.  Being non-reactive for a while can lead to a feeling of deep silence and calmness but that cannot be confused with a better understanding of oneself or of the world.  Moreover, a part of mind is involved in observing the mental processes and it can be very tempting to think of oneself as being a para-normal "witness" (drishta) while the other mind and body processes are just "the body and mind".  It is a form of depersonalization and some people take it too far by referring to themselves as "this body" or by their name as if referring to a third person (J Krishnamurti frequently referred to himself not as "I", but as "K").

Also, recognition of mental processes requires some cognition at least.  Most mindfulness teachers advise that mindfulness ends where recognition and language begins.  If there is a thought or a feeling, one is not supposed to label it as "good", "bad", "anger", "love", etc. but to simply observe.  It is not that straightforward, however, because thoughts anyway are involving language for their formation, and it is not immediately obvious that the process of thoughts labeling themselves can be avoided.

A better explanation might be that the purpose of meditation, or "mindfulness", is for the mind to reach a state of silence and non-reaction.  By constant labeling and evaluating, the mind does not progress towards that state but remains in its normal mode of functioning.  Hence, even if first-order language propositions ("She is a good girl") are occurring, it is advised to desist from second-order propositions ("That's a loving thought").

The question of whether one can "simply observe" second or higher order mental propositions is an interesting one, because a higher order proposition might just be the witnessing of the lower order proposition.

The last fold, Right Concentration, is more about the four jhanas or absorption states of deep concentration than about any wisdom of insight.  It is well-known in meditation circles that by sustained practice, one can enter altered states of consciousness of deep silence and bliss.  Sometimes these altered states persist for a few days before their effects evaporate completely.

The jhanas are something specific to Buddhism, with Hinduism talking about stages of Samadhi (say in the Yoga sutras of Patanjali) in different terms.  Many people who have experimented with these states claim that a state of deep Samadhi is an interesting state but otherwise quite useless as one has no cognitve or motor ability, and it is more akin to being in deep sleep but being aware of it.

(to be concluded in next part)

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