Samma-Vaca: Speaking as Spiritual Practice

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.   (James 3:5)

Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.  (Dionysius Of Halicarnassus)
If you want to stop suffering, says the Buddha throughout the Discourses, there is an eightfold path of practice to that end, consisting of right view, right motivation, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samādhi. (The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, MN 10, tr.Bodhi Bhikkhu) With its connotations of orthodox correctness, the word “right” is actually a misleading translation of the Pali word samma, which means “perfected, completed, consummated.” The point is that working on ourselves entails a gradual completing of what we are supposed to do, until we find ourselves “fulfilled” and “accomplished” with regard to the eight limbs of the path. It is “eightfold” in the sense not of eight steps to be taken consecutively, but of eight branches to one trunk, or eight tributaries flowing into one river: each of these is essential to getting you there, but all eight have to be involved. Among the eight, some are more spiritually “glamorous” than others, and of the homely ones none seems plainer than “right speech” or samma-vaca. Yet samma-vaca turns out to be a powerful practice that we can do anywhere, anytime, and with anyone, transforming us both inside and out.
   And what is samma-vaca? asks the Buddha. Refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech. This is called ‘samma-vaca’.
The statement seems innocuous and unobjectionable, but let’s see how the Buddha unpacks it.

   In one of the shorter suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha engages Cunda the Silversmith in a discussion of Hindu rituals of purification, and then describes what purification means for a follower of the new path. Quite simply, the Buddha undertakes “purification” of three things: bodily action, verbal action, and mental action. If these are “impure,” all the rituals with water and fire will do us no good; and if these are “pure,” the rituals with water and fire will be redundant. In other words, working on what we do, say, and think is a sufficient practice for “purification,” but if we expend no effort on what we do, say, and think, no ritual practice will be sufficient. Samma-vaca gives us an excellent example of the kind of thing the Buddha means by “purification.”
    Many have remarked that if you cannot control your mouth, you have no hope of controlling your mind. Most people spend the first decade of their lives learning Elementary Right Speech: how to interact politely, respectfully, inoffensively, when to speak, when not to speak, and so on. Then we spend another decade on Intermediate Right Speech, which involves techniques of argumentation and presentation, the expression of more complex feelings and ideas, the heuristic and forensic uses of language. Some of what we study on these two levels is bottomless; even something as simple as when to speak and when not to speak cannot be determined by formula, and the knowledge of “when” is refined over a lifetime. But are we ever taught that we can use language in such a way as to improve ourselves or harm ourselves? Here we begin to enter on Advanced Right Speech, in which we become more consciously skilled with our words. Each act we commit feeds and waters a sprout that can grow into a habit; insofar as thoughts and statements are also actions, they too have the power to grow into habits and thus change us. When we become aware of the effects of our words, both on ourselves and on others, we realize that every word we utter makes a mark, and nothing we say can be deleted. The Buddha points out that our own speech can make us “impure” — confused, muddy, self-evading, increasingly unable to separate truth from untruth. His own words on the matter are hard to improve upon and worth listening to carefully:

“And how is one made impure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person engages in false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty [i.e., a royal court proceeding], if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ Thus he consciously tells lies for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of a certain reward. He engages in divisive speech. What he has heard here he tells there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he tells here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus breaking apart those who are united and stirring up strife between those who have broken apart, he loves factionalism, delights in factionalism, enjoys factionalism, speaks things that create factionalism. He engages in abusive speech. He speaks words that are harsh, cutting, bitter to others, abusive of others, provoking anger and destroying concentration. He engages in idle chatter. He speaks out of season, speaks what isn’t factual, what isn’t in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya, words that are not worth treasuring. This is how one is made impure in four ways by verbal action.”

The four ways are: 1) telling falsehoods, by which we deliberately relax our commitment to truth and eventually even become so tied to subtly evolved fictions that we can no longer notice when we might be fooling ourselves; 2) saying things that are certain to cause strife, contention, and bad feeling, thus destroying social harmony by creating a miasma of mistrust — and at the same time turning ourselves into the kind of spiteful little creature who delights in dragging other people down; 3) uttering words designed to hurt and upset, sowing internal strife in those around us, and undermining their capacity for contentment; and 4) filling precious silence with babble that can matter to no one, just to hear our own voices or to cover over a silence in which anxiety might arise. This fourth destructive way is the hardest for a modern to understand, so accustomed are we to our sound-realms constantly being filled with “entertainment” or commentary; silence disturbs us, it is “awkward.” Just from a single day’s experience with social media posts, I can cull dozens of examples of each of the “four ways”: posts that are careless of truth and factually reckless, posts that are sure to turn some group of people against another and drive them both farther into contention, posts that we know will hurt and anger someone, and posts that are just for posting’s sake, for “fun.” The effect of all of these together is unproductive emotional entanglement and mental confusion.
   When we become more disciplined and scrupulous with our words, the opposite happens, and we find ourselves becoming better people:
“And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world. Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord. Abandoning abusive speech, he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large. Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal. This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action.”
Here we are introduced to the rare person who can always be counted on to be truthful and honest; who nonetheless never speaks in such a way as to cause discord, and is both good at and enjoys making friendships; whom people routinely seek out because of her sincerity, kindness, good nature, and encouragement; who is always to the point, and always worth listening to. This is an image of a wonderful, lovable human being — the kind of person we would want for a friend, and also one that we can all aspire to become.
   The beauty of such a path is that it can be practiced, for at the beginning of each day we can actually articulate to ourselves an intention to work on the four aspects of samma-vaca with regard to the particular people and situations of our daily lives; and at the end of the day we can reflect, evaluate in detail whether we succeeded or not, and then decide what we need to do to improve. It is the conscious application of our reflective intelligence that makes this a practice, and not just the spontaneous play of natural gifts. Did I tell the truth? Was I right to tell my friend X what my other friend Y had said about him? Did I hurt W’s feelings and make it harder for him to speak with me? Did I just waste an hour chatting about politics on Facebook? Underlying all of these questions is the bigger question about motivation: Why did I speak, what in me needed to say this? In thinking about these things and trying to cultivate lucidity regarding our own actions, we gradually become smarter about ourselves, more sensitive to other people, and more nuanced in our actions.
   A habit of self-reflection tends to make us more moderate and judicious, but being mindful of our mouths develops the special kind of intelligence that is attuned to the intricate mysteries of language. We are never done with the work of samma-vaca; it becomes more challenging and more interesting the better we become at it, and it is work that never stops expanding our minds and hearts. I still think about ways I could have said things better fifty years ago, and the good or bad effect of things that were said to me long ago — for every utterance is a seed that cannot be prevented from growing into something. The practice of samma-vaca necessarily takes place in small, particular instances, but each of these instances is packed full with significance: for example, something as simple as a “hello, nice to meet you” is an occasion for understanding the deeper meanings of welcome and respect. 
   Speaking well depends on listening well, and learning to listen may be one of the hardest things a human being has to do. We are generally poor listeners from impatience, arrogance, desire, and fear: impatience, because we are eager to say our own thing or because we have some other task to check off; arrogance, because it is natural for people to assume they are qualified to judge others, so that we already “know” what our interlocutor will say and what it is worth; desire, because we want to hear ourselves corroborated; and fear, because there are things we know we don’t want to hear. When we are silent, is it because we are listening or because we are waiting to speak? When we speak, are we responding to the person in front of us, or merely reacting or deflecting? If we are habitually not responsive to people and situations, we cannot be sincere practitioners of samma-vaca. It will be obvious that our silences are also included in this, because all silence expresses something, and some silences are more eloquent than words. To the extent that many silences are in fact preparations for speech, words exist in a continuum from intuition, to thought, to utterance — which means that the thoughtful practitioner of samma-vaca must attend to what precedes speaking as much as to speaking itself.
   Thus the art of speaking well includes the complementary art of listening well. Both of these arts cannot be taught as an arsenal of techniques and strategies to master. For example, we can know all there is to know about different methods of beginning an argument, but how do we know when to start and how to choose the words that will move this particular person? Or we can have a large enough vocabulary and wide experience of life to understand the words that are spoken to us, but how do we intuit the real intentions behind the words — such as whether the speaker is friendly or unfriendly towards us– let alone understand why the intentions are what they are? If we have no insight into these deeper matters, we are unlikely to address this interlocutor effectively in speech. 
   But how do we learn such things? It would seem that there is no shortcut; we learn from paying attention to every interaction and reflecting afterwards on what went right or wrong. We learn from mistakes, and also from letting others point out our mistakes: when we said things poorly, when we misunderstood, when we completely misjudged an interlocutor, when we failed to sustain a harmonious relationship. Mistakes and failures make up the rich seedbed of self-reflection and improvement. Because of this, samma-vaca is a practice that will tend to make a person more grounded, generous, humble, attentive, observant, present — and at the same time, more reflective, imaginative, far-sighted, open to other people and to other possibilities. It is a richly rewarding practice for a thoughtful person, and a salutary discipline for a less thoughtful person, because it encompasses so many other virtues. Indeed, samma-vaca is itself a mindfulness practice that tends to get instant feedback because it occurs in the moment, with other people.
     The wonder is that every human being can do this practice in some way; each of us is capable of trying to listen well and to speak well, and of the self-reflection that these require. Even when we find ourselves perplexed in certain situations and unable to see clearly, we can always consult our friends, who can be helpful in getting us to see what we did wrong and how we could do better. In the Pali Discourses, the Buddha’s gift is twofold: a vision, and a practice. He always gives us something we can do — indeed, that we can start doing now, wherever we are, by ourselves. There is no need to wait for anything or anyone.

The Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith (tr.Thanissaro, Anguttara Nikaya, 10.176) can be found here:
The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation (tr.Bhikkhu Bodhi) can be found here:

“Venerable Gotama, Is There A Soul?”

This may be the most burning question for seekers who come to the Buddha from religions built on belief in imperishable individual souls or in one all-pervading Soul. One of the most memorable exchanges on this question is initiated by a Brahmin wanderer named Vacchagotta, who in various suttas is featured as an asker of big speculative questions. The conversation begins enigmatically:

“Venerable Gotama, is there a self?”
When this was said, the Blessed One was silent.
“Then is there no self?”
A second time, the Blessed One was silent.

The word “self” translates atta (in Sanskrit, atman), and is one of those immensely rich, resonant words that have provoked thousands of years of debate and discussion. For human beings and other sentient beings atta means “the innermost self” or “soul,” the livng core that is eternal, persisting through time and perhaps even residing outside of time. When we speak loosely of the “self” of a world, a culture, a landscape , a mountain, we also mean the underlying essence that unites the varying appearances into “one thing.” Today I saw a murmuration of starlings squabbling with a flock of robins, noticed that the red leaves on my flowering pear tree have started to turn brown, needed to wear my thickest wool coat, and found feathery frost on my car window: all these bespeak a “self” of winter, which had suddenly arrived, ousting autumn, and which cannot be experienced directly but through signs.

   When we point to ourselves to say “it’s me,” we know that the Me we are referring to cannot be pointed at, cannot be pulled out and displayed: my finger points physically to my jacket, or when that is removed to my shirt, or my t-shirt under it, or to my chest, but none of these observable things is what I mean by Me. My Self underlies all of the phenomena associated with me and cannot be pointed to. My clothes, my body, my actions, my CV, are all a metonymy for something that exists in supposition as their substratum. Vacchagotta is asking if this substratum exists — if there is an “I” or not, if there is a unifying Soul, or am I nothing but a temporary aggregation of parts that are themselves temporary aggregations of parts, all changing from moment to moment?  

   The Buddha’s silence might be taken as either a refusal to answer Vacchagotta’s questions, or as the only appropriate answer. To understand this, let’s look at how the Buddha talks about the self in the Anatta-Lakhana Sutta (SN 22:59), which was the Buddha’s second teaching, given to the five monks who were his best friends at the time. Coming just seven weeks after his enlightenment, the teaching is charged with the electricity of new discovery: 

Thus I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Benares, in the Deer Park at Isipatana (the Resort of Seers). There he addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five: “Bhikkhus.” — “Venerable sir,” they replied. The Blessed One said this.
“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’
“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…
[formulaic phrasing above’repeated]

“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…

“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?…

“Is perception permanent or impermanent?…

“Are determinations permanent or impermanent?…

“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent pleasant or painful?” — “Painful, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to
be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”
“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’
“Any kind of feeling whatever…
“Any kind of perception whatever…
“Any kind of determination whatever…
“Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.’

Rather than just telling us how it is, the Buddha is giving us a framework of questions. If there is a “self,” where does it exist, and can we find it anywhere? Of the possible wheres, there are only five: the five skhandas, “heaps” or agglomerations, which constitute the entirety of our beings. These are 1) bodily “form”; 2) the “feelings” of pain, pleasure, or neither, which accompany every sensation; 3) “perception” or what we sense with our sense organs, including our organ of internal perception, the mind; 4) “determination,” which includes volition, predispositions, preferential tendencies, all the aspects connected with willing and choosing that have given our existences direction and that establish inertia for the future; and 5) “consciousness,” the dimension of thought, intellection, and awareness. There is no other skandha. All five have been compared to five heaps thrown together to make a single being, or the confluence of five rivers rushing together. If the self can be found anywhere, it must be in the skandhas.

   With characteristic methodical thoroughness, the Buddha then works through the skandhas one by one. Am I my body? If our selves were the same as our bodies, we would never be at odds with our bodies; instead, we struggle with our bodily limitations, with the frequency of disease and physical pain, with aging and with death. There is always tension between us and our bodies. But am I my feelings, am I my perceptions? Am I my desires? If not, then am I my thoughts, my consciousness? It turns out that the self cannot be found in the other four skandhas: we can struggle with our likes, dislikes, and neutralities, and are often surprised by our feelings; we can resist perceptions, and also be confused by our perceptions; we can suffer conflicting volitions and be paralyzed in dilemmas, and we are capable of not wanting what we want; we can make serious mistakes in our thoughts and judgments, and can repudiate states of mind and mental commitments that have until then dominated our sense of reality. Our inability to identify simply with any of the skandhas proves that the self is not to be found in them, and therefore not to be found in all of them taken together. 
   The Buddha then points out that in our experience, all five skandhas are subject to change and are constantly in motion. Every cell in our body changes moment by moment, the temperature and blood pressure vary, all the fluids are in motion, and the content of the blood changes in accordance with what we have eaten and with the capacity of the whole organism to digest. The body at least contrives to stay stable and recognizable from day to day, even though philosophers have been quick to dismiss the body for being mired in flux. The sensations, feelings, and volitions are much more volatile and harder to pin down than the body — and what can be less stable, more entirely in motion, than consciousness? It is barely possible to keep track, in the space of a day, of all our states of consciousness — not just the moods and emotions, but also the thoughts, the things that catch our attention, the preoccupations and vexations. Impermanence is what we experience in all the “heaps” of our being — but what we are looking for is that thing whereby we can be considered “ourselves,” something that continues selfsame from one moment to the next, unchangingly itself underneath the chaos.  We do not experience the self in any of the five skandhas, and there is no sixth skandha.

   There is a lot to unpack and chew over in the Buddha’s terse, repetitive formulations. The careful search for the self amidst the skandhas is itself a form of focused meditation, but in this search one of the things we notice is that in fact the self cannot be an object of the search. Instead, what we call “self” is a process of self-making, a continuous activity in which identification is constantly being attempted. With our bodies, for instance, think of all those times we reject photographs of ourselves that “don’t look like us” and settle on the one that is “us,” that is worthy of representing us; or, more interestingly, consider the person who cannot accept any photograph of themselves as a good likeness. The act of picking out a good picture of myself exists in the context of a lifelong and developing process of making an image of myself that I wish — for many complex reasons — to identify with. What goes on when we choose and reject an image of ourselves is worth investigating seriously. While we settle on an image, we can also at the same time rejoice in the lover who delights in our morning face and morning breath, and we can feel pleasure when a small nephew fondly plays with our grey hair or strokes our bald patch. We are caught here in a web of sometimes contradictory identifications; it can be consternating when our lover who adores our middle-aged frailty thinks that our favorite picture of ourselves is slightly silly and not like us at all. With feelings, volitions, and thoughts, the activity of seeking something to identify with goes on automatically  and at a much deeper level. When we are angry, in love, or feeling righteous, we identify so wholly with those states that it is impossible to see ourselves objectively, and when even close friends disagree with us then, we feel that it is our selves that are under attack. It is possible to feel anger, love, and righteousness in succession — and then the identification with three sets of thoughts and emotions can lead perplexingly in different directions.

   In an important conversation with the beloved disciple Ananda, the Buddha takes on again the identification with feeling:

“In what ways, Ānanda, does one considering (the idea of) self consider it? One considering (the idea of) self either considers feeling as self, saying: ‘Feeling is my self.’ Or he considers: ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling.’ Or he considers: ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling.’
“Therein, Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is my self’ should be asked: ‘Friend, there are these three kinds of feeling—pleasant feeling, painful feeling, and neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. Of these three kinds of feeling, which do you consider as self?’
“Ānanda, on the occasion when one experiences a pleasant feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a painful feeling or a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a pleasant feeling. On the occasion when one experiences a painful feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a pleasant feeling or a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a painful feeling. On the occasion when one experiences a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a pleasant feeling or a painful feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.
“Ānanda, pleasant feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing. Painful feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing. Neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing.
“If, when experiencing a pleasant feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that pleasant feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’ If, when experiencing a painful feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that painful feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’ If, when experiencing a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’
“Thus one who says ‘Feeling is my self’ considers as self something which, even here and now, is impermanent, a mixture of pleasure and pain, and subject to arising and falling away. Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is my self.’
“Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling’—he should be asked: ‘Friend, where there is nothing at all that is felt, could the idea “I am” occur there?’”
“Certainly not, venerable sir.”
“Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling.’
“Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling’—he should be asked: ‘Friend, if feeling were to cease absolutely and utterly without remainder, then, in the complete absence of feeling, with the cessation of feeling, could (the idea) “I am this” occur there?’”
“Certainly not, venerable sir.”
“Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is
not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling.’
“Ānanda, when a bhikkhu does not consider feeling as self, and does not consider self as without experience of feeling, and does not consider: ‘My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling’—then, being without such considerations, he does not cling to anything in the world. Not clinging, he is not agitated. Not being agitated, he personally attains nibbāna. He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no returning to this state of being.’

In brief, if I seek to identify my self in my feelings, which feelings do I fix on for identification? If it is the happy me, am I not myself when miserable? If my self is to be found in my pain, then am I not myself when in pleasure? Furthermore, any feeling of pain or pleasure is changing all the time, so in what part of them can I find myself? If I reject this and say that the self exists beyond feeling, unfeeling and therefore unfelt, why would I have any cause to look for the self anywhere, since experientially it is nothing to me? Only when the seeker stops trying to locate and objectify the self — both in feelings and in non-feeling — will he attain freedom from agitation. The agitation itself is caused by the futile attempt to solidify the self, whether as individual ego or as world-soul, which is an amplification of ego; the way out of this agitation begins with being able to catch ourselves in the act of making identifications. 

   In all of this, the Buddha is making no assertions about the existence of the self; he wants us to essay, to make an empirical inquiry into our experience of selfing, and to understand for ourselves in what way there is or isn’t a self. What we see is a continual process of identifying, of making selves — never unitary even in a single person. If this is what the word “self” means, then there is a self; but if the object sought for in identification is an eternal selfsameness from moment to moment, then we do not find it anywhere in any experience we can point to. He does not say this version of self doesn’t exist, just that we don’t find it anywhere except in the imagination of faith, which is also not simple non-existence. The more pressing question is why we are looking for the self, what is at stake when we want it to exist or not exist.

   To return now to the Brahmin wanderer Vacchagotta, the Buddha denies him a straightforward yes or no, and also a complicated explanation: he answers with silence, partly to throw Vacchagotta back onto himself and provoke him to question his question, but partly to show to this clever quibbler that to such questions there really is no answer. Non-questions get non-answers. It is comparable to someone who watches Star Wars and asks afterwards if the experience of the film was real or not. This is a non-question, because clearly in some way there was the experience of the film: there are dreams, there are fantasies. The non-question is generated by attachment to the idea of a solid reality. A genuine question would be something like, In what way is Star Wars real or not real, true or not true? The answers to this will be more intelligent and nuanced.

Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.
Then, not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “Why, lord, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta the wanderer?”
“Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?”
“No, lord.”
“And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?'”

Answering yes would corroborate Vacchagotta’s predisposition to hold to an eternal self, which we don’t find in experience of the skandhas; answering no would corroborate him in his deep-seated anxiety that then nothing really exists. These theoretical positions are solidifications, congealments, of the more dynamic ways for self to be or not be. The self happens like the forming of a bubble, like the making of a dream, real in a way, and not real in another waythe point is not to recite this as a strikingly paradoxical proposition, but to be able to see selfing as it happens and to live it in its real unreality, its unreal reality.
The three Suttas quoted here are:

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22:59)
translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera (1993)
Mahanidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse (DN 15)
translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Ananda Sutta: To Ananda (SN 44:10)
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2004)

The Buddha’s Core Curriculum for Graduating Life: Mindfulness (8)

[Head of a monk: 4-5th century CE, Gandhara]

If the Satipatthana Sutta were to conclude after describing the first three foundations of mindfulness, what would we lose? Mindfulness of breathing, bodily movements and positions, feelings, and states of mind will be more than enough for most people to work on over several decades and still feel they haven’t exhausted the practice. We would gain closeness to our own experience: a refined awareness of all that is going on in our bodies, an understanding of how feelings work and how craving arises, a developed intuition for states of mind in ourselves and in others, a diminishing of compulsions and attachments, and all round — just by becoming more aware and self-aware — greater effectiveness in all human activities. Becoming more open to experience and more calmly intelligent about what really goes on, we will naturally suffer less because our expectation and demands will be more realistic; we might even find ourselves happier, because we are struggling less with people and situations, and because in paying attention we will start to find our own lives more interesting, more abundant. It could well be that knowledge of what we have to do and how we have to live will emerge naturally from understanding ourselves better — just as children who read and who thus spend many hours a day getting nto the minds of literary characters will expand their powers of empathy without having to be taught. 

   The Buddha himself made his great spiritual discoveries wholly empirically, through observing and comprehending what is present in body, feelings, and mind; no one told him where the practice was going to lead him. It takes tremendous trust in the process to be able to give oneself up to the lessons of experience, without being guided by a framework reassuringly provided by a wise teacher. Similarly, it takes an unusually trusting teacher to let the student loose in the laboratory of life to figure out for himself what works and what doesn’t. What if the student accidentally blows himself up? On the other hand, a real teacher — knowing that he is not omniscient — is always delighted when a student surprises him with a question or discovery that he hasn’t yet thought of. Throughout the Discourses the Buddha has emphasized “knowing for yourselves”; we only know the things that we find with our own senses and intelligence, and this is why the Buddha’s teaching style — terse, dry, understated — tends to give us space to question and investigate. It is also why the Satipatthana starts with meditations in which we develop confidence in our own powers of insight. In the words of the refrain in this Sutta, the practitioner “lives independent and clings to naught in the world” — not even the words of his teacher. In the cultivation if mindfulness, the Buddha is scrupulous not to introduce the conceptual frame too early, for premature reliance on someone else’s interpretation of phenomena always undermines our own ability to experience honestly.

   Only as the fourth foundation of mindfulness do we get contemplating the dhammas — often confusingly translated “mental objects,” because it deals with ideas and enotions, and consists of a series of formulaic encapsulations of the Buddha’s system that need to be thought through and understood. To oversimplify, the first three foundations of mindfulness cultivate accurate but passive awareness, a kind of wise receptivity to what is; by themselves, they have little power of active transformation, little capacity to take us further along the path that leads to the final destruction of suffering. In the first three mindfulness practices, we ward nothing away, repress nothing, and entertain with open arms both positive and negative equally; in the fourth mindfulness practice, we must now work to nudge away the negative and develop the positive, since we now understand vividly what negative and positive are.

   The martial sport of fencing offers a useful analogy. A budding fencer might be fond of swords, and while using the finest sports blades he might be thinking all the time of his collection of replica rapiers at home: mindfulness of the blade, an intimate knowledge of everything about swords, motivates and excites his practice. Another fencer might be on fire from the historical romance of fencing, and in each practice session he remembers real duels and the accounts of ancient combats. A third fencer, perhaps coming from a background in dance or gymnastics, might enjoy the technical drills more, and appreciate the science of movement: here we see a certain kind of mindfulness of body. None of these interests is wrong, and each of them brings into the foreground one aspect of the sport. The aspect that is foregrounded may be in itself endlessly fascinating and rewarding, but the fencer who is “lost” in this aspect will not become a good fencer. What is required in he making of a real fencer is the harnessing of a host of subordinate aspects into the ability to win bouts agains skilled antagonists, and this involves learning progressions directed towards a specific end. The training is vigorous and prescriptive — do this, don’t do that — as the student is actively transformed into a real fencer who might survive in an actual swordfight.

   The contemplation of dhammas (“mental objects”) takes place in accordance with five numerical frames that are given more detailed treatment in other Suttas: the five hindrances, the five aggregrates of clinging, the six internal and external sense bases, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the four noble truths.  Each of these is a concise, standard schema of ethical, intellectual, and psychological soul-work; they are compressions of the Buddha’s experience that need to be carefully considered and unpacked for ourselves — like seeds of wisdom, which grow only if watered, by our own hands, with our blood. The first three foundations of mindfulness were necessary propaedeutics to this, for without developed attentiveness to our own experience the contemplation of dhammas would be entirely out of our reach. The Four Noble Truths make only superficial, hypothetical sense to one who does not know how to be mindful of body and feelings. Indeed, many people who are suffering believe that they are fine, and many who think they are suffering badly are in fact better off than most — how would we know how to recognize and gauge our own state, if our powers of awareness are nothing more than rudimentary and blunt, like sticks that small boys use for pretend-weapons?

   I am not going to explore the contemplations of dhammas here, because they require longer and more detailed exploration, and because I am unqualified. Whereas the first three foundations make a lot of sense to me, the fourth requires trust and commitment to the Buddha’s system — trust and commitment that is backed up by seeing, in the practice of the first three foundations, that the Buddha always has a reason for saying what he says in the way he says it. The contemplation of dhammas is for students who have already committed to the path, but here too the articulations make sense to an ordinary thoughtful human being who seeks to be wiser. 

   For example, one of the contemplations of dhammas takes on the “five hindrances” (nivarana), those complexes of thoughts and emotions that interrupt and obstruct our efforts at mental clarity and tranquillity in whatever work we may be doing. They are difficult to deal with, because by the time we become aware of the presence of one of them, our work has already been disturbed. Because our foundations in mindfulness are now strong, we can nonetheless pull back and look at the disturbance. 

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances.

“How, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances?

“Here, O bhikkhus, when sensuality is present, a bhikkhu knows with understanding: ‘I have sensuality,’ or when sensuality is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no sensuality.’ He understands how the arising of the non-arisen sensuality comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen sensuality comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sensuality comes to be. When anger is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have anger,’ or when anger is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no anger.’ He understands how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be. When sloth and torpor are present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have sloth and torpor,’ or when sloth and torpor are not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no sloth and torpor.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sloth and torpor comes to be. When agitation and worry are present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have agitation and worry,’ or when agitation and worry are not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no agitation and worry.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the abandoning of the arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned agitation and worry comes to be. When doubt is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have doubt,’ or when doubt is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no doubt.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen doubt comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen doubt comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned doubt comes to be.”

(Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

Each of these hindrances hides a world of complex causation. “Sensuality” is not just sexual desire, but all those desires that come from an underlying belief that material pleasures can make us happy; “anger” expresses disappointment, dissatisfaction, and a sense of betrayal, stemming from some belief that people and the world “should” be other than they are, and from a concealed assumption that we are competent to judge their inadequacy; “sloth and torpor” encompass our various ways of resisting what we know we must do, ranging from not being to get up or to stay awake, to seeking distraction in trivial entertainments, to depressive paralysis; “agitation and worry,” which can creep in insidiously at any moment, can come from regret for things done, not done, or done poorly, as well as the anxiety that is generated by the knowledge of unfinished business, and general anxiety for loved ones and the world; and “doubt,” which is not just lack of faith in the Buddha’s path, includes philosophical disbelief as well as crippling lack of confidence in one’s own abilities and in the project as a whole. The Buddha has seen clearly — in himself and in his students — that whenever we find ourselves unsettled and derailed, it is usually because of one or more of these five hindrances. We also know from experience that the hindrances are addictive by nature: each time we indulge them, we make them stronger and more frequent in the future. Consequently, learning how to handle the hindrances is crucial to progress along the path, and mindfulness of the hindrances comes under the category of contemplating the dhammas in the dhammas.  While good, encouraging advice from a teacher and close friends is usually our best help in dealing with the hindrances once they have arisen and once we find ourselves wriggling in their clutches, we still have to learn to manage them ourselves by experiencing them directly and seeing what they are.

   Let’s look at just one of them: When anger is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have anger,’ or when anger is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no anger.’ The first step is to be able to recognize when it is there or not there. Often we can go for days in a bad mood without consciously realizing that we are angry; or we can find in the midst of our meditations that we are being swept along on a flash flood of grumbling, not having noticed when it started. This part of the contemplation requires skill in bare mindfulness. But what do we do, once we have noticed? He understands how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be. We have to study where the anger comes from, and be able to recognize it at its origination as it arises — and not only when it has already become full-fledged passion. Once we understand how it arises, we need to understand how it is abandoned. As in the other contemplations, we do not repress or force the hindrance out — because that will only give it more power. Sometimes seeing, hearing, and understanding are sufficient to calm an emotion, but most often we have to learn how to reroute or sublimate a thought that might grow into a hindrance. For example, when we are angry with a person, we might go straight to them and talk; or we might try putting ourselves in their shoes. When we have grasped this, we will be in a better position to understand how to live in such a way that anger never just arises. This work involves dedicated self-reflection, awaeness of our emotions, and creative intelligence with regard to our toughest, trickiest mental tendencies.

   Notice, too, how impersonal the Buddha’s phrasing is: when anger is present, not when he is angry. No one “owns” the anger or “is” the anger; rather, anger is carried by an inertia that we surely contributed to but that we are not agents of. For this reason, the hindrance can be calmly worked on, as a sculptor works on granite, and there is no extraneous emotion of blame or resistance that comes from disliking “being like this.” The first three foundations of mindfulness have trained us to find this work interesting and productive, and we can now approach the work like skilled craftsmen. One other benefit of this serene engagement is that we will find that other people no longer irk us much, and because we understand the hindrances in ourselves, we are likely to be more understanding and compassionate towards the hindrances as they appear in others. 

   The Satipatthana Sutta, in about 20 pages, gives us a complete curriculum for what can truly be called self-study, with the aim of understanding the origin of suffering and how to end it. Each of the four foundations of mindfulness requires dedicated, concentrated practice, and if we consider how difficult it is to be mindful of only breathing for a single hour, we will have a clear picture of how accomplished we would have to be to sustain mindfulness in all four dimensions for a whole week. But should any person maintain these Four Arousings of Mindfulness in this manner for a week, then by him one of two fruitions is proper to be expected: Knowledge here and now; or, if some form of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning. In purely secular terms, it is possible to see how even a little time devoted every day to these meditative exercises will result in a happier, more effective human being, capable of helping himself and others, and more directly attuned to his own experience. The curriculum laid out in the Satipatthana may well be, as the Buddha claims, the only path to self-knowledge and happiness.  


For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

Knowing Our Own Minds: Mindfulness (7)

For a philosophy that systematically raises doubts about the reality of the individual soul, it is surprising that so much Buddhist literature consists of accounts of meetings between a teacher and a student. The Pali Nikayas are filled with thousands of pages of conversations between the Buddha and various disciples, kings, or Brahmin visitors; and the classical Zen koan is an encounter of two people, in which one of them suddenly “sees” or doesn’t see. We, the readers of these, are encountering the encounter, meeting the meeting of minds.

When two minds “meet,” the first thing that happens before anything is said is that one has to get the measure of the other: who am I dealing with, what kind of person, what kind of intelligence? This also applies to competitive tournaments — chess, fencing, wrestling, pingpong — where you find yourself facing someone you have never met before: you don’t have much time to figure out who you are dealing with and how you are going to beat him. The gauging of the other mind has to happen very quickly, and it demands powers of accurate intuition. Even if you are acquainted with the other person, you still don’t know how they are today; something big might have happened since yesterday. This is of course true with every interaction.  In conversations, if neither interlocutor is good at guessing the state of the other person’s mind, the two of them are likely to talk at cross-purposes and fail to “meet” in any fruitful way. This is most true of teaching situations. A good teacher has to have a developed intuition for “where” her student is, and this “where” is not determined only by tests that give numerical scores for knowledge and skills. The more important conditions for learning have to do with disposition, attitude, and character: how distracted or agitated is the student today, is there anything else weighing on his mind, can he concentrate fully or think clearly, did he get enough sleep, is he hungry, is he angry, is he having girlfriend problems or serious issues in his home life, has he developed sufficient strength of character to pull himself together for today’s lesson, and so on? Such issues are significant conditions for learning or not learning, and if the teacher ignores them or has no capacity to notice them, very little learning will occur. Unfortunately, many educational systems today reduce success or failure to quantifiable results, and are completely ignorant of the more mportant, unquantifiable dimensions of the teacher’s art.

A skillful teacher therefore has to be minutely aware of the students’ “state of mind,” for want of a better phrase. In the Pali Discourses of the Buddha, my phrase “state of mind” translates citta, which is also rendered in different translations as “mind” or “consciousness.” Just as teaching requires mindfulness of citta, so does self-cultivation — which is the primary form of learning for adults, who should be mature enough to steer themselves. But we can only steer ourselves if we know “where” we are. Thus, an adult who decides to develop the characteristics of warrior nobility cannot simply decide to have integrity, courage, justice, wisdom, and invincible fighting skills. Each one of these is developed through baby steps, and before we embark on a program of training we first have to know where to begin and exactly how far away we are from our goals. For the same reasons, once we have begun, we need to be able to evaluate where we are at every step.

This is why the third Foundation of Mindfulness in the Satipatthana Sutta is contemplating consciousness [citta] in consciousness. 

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating consciousness in consciousness?

In martial arts training, lapses in attention and malfunctions in thinking are manifested physically, making it easy for the opponent or the sensei to administer a sharp corrective. In meditation, we are mostly on our own, and when we are attempting to find our way through the confusion of our own thoughts and emotions — many of which are only dimly glimpsed — we need to be able to take our own measure. The Buddha, in the formulaic style favored by his Pali editors, gives us a checklist of things to examine, which I take to be not prescriptive but suggestive, leaving us free to modify it appropriately for our own needs:

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu understands the consciousness with lust, as with lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the consciousness with hate, as with hate; the consciousness without hate, as without hate; the consciousness with ignorance, as with ignorance; the consciousness without ignorance, as without ignorance; the shrunken state of consciousness, as the shrunken state; the distracted state of consciousness, as the distracted state; the state of consciousness become great, as the state become great; the state of consciousness not become great, as the state not become great; the state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, as the state with something mentally higher; the state of consciousness with no other mental state superior to it, as the state with nothing mentally higher; the quieted state of consciousness, as the quieted state; the state of consciousness not quieted, as the state not quieted; the freed state of consciousness as freed; and the unfreed state of consciousness, as unfreed.”

These are the kinds of consideration undertaken by any good teacher regarding her students — because there is no point giving them assignments that they are not mentally or emotionally prepared to do. What is particularly moving in texts like the Satipatthana is that we are expected to be able to do this ourselves. Indeed, no one else can do it for us.  At almost every stage of the training, the student is asked to self-reflect and to review. If there is the will to progress, the capacity to evaluate and investigate can always be refined. Because our “state of mind” determines what we are capable of doing at any given time, we need to be aware, as we practice, of our current state of mind and how it might be changing. As with bodily phenomena and feelings, we notice that different states arise and then subside; they never stay the same, and they can be affected through training. It is a little bit like sailing a boat on a vast, dark ocean: we cannot necessarily change the ocean at any given time, but we can become minutely aware of winds and waters, and learn to navigate with skill to our destination.

This ideal is very difficult to achieve, because the citta are subtler, more pervasive objects of contemplation that either body or feelings. If you remember a time when you spent hours trying to reason with someone consumed with anger, you will also remember feeling frustrated and hopeless because your interlocutor was so submerged in anger that there was no way he could hear anything else: calm reasoning was futile. The problem with citta is that we identify with our mind-states, we believe them, we see through them. This is why some translators render citta as “consciousness”: our citta is nothing less than how we see things at any moment, and consciousness is always manifest in the form of some citta. We never find pure consciousness without citta, just as we never find it without body or without feelings. Thus, your angry interlocutor had consciousness with anger, and you had a dismayed state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, to use the Buddha’s formula. At the time of your argument, you couldn’t realize that your angry  interlocutor was equally frustrated with your inability to see the full justice of his fury. Citta is of the nature of passion, in that we are largely passive to it — and when we are deep in it, it is very hard to see it objectively. We tend to see it as ourselves. This is why when we are challenged in our citta, we tend to get angry or defensive — because it is we who are being attacked. To be mindful of our own citta, as a skilled teacher is mindful of the citta of her student, is to have attained a very high order of mindfulness. At this point the philosophical dualist would still say, Is the consciousness of citta the same kind of thing as citta, or is it not necessarily transcendent to it? The Buddha would reply, Can you point to it independently of the citta it is conscious of? The observing consciousness is still citta, still conditioned — and it will change, conditioned by its next set of determinants.

The contemplation of citta reaches very deeply into the question of who we are. Now, when we get the Buddha’s reflective refrain — which by this time we know by heart — we hear some new nsights:

“Thus he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness externally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in consciousness, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in consciousness, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in consciousness. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘Consciousness exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.”

States of mind have originations and dissolutions. Like corporeal sensations and the vedanas, nothing stays still from one moment to another; only the practice of careful, focused contemplation will teach us to be sensitive to even the minutest flickerings of change. Consciousness exists: this is how it is, there is no other way for consciousness to be, no place to go that is permanent. The Buddha’s matter-of-fact approach is especially valuable in this kind of meditation, for we are prone to take its objects personally and become upset and resistant. For example, if we find in ourselves a citta of laziness and if we happen to be the kind of person who flees laziness at all cost, our immediate reaction will tend to be disgust with ourselves and the desire to change — which of course is another citta, so we would be automatically flying from one state to another. The Buddha tells us just to contemplate, not to struggle; let it be, find it interesting, and let it pass — because it will pass. We contemplate not for the sake of fixing ourselves or to make ourselves perfect, but to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance. Knowing that the citta are as fleeting and insubstantial as bodily motions and feelings — insubstantial in the sense that there is no unchanging substance underlying them to give them fixity and soliditythe bhikkhu does not cling to them as still points in a turning world.

One practical benefit to this way of engaging with states of mind is that in accepting the various states as they our in our own beings, we become generally more relaxed and understanding when they manifest themselves in other people: the perceived stupidity and obstinacy of the other party is no more identified with them as our wisdom and righteousness are identified with us. Thus the advanced practitioner lives, contemplating citta in citta, internally and externally.

For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

Learning from Feelings: Mindfulness (6)

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings…

Are you the same as your body? After a period of time cultivating focused awareness of breathing, postures, movements, and decay, it is tempting to conclude that we are not the same as our bodies — and that the witnessing consciousness stands above and outside of the ceaseless flux of embodied life. The contemplations of the body in the body are perfectly compatible with philosophies that view the essential self as bodiless — as the impersonal intellect, or as the individual soul, or as Spirit opposed to Matter, or as the universal Self or Atman that forms the eternal substratum to the changing world. For all such philosophies, the contemplation of the body in the body would be a highly effective way to wean us from identifying with the body and instead teach us to identify with the unchanging part of ourselves. But are we only twofold — an eternal something inhabiting a changing, material body? Certainly the eternal something cannot be found apart from body, but is the part of us that is not body simply an eternal soul, or are there aspects and gradations to it? In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha goes from body to feelings:

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating feeling in feelings? (Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

Before going on, I should point put that the English word feelings misses the mark. The word translated is vedana, which is not “feelings” as in “emotions.” The latter tends to come in a complex package that is made up of both affect and thought. In fact, all emotions come from thought on some level and cannot be separated from it — for instance, anger is usually an emotion that issues from some perception of injustice, and love is inextricably tied to the good and the beautiful. When we hate someone, it is because we think they are bad; and when we despise or admire someone, our feelings flow from conscious evaluation. With the emotions, we cannot contemplate feelings in feelings, stripped away from other aspects of mental life.

The Buddha — in his penetrating observation of everything that goes on inside a person — noticed that there is one level in our experience that usually goes unnoticed and undiscussed. We have six sense faculties that are made to sense six kinds of things. (For Buddhists as for Hindus, the sixth sense is the mind, which is both the internal sense organ and also the sense that brings together the perceptions of the other senses, as when we realize that the orange object sensed by our eyes, the sweet but tart object, sensed by our taste, and the spherical object sensed by our touch, are in fact aspects of one thing, namely an orange.) When we sense something, there is a perception, but there is always simultaneously a feeling tone to that perception. To take an analogy: a cook makes a dish for the king, gives it a taste-test, and finds it acceptable; the king tastes it and also enjoys it. Both cook and king might have the same taste-perception of the dish, but their reactions on tasting are what the Buddha is calling vedana or “feelings.” Clearly, the vedana and the taste-perception are not separable, but they are distinct. If the cook makes the identical dish every day, after a week the king might have the same taste-perception of this dish, but the feeling may have turned to dislike. Thus, while feeling and perception come together, the specific feeling is not intrinsic to the perception. Another strange fact regarding vedana is that with any given sense perception we usually cannot help feeling what we feel, and what we feel can often surprise us.

The observation that there is such a dimension to experience as vedana is both original and profoundly important in the Buddha’s path out of suffering. Feelings lead to craving, and craving leads to attachment — and once we are attached, we are committed to suffering. To reiterate an example from a previous essay: I am handed a bowl of ice-cream of a flavor new to me, I taste it (sense perception), I like it (feeling), I want more (craving), I want a second bowl (more craving), and I need to find out where I can buy it so that it is either always in my fridge or permanently available to me (attachment). In attachment we attempt to guarantee the object for ourselves, and the money we pay for the ice-cream goes towards securing the future production of it as well as the means of delivery — in other words, we make the world that guarantees us this ice-cream. Once we get to this point we are committed, shackled, and any disturbance of this security makes us unhappy. The same sequence of feeling-craving-attachment can be experienced in all our commitments: reading, career, friendship, romance, religions, philosophies. I experienced this, I liked it, I wanted more, I tried to secure it. In the suttas on craving, the Buddha asks us to notice that the chain starts with the link from feeling to craving, but that craving is not intrinsic to feeling: it is possible to be perfectly content with one taste of ice-cream, and indeed to enjoy it more that way. But the problem is that usually tasting, feeling, craving, and attachment all seem to happen simultaneously, “naturally,” in one thought. I can’t help liking this new ice-cream, but liking it then “naturally” seems to mean that I must have it always. In mindfulness meditation, we slow down the apparently natural process and notice that tasting, feeling, craving, and attachment are each discrete. We can’t stop ourselves from perceiving, and we can’t stop the immediate feeling-reaction to the perception, but we can see that there is a chasm between feeling and craving.

This is why the contemplation of feelings in feeling is so important: if we are to work on craving and attachment, we have to be attentive to the level of vedana all the time. The actual exercise of contemplating feelings in feeling in the Satipatthana is relatively short, less than a page, but it is an extremely rich and demanding exercise. The exercises on body are much more extensive and varied, because they are training-wheels, as it were. Mindfulness of breathing and movements, while good practices in themselves, also enable us to cultivate powers of observation, sensitivity, and stamina with relatively obvious objects — whereas feelings and thoughts are more volatile and elusive. If you can’t do the exercise on breathing, the one on feelings will be way out of your reach. In what follows, the Buddha works with only three categories of vedana — pleasant, unpleasant, and not-sure — and with two levels of them, to do with gross physical sensation and mental or imaginative sensation:

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu when experiencing a pleasant feeling, understands: ‘I experience a pleasant feeling’; when experiencing a painful feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling’; when experiencing a pleasant worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a pleasant worldly feeling’; when experiencing a pleasant spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a pleasant spiritual feeling’; when experiencing a painful worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful worldly feeling’; when experiencing a painful spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful spiritual feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling.’

At first these categories seem too simple to be true, as if we were labeling each vedana with a crude emoticon. But the Buddha’s project here is to simplify, to pare the vedanas down to the barest and most undeniable characteristic of like, don’t like, and not sure. More sophisticated  emotional overtones, such as “fascinating” and “sad,” are harder to nail down because they have so many shadings and jagged edges, and because they change so quickly and, indeed, wobble. The category of neither-pleasant-nor-painful is particularly interesting, because often it exists because of the other two: if you tend to like and dislike passionately, the extremes will create a neutral middle-ground that we mostly experience as “uninteresting” or “boring.” The phenomenon of a “boring life” is the artifact of an excessive attachment to what we “like” and “dislike,” an attachment that somehow sprang from the initial feelings of liking and disliking. When we pay attention to those feelings as they arise, watch them in their courses, and notice that they do actually diminish, we will be much less prone to just letting them turn to cravings.

We all know that the more we observe, the more we find there is to observe. When we started on mindfulness of breathing, it didn’t seem that there would be much to it, but as we become more perceptive, we start to find the act of breathing, in the whole body, infinitely interesting. The objects of sense perception are overwhelming in their multitude. As I sit here, if I pause my writing, I can notice all six of my senses going at one moment or another, and each distinct sense perception is accompanied by a vedana. There are hundreds in a minute. It is an athletic feat to keep up with them all, and the effect of even short bursts of contemplating feelings can be like a deafening, blinding bombardment of stimuli both from inside and outside. In one of the Buddha’s similes, we are compared to a flayed cow standing in a field, exposed to millions of stinging insects and the assaults of weather. In this exercise, we realize vividly how much there is going on in our experience all the time, and how easily we latch onto things and feverishly shun other things. In this buzzing jungle of feelings, attachments — especially as attractions and aversions — form rapidly and then take on lives of their own that grow into monsters that consume us. But here we nip the attachments in the bud by just watching the feelings and letting them be: they arise, grow, dwindle, and vanish, equal in status, none of them getting preferential treatment, and none of them outcast. We do not know where they come from, why they came, or where they go to: we are not the authors of them.

The Buddha then gives the reflective refrain:

“Thus he lives contemplating feelings in feelings internally, or he lives contemplating feeling in feelings externally, or he lives contemplating feeling in feelings internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in feelings, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in feelings, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in feelings. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘Feeling exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.”

Having chewed on this paragraph after each of the exercises in contemplating body, we start to hear things more clearly. The bhikkhu lives contemplating in this way: it is not merely an exercise. And with feelings, we can become acutely aware of origination and dissolution, as well as both together. Nothing stays still. It is in the nature of feeling to be this way; indeed, there is no other way for feeling to be! When we want to secure unending access to the marvelous ice-cream, what we are trying to do is to repeat the pleasure of the first taste — to repeat it forever. But this is not in the nature of feelings, for no two spoonfuls of the ice-cream will result in the same feeling: if we attempt to repeat, we will be disappointed — and in our intense expectation of a repeat, we will block ourselves from experiencing something new. Yet “feeling exists”: there is no way, if we have sense perception, that it will not exist. We acknowledge it, and remember to heed the warning not to get carried away by our experience in meditation to make more of the ephemerality of feeling than it really is — for instance, not to elevate it into an aesthetic in which we strain to develop a sentimental, nostalgic relationship to the moment, as with much classical Japanese literature. We practice mindfulness “to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance,” and certainly not for the pleasant feelings it might cause in us.

If we want to believe that the experiencing consciousness is separate from and transcends the world of the body, we can — with the Cartesians — think of sense-perception and vedanas as being essentially of the body, because they are both in and of the kingdom of flux. But vedanas are interesting and problematic, because they shade into volitions and commitments; and, since there indubitably exist feelings of pleasure and pain towards mental objects of perception — ideas, thoughts, images, dreams — the vedanas have to be considered an aspect of the very consciousness that is experiencing the objects of the six senses. Even the least worldly person has vedana towards geometry, a Bach partita, the idea of God, the mystery of death. It is much harder, after undertaking the contemplation of feelings in feeling, to take refuge in the thought that “I” am the unchanging, untouched, witnessing consciousness standing aloof from the mutable world of matter.
For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

Death like the Sun: Mindfulness (5)

“I would like to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather — and not screaming in terror like his passengers.” The old joke is funny because it is true: most people would prefer not to experience their death and would rather sleep through it, while those who have no choice but to meet it with open eyes go to it screaming with desperate resistance. Yet of the few things that we can have certainty about — besides the facts that you and I are breathing right now, and have bodies — nothing is more certain than that we will die and that we don’t know how we will die. If we want to make any sense of our lives, we must surely look first to the things we can be certain about, and see what meaning we can draw from them. Strangely, even though after birth, death may be the most important event of our lives, we try our utmost to avoid it and also to avoid thinking about it. Most people do not experience their deaths, and even if they are conscious or in clear enough mind at the time, they are dragged terrified into it and are in no state to be intelligently receptive. Few people get to know death, says La Rochefoucauld. We seldom suffer it from resolution, but from stupidity and habit; and most men die because they cannot help dying. (Maxims, 23). If we do not die quietly in in our sleep, a heart attack or violent accident might also prevent us from the unpleasant witnessing of our own death; or else we die secure in the comfort of a myth of an afterlife in which we do not really die. La Rochefoucauld describes this kind of comfort as being like the blindfold that prisoners wear before execution. In expiring with our eyes closed or turned away, we miss an essential, even climactic moment — like turning our faces away from a race when the runners are in the last stretch because we can’t bear to see it end. 

   Broodings on death thread through every literate tradition. Most philosophers and poets acknowledge that we cannot develop into full human beings if we are constantly running away from death. When Socrates in the Phaedo said that “to philosophize is to learn how to die,” what he meant was that in the practice of philosophy we learn to separate our intelligent soul from the unknowable, changing body — but this too strikes me as one of those blindfolds, hiding the mortality of our most cherished part. In an essay actually called “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” Montaigne rails against our attempts to ignore death:

The goal of our career is death. It is the necessary object of our aim. If it frightens us, how is it possible to go a step forward without feverishness? The remedy of the common herd is not to think about it. But from what brutish stupidity can come so gross a blindness! (The Complete Works, tr. Frame, 2003, p.69)

…there is no man so decrepit that as long as he sees Methuselah ahead of him, he does not think he has another twenty years left in his body. Furthermore, poor fool that you are, who has assured you the term of your life? You are building on the tales of doctors. Look rather at facts and experience. By the ordinary run of things, you have been living a long time now by extraordinary favor. You have passed the accustomed limits of life…(71)

Let us rid it of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death. At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects…It is uncertain here death awaits us; let us await it everywhere. Premeditation of death is premeditation of freedom. He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint. There is nothing evil in life for the man who has thoroughly grasped the fact that to be deprived of life is not an evil. (72)

We cannot be free if we are afraid of death — practically, because we lock ourselves into strenuous efforts to obtain and guarantee our safety; and philosophically, because terror of death will cause us to espouse views that give us comfort. Montaigne describes his own daily practice to “rob it of its strangeness,” which involves remembering all the endlessly surprising ways in which death has arrived and imagining how it might come to him at any moment:

How many ways has death to surprise us!…Who would ever have thought that a duke of Britanny would be stifled to death by a crowd, as that duke was at the entrance of Pope Clement, my neighbor, into Lyons? Haven’t you seen one of our kings killed at play? And did not one of his ancestors die from the charge of a hog? Aeschylus, threatened with the fall of a house, takes every precaution –in vain: he gets himself killed by a sort of roof, the shell of a tortoise dropped by a flying eagle. Another dies from a grape seed; an emperor from the scratch of a comb, while combing his hair; Aemilius Lepidus through stumbling against his threshold, and Aufidius through bumping against the door of the council chamber on his way in; and between women’s thighs, Cornelius Gallus the praetor, Tigillanus, captain of the watch at Rome, Ludovico, son of Guido de Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua — and still worse, the Platonic philosopher Speusippus, and one of our Popes. Poor Bebius, a judge, in the act of granting a week’s postponement to a litigant, has a seizure, his own term of living having expired; and Caius Julius, a doctor, is anointing the eyes of a patient, when along comes death and closes his. And, if I must bring myself into this, a brother of mine, Captain Saint-Martin, twenty-three years old, who had already given pretty good proof of his valor, while playing tennis was struck by a ball a little above the right ear, with no sign of contusion or wound. He did not sit down or rest, but five or six hours later he died of an apoplexy that this blow gave him. With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes, how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat? (71)

Through such musings we can become “intimate” with death, and such intimacy makes us more open to embracing the great philosophical consolations in which our deaths present themselves as good and attractive:

Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is a part of the life of the world…Death is the condition of your creation, it is a part of you; you are fleeing from your own selves. This being of yours that you enjoy is equally divided between death and life. The first day of your birth leads you toward death as toward life..(78)

   Montaigne’s contemplations of death can be read as a kind of Mindfulness practice, in which we engage in focused meditation on our extinction and remember what we are. Yet what he is really doing is riffing on the idea of dying, through a multitude of examples and speculations. I begin this essay with Montaigne because his form of meditation is so strikingly different from the Buddha’s approach in the Satipatthana Sutta. There, in the section on contemplating the body in the body, we are given nine exercises for contemplating a dead body, representing nine phases in decomposition. Montaigne would regard these exercises as a cogent and powerful method to “rid death of its strangeness,” but what we notice on first reading of the Satipatthana is that the dead person is considered solely as body, with attention given only to the physical process of decay. In contrast, Montaigne’s consideration of death included all aspects of the person at once, without differentiation. I will quote all nine exercises together:

1. “And further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body dead, one, two, or three days: swollen, blue and festering, thrown into the charnel ground, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine too is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
2. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees, whilst it is being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms, a body that had been thrown into the charnel ground, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
3. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body, thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
4.”And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
5. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mind, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’

6. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions — a bone of the hand, a bone of the foot, a shin bone, a thigh bone, the pelvis, spine and skull, each in a different place — he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
7.”And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones, white in color like a conch, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body;’
8. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones more than a year old, heaped together, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
9. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.'”

(Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

We are asked to look, to see, to pay attention to decay, disintegration, and dispersal as phases in an inevitable process. This is all the more necessary in a society such as ours, where we are systematically shielded from dying and death, and where natural decay is concealed from us by the funeral industry. In a culture that fetishizes youth and depends for its continuation on the feeding of infinite collective appetite, we do not get to see decay; we barely even get to see people bent over in advanced age. The closest most of us get to decay is roadkill, but we never stop to look because by definition we are on the road speeding by the kill. Perhaps we should stop to look, since it will be one of our few opportunities to witness decay for ourselves. With modern scientific instruments, we can also see that putrefaction is a wonderfully complex and ordered process, with laws and patterns. Even with our naked eyes it is possible to watch the corpse becoming billions of beings, many of which came from it anyway and lived as part of it. We witness how the body is not one thing, and its multifarious motion in death reflects also its manifoldness in life — and how determined by conditions each phase is! There are not really even phases, only a continuous process until the body has returned to its elements, which in turn partake in other processes that might result in new bodies. Daily observation of these transformations eventually wears away our squeamishness in the face of decay, making us capable of living with death and disintegration as they go on all around us.

   That is one part of the meditation. The other part is the refrain, ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’ My body is the same as this corpse and has not managed to transcend the conditions of dying and decay. Notice that the Buddha does not say “I am of the same nature as this body”: he is not reducing the whole human being to its physical processes, and is focusing here only on the body. The refrain has to be more than a mere verbal acknowledgment; when we say it and mean it, what we are expressing is a growing acquaintance with the natural processes as we are experiencing them right now in this body that grows old and will die. In my 50s, I can know in every aspect of the body that the processes of dying and decay are happening in me, albeit less dramatically than in the corpse, and it is all an integral aspect of being alive in flux. Without this same flux I would never have been born and would never have grown to maturity: nothing would have happened. Even though these thoughts are going beyond contemplating the body in the body, they flow naturally from recognizing myself in the corpse before me and are a consequence of remembering what I am. At the end of each of these exercises the Buddha repeats the encouragement to reflect in a rounded way on what we have discovered through observation:

“Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, ‘The body exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.”

The regular undertaking of this exercise changes us, making us more open and attuned to the vibrant, perilous buzz of the organic world around us and in us — and no longer afraid of it all. Our mindfulness is established with the thought, ‘The body exists’:  this is what it is for body to be body, there is no other way for body to be and consequently no way for any of us to escape from this condition. However, the simple recognition that this is how things are can easily be elevated into a grand, dark theory of life. Therefore we are mindful to the extent necessary for knowledge and remembrance, and should catch ourselves sliding into morbidity, transcendentalism, or any view that would replace and cover up the raw experience. This is why the Buddha calls for contemplating a corpse — not contemplating death or dying. A corpse is an observable fact, and our identification with it is grounded in experience — whereas “death” and “dying” are conceptions from the point of view of a consciousness that is clinging to the supposed opposite of these conceptions. Without an attachment to “life,” death is not an opposite that has to be neutralized; instead, there is only a process of transformation, moment by moment. 

    La Rochefoucauld remarks cryptically, Neither the sun nor death can be looked at fixedly (Maxims, 26). Just as we cannot stare directly at the sun without squinting or getting blinded, so we cannot take a direct look at death. In the corpse contemplations the bhikkhu doesn’t even try to look at “death” or “dying,” focusing instead only on the body and eliminating from the picture the rest of the being that is conceived as dying. The effect is not any theory about death, but the removal of an obstruction to experiencing the entire process that is meant by the word “death.” 
For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

The Exercise of Gratitude: Thanksgiving with Marcus Aurelius

Before we begin any significant and difficult project, we “clear the decks” of lingering messes from the past. In the kitchen, we empty out sinks and dishwasher, vacate and wipe down the countertops and chopping boards, clean all the pots and cooking utensils in readiness, and arrange the raw foodstuffs so that they may be easily reached at the appropriate time. Before meditation or any session dedicated to serious reflection, we should also “clear the decks,” but — in our haste to get to more interesting suff — we often forget to. At moments of leisure, when our minds are not chained to a specific task, which of us does not find that all too quickly and all too often the mental space is filled with a stream of internal grumbling, about people and situations that have turned out unsatisfactory, or about our disappointments with ourselves? Each of us has characteristic cycles of internal grumbling that keep playing out over the years, and when I watch how even small children complain incessantly I can’t help wondering if the bedrock of our personalities might consist solely of grumbling.

This is why it is good to precede meditation sessions with a ritual of gratitude and well-wishing. By doing so, we preempt or undermine the intrusive grumbling tendency by tuning our minds to a more benevolent note, making it less likely that our meditation will be invaded by old discontent that insists on being heard. The same applies to writing or to any creative activity, in which we might not want the inertia of past resentments to trespass on present work; or to martial arts practice, in which the bow at the beginning of class establishes a boundary between ordinary life and present training, and defuses latent anger that might taint and destabilize the training in dangerous techniques. The same thing is valuable also at the dining table, where often unresolved family conflicts can ruin a potentially wonderful meal; here, a simple and sincere giving of thanks at the start of the meal can “reset” the heart and prevent old hostilities from erupting. The daily habit of marking this boundary has the additional ethical benefit of training a certain freedom and mastery over our emotions, such that we are not contiually being pushed by emotional inertia.

At the beginning of many books it is customary to have a short page of “acknowledgments.” For most writers the giving of credit where credit is due can be an extremely pleasurable formality. One of the world’s greatest books of advice and consolation, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (written around 167 CE), begins with an entire chapter of very specific thanksgiving. Readers usually skim or skip this chapter in order to arrive more quickly at the “thoughts” that make the meat of the book, perhaps because we don’t know the people he mentions and are eager to get to the paragraphs that more directly concern us. But for Marcus, his opening chapter is no mere page of Acknowledgments; it is the essential gateway to the whole book, acknowledgments elevated to the status of an exercise in gratitude. When read slowly, with an attempt to imagine the person who is being thanked and the qualities that are being praised, it is impossible not to be moved by the dignity of a mind that can so calmly and methodically summarize a life in terms of thanks owed. The feel of this chapter is valedictory, the thoughts of a human being intensely aware of the proximity of death and needing to pay homage to the sources of good in his life. Indeed, it is said that Marcus wrote this in the midst of a difficult military campaign against Germanic tribes near the Danube (as commemorated in the recent Ridley Scott film Gladiator). I quote here this beautiful chapter in full, because it is a remarkable gift to be able to hear the lifelike voice of an actual human being from two thousand years ago — and one of the greatest statesmen the world has ever seen — reflecting with gratitude on his own life.

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper. 
From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character. 

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich. 

From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally. 

From my governor, to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partizan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander. 

From Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of daemons and such things; and not to breed quails for fighting, nor to give myself up passionately to such things; and to endure freedom of speech; and to have become intimate with philosophy; and to have been a hearer, first of Bacchius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to have written dialogues in my youth; and to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline. 

From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline; and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little hortatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practises much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display; and to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing; and not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress, nor to do other things of the kind; and to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother; and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection. 

From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the smallest of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed. 

From Sextus, a benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the idea of living conformably to nature; and gravity without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that intercourse with him was more agreeable than any flattery; and at the same time he was most highly venerated by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and ordering, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion, and also most affectionate; and he could express approbation without noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without ostentation. 

From Alexander the grammarian, to refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion. 

From Fronto I learned to observe what envy, and duplicity, and hypocrisy are in a tyrant, and that generally those among us who are called Patricians are rather deficient in paternal affection. 

From Alexander the Platonic, not frequently nor without necessity to say to any one, or to write in a letter, that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse the neglect of duties required by our relation to those with whom we live, by alleging urgent occupations. 

From Catulus, not to be indifferent when a friend finds fault, even if he should find fault without reason, but to try to restore him to his usual disposition; and to be ready to speak well of teachers, as it is reported of Domitius and Athenodotus; and to love my children truly. 

From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed; I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy; and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends; and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain. 

From Maximus I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I observed that everybody believed that he thought as he spoke, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his vexation, nor, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do acts of beneficence, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he presented the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been improved. I observed, too, that no man could ever think that he was despised by Maximus, or ever venture to think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way. 

In my father I observed mildness of temper, and unchangeable resolution in the things which he had determined after due deliberation; and no vainglory in those things which men call honours; and a love of labour and perseverance; and a readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the common weal; and undeviating firmness in giving to every man according to his deserts; and a knowledge derived from experience of the occasions for vigorous action and for remission. And I observed that he had overcome all passion for boys; and he considered himself no more than any other citizen; and he released his friends from all obligation to sup with him or to attend him of necessity when he went abroad, and those who had failed to accompany him, by reason of any urgent circumstances, always found him the same. I observed too his habit of careful inquiry in all matters of deliberation, and his persistency, and that he never stopped his investigation through being satisfied with appearances which first present themselves; and that his disposition was to keep his friends, and not to be soon tired of them, nor yet to be extravagant in his affection; and to be satisfied on all occasions, and cheerful; and to foresee things a long way off, and to provide for the smallest without display; and to check immediately popular applause and all flattery; and to be ever watchful over the things which were necessary for the administration of the empire, and to be a good manager of the expenditure, and patiently to endure the blame which he got for such conduct; and he was neither superstitious with respect to the gods, nor did he court men by gifts or by trying to please them, or by flattering the populace; but he showed sobriety in all things and firmness, and never any mean thoughts or action, nor love of novelty. And the things which conduce in any way to the commodity of life, and of which fortune gives an abundant supply, he used without arrogance and without excusing himself; so that when he had them, he enjoyed them without affectation, and when he had them not, he did not want them. No one could ever say of him that he was either a sophist or a home-bred flippant slave or a pedant; but every one acknowledged him to be a man ripe, perfect, above flattery, able to manage his own and other men’s affairs. Besides this, he honoured those who were true philosophers, and he did not reproach those who pretended to be philosophers, nor yet was he easily led by them. He was also easy in conversation, and he made himself agreeable without any offensive affectation. He took a reasonable care of his body’s health, not as one who was greatly attached to life, nor out of regard to personal appearance, nor yet in a careless way, but so that, through his own attention, he very seldom stood in need of the physician’s art or of medicine or external applications. He was most ready to give way without envy to those who possessed any particular faculty, such as that of eloquence or knowledge of the law or of morals, or of anything else; and he gave them his help, that each might enjoy reputation according to his deserts; and he always acted conformably to the institutions of his country, without showing any affectation of doing so. Further, he was not fond of change nor unsteady, but he loved to stay in the same places, and to employ himself about the same things; and after his paroxysms of headache he came immediately fresh and vigorous to his usual occupations. His secrets were not but very few and very rare, and these only about public matters; and he showed prudence and economy in the exhibition of the public spectacles and the construction of public buildings, his donations to the people, and in such things, for he was a man who looked to what ought to be done, not to the reputation which is got by a man’s acts. He did not take the bath at unseasonable hours; he was not fond of building houses, nor curious about what he ate, nor about the texture and colour of his clothes, nor about the beauty of his slaves. His dress came from Lorium, his villa on the coast, and from Lanuvium generally. We know how he behaved to the toll-collector at Tusculum who asked his pardon; and such was all his behaviour. There was in him nothing harsh, nor implacable, nor violent, nor, as one may say, anything carried to the sweating point; but he examined all things severally, as if he had abundance of time, and without confusion, in an orderly way, vigorously and consistently. And that might be applied to him which is recorded of Socrates, that he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess. But to be strong enough both to bear the one and to be sober in the other is the mark of a man who has a perfect and invincible soul, such as he showed in the illness of Maximus. 

To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good. Further, I owe it to the gods that I was not hurried into any offence against any of them, though I had a disposition which, if opportunity had offered, might have led me to do something of this kind; but, through their favour, there never was such a concurrence of circumstances as put me to the trial. Further, I am thankful to the gods that I was not longer brought up with my grandfather’s concubine, and that I preserved the flower of my youth, and that I did not make proof of my virility before the proper season, but even deferred the time; that I was subjected to a ruler and a father who was able to take away all pride from me, and to bring me to the knowledge that it is possible for a man to live in a palace without wanting either guards or embroidered dresses, or torches and statues, and such-like show; but that it is in such a man’s power to bring himself very near to the fashion of a private person, without being for this reason either meaner in thought, or more remiss in action, with respect to the things which must be done for the public interest in a manner that befits a ruler. I thank the gods for giving me such a brother, who was able by his moral character to rouse me to vigilance over myself, and who, at the same time, pleased me by his respect and affection; that my children have not been stupid nor deformed in body; that I did not make more proficiency in rhetoric, poetry, and the other studies, in which I should perhaps have been completely engaged, if I had seen that I was making progress in them; that I made haste to place those who brought me up in the station of honour, which they seemed to desire, without putting them off with hope of my doing it some time after, because they were then still young; that I knew Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus; that I received clear and frequent impressions about living according to nature, and what kind of a life that is, so that, so far as depended on the gods, and their gifts, and help, and inspirations, nothing hindered me from forthwith living according to nature, though I still fall short of it through my own fault, and through not observing the admonitions of the gods, and, I may almost say, their direct instructions; that my body has held out so long in such a kind of life; that I never touched either Benedicta or Theodotus, and that, after having fallen into amatory passions, I was cured; and, though I was often out of humour with Rusticus, I never did anything of which I had occasion to repent; that, though it was my mother’s fate to die young, she spent the last years of her life with me; that, whenever I wished to help any man in his need, or on any other occasion, I was never told that I had not the means of doing it; and that to myself the same necessity never happened, to receive anything from another; that I have such a wife, so obedient, and so affectionate, and so simple; that I had abundance of good masters for my children; and that remedies have been shown to me by dreams, both others, and against bloodspitting and giddiness…; and that, when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of any sophist, and that I did not waste my time on writers of histories, or in the resolution of syllogisms, or occupy myself about the investigation of appearances in the heavens; for all these things require the help of the gods and fortune. 

It is rare to have such a vivid self-portrait from an ancient who was both thinker and leader. Doubtless in this list there arevone or two thorny people whose thorniness is only hinted at, and if we studied Marcus’ life we might discover some interesting omissions, such as the Emperor Hadrian. Thinking about particular instances in our own experience of powerful men “thanking” benefactors, we might also wonder if the expression of gratitude in this case might in fact be a way of asserting political dominance by putting strong influences gently in their places. As Nietzsche points out, gratitude can be ambivalent and is often closely relatd to vengeance:

The reason why the powerful man is grateful is this: his benefactor, through the benefit he confers, has mistaken and intruded into the sphere of the powerful man; now the latter, in return, penetrates into the sphere of the benefactor by the act of gratitude. It is a milder form of revenge. Without the satisfaction of gratitude, the powerful man would have shown himself powerless, and would have been reckoned as such ever after. Therefore every society of the good, which originally meant  the powerful, places gratitude amongst the first duties. Swift propounded the maxim that men were grateful in the same proportion as they were revengeful.

(Human All Too Human, 1878, Section 44)
However, Marcus’ expressions of gratitude do not strike me as fueled by the desire to assert power: he seems clear-sighted in the recognition of his own failings, and he appears to attribute everything he likes about himself to the work and characters of other people. No human being is self-created; we become what we become partly through our own choices, but mostly from all those personalities that have guided us, inspired us, and held us unrelentingly to high standards of behavior. Even the most powerful man in the known world is confessing in these pages that he did not do it by himself, and that the sum of his character and achievements is indebted to other people: he can name them and specify the debts. The first chapter of the Meditations is thus a remarkable exercise in Mindfulness or Remembrance, and without it the rest of the book would feel like a series of speculations, questions, and assertions, without substantial grounding in a personality that has been cultivated by many hands.

Now if we read this chapter and think that it is about the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, we will have entirely missed the point. The exercise in gratitude is for us to do, as a kind of threshold or entry-way to self-knowledge; perhaps it is the only one. If you were to sit for an hour and write the Acknowledgments to your own life, who would you thank, and for what?

The Meditations, translated by George Long, can be found here: