CALMING MENTAL FABRICATION
This week’s discussion focuses on the next stanza in the Anapanasati Sutta, again downloaded from the Access To Insight site, translated by Thanissaro:
“On whatever occasion a monk trains himself, ‘I will breathe in…&…out sensitive to rapture’; trains himself, ‘I will breathe in…&…out sensitive to pleasure’; trains himself, ‘I will breathe in…&…out sensitive to mental fabrication’; trains himself, ‘I will breathe in…&…out calming mental fabrication’: On that occasion the monk remains focused on feelings in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. I tell you, monks, that this — careful attention to in-&-out breaths — is classed as a feeling among feelings, which is why the monk on that occasion remains focused on feelings in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.”
The beginning sections relate to what was explored in the previous meeting, that is, the nature of rapture (piti) and pleasure (sukha). These characteristics emerge as the energy of the nervous system is no longer burdened by intrusive thoughts that “enchant” the flow of thoughts and emotions. The resulting experience with freed up energy produces a heightened interest in what emerges in awareness.
The next stage involves reducing the churning effect of predominant patterns of thought, the internal “selfing story”. At this stage, emphasis on calming the body diminishes and increasing awareness of mental phenomena increases. It could be considered the transition between cultivating samadhi (a stable, tranquil flow of experience), and the onset of vipassana practice, which is the insightful investigation of transitory states of self-organization.
It may be confusing if this process is considered to be linear; that is, first the breath awareness is referred to constantly, then the rapture appears, then the pleasure, and so on. This isn’t the case. The development of these characteristics is non-linear, that is, each factor is coordinated with the others, with the result being the manifestation of the characteristics more frequently and with more noticeable effect. The benefits accumulate with practice.
One of the unfortunate consequences of our “faster is better” culture is a lack of patience, expecting quick and dramatic results. This is a training that is a form of mental and emotional hygiene, and is best approached as a routine part of life, more important than the routines we establish for watching the favorite tv show every night. I assure you that when a person dedicates an hour a day to watching the breath, there will be more noticeable benefits to well-being and interpersonal harmony than a tv show!
I also put the phrase relating to feelings in boldface, even though it will be the topic for a later discussion. This is related to the progression in the Satipatthana Sutta, another core Buddhist teaching, most often translated as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The previous week’s discussion about calming the breath-body can be associated with the first foundation, mindfulness of the body, while this discussion focuses on mindfulness of feeling, the second foundation of mindfulness.
What is “mental fabrication”? There are several Buddhist words that relate to this concept. The most familiar word is kamma (karma in Sanskrit). Kamma has two coordinated characteristics, stored in memory: the internal descriptive, either as an image or as a narrative, or both, combined with a feeling, either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The feeling has an impulsive potency also, that is, a drive to either approach the experience or avoid it. The neutral feeling has no drive, and is often ignored. Typically, whatever comes to the forefront of awareness has some degree of emotional potency, which modern psychology terms affect. The draw towards feelings that are pleasant is called affect approach, and the desire to withdraw from unpleasant feelings is called affect avoidance. One of the values of ongoing breath awareness is the neutrality of the sensations, which require aware attention to be sustained. In this way, mindfulness of breathing interrupts the increasing potency of the feeling, allowing for opportunities to redirect awareness away from the distraction before becoming “enchanted” by craving and clinging.
A similar term for the mental fabrication function is cetana, typically translated as volition or intention. If you can imagine that there are many different factors involved in forming a particular thought and feeling (such as labeling the object of attention, evaluating “friend or foe, food or poison”, considering possible responses, etc.), the function that brings them all into a more or less coherent organization, even for just a split second, is volition.
The factors involved in forming a particular thought and feeling are cetasikas, typically translated as “conditioning factors”. In Theravada Buddhism, there are 52 such factors, organized into categories: universal, occasional, unwholesome and wholesome. Volition is one of the universal cetasikas, meaning that the organization of a self-state can be either wholesome or unwholesome.
Therefore, we can say that the phrase “sensitive to…calming mental fabrications” is related to being able to identify the thoughts, feelings and impulses toward or away from emerging self-states and to determine whether they are wholesome or unwholesome. This is the function of vipassana practice.
WHAT IS THE PROCESS OF BEING SENSITIVE TO AND CALMING MENTAL FABRICATIONS?
The initial practices associated with mindfulness of breathing include vitakka (bringing attention to a focus) and vicara (stabilizing that focus sufficiently to bring meaning to it). I mentioned in an earlier essay that the maturation of vitakka and vicara produces one of the seven awakening factors, Investigation of Mental Phenomena. The seven awakening factors are mentioned further on in the Anapanasati Sutta, after the section on how breath awareness supports the cultivation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The seven factors involved in the cultivation of the process of awakening are: Mindfulness, Investigation of Mental Phenomena, Energy/Effort, Joy, Tranquility, Concentration and Equanimity.
Here’s how the process works:
In order to pay attention to the in- and out-breath persistently, mindfulness is required, which is the ability to be clearly aware of volitions related to emerging self-experience. In order to stay with the breath, energy/effort brings vitakka and vicara to the breath sensations repeatedly. When distractions arise, mindfulness notes the different focus and disengages from unwholesome self-states, returning to the wholesome self-state awareness of breathing. As this process matures with practice, the factors of joy and tranquility are increasingly activated, because the normal turbulence of craving and clinging to the five hindrances is diminished. The body/mind processes are more stabilized and the flow of experience is less confused. As a result, the balance between energy and tranquility is adjusted optimally. In addition, the ability to discern the difference between the emergence of wholesome and unwholesome self-state organizations increases.
Remember, this is a non-linear, integrative process that matures gradually with consistent practice. Future essays and dhamma dialogues will elaborate this process more clearly. As the process of vipassana is matured, the focus and purpose of mindfulness practice shifts. Originally, the goal of the practice is to reduce the impact of the hindrances. Eventually, the focus of mindfulness practices becomes becoming disenchanted with the “content” of momentary awareness, that is, the object wanted or rejected loses emotional potency. Instead, mindful awareness simply notes the process of wanting or rejecting with indifference.
The Pali word often referred to as describing craving is raga, which can be translated as “heat” (spicy Indian food is said to be raga). The diminishment or elimination of craving is viraga, the absence of heat. The Pali word for clinging is upadana, which can be translated as “fuel” or “nutriment”. The Pali word nibbana (Sanskrit nirvana) can be translated as what remains when the fuel of clinging is absent, “cooling” the mind/body processes.
Next week’s discussion will explore the nature and function of the cetasikas, categories of qualities that shape the emergence of self-states. Although the categorization is scholarly (It wasn’t talked about by the Buddha, but emerged during several centuries following the beginning of the Buddhist tradition), it’s value is the ways understanding the qualities “deconstructs” the fabrication of a separate, enduring self, which is a core teaching of Buddhism.