Pause for a moment, and close your eyes. Take a deep breath in, and become aware of your…oh, wait! – you’re supposed to have your eyes closed. Sorry, this exercise isn’t going to work after all…
This attempt at humor had a point. It may have amused some of you, and others not so much, yet each of you will have judged it in some way, because as humans that’s how we operate. As adults, we might have different ways to express or intellectualize our reactions, yet it comes down to either: I liked that, I didn’t like that, or, I don’t care.
What are our judgements based on? As you read the first paragraph, and all of this article, what conditions are influencing your judgement of the experience? How about your own sense of humor, your expectations based on the title, or how you’re feeling right now? Perhaps your culture, your own writing ability, whether you’ve had your morning coffee yet.
Pleasant, unpleasant (or neutral)
The fact is, we’re judging machines. And this is happening mostly unconsciously. We’re either liking or not liking what’s occurring, or we don’t care. In other words, we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant, or possibly neutral. Then, we add layers of emotions and thoughts on top, clinging or otherwise reacting to the experience based on our particular conditioning. Hey presto, that’s an ego!
Unless we bring awareness to this, we’ll continue to be led through our days by these preferences – trying to get what we want (or think we want) and to not end up with what we don’t.
Let’s not pull any punches; this unconscious judging is the source of our suffering, because we’ll never satiate our desires, except temporarily. Everything we get is temporary. Even if we get our ideal moment, taste, sensation, partner, or job, we’ll soon (often within minutes) realize it has already faded, and we’ll be looking for the next hit of what we want, whether that’s peace and quiet or a slice of cake.
Look deeper – that ‘bad day’ doesn’t exist
How we feel about our days can be built on moments that we’ve unconsciously judged. Have you ever said you’re having a “bad day,” deciding you’re exhausted by it all – only to realize you’re basing your statement on one or maybe a few experiences, which you’ve held on to all day, that were unpleasant for a very short time?
So, how do we transform our bad days? Awareness.
We’re currently studying the Satipatthana Sutta in an online course with our founding teachers, Doug Duncan and Catherine Pawasarat Sensei. It includes instructions on calming the breath, the body, and then being aware of how these judgements, called “feelings,” appear with each arising. When the arisings relate to our bodies, we might label them pleasant or unpleasant feelings (and add secondary feelings, or emotions on top). When the arising are mental, such as images or thoughts, we might also see them as neutral. In meditation, we watch this occur again and again, trying to stay with the breath and not be caught in one of these feelings lest they grow into string of thoughts and take us away from bare perception of the moment.
The Sutta is a description of the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The word mindfulness is commonly used these days, yet it’s detached from its original meaning. Doug and Catherine Sensei point out that, “Mindfulness is a word that has been co-opted from the meditation tradition and is used now in an…office, or a business, or in a worldly sense of helping people to be more functional…”
(This quote was taken from a soundbite on our founding teachers’ podcast page.)
In fact, we need deeper mindfulness than this
If we’re to get anywhere meaningful with our practice, we need to go beyond simply, “I’m aware of washing my hands,” or “I’m aware of walking.” The teachings of the Four Foundations point to awareness of being aware, being with the nuances in the breath and the body, and one key part of this is awareness of when we judge something as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
Why would we want to practice this? What happens when we note that moment of judging, and yet don’t follow it into emotions and strings of thoughts? If we stay with the breath, with the bare experience of what’s happening, again and again? Bliss happens. And who couldn’t do with more bliss?
The instructions within the Satipatthana Sutta were intended to guide people in meditation sessions. Our meditation sessions are meant to help us see what’s happening all the time. We can use these methods to catch ourselves when we start to slide into negative emotions. And we are judging in each moment, whether we realize it or not. If we’re not aware of our unconscious judgements and choices, what chance do we have to be compassionate to ourselves and others? So really, answer this, bringing to bear your fullest concentration and awareness – what did you think of the opening joke?
If you’d like more help gaining fuller awareness in all aspects of your life, we’ll begin our next online course May 9th, a 6-week course focused on creating the best conditions for our spiritual life to flourish. Read more about Ignite Your Spiritual Life and other online offerings here.