In the forth foundation of mindfulness, we are exploring the teachings on the dharmas – universal categories of phenomena. They can be seen as different doors pointing to the same thing. Different methods of liberating the mind, where each part leads to the whole.

Last time, we looked at the 5 aggregates of clinging as a framework for understanding the building blocks of identification, and how ego clinging leads to suffering.

📖 The 5 Aggregates of Clinging

The next “door” invites us to look deeply into our sensory experience. This dhamma is the teaching on the six internal and external sense-bases, and the fetters that arise in dependence on them. Let’s have a look at what this means.

6 senses

First of all, what are the 6 sense spheres? We know of hearing, tasting, touching, smelling and seeing. And in Buddhism, thoughts and mental phenomena are considered to be the sixth sense. We often think of thoughts as who we are, or that our sense experience happens to our thinking process. But when we look closely, we see that thoughts are just another aspect of our experience – we can think of thought as mental sensations. We see that all six senses appear to – and happen within – awareness. We can be conscious of these sensations just as we are conscious of sound and sight. In this ability to observe thoughts without getting lost in them lies a great deal of freedom.

You can do a short experiment right now by shifting your awareness to your hands. Just notice what is happening in your hands? There is bound to be some activity. Perhaps feelings of temperature, sensations in the nerve endings. Just feel the aliveness in the hands. And then reflect on the fact that this activity is always going on, but if awareness is not looking there, you don’t notice it. You were probably not aware of your hands a minute ago. And in the same way, thoughts are like mental sensations. And because we are in the habit of paying attention to thoughts in our head, they become predominant. Through awareness practice, we allow thinking to go into the background by coming back to our senses, and awareness itself.

Internal and external sense bases

OK, so there are “external sense objects” and what we might call “internal sense organs” corresponding to each of our senses. For example, there are sound waves and ear drums, odorant particles and nostrils, physical form and nerve endings, and so on. And when we become aware of the contact between the two, we have a sensory experience. The contact between sense objects and sense organs, together with attention constitute the conditions for sense consciousness to arise.

If we look closely, we see that our entire lives are made up of the play of sense experience, arising and passing in different combinations. And the path to liberation lies in bringing mindful to the nature of this orchestra, without getting caught in interpretation and projection. In the words of the third Chinese patriarch of Zen:

“The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.”

This sounds simple enough. But as we know it is not easy because we form preferences about pretty much everything. And this leads to the next part of the instruction, which is the fetters that arise dependent on our sense experience. The fetters are the defilements that obstruct our vision and block our ability to see things as they are. When we don’t receive reality with an open awareness, our experience gets filtered through our judgements and preferences. This is how we generate a sense of self to whom everything is happening. We want to control, change, tweak and improve the experience according to the will and preferences of this “subject”. The orchestra is playing along just fine, but we forget about the music and our mind gets narrow and fixated. It is this clenching and clinging that separates us from the freedom that is inherent in each of us, whether we call it nirvana, heaven on earth, or something else. To continue the quote from Sēngcàn, talking about this ultimate dimension:

“The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.”

– Jiànzhì Sēngcàn (Third Chinese Patriarch of Chán)

The arising of fetters

The mindfulness instructions invite us to be aware of how the fetters – or defilements – arise, how they can be removed, how they can be prevented.

“He understands how the arising of the non-arisen fetter comes to be;
he understands how the abandoning of the arisen fetter comes to be;
and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be.”

So how do these fetters come to be? What is it that separates us from our true Nature? The basic answer is ignorance. We ignore the impermanence and impersonal nature of sensory phenomena, and we lose track of the simplicity of “the great way”.

As we have seen, sense experience leads to the emergence of feeling tones, toward which we form preferences. We don’t let the sense experience play out without hinderance. Instead, we begin to crave pleasant feelings and form aversion toward unpleasant ones. It is almost as if we form a clenched fist is the mind in order to hold on and try to control our experience. This identification with preferences is the beginning of clinging, which gives rise to the fetters. In this way, the six sense spheres make up the root link in the chain of dependent origination. Bringing mindfulness to this crucial link provides an opportunity to cut the chain at this level, and interrupt what otherwise leads onto reactive behavior.

The non-reactive mind

The reason this is so crucial is because we largely live in reactivity. We wake up in the morning and we react to our need to go to the bathroom. We think about the demands of the day and we react with worry. We feel the urge for caffein and we go for the coffee. We read the news and we have various emotional reactions. We meet other people that trigger reactions in us. We encounter stressful circumstances, causing us to react instinctively. It goes on an on. When we live in reactivity, there is very little room for receptivity and reflection. We don’t allow ourselves to feel into what happens inside, and we don’t allow space to digest our experiences.

So shifting from reactivity to receptivity – from reacting to responding – is what cutting the chain looks like. And mindfulness is what enables this shift. There is nothing we need to “do” to become non-reactive. In fact, it is a matter of releasing the doing and learning to drop into this knowing quality that is an inherent part of every experience. This part of our Being is receptive and non-reactive by nature. From this spacious place inside, we naturally feel what the appropriate response is.

Decoding the mechanics of suffering

So how do we translate this teaching into practice? At the most basic level, we are training our attention to become aware of sense impressions.

Let us do another quick experiment. Pick a sense – I suggest hearing – and just notice the experience. Open up to sounds in your environment. Notice how there is a an external object (something making sound “out there”) and an internal sense organ (your ears). And notice how the sense experience arises as a result of paying attention to the contact between the two. See if you can stay with the experience at the sensory level without following the pull to go off into analysis or distractions. Noticing how the experience changes all by itself. Sound appearing in space. No outside, no inside. And now, move your attention to another sense – perhaps seeing. And notice how the entire experience shifts from the world of hearing to the world of seeing.

Being aware of the chain at this level is like decoding the mechanics of suffering. As we go about our day, we can build a habit to bring awareness back to our senses – to the contact. In fact, wherever we find ourselves, we will find an opportunity to address the so called fetters. We can become mindful of the contact, the feeling quality, the emotional push and even clinging itself. There is a great deal of freedom in realising that we can be bring mindfulness and curiosity to any of the links in the chain. Once we can hold the experience in an open awareness, we are no longer caught. It is like becoming disenchanted and released from a grip. “Ah, this is what irritation feels like! What happens as I observe it? What happens to craving as I remain mindful of it?” It arises, changes and eventually passes away.

This is a crucial point in our practice; we see that we don’t have to act out our impulses. This is the freedom of mindfulness. Even short moments of mindfulness can interrupt deeply ingrained habits and behavior. In Tibetan buddhism, they say that the way to freedom consist of “short glimpses, many times”. We are invited to pay attention to these short glimpses of freedom throughout our day. To really take in the experience and to install this new understanding and way of being and relating. This is the experience of letting go of our clenched fist. It is a sense of relief. Phew!

Retraining perceptions

Another crucial link in the chain of reactivity is perception (from Latin perceptio “gathering, receiving”). This gathering or receiving happens automatically based on sensory experience. We automatically interpret our experience. As we explored in the 5 skandhas, perception co-arises with feelings and inform our volitions and reactions. There is nothing wrong with perceptions in themselves – the problem arises when we take them to be absolute and confuse them with reality itself. This cause us to lose track of the aliveness of our direct sensory experience. We get caught at the level of concepts and ideas and our entire worldview gets colored by them. We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.

Our perceptions can be seen as conditioned responses based on past experiences and karmic circumstances. And reactions to our ongoing experience further conditions these perceptions in the mind. So understanding the mechanics of this process helps us see how the fetters arise and how they can be prevented.

On one level, our perceptions are determined by the fact that we are born as human beings. Our sensory apparatus largely dictates how we perceive the world. Think about it, animals with different sensory sensitivities clearly perceive the same reality quite differently from us. And yet we often assume that our limited senses give us an accurate view of some objective reality “out there”. Perceptions are also conditioned by our genes as well as our upbringing – by nature as well as nurture. Some perceptions are formed consciously, like certain beliefs and opinions. Others come from the depth of the unconscious, which may include ancestral traumas, archetypal forces and deep intuitional patterns of behavior. For example, you hear a piece of music or smell some peculiar scent, and all kinds of associations arise. Perhaps you are taken back to a memory and all kinds of thoughts, emotions and visions are brought back alive. You have no idea how this association is made or why it was triggered. This is an example of how perceptions affect the psyche. These perceptions – whether conscious or unconscious – can give rise to defiling emotions such as hatred, lust and ignorance, which in turn reinforces the conditioning.

It is not that we have to fight or get rid of perceptions; they arise naturally based on sense contact. But mindfulness can help us see through our perceptions. When we are mindful, we no longer confuse them for absolute reality. We see them as habits of mind. When we can observe them in this way, we no longer reinforce them. Rather than strengthening the conditioning, we start a process of de-conditioning. By re-training perceptions, we can re-frame our experience in more helpful ways that lead to joy, happiness and freedom.

Beyond perceptions

There are many ways in which our perceptions lead us astray. The Buddha highlighted 4 ways that are particularly strong and fundamental to our suffering. First, we take what is impermanent to be permanent. This is something we explored at length in the Frame on the 5 skandhas. When we don’t see the nature of change, we don’t allow things to play out naturally and we easily get caught in clinging and aversion. Intellectual understanding of impermanence is not sufficient, we need to see it, and clearly experience it for ourselves.

Secondly, we take what is unattractive to be attractive. Beauty is a magical aspect of existence. But when we get caught up in ideas and obsessions, we lose the ability to appreciate natural beauty. Our culture is obsessed with youth and perfection. Huge industries work to uphold beauty standards that have little to do with the actual beauty of life. We are trained to strive for ideals without considering the side effects on an individual, social and ecological level. So this is one area where we can retrain our perceptions. We can learn to see that there is beauty in ageing. There is beauty in the naturalness of things. These is beauty in impermanence.

Third, the Buddha said we take suffering to be happiness. This is interesting. We are confused about what makes us happy. We think that the fulfilment of sense desires is what brings happiness. We don’t see that this very belief is what often leads to destructive behavior and suffering. We can all relate to the misery caused by addictive behavior and the restless search after fleeting hits and highs. When there is no peace of mind. No open heartedness. So we get it backwards; we think of fulfilment of desires as happiness, and we think of renunciation as suffering. We might imagine a lack of stimulants as some kind of torture, or deprivation. But renunciation can truly be a source of a deeper peace and happiness. Fundamentally, renunciation is not about giving up pleasure, but about giving up our attachments. The spiritual quest is largely about finding out that true happiness is found inside – that it is part of our inner essence.

The last misperception is taking what is non-self to be self. We continually create and maintain an image of who we are, to whom everything is happening (a process we also explored in detail in the 5 aggregates of clinging). We identify with passing mind states. We mistake emotions for who we are, and we reinforce this self image through the stories we tell ourselves. In this way, we superimpose a whole structure of self on top of impermanent and impersonal experiences.

Through mindfulness, we begin to see that this image is an illusion – a construct that is largely based on survival strategies and subconscious conditioning. By bringing loving awareness to the root level of our experience, we gain the insight that this conditioning can be retrained. This is the power of mindfulness. As Joseph Goldstein says, mindfulness is the magic of mastering our perceptions. We take control of the mechanics of conditioning and use it to train our perceptions based on insights about what brings happiness – based on wisdom. We train to perceive impermanence, non-self and the nature of happiness through every experience. Over time, these skilful perceptions increase our agency by enabling us to go from reacting to receiving, reflecting and responding wisely. We cultivate the knowing quality of the mind – the witness – the part that is naturally receptive, non-reactive and non-attached.

By abiding in this place of witnessing the orchestra of sense perceptions, we refine our mindfulness. We observe the coming and going of sense experience with real clarity – aware of the nature of all appearances within the field of awareness. As our mind comes to stillness, we begin to experience a silence. From this silence, we gain access to “subtle perceptions”, which have a very different quality. Intuition and insights don’t originate from our 6 sense spheres, nor from the self image. They arise directly out of this silence – the emptiness, the no-thing-ness. Directly out of what is.

Through mindfulness we are expanding the silence and spaciousness, getting in touch with intuition and making room for deeper insights. This is the process of becoming self-less, of crossing over to the other shore.

“Gone, gone, gone to the other shore beyond. O what an awakening, all hail!”
– The Heart Suttra

🧘 Guided practice – The wheel of awareness:

In the next frame, we cultivate the factors of awakening.