Dear friend, you wrote that in Buddhism ‘almost all the emphasis is on formal meditation, and there are very few, if any, practical techniques given for bringing this mindfulness to everyday life’. You find this limiting and in this matter feel that the Russian philosopher and spiritual teacher G. Gurdjieff (1866-1949) has more to offer people who are living their life in the world.
You might appreciate some information on this:
Firstly, from the Pali scriptures:
Samyutta Nikaya (translated as Kindred Sayings, P.T.S.) Salayatana Vagga
And how monks is a monk composed?* Herein, monks, in his going forth and in his returning a monk acts composedly. In looking in front and looking behind, he acts composedly. In wearing his robe and bearing outer robe and bowl, in eating, drinking, chewing, and tasting he acts composedly. In easing himself, in going, standing, sitting, sleeping, waking, in speaking and keeping silence he acts composedly. Thus, monks, is a monk composed.
* composed; in Pali language, sati sampajanna- mindfulness and understanding
Thus the Buddha certainly recommended mindfulness in daily life. And the well known Satipatthana sutta is actually a list of every possible object for awareness, it includes formal meditation objects as well as feelings , mind states etc., it even includes states such as envy and anger which should also be understood and of which there can be awareness.
I think part of the answer for the popularity of formal meditation is that when we are sitting very quietly, not moving, and concentrating on some meditation object the feeling is very spiritual - you really feel like you are practising. In contrast, just living an ordinary life and developing awareness seems, well… ordinary. It may also be that people like to be told exactly what to do and how, and developing awareness in daily life isn't so amenable to ‘technique’, it's more subtle.
You have written a book about mindfulness and its applications in daily life and you mention Gurdjieff and also Buddhist teachings. I think it is useful to clarify mindfulness in the Buddhist sense.
Sati, a Pali word, is used to represent that reality that is heedful or watchful in the wholesome way. It is not the same as concentrating on an object - which can be either wholesome (kusala) or unwholesome (akusala). For example, a thief may, with great care, gently feel the subtle sensations appearing at his fingertips while he cracks the combination to a safe. In this case there is concentration, but no mindfulness, sati.
This example of wrong concentration is easily understood; our difficulty is that wrong concentration can and does come in very subtle shades. And because some aspects of sati appear similar to concentration it is often extremely difficult to know whether the reality that is contacting the object is sati with concentration and thus kusala (wholesome) or merely concentration without sati and thus akusala (unwholesome).
There are different kinds and degrees of sati. Considering the impermanence of life in a wise way is done with sati or we may feel genuinely friendly or grateful to someone; at that time a type of sati arises. The type of sati that is associated with the development of vipassana is a direct awareness of a physical reality (in Pali: rupa) or mental reality (nama). This is all from the Buddhist definition of sati. Of course Gurdjieff, yourself, and anyone else are permitted to define it in any way they please. Still you may appreciate hearing a little more about sati when it applies to the development of vipassana, which is the path that ultimately leads to a complete breakup of the causes that have kept samsara turning for so long. The Buddhist scriptures explain that the Buddha directly penetrated all phenomena and discovered that although their individual characteristics are diverse, yet they are all anatta, (not self) impermanent and dukkha (unsatisfactory). Any moment of true awareness of a reality is a moment when we are following the Buddha’s path that leads to this extraordinary discovery.
One reason why you may find few techniques for the development of vipassana in the Buddhist texts is that the main hindrance to progress is actually wrong understanding. Samma ditthi (right understanding) is the most important factor in the 8-fold path. Without it the other factors cannot arise. Thus the development of the path isn't so much adding something like a technique: rather it is a subtraction; a subtraction of wrong beliefs and wrong practises, a subtraction of attachment and of ‘self’.
Now I'd like to discuss in particular wrong practise:
Lobha (desire, craving, attachment) is a pervasive motivator for almost everything we do. For so, so long we have been pushed and pulled by it. It would be a surprise if it didn't enter into something as important as spiritual development.
We may try to stop attachment and because we seem to succeed with the big desires - we are concentrated on the body or the breath, we seem to be thinking less and so on - we may think that we are really developing vipassana. But in fact desire is still there. Refined, hidden desires but dangerous because they obstruct understanding. Craving is like a great magician that has many different marvelous tricks that all obscure reality.
You see if we barrel along happily thinking we are developing more and more mindfulness but in fact are only developing a subtle, hidden form of wrong concentration we may feel content and pleased with ourselves, but we are still, as Gurdjieff put it, asleep.
It may seem that we can control awareness but realities, including sati, only last for the briefest moment, they cant really be controlled. We aren't aware of the subtle lobha (unwholesome attachment) that is actually performing the action of “controlling”. It has the appearance of mindfulness but it might only be a counterfeit version. I'm not saying there is never mindfulness, but are we really sure? Is there a very small amount of desire to control, a hidden wish to experience, to be aware. When we try to control there is no awareness of anatta (no self) and conditionality. However, all is not lost, at the moment we understand that there is this subtle attempt to control, that it is a hindrance, then at that moment there is sati. Wrong view, in association with lobha is so clever: it pervades our life silently and usually gives little cause for alarm.
After all this you may think I am saying that we should do nothing. This is not so- the real effort, the real work, the “technique” is in clearing away wrong views which distort the experiencing of realities. How is this clearing done? Let us investigate further the Buddhist definition of sati. One of the functions of sati is to bring to mind the Dhamma, the teachings. One reflects on the teachings in daily life. This is not the level of sati that directly penetrates the true nature of realities but it helps to build the conditions necessary for this. Sometimes we hear of someone scorning theoretical understanding of Dhamma, they feel only “practise” is useful. But without enough clear understanding of what the Buddha taught wrong view is sure to enter into the practise .On the other hand theory alone is of minimal value. What is needed is the right approach that will turn theory into direct understanding. Is now the time to discuss ‘technique’? I'm not sure, I don't like the word technique when it comes to the mindfulness associated with vipassana; if there aren't enough conditions true awareness can't arise, if there are the right conditions it must arise. It is all so impersonal. I think the right way is to think of testing the teachings. Even scientists need a theory, which they then test.
At this moment you are reading this letter. That is the situation, the concept. But what is really present. There is the thinking, the processes of various mental states arising and passing away. They are real in the deepest sense - the object of thinking is a concept, not real. Also there is seeing and colour. Can we be aware of seeing and colour, and thinking and other phenomena as they arise now? We should test and find out.
Do you agree that it is important if one is serious about developing vipassana that we must avoid certain sense objects such as violent movies?
Actually when vipassana is been developed it doesn't matter so much what object contacts the senses. It can all be insighted. If we watch a violent movie then it is conditioned already. While we watch there are namas (mental states) and rupas (physical states) arising and passing away continually. Looking at TV is the situation, the concept, but the realities are merely colour and seeing, sound and hearing, which depending on understanding or lack of it condition various perceptions and feelings which (along with colour, seeing, sound hearing) can be directly understood. This doesn't mean that there can be continual mindfulness of realities - sati and understanding are conditioned, they arise when there are sufficient conditions. From studying the Buddhist teachings and developing vipassana we learn about the nature of realities such as seeing and colour, hearing and sound, touching and hardness, heat, vibration, feelings, attachment, kindness, anger etc. We still have our old world of situation and concept but there is the beginning of seeing beneath the surface. Here is an example: someone is angry with me - they speak harsh words. If there is no understanding of realities then I may feel upset, "why is he saying that to me" and so on or perhaps if I have some special spiritual technique I might think of a mantra or concentrate on sensations in the body or the breath. But there can also be direct experience of the sounds that are contacting the sensitive matter in the ear. When sound is seen, as it is in the present moment, there won't be aversion to that sound- it is merely a momentary reality that passes so quickly and thus there is not the same tendency to feel upset.
You said that sound can be used as an object for the development of vipassana. I am suspicious of doing this: the skill to "deconstruct" the meaning and go back to the sensations can be used as a form of pathological defense, a very skilled version of a little kid covering his ears when he doesn't want to hear his parents say something. To have this skill is wonderful: to automatically use it to avoid unpleasantness could lead to many problems. Sometimes the real obstacle keeping you in samsara is what underlies the feelings aroused by the words, and they must be investigated rather than avoided.
I agree. As you say "sometimes the real obstacle keeping you in samsara is what underlies the feelings aroused by the words and they must be investigated rather than avoided." You have probably read something about the PATICCASAMUPADA (usually translated as "dependent origination"). The paticcasamupada is a very pithy, deeply profound analysis of samsara and the conditions that keep samsara revolving. One of the factors is indeed feeling. Here is an extract from the Nidana- Vagga of the Samyutta Nikaya:
The Buddha said: I will teach you, monks, the origin of repeated birth and passing away of beings in this world. What, monks, is the origin of beings?
On account of the eye base and visible object, eye consciousness arises. Contact (phassa) is the conjunction of the three; through contact, feeling arises; through feeling desire arises; through desire attachment (upadana) arises; through attachment bhava (process of becoming) arises; through becoming birth arises; through birth decay and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. On account of the EAR BASE and SOUND, EAR CONSCIOUSNESS arises. Contact (phassa) is the conjunction of the three; through contact , FEELING arises; through feeling desire arises ; through desire attachment (upadana) arises; through attachment bhava (process of becoming) arises; through becoming birth arises; through birth decay and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. On account of the nose base and odour, smell consciousness arises. Contact (phassa) is the conjunction of the three; through contact, feeling arises; through feeling desire arises; through desire attachment (upadana) arises; through attachment bhava (process of becoming) arises; through becoming birth arises; through birth decay and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. On account of the taste base and taste, taste consciousness arises. Contact (phassa) is the conjunction of the three; through contact, feeling arises; through feeling desire arises; through desire attachment (upadana) arises; through attachment bhava (process of becoming) arises; through becoming birth arises; through birth decay and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. On account of the bodybase and bodily impression, body consciousness arises. Contact (phassa) is the conjunction of the three; through contact , feeling arises; through feeling desire arises ; through desire attachment (upadana) arises; through attachment bhava (process of becoming) arises; through becoming birth arises; through birth decay and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. On account of the mental element base and mental object element, mind consciousness arises. Contact (phassa) is the conjunction of the three; through contact, feeling arises; through feeling desire arises; through desire attachment (upadana) arises; through attachment bhava (process of becoming) arises; through becoming birth arises; through birth decay and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.
Thus a wide range of daily life realities should be understood. We cling to everything, we confuse everything; thus always trying to deconstruct conversation would be quite wrong. As you say, we must understand feelings also. Avoidance is not the way .Yet, don't we often want to develop understanding only in ideal conditions- we want to avoid distractions. But vipassana understands every moment. What we call "distraction" is only momentary realities, with thinking forming concepts about the situation. When we are developing correctly we don't mind about distraction, we don't mind if we feel irritated sometimes or even if "decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair arise". All these events are real, they are part of samsara, they should be understood .We don't even mind if there is no understanding; we just understand that too.
It is very important also to understand the nature of concepts. Really what it comes down is that we need to understand everything that arises in life without minding our situation at all but having courage and determination to face all situations; to see that every moment is a moment that can be understood (or not).
Disclaimer: I wouldn't want you to think that I am a brave type who faces every object and wrings every drop of understanding out of it. But here I'm writing also for myself. It gives me encouragement also.
Vipassana is highly developed wisdom that penetrates the true nature of realities. Those realities appear continuously at this very moment. So the path isn't so complicated- there is either understanding or not. Yet it is not easy, the reason being that the deep tendency to cling to "self"- this powerful wrong view- obscures and complicates matters. The path is like walking a tightrope: try to hard - fall off; don't try at all -fall off. Yet it's more difficult than a circus act because often we don't know we've fallen off. We think we are balancing well - maybe at the end of the rope when actually we lie injured on the ground almost before we begin. That's why I think discussions can be very useful for pinpointing small errors and so on in practise (these errors are called silabataparamasa-upadana in pali- clinging to rule and ritual- they can be quite obvious or very, very subtle indeed). If one is developing understanding correctly then gradually these misunderstandings are understood and the clinging to them is slowly eliminated. An example of a wrong practise would be trying to always have awareness of sound - as you have already noted this doesn't seem quite right. Or some people think that to practise vipassana they should try to know only realities (and have no concepts.). I once heard someone say that she didn't recognise her own husband when practising - she was very pleased, as she believed this meant she was close to nibbana.
Concepts are also part of our life. The Buddha thought, he used concepts, he recognised people and had kindness to them. The difference between him and us is that he perfectly understood the nature of every moment- he didn't mistake realities for concepts and vice versa and he had no attachment to either.
When I spoke about this direct experience of sound - it was in a very general sense. When we bring attention to an object in this way- it is still mostly thinking about the object. We reflect wisely (or not) about the sound. It is a sort of considering of the reality of the present moment, but still at the level of thinking. There is another level of understanding which is a direct penetration- faster and deeper than mere consideration. This type of understanding is supported by wise thinking. (I almost don't like to mention different levels as some people immediately want the highest level and so neglect the foundation, which is wise consideration.) This direct understanding of realities can come in very quickly. It may last only a moment or several moments. It is not something permanent, although each moment conditions future moments. It is like this moment - now there is colour, there is thinking, there is sound. There may be moments with aversion, or with pleasure. There may be greed or irritation. These moments arise and pass away rapidly- as does panna (direct understanding of realities). Panna may take sound for an object or hearing or feeling or bodily impression or greed or fear or indeed any reality whatsoever. It all depends on conditions, not on "self."