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9.1: Theravada Satipattbana Meditation

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    As we have already seen, the way of mystical quest is given a primary emphasis throughout most of Buddhism's subtraditions but is never found without some sort of balance or fusion with the ways of wisdom and right action. However, the specific ascetic disciplines and meditative practices involved in Buddhist subtraditions vary. The following excerpt is by a revered Buddhist teacher from SriLanka, Nyanaponika Thera.1 It is from the Theravada Buddhist tradition and represents a specific course of meditative practice taught in Rangoon, Burma: the satipat{hana method of "establishing mindfulness," also called sukkha vipassana (the practice of "bare insight"). It is recommended as a useful practice for all people, but only a few are said to have the single-mindedness necessary to follow through to its ultimate result. It is a method more suitable for some personality types than for others. Much more is provided in Nyanaponika Thera's account than is here presented, and the interested reader is encouraged to read the entire account. This teacher spetifically recommends that a person who desires to practice this method should do so under the guidance of a meditation master. Moreover, he recommends for most persons that, before practicing satipatthana, they first develop proficiency in samatha (meditation that leads to "tranquillity"), a method whereby the mind attains a very high degree of concentration, purity, and calm, and reaches deep down into the subconscious sources of intuition.


    General Remarks

    A course of practice at ... [the Thathana Yeiktha] meditation centre lasts usually one to two months. After that period the meditators are expected to continue the practice at their own abodes, in adaptationto their individual conditions of life. During the course of strict practice the meditators do not engage themselves in reading and writing, or any other work than that of meditation and the routine activities of the day. Talk is limited to the minimum. The lay meditators, at that institution, observe, for the duration of their stay there, the Eight Precepts (atthangasila)2 which include, e.g. abstinence from taking solid food (and certain liquids, as milk, etc.) after twelve o'clock noon.

    A brief written statement on practical meditation, even if limited to the very first steps as is done here, cannot replace personal guidance by an experienced teacher who alone can give due consideration to the requirements and the rate of progress of the individual disciple. The following notes are therefore meant only for those who have no access to an experienced meditation master. The fact that their number will be very great, in the West as well as in the East, has induced the writer to offer these notes, with all their inherent shortcomings, as a practical supplement to the main body of the book.

    It is a fundamental principle of the Satipatthana method that the disciple should take his very first steps on the firm ground of his own experience. He should learn to see things as they are, and he should see them for himself. He should not be influenced by others giving him suggestions or hints about what he may see or is expected to see. Therefore, in the aforementioned course of practice, no theoretical explanations are given, but only the bare instructions about what to do and not to do, at the start of the practice. When, after some initial practice, mindfulness becomes keener, and the meditator becomes aware of features in his object of mindfulness which were hitherto unnoticed, the meditation master may, in individual cases, decide not merely to say (as usual), "Go on!" but indicate briefly the direction to which the disciple's attention may be turned with benefit. It is one of the disadvantages of a written statement that even these indications cannot be given, as they necessarily depend on the progress of the individual meditator at the start of his practice. Yet, if the instructiorts given here are closely followed, the meditator's own experience will become his teacher and will lead him safely onwards, though it has to be admitted that progress is easier under the direction of an experienced meditation master.

    Soberness, self-reliance and an observant, watchful attitude are the characteristics of this meditative practice. A true Satipatthana Master will be very reticent in his relationship with those whom he instructs; he will avoid seeking to "impress" them by his personality and making "followers" of them. He will not have recourse to any devices that are likely to induce autosuggestion, hypnotic trance or a mere emotional exultation. Those who employ such means, for themselves or for others, should be known to be on a path averse to the Way of Mindfulness.

    In taking up this practice, one should not expect "mystical experiences" or cheap emotional satisfaction. After one has made one's earnest initial aspiration, one should no longer indulge in thoughts of future achievements or hanker after quick results. One should rather attend diligently, soberly and exclusively to those very simple exercises which will be described here. At the outset, one should even regard them just as purposes in themselves, i.e. as a technique for strengthening mindfulness and concentration. Any additional significance of these exercises will naturally unfold itself to the meditator, in the course of his practice. The faint outlines of that significance which appear at the horizon of the meditator's mind, will gradually grow more distinct and finally become like commanding presences to him who moves towards them steadily.

    The method outlined here falls into the category of Bare Insight (sukkha vipassana), that is the exclusive and direct practice of penetrative insight, without the previous attainment of the meditative absorptions (jhana).3 The method aims, in its first stage, at a discernment of bodily and mental processes (nama-rupa-pariccheda) in one's own personality by one's own experience. An increasingly keen awareness of the nature of these processes, and a strengthened concentration . . . will result in a deepening insight into the Three Characteristics of existence-Impermanence, Suffering and Egolessness-gradually leading to the attainment of the Stages of Sanctity (maggaphala), that is to final Liberation....

    Preliminaries: Physical

    Posture.. .. The best known Yoga posture, with fully crossed legs, the padmasana or lotus posture, is rather difficult for most Westerners. Though it is advantageous for meditations aiming at full mental absorption (jhana), it is of less importance for the Satipatthana practice. We shall, therefore, not describe it here, but turn to the description of two easier postures.

    In the virasana ("hero's posture") the bent left leg is placed on the ground and the right leg upon it, with the right knee resting on the left foot, and the right foot on the left knee. There is no crossing, only a bending of legs in this posture.

    In the sukhasana ("the comfortable posture") both bent legs are placed on the ground evenly. The heel of the left foot rests between the legs; the toes are between the knee bend of the right leg which provides, as it were, the outer frame of the left leg. Since there is no pressure on the limbs whatsoever, this posture is the most comfortable one, and is, therefore, recommended in the Burmese meditation centre aforementioned.

    For comfort in either of these postures it is essential that the knees rest firmly and without strain on their support (the floor, the seat, or on the other leg). The advantages of a posture with legs bent are so considerable for an earnest meditator that it will be worth his effort to train himself in any such posture. But if these postures come not easily to him, ... one should not delay or disturb one's determined attempt to achieve and sustain a higher degree of mental concentration, and for that purpose one may use, for the time being, a mode of sitting that is comfortable, dealing as best as one can with the disadvantages mentioned before. One may, then sit on a straight-backed chair of a height that allows the legs to be placed on the floor without strain.

    When sitting with legs bent, one may place a pillow, a folded cloth or blanket under the lower back, bringing it level with the legs. The body should be kept erect but not rigidly stiff or tense. The head should be slightly bent forward and the gaze should gently (not rigidly) rest where it naturally falls at that position of the head. One may place at that spot any small and simple object for focusing one's glance on it; preferably a geometrical shape like a cube or cone, without a shining or light-reflecting surface, and without anything else that may divert thoughts. Such a device is, of course, not a necessity.

    Female meditators in the East do not sit in either of the postures with legs bent as described above, nor with legs crossed. They kneel on ample-sized, well-stuffed cushions, sitting on their heels, the hands resting on the knees.

    As to the mode of sitting, the meditator will have to use his own discretion, and apply to his individual case the "clear comprehension of suitability."

    Clothing should be loose, for instance at the waist. Before one starts with the meditation one should make sure that muscles are relaxed, for instance, neck, shoulders, face, hands, etc.

    Eating. In the countries of Theravada Buddhism, those who take up a strict course of full-time practice in a meditation centre, usually observe, among other rules, the sixth precept of the monk, that is they abstain from solid food and nourishing liquids after mid-day. For those, however, who work all day, this will hardly be practicable though it will be feasible for periods of meditation during a weekend or holidays. In any case, however, for one who wishes to take up in earnest regular meditative practice, it will be very desirable that he should be moderate in eating. It was not without reason that the Buddha recommended repeatedly "moderation in eating" to those devoted to meditation. Experience will confirm the benefits of it to those who are determined to make actual progress in meditation and are not satisfied with casual attempts.

    Preliminaries: The Mental Attitude

    The aim of the meditative practice to be described here, is the highest which the teaching of the Buddha offers. Therefore, the practice should be taken up in a mental attitude befitting such a high purpose. The Buddhist meditator may begin with the recitation of the Threefold Refuge, keeping in mind the true significance of that act.4 This will instill confidence in him, which is so important for meditative progress: confidence in the peerless Teacher and Guide, the Buddha; confidence in the liberating efficacy of his Teaching (Dhamma), and in particular the Way of Mindfulness; confidence aroused by the fact that there have been those who have realized the Teaching in its fullness: the Community of Saints (ariya-sangha), the Accomplished Ones (arahats). Such conviction will fill him with joyous confidence in his own capacity and will give wings to his endeavour. In such a spirit, the follower of these Three Ideals should start his meditation practice with the quiet but determined aspiration to attain the highest, not in a distant future but in this very life.

    "I shall be going now the Path trodden by the Buddhas and the Great Holy Disciples. But an indolent person cannot follow that Path. May my energy prevail! May I succeed!"

    But also the non-Buddhist will do well to consider that, in following even partly the Way of Mindfulness, he enters ground that is hallowed to the Buddhist, and therefore deserving of respect. Such courteous awareness will help him in his own endeavours on the Way.

    It will bring firmness to his steps on the Way if he makes a solemn aspiration like the following ones or any other that he may formulate for himself:

    For mind's mastery and growth effort must be made
    If once you see the need. Why not make it now?
    The road is clearly marked.
    May what I win bring weal to
    me and to all beings!

    Mind brings all happiness and woe. To conquer woe
    I enter now the Path
    of Mindfulness.
    May what I win bring weal to
    me and to all beings!

    The Programme of Practice

    1. Training in general mindfulness. During a course of strict training the time of practice is the whole day, from morning to night. This does not mean that the meditator should all that time attend exclusively to a single, that is the primary subject, of meditation with which we shall deal below. Though he should certainly devote to it as much of the day and night as he possibly can, there will of course be pauses between the single spells of the main practice; and for beginners these pauses will be fairly frequent and of longer duration. But also during these intervals, be they long or short, the guiding rope of mindfulness must not be dropped or allowed to slacken. Mindfulness of all activities and perceptions should be maintained throughout the day to the greatest possible extent: beginning with the first thought and perception when awakening, and ending with the last thought and perception when falling asleep. This general mindfulness starts with, and retains as its centre piece, the Awareness of the four Postures (iriyapatha-manasikara) i.e. going, standing, sitting and lying down. That means, one has to be fully aware of the posture presently assumed, of any change of it (including the preceding intention to change it), of any sensation connected with the posture, e.g. pressure, i.e. touch consciousness (kaya-vinnana), and of any noticeable feelings of pain or ease ("Contemplation on Feeling"). For instance, when lying down for the night and waking up in the morning, one should be aware of one's reclining posture and of touch ("lying down, touching").

      The meditator may not be able at once to attend mindfully to all or even a greater part of the activities and impressions of the day. He therefore may start with the postures alone and gradually extend the scope of mindfulness to all routine activities, as dressing, washing, eating, etc. This extension will come naturally when, after the first few days of full-time practice, the mind becomes calmer, observation keener and mindfulness more alert.

      One example may illustrate how mindfulness may be applied correctly to a series of activities: a wish arises to clean the mouth in the morning, and one is aware of that wish (thought-conscious: "he knows mind and mental objects"); one sees the glass and water jug, at some distance (visual consciousness); one goes towards that place (posture-conscious); stops there (posture-conscious); stretches the hand towards the jug ("acting with clear comprehension when bending and stretching"); one grasps the jug (touch-conscious), etc.

      While performing these activities, one should also notice the arising of any pleasant or unpleasant feelings ("Contemplation of Feeling"), of stray thoughts interrupting the flow of mindfulness (Mind Contemplation: "unconcentrated mind"), of lust (e.g. when eating; Mind Contemplation: "mind with lust;" Mind-object Contemplation: Hindrance of Sense Desire, or Fetter arising through tongue and flavours), etc. In brief, one should be aware of all occurrences, bodily and mental, as they present themselves. In that way, one will attend to all four objects, or Contemplations, of Satipanhana, during the day of practice.

      Such a detailed application of Mindfulness involves a considerable slowing-down of one's movements which can be maintained only in periods of strict practice, and not, or only rarely, during every-day life. The experience, and the effects, of that slowing-down practice will, however, prove wholesome and useful in many ways.

      In attending to those routine activities of the day, mindfulness need not be directed to all minute phases of them (as it should be with the principal subjects). By doing so, the slowing-down would be too great. It will be sufficient if mindfulness goes watchfully along with these activities, noticing only those details which present themselves without effort.

      The initial purpose of this general application of Mindfulness is the strengthening of awareness and concentration to an extent enabling the meditator to follow the unceasing flow of variegated mental and bodily impressions and activities, for an increasingly long period and without a break of attention or without an unnoticed break. It will count as "uninterrupted mindfulness," if the meditator is not carried away by his stray thoughts, but if breaks of attention are noticed at once when they occur, or soon after. For the beginner, the standards of "general mindfulness" will be satisfied by that procedure.

    2. The main practice with selected subjects. After one has attended mindfully to the various routine activities of the morning, one sits down on the meditation seat, being aware of one's preceding intention to sit down, the single phases of the act, and then of "touching" and "sitting." Now one turns one's attention to the regular rising and falling movement of the abdomen, resulting from the process of breathing. The attention is directed to the slight sensation of pressure caused by that movement, and not so visually observing it. This forms the primary object (mul' arammana) of mindfulness, in the course of practice described here. It has been introduced into the practice by the Venerable U Sobhana Mahathera (Mahasi Sayadaw) as it was found to be very effective.

      It should be well understood that one must not think about the movement of the abdomen, but keep to the bare noticing of that physical process, being aware of its regular rise and fall, in all its phases. One should try to retain that awareness without break, or without unnoticed break, for as long a period as possible without strain. The insight at which the method aims, will present itself to the mind spontaneously, as the natural result, or the maturing fruit, of growing mindfulness. The Meditation Master said: "The knowledge will arise by itself" (nanam sayam eva uppajjissati). It will come in the degree in which, through sharpened awareness, features of the observed process appear which were hitherto unnoticed. Insight arrived at in this way will carry the conviction conveyed by one's own indubitable experience.

      Though it is the breathing which causes the abdominal movement, the attention directed to the latter must not be regarded as a variety of the "Mindfulness of Breathing" (anapanasati). In the practice described here the object of mindfulness is not the breath but just the rise and fall of the abdomen as felt by the slight pressure.

      In the case of beginners, the abdominal movement is not always clearly noticeable at once and sometimes may remain distinct only for short recurring periods. This is nothing unusual and will improve in the course of diligent practice. As a help in making the movement of the abdomen perceptible more often and for a longer stretch, one may lie down; by doing so it will become more distinct. One may also place one's hand on the abdomen for tracing the movement first in that way; it will then be easier to keep track of it even when the hand is removed. If one feels it helpful, one may well continue the exercise in a reclining position, provided one can keep off sleepiness and lassitude. But, in between, one may try it repeatedly in the sitting posture.

      Whenever the awareness of the abdominal movement ceases or remains unclear, one should not strain to "catch" it, but should turn one's attention to "touching'' and "sitting." This should be done in the following way. From the many points of contact, or better, perceptions of touch,. that are present in the apparently uniform act of sitting-e.g. at the knees, thighs, shoulders, etc.-six or seven may be chosen. The attention should turn to them successively, traveling, as it were, on that prescribed route, ending with the awareness of the sitting posture, and starting again with the same series: touching-touching-touching-sitting; touching-touching-touching-sitting. One should dwell on the single perception just for the length of these two-syllable words (spoken internally, and later to be abandoned when one has got into the time rhythm). It should be noted that the object of mindfulness is here the respective sensation, and not the places of contact themselves, nor the words "touching-sitting." One may change, from time to time, the selection of "touches."

      This awareness of "touching-sitting" is, as it were, a "stand-by" of the awareness of the abdominal movement, and is one of the secondary objects of the main practice. It has, however, a definite value of its own for achieving results in the domain of Insight.

      When, while attending to "touching-sitting," one notices that the abdominal movement has become clearly perceptible again, one should return to it, and continue with that primary object as long as possible.

      If one feels tired, or, by sitting long, the legs are paining or benumbed, one should be aware of these feelings and sensations. One should keep to that awareness as long as these feelings and sensations are strong enough to force attention upon them and to disturb the meditation. Just by the act of noticing them quietly and continuously, i.e. with Bare Attention, these feelings and sensations may sometimes disappear, enabling one to continue with the primary object. In the awareness of the disturbing sensations one stops short at the bare statement of their presence without "nursing" these feelings and thus strengthening them by what one adds to the bare facts, i.e. by one's mental attitude of self-reference, excessive sensitivity, self-pity, resentment, etc.

      If, however, these unpleasant sensations, or tiredness, persist and disturb the practice, one may change the posture (noticing the intention and the act of changing), and resort to mindfully walking up and down. In doing so, one has to be aware of the single phases of each step. The sixfold division of these phases as given, e.g. in the Commentary to the Discourse, will be too elaborate for the beginner. It is sufficient to notice three (A) or two (B) phases. For fitting into a twosyllable rhythm it is suggested to formulate them as follows: A. 1. lifting, 2. pushing, 3. placing; B. 1. lifting, 2. placing, of the foot. Whenever one wishes to walk somewhat quicker, one may use the twofold division; otherwise the threefold one is preferable as affording a closer sequence of mindfulness, without a gap.

      This practice of mindful walking is, particularly for certain types of meditators, highly recommendable both as a method of concentration and as a source of Insight. It may therefore be practiced in its own right, and not only as a "change of posture" for relieving fatigue. In the Discourses of the Buddha we meet a frequently recurring passage, saying: "By day, and in the first and third watches of the night, he purifies his mind from obstructing thoughts, while walking up and down or sitting."

      If walking up and down is taken up as a practice in its own right, it is desirable to have for that purpose a fairly long stretch of ground, either in the house (a corridor or two adjoining rooms) or outdoors, since turning around too often may cause disturbance in the continuous flow of mindfulness. One should walk for a fairly long time, even until one feels tired.

      During the entire day of practice, stray thoughts, or an unmindful "skipping" of steps (in walking), phases or sequences of the abdominal movements, or of parts of any other activities, should be clearly noticed. One should pay attention to the fact whether these breaks in attention have been noticed at once after occurring, or whether, and how long, one was carried away by stray thoughts, etc., before resuming the original object of mindfulness. One should aim at noticing these breaks at once, and then returning immediately to one's original object. This may be taken as a measure of one's growing alertness. The frequency of these breaks will naturally decrease when, in the course of practice, mental quietude and concentration improve. Growing competence in this practice of immediate awareness of breaks of attention will be a valuable help in the strengthening of one's self-control, and in checking mental defilements (kilesa) as soon as they arise. Its importance for one's progress on the Path and one's mental development in general is evident.

      One should not allow oneself to be irritated, annoyed or discouraged by the occurrence of distracting or undesirable thoughts, but should simply take these disturbing thoughts themselves as (temporary) objects of one's mindfulness, making them thus a part of the practice (through the Contemplation of the State of Mind). Should feelings of irritation about one's distracted state of mind arise and persist, one may deal with them in the very same way; that is, take them as an opportunity to the Contemplation of Mind-objects: the Hindrance of aversion, or of restlessness and worry. In this context the Meditation Master said: Since a multiplicity of thought-objects is unavoidable in ordinary life, and such defilements as lust, aversion, etc., are sure to arise in all unliberated minds, it is of vital importance to face these variegated thoughts and defilements squarely, and to learn how to deal with them. This is, in its own way, just as important as acquiring an increased measure of concentration. One should therefore, not regard it as "lost time" when one is dealing with these interruptions of the methodical practice.

      The same method should be applied to interruptions from outside. If there is, for instance, a disturbing noise, one may take brief notice of it as "sound;" if it was immediately followed by annoyance about the disturbance, one should register it, too, as "mind with anger." After that, one should return to the interrupted meditation. But if one does not succeed at once in doing so, the same procedure should be repeated. If the noise is loud and persistent and keeps one from attending to the subject of meditation, one may, until the noise ceases, continue to take it as an object of mindfulness, namely as one of the six sense-bases, within the frame of the Contemplation of Mind-objects5 . . . : "He knows the ear and sound, and knows the fetter (annoyance) arising dependent on both ..." In the fluctuations of sound one can observe "rise and fall;" in its intermittent occurrence, its origination and disappearance, and its conditioned nature will become clear.

      In that way, disturbances of the meditative practice can be transformed into useful objects ofthe practice; and what appeared inimical, can be turned into a friend and teacher.

      Nevertheless, when the mind has been quieted or the outer disturbances have disappeared, one should return to the primary subject of meditation, since it is the sustained cultivation of it that will make for quicker progress.

      Three to four hours of continuous mindfulness, i.e. without unnoticed breaks, are regarded as the minimum for a beginner undergoing a course of strict practice. This, of course, does not mean that three or four hours are sufficient for the whole day of practice. If one has "lost the thread" of mindfulness, be it after, or before, that minimal period, one should take it up again and again, and continue with the practice of sustained concentration, as long as possible.

      Quiet sustained effort, without too much regard to bodily discomfort, is recommended, particularly during a course of strict practice. Often, when disregarding the first appearance of fatigue, one will discover behind it new resources of energy, a "second wind." On the other hand, one should not go to exlremes, and should allow oneself rest when effort ceases to be useful. These intervals of rest will also form parts of the practice (with less intense focusing) if one keeps mindful. The more natural and relaxed the flow of one's mindfulness is, or becomes, in following the continual arising and disappearing of its selected or variegated objects, the less fatigue will be caused by it.

      When alertness grows one may also give particular attention to one's thoughts or moods of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, even if very subtle. They are the seeds of stronger forms of attraction and aversion, and of feelings of pride or inferiority, elation or depression. It is therefore important to get acquainted with them, to notice them and to stop them early. One should also avoid futile thoughts of the past or the future, as Satipatthana is concerned with the present only.

      The primary and secondary objects dealt with here (i.e. abdominal movement, touching-sitting, walking) are retained throughout the whole practice, i.e. during a strict course and afterwards, without anything being added in the way of new devices, etc. If there is persistent application to them, these simple exercises are capable of leading gradually to the highest results.

    Reprinted with permission of the publisher from NyanaponikaThera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: A Handbook o f Mental Training Based on the Buddha's Way o f Mindfulness (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1965; first published in London: Rider and Co., 1962), pp. 87-99.

    This page titled 9.1: Theravada Satipattbana Meditation is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.

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