The Vipassana Retreat

9. Clearly Knowing Daily Activities

A basic skill in Vipassana meditation is to acquire the ability to give full and sustained attention or mindfulness to what you are doing as you are doing it; yet we rarely, if ever, give anything our full attention, at best it is just partial attention. The consequence of this is ‘faulty intelligence’, that is, not being in touch with reality, or having false views. If one does not have the right information one misreads the experience, lives in delusion and therefore suffers. The writer, Iris Murdoch, wrote: “We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality”.

Regrettably, we live in a shallow, superficial culture that lacks any real depth. Almost everything is geared to allow us to give only partial attention towards what is in front of us. The dominant software company, Microsoft, has coined a phrase for the way we take in the world around us: ‘continuous partial attention’. Their products are all geared to be usable under such circumstances. Three or more task windows are open on my computer screen at any time. So we skip from one to the other – just skimming and scanning – which is symptomatic of the rather shallow life the majority of us lead.

The task then, in this retreat, is to turn this around and train oneself to be fully attentive as much as possible. This ‘presence of mind’ with clear knowing uncovers reality and in time brings healing and transformation of consciousness. So there is a need to develop the capacity for sustained and close attentiveness of all one’s movements and activities down to the minutest detail throughout the day. Such a dynamic practice of close attentiveness with clear knowing is the key to deepening one’s mindfulness, as it intensifies the awareness, to expose the reality of one’s own physical and mental phenomena as constantly changing, unsatisfactory, and as just impersonal process.

We cannot pretend that this is easy, as having continuous, close attentiveness goes somewhat against the grain – it is not natural to us. The Buddha once described the practice of the Dharma as “going against the stream”. As long as one swims with the current of the river, one remains largely unaware of it. But if one chooses to turn against it, suddenly it is revealed as a powerful, discomforting force.

It is said that just prior to the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, the Buddha floated his alms bowl on the nearby Nerangera River, and when the bowl went against the current he took that as a sign that he would be successful in his aspiration to attain enlightenment. I do not think we need to take this story literally, as I see it as more of a metaphor that points to the need to consciously face and explore one’s own conditioning and assumptions in order to grow in the Dharma.

The “stream” refers to the accumulated habits of conditioning. The practice of Dharma requires us to turn around midstream, to observe mindfully and intelligently the forces of conditioning instead of reacting to their promptings. Therefore, we need to make constant effort to train ourselves to do this practice until it is so well established that it has become, as it were, our second nature, that is, ingrained – only then will deeper states of mindfulness develop.

It is very informative to read the instructions the Buddha himself gave in the Contemplation of the Body in the subsection on Clearly Knowing (sati-sampajanna) in the text we are following: the Four Establishments of Mindfulness:

“And again, monks, a monk, while going forward or while going back he does so with clear knowing; while looking straight ahead or while looking elsewhere he does so with clear knowing; while bending or stretching his limbs he does so with clear knowing; while carrying the alms bowl and while wearing the robes he does so with clear knowing; while eating, drinking, chewing, and savouring he does so with clear knowing; while urinating or defecating he does so with clear knowing; while walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking, speaking or when remaining silent, he does so with clear knowing or full attentiveness”.

You can see here that the Buddha is emphasising the continuity of attentiveness or mindfulness of all daily activities, with clear knowing of all body movements in great detail – including what you do in the bathroom: nothing is too trivial that it is left out. This is the most important set of instructions and the most demanding to follow in the practice of intensive Vipassana meditation. Yet a lot of meditators often find resistance in the mind to being purposefully attentive to daily activities and movements. One has to overcome this disinclination to be mindful by persistently training oneself until you experience some positive feedback – as one does with the fluency of the practice, which will give you the confidence to keep going with the practice.

From the Buddha’s time down to the present there have been teachers who have suggested practices and strategies that support the attentiveness practice. One of the most prominent of these was the late Mahasi Sayadaw of Myanmar, who recommended and taught a very effective mental naming or noting technique in his book “Practical Exercises in Vipassana Meditation”.

“When making bodily movements, the meditator should do so slowly, gently moving the arms and legs, bending or stretching them, lowering the head and raising it up. When rising from the sitting posture, one should do so gradually, noting as ‘rising, rising’. When straightening up and standing, note as ‘standing, standing’. When looking here and there, note as ‘looking, seeing’. When walking, note the steps, whether they are taken with the right or the left foot. You must be aware of all the successive movements involved, from the raising of the foot to the dropping of it.

When one wakes up, one should immediately resume noting. The meditator who is really intent on attaining the path and its fruition (magga phala) should rest from meditation only when asleep. At other times, in all waking moments, one should be noting continually the successive body/mind phenomena without let up. That is why, as soon as one awakens, one should note the awakening state of mind as ‘awakening, awakening’. If one cannot yet be aware of this, one should begin with noting the rising and falling of the abdomen.

As one goes on noting in this way, one will be able to note more and more of these events. In the beginning, as the mind wanders here and there, one may miss many things, but one should not be disheartened. Every beginner encounters the same difficulty, but as one becomes more skilled, one becomes aware of every act of mind wandering until eventually the mind does not wander any more. The mind is then riveted onto the object of its attention, the act of mindfulness becoming almost simultaneous with the object of its attention. In other words, the rising of the abdomen becomes concurrent with the act of noting it and similarly with the falling of the abdomen and all other activities”.

It is important not to give the mind any chance to slip into its old habitual ways. We are creatures of habit operating on “autopilot” a lot of the time, making many unconscious movements and actions. In a retreat situation, there is no need to hurry and in fact one is encouraged to slow down. Hurrying is an indicator that you have slipped into automatic pilot. So turn off the autopilot and use the manual controls by consciously and deliberately noting all your actions throughout the day. Effort has to be made in this practice, but the effort you make is to be in the moment, while being intimate with, and fully attentive to, whatever you are doing as you are doing it.

The beginner is advised to start by keeping a ‘thread of awareness’ on a particular action throughout the day, for example, naming the walking movement as ‘walking’, ‘walking’ without a break. Whenever the mind wanders from the noting of the walking to a secondary object such as thinking, seeing, hearing, mind state – then note the object that has taken your attention as a secondary object, before going back to the noting of walking. Then combine the noting of the walking with the noting of sitting, standing, and lying down, being especially attentive to the transition movements between each posture.

Take at least one activity during the day, such as eating, and taking your time try to do it one hundred percent – finding the minutest detail. When you are eating, all the senses are activated: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching, so try and note all the physical movements as well as the biting, chewing, tasting, savouring and swallowing. This detailed noting is dynamic and intensifies the momentary concentration that results in a more in-depth experience.

As you can see, the practice of clearly knowing is not a superficial, casual observation, as one must deeply penetrate the object under observation: ‘presence’ is combined with clear comprehension. That is, one must see the specific characteristics of the phenomena, the subtle and fine nuances, the minute detail of the movement, without identifying with it.

Close and sustained attention is the key to the practice. Maintaining close attentiveness for, say, seventy-five percent of daily activities for at least three to four hours in the day will be carried over to and increase the fluency of the practice in the formal sitting and walking sessions. The benefit of this precise and detailed noting is that it will increase and intensify the momentary concentration (khanika samadhi) that is needed to insight deeper into the mind-body phenomena.

For meditators whose practice of full attentiveness has matured, they would be able to note or know nearly all their movements and actions – whatever is predominant in their experience – including the specific characteristics of the movements, for most, if not all of the day.

Then they will discover that what appears to be one continuous movement is actually a series of individual discontinuous movements. Such an insight exposes the illusion of continuity. While this practice is not a slow motion exercise per se, it cannot be emphasized enough that the Vipassana meditator must slow down all bodily movements as much as possible in order to be aware of the subtleties of the movements.

A benefit that is not so much appreciated from ‘attentiveness training’ is that, with presence of mind, the mind is wholesome, and so mindfulness intensifies, and insights will follow. Therefore you will feel good, pleasant feelings (piti) will arise, as you are freed from anxiety and worry and experience the blessing of being in the present moment.

Having established and habituated the practice of full attention with clearly knowing in the supportive conditions of a retreat environment, one has developed the skill that gives you the potential to integrate the mindfulness training into everyday life. The benefits of an ongoing practice of mindfulness in daily living are that it brings about an increase in well-being for oneself and harmonious relationships with others.