The following discussion of practice is excerpted from Question–Answer sessions with Jack Kornfield at a retreat in Santa Rosa, California in June 1985.
Question: In my sitting meditation, how can I refine my awareness?
Answer: Mindfulness is often a coupled phrase in Pali: sati sampajanna. Sati is mindfulness and sampajanna is clear comprehension. Clear comprehension has several different meanings; one is awareness of the context. But the deepest meaning is seeing the process. You are not only aware of what’s happening; you are aware of what happens to it. For example, you might note hearing, or breathing in, or thinking, or fear, or sadness. There are two tasks for you to do: First, be aware and experience fully what is in the present moment while noting it gently, fear-fear, seeing-seeing, or thinking-thinking; second, notice what happens to this experience.
In order to see the process you might experiment by labeling the experience until it changes. This means you really watch until it disappears. Fear arises . . . instead of just noting fear a couple of times and then going back to the breath, note fear-fear, feel it, experience it fully and see how long it lasts. Does it last six fears long or twelve or maybe thirteen fears? Then, all of a sudden, you experience tightness in the chest, and that’s where your awareness goes; the fear ends, and you realize that now tension or pain is in your awareness. You note tension-tension, pain-pain. See how many noticings of “pain” long it is; maybe it’s six pains and then it dissolves. Nothing happens, back to the breath. Then a sound arises; you note hearing-hearing; you feel it fully, and then observe it until it has its end—maybe two hearings long, or four, or six, then back again to the breath. So you are fully with each experience, observing what it is, and also observing what happens to it. This will keep the awareness refined and develop insight.
Question: Could you make some suggestions about how to pay attention to the physical senses most skillfully?
Answer: If you pay attention to the physical body carefully in a way that you begin to distinguish the basic physical elements which make up experience, the sense of solidity of the body tends to dissolve. The sense of leg or back or arm or breath begins to disappear. Leg, back, breath are at a level of thought or concept. If you feel the breath carefully, there isn’t actually breath; there may be coolness, or tingling or vibration. Similarly, if you pay careful attention as you take your foot off the ground in a step, instead of conceptualizing foot and ground, you feel heaviness changing into lightness, stillness changing into vibration, and pressure moving from one area to another.
You are feeling the physical elements: The earth element is experienced as hardness and softness, heaviness and lightness. The fire element is experienced as temperature, coolness and warmth; as you raise your foot, you might experience warmth changing into coolness. The air element is the element of motion or vibration; as you move you experience the change from stillness to vibration. The water element, which it’s said can be seen only in conjunction with the other elements, is a sense of cohesiveness or dispersion; you might experience a change in the sense of cohesiveness of the foot while in motion.
Start to sensitize yourself to the physical elements that make up what we call physical experience. You can do this at any point. When you are taking a mouthful of food, close your eyes and start to chew. If you pay attention to your direct experience, instead of food, tongue and mouth, as you chew you will notice hardness changing to softness, areas of pressure, areas of vibration, and cohesion changing into fluidity. The experience of the physical elements is, in fact, all that you can directly perceive. In order to see the characteristics of impermanence, of change, of selflessness, it’s helpful, if you can, to bring your awareness to this level.
Question: How can I deal with feelings of discouragement or “it’s not good enough” that come up in my sittings?
Answer: When you feel discouraged by your sittings it may be helpful to look at your expectations, your images, what you’re attached to that keeps you from experiencing the present moment. There may be expectations on all of the four foundations of mindfulness. There may be expectations of the body; I’ve been able to sit quietly before, so I want to do it again. Or there may be expectations of moods and feelings; I’ve felt peaceful, ecstatic before; I’d like to get those feelings back. Or there may be expectations of certain kinds of mental states or visions or understandings. There may be expectations in general about your spiritual practice: “My practice should bring clarity, or happiness, or compassion.” The expectations on all four of these levels will prevent you from experiencing what is actually here for you in the moment.
It may be useful to take a few minutes in a sitting to reflect on, or consider, your attachments. Perhaps this will help you become more sensitive in noticing them as they arise. Or, when you become aware of disappointment with your practice and find that you are judging yourself, you might take this as a signal to investigate what it is that you’re attached to, what you’re hoping for or expecting that holds you back from just being with your experience.
The quality of beginner’s mind that Suzuki Roshi speaks of is a quality of sitting down, and instead of thinking, ”I’m going to get this” or “I hope I have that” or “let’s see if I can get this to happen,” taking the attitude “I wonder what will happen this time?” It’s a quality of “I wonder what?” or “What’s going to come? I’ll pay attention to the breath and see what comes.” That quality of “I wonder what?” allows you both to learn fully and to stay truthfully grounded in the present moment, which is the only place that you can find rest, if not happiness.