Note: This is a transcript of the podcast episode that you can listen to here. The introductory material has been elided.
Michael: Alright, I’m extremely happy to finally be here recording live with my good friend Kenneth Folk. Hi, Kenneth.
Kenneth: Hi, Michael. I’m delighted to be here.
Michael: So we’re trying to keep this as much like a conversation as possible. Kenneth and I are on the phone often just talking about the ideas and issues that fascinate us, and at some point we decided it was a good idea, or might be a good idea, to record these. Now that we’re recording it and others might be listening, it may be worth it for you to introduce yourself.
Kenneth: Okay. My name is Kenneth Folk and I am a teacher of Pragmatic Dharma and secular Buddhist meditation. And I – today especially – would like to think of myself as an iconoclast, so Michael and I are going to explore some issues in a way that I hope will be a new angle.
Michael: Yeah, me, too. And I think you can safely rest assured that Kenneth is iconoclastic. He is an iconoclast, and so am I, so we tend to break out of the normal definitions and boundaries of some of these fields, particularly vipassana Buddhism, and ramble off into the weeds in various directions as far as our whimsy or delight takes us, and then may come back onto the path. That is something that we share, is a pretty good understanding of Theravada or vipassana Buddhism. So that is a common reference point. I don’t think we’ve ever blanched or worried about coloring outside the lines. Would you say that’s fair, Kenneth?
Kenneth: It seems to me that when you and I get together we delight in blasting apart our preconceived notions.
Michael: Right? That’s the fun part. So let’s get going with you, Kenneth. I think you had an interesting idea. You were talking to me a little bit before we started and said that you had an idea of what you wanted to investigate today. That’s about as far as we’ve taken the planning on this.
Kenneth: Good, okay. Let’s blast apart the “mindfulness” word and let’s explore whether mindfulness and meditation actually have very much, if anything, to do with each other – where meditation is defined as, in this case, sitting formally, quietly paying attention to something. Let’s see if that has anything to do with mindfulness, and let’s see what meditation and mindfulness have to do with Buddhist notions of awakening and enlightenment (if anything).
Michael: Yeah, great. So let me just ante up with my ignorance on the table and we can start from there. I would say that mindfulness comes from the Pali word sati or the corresponding Sanskrit word smṛti, and the way I understand it, this was never considered to be like a meditation technique; this is a quality you’re supposed to have in vipassana, right? So vipassana is insight meditation, and one of the qualities of that is sati or smṛti, which can be translated as “remembrance” – that’s the actual, everyday use of the word. Even today in Hindi smṛti would just mean “to remember.” But in vipassana-style meditation, sati or smṛti means “mindfulness.” And now, in the current United States, the mindfulness word has sort of taken over, where we talk about “mindfulness meditation” and that usually means something like vipassana.
Kenneth: I would agree with most of that. I would add that the reason we even have the word mindfulness in English relating to meditation and vipassana is originally as a translation of that Pali word, sati, as you say. So I want to follow that back and talk about what is this sati thing and why do we care. So I’ll set it up with a little story. In ‘92, in 1992, I had just finished a three-month long intensive meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and I got back home to Southern California, and I was really on fire about what was happening in my practice. I figured I hadn’t yet had enough of it, so I sold my car and quit my job as a pizza delivery man and bought a one-way ticket to South East Asia, and then spent another year in intensive meditation retreat – half in Penang, Malaysia, and the second half in Rangoon, Burma.
Michael: And was this with U Pandita or a different teacher?
Kenneth: This was with U Pandita in Burma and a month of the Malaysia trip or the Malaysia stay, when U Pandita came to visit Malaysia from Rangoon. But it was also with a teacher named Sayadaw U Rajinda, who was another Burmese teacher, also a wonderful teacher. So the part that I want to talk about is a talk, a particular Dharma talk given by Sayadaw U Pandita when I was in Burma. He talked about this word, satipaṭṭhāna, and satipaṭṭhāna is very much related to mindfulness. It’s something that Theravāda Buddhists and vipassana practitioners may know as the word that is translated as – well, the phrase “the four satipaṭṭhānas” are the “four foundations of mindfulness.” I’m not going to go too much into that – just to understand that satipaṭṭhāna, this is what I think we ought to be talking about with regard to mindfulness.
Michael: Now, would you just very loosely translate satipaṭṭhāna as the path of mindfulness?
Kenneth: In this case I’m going to define it as a technique. Satipaṭṭhāna is something you can do. So U Pandita explains to us he wants to take apart this word. What does satipaṭṭhāna mean? What is the etymology, the origins of this word? Well, we know that sati has something to do with remembering. In fact, I think the word sati in Pali actually means remembering. But in this context, it doesn’t mean any old remembering. It doesn’t mean “I remember what I ate for breakfast.” It means remembering to do something, and remembering to do a specific thing, which is to pay attention, to notice what’s going on in real time. So for our purposes, in this context, this is what sati is. This is what mindfulness is. The only reason we’re talking about mindfulness is because that’s a translation of the word sati. Alright, now, but we’re talking about satipaṭṭhāna. What’s important about this is this other word, pa, in Pali. So this pa, as Sayadaw U Pandita described it, this means a profound engagement with the object and an immersion in this noticing, in this sati. So we’re not talking about any old sati. We’re talking about profound pa sati. That’s why it’s called satipaṭṭhāna. So once we get here…
Michael: Just for the record, that sounds like one of those folk etymologies or special etymologies that we often encounter, at least in Sanskrit, where it’s a, let’s say, highly unusual etymology.
Kenneth: Right, right. So this is one of those things where people define these words within the context that they are creating for a very particular reason.
Michael: Yeah, it’s like a technical jargon.
Kenneth: This is technical jargon, right. So we’ve got now this technical term, satipaṭṭhāna, as a profound kind of noticing what’s going on in real time. Once we have this idea, we can say that satipaṭṭhāna, this profound mindfulness, is always a punctuated event. This is a momentary event. This isn’t something that you could go – you couldn’t say, [monotone voice] “Oh, I am being so mindful, and I am continuously mindful, and I am not losing…” No! That’s half-assed, bogus mindfulness that isn’t going to do the job. As a parallel, imagine if I want to strengthen my biceps and I think, “Well, maybe I could pump a 40 pound dumbbell a couple times.” And if I do, that would be actually very effective strength training for my biceps, and my biceps would get stronger. But what if I say, “Yeah, but I want to continuously hold the weight”? Well, if I’m going to be serious about that, I’m probably going to end up with a half pound weight, and I’m not even going to pump it with my biceps. I’m going to strap it to my waist so I can carry it around all day. Well, that’s not going to do anything. Continuous half-assed effort is not the same as a punctuated, committed effort.
So that’s the difference between supposed continuous mindfulness and this profound engagement with an object in a moment. And how long does a moment last? Well, this moment is going to last something between 200 milliseconds, two-tenths of a second and a second. If I want to do it right now – this is the little routine that I go through for myself; this is my favorite practice lately – I say to myself, “Am I mindful?” And then I say, “I don’t know. Let me check.” And now I have to prove it. So I’m going to say three things that prove that I actually am mindful. So let’s see. “I don’t know. Let me check. Let me look for something. Alright, there’s a twitching/tingling in my left ankle. I’m noticing that clearly. There is dryness in my mouth, on my tongue, and in my throat as I breathe in. And there is pulsing, strangely enough, in my left biceps.” And because my internal auditor is willing to sign off on that, I’m going to give myself three “attaboys,” and I’m going to do that with this little clicker that I bought, mail-order – it’s a little clicker counter and it increments the counter when you click it. So I got three of them [clicks three times], good. Now I’m just going to do it again: “Am I mindful? I don’t know. Let me check.”
So notice that those were punctuated events, which means that if I think of it this way – so that’s what my mindfulness is, that’s the mindfulness that counts – well, now I can think of my practice in an entirely different way. I don’t have to think of my practice as the time I spend on the cushion. My practice is now framed as a hundred clicks on my clicker counter, where my internal auditor signed off that “Yes, you were indeed profoundly mindful in those moments. There was no messing around here.”
Michael: Okay, so this is interesting. It seems to be related to something that I would call complete engagement, where at least for a moment attention is, you know, going towards 100% engagement or involvement in an experience.
Michael: So how do you know you’re not just fooling yourself? How do you know that this isn’t just, “Well, I want a hundred clicks, and I contacted the object, and that counts”? How are you measuring this?
Kenneth: Yeah, that’s exactly the right question, in my opinion. And the way that I know is I engage the auditor, what I’m thinking of as the auditor. So I’m running two subsystems here: one of them is the meditator, or the noticer, the one who’s supposed to notice things, and the other one is the auditor, whose job is to hold the meditator’s feet to the fire, to not accept fake mindfulness. So let me give an example of what fake mindfulness would be. I can play the children’s game “I Spy with My Little Eye”: “I spy with my little eye a napkin, a box, a cellphone, and a mug.” That’s mindfulness, right? And my auditor goes, “No.”
Michael: Well, that is – mindfulness in the minds of many people is continuously contacting objects or sensory experiences without judgment, and what I find very often, there’s this sort of mood of like, checking the box. Like, okay, you’re supposed to feel your breathing, which to me always means feel the body sensations associated with breathing. And so the person gets going, and they’re like, “Well, do I feel my body sensations of breathing? Yep, check the box, or click the clicker. I felt it.” And, you know, as a teacher, I’m like, well, that’s a good start, but I mean, you’re not just supposed to check the box! [laughs] You know? “I felt the feeling.” It’s about now getting curious and open and investigating that feeling really, really deeply. And they’re like, “Well, what do you mean?” And I say something like, “Well, what’s the felt experience of the size of that sensation, and the three-dimensional shape of the sensation, and the texture of it, and the density?”, and all these different qualities, all of which are just – it’s not that any of those are individually important, but I’m trying to get them to engage with the object in a curious and open manner, because for me that was a big deal, switching from just ‘checking the box’ to actual engagement. So is that something along the lines of what you’re discussing?
Kenneth: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You’re describing the distinction between more or less mindfulness, or half-assed mindfulness, and profound mindfulness. Now the question is, in practice, how do I know? How do I know if I’m doing half-assed mindfulness or profound mindfulness? In other words, how do I know if the pa is in there, as in satipaṭṭhāna, profound engagement? Well, the answer is I will know if my auditor will sign off on it. So I want to talk a little bit more about this auditor and how it works.
Imagine that you’re in the gym, ostensibly lifting weights. Your personal trainer isn’t in the gym with you; she’s on the telephone. So she calls you and she says, “Are you lifting weights?” And you say, “Yeah. Totally lifting weights.” [laughs] And she says, “I don’t know. It sounds to me like you’re lying on the bench. Can you tell me something about what it feels like to lift weights that can convince me? Because my job is to hold your feet to the fire.” And you say, “Oh, alright. Well, if you insist. Yeah, okay, well, I’m pumping a 40 pound dumbbell.” So this is “I Spy with My Little Eye,” right? I’m just going to tell you – I’m still blowing smoke, trying to convince her that I’m lifting weights. She says, “Alright, but what does it feel like to pump a 40 pound dumbbell?” Okay, now you’re cornered. The meditator’s going to have to say something real. “Well, let’s see. There’s pressure on the palm of my hand.” I’m going to pick up a dumbbell right now…
Michael: We’ll usually start out with something like, “It feels hard. It feels difficult.”
Kenneth: Okay. The auditor would go, “Yeah, yeah. You’re still blowing smoke. What else you got?” [laughs]
Michael: Right? Yeah, it’s like, “Well, I’m going back and forth.”
Kenneth: “Yeah, whatever. What does it feel like?” Now, for this to work, what’s going to inevitably happen as you move through the funnel of more and more credibility with the auditor, this is going to end up at body sensations. What does that dumbbell feel like in your hand?
Michael: Well, I’m going to just make it up, but like you said, it feels like…
Kenneth: Well, actually, don’t even do that, because I’ve got a dumbbell in my hand this moment.
Michael: Okay, good.
Kenneth: It is a 3 pound dumbbell, as it happens, and I can feel pressure in the palm of my hand and on my fingers. I can feel rough texture. And I want to say heaviness – the pressure I’m interpreting as heaviness in the palm of my hand. And I can feel tightness in my arm, contraction in the forearm and in the upper arm. And that is how I try to convince the auditor that I’m really pumping the weight.
Michael: Right. This is why I’m always kind of picky about, instead of saying, for example, “Meditate on breath, on breathing” or whatever, I will always spell it all the way out: “I want you to meditate on the body sensations associated with breathing.”
Michael: Right? Because as soon as you say “meditate on breath,” it could be anything – think about the breath, imagine the breath, you know, a visualization of the breath.
Kenneth: Yes. In fact, let’s do a game where you play the role of the auditor and I’ll play the role of the meditator. And I’m going to make your life miserable on purpose [Michael laughs] for the purpose of the recording. So I’m playing the role of a very experienced meditator who thinks he knows what mindfulness is. So let’s do the routine. The routine is you as the auditor, you ask me, “Are you mindful?” And I always answer the same thing, which is, “I don’t know. Let me check. And now I’m going to tell you. I’m going to prove it.”
Michael: Okay. Kenneth, are you mindful?
Kenneth: I don’t know. Let me check. …Yep, I’m mindful.
Michael: Prove it.
Kenneth: Well, you know, as you know, I’m an experienced meditator, and I know what mindfulness feels like, and it feels like this. That’s how I know it’s happening, because I’m used to it.
Michael: [laughs] Can you describe it for me and the listeners?
Kenneth: Oh, can I describe it? Well… Yeah, lot of loving-kindness. Lot of divine light.
Michael: Yeah, that’s really cool. I’m glad you’re having a good experience. Now, let’s come back to the actual body sensations associated with lifting that weight.
Kenneth: Oh, the body sensation. Body sensations! Why didn’t you say so! Okay. Body sensations. Well, I’m breathing.
Michael: Awesome. And can you describe any of the actual sensations of breathing?
Kenneth: Oh, the actual sensations of breathing. Well, that’s different. Let me see. As I breathe in, I can feel dryness in the mouth and coolness in the mouth and the throat.
Kenneth: And as I breathe out, warmth and moistness in the nose.
Michael: This is sounding like mindfulness.
Kenneth: More coolness as I breathe in. A fluttering, changing pressure in the nose and the nostrils as I breathe out. Alright. So you cornered me – you didn’t allow me to do what the meditator will naturally do. And I want to talk about why would the meditator naturally do that. So once you set up the two subroutines of the person who’s supposed to be paying attention, the meditator and the auditor, well, the auditor’s job is pretty clear – she has to get the meditator to pay attention to something. So you would think then the meditator’s job is to be mindful. But no, it isn’t. The meditator’s job is to blow smoke to convince the auditor that he’s being mindful, even if he isn’t. So that’s the game. That’s actually why it’s fun and why it’s so important to engage the internal auditor.
Now, why would it be that way? Because this organism wants to be efficient. And Michael, you pointed this out to me several years ago, that anything this organism can burn into the hardware to save on bandwidth, it will. It burns into the hardware how to tie your shoes so you don’t have to waste energy on thinking about it every time. Well, it’s going to do the same thing with mindfulness. So that complacency will always result in sloppy mindfulness unless you create this arms race between the auditor and the supposed meditator.
Michael: Okay, so the thing that’s coming up for me here is the thing that is usually the critique of mindfulness, why vipassana or mindfulness (quote) “isn’t enlightening.” And the critique is that you’re building this meditator, and the meditator or in this case the auditor is somehow outside the meditation, and therefore it’s an ego and it’s not getting awakened. So how is this type of mindfulness – you actually didn’t say that this was enlightening or awakening as a practice; I assume that it is. So how do we overcome these subpersonality egos that you’re describing, and turn this into something that actually points towards awakening? Am I being clear about the problem?
Kenneth: That’s very clear. Alright, so let’s see what happens in practice when I do it. I ask the question, “Am I mindful?” “I don’t know, let me check.” And I’m looking for something. Now, this activity of looking, this remembering to do the thing – this is sati – this remembering to do the thing, and the thing in this context being to notice something that’s happening in real time – we’re already doing it. This is what mindfulness, this is what sati is. I’ve got to find something; I’m looking, there’s investigation. And okay, I’ve contacted something. There’s an itch on my forehead. But I don’t have pa yet, I don’t have profound engagement. So I’m going to have to look. I’m going to have to find out something about it. Alright, I’m noticing the itch. It’s fading in intensity. Now it’s coming back a little bit. And it’s radiating. Now that’s profound engagement with the object, and I proved it by saying something about it. Now I want to reflect on: what did I get out of that, or what happened there? What happened was there was so much engagement of the processing capacity of the mind in that activity that I forgot everything else. There was no sense of “I’m doing this.” There was no sense even of “I’m convincing the auditor.” There was just commitment to that. That is a moment of awakeness, and that moment of awakeness doesn’t include any sense of me as the one doing what’s happening.
Michael: So this meditator subpersonality and the auditor subpersonality or thread, these threads, are not present at that moment.
Kenneth: If they’re present, they’re certainly not on the radar. In other words, whatever’s going on there, the only thing that’s being noticed is the target sensation itself. So those, as we reflect upon it on hindsight, we can see that these subroutines run – the subroutine of the supposed noticer or meditator, and the subroutine of the supposed auditor – but in the actual moment of satipaṭṭhāna, that’s a nonissue.
Michael: So describe to me one of these moments of satipaṭṭhāna going all the way. If it’s truly profound engagement, what’s that like?
Kenneth: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s perfectly ordinary. It’s not transcendent. It’s not amazing. It is complete, to borrow Shinzen Young’s word. It’s all that’s going on. So if we think about – we hear great sages from time to time say things like, “This is it.” This itch on your behind is enlightenment. Well, in a moment of satipaṭṭhāna, you can relate to that very well – or reflecting back on the moment, because actually in that moment there wasn’t anything other than that itch.
Michael: Right, so it’s a complete experience. If I understand Shinzen correctly, and certainly in my experience, if one of those moments goes even close to completeness, that sensation will break up and dissolve and reveal voidness for a short moment. Are you including that concept in there, or that experience in there, or is that something else entirely?
Kenneth: Not at all – that’s something else entirely. It is possible that this thing called cessation happens, where there is a moment of no experience at all, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
Michael: I find if I profoundly engage any sensation the way you’re describing, even for a moment, it will just start dissolving. And I think that that’s what Shinzen’s pointing out with complete experience, although I could be wrong. So let’s assume that that’s a different thing. What is the difference? What are we pointing at here? If the one thing is sati, what’s this other thing?
Kenneth: One of the things that can happen when you profoundly engage an object is a moment of cessation. But we don’t have to consider that the be-all, end-all of anything. The important thing for our purposes here is the profound engagement itself, whatever happens, whether it’s cessation or, much more likely, it isn’t – it’s just an itch.
Michael: Yes. And so how do we know that it’s profound engagement? Back to the auditor. To me when it dissolves into nothing or continuous flow, that’s how I know it’s profound engagement. It’s like, “Okay, that’s a nice, complete moment of engagement, because the thing dissolved and then came back out of the void, and now we’re back into regular sensation.”
Kenneth: The auditor doesn’t need to be involved in what the experience is; the auditor just needs to intuitively believe, it has to assign a high degree of probability that the meditator isn’t making it up.
Michael: Right, okay.
Kenneth: So whatever that experience is – if the experience is, “Wow, this itch is just getting more. It’s just getting worse. It’s getting clearer and brighter and more and more intense,” well, that’s what it is, and the auditor very well may say, “That sounds pretty right to me. I think you really are engaging experience, and therefore, click. You get your click. Sign it off.” I think we want to avoid any kind of prescription. This gets people into trouble. “Wait a minute, I don’t know if I’m doing it right, because I was supposed to have the right experience that Michael described, or that Shinzen described.” I’m saying that’s entirely – that’s a red herring from this point of view. We just need this profound moment of engagement with the object, whatever it is, and the auditor is then going to do his or her job: “Do I believe it or not?”
This segue is into something – how we can look at the various sense doors as things that can be noticed. In Buddhism these six sense doors – seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, and thinking or mental events. So which of these is the auditor likely to buy, to sign off on? And what I find is that by far the easiest one to convince the auditor of is the tactile sense. I very well may be mindful of thinking, for example, but it’s going to be hard to convince the auditor of that. So for this game, for this very high bar of what satipaṭṭhāna is, mindfulness or profound engagement with the object is necessary but not sufficient. The auditor has to sign off. So I might say, “Yeah, I’m mindful. I’m seeing mental objects, mental imagery. In fact, I’m seeing the mental imagery of an airplane, which is probably related to the fact that I can also hear a sound that I’m interpreting as an airplane.” Well, okay. I may actually be mindful. But my auditor will say, “I don’t know. I’m going to sign a 40 to 50 percent degree of confidence that you really were mindful. What else you got?” I didn’t get a click for that. So since I play this game a lot and I know how the auditor is, I’m going to say, “Alright. I’m going to give you something you’re going to believe, because I want my click. There’s tightness on the right side of my face and neck, and warmth, tightness, tightness, hardness.” And the auditor goes, “Yup, I buy it. That’s high probability that you didn’t lie about it. There’s your click.”
Michael: Yeah, boy, I just disagree with everything there! For me, yes, it is easier with physical sensations, just because they’re slower. But it’s certainly possible to have the absolutely same degree of profound engagement with a mental image or mental talk. To me, I think it’s really important to be able to do that.
Kenneth: Well, there’s no disagreement there. It is possible, but for this game, if we’re going to say “What’s the tool that we can give to the meditator so they don’t have to keep asking us ‘how do I know when I did it right?’”, well, this is the tool.
Michael: Let me just go ahead here for a minute and just say, from my perspective, what you’re describing is sensory clarity, deep sensory clarity, and I certainly agree that it’s incredibly important, and that if you don’t have sensory clarity in mindfulness, you’re just kind of treading water. You might have some really small sense of presence, or small sense of engagement in the moment, but if you want to expand up and out from your plateau, you have to go in to the sensory clarity, profound engagement, exactly how you’re describing it.
Kenneth: Right. So we’re back to contrasting some kind of supposedly continuous – but I will argue half-assed – mindfulness with this profound engagement which will necessarily be a punctuated event, a momentary event. So from my point of view, a hundred clicks, if I get to click my clicker a hundred times during a day, that’s vastly more powerful than imagining, the glossing it and imagining, “Oh, yeah, I was mindful the entire time.” And in fact, we’re coming back to where we started: does meditation, as defined as sitting quietly for an hour, paying attention to something, have anything to do with profound mindfulness? Not necessarily. Now, it’s possible that I may get a few clicks during an hour of sitting. But it’s also entirely possible that I won’t, that I’ll gloss it the entire time. And I may enter various states – I might enter a pleasant hypnagogic state, or I may even enter jhāna, but without that profound engagement with the object, I didn’t do the thing that is directly correlated with a moment of awakeness: I didn’t get my satipaṭṭhāna.
Michael: Yeah, that all makes sense. I feel like there’s the possibility of sitting in meditation and having that sort of happen in waves where it’s kind of slightly less mindfulness, coming together, coming together, coming together, boom, moment of profound engagement, spreads apart for a moment, comes together, comes together, comes together, boom. So you’re getting these waves going, where there’s a high degree of mindfulness the whole time, and then this sort of complete or profound engagement every few seconds, and it’s just going boom, boom, boom, boom. Now that, to me, is meditating. Right? Now you’re really doing it because you’re bringing this profound mindfulness to the object of meditation over and over and over and over and over and over. You’ve learned to kind of surf that. And that’s when you can start saying that you’re really doing it, right? And I get what you’re describing here is even doing it once is a big deal and actually something that can be considered much more useful than sitting and meditating and not doing that at all, even if you meditate in a deep jhāna state or whatever for hours. And being able to do the thing you’re describing, you can do it even walking around in the world, right? So far nothing we’ve talked about is really iconoclastic, right? We’re actually just – you’re quoting a traditional Buddhist teacher and sort of unpacking what he’s saying. And I feel like the leverage point of something different, or sort of challenging people’s assumptions, is that you’re saying that this isn’t really something that is, quote, “meditation,” because you don’t necessarily sit there for thirty minutes doing this, number one, and number two, you might notice yourself doing it when you’re not in formal meditation.
Kenneth: That’s right. This is the iconoclastic point, as you say. This doesn’t have to have anything to do with meditation as we normally think of it. We normally think of, “Well, meditation is when I sit on the cushion quietly and do whatever I do.” The thing is, you can do any number of things on the cushion, and I think we all do. I can sit on the cushion for an hour and ruminate, or worry, or have a sex fantasy, or go to sleep. There may or may not have been any profound moments of contacting an object during that time. For much of the time that I spent on intensive retreat – it was years I did that – well, because you have so many hours a day that you simply must get through, you get good at doing all kinds of things while sitting quietly on a cushion, most of which have nothing to do with awakening. You learn how to enter states. You actually may even get really good at jhāna. But that has nothing to do with satipaṭṭhāna, and nothing to do with awakening.
So if we reframe it, it’s my hundred clicks a day that’s doing the work here. Suddenly, whether I’m sitting, or standing, or walking, or lying down, which are the four traditional Buddhist postures for satipaṭṭhāna, who cares? It doesn’t matter which of those it is. We don’t have to go so far as to say, “Well, you should stop your sitting practice.” I’m not saying that. But I am saying from the point of view of satipaṭṭhāna and awakeness, I don’t care if you have a sitting practice, and in fact, if I go back to reality testing and I say, “Of the people I know, who I believe are awake to my satisfaction, do they all have a sitting practice?”, the answer is no. I have one friend in particular who I call awake and he has never been a meditator. He’s not a meditator now. And he doesn’t claim to have experience of any particular altered states. That wasn’t his path at all. His practice was and is paying attention to the moment-by-moment changes in his body sensations and emotions during social situations.
Michael: Which is profoundly powerful practice, for sure.
Kenneth: Which is satipaṭṭhāna, because it’s this profound, momentary engagement with some real-time phenomenon, some experience. So even one data point like that, if you accept that it’s true, that this fellow could be awake never having meditated or having experience of altered states, that can really blow out of the water these notions we have where we conflate sitting practice and intensive sitting retreats with awakening. They’re two different things. And yes, you can awaken while you do sitting practice and intensive meditation retreats, and you can awaken without doing those things.
Michael: Let’s unpack this further because from my perspective, you’re just describing a moment of connection with some concentration and sensory clarity. Right? You’re contacting particularly body sensations with a good amount of attention and with a good amount of clarity as to the details. But to me, you know, that’s good – I want people to get there; I want to go in that direction. But that’s certainly not “the thing.” It’s just a step on the way to the thing. So how does this actually, in your eyes, have anything to do with awakening?
Kenneth: For me, this is the only thing. This moment of profound noticing what’s happening as it’s happening is completely correlated with awakeness.
Michael: And so how would this, in your eyes, relate to something like understanding that there’s no such thing inside you called a self, or any kind of other experience or knowledge of something that would classically be called enlightenment or awakening?
Kenneth: The reframing of my narrative to say, “Wow, I can’t find anything in here that seems to be a self” flows from these profound moments of engagement with something where it becomes a nonissue.
Michael: Please unpack that a little further.
Kenneth: In the actual moment of satipaṭṭhāna, which is a moment of awakeness, there’s no such thought process; there’s no such story-telling, “Oh, I see that I’m not a self.” No, that story-telling comes after the fact when you process myriad moments of this, and you look at it from all sorts of different angles, and you realize, “Well, yeah, now that you mention it, I’ve never found anybody in here when I’ve looked.” But that is story-telling about the actual moment of awakeness. In the actual moment of awakeness, in that moment, it’s not an issue – whether there is or isn’t a self, there’s no story-telling.
Michael: Sure. Of course that’s a story told after the fact. However, to me anyway, the experience in the moment is the one I was describing, where these momentary arising of sensations keep dissolving into nothing.
Kenneth: Okay. I want to talk about this, because I disagree, and I want to say why I think this is important. If we identify any particular experience as the “right” one, I think we’re in trouble already. The experience is at it is. And whether that experience is things dissolving into nothing, whether that experience is things not dissolving into nothing, that can be profoundly contacted, and that’s a moment of awakeness.
Michael: Yeah, I think what’s interesting is that, in my experience anyway, and it sounds like it’s different than your experience, profoundly contacting anything shows its impermanent nature. It starts to just fall apart. And I’m not doing that to that; it’s not a story I’m telling. It’s just a function of how much concentration and clarity and equanimity I’m bringing to the contact. So to me, that’s the difference between, let’s say, 90% engagement and 99.-something engagement, is that it starts to just reveal – the experience starts to just unpack itself.
Kenneth: I’m having trouble knowing why wouldn’t that just be applying a preconceived understanding after the fact. What if I engage the object profoundly and it gets stronger? Now, it’s changing, so after the fact, I can say, “Well, impermanence applied.” But the idea that it has to fall apart seems to me – there seems to be some kind of circular reasoning there: “Well, I’ll only accept that it’s real if it does what I think it ought to do going in.” So that doesn’t leave open the possibility that it can do something I don’t expect it to do.
Michael: Well, actually it does, I just don’t experience it doing that. Experiences are always doing interesting things because they’re changing. I feel like there’s a big x factor in what you’re saying, which is how we actually know the difference between just some engagement and enough engagement that it’s awakening.
Kenneth: I think the key to this is engaging the auditor. And this is a process of working with it for each yogi. What is the auditor willing to accept? And the bar keeps being raised. I think even before we have the notion of the auditor, we let ourselves get away with a lot of gloss, so that’s when we think we’re doing fine if we say kind of casually, “Alright, let me see. Let me play the ‘I Hear with My Little Ear’ game.” So I say, “Alright, hearing. That’s an airplane. Hearing. That’s traffic noise. Hearing. That’s – I’m not sure what that hissing sound [is]. Hearing. That’s the neighbors making noise in the stairwell.” Now, I think for a while, maybe for decades, we’ll let ourselves get away with that. But once we start really playing with this idea of the auditor, we say, “Is that really profound engagement?” As you mentioned earlier, Michael, that’s just contacting an object. So how do we go more into that? How do I convince the auditor that it’s profound contact? Well, “Hearing. There’s hearing a sound. I’m interpreting that as hearing an airplane, but I don’t actually know. Hearing. Can hear it changing and fading. Hearing. I can see mental imagery of airplanes and helicopters, and I can see some kind of cogitation about it, trying to decide which it is,” and so on. So at that point, my auditor is starting to feel pretty confident. “Alright, you get a click for that.” So I’m going to get a click. [clicks counter]
I think that something we can do for our students that will really juice their practice, really kick it into turbocharge mode, is to show them that most of what they’re doing is a gloss. So this is back to my nudging, goading iconoclast mode. I think most of what people are doing on the cushion is not leading to their awakening.
Michael: I definitely agree that if there’s simple contact with the object, they might be getting relaxed, and getting some stress relief, and maybe some concentration, and we both know there are good effects from all that, but it’s not necessarily anything to do with awakening. You have to really get in there and contact the object at an extremely high level of detail and clarity, and pushing towards that, it’s the direction to go. If your mind, your working memory, has 100% of attention potentially available, contact with an object in the simple way is maybe 3% or something; it’s a very tiny amount of working memory being brought to bear on this object, and as you can imagine, the other 97% is doing a lot of other stuff, whereas in profound contact with an object you’re pushing it towards 90, 95, and 99+% of working memory is involved in the details of that experience. And that’s where the awakening starts potentiating.
Kenneth: Right. So you’re pointing to something which I think is a really important idea, which is that we have a finite resource of processing capacity in any given moment, and we can divide it, we can multitask, and we can say, “Yeah, I’m allocating some part of my attention to my body sensations, and I’m also hearing sounds, and I’m talking, and I’m thinking about some stuff.” We do that a lot, and it’s fine. But if we can get that attention to coalesce in one place, to zoom in and put (ideally, theoretically) 100% – which probably rarely happens, but let’s imagine it as an ideal – if I can get 100% of attention, of my finite attentional resource, allocated to the itch on the back of my neck, now I’m really doing it. I’m really getting a profound moment of satipaṭṭhāna, and that’s what’s doing the work here. So any time I’m doing anything else, it’s not a judgment about whether that other thing is valuable – there are lots of things I do that are valuable; they just aren’t satipaṭṭhāna. In the same way that I can, if I want to get really good at tennis, there are a thousand things I can do with my body, most of which aren’t relevant to tennis – it doesn’t mean they’re bad, but they aren’t helping my tennis.
Michael: Yes. In my way of understanding, the reason that this high attention on the object is liberating is because in that moment there is no or very little attentional resource being given towards sensations of selfhood. So in a normal, non-mindful moment, there’s a large amount of attentional resources being reflected back into body sensations, or thoughts, various emotions, of selfhood. So it’s always a divided experience between the thing I’m looking at and the internal experience of being a looker. So this working memory is divided between those two object of attention. But the more and more attention that pours upon the object of focus, the less and less attentional resource is available to or upon the feeling of being the looker. There’s a certain critical threshold where so much attentional resource is diverted away from being the observer and into the observed that the whole sense of there being anybody there doing any observation goes away, for a very practical reason – it’s not a mystical or hard-to-understand reason at all. It’s just that there are no attentional resources left in working memory to put towards the experience of being the person doing it.
And that’s why, for example, flow experiences, at the high level of the psychologically-defined flow experience, at the high levels of that, there’s no sense of being a doer, whether it’s sports, or music, or mountain biking, or playing a concerto. There’s a certain critical threshold reached when the concerto is just playing itself, or the mountain bike is just riding itself, because it’s taking so much attention to do that activity that there’s none left to be the person doing it. Actually, it’s really just coming back to concentration, right? But to me, the key – and I think it’s what’s really powerful in what you’re describing here today – the key is trying to pay attention to something in a ‘check the box’ kind of manner is really hard, because it’s boring, you know? If I’m just like, “Well, I’m sort of looking at that thing. Check,” there’s nothing there for the teeth of your mind to kind of bite into. It’s just not interesting enough. But there’s something about the really complex activity of, let’s say, playing a concerto, that is interesting enough. There’s enough material there for your brain to really get involved with. Or, let’s say, sports, where there’s a lot going on, it’s highly interactive, there are a tremendous number of variables happening, and so your mind can just dig right in, and it’s not that hard to get into a highly, highly, highly focused but also engaged state with that.
And so when I try to point this out to people in terms of their meditation practice, it comes right down to exactly what you’re describing – let’s get into this body sensation, or emotion, or mental images, or mental talk, or external visual experience, in this very, very open, curious, sensitive, aesthetically-engaged way, so that it’s interesting enough to really bring a very high level of your attentional resources to bear on.
Kenneth: Right. So there’s this positive feedback loop where it becomes engaging through the activity of engaging with it. One of the problems meditators have is they don’t do it because the anticipation of it doesn’t make it seem appealing. “I don’t want to play this game. I don’t want to profoundly engage with these phenomena momentarily by going through this routine, ‘Am I mindful? I don’t know. Let me check,’ and then proving it.” But there’s something that can be seen as specious if you walk them through it. So you say, “Well, what if you’re my personal trainer in the gym, and I say, ‘I don’t feel like pumping that weight right now. I don’t think that’s going to be pleasant.’” Your trainer, if she’s good, is going to say, “I’m not invested in whether you lift the weight or not. I’m just pointing out to you that if you do lift the weight, you’ll get stronger, and if you don’t lift the weight, there’s no reason to believe that you will.” So the onus is on you to either do this thing which leads to progress, or not. But don’t ask me to talk you into it. When you turn the tables like that, sometimes the student will say, “Oh, I see what you mean. I kind of do want to get stronger. Let me lift the weight.”
So we bring that back to satipaṭṭhāna, and the student actually does it, and they say, “Am I mindful? I don’t know. Now that you mention it, of course not. But let me check.” And they look for something. It’s that moment of looking. Can I find something? “Yeah, there’s a pulsing sensation on both the fingers of my right hand and my right ankle, which is against – my fingers and my right ankle are touching, and there’s this pulsing, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.” Well, that’s not boring! This is actually quite engaging. So there’s a disconnect between what the story thinks is going to happen, and what actually happens when you do it. So I think part of our challenge as meditation teachers is to just keep urging people to do it and stop abstracting it into something that they may or may not think they want to do. If you want to improve, you’ve got to do the thing.
Michael: It does definitely come down to that. And I think that this idea of the psychological concept called flow from Csikszentmihalyi, is actually helpful here, because what I find is that in the meditation traditions there’s this idea of, “Well, this is the object. Meditate on that. And that’s it. You’re going to meditate on that object and then, you know, x, y, and z will happen.” But in terms of the definition of what you’re meditating on, it’s simple: meditate on the body sensations of the breathing, boom. That’s how it’s described. But that’s not how to make progress, because when someone thinks about what meditating on breathing is, or what meditating on the body sensations associated with breathing is, is checking the box.
Kenneth: That’s right.
Michael: And what we know from flow theory, which is essentially concentration theory, like how to concentrate, is that there’s a Goldilocks zone, and if something’s too simple or too easy, it’s boring, and it’s really hard to concentrate on. There’s an upper end, too – sometimes things are too hard to concentrate on; they’re too complex. You can’t keep it all in working memory. And so there’s an interesting axis here that is not usually explicitly described, and that is the axis that you can adjust as the meditator – you have like a slider, and you can adjust the difficulty of the thing you’re engaging with. By ‘difficulty,’ I mean exactly what you’re describing, Kenneth. So, okay, it’s not just the fact that you’re breathing at all; that’s too simple. And it’s not just, let’s say, the rising and falling of your belly, although that’s a little more interesting. It’s slightly more complex. It’s probably still pretty easy and boring, and you can do it for maybe a minute, and your mind will start wandering. But if you start saying, “Okay, well, there’s some tension over on the upper right of my stomach, and there’s this kind of gripping feeling at the bottom of my diaphragm, and there’s this sort of tingle in my rib,” and stuff like that – now it’s interesting enough to actually grab your attention, and without much effort you’re suddenly drawn into the Goldilocks zone of attention. What people don’t seem to realize is you as the meditator get to adjust that slider until you are engaged. So this is kind of part of in the past what has always been the ‘shop talk’ of meditation – if you really sit down with some hardcore meditators and ask them what they’re doing, they’re doing something like this, but it’s not often explicitly stated.
Kenneth: Yeah. I want to follow up on an idea – there’s a place where meditators can get very confused, and it comes from the instruction that they’re given, so it’s understandable that they get confused. The common instruction is, “Sit and follow your breath, pay attention,” and if their teacher is on the ball then they’re going to say “pay attention to the body sensations of the breath as it’s happening.” “Alright, so…?” Then the teacher might say something like, “And you must do it continuously.” Okay, this is already a problem, because as we saw with the example of I can either pump a 40 pound dumbbell a couple times or I can strap a half pound weight to my belt and wear it around all day, those are two very different things. If I think, “Yeah, but I’m supposed to be continuously watching the breath,” I have no choice but to gloss it, because the biology, I think, doesn’t even support a continuous anything. Neurons have to fire, and then they have to rest. So we’re messing with people’s minds – I think we’re gaslighting the students if we say that they should be watching it continuously. You couldn’t possibly do it. So forget about the continuous. What we want to understand is that any profound engagement with the object will necessarily be a punctuated event, and it may only last for 200 milliseconds, and that will be fantastic if it does. Maybe it lasts for a second or two. Maybe you can cluster a few of these together in a row sometimes when you get lucky. But if you’re just thinking of it as the profound momentary engagement with the object and knowing what’s happening as it’s happening, that’s the gig. The other thing, the falling into some kind of a pleasant state and getting calm and concentrated and so on, that’s actually a completely different axis. That’s not what’s leading to your awakeness.
Now, in the Mahasi system, they teach those together and it becomes incredibly confusing for students. I remember during that same Burmese retreat that I was talking about earlier, the meditators would sometimes say to U Pandita, “We’re doing it. We’re doing the noting technique as you suggested. And yet this aversion keeps coming up, and boredom, and anger, and so on, and sleepiness. How come it doesn’t work?” And U Pandita would say, “That’s because you’re not being mindful.” So how do we reconcile those two things? Everybody knows that if you’re going to sit there for an hour you’re very likely to experience the so-called five hindrances where basically bad stuff happens to you. Well, this is easily reconciled if you understand satipaṭṭhāna as a punctuated event. In that moment of allocating the entire attentional resource to something, whether it’s a body sensation or a sound or what have you, there’s nothing left to even notice whether you feel aversive. It’s simply a nonissue. That’s how U Pandita could say that. He certainly wasn’t suggesting that you’re going to be able to sit there and be profoundly mindful continuously for an hour. Mindfulness doesn’t get to be the one thing that’s immune to the law of impermanence.
Michael: Yeah, this makes perfect sense to me. On the other hand, I think it’s not reasonable to think that someone is going to be able to lift a 40 pound weight if they are too weak and they’ve never lifted weights before, and there is some utility in practicing with 3 pound weights all day, and then practicing with 5 pound weights, till you do get some ability to focus to the level you’re describing.
Kenneth: That’s right. And I calibrated that thought experiment to myself, just guessing – I could probably pump a 40 pound dumbbell a couple times, but that’s just me; somebody else could pump a much heavier dumbbell, and somebody else could pump a lighter one. But for me, the important thing is the punctuation of it. So I argue that you can strap the half pound weight to your belt for the rest of your life; it has nothing to do with pumping a dumbbell. At some point, whether it’s a half pound dumbbell or a 40 pound dumbbell, you still have to pump a dumbbell.
Michael: Yeah, I think what I’m saying, though, is you have to be able to concentrate to the level that you’re describing, and for some people, that, even for a moment, is really hard. And so there is the kind of stuff I’m describing, where you’re getting better and better at full engagement, because you’re noticing more and interesting detail about the object, and then there is the utility of just being able, being trained in some focus. Even if that focus is less than what you’re describing, as it gets higher and higher and higher, eventually they’re going to reach the threshold where they can do one of these moments of profound engagement.
Kenneth: Okay. Let me reality test that, because I’ve been, for a few weeks now, since I’ve been really intrigued by this idea of engaging the auditor, I’ve been teaching this to various students, and I’m not finding anybody who can’t do it, you know? If they’re willing, you can coax them through the process just showing them that the auditor – “I don’t know, I’m not convinced that that was mindfulness. Can you give me something else?” And you coax them more into it. It inevitably gets to body sensations. And they will give you, in the first session, something that your auditor can confidently sign off on, and you say, “Yes, you were just mindful.” I’m not finding anybody who can’t do that. Now, granted, it’s a skewed sample, because they’re here because they want to learn this and they’re probably not beginners, anyway. I don’t know to what extent an absolute beginner can do satipaṭṭhāna as I’m describing it.
But I do have a data point that’s relevant. A friend of mine taught his four-year-old son to do a noting technique using the phrase “there is.” If I do this in real time, it sounds like “There is itching. There is tightness. There is hearing. There is itching.” And my friend sent me this video of this little kid saying this, and it’s a little kid saying, “There is seeing. There is hearing. There is seeing. There is love.” It was adorable. But he was four! So this is very accessible. So far, at the level that I think he was doing it, we didn’t have satipaṭṭhāna yet, but we had the first stage of sati, just contacting an object and knowing what it is. So I’m saying that what you and I are talking about, we can parse meditation as in “continuously pay attention to something as best you can,” we can parse that and these punctuated moments; they’re just not the same thing. And that they have been conflated – they’re chronically conflated. People get confused about this. And this is why people come to me having meditated for decades and feeling unsatisfied in some cases with their practice, and saying, “I don’t know. I’m not moving through this traditional map of the Progress of Insight that I keep reading about. What’s going on here?” And it turns out that what’s going on there is they’re sitting there glossing it for a half an hour a day, for decades, and they’ve never actually pumped the weight.
Michael: Alright. So two things. One, the way you’re describing it, again, which to me is moving into some sensory clarity, I definitely agree – anyone can do that. With just a little coaching, you can have the kind of satipaṭṭhāna you’re describing. And I’ll also agree that for a lot of people who are stuck in their practice, even decades of practice, that simple thing, that simple move, removes the logjam. It’s the thing they were missing. And it’s really shocking to me, but it turns out to be very, very common. And so just engaging that sensory clarity, suddenly they’re off and running again, and really getting the benefit. Again, I think the place where I’m hesitant is not in this technique at all – because I think it’s exactly the right direction – but the two things… I guess there are two places. One, I feel like the conflation between concentration and mindfulness that you’re describing does take place a lot, but part of the reason it takes place a lot is because the better you can concentrate, the higher level of this satipaṭṭhāna you can engage, because you’re getting more and more and more of the resources of your working memory to bear – you’re training that. So there is – it’s not like they’re completely unrelated; they’re closely related. And so yes, they’re different, but the one, the ability to concentrate, helps the other, the sensory clarity. And I do think that the sensory clarity helps the concentration quite a bit, too, in the way that I was describing – like it makes the object more interesting. So it’s important to understand how they’re different, and yet they are closely related. So the confusion there is understandable. And then, again, to me it’s not the case that just having some high sensory clarity is awakening. I think that’s the right direction, for sure, and yet I feel like we need to take it even further.
Kenneth: Yeah. I think we’ve gotten down to the nub of something that you and I can explore together. For me, I kind of flip that. For me, to believe that there is some right way for it to be, and that you’ll know it when you see it because things will dissolve, that’s the thing I want people to see through. I want to get beyond that. No, there isn’t any right answer. There’s nothing you’re going to be able to describe that will tell me you have done it right. The only thing that’ll tell me you’ve done it right is if you’ve contacted the object, and it may be very mundane, or it may be very amazing; it may lead to a moment of cessation or something you’re going to interpret after the fact as voidness, as people often do, and then make a big thing out of it. No, I don’t care about any of that. I think that the more we see not only what we’re paying attention to but what stories are we telling ourselves about it, we realize we have no idea what’s going to happen. The only thing we can do is pay attention to it and see what it is. That’s the moment of awakeness for me.
Michael: Right, which is just a different story – it’s a story about some kind of “we don’t know-ness” about it. And I can accept that that’s a different story we’re going to tell ourselves about it. I don’t think it’s possible to ever do it without telling ourself a story about it afterwards; that’s part of being a human. But I do feel like it’s missing a crucial element, which is the ability to really discern when that’s – what you are observing starts to profoundly change your experience of life. We’re just sort of talking about that in a different way, but I think that the whole point of all these traditions – and even though I like deconstructing the traditions, the thing that they’re trying to aim you towards is the understanding that if you push this a little bit, you push this concentration or you push this sensory clarity or this satipaṭṭhāna really towards its limit, something really interesting is revealed about your own nature.
Kenneth: I think what we have here is a really basic disagreement that comes up a lot in these kinds of discussions, and you could even categorize all the traditions on one side or the other of this line. So on one side of the line, “Well, if you do this practice, you’re going to get what you want.” And on the other side of the line, “If you do this practice, you’re going to find something out. It may or may not be what you want.” I hear you in the camp if “If you do this practice, you’re going to get what you want,” and I’m on the other side of that, which is a more traditional Buddhist idea.
Michael: Yeah, I would completely disagree and just say I think that most people do the practice and if they get to the level of, you know, real engagement that we’re describing one way or another, usually it’s something that they had no idea they wanted. Whatever they thought they were going to get, it’s very different than that.
Kenneth: Yeah, we have a good conflict here, which sets up our next talk. One of the things that we can explore, which I find endlessly fascinating, is these stories by which we frame our practice.
Kenneth: And if you want to bookmark that for the next one, I think that’ll be a fantastic talk.
Michael: Me, too. Alright, Kenneth. Thanks a lot. I always enjoy our discussions, and I’m super stoked that we finally recorded one. So hopefully other people will find it interesting also.
Kenneth: Yeah, thanks, Michael. This is always a pleasure for me and I’m excited that we recorded it, too. We’ll see. We’ll see what they think.
Michael: Take it easy, Kenneth.
Kenneth: See ya.