Reaction-free attention

An inability to see the implications with regard to craving and it’s consequences, to see ‘anything’ clearly is ‘avijja’ (ignorance).

‘Natural stillness’ may unfold to one degree or another. In the absence of wisdom there may be a pleasant-experience and some benefit.

The implications of craving are seen clearly when it ceases - not before. When we put down a burden we feel a lightness - greater freedom and ease of being.

Let go a little, a little peace and freedom. Let go a lot, a lot of peace and freedom. Let go completely? We see the benefit of the practice as we go along.

It’s unwise to believe that natural stillness is a technique - a fixed procedure. This approach works when applied to learning a new skill like playing an instrument.

Awakening is not a pet-project that a ‘somebody’ develops an interest in and, carries out, for better or for worse.

The Suttas provide beautiful and lucid descriptions of natural stillness and awakening but the description is not the described.

We see the Sutta teachings in different ways in relation to the ‘lived’ experience of the Dhamma. We are interested in the Dhamma that needs to be lived to be realised.

The Suttas can only point the way but they cannot contain the living Dhamma - nothing and nobody can do this.

What we believe to be our-selves is a passing phenomena - dependently arisen.

The idea that this dependently arisen display of ephemera could execute a project and capture and ‘own’ awakening is a misunderstanding.

Nobody hits the jackpot - there are no winners. There is nothing to gain and everything to lose. Anything gained is unreliable and unsatisfactory.

This doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate that which doesn’t last - that which is wholesome and beneficial.

We can celebrate goodness in the world and be full of loving kindness and compassion and, respond appropriately when there is a clear and present need - why not?

There may be a tendency to look for something in meditation but this hinders the unfolding of natural stillness.

Know each dhamma as it arises now - be sure of that and, see what happens ‘by itself’ - let it settle itself. No need to control the process through the execution of a technique.

If the breath arises when there is stillness know that and be sure of that - see what happens next. If something else arises and passes away know that and be sure of that.

Whatever it is, subtle or gross, expansive or contracted, blissful or painful by degrees, it will not last.

Only moksha - liberation - is irreversibly the way it is. It’s not an experience of any kind that a so-called somebody can achieve, own or lay claim to.

There is nobody there in ‘Nibbana’ to experience or, own anything. What we don’t own we can never lose. That is why awakening is the not-born - the deathless. It’s not bound to anything at all.

Awakening is not a game that has a game-plan - nothing is a sure-thing. Just let go, pay attention, relax, be kind and ‘see’ what happens then, let it go.

A living discovery without a past or a future to cling to?


With death barking at the heels, some direction might save kalpas:

When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away & reappearance of beings


What an astonishing insight - if this knowledge and vision arises and ceases then, there would be an awareness of that as it comes and goes. When it came to the Buddha it lead to uncertainty. The Buddha was unsure that others would understand these experiences. The insight that arose during the night of his awakening. We all know the story? If this is an insight that has arisen in your Dhamma practice then, well and good. I hope it helps you in some way and is of benefit to others.


@Laurence, sorry, I did not mean to claim any insight. It merely struck me that right effort (i.e., “I directed it”) is required on the path, not as a goal, but as a practice. Just letting go and paying attention might result in drift and meander (which can be let go as you point out). Having gone and meandered myself to no use, I have found that Satipatthana Sutta provides very helpful attention guardrails and sequence.


Is this what ‘right effort’ means - ‘I’ direct things?

I thought satthipatthana practice had something to do with not-self? A mindfulness of that which arises and ceases.

Does this ‘I’ that you say ‘directs’ your practice arise and cease? Is the ‘I’ you speak of - that plays an important role - the ‘director general’, not-self?

If so, how so?

Is this ‘I’ that is ‘directing’ things a locus of attention in the sattipathana practice or a something-or-other that is making the right-effort to be mindful?

Is it the ‘I’ - who is directing things - being mindful of its- self in sattipathana practice? Does it escape attention when ‘you’ practice the 4 foundations?

Who or ‘what’ is this directing ‘I’ ? What are its characteristics, where is it located? It seems to have an important function in your practice as it guides you on the right path. What is it?

If this director is not present when natural stillness is deepening, do thoughts meander in some way? Or, is it the other way around? When the ‘I’ - the director general - is absent but reaction-free attention is still present, what happens to meandering thoughts? Do they cease?

There is nobody directing anything. There’s empty phenomena - without essence - rolling on. ‘Ajahn Chah’ gave some good advice: don’t be (anything) at all, if you are (anything) you will suffer. I wonder if ‘anything’ includes a director?

“For there is suffering, but none who suffers; Doing exists although there is no doer; Extinction is but no extinguished person; Although there is a path, there is no goer.” - Visuddhimagga

I didn’t get that meaning at all from the excerpt you quoted - below

It is basically impossible within the limitations of language to get around the use of ‘I’ when referring to our living entity, at this point of time.

It can be nothing but the ‘I’ that pursues the N8fp. No matter the ‘strength/degree’ of the ‘I’, until Nibbanna some clinging to the self must be remaining - until it is remainderless.

And as such I agree with


How does this belief about language square with the following quotes:

"Don’t be an arahant, don’t be a bodhisattva, don’t be [anything] at all—if you are [anything] at all you will suffer.” — Ajahn Chah.

Just wondering, do you see an exception to ‘anything’ in the quote above? Where is the ‘I’ - a sense of self - (reified) in the teaching above? Please, point it out - let’s test your belief about language.

“You think this is your world, your body? It is the world’s world, the body’s body. If you tell it, Don’t get old, does the body listen? Does your stomach ask permission to get sick? We only rent this house; why not find out who really owns it?” - Ajahn Chah

There are ways of using language that does not reify an attachment to self-view - an identification with (anything) - in any shape or form. Why is this important?

The kinds of questions we ask and, the underlying assumptions we make in our practice, can help or hinder the deepening of natural stillness and, the arising of insight.

This is part of the problem with self-view and personality-belief. There are teachings that intentionally promote these erroneous views. They are not consistent with the Buddha’s teachings. They are not conducive to a deepening awareness of that which liberates. The not-self teachings were designed to serve a purpose. What do you think that purpose is?

There are conventional and appropriate ways of using words like: you, me, I and mine. There are also many ways that we can think about and, use these designations that are foolish and misleading. This is part of Dhamma inquiry.

It’s difficult to ‘see’ how this glaringly obvious fact could be overlooked or given short shrift?

Per the Satipatthana Sutta, the Blessed One instructs that reaction-less attention should be directed to sixteen different areas, one at a time. Long before I read this sutta, my roshi introduced the first area (breath). Thinking this was all, I spent over three decades on the first alone. Much later I chanced on the Satipatthana Sutta and was quite amazed and delighted to discover the remaining fifteen. I don’t expect to have 30x15 = 450 years currently available to me for leisurely study, so there is some eagerness to investigate and explore.

From the first area, we have the area of attention laid out for reaction-less awareness:

Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short’

And the sutta continues on to fifteen more areas of attention. In each area, attention itself is reaction-less and we neither pursue nor run away from whatever comes into awareness within that area of attention. However, the areas are bounded. They were bounded also as the Blessed One chose the areas of attention (i.e., “I directed…”) throughout that very critical night of insight. The bounds are large and spacious but they are there. As is the reaction-less attention.

"Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short’ " - the Buddha

This is an example of making use of conventional-designations of ‘I’, me and, mine - is it not?

The Buddha is not intending to instill in the practitioner a belief that they are a substantive ‘somebody’ who is directing there attention to different kinds of respiration.

Are you saying: what the Buddha is teaching here is, there is an ‘I’ that should ‘direct’ its attention in one way and then, another?

Do you believe the Buddha is instilling in practitioners a belief in their self-existence as conscious agents. We are all somebody’s doing something i.e. paying attention to the breath - yes or no?

Some practitioners, when there is attending to the breath taking place, may believe there is a somebody who is directing ‘their’ attention in this way.

Others, may simply attend without identifying with the attending or, that which is attended to i.e. the breath.

Breathing is taking place and if there is an identification with breathing the notion arises, this is me breathing and/or this is my breath. These are afterthoughts?

Breathing is taking place and the notion may arise: I am the meditator who is attending to the breath.

Things are not as they seem. We are not who we think we are and, we are not who we take ourselves to be.

There is a personality-belief - that is delusional - that is seen for what it is as the practice unfolds. This is Buddhism 101?

In the seeing just the seeing … In the feeling just the feeling … this is how natural stillness arises without will or directed attention. The breath appears and disappears as natural stillness deepens all by itself.

Agreed. The sutta excerpt might even be understood as “there is breathing long/short/in/out”, or even “just breathing long/short/in/out”.

We are all somebody’s doing something i.e. paying attention to the breath? Yes or No?

There is “breath and breathing” in the context of the four “frames of reference” outlined by the sutta:

The Blessed One said this: "This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of Unbinding — in other words, the four frames of reference.

The first frame of reference mentioned by the sutta is the body. Attention is focused on the body, but it is a reaction-free attention that remains focused on the body as a frame of reference. Since breath is mentioned in the “body” frame of reference there is focus on awareness of just breathing long/short/in/out.

And how does a monk remain focused on the body in & of itself? (…instructions on breath awareness…)

In each frame of reference, we have “how does a monk remain focused on…” and the answer is to discuss what may spontaneously arise, reaction-free. For example, in the “feeling” frame of reference, the instruction is reaction-free attending to: “When feeling a pleasant/unpleasant feeling, …”

The sutta outlines reaction-free awareness in four successive frames of reference for a monk to remain focused on.


The first three areas of mindfulness do seem to be simply observing. The fourth doesn’t seem to be reaction-free, however. It suggests abandoning hindrances, cultivating factors of awakening, and so on…

And how does a mendicant meditate observing an aspect of principles? It’s when a mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of principles with respect to the five hindrances. And how does a mendicant meditate observing an aspect of principles with respect to the five hindrances?

It’s when a mendicant who has sensual desire in them understands: ‘I have sensual desire in me.’ When they don’t have sensual desire in them, they understand: ‘I don’t have sensual desire in me.’ They understand how sensual desire arises; how, when it’s already arisen, it’s given up; and how, once it’s given up, it doesn’t arise again in the future.

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Attention is not-self - there is no ‘I’ that is directing anything, anywhere, at any time or place.

There is no ‘I’ who owns, directs or, fails to direct attention. There is a process of attention and there are thoughts about the process.

A pattern of thinking gives rise to personality-belief. When this pattern of thinking has been seen for what it is, when it is seen-through completely the process that leads to suffering begins to unravel.

As long as there is the persistent belief in a personal identity of any kind then, natural stillness does not unfold and flower.

When there is the sense of a somebody who is ‘doing’ something in meditation it interferes with the process of letting go.

Thoughts about the so-called meditator cannot keep up with a process that is taking place moment by moment.

An awareness of the absence of craving - an ease of being, bliss, freedom. There is an understanding of that which has come to pass - the progress of insight.

The 4th foundation may be about the reflective process of understanding and living the teachings. Living in the light of understanding.

When this understanding is the result of direct knowledge and vision the 4th foundation of awareness is an effortless seeing of the way it is. The living Dhamma that sets the heart free.

It’s not clear as to why any direction is required when it comes to the foundations of mindfulness. Attention arises in relation to these areas - or groups - anyway.

As natural stillness deepens there is an awareness of its consequences. When reaction-free attention is sustained - unbroken - stillness deepens in meditation.

When the senses become inactive then, ordinary waking consciousness reemerges, there is the seeing of what has taken place and why.

There’s a seeing of what ceased before-hand and how it came to pass. There’s a seeing of what takes place when the sense of self reappears.

There is no director-general and there is no reciever or owner of the living Dhamma - it’s empty - cling to naught.

I think there is a correlation here with the first two factors of enlightenment. The first three frames of satipatthana represent sati ( mindfulness ) while the fourth frame represents dhamma vicaya ( investigation ). In practice though I find the distinction is blurred, and that with strong mindfulness investigation and insight occurs naturally.

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Reaction-free awareness is an ‘investigative process’ (dhamma vicaya). Its not goal directed but it reveals what was previously hidden. When the mind is constantly in a reactive state it prevents clear seeing of what is actually taking place. For instance, in a non-reactive state of attention - that is sustained - it can be seen that thoughts are thinking themselves. They arise and cease and, begin to slow down until they discontinue completely.

In the absence of the discovery of a reaction-free awareness thoughts are not experienced as a conditioned movement. They are identified with, they may form the basis of a fabricated identity. A made-up world based on memories, longings, disappointments, fears and anxieties, gain vs. loss, fame vs. insignificance, praise vs. blame, happiness vs. suffering.

When the conditioned movement of thought ceases there is an awareness of natural stillness, the awareness is saturated by/within this stillness, freshness and, clarity, a unique joy may arise. When the attention is lost to this joy subjectivity ceases and, returns later on.

The ‘dhamma vicaya’ arises in the aftermath of various selfless happenings and, in daily life. The investigation is the awareness of what has taken place and why. This is the awareness of principles.

After deep states of natural stillness the attention shifts to what is happening now that the awareness has returned to an ordinary frame of reference. This is how the practice is unbroken and continuous.

Whatever arises and passes away it is attended to - without prejudice - and then, something else arrives on the scene.

There can be no seeing of each dhamma as it arises now if the attention is fixated in some way. The left behind can be important as it is known here and now.

That which was established in the past may be in need of change for the better.

There’s no need to let anything go if it was not taken hold-of in the first place. It’s possible to hold things lightly when there is a clear and present need. The rest of experience is allowed to follow it’s natural course to cessation.

Non-reactive awareness uncovers aspects of sentient ‘being’ that were inaccessible in a reactive state. It reveals what was hidden, like holding up a lamp in the dark for those with eyesight to see forms.

When we’re talking about “reaction” here, are we basically talking about vedana, or about the sankharas that follow?

If somebody calls you a :dog2: you can check and see if you have a tail, go woof-woof and are liked by fleas. If not, it might be a case of mistaken identity. There’s no need to react angrily in a knee-jerk way to an insult or the feeling/feelings it gives rise to.

There can be an awareness of the reaction but no identification with it. That’s moving in the right direction - this is important in Dhamma ‘inquiry’ (vicaya).

The same with praise, if someone has the impression we are the :honeybee:s-knees it’s clear that they are not seeing clearly. There’s more going on than meets the eye. We can have a false impression of others and, what’s going on.

There’s a lot that goes on that escapes attention when there’s a habit of looking for something, a craving for input, trying to get rid of things or, there’s indifference, boredom, apathy etc.

What we actually need - true peace and freedom - may not be far away? There may be no distance that seperates us from the way it is - the Dhamma.

Everything is teaching us when we attend and respond in an appropriate and care-ful way.

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I agree. Practicing mindfulness consistently is so revealing, though not always very comfortable!

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The Buddha spoke of the suffering that leads to the end of suffering and also the pointless travail that we are all familiar with. May your suffering be ennobling and reveal the truth which liberates. :heart_eyes: