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Satipatthana vs right effort

Many teachers say that one should just be with emotions such as anger and lust, see their insubstantial nature, and develop the path that way. How can that be concordant with the second right effort, to dispel unwholesome mind states? And the Buddha talks about setting aside such states, and at points even uses strong language at points in the discourses, such as anhilating such states. If one can indeed be with any mindset, watch one’s hatred arise, watch it pass away, then why would the Buddha have set down the sixth path factor at all?

I really need some guidance on this point, or a pointer to some reference that spells out, in detail how to practice. Are unwholesome states truly ok to harbour under some circumstances? Any such state? Under what circumstances?

Thanks for any clarification you can provide.

Phil C

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Hi Phil – and welcome to the forum!

I once had the very same question, and I’ll share a few thoughts (and suttas) that helped clarify things for me.

Sometimes just equanimously recognizing an unwholesome state is enough to dispel it. At other times, that’s not enough, and you’ll need to apply more effort. MN 101 speaks to this:

“And how is exertion fruitful, bhikkhus, how is striving fruitful? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu is not overwhelmed by suffering and does not overwhelm himself with suffering; and he does not give up the pleasure that accords with Dhamma, yet he is not infatuated with that pleasure. He knows thus: ‘When I strive with determination, this particular source of suffering fades away in me because of that determined striving; and when I look on with equanimity, this particular source of suffering fades away in me while I develop equanimity.’ He strives with determination in regard to that particular source of suffering which fades away in him because of that determined striving; and he develops equanimity in regard to that particular source of suffering which fades away in him while he is developing equanimity. When he strives with determination, such and such a source of suffering fades away in him because of that determined striving; thus that suffering is exhausted in him. When he looks on with equanimity, such and such a source of suffering fades away in him while he develops equanimity; thus that suffering is exhausted in him."

There are many suttas that outline how to overcome unwholesome states using various approaches (e.g., MN 2, MN 20, SN 46.51, AN 1.11-20, etc.)

Satipaṭṭhāna practice does involve contemplating the hindrances in such a way as to understand how they arise and how they can cease, but this is for the purpose of understanding how to more effectively overcome them, as one of the main purposes of satipaṭṭhāna is to overcome the hindrances and establish the awakening factors.

The Buddha makes it quite clear that unwholesome states should not be tolerated:

And what is striving by abandonment? Here, a bhikkhu does not tolerate an arisen sensual thought; he abandons it, dispels it, terminates it, and obliterates it. He does not tolerate an arisen thought of ill will … an arisen thought of harming … bad unwholesome states whenever they arise; he abandons them, dispels them, terminates them, and obliterates them. This is called striving by abandonment.
-AN 4.14

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Thank you for your detailed and helpful response. I have one follow-up question.
Clearly one can be, and sometimes must be, with physical pain at length. Physical pain
is not a hindrance, not an unwholesome mindstate. There would be no problem contemplating at length its impermanent, unsatisfactory, insubstantial nature. Anger, by contrast, clearly would come under the aversion hindrance, and is unwholesome. If I understand your explanation clearly, some investigation of the causes even a hindrance arising and passing away can be warranted, but in any such case it should still be dispelled as quickly as possible. We agree that it’s not to be tolerated, but the 4th Satipatthana shows that it can be investigated, and I interpret your previous message to mean investigated only briefly as a tactic to further develop freedom from the defilement. Here’s my question: what about a mindstate like mental pain, or just feeling out-of-sorts to a degree that hurts. I believe that such a state is not a classical hindrance–correct me if I’m wrong–and, anyways, who wouldn’t want to dispel such a mindstate, but in your understanding is mental pain, or sorrow, something that one would treat the same way as, say, anger or sensual desire? Do you regard these as hindrances in the same way as the classical ones?

I’m very much involved with this kind of mental training these days, and most of the time enjoy a mental buoyancy owing to my meditation practice, but, inevitably, that dissolves into mood swings and so forth. These seem to me a different category than the really problematic hindrances and I’m unsure how to work with them.

What do you think?

Thanks for your help.

That is a widespread gap in knowledge of the process of vipassana caused by the way the suttas are oriented towards arahants. Looking at the Anapanasati sutta, it can be seen that impermanence doesn’t figure until the fourth tetrad:

"[13] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on inconstancy.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on inconstancy.’ —-MN 118

While the preceding third tetrad is a precursor exercise (for Satipatthana) for removing unwanted mind states:

"[9] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the mind.’ [10] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in satisfying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out satisfying the mind.’ [11] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in steadying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out steadying the mind.’

Now the account of Satipatthana contained in the Anapanasati sutta expands on the exercises outlined in the tetrads and introduces a new theme, “putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world,” which means subduing anger and desire, which is stressed from the first to the last verses. Again impermanence doesn’t appear until the fourth verse.

This shows that right effort is a ubiquitous factor throughout the Anapanasati and particularly Satipatthana suttas, while the insight factor of reflecting on impermanence only appears in the fourth stage.

Throughout MN 117 right effort constitutes the active factor for change in right view, which is the essential process of the path, and knowledge of impermanence is subservient to that process:

"One makes an effort for the abandoning of wrong view & for entering into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness.[2] Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right view.”

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It can be useful to discern what kind of mental pain you’re experiencing – that is, whether it’s tied up with greed, hatred, and delusion or not. The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10), in the instructions for contemplating feeling (vedanā), recommends discerning whether the feeling (which can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral and either mental or physical) is worldly or unworldly.

For your question, this means discerning whether the mental pain is tied up with greed, hatred, and delusion (worldly) or whether it’s connected with more spiritual intentions (unworldly). Some examples of unworldly mental pain might be recognizing the predicament of saṃsāra and yearning for an escape (saṃvega) or maybe the chafing one might feel when first restraining oneself through the precepts.

In other words, is the mental pain tied up with things that lead to more suffering or with things that will lead to the ending of suffering? If the former, then it would be good to contemplate what unwholesome thoughts, intentions, reactions are feeding that mental pain and then apply right effort to abandon them and replace them with something more wholesome. If the latter, then I’d say patient endurance (khanti) is called for (provided it’s not extreme mental pain, which could be a sign of unbalanced practice).

The important point here is that mental states shouldn’t be assessed primarily through the lens of pleasant/unpleasant but more in terms of wholesome/unwholesome. After all, lots of unwholesome states feel pleasant at the time, though they bring unpleasant consequences in their wake.

Personally, once I had some success in being mindful and detached toward painful physical feelings, I realized that unpleasant mental states were just another sense contact, this one at the mind-door. That was helpful. Many of the suttas in the Saḷāyatana Saṃyutta speak to this.

I hope this addresses your question somewhat. Because we try to keep the discussion on the forum restricted to the early discourses and reserve discussions about personal practice for private messages, I’ve tried to keep my reply relevant to the early texts.

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Thank you very much for you kind and thoughtful response. I believe I have enough to work this out now.

Be well.

Phil C.

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Thank you very much for your response.

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