SuttaCentral

When should we discourage choiceless awareness?


#1

The term choiceless awareness is commonly used in the mindfulness community. However, I find this confusing when I read suttas such as MN20 (SuttaCentral) which discuss the importance of intentional redirection of awareness (for example, turning away from or suppressing the thought), which seems to be the opposite of choiceless awareness.

There have been several posts on this topic, such as:
The case for bare awareness?
/discourse.suttacentral.net/t/the-case-for-bare-awareness/11643/34

and others that seem to make a case against choiceless awareness:
/discourse.suttacentral.net/t/if-you-were-thinking-of-memorizing-a-pali-sutta-for-daily-recitation-this-is-the-one/9960/5?u=ngoonera

and
“The heedful person does not aim at a choiceless awareness open to existence in its totality, for to open oneself thus is to risk making oneself vulnerable to just those elements in oneself that keep one bound to the realm of Mara. The awareness developed through heedfulness is built upon a choice – a well-considered choice to abandon those qualities one understands to be detrimental and to develop in their place those qualities one understands to be beneficial, the states that lead to purity and peace.”
/discourse.suttacentral.net/t/which-specific-process-determines-where-consciousness-will-alight/13447/17?u=ngoonera

Some of the discussions have mentioned SN 47.10 (SuttaCentral) in which the Buddha mentions “development with direction” and “development without direction”.

A key passage in this sutta seems to be: "And how…is there development without direction?..a bhikkhu understands: ‘My mind is not directed outwardly.’ Then he understands: ‘It is unconstricted after and before, liberated, undirected.’ Then he further understands: ‘I dwell contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful; I am happy.’ "

To me, this implies that undirected attention (perhaps the equivalent of “choiceless awareness”) is only appropriate when one is reflecting inwardly, is clear seeing (that is, contemplating only the body in the body or feelings in feelings), ardent and mindful, happy.

This makes sense. If one is having harmful, negative thoughts, I think practicing choiceless awareness has the potential to be dangerous. For example, if one has thoughts of suicide or self-harm, letting one’s mind linger on those thoughts (because of choiceless awareness) is not healthy or helpful. Instead, one should intentionally seek to remove those thoughts as described in MN20 or with the help of a mental health professional.

As such, and this may be a provocative statement, should we perhaps discourage people from practicing choiceless awareness or bare attention, at least until they have advanced far in their practice?


#2

SN 1.1 seems to provide an answer. The way I understand, choiceless awareness is a term coined by meditators to imply equanimity which the Buddha seems to suggest in SN 1.1. That is to say that a practitioner should not get caught up in signs and features of the external sense stimuli which invariably lead to thoughts and proliferations - vitakka and papanca.

With Metta


#3

Satiñca khvāhaṃ, bhikkhave, sabbatthikaṃ vadāmī

But mindfulness, bhikkhus, I say is always useful (SN 46.53)


#4

Thanks. Are you referring to the phrase: “I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place”?

You then mentioned “should not get caught up…”–I think that is important, and that beginning meditators may not be able to do that. They are at risk of engaging in mental proliferations around signs/features of external stimuli. For this reason, I wonder if the common contemporary practice of encouraging “choiceless awareness” is the wrong thing for a beginner.


#5

For me this appears to be a non issue, since teachers I’ve been with, listened to, or read, encourage something directed to start (e.g. the first few days of a retreat) and then, once some calm and mindfulness is developed, suggest experimenting with a switch to choiceless awareness.

I’m also not sure why “bare attention” and “choiceless awareness” are being conflated here. My understanding is that “choiceless awareness” refers to undirected attention, whereas “bare awareness” refers to paying attention to the initial experience (e.g. hearing), rather than the interpretation (e.g. sound -> music, etc).

Bhikkhu Analayo’s paper “The Bāhiya Instruction and Bare Awareness”, Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies, 2018, 19: 1–19. https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/analayo/bareawareness.pdf quotes Bhikkhu Nanananda’s 14th Nibbana Sermon:

See also Bhikkhu Nananda’s book:
SEEING THROUGH - A Guide to Insight Meditation
Books Archive - seeing through the net

Now, if perception is a mirage, in order to get at this
mirage nature, one has to be content with attending simply as
‘seeing, seeing’. One way or the other it is just a seeing or just a
hearing. Thereby he stops short at the bare awareness. He stops
short at the bare seeing, bare hearing, bare feeling and bare
thinking. He does not grant it an object status. He does not
cognize it as an object existing in the world. He does not give it a
name. The purpose of this method of mental noting or attending,
is the eradication of the conceit ‘AM’, which the meditator has to
accomplish so as to attain release. The conceit ‘AM’ is ‘asmi- māna’.


#6

I do not think so. For a beginner it may be very hard but even the so called experienced meditators IMO find it hard to practice complete equanimity in relation to external stimuli. But it should be the goal of every practitioner whether new or experienced.

I think the steps explained in AN 10.61 should be considered by anyone wishing to reach complete equanimity and final liberation.

Unless one has a clearly defined goal how can he/she succeed in any endeavor let alone reaching liberation?.
With Metta


#7

Sorry I did not answer this part of the question. Yes I am referring to that.
With Metta


#8

Directed and undirected meditation refers to subsidiary themes (directed) which are employed to steady or gladden the mind at times when it cannot focus on the main subject, one of the four foundations of mindfulness (undirected). This lack of focus applies to laypeople when they are engaged in tasks which make meditation not possible, or in any case where the mind is threatened by hindrances.

The subsidiary themes are the six recollections listed in AN 11.13, and the brahma viharas.

This exercise fulfills the third tetrad:

"[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.’ [12] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in releasing the mind.’ He trains himself, 'I will breathe out releasing the mind.”

This is an illustration of how the Anapanasati sutta contains preparatory exercises for the Satipatthana sutta and the seven factors of enlightenment, and is a blueprint for how the Buddha intended the path to be practiced.


#9

That’s an interesting take. Those definitions seem completely different from how I understand the terminology. But perhaps in the end it’s similar?

For me choiceless (undirected) awareness is quite advanced, and much more difficult than directed awareness (which is how I generally see the development of satipatthana - directing attention to specific aspects of experience). Choiceless awareness is being aware of whatever arises, as in:

And what is the way of developing immersion further that leads to mindfulness and awareness? It’s when a mendicant knows feelings as they arise, as they remain, and as they go away. They know perceptions as they arise, as they remain, and as they go away. They know thoughts as they arise, as they remain, and as they go away. This is the way of developing immersion further that leads to mindfulness and awareness.
SuttaCentral

For me, this only really works well if the hindrances are already weakened, it’s not very useful otherwise.


#10

Thanks for clarifying–I see your point and I have removed the phrase “bare attention” from my earlier post


#11

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I think the issue relates to gradually developing our skills. For example, I may want to become a great skier and my goal is to be able to do a black diamond run, but I start off on the bunny slopes. Similarly, my goal may be to have choiceless awareness, but I start off with a more focused practice initially. In this context, I think the Anapanasati Sutta is very appropriate. We begin with the first contemplations, which focus on the breath, and then advance our practice systematically. We don’t try to start off on the black diamond run of choiceless awareness and all the associated risks that it carries (i.e., an ealry meditator having thoughts of depression/suicide, and not having the ability to redirect away from that, then getting caught up in those feelings).

Update 2/16/2020: Out of curiosity, I looked into Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which incorporates choiceless awareness as one of its components. Fortunately, most research studies have not shown an increased rate of adverse events in MBSR trials (The Safety of Mindfulness-Based Interventions: a Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials | SpringerLink).


#12

Exactly. Practicing the path is no easy task. The Buddha gave us 37 aids to use in this noble adventure of which the four bases of spiritual success - iddhipada - is of paramount importance.
With Metta


#13

I think the whole point of satipatthana is choosing to direct attention in a particular way.