SuttaCentral

When should we discourage choiceless awareness?

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. An example of how the topic we choose for meditation can lead to self-harm is the Vesali Sutta (Vesali Sutta: At Vesali)

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

5 Likes

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

2 Likes

Satiñca khvāhaṃ, bhikkhave, sabbatthikaṃ vadāmī

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

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.

1 Like

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’.

4 Likes

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

1 Like

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

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.

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.

1 Like

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

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).

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

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

I’ve been reading an article by Bhikkhu Analayo in which he discusses the proper role of right effort in conjunction with mindfulness. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-019-01152-4

He uses the simile of the cow-herd to show that initially, we need to combine mindfulness (as a way of monitoring our feelings/thoughts) with active effort to redirect our mind (right effort). Later, as our practice matures, we no longer need to make an effort since our minds naturally incline towards skillful thoughts. Here is the quote from his article: “The contrast between right mindfulness and active endeavor that emerges in this way could be illustrated with a simile from the Dvedhāvitakka-sutta and its Madhyama-āgama parallel (MN 19 andMĀ 102). The simile describes a cowherd in two different situations. In the first situation, the cowherd has to watch closely over the cows and at times even hit them in order to prevent them from straying into the ripe fields. Once the crop has been harvested, however, such active intervention is no longer required and the cowherd can just watch them in an uninvolved manner. In their description of this second situation, the Dvedhāvitakka-sutta and its Madhyama-āgama parallel employ the term sati”

To summarize, bare attention or choiceless awareness does occur, but primarily in the LATER stages of our practice. In this sense, contemporary, or secular mindfulness has things backwards. In contemporary mindfulness, we start with bare attention only. But the Buddha advised us, as shown in the simile of the cowherd, that we should have bare attention+right effort to redirect our thoughts. Later on, we can have bare attention only.

4 Likes

Just thought I would link to the full text of this paper- https://sci-hub.tw/https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-019-01152-4#
Interesting paper… still digesting it! Thanks for pointing it out!
:smiley:

1 Like

" In this way, the description of a relaxed and uninvolved observation can be related to mindfulness, which stands in contrast to the earlier situation of active intervention, a situation that could in turn be taken to illustrate right effort."

In this case right effort depends on being alerted by right mindfulness, so both active intervention and bare awareness depend on right mindfulness. Located between right effort and right concentration, right mindfulness is an active factor and can initiate action (right effort) or tranquillity depending on what the situation requires. Bare attention is mindfulness invoking the tranquillity factors.

“As for mindfulness, I tell you, that serves every purpose.”—SN 46.53
“'All phenomena have mindfulness as their governing principle.”—AN 10.58

Bare awareness or sense restraint is defined as the foundation of the four great endeavours of right effort, and occupies first place in the gradual path of training (Analayo):

"What now, o monks, is the effort to avoid? Perceiving a form, or a sound, or an odour, or a taste, or a bodily or mental impression, the monk neither adheres to the whole nor to its parts. And he strives to ward off that through which evil and unwholesome things might arise, such as greed and sorrow, if he remained with unguarded senses; and he watches over his senses, restrains his senses. This is called the effort to avoid.”—AN 4.14 AN 4.14: Restraint (English) - Catukka Nipāta - SuttaCentral

The written order of these two different strategies (MN 19) is determined by the seasonal rotation not by their employment in meditation. There it refers to the strength of the arising of the hindrances, when they are strong, intervention is required, and severe consequences result if action is not taken (Sn 1.4). When weak, bare awareness is sufficient. The first passage is an analogy for the second great endeavour of right effort, and the second for the first already quoted (1):

"Just as in the last month of the Rains, in the autumn season when the crops are ripening, a cowherd would look after his cows: He would tap & poke & check & curb them with a stick on this side & that. Why is that? Because he foresees flogging or imprisonment or a fine or public censure arising from that [if he let his cows wander into the crops]. In the same way I foresaw in unskillful qualities drawbacks, degradation, & defilement, and I foresaw in skillful qualities rewards related to renunciation & promoting cleansing.”

[…]

"Just as in the last month of the hot season, when all the crops have been gathered into the village, a cowherd would look after his cows: While resting under the shade of a tree or out in the open, he simply keeps himself mindful of ‘those cows.’ In the same way, I simply kept myself mindful of 'those mental qualities.’—-MN 19

(2) "What now is the effort to overcome? The monk does not retain any thought of sensual lust, or any other evil, unwholesome states that may have arisen; he abandons them, dispels them, destroys them, causes them to disappear. This is called the effort to overcome.

3 Likes

Thank you for your email in which you mention that “Bare awareness or sense restraint is defined as the foundation of the four great endeavours of right effort, and occupies first place in the gradual path of training (Analayo)”. I agree that it should be considered the first step. My concern with contemporary mindfulness is that it often stops there. In some (not all, of course) contemporary practices, we are asked to just watch the mind (“bare attention” only) and not do anything further. My goal here is to emphasize that we need to continue on, and after we observe a thought with bare attention, we then need to apply right effort, during that same meditation session, to resolve it. MN19 is a very useful sutta, as you point out, but I also find MN20 “The Removal of Distracting Thoughts” (SuttaCentral) to be extremely helpful because it shows that we should make an active mental effort to immediately remove unskill thoughts that we have identified through bare/choiceless awareness.

We are not helpless souls caught in an unrelenting storm of mental delusions. We can actively steer our lives, our minds, to a safe harbor.

1 Like

One of the reasons practitioners cannot move beyond bare awareness is fear of dualities, for example the simultaneous existence of conventional and ultimate reality:

Practitioners experience bare awareness momentarily but then don’t know how to extend it and at that stage are like Adam and Eve in the garden before they sinned. There is only one way to extend bare awareness and that is by reducing and overcoming the hindrances so they don’t arise as sense impressions arrive. But overcoming the hindrances means recognizing two types of thought (MN 19) and they baulk at this because it involves dualities and they are used to the single tranquil thinking of bare awareness, subject to a remnant of xtian conditioning, or unwilling to take on the task of facing the hindrances. However the difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that in Buddhism there is no saviour, the practitioner has to save themselves and are given the means to do it through the instructions on removing the hindrances. So to progress from bare awareness it is necessary to enter into duality armed with the weapons of the dhamma.

‘Whatever is considered as “This is false” by the world with its devas, Maras, & Brahmas, with its contemplatives & brahmans, its royalty & commonfolk (conventional reality), is rightly seen as it actually is with right discernment by the noble ones as “This is true”’: this is a second contemplation (ultimate reality). For a monk rightly contemplating this duality in this way — heedful, ardent, & resolute — one of two fruits can be expected: either gnosis right here & now, or — if there be any remnant of clinging-sustenance — non-return.”—-Sn 3.12, ‘Contemplation of Dualities’.

The strategy in MN 19 encompasses both equanimity with an agenda (As I noticed that it leads to my own affliction, it subsided. As I noticed that it leads to the affliction of others… to the affliction of both… it obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding, it subsided), and also the second great endeavour of right effort (abandoned it, dispelled it, wiped it out of existence.)

“As I noticed that it leads to my own affliction, it subsided. As I noticed that it leads to the affliction of others… to the affliction of both… it obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding, it subsided. Whenever thinking imbued with sensuality had arisen, I simply abandoned it, dispelled it, wiped it out of existence.”

It should be noted that with the exercise of equanimity towards the hindrances, they only ‘subside.’ This is because equanimity is a factor of the tranquillity group of the seven factors of awakening and while valuable and give the practitioner a sense of release, are only capable of repressing the hindrances, contrasted with the discernment group of investigation, energy, joy, which remove them, ‘wipe them out of existence.’

1 Like