Say you’re feeling the breath coming and going peacefully, and a dog starts barking outside, and all of a sudden your attention is on the barking instead of your breath. No problem! Recognize that you’re still aware, but now you’re paying attention to the sound object instead of the breath object. It really doesn’t matter what object you’re tracking in any one moment, what matters is that you’re mindfully aware. Whether you’re feeling your breath or hearing a sound, you’re building up that all-important momentum (continuity) of mindfulness that’s necessary to see the cause & effect of experience clearly, in particular how the mind relates to various stimuli. The Buddha closely observed and identified the chain reaction of this process from stimuli to response, and noted that anyone with proper training can observe this as it occurs. Don’t forget that seeing this causal chain clearly in his own mind was the antecedent to his awakening, so it’s no small thing!
Here’s an example of how a causal chain from stimulus to suffering might play out, including the traditional names of the different steps:
- A dog barks – hearing is happening (contact of sound event with physical sense door of the ear)
- Mind locates the sound in space (perception)
- Mind identifies the sound as the neighbor’s dog, Sparky, barking (perception).
- Mind dislikes the sound (feeling tone), and then
- Thinks of the sound as disturbing to “my meditation” (mental fabrication powered by delusion that the meditation is “mine”)
- Mind wants to get rid of the dog bark (craving).
Outside stimulus– Barking continues– repeat steps 1-6, until:
- Mind develops a towering hatred for the dog AND his owner for leaving him outside to bark (craving + clinging-identification = suffering, AKA, getting lost in the story).
- Mind thinks “I’m going to give that neighbor a piece of my mind for leaving his dog outside” (more clinging-identification = suffering)
… and by now of course, you’ve probably lost awareness and are completely caught up in your imaginary narrative about how to rid yourself of the thing that’s bothering you.
Before you get lost in this causal chain of mental stress, if you have enough mindfulness to see all of the mind moments that came before, you might have a moment of seeing (and feeling!) the strong impulse (craving) to arrange things the way you prefer them. In that moment you might even catch a glimpse of the background assumptions, or “views,” behind the craving— for example, that the world revolves around your needs; or that controlling circumstances to maximize pleasure is the only way to be happy; or that it’s actually possible to be in control of all the constantly changing conditions that make up even one moment of our lives. As soon as you catch a glimpse of these background views, they immediately show themselves to be impossible and/or inaccurate. Is the assumption that happiness = nonstop comfort correct? It would be a bummer if it was, because in the real world of ever-changing conditions that would mean we’d never truly be happy, in the sense of finding a stable sense of peace and well-being, of being in harmony with ourselves and the world. Instead, we’d feel a gnawing sense of lack or anxiety, a sense that something is missing or not quite right. Sound familiar? Life feels never quite right because we’re wishing for a rightness that’s literally impossible to get. And as long as we keep operating from unrealistic assumptions & views, we’ll be stuck in the cycle of craving and indulgence fueled by this anxiety, this insistent sense of lack. If we really want to be happy, it’s imperative that we bring these underground views into consciousness, because until we see them clearly we’re going to be at their mercy, and suffering for it.
So continuity of mindfulness (AKA concentration) is what allows us see, and feel, the root causes of all of our stress and suffering, including the ego’s restless need to control, arrange, secure, keep safe. It’s not that these impulses are badly intended; they’re motivated by care and self-concern (and the self-care bubble that extend to our loved ones). But the strategies the ego uses to secure itself can often be unrealistic, selfish/harming to others and based on incomplete information, and all of that becomes crystal clear when we have enough sustained attention to watch our ego-mind jump through its hoops. Through clear seeing, we learn that’s it actually preferable to let go of identifying with our minds’ reactions, because when we do, mind states appear in which we are present, equanimous and compassionate with the ever-changing texture of life and the minds’ responses to it, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. In the end, all that’s going on in this moment is the sound of a dog barking. This is the nature of life, in this moment. This is what the vast matrix of changing conditions has coughed up. Is it really so bad?
Of course, there are many circumstances in life that need to be acted upon and responded to wisely. When we live in community with each other, collaboration is naturally called for to promote harmony in the system. If Sparky is barking all day, every day, disturbing the neighborhood, then yes, some dog training might be in order. But the mind leaping from hearing a few barks to doggie homicide.. are we going to believe in that story? Or in any story, at all?