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Buddhadharma : Winter 2013
WINTER 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 45 “If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently. ... And even if you did nothing in the whole of your hour but bring your heart back—though it went away every time you brought it back—your hour would be very well employed.” When the mind has settled a bit, we can then begin paying attention to any other object that becomes more predominant. It might be sensations in the body, or sounds, or different thoughts and images arising in the mind. And as the mindfulness gains strength, we sometimes let go of the primary object altogether and prac- tice a more choiceless awareness, simply being aware of whatever arises moment to moment. At this point, as the awareness becomes more panoramic, we move from emphasis on the con- tent of the particular experience to its more gen- eral characteristics—namely, the impermanence, unreliability, and selfless of all that arises. All of this strengthens the continuity of mindfulness through mindfulness itself. Perception The second way we strengthen continuity is through the mental factor of perception. In the Abhidhamma, strong perception is one of the proximate causes for mindfulness to arise. Per- ception is the mental quality of recognition. It picks out the distinguishing marks of a particu- lar object and then employs a concept—red or blue, man or woman—to store it in memory for future reference. For example, we hear a sound. Consciousness simply knows the sound; percep- tion recognizes it, names it “a bird,” and then remembers this concept for the next time we hear that kind of sound. It’s not that the word bird will always come to mind when we hear the sound, but there will still be a preverbal recognition that the sound is the call of a bird. All this raises an interesting question regard- ing the use of concepts in meditation practice and understanding. On the one hand, we want to establish mindfulness to the extent necessary for bare knowing, which somehow suggests a mind free from conceptual overlay. And on the other hand, the factor of perception, with its attendant concepts, is itself a proximate cause for mindful- ness to arise. The resolution of these apparently contradic- tory perspectives lies in our deeper understanding of perception. Perception is a common factor, which means that it is arising in every moment of consciousness. When perception is operative without strong mindfulness—the usual way an untrained mind navigates the world—then we know and remember only the surface appearance of things. In the moment of recognition, we give a name or a concept to what arises, and then our experiences become limited, obscured, or colored by those very concepts. As an example of the limiting potential of perceptions, years ago a friend told me of an incident that happened with his six-year-old son, Kevin, in school. The teacher asked a very simple question: “What color is an apple?” Different pupils answered “red,” “green,” or “golden.” But Kevin said “white.” A bit of an exchange took place, As awareness becomes more panoramic, we move from emphasis on the content of the particular experience to its more general characteristics—namely the impermanence, unreliability, and selflessness of all that arises. ➤ continued page 79