Minding Closely: The Four Applications of Mindfulness

with B. Alan Wallace

The Buddha formulated the four close applications of mindfulness as antidotes to four habitual misunderstandings that are the root of suffering in everyday life. We mistake the aggregation of mental and physical phenomena called the body for the abode of a real self. We mistake feelings aroused toward apparent phenomena for genuine happiness. We mistake the mind for a real self. And we mistake apparent phenomena for real objects. These mistakes lead to distorted perceptions, thoughts, and views that generate mental afflictions like sensual craving and hostility, which produce endless unnecessary suffering.

As we engage in life based on these fundamental misunderstandings, we unwittingly fuel a vicious cycle of suffering. The conventional world we inhabit is known as the desire realm in Buddhism because the prime mover for all sentient beings is our desire for pleasurable feelings in body and mind and avoidance of suffering and pain. Without fathoming the true nature of our existence, we grasp at mundane pleasures in material things and experiences. Although we cling tenaciously to these things when we get them, they never last, and we only perpetuate more suffering by our efforts.

Instead, by applying close mindfulness to the body, feelings, mental events, and all phenomena, we observe with increasing clarity how these things actually are: illusory, unreal, and mere designations in conventional speech. Seeing the extent of suffering in the world, we cease clinging to the body as the true source of our existence. Seeing the misunderstandings that cause the world’s suffering, we stop craving feelings as the true source of our happiness. Seeing that suffering can actually be extinguished, we release our grasping to mental events as the true source of our identity. And seeing the actual nature of reality, we abandon all the entities habitually designated upon subjective and objective appearances as the true source of our experience.

The Buddha declared that mental afflictions, such as lust, anger, and delusion, are not inherent in our nature. He likened them to a pile of dirt in the middle of a crossroads, which represents our sensory and mental processes. Four chariots enter this intersection from four directions, representing mindfulness directed toward the body, feelings, mental states, and all phenomena, and they thoroughly disperse the pile of dirt. When the mental afflictions are overcome, our true nature—which was merely obscured by these habitual misunderstandings—shines forth with unlimited benefit for ourselves and all beings.

Excerpted from the preface of Minding Closely (Snow Lion Publications, 2011, 320 pp., paper, $24.95).

B. Alan Wallace has taught Buddhist meditation and philosophy worldwide since 1976 and has served as interpreter for numerous Tibetan scholars and contemplatives, including the Dalai Lama. He is the founder and president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies and has edited, translated, authored, and contributed to more than thirty books on Tibetan Buddhism, medicine, language, and culture, and the interface between science and religion.

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FastekDot's picture

Hi everybody,
hmmmm that good

lianna's picture

Dr. Wallace wrote his doctoral dissertation on William James. I think he knows what he's talking about.

Zenji's picture

Thank you wtompeper: We all try to save/wake up beings in our own way!
Zenji

wtompepper's picture

I'm still working through this book--taking my time with it--and I think it is one of the most interesting "popular" books on meditation I've ever read. Probably the only one I've ever found that was actually helpful, because Wallace really explains mindfulness as it is used in Buddhist thought, not the "bare attention to the body" version. I don't usually like to comment on books I haven't finished yet, but I did think it was odd that in a book that is trying to explain that mindfulness is so much more than just awareness of bodily sensations, the editor's blog chose to post a passage that is on specifically that one thing.

B. Alan Wallace: I don't know if you're still following this discussion, but I did have one question. At one point in the book (I've been reading the nook version, so don't have a page number) you mention being a pragmatist and radical empiricist, in the manner of William James. I love the book, but that statement shocked me, so maybe I'm not really getting your point. If mindfulness includes trying to see reality as it is, what exists beyond the constructions we add to it, and to determine the real causes and conditions of things, well, James's pragmatism was really an attempt to dismiss attempts to do just that. He was defending against what he saw as the dangerous effects of Darwin, Neitzsche and Marx, who were upsetting his elitist apple cart. And radical empiricism is hard to accept for anyone who has even a little knowledge of epistemology, and impossible for me to accept based on my own experience of how my "knowledge" of the world arises. In Tibetan Buddhism, is empiricism understood to be the (I hesitate to use the phrase) "official" epistemology?

Oh, and it was a shame to delete the bizarre exchange above. It was very entertaining--I had been following it, although I have no idea what any of it meant.

B. Alan Wallace's picture

Buddha's pragmatism is expressed in the Kalama Sutta, his radical empiricism expressed in the Bahiya Sutta (both available online), and I have developed the theme of Buddhist radical empiricism in my next book "Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice," published by Columbia U.P. in about a month.

wtompepper's picture

Great, thanks. I'll look forward to reading that!

Zenji's picture

Deleting or not deleting...talking or not talking....accepting or not accepting.....all amounts to the same thing. When a mouse seeks cheese and all you offer it is poison then nobody benifits
Zenji

Sam Mowe's picture

Hi everybody,

Because this discussion thread is meant for a conversation about Alan Wallace's book, Minding Closely, all off-subject comments have been deleted. If you have something to contribute related to the book, please feel free to comment.

Best,
Sam

Zenji's picture

For anyone to be truely practicing Buddhism, books about Buddhism and especially this magazine should not exist. But because most of us practice what is essentially "not-buddhism" the books about Buddhism and especially this magazine must exist. The "not-Buddhism" is a Buddhism of the world, born of our own ingrown ignorance. The real Buddhism of Buddhism is a dharma of no-dharma with nothing to learn, explain, teach,show or point to. Pointing a finger at the moon destroys both the finger and the moon.
Zenji

gutoku's picture

If you think your finger pointing at the moon destroys the moon, it was not the moon you were pointing at. Keep looking.

Buddhists have written texts to share the dharma for thousands of years. Of course, having a teacher is always good--but it isn't always possible.

This book is much better than many of the popular meditation books, because it does not distort Buddhist teaching by trying so hard to make it acceptable to non-Buddhists.

lianna's picture

Dr. Wallace,
Your simple definition "Confusion means fusing together" (page 258) along with the examples and discussion following: I begin to truly understand what reification is and what it does to us. "Fusing together appearances to perceptions and our subjective reactions to them (I like, I don't like) along with reification (thinking that this is the complete true status of the appearance) is confusion."
Now, did I get that right, or do you think I'm still not grokking it?

B. Alan Wallace's picture

You're right on track!

B. Alan Wallace's picture

If readers are interested in gaining deeper understanding of the context of the meditations in "Minding Closely," they may read "The Attention Revolution" and "Genuine Happiness," and the podcasts available here may also be useful: http://podcasts.sbinstitute.com/fall2011/

jigme_phuntsog's picture

Dr. Wallace:
I just loved this article. Three years ago, when all of a sudden a silent spaciousness came forth while I was walking, my mind said "I am not the true identity of this being!" and this spaciousness sensed itself in everything I saw, heard or perceived through my senses. This spaciousness, always still, silent without any qualities whatsoever, is always there. Whenever my mind begins to trouble me with any disturbing emotion, the mind says to itself "be quiet for a second", and only the stillness and spaciousness remain. I suppose that is mindfulness? Thanks again for everything.

lianna's picture

Dr. Wallace,
I found your discussion "shifting gears" very useful. Everything I know about meditation I've learned from you by reading your books and listening and following your Phuket podcasts. For the past 2 years when I'm 'on my own' I've done mindfulness of breathing. It seemed the easiest, but for the last month, since reading "Stilling the Mind" I've switched to Settling the Mind in its natural state. Again, your Phuket guided meditations are my teacher and I am just getting to the point where the 'bashful maiden' isn't running to hide every-time I sit and I'm now doing it without the podcasts most of the time.

Back to 'shifting gears'; Even though I start each session with mindfulness of breathing, there are days when only mindfulness of breathing for the entire session can keep me calm, but I want my primary focus to be 'the mind as the path.' Since I started this at an older age, I think I also need to do the 'awareness of awareness' quite often so when I'm dying I will have these practices to follow.

I apologize to others if I've mixed the two books together and confused anyone.

Thank you for being,

B. Alan Wallace's picture

You're right on track. Be patient. Keep coming back to deepening your sense of ease and relaxation, and if mindfulness of breathing is the most helpful practice in that regard, stick with it and don't be in a hurry to move on to "more advanced" practices. All in good time.

awalts's picture

Thanks for highlighting your podcasts from Phuket - a great source of insight and inspiration, as well as a generous invitation to practice in (at least) virtual community!

Sam Mowe's picture

Alan, I appreciate that you endorse different meditation postures for different personalities (p. 45). Since you're advocating this kind of "start where you are" approach, do you have motivation tricks for those of us without much psychological vigilance? I can get myself into the postures, but once there I'm usually happy to either zone out or chase my thoughts around like an excited dog.
Thanks, Sam

B. Alan Wallace's picture

The first, crucial step is to learn how to settle your body, speech, and mind in their natural states. This is covered in the podcasts here from Phuket, and I'll return to this practice this morning, September 8: http://podcasts.sbinstitute.com/fall2011/

awalts's picture

Dr Wallace:
First of all, thanks very much for this book. There is so much in here, for both practice and study.

When you define a "matrix of skillful means," this seems to emphasize that practice is not just a path to hurry down, but a range of wise responses founded on which we can find the peace within any phenomenon embraced by awareness. The practice is always to let go; the meditations specify what is to be seen and released, based on the tranquility of relinquishing harmful conduct. Or maybe I just read you that way because I'm frustrated by the gulf between what I can intellectually conceive through study and what I can experience in practice! Because the lesson I draw is that it's OK to have a very rudimentary capacity to meditate for days, even months, at a time: simply do the dharma one can, however lofty the dharma one aspires to understand. (Better that than giving up on practice, anyway.)

Lianna: You point out the challenge of not "becoming engaged." That's a huge one, but isn't it in fact an example of feeling ownership toward thoughts (which is one possible reaction mentioned in the meditation)? We grab onto them, we engage them, when we could simply be looking at them without any sense of needing to do something for them to arise or go away. This is what I feel when I try to let myself breathe naturally. As soon as I'm watching the breath, I want to mess around with it, engaging it to cause expansiveness and relaxation. But these qualities don't last when I manipulate the breath, so it's a mistaken effort. Likewise, maybe there isn't anything one needs to do in order to generate or quell thought, so the wish to engage is in itself something that one can observe and learn from. Just a thought, and I hope that whether it helps or not you are well!

B. Alan Wallace's picture

You're right on track.

lianna's picture

Dr. Wallace,
On page 192 you say "examine mental events to see..." and then "Investigate closely". How does one do this examination and investigation without becoming engaged with the mental events they pertain to? Likewise you refer in other places about using "free association" with the events. Now I'm really confused as to exactly what I'm supposed to be doing in 'settling the mind in it's natural state."

B. Alan Wallace's picture

When engaging in vipashyana practice, one does engage with mental events, closely examining the manner in which they arise and pass away, investigating whether they are changing or unchanging, and so on. But in the shamatha practice of settling the mind in its natural state, one simply observes their nature, without any such careful scrutiny.

lianna's picture

Thank you. I didn't realize that this was a vipashyana practice section instead of a shamatha one. It seems as if one paragraph is shamatha and then vipashyana. I'll have to pay better attention to keep them separate.
I really appreciate your books and find that over a period of 3 years of reading them and listening to the Mind Center podcasts that I am understanding more and more.