Essay: Beneath the Façade

The theme of the daylong yesterday was Clear Comprehension, or Sampajañña in Pali. This is a basic and important function of becoming aware, and is intrinsically linked to Sati, or Mindfulness.

Returning to Massachusetts after a month away, an amazing change has taken place. Before, the hillsides were lush and green with foliage spilling out in all directions. Now, though, they are dappled in dazzling color, and already many of the trees are bare. Going for a walk in the morning, the cool air is bracing, and already nature is turning inwards and going quiet. In that stillness a whole new landscape presents itself.

The biggest surprise is how houses and roads have emerged, not to mention stone walls and cell towers and reservoirs. Previously they were obscured by leaves and underbrush and it seemed as though one stood in a vast and unbroken forest. Now everything is visible and it’s clear where property boundaries lie and people live. One can see for miles to distant hills. These were always there and long-time residents will say ‘Of course!’, but a first time visitor will have had no idea. It’s a revelation.

This is much like our minds. There is a reality, a simple and cool reality, that so easily gets obscured by all the color and shape and activity of life. We could see through the foliage if we really tried – but how often do we try to get past our assumptions and see what lies beyond the obvious? How often do all the pretty surface elements seem like the more compelling reality? It’s only when they fall away by circumstance that we see that they were just a façade. To some degree, we only need this revelation once to have our ignorance shattered and our perspective on everything change. This is one way of looking at Sati, the root of which in Pali deals not with mindfulness but with a more basic function of remembering. At first we had no idea, so we have to have something pointed out to us. But from then on it feels much more like we’re remembering something we should already be aware of.

The greenery here is a metaphor for the stories and scenarios we develop as we move through life. We tell ourselves we are a leader, a parent, a citizen, a member of a team. We tell ourselves we are important and the things we do are relevant. We say where we are from and where we are going. We constantly tell ourselves these stories to reinforce them. And yet the stories can and do drop away in the quiet moments and times of loss and change, which means what lies beneath is a higher order of reality. Relationships fall away, jobs fall away, countries and residences fall away – but some aspects remain for the most part. We still have a body, we still have a breath, we still have activity, we have a mind. We exist in a conventional sense. It’s the meaning we force on everything that is the illusion.

Thus, simultaneous with Sati, is Clear Comprehension, or Sampajañña in pali. The Buddha mentions it often enough but there isn’t much in terms of elaboration. After all, what could be more basic than ‘Know what you are doing as you are doing it’? Again, in practice, it requires a fair bit of investigation. Yes, we’d obviously be better off if we were aware of what we are doing. But how do we it? How do we keep track of the moment when everything is in flux? It turns out there is a whole science to clear, effortless comprehension of the present moment.

If we are telling ourselves a story – what is the simplest possible story we can tell? This is not an exercise in precision but a practical matter; we’re not looking for some sort of ultimate reality here. Proclaiming that there is nothing more than a lump of earth element sitting on the cushion is not more real than to say we are sitting there. After all, describing ourselves as lumps of earth doesn’t explain why the lump of earth from time to time gets up to get a glass of water element. Comprehending the reality of the moment isn’t purely about reduction but about finding the most harmonious description. A person sitting on a cushion does leave room for the transition to a person getting up, to a person walking, to a person sitting back down.

Because things change. It’s one thing to have a precise definition of what is going on at this moment – i.e., I’m driving to the store to get milk – but it’s quite another to have a simple definition that doesn’t need a lot of revision as time passes. ‘I’m driving to the store’ is true… until you take a wrong turn or get stuck in traffic. ‘I’m driving’ is a better description. And so, as the Buddha describes clear comprehension, he points to what is simple and readily obvious: I’m standing, I’m sitting, I’m walking, I’m eating.

How often do our descriptions of reality fail to embrace the moment? We could tell ourselves ‘I am a skilled meditator on a daylong retreat’. But do we see the entire day long before us, or just this one portion? Do we see the meditation? Do we see an ‘I’ and all that it wants to accomplish? Do we see the past; do we see the future? Or is it wayyy simpler than we are telling ourselves?

If someone else were to walk in, what would they see? Imagine someone coming upon you now with no extra knowledge and describing what they see. They might say there is a person sitting, and a room, with certain sounds or smells. That’s all. This what we mean by saying the Dhamma is ‘sanditthiko’, or ‘visible here and now’. Clear Comprehension is the partner of mindfulness that has us slow down and wake up to the simplest and most harmonious reality before us. It doesn’t negate the other realities of culture and profession and aspiration, it just helps us see that which is more stable and that which is less. When we gravitate towards the simple and readily apparent, the energy we save allows us to quickly adapt to changing realities. We still end up going through the same long, overarching processes and projects, but we’ve taken it one moment at a time.

When we do this, its a lot like finally seeing through the underbrush of our lives. We’ll get a lay of the land and an appreciation for what’s around us. At first it takes effort, but it won’t be long before we are old-timers who keep their orientation even when the foliage is up. We’ll know there’s a body, there’s a breath, there are ever-changing feelings; now I’m standing, now I’m sitting, now I’m letting go…

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