This dharma talk, the 6th in the series by Joseph Goldstein on the Satipatthana Sutta, is about the refrain – specifically, the instructions for the meditator to remain “Independent, not clinging to anything in the world..” while contemplating the 4 abodes of mindfulness.
Something that Joseph said during this talk took my breath away and had me smiling from ear to ear. It was the smile of finally seeing something – finally understanding something that’s been heard many times but never truly understood.
He was talking about our tendency to “lean forward” into the future. The subtle habit of the mind to look for things in the next moment – the next day – the next whatever. Planning mind is a version of this, he said. So are many forms of desire. He had been speaking, in particular about the “desire of continued existence” and he used this phrase about “leaning forward”. Then he said the truly amazing thing. He said that leaning forward of the mind is what is called in Buddhism, “Becoming”.
To understand the idea of “leaning in” or “leaning forward” one can think of several examples or instances that illustrate the concept. One is posture. Standing straight vs. leaning on something for support. The sitting posture of meditation is itself an embodied example of not-leaning in — of independence with regard to the things of the world. Being aware of arising and passing at any of the six sense gates, without a grasping or reaching for objects; without proliferating thought – that is being independent. Contentment with what is rather than continuously seeking more, new, and different experiences is another form of independence. It is stillness instead of motion; being instead of doing. In some ways, it all comes down to practicing this:
instead of this:
‘Becoming’ is one of the twelve links of dependent origination. It is the one immediately preceding birth-and-death. The Buddha is telling us to do our meditation independent from clinging to things of the world – telling us not to lean into the next moment; not to grasp at whatever is arising and passing. When we do, we bring ourselves into the future, because by craving, by wishing, by grasping and clinging — we are leaning into the future. That is we are engaged in, and powering, this process of becoming. We are spinning the wheel of Samsara.
Buddhist psychology and buddhist metaphysics are intertwined to a great degree (they might even be identical, but that is another topic for exploration). What Joseph’s comment did for me is allow me to a) see the connection between the subjective sense of “leaning” and the function of “becoming” and b) gave me an insight into the meaning of “becoming” that had been lacking before. On the cushion, you can directly experience this sense of leaning. You can see it clearly (and more easily than you can in the midst of daily life). Knowing what the leaning feels like – it is possible to understand what it means not to lean. It is a glimpse of the possibility of stillness in the midst of motion. Practicing non-leaning is another way of practicing non-grasping, non-clinging and ultimately, non-attachment — it’s just a very direct and practical instruction for how to do it.
Any instruction that is is clear in the mind and offers such a powerful insight into practice is very, very welcome on the path. Joseph’s series on the Satipatthana is full of them.