Mindfulness of Contact, Feeling and Perception

Getting more precise while tracking experience with mindfulness is starting to open up new areas of exploration, new possibilities for experiencing the same phenomena and shedding some light on the mechanics of attachment and freedom.

The discourse on the Six Sense Spheres* includes mindfulness of the six sense bases and their objects, along with an instruction to be aware of the fetters that arise dependent upon both. This sounds academic, in the sense of technical, and I suppose it is. However, this technical view of our experience gets even more technical than that.. and it’s because of this detailed and precise examination that mindfulness is infused with a steady concentration and penetrates our experience more deeply. This deeper level of examination illuminates the minutiae, the fabric of our being, where some of the most profound attachments and defilements lie. We ultimately have to get in there — to bring mindful awareness into these spaces to unlock (or as Joseph Goldstein says, “unhook”) the chain of dependent co-arising. We have to be able to see exactly how and where we create the patterns of craving and clinging, aversion**.

One concept that is raised in this deeper exploration is that of Contact. What is contact? According to the talks, contact is the coming together or the combination of three elements: the sense sphere, the sense object and the consciousness that arises dependent upon the two. The eye, the object seen and the seeing–all together–make up a moment of contact. This sounds more complicated than it needs to be in order to function in the world, to walk down the street or look at your watch–and it is. But it’s very helpful in deepening the “experience of experience” in meditation. Each moment of experience is acknowledged as a moment of contact. The meditator can become aware of which sense door (eye, ear, nose, body, tongue, or mind) is active, how the experience actually shows up (the quality of the experience itself) and the fact that consciousness is there to experience it. The in breath can be experienced as a rapidly changing flow of individual experiences – each of which are composed of the sensing body (the nostrils), the touch of the air and the consciousness that arises in that moment and dependent upon the other two.

Beyond deepening concentration, there is more to be discovered. What comes next?

In every moment of contact, at least two other factors arise dependent upon the contact. They are feeling and perception. Feeling in the buddhist context specifically means a quality of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We’ve written about this before and it’s a very powerful element in buddhist psychology because it is the true factor that conditions craving ( and thus desire, clinging and attachment). Adding an awareness of feeling tone to one’s mindfulness of contact is, at first, quite a lot to juggle. In a way, that’s what strengthens one’s concentration. It’s also bringing mindfulness right to the source of attachment which leads to suffering.

The other factor that arises is perception, which is the mind’s ability to notice distinguishing marks of a moment of contact and store those marks in memory. Perception is the factor that can tell red from green. It also uses it’s past stored qualities and labels to determine that such-and-such experience is “seeing a car” or “feeling the breath”. It can translate the direct sensations into something meaningful, like recognizing those sensations in the belly as “hunger”. If we aren’t able to track contact and the arising of perception dependent upon that contact, the perception can cognition — thoughts about the newly recognized sensation. Now, the sensation becomes “I am hungry”. Two things happened there.. (1) we went from a raw sensation to a concept about the sensation and (2) we attributed the condition to an “I”, who is experiencing the hunger. These progressions can happen if we aren’t mindful of the chain of causes and conditions.  If we bring mindfulness into the process and can see the perception as it arises, we aren’t as likely to automatically build upon it. The other danger of unseen perception is that it leads to thoughts which in turn lead to other thoughts, which lead to more and more. This is called mental proliferation, or in Pali, Papañca. This is known as being “lost in thought” and is basically the opposite of mindfulness.

Using this paradigm to explore experience gives us a lot to work with. When we are mindful of contact, feelings and perceptions the result seems to be increased concentration and a resulting calm. This makes sense, since the mechanisms that would normally lead to desire, aversion and papañca aren’t running amok, as they typically do. They are under a watchful eye and the chain of causation is essentially being cut. Thus a strong sensation, such as pain, can be seen as sensation only with a quality of equanimity–and this can lead to the cessation of the pain itself. I’m sure others have had that experience in meditation. Also, don’t forget that the mind is one of the six sense doors, so thoughts can be seen as moments of contact, where the mind, the thought and consciousness of the thought are each considered. What are the implications there? What if the sense of “I am” can be seen as a thought – a moment of contact? Is this how the roots of greed, desire, aversion and ignorance are weakened? Is this how they come to an end?

*We are still discussing the Satipatthana Sutta as illuminated by Joseph Goldstein’s series of talks.

**Ignorance is also in this list, but I’m still working on that one, which arises from the unskillful and unaware ignoring of neutral feeling.