The goal of spiritual practice can be seen as
1) relieving stress and emotional agitation wherever possible and
2) alleviating our attachment to the small, trapped, limited sense of self.
The latter is achieved by learning to break down and separate our inner experience into discreet, separate entities. When the mind adheres to the limited sense of self, it believes that our identity consists entirely of our inner events: body sensations, emotions and thoughts. Unfortunately, our inner experience, all those images, words, emotional sensations, etc become interwoven and tangled. Enchanted by confusion and drama, the mind becomes imprisoned, as awareness shrinks and identifies —tammayata in the Buddha’s languages—generally with thoughts. We begin to believe our thoughts comprise our “self,” while external sensations (sights, sounds, etc) are deemed to be “other.”
Of course, the problem with firmly believing our thoughts to be 'me' or my 'self’ and outer experiences as 'not me' or ‘other’ (other place, people, etc) is that it conceals one of the most important insights a human being can attain and sustain: everything we experience, whether we consider it to be inside of us or outside, is filtered and represented by the mind. Everything is subjective—or nothing is from another point of view.
As the Buddha taught in the first words of his Dhammapada:
"Everything we experience (sankharas) are preceded by the mind, authored by the mind. If you speak and act from a distorted view of the world, suffering follows us like a cart follows the ox that pulls it. If you speak and act with a calm, clear mind, happiness follows you like a shadow."
Everything we experience is a result of our mind’s sensory habits, expectations and neural firing patterns. Although our impressions of the outside and inside world seem accurate, we don’t perceive an accurate representation of external physical reality. The neural processes that interprets impressions arriving at our eyes and ears is also creating our wholly imagined fantasies and worries. What we consider to be “out there” in the real world and “in here” in subjective inner realm are created by the same brain.
So, how do we start breaking down the illusion of “self” and “other?” If we practice long enough, we can clearly discern between these inner events and begin to free awareness from its entanglement. It’s essential to disentangle the inner mess, and for this process we can use what the Buddha called the four foundations:
1) the breath and non-emotional body sensations
2) emotion based body based (somatic) sensations, otherwise known as ‘feelings’
3) the energetic quality of awareness (is it flowing towards or away from an object, is it distracted or present, small or large?)
4) mental images and language based thoughts
Learning to tell apart these experiences reduces the entanglement. We can use awareness to clean up a messy parade of thoughts, emotions, sensory impressions, etc. We begin to know when we’re lost in the brain’s “default mode network,” a state that pulls us away from larger awareness (of what we consider to be outer experience) entirely into worries, plans, memories and other reveries.
To tell apart the four foundations, we use what the Buddha called “knowing” or “clear comprehension” (sati sampujhanna). As an example:
For example, if we’re maintaining awareness on the first foundation—breath and ambient body sensations—we may become aware of the sensation of pain in the leg, and so we may label that as “pain.” We focus on the sensation and keep it separate from emotional resistance to pain (in the locked jaw or tight abdomen perhaps) and thoughts about the pain (“oh no, this will never go away.”) If we become aware that the pain is subsiding, label that as “going away.” When the pain is entirely relieved, label the experience as “ease.” When labeling its important not to get caught up in choosing the exact right word, simply go with whatever label arises first; keep it simple.
The same process can be used for emotions and thoughts.
The third foundation is perhaps the trickiest, in that we’re not observing a sensation or thought (image/word), but rather the quality of our awareness. In this case its perhaps easiest to focus on a single, repeating sensation—ambient external sound or one’s breath—and note how awareness moves towards or away from the sensations, becoming distracting, jumping here and there, then returning. With time the process of discerning awareness itself from its objects becomes easier.
A’t first its best to highlight’ or ‘focus on’ one sensory element at a time: breath, emotion, thoughts, etc. Eventually we can ‘take it all in’ and allow the mind to take in all the four foundations of our subjective experience. Focusing increases our concentration and clarity, as we’re only taking in one event; the mind becomes less jumpy; eventually this practice becomes easier than we might imagine at first. When it comes to ‘take it all in’ the whole inner realm we be crisper and less entangled than before we started our practice.
Knowing when we’re in each foundation allows us us to break down mind states into:
1) “negative mental states” = difficult emotions, limiting views about our capabilities, impulses that push us towards harmful behaviors.
2) “positive mental states” = positive emotions that counteract negativity bias, empowering beliefs, impulses towards compassion and care.
As we come to know these inner states, and incline towards the beneficial, we develop a place where awareness can reside, but from which we can also broaden awareness towards a larger sense of identity. This practice can be achieved by gradually reducing awareness of the sensations that confirm the outline of the body (sensations of skin, clothes contact, contact with chair, etc). We can replace these sensations, which are generally overly emphasizing by the brain's parietal lobes, with sound awareness, or we can simply blur the contact sensations enough to lose a sense of where the body ends and the outside world begins. We keep in mind the truth that everything we experience is not happening ‘out there,’ but entirely ‘in the mind.’
The goal is to remove the sense of “out” or “in” and know everything as simply arising and passing events; even mind states dissolve. We’ll become aware that maintaining an “inner self” that has to be protected and controlled is stressful; letting go of inner and outer, knowing its all the product of the mind, produces the greatest peace imaginable.