Entering the tiger’s cave – insight meditation and the inner life

Session 1 • Satipaṭṭhāna – seeing the wood, not just the trees


~ Winton Higgins • wintonhiggins.org

On Wednesday evening, I raised some issues in my talk on secular Buddhism and the western search for meaning around the need to know thyself – the injunction that comes down to us from the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, right down to the benefits we attach to the inner life today, where our search for meaning takes place.

I suggested that the central Buddhist practice of insight meditation based on mindfulness (to use that problematic term for now) is a highly developed approach to opening up our inner lives in the interests of our personal development as reflective human beings, and pursuing our personal search for meaning. The Buddha’s foundational teaching for this meditative practice is the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta (the discourse on the focuses of awareness).

Some teachers – such as Anālayo, the German-born Theravādin monk I’ll return to in a few moments – feel that the Pali word satipaṭṭhāna contains too many nuances to be rendered in English, and they choose to leave it untranslated when referring to the meditation practice it proposes. Instead of that choice, I’ll follow another widespread tendency and refer to this practice as ‘insight meditation’. Note, too that some teachers of some forms of mindfulness meditation also see the discourse in question as the basis of their practice, and translate its title as ‘The discourse on the four foundations of mindfulness’.

What we see when we open up the discourse is a kind of word map. A graphic version of it would look a bit like a thinking person’s hiking map which contains all the features of a particular terrain to facilitate our picking our own way through it without getting lost. So it’s not a strip map, or one that simply stakes out ‘The One True Way’ to a given destination, like a Google map.

In fact, it’s a representation of the whole field through which our awareness might wander. Our attention is doing the hiking, and it’s stalking our mind wherever it goes in the seclusion and repose of a meditation session. Or we might equally consult the map while we’re going about our everyday lives. It provides lots of reference points to help us locate ourselves and our experience, including seeing where we’ve just come from, and what the options are for our next steps.

Today I’m inviting you to think of this discourse (or word map) as an aid to knowing ourselves and opening up our inner lives. But this isn’t how it’s usually presented.

Because of its salience in the Buddha’s tradition, monastic teachers have interpreted and reinterpreted the discourse, and repurposed it, to within an inch of its life. Almost invariably, it comes out the other side bent to a monastic agenda – an ascetic, other-worldly one of ‘purification’ as opposed to self-enlargement – a contrast we discussed on Wednesday evening.

This observation extends to laicised versions of Theravādin vipassanā meditation, which present it as a strip map to get us to a ‘goal’ (an end point and status variously called awakening, nirvana, or liberation) where the usual horrors and highlights of a human life no longer apply.

Before we return to that problem, let’s just get an overview of the discourse.


A glance at the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta

The discourse has a complex structure. To keep the map analogy running for one more step: it identifies four principal areas of human experience that act a bit like the cardinal points or quarters on a map. But instead of north, south, east and west, we have experiences of the body, feeling tone, mind, and conceived phenomena (aspects of experience that have been sorted and can be contemplated along conceptual dharmic lines). Any experience arising at any given moment can be located in one or more of these quarters.

Most maps show north at the top. In much the same way, awareness of the body functions like north on our meditative map. Whatever happens to us – whatever experiences we have – the body is always involved. We go through life as embodied sentient beings, so the body is the anchor at which our awareness rides. Whatever is going on in the other three quarters (or focuses of awareness), it will have bodily ramifications. Think of the needle on our compass – always reminding us where north lies.

Each of the four focuses of awareness (or ‘quarters’ in which experiences arise) has its unique substructure which highlights points of interest. Here’s a starter’s list:

  1. Body – postures (sitting, standing, lying down, walking); bodily activities (including ‘talking’); bodily sensations (including hot and cold); and what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch (the five physical senses); death and decay.
  2. Feeling tone – the instant, often subtle judgment – of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral – that we make every time we feel, see, hear, taste, smell, touch or think something.
  3. Mind – our gamut of moods, emotions and desires, including their presence or absence at any particular moment, and their ethical quality.
  4. Dhammas (‘phenomena’, roughly) – this category concerns how we process and understand our experience in dharmic terms. In the discourse this focus of awareness comprises a ‘list of lists’ – five basic teachings of the Buddha which he repeatedly presented in the form of lists, starting with the ‘five hindrances’
(forms of resistance to awareness); through the five aggregates (‘heaps’ of experiences – khandhas – that constitute human being), the six sense spheres, and the seven awakening factors; to the four tasks/noble truths.

The received version of the discourse that has come down to us ends on an odd note, which the German-born Theravādin monk Anālayo presents in his translation of and commentary on the discourse, Satipaṭṭhāna: the direct path to realization, under his heading, ‘Prediction’: depending on the intensity of the individual’s practice, s/he will arrive at the goal – or at an important staging post on the way thereto – within any time frame ranging from seven years to seven days.

Yes, this is the monastic, ‘purification’ model of human development coming in at the end of the discourse. It reduces this magnificent map to a strip map. The goal is defined in the standard monastic terms: ‘final knowledge’, ‘purification, ‘the end of sorrow and lamentation (dukkha)’, and the realisation of nirvana (nibbāna in Pali).


The choice of purification

We should note that Stephen Batchelor treats the ‘prediction’ section sceptically. It might have been added later, and thus be apocryphal. It reads too much like a promo. And the discourse as it now stands incorporates the doctrine of the ‘Four Noble Truths’ – which certainly seems to have been a later bolt-on onto the discourse as it stood at the time of the Buddha’s death.

As it stands, though, the discourse ends up in what analysts of religion call a soteriology: a doctrine of salvation or redemption that promises some sort of heavenly endpoint. As heavens go, this one isn’t particularly alluring. It’s not promising pink clouds, choirs of angels, occupancy of one of God’s many mansions, or even 72 virgins. It’s basically offering extinction: ‘Poof! Gone!’ as one prominent monk put it a few years ago.

Why? Because in this monastic framework, extinction means escaping the hell of human life as ordinary mortals experience it, and as they’re endlessly reborn into it, because of their attachments in it. Final purification from those attachments puts an end to all that. If we subscribe to a hell-on-earth view of our human destiny, then of course we’ll eventually see how all our worldly ties bind us to the endless round of misery and rebirth. So why not make a beeline for this promised escape hatch at the end of our spiritual development?
Needless to say, I don’t think we should buy the opening premise in this strategy. And if we don’t buy it – I’m suggesting – we need to keep treasuring the discourse, but be prepared to repurpose it. (Many have already done just that.) But before we go any further, I want to open a little parenthesis and put in a good word for Anālayo.


Anālayo’s Satipaṭṭhāna sutta

Since 2003, Anālayo has published three erudite books on the discourse. They’ve become more user-friendly each time. The latest came out just a few months ago: Satipaṭṭhāna meditation: a practice guide. It’s the best discussion I’ve come across of what the discourse has to offer someone seeking to know themselves through insight meditation. It brings the dynamics and conceptual treasures of the discourse to life in a highly accessible way. Without dumbing them down. I commend it to you wholeheartedly, but with the caveat that I’ve already signalled: the purification and soteriological model running through it.

That said, Anālayo makes clear the way the commentarial tradition diverges from the original Pali text of the discourse, and he illuminates aspects of the practice in helpfully striking ways. Perhaps the most important example of this is his riff on that crucial little four-letter Pali word sati – the first component in the compound word satipaṭṭhāna. Sati (awareness, mindfulness, recollective awareness) is the fulcrum of the whole practice. Like almost all Indo-European languages, Pali ascribes gender to nouns, and sati is feminine.

At the perhaps acceptable risk of essentialising gender, Anālayo suggests we cultivate sati as a constant friend always at hand, and a feminine presence at that. So sati – awareness – goes everywhere with us. She’s soft and gentle, but alert; highly receptive, and capable of giving birth to new and wiser perspectives – especially those that open the heart to compassion and bless us with reflectivity and wisdom. She readily forgives us when we blank out and forget about her. She doesn’t align with a forceful, dissociated sort of attention or hyper-attentiveness ‘that requires strained effort in order to be maintained’ (p.7).


A secular approach to satipaṭṭhāna meditation in brief

Let’s reframe our meditation practice to serve the aspiration to deepen and enlarge our humanity rather than leaving it and its life-world behind as an irredeemable vale of tears. We take sati’s hand and invite this human body-and-mind to reveal its contents. At first it might look like an uncharted jungle in there, but that’s the nature of the beast, and that’s okay.

We have the body as a constant, grounding reference point. Never leave home without your body! At the beginning, and at any subsequent stage, we can ‘check in’ to the body, by watching our breathing, taking note of our posture, and of what we’re doing in the physical realm. And sati holds the map.

We should pass up artificial navigation aids, such as technical instructions and supposed milestones on our way. We have no use for formulas. We follow our experience wherever it leads us, and we have the map to reveal to us where we find ourselves at any given moment.

We’re not heading towards a goal, or chasing any particular experience. We don’t need to be ‘redeemed’, or ‘saved’ – swept off to some post-human, post-suffering plane of existence that would in fact demean our human dignity.

Instead, we’re patiently exploring our inner world and getting to know its myriad inhabitants. We’re clarifying ourselves, becoming more connected, balanced and intelligent. We need to be alert to these processes. Gradually patterns will reveal themselves and ethical discrimination will arise, especially as we master the conceptual framework of the discourse – that is, of the dharma itself – in the course of our meditative lives. And our insights will have the supreme authority of our very own experience.

• This talk was given to a daylong workshop in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand on 16 Feb 2019. Audio of this talk can be found at:


Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. A member of The Tuwhiri Project editorial board, he has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.