Untangling the Present
The Role of Appropriate Attention
Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Alternate format: [book icon] A printed copy is included in the book Purity of Heart.

If the ways of the mind were simple, its problems would be simple and easy to solve. The Buddha, in showing how to put an end to its problems, could have kept his instructions simple and short — a single, blanket approach to whatever happens in the present, a noble one-fold path: just mindfulness, just concentration, or just non-reactive awareness. Or he might not have bothered to teach much at all, knowing that people could easily solve their problems on their own. "Trust," he might have said, "your innate nature, your innate understanding," and left it at that. But that's not how the mind works, and that's not how he taught.

Even just a few minutes spent observing the ways of the mind can show how complex and convoluted they are. And this means that its problems are complex as well. In particular, the problem of suffering: As the Buddha noted, the causes of suffering are knotted and tangled like a bird's nest, like the thread in a tangled skein.

As anyone who has solved a complex problem knows, the trick to finding its solution lies in how you frame the issue: identifying the problem and sorting out the pattern of factors related to it. Seeing the pattern, you can decide which factors to focus on as crucial to its solution, and which ones you have to ignore so as not to get led down blind alleys. Framing the issue also means deciding how to approach each of the crucial factors so that instead of maintaining or exacerbating the problem, they aid with its solution. What this boils down to is, when faced with a problem, knowing which questions are helpful to ask about it, and which questions aren't.

If, for example, you're a doctor in an emergency room faced with a patient complaining of chest pains, you have many quick decisions to make. You have to decide which tests to conduct, which questions to ask the patient, and which physical symptoms to look for, before you can diagnose the pains as a sign of indigestion, an incipient heart attack, or something else entirely. You also have to decide which questions not to ask, so as not to get waylaid by extraneous information. If you focus on the wrong symptoms, the patient might die — or might spend a needless night in the intensive care unit, depriving a patient with a genuine heart attack of a bed. Once you've made your diagnosis, you have to decide which course of treatment to follow and how to keep tabs on that treatment to see if it's really working. If you frame the symptoms in the wrong light, you can do more harm than good. If you frame them in the right light, you can save lives.

The same principle applies in solving the problem of suffering, which is why the Buddha gave prime importance to the ability to frame the issue of suffering in the proper way. He called this ability yoniso manasikara — appropriate attention — and taught that no other inner quality was more helpful for untangling suffering and gaining release (Iti 16).

In giving his most detailed explanation of appropriate attention (MN 2), he starts with examples of inappropriate attention, which center on questions of identity and existence: "Do I exist?" "Do I not?" "What am I?" "Did I exist in the past?" "Will I exist in the future?" These questions are inappropriate because they lead to "a wilderness of views, a thicket of views" such as "I have a self," or "I have no self," all of which lead to entanglement, and none to the end of suffering.

In contrast, the Buddha then depicts appropriate attention as the ability to identify that "This is suffering (the Pali word dukkha here covers stress and pain as well)," "This is the origination of suffering," "This is the cessation of suffering," and "This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of suffering." These are the four categories that the Buddha, in his first discourse, called the four noble truths. The ability to frame the issue of suffering in line with these categories is what enables you ultimately to put an end to the problem of suffering once and for all. This is why they're appropriate.

The most obvious lesson to be drawn from this way of distinguishing inappropriate from appropriate attention is that inappropriate attention frames the issues of the mind in terms of abstract categories, whereas appropriate attention frames them in terms of things that can be directly pointed to in immediate experience as "This... This... This... This." Ideas of identity and existence are basic to abstract thinking, and many philosophers have maintained that they lie at the basis of any spiritual quest. The Buddha, however, noted that the thought, "I am the thinker" lies at the root of all the categories and labels of conceptual proliferation, the type of thinking that can turn and attack the person employing it. These categories are notoriously hard to pin down, often dissolving into arbitrary semantics. "Do I exist?" — It depends on what you mean by "exist." "Do I have a self?" — It depends on what you mean by "self." Thinking driven by definitions like these often falls prey to the hidden motives or agendas behind the definitions, which means that it's unreliable.

However, suffering is something directly knowable: preverbal, private, but universal. In framing the issues of the mind around suffering, the Buddha bases his teachings on an intention totally trustworthy — the desire for his listeners to put an end to all their suffering — and focuses on something not dependent on definitions. In fact, he never offers a formal definition of the term "suffering" at all. Instead, he illustrates it with examples — such as the suffering of birth, aging, illness, and death — and then points out the functional element that all forms of mental suffering share: clinging to the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental fabrication, and consciousness. The clinging is not the totality of the suffering, but it's the aspect of suffering most useful to focus on for the purpose of bringing the suffering to an end.

Although there is a passage where the Buddha defines clinging as desire-passion (SN 22.121), he never describes precisely what desire-passion is. In what is apparently the oldest part of the Canon, the Atthaka Vagga (Sn 4), he fills a long discussion of clinging with puns and word play, a style that discourages attempts at systematic, set definitions and the conceptual proliferation they can foster. What this means is that if you want to refine your understanding of clinging, desire-passion, and suffering, you can't cling to words or texts. You have to look deeper into your present experience.

In pointing repeatedly to direct experience, however, the Buddha doesn't discourage all thought and concepts. The ability to distinguish the four categories of appropriate attention requires thought and analysis — the type of thought that questions past understandings and misunderstandings, and ponders what's happening in the present; the type of analysis that can ferret out connections between actions and their results and can evaluate them as to whether they're helpful or not. There are desires, for instance, that act as a cause of suffering, and other desires that can form part of the path leading to its end. Although the Buddha gives a general outline to tell which kind of desire functions in which way, you have to learn how to watch your own desires carefully and honestly to tell which kind of desire they are.

As you keep analyzing the present under the framework of these four categories, you're tracing the Buddha's steps as he approached Awakening. Having focused on clinging as the functional handle on suffering, he looked for the conditions that formed its basis and found them in three types of craving or thirst: sensual craving, craving for states of being, and craving to destroy states of being. Then he identified the cessation of suffering as total dispassion for, cessation of, and release from those forms of craving. And he identified the mental qualities and practices that would lead to that cessation — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration — all of which, in potential form, can be found in the present moment.

So instead of simply throwing the present moment at you as a monolithic whole, the Buddha points your attention to four significant things you might find there. This is because there's a pattern to the changes we experience from moment to moment. Change is never so random or radical that knowledge gained from the past is useless in the present. Concepts still serve an important purpose even though they may lack the freshness of the immediate here and now. When you stick your finger into fire, it's bound to burn. If you spit into the wind, it's bound to come back at you. Lessons like these are good to keep in mind. Although the patterns underlying suffering may be more tangled than those underlying fire and wind, still they are patterns. They can be learned and mastered, and the four categories of appropriate attention are crucial for getting a handle on those patterns and directing them to suffering's end.

In practical terms, distinguishing among categories is worthwhile only if you have to treat each of the different categories in a different way. A doctor who formulates a theory of sixteen types of headaches only to treat them all with aspirin, for example, is wasting her time. But one who, noting that different types of headaches respond to different types of medications, devises an accurate test to differentiate among the headaches, makes a genuine contribution to medical science. The same principle applies to the categories of appropriate attention. As the Buddha stated in his first account of his Awakening, once he had identified each of the four categories, he saw that each had to be treated in a different way. Suffering had to be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation fully developed.

What this means is that, as a meditator, you can't treat everything in the present moment in the same way. You can't simply stay non-reactive, or simply accept everything that comes. If moments of stillness and ease arise in the mind, you can't just note them and let them pass. You should learn to develop them into jhana — the full-body pleasure and rapture of right concentration that forms the heart of the path. When mental suffering arises, you can't just let it go. You should focus whatever powers of concentration and discernment you have to try to comprehend the clinging that lies at its heart.

The Buddha and his disciples expand on this point in discourses where they show how appropriate attention should be applied to various aspects of the present. Applied to the five aggregates of form, feeling, and so forth, appropriate attention means viewing them in such a way as to induce a sense of dispassion that will help alleviate clinging (SN 22.122). Applied to perceptions of beauty or irritation, it means viewing them in such a way as to keep them from fostering obstacles to right concentration, such as sensual desire or ill will. When applied to feelings of serenity or the potential for rapture, it means viewing them in such a way that helps develop them into factors for Awakening (SN 46.51).

Even within a particular category, there's no one approach that works in all cases. In one of his discourses the Buddha observes that some unskillful mental states wither away if you simply watch them with equanimity, while others require an active effort to take them apart (MN 101). In another discourse he expands on this observation by recommending five ways of dealing with distracting thoughts: replacing them with more skillful thoughts, focusing on their drawbacks, consciously ignoring them, relaxing the tension that goes into maintaining them, and forcefully suppressing them (MN 20). In neither discourse, though, does he give hard and fast rules for telling which type of thought will respond to which approach. You have to find out for yourself by sharpening your discernment through trial and error as to what works and what doesn't in any given situation.

The same principle applies to skillful mental states. The Buddha's final summary of his teachings, the wings to Awakening, lists seven ways of conceiving the path to the end of suffering — in terms of four establishings of mindfulness, four bases for success, four right exertions, five strengths, five faculties, seven factors for Awakening, and the noble eightfold path. And again, it's up to you to learn through trial and error which way of conceiving the path is most useful at any particular time in your practice.

This means that applying appropriate attention to skillful and unskillful mental states is not a one-shot affair. The tasks connected with each of the four categories of appropriate attention all have to be tested through trial and error, and mastered as skills. To borrow an analogy from the Canon, full Awakening is not a matter of picking up a bow and arrow and hoping for a fluke bull's eye. The insight of Awakening comes in the course of practicing on a straw man until you're able "to shoot long distances, to fire accurate shots in rapid succession, and to pierce great masses." (AN 9.36)

As the Buddha noted in his first discourse, he didn't claim to be awakened until he had fully mastered the tasks appropriate to all four categories. In fully developing the factors of the path, he fully comprehended the five clinging aggregates to the point of abandoning all passion and craving for them. That was when he fully realized the end of suffering. With that, the categories of appropriate attention had done their work in solving the problem of suffering, but even then they still had their uses. As Ven. Sariputta stated, even a fully awakened arahant would still apply them to experience to provide a pleasant dwelling for the mind in the here and now (SN 22.121).

In all of these cases, appropriate attention means seeing things in terms of their function — what they can do — while the act of appropriate attention is itself a type of doing, adopted for what it can do for the mind. And the test for appropriate attention is that it actually works in helping to put an end to suffering. When we contrast this with the Buddha's examples of inappropriate attention, we see that attention is inappropriate when it frames things in terms of being and identity, and appropriate when framing them in terms of actions and their results. In fact, appropriate attention looks at being itself as an action, with each act of being or assuming an identity to be evaluated by the pleasure or pain it produces. When we look at ourselves with appropriate attention, we focus not on what we are, but on what we're doing — and in particular on whether what we're doing is unskillful — leading to suffering — or skillful, leading to its end.

This point is important to bear in mind when we reflect on the two criticisms often leveled against the four categories of appropriate attention. The first criticism is that they provide a limited view of the fullness and variety of life, that they don't encompass the virtually infinite number of skillful ways of approaching experience. When formulating a theory of being, you could argue that the more variety it can contain, the better. But when choosing a doctor, you wouldn't want one who insists on exploring an infinite variety of approaches to your disease. You want one who focuses on the approaches most likely to work. The same holds true with appropriate attention. The four categories, with their attendant tasks, are meant not to encompass reality but to focus your attention at the right factors for curing the most basic problem in experience. The Buddha limits his discussion to these four categories because he doesn't want you to get distracted from the problem at hand.

The second criticism is that the four categories are dualistic and thus inferior to a non-dualistic view of the world. Again, when formulating a theory of being, you could argue that a non-dualistic theory would be superior to a dualistic one, on the grounds that a non-dual concept of being is more encompassing than a dualistic one, yielding a more unified theory. But appropriate attention is not a theory of being. It's a guide to what to do in the present moment. Because the present moment is so tangled and complex, the multiple categories offered by appropriate attention are a strength rather than a weakness. Instead of limiting you to one way of understanding and approaching events in the present, they provide you with a more discerning understanding and a wide variety of options for dealing with the tangles and complexities of suffering.

When offering options for solving a problem, no particular number of options is, on principle, superior to any other. What matters is that the options are enough to be adequate for the problem, but not so many as to obscure its solution and become a tangle themselves. In other words, the options are to be judged, not against abstract principles, but by what they enable you to do. Although the Buddha describes his path to the end of suffering as the one form of doing that ultimately puts an end to doing, as long as you're still doing something in the present moment, appropriate attention ensures that what you're doing stays on the path: You know which strands in the knot of suffering to pull in which way, and which to leave alone. And once you can untangle the problem of suffering, everything else gets untangled as well.