One way we can strengthen the power and continuity of mindfulness is through skillful use of perception. In the Abhidhamma, the Buddhist psychology, strong perception is called a proximate cause for the arising of mindfulness.
Perception is the mental quality of recognition. It picks out the distinguishing marks of a particular object or experience: “red,” “blue,” “man,” “woman,” “house,” “car”—and then stores the concept in memory for future reference. For example, we hear a sound. Consciousness has the function to simply know the sound. Perception is what recognizes it, names it—“ bird”—and then remembers this concept for the next time we hear that particular kind of sound. It’s also possible for perception to be preverbal, when the word bird hasn’t arisen but we still know it’s a bird. Michael Cunningham, in the book The Hours, describes this process beautifully. He writes, “Everything in the world has its own secret name. A name that cannot be conveyed in language but is simply the sight and the feel of the thing itself.”
So perception covers this whole range, from the actual word or image that we use to designate something to what we might call the preverbal recognition: the sight and the feel of the thing itself.
This understanding of perception raises the issue of the use of concepts in meditation practice. On the one hand, we want to establish mindfulness to the extent necessary for bare knowing, which suggests somehow a mind free of conceptual overlay, a simple bare knowing of what’s present. That is what the Buddha instructs us to do. On the other hand, the factor of perception, with its attendant concepts, is a proximate cause for mindfulness to arise. So clearly, concepts do have a place in the development of our meditative understanding.
This apparent contradiction is resolved if we look more carefully at the nature of perception. In the Abhidhamma, perception is a called a “common factor,” which means, on one level or another, it’s arising in every moment. When perception is operating without strong mindfulness, which is the usual way an untrained mind navigates through life, we become lost in the world of concepts. We are then engaging only with the surface appearance of things. In these moments, when we give something a name or a concept, our experience often becomes limited by that very concept.
The following story illustrates how concepts influence our experience. A couple I know built a house in the country, and after they moved in they began hearing a chirping sound in the basement. They had seen some beautiful birds flying around and thought, “Ah, the birds made a nest in the basement, and the little chicks are chirping away.” They felt very happy every time they heard the sound. A few weeks later someone was doing some repairs in the basement and told them, “Your smoke alarm is broken, and it’s making a beeping sound.” As soon as the concept changed from chicks to smoke alarm, the sound became extremely irritating, and they had it fixed immediately. Nothing had changed except the concept: through one filter, delightful; through another filter, irritating. This happens often in our lives because we live in a world of concepts that color and condition how we experience things.
When there is strong perception without mindfulness, we can create a lot of trouble for ourselves. Once at a retreat I saw a bird sitting near a car looking at its reflection in the shiny chrome bumper. Thinking it was another bird, it kept attacking its own reflection. We can see how this happens in our lives. When we’re attached to our concepts about people, things or experiences, sometimes accurate but often biased, then we often bump up against our own projections. This is what happens when there’s strong perception without mindfulness.
But when perception is used in the service of mindfulness, then the same recognizing function can frame the moment’s experience for us, enabling a deeper and more careful observation. It’s like putting a frame around a picture in order to see the picture more clearly. Bhikkhu Ñanananda, in his book The Magic of the Mind, speaks of “rallying the concepts for the higher purpose of developing wisdom, whereby concepts themselves are transcended.”
This brings us to the skillful meditation technique known as labeling or mental noting. People sometimes associate this technique with the teaching of Mahasi Sayadaw, who popularized it in the last century. But the technique of noting actually goes back to the time of the Buddha and has its roots in the Satipatthana Sutta itself.
Throughout the sutta, the Buddha uses a particular grammatical article from the Pali language, iti, that indicates direct speech. It’s like adding quotation marks to a word or phrase. For instance, in one refrain he talks about being mindful that (quote) there is a body (unquote). This is a way of using a phrase to acknowledge and emphasize an experience: “There is a body.” Later on in the sutta, he says, “Breathing in long, he [the Buddha here is addressing the monks] knows, ‘I breathe in long.’” Likewise, he says, “When walking he knows, ‘I am walking.’”
This grammatical construction throughout the sutta suggests what we might call labeling or acknowledging the recognition of what is happening. This is the use of perception, even of concepts, in the service of mindfulness. Although the use of a word as a mental label is often helpful, more essentially it is the act of careful recognition. Labeling or noticing in this way helps to strengthen mindfulness in the moment as well as to develop a stronger continuity of practice throughout the day. As Ajahn Sumedho so skillfully puts it, “The breath is like this. Pain is like this. Calm is like this. Sleepiness is like this.” We use concepts (whether verbal or preverbal) to simply acknowledge what is arising in the moment. This recognition establishes a frame that allows mindfulness to look closely at the experience.
Active noting or labeling can also help reveal unconscious attitudes that we bring to our experience. For example, if you label your experience, you can notice whether the tone of voice in the mind is impatient, whether it’s rushing, whether it’s frustrated, whether it’s bored, whether it’s delighted. Often these mind-states will be filtering our experience, and we may not even notice that they’re there. The tone of voice in the labeling reveals the current mind-state.
Lastly, labeling or careful noticing, the skillful use of concepts, can help to strengthen our experience of freedom right now. The noting can help us cut through our identification with experiences so that we don’t get lost in them or create a sense of self in the process.
We should remember, it’s not so much the labeling itself that is essential, although it can be a very helpful support; rather it’s the clear recognition of what is happening. The great Thai forest master Ajahn Maha Boowa described how recognition of a particular thought in the mind became his doorway to enlightenment:
One day I went to practice at Wat Dhamma-chedi. At that stage, the mind was so radiant, that I came to marvel at its radiance. . . . Looking at the body, I couldn’t see it at all. It was all space, empty. . . . But luckily, as soon as I began to marvel at myself . . . a statement of Dhamma spontaneously arose. . . . “If there’s a point or a center of the knower anywhere, that is an agent of earth.” That’s what it said.
That thought arose as a concept, and that concept cut through the identification even with the knowing, opening the door to an even greater freedom.
This is an example of the use of perception as a proximate cause of mindfulness. You can practice with this understanding of the role of perception, experimenting with it on the level of bare recognition as well as with mental labeling, and see where it is helpful for you on your journey of awakening.