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Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 4.

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

Mindfulness of mind – Citta

The third pasture of mindfulness is contemplation of the mind – for which the Pãli word is citta. In this context ‘mind’ simply means what’s going on in my mind – my reactions and responses to my feelings. As with the previous satipaṭṭhāna these are divided into ‘unwholesome’ and ‘wholesome’. The unwholesome states are those that are driven by the three poisons – lust, anger and delusion which in turn became the causes for our dissatisfaction and unhappiness. The wholesome states, ethically beneficial, are those that accumulate ‘merit’ – good karma – which is essential for creating the circumstances for awakening. This is how the text puts it:

He knows a lustful mind to be “lustful”, and a mind without lust to be “without lust”; he knows an angry mind to be “angry”, and a mind without anger to be “without anger”; he knows a deluded mind to be “deluded”, and a mind without delusion to be “without delusion”; he knows a contracted mind to be “contracted”, and a distracted mind to be “distracted”; he knows a great mind to be “great”, and a narrow mind to be “narrow”; he knows a surpassable mind to be “surpassable”, and an unsurpassable mind to be “unsurpassable”; he knows a concentrated mind to be “concentrated”, and an unconcentrated mind to be “unconcentrated”; he knows a liberated mind to be “liberated”, and an unliberated mind to be “unliberated”.

So let’s simplify this. The text gives us a list of ‘ordinary’ or ‘unwholesome’ states of mind:

lustful / without lust

angry / without anger

deluded / without delusion



It also gives us a list of ‘higher’ or ‘wholesome’ states of mind:

great / narrow

surpassable / unsurpassable

concentrated / unconcentrated

liberated / unliberated.

So altogether sixteen mind states – most paired with their opposite – that we may be aware of.

The basic idea here is that we begin to exchange simply identifying with our thoughts and emotions for being with them mindfully. In our courses this has repeatedly been referred to as ‘dropping the story’ and just being with the felt sense. When we contemplate our mind in this way – considering mental events as merely thoughts and emotions – the momentary and conditioned quality of them becomes more apparent. They only last for a very short while if not repeatedly fuelled by identification with the story and they are all conditioned by what we experience within and around us. Oh, yes, one more twist, “us” – our sense of ourselves – is also a thought, a story, that is equally impermanent and conditioned! Approaching this mindfully does not mean that we are intentionally trying to replace a ‘bad thought’ with a ‘good thought’. Rather we simply rely on the power of contemplation to make the transformation for us. When an unwholesome mind state arises – one driven by lust, anger or delusion – we simply notice it and nothing more. We certainly don’t criticise ourselves for having it. Catching it in our awareness is enough because doing so the state will immediately dissolve of its own accord – just as long as we do not fuel it and make it continue!

The ‘ordinary’ or ‘unwholesome’ states of mind

The first three, lust (rãga), anger (dosa), and delusion (moha), are the three main roots of all unwholesome mental events. Within Buddhism these mental events are also called ‘afflicted mental states’, klesha, which are said to number in total 84,000! In our courses these were introduced as the pig (delusion or ignorance – zoning out), the chicken (lust or grasping) and the snake (anger or aversion). Initially we suggested that we should begin to notice when our practice was becoming driven by one of them. Typically just sitting there spaced out and disengaged or wanting to have one sort of experience while not wanting another. Here this is taken much further and wider – applied to our entire life so that what we practice observing on our meditation cushion is integrated into all of our everyday experience. One more thing; delusion, lust and anger cover a whole spectrum of associated states. As already suggested anger encompasses simply pushing something away because we do not like it to full blown aggressive attacks on ourselves and others. Similarly lust spans a gentle desire to naked, driven craving. And delusion means to be basically asleep to how things really are and so all states of mind that further this sleep can be said to be ‘delusional’. In the satipaṭṭhāna we also have listed the three opposites of these states – not deluded, angry or lustful. These can be understood in two ways, simply the absence of the state or the presence of its opposite. So without delusion is to be awake, without anger is to be full of loving kindness and without lust is to know equanimity. Seen in this way we are not just talking about momentary passing mind states but the cultivation and establishment of wholesome mind states that pervade our whole life.

Finally we have two more unwholesome mind states – contracted (saúkhitta), which is result of sloth-and-torpor, and distracted (vikkhitta), which is the outcome of pursuing sensual pleasures which generate restlessness. These two similarly have their opposites, although they are not listed in the text, but they may also be seen as opposites to each other. At one end of the spectrum are those meditative experiences that are conditioned by a sleepy mind and heavy body while at the other are those dominated by anxious thoughts and an agitated body. This opposition implies the need for a balanced meditative state that is both relaxed and has mental clarity. This balance between contraction and distraction then opens the way to the wholesome states of mind.

The ‘higher’ or ‘wholesome’ states of mind

These essentially are about the depth and stability of our contemplation.The first, a “great” (mahaggata) mental state relates to how pervasive our concentration is – Joseph Goldstein p.108 says for instance whether, when practicing loving kindness and compassion, this encompasses only ourselves or incorporates all sentient beings as well. We could also think of it as the expanse or enormity of our calm.

The second pair ‘surpassable’ (sa-uttara) and ‘unsurpassable’, according to the Ven. Anālayo p.179, relate to the mental state of concentration (samādhi) and how this enables deeper levels of meditative absorption (jhāna). The word ‘surpassable’ referring to the the levels of ‘access concentration’ and the first three levels of absorption and ‘unsurpassable’ the fourth and highest level which is the union of equanimity and mindfulness. The term unsurpassable is also used a synonym for awakening – the ultimate insight – and so here it includes the insight necessary into deep states of calm so they may be abandoned for even deeper states and finally the insight of the awakened mind that knows itself to be awakened.

The third is “concentrated” (samāhita) – the need for concentration (samādhi), stable one-pointedness – in both calm abiding (samatha) and insight (vipassanã) sides of the practice.

For us right at the beginning of our contemplative practice all this talk about concentration and deep states of absorption may seem either daunting or simply of no real relevance. However what we can take from it is how necessary it is to clearly see what our state of mind is and not get caught up in grasping at any particular experience just because it is momentarily pleasurable. Oddly the background theme of renunciation that permeates this whole teaching is also found here. We are continually urged to let go of partial experiences of awakening lest clutching at them obscures the real thing.

Finally ‘liberated’ (vimutta) – is closely linked to the unsurpassable mind state

and the experience of full awakening. It is without delusion, greed or hatred. Without ‘defilements’ it is the mind of an enlightened person – an arahant. Perfectly concentrated it enables calm and insight and the mental freedom these represent. And Anālayo p.180 has the last word:

The theme underlying the contemplation of these four higher states of mind is the ability to monitor the more advanced stages of one’s meditative development. In this way, within the scope of contemplation of the mind, sati can range from recognition of the presence of lust or anger to awareness of the most lofty and sublime types of mental experience, each time with the same basic task of calmly noticing what is taking place.

Things to do

This week it’s relatively simple – watch out for those time when we really get caught up in not wanting to be awake and also picking and choosing in ways that cause unhappiness to ourselves and others. And if we are going to have any chance of achieving this we will need to be mindful of what’s happening within our thoughts and emotions and the more we do this the better we will get at it.

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