A Balancing Act: The Protective Quality of Wise Mindfulness

Quite a number of us at Valley Insight––those in all our weekly sitting groups as well as in the biweekly study group––have been revisiting, reflecting on, and practicing in such a way as to develop wise mindfulness. Such mindfulness (called sati, in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures) is a quality of heart-mind that can be directly experienced in and of itself—as a felt-sense.

We know that it isn’t always present. Sometimes it is, and it is very helpful to be able to recognize the particular flavor or texture of the mind when mindfulness is present. Take some time to consider what is similar in your mental state in the moments when you do experience a felt-sense of attentiveness, whether it involves the body, emotions, mind, or feelings as its object––whatever its focus.

Here are some words that others have used to describe this mental experience of sati:

soft, receptive, open, alert, attentive, present, spacious, gentle, peaceful, joyful, balanced, kind, liberating, accepting, quiet, direct, straight, steady, strong, safe.

What might you add to or subtract from this list?

As we get familiar with our own direct experience of sati, we will more readily recognize its presence, or, almost more importantly, its absence in any given moment. As we realize its absence––and if we are careful to avoid self-judgment over our lapse in attentiveness––we effortlessly evoke sati’s presence because it is there in the noticing itself––not in what is being noticed. Through refining such mental clarity, we can gradually become more skilled in navigating our often compelling, subjective experiences of the world. Sati allows us to see more clearly and more objectively. This is the “great protection” that skillful, or right (i.e., appropriate) mindfulness, which is described as part of the Eightfold Path, offers us.

This protection refers, of course, to its ability to preserve our own sense of nonagitated presence and well-being. But the protection offered doesn’t stop with us. Our wise mindfulness affects others. In this way it has an ethical, compassionate aspect. The felt-sense of safety it gives us allows us to open our hearts to others.

The Buddha describes this phenomenon beautifully in the story of two acrobats who are discussing how to perform their balancing act successfully (SN 47:19). They conclude that first, each one needs to establish her or his own sense of balance and ease; only by doing this can they then take care of one another and perform their act well. In a recent discussion on this protection afforded by sati, I was actually surprised to realize that establishing in myself some degree of sati at the scene of my bicycle accident last September––through both meditation and wise reflection––was an ethical action. Definitely, I already knew that it was invaluable to my well-being then and there, as well as to my ability to open fully to the experience as it unfolded and to the body’s subsequent healing. And in that recent “aha moment,” I understood too that sati had also been beneficial to those emergency caregivers who arrived to assess my condition and get me safely to the hospital. My presence of mind made their job and that of the ER and hospital staff a bit less complicated; and, so, it made our mutual balancing act far more successful.

Another simile compares mindfulness to a capable charioteer (SN 45.4).
Just like a good driver, we learn to steer the vehicle of our activities
through any kind of traffic without running into an accident.
(Analayo, Satipatthana: A Practice Manual, page 22)

May our continuing practice with and refinement of wise mindfulness––sati––increasingly make this world we share with so many others a safer place for us and for all beings, whatever living beings there may be––omitting none.

The Acrobat Sutta, translated and with a commentary by Andrew Olendzki, who has taught at VIMS:

[The Buddha addressed the monks:] Once upon a time, monks, a bamboo acrobat,
setting himself upon his bamboo pole,
addressed his assistant Medakathalika:
“Come you, my dear Medakathalika,
and climbing up the bamboo pole,
stand upon my shoulders.”
“Okay, master” the assistant Medakathalika
replied to the bamboo acrobat;
and climbing up the bamboo pole
she stood on the master’s shoulders.

So then the bamboo acrobat said this to his assistant Medakathalika:
“You look after me, my dear Medakathalika, and I’ll look after you.
Thus with us looking after one another, guarding one another,
we’ll show off our craft, receive some payment,
and safely climb down the bamboo pole.”

This being said, the assistant Medakathalika said this to the bamboo acrobat:
“That will not do at all, master!
You look after yourself, master, and I will look after myself.
Thus with each of us looking after ourselves, guarding ourselves,
we’ll show off our craft, receive some payment,
and safely climb down from the bamboo pole.
That’s the right way to do it!”

[The Buddha said:] Just like the assistant Medakathalika said to her master:
“I will look after myself,”
so should you, monks, practice the establishment of mindfulness.
You should (also) practice the establishment of mindfulness (by saying)
“I will look after others.”

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.

And how does one look after others by looking after oneself?
By practicing (mindfulness), by developing (it), by doing (it) a lot.
And how does one look after oneself by looking after others?
By patience, by non-harming, by loving kindness, by caring (for others).
(Thus) looking after oneself, one looks after others;
and looking after others, one looks after oneself.

Translator’s note:

What a vivid image of insight meditation!

The practice of mindfulness requires the focused attention of an acrobat balancing on a bamboo pole. One lapse, one moment of distraction or carelessness, and he tumbles to the ground. The picture is one of intensive inner awareness and concentration — almost a matter of life and death.

But the Buddha’s parable goes even further, for the safety and well being of the bamboo acrobat’s beloved assistant also hangs upon the master’s successful practice of mindfulness.

The story is telling us that ultimately we are responsible for our own balance, and would be foolish to direct our attention to others while neglecting our own inner focus. And yet others are directly affected by how well we do this. Insight meditation is not a selfish undertaking, because the quality of our interaction with all those around us depends on the degree of our own self-understanding and self-control.

©2005 Andrew Olendzki. You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever, provided that: (1) you only make such copies, etc., available free of charge; (2) you clearly indicate that any derivatives of this work (including translations) are derived from this source document; and (3) you include the full text of this license in any copies or derivatives of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved. Documents linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions. Transcribed from a file provided by the translator. Last revised for Access to Insight on 2 November 2013.

How to cite this document (a suggested style): “Sedaka Sutta: The Bamboo Acrobat” (SN 47.19), translated from the Pali by Andrew Olendzki. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn47/sn47.019.olen.html .

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