I read an article that included the following - "Through careful, mindful observation of this process of sensation overlaid with cognitive evaluation, it’s possible to tease apart the raw sense data from all the mental activity about it.

And when you do this, you may notice that the raw physical sensations, which until now you had always assumed to be continuous, are actually absent much of the time.

What’s happening is that raw sense data arise and pass away rapidly in little chunks, with gaps in between the passing away of one chunk and the arising of another.

Some of those gaps can be quite long, relatively speaking, but normally you don’t notice this because all that mental processing about the sense data fills them in, giving the illusion of continuity."

I have been meditating for about 6 years and attended several retreats but I still don't understand this on an experiential level. I dont think I have assumed them to be continuous. It just seems obvious to me that sensation isn't always there. I get an itch and then it's gone. I have a pain and then it's gone etc etc. maybe I'm misunderstanding this concept?? Does it mean that for example an itch that lasts for 10 seconds is not continuous for the 10 second duration? And same with a pain? Perhaps my concentration is not strong enough to ever notice this. I try to examine a sensation sometimes but an itch just seems like an itch to me. I feel I'm not making much progress,if any at all, with this stuff. I read about what is apparently supposed to happen, things you're meant to notice and experience, insights etc but my meditation just seems to be the same thing every single time. Sitting, noticing breath, thinking, noticing breath, itch, thinking, notice breath etc. It feels more and more pointless everyday. I don't seem to be learning to see the "true nature of reality" or heading toward "enlightenment" Why not? Where am I going wrong?

  • Maybe related: Awareness of two things
    – ChrisW
    Nov 20, 2017 at 22:53
  • Are you practicing insight or concentration meditation?
    – user698
    Nov 21, 2017 at 2:17
  • I practice Insight Mahasi tradition
    – Arturia
    Nov 21, 2017 at 8:26
  • The way that this question is phrased it gives the impression of asking us what some unnamed author meant, or else it implies that there is one view on this which is correct and the asker of the question wants to be guided to this correct interpretation about that original article. Should we be provided a link to that article in order to more readily respond?
    – Troll
    Nov 22, 2017 at 5:38

6 Answers 6


What they mean, is that our experience is assembled from hints presented by the sense organs. The eyes, ears catch glimpses of what's going on, esp. as we move around - and then build a theory from those hints, theory that we see as reality. There's a lot of assuming going on during that process, a lot of interpretation, and a lot of habit.


Once you "let go" enough, you start seeing it. By "let go" I mean the unconscious process by which we maintain our contrived world. Nowadays I see it at both micro and macro level. For example as I hold the cup and look at it I can see how the mind "grasps" the "signs" - raw momentary snapshots of some distinct features, and how it "tells" itself what these signs imply by inferring the cup from them. I see how the mind goes over these "signs" again and again in circles, telling itself the story of the cup. Similarly, at the macro level, I can see how the mind grasps the facts of the world and builds the narrative of my life from these.

When some people practice mindfulness, they practice the opposite of letting go. They think mindfulness is when your observation is watertight. But watertight observation is really just a tighter version of the assembly process by which we contrive the world. Instead, as you stop trying to be in control of experience, you start seeing the gaps in the model. These gaps is what we are after - but you can't contrive your way into them, you can't control it - it only comes from letting go, which involves handling tremendous amount of insecurity.


What @xxxx means with his "looking for keys" analogy: normally the way our mind works is, we get a hint from sensory organs, we build a hypothesis of what we are looking for/at, and then we validate it by examining the evidence from sensory organs. If we approach meditation with the same attitude, we would say to ourselves: hey, I must be looking for gaps in experience, gaps in the modeling process, and here is how it's supposed to look like. But you can't see the real gaps with this attitude, this would be contriving gaps with your mind, like dreaming yourself a dream. Instead, it comes from letting go of the inner dialog, of re-telling yourself the story of what you see (micro), and the story of your life (macro).


What's the tag line from Kali Linux? "The quieter you are, the more you are able to hear." I use something similar when I'm trying to get my adult nature students to see animal sign - "The deeper you breath, the easier it is to see the small things." Buddhist practice is based on a similar concept. While you may be able to see subtle manifestations of consciousness with the ordinary mind, it is much, much easier to see them when we slow ourselves through the practice of samatha. This isn't to say that you need to attain jhana. Even access concentration provides a very different perspective than our normal discursive thinking. Rather than just diving into mindfulness practice, you may benefit from doing a half to a full hour or so of calm meditation beforehand. Not to discourage you, but I was on the fourth day of one of many, many sesshins before I began to notice that the pain experience was inconsistent - and pain is a very coarse and obvious state!

This next part is going to sound a little woo woo, but it's also very important. Don't go looking for the atomization of experience. It's like the indeterminancy principle in physics. If you try to observe it, it's going to remain elusive. Think about it - in order to go looking for something, you have to have a mental image of what that thing is going to look like. I can assure you that what you think this experience is like is, at best, subtly different. More likely, it's going to be vastly so. Buddhism is not like looking for your keys. We really have no idea what we're seeking. If we did, we'd all already be enlightened! If you have any preconceptions in your practice, it is going make it next to impossible to discover true insight.

  • Can you explain what you mean by "inconsistent" (or would you prefer not)? Because that might help to answer the OP's question, "Does it mean that for example an itch that lasts for 10 seconds is not continuous for the 10 second duration?"
    – ChrisW
    Nov 21, 2017 at 13:57
  • Sure - inconsistent in the sense that the experience of pain is not a continuous stream of feeling. People can tell you that all day long and they'll think you're crazy. That's especially true if they are on a Zen retreat where pain can seem almost inescapable! But really, it comes in waves. And like a wave pattern there are peaks where the pain is intense and troughs where it almost vanishes entirely. The same is true of the other senses. Most of our experience is really just empty space. Our untrained mind smudges everything into consistent blob.
    – user698
    Nov 21, 2017 at 14:12

"It just seems obvious to me that sensation isn't always there. I get an itch and then it's gone. I have a pain and then it's gone etc etc. maybe I'm misunderstanding this concept??"

Yes, it's as ordinary as you put.

"Does it mean that for example an itch that lasts for 10 seconds is not continuous for the 10 second duration?"

You can refine the observation as much as you are able to and observe differences in the itch during these 10 seconds. A crucial point in these observations is that it's not stable: "it" mutates (impermanence). A second crucial point is that it doesn't seem proper to regard "it" as a substance, because scrutinizing it fails to uncover that "it", that substance. What is there is an on going process changing over time. Any substance we find there, upon scrutiny, is shown to be, ultimately, another underlying process.

"And same with a pain? Perhaps my concentration is not strong enough to ever notice this. I try to examine a sensation sometimes but an itch just seems like an itch to me."

Some people, unable to make it go away, may come to think an itch is something that can be there forever. Some other people may think an itch is an act of spirits. Other people may think that an itch is something that knows you did something bad in the past and is punishing you. This variety might illustrate the kind of people that was exposed to this practice. Then, the practice would help these people see what you just said without the added color and imagination (it's but an itching) but also get in touch with it's workings and real nature.

It get's interesting when instead of itch, we are talking about anger...or even love. Aspirations, fears and desires, things we dislike and so on. Of course, more so if the subject of investigation is ourselves.

"Sitting, noticing breath, thinking, noticing breath, itch, thinking, notice breath etc. It feels more and more pointless everyday. I don't seem to be learning to see the "true nature of reality" or heading toward "enlightenment" Why not? Where am I going wrong?"

The development of this practice (in particular, associated with mindfulness of breathing), when correctly exercised, has a few benefits such as:

  1. We get undistracted and alert (it prevents proliferations of thoughts).

He should develop mindfulness of in-&-out breathing so as to cut off distractive thinking.

-- AN 9.1

  1. In general, we get calmer and the faculty of concentration is unobstructed (so we can develop it further).

"Contemplating foulness in the body,
Being mindful of in-and-out breathing,
Ever ardent and seeing clearly .
The calming down of all formations"
-- Iti 85

"For one of right mindfulness, right concentration springs up."
-- SN 45.51

"Bhikkhus, being alert and mindful, develop concentration that is measureless."
-- AN 5.27

There are, bhikkhus, forms cognizable by the eye that are agreeable and those that are disagreeable. One should train so that these do not persist obsessing one’s mind even when they are repeatedly experienced. When the mind is not obsessed, tireless energy is aroused, unmuddled mindfulness is set up, the body becomes tranquil and untroubled, the mind becomes concentrated and one-pointed.
-- AN 4.51

A very important point here is that the practice of concentration is a key pleasing aspect of Buddhism. It's by practicing samatha that we find some protection from undesirable states of mind (anger, frustration, resentfulness, obsessions, etc). It's samatha that envelops us in a kind of pleasure that is beyond the ordinary pleasures of our lives. And it's samatha that gives a taste of the ultimate bliss, Nirvana.

As mindfulness practice calms us and unobstructs concentration, we get in a good position to practice concentration. Then, when concentration gets well developed, it is concentration that unobstructs insight.

All the practices of the eightfold path go hand in hand, they are platforms for each other. They also help explaining each other.

It's important to understand the eightfold path in detail, in order to contextualize what one is doing. It's a map, it gives us direction and means to evaluate where we are. If all we are doing is "mindfulness meditation", it can be hard to know what we should be looking at and what we should be doing or if we are doing something right at all.


The Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, who taught the Burmese style of Theravadin vipassana, was a man of great compassion. In his “Practical Vipassana Exercises,” for example, he focused on the very practical aspect of vipassana, specifically, what to pay attention to while meditating. Paying attention to sensations is one of many exercises recommended by Mahasi Sayadaw. There are many things to be noticed about sensations (such as continuity or the lack of continuity), but these variations are not important. The exercise consists entirely of noticing or naming it and allowing the next object of awareness to arise. I doubt that your quotation is from the writings of Mahasi Sayadaw. He talked about making “mental notes” such as “imagining,” “thinking,” “reflecting,” “seeing,” “looking,” and “touching,” immediately after such events have occurred. The process of looking for “sensation overlaid with cognitive evaluation” sounds like a Mahayana meditation that progresses towards the realization that all cognition is sunyata (empty). The teachings of Mahasi Sayadaw has an entirely different purpose.

I have practiced traditional Theravadin mindfulness meditation for over 50 years. In order to fully understand the purpose of making “mental notes,” as instructed by Mahasi Sayadaw, it is necessary to understand the Theravadin Abhidharma. You would then realize that, in this practice, you are noting the arising and passing of (the products of) sankhara. A sankhara is an unconscious mental formation that causes us to make sense of experience. For example, when we have a particular yellow sensation, a sankhara will tell us that we are perceiving a daffodil. When we hear about the death of a friend, a sankhara will cause us to experience sadness. When we are playing chess, a sankhara will cause us to select the next best move. Sankhara make consciousness intelligent. In evolutionary terms, sankhara cause the mind to be adaptive. Innate sankhara cause an infant to recognize and feel affection for his mother. Sankhara learned during a previous lifetime can, under supporting circumstances, cause to feel hatred for another person.

The purpose behind taking mental note of passing sankhara to be objective about (be matter-of-fact about) all the (products of) sankhara we experience. This objectivity has certain key benefits. When a (product of) sankhara arises that does not make sense, the unconscious mind will automatically correct that sankhara. During intense and prolonged retreat, deeply confusing sankhara or memories come to mind to be reassessed and revised by the mind. Profoundly confusing experience causes the formation of unwholesome sankhara (“bad karma”). During an advanced state of mindfulness meditation, the recollection of the formation of an unwholesome sankhara can cause us to revise that sankhara and make it wholesome and harmless. After all major unwholesome sankhara are revised or corrected in this manner, nirvana (the Theravadin version of Enlightenment) becomes possible and will arise spontaneously under supporting circumstances. One of the most important consequences of the elimination of unwholesome sankhara is the access to a profound and wise understanding of the psychology of sankhara and karma. The essence of Theravadin teachings is the concept of causality. (The concept of sunyata, as understood by Mahayana Buddhism never occurs in any original Theravadin text.)

In contrast to this process, the Mahayana meditation of separating sensation from “cognitive evaluation” has the purpose of causing a person to experience sensation as real while all cognitive evaluations as illusory. The experience of sunyata (emptiness or absolute truth) occurs when sensation is experienced without the presence of any illusory evaluation or conceptualization. From the point of view of sunyata, even the greatest wisdom from the Theravadin teachings, including the understanding of sankhara and karma, is illusory or absolutely false. (Nonetheless, the understandings of sankhara and karma are still considered to be relatively true.) The essence of Mahayana Buddhism is the concept of sunyata.

A third form of Buddhism consists of Free Land Buddhism, which makes reference to the bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism but accepts the Theravadin teachings of causality. The central practice of Free Land Buddhism is mindfulness of Amitabha that consists of a personal relationship with the Buddha Amitabha. This connection with Amitabha is very real and blissful, but no attempt is made achieve nirvana because it is considered to be too difficult. Much faith is put into the healing powers of Amitabha, which are very substantial. The Lotus Sutra of Free Land Buddhism makes no mention of sunyata.

“Where am I going wrong?” You have read and followed mixed teachings. If you have decided to follow the teachings of the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, then follow his teachings on line. If you decide to follow the Mahayana teachings, then read the books by the Dalai Lama. There are plenty of people out there with the best of intensions believe the Theravadin teachings and the Mahayana teachings are the same. They somehow believe that mixing beer and wine makes Champaign, but the real result is the kind of dead-end practice you have experienced. Only a superficial understanding of these two great teachings allows them to be viewed as the same teaching. Where the two teachings do agree is that unwholesome sankhara (bad karma) cause suffering and delay both the experience of nirvana and the experience of sunyata.


It just seems obvious to me that sensation isn't always there.

There might be to less attention on "either pleasant-nor-unpleasant" feelings. Maybe good to focus more on the many graps of being not attentive enought in this way to be able to obsere it more clearly. Also the "acting-mind" seems to have never been recognised. Phenomenas do also not last, last even 10 secounds.

To get beyound Illusion-of-continuity it needs to be seen who, or better what drives of giving cause for continue birth, birth, birth...

What can be done to gain needed concentration? Improve serious non-stinginess by sufficent acts of generosity and precepts keeping seriously and by heart. This merits give the needed causes.

[Note: This is a gift of Dhamma and not meant for commercial purpose or other low wordily gains by means of trade and exchange.]


Let's start with the 4 noble truth.

  1. there is suffering - the itch
  2. There is a cause of suffering - possibly any cause
  3. there is cessation of suffering - after 10sec the itch is gone- And this should be enlightening. but if you examine the itch instead of the object of meditation, the itch will be there, and there will be no progress. Focus on object of meditation.
  4. There are paths to the cessation of all suffering - Realising everything is the 3rd noble truth - What you're doing now, meditating and realising itch will go away. Ultimately everything will go away because, everything is empty. And because everything is empty, sentient beings didn't see it, they suffer, so compassion arises.
  • With vipassana the itch sensation becomes the object of meditation so I'm not sure why you're saying not to examine it
    – Arturia
    Dec 2, 2017 at 22:59
  • In Vipassana, the object of meditation is the breathing.
    – tutu
    Dec 10, 2017 at 18:25

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