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Season 1 - Episode 4

Day 3: Mindful Awareness

45 min - Talk


In Day 3, we begin with a short seated practice to notice the arising of thoughts. John succinctly dissects the three primary elements of mindfulness (memory, meta-awareness, and heedfulness). We come to an understanding of how the effort to focus on something, to not be distracted, strengthens our meta-awareness, or the ability to pay attention effortlessly to the larger context of what is happening. Essentially, the practice of paying close attention loosens our small fixations. This allows us to become aware of what might be more important in the big picture. We close with a meditation practice.

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Jan 01, 2020
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titled the The more they can turns the platform the p Hello him day you little um So let's begin with a little bit of practice. Just settle the mind, again finding that sense of stability, a position where you feel in a way safe, held by Mother Earth, without effort. And the spine is erect but flexible, a strong back and an open front, relaxed but awake. And now this time before we start practice, just set a brief intention, an intention let's say to live an awakening life. And then letting go of that intention, just letting it perfume your experience, now settle on the sensations of breathing.

Remember that the mind wants to select an object, so just offer it an object, offer it the breath. Just let the breath be natural, whether long or short, doesn't matter, there's no need to fixate. Now as you're practicing, you've probably noticed that thoughts happen. Let's emerge out of our practice now and talk about thoughts. One of the things that many people notice when they've first been practicing in particular is it seems like they start to think more, like there are more thoughts happening, as if the meditation itself generates thoughts, like makes more thoughts happen.

And this is a very well-known phenomenon, it's been recognized in modern research on meditation, but we find that in really quite old manuals of meditation in the Buddhist world, and it's not a surprise. Probably the best way of understanding this is not that your meditation is making thoughts happen, but rather that you are noticing thoughts, in a sense just even a little bit of practice begins to give us access to capacity to notice much more than we've ever noticed before. So how does this work? Well one way of thinking about it is actually in terms of this term that many of you probably know, mindfulness, or what we might call mindful awareness. We're going to explore in this session, we're going to focus on what is mindful awareness, how do we cultivate it, how does it work.

And then do a little bit of work around one form of fixation or grasping, and how mindfulness can help us with that. So first of all, a few Sanskrit terms, my favorite. So first of all there is smrti, smrti. This is the term that we often actually translate into mindfulness, in English. In the Pali language, which is the language of the Theravada tradition, not the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition draws on Sanskrit texts.

The Theravada tradition, which we find, for example, in Burma, in Thailand, in Sri Lanka, draws on the Pali literature. So in the Pali tradition, the term that we use is sati, but this is just a, it's related, this is a Sanskritic language, sometimes you might think of it as a kind of simplified version of Sanskrit, or a more colloquial version of Sanskrit. So in Pali we have sati, and in Sanskrit we have smrti. Both of these are often translated as mindfulness in English. It's a kind of confusing translation to be honest, especially when we think of mindfulness as paying attention moment by moment in a particular way on purpose and non-judgmentally, which is the way that John Kabat-Zinn gave an operational definition of mindfulness many years ago in 1994.

So in that style of contemporary mindfulness that John was so influential in creating, that the way that we talk about mindfulness there, and as we will see, the traditional accounts of mindfulness with this specific term sometimes don't seem like they're lining up that well, but that's because of certain kinds of confusion. And the main confusion is that we think sometimes that this term smrti or sati has to be the only thing that really the word English, English word mindfulness is referring to, but really the English word mindfulness is referring to a triad of features. So one of those terms is smrti. One of them which will, for the moment we'll call mindfulness, right? Third term is samprajanya, what the Tibetans call shajin.

The Tibetans call smrti-drempa, by the way, and they call samprajanya shajin. And this is a term that we best translate as meta-awareness, as we will see. And then there's a third term called apramada, or bio in Tibetan. And this term we can translate as heedfulness. So these are very specific technical terms that are helping us to understand exactly what these styles of practice are for.

And my colleagues and I have written some papers in which we've really tried to argue, like Cliff Saren and Amishi Jha and Antoine Lutz and I wrote a paper, for example, for the American Psychologist in 2015, in which we tried to argue that the idea that there's really just one version of mindfulness is really not accurate, even historically. We know there are many different versions of mindfulness, actually. It's more like there are kind of ingredients and you can have different recipes, but certainly among those key ingredients for any style are these three, smrti, samprajanya, and apramada, which we could call mindfulness, but we're going to change that translation soon. So mindfulness, mental awareness, and heedfulness. Okay, so what's this first term mean?

The one that we're going to reinterpret. So it has actually, when we look at that term smrti, its literal meaning is memory, actually, or recollection. And as a number of different scholars have pointed out, like Bhikkhu Bodhi or Bhikkhu Analayo, who've looked at the Pali versions, and also Bhikkhu Analayo has looked especially at early Buddhism and the account of this term, the way this term sati is used in early Buddhism. There's some great work by a scholar named Rupert Gethin. So there's lots of work out there that shows us that this term actually is used in many different ways.

And sometimes it really just means literally recollecting or remembering something, like remembering what you're supposed to be doing, or remembering what the goals of your practice are, or even just remembering what your teacher told you. So quite literally, memory. But there's also a very specific technical usage of it in Buddhist texts, texts that analyze meditation practices. And that technical meaning of this term, smrti, or sati and Pali, is basically that which prevents distraction. Now what does that mean?

Well, first of all, what is distraction? As you were practicing just now, perhaps something came up, a thought, a sensation. And instead of attending to the sensations of breathing, suddenly you were paying attention to something else. That's it. That's distraction.

This is what we talked about last time as attention capture, like your attention was captured by something else. You intended to attend to something, like the sensations of breathing, but something else captured your attention. So that's distraction. It's what we call viksepa. It's a great term in Sanskrit because it kind of means like being thrown off.

You're like, you're thrown off. You're suddenly elsewhere. So that is what we mean by distraction. So what does smrti or sati do? It just prevents that from happening.

So if I'm focusing on an object, then when I'm focusing on an object, when that mental feature is in place, then my mind doesn't go to any other object. And if my mind has attended to some other object, like, I don't know, let's say I'm thinking about being on the beach, then smrti is gone. This so-called mindfulness is gone. So what would be a good translation of that term? Well one of the reasons that it's called smrti, which again literally means memory, is that when you are distracted, when another object pulls you away, then it's like you've forgotten the one you're supposed to be paying, or you want to pay attention to anyway.

Like if I'm saying, OK, I'm going to pay attention to my breath, and then I start to think about the beach, I've lost my breath. Or let's say I'm reading something, I'm reading an article or something, and I really want to pay attention to this, or I need to pay attention to it, but instead I start thinking about, I don't know, that final episode of Game of Thrones, and just how difficult it was. So I'm like, well how did that happen? Suddenly there I am, I've lost my intended object, I've lost my intended object. So that loss is like forgetting, and therefore the mental, the aspect of the mind, the mental facets that prevents one from losing it would be like remembering, but it's a metaphor.

So smrti or sati, on this very technical usage, there are other usages as well, but on this very technical usage that's described in the text that are trying to give a technical account of meditation, what it's doing is it's a distraction preventer. So maybe we just call it, we could call it just retention, or we could call it distraction preventer, or we could just use the Sanskrit word smrti if we like, or the Pali word sati, but the main point is to understand what this is about. It's about in a sense remembering the object, retaining the object, in as much as one has not lost it by becoming attached or fixated on something else, by in a sense having the attention captured by something else, okay? So that's the first facet, the first ingredient in any mindfulness style of practice, is that there has to be this smrti, this retention needs to be present, and all it really means is I'm not distracted, so it's described as having this function of non-distraction, obic shape or karmic ka, as it said in Sanskrit, in the Abhidharma Samhuchya, its function is to prevent distraction, and here's a very interesting idea that we're going to come back to later when we look at a different style of mindfulness, right now we've been doing a style of practice, what's called settling the mind of the natural state, which could be, we're sort of moving in that direction, we're actually not fully there yet, but we've been working with the breath, and when we're working with the breath in that way we have an object, so what's it mean to be distracted in that case, that means I'm paying attention to something else, I'm thinking about that Game of Thrones episode, or I'm thinking about the beach, or I'm thinking about lunch, or whatever, or I'm noticing the pain in my knee, so I've been captured, my attention has been captured, but you can also, and we will explore this later, but just want to say it now, you can have no object in meditation, I can be not paying attention to anything, and yet not be lost, not have my attention be captured by something, I can be aware without paying attention to an object, and not have attention capture happening, so even in that case, without any object at all, without focusing on the breath or anything at all, I can be mindfully aware, and Smriti is active, right, retention is active in the sense that my mind is not captured by something else, but I'm not actually paying attention to anything, we're going to come back to that, but just consider that for a moment, so Smriti can be there in all of these different contexts, and all it really means is the mind is not pulled away, so here's a second feature that's critically important, how do you know that your mind is pulled away, and does someone send you a text, or how do you know you're distracted, let's say I'm watching my breath, I'm doing a basic kind of meditation on the breath, and as I'm attending to the breath, let's try it now for a moment, just attend to the breath, maybe a distraction has happened already, when I started speaking probably that pulls your mind away, but we're speaking more here of what happens when without there being some, what we call exogenous stimulus, a sound or something like that, just your mind on its own just sort of loses track of the object and goes towards some other object, or even if there's no object, it just gets captured by thought, sensation, how do we notice that, so here's something to consider, let's just suppose, and some people will say this is how it works on some traditions, you'll hear this, but in the tradition we're focusing on here, this won't make sense, I think it'll be obvious why soon, suppose the way this works is okay, let's say I'm focusing on my breath, and basically what I'm doing is I'm periodically checking, I'm like turning in to see whether I'm distracted, so I'm actually like I'm on my breath and then I'm going to check, am I distracted, am I distracted, so in this case we have what you could call a first order awareness, right, which is just the awareness of your breath itself, and then we have like a second order awareness, that's why we use the term meta, right, so one way, like it means above, right, so one way of talking about this is that there's a kind of meta cognition, there's a term we'll use sometimes, which is like checking on the first order, but it is, it requires you to actually drop your attention on this and turn to this, okay, so it's like I have attention on this and then I'm going to bring in this other kind of cognition and check this, and that actually disrupts my attention on the breath, so that kind of inward checking means that I'm in a sense like I've got like a spotlight and I'm holding it inside of down here and this level of awareness and then I have to kind of take it and pull it and pull it and turn it in like this, in other words it's as if my attention is directed toward this and then it directs inward, it's directed toward the breath and then it's directed inward, so what that means is that that kind of way of knowing whether you're distracted would necessarily disrupt your focus on the object, because in order to do this I have to actually drop the object and turn inward, so one of the terms that you sometimes hear for this is introspection, it's like looking in, which is what introspection means and while some people say that's how we notice we're distracted in mindfulness styles of meditation, in the tradition we're talking about here, the non-dual traditions, that doesn't make sense, because the idea here is that there's actually an aspect of our awareness, an ongoing aspect of our awareness, which is already constantly giving us information about the quality of awareness without disrupting the focus of awareness, so let me kind of give you some ways of thinking, some examples of what that's like, so one example is to say that, so part of what this does by the way is that it's giving you kind of information not about the object, so there's an aspect of your awareness that's giving you information not about the object but about everything else that's happening, and you're aware of all of that other stuff but you're not aware of it explicitly, you're not like making a judgment about it, while I'm on my breath I may make judgments about my breath or while I'm focusing on anything I may say oh that's good or that's bad or I'd like this I don't like that, but at the same time there's all other kinds of information that are being presented along with that, so a quick example is let's say you know we're here in Santa Barbara and I'm sure there's some spectacular moments with the sun here, and let's say we have one of those moments you know standing on the beach, the sun is there just over the horizon, spectacularly beautiful amazing colors and you know we're standing there together and then I say we turn around you know maybe we're gonna head back and grab a cup of tea or something head back into the studio here and have a cup of tea, and then I say to you wow that was an amazing sunset wasn't it, and you say yes fantastic and we're both kind of you know completely absorbed in it at the time, and I say to you you know you were so absorbed in that sunset do you know how you felt about it I mean what did it feel like? Do you then have to go back to the beach and say you say wait a second I was paying attention to the sunset I wasn't paying attention to my feelings so I got to go back to the beach I need to look at the sun and then I got to quickly check inward to see how I'm feeling is that how it works?

Or is the memory of your emotional state already included in the experience? Even though you weren't paying attention to it even though you weren't introspecting you weren't looking in you have this kind of access to all of that information about your feelings especially if they're strong without having to turn in while you're focused on the sunset at the same time here's another example let's say you know a less pleasant example something terrifying happens I don't know again we get the proverbial bus is bearing down on you you jump out of the way and then I say whoa were you scared when that was happening and you say oh I don't know I was just paying attention to the bus I have no idea whether I was scared let me go in front of the bus again I wouldn't recommend that but you know it's check how I feel if you're checking if you have to check how you're feeling like are you afraid if you don't what does fear do for you as an emotion like as we said before pain and various kinds of emotions are part of what they're doing is they're signaling the need to change right so if you're like need to check whether your fear is telling you a clear single like oh you're probably been on over by the bus that takes way too much cognitive time and energy instead it's simultaneously presented with that experience you see the bus and your fear is part of the experience you know it without having to take it as an object and then maybe the best example in some ways is the example of lucid dreaming it's not something that everyone's had but if you've had a lucid dream one of the features of a lucid dream that's really interesting is that if you actually attend to the dream so if when you first notice a lucid dream you first notice that you're dreaming but then there are dream practices in the Tibetan Buddhism we call this like catching the dream Milam Zimba so when you first catch the dream when you first notice that you're dreaming one of the things that can happen is you can wake up right away why would that happen because you actually focus on your mind as dreaming and since your attention on the dream is what sustains that keeps the dream going the dream stops because you're not paying attention to the dream anymore now you're paying attention to your mind as a dreaming mind but good lucid dreamers recognize that they can still be attending to the dream and still and know or have the feeling you can say of being in the dream so in other words without losing focus on the dream as an object they simultaneously are aware of the fact that they're dreaming but that kind of awareness is not an awareness which is a judgment like this is that you know I see in a dream you know I see let's say I'm dreaming right now and I see the dream camera right but my awareness of being in a dream is not like that it's not like I am in a dream because again if I do that I lose focus on the dream so it's a way it presents an awareness to us that is in a sense about the whole background of our experience even while we're focused on an object a final example that's very simple example is if I say if I give you a little time stamp you know here we go ready one two three boom I give you that little time stamp and then I say to you so when you when that sound happened what body position were you in presumably hopefully you were paying attention to me into this sound right you weren't paying attention to your body position but your body position is included in your memory of that moment it's not like you didn't know whether you were standing up or lying down or walking or sitting right or even more so if I say were you the one that heard it or was it somebody else that sense of being the listener so to speak is also presented through this same kind of facility the sense of your subjectivity if you like of being the one that's listening being the one that's seeing so all of that is presented by what we can call meta awareness and actually this is a kind of bigger topic than just the term some Virginia we mentioned to you it's related to something much larger which we will get to later a little bit at least called reflexive awareness or self-awareness but for now the key issue and what we need to appreciate here in the practice of mindfulness is that what this means is that while I'm focused on my breath I can also be noticing the quality of my awareness how my awareness is is it tight is it loose am I tired am I lucid or am I dull so let's try that for a moment just let's just settle for a moment again just allow the mind to settle on the breath to ride on the breath don't fixate on the breath no need to focus hard and now as if out the corner of your eye can you attend to simply notice keep the awareness on the breath but simply notice how is it without making a judgment or an evaluation tight or loose tired or intense perhaps you can see how that might make sense how that could work so this capacity for meta awareness is actually as it turns out very important in the practice of the bodhisattva and indeed in many other contexts as well as some indication that when we have deficits with meta awareness this is maybe the deficits of meta awareness may be part of what in a sense leads to some other issues with psychological difficulties so for example if I'm in a conversation this is kind of you know an academic danger let me tell you and I'm certainly been guilty of this I can be in a in a conversation with someone and it's you know maybe getting intense and we're debating about something and I'm like I don't even notice that they're getting irritated or I'm getting irritated I don't notice the whole context I'm so focused on the particular object right which is the debate so to speak or the line of reasoning that I don't notice the background and then maybe by the end of it I've won the argument but I've lost a friend why does that happen because in a sense that meta awareness which is which is informing me about all of that emotional information is sort of not is quite weak in that context so what then helps us to enhance this meta awareness so this is one of the things that we can really train we can train that capacity to become less distracted where we are not pulled by objects so much right but also almost more importantly we can train the capacity to notice distraction when it's happening so that we can respond appropriately and with that comes noticing not just distraction but so much more like our emotional states so that the training in this very basic kind of mindfulness practice that we're doing which eventually is going to become full-blown settling the mind and we're going to get there we're actually going to learn a style of meditation that doesn't have any object at all actually but we'll get there but even for now just settling the mind on the breath and noticing that background opening up to that background is already training that meta awareness because part of what that's also doing is and here's the thing why when I'm in that debate right and I'm really focused and I'm like focused on the line of reasoning and this large this step needs to this step and here's the logic that what how would you characterize that way of being is it a little fixated is it a little grasping you could say that fixation and meta awareness are like orthogonal to each other they are in one way you can have lots of fixation and maybe a lot of meta awareness but much more likely it seems like they are inverse to each other the more meta awareness you have the less likely it is you are to have fixation the more fixation you have the less likely you are to have meta awareness so that fixation is what in a sense can be blocking it would seem meta awareness so part of what that means is part of the way we can be working with our tendencies to grasp to get stuck is just by cultivating more meta awareness actually very straightforward and how do we do that we do that with styles of practice that are not so much about focusing on the object we give the mind an object because it wants an object as we said as we discovered when we did that exercise with the eyes right the mind wants to select objects so we give it an object like the breath you can do that with the visual object too if you like actually but then what we actually in a sense reserve most of our cognitive mojo if you like most of our cognitive capacity for is that awareness of the background right is that full awareness of not what I'm paying attention to but how I am paying attention to it so this is like a really great way to develop something that in very practical terms is a good way to counteract some of our grasping some of our fixation that style of practice a style of practice which opens us up to that matter awareness actually probably it would seem at least my colleagues and I think that every style of mindfulness has to cultivate this to some extent because you wouldn't be able to notice your own distraction without disrupting the focus if mindfulness at least some styles of mindfulness are very much about focusing on objects but if I if I had could only notice my distraction by taking the focus away and turning inward then you know I'm going to how am I going to develop focus so there must be even in other styles of mindfulness that are much more about focusing on objects and really kind of examining them very very in fine finely grained way even there it seems like there must be this kind of matter when it sets acting as a kind of monitoring function we monitor in a sense the background how are we doing it's even said that very advanced practitioners and many different styles of mindfulness can notice that they're about to be distracted even before they get distracted so it seems that mindfulness meditations of all kinds cultivate matter awareness but especially those kinds that are not so much about like focusing strongly on objects that just maybe use an object to sort of rest the mind as an anchor and then sometimes as we will see later even letting go of any object and just being with that matter awareness so that's certainly a way of cultivating and increasing our capacity for matter awareness which it looks like really is like it just kind of directly counteracts our tendencies to fixate but there are other there's another feature of mindfulness that's really important here that we we mentioned at the beginning which is heedfulness and in a sense there there's a lot to heedfulness it has to do a lot also with sort of ethical behavior and we're gonna be talking about that too but there's one way of thinking about heedfulness or upper motto that's kind of very straightforward it just means holding a task in mind now the reality is we're never just holding one task in mind and it's not even we in a way it's like the organism remember we had that thing about the loud sound and attention capture if there's a loud sound it's gonna capture attention because as my old friend David Meyer scientist University of Michigan likes to say we have one basic task which is the task of life so that's one of our tasks that's kind of going on like surviving you know and if that's if something relevant to that comes up we're gonna pay attention to it but we have lots of other tasks too so for example let's go back to that moment let's say being in a conversation with someone maybe even in a debate with someone and one of my tasks in that conversation could be to win the debate but what if one of my tasks is also to notice how I'm debating or even to cultivate my relationship with that person so now we have like competing tasks we've got the task of life you know we've got maybe the task of speaking English correctly and maybe we've got the task of debating in the task of maintaining relationships and we have all these different tasks and part of what upper mod is about is kind of saying what's the important task here or maybe what's the couple of important tasks here so in mindfulness meditation remember we have the distinction between the formal session right the formal session and the between session so in mindfulness meditation especially in this style maybe in every style but especially in this style one of the main tasks is just to be not distracted that's it so just don't be distracted when the mind and of course distraction will happen right but the task therefore with that task in mind so let's say let me back up for a second and say this let's say I don't know I am I'm making spaghetti and one of my main tasks in making spaghetti here is to not make it too salty because I've got a friend you know who's got issues with blood pressure or something so I get to the point where I'm supposed to add some salt and I'm going to be very careful about that there's lots of other things I have to pay attention to when I'm making spaghetti but I'm going to be especially careful about how I'm salting that right it's like the primary task so in the context of mindfulness maybe all of them but especially this style the primary task is to be not distracted that's all it's about and since that's my primary task just like when I'm making spaghetti if I accidentally start to put in too much salt I'm sure going to notice it right because it's important otherwise maybe making it normally I just sort of grab some salt throw it in now you know if I take the salt and it starts to spill or something I'm really going to pay attention to that because it's important so in mindfulness practice when I'm saying the main task is not to be distracted then when distractions happen that means meta awareness my capacity to notice how things are going is really going to catch it because that's my main task my main task is not to focus on an object my main task in a sense is to notice distraction so so even though my goal here is to not be distracted I know I'm going to be distracted but because my task is to not be distracted it primes me to notice distraction when it happens I know I'm going to be distracted but because the goal is to not be distracted I'm going to notice distraction when it happens which means that in a kind of ironic way the instruction don't pay attention to something else which is what it means to be not distracted actually really what it really enhances is not your focus on an object it enhances your awareness the kind of awareness that notices distraction that meta awareness and that's going to be key in this style of practice truly key but that of course is during the session between the session is going to be something else right between sessions if it's merely a matter of being undistracted well then yeah I could be for example in that debate with my with my colleague and if all it is a matter of just don't be distracted from the main line of argument then you know I could still lose a friend I can notice when I'm distracted from the main line of reasoning and I've still lost a friend so when we're in between sessions then there's going to be much more to the life the awakening life the life of the bodhisattva than just being undistracted we'll be exploring those next time but one way of thinking about this something more is that it is not just about being undistracted it's actually about kind of creating a certain kind of world or maybe telling a different kind of story if you like this will be you could say the heedfulness of the bodhisattva is the heedfulness of one who is remaking the world not just on one's own but together with others to end now let's just settle again for a few minutes in this style of meditation and we're going to start with a little bit of a toward the end of this short session maybe we'll try a little bit of something where you might say kind of we're going to move back from the object and I encourage you to be practicing whenever you can it can just be a few minutes doesn't have to be long several times a day is ideal even just a minute and let's just settle now that sense of being effortlessly held by the earth stability alertness and just allow the mind to have an object it wants to focus on something so give it a breath and then just watch it as a thought happens if it captures your attention simply see it notice it as a thought come back to the breath and again as if the corner of your eye noticing aware of how the awareness is how the body is the mind settled on the breath your meta awareness aware of everything else and now for just a moment perhaps as if your breath is like a boy floating in the water just sort of gently move away let go let go even of the breath and still be aware not lost see you next time.


Kate M
1 person likes this.
Buddhism has travelled to many different cultures through time... and I wonder if "mindfulness" is a particularly contemporary iteration of Buddhism - ? It seems to strip the practice down to its essentials. Quite unlike Tibetan Buddhism, which, to my mind, presents as more complex, with Tara, and all the Boddhisattvas. A very rich and unique cultural expression of Buddhism...
Kira Sloane
Kate, check out the Meet John episode, he talks all about how Buddhism has transformed with every culture it meets. And this article is fantastic. xok
Kate M
1 person likes this.
Kira Sloane thank you for the links! I totally will check these out : )
Tracy C
Hi John.... Can I ask what the opening and closing "chants" mean? If you have the time I would be interested to know. Thanks again....Cheers!
Tracy C , I think that translations of the chants are available, but Kira Sloane will be able to answer that question better than me. If Kira has no translations, I can send some. Thanks for asking.
Elizabeth M
Hi, Tracy C! You can now find a pdf of the chants attached to each course day where John recites them.  Thank you for bringing this to our attention!  🙏 
Tracy C
1 person likes this.
Hi Elizabeth, Thanks so much for the translations, Super kind indeed. May this find you well.... Cheers!!

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