Making the Seven Factors of Awakening work for you
(This week's article is based on a paper by Jud Brewer, Jake Davis and Joseph Goldstein. To read the paper in full, click here.)
A very common way to teach mindfulness to beginners goes something like this:
'Bring your attention to the physical sensations of your breath. Each time you notice that the mind has wandered, bring it gently back to the breath.'
This is a reasonable instruction - it's one I've given myself - but new meditators in particular really struggle with it. The mind doesn't want to stay on the breath! It just keeps wandering! It's maddening! Maybe I'm just not cut out for this? Maybe I can't meditate? And so the teacher duly explains that this happens to everyone, it's a natural experience, just part of the practice. It might even be explained as a good thing - 'each time you bring the attention back, you're strengthening the muscle of attention, training the mind to focus better'. Again, this is an explanation I've given myself; sometimes it works, sometimes I get the sceptical side-eye that tells me that I'm probably not going to see that student again.
Can we do better? Maybe! At least, Jud Brewer thinks so - and he suggests that we can find a way to do so right there in the earliest teachings of the historical Buddha, 2,500 years ago. Let's take a look.
The Seven Factors of Awakening
It's a standard joke that early Buddhism is full of lists. Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Five Aggregates, Three Characteristics... and Seven Factors of Awakening.
I've encountered a few different explanations of the Seven Factors of Awakening, but never really saw the point until I read Jud's paper - it always just seemed like a big list of stuff to me, and it wasn't clear how to practise with it. Here's the list:
OK - it's a nice list, but so what? Mindfulness and concentration are things we can cultivate; piti and equanimity are both associated with jhana practice, so maybe that's something to do with it; investigation is part of insight practice... but it doesn't seem all that coherent at a first glance.
Some teachers like to carve the list up into 'energising factors' - investigation, energy and joy - and 'calming factors' - tranquillity, concentration and equanimity - with the seventh, mindfulness, as a kind of 'balancing factor'. The idea is that your practice should strike a balance between energy and tranquillity - too much energy and you'll get too distracted or worked up to meditate, too much tranquillity and you'll fall asleep or drift in dullness until the end of the sitting.
But what happens if, instead, we consider not just the elements of the list, but the order they come in? What if this is actually a practice map?
Seven Steps to Awakening
Think of an activity that you enjoy doing for its own sake - something that you can get absorbed into for long periods. Maybe that's reading a book, maybe playing a video game, maybe going for a long walk in nature. I'll use the example of reading a book because I like books, but please make the appropriate substitution if you aren't really a book person (and thank you for reading this far!).
To start off, you need some mindfulness to get going. If you're completely caught up in planning, worrying, storms of anger or whatever, you probably won't even see the words on the page, let alone be able to take them in. So establishing a basic level of present-moment attention is the starting point for any activity.
Next, we have to take an interest in what's going on - we have to want to know what the book says. (If it's a book we don't care about at all, it'll be really hard to motivate ourselves to read it - you've almost certainly had that experience in an educational context at some point...) So we need some basic curiosity. Either we have it already - maybe that's why we picked the book - or we have to take an interest in the subject, to find a way to understand its relevance to ourselves. Otherwise we probably won't get past the first page.
Let's say we manage this, and we start reading. Our interest in the material is sufficient to keep us going - and, after a while, this interest becomes self-sustaining. We find the energy to keep going - we're motivated to keep turning the pages, because the book is relevant to our interests.
As we get more and more into what we're reading, the activity starts to become more openly rewarding. It's more than just interesting - we're getting something out of the experience, and so we start to enjoy it. Reading time becomes something we look forward to.
When we enjoy doing something, it's easy to do it for longer and longer stretches of time. Our body and mind naturally settle into the activity, relaxing and becoming tranquil as we continue with the enjoyable activity of reading.
As the body and mind become tranquil, we become more and more focused on what we're reading. If the material has particularly captured our attention, we may find that we can stay focused on it even in busy environments, like a noisy coffee shop or a bustling train.
And as the concentration deepens, we become imperturbable. No matter what happens around us, our focus is absolute - we no longer need to worry about what's going on because it no longer disturbs us at all.
The crucial role of motivation in practice
Let's go back to that basic meditation instruction. Pay attention to the breath, and bring the attention back whenever the mind wanders away. But it's really hard! Why? Because the breath is boring! It comes in, it goes out, it comes in again... it doesn't take long to figure the thing out. We don't have any motivation to watch the breath (apart from 'because the teacher said so', but who cares what the teacher thinks?), so it's very difficult to find the energy required to stay with this boring, unpleasant practice for any period of time.
More generally, I've noticed that one of the biggest obstacles for new meditators is finding the motivation to keep going. Meditation is hard work! And, to make matters worse, it takes time for the benefits to show themselves. One approach is to commit to doing a ton of practice - perhaps practising half an hour a day for 100 days, which is a traditional standard in the Zen world. If you can do that, you'll see benefits for sure, and then it becomes easier to motivate yourself to keep going. But it's a big 'if'.
Another approach - the one I take in my free book Pathways of Meditation - is to expose beginners to a wide range of different practices straight off the bat, showcasing the different things meditation practice can do for us, in the hope that one or more of the approaches strike a chord. It's also the same reason why I write these articles, and why I teach my Wednesday night class - not because my words have a magic power to enlighten you, but in the hope that by sharing all the cool stuff I've come across in my own practice, some of it will spark off some interest in you as well. If something jumps out at you as being interesting and worth pursuing - so the theory goes - you'll be much more motivated to keep at it. I see motivation and energy ('viriya' in the Seven Factors of Awakening) as two sides of the same coin. If you're motivated to do something, you'll find the energy to do it. If you aren't, you won't.
The basic point here is that if we can establish some interest in the meditation, the subsequent stages of the practice will take care of themselves. If we can approach our practice as a mixture of mindfulness and investigation - of curiosity, exploration, or simply wanting to know what it's all about - we will eventually arrive at concentration, as the sixth step of the list.
So how do we generate that interest in the practice? Ultimately, I think this is something you have to figure out for yourself. Jud suggests modifying the standard mindfulness instructions to suggest approaching the breath with a sense of curiosity, but honestly that instruction has always left me pretty cold. If someone wasn't already curious about the breath, I'm not sure they will be just because I tell them to be - the 'Who cares?' argument still stands.
Indeed, Zen master Bankei was highly critical of some of the methods used by Zen teachers of his era, which he saw as attempting to conjure up a fake sense of 'doubt'. He likened it to a monk pretending to have lost his surplice (a kind of base-layer in the Zen robes). When you're a monk, you only get the one surplice, so if you lose it, you're going to search and search and search until you find it again, otherwise your life is going to be very uncomfortable. But if you're just pretending to have lost it, you're probably not going to keep pretend-searching for it when you get tired, hot and bored.
Ultimately, you need an authentic reason to take up meditation practice. I've written before about the importance of figuring out your motivation. Read books, watch videos, look up different teachers, and find out what clicks with you! Once you have a sense of what draws you to the practice, you'll find it much easier to generate those early Factors of Awakening - you'll have a reason to investigate your experience, and a motivation that can provide the energy needed to keep going. And once you have those in place, all the other benefits of practice - joy, peace of mind and, yes, even concentration - will follow along naturally, in their own time. If you take care of your motivation, the rest will take care of itself.
Taking an interest in the breath
Getting back to the specific example of the breath, here are some suggestions that may help to make it a more interesting experience for you. (If you'd rather find your own way, of course, go for it - in the long run that will probably work much better for you than using my ideas.)
If the breath is just 'in, out, in, out', that probably won't hold your attention for long. So break it into smaller pieces. The in-breath has a beginning, middle and end. How are they different? How do you know you're at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end? Is the out-breath the same way? What happens in between the in-breath and out-breath?
Continuing down the deconstructive road, what are the actual micro-sensations that make up each part of the breath? How many sensations are there? How many can you perceive clearly without it turning into a mush?
If micro-sensations are not your bag, you could instead look at the rise and fall of the breath and the constant flux of sensations as a flow, like an ocean wave. Can you feel deeply into this flow, ride it up and down, really get a sense of the constant motion of the sensory experience?
Another option is to look at adjacent pairs of breaths. Is every in-breath the same length, or are some shorter and some longer? Is the current in-breath a short one or a long one, and at what point can you tell how long it is? Of course you can also do this with out-breaths, but you can also compare the in-breath to the out-breath. Is one consistently shorter than the other, or does it change?
Where are you feeling the breath, specifically? How big an area are you focused on? What shape is your attention? Is it fixed, or does it change? What happens when you get distracted, when your attention moves away from the breath entirely?
These are just some ideas - I'm sure you can come up with more. So play around with it - take an interest in the process of taking an interest! And see if you don't end up really pretty concentrated on the breath - but as a side effect of the mindful investigation of the breath, rather than as the 'goal' of the practice. See how you get on!
The Zen practice of koan study
A monk asked Yun Men, 'What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?'
Yun Men replied, 'An appropriate response.'
-Blue Cliff Record, case 14.
The essence of Zen is questioning
One of the most well-known practices of Zen is its use of koans - typically presented as illogical riddles designed to frustrate the thinking mind. That's one way to look at them, but it's perhaps more helpful to think of a koan as a kind of question - an inquiry which, if pursued deeply enough, can lead us to profound breakthroughs and realisations which change the way we see the world. Each koan represents a pivotal encounter, and we are invited to use it in order to reach a pivotal experience of our own.
All modern Japanese Rinzai Zen lineages (as far as I know!) descend from the 18th century Zen master Hakuin, who revitalised a tradition which had been in decline for some time. One of Hakuin's principal achievements was to take the vast body of koan literature and organise it into a curriculum, with koans grouped into various categories according to their purpose and the stage of training for which they're most appropriate. This is a powerful approach - my own Zen teacher has said that the Japanese Rinzai Zen curriculum is a remarkably complete approach to contemplative practice, one which leaves no stone unturned and ultimately provides a thorough education not just in coming to one's own realisation but also in being able to communicate it to others.
Korean and Chinese Zen take a different approach, in which typically a student will work with a single koan for life. Perhaps this seems limited compared to the comprehensive syllabus of the Japanese approach. But it works, and the fact that it works tells us something important about koan practice. It can be tempting to see each koan as a kind of puzzle which, once solved, has nothing more to tell us - so we move on to the next, and the next, and at some point we finish the syllabus and we're done.
Really, though, the essence of the koan - and, I would suggest, of contemplative practice in general - is not so much the answers that come to us, but the questioning itself. Engaging with a koan requires us to put down our preconceived ideas - what we 'know' about Zen practice, what we 'expect' to find, what 'makes sense' and what is 'nonsense'. Koan practice requires us to let go of our certainty, and enter what is traditionally called the Great Doubt.
Great doubt, great awakening; no doubt, no awakening
The idea of 'Great Doubt' can sometimes be puzzling or even unappealing, and it can be a little confusing for people who have been exposed to the early Buddhist list of Five Hindrances - five obstacles to contemplative practice, the fifth of which is often simply given as 'doubt'. In early Buddhism, this doubt is seen as something to be overcome, rather than something to be actively cultivated.
But the doubt of the Hindrances is what's called 'sceptical doubt' - a lack of confidence in oneself, in the teacher or in the teaching, an insidious doubt that undermines our willingness to commit to the practice. This is not the kind of doubt that Zen is talking about - and, in fact, Zen also talks about 'Great Faith' as an antidote to this kind of lack of confidence.
Rather, Zen's Great Doubt is about having the willingness to make a leap of faith - to step beyond the confines of our familiar ways of looking at the world, our need for certainty. The idea of letting go of fixed views and thereby finding freedom goes back to the very earliest teachings of the historical Buddha; that theme was picked up and further elaborated by the 2nd/3rd century CE Mahayana teacher Nagarjuna, and it continued to flourish as the Zen tradition came into existence in the 5th century. Modern-day teacher Stephen Batchelor describes the purpose of koan practice as 'burning away the habit of finding answers', and instead resting in the feeling of uncertainty - bafflement, astonishment, even awe.
Dead words and live words
When we first take up a koan, we can't help but approach it on a conceptual level. We might work with a whole koan, trying to understand the entire story, or we might be invited to focus just on the pithy essence of the story - a short phrase or question which we are invited to investigate. Either way, though, the koan is presented to us in the form of words - words which represent shared concepts that we can use for communication. As such, the exploration of a koan typically starts on the conceptual level - we think about the question, we come up with ideas, we mull it over and try to get to the bottom of it in the way that we normally do when faced with any question or puzzle in life.
After some time, though, this approach runs out of steam - the question seems to lose all meaning. The words become nonsensical; we feel that we've explored every possible avenue, looked at the problem from every angle, and nothing makes sense any more. In the Zen tradition, this is called the stage where the question becomes 'colourless'. Now, further progress seems impossible, because there's nothing left to investigate - and yet we're asked to find a way to keep moving forward anyway.
In the Korean Zen tradition, they talk about 'dead words' and 'live words' as different stages of working with a koan. You might think that the words of the koan are 'live' at the beginning, then become 'dead' when they reach this latter stage of 'colourlessness' - but actually it's the other way around. In the beginning, the words are dead, because we're still approaching the question on the level of concepts - the same old concepts we had before we took up the koan. Nothing new has happened yet; we're just juggling our concepts around, trying to find an arrangement that makes sense of the puzzle.
Concepts are basically abstractions - a way of taking the full complexity of a living, breathing animal and boiling it down to the three-letter word 'dog'. Concepts are really useful because they reduce the amount of detail that we have to navigate in the world, and they're reusable, so we can apply this one word 'dog' to all sorts of dogs, not just a particular Golden Retriever called Snuffles. But the more abstract the concept becomes, the more specificity and richness is lost from the actual experience - the dynamic, vibrant, ever-changing reality is frozen in place, tagged with a label, and then forgotten.
So it's only when our concepts cease to be of value - when our question becomes colourless, when all the meaning drains out of it - that we move beyond the dry, sterile framework of 'dead words'. What lies beyond that is, by definition, impossible to articulate conceptually - the very attempt to do so immediately loses the essence of the experience. Nevertheless, it can be experienced - and this is the realm of 'live words', the realm of Great Doubt.
Facing the great questions of our lives
So which question should we take up? Well, traditionally in Rinzai Zen the teacher will assign a koan for you to work with, drawn from one of the many koan collections that have come together through the centuries.
Another approach is simply to see what our personal questions are - what is it that we want to know? The great Rinzai Zen master Bankei was actually quite critical of formal koan study, which he regarded as an attempt to 'fake' a doubt that wasn't really there - but his own life of practice was driven by a quest to understand a line from a Confucian classic: 'The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue.' It could be said that all of his years of travel and study were his way of exploring this question. Similarly, we could see the historical Buddha's entire teaching as coming out of his investigation of the question of suffering - why we suffer, and what could be done about it. Stephen Batchelor has pointed out that there's a great tendency to focus on the answers to these questions - the specific practices and methods developed by the great masters, the language those teachers used to express their own personal revelations to others - but actually what is perhaps more useful for each of us is to go through our own personal process of questioning.
We can even see the approach of koan study as a way of life - one which is based in continual engagement, never-ending exploration and questioning, not content to settle on dogmatic answers or stale, rigid ways of being in the world, not blindly accepting someone else's 'truth' just because it seems to work for them, but instead continuing, moment by moment, to inquire into this moment, to see what - in the words of Yun Men, constitutes an 'appropriate response' to the situation at hand.
What is your appropriate response, right now?
Taking a look at Buddhism's central promise
At the heart of Buddhism is the idea of awakening, or enlightenment. The basic idea is that the practices of Buddhism lead to a fundamental shift in the way you experience the world, with the result that life is immeasurably better thereafter. But what changes, and how?
Liberation from suffering in early Buddhism
A key concept in the Pali canon - the earliest records we have of the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived roughly 2,500 years ago - is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. These encapsulate what is usually seen as the central problem that Buddhism intends to address:
You'll find different translations and interpretations, but the gist is generally pretty straightforward - life sucks, but the Buddha found a way out of life's suckitude, and if you follow the Eightfold Path then sooner or later your life won't suck any more either.
Early Buddhism elaborates the path of awakening by describing ten 'fetters' which are progressively 'unbound' through practice. Along the way to full awakening - becoming an 'arahant', a 'worthy one' - you'll overcome sensual desire, ill will, restlessness and ignorance. Finally, you achieve nibbana (aka nirvana, not to be confused with the grunge band), which literally means something like 'blowing out', like a candle flame.
The 'candle flame' analogy also works nicely with another central teaching in early Buddhism, that of the 'three fires' of greed, hatred and confusion. Through practice, we extinguish these fires, and as a result we come to see the world with their opposites, generosity, compassion and wisdom.
So far, so good. But what does it actually look like to 'extinguish' greed, hatred and confusion?
What does it mean to be 'free' of something?
Freedom means different things to different people.
Some - particularly orthodox Theravada teachers - would say that when one of the fetters is overcome, it's totally destroyed, eradicated, finito - so, for example, when you overcome the fetter of ill will, you will never experience ill will ever again, for the rest of time. If you do find even the tiniest flicker of ill will - oops, you weren't as enlightened as you thought, better keep practising.
This is a very high standard. For some of us, this is very motivational - it suggests that the outcome of truly devoted practice is extraordinary, and we can feel blessed even to have the good fortune to have encountered the teachings and to know that such things are possible. We can also look to real-life examples of deeply committed practitioners who are able to bear remarkable levels of suffering with profound equanimity - for example, when my teacher's teacher, Ayya Khema, was dying of cancer, she maintained a remarkable and inspiring peace of mind, calmness and clarity throughout the process.
On the other hand, for some of us this kind of ideal can be quite unhelpful. As I mentioned in last week's article, there's a fine line between working skilfully with difficult emotions and simply suppressing them, and if our idea of success is to have completely extinguished all negative states then that's a recipe for suppression. Alternatively, perhaps we regard the goal as unachievable - maybe it's something that monastic practitioners can achieve, but daily life is sufficiently intense, busy and triggering that it seems there's no hope of totally eliminating our reactivity. Or maybe it's actually unattractive to us - we value the richness of our emotional life, and what's being described sounds worryingly close to becoming an emotionless robot who is only capable of experiencing a bland, tepid neutrality all day long.
Another interpretation of 'freedom' is that the condition may still arise, but it no longer has power over us. Someone cuts us off in traffic, and we experience a surge of anger - but that anger is seen for what it is, and we can allow it to arise, be experienced and then pass away again, without the anger forcing us to act in a certain way. This type of freedom is not so much about eliminating anything as giving us the choice about whether or not to participate in it.
This type of freedom is what tends to be found in Zen, where there's a strong emphasis on having a full emotional range, rather than being what my teacher Daizan calls a 'good little Buddhist' who is always buttoned up, well-behaved and never deviating from the straight and narrow. In Zen, emotions - even the 'negative' ones - are seen as something to be included in the practice, rather than something to be eliminated.
In fact, Zen goes as far as to say that achieving permanent nirvana is not the goal of the practice - actually, the experience of nirvana is merely a way-station on a much longer journey. The peace of mind of nirvana is certainly a worthwhile experience, but the ultimate aim of Zen practice is to help us live a fully engaged life, not simply 'extinguish' ourselves.
Experiencing moments of freedom
Let's go back to the three 'fires' - greed, hatred and confusion. We've all had experiences of acting from a place of one (or more!) of these three, and we would probably admit that these were not our wisest actions in retrospect.
On the other hand, we've all had experiences of their opposites as well - acting from a place of generosity, compassion, and wisdom - and I'm willing to bet that these were happier, more fulfilling experiences. We could look at experiences like these as moments of freedom - moments of nirvana.
The three fires typically arise in the form of reactivity - an instinctive grasping, pushing away, or misunderstanding of what's going on. (This is what's meant by 'craving' in the Second Noble Truth - the urge to act in a certain way which arises in response to a situation.) By cultivating mindfulness, presence and open-heartedness, we develop the ability to see that reactivity arise and then let go of it, without being compelled to act on it, making space for a wiser response to the situation. Over time, we find that more and more of our behaviour comes from a place of generosity, compassion and wisdom - the moments of nirvana come more frequently and last longer. This type of freedom profoundly enriches our lives, without requiring us to eliminate or suppress anything - a moment of freedom is a moment of freedom, even if it's the only one we've had all week. Nirvana then becomes not a permanent resting place - retiring to the beach with a deck-chair and waiting for your life to come to its end - but a powerful support for a life of action.
A classic Zen practice which cultivates this very directly is 'just sitting' (also known as shikantaza, Silent Illumination, resting in the Unborn, and various other names). In this practice, you simply sit, aware of whatever comes and goes, without pushing away or grabbing onto anything - in other words, the direct experience of non-reactivity. The great 13th century Zen master Dogen went as far as to say that this kind of practice is enlightenment, and that there is no other liberation than this.
So why wait? Experience nirvana today! You can find a guided shikantaza practice on my Audio page to get you started. Enjoy!
"Avoid evil, do good, and purify the mind." -Dhammapada
My teacher's teacher on the Theravada side, Ayya Khema, liked to say that 'A moment of samadhi is a moment of purification.' But what does this mean - what's being purified, how does it work, and why would you want to do it anyway?
In order to explore this, we'll first look at a central feature of meditation which often surprises people at first, and can make us wonder if we're doing something wrong. (Spoiler alert: you're probably not.)
'Help! My practice is going wrong!'
It's a pretty common experience for first-time retreatants. We've come on retreat to experience peace of mind, serenity, deep states of bliss and love - and all we can think about is difficult relationships, unpleasant events from our childhood, our deepest resentments, fears and sources of shame. To make matters worse, everyone else seems to be sitting there peacefully, probably totally blissed out, while we can't even manage to focus on the breath for more than five seconds without yet another irritation surfacing.
Another way it can happen is in the course of daily life practice. Maybe your daily sit has been in a bit of a holding pattern lately - fairly stable, fairly peaceful, nothing special but it seems to be going OK. Then something difficult happens at work, or in your family, or maybe there's no obvious trigger at all - but suddenly your time on the cushion becomes excruciating, a never-ending stream of mind-wandering through difficult, unpleasant thoughts and memories. It seems like you've totally forgotten how to meditate - last week you could stay on the breath pretty well, but now you're lucky if you even remember to start meditating - some days you just spend twenty minutes straight raging away to yourself.
Actually, although it might not seem that way, nothing is going wrong. This is an important (perhaps essential) part of the process - not the most pleasant part, for sure, but important nevertheless. Sooner or later, our difficult material will come up, and it's important to have some sense of what's going on and how to work with it.
Warning label: be careful with trauma
Before we go further, it's worth saying that not all 'difficult material' is created equal. For many of us, the vast majority of what comes up (maybe even all of it) can be worked with in meditation. However, for individuals with a history of serious trauma (what's being called 'big-T trauma' these days), meditation is actually often not a good idea. In this case, working with a qualified therapist or counsellor is really important to avoid re-traumatising yourself and compounding the problem. So if this is you, or you think it might be you, please consider speaking to someone about it, rather than just jumping in both feet first with meditation.
Two views of 'difficult material'
Traditional Buddhism talks a lot about karma. The Buddha talked about karma in terms of our intentional actions - the things we choose to do, the ways we choose to respond to situations in the world. If we repeatedly respond to situations with greed, hatred and confusion, we will come to see the world in greedy, hateful and confused terms, and gradually we will develop deep-rooted habitual tendencies in these directions. Conversely, if we respond from a place of generosity, compassion and wisdom, we will come to see the world more in those terms. Early Buddhism thus talks about overcoming the three kilesas ('poisons' or 'defilements'), greed, hatred and confusion, through the three trainings of ethics, meditation and wisdom, which equip us with the skills needed to live from a place of their antidotes, generosity, compassion and wisdom. This process of overcoming the kilesas is often called 'purification', as in the Dhammapada quotation at the top of this article.
The later Buddhist tradition develops a more elaborate view of the mind and karma, and begins to talk about 'karmic seeds' which are laid down in our 'storehouse consciousness'. The model is more detailed, but the basic idea is the same - whenever we do something, we plant a karmic seed in the storehouse, which sooner or later ripens into a positive or negative consequence. One of the goals of practice is thus to purify the storehouse - to 'burn up' or 'consume' the negative seeds, replacing them with positive ones.
Encountering difficult material in meditation practice is thus traditionally viewed in terms of dealing with our past karma. Because we have acted unskilfully in the past (perhaps even in a past life in the orthodox Buddhist view), we carry negative karma within us, and as this karma is being purified, we may experience unpleasant side effects, such as negative thoughts, emotions or memories coming up in practice.
Maybe the traditional Buddhist view works for you, maybe it doesn't. If not, it can be helpful to look at the difficult material that comes up in practice in terms of modern Western psychotherapy instead.
(Caveat: I am not a trained therapist, and what follows is likely to be a gross simplification. If you'd like to know more about this topic, I suggest Bruce Tift's excellent book 'Already Free'.)
Many experiences in our lives are hard for us to deal with, sometimes even overwhelming. This is especially true when we're young, and haven't yet developed our adult coping mechanisms, but even as adults we will often encounter very difficult situations. Sometimes, we will find ourselves experiencing feelings that are too much for us - more than we're willing, or perhaps able, to take on at that moment. So we might suppress what we're feeling, or distract ourselves, or get drunk or high.
However, although we might feel like we've dodged the bullet in the moment, this is often not quite true. Sometimes a fragment of the experience remains lodged in us. Sometimes experiences are unpleasant enough that our behaviour changes to try to avoid having similar experiences in the future - for example, perhaps we develop anxiety around particular types of situations, as a defence mechanism to try to prevent us from having to face that unpleasant situation ever again.
Ordinarily, a certain amount of effort is required to keep all this stuff below the surface. We live our lives at the surface level of our consciousness, with all this material firmly held down in the unconscious where we don't have to deal with it. However, when we meditate, our minds begin to relax - and the previously submerged material may start to float to the surface.
Why this is actually a good thing
Unpleasant as it often is, working with and resolving difficult material is actually of great benefit in the long run. Each person has their own reasons for meditating, and as we've previously discussed the intention you bring to your practice has a strong influence on the outcome. But for the sake of demonstration, let's look at a few different motivations for practice, and how the 'purification' process helps.
Perhaps you're interested in pursuing the Buddha's enlightenment for yourself. Well, the Buddha said that purifying the mind was an important step, so get to it!
Perhaps you're drawn to deep insights into emptiness, the nature of mind, non-duality and so on. You might even find that, if you have a very focused insight practice (e.g. working with a koan), you can have some deep insights without encountering too much psychological material along the way - you drill right the way down through the layers of mind and go straight to your Buddha Nature without hitting any obstacles along the way. Great! However, sooner or later, you'll find yourself wanting to integrate your insights into daily life, so you can live from a place of wisdom - it becomes increasingly frustrating to see yourself doing the same dumb things over and over even though you know better. As you start working with integration and daily life, you're going to start hitting difficult material - there's simply no way around it. The habitual patterns which continue to push us into making choices from ignorance rather than wisdom must ultimately be uprooted, and that means looking deeply into where they come from.
Perhaps you're interested in opening the heart - developing a deep, abiding sense of love and compassion that infuses every moment of your life. Well, a big part of Buddhist heart-opening practice is to make those qualities universal - so that you experience compassion for your worst enemy just as much as for your dearest friend. Working with difficult people can often be a significant trigger for unresolved psychological material - as you start to explore why it's so much easier to feel love for a friend than an enemy, you can't help but trip over your psychological stumbling blocks. Some people encounter this stuff even earlier, perhaps even the very first time you try to do loving-kindness or compassion meditation - maybe you find that you simply can't love yourself. If you want to progress with your practice, at some point you're going to have to look at why you can't love yourself, and if you pull on that thread long enough you'll find all kinds of interesting stuff lurking down in the depths.
Perhaps you just want peace of mind. Stillness, calmness, a refuge from life's busyness. An unfortunate irony of meditation practice is that orienting toward stillness is the most sure-fire way to bring up disturbing material, for the reason given above - in order to become still, you must relax the mind, and that means dropping your guard.
I could go on, but hopefully you get the point - no matter what you want from meditation, sooner or later you're going to run up against this stuff, and so it makes sense to know how to deal with it.
A moment of samadhi is a moment of purification
Going back to the Ayya Khema quotation that opened the article, one of the most effective ways for bringing this material up is the practice of samadhi.
In early Buddhism and the Theravada tradition that grew out of it, there's a strong emphasis on concentration practice, and in particular cultivating the jhanas, altered states of consciousness which can arise as a result of deeply concentrating the mind. (Ayya Khema was a strong proponent of the jhanas, as is my teacher Leigh Brasington.)
In the Tibetan tradition, and in some Zen lineages (including mine), we find 'inner fire' practices which serve the same purpose. (See, for example, Thubten Yeshe's 'The Bliss of Inner Fire' for a description of the Tibetan practice of tummo, or the Zenways course 'Deep Nourishment' for the Zen take on it.)
In both cases, the practice involves cultivating states which are intrinsically enjoyable or rewarding. It turns out that the mind likes to hang out in pleasant states, so, once we cultivate enough skill to get into these states, it's relatively easy to stay there for long periods. Gradually the mind settles and becomes still, creating the perfect environment for our submerged material to pop up into surface consciousness and - hopefully - be dealt with. The main drawback is that, when this happens, it feels like our samadhi practice is broken - previously we were enjoying these calm, blissful states, and now there's all this difficult stuff coming up instead.
What to do when difficult stuff comes up
(Please bear in mind the previous caveat about trauma. If really severe stuff is coming up, talk to a qualified therapist.)
The first, and most important, point to bear in mind when difficult material comes up is that this is part of the process. Nothing has gone wrong, you haven't forgotten how to meditate, please don't throw in the towel and take up mountain biking instead just yet.
My Zen teacher, Daizan, likes to say that our difficult memories and emotions can't be dealt with in the abstract. We can't just decide one morning 'Right, I've felt enough shame now, that's enough.' (Actually, if you were to try that, you'd almost certainly make matters worse, by deliberately setting out to push even more stuff into the unconscious.)
Instead, we can only deal with what actually comes up, as it comes up. Sometimes it can work to try to bring stuff up deliberately - for example, by looking at a particular behaviour pattern, trying to understand where it comes from, what's ultimately behind it, digging and digging until you reach its source. Increasing the amount of practice you're doing (either in daily life or by going on a retreat) can also bring stuff up faster. But you should also be aware that it may come up at any time, even when you aren't looking for it.
So how do we work with it when it arises?
The first key point is not to suppress it - at best, that's just delaying dealing with it, at worst you might be compounding the problem by feeding it with even more aversion. (Previously it was something you didn't want to feel - now it's something you really don't want to feel.)
The second key point is not to inflict it on the people around you. If difficult material is coming up, it'll probably make you feel crappy for a while. Be conscious of this, and be kind to the people around you. (It may help to let them know you're having a rough time at the moment.)
So if we don't suppress it and don't act it out, what else can we do?
The middle way in this case is to find a way to allow the difficult material to be felt and experienced. Somehow, we have to make a container for our experience which is spacious enough that it doesn't overwhelm us, but can instead simply play out, and ultimately resolve itself. (Daizan describes it as a process of allowing the snarled-up parts of ourselves to 'untwist' and release.)
There are a few ways to create this 'container'. Some teachers are very keen on one way of doing it, and very critical of other approaches. Personally, I've found value in each of them at different times, and would encourage you to explore for yourself and see what works for you, rather than looking for a One True Way.
The basic idea here is to look at what's going on in our direct experience, with a particular focus on the somatic level. When we 'feel shame' (for example), what do we feel in the body? Perhaps a heaviness in the chest, or a tightness in the facial muscles? See what it's like for you. Then, when you're in touch with what's going on, notice that, although it's an unpleasant experience (maybe extremely unpleasant), it isn't actually physically harming you. Although it's unpleasant, you're managing to feel this unpleasant feeling. You're working with it - it's workable. You don't need to push it away or pretend it isn't there - you can feel it, explore it, see what's going on, all the while recognising the unpleasantness of it, but no longer trying to push it away or hide from it.
Ayya Khema was a big fan of what she called 'substitution' - using positive thoughts and emotions to work with negative ones. If a particular experience is very hard to bear, it may help to reach for your metta or karuna practice and bring a quality of loving kindness or compassion to your experience. Imbuing your experience with even a hint of open-heartedness has a kind of 'softening' effect that can make difficult experiences much easier to bear.
If you have a strong insight practice, a third option is to use this as fuel for that practice. If you're looking at impermanence, notice the moment-to-moment arising and passing of the individual thoughts and body sensations that make up the emotion. If you're looking at non-self, notice that this experience is - just like any other thought - not me, not mine. If you're looking at emptiness, notice the emptiness of the emotion. And so on.
The three previous strategies can make difficult material much more palatable, but there's always a danger that they become a means of 'spiritual bypassing' - using spiritual techniques to avoid dealing with whatever we don't want to deal with. Now the precious opportunity to deal with our unresolved stuff has turned into yet another avoidance strategy, and it would have been better to do nothing at all rather than try to meditate our way out of the unpleasantness.
Sometimes we can find that any attempt to 'work with' a difficult experience just feels plain wrong to us. A few years ago a friend of mine died unexpectedly, and I had a pretty rough time with grief for a while afterwards. I actually went straight from his funeral to a ten-day meditation retreat - which I would not necessarily recommend doing - and it became immediately clear that grief was going to dominate the retreat for me. A couple of meditation teachers I knew suggested ways of working with the grief in my meditation practice, but it felt totally wrong to me - it seemed disrespectful to his memory to try to make myself feel better using a clever mental trick. In retrospect, I realised that whenever I was trying to 'work with' the grief, I had quite a strong thread of aversion to the grief wrapped up in what I was doing - part of me really wanted to play the spiritual bypassing card and just not deal with it at all. Fortunately I had just about enough wherewithal to realise on some level what was going on, hence the feelings of discomfort and wrongness whenever I would start to do that. Ultimately I spent a few days just sitting with it, not trying to do anything at all. Finally, something shifted just a little bit, and I was able to bring a tiny bit of self-compassion in to the experience, after which it got a lot easier. But it took those first few days to process enough of the grief that the compassion could be genuine, rather than an avoidance strategy.
This stuff is not easy. There's no simple trick to sort it all out every time. But, with time and patience, we can find our way through the maze of karmic baggage - and ultimately come out the other side, lighter, freer, and with a more open heart.
Why you don't need anything from me, or anyone else for that matter
Modern society is structured around a fundamental sense of lack. You might be happy if only you were thinner, younger, more attractive, had a bigger house or a better car, got that promotion at work, owned a George Foreman grill, etc. etc. - but you aren't, and you don't, and so you suck and deserve to be miserable. Well, who wants to be miserable? So we spend our days chasing around trying to get the things we feel we're lacking, or trying to compensate for them in other ways - either way, constantly circling this gnawing sense of inadequacy that our society is trying so very hard to train into us.
Fortunately, there's another option available to us.
Your true nature is Buddha Nature
In Rinzai Zen circles we talk a lot about kensho, 'seeing true nature'. The term is often used to refer to a shift in perception that comes about as a result of practice (e.g. when you 'break through' a koan such as 'Who am I?'), and is regarded as the start of the process of awakening. Another term for this true nature is Buddha Nature.
Early Buddhism tended to present awakening as something that you had to work up to. You started out as an 'uninstructed worldling', full of defilements and impurities, and through the course of the gradual path of training you would gradually work your way up the mountain, where the supreme enlightenment of the arahants waited for you at the top. This approach to practice makes a lot of conventional sense - we're starting out from a place of not knowing what the heck is going on, and we gradually train and practise, developing our meditation skills along the way, with the ultimate goal of reaping the benefits of that training. Viewed this way, the path is like learning to drive - we start out not able to drive, then we undertake the process to learn how, with a lot of help from a teacher, and eventually we reach the point where we can drive wherever we want to go, even in bad weather conditions.
However, there are some drawbacks to this view of the path, particularly for us modern folk. Notice how the above description plays perfectly into the narrative of lack. We start out by saying that you basically suck - you don't know how to meditate, you're full of defilements and impurities, you've got a whole mountain to climb before you have any hope of happiness - but luckily I can help, provided you're willing to donate generously to my teaching fund, of course! After just a few decades of regular donations, you'll be enjoying a basic sense of well-being, and - if you're good enough to make it into my inner circle - you can hang out with me at my solid gold house.
Perhaps fortunately, the later tradition takes a different view. Texts like the Lotus Sutra present the view that we all carry the seed of awakening within us already. Sooner or later, that seed will ripen, and we will flower into the fully awakened Buddhas that, deep down, we already are. Nobody can give you your awakened nature, and nobody can take it away from you - it's yours, always has been and always will be.
Indeed, in the Zen tradition, your Buddha Nature is considered to be synonymous with your mind - yes, the one you have right now. What could be closer, more truly yours? How could anyone ever give it to you or take it away from you?
So how come I don't feel enlightened?
In the Lotus Sutra, there's a story about a couple of friends who go out drinking, and end up in a bit of a state, far from home. One falls asleep, having run out of money. The other needs to get going and can't stay with him, but before he leaves, he sews a precious jewel into his friend's cloak, so that at least when his friend wakes up he'll have some money. The trouble is, his friend is too far gone to realise that this has happened, and when he wakes up the next morning, all he can see is that he's in an unfamiliar place without any money - not aware of the riches he's carrying with him. So he ends up living a life of poverty for quite some time, until he finally meets up with his friend again, who points out the jewel he's had with him all along.
Buddha Nature is the same way. We carry it with us at all times, but until we realise it's there, it's as if we didn't have it at all.
Traditionally, this is explained through the mechanism of 'obscurations', which are compared to clouds in the night sky. On a cloudy night, all you can see is darkness above. Then the clouds part for a moment, and you catch a glimpse of the moon, shining brightly above you.
In the same way, we periodically catch glimpses of our Buddha Nature, in moments of stillness, peace, joy, contentment, love or compassion. But then the clouds come back, covering the moon once again.
Initially, then, the task is to see the moon for ourselves and know it for what it is. We practise not to make ourselves worthy enough to become enlightened, but simply to see past the clouds in our own minds, knowing right from the start that what we're seeking is already there. Then, once we have verified for ourselves that this really is true, we can come to trust more and more that our deepest core is fundamentally fine just the way it is - ultimately, we lack nothing. Even when the clouds temporarily obscure the moon, we know the moon is still there - there's no sense of gaining or losing, because there's nothing to gain or lose. Our true nature is our true nature, no matter what else is going on. Over time, we come to live more and more from our true nature.
Glimpsing the moon
You might be wondering why we need to practise at all, if we have this Buddha Nature already. The short answer is that practice helps! You'll come to see the moon clearly much more quickly if you deliberately engage in looking at the night sky, night after night, rather than just hoping your eye randomly falls on the sky at a moment when the clouds happen to have parted.
In the same way, practice helps us to connect more quickly, clearly and deeply with our Buddha Nature. As mentioned, our minds are often obscured - we have all kinds of thoughts, beliefs and mental habits which get in the way, and our attention tends to spend most of its time focused on those, rather than seeing beyond the mental activity to the mind's deeper nature.
Meditation practice orients us towards stillness and clarity. As we become still, the swirling obscurations in our minds slow down, and eventually come to rest. As we become clear, we see more deeply into our own nature. Over time, our Buddha Nature unfolds before our eyes, simply by virtue of the obscurations thinning out and dissolving. One beautiful way to explore this is through the practice of Silent Illumination. Another approach is to use a koan, such as 'Who am I?', to drill a hole in the obscurations and catch a glimpse of what's on the other side. (Guided versions of both of these practices are available on my Audio page.)
A third option is to orient ourselves intentionally toward the qualities of Buddha Nature. Using a base practice like Silent Illumination or following the breath, we then tune into any qualities of well-being that we happen to notice as we sit. Perhaps you notice a sense of stillness; lean into that, taste it, really allow the stillness to permeate your being. Or perhaps you discover a sense of contentment deep in the body; again, really feel the contentment, drink it in. Other qualities to explore include love, compassion, a sense of boundarylessness, a sense of timelessness, a sense of flow.
As you open to your Buddha Nature again and again, you'll find that old ways of being rooted in a sense of fundamental lack begin to fall away, and more and more your life becomes an expression of your innate goodness. I can't tell you what that will look like - although we each possess Buddha Nature, our individual expressions of it are unique. Only you can see for yourself what happens when you open to your deepest nature - the true nature that you already possess.
Building a resilient practice that meets your changing needs
Meditation practice can seem confusing or daunting at first. Which technique should I use? Is it OK to do several at once? How much time do I need to spend on it? If I miss a day, will my eyeballs fall out? And so on.
(An easy way to get answers to these questions is to join my upcoming beginners' course, starting Thursday 28th January, 10.30-11.20am GMT! See the event page on the OrangeYoga website for more details.)
In this article we'll take a look at some key aspects of your meditative journey: getting started, avoiding potholes and roadblocks, and how to make sure you're actually going where you want to go.
Establishing your practice: building habits, motivating yourself
The first step is to start practising. The next step is to keep going! If you can nail both of these, you're in a good place.
In many ways the second step is the hard one. If you want to start meditating - start! Pick any of the guided meditations on my Audio page, download Insight Timer, Headspace or Calm, or search YouTube for 'guided meditation', find something that sounds interesting, set yourself up in a comfortable sitting posture in a quiet place, and just go for it.
(If you want more suggestions on the mechanics of sitting posture etc., take a look at the first chapter of my free book for beginners, Pathways of Meditation.)
After you've taken that all-important first step into trying meditation for the first time, the next task is to establish the habit of practising regularly. Meditation is a skill, like playing a musical instrument or driving a car - especially when you're first getting into it, you'll find that you make progress much faster if you practise regularly, rather than once in a blue moon.
So how much should you practise, and how often?
One approach - which is the one favoured by my Zen teacher, Daizan - is to commit to a daily practice for a decent period of time, like six or eight weeks. Daizan's mindfulness courses ask students to practise for thirty minutes daily for eight weeks. This is a significant time commitment, and typically students will need to think carefully about how to fit this into their day. The great benefit of this approach is that by the end of the eight weeks you'll have done a big chunk of practice, and you will very likely have seen positive changes in your life over that period. When you know for yourself, unquestionably, that the practice is beneficial, it's much easier to motivate yourself to keep going. Some habit-forming research has also suggested that it takes about ten weeks on average to cement a new habit, and so daily practice for eight weeks gets you most of the way there. The downside is that it's hard! Many people struggle to do that much practice straight off the bat, and can feel like they're failing, which is demotivating rather than motivating.
Another approach is based on a different school of thought in terms of habit-formation, and is based around the feeling of success. Rather than run the risk of failing to meet an arbitrarily high standard for practice, it might work better to deliberately set your sights lower. If you think you can meditate for half an hour a day every day, aim to do twenty minutes five days a week. If you think you can do twenty minutes five days a week, aim to do ten minutes three days a week. And so on. Ultimately, the best meditation practice is the practice that you actually do - so the five minutes of practice that you can easily fit into your schedule is much better than the fifteen minutes of practice that you never quite find the time for. The great advantage of this approach is that it's much more flexible and accommodating of your circumstances. The drawback is that it might take longer to notice the effects the practice is having.
Bending with the breeze
So let's suppose you've got your meditation practice up and running, and it's all going well. Then your circumstances change - perhaps there's a new demand on your time, and suddenly the practice has become a bit of a struggle. What should you do?
One approach - which was a favourite of mine in my younger, more bull-headed days - is to keep going, come what may. Dig deep! Don't take any crap from life! Plough your own furrow! You committed to thirty minutes daily, and you're damn well going to do it!
I mean, don't let me stop you. There's a certain kind of value in that approach, actually. Zen training can often be quite deliberately harsh, aiming to train a kind of deep resilience into the practitioner. There's a saying in Japan, 'seven times down, eight times up', which means that no matter how many times life knocks you down, you get right back up again.
However, this approach isn't going to work for everyone, especially if you came to meditation practice in the first place for stress relief - beating yourself up and forcing yourself to do something you don't have the time or energy to do can be really counterproductive in those situations.
The appeal of this kind of inflexibility is that it gives you something solid to cling to. There have been times in my life when it's been a great comfort to know that, without fail, no matter what else is going on, I'll sit for half an hour every day. The major drawback, however, is that if you aren't willing to bend at all, then sooner or later you'll break. And if you have a binary view of 'success' and 'failure' in meditation practice, you may one day find yourself failing rather than succeeding.
These days I would advocate cultivating sensitivity instead - to yourself, to your circumstances. I'm not suggesting that you should be lazy or never challenge yourself, but rather to have a sense of when to challenge yourself and when to take it easy. If you find yourself in a pretty relaxed, stable situation, maybe now is a good time to boost your meditation time, add a second sit at another time of day, or even go on a retreat. If life is totally crazy and you're struggling to catch your breath, consider reducing your practice to something which is more supportive and integrates better with your circumstances. Bear in mind that you aren't doing 'better' when you increase your time and 'worse' when you decrease it - you're actually demonstrating wisdom by adapting your practice to your condition, no matter which direction the practice goes.
It's also worth understanding that meditation has different types of benefits, and these benefits respond differently to changing the amount you're practising.
Meditation can bring about changes in state - for example, making you feel more relaxed, or peaceful, or loving, or focused. Generally speaking, you do a practice which is intended to bring about a certain effect (e.g. you might do a samadhi practice, with the intention of cultivating calmness), and that effect will last for a while, and then wear off. The more you practise (both in terms of duration and frequency), the more pronounced the effect will tend to be, but ultimately any and all state changes are temporary.
Meditation can also bring about changes in trait - for example, changing habits and behaviours, attitudes and beliefs, or even your perceptions of the world. By approaching our lives with greater mindfulness, we see more clearly what's going on, and many of these insights can't be un-seen once we've recognised them. Once you've had the experience called kensho in Zen ('seeing your true nature'), you can't go back to the way things were, and you wouldn't want to anyway. These kinds of changes don't require further practice to maintain them - once you've got it, you've got it, in the same way that you don't need to recite the Santa Claus mantra every day to remind yourself that the big jolly guy in the red suit doesn't really exist outside of mythology.
So another important question to ask when deciding how to practise meditation is what you actually want to get out of the practice. The clearer you are about that, the easier it will be to tailor your practice in a way that's supportive.
What do you want from your practice?
Daizan often says that people tend to get whatever they want from their practice. The unfortunate flip-side to that is that if you don't know what you want from your practice, you might not get anything! It can be quite a sad experience to meet someone who has been practising aimlessly for decades and doesn't seem to have much to show for all those hours spent sitting on the cushion.
When I teach beginners, I tend to start by throwing open the toybox of meditation - offering up a wide range of possibilities, both techniques (the 'how' of meditation) and motivations (the 'why'). Often a single technique can serve many different purposes, despite the instructions sounding almost exactly the same in each case - and often students following a guided meditation will end up practising something quite different from what the teacher is suggesting because their motivations aren't in alignment. (Most commonly, the student has learnt a similar-sounding technique in a different context, or simply has a different idea about what meditation is supposed to be, and the teacher either hasn't explained the context for the technique being offered or did it in a way that didn't reach the student.)
Let's take breath meditation as an example. The basic instructions are to pay attention to the physical sensations of the breath, and to bring the attention back to the breath whenever you notice your mind has wandered. So far so good, but why would you want to do this? Here are some possibilities:
So - why are you practising? Perhaps you're interested in one of the above outcomes. Perhaps you know someone who meditates, and they seem to handle certain situations in life with an ease and grace that looks pretty appealing, and you'd like to get a bit of that yourself. Perhaps you have a more general sense that meditation is supposed to be 'good for you' in some way, so you thought you'd give it a try, but you're not really sure what it's supposed to do. (This last reason is actually why I first started meditating, but for me this turned out not to be a strong enough motivation to keep going. It wasn't until I found clearer, more personally relevant reasons that I was able to establish a regular practice.)
One way to answer this question is simply to sit and think about it, or to write your thoughts down in a journal. Another approach is to work with the question more like a koan - asking yourself 'What do I want?' or 'Why am I practising?' (If you aren't familiar with koan meditation, head over to the Audio page and try out the 'Who am I?' practice.)
A final point to consider is that your 'why' might actually change over time. In just the same way that the amount of practice you do may change over time, it's quite common to find that, after some time has passed, whatever drew you into meditation practice no longer has the same draw for you. Perhaps something else has come to the fore - in which case it makes sense to change course, rather than continue doing what you've always done just because that's what you've always done. You might one day even reach a point where you feel that your practice has now served its purpose, and is no longer enriching your life. In that case, stop! But when you do, see how things change over the next few weeks and months. We tend to grow accustomed to things very easily, and it's sometimes only in their absence that we can see their true value.
The basic rule of thumb here is that your practice is for you, and should be something that serves your needs and interests, rather than fitting into someone else's idea of what 'good' looks like. So, from time to time, take a moment to reflect on your practice and see if it's still meeting your needs, or if it's simply being carried along by inertia.
Want to take the next step?
If you'd like to explore some different approaches to practice in more detail, I'll be starting a new beginners' course on Thursday mornings, 10.30-11.30 (UK time) on Zoom. Click here for details!
It's OK to turn it up to 11 sometimes
(Image above taken from Deviantart, beautiful carvings of Zen temple guardians done by Chapitaaa. See www.deviantart.com/chapitaaa/art/Agyo-and-Ungyo-78672398.)
In last week's article we looked at the cultivation of samadhi - developing a stable, focused, unified mind. The early stages of that process are pretty straightforward (going from 'lots of distractions' to 'not so many distractions' to 'no distractions'), but then it gets weird - first we become one with everything, then we go even beyond that. The focus of last week's article was mainly about the earlier stages of that journey, so this week we'll take a look at the deeper aspects of practice.
Oneness, and some of its downsides
In spiritual circles, you'll often come across stories of people who suddenly 'became one with everything' - perhaps while meditating, perhaps while walking in nature, sometimes even in the middle of the most mundane activities. The way it's typically described, it sounds pretty good - a sense of letting go of burdens, becoming intimate with all things, experiencing boundless joy, love and relief, and so on. Who wouldn't want that?
These types of peak experiences are indeed lovely - but it's crucial that they aren't the end of the story. Sadly, all too many people have a lovely experience which, as time passes, becomes simply another memory, and doesn't make much lasting difference to their lives. Experiences come and go; that's their nature. Nothing lasts forever. However, sometimes experiences can change us, if we let them. If an experience touches us deeply enough, our whole way of seeing the world can be fundamentally altered, in a way that doesn't come and go. This kind of 'shift' to a new way of seeing things is one marker of the beginning of the process of awakening in Zen.
But how does our view change? Perhaps we're left with a fundamental sense that everything is ultimately One in some important spiritual sense. (Subjectively, it can feel exactly that way, as the felt sense of a boundary between 'me in here' and 'everything else out there' falls away, and what remains is a sense of being one with the whole universe.)
This idea of Oneness as the final answer to everything seems to have some immediate problems. For one thing, the world is apparently diverse - we have people, trees, dogs, clouds, Scandinavian death metal - all kinds of different things. So someone who hasn't had an experience of oneness might be tempted to dismiss the whole thing as crazy talk, while someone who has had the experience is going to have to do some mental gymnastics to explain how everything is one really. (Some popular options include: saying that all of reality is illusory, perhaps a dream in the mind of God; that at the quantum level everything is just one unified field of vibrating energy; that everything is made of awareness, and so what exists is just one grand cosmic awareness playing games with itself; and so on. Another standard response is 'You're over-thinking it, this isn't something the intellectual mind can grasp,' which has a certain amount of truth to it but is too often a convenient excuse for not having to think at all.)
A subtler problem comes when this oneness is used to deny diversity. This can potentially cause you real physical harm - after all, if you and the bus are one, why do you need to wait for it to go past before stepping into the road? At its worst, this is a setup for ethical catastrophe. Spiritual doctrines of oneness have historically been used to justify participation in wars (because there's 'nobody separate being killed'), sexual abuse ('there's nobody separate being harmed') and more.
Fortunately, we can do better.
Relative and absolute: the 'two truths'
The later Buddhist tradition developed the doctrine of 'two truths' to explain the apparent contradiction between the felt sense of oneness and the obviousness of the diversity of experience. This says that there are two ways to look at reality, both valid in their own way, despite appearing to contradict each other.
From the 'relative' perspective, things are as they conventionally appear to be. I'm a different person to you, which means I can't have your stuff. This is the domain of ethics, compassion, self-improvement, climate change and so on.
From the 'absolute' perspective, we see the world a different way. We realise that every aspect of our experience is impermanent; that everything we ever experience is a product of multiple causes and conditions coming together, including the way we're looking at it; that even seemingly basic facts about the universe such as time, space and materiality may not be as unquestionably, obviously real as they appear to be. The absolute is the domain of oneness, and from the perspective of the absolute, all the weird stuff the old Zen masters say makes complete sense. (Well, most of it. Some of it's very weird.)
Navigating relative and absolute
One of my favourite Zen teachings is Tozan's Five Ranks, which is a kind of map of the process of learning to understand and navigate within the two truths. First, we must experience the absolute directly, before any of this will make sense. Working with a koan is a very effective way to have this initial breakthrough (you might like to try the 'Who Am I?' practice on the Audio page if you aren't familiar with this style of practice). Once we 'break through' to the absolute, it's impossible to go back to our old way of being, where the relative perspective was all we'd ever known.
However, encountering the absolute isn't enough - and if we stop here, we're prone to all of the dangers I described above, clinging to oneness and potentially in danger of neglecting the relative aspects of our lives. Zen urges us continue beyond this point, deepening our understanding still further.
In time, we must come to understand what the Heart Sutra says - that 'form is emptiness, and emptiness is form'. Whatever we experience as real and solid in the relative perspective must also be seen to be empty of inherent existence (impermanent, dependently arisen and so on) from the absolute perspective ('form is emptiness'). On the other hand, it isn't that there's some mystical substance called 'emptiness' which is separate from everything else. Emptiness is the fundamental nature of everything we experience in the relative perspective ('emptiness is form').
So the second step in Tozan's Five Ranks is coming to see that the absolute is not a special place we go to when we want to get away from the relative - emptiness and form are inseparable. The relative and the absolute are two ways of looking at the same reality, not two different realities. At first, this may be simply a meditative intuition, a view which is easily forgotten in the bustle of daily life, but in the third step of the Five Ranks we begin to find a way of living which honours both the relative and the absolute together, and by the fourth step we have reached a point of 'mutual integration', where the relative and absolute aspects of existence are clear to us at all times. (The final step is to ingrain this understanding into ourselves so deeply that we forget any thought of relative or absolute, awakening or Zen practice, and simply live out our lives in accordance with our most profound intuitive understanding.)
Non-duality, the Middle Way and freedom from fixation
We started out with a kind of 'twoness' (me in here, everything else out there), then moved to 'oneness' ('I am one with the universe'). It might seem like the idea of the 'two truths' takes us back to 'twoness' again, but as Tozan's Five Ranks demonstrate, we're actually aiming to arrive at a subtler place. Reality is 'not two' - it has the absolute aspect - but it's also 'not one'. The technical term for this is 'non-duality' ('not-twoness'), to distinguish it from 'monism' ('oneness').
Non-duality is a tricky idea to get your head around conceptually. We're used to things being one way or the other. Is it, or isn't it? What other possibility could there be?
One way we're used to resolving this kind of dilemma is through compromise. I want the chocolate bar but so do you, and so we end up splitting it in half. You get half, I get half, and neither of us is particularly happy about it but it's better than getting so caught up in arguing that someone else comes along and steals the chocolate while we're distracted.
You'll sometimes hear Buddhism called 'the Middle Way', and that can reinforce this idea that what we're really after is compromise in all things - a kind of lukewarm life, never too much or too little of anything. So if you're a member of Spinal Tap, your amp has to be set to 5.5 at all times. Another technical term sometimes used in Buddhist circles is 'freedom from extremes', which can potentially also suggest the same sense of damp greyness.
But that isn't what we mean at all - in fact, if anything, a rigid adherence to the middle of the road is exactly the type of mistake that we're trying to get away from. Perhaps better than 'freedom from extremes' is 'freedom from fixations'. As soon as you land on any one thing as 'the ultimate truth', you're already in trouble. Reality is multi-faceted. The perspective of oneness is totally valid (and beautiful), but so is the perspective of twoness. Both are aspects of the same - ultimately mysterious, ungraspable, un-pin-downable - reality. And all aspects of a human life - from the most sublime to the most ridiculous - are just as much a part of that reality as anything else.
When you approach a Zen temple, you'll be met by the ferocious gentlemen at the top of this article, the Nio. The one on the left is called Agyo, the one on the right is Ungyo. (Ah and Un are the first and last sounds in the Japanese alphabet, so they're kind of like 'Alpha' and 'Omega' in a Christian context.) On a superficial level, it makes sense to have big tough fierce guards at the gate to a temple; but the subtler meaning is that everything is welcome in Zen practice, even the fieriest depths of anger. Zen practice is not meant to make you a mild-mannered push-over - it's meant to liberate you from the extremes of fixation, enabling you to move through your life with power, grace and compassion.
So by all means welcome oneness, and explore it - but don't stop there. Please, go beyond - for your sake and everyone else's.
Tuning in to samadhi
What is samadhi anyway?
(Linguistic pedantry follows. If you don't care about any of this, feel free to skip to the next section, although I think it's important and useful to be aware of the different ways in which seemingly 'standard' terms are used across different traditions, because it's so very confusing when these different usages get mixed up.)
The term 'samadhi' is used pretty commonly in the meditation and yoga world. However, like many popular meditation terms, different teachers and traditions use it in different ways, so it's worth taking some time to be clear about what it means in each context you encounter it.
According to Wikipedia (which is the source of most of my Sanskrit knowledge), it derives from the root sam-a-dha, which means 'to collect' or 'bring together'. It's thus often used as a synonym for 'concentration' or 'unification of mind'. Even there, though, it can mean different things.
Some traditions (such as Theravada Buddhism) make a strong distinction between 'concentration practice' (which is about stilling the mind and bringing about samatha/shamatha, 'calm abiding') and 'insight practice' (which is about investigating our experience and bringing about vipassana/vipashyana, 'clear seeing', which leads to the development of panna/prajna, 'insight/wisdom'). If the term is being used this way, samadhi usually means something like either the practice or result of stabilising the mind, or certain altered states of consciousness (e.g. the jhanas, 'meditative absorptions') which can arise as a result of such practice.
On the other hand, some traditions focus more on the 'bringing together'/'unification' meaning of samadhi, and thus regard samadhi as a movement towards or experience of oneness. Traditions which view the world as ultimately all a manifestation of one underlying 'divine essence' (for example) might thus regard experiences of 'oneness with the divine essence of the universe' as the whole point of practice.
Yet another use of samadhi is to mean something like 'deep, unshakeable realisation' - for example, the Samadhiraja Sutra (the 'King of Samadhi discourse') talks about 'samadhi' as the deep realisation of emptiness - something that would most commonly be regarded as the outcome of insight practice.
Zen tends to talk about samadhi quite a lot, and you'll find quite a bit of variety in what's meant. Usually, it's a broad term for a focused state - so Zen texts will often stress the importance of a type of 'samadhi' in everything you ever do, because a key feature of Zen is the idea that practice should reach every part of our lives, not be confined to something that you do for half an hour a day on a meditation cushion.
For the purposes of the rest of the article, we'll use 'samadhi' pretty synonymously with 'focus'.
Why is it useful to develop samadhi?
Looked at in its broadest terms, focus is a crucial life skill. It's hard to get anything done if you can't focus. The flip side of that is that any time and energy invested into developing your ability to focus has the potential to pay off in literally every part of your life. In very crude terms, you can think of focus as a kind of 'efficiency' - if you're trying to do something, but you're distracted 95% of the time, it's going to take 20 times as long to get it done than if you were 100% focused.
Focus is also very closely related to clarity, and this has important consequences for the depth of our practice. Normally, our minds are pretty noisy places - like a radio that is only very approximately tuned to a station, there's a lot of background noise, static and other signals interfering with what we're trying to listen to. This means we can easily become distracted by all the other stuff obscuring the signal, and even if we do our best to ignore that, we can't hear what's going on very clearly, because it's obscured by all the other stuff. In meditation terms, if our focus is poor, it's difficult to see what's going on in our experience, and even if we do notice something interesting which could lead to an insight, that insight might not touch us as deeply as it could if we had seen it more clearly.
So developing focus in meditation makes our practice both more efficient and more powerful. Sounds pretty good, right?
How do we develop samadhi?
In his marvellous book 'Hoofprint of the Ox', Chan master Sheng-Yen (who I've mentioned before) describes the process of developing samadhi as a series of stages which can be represented visually. The Tibetan tradition also has a particularly rich set of teachings around developing samadhi which you can find described in tremendous detail in books like Culadasa's 'The Mind Illuminated' and B. Alan Wallace's 'The Attention Revolution'. In what follows we'll use Sheng-Yen's pictures, with some extra detail from 'The Mind Illuminated'.
To develop samadhi, you'll need some kind of 'base practice' - some object to focus on. In 'Hoofprint of the Ox', Sheng-Yen describes using breath counting for this purpose. (There's a guided breath counting meditation on my Audio page.) You can also use breath following, metta, a visual image, a candle flame, or basically anything that you can bring your attention to. But since we're using Sheng-Yen's images, we'll use his practice too in the description that follows (mainly because if we don't, one of his pictures doesn't make so much sense!).
Stage 1: The scattered mind prior to meditation
This image represents the typical mind state of the 'untrained worldling', to use the language of the early discourses. Our mind wanders freely, going here and there, at the mercy of torrents of jumbled thoughts and distractions. It's hard to see anything clearly.
Now, you might be reading this and thinking 'My mind isn't like that!' And maybe that's true - if so, good for you! But quite often people find that when they first start meditating, after a few days or weeks it seems like their minds are busier and more jumbled than before - as if the practice is making things worse. What's actually happening is that they're starting to develop some awareness of the state of their own mind, and so seeing all the activity that was there all along, but was previously so unclear that it couldn't be seen at all. So if you do start doing these practices and find that you're noticing a lot more going on in your mind than ever before - well done, the practice is working!
Stage 2: Initial efforts to apply the method of meditation
After you've been practising for a while, you'll start to develop longer periods of stability, where you can stay with the breath and the count for a while, before getting distracted. Unfortunately, at this point you won't notice the distraction right away; instead, you'll find that you 'wake up' some time later, and realise that you've been mind-wandering for a while, the breath and the count long-forgotten.
With more practice, you start to see how this process works.
A natural reaction to forgetting the breath and moving into mind-wandering is to feel frustrated or disappointed that you 'failed', but it's extremely important to realise that this is totally natural, and just another part of the process of developing samadhi. Everyone goes through this stage.
More than that, though, it's actually very helpful to try to train yourself to celebrate these moments of waking up from mind-wandering, as opposed to getting grumpy when you realise you've been lost. If you form the mental association between 'waking up' and feeling bad, you'll actually be less likely to wake up from mind-wandering, because who wants to make themselves feel bad all the time? Actually, though, this act of waking up is a moment of mindfulness - it's exactly the skill we're trying to train at this point in the process.
So it's really quite important to take the opportunity to give yourself a pat on the back when you catch yourself in a moment of mind-wandering. Well done - you spotted it! Smile, relax, take a moment to appreciate the fact that your practice is working, and then go back to counting the breath.
This might sound a bit cheesy, but it's genuinely important to form a positive association with waking up from mind-wandering - if it feels good, you're more likely to do it more often, and over time it'll happen sooner and sooner, until eventually you can catch it at the point of forgetting the breath, before the mind-wandering has even started. When you can do this, your samadhi has moved to a whole new level.
Stage 3: Coarse but unbroken application of the method
As the practice develops, sooner or later you'll get to the point where you don't lose the meditation object any more. This might sound almost magical if you're new to the practice and currently spending most of your meditation time lost in mind-wandering, but it does happen.
At this stage we become more sensitive to the process of getting distracted, and learn to 'steer around it'. We see that distraction follows a certain pattern, and as we become more sensitive we can nip this pattern in the bud before it goes too far:
As the practice develops, you'll become more sensitive to the presence of distractions. You'll develop a kind of 'introspective peripheral awareness' - in the same way that you can see things out of the corner of your eye even when looking deliberately at something in the centre of your vision, you'll become aware of the level of 'background noise' in the mind whilst staying focused on counting the breaths. When the background noise level goes up, and there's an increased risk of getting distracted, we can apply a little more energy and diligence toward staying with the object, so that we don't get drawn off course. Also, as we become more aware of subtle distractions threatening to impinge on our samadhi, we can deliberately let go of those subtle distractions, rather than allowing them to creep up on us and become gross distractions.
Stage 4: Subtle and unbroken application of the method
Sooner or later, our mind starts to get the message - we're choosing to stay on the breath, and that's all we're interested in right now. The distractions start to fall away because they aren't getting any love. (There's a saying in Zen, that where attention goes, energy flows - so by deliberately withdrawing your attention from the distractions, you aren't feeding them any energy. Sooner or later, they'll wither away.)
If you've looked into jhana practice at all, you might have come across the term 'access concentration'. This is defined in different ways by different teachers, but typically it means something like a state where the attention stays consistently with the object, and any distractions that do come up are 'wispy and in the background', as my teacher Leigh Brasington would say. At this point, there are no gross distractions any more - the only distractions that do come up remain subtle, and the strength of your concentration is enough that you don't really need to do anything to 'steer around' them as you did in the previous stage.
Stage 5: Pure but effortful concentration on the method
Now the practice is really maturing. Distractions, even subtle ones, have completely gone. All that remains is three things: the breath, the count, and the intention to keep the practice going.
That third point is worth elaborating a bit. At this stage in practice, there's still a sense that effort is required - that this is a deliberate practice, and if you took your eye off the ball the distractions would come back. Another way of saying this is that there's a sense of 'doing' - a sense of a 'meditator' who is keeping the practice going. (You might think 'well of course there's a meditator - it's me! But hang in there - we have two more stages to go yet...)
Over time, the practice matures still further, until effort is no longer required. This is a subtle stage of practice, and it's easy to take your foot off the pedal too soon and fall back into distraction; but on the other hand it's important to realise that samadhi ultimately becomes effortless, because otherwise you can keep propping up the sense of effort longer than you need to.
Stage 6: The unified mind of samadhi
Finally, the practice becomes effortless. When there's no 'doing', there's no 'doer' - there's simply 'this'. The mind has become unified.
Sheng-Yen describes this stage thus:
'As the mind becomes truly calm and concentrated, the act of effortful meditation itself seems coarse and distracting. Letting go of it, number and breath vanish, and body, breath, and mind meld into a single unity. At this point, you may feel as though spatial distinctions no longer pertain among body, mind, and the world. The opposition between self and other people seems to vanish, and the boundary between the internal and external dissolves. The previous sense of dividedness is replaced by a feeling of pure and harmonious being that is so wondrous as to be indescribable.' -Master Sheng-yen. Hoofprint of the Ox: Principles of the Chan Buddhist Path as Taught by a Modern Chinese Master (Kindle Locations 894-897). Kindle Edition.
At this point, we have accomplished what is sometimes assumed to be the goal of spiritual practice. As my Zen teacher likes to say, when you become one with anything, you become one with everything. This is a state of great peace and joy, and makes all the effort to get to this point seem well worth it.
But wait, we're not done yet!
Stage 7: No self, no mind
(No, the image hasn't failed to load - the final picture is blank.)
In Zen, becoming one with everything is merely a step along the path, not the final destination. We have further to go. I'll let Sheng-Yen describe this stage too:
'In the seventh diagram there is no line of concentration, no thought, no mark of any kind. Body, mind, and environment have all genuinely disappeared. Time and space are blown apart, and any sense of existence or nonexistence has vanished. You have entered a realm of emptiness and quiescence, a realm that transcends all subjective emotion and point of view. This is the experience of supramudane samadhi and wisdom of 'no-mind' that is free of the defiling illusion of self. There is no way to effectively describe it. All words and images are useless; but you will have tasted true freedom and peace.' -Master Sheng-yen. Hoofprint of the Ox: Principles of the Chan Buddhist Path as Taught by a Modern Chinese Master (Kindle Locations 905-909). Kindle Edition.
Practising samadhi when you live in the world
These latter stages in particular sound pretty exalted, and you might be wondering if there's any point even trying this, or if you really need to be a cave-dwelling hermit to have a chance of getting any benefit from this practice.
It's a fair question. It takes a lot of work to get to the later stages in this model (Culadasa suggests meditating for two hours a day for a couple of years to reach the final stage in his model), and that's going out to be out of reach for most people unless they're really keen on this practice and willing to organise their lives around it, at least to some extent. (There are even deeper states of samadhi that really do require monastic levels of commitment to have even a chance of achieving them - look up the Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw's teachings for an example.)
However, this practice begins delivering benefits from your very first sit. As I said right at the beginning of this article, we need focus to do basically anything in our lives, and any movement we make in the direction of being able to focus better, no matter how small, pays dividends in every aspect of life. Simply becoming more aware of what's actually going on in our minds - seeing that torrent of thought and distraction - is a game-changer for many people. Learning to reduce the time we spend lost in mind-wandering is huge, and training ourselves to appreciate and enjoy those moments of coming back from distraction can change our whole relationship to meditation, turning it from being a chore into being a source of joy. All of these things are incredibly valuable, and don't require you to practise all day long in a Himalayan cave.
My teacher's teacher on the Theravada side, the late Venerable Ayya Khema, liked to say that 'a moment of samadhi is a moment of purification'. Each moment we spend focused on our meditation object is a moment that we aren't lost in thought; it's a moment where we choose to set aside the promptings of the inner forces of greed, hatred and confusion that drive so much of our behaviour; it's a moment where we choose not to feed the habitual patterns of mind that run our lives, and instead bring us into a more direct relationship with the present moment. It's a way of taking ownership of ourselves and our situations, making our own choices rather than allowing them to be made for us. It's a way of being more fully here, more fully human, more fully awake to our lives, and that's the true gift of all spiritual practice.
Turbo-charging your vitality and longevity in Zen practice
Zen is famous for its iconic meditation practices: the ungraspable, mysterious 'just sitting', and the intense, seemingly illogical questions of koan practice.
Less well known, however, is a rich tradition of working with the energy of the body to develop vitality and longevity. But Zen master Hakuin regarded this second side of practice as so important that he used the image of the two wings of a bird to describe his approach to teaching: one wing is rikan, contemplation of reality (which, for Hakuin, primarily meant koan practice); the second wing is naikan, inner contemplation (energetic/body-centric practices).
(You might have heard the term 'wings of a bird' used differently in the spiritual world - Tibetan Buddhism, for example, often talks about the two 'wings' of wisdom and compassion. In Zen, however, wisdom and compassion are seen as ultimately inseparable, which leaves us with a spare wing to use for something else...)
But who is Hakuin anyway, and why did he place so much emphasis on energetic cultivation?
Hakuin Ekaku, 1686-1769
Hakuin is up there with Dogen as one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism. He is widely regarded as having revived the Rinzai Zen tradition after a period of stagnation, and his systematisation of the huge number of koans has shaped the way Zen in practised in Japan ever since.
As a child, Hakuin attended a fire-and-brimstone lecture given by a priest of the Nichiren Buddhist sect, which warned him of the danger of ending up in the Eight Hot Hells if he wasn't careful. This terrified the young boy sufficiently that he became obsessed with becoming a monk and practising to escape this dreadful fate.
He threw himself into his studies, and over the years had a number of significant awakening experiences, but continued to feel that his practice was incomplete, because he was unable to manifest his awakening in the course of interaction with others. He continued to work harder and harder, constantly striving for further breakthroughs.
Eventually, this level of exertion took its toll on his health. He describes how, at the age of 24, he felt that he was close to death:
My feet and legs were always ice-cold: they felt as though they were immersed in tubs of snow. There was a constant buzzing in my ears, as if I were walking beside a raging mountain torrent. I became abnormally weak and timid, shrinking and fearful in whatever I did. I felt totally drained, physically and mentally exhausted. Strange visions appeared to me during waking and sleeping hours alike. My armpits were always wet with perspiration. My eyes watered constantly. I travelled far and wide, visiting wise Zen teachers, seeking out noted physicians. But none of the remedies they offered brought me any relief.
At this point it's worth mentioning that Hakuin is known to have been prone to exaggeration for the sake of a good yarn. Nevertheless, clearly he was in quite a state, and something had to be done.
(As an aside, you'll often come across the term 'Zen sickness', and this is one possible meaning of that term - a significant depletion of energy brought about through intense meditation practice. Having said that, I've also seen the term used to describe all sorts of other things, so don't assume that anytime you see 'Zen sickness' it's talking about this kind of thing. Hooray for consistent terminology...)
Anyway, Hakuin's search for a solution led him to hear about a hermit called Hakuyu who lived in the mountains to the north of Kyoto. Hakuin's autobiography recounts a long and perilous journey to meet the great hermit. (Here again we can see Hakuin's tendency to embroider his stories - my Zen teacher Daizan has been to what's left of Hakuyu's cave, and describes it as a gentle 40-minute walk out of Kyoto.)
After a kind of 'encounter between seeker of wisdom and hermit master' that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a Kung Fu movie from the 1970s, Hakuyu finally agreed to help Hakuin with his problems, and taught him a set of techniques for rebalancing the body's energies. With characteristic vigour, Hakuin jumped into these practices, and found relief from his suffering very quickly.
That isn't quite the end of the story, though. Later on, when his practice had matured further, Hakuin began to attract other seekers who were keen to find the kind of peace of mind that Hakuin now embodied. Hakuin's training regime was harsh and strict, and soon he found that many of his monks were also beginning to show signs of Zen sickness. So Hakuin shared the energy practices he'd learnt from Hakuyu, and his monks' health showed the same kind of improvement that he'd seen himself.
From this point on, he was convinced that this energetic work is a vital part of a balanced spiritual path, and hence the 'two wings of the bird' were born. And, 250 years later, these practices are still being taught in Rinzai Zen.
What the heck is 'energy'?
For whatever reason, most of the students who come to my classes tend to fall into one of two camps. They're either totally on board with energy practices from the beginning, without any explanation or justification required, or they're intensely sceptical of the whole thing and start giving me the side-eye when I talk about this stuff in class.
Whichever camp you're in, I'll offer my thoughts on this deep and complicated subject. For me, there are a couple of ways of looking at it that I've found useful.
The traditional explanation is that all living creatures possess a kind of vital energy, called ki in Japanese (qi or chi in Chinese), which circulates around the body via a system of meridians and vessels. (This is the same system that acupuncture uses.) In the traditional Asian model, the body is seen as a kind of 'community' of organs, and if the community is in harmony - if the ki flows around the whole system without obstruction - then the body will be in good health. However, if the energy in the system is imbalanced - particularly if there's too much energy drawn up into the head, which can happen as a result of intense meditation practice - then physical symptoms such as those described by Hakuin can start to manifest.
Through meditative practice, we can learn to experience this flow of ki quite directly, and we can begin to work with the body's energetic system to dissolve blockages and encourage a healthy, nourishing flow around the whole system. Grounding techniques help to bring energy down from the head to the tanden (equivalent to the dan tien in Chinese), a point about two inches below the navel right in the centre of the body, which is seen as the body's 'battery pack' - so, rather than frying our brains with too much energy, we instead nourish the whole body, and ensure a long and healthy life.
Modern Western science has a pretty ambiguous relationship with these ideas, however. There's been some work to try to map out the acupuncture meridians via measuring electrical currents in the body, and there's some very provocative work which maps the myofascial network in the body and shows that the key meridians line up precisely with key fascial lines. But it would be claiming altogether too much to say that Western science and the traditional Asian model of the body are in agreement, because - at least for now - they really aren't. The Western medical establishment is pretty sceptical about all this, on the whole. (That's a bit of a generalisation, and these days you can get acupuncture through the NHS, but I don't want to pretend that these practices are totally an accepted part of the Western medical paradigm, because they aren't.)
So here's another way to look at it. Honestly, I have no idea what energy 'is' or what these practices are 'doing', but I can say with total certainty, both from my own experience and the experience of others, that by doing these practices we can come to experience something that feels exactly like energy moving around the body. Perhaps we really are learning to experience directly the truth of the Asian model of the body; maybe we're simply tuning into the body sensations in a different way, with the result that we perceive this sense of moving energy.
Either way, this is a useful thing to do. As I mentioned in my previous article, a big part of Zen practice is discovering how malleable our perceptions are - how the seemingly 'objectively real', 'just-as-it-is' nature of things is a mental fabrication. With this in mind, learning to experience your body sensations in a totally different way is a perfect illustration of this principle, and so provides us yet another way to explore emptiness in our practice.
If you'd like to investigate this some more, the late Rob Burbea offered a beautiful way in to energetic practices with his talks and guided meditations on the 'energy body'. Rather than reproduce that content here, I'll simply point you to his talk and guided practice on the subject.
Zen energy practices
If you're keen to get straight into the practice, I have a variety of guided Zen energetic practices on my Audio page. (One has an accompanying video, too.)
A good place to start is either naikan (that's the one with the associated video) or nanso no ho, both of which are grounding practices designed to bring energy down from the upper body (where too much energy can cause problems like headaches, not to mention Hakuin's whole laundry list of maladies) and to energise the lower half of the body, making us more stable, grounded and powerful in daily life. Naikan starts standing, then moves to lying down; nanso no ho is usually done as a sitting practice. Quite often people seem to have a preference for one or the other, so I'd suggest you try both and then go with the one you like best.
(Astute observers might have noticed that earlier I said that 'naikan' was a term for 'energy practices in general', and now I'm using the same word differently, to describe a specific practice. That's true. Sorry. I didn't come up with the traditional terminology.)
Both naikan and nanso no ho are good for cleansing the system and preparing it for further work - like cleaning a bike chain before oiling it, rather than just spraying more oil on top of the dirt (which is what I usually do with my bike, I'm ashamed to admit). Once we've given ourselves a bit of a spring-cleaning, it's time to start cultivating our energy.
As I mentioned, the tanden is considered the body's energetic centre. A really nice exercise for connecting us to and strengthening our tandens is the practice of ah-un breathing, which my teacher Daizan learnt from a wandering sword master in Japan (no, really - Daizan tells the story in his book Practical Zen).
Once you've established a solid connection with the tanden, move on to the practice of naitan, aka 'inner transformation'. (This practice also has a number of other names, and is basically the same as the microcosmic orbit in qigong, although I'm not a qigong teacher so don't take my word for it.) In the naitan practice we begin by energising the tanden, then begin to sweep the attention up the back of the body and down the front of the body (following the governing and conception vessels), in time with the breath.
Hakuin was a big fan of this last practice. He said:
If the practitioner maintains this without distraction, one morning, the elixir furnace will turn over and everywhere, within and without, will become one great circulating elixir. The practitioner will realise that they themselves are older than heaven and earth, deathless as space. This is true alchemy. It is not a trivial method for flying in the sky on the wind and mists, or walking on the water. The true immortal can churn the ocean into cream and transform earth into gold.
So there you go. Get on it!
The weird world of emptiness teachings, and why you should care
There's a discourse in early Buddhism, Samyutta Nikaya 12.15 (the discourse to Kaccanagotta), which sketches out a view that would ultimately become central to later Buddhism - the mysteriously named 'emptiness'. Let's see what the Buddha had to say about it.
The Venerable Kaccanagotta approached the Blessed One, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, and said to him: “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘right view, right view.’ In what way, venerable sir, is there right view?”
"This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence ('it is') and the notion of nonexistence ('it is not'). But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world."
"'All exists': Kaccana, this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle."
What the heck is 'the Dhamma by the middle'?
We're used to thinking of things in terms of duality. A statement like '2 + 2 = 4' can be true or false - it's one or the other. My car is either blue or it isn't. (Actually, I don't have a car. But if I did, it would either be blue or it wouldn't.) Our legal system is built around this idea: was a crime committed or not? Evidence is presented, a jury comes to a decision, and the judge delivers a verdict.
And so, in the same way, we tend to think that something exists or it doesn't. The Empire State Building exists; unicorns don't. (Sorry, unicorn-lovers.) This seems so completely obvious, so self-evident, so immediately verifiable by basic reality testing, that it might seem ridiculous even to question it. And yet that's exactly what the Buddha is doing here - he's suggesting that there's some alternative, some 'middle way', between existence and non-existence. But what could it be?
The traditional explanation of emptiness - the curiously named middle way between existence and non-existence - involves a chariot. Maybe I could update it by using a Ford Focus, but instead it's quicker to show you a short clip from Only Fools and Horses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUl6PooveJE&ab_channel=WoodyKane.
Trigger has had the same broom for 20 years. But he's replaced the broom head, and the broom handle... and those are the two parts which make up a broom. So is it the same broom, as Trigger asserts - he's got a picture and everything - or is it a different broom?
In the same way, the classical analysis looks at a chariot in terms of its parts. There are wheels, an axle, various other bits. If you change one bit, is it the same chariot, or a different one? If you break one of the windows of your Ford Focus, is it still a Ford Focus, or is it something else? When you clip your toenails, are you severing a vital part of yourself?
On the other hand, is the chariot just the parts? If you took all the parts and piled them up, would you still have an actual chariot, or would you just have the parts of a chariot? We tend to see objects in terms of their function, so if Trigger's broom handle and broom head were, for the moment, detached from each other, would Trigger still have a broom? Certainly something would have to be done before he could sweep with it.
It seems clear to us that there is such a thing as a chariot, or a broom, or a Ford Focus. But when we look for the essence of the thing - the vital bit that makes the difference between 'collection of parts' and 'thing' - it's not quite so clear.
In fact, one very interesting meditation practice we can do is to examine an object in exactly this way. Analyse it in terms of parts, then ask if the 'thing' is in the parts, or not in the parts. If it's in the parts, then what happens when one part is taken away, or replaced by another part? And why isn't the pile of parts the same as the 'thing' - after all, you've got all the parts, they're just in a pile. On the other hand, if the thing isn't in the parts, then what is it? If the thing were separate from the parts, then if you took all the parts away, you should still have the thing. Trigger's broom should still be Trigger's broom without a handle or a head - and I don't think even Trigger would buy that one.
Ultimately, this analysis concludes (spoiler alert) that there is no 'essence' to be found. That's where the term 'emptiness' comes from - that the 'things' we experience in the world are, on closer examination, 'empty' of a fundamental existence. Everything we look at dissolves into unfindability through a careful enough analysis, so we can't really say 'this exists' in the definite way that it seemed like we could. On the other hand, we can still sweep the road with a broom and ride around in a Ford Focus, so we also can't really say 'this does not exist'. Instead, we end up somewhere in between the two - the middle way between the extremes.
Isn't all this just intellectualising? Who cares about brooms and chariots?
It's a fair question - in the later Buddhist tradition, a huge amount of effort went into 'Buddhist philosophy', and there's a great deal of quite academic writing about emptiness teachings, so it's easy to get lost in theoretical speculation.
However, the empty nature of our experience is something that can also be seen directly, and seeing it makes such a difference to our lives that I feel compelled to write this article about it, despite the obscurity of the subject matter.
There's a story from the very beginning of the Zen tradition about an encounter between Bodhidharma, the (possibly legendary) founder of Zen, and his first successor, Huike (Eka in Japanese). It goes something like this:
Huike came to see Bodhidharma, and said 'My mind is troubled. How can I pacify it?'
Bodhidharma replied, 'Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.'
Huike came back a while later, and said 'I have searched for my mind, but I cannot find it.'
Bodhidharma said, 'There, I have pacified your mind for you.'
Sometimes I like to think that Huike then slapped Bodhidharma for being a smartass. But this isn't just a play on words - it's a (typically oblique) Zen way of pointing to emptiness. Huike was unable to find his mind because his mind, like everything else, is empty; and Bodhidharma's reply points to the freedom that comes from letting go of the duality between existence and non-existence. No mind, no problem - and yet, just like Trigger's broom, you can still think with it.
What we experience is not the world, but our mind's representation of it - and it's hackable
Before we go any further, there's one more important point that needs to be established: the representational nature of our subjective experience. This is a subtle point, because our experience doesn't seem 'representational' at all - it seems direct, as if our eyes are windows looking out on the world. We see the same things other people see - chairs, tables, brooms, Ford Foci - so it's obvious that we're looking at a real world that really exists. What could be more obvious?
But, actually, the eyes are not windows - and even if they were, what could be looking out of those windows? A little person sitting behind the eyeballs? If so, what is that little person using to see - is there an even littler person behind the eyeballs of the little person, and so on all the way down?
This human organism that we are has various sense organs - eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body, and Buddhists tend to include the thinking mind as the sixth sense, so that all the bases are covered - and those sense organs are receiving a constant stream of data. Light enters the eye, hits the retina, and stimulates electrical activity in the optic nerve, which goes up into the brain, along with signals from the other sense organs. These combine in the brain and - handwave handwave, magic happens - as a result we have a conscious experience. But the conscious experience is not simply the 'raw' data from the senses - it's integrated, interpreted and given meaning by the brain. When I look in front of me, I don't just see a mass of coloured shapes and then have to figure out what they are - I see a computer, a clock, a little jade statue of Budai that I bought in China. In other words, I see a representation of what is 'out there' - a representation that is put together from not just the sense data but also my memories, language, emotional state and all kinds of other stuff, which combines to present this whole scene to me.
This is a bit mind-bending, so spend some time convincing yourself of this if it sounds a bit fishy. It's important for what comes next.
Because what comes next is the recognition that, if what we experience is a representation as opposed to concrete, objective fact, and a big part of that representation comes from our interpretation of what's going on, then if we can change our interpretation - our view - then we literally change our experience. And since what we call 'reality' is actually our experience of reality, then by changing our view we change reality itself - at least subjectively.
Carrying a heavy bag all day is tiring
Some years ago, my partner and I went on holiday to Rome. It was really hot - absurdly hot, unnecessarily hot - and so it was an absolute requirement to carry a lot of drinking water with us, because we were spending pretty much all day every day on foot exploring the city. So each day I would load up a rucksack with four two-litre bottles of water, and even though we were drinking it we were also buying more water whenever we passed a shop selling it. That rucksack was heavy. I mean, wow. It was so heavy that when I took it off at the end of the day, I literally felt like I was floating around the hotel room for the next few minutes, because I'd let go of so much weight.
It's the same way with our minds. The more we're doing with our minds - and, in particular, the more that's going on in our representation - the 'heavier' our minds will tend to be. If we can shift our perception to a 'lighter' experience, we'll tend to feel more relaxed, peaceful and at ease, because we're not having to work so hard just to be alive any more.
There are all kinds of ways of tweaking our perceptions to move towards states of less 'fabrication', to use the technical term. A particularly good book on this subject is Seeing That Frees by the late Rob Burbea, which I highly recommend if this stuff interests you. In the last part of this article, we'll look at one way to move toward a reduction in fabrication with an emptiness practice.
Seeing the 'thinglessness' of things in direct experience
A friend recently said to me, 'We say "the lightning flashes", but the flashing is the lightning.'
What happens in our direct experience? Where does the sense of 'chariotness' come from?
On the desk in front of me is a teacup. When I see it, I see a certain visual appearance - a certain shape, a certain colour, the particular way it reflects the light. I can look at it from different angles, and see it in different ways. If I pick up the teacup, it feels a certain way in my hand; there's a texture, a weight. If I put it back down, it makes a particular kind of sound when it contacts the table. And, of course, if I put tea in it, I can drink the tea without it slopping all over the table.
So we have a collection of different types of sensory experience: some sights, some sounds, some feelings. These experiences are clearly all related to each other in some way, and so it's really convenient to put them all in a big box and stick a label on the box that says 'teacup'. Then, when I want to talk to someone about this and have them understand me, if we both use the word 'teacup' to refer to roughly the same set of experiences, we can communicate successfully.
So far, so good - but then, as with so many other things in our experience - things get switched around. Rather than continuing to relate to 'teacup' simply as a convenient shorthand, we instead get so used to the label that we start to focus more on the label than the experiences the label describes. And, eventually, we start to think that the 'teacup' was there first - in other words, there's a really existing teacup, and as a result of that we see the visual appearance of the real teacup, we feel the texture of the real teacup and so on. The label becomes the reality, and the actual experience is relegated to second place.
Unfortunately, at this point we're making more work for ourselves. Our sensory experience plus the simple concept of 'teacup' already contains all the information we need to get by in the world. The extra mental effort that goes into creating a sense of an 'inherently real thing' - a solid teacup, in a world of solid objects - is actually wasted effort. At least the bottles of water in my rucksack were useful - this is more like carrying around a bunch of rocks. We don't need them, and it's pretty tiring. Wouldn't it be better to put them down?
So how do we do this?
It's actually not so complicated, although that doesn't mean it's easy - we've spent a lifetime training ourselves to see the world in terms of inherently existing things, so merely reading an article about it is unlikely to do the job. We need to investigate this, and see for ourselves. First, we need to confirm that it's actually true - explore our immediate experience, realise that all we ever experience of 'things' is the sensory impressions and thoughts about them, never the 'thing' itself. Unfortunately, even this confirmation probably isn't enough to shift the underlying view right away - we need to keep looking, keep coming back to our direct experience again and again, until finally something shifts. Eventually, the world of 'things' vanishes without a trace, and your experience will become simpler, more direct, and much, much lighter.
And then you, too, will see that there really is no spoon.