Letting go into the universe
I've spent the last few days on a meditation retreat. If you aren't familiar with the concept, a retreat involves setting aside a period of time to remove oneself from daily life and focus on practice, often maintaining silence and restricting one's behaviour in other ways (e.g. refraining from watching TV or reading). It's often on retreats when the deeper insights and meditative experiences open up for the first time, because the relatively secluded environment allows us to set to one side all the usual clutter of our minds and go deeper. (More on that later.)
My main practice for this retreat was Silent Illumination. Silent Illumination is a very simple practice - another name for it is 'just sitting', the theory being that if you simply sit and do nothing, reality will reveal itself to you (eventually!). Essentially, the practice is about relaxing the core of our being until the contraction at the centre that we call 'me' relaxes, and we dissolve into the wider ocean of reality.
Relaxation is often included in meditation instructions, but it can be easy to skip over that step as 'just a preliminary', part of the warm-up before the 'real practice' begins. That's a mistake! Let's take a closer look at relaxation and see why it's so important.
Constriction and relaxation
In last week's article I used the metaphor of the zoom lens to talk about concentration practice - focusing on something is equivalent to 'zooming in' on it, while stepping back into our broader awareness is equivalent to 'zooming out'. I still think it's a reasonable metaphor as far as it goes, but there's an aspect missing which is crucial to practice, which we might describe as how 'tightly' the focus is being held.
In the Satipatthana Sutta - the early Buddhist discourse on the four ways of establishing mindfulness - one of the aspects in the third category of mindfulness practices is to notice whether the mind state is 'constricted'. (Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation uses the word 'contracted', and that's probably the more commonly encountered version these days, but both Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Ajahn Sujato translate it as 'constricted', and I like the mental image it gives me - of a fearsome snake wrapped around its prey gradually squeezing the life out of it - so that's the one I'll run with today.)
What does it mean for the mind to be 'constricted'? It's a little different to being 'zoomed in' (in fact, the sutta also talks about 'expansive' and 'not expansive' mind states, so it clearly isn't just a reference to having a narrow field of focus). Rather, 'constriction' is something to do with how we're holding the object of focus, whether large or small.
Pick up a small object, preferably something fairly sturdy like a pebble. Now, hold it in your clenched fist. Squeeze it! Really hold on tightly. This is a 'constricted' way of holding the pebble. It's quite unpleasant, isn't it? Now turn your hand so that the palm is facing upwards, and completely relax your grip, so that the object simply rests on your open palm. This is a 'relaxed' way of holding the pebble - and you'll probably find it's quite a lot nicer than the constricted way of holding it.
We can do the same thing with our mind. And it turns out that - unless you're particularly trying to explore what it's like to have a constricted mind - it's basically always more helpful to be relaxed.
(As I write this, I feel a little uneasy about writing such a categorical statement. So I'd encourage you to check it out for yourself! Explore what it's like for the mind to be constricted and relaxed, and see if you can find any situations where it's preferable to be constricted. If you do, leave a comment below!)
It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it
My teacher Daizan is a superb repository of pithy little phrases which seem very simple on the surface but are incredibly profound when you dig into them. One of these phrases is this: in any situation, there are two things going on - the situation itself, and our relationship to it. And while we often don't have much control over the situation, we can at least work with our relationship to it.
Some schools of meditation encourage us to try to eliminate 'negative' aspects from our experience - weeding out negative thoughts and emotions, for example. In Zen, however, we take a different approach. From the perspective of Buddha Nature, negative thoughts and emotions are just as much a totally pure, pristine manifestation of reality as anything else, and so there's no need to eliminate anything at all. What matters is not the content of our experience so much as the way we see and understand that content. Can we see even our afflictive emotions as Buddha Nature? (If not, keep practising!)
In the same way, it doesn't really matter whether our attention is focused on something large or something small - but it does matter how we're focusing. Is the attention soft and relaxed, or rigid and constricted?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about living a Zen life, bringing present-moment attention to everything we do all day long, and I mentioned Dahui Zonggao's advice to maintain the thread of one's practice throughout the day, reconnecting with it whenever there's a quiet moment. My partner subsequently pointed out that this kind of instruction, though simple and well-intentioned, can actually lead to someone getting themselves in a bit of a mess if they go about it the wrong way. (Unfortunately, I can describe this kind of mistake from personal experience!)
What happens when we notice we've become distracted? The standard instruction is to let go of the distraction and come back to the practice. So far so good, but how do you do that? It's easy to experience a moment of frustration - 'Dammit, mind wandered again!' - and in that moment of frustration, there can be a little bit of constriction in the mind, and when you return to the practice, your attention is now held just a little bit tighter than it was previously. Then, a moment later, your mind wanders again - dammit - and you come back again, gripping just a little bit more firmly again. Ten 'dammits' later and your meditation practice is starting to be a pretty unpleasant place to hang out. Your mind won't stay on the object, you don't know why, and your frustration is mounting.
Again, there's nothing wrong with experiencing frustration in meditation - it's a natural human emotion, the same as any other, just as much Buddha Nature as anything else. But equally - at least from a certain point of view - we do this practice to move ourselves in a certain direction, and repeatedly constricting the mind ain't it. So it's in our interest to be aware of this danger and practise in such a way that we don't make life harder for ourselves than it needs to be.
The importance of relaxation in practice
Many teachers strongly emphasise the importance of relaxation in practice - but if you're anything like me, it's the kind of instruction that's easily overlooked, or not understood to be of such crucial importance.
For example, when Chan master Guo Gu teaches Silent Illumination, he leads students into the practice starting with a whole-body relaxation process, and stresses the importance of physical relaxation as a continuing touchstone throughout the rest of the practice, both in stillness and in movement. (In the same vein, last time I wrote about Silent Illumination I noted that the relaxed body posture embodies the quality of mind that we're seeking to cultivate.)
My jhana teacher Leigh Brasington teaches a practice which is very different to Silent Illumination, but he also stresses the importance of relaxing. In fact, when giving the basic meditation instructions at the start of a retreat, he says that when you notice your mind has wandered, you should first consciously relax - every single time - before returning to your object.
The American teacher Bhante Vimalaramsi goes a step further in his 'Six-Rs' formula for dealing with distractions - his third step is to relax consciously, and his fourth step is to smile (technically 're-smile', so it starts with R…) - again, a smile is a physical manifestation of relaxation and deliberately cultivating a smile can help the body and mind to rest in a more relaxed state in general.
However you want to do it, relaxation is a vital part of practice - please don't neglect it.
Emptying yourself out to become free
Another mental image that came up during my retreat was of practice being a kind of emptying-out process. Life throws all kinds of stuff at us, and over time we end up carrying a great burden. Silent Illumination (and many other types of practice, such as the jhanas or the Brahmaviharas) invites us to sit quietly and begin to let go of some of that stuff - allowing it to release and dissolve, gradually emptying us out. A little practice every day helps to keep our load manageable; a retreat provides us with an opportunity to empty ourselves more profoundly, perhaps to the point that we can more easily see our true nature shining through all the junk we've piled onto it. When we leave the retreat, the stuff will start to pile up again, but over time we get better at letting it go - somehow it dissolves more efficiently, so we carry less of a burden in general and we can go deeper faster when the conditions to do so present themselves.
But we can't let go of our burdens if we're wrapped around them like a boa constrictor. If we're clinging tightly to each little bit of mental detritus, our practice may actually just remind us how much we're carrying. So it's crucially important that we're able to relax our grip - to let go of all that stuff, rather than gripping it even more tightly.
Please remember this next time you're practising and you notice that your mind has wandered. Maybe that little 'dammit!' will still slip out - but don't let that set the tone for the rest of the practice. Relax, soften, maybe even smile, and then come back to your practice. What you're doing doesn't matter nearly as much as how you're doing it - both in practice and in life.
Taking a look at our in-built zoom lens
There's a story in early Buddhism - specifically number 127 in the Majjhima Nikaya, the 'middle-length discourses' of the Pali canon, the collection of texts which purport to record the teachings of the historical Buddha - in which a householder, Pancakanga, approaches a senior monk, Anuruddha, with a question.
"Sir, some senior mendicants have come to me and said, 'Householder, develop the limitless release of heart.' Others have said, 'Householder, develop the expansive release of heart.' Now, the limitless release of the heart and the expansive release of the heart: do these things differ in both meaning and phrasing? Or do they mean the same thing, and differ only in the phrasing?"
In other words: these people are telling me to do one thing, but these other people seem to be saying something else. What's going on? Are these two ways of saying the same thing, or are they totally different?
This is a common question in today's oh-so-complex spiritual world as well. In the age of the Internet we have access to so many traditions, so many teachers and so many practices that it can be hard to tell what's what. (My website alone has about a dozen practices drawn from two different traditions.) Are there meaningful differences between them? And do they all end up in the same place eventually?
While you can find people at both extremes of the spectrum, I personally incline toward a moderate view. It seems clear to me that there's great commonality between the world's great contemplative traditions. Equally, though, there's a great diversity of methods available, and different ways of describing and understanding the territory that those methods lead us into, and those differences make a tangible difference to the practitioner's experience along the road. So, while I'm willing to believe that we're probably mostly heading up the same mountain, we're definitely taking different routes up, and some of the terrain is going to be quite different.
Let's get back to Pancakanga's question. Specifically, he wants to know about the 'limitless release of the heart' and the 'expansive release of the heart'. Are they the same, or different? It's a fair question! One person's 'limitless' might well be another person's 'expansive'. That's the problem with language in general - although two people might use the same word, the meaning behind it can easily be different, and sometimes the difference is enough to matter a lot. And that's the case here too.
"The limitless release of the heart and the expansive release of the heart differ in both meaning and phrasing. This is a way to understand how these things differ in both meaning and phrasing.
Anuruddha gives us a nice clear answer: the limitless release of the heart is not the same as the expansive release of the heart. Even better, he's going to explain what they are! (We don't always get an explanation in the Pali canon, so it's always nice when we do.)
"And what is the limitless release of the heart? It’s when a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. They meditate spreading a heart full of compassion ... They meditate spreading a heart full of rejoicing ... They meditate spreading a heart full of equanimity to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of equanimity to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. This is called the limitless release of the heart."
This is a description of Brahmavihara practice - the cultivation of four wholesome and beneficial emotional qualities, which I tend to translate as loving kindness, compassion, resonant joy and equanimity. (If you're familiar with Brahmavihara practice, you might wonder where the instructions to send each emotion to a friend, then a neutral person, then a difficult person etc. are. Those instructions are actually not found in the early discourses themselves, but were developed as part of the later commentarial tradition, to give people a more step-by-step approach to cultivate these qualities.)
OK, so that's the limitless release of the heart - what about the expansive release?
"And what is the expansive release of the heart? It’s when a mendicant meditates determined on pervading the extent of a single tree root as expansive. This is called the expansive release of the heart. Also, a mendicant meditates determined on pervading the extent of two or three tree roots ... a single village district ... two or three village districts ... a single kingdom ... two or three kingdoms ... this land surrounded by ocean. This too is called the expansive release of the heart. This is a way to understand how these things differ in both meaning and phrasing."
What's being described here is quite different to the Brahmaviharas. Instead of cultivating particular emotions, the practitioner is instead being invited to contemplate spaciousness - starting small, and gradually getting bigger and bigger.
What's this all about?
A mind like space
Take a moment to look around you. (I'll wait.) You'll probably find that your eye falls naturally on the objects, the things around you - computer, phone, table, chair, wall, floor, that kind of thing. You probably don't notice the space in the room - you look straight through it to see the objects.
And this is quite a natural thing to do - after all, 'space' isn't actually a 'thing', so much as an 'absence of thing'. But - as chapter 11 of the Dao De Jing reminds us - the space in a room is what makes the room useful. If there were no space in the room - if the room were a solid block of stone, with no doors or windows and no interior space - we wouldn't be able to enter the room, see into it or store anything in it. It wouldn't be a room at all.
So take another look around, and notice the space. There's the space between things, and there's also the space occupied by things. The space is not disturbed or marked by the coming and going of the things - the space doesn't try to cling to whatever object is placed there, and it doesn't feel sad when the object is taken away. The space is simply there.
And it turns out that our awareness is like this too. Awareness isn't a thing - you can search for it all you like (and you should - it's a good insight practice) - but you'll never find it. And yet without awareness, we wouldn't experience anything. But because we have awareness, we can experience everything - no matter how big or small, delightful or terrible. Awareness itself doesn't judge or cling, resent or reject - all of that comes later, arising within our awareness in the form of emotional reactions and thoughts.
Zooming in and out
Awareness itself has a kind of panoramic quality - we can rest in total openness, aware of all the sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings in our experience in a gentle way, and in fact that is where the Silent Illumination practice leads us.
Most of the time in daily life, though, we don't use awareness in that way. Instead, we use our faculty of attention to 'filter' our awareness, focusing on certain aspects of it at the expense of others. Sometimes we focus deliberately, but often our attention is drawn, seemingly automatically, to something in our experience.
Thus, many meditation techniques work deliberately with the attention, training it to go where we want it to. (Samadhi practice is basically all about training the attention.) And once we have a bit of skill with the attention, we can start to play with it in ways that can be quite helpful, especially once we start to notice the effect that focusing the attention has on our overall experience.
Focusing on something is a bit like 'zooming in' on it. If we focus on a particular sensation for an extended period of time (e.g. the sensation of the breathing at the nostrils), it can sometimes feel like the sensation is actually getting bigger. It isn't, but what's happening is that our mind is becoming so focused on the sensation that everything else is falling away - that sensation is becoming our whole (subjective) universe in that moment.
If we 'zoom in' on a pleasant sensation, or even a neutral one, the resulting experience is often very nice. Amongst other things, by zooming in like this, we take our attention away from the habitual negative thoughts and emotions which otherwise swirl through our minds. As a result, we tend to find those thoughts and emotions calming down and dwindling away, because we're no longer supplying them with the energy we normally invest in them. Thus, we become calm and peaceful, and have a nice meditation experience.
Conversely, at times we may find ourselves 'zoomed in' on something unpleasant, such as a feeling of fear, pain or sadness. Needless to say, having one's whole subjective universe become an experience of sadness is not especially pleasant. And while it isn't wrong to feel sad from time to time, it's also quite legitimate to use our meditative skills to alleviate the pain - at least so long as we aren't using those skills to avoid dealing with situations in our lives that do need some attention.
One way we can work with negative experiences is to 'zoom out' deliberately - using the same faculty of attention that we previously used to 'zoom in' on a pleasant or neutral sensation, but now moving in the other direction, opening out towards a more expansive view, bringing more of our peripheral awareness into the picture.
What we find in this case is that expanding the scope of our focus has a kind of 'diluting' effect on the unpleasantness of the negative experience. If you put a spoonful of salt in a small glass of water, the water becomes totally undrinkable, but if you put the same spoonful of salt into a huge freshwater lake, the net effect is basically nothing. In the same way, the great space of awareness can become a kind of refuge for us - a space which is vast enough, open enough, non-judgemental and neutral enough to hold whatever comes up for us without being overwhelmed.
So this is Anuruddha's invitation to us - to practise working with the scope of our attention, and in particular practising this 'zooming out' move, providing a greater and greater space in which to hold whatever's coming up for us.
Give it a go!
The marrow of Zen
Zen practice has the power to transform the way we experience our lives for the better. But how does it work? In this article we'll take a look at the meaning of 'insight' in the context of meditation practice, and how we might cultivate it for ourselves.
Meditative insight vs Buddhist philosophy, and why this article is a fool's errand
First, it's important to make a distinction between 'meditative insight' and 'Buddhist philosophy'.
Throughout the ages, both meditators and philosophers have explored the Big Questions. What is the meaning of life? How can we live well and be happy? Who are we, really? Where do we come from, and what happens when we die?
These kinds of questions can be approached in two ways, which correspond to two ways that we can 'know' something more generally. One approach is to use our intellect - to examine the question through logic, using evidence and careful reasoning to arrive at a conclusion, perhaps discussing it with others to take their perspectives on board. The other approach is to look at our direct experience - 'feeling' our way into the question as opposed to 'thinking' about it.
The world's great spiritual traditions have all amassed a great body of philosophy - carefully reasoned theories about the nature of the universe and what it means to be human. Buddhism is no exception - the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools of philosophy are particularly influential, but there are many more. Some people (myself included) find this type of philosophical exploration very interesting, and enjoy reading, thinking and arguing about it with like-minded people. If taken far enough, the study of philosophy can even change the way we see the world, by persuading us that our old ideas weren't quite right, and giving us a better way to relate to what's going on.
Insight-based paths such as Zen have a similar goal - changing the way we understand and relate to our experience - but approach it very differently. Rather than thinking about our experience, we explore our experience directly. When we pick up a cup of tea, we don't need to think about it using logic and careful reasoning to determine whether it's hot or cold - we simply know, immediately and directly. And if we'd never drunk a cup of tea before, no amount of intellectual analysis will really enable us to know what it tastes like - we can only do that by drinking the tea and experiencing it for ourselves.
Meditative insight thus seeks to change us through direct experience, rather than reasoning and persuasion. We examine our experience very closely, generally over and over again, until we at last come to see for ourselves what's actually going on, rather than having to rely on the argumentation of others.
Of course, the major drawback of this approach is that it's impossible for me as a teacher to give you the experience of insight. If we were doing philosophy, I could explain the theories and principles and we could debate them. But when it comes to insight, all I can do is point the way - you have to look for yourself.
Approaching insight practice
One approach to insight practice is simply to explore for yourself. If you hear a teacher say something (or read something in one of these articles) that sounds interesting, check it out for yourself! Maybe you start wondering where thoughts come from, or what exactly they are, or where they go when they vanish - well, take a look! Sit in meditation, take some time to settle your mind, and then look at your thoughts and see what's going on. Following your nose in this way can potentially be much more powerful than using someone else's technique just because they told you to - if you don't really care about the outcome of the practice, or you only have a vague, theoretical idea that it might be interesting, your practice is likely to be far less diligent than if you're exploring something that's of immediate personal interest. (Zen master Bankei likened using someone else's technique to a monk pretending to have lost their robe and searching for it. If you'd really lost your robe - by the way, you only get one, so you're naked until you find it again - you can bet that you'd keep hunting until it turns up. But if you're only pretending to have lost it, what happens when you start to get bored and hungry?)
That being said, over the millennia, various meditation techniques have developed which have proven to be effective at leading diligent practitioners to realise the key insights of the path. It's important to emphasise that the technique is simply a means to an end, rather than an end in itself - you might practise a particular meditation technique many times without learning anything of interest, and conversely insight might arise at any time, with or without a technique. But the techniques have been tried and tested throughout the centuries, and the ones that have survived the test of time are the ones that seem to work fairly well for a decent range of people. There's a popular saying in contemplative circles: 'Insight is an accident, but insight meditation makes you accident-prone.'
Where to look?
Different traditions have adopted different approaches for exploring phenomenal reality, and arguments have raged for millennia about whether the different approaches ultimately lead to the same insights or not. A fairly moderate interpretation, which I tend to favour, is that we're all climbing the same mountain, but different traditions have charted routes up different faces of the mountain, so the experience of climbing will be quite different for most - if not all - of the journey.
So let's take a look now at two different routes up that mountain...
Examining the perceived
The Theravada tradition of Buddhism focuses primarily on deconstructing the 'events' of our phenomenal reality - the sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts that come and go from one moment to the next. (Some ways of doing this are described on my insight practice page.) Over time, we come to see that whatever is seen, heard, felt and cognised is impermanent (subject to coming and going), unreliable (not a source of lasting happiness) and made up of the coming-together of various causes and conditions, as opposed to existing in its own right. As such, nothing is ultimately worth clinging to, because sooner or later everything in our experience will change and vanish. Although this might sound rather drab and depressing, in the long run it's a deeply liberating insight, because it allows us to let go of our craving to have things the way we want them to be. We can simply let go into the flow of our lives, and see what happens next.
Examining the perceiver
Whereas the Theravada tradition focuses mainly on the 'events' of our experience, Zen prefers to 'turn the light around' and focus on who, or what, perceives those events. What actually is this awareness? Where is it? What is it made of? What is it that looks out through our eyes and listens with our ears? What is our true nature, exactly - not who we think we are, but where is the essential essence of 'me' in our direct experience?
One classic Zen approach to explore these questions is koan practice. Here, we use the question itself as the object of our meditation - settling the mind, then turning our full attention to a question such as 'Who am I?' or 'What is this?' But rather than thinking discursively and analytically about it, as we might if we were taking the philosophical approach, we instead use the question as a way of going deeper into our direct experience. We bring the question to mind, focus intently on it, and then see what we notice as a result of holding this spirit of inquiry. At first, it's likely that we'll have all sorts of thoughts about the question, but in time these fall away, and the practice begins to go deeper, until finally insight dawns in a sudden 'breakthrough' moment.
The other practice most commonly associated with Zen is Silent Illumination/shikantaza/just sitting, which, in its usual form, is simply a matter of resting in a calm, alert manner, aware of whatever's coming up. The basic view here is that, rather than using a koan like a stick to poke at our experience and see what comes up, we instead come to rest and allow reality to reveal itself to us. In this way, we may naturally discover the truth of the strange concepts that we've heard about in Dharma talks or read about in books (or on this website). Some lineages of Zen are quite strict on this point, saying that one should never try to explore anything intentionally in shikantaza practice, but simply allow whatever arises to arise. Other teachers (such as Chan master Sheng-Yen, whose approach to teaching Silent Illumination has been highly influential on my own) allow for the possibility of incorporating insight practice explicitly into 'just sitting' - Sheng-Yen, for example, would sometimes advise his students to settle into the attitude of Silent Illumination and then actively contemplate emptiness or impermanence from that calm, alert place.
Establishing the conditions for insight to arise
One of the most interesting (and irritating) features of insight practice is that the reality we're investigating is literally all around us, right in front of our faces, and so we don't have to go anywhere special to find it - seeing anything clearly enough will do the job.
So how come we aren't all fully enlightened already?
Basically, because we aren't seeing it clearly enough. The role of meditation is to sharpen our metaphorical vision to the point that we can see what's going on as it really as, as opposed to how we think it is. Part of the role of meditation practice is thus to train our minds to focus and see more clearly, without the usual mental noise of habitual distraction and layers upon layers of interpretation.
In many traditions, meditation practices are split out into concentration/samadhi practices and insight practices. Samadhi practice is used to calm the mind down and enable us to see clearly, before we shift gears to insight practice and look closely at what's going on. A good approach is to use the first 50-75% of your practice time to settle the mind - e.g. with jhana practice, the Brahmaviharas, or the 'concentrated mind' step of Silent Illumination - and then the remaining time for insight work. Balancing insight practice with concentration is especially useful if you're taking an event-perspective, deconstructive approach to insight work, because deconstructing sensory experience tends to be agitating and unsettling, and you'll have a much better time of it if you have a calming, soothing practice alongside the deconstruction.
On the other hand, Zen tends to prefer to practise in a way that combines samadhi and insight. Silent Illumination is, by definition, the balance of stillness and clarity, calmness and clear seeing. And even though we tend to think of koan practice as a kind of insight work, it really involves a deep, single-pointed focus on the question at hand, as opposed to a discursive intellectual exploration of the topic or an active deconstruction of sensory phenomena - in a sense, you can look at koan practice as focusing your whole mind on the question mark. Some of the great Zen masters of history have described their experiences of 'breaking through' a koan, and it's clear to anyone with a samadhi practice that these masters were profoundly concentrated on their koan at the decisive moment.
However you prefer to practise, there's no getting away from it - insight practice is both easier and deeper with a calmer mind. Don't neglect samadhi!
The importance of going deep
Insight practice takes time, patience and repetition. Typically, you will need to examine your experience many, many times before insight arises, and you may need to experience the same insight directly quite a few times before it really sinks in.
There's a story about the first Zen teacher, Bodhidharma, which says that when he decided his time in China had come to an end, he called his four primary disciples together, and asked them to explain their understanding. To the first, he said 'you have attained my skin'; to the second, 'my flesh'; to the third, 'my bones'; to the fourth, 'my marrow'. Leaving aside how grisly this sounds, the implication is that all four had understood Bodhidharma's essential teachings, but to different levels of depth.
A shallow understanding can be interesting for a while, but rapidly fades and becomes just another weird thing that happened one day while meditating. A deep understanding can change our lives. So don't settle for skimming the surface - go as deep as you can, and when you think you've understood it all, keep going!
Change your body, change your mind, change your life
The subtitle of this article - change your body, change your mind, change your life - is the motto of my Zen sangha, Zenways. And while it's perhaps tempting to write this off as a tweetable marketing catch-phrase, there's a deep truth to it that I'd like to explore in this week's article. Zen practice really can touch every aspect of who we are and what we do - if we're willing to let it, and if we know how.
Levels of engagement, and Daizan's sports analogy
From time to time I teach mindfulness courses for beginners, and it's always interesting to see to what extent people are willing to engage with the material. I do my best to advertise up front the expectations of the course - a daily 30-minute meditation practice and various additional exercises - but often when people actually start the course, they find it's difficult to fit the practice into their day, or they simply aren't willing to give up their free time at all.
My teacher Daizan has a sporting analogy for one's level of engagement with meditation practice and the benefits that ensue. Some people use mindfulness as a kind of topical ointment when they're feeling stressed - do some practice when they're having trouble sleeping, perhaps, and then drop it again once they're back to normal. That's the equivalent of playing football every once in a while, when the mood takes you: it's enjoyable while you're doing it, but you don't really start to accrue any particular long-term fitness or skill from playing that way.
The next level up is the equivalent of playing regularly for an amateur team. Maybe you're in a local league, you attend training sessions, and you start to get quite a bit better at football. You're also developing a higher level of baseline fitness, which will have other benefits beyond simply playing the game. In a mindfulness context, at this point you've established a regular meditation practice which keeps going through good times and bad, and as a result you're starting to develop some side benefits, such as a generally higher level of focus in daily life, lower blood pressure, and greater resilience to stress rather than simply temporary relief from the symptoms of stress.
Then we have the professionals - people who have devoted a significant chunk of their lives. These are the salaried football players whose lives revolve around the game - training, fitness and performance have become part of who they are. In the meditation world, you're looking at people who may practice for several hours a day and attend multiple silent retreats throughout the year. For people at this level, the benefits go well beyond simple stress relief or even resilience - the deeper insights of the path will inevitably open up over time. From personal experience, I can say that there are quite a few people with this level of commitment out there, and it's always a pleasure and a privilege to meet someone with a deep practice like this.
At the top end are the world champions - those with unusual talent or skill. In the football world these are the celebrated players whose every movement is scrutinised by the sporting press. (I'm not going to expose my woeful sports knowledge by attempting to name some of them.) Thankfully the meditation world doesn't get that kind of attention, but nevertheless the most extraordinary practitioners develop a certain kind of renown. Some practitioners seem to reach a point where they can continue to sit in meditation without eating, drinking, sleeping or indeed moving at all for days or even weeks, for example. Whether these kinds of skills are really useful for someone with a family and a day job is really beside the point - the point is simply that there are incredible depths to this seemingly simple practice, and most of us are merely scratching the surface.
So let's take another look at that Zenways motto: change your body, change your mind, change your life. How can we do that?
Changing your body
When you see a phrase like 'change your body' in a spiritual context, you might immediately think of something like Yoga or Tai Chi. These are great practices in their own right, but they can also become powerful vehicles for Zen practice if we approach them in the right way.
At the heart of Zen practice is the notion of presence. In any moment of our lives, we can be fully present, entirely distracted, or somewhere in between, split between the present-moment situation and some other activity of our minds. Zen training is about becoming more and more present in an ever-wider range of situations, arguing that time spent distracted is time wasted, and that our lives are lived most fully when we show up for each and every moment of them. (If that sounds like hyperbole, check it out for yourself! Get your meditation practice good enough that you can see where your mind is going and what happens in your experience when you're focused versus when you're distracted, and then track it across many different situations.)
So a physical activity such as Yoga or Tai Chi not only has health benefits in terms of strengthening our bodies and making them more fluid and flexible, but we can also use the practice to train this quality of presence. As we go through a sequence of asanas or a form, are we present, or are we simply going through the motions? Are we focused on the physical sensations of the body and the subtle intentions of the mind, or are we thinking about something else whilst absent-mindedly copying the shapes the people around us are making with their bodies? And, actually, we quickly find that our physical practice goes better when our mind is on what we're doing, so both our Zen practice and our physical practice can benefit each other.
But Zen also has its own physical cultivation practices. Japanese culture places great emphasis on the development of the hara - essentially, the guts. I've previously written about Zen master Hakuin's energy practices, which are one way to train the hara (particularly the ah-un breathing, which is briefly mentioned in the article; there's also a guided audio version of the practice on my Audio page).
If you keep up a practice like ah-un breathing over a period of several weeks, you'll start to get a concrete physical feeling associated with the hara - as if your upper body is relaxing and your centre of mass has moved down into the abdomen. In the martial arts world, the hara is sometimes described as the 'stone ball', because when it's well developed it really can feel like your hara becomes a heavy ball.
Interestingly, in order to maintain a sense of connection with this 'stone ball' sensation, it's necessary for the upper body to stay relatively relaxed. This has a corresponding effect on the nervous system - physical tension is associated with the sympathetic ('fight or flight') branch while relaxation is associated with the parasympathetic ('rest and digest'). So by training the hara and maintaining an awareness of it in our daily activities, we actually train our bodies to be more physically soft and relaxed throughout the day, meaning that we don't get so stressed and have an easier time dealing with whatever comes up.
Changing your mind
The second part of the motto is the more obvious part - meditation involves doing something with your mind, so of course you're changing your mind. Simple, right?
Even here there are some subtleties, though. Psychologists like to talk about 'states' and 'traits': a state is a temporary experience, such as the condition of feeling briefly happy when you receive some good news, whereas a trait is a characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling or behaving that tends to remain pretty stable across time, such as being generally optimistic about the future.
Meditation can produce changes in both states and traits. Of the two, the state changes are usually easier to observe and show up more rapidly - for example, you might find that after just two or three meditation sessions you start to notice that you tend to feel a bit calmer afterwards, i.e. the meditation practice is changing your state toward one which is less agitated. But all states are temporary, and so if you get nice and peaceful in your meditation practice and then go straight back into a stressful environment, the calm state will probably wear off pretty quickly.
As I mentioned above in the section on 'professional meditators', our practice can take us beyond state changes. A dedicated practice over a period of years can retrain the mind's default states, shifting our traits - for example, a long-term jhana practice will lead to the practitioner experiencing more positive states naturally, irrespective of circumstances, while a committed practice of the Brahmaviharas tends to lead to practitioners becoming kinder and more compassionate by default. Insight practice can also lead to shifts in the way we see the world, fundamentally changing our relationship with our experience, and at the deepest levels even cutting the roots of suffering itself. These types of insights are most likely to open up in retreat conditions for people with a deep, committed practice, but can come up for anyone at any moment - there's a saying in meditation circles that insight is always an accident, but through deepening your practice you can make yourself accident-prone.
Changing your life
I once asked Stephen Batchelor how I could better integrate my Zen practice into my life, and he said that the question was already a mistake. It was better, he said, to ask how I could come to see my life as my practice. I've been chewing on that one ever since.
It seems to me that Stephen's essential point is that to distinguish between 'practice' and 'life' sets up a split between some period of time in our day when we 'do Zen', and the rest of the time, when we don't. Zen becomes a 'technique' or a 'training', like doing sit-ups in the morning, which confers certain benefits in the background but is largely forgotten outside formal practice times.
But if we come back for a moment to the basic principle of presence that I introduced above when talking about doing physical practices such as Yoga or Tai Chi, there's really no reason why the attitude of becoming ever-more present to whatever we're doing should be limited to physical exercise or meditation. Actually, is there any part of our lives that wouldn't go better if we paid more attention to it? Scientific research says no - people report higher levels of well-being when they're more focused on whatever they're doing, even when it's an unpleasant activity.
We can see this attitude reflected in Zen teachers through the ages. My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, constantly spoke of 'nari kiru' - becoming completely one with whatever activity one was engaged in, all day, every day. He said that this was the true and only way to live the Zen life. We also have the following classic Zen story, taken from a collection compiled in the 19th century:
Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: 'I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.'
Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in's pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.
But maybe this all sounds like a lot of work - far too much for modern-day people, with all our responsibilities and things to do. Well, it turns out that people have been too busy for a long time! Back in the 12th century, a Chinese teacher named Dahui Zonggao worked with senior Chinese officials of the Song dynasty at a time when northern China had been invaded by the Jurchen people. Chaos, destruction and continual fear of imminent death were the order of the day. Zen has always thrived in times of hardship, as people turn to the practice to help them navigate the difficult conditions of their lives, and so Dahui found himself working with many highly committed students who nevertheless had their hands very full indeed.
His basic approach was to give them a simple core practice (in Dahui's case, he recommended koan study, but whatever practice you prefer will do fine), and the following instructions. When working, or engaged in any other kind of activity, you should be 100% focused on your work. Simply do what is in front of you as completely as you can, not splitting your attention in multiple directions. (Nari kiru.) Then, when you find yourself with a moment of respite - perhaps while waiting for a meeting to begin, or travelling from one place to another - bring up the practice and reconnect with it, grounding ourselves physically and mentally rather than simply allowing the mind to wander. In this way, Zen practice threads through your entire life - sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, but never totally absent, never making that hard distinction between 'Zen' and 'life' that limits the potential of your practice.
Ultimately, Zen is a way of life. We do the practice not to achieve some kind of exalted state or spiritual trophy, but rather to live a Zen life - to be present, grounded, focused and engaged in each moment of our lives, no matter what our personal conditions might be.
May you discover your own Zen life.
A closer look at the path of Silent Illumination
I've written about the practice of Silent Illumination in several places already, but I've just spent a few days on retreat and feel the urge to take another crack at it, so here goes!
Awakening, non-duality and Buddha Nature
Zen practice points us toward awakening - a radical transformation in the way that we relate to our experience of the world. Awakening allows us to step out of the quagmire of stress, difficult emotions and conflict that characterises so much of our lives, unfolding a different perspective which is characterised not by the usual dualistic categories into which we normally divide our experience - self and other, good and bad, right and wrong - but instead by the seemingly paradoxical, intellectually slippery experience of non-duality.
Ordinarily, we see the world in terms of separate objects - me in here, everything else out there, clear boundaries between this and that. When we inhabit a world of solid objects, the relationship between those objects is primarily one of impact - we collide with the world, struggle against it, try to force it to move in the direction we want it to go. Through awakening, we can discover a much more fluid, flowing sense of reality, in which nothing is really solid or separate in quite the way that we had imagined. From this place of no separation, what we conventionally describe as 'problems' are seen as just another part of the unfolding experience, as opposed to a source of stress and conflict - it isn't that we lose touch with reality or become unable to function, but more that our resistance to the unfolding of the universe falls away. Over time we learn to trust and live from this place of non-separateness, and as we do so we find ourselves manifesting compassionate action in the world, living in accordance with our true nature, or Buddha Nature.
Traditionally speaking, the Zen path is usually described as involving an initial recognition of that Buddha Nature - a moment of waking up, called kensho (seeing true nature) - followed by a longer path of practice to ingrain this recognition of non-duality so deeply into our being that it becomes our habitual stance, and our Buddha Nature can manifest in the world for the benefit of all beings.
So how do we do it?
Silent Illumination as the embodied expression of awakening
Going back to the writings of Hongzhi, the 11th/12th century Chan (Chinese Zen) master who coined the term, Silent Illumination is actually a description of the awakened state - so 'practise Silent Illumination' is essentially an encouragement to rest in, and ultimately live from, our Buddha Nature. The 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen felt the same way, referring to 'practice-enlightenment' as one indivisible unit. For Dogen, you didn't practise meditation in order to become enlightened; your practice was your way of embodying and enacting your enlightenment. (Sounds easy, right?)
We could describe the practice of Silent Illumination very simply thus:
Set up the body in a relaxed, alert, aligned posture, with the eyes open. Become aware of the totality of your experience, making no distinctions. Continue to rest in this way.
We start with the body - we want to be relaxed on one hand, but alert on the other. Aligning the body helps with both the relaxation (because we can release unnecessary muscular tension) and the alertness (because if the body is aligned rather than hunched or curled up, we're more likely to stay awake).
What we do with the body exactly mirrors what we want to do with the mind. Our mind should be relaxed, fully open, taking in the totality of our experience; but at the same time we should be alert, bright and clear, aware of what is coming and going rather than drifting off into dullness and lassitude. As we maintain this bright, open awareness of our whole experience, refraining from dividing our experience up conceptually, we experience reality as it is - not carved up into objects, but not one meaningless soup of nothingness either. It's an experience that's impossible to describe in words, so I won't make any further effort here - all you can do is find out for yourself how it is, through practice.
Of course, if you haven't experienced it yet, then this might all seem pretty weird and out-there. You might even wonder if there's any point to practising in this way if you have no idea what non-duality means.
But this is the genius of Silent Illumination. We start by placing the body and mind in a condition which approximates as closely as we can the place we'd like to get to, even if we don't know what the place is like. By doing so, we set up the ideal conditions to cross over into the true experience of Silent Illumination - so all we have to do is keep practising, and sooner or later we will find ourselves moving naturally into awakening, gently and smoothly.
The Method of No Method
This is all well and good, but many people - perhaps most - find that it's basically impossible to do this 'pure' kind of Silent Illumination practice. The mind is too unruly, it wanders this way and that, and formal meditation just feels like 20 minutes of 'formal mind-wandering'. This type of experience can be difficult, frustrating, even feeling like it's a total waste of time, despite the teacher's best encouragements to 'just keep going'.
Taking a step back from Silent Illumination for a moment, the world's great spiritual traditions have tended to take one of two approaches to this problem. Some traditions follow this 'just go straight there' approach - Dzogchen and Advaita Vedanta both place a heavy emphasis on 'pointing out' our true nature and leaving it up to the practitioner to find their own way there, seeing any other kind of practice as a side-track, introducing artificial (and inevitably dualistic) activity into the mind, which - they would argue - simply takes us further away from our natural state.
Other traditions - like early Buddhism and Mahamudra - tend to proceed in a stepwise fashion rather than jumping straight to the end point. Here, we see the path of awakening presented in a series of stages, with a sequence of different practices intended to train and prepare our minds to wake up before we take the final step. Often, there will be some kind of samadhi practice - a kind of 'mind training' where we practise focusing our attention on some particular object, gradually cultivating our concentration and mindfulness - and some kind of insight practice - a kind of 'investigation of reality' where we examine what arises in experience through a variety of lenses which ultimately undermine our conventional, dualistic perspective on the world. Along the way, there may also be heart-opening practices which aim to loosen up some of the deepest tensions within our being, allowing us to open both to our true nature and to the people around us more easily.
Recognising that a stepwise approach could be helpful in many circumstances, the 20th century Chan master Sheng-Yen devised what he called 'the Method of No Method' as an approach to Silent Illumination - a series of stages of the practice itself, and a kind of 'map' of the different levels of experience which unfold as we proceed through the stages.
It's extremely important that we don't take this map too literally. You already possess the seed of Buddha Nature, and you don't need to pass through any stages or levels in order to realise it - you simply need to notice it and then learn to live from there. So if you ever find yourself in your practice thinking 'Oh, but I can't move on to that stage yet, I haven't had this experience', please drop that line of thinking at once - it simply doesn't work like that. Trust your direct experience and the spiritual intuition that will develop over time - if there's ever any conflict between the map and your intuition, follow the latter to see where it leads. The map is ultimately just another concept - but it can be a helpful one.
So let's now take a look at this map, and explore the stages of Silent Illumination.
1. Scattered Mind, and the first preliminary practice
The first stage is what Sheng-Yen calls 'Scattered Mind'. The good news is that you've already mastered it! This is the condition of most of us most of the time - distracted, half-doing one thing while half-thinking about something else, completely enmeshed in dualistic perception. This kind of experience is not something to be demonised - it's really just another thing that our minds can do, and ultimately we don't want to reject anything in our experience, because doing so is just setting up another duality between 'good experience' and 'bad experience'. Nevertheless, being scattered in this way is often a setup for having a really bad time, and the reason that these practice traditions exist at all is because this isn't the only way to be.
And so, we start to practise. We set up the body, upright, aligned and relaxed. Sheng-Yen then introduces his first preliminary practice: a progressive relaxation of the body. Typically we start at the head and work slowly down through the body, noticing any areas of tension, tightness or holding, and gently allowing these to relax and release, if that's available in the moment. Some patterns of tension are deeply held and will take time to work themselves out, and there's no need to rush or force this process. Nevertheless, the attitude here is one of moving toward relaxation. As the body relaxes, the mind will tend to settle too, and we'll tend to find that we become a little less scattered in the process.
2. Concentrated Mind, and the second preliminary practice
Even so, 'a little less scattered than usual' is still pretty scattered for most of us, so Sheng-Yen now introduces a second preliminary practice. Having done the progressive relaxation, we now bring a broad, gentle attention to the sensations of the body as a whole, and we rest here - perhaps for the rest of the session, perhaps just for a while.
This is a kind of samadhi training. We are training the mind to pay attention to something, notice when it's wandered and come back to the object of focus. As we continue to do this, over many sessions, our mind gradually becomes more responsive to our intention - as the early Buddhist texts describe it, 'malleable, wieldy and given to imperturbability'.
Some traditions like to use very small areas of focus (e.g. the breath sensations at the nostrils) and go deep into one-pointed stillness, allowing everything else to fall away. That kind of very deep, narrow samadhi isn't really where we're going with Silent Illumination. Rather, we want a broad, gentle resting of attention, which nevertheless is wide awake and aware of the changing sensations across the whole body. As we do this practice, we may notice thoughts, sights and sounds coming and going; we don't want to suppress or shut out those experiences, but we also don't want to take an interest in them. We simply let them come and go in the background as we stay focused on the body sensations.
(Sheng-Yen also has a whole other map describing the development of samadhi, which is worth checking out if you like this kind of thing.)
Although I've described this as a 'preliminary' practice, it can be a deep and powerful meditation in its own right. We shouldn't be tempted to rush past this stage to get to the good stuff - but, at the same time, if we try to stay here forever, we miss what comes next...
3. Unified Mind, and the limit of 'deliberate' meditation practice
At a certain point, we shift from focusing on the body sensations to a more inclusive awareness. We become aware of the totality of experience - sight, sound, body sensation, thought, emotion, the whole shebang. This becomes our new resting place. As before, the task is simply to remain aware, but now distractions take a slightly different form - we will find the mind 'grabbing on' to some aspect of awareness (a sound, a train of thought) and following it, at the expense of the rest of the experience. Whenever that happens, our task is simply to let go and open back up again, returning to the totality.
This shift of focus can happen in a few ways:
It's worth playing around with this. You might find that you have a preference, either to stay with the body sensations or to open up. Whatever your preference is, try the other approach from time to time. If you like to open up, try staying a bit longer in 'samadhi mode' sometimes before opening up, to see whether you find that you're a little less prone to distraction and can thus rest in the totality more easily. If you like to stay with the body sensations, open up from time to time, especially if you're waiting for the transition to happen naturally - it may be that you're holding the intention of samadhi a little too firmly, as a result of which you'll stay on the body sensations forever and the opening up will never happen by itself. It's especially important to make the move deliberately if you feel that your samadhi practice is rubbish and your mind is far too busy to move onto the next step yet - it's quite likely that the wandering thoughts in your mind are not the fatal obstacle you believe them to be, and you're simply setting the bar too high and being too hard on yourself. This is not a practice that requires perfection - and I say that as a long-time perfectionist myself.
One way or another, you end up with a practice where you are essentially 'holding the view of non-duality' - you've set the intention to remain aware of all phenomena equally, without discrimination. This is as close to awakening and 'true' Silent Illumination as you can take yourself. And it's a good place to be! Get used to hanging out here and you will eventually notice a subtle thread of contentment running through this experience. There are no problems to solve here, nothing to reject, nothing to change - your experience can be whatever it is and it's just fine. That contentment can deepen over time and become quite wonderful.
But we aren't quite there yet. We're still at the point where, on some subtle level, we're conceiving a 'me' who is 'doing something' in order to meditate - sitting in a certain way, doing a certain something with the mind, setting a subtle intention, etc. At some point, we must learn to let go even of that subtle somethingness.
4. No Mind
Chan master Guo Gu compares the stages of Unified Mind and No Mind by saying that Unified Mind is like looking through a perfectly clear window, whereas No Mind is like looking through no window at all. No Mind isn't something we can do deliberately, because the very act of conceiving a 'doer' who 'does' the practice contains the seed of duality deep within it, preventing No Mind from arising. But what we can learn to do, over time, is to develop a deep, stable Unified Mind and then let go of that last little piece of duality - and, rather than simply falling back into the mind-wandering of Scattered Mind, we instead cross over into No Mind.
In many respects, Unified Mind and No Mind are similar - both are characterised by non-duality, contentment and peace. But once you experience the shift from one to the other, the difference will be as clear as day.
Initially, we contact No Mind briefly - perhaps only for a moment - and it's a fragile, unstable experience. (At this point I'm supposed to do what all good Dharma teachers do and say 'Of course some people do become fully enlightened in one go, like the historical Buddha', but my experience so far is that it's a much more bitty process for 100% of everybody. Shrug.) But as we keep practising, we come back here again and again, and over time the experience deepens and becomes more robust. Ultimately, the aim is to learn to live from this place, in all circumstances and conditions. This seems to be a long road!
But, ultimately, that is the invitation of Silent Illumination - a life of practice-enlightenment, lived in accordance with our deepest nature, manifesting compassion and wisdom in the world for the benefit of all beings.
Disassembling the fabricated world
The historical Buddha described two qualities to be developed through practice: samatha ('calm abiding') and vipassana ('clear seeing'). (Very similar concepts show up in Zen in the form of the balance of stillness and clarity in Silent Illumination practice.)
These days, 'vipassana' is often used to refer to insight practice generally, but commonly means a specific type of insight practice, based around deconstructing sensory experience through increasingly fine-grained examination. It's an interesting mode of practice that brings deep insights into impermanence, and it can work well for people who don't get on with the Zen style. However, if you're a hardcore Zennist yourself, don't dismiss this out of hand - after all, no less a figure than Zen master Dogen said 'Impermanence is Buddha Nature.'
So how do we do it?
The process of deconstruction
The basic approach here is one of examining your experience in fine detail, with the intention of observing what comes and goes with greater and greater clarity. This approach can be applied to any object - the breath, the body sensations, a candle flame, a visualisation, whatever you like to work with. For the rest of the article I'll talk about using the breath, but if you want to try it with something else, go right ahead - the Vipassana police won't come knocking.
So you start by setting up your meditation posture, relaxing, settling in, and then directing your attention to the breath. Your task now is simply to see what's going on with the breath, as clearly as possible; any time the mind wanders, just let go of whatever the mind has taken an interest in and come back to the breath.
As you do this again and again, over time, you're likely to pass through a few stages along the way. (This model is heavily inspired by Michael Taft's podcast on deconstructing sensory experience, with a few tweaks.)
Before we get into the stages, it's worth saying that all meditation maps are approximations based on the most common things that people experience. Not everyone will experience all of these things, and it won't be hard to find a 'step 2.5' or whatever. Don't waste your time arguing about it - so long as you're moving in the direction of greater sensory clarity and deconstruction, you're doing it right, whether your experience is lining up with the stages or not.
We tend to relate to the world almost entirely through our concepts about the world as opposed to our sensory experience of the world. If the two phrases 'think about the breath' and 'pay attention to the breath' mean the same thing to you, that's an indication of what I'm talking about.
When we open our eyes and look around the world, we see coloured shapes. That's all the eye can ever see - the coloured shapes don't come with little name tags. But, fast as lightning, our conceptual mind jumps in and identifies those coloured shapes, splitting them up into the familiar world of distinct objects that we actually experience. (Notice, too, that there's no lag there - it isn't like you're constantly going through a process of having to figure out what each new coloured shape is. The world is given to you in your immediate experience already carved up into neatly labelled objects.)
So when you're contacting the breath at the level of the conceptual, you're primarily working with the intellectual knowledge 'I am breathing in', 'I am breathing out'. At this stage, meditation practice is likely to be mind-numbingly boring, and focus will be very difficult. The 'label' ('breathing in') doesn't change for the entire in-breath, and we're used to the idea that once we've successfully categorised something and it poses no immediate threat, we can ignore it and our mind can wander to something more interesting or relevant.
(Counting the breaths can help to make the practice a little more interesting at this stage, because at least the labels change from one breath to the next. But it's still pretty heavy going.)
In order to move beyond this stage, we must take the advice of the famous Zen master Bruce Lee - 'Don't think, feel!'
Rather than thinking about the breath, our task now is to feel the breath.
Consider what happens when you pick up a cup of coffee. Right away, without any effort whatsoever, you can feel whether it's hot or cold. At the moment your fingers make contact, there's an immediate, direct ***knowledge of the temperature. You don't have to think about it, and if it's too hot to handle you don't need to think the label 'hot!' before you can put the cup down again (although thoughts about having hurt your hand will most likely follow along a moment or so later).
Right now, close your eyes and move your fingertips slowly and gently over the surface of whatever device you're using to read this article. Notice all of the subtle details in the texture that you normally overlook because you're busy using the device rather than investigating it. Feel the tactile sensations that arise as your fingertips contact the device.
That's what I'm talking about. Don't think about the breath - feel the breath. Experience the sensations of the breath directly, without labelling them.
Once you make this shift, you'll almost certainly notice that the breath suddenly seems to be more interesting - and more involved - than it was at the previous stage. 'The breath' isn't just one sensation - it's lots of different types of sensations, changing over time. At this point, we might say that we've moved from 'the breath' to 'the collection of sensations making up the breath' as our object.
At this point, the practice becomes about increasing our level of clarity about that collection of sensations. That can mean different things to different people - perhaps you find it interesting to get very specific about the shape, size and spatial location of each breath sensation, or perhaps you want to dig deeper until you can notice ever-more-fleeting sensations, arising and passing with incredible rapidity, or perhaps it's actually the ever-changing quality of the breath as a whole that draws you in.
Whatever your approach, sooner or later, you will arrive at...
At this stage, any sense of 'the breath' as a distinct entity dissolves, and you're left instead with a continual flow of micro-sensations. If you're going down the route of noticing individual sensations that are shorter and shorter, the breath might 'break up' into flickering vibrations. If you're tuning into the flowing quality, the breath might instead take on a 'fluid' quality with no beginning, middle or end, just an ungraspable, ceaseless river of experience.
Either way, you've gone pretty deep at this point. You've tuned your attention in such a way that the mind is no longer fabricating the 'usual' perceptions of sensory experience. This is clear evidence of the mind-created nature of perception - and it can feel pretty cool, too!
But even this isn't the end of the story. We can go deeper still - to the complete cessation of conventional experience, an experience which, if recognised and understood, can bring about the shift into awakening, called stream entry in early Buddhism and kensho in Zen.
There are actually a few different ways that conventional experience can come to an end, depending on the type of practice you're doing. (Here I'm indebted to my friend Ron Serrano for producing a beautiful model that brings these three seemingly disparate experiences together.)
A common inquiry practice in Tibetan Buddhism is to investigate 'stillness, movement and awareness' - noticing what stays the same in our field of experience, noticing what moves or changes within it, and noticing that which is aware of both stillness and movement.
The kind of 'deconstruction' practice I've been describing so far in this article is focused on movement - we're looking at the comings and goings in experience, noticing the impermanence of the events associated with the breath. If we take this deconstruction and investigation of impermanence far enough, we will eventually arrive at a cessation - a moment where we have no 'movement' in our experience at all. Experientially, this is felt as a kind of 'gap' in our experience - like a few frames were deleted out of the movie of our life.
If you're more of a samadhi or jhana practitioner, you're focused primarily on stillness - resting, calm abiding, absorption. And, in just the same way that we can go progressively deeper by tuning more and more closely into the movement of impermanence, we can also go progressively deeper into stillness. In this case, we will eventually arrive at a pure consciousness experience - a moment where we remain fully aware but consciousness is totally devoid of content; simply pure, bright and undefiled.
If your style of practice is more along the lines of Silent Illumination/shikantaza/open awareness (welcome back, Zen people!), then as the practice matures you'll find yourself becoming interested in the mind itself - that which is aware of both the stillness and the movement. We rest in this open awareness, simply observing the mind's natural functioning without interfering with it in any way. And as the practice reaches maturity, we arrive at a moment of non-duality - a recognition that the events and the awareness of those events are not actually two separate things, but are one and the same. Our conventional dualistic experience ceases, and we recognise our Buddha Nature clearly.
What's the point?
So this is all well and good, but why would you want to do it? Is this just some elaborate way of getting high without having to locate some psilocybin? And haven't I previously written about how these grand experiences aren't necessary for insight?
The experiences described above are indeed not the only way to open the door to awakening - but they do work, they're time-tested, and they're widely practised, so it's worth knowing about them if only to understand what people are talking about when they describe their own wacky enlightenment experiences.
The basic point of all of these 'end points' is that they shift the mind far, far outside its usual mode of operation. Then, as the experience comes to an end, our mind returns to normal - in this crucial moment, we can actually watch ourselves reconstructing our conventional experience, and thus see beyond a shadow of a doubt that the conventional perspective is just something that the mind is fabricating for our convenience, as opposed to the absolute, undeniable truth of things.
In particular, as we reach an end point, our sense of being a separate, individual self 'in here', with everything else 'out there', is totally gone, and in the moments that follow we can watch this 'autobiographical self' putting itself back together. We see clearly, beyond any doubt, that the self is what my Zen teacher Daizan describes as 'a kind of optical illusion', as opposed to a real, enduring entity.
Punching a hole in the illusion of the self is the key to stream entry/kensho - it's one of three 'fetters' which are described as falling away at stream entry, along with sceptical doubt about the teachings (once you've had a transformative experience like this, it's hard to argue that the practice doesn't do anything) and belief in the efficacy of rites and rituals to bring about awakening (you had this experience because of your own practice, not because you paid a priest to pray for you).
So what then? Well, we have a lifetime of habits built around the self, and it takes a while to shake that off. At first, we will continue to find ourselves continuing to behave pretty much the same as we always have, even though we might feel a profound inner lightness or relief from suffering.
Over time, however, our view realigns. We come to see that we're not really the small, separate creatures that the conventional perspective would have us believe - we're part of the great network of interconnection that is the universe, no more or less important than any other part. Our self-centred stress begins to fall away, and our behaviour becomes more naturally compassionate and altruistic as we find ourselves wanting to make this shared life that we all live better for everyone, not just ourselves. Ultimately, we completely let go of the fixations and hang-ups which have caused us such difficulties in the past, and merge completely into the stream of life, with nothing held back.
So don't delay - deconstruct today!
Did Buddha fail?
According to the most well-known traditional story of the Buddha, he grew up as a wealthy prince, cut off from the outside world, surrounded by every sensual pleasure imaginable. Yet one day he decided to travel beyond the palace walls, and encountered an unwell person, an old person and a dead person. His upbringing was so sheltered that this was the first time he'd ever encountered such things, and they shocked him to the core. He asked his charioteer if he, too, would become unwell, grow old and die, and his charioteer said yes, these things were inevitable.
The young Buddha-to-be was thrown into an existential crisis, and decided to leave home in search of an answer to these fundamental problems. In later years he would frame his teachings in terms of 'dukkha and the end of dukkha' - usually translated 'suffering and the end of suffering'. In his first formal teaching, he defines dukkha as follows:
Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha, separation from the loved is dukkha, not getting what is wanted is dukkha.
That's a pretty broad definition! And, to make matters worse - and despite his claim to teach 'dukkha and the end of dukkha' - the historical Buddha did, in fact, grow old, become unwell, and eventually die.
So did he fail in his spiritual quest?
Suffering = pain ✕ resistance
One standard answer to this most fundamental of all Buddhist problems is to redefine suffering ('dukkha'). And while this might seem like a bit of a dodge, it really works, so let's take a closer look at it.
The move here is to make a distinction between 'pain', which is the physical sensation that results when you stub your toe, and 'suffering', which is the psychological anguish that ensues when you experience pain, or more generally anything you don't like. Looked at in these terms, any situation can be broken down into two parts: the situation itself, and your relationship to it. We're often not in a position to change the situation itself, but through meditation and mindfulness we can learn to adjust our relationship to what's going on - with powerfully liberating consequences.
Modern mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young has captured this dynamic beautifully in a simple mathematical equation: suffering = pain ✕ resistance. What does this mean?
You stub your toe. Your foot now hurts. That's what happens when you have a body and you collide part of it into a solid object at speed. Sorry. It'll most likely stop hurting in a while, but for now you have pain. That's the situation.
But you don't stop there. 'Owww! That really hurts! I really wish I hadn't done that!' 'Argh, I'm so clumsy, why don't I watch where I'm going?' 'Who left that there? I've told them not to! I'm going to find them and yell at them, because this is their fault!' That's your relationship to the situation - wishing that it were different, filled with self-criticism, judgement or anger.
What we can do to counteract this is to cultivate a practice of non-judgemental awareness, where we see clearly whatever is arising moment to moment, without trying to change it, without overlaying an expectation that it should be different. In other words, a mindfulness practice.
As we begin to develop some insight into our mental activity, we can see how we create and then prop up our own mental anguish through indulging in repetitive thoughts and negative emotions. Of course, we don't generally mean to do this - but we have the habit of reacting that way, probably because we learnt it at an early age from the people around us. And as we see into our patterns, we realise how much time we spent resisting what's here.
So, instead of resisting, we learn to find an attitude of acceptance. We recognise 'Oh, I stubbed my toe, now my foot hurts. No sense wailing about it - it's too late to take it back.' And so our experience still includes the physical pain of the hurting foot, but no longer includes the additional psychological misery caused by trying to wish the pain away or find someone to blame for it. As we shift into acceptance, the resistance drops to zero, and the suffering falls away with it.
Sidebar: what acceptance is, and isn't
Acceptance can be a red flag for some people. So, what, you're telling me I have to just lie down and let life roll over me? People should stay in abusive relationships and just accept them? We should accept social injustice and environmental destruction?
I'm not saying that at all. The kind of acceptance I'm talking about is not a passive submission to other people - it's simply a recognition that this is what's here right now. It's a willingness to see this situation for what it is, without that layer of how you thought it was supposed to be. You've already lost that battle. The universe has unfolded a certain way, it didn't go the way you wanted, and there's no Undo button.
However, in each moment we have a choice about what to do next. And we can make that choice most effectively if we aren't tying up most of our mental energy in wishing for a better past leading up to this moment.
If we can see this moment utterly without resistance, then two things happen. One, the suffering vanishes. And two, we're in the best possible position to make wise choices about how to respond to the situation - which can include taking action to address injustice, escape a toxic relationship, or whatever else needs to be done right now.
Going deeper: perception is reality
Up to this point, we've been talking about standard mindfulness 101. If you're a bit more experienced, you might be tempted to dismiss this as 'beginner stuff'. But do you actually put it into practice? All day every day? In all situations, no matter how difficult? Actually developing continuous mindfulness even of this 'basic' variety is a major undertaking - and one with transformative power if it's taken far enough. I have a long way to go on this myself, but I've gone far enough to know that it isn't just talk - it really works. But it's hard!
Even so, we can go further down the Buddhist rabbit hole. The model presented above - the situation, and our reaction to the situation - is useful in its own way, but it's also misleading in an important way. At the deepest level, the situation and our reaction to it are not separate at all - in fact, they're two sides of the same coin.
What we experience, moment to moment, is not actually 'reality in itself', but a representation of reality - a fabrication, in Buddhist technical jargon. One way of looking at it is that our senses take in information about our surroundings, which is fed up to the brain, and the brain's job is to assemble it all into a coherent picture of the world, which is what we then experience consciously. Our eyes are making tiny movements all the time, but our visual field typically appears to be stable rather than jerky - this is one of the ways you can tell that we aren't seeing anything as simple as 'things as they are'. Going deeper still, even concepts like 'sense organs' and 'brain' are also part of the fabricated experience - for all we know we could be brains in jars, or a line of code running in the Matrix, or whatever.
Making a distinction between 'the situation' and 'our reaction to the situation' can help us to disentangle ourselves from identification with thought and emotion, and find relief from suffering in the process. But ultimately both the situation and the reaction to it are part of the same representational experience - changing any aspect of it changes the whole thing.
As we come to see this more clearly, we may have a sense that reality is losing its substantiality. That's because the 'realness' of our perceptions is - here it comes again - just another part of the representation. And through practice we can learn to fine-tune that representation, and consequently experience things in different ways. We can learn to colour our experience with love, contentment or beauty; we can learn to see beautiful, awakened qualities in the most severe situations. The teacher Rob Burbea, who died last year from cancer, was a master of this kind of practice, and speaks very movingly about it in his final interview with Michael Taft.
This view of things might seem a little scary at first, like the rug has been pulled out from under us. But in the long run it's good news - we aren't victims of a merciless, implacable external world, of 'things as they are, and if you don't like it, tough'. Our experiential reality is a co-creation - mysterious, constantly new and fresh, full of possibilities. We can learn to see life as beautiful, no matter what's going on. And that's true liberation from dukkha.
Two notes of caution
Sometimes people find another way to use mindfulness practice to deal with pain: through distraction. After all, we spend all this time training our minds to go where we want to go - so why not put our mind in a nice safe warm bubble where we can totally ignore the pain? In fact, if you're good at jhana practice, after a while you can fairly easily escape to states where you have no perception of your body at all - so why not just do that?
The danger here is that we become cut off from the world. We practise anaesthetising ourselves to our experience, turning away anytime anything comes up that we don't like. In the long run, we become numb, and that isn't a good thing. The point of this practice is not to take us out of life so we can sit in a peaceful grey void until it's time to die; the point is to enrich our lives and give us greater freedom to move throughout all conditions, whether pleasant or painful.
So, don't do that.
The other question that can come up, particularly for people grappling with the deeper aspects of the fabricated nature of existence, is 'Does that mean the whole world is just in my mind?' And that's a dangerous line of thought, because it can rapidly turn into 'So it doesn't matter what I do, I can do anything I like and nobody gets hurt!'
Again, don't do that. Please don't become what one of my students once memorably described as 'an ethical husk'. When dealing with other people, you should always adopt a view that they're just as real as you are and just as worthy of respect and kindness. And if that perspective seems difficult to reconcile with the 'perception is reality' view described above - yeah. Learn to hold two opposing views in mind at the same time, or at least to shift back and forth as appropriate. At some point much further down the line you may find a way to integrate the two perspectives, but when you're starting out, there's still a lot of egocentric programming in your system and it's much too dangerous to allow yourself to believe that you can do anything you like without any consequences. At some point you'll wake up and realise that what you thought was a dream was actually a nightmare.
So please practise responsibly. If in doubt, work on cultivating all-day-every-day mindfulness, and take care of your relationships and ethics. With a solid grounding in engaged, compassionate action in the world, you can then reap the benefits of freedom from suffering.
May all beings be happy.
When the mind doesn't want to cooperate
Talking about difficulties in practice is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can be helpful - especially if you're new to meditation - to hear that the challenges you're facing in your practice are universal experiences, rather than a particular failing which indicates your personal unsuitability to meditate. On the other hand, focusing too much on the difficulties that can arise can make you more sensitive to them, and thus make them seem like bigger problems.
In the tradition of early Buddhism, they clearly weren't worried about the latter point, because the early discourses regularly talk about the Five Hindrances, a set of common challenges that all meditators encounter sooner or later. Naming and shaming the Hindrances in this way can be very powerful, both for better and for worse. By giving them names and specific descriptions, we develop a language to talk about our practice, to identify more easily what's going on and what we're finding difficult, and to work with the challenging condition that's coming up. On the other hand, giving something a name (and especially a capital letter!) makes it feel more like a Big Real Thing, and thus can actually make it more difficult to deal with.
We don't want to get to the point where, as soon as we recognise a Hindrance, we simply throw in the towel - 'Oh no, the Hindrance of Restlessness, I'm done for!' Rather, knowing about the Hindrances is useful precisely because it can help us to work through them and keep going with our practice.
So, with that in mind, let's take a look at a meditation session featuring a multi-Hindrance attack.
The worst meditation session EVER
So I sit down, get comfortable, start paying attention to my breath. So far, so good.
After a couple of minutes, I notice my mind is wandering. Specifically, it's wandering to cookies. I like cookies. And I know where I can get the good ones, the triple chocolate ones. Maybe I'll go and get some as soon as this meditation session is over. When's that going to be, anyway? Because I really want these cookies!
Uh oh. I see what's going on here. This is the First Hindrance, Sensual Desire. I'm caught up in wanting something - specifically those lovely, lovely cookies. But OK, I've been doing this a while, I know how it goes. I recognise the arising of craving and gently let go of it, coming back to the breath.
And it works. Maybe not at first, but after a few lettings-go, my mind gets the message. The cookies are set to one side for now. (They'll come back later.)
But then a car draws up outside, stereo blasting loudly enough to make my teeth rattle. I hear the car door open - the stereo still going, the engine still running. Someone come to visit a friend? Yep, I can hear voices. And the engine is still running, and the stereo is still going. That's pretty annoying, not to mention bad for the environment. How inconsiderate! Maybe I should say something? Maybe I should go out there and give that guy a piece of my mind! How dare he interrupt my meditation session like this?
Oh. Right. The Second Hindrance, Ill Will. The noise is annoying me and that's leading to anger directed at the source of the noise. The trouble is, I can't just 'let go and come back to the breath' this time - the noise is way too loud, and my attention might as well be glued to it.
Fine. I have another move - I can accept that this new state of affairs has arisen, and incorporate it into my practice. Rather than staying narrowly focused on the breath, I can shift to a more open awareness practice which includes both the breath and the noise from outside. Much better - now I'm not fighting with the sound to get back to my breath; even the anger is allowed to be there, but actually now that the struggle has stopped, the anger quickly evaporates too. Cool.
...What? Oh yeah, meditating. Think I might have dropped off for a moment there. Feeling... pretty tired actually. Each time I blink my eyelids take a little longer to come back up.
...Whoops, another lurch. Nearly fell off the cushion that time.
Oh, dang it. This is the Third Hindrance, Sloth and Torpor - dullness, drowsiness, falling asleep. I have to be a bit careful with this one, because when I've previously tried to accept it, I've just fallen asleep. This time I might need to take a more active step to counteract it.
So let's investigate - let's really go into the experience. What, specifically, does it feel like to be drowsy? How are my mind and body different to their non-drowsy condition? How clear can I become about how it feels to be drowsy?
Ah, good, that seems to be working - I'm getting a bit more energy now.
...Hmm, actually, maybe a bit too much energy. I'm now feeling kinda antsy, like that time at university when a friend had just bought a new espresso machine and we drank about eighteen cups each and didn't sleep for three days. I'm getting fidgety and uncomfortable. Surely it must be time for the bell to ring - I must have been here at least three hours by now. (I sneak a glimpse at the timer.) Fifteen minutes? You've got to be kidding me! I don't think I can survive to the end of the meditation session. Maybe I should stop early, or get up and do walking meditation, or think about something else to distract myself to make the time pass more quickly...
Oh, good grief. The Fourth Hindrance: Restlessness and Worry. OK, let's try letting it go. Nope. Accepting it? I'm going to tear my own face off if this carries on much longer. Investigate it? Yup, that's really unpleasant. So unpleasant that it's making me even more restless.
OK, it's time to bring out the big guns. Each of the Hindrances has a set of traditional antidotes. The one I like best for Restless and Worry is the practice of contentment, so let's flip over to cultivating contentment. (Fortunately, I practise both the Brahmavihara of Equanimity and the third and fourth jhanas, so I have some tools available to connect me with contentment without too much difficulty.)
Ahh. That's better. Relaxing into contentment. After a few minutes of that, I'm settled enough to go back to the breath.
Except... Good grief. This session has been a bit of a train wreck, hasn't it? I started out trying to focus on the breath but I've spent nearly the whole time dealing with Hindrances instead. Maybe I'm just not cut out for this meditation stuff. Maybe I'm doing it wrong, or maybe I've chosen the wrong teachers, I'm not sure, but either way it isn't working. Maybe I should give up meditating entirely and spend more time focusing on Tai Chi or something. I should at least try to find something I'm good at rather than persisting with this ridiculous endeavour.
This is the Fifth, and most insidious, Hindrance: Doubt. Doubt in yourself and your own abilities; doubt in the teacher; doubt in the path of practice. According to the early discourses, this kind of doubt was the final obstacle that the historical Buddha faced before his enlightenment.
But then I think of my teachers; Leigh, Daizan, Michael. They're all pretty remarkable people, each in their own way. It's evident that the practice has helped them, and I've seen them working tirelessly to help me along the path too. And even if I'm having a hard time right now, maybe I can trust that it'll get better, that not every meditation session will be a multi-Hindrance attack like this one. Maybe I can just focus on following the instructions, and put these thoughts to one side. Wait, hope, trust. Keep going, no matter what.
And then the bell rings.
The Five Hindrances
So let's go through those again.
More generally, any kind of attraction - any kind of strong 'movement towards' something.
More generally, any kind of aversion - any kind of strong 'movement away from' something.
Drowsiness, dullness, going blank, drifting. At a subtle level this one can be hard to spot because it can feel like your mind is becoming calmer, but actually you're just losing clarity. At a stronger level, it can be a real battle to stay awake.
It's worth saying that most of us are chronically sleep-deprived, and if you regularly find yourself falling asleep when you meditate, you might want to get a bit more sleep. On the other hand, if you're drowsy in meditation but then feel fine as soon as the bell rings, that's a sure sign that you were experiencing the meditative Hindrance of sloth and torpor.
Fidgety, itchy, incessant mind-wandering, irritability, any kind of agitation - all of these are signs of restlessness and worry. Most people have one Hindrance that predominates in their practice, and this one is mine for sure, so if you struggle with it too, I feel your pain!
As mentioned above, this is the most insidious of the lot, because it corrodes your practice from the inside out. Over time, you find yourself sitting less and less, maybe looking up articles on the Internet about how meditation isn't all it's cracked up to be, worrying about scandals involving meditation teachers and so forth, building up a body of evidence to justify your inevitable decision to stop practising.
Please don't do this. Find a good teacher, and/or some trusted friends who are into the practice. Connect with others, and let them support you through the hard times. Traditionally, we talk about the Three Jewels of Buddhism - the Buddha (symbolising the teacher), the Dharma (the teaching and path of practice), and the Sangha (the community of fellow practitioners). Many of us in the West are solo meditators, living without a Sangha of any kind, but that's a hard path to walk - it's much easier with friends.
Dealing with the Hindrances
All the big-name teachers seem to have cute little formulae for their teachings these days - Stephen Batchelor's ELSA, Tara Brach's RAIN - so I'm going to offer a formula for dealing with the Hindrances that I'll call RAGU, like the pasta sauce. (Mmm, pasta.)
Throughout the early discourses, Mara, a devil/tempter figure periodically shows up and tries to discourage the Buddha from doing whatever he's doing. The Buddha's response is always 'I see you, Mara', and poor old Mara ends up walking away, feeling sad and dejected, having failed to work his mischief yet again.
Sometimes, all we need to do to deal with a Hindrance is to notice it. 'I see you, Ill Will,' and back to the breath - job done. Simply deal with the Hindrances the way you would any other distraction in meditation - notice them, let them go, come back to the practice.
Sometimes a Hindrance just won't go away despite your best efforts to recognise it and let go of it. In that case, if you keep trying to drop it, you're setting yourself up for an internal struggle - you're essentially saying that the present moment is fundamentally wrong due to the presence of the Hindrance, and you're going to fight and fight until you fix it. But this kind of rejection of the present moment runs counter to the deep acceptance of reality that we must ultimately cultivate in our practice, in addition to being very unpleasant at the time.
So, if simply recognising the Hindrance isn't enough to shift it, you might need to adjust the scope of your practice to incorporate it. Generally speaking, more open practices are better for this - for example, if you try to pay one-pointed attention to your breath at the nostrils in a busy airport lounge, you're probably going to have a hard time, but something like Silent Illumination or a gently radiating metta is likely to be much easier.
Sometimes our 'acceptance' of a Hindrance turns out to be a sort of sneaky way of making it go away, as opposed to a genuine acceptance. Unfortunately, we can't fool ourselves in this way. True acceptance of a situation will tend to make that situation much more workable, but 'pretending' to accept the situation may actually make it worse.
If you can't get all the way to genuine acceptance of the Hindrance and you're still stuck with it, you might as well work with it directly. Investigate it - really go into it in detail, in the same way that you might investigate the breath or a koan. Get to know it in precise detail. Explore it, see what's going on.
As you make the shift into an active exploration, you're more likely to reach a place of genuine acceptance - in order to investigate something, you actually need it to stay around long enough to be investigated, which means it's OK for it to be there, at least for now.
(As an aside, if you struggle with boredom in your practice, use the opportunity to investigate how it is to be bored. Once you get interested in being bored, you'll never be bored ever again...)
There are various lists of antidotes for each of the Hindrances - you can find a great big list on Access To Insight.
Some of my go-to antidotes:
Final word: don't take the Hindrances too seriously!
The Hindrances are universal human experiences. They show up for everyone from time to time. But don't worry about it - you'll get through them. Everyone does, sooner or later. If it helps you to name them, or to use RAGU, or to have a list of antidotes memorised, then great; but if all that just gets in the way and gives you something else to worry about, forget about it - just keep sitting, doing your best to follow the instructions of the practice you've chosen to undertake. If you take care of the practice, the benefits will take care of themselves.
Escaping the wheel of Samsara, and why you'd even want to
A central, and controversial, feature of early Buddhism is the doctrine of rebirth. In this article we'll take a look at what it meant in the time of the Buddha, what it means to us now, and how to make sense of it as 21st century practitioners.
The views presented herein are not what would be considered 'orthodox Buddhism' by the majority of practitioners worldwide, and no offence is intended toward anyone with a traditional understanding of rebirth. My aim here is instead to make these teachings accessible to people who don't resonate with classical Indian metaphysics.
The challenge of translating teachings across 2,500 years
Buddhism is a bit of a mixed bag sometimes. Certain aspects of it are clearly perennial and speak to universal human problems - for example, the notion of the impermanent nature of all things, that in the long run we are separated from everything we love and hold dear. Teachings which help us address our existential situation - the evidence of which we can easily see all around us - are clearly valuable.
But then there are bits that need a bit more translation to make sense. The concept of anatta, for example, is a tricky one. Usually you see it translated these days as 'non-self' or 'not-self', and teachers will typically talk about how our sense of self is a kind of illusion. But when we see or hear the word 'self', we tend to view it through the lens of Western psychology, influenced by Freud and Jung, with concepts like ego and id, shadow and Inner Critic. In the time of the Buddha these concepts didn't exist - and, actually, anatta was a rejection of the Indian spiritual doctrine of the 'atta' or 'atman', a kind of 'eternal soul' that was seen as a kind of 'fragment' of the divine Brahman. Indian religion at the time of the Buddha was typically concerned with how to reunite the atman with Brahman and escape the wheel of Samsara; Buddha was pushing back on that notion, by pointing out that, no matter what part of your experience you examine, you can't find this supposedly eternal, unchanging 'atman'. That would have been a striking, challenging statement in the context of a classical Indian spirituality that was built around this concept of atman. But since you and I probably aren't starting out with a clear idea of what the atman is and why it's so important, it isn't obvious why we really need to negate it.
Hence most teachers tend to do a bit of sleight-of-hand, and reinterpret the classical terms in a way that makes sense to modern audiences - while staunch traditionalists point out that by doing so we risk missing the point of what the historical Buddha was actually talking about, because we've 'reinterpreted' his teachings to the point that they no longer bear any resemblance to the origins of the Buddhist path.
With that in mind, let's take another look at that 'wheel of Samsara' that I casually threw in a moment ago.
Cyclic existence and rebirth
Many of the discourses of early Buddhism talk about a process of 'rebirth'. You live, you die, you are reborn in another body as another person. And, because life is suffering (the First Noble Truth), this means that we're doomed to suffer forever and ever. Which sucks. This endless cycle of rebirth into a world of suffering is called Samsara (literally 'wandering'). So what we want to do is escape Samsara and never be born again - which is why practitioners who have reached the third stage of awakening are called 'non-returners', because even if they don't achieve full awakening in this lifetime, they at least won't be reborn into Samsara yet again.
Wait just a second, though. There are a number of problems with this. One is that, if we don't have an eternal atman after all, then what exactly gets reborn from life to life? That's a particularly knotty problem that has troubled Buddhist philosophers for millennia, and led to a variety of creative responses and doctrines, many of which bring back a kind of 'eternal true self' in the form of Buddha Nature.
Leaving aside the philosophy, though, a more obvious objection for modern readers is 'What's so bad about being reborn anyway?' If anything, most of us would be quite happy to be reborn again and again and, effectively, live forever. Wouldn't it be cool to be still around in some form a thousand years from now, go into space and terraform Mars, and so forth?
But this latter objection highlights another crucial way in which our world view is different to that of the classical Buddhists. They saw time as cyclic, whereas we see it as linear.
What does that mean?
Cyclic existence is a pretty alien paradigm to us now (unless you're a fan of the reboot Battlestar Galactica, I guess), but it actually makes a kind of sense if you live in the natural world and observe the fact that everything comes and goes in cycles. In spring, flowers burst forth; in autumn, everything dies off; the following spring, the flowers are 'reborn' and sprout up again. In just the same way, old people die, and new people are born. So we can form a kind of naturalistic picture of the world in which rebirth follows death as naturally and inescapably as death following birth.
Now, when you combine the cyclic nature of existence with the troubling problem of suffering, we end up in a Groundhog Day scenario. We're born into suffering, life is suffering and death is suffering too - and then it happens all over again, basically the same as last time. In this world view, nothing ever really changes - we just suffer over and over and over. Ouch.
We don't think that way. The Western conception of history is shaped by the stories of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) in which things change. Adam and Eve screw up, and are kicked out of the Garden of Eden - never to return. The Israelites escape their slavery in Egypt and travel to the Promised Land - they don't just stay stuck in endless slavery for the rest of time. After you die, you don't come back to Earth for another go-around - you (hopefully) move instead to Heaven, where everything's great, there's no suffering and you live forever.
More conventionally, we talk about 'progress' - moral progress, cultural progress, scientific progress. The whole idea of science, actually, is based on the idea that we can improve and refine our ideas across successive generations of research and innovation. Humanity as a whole changes over time as we learn and grow.
In the context of change and growth - particularly if you see that change and growth as being pointed to or convergent on something better - then why wouldn't you want to be reborn? Right now things might be a bit rubbish but they'll be better in the next life! So the prospect of doing Buddhist practice in order to ensure that we won't be reborn seems pretty weird to us.
So what are we going to do with this? Attempt to convince ourselves that time really is cyclic after all? That's a hard sell - we're so steeped in a different world view that it's extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to retrain ourselves to see things in cyclic terms. Alternatively, we could ignore rebirth completely, as many modern Buddhists do - but then we can't help but squirm or fidget every time we encounter the concept in a discourse or teaching. Is there a third way?
Escape from Samsara in this very life
Many teachers point out that the Buddha often talks about the Eightfold Path as showing the way to liberation in this very life. Not just at the point of death - ahh, no more rebirths, so no more suffering - but even while we're alive. (In Zen you'll sometimes find the imagery of 'dying before your death' as a poetic, if slightly grim, allusion to the same thing.) By looking at the way the Buddha described this liberation, we can see another way of understanding Samsara - this idea of being trapped in an endless cycle - which accords much better with our direct experience, and isn't at odds with our world view.
We've all had the experience of trying to break a bad habit (or form a good one) - and finding it surprisingly hard! No matter how sincerely we want to stop eating unhealthy foods, we find again and again that the habit has taken over our behaviour, and there we are yet again, doing the very thing we said we were going to give up. We find ourselves trapped by ourselves, unable to break out of this recurring loop of behaviour.
The Buddha wanted to know what was going on here - why we do things we don't want to do, why we allow ourselves to be pushed around by our instinctive, habitual reactions to our environment. Why can't we follow through on our intentions? What actually happens in the moment when we lose our presence of mind and fall back into the same old habit yet again? And how can we cultivate that very presence of mind so that we don't lose it in the future?
That investigation, as simple as it sounds, is ultimately what led to the formulation of the Four Noble Truths, one of the most foundational aspects of Buddhism. The Buddha observed four key points:
And so it's precisely through cultivating this presence of mind - more commonly called mindfulness in Buddhist circles - that we can escape the cyclic existence of our habitual reactions, and be liberated from a kind of Samsara in this very life. This reclamation of our autonomy, this process of becoming more fully alive in each moment, is of value to everyone, no matter what we might believe about death, rebirth and the nature of time.
A handful of fingers pointing at the moon
One of Zen's most iconic practices is known by a variety of names - just sitting, shikantaza, Silent Illumination. This week we're going to take a look at how one of the great Zen masters of history, the 12th century Chinese Chan teacher Hongzhi Zhengjue, described Silent Illumination, and how the practice has come down to us today through a variety of different routes, leading to a family of related-but-subtly-different approaches.
Hongzhi's Silent Illumination
Hongzhi lived in the 11th and 12th centuries, and was a contemporary of Dahui Zonggao, another very important Chinese Chan/Zen master who formulated the style of koan practice which is most commonly used in Rinzai Zen lineages these days. Hongzhi didn't invent Silent Illumination (there are arguments that it can be traced back to the historical Buddha), but his conception of the practice has been hugely influential on the schools that came since. (The founder of Japanese Soto Zen, Dogen, refers to Hongzhi in his writings more than any other Zen master apart from Dogen's own teacher.)
Hongzhi describes Silent Illumination in this way (translations taken from Guo Gu's marvellous book Silent Illumination, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in this mode of practice):
Sounds pretty nice, doesn't it? But what on earth is he talking about?
Returning to the source
The Silent Illumination that Hongzhi describes is known by many names in different traditions: Buddha Nature, the Ground of Being, primordial awareness (rigpa), mind-essence. If we're coming from a modern, scientific world view, we might instead talk about coming to understand the nature of our conscious experience, seeing how the brain weaves together perceptions of ourselves and the world from the data coming from our senses.
There's a deep paradox at the heart of this kind of teaching. On one hand, we're discovering the fundamental nature of our experience, our basic Buddha Nature. This is something we already have - it isn't something that anyone else can give us or take away from us. But then if we have it already, why isn't it obvious to us? Because the fact is that it isn't obvious to us without practice - if it were, we wouldn't need to practise! Typically speaking, instead of perceiving our Buddha Nature directly, we experience the world very differently, through many layers of identification, contraction and separation.
Before someone has done any practice, it's very common to be identified with our thoughts. We have so many thoughts, all the time, that it seems like we're always thinking - in fact, people often use the terms 'think about' and 'pay attention to' interchangeably, as if they're the same thing. So one of the first discoveries in a meditation practice is that they're not the same at all - we can pay attention to the physical sensations of the breath or the body without thinking about it at all. Thoughts are discrete mental events - mental images, mental talk or sounds, and depending on where you want to draw the line you might include emotions, intentions and so on as well. But all of these are simply events which come and go in our experience, just like the sights and sounds around us. We can pay attention to our experience even in the absence of thought.
The next layer down is the personality - our sense of who we are as people. This is formed at a very early age - notice how adults are always asking children 'What's your favourite food?' or 'What do you want to be when you grow up?', encouraging them to define themselves concretely so that the adult has a better sense of 'who the child is'. And, of course, there's a deep truth to this - we do have very deep, strong patterns in our thoughts, emotions and behaviour which can quite accurately be said to be an important part of who we are. But notice also that who we are changes significantly depending on the situation - who we are at work is not who we are at home, or when visiting our parents, or when hanging out with friends. As we move from situation to situation, we pick up and put down different roles - different aspects of our personality. So this, too, comes and goes - and, through practice, we can find a perspective in which those things are seen to be simply empty constructs of the mind, rather than 'really true' features of reality.
But this exploration can take us deeper still. Even basic features of our experience like time and space turn out to be empty constructs too - techniques that our minds develop to help organise our experience. (Again, you can see this in young children, who haven't yet developed a conventional sense of time or spatiality - they don't have an inner calendar that extends beyond 'now!' or a mental map of the world beyond their immediate surroundings.) And, at the deepest level, even the sense of duality - the clear, obvious difference between this and that, self and other - turns out to be just another mental construction. This is what Hongzhi means when he talks about 'relinquishing external objects'.
But hang on - who wants to go back to the mental state of a newborn infant? That sounds terrible!
Fear not. This practice does not require you to become dependent on a parent to keep you alive. You've already done the work of developing the mental models of time, space and duality; you've developed a sense of who you are as a person, and you've learnt to use your thoughts to solve problems. You aren't going to lose any of that.
What we are going to do, however, is break the stranglehold that these empty concepts have over us. We've seen the world through the lens of thought and conceptuality for so long that we tend to believe everything our thoughts tell us - and with that identification with thought comes a lot of suffering. Once we realise that we aren't our thoughts - they're simply mental events that come and go - negative thoughts lose their power over us, and we don't get so carried away by positive thoughts either. Similarly, as we see the emptiness of the personality, we can let go of our need to 'defend' our sense of who we are against threats and criticism. Ultimately, we can find the peace and beauty that Hongzhi describes.
OK, so how do we do it?
Here's the tricky part. Hongzhi wrote a lot about the experience of Silent Illumination, but he didn't leave much in the way of a method. In fact, at one point in his writings he even says that it can't be 'practised' because it's intrinsically complete. Again, this paradox comes up again and again in spiritual practice - in a sense, there's nothing to do, because you already have it. But - to borrow a phrase from the Tibetan Dzogchen teacher Lama Lena, it will not have been so until you notice it for yourself. So we still have to find a way to practise!
Different teachers have found different ways to point to the same destination. Here are three of my favourites, chosen in part because I like them and in part because of their diverse approaches.
Bankei: pointing out instructions
The Rinzai Zen master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) favoured a 'pointing-out' approach, where the teacher attempts to guide the student into an experience of Silent Illumination (which Bankei called 'resting in the Unborn' - compare with Hongzhi's 'This field is where birth and death do not reach'). The primordial awareness that we're trying to experience is always here, it's just 'covered over' by our usual way of using the mind, and so pointing-out instructions invite us to direct our minds in a different way, in the hope that we will notice what was 'behind' our usual perceptions all along.
In particular, it's very helpful to shift the 'centre of gravity' of our experience away from our 'attentional focus' - the 'laser beam' that we use to focus our minds on a specific, dualistic piece of what's going on - and toward our 'panoramic awareness' - the expansive 'floodlight' which effortlessly tracks everything around us at all times, regardless of where we're 'focusing'.
Bankei liked to point to a noise in the environment, such as the caw of a crow - he would point out that, even as his students were listening to his instructions, their 'Unborn' minds effortlessly noticed and identified the crow, without their having to do anything at all. Another approach is to 'spread out the gaze' - to allow the eyes to take in the whole visual field all at once, rather than focusing on whatever object we happen to be looking at. You can also do a similar thing with sounds, by listening to the whole sonic landscape as if it's a symphony, rather than picking out individual sounds.
Once you've noticed what's being pointed to, the rest of the practice is simply learning to rest there - at all times, in all circumstances, in stillness and in activity. (Sounds easy, right?)
You can find more about the Zen take on pointing-out instructions described in Meido Moore's book Hidden Zen. If you don't mind crossing the streams a little bit, the aforementioned Lama Lena has a great Dzogchen video on YouTube which features pointing-out instructions in that tradition.
Dogen: just sitting, no attainment
One possible drawback with the pointing-out approach is that it reinforces the idea that there's 'something to get' that you don't already have. The idea that there's something outside my current experience reinforces the very dualistic mechanism that we're trying to uproot.
The Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) tended to emphasise a pure 'just sitting'/shikantaza practice - no thought, no analysis, no pointing-out instructions, no tricks or techniques to try to get anything special. Since the mind is already functioning at the base of our experience, there's absolutely nothing that we need to do to make it happen. In fact, anything we try to do just gets in the way.
So, rather than do something specific, we instead do nothing. We just sit - we don't think about anything (Dogen suggests that we 'think the thought of no-thought', which he adds is 'not like thinking' - let me know what you make of that!), we don't do anything, we don't try to make anything happen. Ultimately, the activity of the mind which obscures our view of the Buddha Nature settles down all by itself, and we see it clearly - but not as a result of our efforts.
Dogen even goes as far as to say that practice and enlightenment are the same thing - that there is no enlightenment apart from shikantaza. We just sit, doing nothing, letting our minds function naturally according to their intrinsic Buddha Nature - that's all.
Dogen's approach is exemplified by the Soto school - I'm a fan of teachers such as Brad Warner and Domyo Burk, and I hear good things about Steve Hagen too, but there are plenty of them out there.
Sheng-Yen: the method of no-method
People who are new to Zen practice - and, frankly, many people who've been doing Zen practice for decades - find this style of practice very difficult. It's ungraspable by its very nature. What are you supposed to do when you aren't supposed to do anything? What does it even mean to 'do nothing'? Is it OK to have thoughts - but then, aren't you thinking - isn't that doing something? But isn't stopping thinking doing something too? Aaargh!
The 20th century Chan master Sheng-Yen (1931-2009) was a big fan of this approach to practice, but after working with lay Westerners he realised that telling them to 'just sit' wasn't really working. So he developed a method - a way of approaching this methodless practice. I've written about Sheng-Yen's approach previously (and mentioned some other variations), but in a nutshell, he suggests starting with a firmly embodied approach, taking us out of our whirling minds and settling into our physicality.
We begin with relaxation, sensitising ourselves to our bodily experience and softening as much as we can. Then, we maintain awareness of the body as we continue to sit. This provides a gentle, broad focus for the attention in the early stages of practice. Yes, it's using the attention, and yes, it's a kind of doing, but it provides a vehicle for the mind to settle and become focused. In Sheng-Yen's language, we move from a scattered mind to a focused mind.
As the practice deepens and the mind settles further, we find that the panoramic awareness becomes more prominent in our experience. The practice shifts naturally from 'focusing on body sensations' to 'aware of body and environment together'. Sheng-Yen talks about this as moving from the focused mind to the unified mind. And, finally, as we approach true Silent Illumination, we shift to Sheng-Yen's final stage, 'no-mind' - as described by Hongzhi.
To learn more about Sheng-Yen's approach, his successor Guo Gu's wonderful book Silent Illumination is where I'd suggest you start.
Which approach is the right one?
Whatever works for you! All of the approaches are just means to an end - a handful of fingers pointing at the ungraspable moon of Silent Illumination. Every teacher you'll meet will have a slightly different emphasis, a slightly different sense of what's crucial to realising Silent Illumination, different language and terminology and so forth - but all these are just slightly different routes to the same destination. So don't worry about it too much. If you have a practice already, just keep going. If you don't, try out the practice styles above and see what you like!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.