Altering your state of consciousness, responsibly
One of the central teachings in early Buddhism is the practice of 'jhana'. Jhanas are altered states of consciousness accessible through meditation which confer various benefits on the practitioner, such as bliss, joy and equanimity. They're an excellent way to cultivate samadhi, and also a lot of fun. So in this week's article we're going to take a look at what it means to practise the jhanas.
The jhanas in context
The core of early Buddhism is the practice of the Eightfold Path - teachings on the appropriate view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and samadhi which lead a practitioner to freedom from reactivity. The final item in this list - often translated as 'right concentration' - is often defined in terms of the jhanas. Indeed, the Pali Canon (the collection of the earliest records of the teachings of the historical Buddha) is replete with references to the jhanas - we can infer from those texts that jhana practice was considered a major part of the path in the time of the Buddha. These days, it's not quite so common, for reasons we'll get into a bit later.
The jhanas are often presented in the context of samadhi - cultivating a stable, penetrating attention which can then be turned to 'knowing and seeing', i.e. insight meditation. It's very common to encounter the recommendation that meditation practice should start with a period of samadhi practice (jhana practice if you know it), followed by insight practice. It's difficult to see clearly what's going on if your mind is darting around all over the place, so if you start by cultivating some stillness, the clarity will follow much more easily.
So the jhanas are clearly an important part of early Buddhism - but what actually are they?
Classical descriptions of the jhanas
In the Pali Canon, the jhanas are described as states of consciousness characterised by the presence of certain 'jhana factors'. Here's the standard description, taken from SN45.8:
And what, bhikkhus, is right concentration? Here, bhikkhus, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called right concentration.
Breaking this down, we can see that the entry requirements for the first jhana are that the practitioner should be 'secluded from sensual pleasures' and 'secluded from unwholesome states'. The jhanas are subtle states of mind, so it's helpful to be removed from the coarse distractions of sense pleasures - if half your mind is thinking about what you're going to have for lunch, you're probably not going to settle enough to reach the jhana. It's also really important to be in a generally wholesome state of mind - the jhanas are basically subtle states of wellbeing, and it requires quite a bit of openness and flexibility of mind to find your way into them when you're first learning them, so if your mind is tightly contracted and miserable, the jhanas will probably elude you. For this reason, my teacher Leigh Brasington recommends starting every meditation with metta, to put you in a positive frame of mind. If metta isn't your thing, don't force it, but it's absolutely crucial to have some wellbeing going on when you're working with the jhanas, so you'll need to figure something out sooner or later. Don't skip this step!
Having set up supportive conditions for the practice, the practitioner now 'enters and dwells in' the first jhana - oops, no instructions about how that's accomplished. (This is pretty typical of the Pali Canon.) But don't worry, we'll get around to some instructions later on.
Anyway, having arrived in the first jhana, we find it to be a state characterised by 'rapture and happiness'. The Pali words here are 'piti' and 'sukha'. Generally speaking, piti is experienced as a physical sensation - but, rather unfortunately from the teacher's perspective, different people experience it in different ways. For some people it shows up as a kind of tingling, an electrical feeling, or a sexual sensation; for others, it can manifest as heat. People who've done qigong or kundalini yoga often say it's the same kind of energy that those practices work with. For many people it's a pleasant experience, but not always - it's often extremely intense at first, and not everyone has pleasant associations with experiencing a sudden flush of tremendous heat. Sukha is usually regarded as a kind of emotional happiness - anywhere from mild happiness to full-blown joy. Typically speaking, the first jhana is too energised to be a really stable, tranquil state, and this 'unsettled' quality is captured in the traditional language with the observation that 'thought and examination' may be present. (Don't take this too literally - people sometimes stress about whether they're really experiencing a jhana if a stray thought wanders through their mind from time to time. Thinking sometimes does stop completely in the jhanas, but not always, so don't worry about it.)
Moving into the second jhana (how? Again, we'll come back to this), there's a settling down, represented in the traditional language as the subsiding of thought and examination. We still have the piti and sukha, but the mental disturbances of thinking and examining have gone, and we have 'internal confidence' and 'unification of mind'. Things are settling down; we're getting some good samadhi at this point. Experientially, the piti tends to calm down a lot, while the sukha predominates; for most people, the second jhana is a state of emotional happiness or joy, with some energetic activity in the background.
As we move into the third jhana, the energetic stuff comes to an end, and we're left in a much more peaceful place. It's still emotionally positive, but generally speaking the whole system is calming down, so whereas the second jhana was happy or joyful, the third jhana is more a place of contentment. As we sink deeper into the stability of samadhi we also find ourselves becoming more imperturbable - equanimity develops, and our mindfulness tends to become really strong because most of what usually distracts us has fallen away by this point.
Then comes the fourth jhana, which takes us fully into equanimity. Even the contentment of the third jhana now drops off, and the resulting experience is one of quiet stillness. The fourth jhana is usually described as emotionally neutral, but the total absence of any negative physical or emotional sensations is actually a pretty good place to be, so the fourth jhana can still be considered a state of wellbeing.
(Often the classical descriptions stop here; sometimes, they go on to describe four further states, sometimes called the 'formless jhanas', but we have plenty to be chewing on already!)
So how do we actually do this?
Learning the jhanas can be a tricky process, in all honesty. If going on retreat is an option for you, then a 10-day retreat with a teacher like Leigh is a good approach, and if you can manage longer, so much the better. (A month is ideal.) It takes many people a few days of retreat time just for their minds to settle down enough for the jhanas to become accessible. That being said, however, I know quite a few people who've learnt the jhanas off retreat, so it's definitely possible.
Getting into the jhanas for the first time is often a process of trial and error. There are various sets of standard instructions (a couple of which I'll give below), but different approaches work for different people, and the standard instructions might not work for you at all. You're trying to get your mind to go somewhere that it doesn't usually go, and if you aren't yet familiar with the jhanas, you don't know how to do that yet. Fortunately, the jhanas are nice, stable states that the mind actually likes to visit, so if you set up good supportive conditions (which is what the standard instructions are trying to do), it's likely that your mind will find its way there all by itself. Once you've been there enough times, you'll start to get an intuitive sense for how to return whenever you want.
There are two major approaches to entering the first jhana. One is to focus your attention on a relatively narrow point, and then stay there. Focusing the mind in this way seems to build up the energy of piti, and if you allow that energy to keep building and building, sooner or later it will erupt (usually suddenly and dramatically at first), taking you into the first jhana.
Leigh's instructions for entering the first jhana can be found in detail here, but in a nutshell:
A totally different approach is to work not with a narrow area of focus but with the sensations of what Rob Burbea called the 'energy body'. Rob described this practice at length in his 2019 jhana retreat, but in short, you're aiming to get a sense of the whole field of physical sensation in your experience, including the whole space occupied by your physical body but also extending a little beyond it. (If that seems weird to you, just try it!) For some people, it's much easier to rest the mind on a broad space rather than a narrow one, and if this is the case for you, the energy body approach might work better than focusing on the breath. In any case, resting your attention on the whole energy body, you now stay there until you locate a feeling of wellbeing somewhere in the energy body, and then stay with that feeling of wellbeing until it develops into the jhana. Often this will be a slower and gentler experience than when using the 'narrow focus' technique.
Either way, once you get into the first jhana, just stay there. Eventually you'll come out. Then get back in again. Keep doing this until you can get in and out reliably. This is generally good advice for all the jhanas, with one exception: if the first jhana is super-strong for you at first, it might be too intense to stay there, so you might be better off moving straight to the second.
To move from the first jhana to the second, take a deep breath, and as you exhale, let out some of the piti energy. (Just have a sense of letting things calm down - that's usually enough.) You'll typically find that the piti calms down a lot and the emotional happiness becomes more prominent. Boom - you're in the second jhana.
Once you get the knack for this, the same basic trick works to get from the second to the third (this time letting out all the piti, so you're left only with the happiness, which is probably fairly subtle at this point) and from the third to the fourth (this time letting out all the emotional happiness too, leaving you with just quiet stillness). There's often - though not always - a sense of moving 'downwards' as you move from one jhana to the next, so look out for this as well.
This is about as far as an impersonal article on a website can take you - ultimately, your jhana explorations are personal to you, and a good teacher will be able to personalise the instructions to you in a private interview. It can be helpful to approach this practice with an attitude of experimentation, or even play - again, whatever helps you to maintain a sense of wellbeing and openness. Explore!
Jhana controversies and 'dangers'
So far I've presented the jhanas as if they're universally recognised, valued and agreed upon. They aren't!
One major point of debate is that there are many different altered states of consciousness, and since the jhanas are pretty loosely defined in the Pali Canon, you can make those definitions fit quite a range of different states, especially if you're willing to redefine some of the key terms. (The words translated as 'thought and examination' above, vitakka and vicara, are often instead translated in a Buddhist context as 'initial and sustained application of effort', and consequently used to associate the jhanas with much, much deeper altered states in which mental activity ceases almost entirely.)
If you're really interested, you can find a detailed analysis of the four most commonly encountered sets of jhanas in this document by Culadasa. (For reference, the jhanas described in my article are what Culadasa characterises as 'lite jhanas' in that document.) The basic trade-off is between depth and accessibility. The deeper the state, the more profound the concentration and the more removed from ordinary consciousness you are, but also the harder it is to learn and the more finicky the conditions required to access it. The jhanas Leigh teaches are accessible enough that most people can learn at least the first one on a 10-day retreat, and deep enough that they make a noticeable difference to your insight practice, so I'm a pretty big fan, but to each their own.
You might also encounter a pretty negative anti-jhana vibe in some parts of the Buddhist world. Sometimes people will tell you that they're totally impossible for normal people to practise, and it's just a waste of time - this is usually because the person giving that advice has encountered a super-deep form of jhana which probably really isn't accessible to most people.
Another objection to the jhanas is that the historical Buddha spent some time studying deep concentration states, but found that they didn't lead to enlightenment - and therefore we shouldn't spend any time practising concentration states at all. The irony is that the source of this story about the Buddha is the Discourse on the Noble Search, MN26, which concludes with instructions to the monks to practise the jhanas!
One final objection - pretty common among people who've been brought up in a Christian tradition where having fun in a spiritual context is considered to be pretty suspicious - is that there's a danger that practitioners will spend all their time 'getting high' on the jhanas and never actually do their insight practice. As Rob Burbea points out repeatedly in his talks, however, it's vanishingly unlikely that spiritual practitioners working in a Buddhist context are actually going to do this - and even if you do, there are plenty of worse things to get high on! My own experience has been that the jhanas are fun and exciting at first but quickly become just another practice in the toolbox, and the insights that come from having a mind made quiet and powerful through jhana practice are vastly more compelling than simply hanging out in a positive emotional state.
So don't worry too much, and don't let the nay-sayers put you off. If you're interested in jhana practice, give it a go - ideally, get on a retreat with a teacher like Leigh, and see for yourself what it's all about!
Chinul's way of Korean Zen
This week's article is heavily indebted to Robert Buswell's excellent Tracing Back the Radiance.
One of the big debates in Buddhist circles is about the nature of awakening: is it sudden or gradual? In other words, is it something where you 'wake up' just like that, in a moment of inspiration, or is it the result of a lengthy process of practice? If it's sudden, why do we need the lengthy training? But if it's gradual, why are there so many stories of 'enlightenment experiences' and all this talk of kensho and satori?
This week we're going to take a look at the answer to these questions given by Chinul, a 12th century Korean master generally regarded as the most influential figure in the Korean Seon (Zen) tradition: 'awakening is sudden, cultivation is gradual'. At first glance, this looks suspiciously like Chinul is trying to have his cake and eat it too, but let's dig into the details to see what he's getting at.
Sudden awakening to the nature of mind
The first step in Chinul's approach is sudden awakening - which, as we will see, is vitally important for the second step, the gradual cultivation, to be conducted properly. But what are we waking up to?
Fundamentally, awakening is about discovering something about the nature of our own minds. As I discussed in some detail last week and elsewhere, what we experience is not the objective world 'out there' that it appears to be; rather, we experience a mental projection, our minds' best effort to understand and interpret the information coming in through our senses and weave it all together into a coherent whole that helps us to navigate our surroundings successfully.
From the standpoint of the Zen tradition, the mind is said to have two aspects: 'essence' and 'function'. (Sometimes you'll see 'principle' instead of 'essence', but I find this super-confusing, so I'll stick to 'essence'.)
When we talk about 'mind essence', what we mean is that the fundamental nature of everything we experience is 'mind', in the sense that everything we experience is a mental construct/projection. The whole thing is 'mind', in the same way that the fundamental nature of the ocean is 'water' - whether you're looking at the crest of a wave or the deepest depths, it's all 'made of water'.
However, we don't just experience a uniform blank grey goo - we experience a moving, changing world. This aspect of our experience is the mind's 'function'. We know things - experiences come and go, sights, sounds, body sensations and all the rest of it. This 'shaping' of the mind essence into all the different forms of reality is the functioning of the mind, and is what leads to us having an experience at all.
(A terminological aside: Zen tends to use the terms 'samadhi' and 'prajna' quite differently to earlier Buddhist traditions. In early Buddhism, 'samadhi' usually means something like 'stable attention', i.e. the outcome of concentration practice, where you focus your attention on an object, and 'prajna' means something like 'wisdom' or 'insight', i.e. the outcome of insight practice, the result of investigating reality. However, when Zen is talking about mind essence and function, you will often find 'samadhi' used to refer to mind essence, and 'prajna' to mind function. This isn't totally unreasonable - in a sense, mind essence never changes, so has the quality of 'stability' to it, while mind function is synonymous with 'knowing', and hence has the quality of 'wisdom' to it. Nonetheless, these uses of 'samadhi' and 'prajna' are different enough that it's incredibly confusing if you come from a Theravada/vipassana background and try to read a Zen text, so watch out for that!)
I went into a lot of detail about why the insight into the mind-originated nature of all things is important last week, so I won't repeat myself today. The short version is that seeing the mind-created nature of all things dramatically undermines the 'reality' of suffering, and so to the extent that we can come to see our experience as mind-created, we will be correspondingly free of suffering. That's where the next step - the gradual cultivation - comes in.
Before we move on to that, though, it's worth saying a few more words about the sudden awakening. It's 'sudden' because it's a recognition - it isn't something we have to figure out gradually over a long period of time, piecing together the clues. But it's also sudden because we don't have to cultivate our enlightened nature gradually. The fundamental nature of your mind - yes, yours - is already awake, right now, and always has been. You are reading this article right now because of the functioning of your mind, and the words on the screen are 'made' of mind essence, just like the screen itself, the eye looking at the screen and the thoughts in your head.
There's a koan which points to this always-already-so nature of the mind. In the koan, a student is practising sitting meditation when the teacher approaches and asks what he's doing. The student says he's practising meditation in order to become enlightened. In response, the master picks up a tile and starts polishing it. The student asks what he's doing, and the master replies that he's polishing the tile to make a mirror. Confused, the student says that you can't make a mirror by polishing a tile - and the master retorts that you can't become enlightened by meditating either! The master is not saying that practice is pointless, of course, but rather is saying that you don't need to practise in order to get something. You have it already - sudden awakening is simply a matter of recognising what is already true.
Gradual cultivation of the recognition of mind essence
Recognising the mind-originated nature of phenomena is an important step, but the work isn't done yet. We have a lifetime of habits of treating our experience as objectively real and getting caught up in the ensuing reactivity. Indeed, for many Zen students it can be pretty frustrating to have had a kensho experience - to have seen the mind-originated nature of all things - and then to go straight back to being caught up in suffering again. After awakening, our task now becomes to bring that light of awakening into every aspect of our lives - to train ourselves to see 'mind essence' in everything, all the time, never forgetting, never losing sight of it, never slipping back into unconscious reactivity. In the language of Zen master Bankei, we've discovered the Unborn - the mind essence, that aspect of experience which is neither born nor dying, arising nor passing, coming nor going - but now we have to learn to live from the Unborn, not just touch into it from time to time.
This aspect of the practice is a long, difficult process of small, incremental gains - hence 'gradual cultivation'. Having established a foothold in awakening, the challenge now becomes to find those areas of our life which cause us to slip back into old ways of relating to our experience, and then to find an 'edge' where we can work to expand our capabilities. There's almost certainly no point in trying to go straight to recognising mind essence in all situations all day long - generally, you'll remember several hours later that you managed it for maybe twenty seconds before you got distracted and forgot the whole thing.
Gradual cultivation is crucial to the path, essential for making our awakening meaningful in the course of our lives. We are forced to confront every aspect of our lives, looking at our relationships, our interactions, our emotions, our hopes and fears. Little by little, we find ways to bring our awakening into each domain of our lives. We find ways to strike a balance between enjoying relief from suffering by seeing the mind-originated nature of phenomena on the one hand, and dealing with our conditioning and the trouble it leads us into on the other hand.
Having a strong ethical foundation in your practice is vitally important here, to avoid becoming what one of my students memorably referred to as 'a moral husk' - the history of spirituality is unfortunately full of people who found ways to convince themselves that they were personally fine no matter what happened and nothing else really mattered, and as a result inflicted all kinds of unpleasant behaviour on the people around them. Indeed, there have been plenty of sects of Zen and other forms of Buddhism which have tried to do without the pesky 'gradual cultivation'. You're already enlightened, they'll say, so why practise at all? Why not just do whatever you want? It's all an expression of enlightened activity, after all!
Another objection that has been raised historically, and which still comes up today, is that if you're going to have to go through the tedious process of gradual cultivation even after awakening, then what's the point of awakening? And there are certainly traditions (both Buddhist and non-) which place much greater emphasis on cultivation than awakening, if they even mention awakening at all. Actually, the historical Buddha taught a 'graduated training' which starts with ethical behaviour, moves on to concentration meditation, and only gets around to insight towards the end, and this is sometimes taken to indicate that the Buddha wanted practitioners to do quite a bit of 'gradual cultivation' before they could meaningfully start meditation.
The counterargument to this is that awakening makes the gradual cultivation much easier. Before you recognise the nature of mind, you relate to the world as objectively real - 'that's just how things are'. Much of our deepest conditioning can seem similarly immovable, and when difficulties (such as the Five Hindrances) come up in our practice, if we don't recognise that these, too, are just more mind-originated stuff, it's very easy to buy into those difficulties completely and end up stuck. Once we're able to make the move to recognising the mind-originated nature of all things, however, we have a powerful weapon in our arsenal to 'de-stick' ourselves from these problems, and so it's much easier to work with those problems. (Note that I said 'much easier', but not necessarily 'easy' - some of this stuff is still really hard to work with even after awakening.)
Methods for sudden awakening and gradual cultivation
So how do we do all this?
Most Buddhist meditation techniques are aimed at awakening, cultivation or a mixture of both, but Zen is particularly well known for two practices which are each especially well suited to one aspect of this process.
For sudden awakening, most Zen teachers in the Rinzai tradition (which includes Korean Zen and Chinese Chan) agree that koan study (discussed in the second half of this article) provides the most efficient way to reach a 'breakthrough' to the true nature of mind. Working with a question such as 'Who am I?', particularly in an intensive way such as on a Zenways 3-day retreat, is a great way to get a first glimpse of what's going on. (In Korean Zen, they tend to use 'What is this?' as their question instead of 'Who am I?' Both work well.)
For gradual cultivation, the essential point is to develop the recognition of the mind-originated nature throughout all the comings and goings of the mind's functioning. One powerful vehicle for doing this is just sitting (variously known as resting in the Unborn, shikantaza and Silent Illumination), where we simply sit openly, observing the comings and goings of our experience in a natural, uncontrived way. Once we've cultivated the ability to recognise mind essence in our sitting practice, we can begin to bring that same attitude into all of our daily activities, and learn to live from the Unborn as Bankei suggests.
Guided 'Who am I?' and shikantaza practices are available on my Audio page. So why not make a start right now? Wake up to your true nature, and then integrate it into every aspect of your life - and become the Buddha that you already are.
Another take on emptiness
A central concept in early Buddhism is dependent origination - the idea that everything we experience arises based on causes and conditions. In some places in the early teachings, dependent origination is spelt out more fully in terms of twelve 'links', each of which provides a supporting condition for the next; the second link is sankhara, 'fabrication', which is said to lead to consciousness itself.
But what does it mean for consciousness to be dependent on fabrication?
A modern take on fabrication and sensory experience
Take a moment to look around you. Without having to make any effort at all, you can see what's around you - if you're indoors, you can see walls, floor, ceiling, screen, furniture and so forth; if you're outside, you can see sky, ground, maybe trees, buildings, roads. It seems to be totally obvious that our eyesight gives us direct access to the real world 'out there', while our thoughts live inside our heads as a private experience, probably happening somewhere in our brains.
But is this really the case? Are the eyes really like little windows, pointing out at the external world? If they are, who or what is looking out of those windows? Is there a little person behind our eyeballs seeing what's going on - and, if so, does that little person also have eyes, and if so who's looking out of those? This gets weird pretty fast.
The modern scientific worldview has given us a more detailed picture of what happens when we see something. Light bounces off objects in the world, and that reflected light enters our eyeballs, is focused by the tiny lens in the eye, and hits the retina on the back of the eyeball. That stimulates activity in the optic nerve, which is then transmitted as a signal into the brain, leading to activity in the visual cortex. As a result of this brain activity, we see the world.
The important part is that last, rather hand-wavy, step - as a result of this brain activity, we see the world. The point here is that our experience is the result of brain activity, as opposed to being somehow a 'direct' or 'pure' perception of what's 'really out there'. In fact, it's relatively easy to convince ourselves that this is the case. Colour-blind people see a slightly different 'outside world' to the one most people do. (You can probably distinguish between certain shades of green and blue that look the same to me - your world literally has more colours in it than mine.) We also know that range of possible frequencies of light is much wider than the human visual range, and that there are animals capable of perceiving light (and hence 'colours', since the subjective experience of colour corresponds to the objective measurement of the frequency of light) that is 'invisible' to us.
But wait, there's more! It isn't simply that the brain is doing some work to reproduce an image of the world around us. It's also interpreting the information that's coming in - it's making sense of what we're seeing, constructing (or fabricating) a representation which means something to us.
Consider the following classic optical illusion. Is the picture on the right two faces, or a vase?
(Image by John Smithson, 2007, at English Wikipedia. Media licence: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs, otherwise I'd have cropped out the left-hand image...)
Notice that you can persuade your perception to flip back and forth between the two - in other words, you can 'see' the image either as faces or as a vase. If we simply saw objective reality exactly as it is, we wouldn't see either a vase or faces - it's just a white shape surrounded by a black shape. Instead, however, your brain is doing something much more interesting - it's trying to make sense of what it's seeing, matching those shapes to patterns that it already understands and has a name for. The tricky bit is that the image in this case is ambiguous - it matches two different patterns, faces and vase, and so the brain isn't entirely sure how to represent what it's seeing. Hence, with just a tiny bit of effort, we can flip back and forth from one interpretation to the other.
So take a moment to reflect on this. Everything you see is not simply 'what's out there', but it's actually the result of a complex process of data-gathering and interpretation, all of which is happening rapidly and unconsciously. Your conscious experience is the product of that whole process - usually, the details of the process itself are completely hidden from your view, and it's only when we encounter something like an optical illusion that we get a glimpse behind the curtain.
And, of course, this applies to the whole of sensory experience, not just sight. Everything that we see, hear and feel, both internally and externally, is like this. Everything is the product of mental activity - everything is fabricated.
A brief aside on emptiness, and the metaphysical implications of recognising the fabricated nature of experience
It's perhaps worth noting, especially if this way of talking about experience works for you, that this also gives us a modern-language way to understand the later Buddhist concept of 'emptiness'. When you see something described as 'empty', you can understand that as 'mental representation', or even 'product of brain activity'. Absolutely 100% of everything we experience is 'empty', precisely because our experience is the product of brain activity - everything, bar nothing, is part of that mental representation. There is nothing outside of that, because that is our experience.
One possible objection (which was recently raised by the popular Zen teacher Brad Warner on his YouTube video channel) is that I'm explaining things in terms of brain, eyeballs, optic nerves and so on - but, actually, all of those things arise within experience as well. It turns out that we actually have no real evidence that anything exists objectively at all. All we know of the world is what we experience, and we can't actually step outside of that experience to view it 'objectively'. We can't even fully trust what other people tell us, because - once again - we only know those people through our experience. So if you want to be hardcore about it - and traditional Buddhism has often taken a strong stance on this - even my brain-based explanation assumes way too much, and all we can really say is that whether or not there's anything beyond this experience is totally unknowable.
Personally, I tend to think there probably is a world out there. It makes sense to me, and it also provides some motivation for acting ethically, which is important to me. If it's 'all in my mind', who cares whether I'm kind or cruel, generous or stingy, compassionate or hateful? For me, it's much more meaningful to act as though the outside world really does exist, whilst at the same time recognising that what I experience of it can never be anything more (or less) than a mental representation.
OK, but who cares?
The single biggest challenge with emptiness is that, even after wrapping your head around the basic concepts, it still isn't obvious why you should care. OK, so we experience a mental representation instead of an objective world - but so what? Why does it matter?
Because it changes everything.
If our experience were simply a direct encounter with objective fact, we'd be stuck with it - because that's just how it is. But when we see our experience as the product of mental activity - as fabrication - it opens the door to perceiving things differently. (In fact, you've already seen an example of this, with the vase/faces - by flipping back and forth from one view to the other, you are fabricating your experience differently.) And this raises an interesting prospect - how can we fabricate differently, in such a way that our experience of the world is improved? In fact, you can look at the world's great spiritual traditions as each promoting a particular kind of fabrication: if you come to see the world in these terms, fabricating the world in this way, you will experience the benefits associated with that view. (Usually, this is dressed up as 'we will tell you The Truth', of course.)
At the most basic level, the more 'real' we experience something to be, the more difficult it is to do anything about it - because that's just how it is. If a strong negative emotion comes up - a feeling of hopelessness, let's say - and it's experienced as completely real, it will tend to have a strong 'sticky' quality that makes it very hard to escape. Of course it's hopeless, that's just how it is. There's no point trying to talk myself out of it, that's just how things are. But if we can see it as fabricated, it ceases to be an immutable fact, and becomes simply part of the brain's representation of a situation - most likely there are some important circumstances going on right now which really need some attention, and as a result of that the brain is generating this strong emotion to convey information to the organism as a whole. As we make the shift from 'this is how I am, that's just how it is' to 'this is something which I am experiencing', it turns out that we experience an almost immediate reduction in suffering. By noticing the fabricated nature of the emotion, it loses some of its power over us - without suppressing the emotion, denying its presence, or losing access to the information contained within it.
So let's run through a series of what might be called 'vantage points' - different ways of relating to (and fabricating) our experience, the drawbacks of those vantage points, and how we can see their fabricated nature in order to move beyond them.
One pretty common vantage point is to be totally identified with thought. We are our thoughts; if we have a good thought, we're a good person, and if we have a bad thought, uh oh. Furthermore, thinking is how we engage with the world - 'think about the breath' and 'pay attention to the breath' are synonymous for us. A drawback of this vantage point is that we often struggle to control our thoughts, and they cause us a lot of pain.
In order to move beyond this, we might take up a mindfulness practice, where we focus our attention on the breath, and notice our thoughts coming and going in the background. Over time we realise that a thought is a discrete event which arises and passes away, in much the same way that sounds and body sensations come and go. We see that we are not our thoughts; that thoughts are simply another part of what we experience. Another approach - characteristic of the Dzogchen tradition - is to look for the gap between thoughts, and when you find yourself there, notice what that experience is like. When you aren't thinking anything, what happens? Who and what are you in that moment, without thought to tell you who you are?
A key point here is that we're not talking about getting rid of thoughts forever. We step outside of thought in order to see that we are not our thoughts; but if we can recognise the emptiness of our thoughts, it's no problem to have them come up. Personally, I quite like my thoughts - at least some of them - and I wouldn't want them to go away permanently (although you can find people who do promote the total extinction of thought as a spiritual practice). The shift I'm talking about is to relate to our thoughts differently - as fabrications, just something else coming and going in the field of experience, not us at all.
If we can dis-identify from our thoughts, we might move to a vantage point where we are identified with our 'self' in some way - I am my personality, for example. Thoughts may come and go, but behind it all I'm this kind of person - I do these kinds of things, I can't do those kinds of things. While this is definitely a subjective improvement over identification with thoughts, it also has some drawbacks - it tends to be self-limiting (there are things I can't do, so there's no point trying) and can bring up a lot of stress (what happens if I fail at something I should be able to do?).
To move beyond this, we can continue with our mindfulness practice, and notice that it isn't just thoughts that come and go; actually everything that we identify as ourselves comes and goes. Body sensations, emotions, thoughts, inclinations, even consciousness itself are all subject to arising and passing. A classic meditative experience at this point is what's usually called the 'Witness' - a sense that who we really are is a disembodied point of observation, the 'one who knows'. We are not the experienced, but we are the experiencer.
(Again, the point here is not to eradicate the self for all time, and wander round vacantly, unable to remember our own name. The point is to see that the self, too, is a fabrication, as opposed to something ultimately real.)
Within this Witness vantage point, however, we often find ourselves continuing to buy into subtler fabrications, such as time and space. These, too, can be seen to be empty, and with that seeing comes an even deeper freedom from suffering. As meditation practice deepens, we may come to realise that our sense of time passing is a construction, based on comparing present-moment experience with recent and more distant memories, or even that the idea of 'the present moment' is a kind of fabrication which relies on a 'past' and 'future' to be coherent; instead, we find ourselves inhabiting a timeless 'Now'. Similarly, we notice that our sense of being located in a three-dimensional space (perhaps inside a room with the rest of the world outside) is a fabrication which can drop away, leaving us with just a sense of all-inclusive 'Here'. As the sense of location and motion due to time and space fall away, we can touch into experiences of profound stillness, a stillness which appears to be behind, around and even within everything we experience.
And even within this more rarefied vantage point, we may still find ourselves holding on to some of the deepest, most fundamental fabrications: the sense of duality, division or separation between 'this' and 'that'; a continuing sense of subtle identity (that 'I am this timeless boundless space of awareness'); that Awareness is a thing, separate from that which is perceived; or that awareness has a central point from which it emanates. We can move beyond this vantage point through exploring precisely those remaining features in our experience which appear to be so basic, so inarguably real, that it seems inconceivable that they could be challenged at all, let alone seen through - and yet they can.
The deepest of all vantage points is to truly see that everything is fabricated. Many spiritual traditions have practices which are intended to bring about very deep experiences - of 'pure awareness', of 'cessation' - which can show us the fabricated nature of our experience first-hand. The drawback of this approach is that people can become attached to the experiences, and spend their days practising cessation of consciousness 'because that's Nibbana', while on the relative level their lives are a mess. Emphasising particular experiences can also set up a lot of craving for people who haven't had the experience - and, ultimately, the experiences themselves are not actually necessary, even if they can be helpful. What's most important is the understanding - the realisation that everything is fabricated.
We'll talk more about how to work practically with fabrication in next week's article. For now, though, a fun exercise is to work through the vantage points described above and see which ones you can adopt. Some may be relatively obvious, some may sound totally delusional and impossible, and maybe there's a middle ground where you can kinda see what I'm talking about. That middle ground is the 'edge' of your practice, and that's where you want to be spending most of your time - exploring, investigating, looking to see if it's really as 'real' as it appears, or whether this, too, could be fabricated.
The vicissitudes of life
Buddhism promises us freedom: freedom from our reactive patterns, freedom to act wisely and compassionately in the world. To the extent that we are able to see and let go of our patterns, we are able to be who we aspire to be.
It's important to say that 'freedom from reactivity' doesn't mean 'completely unresponsive'. The aim here is not to become a dead tree stump. And it doesn't mean always second-guessing our instincts - there are times when our initial reaction to a situation might be totally appropriate, wise and helpful. But we don't want to be at the mercy of our knee-jerk reactions either - if we're simply playing out habitual patterns of behaviour in response to whatever comes up, we find ourselves perpetual victims of the world, helpless to choose our own path in the face of what life throws at us.
One traditional teaching that helps to illuminate some of the forces that act upon us in daily life comes from the Pali Canon, and can be found in discourses like Anguttara Nikaya 8.6.
The Eight Worldly Winds
Sometimes translated as Eight Worldly Conditions or Eight Vicissitudes, the Winds are a set of four pairs of opposing forces which we can all immediately recognise in our lives. They can be translated and arranged in a rhyming format, to make them easier to remember:
(Sometimes you'll see them arranged so that the 'positive' one of each pair comes first, but personally I like the rhyme.)
Let's take those in order.
Pleasure and pain
One of the most basic characteristics of life is a movement towards the pleasant and away from the painful. Even an amoeba will move toward nutrients and away from acid. I like to think I'm a little more sophisticated than an amoeba, but even so I find myself drawn towards chocolate, and unwilling to go out for a run when it's icy outside.
Again, there's nothing wrong with this - but on the other hand, there are times when it's useful to be able to go against the path of least resistance. If I'm trying to get in shape and lose weight, it would be helpful for me to walk past the chocolate shop without going in, and it's also in the best interest of future me to get my running shoes on and hit the road even when it's cold out.
It's important to say that this isn't about developing some kind of ascetic, no-pain-no-gain mindset - the historical Buddha was actually keen to emphasise that he taught a middle way between asceticism and indulgence. Rather, it's about freedom to do the wisest thing even when the circumstances aren't totally ideal. (Knowing what 'the wisest thing' is in any given situation is not always immediately obvious, of course - in the Zen tradition it's said to be the teaching of a lifetime of practice.)
Loss and gain
Of the two, we're typically more sensitive to loss - our brains have a built-in negativity bias, something like 5:1 in favour of noticing and remembering negative experiences. People will usually go to much greater lengths to avoid a loss than to gain something. On the other hand, as the neon monstrosity that is Las Vegas demonstrates, gain has its own appeal too.
Taking the long view, of course, whatever can be gained will ultimately be lost. One of the Five Daily Recollections - a traditional set of contemplations from the time of the Buddha - is 'All that is mine, dear and delightful, will change and vanish.' Even those most basic aspects of ourselves - youth, health and life itself - will sooner or later pass away. In the meantime, though, the bit in the middle is important too - there's nothing wrong with enjoying our lives or working to improve them, so long as we remember that our situation is always changing, and gains and losses are not always what they appear to be at first glance.
There's a traditional Chinese story that illustrates this last point:
Praise and blame
We are social creatures, and we're typically sensitive to feedback from those around us. Life doesn't give us a clear-cut roadmap of what it means to be good people, so we learn by observing those around us and taking on board their feedback (or not!). Praise and blame is an important part of that dynamic. As children, the praise and blame of the parents and teachers in our lives form a crucial part of our development - we learn how to behave in the world based on the steer we receive from those around and above us.
Typically, we continue to be sensitive to praise and blame in adulthood. A kind word from a boss or colleague can make our day, while a tirade of criticism can plunge us into misery. And, of course, these things do matter - if we're learning something new, then appropriate praise and criticism from a teacher helps to guide us toward our goal. But we can also crave praise (and feel unappreciated when we don't receive it), and we can dread blame to the point that we avoid situations entirely or self-sabotage.
Disrepute and fame
Beyond the immediate feedback from those nearest to us, we are also sensitive to our place in the social hierarchy. Are we well-regarded? Do people trust us, value our opinions, listen when we speak? Do people respect our achievements, or ignore them unfairly? Do we have a voice at all, or are we routinely passed over?
As with praise and blame, our social standing may well be important to us - but it can also lead us into trouble. 'Don't you know who I am?' 'Nobody cares what I think.' 'You can forget it, I heard about what you did, I'm not doing anything for you now.'
Freedom from the Eight Worldly Winds
AN8.6 goes on to say that the difference between an 'uneducated ordinary person' and an 'educated noble disciple' is that when the ordinary person encounters gain and loss, pleasure and pain and so on, they don't reflect that these things are impermanent, unreliable and perishable, and so favour gain and oppose loss (etc.), whereas the noble disciple does recognise the limitations of those things and thus neither clings to gain nor rejects loss.
We can see this same message repeated centuries later in Faith In Mind, the famous poem by the third Zen ancestor, which begins:
The Great Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose.
Neither love nor hate,
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far from it as heaven from earth.
If you want the Way to appear,
Be neither for nor against.
For and against opposing each other
This is the mind's disease.
That's a pretty high standard! But even if we aren't totally free of picking and choosing just yet, we can still get quite a bit of insight into ourselves by contemplating the Eight Worldly Winds to see which ones we're most sensitive to. What are our personal triggers? When do we find ourselves doing things because we're chasing pleasure, gain, praise or fame? What do we avoid because of the risk of pain, loss, blame or disrepute?
It's also worth reflecting on these eight conditions from time to time as a way of keeping our feet on the ground. Sometimes, when our spiritual practice is going well, we can start to feel pretty special, and can lose perspective on those aspects of ourselves which could still benefit from a little work. I'll close with a story from the Zen tradition which illustrates one example of this phenomenon (adapted from the Nice Inspiration for Everyone blog).
An extended contemplation on the nature of reality
This week I'd like to present something a little different - an exercise which is usually called 'contemplation' in meditation circles. Contemplation and meditation are similar in that they're best done in quiet conditions when you'll have a decent period of time without distractions; the difference is that in meditation we're generally discouraged from 'thinking about' the technique or subject of meditation, whereas in contemplation you're welcome to think about the subject, as well as exploring it non-conceptually.
Contemplations usually consist of one or more statements which the practitioner brings up and then explores, both through thinking and feeling. For example, one classic contemplation is 'Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?' What thoughts come to mind as you sit with this question? How does it make you feel? What happens if you continue to sit with the question for an extended period of time?
For today, however, I have a more elaborate contemplation exercise for you to try out. It's pretty wide-ranging, and ultimately covers every aspect of ourselves and the world we live in. I've broken it down into a series of phrases, each of which is an encouragement to look at, think about, feel into and otherwise explore some aspect of who you are and how you relate to the world. I recommend taking quite a bit of time to go through this, spending at least a couple of minutes on each line. You could even spread it over several sessions if you like, but it's intended to be worked through all in one session.
(To begin, set yourself up in a meditation posture that will be comfortable enough for you to sustain it for quite some time. If you need to change postures part-way through, try to do so carefully and mindfully, so that you don't lose the focus you've built up through the practice so far. Then, having established your posture, you might like to meditate for a few minutes, e.g. by following the breath, just to settle the mind a little. When you're ready to move into the contemplation, read on, one paragraph at a time. If you spend about three minutes on each section the whole contemplation will take about an hour.)
Notice your physical body. Is this a core part of who you are? If you had a different body, would you be a different person?
Notice that your body is constantly changing. Year by year, your body is different - the body you have now is not the body you had at age 3. Day by day, you consume food and drink which becomes part of you, and you let go of hair, skin and waste products, which cease to be part of you. Moment by moment, the sensations which make up the body change, as you breathe, as your heart beats. Is anything permanent, fixed, unchanging in your body?
Notice that some aspects of your experience are pleasant, some unpleasant, some neutral. More generally, you have likes and dislikes, preferences and tastes. Are these a core part of who you are? If you had different likes and dislikes, would you be a different person?
Notice that whether an aspect of your experience is pleasant or not is partly dependent on context. Music that you normally enjoy might be distracting if you're trying to focus on something else, or unpleasant if it's too loud. Notice also that your preferences have changed over time. How you liked to spend your time as a small child is quite different to what you enjoy now, and what you fear and dislike has changed too. Is there anything permanent, unchanging and independent of circumstances in your likes and dislikes?
Consider your memories and experiences. These inform the way you see the world - the language you use, the emotional associations you have with particular people, places and things, the skills and knowledge you bring to bear on the situations of your life. Are these a core part of who you are? If you had different memories and experiences, would you be a different person?
Notice that your memories and experiences are constantly changing. Moment by moment, day by day, year by year, you accumulate new experiences and form new memories. You come to see the world differently as you learn more about it - you notice more details when looking at something you have studied in great depth, details that would not have been part of your simpler experience in the past. At the same time, older memories can fade or change, and some of your experiences are irretrievably lost over time. Is there anything permanent or fixed in your memories and experiences, anything about the way you see the world which is not subject to change?
Notice that you have the capacity to make decisions, to choose to act and to follow through on that choice. Do the decisions you make and the way you act define you? Is this capacity for choice a core part of who you are?
Do you always follow through on every decision you make? Is your willpower absolute, or does it come and go, depending on factors like your energy level at the time and your degree of commitment to the decision? Is there anything truly fixed, permanent or ultimately reliable about your capacity for making choices?
Notice that, right now, you are conscious. If you were totally unconscious, you would not be having any experience at all. But because you have hearing-consciousness, you notice sounds; because you have body-consciousness, you notice physical sensations; because you have mind-consciousness, you notice thoughts. Is this consciousness a core part of who you are? Would you even exist without consciousness?
Notice that your consciousness changes over time. Each night, you fall asleep, and you are no longer conscious of the world around you. Each morning, you wake, and become conscious of the outside world once again. When you become absorbed in a task, you become more conscious of that task and less conscious of what's going on around you. Is there anything fixed, permanent or unchanging about consciousness?
Is there any other aspect of yourself which is fixed, permanent or unchanging? Is there anything about yourself which never changes? Or are you actually more like an unfolding process?
Now turn your attention to the world around you. Notice that the world is constantly in motion. Civilisations rise and fall. Nations prosper and fail. Buildings are constructed and demolished. Friendships are made and broken. We acquire possessions, use them up and discard them. Is any part of the world around you fixed, unchanging or entirely reliable? Or is the world, too, an unfolding process, always in motion?
Notice that much of what you experience about the world actually comes from you - you call a chair a chair because you speak English, and you like or dislike certain foods not because the food is inherently pleasant or unpleasant, but because of your personal relationship to that food. How much of what you see in the world is a reflection of you, as opposed to intrinsic to the external world?
Notice also that how you are in each moment is a reflection of the world around you. The sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings we experience are often provoked by or otherwise related to our surroundings and circumstances. How much of how you are right now is a reflection of the world around you, either in the present moment, your memories and experiences from the past, or your hopes and fears for the future?
Where do you end, and where does the external world begin? What is the boundary between self and other? Is there a clearly identifiable separation at all? Are you and the world two totally separate processes, or do these processes interact and interpenetrate one another to the point that they become a single process unfolding?
For the last few minutes, simply rest in the recognition of whatever has come up for you during this contemplation. Then, when you're ready, come to the end of the practice, ready to go on with your day.
Making the Seven Factors of Awakening work for you
(This week's article is based on a paper by Jud Brewer, Jake Davis and Joseph Goldstein. To read the paper in full, click here.)
A very common way to teach mindfulness to beginners goes something like this:
'Bring your attention to the physical sensations of your breath. Each time you notice that the mind has wandered, bring it gently back to the breath.'
This is a reasonable instruction - it's one I've given myself - but new meditators in particular really struggle with it. The mind doesn't want to stay on the breath! It just keeps wandering! It's maddening! Maybe I'm just not cut out for this? Maybe I can't meditate? And so the teacher duly explains that this happens to everyone, it's a natural experience, just part of the practice. It might even be explained as a good thing - 'each time you bring the attention back, you're strengthening the muscle of attention, training the mind to focus better'. Again, this is an explanation I've given myself; sometimes it works, sometimes I get the sceptical side-eye that tells me that I'm probably not going to see that student again.
Can we do better? Maybe! At least, Jud Brewer thinks so - and he suggests that we can find a way to do so right there in the earliest teachings of the historical Buddha, 2,500 years ago. Let's take a look.
The Seven Factors of Awakening
It's a standard joke that early Buddhism is full of lists. Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Five Aggregates, Three Characteristics... and Seven Factors of Awakening.
I've encountered a few different explanations of the Seven Factors of Awakening, but never really saw the point until I read Jud's paper - it always just seemed like a big list of stuff to me, and it wasn't clear how to practise with it. Here's the list:
OK - it's a nice list, but so what? Mindfulness and concentration are things we can cultivate; piti and equanimity are both associated with jhana practice, so maybe that's something to do with it; investigation is part of insight practice... but it doesn't seem all that coherent at a first glance.
Some teachers like to carve the list up into 'energising factors' - investigation, energy and joy - and 'calming factors' - tranquillity, concentration and equanimity - with the seventh, mindfulness, as a kind of 'balancing factor'. The idea is that your practice should strike a balance between energy and tranquillity - too much energy and you'll get too distracted or worked up to meditate, too much tranquillity and you'll fall asleep or drift in dullness until the end of the sitting.
But what happens if, instead, we consider not just the elements of the list, but the order they come in? What if this is actually a practice map?
Seven Steps to Awakening
Think of an activity that you enjoy doing for its own sake - something that you can get absorbed into for long periods. Maybe that's reading a book, maybe playing a video game, maybe going for a long walk in nature. I'll use the example of reading a book because I like books, but please make the appropriate substitution if you aren't really a book person (and thank you for reading this far!).
To start off, you need some mindfulness to get going. If you're completely caught up in planning, worrying, storms of anger or whatever, you probably won't even see the words on the page, let alone be able to take them in. So establishing a basic level of present-moment attention is the starting point for any activity.
Next, we have to take an interest in what's going on - we have to want to know what the book says. (If it's a book we don't care about at all, it'll be really hard to motivate ourselves to read it - you've almost certainly had that experience in an educational context at some point...) So we need some basic curiosity. Either we have it already - maybe that's why we picked the book - or we have to take an interest in the subject, to find a way to understand its relevance to ourselves. Otherwise we probably won't get past the first page.
Let's say we manage this, and we start reading. Our interest in the material is sufficient to keep us going - and, after a while, this interest becomes self-sustaining. We find the energy to keep going - we're motivated to keep turning the pages, because the book is relevant to our interests.
As we get more and more into what we're reading, the activity starts to become more openly rewarding. It's more than just interesting - we're getting something out of the experience, and so we start to enjoy it. Reading time becomes something we look forward to.
When we enjoy doing something, it's easy to do it for longer and longer stretches of time. Our body and mind naturally settle into the activity, relaxing and becoming tranquil as we continue with the enjoyable activity of reading.
As the body and mind become tranquil, we become more and more focused on what we're reading. If the material has particularly captured our attention, we may find that we can stay focused on it even in busy environments, like a noisy coffee shop or a bustling train.
And as the concentration deepens, we become imperturbable. No matter what happens around us, our focus is absolute - we no longer need to worry about what's going on because it no longer disturbs us at all.
The crucial role of motivation in practice
Let's go back to that basic meditation instruction. Pay attention to the breath, and bring the attention back whenever the mind wanders away. But it's really hard! Why? Because the breath is boring! It comes in, it goes out, it comes in again... it doesn't take long to figure the thing out. We don't have any motivation to watch the breath (apart from 'because the teacher said so', but who cares what the teacher thinks?), so it's very difficult to find the energy required to stay with this boring, unpleasant practice for any period of time.
More generally, I've noticed that one of the biggest obstacles for new meditators is finding the motivation to keep going. Meditation is hard work! And, to make matters worse, it takes time for the benefits to show themselves. One approach is to commit to doing a ton of practice - perhaps practising half an hour a day for 100 days, which is a traditional standard in the Zen world. If you can do that, you'll see benefits for sure, and then it becomes easier to motivate yourself to keep going. But it's a big 'if'.
Another approach - the one I take in my free book Pathways of Meditation - is to expose beginners to a wide range of different practices straight off the bat, showcasing the different things meditation practice can do for us, in the hope that one or more of the approaches strike a chord. It's also the same reason why I write these articles, and why I teach my Wednesday night class - not because my words have a magic power to enlighten you, but in the hope that by sharing all the cool stuff I've come across in my own practice, some of it will spark off some interest in you as well. If something jumps out at you as being interesting and worth pursuing - so the theory goes - you'll be much more motivated to keep at it. I see motivation and energy ('viriya' in the Seven Factors of Awakening) as two sides of the same coin. If you're motivated to do something, you'll find the energy to do it. If you aren't, you won't.
The basic point here is that if we can establish some interest in the meditation, the subsequent stages of the practice will take care of themselves. If we can approach our practice as a mixture of mindfulness and investigation - of curiosity, exploration, or simply wanting to know what it's all about - we will eventually arrive at concentration, as the sixth step of the list.
So how do we generate that interest in the practice? Ultimately, I think this is something you have to figure out for yourself. Jud suggests modifying the standard mindfulness instructions to suggest approaching the breath with a sense of curiosity, but honestly that instruction has always left me pretty cold. If someone wasn't already curious about the breath, I'm not sure they will be just because I tell them to be - the 'Who cares?' argument still stands.
Indeed, Zen master Bankei was highly critical of some of the methods used by Zen teachers of his era, which he saw as attempting to conjure up a fake sense of 'doubt'. He likened it to a monk pretending to have lost his surplice (a kind of base-layer in the Zen robes). When you're a monk, you only get the one surplice, so if you lose it, you're going to search and search and search until you find it again, otherwise your life is going to be very uncomfortable. But if you're just pretending to have lost it, you're probably not going to keep pretend-searching for it when you get tired, hot and bored.
Ultimately, you need an authentic reason to take up meditation practice. I've written before about the importance of figuring out your motivation. Read books, watch videos, look up different teachers, and find out what clicks with you! Once you have a sense of what draws you to the practice, you'll find it much easier to generate those early Factors of Awakening - you'll have a reason to investigate your experience, and a motivation that can provide the energy needed to keep going. And once you have those in place, all the other benefits of practice - joy, peace of mind and, yes, even concentration - will follow along naturally, in their own time. If you take care of your motivation, the rest will take care of itself.
Taking an interest in the breath
Getting back to the specific example of the breath, here are some suggestions that may help to make it a more interesting experience for you. (If you'd rather find your own way, of course, go for it - in the long run that will probably work much better for you than using my ideas.)
If the breath is just 'in, out, in, out', that probably won't hold your attention for long. So break it into smaller pieces. The in-breath has a beginning, middle and end. How are they different? How do you know you're at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end? Is the out-breath the same way? What happens in between the in-breath and out-breath?
Continuing down the deconstructive road, what are the actual micro-sensations that make up each part of the breath? How many sensations are there? How many can you perceive clearly without it turning into a mush?
If micro-sensations are not your bag, you could instead look at the rise and fall of the breath and the constant flux of sensations as a flow, like an ocean wave. Can you feel deeply into this flow, ride it up and down, really get a sense of the constant motion of the sensory experience?
Another option is to look at adjacent pairs of breaths. Is every in-breath the same length, or are some shorter and some longer? Is the current in-breath a short one or a long one, and at what point can you tell how long it is? Of course you can also do this with out-breaths, but you can also compare the in-breath to the out-breath. Is one consistently shorter than the other, or does it change?
Where are you feeling the breath, specifically? How big an area are you focused on? What shape is your attention? Is it fixed, or does it change? What happens when you get distracted, when your attention moves away from the breath entirely?
These are just some ideas - I'm sure you can come up with more. So play around with it - take an interest in the process of taking an interest! And see if you don't end up really pretty concentrated on the breath - but as a side effect of the mindful investigation of the breath, rather than as the 'goal' of the practice. See how you get on!
The Zen practice of koan study
A monk asked Yun Men, 'What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?'
Yun Men replied, 'An appropriate response.'
-Blue Cliff Record, case 14.
The essence of Zen is questioning
One of the most well-known practices of Zen is its use of koans - typically presented as illogical riddles designed to frustrate the thinking mind. That's one way to look at them, but it's perhaps more helpful to think of a koan as a kind of question - an inquiry which, if pursued deeply enough, can lead us to profound breakthroughs and realisations which change the way we see the world. Each koan represents a pivotal encounter, and we are invited to use it in order to reach a pivotal experience of our own.
All modern Japanese Rinzai Zen lineages (as far as I know!) descend from the 18th century Zen master Hakuin, who revitalised a tradition which had been in decline for some time. One of Hakuin's principal achievements was to take the vast body of koan literature and organise it into a curriculum, with koans grouped into various categories according to their purpose and the stage of training for which they're most appropriate. This is a powerful approach - my own Zen teacher has said that the Japanese Rinzai Zen curriculum is a remarkably complete approach to contemplative practice, one which leaves no stone unturned and ultimately provides a thorough education not just in coming to one's own realisation but also in being able to communicate it to others.
Korean and Chinese Zen take a different approach, in which typically a student will work with a single koan for life. Perhaps this seems limited compared to the comprehensive syllabus of the Japanese approach. But it works, and the fact that it works tells us something important about koan practice. It can be tempting to see each koan as a kind of puzzle which, once solved, has nothing more to tell us - so we move on to the next, and the next, and at some point we finish the syllabus and we're done.
Really, though, the essence of the koan - and, I would suggest, of contemplative practice in general - is not so much the answers that come to us, but the questioning itself. Engaging with a koan requires us to put down our preconceived ideas - what we 'know' about Zen practice, what we 'expect' to find, what 'makes sense' and what is 'nonsense'. Koan practice requires us to let go of our certainty, and enter what is traditionally called the Great Doubt.
Great doubt, great awakening; no doubt, no awakening
The idea of 'Great Doubt' can sometimes be puzzling or even unappealing, and it can be a little confusing for people who have been exposed to the early Buddhist list of Five Hindrances - five obstacles to contemplative practice, the fifth of which is often simply given as 'doubt'. In early Buddhism, this doubt is seen as something to be overcome, rather than something to be actively cultivated.
But the doubt of the Hindrances is what's called 'sceptical doubt' - a lack of confidence in oneself, in the teacher or in the teaching, an insidious doubt that undermines our willingness to commit to the practice. This is not the kind of doubt that Zen is talking about - and, in fact, Zen also talks about 'Great Faith' as an antidote to this kind of lack of confidence.
Rather, Zen's Great Doubt is about having the willingness to make a leap of faith - to step beyond the confines of our familiar ways of looking at the world, our need for certainty. The idea of letting go of fixed views and thereby finding freedom goes back to the very earliest teachings of the historical Buddha; that theme was picked up and further elaborated by the 2nd/3rd century CE Mahayana teacher Nagarjuna, and it continued to flourish as the Zen tradition came into existence in the 5th century. Modern-day teacher Stephen Batchelor describes the purpose of koan practice as 'burning away the habit of finding answers', and instead resting in the feeling of uncertainty - bafflement, astonishment, even awe.
Dead words and live words
When we first take up a koan, we can't help but approach it on a conceptual level. We might work with a whole koan, trying to understand the entire story, or we might be invited to focus just on the pithy essence of the story - a short phrase or question which we are invited to investigate. Either way, though, the koan is presented to us in the form of words - words which represent shared concepts that we can use for communication. As such, the exploration of a koan typically starts on the conceptual level - we think about the question, we come up with ideas, we mull it over and try to get to the bottom of it in the way that we normally do when faced with any question or puzzle in life.
After some time, though, this approach runs out of steam - the question seems to lose all meaning. The words become nonsensical; we feel that we've explored every possible avenue, looked at the problem from every angle, and nothing makes sense any more. In the Zen tradition, this is called the stage where the question becomes 'colourless'. Now, further progress seems impossible, because there's nothing left to investigate - and yet we're asked to find a way to keep moving forward anyway.
In the Korean Zen tradition, they talk about 'dead words' and 'live words' as different stages of working with a koan. You might think that the words of the koan are 'live' at the beginning, then become 'dead' when they reach this latter stage of 'colourlessness' - but actually it's the other way around. In the beginning, the words are dead, because we're still approaching the question on the level of concepts - the same old concepts we had before we took up the koan. Nothing new has happened yet; we're just juggling our concepts around, trying to find an arrangement that makes sense of the puzzle.
Concepts are basically abstractions - a way of taking the full complexity of a living, breathing animal and boiling it down to the three-letter word 'dog'. Concepts are really useful because they reduce the amount of detail that we have to navigate in the world, and they're reusable, so we can apply this one word 'dog' to all sorts of dogs, not just a particular Golden Retriever called Snuffles. But the more abstract the concept becomes, the more specificity and richness is lost from the actual experience - the dynamic, vibrant, ever-changing reality is frozen in place, tagged with a label, and then forgotten.
So it's only when our concepts cease to be of value - when our question becomes colourless, when all the meaning drains out of it - that we move beyond the dry, sterile framework of 'dead words'. What lies beyond that is, by definition, impossible to articulate conceptually - the very attempt to do so immediately loses the essence of the experience. Nevertheless, it can be experienced - and this is the realm of 'live words', the realm of Great Doubt.
Facing the great questions of our lives
So which question should we take up? Well, traditionally in Rinzai Zen the teacher will assign a koan for you to work with, drawn from one of the many koan collections that have come together through the centuries.
Another approach is simply to see what our personal questions are - what is it that we want to know? The great Rinzai Zen master Bankei was actually quite critical of formal koan study, which he regarded as an attempt to 'fake' a doubt that wasn't really there - but his own life of practice was driven by a quest to understand a line from a Confucian classic: 'The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue.' It could be said that all of his years of travel and study were his way of exploring this question. Similarly, we could see the historical Buddha's entire teaching as coming out of his investigation of the question of suffering - why we suffer, and what could be done about it. Stephen Batchelor has pointed out that there's a great tendency to focus on the answers to these questions - the specific practices and methods developed by the great masters, the language those teachers used to express their own personal revelations to others - but actually what is perhaps more useful for each of us is to go through our own personal process of questioning.
We can even see the approach of koan study as a way of life - one which is based in continual engagement, never-ending exploration and questioning, not content to settle on dogmatic answers or stale, rigid ways of being in the world, not blindly accepting someone else's 'truth' just because it seems to work for them, but instead continuing, moment by moment, to inquire into this moment, to see what - in the words of Yun Men, constitutes an 'appropriate response' to the situation at hand.
What is your appropriate response, right now?
Taking a look at Buddhism's central promise
At the heart of Buddhism is the idea of awakening, or enlightenment. The basic idea is that the practices of Buddhism lead to a fundamental shift in the way you experience the world, with the result that life is immeasurably better thereafter. But what changes, and how?
Liberation from suffering in early Buddhism
A key concept in the Pali canon - the earliest records we have of the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived roughly 2,500 years ago - is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. These encapsulate what is usually seen as the central problem that Buddhism intends to address:
You'll find different translations and interpretations, but the gist is generally pretty straightforward - life sucks, but the Buddha found a way out of life's suckitude, and if you follow the Eightfold Path then sooner or later your life won't suck any more either.
Early Buddhism elaborates the path of awakening by describing ten 'fetters' which are progressively 'unbound' through practice. Along the way to full awakening - becoming an 'arahant', a 'worthy one' - you'll overcome sensual desire, ill will, restlessness and ignorance. Finally, you achieve nibbana (aka nirvana, not to be confused with the grunge band), which literally means something like 'blowing out', like a candle flame.
The 'candle flame' analogy also works nicely with another central teaching in early Buddhism, that of the 'three fires' of greed, hatred and confusion. Through practice, we extinguish these fires, and as a result we come to see the world with their opposites, generosity, compassion and wisdom.
So far, so good. But what does it actually look like to 'extinguish' greed, hatred and confusion?
What does it mean to be 'free' of something?
Freedom means different things to different people.
Some - particularly orthodox Theravada teachers - would say that when one of the fetters is overcome, it's totally destroyed, eradicated, finito - so, for example, when you overcome the fetter of ill will, you will never experience ill will ever again, for the rest of time. If you do find even the tiniest flicker of ill will - oops, you weren't as enlightened as you thought, better keep practising.
This is a very high standard. For some of us, this is very motivational - it suggests that the outcome of truly devoted practice is extraordinary, and we can feel blessed even to have the good fortune to have encountered the teachings and to know that such things are possible. We can also look to real-life examples of deeply committed practitioners who are able to bear remarkable levels of suffering with profound equanimity - for example, when my teacher's teacher, Ayya Khema, was dying of cancer, she maintained a remarkable and inspiring peace of mind, calmness and clarity throughout the process.
On the other hand, for some of us this kind of ideal can be quite unhelpful. As I mentioned in last week's article, there's a fine line between working skilfully with difficult emotions and simply suppressing them, and if our idea of success is to have completely extinguished all negative states then that's a recipe for suppression. Alternatively, perhaps we regard the goal as unachievable - maybe it's something that monastic practitioners can achieve, but daily life is sufficiently intense, busy and triggering that it seems there's no hope of totally eliminating our reactivity. Or maybe it's actually unattractive to us - we value the richness of our emotional life, and what's being described sounds worryingly close to becoming an emotionless robot who is only capable of experiencing a bland, tepid neutrality all day long.
Another interpretation of 'freedom' is that the condition may still arise, but it no longer has power over us. Someone cuts us off in traffic, and we experience a surge of anger - but that anger is seen for what it is, and we can allow it to arise, be experienced and then pass away again, without the anger forcing us to act in a certain way. This type of freedom is not so much about eliminating anything as giving us the choice about whether or not to participate in it.
This type of freedom is what tends to be found in Zen, where there's a strong emphasis on having a full emotional range, rather than being what my teacher Daizan calls a 'good little Buddhist' who is always buttoned up, well-behaved and never deviating from the straight and narrow. In Zen, emotions - even the 'negative' ones - are seen as something to be included in the practice, rather than something to be eliminated.
In fact, Zen goes as far as to say that achieving permanent nirvana is not the goal of the practice - actually, the experience of nirvana is merely a way-station on a much longer journey. The peace of mind of nirvana is certainly a worthwhile experience, but the ultimate aim of Zen practice is to help us live a fully engaged life, not simply 'extinguish' ourselves.
Experiencing moments of freedom
Let's go back to the three 'fires' - greed, hatred and confusion. We've all had experiences of acting from a place of one (or more!) of these three, and we would probably admit that these were not our wisest actions in retrospect.
On the other hand, we've all had experiences of their opposites as well - acting from a place of generosity, compassion, and wisdom - and I'm willing to bet that these were happier, more fulfilling experiences. We could look at experiences like these as moments of freedom - moments of nirvana.
The three fires typically arise in the form of reactivity - an instinctive grasping, pushing away, or misunderstanding of what's going on. (This is what's meant by 'craving' in the Second Noble Truth - the urge to act in a certain way which arises in response to a situation.) By cultivating mindfulness, presence and open-heartedness, we develop the ability to see that reactivity arise and then let go of it, without being compelled to act on it, making space for a wiser response to the situation. Over time, we find that more and more of our behaviour comes from a place of generosity, compassion and wisdom - the moments of nirvana come more frequently and last longer. This type of freedom profoundly enriches our lives, without requiring us to eliminate or suppress anything - a moment of freedom is a moment of freedom, even if it's the only one we've had all week. Nirvana then becomes not a permanent resting place - retiring to the beach with a deck-chair and waiting for your life to come to its end - but a powerful support for a life of action.
A classic Zen practice which cultivates this very directly is 'just sitting' (also known as shikantaza, Silent Illumination, resting in the Unborn, and various other names). In this practice, you simply sit, aware of whatever comes and goes, without pushing away or grabbing onto anything - in other words, the direct experience of non-reactivity. The great 13th century Zen master Dogen went as far as to say that this kind of practice is enlightenment, and that there is no other liberation than this.
So why wait? Experience nirvana today! You can find a guided shikantaza practice on my Audio page to get you started. Enjoy!
"Avoid evil, do good, and purify the mind." -Dhammapada
My teacher's teacher on the Theravada side, Ayya Khema, liked to say that 'A moment of samadhi is a moment of purification.' But what does this mean - what's being purified, how does it work, and why would you want to do it anyway?
In order to explore this, we'll first look at a central feature of meditation which often surprises people at first, and can make us wonder if we're doing something wrong. (Spoiler alert: you're probably not.)
'Help! My practice is going wrong!'
It's a pretty common experience for first-time retreatants. We've come on retreat to experience peace of mind, serenity, deep states of bliss and love - and all we can think about is difficult relationships, unpleasant events from our childhood, our deepest resentments, fears and sources of shame. To make matters worse, everyone else seems to be sitting there peacefully, probably totally blissed out, while we can't even manage to focus on the breath for more than five seconds without yet another irritation surfacing.
Another way it can happen is in the course of daily life practice. Maybe your daily sit has been in a bit of a holding pattern lately - fairly stable, fairly peaceful, nothing special but it seems to be going OK. Then something difficult happens at work, or in your family, or maybe there's no obvious trigger at all - but suddenly your time on the cushion becomes excruciating, a never-ending stream of mind-wandering through difficult, unpleasant thoughts and memories. It seems like you've totally forgotten how to meditate - last week you could stay on the breath pretty well, but now you're lucky if you even remember to start meditating - some days you just spend twenty minutes straight raging away to yourself.
Actually, although it might not seem that way, nothing is going wrong. This is an important (perhaps essential) part of the process - not the most pleasant part, for sure, but important nevertheless. Sooner or later, our difficult material will come up, and it's important to have some sense of what's going on and how to work with it.
Warning label: be careful with trauma
Before we go further, it's worth saying that not all 'difficult material' is created equal. For many of us, the vast majority of what comes up (maybe even all of it) can be worked with in meditation. However, for individuals with a history of serious trauma (what's being called 'big-T trauma' these days), meditation is actually often not a good idea. In this case, working with a qualified therapist or counsellor is really important to avoid re-traumatising yourself and compounding the problem. So if this is you, or you think it might be you, please consider speaking to someone about it, rather than just jumping in both feet first with meditation.
Two views of 'difficult material'
Traditional Buddhism talks a lot about karma. The Buddha talked about karma in terms of our intentional actions - the things we choose to do, the ways we choose to respond to situations in the world. If we repeatedly respond to situations with greed, hatred and confusion, we will come to see the world in greedy, hateful and confused terms, and gradually we will develop deep-rooted habitual tendencies in these directions. Conversely, if we respond from a place of generosity, compassion and wisdom, we will come to see the world more in those terms. Early Buddhism thus talks about overcoming the three kilesas ('poisons' or 'defilements'), greed, hatred and confusion, through the three trainings of ethics, meditation and wisdom, which equip us with the skills needed to live from a place of their antidotes, generosity, compassion and wisdom. This process of overcoming the kilesas is often called 'purification', as in the Dhammapada quotation at the top of this article.
The later Buddhist tradition develops a more elaborate view of the mind and karma, and begins to talk about 'karmic seeds' which are laid down in our 'storehouse consciousness'. The model is more detailed, but the basic idea is the same - whenever we do something, we plant a karmic seed in the storehouse, which sooner or later ripens into a positive or negative consequence. One of the goals of practice is thus to purify the storehouse - to 'burn up' or 'consume' the negative seeds, replacing them with positive ones.
Encountering difficult material in meditation practice is thus traditionally viewed in terms of dealing with our past karma. Because we have acted unskilfully in the past (perhaps even in a past life in the orthodox Buddhist view), we carry negative karma within us, and as this karma is being purified, we may experience unpleasant side effects, such as negative thoughts, emotions or memories coming up in practice.
Maybe the traditional Buddhist view works for you, maybe it doesn't. If not, it can be helpful to look at the difficult material that comes up in practice in terms of modern Western psychotherapy instead.
(Caveat: I am not a trained therapist, and what follows is likely to be a gross simplification. If you'd like to know more about this topic, I suggest Bruce Tift's excellent book 'Already Free'.)
Many experiences in our lives are hard for us to deal with, sometimes even overwhelming. This is especially true when we're young, and haven't yet developed our adult coping mechanisms, but even as adults we will often encounter very difficult situations. Sometimes, we will find ourselves experiencing feelings that are too much for us - more than we're willing, or perhaps able, to take on at that moment. So we might suppress what we're feeling, or distract ourselves, or get drunk or high.
However, although we might feel like we've dodged the bullet in the moment, this is often not quite true. Sometimes a fragment of the experience remains lodged in us. Sometimes experiences are unpleasant enough that our behaviour changes to try to avoid having similar experiences in the future - for example, perhaps we develop anxiety around particular types of situations, as a defence mechanism to try to prevent us from having to face that unpleasant situation ever again.
Ordinarily, a certain amount of effort is required to keep all this stuff below the surface. We live our lives at the surface level of our consciousness, with all this material firmly held down in the unconscious where we don't have to deal with it. However, when we meditate, our minds begin to relax - and the previously submerged material may start to float to the surface.
Why this is actually a good thing
Unpleasant as it often is, working with and resolving difficult material is actually of great benefit in the long run. Each person has their own reasons for meditating, and as we've previously discussed the intention you bring to your practice has a strong influence on the outcome. But for the sake of demonstration, let's look at a few different motivations for practice, and how the 'purification' process helps.
Perhaps you're interested in pursuing the Buddha's enlightenment for yourself. Well, the Buddha said that purifying the mind was an important step, so get to it!
Perhaps you're drawn to deep insights into emptiness, the nature of mind, non-duality and so on. You might even find that, if you have a very focused insight practice (e.g. working with a koan), you can have some deep insights without encountering too much psychological material along the way - you drill right the way down through the layers of mind and go straight to your Buddha Nature without hitting any obstacles along the way. Great! However, sooner or later, you'll find yourself wanting to integrate your insights into daily life, so you can live from a place of wisdom - it becomes increasingly frustrating to see yourself doing the same dumb things over and over even though you know better. As you start working with integration and daily life, you're going to start hitting difficult material - there's simply no way around it. The habitual patterns which continue to push us into making choices from ignorance rather than wisdom must ultimately be uprooted, and that means looking deeply into where they come from.
Perhaps you're interested in opening the heart - developing a deep, abiding sense of love and compassion that infuses every moment of your life. Well, a big part of Buddhist heart-opening practice is to make those qualities universal - so that you experience compassion for your worst enemy just as much as for your dearest friend. Working with difficult people can often be a significant trigger for unresolved psychological material - as you start to explore why it's so much easier to feel love for a friend than an enemy, you can't help but trip over your psychological stumbling blocks. Some people encounter this stuff even earlier, perhaps even the very first time you try to do loving-kindness or compassion meditation - maybe you find that you simply can't love yourself. If you want to progress with your practice, at some point you're going to have to look at why you can't love yourself, and if you pull on that thread long enough you'll find all kinds of interesting stuff lurking down in the depths.
Perhaps you just want peace of mind. Stillness, calmness, a refuge from life's busyness. An unfortunate irony of meditation practice is that orienting toward stillness is the most sure-fire way to bring up disturbing material, for the reason given above - in order to become still, you must relax the mind, and that means dropping your guard.
I could go on, but hopefully you get the point - no matter what you want from meditation, sooner or later you're going to run up against this stuff, and so it makes sense to know how to deal with it.
A moment of samadhi is a moment of purification
Going back to the Ayya Khema quotation that opened the article, one of the most effective ways for bringing this material up is the practice of samadhi.
In early Buddhism and the Theravada tradition that grew out of it, there's a strong emphasis on concentration practice, and in particular cultivating the jhanas, altered states of consciousness which can arise as a result of deeply concentrating the mind. (Ayya Khema was a strong proponent of the jhanas, as is my teacher Leigh Brasington.)
In the Tibetan tradition, and in some Zen lineages (including mine), we find 'inner fire' practices which serve the same purpose. (See, for example, Thubten Yeshe's 'The Bliss of Inner Fire' for a description of the Tibetan practice of tummo, or the Zenways course 'Deep Nourishment' for the Zen take on it.)
In both cases, the practice involves cultivating states which are intrinsically enjoyable or rewarding. It turns out that the mind likes to hang out in pleasant states, so, once we cultivate enough skill to get into these states, it's relatively easy to stay there for long periods. Gradually the mind settles and becomes still, creating the perfect environment for our submerged material to pop up into surface consciousness and - hopefully - be dealt with. The main drawback is that, when this happens, it feels like our samadhi practice is broken - previously we were enjoying these calm, blissful states, and now there's all this difficult stuff coming up instead.
What to do when difficult stuff comes up
(Please bear in mind the previous caveat about trauma. If really severe stuff is coming up, talk to a qualified therapist.)
The first, and most important, point to bear in mind when difficult material comes up is that this is part of the process. Nothing has gone wrong, you haven't forgotten how to meditate, please don't throw in the towel and take up mountain biking instead just yet.
My Zen teacher, Daizan, likes to say that our difficult memories and emotions can't be dealt with in the abstract. We can't just decide one morning 'Right, I've felt enough shame now, that's enough.' (Actually, if you were to try that, you'd almost certainly make matters worse, by deliberately setting out to push even more stuff into the unconscious.)
Instead, we can only deal with what actually comes up, as it comes up. Sometimes it can work to try to bring stuff up deliberately - for example, by looking at a particular behaviour pattern, trying to understand where it comes from, what's ultimately behind it, digging and digging until you reach its source. Increasing the amount of practice you're doing (either in daily life or by going on a retreat) can also bring stuff up faster. But you should also be aware that it may come up at any time, even when you aren't looking for it.
So how do we work with it when it arises?
The first key point is not to suppress it - at best, that's just delaying dealing with it, at worst you might be compounding the problem by feeding it with even more aversion. (Previously it was something you didn't want to feel - now it's something you really don't want to feel.)
The second key point is not to inflict it on the people around you. If difficult material is coming up, it'll probably make you feel crappy for a while. Be conscious of this, and be kind to the people around you. (It may help to let them know you're having a rough time at the moment.)
So if we don't suppress it and don't act it out, what else can we do?
The middle way in this case is to find a way to allow the difficult material to be felt and experienced. Somehow, we have to make a container for our experience which is spacious enough that it doesn't overwhelm us, but can instead simply play out, and ultimately resolve itself. (Daizan describes it as a process of allowing the snarled-up parts of ourselves to 'untwist' and release.)
There are a few ways to create this 'container'. Some teachers are very keen on one way of doing it, and very critical of other approaches. Personally, I've found value in each of them at different times, and would encourage you to explore for yourself and see what works for you, rather than looking for a One True Way.
The basic idea here is to look at what's going on in our direct experience, with a particular focus on the somatic level. When we 'feel shame' (for example), what do we feel in the body? Perhaps a heaviness in the chest, or a tightness in the facial muscles? See what it's like for you. Then, when you're in touch with what's going on, notice that, although it's an unpleasant experience (maybe extremely unpleasant), it isn't actually physically harming you. Although it's unpleasant, you're managing to feel this unpleasant feeling. You're working with it - it's workable. You don't need to push it away or pretend it isn't there - you can feel it, explore it, see what's going on, all the while recognising the unpleasantness of it, but no longer trying to push it away or hide from it.
Ayya Khema was a big fan of what she called 'substitution' - using positive thoughts and emotions to work with negative ones. If a particular experience is very hard to bear, it may help to reach for your metta or karuna practice and bring a quality of loving kindness or compassion to your experience. Imbuing your experience with even a hint of open-heartedness has a kind of 'softening' effect that can make difficult experiences much easier to bear.
If you have a strong insight practice, a third option is to use this as fuel for that practice. If you're looking at impermanence, notice the moment-to-moment arising and passing of the individual thoughts and body sensations that make up the emotion. If you're looking at non-self, notice that this experience is - just like any other thought - not me, not mine. If you're looking at emptiness, notice the emptiness of the emotion. And so on.
The three previous strategies can make difficult material much more palatable, but there's always a danger that they become a means of 'spiritual bypassing' - using spiritual techniques to avoid dealing with whatever we don't want to deal with. Now the precious opportunity to deal with our unresolved stuff has turned into yet another avoidance strategy, and it would have been better to do nothing at all rather than try to meditate our way out of the unpleasantness.
Sometimes we can find that any attempt to 'work with' a difficult experience just feels plain wrong to us. A few years ago a friend of mine died unexpectedly, and I had a pretty rough time with grief for a while afterwards. I actually went straight from his funeral to a ten-day meditation retreat - which I would not necessarily recommend doing - and it became immediately clear that grief was going to dominate the retreat for me. A couple of meditation teachers I knew suggested ways of working with the grief in my meditation practice, but it felt totally wrong to me - it seemed disrespectful to his memory to try to make myself feel better using a clever mental trick. In retrospect, I realised that whenever I was trying to 'work with' the grief, I had quite a strong thread of aversion to the grief wrapped up in what I was doing - part of me really wanted to play the spiritual bypassing card and just not deal with it at all. Fortunately I had just about enough wherewithal to realise on some level what was going on, hence the feelings of discomfort and wrongness whenever I would start to do that. Ultimately I spent a few days just sitting with it, not trying to do anything at all. Finally, something shifted just a little bit, and I was able to bring a tiny bit of self-compassion in to the experience, after which it got a lot easier. But it took those first few days to process enough of the grief that the compassion could be genuine, rather than an avoidance strategy.
This stuff is not easy. There's no simple trick to sort it all out every time. But, with time and patience, we can find our way through the maze of karmic baggage - and ultimately come out the other side, lighter, freer, and with a more open heart.
Why you don't need anything from me, or anyone else for that matter
Modern society is structured around a fundamental sense of lack. You might be happy if only you were thinner, younger, more attractive, had a bigger house or a better car, got that promotion at work, owned a George Foreman grill, etc. etc. - but you aren't, and you don't, and so you suck and deserve to be miserable. Well, who wants to be miserable? So we spend our days chasing around trying to get the things we feel we're lacking, or trying to compensate for them in other ways - either way, constantly circling this gnawing sense of inadequacy that our society is trying so very hard to train into us.
Fortunately, there's another option available to us.
Your true nature is Buddha Nature
In Rinzai Zen circles we talk a lot about kensho, 'seeing true nature'. The term is often used to refer to a shift in perception that comes about as a result of practice (e.g. when you 'break through' a koan such as 'Who am I?'), and is regarded as the start of the process of awakening. Another term for this true nature is Buddha Nature.
Early Buddhism tended to present awakening as something that you had to work up to. You started out as an 'uninstructed worldling', full of defilements and impurities, and through the course of the gradual path of training you would gradually work your way up the mountain, where the supreme enlightenment of the arahants waited for you at the top. This approach to practice makes a lot of conventional sense - we're starting out from a place of not knowing what the heck is going on, and we gradually train and practise, developing our meditation skills along the way, with the ultimate goal of reaping the benefits of that training. Viewed this way, the path is like learning to drive - we start out not able to drive, then we undertake the process to learn how, with a lot of help from a teacher, and eventually we reach the point where we can drive wherever we want to go, even in bad weather conditions.
However, there are some drawbacks to this view of the path, particularly for us modern folk. Notice how the above description plays perfectly into the narrative of lack. We start out by saying that you basically suck - you don't know how to meditate, you're full of defilements and impurities, you've got a whole mountain to climb before you have any hope of happiness - but luckily I can help, provided you're willing to donate generously to my teaching fund, of course! After just a few decades of regular donations, you'll be enjoying a basic sense of well-being, and - if you're good enough to make it into my inner circle - you can hang out with me at my solid gold house.
Perhaps fortunately, the later tradition takes a different view. Texts like the Lotus Sutra present the view that we all carry the seed of awakening within us already. Sooner or later, that seed will ripen, and we will flower into the fully awakened Buddhas that, deep down, we already are. Nobody can give you your awakened nature, and nobody can take it away from you - it's yours, always has been and always will be.
Indeed, in the Zen tradition, your Buddha Nature is considered to be synonymous with your mind - yes, the one you have right now. What could be closer, more truly yours? How could anyone ever give it to you or take it away from you?
So how come I don't feel enlightened?
In the Lotus Sutra, there's a story about a couple of friends who go out drinking, and end up in a bit of a state, far from home. One falls asleep, having run out of money. The other needs to get going and can't stay with him, but before he leaves, he sews a precious jewel into his friend's cloak, so that at least when his friend wakes up he'll have some money. The trouble is, his friend is too far gone to realise that this has happened, and when he wakes up the next morning, all he can see is that he's in an unfamiliar place without any money - not aware of the riches he's carrying with him. So he ends up living a life of poverty for quite some time, until he finally meets up with his friend again, who points out the jewel he's had with him all along.
Buddha Nature is the same way. We carry it with us at all times, but until we realise it's there, it's as if we didn't have it at all.
Traditionally, this is explained through the mechanism of 'obscurations', which are compared to clouds in the night sky. On a cloudy night, all you can see is darkness above. Then the clouds part for a moment, and you catch a glimpse of the moon, shining brightly above you.
In the same way, we periodically catch glimpses of our Buddha Nature, in moments of stillness, peace, joy, contentment, love or compassion. But then the clouds come back, covering the moon once again.
Initially, then, the task is to see the moon for ourselves and know it for what it is. We practise not to make ourselves worthy enough to become enlightened, but simply to see past the clouds in our own minds, knowing right from the start that what we're seeking is already there. Then, once we have verified for ourselves that this really is true, we can come to trust more and more that our deepest core is fundamentally fine just the way it is - ultimately, we lack nothing. Even when the clouds temporarily obscure the moon, we know the moon is still there - there's no sense of gaining or losing, because there's nothing to gain or lose. Our true nature is our true nature, no matter what else is going on. Over time, we come to live more and more from our true nature.
Glimpsing the moon
You might be wondering why we need to practise at all, if we have this Buddha Nature already. The short answer is that practice helps! You'll come to see the moon clearly much more quickly if you deliberately engage in looking at the night sky, night after night, rather than just hoping your eye randomly falls on the sky at a moment when the clouds happen to have parted.
In the same way, practice helps us to connect more quickly, clearly and deeply with our Buddha Nature. As mentioned, our minds are often obscured - we have all kinds of thoughts, beliefs and mental habits which get in the way, and our attention tends to spend most of its time focused on those, rather than seeing beyond the mental activity to the mind's deeper nature.
Meditation practice orients us towards stillness and clarity. As we become still, the swirling obscurations in our minds slow down, and eventually come to rest. As we become clear, we see more deeply into our own nature. Over time, our Buddha Nature unfolds before our eyes, simply by virtue of the obscurations thinning out and dissolving. One beautiful way to explore this is through the practice of Silent Illumination. Another approach is to use a koan, such as 'Who am I?', to drill a hole in the obscurations and catch a glimpse of what's on the other side. (Guided versions of both of these practices are available on my Audio page.)
A third option is to orient ourselves intentionally toward the qualities of Buddha Nature. Using a base practice like Silent Illumination or following the breath, we then tune into any qualities of well-being that we happen to notice as we sit. Perhaps you notice a sense of stillness; lean into that, taste it, really allow the stillness to permeate your being. Or perhaps you discover a sense of contentment deep in the body; again, really feel the contentment, drink it in. Other qualities to explore include love, compassion, a sense of boundarylessness, a sense of timelessness, a sense of flow.
As you open to your Buddha Nature again and again, you'll find that old ways of being rooted in a sense of fundamental lack begin to fall away, and more and more your life becomes an expression of your innate goodness. I can't tell you what that will look like - although we each possess Buddha Nature, our individual expressions of it are unique. Only you can see for yourself what happens when you open to your deepest nature - the true nature that you already possess.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.