The art of getting out of our own way
One of my favourite Zen texts, 'Zazen Yojinki', aka 'Notes on what to be aware of in sitting meditation', comes to us from the 13th century Soto Zen master Keizan. By the standard of most Zen texts, it's actually pretty readable, full of practical advice about meditation, like what to do if you're feeling sleepy or distracted. (If you'd like to read the whole thing, you can find a translation here.)
But the part I'd like to highlight today comes at the very end. It's a simple instruction which sums up the spirit of the 'quiet Zen' practice of Silent Illumination, aka shikantaza, just sitting, or resting in the Unborn. (If you aren't familiar with Silent Illumination, I recommend taking a moment to check out my page on that practice, so you have some sense of what's involved.) The passage in question is, for me, one of the most beautiful expressions of Zen practice that I've ever encountered, and it rarely fails to move me.
You should just rest and cease. Be cooled, pass numberless years as this moment. Be cold ashes, a withered tree, an incense burner in an abandoned temple, a piece of unstained silk.
This is my earnest wish.
What on earth does it mean to 'be a piece of unstained silk'? Wouldn't that be boring, or passive? And isn't this recommending that we hide away from the world and refuse to deal with our problems?
I'm going to suggest that it's actually quite the opposite of all of those things, but in order to get there we need to cover a little theory first. So let's dig in!
Being no-one, going nowhere
In last week's article we looked at the Three Characteristics, a teaching from early Buddhism on the nature of phenomenal reality. I chose to translate one of the Three Characteristics, anatta, as 'essencelessness', even though the more usual translations you'll find are 'not-self', 'non-self' or - worst of all - 'no self'. I went with 'essencelessness' because I wanted to sidestep the whole discussion about the Buddhist view of the self, but if we're going to understand what it means to be a piece of unstained silk, it'll help to examine this in a bit more detail.
It's sometimes suggested that the Buddha taught that we don't have a 'self', or even that we somehow don't exist. And if this strikes you as a strange idea (perhaps even one that fails basic reality testing - after all, if you don't exist, who's reading this article?), you're not alone.
The Buddha wasn't actually saying 'you don't exist' or 'you don't have a self'. What he was inviting us to do was to look at what our sense of self actually is - not to say 'it doesn't exist!' but rather to ask 'in what way does it exist?' There are two key points to notice about the self. One is that, although it feels like we have a stable, unchanging identity as 'me' (haven't I always been me? It certainly seems that way!), actually the way that identity manifests is constantly changing, both from one situation to the next and over time.
The other is that this sense of 'me' is at the centre of all of our stories about what's going on in the world - a kind of 'organising principle' that helps us to figure out what to do to stay alive and do what needs to be done. Unfortunately, this 'me' is also at the heart of our experience of suffering. Any kind of 'problem' in my life comes about because I can't get what I want, or because I got something I didn't want. The 'problems' are really just 'situations', but when viewed from the perspective of 'my gain and loss', 'my pleasure and pain' and so on, those situations can easily become unpleasant and painful in a very personal way.
So when we've spent a bit of time looking into this, a natural response can be to suppose that we should try to get rid of our 'self'. The damn thing isn't doing us any good, it's at the centre of all these problems - we should eradicate it totally, and thus be free from suffering! Right? It's a nice idea in principle, but it doesn't work in practice - if you ever hope to access your bank account in the future, you'll need to have at least a minimal sense of your identity.
Another common move - perhaps informed by the Christian values of self-sacrifice and humility, which are written deeply into our culture even if we don't think of ourselves as Christian - is to try to diminish our sense of self. We speak quietly and humbly about ourselves, we avoid making claims about our talents and achievements, we let other people go first even when we're in a hurry, we make sure never to take the last chocolate in the box, that kind of thing.
Actually, though, this is just replacing one kind of self-narrative with another one - the 'humble self' or 'spiritual self'. In many ways we can actually be more self-conscious when trying to act in this way because we have to stop periodically to think 'Now how would a humble person act in this situation?', and so we second-guess our natural instincts.
So what's the answer? Just do whatever comes naturally? But isn't that what we were doing anyway?
How we get in our own way
A central idea in Zen is the search for our true nature, or Buddha Nature. Our Buddha Nature is already awake, wise and compassionate, peaceful and untroubled - but it's covered over by a lifetime of accumulated mental habits and obscurations, with the result that the reality we experience and the behaviour we manifest day-to-day is anything but peaceful and untroubled. So we practise in order to reconnect with that true nature, and learn to manifest it in the world.
If that sounds a bit mysterious, we can perhaps get a clearer sense of it by looking at the Brahmaviharas. In early Buddhism these four positive qualities of the heart - kindness, compassion, delight in the good fortune of others, and equanimity - are considered something to be actively cultivated through practice. but in Zen the view is more that these qualities are inherent within us as part of our Buddha Nature and simply need to be uncovered. Whichever view you prefer, though, it's instructive to look at how we can get the Brahmaviharas slightly wrong, twisting them into their 'near enemies' - qualities which look and feel kinda similar to the true Brahmaviharas, but with a sour tinge to them.
Kindness, for example, is simply the natural radiance of an open heart. We encounter others, and we wish them well. It's as simple as that. But, if we're not careful, kindness can slide over into a kind of calculated 'niceness', wanting to be seen as a nice person, deliberately looking for opportunities to demonstrate your kindness. Notice that there's still an element of pure kindness here, but now it's been infiltrated by the 'story of me' - I want to get some advantage for myself in this situation.
Compassion is another practice which can easily lose its way if we aren't careful. Compassion in its purest form is simply the recognition of suffering and the heartfelt wish for it to be relieved - whether that suffering is ours or someone else's. But compassion can easily become 'pity' instead, a mood where we distance ourselves from 'that person over there' and 'feel sorry for them' from a place of superiority. What started out as the recognition of a universal human condition has now become a way of asserting my status over someone else's, pushing us further apart rather than bringing us closer together.
In the same way that a truly open heart will resonate with suffering no matter 'whose' suffering it is, that same open heart will resonate with joy, whether it's 'my joy' or 'your joy'. But see how quickly the recognition of another person's good fortune can be tinged with jealousy when 'I' get involved with the story - how lucky for you! I'd quite like to have that myself!
And - perhaps worst of all - equanimity, which is simply a condition of balance, calmness and ease in the face of whatever comes up, can so easily slide over into indifference. (We can even do this deliberately if we've heard people talking about the value of 'detachment' as an antidote to 'attachment'.) It doesn't matter to me, therefore I don't need to care, and so I turn away from my experience, numb to whatever is happening, safe in my cocoon of indifference.
So what can we do about this?
Here we have to be very careful. We're used to seeing the world through the lens of the 'self', and it's very likely that anything we try to do in an intentional way will be coming from that same place. As I said before, we have to be very careful that, in our attempts to extract the distorting effect of the self from our experience of the world, we don't simply replace it with another, fancier self which is ultimately just as problematic as the previous one.
Instead, we make a different move - we don't do anything at all. We 'just sit'. We practise being with our whole experience, just as it is, without reacting. We see our self-based habitual reactions firing off in response to whatever is coming up over and over, but - to the extent that we can - we simply let those reactions go and watch them fizzle out. Over time, our habitual patterns start to slow down, and we become more able to sit in the midst of our experience with greater and greater equanimity (but not indifference!).
In other words, we rest, and cease our usual activities. Our inner fires of reactivity die down, and we become like cold ashes where a fire once blazed. Like a withered tree, an incense burner in an abandoned temple. A piece of unstained silk.
But the end result of this is not passivity. Rather than becoming nothing at all, we simply get out of our own way. Without stopping entirely, the 'self-narrative' loses its central importance in our decision-making process. We don't forget who we are, and we don't have to pretend to be less than we are, but at the same time we no longer need to put so much energy into telling everyone else who we are, projecting the image of ourselves that we've worked so hard to create.
And as that self-image recedes into the background, our Buddha Nature can shine forth. The vital force which animates us continues to respond to the arising circumstances of our lives, but we are no longer so obsessed with our personal projects at the expense of everything else, no longer so distracted by self-conscious considerations or motivated by personal gain. Our do-gooding becomes genuine kindness, our pity becomes compassion. If anything, we have more energy to invest into the world, now that we're no longer so preoccupied with our own stuff - our own suffering gradually relieves itself, and we become available to help others with their own problems.
This is my earnest wish.
How letting go of the need for certainty frees us to enjoy our lives
A central teaching in early Buddhism is the Three Characteristics of Existence - three fundamental properties which apply to literally everything we experience. It's said that having a clear enough experience of any two of these at the same moment can trigger stream entry, the first stage of awakening in the early Buddhist path - so it's clearly important material. On the other hand, at first glance the Three Characteristics can strike modern readers as pessimistic or gloomy, and we can feel discouraged from exploring them further.
So in this article I'll lay out each characteristic in turn, to give us a sense of what's being described, and then look at why their seemingly negative message is actually good news after all.
The Three Characteristics
Impermanence (Pali: anicca, Sanskrit: anitya), also translated as inconstancy, is the recognition that all things in our experience change. At one level, it's obvious to us that civilisations rise and fall, fashions come and go and so on, but here we're talking about something much more immediate and in-your-face. The claim here is that everything we experience - whatever we see, hear or feel, internally or externally - is subject to change. The phenomena of our experience arise, hang around for a while, and then pass away again. Your most compelling thoughts, that itch on your nose in meditation that seems like it's never going to stop, the deep-seated conviction in the depths of heartbreak that you'll never be happy again - all of these things come and go. Some of them come and go faster than others, but nothing lasts forever.
Unsatisfactoriness (Pali: dukkha, Sanskrit duhkha), also translated as unreliability, or (somewhat unhelpfully, I think) 'suffering', is the recognition that nothing in our experience provides a complete, self-sufficient, lasting source of happiness. In one sense this is obvious if we've already accepted impermanence - if all things come and go, how could anything provide lasting happiness? But the characteristic of unsatisfactoriness has a slightly different spin on it - it points to the subtle sense of discontent which is present even in the most positive experiences. You may have had the experience of your enjoyment of a concert, film or book being slightly tainted by the sense that you expected it to be better somehow. Perhaps you bought a new house, and at first it was a beautiful palace, everything you wanted it to be... and then you noticed that the roof leaks in heavy rain, or the toilets don't quite flush right, or the wallpaper is peeling, or the neighbours are noisy. Little by little, the unsatisfactory elements creep into your awareness, eating away at your perfect happiness.
Essencelessness (Pali: anatta, Sanskrit: anatman), also translated as corelessness or (again, not entirely helpfully) as 'non-self', is the recognition that nothing has any 'inherent existence'. Of the three, this is the trickiest to explain, but I'll take a swing at it. What this is pointing to is that everything in our experience comes about as the result of causes and conditions coming together, rather than simply popping into the world fully-formed exactly the way it has always been. Consider a candle, which gradually melts into a puddle of wax. Is the puddle of wax still a candle? No. Where did the candle go? Well, it changed into the puddle of wax, maybe. But at what exact moment did it stop being a candle and start being a puddle of wax? It turns out that, although we tend to look at the world in terms of solid objects - a world of things - it's actually much more accurate to look at it in terms of processes, where the name 'candle' is simply a temporary label we hang onto part of our experience for a brief period of time, for the sake of convenience. Early Buddhism focuses on applying this teaching first and foremost to our sense of self - as we look inside and try to find any element of ourselves which is the 'essence of me', we discover that we can't find it at all. All we find is more and more processes, each of which break down into more and more sub-processes the more closely we look.
What's going on here?
But hang on, you might be thinking, if it really is true that absolutely all of our experience is characterised by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and essencelessness, how come we don't see things that way? On the contrary, we see a world of solid objects, and we tend to have a sense that lasting happiness is just around the corner, if only we could solve enough of our problems.
One way to look at this is in terms of the developmental process that we undergo when we're born. At first, we're ejected from the womb into a strange world that we don't understand at all. We're totally helpless, utterly dependent on those around us to keep us alive. But over time, we learn to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world, start to figure out what we can and can't eat, what we like and dislike, and so on. We gradually develop a sense of individuality, and with it, the ability to take care of ourselves and navigate the world as independent individuals. (That's one way to look at what it means to become an adult.)
So we develop a way of seeing the world which is based fundamentally around bringing order to chaos. Rather than experiencing our visual field as a meaningless soup of colours and shapes, we learn to divide it up into discrete, labelled objects and compare those objects to see which ones we like and which ones we don't. And, of course, we do the same for what we hear, think and feel. Soon, we have access to a view of the world which is nicely carved up into boxes, each rated out of 10.
The problem is that this way of viewing the world is so effective that we come to rely almost exclusively on this way of being, to the point that we forget that it's just one way of looking. The view becomes the truth. At rare moments in our lives, we may touch into another way of being - perhaps we're standing on a beach watching the ocean, or walking in the woods, and for a time we seem to be able to take in the whole scene all at once, with no need to divide it up into categories. And perhaps those moments are simply happy memories that we don't think about too much, or perhaps we start going to the beach or the woods from time to time, because those places give us access to this experience that is strangely rewarding even though we don't fully understand it.
These kinds of experiences are a clue that something important is missing from our usual carved-up way of seeing the world. If we live only from the perspective of division and separateness, we attempt to inhabit a world which is fundamentally out of step with the way things are - as the Three Characteristics point out. All phenomena are impermanent - the objects we experience refuse to stay in one neat box for all time, but pop into existence, move from one box to another and then vanish, just as we were starting to feel like we'd got them figured out. All phenomena are unreliable, and not a source of lasting happiness - we might have something pegged as an 8 out of 10, but the more we look at it, the more we notice its flaws, and that 8 drops to a 7. And all phenomena are without a fundamental essence - including us. Something might move from an 8 to a 7 not because of some as-yet unnoticed flaws, but because we ourselves changed, and as a result our relationship to the object is different.
Three doorways to mystery and beauty
At this point, you might be feeling a little uneasy. After all, I'm kinda pulling out the rug from underneath you - I'm pointing out that everything in our lives, absolutely everything, is subject to change, is ultimately unsatisfactory, and isn't even well-defined to begin with. Even if this were true, why on earth would we want to inhabit the unreliable, murky, chaotic world that the Three Characteristics seem to describe?
So at this point I'd like to offer a different sense of the world view that a sufficiently deep grasp of the Three Characteristics can open up for us, heavily informed by the Zen tradition, which in general tends to place greater emphasis on engaging with life in the midst of all its complexities, as opposed to renouncing the whole thing in disgust and removing oneself from it.
First, impermanence. Yes, this means that everything comes and goes - and, ultimately, that everything we love will someday change and vanish. But, given that this is true whether we like it or not, what should we do about it? Refuse to engage with anything because it will only be taken away from us? Or can we instead take this opportunity to see our present good fortune and experience some genuine gratitude for the people and things in our life - even the difficult ones, who help to make us who we are? It's easy to take the conveniences of modern life for granted, but it's really pretty amazing that we live at a moment in human history when we can use the Internet to access so much of humanity from the comfort of a chair. Frankly, it's pretty amazing that many of us can get clean, drinkable water in our homes just by turning on a tap. Most of the people who've ever lived have not had these conveniences - and there's no guarantee that people in the future will have them either. Furthermore, recognising our own impermanence can be a powerful spur to action. Death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain; how do we want to use the time we have left? Seeing the world in this way can open up a profound sense of the preciousness of each moment of our lives, allowing us to appreciate what we have, and act in ways that we won't regret when we no longer have the opportunity to go back and try to fix our mistakes.
Second, unsatisfactoriness. As one teacher once put it, this sounds a bit crap. Everything is unsatisfactory? Everything sucks? Wow, fun meditation practice you have there, buddy. But here's another way to look at it. If nothing ever possibly could be 100% perfect and completely satisfactory, and we really, truly understand that, then we're free to drop our demands that our experience be exactly what we want. We can see the imperfections in our favourite things not as irritating flaws that should have been better, but as the inevitable result of being a thing in the world. We can move from loving the attractive and resenting the flawed to embracing the flaws as part of the whole - we can enjoy what we have for what it is, warts and all. And we can bring this same approach to the people in our lives - including ourselves. That isn't to say that we stop trying to improve ourselves because 'that's just how I am', but at the same time we recognise that our ideal of perfection is simply a guiding star for us to follow because we feel inspired when we do so, as opposed to an attainable standard that we're currently failing to reach.
And third, essencelessness. As we explore this deep and profound teaching, we find that 'things aren't things' - that what we experience only exists because of the coming together of inconceivably many other factors, each balancing, supporting and contextualising everything else. If we go far enough, we can see that in order for anything at all to exist, it depends on the whole universe. Starting from a simple exploration of how a single, seemingly solid object came into being, we soon find ourselves exploring a vast, interconnected web of relationships, a kind of universal tapestry in which each thread is constantly shifting and changing. As we realise the mind-boggling complexity required for anything at all to happen, we shift from a world of neat little formulas and reductive explanations to a world which seems increasingly mysterious and full of wonder. We can, at times, be struck by sheer amazement that we're here at all, and profoundly grateful for the opportunity to explore even the tiny corner of the universe that's available to us in our brief lives.
Ehipassiko: come and see for yourself
The Buddha would frequently tell his followers not to accept what he said simply because he'd said it, but to investigate it for themselves, using the phrase 'ehipassiko', literally meaning something like 'come and see'.
In the same way, the Three Characteristics are not something we're supposed to 'believe' in order to be 'good Buddhists'. They're a description of reality which we can explore and test for ourselves, not by thinking and philosophising but by looking at our immediate experience, in any moment, including right now. Do you find anything at all which is permanent and completely unchanging? Do you find anything which is totally satisfactory and will always remain so? Do you find anything which exists 100% solidly in its own right, rather than as the product of a combination of conditions?
In fact, not only do you not have to believe anything you read here, but if you've read it and still think it sounds crap, you're very welcome to remain sceptical - in the words of the great Zen teacher Jiyu Kennett, if a teaching doesn't sit well with you, you are right to doubt what you think it means. This practice isn't about blindly accepting things that strike you as stupid, unhelpful or wrong. Come and see for yourself! If you're right and it's a load of rubbish, then your own explorations should confirm that, shouldn't they?
And if it turns out that there's some merit in the Three Characteristics after all, then maybe you, too, will discover a way of relating to the world that makes plain the preciousness of each moment; that allows us to accept flaws as an integral part of something's beauty rather than merely a sign that things could have been better; and that opens up a sense of the profound mystery of existence and the vast web of interconnectedness that produced us, sustains us and will continue long after we're gone.
Letting go into the universe
I've spent the last few days on a meditation retreat. If you aren't familiar with the concept, a retreat involves setting aside a period of time to remove oneself from daily life and focus on practice, often maintaining silence and restricting one's behaviour in other ways (e.g. refraining from watching TV or reading). It's often on retreats when the deeper insights and meditative experiences open up for the first time, because the relatively secluded environment allows us to set to one side all the usual clutter of our minds and go deeper. (More on that later.)
My main practice for this retreat was Silent Illumination. Silent Illumination is a very simple practice - another name for it is 'just sitting', the theory being that if you simply sit and do nothing, reality will reveal itself to you (eventually!). Essentially, the practice is about relaxing the core of our being until the contraction at the centre that we call 'me' relaxes, and we dissolve into the wider ocean of reality.
Relaxation is often included in meditation instructions, but it can be easy to skip over that step as 'just a preliminary', part of the warm-up before the 'real practice' begins. That's a mistake! Let's take a closer look at relaxation and see why it's so important.
Constriction and relaxation
In last week's article I used the metaphor of the zoom lens to talk about concentration practice - focusing on something is equivalent to 'zooming in' on it, while stepping back into our broader awareness is equivalent to 'zooming out'. I still think it's a reasonable metaphor as far as it goes, but there's an aspect missing which is crucial to practice, which we might describe as how 'tightly' the focus is being held.
In the Satipatthana Sutta - the early Buddhist discourse on the four ways of establishing mindfulness - one of the aspects in the third category of mindfulness practices is to notice whether the mind state is 'constricted'. (Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation uses the word 'contracted', and that's probably the more commonly encountered version these days, but both Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Ajahn Sujato translate it as 'constricted', and I like the mental image it gives me - of a fearsome snake wrapped around its prey gradually squeezing the life out of it - so that's the one I'll run with today.)
What does it mean for the mind to be 'constricted'? It's a little different to being 'zoomed in' (in fact, the sutta also talks about 'expansive' and 'not expansive' mind states, so it clearly isn't just a reference to having a narrow field of focus). Rather, 'constriction' is something to do with how we're holding the object of focus, whether large or small.
Pick up a small object, preferably something fairly sturdy like a pebble. Now, hold it in your clenched fist. Squeeze it! Really hold on tightly. This is a 'constricted' way of holding the pebble. It's quite unpleasant, isn't it? Now turn your hand so that the palm is facing upwards, and completely relax your grip, so that the object simply rests on your open palm. This is a 'relaxed' way of holding the pebble - and you'll probably find it's quite a lot nicer than the constricted way of holding it.
We can do the same thing with our mind. And it turns out that - unless you're particularly trying to explore what it's like to have a constricted mind - it's basically always more helpful to be relaxed.
(As I write this, I feel a little uneasy about writing such a categorical statement. So I'd encourage you to check it out for yourself! Explore what it's like for the mind to be constricted and relaxed, and see if you can find any situations where it's preferable to be constricted. If you do, leave a comment below!)
It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it
My teacher Daizan is a superb repository of pithy little phrases which seem very simple on the surface but are incredibly profound when you dig into them. One of these phrases is this: in any situation, there are two things going on - the situation itself, and our relationship to it. And while we often don't have much control over the situation, we can at least work with our relationship to it.
Some schools of meditation encourage us to try to eliminate 'negative' aspects from our experience - weeding out negative thoughts and emotions, for example. In Zen, however, we take a different approach. From the perspective of Buddha Nature, negative thoughts and emotions are just as much a totally pure, pristine manifestation of reality as anything else, and so there's no need to eliminate anything at all. What matters is not the content of our experience so much as the way we see and understand that content. Can we see even our afflictive emotions as Buddha Nature? (If not, keep practising!)
In the same way, it doesn't really matter whether our attention is focused on something large or something small - but it does matter how we're focusing. Is the attention soft and relaxed, or rigid and constricted?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about living a Zen life, bringing present-moment attention to everything we do all day long, and I mentioned Dahui Zonggao's advice to maintain the thread of one's practice throughout the day, reconnecting with it whenever there's a quiet moment. My partner subsequently pointed out that this kind of instruction, though simple and well-intentioned, can actually lead to someone getting themselves in a bit of a mess if they go about it the wrong way. (Unfortunately, I can describe this kind of mistake from personal experience!)
What happens when we notice we've become distracted? The standard instruction is to let go of the distraction and come back to the practice. So far so good, but how do you do that? It's easy to experience a moment of frustration - 'Dammit, mind wandered again!' - and in that moment of frustration, there can be a little bit of constriction in the mind, and when you return to the practice, your attention is now held just a little bit tighter than it was previously. Then, a moment later, your mind wanders again - dammit - and you come back again, gripping just a little bit more firmly again. Ten 'dammits' later and your meditation practice is starting to be a pretty unpleasant place to hang out. Your mind won't stay on the object, you don't know why, and your frustration is mounting.
Again, there's nothing wrong with experiencing frustration in meditation - it's a natural human emotion, the same as any other, just as much Buddha Nature as anything else. But equally - at least from a certain point of view - we do this practice to move ourselves in a certain direction, and repeatedly constricting the mind ain't it. So it's in our interest to be aware of this danger and practise in such a way that we don't make life harder for ourselves than it needs to be.
The importance of relaxation in practice
Many teachers strongly emphasise the importance of relaxation in practice - but if you're anything like me, it's the kind of instruction that's easily overlooked, or not understood to be of such crucial importance.
For example, when Chan master Guo Gu teaches Silent Illumination, he leads students into the practice starting with a whole-body relaxation process, and stresses the importance of physical relaxation as a continuing touchstone throughout the rest of the practice, both in stillness and in movement. (In the same vein, last time I wrote about Silent Illumination I noted that the relaxed body posture embodies the quality of mind that we're seeking to cultivate.)
My jhana teacher Leigh Brasington teaches a practice which is very different to Silent Illumination, but he also stresses the importance of relaxing. In fact, when giving the basic meditation instructions at the start of a retreat, he says that when you notice your mind has wandered, you should first consciously relax - every single time - before returning to your object.
The American teacher Bhante Vimalaramsi goes a step further in his 'Six-Rs' formula for dealing with distractions - his third step is to relax consciously, and his fourth step is to smile (technically 're-smile', so it starts with R…) - again, a smile is a physical manifestation of relaxation and deliberately cultivating a smile can help the body and mind to rest in a more relaxed state in general.
However you want to do it, relaxation is a vital part of practice - please don't neglect it.
Emptying yourself out to become free
Another mental image that came up during my retreat was of practice being a kind of emptying-out process. Life throws all kinds of stuff at us, and over time we end up carrying a great burden. Silent Illumination (and many other types of practice, such as the jhanas or the Brahmaviharas) invites us to sit quietly and begin to let go of some of that stuff - allowing it to release and dissolve, gradually emptying us out. A little practice every day helps to keep our load manageable; a retreat provides us with an opportunity to empty ourselves more profoundly, perhaps to the point that we can more easily see our true nature shining through all the junk we've piled onto it. When we leave the retreat, the stuff will start to pile up again, but over time we get better at letting it go - somehow it dissolves more efficiently, so we carry less of a burden in general and we can go deeper faster when the conditions to do so present themselves.
But we can't let go of our burdens if we're wrapped around them like a boa constrictor. If we're clinging tightly to each little bit of mental detritus, our practice may actually just remind us how much we're carrying. So it's crucially important that we're able to relax our grip - to let go of all that stuff, rather than gripping it even more tightly.
Please remember this next time you're practising and you notice that your mind has wandered. Maybe that little 'dammit!' will still slip out - but don't let that set the tone for the rest of the practice. Relax, soften, maybe even smile, and then come back to your practice. What you're doing doesn't matter nearly as much as how you're doing it - both in practice and in life.
Taking a look at our in-built zoom lens
There's a story in early Buddhism - specifically number 127 in the Majjhima Nikaya, the 'middle-length discourses' of the Pali canon, the collection of texts which purport to record the teachings of the historical Buddha - in which a householder, Pancakanga, approaches a senior monk, Anuruddha, with a question.
"Sir, some senior mendicants have come to me and said, 'Householder, develop the limitless release of heart.' Others have said, 'Householder, develop the expansive release of heart.' Now, the limitless release of the heart and the expansive release of the heart: do these things differ in both meaning and phrasing? Or do they mean the same thing, and differ only in the phrasing?"
In other words: these people are telling me to do one thing, but these other people seem to be saying something else. What's going on? Are these two ways of saying the same thing, or are they totally different?
This is a common question in today's oh-so-complex spiritual world as well. In the age of the Internet we have access to so many traditions, so many teachers and so many practices that it can be hard to tell what's what. (My website alone has about a dozen practices drawn from two different traditions.) Are there meaningful differences between them? And do they all end up in the same place eventually?
While you can find people at both extremes of the spectrum, I personally incline toward a moderate view. It seems clear to me that there's great commonality between the world's great contemplative traditions. Equally, though, there's a great diversity of methods available, and different ways of describing and understanding the territory that those methods lead us into, and those differences make a tangible difference to the practitioner's experience along the road. So, while I'm willing to believe that we're probably mostly heading up the same mountain, we're definitely taking different routes up, and some of the terrain is going to be quite different.
Let's get back to Pancakanga's question. Specifically, he wants to know about the 'limitless release of the heart' and the 'expansive release of the heart'. Are they the same, or different? It's a fair question! One person's 'limitless' might well be another person's 'expansive'. That's the problem with language in general - although two people might use the same word, the meaning behind it can easily be different, and sometimes the difference is enough to matter a lot. And that's the case here too.
"The limitless release of the heart and the expansive release of the heart differ in both meaning and phrasing. This is a way to understand how these things differ in both meaning and phrasing.
Anuruddha gives us a nice clear answer: the limitless release of the heart is not the same as the expansive release of the heart. Even better, he's going to explain what they are! (We don't always get an explanation in the Pali canon, so it's always nice when we do.)
"And what is the limitless release of the heart? It’s when a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. They meditate spreading a heart full of compassion ... They meditate spreading a heart full of rejoicing ... They meditate spreading a heart full of equanimity to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of equanimity to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. This is called the limitless release of the heart."
This is a description of Brahmavihara practice - the cultivation of four wholesome and beneficial emotional qualities, which I tend to translate as loving kindness, compassion, resonant joy and equanimity. (If you're familiar with Brahmavihara practice, you might wonder where the instructions to send each emotion to a friend, then a neutral person, then a difficult person etc. are. Those instructions are actually not found in the early discourses themselves, but were developed as part of the later commentarial tradition, to give people a more step-by-step approach to cultivate these qualities.)
OK, so that's the limitless release of the heart - what about the expansive release?
"And what is the expansive release of the heart? It’s when a mendicant meditates determined on pervading the extent of a single tree root as expansive. This is called the expansive release of the heart. Also, a mendicant meditates determined on pervading the extent of two or three tree roots ... a single village district ... two or three village districts ... a single kingdom ... two or three kingdoms ... this land surrounded by ocean. This too is called the expansive release of the heart. This is a way to understand how these things differ in both meaning and phrasing."
What's being described here is quite different to the Brahmaviharas. Instead of cultivating particular emotions, the practitioner is instead being invited to contemplate spaciousness - starting small, and gradually getting bigger and bigger.
What's this all about?
A mind like space
Take a moment to look around you. (I'll wait.) You'll probably find that your eye falls naturally on the objects, the things around you - computer, phone, table, chair, wall, floor, that kind of thing. You probably don't notice the space in the room - you look straight through it to see the objects.
And this is quite a natural thing to do - after all, 'space' isn't actually a 'thing', so much as an 'absence of thing'. But - as chapter 11 of the Dao De Jing reminds us - the space in a room is what makes the room useful. If there were no space in the room - if the room were a solid block of stone, with no doors or windows and no interior space - we wouldn't be able to enter the room, see into it or store anything in it. It wouldn't be a room at all.
So take another look around, and notice the space. There's the space between things, and there's also the space occupied by things. The space is not disturbed or marked by the coming and going of the things - the space doesn't try to cling to whatever object is placed there, and it doesn't feel sad when the object is taken away. The space is simply there.
And it turns out that our awareness is like this too. Awareness isn't a thing - you can search for it all you like (and you should - it's a good insight practice) - but you'll never find it. And yet without awareness, we wouldn't experience anything. But because we have awareness, we can experience everything - no matter how big or small, delightful or terrible. Awareness itself doesn't judge or cling, resent or reject - all of that comes later, arising within our awareness in the form of emotional reactions and thoughts.
Zooming in and out
Awareness itself has a kind of panoramic quality - we can rest in total openness, aware of all the sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings in our experience in a gentle way, and in fact that is where the Silent Illumination practice leads us.
Most of the time in daily life, though, we don't use awareness in that way. Instead, we use our faculty of attention to 'filter' our awareness, focusing on certain aspects of it at the expense of others. Sometimes we focus deliberately, but often our attention is drawn, seemingly automatically, to something in our experience.
Thus, many meditation techniques work deliberately with the attention, training it to go where we want it to. (Samadhi practice is basically all about training the attention.) And once we have a bit of skill with the attention, we can start to play with it in ways that can be quite helpful, especially once we start to notice the effect that focusing the attention has on our overall experience.
Focusing on something is a bit like 'zooming in' on it. If we focus on a particular sensation for an extended period of time (e.g. the sensation of the breathing at the nostrils), it can sometimes feel like the sensation is actually getting bigger. It isn't, but what's happening is that our mind is becoming so focused on the sensation that everything else is falling away - that sensation is becoming our whole (subjective) universe in that moment.
If we 'zoom in' on a pleasant sensation, or even a neutral one, the resulting experience is often very nice. Amongst other things, by zooming in like this, we take our attention away from the habitual negative thoughts and emotions which otherwise swirl through our minds. As a result, we tend to find those thoughts and emotions calming down and dwindling away, because we're no longer supplying them with the energy we normally invest in them. Thus, we become calm and peaceful, and have a nice meditation experience.
Conversely, at times we may find ourselves 'zoomed in' on something unpleasant, such as a feeling of fear, pain or sadness. Needless to say, having one's whole subjective universe become an experience of sadness is not especially pleasant. And while it isn't wrong to feel sad from time to time, it's also quite legitimate to use our meditative skills to alleviate the pain - at least so long as we aren't using those skills to avoid dealing with situations in our lives that do need some attention.
One way we can work with negative experiences is to 'zoom out' deliberately - using the same faculty of attention that we previously used to 'zoom in' on a pleasant or neutral sensation, but now moving in the other direction, opening out towards a more expansive view, bringing more of our peripheral awareness into the picture.
What we find in this case is that expanding the scope of our focus has a kind of 'diluting' effect on the unpleasantness of the negative experience. If you put a spoonful of salt in a small glass of water, the water becomes totally undrinkable, but if you put the same spoonful of salt into a huge freshwater lake, the net effect is basically nothing. In the same way, the great space of awareness can become a kind of refuge for us - a space which is vast enough, open enough, non-judgemental and neutral enough to hold whatever comes up for us without being overwhelmed.
So this is Anuruddha's invitation to us - to practise working with the scope of our attention, and in particular practising this 'zooming out' move, providing a greater and greater space in which to hold whatever's coming up for us.
Give it a go!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!