Disassembling the fabricated world
The historical Buddha described two qualities to be developed through practice: samatha ('calm abiding') and vipassana ('clear seeing'). (Very similar concepts show up in Zen in the form of the balance of stillness and clarity in Silent Illumination practice.)
These days, 'vipassana' is often used to refer to insight practice generally, but commonly means a specific type of insight practice, based around deconstructing sensory experience through increasingly fine-grained examination. It's an interesting mode of practice that brings deep insights into impermanence, and it can work well for people who don't get on with the Zen style. However, if you're a hardcore Zennist yourself, don't dismiss this out of hand - after all, no less a figure than Zen master Dogen said 'Impermanence is Buddha Nature.'
So how do we do it?
The process of deconstruction
The basic approach here is one of examining your experience in fine detail, with the intention of observing what comes and goes with greater and greater clarity. This approach can be applied to any object - the breath, the body sensations, a candle flame, a visualisation, whatever you like to work with. For the rest of the article I'll talk about using the breath, but if you want to try it with something else, go right ahead - the Vipassana police won't come knocking.
So you start by setting up your meditation posture, relaxing, settling in, and then directing your attention to the breath. Your task now is simply to see what's going on with the breath, as clearly as possible; any time the mind wanders, just let go of whatever the mind has taken an interest in and come back to the breath.
As you do this again and again, over time, you're likely to pass through a few stages along the way. (This model is heavily inspired by Michael Taft's podcast on deconstructing sensory experience, with a few tweaks.)
Before we get into the stages, it's worth saying that all meditation maps are approximations based on the most common things that people experience. Not everyone will experience all of these things, and it won't be hard to find a 'step 2.5' or whatever. Don't waste your time arguing about it - so long as you're moving in the direction of greater sensory clarity and deconstruction, you're doing it right, whether your experience is lining up with the stages or not.
We tend to relate to the world almost entirely through our concepts about the world as opposed to our sensory experience of the world. If the two phrases 'think about the breath' and 'pay attention to the breath' mean the same thing to you, that's an indication of what I'm talking about.
When we open our eyes and look around the world, we see coloured shapes. That's all the eye can ever see - the coloured shapes don't come with little name tags. But, fast as lightning, our conceptual mind jumps in and identifies those coloured shapes, splitting them up into the familiar world of distinct objects that we actually experience. (Notice, too, that there's no lag there - it isn't like you're constantly going through a process of having to figure out what each new coloured shape is. The world is given to you in your immediate experience already carved up into neatly labelled objects.)
So when you're contacting the breath at the level of the conceptual, you're primarily working with the intellectual knowledge 'I am breathing in', 'I am breathing out'. At this stage, meditation practice is likely to be mind-numbingly boring, and focus will be very difficult. The 'label' ('breathing in') doesn't change for the entire in-breath, and we're used to the idea that once we've successfully categorised something and it poses no immediate threat, we can ignore it and our mind can wander to something more interesting or relevant.
(Counting the breaths can help to make the practice a little more interesting at this stage, because at least the labels change from one breath to the next. But it's still pretty heavy going.)
In order to move beyond this stage, we must take the advice of the famous Zen master Bruce Lee - 'Don't think, feel!'
Rather than thinking about the breath, our task now is to feel the breath.
Consider what happens when you pick up a cup of coffee. Right away, without any effort whatsoever, you can feel whether it's hot or cold. At the moment your fingers make contact, there's an immediate, direct ***knowledge of the temperature. You don't have to think about it, and if it's too hot to handle you don't need to think the label 'hot!' before you can put the cup down again (although thoughts about having hurt your hand will most likely follow along a moment or so later).
Right now, close your eyes and move your fingertips slowly and gently over the surface of whatever device you're using to read this article. Notice all of the subtle details in the texture that you normally overlook because you're busy using the device rather than investigating it. Feel the tactile sensations that arise as your fingertips contact the device.
That's what I'm talking about. Don't think about the breath - feel the breath. Experience the sensations of the breath directly, without labelling them.
Once you make this shift, you'll almost certainly notice that the breath suddenly seems to be more interesting - and more involved - than it was at the previous stage. 'The breath' isn't just one sensation - it's lots of different types of sensations, changing over time. At this point, we might say that we've moved from 'the breath' to 'the collection of sensations making up the breath' as our object.
At this point, the practice becomes about increasing our level of clarity about that collection of sensations. That can mean different things to different people - perhaps you find it interesting to get very specific about the shape, size and spatial location of each breath sensation, or perhaps you want to dig deeper until you can notice ever-more-fleeting sensations, arising and passing with incredible rapidity, or perhaps it's actually the ever-changing quality of the breath as a whole that draws you in.
Whatever your approach, sooner or later, you will arrive at...
At this stage, any sense of 'the breath' as a distinct entity dissolves, and you're left instead with a continual flow of micro-sensations. If you're going down the route of noticing individual sensations that are shorter and shorter, the breath might 'break up' into flickering vibrations. If you're tuning into the flowing quality, the breath might instead take on a 'fluid' quality with no beginning, middle or end, just an ungraspable, ceaseless river of experience.
Either way, you've gone pretty deep at this point. You've tuned your attention in such a way that the mind is no longer fabricating the 'usual' perceptions of sensory experience. This is clear evidence of the mind-created nature of perception - and it can feel pretty cool, too!
But even this isn't the end of the story. We can go deeper still - to the complete cessation of conventional experience, an experience which, if recognised and understood, can bring about the shift into awakening, called stream entry in early Buddhism and kensho in Zen.
There are actually a few different ways that conventional experience can come to an end, depending on the type of practice you're doing. (Here I'm indebted to my friend Ron Serrano for producing a beautiful model that brings these three seemingly disparate experiences together.)
A common inquiry practice in Tibetan Buddhism is to investigate 'stillness, movement and awareness' - noticing what stays the same in our field of experience, noticing what moves or changes within it, and noticing that which is aware of both stillness and movement.
The kind of 'deconstruction' practice I've been describing so far in this article is focused on movement - we're looking at the comings and goings in experience, noticing the impermanence of the events associated with the breath. If we take this deconstruction and investigation of impermanence far enough, we will eventually arrive at a cessation - a moment where we have no 'movement' in our experience at all. Experientially, this is felt as a kind of 'gap' in our experience - like a few frames were deleted out of the movie of our life.
If you're more of a samadhi or jhana practitioner, you're focused primarily on stillness - resting, calm abiding, absorption. And, in just the same way that we can go progressively deeper by tuning more and more closely into the movement of impermanence, we can also go progressively deeper into stillness. In this case, we will eventually arrive at a pure consciousness experience - a moment where we remain fully aware but consciousness is totally devoid of content; simply pure, bright and undefiled.
If your style of practice is more along the lines of Silent Illumination/shikantaza/open awareness (welcome back, Zen people!), then as the practice matures you'll find yourself becoming interested in the mind itself - that which is aware of both the stillness and the movement. We rest in this open awareness, simply observing the mind's natural functioning without interfering with it in any way. And as the practice reaches maturity, we arrive at a moment of non-duality - a recognition that the events and the awareness of those events are not actually two separate things, but are one and the same. Our conventional dualistic experience ceases, and we recognise our Buddha Nature clearly.
What's the point?
So this is all well and good, but why would you want to do it? Is this just some elaborate way of getting high without having to locate some psilocybin? And haven't I previously written about how these grand experiences aren't necessary for insight?
The experiences described above are indeed not the only way to open the door to awakening - but they do work, they're time-tested, and they're widely practised, so it's worth knowing about them if only to understand what people are talking about when they describe their own wacky enlightenment experiences.
The basic point of all of these 'end points' is that they shift the mind far, far outside its usual mode of operation. Then, as the experience comes to an end, our mind returns to normal - in this crucial moment, we can actually watch ourselves reconstructing our conventional experience, and thus see beyond a shadow of a doubt that the conventional perspective is just something that the mind is fabricating for our convenience, as opposed to the absolute, undeniable truth of things.
In particular, as we reach an end point, our sense of being a separate, individual self 'in here', with everything else 'out there', is totally gone, and in the moments that follow we can watch this 'autobiographical self' putting itself back together. We see clearly, beyond any doubt, that the self is what my Zen teacher Daizan describes as 'a kind of optical illusion', as opposed to a real, enduring entity.
Punching a hole in the illusion of the self is the key to stream entry/kensho - it's one of three 'fetters' which are described as falling away at stream entry, along with sceptical doubt about the teachings (once you've had a transformative experience like this, it's hard to argue that the practice doesn't do anything) and belief in the efficacy of rites and rituals to bring about awakening (you had this experience because of your own practice, not because you paid a priest to pray for you).
So what then? Well, we have a lifetime of habits built around the self, and it takes a while to shake that off. At first, we will continue to find ourselves continuing to behave pretty much the same as we always have, even though we might feel a profound inner lightness or relief from suffering.
Over time, however, our view realigns. We come to see that we're not really the small, separate creatures that the conventional perspective would have us believe - we're part of the great network of interconnection that is the universe, no more or less important than any other part. Our self-centred stress begins to fall away, and our behaviour becomes more naturally compassionate and altruistic as we find ourselves wanting to make this shared life that we all live better for everyone, not just ourselves. Ultimately, we completely let go of the fixations and hang-ups which have caused us such difficulties in the past, and merge completely into the stream of life, with nothing held back.
So don't delay - deconstruct today!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!