"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.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!