Going beyond apparent stillness

This post is a reminder for myself (and possibly a pointer for others) concerning a state that has arisen during formal meditation — on retreats, especially. I’ve come to a place of stillness, which is distinctly pleasurable, where thoughts may or may not be present at all.. and if they are, they are seen with distinct clarity and don’t create any further thinking.  I remember once reflecting on thinking while in this state and saying that the thoughts were like sticky notes, loosely pinned on. In any case, the thinking mind is no longer in the way or providing any distraction. Witness consciousness is present, but there is little in the way of an object. Breathing can still be found, and may be the anchor for awareness, but the chatter within the mind is gone. One of these loosely pinned on notes might read, “what now?” How do you go further into stillness if there isn’t anything left to settle down –and nothing but the breath to observe? Is this emptiness? Is there any point in staying in this space? Here is the reminder for next time this happens:

“…there’s still more to do. This is where mindfulness, alertness, and ardency keep digging away. Mindfulness reminds you that no matter how wonderful this sense of oneness, you still haven’t solved the problem of suffering. Alertness tries to focus on what the mind is still doing in that state of oneness— what subterranean choices you’re making to keep that sense of oneness going, what subtle levels of stress those choices are causing—while ardency tries to find a way to drop even those subtle choices so as to be rid of that stress. – Mindfulness Defined by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So what’s to be done? Notice what is happening – even if it’s relatively “empty” compared to typical experience – something is still happening. Pay close attention to volitional activity – are you subtly “doing” something? Is the mind in the process of fabricating anything at all? Is there contact at any of the senses? Perception? Feelings, either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? Look for these elements. Apply the concept of inconstancy to look for any changes in what you find. Recognize that what you find is being witnessed and is not your true nature, it is not ‘self’. Recognize that whatever is going on, no matter how subtle — it is still producing stress. Using these tools to uncover subtle experience and discern that they have the marks of existence (impermanence, not-self, dukkha) is to “keep digging away”.

fetters: the stuff of craving and clinging

How is it that I’ve been meditating for so long and read so many books about Buddhism and meditation and I’m just coming to hear about ‘fetters’?  I’m sure if I could do a search among all of the past literature I’ve read, I’d find the word sprinkled here and there – but I’ve never come across a discussion using this term that really impacted my way of thinking or practice… until lately, when I’m seeing it everywhere*.

So, what is a ‘fetter’ and why do I care? Well, a fetter in english generally means something like “leg irons”. It is certainly something that weighs you down, keeps you stuck, or prevents you from being free. Right there, it is obvious enough that something considered a ‘fetter’ is a hinderance. Considering the term from a buddhist perspective, it sounds an awful lot like “attachment”, which is the very thing that keeps us bound up in Samsara, or rooted in the world with it’s suffering. “Attachment leads to suffering” is a basic buddhist tenant, but it needs to be understood conceptually and isn’t immediately intuitive. “Fetters keep us bound” may seem more intuitive, more readily graspable by the mind as it tries to sort out what buddhist practice is all about.

So how do the fetters, which keep us bound, arise?

Ven. Sariputta in the Saayutta Nikaya compares the fetters to a yoke between two oxen, holding them fast to one another. He notes that the one ox is not the fetter of the other, nor the other way around, but it is the yoke between them that is the fetter, then states, “In the same way, the eye is not the fetter of forms, nor are forms the fetter of the eye. Whatever desire-passion arises in dependence on the two of them: That is the fetter there.” Now, this is some pretty subtle stuff. In practice, with concentration, one starts to see experience arising in it’s parts, instead of all mixed up together.. so one may notice a sight or sound, the perception of that sight or sound and a feeling associated with that sight or sound arising in succession — yet distinctly. In this same way, seeing a sight, one may be at once conscious of seeing, conscious of what is seen and conscious of the arising or presence of a desire or craving for what is seen. The craving is dependent both on the seeing and the thing – it’s the yoke between the two — it’s the fetter! Seeing the craving, the clinging arise in moment to moment experience is working at the level of practice instead of at a theoretical level about the concepts of ‘clinging’ and ‘attachment’.

Noticing the fetters – the clinging to experience – is an excellent step towards becoming free of them. I’ve begun to see them in daily experience – though mostly with regards to plain old desire – wanting stuff. There are many other levels in which these fetters keep us attached to Samsara. There are 10 classical fetters in Buddhism.

It is said: “There are these ten fetters. Which ten? Five lower fetters & five higher fetters. And which are the five lower fetters? Self-identity views, uncertainty, grasping at precepts & practices, sensual desire, & ill will. These are the five lower fetters. And which are the five higher fetters? Passion for form, passion for what is formless, conceit, restlessness, & ignorance. These are the five higher fetters. And these are the ten fetters.”**

Now, this business of classifying lower and higher fetters gives one the impression that there is a whole system in identifying them and freeing ourselves from them — and that’s true! It’s a major topic within old school Buddhism.

I’m also fascinated by the connection to the term ‘sankhara’ as Goenka uses it in his vipassana retreats. They seem mighty close to the fetters to me. Stored up energy that arises with experience and is either fed by clinging and aversion or abandoned by equanimity and dispassion.

All for now. Keep reading. Keep sitting. Keep being mindful of experience as it arises and staying in the present moment. Be with what is and … watch out for those fetters!


*Everywhere = all of the Theravada literature I’ve been reading lately.

**”Sanyojana Sutta: Fetters” (AN 10.13), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 4 July 2010,http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.013.than.html . Retrieved on 18 March 2013.

The big let down (and the benefits of staying with it).

Mindfully observing the past few weeks has been interesting. Following the amazing conference (which also had it’s ups and downs), I had high hopes of getting a dream job where I’d be responsible for creating and managing dharma-related programs for a major buddhist teaching organization. It was an honor to be invited to the interview and I stayed with the feelings of excitement, preparation, planning prior to the appointment. I felt I’d really “showed up” for the meeting — alert, calm and mindful. I felt grounded and present. A two-week wait followed with excited feelings and planning mind and thoughts and craving around “becoming” — and I did my best to be mindful during all of it.

And then it fell through. And all of the clinging turned to dukkha, just as predicted and described by the Buddha’s first 3 noble truths.

I did my best to remain mindful of the thoughts and feelings as they arose — even during this ‘let down’ period. I went to my weekly yoga class and the teacher asked how the job process was going and she could tell immediately from my look that it didn’t go well. We did all restorative and yin yoga yesterday, which was nice. It was good to move and stretch and be in stillness in a very meditative way while the news was still so fresh and the elements of experience were percolating up: the heaviness of the heart, the unsteady feeling in the face, the thoughts of judgement, the feeling of loss, and the replay of events in the mind.

Staying with these thoughts and feelings, I felt quite absorbed in them — so much so that the rest of the world seemed to fade, to fall away as I left yoga and made my way home. I did get to see the beautiful sunset from the bus before arriving home to my loving and supportive wife, who listened gracefully and gave me the space I needed, too. Unable to let go of the thinking mind, my sleep was restless.

This morning, I decided I wanted to sit for my usual short zazen period before catching the bus to work. One thing I noticed was that although the morning had a sad tone, by the time I went to sit it wasn’t present. Sitting is a time to set aside the stress of worldly activity and be still and silent and follow your breath and I found that the stillness was very accessible. There seemed to be a certain peace available. The thought came to mind that perhaps it was the peace that follows when we allow something to arise, be and cease with steady awareness. This whole job opportunity had been quite a ride – and staying with it moment to moment at this point meant to let it go (because being in the moment always means letting go of the moment as it happens). The ceasing of anything leaves a gap, a hole, a space where if you are watching closely, there is an opportunity.

It was as if the world fell away, and I was absorbed in feeling; the feelings fell away, and a certain emptiness was available. The 20 minute sit was very concentrated. Moment to moment.. we’ll see what forms arise to fill this empty space.

Mindfulness vs. Papañca

Knowing things will change allows us to experience them without spinning too many thoughts about the future. This spinning of thoughts is called papañca. It is also called “mental proliferation”. When something in the current stream of experience causes a thought and that thought is the seed of another thought, and another, and another.. we’re creating a stream of thoughts that is no longer connected to the reality of the present moment. If the first thought in this chain is a bad one, we can project that negative situation into the future with a long chain of connected thoughts and suffer with each one. If the first thought is a good one, we can create a small amount of craving for each successive thought until we have so much energy wound up in it that we are clinging tightly to the object in our thoughts — quite attached to something impermanent. This also causes us to suffer.

Staying present with sensations as they are in the body has the effect of cutting this chain of mental proliferation. This is one of the primary benefits of mindfulness practice. Staying with what IS, instead of constantly living in our world of created thinking. We can learn to stop clinging to our thoughts and identifying with our thoughts and believing our thoughts to be true and suffering when our inner world no longer matches the world as it is. We can begin to “trust the present moment”, “be with what is”, “be here now”.

So how does this play out in our lives?

Sometimes things seem to be in harmony. Sometimes they do not. Sometimes you can be with your experience moment to moment and things still don’t seem to be going your way. The thought may arise – “I”m having a bad day”. If you have this thought, try to recognize it as a thought. Try to see the thought arise and pass away. Try to focus on the sensations of the body. Presumably if you are thinking thoughts like this, the sensations may be unpleasant. Try to stay with them as they are. Feel instead of thinking. Stay present instead of getting lost. This is actually a great opportunity. Staying with unpleasant feelings allows you to see those feelings as they are. Seeing them as they are, you can come to notice that you are not the feelings. They are not you. You can start to see that they are not constant, either. They waver and they wobble. They expand and they contract. Ultimately, they are like all other things that arise in awareness – impermanent. If you are really focused, you can stay with the feelings until they cease. Noticing them dissipate and vanish is a powerful experience – leading to a powerful insight. In this way, we can turn an experience that would normally lead to a spiral of suffering into an experience of awakening leading to the cessation of suffering. The key is to stay with the real; stay with the sensations; see the thoughts as thoughts.

If you are practicing mindfulness and ever have the thought, “Why am I doing this again? What is mindfulness doing for me?” Remember this: mindfulness keeps you present; it avoids the runaway train of papañca and all of the suffering and clinging that comes with it.

Wisdom 2.0 & the two wings of freedom

The Wisdom 2.0 conference last week was one of the most amazing events I’d ever attended — over 1700 people under one roof, all with an interest in mindfulness and compassion, coming together to meet and talk to each other sincerely and with the intention of collaborating and sharing their unique embodiment of these concepts.

Everyone had their own personality, their own practice, and their own story about how they discovered their spirituality. There were lawyers who started bringing yoga into their law practice, Nasa employees using modern networking technologies to create meditation communities, TV producers who were interested in starting drop-in meditation studios (and those were just a few of the people I met on the very first night of the conference!)

The founder of the conference, Soren Gordhamer, manifested (and hopefully, will continue to manifest) a brilliant vision in putting all of this together. I can’t say enough about how great his karma must be for creating an environment where so much mindfulness and so many compassionate projects will cross-pollinate. Truly, this is a modern cauldron of spiritual practices — and the outcome will be both unpredictable and amazing (if the energy of the group is any indication of the future direction and results). Soren said it wasn’t so much a conference as it was a practice. I thought that was beautiful. The though occurred to me, however that Wisdom 2.0 was actually an “inside-out retreat”. Lots of talking about mindfulness and meeting like-minded people and just a little bit of formal sitting (there was a meditation area with zafus and zabutons)!

The one place where I saw a deficiency was, ironically, in the presentation and discussion of Wisdom itself. I felt that wisdom and compassion were treated not as equal and necessary “wings” of spiritual practice, but rather as a single entity — as if that which is compassionate and thoughtful is equivalent to “wisdom”. One speaker, who had a heart of gold and spoke passionately and brilliantly collapsed wisdom all the way into the knowing of “right from wrong”. Discernment and morality are important, but they shouldn’t be mistaken for wisdom. Allowing these concepts to be collapsed in this way, and for the discussion to focus primarily on compassion, undermined the very power of wisdom (as understood from a traditional Buddhist standpoint) and kept it from being articulated and shared. The function of wisdom is specific and I felt it needed to be brought into the discussion, to complement and inform the idea of compassion.

What is the Buddhist concept of Wisdom that was missing? How does it relate to Compassion? The answer is pretty simple and we’ve touched on it throughout this blog: Wisdom is the understanding and view, that when put into practice and perfected leads to the end of suffering. Wisdom is what the Buddha taught very succinctly in the Four Noble Truths (the first 3 provide the basis for Wise Understanding and the fourth, a broader and more inclusive path to guide us there). How would I sum it up? I would sum it up like this: All things that arise are conditioned, and have the nature to pass away. Clinging to anything that will pass away leads to suffering. Through mindfulness, we can come to see the impermanence of things, and the unreliability of phenomena to bring lasting happiness. Seeing this again and again with clarity, our innate nature, which is not a conditioned “thing”, begins to stop clinging to impermanent phenomena; stops identifying with that which is impermanent and limited. Allowing all things to arise and pass in awareness– without clinging or identifying any of it as ourselves– we find freedom. Dwelling in this state of freedom and experiencing the happiness that is not dependent upon conditions, we cease all clinging. As clinging is part of the chain of dependent origination, a link in that chain, a necessary element of that chain — without it, the chain of causation is broken. Becoming, Birth and Death are also part of the chain, which is why identifying with unbound awareness is called by names such as “the unborn” and “the deathless”. The understanding which leads to this practice and it’s fruition is properly understood as Wisdom.

The Buddha’s four noble truths start with the existence of Suffering, then explain the cause of Suffering, then the cessation of Suffering, then the path to the cessation of Suffering. I can understand that the conference didn’t want to (and probably shouldn’t) present wisdom in these terms exclusively. People already equate Buddhism with suffering and that’s a turn off for people.

Restating Wisdom as the Path to Absolute Freedom, as the Path leading to the end of Suffering, as the necessary understanding required to be free at last — that allows one to see that it’s this very idea of wisdom that is ultimately necessary for the practice of Compassion!  If compassion is seeing the suffering of others and doing what we can to help — isn’t it necessary to understand what leads to the end of suffering in the first place?

I wanted to bring this conversation to the conference. This year, 2013 in San Francisco, I tried to do just that. I offered a “Hosted Conversation” about The Buddha’s Wisdom — and nobody came. Maybe all I could do was plant the silent seed.. and who knows, maybe it will grow into a mighty Redwood in conferences yet to come.