Overlooking what is really happening

Meditation teachers have impressed me in the past with their ability to point out a better place to put one’s attention – to point out what’s happening instead of what the meditator thinks is happening. For instance if someone is mad and the anger is coming up during sitting, the meditator thinks that X, the object of their anger, is the problem – but the teacher points out that X is not there and the anger itself is present. The anger is manifesting as thoughts and sensations, which are real. They are simply being overlooked — because the focus has been on the object of the anger. The meditator is guided to working with what is real, instead of what is not.

I’ve been thinking about what is real and what is not and how to better guide my own attention to be more effective in my practice. These are some of the the things that have come up around this topic.

Meditation can be understood as the practice of stopping and looking deeply at what is going on — so that we can discover that which we were previously overlooking; see the subtle mechanisms in play; gain the ability to drop what is not working and develop what is; eventually get a taste of freedom from the previously unconscious pinball game that is our lives. Ultimately, this allows us to discover what is keeping us bound, and allows us to release it.

So what has meditation made me more aware of? What are some of the things we tend to overlook – and what is it we’re focused on that’s causing us to overlook it?

Overlooking the fact of thinking and focusing awareness on the content of the thoughts is what keeps us bouncing around in the past and the future as opposed to living in the present. Just like the ‘anger’ example, this works with all kinds of thoughts. Sitting in meditation and trying to focus on the breath alone, we begin to “see thoughts” as distractions, which lets us see them as “things” instead of being instantly caught by the content of the thought. The more we can see the thoughts as opposed to the content, the more we are able to let go of them, explore where they come from and where they go, classify them as ‘talk’ and ‘images’, watch them arise and pass. And while we are doing all of this — we are in the present moment! We are also gaining at least a little control with respect to the mind’s activity. We learn that we can feed thoughts, or drop a whole train of thought that isn’t going in a good direction (or one that might be distracting us from our intended focus).

Overlooking awareness itself, we focus only on the senses — and often overlooking them we focus only on pleasure and pain. Meditation allows us to discover not only our thinking mind, but the observer – the witness – awareness itself. We can develop the ability to be aware of awareness; rest in the state of awareness; let phenomena arise and pass in the open space of awareness. This discovery and the practices that are possible make non-attachment much easier. Not only can we begin to go deeper into stillness during formal meditation practice, but we can rest in that “sense of knowing” or “awareness itself” while we’re on the bus or walking down the street — and be very present and see everything just arising and passing, without feeling stuck in the world or impacted by everything that comes along.

Overlooking the miracle of living and life and focusing exclusively on our story. Living only in our story, we become ego-bound. We generate more fear of loss, greed for possessions, and judgements about ourselves and others and how we compare. If we are able to step back, we see the miracle, the mystery, the divine creation that we’re apart of! Gratitude practice is a great way to stop overlooking what we do have in favor of getting the next thing in the future. This works on a more mundane level as appreciation for what is in our lives – but also on a grand level as appreciation for the miracle of existence itself!

Overlooking the dharmakaya and getting caught in the play of phenomena, creating self and other, subject and object. We are overlooking our Buddhanature and living exclusively in the realm of suffering. This is at a deeper level and may be harder to appreciate, but it’s the gold at the end of the rainbow, spiritually. The realization that it isn’t us-against-everything, but rather that we are all one. This is the realization of non-duality. It has been expressed a million ways by a million teachers. You can even find references on Twitter about it:

See the body as unborn & see the mind as uncontrived. Ultimately they are not two & beyond conceptual mind ~Ravigupta

See if you can come up with any examples where we are focussing our attention past what is actually happening, missing the trees for the forest, or otherwise living a dream as opposed to waking up to what is real.


Diving deeper or just being with what is

I read a great post the other day on “Not Knowing” by Gil Fronsdal. Among the many many things the not-knowing practice can do for you is to get you comfortable with uncertainty. Sometimes things in your life are simply not known and not knowable. Sometimes patterns are in flux. Sometimes we are in a period of confusion about something. Sometimes we are learning how something works and we haven’t quite gotten there yet.

In many ways, I feel like my exploration of meditation and Buddhism is a lot like this. Questions keep coming up despite my long time interest in and practice of meditation. I’ve developed some knowledge on the topic, and I have a lot of experience to draw from but often a question will arise that reminds me that I’m still learning — that I don’t know. This is especially true now that I’m writing about my experiences more and realizing that while I want to say something definitive – I don’t want to be misleading. Can I really say ‘such and such’ and is that really true? In some cases, I’m ok with saying what I am thinking at the time, knowing that I’ll probably say something contradictory later. Different books, different teachers, different schools often contradict one another — offering teachings that prescribe different techniques. Some confusion seems to be par for the course. Don’t know lets us be with that and hold it all as we work through it.

So, what is the current edge? What am I ‘not knowing’ right now?

Meditation seems to have 2 directions and I’m working on how they really fit together. The two directions, might be categorized broadly as ‘mindfulness’ and ‘concentration’. Now, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are both aspects of the 8 fold path. I don’t mean to suggest that they contradict each other or cannot both be fully developed on the way to awakening. I guess the question is — which one should be cultivated at any given time? Which practices are most fruitful?

Mindfulness is being aware in the present moment, in a non-judgemental way. Mindfulness can be broad or it can be narrow. It can include all current sensation, thoughts, hearing, vision, taste and smell at once or it can be any one of them alone. Often, mindfulness is developed by limiting it to one tiny aspect of one of the senses and staying with that single experience over a period of time. This could be following the breath only at the nostrils or upper lip; it could be focusing only on ‘talk’ in the mental stream; it could be focusing only on hearing. The possibilities are as endless as experience itself. Regardless of the focus or content of the meditation, the idea is to stay present with what is arising and see it just as it is. The trick is not adding to it with our running commentary, judgement, craving, or aversion — or getting distracted and lost in thought.

Concentration practices, in my experience, tend to work more like “diving down” into more and more subtle layers of experience. Stilling the body, we encounter the thinking mind. Coming to know the thinking mind, with it’s words and images, judgements, cravings and aversions, its soundtracks and favorite shows — we eventually begin to still the mind and begin to experience the witness. Experiences of silence and stillness, peace and equanimity begin to mark our sitting. This is where the Jhanas come in. Asking questions such as “who is experiencing this thought?”, “Who am I?” or “Where do these thoughts come from?” bring us deeper into stillness as we seek within ourselves for the answers. Other practices, such as “neti-neti”(ie. “not this, not that”), “I am”, or “That which exists, that which has arisen, that I abandon” lead us towards an unknown, unspoken state of emptiness, pure consciousness, radiant mind — or total release. But what happens when we get off the cushion? What happens when we have work to do — or have to take a pee?

The buddhist suttas and stories seem to support each of these practices in various ways. Are these different paths? Are they just different skills that must both be developed? Are they really different at all when they are developed fully?

Practicing Concentration on the cushion can lead to profound states of silence and emptiness — which then allow for a very spontaneous state of mindfulness while ‘walking around’ (ie. between formal meditation periods). Perhaps Concentration is like cleaning the bowl, whereas mindfulness is filling it back up with pure experience. Concentration certainly supports mindfulness, even if they aren’t the same in practice.

In some ways it works the other way, too, that is — Mindfulness supports Concentration. Practicing Mindfulness can lead us to insights about the nature of that-which-is-arising. Joseph Goldstein includes an element in his definition of mindfulness– one should be aware of the object as “not-me” and “not-mine”. This insight, when fully developed, is precisely what allows us to drop down from one level of experience into a more subtle level – from body to thinking mind to quiet mind to stillness. If we identify with the content of a level, we can’t really let it go and get past it.

I guess my conclusion for now is that one should practice with a clear intention. Choosing a practice for the meditation period and then sticking to it. Perhaps there is a better formula for which meditation to do at what time in order to facilitate our awakening — but at this time, all I can say is: I don’t know.

“…this will not be mine…”

“…the Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One, “Venerable sir, here a bikkhu is practicing thus: ‘It might not be, and it might not be mine; it will not be, and it will not be mine. What exists, what has come to be, that I am abandoning.’ Thus he obtains equanimity. Venerable sir, does such a bhikkhu attain Nibbana?”

— From The Island

I’ve been reading The Island by Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro and I’ve learned so much. The passage above was found in a section of the book that discusses stream entry and this section is talking about non-attachment to various states (the Buddha goes on to answer Ananda by saying that the monk who gains equanimity by this method may attain Nibbana IF they don’t get attached to the state of equanimity!). I found three or four variations of this “practice” in that chapter and it got me thinking — what an interesting version of “Neti-Neti” and if a ‘bikkhu [was] practicing thus’ perhaps this set of phrases could be used to push deeper into the states of mind that arise in meditation (see the recent post – Going Beyond Apparent Stillness).

I decided to give this meditation a try. I sat on the cushion and settled in. I started with the basic breathing meditation as found in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: focussing on the breath and noting ‘breathing in short’, ‘breathing out short’, ‘breathing in long, breathing out long’, ‘breathing in mindful of the entire body’, etc. until I felt quite steady and grounded. And then I began…

“It might not be, and it might not be mine; it will not be and it will not be mine…” At first the “might not” didn’t seem right. I could intellectually understand the “will not” because all things are impermanent, so whatever is arising in experience eventually will cease to be and saying “… it will not be, it will not be mine” is a simple direct reminder of this — so what’s up with the “might not”?  I didn’t trouble myself too much with it, but simply continued on. *

“What exists, what has come to be, that I am abandoning.” Now if there ever was a powerful phrase, pointing at absolute release — this might be it. I’d put it right up there with “Gate, gate! Paragate! Parasamgate, Bodhisvaha!” from the Heart Sutta or “From the first, not a thing is” which was Hei Neng’s first teaching. When using this phrase, the object of attention – whatever is arising – is noticed; is identified as having ‘come to be’; and is released. Several things stood out for me in this simple formula: one is that it can be applied to literally anything including internal processes and states that are otherwise hard to work with, another is that it contains the seeds for showing us that anything that has arisen is based on conditions (I started including the phrase “…due to causes and conditions” in my mind), and the final important step is the release that is not a judgement or rejection, it is an open handed letting go — a non-clinging: abandonment.

So how did it work out? It was like peeling an onion… with a machete! As I mentioned, I’d already taken some time to settle the mind so the body was still and without obvious pain or tension. The focus was on the breath and thoughts. The thinking mind became the first target for the practice at hand. Any mental formation was greeted with “It will not be, it will not be mine. What exists, what has come to be, that I am abandoning.”

The thinking mind is conditioned upon having a body and a brain – impermanent conditions. This thinking mind will not always be mine. It is unreliable as an ultimate refuge. I hold the intention [here on the cushion, in the safety of my practice at least…] to abandon it. Now, this didn’t just turn off my mind like a switch. It was a process of working with the thoughts, seeing them as thoughts, seeing them as dependent, conditioned and impermanent, and then allowing myself to be less attached to them. Allowing myself to imagine them as ‘other’, as ‘not mine’ and imaging a time when the conditions will not be present to support those thoughts. That day will come. What then?? Why not find out now? Giving oneself the permission to ‘abandon’ that which arises is the action-item. It allows for not only the idea of release, but the actual releasing.

Releasing the verbal thoughts didn’t extinguish them all together. But it did quiet them for the most part, leaving me sitting, focussed on the breath, quietly aware and concentrating. The next up was a sense of “seeing” or “looking” within the mind. I have a sense that when I’m focussed on thoughts or sensations or just about anything, that awareness is a kind of “looking at” with a directional attribute, or a sense of I’m-here-focused-on-that-there. This directional attention was the next to meet the phrases. I had similar results – not a complete abandonment of this sense of looking, but at least some exploration around loosening my grip on it, my identification with it. Imagining it’s cessation and seeing what remains.  Consciousness itself. I become aware of being conscious. “This may not be, this may not be mine. This will not be, this will not be mine. That which exists, that which has come to be, that I am abandoning.. ” And so it was that I began to explore the cessation of consciousness itself. Would I pass out? Would I die? What lies beyond consciousness?

Consciousness is one of the five aggregates that compose an individual. It is on the list with Form, Perception, Feeling, and Mental Formations. It is one of the things to be ‘seen through’ or realized as impermanent and empty of self. Once upon a time, my insight into mindfulness of the present moment and the cessation of thought (or getting out of my own way) had me thinking that pure consciousness was equivalent to Buddhanature. I later discovered that consciousness, even if it is perfectly present in the moment, is still something to which clinging brings suffering – it is something that ultimately needs to be released. Why hold onto something, identify with something, identify AS something that is surely going to cease? And, what happens if you DO let it go?

There is a zen saying, “Die while alive and be completely dead. Then do whatever you will, all is good!” Perhaps this peeling of the onion all the way down to zero is what they meant. So, here I was… abandoning consciousness… abandoning “this life”, which is also conditioned, limited, impermanent, right? This whole life. Being un-attached to this very life.. that’s pretty huge. So what happened when I applied the phrases to consciousness itself and this life-as-I-know-it? A lot of focus, concentration and a bit of brightening – the kind of brightening akin to a light or glowing in the mind. The word, “radiance” comes to mind, but that would be overstating the experience a bit.. but then again, it was my first time playing with these phrases. Maybe I was onto something.

Getting up from the cushion, I felt as if I’d seen the true nature of impermanence. I had an insight into impermanence. That radiant glow stayed with me, if only as a memory and reminder of something that was beyond ‘this life’ and perhaps pointed to something beyond the cycle of life and death itself.

Now, this may sound unbelievably grandiose for a blog post, but after all– isn’t this what we see written in the sutras? Isn’t the clinging to the five aggregates the very thing that keeps us stuck to the wheel of becoming, the cycle of life and death? Isn’t this practice of buddhism meant to wake us up to this clinging.. to make us see the attachments clearly.. to get us to realize the implications of the attachments and to LET GO? The buddha says that all he taught was suffering and the end of suffering – liberation. Putting the buddha’s methods into practice, sincerely and persistently, and practicing letting go very explicitly — why be surprised when insights arise that point to the nature of liberation and freedom?

Stay tuned…


* I still don’t have a clear understanding of the “might not” phrases. On one hand, they question the existence of the phenomena at hand in the present tense, so that makes them different and potentially more powerful than the “will not” phrases. It may very well be that I simply haven’t penetrated the deeper meaning — perhaps I’m still approaching it intellectually and haven’t yet had the insight necessary to fully grasp the meaning.

The changing nature of practice

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about the arc of my practice and wanted to get down an abbreviated version of the journey.

First learning about meditation from a friend, discovering meditation & buddhism in school, reading Alan Watts and Ram Dass books– sitting meditation is something that was exotic, something I wanted to try.  It was an activity that had a defined start and end point, easily delineated. Continuing to explore sitting, I began to find some of it’s wonders — first, monkey mind, then the ability to ‘return’ to the breath, then at some point a taste of quiet mind, some metta practice maybe, or mantra practice. Zen books introduced me to concepts such as “neti-neti”, as well as the classic “Mu” koan. These led me to explore my mind as it’s own object — beyond the content of the thoughts themselves. Other techniques allowed for deep concentration experiences, or energy flow experiences I didn’t even know were possible. Walking practice — a powerful tool to focus the mind on the present moment sensations and movements during retreats. Retreats allow long, intense periods of meditation which brought new depths and more profound insights. At some point I began to see that the whole thing was about finding and landing in the present moment — and that discovery seemed like the point of it all — until I saw that being present moment-to-moment as often as possible didn’t free me from suffering. Diving more deeply into literature, I re-discovered the traditional concepts of impermanence, and no-self; clinging, craving, mental formations, fetters and effluents! I began preferring Theravada literature to the stories and academic works of Zen because the Theravada stuff focuses on the practical aspects of practicing and the tangible concepts that lead to insight and freedom. Studying these concepts after sitting for many years, they take on a deeper meaning. We can understand the words and relationships from our experiential base and they penetrate us more deeply and guide our practice directly. Reading and practicing concentration techniques, such as the jhanas and four foundations of mindfulness brings a palpable sense of progress on the path. Returning to the simple formula of the Four Noble Truths and reflecting on dukkha, clinging, cessation and liberation has a powerful pull, putting practice into such a large perspective — truly transcending the scope and scale of one’s typical ‘life’. Formal sitting, and reading the dharma, become the ‘treats’ of the day.. the piece that’s looked forward to, and the remainder of the day is flooded with as much awareness and mindfulness as possible.

The journey is still unfolding. I have been fascinated by the changing nature of meditation practice.