This week at Mission Dharma, we had a guest teacher: The Venerable Bhante Vimalaramsi. I got to introduce him.*
I got several things out of the talk by Bhante: a new and useful definition of Mindfulness; the importance of the tranquility, or calming steps found in the Anapanasati Sutta (what he calls the relax step); and the importance of dependent origination: both the impersonality of that process and the ability to interrupt the chain of causation by letting go of thoughts and intentionally relaxing before returning to the object of meditation.
Intellectually and functionally, these concepts fit so nicely together and are so easy to put into practice that this could form a fundamental shift in practice for many (myself included). Here are some quotes taken from the talk.
A definition of Mindfulness that “works in every situation..”
“[Mindfulness is] observing how mind’s attention moves from one thing to another. That’s what it is.” “When you start watching closely you’ll start to observe how the links of dependent origination actually do work.
Letting go of thoughts:
The first thing we need to do when we notice a distraction, is to not feed on that distraction. By feed, I mean you don’t give it nutriment. How do you give thoughts nutriment? By indulging in them. … So the first thing we have to do is let go of the thoughts. How do you let go of thoughts? By not keeping your attention on them. Right? Just let it be there. It’s not your thought anyway. You didn’t tell that thought to come up.. it came up by itself, so why do you think that it’s your thought? It’s just a thought. Allow it to be. Relax the tension caused by mind’s attention moving to those thoughts. How do you do that? You notice the tightness in your head around your meninges**… and you relax. As soon as you relax, your mind is going to be very clear, very bright, and there’s not going to be any thoughts in your mind at all. Why? Because you’ve let go of the craving.
More about the “relax step”
“If you just add this one step – of relaxing – it will change your entire meditation and your progress in meditation will be amazing.” “Even if you want to do straight vipassana, if you add that relax step along with that, that will change your meditation and you will see amazing progress.” “When you start recognizing that tension and tightness in your head, in your mind, and you relax, you are purifying your mind. Why? Because you have let go of craving at that time.”
A working definition and use of the Chain of Dependent Origination
“I’ve been talking to you about dependent origination and how it works.. There is Contact. The Eye hits Color & Form– Eye Consciousness arises. The meeting of these three things is called Eye Contact. With Eye Contact as condition, there is Eye Feeling: pleasant, painful, neither painful nor pleasant. With Eye Feeling as condition, there is Eye Craving; Eye Craving is: I like it or I don’t like it. When your awareness becomes sharp enough, you can see that start to get tight and you can relax right then, and then the rest of the links of Dependent Origination do not arise. So there is no sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. When you start getting that balance of recognizing that tightness in your head and relaxing.”
The way to practice Samatha Vipassana, or Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation:
“Recognize when your mind has been distracted. You release the distraction by not keeping your attention on it. You relax the tightness caused by that. You smile. You come back to your object of meditation; stay with your object of meditation. Repeat.”
I could say much more about how I see these concepts fitting together, but I’ll leave it here for now; keep practicing and revisit this teaching more in the future. Happy sitting!!
* My intention was to link to the recording of the talk, but Howie has not released it for inclusion on the Mission Dharma site, so I can’t link to it at this time. However, I transcribed some of the main points related to sitting practice in this post.
** When Bhante talked about the meninges, he held up a little model of the brain and talked about a band around the brain that contracted when thoughts, sensations, likes and dislikes or any other distracting stimulus was introduced. This band is tight, holds tension and is where he seemed to suggest one would relax the “tightness in your head, in your mind”. He literally called this tightness “craving” — the very craving that causes suffering.