Neurological connections on the Buddha’s path

This is a fascinating demonstration of how neurons make connections within the brain.

I came across this on the web and thought it might be a good thing to post. In the context of Buddhism, it could be helpful to have a basic understanding of how these pathways are built because they would play a part in some other aspects of practice and the path. Imagine how this would play a role in: setting intentions, developing wholesome habits, Metta, non-reactivity and equanimity, etc.

Let’s take, for example, the association between ‘calm’ and ‘pleasant’. If we are able to develop a concentrated mind that is calm and quiet, and bring our attention to the Jhana factor of Sukha, (sweetness or joy), then we’re building a connection between getting calm and experiencing joy. Typically, we seek joy through sense pleasures, new experiences, excitement, stimulation. What if we could re-wire ourselves to experience joy through peace.  Perhaps our brains will relax in their pursuit of constant stimulation and novelty and begin to seek out joy through calm. Sounds like it could provide motivation for practice and get some momentum going, doesn’t it?

And Metta practice could form bonds between ‘other beings’ and compassion, loving kindness and Mudita–joy.  Having positive thoughts arise naturally when we encounter others is very beneficial — opening the heart, encouraging compassionate acts, and reducing suffering.

Enjoy the demo and let me know what connections it triggers for you!

Dependent Co-Arising and the Four Noble Truths

In continuing to read Thanissaro Bikkhu’s “The Shape of Suffering“, I came across a small quote from one of the Buddha’s Suttras that captures the cause of suffering more succinctly than I’ve seen it before:

“Sensing a feeling of pleasure… a feeling of pain… a feeling of neither- pleasure-nor-pain, he senses it as though joined with it. This is called an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person joined with birth, aging, & death; with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is joined, I tell you, with suffering & stress.” -Saayutta Nik›ya 36:6

The way I read it, the immediacy of any feeling (pleasure, pain, or even neutral feeling), being misunderstood (through ignorance) as part of one’s self (i.e.. as joined with it) causes one to be immediately ‘joined’ with the entire process of dependent co-arising and therefore each of it’s elements. In one fell swoop.. we’re trapped in a cycle that by it’s very nature produces suffering.

The whole point of Thanissaro’s work here is to point out that the factors of dependent co-arising work in two directions. When ignorance is present, the factors lead to suffering. When the 4 noble truths are brought to bear on one’s experience, ignorance is replaced by knowledge — and the skillful use of each of the factors of dependent co-arising lead one to view experience not “as though joined with it” but rather as impersonal phenomena, dependent upon causes and conditions, arising and passing, impermanent, empty of self, and ultimately not a cause for suffering. There is an “unbinding”, which is equated with liberation itself.

From The Shape of Suffering:

Ignorance is the primary cause of suffering; knowledge, the primary factor leading to its cessation. … ignorance here means not seeing events in terms of the four noble truths: stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path of practice leading to its cessation.

So if bringing the Four Noble Truths to bear on our experience is the key to developing this knowledge — how do we do that?  It seems quite unwieldy to have to stop and remember the definition of the four truths prior to each sensation, perception, feeling, etc., which are constantly occurring at a very high rate. This is the edge of my practice at the moment. I’m experimenting with shortcuts. Might it be possible to study the Four Truths and soak in them, but then also to find a shortcut that might be more easily kept in mind? I’ve been working with a few:

Shortcuts to stand in for the Four Noble Truths:

  • “All things are impermanent – they arise and pass away – to be in harmony with this truth brings great happiness.” (great when chanted)
  • “Do not cling to anything as ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine’.”
  • “____ is being known.”
  • “Let go.”

Does anyone else have a single phrase or simple teaching they like to bring to mind that would serve this same purpose of orienting the mind towards liberation and non-clinging so that the process of dependent co-arising might lead towards liberation instead of suffering?

A look at dependent co-arising in “The Shape of Suffering”

Dependent Co-Arising is one of those buddhist topics that I know exists, but isn’t typically central to (or even acknowledged within) my understanding of buddhism. That is changing.

I’m knee deep in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book “The Shape of Suffering“. The main theme is the 12 factors of Dependent Co-Arising. The analysis is very instructive — not only describing the complexities of the interactions between these twelve factors, but also placing dependent co-arising in context with the 4 noble truths and 8 fold path. Much like his book, “Right Mindfulness”, the whole of the dharma seems to be laid out, encompassing both a broad overview and delving into practical, practice-based details that point inevitably towards absolute freedom.

Early on in this book, the explanation centers around how the 12 factors create “cycles of suffering” or cycles that lead to suffering, so that going through cycle after cycle– suffering arises. In any case, one can see by his illustrations that these cycles happen on multiple levels – microscopic and nearly instantaneous as well as macroscopic, lasting lifetimes!! This alone is illuminating as one ponders the dharma. I often get caught up thinking about how the dharma functions — and on what scale — and this makes it very clear that there is no one right answer to that question. The dharma is functioning on every scale simultaneously!!

The 4 noble truths are like the 4 cornerstones that make up the foundation of buddhism — they are the bedrock. Dependent Co-arising is a functional look at Suffering – the first of these cornerstones. In fact, the second, Clinging is also one of the factors of dependent co-arising — and seeing it function in this way can give some real insight into how important and central it is – and how it works!! The whole cycle of dependent co-arising — which produces suffering so long as it is occurring in ignorance — does just the opposite if it occurs in the presence of awareness and knowledge of the 4 noble truths. In this way, it is a formula for how to “abandon the craving” that causes suffering. This IS the 3rd noble truth! Dependent co-arising, then, allows one to explore 3 of the 4 noble truths in a very experiential way.

Reading Thanissaro’s work feels like it is it’s own form of practice. It exposes the very heart of Theravada.

Don’t cling to anything as “I”, “me”, or “mine”

It has been said that the Buddha spoke this teaching, “Don’t cling to anything as ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine'” and claimed that upon hearing this, one has heard the whole of the dharma; practicing it, one has practiced the whole of the dharma; and upon realizing the fruit of this practice, one has realized the fruit of the path–liberation.

Howie made this a central part of his talk this week at MissionDharma. It is nice to occasionally boil all of the dharma down into a tiny jewel. It’s something the mind can hold onto when the practice and the dharma seem too complex or overwhelming.

Spending some time on this in the last few days has been fruitful. The practice is one of letting go — but it also inspires some dharma investigation, such as, “what is clinging”? Can I remember to keep this in mind and apply it to whatever comes up? What am I clinging to, typically? Can this reminder help me let it go?

Being in the world, moving in my typical patterns while keeping this in mind I had to clarify the difference between craving and clinging. In some ways they are deeply related — I am habitually clinging to patterns of craving! One of the 4 things to which we cling are “rituals”. I originally took this to mean religious rituals — practices — but I see that it applies equally to habits and patterns. Identifying a pattern and applying this formula to let it go in the moment is quite powerful. I’m reminded of how flexible and responsive the mind can be.

The “process of selfing” is another teaching that resonates with this one. Watching a thought arise and bringing this teaching to bear on it causes the mind to investigate how we are including that particular thought as part of our self definition. It challenges us to immediately let it go, uncoupling the thought from our sense of self right then and there. It is very freeing. Of course our habits and self definitions are more resilient and will keep coming back — but you can really see the work of loosening their grip.

This triggers so many elements of practice for me.. it’s quite interesting! Another piece that this practice touches is Bhante Vimalaramsi’s “relax step”. I find myself consciously relaxing the tightness in and around my head when I am letting go during this exercise. There is a feeling of softening, relaxing, and coming back to the moment associated with this. It’s also pleasant and encourages further relaxation.

Don’t cling to anything as ‘I’, ‘me’, or ‘mine’. A tiny dharma jewel that’s worth remembering and practicing. It’s clearly quite central to the teaching — being equated with the whole of the teaching by the Buddha himself — and also illuminating many other dharma jewels I’ve encountered along the path.

Where things stand..

I haven’t posted in a while. I’m having one of those dharma-downtimes that happen every so often. I haven’t lost faith in what the dharma is all about… in fact, I think I’m seeing just how important it is.

A few months ago, I applied for a retreat with Gil Fronsdal. I was very excited to sit with him and my motivation to sit was quite high.. until I got wait listed for the retreat.. and then didn’t get into it at all. My dharma balloon took a bit of a hit.

Then, my schedule changed for a few months and my Tuesday night sit, at Mission Dharma, became my once-a-month sit — only when it was my night as “lead volunteer”.

Our morning routine, which used to have my wife taking my daughter to school and me sitting for 3″ of incense every workday, shifted.. and I started going with them in the morning to drop Lucy off at school or camp and then going to work with Sara.

So, in the course of just a few months, my daily sitting, my weekly Sangha sitting and my retreat sitting all became a little wobbly. And I have to say that my state of mind has become a bit wobbly as well.

I see how important practice is for me. My weekly sits are back on track, thanks to another schedule change which frees up my Tuesday nights. The sits are actually pretty good, though I have been losing my concentration before the end of the 45 minutes. It feels very grounding to show up and sit.. and to be with the sangha, too.

I hope to get my daily sitting back on track as well, though I haven’t quite figured out how just yet. Mornings are busy. It’s not easy to find 25 minutes to ‘just sit’. But I’ll work on it.

The retreat for the year… that’s still up in the air. I’ll see what I can find. Having a retreat on the calendar is always very helpful for me.

We’ll see if the blog posts pick back up when the sitting does… sitting doesn’t guarantee insights — but there’s a better chance for insight when you establish a rhythm with the practice.

[ ___ ] is being known.

Once again, I’ve found inspiration for my practice from the Satipatthana series of Joseph Goldstein.

One simple suggestion is made with reference to “bare knowledge” of an object. It is suggested that we regard any sense object simply as “… being known”. This is deliberately a passive construction. In practice, registering each sight, sound, sensation, thought, taste and smell with the label “…is being known” has some unique qualities. Here are some that seem very useful/helpful so far:

(1) As a mindfulness label, this is the lowest possible bar. Anything that comes into awareness “.. is being known”. There is no other requirement; everything is included.

(2)The simplicity of it seems to avoid a layer of doubt that can occur when noticing very subtle experiences. Instead of using thoughts to understand the object of awareness before acknowledging it, it can “be known” just as it is, with it’s ambiguity or it’s clarity.

(3) This passive construction avoids calling out a subject. There is no “I” needed. The very subtle, but nearly all pervasive selfing process is not supported by labeling in this way. Only the object being known and the knowing of it are present, and eventually these two may collapse as well.

(4) The mind’s movements and overall state “can be known”, though it is hard to place this into any of the six classic senses. The activity of the mind seems distinct from the thoughts and images that comprise the “thought” category, or sixth sense gate. Rather than being a sense gate, noticing the mind’s shifts and searches or it’s steadiness; it’s wide focus or narrow focus; the presence or absence of desire, etc. points directly at the 3rd foundation of mindfulness: the mind.

(5) As the mind settles and becomes more concentrated, Knowing itself becomes the object. This has the One Taste of seeing into one’s own mind, or doing a koan.

(6) Anything that is “being known” is necessarily in the present moment. It’s not possible that something from the past or future “.. is being known”. It becomes quite evident that any such thought of something from the past is a thought and that it’s the thought that “is being known”. Likewise, any thought of the future is known immediately to be a thought. Any fear, desire, confusion or other reactions to this thought are also “being known” just as they are during this practice–because the arising of the known and the knowing of it are being laid bare. Thus exposed, these reactions and stories have less power to distract awareness and spin the mind into another fantasy, perpetuate the story, and reinforce the conceit of self.

This has been a very simple, direct and effective tool in service of mindfulness. I am very grateful for concepts like this that can really help the practice unfold.

Thanks, Yvonne

Tonight,Yvonne Ginsburg spoke at Mission Dharma. She talked about awareness of thinking in a very new and refreshing way. She talked about the ability to see thoughts as they arose–giving us the opportunity to let them go. This is a commonly sited benefit of mindfulness practice–disrupting Papanca. What was interesting was that she wasn’t just talking about Papanca–she was talking about disrupting and letting go of highly ingrained patterns of thought. Our habitual thought patterns. When these thoughts are seen at their root and let go we not only avoid Papanca– we have the opportunity to think entirely new, fresh thoughts. Youthful, playful, imaginative thinking becomes possible where typically we replay some old tired pattern! How wonderful!! She likened this to a stream of water that had formed a deep rut being diverted and allowed to flow freely over surfaces that were entirely new and fresh.

Another thought for the night was that we can do just fine without our thinking minds constantly “hovering” over our every move making sure we do everything right. What we have previously learned and done can spontaneously flow just how it needs to in situations without our minds having to worry, plan, guide and direct every move. I think there is a very deep insight in this that I only just got a glimpse of during her talk, but it was a very pleasant one–an insight into non-doing.

Concentration, tranquility and the malleability of the mind

One of the main take-aways from the Concentration Retreat was the active encouragement of a particular state of mind. Rather than just being exactly with what is and observing it, in concentration meditation one actually invites or encourages a state of calm, relaxation and contentment.

Following the breath very precisely, one is encouraged to drop any distractions. The phrase used a lot was to incline the mind to calm. Suggestions to relax the body, quiet the thoughts and calm the mind can be very effective when a certain state of concentration has already been achieved. During Samadhi meditation, it is said that the mind becomes very “malleable” or “flexible” and open to suggestion. Much to my amazement, I found this to be very much the case. Dropping in words or phrases like “not now” to let go of a thought, or “calm” to settle the mind further really did have the intended effect. “Relax, Quiet, Calm” became a very effective shortcut to a more tranquil state. The “quiet” and the “calm”, it should be pointed out, are different. Quiet refers to dropping verbal activity while Calm can sooth restless or unsettled mental energies. This language isn’t very precise, but in practice, there is a calming that can be sensed beyond simply quieting the mental talk.

Once the mind had settled to a greater degree and there was truly some aspects of the mind that were quiet and still, we were encouraged to focus on the calm part of the mind itself– to pour our attention on that still part of the mind. There may have been some gentle talk or the noticing of body sensation.. but once the mind is directed towards the quiet aspect of it’s own experience – that aspect could be allowed to grow and fill more of the space of awareness and the result was a more calm state.

In order to encourage the mind to stay with something subtle and not revert back to fabricating new content or seeking stimulus, another major concept used was contentment. Dropping in the word “content” seemed enough to get the mind to rest with something simple, like the texture of the breath. Resting there allowed for the mind to become more focused on the subtle aspects of the breathing. Any movement by the mind that is a distraction from simple awareness of breath is released by “not now” or labeling the movement a “fabrication of mind”. This label is a little long and cumbersome, but it’s so accurate it wakes the mind up immediately to the nature of the movement and encourages a non-clinging and dropping of the fabrication immediately.

At one point, the texture of the breath was so fine that the movements of the breath were taken as movements of the mind.. the subtle texture filled awareness.. the minute sensations appearing and ceasing were magnified to the point were they were taken as movements of the mind and an attempt was made to drop them, too. Realizing that the movements of mind and the sensations of the breath were in that instant one-and-the-same lead to a short experience of unity with the breath — a merging of subject and object.

During other sitting periods, a focus on “calm” lead to experiences of vivid awareness emerging into some kind of interior space. It was as if my awareness folded in on itself and discovered a new space of empty calm within and could inhabit that interior space. Of course attention remained on the breath, but keeping it there was effortless, as the breath and attention were all that existed within that space. Had I stumbled onto a Jhana? Access consciousness? I can’t say for sure. Perhaps it was just a “meditative phenomena”. More experience with this will be required to understand it. I didn’t get much feedback on this particular experience in teacher interviews.

Relative Silence

The blog has been silent for a while, but I’ve been practicing and I’ve been on retreat and there is much to write about:

– The Concentration Retreat – collecting and unifying the mind

– Relax the body. Quiet the thoughts. Calm the mind. Cultivating contentment with what is.

– Energetic activity in the body understood as a form of Piti, or rapture.

– Balancing the Jhana factors and not getting caught up in attachment to Piti

– The malleability of the concentrated mind

– Merging or unifying with an object of consciousness

– Bringing the mind to the heart space and feeling the expansive quality of Metta

– Learning to seek balance instead of focusing attention on Piti and getting attached and out of balance

Preparing one’s whole being

Somehow, through the web, I stumbled upon this writer, Peter Holleran. He was writing, in quite a bit of detail about his understanding of how enlightenment comes to unfold. He talks about stages of development and purification, ripening, moments of realization, oscillations between clarity and falling back into our old patterns, etc., and how these patters occur across several traditions. The one piece that stood out for me was that when we do have our moments of realization – of Satori – it is possible for that enlightenment experience to only “flow into” the parts of our being that have been properly prepared or purified through practice. Here, quoting Paul Brunton, he says:

“The mystic may get his union with the higher self as the reward for his reverent devotion to it. But its light will shine down only into those parts of his being which were themselves active in the search for union. Although his union may be a permanent one, its consummation may still be only a partial one. If his intellect, for example, was inactive before the event, it will be unillumined after the event. This is why many mystics have attained their goal without a search for truth before it or a full knowledge of truth after it. The simple love for spiritual being brought them to it through their sheer intensity of ardour earning the divine Grace. he only gets the complete light, however, who is completely fitted for it with the whole of his being. If he is only partially fit, because only a part of his psyche has worked for the goal, then the utmost result will be a partial but permanent union with the soul, or else it will be marred by the inability to keep the union for longer than temporary periods.”

This isn’t the language I typically use, but the idea behind it really resonated with me. Upon further reflection, it shed some light on the Satipatthana Sutta’s broad set of practices. Breaking up the self into Body, Feelings, Mind, and Dhammas and then further breaking each into categories such as the 4 elements of the body, the clear comprehension of postures and movements and actions of the body, the worldly/unworldly pleasant/unpleasant/neutral feelings, the sense bases, and the aggregates– all of that, if practiced, could not help but provide a suitable ground for the realization of satori within one’s whole being.