Movement within stillness and stillness itself

Every teaching I come across these days seems to point to Awareness as the primary realization of spiritual practice — the unborn, aware, awake, “that which knows”. All beings have this aware quality. It precedes any sensation, any phenomenal activity. It’s supremely simple and closer, even, than our thoughts or our bodies.

“Rest in Natural Great Peace”, says Howie Cohn all the time, quoting Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. That natural great peace is the ‘knowing’ that lies beneath the thinking mind. Even thoughts are known. Thoughts are ripples in the stillness of awareness. Everything is, in a sense, ripples in that still awareness.

When the mind has a chance to settle down, there is an opportunity to rest in that still awareness. If the body and mind are restless, sleepy, angry, wanting, or doubting (experiencing the hinderances), then it’s not easy — perhaps not possible — to catch a glimpse of this stillness. As the mind settles, there is a greater and greater opportunity to discover, and even rest, in that stillness. With stillness of mind, one’s object of meditation, for instance the breath, becomes very tranquil but also very easy to stay with. Like a ripple in a still lake, it’s so easy to spot, so easy to rest one’s attention on. There’s not a lot of distraction around the breath to compete with it. It’s peaceful. It’s calming. The attention is collected, secluded. Desires to be doing anything else fall away. There’s sukkkha, or joy arising from concentration.

Finding the stillness of awareness can be a great aide to breathing practice in this way.

There is still more to explore, though. Becoming stabilized in awareness-in-itself is also possible. After discussing one pointedness, Phillip Moffett invited those at the concentration retreat to become aware of ‘knowing’… of ‘knowing knowing’ and finally ‘knowing knowing knowing’, where the awareness is turned back on itself and uses itself as it’s own object. I recall Alan Watts sort of denying the possibility of this with his “teeth cannot bite themselves” argument, but Phillip invited us to do just this and it was a unique and powerful experience. There have been echoes of it since the retreat and I see so many teachings pointing to it now. It takes practice to put yourself in a position to experience a calm abiding in only knowing, but Phillip pointed to it as a vast and interesting landscape. I think I only made it through to the lobby.. but I have faith that there’s much more to come.

Calm abiding

It’s been two weeks since the 2016 Concentration Retreat, and though I made a lot of notes in my notebook about various things that arose, and lessons learned, it’s taken a while for me to get a clearer picture of what the retreat was about.

I noticed two years ago that the return from the Concentration Retreat was qualitatively different than the post-Vipassana retreat re-entry. Things feel more matter-of-fact and ordinary, but very precise. I have less interest in chasing the ups and downs — not needing to feel entertained or distracted or overly worried — and more interest in being present and feeling the pleasant sensation that comes from effortlessly staying in the present.

Often a Dharma talk or book will say something about meditation and I find that that very something will manifest in my practice soon thereafter. I’ve even thought there is some aspect to practice that involves suggestion, in the sense of persuasion, and that our minds produce the expected state or result because we are leaning into it unconsciously. I don’t know if this is the case, or if it’s better understood as being the mind’s malleability – that doors are opened and we are inclining the mind to step through them and it does! In this case, the Leigh Brasington book on the Jhanas, Right Concentration, suggested that the power in remaining in deep states of concentration is that it teaches the nervous system how to access and remain in states of not only concentration, but bliss, serenity and equanimity. I didn’t spend inordinate amounts of time in absorption states on this retreat, but I was able to get into these states and stabilize them– spending 10 minutes in some cases to a full period in another case– in what I took to be the first, second and third Jhanas. I think soaking in those states even that much has proven to be beneficial in just the ways Leigh spoke about. The qualities of a highly concentrated, happy, and calm mind were certainly present at the retreat — especially during walking meditation following the absorption-state sits. I think these qualities are still accessible as baseline mental states even two weeks after the sit.

My two sits at Mission Dharma last night were in the realm of access concentration and it’s re-invigorated my sense of calm and clarity to a great degree.

It’s so interesting to watch the path unfold.

May all beings know the great natural peace of a calm and collected mind. May all beings be free. Thanks for reading.

The Buddha knowing the Dharma

My experience around the Waking Up in Every World retreat this past month was unique for me.

I was concerned about attending a 5 day retreat for fear that the first few days would be spent settling down, the last few would be looking forward towards the end and that there would be no “middle” where I could relax into any kind of concentrated state. This didn’t turn out to be the case at all, however.

The tools I’d learned at the concentration retreat came in very handy in the first few days, getting me to settle down quickly: staying primarily with the breath, dropping in suggestions to incline the mind towards peace such as “relax”, “quiet”, “calming mental formations”, and “content”.

Feeling quite settled very quickly and having little expectation for the outcome of the retreat, I was very present and open to the insights and suggestions from the teachers. Two things were said in the first few days that really came to life in my practice. Eugene Cash, while talking in very general terms about how we’d come together and were practicing sitting and walking made an offhand comment that we “weren’t doing anything”. I don’t think this was meant as an instruction, but it really resonated with me. He was talking about awareness more generally and in connection with this idea of “not doing anything”, I felt a deep sense of freedom and ease. Feeling a permission to not do.. I was perfectly free to simply be. And nothing could be simpler. Just be. Which is to say, “just be aware”.

The other teaching that I connected with was from Howie Cohn when he described our natural state of awareness as “The Buddha” and that which arose in awareness as “The Dharma”. This sounds simplistic — and it is. But it’s also deeply profound. It’s easy to see how this dovetails with the “do nothing, just be aware” insight above, but calling awareness ‘Buddha’ and that which is arising ‘Dharma’ immediately suggested the depth and profundity of this way of practicing – or better yet, this simple state of being. Let’s unpack the Buddha and the Dharma as illuminated by this suggestion.

The Buddha as unobstructed and undefiled awareness — pure awareness. This sounds obvious enough, but it’s profound in that it’s so available to us. It’s literally closer than our own thoughts. It just is. Eugene also pointed out in later talks that this awareness has the mark of anatta, or ‘not self’, because it’s not ours. We can’t will it to turn off. We can’t stop it or do anything about it. Awareness itself has no clinging — it doesn’t cling to what arises in awareness. It doesn’t have any aversion either. It is just aware. We, on the other hand, cling and react to this and that – desire and feel aversion almost all the time… but not awareness. Resting in this pure awareness is to simply be with what is arising. Somewhat paradoxically, this pure awareness is said to have it’s own wisdom and intelligence (but this is a topic for another time).

The Dharma — defined in this way as that which is arising in awareness — becomes as simple as awareness itself. Dharma is often thought of as the teaching of the Buddha, but it’s also translated as “the truth”, and even as a way to refer to phenomenal events. Consider for a moment the intersection of “that which is arising in awareness” and “the Truth”. That which is arising in awareness is the truth in that moment. It is the Real. Awareness of that which is arising is being with things as they are. There is a profound clarity in this practice. There is a recognition of the quality of what is happening in the present moment. Howie often says that what is past is gone; what is future hasn’t happened yet; only that which is happening in the present moment is real and it has a very different quality than past or present, which are just thoughts. Practicing as the Buddha knowing the Dharma is to have an ongoing experience of this insight. It’s not hard. It’s simple. SO simple it’s easy to overlook or dismiss, but if you can stay with it, this present moment awareness; perfect and effortless mindfulness… it’s marvelous.


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.