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.

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”.

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.

notes on creation and/or emptiness

Struggling to choose between creating a better world
vs. striving for the release and freedom of Nirvana?
When do you create?
You do it when not doing it would fail to recognize the face of reality. We have to strive to do what’s right, but we also have to be with what is. We need to explore what is possible.
With this precious human birth in the age of technology
we are so capable of creating: mentally and physically.
Also rich with technology, ability and information–
we have lush screens alive with our creations.
Printers producing reality before our eyes.
Sharing with others around the world at the speed of light.
To not create in our situation is to not honor the situation itself, it’s very being. The multiplicity is crying for you to be interactive with it.
“Come, Create.” — The Universe
Creatively, we want to live to the fullest.
However, living wisely seems to bring the best results.
Sila is part of the Dharma, so is meditation.
Right Livelyhood and ‘do no harm’ are key.
Always awareness
Always caring
Always love
Always side with the truth
Not clinging or coveting
Not fixating on a self
No harm, no blame
Without a footprint
Appreciative of the Dharma,
Buddha, and the Sangha.
Always aware of the way.
Striving with diligence for total release.
May I strive to spread peace and wisdom,
improving the world with this body, while I have it
for the benefit of all beings:
May I find my true happiness and bring it forth to share with others.
May I let wisdom guide me, may I see the potential all around me.
May I create the causes of my true happiness and may I bring happiness to others.

Reflections on the application of Mindfulness of Breathing

The last two posts are about Mindfulness of Breathing as taught by the Buddha and interpreted by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – one in written form and the other as part of a talk. I wanted to write a little about my interpretation of his work.

The 16 stage breath meditation starts with a very accessible practice – feeling the breath at the level of the body and noticing whether the breath is long or short. Essentially, a basic exercise to focus the mind on the breathing, akin to practices we have all done, such as counting the breath, watching the abdomen rise and fall, etc. One moves through various stages, focusing on the breath but being aware of the entire body – which reminds me of Goenka’s style of meditation and body scanning – to noticing the feelings of relaxation and joy associated with [watching] the breath, to becoming aware of the mind while watching the breath, and so on.

The process is one of becoming aware of deeper and more subtle levels of experience. We go from noticing the body, in and of itself, to the more subtle feelings in and of themselves and thoughts in and of themselves. Seeing something “in-and-of-itsef” means for example: feeling an actual body sensation (as opposed to worrying about your leg), or recognizing a thought as a thought, instead of focusing on the content matter of that thought. When we get this clear about something, we see its changing nature, we see it as phenomena, come to know it as unreliable in terms of providing an ultimate ground for our happiness, develop dispassion for it through investigation, familiarity, discernment, non-identification and allow it to dissipate within awareness. My own understanding is that this is how one’s body becomes still, how one’s mind quiets down and how one “gets out of one’s own way” through the practice of meditation.

I’ll say this again, in a slightly different way to help it sink in. How do we get to more subtle levels of experience? How do we drop the more gross levels, so we can become aware of and drop into the more subtle ones? The direct experience of the thing-in-itself at each level is held in awareness, with equinimity and an aim to developing a dispassion, calm, and a deep familiarity with it – how it comes into being, sustains, and passes. We come to see what are it’s causes – what fabrications or doings of the body or mind are feeding the experiences. Wherever we find “stress” at any level, we cease feeding it. We infuse it with subtle awareness and a kind attention and let it calm down. We see into the phenomena at each level and by penetrating it with equanimity and we drop it. We release it.

We can apply the same tools of mindfulness, awareness, great persistence and ardency (which is a dedication to following the path and a discrimination that allows one to focus their efforts skillfully) to the subtlest levels. The deeper levels of experience begin to deal less with form, words or even thoughts themselves, but go deeper into a direct experience of the elements that make up the chain of interdependent co-arising, like perception, formation, and consciousness itself. When each of these is seen as conditioned and impermanent, it is penetrated, dropped and abandoned. The bonds of reality fall apart. The last thing to go is the application of the Dharma itself, as all has been surpassed and there is no function for the tools known as Dharma to operate on… the very activity that brought you there must be seen finally as an activity, as conditioned, as not-self and relinquished. This process leads to a total release from the bondage of Samsara.

And there you have it. Just a few easy steps.

Buddha’s Breathing Meditation

This talk is highly instructive with regards to the canonical 16 step method of breath meditation, but it is good to be familiar with some of the terms and the general framework so you can follow along more easily. I found it very useful to first read at least a few chapters of the material from the last post, which is considerably more detailed, but on the exact same material.

I am delighted to have found this. I am so pleased to share it with you. I am profoundly grateful to Thanissaro Bhikkhu for expounding upon this method of practice. It brings to light a much deeper understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

Classic Breathing Meditation

Know Thyself

Mindfulness is a process of getting familiar with our own flow of experience. We may focus on any number of objects external to us – or internal to our bodies or our minds. This kind attention makes us less reactive, brings us deep wisdom regarding the changing nature of phenomena, leads us to question our very nature and the nature of existence.

Can it all be boiled down to the two words spoken by Jesus: Know Thyself?