Posts by Vajradaka

Faith and discipline

tree growing in rockLong-time meditation practitioner and teacher Vajradaka gives practical suggestions about how we can rekindle faith in our meditation practice.

Many people struggle to keep up a regular meditation practice, even when they really want to. Here are a few practical guidelines.

Most of those who have difficulties are not disciplined enough in the way they work in meditation, and a measured amount of discipline each day can make the process easier and more enjoyable. For example, you can set yourself the task of shortening the time it takes you to notice when your mind wanders off. At the start of each practice form an intention to catch yourself as soon as possible each time your mind wanders.

If you consciously decide to do this every day for a week, a positive inclination to acting in this way will develop. Your skill in noticing your attention wandering will increase and your concentration will benefit. Taking on a task like this is within your ability and if it succeeds it will increase your confidence, interest and engagement. It will make the practice feel more your own.

 Take time outside formal meditation to consider whether you’re recognizing the hindrances accurately  

In the following week you could take on another task for each meditation practice. This time have the general intention to recognize accurately the hindrances underlying your distraction. To call this ‘wandering off’ is not really enough. At this point it is worth mentioning that there is an important relationship between knowledge and discipline. It is helpful, for example, to be familiar with the traditional list of five hindrances — the varieties of distraction — and their antidotes. This kind of knowledge comes partly from reading and being taught by others, and partly from learning through your own experience. For instance, on the basis of knowing the symptoms of ‘restlessness and anxiety’ you can differentiate them from ‘sense desire’. Taking time outside formal meditation to consider whether you’re recognizing the hindrances accurately can be useful. Correct recognition of hindrances allows you to be more effective in countering them.

The next week you might take on building up and applying knowledge of which antidotes are effective in dealing with those hindrances you have recognized. For example, reflecting on the implications of sense desire can create a strong feeling of revulsion to that kind of distraction, (although it can also sometimes exacerbate restlessness and anxiety).

I suggest that you take on the practice of noticing distractions quickly, recognizing hindrances accurately, and applying antidotes effectively, in three-week cycles over three months.

A good habit to establish if you meditate within a busy schedule is to give yourself at least five minutes at the end of the meditation, before plunging into something different. During meditation, if you get even slightly concentrated, there is not much sensory input. You enter into the mind’s own experience of itself. If after meditating you suddenly listen to the news on the radio or even start to plan your day in a determined way, that original subtle experience of concentration will be jarred. Over time an inner rebellion to being put through such jarring can develop. The result may be that you feel resistant to meditating, without knowing why.

Discipline arises from faith — the confidence that if you apply yourself to your meditation it will work. And discipline strengthens our faith. When we engage intelligently with our meditation practice we experience tangible results and gain greater confidence in our ability to work with the mind.

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Using thought to still thought

CloudMany people think of thought as the enemy of meditation, and yet properly handled thought can be a helper and a tool. master meditation-teacher Vajradaka explains how.

One of the most common Buddhist meditation practices is the Mindfulness of Breathing. In one common form, as practiced in my own tradition (the Triratna Buddhist Community) and as taught on Wildmind, awareness of the breath is the main focus over four stages. The first two stages use counting as an aid to concentration, while in the third awareness is brought to the whole breathing process without counting. In the final stage the focus is the sensation caused by the incoming and outgoing breath around the nose. The breath is neither interfered with nor controlled — its speed and depth are allowed to change of their own accord.

I think it is valuable to reassess how you count in the first two stages. Ideally you would let the counting arise in the subtlest way possible. The grosser form of counting involves inwardly saying the number in your ordinary voice, or as if hearing someone else say it. Counting like this takes a relatively long time just to say the number. This interferes with the continuity of your experience of the breath and can artificially alter the respiration pattern. This in turn can lead to frustration and losing touch with it.

 …let the counting be light, soft and unobtrusive  

It is possible to count more subtly, in a way that does not control the breath nor disrupt continuity of awareness. This means letting the counting be light, soft and unobtrusive — you are simply being aware of the numbers rather than saying them. You will probably find that counting with the mental equivalent of your ordinary voice tends to block awareness of your broader experience, whereas with the subtler counting you can maintain broad awareness. In the Mindfulness of Breathing the aim is to let this subtle counting coexist with awareness of the focus — the breath and the spaces between breaths — and broad awareness of your self-experience.

The subtler counting brings space and openness. You may experience the counting not merely in your head but in your whole body. With practice it will eventually become second nature. It helps to make the mind subtler, and eases it into a concentrated state. Subtle thought or mental activity is more immediate than saying the thought under your breath.

Another way of developing subtle mental activity is to explore it within the three main areas in which we use thought in meditation. The first area is “checking.” This means asking a general question such as, “Are there any hindrances here?” or, “What is going on?” Alternatively, it can be a specific question such as, “Am I using thought to help me” The way you ask the question is important, so allow it to be subtle and light. Your thought is like a beam of light scanning areas of your experience. Allow the conclusion to arise as gently as possibly. It should be possible to question yourself in this way without losing your broad self-awareness.

 Subtler counting brings space and openness  

The second area in which you can develop subtle mental activity is assessment. This means deciding whether what is going on is useful to the meditation. It could involve asking such questions as, “Is my thought too loud and predominant?” Or “Is the tone of my thought too harsh?” Again, explore ways of letting both the question and answer be light and subtle, without encouraging long trains of discursive thought about it.

The third area is adjustment or giving yourself instructions. Having used checking and assessment you might need to adjust the way you use mental activity to concentrate. How you prompt yourself to do this will have a bearing on its success. The more you have a sense of yourself as a whole, the likelier it is that the instruction has been checked intuitively and will succeed. Subtle thought allows broad awareness to be present. including knowledge of what has helped in the past. For instance, you might say to yourself, “Be light in the way you give instructions.”

By engaging with these areas you will improve your ability to work effectively and intuitively. I am often asked if one should put aside refining thought in order to “work in meditation.” There are two general guidelines. If you are only slightly distracted and using thought in a light, subtle way, then you do not have to put the specific meditation practice aside completely. The checking, assessing and adjusting can carry on while you remain aware of the focus, at least to some degree. On the other hand, if you are very distracted you are not really doing the practice anyway, in which case it would be better to give your attention to finding an antidote to the gross hindrance. Sometimes, when you have wholly lost awareness, the best antidote is to return to a broad awareness, then gradually to build up your attention on the main focus.

VajradakaVajradaka has been a full-time Dharma practitioner and meditation teacher since the beginning of 1973, and started practicing meditation in Japan in the late 1960’s.

Vajradaka lived for 21 years in a meditation retreat center in Wales called Vajraloka. He recently finished a year-long writing sabbatical and now lives in a Buddhist community in London. You can read Vajradaka’s blog here.

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A creative encounter in the Vortex

Jazz player Vajradaka looks back on a meeting in a smoky Jazz club and explores the mystery of empathetic communication between artist and audience.

I once had a chance encounter with a jazz musician that had a big effect on me and characterized some of the important qualities of living a creative life. At the time I was living up in the hills of Wales and coming down to London periodically. During one such visit I went to a jazz gig at the old Vortex in Stoke Newington, as part of the London Jazz Festival. It was smoky and dark with only a dozen people in the audience. We did not need much empathy to realize that the turnout was dispiriting for the musicians. They were a jazz trio from LA and had just flown over for the jazz festival and a few other gigs.

In the first set it became clear that they were really good musicians, very competent and experienced, but while they were playing it became clear something essential was missing. The way that I thought of it at the time was that there was no creativity in their improvisation or set pieces. At the end of the set the drummer with a tone of desperation pleaded with us not to leave during the interval. I’m sure that quite a few people had thought about it, but everyone stayed.

I went to the bar to get some drinks for my friends and got into conversation with the main man who was a saxophonist. He was English but lived in LA and worked full-time playing music. He had his own trio and also worked as a session musician with some of the big and famous groups. When I told him I lived in a Buddhist retreat centre in North Wales he became quite animated. He sometimes meditated at a Zen Center in LA and went on Zen retreats. He found it made a big difference to his creativity, particularly when he was practicing his instrument or had a gig. He said that when he meditated during the days that he had a performance his jazz was far more fluid and creative.

He said he experienced an important relationship between the discipline of doing the scales diligently day after day and the creativity that happened during improvised performance. Practice and performance were intimately connected, one feeding the other. He was quite clear that his ability to express creativity at the highest level during performance came out of all the hours honing his musical skills and keeping a creative frame of mind.

He started to explain how he experienced creativity in performance. At the actual moment of creativity he didn’t have to try at all, there was effortless effort; it just flowed out of him. It was like being in an open dimension, without limitation, the music just arose and passed away. Nothing was contrived and the notes arose spontaneously within the chosen “tune.” He was there playing but not identifying with himself, nor was he “self-conscious” about playing. The music came through him and used all the skills that he had developed over years of disciplined practice. There was no separation between creativity and him.

When he entered into that state of creativity in a performance, even in a big venue with thousands of people everyone knew when he was there in that creativity. There was something noticeably different in the atmosphere. The audience’s awareness of his creativity affected him, which in turn plunged him deeper into the flow of creativity. At a certain point there would be no difference between him and the audience, it was as if everybody was participating in the creative process. For him this was the greatest prize of being a professional performer and what he valued most was maintaining that creative state of mind and following it wherever it went in the music

He was slightly sad for a moment and said he was aware that he was out of touch with all of that in the last set. It seemed to take a long time for the drinks to come, so we carried on talking about this relationship between the spirit of meditation and creativity. He saw a direct relationship between entering into an open state of mind in meditation and being open to creativity when he played the saxophone. He had a really good feeling for it and as we talked we both entered into that open vibrancy of mind that can happen in both meditation and creativity.

Creative improvisation was happening in communication between us. There was inspiration in our words and we entered into a world of exploring what was of real value and significance to us. A sense of freedom and potential flowed between us. I suppose he felt supported and engaged in what was most important for him and for my part I felt as if I had met a soul brother. The vibrancy and aliveness that existed between us in that moment of communication is also at the heart of both creative improvisation and the spirit of meditation.

At the beginning of the next set when he came on stage he asked for requests I immediately put up my hand and mentioned a tune from one of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue album. He knew exactly what I was talking about and hummed it to the group and gave them a few instructions. When he started playing everything was different. He had arrived in that creative place where the music just flowed out of him.

I found myself becoming completely captivated, but when early on I took a brief glance at the audience, they were all completely with him. That creative interchange between performer and audience was growing deeper by the moment. He had arrived at the place of creative improvisation that he most valued and we all were right there with him.

The music took me to a place of freedom and infinite possibility that stays with me still. I couldn’t tell how long the set was, as there was no sense of time. It seemed to me that he knew I was there and I was completely there with him, the concept of us being apart dissolved. My whole being seemed to vibrate with the resonance of the saxophone, He was taking me on a long journey through every kind of emotion. It was as if we went everywhere in the universe and then gradually and very gently we came back to earth and the Vortex club. After a pause the audience went ecstatic, he looked directly at me, smiled and winked.

VajradakaVajradaka has been a full-time Dharma practitioner and meditation teacher since the beginning of 1973, and started practicing meditation in Japan in the late 1960’s.

Vajradaka lived for 21 years in a meditation retreat center in Wales called Vajraloka. He recently finished a year-long writing sabbatical and now lives in a Buddhist community in London. You can read Vajradaka’s blog here.

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Vajradaka: A fine balance

In a series of articles exploring the art of meditation, Vajradaka shines light on the fine art of balancing activity and receptivity within our practice.

While teaching meditation or when discussing it with friends, I always try to keep basic principles in mind. Sometimes I refer to them overtly, but they are mostly in the background, providing the context within which the details of practicing meditation are explored. One such principle is the relationship between receptivity and activity. These are pillars upon which much of what happens in meditation practice rests.

Receptivity consists in the ability to notice and be aware in a relaxed manner. It enables us to absorb and integrate the different impressions that arise as we meditate. It is like a fertile ground in which our positive mental states can grow and blossom. Receptivity can include strong aspirations — what we might call faith, and even insight. If we are receptive in the face of hindrances to meditation, we can sometimes gain access to a strong intuitive response, as if a well of deeper wisdom makes itself felt. And this guides us away from what is unhelpful.

Activity refers to our endeavor and application. It is what we do in our practice, including the application of particular meditation practices and methods for stimulating positive states of mind, and overcoming hindrances. When we strengthen our positive states of mind — by using a phrase, or bringing to mind an appropriate image — we, are being active. When we consciously check for hindrances and adjust accordingly, we are being active. With practice, our ability to be active becomes intuitive rather than considered or premeditated.

We need both receptivity and activity in our meditation practice and it is sometimes useful to assess the relationship between them to see how much of each is present. However, they are often intermingled, and they are always interrelated. Even so, most people have a bias towards either activity or receptivity. When the relationship between the two becomes attenuated, our meditation will suffer. Over-emphasis on activity can make our practice dry and shallow. A disproportionate emphasis on receptivity can lead to stagnation.

It is important to find ways to ensure that these two qualities operate together. One approach can be described in terms of “noticing” and “looking.” Noticing refers to what happens when we are receptive, and we notice the appearance and disappearance of mental states. Their arising evokes an immediate response within us, which we also notice. We may then choose to be active, in order to strengthen a positive quality or undermine a hindrance.

Looking involves watching for, or searching out, particular mental states that may have been incipient but of which we were not previously conscious. We may ask: what is happening in my experience? or what is missing? or is there a hindrance present? These questions direct our awareness to areas that we might have overlooked. Of course, as well as being active in asking the question, we also need receptivity and sensitivity to what emerges.

The Buddhist tradition suggests various antidotes to hindrances in meditation. Some of these are quite active – for example, the technique of cultivating the opposite quality to what is obstructing meditation. So if one experiences ill-will or hatred in meditation, a suggested remedy is to cultivate loving-kindness (metta). In applying such a remedy, however, we also need receptivity because when the positive quality of loving-kindness actually arises, we need sensitivity and openness in order to include it into the practice.

Another traditional antidote draws more on the qualities of receptivity. This is the “sky-like attitude.” Here we are aware of the hindrance, but neither act to remove it, nor add to what is there. We feel that the mind is like the sky — huge and boundless — and that the hindrance is like a cloud, which we allow to drift away in its own time.

Balancing these qualities is quite an art. As we consciously exercise our skills of receptivity and activity in meditation, they will gradually become second-nature, and will interact harmoniously.

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Vajradaka: A balancing act

dandelion seedAs westerners engage ever more deeply with meditation we find that rather than trying to shoehorn our experience into traditional categories we must find a new vocabulary to express what’s really going on. Vajradaka, a renowned western teacher, finds new words to explain the path to one-pointedness.

It’s always a delight for me to explore how my own experience in meditation corresponds to traditional Buddhist teaching. What I sometimes find, though, is that a particular term in English does not quite point me in the right direction. For example, the terms “concentration” or “one-pointedness” do not correspond exactly to my experience.

Living and practicing meditation at Vajraloka Meditation Centre, I have occasionally found new phrases that give me a better sense of what I am experiencing. I particularly favor terms that give a practical entrance into an experience, as well as describing the experience itself. What follows is an explanation of how to practice what I have come to call “breadth” and “focus,” and thereby arrive at what I think is traditionally meant by “a one-pointed and concentrated state.”

Often the level of awareness you have just before you meditate and in the first few minutes of meditation determines where the meditation will take you and how deep it will go. You don’t need much experience of meditation to know that there is often a lot going on within your mind and body of which you are completely unaware. So when you sit down to meditate the first thing to do is to find out how you are.

This might mean becoming more sensitive to pleasant and unpleasant sensations in your body, or aware of a previously unnoticed mood. Like moving out of a room and exploring the rest of a house, you can extend the scope of your perception. Awareness in this context is not a cool observing eye, and it does not mean thinking “about” what is happening. It is the tangible experience of the qualities and tones of your body, emotions, feelings, and mental states.

On the basis of experiencing a sense of yourself as a whole, you can intensify that awareness by paying more attention to particular areas. First, focus on the sensations and qualities of your body. Bring to mind a word or image that describes a specific part of the body, like the neck, and then make the transition from thinking about it to a more direct, in-the-body perception. What are its qualities? Is it hard, soft, warm, cool? As you scan through the body and become aware of the subtleties of bodily sensations, maintain a general sense of yourself as a whole.

Then pay some attention to your feelings and emotions. As well as being generally receptive, you can seek out qualities, such as faith, kindness or contentment, which may already be present to some degree. You can then bring to mind specific intentions for the meditation practice. You might resolve to bring the sense of breadth and focus together — or you might simply resolve to stay awake!

Next come back to a broad awareness of yourself as a whole. As well as being useful in preparing for meditation, establishing breadth of awareness also stimulates a tangible awareness that changes and grows throughout the practice.

Having established this broad awareness, you can now allow the main object of meditation to come into the forefront of your attention. At this point you might notice a tendency to stay in a rather undifferentiated awareness, or an opposite tendency to have too hard and exclusive a focus. You have to do a balancing act, to maintain broad awareness of yourself as a whole, alongside the focus on the object. In the Mindfulness of Breathing it can help to think in terms of letting your whole body be the breadth of awareness, while keeping the particular sensations of the breath as your focus. This helps to counter the feeling that there is too much going on at once. Gradually you can extend the breadth to include feelings, emotions and mental activity.

As you move further into the meditation practice, the aim is to bring that whole sense of yourself (breadth) and the main meditation object (focus) together into a unified whole. Every now and then, check whether you have slipped into being too vague and have lost clarity or if you have become too rigid and lost the sense of breadth. Gently come back to awareness of your body, establishing breadth from there, and then regain your focus.

As breadth and focus come closer together, you feel increasingly present and receptive. You become more deeply concentrated, and gradually make a transition into a realm of inspiration and clarity. The unique significance and potential of the moment comes alive. You can experience clear perceptions without distraction and it is easier to apply yourself wholeheartedly. The mind can be both expansive and one-pointed. Experience can grow simultaneously broader and deeper, and it can continue to broaden and deepen without any limit to how far this process can go.

VajradakaVajradaka has been a full-time Dharma practitioner and meditation teacher since the beginning of 1973, and started practicing meditation in Japan in the late 1960’s.

Vajradaka lived for 21 years in a meditation retreat center in Wales called Vajraloka. He recently finished a year-long writing sabbatical and now lives in a Buddhist community in London. You can read Vajradaka’s blog here.

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