From the burden of illusion to the joy of freedom

Photo by Josh Boot @joshboot, Unsplash, photo-1482164565953-04b62dcac1cd

I’m going to say something about the arising of insight that I’ve never heard any teacher say before, yet which I think is crucially important if you’re at all interested in where Buddhist meditation can take you.

But first I’ll have to offer you just a little background.

Samatha and Vipassana

Traditionally, Buddhist meditation has been seen in terms of two different approaches: tranquility (samatha) and insight (vipassana).

Tranquility involves calming the mind, steadying the mind, and cultivating peace and joy. The experience that arises is called jhana, or absorption. The vast majority of references to meditation in the Buddhist scriptures are about this approach to meditation. The Buddha in fact described jhana as “the path to Awakening.”

Insight involves looking closely at our experience in order, ultimately, to see that we have no substantial, permanent self.

See also:

The Traditional View

In the early scriptures, which are the closest thing we have to what the Buddha actually taught, tranquility and insight are never described as being two different types of meditation. In fact there’s little or no emphasis on distinguishing them. At the most, they’re two synergistic approaches to meditation. They are meant to be developed together. They complement and support each other.

The relationship between them is usually said to be that we need to learn to steady the mind through developing tranquility so that it can then closely observe the nature of our experience through insight practice. An analogy would be that the light from an ordinary flashlight can’t cut steel. There’s enough power there but it’s not focused enough; the light waves are scattered and out of phase with each other, so that they cancel each other out. But turn the light into a laser — that is, take the same amount of light, line up all the waves so that they’re in phase and pointing in the same direction — and it now can penetrate metal. Tranquility, or concentration, is said to steady and focus in the mind in a similar way, so that it can cut through delusion.

This is the explanation that I’d like to challenge. I don’t think it’s wrong. It’s just missing something crucial.

Jhana is Insubstantial

What’s the missing element? It’s that tranquility is itself a way of completely changing the way we relate to our being. Absorption is in a sense a form of insight practice.

Here’s how.

In developing tranquility we’re learning to experience jhana (absorption). We learn to calm the mind so that we are no longer caught up in stories and are free to pay close attention to the body, its feelings, and the qualities of our emotional experience.

And what do we find?

We find that we experience the body less and less as a solid object. In fact we find no solidity. Instead we experience the body in terms of energy: a pleasurable tingling aliveness. Even what you would expect to be the most substantial physical experiences, like the contact the knees make with the floor, dissolve into twinkling pinpoints of sensation, constantly changing, vanishing as soon as they arise.

As we go deeper into absorption we “tune out” the body and become more fascinated by joy. Virtually everything else vanishes. In ordinary life we might be able to describe where joy is in elation to the body — it’s often centered on the heart, for example — but when joy becomes our whole experience we can’t even do that. Joy becomes everything. Joy is of course a very intangible quality, but it’s also changing moment by moment by moment. So our whole experience becomes one of constant change.

As we practice absorption our whole experience moves from the very ordinary sense we have of the body being a solid object, to experiencing ourselves as nothing an ever-changing, evanescent, flickering, constellation of physical and emotional sensation.

From Samatha to Insight

And then the question comes up: Where in this is there, or could there be, a stable, permanent self? Of course, such a thing is impossible. And at some point — BOOM! — our belief in such a self vanishes.

The normal sense we have of having a solid body is revealed to be a mental construction — part of our delusion of a solid self.

So this, I believe, is the main way that concentration and absorption aid the arising of insight. Yes, it’s got a little to do with us developing our ability to focus. But that’s only a small part of the story. The main benefit of absorption is that it dissolves away the solid self we assumed we always had, and reveals nothing but glittering points of sensation suspended in space.

In this disappearance we don’t actually lose anything except a burdensome illusion. And we’re left with a joyful sense of freedom.

One of the things I do is to guide people, step-by-step, into the experience of jhana or absorption. Jhana is not some mystical state that can only be experienced by elite meditators. Once you know how, jhana can arise quite naturally and easily. It’s just a question of knowing the steps. And even before jhana has fully arisen, we get a strong sense that our experience is becoming insubstantial. This dissolving of our normal sense of solidity is a major support for the practice of insight.

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13 Comments. Leave new

  • Bodhi, Thank you so much for your teachings. You are very good at presenting topics in a way that is accessible. I especially liked how you talked about opening up to joy today.

  • Robin Glover
    May 17, 2018 7:01 am

    Thank you much.
    I’m 63 and just learning.
    Again THANK you much

  • Great article!
    I just wanted to let you know that yesterday’s link to Vimalasara’s article seem to be broken. Would love to read it.

  • Thank you for the post.
    It’s always an interesting problem when confronted about the conditioned personality defined as “self” which doesn’t exist except as construct and whatever there is in the subject/object definition of the “Doer” who is being given a direction in which to achieve the movement on any spiritual path.
    It feels that there are two distinct paths, the reductionist path given by Nisargadatta, and the add-on until you awaken given by most deity based religions.
    If the universe truly exists in transience and there is no-self (as opposed to no independent self) then I wonder what agency is aware of the action of transience? The agency that knows change? The agency that is conditioned by thousands of years of environmental, cultural, and social introject?
    I’m always curious about these things and never expect to find definitive answers. But, I think it’s good to maintain that state of great doubt. I am suspecting that the some answers lie in the idea of void as opposed to emptiness in the framework of non-dualism.
    I am new to your writing and look forward to reading more.
    Bows to you,
    Bryan Wagner

    • Hi, Bryan.

      Your question is one I’ve heard literally hundreds of times. The Christian equivalent would be “if there’s no God, then who created the world and who makes the tides go in and out?” People who ask that question are stuck in a model where “God is the doer.” For non-theists the problem doesn’t exist: the world formed from a ball of gas left over from an exploded star; the tides are the result of gravitational attractions. No doer is required. Stuff happens in accordance with its own inner rules.

      You’re stuck in the model where you think there has to be some kind of inner entity (an inner god, called “the self”) that’s in charge of doing stuff. It perceives, it thinks, it decides, it acts. You can’t imagine seeing things any other way, and that’s not surprising. It is literally unimaginable until you’ve had the insight that there is no self of that sort. But again, no self is required. Perception, decision, etc. happen in accordance with their own inner rules.

      Nevertheless, I’ve tried to communicate how this all works in an article I wrote a few years ago. You might want to check it out.

      All the best,

  • Bryan Wagner
    May 25, 2018 2:31 am

    Interesting. I’m infreefall. I’m not adhering to any doctrine or belief.
    I don’t believe in a separate self nor do I believe in the thing we call personality or the conditioned self. Nor do I believe in duality. The labels that are used to describe a no self position are interesting.
    The agency knows it doesn’t exist.
    We chose our beliefs over our experience.
    Thank you for your response.. I will read the article.

    • As an intellectual position you may not believe in the self or in duality, but you’re still caught up in the illusion of self. You can’t see through that illusion intellectually. It’s an insight.

      There is no agency that knows it doesn’t exist :)

  • Bryan wagner
    May 25, 2018 7:09 pm

    I’m using the word agency. You use the word self. The Buddha refused to answer if there was a self or not. He said it got in the way of other teachings.
    Thank you for your perspective.
    It’s interesting

    • Yes, the Buddha did not teach that there was no self. But until stream entry happens we have an idea of a self (one with agency) that is false. That kind of self does not exist. It’s not possible to get rid of this false sense of self through intellectual effort. It has to be seen through, experientially. I’m giving you clues about how to do that (including the article I linked to earlier). It’s up to you if you want to follow those clues.

  • At a 90 day retreat specific to self, my guide planted a seed. We spent the first month every morning meditating and watching it grow. No conversation about it, just awareness.
    The guide finally made the point that what we were watching was us without labels. The plant is never the same plant from one moment to the next. And yet, without words is still plant. A enduring plantiness. The agency if you will. Agency is not mind, not body, not awareness, or will be or can be any discrete observation or label.
    She also make the point that the Sanskrit points to Selfless not No Self. I can’t define a self, but I know the action of being selfless. It’s easy for the intellect to convince itself that the realization that there is no separate self counts as no self.
    Intellectual mind can create any scenario it desires. It can have any belief it wants and conditioned mind will accept it as true. The mind can convince itself of anything.
    I am intuiting that you understand the No-self from a stream entry position. I am wishing you well with that perspective. Thank you for the interesting links.

  • Hi Bodhipaksa,
    It’s been so long since I joined one of your courses and I’d really like to soon. I’m wondering if you’re likely to run the ‘letting go into joy’ again? Thank you ?? Leah

    • Lovely to hear from you, Leah! I’ll be running it again next year, although you might want to check out the new format of course I’ve developed: Sitting With Bodhi. It’s a series of 28 guided meditations which are 10 minutes long but open-ended; they get you started and then invite you to continue with the practice. And you can work through these entirely at your own pace. Thanks to some kind of internet magic that I don’t pretend to understand, the next email isn’t sent out until you’ve played the meditation in the previous one. The next series starts tomorrow. It’s on lovingkindness and starts off very basic, but you might enjoy it.


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