insight

“Let these three expressions: I do not have, I do not understand, I do not know, be repeated over and over again.” — Padmasambhava

One time, when I was rereading a massive Tibetan Buddhist text called the Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, I was struck once again by the spiritual power of one particular quote: “Let these three expressions: I do not have, I do not understand, I do not know, be repeated over and over again. That is the heart of my advice.”

I quoted these words to a friend, and she was completely puzzled. “Isn’t your spiritual path all about knowing and understanding things?”

In a way it is. In a way it isn’t. I’ll say more about that in a minute. But first some background.

Padmasambhava was an Indian teacher who travelled to Tibet at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen. His name means “Born from a lotus” and is shortened just to “Padma.” That’s how I’ll refer to him from now on. The king wanted to convert his nation to Buddhism, and in fact had previously invited a noted scholar-monk, Shantarakshita, for that very reason. (Shantarakshita means “Protected by peace.”)

Shantarakshita had been the abbot of a major monastery in India, and his approach to practice emphasized the study of philosophy. This was how one tamed the mind. In the support of this, he had large bodies of Buddhist texts—sutras and commentaries—translated into Tibetan. But this approach failed to resonate with the fiercely devotional and pagan Tibetan people, and definitely not with the king’s ministers, who followed a form of paganism and were fiercely opposed to Buddhism. In a symbolic representation of this mismatch, it’s said that as fast as the walls of Shantarakshita’s monastery could be built up during the day, the demons of Tibet would dismantle them at night. Hence Padma’s invitation.

Padma was a different kind of teacher. He was steeped in the teaching of Tantra, where the aim was not to eliminate potentially destructive energies such as craving and ill-will, but to harness and redirect them toward positive ends. He was a sort of shamanic teacher, who tackled the demons of Tibet, battling with them until they promised loyalty to the teachings.

Shantarakshita and Padma both taught meditation, but they had different approaches. If craving and hatred are mental poisons, then Shantarakshita’s approach was to use antidotes to eliminate those poisons. Padma’s was to see how these poisons could be used medicinally.

Padma’s instructions for meditation often deal with “allowing the mind to rest in its natural state.” The mind, resting in awareness, is naturally clear, blissful, and wise. Ultimately we don’t “effort” our way to enlightenment. It’s already there.We let ourselves settle into it. We let go into it.

To make some sense of that, let’s turn to a simile, or series of similes, that the Buddha used. He talked about various disturbances of the mind being like water whipped up by the wind (worry and restlessness), water that’s stagnant (laziness), boiling water (ill will), water that’s been dyed (craving), and water that’s had mud stirred into it (doubt). In all these similes, something pure, clear, and natural has been altered in ways that make it unwholesome or dangerous. In all of these similes, if the water is allowed to be at rest, it returns to a pure state. Boiling water, left alone, cools. Water that isn’t stirred up by the wind becomes still. When it’s still, it reflects clearly, and we can also see into its depths. Mud stirred into water settles, and the water becomes pure. And so on.

How do the expressions, I do not have, I do not understand, and I do not know fit in with this? How can they be spiritually useful?

The idea that we “have” something, whether we’re talking about a physical possession or the belief that we possess some kind of truth, leads to disturbance in the mind. When a possession is threatened we get anxious, or depressed, or angry. Think about how you feel when a physical possession is lost, or broken, or is compared to something “better.”

And our understandings and what we think we “know” are just other ways of having or owning. What I think Padma is referring to here is when we cling to particular ways of seeing things. We do this in order to feel secure. Pretty much all of us say “But I don’t do that! I’m open-minded!” And yet it usually bothers us if someone actively challenges our views on things like politics and religion. It even bothers us even if we just learn that someone has different views!

Having, understanding, and knowing disturb the mind. They also limit it. They stop us from being open and curious. They’re forms of holding on, that prevent us from letting go, which is what we need to learn to do.

So back to that question, “Isn’t your spiritual path all about knowing and understanding things?” I said earlier that the answer was both no and yes. It’s no in that it’s not, ultimately, about developing an encyclopedic understanding of the Buddha’s teachings or of later teachings. It’s not about mastering the map. It’s about traveling the territory that the map is describing. The kind of understanding and knowing that comes from studying maps is fundamentally different from the kind we get from traveling the territory.

The Buddha talked about this, when he was asked whether what we taught was something he had memorized. He said,

When clever aristocrats, brahmins, householders, or ascetics come to see me with a question already planned, the answer just appears to me on the spot. Why is that? Because the Realized One has clearly comprehended the principle of the teachings, so that the answer just appears to him on the spot.

Just before saying this he gave the example of knowing how a chariot is built and how it works. When you understand this from experience, when you’re asked about the topic you don’t have a bunch of pre-prepared, memorized statements to make. You just speak spontaneously.

I think what Padma is getting at is that we maintain an attitude of skepticism about our having, our understanding, and our knowing. That we hold all these things provisionally and lightly. That we be open to learning. That we be curious about what we might learn. That we don’t confuse what we have heard with what we know from experience. And that when we talk to others we distinguish between whether we’re talking about our knowledge of the map, or our knowledge of the territory.

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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.

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

Tranquility involves calming the mind, steadying the mind, and cultivating peace 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 it as “the path to Awakening.”

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

Tranquility and insight are never described as being two different types of meditation, but as 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.

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.

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.

In a few days I’m leading a 50-day online course that will lead you, 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. I invite you to join me on this exploration of absorption.

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“Turn toward the fire, and enter, confident.” Dante Alighieri

Today I’m going to talk about pain and how meditation can help you deal with it. You may not be experiencing pain today, but it’s something that happens to us all, and hopefully there will be something here that you find useful. Also what I’m going to say applies not just to physical but to emotional pain (hurt, anxiety, loneliness, etc.) so it’s relevant to everyone.

In the midst of pain there is magic. If you find this puzzling, let me tell you how I know this and how you can see it for yourself.

I started having migraines when I was perhaps 13 years old. When I first tried meditating with migraines it did not help. As soon as I took my awareness to the nausea it would become more intense. And there was no way on earth I wanted to turn toward the headaches. I just wanted them to go away.

It turned out, though, that being mindful of less extreme forms of discomfort, like an aching back, hunger, an itch, or even emotional forms of pain, such as sadness or grief was a useful way to train for more extreme pain. It became more natural to turn toward what is painful rather than to turn away. I found that much of the pain that is involved in such experiences is actually caused by my resistance. When we tense up physically or emotionally around pain, it gets more intense.

Part of the practice of investigating pain was to see that it wasn’t a unitary phenomenon. We can use the single word “pain” to refer to, say, a sore back, but that doesn’t capture the richness and complexity of the experience. When I looked closely, I found that the pain was composed of a number of interwoven sensations. There might be heat, pressure, tingling, pulsing, throbbing, stabbing, and so on. One or another of these might be the most prominent part of the pain at any given time. Each of them changed, moment by moment. Pain stopped seeming so solid. In fact even the individual interwoven sensations I’ve mentioned stopped seeming solid, and instead had the appearance of twinkling points of sensation suspended in space. Sometimes, in turning my attention toward pain, I’d find that there was no pain to be found.

I’ve noticed the same in other arenas in life. I often edit my own meditation recordings, and sometimes I’ll have to remove a click that’s in the middle of a sound, like the AH sound in the word “relaxed.” And I noticed that when I zoom in really close to a sound like AH — down at the level of fractions of a hundredth of a second — there’s no AH to be heard. This morning, at the end of my meditation, I was looking at a white candle, and I couldn’t see any white. There were infinite shades of browns and yellows, but no white. So, sometimes when you look close enough at a thing, it has a completely different appearance from when it’s viewed from further away or with less attention.

So a few days ago I woke up with a migraine. I observed that there were many sensations in the body that were unrelated to the migraine at all. When we fixate on pain we miss those. I found that my calf muscles in particular were full of pleasurable tingling energy, and the more I paid attention to everything that was not the migraine, the more intense and widespread those sensations became. And then turning toward the pain and the nausea, everything very quickly took on that now familiar sense of transparency. Around 15 minutes into the meditation my tummy started rumbling, which is always a sign that the migraine is on the way out, since my entire digestive tract shuts down during a migraine. At that point the migraine wasn’t entirely gone, but it was quite manageable and I was able to get up and go about my day.

I don’t want to give the impression that I have this sorted out. Sometimes pain sneaks up on me and I forget to be mindful of it. And there are some forms of emotional discomfort that I have most definitely not learned to embrace in awareness, and that I react to strongly. I’m still working with all this and trying to learn to do it better.

But I’d strongly suggest, if you have problems with pain (and you all will at some point) that you practice turning toward smaller discomforts as a way of training yourself to be mindful and equanimous with difficult experiences. Over time I hope you’ll find, as I have, that in the midst of pain there is magic.

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Insight is not enough

These days there’s an increasing interest in gaining insight — accepting the loaded word “gaining” for now.

On the whole this is a good thing. For a long time many in the West have been doubtful about whether awakening is a realistic goal. “Maybe we’re too messed up,” and “Maybe the modern world isn’t conducive to awakening,” were common doubts. As the years have gone by, however, more and more practitioners have had insight experiences, and this has been very encouraging for others. More people now think not just that awakening is possible, but that they personally are capable of it. This is great! How can there be a downside to this?

One thing I’ve been concerned about recently is the narrowness of the goal we set ourselves. The ultimate aim of practice is often seen purely in terms of having insights into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. And while those things are crucial to attaining the goal, simply having those insights doesn’t turn you into the kind of person that the Buddha suggested we should take as our ideal. The Buddha’s concept of the ideal individual is someone who not only has insight, but who is an all-round excellent human being.

In one conversation about the ideal person, the Buddha outlines qualities such as: having calmness; being free from craving; being free of attachment to preferences, being free from fear, anger, and pride; being restrained in speech; having no longings about the future and no regrets about the past; having honesty and transparency; being free from envy; having no disdain for others; refraining from insults; and not thinking in terms of being superior, inferior, or even equal to others.

Elsewhere the Buddha talks of this ideal individual very much in terms of gentleness, kindness, and compassion. He encourages us to be the kind of person who doesn’t act in ways that cause harm to others in any way, not even indirectly, if that can at all be avoided. He also encouraged us to be good friends to each other — see the Culagosinga Sutta, for example. And part of the Buddha’s conception of spiritual friendship was a heart-connection with the wise — a sense of devotion and reverence that opens the heart to being influenced by the good that lies in others.

Over and over again, the Buddha encouraged us to develop jhana — a pleasurable state of focused awareness and of joyful absorption in the present moment. Jhana is deeply nourishing, and is also an excellent preparation for insight — not just because it trains the mind in focused attention, but because it helps us to see our experience in terms of intangible qualities of energy and joy, and in so doing gives us more of a sense of the insubstantiality of ourselves.

These are the kinds of things that we should be thinking of as the purpose of our practice.

Inherent in the Buddha’s view of the goal is that it’s not just about losing the delusion of self, or even of “gaining” insight. It’s also about cultivating ethical, skillful qualities—especially positive emotions. This is why the Buddhist path is usually taught as starting with training in ethics, then in meditation (including the active cultivation of kindness and compassion), and only then, finally, culminating in the development of insight.

For a small number of people, insight experiences are upsetting or even devastating, leading to a loss of meaning, a sense of despair, and a depressing and anxious state of depersonalization. It’s clear that joy and compassion don’t inevitably follow on the heels of insight arising.

Cases where serious suffering arises as a consequence of insight are rare. I don’t personally know anyone for whom this has been more than a passing disorientation, after which the positive aspects of insight have revealed themselves. But in the cases I’ve heard of where some kind of insight experience has lead to long-term problems, it seems to me that there has typically been a narrow focus on mindfulness and insight, and a lack of emphasis on lovingkindness and compassion meditation, and usually no emphasis on jhana. Whether there’s also been a lack of emphasis on spiritual friendship, spiritual community, and ethics is something I don’t know. But I suspect that in some cases these things are lacking as well.

One of the benefits of modern neuroscience is that we now know that as we learn a new skill, the brain physically changes. Areas associated with that skill become larger, just as a muscle grows with exercise. The goal of practice doesn’t just involve a cognitive insight into impermanence or non-self, but requires that we strengthen our “muscles” of kindness and compassion. I’d encourage you, then, to develop these qualities on the cushion and in daily life. If we do that, then insight, when it arrives, is more likely to be an astonishing, liberating, and joyful surprise, and less likely to be a disorienting, upsetting, and painful shock to the system.

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Insight is not enough

flower

These days there’s an increasing interest in gaining insight. (Let’s just accept the loaded word “gaining” for now.) On the whole this is a good thing. For a long time many in the West have been doubtful about whether awakening is a realistic goal. “Maybe we’re too messed up,” and “Maybe the modern world isn’t conducive to awakening,” were common doubts.

As the years have gone by, however, more and more practitioners have had insight experiences, and this has been very encouraging for others. More people now think not just that awakening is possible, but that they personally are capable of it. This is great! How can there be a downside to this?

One thing I’ve been concerned about recently is the narrowness of the goal many people set themselves. The ultimate aim of practice is often seen purely in terms of having insight into non-self. And while that is crucial to attaining the goal, simply having insights doesn’t turn you into the kind of person that the Buddha suggested we should take as our ideal. The Buddha’s concept of the ideal individual is someone who not only has insight, but who is an all-round excellent human being.

In one conversation about the ideal person, the Buddha outlines qualities such as: having calmness; being free from craving; being free of attachment to preferences, being free from fear, anger, and pride; being restrained in speech; having no longings about the future and no regrets about the past; having honesty and transparency; being free from envy; having no disdain for others; refraining from insults; and not thinking in terns of being superior, inferior, or even equal to others.

Elsewhere the Buddha talks of this ideal individual very much in terms of gentleness, kindness, and compassion. He encourages us to be the kind of person who doesn’t act in ways that cause harm to others in any way, not even indirectly, if that can at all be avoided. He also encouraged us to be good friends to each other.

This is where we should conceive of our practice leading. This is the goal we should orient our lives around.

Inherent in the Buddha’s view of the goal is that it’s not just about losing the delusion of self, or even of gaining insight. It’s also about cultivating ethical, skillful qualities—especially positive emotions. This is why the Buddhist path is usually taught as starting with training in ethics, then in meditation (including the active cultivation of kindness and compassion), and only then, finally, culminating in the development of insight.

For a small number of people, insight experiences are upsetting or even devastating, leading to a loss of meaning and a sense of despair. These cases are rare, and I don’t personally know anyone for whom this has been more than a passing disorientation before the positive aspects of insight have revealed themselves. But in the cases I’ve heard of where some kind of insight experience has lead to long-term problems, there seems to have been a narrow focus on mindfulness and insight, and a lack of emphasis on lovingkindness and compassion meditation. Many meditation teachers have an habit of trying to ignore these potential problems, but fortunately they are being studied and hopefully we’ll learn more about them in time.

One of the benefits of modern neuroscience is that we now know that as we learn a new skill, the brain physically changes. Areas associated with that skill become larger, just as a muscle grows with exercise. The goal of practice doesn’t just involve a cognitive insight into impermanence or non-self, but requires that we strengthen our “muscles” of kindness and compassion. Developing insight removes certain barriers to the arising of skillful qualities and (often) to the dropping away of some of the grossly unskillful ones, but it takes effort to actually bring about growth.

I’d encourage you, then, to develop, on the cushion and in daily life, the qualities I’ve mentioned. If we do that, then insight, when it arrives, is more likely to be an astonishing, liberating, and joyful surprise, and less likely to be a disorienting, upsetting, and painful shock to the system.

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Stepping out of compulsive thoughts, and into freedom

Gold Fish Jumping to Empty Bowl

The moment when we realize that we’ve been caught up in a distracted train of thought is a valuable opportunity to bring skillful qualities into the mind, and to cultivate insight.

This is something that’s very familiar to anyone who’s meditated. We’ll start by following the breathing, or some other object of attention, but then without our making any conscious choice to shift our focus we slip into a dream-like state in which we’re rehashing a dispute, or fantasizing about something pleasant, or worrying about some situation in our lives.

These periods of distraction can be so intense that they are like hypnotic states. They’re like dreams. They’re like mental bubbles of an internal virtual reality drama in which we’re mindlessly immersed. When we’re distracted in this way we’re in an altered state of consciousness, in which we lack self-awareness: we’re not aware we’re distracted, we’re not aware we’re fantasizing, and we’re participating in the drama of our experience but we’re no longer monitoring or observing our experience.

Especially for those who are relatively new to meditation, there can be a tendency to be disappointed, annoyed, or self-critical when we emerge from these hypnotic bubbles. But with practice we can learn to cultivate patience and kindness as we accept that the mind wanders, appreciation as we value our return to mindfulness, and persistence as we bring the mind gently back to the breathing. People who’ve been meditating for a long time can get pretty good at relating to distractions in that way. They maybe are (sometimes) a little less distracted, but they’re a lot less bothered by the distractions they do have.

But there’s one other thing that I’ve recently been bringing in to my meditation at the point where I realize that I’ve just emerged from a dream-like period of distraction. What I’ve been doing is I note the fact that the train of thought I was immersed in seemed compelling when I was, so to speak, inside it, and yet now that I’m viewing it from the outside it appears undesirable and unsatisfying.

When we’re inside these hypnotic, dream-like states, they entirely capture our attention. They hold us spellbound. They’re irresistibly compelling. And yet, when the bubble eventually bursts, I find them to be rather lame! Noticing this lameness helps me to stay more disengaged from them. Of course other distractions will come up, and I’ll get lost in those too, but noticing the unsatisfactoriness of my distractions immediately after they’re over helps my mindfulness to have more momentum. I feel clearer. Sharper. More empowered. More content.

And just as my distractions appear more unsatisfactory, so the simple richness of my present-moment experience seems even more satisfying by contrast. I realize that this is where I want to stay. The calmness seems calmer. The body feels more alive. Yes, this is home.

Observing the unsatisfactoriness of our distractions also works with the less compelling thoughts that flit through the mind without causing us to lose our mindfulness altogether. We can watch them go by and realize that they have nothing to offer us but disappointment and frustration.

This practice is one of “noting” the characteristic (lakkhana) of dukkha (which can mean unsatisfactoriness, suffering, or even pain.) It seems to fit rather neatly with verse 278 of the Dhammapada: “All fabricated states of mind [sankharas] are unsatisfactory [dukkha]. When one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering [dukkha].”

The word dukkha is used in two senses here. First, our distractions (sankharas, or “fabricated states of mind”) are seen as unsatisfactory. Second, seeing the unsatisfactoriness of our distracted states of mind — craving, irritation, anxiety, avoidance, doubt — helps us to turn away from the dukkha (suffering) that these kinds of thoughts give rise to. For all of these distractions have the effect of reducing our levels of well-being.

And so, seeing that our distractions are unsatisfying—indeed are incapable of providing real satisfaction—we turn away from the suffering they bring. Noting the unsatisfactoriness of our distractions is, in fact, an insight practice. It takes us closer to awakening.

I’ve suggest trying this practice for yourself. Very simply, just notice, as you emerge from each distraction, how the train of thought appears to you now. Does it seem alluring? Does it seem unpleasant? Is it something in between?

Do note that there may be some part of your mind that is still drawn to the distraction. This isn’t surprising, since moments before you’d been entirely absorbed and seduced. But on the whole you may find yourself turning away from the distraction, seeing it as it really is — unsatisfying. And you may find yourself, unexpectedly, with a fuller appreciation of the present moment.

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What is insight practice?

reality

What is insight practice? Before answering that question, let’s back up a little and ask, “What is the Buddha’s teaching, or Dharma, essentially about?”

Dharma is about attaining freedom from suffering. All Buddhist practice has this aim.

There are of course many different kinds of Dharma practice. To use a classical model, there is 1) ethical practice, 2) meditative practice, and 3) wisdom practice. These all work in different ways to reduce our suffering.

Ethical practice makes us look at what we do and say, with an eye to whether, in the long term, we are causing ourselves and others suffering. So we train ourselves not to cause physical harm, not to deprive others of their property, not to sexually harm or exploit them, not to lie or speak unkindly to them, and not to suppress our ethical sensibility with drugs and alcohol. These are the five precepts of Buddhism.

Meditative practice helps us cultivate the mindfulness we need in order to observe how our patterns of thought can cause suffering—for ourselves, yes, but for others too as our thoughts are expressed in words and actions. It also helps us to develop qualities such as kindness and compassion, which help both to eradicate emotions such as anger and cruelty that cause harm, and to create positive states of wellbeing, fulfillment, and happiness.

For a long time, most of our practice might necessarily be focused on becoming more ethical in our daily lives and on cultivating skillful qualities such as mindfulness and kindness. In general this makes us happier. But there’s a limit to how far we can go in the direction of cultivating happiness through becoming more skillful. There are deeper factors at work than our relatively superficial (and yet still deep-rooted) emotional and behavioral habits. We can knock down weeds, but unless we uproot them they’ll keep growing back.

This is because the very way in which we interpret our experience is flawed, Buddhism tells us. Our perceptions are distorted. This doesn’t mean that we’re literally subject to, for example, optical delusions. It’s not that a person you’re looking at is really a cat or an alien, or that their hair looks brown but is really green. It’s that the way we interpret our experience is frequently mistaken.

For example, we assume that things (ourselves included) are more stable and reliable than they actually are. So we might assume unconsciously that our parents, or we ourselves, will live forever. We might assume that some painful feeling we have is going to be with us permanently. This creates suffering.

We assume that happiness comes from setting up a constant stream of pleasant experiences while keeping at bay unpleasant experiences. And yet since we can’t control the world, this is simply unattainable.

We assume that we are more separate from the world, and from other beings in the world, than we actually are. Thinking of ourselves as separate we may act as if a concern for our own wellbeing can be separated from our concern for the wellbeing of others: that we can be happy by simply focusing on ourselves.

Insight practice challenges the delusion of permanence, the delusion that happiness can be found through grasping after pleasant and avoiding unpleasant experiences, and the delusion that we have a separate and concrete existence. It helps us to let go into freedom; to let go into reality.

You might read the words “insight practice” and think I’m talking about “insight meditation.” But practice is more than just meditation. We can cultivate insight and challenge our misperceptions in our daily activities as well as on the cushion. And so we can do so outside of meditation as well. Additionally, we should pausing from time to tome to focus on non-insight meditations, in order to remind ourselves that the goal of Buddhism is not simply one of attaining insight, but of developing kindness, compassion, and moral excellence.

We’re going to take one of those pauses right now. So to get started with meditation, let’s begin with a simple mindfulness of breathing—something to help us calm, focus, and steady the mind so that we can see beyond our delusions.

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“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” — St. Julian of Norwich

This was revealed to St. Julian by Jesus in a vision, and recorded by her in her Revelations of Divine Love: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” These words have been of great comfort to me in times of stress and anxiety.

Meditation practice can reduce, but doesn’t erase, anxiety. In fact meditating makes us more sensitive to what’s going on within us, both emotionally and physically. When we meditate we feel more. Meditating can also lead to us being more present with those feelings, so rather than than avoid or bury them we experience them full-on. In these ways, meditation can cause our anxiety to be stronger!

If this sounds like bad news, it should be balanced by the fact that meditation also gives us the ability to stand back from our anxiety and to befriend it, so that it becomes less threatening and is less likely to lead to worry.

(What’s the difference between anxiety and worry? I see anxiety as being an initial unpleasant feeling in the body, produced by parts of the brain that are not accessible to conscious awareness. Worry, on the other hand, is where the mind responds to this initial unpleasant feeling with a succession of “what if” thoughts, that again and again turn toward what we’re anxious about, and in doing so intensify our anxiety.)

Sometimes I can be with my anxiety mindfully. I can accept it. I can recognize that I don’t have to turn it into worry. And to prevent my mind getting caught up in worrying thoughts, I can keep myself grounded in my experience of the body. I can especially be aware of sensations low down in the body, like the movements of the belly or sensations of contact with the ground, my seat, or whatever else is physically supporting me. I can relax the physical tension that accompanies anxiety and worry by really letting go on the out-breath. I can offer my anxiety (or the anxious part of my mind) reassurance and kindness. I can say to it, “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be at peace.” The point here is not to make the anxiety go away, but to be a compassionate presence for it while it’s in existence.

But there are times when I turn to those words of St. Julian (or of Jesus, depending on your perspective).

One thing they remind me of is that all things pass. I’ve had intense worries in the past. I remember one time being in utter despair because of financial problems (although really those fears were more to do with concern that I wouldn’t get support from others). I even had some suicidal thoughts, although I knew I had no intention of following through on them. But where are those particular financial problems now? The debt I was struggling with at that time has just gone. (I may have new debts, but they are new, and not a continuation of the same problem I had before.) Where is the isolation that I feared before? That’s gone too. Where is the anxiety I experienced in the past? It’s no more than a memory, and not even a very vivid one. I can recall feeling despair, but in recollecting it I feel compassion for my old self rather than falling into despondent once again. The past is gone. Memories are just thoughts. They’re like dreams or mirages.

So even though there are things going on in my life right now that prompt anxiety to arise — health concerns, housing concerns, financial concerns — I know that from the perspective of my future self they too are going to have a dream-like or mirage-like quality. And so I can remind myself, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Julian had been concerned with the question of sin: why did God allow it, since if he hadn’t then all would have been well from the beginning. The reason is to do with sin, pain, and faith. Sin, she tells us, is another kind of mirage: “I saw not sin: for I believe it hath no manner of substance nor no part of being.” She did believe that the experience of pain was real, however, even if it was impermanent. “Nor could sin be known but by the pain it is cause of. And thus pain, it is something, as to my sight, for a time.”

The value of pain, in Julian’s view, was that it could cause faith to arise. It causes us to reach out to God. Had we not had sin, and therefore not had pain, then we would, in some sense, have been god-like. And so God allowed sin.

Buddhism doesn’t use the word “sin,” but it does say that our pain is caused by spiritual ignorance. And one key manifestation of this ignorance is that we see things that “hath no manner of substance” as being real and substantial. And as in Julian’s view, it is pain (dukkha) that impels us to seek happiness and peace — that drives us toward awakening.

Julian’s view of “sin” was quite remarkable, and it would be misleading not to point out her belief that because God allowed sin to exist, he therefore shows no blame to any who shall be saved. We don’t, after all, choose to have spiritual ignorance, or to be born with sin.

To Julian, “all shall be well” because we’ll find God in heaven. To me, “all shall be well” not just because pain will pass, but because we’ll awaken to the nature of reality, and will see that pain itself (such as the pain of anxiety) “hath no manner of substance.”

Anxiety isn’t just dream-like or mirage-like when we look back on it from the future. It has those illusory qualities right now, whether we see that or not. Right now, when we look closely at our anxiety, we’ll see that it’s not really there. It’s just patterns of sensation in space. When we can see our experience in that way, then “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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The holographic dinosaur; or, How fear is an illusion

You’re walking down a busy shopping street, and you hear panicked screaming. You turn to see what the fuss is, and behind a fleeing crowd you see something impossible: a velociraptor. It’s snarling and roaring, turning its head from side to side as it follows the hysterical populace, almost as if it’s herding them. Perhaps it is.

You panic. Before you even realize you’re doing it, you’re sprinting to the doorway of the nearest shop. Fortunately velociraptors, as is well known, are not good with door handles. As long as you get through that doorway you’ll be all right.

Safe behind the protection of the shop window, you watch people on the street fleeing the fearsome creature.

But then you notice a curious thing: the velociraptor doesn’t actually seem to be harming anyone. And anyway, a velociraptor? They’ve been extinct for millions of years! Surely it’s some kind of trick? A joke. A stunt. Still feeling terrified, but convinced there’s more to this than meets the eye, you step back into the street and approach the animal. It certainly looks very real. It’s not someone in a suit. There are no dangling power cords. It doesn’t seem to be mechanical.

The velociraptor stares at you. Your heart pounds. You take a wary step forward. It snarls. You reach toward it, almost close enough to touch its feathery skin. At the very point when your fingers should encounter solid flesh, you feel — nothing. Precisely nothing. Your hand passes right into the velociraptor. Fascinated, you realize that it must be some kind of holographic projection. There was never any danger. In a way there was never anything to fear.

We’ll come back to that a little later…

Over the years I’ve taken many different approaches to feelings, or vedanas, as they’re called in Buddhism. I’ve written about these a lot, but for the sake of a quick recap, vedanas are internal, self-generated sensations — pleasant or unpleasant (or also, to be complete, neutral) that we have in response to things we’ve perceived or thought about. They often manifest in the solar plexus or around the heart. They result from the activation of nerve endings. They’re also involuntary — they’re not under conscious control. In my view they include things like frustration, ease, anxiety, joy, disgust, and pleasant anticipation.

At first I didn’t acknowledge vedanas, but would simply react to them. If I saw someone acting in a way I didn’t like, for example being greedy, I might feel the vedana of disgust, and then immediately react with anger, accompanied with critical thoughts. (The anger and the thoughts are cetanas, or volitions. They are under conscious control, at least potentially.)

Later I learned to identify and pay more attention to them, so that a “gap” would appear in which I could act more creatively — not reacting with anger or craving, for example, but instead with patience or kindness. Not that I do this all the time, but I do at those times when I’m most mindful. When we’re mindful of our feelings and create this gap, more helpful volitional responses have a chance to arise.

Later still I recognized that these feelings were often forms of suffering, and so I’d use them as a basis for self-compassion, sending them thoughts of lovingkindness, just as I would to a person who was in pain. This was the most radical practice I’d ever done. It literally changed my life, and freed me from a lot of suffering. Practicing self-compassion also made it much easier for me to practice compassion toward others.

More recently I realized there was another way to look at these feelings, which is where our holographic dinosaur comes in.

In the last few months I’ve realized that feelings are an illusion. When something like anxiety arises (and believe me, I’ve had ample opportunity to be mindful of anxiety in the past couple of years) I turn toward it — as I’ve done in the past. And I regard it with compassion rather than fear (or with not much fear). But now I really look at it. And what do I find? I see a constellation of sensations, hanging in space. There’s nothing substantial. There’s nothing solid. And there’s nothing to be afraid of. If anything, the experience of anxiety, closely examined, is a source of beauty, delight, and wonder.

You’ve probably noticed the connection with the holographic velociraptor. It appears to be solid, and it appears to be scary. But there’s nothing there. When we touch the hologram, or attempt to, there’s a sense of joy, wonder, fascination. That’s what examining anxiety is like for me now.

I’m still caught out by anxiety and fear. Even if you know that at some point a velociraptor is going to appear from nowhere and charge at you, and even if you know that this creature is a harmless hologram, it’s still freaking scary when it does appear. You still jump out of your skin.

So when I wake at two AM, with the realization that I may be homeless and bankrupt early next year, and my heart’s pounding and my head’s racing, it all feels very real — as when we would experience panic when a velociraptor lunges at us from a dark alley, even though we know on some level that the animal isn’t real. But then, after that momentary and visceral panic has arisen, more reflective parts of the brain kick in, I turn toward the anxiety, and it’s revealed once more to be an illusion.

So I’d encourage you to turn toward your fears, and so examine them closely. What sensations are actually present? How are they changing, moment by moment? Keep doing this, and you’ll discover that the experience of anxiety is like a holographic projection.

I’m not saying that if you do this you’ll find that your anxiety is instantly revealed to be illusory. Perhaps your relationship with vedanas will have to evolve in the same way mine did. Perhaps it’ll take years. But as with many hard-won fruits of practice, I look at what I see now and think that this realization might have come more quickly had someone pointed it out to me earlier. (Maybe they did, and I didn’t take it on board.) And so I offer this in case it saves you some time, and speeds up the evolution of your practice. Maybe it makes no sense to you at the moment. But perhaps one day it’ll fall into place, and you’ll realize your fears to be illusions.

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The Third Noble Truth – the Noble Truth of the end of suffering

photo of standing buddha, with one hand held out in a gesture of fearlessness

The Third Noble Truth comes directly from the Second one: The end of suffering comes with the end of clinging.

As Achaan Chah said, “If you let go a little, you’ll have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you’ll have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely . . . you’ll be completely happy.”

You can do this at the macro level, in letting go regarding lights turning green, or payments arriving, or your teenage children giving you a hug. Sure, you’d like things to turn out well, and that’s fine. You take practical steps toward them turning out well, and that’s also fine. But you can simultaneously have a peaceful, accepting attitude about however it turns out.

And you can let go – practicing non-clinging – most fundamentally at the micro level, with moment to moment experience.

For example, when you observe your experience, you will see that there is always a feeling tone automatically associated with it – a tone of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. That tone – called “feeling” in the Pali Canon (distinct from emotions) – usually triggers craving, which is the seed of clinging.

But if you can simply be mindful of the feeling tone without reacting to it – then you can break the chain of suffering!

In the short-term, we can’t do much about the feeling tone. So you’re not trying to change the feeling tone itself. But you are trying to not react to it via one form of clinging or another.

The epitome of non-clinging is equanimity — which is not, according to a teacher, U Pandita, “. . . insensitivity, indifference, or apathy. It is simply nonpreferential. . . . One does not push aside the things one dislikes or grasp at the things one prefers.”

He goes on to say:

“The way to bring about equanimity is wise attention: to be continually mindful from moment to moment, without a break, based on the intention to develop equanimity. . .

In the deepest forms of insight, we see that things change so quickly that we can’t hold onto anything, and eventually the mind lets go of clinging. Letting go brings equanimity; the greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity. . . .

Freedom comes when we begin to let go of our reactive tendencies. . . .

In Buddhist practice, we work to expand the range of life experiences in which we are free.”

When we do this, much of what we see is how we fall away from equanimity, from perfect balance, again and again. But seeing that ever more deeply and precisely . . . slowly but surely helps us tip over less often.

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