vipassana

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.

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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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What to do when you feel unloved

lonely tree

Someone recently wrote to me, saying that she was lonely and felt unloved, and wondering whether the metta bhavana practice (the meditation for developing kindness) would help. I thought I’d paraphrase and expand on what I’d said to her.

The metta bhavana practice can certainly help with feelings of loneliness. In particular, self-metta and self-compassion — showing ourselves the same kindness, support, and encouragement that we show to others that we care about — would be helpful.

Think about that thought, “No one loves me.” You might say things like that to yourself, but would you tell a friend who was lonely, “No one loves you”? How would that make her feel? Would it help her? I’m guessing the answers are “no,” “terrible,” and “of course not.”

So why do this to yourself? When you’re lonely, why not treat yourself as you would a dear friend who was experiencing the same thing. What might you say to such a friend? Perhaps you’d say things like, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. It sounds really painful. I just want you to know that I’m here for you, and that I care about you.”

How might that make you feel? Better?

Treating ourselves with kindness and compassion reduces our suffering. It doesn’t necessarily make it go away—nor should it—but it makes it more bearable. And in the case of loneliness, this helps free us up to connect more with others, and to care more about them. And that can replace our sense of loneliness with a sense of connectedness.

Going further, cultivating kindness for others and then putting it into practice through acts of caring and kindness (without expecting anything in return) will help you to feel more connected. For example, we could express appreciation or offer support when someone feels down. If we take a genuine interest in that person’s wellbeing, then we’ll be more emotionally connected. If, however, we do those same things with the assumption, “I’m doing something nice for them, so now they should do something nice for me, and then I’ll feel good about myself,” you’re still acting in a self-absorbed way, and you’ll perpetuate your loneliness.

Breaking out of self-absorption is painful, because part of your brain thinks that obsessively telling stories will help you, and it therefore sees dropping the story as a threat. So if it feels uncomfortable when you try to take a genuine interest in others, that’s OK.

My main teacher, Sangharakshita, said that when we feel unhappy, we should do something for another person. Most forms of intense unhappiness are self-absorbed; we get so caught up in our own suffering that we don’t make an effort to connect with others. And when our suffering comes from loneliness, we end up exacerbating our isolation by withdrawing our interest in others. Our suffering isolates us. The way we respond to our suffering isolates us more.

The solution to loneliness is not as simple as “getting out more.” Most people who are lonely feel that way even when they’re surrounded by other people. Loneliness is being emotionally disconnected from others.

My correspondent said that she “felt unloved.” “Unloved,” however, is not a feeling, but a thought or story. A feeling is a sensation in the body. When we’re lonely, we have sensations such as heaviness or an ache around the heart, low energy, etc. “No one loves me,” or “I am unloved” is not a sensation, but a story. It’s something we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our feelings.

It’s vital to distinguish between actual feelings and stories that we use to explain those feelings—because our stories can either reinforce or reduce unpleasant feelings. You might feel lonely or sad or hurt, but you tell yourself that you are unloved, that no one cares, etc., and this makes you miserable. Becoming aware that you’re telling these stories, and that they’re unhelpful because they make you feel worse, is a valuable practice, because whether we take a thought seriously is something we have a choice over. We can also deliberately cultivate more useful thoughts, such as the self-kindness and self-compassion thoughts I suggested earlier.

We need to accept feelings of loneliness. One of the stories we tell ourselves is that if we’re lonely, there’s something wrong with us. We’re defective. But in feeling lonely, you’re showing that you’re a perfectly functional human being! We’re social animals. We’re designed to feel pain when we’re not connected in a web of empathy. Your feeling of loneliness is just a signal that your mind is sending, telling you that you need to connect. Feeling lonely is normal.

Being caught up in thoughts actually prevents us from really seeing our feelings of loneliness. When we drop the story and turn toward our feelings, what do we find? We find sensations in the body. We find sensations that we experience as emptiness, darkness, heaviness, and so on. Maybe the feelings are painful, but also beautiful, warm and intimate. Maybe they’re tender. Maybe they’re tingling, like twinkling energy in space. Maybe they’re mysterious and intriguing. Maybe they’re no longer scary, but contribute to a sense of our aliveness. Can you say “yes” to these feelings? Can you allow them to just be?

Empathizing with ourselves in this way opens the way for us to empathize with others.

If loneliness is a lack of felt connection with others, then perhaps we need to connect with ourselves in order to move past feeling lonely. Connect kindly and compassionately with your loneliness, and it will connect you with others.

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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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“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.)

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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.

Exploring the Thing That Scares You

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. There was never really anything to fear.

We’ll come back to that a little later…

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Ways to Approach Feelings (Vedana)

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 volition. They are under conscious control, at least potentially.)

Discovering the Gap

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.

Regarding Painful Feelings With Self-Compassion

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.

Seeing Feelings As Illusory

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. But then you realize there’s another way to look at your fears.

Turning Toward Fears, and Seeing Through Them

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.

Keep Practicing

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 Buddha’s radical path of jhana

buddha statue

Jhāna — a progressive series of meditative states of absorption — is a strangely controversial topic in Buddhism. I say “strangely,” because it’s rather amazing given that the Buddhist scriptures emphasize jhāna so strongly, that there should be anything controversial about deeper meditative absorption.

In the Eightfold Path, Right Concentration is consistently defined as the four jhānas. The Buddha said things like, “There is no jhāna for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks jhāna.” The jhānas are enumerated over and over again in the Pāli scriptures. They’re also implicit in teachings like the Seven Bojjhaṅgas, the 12 positive nidānas, and the Ānāpānasati Sutta, which mention various of the jhāna factors.

Despite the scriptural importance of jhāna, some teachers, like Thich Nhat Hanh, have argued that jhāna was something that the Buddha rejected, and that it was smuggled into the suttas after the Buddha’s death:

The Four Form Jhānas and the Four Formless Jhānas are states of meditational concentration which the Buddha practiced with teachers such as Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, and he rejected them as not leading to liberation from suffering. These states of concentration probably found their way back into the sutras around two hundred years after the Buddha passed into mahāparinirvāna. The results of these concentrations are to hide reality from the practitioner, so we can assume that they shouldn’t be considered Right Concentration. (Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, page 29)

The specifics of this objection are interesting because they contain some fundamental misunderstandings, and I’d like to explore in this article the topic of the relationship of the so-called “formless jhānas” (I’ll explain that qualification in due course) to the “jhānas of form,” and the role of these “formless jhānas” in the Buddha’s biography — specifically his training under Ālāra and Uddaka, and the Buddha’s later realization that jhāna was the “path to Awakening.”

First, there’s the assumption that Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha the four jhānas. Now, the Buddha never mentions that he learned or practiced the jhānas with his two teachers. He says that he learned to attain the “sphere of nothingness” (ākiñcañña-āyatana — I prefer “no-thingness” as a translation) from Ālāra Kalama, and the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññānāsañña-āyatana) from Uddaka Ramaputta. (Uddaka had apparently not experienced this himself, and was merely passing on Rama’s teaching).

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“But,” many Buddhists will object, “if Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha how to attain these spheres, then they must also have taught the Buddha how to attain jhāna, since these spheres are the seventh and eighth jhānas — part of the four ‘formless jhānas’ that follow on from the four ‘jhānas of form.'” (The first two “formless jhānas” are the sphere of infinite space and the sphere of infinite consciousness.) But this is the very error that I am keen to address.

The suttas never refer to any “formless jhānas.” What are nowadays called the “formless jhānas” are in fact never referred to as jhānas in the scriptures, but are referred to consistently as “āyatanas” or “spheres.” It’s only in the later commentarial tradition that the two lists are presented as one continuous list of “eight jhānas.” They should really be known as “formless spheres.”

Now this is important, because the four formless spheres are in fact not jhānas at all. Many meditators have discovered that it’s possible to experience these formless spheres without having first gone through the jhānas. There has been much confusion for some who have had such experiences, because the assumption that the āyatanas can’t be experienced without first having traversed the jhānas is so prevalent. I am in fact one of the many people who has experienced that confusion.

There are suttas in which there is reference to experiencing the āyatanas without first going through the jhānas. Most people would tend to assume that in these suttas the jhānas are assumed, without being mentioned explicitly, but there’s no need to make that assumption, and experience shows it to be false. Certain forms of meditation predispose to direct experience of the āyatanas. Suttas discussing the six element practice and the divine abidings show those meditations leading directly to the formless spheres. I don’t disagree that it’s possible to reach the āyatanas via the jhānas, but there are other ways.

The fact that it’s possible to reach the formless spheres without going through the jhānas helps us make sense of an important episode in the Buddha’s life. In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta the Buddha described how he intuited, prior to his enlightenment, that jhāna was “the way to Awakening”:

I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhāna, with rapture and joy born from seclusion, accompanied by initial thought and sustained thought. Could that be the way to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the way to Awakening.’

That’s a strong statement. The Buddha had not just a hunch, or an idea, but an actual realization that jhāna is the way to Awakening.

Now, many people have struggled to make sense of this episode. The Buddha had previously attained the seventh and eighth “jhānas” (in reality the third and fourth āyatanas) under Uddaka and Ālāra’s instructions, so how could a memory of first jhāna be so significant in pointing the way to Awakening? All sorts of explanations for this apparent contradiction have been made, but the simplest is one that may be least obvious: that the Buddha had not in fact previously explored the jhānas with Ālāra and Uddaka, and that he had explored the āyatanas through means other than by going through the jhānas. Confusion arises because we’re so conditioned by the commentarial belief that to enter the āyatanas we must first go through the jhānas, that we assume that the Buddha must have had experience of the jhānas.

I see the jhānas and the āyatanas arising in different ways. Jhāna involves paying more and more attention to less and less. In going deeper into jhāna we progressively “tune out” first our thinking, then the pleasurable sensations that arise in the body as we relax, and finally joy. This leaves only one-pointed attention on an object of attention, accompanied by a sense of great peace. Jhāna is a form of progressive simplification — more and more attention being focused on a smaller and smaller subset of our experience.

The āyatanas involve the opposite approach. Rather than “homing in” our attention so that it’s focused on less and less of our experience, we allow our attention to be all-inclusive, excluding nothing from our awareness. Speaking of my own practice, when I enter the āyatanas, what I do is pay full attention to all of my experience: that which arises from within (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) and that which arises from outside (light, sound, space, etc.). I then maintain an awareness of both of these fields of experience, finding a point of balance of inner and outer. AS that balance is maintained, the mind becomes very still. At a certain point, the boundary between “inside” and “outside” is lost, and there is simply a single field of awareness. This process is speeded up if I consciously focus on the supposed boundary between inside and outside. In meditation this boundary is perceived to be very fuzzy, and in fact, the closer you look at it the less it seems to exist. Later, other distinctions are lost as well, and there is a loss of the sense that the body has a three dimensional orientation in space.

In the suttas, all of the entry points to the āyatanas have one thing in common: equanimity. The jhānas culminate in an experience of equanimity; having narrowed down our experience and brought the mind to a state of peace, we then broaden our experience once again and enter the formless spheres. (Or so I am told; I have never entered the formless spheres this way.) The fourth divine abiding is of course equanimity, which is also a springboard to an experience of the āyatanas. And the sutta describing the six element practice says that it beings the mind to equanimity and thus into the āyatanas. The formless spheres can be experienced from any meditation that brings about a state of tranquil equanimity.

The Buddha experienced the formless spheres to the furthest possible extent, but he didn’t manage to become enlightened by so doing. Instead, he intuited, jhāna was a more likely route to spiritual liberation. Why should this be? We can only speculate, but my sense is that the teachings of Ālāra and Uddaka explained the āyatanas in terms of unifying oneself with the wider universe. In the āyatanas, certain discriminative faculties — those that produce a sense of spacial separateness — are progressively shut down. (These faculties are a function of the brain’s parietal lobes, which become less active in non-dual meditation.) This sense of religious union would fit with pre-Buddhist views of there being an atman (Self) that is part of a larger “Brahman” (a cosmic reality). Ālāra and Uddaka may not have used those precise terms, but a sense of unity with the cosmos is a common religious trope, and it’s reasonable to assume that they saw that experience as the desired outcome of practice.

What does jhāna do? What is its function? It allows us to focus in exquisite detail on minute aspects of our experience. And that allows us to see that everything that constitutes the self — or what we take to be the self — is in fact an experience that is changing moment by moment. By repeating this minute examination of our experience, we come to the realization that there is no possibility of there being a separate self that needs to be unified with the cosmos.

The Buddha in fact was fond of saying:

I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering and stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.

Although we would often like the Buddha to be like a modern scientist, in some important respects he wasn’t. He didn’t seem particularly interested in what we would think of “cosmic” questions, and in fact saw them as distractions from the spiritual life. After all, at the Buddha’s time, when it came to questions of whether the universe was finite or infinite, had a beginning or was eternal, etc., there was no possibility of doing more than speculating. These cosmic topics are all matters that the Buddha thought of as being useless subjects for discussion. Rather than indulging in speculation, he preferred to put his attention onto matters where he could have knowledge arising from direct observation. In that regard he did, in an important sense, take a scientific approach. And his work was akin to that of a scientist who finds that in order to understand the nature of stars, we must look at how subatomic particles behave. The way to understand our place in the cosmos, the Buddha was suggesting, is to examine ourselves. And this is what jhāna allows us to do. Jhāna supports insight.

In the Buddha’s view, samatha (the cultivation of the jhānas) and vipassanā (the cultivation of insight) were not mutually exclusive or antagonistic activities, which is how they are sometimes seen today. In the Samaññaphala Sutta, for example, the Buddha describes the practitioner moving deeper into the jhānas and then, “With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision.” Jhāna makes it easier for the mind to observe impermanence through minute examination of our experience, and thus makes it easier for insight to arise. Conversely, insight also makes it easier for jhāna to arise, and so he says elsewhere, “There’s no jhāna For one with no wisdom (pañña), No wisdom for one with no jhaāna).” Samatha and vipassanā are complementary and synergistic.

If you want to know your place in the universe, it may seem intuitively obvious that you need to reflect on (or speculate on) the universe. So it was a radical departure on the Buddha’s part to withdraw from speculation on the universe, and to turn his attention inwards. It was also a radical departure for him to turn away from the experience of the formless spheres, which bring about a temporary sense of unification of self and cosmos, but which do not entirely remove our self-clinging. It was a massive leap of intuitive wisdom for the Buddha to arrive at the conclusion, “Jhāna is the way to Awakening.”

But why, having failed to gain insight through the āyatanas, should the Buddha have kept them as part of his teaching? Wouldn’t it make more sense to jettison the formless spheres and focus exclusively on the jhānas? I see two possible reasons for him doing this.

First, the assumptions that Ālāra and Uddaka made about the āyatanas (that they were an experience of a permanent self uniting with the universe) may have been the main reason that the Buddha didn’t find them conducive to insight, assuming, as is likely, that he’d picked up on the same assumptions. Stripped of those assumptions, experience of the formless spheres, he may have reckoned, may be more spiritually useful.

Second, the experience of the āyatanas, even if it doesn’t lead directly to insight, does a valuable job in changing our sense of self. Learning that our sense of self is malleable may not directly help us to lose our attachment to that self, but it does help us to loosen such attachments. There can be less grasping after something that is fluid and malleable rather than something that is solid. Experience of the āyatanas helps us to appreciate that our sense of self is not fixed, but can be dramatically different than it normally is. In my own experience, the altered states of self-perception that I experienced in the formless spheres did seem to have a bearing on my later experience of non-self.

A parallel is to be found in that way that experience of psychedelic drugs has brought many people to Dharma practice. Having had the experience that their “normal” sense of reality is just one possible configuration of their experience can lead some to wonder what other modes of perception there might be. Psychedelics have even been used experimentally to help treat anxiety and depression — conditions that tend to involve a very fixed sense of self — sometimes bringing about long-term positive change very rapidly.

So, the Buddha had no formal experience of the jhānas until shortly before his awakening. He had not been trained in the jhānas by Ālā ra and Uddaka, although he did have extensive experience of the āyatanas. The intuition that jhāna might be the way to Awakening was the beginning of a process whereby he began to explore his experience in minute detail, learning to observe its impermanence. And it was through this means that he became Awakened.

It’s time to lay aside the notion that the āyatanas are jhānas, and that they can only be experienced by traversing the jhānas. It’s time also to lay aside the very non-traditional notion that the samatha (cultivating the jhānas) and vipassanā (cultivating insight) are mutually antagonistic activities, and to recognize them as synergistic parts of one path.

And lastly, it’s time to recognize the radicalness of the Buddha’s decision to turn his attention away from meditations that lead to an apparent unity of the self with the cosmos, the radicalness of using jhāna to hone the mind into a powerful focused instrument, and even the radicalness of refusing to settle for the blissful and peaceful experiences that arise in jhāna, so that he could enter into a minute examination of the nature of his experience and find that there was, in a sense, no self there.

Rather than jhāna acting to “hide reality from the practitioner,” as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, it is jhāna that allows us to lay reality bare, so that we may attain awakening.

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On doing a variety of practices

Sometimes I have meditation students who have problems learning a particular meditation technique because it appears to be fundamentally different — even contradictory — to other approaches to meditating that they’ve learned.

In fact, I’ve had experiences myself that are similar in some ways to this. I once went on a retreat run by teachers who have a different approach to me in order to learn more about their techniques and perspectives, and I found that some of the things they said plunged me into doubt and confusion — and aversion.

I found myself in my meditation continually arguing about things that they had said and about how I thought they made no sense. There was one statement in particular that I thought was contrary to the Buddha’s teaching. A teacher said, “In vipassana we don’t try to get rid of the hindrances” — the hindrances being a traditional classification of distracted states of aversion, craving, and confusion. This threw me into turmoil for two days! I kept thinking of all the suttas (discourses of the Buddha) where he talks about the necessity of overcoming the hindrances. In the face of this (and other teachings), the advice not to try to rid the mind of the hindrances seemed positively un-Buddhist.

This turmoil went on until I had a chance to talk to the teacher who had made this statement. And when I told her I was confused, she replied, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that — it’s just something I say to the beginners.” The intention was to help beginners not to see it as “bad” that they were experiencing the hindrances: to help them avoid the trap of developing aversion to the hindrances and trying to push them away or suppress them.

So sometimes these confusions are apparent, and if you dig deeper you find that two seemingly different approaches aren’t as different as they might seem.

Other times meditation practices may actually be based on quite different premises. There are practices where you’re very definitely trying to bring particular states into being. For example you may be cultivating lovingkindness in the metta bhavana. There are other practices in which you may be just allowing your experience to arise, without interfering with anything. Those are very different approaches, but it’s not that one or the other is wrong: they’re just different tools.

When we cling to the idea that there’s one “right” way to meditate, and that new approaches are “wrong,” this isn’t very helpful. If you hear anyone saying that there’s only one way to meditate, I suspect they’re misinformed, caught up in clinging, or selling something.

The Buddha taught many different meditations: anapanasati (mindful breathing meditation) leading to jhana, meditations leading to the formless spheres, metta bhavana and the other brahmaviharas, six element reflection (and four- and five-element reflections), simply paying attention to the impermanence of our experience in meditation, etc. He taught visualization practices. He offered us a rich tool box of approaches to working with our experience.

These approaches are all valid and complementary, and the practice of one can enhance the experience of the others.

Some people might argue that in doing a number of meditation practices you’re digging many shallow wells rather than one deep well. But since meditation practices are different tools meant to accomplish specific tasks, it’s more like using a variety of tools to dig one deep well. Sometimes you need a shovel, sometimes you need a pickax, sometimes you might need a pry-bar, sometimes you need to take a rest (that’s a tool, too). You’re taking many different approaches — but to one end. There’s really only one task.

There are just two things I would add to this. One is that we need to be clear what the task is; what is the well you’re digging? And second, we need to use the right tool, or combination of tools.

That task, the well we’re digging through Buddhist meditation practice, is what I call “unselfing.” Any practice you’re doing is reducing the sense of having a fixed and separate self that leads us into suffering. Some of the approaches are “samatha” (i.e. they’re aimed at developing and strengthening positive qualities such as mindfulness and lovingkindness) and some are “vipassana” (i.e. they’re aimed at changing, on a fundamental level, how we see ourselves and our relation to the world) but all meditation practices involve unselfing.

Simply paying attention to your breathing — letting go of distractions as they arise and returning over and over to the breathing — unselfs us by quieting the constant thoughts we have that involve comparison, aversion, and clinging (activities that reinforce out sense of self).

Cultivating lovingkindness unselfs us by expanding our sense of concern beyond ourselves and into the lives of others, so that we see others’ joy and pain as being part of our concern. In a way we expand our sense of self, and thus dilute it.

Six element meditation unselfs us by helping us to see that there is no separate self. We’re not physically separate from the world, so there’s physically no “me.” Our consciousness is also not separate from the world either. There’s nothing to grasp onto; there’s not even a “me” to do any grasping.

“Just sitting” practices that lead to experiences of non-duality lead to unselfing by reducing our sense of separation.

Any meditation in which we’re observing the arising and passing of our experience is likewise unselfing. We train ourselves to see more and more clearly that there is no part of “us” that is stable. How, therefore, can there be a stable, static, separate self?

So we need to have a coherent sense of what it is that we’re actually doing. Deep down, there’s no conflict between these practices, because they’re all unselfing. Because the practices I do are all doing the same thing, but in different ways, they’re all complementing each other.

Then there’s a question of which tools to use, and in which combinations. For me, some form of mindfulness of breathing and some form of developing lovingkindness or compassion are crucial. These two practices are complementary to each other, and also essential. We need mindfulness. We need lovingkindness. And this may be all we do for a few years.

But eventually some form of vipassana approach is necessary as well, whether it’s six element meditation or simply observing the impermanence, non-self, or unsatisfactoriness of our experience (or doing all three).

I’m not too good at dealing with complexity, so two or three regular practices is about all I can manage, although when I’m on retreat I’m happy to explore other approaches. But I’d guess that for most experienced meditators something like three to four practices is enough to be getting on with. Precisely which ones

You may find it’s useful to have a schedule, and to plan out what practice you’re going to do on any given day: body scan on Monday, Mindfulness of Breathing on Tuesday, Metta Bhavana on Wednesday, etc. That might give your mind permission to be content with what you’re doing on any particular day. Or if you don’t suffer from the torment of not knowing which practice to do, you can just play it by ear. At times you might have to be disciplined so that you don’t avoid a practice you don’t think your “good at.” Other times you need to give yourself the flexibility to work on what needs to be worked on.

So to cut a long story short: don’t assume there’s only one right way to meditation. Be clear about what the well is that you’re digging, and see how the various tools available to you help you to dig that well. And lastly, choose the most appropriate meditative tools, and use them as wisely as you can.

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Meditation as rehabilitation

K. Sharp, toledofreepress.com: How many of you have stepped completely outside your normal comfort zone to try something new and challenging? I recently completed a mentally and physically intense ten-day course in Vipassana meditation technique. This technique has been in practice since the time of The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. In short, its aim is to focus the mind on the true cause of suffering in order to properly understand our responses to the joys and miseries we encounter. It seeks to teach how we associate outside sensory objects as the cause of our joy or misery and so we transfer the power…

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Vocabulary refresher course in the language of mindfulness meditation

Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times: The vocabulary of meditation can be a barrier for people who feel that they’re entering a strange world, experts say. Here are some common words.

Buddha: meaning one who is awake, in Sanskrit. The Buddha was a person, not a god, who lived more than 2,000 years ago; from a privileged family, he became a seeker of truth and eventually became enlightened.

Dharma: often used to mean the teachings of Buddhism and meditation.

Mantra: a word — “om” being perhaps the most famous — repeated as a way to keep the mind focused on one spot during meditation.

Metta: loving kindness. In metta meditation, a person seeks to evoke such feelings for oneself or others independent of self-interest. Phrases such as, “May I be safe, may I be peaceful and happy,” can be repeated in the meditation.

Mindfulness: “a receptive attention to present-moment experience or attention to present-moment experience with a stance of open curiosity” (from Diana Winston of UCLA).

Transcendental meditation: a form of meditation using a mantra, introduced by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and popularized these days by such people as filmmaker David Lynch.

Vipassana: another name for insight meditation to cultivate mindfulness.

Zafu: a round cushion used for sitting during meditation.

— Mary MacVean

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Should Buddhist meditation make you happy?

Robert Wright, The Atlantic: In Early December, right before I headed off for a one-week silent meditation retreat, I encouraged readers to leave comments or questions about meditation that I could respond to upon returning.

A commenter named Jon Johanning obliged: “If you’re talking about Buddhist meditation, I’m sorry to say that you’re missing the whole point,” he wrote. He was referring to my having noted that on a previous meditation retreat I felt lousy after the first few days but great later on. He continued, “Whether you feel ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘bored’ or ‘fuzzy’ or ‘ecstatic’ or anything else in particular …

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