This is one of a series of transcripts of contemporary talks which have particularly resonated with me.
This talk was made available by Dharma Seed.
I’d like to request your attention for a little story that I will begin with and some scattered thoughts on a number of little pieces that I believe come partly from groups partly from conversations with you. And bits and pieces that I feel are useful to take note of. And I hope this all, in some magic way, comes together as a talk.
Let me start with the good bit. This is a small piece of advice on meditation. It comes from the Connected Discourses [Samyutta Nikaya]. It is a short sutta from the section on Satipaṭṭhāna, which, as I have mentioned early on in the course, is holding a lot of little nuggets. By my personal reckoning this is one of those nuggets. And I hope you’ll appreciate some of its charm, but also some of its practical value.
There is a frame story to this story. So the actual teaching has a narrative frame. The narrative frame I will spare reading this to you. The narrative frame is that the venerable Ānanda, a great champion of the nuns, goes and visits the nuns and seeks out their quarters. And they expect him and he generally would be expected to deliver some teaching and respond to some of their needs. And then the nuns, contrary to what is expected, when Ānanda has taken his seat, quite confidently indicate, “There are here, Ānanda, Sir, a number of nuns who abide with minds well established in the four foundations of mindfulness. Their understanding is becoming ever greater and more excellent.”
The English tones it a little down. In the Palī, actually, it becomes obvious that these nuns have realizations, that they have very good Samādhi, and basically that they start to begin to see some colors.
Ānanda very soberly says, “So it is, Sisters. So it is. Indeed, for anybody, Sisters, whether monk or nun, who abides with a mind well established in the foundations of mindfulness,” (this is what we call The Establishments of Mindfulness), “it is to be expected that their understanding becomes ever greater and ever more excellent.” Then Ānanda gives a talk and goes.
Goes to the Buddha, tells him the whole story. The Buddha then approves of his response and elaborates. This is the piece that is the crucial story here. And the Buddha says “Here, Ānanda, a practitioner abides contemplating body as body. Ardent, fully aware, mindful, leading away the unhappiness that comes from wanting the things of the world. And for one who is abiding contemplating body as body, a bodily object, a bodily state arises. A bodily distress. Or a mental sluggishness. Or a sudden scattering of the mind in outward direction.”
Now this already I’m not sure whether you understand the weightiness of this. We are having here professional meditators, we are having a fully awakened Buddha. And one of his most dedicated disciples. And the fully awakened one tells to his dedicated disciple, in a matter of fact tone, that well intended, skilled meditators somehow suddenly falls prey to a bodily fever. Which is a polite term for sexual desire. Or that he falls prey to some awkward physical sensation that makes him uncomfortable. Or that he falls prey to mental sluggishness. Or that his mind suddenly and inexplicably is scattered outward. That alone is quite an acknowledgement from these lofty people here that are our protagonists.
What comes now is even more unexpected. “Then that practitioner should direct his mind to some satisfactory image.” This is a totally unexpected piece of advice. What we would expect is stern admonition to arouse energy and overcome the obstacles. To acknowledge wholesome intentions and back back from the path of sensory indulgence, or from even thinking about sensory indulgences, on to the straight and narrow. Or some suitable contemplation that indicates the woefulness of one’s current pursuits. Or else, at least, some kind of mindfulness advice to basically establish some perspective and just, in a quietly observant way, be with this.
But none of this is happening. We are actually told here that the practitioner should take up, this is a straight intervention technique, we should take up a Nimitta. The idea of a Nimitta is an image; Nimittas can come in all senses, but the most famous ones are visual. So images that appear in the inner eye. Sometimes the Nimitas have something to do with things that arise from the mind base. In certain traditions, a great value is given to those Nimittas, those inner images that then act as objects of unification of mind. But the word Nimitta occurs on every second page in the Palī Canon. And so the idea to reduce Nimittas to only visual meditational objects that take the mind to deeper Samādhi is a very limited interpretation. In fact, Nimittas occur in all senses. And sometimes, in this case for example, a Nimitta has almost a flavor of something being conjured up.
The meditator here is told, because he is sleepy or sluggish, because he is distracted, because he is in a state of physical discomfort, or because his mind is engaging in sensuality, the meditator here is told to seek out some pleasant, or some lovely image.
No further narrowing down of that image is given. Which has made the commentators somewhat nervous. In the Visuddhimagga text, several hundred years post-dating this text here, the commentator Buddhaghosa, one of the great icons of Theravāda commentarial redactorship, somewhat wryly says, “Well, maybe the image of the Buddha would be a suitable pleasant [image]”. One can almost discern a certain sternness in his voice and a furrowed brow when he says that. But the sutta is remarkably liberal. No further stipulations are given for this satisfactory image.
And then it continues. “When the mind is directed,” this is the key term, “to some satisfactory image, happiness is born. From this happiness, joy is born. With a joyful mind, the body relaxes. A relaxed body feels content. And with the mind of one content, one becomes unified.” One becomes concentrated. Or still.
“The practitioner then reflects, ‘The purpose for which I directed my mind has been accomplished. So now I shall withdraw my directed attention from the image.’ And, he or she withdraws and no longer thinks upon or thinks about the image. The practitioner understands, ‘I am not thinking upon or thinking about anything. Inwardly mindful, I am content. This is directed meditation. And what is undirected meditation? Not directing his mind outwards, the practitioner understands, ‘My mind is not directed outwards.’ She understands, ‘Not focused on before or after. Free. Undirected.’ And further the practitioner understands, ‘I abide observing body as body, ardent, fully aware, mindful. I am content.’ This is undirected meditation.”
In other words, our practitioner continues with the four Satipaṭṭhānas. This thing is then repeated, not just for the body, but for Vēdanānupassanā, for Cittānupassanā, for Dhammānupassanā. “And so, Ānanda, I have taught directed meditation and I have taught undirected meditation. Whatever it is to be done by a teacher with compassion for the welfare of students, that has been done by me out of compassion for you. Here are the roots of threes, here are empty spaces. Get down and meditate. Don’t be lazy. Don’t become one who is later remorseful. This is my instruction to you.”
I think the story is remarkable in many ways. It has, by the way, parallel passages that seem to corroborate what is said in Palī. So this directed, Panidaya [sp?] and undirected, Apanidaya [sp?] type of meditation are obviously different attitudes a meditator can take and shuttle back and forth. So the practical piece here is very clear. That even a professional contemplative at the feet of the Buddha is obviously capable of falling into sluggishness, of falling into distraction, or falling into physical discomfort, or what is politely called a feverish state. A fevering of the mind. So I think we can take heart. When we struggle in the topography of hindrances in our course of practicing those four establishments of mindfulness.
The recommendation seems quite pragmatic. And in some way, the liberality of that recommendation seems psychologically completely plausible. If the mind finds it difficult to hold an undirected type of inquiry, then let us find something that the mind actually enjoys. I find the sequence, and I hope it hasn’t escaped your attention, the sequence of what happens when he finds a pleasant or satisfactory, or lovely image. “When the mind is directed … happiness is born. From the happiness, joy is born.” So, Piti [sp?] is born, Sukkha [sp?] is born. “The body relaxes.” Kayampassapayati [sp?]. The body relaxes. So, there’s a clear connection between experienced pleasantness, experienced energetic vitalization, experienced bodily and mental joy, which is then echoed by bodily relaxation as a prerequisite for stillness.
And then, … so with a body that feels content, the mind with one content becomes unified. There is some psychological savvy in this. And it’s very very plain. It means, conversely, that you can’t get unified by aversion. It also means, you can’t get concentrated by willpower. The unification entails relaxation. The relaxation entails some degree of contentment. The contentment entails some degree of vitalization. And the vitalization comes about something that gives you joy. There we have some very clear and plausible psychological sequence. You don’t need to be a Palī expert to make sense of this. We all know from anecdotal evidence that there is some truth in this.
… It’s in the Connected Discourses. That was the good bit, for now. I was going to basically make a little map. A map that tries to look at what we do in meditation from very high up. A very short map. And then I would like to look at some of the problems that occur when things go wrong in meditation. I call that “Ways of Getting Lost”. So what happens when we are not mindful. Or where do we get waylaid? Where is mindfulness trapped?
So the little map, this is totally non-canonical. So take that with the necessary pinch of salt. I cannot furnish Palī terms for this map. But it is a map that I believe many of you who have been meditating for a number of years will agree with me. Meditative practices have differing dimensions. Buddhist meditation entails … that we take care of a number of different dimensions. The first of these dimensions has to do with calming and with stabilizing. Basically, this begins somewhere by what psychologists would call “Self Soothing Skills” and goes to Jhānic unification. That’s the other end of the spectrum. Basically that means that wherever we meet our minds, wherever we encounter our minds, basically from there on we need to learn how to modulate that mind towards a greater stability, towards a greater stillness. Towards less franticness, towards less speed. And towards less focus on processing sensory input.
In other words, we need to basically settle the baby. If you want it very sloppily formulated, then basically you need to settle the baby of your mind. And when your mind is very calm you need to know how to continue deeper into calm. When your mind is very crazy you need to know how to take it from really crazy to a little bit less crazy.
These are skills. These are virtues. These are not blessings or graces or initiations. These are skills. This is something that is totally learnable. And by the way, that’s the magic piece about Buddhist meditation. Sati is a virtue. It is something that can be practiced. It’s not a result as a state, or it’s not a god-given skill you have. It’s something that we can train. We can become proficient in. That we can identify obstacles, that we can strengthen, both in our intention and in our attention, in our proficiency when we practice it.
That’s a huge message. This is the message, basically, of the East. If you read a wonderful chapter on Attention in William James, 1890, Principles of Psychology, wonderful chapter. Definitely worth reading. He says a lot of really intuitive things about attention. But there is a kind of resignated tone towards the end of that chapter where he basically says, “Yeah, it would be really good to instill that in, not just in disciples, in school kids, and in students. And it’s useful to connect things you know with things you don’t yet know and deepen this. But basically it seems to me the case that the degree of attention that is available to people is more or less given.” So in some strange way he felt that this is not a virtue that can be practiced, but this is basically a natural gift or the absence of such. Which gives you a very different take on training mindfulness.
So the big message, I think, of the East, of the Yogic and the Buddhist traditions maybe particularly are, saying this stuff can be learned. You may think you’re good at it or you may think you’re lousy at it, but however good or lousy you are, you can learn that.
You can learn more than you know. For some people this will be easier than for others. But basically everyone can learn this. You don’t need to invent it. It already happens. But if you know how it works, you can actually deepen, strengthen, broaden this whole thing make it more accessible. It becomes a paradigm of your mind. It is something that is do-able. That is quite an empowering statement. I find that quite heartening. So many of the things we read about, here are two meditators, obviously for them this is very clear, something can be done. Something can be trained, something can be schooled in one of these things. You can discern, and you can begin to help yourself. That’s a very powerful statement.
So. First big dimension of Buddhist meditation. Calming. Stabilizing. That means learning to unify the mind. Learning to pacify the mind. Learning to modulate the mind in ways that it becomes more stable, that it moves away from agitation. That it finds ease. This is very very important. Samatha begins with creating ease.
That means not necessarily that your life has to be perfect. But it means that you create, in discomfort, something called ease. Where there is dis-ease or un-ease, you learn to create a little niche. And a little space where you can breathe in and where you can abide. And where you can then begin to widen and soften and dwell. So creating that space of ease, within the given conditions of our life, is part of a Samatha skill.
The idea, when I came to this, I thought, basically, meditation was about control. Difficult things are basically managed by control. If you are afraid, you control. If things are chaotic, you control. If things are difficult, you push harder. Classic adolescent masculine type of approach, yeah? If it doesn’t work with violence, use more violence, yeah?
Thankfully I tried that with the context of Buddhist meditation practice, where the collateral damage is generally minimal. But it was very quickly clear this didn’t work. This was clear even to me. And it was necessary to attune a little bit to that challenge.
So finding ease means finding a way to relate differently to what I’m doing or to what is happening. I like to think of meditation as an intelligent relation to one’s own experience. [Meditation? I think “Mindfulness” is an intelligent relation. Meditation is the training, the practice. Mindfulness is the result, it’s why we are meditating.] I keep harping on about this Sati being basically a form of relationship. Practically actually, I could be more specific. I would say it’s a move from episodic attention to an embodied mindfulness. We are all kind of attentive in a sort of stuttering way. Here a little bit, there a little bit. In a sort of jumpy way. Generally I’m interested in the nice bit. And as soon a the nice bit is over the hump I’m not so interested any more so my attention moves on to the next promising nice bit. Or to the next promising nasty bit, if it’s unpleasant enough to garner all of my attentional focus.
But it’s very stuttering. So what we do when we train mindfulness, we begin training attention. We take responsibility where our attention goes. That’s not easy. You’ve all been familiar with meditation teachers make it so easy [they say], “Just relax, and be with the breath, and just let it rest there” and it doesn’t rest. It’s a damn flea circus. It’s just jumping around. It doesn’t do what you [want]. In fact attention is geared to jump around. It’s geared to scan. It’s not meant to stay still. So if you have suspected yourself of a congenital condition, no. [Or, maybe yes. But congenital in the fact that it is based on the fact of your being born as a human being. It’s in your genes, so congenital in that way. But certainly not abnormal.] Attention is meant to scan the horizon. It’s meant to be mobile. It’s meant to be moving around through your various sensory system and look[ing] whether there is something to be found or something threatening or something necessary that necessitates your intervention. It’s meant to do that.
To stabilize attention is a real skill. It’s not necessary for survival. We happily populated this planet with evolutionary attention patterns. You don’t need to be awakened to make sure that your species continues. So that’s a crucial piece there. Attention moves. And if we want to stabilize that attention, we need to do particular things. We need to be kind to it. We need to find it. We need to find out what it does. We need to find out what scatters it. We need to find out what helps it unify. We need to find out, dare I say, what it likes.
Without being afraid of that. And then acknowledge that often if it gets what it likes, it doesn’t actually get content. Or joyous. Or calm. But it just gets a little disappointed after a while. Or a little bored after a while. Or even more scattered. Or anxious that what it enjoyed will not be there tomorrow. Or it begins to feel remorseful because it gobbled it all up in one go.
So we realize we need to do a lot of learning. Attention is a[n] unruly, sort of capricious, beast. It does all kinds of things.
The next big dimension of meditative training seems to be, when we learn some stabilizing and some calming, and some finding ease, we need to learn something else. We need to de-identify. We need to step back and get a bigger perspective. Many of us think that is meditation. Go away from where it hurts, observe, find safety, find distance, and then kind of re-look at it. Preferably from afar so that it doesn’t scare us. Doesn’t flood us, doesn’t overwhelm us, doesn’t do any nasty things to us.
In fact we are quite keen on going away really far sometimes. Sometimes just observing is not enough. We take the binoculars and turn them the other way round. It doesn’t actually increase the distance it just increases the psychological sense of detachment.
The second piece, which is very crucial, that we learn to move off the stage. First of all we are a player on stage, we are doing our stuff with the events in our life, and we are really joining the fray. And in this stage, we are trying to de-identify, move back. Move out. Learn to see, “Oh. It’s happening, but I’m not actually doing it. There’s part of me that seems to have something to do with it’s occurrence. But another part of me is actually capable of witnessing this.”
And somehow that witnessing has a modulating influence on it. We gain distance, we gain perspective, and we gain another place by moving back. Now this moving back is wonderful. I would deem it to be absolutely indispensable. Learning the skill of gaining perspective is a crucial piece of meditative learning.
A third dimension in that map would be a deep inquiry. The very stuff we have just moved back from we need to move back in. In a sort of negotiated, respectful, prudent, kind of loins-well-girded way. Kind of crawl back in and see, is it really as bad as we thought? Can, with what I have just learned from looking at it from a distance, … with that understanding, can I bring some change to this? How does it affect me if I go a little closer? Does it really kill me? Or do I actually realize [that] what I was so afraid of is not killing me but looks different? Is it really what it says it is?
So we begin a really deep inquiry. That inquiry generally has a lot of personal dimensions. It is not ‘thinking about’ it. It’s not good psychoanalysis. It’s contemplative investigation. That means I bring my mindfulness and my Samādhi and my Brahmavihāra skills to this inquiry. I’m not going there naked with audacity. I’m carefully and in a negotiated way, after I have found that I can stay out of the problem, then I find I can actually begin to engage the problem. If I can’t stay out of the problem, this is not the time to engage the problem.
If it’s gonna rope me in at any moment and I haven’t learned to stay out and hold the distance, de-identify, then I’m probably not yet equipped to investigate. If you want to deal with dangerous things you need to be sure that you can run very fast. It’s very simple. Every therapist will tell you that.
And meditators have a similar experience. Ajahn Mun, a man whom one cannot fault on audacity and rigor in his practice, one of the icons of the Thai Forest Tradition, at one place wryly commented that, “The meditator goes out onto his meditation path.” And, Thai Forest Tradition sometimes uses martial language. He says, “Meditator goes out on the meditation path, walking up and down to hunt his defilements. Only to find out after two or three rounds that the hunter has become the hunted.”
So this is a kind of non-psychological way to describe the same pattern. You need to be sure that you can basically keep out of trouble before you tackle bigger things in your life. You don’t jump into everything that arises.
That third dimension often takes you in very personal territory. It takes you into biographical territory. It takes you into psychological territory. And I deem this to be fairly indispensable. Meditators need to learn something about their build-up. They need to learn something of how they strategize. How they cope with conflict, how they cope with need. How they negotiate frustration. It’s better to know that. As a meditator you need to have some idea how you operate in this world. Particularly how you operate when the going is not good.
Now that is likely to bring you to some reflection, what the formative influences were in your life. What you have learned, which models you have received. You may find out that you are doing stuff that has never worked for you, but that was basically what you learned from your old folks. Or you compensated for them; you’ve become really powerful and you’ve held Mommy’s rage and Daddy’s depression, to find out that this is not actually yours. You had to do that to make their lifes saner because you needed them and somehow you’ve made their easier by helping them hold their stuff. But now, you are living your own life. And holding their depression doesn’t help you. And it doesn’t help them anymore. Because it has worked. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.
So there is a personal dimension to this. And it’s important to acknowledge this. The language of meditation is often a language that uses [psychological] terms. That doesn’t mean that the Buddha was a psychologist, or that meditation and therapy is totally equivalent. That doesn’t mean that. But it just means that the Buddha spoke in a very specialized language about inner experience. About mind cultivation. There is a lot of specific jargon involved. And that jargon is found in the Palī, very very clear. Often things are very clear. But we don’t think in Palī. Even if we translate the Palī, we don’t necessarily think in those terms. We think in terms that come close to the folks who study how the mind operates. And for about a hundred years, that has been psychology. So psychological folks, sometimes therapists, sometimes philosophers, people who study mind functions obviously use jargon. They use specialist language. And it makes sense that Buddhist specialist language, when being translated, resorts to existing language that deals with details of the mind.
There is a problem there because we would obviously like to have a Buddhism that doesn’t use jargon. Please don’t give me Palī and don’t use any difficult psychological words. Just tell me how it is. But if you go to a dentist, to an orthopedic surgeon, you wouldn’t expect that he tells you how it is in absolute everyday language. You would expect that the guy has some specialist jargon. You would expect that his thinking revolves around a field that he has proficiency in that entails a lot of learning, some details that is not there in everyday language.
It’s a bit similar with meditation. It’s difficult to talk about mind processes and it makes sense that Buddhist translators and Buddhist practitioners and meditation folk basically begin to relate to their own experience in terms of psychological language. We all do that. Even if you hate psychology, you will probably still use terms like “complex” and “emotion” and “neurosis”. All this stuff comes from psychology.
It seems the natural ally, if we look at the psychology of Buddhist understanding of mind, that we rely to some extent, or contrast as a first stop, the language Western psychology uses for mind. That doesn’t equate the Buddha with Freud. … But it’s clear we need some tools to be able to name some of the processes. This is not everyday stuff, as you will agree with me.
So. The fourth of the dimensions is a bigger dimension. It’s a dimension when we begin to understand the personal, again, in universal terms. We begin to move out from the personal, from the story, from the biographical, we begin to move out and begin to see how does awakening take place? How does conditionality take place? What are steps of development? There is a kind of an abstract nature to this. We begin to abstract from the individual and begin to discern bigger patterns.
That means, having been through my personal story, I can now recognize, although your personal story looks different, I can begin to understand where you are. Or what’s happening in you. I begin to see parallels. Because I recognize the pattern. I don’t know the specificity of your story, but I recognize the pattern. It also means I begin to understand notions of growth. Or notions of freedom. Or notions of resistance. Or notions of stuff that are hindrances on the path, or stuff that is helping to wake up.
So this fourth dimension helps me to come out of my personal story, my personal language, my personal imagery, my personal tricks and tools of the trade. And I begin to actually identify a path. That’s important. I begin to identify a trajectory. I begin to identify stages on that path. And even though the details will look considerably different, I see, “Ah. This belongs to this. This belongs to this.” I need to step back from my own story. I need to have looked at a few other stories. I need to have rubbed up a larger tradition, maybe, or larger traditions, preferably. And you see, “Ah. Okay.” So we end up with bigger sections of, not just my story, but of what it takes to go from sheer ignorance to awakening. That’s very useful.
So these four dimension I deem to be fairly indispensable. Now all of these dimensions, they have, unfortunately, their own pathologies. If you get stuck in a pathology of the first one, then you become a control and Samatha junkie. Basically the statement is, this mind is never calm enough. I’m not going to listen to any other Buddhism before I don’t have Jhānas. Don’t talk to me about ethics, or right understanding, or conditioned arising. I need Jhānas. That’s what I need. And before I get that, nothing else is of importance.
And then you are trying to peg away on your particular take on Jhānas, which will be difficult to find because if you refuse to have anything to do with right understanding, having right understanding how to attain unification of mind is probably also out of reach. So you are stuck. All of these pathologies speak of particular stuck-ness in our approach to practice.
The stuckness of the second dimension is a stuckness that has to do with, “It’s not safe enough.” I need to go farther away. I need to split off even further. This is still way too risky for me to engage with anything. I need to move really out. This is really really still too threatening to me. I need more distance. More control. More power. That second type favors dissociation. Dissociation, by the way, is again one of these psychological terms. And it comes in sort of household and clinical DSM5-worthy forms. So let me get that out of the way. We all dissociate. Dissociation in the way we use it, in a non-clinical terminology, dissociation is something as harmless as daydreaming. Somebody speaks on the phone to you and you begin to doodle. Or you get your distant look in a meeting. Or you just fantasize yourself away from something that has become a little boring. Those are the harmless types of garden variety forms of dissociation. And I would expect you all to do this.
In fact, dissociation, as a strategy, is one of our first defense reflexes. It’s our first defense reflexes that helps us to protect great vulnerability in our systems, particularly as babies, at times when we don’t have access to aggression. When we don’t have access to language, so that we are not overwhelmed by powerful sensory stimuli. So dissociation allows us to just hold our breath and reduce feeling. Basically the simplest form to understand dissociation is, it’s a split between thinking and feeling. And between thinking and bodily experience. In the case of the baby, which doesn’t think, generally as far as we know, we don’t really know what babies do that much, but there is a wide-spread belief that babies don’t think. I have my doubts about this, but they probably don’t think in discursive manner. Because they have yet to learn language. So the reduction of sensory input by, say, holding the breath. Or by splitting off. By going somewhere in one’s head. Later on we say things, “I stand by myself”. Or the Out-of-Body experience is a classic type of dissociation.
There are good reasons why meditators ought to be careful around this. What may be a life saving coping strategy that is mother nature’s technique to help us survive our childhoods, may become a bad habit. We may begin to practice dissociation to basically cope, or use dissociation not as a survival technique, but as a defense mechanism. Not because we wouldn’t survive, but because we avoid conflict like that. Or we avoid discomfort. Or we avoid acknowledging need. There are many different ways that dissociation can work. It generally has, as an effect, a split. And with that split, if that split becomes … chronic, we end up living in a place where we are less connected. Less connected to our bodies, less connected to our needs, less connected to our hearts, less connected to others’ needs, to others’ hearts, others’ bodies. And we seem to know everything, but we don’t actually feel it properly. And the effect of that is I feel always at a distance. Pleasantly detached, in some cases, but also painfully removed.
The general effect of that is disempowerment. I am always helpless. Because I can only act if I am not disconnected. If I am not dissociated. I can only act where I feel. Where I am here. As an intelligent, heartful being. And if I lose that place, it may feel less conflicting, and it may feel subjectively safer, but I also lose my capacity to engage. To be responsible. It’s really bad if you have dissociated around you. It’s really unsafe. Because they don’t pick up on things. And if they pick up, they go into some kind of cognitive rabbit-mode and don’t do anything. They don’t come and save you. Because they see you drown and wave but they don’t jump in. Because to jump in they would need to feel, they would need to be empowered to act. … And you can remain remarkably functional while dissociated. If you study this sort of thing. You can be highly successful at being dissociated. As a meditator this is particularly dangerous because you are taught to de-identify. Akincano tells you, second stage of meditation is learning to de-identify. This sounds really like what I am already doing. Finally, somebody understands me. Spiritualizes my neurotic strategy and I am allowed, actually encouraged, to split off and disappear.
But as you can imagine, the net effect is it won’t get me awake. It won’t get me a better human being. It won’t help me feel connected. It won’t let me engage more fully in my life. And I’m sure you’ve understood this. What we are doing here is about helping us to come more in. Not to disappear more. We disappear in the face of overwhelming adversity or in the fear of loss of our resources. But every long term goal in this practice has to be that we come more more fully in. To be more fully here. Heartfully, more embodied, more caring. So dissociation is a challenge for meditators. Because meditators, there is a sort of self-selection going on. People are interested in meditation if they already have learned some of the value of de-identifying. They know this, long before they do their first meditation retreat, they have an understanding that meditation has something to do with understanding the relationship between mind, as a sensitive space, and mind objects as the stuff that pops up in that sensitive space.
If you weren’t somewhere aware of this you would never turn up on a meditation retreat. The idea to be silent, to be with strangers and not talk to them, and to sit for ten hours a day, would freak you to the extent that you would never set foot into one of these institutions. There is a sort of pre-selection that takes place to people coming to meditation retreats. It means also, … in this pre-selection, you’re probably better at dissociating than your average person on the road. If you begin to feel insulted, I’m afraid this is exactly what I had in mind. (laughs)
So what would be telltale signs of dissociation? Let’s be straight. Well, one of the telltale signs would be, I keep falling asleep whenever somebody tells me to meditate. I’m bright awake when I eat my salad, when I do my little walk, when I listen to somebody, but as soon as I close my eyes and I’m trying to meditate, I just feel this incredible, it’s kind of like a bag is pulled over me. And the air seems to get liquid, and sweat breaks out, and I don’t seem to be able to string together two thoughts. This incredible lethargy just drowns me. If that happens time and again, after you’ve been bright awake, and then somebody rings a bell or says, “Now let’s meditate” or “Be mindful” or “Follow your breath”, or some of the other key phrases, and something of that nature keeps happening to you, then there is probably something that has not to do with lack of sleep.
If you feel spacey often. If you feel disoriented regularly. If things that were clear suddenly become opaque, or if you don’t know anymore anything. Those would be signs that probably happens in you. If you see very clearly things, but you can’t seem to engage with them, they seem like behind milk glass. Like behind opaque glass or if you don’t feel parts of your body, that may be an indication. Mind you, there is also, any of these things you can also have without dissociation. You may have a physical condition, or you may simply be preoccupied with a topic that is so much taking your attention that right now you don’t have overwhelming compassion for everybody in the room. These are not definite signs of dissociation, but those would be, if they keep recurring. So, sleepiness, incredible scatteredness of mind, or numbness is a big one. Kind of just not feeling.
Not knowing what you actually feel. That’s an interesting one. When you don’t know what mood you have. When you realize, I’m sitting on an incredibly full bladder and I just haven’t noticed. Or when you hear your stomach roaring and you haven’t noticed for the last one and half [hours] that you are hungry. Disconnect between your cognitive capacity and your affective resonance. Between your cognitive capacity and your bodily, particularly needs, or sensations. Postures. Strange phenomena.
If you have an urge that meditation entails that you need to control more, more and more. That you become so sensitive, and people are full of negative vibrations. And mess with your meditation. And you need to go and sit on your own. You certainly can’t sit behind bulky men. Or behind people who’s breathing is audible, or something like that. If you sense that there are some people that just trip you up. They just trigger you and you can’t stand them. Or if groups kill you. Basically I can really well meditate, but groups just kill me. To listen to all these people with all their problems, just does you in. Just messes up your Samādhi. Those [are] indications that you may rely on strategies of dissociation, on basically not feeling, not having, of splitting off. If you feel, all the stuff that they say up there or in groups, this is really not for you, that you know precisely why you are here, and you come and get this piece. And all this stuff is basically a meditative obstacle. It’s one of those sixth meditative obstacles which there isn’t a Palī term, but you have identified this obstacle. It consists basically of other human beings, group activities, the schedule. Work period, all of this is basically an obstacle to your practice. There’s probably a chance that something is slightly… that you are relying on some form of control. Which is obviously irritated by that schedule.
… We often weave in and out of forms of dissociation. Let’s de-criminalize that. The question is not whether you do it, the question is when. Like with all obstacles, like with all of these hindrances Yuka has mentioned a few days ago, basically, unless you are in Jhāna, you do this. The question is not whether bad Buddhists, it occasionally happens to them, the question is where, right now, do these hindrances take place.
So dissociation, in terms of the five hindrances, can be an obsession with sensory impact. It can be sleepiness. Dissociation can be having something to do with doubt, because doubt is often the result of not knowing clearly. Not feeling clearly. Particularly not feeling clearly the priority of things. So when you have lots of doubt, chances are that there is some dissociative stuff going on is more high. Because that doubt is generally the result of not feeling values clearly. Or not feeling clearly needs. Or not feeling clearly what affectively happens in your heart. So because you don’t feel this, you keep finding it difficult to make choices. To establish a position. To pursue a chosen trajectory.
Obviously, while all Buddhism doesn’t speak in terms of dissociation, it actually covers quite a bit of dissociative territory, under different headings. And if we care looking for dissociative descriptions, we find them in the suttas. We find that people are assailed by inability to act. Or that they find that they are numbed. Or that they are confused. That they “don’t know where to put their foot”, as it so says, or they want to put their foot in one place and the foot goes in another place. As the old ways.
So consider this. Don’t pathologize. It’s to be expected that we all do some of this. And this is curable. It doesn’t need drugs. It just needs acknowledgment. And it needs acknowledgment also particularly of the dukkha factor. What price we pay when we are dissociated. We cannot transcend when we are dissociated. In other words, you can only transcend what you have arrived at. If you want to transcend or sublimate something, you need actually be up there where it’s happening. If you are dissociating from it in the hope you can kind of transcend from a distance, this doesn’t cut it. So while it’s psychologically not terribly salubrious to dissociate, in the long run, spiritually it’s a disaster. Because you basically keep depriving yourself of your energy. Of your connectedness. Of your engaging power. And of the clarity of your heart.
So you keep living in a cognitive parallel dimension in which you know considerable amounts of stuff that you actually can’t live. Can’t hold. Can’t bear. Can’t translate. Good. Enough of Dissociation.
Pathologies of the third dimension. Remember the third dimension was getting back in where I got out from. Understanding, deep, contemplative inquiry. So the pathology on that score is basically, dramatizing. I keep having the feeling, “Ahhhh. There is more in there. There are more lost inner children to be saved. More traumas to be worked through. I need to really cathartically get this off my system. I’m sure there is something lurking in there. Something horrible must have happened to me which I need to unearth. I can’t really do all this big spacious meditation, I need to really get in there and find the drama of my personal history. I need to interview more relatives. I need to read more literature. I need to basically experience more misery. Happiness is not to be trusted. Happiness, this is for people who haven’t received the bad news yet.”
So I need to go in there. And there’s an endless supply of things to be felt, things to be sifted through, things to be released, healed. And obviously the vitalization of practice comes from me feeling intensity. Intensity of drama, intensity of conflict, and maybe you have particular fondness of doubt or of pain, people vary. But they re-create situations in which they experience a degree of intensity, “Ahhhhh, yes. That’s practice. Really, now we’re out. The big guns are out for me. I’ve really gotta plow through this.”
While this domain obviously has to do with meeting one’s angels and one’s demons, and acknowledging both one’s strengths and one’s hang ups, the pathological part of being stuck at that dimension is the refusal to actually open up into the universal piece. It’s the refusal to acknowledge, hey there were also good things. Or, I don’t need to do. This is finished. Sometimes things are finished. And you can’t chew anymore inside out of going through this thing one more time. Or sometimes you’ve actually learned your lesson. There is something in us that wants to wake up and that is not stupid. Something in us that is deeply deeply committed to learning. It’s very very difficult to stay stupid in this process. Something in us really wants to grow. And sometimes, you know, we’ve done that patch. And it’s finished. That one is understood to the extent it can be understood. We need to move on. However much we’ve gotten used into the fight, we’ve gotten used to the narrative, we’ve gotten used to the protagonists that keep coming up, sometimes we are through. We are through with it. And it is necessary to move on. To open the perspective.
I’m sure you all know people who get stuck. It’s easy to see it in others. Like so often, very easy to see where other people are not getting the message, getting stuck. Chances are that, while we look at others and easily diagnose their hangups, some of our own hangups remain undiagnosed. So the prudent meditator looks at what we feel particularly judgmental about, what intrigues us in others, what we feel particularly contemptuous of, or what we find particularly appealing in other’s behaviour, and it is very likely that some of the intensity of some of our sentiment has something to do with, I think the polite term would be “outsourcing”.
There is, I think, was it Levinas? Who says, we only hate in others what we basically have not acknowledged in ourselves.
The big message for the pathology on this dimension is, I believe it is Mark Epstein who put that very neatly, in some place and he said, very simply, “The content of your mental streams is infinitely less important than the consciousness that knows them.” This is a really big piece of which people from the West struggle with. The fact that the stuff that is the content of my experience, something I have learned to identify [with], something I have learned to narrate, something I have learned to see as my life, that that content is a lot less important than establishing a knowing consciousness that is capable of seeing that content. And seeing the change in that content. And seeing conditionality in that content. Seeing the dynamic processes in that content. We are so encouraged to identify with “my life”, “my position”, “my view”, “my perceptions”, “my story”. And yet, and this is the message of the East in a big way from Buddhist teaching, that there is, beside the content, happens in a horizontal life span, me and the unfolding of time, that content has to come into perspective from a vertical that connects the present moment with that timelessness. A vertical axis of timelessness that meets my life in the present moment. That’s the gateway. That’s the eye of the needle. That present moment. And in that vertical axis I establish a type of knowing that is capable of understanding how my subjective self comes together. That vertical axis allows me to understand how the place called “self” is constellated. And that is a powerful shift from a horizontal into a vertical. Both of them are real. Both of them, that is my understanding I needed, that we here are so much focused on identifying, struggling, value-ing the content of our life as it unfolds in an individual’s time/life span. And to get a perspective on this, how this subject that seems to be the protagonist of the story in the horizontal, how this protagonist constellate[s] itself. That’s a powerful message of contemplative investigation. And that takes place when we learn to release our grip on that content and get more familiar and deepen our relationship to the knowing consciousness that is capable of holding that content in perspective.
Pathology on the fourth of those dimensions seems to be a lot less big, a lot less dangerous. Maybe an overt fondness for maps, including maps of meditation. (laughs) Maybe trying to understand things in big ways as a way to not engage with the nitty-gritty and not get mucky in the process of meditating. But I believe that is probably a less grave condition of stuckness than the other three. Chances are that you recognize yourself in many of them. And yes, that’s probably a good sign. The ones you know that are the ones at least that are acknowledged. It may help to see some of the power of this exercise when we begin to identify what resists this exercise. And where this exercise meets the resistance of the mind that does not want to yield, that does not want to wake up, that wants to insist on its habits, that wants to insist on its apparent certainties. And basically that says, yeah, maybe this is true, but I just don’t have any pleasure in it. Enough. Thank you very much. It’s too difficult. … That was [what] people said about Ajahn Chah when he came back from his wanderings to his home village. They invited him, built him a monastery, and came and ardently listened to his talks. And then they kept saying, “You’re right. This is [perfect]. Yeah. It is very plausible what you say. But it’s just too difficult. Sorry. We can’t do this. You’re right, we have no objections; it’s very inspiring to hear. But it’s too difficult. Sorry we can’t do it. See you next week.”
Fine. Let me end here.
Note: Text in bold I found particularly instructive. Text in [square brackets] is either redacted or commentary by me. When the public decides there is overwhelming demand for greater clarification, I will happily supply it.