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.
Insight Meditation Society — Retreat Center : Mindfulness, Insight, Liberation: Insight Meditation Retreat for Experienced Students
I’d like to request your kind attention for few thoughts on practice. I was going to give you a lofty discourse on the nature of the Citta. At the heart of our experience. But something in the group this morning prompted me to narrow this down a little bit to one aspect of the Citta. An aspect I secretly take myself to be an expert in. The aspect is called “Ignorance”. And more specifically, the hindrance as an aspect of this ignorance.
As many of you will know, since you are all experienced practitioners, Buddhism across traditions, Buddhist teachings insist that there is a fundamental connection between suffering, dukkha, and confusion. Dukkha is an interesting term. It predates Buddhist use of the term. The oldest form of this term actually refers to space. Dus [sp?] means dirty or unfortunate, narrow. Grumpy. And Ka [sp?] means space. And the oldest usage that I think has been traced refers to the space of an axle hole.
An axle hole, that’s where the wheel and the axle fit together. If you’re a Buddhist, obviously this makes you think of things going round and round, it’s narrow and dirty, and it doesn’t end. It keeps rolling. This makes a lot of sense. The Arian invaders of the Indian Subcontinent, that’s somewhere in the third millennium, overrun the indigenous traditions there, were guys with horses. And with carts. They had some military advantage with war chariots. So these guys knew something about axles. If you had a good axle hole, you had a smooth ride. If you had a bad axle hole, it meant you had a bumpy ride.
If you are suffering, if you are experience a dukkha, it means you have a bumpy ride. So that’s the oldest traceable use of the term Dukkha. Basically you are either in a good hole or you are in a bad hole. So Sukha, the “u” is short, as often Sukha is, Sukha is the short piece, and Dukkha is the more longish piece. The suffering here in this phrase, where Buddhist traditions insist has something to do with confusion, that suffering that comes when we have a bumpy ride.
Confusion comes in two brands in early Buddhist teaching. One of them is called Avijjā, not knowing or nescience. The other one is called Moha, delusion. Sometimes both are used interchangeably, but if you look over the various texts, then you can discern that Avijjā, the not-knowing, that sounds really harmless in English. One almost is ready to give extenuating circumstances… I didn’t know… But this doesn’t apply. Buddhists are really strict about not knowing. They think this is not deserving of extenuating circumstances. Contrary, you’re worse off when you are in not-knowing. So the not knowing mainly refers to the causal connection of conditions. In other words, the conditionality principle that underpins the experience of Saṃsāra. So this is generally more associated with the term Avijjā.
The term Moha, delusion, is generally more associated with forms of how we are psychologically affected by not knowing. Which parts of us are particularly affected. So there are long lists of bits and pieces of our system that are affected by forms of delusion. On the level of perception, on the level of emotion, on the level of thinking, on the level of interpreting. This would be a lovely talk for another night. Tonight we would like to look at some of the forms of ignorance.
Ignorance sounds so harmless in my ears. I think we underestimate the power of ignorance. And I think you underestimate the implications of that. It sounds like, basically, well, there’s just a little piece I don’t know. And I only need to get this little piece and then things will change around magically. But let’s look at dimensions of this ignorance.
One simple dimension, and maybe, if you want to stratify ignorance, on it’s lowest level ignorance comes across as a lack of sensitivity. One dimension of ignorance is the simple and plain lack of sensitivity. It comes across as a form of numbness. It comes across as a form of thick-skinned-ness. It comes across as me not picking up, not being attuned enough.
That’s a very powerful form of ignorance. People who are just not picking up, people who are not attuned, people who are not sensitive, can wreak quite a bit of havoc. And can make life of other people very very difficult. It also hampers learning. That type of ignorance also really really hampers learning. If we are simply not picking up, if we are not sensitizing ourselves, if we are not attuning ourselves, it’s very difficult to learn. We need our sensitivity as a prime tool to be able to learn. To pick up what’s happening.
Ignorance in that level needs more vitality. It needs the training in sensitivity. It needs training in the use of our senses. There is obviously a lot to be said for training in attention, training in fluidity of attention, training in specificity of attention. Much of this can be learned via the body. So much of what we do in our Satipaṭṭhāna teachings during the course of the day actually addresses this dimension of ignorance. We are learning to become more refined.
If you heard Chris today speaking about Becoming Attuned to the Sensations Within the Sensations. There’s a very simple principle in all this Buddhist mind training. It’s so simple we dare almost not say it. Basically, the mind begins to resemble the things it picks up and keeps taking on as an object. This is very canonical Buddhism. You can read this in Majjhima nineteen where it says, “The heart becomes more and more like the things it ponders and takes up time and again.”
That principle is very crucial. Where we place our attention, the quality, whatever the object that we place our attention on has, this quality begins gradually to color the receptacle of the mind. Begins gradually to color the very mind that is paying attention. The mind begins to echo the qualities of what it is engaged with. If it is engaged with something exciting, something loud, something jagged, something sudden, something intense, the mind will become more rough. It will become more wild. It will become more agitated or excited or irritated. Depending on what precisely the nature of that excitement is. If the mind is… or more precisely the attention of the mind is consistently placed on something subtle, something rhythmical, something that is dynamic, something that is refined, then the mind will attune to that refinement quiet automatically.
If you have something dynamic like the breath, generally most people feel the in-breath is more strongly felt than the end of the out-breath. So if the intensity of your mind object, in this case the stations of breathing somewhere in your body, if that sensation decreases because it tapers off, then your attentional faculty has to slightly make a bigger effort to keep up with the receding intensity. And that compensatory effort of attention is what strengthens the attentional fluidity or continuity. So it’s that little effort that keeps training the mindfulness muscle. So that principle we exercise if we do body awareness, posture, breathing, orientation in space, scanning through various parts of the body. We are countering the ignorance of that first layer.
Second layer has to do with the fact that we actually know more than we admit we know. It’s the ignorance that basically refuses to acknowledge how much we actually already know. It’s the ignorance that prefers not to know. Psychologists have a number of really nasty words for this. They call the thing Displacement and Denial and Refusal, things like that. You can, unfortunately, do all these things without knowing any of these words. It works almost more beautifully if you don’t know these words. So just because you may find that you have nothing to do with these words doesn’t mean that you are having nothing to do with the actual practice of what these words name.
We do a lot of this. Generally we are smarter than we pretend to be because being smart means we have to act. Every act of learning comes at the cost of being called into deeper responsibility. We don’t get insights, we don’t get understanding, without being, at the same time, called more deeply into relationship. That means more deeply into responsibility. There is something deep down we know, there is something irreversible about knowing. Not just with stream entry and with awakening, but long before. When you learn something, you can no longer pretend to be innocent. You can no longer lie your way back into innocence. So learning, we all know, comes at a cost. Once we know something, we can no longer pretend we are ignorant about it. And we need to act. We need to do things. Or we need to take the re-percussions of not doing and not acting upon our better knowledge.
One way the mind tries to get out of this responsibility is by simply pretending it’s not happening. It doesn’t add up. My sugar consumption and my dental bills have nothing to do with each other. These are totally separate things. One is sweet and the other one is sour. We pretend there is no conditionality taking place. Because there is a little bit of a gap in between, I pretend these are totally separate things, I am happy with either of them in the now-ness of the moment, and I refuse to acknowledge that they have a conditional connection.
The task on that second form of not-knowing is basically you have to find out how to uproot denial. What makes us safe enough to admit what we already know. And to begin to live from what we already know. To ask ourselves, what is asked of me if I have to live from the knowing I have already acquired? About my heart, about what I know of others, about what I know of my relationship with the world unfolds? What do I owe this understanding that I already have? This is a difficult thing. It’s easy if you are a kid. As you grow older this seems to grow more difficult to do justice to what we know. To make sure that the inner human being and the outer human being, the sensitive knowing part and the behavioral acting part still are congruent. And sometimes it’s painful to create that congruence after we have operated on a pattern that somehow became estranged from how we feel. We need to re-authenticate. That means we may need to change our lives. We may need to disappoint people. We may need to leave places that initially we may have aspired to find. And now somehow they have become no longer places where we can be with our full heart.
So this is a big task. Again, mindfulness has a huge role to play in this. The refinement of Sati, the duration of Sati, establishing the capacity to sustain mindfulness, the capacity to establish a spacial stabilized mindfulness that is capable of deeply understanding what takes place in the mind.
That mind, by the way, I think of this in the Palī term Citta, and I don’t want to drag you into Abhidharmic notions of the Citta, but that mind has basically three functions. One function is basic sensitivity. It’s the picking up of things. It’s that which the first level of ignorance affects. So that basic sensitivity is one of the functions of mind. As a second big function, it responds to the sensory impressions it receives. So the secondary level, it produces what Buddhist psychology calls Saṅkhāra. It acts. It generates mentality, it generates perceptions, it generates will formations. It makes us feel in certain way and it makes us respond to those feelings. So sense impressions, evaluation of these sense impressions, emotions coming out of these sense impressions, and then movements of intention coming out of these sense impressions. That’s the second big task of the Citta, it responds. It responds through speech, it responds through inner mental steps of decision and intention, it responds through behavioral patterns. It lets us act. That second layer of Citta is very much concerned [with] how we process what we have perceived through the sensory channels and how we respond to this initial input into the world. This is how we create our lives, create relationship, create our connections to the world of things and people.
The third function of the mind is basically simply to understand. The third function of the Citta is to know. Its knowing capacity. Now it so happens the more it is preoccupied with negotiating sensory impingements, the more it is preoccupied with reacting to these sensory impingements, the less resources it seems to have for its knowing capacity. That’s one of the reasons why we try to modulate, make life really boring on meditation retreats. Because we want to lower the impingement on Level One. We encourage you to get a perspective on what’s happening on Level Two so that the knowing dimension of the Citta [Level Three] can really come into its fullness. Can really get some traction on the processes that this knowing becomes aware of.
So ignorance obviously affects all of these things. We were coming to the third dimension of ignorance. That is an easy one. The third dimension of ignorance is the sheer lack of information. There’s just pieces we simply don’t know. And if we know these pieces we are capable of being more skillful in the world. I’ve lived a number of years in Thailand and it’s remarkable that in Thailand where people have [often] suffered from that, there are still quite a few myths around what causes Malaria. Malaria is caused by a parasite, this is transmitted by the female of a particular mosquito called Anopheles; for Malaria you need basically this mosquito, you need to be in range of this mosquito, and you need to have somebody who is already infected with malaria because the mosquito doesn’t fly too far and it doesn’t live all too long so you need to be in the proximity of infected people to get an infection. That’s fairly well known. There are some very fine malaria doctors in Thailand. Sadly, malaria is less and less of a problem in Thailand, not because it is counteracted or people know how to protect themselves, but the mosquito needs the forest and since Thailand doesn’t look very well after its forests, also the mosquito seems to be endangered because they’ve chopped down most of the forests in which that mosquito could survive. But there are many people in Thailand still believing… basically malaria has nothing to do with mosquitos, basically it has to do with bad water. So I was told, straight-faced, that we shouldn’t drink bad water. Which is certainly a good suggestion. But the idea that you could protect yourself from malaria by not drinking this kind of water is obviously a plain error. If you know what causes that parasite to be transmitted, then water is pretty innocent in this.
So that piece of information makes all the difference. It makes a difference in infection rates, it makes the difference in treatment, it makes a difference in prevention. That little piece of information is actually very useful. So the third level of ignorance refers to lack of detail. Lack of data. Lack of information. There are so many things that can be really helped by knowing precisely what causes something useful or something deleterious. It was not so long ago that people in Europe and maybe over here believed that tuberculosis was caused by bad night air. There’s loads of sanitariums in the western Alps for the cure of people with tuberculosis because they were only let out in sunlight. And as soon as [dusk] moved in, these guys were moved back off their wheelchairs, and out of their sun chairs, back inside so that they didn’t catch any bad night air. I’m sure it has helped, going up to the mountains, when you are infected with tuberculosis. And I’m sure some of that has had its value. But tuberculosis is not caused by bad night air. We know that now and tuberculosis is less of a problem. At least in those latitudes. Apparently it seems to be coming back for some other reasons. The detail makes all the difference.
So on this [third] level, ignorance … can be counteracted by learning, inquiry, and by basically training things like comprehension. Comprehension is something that allows us to discern, to grasp cognitively, to conceive and to understand the specificity of a phenomenon. That’s a useful skill. Contrary to some popular understanding, Buddhism isn’t just about letting go. The Buddha was actually quite fond, not just of deep intuitive wisdom, but even of plain knowledge. So the third type of ignorance is maybe the one that is easily counteracted, if we make the effort to learn. To find out. To inquire. Often enough we don’t inquire because we are somehow afraid or it seems uncomfortable or we believe that we will never figure it out. Often enough what stops us from learning is not our incapacity to learn, but it’s an image of ourselves that says “I am not capable of doing this.” It’s either too painful or I’m too stupid or I don’t deserve it or it’s so difficult that already the thought of it makes me break out in sweat. It’s one of the most beautiful things to see when people really start believing that they can understand. As a teacher this is one of the most beautiful and most endearing things. When I start to see people connecting the dots. Their own dots. Not what I told them, but connecting their own dots. When they understand things that none of us have told them. When they begin to apply what they pick up. And make it yours. Make it their own. Come to conclusions none of the people who have tried addressing this or teaching them could have come to. When they have come to their own power in learning. In being able to understand. And savoring that their minds are capable of understanding.
The Buddha in many was the prime example. He was the great educator of the miracles he has performed, he felt that the miracle of instruction is the biggest miracle. He was a very very early revolutionary when it comes to education. He was quite adamant that people should learn and could learn. And the most empowering thing to give somebody is the trust and the tools to be able to learn on their own. That’s why early Buddhism is so full of encouragement to investigate, examine, research, dig in, fathom. There is so much encouragement to this.
The next piece of not-knowing has to do, not with information, but with a meaningful way to organize information that we already have. And I suspect that’s a problem you will be most familiar with. We all drown in information. We need strategies, I need strategies, I’d be surprised if you didn’t need strategies to filter relevant germane information from that stuff which is just not important for my life or doesn’t have any bearing on my reality. It’s one thing to have a pile of information, a pile of ideas, it’s another thing to have a body of organic, useable, applicable knowledge. This is something very very different. The pile of information is just growing bigger. If you get another piece of information you just throw it on the pile and the pile just gets a little higher. A body of organized knowledge is something that, when you change one piece, or when you add one piece, the whole thing begins to change. It may have impact on all the other pieces. This is a very very different type of understanding.
We all have a huge pile of information; my pile of information, I have a perverse mind which basically remembers useless arcane details, grotesquely long, even though there is no applicability to this and, unfortunately some pieces which would be useful and would be direly needed, are falling out. I don’t know what kind of Vipāka that is, I have to find that out at some point. But not all of the things we know is really terribly useful. And to arrive at a pile of information at a body of coherent, correlated, applicable knowledge, is a skill. And the fourth type of ignorance is about the lack of this skill. How can we come from plainly comprehending things to what Western philosophy would call a “reason”? Namely the capacity to actually contextualize and understand a phenomena or an event in the larger picture. I would expect your dog to have some comprehension. It probably figures out when you are playing with him or when you are stern with the dog. I would expect your dog not to have any reason. So if you are looking for a distinction between these two. So comprehension means an immediate, quick grasp. A way to comprehend the capacity to discern. Rapidity. See something and pick a detail out. Reason means you actually realize the implications of that detail. You can bring it into a larger picture. Contextualize it. And you know what that detail means. That’s a very different type of function.
The latter needs another skill in the mind. And that skill in the mind is maybe what our science does at best. It helps us to organize, starting from a simple information and arrives at a reasonably useful, coherent, and organized understanding of what to do with that information.
There is a distinction in Buddhist understanding of wisdom, Paññā. You have Suta-mayā-paññā, this is the knowledge that is arrived from listening, that would be the learning in our day. In the day of the Buddha the only way you could derive such learning was by listening to somebody. Nowadays we have differing ways. We can read, we can download, we can do an online seminar on something. There are many sources for that type of learning.
The second type of wisdom is exactly the contrary of this fourth kind of ignorance. At best it’s an organized, organic type of knowledge that allows you to grasp a certain context. To grasp a phenomenon, to grasp an issue. The Buddha called this Cintā-maya-paññā, wisdom, or the paññā made out of reflection. That’s what the thinking mind and the academic pursuit, the analytical and the synthetically operating mind does at best. Still the Buddha felt this was not liberating. It was necessary, very useful, but it was not intrinsically liberating.
For him the third kind of [wisdom] was the wisdom that comes from meditation practice. The Bhāvanā-maya-paññā. Wisdom that is derived from contemplative practice. The sort of stuff you’re doing. But he didn’t sneer at the first two kinds of knowledge. He just said, they are actually there to support your third kind of wisdom.
There’s a last dimension of not-knowing and this is a painful one. I expect all of you to know this kind of not-knowing. It’s a not-knowing that has to do with the lack of depth of realization. Or the lack of the strength and resilience to live from what we actually know. It’s basically we know things but we can’t actually live from that place. We have had sparks, but these sparks don’t necessarily translate into pristine wisdom that we could then live from. It’s kind of, we like to move in, but we can only ever go and visit.
I would expect most learning to take place in that painful gap between what I already know and what I have not yet realized. There is kind of a level of knowing that I am capable, but then I cannot necessarily live from that knowing. I somehow seem to be lagging behind in my behavior. I seem to be lagging behind in my emotionality, I seem to be lagging behind in my habits. That knowing always is ahead of what I am actually capable of doing.
This kind of ignorance is already a lofty kind of ignorance. It is obviously helped by us being clear what makes us stronger. It is helped by determination, it is helped by a commitment, it is helped by training in the best sense of the word. What Buddhist teachings call “Sikkhā”, what we would just call training probably. Training in the sense, the Greeks called this Askēsis. Not because it was because it was Ascetic in the English sense of the word, but it was something that it was clear [that it] entailed exercise. It entailed effort. It entailed rest. It entailed skill. It entailed repetition. In fact, that’s what Bhavana is about. It’s not about getting a glorious insight and then that was it. It’s clear that we need to strengthen this capacity to know. To strengthen the capacity to act in wholesome ways. To strengthen the capacity to not believe in the things that ensnare us and tie us down. But this last part, this last type of ignorance, obviously makes reference to forms of cultivation in regards to the body, to our ethics, in regards to training skills how the mind can be cultivated. How it can be stilled, how it can be encouraged to become more empathetic, how it can become more resilient when the going is tough. And also how insight functions can be strengthened. In many ways meditation does much of this. We learn to understand things we have already, in some way, taken cognizance of. And we reconcile ourselves more deeply.
So I hope this idea of ignorance being a harmless type of not-knowing comes a little bit into perspective. It’s very likely that you have encounters with this form of ignorance that, psychologically, often manifests as very specific phenomena. One set of specific phenomena… no. Before I do that I want to read you a tiny little piece, something which I deem very elegant. Here a quote from Bhikkhu Bodhi speaking about ignorance, “Ignorance is not mere absence of knowledge, a lack of knowing particular pieces of information. Ignorance can co-exist with a vast accumulation of itemized knowledge. And in its own way can be tremendously shrewed and resourceful.” Here is a man who’s felt the iron behind the velvet. “As the basic root of Dukkha, ignorance is a fundamental darkness shrouding the mind. Sometimes this ignorance operates in a passive manner, merely obscuring correct understanding. At other times it takes on an active role. It becomes the great deceiver, conjuring up a mass of distorted perceptions and conceptions which the minds grasps as attributes of the world, unaware that they are its own deluded constructs.” Nicely put, isn’t it?
I’d like to look briefly at a set of forms of ignorance that basically turn up as saboteurs… Yuka already spoke of them, what Buddhist teaching calls the Nīvarana, the Five Hindrances, that turn up most prominently in our meditation practice. Basically, Five Nīvarana is your territory as long as you are not in Jāna. So if you think that this is something that happens to bad Buddhists, think again. Or come talk to one of us. The honest question is not, do I have these? The honest question is, when do I have which? And how do I recognize what’s running at the moment? It maybe fair to acknowledge that three and a half of those five hindrances, Kāmacchanda, sense desire, Vyāpāda, Ill Will, Thīna-middha, Lethargy [or] Stupor, Uddhacca-Kukkuccā, Agitation and Restlessness, or the other way around, Restlessness and Agitation, and Vicikicchā, Doubt. Three and a half of those fives are, when you are sitting with angelic face in formal meditation practice, three and a half of those come in the form of thoughts. Let’s get that down to phenomenology. You will meet these in formal meditation practice primarily as forms of thoughts.
The thought that something pleasant has just occurred to you in your mind that you are now going to repeat this one more time, a little more slowly, and with more attention to detail, this harmless little thought in Buddhist psychology is called “Desire”. It’s called the hindrance of Kāmacchanda. The intention to maximize sensuality in your, in this case, mental experience. So thinking about strawberries isn’t quite as good as getting strawberries, but at least it gives you a nice afterglow of a memory. And you may even to begin to salivate a little bit on that afterglow. That is called The Hindrance of Sensuality. Whether that be mathematical formula, writing poets, redecorating the meditation hall, or thinking of pizza, this is called sensuality. [How is the mathematical formula sensuality?]
This will come as a thought, as a thought that gives you a pleasant feeling [Ah. Perhaps here is where the sensuality comes in, you have a pleasant feeling when you have the thought. The thought is not about a pleasant feeling, but you have a pleasant feeling after you have the thought and ten you try to repeat that pleasant feeling by repeating the thought.] And then you decide to repeat that procedure. The reward of the pleasant feeling is something that is a little more attractive than, say, your intention to stay with the breath. And thereupon you will repeat the sex fantasy, the strawberries, the pizza, the macrame, the redecoration or whatever. And that is called sense desire. It is in many ways, in ethical terms, quite harmless. It doesn’t cost anything. Doesn’t hurt anybody. Nobody sees it. But in terms of Samadhi it’s very detrimental.
It’s not just about ethics. The hindrances are not just about morals. In fact mostly they are not about morals. They are largely responsible for your mind not coalescing. They are largely for the mind not settling. So the short term gratification of thinking what you want to have on your imaginary pizza is, in the long term, actually minimizing the chances that your mind will experience a degree of stillness that will give you a much greater reward than a dried up little fantasy about pizza ingredients. In the short term, that doesn’t really feel that way. In the short term, you just like to follow a harmless little pursuit. Well, nobody looks, you sit here and time passes more quickly if you think about pleasant things. And didn’t the Buddha say we should gladden the mind? Doesn’t that say in the Ānāpānasati Sutta? [Quote from the Ānāpānasati Sutta.] Isn’t that, can’t the pizza be a gladdening factor of my mind? As an alternative to knee pain? I’m sure the Buddha would choose pizza rather than knee pain.
So now you are having not just a little bit of sense desire, now you are beginning to have a real Dhitti problem. A real Micca Dhitti is creeping in. Namely a rationalization of sense desire. And you are really down to the path of wrong understanding.
With aversion or ill will something very similar happens; it will come as a thought. You will begin to notice that something in you that speaks in terms of constructive criticism actually has a sort of slightly nagging quality. If you actually not just listen to the words but listen to the tone of the words, you realize it’s a little bit snarky, It’s not actually terribly constructive. You notice there is some aversion in there or some vengefulness in there or some back-biting spirit… you begin to be aware that something vitalizes itself about your aversion, contempt, indignation. You do a little bit of, generally selfing. While sense desire is usually fairly straightforward, the reward lies in the feeling it gives you, with aversion it’s more complicated. The feeling aversion gives you is in most cases unpleasant. But there is a secret pleasantness to the case by you affirm a notion of self. If you are contemptuous or averse against something, you make a statement and say, “I am not like this.” You don’t really spell that out in your mind. But basically by being indignant about something you imply that you do not resemble that which you are indignant of. In other words you corroborate your self construct. And that self construct is obviously and unquestionably superior kind of self construct than to the thing that you are indignant about.
This is a little more complicated with aversion. Although it actually feels bad if you just go on the feeling level, aversion is not generally a pleasant bodily experience or a pleasant mental experience, but it somehow has a secondary benefit. It firms up your notion of superiority. It firms up your notion of purity. It firms up your notion of moral high ground in some way. And you can vitalize yourself. Someone can get quite vitalized by being averse. Sometimes when we speak we find there is a billowing of our energy when we get really indignant about something. There’s a tacit aliveness that comes into our system when we get indignant. It defines who we are not.
With lethargy it’s different. That’s very honest. It doesn’t actually come as a thought usually. Lethargy/stupor, Thīna-middha means both insensitivity, numbness, there is a kind of stiffness to it. And it means that the energy is dissipating. That’s a tricky one. If you don’t do anything about desire, generally desire goes away. It’s like a cat. If you don’t feed it, it won’t come back. Well, it comes back twice a week to check whether it still gets nothing. And maybe once a week, and then once a month. It will still come back and check and look whether something is on offer. But if you don’t feed it, usually immediately it will be less of a problem. You can’t do this non-action thing with lethargy. Lethargy and stupor can win if you don’t do anything, this thing wins. Because it will just move into your system. And gradually bring you to a halt.
So lethargy has many reasons. One of them is honorable exhaustion. From your efforts of practicing Satipaṭṭhāna many hours a day. Basically you are exhausted and your body, having countered the habit forces of involuntary attentional pleasure seeking which you have heroically contravened time and again by returning your attention from objects of pleasure back to the breath, which seems less pleasurable at the moment, that is tiresome. So after fifteen hours of this obviously it is expected that you start flagging a bit. So this kind of tiredness is the best possible form of tiredness. But many forms of lethargy and lack of engagement and numbness can’t claim honorable exhaustion as a reason. Sometimes we are coping with forms of lethargy that are compensatory. If we’ve lived very busy lives, particularly at the beginning of retreat, and then we go into this retreat schedule, we’ve lived on the fast track really, and now we are suddenly holding on to our mats and we are trying to really be mindful. And we realize, something in our mind realizes, oh. I am safe here. I’m not actually being hunted. Actually I could relax. I could go from sympathetic operation to parasympathetic operation. This is safe. Let me just roll in. I can do this in impunity. Nobody’s going to eat me; the wolves are not out for me. I’ll just kind of go into a recovery mode. Decompress.
Sometimes that happens, particularly to willful people, when they begin to relax. And what they feel is the amount of speed and fragmentation takes place in their lives and now, here, something else is possible. It’s a healthy, but not terribly productive mode of recovering. So some of our sleepiness may have to do with just compensating for the speed and fragmentation and the throughput in our lives outside of retreat. Sometimes lethargy and sleepiness is a real saboteur, that’s Christina’s favorite word for the hindrances. She calls them Saboteurs of Intention. That’s a good term. So the saboteur says, “Look, only one third of me wanted to go to this retreat. The other two thirds wanted to go and surf. And you can drag me here, you can make me get up in the morning, you can make me sit with these strange people in the same big hall, but you can’t make me meditate. As soon as you let go, as soon as you want to relax, I’ll take over and put you in a big black bag.”
These components that have parts of yourself that have been steam-rolled over, that weren’t consulted when the decision was made whether you are going on retreat or surfing, those pieces come back in action. As soon as you loosen your reigns, these pieces kind of crop up and then they put you in the black bag. And suddenly somebody says meditate, in-breath, be mindful, establish your posture, and all parts of you just go shhhhhhh. So it can be that you meet unacknowledged parts of your being that sabotage your meditation piece. They say, “Okay. I can’t go surfing, but at least I can mess up his meditation. He messed up my holiday, I’m gonna mess up his meditation.” There’s a kind of rebellious component of our psyche that doesn’t want to play along. And unless we are capable and willing to bring this part of ourselves into some form of constructive discussion, in some negotiation with this part, this part will just sabotage our intents. Because obviously we need to relax when we meditate, we need to let go, and at that moment, the willpower that has dragged us here will not do the job anymore and we are vulnerable to these parts. They come up and they put us in a bag.
Sometimes sleepiness has to do with aversion. Sleepiness is more pleasant than aversion. And what we find underneath our sleepiness is a lot of not-wanting, resistance, being averse to conditions, to the situation, to the teaching, to the teacher. Mostly the worst is to me. I’m averse to myself. Western people are particularly enthusiastic about self-loathing or to aversion. Asian teachers are always shocked when they find out with what enthusiasm we go at ourselves in our meditation. So one way of getting out of the unpleasantness of self-aversion, or aversion in general, is just being sleepy. It just hurts less. It takes off the edge. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a lot less unpleasant than just sitting there and loathing yourself. So we often find that underneath some of the sleepiness is something that we don’t want to look at. Something we don’t want to feel. Something we resist against despite the fact that it’s not even properly mentioned.
Sometimes sleepiness has to do with lack of clarity, what we are doing. A lack of clarity of my meditative task. My meditative patch isn’t really cleared. I have no clarity of an object, I have no clarity of an attitude, I have no clarity of an anchor, no clarity of an intervention technique. I’m just kind of sitting here, observing a nose and maybe two, three thoughts in the hope this [?] will just pass me by. It will just stop and things will become peaceful. I understand that if this is your first meditation day. But if you are doing this for a while, this is just naive. This is just, frankly, this is just naive, to expect that, without you doing anything suddenly a little bit of good intention and a little bit of hope will do the job. You don’t know your mind. Your mind has a few things up his sleeve. You will need some clarity for your toolkit. You will need some idea. What am I doing now? What am I doing when I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing? Where do I go back when I want to do again what I agreed with myself to be doing? We need some clarity of our exercise, an anchor in the body, a willingness to intervene if we find ourselves doing something else, the willingness to name the colors of the mind, what forces are at work? What intentions are at work? Unless we are willing to do some of this, sleepiness has a lot better chance. It just kind of gradually fogs over. And, you know, it doesn’t really hurt… after the meal… you just sit here… gets really peaceful… really nice… isn’t that what it’s all about? Peaceful… nothing hurts… that must be the path… I’m glad it’s finally happening… not many really nasty thoughts… I think I’m approaching neither perception nor non-perception…
There’s a lot of self-fooling that can take place. Particularly with a full stomach, a lack of a meditation object, and the vain hope that just following the path of doziness will take me to peace. A lack of clarity can be addressed, and it’s [a] relatively easy way to cope with this particular type of sleepiness.
Sometimes sleepiness also has to do with feeling [that] part of me is over-ambitious and another part of me is aware that I don’t have the resources. I don’t trust this. Something in me is pushy and wants mystical experiences, the big program. Preferably levitate … wild intensive states, mystical breakthroughs, Siddhis, shattering insights. And another part of it says, “Well, I actually have to go and work next Monday.” Or, “I don’t trust this situation. Nobody’s here to take care of me. These teachers, I don’t click with.” Or, “I have so many people around me that are not really supportive.” There are many conditions that may feel unsafe for some of us. Some of us may find it barely possible to be in the room with a hundred other people, depending how your life looks. Being in a room with a hundred other people, or opening up in a meditation discussion group with a dozen others may be challenging to some of us.
There’s a part of us that wants something happening, and is pushy, and another part of it is afraid. And that part is nervous. So whenever the [pushy] part gets too much to the dangerous areas, the other part decides just to anesthetize him. We’re avoiding collateral damage. This ambitious part we just sedate him and things are okay. It’s not good, but he’s not going to do any damage that way. Because right now we can’t handle mystical experience; right now we’re just trying to stay sane. I don’t need big stars, I don’t need big Siddhis, I don’t need to levitate, I don’t need shattering insights. Right now I’d just like to learn how to sit on a cushion and stay upright. And if the other guy starts to do dangerous things, gets into dangerous corners, starts to rake up traumas, wild insights, big questions, we’ll just put him to sleep.
So if you feel assailed day after day by sleepiness, you have to maybe ask a few questions. What do you gain by that sleepiness? What do you avoid by that sleepiness? What’s the benefit of that sleepiness? Let’s assume that that sleepiness some perks. The mind is savvy and generally intelligent. Even though it may do things you don’t agree with, it generally has its reasons. So if you want to find out why it keeps putting you to sleep, you need to find out what it is afraid of or what it is lacking, or what it gains thereby.
Agitation and restlessness is an almost, that’s half part. The restlessness I generally tend to think of this as a bodily, as a somatic phenomenon. It basically is if all parts of your body have agreed to not let you become calm. When you sit down you get this kind of ants crawling over you feeling. Or you are convinced that right now you’re about to dislodge a vertebrae in your back. Or this grinding sound is the last remnant of your meniscus. You begin to have all kinds of weird sensations, generally compounded by some vivid imagery, anxious or annoyed, both work well. So you have bodily sensations combined with these images, with emotions or resistances against things. And then you have lots of stuff going on. So you twitch a little bit, you adjust a leg, you make sure the blood flow is secured, you align a couple of vertebraes, you release a fold from your trousers, you loosen some muscles, there’s quite a few muscles, if you look at a body, there’s a few muscles you could be loosening in an hour. You do one and then to your surprise you notice, now the same problem seems to occur in a completely different place. That different place was, before, was perfectly alright. In fact you’ve never actually met that place before. But now, suddenly, after you’ve just adjusted this vertebrae, some other vertebraes are really playing up. And you find that keep optimizing, adjusting, fidgeting around. And while you may do justice to one little thing, the whole problem just moves. And there is something not settling.
That has many many facets. You can be surprised by how precise your eye may pick up on the six legs of a fly walking over your eyelid. Plunging its [proboscis]. Low and behold it is rewarded, if it long enough walks up and down your eyelid, you begin to tear and then it gets what it wants. But in here you don’t have many flies. But maybe you have in your life. But you will have memories of those fly legs. All six of them on your skin. And you’d be surprised how accurate your perceptions can be. You never felt six legs so clearly. Your memory can bring up these things and this engages the mind and basically irritates. It stops you from engaging with stillness, with soothing, with pacifying, and you are obsessed with some minute aspect of your body. That’s called restlessness.
Sometimes we get that mentally. Often … the mind is jumpy as if after having drunk too much coffee. It kind of jumps around from one thought to the other. There’s an edginess to it. Often enough you get the other flavor. Agitation is when you think about a topic, generally a topic that feels you with bad feelings. Often enough forms of remorse. And you find great un-ease with how you have been, what you should have done, or what you haven’t done. Or what you have done fills you with some unease. You keep reiterating this. It very quickly becomes from a sense of unease and thinking about something that creates unease it becomes almost a self-punishing pattern. Although you can’t fix that situation right now because you are sitting here on a retreat and the situation is probably somewhere else so it cannot be addressed right now, at least you can make yourself feel bad about it by repetitively running over the ignominy of your neglect or what you’ve done or what you’ve not done. You can become really filled with forms of deep unease about something you, basically where you haven’t lived up to your own values.
And while the sensitivity that tells you this is a useful thing, it’s a necessary thing actually for growth, the fact that you obsessively are reiterating this theme and this issue … minimizes your possibilities to still the mind. And takes you out of kindness. Takes you out of a soothing attitude. So this agitation often comes, things catch up when you meditate. You can feel remorse how you ill treated a frog when you were a six year old boy. When people do retreats it’s very well known things catch up with them. They start to feel things they have or have not done. They feel the implication of those things more in a pronounced way. And while this is on the whole, an ethical consciousness is a useful thing to have, the obsessive reiteration of one’s own flaws or shortcomings or lack of sensitivity in certain situations is not useful. It’s a hindrance.
The last one, doubt, is an emotion. As I said in one of the groups today, it is an emotion that is unpleasant. It’s a question that I feel I should not have. And because I have a question I feel I should not have, because it’s unpleasant, I try to… usually establish probability scenarios in which I try to gain a cognitive clarity for something that is actually an affective problem. That never works. There is no thought that could withstand the could withstand the onslaught of your limbic system. That’s where your emotions come from. The tubes are really big from your limbic system to your neo-cortex. And the tubes back from the neo-cortical parts back to your limbic system are not as big. So you can only work backwards when you are calm. When emotions are running high, generally you don’t have much chance to do clear thinking. The higher emotional intensity is, the less clear is your neocortical thinking.
So you basically can’t fix an emotion with a thought. The idea to fix doubt with a thought does not work out. It only takes a little bit of an adjustment of your emotional animal and all your cognitive scaffolding just flies out of the window. Tumbles in a big drama.
Doubt comes with some effects. One of the effects, it paralyzes you. There can be many forms of doubt; in the traditional psychology the doubt is generally the doubt of the teaching, of the teacher, of the dharma, what I meet a lot is the doubt in oneself. It’s the doubt, “Yeah this is all true, but I’m just not cut out for it. I can’t do it. I have a sort of congenital condition not yet diagnosed that prevents me from having mindfulness. Or from experience mindfulness more than a tenth of a second. I must be a category they will find out any moment now and I will be properly classified and get medicated properly. Right now I am undiagnosed, but I deep down know this cannot be overcome. This Buddhism stuff may be really useful for most people, but tragically, for me, it isn’t.
Doubt is generally something about ethics. There are many questions we don’t find answers now and that don’t trouble us. I don’t know what I get for breakfast tomorrow morning, but it doesn’t trouble me. I trust something will come up or I will find something. It’s not something that I have big issues with. Doubt is more than a question mark. It’s a question mark I feel I’m not supposed to have. That is a difficult condition to bare. And so I try to get out of the difficulty of uncertainty. That’s, by the way, the word Ajahn Chah always used as a translation for Anicca. He always translated that as [Thai Word?], Not-Certain. [Might be interesting to compare this translation to the one(s) proposed at puredhamma.net.] It’s probably the condition we find most difficulty baring. Most people find incertitude the most difficult condition to bare. We can cope with so many things. We can face so many things. We can live with so many challenges. But not knowing, in the sense of un-certitude, not in the sense of ignorance, is a real challenge for our systems. We cannot adapt. We cannot cope. We cannot strategize. We cannot move. This is a real challenge. And obviously when we are challenged we try to make constructions that help us. We run through our nightmare scenarios and try to take the probability for this nightmare scenario to occur or to not occur. And obviously this takes all our energy away from the possibility of settling.
All of these hindrances sabotage our attempts to still the mind. So it’s necessary to, as Chris has alluded, and as Yuka has alluded, to take the personal bit out there. We have to make sure that we recognize these hindrances when they occur as universal, transpersonal hindrances. They may be happening here, but they are not my personal curse. And if I know that I am not just… this is not just my curse, or my flaws, this is something that just happens to a mind when it tries to find comfort either through sensuality, when it finds certainty through disowning parts of the world, saying, “I’m not like this, and I hate that part. That means I am not that part. I’m a good part.” Or through not feeling and self-anesthetization, or through itching around. Or just through thinking about my own badness and practice self-flagellation. Or through paralyzing myself because that’s one of the effects doubt has. It stops me from engaging. It stops me from connecting. It stops me from committing to something. So I end up cornered, paralyzed, in apparent helplessness. And obviously unable to do something that would transform my situation. It’s a very very unpleasant position.
Now the bad news about these hindrances is, there isn’t really a trick. There are some intervention strategies. So you are sleepy… in a case of the first form of documented ear reflexology, the Buddha advised his best meditator, Moggallāna, to massage his ear lobes in a very touching little intermezzo. And there are things you can do to intervene with sleepiness, raise your arms, open your eyes, strengthen your inbreathe, hold your breath, stand up, but in the long run, you will need to look, what makes sleepiness attractive to your mind. The intervention techniques will maybe tide you over for this sitting, but in the long run you will need to find out what’s underneath that sleepiness of yours.
What’s underneath that pleasure seeking of yours? What’s underneath that self-corroboration via aversion or ill-will? What’s behind all this restlessness? You will need to do some investigation. What makes these hindrances so attractive to you?
But the language of hindrances is quite universal. It’s easy to detect them in other people. So be on the lookout; if you meet hindrances, see whether you can take the lens of me-ness away. So that this is not just my problem. And stop rationalizing what’s going on. A hindrance is only as long a hindrance as you basically operate from that hindrance. When you stop operating from that hindrance, when you recognize it, name it as a hindrance, it becomes a meditation object. That’s the thing; you don’t have to not have hindrances. You can happily practice with hindrances, as long as you know these are hindrances, then you can meditate with these. You can begin to use your toolkit. You can learn a lot from hindrances. They’re very very revealing. They don’t need to disappear for you to be able to meditate. But the lens of me-ness and the belief that you are here cursed and preferably eternally cursed is obviously very very detrimental. So I encourage you to be realistic. To be sober. And to be unafraid of these. And now enough of me for tonight. …
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.