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.
Review of Tools — Orientation.
Four satipatthana paradigm as a map. Instruction on meditative skills resourcing — orienting — attuning — forming intentions.
Insight Meditation Society — Retreat Center : Mindfulness, Insight, Liberation: Insight Meditation Retreat for Experienced Students
So, good morning everyone. We’re in the midst of our retreat. I trust you feel some of this is arriving. Before reflecting on the specifics of our practices and exercises and their field of application, some practical stuff.
I’d like to suggest some form of review for this morning. We have heard quite a bit about Vedanā, a topic and a practice that is, I think, still undervalued in many visions of practice. And let me suggest a few things. When we make use of the Satipaṭṭhāna scheme of cultivation, one way of using this scheme is as a basic orientation. So we have phenomena of the body, we have phenomena of pleasure and displeasure, we have phenomena of volition and emotion, we have phenomena of thinking. Think of these as four channels. So the whole Satipaṭṭhāna scheme suggests ways and exercises how to establish mindfulness on the basis and in respect to phenomena in one of these four channels.
Now these four channels, they are always broadcasting. You have never a moment without emotion. Every emotion has a somatic tone, whether you are aware of it or not. Every thought has a somatic tone. You never get only one Satipaṭṭhāna. So basically the Satipaṭṭhāna are a map of all your experience. Not as exercises, but just think of it, [as a] theoretical or conceptual map. Things that have to do with somatic dimension of your experience. Things that have to do with the hedonic dimension of your experience. Things that have to do with the affective and things that have to do with the cognitive dimension. I’m choosing explicitly non-Buddhist language here. To make it more recognizable, that’s what the Satipaṭṭhāna territory is. We are always in that territory. And we have always all four of those channels running. Usually one is more dominant than the others, but that doesn’t mean the others are not there.
It may make sense to just identify, what is it I’m actually dealing with right now. Is this a thought? Is this something cognitive? An image? Also cognitive. Is this an emotion? Something affective? Is this a body tone? Something somatic? Is this pleasure or displeasure? Something hedonic? It’s just useful to be able to actually name the beast.
As a basic orientation, when we begin to sit down, there’s a pattern of stuff we do. One of the things we do, we basically resource. If you have a connection to Buddhist teaching, then this would be the moment to take refuge. No Asian Buddhist meditation teacher would ever teach you anything about a meditation method before he or she has taught you to get yourself connected to that in you which is capable of waking up.
Before you get in touch with the problem, you get in touch with your resources. That would be the psychological way of framing this. So before you start doing difficult things, inquiry, cultivate, this sort of stuff, you actually acknowledge, what’s good? What’s working? What’s okay? What’s already happening? Does the ground carry? What do I bring to this? So I connect to my own strength. I connect to the hear and nowness of my own experience. I connect to the energy tone in my body. I kind of connect to my own capacity of alignment. I connect to my own, as Catherine put it beautifully, my own way of knowing, for example. My sensitivity.
So before we do any exercises, any tricks, any big jumps and leaps, [we say], Hey. This is Me here. I am not really who I think I am, but it feels like somebody is here. And this is happening. That’s the first thing. Before we do anything else, we connect to the ground. We connect to gravity. We connect to the orientation of the body in space. And then we kind of orient to posture. Tone of our muscles, of our tissues. We orient to the body, basically. And then we kind of check in. The next in is a checking in question. What’s happening? What is going? How sleepy am I? How curious am I? How moody am I right now? How interested? How bored? How full of resistances, maybe? Before actually entering into the territory, learning to name the territory. Learning to acknowledge without having to jump in.
Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics has a wonderful little statement. It says, It is the mark of a cultivated person to be able to entertain a thought without either believing or disbelieving it. That wasn’t a meditator. If he can do it, you can do it.
The capacity to acknowledge and name something, without either being a partisan of it, or a dissident to it. Just the capacity to name. If you are in your file cabinet, you just read the labels, rather than entering the dossier. If you want a little more mundane analogy to this. So learning to read the labels of what’s going on. Being able to name different departments of your experience. That’s what the Satipaṭṭhāna, even as a map, not even as a meditation instruction, can be useful. What’s happening in the department of body right now? What’s [happening] in the department of pleasure, displeasure? Is this especially pleasurable, being here? Yeah. Mildly. Wouldn’t write home about it, but it’s definitely more pleasant than unpleasant. Mood. Curious. Interested, engaged. Not terribly bright, but here. Workable. And so forth. Then thoughts. You have images. There’s a few things rattling at the back, a few jumping thoughts trying to get in from the periphery. Images, gristly graininess, maybe. Somewhere in the background.
You may actually begin to identify various dimensions of the texture of your experience. The more awareness you have of the texture of your experience, the more chances you have to be able to skillfully navigate the waters of your experience. Often we are myopically over-focused on one particular feature. A haunting thought or a nagging pain or a grumpy mood or a little event that has taken up all our imagination. Much of our problem is not just distractibility, and the seeking of gratification via following such distraction. But it’s over-focus. It’s lack of acknowledgement of the good stuff that is already happening.
One of my friends, a monk, sometimes put it like that, he said, “If you go to the hospital, you don’t blame the patient for his or her illness. If you have to identify with something, identify with the patient, rather [than] with the illness. Connect with the ailment and the health that is held around that ailment.” So rather than blaming and over-focusing, if we are not the things who we think we are, we are certainly not our problems. Sometimes good Buddhist practitioners begin to think, Yes. Selfless process. But I have this huge distractibility problem. Or I have a anger problem. Or I have a sleepiness problem. And then instead of a self-identity being created out of all our virtues and doings in our lives, we create a self-identity out of our hangups. So we identify with our neurosises; this is not really terribly liberating. It’s just an unfortunate and unpleasant and unhappy version of thing old identification.
So sometimes orienting to what’s happening in my immediate experience, naming the departments and just checking in. What’s happening in this department, what’s happening in this department, what’s happening in this department, is good. And helpful. And allows perspective.
Once that checking in has taken place, and I suggest you use the Satipaṭṭhāna map: body, pleasure, emotion, thought and image. [That] would be the simplest way I could name this map, or the channels. I think of them as TV channels, always on broadcast. You are not always joining a particular channel, or you favor one over the others… that’s what mindfulness, by the way, is doing. Mindfulness is the remote. You choose, with your mindfulness, where, on which channel you are. We’ve suggested you are on Channel One for the first few days. Because Channel One, Somatic Experience, is much more reliable. There is less happening. It’s less fast. It’s always happening in the present. And when you are in the present, wonderful things are possible. You can be free. You can feel connected. You can learn. You can enjoy. You can savor. You can resonate in compassion. You can actually understand something. All these things are only possible in the present. You can never be free tomorrow. You can never be happy tomorrow. If you are not willing to be in the present, that means you will not be happy. Because only in the present you are able to be happy. You cannot postpone things. Some stuff are made only for immediate consumption.
That’s why Buddhists are so insistent that the present moment is worth abiding in. Even if it may hold unpleasant sensations and unpleasant experiences. It is only there we can learn. Only there can we be free. Only there can we feel connected. Only there can we act. That’s the really big thing. If we are not in the present we have lost the capacity to engage and act.
That’s why we emphasize being in the body, being in Channel One for the first few days. But you will have noticed there are other channels happening. Despite all good intentions, we are definitely more than just somatic phenomena. We have thoughts, memories, we have a history. We have emotions. And it’s necessary to make informed choices how we hold this. When we give this center stage. And when we say, okay, I see you’re happening. But right now I’m actually trying to do something else. Thank you very much, can you take a seat in the waiting room for the moment.
And you learn to do a lot of that. you learn to make informed choices where you direct your attention. It’s a proven experience that, basically, we need to settle before we can tackle the big stuff. Before we can investigate deeply and gain profound insight, it’s necessary that we are able to, in a sustained way, be present for the body. That’s very simple.
This is not ideology. This is just how the cookie crumbles. It’s unrealistic to expect that you can have profound insights when you can’t stay with your breath for three breath[s]. Because you’ll just be blown away. Anything big in that channel will just blow you out of the water. And you’re off. Spinning. Doing what you habitually will do. And we have all done enough of this. You are here, probably, because you realize you have done enough of this. So let’s be realistic. Let’s learn to use the maps. Let’s learn to practice the skills. The first skill, after resourcing and taking refuge, orienting to body, tone, checking in what’s happening, and then forming intentions. What am I actually planning to do? What is my plan A right now? Plan A part of my exercise. Am I doing metta? Is this mindfulness of breathing? Am I just doing body sweeping? It’s important to actually be clear what you are doing. Rather than just sit here and hope the thinking stops.
That’s understandable and I guess, I’ve spent my fair time just hoping against odds and against reason and against experience that somehow Scotty will beam me up. But there is a time to grow up. And say, Okay. Scotty may be doing something else right now. I have to start my own rescue mission here. Why don’t I focus my energies. I’m not a kid anymore. I am a kid, but not just a kid. So what can I do? What do I want to do? What do I want to invest my time, my energy, my attention to?
And then we decide on an exercise. And within the framework of that exercise we give our best. And we meet the resistances, we meet the challenges, the distractions, the pains, the amorphousness of parts of our experience. And we re-orient back to the skills we have learned. The Plan A. Plan B part is important in there. My willingness to actually intervene, rather than just observe and wait and hope. These are all wonderful things.
The capacity to observe is a powerful thing. But so many things are not actually helped by observation. There is a tendency, both already early in Buddhism and in our culture as well, to equate wisdom functions with the ocular sense. So much of the language speaking of wisdom faculty uses visual analogies. Seeing through. Getting perspective. Witnessing. Observing. It can sound as if meditation is a highly visual thing that consists largely of Me being in a sort of witnessing flight-deck mode overlooking things and trying to not interfere with those things.
The tacit assumption is if I do enough of this, or if I’m cool enough, or observant, or sharp enough in my discernment, then these things will transform themsel[ves] into something pleasant or something freeing or something happy. And some things will. For some things it’s absolutely indispensable to be able to observe. Big things. Things that have drama. Things that have the tendency to flood. It’s very good to be able to distance oneself and observe.
The visual metaphor always distances us from experience. If you are in the visual metaphor it means [that] what you connect with is aways A, distant, and B, it’s opposite. So if we practice a mindfulness that is only based on an analogy of relationship that is visual, it means we are constantly opposite something and we are constantly distant from something. For some things this is useful. But for many things it is not. Many things are not helped by being distant. If you have a screaming kid in front of you, generally they don’t want to be witnessed and mindfully observed. They want to be engaged with in other ways. Other forms of attunement have proven to be more useful than just mindfully wait til it stops. It’s called abuse. And neglect. It’s a felony.
So we have to learn different ways of engaging with the topics, the territory of our own experience. Other than just distancing, observing, and waiting ’til it stops. Some things need to be approached. So the tactile sense is a useful alternative to the visual sense. The hearing analogy, being a listener rather than an observer. Takes us into a different space. If you listen you are always in the space with something. You’re not opposite. If you are listening. Most people, the listening sense will take them down somewhere into the middle of their torso. They’re in the midst of the space where sound comes. There is something to do with we have two ears and how we experience sound. It feels as if we are part of the space in which the sound is experienced. And that does something dramatically different to our meditative awareness. If we build that meditative relationship on the basis of hearing.
Yet again, touching is totally different. When we can observe, there is no guarantee that what is observed is aware that we are observing it. Think of relationship. You can see people without them seeing you. You can turn into a voyeur or into a military observer in hiding. There is no mutuality implied in seeing. Touching implies a total mutuality. If you touch somebody, you are also being touched. So the relationship is a very different one. It’s important that we meditators learn to make use of these differences in meeting our own stuff. In meeting our own experiences.
So if you find yourself waiting for things to change, think twice. Think, what are you actually doing? And what could you do differently? How could you engage with this experience differently? Those would be interesting questions.
We’ll say more about emotion and the third channel of Cittanupassana, which is constellating itself noticeably, we are aware of this, but for this morning, I would like to do a very simple exercise focused on breathing. Because breathing is our friend. Breathing will aways help us re-orient, re-connect and bring back stillness. We will have to shuttle between that which is arising and that which is stilling the mind. Some things cannot just be turned away and turned into hindrances and said, “I don’t deal with you because you are a disturbance and right now I’m stilling the mind.” That’s a useful exercise. In fact I believe it’s an indispensable and necessary exercise. But there is a time when certain things keep re-arising, and these are probably worth investigating and looking and holding in different ways. And for that the breath is very very powerful. As a friend, as a refuge, as something that allows us to shuttle between stillness and insight.
So please take up a meditative posture.
If you are used to closing your eyes, then please close your eyes.
Let’s just quickly check in. Tone of the body. Orientation in space. Notice anything that deviates from what you are familiar with. Contrast is always a way in.
And then let us acknowledge that we want to dedicate our energies, our aliveness, our intelligence to waking up. And willing to not run away when meeting my own story. When meeting my own patterns, when meeting my life when my life arises.
Then let’s check, is your mood bright? Is your mind awake? Is it gloomy, is it sleepy? Is this pleasant or less pleasant? Do you have images and thoughts running through your head? Can you name them without engaging with them?
The little nickles, the little voices.
The texture, the background texture of your mind right now. Just acknowledge.
And then let us turn again to the breath and seek a sensitized awareness of how this body is breathing. We are not actually interested in the air going in and out, but we are interested in what this evokes in our body. In our torso. In varying parts where we can feel the breath.
Breath is something we do a lot of. It can feel strangely non-descript. So sometimes it helps to ask a few specific questions. And I would like to give you a few questions. All of these questions don’t really have proper answers. So it’s not about a right or wrong answer. It’s about deepening a relationship. Deepening intimacy to your experience of breathing. A really good question opens a space in which we deepen into a greater intimacy.
This is a response to any good question. It deepens into. Irrespective of answer, the question itself opens the space. And in that space something can happen.
So let us identify a few qualities of breathing. The first one is very simple. Just how deep into the body is this breath movement allowed to go right now? What is the deepest area where I can feel the breath reaching into the body?
It is likely that this is not always the same place. It will widely vary from person to person, but even for one person it is quite possible to vary. Just how deep does it go right now? The right now is the crucial piece.
Breath is coming and going and I’m going to its lowest sensate place.
Somewhere in the Saṃyutta Nikāya buried in one of the less known texts, the Buddha’s description for whom he teaches is, “I teach for one who feels.” For the sentient. I teach for the sentient ones. I had goose pimples when I came across this the first time. Speaking to us as sensate, vulnerable, sensitive beings.
Another quality of breathing is rhythm. Just how fast is that breath? Is my in-breath as long as my out-breath or is the latter longer? Just take note of the speed, the pause, the length of an in-breath, the length of an out-breath, and see whether this rhythm is… what you can discern from this rhythm. Try not to force it or prolong it. This is not Prāṇāyāma. While Prāṇāyāma is a useful exercise, this is distinct from Prāṇāyāma, what we are doing here. We are not trying to lengthen the breath in this exercise. We are just trying to see what is it, the natural rhythm of my breathing right now. That rhythm consists of the length of an in-breath, the turning point, the length of an out-breath, a little pause, followed by the next in-breath.
Can I discern the rhythm of this breathing?
You’ll notice there’s a shift in attention, isn’t it, if you look for the deepest place. We’re kind of looking for locality. If you are trying to connect with a rhythm, we have to widen our attentional focus.
This is no longer local anymore. It’s another element to this experience.
Holding the time element. To find rhythm helps us to strengthen the continuity in our attentional field.
Let’s try another quality.
Another quality is what I call the tone. It’s the vitality that is in the breath. There is a kind of energy. It has springiness. Or it doesn’t have springiness. Is this a flaccid experience or does it have some buoyancy in it?
This whole breathing movement, is this something that has an energetic tone that is discernible for me?
I like to think of this as the pulse. The strength of a pulse, a breath pulse.
Holding your breath as pulse. Or taking your breath as pulse for a moment. See whether that deepens your relationship to the experience of breathing. It’s quite intimate if you take somebody’s pulse. Even if you’re not a Chinese practitioner. Taking somebody’s pulse is an intimate gesture.
A fourth quality would be the texture of my breathing experience. Is this breathing rasping or is it silky? Think of the movement of an in-breath the movement of an out-breath. And just kind of feel the texture of it. Think of touching different things with the palm and the fingertips. Stroking a cat is one type of experience. Running your hand over a piece of concrete is another experience. What is the surface texture of your breath? Begins raspy, turns silky, and then has a little kink at the end?
Sort of feathery? Or grainy?
It is likely that not all of these questions are speaking to you in the same way. I think it’s useful as qualities to seek to discern dimensions of your breathing experience. A last one, is maybe the resistance of the body. When the breath enters the body it has to surmount some resistance. Sometimes that resistance is tangible. Breathing seems belabored and hard work. I have to do the sucking and the pumping out. Sometimes it is different. Sometimes it is as if I am being breathed. As if I am just sort of a part of this biosphere that aspirates me. I am just kind of gently aspirated without doing any apparent work. All the work is done for me. The breath enters easefully and leaves easefully. And often it’s something in between. I become aware of the resistance of my ribcage, my tissues, my chest. I can feel places where the breath doesn’t go through. Feel into the breathing resistance for a moment. How easy does this breathing take place? How easily? How strenuous is this? How belabored?
The tone, the texture, the resistance. See whether one of them speaks to you in particular, takes you into deeper, more intimate relationship with your breathing. This is not something to do for a whole hour. This is something to just enter more intimately into the sensate experience of your breathing pulse. Breathing pattern. Bring them up now and then and see whether they do anything for you. Let’s practice for a moment.
[Yanai? speaks some time.]
[Yanai?] The sense of caring for the whole day. Engaging in walking and standing and sitting practice, but the sense of the whole day. It can sometimes be that we kind of practice with some enthusiasm and intentionality and dedication, well, that was good. I’ve done that, now I think I’ll take a break. We call it a Vipassana holiday. Yeah, I don’t think i really need to for a while, pay attention, or be present. It’s a little bit like when we are gathering water in our hands and we just choose to just let it fall away. Or as if we had a container and we just punch a whole in it because it feels like it might be kind of fun. But then the water leaks out and we go, Oh. What happened?
Walking practice doesn’t begin when we get to the place where we are going to walk mindfully back and forth. Right when we begin to move our body. Mindfulness, meditative sensitivity, this that we are engaged in, doesn’t begin at the time the sitting is scheduled to begin. Or the standing. It’s here. It’s this. There’s sometimes this rather curious experience when the bell is rung at the end of the sitting and everyone, “Ahhhhh. Ohhhh. That feels good.” I don’t know if you’ve had that experience. But it’s not uncommon. And yet the curious thing is that the moment after the bell rings, it’s really not any different than the moment before. But we are relating to it differently. Sometimes it’s because we get the release of the body. But sometimes it’s also that we are kind of releasing our intention and our focus. And it’s okay to adjust it. It doesn’t need to be held with such precision, perhaps. Or particularity. But that’s more a sense of opening up to include a wider field. Broadening the focus of our bandwidth, we could say. Using Akincano’s image of the television or the radio channels.
So when we move, to move with sensitivity. And walking to and from our place of walking, that doesn’t mean you have to walk so slowly to that place that most of the people can’t get out of the room until the end of the walking period. Some sense of practicality or being really mindful as you go down the food queue. And some people’s pot washing job has started before you got to the end of the queue because people are moving really slowly in the line. There’s a certain sensibility that goes with this practice, to see what’s appropriate.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t really be there as we do it. It’s that quality of presence and what we might notice is that we are also impacted by sounds and movements around us. But I think it’s not so much the sound or the movement itself. It’s when the sound or the movement is being generated without sensitivity and presence. Someone moving in the room is no disruption if they are present when they are there. And if they are not, then we might feel the vibration of it. Because it’s not being held in the presence, the attentiveness of the person. And of course we’ll all do that at times. I regularly knock my glass of water over here. Or Catherine’s. There’s a risk on occasion. We are not always able to be mindful.
We are not setting up some kind of, I’ve got to really now in a tight way try and notice every moment. But just be present for as many moments of this day as you can. And in the walking, that simple dedication to the form. It’s powerful. And allow yourself to receive what that can offer you. Noticing the subtleties of the experience. Just as with the breath, we can start to notice those particular dimensionalities as Akincano was guiding us. So to with the walking we can start to feel the qualities of each step and of the whole body in different ways. A sense of the space we are occupying and how we move through the medium of space. Sense of relationship to ground and to sky. Sense of relationship in the body between the movements of the body and the other parts of the body. Sense of relationship to the other bodies walking nearby. Or that we encounter.
All this becomes part of the field of the walking meditation. And so although we are centering our attention through the body and in the feet and in the legs, there is also an openness to what else is here. And seeing for yourself what degree of gathering in or opening out of your attention serves a sustaining of that quality of presence and also facilitates a sense of engagement with this experience. Being really open to receive it.
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 massive demand for greater clarification, I will happily supply it.