How long should my daily sits be?
Can you explain more about what it means to "infuse with equanimity?" For example, if I'm working out and a muscle is sore, do I focus on the experience of soreness in the muscle itself or on my attitude toward the soreness? (Or are they the same thing?)
Does giving up attachments mean giving up personal love?
I think I remember you at one point talking about "clarifying the self." What do you mean by this?
When I attempt to focus on my body sensations, I am often flooded with images, much more so than usual. What should I do?
I've heard that you have a new technique for calming the mind called Internal Echoing. Could you explain how it works?
When I focus on "subtle talk" I become aware of a constant undercurrent of feeling linked to it. It's as though there is always interaction occurring between the subtle talk and feeling, but it's below conscious awareness and difficult to get a handle on. What should I do?
Shinzen, you once told me, after a few comments I told you about some of my experiences, that the universe was meditating me. Can you elaborate?
In your opinion, why is it that some westerners can spend many years in meditation and make almost no progress? What could they be doing wrong?
Does it really matter how I hold my hands when I am doing sitting meditation?
I am under the impression that most meditators do reverse breathing (belly out on the inhale). Is this necessary for Vipassana?
Recently I have become aware of a technology that allows people to "witness" lots of unconscious material, and also to get into extremely deep states of meditation through the use of binaural beats and brain entrainment. Supposedly the best of these programs is called HoloSync. Have you or any of your students had any experience with Holosync?
Has meditation truly stopped most of your dukkha?
It seems that Buddhism regards consciousness as being more fundamental than the physical universe itself. In fact, all I really know is my phenomenology. Perhaps, as a friend has suggested, we should start with consciousness and then work our way outward to the universe. Any comments on this?
While I have done some reading of Thich Nhat Hanh over
the years, I was very surprised that the "engaged Buddhism" stopped at
alcohol and tobacco as far as issues to be engaged in.
What would you say as a recognized leader in and out of Vipassana to the need or responsibility to practice an engaged Buddhism in the sense of talking about issues like the worldwide movement to abolish nuclear weapons - to the consequence of American bombs having been dropped on civilians in Yugoslavia, and the same done on the people of Iraq? Is silence complicity in your book?
A series of
questions from a elementary school student studying Buddhism:
What areas in the world have the heaviest concentration of Buddhism and why?
Does Buddhism have a Holy Book? If it does, what is one quote from it?
What are the main branches of Buddhism? How are they different? How are they similar?
What is your view on other religions? Do you try to convert them into being Buddhists? Why or why not?
How does Buddhism view women? Are they equal? Why or why not?
How has Buddhism changed the landscape of the world today? In what countries does Buddhism influence the laws? Cite examples.
Are the experiences of Buddhists fundamentally similar to the God experience of the classic theistic mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila? Is this a "basic" question?
When you talk about B-I-T (Body, Image, Talk), is this a condensation of the five aggregates? I've read a description of the five aggregates in Varela, but B-I-T seems more closely related to the objects that pop up in my mind.
Since I have recently vowed not to harm other creatures, my son insists that I cannot, in good conscience, maintain our swimming pool this summer, since it requires daily chlorine treatments which kill small animals, bacteria, etc. Is this "wrong thinking"?
I think I understand and accept the concept of "no self" and "no soul," but I cannot quite grasp what it is, then, that gets "reborn" into the circle.
In one of the online dharma talks, Shinzen refers to a B-I-T technique, using fingers for noting. I have not found instructions for this in the talks or articles.
Recently, you have been putting a lot of emphasis on something you call the “core practice” or the “core sequence.” Could you describe this practice and comment on why you think it is superior to other practices?
How does the recently publicized (Time Magazine, June 17) conclusion by astrophysicists that the universe will end in dissolution as a result of accelerating expansion gibe with the basic premise that spirit underlies all reality? While I am admittedly mired in a small-self perspective, the image of a dead universe is difficult to reconcile with the fullness of emptiness and the cycle of impermanence.
I have meditated for many years, and very often I feel a great deal of tension around my head and face. I have used this tension as an object of meditation in the same way Shinzen has described using any body sensation as an object of meditation. The tension has persisted and I read from B. Allan Wallace in one his books that one should stop concentrating if there is persistent tension in the head while meditating, and focus more on relaxation, and that this tension can actually cause some damage. So I would be interested to know what you think.
|1. How long should my daily sits be?|
There are no absolutes, but here are a few guidelines.
After about 20 or 30 minutes, many people get a strong sense of "Okay, I've done my meditation thing, now let's get on with real life." Actually, it's at that point that they have finally gotten settled enough to start the most productive work! So don't always give in to that perception. At least occasionally deconstruct the urge to "attend to the real world" into its components: body sensations, mental images and internal talk. Stay with the urge until it softens a bit before actually getting up. Life does not grip us because it's real, it's real because it grips us.
If possible sit for 2 hours at least a couple of times a month, making only the minimum movement needed to avoid intense discomfort. I find that 2-hour sits bring me to my current "base state" — what I experienced at the high point of my last retreat.
Traditionally morning has been considered the best time to meditate because it sets up the whole day to be within a meditative context.
If your significant other meditates, it's good if you can arrange your schedules to meditate together at the same time each day. This has a powerful effect on the day-to-day challenges of relationships. You both know that, no matter what may come up during the day, within less than 24 hours you will be encountering each other in the intimate linkage of your deepest spiritual openness. The family that sits together, fits together.
|2. Can you explain more about what it means to "infuse with equanimity?" For example, if I'm working out and a muscle is sore, do I focus on the experience of soreness in the muscle itself or on my attitude toward the soreness? (Or are they the same thing?)|
For a general treatment of equanimity, please see What is Equanimity?
As for “should I focus on the soreness itself or on my attitude…” I would say either or both. But in order to be really clear about what these options entail, we need to be precise about the range of components that enter into the experience. These include:
- The obvious physical discomfort itself as one or several local subspaces within the body
- Any possible spreading of this local sensation...
- to its immediate vicinity,
- over the whole body, or
- out into surrounding space
Such spreading is often subtle, and in fact, may not even be present
- Reactions to the discomfort in the form of tensing that is voluntary in the sense that it could be relaxed through intentionality
- Any emotional body sensations which may be triggered by 1 and 2 above. Each perception of discomfort may trigger:
A clear sensation of fear
A subtle sensation of fear
No sensation of fear
Clear teary/sad/poor me sensation
Subtle teary/sad/poor me sensation
No teary/sad/poor me sensation
Clear anger/irritation/frustration sensation
Subtle anger/irritation/frustration sensation
No anger/irritation/frustration sensation
Clear agitation/fidgety/impatience sensation
Subtle agitation/fidgety/impatience sensation
No agitation/fidgety/impatience sensation
And so forth.
Obvious or subtle urgeful/judgmental self-talk about the discomfort
Obvious or subtle mental images triggered by the discomfort
The degree to which 1 through 6 above are subject to (or free from):
gaps in awareness
1 and 2 above represent the discomfort as an object (i.e. the "soreness in the muscle itself").
3, 4, 5 and 6 create the perception of a self subject to the discomfort (i.e. your "attitude")
7a and 7b are the factors that ultimately determine whether you experience the discomfort as problematic or cathartic.
Having clarified all this, we're now in a position to address your question with the requisite specificity. You may:
Focus on the discomfort as clearly and continuously as possible, simply ignoring 4, 5 and 6 above. Let them be in the background without any agenda to suppress or eliminate them, but without identifying with them. Eventually they will weaken or vanish because:
You're not reinforcing them;
The discomfort breaks up of its own;
The "law of averages" alluded to in What is Equanimity? takes effect; or
The discomfort gets so huge that it impedes and eventually pulverizes your feel, image and talk reactions to it (scary until you become familiar with the stages!)
While doing all this, attempt to intentionally relax 3. You may have to do this over and over again as the tightening creeps back. This global relaxation may:
Make 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 seem more intense;
Make them seem less intense; or
Have no effect on 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6
A, B or C are equally signs of progress.
Note: I call this strategy "Watching the Pain to Death"
Observe the discomfort while intentionally trying to change negative reactions into positive ones ("conceptual reframing")
Replace "I hate this" with "I welcome this as purification"
Replace "When is this going to end?!" with "Changing, changing" or such
Replace disconcerting, reifying or urgeful images with positive gentle ones (be creative!)
Replace negative emotional reactions (4, A, B, C and D above) with loving kindness or compassion toward the discomfort
Don't forget to relax 3.
Note: I call this strategy "Loving the Pain to Death"
With regard to I and II above, you say, "Easier said than done!" That's true. Other possibilities include:
Focus away from the discomfort and on to your feel, image and talk reactions to it (i.e. get fascinated with the specifics of your resistance). Give those reactions absolute permission to come and go as they wish (i.e. don't resist the resistance).
At some point the willful, judgmental self gets so clear and uninhibited that it becomes transparent and fluid and hence ceases to be an issue.
Note: I call this strategy "Loving the Watcher to Death"
You may wish to alternate strategies I or II with strategy III (personally, I find this approach very productive), but because they involve contrasting focuses, you need to be clear about which you're doing and what its components are.
When you become very proficient you can even "clari-liquify" the perceived discomfort and the perceiving self (the soreness and the attitude) at the same time. In the Japanese Zen tradition this is referred to as ryomo: ryo "both" and mo "gone"
Try something else
The final part of your question "...or are the soreness and my attitude the same thing?" raises a very deep and interesting issue. Based on surface phenomenology, the discomfort and your attitude would appear to be essentially different; the latter is a reaction to the former. But the question really hinges on how deeply one is willing to define "my" and how broadly one is willing to define "attitude."
Take, for example, the preconscious resistance which I have referred to here as "automatic coagulation." It arises at subliminal levels of processing. It is probably partially genetically hard-wired and partially the result of conditioning. It cannot be controlled, but it can be "watched to death." To what extent is this part of "my attitude"? Furthermore, when this phenomenon is completely trained away, is there any thing called discomfort left at all? In other words, is there really a sensation quality called pain to begin with or is it all just a giant onion of resistance to resistance to resistance...? (In which case the soreness and your attitude are the same thing)
1. For a fuller treatment of the "subliminal resistance" phenomenon, please see
Break Through Pain
Working With Physical Discomfort During Meditation
2. Please, please don't attempt to answer the last question I posed covering subliminal resistance until:
You are capable of clearly detecting it
You have spent lots of time carefully investigating its relationship to pain and suffering
|3. Does giving up attachments mean giving up personal love?|
The quick and simple answer is no — but let's investigate a little more deeply what is involved in giving up things to achieve spiritual goals.
It seems to me that there are really four distinct categories of "giving up."
Giving up certain objective objects, situations, relationships and behaviors because they are intrinsically antithetical to the Path (for example, an alcoholic gives up drinking).
Giving up certain subjective thoughts and beliefs because they are intrinsically antithetical to the Path (for example, letting go of judgments, prejudices and negative tapes and so forth).
Giving up (temporarily or permanently) certain things which are not intrinsically antithetical to the Path. The purpose here is to create an environment within which one can explore the following:
Giving up the identification with all subjective thought and feeling.
One might give up personal love as an aspect of III but the only reason for doing so is to motivate and facilitate IV.
So the crux of the issue is: what does it mean to give up the personal identification with ones thought and feeling?
We become free from our identification with thoughts and feelings whenever we experience them fully, i.e., with sufficient mindfulness and equanimity. Descriptions of what that is like can be found throughout this site. Specifically, read the question and answer about anicca at the end of the article Meditation: Escaping Into Life.
One who is able to experience any sensory event in fullness, regardless of its content, intensity or duration is called a liberated person. The operant term here is "able." One should not suppose that liberated people always and only have complete experiences. But the knowledge that you can dissolve anything into its completeness changes your attitude about everything.
For one who is on the Path of Complete Experience, personal love (if they pursue it) is vastly potentiated. They come to understand the true nature of the jewel that is hidden within the seductive petals of the lotus.
|4. I think I remember you at one point talking about "clarifying the self." What do you mean by this?|
In The Interior Castle, Saint Teresa of Avila describes the seventh and final stage of her journey to God:
"The self-forgetting is so great that it seems as though the soul does not even exist."
In his famous treatise on Soto Zen, The Shobogenzo, Dogen speaks thus:
"To study the Way is to study oneself; to study oneself is to forget oneself; to forget oneself is to be enlightened by all things."
On the other hand, many western therapies speak of the importance of ego strength. Jack Engler, former Chairman of Psychiatry at Harvard and himself an active Vipassana teacher, made the classic statement, "You need to have a self before you can lose it."
Many people are confused on this issue. It would seem that western psychology (and common sense!) are in conflict with the mystics of the world. Or at least the endeavors of self-strengthening and self-forgetting are in contrast, and you must complete the former before undertaking the latter. People wonder, "Which should I be doing now?"
I would like to suggest a different way of looking at this issue based on the suggestive ambiguity of the English verb "to clarify."
Something is clarified when its underlying structure is revealed. To reveal (i.e., un-veil) a structure, one must a) discern its basic components and b) investigate how those components interact to create the structure. This is precisely what we do with the perception of self when we practice Vipassana meditation. We develop the ability to detect "self-talk, mental image and body feeling" and then investigate how they interact to produce the perception "I am."
Does such a practice strengthen the sense of self or destroy it? I would say both!
A person who has a "weak sense of self" or "difficulty maintaining boundaries" could actually benefit from clarifying the self in this way. Their inability to hold a sense of self against the forces of "other" may in part arise from an inability to maintain contact with their own body sensations, internal talk and mental images when interacting with other people. Indeed, I have successfully used this model in teaching meditation to people with a clinical diagnosis of "weak ego structure." I once briefly described this work to Jack Engler, quoted above. He was quite intrigued and suggested that I demonstrate it to his psychiatric interns.
At some point clarification in the sense of "making distinct" gains so much momentum that it becomes clarification in the sense of "making transparent." The sense of self loses its opacity ("thingness") and the Light of Spirit which was always there can now shine through. But this Light of Spirit is not something fundamentally different from the "feel, image, talk" self. It is simply the human personality manifesting as a wave function in contrast to the usual particulate paradigm.
So when Dogen speaks of studying the self and forgetting the self, he is simply describing two aspects of one process: clarifying the self.
|5. When I attempt to focus on my body sensations, I am often flooded with images, much more so than usual. What should I do?|
What you are describing is a specific case of a more general phenomenon. Sometimes, as soon as we focus on an object of experience, some other object seems to demand our attention. But when we go to it, it dies down and something else, perhaps our original object, erupts dramatically. What to do?
In general, if your theme is "selective attention," try to stay with the original focus no matter how loud the distraction gets. Admittedly this can be challenging.
You can motivate yourself by remembering the benefits:
- It develops concentration power (always a good thing!)
- It develops the ability to "attend to the subtle in the face of the gross." (This is important because of the "subtle is significant" axiom.)
- It requires that you have equanimity with the distracting phenomenon (and thus purifies consciousness.)
Point 3 is deep. Sensory experiences in themselves have no power to distract us, however intense they may be. It is only the associated craving, aversion and unconsciousness that give them the power to distract. Therefore, concentration practice is inherently purification practice, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. If we have developed our "spiritual palate" and can detect this "taste of purification," it becomes a strong motivation to continue our concentration and the purification snowballs. We might call this a "virtuous cycle."
Of course you can also modify the scope of your focus to:
- Selective attention on the distraction itself.
- A collective focus that includes both the original focus and the distraction.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for when to do what, but the following may be helpful.
- Don't always automatically switch as soon as you encounter dramatic competition. If you always switch, you will never learn selective attention skills.
- If you do switch, do so consciously, perhaps even intentionally saying to yourself, "Now I'm switching from A to B. My technique for B is ..., my purpose for doing this is..."
À propos of maintaining selective focus, the following principle is fundamental. I call it the "cardinal axiom of selective attention."
During selective focus on a certain sense experience, competing sense experiences may arise, perhaps dramatically. At each instant, the appearance of this distraction will impact the original sense experience in exactly one of the following ways:
- It will stimulate it
- It will attenuate it (i.e., thin it out)
- It will have no obvious effect on it
To retain your selective focus on the original object, monitor which of the above is occurring, second-by-second.
For example, if you are focusing on body sensations and become flooded by images, notice:
- Any feelings (body reactions) triggered by the image activity
- If the image activity causes your contact with touches (sensation of physical origin) to become thinned out even slightly.
Effect 2 above (attenuation, thinning out) is particularly interesting. The original object may be thinned out to the zero point, i.e., completely disappear. If your practice is to "observe X" then you will be confused as to what to do if X vanishes for a moment. If your practice is to "monitor the activation level of X," you will know exactly what to do...be consciously aware of its absence. For example, if you truly have no body sensation, you can consciously enjoy freedom from carnality. (For geeks: "Zeros carry as much information as 1s." For artists: "Learn to appreciate negative space.")
Often the original object gets somewhat thinned out by the pull of distraction, but does not completely disappear. In this case, it almost inevitably becomes softer and more fluid (anicca). Knowing this is a major strategy for keeping your focus and making meditation enjoyable!
When I teach mindfulness, I typically ask people to "monitor the general level of activation of X" Rather than simple to "observe X." The categories and labels involved are:
- Clearly active ("clear")
- Subtly active ("subtle")
- Inactive ("none")
If you develop the ability to detect these categories and you really understand the "cardinal axiom" mentioned above, you should be able to effectively work with distractions.
6. I've heard that you have a new technique for calming the mind called Internal Echoing. Could you explain how it works?
Without a doubt the biggest challenge facing most people in the early years of their practice is dealing with obsessive internal chatter, also known as monkey mind. On this site you can find several articles and audio tapes that deal with this issue.
Among the coping strategies commonly adopted are attempting to sooth the chatter through a mantra (as in T.M.) or carefully observing it (as in standard Vipassana). The echoing process combines the strengths of both these methods in a clever way. (My motto is, "If you can't be disciplined, try to be clever!")
The process consists of two steps:
Clearly place your attention within your ear canals as if you were going to intently listen to external sounds, but instead listen inward, into your head, to the sounds of your internal talk. If at any time during the exercise you realize that your attention has been drawn away from this "talk home base," gently reestablish it there. (You cannot hope to see the mouse unless you keep your attention right at its warren hole!)
Each time you become aware that you have just had a thought in words, mentally repeat the sentence or phrase. You may repeat it just once or several times as you wish. Thus you will be intentionally "echoing" the conscious part of your spontaneous verbal thinking process. You can echo the words in the same intonation you heard them or in an intentionally matter-of-fact, impersonal voice.
The echoing should have the following characteristics:
- Pauses — Pause after each syllable and after completing the whole sentence/phrase. During such pauses, other talk events (clear or subtle) may be present. Let them be in the background and tangibly be aware of the cessation of intentional echoing.
- "Soundness" — The first time you heard the thought you listened to its meaning. This time listen to its sound (in other words, shift from "sentence content" to "sonic contour").
- "Mantric impact" — When one does standard internal mantra practice, one usually notices a soothing, massaging effect from the mantra syllables. The idea here is to listen to the echoing of your self-talk as though it were a mantra massage. With practice the echo energy can become quite pleasant, even when the content of the thought itself is negative.
- Slowness and gentleness
What to do if...
...there is a lot of competing talk, comments about the process, mental games, etc.
All that's okay. Let it "do its thing" but focus on the echoing. The idea is coexistence; the random talk need not interfere with the echo talk and the echo talk need not interfere with the random stuff. You don't need to intentionally remember thoughts that came up while you were echoing. The next thing you echo is whatever comes up after the present sentence/phrase has been echoed.
...you forget what you just heard or miss stuff
That's fine. Just echo whatever comes next.
...you get emotional feelings as a reaction to the process
That is to be expected. Let it be in the background with equanimity.
...clear talk ceases
Monitor the level of any subtle activity or listen to and enjoy the internal silence.
...you find it difficult to listen to talk as sound
Try some standard mantra practice listening to "om, om," "peace, peace." This will sensitize you to what it is like to listen to internal sound. Then go back to the echo and try to listen to it like a mantra.
... you find it utterly impossible to do the exercise
Usually this is because you are having a lot of feelings associated with the thinking. If you wish you can work with those feelings then return to the echoing.
You can practice internal echoing for any duration from a few minutes to hours on end. When you are done, drop the echoing for a while and monitor the general activation level of talk while continuing to rest your attention in the ear canals. You may notice the following effects:
- There is more silence.
- Clear talk seems to occur slower, perhaps in slow motion. It is easier to observe it.
- There is some "distance" between you and the talk. You are less involved in its content.
- You can hear spontaneous verbal thinking more in terms of its sound qualities.
- You become aware of more of the subtle levels of activity that underlie conscious thought.
7. When I focus on "subtle talk" I become aware of a constant undercurrent of feeling linked to it. It's as though there is always interaction occurring between the subtle talk and feeling, but it's below conscious awareness and difficult to get a handle on. What should I do?
First and foremost, don't consider this a problem; consider it an insight. You have unveiled an important facet of the subjective structure. It is not necessary (nor even usually possible) to discern the content of this interaction. Simply monitor its contour. There are several possible strategies.
- If your object of focus is subtle talk, stay with that exclusively and continuously, letting the feelings be in the background.
- If your object is feeling, stay with that exclusively and continuously, letting the talk be in the background.
- If your object is subtle talk and feeling (talk and body sensation), then keep attention simultaneously and continuously on both, letting them dance together without any particular agenda.
Any of these approaches will be rewarding. Just be clear which approach you are using at a given time.
8. Shinzen, you once told me, after a few comments I told you about some of my experiences, that the universe was meditating me. Can you elaborate?
Let me first outline a very broad framework then respond to your specific question.
I like to formulate the spiritual path in terms of what I call complementary dyads. Dyad is the Greek word for a pairing. Complementary dyads are pairs of contrasting elements of the path that interweave so as to reinforce one another.
To some people these contrasts appear to be antagonisms or oppositions. However, I define spiritual maturity as the degree to which one is:
- able to understand their complementary nature
- able to skillfully interweave them to deepen ones practice
Here is a list of a few such contrasting pairs.
Transcending ones personal identity (breaking the limited identity with ones mind and body -being an übermensch) Refining ones personal identity (getting your personal life and interpersonal relationships in order -being a mensch) Sadhana (working on oneself through formal practice) Seva (working to improve the world through action and service) Shamatha (developing calm and concentration) Vipashyana (developing insight and purification)
Now, to respond to your specific question, consider the following three pairs of contrasts.
- Focusing on objects vs. Yielding to energy
- Effort vs. Grace
- Meditating vs. Being meditated
In my experience the terms on the left are closely related to those on the right, though this is perhaps not obvious from the words themselves.
So first let's clarify the terminology.
From beginning to end the practice of Mindfulness involves just two awareness skills: specificity and equanimity. But what one is specific about and equanimous with alternates in the course of ones spiritual itinerary. Initially one attempts to bring specificity and equanimity to sense objects, tracking body sensations, mental images, internal conversations as solid 'things.' At some point these things may present themselves as 'energies'—the movements and forces that constitute their impermanence.
When this happens:
- Specificity is now defined as the ability to detect the various flavors of impermanence: undulation, vibration, scintillation ("clear light"), circulation, expansive-contractive movements, expansive-contractive forces, etc.
Because of its simplicity and homogeneity, being specific about energy requires much less effort than being specific about objects.
- Equanimity is now defined as yielding to those movements and forces — letting them massage away the kinks in the substance of your soul.
This, like receiving a physical massage, is essentially a passive affair. I call this "being meditated" as opposed to meditating.
The experience of being meditated lasts for a period of time (minutes to months). Then, depending on the impact of external circumstances and the rhythm of internal releases, things refreeze into solid objects for a period of time (again minutes to months).
Now, equanimity is defined as being perfectly willing to let that refreezing take place. One returns to the (perhaps effortful) process of being precise and accepting with regard to these solid sense objects.
In this way effort and grace, objects and energies, meditating and being meditated interweave over time to optimize your spiritual growth.
Actually allowing your self to be massaged away by impermanence is only half of the "being meditated" experience; it is being meditated out of existence by the action of impermanence (known as bitul ha-yesh in Hebrew and as rupam shunyata in Sanskrit).
At an advanced level one also experiences being meditated (or loved) into existence by the action of impermanence (known as bri'ah yesh me-ayn in Hebrew and as shunyataiva rupam in Sanskrit).
Thus the experience of "being meditated" is itself a complementary dyad. One is massaged out of and into existence over and over again in an ever-deepening cycle of self softening.
9. In your opinion, why is it that some westerners can spend many years in meditation and make almost no progress? What could they be doing wrong?
The same stagnation can occur for Easterners too; it's a human thing! I'm sure that the causes of this are subtle and complex but, at the risk of gross oversimplification, I'm tempted to say that it is due to not getting a "critical mass" of guidance and support in their practice. By a critical mass, I mean guidance that is:
- profoundly competent
- sensitively personalized
10. Does it really matter how I hold my hands when I am doing sitting meditation?
No in the sense that you don't have to believe dogmatic hype like "you'll never get enlightenment if you place the right hand over the left because the left is yin, and since Cosmic Samadhi is a yin state, the left must be kept on top"
On the other hand, "subtle is significant." Hand gestures (mudras) produce sensations and if you are sensitive to those sensations, you can use them to deepen your state. In my sect of ordination, Shingon (Japanese Vajrayana) there's an expression "ichimitsu." It means in essence that even a single mudra gesture or a single mantra syllable could enlighten you if you developed sufficient sensitivity to it. For example, the standard Zen sitting mudra (4 fingers flat, thumbs touching) seems to convey a quality of both fullness and vacuity that exemplifies somatically the nature of shunyata. (It has the additional property that as soon as you get sleepy the mudra collapses, hopefully serving as a biofeedback device to wake you up. But if not, serving as a sign to the stick monitor that you need a whack!)
I guess the upshot of what I'm saying is that you can make how you place your hands as significant or trivial as you wish. Explore for yourself.
11. I am under the impression that most meditators do reverse breathing (belly out on the inhale). Is this necessary for Vipassana?
No. Usually we make no attempt to manipulate the breath, but to just observe it as it is. Sometimes in Zen and often in Vajrayana the breath is controlled in some way, but usually not in vipassana.
12. Recently I have become aware of a technology that allows people to "witness" lots of unconscious material, and also to get into extremely deep states of meditation through the use of binaural beats and brain entrainment. Supposedly the best of these programs is called HoloSync. Have you or any of your students had any experience with Holosync?
I've never tried the stuff. Some people seem to get interesting states, but I've yet to meet a really experienced meditator who tried it and was massively impressed.
However, I am open-minded and interested in trying it myself, but I don't believe the sales hype ("get the effects of 30 years of ass-bustin' Zen practice in just 30 minutes...")
13. Has meditation truly stopped most of your dukkha?
Most? Hard to say--but certainly enough that I cannot comprehend how I ever managed to live without knowing what I now know.
14. It seems that Buddhism regards consciousness as being more fundamental than the physical universe itself. In fact, all I really know is my phenomenology. Perhaps, as a friend has suggested, we should start with consciousness and then work our way outward to the universe. Any comments on this?
I find the idea of starting with consciousness useful in the following sense: When I teach meditation, I never imply that I have anything to say about the nature of reality itself. I say that it is the job of scientists and philosophers to explore that. But I do have a lot to say about how consciousness works as subjective experience. By subjective I mean the six senses: hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, body sensation and thinking. I do not attempt to define consciousness but rather point out that according to traditional Buddhist theories, whatever consciousness may be, it comes in the above-mentioned six flavors.
15. While I have done some reading of Thich Nhat Hanh over the years, I was very surprised that the "engaged Buddhism" stopped at alcohol and tobacco as far as issues to be engaged in. What would you say, as a recognized leader in and out of Vipassana, to the need or responsibility to practice an engaged Buddhism in the sense of talking about issues like the worldwide movement to abolish nuclear weapons - to the consequence of American bombs having been dropped on civilians in Yugoslavia, and the same done on the people of Iraq? Is silence complicity in your book?
I believe that engagement is an area where the Buddhist could learn from the Western religions, particularly Christianity, just as the Christians could learn to meditate from us. I would agree that in general Buddhism has been too passive in its expression of compassion. On the other hand, it is very important to realize that whenever people work on themselves, they are in a very real sense working on the larger social issues since these issues arise due to the fact that almost no one is willing to take the time to work on themselves in the most fundamental way.
I also think it is important that the Dharma always be presented in its most universal form, not limited to a particular political perspective. As strongly as I may agree with you on certain social and political issues, I believe it is of the utmost importance that people of any political persuasion feel comfortable coming to my retreats!
|16. A series of questions from an elementary student studying Buddhism|
In general the heaviest concentration of Buddhism is in Asia because in the past Buddhism spread primarily eastward from its land of origin, India. Due to various historical events the concentration of Buddhism in Asia is not uniform. The invasion of India by Moslem peoples culminated in the destruction of Buddhism there by about the year 1200 A.D. In the 20th century the spread of Communism in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and the Chinese invasion of Tibet reduced, although did not eliminate, the influence of Buddhism in those areas. At this time the strongest Buddhist areas in Asia are Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka in Southeast Asia and Japan in East Asia.
The holy book of Buddhism is rather large. It's called the Tripitaka or "Three Baskets" because it has three divisions. The first division is called the Sutra Pitaka or "Basket of Discourses" which contains the sermons of the Buddha himself. The second division is called the Abhidharma Pitaka or "Basket of Systematic Philosophy" which contains works by the Buddha's disciples. The third division is called the Vinaya Pitaka or "Basket of Monastic Rules" which contains the rules and customs by which the Buddhist monks and nuns must live. Here is a quote...these were the last words of the Buddha, uttered just before he died and preserved in the Sutra Pitaka: "Everything in the conditional world is impermanent. Work for liberation with diligence." Another quote: "Be a lamp unto yourself."
There are three main branches of Buddhism called Hinayana ("Small Vehicle"), Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") and Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle"). They all teach the same experience of enlightenment but go about it in somewhat different ways.
In Hinayana you develop high concentration and with it carefully analyze your moment-by-moment experience. This is called Vipassana meditation. When concentration is used in this way it is known as "mindfulness." Mindfulness is to the understanding of yourself as a microscope is to the understanding of the external world. When you apply mindfulness to your inner world you become free from being caught in your own thoughts and body sensations. This is called enlightenment or liberation.
The most famous form of Mahayana meditation is called Zen. In Zen, you also develop high concentration but use it in order to experience oneness between yourself and all things. For example, if you focus on a flower or a sound in a very concentrated way you become that flower or that sound. (Have you ever had such an experience?) This leads to the same enlightenment or liberation that you get through Vipassana.
Vajrayana Buddhism is traditionally practiced in Tibet, where the Dalai Lama comes from. It involves elaborate rituals and ceremonies, so a lot of people think it's sort of complicated and pointless, but actually those ceremonies are forms of meditation. (By the way, I was talking with the Dalai Lama a few months ago. He is very interested in science and how science and Buddhism can cooperate to improve the human condition.)
Buddhists have always believed that the same enlightenment or liberation that is found in Buddhism can also be found in other religions. In other religions these enlightened people are sometimes referred to as mystics. For example, Saint Teresa of Avila who was a Christian or Rumi who was a Moslem or Isaac Luria who was a Kabbalistic Jew are all examples of non-Buddhist enlightened people. Enlightenment is also found in the shamanic tradition of tribal peoples in Africa, Native America and the native cultures of the Pacific Ocean. Since enlightenment can be found by any person who looks within, as a Buddhist I am not so interested in convincing people to become Buddhists. But I am interested that they become Buddhas (enlightened people). One way to become a Buddha is to practice Buddhism. Another way is to participate in the mystical core of whatever religion you now follow...Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so forth.
The Buddha had many disciples who were women and became fully enlightened, that is to say spiritually equal to the Buddha himself. On the other hand, the sad truth is that the cultures where Buddhism has been practiced in the past have not treated women fairly (as is true of most cultures in the past). One of the big changes that has taken place now that Buddhism is spreading rapidly in the Western world is that Western Buddhists have gone very far to eliminate this prejudice. The number of women teaching Buddhist meditation in the Western world is equal to the number of men, and there are many famous women Buddhist masters in the U.S. and Canada.
I don't know much about Buddhist influence on laws although I would expect cultures like Thailand and Sri Lanka as well as pre-communist Tibet to have legal systems influenced by Buddhism. In many countries where Buddhism is practiced, the death penalty was eliminated at least during some periods in history, and this is a direct influence of Buddhism. Probably the largest influence from Buddhism in the western world right now stems from the fact that many people are interested in practicing meditation, and the Buddhist method of meditation is very systematic and easy to follow. Buddhist meditation techniques are finding their way into mainstream aspects of North American culture. For example, I come from Los Angeles where the basketball team, the L.A. Lakers, won the championship last year through the "Zen" coaching style of Phil Jackson. (Actually coach Jackson is more influenced by Vipassana meditation than Zen, but the sportscasters have not yet learned these subtle distinctions!)
Another area where Buddhism is influencing contemporary culture is in the medical field. Buddhist meditation techniques, especially mindfulness techniques, are very powerful for dealing with pain that cannot be helped through medication. Also, Buddhist meditation is being used in mainstream medicine to reduce stress that leads to certain health problems.
17. Are the experiences of Buddhists fundamentally similar to the God experience of the classic theistic mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila? Is this a "basic" question?
My answer to the second part of your question is not only is this a basic question, it is the basic question. The "quick and dirty" answer to this question is a big fat YES. This of course is counter-intuitive because 1) the languaging of the Buddhists concerning their experience has in the past avoided the G-- word and 2) the classical enlightenment experience of early Buddhism, as exemplified in the Vipassana tradition, seems to involve paying attention to rather mundane phenomena such as itches, aches, transient mind states and so forth. What has all this to do with "seeing God?"
I can assure you, however, that if you have a radically complete experience of the seemingly mundane, the seemingly mundane completely dissolves into waves of energy which might well be called Spirit. And the place to which those waves die away could well be described as the peace that passeth understanding alluded to in the Christian Bible or the "shalom bimromav" of the Hebrew scriptures.
It's an interesting fact that contemporary Buddhist teachers do in fact sometimes refer to this as "God." Even a staunch conservative Theravadin like S.N. Goenka has on occasion used such languaging. My own teacher, Sasaki Roshi, constantly talks about "encountering God" although he's quick to point out that while you are actually encountering God, both self and God cease to exist as objects.
So the upshot is you can have your cake and eat it too in the following two senses:
1) You can have an experience of totally transcending the limits of time, space, self and world through extraordinary experience of the ordinary and
2) You can be a profound mystic and a hard-nosed rationalist at the same time. (This is what I aspire to be!)
18. When you talk about B-I-T (Body, Image, Talk), is this a condensation of the five aggregates? I've read a description of the five aggregates in Varela, but B-I-T seems more closely related to the objects that pop up in my mind.
Yes, B-I-T is a contemporary reformulation of the five aggregates. Actually B-I-T represents both a simplification and a rewording using categories that I believe are more natural and less ambiguous than the traditional Buddhist ones.
19. Since I have recently vowed not to harm other creatures, my son insists that I cannot, in good conscience, maintain our swimming pool this summer, since it requires daily chlorine treatments which kill small animals, bacteria, etc. Is this "wrong thinking"?
As far as harming creatures goes, the Buddhist tradition in general gives people a lot of latitude in interpretation. In the monasteries of Southeast Asia, the monks attempt never to kill anything, however small, and will spend hours catching insects and putting them outside. On the other hand, they don't expect householders to be nearly so scrupulous. The important point according to Buddhism is to put time and energy into practice rather than elaborate intellectual inquiry regarding moral conundrums.
20. I think I understand and accept the concept of "no self" and "no soul," but I cannot quite grasp what it is, then, that gets "reborn" into the circle.
Think of it this way. On the surface of the sun an electron drops one quantum energy level. Approximately 8 minutes later and 93 million miles away an electron on the surface of the earth balances that by jumping up one quantum level. We say "a light wave has traveled from the sun to the earth," yet between the sun and the earth there is essentially nothing but empty time-space. What's the "medium" that carries that wave? This is very similar to the traditional Buddhist description of karmic causality: "This being, that is." From one perspective we can say that there is a particle that goes from the sun to the earth. From another perspective, there is no particle, there is only a wave. A wave made of what? Empty time-space!
I give you this by way of a metaphor not to try to convince you that "reincarnation" actually exists. To be completely honest, I don't have a clue, but I will say that I don't think the concept is unreasonable.
|21. In one of the online dharma talks, Shinzen refers to a B-I-T technique, using fingers for noting. I have not found instructions for this in the talks or articles.|
Please refer to the diagram on B-I-T labeling schemes included in my answer below.
22. Recently, you have been putting a lot of emphasis on something you call the “Core Practice” or the “core sequence.” Could you describe this practice and comment on why you think it is superior to other practices?
The Core Practice consists of four steps:
Step 1: Simple contact with the body.
Step 2: Simple contact with mental imagery.
Step 3: Simple contact with internal dialog.
Step 4: Free floating between eight possible states of mind/body, tracking them with or without labeling them, as you prefer. (This step is sometimes informally called "noting B-I-T combos.")
The eight possible states are:
1 Just body 3 possible single occurrences 2 Just image
3 Just talk
4 Image & body 3 possible paired occurrences 5 Talk & body 6 Image & talk 7 All three simultaneously 2 extreme cases 8 No arising of mind or body
If you wish to label, you can use the following:
Mental and Vocal Labels
Fingering 1 Just body “Body” Index 2 Just image “Image” Middle 3 Just talk “Talk” Ring 4 Image & body “Image & body” Index & middle 5 Talk & body “Talk & body” Index & ring 6 Image & talk “Image & talk” Middle & ring 7 All three “All” All three fingers
8 None “None” No fingers
(For finger labeling, press your fingers against an object, a part of the body, etc. Change the pattern of pressed and unpressed fingers to correspond to the pattern of activation and deactivation of B-I-T elements.)
The sequence can be done very quickly or very slowly, but most people seem to like five to twenty minutes for each complete cycle of the four steps. Each step gets approximately equal time, but stopwatch precision is not important. Don't be too obsessive with the timing.
Like physical exercise, you get strong by doing repetitions. I recommend at least two cycles per sit. You can combine the core sequence with more specialized techniques that address specific challenges and opportunities that come up as you sit.
As far as why I think this technique is better than others, I don't! Each way of meditating has advantages and disadvantages. The main disadvantages of this way of working are that it is a bit complex (sorry for the unintentional pun!), and many people have little or no mental imagery under ordinary circumstances.
On the other hand, here are some of the reasons I like it:
- It works both individually and collectively with...
- the elements that constitute all subjective states
- the elements that underlie all objective behaviors
- It is easily taught in a modular (step-by-step) way
- It forms a natural framework to which you may add specialized procedures that optimize your practice sessions
- It forms a natural starting point to build upon when receiving guidance and support from a facilitator, interactive CD or computer-based artificial intelligence program.
- It allows you to detect in a tangible way positive effects that may occur in body-image-talk by the end of a session such as heightened resolution, more fluidity, etc., thus reinforcing your momentum to practice. This aspect is particularly noticeable when one receives skillful external guidance as alluded to above.
- In short, the core sequence attempts to strike a balance between the need to keep things simple and the power that comes from flexibility.
23. How does the recently publicized (Time Magazine, June 17) conclusion by astrophysicists that the universe will end in dissolution as a result of accelerating expansion gibe with the basic premise that spirit underlies all reality? While I am admittedly mired in a small-self perspective, the image of a dead universe is difficult to reconcile with the fullness of emptiness and the cycle of impermanence.
I'm guessing that in the scenario you are asking about, the universe ends up "dead" in the sense that its temperature everywhere drops to absolute zero, i.e., zero degree Kelvin. I may be wrong about this though; I have not read the article you allude to.
In any case, the first point I want to make relates not to that specific scenario, but to a broader issue. Let's begin with a story about Lord Kelvin, the man who invented the absolute temperature scale mentioned above.
William Thompson, first Baron Kelvin, was one of the most respected British scientists of the 19th century. On the eve of the 20th century, he made a number of sweeping scientific pronouncements concerning "the way things are." The most famous of these was:
"The future of physics lies in the nth decimal place."
By this he meant that all important facets of the physical world had now been discovered and explained, and that future generations of scientists would spend their time merely refining the numerical precision of the constants involved.
Radioactivity, special relativity and the first glimpses of quantum theory were all discovered within just a few years of this ex cathedra pronouncement!
Here's another of his quotables, my personal favorite:
"Heavier than air flying machines are an impossibility."
My point here is not to "dis" a great and creative intellect of the past, but to remind you that sweeping pronouncements about the ultimate nature of the world need to be taken cum magno grano salis even when they come from respected scientists.
As one of my teachers, Wuguang Fashi, used to say:
"Kyo no satori wa, ashita no machigai."
"Today's satori (realization) is tomorrow's mistake." (He was an old Taiwanese man more at home in Japanese than Mandarin, in case you were wondering about the language of the quote.)
My second point is that even if our universe ends up in some sort of "heat death" or monotonous expansion, eternity is a very, very long time. Under such extreme conditions can we really say with certainty that physical laws as we now know them will remain the same? Perhaps after 10 years of expanding, a contractive force, the nature of which is inconceivable to us, appears out of nowhere and thus reverses the process. Thus, it may turn out that the universe does alternately expand and contract, but at a scale incomprehensibly bigger than anyone ever imagined. If there is one theme that has dominated the history of cosmology over the centuries, it is the continual redefinition of the "world" as a bigger and bigger place.
Furthermore, even if our universe does end up "dead," that may actually have rather little to say about the really big picture. It seems entirely possible, even probable, that our universe is only one of many, perhaps infinitely many, parallel universes. Some of these may ultimately expand to infinity, some may ultimately collapse to nothing, and others may oscillate with different periods. Some universes may be driven by forces other than those found in our universe, but still reflecting the same "dyadic principle" that Sasaki Roshi contstantly discusses.
Speaking of Sasaki Roshi, he used to talk a lot about two kinds of zammai (Japanese for samadhi).
Mujo-zammai ("No Conflict Samadhi") -- This arises as the result of giving yourself exclusively and continuously to contraction.
O-zammai ("King Samadhi") -- This arises as the result of giving yourself exclusively and continuously to expansion.
Maybe what we interpret as the cosmos "dying" is from the point of view of the cosmos itself, merely its final arrival at King Samadhi.
The point of all of this is not to get too invested in whether the science du jour agrees with our ideas regarding what a spiritual universe should be like.
This gets easier as we become experientially confident regarding what a spiritual self actually is like.
24. I have meditated for many years, and very often I feel a great deal of tension around my head and face. I have used this tension as an object of meditation in the same way Shinzen has described using any body sensation as an object of meditation. The tension has persisted and I read from B. Allan Wallace in one his books that one should stop concentrating if there is persistent tension in the head while meditating, and focus more on relaxation, and that this tension can actually cause some damage. So I would be interested to know what you think.
My philosophy on this question is simple -- go with what works! Different things work for different people. Different things work for the same person at different times.
I do have two practical suggestions, though.
First, whether your strategy is to penetrate the phenomenon or focus away onto something soothing, there may be some procedural subtleties involved. Sensitively personalized coaching from an experienced guide can be helpful in these cases.
Second, what follows is a strategy for working with intensities.
- Localized intensities like pain or pressure ("primary sensations") may propagate secondary and tertiary reactions. By secondary reactions I mean spreading of the sensation in the body. by tertiary reactions I mean FIT (emotional Feeling-mental Images-internal Talk) triggered by the primary or secondary sensations.
- Points about secondary sensations:
- Spread is sometimes very subtle.
- Spread may be just around the primary sensation (regional) or throughout the body (global) or even seem to extend beyond the confines of the body (inflationary).
- Spread is usually distinct from, but on a continuum with, "feeling" reactions (defined below).
- Spread does not necessarily come as a continuous wave front. It may propagate as disconnected patches, perhaps at considerable distance from the primary sensation with no apparent connector in between.
- Spread does not inevitably occur. Some sensations are truly local only, at least for a while.
- Points about tertiary reactions:
- Second-by-second, one's sense of "self as experiencer of pressure/pain" arises through ones' feeling-image-talk reactions to the pressure/pain.
- Compositionally, these must fall into exactly one of the following states, second-by-second.
- Just feeling
- Just talk
- Just image
- Feeling and image
- Feeling and talk
- Image and talk
- All three
- No FIT reaction
- Feeling is defined here as the body sensations associated with moods, emotions, reactions and such. Typical feeling flavors triggered by pressure/pain include: anger/irritation, fear, sad/teary/poor me, impatience/antsiness, etc.
My reason for going into all this detail is to make the following point:
If you find it difficult to penetrate a local intensity, try working from the outside in.
Work with FIT reactions à Work with spread à Work with local intensity
Note: If no spread is detected, just focusing over the whole body can still help dissipate local pressure.
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