Q: My question is about mental formations. I’m in a situation right now where a family member is suffering from severe depression. I have tried to help with resources and understanding, but I am at a place where I feel like I have done everything I can. Still, I can’t help but think about this person in their suffering, and want to do more. It seems unfeeling somehow not to give thought to them. Are there teachings that address this type of situation?
A: As I mentioned in my short written response, one useful tool for addressing great suffering that cannot be alleviated at present, is equanimity. This tool can be seen as a type of protection for you, because of course, you won’t be helping your loved one if you are being harmed by worrying about their condition. This doesn’t mean that you never think about them, have concern and hold them in your heart. In fact, if you are able to incorporate equanimity in your practice in regard to their position, you may find that you return to them even better able to be present for them. Since your question began with referencing mental formations (or qualities), it occurs to me to give you one of the lists considered to be a list of skillful mental qualities. The one that comes to mind is the five spiritual faculties, which are developed into the five strengths. This is not necessarily specific to the situation you are in with a loved one who is suffering, but these are tools that can be useful in a simple everyday kind of way, and also in a deeper spiritual context. They are Conviction (or faith), Energy, Mindfulness, Concentration, and Discernment. You will notice that there are terms even from this course that you are already familiar with. I will comment below with links to a couple of teachers who have done talks on the subject, and I’ll also link my meditation on the subject. I hope that this response is helpful in your practice and I hope that your love one finds some relief from suffering.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu- Scroll down to “The Five Strengths”:
My short meditation:
Q: My lesson today was on compassion. When you asked us to focus on an individual being in need and feel the impulse of compassion I found it quite overwhelming . The person I had in mind had shared a very deep childhood hurt from the past with me in confidence. They have asked me not to raise it with them again. But I know it eats away at them affecting their current happiness, and that the wound needs to be exposed and discussed to begin healing. My question is, while coming from a place of compassion, will I in the interim, need to push this person to address this deep hurt, and by doing so place them in an uncomfortable and vulnerable space – which to me feels to jar with the impulse of compassion I have for them?
A: If a person has expressed the wish to not discuss a traumatic event, it seems to me the safest bet to let them bring up the event when they are ready to discuss it with you further. That said, I don’t think that it would be out of line to mention that you are open to discussing such things any time they are ready, and perhaps leave it at that for now. A strong feeling of compassion that cannot find resolution at present can find some reprieve in the divine abode of Equanimity, which is the 9th lesson in this course. Equanimity can sometimes get the reputation for looking too much like indifference, but if it is cultivated alongside good will, compassion, and joy, it will be something completely different and something that is quite powerful. If you are successful in cultivating equanimity in your practice, your presence will more likely generate confidence in others. Good will is said to be a factor that brings safety to yourself and others, and the other divine abodes seem to flow out of that and become specialists. The specialization of equanimity is that it keeps cool under difficult circumstances- this steadiness helps us accept when action is not called for, and also keeps us more balanced for when we are called to action. Finally, when you see someone you love who is in pain and you aren’t sure of a specific way to help at present, in addition to cultivating equanimity, I think it’s important to have compassion for yourself. As with all of these qualities, self-compassion is primary- when that is strong, your compassion in the world will be at its best.
Q: I just finished the lesson on joy. How does one begin to recognize any element of joy when we are surrounded daily by the news relating the suffering and death resulting from the pandemic?
A: There are two main points I’d like to make regarding how to recognize joy in times of bad news: one, start small; two, select your news wisely. Starting small means finding joy in the simplest things, like the playfulness of animals and children, the overheard genuine laughter in the park- absolutely any amount of happiness you perceive can be taken into your heart; the trick sometimes is getting your heart to open enough to let it in. I think this relates directly to the second point of choosing your news wisely. Suffering and death are occurring at present, but such is always the case. Simultaneously, there is well-being, goodness, and joy. Probably the majority of what’s going on at any given moment is neither- just people living their lives. Our great power is the power to direct our awareness. The degree to which we give our attention to the news drastically affects our awareness. I’m not saying to be uninformed- I’m saying that you can be informed, but then go on to lead a life which can balance grief with joy. If we have sufficient shelter and nourishment, I think that happiness becomes largely an adjustment of perspective. I’ve felt my share of anxiety recently, and my best tool for endurance has been checking my perspective: contacting nature, reading poetry, listening to great music, listening to dharma talks, and of course, cultivating a consistent meditation practice are all examples of how I tune my perspective. In addition to perspective shifting, these activities help grow the parts of our minds that experience beauty and joy, which gives the parts that feel despair less sway.
Q: I’ve just completed day 1 having practised secular compassionate mindfulness for a number of years, with teachers whose methods are solidly based on Buddhist principles. They make a distinction between setting an intention (eg for the session or the day) and reflecting on our motivation for the practice, which I’ve never truly understood. The two seem to be different facets of the same thing. Could you offer some clarity on this please?
A: I agree with you that the intention for a given sitting and our motivation for the practice are facets of the same thing. I guess the distinction would be that our motivation for the practice is more overarching, and a given sitting may have a more focused intention. The overarching motivation in traditional Buddhism would be freedom from suffering. The idea of metta- good will- helps give this a specific, positive path forward. In this case, practice for the sake of well-being can be seen as both general and specific- I can do a metta meditation as a focused activity, motivated by a general goal of well being. But I could also have the general motivation of well being, and make the focus of my meditation working with intrusive thoughts, or with pain in the body. Some specific aspects of that intention may appear like seeking pain, but we are ultimately still looking for relief from suffering. As I write this, an image comes to mind of a great river that represents our motivation for practice, made up of the many ways to express the desire for freedom from suffering: good will, compassion, truthfulness, etc. Our daily practice could then be seen as tributaries and distributaries, feeding and fed by various bodies of water which could represent our own bodies, feelings, mind, and thoughts. Zooming in or out on different parts of this system gives us the flavor of intention and motivation. Hopefully that makes some sense. In general I find that discovering spectrums- different ways that practice offers continuity between different concepts- helps to enrich the work for me.
Q: Session 9 showed me a clear lesson: Equanimity is faint in me. As I brought to mind the situation of two men who occupy the role of President today and, in my view, are making decisions that deeply harm the World plus what it would take to correct those mistakes (including people’s jobs and livelihood) my despair took over.
I cried and cried and then got felt also shame for not doing more toward a possible solution.
I was able to practice for a few seconds here and there a certain distancing from my karma to that situation right now, right here, today.
Would you have any suggestion about how I can practice equanimity when, in this case, regarding this situation, I and my descendants and family are all affected by it? There is no thinking in me that allows me to see my separation from it.
What is the wise way to proceed? I realize I have to understand equanimity better.
I just learned through this course a deeper and wider meaning of sending metta, wishing well for those people. It’s clear to me that their skillful and noble happiness can affect their decisions and I am able to include them now. That’s fantastic progress for me.
Now comes equanimity. I feel my raw beginner status and I welcome practicing and hopefully progress.
Could you please suggest something?
A: While Metta runs through the other divine abodes as a foundation, equanimity seems to me to have a sort of wise elder quality. I’ve heard it referred to as the kind of love a grandparent has; their love is just as deep, but because of their life experience, a grandparent is likely to be less reactive to the details of raising a child, less likely to gasp as they stumble in their first steps. To address your question more specifically, there may be some conditioning going on that makes it hard for you to separate your life from the decisions of public figures- I think this is a problem we all have in a world that is absolutely drenched with information. Any time we want that news feed, it’s right there. I think that it’s a very important aspect of the cultivation of, not only equanimity, but our overall health in general, to scrutinize the media that we are allowing to affect our mind states- it has a truly profound effect on all of the foundations of mindfulness- in other words, our whole experience of life. I am certainly not saying to let yourself be uninformed, but what is the amount, the frequency, and quality of the information you are absorbing? One technique I like to use is to select a few trusted sources, plus at least one source that is likely to have dissenting views, and spend a very specific amount of time on the news. After that time, no more news. The rest of the day is devoted to leading a good life. You have the information- some of it can be acted on right now, most of it cannot, so you set yourself to the task of bringing care and well-being to your life, part of which is to ensure that you are not worrying too much, which is not good for your health. Ultimately, the grandparent-like equanimity is about perspective. Unless a person is mentally ill, nobody wants to see their loved ones harmed. We can have compassion for those who are sick, and have some faith that most of humanity still has general well-being in mind. Our job in the face of that is to act with as much care as possible. When it comes to meditation, that just means that it’s not news time- it’s time to pay attention to the breath, the body; at some points the mind will insist on those disturbing thoughts, and the more competent you become at choosing when and how they will be addressed, the more equanimity you are likely to have as you witness them.
Q: When it came to choosing one of the possible intentions I would have throughout my life it took me a while… Would you mind helping me out here a little bit?
I ended up picking liberation only because in my understanding all the others stem from that. Even generosity. I have been considered a very generous person and yet very codependent; the generosity of the heart has been the focus of growth for my self. Aren’t those 4 choices completely interrelated or even the same thing? Wouldn’t the greatest difference between them be Just more a personal focus versus focus for all beings? Is there really a separation between them, ultimately, besides the use of different words?
A: I believe you are onto something there- indeed, the choice of how to set your intention matters, but ultimately the outcomes will co-mingle. For instance, you mention that you chose liberation as an intention; liberating yourself from, say, greed, will lead to generosity. Because of this, as long as you choose intentions that line up with good will, it is hard to go wrong. So, if your gut tells you to set the intention of liberation, and you can see that as releasing yourself and others of burdens, and leading to well-being, I think it is an excellent choice.
Q: Hello. My question regards finding my path (with Buddhism or just a peaceful path of some other name). I am American with plenty of undesired Christian influences and more than a few books on Buddhism on my shelf. While I am an avid reader, I find myself lost with questions and then sputter out when I can’t find an answer. I am finding some peace with listening to talks on insight timer, but already I am beginning to listen to the same classes multiple times. I am looking for more… my search is for peace and truth. I am open to books, lectures, teachers, or any other way of seeking.
A: I’ll do my best to address your questions in accordance with how I approach my own path… Several years ago, three teachers came into my awareness who I still go back to today- two of them in Buddhist traditions, and one with western esoteric, but also Buddhist and Christian influences. I could never say for sure if these particular teachers will satisfy your search, but I will link all of their main pages below. All of them teach in a way that speaks to what inspires me- often one of my main pieces of advice is to seek inspiration- and so, while I would sometimes get tired of them, I was able to listen to them for many hours. At that time, I basically replaced other media, especially news, with listening to these teachers. The teacher who is not Buddhist is the most radical of the three in a way, and part of his teaching is designed to subvert preconceptions on every level. Some of the stuff he talks about would be called “conspiracy theory,” and he is not afraid to go dark to seek the light- I only mention this because this darker exploration was part of what made my personal path more clear.
Now I’ll list some things that I have learned from them, and through my exploration:
-Seek high quality fellowship. Make being with people part of your spiritual work. This doesn’t always mean people who like to talk about spiritual stuff (which I do), but people who embody those things that you seek, like peace and truth- make extra time for them.
-But, sometimes people are hard to find, so next I’d say be in nature as much as possible- if the world doesn’t seem to be offering good paths, natural settings can be instructive, or at least restorative. Sometimes you have to talk yourself into it, or talk your mind out of doing other things, but nature is definitely one of my main reset buttons.
-Have faith in your own instincts- sometimes looking outside for a path, for teachers, for answers, seems shut off because you need to spend more time with what’s going on with yourself. All of the teachers I like the most agree that while there are very good, and perhaps some necessary instructions in these traditions, the true path will be written in a unique, individual life.
Ultimately the path will encompass your whole life. I do some intense study at times, but I also make it a point to do some stuff that is very pleasant, while still true and potent- for instance, I am a Tolkien geek. Every time I read Lord of the Rings I see more truth and beauty in it, and it’s a total pleasure, not tedious. I also think play is a great spiritual tool- for instance, I love bouncy balls, and I’ll just play little games with them, bouncing them off the walls in my house. And that leads into the final thing I’ll say in this response- one of my teachers once said that if the Buddha was alive today he might have a 9 fold path, because in his day they walked around everywhere, so “right exercise” may need to be added for modern times. For me it’s night and day- when I find time in my schedule to do some rigorous exercise a few times a week I’m so much happier and feel much more settled and on the right track. That might sound like obvious self-help type advice, but it’s been essential for me. Alright, that’s a long response, so please follow up with more comments and questions- it’s hard to know if I’m addressing your questions well on the first run, and I’d be happy to elaborate or refine.
https://www.dhammatalks.org/ this is the website for Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American monk in the Thai Forest tradition. His meditation instructions and teachings are excellent- a definite mainstay in my practice and the foundation for my own meditation practice.
https://audiodharma.org/teacher/1/ I love Gil Fronsdal. He’s more like the Mister Rogers of Buddhism- sort of soft-spoken, kind, and just an all around lovely man.
https://neilkramer.com/ Neil Kramer is a bit different, so I mention him because it does seem like you’re seeking something different. I admit, his teachings are not for everybody, but he seeks truth fiercely.
What the heck, one more- ever hear of Wim Hof? I get a kick out of his style, and his breathing method it very useful. https://www.wimhofmethod.com/
And you can find a couple more on the links page of my site: https://markzelinsky.com/links/
If you might be interested in a private text or voice chat some time, you can contact me through my website contact page: https://markzelinsky.com/contact/
Transcript of all of my audio responses: https://markzelinsky.com/recordings-2/courses/mindfulness-and-the-divine-abodes-questions-and-answers/
Q: There is someone I think has done me harm..likely a perception. The sooner I learn to love myself, I guess, the sooner I can let go of that perception. I’m sure she’s a suffering human being, so cultivating empathy is important for me.
So even though it’s about the law of attraction, I now focus on and move toward the good and what I want. For sure, I used to focus on the negative -I don’t like this, don’t want that- but the poor universe had no idea what I did want..neither did I. So I have completely moved away from that kind of negativity and toward a higher energy. I am trying to learn more about empathy…I feel it is not my strong suit, yet it is the pathway to compassion.
A: I think you are correct that it is likely that a person who is causing you harm is suffering herself. And while I agree that it is important to keep your general mindset on what you want to manifest, it is also important to protect yourself from harm. I agree that self love, and more broadly, good will in general, will act to protect you from harm, in that you will not get caught up in false perceptions of unworthiness, or of deserving harm. It sounds like you are moving in the right direction in cultivating empathy. I think this is an aid to compassion, and it’s also good to take compassion and empathy separately. Compassion does imply being with someone in their pain, but on a slightly different level than empathy. I see empathy as more about specific pain, while compassion can be cultivated with a generalized understanding of suffering. Because you understand suffering well- that we are all subject to it, without exception, as long as our minds are caught in the hindrances- you have a basis for wishing for the end of it. It may take some empathy to learn that you want other people’s pain to end, but once you truly have that wish, you can wish it independent of what you would call your own suffering. In the teachings of the divine abodes it is suggests that and as long as compassion is balanced with equanimity for those things that we can’t change, it is a state that can be cultivated without end. I find this to be a useful contemplation, and I often meditate with compassion and equanimity paired together.
Q: First, I want to thank you for these succinct, wise and enlightening teachings. I love the structure of sharing a teaching/insight and then following it with a brief meditation… I have been interested in Buddhism for seven or eight years now but my involvement has been very surface and sporadic. That said, over the past several months I have been going through some rather difficult personal challenges which have led me to dive deeper and try to be more intentional/focused (difficult for me in many realms!). But specifically regarding pain/pleasure continuum… quite simply, how on earth does one begin making decisions based on something other than this continuum?! I mean that in a somewhat humorous way, not that I think it’s impossible. They’ve just been in charge for so very long (like since birth!). As I sit and meditate on it I realize that every decision from morning till night is led by these two facets of life… Usually me running from pain more than towards pleasure.
A: The pleasure/pain continuum does seem to be where much of our difficulty in this realm lies. The short answer is that I don’t think we step outside of this continuum to get our feet on the path, but instead have those impulses work to our advantage instead of our disadvantage. One of my teachers often talks about the right efforts, which you can break down into four: Things I like doing that lead to my long term well-being, things that I don’t like to do that lead to my long term suffering- those two are the easy ones- then there are the things I don’t like to do that lead to my long term well-being, and things that I like to do that lead to my long term suffering. It’s sort of obvious, and also, not so, because on the surface it looks like it’s asking us to get better at torturing ourselves for our long-term well-being. What actually happens is a little more subtle than that; it’s gradually trading in inferior kinds of pleasure for superior ones. One of the best kinds of pleasure in the Buddha’s teachings is the pleasure of the breath. The problem with that pleasure is that at first it’s very subtle, and so on the surface some people just find it boring. Exercise is a good example of something that is pleasurable to some people and torture to others. I used to find running to be torture pretty much 100% of the time. Now there are times that I find it to be a complete joy, but sometimes it’s still torture. On the other side of things I got some pretty quick feedback when I indulged in some Halloween candy, despite my knowledge that it was not for my long-term well-being. The next day I didn’t feel well, and I was sure to get the leftovers out of reach. I’ve found there can be quite a bit of joy in renunciation itself, but I think it’s way easier when there’s a substitute, wholesome pleasure, like the breath, exercise, making tea, cleaning a space for sacred practice, writing down ideas and dreams, cooking healthy food, etc. In a way, this is the most vital job of mindfulness. In each moment we have these choices of how we relate to the breath and body, our emotions, our thoughts, and we can give ourselves a little nudge. The idea of the Buddhist middle path is how we do this without indulgence or torture- we start within our particular capabilities, our particular strengths and weaknesses, and we begin to lay out some reasonable guidelines for a life that leads to our long-term well-being.
Q: I’ve never known such a monotone teacher who uses so much pseudo-profound nonsense! Surely a little charisma and enthusiasm would be useful, the teacher is so clinical, detached, distant, insincere and unengaging. I really tried to get into this, but after 6 minutes of inane waffle that wasn’t even wisdom I had concluded it wasn’t going to get better.
A: World class terrible review, ______! Kudos! I’m always available to help decipher these teachings- which aren’t mine, per se, but ones I’ve found useful. I’ll never claim profundity, nor charisma, but I must take a stand on my sincerity. That said, you are entitled to your impressions. God bless you, sir, and may another teacher bear the torch of your enlightenment.
Q: I’m taking the course for a second time. On working with compassion, do you have any guidance on whether I should work on compassion for my own suffering and then focus next on others. Sometimes I feel like I’m blocked when wanting to extend compassion to others. I want to, but get scared that I will be giving away well being that I have not found yet. I get scared that I will give myself away before I find myself.
A: Having compassion for yourself is essential in this work. Different people have different ways that they enter into the world of compassion. Some find it easier to focus on others first because their own suffering is too hard to look at for the moment. This is a good way to generate the feeling of compassion, but then at some point, before compassion for others can be really full and effective, a practitioner must have compassion for themselves. My way of practice tends to be kind of roving. I search the landscape for where the work is calling me the most. I can become over-extended at times, and then I’ll know that it’s time to work on compassion for myself, give myself rest, start to feel balanced and whole again. When I feel well, I might begin to allow my energy field to grow, to extend compassion to others. In the teaching of the divine abodes, compassion is potentially limitless. From that perspective, there really isn’t any danger of giving away well-being. That said, I believe the other divine abodes act as balancing principals, so in this case, what might be called for is equanimity for the fact that you can’t always help others, even if you have compassion for them. Sometimes compassion looks like letting someone be, and not letting them harm you. If the compassion is applied well, it will not be an energy drain for you. So, I’d say take your time and experiment with different levels of intensity and focus of compassion, and see where you can find balance and ease in the process.
Q: How do we find joy for people that seem like they have not tried at all, or have put in such little effort, and yet they have achieved something successful? It doesn’t seem fair for those work work very hard; yet seem to not obtain similar levels of success. How do we find joy in those cases?
A: I think many people can relate to the feeling that there are those people in life with so much who don’t seem to deserve it. To begin addressing those feelings, I probably wouldn’t try to use sympathetic joy with the person in question, at lease not right away. My approach, when I feel that sting of envy, or something like it, is to keep in mind that we really have no idea about what goes on in another human. In Buddhist terms, we can’t really know another person’s karma. It’s a monumental enough task to address our own situation in life, and I think our energy should be saved. Sympathetic joy can be used as an antidote for this issue still, but I would direct it to people other than the one’s whose riches I begrudge. The heart of this divine abode is seeing in another person the kind of real virtue that you almost can’t help but feel good about. Think of people who do work hard, and seem to do it with ease because they are doing it out of love. Think of people who give their time to those in need, the many professions that require hard work and care for the well-being of others. The building of sympathetic joy, or any of the divine abodes, is best done under ideal circumstances, at first- by basically choosing the easiest people to have those feelings for, and slowly building it up over time. It could be that eventually you take the difficult people into the fold, but maybe it won’t be sympathetic joy, but compassion, because you’ll see that they suffer like everyone else; or maybe it will be equanimity, because you know that you can’t change the way life seems so inequitable at times, but you’ll find peace in your place in it.
Q: How would one practice this kind of meditation without your guidance? I have completed the course, and would like to just set a timer each day for meditation, but I don’t know what to do. Concentration? For how long? When to incorporate Metta? When to work with thoughts as the object of meditation or when to just let them go? Etc. The foundations and skillful means always seem so compartmentalized and I never know how to put them together into a practice I can do on my own.
A: Figuring out how to use the many techniques available to us and making them work together and become part of our greater well-being becomes a huge part of the practice. In my experience, by repeatedly using these practices, individually and with guidance, the connections will begin to form. If you still find the guidance useful, I would encourage you to alternate between guided meditations from insight timer and guiding your own meditations. I have 19 meditations available for free on the timer or my website, and there are many more teachers whose work can offer different approaches to the practices you already know. Your individual practice will continue to be informed by the guided meditations, and in time, you’ll begin to know which practices fit where in your life, and how they work together. You specifically mention concentration and metta; I would consider concentration to be foundational for any practice, and metta can be a tool to develop concentration, among other things. As far as how long to do concentration, in most cases people don’t have a lot of spare time to do what someone might call too much concentration. Feel free to cultivate concentration through mindfulness of breath and body, through metta, or by any means, to your heart’s content, and then use that concentration as a stable platform to observe. It’s from here that you begin to discern how much of the other skillful means are appropriate at any given time. As far as how much metta you should do, I’d say there’s really never too much, so you can think of it as something you can always fall back on when in doubt. In the end, making that final step to guiding your own practice is kind of a leap of faith. It’s likely that you have the tools necessary, and you just need to trust in that and keep practicing. I hope this answer is helpful in getting you to feel more confidence in setting out on your individual practice.
Q: How do i know if I’m doing this right?? I’m on a journey to find my truth and I just want to know if I’m going to find my path… I don’t want to be “faking the funk” so to speak.
A: I hear ya man. I think this question is a necessary part of any serious spiritual practice. Maybe at some point we become absolutely positive that we’re on track, but until then, take it as a sign of your own sincerity that you’re asking the question. Sometimes when I feel uncertain about my place in it all, I like to consider simple questions, or axioms, that I feel contain some essential truth. For instance, Benjamin Franklin wrote about how he organized his day, and he cites as his morning question: “What good shall I do today?” I find that questions like this take some of the pressure off and help focus my attention on what I can I can do right now. The answer can be as simple as tidying up a desk, or giving someone some help, or just being a calming presence in someone’s life, but most importantly, you can’t really go wrong with any of these answers. So, if you continue asking the right questions, and sincerely trying to answer them, it seems to me that you’re on the right path. As far as “Faking the funk,” again, all you can really do is be as sincere as possible when responding to the world. Sometimes we have to go through the motions of a thing, and maybe we’re not that good at it yet, but we have some faith that if we learn it better, that it’s going to be helpful in our path. It’s going to be awkward at first, but that’s just part of the mystery, and it’s a good time to consider the idea of beginner’s mind. I don’t think we’re meant to have it all figured out from the get go- I think that we’re in training.
Q: I have so much trouble quieting my “monkey brain,” the constant chatter. I struggle constantly with thoughts popping in unbidden. I don’t realize it has happened until I’m deep in the thought sometimes and don’t know how long I have been there. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!
A: Thoughts that seemingly come from out of nowhere- as far as I’ve been instructed- are a thing that happens even deep into the path; taking thought as a natural function of mind. I’ll start with the idea of the long chain of thoughts which start at some unknown time. It can even start to be fun seeing this play out. Just as one might do in a conversation with friends when you ask yourselves how you got on a certain subject, and then play the game of retracing your steps, you can try the same thing with your thoughts. This can be done in meditation, but also during mundane tasks, like simple repetitive chores. You try to start with a blank slate, just focusing on what you’re doing, but you are also quietly sitting in wait for the thoughts to begin. Perhaps you will remember an errand that needs doing later. Once you see the thought, you have two things going on- the thought itself, and your relationship with it as an observer. The skilled inner observer is integral to this kind of development. For this exercise, it’s good to keep the observer as inconspicuous as possible, because we’re trying to see what happens somewhat independently. The mind might then begin to plan for the execution of the errand; emotional responses will come; and feeling tones will arise around the pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neutrality of the task. As with the anecdote of the conversation with friends, it’s presumed that we’ll occasionally lose track, and that’s when we get to do the detective work of linking the stream of consciousness together, and seeing those surprising twists and turns that the mind does, seemingly outside of our will. If we use the understanding that there is thought, our own and that of others, that stretches backwards and forwards well beyond our vision, it takes the pressure off a little; and we can play with the idea of tracking thought, rather than trying to perfect it. In meditation, this is one of the aspects of mindfulness of thought forms, which you heard a little about on day 8 of this course.
When it comes to intrusiveness of thought, especially while trying to meditate, or do something else during which thoughts might be distracting, I’ve found few things as helpful as mindfulness of body and breath. It’s not a guarantee, but with persistent practice, there will come times that really seem devoid of thought. There’s an idea in neuropsychology which points to a network of areas in the brain called the task positive network. When we engage in a focused task like whittling, kneading clay, doing dishes, or even mindfulness of breathing, we are using this neural network, which purportedly switches off it’s complementary network: the default mode network. The default mode is responsible for ruminative thought- the exact stuff we’re trying to get a hold on. So immersing ourselves in a somewhat simple but engaging task is another method for taming our relentless thoughts.
Q: Just one last question about your discussion of the “universe as eternal”. I don’t know what you meant when you said it was a view consisting of distortion and writhing, unless I misheard all this.
I often hear Buddhist and Tantrik teachers who try to mold these ancient teachings to modern cosmology, ie “Big Bang” cosmology and I think this is greatly mistaken. The idea is that the Big Bang and modern astrophysics is empirically verifiable and fact when it is far from this case. Just about all of what came from Einstein is NOT empirically verifiable, including that false idea that they took a picture of a black hole recently (April 2019). That was a “math painting” created from algorithms.
Please look into the “Electric Universe” theory, also known as “Plasma Universe” theory.
A: The section you refer to about the view that ‘the cosmos is eternal’ being a thicket of views, a writhing of views, etc., is a sample from a sutta linked in the comments below, where the Buddha is answering a series of questions concerning the cosmos which were apparently pretty popular at the time; one of the conclusions is that the Buddha does not take a position on these issues. One way to think of it is that it is beside the point of what the Buddha was teaching. There are plenty of issues floating around these days which, when taken up and argued, hardly seem to lead to spiritual progress; hence, the thicket and the writhing. I do recommend reading the sutta so that you can draw your own conclusions.
I’m in agreement with you about the Big Bang, etc, and I’m aware of the theories you refer to- very interesting indeed. Dogmatism has many guises- that, also, may have been what the Buddha was pointing to. I have a hunch that you might like a contemporary teacher/philosopher I follow. I’ll put a link for him as well.
Q: I am having difficulty understanding the difference between tone and mood – to me, they seem one and the same. I’d love to hear more about what each means and how they are different ideas upon which to meditate.
A: In this material, feeling tone is something very specific. While there are many moods, there are only three feeling tones. Pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. A mood can have a feeling tone, but feeling tones are not limited to moods. If I am happy, there is a pleasant feeling tone to my mood. But also, if I like the color of the sunrise, I can note that a positive feeling tone has arisen. I stub my toe, and it hurts; I can say that there was a temporary unpleasant feeling tone, but I am not necessarily in a bad mood. Probably one of the best ways to experience the full spectrum of feeling tone is to start doing something you like to do a lot, like eating cake, or bicycling, or listening to a song. At first, it will be pleasant. After a little time, the thrill will wear off, and it will become more neutral. Not good or bad. Eventually, if you persist in any one of those things for long enough, it will likely become unpleasant. So, while a mood, or a mind state, in general, tends to persist and change slowly, feeling tones are constantly coming and going. Observe your senses and see: is this chair comfortable? Am I pleased with how this room looks, smells? Was this bite of food pleasant, unpleasant, neutral?
Q: 1. On breath awareness in the body, my awareness of breath seems to settle on the sensations of breath at the nostrils though I can ‘imagine’ the breath flowing from the top of the head to the toes for a short time. Is it ok or is there a better way ? 2. How to deal with painful sensations while sitting ? A change in posture causes some disturbance in attention and it takes some time to settle again.
A: Anywhere that you perceive the sensations of breath is great. If the breath seems to settle at the nostrils, that will become the place that you can always return, and you can grow your concentration with this at the center. As you practice with this settled breath more and more, you may find that the settled region can grow and/or change over time, and as you experiment with using your imagination to direct your perceptions, the concentration will become possible with other areas as well. And question 2: Painful sensations while sitting are a fact for almost any practitioner, but there are different reasons and ways to address it. I will cover a couple and you can ask again if it does not apply. If your sitting practice is somewhat new, or if you have taken a long break, simply persisting to sit for a short time daily may cause your body to become more comfortable over time. In the moment of pain, there are a variety of choices. You can note that there is pain, assess whether the pain is damaging or simply uncomfortable, and decide to either make an adjustment to protect your body, or to return to whatever meditation object you were using, and try to let the pain move to the background. Pain can also be used as a meditation object itself, and I will put a link in the comments below to one of my meditations on insight timer that addresses body sensations specifically. Another solution would be to completely change your posture. If pain during sitting is very distracting, maybe alternate with some standing or lying down meditations. Above all, be patient with yourself. Feel free to improvise and discover your unique relationship with this practice.
Q: My first question to you is: I notice people saying that they struggle to meditate while their mind wanders ad nauseum. I have constant anxiety, a heart tremor I’ve gotten used to by now and live with like a wounded limb. When i sit it is all I can feel, overtaking everything else (like intense pain?) How do I meditate through/over and with that? It is not anxiety about a particular thing, but a constant fear about the state of the world and the injustice that feels embedded in it.
A: I feel compelled to say that you, like all humans, are a powerful being, touched by the divine. I say something so grandiose because I believe that’s the tool you might need now. Sometimes it’s time for the warrior’s spirit. As far as practical application, what comes to mind right away is the suggestion to use your breathing in a more active and focused way. You can move along with the course, but perhaps try to exaggerate the breathing process so that it creates sounds and sensations which overpower the painful heart sensations and feelings of fear. Make the breath sound like a big powerful wave at times, or like wind in a storm; experiment with different levels and notice the sensations which result in the body and mind. There is a breathing technique called connected breathing which I use sometimes, and I will put a link to a page with a few videos on the subject. I generally recommend, when there is either mental or physical pain, to find those places in the body and mind which are not in pain; make them large, and then allow them to be the foundation of a new context in which you have strength- from that position you can begin to look outward at the world. I believe the breath to be one of the best places to execute this function. The mere fact of breathing is a symbol and evidence of health in a person, and when we learn to control our breathing at first, and then allow a more natural, peaceful, harmonious breath to emerge, we become empowered. If you don’t find any of the videos in the link I have attached helpful, please follow up with me and I’d be happy to describe in written words, or send you an mp3 with some breathing techniques.
Q: Kept dozing off during the meditation on feeling tones. Was getting frustrated until I asked myself, “is this feeling of dozing off pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral?” Then I realized, it was actually deeply pleasurable!
I’m a father of a fabulous 17 month old, and I have a fulfilling but stressful profession, so moments of rest can be rare. So it makes sense that dozing off would feel pleasurable, but I don’t think I’ve ever noticed that consciously before.
Realizing that sleepiness wasn’t neutral, but pleasant… that feels meaningful to notice. Not sure all that it means, but there it is 🙂
Going to go back to redo this session when better rested and explore this some more
A: Feeling tones is an excellent frame of reference to look at sleepiness- your comment makes me think of that feeling, not necessarily while meditating, but any time I was not wanting to fall asleep, but could feel the allure and began nodding off, like in a classroom. I do think that it is significant that you noticed this. It may be that you need to adjust the sleep to meditation ratio a little- I have one teacher who says that many of us need sleep more than we need meditation; I’m not sure, but some days it’s probably true. And, as you know, having a little one around is a precious and fleeting thing, so it’s good to go a little easy on ourselves at these times- it’s a gift to your child that you seek this balance in your life. Parents actively seeking wisdom is heartening to me.
Q: Can you suggest a book on the principles of the Buddha’s teachings, with their many lists, that might complement this course with comparable clarity?
A: The teacher I refer to most is Thanissaro Bhikkhu. His book: The Buddha’s Teachings: An Introduction, briefly covers some commonly referenced Buddhist lists: The Four Noble Truths, The Five Clinging Aggregates, The Noble eight-fold path, The three characteristics, and it references some of the others. This book gives a solid outline of some of the ways the lists fit together. For a much more exhaustive look at the Buddha’s teachings, I would suggest the book: Wings to Awakening, by the same author. The Metta Forest Monastery keeps an updated list of books that they have in stock, which, upon written request, they will ship to you for free. I also always point people to accesstoinsight.org, which could be useful in conjunction with any book you decide to read because it is searchable. I will put some links below.
To request a book from Metta Forest Monastery: https://www.dhammatalks.org/Archive/Writings/booklist.pdf
Helpful online archive of suttas: www.accesstoinsight.org
Translations by Thanissaro Bhikkhu: https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/index.html
I also like Gil Fronsdal’s treatment of the Buddha’s teachings- he has some books you could look into as well: https://www.audiodharma.org/
Q: I have just finished the session on equanimity. I have a similar, but I think different, question to the one about making peace with the sounds of hunting. Your answer to that question was helpful and I will be trying to apply the relevant ideas.
My difficulty is not the sounds I actually hear but those I know are going on in animal trucks and in slaughterhouses 24/7. So they are mental formations? But as you say in your answer earlier, the violence and very real physical suffering of the animals is actually happening.
It just feels so “wrong” to be cultivating equanimity about this. I sense resistance and doubt in me as I try.
I think this is a problem of how I might be more active in the world in standing up against the oppression of the powerless without operating from an unskillful mindset.
I am acutely aware, for example, of the large number of farmed animals who have been killed in the time taken for me to write these words. (And of other ongoing extreme suffering of humans around the world) And I am held in the grip of this awareness and very unwilling to cultivate feelings of “okay-ness” around these types of suffering.
A: Thanks for this skillfully stated inquiry. I would start by saying that our equanimity is never meant to imply that it’s okay that the horrors of this world occur; it’s more to do with our place in the world and our ability to affect change, and ultimately to be at a peak level of potential effectiveness through this understanding. Think of the great leaders who have had to face adversity and have committed to peaceful resistance to do so. I doubt that they were always equanimous in their mental relationship with their struggles, but they somehow knew that to be truly effective, they had to embody peace. It may be that for certain parts of your practice, you need to push these horrible sounds and images aside for the sake of the cultivation of equanimity- in the case that they are taking shape in your mind during meditation, yes, I would call them mental formations; not to deny their actuality, but to establish your place of power in relationship to them- in other words, you bring them into your mind on your terms, instead of having them take over at random. Perhaps over time, as you begin to feel equanimity more strongly in the face of lesser issues, you will be able to grow this sense, and apply it more broadly- not to give permission to destructive behaviors, but to preserve your own peace of mind in the face of them. Another image I’d offer is the graceful martial artist. She faces her opponent, not with rigidity and anger, but with supple movement, ease of being- I know that this is a bit more of a fantasy ideal, but it’s an image that works for me. Lastly, I believe that there’s no better way to teach than by example, so I try to live by the axiom: be in the world in such a way that people want to behave skillfully around you. I’m sure you already do this, but I’ve found that reflecting on it has an effect on my peace of mind.
Q: Currently I try and attend a weekly dharma teaching and meditation in the evenings after a long day at work. Often I fall asleep during the meditation session. I have tried to set my intention upfront and sit up straight – both to no avail. Do you have any advise to deal with an elephant mind?
A: If you’re having issues falling asleep during meditation, aside from looking into if you’re getting enough sleep at night in general, I would start with experimenting with the way you breathe while meditating. Generally, a longer count on the in-breath than the out-breath is an energizing way of breathing, but you can experiment with all types of breathing patterns- all different lengths, speeds, and rhythms, to find a comfortable breath which will allow you to stay awake. Also, you can cultivate the factor of investigation by intentionally trying to take interest in something about the meditation- something that’s going on, like, how the breathing affects a variety of sensations in your body, or becoming curious about something you hadn’t noticed before- anything to get the mind happy to be awake; and then you can experiment with easing back into other meditation objects if you like. Also, I find it easier to stay awake in cooler temperatures, so perhaps you could check out the room and see if there is a cooler area where you can sit. Often we set up our meditation to be as distraction-free and comfortable as possible, but it can actually be helpful to have a minor level of what would normally be considered discomfort, to help aid in alertness during a sitting.
Q: Thank you for the course – I just completed it and I find your voice and the meditations to be very soothing and the lessons to be very valuable. My question regards use of the telephone as a tool such as insight timer and other applications that I am using like binaural tones through FlameInSound vs. The fact that it is through the telephone that I receive texts or emails which may disturb my equilibrium, causing distress or PTSD syndrome and reactions which I suffer from. To be clear I am always on the lookout for these offenses from the outside world. This causes me to feel very fragile about even touching my phone. I’m considering getting a “private line“ so that I can avoid the one that pushes my buttons if you get my drift. I’m trying to see these disturbances as contrast which offers me lessons… Open to any thoughts you might have. Thanks again.
A: From a hardware standpoint, it might make sense to get a dedicated device like a tablet or a phone which you don’t use for calls, texts, or email- something that runs android or ios that is exclusively for self-care, which you might be able to find for not too much on overstock or something like that. As far as dealing with these disturbances from the outside world, and managing trauma induced reactions, I like what you said about theses things as contrast which offers lessons. As one of my teachers says, the practice is for an imperfect world. We of course do set up conditions to limit interruptions and try to create a space of sanctuary at times, but inevitably, we will encounter less than ideal conditions at one point or another. I often recommend looking closely at the concentration aspects first- stability, composure, tranquility; look through your practice thus far- and as you go along- and determine which techniques let the mind become quiet, let you ease up on your reactivity, and then practice these techniques as much as you can. For instance, I find that when I am working with the body, I can make my mind especially still if I start with my hands, or sometimes it helps if I imagine my breath moving in certain patterns. You might find that there are moments when you become very still, but you hadn’t noticed what you were doing beforehand which helped set up these conditions. If you have one or two of these techniques which seem to work better than most, it offers a place to go when other things don’t seem to be working. Then, from the more still vantage point of your concentration practice, can you witness the movements of the mind in a somewhat more removed way? When you are feeling relaxed and composed, try establishing a witnessing aspect of the mind, and then allow some of the everyday aspects of the mind to come in- here’s where the “contrast which offers lessons” gets addressed. In other words, experiment with the causes of distress on your own terms, at the safest possible time. See how one thought leads to another, how the breath and body get involved. Does maintaining some control of the breathing let you stay composed for longer and observe the movements of the mind with more equanimity? I think of it as sort of: in the middle of meditating, I let myself stop meditating and see what is happening. But actually, you are still meditating on one level, so it’s kind of a way to trick the mind so that you can see its tricks. Well, I’ve said a lot there, and I hope some of it addresses your questions. Please follow up with me if I’ve missed, or for clarification, or any additional questions.
Q: I just completed day 6 and I felt really connected to what you spoke about. As an adult I was diagnosed with ADHD and even before that I found meditating to be difficult. But today I really focused on your words on mindfulness and looking at negative thoughts with curiosity. Going into the meditation with my eyes closed I felt for a few minutes that I could truly focus on meditating. And within those moments I felt a rush of colors and then the color purple seemed to linger in my closed eyes. Would you describe this as a normal sensation?
A: That’s excellent that you found that you were able to focus more consistently during this meditation on mind states. Especially if this was a new level of concentration for you, I might suggest working with this technique consistently for a time, seeing if you can solidify this as a tool you can add to your repertoire- often one aspect of the satipatthana teachings can be a doorway into the others, and it’s always a little different for everybody. As far as colors and the lingering sensation of purple, I would definitely call that normal, insofar as I am able to be a judge of these things. It’s not uncommon for me to experience colors and/or patterns in my vision with eyes closed. I do find at times that it’s associated with a more relaxed and focused state- perhaps it’s the mind noticing something it doesn’t usually have the opportunity to see because it’s busy with other things. I hesitate to interpret this sensation further on what I know, except to say, it sounds like an overall positive experience, and I appreciate you sharing it; I imagine that as your concentration practice deepens, so will other novel experiences and the meanings they hold for you.
Q: I really liked your last lecture on divinity and awareness, there seemed to be some overlap with non-dualism, another topic that interests me greatly. Aside from the teachings on no self, are there suttas or other texts you can recommend that discuss the nature of this “timeless” awareness or formlessness from the Buddhist perspective?
A: I think that the mahayana and vajrayana traditions probably go into more depth on the subject of non-dualism and timeless and formless dimensions and I’ll link a modern teacher I know in the comments below, as well as a philosopher who takes polarity and duality to some interesting places. As far as theravada suttas, there are mentions of these states, but in general they are more descriptive than instructive, and I think that this is partially by design, because the Buddha seemed reluctant to make metaphysical assertions of certain kinds, his main goal being to get people to practice. Perhaps one fear was that philosophizing about metaphysical ideals leads to more philosophizing and less practice- his world would have been very rich with varieties of spiritual practice and debates about whose was best. That said, I think the first place to look is in discussion and suttas about jhana practice. In a note on a passage from the Itivuttaka, Thannisaro Bhikkhu writes: “The property of form corresponds to the experience of the form of the body as present in the first four levels of jhana. The property of formlessness corresponds to the formless experiences based on the fourth level of jhana: the dimension of the infinitude of space, the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, the dimension of nothingness, and the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. The property of cessation is the experience of the total cessation of stress.” Interestingly, I’ve often heard Ajahn Thanissaro state that the subject of jhana practice is not jhana, it’s the breath (or other concentration object), and the states are what arise as a consequence of practice. And this from the Kosala sutta:
“Now, of these ten totality-dimensions, this is supreme: when one perceives the consciousness-totality above, below, all-around: non-dual, immeasurable. And there are beings who are percipient in this way. Yet even in the beings who are percipient in this way there is still aberration, there is change. Seeing this, the instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with that. Being disenchanted with that, he becomes dispassionate toward what is supreme, and even more so toward what is inferior.”
This has been my experience with theravada in general; that it will describe these higher levels of awareness, but it always is sure to mention that this is not it, not the goal. I am inspired by other traditions which go into more detail about these states, but I am continually impressed by the almost casual way they are treated in the theravada. Almost like, yeah this is cool, and it’s another thing you can get attached to. Well, this has been a long answer already, so I will leave it there for now, with a bunch of notes below, and look forward to any follow-up discussion you’d like to bring.
Western, Mystic, etc.: http://neilkramer.com/
Also see the 31 planes of existence: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sagga/loka.html
I would also recommend looking into Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translations of Ajahn Lee and searching using keywords the extensive database of suttas in accesstoinsight.org and dhammatalks.org
Q: Do you have any simple tips for working with unskillful thoughts and actions when they begin to take shape in the mind?
A: Part of this depends on when you come across these unskillful thoughts. At the very beginning of a meditation I would take the approach of putting them aside- as in, you say to these thoughts and actions: I see you, but I am going to delay you at present. And then you go about finding better food for the mind, which is one of the main jobs of concentration practice. We look for the refreshing aspects of the breath or we look for the pleasant, expansive feeling of good will, and it takes the place of the unskillful thoughts, or at least takes the edge off, if only temporarily, giving us a good foundation from which to work. When it comes time to pick up the thought for investigation, you could ask: what is the end game for this thought? How is the mind feeding on it? Even though you know it is unskillful, why does the mind want it, and do you have a skill in your tool kit to work with it; like bringing up good will when we come across ill will, or the pleasure of form when it comes to craving sensual pleasure. It can also be helpful to distance ourselves from the thought in terms of the self. One of my teachers uses the idea of the committee- this group of conflicting voices, of impulses, each with a different agenda; and you can start to label them, in terms of skillful or unskillful, or in terms of the type of craving or aversion they signify; we can have compassion for ourselves because those voices are in there for one reason or another, but we can take the control back as far as when and where they are allowed up to the podium to make their case.
Q: What is the difference between intention and attachment, and how can one avoid, or be mindful that the two don’t become blurred (I sometimes feel that they do for me!)?
A: At first I think I would approach the blurred lines between intention and attachment by asking the question, is this skillful or unskillful? In other words, if I stay with this idea, and let it operate as my working hypothesis for now, is it for the benefit and safety of myself and others, or can it cause harm? The reason I would get that out of the way first is that then you can rest assured that your meditation is going in the right direction- it sort of takes the pressure off to leave more room for an answer. As far as definitions, I’d say that intention is the forerunner, the catalyst for every little thing we do, think, and say, while attachment can become an overlay and can become the cause for habits to form. There is certainly a chicken and egg thing here, and that’s why the teaching on reincarnation is useful, because it demonstrates an attachment leading to the intention to be born into the world- but perhaps more on that another time. So people talk about skillful versus unskillful intentions, but usually attachment is always considered bad. But consider the simile of the raft- the raft symbolizing the teachings. Usually people refer to this simile to say that, once you get across the body of water, you don’t keep carrying the raft, you must let go. But while you’re still on the water, you better be pretty well attached to the raft if you want to reach the other side. So this part of the simile encourages us that some attachment is skillful, or better yet, we cultivate skillful habits, fueled by good intention, and as long as they continue to be useful, we keep them around. I hope not to confuse matters further, but it’s also interesting to play with different words when describing the more subtle aspects of attachment, like clinging and craving- craving being prior to clinging.
Q: I just finished the intro and first day guided meditation. What I think I heard and what my previous practice has taught me is this: Liberation from attachment depends on first acquiring Right Intention. Realization of Right Intention becomes a process of construction of a mental formation that we name Right Intention, but when it it is attained it becomes a state of mind or consciousness that opens us to the possibility of Awakening. Is this what you mean?
A: When I say that the practices become more embodied, that is exactly what I am pointing to. The reason I use the word embodied in addition to attaining a sate of mind or consciousness, is that for me the inclusion of the whole psycho-physical system in my fabrication of the concept helps solidify the idea, and helps connect with the practice itself, which for me is very rooted in breath and body meditation. As you say, the construction of the mental formation which is right intention comes first, and through practice opens to attainment. I think that when it first starts working in this way, it may not be the fully realized version, but it becomes like a steady burning fuel for the practice. In my mind, the order then becomes less linear and more of a steadily rising cycle of experience- more refined, more saturated into our being, and yes, more awake.
Q: I find myself getting drawn into stories about the topics. So I find myself often not experiencing the meditation itself but in a mental story about what I think the experience is or should be. I notice this more so in the feeling tones exercise than in the metta meditation. Maybe because metta meditation is more of a mental exercise and feeling tones is more of an investigation of direct experience. Do you have any suggestions for letting go of the habit of drifting into stories about the meditation during meditation and allowing awareness to rest in direct experience?
A: Drifting into stories about meditation during meditation is something I can relate to- on one level, the experience of the story of the meditation and what the meditation should be, is part of the meditation by necessity. This is part of the process of directed thought and evaluation. In general, I would suggest that letting go of the habit of drifting into stories and resting in direct experience will be assisted by the concentration practices. There is something enticing the mind to do the drifting; and since you have identified it as a distraction at times, we need to tone that down and/or make something better for the mind to do- this could be the pleasure of form from breath and body meditation, or you mention metta which can also provide that skillful food for the mind. I would play around with different practices and try to identify the one or ones that give you a greater taste of concentration, and then stick to them to cultivate that muscle. At the same time, I would keep playing with the types of meditation that seem more challenging; maybe do a short concentration practice first and then do the feeling tones practice, but keep your concentration object- metta, the breath, etc.- as the main practice, and allow the words of the guided meditation to be in the background- perhaps just suggestions for what else you could do during your meditation- suggestions that you can take or leave. Sometimes I will put on a guided meditation but make it just barely audible, so that I can hear it when I am very still, but in a way it’s also ok if I can’t hear it. And one other thing I will sometimes do is use intense pranayama type techniques to help get me concentrated directly before a sitting.
Q: I find the practice of compassion to be very effective in cultivating states of meditation. I find it to be a source of good feeling tones in daily life when I do not have a connection to the person who is suffering. I find it incredibly difficult to keep the pleasant feeling tone of compassion when the person is someone I care about or someone whose suffering has caused harm to me or people close to me. Intellectually, I understand. But in practice it is challenging. It is even more challenging when those people are unaware of their own suffering and how it affects their own lives and the lives of others. I can easily experience compassion for this situation when there is not a personal connection. But it feels impossible in close relationships. Do you have any advice to address this difficulty?
A: This definitely points to a central theme of the practice. One way to answer is in terms of the self- the degree to which we are intertwined with suffering and take it as our own. One of my teachers talks about the concept: world pain. It is a technique of thinking of all suffering as the suffering of this world rather than our own. That is not to say that we get rid of the self, nor do we casually accept ongoing harm, but we can ask: what actions do I take in relationship to this suffering, and what self are they building? In terms of the brahmaviharas, equanimity is the path for suffering which we cannot address skillfully. That is to say, if unskillful mind states arise due to our relationship with suffering, what distance do we need to create between our selves and the situation before we are able to re-establish skillful mind states? To help establish this distance, in terms of karma and those who are unaware of their own suffering and how it affects their own lives and the lives of others, we can remember that the practice is about creating our own present karma. The suffering in our personal lives is often tied up with a lot of past karma; consequently, one of the hardest things to do is to let go of interpreting other people’s karma- but it is simply impossible to know another person’s karma, and therefore what they should know and do in terms of the dharma. Once a sufficient distance is reached so that the suffering isn’t overwhelming the practice, eventually you may be drawn to address it again, at which point- especially when it comes to those who have caused harm in your life- it begins with good will. My teacher talks about looking for the goodness in the person. Just as we look for the refreshing parts of the breath and operate from that base, we must operate on the basis of the goodness we perceive in others. With how much intensity should we do this? To paraphrase from what I can remember of the buddha’s simile: if you were dying of thirst in the desert and you came upon a cow’s hoof print in which there was some water, and there was so little that you must get down and drink it so as not to muddy it with your hands, that water represents the importance of finding goodness in others. It’s a tall order- one with which I struggle; in fact, it feels quite universal in it’s implications… so thank you for this very powerful question. I hope this answer benefits your practice, and the practice of others who come across it in this course.
Q: Your teachings are based on the Pali Canon. This would be the Theravada, or Hinayana Tradition. My understanding is that the difference between the Theravada and the Mahayana schools is that the latter embodies a belief that we are all already Buddhas who can be awakened by our practice, and that part of our practice is to aid in the liberation of all beings. It seems to me to elevate metta to another level, to go beyond the forming an Intention to extend metta to others, and to engage in some other forms of action to help others awaken.
A: First a disclaimer: I do have teachers whom I respect who refer to Buddha nature, and I am not excluding it as a potential tool; if anything I’m a radical anti-dogmatist. But here I am going to make the case for a tradition which doesn’t mention it. I believe Hinayana (or lesser vehicle) is only used in relationship to Mahayana (greater vehicle). In other words, Theravada is not considered a lesser practice by, at least, the Thai Forest teachers I study, and I presume that’s the case in other theravada traditions as well. It seems to me that in addition to the fact that it is not mentioned in the canon, there are some practical reasons for leaving buddha nature out as well. Having innate buddha nature is perhaps an uplifting, inspiring thought, but does it inspire practice? If we are all already perfect by nature, what is there left to do? Who is there to liberate? (again, playing the theravada advocate here) If it works, I say excellent; but it seems to me that we are all here practicing in one way or another. In terms of metta, I think we extend it to others, not as something we send outward as the goal, but as something we do to truly establish the abiding right here, in this being. My teacher makes the distinction that realization of metta is not awakening, therefore, it’s on a slightly different trajectory than the bodhisattva path. It’s a tool which is helpful in the path of awakening, but the full realization of the path in theravada is primarily seen in the four noble truths. In terms of helping others to awaken, I can’t think of something better to do than to awaken ourselves. I don’t claim to be awakened of course, but to the extent which I have awakened parts of myself, I have seen a capacity for skillful action to grow, and I have felt that connection, and my ability to be of service grow as well. My humble assertion is that awakened people awaken people; maybe not always- I can’t pretend to know this for sure- but I think it’s a pretty solid prerequisite.
Q: My question is about how to keep my intention in mind past the formal meditation period and into my daily life. So often I craft a beautiful intention for the day at the end of my practice period only to realize with my evening practice that I haven’t remembered it once during the day, let alone put it into practice. Are there ways to help keep intention more clearly in mind?
A: I can suggest a few techniques you can use to maintain intention throughout the day, after the formal meditation period ends. One thing I like to do is, as the formal meditation is ending, become very conscious and conscientious about the transition- acknowledge that the formal practice is ending, and observe the intention in the mind, and perhaps imagine the first couple things you need to do when the sitting is over, and how you can maintain the intention. Also, you can use the idea of the mindfulness bell. Think of cues in your life which can act as reminders, and begin to use them to remind you to have a brief moment to reflect on your intention. You can even do this with a smart phone which goes off at intervals, but I would suggest using natural cues if possible- ultimately, those things which cause stress end up being the best reminder, and right when you need it. One of the biggest factors in sustaining practice in daily life is concentration practice- for instance, establishing a connection with mindfulness of breathing and body which you can mimic to perhaps a lesser degree when you are at your desk, in a car, walking from place to place. Can you try to be fully in your body during some of these moments, aware of how the breath is moving? With the more steady foundation, sustaining desirable mind states and intentions becomes easier.
Q: Hello. Here on the Eastern Shore, hunting season has just begun. Every year I try different ways to make peace with it. This year I tried to include the hunters in the Metta Meditation. But here I am two days later and I find myself as disconcerted and uncharitable as ever when I hear the gunfire. I’d appreciate any guidance you can give me to work my way through this. Thank you.
A: That is a tough one, as it incorporates the jolting sensory experience of hearing the gunfire and the feelings associated with it. I think that there are two main angles of approach for this: first is the concentration aspect; the more we can become absorbed in the practice, the more spacious the mind becomes, and sensory data becomes less compelling. Then there’s the insight aspect; one of the ways to look at this is in terms of the direct sensory experience as separate from the stories which flow out of it and the degree to which a self is formed and suffering is experienced. This will become easier as concentration builds, but it can be experimented with right away. One of my teachers uses this idea for when someone says unpleasant things- say to yourself: an unpleasant sound has reached my ears, and try to let the story end there. While I don’t propose that a gunfire meditation is going to become a pleasant thing any time soon, it can be very valuable to make the space to watch how the sensory experience happens, the perception is registered, the feeling tone comes, fabrication of the story begins, etc. Over time we become convinced of the solidity of experience, and sometimes the task of meditation is to take the experience apart, bit by bit, and see it as an aggregate of phenomena. It’s real in its way, it’s happening, and we have our own energetic connection with it, basically our karma; but it is also quite fluid, and taking the pieces apart can demonstrate how much space there is amidst the solidity of experience. Finally, I’d ask, Is there anyway you can cultivate your practice somewhere that you can’t hear the gunfire? Maybe try really focusing on the concentration practices like breath meditation, or metta for those you find it easy to extend good will, during the quiet times, and practice the investigation of sensory experience when you encounter the unpleasant sounds. The practices will build separately and ultimately be complementary to each other.
Q: I’m finding when I do metta that the feelings of love get really “hot” for lack of a better word. My face smiles but gets kind of tense and there is a corresponding tension in the shoulders. Is this a normal thing?
A: I can’t say I have had that exact experience during metta practice, but certainly states of rapture and joy can arise which we can witness manifested in form, and as a result we may come across some tension, some energy patterns looking to be addressed. Especially if it happens often, this is a great opportunity to explore the energy patterns in the body; I always return to my mindfulness of form and breathing practice for this type of investigation. Maybe even try doing a longer breathing practice prior to metta, and just slowly ease your way into the metta practice while maintaining some connection with the breath as well. The breathing will tell you a lot about how the energy is working, and if you begin to sense the onset of the energy building in your face and shoulders, see if you can help disperse it through the body, using your awareness, using the breath, so that you get a more balanced feeling of rapture. One of my teachers talks about imagining the breath moving in and out of the body from different points and in different patterns- it could be fun to play with this type of breathing experimentation when you come across this build-up of energy during metta.
Q: Just finished the course. Thank you, it really brought some life back into my practice. I have post concussion syndrome and working with the feeling tones and mind states is tough because, in addition to sitting through pain, I sit with a foggy, dizzy mind that feels like I’m trying to sift through molasses. Do I approach this the same way I would approach pain? If so, what is that approach? Just observe thick, foggy states?
A: Certainly part of the practice will be observing the thick, foggy mind state as it is, but I think the next step will be investigating where in the mind-body complex there is some clarity. This is one of the techniques for pain as well- finding somewhere in the body which is at ease and pain-free and spreading out from that ease. For the mind state, it may begin with just appreciating how clearly you can perceive that your mind state is foggy. Think about the level of consciousness which is seeing this clearly, that knowing mind.. can you inhabit that? It may not seem like much at first, but focusing in and staying even with this small amount of clarity will help build concentration and steadiness. I feel like so much of this practice is about taking one thing at a time and then taking those skills and applying them very broadly. Somehow this speaks to me about working with a foggy mind. Although I am not going through the same thing as you, when I've gone through difficult patches, it's that sense of an overwhelming and sometimes foggy world, which seems so daunting, and I do think that the practice invites us to begin just as simply as we possibly can, and somehow that simplicity opens to a greater and clearer world.
Q: Excellent course. I’ve just finished the second divine abode. I’m one of those that has a hard time focusing on Metta for myself, although I don’t have a problem actually cultivating the feelings of goodwill/love within myself. Is feeling states of love and goodwill for other beings considered an act of love for yourself, simply because you are experiencing the state of good will? Is feeling goodwill for others essentially directing goodwill toward yourself?
A: I think that the fact that you are able to connect with the feelings of metta is the most important part. I agree that the feeling of good will for others is part of the whole practice of metta which helps lead back to good will for yourself- in the grand scheme they are not separate, even if we use them separately at times as tools for practice. And just doing these practices is evidence of good will for yourself, so the fact that it’s not so easy for you to use your self as an object of metta meditation is ok. I am partial to starting with a benefactor, but again, the feeling is the key.
Q: On working with skillful and unskillful states of mind or mental formations, I found myself feeling great sadness while connecting with someone’s joy. I then understood that the person I was thinking about is really going through a very tough time health wise .
It confused me at first to feel that sadness, but then it occurred to me that it could be that I was wishing or sending wishes of joy to the suffering person.
Could you help me clarify this?
A: The first thing that occurs to me is that this course kind of moves quickly through a lot of different techniques, and it makes sense that you will witness compassion and joy while observing your mind states and mental formations. In terms of the investigation aspect of the mindfulness teachings, we are ultimately looking for things like calm, release, relinquishment, and so insofar as staying with someone else’s joy or suffering leads to ease in the mind, it would be considered skillful. Sadness, of course, is not unskillful in and of itself, but it is worth investigating, continuing with the line of questioning you’ve already begun. There will be times when we have to put a subject down to allow the mind space for calm and healing. The divine abode of equanimity gives us this permission. The divine abodes practice in general, as a separate concentration-like practice, may also ultimately help clarify some of these things. If you begin to fine-tune your sympathtic joy practice, perhaps by staying with someone who is not suffering so much at first, it may be that you are able to see more clearly how much joy there is in other lives, despite the fact that there is suffering. Your compassion practice may lead to a deeper understanding of how, through witnessing the care you feel for your friend, you’ve discovered deeper resources within yourself to bring ease to suffering you encounter in the world. Finally, I’d say that it sounds like you’re on the right track- as long as you keep steadily developing your concentration and applying your steady mind to the issues which arise.