Friday, November 3, 2017

Alternative Noting

The kind of noting described so far could be done anywhere, but an alternate or additional form can be used off the cushion, which is to describe actions being performed.  For example, the practice of focusing on the breath is often noted with the "rising" and "falling" (of the diaphragm), or sometimes "in" and "out" if noting the breath at the tip of the nose.

Walking can be noted as stepping, or during slow meditative walks as a sequence of lifting, moving, placing, pressure, etc.  Getting a glass of water, there might be reaching for the cabinet handle, grasping the handle, pulling the handle, reaching for the glass, holding the glass, moving the glass, reaching for the faucet, turning the faucet, moving the glass, filling the glass, reaching for the faucet again, turning the faucet, raising the glass, turning, sipping, tasting, swallowing, etc.

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

If you've gotten this far, you may be interested in some other resources for learning about noting style meditation.

Getting In Touch With Emotions

Realize that when you are having an emotional experience, there may be many things going on.  There could be a primary emotion such as anger.  Easy enough.  But there could also be tensions in the body that are related to the anger.  One of the better habits to cultivate is an ability to quickly scan through the body and notice where there are any tensions.  A lot of that tension can often be let go of immediately, once you are aware of it.  In addition to the emotion of anger, and the body tensions associated with anger, there could also be angry thoughts.  It may be worthwhile to remember these components of body-emotion-thoughts and when one is experiencing any of these that are related to emotions, maybe check out the other parts of the body-emotions-thoughts complex, and see what else can be noticed and let go of.

This is similar to the idea of breaking things down into their component parts.  What is this sensation made of?  Where is it in the body?  Does it stay the same?  Adyashanti once made the analogy of being like a mad scientist, exploring the feelings that you are resisting or fearing.  What is that nasty depression like when you break it down in this way or stop fighting it?  Or that rage or fear?  Plunge into it and first try to just let it be what it is and break it down, again and again.  Be curious, as curiosity is a great tool for maintaining awareness.   What are the basic sensations, where are they in the body, what does that feel like, what are the thoughts, might I be able to let go of some of that?  Could I just let that be without resisting it?  Do this until you begin to do this wordlessly.

I hesitate to get too deeply into the beliefs underlying emotions, because we are trying to break everything down into component parts, and simultaneously we're trying to avoid going into stories and narrative, but I should also mention that on this emotional axis and the body-emotion-mind experiences that are woven there, there is typically an underlying belief, an opinion, an assumption, that lies beneath the resisted phenomenon.  Letting go of the underlying belief can facilitate the letting go of all the various sensations.  If you are aware enough of your own psychology to go down that road, I recommend keeping the concepts to the very simplest pointers possible such as "Dad was controlling", and then go right back to noting basic phenomenon.  Nothing to see here, move along - it is just phenomenon like any other.  Psychological analysis can take place outside of formal meditation practice.

So the recommendation for things you are resisting is to lightly explore the usual suspects of body, emotion, and mind, investigate a bit without creating a bunch of stories about it, let go of what can be let go of, and ultimately let everything just be with as little resistance as possible.  The background of the meditative path is one of relaxation, which is about letting go of the tensions that we are often unconsciously creating.

Sometimes we may be dealing with something that is more persistent or troublesome emotionally.  This requires more of the same.  The pointer is to work in a very continuous way on feeling, accepting, allowing, acknowledging, opening up to it, making friends with it, holding the space for it, letting it be, letting go.  This aspect of treating everything that comes up in a non-judgmental way, relaxing with it, allowing it, is a very important part of the practice.

Next:  Alternative Noting

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

General Theory

At first the verbal quality of the notes themselves might be relatively primary in awareness.  It's a new task where we have to focus on the words and choose them, and it may take some time to learn to label experience effortlessly.  The underlying goal is to pay attention to what is happening, and there can be more than one thing happening at once.  Just try to label what is more or less predominate, and understand that not everything will get formally noticed.  Try to notice what you can.

As you become familiar with the practice and you've learned a decent palette of notes, it should become as easy as picking out the color red on a palette of primary colors.  As it gets even easier, the goal is to put most of your attention on the objects themselves, the actual experiencing of seeing, hearing, feeling, and very little on the mental/verbal note.  Perhaps something like 5% of your attention might be on the note itself.  Noting is a tool, but the goal is to be continuously mindful of the primary objects, the actual seeing, hearing, and feeling.  Almost your full attention should be on the objects, moving from one object to the next, maintaining continuity of mindfulness like stepping from one lily pad to the next, keeping continuously aware, relaxed, open and non-conceptual.

Notes should typically be kept simple - one word, straight to the point.  We're not trying to go into long descriptions, stories, or concepts, in fact we're trying to avoid that.  All we need is a simple pointer, a placeholder, a check mark to see that we're doing the main job of mindfulness.  Although we are using a tiny bit of conceptualization in the form of the note, as long as we keep it simple and are well practiced, there is very little conceptual processing, and it can become second nature.

We can also see noting as a process of breaking our experience down into its component parts, seeing what we are made of.  There are a lot of ways to break down our experience, one concept is that it all comes back to the 6 sense doors - the 5 basic senses plus thought.  Everything can be labeled as seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling, and thinking.  While you are meditating, forget your ideas and assumptions about a body or your life, what the room looks like, or what is outside.  Just keep dissecting your experience into little bits, the basic building blocks of your experience.

It is helpful to view all experience, the objects of awareness, as processes happening in the present, here and now.  To that end, notes are often verbs ending in "-ing", the present participle in grammar.  Even when they are not, it is implied, as everything is a process.  For example if we note pressure or angst or relaxation, what we are really noticing is feeling pressure or feeling angst or feeling relaxation.

Absolutely everything can be noted, everything can be put into the note-o-matic experience processor.  If you are having trouble coming up with a note you can always relax and note "this" or "don't know" or "blank" as a catch-all, but in such an instance maybe you could also look a bit deeper, perhaps noting "searching" or "wondering" or perhaps because of that struggle there may be "anxiety" or "frustration" or "grasping", and maybe even "resistance" to that frustration.  Don't go crazy searching for the right note, but understand that over time you can become aware of more of what you are experiencing.  Certain relaxed spaces may seem at first to be empty of gross sensation and thought but might be noted as relaxation, peace, tranquility, etc.

Next:  Getting In Touch With Emotions

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

Third Stage - Grasping and Resistance

Once a basic palette of notes is established, most of what we experience is being noted.  But I've left out another important dimension or two.  For all these basic objects of awareness, there is a dimension of whether these things are perceived as "pleasant", "unpleasant", or "neutral".  This gives us some information about how we are built, what our biases are.  This dimension is sometimes based on inherent qualities, and sometimes learned.

This dimension of pleasant and unpleasant is closely related, and almost identical to, another dimension that we might call "grasping" and "resistance".  Usually these will line up, as we will grasp for things that are pleasant and resist what is unpleasant.  But occasionally, for example when long term goals are involved, we might find that these don't line up.  An endurance athlete may learn to love the intense unpleasantness of pushing into the "red zone", knowing that this is how they win.

The dimensions of pleasant/grasping and unpleasant/resistance begin to tell us a lot about our relationship with our experience.  The goal of meditation is to become okay with all experience, and so when we notice that something is unpleasant and we are resisting it, we can actually note the resistance itself, let the resistance just be there like it is, and see if maybe we can let go of some of that.  And if we can't, we let that be okay too.

It becomes very important to notice things like grasping and resistance as these are the areas where we really learn to surrender and let things be.

And although we've spun the pleasant side as, well, pleasant, it turns out that if we are desiring or craving something, there can actually be an anxious, furtive, needy quality to the grasping, a sense of lack or want that we may eventually come to see as unpleasant.  People tend to notice this long after dealing with the more typically unpleasant side of things.  Once again, more to let go of.

Noticing "grasping" and "resistance" are a major key to unraveling ourselves.  Other similar words would include craving and aversion, and expansion and contraction.  Use what works.

Next:  General Theory

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

Second Stage - More Detailed Noting

A second stage might be to begin to flesh out the feeling component into basic physical sensations like "pressure" or "tension", as well as basic emotions such as "anger", "joy", "sadness", and "fear", and to flesh out thinking into a few categories like "planning", "wondering", "remembering", or "imagining".

We don't have to go crazy with a million notes, but I will list a few more here for reference.  Pick and choose what works for you.

Feeling physical sensations:  pressure, tension, release, itching, tingling, twitching, pulsing, throbbing, warmness, coolness, softness, hardness.  It doesn't have to be complicated.  99% of the time I find myself using pressure or tension.

Feeling emotional sensations:  Besides basic emotions such as anger, joy, sadness and fear, there can be related subcomponents:

Related to anger: disgust, frustration, annoyance, rage, irritation, aversion.
Related to joy: love, bliss, exhilaration, wonder.
Related to sadness: depression, grief, hopelessness, despair.
Related to fear: anxiety, worry, surprise.

There is also a category of mind states that might not fit neatly into thoughts or feelings, such as amusement, curiosity, compassion, relaxation, tranquility, anticipation, apathy, boredom, etc.

I would say that when I am noting, I am probably using less than 20 notes on a regular basis.  It's just a tool to keep us aware, and it doesn't take tremendous variety to go beyond the benefit of a simple mantra.

Next:  Third Stage - Grasping and Resistance

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

First Stage - Basic Noting

A brief word about posture.  Posture is important only in the sense that we need to be reasonably awake, alert, and free of pain.  From the standpoint of lower back health we might also want to sit in a reasonably healthy posture as long as we're going to be sitting for a while, so some kind of decent upright posture is typically recommended.  On the other hand you could even meditate lying down, but it will be more likely that you might fall asleep.  You don't have to sit on the floor, or on a meditation cushion, or in a lotus position, or with your fingers in a certain position.  Sitting in a chair is fine.

A first stage of noting might be to note all phenomenon, the objects in your awareness, as either "seeing", "hearing", "feeling", "thinking", or if you're having trouble picking a category, perhaps "don't know" or simply "this" to represent whatever you can't quite put a label on.  Try to maintain a pace of around once per second or so, keep to a steady rhythm, and just do it, do it no matter what.  Noting may seem a bit clumsy at first - it is - it has perhaps more of a learning curve than other techniques, but it just takes some practice to get used to it and develop a palette of notes.  Persistence tends to work here, it took me a few months to really feel natural about it.  I persisted because a number of fairly intelligent and reasonable people said that it worked really well for them.

You don't have to note forever and always.  If your meditation gets quiet and stable and you can sit without technique for a while, go ahead.  Just be aware, and if you find yourself wandering, go back to the technique again.

Note what you are aware of regardless of whether there is much of anything there or not.  So if your attention is on the visual component, say the back of your eyelids, you would note "seeing" regardless of whether you are seeing something specific or it is pitch black.  Your attention is in the direction of the visual component so you note "seeing".

Noting is typically done silently for practical reasons (group sits, etc.), but noting out loud is actually a powerful and recommended practice.  It is much harder to drift off into thought while noting aloud.  When you can, try using out loud noting when you are having trouble staying aware.

Next:  Second Stage - More Detailed Noting

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

Intro to Noting and Meditation

The style of meditation I most often recommend is called noting.  The technique of noting style meditation is to notice what you are aware of, and to label it with a simple "note" such as "seeing", "hearing", or "feeling".  By doing this at a steady, frequent pace, about once every second or so, it forces you to be continuously aware and present.  As you practice, it requires you to be mindful, because each moment you must prove that you are mindful by naming what you are uniquely aware of in that moment.

Noting could be seen as a more powerful form of mantra, a dynamic or adaptable mantra.  Rather than repeating the exact same word or phrase, each moment we must come up with a unique description of what is more or less predominate in our awareness at any time.

This practice is one of the most effective at interrupting the mind's natural inclination to go off and think about the next thing.

Some may be put off by the structure of it, or the verbal nature of it.  My advice is to train the mind with high quality practice by whatever means you can.  If that's noting practice, fine.  If you can just sit without any technique, and by pure natural talent and willpower you can be present and aware during 95% or more of your formal meditation practice, then maybe do that.  I list many techiques for this kind of mental skill training in Basic Meditation Styles, find what works for you.

But I would definitely look for something that gets the quality very high.  Quality in the sense of a very high percentage of time aware and present.  My belief is that getting the practice very pure, at least for a few important developmental years, is pretty important.  As my guitar teacher pointed out, practice makes permanent.  If your mindfulness practice is sloppy, and you're spacing out left and right, to some degree that is indeed the mind that you will make permanent.

For some, it may even be that the very effectiveness of noting technique ends up putting them off.  With noting being so good at getting in the way of our natural conditioned desire to think, it can be a kind of hard work to overcome that bias, and some people just won't like that aspect.  The underlysing neurology wants to think, to daydream, to fantasize.  They don't want to go on the equivalent of a thought "diet", and as a result they consciously or unconsciously prefer half measures.

One of the main things is that people often seem to feel that they should just be able to "wing it" without technique.  They constantly drop the technique and unwittingly come up with excuses for using a less potent style of meditation, one with less rigor, so that (again unknowingly) they can end up spending more time doing all that daydreaming that their underlying neurology wants to do.

My recommendation is to just have some reasonable awareness of how you are doing on your percent awareness meter, the percentage of time you are actually present and aware in practice, and be careful not to trade short term desire or inertia for long term peace and tranquility.

Regarding thought, there's a fine line in that we don't really want to assume an outright aversion to thought.  One of the basic themes that comes out of the contemplative path is that everything is okay just as it is.  But maybe we should see that as more of the end goal.  In the meantime, the problem is that we have spent perhaps a hundred thousand hours overemphasizing thought and our identification with it, and it will take some attention to remedy that.

One piece of practical advice is, for perhaps a few years, lean a bit more into bodily sensations.  If you can let go of thought a bit, and can pay a bit more attention to what is going on in the body, you are restoring a kind of natural balance.  We have unconsciously prejudiced ourselves towards thought, and we're not going to be able to immediately let go of that.  We need to pay more attention to the body, kind of an affirmative action for the sensate world.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with thought, but we are essentially prejudiced bigots with respect to it, so affirmative action is required.

Advocating a relatively hardcore kind of effort can cause problems in some people.  They may become overly concerned about practicing correctly.  "Am I doing it right?" or "Oh no, I've spaced out again!"  The way to practice is to learn the simple basics and then be nonjudgmental about the results.  If you're practicing in the direction of being continuously aware, relaxed, open, and non-conceptual, you are practicing correctly.  If you space out, that is very much to be expected, particularly at first.  More about that later, but the basic advice is don't beat yourself up about it.

It's also worth considering that the more effective a practice is, the more likely it is that someone will eventually stumble across some buried psychological problems.  In the same exact way that enough psychotherapy or experimentation with psychedelic drugs will likely bring all your psychological issues to the forefront, so will intense meditation practice.  Sitting around daydreaming, not so much.  But this is the path, to learn to become okay with all the parts of ourselves.  As layers are peeled back, sometimes it will be tender underneath.  You have to acknowledge and surrender to that tenderness, that pain, until you are okay with that newly uncovered layer, and then you continue and perhaps begin to peel off yet another layer.

Again, you're up against perhaps a hundred thousand hours of practicing grasping at thought.  When you do drift away and come back, understand how natural that is, and understand it is a good thing you came back to the present.  This is what we want - to come back to here and now, so be pleased with the coming back part, and just go right back into your practice, your technique, and maybe this time with a little bit of extra energy or intent.  Back to it, back to it, again and again and again.  You just keep putting the puppy on the newspaper when it starts to pee, and eventually it learns.

Next:  First Stage - Basic Noting

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

Meditation Overview

Meditation at its simplest is about training awareness.  Training the mind to be present, aware of what is here and now as opposed to being lost in thought.  We find ourselves in the predicament of having been unwittingly conditioned for many tens of thousands of hours towards thinking as our default, and we have ended up greatly attached and identified with those thoughts.  Meditation seeks to undo this conditioning by practicing awareness of the here and now, and within that awareness, letting go of everything that can be let go of.

In a way, the first key is merely remembering - remembering to be mindful in this way.  This is an easy concept, but difficult in practice.  Because it is so difficult, I recommend techniques that are relatively structured, that provide some kind of regularity or feedback to keep one continuously aware.  If the style described here isn't your thing, there are many other methods such as those outlined in Basic Meditation Styles.

The goal is to train the mind back to a kind of "zero point" - aware but not attached to experience, thoughts, ideas, beliefs, opinions - something like the mind prior to all the conditioning and baggage of human culture.

Next:  Intro to Noting and Meditation

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

How To Meditate

Instructions on the noting style of meditation I recommend, although there is much that applies to any form of meditation.

The noting style is sometimes called the Mahasi or Burmese style, after the monk that developed it.  This style is the main style of vipassana or mindfulness that is taught in southeast Asian Theravada Buddhist communities.

Other instruction oriented articles

Personal instruction

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Meditating, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, covers Kahneman and Tversky's groundbreaking research into cognitive biases and other topics.

From Wikipedia:
"The central thesis is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: "System 1" is fast, instinctive and emotional; "System 2" is slower, more deliberative, and more logical."

System 1 refers to behaviors that are essentially hard-wired, acquired either innately or by well practiced learning.

It struck me that meditation practice operates between these two poles.  We begin by using System 2 to deliberately train the mind to become more aware and relaxed.  Over time, and with enough high quality practice, the mind becomes automatically aware and relaxed.  That is the path, like any other well trained skill, moving from deliberate practice until it becomes second nature, System 1.

Kahneman also posits an alternate measure of happiness, based more on moment to moment experience rather than recalled happiness.

"Odd as it may seem," Kahneman writes, "I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me."

Again in many ways the path is to reduce our attachment to the conceptual, remembering self, and to increasingly focus on the experiencing self, here and now.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Reality of Technique

One of my observations about the mainstream meditation world is that many people have an implicit assumption that they must learn to meditate by something like sheer willpower.  While that may work in a small number of cases, by and large it will fail.  The level of conditioning in the direction of thought, applied over decades, is just too hard to overcome by willpower alone.  So I recommend various techniques to beat the mind at its own game, chiefly noting practice.

In Upping Your Game, I made the case for techniques and even gadgets to help one remain continuously aware.  Buried in that post was a reference to a device I used to prompt me at 60 second intervals during meditation.  I used that device during most of the time I was "getting it done".  Here is some feedback I received:
"I reset my meditation app so I hear a subtle wood block every minute while I’m sitting. This helps quite a bit, so thanks for that!"
Excellent.  This person is using the popular Insight Timer app on their smartphone.  There are many apps like this and I wish I was more familiar with them.  But yeah, road test some of these more structured approaches, do whatever it takes.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

What Is Spiritual Enlightenment?

 As the Zen poet Ryokan said:

"If someone asks what is the mark of enlightenment or illusion,
I cannot say -- wealth and honor are nothing but dust,
As the evening rain falls, I sit in my hermitage
And stretch out both feet in answer."

Enlightenment is often put up on a pedestal of perfection, and perhaps only a few out of billions have gone far enough to be substantially beyond severe physical suffering.  At such an extreme of non-attachment and non-identification, the pain simply arises and passes as it is, without resistance or stress.  But it's not necessarily all "good" at that point.  It becomes somewhat pathological, at least from the standpoint of society.  Ramana Maharshi was said to have let rats eat the flesh of his legs.  We might question whether this was truly the best use of the amazing insight of Ramana.

In the article "Drowning Mr. M" (SciAm Mind April 2005), we find a person suffering from athymhormia, a profound lack of attachment and motivation, due to lesions on the brain.  Taking a dip in the pool, he finds himself underwater and simply begins to let himself drown.  He doesn't care.  It doesn't bother him.  The sight of his daughter, though, breaks the apathy and he returns to the surface.  For these people, "it is as if they have become mere spectators to their own lives, no longer actively participating."

In many ways (credit to Shinzen Young) this condition mimics a high degree of enlightenment.  The interesting thing about athymhormia is that unlike other related experiences, there is no depression or cognitive impairment, the person is just very unattached.  They feel pain but it doesn't affect them.

And there are accounts of many such as Katie Byron, where it took her a long time to adjust to her extreme version of enlightenment.  For example, she couldn't understand why strangers on the street didn't know her, because from her perspective they were the same person.


The standard definition for enlightenment would be something like the falling away of the ego.  But this is not necessarily easy to fathom unless one has actually experienced it.

In some ways enlightenment represents the falling away of false beliefs about the self, the loss of a certain kind of neuroticism.

From Karen Horney, (Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization):

The infinite powers the neurotic ascribes to himself are, after all, powers of the mind.  No wonder, then, that he is fascinated by it and proud of it.  The idealized image is a product of his imagination.  But this is not something created overnight.  Incessant work of intellect and imagination, most of it unconscious, goes into maintaining the private fictitious world through rationalizations, justifications, externalizations, reconciling irreconcilables - in short, through finding ways to make things appear different than what they are.  The more a person is alienated from himself, the more his mind becomes supreme reality.

Only when the patient has become interested in the question "Who am I?" will the analyst more actively try to bring to his awareness how little he does know or care about his real feelings, wishes, or beliefs.

The patient may simply feel sympathetic toward himself and experience himself for the first time as being neither particularly wonderful nor despicable but as the struggling and often harassed human being which he really is.

Moreover any move toward being himself gives him a sense of fulfillment which is different from anything he has known before.  And while such experience is at first short lived, it may in time recur more and more often and for periods of longer duration.

From the standpoint of individuals, it is important to notice that we weren't always ego-based creatures.  There was a bit of time, however brief, as say a fetus and a newborn, when we really didn't know we were anything.

Didn't know we were separate, or male or female, good or bad, rich or poor, or human, or anything.  Didn't have politics or religion, or categories period.  Didn't have gender, ethnicity, social class, occupation, hobbies, culture.  Didn't have parents, friends, or family, at least in the sense that we didn't know what those things were.  Didn't have status, self-esteem, reputation, body image, commitments, achievements, losses, gains.  Didn't have characteristics, values, beliefs, attitudes, ideas, habits.

Didn't have identity or uniqueness.  Didn't know we were separate. Didn't have past or future, time or space, or age or continuity. Everything was just happening, and there were no decisions that we could call conscious.

So what is that like?

What we're pointing at is pure, nonconceptual awareness, prior, in a sense, to the arising of anything.  All of those things listed above are attachment points for identity.  With those things dialed down, there is a lot of freedom to simply be who we are, instead of what we or other people think.

So pure consciousness or awareness or suchness, without ideas or conception, is a pointer.

Alfred Lord Tennyson used a type of meditation to pierce the veil:

"... when I have been all alone. This has often come upon me through repeating my own name to myself silently till, all at once, as it were, out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being; and this not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life"

Anyone can have a moment of that, but generally people's assumptions and attachments are so strong they go right back to their assumed identity.  A person could get a powerful sense of this during a psychedelic experience, and in some way it might lightly affect them, but most people will go back to their old ways.

So something could be said about both a degree of liberation, which could be massive in a temporary experience of just one moment, and also the degree to which that liberation is permanent.  Someone who is enlightened would have a substantial degree of both.

From another angle, we might look to science, which points out that we don't ever have any direct contact with what we call the universe.  Our senses feed into a brain, which creates a map, and that map is all we ever experience.  As you perceive it, the universe IS your consciousness, always has been.  Everything you have ever experienced is you, is consciousness, and that is all we can know in an absolute way.  Some may find that hard to swallow, but it is an important pointer.

This is basically the insight of Plato's analogy of the cave.  All we can see are shadows on the wall of the cave, yet we cannot see what is actually casting the shadows.

And again from a scientific view, we can't really consider ourselves to be quite so separate as we might ordinarily conceive.  Not only do we live in a massively interconnected human world, each ultimately dependent on everyone else, and all of our beliefs formed by our interactions with others, but at a fundamental level we do not exist without oxygen or food or water, which means we do not exist without plants, or the earth, or the entire universe.  We are not separate from the totality.

We can generally understand that an amoeba has no self.  It is just a little organic machine, doing what it does, genetics plus environment.  As we go up to multi-cellular creatures, perhaps we can still see that something like an earthworm or a grasshopper has no self.  Just little organic machines, doing what they do.  For a lot of people this exercise gets more difficult as we get up to the mammals.  But it's the same thing.  A mouse or a goat is just an organic machine that does what it does.  By the time we get to dogs and cats, many people will begin to disagree.  But it's the same thing.  You take those genetics, you put them in that environment, that's what you get, organic machines doing what they do.

So yeah, the kind of dry and unappealing spin is that we are soulless robots.  But waking up to that and beginning to see how your mental machinery was indoctrinated, and letting go of that unskillful programming, that's a beautiful thing.  Once again though, it's also just your particular genetics doing what they are doing in your particular environment.

The enlightened viewpoint might seem "wrong" in a way from the assumptions of consensus civilization.  ("Oh, but of course I have a self").  But in many ways it is the enlightened mind that is actually letting go of what isn't real, the phantoms of belief, opinion, and assumption.

And that intellectual path of seeing what we are conceptually is one thing, but circling back, the really important thing is to experience and see and be from the viewpoint of pure consciousness.

The enlightened mind is a mind relatively absent of assumptions or elaborations, one that is not taking the bait of craving or resistance.  Less compressed, more relaxed, less closed, more open, less reactive, more responsive, less self-obsessed, more compassionate, less compulsive, more free.

There is a kind of relaxation that takes place when all of this striving is let go of.  The mind has been conditioned to "flex" and strive, in a way.  Continually practicing to be aware of that flexing and to let go of it, this is the path.  Eventually the mind begins to relax in this way.  The letting go of the grasping of self-identity is one aspect of this relaxation.  With enough practice, the mind breaks free of prior assumptions and begins to adopt relaxed awareness as its new default.  It begins to "identify" with the background of experience, with pure consciousness.  As this becomes permanent, this absence of assumptions, seeing what actually is, this is what we call enlightenment.

All visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. If man will strike, strike through the mask!
     -Ahab, from Moby Dick

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Upping Your Game

It may be, of course, that you don't need to up your game.  But odds are that you do.

The meditation game is something along the lines of mastering a combination of attention and relaxation.  Simple enough, in theory.  But as the song* goes, "with a back beat narrow and hard to master."

The mainstream advice seems to be mostly about merely having an intention to be mindful, but not much is said on exactly how to accomplish this experience of mindfulness.  It's not that they don't provide any hints, but rather that they speak in general terms and seem to eschew reliance on any kind of direct technique to accomplish the task.  It's as if it were somehow rude to suggest that one indulge in something so crass as a technique, or probably even moreso a technique that is not (god forbid) specifically mentioned in the Pali Canon.  Other, of course, than following the breath, which seems eminently allowable because Buddha specifically used awareness of the breath as an example of how to be mindful.

I once knew a particular guy that was very into meditation and Buddhism.  He had practiced daily for years, read all the books, listened to all the dharma talks, been to all the retreats, and had even taught meditation for a while at an established center.  I'm not sure exactly where he was on the path, but I do know that I turned him on to noting style, and afterwards he said that he had never been that aware in meditation before.

Okay, so maybe that last line went by kind of quickly.  Pause and consider the unbelievable magnitude of that last statement.  Let's go through it again: daily practice for a couple of decades or more, bookshelves full of dharma books, always listening to dharma talks, been to all kind of retreats, and, critically, taught lots of other people how to meditate, and yet HE HAD NEVER BEEN THAT AWARE IN MEDITATION.  What does that say about the success of the mainstream meditation community?  I mean, not that there isn't more to it than meditation, but seriously folks, c'mon.

And let me say that noting style may not be the be all and end all for everyone, but circling back to the point, this is a concrete example of how a simple technique changed one person's game, even if just for a moment.

Noting style is a kind of paint-by-numbers version of mindfulness, forcing one to do exactly what mindful people do.  Name what you are aware of, at a rate of about one "note" per second or so.  Repeat 3600 times per hour.  When first exposed to it, people often comment about the unusual degree of awareness, much like the experienced practitioner I mentioned.

But, like many things, people habituate.  They slack off.  They succumb to the learned desire to think about this or that.  Time to up your game.  You can always work on intention, attempt to increase your earnestness, your engagement, your resolve.  And that is an important factor, but generally it is not enough.

So what I'm recommending is coming up with techniques to overcome this problem.  You don't have to do it "on your own" without technique.  You don't have to just "wing it".  You can figure out a technology to get it done.

In noting practice, the first thing to recommend is noting out loud.  Most people will avoid this important step.  Noting out loud ups the ante.  Do it.  The hardest-core version I have recommended is to note out loud while writing down each brief note on paper.  I don't believe a single person I have recommended this to has actually done the practice, but trust me, I didn't recommend it without test driving it, and I can tell you it works really well.  But it seems to be something along the lines of "too much trouble".

There are any number of techniques, I have outlined a bunch of the usual suspects (and more) in Basic Meditation Styles.  But like the writing down noting technique I came up with, you can invent what works for you.  There are apps that you can use to vibrate your phone every so often, like once a minute.  For years I used an old beeper device (Motivaider) that would do that, and held it loosely in my hand while I meditated.  By doing that, it was difficult to space out for more than a few seconds.  That's the idea.

Say you're lying down on the couch watching TV.  Great time to practice, few will attempt it, fewer will succeed.  Do what you have to do.  Maybe prop up your arm and slowly wave it in front of you, obscuring your view of the TV every second or so.  Use it to remind yourself to be here now, feel the body, open your awareness to the room.  You can invent a way to stay present.

All of this may be seem a bit silly or hardcore for armchair meditators who are maybe just looking for a bit of relaxing and de-stressing.  I very much advocate relaxing and de-stressing, but I find that awareness has to take precedence.  Once you are present, you will actually be able to relax.  You will actually be aware of what is tense, and you can see if you can let go of some of that.  That's what it takes to really relax.  And it does take some work to undo decades of conditioning, the prejudice of the mind towards concepts. 

The reason I am concerned about this can also be seen in a recent Tricycle article where the writer said:
You may read that meditation enables you to tame your mind and bring it to a state of stability and peace. Despite meditating as a Buddhist for more than 40 years, I have not achieved even a glimpse of this, nor have I ever seen anyone else achieve it. Admittedly, I am not much of a practitioner ...
The article, though nice in its own way, is essentially apologetics for slacking off.  It saddens me that he's put in so much time, enough to get far more than a glimpse of stability and peace, but in some way the mainstream practices failed him.

I'm not one for Buddhist dogma, but I'm willing to bring up a couple of quotes such as Buddha's last words, to "strive diligently".  Or when describing the removal of distracting thoughts, "with teeth clenched ... he should beat down, constrain, and crush mind with mind".  That's one intense dude.

This kind of effort must eventually be let go of like everything else, but for most people that will be a few years down the road.  For example, musically, you have to learn your scales and modes and arpeggios and chords and songs and solos and fingerings, and get to the point where all the movements are second nature, before you can really lay back and improvise at a high level.  It takes time and hard practice, and imagining that is going to happen without real effort is insanity.

I have indeed seen one clear example of an advanced practitioner who got there with a very technique based effort, who was at a point where he really needed to let go and just be.  But in my experience, he was the exception.  In stark contrast, the overwhelming number of people I run into have the opposite problem.

If you want to "get it done", it can be done.  Figure out a technique that will get you, and keep you, aware, relaxed, and open, and do that for an hour a day.

*Doors: Texas Radio and The Big Beat

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

It's not about thinking with your eyes closed

Most people who believe they are meditating are merely thinking with their eyes closed. - Sam Harris
"Most people who believe they are meditating are merely thinking with their eyes closed"
- Sam Harris

I would add that sitting on a cushion at a retreat for 60 hours a week is not necessarily meditation, although it could be.

It depends on what is going on internally.

I've heard examples of modern meditation teachers recommending that their students actively think and analyze on the cushion.  I find this a bit frightening and at least in an overall sense I would tend to disagree.  I think this is quite possibly pointing in the wrong direction, that it may be training people to strengthen and practice their attachment and prejudice towards thought, something that instead needs to be un-done, un-learned.

On the other hand, it is possible to some extent for a person to be relatively unattached to their thinking, to merely observe the thoughts that arise, and that indeed can be a part of meditation practice, but notice this is not the same as the recommended steering and analyzing and grasping, but rather a mindful witnessing of what is.

In part this has resulted from a seemingly well intended political correctness about thought in meditation, at least among the consensus meditation community.  Once upon a time, a few decades ago, no-thought was used prominently as a pointer, and it remains an excellent pointer if understood correctly.  The danger is that some people would assume there should be an aversion to thought and would therefore resist thought.  The largely modern western groups reacted to this by pretty much abolishing talk of no-thought.  But grasping and resistance were never part of the practice.  Being mindfully aware and relaxed and open, and leaning in the direction of the non-conceptual, abandoning whatever grasping and resistance that can be abandoned, surrendering to the moment, that is the practice.

The practice is a letting go of what can be let go of, not of shunning or resisting thought.

In my experience, there is grasping with every thought, at least on the cushion.  On the cushion, everything is taken care of, there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be.  Thoughts in that situation, although natural at some level, reflect a degree of dissatisfaction with the present moment.  But the experience of thoughts subsiding, relaxing down to the level of a few proto-thoughts, is a sign that you are on the right track.  Although perhaps an advanced practice, one simply watches these arising and lets go of them as they are seen.

Part of the political correctness stems from the misunderstanding of the no-thought pointer.  But there are a couple of other pieces to the puzzle.  For example, there is a general recommendation to "investigate" experience, and Buddha himself clearly does a bit of thinking and analyzing.  My take would be that sure, you can do some of that, but I would recommend doing it off the cushion.  I would recommend staying away from discursive analysis on the cushion and instead emphasize "feeling" your experience.  What does your experience really feel like?  What does that fear or that tension in the body really feel like?  What happens when we stop resisting that?  We're living in a world of people that are out of touch with their bodies and feelings, like brains on a popsicle stick.  We need to practice the non-verbal.  We need to practice just being.

Similarly, the western Buddhist experience has been substantially blended with psychology over the past few decades.  This may not be a bad thing.  But again, when I hear someone at a dharma talk saying that they plan to spend their next retreat "meditating" on their relationship with their partner, my heart falls a bit.  Who knows, maybe what that person needs is a lot of psychological think time.  But I wouldn't call it meditation.  I do recommend psychological work, I think everyone is on a spectrum of neurosis, but again I would recommend that work be done off the cushion.

Time on the cushion is precious time, it is an opportunity to practice being aware and letting go.  Grasping at stories is not that.  And as my guitar teacher put it, practice makes permanent.  You practice sloppy, your playing will be sloppy.  Guaranteed.  Practice being aware and letting go, abandon whatever you can.

Another Reason for Noting Practice

The article, "Things You Can Do to Cheer Up, According to Neuroscience", in the segment "He-Who-Actually-Must-Be-Named", explains that:

“To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here's the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.”
This is the essence of noting practice, to continuously describe what is more or less predominate in awareness.