In my work as a psychologist I rely on lists. A lot. What are “symptoms” really? Lists. They
are a rundown of the qualities of experience a person has when struggling with a problem. Depression, anxiety, trauma, and so on are actually baskets into which lists of qualities are placed. But what about the opposite of mental disorders? Can healthy states be thought of in the same way? The short answer is yes. Positive psychology has begun to group positive qualities into larger constructs such as “kindness,” “bravery,” and “wisdom.” While some dislike the reductionist overtones of such an approach, it is nothing new. In fact, Buddhism is one of the earliest examples of how to do this well.
Buddhism is, in my opinion, the oldest and most sophisticated psychological science in the world. So it is not surprising that so many parallels exist with modern psychology, which is, in many ways, reinventing the wheel the Buddha set in motion millennia ago. Lists play a large role in Buddhism, especially when it comes to “diagnosing” rare states and transformations of consciousness. One of these lists is especially important. Think of it as the psychological profile of someone ready to awaken. The seven factors of enlightenment.
The Seven Factors
The seven factors are: mindfulness, investigation, concentration, energy, relaxation, rapture, and equanimity.
These seven arise in the meditator at certain stages of development, building gradually toward awakening. Then, when the first moment of awakening (stream entry) is close, all seven reach a peak. Six of them fall into balance with each other. The odd one out is mindfulness, which does not need anything to balance it. I often imagine these factors as being like a dog sled team. Mindfulness is the lead dog at the front of the team, followed by three equally matched pairs that balance each other perfectly.
Mindfulness – this one stands alone. Mindfulness is not merely bare attention to the present moment, it is also intuitively recognizing the kinds of things that are coming up and their significance (that is the fourth foundation of mindfulness). It sees what is happening and its significance right this instant. Mindfulness knows insights as they arise (the insight knowledges), and remembers what to do (or not do) at each development of the insight path. At first mindfulness is effortful. It is the first factor to come up, and it needs to be deliberately called up and entrained. When it begins to gain strength the meditator experiences the first stage of insight (knowledge of mind and body). So one way to tell if you are developing mindfulness, versus bare attention, is to see if you are able to experience the first stage of insight. As mindfulness is practiced in and out of meditation it becomes more automatic, taking on a life of its own.
This is where the dog sledding analogy is helpful. Mindfulness is like the lead dog, and lead dogs are very special. People build very close relationships with them and gradually turn over more of the responsibility for knowing the trail to the lead dog. Once a lead dog has experience with a path, it intuitively recognizes where the soft spots are, where the ice is thin, where the snow looks wet and where it is firm. It knows which turn to take and keeps the team moving down the center of the path and away from the slippery banks at the edges. It takes time and patience for a lead dog to learn, but once it knows a path, it can guide you along automatically, and you can let go and allow the team to take you to your destination. This is how mindfulness works as it matures and deepens. As a meditator gains experience, she learns to trust mindfulness more and more and to allow it to take the lead.
Investigation/Concentration – Investigation is the process of looking at an object and seeing that it is not what it appears to be at first glance. It is looking at something mundane, like the the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose, and seeing that it is not just a single sensation called “breath,” but a dynamic field of flickering vibrations (anicca), that are not the observer (anatta), and are uncomfortable to hold on to (dukkha). It is balanced by concentration, which is the ability to keep the mind still for long enough that objects can be seen with sufficient clarity. It involves building a calm focus that is unwavering. Investigation is like the focusing of a camera lens. Concentration is like holding the camera still long enough to focus. When both of these factors are strong and in balance things can be seen clearly for what they really are.
Energy/Relaxation – These may seem contradictory, but they are actually complimentary. The great meditation teacher Ayya Khema sometimes described “energy” as “willpower.” This makes sense, although it is a translation that has lost popularity. It is the sense of applying oneself, giving all of oneself to the process and not holding back. It is the raw impulse that puts the other factors to work. It is balanced by relaxation, which is just what is sounds like. If you apply yourself, but are tight and clenched in body or mind, then the meditation is likely to stall out. Relaxation is that which allows the process to run smoothly, while energy keeps it running. These two, in a sense, feel like surrendering to the meditation, no matter how intense it becomes, with great alertness. To get an idea of what a peak balance between energy and relaxation feels like, reflect on how you feel right after a good workout, when you are letting go and not striving any longer but still full of energy.
Rapture/Equanimity – Rapture is a combination of joyful feeling and physical “pleasure.” That word is in quotes because it isn’t pleasure in the normal sense. It doesn’t come from the five senses. A pleasant feeling fills the body in one of several different ways, electrical tingles, fine vibrations, pulses, warm light – it can be percieved differently by different people, but it is always very pleasurable. There is a kind of erotic feeling to it for many people, and this can throw off many westerners who read over and over about renouncing worldly pleasure and not becoming attached to anything. It is important to understand that this kind of pleasure is essential to the development of deeper meditation. However, it needs to be balanced with equanimity, which is that quality of mind which does not grasp or cling to experiences, good or bad. Of all the factors, equanimity may be the most odd one, because there are few experiences in normal life that are similar to it. It is a sense of calm that remains interested and focused, without feeling like anything occurring is consequential to the observer. As my teacher once put it, “you no longer feel like you have a dog in the fight.” And yet, with all the rapture you are still deeply interested in what is occurring. These two balance each other beautifully.
When all seven factors are working well, they feel almost as though they take over, pulling the meditator toward awakening. Along the way the meditator puts in work and effort to develop the insights and the factors, but once things mature the combination of factors seem to grow in strength, balance, and in a sense, it feels as though they take over. It is at this point that the admonitions to “do nothing” and simply “let go” make the most sense. With the right factors in place, the process can now do itself, you simply have to hold on and watch.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what “pragmatic dharma” is lately. This is partly because I’m trying to get my own head straight as I write about it, and partly because Jack Kornfield recently criticized it on Buddhist Geeks. Kornfield, in his usual gentle style, was mostly circumspect in his criticism, but he did say that the leaders of the pragmatic dharma movement (I’m assuming he means Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram) have redefined key concepts in Buddhism. He suggested that the attainments aimed for in pragmatic dharma are, in essence, not the real thing. Coming from the author of A Path with Heart, one of the most easy-going, downright cuddly dharma books out there (while also covering some deep wisdom), such direct criticism is pretty harsh stuff. He also pointed out that the idea that people could attain enlightenment in lay life, a key idea in pragmatic circles, is something that does not make a lot of sense to him and that the experiences and insights a person has in lay life are not the same, not as “transformative,” as what occurs in a more rigorous monastic setting like the Mahasi centers in Burma. He seemed to imply that he understood what goes on in those places while Kenneth and Daniel do not, and so they are redefining things out of misunderstanding. This is odd, because both Kenneth and Daniel spent significant stretches of time in the Asian centers Kornfield is referring to, in the exact same lineage as him, so something isn’t quite making sense. It really seems like a he said/she said sort of situation. I disagree with him here, so hope I didn’t just distort his point of view too much.
Given that Kenneth Folk was my teacher and I benefited immeasurably from the pragmatic approach he used, I was a bit taken aback by Kornfield’s critique. I love his work, and generally think he knows what he is talking about in such matters, so I wondered if there was a misunderstanding or clash of personalities at work rather than a substantial critique. I mean, does he really understand what pragmatic dharma is? Does anyone? What is it really? As I thought about this I came up with a handful of characteristics that I think give pragmatic dharma its shape at present.
Pragmatism – this one is so important it is right in the name. I think that it is the defining characteristic because it stands in contrast to the way the dharma is being taught in mainstream Buddhism in the west. The mainstream has key elements of the Buddhist practice, but it often seems to be more a kind of lifestyle, identity, or a spiritualized form of psychotherapy, rather than a focus on awakening itself or the working elements of practice. It strongly emphasizes uncoupling meditation from attainments, as a sort of de-stressing strategy for a harried western world. This is a very different version of Buddhism from the traditional approach, which strongly emphasizes attaining specific outcomes, like insight knowledges or stream entry, which are viewed as imminently practical. In the westernized version of Buddhism these practical attainments, and even awakening itself, seem to go out of focus and become a kind of aspirational concept rather than a reality. Kornfield actually said as much in his Buddhist Geeks interview, and what is interesting about this from a historical perspective is that he had a very important role to play in this transformation of Buddhism in the west, which is documented in the book Mindful America. This new style of dharma, unique to the west, was dubbed the “mushroom culture” by Bill Hamilton (the teacher of both Daniel Ingram, Kenneth Folk, and founder of the Dharma Seed audio library) who reportedly explained that this new western approach is like growing mushrooms, you “keep them in the dark and feed them shit.” Pragmatic dharma is a reaction against this new westernized style. It is a move to focus on what matters in the dharma – awakening and what leads to it – rather than the things that seem to be more lifestyle or therapy oriented. It is ironic that Kornfield critiques pragmatic dharma as redefining Buddhism away from the traditional meanings, because that is exactly the critique pragmatic dharma folks are making of mainstream Buddhism in the west.
Transparency – pragmatic dharma is big on breaking the taboo on talking about attainments. It means coming right out and saying so if you attained a jhana, had a cessation, or know what an insight is like because you had it first hand. The upside of this is that it invites people to see these things as real rather than fairy tales (which the mushroom culture seems to encourage). It also eliminates the weird game of spiritual marco polo that sometimes gets played when people talk around their own attainments rather than about them. The downside is that it provides an opening for people who simply want to make things up. If it becomes chic to say you attained jhana then no doubt people are going to start redefining jhana to match whatever they experience in meditation, that’s going to lead to a lot of confusion. So on this I can see the validity of the criticism. But does that mean we really need a taboo that leads people to not take these things seriously? Perhaps there can be a middle ground here. I can imagine a situation in which people are encouraged to be open about their attainments within select company. There are plenty of aspects of our lives that we keep private except with a close group, perhaps attainments can start to fall into a similar category. Not quite public, not quite taboo, but something we are open about with those who are going to understand and not overreact.
Digital – pragmatic dharma is a sangha in the cloud. There are communities, but they are mostly online communities. Message boards, forums, blogs, podcasts, and other online mediums are the spaces where ideas pop up and are explored. The Hamilton Project has a great list of pragmatic dharma sites. Buddhist Geeks has an online training program that looks fantastic, and pragmatically minded lay teachers (like myself) often teach people meditation online, via skype or other forms of live online interaction. Small groups meet in person in cities all over the world, but for the most part it is an online phenomenon. This gives it an interesting radical quality. There is something rebellious in spirit about pragmatic dharma that is found in many web-based movements. It is untethered to institutions and traditional hierarchies, and in this sense it is the dharma equivalent of Bitcoin or Wikipedia. A decentralized, crowdsourced fund of emerging wisdom and experimentation, that is unpredictable and destabilizing to established approaches. Some of the ideas that come out of it are destined to fail, like so many internet phenomena, but some are very good and deserve to be taken seriously. The internet is the perfect medium for this kind of experimentation.
Secularism – not everyone who is interested in pragmatic dharma is secular, but so many are it is difficult not to see a trend. Kenneth Folk is openly secular in his approach, eschewing the religious tradition and dogma for a more scientific and modern view of meditation as “brain training” or “contemplative fitness.” As he said in a 2013 article for Wired Magazine “All that woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde.” This trend in pragmatic dharma makes sense because secularism is in essence a scientific perspective, and the scientific perspective is almost pragmatic by definition. From a scientific perspective things only cross the threshold from woo-woo to reality when they’ve been shown to actually work in some fundamental way. This is a version of what pragmatic dharma is doing by focusing on attainments. The moment one takes attainments seriously then one has a sensible way to gauge whether things actually work or not. The threshold is the attainment. And the test of whether something works is whether it leads one closer to the attainment or is merely, to use Kenneth’s phrase, woo-woo. A secular focus means that those aspects of practice that actually work to produce insight and awakening take primary importance, while dogma, doctrine, and cultural additions tend to fall away. This leads to pragmatic dharma’s focus on techniques, maps, or even practices outside of any tradition, while downplaying mainstream Buddhism’s lifestyle-oriented focus.
A focus on ordinary life – most people involved in pragmatic dharma fall into the category of lay practitioners, but what makes them different from lay sangha in the past is that they are not (for the most part) focused on building merit by serving a monastic community in the hope of awakening in future life. They are focused on awakening in this life. This is an idea taken whole from the vipassana revival in Asia that led to the mindfulness movement in the west (see The Birth of Insight for a history of this movement in Burma). Ledi Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, Goenka, and others spread the idea that lay people could practice Satipatthana meditation and learn Abhidhamma well enough to move along the path while also participating in ordinary life. As a result of this movement great lay teachers such as Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma, who were major influences on the western mindfulness movement, were able to teach and spread the idea that awakening is possible in lay life. As the vipassana movement landed in the west it brought this idea with it, and the idea that one could practice meditation and study Buddhism in lay life flourished. Yet the idea that awakening is possible in lay life is deemphasized as attainments take a back seat to a focus on de-stressing and coping with lay life effectively. Pragmatic dharma takes the idea that awakening is possible in ordinary life literally and seriously.
These five characteristics, pragmatism, transparency, a digital community, secularism, and focusing on awakening in ordinary life, are what gives pragmatic dharma its current shape. But there is something else that is worth understanding about them. They are occurring within a much larger picture that, I think, defines the disagreement that leads someone like Kornfield to criticize this upstart movement, and that is the presence of what I have come to call the “silent sangha.” Right now there is a vast group of people in the west who meditate regularly, practice mindfulness at the office, or are going through mindfulness based stress reduction courses on their doctor’s advice, who are gradually getting deeper and deeper into the world of meditation. They love meditation, but they really do not care much about Buddhism. There is a disconnect between them and a fuller understanding of meditation, beyond mindfulness, and in the coming decades the challenge for Buddhism will be to package and deliver the deeper teachings to them in a way they can understand and which will help them take the next step toward awakening. The silent sangha is a massive and paradigm-shaping group. More than any teacher, more than any blog, magazine, book or traditional institution, it is they who will shape what the dharma is going to look like in the west. What will Buddhism look like in the west when they start to take awakening seriously? If you think this is not a possibility, I’d urge you to read 10% Happier by Dan Harris and get an inside look at his transformation from skeptic, to mindfulness fan, to someone who tentatively wonders if awakening is possible in this life. I think there are millions of people just like Harris, and their minds are gradually opening to this possibility.
It is in this context that a new approach to Buddhism, a truly western approach friendly to the western worldview, is going to emerge. Will it focus on attainments and awakening in this life? Or will it remain lifestyle and therapy oriented? Will it find a way to combine the two? What will western Buddhism become once the silent sangha collectively decides to go deeper? These are the big questions that are the backdrop for the disagreement that Kornfield is having with pragmatic dharma, and that pragmatic dharma is having with mainstream Buddhism. It isn’t really about what Buddhism from Asia is, or whether particular claims about attainments are true or not, it is really about what western Buddhism is going to become. In this context these disagreements seem healthy and vital rather than divisive or harsh. They are a sign that bigger trends are on the move and growth is occurring.
I’m curious to see where it all goes.
The Tim Ferris podcast is fascinating because he interviews fascinating people – cutting edge thinkers, radical artists, start-up gurus, fitness freaks and other people breaking boundaries and changing our world – and there is one thing about these people that keeps coming up:
They meditate. Almost all of them.
This has not escaped Ferris, who comments on it frequently and pushes the idea that meditation can be a productivity tool, kind of like speed reading or amazing time management. Personally, I’m not so keen on mediation as a tool for business success, in fact, when I teach it to people this is the first myth I try to dispel. But I am excited to see so many influential people sitting down, shutting up, and tuning in to something deeper in themselves.
So if the soon-to-be one percent are meditating, what are they doing exactly? It seems pretty vague, and most of it seems to be in the vast basket of “mindfulness” practices (which could be almost anything). This means that while many of them are meditating, very few of them may be experiencing the deep transformations that come with insight. But a few of them probably are experiencing such transformation, and regardless of the type of meditation or what they are using it for, one thing is certain: there are now more meditators in positions of influence and high social status than ever before, and this really has my imagination going. Allow me to indulge in a bit of wishful thinking…
Imagine a future where meditation has its own Elon Musk or Bill Gates. Imagine foundations dedicated to supporting stream entry for people in “dharma deserts” (far from meditation centers), global insight initiatives, X prizes for the best technique to attain first jhana, research on what jhanas and nanas do to the brain, and genius grants for talented meditation teachers. Imagine what it would be like if the overachievers began to experience awakening. If they unyoked meditation from the worship of productivity and began seeing it as a good in and of itself that deserves time, resources, and public support. Imagine the way such a change would effect the lives of ordinary people. Imagine what it would be like if taking time off from work to meditate was no more unusual than going to a conference or getting specialized training in your field – and if it were considered just as important. Imagine if meditation teachers were covered by your insurance company, just like dentists or psychologists.
This is just a fantasy, but such a world is possible. Probable? Not yet. But sometimes, in my more optimistic moments, and when I listen to people like Ferris speculate about why meditation is embedded in the routines of the most influential people, I begin to think that such a world is not just a happy thought, it could one day be a reality.
Enlightenment is real. It is a real as anything else in life. It is real like love is real. It is real like the color blue is real. But there is something tricky about it – it is what scientists call “qualia,” that is, it is something that cannot be measured, quantified, or understood through the standard tools of science. But that may be changing, because science is changing.
Along with being real, enlightenment is very mysterious. It is very difficult to understand, and in a fundamental way, it cannot be understood rationally. Like any qualia, it has to be experienced to be known. And when something is both real and mysterious it won’t be long before science becomes curious about it, no matter how difficult it is to study.
In the past when something was both real and mysterious, we used the science of ages past to understand it. And that usually meant we worshipped it. That is what happened with enlightenment. We built temples to it, bowed down to it, erected monuments in our minds and in our hearts to it, and encased it layers of the best cutting-edge thinking available at the time – which we now call superstition. While these things are good at preservation, they are terrible at changing with better information. They ossify the ignorance as well as the truth. Luckily, within most enlightenment traditions, this is widely understood and so tradition is simultaneously respected and chided by the great teachers. Enlightenment became entangled with religion, with identity, and with belief a long time ago and that is not going to change anytime soon. But things are going to change. Call me optimistic. Call me crazy. But things seem to be changing gradually, and it could be that we are about to see a true science of enlightenment.
Why do I think this? There are a few reasons. The ballooning funding for meditation research, both in the NIH and from private foundations is one reason. The increasing number of scientists, industry and tech leaders, and ordinary people who are experiencing enlightenment for themselves (and becoming vocal about it) is another. But mostly it comes down to whether scientists themselves are serious about this idea, and it seems like that may be happening. For the first time in history, many people with serious funding and institutional resources are seriously considering whether enlightenment can be studied scientifically, and questions about whether such a thing is possible invites curiosity rather than opprobrium at scientific conferences. Some tentative studies are breaking new ground, and because enlightenment is real, they are finding something. But the quality of the research has not been very good. The fact that they are finding something is a clue as to what could happen next. As the quality improves and the questions become more sophisticated, the results of such research will do the same thing Galileo’s telescope did for our understanding of the world – confirm a vaster reality while overturning centuries of dogma. And that is something scientists love to do. If it begins to happen we may see a boom in the study of topics that were once thought off-limits to science – indeed we may already be seeing it.
A century from now people may look back and realize that ours was a time when the broader culture had the first inklings that enlightenment just might be real. When we began the slow exit from a long dark age, a time when we knew very little about our most fundamental nature, and entered a time when a reasonable, clear-headed view of spiritual enlightenment became as accessible as any other kind of knowledge. When people began to take it as seriously as some of the stranger ideas in psychology or physics. A time may be coming when people will have as much respect and awe for brain scans of enlightened minds as they have for Hubble deep field images. But I suspect getting there will not be easy. There will be a lot of arguing, and likely some very unenlightened behavior. We are already seeing the beginnings of this change, as some traditionalists deride the secularisation of Buddhist ideas, and others, like the Dalai Lama, are embracing the change. This is only the beginning of a much larger debate that we will be having in the coming decades.
We are nearly there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my grandkids will be able to enroll in Awakening 101 in their freshman year of college. Until then, we should all keep urging serious people to take enlightenment seriously.
The dark night is a series of insights in meditation also known as the “dukkha nanas” or “knowledges of dissatisfaction” in classical Buddhism. They are a series of stages where the meditator gets a good hard long look at suffering.
It is not fun.
There is an aspect of the dark night that I want to highlight because it is very important. It happens to everyone and is not discussed often. And it is this: once you see dukkha in yourself you begin to see it everywhere.
You can hear the sadness and anxiety in other’s voices. Feel the anger and cynicism in humor and sarcasm. See the ceaseless restlessness in body language. Read the guarded disappointment in the set of faces passing on the street. See the constant craving for escape in just about every behavior.
The deep dissatisfaction and restlessness that is embedded in everyone’s lives jumps out in sharp clarity. It is not just in the people you encounter either. You can hear it in music, see it in art, feel it in the layout of offices, and recognize it as part of normal life, from the highest expression of humanity to the lowest depths of depravity. Dukkha is there. You can’t avoid it. It is not just something you see in your meditation, it is something you see in the world.
There is a scene in the latest Cosmos series that really stood out to me, because it captures what this is like. It portrays the experience of Clair Paterson, the scientist who, while trying to determine the true age of the earth, accidentally discovered that lead from gasoline is everywhere, and it is poising people. *Click the picture above to see the video.*
Imagine what it must have been like to be him. You analyze the data, crunch the numbers, and come to a shocking realization that literally no one else on the planet knows – there is a toxin covering every surface. It fills the air, and is probably in all the food. What would it be like to make such a discovery?
Even though it is not fun to discover dukkha, it is important. In fact, I’d say that unless you really soak up the truth to be found in this insight, then real wisdom – reality-based, non-superficial, knowledge about the actual state of affairs – is not possible. Additionally, developing deep compassion is difficult without seeing dukkha up close and personal.
Like Paterson, you will feel the urge to do something about it. Not just for yourself, but for others. This is how compassion, a deep and universal form of compassion, can arise. You realize that everyone is struggling with the same problem in different ways.
You see that dukkha is everywhere, and for this reason, seeking for happiness in things soaked in dukkha just won’t help. This is how wisdom arises. Why obsess over the small stuff? Why spend time in distraction? Once the meditator sees the truth about dukkha, then a clear sense of what is and is not important arises.
The bright side of the dark night is the development of compassion and wisdom. These are impossible to imagine without a deep insight into dukkha. So while the dark night is not fun, it is worth it for the transformation that it can bring.
If you think that you may be in the dark night, please contact a teacher. For more information, you can contact the author directly. Don’t be shy. If you are in the Dark Night, reach out.
“The Buddhist revolution has not arrived yet, because no one realizes how radical the Buddha was talking…”
If you don’t know who Kenneth Folk is, do yourself a favor and watch this. He is my old teacher and I continue to learn from him every time he talks. In this fascinating interview he offers a secular perspective on awakening. The host, Rick Archer, has a background in nonduality and Kenneth’s approach is very different for him. So the questions are right to the point and really great.
The takeaway: This is not light reading. Venture into this only if you are serious about understanding what the Satipatthana actually says. Otherwise, read the more friendly summaries. Or just read the sutta itself, which is here.
Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization is not one book, it’s two. The first book is in the text, and the second is in the footnotes, which sometimes take up half a page. Both books are full of detail. Both books are a challenge to the lay reader because the writing is scholastic, abstract and filled with exotic terminology. But it is abundantly clear that in both books the author knows what he is talking about. If you are serious about knowing what is in the Satipatthana, this is probably your go-to book.
Let’s back up a moment: what is in the Satipatthana Sutta that it merits a whole two books? The Satipatthana is a discourse found in both the Majjhima Nikaya and Digha Nikaya (two of the root texts of the Buddha’s original teachings) and it is special because it gives amazingly clear meditation instructions. A surprising fact about the original discourses: there are not many places in them where the Buddha gives nuts-and-bolts meditation instructions. The Satipatthana is unique among them because it stands out as the clearest, most complete, and the most unique to the Buddha’s teachings. So if you want to do “Buddhist” meditation, you can’t go wrong doing what is in the Satipatthana.
Another reason to study the Satipatthana is that after giving the meditation instructions the Buddha tops it off with a big promise. At the very end he explains that if anyone does this kind of meditation day and night diligently for just two weeks she can expect to reach awakening (stream entry). Think about that. If you get it together enough to put all your energy into this meditation for about the length of an average vacation, you can awaken. When he calls it the “direct path to realization” he is not joking.
Now, most of us, myself especially, cannot keep up the level of intensity he is describing for that long. This kind of meditation can wear you down. So two weeks of nonstop mindfulness is, well… aspirational. No problem. The Buddha adds that if you keep it up at a more moderate level you can expect awakening in 7 months to 7 years. That’s not very specific by modern standards, and some people might balk and putting in work on a such an open-ended project, but when you consider what is being promised, it is well worth the effort. So the Satipatthana sutta is especially interesting to folks who are ready to get serious about their meditation and see if awakening is real.
The Satipatthana translates as the “Foundations of Mindfulness,” and it is considered the source of what is now commonly called “insight meditation.” The sutta lays out two broad ideas: first there is a special technique of meditation invented by the Buddha (mindfulness), which one then applies to four categories of experience. Hence the “four foundations of mindfulness.”
The technique described in the sutta is to get focused, build some concentration (how much is the source of a lot of debate), and then to turn attention to ordinary things. And when I say ordinary I mean very ordinary. Itches. Sounds. Pressure. Mental images. The constant channel surfing of the body and mind in all their busy activity. What do we do when we look at these things? We simply “know” them. That’s it. That’s the technique. This is the counterintuitive part. He’s not advocating doing anything. Just “know.”
This is so simple it is mind-bogglingly hard to understand. We want to do something, change something, create something. But no. The Buddha is saying clearly over and over, just know what you are experiencing in your body and mind right this instant. That’s it. That’s all. Just do that and keep doing that as long as you can.
For anyone experienced in the natural sciences this should sound vaguely familiar. Consider how Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees. Or how natural scientists of all kinds study the behaviour of complex natural systems in their native environment. The very first step is to simply immerse yourself in the system and watch. That’s all. Don’t interpret. Don’t interfere. Don’t test. Don’t theorise. Simply watch.
The Buddha is explaining how to conduct the data collection phase of naturalistic study.
Everything that is called “insight meditation” today flows from this simple technique. Whether it is noting, body scanning, open awareness, or any of the other dozens of ways of doing insight meditation, they all are different ways of simply getting you to immerse yourself in the mind and body and then observe without interfering. The technique is simple moment-to-moment data collection.
So what do we collect data on? In the sutta these are the four foundations. To return to the Jane Goodall analogy, imagine that she were to sit with a pad and paper with four columns on it while watching the chimpanzees. Each column represents a different category of behaviour she wants to watch for, and each time she sees one she simply makes a brief note in that category. In this kind of meditation we are instructed to do something very similar. This is where Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization really shines. The author gets into the nuances and subtleties of the four foundations in a way that is intriguing. It turns out that there is a lot of information packed into the sutta, even though is is relatively short. If you like deep study into Buddhist theory and deconstruction of language, then you will love this book.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about the four foundations here, because obviously you would need a whole two books to do cover everything, but there is one aspect of the four foundations that I love and it is hard not to share. It’s also one that really confuses people. So please excuse me for geeking out for a moment.
The first three foundations are straightforward. They roughly correspond to the body, the mind, and how you react to the contents of the body and mind. But the fourth foundation is my favorite. It is also the least understood. It is often translated as “mental objects” or not translated at all and left as “dhammas” with a small “d.” It always strikes people as a bit strange because it doesn’t fit at all with the first three, which are pretty intuitive.
The fourth foundation contains things like the five hinderances, the seven factors of enlightenment and the five aggregates. The reason I love this foundation is because it shows the Buddha’s humanity. This is what I call the “kitchen-sink” foundation, because it seems like it is the one in which he threw everything else that he couldn’t fit neatly into the first three.
Let’s return to the Goodall analogy. Imagine that on her pad the first three columns had items that any person would recognize as relevant for animal behavior, such as “feeding,” “sleeping” and “mating.” But then in the fourth category she had a wide-ranging list of things to watch for that were unique to chimps and were part of her theory of chimp behavior, such as “hierarchical posturing,” “selective grooming,” and “sharing resources.” You couldn’t really study chimpanzees without watching for such things, but they don’t fit neatly into the most basic categories. That is exactly the case with the fourth foundation. Anyone can easily watch for body sensations, mental activity and reactions, but there are subtle and important things occurring that are part of the natural behavior of the body and mind. They don’t fit neatly into the first three categories. And if you do the meditation long enough you are bound to come across them. That is the fourth foundation.
Overall, I would recommend Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization for two kinds of people. The first are those who are true hardcore Buddhist geeks (if you listen to the podcast of the same name you are likely in this category). The kind who know the original Pali words for things, and consider studying the Visuddhimagga to be a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon. The second kind of person who would get something from this book are those who have been doing insight meditation for a while, and maybe something is starting to happen. Maybe you have had some unusual experiences, or something deeper seems to be working. You are becoming more serious about insight meditation and want to learn more about it from an in depth analysis. If that is you, I don’t think you can get much better than this book.
As an insight meditation teacher, reading Waking Up by Sam Harris was simultaneously joyful and shameful. It is a fine book that points to a weakness in the culture of awakening that is hard to look at directly. In his usual style, he is honest to the point of painful, and sometimes it can be hard to take.
Let me back up.
For those who don’t know Harris, he is a neuroscientist who became most well known for publishing The End of Faith, a book promoting the idea that what we believe influences how we behave, and that faith-based beliefs lead to rather irrational behavior. Like flying planes into buildings. He’s dry, technical, but funny and obviously not afraid of controversy. Apparently people really like that combination, because The End of Faith stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over 30 weeks. Harris quickly moved from obscure neuroscientist to intellectual sensation, and was lumped in with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett as the leading edge of a revitalized post-9/11 atheist movement described as “new atheism.” Together they were ironically dubbed the “four horsemen.”
But Harris is an odd fit among the horsemen. While Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins all rail against the privileged position that eastern spirituality seems to have among western intellectuals, Harris openly disagrees with them, making the case that despite the woo-woo clearly at work in the offerings of Deepak Chopra, The Secret, and similar new age flim-flam, there is something valuable to be found in the spiritual traditions of Asia that is being obscured, rather than revealed, by pop spirituality. He uses his public platform to urge people to dig a little deeper.
It turns out he is speaking from experience. Waking Up is not just an introduction to Buddhist meditation and the liberation that it leads to, it is a spiritual memoir told from the perspective of a consummate rationalist and skeptic. One who stumbles upon enlightenment.
After a few chapters of fleshing out why some spiritual practices are fruitful human endeavors and others are not, and correlating the claims of mystics with modern neuroscience, Harris gets down to the memoir part of his book and dishes on his own experiences. I was thrilled to read that Harris begins his spiritual search in U Pandita’s meditation center, where he practices a rigorous form of insight meditation. Harris is told that he is working through the progress of insight toward “cessation,” and will attain his first taste of awakening upon that strange moment of non-occurrence. For readers of my site, or fans of insight meditation, this should all sound very familiar.
When I read this part of the book I was rooting for Harris, excited to hear what he makes of the shift in consciousness that occurs after cessation. I looked at how many pages were left and anticipated that there would be a detailed account of how he reconciled his own encounter with nibbana with cutting edge brain science. This, I thought, is the book I’ve been waiting for.
So imagine my disappointment, shock really, when on the same page he reports that he couldn’t do it, and gave up.
No cessation. No stream entry. Zilch.
Something, I thought, went horribly wrong.
It is not exactly clear from the book what happened. In retrospect he reasons that moving toward a goal (cessation) did not feel like the right path to enlightenment, and that truth can be glimpsed no matter where one is on the path, and truth is not found in a state, cessation is not necessary and… his explanation started to feel fishy as I read it. Frankly, this sounds like a rationalization after the fact. Indeed, it sounds identical to what he was taught by the teachers and traditions that he encountered after he left Pandita’s center (Advaita and Dzogchen). So what was he really thinking and feeling at the time he threw in the towel?
A hint can be found in his description of the wall he hit during a year-long retreat:
“But cessation never arrived. Given my gradualist views at that point, this became very frustrating. Most of my time on retreat was extremely pleasant but it seemed to me that I’d merely been given the tools by which to contemplate the evidence of my non-enlightenment. My practice had become a vigil. A method of waiting, however patiently, for a future reward.”
Harris is describing an insight practice that has stalled out in one of the stages along the progress of insight. In another passage he points out that his movement through the progress of insight wasn’t very clear and although he had many interesting experiences he did not know if he was making any progress at all. Why didn’t he know?
What concerns me most about this is that Harris does not describe what would have been the best, most natural, and sensible antidote for his struggle: someone simply telling him where he was on the path and what to do to move on. I wonder what kind of book Waking Up would be if someone had simply taken him aside at that time and said “hey, relax, you are in lower equanimity. It goes on for a while and can sometimes feel uneventful. Here’s what you can do about it…”
Insight meditation, as a culture, is often one of information-restriction rather than transparency. A nascent movement, pragmatic dharma, has emerged largely in reaction to this, but it is still in its infancy and does not have much of a voice in mainstream meditation centers and media outlets (yet). The most traditional approaches still hold the biggest sway, and they are usually hierarchical, with the teacher knowing the details of the insight stages and which one the student is currently developing. The student’s role is to follow the instructions faithfully and not become too wrapped up in where they are on the path and when the cessation will come. There are many reasons why this approach developed, and many of them are very good reasons. But I don’t think these reasons work anymore, and Harris’s case is an example of why we can no longer afford to have an approach to insight meditation modeled on the norms of pre-modern hierarchical culture. It just doesn’t work very well. A few hundred years ago Harris may have stuck it out, not because it was a special time full of special people, but because his options would have been limited. In today’s world, he simply had better choices and felt empowered to pursue them. The important point is that Harris wasn’t failing as a meditator, he was most likely in a state of information-hunger about what was happening in his own mind. He deserved to know more. And as insight meditation grows and establishes itself in the west, we need to keep in mind that we can do a lot better than this.
I would recommend Harris’s book for a number of reasons. The skeptical approach to awakening, denuded of the dogma and superstition, is wonderful. It’s as if a portal into the future opened up and the reader can see what an approach to awakening will look like when we move beyond religion. The presence of neuroscience in a book about awakening is nothing new, but it is rarely presented so soberly and carefully (although the caution led to a lack of integration with the rest of the book). And finally, it is clear that Harris knows what awakening is from direct experience, and can discuss it as a field of human endeavor every bit as legitimate and practical as any art or science.
The book is a high wire act in a sense, where he balances between the assumptions of secular materialists on one hand and religious ideologues on the other. He invites each to see something in their direct experience that fails to fit into any dogma, and he does so with an understanding of both positions that is refreshing. I’m often frustrated with authors who are so intoxicated by spirituality that they’ve lost their mental footing and have succumbed to a kind of cognitive free fall, but equally odious are authors so rigidly skeptical that they refuse to look at the miracle of their own consciousness. Harris successfully creates an island in the gulf between the two perspectives. Hopefully, it will grow as others follow suit.
“Angie” is a grad student in London who has been skyping with me once a week to learn meditation. She has navigated through most of the stages of insight and is now in the low part of the Equanimity stage.
“I keep losing the plot” she reports. “Every time I sit it is nice, full of easy vibrations and happiness, but I’m lost.”
More effort, I instruct her.
A week later we skype and she explains that the spacing out is gone, but now there is a feeling “like a bounding pulse around my eyes.”
Less effort, I explain.
She looks at me, a bit frustrated. “Well?” she asks, “which is it!”
Building the Fire
There are few technical concepts in meditation as confusing as skillful effort. That elusive quality of leaning in to the meditation, focusing, attending, deliberately working… but not too much.
Skillful effort is like building a campfire. You need a little kindling, but not too much, blow on the coals, but gently. Do too much or too little of the right things and the fire will not start. And this is how it is with meditation. Too much or too little effort and your progress is suddenly brought to a halt.
Most meditators have had the experience of pushing too hard or too little, and finding that the meditation locks up under the weight of effort, or dissipates without enough of it. What it seems like from the perspective of the meditator is that the meditation either devolves into unfocused reverie or a tense, rigid striving, that is frustrating. If either of these is happening, try adjusting the effort.
It can be especially confusing if you read meditation instructions from different teachers answering student questions or from different styles of meditation. Some exhort you to practice like your hair’s on fire while others insist that there is nothing to do and never was, that all effort is unskillful. If you take all of it at face value, you’re likely to have trouble.
To help make sense of all of the contradictions, it is helpful to understand that the kind of effort that is skillful depends on what stage of meditation you are in. In other words, “skillful” effort is not a thing that you learn once and master. It is something that constantly changes during the meditation. You have to learn it fresh as new insights arise.
To discover what is skillful you need mindfulness. You need the capacity to notice how the meditation is changing this instant and remember from past meditations how to adjust your effort accordingly.
To use the analogy of the campfire again, imagine you get a small flame going by blowing hard on some coals, but then you keep blowing like that and the flame goes out. You try again and when the flame gets going you back off the blowing but forget to add more kindling, and it goes out. So then you go through the process and then add more kindling, and so on, until finally you have a fire that is sustaining itself.
This is how meditation on the insight knowledges proceeds up to high equanimity. It follows a predictable series of changes, and just like the changing conditions when starting a fire, how you balance effort needs to change depending on where you are in the progress of insight.
Roughly speaking, here is a very crude outline of how to apply effort by stage:
- Physiocognitive stage (nanas 1-3): Sustained applied effort. Objects are a bit dull and it is easy to drift off. Be wary of thoughts.
- A&P: Less effort needed. The level of interest naturally picks up and there is less need for one to stay present with objects. Surf on the pulsing, vibrating objects.
- Dissolution: more effort. It is easy to space out, or to get lost in a sense of frustration that objects are passing you by. Put energy into staying alert.
- Middle Dark Night (nanas 6 – 9): Less effort than dissolution, but more than A&P. There is a balance point right in the middle that is needed here. It is easy to slip into the avoidance tactics of daydreaming or analysis, but it is also easy to push so hard that the meditation becomes rigid, and stuck.
- Reobservation: more effort. The thing to do here is to try and keep up with what is happening, and it is all happening very fast.
- Low to mid equanimity: Much more effort. This is notorious place for getting lost and drifting off. Don’t allow your mindfulness, concentration and investigation to waft away in the pleasant hot tub of spacious vibrations. Stay focused and sharp.
- High equanimity: Much less effort. The meditation can almost do itself at this point.
- Very high equanimity: almost no effort. Surrender to what is happening. Trust the process and watch what it reveals to you. You will naturally look for what is not being seen clearly, but if you look to hard you won’t see it.
As you can see there is no single kind of effort that is “skillful.” If you were to follow a meditation teacher around for a day and listen to the advice she gives different students, you would come away pretty confused. Some students would be told to practice like their hair’s on fire. Others to surrender to what is and see through the illusion of doing. But the teacher would merely be tailoring the instructions to fit the student’s current situation.
And this is what it is like reading the many different meditation manuals, written by different teachers, in different styles, at different points on the questioner’s path. Understand that all meditation advice is situational, and effort is a constantly moving target. It gets better with practice.
Ron answers questions on a whole range of meditation and psychology related topics, from the online BG community.
The times they are a changin’. Well, at least the New York Times.
The national paper of record recently posted an op-ed piece by Jeff Warren describing an intense pragmatic dharma retreat that he took with Daniel Ingram. During the retreat he was shooting for stream entry and describes in detail how the stages of insight unfolded for him, and Dr. Ingram’s advice along the way. Well worth a read:
The article can be read here.
Anyone who has meditated, even for a minute, is familiar with at least one of the five hindrances. While they are still the best overview of the issues that come up during meditation, some meditators are facing modern versions of these that can be confusing. Here is a list of some of the most common.
The meditation intellectual. You’ve met this person. You might be this person (I’ve been this guy on a few occasions). He or she can quote from the suttas and knows the original Pali, Chinese and Sanskrit for lots of obscure Buddhist, Taoist and non-dual concepts. While this might be an advantage when debating on internet forums, it can be a hinderance when one sits down to settle the mind and meditate. Nothing gets in the way of meditation more than thinking about meditation so much that one thinks about meditation during meditation.
Being a technique-o-phile or a technique-o-phobe
I once worked as a mechanic. In the shop we loved to argue about which tools were the best. One group loved Snap-on, another loved Mac, and still others swore by Matco and so on. The debates were heated and endless. Meditative techniques, like noting, breath concentration or visualizations, are also tools. They are employed to support a process of change in the mind and heart, and are valuable only for that reason. However, just like the mechanics in my old shop, meditators often divide themselves up into camps and swear by one technique or another. Some refuse to use any technique at all. Being too wedded to any technique or to no technique is missing the point. The tool is not important. It is the work the tool is intended to accomplish that matters.
Internal debate (lack of confidence)
External debates are a big distraction for some, but internal debates plague most meditators. Am I doing it right? Is this the right technique? Maybe I could let go more. Could this be the wrong time to meditate? Although it is normal for beginning meditators to debate with themselves and try new things in starts and fits, the speculation over how to improve one’s meditation could literally go on forever. For some people it feels as though it does, and they find themselves struggling with this years into a regular sitting practice. The internal debate is the wicked little child of the hindrances of doubt and restlessness, so it is best to target those. The solution to this hinderance will be a little different for everyone, but generally it will be a combination of calming the mind through concentration and setting clear resolutions or goals at the start of each sit that clarify what one will do. Having someone you are checking in with, whether it is a teacher or a friend, can help as well.
We have all been there. You are sitting in meditation, watching the breath, when the memory of something painful comes up and… you realize that you’ve been afraid of the pain of that awful event that happened when you were four and which eventually led to your defensiveness in so many relationships and your fear of your own success, and because of that fear you have never been comfortable with your own body and compensated by all sorts of behaviors that eventually led to difficulty in your family which then led to…
Meditation can bring up a lot of things in the mind but few are as “sticky” as self-psychotherapy. Examining and rehashing our own personal story is extremely tempting when meditating, but it rarely leads to insight into the nature of reality. Instead it leads to insight into the nature of this ego and its problems. Aim higher. Go bigger. Don’t settle for putting yourself on the couch when you could be seeing through all of that and getting in touch with something much more profound.
Some Western meditators just can’t shake their puritan roots no matter how hard they try. Pursuing awakening is not always fun (it can be very difficult and harsh), but the pursuit should not kill one’s sense of fun in life. The meditator suffering from too much seriousness has a mind that is too rigid, too hard, unable to be flexible and meet the challenge of the moment. Eventually, the major challenge of meditation is to completely surrender, and this only happens when the tight fist of rigidity unclenches. When you see any “fun” with meditation as unskillful, then you are in trouble. One useful antidote to this is to ask yourself how things got so serious in the first place. Often you’ll find that the rigidity is tied to a sense of identification around the meditation itself. For example, folks who want to be a “good Buddhist,” or a “real yogi” sometimes end up in this trap. Question your vision of “good” practice.
As is pretty clear from this website, I’m a fan of mapping out the path. But knowing that map, while empowering when you are getting up and started, can become a hinderance. Most students who know the insight path well know that they can become obsessive about where they are and what is going on. Am I in the dark night or equanimity? Is this dissolution or the arising and passing? Was that stream entry or something else? Knowing the map can lead to a lot of thinking about the map – during meditation. The problem is that this can feed the sense of self that thinks it is making its way along the path. In the larger scheme of things this is a self-correcting problem (pardon the pun) because when one gets to a certain point on the map dropping the self is the only way left. The key is to be an informed meditator. Knowing the map is fine and using it is skillful. But when you are in the midst of meditation, set it aside. A good driver wouldn’t try to read a map while driving, so don’t try to use the map while meditating.
Seeking the mystical, ignoring the mundane
Mystical states, strange powers, psychic intimations, bliss and peak experiences – these are obstacles to insight when they become the goal of practice. Chasing a grand experience leads to a dead end because seeing the truth of matters is often mundane. This is not to say that mystical and strange things do not occur, they often do. It is when one seeks these experiences that problems arise. One of the characteristics of awakening is that while it is consciously recognized as something extraordinary, it also feels very mundane. This paradox is always so unexpected that it often feels like a cosmic joke. Don’t worry about rarified experiences. Aim to have the cosmic joke played on you.
Putting too much or too little effort into the practice is a common obstacle, and it’s tricky to recognize in the beginning. When a person puts too much effort into their meditation, it stalls out under their attempts at control. The first instinct is often to try harder, and the problem gets worse. And for those who have come to believe that any effort is the wrong way to go, when they start spacing out or getting lost in daydreams the first impulse is to “just be” even more. The key is to find that balance in effort that allows you to stay present with whatever arises without trying to control the experience. The antidote to this is to see that it is happening and run a few experiments when you meditate. Try a little less effort or a little more. What happens?
The self-improvement project
The path of insight is one in which the self becomes less important, not more. As one sees more deeply into moment-to-moment experience, the very creation of the sense of self in each instant becomes observable, and this dramatically changes one’s view of the self. However, this process can get derailed if the meditator is trying to become something from the meditation. Any attempt to create a better version of yourself will stall out the process. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a sincere wish to become a better person. Serious meditators often start off with this kind of self-improvement project when they take their first steps toward meditation. I started off by wanting to be a more relaxed version of myself. However, as the path unfolds, you need to abandon the self-focused motivation in favor of the motivation to see reality clearly. If you can’t abandon the self-improvement project, you can’t abandon the self.
Abandoning all goals
To put it simply, it is a mistake to do this too early in your practice. There are excellent reasons to meditate with no goals and to abandon all goals entirely, however this approach fits best into an advanced practice. Too many novice meditators (pre stream-entry) read about goal-lessness and end up with no real way to start. Some can get stuck in a relaxing spaciness that leads nowhere and end up doing this as their practice for years. It is absolutely reasonable to set goals for your meditation early on. In the beginning it could be as simple as sitting for a certain length of time. Then it could be to count a certain number of breaths. And as the practice matures and one starts to see the path unfold you can aim your efforts at stream entry. Goals are important. Especially before the first taste of awakening. Once practice has matured to a certain point the logic of setting goals for your meditation will seem foolish and silly. Then you will know that you have outgrown them and the time for abandoning goals in practice has arrived.
Great expectations or no expectations (believing the biased sample)
The internet has been one of the biggest turnings of the wheel of the Dhamma ever. More people have more access to information on meditation than ever before. This is literally true and a bit amazing to ponder. However, those who post their experiences with meditation on the internet often have something unique or compelling to share. When so many people share their compelling experiences, it can seem as if everyone is having unusual and mind-blowing experiences. The average meditator can sometimes feel as if their perfectly normal experience is anything but. The reports found on the internet can sometimes be what social scientists call a “biased sample” in that those meditators who share on the internet have a bias, or an unusual experience, compared to the general population. For meditators who are starting out, it is important not to expect unusual experiences. And for those who have some sitting time behind them it is important not to discount it.
This list of modern hindrances is in no way exhaustive. There are others not included, but my hope is that by bringing up some of the most common ones, others will be easier to work on as well. As with everything, the key to overcoming the hindrances is to first see them for what they are, and having a name for them helps.
The second great part of the path is what I call “getting your head together” and it is all about meditation. Most of what is discussed in this site regards this part of the Dharma. Just like “Buddhism”, the word “meditation” is often used as if it were one thing, but actually there are many different kinds of meditation. It is way beyond the scope of this site to get into the many varieties of meditation, so I will limit this to the two big categories of meditation: concentration (samatha) and insight meditation (vipassana).
In English the word “concentrate” has a different meaning than it does in Pali (the Buddha’s original language). I grew up thinking that to concentrate meant to think really hard. But in meditation concentration more closely resembles the concept of concentration in chemistry. To concentrate a chemical in a solution you filter out the impurities and then gradually reduce a large amount of solution down into a tiny distilled essence. This essence is the chemical concentration. The same process takes place in concentration meditation, only what is being concentrated is the mind itself.
The meditation instructions for concentration meditation are wonderfully simple: pick an object, like the breath, and place your attention on it – to the exclusion of all else. You pick a spot to watch the breath, say the upper lip or the tip of the nose, and just watch it come and go right there. Like a carpenter watching a band saw blade cut through wood who only focuses on the spot where the blade and the wood meet, the meditator focuses all attention on that spot where the breath enters and leaves the body. Every other function of the mind, listening to noises in the environment, planning what to do later, noticing an ache in the knee – all other processes get “turned down” so to speak, as if they were on an internal dimmer switch. This process of narrowing attention down on a single small object and dimming all other functions “distills” the mind into a very concentrated form. But it won’t be long before you find yourself drifting off and thinking about something other than the object, as if one of the dimmer switches suddenly went all the way up. No worries. This is what this meditation is for. It identifies the things that drag the mind away and helps you overcome them, or filter them out.
To concentrate the mind you first filter out the “impurities” in it (hence the title of the ancient meditation manual “The Path of Purification“). The impurities in this case are those things which get in the way of concentration, and they are known as the five hindrances:
1. sensual desire
2. restlessness and worry
3. ill will
5. sloth and torpor
Many meditators will recognize at least one of these as their own personal super-villan. It is near impossible for a beginner to try an meditate without at least one of them getting in the way. And often that one will come back again and again. There are many practices for filtering out these impurities (sometimes called antidotes), but the most powerful practice for filtering them out of the mind is investigation. When a hindrance comes up in the mind, become a private eye of your own mind, and notice it and watch to see if it diminishes on its own. If it doesn’t, start picking it apart. Ask yourself what are the individual sensations that make up the hindrance, what other experiences, thoughts and feelings are bundled up with it, is there some part of me that wants to hang on to this hindrance, am I wrapping my sense of self into it? Keep asking questions and working on it until it falls apart under the purifying light of your mindfulness.
At some point the impurities will be reduced to a point that is sufficient for concentration to proceed. You will know when this has happened because some fascinating, mystical-type, experiences will begin. The most common experience is to see light with the eyes shut. This is meant literally. It actually seems as if there is a light that is brightening. At this point the meditation is getting really good and the meditator is cooking along and suddenly it will be as if someone is gradually turning the lights up in the room. You may even find yourself peeking to see if the lights are actually going up in the room. What is happening is the mind is becoming concentrated and strong, and you’ve never experienced anything quite like that before. The mind does not know how to interpret that experience, and it grabs onto something it knows that represents what is occurring: in this case it chose “light,”but it could choose something else depending on the person.
From this point the meditator has a couple of choices about what to do, but to proceed with pure concentration meditation you would deepen attention on the object while simultaneously letting go of the effort involved in doing so. Needless to say, this takes some savvy skills, but it can be done. When attention is strong enough and the effort is of the right kind (with little ego control involved), the meditator begins to enter altered states called “Jhanas” (more about Jhanas in a future post).
How does concentration lead to enlightenment? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t. However, what it does do is purify the mind and make it so strong that when the mind is turned toward the work of insight, then the insights are powerful and easy to get. The difference between a normal mind that is diffuse and scattered among all the different senses and thoughts, and a concentrated mind that is deeply focused, is like the difference between a flashlight and a laser. With a flashlight you can look at what is around you, but with a laser you can actually do work and cut through things. In this case, the laser of the concentrated mind is used to cut through the illusions that keep us from waking up.
The next type of meditation is Vipassana or “insight” meditation. Vipassana begins just like concentration meditation, but the goal of Vipassana is not to distill the mind down but rather to get it just strong enough to begin investigating experience in the moment. To go back to the analogy of the light and the laser, in vipassana the meditator does not concentrate the energy of the light to the point of a laser, nor does the meditator leave it diffuse. Rather, you focus the light in such a way that whatever it shines on becomes easy to see clearly.
The technique of vipassana is somewhat more complicated than that of concentration. With concentration meditation one gets the mind to stay on an object to the point where it becomes very strong, but with Vipassana it is not necessary to keep the mind on one thing and distill it, instead, the meditator puts effort and energy into focusing the beam of the flashlight just enough to get a clear look at things. In this case, the “light” of the flashlight beam is the mindfulness, or deepening momentary awareness, used to know each object as it changes from one thing to the next. This is a very different experience than concentration meditation, because there is no need to stick with a single object. Rather, the effort is in the quality of knowing the objects that come up. So, when the mind starts off on the breath and then shifts to a new object – there is no problem at all! Let the mind wander, but stay with it in the moment. The intention is to follow the mind as it does what it does.
For example let’s say you sit down and place your attention on the breath (just like in concentration meditation), but then a motorcycle goes by outside your window, and your mind begins to focus on the sound. No problem. Now you just notice the sound and watch what happens to it the same way you would with the breath. But then the mind creates a mental image of a motorcycle and begins to focus on that. No problem. You notice the image and be as attentive as you can to that image and the process of the mind creating that image. But then the mind begins judging the person riding the motorcycle for being so loud. No problem. Just notice everything you can about the judging, and so on… The mind loves to wander, it is in its nature really. The beauty of Vipassana is that you truly go with the flow of the mind, letting it lead you to the next object rather than bringing it back to your chosen object.
What is most important to know about Vipassana (and is the very thing that most beginning meditators keep forgetting!) is that you don’t want to get caught up in the content that the mind generates, instead you just want to watch it. This is like the difference between a sports broadcaster describing a game on the air and a player in the game. When you are doing Vipassana you are the sports broadcaster, who is outside of the game but is still watching every little nuance of it as it unfolds. The player that remains in the game is the mind itself, which keeps on generating content and going about its business. The mind is in the midst of all the things that it typically does, building up scenarios, having opinions, taking positions, remembering things, etc., but the mind’s interpretations and ideas about all these things is not at all important. Rather, it is the process of what the mind is doing from moment to moment that really matters. And your job as the meditator is to be aware of it all without getting caught up in it.
Sound tricky? It can be! With this kind of meditation there is a real danger of discovering that you just spent 20 minutes wrapped up in a fantasy or reminiscing about the past. Such experiences are totally normal for new meditators (and even old ones). Just recognize when it happens and put effort into getting back on track. Just like with concentration meditation, in Vipassana you run right into the five hindrances. However, rather than turning your attention back to your chosen object, you simply take the hindrance as the new object and get to know it as best as you can. This will often take the wind out of the sails of the hindrance and the mind will simply jump to another object.
Having a teacher to check in with about this is helpful, because teachers have almost always run into the same problems and know the ways to work through whatever content is most “sticky” for the meditator. This skill of watching the mind do what it does without being caught up in what it does is a skill that can take some time to learn. So don’t be hard on yourself if you find yourself daydreaming. It still happens to me all the time. Just get back to the task at hand and watch what the mind is doing. There are many ways of doing vipassana meditation, and you may find that some approaches are more productive for you than others. The approach that worked for me was the noting approach used in the Burmese tradition (look for a meditation instruction page in the future), and that is where I begin when I teach. However, it may be worthwhile to experiment with a few different techniques and see which one best fits you.
A note about vipassana: it can often be a problem for a meditator who is having a big problem in their life not to get caught up in the content related to the problem. If you are going through a really rough time, or you are in therapy, please know that Vipassana is NOT the same as therapy. It is not even close and it was never intended to be. It is a modern myth that insight meditation is somehow similar to “insight” in therapy. Insights in therapy are similar to a sudden pattern recognition, an “aha!” moment where you suddenly see that your insecurities are all about a specific trauma or difficult relationship. These kinds of insights are extremely valuable and are an important part of life – I urge everyone to work to gain these kinds of insights on their own or with a therapist. Sometimes they do arise spontaneously when the mind becomes calm. However, in meditation the word “insight” has a very different meaning, because it does not refer to the content of the mind or to the issues of the individual who is getting the insight. Rather, meditative insights are about understanding how reality is presenting itself at this very moment. With a very clear awareness of how the myriad objects are presenting themselves moment-by-moment, the mind steadily becomes conditioned to see what are the common threads through all of those clear, wakeful moments. It are these common threads that make up the next section on “getting it done.” Suffice it to say, the wisdom gained through meditative insight is highly impersonal. It does not relate to the dramas of the individual doing the meditation, but rather, relates to the way the universe operates. These are insights of an entirely different order than the personal ones that come to us in therapy.
Let me give an example of this situation. A meditator is currently in a relationship that is not going well, and while meditating the image of the his significant other comes into his mind, followed by feelings of anger, then by memories of something cruel he said, then by feelings of guilt, followed by tension in the chest, and then a desire to cry. In this scenario a novice meditator would get caught up in the story of what has happened: “… I remembered my girlfriend and the hurt she has caused, but then remembered how I have hurt her too, and in a fit of regret I understood my own contribution to the pain in our relationship.” This is good therapy, but it totally misses the mark as meditation. A mature meditator will experience the same sequence of events as: “the mind produced an image that triggered an emotion, and there was a craving to develop it into a story about myself. The image fell away and so did the feeling, but then the mind just produce another image and feeling to take that empty place in the mind. I then experienced tightness in my chest and there was a strong urge again to get caught up in a story about the image and feeling, but as I watched these also just disappeared…”
So how does vipassana lead to enlightenment? It leads to enlightenment by getting to the third chunk of the Dharma right away: getting it done. And it does this by seeing whatever is in the mind in that moment as clearly as possible. That clarity attacks ignorance at the roots – and it is ignorance which is keeping us from enlightenment. Ignorance has a special meaning in Buddhism. There is no original sin in Buddhism, but if there were it would be ignorance. Ignorance in this case refers to our lack of knowledge about the true nature if reality. The more clearly we see reality, the less ignorance there is and the more wisdom dawns on us. When we see things clearly enough, long enough, then enlightenment happens (more details on this in “Getting it done”).
The Double Helix of Meditation
Now that I’ve presented meditation in this way, as two overall different types (concentration and insight), I’m going to muddy these clear waters by explaining that these are, in reality, not two different types of meditation but one type of meditation, but each with a different emphasis in technique. In order to do concentration meditation you need a fundamental level of investigation and insight. And to do vipassana you need a basic level of concentration called “access concentration.” Each type of meditation contains the other within it as a necessary practice. The famous meditation teacher Ajahn Chah once explained that insight and concentration are like the front and back of your hand. If you look at one side of your hand you can rest assured that the other side is right behind it. So, you can select a technique that emphasizes concentration or insight, but you will really always be doing both. I call this the double helix of meditation. For a gene to be fully expressed, DNA requires two strands woven together to hold the genetic material. For wisdom to be fully expressed, the strands of both concentration and insight are needed to hold the meditation together. Whichever strand of meditation you choose to emphasize, you can rest assured that if you are making progress you are truly doing both.
Once meditation begins to deepen and the insights into the nature of reality begin to alter how your mind functions, you are well on your way to enlightenment. This is discussed in the next section on awakening wisdom, which I call “Getting it done.”