Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fourth Foundation

Fourth Foundation
The Fourth Foundation, "mindfulness of the dharmas," provides the context of bringing mindfulness to specific mental qualities, and analyzing experience into categories that constitute core aspects of the Buddha’s dharma (or teaching). These classifications are not in themselves the objects of meditation, but are frameworks or points of reference to be applied during contemplation to whatever experiences arise while practicing.
The dharmas listed in the Satipaṭṭhâna Sutta are the five hindrances, five aggregates, six sense-spheres, seven factors of awakening and the four noble truths. While one can contemplate these dharmas while practicing asanas, I find that for most practitioners, it’s too easy to fall into abstraction or intellectualization unless they already have a mature mindfulness practice.
More accessible is following the teaching of the Ânâpânasati Sutta where contemplation of the dharmas takes the form of bringing mindfulness to the impermanent nature of all phenomena. Contemplation of impermanence is a dharma gate opening to the understanding of the interdependent, conditioned, and selfless nature of all that exists.
Asana practice offers a great window into impermanence. From day to day, the body feels and moves differently each time we come to practice. We know things change, yet we put so much effort and energy into trying to live life as if that were not so! This is avidyâ, “not-seeing” as a kind of denial. But ignoring or denying the truth of impermanence perpetuates suffering and misery, and opening to the reality of change liberates that energy.
We practice looking into the impermanent nature of all the earlier objects of meditation, starting with the breath. No two breaths are the same. Even within one inhalation, there is constant movement and change. There is no “thing” that is actually the breath that can be grasped and held onto. Every sensation we experience, no matter whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral is impermanent, as is every emotion, thought, or perception. Changeless life is a sterile concept, yet without mindfulness so many of us live as if such a life were possible!
In Genjo Koan, Zen Master Dogen writes, “If you examine myriad things with a confused bodymind, you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.” If “self” is understood as an entity that is autonomous, independent, and persistent over time, then insight into impermanence leads inevitably to the clear view that all things lack such an unchanging self. Even the consciousness of self that we take such pains to protect and bolster is not an autonomous, independent, persistent thing or entity; it is a process that is in constant flux, conditioned by everything else that is in constant change. This insight into “nonself’ (anatta) is what is meant by the term “emptiness” (shûnyatâ). Emptiness means that we, and all phenomena, are empty of an atomistic, independent, autonomous, separately existing, enduring self.
Because we are empty of any such self, we are intimately entwined with everything else. Even this language doesn't capture it because it sounds like I may still be talking of entities interdependently exiting with others, but there are no "entities." This is the Buddha’s unique contribution to the yoga tradition: "dependent co-origination." 
The Buddha said that when we enter through the door of impermanence, we touch nirvana, here and now. Nirvanâ, meaning “extinction,” is the extinction of our mistaken notions and ideas about reality that leads to reifying identities. The grasping and aversion, our greed, anger and delusion that arise from such reification are extinguished. Also extinguished is our attachment and bondage to concepts such as birth and death, existent and non-existent, increasing and decreasing, pure and impure.
A taste of this can happen in the time it takes to work with one asana. Maintaining Warrior Two, unpleasant sensations may arise in our shoulders.  These sensations lead to aversion, and grasping after relief. We identify with the unpleasant sensations and think, “My shoulders are killing me.” Thoughts arise about the teacher having us hold the posture “too long,” never seeing that “too long” is a relative concept. Clinging to that belief creates a sense of self; the more we cling the more the sense of self grows constricting.
Shifting our attention to the impermanent nature of experience, we see that there is no-thing personal about any of it. There is just sensation and the sensation is ever-changing. It is all a dependent co-originated process, and through practice we see that the same is true for all feelings, mental formations and consciousness.
With this insight comes nirodha (containment). This is the third noble truth of the Buddha, often used as a synonym for nirvanâ and also Patanjali’s definition of yoga. Practicing asana, we may notice many opportunities to contain our reactivity. We may experience a pleasant sensation and the arising of a mental formation. With mindfulness, we see attachment, and based upon an awareness of impermanence, and the containment of our reactivity the attachment fades away. We then may see a more skillful way to respond to the situation. This is a small, but potentially profound taste of liberation.
Finally comes letting go. But there is also the insight that it is not you that lets go. Throughout practice, there was still that final vestige of self-consciousness that could take credit for the insight into impermanence, and cessation. The final thing to let go is the idea of a separately enduring self. The irony is that this is a letting go of what was never there!
           Letting go means to see through all that keeps us (falsely) separated from reality as it is. The supposed boundary between “self” and “other” is seen as not real. Enlightenment and liberation comes not in turning away from our human condition, but within it, and as its fulfillment. 
            “To practice the Buddha way is to investigate the self. To investigate the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be intimate with the myriad things. When intimate with the myriad things, your bodymind as well as the bodyminds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
Dogen Zengi, Genjo Koan

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Third Foundation

The Dhammapada’s opening lines point to the importance of mind in creating the lived experience of our world:
Our life is shaped by our mind;
all actions are led by mind; created by mind.
Duhkha follows an unskillful thought
as the wheels of a cart follows the oxen that draw it.
Suhkha follows a skillful thought
as surely as one’s shadow.
The Buddha taught that actions are preceded by volitions that can create wholesome or unwholesome consequences. This is the teaching of karma; there are consequences to our actions. The Zen ceremony of atonement (at-onement) reminds us that we are ultimately the authors of our “fate.” When we are at one with our actions, we can never think of ourselves as victims. Rather than blaming external conditions for duhkha, we realize that the ultimate cause of duhkha is found in the mind – the same place liberation is found.
In turning attention to the activity of the mind, all psychological phenomena, the contents and activities of mind are included: emotions, perceptions, conceptualization, imagination, and discrimination – the citta-samskara or “mental formations.” Citta or mind is the totality of these ever-changing psychological phenomena, not a thing, or unchanging subject.
With mindfulness of the mental formations, the Buddha directs us to “know” when a mental formation is present and when it is not present. Mindfulness itself is a mental formation, so we can be aware when mindfulness is present, as well as when it is not. When not mindful of mental formations, we believe and identify with them. As soon as we recognize a mental formation as a mental formation, it loses much – or all – of its power over us. When mindfulness is there, the mental formation has already been transformed. No longer is there only anger, now there is also mindfulness of the anger. The situation is changed as soon as we are mindful of it, no longer lost in forgetfulness, no longer identified as anger.
While practicing asana, mindfulness of the mental formations provides a wonderful opportunity to observe and recognize our mental patternings and how they condition our habitual tendencies. The body is not completely symmetrical. You may find one side in a posture easier than the other side. Noticing how quickly the mind categorizes experience into “good” and “bad” can free us from believing these potentially limiting notions. As an old Zen saying puts it, “with one thought, heaven and hell are created.”
Pain or discomfort often arises during asana practice. Much discomfort is really just a reaction to novelty, and much pain is the pain of change. Such pain can provide an opportunity to grow in mindfulness. Truly injurious or excessive pain should never be ignored, but the truth is, most of the pain that one experiences in asana practice is merely discomfort and not injurious. With discomfort, it is fruitful to drop out of your aversive reactivity and bring a gently embracing quality of mindfulness to the discomfort. When we do this, we see for ourselves that there really is a difference between pain and suffering – the misery and mental anguish that we add to the experience because of our aversion. This is an important insight with real benefit to life off the mat.
We practice with the discomfort and pain that arises in asana practice so that we can remain free from suffering throughout our life. Yes, if we feel discomfort in our shoulders while doing Warrior Two all we need do to relieve the pain is lower our arms. But if we always do this, what will we do with the pain that we cannot avoid through such a simple strategy? What if you are injured in an accident? Or you lose your lover? How will you face your own sickness, old age and death? Whether emotional or physical, embodiment means pain is inevitable. Working with mindfulness of the mind means that when the inevitable losses of life occur, you can just feel the pain and not add suffering as well.
The Buddha encourages us to notice the mind when liberation or “letting go” is present. But first, we need to have clarity about what a grasping mind feels like. Yoga is not an ideology, philosophy or moral code about the “goodness” of letting go and the “badness” of attachment. Letting go is what happens when the suffering of holding on is felt and recognized.
The most obvious attachment is to material objects and sensory pleasures, including possessions, sensual, and sexual sensations. Attachment to particular “feel good” experiences like the potentially seductive enjoyment of stretching and moving the body, or the excitement of accomplishment, are some examples, as is the “yoga buzz” many practitioners seek in their practice. There’s nothing wrong in enjoying physical pleasure, but if we are dominated by our attachment to pleasure, we will suffer when it dissipates.
Another type of attachment is to opinions, beliefs, views, and theories. While practicing asana, we may find ourselves attached to ideas about what we “should” be able to do, what we “should” be feeling, and the correct form of the asana. We may find ourselves caught in a belief about what we cannot do or what we will “never be able to do.” Again, ideas and opinions are not the issue; it’s the degree of our attachment to them that creates suffering. If we are attached to strong ideas about what we need in order to be happy and free, the attachment to those very ideas becomes an obstacle to happiness and freedom. We place ourselves in bondage to our ideas and concepts, missing the possibility for happiness and freedom here and now.
There can be attachment to practice itself! The Buddha strongly warned against getting attached to ritual and traditional practices – secular or religious. It is possible to become so attached to a particular form of practice that you remain in your comfort zone, never testing your edges. The form becomes a trap rather than a tool for liberation. To appreciate and be firm in one’s commitment to a particular practice is one thing, but if we become overly attached and obsessive with the form, we can all too easily lose the liberating spirit of the practice.
The most challenging attachment includes everything that we can identify as “I,” “me,” or “mine.” Even becoming attached to our identity as a yogi can become a source of duhkha if we develop a holier-than-thou attitude, causing us to see ourselves as separate and superior to others.
Mindfulness shows how one creates a sense of self through reactivity, belief patterns, and dramatizing story lines. It happens in the instant a student marks out “her” spot in the practice room with her mat. The more attached we are to our stories of self, the more tension and suffering we create, but it’s not until we really see this for ourselves that any opening can occur.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mindfulness Yoga: The Second Foundation

Second Foundation
Practicing “Feelings within the Feelings,” we deepen our intimacy with experience by bringing mindfulness to feelings – again, not as a disassociated observer, but from within the feelings themselves. Feelings here are not emotions but the  “feeling tone” or “felt sense” of experience.

To see for yourself what is meant here, take a moment to close your eyes and just sit, with your hands resting on your lap, palms down. Settle yourself into the experience, noting how it feels to sit here – physically and energetically. You may note such feelings as “heavy,” “grounded,” “stable,” or “dull.” Then, maintaining your attention, turn your palms upward and note if there’s a change in the feeling tone. You may find yourself feeling “light,” “open,” “receptive” or “vulnerable,” among other possible feelings.

Such feelings are not emotions. Feelings are a primal experience that the Buddha points out most generally precedes any reaction or emotion, though emotions can also produce feelings in the body. The importance of bringing mindfulness to feelings or sensations cannot be over-estimated. It is at the junction between feeling and reactivity that mindfulness provides the possibility of freely choosing how to respond to any given situation.

Feelings are categorized as being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and of a physiological or psychological nature. If you bite into a ripe, juicy lemon the sensations that arise are physiological; if you simply imagine doing so, the sensations that arise are of a psychological nature. It is interesting to consider how the body reacts to imagining biting into the lemon similarly to actually doing so. In all Yogic teaching, thoughts are considered as, or even more important, then physical action.

The Buddha noted that feelings condition our whole world. We spend huge amounts of energy trying to create and prolong pleasant feelings while pushing away and trying to avoid unpleasant feelings, and we become confused, bored or simply “checked out” when experiencing neutral feelings. This grasping, aversion and ignorance, called the “three poisons,” are the roots of duhkha, poisoning the experience of life. If mindfulness is not present, feelings quickly give rise to moods, emotions, perceptions, ideas and whole stories and identities that cause duhkha for us and for those with whom we interact.

Hatha-yoga practice can either help us grow in awareness and insight, or create duhkha, depending on whether mindfulness is present or not. For example, when practicing an asana you enjoy, experiencing the pleasure of a sensuous stretch, or the psychological pleasure of the “successful” performance of a challenging posture, if you are not mindful, you will get caught in craving and clinging, seeking to prolong or repeat the feeling as soon as it wanes (as it most assuredly will, all phenomena being impermanent). While it is indeed a pleasure to accomplish a challenging posture, without mindfulness, as the Gherandha-Samhita warns, asana practice becomes an obstacle to liberation because the ego-gratification is clung to, and identification with ego and the body becomes more rigid and solid. We get caught in pride and our identity as someone who can do “advanced postures.” When conditions change (through illness, injury or age) and we can no longer do what we used to do, we can become discouraged and even suffer despair.

Practicing difficult postures, we may experience unpleasant feelings. Mindfulness shows us how quickly the mind seeks to push the unpleasant away, to eliminate it. Such aversion creates tension that is often more painful than the original sensation. The Buddha referred to this added anguish as “the second arrow.” The first arrow is the experience of discomfort or pain; the second arrow is the tension, anguish and unease of our aversion.

Bringing awareness to neutral feelings cultivates greater clarity about our experience. In fact, most of our experience is neutral, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Because this is so, we spend much of our time seeking intensity of feeling, or falling into boredom. Through greater awareness of the neutral aspect of experience, we remain present to experience and cultivate greater ease, enjoying the calm of neutrality.

Zen’s understanding of “pure practice” is to not add anything extra to the experience other than mindful attention. If we bring mindfulness to our feelings, we can experience “pure joy” or “pure pleasure,” untainted by clinging or grasping. But in order to be able to experience pure pleasure, we must be willing to experience “pure pain” or “pure discomfort,” free of aversion and resistance.

The most pain avoidant people have the least joy in their lives. In trying to armor ourselves against pain, we numb ourselves to all experience. In opening ourselves to felt experience, we allow ourselves to live life fully, not caught in patterned habits of reactivity. Rather than conditionally reacting to experience, we can choose to respond creatively. The doorway to this freedom is in bringing mindfulness to our feelings before they condition our reactivity.

Along with practicing mindfulness of feelings while practicing asana or in any of the classic "postures" mentioned by the buddha (sitting, standing, lying down and walking) we can take moments periodically throughout the day to stop and scan our body: what are we feeling as we wait in line at the bank? What feelings are present when we are just sitting down to lunch? There is literally nothing we do that we cannot take a moment for this quick body scan.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mindfulness Yoga: The First Foundation

First Foundation
Mindfulness of “the body within the body” is the First Foundation of Mindfulness. This phrasing reminds us that we are not distant observers of the body, with awareness located in our heads observing our body as an object, but rather awareness permeates the whole body, like a sponge saturated with water.
The Buddha’s first instruction is to bring mindfulness to breathing. We’re encouraged to simply know an in-breath as an in-breath, an out-breath as an out-breath, free of all manipulation. We become intimately familiar with the experience of breathing, noticing the various and varying qualities such as deep or shallow, fast or slow, rough or smooth, even or uneven, long or short. As mindfulness is a friendly, non-judgmental, fully accepting kind of attention, we are already cultivating a transcendence of the pairs of opposites.
Take some time to establish a meditation practice with this simple exercise:
Sitting comfortably, eyes slightly open or closed, jaw relaxed with some space between upper and lower teeth, and the tongue relaxed, it's tip just lightly touching above the front teeth. 
Take a few deep breaths, noticing where you experience the movement of the breath. Many people feel it as the rising and falling of the belly or chest; others feel it at the nostril and upper lip as the breath moves in and out. Once you note where you feel the breath's movement, just rest your attention there free from strain -- as a butterfly rests on a flower -- and let the breath be natural.
Every time you notice that the mind has wandered away from the breath, just bring it back. That's all there is to it. If you'd like, you can use the technique of "noting" where you mentally "whisper" to yourself: "Rising; Falling" if that's what you're feeling or "In; Out" if that's your experience.
Then, expanding our awareness to include the whole body including its posture, and movement, we deepen our sense of embodiment. The body and breath do not get lost in the future or the past, so if attention is fully absorbed in the body, there is a fully integrated sense of presence. The body and breath keep us anchored to now. Only when we become entangled and identified with thinking can we feel distant from life.
 When practicing postures, we stay fully present through mindfulness of the breath. When noticing the mind leaning away from our experience of an asana, we can remember to come back to the breath. In this way, the breath becomes the sutra – the thread – upon which we weave our practice. We see for ourselves how the posture and movement of the body “conditions” the breath. The qualities of the breath are conditioned by whether we are in a forward bend, a backbend or a twist. While maintaining a posture, we will see a change in the breath. We can also see how the breath conditions the body, affecting both movement and posture. All this points to a core teaching of the Buddha: as all phenomena are conditioned, there is no real autonomous “thing” to speak of! We say “breath” or “posture” as if these were things separate from the flow of experience, but through this practice we see they are processes caused and conditioned, selfless and constantly changing.
Bringing attention to the parts of the body, we become cognizant of any reactivity to the various parts; which parts do we like; which parts do we dislike? We may feel revulsion contemplating our earwax, bowels or lymph and prefer to contemplate our hair or our eyes. Yet those eyes free from their sockets might provoke revulsion and fear; that hair clogged in our shower drain may seem disgusting. All reactivity is conditioned.
An exercise based upon the parts of the body has the practitioner systematically bringing attention to various parts of the body, giving equal attention to each part and noticing if there is any reactivity that arises as one does this exercise:
Hair on the head; Eyes; Nose; Ears; lips; teeth; arms; hands; torso; genitalia; legs; feet; brains; heart; lungs; liver; kidneys; bladder; skeleton; circulatory system; lymphatic system; muscles; fatty tissue; blood; mucus; urine; feces etc.
Another exercise on the First Foundation is the Contemplation on the Five Great Elements (earth, water, fire, air and space):
We bring attention to the solidity of the body; its composition of various elements such as carbon – the very same carbon that gives us coal and diamonds. The liquid element, manifesting as blood, interstitial fluid, and other bodily fluids, is not separate from the water flowing in our rivers and streams. Our bodies generate heat, and we subsist upon the solar energy captured in the vegetables and flesh of animals we consume. The air we breathe sustains our life, and all experience arises and passes away in space. 
Through contemplating the elements of the body the yogi begins to understand that life is not isolated in her own body; that there is no “self” separate from the the elements. The First Mindfulness Training[i] of ahimsa or non-harming reminds us to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. As our bodies and our life cannot exist without these minerals, we begin to see that the distinction between organic and inorganic is ultimately conceptual – there is no real separation. In protecting the elements from degradation we protect ourselves. Before you “throw away” your garbage, ask yourself, “Where is away?”
The final practice of the First Foundation is contemplating the decomposition of the body, the existential truth that this body is of the nature to die. Looking deeply into the impermanent nature of the body, we are motivated not to take life for granted, not to lose our life in distraction and dispersion. For those ready for this practice, the effect of this meditation is liberating, understandable in light of all the effort we make, the tension and strain we create, in attempting to deny the only thing we know for certain – that we will die!

[i] For A Future To Be Possible by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press: Berkeley, CA, 1993) p. 3

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mindfulness Yoga: Hatha-Yoga and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Part One

For the vast majority of practitioners and non-practitioners alike, Yoga has become reduced to, and synonymous with, the postures and movements of hatha-yoga. Yet for most of its history, meditation has been an essential aspect of "authentic" yoga practice. Much of the “work” of meditation involves how we experience the body; particularly our reactivity to experience. And when practicing postures, we learn to deal with the mind’s commentary, its leaning toward the future or the past, grasping after the pleasant and pushing away the unpleasant -- exactly what we do in meditation!

The word yoga comes from the root yuj, meaning to “yoke or to harness,” and has come to signify both spiritual endeavor, especially the disciplining of the mind and the senses, and the state of integration. As such, yoga is the generic name for the various Indian philosophies and practices Georg Feurstein calls “the psychospiritual technology specific to the great civilization of India,”[i] the purpose of which is to liberate the practitioner from the existential human situation of duhkha, variously translated as suffering, stress, and dissatisfaction. Given this context, Buddhism is a bona fide child of the Yoga Tradition completely yogic in purpose, intent and methodology. The four noble truths and eightfold path offer a complete and coherent model of yogic theory and practice. Like all authentic yoga, it is moksha-shastra, a liberation teaching designed to free us from duhkha.
     Hatha-yoga refers to the relatively recent form of yogic practice utilizing the familiar postures (asanas) as well as breathing practices (pranayama). This form of yoga practice has its roots in the tantric movement that influenced both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. While the asanas of hatha-yoga are what most westerners are familiar with as "yoga," such postures were developed rather late in the history of the yoga tradition. In fact, the contemporary practices of yoga-asana pretty much date back to little over 100 years!

       Many Buddhist meditators have been drawn to hatha-yoga for the ease and strength it can bring to the body, while many hatha-yogis have turned to Buddhist meditation for the deepening of awareness, insight and equanimity it can cultivate. While this ‘complementary’ approach has much to offer, a deeper, more integrated, comprehensive approach is possible

In an early discourse, the Buddha is asked if it is possible, by traveling, to know, see, or to reach the end of the world, where one does not suffer. He responds that it is not possible to reach such a place of peace by traveling, “However, I say that without having reached the end of the world there is no making an end to suffering. It is, friend, in just this fathom-high body endowed with perception and mind that I make known the world, its arising and cessation, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.”[ii]  The Buddha could not have more clearly stated that it is with the exploration of our bodily experience, where we so often find discomfort, pain, and suffering, that we can also find peace and liberation.

The proper and natural posture of the body in sitting meditation is called asana, defined by the second-century Indian sage Patanjali in the Yoga-Sutra, the foundational text of classical yoga, as that posture which is both “stable and easeful,”[iii] accompanied by “the relaxation of effort and the revealing of the body and the infinite universe as indivisible.”[iv] When this state is attained, “one is no longer disturbed by the play of opposites.”[v] Whenever this state of embodied integration manifests -- whether one is sitting, walking, cutting carrots or changing diapers -- there is yoga.

While the Buddha taught a variety of practices, perhaps it’s his emphasis on mindfulness that has had the greatest impact. The Pali word ‘sati’ (Sanskrit. smriti), most often translated as mindfulness, is related to the word for remembering. To ‘re-member’ is to ‘re-collect,’ to bring together all the seemingly disparate aspects of our experience into an integrated whole. In this way, remembering is synonymous with the definition of Yoga. Whenever we see our mind wandering from the intimate, immediate, spontaneous and obvious experience at hand, we remember to come back -- to just this, right here, right now, using the breath as the yoke.

In both the Anapanasati-Sutta (Awareness of Breathing), and the Satipatthana Sutta (The Foundation of Mindfulness), the Buddha instructs in observing the breath, gradually extending our awareness to include the whole body. He says the practitioner should be aware of the movements and positions of the body, while standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, while bending over, or stretching one’s limbs and notes that nothing is excluded from mindfulness, including such activities as eating, drinking, dressing, urinating, and defecating. No aspect of our lived experience lies outside of practice. This is not practice as preparation, but practice as vocation.

The applicability of this teaching for practicing hatha-yoga should be obvious. When we combine awareness of breathing with asana practice, we can observe how movement and posture affects the breath and how the breath affects the body. We become aware of habitual patterns of reactivity. For instance, do you hold your breath when reaching out with your arms into a deep stretch? Do you unnecessarily tense muscles not involved with the movement you are making? Do you compare one side of the body with the other? When engaged in repetitive movements, does your mind wander? In maintaining a posture, can you see the constant changing phenomena, or do you concretize the experience, reifying the changing phenomena into a static entity that you then either grasp after or resist, depending on whether you find it pleasant or unpleasant?

Following the four foundations of mindfulness, the practice of postures becomes much more than merely preparatory to meditation. With the four foundations, asana practice becomes a fully integrated mindfulness practice, in essence no different than sitting or walking meditation. Asana practice need not be conceptualized as a complement or preliminary to sitting. It’s simply another way to practice mindfulness. This is the practice of mindfulness yoga. The priority here is the cultivation of mindfulness with asana as the vehicle for such cultivation. The practice of mindfulness, the Buddha assures us, “gives rise to understanding and liberation of the mind.”

The four foundations of mindfulness include body, feelings, mind and dharmas. Each foundation includes a variety of objects, meditations, and contemplations. When practicing asana, we can choose to devote our practice to any one of these, or work through them sequentially.

[i] The Yoga Tradition: It’s History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice by Georg Feuerstein (Hohm Press: Prescott, AZ, 1998) p. 7
[ii] The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA, 2000) p. 157 - 158
[iii] The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary by Georg Feuerstein (Inner Traditions: Rochester, NY, 1989) Book 2; Sutra 46
[iv] The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary by Chip Hartranft (Shambhala: Boston, MA, 2003) Book 2; Sutra 47
[v] ibid., Book 2; Sutra 48

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


It’s a bit ironic for practitioners of a form of “spirituality” that emphasizes how life is stressful (it is the first noble truth after all) to sit around offering a litany of problems they face in practice! Why should practice be any different from the rest of life? Problems are inevitable! In fact, they should be seen as inevitable! The problems you will face on this path are precisely the means that will help you progress along the path! Facing these difficulties in meditation will give us practice in confronting problems in the rest of our lives. In time, you will see that the uncomfortable ‘stepping stones’ of the path are precious jewels! The most important aspect of practice is viriya (P; virya S) or persistence. Never give up and you can never fail!

The first noble truth tells us that life is stressful and meditation, being a microcosm of life, will present us with the same challenges we’ll find elsewhere in life. In fact, along with the difficulties we face in life that will arise while sitting, the very practice of sitting will bring its own special challenges. So, not only should we expect problems, we should welcome them!

Only the complete acceptance of discomfort, pain and stress lead to its amelioration. And to accept duhkha takes courage -- the determination to look at difficulty head-on, without averting our gaze. Courage is not fearlessness. In fact, fear is an essential component of courage. You cannot be courageous unless you can feel your fear completely. If you are able to stand your ground rather than averting your gaze or taking flight, that is courage. As Richard Petty, the greatest NASCAR driver of all time said: You’d have to be crazy not to be afraid to climb into a race car and take to the track with 40 other drivers going 240 miles an hour bumper to bumper! These men and women took the fear they had with them as they climbed into their chariots and drove with passion and courage.

If you think about it, the posture of meditation itself is the posture of courage: in determining to sit in stillness, we are declaring our willingness to look bravely at whatever our mind churns up without taking whatever our usual exit strategy might be. If you reflect for a moment, you’ll have to agree that the experiences that have most contributed to your personal development have been the trials you’ve faced and moved through. In retrospect, we understand this. In prospect, we fall into fear that they will overwhelm us, and yet often it is the fear and anxiety that is worse than the actual experience. As Mark Twain said, “I have known many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Think of practice difficulties as simply aspects of experience that require attention. Many times, there really is nothing to do and nothing to solve – only something to watch, embrace, and learn from.

There are many difficulties that arise in meditation that are not really any different than those that arise in other aspects of our life. But, there are also some difficulties that may be specific to practice. Pain, for most of us, is one of these challenges. Almost everyone has to learn to deal with the discomfort of sitting: backaches, knee pain, feet that go to sleep. Some of these discomforts do lessen over time, but others never go away. One of my favorite sayings of Suzuki Roshi is something he said to his students on long retreat: “The problems that you have now you will always have.”  

So, when you begin to experience pain in practice, first see what you can do to eliminate it. There is enough pain in life without you adding more of it with your practice. But when you find that there are certain discomforts that cannot be removed by changing external circumstances, mindfulness can show us that they can be mitigated by practice.

First, we can learn to see the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is an unpleasant sensation. Suffering is a mental and emotional reaction to pain. It may or may not be associated with the sensation of pain. It is possible to suffer without pain and equally possible to feel pain without suffering.

Suffering arises when we resist pain. We may feel a sense of unfairness, our fear of the pain may lead to panic. Resistance to pain arises because of the often unstated (and unconscious) belief that pain shouldn’t happen to us. Such belief is a major cause of suffering, conditioning anger, fear, anxiety and discouragement.

One way to work with the suffering of pain is to re-align ourselves with reality. Believing that pain shouldn’t happen to us is delusional. With sufficient practice, witnessing of the pain will lessen suffering and sometimes even lessen the pain, because our resistance is often what keeps the pain ‘locked in place.’

Allow the pain to become the object of mindfulness. Relax any tension or muscular contraction surrounding the painful sensation. Practice with ‘curious disinterest.’ Disinterest simply means you are not attached to any particular outcome or agenda. If you are paying attention as a strategy to lessen pain, that grasping for a particular outcome actually works against you.

Now, in the early stages of practice, it is absolutely unrealistic to expect that this ‘observational meditation’ will be easy or clearly beneficial. However, with time and experience, even the most severe kinds of pain can be ameliorated. Take your time; when you feel you’ve reached your capacity and begin to lose focus, do anything else – like changing your position, or scratching that persistent itch – to alleviate the discomfort, but do so mindfully.

Other problems specific to meditation are ‘strange’ phenomena that may arise. Sensations of floating, expansion and contraction that may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral may arise. You may feel like your spinning like a top, or fidgeting uncontrollably. You may become distracted by images arising internally if your eyes are closed and strange patterns on the floor (like faces morphing into weird shapes) if your eyes are open.  When any such experience happens, treat it like anything else that arises: observe and reflect upon your reaction to it. Drop aversion and grasping and it will fade away soon enough. Just don’t make a big deal out of it.

The most tenacious problem while meditating is difficulty concentrating. This is particularly upsetting since concentration is such a necessary skill for any form of meditation. Remember that each time you catch the mind wandering and gently bring it back to the breath, you are concentrating and refining mindfulness.

If lethargy, sleepiness or fatigue is a problem, you may need to eat more moderately before practice or get more sleep. But keep in mind that just the typical fluctuations of daily life will impact your level and capacity for concentration. Various counting and labeling techniques, as well as mantra, and visual gazing strategies are available.

Doubt and discouragement often comes up when we are dissatisfied with what we may perceive as our “lack of success” in meditation. We may feel like giving up completely. First, if you find this happening, remind yourself that the absolutely only way to fail at meditation is not to do it! If you take your seat, then no matter what is happening while sitting, you are doing it! The struggles and so-called “failures” are all part of the process.

Second, look at the sense of discouragement itself as an object of mindfulness. See where it comes from; how it arises and what it feels like. Watch its coming and going, its wavering degrees of intensity. Discouragement is no different than any other mental formation: it is impermanent!

Sometimes the greatest problem in meditation practice is just sitting down. Regardless of how you feel about meditation at a particular moment, just do it anyway! You do not have to like it! Just do it – no argument, no excuses, no negotiations. As Jack Kornfield advises: “Just get your ass on the cushion.” Make that your absolute bottom line (no pun intended). Don’t even begin to think of how long you’re going to sit or what you’re going to do: just get your butt on the cushion.

If you can commit to this, you’ll find that generally, once you’re on the cushion, any aversive feelings you had to meditating evaporate after a few moments. Once you settle down, you can even begin to investigate what the aversion was all about. You may find some subtle fear was under it all that you can now observe with courage!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Big Sky Mind

There is no place to seek the mind;
It is like the footprints of the birds in the sky.
--- Zenrin

Most meditation practices offer quite specific instructions as to what object to focus on and what to do regarding the chosen object of meditation. The Buddha himself offered over 40 objects of meditation, including the breath, various aspects of the physical body, sensations, mental experience, including emotion and thoughts, as well as “objects of mind,” where the yogi is instructed to analyze experience into categories that constitute core aspects of the Buddha’s teaching such as the Five Hindrances (craving, aversion, dullness, restlessness, and confusion), or the Seven Factors of Awakening (mindfulness, inquiry, energy, joy, ease, concentration, and equanimity). These classifications are not in themselves the objects of meditation, but are points of reference to be applied during practice to whatever experiences arise.

But in the last analysis, the meditative state lies beyond any such practices. Meditation is ultimately not something we do, but rather a state that arises when all doing is done with! As I once heard Swami Satchidananda say, “meditation is an accident, and yoga practices make us accident prone.” But all traditions also speak of “methodless methods” that are meant to drop us directly into that meditative state variously called “bare attention,” “silent illumination,” “just sitting,” “mahamudra,” or simply “choiceless awareness.” Such “practices” encourage sitting as awareness itself, not picking or choosing what to focus on, but maintaining an evenness of attention on whatever arises in the space of awareness. Tilopa, in his “Song of Mahamudra” writes:

The clouds that wander through the sky
Have no roots, no home; nor do the distinctive
Thoughts floating through the mind.
Once this is seen,
Discrimination stops…

Rest at ease your body.
Giving not, nor taking,
Put your mind at rest.
Mahamudra is like a mind that clings to nothing.
Thus practicing, in time you will reach Buddhahood.

Students of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra might be reminded of what he has to say about asana: “It is a posture that is stable and easeful, accompanied by the relaxation of effort and the arising of coalescence, revealing the body and the infinite universe as indivisible. Then one is no longer disturbed by the play of opposites.” (The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, II: 46 – 48).

But this is easier said than done. Not for nothing is the mind likened to a drunken monkey! It is all too easy to become caught in an ever-proliferating chain of thought. Even when trying to focus on one object, such as your breath or a mantra, a thought can arise, which leads to another, and another, and yet still more thoughts until fifteen minutes later, when the meditation period is over, we wake up from some four-star daydream or sexual fantasy or a fretful worrying over our unpaid bills! 

There is a distinct, but subtle difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought, and it’s primarily one of “feeling-tone” which is a term referring to the felt sense (physically and energetically) of experience. A thought you are aware of with bare attention – with neither grasping nor aversion – feels light; there is a felt sense of distance between the thought and the awareness of the thought. With no reactivity to feed it, it arises like a bubble, awareness merely reflecting it, without it giving rise to another thought, it eventually “pops” or “self liberates.” When we are caught by thinking, it feels much heavier and substantial. It has a compulsive quality that pulls you in and takes control of consciousness. Its very nature is obsessive, leading you into ever deepening entanglement with its story making.

Choiceless awareness requires mindfulness, which is a mode or perception that is all accepting, non-reactive, neither clinging nor resisting. It expresses our willingness to be with our lived experience as it actually is in that moment, and not as we would like it to be. There is no seeking after another state of being; no distracting ourselves from whatever is our present situation. In order to cultivate mindfulness, it is best not to expect anything, avoid straining and rushing, accept everything that arises and hold onto nothing, avoiding rumination and comparing, and above all, be gentle!

Choiceless awareness rests on our ability to concentrate and reflect. This relates to Patanjali’s imperative to be stable and relaxed. The following meditation is in three parts that can each be practiced as independent ‘stand-alone’ practices or combined in a graduated path towards choiceless awareness. Mountain Meditation cultivates stability and is particularly helpful in dealing with anxiety, restlessness and dullness. Lake Meditation cultivates the quality of reflectivity that lessens the reactivity of comparing and judging mind. And finally Big Sky Mind opens us to the freedom of choiceless awareness.

Mountain Meditation:

Create a comfortable, stable, supported seated posture. If sitting on the floor, make sure you have enough height under your buttocks so that your knees rest on the floor. If that is not possible, then bring the floor up to your knees with pillows or blocks so that your legs are fully supported.

Sit upright, and close your eyes. Let your breath flow naturally, making no attempt to manipulate it, rest your attention on the rising and falling of your belly or chest (wherever you most feel the movement of your breath).

Next, visualize or imagine a majestically tall mountain. Contemplate for a few minutes how solid and stable the mountain is, throughout all the changing seasons and in all kinds of weather. At times the mountain may be clouded over, its peak completely in fog, sometimes the mountain is assaulted with thunder, lightening, heavy rains. Sometimes it rises into a clear blue sky, or a sky with just a few white puffy clouds. At times it is covered in snow, at times with lush foliage, and at other times it is barren. And yet, throughout it all, there is something that seems to remain stable, solid, not affected by the changing weather or seasons. It is this stable quality of “mountainness” that nourishes our concentration and ability to sit through all the varying experiences that arise while practicing.

So, now draw the image of the mountain down into your body and feel your posture of meditation to be like a mountain. Breathing in, see yourself as a mountain; breathing out, feeling stable. Some thoughts and emotions are like thunderous storms, others like a sunny day, your mind can be clouded over or clear and bright, but through it all, you can still sit solid like a mountain.

Lake Meditation:

Towards the peak of some mountains in the Himalayas, there are crystal-clear, turquoise-hued lakes called “sky lakes” because they are so reflective they reflect perfectly the sky above. Protected by the higher peaks and trees, the surface of such a lake is smooth and calm. The water is translucent, allowing you to see into its depths and it is as reflective as a mirror, so you can see your face and the sky above reflected in its surface. What you notice about the reflection is that the water reflects only what is there, neither editing out nor adding in anything. It reflects the dark, ominous storm clouds as well as the fluffy white clouds equally. When birds fly overhead, it reflects them without a trace left on the surface once they are gone from the sky.

Mind, or citta, when the waves or vritti are calmed, has this dual quality of the lake to be translucent and reflective. Once stabilized, we can turn our attention to the mind. Thoughts, feelings and emotions may arise from the depths of our mind, and we can simply reflect what arises without adding anything extra by way of judging, or comparing, nor editing out anything through aversion or denial. Free of grasping and pushing away, we can simply reflect. In this way, destructive or unwholesome patterns can be seen so that their power over us is lessened. Attachments are loosened. Breathing in, see yourself as the water of the Sky Lake; breathing out, reflecting.

Big Sky Mind:

After awhile, you may wish to turn your attention from the surface of the lake, towards the sky itself. This is what the Korean Zen teacher Chinul called “tracing the radiance.” You note that the sky is boundless, limitless. It contains everything that arises without stain. Even the horizon is only an apparent perceptual/conceptual boundary that can never be reached. Even on the cloudiest day, you know that above the clouds the sky is luminous, all pervading, limitless and free.

Awareness is said to share in these qualities of limitlessness, luminosity and stainlessness. It is present always, seemingly behind, between and beyond all the ever-changing phenomena. If you have ever heard yourself say “I’m confused,” then obviously awareness was also present or how would you have known?!  However, be careful not to take this experience as anything more than metaphorically. "Big Sky Mind" is not some transcendent realm separate from the mind and mental activity; they arise interdependently. This is an understanding forgotten even by many contemporary buddhists who take awareness as some kind of "true nature" which is more a Vedantin idea. The buddha criticized the notion of "pure awareness" by pointing out that awareness is always aware of something! Our problem is we tend to only identify with the confusion and overlook the clarity of the awareness of the confusion!

As mind experiences the selfless nature of phenomena, it moves towards freedom. We break through into the realization of what the Buddha called “not-self.” With the realization of not-self, the conceit of “I,” or what Patanjali called ‘asmita,’ is eliminated and this is nirvana here and now.