Thursday, August 16, 2012


The image of waves is helpful in understanding the happenings we observe while we meditate.

Everything that comes to be passes away.  In terms of consciousness or the mind, this is easily observable.  Sensations, thoughts, images and emotions appear and disappear.  This ceaseless change is a fundamental truth in Buddhism.  Without training, we tend to see whatever happens as being more or less continuous.  We may realize that our sensations, thoughts, imagery and emotions come and go, but we think that they last for a noticeable period of time, perhaps a second, minute, hour, day or even several days.  I am angry, and I have been angry for days.  I am happy, and I think that my happiness has been with me for some time.  But in Buddhist psychological theory, all these things occur in moments of extremely brief duration, on the order of nanoseconds.  Furthermore, there can be only one happening in consciousness at any given time.  So if we think that any of these happenings occur over an extended period of time, we are mistaken.  A happening comes to be and quickly passes away to be replaced by another happening, which may be so similar to the previous happenings that we do not realize that it is a discrete happening.

The image of a wave is useful because it captures the rising and falling of these discrete happenings.  Waves have properties of amplitude (how big they are) and frequency (how fast they occur).  There are big slow waves, small slow waves, big fast waves, small fast waves and everything in between.

We can think of the discrete happenings that occur while we meditate in terms of these waves.  We have to be very alert to see the rising of the wave and to observe the passing away.  If we push away the happenings as they appear, we do not see them pass away on their own.  The time frame is crucial.    In the beginning of practice, a thought or emotion may seem to be present for several seconds or minutes.  Perhaps they linger.  We could push them away, but that would be a form of avoidance or suppression.  We should let them go as they fade away.  This makes letting go so much easier.

In terms of waves, these happenings are very small in amplitude and very fast in their frequency.  But the untrained mind tends to experience them as big and rather slow waves depending on how strongly experienced they are and how long they seem to hang around.  The trained mind with wisdom would experience them more as they are, as discrete and momentary (although it may be nearly impossible to experience them at the speed in which they actually occur).

As you meditate, see if this idea of waves is helpful.  You can practice with your breath or abdominal movement or with any of the happenings that arise and pass away.  You will find that noting is a way of catching the wave, and, as you note, you should see the wave fading away, in which case you can return to focusing on the breath or abdominal movement or you can catch the next happening wave.

Happy surfing!


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Curiosity versus detachment

What is the attitude to take towards what shows up while we meditate?

Several academics, following the tradition of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, have put forward a two-component operational definition of mindfulness (Bishop et al, 2004).  In this definition, the first component involves paying attention to immediate experience "in the present moment."  The second component involves adopting a particular orientation to our experiences, an orientation that is characterized by "curiosity, openness and acceptance."  The idea of curiosity being essential to mindfulness meditation is itself curious. 

Curiosity implies some kind of interest in the object before one.  I once had a client who showed a lot of curiosity.  I told her a story of how I had once been on retreat and had a remarkable experience of having a whole series of connected events from my life unfold before me as if on a video-tape.  She was a professional fiction writer and was clearly intrigued by this idea.  She reported to me in subsequent sessions viewing virtual video-tapes of her experiences as she meditated.  After several sessions in which she reported her experiences, I said to her that I thought she was a little too interested in these video-tapes and should let them go.

Nyanaponika Thera, in his classical work, The Power of Mindfulness, describes mindfulness as involving both activating and restraining forces. Mindfulness makes the mind active and alert, but it also restrains.  As he states, in its restraining aspect, mindfulness makes for "disentanglement and detachment."  He focuses the remaining discussion on this restraining aspect of mindfulness.
Curiosity, in contrast to detachment, appears to lack this restraining force.  It goes beyond the root function of mindfulness, which is to remember or recognize the object of meditation.  One can think of what shows up in meditation as having a wave-like character of coming to be and passing away.  We should be quick to see the rising of the wave and quick to let go as the wave subsides.  Curiosity is not a letting go or releasing, but an engagement with the phenomena that appear and, as such, would interfere with the process of letting go.

On the other hand, recommending curiosity about what appears while we meditate may have a useful pedagogical function in the initial stages of learning.  I use the "Mind Watch" exercise to introduce the concept of observing the mind.  Those who have never meditated may not have noticed or given much thought to how active their minds are, how there is a churning, buzzing, turmoil just below the surface.  When they turn inward to observe the mind and tune into it with curiosity, they are often amazed by what they discover.  This often motivates them to start a meditation practice in the interest of quieting the mind.  This attitude of curiosity continues for some time to have a function as a motivating factor in discovering the essential character of the mind.  However, over the long term, curiosity needs to be replaced with detachment.

Detachment has several bad connotations in English.  In some of its connotations it is associated with indifference or even callous disregard.  Clearly, mindfulness is neither.  This can be shown by an analysis of equanimity, which is one of the other wholesome mental factors that arises with mindfulness.

Equanimity has a number of different meanings in Buddhism.  The most relevant in this context is that of calmness in the face of whatever shows up, in other words, imperturbability or non-reactivity.  The constant change, the continually shifting of ups and downs, can be a source of suffering and reactivity.  However, with equanimity, you simply see things arise and pass away.  Bhante Khippapanno in Experiencing the Dhamma uses the example of pain:  "When painful sensation arises, you note “pain, pain.” You will see that the silent mind is neither saddened nor angry with that painful sensation. It just makes a note of that painful sensation and lets it go. If you keep practicing like that, gradually the silent mind will become more balanced, steady and stable. That is the mental state called Equanimity."  Bhante Khippapanno's remarks clearly illustrate that equanimity and the detachment of mindfulness are closely allied.

In a broader sense, equanimity is distinct from indifference in that, with equanimity, we understand that reacting with excitement or irritation is inappropriate, whereas with indifference we do not respond because we are unaware, don't care or can't be bothered.  Whereas equanimity comes from awareness, indifference comes from ignorance and selfishness.  

Sometimes the term non-attachment is preferred to detachment to describe the appropriate attitude in meditation.  It is thought that this avoids the unfortunate connotations of detachment.  However, the terms attachment and non-attachment carry with them all sorts of connotations both negative and positive.  In fact, sorting out what attachment means and why we should be non-attached is one of the more difficult tasks in explaining Buddhism.  For that reason alone, I am not sure the term non-attachment is an improvement on the term detachment .  I will leave the task of analyzing the nature of attachment to a future post.

Bottom line:  Let's be careful about curiosity as part of the operational definition of mindfulness.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Being perfect (2)

Is it possible to be enlightened?  Within the Theravada tradition, there are four stages of enlightenment.  The first stage is that of stream entry, which offers the adept a glimpse of Nibanna and the assurance that no more than seven rebirths are ahead.  The next stage is that of the once-returner, which involves at most one more rebirth.  The third stage is that of the non-returner, which involves no more rebirths in sensory abodes but rebirth in a pure abode.  The fourth stage is that of the arahant, who will not be reborn and thus will be released from all suffering.

I once was studying with a very senior monk.  I told him, I thought rather modestly, that my aim was stream entry.  He agreed with me; that was his aim as well.

When I first started meditating in the Soto Zen tradition, my aim was satori.  I was sure if I tried hard enough, I would attain enlightenment.  However, I quickly realized that this meditation thing was a bit more complicated than I thought.  I got discouraged after about a year of working on it and abandoned my practice.  I came to understand in my later years that aiming for enlightenment may not only be unrealistic but counter-productive as far as keeping up with the discipline of daily meditation practice.  When I started meditating again, I decided that all I really wanted to do was to improve myself:  to be less distracted, to be a little wiser, and to be a little more virtuous.  This motivated me to continue to meditate.  Once I realized that these goals were attainable, I was able to sustain my practice and keep up the discipline of daily meditation.

In the Mahasi tradition, there is a strong message that enlightenment or some stage of it can be attained "in this very life."  On retreats, especially prolonged ones, this goal at times seems possible, especially when there is an inspiring teacher who exhibits the qualities associated with being an enlightened person.  However, at other times, when one encounters the chaotic, confused and obsessive mind, it seems very much out of reach.  At times like these, I remind myself of the modest goals of being somewhat more focused, somewhat wiser, and somewhat more virtuous.  Because meditation is demonstrably beneficial in these ways, I continue with my practice.