Category Archives: Vipassana

Coming home

spirit-rockWhen I first arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the early 1990’s, it felt like a homecoming. Home to the lovely woodsy canyon surrounded by oak-studded hills. Home to the easy warmth and openness of the people — the teachers, staff and fellow students — the sweetness of sangha, the community of supportive fellow meditation practitioners. And home to the Buddha’s teachings that give me a framework to look at my own experience and insights. This was a place I could belong without ‘buying into’ some belief. Instead I was offered room to grow in my own way, at my own pace. It’s what teacher and Spirit Rock co-founder Jack Kornfield so aptly calls a path with heart.

So that’s what I want for my students when they come to my weekly class: To feel they have come home, and that there is room for them to grow into their true selves, aligned with their own inner wisdom. Together we cultivate spaciousness to be present with whatever arises in our moment by moment experience, and we meet it with friendliness, respect and curiosity. We learn that we have nothing to defend, nothing to hide and nothing to prove. We come home to ourselves as we come home to our breath in each moment.

Our purpose when we come together is not to learn about Buddhism, although we do become increasingly familiar with the teachings. We are not accumulating knowledge to become Buddhist scholars. We’re not here to accumulate anything. Instead we’re learning to gently let go of a lot of previously unexamined opinions, beliefs and judgments that cloud our view and keeps us from experiencing the joy and beauty of this life in every moment, no matter what our current experience. We are using the wise teachings of the Buddha as a framework, map or guide, so that our own individual explorations can be understood in greater context.

The Buddha told his students, ‘See for yourself.’ So that’s what we do here. If you give yourself the gift of meditation practice — on a daily basis, in a weekly class and in the extended silence of an occasional retreat — you can see for yourself how the practice benefits your life. All we are doing really is offering own inner wisdom what it needs in order to bloom within us. When that wisdom is heard and valued, there are gentle and sometimes remarkable internal shifts of perspective that are liberating.

Why Insight Meditation?
There are approximately 500 different schools of Buddhism. Not all of them have made their way to the US, but even here we have many choices, such as Zen, Tibetan, Shambhala and Vipassana/Insight Meditation. So how does one decide the one that’s a good fit? Since Spirit Rock was my first real experience of Buddhism, I can’t speak very knowledgeably about other traditions, but recently, at the Buddhist Insight Network conference I attended, Gil Fronsdal gave a dharma talk that included a helpful overview. He asked us to imagine a spectrum of Buddhist traditions ranging from very religious to totally secular. On the very religious end are deities, supernatural beings and ghosts, rituals, devotion, faith — all the makings of what we think of as religion.

Insight Meditation, especially as it is taught in the West, falls on the far other end of the spectrum. It is as secular as you can get and still follow the Buddha’s teachings. There are no deities, and the Buddha is not a god, but an enlightened teacher and inspiration. For those of us on this path, the more secular approach closely follows the Buddha’s own path 2600 years ago, since he kept it all very simple. He was an enlightened teacher generously sharing concepts that helped people to awaken to their own Buddha nature.

The Buddha’s interests were psychological rather than religious. Nothing that has been recorded of his teachings indicates any interest in whether there is a god — and if so how many — or what happens to us when we die. Those kinds of questions are at the heart of all religions, but the Buddha, the great investigator, seems to have had no interest in investigating such questions. He accepted reincarnation as true, it wasn’t the focus of his personal investigation or his teachings, and a Buddhist practitioner, at least in this tradition, can rest in the ‘I don’t know’ mind around that and pretty much anything, really. That resting in not knowing is at the heart of our practice. Like the Buddha. we can focus our interest on this life, right here, right now, and how to live it in a way that does not create suffering for ourselves and others.

As his wise teachings spread to different countries, they were incorporated into the already existing religious traditions, and became new schools of Buddhism. All forms of Buddhism adhere to the original teachings, but they emphasize different aspects and amalgamate the teachings into their cultural comfort zones. As Buddhism arrived in the West, the same thing is happening.

So we have a wide variety of traditions. Which one draws us? Which one, if any, feels like a homecoming?

The Insight Meditation tradition appeals to those who are not looking for God or a religion — either because they already have one or because they have no interest in one. Instead they are looking for ways to cope with life’s challenges. Even though we have a lot of fun in our class, nobody comes for the fun of it. The original impulse to find a meditation group comes more from heeding our own inner wisdom’s call to pay attention, and to develop the skills to do so.

You can see why this is the tradition that has been readily adopted by mental health professionals in the West. It has come to be taught in hospitals, schools, prisons, etc. without reference to the Buddha, just taught as Mindfulness.

There are scholars in this tradition, who study and translate the Pali Canon, the written record of the Buddha’s words as recorded 500 years after his death. (Before that it was an oral transmission down through generations of monks.) These scholars perform very important work. But this is a living tradition, and it is in the practice of meditation, in each of our own inner investigation and aha moments that the Buddha’s insights and wisdom lives on.

When I first ‘came home’ to Spirit Rock, I was already leading a meditation class a few miles away, having had my own deep experience of a series of insights that helped me recover from a debilitating illness. I had written a book and had been asked to teach. When my class went on a field trip to Spirit Rock, I had no idea it would change my life.

I really appreciated the way the Buddha’s mind worked, and how all the insights I’d had in my own practice fit so nicely within the framework he created. I could see how all that I had experienced was just a normal arising of a mind that has had the opportunity to quiet down and be present with compassion. What a relief! And what an inspiration! I decided to stop teaching for awhile and simply open myself to the teachings of the Buddha by attending a weekly class at Spirit Rock. Then about ten years ago, I was asked to teach, and I have been teaching ever since.

Rituals
I don’t want to give the impression that Vipassana has no rituals. It comes from the monasteries of southeast Asia, and if you go there, certain rituals will be very apparent. But at Spirit Rock, IMS in Barre, MS; and in the many other smaller sanghas throughout the US and beyond, you will probably find just a few:

  • In general, shoes are removed before entering the meditation hall.
  • Silence is maintained during meditation periods and may be requested by the teacher at other times.
  • Bells are rung to end the meditation, sometimes at the beginning, and on retreats as calls to practice. (My favorite of all rituals!)
  • There is usually some kind of altar with a statue of Buddha on it.
  • And there is bowing. At first it was difficult for me to be in a room with an altar and to bow to it. How is this not bowing to a god? I wondered. But then I heard somewhere that when we bow we put our head below our heart, and that helped me to recognize the benefit of releasing the churning patterns of the thinking mind and allow the heartspace to inform me.
    Mostly we are not bowing in this deep way. We simply press our hands together at the end of meditation, which I see as a way to acknowledge the experience, and to thank myself for taking the time to meditate.
    If we bow to the Buddha, it is out of deep respect and gratitude to a great enlightened teacher.
    And we may bow to our own teachers as well, not because they are ‘masters’ but because we are grateful for their taking the time to practice, to learn, to awaken to whatever degree they are able, and to generously share their wisdom.
  • On retreat, depending on the teachers, sometimes there is chanting, especially in the evening after the dharma talk. Very lovely and deep.

Gil’s talk about where our tradition fits on the spectrum from religious to secular was very freeing for me. Not only did I see that I was in the right place for me — no surprise there — but I realized that I had felt I should know all about the other traditions. For example, I had felt I should know the names of the deities represented in Tibetan Buddhist art. ‘I should, I should’ — that’s always a clue. That word ‘should’ comes from a place of fear, of insufficiency, not-enough-ness, of craving to be accepted, to shore up my identity as a ‘true Buddhist’ or whatever idea I might have had. But now I could see that feeling I need to name all the deities of another tradition makes as much sense as a Presbyterian thinking there is some failing in their not knowing all the Catholic saints!

The real key is to practice wholeheartedly in the path we have chosen, the one that feels aligned with our truest nature. And for me that is this very secular, very portable practice of Insight Meditation.  What about you?

A very different kind of retreat

spiritrockI have just returned from a three day conference/retreat of Intersangha, the annual meeting of the Buddhist Insight Network held this year at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

It’s always wonderful to stay on retreat at Spirit Rock: to be there when the sun sets, to go to bed after an inspiring dharma talk and a walk under the stars, to wake to a bell, to walk in the still dark morning to meditate wrapped in a shawl or blanket, and then to walk together in silence down to the dining hall as the sun rises.

On this retreat we had the most crystal clear blue sky with the hills as green as I’ve ever seen them, especially appreciated after our years of drought. I wasn’t taking photos but this one is a near approximation of the green we experienced.

Every retreat is different, but this gathering was a conference, held in the envelope of a retreat. We went into silence after the evening dharma talk as we went into the last meditation sit, and we stayed in silence through breakfast in the dining hall, which was especially sweet for me. Years ago I wrote this poem about the symphony of eating breakfast on retreat at Spirit Rock:

Breakfast, Day Four

The dining hall clatter becomes symphonic.

The ecstasy of scraping chairs and utensils!

I have never heard anything so beautiful

as the sound of a sangha in silence

earnestly clearing their plates.

                                                 – SN, June  2006

Happily I was able to re-enter that state of awareness on the first morning since there was no ‘Day Four’ this time!

Just like every other retreat we all had our yogi jobs to help maintain the space and to help the seven cooks keep us well-fed. I try to have a different yogi-job on each retreat, so over the years I have vacuumed dormitory halls, scrubbed showers, swept decks, cleaned bathrooms, washed vegetables, and cleaned the Council House. This time I maintained the foyer of the main meditation hall, washed glasses and refilled water for the teacher-presenters. 

The Buddhist Insight Network is a community of mostly North American sanghas (communities of meditation practitioners) in the Vipassana/Insight tradition. (There are over 500 schools of Buddhism, all on a wide spectrum from religious to secular. Our tradition is the most secular.) Those attending were teachers, community leaders and board members of their local sanghas. Some of what was shared were the practical aspects of how to best manage the challenges of administration of these non-profit organizations, but the formal talks were deep sharings of Buddhist teachings to a group of advanced meditation practitioners. Dharma teachers Rick Hanson (for whom I guest teach), Gil Fronsdal (founder of Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City and Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz), Kevin Griffin, Matthew Brensilver (who ran the conference) and Lori Wong, among others, gave inspiring talks. To share them now would be to parrot what was taught. I’d prefer let the teachings percolate within me, then let them influence my own explorations and sharings over the coming weeks and months. Such a rich experience, I definitely need time to digest!

 

The Intersangha was a group of 65 people adept at practicing wise speech, so even though this was not a silent retreat, the talking was skillful, supportive and inspiring. Even so, after so many talks, discussions and conversations, I felt full to bursting, like I couldn’t take in one more drop of information. And when I got home, I took a long deep nap.

With my class the next day, I shared the experience of being on retreat and encouraged them to give it a try. I asked them, and now I’m asking you:

  • Have you been on a silent meditation retreat? If yes, take a moment to reflect on the value you received. Remind yourself of that value from time to time, so that you may be inspired to attend again, perhaps once a year as a regular part of your practice.
  • If you haven’t been on a retreat, is it something you consider but then reject? Reflect now on any thoughts that come up in considering going on retreat. ‘Can’t afford it.’ ‘Don’t have the time.’ ‘I have too many responsibilities I can’t hand off.’ Or something else. For each of them, ask yourself: Is this true?
  • Is there something else that keeps you from attending? Perhaps fear of what the experience might entail? Perhaps the belief that you couldn’t possibly maintain silence, or maybe you’re just unwilling to do so? Maybe you’re worried that it will be a bad experience and you’ll feel stuck there. These are all typical concerns. And I certainly can’t guarantee that you won’t have a bad time. But if you do, it’s another opportunity to explore the nature of mind, of expectation, of preferences. And you can always leave. (Just be sure to tell the retreat manager!) Most attendees have some moments of discomfort amidst many moments of delight, awe and contentment. I encourage you to explore the possibility of going on a retreat. Find out for yourself!

Spirit Rock Meditation Center is a main retreat center but there are others as well. If you prefer something on the East Coast of the US, then check out Insight Meditation Society in Barrre, MS. Other smaller retreat centers are also worth checking out. You can go to the Buddhist Insight Network listing of residential retreats.

My experience with retreats deepens more and more each time I return to the sweet silence. What a relief from all the talking I normally love to do! Like anything else, it is something that needs to be tried in order to be understood. Resistance is typical. But attendance is so fruitful!

I am happy to answer any questions you may have about the retreat experience at Spirit Rock. Although I have been on retreats elsewhere, that is the only one I feel I have sufficient knowledge of to be able to provide information.

I have promised my class that I will set up a time for us to go on a field trip to Spirit Rock when no retreat is in session. Sometimes just being able to see exactly where you will be sleeping, eating and sitting helps to motivate a meditator to sign up for a retreat. If you are in the Bay Area and would like to join in the field trip, contact me and I’ll let you know when it will be.

I occasionally offer daylong retreats here in my home in San Rafael. We are most fortunate to have a beautiful space with views of Mount Tamalpais and garden paths to wander. We maintain silence throughout, alternating between sitting, walking and eating meditations. It’s a very deep and transformative experience. If you are interested in attending a daylong with me, let me know.

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A final few words about yesterday’s class: For my students coming from one direction there was a challenge of a road closure. I had alerted them and offered alternate routes, one of which was quite a maze of small roads (It would have helped if I’d mentioned whether to turn right or left!) Everyone got there, but one student was late. At the end of class she shared that she did get utterly lost, but she remembered to stay fully present with the experience and had the most beautiful ride.

A beautiful example of one of the reasons we practice!

 

Befriending the Breath

In the vipassana meditation tradition we are taught to focus on the breath. Why? Aren’t there more interesting things to focus on? Certainly there can be. Take listening, for example.

Yesterday in class we sat outside in the cool morning air and did a listening meditation, as if it were a symphony. There were many distinct sounds: sawing, hammering, traffic noises, bird calls and more. Each was like musical instrument playing its part. It was a magnificent symphony.

A listening meditation is lovely when there is rain. It’s also good for in a public space, like at the gate waiting for a flight at the airport. I remember in 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq war, sitting with other meditators organized by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship as all the peace marchers assembled at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco. What a listening meditation that was! The sound of voices over a microphone rallying the troops, the conversations of nearby marchers getting together, the rustling and footsteps that passed by around us. When the march began we rose to take our part, feeling focused and united in purpose. We were the peace we wanted to see in the world.

Even sitting inside in a quiet room there will be sounds to listen to: the heater, the refrigerator, someone clearing their throat or coughing, some rustling perhaps, a cell phone going off (oops!), and allowing the sounds to be a symphony rather than an annoyance is skillful.

In my poetry classroom at College of Marin, we have a wall of glass facing a busy street near a fire station. Last week during the four-day annual poetry intensive, I found myself coming into relationship with that sound and here’s a poem I wrote.

Siren Song

What if the siren
echoing down the street
doppleganging by
the classroom window
is the red blur of God,
the tender wail of wanting
all beings to be well?

So listening can be a very powerful meditation when sound is the most dominant sensation you notice. And that’s the key word, ‘dominant’. We pay attention to all the senses as we begin our practice, and we might ask ‘What is the dominant sensation in this moment?’

Sometimes the most dominant sensation might be a pain in the body. If we spend time with that sensation we can notice a ‘symphony’ of more subtle sensations. We see that what we have been labeling ‘pain’ is not one solid experience but an ever-changing arising and falling away of a whole series of sensations, each one tolerable and even kind of interesting. This is not to make light of pain. I deal with chronic pain a lot in my life and at times it can feel overwhelming. But it has helped to recognize that much of the agony has to do with how I get lost in thoughts about the pain rather than really paying attention to the micro-sensations that compose it, how they arise and fall away, get stronger and softer, appear and disappear.

But generally, for most of us most of the time, as things settle down at the beginning of our practice, aches and pains are not dominant. If they are present, we sense that there are also other sensations going on in the field of our experience that are pleasant or neutral. We don’t replace one with the other, but we just notice the full range of sensation within our field of experience.

And then, if things are relatively quiet and other sensations are reasonably mild, as we pay attention, we begin to notice, even if we haven’t been directed to, that the breath is the most dominant experience. And, not only is it dominant, it is ever present. It is the most reliable sensation we have. As long as we are alive, we have breath to focus on. The rhythm, pace and depth may change but the breath carries on. Dependable. And potentially very interesting. A perfect focus. Vipassana: Awareness of the breath.

breathMany people come to vipassana practice from other traditions, and I encourage them to experiment with focusing on the breath, but to also feel free to use whatever skillful means they have in their meditation ‘toolbox’ to bring themselves fully into the present moment.

I came to vipassana meditation over twenty years ago after many years of other forms. I found focusing on the breath a challenge in part because my mother died of emphysema and her last years were a painful struggle for breath, so focusing on my breath brought up my grief. It took me nine years to have the aha! moment when I realized that MY lungs were healthy. MY breath was fine. 

But even though it became easier, it still didn’t always feel compelling, and sometimes it felt dull, even boring. But I stayed with it because I know that ‘boring’ is just a label I was putting on it, that in fact it was a rich experience when I really paid attention. And now, all these many years later, I am having a new relationship with the breath, one that recognizes that as long as I am alive my breath is my constant companion, my most intimate, reliable and supportive friend.

And so I have been writing odes and love poems to my breath! Here are some examples.

My Heretofore Unnamed Friend

All these years
it never crossed my mind,
until now, to befriend my
greatest supporter.

Oh, what oversight!

So now, with gratitude
and deep appreciation,
I name this breath
my dearest friend.

 

Lifesaver

The breath is like a lifesaver
floating on the swells
of thought and emotion.
I rest there, gently rising and falling.
When I find myself swallowed up
and sucked down into the depths,
surfacing into that circle of breath
is both relief and rejoicing.

 

No Name Breath

Breath, aware
attending
each unnamed note
of earth’s symphony…
bird song, car door, heart beat.

Breath, aware
opening
infusion of light
bursting boundaries
dissolving cherished reference points
that heretofore defined me.

Breath, aware
this, this and only this
the unlimited
the unnameable
the ever present.

 

Rescue at the Well

In a moment of dread
the unwelcome upheaval:
churning chest,
catch in the throat
woozy wobble

I make my way to the middle
and stand by the well
where steady pumps
the influx the outflow

I attend the constant motion
of my most reliable friend
and in this abiding
monstrous mutiny melts.

All poems by Stephanie Noble copyright 2016

So I encourage you to investigate your own practice with whatever is the most dominant sensation at the time. And  befriend the breath! If you are religious, recognize all the spiritual words (even the word ‘spiritual’) assocatiated with breath. If you are more scientifically inclined, then the focus on the physical process that keeps your body alive and connected to all life is a wonderful place to ground your practice. Explore and enjoy!

First Foundation of Mindfulness – Review & a Few More Thoughts

We have completed our exploration of the Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness, focusing in turn on the breath, postures, contemplation on the body, elements and death.

When you pour a concrete foundation, you want it to cure before you start adding more layers. Just so, I want to take the time to review and discuss the First Foundation of Mindfulness before we move on to the Second. If you missed any of the dharma talks within this section, then the links above can take you to where you need to go to ‘fill in the blanks.’

If you are just joining the discussion, you have a ready-made curriculum in the links above. Take your own time to do so in a way that is meaningful for you. You might set aside a period of time every day to read and reflect before or after meditation practice, for example. You can also visit the pages on the right column of the blog for more explanation and basic instruction.

The First Foundation of Mindfulness is one dharma lesson that could be a full life practice on its own. Sensing into physical sensation and knowing that we are sensing in to physical sensation. All that follows is rich and valuable, but only if we have laid this first foundation. You will see as we proceed how each one builds on the last.

What we have learned in this exploration is the basis of vipassana practice. We could go so far as to say that without this First Foundation, we don’t have a vipassana (insight) practice since that is where the original instruction for vipassana bhavana* comes from. So let’s make sure we understand it!

In our most recent class we had a discussion on anything from the previous talks on the First Foundation of Mindfulness that were still unclear, as well as any insights that came to the meditators from the explorations.

We focused a good deal of our discussion on the breath. In this tradition we do not change the breath but focus our awareness on the natural rising and falling of the breath. I had to repeat this several times during the class because even though the meditators practice in this way, most have knowledge of various other trainings, such as yoga or qigong where there are breath exercises that consciously alter the breath for a particular purpose. These are all fine but they are not recommended for the ongoing practice of insight meditation.

In this practice, we are not actively trying to change things to make everything right. Instead we are cultivating a way of being with things as they are. So it is how we relate to causes and conditions in our lives that is our focus. So the breath is as it is, and we cultivate our ability to attend it. This noticing may bring about change in the breath, but we are not actively working to change it. We are not finding fault with the breath for being ‘too shallow,’ a prevalent opinion in our culture. If we sit in an erect but relaxed position, we naturally open the column of the rib cage for the breath to breathe; if we notice and release whatever tension we find, and if we simply sit and know that we are sitting, the breath will be fine. Let the breath live unjudged! It certainly deserves it, as it gives us life and all. Just saying.

One of the meditators mentioned a particular breath practice she has found very calming where you inhale to the count of four, hold the breath for the count of seven, then release the breath to the count of eight. So I had her lead us in this and it was very interesting.

One meditator mentioned that she does a count to match her heart rate, so being led was difficult since our hearts don’t all beat at the same rate. This was a useful observation for any of us wanting to do some of these practices.

I mentioned a qigong instructor named Ken Cohen who provides a series of breath exercises. These various breath practices are perfectly fine and could be valuable. I only want to be clear that they are not a part of the basic practice of insight meditation.

A few minutes of breath practice before meditation could be useful in the process of establishing a personal practice. Without a teacher, a bell, a sangha, a class time, a setting that tells our busy mind ‘Now it’s time to meditate!’ we may need some amount of ritual to transition into our practice, especially at first.

Here is the guiding question to know whether such a practice, or any ritual, is beneficial: “Is this guiding me toward a mindfulness practice or is it potentially a hindrance to it?”

How could a ritual become a hindrance?  I promote what I call a ‘portable practice.’ The beauty of insight meditation is that you can do it anywhere at any time. There is nothing required but the intention to be present and the intention to be compassionate. When we add rituals or objects that we depend on to get us where we want to be, then we are creating conditions that could become hindrances. ‘If I don’t have my (fill in the blank: altar, breath practice, beads, spoken chant, etc.) then I can’t meditate.’ If we set up anything too elaborate, we undermine our ability to practice in say, the airport lounge. If we are dependent on causes and conditions, then we are not centered, grounded in our own experience.


So that was the review, but here are some things to consider that we didn’t cover in any of our previous explorations of the body as the First Foundation of Mindfulness.

The Body Google
Our body is a storehouse of information as well as the vessel in which we are able to function in this world. As we deepen in our ability to sense into the body, we also learn to listen to it in a way that was probably foreign to us.

If we have chronic pain or illness, this listening can help to alleviate physical suffering. With the enhanced awareness, we might notice the conditions around each occurrence. You don’t need advanced training for this, just a willingness to notice. 


For example, if your back ‘goes out’ you can ask what was happening in your life in the days leading up to it? What condition arose? This cause could be a difficult conversation that you had or are dreading having; a challenging deadline that lies ahead or that you failed to meet; a worry over the well being of a loved one; the loss of a job or fear about the future; guilt about the past; or any number of things that cause tension, stress and mental or emotional anguish that quite often will be experienced as physical pain. 

If we learn to listen to the body, then to ask questions of ourselves about what is going on in our lives and in our minds, we can alleviate the pain! If this is an interesting area of exploration for you, I highly recommend the books of Dr. John Sarno, an orthopedic surgeon who began to see the mind-body connection quite clearly in his many patients and has an excellent prescription that is free, except for the price of his paperback book, and easy. Reader, it changed my life! If it can change someone else’s, I hope you will forgive me this bit of promotion. If you know someone who might benefit, speak up. I am ever grateful to my friend who told me about it.

The Aging Body
As we age, mindfulness becomes increasingly valuable to keep us going in health and happiness. We can care for the body best by being mindful of what we are doing with it, by being considerate of its needs and by paying attention where we are going so we don’t trip and fall. 


We can notice if we are being overly cautious or protective, as if the body is fragile. This makes for added tension that in turn is a setup for harming ourselves, getting into pain or avoiding activities that might be healthful. We can notice if we are driving the body too hard. We can notice if this driven quality comes from some fear-based emotion, and is therefore unskillful. We can notice when we have a sense of well being. We can appreciate it without clinging to it, wishing it could stay this way. That in turn causes more tension, and then we lose the sense of well being we have found.

While this is the end of our discussion of the First Foundation of Mindfulness, it is just the beginning of our own internal awareness of how to live mindfully in this human form so that we can best appreciate this fleeting gift of life.


* Vipassana bhavana is Pali for insight meditation. It is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices, as taught in the the Buddha’s Sattipatthana Sutta (which is what we are currently studying.) The word vipassana is Pali. Passana means seeing or perceiving, and vi means ‘in a special way.’ Bhavana means mental cultivation.

Three Aspects of Mindfulness Meditation Practice

Last Thursday we spent more time than usual in class practicing, exploring and clarifying three aspects of meditation practice. (Blog readers should know that these dharma talks — over 160 now — are only one part of the class. The core of the class is experiential, the practice of meditation itself. I encourage anyone who has been finding value in reading the blog but hasn’t either developed a personal practice or joined a meditation group, to take that step now. I work with individuals and small groups to develop or refine a practice. Reading about it is not enough!!! )

The first aspect we discussed is our concentration practice, training our minds to stay focused on a specific experience, like the breath, for example. Even as beginning meditators we can follow our experience of this wise effort. We can notice when we have lost our focus and compassionately bring our attention back to the focus. If accessing a concentration point in the senses is difficult, I suggest focusing on the tongue or a foot and doing subtle movement — running the tongue around the teeth, wiggling the toes, etc. — to create a stronger sensation to focus on. Then reduce the movement and see if you can stay focused on the more subtle sensation. Then cease the movement and see if you can still notice sensation. In this way we build our ability to focus. Because the breath is for most of us a neutral, dominant and reliable sensation, it is the concentration focus most in this tradition choose for the main body of their meditation. But it is not the only one possible, and any sensation can be a focus for concentration practice.

The second aspect of the practice is a more generalized awareness of spacious infinite energy. Certain kinds of meditation practices can take us right to this ‘bliss state,’ as can various substances and activities. Vipassana meditation practice is not about attaining a state of bliss, as if it were a tropical vacation to escape from the world. Perhaps after such a ‘vacation’ the regular world feels more tolerable for a time, but then we need to escape again. Vipassana or mindfulness meditation is not about escape. It is actually the opposite. It is very useful for people whose minds are always escaping into daydreams, etc. because it is about being truly present here and now so that we find the joy in every moment of our lives. This is the wisdom of no escape. There is nothing to escape from when we discover how to be fully present with our experience, whatever it is.

So many people spend so much time finding a means to escape out of fear of being present with their experience. Younger meditation students complain that it is hard to find young people who are not drunk or stoned most of the time, meaning it is hard for them to find young people who are not afraid to face their lives sober. Those who take this route can blame the stresses of modern life, but at some point we need to remember that we are no longer children who have no control over our lives, who need to be able to escape in our minds. In fact we are very powerful. We can, through being fully present, shift the energy in the room, in an online thread, in our community and ultimately, because of the ripples even the smallest pebble makes, we can shift the energy of the world, simply by being present.

Think of how a minister, Martin Luther King Jr., shifted the energy of the civil rights movement and helped to begin a healing of a nation. Think how the man who inspired him, Mahatma Gandhi, a lawyer from South Africa, led India into a peaceful state of independence, just by his willingness to be present and compassionate. This kind of mindfulness is contagious, and we are in an amazing period of history able to see it in action as the peaceful assembly of the Occupy and 99% movement let their concerns be known with patience and consensus decision-making. We might say, well I’m no Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. Well, neither were they, in that famous powerful figure aspect, before someone helped them to shift their energy and discover the power of non-violent action. Perhaps we will never be famous, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t each of us incredibly powerful in our own way. We have the power to sour the energy, to incite anger, cat fights, nastiness, jealousy, violence. And we have the power, through anchoring into our senses and being fully present to bring peaceful collaborative exuberance, joie de vivre, a love of life, holding life not in a stranglehold of fear but in an open embrace.

Of course, if we get caught up in the goal of changing the world, then we are not living in the moment and that powerful energy is gone.

Just so, the naturally arising bliss state that may come through meditation or other means is not a goal nor an achievement. It is just another experience we hold with an open loving embrace. Whether the bliss state ever comes or whether it stays, that is not really our concern as meditators.

The bliss state does give valuable information, but even a hint or a brief experience of that timeless state can inform a lifetime. The valuable information is that all is one. There is no separate self. We are all expressions of life loving itself. We are like drops of water briefly experiencing soaring in a state of feeling separate, but in fact we are still the ocean.

For students who have never experienced this state and who feel the lack, I recommend watching science programs or reading about the current scientific understanding of reality with special attention to how much space there is, how structure, including ourselves, is mostly space. Think about skin, how we believe it to be the edge of who we are. But that is not true, is it? The more we know about biology and other sciences, the more we begin to understand the infinite nature of being. Now this kind of learning is not the same as experiencing the state of ‘knowing’ this to be true, feeling that interconnection. I wish English had two different verbs for ‘to know’ the way Spanish does, making a differentiation between something we have learned and something we have experienced.

But if we give the logical mind the opportunity to learn through watching or reading scientific information, it will help to unlock the door to the possibility of experiencing it. Then it’s just a matter of creating opportunity through meditation, chanting, retreats, being slow and silent in nature, dancing, creating or listening to inspirational music, etc. to experience abandoning the dead shell, to slough off the molting skin of these old limiting beliefs.

For the religious this experience grows the understanding and appreciation of the nature of God. You can see how God is all and everything, no part excluded from that infinite beingness, and how this consciousness can be so present in all things, able to experience all that is in each moment.

In our meditation practice we can go back and forth between a focused concentration practice and a spacious awareness state.

The third foundation makes all else possible. This is metta or loving-kindness practice. We end every class with the blessing “May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings know peace.” But within each personal practice of meditation we set our intention to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover our mind has wandered. Without this kindness and compassion, we are doomed to get tangled in self-recrimination and blame. So this kindness, this compassion, is a fundamental part of our practice as well.

We always begin our practice of metta with ourselves. First, we often find ourselves to be the most difficult person to be kind to. And ultimately, because we are all one, sending true infinite loving kindness of this nature to ourselves is the same as sending it out into the world. Feeling that kindness, we express kindness in the world. We embody kindness, ease, generosity and peace. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the peace we seek.

So those are the three aspects of our practice in our class, in our personal daily practice of meditation and in each moment in our lives as we experience it, holding it in an open and loving embrace with full awareness and the resulting deep gratitude.

Freedom from ‘Our Story’ through Meditation

We talk about the lure of thoughts during meditation, but what about when we are not meditating: Don’t we have to go back to thinking? If we didn’t, how could we live in the world?

Vipassana or insight meditation is about staying present with what is in our current experience so that we develop the skill of being present in our daily lives as well. When we live our lives fully present, we discover how rich and satisfying it can be, so we are less likely to want to get lost in what we call ‘our story.’ Practicing this form of meditation where we simply ‘sit and know that we are sitting,’ as many Spirit Rock teachers say, we learn to differentiate between the thinking that is useful and necessary for living and the thinking that is keeping us from living fully.

‘Our story’ is all the thoughts we have about our lives, about the people in our lives, usually flavored with all our wants, fears and judgments. Since we were children this is the kind of thoughts we have had, just like everyone else in our culture. But these thoughts are neither nurturing nor fulfilling. We may get very emotionally stimulated as we have them, but ultimately they leave us feeling confused and somehow wounded. They do not bring about a joyful sense of ease. They only stir up our anxieties and our dissatisfaction with things as they are. Our story is very good at creating suffering.

You may well wonder how we could possibly be freed from our story when it is so very much a part of the fabric of who we perceive ourselves to be. And anyway we like our story. Even if it does make us miserable, it’s our story, thank you very much. We don’t want it taken away….Okay, we allow that thought to be present as we explore a little further. We can hold both because we have spacious minds!

Allow me to suggest that our attachment to ‘our story’ is as if we have been brought up exclusively on a diet of pre-packaged chemically-enhanced ultra-sweet sponge cake and we can’t figure out why we don’t feel well. We go about in a fog and we look for a way out, but it would never cross our minds to stop eating this food that is our cultural heritage, that is celebrated and venerated, that everyone we know eats as well. It would be outrageous to even consider. And yet, here we are in a fog, in misery at least part of the time. We never feel absolutely well, absolutely comfortable in our skins, absolutely at home in the world. We can’t even imagine what that would be like.

Our story is junk food for the mind. Meditation offers a wholesome diet comparable to organic vegetables and whole grains. Peace, quiet, tranquility, authenticity, groundedness, spaciousness, and awareness: These are the wholesome foods for our minds.

Just as if we had spent our lives eating only junk food, if we have spent out lives caught up fully in our story, and if our culture has fed our story with non-stop distractions in the form of news, gossip and advertisements, just for starters, then how could we imagine this presence of mind that meditation teachers talk about? It’s a dilemma that leaves the majority of the population stuck in their stories. They hear about meditation, about long retreats in silence, and they run screaming from the room. “I’d be bored out of my gourd! I need my radio, iPod, computer, television, phone, etc.”

But not you! You sensed something was missing on your plate. You felt that the junk-thought life style was not satisfying you. Even though maybe you weren’t sure what it was you were hungering for, you braved giving meditation a try to see if it had some nourishment for you. You turned off the technological distractions and sat for a while in silence.

Good choice! Of course, just like tasting broccoli for the first time, or switching from processed white bread to whole grain, it can take a while to develop a taste for it. Perhaps at first sitting practice feels weird. Perhaps we can’t concentrate. Perhaps we are uncomfortable. Perhaps we spend our whole sit convincing ourselves this is stupid.

But if we stay with it, the benefits will start making themselves known. As we notice that we feel more relaxed, more spacious, more generous, less angry, less anxious, and generally happier, we develop a taste for this more wholesome diet of mind.

Our story is still there but it is not our whole meal. And as we practice bringing our attention to the present moment and discover the riches available to us in that simple act of paying attention to what is, we find we are less and less dependent on our story.

So, what is our story and why is it junk food? Our story is first and foremost the things we believe to be true about ourselves, others and the world around us. Before we begin to meditate, often our story is pretty solid. We don’t just believe, we know what is true, what is right. We know it all.

But as we meditate, we begin to recognize that this hard fast knowing is something we have been clinging to, something that we felt made us safe. As we develop spaciousness of mind, we begin to feel a deeper sense of safety, not dependent on causes and conditions. We feel safe enough to begin to question some of our long held assumptions. We soften some of the hard knots of the tangle of story we have been caught up in for so long. The more spacious our minds become, the less tangled the story threads become. They don’t disappear, but we can see them for what they are. And we no longer cling to them. Eventually we recognize that the story is not a safety net but a heavy weight that has been keeping us from really living.

When in our daily lives we get caught up in story, when we gossip about others, when we are blindly bent on satisfying some craving, eventually we come back to the present moment. And we recognize the unpleasant residual sensations of having been entangled with story. As we get more practiced, we can notice sooner when we are caught up in story, perhaps at the moment we are beginning to act out our urge to binge or gossip or rage about the injustice of it all. We can see it, we can really hear what we are saying to ourselves (or others), we can question whether it is really true, we can notice the emotional tone and where we feel it in our body, we can see where it might have come from, we can see the fear that prompted it, and we can compassionately bring our new-found awareness to bear on the situation.

Now believing we can live a life free of story is, of course, just another story to get caught up in, one that makes us dissatisfied with the truth of our experience. So we develop a relationship with our story that is as compassionate as we can manage in this moment. We recognize story for what it is. We understand that we can still be attracted to the empty calorie promises it offers. We set our intention to be as skillful as we are able so that we are not forcing our story on others.

Many aha moments arise out of this noticing when we are caught up in our story. Perhaps we can soften our judgment enough to smile at the way we are so easily drawn in yet again. And we can rejoice in awareness that offers us the freedom to let go of our story. Again and again.

As I mentioned in the last post about the lure of thoughts, it is that moment of release from delusion, from being so caught up in our story, that is really pivotal. Suddenly we have freedom and choice. At this point it is good to remember to focus on one of the many sense anchors to the present moment we have available to us: rubbing the texture of cloth on our clothes, sensing our breath, really looking at the light and shadow, shapes, colors and textures of the world around us, hearing whatever ambient sound there is – whatever works, to bring us as fully as possible into the present moment. I am at this very moment feeling the smooth texture of the computer keys under my fingers.

Why is this present moment freedom and our story is not?
Our story is based on the belief that we are separate. Our story runs on the finite, depletable, polluting energy of fear. Check out for yourself if this is true. Notice your stories. Question what is driving them.

Many of our stories begin with the words “If only…”: “If only I had more time,” “If only I wasn’t so….,” “If only he wasn’t so…,” “If only the world wasn’t so…,” “If only I were – fill in the blank: richer, thinner, smarter, more compassionate, etc.” This ‘if only’ is a stick to beat ourselves up. It is a violence we do to ourselves and others, and is based purely on fear.

If we truly felt ourselves to be deeply connected to all that is, then the stories would fall away. What on earth would we wish for that we don’t already have in some part of our vastly extended self, the self not defined by I, me, mine? When we have this sense of joy for the fullness of life through our connection, we experience mudita, happiness for the happiness of others, because there is no ‘other’. All joy is all of our joy.

It’s easy for us to hear this kind of talk and immediately start another story. “If only I could sense my connection to all that is, if only I could feel happiness for the happiness of others because there is no other! Then I’d be happy!”

Yes, we continually deal with our stories. But as we become aware of them, we come out of the fog of them, out of that tight tangle woven by the thought threads that make up these seemingly ironclad tales that we have held to be truth for so long. Then we can see them simply as story, and allow ourselves to be curious, to explore the nature of the tales we tell ourselves. We can question the validity of our stories in a way that we couldn’t when we believed we were our stories. It was too threatening to our existence to question them then. But as we begin to get an inkling of an understanding of the vast expansiveness of our being, we may be willing to let go of our dependence on our stories. And that is freedom.

So then what are necessary thoughts?
In our daily lives we have the thoughts that are necessary in that moment in order to take care of any responsibilities we may have. If we are on retreat and we have only the responsibility to get to the zafu when the bell rings, to set our intention to be mindful, to do our daily yogi job with full mindfulness, to eat mindfully, etc., then there are very few thoughts that are necessary. This gives us a great opportunity to see our story more clearly. Because we cannot pretend it is necessary in this moment to solve past, future or distant problems.

In our daily lives obviously we have more responsibilities. We have the care of our bodies, our home, our relationships and our financial stability to think about. But how many of our thoughts directed to these responsibilities are useful? How many are like wholesome fresh vegetable thoughts that nourish and how many are an old smelly stew we keep churning and churning? If we are paying attention we can tell the difference.

It is helpful to identify when you want to think actively about something. Set aside a period of time to plan a trip, solve a problem, or find a job, for example, and really focus on doing all that is required. Do the research, make lists. Have a thinking period that actually moves your plan forward. Otherwise it’s just a daydream story. Much of our story is really just procrastination thoughts, giving ourselves excuses about why we aren’t making that dentist appointment, fixing that broken toilet, writing that report, etc. We go around and around in our heads about it so many times, over and over, you’d think we’d get dizzy! Actual doing something about it takes up much less thinking space! As one of my students aptly put it, “You know you’re going to have to do it at some point, so just get on with it.”

With relationships you may find that thinking about them is not nearly so useful as you might have believed. In fact, most relationships would be much improved with less thinking and more being fully present, really listening, really appreciating each other, and responding from a deep heartfelt sensing in to the truth for us in this moment. Not dragging in all that old story!

This discerning between what is story and what is necessary thought arises out of the regular practice of meditation. It is not something you have to add to your to do list. It is just something you might notice in your own practice. If you don’t notice it, don’t worry. Just know that your practice itself is the door to freedom.