I Get my Feet Wet

It’s hard to imagine that a woman of 57, which was my age when I began to meditate, would be in need of someone or something with ultimate authority to declare what is true and what is not, yet there I was. Daniel Ingram possessed superhuman authority as far as I was concerned. I attributed the same powers to Kenneth Folk, and to my local meditation teacher, who I assumed was as realized as the pragmatic dharma people. It thus caused me endless confusion and agitation to find them disagreeing on certain points, even more so when I found that Daniel’s online forum, the Dharma Overground, was in 2011 in the middle of a major dispute that split everyone into warring camps. Unfortunately, being a brawler myself, I jumped right in and called one poster a “groupie” for having an erotic dream about another teacher (she shot back that I was obviously sexually repressed). I finally flounced off in disgust and began posting on Kenneth Folk’s forum instead, only to find some of the same discussion going on over there.

Eventually everyone settled down and the dispute has now become about as relevant as a long-ago squabble among siblings. What I wanted at the time, though, was absolute assurance that the path I was on was right, and that there were obvious, discernible differences between the real deal and its fraudulent imitations. I also wanted the people in the know to be rock solid about everything. Over the years I have come to realize that all of us, authors and teachers included, are works in progress, engaged together in a learning process that is overwhelmingly social.

In the meantime, I began meditating, and posting about my sits. I began with concentration practice and stuck with it for about six months, until I turned to insight practice in June of 2011. These practices differ greatly in terms of their approach and effects. The aim of concentration is to focus on one object to the exclusion of anything else, in order to strengthen the mind and prepare it for insight. There are many possible objects that could work, but the main one is the breath. Some people focus on the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, while others follow the breath into the abdomen and out again. Focusing at the nostrils is the quickest route to becoming deeply concentrated, but because it places all of the energy in the head, the meditator can start feeling spaced-out, especially while on retreat.

Insight meditation is a different story. Its purpose is to break down the experience of the self in the world, and gain direct knowledge of the way the three characteristics permeate every single sensation. In Buddhist teaching there are six “sense doors”: the five that westerners recognize as sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, with the addition of thought. Thoughts are considered to be sensations just as are the flavor of chocolate or the sound of a bird. One form of insight practice involves focusing on any one of these senses, or on all of them, with a wide or a narrow focus. There is also something called vedana, translated as “feeling tone”, which can be pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. All sensations can be labeled as one of these three.

The three characteristics, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self, apply to every single sensation one experiences, a well as to one’s conception of the whole. For example, a momentary thought (“I forgot to buy bread!”) is impermanent (it arises in the mind and then disappears), unsatisfactory (it brings no lasting happiness), and not me (maybe “I” forgot the bread, but the thought arises unbidden and does not define me). The same might be true of a visual sensation, even one’s face in a mirror, which is in fact a picture of a face. It flickers in and out of awareness, doesn’t satisfy (even if it is beautiful; seeing one’s beautiful face gives only a momentary jolt of good feelings), and is not me. All of life is the same. One’s relationship, for example, is never permanent—even if it is long-lasting, the dynamics change from moment to moment. No one can gain complete, lasting satisfaction from clinging to another person, and no one can ever specify what the self that clings is in concrete terms.

This last insight is the hardest of all to swallow. We want to be sure of who we are, and of who the people in our lives are. That is why we label ourselves and others, and attribute to them qualities that are good, bad, or indifferent to us. When I was younger I became obsessed for a time with defining my “type,” according to the fashions of the times. Was I a romantic type? A classic type? And what clothes were best for my figure? What colors best complimented my skin and hair? Beyond the obvious goal of making myself as attractive as possible, I wanted to know who and what I was. The fascination with planning thoughts is another way of solidifying the self. If I can specify to the minute what I’ll be doing over the course of a day, I will know what I am. If I know my body chemistry, my ideal eating routines, my best times for going to bed at night and getting up in the morning, than I will know who I am.

Insight meditation dismantles the comfortable world we keep trying to build for ourselves, over and over again. When done skillfully with high concentration, it can be disorienting in the extreme. I know this is not a good selling point for doing such practice, but the truth is, most people arrive at a determination to do it only after everything else they’ve tried has failed.

 

 

The Three Characteristics: Impermanence

The Buddha taught that all of our experiences have three basic characteristics, the first of which is anicca, or impermanence, the second dukkha, suffering, and the third anatta, not-self (also translated as no-self). We are most familiar with impermanence from the changes that occur over the days and years, with children being born, growing up, and leaving home, or our bodies showing signs of aging. We may resist these changes, grieving the loss of our children or of our youthful appearance, or we may welcome them, but either way, nothing stays the same forever. Moving to another house, town, or country; changing jobs or careers; losing loved ones to accidents, illness, or old age—all present challenges to our sense of security and self.

My father worked for a single bank in our hometown for two decades before retirement, then left it all behind and moved with my mother to the other end of the state. Soon after his retirement, the bank was consolidated with several others in the region, and most of my father’s contribution became a thing of the past. The new president was the manager of the conglomerate, with the bank my father had managed only a relatively minor part of the new entity. As he and my mother began a new life elsewhere, the network of friends and neighbors they left behind thinned out. In his prime, my father had been a major figure in that community. In no time at all, he was barely remembered. I watched this happening during my own prime working years, when I was leaving my mark on the world, or so I thought. It was a soboring lesson in impermanence.

There is another, more refined level of impermanence which most of us never see, that being the instant-by-instant rhythm of life itself. We order our lives temporally as past-present-future, remembering the first, experiencing the second, and imagining the third. In truth, however, each of these is a construction of our minds, and the present, in which we believe we live, is gone as soon as it arrives. In a famous commentary on the Buddhist scriptures, the 5th-century teacher Buddhaghosa describes a series of stages meditators will traverse as they practice insight meditation. The fourth of these, Insight into the Arising and Passing Away, is the point at which we will have direct experience of the instantaneous arising and passing of sensations from our minds. The experience itself can be rapturous, with the rapidly passing sensations overloading our senses’ ability to recognize them. Soon after the meditator enters into a new series of stages that are known as the dukkha nyanas, which some call the Dark Night. Their very names are indicative of what they are like: Dissolution, Terror, Misery, Disgust, Desire for Deliverance, and worst of all, Reobservation, in which the meditator goes back over the series again and again until they have absorbed all of its lessons.

Insight meditation, also referred to as mindfulness,  is the means by which we learn to observe our minds and bodies more and more closely, until the Three Characteristics become clear to us in all of our sensations. There are numerous techniques for doing this, not to mention differences of opinion about the appropriate level of preparation for insight practices. Some teachers endorse a gradual approach, with significant work to quiet the mind prior to undertaking insight, while others recommend beginning insight work much sooner and pressing onwards. In addition, not all Buddhists recognize the Progress of Insight map as represented in the commentary, or even if they do, there are some teachers who believe it is not helpful to share information about the different stages with students. There are several reasons for taking this stance, chief among them the concern that our impressionable minds could easily lead us to imagine ourselves at one or another of the stages when we are in fact nowhere near.

Observing the mind at close range is inseparable from observing the body. Many westerners have only a vague idea of what is present in the body because we spend so much of our lives in our heads, preoccupied with our thoughts. In practicing mindfulness of the body, meditators learn to recognize and describe the physical manifestations of our emotions, especially those we tend to ignore or repress in day-to-day life. As a result, insight practices can be hard on the meditator because they bring painful emotions to the surface. I can remember one retreat where my mind-chatter was much worse than usual. I had taken on a practice of choiceless awareness, which involves letting thoughts and sensations pass in and out of awareness without interference, but in the process I was flooded by so many thoughts that I might as well have been daydreaming. I finally turned to a more structured approach called noting, which entails attaching a brief label to sensations as they are recognized. I was immediately plunged into the most excruciating feelings of loneliness, abandonment, and grief, so intense that I could hardly figure out how to work with them. I recognized that my mind had been using the chatter to prevent these feelings from arising, but then my noting technique had dislodged the thoughts. The work of this particular retreat was to allow these emotions to arise and then pass, as all things eventually do, by virtue of their impermanence.