Thoughts on Being Here Now.

As meditation practitioners, we often hear about the importance of present moment awareness. I want to offer a brief perspective that elaborates on one particular reason why present moment awareness is crucial to the process of awakening.

For anyone who is doing meditation for the purpose of gaining insight into the nature of reality, there tends to be a natural progression through certain stages. In the Vissudhimagga, and also in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition of Theravada Buddhism, these stages are referred to as ñanas (or Knowledges). As each ñana is experienced, the meditator is accessing levels of mind that have not yet been penetrated (i.e. fully understood in light of the Three Characteristics of impermanence, emptiness, and unsatisfactoriness).

This means that at any given moment, a vipassana practitioner is experiencing precisely what needs to be worked with in order to make progress. Once the current experience is penetrated (or, “seen through”), new subtlties of experience are brought into awareness, and another ñana/stage is revealed.

My advice to any one who is reading this is to not ignore a single moment of phenomenal experience while meditating. Whatever is arising is likely to be a direct result of the one’s level of insight. Insight will continue to mature as the vipassana method is applied directly to the bare experience of the present moment.

“Be Here Now” does not have to refer to some peaceful, zoned out, super relaxed state of mind. True present moment awareness means becoming intimately aware of the characteristics of one’s experience to the point of gaining real insight. The result is freedom.

[This is a slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared on my Tricycle Community blog, March 4, 2009.]

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Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Personal Development, Religion & Philosophy, Theravada

The Fifth Remembrance

Not long into my initial inquiry into Buddha Dharma, I came upon a what can seem like a rather bleak list taught in the early Sangha. The list comes from the Buddha’s teaching on the Five Remembrances. They are:

1.) I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
2.) I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
3.) I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
4.) All that is dear to me and everyone that I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
5.) My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.*

I printed this list on a small piece of paper, which rests against my desktop computer at work (I haven’t received any comments from concerned co-workers… yet). I read the list again this morning, as I do every now and then when my computer is taking a while to boot up. What stood out to me was the fifth remembrance: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.” Now, I must be somewhat of a pessimist at heart, because whenever I read this I usually think in terms of negative actions resulting in negative consequences. Perhaps this is due to my Judeo-Christian upbringing, with its emphasis on fighting against one’s sinful nature. Or maybe it’s just that the word “consequences” tends to carry a negative connotation in American English, as in the phrase, “suffer the consequences.” Whatever the case may be, reading the fifth remembrance usually instills in me a sense of, “Yikes! Don’t do bad stuff, or else!”

However, reading the fifth remembrance this morning did not instill in me a sense of fear or worry. Instead, I understood it to mean that positive actions are sure to result in positive consequences. So much so, in fact, that we will not be able to escape the positive consequences. What came to mind is the following familiar verse from the Dhammapada:

Mind is the forerunner of all things.
Mind is their master. They are all mind-made.
Speak or act with an impure mind, and sorrow will follow you
As surely as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

Mind is the forerunner of all things.
Mind is their master. They are all mind-made.
Speak or act with a pure mind, and happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakeable.

It seems clear to me that at the heart of Buddha Dharma is our ability to choose our actions, and thus – to some degree – choose the quality of our present and future consequences. The Buddha didn’t teach a one-to-one relationship with regard to kamma/karma, and so it should not be understood to always operate in a linear fashion. In fact, he taught was has been termed This/That Conditionality.** In brief, the Buddha theorized that the results which manifest in the present result from both past and present actions. Your choices now somehow come together with choices made at some point in the past, and results are born out of this interaction. The possibility of multiple feedback loops make it difficult, if not practically impossible, to determine what will actually occur in any given moment.

Whatever the mechanisms of cause and effect, we are encouraged by the Buddha and the early Sangha to take this idea seriously and put it into practice. I have found that one of the most direct ways to witness this process is through the practice of meditation. When we make time to practice, and then actually make an effort to do the practice properly, results will follow in time. Just as with any skill one wishes to develop, there are peaks and valleys on the path. There are times when it feels like trying to dig a large hole with our bare hands. Other times, it feels like we’re operating one of those big yellow digging machines you see at construction sites. Progress is necessarily developmental and gradual, but there are quantum shifts along the way. The point to take away is that it is through our actions that we achieve results. It is by making a concerted effort – giving it the old college try – that will result in positive changes. And because there is no direct linear correlation between practice time and results, we must simply focus on executing the given technique as precisely as possible. Only then can we be confident that our current choices will have a desirable outcome sometime in the future.

Of course, the fifth remembrance applies to other areas of life as well. The point is to take seriously the fact that our actions are truly our only possessions. And since we cannot escape the consequences, we must always remember to choose wisely.

*Excerpted from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,by Thich Nhat Hanh.
**For a more thorough exposition on This/That Conditionality, see Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book, Wings To Awakening.

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So Important, So Beneficial.

Life is messy; that’s the honest truth. The specifics of life – the expressions of the ‘multiplex’ – can be seemingly contradictory, at odds with one another. Discord arises just as often as harmony, and vanishes just as quickly, without warning.

What use is it to identify with any single arising? If I identify with one arising, I may find myself in opposition to another. In the end, all arisings fizzle into extinction, and the identification process moves and latches on to the next arising that suits its fancy. If that isn’t a great description of samsara, I don’t know what is. Talk about frustrating.

The specifics of life never get less messy. Awakening does not bring one’s life to some grand harmonious conclusion. The multiplex will continue to express itself as it always has. What changes as one begins to awaken is that instead of identifying with arisings in the multiplex, one recognizes the natural expanse of emptiness – of being – which is vast enough to hold all of the complexities of life and honor the whole catastrophe for what it is; just as it is.

And from here, there’s no reason to think that thoughtful action must cease. Quite the contrary! For, even if one may not feel compelled by craving to act, their remains the capacity to act of one’s own initiative. If we are free to help, why not? The more ‘I’ step out of the way, the more this spontaneous expression responds without being blocked. In truth, deciding not to act based on some philosophical view is just another view. And such a view may rightly be seen as one of the last blockages to be removed. In letting go of views, in freeing ourselves from our limited philosophical outlooks, we are liberated into our unique personal expressions which may attend to the health and well being of others. In so doing, even thoughts and concepts are set free and may be used, without block, in attempt to help and not to harm.

I’m not saying that awakening brings someone to a condition of moral perfection. Nobody’s perfect. Not even the awakened. Rather, it is my opinion that awakening – and thus, committing to the practice of meditation – may result in the development of an optimal platform for being a happy and helpful human being. This is why practicing meditation throughout one’s life is so important, so beneficial.

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Liberation Is Our Nature

I’ve really been enjoying the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj lately. So much, in fact, that I’ve been saying (half-jokingly) that I’ve joined “Team Advaita”. The truth is, my meditation practice has brought about what are, for me, some pretty deep and profound insights. Because of this, the more non-dual style traditions have been resonating with me at a very deep level. Along with Ramana and Nisargadatta, I’ve been taking in the works of Zen Master Bankei, Zen Master Dogen, and contemporary Zen/Advaita influenced spiritual teacher Adyashanti.

For those who aren’t familiar with Ramana Maharshi’s teaching style, here’s an excerpt from the book Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

Q:   Is mukti the same as realization?

A:   Mukti or liberation is our nature. It is another name for us. Our wanting mukti is a very funny thing. It is like a man who is in the shade, voluntarily leaving the shade, going into the sun, feeling the severity of the heat there, making great efforts to get back into the shade and then rejoicing, “How sweet is the shade! I have reached the shade at last!” We are all doing exactly the same. We are not different from the reality. We imagine we are different, that is we create the bheda bhava [the feeling of difference] and then undergo great sadhana [spiritual practices] to get rid of the bheda bhava and realize the oneness. Why imagine or create bheda bhava and then destroy it? (pg. 30)

That’s all for now. Practice well!

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Wisdom of Non-Manipulation

“A quiet mind is all you need. All else will happen rightly, once your mind is quiet. As the sun on rising makes the world active, so does self-awareness affect changes in the mind. In the light of calm and steady self-awareness, inner energies wake up and work miracles without any effort on your part.” ~Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That.

This quote from Nisargadatta is right in-line with something my friend and teacher, Kenneth Folk, recently posted in a discussion thread at his dharma forum:

“Advanced practice is about learning not to manipulate after spending a lifetime becoming a master manipulator. We all have to unlearn manipulation in order to reach our potential, counter-intuitive as that may seem.”

Spiritual paths run in cycles that are in many ways as natural and predictable as the seasons. There are times for effort, focus, discipline, and some degree of control as we learn to establish new habits of mindfulness in our otherwise chaotic lives. But I think the majority of one’s spiritual path is best traveled by refraining from manipulation. This does not mean that we shouldn’t practice. But it does mean that we can sit and simply pay attention to whatever arises in our experience, trusting that whatever development that occurs is unfolding naturally. The simple practice of attentiveness is our way of participating in the process of awakening. Simply paying attention is what allows these “inner energies” (as Nisargadatta put it) to  “wake up and work miracles without any effort on your part.”

The next time you sit to practice meditation, start out with a simple resolution to not manipulate your experience.  As Adyashanti teaches, simply “allow everything to be as it is.” You may be pleasantly surprised by how deep your practice may go when mindfulness is your only objective.

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Intention is Nonself

In a comment to the post How To Meditate: Inquire, Negate, Repeat., Doug wrote:

I have found me – through meditative investigating in this way. ..Here it is:

I am intent or intention.

This is active at all levels of consciousness, even in dreams we still have intent. Of coarse I am not my thoughts or concepts, I am not my feelings, but clearly I have come to the conclusion that I am ‘that which intends’. Even single celled organisms display the behavior of having intent – at a rudimentary level.

So yes, contrary to Buddhist claims, there is a truly existing, inherently existing, verifiable self that really is actually findable through meditative analysis. It is intent and intent is both individual and primary, and is fundamental to all life I believe. You can’t even pursue “enlightenment”, awakening, truth, or awareness or whatever you wish to call it without intent.

Please show me where I am wrong on this – email me if you wish.

My response is too lengthy to place in a comment box, so I thought I would reply with a post dedicated to the topic.

Seeing intention for what it really is can be tricky at first. As Doug alludes to in his comment, intention obviously precedes action. In fact, the very first passage in the Dhammapada says:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

In the above passage, the Buddha acknowledges that intention arises prior to thinking or doing. In the same way that an architect first conceives of a building in her mind prior it its being constructed from form, so an intention arises prior to even the simplest of actions, e.g. standing, sitting, bending, stretching, reflecting, etc. But can this process of intention be considered a lasting, inherently existing, I/Me/Mine? From the Buddhist point of view, the answer is no.

Just like all of the other processes that may arise in consciousness, intention is a conditioned/compounded phenomena based on transient conditions. It is not as though there is but one intention that lasts throughout one’s life. Rather, it is always momentary and based on fleeting conditions. For me to intend to bend my arm, for instance, I first need to have an arm to bend. Also, will my arm bend if I intend to picture a flower in my mind? Most likely not. And once the intention arises, it immediately passes. Because of its fleeting, impersonal nature, intention is marked by the Three Characteristics of all conditioned phenomena, which are: (1) anicca (impermanence), (2) anatta (nonself), and (3) dukkha (suffering). Whatever is marked by these characteristics cannot be called I, Me, or Mine from a Buddhist point of view (which just happens to be true).

One way to realize the selfless nature of the process of intention is through the practice of vipassana meditation (see Kenneth Folk’s Basic Meditation Instructions). As one makes progress with the practice, they will move through a series of predictable stages known as The Progress of Insight. The first of these stages is called Analytical Knowledge of Mind & Body, in which the yogi notices, “the pairwise occurrence of an object and the knowing of it, such as the rising and awareness of it, the falling and awareness of it […] Through concentrated attention (mindfulness) he knows how to distinguish each bodily and mental process: ‘The rising movement is one process,the knowing of it is another; the falling is one process, the knowing of it is another'”(*). So in this stage, the yogi is able to notice the impermanent nature of consciousness, as it arises and passes with each object of attention.

The second insight stage, which is particularly relevant to this topic, is called Knowledge of Cause & Effect. The yogi begins to notice that, “the conscious state of an intention is evident before a bodily movement occurs. The meditator first notices that intention.” Furthermore, “Now, at this more advanced stage, […] he notices first the conscious state of intention to make a bodily movement; then he notices the particular bodily movement.”(**) Prior to this stage, the yogi is able notice, “intending, intending,” when intention arises, but they also tend to notice the arising of other objects prior to noticing the complete passing of the prior object. This may be way the nature of intention is not seen clearly until the second insight stage. For, at the Cause & Effect stage, “only after cognizing the disappearance of an object, do they notice the new object that arises. Thus they have a clear knowledge of the initial, the intermediate, and final phases of the object noticed.” (***) This allows the yogi to see intention more clearly, resulting in the knowledge that it, too, is impermanent, selfless, and unsatisfactory – neither I, Me, or Mine.

So if you, like Doug, have reached a preliminary conclusion that your fundamental nature is intention, I would encourage you to dig deeper into your experience to see if it holds up to further reality testing. In my experience, intention is but another process which comes and goes in an instant, and is always based on conditions.

All citations from Practical Insight Meditation by Ven. Mahashi Sayadaw.
* p. 16
** p. 17
*** p. 21

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Who are you really, wanderer?

When reflecting on my practice (which I’m trying not to do so much these days), there is one recurring theme that arises more than others. Frankly, that there is no self who gets enlightened. There are no awakened egos. Nothing against the ego. It’s not bad or evil or anything. It’s just not who wakes up.

I’ve heard Jack Kornfield say in number of recorded talks that when he first started meditating, he was expecting to acquire a new enlightened personality. But that never happened. Rather, through is practice he has come to know his true nature – who he really is. He’s not the only experienced teacher who says this. I hear it over and over again from the most realized people I know.

We can work on our egos. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, we probably should for the sake of others. But that is not awakening. That is not truth realization.

“Who are you really, wanderer?”

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