Tag Archives: Buddhism

When the Tool Becomes the Master

Last night in class my professor brought up some interesting ideas about the way new technology (i.e. new tools) changes our minds – the ways we think and act. Without getting deep into the context of the lecture (which was more of a discussion, really), he said that sometimes what is meant to be a tool for us to master for our own sake often becomes the master itself. The very tools we master can begin mastering us when we would be better off ruling them. He said this is true of both physical tools AND conceptual tools.

And that got me thinking…

I think there are conceptual tools that were designed as an aid to meditation practice. One such tool, which is perhaps one of the most common tools used in Buddhist meditation, is no-self or not-self. When used as one tool among many, it’s a wonderful thing. It helps us to let go limited self-concepts that do not fit our current situation and move on.

But not-self can quickly become the Master. It can be a nagging voice that drops into our practice when we are doing something that would usually be considered harmless, such as reflecting on a time when we felt hurt or scared, or even happy or proud. It can creep in and say, “What’s wrong with you? There’s no self, remember? This is an illusion. You know that already.” And in that sense it can be a tool unconsciously used to shoot down confidence, avoid certain experiences that should probably be attended to, or cause one to feel guilty or shameful around a “self-centered” emotion.

And that’s just one case of the way a concept can quickly go from being a useful tool to a tool-that-uses-you.

I’m not prepared to give some kind of ready-made solution to this conundrum, as though it can be overcome by yet another conceptual tool. But there is tremendous value in simply being aware of the possibility of our tools becoming our masters. Maybe then we won’t blindly accept the spiritual-sounding voice that tends to pull us away from the freshness of experience in any given moment. It may also inspire us to try using tools more consciously, perhaps in response to the more tools that arise and express themselves more automatically, and often inappropriately.


Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

Why it’s OK that Mara Returns: Transforming the Functions of Self-referencing-related Stimuli Through Meditation

“Mara returns” is a phrase commonly used in Dharma talks given by instructors belonging to the Insight Meditation tradition (Jack Kornfield in particular). Mara is the name given to the satanic figure of pre-modern Indian mythology, who is depicted as the author of illusion leading to clinging; perpetuating the round of rebirth and suffering for all non-liberated beings. What is this illusion that leads to clinging? In simple terms, it is the illusion of self-identification – that is, the belief that experiential phenomena of any kind (mind or body, private or public, internal or external) can be accurately categorized as inherently-existing in the form of I, me, or mine. At the moment of his full awakening (or total unbinding), the Buddha is said to have successfully conquered the armies of Mara, liberating himself from clinging to anything as I, me, or mine; thus, becoming free from the round of perpetual rebirth and, most importantly, suffering.

However, although the Buddha had successfully conquered Mara, there are a number of stories in the Buddhist scriptures where Mara comes back to visit him. Being that Mara represents the illusion of inherently-existing selfhood, it would seem that the Buddha’s awakening did not entail a complete eradication of the privately experienced phenomena that was previously interpreted as a “self.” And yet, when Mara returns to visit the Buddha, the Buddha’s reaction is quite jovial and friendly. “Ah, my good friend Mara has come back to see me. Let’s have a visit!” So then, if the illusion itself was not permanently eradicated from the Buddha’s experience, what changed? More specifically, what processes are responsible for the reduction in suffering that is reported by so many meditation practitioners, both ancient and modern?

One possible explanation of why suffering can be alleviated through practicing certain types of meditation can be found by applying certain core concepts of Relational Frame Theory (RFT), a purely psychological theory of human language and cognition based on a philosophy of Functional Contextualism. One such core concept of RFT is that the functions of stimulus relations are contextually controlled. To explain what this means, consider the following analogy. Let’s say you go to the zoo and visit the snakes exhibit. You may then peer through a clear glass cage into the eyes of a massive anaconda. This huge snake may even hiss at you, or snap its jaws in your direction (Yikes!). And while this may be startling to experience, consider the context: you’re standing on the other side of cage designed to keep the snake from being able to sink its teeth into your neck, or perhaps swallow you whole. In fact, there’s a good chance you would not have approached the snake at all had you thought you were in any real danger.

Now, let’s change the scenario a bit. Let’s say you come home from work and head straight for the bathroom. You open the door and flip on the lights, and you see that on the floor directly in front of you is the same massive anaconda! How different do you think your emotional reaction would be from when you saw this same snake behind protective glass at the zoo? VERY different, right? In the simplest terms, the change in your emotional response to the snake is not due to the snake, but rather the context in which you encounter and experience the snake. This is an example of how the transformation of stimulus functions is contextually controlled. In other words, your response (i.e. function) to the snake (i.e. stimulus) was transformed when the context was changed (i.e. from the zoo to your bathroom).

How does this relate to meditation and liberating insight? Prior to beginning a meditation practice we grow up perceiving and engaging with the world in a particular way, and relating ourselves to it as if we were inherently-existing entities. There are many benefits to this kind of self-referencing. Without having a clear idea of who we are in relation to others, our ability to survive as an organism in our environment would be seriously impeded. Our physical bodies have specific needs, and we humans behave and speak in ways that aid us in manipulating our environment in order to get those needs met. Identifying as a self is an integral part of this process. Without the ability to develop self-referencing behaviors, I don’t think human beings would have survived – let alone thrived – as we have as a species on this planet. We are social animals, and socializing requires relationships. Relationships between humans require individuals – that is, separate selves.

However, this self-referencing behavior has a dark side; or, we could even say a Mara-side. For, this illusion of self could theoretically generate an infinite number of ways in which we can needlessly suffer. Of course, physical pain is a variety of suffering that is a common experience for all human beings, as it is necessary for survival. As far as I know, meditation cannot permanently alleviate all forms of physical pain. But, a huge amount of psychological suffering is brought into being through verbal and physical behaviors within a self-referential context. This psychological suffering is largely due to one’s attempt to control their unwanted inner experiences (i.e. private events) through grasping at something one thinks is better, resisting what one doesn’t like, and/or ignoring those aspects of experience that one considers neutral (those things that don’t stand out, or that are not seen as being important).

What I think the Buddha discovered, and I believe many people continue to discover today, is that by engaging in the skillful practice of meditation one can effectively make changes to the context of present experiencing in way that reveals features about experiential phenomena (i.e. stimuli) that is not otherwise directly perceived. This direct apprehension of phenomenal experience in a previously unknown way further alters one’s context, which can have the effect of transforming the functions of stimuli related to self-referencing. When self-referencing is perceived clearly just as it is – which is totally arbitrary, transient, inconstant – it becomes much less distressing over time. Some might even say that it is possible to completely alleviate the distressing function of stimuli related to self-referencing, which would be akin to the total unbinding (nibbana) purportedly attained by the historical Buddha. Whether or not this level of attainment is actually possible, there is a growing body of clinical literature that suggests it is possible to significantly reduce this form of distress.

What I want to make clear, though, is that it is not necessary for self-referencing stimuli to eradicated from one’s experience forever. Actually, I think that could be potentially harmful, for reasons already stated. I think this is what some meditation teachers mean when they say “Mara returns.” The illusion remains accessible to one’s experience, but it can be understood as being like a mirage rather than a concrete reality. No one would chase after a mirage if they knew, by direct experience, that it was truly a mirage. It doesn’t matter how many times the mirage returns to one’s experience – it’s still not an oasis that can quench our thirst. Therefore, it isn’t necessary to eradicate self-referential thoughts and perceptions from one’s experience. The activity of trying to eliminate phenomenal appearances is itself an aversive act, and thus a potential cause for further suffering. But, we can use contextual controls to transform the functions of self-referencing-related stimuli. That is, we can get to a place where Mara returns, but no longer bothers us.


Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

Psychological Mechanisms of Clinging and Release

[This is an adapted version of an email I sent to some of the other members of the Dharma Forum Refugee Camp community prior to its founding.]

Hey guys. I just finished up a sit and thought I’d share some of the things that I reflected upon afterward. It could make for an interesting discussion. If not, that’s OK.

In a message I sent you all not long ago, I wrote:

“This has all been a very long-winded way of saying that… [m]odels suck most of the time. It’s always better to approach this moment with openness and curiosity, and to ask, “Am I suffering? If so, how? What’s causing it?” When you notice the cause, and stick with it, the mind will eventually let it go. I think it’s much the same way as when your brain tells you to move your hand of the hot stove that is burning you. There’s isn’t much you need to actually do other than to let the wisdom of the dharma speak for itself.” (emphasis added)

There seem to be impersonal processes at work that lie beyond the reach of “doing.” “Doing” is what gets us into the mess we’re in (i.e. suffering). And yet, meditation is itself an activity of sorts; a “doing.” But it is a very special variety of activity. The only activity of its kind. It is the activity of engaging with phenomena in a way which reveals a deeper truth. And when that deeper truth is revealed and comprehended (which we can’t do by choice), the impersonal processes – the psychological ‘mechanisms’ of clinging and release – do something. Or rather, they stop doing something. They stop clinging. They release their grip.

This is fascinating to me. It’s such a paradox. There are intentional actions which will lead to a release that is totally beyond intention. Neither you nor I can simply decide to wake up, and then just do it. Nor can we simply decide to stop doing anything. For, it takes some degree of intention to set up the conditions that will eventually result in awakening/release.

In practice, this is exactly how it works. You practice noting, or choiceless awareness, or any other effective meditative technology. You recognize the deep features of present experiencing. You stop doing by allowing the context you’ve intended to create perpetuate itself with no further intention (which culminates in the Equanimity ñana, or “non-fashioning,” etc.). It hums along until awakening – be it cessation or realization of Emptiness – happens of its own accord.

I know this is just one way describe the process of what happens in meditation. But once again, I am struck by the notion that the Middle Path must include both doing and non-doing, effort and non-effort, intention and non-intention. It’s easy to see how classical Buddhist teachings like “non-attachment” can be so misunderstood in the present day, particularly in Western culture. On one level, non-attachment can be practiced on purpose. But at another, deeper level, non-attachment occurs through the result of practice, though of its own accord. To suggest that one should refrain from practice because they are “too attached,” is bad advice most of the time. If one does not utilize their free will as a human being to cultivate the appropriate setting, how and when will awakening occur?

I guess I’m saying that intention plays an important role on the path to awakening. But, awakening itself is not achieved through conscious intention alone. The mechanisms of awakening are impersonal, transcending the reach of human action. And yet, somehow what we choose to do right now can aid in cracking the code; or rather, the code cracking itself. Paradox at its best.


Filed under Buddhism, Mindfulness, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

The Paradoxical Theory of Change

One of my graduate school professors is a long-time Gestalt therapist. In our Group Dynamics class last night, he spent some time demonstrating how he would lead a counseling group on the topic of grief. At one point the classmates acting as clients were sharing their feelings of guilt, one by one, as though to communicate to the others that “I feel that, too.” Afterward, a student that was watching it all unfold said to the professor, “I noticed that at one time many of the clients were expressing their grief,” and then asked, “Now, isn’t that something we don’t want them to feel?” It seemed that he was worried that allowing other group members to validate the feelings of grief would reinforce the grief, making it worse. My professor replied something like, “Well, as a Gestalt therapist, I more or less subscribe to what might be called the Paradoxical Theory of Change, which says that in order for change to occur one must first be allowed to truly be who they are.”

His words really ‘rang a bell’ within me. I know from my meditation practice that progress occurs only when I fully recognize and accept my present moment experience (or, as I prefer to call present experiencing). I can see why the Gestalt community would speak of this process in terms of paradox, in that at first glance it seems contradictory for change to occur when one simply does nothing but allow experience to ‘be’. However, from a Buddhist perspective, we know of a little thing called impermanence. The truth is that experience changes on its own from moment to moment. It doesn’t need “my” help to change. The energy involved in trying to change is usually put to waste, in that it affects the natural flow of change in ways that result in changes unlike those which are most beneficial.

So, in most cases the best kind of action for change is non-action; the best path is a non-path; the best way to change is to stop trying to change. The Daoist teaching of wu-wei comes to mind, as well as Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teaching to be as you are. And it would appear that this is not only the case with meditation practice, but also within various areas of human psychology and even sociology (as there is also a Paradoxical Theory of Social Change).

For more information on the paradoxical theory of change from the Gestalt perspective, you may want to read The Paradoxical Theory of Change by Arnold Beisser, M.D.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

“I will call it the paradoxical theory of change, for reasons that shall become obvious. Briefly stated, it is this: that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.”


“The Gestalt therapist further believes that the natural state of man is as a single, whole being — not fragmented into two or more opposing parts. In the natural state, there is constant change based on the dynamic transaction between the self and the environment”


Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

Spiritual Bypassing: The Damnedest Thing

For some reason today I thought of the mythical Jed McKenna and his book Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damndest Thing. His article Blues for Buddha came to mind as well.

What I notice in McKenna’s writings is his all out attack on what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called spiritual materialism – i.e. adopting “spiritual” things and behaviors as a way to make the ego feel better, rather than actually undergoing any meaningful transformation through sincere practice. Ken Wilber calls this “re-arranging the furniture” rather than “moving upstairs”. And I think there’s a lot of weight to what McKenna says about this phenomenon. Eating a vegetarian diet, lighting incense, and adopting a spiritual vocabulary will not likely — by itself — result in spiritual enlightenment.

However, McKenna seems to have fallen into the Absolutist trap without realizing it. He more or less says, “All of that stuff doesn’t matter. Only the Truth matters. If only people could ask the right questions and get enlightened, then they wouldn’t see a problem with anything going on in the world. Nothing would need to change.” McKenna’s ego has taken up residence in the Absolute, in the Ultimate Truth, and now he parades himself as though he were an avataric sage of the No-Self. In this way, he seems to have traded spiritual materialism for a whopping dose of spiritual bypassing – i.e. allowing the ego to freeze around an absolute/universal view, providing a false sense of detached security that is then used as an excuse for not having to deal with personal or social responsibilities. “It’s all the play of Maya,” he says. “It’s all an illusion. What, then, is the problem?”

For many, adopting this position (i.e. falling into this trap) is par for the course on the path of awakening. When the ego-grasping tendencies first give way, reality is seen as it is… albeit temporarily. This first glimpse is usually not enough to completely dismantle the habit patterns that decide which to call “I” and which to call “other”. When these habits resume, they may just decide to freeze around this notion of being nothing and everything, the Big Awakened Mind. Where before one was stuck in their emotional reactions, they now find themselves stuck in their philosophical positions (hence the exaggerated emphasis on inquiry and Truth). To me, this appears to be the “place” McKenna is writing from.

Fortunately, this new ego-identity is just as shaky as any other. The foundation is built on a lie, and we will soon find out that there’s no escaping this human life. The bliss of detachment ceases to bring the satisfaction it once did, because we remain cut off from our experience in a way that denies its significance. In taking up residence in the Absolute, we cover our hearts. We deny our basic vulnerability, which is our gateway to experiencing the world of form. As long as this aspect of our being is ignored or denied we will remain cutoff from experience, divided, and unable to experience the fullness of presence that comes with the complete renunciation of clinging.

Compassion, empathy, equanimity, loving-kindness — these non-reactive emotions flow naturally when we are completely exposed. What McKenna disregards as spiritual materialism is only so when it is performed in a disingenuous or contrived manner. But the “enlightened person” lacking in compassion is not fully exposed, and thus not totally free from ego-grasping. I believe it was the Dalai Lama who said that genuine emptiness is no different from compassion. Until we allow our basic vulnerability and tenderness of heart to be exposed and receptive to our human lives, we will not experience the deeper freedom available to us all; a freedom that goes beyond detachment by clinging to the Absolute view. This is why the teaching that “Form is emptiness,” must be followed with “emptiness is the same as form.” Emptiness is no escape from form, and our selfless nature is not other than our raw and exposed heart. This is where McKenna’s teachings are lacking, and I believe this is why they leave me with the sense of, “Yeah, but…” One day McKenna may realize that spiritual bypassing, rather than spiritual enlightenment, is the damnedest thing.


Filed under Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

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.]


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.


Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Religion & Philosophy