Tag Archives: vipassana

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.

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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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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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The Three Characteristics: A Practical Introduction

[I wrote the following article as a submission to the Guest Writings section of the Kenneth Folk Dharma site. Kenneth teaches a model of meditation practice which he calls The Three Speed Transmission, and this article was written to fit that model (hence the references to various “Gears”).]

The Three Characteristics: A Practical Introduction

“Monks, [all phenomena are] impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees this thus as it really is with correct wisdom, the mind becomes dispassionate and is liberated from the taints by nonclinging.” ~The Buddha, from the Pali Canon*

The purpose of the Vipassana (Insight) side of the 1st Gear of the Three Speed Transmission is to directly apprehend the Three Characteristics of phenomena via one’s direct moment-to-moment experience. The Three Characteristics are Impermanence (Pali: anicca), Suffering (dukkha), and Nonself (anatta). It is easy to contemplate these characteristics in an intellectual way, but experiencing them directly is another thing entirely. The direct apprehension of these characteristics is what leads to swift progress along the path of insight.

What follows are some basic ways in which one may directly apprehend each of the Three Characteristics through the practice of Vipassana meditation:

Impermanence: When one looks at a candle flame, it appears as though it is a separate thing. In actuality, it is constantly burning itself away. There is not one flame that exists from moment to moment. The same is true of the sensations that make up the totality one’s phenomenal experience.

If we pay attention to the activity of breathing, we notice that one moment the belly is rising, and the next it is falling. If we pay close attention to our hands and feet, we notice the quick rise and fall of each tingling sensation (i.e. vibrations). Each pulse, flicker, itch, and subtle movement will be seen to arise and vanish completely many times during each second of observation. Thoughts and mental images suddenly appear, and then vanish as quickly as they came. Everything that can be observed will be seen to arise and then vanish. This is perhaps the simplest way to observe any of the Three Characteristics, so it’s a good place to start.

Suffering: Tere are two simple ways to observe the Suffering characteristic. First, Suffering is said to be concealed by changing in to different postures. For example, if one decides to sit for a long period, they will eventually have to use the bathroom. The discomfort of a full bladder causes one to get up. When we examine our experience we see that we are always changing position to relieve discomfort of some kind. Realizing this, we realize the Suffering Characteristic.

The second way the Suffering Characteristic is observed is to notice how nothing can be held on to. A pleasant mind state arises, and we think, “Yes, this is it! I could stay like this forever.” But the state changes, even if we don’t want it to. In each moment one is either visited by unpleasant circumstances or watching the pleasant circumstances fall away. As painful and frustrating this is to experience, directly apprehending the Suffering Characteristic in this way brings insight.

Nonself: There are two basic ways to observe the characteristic of Nonself. First, as one observes the characteristics of Impermanence and Suffering, the meditator will understand that there is no one in control of what occurs. Thoughts just come and go. Pains and discomforts just happen, without any prior authorization from an “I.” Even the recognition of these processes seems to arise naturally without any prompting. With the realization that no one is running the show, we observe the Nonself Characteristic.

The second way to observe the characteristic of Nonself is through the practice of self-inquiry** (one of my all-time favorite practices). After noticing that no observable phenomena seem to be controlled by a separate observer, the meditator may ask, “Then who/what am I?” By asking, “Who am I?” the meditator begins the active search for a self essence. But s/he will quickly discover that anything that can be observed is by definition NOT an observer. When the sensations of experience that lie previously hidden are revealed, the meditator will continue to apprehend thus: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” The Nonself Characteristic is perhaps the most of important of all three. In the words of the Burmese meditation teacher Sayadaw U Silananda, “No realization of Truth can occur without the knowledge of the anatta (no-soul) nature of things.”***

Conclusion: Working with the Three Characteristics involves more than just thinking about them. Rather, it is by direct apprehending these characteristics that one begins to gain insight into the Ultimate truth of things. In so doing, the meditator working on the 1st Gear of the Three Speed Transmission will make their way through the stages of the Progress of Insight**** which leads to the attainment of stream entry (sotapanna): the first stage of enlightenment in the Theravada tradition.

* (SN 22:45; III 44-45)

** Self-inquiry is also the practice of the 2nd Gear (Dwell as the “Witness.”).

*** Sayadaw U Silanadna, No Inner Core: An Introduction to the Doctrine of ANATTA (full PDF download).

**** For more information, see Kenneth’s pages on the Progress of Insight (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five).

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