Sensations and Suffering

A wonderful, and quite forensic breakdown of the how sensations become suffering., and the role our conditioned reactions play in that transition. Essential viewing if you’re as fascinated by the processes within Vipassana meditation.

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LINKS

 

Meditating From the Source

my-pictures-and-knee-010-001A while ago I was doing an online session with a meditator, and we were talking generally about what it is to practice meditation, and how difficult it can be to maintain a practice in the kind of culture we live in – and he made a very good point.

He said, ‘I keep wondering if maybe we’ve lost our way with meditation in the West. I mean, so many people are talking about it and there’s so many books and different views of the same thing. With all these different views it’s hard to know who to trust, and which is the right way. So I get confused sometimes.”

I thought about what he said and realised he was right and I just hadn’t seen it.

I was lucky – many years ago I decided on which path I wanted to take through the jungle of meditation and went straight to the source. And though, in the four temples I was trained in, I practised with four different teachers, and their methods differed slightly, nevertheless what they taught me was consistent because it all came from the same place.

But I could see how, in the current environment, with so much information around, and so many different views, it can get a little confusing.

So I decided to take him to the source.

Of the four teachers I worked with, my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, gave me the most simple and practical understanding of meditation. Unfortunately, he only wrote one book before he died – ‘Practicing Insight On Your Own’ so there is not much of his teachings that is not second hand, either from me, or his proteges, Phra Manfred (since disrobed) and Mae Che Brigitte.

But there was one teacher, though I never had an opportunity to practice with him, whose view was so clear and imbued with common sense that it was utterly dependable as a guide through the wildlands of meditation.

His name was Acharn Chah, and of all of his generation, I think he was the best. Luckily, he was surrounded by acolytes who recorded a lot of his extraordinary teachings as audio, video and as transcripts of his Dhamma talks, so there is a lot of his wisdom available online. It’s well worth spending time with, particularly if you’re looking for a clear view of the meditation process. Whenever I find myself a little lost, Acharn Chah’s words never fail to shine a light on the way ahead.

The most extensive repository of his teachings can be found HERE.

It was here I directed the meditator I mentioned before – and I strongly recommend it to anyone. It’s a place to go whenever you lose your way.

Following is a selection of quotes from some of his talks and then a video about the forest tradition he comes from – always lucid, to the point, and inspiring.

And if you’ve got time, I strongly recommend you read the entire collection of his teachings which can be found HERE.

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“Whatever happens, you endure, because that is the way it is. For example, when you begin to practice samādhi you want peace and tranquillity. But you don’t get any. You don’t get any because you have never practiced this way. Your heart says, ”I’ll sit until I attain tranquillity”. But when tranquillity doesn’t arise, you suffer. And when there is suffering, you get up and run away! To practice like this can not be called ”developing the heart”. It’s called ”desertion”. Instead of indulging in your moods, you train yourself with the Dhamma of the Buddha. Lazy or diligent, you just keep on practicing. Don’t you think that this is a better way?”

“The way of the heart is like this. Sometimes there are good thoughts, sometimes there are bad thoughts. The heart is deceitful. Don’t trust it! Instead look straight at the conditions of the heart itself. Accept them as they are. They’re just as they are. Whether it’s good or evil or whatever, that’s the way it is. If you don’t grab hold of these conditions, then they don’t become anything more or less than what they already are. If we grab hold we’ll get bitten and will then suffer.”

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“Nothing happens immediately, so in the beginning we can’t see any results from our practice. This is like the example I have often given you of the man who tries to make fire by rubbing two sticks of wood together. He says to himself, ”They say there’s fire here”. and he begins rubbing energetically. He’s very impetuous. He rubs on and on but his impatience doesn’t end. He wants to have that fire. He keeps wanting to have that fire, but the fire doesn’t come. So he gets discouraged and stops to rest for awhile.

He starts again but the going is slow, so he rests again. By then the heat has disappeared; he didn’t keep at it long enough. He rubs and rubs until he tires and then he stops altogether. Not only is he tired, but he becomes more and more discouraged until he gives up completely. ”There’s no fire here!” Actually he was doing the work, but there wasn’t enough heat to start a fire. The fire was there all the time but he didn’t carry on to the end. This sort of experience causes the meditator to get discouraged in his practice, and so he restlessly changes from one practice to another. And this sort of experience is also similar to our own practice. It’s the same for everybody.”

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“…. both happiness and unhappiness are not peaceful states. The Buddha taught to let go of both of them. This is right practice. This is the Middle Way.

These words ‘the Middle Way’ do not refer to our body and speech, they refer to the mind. When a mental impression which we don’t like arises, it affects the mind and there is confusion. When the mind is confused, when it’s ‘shaken up’, this is not the right way. When a mental impression arises which we like, the mind goes to indulgence in pleasure – that’s not the way either.

We people don’t want suffering, we want happiness. But in fact happiness is just a refined form of suffering. Suffering itself is the coarse form. You can compare them to a snake. The head of the snake is unhappiness, the tail of the snake is happiness. The head of the snake is really dangerous, it has the poisonous fangs. If you touch it, the snake will bite straight away. But never mind the head, even if you go and hold onto the tail, it will turn around and bite you just the same, because both the head and the tail belong to the one snake.

In the same way, both happiness and unhappiness, or pleasure and sadness, arise from the same parent – wanting. So when you’re happy the mind isn’t peaceful. It really isn’t! For instance, when we get the things we like, such as wealth, prestige, praise or happiness, we become pleased as a result. But the mind still harbours some uneasiness because we’re afraid of losing it. That very fear isn’t a peaceful state. Later on we may actually lose that thing and then we really suffer.

Thus, if you aren’t aware, even if you’re happy, suffering is imminent. It’s just the same as grabbing the snake’s tail – if you don’t let go it will bite. So whether it’s the snake’s tail or its head, that is, wholesome or unwholesome conditions, they’re all just characteristics of the Wheel of Existence, of endless change.”

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If you’d like a more comprehensive list of Acharn Chah’s quotes, I have compiled a pdf (about 8 pages). It’s a wonderful resource to have, to refer to. I always find something to set of a little explosion of understanding in my head. You can download it from HERE

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LINKS

Cleaning Up The World from the Inside

img_0350“….Pollution!  Look at this rubbish!” he said vehemently, “Bloody vandals! Chucking their garbage about!…”

I had been wandering along a path, savoring the clear afternoon stillness of a popular national park near Melbourne, when this man and his family steamed up behind and overtook me. He was a large man with a face so swollen and red that his head looked like it was going to burst.  As I stepped aside to allow room to pass, his wife gave me an apologetic look as she and her two embarrassed children filed by, and they all disappeared around the bend up ahead.

As his angry tones slowly receded into the distance, and the silence of the bush reasserted itself, I wondered which pollution was worse – the small scraps of paper by the path, or this man’s obnoxious rage in the delicate ambience of this beautiful place.  And then it occurred to me that the two were actually both parts of the one.  This man’s rage was interconnected with the very pollution he was railing against.

I find it interesting that, for most of us, though all through our life we have been conditioned to keep ourselves physically clean, dressed neatly, with our houses neat and tidy, we have never been taught to keep a clean and tidy mind.  We have never been taught ‘best practice’ habits with the way we use and apply our mental and emotional functions – our thoughts, emotions and intentions.  We have simply been encouraged to cram ourselves full of information, endure our emotional shifts as best we can, and forget the rest by distracting ourselves.

Slowly, as we age, because we are always thinking about things, remembering, reacting, daydreaming, worrying, the mind learns that, except for sleeping, it is not allowed to stop.  So the mind becomes like a hand that never stops moving – even in rest, it still twitches and moves in our lap.  This build-up of unresolved thought patterns becomes more intense, causing hormonal effects in the body that become more uncomfortable as life goes on.  We ache more, worry more, get more anxious over more insignificant things, get tired or depressed more, and feel less – our minds and bodies slowly tie themselves in knots as the buildup of unresolved mental stuff increases.  The ‘grey’ emotional states begin to cover us up – depression, apathy, anxiety and boredom.

On the radio this morning I heard that depression is now considered by the medical fraternity to be one of the most serious health problems in Australia, and no doubt, it has similar status in the rest of the world as well

Our common reaction to our mental malaise is to find more things to help us forget our internally generated discomfort.  And because we have been conditioned to find solace and comfort through consumption, we fill our attention with eating and drinking, more comforts, work, hobbies and distractions, and entertainment – anything to forget how we feel.

All of these things that we use to forget create excess physical waste of some kind in the world, or they consume some resource faster than can be sustained.

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Environmental pollution is, in the larger part, the physical overflow of our own rapacious and excessive needs. From candy wraps, pizza and hamburger boxes, to our excessive use of fossil fuels and energy, we consume constantly and voraciously, in part, because we need to. Because we are needful, depressed, worried, angry or anxious, or merely awash with the mental detritus of our incredibly cluttered lives, we have a tendency to over-consume, and to forget the repercussions of our consumption.

While on a visit to America a while ago, I watched a current affairs program on local television one night in which they did a hidden camera trick on people who dropped litter, then interviewed them to find out why.  I was interested to see that most didn’t even notice that they had dropped the litter. They had not been aware of what they had done and, when shown the replay of their action, they were genuinely embarrassed. Many of them made the excuse, “…well, I was thinking about something else…”

We are often ‘thinking about something else’ – in fact, ‘thinking about something else’ seems to have become a dominant characteristic of the Western mind. We drive while thinking about something else – we eat, drink, speak, work, even make love while thinking about something else.

And because we are often thinking about something else, we are not aware of, or we forget the causal effects of what we do. We forget that the plastic bags we throw away often end up strangling our waterways, or that the impatience, anger, and rudeness that some of us vent so freely on others around us has a profoundly disturbing effect on the world around us.  We forget because we are often preoccupied with something else.

And what is this ‘something else’ we are thinking about?

Usually the thinking is trivial – pointless reiterations of some compulsive preoccupation – thoughts growing like bacteria. If we are worrying, it is a kind of mental loop of thoughts, replaying itself, and taking our attention, making us unaware of what is happening in the moment.

But though we expend a lot of energy on this compulsive thinking, we never work anything out or take action – the thoughts just exist because the mind cannot let go or stop creating new thoughts. In effect, the ‘something else’ we are often thinking about is a form of  mental smoke from fires that we cannot put out – pollution – mental pollution.

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 When I work as a meditation trainer, one of the most difficult challenges of my work is encouraging people to give themselves permission to stop for a while each day – to let go of their life for while – to just sit still, and be happy to just be still.

From the moment of birth, most of us, particularly in the West, have been encouraged to spend their waking hours exclusively in physical and mental activity – to always be doing something – thinking, learning, achieving, creating.  As a result, when it comes to periodic rest, or meditation, most people feel anxiety when they are not doing something.  The only way they can give themselves permission to stop is to be either exhausted or sick – and, as I remind them, by then it’s too late.  They should have stopped long before then.  Rest is something we do to conserve ourselves, and enhance our enjoyment of living – it is not a last resort.

We have been taught to think with great sophistication and speed about a great range of things, but we have never been taught how to stop.  We have never been taught how to relax efficiently, and let go. We have never been taught the mental skills that are required to give the mind some peace and quiet in which to clear itself – to do its own ‘house cleaning’.

In sleep and rest, and especially in meditation, this fundamental process of mental ‘house cleaning’ takes place. It happens naturally whenever the mind is released from the incessant focusing and making of thoughts that we associate with wakefulness.

Consider all those times when the mind is disengaged, and relaxed, like when you have lain back on the couch and closed your eyes for a few minutes, or been mesmerized by the sound of the waves on a beach – all the thoughts, feelings, and memories all flit past the awareness, like so many newly released butterflies flitting through a ray of light.  This is the mind downloading excessive and unfinished concerns – clearing itself.

As the mind clears itself, so too does the body.  Released from new mental commands, the body uses the space to download excess hormones through the kidneys.  When you open your eyes, you feel just a little clearer, and energized. The body is more relaxed and free of stress.  The more we can allow the mind and body to do this kind of clearing, the less we need to forget, or distract ourselves, because we feel better within ourselves

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So, some suggestions for lessening mental pollution:

Once a day, sit back in your chair, and give yourself permission to take a short cat-nap – even ten minutes is of great benefit.  A client of mine, a very successful Information Technology consultant, used to keep a comfortable chair in her office.  Whenever she had an urgent problem she had to solve, rather than try to think it out, she used to curl up in her comfortable chair, and take a short nap of between 20 minutes to an hour.  She usually found that the solution would usually appear quite quickly after she had rested in this manner.

Try to move at a slower pace throughout your day – never allow events to push you into panic.  Take one thing after another, giving each your full attention.  The mind gets confused if we try to do two things at once.  As my teacher, an 85 year old Thai monk used to say, ‘Don’t rush.  Just move faster, with more care, and more awareness’.

Even if you don’t want to learn how to meditate, there is a simple relaxation technique you can do which will help to clear the mind and body – try it before you begin your day, and again before you sleep at night:  Sit in a comfortable chair, or lie on your back for about ten minutes, and purposefully keep directing your attention to the feelings in your body.

Bring your attention down into your body. Feel the sensations of being alive – let the body speak to you and tell you how it feels in its own language. And whenever you find yourself thinking, go back to the nearest sensation. Just be aware of how you feel. Contemplate in particular, the feelings in your face, neck, scalp, shoulders and around your eyes.

And where you feel tightness, see if you can let the tightness go – it’s a game – just contemplate the tight muscles in that area, no matter how small they are, and let them relax, loosen, let go.

And when you find yourself back in thinking, that’s okay, just find the nearest sensation, or feeling of tension, and encourage that part of your body to relax.

Try to get into the habit of periodically checking your body and your breathing throughout the day.  If you find tension anywhere, then let it loosen.

Allow yourself space throughout the day, in small sips, to look around you, and reconnect with how you feel – take a deep breath, stretch, let the rational streams of thinking go, relax your muscles,  feel the air and the wind on your face.

Ideally it is meditation, or one of the physical yoga’s that form the most effective modalities for creating real change in your internal ecology. They clear the buildup of excessive thinking and bring you back into touch with the needs of your body.

The more space you make in the mind, and the more you pay attention to how you feel, the more your life begins to breathe, and the less you need to make you happy. You become more patient, more able to feel empathy with others. Simple things begin to glow – a sunset, the smile on a child’s face. And if each of us clears  and takes care of our internal environment, I’m sure that our world will clear too.

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LINKS

Fail Gladly to Succeed

Just found this wonderful interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates on the writing process, in which he says: “I always consider the entire process about failure …”

Like with any skill, I also believe this to be true about meditation.

The process of apparently failing is also, paradoxically, the process of succeeding. For this reason, accept the difficulties as the path you walk in meditation, and they cease to be difficulties. We fail and we keep on failing, right to the point when we succeed, which always comes as a surprise. And then we fail again.

In this way failing disappears, and there is only the path to success.

Louis CK on Mindfulness

I often find the most incisive and concise observations come from comedians. I suppose that’s because to make people laugh, brevity and incisiveness are essential. In this interview, Louis CK starts talking about mobile phones and then moves into a wonderful allusion to mindfulness, particularly when it comes things we don’t want to feel, like sadness.

Well worth watching.

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Alan Watts – The Mind and Worrying

I’ve always found Alan Watts inspiring to listen to. When he speaks it sets off little explosions of insight in my head that feed my practice. In this video, he’s speaking about worry, and how it feeds on itself, and how meditation and mindfulness help.

(Audio Courtesy of Alan Watts.org alanwatts.org)

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Love Your Pain!!

Roger's Iphone pics 076-001Most people, as they go through the process of learning how to meditate, pass through a number of stages, some pleasant, some unpleasant. And no matter whether pleasure or pain, all these stages are good.

These stages arise naturally as your mind acclimatizes itself to the strange and wonderful environment of stillness.

You’re teaching yourself the skill of being still. To be still in mind, and still in body whenever you choose. You’re learning to sit and let go of your reactions to everything. Surrendering the mind and body to their own processes while ‘you’, the meddlesome aspect of mind you call by your name, go still.

More importantly, you’re learning to be happy to be still – to be able to sit still without getting bored, or worried, or impatient or anxious – which are our usual reactions to being still.

So it is that, as with learning any skill, as the mind and body slowly acclimatize themselves to stillness, together with all the feelings that come with it, you will struggle sometimes. Which is what the meditation methods are for – to help you pass through struggle in all its forms as easily as possible.

But for the methods to work, you must accept struggle as an inevitable and integral part of the training.

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So what do I mean by struggle?

Well, think about all the things that annoy you in meditation – periods of over-the-top thinking, aches, itching, restlessness, boredom, frustration and even pain. We tend to regard these things as impediments in meditation. We think when these things are happening that ‘something is wrong’ with the way we’re meditating, and we wonder what we are doing wrong – because ‘meditation is not working’.

Not so. These apparent disturbances are not wrong. They are right. They are a natural result of mind and body learning to adapt to being still, just as muscular aches are a natural result of weights training in a gym. Indeed, the disturbances we experience during meditation are an integral part of the training process.

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One would think stillness would be easy. After all, we only have to stop.

Our dog and cat can do it, and they take great pleasure in doing it. But for us, stillness is very hard to do.

To the average modern human being, even the idea of being still is utterly foreign – even threatening.  In the busy world we’ve created we’ve become acclimatized to action, restlessness, excitement and distraction – not stillness. Stillness has never been a part of how we’ve been taught to live, nor is it spoken about, or given any value or encouraged.

And even if we do get the opportunity to be still – in a doctors waiting room or waiting for a bus, or sitting in our lounge-room, we’re not used to it, and we don’t know how to react to it. Hence the irony that even when we have the opportunity to be still, we can’t do it – it creates feelings of irritation, boredom, restlessness and so on. Unlike every other creature on the planet, who use stillness to rejuvenate themselves throughout the day, we have lost the ability to be still.

Which is why we have to learn how to do it by using meditation.

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There is an immense amount of scientific and anecdotal evidence for how essential regular periods of stillness are for our mental and physical health.

When we are still the mind naturally re-organizes itself, re-patterning recent information and clearing the decks by storing unneeded information into the unconscious. Also, in union with the body, the mind uses the space of stillness to process the emotional reactions it has recently experienced. This cleansing activity appears to the passive meditating mind as errant thoughts, memories and worries that arise and pass away, as well as temporary feelings, patterns of sensations, aches, twinges and pain in the body.

During meditation all this activity appears naturally. And if we allow it to happen, all the anxieties and emotions that cause it will pass away as quickly as they arise. And once processed, we are free of it.

There is a profound union of mind and body that occurs when we meditate. Stillness in mind creates stillness in the body and vice versa. And in that union our muscles are able to let go of retained tension, and our organs have the time to rejuvenate and process the backlog of hormones and any leftover toxins on the blood.

And this cleansing process can only happen when stillness is present. Once we become active, and the mind and body become focused on some external task, this healing process becomes secondary to it’s primary purpose of serving our needs and desires.

The problem with stillness is, people think it should feel pleasurable –  blissful, peaceful, calm and so on.

Maybe once you’ve trained yourself with meditation it will be. But in the beginning stages of meditation, stillness is filled with all the things that arise into it and clutter it up.

So all the things you think are disturbing you in meditation.The boredom, aches, itches, passing memories, worries and squalls of errant thinking – they wouldn’t arise if stillness wasn’t accessed by the meditation methods. These things arise into the space that stillness creates. They are mind and body naturally seeking to throw off mental and physical tensions – to find their own balance. And they need the space that stillness creates to do it.

And this process of ‘throwing off tension’ is sometimes fast, and sometimes slow depending on how complex the problem is – but if you just keep using the methods, like a boat crossing a river you will eventually get to the other side – and any mental or physical glitch you were struggling with, once processed, is gone –  you are free of just a little more of the weight you have been carrying.

So learn to love the suffering that arises when you meditate. It’s the only way you’ll be free of it.

Use the meditation methods to accept and let go of everything as it passes through, because all of it is a part of the healing and rejuvenation that is itself the path to a stillness that becomes increasingly spacious and profound the more you meditate.

The more you practice acceptance of the struggle, and use the meditation methods to remain detached from any suffering that might occur, the less intense the suffering will become.  You realize then, that all the things in your life you thought were problems – of worry, circular thinking, anxiety and physical discomfort – are not problems at all. They’re simply a mind and body seeking balance.

Love your pain and it becomes your friend.

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LINKS