One of the things that make this practice seem so difficult is that it feels a lot like a box full of puzzle pieces thrown at us, because of the large number of teaching methods, traditions and interpretations. We are left to try and solve the puzzle when we haven't a clue as to what the picture looks like. To make matters worse, it is often steeped in mystery, the mysteries of the spiritual world. This comes about quite naturally because it is all but impossible to describe experiences that occur outside of thought using conventional language and thoughts. It's like trying to describe the smell of a flower to someone without a nose.
Fortunately, with advances in science and psychology, a very practical approach to the practice begins to emerge. The practical benefits of a meditative mindfulness practice can be scientifically proven and measured, which in turn allows for a greater interest in learning and sharing and understanding of which techniques are most productive. It basically boils down to retraining the neural pathways we build in our brains. Those that fire together, wire together. Our monkey mind thought patterns have wired together as a result of the habit of allowing our minds to wander. The Buddhist path is literally about breaking the habit of allowing the mind to wander off, by learning to pay attention to it and recognize the disharmony an unsupervised mind left running wild can cause.
As the Buddha predicted, anyone who truly wants to, can free their mind from all stress and suffering, and science is enabling us to better understand and validate methods to do so. So the talk tonight is an overview of the process from as practical of a viewpoint as I can. The more we study, learn and understand how the process works, the more we can help each other to free their minds. We need to understand what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we go about it.
So to start off I would like to define just what it is that we are trying to accomplish, what the ultimate goal is, and to demonstrate some of the techniques that can be used.
We often hear of the practice as being about getting rid of Ego. To get rid of something, we must first clearly understand what it is that we are trying to get rid of. So lets define Ego from a practical standpoint.
Ego is simply a collection of thoughts, judgements and perceptions about ourselves, and our environment that we have chosen to accept and cling to. Because we never question the validity of our own thoughts, they have acquired the habit of running free, un-checked, un-supervised and un-neccessary. We allow those thoughts to define our sense of self, who we think we are, who we want to be, and how we remember ourselves as having been in the past. It is not who we really are.
Who we really are is that part of us that knows and is aware of our own existence in the present moment. Present moment experiences are like that awestruck moment when the mind quiets briefly to watch a beautiful sunset. Thoughts spoil such moments, don't they? Thoughts and judgements keeps us from truly experiencing the present moment by keeping us engaged in mind theatrics and judgements. Isn't it obvious that our mind created fantasy worlds are not real?
We don't need our Ego consciousness thoughts to tell us right from wrong, to to help someone in need, we can do so on instinct, we know how to do that. The reality is that far more often we allow our thoughts to prevent us from helping someone in need, we are afraid to get involved, or we don't like the way the person looks.
Most of our physical movements and actions are guided from outside of conscious thought, but when we are absorbed in thought, we fail to notice this. We don't have our Ego dictating to the foot a detailed set of instructions on how to walk. We KNOW how to do this. We learned how to do this by paying attention to what we were taught.
Every single wrong doing any of us commits, whether as an individual, or as a group, including countries committing genocide or war (which is really the same thing), always begins with a single thought in someones head. Everything that stops us from being who we want to be, from being the best person we can be, begins with a thought. Every fear, worry, anxiety, regret,or mental stress we place upon ourselves, always begins with a thought that we have entertained in our head.
These thoughts are formed from the perceptions we have of the world around us and the experiences we have, from how we think, perceive and believe that the world is treating us. We allow our thoughts to create division between us and the world. We view life in a “Me against the world” way, as we struggle to fit in, to learn what we are taught, to work hard and to pay our bills.
The Ego mind speaks to us in words and pictures, inner dialogues, in fantasies, daydreams, always with “me” as the central character, and carries us off into all sorts of apparently fascinating places that mind seem to wander to. The monkey mind neurons have become so strong that we easily become hopelessly lost in our thoughts. We become so lost that we miss out on most of what is going on around us in the present moment. It is only when we are NOT lost in thought that we can truly experience the present moment.
The present moment is not something as elusive as it may seem to be. The present moment is characterized by the mind being so completely absorbed in reality that thought subsides. When this occurs it is usually accompanied by pleasant feelings. We have all experienced being fully in the present at one time or another, such as watching a shooting star in the night sky, or an overwhelmingly peaceful moment in nature, perhaps staring at a waterfall. It can even happen in tragic moments like in the events of 911. Such an event is so shocking that it stops the mind as we try to make sense of everything we are seeing and hearing. These events have captured your attention and awareness.
Egoic thoughts, monkey mind, are where attention wanders to when you do not have control of it. This is just a bad habit, and all bad habits can be broken. This entire practice is about learning how to regain control of your attention and to free your self from the ever wandering Ego, by learning to observe and understand how your own uniquely programmed mind works.
The ultimate goal of getting rid of the Ego means retraining the mind, out of its habitual practice of wandering off into inner dialogues and fantasy worlds. It means learning how to recognize and curb thoughts that are not serving you in your best interest, by no longer indulging in them. When you stop indulging in them, they begin to occur less frequently. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, the ones you ignore and don't indulge in, atrophy, they wither and die. This is characterized by a mind that abides in silent awareness rather than being lost in thought. In the present moment. The ultimate goal is to completely break the habit of allowing the mind to wander off unsupervised.
This does not in any way inhibit your ability to think constructively, or creatively, it does not inhibit the ability to reason, problem solve, learn, or understand. It does not give you a new personality. It is simply learning how to shut off the free flowing repetitious monkey mind. In freeing the mind this way, awareness grows of the senses and the world around you. It is as though you begin to merge with reality instead of the fantasies and mind theatrics.
Because everyone's journey through life is so unique, the teachings can get confusing for some. Every person alive has undergone a completely unique set of experiences, and a completely unique set of personal judgements about those experiences. Every Ego is unique. This in turn means everyone's solution to solving the Ego problem is also unique. This is why objectively, observing thought is so important. You are the only person capable of figuring out what is going on in your head because you are the only person capable of seeing it.
To learn and understand the mind, it has to be put into learning mode....paying attention mode........and learning how to maintain and sustain that attention through concentration, and without judging. Judging only creates new neural pathways by making use of the ancient survival mechanism that the Ego developed from.
So in terms of the teachings, one size does not fit all. It is important therefore to always monitor your progress, by paying attention to your reactions to changing situations around you in daily life, especially the unexpected or unwanted ones, and observe what works and what doesn't. Use what is useful and discard what is not.
The Ego is the basis of our entire world view, but it is created from incomplete, biased and usually flawed information. Our judgements are tainted by our beliefs, which by their very nature have little or no basis in truth. They lack any substantial proof, but we choose to accept them as truth. None of our beliefs should ever be beyond questioning. Blindly accepting a belief can only lead to inner disharmony especially if it is ever proven wrong.
Beliefs are a symptom of a closed mind. Only an open mind can be free.
Our 5 senses can not possibly perceive every bit of information available in the moments we form our judgements from. Especially considering that the mind is far more likely to be lost in thought anyway, since that seems to be where it usually is, and thereby misses out on even more of the information that was available to us because we weren't paying attention.
Our judgements are tainted by other peoples opinions and ideas. They are tainted by our judgements of similar experiences. And there is always much more going on than we can possibly be aware of. As a result, our judgements are often severely flawed. Yet we still want to be able to trust our own thoughts, and rarely ever examine how trustworthy they really are. It is only through paying attention to our thoughts objectively that we can start to understand them. This means we have to learn how to separate ourselves from our thoughts. Objective observation. Observing them as though they were objects separate from us, which they are! Otherwise, how could you be aware of them.
This is a difficult concept to explain, the best way is with an analogy. Being absorbed or lost in thought is like watching a movie or TV show that has you so interested, so captivated, that you completely forget that you are sitting in your chair watching it. You forget that you are in your living room. You loose yourself in the drama and become completely absorbed in the show. It is almost as though you become part of the movie or show. This is similar to the state our thoughts take us to when we become lost in them. Learning to observe your thoughts is like remembering that you are still in your body, and in your living room, watching TV objectively, you are separate from the show, and no longer mentally absorbed into it. When you are no longer mentally absorbed into thought, you fall back into the position of being an objective observer. You become aware of your thoughts by actively placing your attention on them rather than passively being absorbed into them.
The Ego developed as a self preservation and survival technique, and is most assuredly responsible for our very existence today. It formed as an ability to judge our surroundings and activities, and decide if they were safe or not, is it a snake or a stick? They look similar, but one might bite. Our judgements, then combine with our perceptions of our 5 senses, and a memory signature of the chemicals that washed through our body, such as adrenaline, and store this into a very quick reacting part of our memory. In this way, when we recognize danger, the same chemical wash is released causing us to experience the fight or flight response.
In today's world, the sort of things that cause us stress worry, anxiety fear or whatever personal blend of mental suffering you choose to impose upon your self, neither fight nor flight is usually a practical response. You make a mistake at work or knock over Grandma's antique vase. You can't fight it, you can't flee, so instead you are afraid or worried or anxious, and since you did not engage in a fight or run away in terror, your body has no means of burning off these chemicals. This is the physical manifestation of stress and this takes a physical toll on the health of the body.
Just to be clear then, this practice is about eradicating the Ego, the fantasy version of the sense of 'I'. In other words, putting and end to the discursive free flow of thoughts that sit at the root of all mental disharmony. This is what is meant by the Pali term Niroda, or cessation. And to repeat again, it does not in any way inhibit your ability to think constructively, or creatively, it does not inhibit the ability to reason, problem solve, plan, learn or understand.
The practical path is twofold, first to develop concentration by learning to sustain awareness and attention, and to use that concentration to observe and understand how our mind works, by turning that sustained attention and awareness inwards, in learning mode, without judgements, observing thoughts as they occur, without allowing ourselves to get drawn into the inner drama, learning to regain control of the mind, and to keep it from wandering off into useless trivial inner mind theatrics. Concentration then can be defined as the ability to maintain attention through sustained awareness. We are learning how to be aware of where our mind is, and if it wanders, pull it back by controlling where you place your attention.
For most of us, the habit of allowing our attention to wander into mind theatrics began in our most formative years, our early school years. How many times did the teachers have to repeat the phrase 'pay attention'. Attention is the minds learning mode, and if we didn't feel like learning, we allowed our mind to wander off into our imagination instead. You can not learn anything unless you are paying attention to it, and that includes the mind itself. When you are paying attention to something, you are learning. If you want to understand your mind, you have to pay attention to it. When you place all of your attention onto one of your 5 senses, or perhaps switching from one to the other, giving them your full attention, you are in learning mode. You are learning what it feels like to experience your environment.
Now lets look at what awareness is. Awareness is that part of you that knows without the need for thoughts to run through your head to validate it. You know you are in this room, because you are aware of your surroundings, and you can know that without the mind having to hold an inner dialogue with you about it.
A simple easy practice that can develop the ability to sustain the attention is by focusing your attention directly and intently onto one of the 5 senses and sustaining it by means of awareness, by knowing when your attention is there, and holding it there as long as possible, and pulling it back whenever you recognize that it has wandered. When the mind wanders, pull it back to awareness. You will have to do it over and over and over again, as patiently as you can, until the mind becomes accustomed to staying where you put it.
Thought is always suspended whenever you place all of your awareness and attention totally, and completely on any of the senses. Pick an object in the room, or a spot on the wall, or on the floor and stare at it very intently, as though you were expecting something to happen at any moment and you don't want to miss it, and you will notice thoughts subside momentarily. Give it a try.
That moment of silent mind was free from Ego and completely in the present moment.
If you listen very intently to sounds around you, perhaps picking out one dominant sound, or perhaps trying to pick out the faintest sound you can hear, and thought will again subside. Give that a try as well.
This also applies to physical sensations, which is one of the reasons breath meditation and walking meditation work so well, but only so long as sustained concentrated attention and awareness is held there. When you are eating, know that you are eating, when you are sitting, know that you are sitting.
Other physical sensations such as pain or an itch can also be used as a meditation object to help quiet the mind. The same applies to odours and tastes. When you place all of your attention and awareness into a sensation so intently that the mind quiets, you often become aware of some of the more subtle aspects of the experience that you would have otherwise missed. Like eating pizza and noticing the subtle hints of the different spices, or picking out the individual flavours of the toppings. You become aware of the more subtle levels of the experience that would otherwise be missed or ignored.
You might try staring intently at a candle flame. Anything that helps you develop and strengthen the ability to sustain concentration and awareness.
The second part of the practice is to learn how to turn that awareness and concentration inward. To observe all of the minds movements, thoughts, emotions, reactions, feelings, sensations. Again, it is important that this is done in a completely non-judgemental way. You do not want to start building new thought patterns, and creating new karma.
Remember, concentration and awareness place the mind into learning mode. All the mind has to do is pay attention and observe without judging. Judgements are flawed and will taint the learning process. With sustained practice, the mind starts to connect the dots. It experiences with pure attention what a silent peaceful mind feels like, and it also experiences what the thinking mind feels like, and begins to recognize and learn from the repetitious thought patterns and the emotions that accompany them, and compares this with the quiet peaceful states of concentrated awareness.
As the mind begins to discover and uncover the negative effects of an Ego that runs wild, wisdom begins to develop. Wisdom manifests itself as the ability to discern useful thought patterns from harmful thought patterns. And as wisdom begins to emerge, you gradually stop indulging in your impulse reactions to your thoughts, you stop entertaining thought patterns that are no longer serving in either your or someone else's best interests. You start recognizing what your thought patterns are doing to you, you see clearly how your thoughts are the sparks that ignite the fires of mental stress, and you become aware of your reactions to your thoughts, and your reactions to life, and the impact that your actions and reactions have on you and the world around you, and the impact this has. In other words you start to see your own karma in action.
There is one thing however, that has not changed throughout the entire history of spiritual teachings and practice. And that is the one simple fact that it makes no difference how many books you read or how many talks you listen to, none of it matters, unless you actually do the work yourself.
Formal sitting meditation then, can be thought of as the classroom. It is where you sit and figure out how to develop concentration, practice sustaining quiet minded awareness, teach yourself how to observe thought objectively, and practice diligently observing thought objectively until no thought passes unobserved. Formal meditation is really just removing yourself from as many worldly distractions as possible so you can spend some time alone, just you and your mind, exploring your inner world.
But in order to gain any benefit from these skills, they have to be developed into a new habit, the habit of paying attention and always being aware of where your attention is at. This skill has to be transitioned into all facets of life, every waking moment, building new neural pathways that will develop into long lasting inner peace, tranquillity, and happiness. They have to be practised in the real world, in every waking moment that you can possibly remember to practice. Practice makes perfect.
What I have explained to you is the relationship between samadhi meditation, the concentrated sustained awareness, and vipassana meditation, the inner objective observation of thought. These two practices work hand in hand and compliment each other. You need the skill of sustained concentrated awareness to reflect inward and observe the mind movements, and the more time spent figuring out the mind, the less time the mind becomes willing to spend engaged in harmful, wasteful, or useless thought patterns. This results in a natural calming and quieting of the mind, in turn allowing greater concentration and better sustained awareness. They work hand in hand, complimenting each other. Which one should you develop first? Conventional teachings usually recommend training in samadhi first, but experiment with both and go with what provides the best results for you. Ultimately, both need to be developed.
|Michael L. Fournier|