transcribed by Mulder
FBI auth. #AQ789302jk
Found in Jeep Cherokee Eagle
registered to Erin Hughes
** "Practicing with form, not holding on to form"
I would like to talk about practicing with form, yet not holding on to form. This talk might be called, "Mindfulness practice: how to just not do it!"--By form I mean the structure of meditation practice, both on retreats and in daily life.
On this retreat we have observed certain forms, including silence, solitude, seclusion, respect for the basic precepts grounded in not harming, and of course we have been practicing mindfulness meditation in an intensive and structured way. Tomorrow we will be returning to our homes. I want to talk about the use of forms of practice while not clinging to those forms. To observe even one single inbreath, I will be saying, requires not clinging to form, and it is this fact that allows our meditation practice to be fully integrated into our normal daily lives. Let me explain.
Our lives here contrast with the ordinary lives most of us lead. Usually we spend our time planning, organizing, doing things at work, in business, there is plenty of money stuff to think and worry about, responsibilities with families, recreation, television. Our attention is drawn in diverse directions. When we watch tv, for example, the commercials can become annoying, so to avoid the commercials we might watch two programs at once, switching from one to the other when a commercial comes on. Of course, sometimes when we switch, there is a commercial on the other channel as well. [Laughter] So we might need a third program. [Laughter] Actually I normally just change the channel without any design, then forget what I had been watching. Same thing on the internet: Ill log on to look up something, get distracted, and an hour later it will occur to me to ask, "now what was I going to look for?"
Life has been different here. We have been practicing forms of renunciation, conserving energy to explore and experiment in the ways we have done. I am always amazed at this situation, and grateful too. This retreat center did not just happen to appear out of the blue. There were many real people who worked to make it happen. And it doesnt just happen to continue and flourish: there is staff of about twenty people who work here, and their lives are sort of half in seclusion, the way we have lived this week, and half ordinary lives -- so they too are experimenting in an interesting way as they cook the food or maintain the building while also feeling a responsibility to help maintain the silence and seclusion when there is a retreat taking place. There also are meditators here tonight who are in the midst of long retreats, six months or a year or more -- the "long term yogis". Our gratitude for this situation also can stretch back 50 years, 200 years, 600 years, 2500 years, and more --there have been a million jillion acts of sacrifice and selflessness that have contributed to the development and protection of the forms of meditation we have been practicing. And of course our own efforts also are part of this stream, and we can feel grateful for that too.
Tomorrow most of us will be going home, making a transition back to our ordinary lives, and attempting to integrate what we have done this week. It would obviously be weird to attempt to maintain the form of the retreat in ordinary lives. Actually some of us might be able to do that to some extent -- such as what the long term yogis are doing here --but for most of us it would be quite weird to try to do so. Actually that might be a good premise for a sit-com-- one of the Friends, for instance, or Frazier --no, how about Homer Simpson --he comes here to IMS, does the retreat, and gets turned on to it and afterwards doesnt realize he shouldnt try to maintain the same form back home -- so he goes home, insists on silence, only writes notes, itches but does not scratch, etc.
So before we leave to make our transitions, let us review. In meditation we have been practicing with two basic mental activities--connecting and sustaining attention with neutral processes like the breath while sitting, or sensations in the feet while walking. These activities are like washing a dish, reaching for it and scrubbing --and yet doing so in a balanced way; one doesnt want to break the dish. We have not been trying to control the sensations in the breath or any other sensations, but in directing and sustaining attention with them, we have used them as "anchors" for the attention, returning to them again and again. In so doing we have been developing an inner seclusion which, with practice, naturally gives rise to concentration, delighted interest, and a sense of physical and mental comfort. We have not exclusively been developing deeper concentration, so that when our attention is called away from the "anchors" by a sound, or itch, or emotion, or whatever --when this happens, we let the sound or itch or whatever become the primary object for those moments-- connecting and sustaining attention with those phenomena. In this respect, nothing officially is a distraction in this type of meditation. Yet whenever there has been a question about what to do--when we notice we are confused, or lost or wrapped up in a series of thoughts or emotions without being very mindful of them-- then we gently yet firmly re-direct attention to the anchor and let conscious attention permeate the sensations in the breath when we are sitting or in the feet when walking.
There are metaphors and analogies that we have used to try to make vivid the two basic mental activities of aiming and sustaining attention; yet let us consider now how those analogies are limited in their application. For example, consider washing dishes. Aiming or connecting the attention with the beginning of the inbreath and the beginning of the outbreath, as they occur, is compared to reaching, grabbing, and holding a dish to be washed. Yet we normally cannot just hold on to any objects of consciousness. On the other hand, sustaining the attention is compared to scrubbing a dish --but this might suggest that in sustaining attention, one needs to move the attention around in some way, when in fact simply permeating enough to observe clearly is sufficient, and this requires little or no effort.
So the concepts and analogies used to talk about aiming and sustaining attention are of limited value. But of course in experience one can know firsthand what is being talked about; and as I mentioned the other night, one must use ones own discriminating wisdom from the very beginning even to practice with a meditation technique as simple as the one we have been using. Indeed, it seems to me that one cannot observe the sensations associated with even one normal inbreath if one is simply trying to follow the instructions. To repeat, one cannot really connect with and permeate the flow of sensations associated with even one normal inbreath if all one is trying to do is practice a meditation technique.
Why not? --Because following instructions or practicing a technique involves thinking, and if one is overly focussed on the instructions or technique then the overactivity of thought actually will obscure clear observation of the sensations associated with the inbreath. Many people find that when they try to do it, they seem to be controlling their breath rather than simply being aware of it --this sense of control is related to the overactivity of thought. Sincerely wanting to go into this, we bring habits that involve attempting to exercise control over things -- yet to practice with these methods -- to connect and sustain attention with a single inbreath -- we have to let go of preoccupation with the method itself; we have to do that in order to allow the connection to be made! In addition to striving to practice the technique, one also has to quit trying; this is necessary in order actually to practice it. It sounds paradoxical, but it can be done.
We can do it because we can practice with form without clinging to form. We can use our own wisdom, even when beginning, to get the right balance between effort and concentration, between the activities of aiming/sustaining and the restful awareness that does not involve doing anything at all. One does not have to be old and grey to get the feeling for this. I was talking recently with a student who told me how, as a 14 year old boy he loved music, and one day was listening to a recording when it occured to him that he was more involved in thinking about the music than he was in simply listening to it. This distinction is similar to that between thinking about the method while trying to implement it versus simply doing it. It is subtle and interesting, but for conscious human beings it is something we naturally can do, and we can do it without necessarily figuring it all out. So we use our own judgment from the beginning to get the balance between effort and restful awareness; this balance, of course, is not achieved all at once, but one can do it.
The history of Chan in China actually involved a difference of opinion over the analogy about washing dishes. One form of Chan took as central these verses:
The idea here is that the body and mind are used as foundations for the development of mindfulness, just as we have been using them this week, where connecting & sustaining attention with the process of mind and body is compared to keep a mirror clean. There is here a conception of freedom of mind via purification of mind by means of methodical practice. In the late 7th century C.E. in China a peasant named Hui-neng offered this alternative:
Hui-nengs poem suggests that deep insight into the nature of things reveals there is no need to get very methodical; there might even be a danger of using a method to obscure the void. --You can read The Sutra of Hui-neng if you want more details about how these two poems gave rise to the two main forms of Chan in China. Actually there was an incredibly beautiful debate in 1986 between Christopher Titmuss and Krishnamurti which covers the same ground; it was published in TitmussFreedom of the Spirit and I recommend it. While we are reading translations of Chinese poems, heres another good one about the void; its by Huang Po.
About the use of methods and practices, there is a well-known story from the Buddha in which he suggests that after one has crossed a river, one doesnt need to continue to drag the raft one used to ferry across. What I have been suggesting is that even to observe one single inbreath one needs to let go of the raft; yet practicing with the methods can be useful for most of us, just to get us into the ballpark. So that is what I mean in saying we continually use the form but do not hold onto form.
With my students at the university, for the meditation course I do not begin the meditation course talking about the void, or about the history of Chan in China. That would be confusing and distracting --one could imagine Homer Simpson getting caught up in jargon about the void -- Homer Falls Fearlessly into the Void! -- For my course, the primary goal is simply to help the students develop a meditation practice for at least the duration of the semester, and this means I focus on the activities of aiming and sustaining attention, just as we have done here in this retreat. Practicing in this way, one naturally can tend to get the feeling for the freedom that is required simply to use the method to deepen concentration and brighten mindfulness.
One finds after awhile that connecting & sustaining attention is not something one does so much as something one allows to happen. If we are trying too hard to do it, we will miss. I am not trying to be abstract here. On the contrary, I am just looking at the simple activity of connecting conscious attention with a single inbreath.
Of course these points do not apply to attentive awareness of the inbreath only --There also is the outbreath! Then some moments after the outbreath dissolves; all the sensations throughout the body; sensations in walking and other bodily actions; ordinary phenomena like pains, loneliness, and so forth. Often connecting is receptive, yet even so we often need to summon the intention to be present, to allow the connection to be made. And it is amazing how much courage it can take to bring attention into these basic realities.
And one can use these methods in difficult situations, whether in formal practice or in daily life. In difficult situations it is natural to strategize, optimize, to figure things out. Naturally we bring our problem-solving minds to bear on difficult situations when we attempt to practice --we seek strategies that will help us to make it through a 45-minute sitting, or through a long day of sitting and walking meditation, or to enable us to finish the retreat. This is simply a fact about us, it really is not so much a problem, as an opportunity to see how our minds work -- and also an opportunity to develop some freedom with respect to these very patterns of mind. -- The ways in which young people can do these things reminds me of a university student who took my meditation course and after a few weeks in the class, she told me that she had discovered the value of these mental activities on her own. As a girl, she suffered from migraine headaches, and she had found that aiming into & sustaining attention with the pain in her head sometimes helped to mitigate the pain, and she discovered as well that it also helped to direct attention to the breath as well. So dealing with the difficult situation in which she found herself, she led herself into this type of activity.
So our natural problem-solving minds are not so much a problem, as just an interesting feature of the situation. And yet we also can see sometimes how our tendencies to strategize get in our way. I probably dont need to give you examples of this, since youve spent a week on retreat. In the midst of all this silence and solitude, ones mind can get pretty active, trying to entertain oneself, or sincerely trying to figure out how to use the time well, and so forth. One can get involved in trying to adjust ones posture so as to get the perfect balance or cultivate some sort of evergy flow in ones body; or thoughts or images will appear which seem to demand that we write them or draw them, so as not to forget them; or we may notice patterns of thought appear and re-appear and be tempted to try to re-program our minds in some way. Many thousands of examples of this type of thing could be given just from the experiences of those here in this room this week. --And the freedom with which one can experiment in practicing with as simple a technique as we have been using --this freedom is a freedom with respect to all such patterns of thought, including patterns involving our deepest and most worthwhile aspirations.
Heres an example where one of my students is reflecting on this sort of thing in a couple of passages from one of the papers he wrote:
So hes getting the idea. When one senses the freedom of a mind not constantly craving --the freedom of non-grasping --then this freedom can contrast so clearly with our usual habits and patterns of wanting and grasping.
We dont need to practice absolutely perfectly. We dont need to find the perfect balance. True, it helps to deepen concentration, and we can practice to do that; and yet when ordinary patterns of thoughts and emotions seem to intrude and disrupt --well, that can be interesting! Everyone will find that such patterns seem to interfere with the process of deepening concentration; that certainly happens. And again--to repeat --there is a great value in deepening concentration via silence, seclusion, repeatedly returning attention to the anchors. Yet --again to repeat--when ordinary patterns intrude upon this practice, this gives us an opportunity to learn and deepen --to apply the concentration we have developed. Among the most interesting patterns, of course, are patterns of identification, possessiveness, and these so often depend upon the assumption that one has some sort of control over things independent of ones current states. The buddhist notion anatta is often translated "no self," but in the Visuddhimagga the main conception of anatta is just lacking control over things independent of our current states. This idea of "control" is precisely the sort of control that we tend to find ourselves trying to exercise over the natural breath (even at times when we are trying not to control!)--and which can give rise to the question have I been subtly controlling my breath? Or have I been simply observing the normal, natural breath? I am talking about this here not necessarily to suggest that one needs to speculate or theorize about these matters; on the contrary, in practice one can come to observe things for oneself in a most interesting and down to earth way.
Here, for example, are some comments by a young student where she is reflecting on what she has observed "by allowing myself to cease analyzing for a result and instead simply to look and listen to what is going on":
The freedom about which she is writing -- this can be practiced in the most down to earth ways; we do it when we practice balanced attention with an anchor, but without clinging to the anchor. Kornfield says the difference between being awake or not is whether or not one is grasping at a limited story of oneself. Obviously daily life outside of an intensive retreat offers plenty of opportunities to practice the sort of mindfulness as to whether or not we are grasping at a limited story. As Joseph Goldstein says, "Being mindful is not difficult; what is difficult is to remember to be mindful." The meditation method we have been practicing is a method to help us remember to be mindful -- but being mindful itself is not a matter of practicing some method! To repeat: being mindful is not a matter of practicing some method --it is much simpler than that --and so we quite obviously can be mindful even when not holding on to some form of practice. She is being mindful when she is metaphorically sitting in the middle of life, and taking note of it, adjusting only when necessary. Yet practicing a form of meditation can be useful to us because so often in daily activities we in fact do not remember to be mindful. And, yet again, when we are mindful, there is no need at that time also to remember to be mindful, much less to try to remember! The methods, forms, can help us develop patterns of mind so that we do in fact remember to be mindful even in the midst of stress, pressures, difficulties. And in ordinary life there is a huge difference between being mindful and not being mindful.
In daily life form that helps can include a daily meditation practice. I worked with the university students to help them set up daily practices, which meant helping them determine when and where they would meditate. This was not always a trivial matter, given roommates, busy schedules, and so forth. Setting up rigid time standards for how long one will meditate each day is not necessarily helpful, but actually doing it every day can really strengthen ones practice. One can be reminded to turn the tv off, also not a trivial matter sometimes. Observation of the basic precepts is a way of being mindful in action so as to endeavor not to harm others or self. We again have to use our own wisdom in determining the right balance between solitude and community, in determining how much formal practice each day is enough. Nobody can answer these types of questions for you and it would not help you much even if they could answer them, and even if they were to tell you. For why should you believe them? Renunciation in its positive meaning, as conserving energy, is very personal, yet it is easily neglected and so increasingly important give the pace of, and pressures within, our lives.
Renuncation includes a willingness not to dwell in the "non-sublime" states of fear, anxiety, anger, greed, and so forth. In a society that is competitive, these types of states actually can be regarded as basically good and useful. The cultivation of kindness, compassion, shared joy, and equanimity cuts against the grain, and yet doing this is so relevant to the integration of meditation practice into daily life; otherwise, ones practice may only deepen a sense of separation and alienation. JoAnn Macy addresses these issues as follows:
One of my students addressed issues like this in relation to his own meditation practice:
Well, he is being mindful. When things are messy and we are mindful, then we will notice that things are messy. He is not wholly lost in his anger and exhilaration, and he certainly is not repressing it and simply closing down by distracting himself in one way or another. True -- one does not want to confuse kindness and compassion with the "near enemies" of attachment, sentimentality, grief, and pity. And true -- in compassion, in vibrating with the suffering of others, and really knowing it, there is also a sort of happiness that may not really be reflected in what he says. --But, all the same, we do not want simply to close down either, that is, to close our hearts in the name of some spiritual ideal.
To practice in difficult circumstances, one can slip into bright mindfulness in the midst of things rather than tolerating self-indulgence. Allowing attentive connection and sustained awareness sometimes means vigorous and energetic use of anchors, sometimes it means a quiet receptivity and openness. In life we continually balance the energy and receptivity. And then there can appear the odd & amazing & thorough combination of energy and receptivity which surprises us because it is so thoroughly both. One goes right off the grid! Into the void! Heres a story like that. Its from Ian Fraziers new book, On the Rez; the story is about a 14-year old Lakota Sioux girl named SuAnne Big Crow.
Wow. That is surprising. She went right off the grid, and into the lucid void. --Not insisting on separation, isolation, safety. Not boxed in by the terrible unfairness and stupidity of the situation, not identifying with any roles, not tolerating self-indulgence, neither calculating nor measuring --that young woman in those moments surely must have been way, way beyond calculation and measurement and comparison, for had she calculated she would have stayed in the locker room, then gone home -- and she was neither evaluating nor merely cultivating an image. She was acting freely. Of course I dont really know what it was like for her --maybe she was simply taking the opportunity to grab center court, hoping MTV might notice --but more likely, it seems to me, she was in a free space, off the grid.
She was dancing with form --after all, it was the traditional Lakota Sioux shawl dance.
But she was not holding on to form --she was doing the shawl dance with a basketball warm-up jacket at center court before a hostile crowd at a girls high school basketball game.
Thank you for your attention.
Erin, thank you for the stories from your students and the SuAnne Big Crow story.
Hi Sally. --Yah, the Su Anne story moves me every time I read it.
It is a power story. The way "she reversed it somehow" reminded me of a passage in Marx I came across recently. Let me read it.
Yes. That may be related.
Foucalt emphasized how such reversals get built right into our psyches.
Right. So, Erin, I was thinking that if money reverses basic human values, we need forms to reverse it back yet again. And if a transposition of "natural and human qualities" happens to shape our psyches, thanks to the political and cultural economies in terms of which we have come into existence--
--then ... I dont know. --It would be nice...
What would be?
Well, I found quite moving the passages from your student in which she is talking about freedom from "the tapes". But why are you so sure she didnt just get this out of the book you had them read?
Oh, no, Sally. They definitely are practicing. It is not only theory. do you remember Zoe?--
Yes, of course.
--it came as quite a surprise to me when I sat down and tried this sort of thing, after she sort of kept insisting --
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