Welcome to my first, and possibly only (time will tell), Dharma publication. The material I present here is drawn from my own experience and from inferences made on its basis. It is written for a readership already clued-in to the basic mental exercises that constitute insight meditation, the maps and models designed to describe its progress (particularly the four-path model derived from Theravadan Buddhism, to which this text will refer), as well as some of the vocabulary that is commonly used to describe those things, and its meaning and significance may elude readers outside this group. For example, if you don't know what stream-entry (or first awakening) is, or why you would want it, this text may only serve to pique your curiosity, or it may be a boring or confusing read. On the other hand, if you're part of an orthodoxy that holds, in one way or another, that nirvana is beyond a practitioner's realistic reach and may as well be mythical, given its practical unattainability, this text may annoy you and you probably wouldn't believe me anyway so, whatever, it doesn't matter.
This text is meant to be read as a companion volume to Daniel M. Ingram's Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, to which it will frequently refer, for while this essay may be insightful as stand-alone writing, and may indeed prove to be key reading for those whose temperaments and styles of practise (and habits of shortcoming) are similar enough to my own, it does not offer a thorough enough treatment of either the insight meditation theory or practical instruction that a novice (or anyone sufficiently doubting their skill) will need. What this text does offer is an exposition on the way to hit a retreat properly and the right attitude to have in order to attain a path. Its primary functions are
As best I've been able to determine, most people who have completed at least one path of insight have done so while on intensive retreat, particularly that first path. First path, otherwise known as stream-entry, is reputed to be particularly tricky in that it requires the mind's entire field of experience to do something it's never done before: completely disappear. To arise, and then pass totally, without remainder. What this takes in order to happen for the first time is not entirely clear to me; perhaps it's focus, perhaps concentration, perhaps timing; and in support of all those things, perhaps a kind of sheer willingness at a deep, deep level. These are my guesses. Regardless, whatever it is mostly tends to occur on retreat, so I've heard, and that's been my personal experience as well. Therefore, this book will be about going on retreat.
You can either retreat at a meditation centre or you can retreat on your own. If doing the former, there will be rules to follow and a schedule to keep up. If doing the latter, make your own timetable and stick to it. If retreat at a centre, the basic needs are taken care of. Someone cooks you food, there is a place you can sleep when it's time to rest, and a bunch of people are all doing the same thing at the same time around you to remind you to stay disciplined. If doing a solo retreat, you will have the benefit of stark isolation, which can turn into very powerful focus, but you may have to prepare your own food and be your own motivation, in which case it will greatly pay to keep food and other routines simple. Both centre retreats and solo retreats have advantages and drawbacks, but either way, you should have the same attitude, which is to say a hard-working and independent one. Don't drift through your retreat! Pay attention to each and every bit of it. Practise even when there doesn't seem to be any point.
I should probably mention, for those unfamiliar with Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, that my expectations of retreats and retreatants are heavily influenced by the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition. That means non-stop, second-by-second attention to, and utmost engagement with, the insight practice from the moment you wake up to the moment you're out for the night... and then some. Seriously, we aren't fooling around here. If you're not sometimes buzzy and occasionally neurotic that you're not putting in enough moment-to-moment effort, you probably really aren't. While insight practice requires a balance of effort and tranquillity, an arahant friend of mine is convinced that 99% of meditators err on the side of laxity. If you're convinced that you're in the other 1%, this probably isn't the guide for you. And while there are traditions that retreat in a more laid-back way, perhaps by not utilising all the minutes in a day for insight practice, or by alternating between periods of formal, heavily focused insight practice and gently mindful 'rest periods' or 'activity periods', this book is about what I know, and what I know is that working my ass off in a non-stop way, as recommended, worked. Overkill? Perhaps, but see how good you feel coming out of retreat, still unenlightened, and wondering if maybe you simply didn't try hard enough.
So, enough lead up. What is this all about, what is needed? Down to the heart of the matter.
If you would like a successful retreat, you should probably:
This part is crucial. However you do it, make sure you know that your goal is possible.
Sceptical that it's possible? Why? People have done it, people do it. Talk to people who have done it, there's enough of them around. Don't know them in person? Can't find some who will talk openly? Not meeting them at your favourite health food store? Come online, there's a bunch of people who get it on the Internet. A wiki-based web community called The Dharma Overground has a decent collection of practitioners from a variety of mystical traditions, Buddhist as well as otherwise, who are attained, insight and otherwise, and open about it.. a collection which is growing as more of the current members tune in and get it done, and more people who've already done it, and so get it, find their way to the group. Anyway, wherever you can find people willing to talk about it, take advantage of it. Make sure it sinks in that enlightenment, where it occurs, is an everyday reality.. not divorced from the realm of ordinary experience in which you are living right now.
It's important to know it's actually, seriously, possible so that you don't compartmentalise your expectation of enlightenment away from your direct experience of being alive here and now. Don't pigeonhole enlightenment into an 'it will magically drop out of the sky' mental category. You'd think that simply because you've been dogging it, retreat for retreat, you wouldn't be treating the possibility of actually seriously getting enlightened like fantasyland stuff, wouldn't you? Believe me, this is a habit that's hard to not form and once formed, hard to break. 9 years steady on the trail, with even some time in the monkhood, and I was still doing it to no end. Are you assuming this yourself? Do you find yourself thinking of enlightenment in the form of an unattached daydream, similar to winning the lottery? Investigate yourself seriously and if you find that you are, take a good look at what you're doing. It is solidly disempowering for your mind to assume enlightenment can only exist in the stories you tell about your future at best, your maybe-future at worst. Start looking for it right here and now, right around you and right through you. What does it mean to look for it? It means to:
In the Mahasi tradition, and in much of the Theravadan Buddhist world, insight insight practice means paying attention to any or all of the Three Characteristics that can be found in any instance of sense experience; they are the characteristics of impermanence (momentariness), suffering (fundamental tension, displacement and discomfort), and no-self (hardest to explain, it has to do with an illusion that never clearly existed anyway, so perhaps best it's understood for now as the spontaneous and out-of-anyone's-control aspect of how sensations just happen on their own). Ingram makes much fuss about this subject, which is a perspective I have benefitted from to no end and heartily endorse but will also proceed to contradict later on. For now, however, if you're going to take on noting practice, assume that seeing some aspect of the Three Characteristics at this very moment is the only way you're going to get anywhere. Keep at it! Remember, in general, you should:
It can feel unnatural to work so hard, but the progession of insight can feel pretty unnatural too. Will you overshoot it by working too hard? Theoretically I guess that's possible. Heck, it took me almost 9 days on retreat to do it.. maybe if I had mellowed out a bit, it wouldn't have taken so long! Haha, unlikely. Stream-entry is essentially a shot in the dark.. it's your destiny to miss over and over again until your mind finally lands its rhythm and figures out how to rhyme on time (and disappear on time with the rhyme). This is a trial and error process and a classic example of procedural learning. While you're not going to be able to force it to happen, you can pretty much take away all the other options. This is a gradual process, and every moment of contribution helps tremendously. Therefore:
Not for a moment, not for a second, don't slack, don't allow yourself to do things you think will cause you to unintentionally slack in the next moment. The whole world in a grain of sand. The whole world in this one moment. If you work like this, with this kind of intensity, whether you land a path or not you will gain insight like nothing else, which will heavily contribute to your life being better. Work with the kind of immediacy that is focused on what is right here, right now, and that highlights the relationship and engagement you have with it. And at times you slip from it, and can't seem to find your way back to the cutting edge:
Artificial dualities, nonsensical problems. Should I do this, or should I try that? Will this work, or will it only get in the way of that working? The subject/object out-of-focus makes things that don't actually contradict each other look like they do, and as you pay increasing attention to the out-of-focus, you may become kind of loopy and start seeing problems that wouldn't exist if you didn't think they did. The 3rd stage of insight (Comprehension of the Three Characteristics) and the late Dark Night stages can magnify this tendency a great deal. The way to deal with it is to keep practising as best you can. Sometimes, absolutely nothing works. So note the suffering, note the anxiety, note the confusion, note the discontent, note the restlessness, etc. Get acquainted with the way your mind flinches around to try and avoid suffering, and get comfortable with it. Suffering is a part of your world and it does not have to be a hindrance, so pay attention to it. What is the experience of suffering? This is a very real question, and the answer is something like 'the whole world in this moment'. Nothing outside of this moment is going to deliver this particular answer for you, because you are looking to understand something about this moment itself. Suffering is often a clear indicator about where to look in order to see this, and as such, the hard times are some of the best opportunities to internalise this very necessary understanding. So embrace them when they arise and make best use of them. The more comfortable you are in your own suffering, the more clearly you will see what you've got to work with, and there is no better position you can be in, in order to:
If you're halfway up a mountain and the way you think you're supposed to be taking is blocked, it's up to you to figure out how to get up the rest of it. At this point, it's purely between you and reality.. and this isn't a point you can locate on a map, this is a point that happens whenever you realise that it's got to be this way. This is the sense that reality isn't something that's happening in a story somewhere else, it's happening right here, right now. You don't need an intermediary in order to perceive it, it's something no technique, no teaching, no teacher, no matter how useful, can do for you. The relevance of all those things waxes and wanes; what remains relevant is the part you're experiencing it with. So get comfortable with going it on your own! I can't stress enough how important this is, and I conjecture that some lack in this spirit of the solo adventurer may be what keeps many people from attaining the greatness for which they have already cultivated the faculties required. Don't be a lacker in this spirit, don't slack on adventure. Therefore:
I know this may sound out-of-place given that the above instructions are about working hard non-stop and through all difficulties, but yeah, it's like that. Don't forget to have fun. Things change, roll with the punches, especially since in a sense what you're working with is all you've got at that moment. Make sure to have a good time doing what you're doing.. since you're doing this for you! Going on retreat is about coming out of needless suffering and making a better life for yourself, so if there isn't a part of you that's having a good time doing it, or at least that understands it as good somehow, you might be missing something. Admittedly, there can be times where it's no fun and you have no clue how anyone, least of all yourself, could be benefitting from this process in any way. Those times are good opportunities to just stay with the visceral experience of things as they are. They don't tend to last forever though, so you can get back to having fun in no time if you so incline yourself... and I strongly recommend that you do.
It is a wide, rich and varied territory you are navigating and you may lose your purpose or direction often. Getting it right and taking that next step forward will, in some ways, always involve a trial and error process on the most primitive and most basic levels. Your mind may do funny, seemingly unrelated and useless stuff. This is a natural side effect of being alive and learning new things. Stay engaged with reality, and learn to see the lighter side of these things. Be comfortable with mood swings. Get used to conflicting urges. And start feeling at home in the bevy of mapping, theorising, predicting, wondering, wanting, etc, and all the other neurotic intellectual activity that's gonna happen anyway whether or not you think it's useful. These things are not signs of regress so don't be disheartened and take them as signals that you lack focus or control, or whatever seems to be the bad guy this time. Expectations or attempts to predict the next step, or whatever else shows up, are just part of the process your mind needs to go through, are part of this same reality you are attempting to investigate, and are not at all hindrances when you have insight into how they're being experienced. Just like any other sensations, they are all causal, empty, happening on their own, and sufficient material for penetrative insight to develop in. Keeping a sense of humour to face the surprises that turn up along the way, and staying inquisitive when the going gets dull and you've exhausted all known options, will take you far.
On that front, here's something bizarre that, while it is not necessary to see – indeed, some people may simply never see it this way – I think may help some: understand that you can't imagine a fruition, but don't exclude the parts of your experience you think of as 'imaginary' from practice. Indeed, there is something imaginary about all this. I have strong reservations saying this sort of stuff because it can be so easily misconstrued, but if you haven't gotten path yet, a fruition is what you're looking for, the entrance to a fruition arises out of the 4th vipassana jhana (equanimity regarding formations), and 4th jhana is hella imaginary. I personally thought I must be crazy thinking things like this until I noticed that a quite-realised Dharma friend of mine's email address contains the phrase 'imaginationrealization'. It sanks into place that very moment. I'm at a loss for a better way to explain what I mean and have considered removing this section entirely, but opted to include it for people who might benefit from having it addressed, however many or few there are. If this paragraph seems strange or irrelevant to you, just skip it over. Then again, if it strangely was just what you needed to hear.. there you are.
Ok, so, remember how earlier I said that if you're doing this Mahasi-style you should cling to seeing the Three Characteristics like it's the only thing that's going to get you anywhere? Well, here's where I change my tune a bit. A time comes, deep enough into equanimity territory, perhaps after having come up to it and fallen back countless times, when it doesn't matter how you're practising, or labelling your practice.. you are just seeing things as they are. This means you might not be seeing things as characteristics, or vibrations, or whatever else has indicated to you up to this point that you're on the right track. You might not even be paying attention to anything in particular about what you're seeing. Should such a time come, and you realise that you're here, just keep staying with whatever you're staying with, doing whatever it is you're doing. It won't really matter at this point. No instruction is necessary here really.. anything can happen, taking any length of time, or nothing could happen at all. From here on, you're really on your own.. I mean, you've actually been on your own all along, but this might be the part where you finally really notice it. And on that note, the end. Practice well and good luck.
As a short appendix, I've attached some practical material that may be useful to have for referring to and helpful for getting started.
A good example schedule to follow:
And an example set of reminders to have stuck on the wall: