MCTB From Content to Insight

In the previous chapter, I explained a method of cognitive restructuring that was designed to help us stop thinking distracting or unhelpful thoughts. As those techniques have an agenda for what happens, rather than an agenda for perceiving something fundamental about whatever happens, they are an aspect of training in morality or concentration. However, if we are willing to realize that we can also take an insight-oriented perspective on difficult or distracting thoughts, either on the cushion or when walking around, then we can begin to make the transition from content to insight.

As you would expect, this method is grounded squarely in the Three Characteristics, as well as the other basic assumptions of insight practices, such as one’s current sensate experience being the gold standard for reality. This method is probably best shown by way of examples, in this case of a few people with a Big Issue who are on an insight meditation retreat and reporting their experiences to their teacher.

The first example is of someone who is completely buying into the content. “So, in my practice I have been working through my Big Issue, you know, really trying to deal with it. It just seems to come back again and again. Every time I sit on the cushion, I find myself thinking about my Big Issue again. This Big Issue is such a big part of my life, such a huge issue. I am afraid that if I look too closely at my Big Issue it will overwhelm me. I wish my Big Issue would just go away. I have been doing so much practice, and yet I still have to deal with this darned Big Issue.” Notice that the person assumes continuity of the existence of the Big Issue. They also assume that all thoughts about the Big Issue are either self, the property of self, or separate from self. Further, they are not working at a sensate level, trying to see the true nature of the thoughts and physical sensations that make up the Big Issue and the rest of their reality. In short, the “practice” they mention is some sort of practice other than insight practice. Let’s try that again.

“I sat down on the cushion, and I had barely begun to practice noticing my breath when a thought about my Big Issue arose. I tried to ignore it, but then more thoughts about Big Issue arose, and my stomach began to feel queasy. I tried to focus on the breath again, but then I found myself thinking about the Big Issue again, thought after thought, mostly the same old thoughts repeating again and again.”

This person is already making progress towards using these thoughts and physical sensations as a basis for insights. They are beginning to try to apply the assumptions of insight practices to their experience. They are trying to focus on a physical object, trying to notice the individual sensations that make up their thoughts and physical sensations. However, they have poor concentration and have not learned to see the true nature of the sensations that make these up.

“I sat down on the cushion, and I tried to see each of the sensations that make up the breath. Interspersed with these physical sensations were mental images of the breath. Interspersed with all of these sensations were also thoughts about the Big Issue. They were quick and seemed to also involve some mildly painful or disconcerting physical sensations in the region of my stomach. I could see these come and go and that they were observed. I could feel as they arose that there was something irritating about these quick sensations.

“I noticed that most of my experience was made of sensations that didn’t seem to relate to that Big Issue. Sometimes I noticed the three characteristics of the sensations that seem to be related to the old Big Issue pattern of sensations, and sometimes I was able to stay with the sensations of breathing. However, regardless of which sensations arose, I was generally able to see some aspect of the true nature of them. Thus, I find that I am able to keep practicing and not get lost in old, circular thoughts about that Big Issue that do me little good and have caused me much pain.”

These are the sorts of descriptions that really light up a meditation teacher’s eyes. They can see that this is a person who really is getting a sense of what is insight practice and how it can be useful. The meditator not only understands the focus and assumptions of insight practices but is also able to actually do fairly consistent and strong practice. Even being able to do this when we are walking around and dealing with our stuff can be helpful. Shifting to the sensate level reveals things about our stuff that can be very helpful for keeping it in perspective and not getting overwhelmed by it. It also develops habits that make it easier for us to shift to a sensate level when we do formal insight practice.

Thus, if you have an issue that keeps bugging you, try taking the time to see the Three Characteristics of the sensations that make it up as you go about your day, thinking, “The pattern of sensations that make up the Big Issue are quick, transient, and observed. I will do my best to notice this as those sensations occur. When speaking of the Big Issue to others and to myself, I will try to keep my descriptions at an insight-oriented level. By seeing this Big Issue as objective and transient phenomena, I will not be lost in my negative and painful thoughts about my Big Issue. I will be able to bring more clarity and spaciousness to the Big Issue, able to bring more intelligence to the Big Issue, able to bring more common sense and balance to the Big Issue. If I can do this, it will be of great benefit to me. If I continue to wallow in my circular thoughts about my Big Issue that get me nowhere, I will simply experience unnecessary pain to little good effect. This is my plan and my resolve. Though I may fail again and again to be able to do this, eventually I will break the habit of not being able to see the true nature of the Big Issue and thus will grow in wisdom and happiness!” That’s the way the game is played.

Just for fun, I will give two more examples from even more advanced practitioners and how they might describe their practice. “I sat down on the cushion and began noticing the three characteristics of the sensations that make up experiential reality showing themselves. There were physical and mental sensations, all arising and vanishing quickly and effortlessly. I could see perhaps five to fifteen sensations per second, primarily in the abdominal region, but there were many other little sensations coming in from all over, colors on the back of my eyelids, sounds from other meditators breathing. Occasionally, there were some quick sensations interspersed with these about that Big Issue, like little phantoms vanishing in a sea of flickering color and form. They caused no interruptions in my investigations, being just more sensations for investigation.”

This is obviously a strong practitioner with solid insight skills. They know exactly what they are looking for and do so. They are willing to make time for bare sensate investigation. We cannot instantly make the transition to this sort of practice, but I am a firm believer that making clear exactly what we are looking for can make it much easier to actually make the transition from content to insight. By observing what we are able to do and taking a look at what someone at the next higher skill-level can do, we will be able to proceed with more confidence that we are on the right track.

This last example is a description of practice from a particularly strong and advanced practitioner. “I sat down on the cushion and the cycles of insight presented themselves effortlessly. There was a shift, and very fine, fast vibrations arose instantly, dropping down quickly, and then they shifted out, getting vague for a few seconds. Concentration restabilized and revealed the quick ending of sensations one after the other, perhaps five to ten per second, and then things began thickening somewhat, getting somewhat irritating, but vibrations remained the predominant experience. It was just that their unsatisfactory aspect became more predominant, and there were a few sensations relating to the Big Issue.

“I may have noticed a few hints of what dualistic perspectives remain and the basic pain and confusion they cause. There was a shift, and a more panoramic and easy perspective arose, accompanied by more coherent and synchronized vibrations including most of sensate reality, including much of space, at perhaps five to fifteen per second. There was a short period of barely noticeable but mature equanimity in the face of these as the vibrations became more inclusive. Any sense of practicing dropped away entirely.

“A minute later, two of the Three Characteristics presented completely in quick succession, including the whole background of space, revealing something incomprehensible in the nature of subject and object, and reality vanished. Reality reappeared quiet, clear, beautiful and easy. I solidified space in that afterglow so as to enjoy the formless realms for a few minutes, rising up through them and back down to boundless space. A vision relating to the Big Issue arose.

“I stabilized on the vision, noticing the feeling of it, and before I knew it I was out of body, traveling in a strange realm, having interactions that replayed the issue of the Big Issue in symbolic or mythic form. I saw something about this issue that I never had before, how an old, unexamined and fictitious train of associations lead to my inability to come to some more balanced understanding of this issue. This epiphany broke my concentration, and I returned to my body. I then dropped out of the formless realms, allowing a new insight cycle to begin again. When I got up off the cushion, I noticed that the psychological insights that arose in the other realm gave me an increased sense of humor and a more compassionate perspective towards those involved in this issue. They were just trying to be happy, just as we all are. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.”

They have talent and a wide range of skills. They are not only an advanced insight practitioner, but they also have strong concentration skills and can even chance into some of the more unusual concentration attainments. Further, they even seem to be able to use their ability to travel out of body to gain relative insights into the content of their stuff. Last, they are on the lookout for the subtle signs of the limits of their insights. They are not only skilled, but they realize what they do not yet know. They are well on their way to mastering the core teachings of the Buddha.

MCTB Concentration vs. Insight