Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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svmonk, modified 4 Months ago.

Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

Posts: 396 Join Date: 8/23/14 Recent Posts
I'd like to hear people's opinion on the effetiveness metaphor as a technqiue for meditation practice. By "effectiveness" I mean what the pragmatic dharma community calls effective, namely that it leads to insight and awakening. The practice tradition could be anything, but mainly I think the Tibetian tradition (which is where I am currently practicing).

Here is an example of metaphor from yoga practice. The teachers says: "Now extend your heart up to the sky!" when you are doing bridge pose. They don't literally mean "imagine your heart being torn out of your chest and rising up to the ceiling". What they mean is "focus your awareness on the muscles in your legs, back and buttocks and push until your chest extends up toward the ceiling to maximum extent your body can manage".

Similarly, in meditation practice, a teacher may use a metaphor in a guided meditation: "Visualize your mind expanding out until it is like the clear sky at sunset" or something like that. Rather than...what? It's a bit harder to see how to replace this metaphor with explicit instructions about what to do with your awareness, since there are no physical attributes of the mind to focus on.

My own experience with metaphor is that it really doesn't work for me in meditation practice. What works for me are explicit instructions about where to focus my awareness and what to cognitively recall when focusing, if cognitive activity is needed. For example, with shamanta practice, noting the breath at the abdomen, down to fine granular detail really works well for getting one pointed concentration. In this case, no cognitive activity is needed and in fact can interfere with development of concentration. For vipashyana (vipassana) practice, Shinzen Young's "Just Note Gone" (don't know if he's doing that anymore) was really great, basically noticing when some perception or sensation disappeared with a small note of "gone!". In this case, some cognitive activity is needed, at least to start or when concentration is not deep, later the need for actually mentally saying the word might no longer be necessary and only a movement of the mind is sufficient for the note.

I am having a little trouble with my practice right now because metaphor seems to be the primary technique used by the Mahamudra tradition for meditation, at least in the lineage I am practicing in. I think that is because a lot of the teachings derive from the poems, songs, and stories of Milerapa, who was a poet, and so naturally used metaphor. I'm not criticizing the actual literature, many of the poems, songs, and stories are quite inspiring, but I just don't find that mediation techniques based on metaphor work for me.

What do people think about this? 
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Chris Marti, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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I believe metaphor is one of the most powerful communication tools we have, and that tapping into metaphor is a great idea.

Thumbs up, +1, thank you, heart, etc.
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svmonk, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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Hi Chris,

Oh, no disagreement there! But is a meditation technique really about communication? Isn't it about getting the mind to face the reality of its experience? For example, the noting technique is really good at exposing the 3 C's: that experience is constantly changing, that there is nothing solid behind it, and that by and large it isn't very satisfactory. The Mahamudra technique of pointing out the lack of any "thingness" to mind is good at getting the mind to face that it doesn't really have any substantial existence.

Or am I missing something?
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Siavash, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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I guess maybe people who have worked on computers/softwares or similar fields as their profession have harder time relating to such instructions that are not "precise enough"? I notice it in myself too.
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Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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I find that some metaphors work very well for me whereas others make me frustrated or bored. When the metaphors don't do it for me, I try to approach it by either translating the annoying ones into something that makes sense to me or just apply a technique to the sound of their voice rather than the content of their words. For instance, I very often use Shinzen's flow (which I'd say is a metaphor by the way, albeit a fairly descriptive one). 
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svmonk, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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Hi Linda,

I guess focusing on the sound of the voice is away to convert a focus on content which is cognitive to a focus on experience which isn't. I've also found Shinzen's flow helpful.
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Chris Marti, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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Or am I missing something?

​​​​​​​I don't know - were you asking about how to communicate meditation concepts and instructions, or were you asking about metaphor as a meditation technique? I assumed it was the former. I may have misread you, though.
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svmonk, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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It was the latter. Using metaphor to communicate mediation concepts and instructions is indeed helpful.
Tim Farrington, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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 Chris: were you asking about how to communicate meditation concepts and instructions, or were you asking about metaphor as a meditation technique? I assumed it was the former. I may have misread you, though.

SVMonk: It was the latter. Using metaphor to communicate mediation concepts and instructions is indeed helpful.

lol, well, we all misread you, Monk! This thread has been an elaborate exercise in metaphorical flights up the wrong river! We've been painting feet on the wrong snake! We all climbed the wrong 100-foot flagpole and stepped off! Meditation technique as I understand it, rightly used, may get us to a point where we suspect that everything is a metaphor, but then it will take us beyond that too. If it doesn't get us free of metaphors, there's still work to do, I think. As a meditation technique, per se, metaphor seems like kleenex in a fire to me, it burns up early and often. (Similes too, lol.) It's after metaphor burns up that it gets interesting, yes?
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Chris Marti, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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Tim, it's even worse than that! Just look at SVMonk's very first sentence in the original post:

I'd like to hear people's opinion on the effetiveness metaphor as a technqiue for meditation practice. 

I am so embarrassed! I need reading lessons, maybe reading glasses, a new attention span, maybe even a new brain.
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Chris Marti, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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I am having a little trouble with my practice right now because metaphor seems to be the primary technique used by the Mahamudra tradition for meditation, at least in the lineage I am practicing in. I think that is because a lot of the teachings derive from the poems, songs, and stories of Milerapa, who was a poet, and so naturally used metaphor. I'm not criticizing the actual literature, many of the poems, songs, and stories are quite inspiring, but I just don't find that mediation techniques based on metaphor work for me.

What do people think about this? 

SVM, I have the same predilection. My first practice was Zen. Methods of meditation weren't exactly made explicit. Mostly, the instruction consisted of verbiage like, 'Just it!" sometimes accompanies by a thwack on the back.

When I encountered vipassana via MTCB it was at first sort of unbelievable to me that the apparent clarity in the "how-to" of meditation technique and process has any efficacy. I did more research into the vipassana tradition and eventually started practicing that way. I found it, back then, to be much more aligned with whatever it is that I am.
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Ni Nurta, modified 3 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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Chris Marti
SVM, I have the same predilection. My first practice was Zen. Methods of meditation weren't exactly made explicit. Mostly, the instruction consisted of verbiage like, 'Just it!" sometimes accompanies by a thwack on the back.

When I encountered vipassana via MTCB it was at first sort of unbelievable to me that the apparent clarity in the "how-to" of meditation technique and process has any efficacy. I did more research into the vipassana tradition and eventually started practicing that way. I found it, back then, to be much more aligned with whatever it is that I am.
The real question is: Did your Zen master have long enough stick to thwack you after you left him? emoticon
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svmonk, modified 3 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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Actually, the same happened with me. I started in the Soto Zen tradition where they talk about "just sitting". What does that mean? No instruction was given. I read an essay by Joko Beck in which she mentioned the concentration technique of noticing the breath at the abdomen and practiced that during the initial time I was training as a Zen priest with Yvonne Rand. After the 1996 summer retreat at IMS (Yvonne wasn't into sectarianism), I switched to noting the breath at the tip of the nose for concentration and Mahasi style noting for vipassana. These vipassana-tradition techniques are really good at disentangling the content of cognition from the preception that triggers it in my experience. Zen isn't really big on explaining things, you are just supposed to figure it out.
Tim Farrington, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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Chris, I still say we all drank the wrong kool-aid here, and we could clearly use a group discount on "reading lessons, maybe reading glasses, a new attention span, maybe even a new brain." I literally metaphorically was blind to it, I couldn't imagine he wasn't talking about metaphor as instruction or elaboration. 

Forgive us, SVMonk! Figurative heads up metaphorical asses. But now that I understand your actual question, no way am I going there on your Mahamudra tradition, you're not going to get me to dis Milarepa's techniques, lol. For what it's worth, it appears that like you, Milarepa's best student, Gompopa, was also inclined to try to find a more straightforward way to present what he felt was the heart of mahamudra:

from What is Mahāmudrā by Traleg Rinpoche

Prior to Gampopa, the Mahamudra teachings were exclusively given as a highly secret instruction to practitioners who had received tantric initiation. Gampopa was revolutionary in this matter as well. Not only did he extract the Mahāmudrā practice as a self-sufficient doctrine; he also significantly liberalized its dispersion by giving instructions outside of the tantric environment. While Milarepa did not teach Mahāmudrā separate from the tantric teachings, Gampopa began to give tantric initiations to select students and Mahāmudrā teachings to all the rest without giving them tantric initiations. He thus initiated a widespread practice of separating the Mahāmudrā cycle of teachings from their tantric origins. Gampopa preferred to teach this simple, direct insight into the nature of the mind.

At one point in the record of his teachings, he commented on his decision to give these normally secret teachings of Mahamudra so freely. In a dialogue with his student Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa (ulo-1193), Gampopa remarks: “I have broken the command of my master by teaching Mahamudra freely.” “In what way?” inquired Dusum Khyenpa “By expounding the teachings of Mahāmudrā to people.” Then, on another occasion he remarked to the same student, “I have obeyed the command of my master Milarepa.” “In what way is that?” inquired Dusum Khyenpa. “By devoting my entire life to practice,” came the response.

Here Gampopa is acknowledging his teaching style to be very different from Milarepa’s, for Milarepa was deeply steeped in tantric teachings and practices. It is thanks to Milarepa’s perseverance that the advanced tantric practices of the Kagyü tradition are still preserved. At the same time, Gampopa felt people could learn to realize their true nature directly, through the use of the more simple methods of the Mahāmudrā teachings.
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svmonk, modified 3 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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Hey Tim!

I'm not dis-ing Milarepa, or, at least I don't think I am. Actually, I don't know what the techniques Milarepa taught were and I kind of doubt anybody does today, since, as you say, they were mostly given in secret. Trying to keep that kind of tradition alive for roughly a thousand years when only a handful of people know it is extremely difficult. However, his poetry was written down and taught freely, which is why it's been preserved and is well known today. His poetry and the stories about him are quite wonderful.
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Chris Marti, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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Looks like Gampopa was the Ingram/Folk of his time.
Tim Farrington, modified 3 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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I'm not dis-ing Milarepa, or, at least I don't think I am. Actually, I don't know what the techniques Milarepa taught were and I kind of doubt anybody does today, since, as you say, they were mostly given in secret. Trying to keep that kind of tradition alive for roughly a thousand years when only a handful of people know it is extremely difficult. However, his poetry was written down and taught freely, which is why it's been preserved and is well known today. His poetry and the stories about him are quite wonderful.

lol, yes, your deep respect and appreciation of Milarepa and the tradition's literature come through loud and clear. 

You and Chris really seem to have rung the gong on your main point here, which as i read it (finally, lol) was that you just don't find the presentation of the mahamudra meditation techniques that helpful. He referenced his vague zen instructions, and you both agreed that a certain kind of somewhat streamlined and contemporized vipassana with visceral specifics worked better for you. There's another thread on DhO now about "Unbundling the traditional 'stuff'" that relates to this, I think. The contemporary inclination is toward "what works," and the premise is that you can sort the effective wheat from the cultural chaff in all these traditions, and come up with a practice more accessible to modern practioners that still gets to the heart of what the fuss was all about in the traditional settings and presentations. And in scripture. I think this is really the dynamic of spiritual renewal through time, that every so often, and often enough, in a living tradition, somebody comes along and finds that the tradition is old enough that pretty much EVERYTHING is metaphor, and they can't find anybody who really seems to know what any of it really means, specifically, on the mat. So they do the radical thing--- maybe they go live in the forest in southeast asia with nothing but a 2000 year old book nobody has really read seriously for a thousand years, or maybe, like the Buddha, they try everything from the last three thousand years and finally end up under their own tree, but in the end, they all say, well, this shit is real, and doable, and they try to tell their buddies how and why. It is a time intensive process, living with the old, often apparently dead or senseless language, those baffling rumors of fire that seem all smoke and soot now, until it somehow comes to meaningful life again in a synthesis with your experience and practice, and your "translation" rings true. It happens all the time and it's the only game in town. So we live with Milarepa's beautiful poetry and practice the tradition's practices until the language means what it was meant to mean originally to us in lived experience. 

Or we're just a bunch of deluded wonks, lol. Keep after that mahamudra, amigo.
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Chris Marti, modified 3 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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You and Chris really seem to have rung the gong on your main point here, which as i read it (finally, lol) was that you just don't find the presentation of the mahamudra meditation techniques that helpful. He referenced his vague zen instructions, and you both agreed that a certain kind of somewhat streamlined and contemporized vipassana with visceral specifics worked better for you. 

Tim and SV - I want to be accurate here and state that the metaphorical  Zen instructions I received early in my dalliances with meditation didn't help much - back then. After some years of practice, they made perfect sense to me. In fact, I'm now drawn to metaphor and symbolism. I believe this transition has to do with the ability, developed over a period of time and practice, to drop the narrative mind and see the forest, not the trees. In my case, vipassana was the answer to grokking the trees, which was eventually the gateway to grokking the forest.

I have some very beaten-up copies of "Moon in a Dewdrop" and "The Blue Cliff Record" (sitting right here next to me) that I randomly pick up and read parts of every few days. Because metaphor and grokking that shit seems now to be the cat's meow.

It seems to me that third path was what drove me off this ledge, bucked me off the bronco, flipped my lid, turned my head, and made me sit up and take note.

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Tim Farrington, modified 3 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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Chris: After some years of practice, [the metaphorical zen instructions] made perfect sense to me. In fact, I'm now drawn to metaphor and symbolism. I believe this transition has to do with the ability, developed over a period of time and practice, to drop the narrative mind and see the forest, not the trees. In my case, vipassana was the answer to grokking the trees, which was eventually the gateway to grokking the forest. . . . metaphor and grokking that shit seems now to be the cat's meow.

It seems to me that third path was what drove me off this ledge, bucked me off the bronco, flipped my lid, turned my head, and made me sit up and take note.

emoticon


Chris, I would love to hear you expand on this. 
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Chris Marti, modified 3 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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Chris, I would love to hear you expand on this. 

Tim, something changed in the transition from second to third path. I don't understand it, of course, but my heart woke up (Edit: maybe I should say "my heart took over"). It became an authenticity detector. This is hard to describe, but it was quite a transition. If a thing, a person, music, a story, a movie, whatever, was not coming from an honest and true place, I could quickly tell. Along with this came a renunciation, an unbinding, from narrative thinking. These two things are related. It's like being able to see the core, the essence, the honesty of a thing, whatever that thing is, as opposed to just the presentation on the surface. Finally, when this took over my life, it became a joy to read Zen stories and koans - those things that I could never really grok before were all of a sudden available, appreciated, loved.

I'm impatient with people and things that don't present their core or essence honestly, that are faking it. Things have heart or they don't, in varying degrees. This manifests in my personal life and at work. My intolerance of the inauthentic is a very useful bullshit detector.

That's the best I can do right now. I'll post more if something else occurs to me.
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Chris Marti, modified 3 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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A second reply to Tim:

I think narrative, discursive thinking is a habit, maybe even an addiction. Once we can see that and work to get beyond it, we can start to appreciate the non-discursive mind, which includes metaphor, poetry, and non-verbal and pattern processing type mental activity. Narrative mind and metaphor mind (insert trademark symbol here), are each a side of the same coin but narrative mind seems to gain and hold the upper hand for most people. It is nurtured by our education and more valued and praised by others. Look how much work we have to put into seeing through it!

Make sense?
Tim Farrington, modified 3 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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 Chris, thank you for your beautiful response, in both waves. All three waves, really, going back to the riff that hooked my attention, how finding a fruitful vipassana approach to the trees bore fruit in a leap to forest consciousness, and allowed the metaphors to speak to you. I love the dawning of the authenticity detector too, the second wave, and how trusting it segued into the third wave of undermining the narrative grip on reality: it's the narrator who has to keep changing his story when reality doesn't fit, has to generate new bullshit to cover up the old bullshit when it wears through and shows its gaps. It is metaphor that often shows us best, in language, that the emperor's wardrobe is inadequate. But it is a ton of naked attention to the authentic specifics of experience and mind that frees us to see what's going on once we realize that the bare ass flapping in the wind is ours, lol, and that our story of why we look so fine just don't hold up. Plus, too much work. I say this as a novelist dancing as fast as I can, lol.

Thanks again, I appreciate you taking the time for the strong answers. It was just one of those things, you so obviously had traction on that ground. You know I'm always trying to get you telling war stories.
 
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Noah D, modified 3 Months ago.

RE: Effectiveness of Metaphor as a Technique for Meditation Practice?

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I think it's key...in my most transformative retreat the teacher would guide us -

"awareness, like space"

"no head" 

"body like a mountain"

etc

still haunts me to this day! 

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