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advice for integrating my old practice with Buddhist practice

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Some quick background: due to various factors in my life, several months ago I began undertaking a kind of contemplative practice of my own making. (Up til that point I had never seriously undertaken any contemplative practices and was not religious, and in fact didn't fully realize until later the similarities between what I was doing and contemplative practice in general, although I did have several intense and fulfilling experiences with psychedelic substances years before that proved useful as a reference point.) All sorts of interesting things happened as a result, which I will describe shortly. However, I wasn't really sure where to take it, and at the same time I began reading up on all manner of contemplative ideas and traditions. Buddhism seemed particularly attractive. Not long ago a friend of mine directed me to MCTB and it was like a revelation, a clear technique and map to help me orient myself and cultivate my practice-- just what I needed. I am committed now to the path of vipassana. At the same time, it would seem like a shame (or maybe outright foolish) to just neglect the progress I made on my own and the techniques that I know work so well for me. So what I would like to do is describe briefly what practices I did and what my results were, and then inquire as to how they could be integrated with a practice focusing on vipassana and samatha meditation.

My basic approach was to change my perception of reality by fixing my mind upon certain concepts or perspectives, in such a way that I would eventually begin to alter my experience of the world in accordance with those perspectives. I tried a bunch of different perspectives out, but the following wound up being my favorites.

1. Perceive the world as if in a lucid dream. In a dream when you become lucid, you have a realization: "wait a minute, this is a dream!" Say you're dreaming that you're in a subway, and then you become lucid. The dream world is still there, but instead of being a I'm-in-the-subway-as-usual world, now it's a I'm-in-the-subway-in-a-dream world and by extention I'm-in-the-subway-but-only-in-my-mind world. Doing the same exercise while awake, you might transition from a I'm-in-the-subway-as-usual world to a I'm-in-the-subway-in-existence world. You have a realization: "wait a minute, this is existence!" It's a deeper, broader, more penetrating insight into your current situation, which entails a sort of broader awareness that is not swept away by the mundanity of the habit of experiencing things and doing things in the world. You sort of transcend your current situation by becoming aware of and coming into contact with that thing which contains your current situation: in the dream it's your mind, in waking life it's the universe as a whole and the basis of all that, existence.

This practice is closely related to...

2. Rouse awareness of pure existence itself, the easily overlooked but astounding fact that there is *something* rather than *nothing*.

Staying with the perspectives of (1) and (2) in the proper sort of way for a sufficient amount of time, I found that I could eventually generate intense experiences of bliss, peace, awe, fascination, and love for all things. The particulars varied: sometimes, pure joy and bliss; sometimes, deep and thorough peace or equanimity; sometimes, profound gratitude and compassion and love; sometimes, profound and ineffible mystery and awe over the baffling fact of existence. Always, the experience of having suddenly realized or remembered something vital, very much like shaking the cobwebs out of the eyes or becoming lucid in a dream. My experiences from these practices resonate well with a description of sat-chit-ananda or being-awareness-bliss that Aldous Huxley provides in The Doors of Perception. I suppose these correspond in some way to various intermediate samatha and vipassana jhanas-- I would guess it was a phase of Arising and Passing Away. It was intense and profound stuff.

There were also interesting secondary effects, like having a more spacious and useful perspective on issues in my life, and sometimes a sense that my visual faculties had become extremely sharp and clear.

3. Perceive myself as a channel through which the universe perceives itself. That is, rather than considering my perspective as being "in here, looking out there", I would try to experience my perspective as a particular instance of the universe as a whole having become self-aware and introspecting into its own nature. Rather than me-perceiving-world, it was universe-perceiving-itself. As a corollary, I would then perceive other people and animals as other channels of universal self-perception, as if we were independent mental processes co-existing in the same larger mind of the universe.

This method is effective in creating feelings of unification, as if I and other beings are branches emanating from the same tree of underlying existence. In more intense instances, I have felt like a profoundly different kind of creature doing this practice, again more like a relatively de-centralized "channel" of perception for the universe at large, rather than being an independent unit perceiving things solely on its own behalf.

I think there are clear analogues between what I was doing here and some elements of Buddhist practice, e.g. focusing on the nature of experience itself rather than content, and altering states of consciousness and experiences of selfhood. But there are contrasts as well.

Most obviously, the Buddhist path is well-mapped out and established. During my own practice, after a while I sort of got stuck because I could fairly reliably create these amazing experiences and perspectives but didn't know where to take it next. I am extremely grateful for having a sense of guidance now and a sense of what I can do to get permanent, lasting insights.

But I don't want to get rid of what progress I already made, and it's unclear how best to integrate it with the established vipassana / samatha path. One thing is that my methods are kind of working the exact opposite angle of vipassana practices that I have learned about. Daniel mentions something like this in his book-- my techniques if anything were cultivating experiences of permanance / finality / eternality (as opposed to impermanence), love and compassion (as opposed to suffering), and something I gather is akin to True Self (as opposed to no-self)-- although the experiences of eternality and love arose in a secondary way, as a consequence of my focusing on the awareness of existence, rather than as a result of explicit cultivation. Also, rather than investigating the three characteristics of experience, I was working the angle of just noticing and appreciating the bare fact of existence itself, which is seemingly working on a fundamentally different conceptual level.

Any comments at all would be appreciated, particularly regarding useful insights or connections with Buddhist maps or techniques I may have missed, but if I could boil it down to a couple of relatively straightforward and focused questions, I guess it might be something like this:

1) is there any precedence in Buddhist practice for cultivating awareness of bare existence itself? are there any practices or consequences for insight here? (sat-chit-ananda?) how does it relate to the insight derived from observation of the three characteristics?

2) for practice and progress in insight, what are the relative merits and relationships of unification, True Self, and no-self? I have read (and just re-read) Daniel's chapter on True Self vs no-self, but it is still somewhat obscure to me. I do not see the distinction between unitive experience and True Self experience. I am also unclear on the possibilities and pitfalls of using a True Self view rather than a no-self view to cultivate insight.

RE: advice for integrating my old practice with Buddhist practice
Answer
11/24/09 12:49 PM as a reply to Brian ..
In my view, all Buddhist practices revolve around one simple thing: stay out of content. When you are lost in content you are 'selfing' – creating a sense of self in relation to phenomena. There are many aspects to this: body, thoughts, judgments, feelings, emotions, objects, etc (anything that is perceivable). It is very slippery stuff.

The various practices are in a sense tricks to get you to find your way out of content and cultivate the sensitivity to recognize when you are caught in it.

When you are not caught up (absorbed essentially) in content then you start seeing it (experientially) for what it is. You can investigate it at progressively more subtle levels to see how it comes and goes, is not me or mine, and causes stress (3 characteristics) and seeing this (again experientially) it (content) is abandoned as something you really want to be trying to hold on to.

Not all Buddhist practices revolve around this idea of the 3 characteristics – but they all lead to the same result. Pick a practice, learn the technique, and apply it religiously.

Aside from seeing that content does not constitute a self – there is no value in trying to figure out if there is or is not ultimately a self. Do the practice and you will know. Buddha refused to answer this one – he never as far as I know said there is no self – nor did he say there was one. It might help to read The Not-self Strategy.

You need not drop your old practices but when you start with these new ones (ie vipassana) you will end up modifying or seeing your old practices in new ways.

My advice is to keep the intellectualising at a minimum – it is more useful to just adopt the attitude of 'I don't know' and leave it at that - just focus on learning and doing the practice of your choice. Try and stay out of your head – 95% of you is below the neck – there is lots to investigate there. Everything else will take care of itself.

RE: advice for integrating my old practice with Buddhist practice
Answer
11/25/09 4:06 AM as a reply to Chuck Kasmire.
Chuck Kasmire:
In my view, all Buddhist practices revolve around one simple thing: stay out of content. When you are lost in content you are 'selfing' – creating a sense of self in relation to phenomena. There are many aspects to this: body, thoughts, judgments, feelings, emotions, objects, etc (anything that is perceivable). It is very slippery stuff.


Are you saying that "anything that is perceivable" is content? the "known"? The sense of "knower" (or self) is also perceivable... then it must be content? The "knower" and the "known" are but the same thing? There is only this renewed stream of knowing

Salam (Peace)
Abdou

RE: advice for integrating my old practice with Buddhist practice
Answer
11/25/09 10:58 AM as a reply to Abdou Abed.
Hi Abdou,

“Are you saying that "anything that is perceivable" is content?” - If I identify with it as constituting a self then yes.

“The sense of "knower" (or self) is also perceivable... then it must be content?” - If I identify with the 'sense of knower' as constituting a self then yes.

To clarify the statement of mine that you quoted:
There are a variety of phenomena that I can identify with as being who or what I am. And as we go through the practice the nature of that content becomes more subtle. So in the beginning we are lost in our stories. This is the level of content that Daniel speaks about in his book – at the beginning of the progress of insight. But throughout the process of awakening there are subtler levels of content that have to be seen through. In a sense, each path exposes us to a subtler layer of content.

So at subtler levels I can find myself identifying with say spaciousness: 'I am this spaciousness'. How is it that spaciousness is sensed (which sense door? Sight, sound, taste, etc). What informs me? If I am aware of this can this be what I am? If the thought arises 'I am this spaciousness' is that any different from 'I am Chuck'? So we just keep peeling back the layers until there is nothing left to peel away. Keeping in mind that the peels can get very thin.

“The "knower" and the "known" are but the same thing?” - I don't know :-)
“There is only this renewed stream of knowing” - Seems that way, but I don't know that one either!

-Chuck

RE: advice for integrating my old practice with Buddhist practice
Answer
11/25/09 4:00 PM as a reply to Chuck Kasmire.
Hi Chuck,

Thanks for the input. As is probably apparent I am prone to intellectualizing, yes, which can get me in trouble sometimes.

Regarding my question of unification vs true self vs no-self though, I don't mean to ask a metaphysical question, but rather one relating to practice. That is, given that part of one kind of practice involves attempting to recognize the no-self characteristic of all things, is there any practical difference if one instead attempts to see the true-self characteristic of things? I seem to resonate better with the latter approach, but at the same time I want to make use of the knowledge of various practitioners and traditions rather than striking out on my own and doing whatever and seeing where it happens to take me. This is the impetus for my asking about attempting to perceive phenomena with a no-self vs a true-self frame of reference-- I have a conflict between what seems to work best from my personal experience, vs what I know to be established from others. Ideally I would be able to find an approach that capitalizes on both fronts.

And a subcomponent of that question is, if it is easy in practice to confuse a unitive experience with a true-self experience, then how are they to be differentiated, in order to help the practice move along fruitfully?

Likewise for the other component, contemplating existence itself seems very fruitful for me, but it's just something I've sort of stumbled upon-- if there is any established practice that bears any resemblance to that, where people have refined techniques and know what to watch out for, it would be better than me just reaching around in the dark.

RE: advice for integrating my old practice with Buddhist practice
Answer
11/25/09 6:37 PM as a reply to Brian ..
“ part of one kind of practice involves attempting to recognize the no-self characteristic of all things”

The no-self strategy relates to dis-identifying with phenomena as constituting a separate self. We go around spending lots of time caught up in mental worlds – seeing these concepts, ideas, emotions, judgments as something that is true about me and my world. It does not occur that these are all just a flow of experience that we don't need to identify with or react to. Daniel has a nice section in his book on content vs insight. The goal isn't to think about this stuff but to actually be aware of these phenomena coming and going (which is just experience).

So this no-self technique is trying to get us to step back – to find a witnessing state of awareness that allows us to not get sucked into things. If you take a true self approach – what does that mean to you? You essentially end up trying to build a true self on top of an illusory self. If you just drop the illusory self then you will find your 'true self' which has been here all along. But of course, the illusory self cannot drop itself - kind of like running from your shadow. What it can do is watch (be aware) - and at that point your pretty close.

“if it is easy in practice to confuse a unitive experience with a true-self experience, then how are they to be differentiated”

Ask yourself 'What elements of my experience am I aware of right now?' - Are there physical sensations?, tastes?, smells?, sounds?, feelings?, sights?, thoughts? - as you can be aware of all of these – then they are not anything that could be called a true self – if you have a true self it must be that which is aware of these things. You could ask yourself 'who is aware of this thought (feeling, etc)?'

Here is something you can do with thoughts. Next time you have a thought, try bringing the thought back up in your mind but this time try to stay aware of the thought at the same time that you experience it – just keep repeating until you can hold the two simultaneously (or go crazy :-).

Your most powerful ally will be a strong aspiration to know the truth, who you really are, the nature of reality or however you want to put it. It's probably worth more than any meditation technique out there. I think 'contemplating existence' is a pretty good practice.

-Chuck

RE: advice for integrating my old practice with Buddhist practice
Answer
11/29/09 12:22 AM as a reply to Chuck Kasmire.
Chuck Kasmire:
So this no-self technique is trying to get us to step back – to find a witnessing state of awareness that allows us to not get sucked into things. If you take a true self approach – what does that mean to you? You essentially end up trying to build a true self on top of an illusory self. If you just drop the illusory self then you will find your 'true self' which has been here all along. But of course, the illusory self cannot drop itself - kind of like running from your shadow. What it can do is watch (be aware) - and at that point your pretty close.


Taking a true self approach for me means to try to recognize in an experiential way that I am a component of the universe, a certain configuration that existence has taken, in the peculiar way that results in my particular experiences. I have had success taking this conceptual idea and turning it into an altered perception of the world, to varying degrees, such that it feels like a transition from "Brian watching the world" to "existence watching itself."

The no-self approach seems to be about objectifying mental contents, stripping away mental components that are normally identified as "self" and giving them an objective character, until finally all mental contents have thus been "objectified" and there is no "subjective" content remaining to be identified with a self.

The true self approach seems more about inflating rather than deconstructing the affiliation of mental contents with the subjective sense of self, until all mental contents have thus been "subjectified" and there is no "objective" content remaining to be contrasted with the self.

Both approaches result in the breakdown of the subject/object distinction, but by different methodologies, essentially deconstructing or inflating the self. Of course, it may be that for reasons unforeseen by me, the no-self approach turns out to be more effective for insight. Or, perhaps not, and it's arbitrary which approach one chooses. That is still an open question for me.

RE: advice for integrating my old practice with Buddhist practice
Answer
1/2/10 12:50 PM as a reply to Brian ..
Back to some simple things:

All sensations arise and vanish, all sensations that make up space, all sensations that make up what appears to be in it, all qualities of experience, all qualities that imply existence, all qualities that imply self, all qualities that imply bliss, all qualities that imply love.

Thus, the problem is not the sensations that imply existence, True Self, bliss, love, happiness, awareness, or any of that. These arise naturally dependent on conditions. However, if they are not perceived clearly, then there appears to be a split, a this from that at a bare perceptual level, which obviously doesn't contradict the natural ability of the mind to discriminate among the various qualities of experience.

Techniques such imagining this is all a dream are powerful: I do something like this also, and I call it "detailing" and do it to make my lucid dreams more coherent and detailed. You can find mention of it more in the Tibetan Literature, such as in Tenzin Wangyal's The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep.

Turning awareness to the fact of awareness itself, or of existence itself, are getting to something fundamental, but add just a little vipassana twist to this and see what happens. Turn to those, but notice the Three Characteristics of them also, gently, naturally, not as something you manufacture, but as something that is already there, and see if that helps. Notice that existence or the perception of it, comes and goes, moment to moment, dependent on conditions, same with awareness, self, other, space, and everything else. When this cuts through the core of the thing, that is it.

Sorry for the delay in posting: It has been a busy December.

Happy New Year,

Daniel