Thought Renunciation

Mark Brauer, modified 8 Years ago at 11/11/14 4:17 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 11/11/14 3:03 PM

Thought Renunciation

Posts: 5 Join Date: 11/11/14 Recent Posts
I'm curious why an approach like this to samatha isn't more common. I guess you could also call it 'objectless concentration', but I find that seems to have more association with Vipassana and semantically I'm really not sure if you can meditate at all without some kind of object. The vein of it seems to be something along the lines of what yogis might call 'pratyahara', literally something like not eating or nurturing. The process is one where you abandon thoughts as soon as they arise, turn your mind to a sort of stillness that's already present in the mind, and from there notice the 'rumblings' of habitual formations or proto-thoughts and dissolve them before they manifest into anything, progressively suspending active thinking more and more, until the mind thuroughly settles out.

I've been meditating fairly consistently for about five years or so, and I've found that samatha only began to make sense to me once I approached it from a context of attenuation rather than 'concentration'. Everything else I've tried would either be some form of mindfulness meditation, settling into a dull trance, or striving. With this I can experience phenomena like sensory withdrawal and piti, etc, consistently and in just a few minutes. Meditation is practically effortless and a real reprieve, striving never becomes a problem nor does dullness; and my experiences off the cushion are thuroughly what I'd expect from tranquility meditation, including me becoming more aware of a more obscured strata of thoughts and memories (say those from childhood, or pseudo-psychic perceptions, etc) that I'd never really experience with any consistency when I was trying to use anapanasati for samatha.

And it makes sense to me, if you view meditation through a kind signal-noise analogy, it seems like tranquility is the process of attenuating noise so the signal (awareness) can fully permeate. My question then is why doesn't this approach seem to be more common? I doesn't give as much in terms of reference points, but to me it seems to speak to the 'essential' nature of tranquility meditation and it also seems rather deep or extensive. I can't attribute it to anything in the 40 kammatthana for example, and when I search this forum I come up with "awareness of awareness" (or Mahamudra, Dzogchen, Shikantaza, etc) like practices which seem more like Vipassana to me, while this seems like samatha through and through. That or I get threads of people suggesting not to 'suppress' thoughts, but this doesn't feel like suppression to me, it feels more like just not grasping them, or maybe it is suppression after all, but it doesn't seem to be negative.
Bill F, modified 8 Years ago at 11/11/14 5:50 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 11/11/14 5:50 PM

RE: Thought Renunciation

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Mark: The practice you are describing is taught in the Vajrayana tradition as "shamatha without an object". I've been playing with it myself lately and found it very fruitful. The way it is taught it is that the practitioner rests in the natural state (awareness with no watcher, empty, boundaryless, alert). Resting in this state, watching for thoughts "like looking for fish on the surface of the ocean" is the analogy used by Reggie Ray. When the proto-thought arises, you meet it in immediacy, it dissolves, and the natural state is at the foreground again. I would agree that it is not about suppression, and that to be lost in thoughts is to be in some sense dissasociated from the immediacy of life. A further practice involves allowing the thoughts to arise, and seeing the nature of thinking to not be separate from the natural state.-Bill
Not Tao, modified 8 Years ago at 11/12/14 12:16 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 11/12/14 12:16 AM

RE: Thought Renunciation

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This sounds like what I've been doing. emoticon

Something to consider - satchitananda (being-counsciousness-bliss) is the main background of all experience.  You can tune into it by letting everything be exactly as it is and simply identifying yourself as the timeless awareness behind all wanting.  This kind of meditation is pretty popular in hindu traditions, and it may actually have it's own fruition separate from buddhist goals (emptiness).

Bills idea is good too.  I'd wait until you're stabilized in awareness to begin re-introducing things, though.  They take on a different character in "nowness" than they did while not in it.
Mark Brauer, modified 8 Years ago at 11/12/14 12:37 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 11/12/14 12:24 AM

RE: Thought Renunciation

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Thank you William, that does seem to be the same method. I've realized that I'd always just viewed objectless Vajrayana practices in the context of rigpa or nondual awareness, and by extension saw them all as insight practices. It makes sense that they wouldn't all be, and within a greater whole I can see how an approach like this to samatha would work well for that aim, too. I'm pretty naive of Vajrayana practices, most of the work I've read could be considered Theravadin (Thanissaro, Gunaratana, Sumedho), I think I'll have to look into Reggie Ray's work. For some reason objectless meditation seems to work better for me, maybe because there's less of a sense of 'doing' to get snagged on, like in a way it's maybe easier to get out of your own way.

Not Tao, that's interesting. I've always interpreted practices like that to be relatively inaccessible, like the quality being described is different than the ones I have access to at the moment. Sometimes it seems like a bit of a two-part process and the pieces aren't quite harmonized yet. Like a part of it is attenuating thoughts to develop a degree of stillness, and the other part is working with awareness itself. They seem related, but distinct in a way, I can attenuate thoughts but remain aware just enough that I don't sink into a daze once in absorption, or I can become very aware while not really do much with the 'background noise' and being not very absorbed at all. It seems like I maybe need to string them together to get at the sort of thing you're describing.
John M, modified 8 Years ago at 11/12/14 1:23 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 11/12/14 1:21 PM

RE: Thought Renunciation

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Mark Brauer:
And it makes sense to me, if you view meditation through a kind signal-noise analogy, it seems like tranquility is the process of attenuating noise so the signal (awareness) can fully permeate.

It's interesting to me that you'd make the signal/noise comparison, as I've been noticing and making this same analogy in my own (very similar) practice. Past a certain point of signal clarity, I don't find thoughts detract -- they just become part of the stream. The primary noise-maker actually tends to be volition; movements to direct or even interpret experience really seem to muddy the water. Balancing non-distraction with non-involvement feels like twiddling the world's smallest, most finicky dials until it somehow "clicks" -- the micro-adjustments cease, and the meditation does itself. Or, it doesn't click and I get frustrated!

Tony Duff has, I recall, a nice description of samatha without reference, as he terms it, in his A Complete Session of Meditation book. Let's see...

In the higher meditations of Mahamudra and Great Completion, you just rest directly in the luminosity which is the nature of your own mind. This is a practice of shamatha and vipashyana unified together. The shamatha part is the resting directly without need of some object other than mind. The vipashyana part is that you are in the reality of your own mind, actually seeing the reality of your own mind. In this case, the style of shamatha is without reference. In the more conventional approaches to shamatha practice, you use some kind of object, such as a mental visualization, to keep the mind focussed one-pointedly; that is called shamatha with reference. In shamatha without reference, you do not use a special object as a way of keeping your mind focused one-pointedly but just rest in the mind itself. In the higher meditations of Mahamudra and Great Completion, the staying one-pointedly in mind is called “non-distraction” and that you are simply staying in the luminosity which is the reality of your own mind, without creating anything, is called a “non-meditation” style of meditation.

This non-distracted and non-meditation style of meditation is actually very easy. It is the most easy thing to do because there is actually nothing to do. However, it is very difficult for most people to do that. Most people start thinking conceptually about the reality of their own mind in the middle of the meditation and thereby distract themselves from the reality they are trying to stay within. They keep on fiddling with what needs no adjustment and, because of that, make this practice of meditation which is actually exceptionally easy into something difficult.

He later makes a point of how key relaxation is to this style of practice. I find this another interesting point of contrast to the more driven, grind-it-out modes of practice.
Not Tao, modified 8 Years ago at 11/12/14 3:10 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 11/12/14 3:06 PM

RE: Thought Renunciation

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It might me fruitful to examine what you actually are reffering to when you "aren't aware." If you think about it, we must always be aware as long as we aren't unconscious, right? So when it seems like we haven't been aware, what we're actually experiencing is identification with what we're aware of. So, if you're lost in thought, it doesn't mean you aren't aware, it just means this awareness believes it is the thought itself. You have become the thought, so to speak. Since awareness is always operating as long as we exist, we can find liberation by simply BEING the awareness, and letting that awareness go wherever it wants to.

When it seems like we are more aware, it's generally because the awareness has become less identified with specific things, and it is allowing everything to present completely. It's a bit counter intuitive, isn't it? The more we simply allow to happen, the less distracted we get.

For me, it seems like I have to be in the right mood for this kind of perspective to work, though. Like, I understand from practice that the state of completely open awareness is actually complete acceptance, but half the time knowing this doesn't do anything for me at all. Maybe that's when "fabricating" the state can be somewhat useful.

EDIT: John's post is spot on there.  Maybe some concentration on an object is a good lead in to this kind of practice.
Mark Brauer, modified 8 Years ago at 11/13/14 1:46 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 11/13/14 12:31 PM

RE: Thought Renunciation

Posts: 5 Join Date: 11/11/14 Recent Posts
@John M., I think I understand volition being 'noisier' than thoughts, and that observation is a welcome one because I was short of making it myself. When I first realized how extensive and frequent my lapses in attention were, I found it really had nothing to do with content, it just felt like 'movement'. When I first noticed the phenomenon I tried to describe it to someone, I said I thought it felt like the mental equivalent of if someone were to sit in a chair, but had to shift their butt in their seat every few seconds. I still think it's a decent analogy, it's like a sort of compulsive activity that prevents you from really getting settled. I had forgotten that, though, I was ready to throw it all out. I mean I'm sure there's value to attenuating thoughts or mental content in certain situations, but in others it certainly seems like it may be going too far. And it mirrors my difficulty with meditation using an object, or rather my tendency to get fixated on the object and have that obscure my volitions towards it.

I'm really liking everything I'm learning about Vajrayana or Mahamudra style practices, I had always neglected them either because they seemed kind of esoteric or difficult to approach, or I wasn't familiar with the more Mahayanist terminology coming from more of a Theravadin perspective (and really on closer inspection that may just be the same thing on my part). But my own inquiry seems to be taking me in that direction, so there doesn't seem to be much reason to be apprehensive anymore.

@Not Tao, it isn't really that I'm not aware, though I didn't explain myself well, and that line of inquiry seems like it would be valuable regardless. What I find with this style of samatha practice, is I actually retain more awareness than with any other 'object'. Maybe because it calls for more moment-to-moment engagement which naturally retains some degree of vivid awareness, while naturally correcting against the tendency to over-extend myself volitionally. The balance is a finer one, and I think my temperament is drawn to excess, so between those two it feels somewhat corrective. I'm able to move into jhana without falling into moha-samadhi which is actually a novel thing for me. Normally either my awareness would grow dull alongside tranquility, or tranquility just wouldn't unfold at all.

What I meant was that resting in the pure quality of the mind seems to call for something other than just entering the jhanas. There's the nature of becoming aware of awareness itself, which I find is different from just remaining 'undistracted'. I actually think I have a cursory feel for both. Awareness of awareness requires a lot more finesse and is much less restful for me than samatha without an object. But I find that I can locate a bit of a positive feedback loop in that regard, where my mind can grow very bright just by attending to the quality of being 'aware' and having that sort of cycle back on itself. It's crude, though, but I think I have some sense of the phenomenon. Those two things are just things I tend to do separately, because at this point it seems sufficient just locating either 'undistractedness' or 'simple awareness' on an individual basis. Considering my history of meditation floundering without much progress, I'm hesitant to give myself too many balls to juggle now that it seems to be opening up for me somewhat.

Strangely I think I'm some kind of reverse case in regards to samatha with or without an object. For some reason the former seems like it presents more of a frustrating challenge to me. I want to take up anapanasati again at some point, but I think it will probably be after I get a feel for samatha without an object, at least that seems like the logical sequence to me right now.
Not Tao, modified 8 Years ago at 11/13/14 1:58 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 11/13/14 1:58 PM

RE: Thought Renunciation

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Actually, I think I can relate to this, haha.  After I started doing choiceless awareness meditation and got pretty good at it, I lost interest in doing the jhanas in a concentration type way.  There's a feeling of strain, trying to keep "awareness" on a single thing, and that's specifically what these formless meditations get rid of.  I think we can look at it as a sign of progress, since the goal is to see the effortless quality of things, no?  If we're moving the meditation into the everyday, ordinary state of being, that means we can spend more time with tranquility using less effort.

Actually, I think this is where the two paths - concentration and insight - start to meet.  I'm beginning to see that there is nothing that needs to be fasioned or created - rather it's the fasioning and creating itself that's stressful - even in a very unpleasant or unskillful state!