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Joy, love and compassion on tap

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Joy, love and compassion on tap
Answer
7/20/18 6:18 AM
Over the past couple of years I've developed an ability that I'm not convinced I've seen discussed much, so I'd like to throw it out there and see what people make of it.

By way of background, I've been practising for about ten years. Based on a recent reading of MCTB2 I very tentatively place myself somewhere around third path territory (Daniel's descriptions of feeling like he basically 'got it' but there was still something missing, becoming increasingly fascinated with interconnectedness etc. really ring true for how my practice has changed recently), but take that with a large pinch of salt because I'm not sure myself.

I'm also going to mention jhanas, and since that's a pretty loaded term I'll try to be specific. I've been practising with Leigh Brasington since a 10-day retreat in 2013, and I first learnt to access what he considers the jhanas through a slightly modified version of his instructions. (The modification: he suggests that, when you reach access concentration, you switch your attention to a pleasant sensation, and ride that all the way into the first jhana. That never worked for me; the concentration would fizzle and die away. I ended up staying on the breath until physical sensations of energy coursing through my body erupted uncontrollably, which was my marker for the first jhana. Beyond that point, things proceeded for me as Leigh describes, taking a deep breath to move into the second jhana and so on. Since that retreat I've learnt a number of other ways to access broadly the same states.) I haven't experimented with Pa Auk-style jhana at all, and I'd guess that I've never been higher than stage 8 on the road to shamatha described in The Mind Illuminated, if anyone's counting.


OK. That's background. I'm not particularly looking to discuss or debate the above unless it's relevant to diagnosis, because right now I'm more interested in what's going on with this ability I seem to have developed.

I first noticed the precursor to it on a retreat a couple of years ago. I was playing around with 'resting in awareness' - I discovered what felt like a kind of 'still point' in awareness (somewhere 'back there' is how I conceptualise it) where I could rest and experience the 'whole' of awareness at once, as opposed to focusing on a specific object or phenomenon (or stream of phenomena, to be more precise). Resting there felt pretty cool - relaxed, equanimous, easy, content, peaceful.

After I'd been doing this a few days I remembered a comment from an old audio recording about how awareness has a kind of 'inherently pleasant' quality to it. So I looked, and I found it; when I was resting in awareness, I could 'tune in' to this pleasant quality. This enhanced the positive aspects of this resting without substantially disturbing it, so I had a few pretty chilled days on that retreat, just walking around feeling quietly content with everything.

Then I poked at it a bit more. I started looking at how I was seemingly able to take 'all of awareness' as an object, given that 'awareness' isn't really separate from its contents. At this point the sense of the pleasantness of being aware flipped on its head and became a kind of universal goodwill directed towards everything in my awareness. It was the same sensation, but directed towards the diversity of phenomena rather than the unitary quality of awareness, if that makes any sense?

Up to this point, I'd never really made much headway with the brahmaviharas - attempting to conjure up feelings of goodwill and compassion has always felt fake and cheesy to me. But now I was experiencing a genuine sense of goodwill which was totally universal - it wasn't like I was choosing to direct it towards 'every being' or anything like that, but rather it felt like an intrinsic property of simply being aware, so it couldn't help but be universal.

That retreat ended and I pretty much forgot about this experience, interesting though it was. But a few months ago I did a week-long intensive meditation teacher training programme, which included a whole lot of sitting time, and during that week I remembered/rediscovered the 'still point' and the flip into universal goodwill, and then, more interestingly, I found an on/off switch for it. Basically, I could sit, start practice, and either investigate my experience in a kind of quiet, 'cold' way, or I could flip the switch and imbue my experience with this sense of warmth and goodwill. Turning it on made everything seem better, no matter what was going on. Turning it off made everything seem a bit clearer and sharper - a bit like having things in soft focus versus perfect clarity.

On a more recent retreat I started experimenting with this ability. This was a Korean Zen retreat, working with 'What is this?', so I started experimenting with blending this with the questioning. This was pretty cool - on its own, the question was generating a sense of mystery, bafflement and the earnest desire to keep exploring; when I flipped the switch on, the experience became one of wide-eyed wonder at how amazing the universe is. It got to the point where I could do it in walking meditation as well as sitting, and finally I was able to access it at any time. I also started to get a sense that I could increase the power of the experience, from 'mild' to 'quite intense', although I didn't play with this too much at the time.

On yet another retreat (I've slightly over-achieved on retreat time this year...) I started to discover nuance in the experience, which once again reminds me of brahmaviharas. With the switch on, if nothing much was going on, I'd be generally content, peaceful and happy. If I started to think about another person, or saw someone, it would shade over into an earnest wish that they be happy. If I saw someone (or an animal) experiencing joy, it shaded over into a resonating, sympathetic joy. If I saw someone experiencing suffering of some sort, it became an earnest wish that they be free of suffering. When I had a difficult experience myself (of which there were a great many on that retreat, for a number of reasons including the very recent death of a friend), it became a kind of mixture of gentle kindness and tenderness directed towards myself which allowed me to hold and stay with the difficulty longer than I otherwise might.

During the better moments of the retreat, I also developed the 'on/off' switch into a proper 'dimmer switch'. In 'joy mode', in particular, it can now go anywhere from mildly pleasant to so outrageously powerful that my face was pulled into a crazy grinning rictus, my body was twisted and shaking trying to contain the physical rapture, and so on.

Interestingly, this feels quite different to my previous experiences of the jhanas, which have themselves been pretty varied over the years. There's an obvious comparison for me between this 'joy on a dimmer switch' and having some degree of control over the second jhana, but in comparison the second jhana feels dry and one-dimensional compared to this experience, which seems to have much more depth and complexity to it. I don't really have good language for this, except to say that this doesn't feel to me like the second jhana the way I'm used to experiencing it (a la Brasington), and I've spent quite a lot of hours playing with the jhanas at this point so I'm relatively confident on this point.


I've spoken to a few teachers about this, and they've all been generally encouraging (suggesting that I should keep cultivating it). One suggested that I was 'seeing the world through the eyes of the brahmaviharas', which is a practice suggested in the suttas and which can lead to a powerful transformation of consciousness if cultivated for long enough. Which sounds pretty cool, but if that's the case, how come more people don't talk about this aspect of the brahmaviharas? Maybe I haven't read the right books (to be fair, I tend to avoid the ones that are all 'compassion this, compassion that' because I find them a bit drippy), but I've always seen the brahmaviharas presented as 'cultivate love and direct it towards this person, then that person, then another person', and that approach simply doesn't make sense to me because it's literally universal in my experience - the best I can do is create the feeling and then bring a person to mind, but that doesn't feel like 'sending love to that person' or whatever to me, it's more 'experiencing universal love whilst thinking of that person'.

Another point I've sometimes pondered is why I don't tap into this more often. Sometimes I remember, and I turn it on for a bit and enjoy it, then let it go again. One might well ask 'If you have access to on-demand happiness, why don't you live there 24/7?' Good question. Dunno, really. Do you think I should? I guess it feels to me like this is just another conditioned phenomenon which arises and passes away, and is thus not 'the point'. I'm also a bit concerned by the 'soft focus' effect because I've generally emphasised seeing things as clearly as possible in my practice up to this point. But I'm open to suggestions!


Over to you. What the heck is this?

RE: Joy, love and compassion on tap
Answer
7/20/18 9:13 AM as a reply to Matt.
I spent about a year going way deep into the brahmaviharas and what you describe sounds very similar to some of my own experiences. Bhikkhu Analayo's Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation is in my opinion by far the best book on the subject out of the 6 or 8 I've read. He cites old suttas that describe using the brahmaviharas as a gateway to the formless realms--really great stuff to explore there. Kinda like fusion jhanas--you can take boundless space and fill it with something nice.

I spent a few weeks with radiating metta "on" 24/7, which was nice and it was interesting to observe how it changed subtly with the nanas, but after awhile it got old. And then I felt the desire to go digging and do some shadow work, which I've always done periodically, and it seems the natural thing to do after heavy samatha. All that pleasure, time for something painful! So I just recently finished a round of 5 dakinis/5 elements from Ken McLeod's Wake Up to Your Life--highly recommended. Interestingly, McLeod's chapter on the brahmaviharas warns that you shouldn't start the brahmaviharas until after working on other techniques to deal with reactive patterns because otherwise it will just be like putting wallpaper over rotten wood or something to that effect.

Anyway, really good stuff to have on tap and still a huge part of my practice. But the interesting thing has become observing the interplay between them, seeing how they balance each other, and lots of other stuff I just haven't quite articulated yet. It evolves just like any other practice, I guess.

RE: Joy, love and compassion on tap
Answer
7/20/18 10:02 AM as a reply to Andromeda.
Thanks, that's really interesting stuff. I'll check out the Analyo reference right away - you're the second person to mention it to me (unless we were on a retreat together at Cloud Mountain a couple of years ago...).

RE: Joy, love and compassion on tap
Answer
7/20/18 3:47 PM as a reply to Matt.
Wasn't me. Have fun!

RE: Joy, love and compassion on tap
Answer
7/20/18 4:30 PM as a reply to Matt.
Seeing as you asked ... I've been having something similar in recent months.  My gateway to it was through decomposing the mind into sense consciousness, body, energy, verbal fabrications, mental fabrications, non-conceptual thinking.  Then I found a new sense consciousnsess ... proprioception, or the sense of space.  If I dwell in that sense of space I get something very similar to what you are talking about.  It also reminds me of Echkardt Tolle's description of the state he sat in for a year after his big awakening.  It seems to be joy rather than pleasure or happiness. I wouldn't call it sukka, but maybe pamojja, or joy not of the body.

The best thing about the spacious state of joy is that it calmed my mind, and enabled me to make more  progress in spotting and controlling urges. So aside from being really nice, I have found it a good platform to unwind subtle mental flailing that creates suffering. 

RE: Joy, love and compassion on tap
Answer
7/21/18 4:12 AM as a reply to Matt.
Fascinating thread, thanks!

I've recently started to develop a taste for something similar via by own home-baked awareness practice. Sometimes when I detect a lot of internal conflict while in a tranquil state I can somehow generate an undirected pulse of joy/love/compassion which helps to smooth out difficulties.

Like you I never practiced metta or the like because I find it dippy, and also find the idea uncomfortably close to brainwashing myself - my practice has also been all about seeing-clearly, and being careful to avoid delusion or self-hypnosis. I've always believed that optimal compassion/action comes from being free from deulsion. For those reasons I have no interest in trying to induce this state unless it seems to serve some important purpose that originates in clear-seeing, or will directly improve clear-seeing. For me an increase in happiness for its own sake at the cost of seeing less clearly is a distraction from the path.

RE: Joy, love and compassion on tap
Answer
7/21/18 5:41 AM as a reply to curious.
I hadn’t connected Tolle, but I did wonder something similar - Ayya Khema said that after fourth path she had access to the ‘joy of awakening’ on demand thereafter. I’m pretty certain at this point that I have further to go on the insight front (although it’s an elusive, subtle ‘further’ which keeps squirming away from me...) so I’d discounted that. Perhaps it’s an ability which becomes clearer/more easily accessible with the progression of insight, but some people find it sooner when it’s less fully developed, whereas others get it full bore in the face when they cross the last threshold. 

RE: Joy, love and compassion on tap
Answer
7/21/18 5:51 AM as a reply to Adam.
I can definitely relate to what you’re saying about focusing on clear seeing to the exclusion of temporary pleasant states. I’ve been coming from that place myself for most of my practice life. 

However... In the interests of balance I’d like to throw this out there. I’ve found it to be a very useful ability to cultivate as a way of dealing with ‘relative reality’ when it gets to be too much. 

‘Don’t get sucked into your neurotic bullshit, you hippy!’, you might well think. Sure, that’s valid advice. 

A few months ago a friend and colleague died suddenly and unexpectedly. He’d been missing for a few days, and (long story short) I ended up outside his house when the police smashed the door down and found his body. 

A couple of weeks later his funeral took place; later that afternoon I went on a 10-day concentration retreat, booked months in advance. 

It was pretty brutal. His death hit me hard. I’d recently been on another retreat and experienced a profound heart opening. The grief steam-rollered me - I was barely functional for a few weeks, and when I got on retreat it all came rushing back, worse than before. 

The the only way I found to get through it was to activate self-compassion, through this mechanism, and then simply sit, stand or walk, holding the grief in as much metta and karuna as I could muster. 

It was no picnic, but it enabled me to be present with my grief without suppressing it or letting it drown me. Engaging this ability allowed me to let go of the incredible resistance to the grief and simply experience it. It didn’t become a fun or enjoyable experience (and I wouldn’t have wanted it to - my friend was dead and I was upset), but it became bearable in a way that it wasn’t previously. 

Now, this is a highly personal and idiosyncratic story which possibly verges in over-sharing (if so, I apologise). My point here is that, while this might not lead directly to fundamental insight, it’s worth cultivating because it can help a great deal when relative reality is kicking your ass. (It also makes a great concentration object, so it helps both of the first two trainings.)

RE: Joy, love and compassion on tap
Answer
7/22/18 2:54 PM as a reply to Matt.
Thanks for sharing, that is helpful and has given me something to think about. Particularly now the feeling is starting to arise unbidden, it may be a good time to explore cultivating it.

Edit: and after some self-examination think I've been missing a trick and lacking balance in my practice by avoiding this. Hard to see clearly if you can't embrace all aspects of experience. Thanks again Matt!