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Where to Proceed?

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Where to Proceed?
Answer
9/14/10 12:48 AM
I have a question about the attainment of concentration states/jhanas, but this question also ties into large, all-encompassing questions about my practice and what my methodology should be in relation to where I am on the path. So, why don't I start with the simpler question about concentration: I'm currently slowly making my way through Danial Ingram's collected opus on Mastering the Core Teachings, and I came to something in chapter 20 that, while not particularly the issue raised in the chapter, reminded me nevertheless of a general meditation question I have about concentration vs. insight meditation. At the end of the first paragraph, he says, "While reality cannot be frozen in this way, the illusion of solidity and stability certainly can be cultivated, and this is concentration practice." On one hand I can certainly see the benefits of working towards Jhana, but on the other hand this seems to present a paradox in my mind. If the entire point of working towards the realization of Enlightenment, why would I foster a series of mental states based entirely upon the illusion of continuity, or perhaps to better rephrase, how do I know that it would be ultimately more beneficial to my eventual goal to work towards those states?

This also leads into a much broader question concerning sense desire and the impossibility of attaining Jhana while experiencing it. For some time now I've spent at least half of my total meditation time if not more trying to foster concentration, with the eventual goal of reaching the Jhanas or at least first Jhana as an indubitable sign to myself that my concentration has become well established and stable enough that I can seriously explore insight meditation territory. Of course, the paradox is that I can't have that goal in mind and expect to attain my goal. Try as I might and have, I can't will my way to progress. So for some time now, close to a year actually, I've been stuck without an answer and I have no teacher to ask.

Why I don't have a teacher raises a yet broader question which I've been unable to entirely answer for myself, and which has to do with my goals and an uncertainty about how I should best proceed. I've met a few individuals who I might consider potential teachers, one of whom was a teacher of mine in university and who I tried on numerous occasions to ask for advice informally over a long period of time. However, I've come to the conclusion based on her actions more recently that anyone who could act as grossly irresponsibly, incognizantly, and uncompassionately towards other people in general as she has can in no way, shape, or form be someone I should accept advice from. I can well see how it's absolutely true that every human being has their own personality quirks and methods and so on, but this case is different. Maybe that's my fault as well for being naive. The other such individual I think is more accomplished and further down the path, but this individual is not a teacher of meditation per se and is not suitable for me to consider at my very novice point on the path. There's also the issue that I still don't have a clear idea even after close to 2 years of what I'm doing or if I'm proceeding more or less following the path to some actual realizations about myself and the sensate reality I live in or if because of flawed assumptions I'm stuck in a bog, and so I don't feel I should waste a teacher's time when I'm not prepared as of yet as a student. All I know, to get down to basics, is that every teaching I've read from that pertains to the core concepts of and basic ideas of Buddhism ring very very true to me and that I intuitively know that I will not find a lasting satisfaction in life unless I attain a higher realization about the nature of my existence.

This post is meant to serve as both an introduction to who I am and where I am on the path, as well as a pretty all-encompassing question to anyone who feels they might help by answering. Thanks.

RE: Where to Proceed?
Answer
9/14/10 2:27 AM as a reply to Mike Kich.
Hey Michael, welcome to the dho!

As pointed out in many places, the whole "need desire not to have desire" is a false paradox, simply because both things don't need to happen simultaneously. One desires some meditative attainment, one does the mental procedures recommended for that attainment, with due practice, eventually it comes.

As to whether you are doing the right practice or not, if you want us to give our take on that, we really would need to know exactly what you are doing, how often, what happens during your practice, etc, i.e., actual facts about your practice.

That said, having a clear goal really helps. Do you want to get awesome concentration? Do you want to get enlightened? Do you want to learn tantric sex? Do you want to "astrally project"? Do you want to see "god" everywhere? do you want to completely get rid of desire?... All of these things are possible, some are mutually exclusive and some are mutually suppoting, and all require a different practice.

Bruno

RE: Where to Proceed?
Answer
9/14/10 6:27 AM as a reply to Mike Kich.
Hey Michael,

It's really nice to get a post like yours in here.

I will second Bruno in asking you what it is that you are looking for. It seems that you are after enlightenment, as you write towards the end that you are looking for lasting satisfaction which you are currently incapable of finding in your experience. Is this the case?

If so, you make some assumptions in your post, which may be preventing you from making progress. First, you do not need to practice concentration in order to do insight well, or to do it at all. Reasonably strong concentration is required but it can be developed through the practice of insight (this form of practice is sometimes referred to as dry insight). There are some methods that develop both in more equal measures, such as Shinzen Young's take on vipassana. Noting will develop both too but it can get a bit shaky, heavy and scary at times.

Second, getting a good teacher may be a good idea (believing yourself to be an unworthy student is not particularly accurate or helpful). There are quite a number of very good meditation teachers around, a lot of them nowadays are using the Internet and/or skype so distance or location should not be a problem. Some are cheap, some are expensive. Some teach enlightenment, others are more about morality, some combine the two, some have weird views. You can certainly get this done on your own but I prefer practicing with some guidance, try it and find out for yourself which style suits you best. Getting a teacher whose credentials you can not test, who does not teach from experience, who does not have a solid grasp of the technique(s) he teaches seems like a bad idea. Personality, reputation and teaching style may also be an issue.

Does this answer some of your questions?

All the best and may you find what you are looking for,

Pavel

RE: Where to Proceed?
Answer
9/14/10 12:20 PM as a reply to Mike Kich.
Haha, I should've thought to include some of the details of my practice, I apologize for that; perhaps my rationale was that I had already listed enough questions of too much diversity within one post. Anyhow, my practice has been historically pretty varied. Starting about a year and a half ago, I started to meditate, but it was VERY occasionally and very novice meditation until maybe 6 to 8 months ago; bear in mind as well that these are rough estimates, as I simply can't remember exact dates. During this time I've been reading various Buddhist texts from various sources and I was into Tibetan Buddhism until maybe 5 months ago. To say "was" makes it sound like I've found something grossly wrong with the Tibetan form of Buddhism, but instead of that it's more that I've become sick of having to sort out the cultural crap and dogma from what actually applies to me and what's practically useful. I really liked the style of Bhante Henepola Gunaratana's Mindfulness in Plain English, since that was a very practice oriented text; I also liked The Stages of Meditation written by his holiness the Dalai Lama but based upon a text by Kamalashila, but I found it a little too vague. Although I understand the impetus behind keeping things as general as possible so as not to assert a dogmatic methodology, that doesn't stop it from being intensely irritating at times. I started reading Soghyal Rinpoche's moderately sized text which probably everyone is familiar with probably 6 months ago now, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying", a much more accessible version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (the latter of which I found way too dense and cultural-centric to even really begin), and I really loved it until perhaps 2/3 of the way through, when some of the dogma plus the intense emphasis on death and caring for dying felt not only a bit much for me at this point but also, while very relevant, not nearly as immediately relevant to me as establishing my practice. So, for now I've left that unfinished.

Anyhow, enough about what I've read. I used to experiment with visualization of purifying light/energy flowing into myself and exhaling toxins/black clouds along with recitation of mantras such as the universally known Om Mani Padme Hum and Om Vajjra Sattva Hum, but I was never sure if I believed I was using them to actually erase the defilements slowly but surely or if I was more likely just practicing concentration. Either one would be helpful I suppose, but my confusion on the subject has lately drawn me away from that particular practice. I also have tried Tonglen or Compassion Meditation to some extent, and I did like it, I've just thought that, while very beneficial, it's not exactly as concentration intensive as I would like, as pertains to my last post concerning my jhanic ambitions. I should also mention that there was a period during which I tried, I believe it's called Taraka but don't quote me on that, the Hindu concentration practice of concentrating on something such as a flame and not allowing the vision to even slightly waver from that object. For the past several months I've simply been mixing Vipassana meditation with the noting meditation that Daniel mentions in his text, though the former's always been difficult for me because I have a very active and easily intellectually distracted mind. I should mention that even through all of this vacillation I do notice my concentration and equanimity has improved over time, though to say it's far from perfect would be the understatement of the year. As you can probably tell, I'm prey at this point to several of the hindrances more especially than others, most of all worry and doubt about the efficacy of what I'm doing, and probably second of all sense desire. And yes, my eventual goal is Enlightenment, and perhaps more immediately an increased calm and equilibrium. I've noticed that my body is often a hindrance to my meditation, and so towards that end I've just taken up Tai-Chi and I've been doing Karate as well for a bit longer. As for how much and how often I meditate, I meditate usually once per day, before I go to bed or when I wake up, for between 40 minutes and an hour and 15 minutes. Sometimes, if my day's more open and I can get past my sloth and torpor, I double that and meditate twice, once in the morning and once in the evening with each occasion having the same duration. For the most part I don't mix techniques, I spend the session practicing either Vipassana or Noting or what have you.

I do hope this helps answer your question, if you would like any more details please don't hesitate to ask.

Oh by the way, I've noticed during Vipassana meditation in which I'm trying to apply it towards concentration that my attention on the breath consistently turns to noticing the three characteristics rather than perpetuating the idea of it as an object, so would you count that as further evidence that I should simply proceed along the insight path?

RE: Where to Proceed?
Answer
9/14/10 2:12 PM as a reply to Mike Kich.
Hey Michael,

From my own experience I can say, the path of dry-insight is not for the faint of heart. You probably read MCTB's chapters on the dark night, and you will come across it sooner or later when doing insight through noting practice. Going at it some other way might be softer while taking longer, but since every other approach to meditation (I know of) is mixed up with dogmatic crap one way or another (with the exception of actualism), it will require separating the dogma from the actual information.

The hardcore dharma movement (DhO, kennethfolkdharma.com) has the advantage of having gotten rid of all the crap. People in this community might have WOW!-experiences of all kinds, but they will always put practice first and stories later, and they have a clear, well-defined goal-oriented approach.

As to whether you should yourself pursue the meditative path through dry-insight practice, I would rather not advise you to do anything myself, and let you make the call based on your well-informed reading of MCTB and the other books you read.

If you do decide to do insight practice and get enlightened, then your current goal is stream entry. To get to stream entry (or anywhere else for that matter), you can do two things: you can establish a solid daily practice, and you can do larger, whole-day, many-days intensive retreats to practice more.

A solid daily practice should build up to two or three daily sessions, even if they have to be a bit shorter (say 30m each), and should include doing a lot of noting practice off the cushion. As to what one should do in the cushion, I would say one should have noting practice as a base, but practicing other things if it feels right to do so (but not out of laziness, torpor, boredom, or irritation, these are GREAT and very difficult objects for noting practice). E.g., I will sometimes trade noting practice for concentration on the breath, on a kasina, or on the I-sense (kenneth calls it "the witness"); or I will do "just sitting" practice where I just let the practice lead wherever it wants; or I will do walking meditation; or I will do a soft-focus practice; or I will do tai chi; or sometimes just a walk in the park is the best thing to do.

It might be hard to get stream entry just through this daily practice, but we have an awesome meditator here who's done it (Florian!) and he probably has some awesome tips on how to do specifically that.

If you want to go on a long retreat, you should make stream entry the sole purpose, and should be well informed on how various other people have done it, and what exactly does it mean to do such a retreat (It might not be true for everyone, but I can safely say that my 10-day retreats where the hardest thing I've ever done).

As you practice more and more, you will acquire a sense of what is the right thing to do, and what needs to be done, and with the help of a community such as this, it is hard to stray off the path for very long.

So, there is really nothing preventing you from getting the buddhist enlightenment thing except for your decision and lots of practice.

May you get whatever you strive for :-)
Bruno

RE: Where to Proceed?
Answer
9/15/10 1:14 AM as a reply to Mike Kich.
Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich:
I have a question about the attainment of concentration states/jhanas, but this question also ties into large, all-encompassing questions about my practice and what my methodology should be in relation to where I am on the path. . . .

. . .and I came to something in chapter 20 that, while not particularly the issue raised in the chapter, reminded me nevertheless of a general meditation question I have about concentration vs. insight meditation. At the end of the first paragraph, he says, "While reality cannot be frozen in this way, the illusion of solidity and stability certainly can be cultivated, and this is concentration practice."

On one hand I can certainly see the benefits of working towards Jhana, but on the other hand this seems to present a paradox in my mind. If the entire point of working towards the realization of Enlightenment, why would I foster a series of mental states based entirely upon the illusion of continuity, or perhaps to better rephrase, how do I know that it would be ultimately more beneficial to my eventual goal to work towards those states?

This also leads into a much broader question concerning sense desire and the impossibility of attaining Jhana while experiencing it. For some time now I've spent at least half of my total meditation time if not more trying to foster concentration, with the eventual goal of reaching the Jhanas or at least first Jhana as an indubitable sign to myself that my concentration has become well established and stable enough that I can seriously explore insight meditation territory. Of course, the paradox is that I can't have that goal in mind and expect to attain my goal. Try as I might and have, I can't will my way to progress. So for some time now, close to a year actually, I've been stuck without an answer and I have no teacher to ask.

Hello Michael,

You sound like an intelligent young man who is looking for some simple intelligent guidance. While I can't guarantee the latter, I'll leave it to your discernment to be the judge.

Whether you are of a mind to or not, the level of your intelligence strikes me as though you would benefit from obtaining and reading the discourses of the Buddha, as many of the questions you have asked might be better handled from that perspective. Once you are able to see how the Buddha handled such seeming dilemmas, you may find some wisdom in his approach to things.

With regard to the mental paradox you mentioned above, there is a sutta that addresses this very issue. It is in the Majjhima Nikaya, and coincidentally enough, it has to do with Gotama's own practice of the jhanas. The translation is done by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi, who most likely wrote the footnoted material. The passage is self-explanatory. The speaker in the passage is Gotama:

Majjhima Nikaya 36.31-32

31. "I considered: 'I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. Could that be the path to enlightenment?' Then, following on that memory, came the realization: 'That is the path to enlightenment.'
32. "I thought: 'Why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unwholesome states?' I thought: 'I am not afraid of that pleasure since it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unwholesome states.'[390]

Footnotes
390. This passage marks a change in the Bodhisatta's evaluation of pleasure; now it is no longer regarded as something to be feared and banished by the practice of austerities, but, when born of seclusion and detachment, is seen as a valuable accompaniment of the higher stages along the path to enlightenment. See MN 139.9 on the twofold division of pleasure.


While absorption concentration can be a little tricky to figure out if one is on their own, it is not impossible. Most prudent people recommend studying absorption with someone who has mastered them, someone who can oversee your progress and help you over the rough spots. This is best done in person, although I have witnessed some people who have received help over the Internet. Mostly, though, they were people with more experience in meditation than yourself. Yet, as I say, it is not impossible. If your other post is any guide, I would recommend your at least attempting to master the jhanas (the first four anyway, in the beginning) as they would be a tremendous assistance to your vipassana practice.

By the way, calming meditation (samatha) and insight meditation (vipassana) are not two separate practices, but are often practiced together. The following essay is recommended reading, and will help provide further details about this point of view. This is why the Buddha recommend developing and mastering the absorption states (if one was able to) as this will help facilitate the process of being able to smoothly move between samatha and vipassana.

Once you get over the fascination with being able to attain absorption and begin working with them in earnest, you will find that the stability they lend to your level of concentration is well worth the time spent in mastering them. They help to re-condition the mind, and their practice over time contains the added benefit of being an assist to your level of mindfulness outside of meditation. (It goes without saying that the level of mindfulness during meditation is also heightened.)

All the best to you.
In peace,
Ian

RE: Where to Proceed?
Answer
9/15/10 5:52 PM as a reply to Ian And.
Thank you all for your very kind advice on the various subjects I presented, I shall try as best I can to apply your advice to my meditation. Now, haha, if you or others would be so kind, I have two questions regarding practical meditation concerns which I'd like to ask now before they evaporate into the mist of impermanence that is the nature of mind.

The first is: Is there a particular reason that, despite getting a meditation cushion and having by now spent a pretty considerable amount of time and discomfort on it, I still can't seem to get through a meditation session without being constantly distracted by back stiffness, having discomfort in my knee joints, having my legs fall asleep, and having a constant sense that I'm either drooping too far forwards and getting lulled to sleep or falling backwards? I had thought that those issues along with the general stiffness in my hips would get better with time, but either I'm doing something wrong or cross-legged sitting meditation's just not for my body type. I realize that one can actually meditate laying down, standing up, floating in zero gee, doing backflips, walking, whatever, but I would very much like the rock-solid stability and even-keeled tranquility that something like full lotus offers.

The second is: I've read at least a segment from one of the Buddha's suttas in which he addresses how much concentration should be brought to the table for concentration meditation, and he gives examples of the various extremes at both ends and at the same time cleverly illustrates the middle way again, with one person much too lax in their concentration and the other at the other end of the spectrum, giving himself a migraine from the tremendous effort he's bringing to bear. I've always tried to keep my attention very narrowly focused if possible and have always struggled with that, so for example following the rising and falling of the breath and immediately shoving out all other thoughts, imaginings, and sensations if possible, but it not only seems impossible to do that but I also have to wonder if being distracted from one thing to another is just a reflection of the nature of mind; after all, it illustrates perfectly the characteristic of impermanence, sense objects from each of your senses constantly change and are in flux.

Haha, if whoever's reading this isn't running away by now, I also have a question regarding the practice of noting. It's simply this: Can one actually notice multiple sense inputs at literally the same moment, or is the perception of each sense input, so smelling the scent of flowers in the air while hearing the fan going while feeling yourself sitting, actually separately perceived but occurring so quickly that my mind can't necessarily distinguish them as being separate (at this point)?

RE: Where to Proceed?
Answer
9/15/10 6:50 PM as a reply to Mike Kich.
I really like that you already got three pretty different answers, all of which have something valuable to them. It's great that there are more than one way to go about this stuff.

As for your last questions. Posture is not so important in my experience, I have always sat in a chair, with back straight to avoid falling asleep or losing focus, this posture works wonders and can be kept up for a very long time. I suspect that the cross legged postures will be more difficult to master and may require some guidance in order not to sit in such a way that would put your legs to sleep, etc. There will forever be some amount of discomfort, this is unavoidable.

Being distracted from one thing to another is what happens. Sensations arise and pass away and it takes a lot of training to stay with one sensation for long periods of time (a minute would be a massive achievement in my opinion). I personally do not see the point of taking this skill too far (ie. you do not need it for insight). If you are doing insight, being distracted from your primary object is not a problem at all, as you can observe those sensations one after another as they arise and pass away all of their own accord, without your influence or control. If you are doing concentration, it may be preferable to notice the sensation occurring (even noting it if you so wish) before moving back to your object of concentration rather than pushing or shoving anything away. No force necessary apart from a steady attention to the object, returning gently whenever it strays off. It will stray off and this is not a problem.

Can one actually notice multiple sense inputs at literally the same moment, or is the perception of each sense input, so smelling the scent of flowers in the air while hearing the fan going while feeling yourself sitting, actually separately perceived but occurring so quickly that my mind can't necessarily distinguish them as being separate (at this point)?


They are separately perceived, the sensations that make them up arise and pass away one after another and your attention moves between them very quickly but with stronger insight skills this becomes perceivable. As in, these events do occur at the same time but you are only capable of being consciously aware of one at a time. This could be an interesting experiment for you - take a sound and physical sensation and try to see whether you can truly be aware of both happening at the same time.

Oh, by the way, you are on the right track with impermanence.

All the best with your practice.

RE: Where to Proceed?
Answer
9/15/10 7:50 PM as a reply to Mike Kich.
Well, I think that answers about all of my questions for now, so I'd like to thank all of you for your most generous and detailed responses. I'll try as best I can to integrate and apply the separate pieces of advice you've given me into one cohesive whole, although of course that'll take time, as all worthwhile things do. So, thanks once more, and I hope to speak with all of you again at some point in time.

*Edit* Oop, haha, I have something to add although this isn't a question to be answered so much as something that I think it'd be interesting to hear peoples' opinions on. I once read an article, months and months and months ago (so a year probably), by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana in Shambala Sun or some magazine like that if not that one, in which he pretty concisely laid out and described the differences between and the attainments gained in each level of first the 4 material jhanas and then the formless jhanas such as the perception of infinite space, etc., and then a brief little commentary on the Supramundane Jhanas. I've read somewhat separate things about the slide from ordinary consciousness to first jhana, so basically the access concentration territory, and different people characterize the suddenness and noticeability of the shift differently; his account seems to indicate that even making the leap into first jhana basically transports you to perceiving the universe in a totally, utterly different way for the duration of the jhana and is accompanied by heavenly bliss and so on, and is as impossible to miss and unmistakeable as being hit by a freight train (just pleasurably hit by a freight train). Other accounts, I think by Mr. Ingram, seem to indicate that maybe it's something that happens without you noticing throughout the day, that it's something very subtle until it can be recognized, rather than an abrupt and wild shift akin to dropping lsd. I should add here that I feel like on several occasions I've been just on the edge of jhana, but that as soon as I noticed that sensation the state ended and I was back to trying to attain something.