Saturday 30 March 2013

When 'It' Becomes 'You': Deep Attention

Living in a rural area means meeting animals. Particularly in the winter, when we put food out for the birds, the sense of sharing a challenging environment and the common need for food and shelter become apparent. Of course there are preferences: the grey squirrel is regarded as a pest because it forces out the red squirrel – and chews its way through the roofs of our kutis in order to nest in the insulation. And when food goes out for the birds, the squirrels turn up and grab it all.  They are cute, agile, voracious and cunning.  Like most sentient beings. The magpies bully the thrushes, the robins fight each other.  Local cats move in and prey on the young rabbits.  Us humans defend our waste food from rats and our roof space from squirrels; and we feed the birds. What we all do is stay alive and maintain ourselves within a shared environment; clashing when need be and being gracious when we can.  We’re real creatures, not cartoon figures.

At least some of us are. Because the human world, and the human mind, are also densely populated with abstractions. Our minds carry impressions of others – some of whom are the characters we see on the screens or read about. There’s Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and their descendants; along with actors and rock stars and the characters in the soap operas whose antics millions will devotedly watch twice a week for a decade. If the fictional character ‘dies’ or is written out of the series, people send condolences and want to go to the funeral. These fictional beings become larger than life role models, icons of the cool and the successful. They form and lead the culture – so the mind-set of the society gets established around fashion models and movie stars.  Even stranger: these beings only exist in an abstract, iconic way. We don’t rub up against them (except when in carefully monitored off-stage walkabouts, or by chance when they’re out of role) and they are ‘he/she/it’ rather than ‘you’.

The ‘it’ relationship is the dominant mode for information and data: science, economics and their technologies work in terms of ‘it.’ In these the aim is clear object-definition and data that are verifiable and understandable by any number of observers. ‘It’ lives at the end of the microscope, on the screen, spreadsheet or graph. I am removed from it and observe it and investigate and experiment on it, secure in the knowledge that it will not do the same to me. It will not talk to me, or if it does, I will note that, but not feel any need to reply or be affected by it.  The abstract ‘it’ relationship is the one of the physical sciences, and through their knowledge we can arrange the phenomenal world to suit us better.

So ‘it’ is one way of measuring and knowing, a way that offers clear object-definition.  But how accurate is it? Perhaps you’re aware of the incident when David Attenborough, the great British naturalist, put down his observation role and met a group of gorillas on their own terms. As an observer, his perception of the gorillas was marked by fear and mistrust: these were wild, powerful creatures. His comment was: ‘If you suddenly appeared close to them and took them by surprise, then they would almost certainly charge.’ ('Gorilla' = savage, beating chest, bared fangs – King Kong is the figure who represents gorillas) But to his credit, David relaxed in their presence, and ended up lying alongside a huge male silverback, being cuddled by members of the group as two young infants inquisitively attempted to remove his shoes. For him it was a life-changing moment.  What you see depends not just on it, but on how you attend.

On the other hand there’s the tragic story of a couple who took their young child to the zoo to see the bears (Bears =  cuddly, teddy bear, Pooh Bear). Smearing honey on their child’s hand (to have the bear lick it off, like in the cartoons), they poked the little one’s mitt through the bars to where the bear was – who, naturally enough, bit off the hand.

So correct relationship between sentients depends on appropriate signalling. ‘This is food for you’,‘This is my territory’, or ‘I’m looking for a mate.’ If Attenborough had charged into the troop of gorillas waving his arms, baring his teeth and screaming, the reception would probably have been very different. And that’s the salient feature and growth point of the ‘you’ relationship: you have to wake up, and check where you’re at with regard to the other. This is not always so clear with humans, because of the effect of our projections. I may not give you an accurate signal of where I’m at, because being clear and direct might be offensive, or make me look needy, pushy or otherwise ‘not right.’ I may see you as someone who has power, or is higher or lower or the same as me – so that affects how I signal and what boundaries I create. In that uncertainty, and because most of the people we move past in a day we don’t contact (and then we watch others on a screen at night), the ‘it’ relationship migrates into the sentient human world.  It’s easier that way. But the rule is that the lesser the degree of empathy, the greater the possibility the relationship holds for fantasy, fear, adoration and other projections.

As with screen-violence and pornography. The thrill perhaps with porn is that the participants are involved in highly intimate and emotionally stirring activity while relating to each other not as in-depth humans but as objects; and witnessed by another uninvolved party. What you see (or imagine) is all there is – it’s all surface and no depth. Actually, within boundaries, any public performers take on the character of an ‘it’; at the roots of performing arts lies the understanding that through such presentation, people can experience emotions that wouldn’t be accessible in their ordinary lives.  Taboo energies such as violence can thereby be exorcized. But this always has to be done in a safe place, one clearly set apart from social life. Then when you leave it, you leave behind what it brought up in you. In Greek theatre, the place of performance was sacred and the actors were unnamed – clearly representations, not themselves. Even then the gory stuff was relayed, but not portrayed. There was an understanding that witnessing some acts (sex and violence) sends a charge to the autonomous nervous system that bypasses the reasoning and the empathic intelligence. The witness gets overwhelmed and loses moral awareness – and there is a giddy delight in that. So such acts are therefore to be held as (in Latin) ‘ob scena’ – obscene, literally ‘off-stage’. If we open to the obscene, we are at risk: pornography and violence etch their signals into consciousness and become addictive.

So how much TV, and what novels should you read? To the Buddha, the mediation between fearful censorship and carelessness is up to each individual’s ‘deep attention’ (yoniso manasikāra). This attention – that literally ‘goes to the source’ – doesn’t support the myth of objectivity. Rather than adopting the premise of a self that exists independent of what it contacts, deep attention acknowledges that our mind is always affected. And the affects of fear or gratitude or aversion and so on tend to be retained as impressions that we carry around like photographs. So the human responsibility is to cultivate awareness of how the mind is affected by the immediate effect, or by the mental ‘photograph’.

What are the things unfit for attention that he does not attend to? They are things such that when he attends to them, the unarisen taint of sensual desire arises … and the arisen taint of ignorance increases …’ [and vice versa] M2.10

This is not a matter of criticising one’s confused or negative mind states. Deep attention creates a sacred space of non-judgement, but the boundary is restraint – you don’t act out the states. Then deep attention can investigate and dismantle unskilful ones:

...There are, bhikkhus, wholesome and unwholesome states, blameable and blameless states, inferior and superior states, dark and bright states with their counterparts:  frequently giving deep attention to them nourishes  the arising of ... and  fulfils  by developing, the enlightenment factor of investigation of states. S 46.51

Deep attention then witnesses in line with cause and effect: what attracts and interests me, and how this affects me. We can retain and dwell upon uplifting impressions of other people’s kindness; or we can look into the patterns of fear, aversion or addictive greed. Most significantly, through maintaining the boundary between these states and our actions, we can exorcize our demons. If the attention is wise and deep it isn’t mesmerized by the object, it sees the figures of threat or hate not as people, but as phenomena that have to be related to but not fixated on. They’re really just echoes and representations. And with calm, clarity and empathy, we can learn from them and let them go.

However when there is careless, superficial attention, the demons stay with us and we assume that their messages of who we are/he is and what we/he should be are about real people. This is because when attention sees things as ‘it’, the difference between fantasy images and responsive reality get blurred. ‘It’ doesn’t support the kind of response that’s appropriate for sentiency. ‘It’ is a topic for fixation and feeding on, not for relating to.  As in the realm of non-stop media and glowing screens, where fiction and reality TV is interleaved with news and commercials: you observe, but you can’t respond. And when there’s news from war-zones following on from a violent movie, does the mind/heart really know that these are different realities?  When you get used to seeing impressive characters blasting people away with their high-tech weapons, doesn’t a percentage of humanity get attracted to doing just that? Is real, responsible life getting replaced by theatre?

You may recall the Stanley Milgram experiments of the 1960s, experiments that included two actors – one acting as the supervisor of the experiment (wearing a white coat), and one who was pretending to be a learner whose learning would be accelerated by being given electric shocks, in increasingly high voltage, every time he made a mistake. The third person, who was the real subject of the experiment and didn’t know that the other two were acting carefully rehearsed roles, would be ‘teaching’ the actor-learner by reading a list of word pairs, then repeating the first word of each pair and having the learner respond with the second. If the learner got the word wrong, the teacher would push a button that he believed to cause an electric shock to be delivered to the learner. Actually, no electric shock was administered, but the actor-learner would act as if there was. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was led to believe that the voltage being delivered (and labelled as ‘intense’ and ‘dangerous’ on the control panel in front of him) was increased. After a number of voltage level increases, the teacher could hear the actor-learner screaming and even banging on the wall that separated them. Although teachers might then wish to stop the experiment, the white-coated supervisor would calmly insist that they continue, in the interests of the experiment. Despite the actor-learner manifesting increasing degrees of agony over the ‘increased voltage’ (to the point of collapsing), over sixty percent of the educators would continue to ‘increase the voltage’ up to a massive and generally fatal 450 volts, even although they questioned the experiment, and felt emotional and physical discomfort over continuing.

The experiment was designed to measure the degree to which an average person will override their empathic and ethical sense under the influence of authority. It highlights the willingness we have to allow official, scientific and organizing activities to abuse our moral attention. Convinced that they are by necessity on the receiving end of a control system, human beings blindly adopt the ‘it’ relationship. The effect is heightened when the control system is ruled by a principle or a mission. On the more horrific end of the scale we note Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng and the neo-Nazi massacre in Norway in 2011 as instances where humans were treated as ‘its’ and subject to a higher principle. But then there’s the Rwanda genocide, ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, and the genocide and slavery that accompanied the colonisation of the New World.  On a day-to-day basis we can feel this ‘non-negotiable’ effect in procedures that involve an official: ‘I’m sorry madam, but you’re form isn’t filled in properly, you can’t board the plane …’  ‘But my son ...’ ‘I’m sorry, madam …’ As we can see in the current and prolonged economic crisis in the West, economic theory and fiscal policy translates into and impacts the reality of daily life. There’s a dramatic clash between abstracts like the euro, deficits and interest rates and the lived reality of getting food, shelter and a decent way of making a living.  Of even more widespread and long-term concern is the way that the Earth itself is an ‘it’. Probe it, frack it, blast it, no matter what the toxic effect; the oceans are ‘it’: dump whatever you don’t want in them. Even though the poisons will work their way up the food chain and into your body, the air becomes unbreathable and the soil washes away. This is the result of wrong attention. If you can’t engage the rational and empathic centres when you deal with any aspect of the biosphere, if others are passive ‘its’, suffering and stress will surely follow.

'It' relationships are a part of how we relate to existence. They offer simplistic clarity and free range to follow our wishes and projections. They present control of the other as a conceivable, and in fact optimal, relationship. To accomplish this we employ quick techno-fixes, fiscal sleight of hand, and use guns and tear-gas if necessary. Yet as cause and effect  – kamma – is always involved with any act of attention, we reap many results. For example, when we hold our minds in that relationship, when the mind is an object that has to be straight and right and always ready to work, inner demons prosper and flourish. More common than any fire-breathing goblin with a trident is the authoritative voice of the demon that pushes people to work all hours calmly insisting that they continue to do so for the sake of the future; or the ones that get people to swindle and lie for the sake of the company; or the ones that get people to kill for the sake of God, the nation, the mission. Rather like the ‘teacher’ in the Milgram experiment, we may notice that the mind is resisting, or in stress, but many of us continue to increase the voltage.  In the ‘it’ domain, abstractions rule.

Perhaps for the scientific mind, the most difficult thing to accept is that it can’t know an object. That approach merely measures; it can’t deeply understand the empty conditioned nature of things – the awareness that offers release. But with deep attention what we take stock of is the mind-state at this moment. You don’t know the other, but you are aware of your mind’s dwelling in worry or irritation, kindness or appreciation. You know the results of staying in that. So you bring forth what will sustain the mind in honesty, clarity and kindness. What we can deeply know is relational respect. Respect for self and respect for others (hiri-ottappa): these are the guardians of the world, parents of morality and kindness.

To guard the inner and outer worlds entails regarding all things in the ‘me-you’ relationship. You surprise me. You frustrate and delight me, and teach me about real life by not fitting into my projections. You are generous for no apparent reason, forgiving when I expect blame, and calmly unimpressed when I am at my melodramatic peak. I never understand you. There is the pain of attachment if we take any one being as a real and solid ‘you’ – yet, how could I live without ‘you’? The fact is, I don’t have to. ‘You’ as a relationship is a mode of attention that can allow any individual thing to pass through its lens, and teach ‘me’ to wake up.  

Friday 15 March 2013

Samādhi: what, why, how?

It’s winter time in Britain, and if there’s ever a time to settle in and snuggle down, this is it. Hence at Cittaviveka, we have the winter retreat, and meditation is a main theme in that. What I am questioned about (and have questioned myself about) is the rationale behind samādhi – what is it, how much do you need, how to do it?  Look into the early Buddhist texts and samādhi is there, as a matter-of-fact mainstay; but look around in the here and now, and people struggle with how to get it. ‘Maybe there’s another way to peace and liberation; or, dreadful though it may seem after ten or twenty years, maybe I’m just too polluted to get there.’  Certainly folk tie themselves into knots of striving to get the stuff – and fail. Aaagh.

In the texts, it’s matter-of-fact for a Dhamma practitioner, it occurs ‘in accordance with nature’, is ‘dhammatā’. And maybe the ‘unnaturalness’ of trying is part of the difficulty – as well as the idea of getting, and of course the sense of self.  But to begin with the mind, and with stress. After years of living with what the mind does, what do you sense it is? In my view, there’s intelligence (not always smart, but a system of monitoring and processing data in accordance with aims and perspectives), and this intelligence is affected by impressions: it feels – and moreover, it empathises. This affective sense is the intelligence that senses what’s happening out there means something to me.  So for that a sense of ‘me’ and ‘other’ have to be evoked to act as reference points – even though they are often inaccurate assumptions and affected by bias. But where is this ‘me’ anyway? Well my home base is the body, because that also feels and therefore affects me. So ‘me’ is hypothesised as the point over which these waves of feeling break, and the monitoring and processing occurs with reference to what will feel good or least harmful to a me which is located in a non-specific way, through the body. As you see, the foundations of ‘me’ are quite vague, but that’s overlooked because of the waves of feeling, and because the monitor becomes ‘I’ – an agent that starts to speculate and create a series of hypothetical gains and losses. It gets busy. Consequently, because the busyness is stressful, and because feeling is a wave you can’t grasp or control, and because the hypotheses aren’t always correct, there is stress, suffering, unsatisfactoriness – general dukkha.

The Buddha points to a way out of this dukkha; and samādhi – which, OK., I’ll define here as a deepening and firming into the true nature of mind – is part of that way.  And to summarise again the nature of mind, as it is a central reference: it’s embodied (body-referencing, but not located in any particular place in the body), empathic (‘heart’-referencing, though not centred on any particular emotion) and monitoring (capable of assessment, but not any particular set of ideas of ideologies). So the specifics are all variable, but the referring activity happens through these bases. (I’ll come back to that later.) The problem is that the monitoring assembles these variable reference points into a fixed entity  – me. Of course, at any given time my body and my feelings, are specific and real (‘this hurts me right here’) but the specifics continually fluctuate: there’s no continual and real ‘me.’ The monitoring also suggests wishes, which are again specific but variable: ‘I want to relax/ have something to do/ be left alone/talk to someone’ – but generically amount to being fulfilled and happy, whatever that would be. So samādhi can be there on the wish list, and the idea of  ‘me getting it’ become the strategy that we hope will bring it about. However, it doesn’t – because the scenario isn’t based on the true nature of mind, but on the construction of a self.  This is why samādhi is better understood in terms of the way the natural mind operates, through referencing variables rather than assembling solidities. It’s relational rather than object defining. And its development is best reviewed in terms of a three-part cultivation that includes ethical integrity, samādhi and clear understanding – this process is dhammatā.

The fact that, as a map, the process begins with understanding the value of ethics is a clue as to the way samādhi happens. You don’t really ‘get it’ any more than you ‘get’ ethics. Ethics is about relational doing: it’s about steering intentions, wishes and directives, towards what is for my welfare and your welfare and leads out of contention. This is a doing that has results. Samādhi arises out of a similar intention, which is to harmonise the three aspects of mind – to be embodied in a settled way, to be empathic and relate ethically to what arises within that sphere of experience, and to moderate the process. That’s the rationale behind samādhi, and it suggests that we attend to the process of being truthful, kindly and non-demanding about ourselves. This is ethics directed towards oneself; it’s not a demand to conform to laws or face punishment, it’s a review of the quality of mind and intention and bringing the soundest response to the fore. It’s a kindly process.

The process is also about being embodied: about being here in a settled and responsive way. To participate in this process, of putting aside unskilful intentions and centring on the skilful has samādhi, unification, as its result. Personally, I find ‘unification’ a more useful term than ‘concentration’ because to me concentration isn’t empathic and it’s not embodied; it’s the brow-furrowing exercise I do when I work on maths, or other abstract material.  To concentrate when riding a bike, or when scaling a cliff, or doing Tai Chi is nearer the mark; but when you prioritise the ethical empathy – what is suitable, what is harmonious in a holistic way – I think you’re on a more long-term, daily-life ground.

Then trying: doesn’t that just strain the mind? Yes, I think if it’s the over-exercise of the hypothetical object-seeking drive – the one that murmurs or proclaims how good I’ll feel, and how I should be, and so on. But that’s leading from the wrong foot. However, you can’t not lead. We’re in the desire realm, we use it to make choices every hour of the day, so you can’t check out of that. What you can do is discern (through monitoring and feeling) the difference between desire as a pathology, a blurring compulsion known as ‘thirst’ (tanhā), and desire as a chosen motivation (chanda) that can be chosen and whose cause and effect can be assessed. Thirst is about getting hold of an object for a hit, but motivation is about wanting to find out what brings you to a good place in yourself, and steering intentions and assessing results in that light. So although thirst can find problem with ethics, motivation sees them as ways of health.

One of the ways we channel our desire-energy, our motivation, is to work on how we attend, so that the mind is less compulsively grabbed by what comes into consciousness: you step back a tad, rather than jump into contact. The other way is through moderating intention, in which ethics is the key. Noting the indifference, and even brutality through which humans relate to the earth and other creatures, let alone each other – while barely acknowledging it – we can reflect that the nature of intention is often not apparent.  So a couple of questions to bring to mind are: ‘What is the cause of this action, and what the result for myself and the other?’ Can we experience the ‘other’ – person, creature, planet, or even our own bodies, as ‘you’ rather than ‘it’?  Can I come into a relational rather than object-defining sense? This is a choice, and one that we must make and act upon many times during a meditation practice, until the projecting of ‘it’ goals onto life, our bodies and our minds is worn out or seen through. That in itself is a process – non-involvement, dispassion, ceasing and relinquishment – that needs to be understood.  And it can be carried through by meditation, the classic scene for samādhi.

So: ‘Meditation: Act One, Scene One’ – enter: ‘The Witness.’ ‘The witness’ is the ability to attend with a decreasing degree of personal reaction or identification with what arises in consciousness. It means we step back from ongoing activity or reactivity; this ‘non-involving’ (viveka in Pali) is the prerequisite for any kind of inquiry into the causes and effects of what we do. We all have the ability to step back – although some people shift to witnessing less frequently, more briefly and in fewer areas of their lives than others. Witnessing is a given ability that helps the mind to get things into perspective; but employing it means choosing to do so. And when you notice that witnessing makes you clearer, calmer, more assured, you get motivated to strengthen and sustain it. You also begin to recognise, probably, that there’s a lot of times when your mind goes into automatic or jumps to get or get away, or there are times when you don’t really see into why you say and think the things you do. So you look to support your witnessing capacity with some skilful means – like calming, steadying, deepening. But it’s also the case that we don’t always want to see too clearly, because the witness can be followed by the Judge.  So the stepping back is also a withdrawal from judgement. Self-acceptance; or the ‘this is how it is’ focus of mindfulness.

The correct establishment of mindfulness is a defining characteristic of samādhi, because it checks the ‘me’ and ‘I’ reference, and returns the moderating process to the natural mind – which is embodied, empathic and monitoring. So the unflustered focus of mindfulness is to be brought to bear on the whole range of phenomena. Ideally the witness should just let things arise and pass and be that which knows them; but how much you can let arise, and how much you can let pass, and how clear and unbiased your knowing is, depends on how strong your mindfulness is. As it is, when the mind does open up, we often see some unresolved stuff; and it isn’t always easy to find a steady ground to witness that from.

So what samādhi provides is the firmness and the ease or just this.  It comes with unification of the three mental domains. These again are: the cognitive, monitoring process – which is silent and attuned, but produces thoughts, opinions and ideals; the emotive process – the affective sensitivity out of which anger, affection, sympathy, jealousy, fear and all the other emotions get constructed; and the ontological – the sense of being here, located in time and space, which comes through the body. This latter sense needs attention because although our sense of being here manifests through the body’s nervous system, it doesn’t necessarily stay embodied. A lot of the time the sense of being is transferred to one’s possessions, fellow humans, beliefs and self-image; which is why loss or abuse in these areas can feel devastating. We literally feel that we’ve ‘fallen apart’ at the loss of a partner, or of a job; or if a trusted person abuses our trust, that also is scarring, because our sense of being here transfers to what we care for, invest in, identify with or have placed our trust in. Disturbance at this ontological level then triggers the emotive stuff. And when we’ve got our breath back after the big emotional waves, then the cognitive faculty gets to work on judging who was right and wrong, how things should be or what I’m going to do about it. The reaction might be to seek comfort in something else or to annihilate myself: say someone loses an argument so they go out and get drunk. In more traumatic instances this might even be to kill oneself, in order to get out the predicament of being here without value and meaning.  More often, we just leave the damage unresolved; there’s some scarring, but we shrug it off.

So although we may wish to find a cognitive solution, or an emotional resolution to what arises in the mind, in some cases, the root of the problem is in terms of being (safe, solid, of value, etc.); and there is a bodily sense that has to be attended to. For example: if I lose status in the group, I may feel useless and resentful or humiliated, and I could look into that experience with a witnessing mind. Now that isn’t going to be that useful unless there is the embodied steadying that helps my attention to stay there and not jump out, react, or create ideas of ‘me’ and ‘them’. But if there is an embodied steadiness, there’s a location that the empathic sense can respond to. This location may be in your guts, your heart, or your head, or nowhere specific, just a fog that surrounds you. It shifts, the location is temporary, but however you feel yourself located in terms of that mood – that’s embodiment, and it enables you to refer to experience as ‘there it is.’ You may not want to ( it’s uncomfortable) but you don’t have a better choice; if you don’t place that experience, you just keep being caught in a whirl or a frozen numb heart. Embodying the pain helps the empathic sense to come into play – which is essential for healing.

All these qualities – the deepening, the empathic witnessing and the embodied steadying all come with the samādhi package. You can’t think the healing, and you don’t do them with your normal self; the deepened mind ‘does’ them – because that’s its nature. So the return to the natural and whole mind is samādhi. It presents a clear witnessing –   ‘this is the way it is right now’; it gets the ontological, embodied aspect to hold firm to presence; and it has an emotive aspect that’s empathic, and that meets phenomena as ‘you’ becoming ‘us’, rather than ‘me’ struggling with ‘it.’ There’s no judging, blaming, or blocking the ‘it’, there’s a meeting. And with the meeting, the intensity drops, the emotions deconstruct to a more primal sympathy and fullness of heart. And there’s a unification that is healthy. So when we experience our problem spots melting and transmuting into natural health, then, yes, this is worth doing.

Now you can’t do this in theory, and transference isn’t a cognitive process. Hence you have to enter these ‘holding on’ and ‘coming apart’ events and places as they happen, at a heart (emotive) and also at a gut (ontological) level. You have to be able to enter and hold the energy that is otherwise drawn out in attachment. And whenever you do fall apart (get used to it), then bring your awareness back into knowing its unity through embodied calm, benevolence and patience. Embodied, because the ontological domain, the basis that the others arise from, is embodied with birth. It’s the body that gives us the sense of location: I am here, rather than there.  After death (to digress a little) then that embodied sense is dislocated from this form, and if it hasn’t been released, it then projects a consciousness into a new body.  To emphasise: the ontological sense, where it’s healthy, is embodied, but it’s not identical with physical form. The process one wants to undertake then is to check the sense of being from oozing out over cars and buildings and status, and get it to stand on its own. Then when we see in the body, that it’s not this body, when we feel that the empathic sense is not bound to the physical heart, when we know the natural mind of no location, then there’s some liberation from birth and death.

To add one more map: the stages of that liberation are also in terms of the three domains. At the stream-entering stage, one witnesses and regains dispassionate awareness around cognitive structures: personality realm with its systems and customs and speculative doubt. The once-returning is about dealing with relatively gross emotive inclinations of irritation and sense-stimulation. Non-returning is cool around those tendencies, but still has to work through the emotive transference of awareness into subtle and formless states. Arahantship is described as being a person of nothing: ‘a person with nothing in them that they grasp at as theirs and nothing in them that they reject as not theirs’ ( Sutta-Nipata 859). Wisdom and compassion are complete.

The momentum that moves awareness through this series of attachment points is the increasing  ‘rightness’ or ‘gravity’ of the natural mind. This mind doesn’t annihilate mental structures – an arahant still conforms to systems and customs, but he/she isn’t held in them. Awareness doesn’t get energetically tangled up in the structures that the mind adopts for functioning; so the dysfunctional, toxic, or useless manifestations of, say, systems and customs can end altogether. Then I don’t fall apart if the Christmas tree doesn’t get here on time; I can eat burgers without mustard; I can go to an interfaith meeting without needing to judge who’s right; my life can be arranged differently and I still feel safe and intact. What I’m suggesting is that to clear one of these domains takes some samādhi. It takes feeling the need, the pull and the insecurity, finding how that is registered in the body and coming back into wholeness.

So far I’ve mapped a path. Then let’s look into the process, the how of samādhi. And back at Meditation: Act One, Scene One, along with The Witness there’s The Body. This means sit and just sit rather than try to meditate, stand and just stand rather than wait, walk and just walk without getting anywhere. The theme is: in the present moment, fill awareness with what’s here at the embodied level.  And my first suggestion is to play it, rather than work. The energy of play is not a trivial thing – it just means that the motivation isn’t about achieving some imagined goal in the future. Games should be like this, and still can be – until you do them for a living. Play is about giving oneself in terms of intention, application, attention and response to the doing – giving intention and attention. You don’t have to be an expert, but you do need to bring forth the volunteer heart. This is our willingness to tune in and respond; it’s our natural ability to be empathic and responsive, an ability that we sacrifice at the altar of goals and projected results.

As I mentioned above, this empathic sense – to open and be touched by what you’re with – is an essential feature of the meditation process. Mostly I get meditation wrong when I work at it and try to get somewhere – I lose responsiveness to the present moment, and things get stiff and dry and bored. So samādhi hinges around careful play:  you bring something to mind (vitakka) and you feel it out (vicāra). This pair form a normal aspect of the cognitive mind. When they’re not driven by craving, assumptions or fear, they allow us to pick up an idea or an apple and sense how that feels. You have to use vitakka and vicāra for designing a room, for cooking a meal, and for meditating. But with meditation we’re operating with the overall interest in loosening out of thirst and compulsion and being more fully present. So here the advice is ‘bring the body into your mind.’ Which is Lesson One, probably, along with the proviso – ’but gently!’ The Buddha likened it to holding a bird: too tight and you scare it and kill it, too loose and it flies away. So play with being embodied: how do you know, directly, that you have a body? How does it feel? Then Lesson Two, ‘Get comfortable – but stay alert!’

In this respect, the Buddha said to sit cross-legged with spine erect ( no chairs in the forest, so the legs have to serve as a seat) – I’d say the most important thing is to have the spine erect. Bring the posture and the overall structure of the body to mind, and feel out how the whole body sits as a unity. Then comes the snag: a lot of people don’t have unified bodies; a great proportion of energetic awareness gets placed in the head and shoulders, very little in the belly, back and legs. That’s the way we’re activated in a thinking society where we much of the body just sits there, somewhere, while the head and hands get on with twiddling knobs and wheels. Thus, I think, we’ve got to emphasise this aspect of the whole body more than in the Buddha-time. So Lesson Two goes into centring in the lumbar region, pushing down a tad through the pelvis, and feeling and moderating the curve in the lumbar spine to allow the abdomen to lengthen. Energising the ‘slump spot’ of the lower spine transforms posture. In that mode, the weight of the torso is transferred down through the pelvis and into the ground. The pressure of the chest is taken off the belly, the diaphragm can move easily and, as you draw the mid-spine in behind your heart and release your shoulders, you start to get some relief. So like learning tennis, or aikido, you play with that exercise for the time that you can manage within the parameters of ‘comfortable/alert’; you keep coming back to that every time you sit, and every time the posture sags or goes rigid.

Thus in Scene Two, breathing makes an entry as a relevant player rather than a stage-set. Breathing is not the breath, but the energy and sensation flow that we may summarise as the breath, but which is a process rather than a fixed thing. (The Buddha never specified a point where you should focus on the breathing.) It’s first function is to bring the body into unity and ease. The way I do this is to first of all get the whole body into comfortable/alert and then look/listen out for anything that tells me I’m breathing. It begins as a rhythm, and the more consistently I tune into it, then the mind finds a focal point in the body that fits ‘comfortable/alert’. Then breathing is more fully felt as an energy that repeatedly generates and regenerates the direct experience of the body. And if you relate to the body from the heart (the ‘you’ lens) your intention calms the body. As the Ānāpānasati sutta has it: ‘ … thoroughly experiencing the bodily formation … soothing the bodily formation … one breathes in and breathes out.’(M.118.18) It’s about kindly response – meeting ‘you’ rather than getting ‘it’ to calm down.

This takes application, and that means that again you revisit the area of desire and check out whether craving – the need to be good at or to get somewhere – has moved in. If so, we lighten up, and, acknowledging that the body doesn’t crave in these cognitive terms, go back to just being here, and feeling out how thinking and the emotions that power it play out in the body.  And so to Scene Three : The Hindrances. And here the learning is about sankhārā.  But before translating that word, I’ll say that sankhārā keep cropping up in all kinds of places in the teaching, right down to the Buddha’s last words: ‘All sankhārā are subject to dissolution, stay alert in your practice.’  These things are then core structures or phenomena. One way in which they are placed is as a trio: bodily-sankhārā, heart/mind (citta)-sankhārā, and ‘verbal’ or cognitive-sankhārā – which correspond to the three domains I mentioned earlier. Bodily sankhārā is ‘in and out breathing’; heart/mind is ‘perception and feeling’; and verbal is ‘bringing to mind and evaluating’ (vitakka-vicāra). What these sankhārā have in common is that they are all directly experienced as an energy. In the bodily domain there’s the movement of energy – qi, prana or anapana – a ‘breathing’ that is more than respiration. In the heart, there’s the flush of recognition as a perception of ‘friend’ or ‘enemy’ lights up and triggers mental feeling; and in the head there’s the whirr and the flash as we get an idea, think and speak.  Sankhārā can be translated as ‘formations’, ‘volitional formations’, or ‘fabrications’ – I use ‘formative energies’, ‘activations’ or even, likening them to the means through which computers operate, ‘programs.’ Like programs, they’re installed at birth, otherwise you aren’t functioning; and like programs they go through their set behaviours, and they may program subsidiary programs to support details of what they do. So: we have defence and acquisition programs plugged into our heart-program to fend off the disagreeable and look out for the pleasurable. As best they can: they don’t quite work – we’re still working on the bugs … but, ah-hah! – that’s why the Buddha said they’re subject to dissolution. Firstly, they break down, and secondly, if you unplug the program, it dissolves and there's release. Getting through the hindrances then is about learning to unplug some programs. It’s about staying steady and seeing and healing the hunger behind the glittering fantasies. It’s about easing out of wilfulness and impatience, loosening up the acquisition program and refitting the motivation from a work/conquest mode to a play/moment-at-a-time mode.

The other relevant thing right now about sankhārā is that its three modes are in sympathy. If you feel happy, your body is light and open. If you’re depressed, your body is going to be slumping, or tight and dull. And if you’re out of your body, then your verbal stuff is going to grab all the awareness. So the trick is to get the three in sync, and, through enhancing your bodily awareness through breathing within the comfortable/alert mode, finding out that your heart-mind is comforted and begins to calm, and your verbal patterns start to unravel. As a process then, as you come into hindrances of ill-will, sense-desire, dullness, restless and doubt, you feel their bodily effect. This may be tightening around the eyes, chest or abdomen, or a slump in the back, or a jangling in the nerves. Here the advice is to meet that in your body and breathe your good heart through it. Widen your awareness to include your whole body, meet the hindrance as an energy and let the energy of good heart and breath unravel it into the wider sense of being here: the natural mind.

Samādhi develops from here, because whatever brings you well-being will naturally become more and more your focus. This is why ‘being with’ in a comfortable and kindly way is a foundation for samādhi. What comes with that is a sense of uplift, a kind of embodied buoyancy called ‘rapture’(pīti). It may be that this is because it takes hold; it’s like how, when a boat that is intact and placed in the right place, it gets gently and repeatedly lifted by the incoming tide. It is the experience of beauty. This and the consequent ‘ease’ (sukha) are how the state of unification, of samādhi comes around. ‘ … for one feeling ease, no volition need be exerted – may my mind be unified. It is natural (dhammatā) that for one feeling ease, the mind is unified’ as the sutta (A.10, 2) has it. Right here is this beauty and ease, so why go anywhere else? Enjoy, learn to enjoy, learn to surrender the time and the person in order to do this. This is steadying and soothing the citta-sankhārā.  With this you’re starting to come out of the psychological compulsions that have seemed like ‘me’ for a long time. And as you notice what has ceased, what isn’t a problem, you realize that liberation is this way.

However … by this time I’ve gone on long enough for a one-session read ( and write), and probably only a piece or two of the above is of immediate relevance to you. Time for a break. I’d just like to add the suggestion that we can (I’d like to say ‘should’) cultivate all the time. Return to the natural mind in how you sit and walk and eat and talk. Pause long enough to get embodied, tune in the monitor and feel ‘How am I with this? Where does a true response come from?’ It’s trial and error – but you can only get better at it.

PS. reference to this earlier entry might add something useful: