The Practice

Unconditioned Insight

This week in the sangha we have been inquiring into Insight in relationship to the practice of concentration. 

Damien Quartz shared the process of finding the bug in a computer program as a simile for the process of concentration/observation and insight:

When thinking about what it means to have insight, I thought about one of the processes I use when trying to determine why a computer program that I’ve written isn’t working the way I intended it to. We’re used to experiencing programs as interactive graphical interfaces, but what they actually are is a set of instructions for manipulating the state of a bunch of bits of memory. When a program has a “bug,” where it produces an incorrect result, or behaves strangely, or stops working entirely, I use another program called a debugger to freeze the buggy program at the place where I think the error might be occurring. The debugger allows me to inspect the state of all the bits of memory relevant to that portion of the program, which can give me insight into why the program is behaving incorrectly. I might see that a number in memory is negative that should never be negative, or that a piece of important text has become garbled, and I can begin to reason about how that might have happened. I can run the program again and freeze it at an earlier point in time, stepping through the instructions one by one until I discover what’s causing the error. Without a debugger it can be extremely difficult to reason about the internal state of a program because so much of the inner workings are hidden by the interface. Programs are opaque in this way, unknowable almost. A debugger allows for close, careful inspection. And, sometimes, in the course of investigating a bug, I discover that while the behavior may be unexpected, it may be that it is a legitimate outcome I did not foresee when writing the program. In these cases, it’s often OK to stop debugging and say, “Ah, it’s a feature, not a bug!”

(From William)

Folks are often drawn to meditation practice because of the experience of suffering or when a thought or action “produces an incorrect result”, or our emotional body, thinking or physical body “behaves strangely, or stops working entirely”. Meditation practice is like having a “debugger” to “freeze” the habit stream and conditioned thoughts so that we can closely observe the causes and conditions that lead to the habitual behavior or thinking causing suffering. In the stillness of open ended concentration/observation, there is an opportunity to see and experience the reality of the present moment without the interference of the “bug” of conditioned habits. This is a rich culture for unconditioned insight that leads to healing and clarity. It may even lead to the understanding that what we assumed was an aberration or obstacle is rather, a doorway to freedom from suffering. “In these cases, it’s often OK to stop debugging and say, “Ah, it’s a feature, not a bug!”

Concentration/Observation and Insight/Wisdom

During the practice sessions this week the sangha has been reflecting on the meditative practice of Concentration or focused Observation that, when practiced without desire for attainment, clears a space for Insight and Wisdom as revelations of essential nature.

Mark Demmel shares his own experience of this unfolding.

Historically, the idea of Concentration has led to painful thoughts and feelings for me because I was concentrating on what I was not that I needed to become. To focus & work toward a goal, to increase one’s resilience, to grow, to build, to become better, to do it the way a leader/parent/guide does it, to allow shifts in direction & motivation, to not miss the moment when it comes to you. The ways I looked at concentration often led me to be thinking about a better, future state of my life, which took hard work and great effort to arrive in this future me. I found myself often not embodied, unable to connect deeply & healthfully to the people and life around me in ways I craved nourishment. Concentrating on that which I wasn’t yet, led me to believe the state I currently found myself in was not good enough, or wrong, or bad. This left a door to shame open and that door let all kinds of things in. How could I ever become that which I wanted to be and feel?

The future state of me which could never come into the present reality efforted and worked so hard to become that which it thought it needed to be….to be okay, again. A scared little kid, who had gotten some slams (of various kinds) became that which it deeply resented. I recently took a morning walk in nature on a beautiful land painted with oaks, pines, valleys holding signs of deer and coyotes, and a refreshing morning joy that had me moving slowly and feeling open to the day. On my return, I sensed my 4 year old self high upon my shoulders, taking in the hike with an elder, parent, and trusted friend. I physically put my arms around the 4 year old’s legs straddling my neck. It felt really good. I was a bit surprised by the experience as much as I was over-joyed. Why was my 4 year old trusting me? I wasn’t concentrating on fixing anything, healing my broken parts, working hard to glean some great wisdom from nature. I was just present, enjoying the moment, giving the least amount of effort to the effortlessness of a simple morning walk.

Later that night, caught up in some emotions of sadness and grief to be leaving good friends and the land I was enjoying, I forgot about my 4 year old and I pushed my body in places it did not want to be pushed. I took my hammock high in a tree and tried to sleep with the many coyotes howling every 15-20 minutes. Trying to milk every last drop of “growth” out of the day & night, even at the cost of losing sleep, with a long drive the next day. My body did not settle. My goal to sleep in a tree failed. I even felt the skin itch, which I had not experienced for several months. The coyotes were loud, yipping, hollering, going all night. Finally at 3am, I climbed down the tree and went back to the place that invited me to sleep before setting off into the dark night. My body immediately settled and a peaceful rest fell upon me.

The next morning I remembered my 4 year old. I apologized. I acknowledged the pattern of pushing myself hard, working to be better, urgent to get to that improved future state, at all costs. I’m grateful for the gift from my younger self, inviting me into the present moment, where everything is as I should be, no heavy effort needed, trusting myself, all the parts, working together to allow a needed sense of ease back into the way I concentrate. The serious one was invited to be kind. The strong handed & stubborn adult was invited back to gentleness. I invited myself (all parts) to the conversation where I listen more than I speak. Patience, real honoring and tender patience is returning. The 4 year old enjoys adventures, but they are trusting me to honor their voice in the matter, for me to trust a renewed idea of Concentration. All of us will be “better” for it.

Faith

Catholicism was the air that I breathed in early childhood. My mother was basically raised by nuns. My father was agnostic but converted to Catholicism so that he could marry my mother. We went to mass every Sunday and all holy days, said grace at every meal and prayed on our knees before going to bed. Catholicism, the Church, Mary, God and Jesus (in that order) were what we were taught to put our faith in. As I reflect on that time, I realize I had two experiences of faith. This exoteric one was centered around obedience to the Church and  the Ten Commandments, the promise of heaven and the threat of hell. These were all thoughts imprinted on my consciousness and reinforced by fear and reward. That faith was based on fear and loss and was purely conceptual. The other faith was more magical and esoteric, like praying for and receiving guidance for very specific ways to stop my father’s rage, or to relieve my parents’ fear of having no food to put on the table, or dreams about who I should be when I grew up. While the first, which was learned faith, feels now like it was following orders in order to get something that I was told that I needed, the second was spontaneous and always about practical, real life situations that were causing suffering or fear and my exercise of faith resulted in actual results or knowledge that eased the suffering or relieved the fear. The religious faith had a type of deductive logic to it that made sense if you believed in the initial premise that there was a god rewards and punishes and the church was the adjudicator of that process. This second, more personal faith, and the its manifestations, had no logic to it and lived in a realm of experience that was ungraspable and inexplicable. It was an interior experience that had no discernible origin or direction. The faithful prayers that led to the results often rose up in me out of desperation about my suffering or the suffering of those close to me. The results were magical and nonlinear; a roast falling off the back of a delivery truck after my parents told us we wouldn’t have supper that night, a voice telling me  a precise way to stop the beatings from my father, deja vu as a warning that he was about to rage. Other times and over this lifetime there were experiences of soothing without a source and spontaneous experiences of fearlessness that eradicated all doubt and stabilized the knowledge that goodness was the inherent nature of every human being. 

The faith that was imprinted by the church and society through threat and reward and all of the objects of the faith that it promoted, became baseless, senseless, and brittle, eventually fading into an empty, useless thought. The faith that was grounded in experience, though illogical and ungraspable by thought or desire, metastasized into a systemic way of being that flowed like an underground river bubbling up into consciousness periodically, and shaking loose the false idols of conceptual faith. ( money, sex, the perfect relationship, approval, authority, and other gods) This faith manifested whenever I was still enough and awake enough to recognize and experience it. Often when these bubbling-ups occur, I’d pull out my flask of grasping and try to bottle-up the experience. I’d look for the steps that got me there and try to construct a damn of clinging to keep it in a safe reservoir for the future. These attempts to cling to the experience lead to the inevitable dissipation of the presence of faith as such. (See Failure for a humorous rendition of this.) But I noticed and still notice now when springs of faith come to the surface and retreat, that as the experience slowly dissolves and the ache of “losing” something precious eases, there remains a knowing that resonates throughout my being, and like the sound of the bell at Cloud Mountain, that rings throughout the day, calling practitioners to practice, it is reliantly there/here but ungraspable, non conceptual, unreproducible by will or thought, yet not separate from, not other than just this-ness. 

The invitation, in the practices with the Sangha of the Pandemic this week, was to explore faith and inquire into its nature and expression in our lives and practice. I experienced, in the practices and wisdom sharings, a sense that no matter what we have faith in, whether material, relational, spiritual or anything else, the essential quality that is labeled “Faith”, is an inherent quality that is discernible but not definable, experiential but not conceptual. It is ever-mutable, not containable, bubbling up into consciousness in times of suffering and stillness. Its roots are in our inherent knowledge of truth, and like Earth’s network of mycelia that break down matter to be used for promoting life, this faith patiently and persistently breaks down the obstacles to experiencing our true nature. And like the mycelia, it is active and ever-present, carrying knowledge and sustenance surreptitiously from one being to another; a reliant web of interconnectedness and interdependence.

It seems to me that all forms of contemplative practice, scientific inquiry, justice action, and acts of goodness, are drawn into being by the essential human quality of faith. Faith in the truth that goodness is the intrinsic nature of all beings, the ineffable faith in the capacity of all beings to be good, and that all beings deserve to be free from suffering.

I hope that these words and anything that arises as a result of reading them do not cause distress or doubt and that they might contribute to the awakening to goodness and the end of suffering for all beings, throughout all times and in all directions. – William

The Realm of Ka.

A good friend and teacher gifted me the novel, Ka by John Crowley. They have the intuitive insight for what is needed to support someone on their way and so it is with this book and my journey.  Enough to say that it is about a Crow in the Realm of KA and the fundamental wisdom teachings from a crow’s viewpoint as they observe People over an arch of several hundred years.

From the book:

“How Crow’s do things that astonish People — appear where they shouldn’t be, come into possession of things they can’t have got — isn’t really different from how Rats, Raccoons, or even Cats do similar things by persistence, constant investigation, endless trial and error.”

Ain’t it the truth.. for all sentient beings. 

I am finding this to be the engine of the Practice. Persistence. Constant investigation. Endless trial and error.

Persistent sitting. This has been the first and most challenging part of the practice for me and seems to be the primary teaching in most wisdom traditions; making a meditation practice part of everyday’s rhythm and then gradually increasing the length and the number of practice times during each day. Over the thirty plus years of pathing (Pathing: the act of going on a Path specifically one towards self realization or truth seeking. Similar to “tripping”, “walking”, “hiking”, “journeying”), and trying all sorts of ways to avoid this first step, I have come to realize, for this body/mind at least, that stability and consistent unfolding awareness comes with dedicated regular practice.

Constant investigation:  In the practice and during the application of lessons from the practice in life, a constant, open ended inquiry without expectation, and the pure curiosity of a child, is what allows doors that open to deeper realizations to become observable. In the Buddhist practice, I associate this with vipashyana practice. This is a vigorous practice that, with persistence, frees the mind from attachment, desires and expectations or promises of completion.

Endless trial and error: Walk through every door and even if it appears the new room or land is a mistake, keep walking into the mistake with an investigative mind. And if it is a place of ease and beauty, relish and absorb and keep inquiring about it not out of doubt but out if curiosity. When doubt arises, inquire into the doubt. It’s origin? It’s quality? It’s dissolution?

Thank you JS and Jonathan Crowley for making these points so simply clear.

The Towarnehiooks (Deschutes)

A river flows through Bend Oregon, from Little Lava Lake to the Columbia, called the Deschutes translated from French as “the river of the falls”. The Nez Perce people of the area refer to the river as Towarnehiooks, translated as “enemies” in reference to the Paiutes who lived along its banks. Like it’s Native name, the Towarnehiooks, brings to mind how our pervasive thought stream can be an enemy and lead us to suffering, or when recognized as having no substance, to freedom.

In its traversing through this region, the Towarnehiooks is a relatively narrow and shallow river that has molded the lavascape into smooth and pointed curvaceous forms like concretized whipped cream, in the same way that my habitual thought patterns have concretized my ways of being. As the waters lessen through the summer, the flowing of the river over these forms creates rapids that fill the area with a constant sound barrage of water tumbling into itself over stone. Adding to that, the sounds of children voices as counterpoint and harmony, as well as the slight river-breeze effect in the summer sun- heated desert air, and the river and its surroundings manifest as meditation teacher.

When I begin a sit, thoughts are so omnipresent that I do not notice them. They deafen my awareness. It is like when I first approach the river rapids; visual and audio discernment seem unattainable able . After being near the water for a while, I begin to discern variations of white in the tumbling and an under flow of grey green, and different levels and qualities of sound. As with the water, when I settle into a sit and attend to something, either my breath, an image or a sensory experience, I begin to be able to ferret out gross and subtle experiences, images or thoughts. 

When I attempt to focus on one aspect of the white or underlying green of the water, my vision is carried downstream until I cannot follow it any further, no matter how much I attempt to keep it centered in one point, similar to the cascade of thoughts that are present in the beginning of the practice. When I attend to a thought, it inevitably leads to another about that thought, and then a story, and a why, or another question, or just random sequencing until I become aware that I have traveled downstream in a thought river.

Concentration and attending become accessible at the rapids, when I center my sight or hearing or sensation on a stable unwavering manifestation, like a rock in the middle of the cataract, the underlying softer sound of the river, the deep grey green beneath the tumbling, or the coolness of the breeze created by its movement. Then the other sounds, or senses and the raging water itself move by as they are, swift or slow, green or white, loud or rumbling quiet. I can experience all of these things and, the more I allow my awareness to expand and include them and all of the sensory experiences in the environment without following them downstream, the more I “see” the river as a whole, and the innate ease in its flow, even welcoming the loudness, the riotous white and the heat of the summer sun as part and parcel of the quiet flow, the stable grey green and the everpresent coolness.

So it is with the practice. In the beginning, centering attention and concentration on the breath or an image or a sound allows my constant thought stream to flow by; at first loudly echoing off canyons in my mind, and it is challenging not to follow one of them just to lower the input level. The more I am able to attend to something consistently and the focus softens and broadens, the more the thought and perception streams flow by in my awareness without me attaching or following the threads. I am sometimes able to expand to include any and all thought streams without judgment or grasping. In this experience there is no attempt to stop the river, change it, damn it up, divert it or let it tumble me downstream. Feelings, perceptions and thoughts are just as they are.

When the children throw a leaf or stick into the river to cheer its journey downward, over white, spinning by boulders, and dipping beneath the grey green, the newly introduced object is sometimes snagged by a gathering of stones but swims easily around the largest boulders. If the newly introduced object is large enough, it may get trapped under or around the largest obstacles. These stuck ones are battered by the ongoing flow of the river but remained lodged, perhaps until the next flood or until they are decimated by the repeated assault. 

When a fresh thought or an awakening is experienced in the practice, it floats easily on the surface of the thought stream and seems to not only ride it expertly, but becomes one with, it so to speak. Then a collection of memories or thought habits snag and batter the experience and  my attention becomes fixated on the why-s and wherefore-s of the the thought, getting lost in fixing, or solving, or grasping, desperate to return to the newness and the freshness of the realization. If  the thought is large enough it easily swims by the smaller jumbled obstructions but might be is snagged in something much older and more fundamental, even karmic or ancient. This happens for me with strong emotions like anger or fear often triggered by unconscious memories of experiences. Often it is so intense that I can feel it in my body. A memory of what it was like to be one with the river arises and I feel like the snagged branch on the great boulder. I experience a psychic ache to set it free once again but no amount of attention or longing frees it. Then there is a an idea that the boulder is an obstacle and must be recognized and only when it is either dissolved or freed from its mooring, will the awakening return to the thought stream and experience. So then I invest in its dissolution only to become even more swamped but all of the adjacent thought patterns. 

When I am able to relax my focus more and bring my attention downstream to attend to where the river is going, the focus and attention just go away and there is a sense of space. I have a concept of its destination; the deep ocean, but it may end in a flood plain and evaporate, or be diverted to water the orchards, or to city plumbing to be processed and recycled, honestly I do not know. Allowing that unknowingness to fill the experience leaves an empty spaciousness. When I look up river to the origin, I also do not know it, other than there are probably infinite origins that feed the the springs, the creeks the streams, the falls, that cause the river to be as it is in this place, between these banks, under the juniper, on wind sanded stones, with children laughing in its coolness and its power.

When I am sitting at this point trapped under a karmic boulder, I might look to where the thought stream is going or will lead; the future. Similar to the tumbling torrent of the Towarnehiooks, I do not know, in fact, I begin to experience an understanding that this thought stream has no knowable future. It seems to dissolve into that expansive all inclusive mind and there is a sense of its emptiness. When I look to the origin, or rather allow my awareness to experience the causality of the thoughts, it echoes out over an infinite stream of causality and eventually expands to seemingly include all thoughts ever thought in all minds in the cosmos. And for an instant, sometimes, there is the knowable yet inconceivable experience of the Three Times being all the same and yet empty. The mind stops striving, the sense of a separate self shimmers like a hologram, and I have a taste, wavering on a threshold of absolute freedom from suffering. 

Sitting on one of those obstructions in the middle of the river I observe how the river flows effortlessly around and that only things of weight or form get caught by the boulders or collections of smaller river stones protruding from the water nearer the banks. I see the water merging with the obstructions, and bouncing off or sliding smoothly past. Eons of time and infinite gallons of flow; carving, smoothing, and sanding them to billions of sub-sand particles that disperse in the soil or eventually the seas. The larger obstructions empowering the river to dash on their surfaces, carving them away, by lifting the river out of the flow and then channeling the river to the path of least resistance. 

In the practice my thought streams get swept away when I lose attention, and deposit my attachments and desires on karmic obscurations, life imprints and self-ness (the boulders), but when I allow the stream to flow without judgment or diversion, I experience a steady eroding of these habits. I also begin to see that the larger ever-present thought habits, or unsourceable obstructions are like the Buddhas in their infinite capacity to know and to guide. As if the Great Sage embodies my obscurations and obstructions in order that they not only are revealed but can be entrusted to channel this river of self to the ocean of no-self.

Perhaps, when I leave the banks of the Towarnehiooks and get up from my sit, thoughts will no longer be the enemy and I will experience obstacles and obscurations as guides, revealers, and Buddha Nature. I ask that this teaching will not just be a clever metaphor or a lasting memory, but that I may be of-this-way in my life off of the cushion and away from the river.

I dedicate this practice to the Towarnehiooks and all teachers, seen and unseen, heard and unheard, known and unknown. May my actions, deeds, speech, thoughts and feelings be in fulfillment of their teachings and the end of suffering for all beings.