Where to start? Six weeks on retreat, some insight to share perhaps. Hard to organize the thoughts around them. Experience is experience, wisdom is wisdom; but when it’s not actually happening, it becomes something else. A memory, knowledge informed by conditioning, assumptions…the momentum of our ordinary perception starts to creep back in if we aren’t vigilant with awareness. If we take the practice into our daily lives, however, then there is the opportunity for the momentum of awareness to continue to strengthen and for wisdom to grow incrementally.
Talking about it all seems kind of silly sometimes. But I continue to want to use the act of writing and dialoguing to be part of it all. In the retreat center there are Dhamma friends, speaking the same language, approaching the practice in the same way, to be both silent with and to talk and learn with. It’s a little harder out here. Alone in the woods. So, the trusty Internet. Here goes.
In general, the experience of retreat was relaxed, effortless. Gone was the mind’s striving for continuity of awareness, for experience, for insight. Instead there was a real settling in to everything that was happening just as it was happening, learning at whatever pace. What’s there to force really? We can only set an intention, to create the proper causes and conditions for insight to arise. There was a shift from a trying to be aware to a remembering that awareness is already there – because in the act of remembering, awareness is. It was pretty revolutionary for one who was plagued by greed and anger (pain) on her long retreat last year. That’s not to say I didn’t experience defilements, or sense desire, I did! But all in all, it was much more subtle. It’s like peeling away the layers of an onion. Of course in the middle, there’s nothing there…
As the causes of mental discomfort come into awareness, there are different levels at which the mind really knows that experience. I hesitate to talk in systems or models of thought, because of the mind’s tendency to attach to a fixed idea around it, but sometimes it’s helpful to do so.
First, the mind knows. This is the basic function of consciousness (viññāṇa). At one point, a friend and I were talking about the act of recollection, remembering – and how recollecting one’s meditation experience, as the American teacher Jason Siff makes central to his teaching method, fits into an approach of just pure experiencing. Undoubtedly, when there’s a lot of interest in the mind, there is active reflection happening all the time, and it’s happening concurrent with direct perception. If you think about experience in terms of the five aggregates, it helps parse out the different functions of the mind that are actively working all the time in tandem. As I sat at one point when the mind was really stable and calm, the realization came that if an experience is not known by the mind, then it cannot be recollected. And that if it’s not directly experienced it can’t be known in the first place. It may seem obvious and mundane at an intellectual level, but as bhāvanāmayāpaññā, experiential wisdom, this is pretty powerful. In other words, can the mind ever not know awareness (the kind of all-encompassing or boundless awareness that falls outside of the five aggregates)? It’s only possible to not be aware of awareness. Yet, the mind is already aware because it is nowhere, no-thing, it is space itself. It IS the awareness. Yes, I’ve completely fallen into the nondual camp. I don’t think there’s any other direction it can go.
So, there’s this basic knowing that’s happening all the time. The mind is registering all sorts of experience, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s like the peripheral vision that’s keeping tabs of all these things that aren’t directly in view. When we have to go back and remember what was in the field of view, we may be able to recall more than we realized immediately. This is one of the reasons it’s really important to think about the practice. When we continue to develop the kind of awareness which is more than just this basic knowing, we are bringing in wisdom, and that’s a direct effect of this investigative process (dhamma-vicaya). So first there’s knowing or mundane awareness, and then there’s the big kind of awareness, you could say awareness with wisdom.
An example of how this process operates in our daily life. Say I notice a feeling of envy after reading something about someone else. The knowing is just in the experience, the registering of the feeling (ugh, unpleasant), the perception of that feeling (knowing it’s envy), and the mental activity around that feeling – the thoughts that are the big red flag to me that envy is occurring. Depending on the mind state, understanding may stop right here, which really isn’t understanding. It’s just knowing. If there’s a remembering to be aware, then, instead of layering aversion on top of the aversion (envy is in the anger family), i.e., “how petty of me!”, then there’s just a being with that emotion. There’s a going into it, an opening up to it. As well as to any additional thoughts that might pop up around it. If the commentary continues, then, defilement is winning out over wisdom. And that’s okay, but it’s probably best to stick with knowing what is happening and not try and understand why. Just keep seeing it for what it is, remembering awareness. And if wisdom gets the upper hand, then you might see the whole thing dissolve, because there’s a seeing through, there’s an understanding of cause and effect. And there’s an understanding of the insubstantiality of it all. The five aggregates are not me, there’s nothing to cling to. It’s just stuff happening.
In getting to know these different functions of the mind, one also gets closer to understanding the true nature of the mind. And it is through this direct observation, and sustained and vigilant remembering, awaring, that we create the causes and conditions for wisdom to emerge. And really, it’s possible any and every moment to be awake, for the mind to be free, through this clear seeing.
So this was a big theme for me over retreat. Each time a strong emotion emerged, or even just a subtle defilement, there was a wanting to understand. Sometimes the attitude was good, and there was a seeing through; other times, there was a lot of selfing going on (such deep conditioning and identification), and so then the wisdom was in knowing that I could only recognize what was happening and not explore why at that moment. You can always bring wisdom into it. It’s a matter of knowing what the attitude is and thus what’s most skillful at that time for your practice. It’s a recognizing things as they are, not trying to make them something else or a trying to hold on. Having an interest in the mind like this means all of life is meditation. Which is pretty awesome indeed.