A humble attempt to define choiceless awareness

What do we mean by the word ‘to be aware’ ? Is the mind aware, cognizant, knowing, conscious of what is going on within the sphere of the mind? Are you aware of your thoughts, of your feelings? Are you aware that you are fidgeting, scratching, yawning, pushing your hair back?


The teacher

I realize a lot of Buddhists, especially in the West, go it alone. I haven’t really tried to do that as a practitioner, so I can’t speak directly to the effectiveness of such an approach. The cliché (or adage) of course is that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. But I think that holds up in any kind of relationship, and it’s really a matter of do we want to learn or not? If so, then we should be ready for a relationship with a teacher of some sort, at any time. Ultimately, the teacher is our own mind, but since most of us do not live in complete solitude and it usually takes a while to be receptive enough to have this be sufficient, we can look to the interactions of our everyday lives, as well to the more intentional relationships with Dhamma teachers. I have been very lucky with all of the teachers I have had on this path, both formal and informal.* and I’d like to talk a little bit here about the different kinds of teachers available to us, about how to find a teacher and, how best to evaluate a teacher so we know we’re benefiting from the relationship.

One of the reasons I’m compelled to write about this is quite a few people in my life have asked if I want to teach meditation, the Dhamma (in a formal way). And I say, without hesitation, that’s not for me to decide. I believe very strongly that a certain level of wisdom is necessary, so that the teacher is capable of guiding students of different levels and of offering the most benefit possible. From that perspective, I certainly have a lot more to learn. What is that “certain level” though? Who knows. Not sure it can be measured in any definitive way. I don’t think it necessarily has to do with jhanas or with stages of enlightenment. It does have to do with understanding things as they truly are however. And it’s mostly those who also have some decent understanding in that regard (other contemplatives) who can really spot it. Therefore, I think some kind of transmission is important when we are talking about formal teachings.

Medicine Buddha - supreme teacher

I attended Milarepa’s Songs of Realization retreat several weeks ago with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Though this was my first time receiving teachings in the Tibetan tradition, I qualified for the retreat because I am an “advanced” practitioner of vipassana, according to Tergar International’s standards. In Mahamudra training, students most have experience with both samatha (Skt: shamatha) and vipassanā (Skt: vipashyanā) before they can be introduced to nature of mind teachings. In order to avoid misinterpretation of these advanced teachings, we aren’t allowed to share them with others who have not had a similar level of training. This concept is foreign to me, but I will certainly respect the tradition and not divulge information that could potentially be harmful to others. On a more elementary level though, Rinpoche offered us some guidelines for evaluating a teacher. Here they are:

1) The teacher should come from an authentic lineage (this is the direct transmission piece)
2) The teacher should have a history of practice (it’s not all intellectual, in the Tibetan tradition this would mean at least one 3-year solitary retreat)
3) The teacher operates within a discipline
4) The teacher demonstrates compassion

I would also add that a sign of a good teacher is that she has more experience than you, and that she also demonstrates a capacity and willingness to learn from the student.

So how do we find a teacher (outside of our daily lives)? Is it true that when we are ready the teacher will find us, or do we need to be more proactive than that? Nowadays, there are so many teachings available to us just by jumping online or by going in a bookstore. It gives us a chance to do an initial exploring and vetting of what’s out there without having to invest ourselves completely. We also aren’t necessarily limited to those teachers in the immediate vicinity of our homes.

When I said I’ve been lucky, I mean that I hardly had to try to find each of the most influential teachers in my life. In college, I signed up for a freshman seminar called “Journeys Toward Spiritual Growth”, after which I became a religion major and never looked back. My professor had been a student of my own grandfather in Divinity School, had been recruited for Christian education at Carleton, and then proceeded to teach himself Chinese, Japanese and Sanskrit and introduced an East Asian religion program. We had very similar backgrounds and similar inclinations. He introduced me to the I Ching, taoism, mysticism, and helped me really dig much deeper in the Buddhist teachings I had started to explore on my own. It was a deeply personal relationship and tremendously inspiring. He was in his last year before retirement. It was quite lucky our paths crossed.

Later, after reacting strongly against a video-taught Goenka style vipassanā retreat and 18 months after finally getting over it and wanting to practice again, I discovered one of my childhood friend’s mother was a meditator and practiced in my home town. She introduced me to my next teacher, who provided precisely the right balance of discipline and compassion needed to encourage me to practice again. Unfortunately I was just moving across the country so it wasn’t until another two years passed that I was able to start working closely with my teacher, who continues to be my main teacher here in the US. We gather in a private home and sit and walk throughout the day, sharing meals — students and teacher together, and having private interviews on a daily basis. There is a lot of relating, even though we observe noble silence. We prepare meals together, work in the garden together, listen to Dhamma talks together, share solitude together.

Finally, when I made the decision to go to Asia to practice, even though I had thought for a long time it would be Japan where I would go, Burma was just the obvious destination – a country that still lives and breathes Buddhism in many ways. I asked my teacher, where (to whom) should I go? And he said, well, you’d probably like U Tejaniya. I looked him up, listened to and read whatever was available online, and had not one iota of hesitation. Immediately it felt right upon arriving in Yangon, totally like making a moon landing but feeling right at home. At one point during the retreat I wondered if I shouldn’t have had more samatha practice before diving so deep into this open awareness stuff – it took me three months of meditating all day, every day to experience samadhi. When I did truly experience samma samadhi, stability of mind, it was with a deep, virtually bullet-proof understanding of what it means to neither want nor resist anything. Even when I did 11 hours of sitting meditation every day at Shelburne Falls in 2004, with clear instruction to do body sweeping, I was practicing open awareness. For me, it’s where the mind naturally goes. In Burma, that there was as much intensity as each yogi wanted, in addition to the opportunity to really apply the practice to daily life (including via talking meditation), was a critical part of the learning process as well. I always end up just where I need to be. Even now, in all this uncertainty, it’s exactly right.

I’ll end with a few questions that may be helpful in evaluating whether or not a teacher is appropriate for us at a given time, in addition to the qualities mentioned by Mingyur Rinpoche.

  1. Do the teacher’s words and actions resonate with you? Are her ethics in line with yours? Do you intuitively feel like there is wisdom there? Can you check back against your own experience?
  2. Does the method being taught make sense to you? Is it natural for the mind? What is the motivation – there shouldn’t be too much greed for a “bliss-out” state, nor should there be too much aversion (e.g., if too structured, too loose, etc.).
  3. Does the teacher provide the proper balance between compassion and discipline?
  4. Does the teacher ask questions as opposed to give answers? Does she encourage you to think for yourself and learn via direct experience?
  5. As you get to know the teacher, does she push your buttons? Does she help identify areas where you maybe have particularly deep conditioning?
  6. Are you learning? Can you directly attribute your growing understanding to the relationship with your teacher?

These may be helpful things to keep in mind. When it comes down to it, though, I think the most important thing is to be open to the variety of teachers that may appear in our lives, at any moment. Also, being able to recognize through direct experience when someone is speaking truth. Don’t just take what someone is saying without some wise and skillful reflection. From my own experience, I would also argue that being able to practice in an intimate setting with one’s teacher over time is an incredible privilege and learning opportunity. If possible, I would really encourage such an approach.

In closing, I hope that if you are looking for a teacher that you can open your eyes to those that are already plainly in front of you, and that the rest will find their way to you soon.

* It’s interesting to note that all my formal teachers have been men, and virtually all those of note in the informal category women. More than anything I believe this reflects cultural attitudes of what and what isn’t an appropriate role by gender. We also receive teachings both directly and indirectly. Although there are far fewer women writing about the Dhamma in English than men, of the five or so teachers that have influenced me the most, at least three of them are women. And how many women have claimed enlightenment or been recognized as an arhant over the years?

And some reading:

“Meeting My Teacher” by Kamala Masters, excerpted from Voices of Insight, edited by Sharon Salzberg

“What are you looking for in a teacher?” by Ken McLeod (see also: “Someone you’ll listen to no matter how crazy you are…”)

“Finding a spiritual teacher” by David Nichtern

“Forum: Selecting a Teacher” with Ponlop Rinpoche, Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Amaro, Yvonne Rand, and Richard Shrobe (Buddhadharma, Spring 2003)

(Edit 8/19/10) “How to Find a Spiritual Teacher” by Mariana Caplan, excerpted from When the Student Is Ready: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher, Sounds True, 2011

Also, articles from the Buddhadharma Spring 2010 Issue on “Going it Alone: Making it work as an unaffiliated Buddhist”

Also, a note: I’ve also been fascinated with several sites online that evaluate gurus and spiritual teachers (many in the nondual traditions). I am not sure entirely what standards they use – especially if the individuals that are presenting the information haven’t necessarily met the teachers themselves in person – but it’s interesting nonetheless. An example here: http://www.globalserve.net/~sarlo/Ratings.htm

Chop, carry

Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. – Zen saying

Several days ago, a tornado stormed through my little town and in about 10 minutes or so dumped torrential rains and brought down countless trees. Among them was a yellowwood which was unwisely planted just below our telephone and electric line 10 years ago. A few weeks ago we had woken up to a large branch from said tree leaning against the house, so it wasn’t surprising that the rest of it had had it when the storm came.

This morning we chopped up the tree and hauled it into the woods, where it can happily disintegrate. For some reason I didn’t grow up helping out with these kind of chores – nor did I remotely have any interest in the domestic ones – but nowadays I find it some of the best daily practice. Unlike work activities that require language to get done, physical labor naturally tends toward concentration and tranquility (though this mind certainly doesn’t!). Being a problem-solver by nature, I don’t even have to think about it but, intuitively know how to attack a fallen tree in the most efficient way. Awareness is impenetrable: cutting, dragging, piling, sweating, back tightening… It’s so different when the thing needing to be organized is people or information or events. I’m likely to be caught in a cascade of planning, worrying, and vengeful thoughts. The mental anguish that can ensue. Makes me wonder if I shouldn’t consider a less intellectual line of work all together. However, for the time being, just this.

I don’t know anything about poetry but when I was on retreat at my home sangha last week, these words suddenly emerged. It wasn’t a creative process; like hauling the tree, it was just pure being.

Morning mist / after storm

Smell of dog shit / heron soars above

This just this.

The (elusive) middle way and social media

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with balance. Though a reasonably good student, I often opted for socializing over studying. I had semesters of really putting the nose to the grind and others where I hung out with friends for hours in a bar playing electronic darts, or in a club dancing to house music (I know, you’re thinking, “really?”). When in intimate relationship, I have struggled greatly with wanting to be with that other person virtually all the time. When alone, I make solitude a fortress. When working, I put myself in it whole-heartedly, but then I end up being burnt out from working 12-hour days too frequently and just quit everything … Then there are the addictive behaviors re technology that result in a sort of “binge-and-purge” approach to life. When I was younger, it was computer games, then pre- social media Live Journal, then Last.fm. Obsessive behavior for a while and then a complete relinquishment. Now it’s reading, aggregating, and sharing Dhamma tidbits I find online, through conversations, and through scouring my own bookshelves. And so much of this, particularly personal blogging, as I’ve discussed before, just enables becoming, “selfing”, creating images of me, myself, mine over and over. See how many images of “me” lie just in this one paragraph alone! The wonderful thing is there’s an awareness that these are just ideas and that that illusion of an identity is dismantling and recreating itself all the time.

"Eliminating Sufferer": Seriously, not surprising if FB knows I'm a, ahem, Buddhist and quite a sense of humor if so...

Like many Western Buddhist-types (I still have trouble claiming the identity of a religious person tied to an institution), I started with pure theory. And often my eyes were bigger than my brain – to borrow from the metaphor about putting more on your plate than you can eat – and there are books that remain unread, but still I buy more. Dhamma talks I download when so many remain unlistened. Technology can enable the same sort of over-consumptive behavior we see in so much of our society – even when the object of such consumption is Dhamma. These days, part of the reason the books aren’t being read is because I’m sitting and practicing instead of just thinking about it, but there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s also a lot of engaging in social media, and not always all that mindfully. The momentum of a sensual life can be much stronger than that of a contemplative one, and there’s always the danger of talking about the Dhamma but not living it, not realizing it in the sense of the kind of understanding that comes from direct experience alone.

And to be quite honest, this is a big struggle right now.

I’m someone that’s also always been pretty anti-establishment and resisted enforced structure. So, it’s not surprising that far from a Mahasi method of vipassana, I practice a “choiceless awareness” kind of meditation, which encourages inquiry and investigation right from the bat. And Shwe Oo Min was just the right retreat center for me since it provided structure if I chose it, but never enforced it. The Forest Refuge in Barre, MA is similar in that regard but it’s disadvantage is it doesn’t provide the opportunity for talking meditation, and it costs an arm and a leg compared to Burmese standards of dana. (However, I should note, both those drawbacks can be remedied with a work study.) For the same reason, I have no trouble incorporating teachings from Zen and other traditions into my practice as well. Theravada, Mahayana, who cares? The guys below don’t.

The kind of structure I like. No walls.

During the seven months I was on retreat, there were long periods where I followed the prescribed schedule: rise at 3:30 AM, sit / walk, sit / walk, etc. all day and there were times when I totally just did my own thing. Times where I talked with other yogis, times where I totally retreated. Having that freedom was really important to the learning process. And I deeply believe all human beings should be given this balance between structure and independent choice from early in their lives (but that’s another matter all together, perhaps to be explored in future ramblings). At the same time, because life was so simple on retreat, things were really stripped down – there were no opportunities for distraction, for numbness, for completely checking out. That’s why being in a meditation center is so supportive to the practice. You just can’t get away from the mind when there’s nothing else going on.

But then, here we are in daily life and the distractions are there. For me, namely, that’s an Internet connection: more specifically Google Reader, email, Tumblr. I have a focused approach to my Internet usage certainly, and so I don’t waste my time swimming through seas of “irrelevant information”, but it remains something that can entirely take me away from contemplative practice and put all my focus outward if I’m not careful. It’s a constant balancing process. Every time there is an urge to check for new information in one of those buckets (or tabs to be precise), I have to look at the intention. What’s the motivation. Is it just lobha, sense desire, that I’m trying to provide momentary relief to? Is it even possible for it to be entirely pure when it happens so many times during the day? It moves into addiction so quickly, and since currently there is so little structure in my life (liminal, jobless, hermit-like lifestyle) it is far too easy to just avoid looking at what’s at the root of those patterns.

Meanwhile, being back in the West, I immediately fall prey to the illusion of needing to be productive. So the online activity somehow feels like proof of creating something, delivering something. Being a productive member of society! When really, even if there are a few people who are reading what I write or reblog and are being inspired, life feels all too meaningless because of some idea that things are supposed to be some other way. Because of not opening to life as it is in all its isness. Then there’s the comparison, the idea that life was more meaningful when I was practicing more diligently in Myanmar. The idea that somehow, watching my mind in this new context, where concentration is pretty hard to come by, is not a valid form of practice. Is not worthwhile. That somehow I’ve plateaued because there’s not enough mindfulness from moment-to-moment, not enough continuity, not ripe enough conditions for wisdom to emerge. Forgetting that it is the difficult situations, the confronting deeply engrained habits of behavior (in relationship, in addiction), the feelings of uncertainty and lack of meaning, that ultimately are the best teachers.

We’re like a student who skips class, who doesn’t want to study his lessons. We don’t want to see the mind when it’s happy, when it’s suffering. We don’t want to see it change, but what will we ever know? You have to stay with the changing like this. Get acquainted with this: “Oh, the mind is like this. One moment it thinks of that, the next moment it thinks of this, that’s its ordinary nature.” Know it when it thinks. Know when its thoughts are good, when they’re bad, when they’re right and wrong. Know what it’s like. When we know the affairs of the mind, then even if we’re simply sitting, thinking about this or that, the mind is still in concentration. If we know what it’s up to, we don’t get irritated or distracted.

via Not for Sure: Two Dhamma Talks

Had Ajahn Chah spoken these words in the digital era to a bunch of Western Buddhists, he might have included the verb “blogging” or “engaging in social media” in the sentence that starts “when we know the affairs of the mind, then even if we’re…”

The challenge for so many of us that are attracted to Buddhism, perhaps initially from an intellectual perspective, and to all of those that embrace social media for sharing the Dhamma, is to make sure that we do it mindfully and that it doesn’t interfere with (and hopefully rather supports) the non-verbal forms of our practice. Because of working in IT and in a professional setting for many years, spending an inordinate time on a computer has been normalized for me, so that even when I don’t have to, I still do. In Burma, I didn’t miss it at all and thought I’d never go back. It’s strange, the all or nothing. It’s been difficult to find the balance.

So now it’s learning to be present in this reality, with these particular conditions, to live in the world but not be of it. To see and understand the patterns and learn from them. To see the desires and the aversions, the confusion and frustration. To inquire into their root.

So simple, but not easy. As all of this is.

There are of course many conversations – and now even an annual conference – dealing with the subject of mindfulness and social media. Here are some resources:

(Ed. 8/31/2010 My Personal Internet Usage Policy)

In Hindsight: To Blog, or Not to Blog

Mindful Blogging

The Plain Truth About Wisdom 2.0 and Addiction

You Are No Longer Following Buddha

How to Skillfully Live with Technology

Did You Get the Message?

Inquiring Mind | Volume 26 | Number 2 | Spring 2010 “Addiction”

Dharma and Technology with Anushka Fernandopulle

Soren Gordhamer Home Page and Columnist Page at Huffington Post

Wisdom 2.0 Conference

Photo Credit: “Walking Talking Meditation”, Jiri Pavlik

Awareness for daily life

Awareness is your refuge:
Awareness of the changingness of feelings,
of attitudes, of moods, of material change
and emotional change:
Stay with that, because it’s a refuge that is
It’s not something that changes.
It’s a refuge you can trust in.
This refuge is not something that you create.
It’s not a creation. It’s not an ideal.
It’s very practical and very simple, but
easily overlooked or not noticed.
When you’re mindful,
you’re beginning to notice,
it’s like this.

- Ajahn Sumedho

“Awareness just is.” My teacher said through a crackled, hollow Skype connection half-way across the world. Regardless of the aural challenge, ears alert – in fact, hanging on every word – this simple sentence really broke open a stuckness I had been experiencing for nearly two months.

Ah, yes, awareness – that thing that always is, if we just tap into it. That thing that lies beyond conventional reality, concepts, beliefs, ideas, time and yet is the one constant. The one thing that is always there. As my Burmese teacher says, “just be happy that you are aware!”, even if that awareness comes from realizing that you were previously unaware. (This sentiment was also expressed in a recent post at Mind Deep.)

Awareness is not consciousness; according to Zen tradition, it is rather “the self prior to our parent’s birth”, at least so says Dainin Katagiri in Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life. Katagiri goes on to explain that it’s pretty difficult to know this “self” since consciousness is virtually always operating and carrying us away from one thought to another. The best way to research it, however, he says, is “to sit down and do zazen and let the flower of life force bloom in thusness.”

So, awareness is the essential self, and we get to know it deeply through the practice of meditation. There are Zen ways and Theravada ways of talking about it, and it seems the Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings in Tibetan Buddhism particularly stress it as well. In fact, perhaps the one piece that is consistent — regardless of the method being taught, from what tradition the teaching comes, or what words are used to point to the Dhamma — is awareness. This is the crux of mind training and to realizing meditation as a way of life.

Awareness is something that we can and should be cultivating all the time. However, as Ajahn Sumedho and U Tejaniya both say, it’s not a creation; it’s cultivation in the sense of bhāvāna, the Pāli word for meditation. And while an awareness practice’s potential for deep insight is probably greatly reduced without formal meditation and time for intensive retreat, awareness in daily life has a lot of benefit in and of itself.

Even though I have not fully returned to a conventional life and am to some extent continuing to live in retreat mode, daily life is the core of practice right now. Why? Because the great majority of our day is spent in daily activity and not in formal meditation. And awareness is applicable to whatever situation we find ourselves in – whether we are doing chores, talking to friends, in meetings at work, driving, doing exercise, engaging in social media (that’s a tough one), practicing sitting or walking meditation, etc. There are lots of relevant quotes on what awareness and mindfulness consist of. If you follow the links you can see some of my favorites. But Charlotte Joko Beck, as always, gets right to the point with the following:

There’s an old Zen story: a student said to Master Ichū, ‘Please write for me something of great wisdom.’ Master Ichū picked up his brush and wrote one word: ‘Attention.’ The student said, ‘Is that all?’ The master wrote, ‘Attention Attention.’ …

For ‘attention’ we could substitute the word ‘awareness.’ Attention or awareness is the secret of life and the heart of practice….[E]very moment in life is absolute itself. That’s all there is. There is nothing other than this present moment; there is no past, there is no future; there is nothing but this. So when we don’t pay attention to every little this, we miss the whole thing. And the contents of this can be anything. This can be straightening our sitting mats, chopping an onion, visiting one we don’t want to visit. It doesn’t matter what the contents of the moment are; each moment is absolute. That’s all there is, and all there ever will be. If we could totally pay attention, we would never be upset. If we’re upset, it’s axiomatic that we’re not paying attention. If we miss not just one moment, but one moment after another, we’re in trouble.

As a part of my own practice – of ensuring that this writing is supportive – in the next few posts I hope to explore different elements of our daily life practice including things like intention, the four right exertions (reflections on effort and wholesomeness), right speech, Wisdom 2.0, and aspects of relationship that serve as fodder for self-inquiry.

Until then, a couple of exercises that may be worth engaging in:

  1. Notice the state of mind when you first get up and when you go to sleep. What activity do you engage in and what’s the mood and thought content associated with the activity? And how do you engage in that activity?
  2. Per instructions from Andrea Fella’s daily life retreat, pick a recurring activity throughout your day (standing up, checking email, etc.) and make an effort to be mindful as you engage in that activity. See what you discover. If you realize you’ve forgotten to be mindful, just recognize that you’ve now remembered and see what that feels like…As U Tejaniya says, notice what the difference is between being aware and not being aware.

And some recommended reading / listening on daily life practice:

Every time you talk to someone on the phone or when someone approaches you, try to remember to check how you are feeling. What do you think and feel about that person? Throughout the day, whether at work or not, make it a habit to always check what kind of emotional reaction you have every time you interact with another person. How do you feel when the phone rings? Is the mind eager to pick it up quickly? You need to notice these things.

I really emphasize this moment of remembering. And what is helpful over time, is that you get familiar with what it feels like to be awake, to be aware — that moment of coming back into awareness. When you get familiar with that feeling, you’ll actually discover it happens a lot. It happens a lot to us throughout our day but we usually don’t recognize it because that moment of coming back into mindfulness is kind of subtle, and we generally leap onto what we’re paying attention to and start thinking about it, so we miss the fact that we’ve become mindful.

  • Interview with Charlotte Joko Beck posted at Ox Herding, originally published in Shambhala Sun, and an excerpt from Nothing Special: Living Zen published in Tricycle from which the above quote was referenced
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