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?


Anxious to live life meaningfully, mindfully

Anxiety comes in many forms. According to the National Institute of Mental Health as many as 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder (source, and more info here). When there is a real surge of anxiety, the afflicted person can end up virtually non-functional. The mental activity tends to go in a dangerous spiraling motion (thoughts of dread, regret, meaninglessness, etc.), the body may respond violently (trembling, vomiting), and a panic attack can set off totally paranoid behaviors (e.g., unable to leave the house). This is mind and this is serious stuff.

Although I luckily have not experienced quite this intense form of anxiety except in extreme situations of crowds (perhaps some ochlophobia), I can sympathize to a certain degree due to a pervasive undercurrent of the emotion that is deeply conditioned at this point, and thus hard to pinpoint. One of the side effects is waking up in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning with an overwhelming sense of neglect and forgetfulness, as if I’ve forgotten the most important person (or dog – my baby) in my life completely. It’s possible this is PASS, but considering it’s been 16 years since exercising that not-so-much-of-a-choice, I’d be surprised.

A lot of people take prescription drugs (while others self-medicate), some use psychotherapy, and still others engage in a meditative practice to manage anxiety. One friend who does suffer from anxiety, and takes medication for it, has also begun to consider mindfulness-based approaches. There is some evidence that this may indeed be an effective form of treatment, though the study results generally have only moderate success rates.

I can attest to the benefits of of mindfulness practice in my own life — as this background noise of anxiety definitely disappeared during retreat — but, I can also see how the results could be difficult to maintain without diligence and sustained practice. In other words, the anxiety has slowly but surely emerged again in the conventional world as mindfulness weakens and old habits of mind reappear. Despite an extremely simple life: no house, no car, no phone, no job, no bills, the anxiety just starts to bubble up in sleep and waking life, undoubtedly because of more discursive thought.

Toni Packer in The Work of this Moment talks about how we can inquire into the nature of our difficult emotions and, in particular, question the validity of the thoughts that tend to bolster them. She says:

…Real questioning has no methods, no  knowing–just wondering freely, vulnerably, what it is that is actually happening inside and out. Not the word, not the idea of it, not the reaction to it, but the simple fact…Anxiety arises…will one immediately act by “knowing” it from previous times and bracing against it? “Oh, not that again–I hate it–it’s going to get worse, how can I get rid of it.” and so forth. [Or] simply meeting it as for the first time, attending quietly, feeling it, letting it move on its own, revealing itself for what it is without interference by the brain.

When the emotion is just a background hum, it can be difficult to really identify the thought content that’s feeding it. That’s why moment-to-moment mindfulness is key – because you never know when with clear awareness that cause and effect process is going to make itself known. And when the mind is peaceful, during more formal meditation practice, that’s a good time to actually intentionally call up the emotion and investigate it. This is something I need to do more often, but it requires equanimity. Anything that’s deeply conditioned is difficult to penetrate. We have to recognize when is the right opportunity to really confront a strong emotion and also know when we really aren’t ready to deal with it. If we aren’t, it’s okay to redirect our attention to the breath or to the observing mind, which may be feeling aversion to the emotion, because the emotion will undoubtedly come up again when we can meet it with more wisdom. I believe though that even if we have gained some insight into the source of a particular emotion, without persistent application of mindfulness, we can’t be confident that it won’t arise again.

Quite certainly, in my case, the anxiety is related to a seemingly urgent sense of needing to live life meaningfully, and while that was stilled for a while on retreat, it has come up to the surface again in the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over my day to day and in the semi-isolation I have imposed on myself without the structure and discipline of before (as I alluded to in my last post). And again, if not aware, engaging in social media can exacerbate this.

While I do very much believe in the application of mindfulness meditation for the treatment of stress, difficult emotions, and the conditions associated with them, I also question an entirely secular approach as a stand-alone treatment. Knowing that even after 7 months of intensive meditation practice and with a tremendous amount of saddha, I still struggle with a lesser-grade anxiety condition, I suspect that it would be very challenging for someone that lacks that faith in the benefits of meditation and the Dhamma, and who may suffer from a more serious condition, to persistently apply mindfulness in such a way that it could have significant results.

But read up on it, I’m just one meditator so don’t take my word for it.

In the interview “What Is True Happiness?” (PDF), Tricycle, Fall 2005, B. Alan Wallace, director of the Santa Barbara Center for Consciousness Studies, talks about the importance of faith and, even more so, practice in order to live a meaningful life and understand the cause of stress. He refers to that niggling dukkha, and discusses it in the context of the Four Noble Truths and of modern psychotherapy. To paraphrase, he says that that depressive quality, that ever present hum of discomfort, is our golden opportunity. But far too often, on the advice of conventional society and mental health professionals, we treat only the symptom. Truly what we need to do is look at the cause of the suffering, understand it and learn from it. As my teacher has said, vipassana means, “face it, learn it, get it”.

So let’s get to the root of it and let’s do it through practice. But let’s also be wise and know what are skillful means and when to employ one over the other. There is no quick solution to dealing with stress, anxiety, fear, dukkha, but there is no doubt that by walking the path the Buddha laid out and practicing right mindfulness (samma sati), we can go a long way toward understanding it.

Studies on Mindfulness-Based Therapies and Meditation to Treat Anxiety, Etc.

Hofmann, Stefan G.; Sawyer, Alice T.; Witt, Ashley A.; Oh, Diana. “The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review”, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, April, 2010  Volume 78, Issue 2, Pages 169-183

Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, A. O., Kristeller, J., Peterson, L.G., Fletcher, K., Pbert, L., Linderking, W., Santorelli, S. F., “Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders”, Am. J. Psychiatry (1992) 149:936-943.

Miller, J., Fletcher, K. and Kabat-Zin, J., “Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders”, Gen. Hosp. Psychiatry (1995) 17:192-200.

Evans, S., Ferrando, S., Findler, M., Stowell, C., Smart, C., Haglin, D. “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for generalized anxiety disorder”, J Anxiety Disord. 2008 May;22(4):716-21. Epub 2007 Jul 22.

Zylowka, et al. (2008). “Mindfulness meditation training in adults and adolescents with ADHD.”. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11, 737-746 (somewhat related)

And Some Blog Posts…

Finding Relief from Depression Through Mindfulness

A Buddhist Perspective on Coping with Anxiety

Online Mindfulness-Based Anxiety Therapy

A Video from Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

Using Panic Attacks for Meditation

And Some Books to Consider (caveat: I haven’t read ‘em)…

The Mindfulness Code: Keys for Overcoming Stress, Anxiety, Fear, and Unhappiness, by Donald Altman (you can also listen to an interview with the author, where he talks about overuse of technology and social media as part of our unhappiness, here)

The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Mindful Path Through Shyness: How Mindfulness & Compassion Can Help Free You from Social Anxiety, Fear, & Avoidance by Steve Flowers and Jeffrey, M.D. Brantley

Keep questioning!

After reading Toni Packer’s The Silent Question again, I am reminded why I don’t readily adopt labels and that proclaiming that I’m Buddhist could put me in a box that I don’t want to be in and that doesn’t reflect reality. The fact is I currently have a lot of saddha (faith or confidence) and I have to in order to meditate all of my waking hours. I am immersed in a Buddhist culture, am living with monastics and have dedicated my life solely to practice right now. We’ll see if things change upon leaving Burma, getting back to the States, etc., but what’s important is that this practice is about daily life, and about making meditation a way of living, so that’s why for the first time I feel a need to identify with the religion…but really, it’s the self-inquiry and the questioning that matters (which can be entirely independent of anything faith-based). And the learning. The direct experiential learning. My teacher said the other day that wisdom (paññā) is what makes life meaningful. Wisdom being a synonym here for knowledge, insight, skillful practice, all in terms of the understanding of ultimate reality (anicca, dukkha, annatā).

What this kind of meditative work comes down to (yes, if only it were so simple!), at least from a Theravadan perspective, is understanding the teaching of anicca or impermanence, dukkha, which is translated most often as suffering but also as unsatisfactoriness or stress, and anattā or “no-self”. Anattā is referred to more as emptiness in the Mahayana schools and across the board is probably the most important single element of the Buddha’s teaching even though he supposedly said: “I teach only dukkha and the ending of dukkha”. Of the three, the first two concepts are a little easier to grasp than the last one. The Four Noble Truths state that there is suffering; not that everything is suffering but rather that there is the experience of suffering. It’s a fact. It’s not something we have to believe in, just like we don’t have to believe in the sun and that it will come up tomorrow. Similarly, we intuitively understand impermanence through the loss and death we experience in our lives, and more simply in things like cut flowers or sunsets. And meditation allows us to explore these truths much more deeply. But at the core of it all is the attachment to self, to the identification of all that we experience as “me” or “mine”. So then the work requires that we investigate the concept of self and really understand what it is. So we ask questions like, “who is aware of this moment?”, “what is experiencing this pain?”, “what is hearing this sound?”, “who is it that knows this experience?”. Toni Packer describes this type of investigation, this effort to move outside of conceptual thought in order to gain some understanding of anattā, in the following passage:

“I remember going through all this many years ago, racking my brain about this ‘I’ and ‘me’, trying to get to the root of it while driving to Rochester on the interstate. And if you, too, are interested in finding this out, go quietly into it any time it comes up for you. It is amazing to experience this quandary, this wondering, and investigating into not-knowing, because it really seems to exercise the brain and allow it to move outside its accustomed pathways of talking and thinking. Questioning can shake it up. Loosen its stuckness. Like we’ve said before, ‘cracking the cement of language’.”

Everything we relate to, we do so in terms of our self; it’s the only way we know how. But we’ve also probably all had the kind of bare awareness where the ego just falls completely away (imagine being alone in a forest hearing the wind rustling the leaves, or the moment of inspiration when something creative just comes oozing out of your fingers). It doesn’t happen often, and usually we’re not trying for it, but it’s pretty powerful to tap into this awareness that’s always there but unfortunately hidden by our normal ways of thinking about the world.

Sayadaw U Tejaniya teaches the practice of moment to moment awareness and the development of wisdom. He begs us to see and know ourselves that pain, happiness, whatever object the mind relates to, that it is all just nature, heaps of mental (nāma) and physical (rūpa) process happening over and over. Arising and passing away relentlessly. There’s nothing to hold onto. The “I” and all the adjectives we use to describe it are a concept and only that. So any label or word that I use on here is just a convention, a means of communication. It is a pointing to, a representation of something factual, but it in and of itself is not. (See next post for more on this topic.) So, Buddhist or not doesn’t really matter. Questioning, investigation, meditative inquiry, and realizing wisdom – we can all do that.

I’ll end this post with a few quotes (that I’m retiring from elsewhere on the Inernet) from two important influences, both adamantly “non-religious” though deeply “religious” people…

“But being a religious person, I would like to question the validity of everything for myself. That is the essence of religion, which is humility. Not to accept anything unless you understand the meaning there of, personally in your life. If you accept without understanding, you will be imposing upon the mind. And then you are neither true to the mind, nor true to the meaning. The essence of religion, which is humility, lies in uncovering the meaning of life, uncovering the meaning of every moment, learning the meaning for ourselves.”
- Vimala Thakar

“In the space which thought creates around itself there is no love. This space divides man from man, and in it is all the becoming, the battle of life, the agony and fear. Meditation is the ending of this space, the ending of the me.”
- J. Krishnamurti

Selfish selflessness

The very popular S.N. Goenka style Vipassana retreats are taught around the world by video dhamma talk, and are a consistent 10-days of silence, starting with three and a half days of anapanasati (breath awareness) instruction and the remaining days introducing the body-sweeping technique as originally taught by U Ba Khin. Actually, my first long retreat and longest retreat to this day (about to change!) was also in this style. I have since explored other teachers because I found the technique as taught by Goenka quite rigid and because it’s very important to me to have a teacher that is teaching in an individual way, to exactly where I am now. That’s hard to do by video.

My friend Z has been on three Goenka retreats over the years, and he and his girlfriend have said their friends and family call it “silent selfish camp”. Today, the Tricycle Editor’s blog referred to an article that ran in The Vancouver Sun about meditation’s ill effects – in particular narcissism or an inflated sense of self-importance; and just last week this video showed up all over the Buddhist blogosphere, criticizing spiritual materialists. While there may be some truth to these critiques, is it possible that with right intention and a good teacher those who pursue the spiritual path may actually be contributing to society in a truly altruistic way, even if they separate themselves from society for a time?

Dōgen said, “to study the self is to forget the self”. For some reason, this has always made sense to me theoretically, at least since the first time I read the Shobogenzo Genjokoan as a 20 year-old. Practically speaking, it’s much more difficult to arrive at true understanding of this statement. Perhaps even harder is trying to explain this to someone else in any sort of conventional way. When I talk about anattā, no-self, as such a fundamental component of Buddhist philosophy, it really doesn’t compute for those people in my life who don’t have a meditation or spiritual practice of their own. Even just describing what meditation is has been excruciatingly difficult at times, although I’ve recently amassed a small collection of wonderful quotes on what it is, which may help.

If meditation is being aware of just this, exactly what is, then identifications with “I”, “me”, “mine” do tend to fall away. If someone says something that can be perceived as a criticism, but we don’t take it personally, then it’s just a factual statement and nothing more. There is no ego to get in the way and react. As Vimala Thakar says, meditation is then a way of life. It’s not something we go do by ourselves and then leave on the mat. It’s how we relate to everyone and everything in our lives, it’s how we eat, sleep, work, drive, interact, etc., if everything is done with heightened awareness. The point of this? Acceptance of things as they are, but also, more importantly less “me” to get in the way of honest relationship.

Toni Packer puts it this way:

When the deeply habitual self-referencing–the comparing whatever is perceived in others to ‘my’ performance, ‘my’ idea, ‘my’ accomplishments–begins to slow down and clear the space for simple awareness, a new way of seeing and hearing unfolds. Everything seems to have changed, yet nothing has really changed, except that all of oneself is open, receptive, present and truly loving. This cannot be practiced–it springs into life as whole and complete being.

So can I explain to my seven year-old nephew that I’m going away, not because I don’t care about him or don’t want very much to be a part of his life, but because I know that this practice helps me move away from these conditioned ways of thinking that cause me and all those I come into contact with to suffer? No, not really. Can I explain this to my parents? No, not really. Can I explain it to you? I don’t know. Can anyone understand any of this other than through direct experience? Probably not. Do I believe that radical transformation is possible through this practice? Yes, quite definitely. Is it for everyone? No, but at least this is one more person with the faith and commitment to move towards self-lessness, liberation, transformation.

For more on radical transformation, one individual at a time: See Krishnamurti piece on The Mirror of Relationship and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article on Laying Down the Rod.

A revolutionary view on relationship

When one has a dedicated meditation practice, one of the things that is unmistakable in watching our thoughts, bodily sensations, reactions, emotions, mental wanderings, and the like is that everything is impermanent. Anicca. How does the idea of a committed partnership or love relationship reconcile with this very basic fact of life, the arising and passing of everything? In many ways it doesn’t. And yet, there is such a good reason to work at it, and commit to relationship as practice, as long as we keep in mind the following reflections / remembrances.

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Remembering this, I believe there is a totally different way of approaching relationship. Below are some excerpts that speak to this revolution. And if you haven’t read any J. Krishnamurti, his writings / talks on relationship are essential teachings. He had a strong influence on both Toni Packer and Vimala Thakar. More on K in another post.

JokoWhy are relationships such excellent practice? Why do they help us go into what we might call the slow death of the ego? Because, aside from our formal sitting, there is no way that is superior to relationships in helping us see where we’re stuck and what we’re holding on to. As long as our buttons are pushed, we have a great chance to learn and grow. So a relationship is a great gift, not because it makes us happy–it often doesn’t–but because any intimate relationship, if we view it as practice, is the clearest mirror we can find.

- Charlotte Joko Beck, from Everyday Zen: Love & Work

More from Joko Beck’s dharma heir, Barry Magid (teacher at Ordinary Mind Zendo, NYC)

tonipacker…We think, we dream, and we talk about happiness and security. We also talk and dream about love–imagine it, long for it, pray for it, promise it to each other, and pursue it strenuously. But genuine happiness, security, and love aren’t products of anything. They cannot be made intentionally. They cannot be possessed. And if they are dreams and ideas they are not genuine. They come uninvited when the mind is still and open, not engaged in the conflicting movements of self-centeredness. They arise unexpectedly when the mind is not in want or fear and therefore not in pursuit of anything…

…Discovering, understanding, and caring do not arise in a mind that is enclosed in fixed ideas about itself and others. In living together, can there be openness and genuine interest in whatever my be coming up in both you and me at this moment–be it desire and longing, prejudice and fear, tenderness or tension, anger or pleasure, misunderstanding, loneliness, rejection, blockage, a feeling of isolation or whatever?…

…What does it mean to see each other exactly as we are? Past memories about ourselves and each other are not what we are right now. Memory is an incomplete and inaccurate recording of the past. Now is something entirely different. Quietly looking and listening now is not memory. It is an entirely different mode of mind. It is a cleansing of perception…

…Can we human beings share life on earth together without trying to own each other or trying to get rid of each other? The idea of possessing each other gives an illusory sense of security. Along with it inevitably goes the fear of losing what we have become accustomed and attached to.

With the loss of another–real or imagined–comes the pain of grieving, of feeling forsaken, abandoned, lost, and sorry for oneself. With the idea of losing someone to somebody else comes the agony of jealousy, anger, hate and violence. One can verify all this thoroughly by oneself.

We may cling to each other for fear of losing each other, but possessing someone has nothing to do with love. Possessions cause pride as well as fear, dependency, and sorrow. Love knows no fear and no dependency. It has no possessions and no attachments. Love is without sorrow…

- Toni Packer, from “LIving Together”, The Work of this Moment

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