Recorded at Steiner House in Ann Arbor Michigan in March 2018 during the Spring Vipassana Retreat.
Video and Transcript, the video is also closed captioned.
March 11, 2018 Sunday, Steiner Retreat, Ann Arbor
Part 2: Vipassana Meditation | Deeper, Clearer Seeing
There are many forms of meditation; there is no one right form. What is the desired end? Why are you meditating? At Deep Spring Center we teach a mixture of vipassana and pure awareness meditation. This weekend you’re here specially to work on vipassana. I’ll touch on pure awareness just a few minutes as I talk, but not in depth.
Vipassana is a Pali language word, the language from which these teachings originated in southeast Asia. Passana means to see, and vipassana means deeper, clearer seeing. Normally we deeply see the things that are pleasant and we avert our gaze from that which is unpleasant. Vipassana invites us to stay present. When we do, we notice that some things are pleasant, some are unpleasant, and some are neutral, and how we normally relate to these experiences. When something is unpleasant, “Ooooo! I like that!” When it’s unpleasant we contract and pull away. When something is neutral we normally get bored by it and look for something else to entertain us.
When something is pleasant and we like it, that’s fine. “I like that.” But then, grasping comes: “I want that!” Can you feel the distinction? “I like it.” “I want it!” “I like it” doesn’t have any contraction to it. It’s open. Just, “Oh, it’s lovely.” “I want it! I want flowers!” Unpleasant: “I don’t like that”, free of contraction, versus “Aaack! Get rid of it!”, run the other way, with contraction. And neutral— hmm, kind of boring; where else can I go? Can I just be here with nothing? A little bit boring, nothing happening. The mind wanting something to stimulate it.
So, we start to watch mindfully, not just in meditation but in our daily lives, how we habitually relate, and we start to see the patterns. Very strong patterns like I mentioned earlier, my pattern of, “I”ll be upright when something pushes me.” To tighten myself and push back. (demonstrating push arms) push hard… (Barbara just relaxes with the push, then feeds the energy back) eventually she’ll stop pushing and then I’ll straighten up. Now, I can just keep doing that. How long is she going to keep pushing? Thank you.
I don’t have to push back. I don’t have to resist the push and tighten myself. I don’t have to run away. I just dance with it. We do this with arms. Push through… Now I’m pushing back hard! Can you see the contraction? Now I collapse with the push. Versus just dancing with it… I give the energy back. Just dancing with it. I can do it forever. As she begin to push hard—I’m dancing with it and I just kind of return the energy. And she pushes again… hard… I absorb it and push it back, return it. You can dance with it forever. This is not how most of us habitually live our lives. We harden up or we run, fight or flight, or freeze, try to disappear.
In sitting practice, we have the wonderful opportunity, just sitting, breathing in, breathing out. I am peaceful and relaxed and suddenly a fly lands on my forehead. It’s just a little tickle. It’s not really unpleasant, it’s not like something is burning me or hitting me. Tickling, tickling. I feel it, “unpleasant, unpleasant.” And I feel the “I don’t want this.” It goes so quickly from unpleasant to, “Oh no, is this fly going to be landing on my head the whole hour? What am I going to do? I can’t stand it.”
This is a vital point of practice. The touch of the fly is no longer the predominant object. My contraction around the fly is predominant. Can you feel that shift? Touching, touching, knowing it as unpleasant. Feeling myself contract, strong aversion, don’t want this. Tension, tension. Breathing in, I am aware of the tension. Breathing out, I hold space for the tension. I begin to relax, and the fly is still walking across my forehead. But I’m no longer feeling that strong degree of contraction, aversion and irritation. Then I can reach my hand up and just gently brush it away.
The experience is similar with body experience. Sitting, perhaps sitting with your legs crossed there on the cushion, and pain in the knee developing. Feeling pain, feeling pain. Same thing— same story: oh no! This is going to ruin my meditation because there’s pain in my knees. How can I find peace and meditate if there’s pain in my knees? Well, your meditation is not to find peace in a way of controlling your experience, but to open to the innate peacefulness that’s always there. To realize the power of that spaciousness and joy and peace in yourselves.
So, one notes the pain. Breathing in, I am aware of the pain. Breathing out, I hold space for that pain. We can do subtle things, like try to use the practice to make the pain go away. I’m holding space for it, I’m being kind to it, but it’s not going away. What am I doing wrong? We get into these stories too.
Instead, one notes pain as throbbing, as burning, pulsation, tingling. Then the growing aversion to the sensation is noticed, and how the whole body is hardening around it. Noting contraction. Same thing exactly as with the fly. The pain in the knee is no longer predominant. The strength of my “I want to get rid of it”, and the whole body contracted around it, is predominant. I breathe, noting contraction, anger, fear. You don’t have to give it a precise label, just contracting or aversion will do. Opening, relaxing, so that the heart is fully present with this human’s experience of body pain. Unpleasant, unpleasant. And then, very gently, I move my leg. Just once, into a different position. Releasing the pain— that’s a kind thing to do for our bodies when they hurt. But I don’t do it repeatedly, … “My knee hurts; I need to move it. (moves it) There, that’s better. Now my other knee hurts. I need to move it…. Better. Oh no, my back hurts too. I need to move that.” My shoulder hurts, my neck hurts— we can spend the whole hour trying to run away from pain rather than exploring our relationship with pain and finding the one who is aware of pain, and the deep place inside me, that can hold space for the pain and take appropriate care of the pain, without having to hold my body in contraction. My heart may be closed, the stories flowing— “I’m not going to be able to walk at the end of the sitting. My knees are going to be locked in place, they’re so painful. They’re going to have to cart me off to the hospital.” The experienced people are laughing. These stories come. If the story comes, just say, “Shhh….. Story! Story”” Quiet the story. Come back to the experience.
One may ask, “what does this story protect me form?” Often the stories are a way of avoiding something greater than the discomfort, like fear, grief, or anger.
All of these challenging experiences will come, I promise you. I want to read you a favorite poem of mine. It’s called “The Guest House”, by Rumi.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi
So our practice is not to control our experience. We’re all experts at controlling our experience. Our practice is to open our hearts and remind ourselves how to be present with love in painful and un-painful experiences— in beautiful experiences, too. How to just open our hearts.
We start with what we call a primary object. For those new to practice, it will be the breath. Feel the experience of the breath coming into the nostrils and flowing out. Try it with me. A slightly cooler sensation of touch at the nostril. Breathing in, and then the out breath, softer, warmer, touching the upper lip… (frequent pauses, not noted)
You can label it “breathing in and breathing out,” or you can just feel it. Just aware of that touch, knowing the direct experience of the inhale and the exhale. And again, the inhale… and the exhale…
As I inhale, I pick up a scent. Perhaps the cook is in the kitchen cooking food. Can others of you smell that? Subtle, a very lovely scent. It’s immediately pulling my attention from the breath to the scent. Pleasant, pleasant. So I’m still breathing, but the scent is also becoming predominant…
And now, I don’t know where the scent was coming from, but it’s gone. What’s predominant now is a kind of grasping after that scent. Where did it go? I want it back! Subtle tension. Breathing in and aware of the tension; breathing out and aware of the tension. The tension dissolving.
So this predominant object has faded away. The secondary objects have faded. I just come back to the breath. Breathing in, breathing out. Breathing in, and breathing out… As I sit here, I begin to feel the sun is no longer hitting the window. It’s not warming me anymore. I begin to feel chilly, cold. My body closes in tight— cold, cold. It’s not very cold, so it’s a more neutral sensation. I simply note it. Feeling cold, feeling cold, but it’s not holding my attention strongly. I consciously let it go and come back to the breath. Breathing in and breathing out…
Now, I cannot hear this but you can. You’re breathing, you’re relaxed, and suddenly:(tapping cup, glass, other objects on table). Hearing, hearing… (bell/gong) Unpleasant. If you’re trying to meditate it’s going to be unpleasant, whatever kind of sound it is, because you don’t want it. Somebody singing in a beautiful voice in the next room— “But I’m trying to meditate.” Or the lawnmower going, or the snowblower. “Hearing, hearing.”
So, we are present with the primary object. For the beginners, let’s let it be the breath for today. When something becomes predominant, we allow attention to move to it. We are not trying to hold our attention on the breath. That means pushing something away. That’s not being present with our direct experience of the moment. To be present in this moment, with its lovely sound, pleasant, pleasant; with its unlovely sound, unpleasant, unpleasant; with the contraction with the unpleasant; or with the pleasant. Maybe you live in an apartment and through the wall you heard your neighbor, who is a concert violinist, playing his violin. Pleasant, pleasant, ahhh, pleasant. And then he stops. “But I want more of it!” Grasping, grasping.
When we can be present in each moment with things as they are, we see the almost subtle intention to move to a story, such as, “I’ll never hear the rest of that concerto; he stopped.” Or, “I’ll never be able to meditate, the traffic is too loud.” Or the snowblower is too loud. We see these stories building up, and, my favorite response to stories is, “Is that so?” If I really want to hear the rest of the concerto I can go knock on my neighbor’s door and say, “Would you play it for me?” If the snowblower is loud, I can remember it’s blowing away the snow for me, so I’ll be able to walk down my driveway or path. “Thank you, thank you.” Or if it’s across the street and it’s not going to help me, I can just note my neighbor is getting his snow cleared. Sound, sound, loud sound, maybe unpleasant sound. Can we make space for that? And you can, you really can. Most people have not tried, but moved into that fight or flight or freeze. Get away from it, control it. Run out screaming and say, “Shut off your snowblower!”
Learning to live peacefully in myself means watching these arisings of war in myself. I talked earlier about clear comprehension. What is my highest purpose here? Is it to perpetuate a war within myself and in the world? Or to find a way to live peacefully with things as they are? With the early morning snowblower, with my husband’s stroke, where is peace?
Somebody asked me last night, is there still any joy in your life? Actually, I was talking to somebody on the phone, not a person who I know very well in terms of heart-centered discussion. He said to me, “Your life will change totally and you’ll never be happy again.” This is somebody who has also lost a loved one. I said to him, “Thank you for sharing your experience of it.”
I thought to myself when I hung up the phone, am I happy? Yes, I’m happy. I have wonderful friends! And many more of you out there, even those I’ve never met who are here today. People who I love, genuinely love. My heart is open. I’m awed by the strength of my three sons, and their wisdom and their love. I’m going to buy myself some sushi for lunch. I’m going to go and hold Hal’s hand again. And if I find he’s dying, this morning, then I’ll still hold his hand and say goodbye. But I can be happy, and that does not negate the grief.
Our practice allows ourselves to just be— just sitting with the unpleasant noise, the snowblower. “It’s interrupting my practice. I can’t practice with it.” Oh yes I can. Right here is my practice, to be present with sound, maybe unpleasant sound, and find the spaciousness to hold both the unpleasantness of it and the real joy of being. Here I am, a human— you can all hear the sound, I can’t. Imagine my joy if I could hear that snowblower! To be present with things as they are. Just sitting with unpleasant sensations like sadness and finding joy in the shared human experiences of joy and sadness! I am alive! I feel!
We call this practice choiceless awareness. We do not try to control what arises in our experience, nor do we climb on and ride it off into the sunset. We notice it. We hold space for it. We note that it has arisen out of many conditions. If you were going to go for a beautiful walk and suddenly it started to sleet, “Oh no, I was going to walk in the Arb. I really wanted to get out there and walk but the sun is gone, the sky is gray now. Oh no.” There are atmospheric conditions, and the sleet arose from the conditions. Breathing in and aware of desire, frustration, yearning. Just breathing. Whatever has the nature to arise has the nature to cease. This is true of the sleet and rain. It’s true of the inner storm.
I had 2 weeks of intense storm churning inside me, until yesterday when it really began to release. So it took 2 weeks, but it didn’t take 2 years, or even 2 months. This doesn’t mean I won’t grieve anymore; it means I’ve remembered how to hold space for the grief, the fear, the pain.
This is the fruit of the practice. And we do it just like this. Hearing the snowblower, feeling the pain in the back, knowing the grief. Watching that move from the direct sensation— hearing or touching, throbbing, whatever— to the mental formation— fear, anger, or just contraction, the confusion of, “I don’t know what’s happening.” Turmoil. What is the direct experience of turmoil? Where is it in my body? I give it my full, kind attention. The pain in my knee or back is no longer the predominant object; the turmoil is, whatever form it’s taking. And like that sleet storm out there, as I give it attention, gradually it resolves and blows away. And maybe I’m left with a pain in my back. Ahhh, putting my hand back there and touching it for the kindness. Ahhh, maybe changing my posture a bit. And then moving on with the sitting.
I know A and D are going to carry these instructions further. This is just a beginning glimpse of the instructions. And if I were here with you for another hour or for the morning, I would now have you stretch and do some walking meditation and come back and have another round of instruction. Or have you just sit and meditate for a while.
So, I’m going to leave you all and go off to my husband in his new room, where we got him settled in last night, and see how he’s doing. And I’ll be back with you tomorrow morning. I hope you all have a wonderful day. Thank you for letting me be with you this morning.