October 10, 2018


The vexed question of “enlightenment”

A student who has done a number of Goenka-style 10-day Insight meditation retreats, and who knew that I have done some work in this area myself, asked me if I would like to take part in a podcast ’round-table’ discussion about what he described as my “awakening”, and those of the other guests. On reflecting on his request, I said that I was not sure that a round-table discussion would serve the audience well—such discussions tend to bog down in definitional arguments and ‘my evidence is bigger than yours’. Personally, I have little interest in trying to convince anyone that what has been useful for me is anything more than potentially useful to anyone else. I told him I would be happy to talk about my experiences, if that would be of interest. That podcast might happen yet.

I do not describe myself as having ‘awakened’, rather that I find myself in an awakening process from time to time. I find myself in other processes too, if sufficiently tired—this is key, because the way some people talk about their awakening is that, in some way, it’s a permanent change (and the sub-text is that the work is done, and no further effort is required). This is not the case in my experience. While the Satipatthana Sutta* describes this process as a “one-way street” once one has got on that path sufficiently (a one-way street that goes to Nibbana directly with no turn-offs), I think this is a simplified version of what can happen. I know at least one person who achieved profound awakening, and then deliberately tried to revert, in a kind of, ‘let’s see how permanent this really is’ kind of way, and she was successful. She is now one of the unhappiest people I know.

Swami Rudrananda’s (“Rudi”) perspective is helpful, and orients us in the most useful direction, I feel: “The reward of the work is more work”, he says. Key here is the insistence on the need to keep working, possibly at a deeper level of understanding or subtlety, but in all instances to keep working. Note that this use of ‘work’ is as far from the 9–5 sense as can be, but the activity requires effort and vigilance, nonetheless.

As well, the Tibetan perspective on this is cautionary: they say that if you enter the God realm, it’s impossible to get out of it—and that is something I have kept in mind over these last 30 years of practise. If even the smallest part of you believes that you are enlightened, or even well along that path, you have stepped into the God realm. No thank you.

This self-entrapment has led to many gurus teaching false teachings, which are always based around their own awakening experiences, but which never set properly or, perhaps better, did not go deep enough. From my perspective, it never “sets properly”: there is only the continuing opportunity to practise.

Another aside: the Satipatthana Sutta speaks of the different kinds of students (in the sense of their attributes and inclinations), and which of the two practises, Vipassana and Samatha, each should do. The same sutta also describes the “Four Postures of Meditation”: lying, sitting, standing and moving. In the West, sitting has become the ‘gold standard’ but no justification can be found for this in the suttas. All postures will need to be explored. My understanding is that these four postures describe one’s whole daily life—there is no place or time one can’t be practising is my read.

And there is a famous quote from the Dalai Lama that is relevant here, too. He was asked, “What is your religion?” He answered, “Kindness. Be kind wherever possible. He paused, looked away, and looked back, “It is always possible.” Olivia put forward a similar sentiment, after we had spent some time with another well-known teacher, and while talking about whether we would continue to work with him: she said that she was only interested in practises that would make her a better human being.

So, to put this together, I am working on being a better human being; and that is all. This is a small thing, and a personal one. And the suttas describe a range of techniques to help you in that goal. They are one map. Schools of Yoga and Taoism have other maps. And as one teacher said to me once, “There are many maps to buried treasure, but not all maps lead to buried treasure.”

My own path was to rediscover Samatha meditation by myself (Serenity meditation, contrasted with Vipassana, or insight meditation), when on that long retreat in NM doing 4–6 yoga nidras daily, and often with breath counting. I was trying to be present in what Western science calls “the delta state”. The cessation of thought, and the concomitant opening of a much larger space of experience, in which thoughts can be seen dancing around, like fish on the surface of the ocean, crying out, “I am the ocean, etc.” is inevitable if you practise for long enough, I believe. Nothing special, actually, except it changes how you relate to thoughts that arise; at least it did for me.

If your clear experience is that thoughts are a very small, constantly changing content in a much larger, unchanging, space, you will never take your own thoughts for anything but what they are: the mind just doing its thing. Useful when useful. This experience can show the practitioner one of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, impermanence, very clearly—my reaction was to laugh, I recall.

I think there are an infinite number of paths to awakening. The Buddhists are certain that theirs is the ‘correct’ one, and certainly there is the scriptural backup of the Pali Canons and the other parallel records in Sri Lankan, Chinese, and Japanese, and no doubt it is a successful method. But it is not the only one. The Buddha himself said many times that his ‘way’ was an approach that was empirical: try for yourself and see if it works for you.

Vipassana has captured the West, but somewhere in one of the suttas the Buddha says, “The bird of meditation needs two wings to fly”; the wings are Samatha and Vipassana. Insight arises in both approaches, though some teachers claim that only Vipassana leads to insight. If not taught well, Vipassana can become another fascination for the mind.

IMHO, Samatha is more useful in the modern Western world, with its myriad distractions—which always pull one away from one’s internal state. Samatha (among other things, the cultivation of the experience of serenity in the body) is rooted in sensations in the body. As bodily sensations only exist in the continually unfolding present, this focus helps to keep the practitioner present. Additionally this is why I have focussed my work on stretching: adding these sensations to the mix helps keep you grounded and present and helps the process of more finely discriminating these sensations.

*Satipatthana Sutta: “Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness”

A note on meditation retreats:

If any readers do have an opportunity to attend an Insight meditation retreat, I strongly urge you to act on this, but with one caveat: I recommend Mahasi-style retreats over the Goenka variants, because the former explicitly includes some instruction on walking meditation, and alternates these with sitting sessions, usually 45′ each. The Goenka retreats only do sitting practise, and unless you are an experienced sitter, pain will be a major fraction of your experience.

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