Thursday, October 10, 2013

Dharma Talk 001: The Axe and the Butter Knife

I thought I might use this as some kind of outlet for some thoughts from time to time.

The Axe and the Butter Knife

I recently checked out a nearby meditation group, trying to see if it might be a fit for me, if I might be able to contribute, maybe meet some people, etc.

It was a pretty standard group, fairly well read on Buddhism, a little bit of mindfulness practice, and some of that psychologizing or group therapy vibe.  And the people seemed to have practiced a bit, they seem to have some understanding of how to struggle with practice.

And yet it seemed pretty clear that no one was actually "getting it done".  The leader of the group was exploring and struggling with the meaning of the word "equanimity," for example.  Which is all well and good, fair topic, but I got the sense that she had never really experienced it for herself.  My thinking was that it's just not that hard to get to an actual experience of equanimity in meditation (11th nana), I mean, you don't even have to attain stream entry.

I was envisioning the task of enlightenment as something like chopping down a redwood, and it seems as if most of westernized Buddhism has insisted on using a butter knife.  So yeah, maybe I could help with that.  Say someone is using the dull side of the butter knife, I could point that out and suggest they try using the sharp side.  "Oh yeah, that's better."  Or I might point out that they could take a rock and sharpen the butter knife.  "Oh yeah, good idea."  Then again, some of them may not even want to chop the tree down - "nah, I just like to rub the wood with the knife every now and then".

I feel for these people and there is a level at which I'd kind of like to mention that I'm a lumberjack and I have this thing called an axe.  Would you like to try this axe thing?  "Ah, no thanks.  I'm real used to the butter knife, we use a butter knife here, and anyway my teacher uses a butter knife.  Everybody uses a butter knife."

I would say the axe is the Mahasi method of meditation.  At some point I'm probably too dogmatic about the technique, I suppose any method could work, as long as you can stay aware and present long enough.  I think about a theoretical measure of meditation that we could call "percent aware time", the percentage of time that one is actually aware and present, as opposed to spacing out or embedded in a train of thought.  I find that with a Mahasi type technique I can stay 99% aware.  I'm not sure how that would compare to other forms of meditation I used to do, I don't know, perhaps I was  hitting 85% or so?

I recall a guy I met through another meditation group, and after one of our 30 minute sits he commented that he was daydreaming for 20 minutes (i.e. 33% aware).  As a human being, I can understand how that happens, but I'd say that is probably not going to get the job done.  By the way, this was a guy with years of practice under his belt.

I have this theory that there may be some kind of tipping point with respect to percent aware time.  In my view, spending time daydreaming is anti-practice.  You're essentially practicing the opposite of what you're trying to do, you're practicing being embedded in thought.  I don't know where this tipping point may be, but I can say 99% seems to be effective.  Who knows, maybe if I had continued with the 85% method that would have worked out.

I think any method can work if you can stay aware like that, but there are a couple of other things that might be important.

A certain earnestness, a deliberate intent to stay aware and present, to let go of thought, to keep coming back to awareness.  There is a sense where you have to tell your mind that this is an important task.

Another point is that we have to keep on it, not only with persistence, but to keep it fresh with a sense of mild curiousity about our experience, a subtle investigative quality, a wordless exploration, feeling all those feelings and sensations and allowing them to be as they are without resistance or grasping.  Keep that axe sharp.

If you can bring those qualities and stay present, I suspect that any technique could work if you get the dosage right.

My take is that most techniques simply leave too much room for the mind to run off.  The beauty of the Mahasi style is that you keep the mind continuously busy by using up extra mental bandwidth with noting.

It is so strange to me that the axe is not a more popular tool.  How strange to be in an "insight" meditation group, the word literally coming from the word "vipassana", and yet the predominate form of vipassana used in Theravada communities is completely unknown.  Surreal.

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