Friday, August 6, 2010

Restlessness During the Practice of Silent Illumination

A friend I met at a Silent Illumination retreat at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center last December wrote, "I have trouble focusing on the present, my mind swings back and forth like a monkey swings on a tree. Last night I meditated using the Silent Illumination method, I couldn't be silent more than 1 minute. I will keep trying....".  How many of you meditators out there have experienced this?  Everyone, I'm sure.  How many meditators that have been practicing more than 5 years still experience this at times?  Unless you are made of special stuff, again, everyone, I'm fairly certain.  Now here is where it really hurts.  How many of you meditators out there that have been practicing for 30 years or longer still have meditations like this occasionally?  No one?  Well, I guess I'm the only one that still has meditations like this at times.

There are many causes of restlessness.  The fact that you choose to sit during a time when you are feeling restless is coincidental.  It's just that you become acutely aware of restlessness during meditation.  So first, lets look at the causes of restlessness and what can be done about them before meditation.  Then, let's look at what we can do about restlessness during meditation.

Causes of Restlessness and Some Possible Remedies

We all have days when we have more energy than usual.  This can be physical or mental energy.  Generally, we like to have positive energy.  It helps us be productive at work, have fun at play, and makes us feel alive!  Positive mental and physical energy is a result of a balanced, healthy and wholesome lifestyle.  When we eat fresh, wholesome, nutritious food, get enough daily exercise, have a good daily routine, don't subject ourselves to unnecessary stress, have a practice that helps us manage stress, and get sufficient sleep, chances are we will have considerably more energy that we would if our lifestyle was not so healthy.  If you are the type that wakes up and feels like jogging, sitting in meditation might be a bit of a struggle at that time.  This is why yogis traditionally did yogasanas before meditating, to improve fitness, circulation, mindfulness, and lower excessive energy.  They also did mindful breathing exercises after yogasanas to reduce inertia and dullness just before meditating.  By the time the yogi sits to meditate, her energy is balanced, her mind is well oxygenated and clear, and she begins meditation in an optimal state.  Even at Chan retreats at DDRC, we do walking meditation, yogasanas and forms of "moving meditation" to balance the practice of sitting meditation.  So, if you have high energy, you might do the Eight Forms Moving Meditation, walking meditation, or yogasanas before sitting meditation (a little pranayama wouldn't hurt either).

Eight Forms Moving Meditation

Sometimes, maybe too often, restlessness can occur because of energy of a more negative quality.This can happen because we are eating foods or drinking beverages that have a stimulating effect on the body and mind.  It can happen because we are worrying, which causes restlessness but can also lead to dullness. Or, we can be restless because we feel uncomfortable about something we have done or said.  Restlessness is a natural byproduct of worry, aversion, fear, anger, and hatred on the one hand, and craving, selfishness, greed, and lust on the other.  This is why, especially in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, yogis are first taught Śīla (Sanskrit) or sīla (Pali), or virtue and moral discipline.  You can learn to meditate, but from a practical standpoint if you are doing things that go against the fundamental precepts you are sure to have restlessness in your meditation.  The Five Precepts are:
  1. Refraining from killing.
  2. Refraining from taking that which is not freely given (stealing).
  3. Refraining from sexual misconduct.
  4. Refraining from lying or deceiving.
  5. Refraining from intoxicants.
By upholding the Five Precepts, we naturally have a clearer conscience and virtue brings an uplifted spirit and brightness to the mind.  This is foundational.

We are also taught to be aware of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and ignorance, and be mindful of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Right View
Right Intention
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

This all makes sense on a very practical level.  If we are not acting in such a way that we are creating conflict and discord, the environment in which we live will be more pleasant, less stressful and our mind will naturally be more settled.

Practicing mindfulness is particularly beneficial because it help us become aware of excessive worrying and put our awareness back on what is at hand.  Cultivating mindfulness over a period of time helps us to become calmer and more balanced.  We may still get surprised, disappointed, and upset, but these feelings are shorter and shorter lived.  We don't harbor ill feelings in our hearts and naturally begin each new day with a blank slate.  Ill feeling harbored in our hearts act like a computer virus in a computer.  Mindfulness is like an anti-virus program that detects and fixes worrisome, fearful, aggressive, or hurtful thoughts.

What to Do about Restlessness During Meditation

Ok, so now you are living a good, wholesome, healthy, virtuous life.  How come there is still restlessness.  First of all, it is the nature of the mind to think thoughts.  There is nothing unnatural about it.  In some forms of meditation, the meditator simply acknowledges the thought that has arisen and then gently redirects the focus back to the method.  So if you are following the breath and the mind has drifted to a thought, you simply let go of the thought, relax, and go back to mindfulness of breathing.

If thoughts still arise and lead to other thoughts, you may need to gently put a bit more effort into staying with the breath.  There are some ways of doing this that seem to work for some people and other ways that work better for others.  One way is to count each exhalation until you get to ten exhalations, and then start all over at one again (count the breaths).  Another way that is to more actively participate in the experience of breathing.  For example, be aware of how the breath begins, the duration, how it ends without controlling the breath.  One that I like is to feel appreciation for the life-giving inhalation and the purifying and relaxing exhalation.  My personal favorite is to focus on totally relaxing into each breath, to fully rest in the breath, totally letting go with each new inhalation and exhalation.  This tends to very quickly settle both the mind and body and can lead to a very relaxed, alert state from which it is good to start practicing Silent Illumination.

Silent Illumination can be difficult to practice if you don't have good methods of dealing with restlessness.  Because you are putting your awareness on the entire body at once, it can be elusive and more difficult to stay with that the breath.  In that case, you might go back to following the breath using one of the techniques I mentioned above to focus and settle the mind.  When the mind is less scattered and more unified, and you are fully present in each breath, then shift the focus to full awareness of the body just sitting.  This will very quickly lead to a state where the boundaries of the body and environment begin to blur and then disappear and you can just be aware of the environment "just sitting".  By this time, the mind will be very settled and you'll be able to continue effortlessly.

Everyone moves through periods of restlessness and drowsiness and everyone learns to deal with them in their own way.  Sometimes one way is more effective and sometimes another.  This is part of the skill of meditating that can only be developed over time.  I still feel very much like a beginner and still have days that seem more problematic than others.  My wife and I separated on April 13th and then on May 7th I was laid off and still haven't found a job. I'm now going through a divorce. These kinds of things can be unsettling.  Practice Metta, Loving Kindness, and Karuna, Compassion, on yourself and on those that are being disagreeable in your life and this will go a long way to making each new day a great new day for practice!

Nothing So Charming as the Present

An old college buddy asked, "If the present is so charming, why does my mind wander away from the present?"

I guess the assumption here is that experiencing the present moment is more charming that reminiscing about that perfect day at the beach near Puerto Vallarta last year or day dreaming about scuba diving in Aruba next year.  This reminiscing and day dreaming can also be quite charming!  But, I think what my friend is getting at is very interesting and a great question.  It depends on the depth to which we experience the present.

The practice of Chan emphasizes living fully in the present moment as does mindfulness practice of the Theravada tradition.  If we are to become fully awakened to life just as it really is, it necessarily is in the present that this awakening will occur.  During meditation, as the mind becomes more focused or unified it becomes less bound by thoughts. As fewer and fewer thoughts arise, the mind naturally becomes clearer, brighter, lighter and more expansive.  This experience can be blissful or simply deeply contenting.  During activity, this cultivation or habituation of a more unified mind naturally is more content to experience what is at hand.  If the mind is clear, focused and content, there is less likelihood that it will be distracted by mundane thoughts that might arise.  The practice of mindfulness actively builds on the clarity gained through meditation and consciously cultivates moment-to-moment clarity of whatever is arising and passing away from conscious experience.  This can also lead to a mind that is clear, luminous, settled, and deeply satisfied to just be in the present, moment after moment.  It is from this settled state that perception can refine and things can be seen just as they actually are.  It is from this perception that insight into the fundamental truths of life occurs, which we know from Buddhist suttras and the writings of past masters can be a very liberating experience.  Chan practice can lead to experiencing such charm in the present moment that there is no arising of craving or aversion.  The need to reminisce or day dream evaporates when one can simply experiencing the present moment with sufficient clarity.

In that case, the answer to the question is until the mind is sufficiently cultivated and refined, the contentment experienced in the present is not charming enough to keep the mind focused, expanded, and aware in the present.

On the other hand, even advanced practitioners think of the past or future as the need arises. And even when the need doesn't arise, it's the nature of the mind to think thoughts.  What is qualitatively different is that thoughts that arise are simply thoughts and the mind doesn't attach to them.  They arise like a bubble as a child blows through the hoop.  The thought expands from nothing but some slight impulse, takes shape, and floats away.  A settled mind is aware of this arising and passing away of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions.  The more awake and settled the mind, the finer the awareness of not only mental phenomena but also all phenomena rising and passing away in the environment.  This awareness of the arising and passing away of mental and physical phenomena leads to the direct experience of a most fundamental nature, the insight into impermanence.  The entire universe is seen as a massive flux of interrelated or conditioned arising of phenomena, and the dissolution of the same when conditions no longer support continuity.  It may appear that the entire world is undergoing massive oxidization, as if everything is undergoing a catastrophic chemical reaction, burning, and be an awesome experience.  Or, it can be like a symphony of such perfectly interrelated harmonies that the mind is arrested by the absolute perfection of it.  However the realization of impermanence occurs, it is not an intellectual reasoning, but a direct and complete perception that leads to life changing insight.  This insight can lead to further insight into the nature of the self.

Until or mind is sufficiently cultivated, the mind is like a monkey that is always chasing desires and averting fears.  Once the mind is cultivated, it response to the environment, situations, and people with wisdom and compassion.  A satisfied mind naturally has compassion for others that are suffering and a clear mind has the wisdom to know how to help them.  The satisfied mind is a product of silence and a clear mind is the product of illumination. The Chan practice of Silent Illumination is extremely beneficial in cultivating a content, clear mind.  The mind still reacts to things in the environment. When a bus is coming one gets out of the way.  And one still makes plans for the future and reflects on what went wrong to do better next time.  But, the predominant mode is to be aware of things as they occur and react in a way that is appropriate to the need of the time.

An undisciplined mind will not stop with an initial thought. It won't be aware of the thought arising and passing away. The mind attaches to the thought and becomes lost in a succession of subsequent thoughts. We long for something in the past or fear its reoccurrence, or regret what was done or said. Or we hope for something in the future or worry that it may happen. We are conditioned from beginningless time to crave for more and dread what we don't want. But, when the mind is settled enough, there is greater and greater contentment and though a thought may arise, it is acknowledged and just passes away if nothing more is required. The mind returns to a state of contentment that is simply aware with a clear, bright awareness. But, it's our habitual outward oriented craving and aversion that obscures what would otherwise be quite a contented state.

It is interesting to note that a person can experience unified mind, pure, unobstructed awareness, impermanence, or self-nature and then regress back to being overshadowed by mundane thoughts and day-to-day situations. What we are up against is a very powerfully ingrained habit cultured from beginningless time. That's why we need a practice like Zen to lift the veil and open our eyes. Then we need to refine the practice and cultivate seeing things just as they are without the imaginary ego or self getting in the way to distort the picture. If we get the self out of the picture, the whole thing opens up and everything converses with every other thing, infinitely correlated and perfectly functioning. It's all perfect when we get out of the way.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Yoga as Mindfulness Practice - A Buddhist Perspective

For Buddhists, the practice of yoga asanas as a method of mindfulness practice is especially meaningful. Although some traditional yoga teachers emphasize mindfulness of breathing in synchronization with the breath, the Buddhist context of using bare attention to penetrate the moment as a means to realization is not as emphasized or is missing. During Chan and Vipassana practice, especially on retreats, slowing down all activity to the point that you can peer into its very nature is essential and can lead to a very direct experience of impermanence and self-nature. This understanding and emphasis coupled with the practice of yoga asanas is particularly useful.

In the Yoga Sutras, there is the concept of uninterrupted, moment-to-moment one pointedness or focus. But the goal there is not realization of self-nature in the Buddhist sense, but realization of individual self (atman) as distinct from the citta vrittis. Of course, this is where Buddhism departs, with an emphasis on there not being an independently existing person, self, or soul.

Practicing yoga has been a kind of experiment for me. Can a practicing Buddhist practice yoga in such a way that the fundamental truths of Buddhism, suffering, impermanence, and no self (anatma), are not distorted or lost? I think the answer is definitely yes, but it requires a clear understanding of the differences in addition to the similarities of the two traditions. Otherwise, it becomes a confusing melting pot that doesn't do justice to either tradition. For me, the goal is not Patanjali's dualistic realization of individual self as distinct from phenomena and Universal Self (Purusha of Isvara). It's also not Shankara's non-dualistic realization that self is Brahman. Rather, it's the complete liberation from attachment to any notion of self. Once self is removed from the picture, perception is pure and everything is seen just as it is. This is true, unimpeded and boundless liberation. When the experience of self is lost, perception pivots on itself and myriad things sing in harmony with all other things, infinitely correlated, perfect and complete. Any clinging to "self" collapses this perfect harmony, the natural state of things, to self and other, internal and external, interesting and uninteresting, good and bad, mine and not mine.

One might say that one who experiences "aham Brahmasmi" (I am Brahman) also experiences this same non-dualistic reality and is not impeded by attachment or aversion to anything since everything is experienced as Self. Yet Buddha's awakening specifically had the characteristic of going beyond an eternal notion of self, even Universal Self, as the highest enlightenment. According to Buddhist sutras, as long as there is any identification with self, one is still trapped in the cycle of birth and death and not completely liberated. The wisdom of knowing the truths of suffering, impermanence, and no self engenders compassion for all sentient beings and frees one to act completely for the benefit of others, without regard to self. I've seen this selflessness in my Shifu, Chan Master Sheng Yen and in my Vipassana master, Ven. Chanmyay Sayadaw. They both have the quality of being completely present and available, fully there for you with no distraction, when you talk with them. Your ego could even get puffed up with the feeling that you were the most important person in the world to them at that particular moment. But, they also had the compassionate ability to deflate the ego when the time was right. I've noticed the same quality in the Dharma heirs of Master Sheng Yen and some of Chanmyay Sayadaw's disciples and lay students -- fully present, awake and clear, penetrating, insightful, patient, and compassionate. I noticed the same qualities in the Dalai Lama. The world needs more saints like these!

For Buddhists and non-Buddhists, practicing yogasanas with mindfulness can be very beneficial in developing a very direct perception, a bare awareness of space, time, motion and sensation. Deepening this experiences enables the silence of meditation to stabilize in daily activity and bring about moment-to-moment penetrating focus along with awareness unbound by the environment. The union of Buddhist understanding with mindful practice of yogasanas is particularly beneficial. I'm very glad to hear of courses being taught, such as those at Spirit Rock, that have this focus. This is bound to improve the overall landscape of Yoga as it is taught in the West.