Tag Archives: mindful meditation

The Enlightenment Trap

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I always thought when I began my teaching practice that certain Buddhist principles were going to be harder than others to convey. Rebirth/reincarnation, impermanence and no-self, Dependent Origination, or even situational ethics were going to be tough especially from a Western contemporary perspective. But of all of these, and they are a close second, by far the hardest Buddhist concept to engage with the Sangha members has been that of enlightenment. I am not alone in this experience. My dharma brother, Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi, after years of teaching, makes a habit of not using the word enlightenment at all. Many Buddhist teachers I speak with, or read, also have reflected on this reality. So the obvious question is “Why?” The answer for me is simple because the English word enlightenment comes with a lot of baggage. While much of Buddhist thought can be classified as either philosophical or psychological, enlightenment falls in the human realm of the spiritual, even the mystical for some.

For those new to Buddhist study, meditation and enlightenment are linked often enough. The thinking is “Why meditate?”, “to become enlightened” they might say. So there it is, up front and center. Even when the teacher never talks about enlightenment when facilitating a meditation session. It is in the back of a practitioners mind if they are honest.

Our spiritual life is apart of the sweetness of a practice that can be transformative and deeply personal. When our meditation sessions move closer to serenity we experience moments of insight that might develop into feelings of bless at times, and that can create a need to grasp for more. It might also energize the notion that this insightful bless is close to what one might define as an awakened moment. The danger here is that we might be driven to want more. We become hooked on the experience and want to define it in terms that can be mystical. This misdirected feeling is a trap because it can be another act of grasping. When we cling or grasp after something, even for a spiritual experience, we fall back into samsara which is another form of unsatisfactoriness.

So what are these experiences we might encounter during meditation, and do they have anything to do with enlightenment? From my experience with working with others in various stages of refining a meditation practice, they need to be viewed from the mediator’s worldview. They can be examples of simple feelings of tranquility to a heightened state of ecstasy. In a positive sense they are earthquakes that can shake your practice awake. They can also manifest in an experience of total absence of thought which can feel like an out-of-body moment. In these moments you might experience a real connection with the universe where the notion of self disappears. You come out of this thinking “This is it, I have had an enlightened experience!” This is what we call a meditation-high that can be addicting if we get carried away by running away from reality. What I say to students is to be careful. Celebrate your meditation session’s progress, but also be concerned. You might just be moving closer to glimpses of the nature of the mind, and thus reality, but you might also be experiencing a trick-of-the-ego-mind too. Interestingly, the spiritual path is not about personal sensational feelings, but about experiencing what is real and not filtered through our personal preferences and dispositions. When that happens, what is real might seem different and new to us, but it has been “just like that” all along.

The main concern we should recognize in these unique experiences is that they can misdirect our focus during meditation away from the study of ourselves and how we are, which is the real purpose of mindful meditation. Any extraordinary or passionate feelings are just temporary experiences that mediators need to be aware of, and not fall for the trap of distracting us away from the real purpose of our zazen. We can adjust our expectations during meditation periods by first judging our mood, and set our techniques accordingly. Awareness off the cushion is brought to the cushion. If you grasp after repeating a moving experience it becomes a distraction around the current sitting experience that prevents it from arising again. Another one of those Buddhist paradoxes.

Another caution that wise mediators practice is not speaking with others about their meditation experiences to feely. While it is very tempting, consider your motives. Ask your self, “Why do I want to share this?” Live your experience don’t give words to it. Words will always fail you when it comes to expressing what a spiritual experience was like. It is important to share these experiences with your teacher, or an experienced intimate spiritual friend. Your teacher will/should know exactly what you are trying to express and know how to direct your continued meditation practice, both on and off the cushion. But others, not so much. Be silent and go back to the cushion. My experience is that when we talk about our experiences inappropriately we might just be transforming opportunity into an obstacle. My own teacher discouraged all of us monks not to speak after meditation, don’t share because it moves us away from the experience.

Here is the big reason for not speaking about our spiritual experiences: it is dangerous to our own personal development. Yep. When we speak about extraordinary events during meditation we just might identify them as awakened moments, or enlightenment, and start to believe it. Our ego-mind wants to convince us that it knows what is best, and sense we want to be enlightenment, it will make it happen. We might even convince our teacher (which is another dharma talk). And before we know it, we have groupies wanting to hear our enlightened mind. That is when things really start to get weird. Once this happens it is hard to pull back to any form of normality in our practice and we begin to try to catch lighting in a jar.

There is definitely a place for spiritual highs which is the same place for spiritual lows. When left alone our spiritual experiences will drive our practice forward in useful and productive ways towards our own human flourishing. They inspire us and left us up by teachings us we are on the right path. But, and this is a big but, they can also trap us in the swamp of unknowing. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment.” When we learn the importance of giving up any idea of becoming enlightened, we might just discover it was there all along, just hiding in the wings of a mind in the clouds. A clear mind has no clouds. Then what happens you might ask? Just keep sitting is always the best answer.

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Shattering The Glass Ceiling Of Our Minds

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

When we speak about zazen, mindful meditation, or meditation in general we must learn to be aware that throughout the history of Buddhism expositions of meditation typically group varies practices under two different styles. The first one has the goal of deep concentration, the second with the goal of insight into the nature of reality. When we engage the literature on meditation we often find that certain practices, especially in Ch’an/Zen, teach that the two goals can be practiced in a single process. But many contemporary teachers consider concentration and insight separately, especially with students first learning to meditate. In my own teaching experience when working with non-Buddhist groups, like seniors or in my prison ministry, I myself make a distinction because it avoids complications.

The practice of concentrating on an object, like your breath or a thought or a sound, is used as the focus for sustained attention. As meditation on concentrating the mind gains in strength, the body-mind state achieved moves away from the object and distractions decrease until a state called serenity (samatha) is attained. Most traditions that subscribe to various concentration techniques regard this as the minimal level of a meditative mind-state for experiencing an awakened awareness. I am careful not to use the word enlightenment for this level of meditation. But it is only the first of many states of ever-deepening mental focus that has the benefit for experiencing awakened moments off the cushion (or on). The Buddhist literature abounds with examples of this style of progressive mental training. We should not consider this style of meditation as originating from what Siddhartha (Buddha) used in his practice. Techniques in concentration were most certainly used by Siddhartha when he practiced yogic training from his teachers Alara Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra. The Buddha did seem to indicate that he came to understand that these mental states are still apart of samsara and should not be mistaken for liberation from suffering, as those Hindu masters he encountered early in his forest experience taught. The Buddha was always teaching caution when talking to others about interpreting their own self-created mental states. He said that one must not only have mental training that comes from a meditation practice, but also wisdom to know the difference between reality and ego driven mental distortions.

When I speak about wisdom relative to our meditation practice I am not referring to accumulated knowledge, but to a specific insight into the nature of reality itself. Master Dogen described zazen as the study of the self, when we gain insight into ourselves as a result, we gain insight into the world around us. Our ignorance of considering a permanent state of self-existence is overcome and we awaken to our universal nature. The wisdom that arises from hearing and understanding what we study of the dharma (pragmatic wisdom) is heightened from a body-mind honed through concentrated meditation. This wisdom that arises from meditation refers specifically to insight into the nature of reality by a mind concentrated at the level of serenity. It is this wisdom that is able to cut through our delusions thus reducing the unsatisfatoriness that keeps us back from experiencing an awakened mind. This state of body-mind is called insight or discernment (vipasyana). I relate this state of mental practice as contemplative practice. With a body-mind trained in silencing the everyday mind-chatter which achieves a state of serenity, we can move our meditation practice forward through a practice of insight meditation that over time achieves greater states of insight into ourselves as well as how the Universe is expressing itself around us. The Heart Sutra points to this practice as moving away from form to emptiness. Not from something to nothing, but away from seeing only the shadows thrown by reality itself.

The first step in developing a dedicated meditation practice is to train the mind to be still, and to sit in silence. Clear mind it is called. With this achieved we can move to using this silence to gain insight and discernment. The initial experience of focusing on mental external “objects” reveals that, like things seen in a dream, they are not disconnected and independent from the reality of a notion of self. If there are no real separate “objects,” there can’t be a real separate observer. Therefore, the duality of perceived and perceiver is shown to be a fiction. It is only our minds that make this separation by thinking it is separate and permanent. Our challenge in gaining this insight is to understand that EVERYTHING is connected and interdependent, or empty of a permanent existence. Yet, and this is the Buddhist paradox, we must still walk the path of self and other too; the only way we can get through our everyday lives on this planet we call earth. When we come to understand this, we have achieved the wisdom that drives our awakened moments, and break the glass ceiling holding our mind captive.

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Deeper Self, Encountering Silence

by: David Xi-Ken Astor

The sixteenth century mystic John of the Cross said “Silence is God’s first language.”  However, he did not have the advantage we do in the 21st century to know what every kid learns in their physics class that the universe is really noisy.  Just the term “Big Bang” connotes the potential for that reality, even in it’s apparent quite as we look out into space.  We might even say that it depends on what you mean by quiet.  Of course we know what St. John was really saying.  Silence is the normal context in which a contemplative practice takes place.  Not the physical, but the mental state of quite.  There is the outer silence that can surround us at times.  But it is the inner silence that is the challenge.  The quieting of the busy-busy mind we work to achieve in mindful meditation or zazen.  In zazen, we practice to not follow our thoughts.  But the contemplative state moves beyond this.  We sit to listen to the quite.  And that quite is heavy by nature.  We become quiet itself.  As Mother Theresa once said, “If you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.”   It is at the intersection of mindful mediation and this inner quite that a contemplative practice begins.   Our meditation practice prepares us for our contemplative one.  They are not the same.  Zazen is study of the self in order to know the self.  With that accomplishment we become ready to experience the Universe beyond just it’s material expression.  Contemplative thought is a practice that brings about this third aspect of zazen, while mindful meditation works to achieve the first two.  Insight beyond the spoken language is the mind state of the contemplative.  We focus on a thought so we can manifest a contemplative-state of mind no longer requiring the thinking process.   We are propelled into inner quite.  It is an awareness of “something” beyond language to express, but our human capability to experience this wonder does not require a language to understand.

Most of us encounter effective quite moments when we attend retreats.  The reason for this is that in a retreat we get a chance to step back from our busy lives.  It is a time to “get into” quiet.  We may even “get a way for the day” and go out into the woods for some quiet-time.  In these moments we get a chance to draw inward and allow our mind to wander.  Then something happens and we experience a quiet state where are body-mind for a few minutes is at rest.  Sometimes we can create this moment from reading a special inspirational piece, especially if we are in our “scared” place, a place we find peaceful.  Your mind free-associates away from normal dispositions and personal preferences that provides the key to renewal and transformation.  Silence is the backdrop where this awakening takes place.

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