Stratified Care for the Hindrance of Dullness: Prevention First

Numerous ways exist to antidote mental dullness or sleepiness in meditation practice. Rather than dumping all of them here, I offer a stratified approach that begins with simple commonsense, pragmatic, physical-plane understandings and approaches that emphasize prevention. In short, prevention means planning toward optimal meditation set and setting.

Understand the Doctrine of the Five Spiritual Faculties

The early Buddhist doctrine of the Five Spiritual Faculties helpfully informs the more contemporary considerations I’m offering in this post. It also informs the broader notion that a viable path is a “laddered” map with levels of practice that require you to rebalance overall practice orientations to meet the challenges of each new level of practice.

The laddered path functions within the causal model of reality, which says, “If I do x, then y will result.” The causal model is eventually debunked both in theoretical orientation—view—and in direct experience. The constraints that are linear time and causality are, to use the dzogchen parlance from the Gyalwa Chaktri, “a great and powerful falsehood and lie” (Reynolds 2015, p. 145). So noncausality is absolutely true, but until that truth is directly realized, sufficient practice effort usually requires buy-in to the causal model. This buy-in is at first noncontroversial, and normally not even deliberated, because it comports with modern, western science as the default view.

The causal model leads you to the noncausal realization; then the noncausal realization reveals that there never was a doer doing a cause-and-effect “path.” From the perspective of the gradual, laddered path, in other words, noncausality is mappable as high realization; from the perspective of that realization, causality constituting a path is, or was, the final delusion. Thus, the relationship between the gradual path and spontaneous realization of spontaneity is profoundly paradoxical. Although this topic is endlessly fascinating to me, in the present context this is all just to say that I’m addressing practitioners who are still trying to master calm-staying practice and ply their efforts to realize the fruits of ordinary insight practice (vipassana).

If you are past that point, then you already know I’m not addressing you. It is worth noting, however, that normally practitioners of extraordinary insight think they have transcended the causal model when in fact true letting go of path unfolds in increasingly supersubtle, barely detectable stages that can be missed altogether. The supersubtlety can be easily missed because of the grasping known as spiritual bypassing. Thinking you are enlightened before you are is the stickiest temptation, and it results in being stuck, albeit at a mappably high level. I’ve written elsewhere at some length about the common phenomenon of the partially realized teacher.

So to turn back to where most practitioners find themselves, Shakyamuni Buddha taught that aspirants have five spiritual faculties, five orientations that potentiate enlightenment. These potentialities are best actualized by being held in balance. But what is balance? A final distribution? In truth, the faculties ordinarily are not in balance long—at least not in the early and intermediate levels of practice. It is the lead faculty of mindfulness—metacognitive tracking of variables across time—that must monitor and rebalance the other four faculties continually. Whenever you sense that you have for a while not been progressing toward your practice objectives, are regularly swamped by distractions on the cushion, or are sometimes undermined by dullness or sleepiness on the cushion, study closely the doctrine of the Five Spiritual Faculties and apply it.

The five faculties have traditionally been configured in various spatial arrangements to body forth specific dharma teachings. One famous configuration places the faculties as two pairs of horses, one pair in front of the other pair, with the horse representing mindfulness in front and leading both pairs. The five horses are working together to steer a wagon forward along a path.

The first pair of horses represents the faculties faith and discriminating insight. This pair represents poles capping the ends of a continuum. They mark the attitude of receptivity, faith, over against effortful penetration into experience, insight.

Parallel to the first pair but at a more granular level, the second pair of horses represents the faculties of concentration, on the one hand, and energy, on the other hand. Metacognition, or mindfulness, as the lead horse has to balance—and continually rebalance—each of the pairs so that your vehicle can be pulled straight. The faculty of concentration does not by itself drive effective concentration practice, which I prefer to call, after the Tibetan Buddhists, calm-staying practice. When the distraction-free calm unification of mind—concentration—far exceeds energy, then dullness results. This dullness not only impedes the shift to effective insight practice during a meditation session, but also stymies mastery of concentration practice itself.

The Five Spiritual Faculties is a doctrinal teaching on the relationship between the masculine principle (discriminating insight and energy) and the feminine principle (faith and concentration). Both men and women need both principles and the theoretical knowledge and pliancy to adjust practice when it is not balanced optimally for the current practice level. Initial stages of practice almost always require increase of the masculine flavor; the advanced practices after the gains of ordinary insight, conversely, require reorientation emphasizing the feminine. This sliding fulcrum under the gradual path, so to speak, is another reason that it is important to have, understand, and subscribe to a coherent and fully detailed map and model of enlightenment. A coherent map supports the spiritual faculty of metacognitive mindfulness so that you can track your day-to-day practice within a framework and steer yourself skillfully with these masculine and feminine sides of the whole conveyance well in hand.

Use Mindfulness to Track and Steer Your Four Other Faculties

One principle to bring to planning set and setting for your practice comes from modern research on attention reserves. This principle is that you have a finite allotment of willpower, as well as attention, to spend after a good night’s sleep. As the day wears on, your reserves are steadily depleted, regardless of your practice intentions and meditation method.

Now, I’m a night owl (delayed sleep phase syndrome). Moreover, I have always tended to be high on the energetic/agitation side of the fulcrum between excess energy and dullness.  I practice in the wee hours past midnight, after everyone in my home is asleep. I’m mentioning the excess energy counterpoint to dullness here to point out that practice solutions depend on accurate diagnosis of the individual. It so happens that most American practitioners have dullness and sleepiness as their all-t00-familiar hindrance. I rarely hear people complain about excess energy on the cushion, although it does happen.

That dullness is such a pervasive hindrance may say something about our society’s enforced dearth of unstructured downtime. Because of “convenience” technologies such as laptops, mobile phones, email accounts, social media, and even the electric light bulb, our downtime and deep time are no longer aligned with organic cycles. They are intruded on. In fact, any ostensible downtime is severely fractured by our over-accessibility. If our evenings and nights remain open to the same external stimuli that deplete our attention reserves during the day, then is it any wonder that most of us drop into mental dullness the moment we isolate ourselves in comfort on a meditation cushion?

I’m emphasizing here that effective self-discipline is not about time management so much as it is about energy management. You need to identify when to practice on the basis of your intrinsic energy-concentration imbalances, your idiosyncratic circadian variations, and your work schedule constraints. If you have more mental clarity and higher energy first thing in the morning, before office work, then do a single practice session and do it first thing in the morning. If, like me, your energy tends to naturally revive after a brief early evening rest, and if you tend toward excessive energy or agitation on the cushion in general, then practice at night.

The advice that follows was to a specific practitioner who through logging his practice results discovered he needed to stop practicing twice a day, both in the morning and at night. The main ideas here can apply to anyone needing to address dullness or sleepiness on the cushion. Some other versions of this advice appear in various parts of my book manuscript. This is just a quick-and-dirty summary for this man I regularly advise. I’m posting it here because a mutual friend of ours urged me to, saying that it might help others.

Practice Only after Attentional Reserves Are Restored by Rest

If you are in the insight stage of the Knowledge of the Arising and Passing Away (A&P) or otherwise have a burning desire to practice at the end of the day, it is certainly fine to do so for sheer pleasure and interest, but cross out with a big red X the plan to make nightly practice a perfunctory fixture in your life.

By the end of your day, your willpower and attention reserves are depleted. Practicing with brute force willpower at the end of the day will condition your mind in ways counterproductive to the goal of mastering concentration meditation, and counterproductive to objectives that support that goal. It will be unpleasant, tedious, and frustrating. The more often you associate being on the cushion with these negative emotional reactions, the worse for your faculty faith. In this situation, you must metacognize the problem, and then optimize for energy. 

Routinize “Unplugging” by Evening and Practicing Sleep Hygiene before Bedtime

The principle here is that your mind needs downtime to integrate, via the unconscious, what is happening on the cushion under directed attention. By shutting down dharma and other work efforts in the evening to prioritize care for your body, meaning adequate sleep, you are in fact “practicing”: As Carl Newport writes in Deep Work, “A shutdown habit . . . is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you’re engaged in productive work, but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy” (Newport, p. 146).

If you are feeling doubt arise as you read this pointer, then likely you have been unhelpfully programmed by dharma cowboys who equate number of cushion hours with attainment. I’m inviting you to prioritize precision over time-per-sit and time-per-day standards. For support, consider that the Dalai Lama instructs beginners to spend only 5 minutes in concentration practice here and there. He says to quit the session when the concentration begins to fail. The instruction is not practice long, but rather practice well.

This latter point suggests another item on the list.

Limit Pre–Stream Entry Meditation Sessions to 30 Minutes or Less

Yes, that’s right. Limit the length of your meditation session to 30 minutes, 15–20 if in the Equanimity insight stage. Close the session when dullness or thought-elaboration has emerged and your applying corrective strategies for, say, 3 minutes, hasn’t reversed the slide into dullness. In your practice log, record every day for a while how many minutes of meditation you finished before irreversible slippage into dullness or gross distraction occurred. See what you record for a couple of weeks. This will suggest how long your sessions can fruitfully be at this time.

I fiercely reject the “odometer” approach to meditation practice. Number of hours on the cushion in no measure correlates with reduced calendar time to x realization. In fact, if you think about it, you will discern that the truth is the opposite: Time and precision are usually diametrically opposed emphases, so a sliding scale needs to be observed. Driving yourself into the ground to concentrate when your natural attention reserves for the day are depleted will condition your practice mind to slip into compensatory dullness. When these experiences harden into habit, which they will, then dullness will infect your practice even at the beginning of the day when you are fresh. (My advisee has adversely conditioned himself this way for more than a year. We are now tearing down his practice and rebuilding it up from from the ground.)

It bears repeating: When you sit on a cushion in persistent thought-elaboration, analysis of your psycho-emotional issues, dullness, or slippage into daydreaming, you are habituating yourself to enter these distractions every single time you are on a cushion. Don’t do this!

Manage your limited energy and attention reserves metacognitively. Do so on a whole-day basis. When the reserves for a sit are depleted, close the session, log your information about the sit, and feel good that this change in overall emphasis from hours clocked to precision is positive practice, even if you have to make further adjustments around logged information later, which you will.  I’m not giving you targeted antidotes for dullness today. Try prevention and unlearning unhelpful attitudes first. I will address targeted antidotes another day. This is stratified care beginning with prevention.

The goal is precision. When you have some mastery, that will foster confidence. Confidence is conducive to faith, and faith aligns you with the automaticity intrinsic to realization. Although we can think of energy and faith as polar emphases in practice, it is important to notice how intricately connected they actually are. This interconnection becomes increasingly obvious as you advance up the path, but, as I have explained, it is operating from the very first sit. 

Focus on Whole-Body Breath Energy Flow instead of on Nostrils

Use a scanning and then whole-body breath energy as the object of attention. Doing so preempts dullness, facilitates entry to the bodily bliss characterizing second jhana, and establishes a direct link with vipassana—specifically, direct experience of impermanence. This broad, flowing focus is contrary to the popular one of  the breath at the nostrils. This narrow object focus is problematic. There are multiple reasons for abandoning this method the moment you read this sentence.

Consider analogous findings from research on attentional reserves: “This study, it turns out, is one of many that validate attention restoration theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.” (Newport, p. 147). Newport elaborates the connection between open flow and overdirected attention:

To concentrate requires what ART calls directed attention. This resource is finite: If you exhaust it, you’ll struggle to concentrate. . . . The 2008 study argues that walking on busy city streets requires you to use directed attention, as you must navigate complicated tasks like figuring out when to cross a street to not get run over, or when to maneuver around the slow group of tourists blocking the sidewalk. After just fifty minutes of this focused navigation, the subject’s store of directed attention was low. (p. 147)

The remedy is to emphasize and plan for undirected pleasure, rather than a draining obstacle course: “Walking through nature, by contrast, exposes you to what lead author Marc Berman calls ‘inherently fascinating stimuli,’ using sunsets as an example. These stimuli ‘invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish. (pp. 147-148).

My first point in abandoning the nostrils focus is that such focus is boring rather than pleasurable. It is never a surprise to me when people cling to that narrow object focus and never exit the dullness sand trap. To me, counting breaths, another popular technique, is also inherently boring. Moreover, it actually pulls my attention away from the breath and toward the counting task.

In my experience, the whole-body focus prevents dullness because it gives you a broadly flowing, organically stimulating experience, instead of one that requires that you drill top-down onto one narrow spot and jackhammer it for 30 minutes without flagging. The dullness that results from the inherent boringness and unnaturalness of jackhammering the same point for long duratins means you have to keep applying and reapplying directed attention. This need to redirect attention keeps people stuck at access concentration or, at best, at first jhana, which means the automaticity of second jhana is thwarted. Subsequent jhanas have a broader focus. Focus on breath at the nostrils is therefore the city walk; whole-body flow is the inherently unimpeded pleasure of a nature walk.

The first path objective when I advise people is to consistently attain and sustain second jhana (Elephant Path Stage 6 and 7), Without second jhana, pleasure doesn’t kick in and kick out the need for directed attention. Directed attention is a jhana factor for first jhana, and first jhana is relatively unpleasant. If you have ever smoked weed or taken hallucinogens, then you know that there is an unpleasant transition before the pleasure high kicks you into automaticity. First jhana is this transition. You must pass through it and learn what you can from it, but you need to enter second, master that entry, and consistently replicate its automaticity. Doing so is essential preparation for the path of ordinary special insight, for vipassana.

Traditionally, access concentration is considered adequate for beginning effective vipassana. The problem is that how teachers define access concentration varies dramatically. I define access concentration as a soft version of second jhana. Before you have the automaticity that is second jhana, you are still just trying to concentrate rather than concentrating.

There are many other specific reasons that whole-body-breathing-as-object is vastly superior to nostrils focus, but I won’t go  into them here because it would take me all day. But suffice it to say that to master distinction among the separate jhanas you need to be able to tell when a naturally narrow focus broadens, and vice-versa. You can’t do so if you have constrained and conditioned yourself to an extremely narrow focus only. People who focus on the nostrils are creating and reinforcing their own dullness and their own access concentration sand trap. Don’t do this!

Read Keeping the Breath in Mind Method 2
What I want you to do for homework, besides all the energy-management strategies delineated, is to read and begin practicing Ajaan Lee’s Keeping the Breath in Mind, Method 2. Log your experiences and time elapsed before dullness derails the session. The book is free in various formats:

Samatha and Vipassana as a Continuum

Ubiquitous Misuse of the Term “One-Pointed”

At noon I sat with Barry and we listened to some exquisitely detailed instructions on the Elephant Path, Stage 7 through 9. Something new I learned is that, apparently, almost everyone is misusing the term one-pointed with regard to concentration practice. It doesn’t mean to be absolutely fixed on a single narrow object; on the contrary it means one has crossed over into vipassana, for the breath becomes a gazillion bursts of mind moments, pixilated, vibratory. Concentration is on these gazillion single points, the flow of them. Once again, I’m fascinated by the fact that concentration (jhana) and insight practice (vipassana) are not separate practices at all. The Thai Forest guys know this; Ingram knows this; and the Elephant Path is this continuum, although the Tibetans refuse to explicitly call what is involved jhana or even vipassana. 

Those Obfuscating Super-Sophisticated Tibetans

The Tibetan Buddhists have the most sophisticated, intense, and thorough system of awakening, even though they also just love, love, love secrecy, intrigue, gossip (oops on one of the folds of the eightfold path!), and obfuscation. It can be so exasperating. Just reading a text and trying to sift the grain from the fools gold can try the patience of a saint. I read last night that the Togal visions are presented in the Book of Living and Dying–except they reversed the order of the four visions as a way of encrypting Togal against common use!

The Deeper Channel of Automaticity beneath Vibrations

The meditation Barry and I listened to was interesting for its guidance on “easing up” off the concentration intensity by tiny increments and finding that sweet spot where the meditation runs itself, is effortless, and is vibrant. This is second jhana and the Arising and Passing Away insight stage. How to blend and module out the Thai Forest masters, the Elephant Path, and the Burmese on all this will be a fun challenge toward writing my book. I especially appreciated today the guidance toward a deeper channel beneath the vibratory dissolution experience. This is interesting because it is calming and seems already to be pointing to the very subtle level of mind: rigpa.

King of Samadhi and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

I asked Barry why it was mentioned that King of Samadhi is key to Buddha training. He said because it is an entry to the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. I’m very familiar with the Twelve Links because of my stream entry experience, and I have been practicing King of Samadhi, but I don’t know what Barry means. He mentioned atiyoga and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which apparently it it time for me to reread.

My Old Friend Violet Nimitta

The practice was only 16 minutes (very hard to stop there). My characteristic violet nimitta arose, spread through the visual field, and stabilized. I became momentarily distracted by a thought, but as soon as I intensified a bit (the prescription when thought elaboration intrudes) a white nimitta arose. Nimitta was like an old friend. It was so wonderful that I suddenly felt I was going into the light – like actually, proprioceptively, into it. 

As there is Gandalf the Gray, so there is Nimitta the Violet.

As there is Gandalf the White, so there is Nimitta the White.

Science on Meditative Experiences of Light

Here is an interesting paper that Dr. Britton is coauthor of; it is on meditation-induced experiences of light:

Concentration on Fluidity

I just had a wonderful sit: 12 minutes of concentration and then 12 minutes or so of a form of King of Samadhi called Clear Light Body.

Concentration on Energy and Grounding

I began the first 12 minutes by feeling the whole body energetically on the in-breath, and concentrating on the stability of gravity, dropping into the ground, on the out-breath. This practice is effortlessly engaging.  At one point, I had a flash memory of Reggie Ray’s saying to send the energy of the body all the way down into the center of the earth – actual grounding. I found this variation at least as interesting as focusing on the ground as holding and stabiltiy, the way John instructs. It was pleasurable to feel the energy coursing along sinews of the body during inhale, and then to feel it blasting down into the earth on exhale. Rapturous is the momentum of continual arising and release. 

At a certain point, I dropped the focus on the breath altogether and focused on continual releasing into gravity. Then vipassana arose: I started noticing how my body simultaneously had weight and did not have weight but floated, as it were. You see, there was no solid substrate beneath my body at all. It is all energy: body and ground. This can be clearly experienced as truth if one simply notices.

Thai Forest Relationship between Samatha and Vipassana

I’ve always preferred concentration practices that use movement and give me something to do. Concentration does not have to be on something that seems “solid,” nor does one have to artificially solidify the object and the body to stillness. The Burmese separate samatha and vipassana into two separate practices; however, the truth is that, if one is any good at concentration, then solidity will break up and insights will arise soon enough anyway. The Thai Forest masters did samatha and vipassana in tandem, in the same sit, but even if that oscillation isn’t deliberately set upon, it will happen anyway. 

Tibetan Elephant Path as Mixture of Samatha and Vipassana

I keep having this argument with one of my dharma friends because he insists that the Tibetan Elephant Path is concentration only. Then he says nonsensical things like “all nine stages are simply to gain access concentration, no jhanas,” and “the Elephant Path is the whole path.” Both of these statements are dead wrong. Why would there be nine entire stages to getting access concentration alone, which is a very low level of accomplishment? And what is the access to if not to liberating insight, vipassana, which this person denies plays any part in the Elephant Path. I’ve sat in retreat with many absolute novices who experienced Arising-and-Passing-Away (A&P) phenomena on the second or third sit per Elephant Path concentration. It is therefore quite evident that the Elephant Path encompasses samatha, vipassana, and a fluid movement back and forth between the two. It is therefore correct, if too cryptic for my own taste as far as maps go.

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, Second Edition

Interestingly, Dan Ingram, in draft MCTB2, moves completely away from the Burmese tradition in this regard, as beloved as that tradition is to him. He restructured MCTB to yoke everything – vipassana and samatha – under the jhanas as map. This is, he said to me, really how he’s always thought of things. It is also how I experienced and experience them. Having one simple map – the jhanas – as one in which to elucidate the 16 ñāṇas (cyclic insight stages), concentration states, and the dynamics between them is a welcome improvement over the division into two separate practices. He also no longer recommends “dry” vipassana, which is vipassana without the easeful lubrication of the concentration states (samatha jhanas).

Clear Light Body

Well, I put off finishing this post so long that I now don’t remember anything about the specific CLB meditation session, except that it was wonderful. This is a King of Samadhi practice, which means that it is done from the natural state, groundless ground, the vast expanse of awareness. Rigpa-Mother goes (how can it not at this point), and inside that the practitioner takes the body as a whole as concentration object. The body is visualized as a glass floating in space and filled with light. This is a deeply healing, blissful meditation that obliterates any acute pain in my body, including my migraines. It is not vipassana; instead, it is a concentration practice from within the vast awareness. You have to have awakened awareness and, as a state, groundless ground to practice it.

My Book versus Ingram’s

My book will one-up Ingram’s unification of samatha and vipassana by bringing in awareness practices sometime shortly after what he calls stream entry, or first path. I reject his four-path model, and even he rejects it in the narrative of what actually happened to him along his path. Why hold onto an inadequate model of awakening? Why work within four paths borrowed from Theravadin traditions when the ten fetters that define each path in that tradition are rejected as impossible? 

Actually, Ingram is wrong on both counts, for the four paths as distinct stages with definable characteristics and signs breaks down into nonsense right after stream entry. No one can say convincingly what second path is, and his book says only that another cycle of the insight stages has happened and that a lot of emotional stuff comes up on second path. So? A lot of emotional stuff comes up right after any new realization, cyclically, as the being is trying to integrate realization with individuation and actualization. 

What he calls third path is really a mess: He and his favorite teacher speak jokingly of Twelfth Path because Third to Fourth contains innumerable cycles and no clear aha! In fact, what happens in that territory is a bunch of aborted half cycles, and stages out of order. There is a clear sense of cycles within larger cycles. It becomes so very complex that Daniel has created a complex notation system for pinning down stage and substage daily. Why? What good does it do to keep dwelling in the misery of noticing stage progressions that go nowhere new?

Enter awareness practices. The someplace new needs to throw off the shackles of states and stages emphatically. So soon after MCTB second path, I advocate a move to Indo-Tibetan essence practices. I’m absolutely convinced that this makes the most sense, is the most pragmatic and efficient path. I would say more, or could, but wait for the book.

Jhāna Jenny

I’ve been feeling rather “stuck” and confused about my meditation practice since stream entry. I’ve ceaselessly sensed the double-track mind and experienced indecisiveness about what kind of meditation to do and how I should approach doing it.

Wicked Deep Unspecified Jhānas

I spent 20 minutes in concentration meditation tonight. It feels wicked deep now and seems effortless, even though I occasionally realize that I’m not in the moment but instead remembering, thinking, or fantasizing. It is very odd to be thinking yet feeling somehow deep in mediation at the same time. I guess I should ask someone about this if it keeps occurring. It is so strange. By feeling that I’m “in meditation,” I mean that I feel enmeshed with my surroundings, spacious, flowing, and concentrated on the object despite arising thoughts and this sense of breadth. I feel that way in daily life now, except perhaps for “concentrated.” I still tend to be quite ADD in daily life, so I wouldn’t say that I’m always concentrated. I am always much less in my body now than before, though. Sensations are like a bodily aura instead of bodily core. It is like “inner” and “outer” have flipped to some extent: I’ve turned inside-out, and I walk through life this way now, existing in all directions beyond my body boundaries. It is distinctive, constant, and heady.

I tend to have poor discernment of which jhana I’m in, but I think the reason for this may be that I hang out in j3 and maybe j4 most of the time that I practice concentration (even before stream entry this was the case).  I seem to go straight from access concentration to third jhana, maybe fourth. And that is no different now, except that whichever one happens is much more intensely itself now, “harder,” as they say. 


Oddly, I’m not seeing the nimitta anymore, though, just solid blackness. I’m not seeing even the usual patterns behind my eyelids. Anyway, I seem to skip over the intense bliss and even pleasure (j1 and j2) to something more spacious and peaceful, even though I never set out intending to “skip” any of the jhanas. 

Tonight my sense of a body disappeared rather quickly. I couldn’t even feel my hands’ contact with my thighs and vice-versa when I deliberately checked for the sensation. I had been like this for a few minutes, but when I recognized that I couldn’t feel my body, that recognition jolted me out of the concentration. This jolt reminded me of the insight stage of Fear. 

Pull from Jhāna, Push to Insight

Oh, yeah! I’m supposedly in Review stage. This means that I should be reviewing and mastering, right? So I opened my eyes at around the 20-minute mark, to try to discern an insight stage. I was receiving mixed signals, so I decided to try actively intending to experience certain stages. After all, if I’m in Review, then I should probably feel free to experiment. 

So I called A&P and did feel some bliss and see sparkles in the carpet. I went for EQ, and started seeing what I call formations again and investigating sensations of panoramic peace. Investigating peace was a little strange because it was paradoxically a bit stressful to do so; the floor kept seeming to spin a quarter spin, like I was getting some vertigo. So then I called up Fear, and my heart started palpitating, which scared me in earnest. Soon after this, I stopped my sit. It was far past bedtime, and this sit, though short, sapped my energy.

When I could feel my body, though, it was still and comfortable, as though I could sit all night. Effortlessly, I sat straight up the whole time, with open-hearted posture. My crossed legs fell asleep, though, which is always annoying when I unfold them and experience the pins and needles. Still, it is nice to have the body at peace throughout a sit. I actually had quite a bit of restlessness and body pain back when I was in Low EQ. 

(36 Minutes)

Postscript Two Years Later    

Looking back on this and other entries, I most want to tell others not to believe or fixate on everything they read, even if it is their favorite parts of their favorite dharma book. I fixated far too much on MCTB and on Daniel Ingram’s particular way of experiencing path, which was much more about insight fruitions (by which he often seems to mean just cessation) per se than mine has been. To be fair, he warned me against such fixations. Eventually, I learned to trust my intuition and the path itself, for after stream entry the path will begin doing itself; all you have to do is not argue.

Specifically, instead of forcing myself to do some kind of “pure” vipassana practice, I should have just gone in the direction that the jhanas were pulling me. MCTB2, on which I worked with Daniel, actually subsumes the insight stages into the jhanas, making an ingenious package that bests MCTB1′s separation of vipassana and samatha. Daniel merged them in Part II, Mastery, and I’ve prompted him to comment explicity in the part introduction on how the separateness of the Trainings in Part I changes after stream entry. 

He stated to me personally, and mentions in Part II, that for stream enterers there is never again such a thing as “pure” vipassana or “pure” samatha. They are always mixed. When I tried to separate them even before stream entry, I ran into trouble. That is why I first gravitated to the Thai Forest methods, which use the jhanas as level platforms from which to explore insight. Now that I’m transitioning back into an Indo-Tibetan practice, I’m seeing how those masters also use visual metaphors to impressionistically and fluidly blend concentration and vipassana.

“Letting Go” as a Practice Sand Trap

Last night while sitting for samatha (calm-abiding, concentration) breath meditation, I felt blockages catch up the breath at the level of the throat and chest. My mind was swimming, and I noticed that certain petty
stories obscuring energy arose and that my mind chased after the stories for long whiles, indulging in them. Then I remembered that I was intending to focus on and enjoy the calming breath, that I should “let go” of anger by letting go of the stupid, infuriating stories.

Effort as Practice Trap

However, I then realized deeply, because as personal experience, something I have only read here and there before now: I cannot “let go” of anger simply by foisting this agenda for release on the actual inner situation I, through karmic propensities, find myself in. In other words, intending to let go is trying to make something different from “what is” happen. It is aversion to here and now.

Consequently, what I ended up intentionally letting go of during this sit was the injunction to “let go” of anger and return full focus to the calming comfort of the breath. Instead, I remembered something more I had read in Thanissaro Bhikkhu about having to master states of mind before letting go of them. Although I did cease chasing after the crazymaking stories, I invited the anger itself in for the duration of the sit. I observed what it was doing to snag my breath in the throat and chest. Mindful of this discomfort, I realized through adherence to direct experience that anger is an inside con job.

Anger as an Abandonment Recital

Truly, whoever I’m angry at isn’t the object; I myself am the object of all that red steam. If I crack that con fount open and admit some clearer light, anger is seen to be really a frightening degree of sadness — a horror of abandonment.

Anger as Best Door to Insight

Anger is never itself, you see. It is a sham emotion, a delusion the mind fabricates and then 100% believes in only because being angry at x seems  less devastating than feeling hurt, left out, betrayed, or rejected by x. Paradoxically, in this sense, anger is important to feel and not to simply “let go” of, as if that were even possible–it is important to invite it to stay the night within a framework of Right View. It is in fact the best emotion to begin insight practice with, because it is, I further realized, the prototype for all emotion-delusions that the mind fabricates.

Interestingly, when I examined my anger this way and knew it intimately, “letting go” was the natural result, at least for the rest of the sit. Only – it wasn’t really “letting go,” which still implies some fiat on my part. 

Ajahn Chah on Separating Mind from Feeling

After I opened my eyes and rose from the floor, I started reading the collected works of Ajahn Chah, who happened to address this very realization in the passage I randomly opened to:

“When we say the Buddha told us to separate the mind from the feeling, he didn’t literally mean to throw them to different places. He meant that the mind must know happiness and know unhappiness. When sitting in samadhi, for example, and peace fills the mind, happiness comes but it doesn’t reach us, unhappiness comes but doesn’t reach us. This is how one separates the feeling from the mind. We can compare it to oil and water in a bottle. They don’t combine. Even if you try to mix them, the oil remains oil and the water remains water, because they are of different density.” 

When you really thoroughly know a thought-fabrication, in other words, you automatically experience the mind as separate from it:  “We say that we separate mind and feeling in this way but in fact they are by nature already separate. Our realization is simply to know this natural separateness according to reality. When we say they are not separated it’s because we’re clinging to them through ignorance of the
truth.” This is why we must meditate — to replace delusion with such insight.

Samatha-Vipassana as One Practice

Another realization during this sit was that Thanissaro is correct: samatha (calming) and vipassana (insight) meditations are not actually two separate types of meditation; instead, there is more properly samatha-vipassana, where stillness gives rise to discernment, and discernment gives rise to stillness (they help each other along by turns). I’m not at all advanced in samatha, so it was astonishing to have experienced vipassana at all, which is often taught as attainable only after stability in samatha. Thanissaro is always stressing that meditation requires individual experimentation in using one branch as a crutch for propelling the other forward; now I understand — through experience — what he means!

Language as Nonconstative Performance at Best

Another paradox ripening as I write is that none of this “stuff” can be satisfactorily reduced to language and transmitted to others — especially by a beginner, like me. The evidence for what I’m speaking of is existential, experiential; where there is no effort to meditate, there will be absolutely no apprehension of the ways in which beings fabricate delusion and believe that delusion is inescapable “reality.” Nevertheless, I was helped early on and am still helped by those who have taken the trouble to try to reduce meditative insights to words. They point to a mere hint; I walk on now beyond that trailhead alone.

Postscript 3 Years Later

[A full 3 years and several awakenings after having written the above entry, it is interesting to note that I’m now cycling back around to work, at a deeper level, on the same obscuration – anger as fear. I’m doing so through some advanced Chöd-like tantric practices and work on first and third chakras. As my teacher says, “The victim and the perpetrator are bound together, and if you identify with being the victim and aren’t willing to feel what it is like to be the perpetrator, then you won’t free up the clear vajra energy underneath anger.” These more current practices are documented in my current journal, Dharma by Daylight.