Saturday, June 27, 2009

Four Levels of Awareness, Four Ways to Practice

Every Buddhist tradition has multiple levels of practice. Over time, as one's capacity in attention grows, it's often possible to work at deeper levels. Of course our capacity in any moment is influenced by our circumstances and state of mind, emotion, and energy. Depending on what we're in the midst of, we need to respond with a different kind of practice! Let's look at four levels...

Level One: Rest in direct awareness of everything that is arising in experience

When the level of attention is higher than our reactions, we can rest in the direct experience of whatever arises, experiencing fully all the sensations, feelings, emotions and thoughts, without trying to control, manage, or create anything.

Direct awareness practices include mahamudra and dzogchen in the Tibetan tradition, shikantaza in the Zen tradition, bare attention in the Theravada tradition, and shamatha (calm abiding) without an object.

Level Two: Raise energy to transform experience

Attention is energy -- an intentional, physical, emotional energy. Energy transformation practices include guru yoga and yidam practice, the basis of which is faith and devotion. Taking and sending transforms emotional reactivity into presence. We can also raise energy through yoga, qigong, and other body-based energy practices. A caution with energy-raising and energy-transforming practices: if the energy we raise does not go into attention, it will go into the habit-patterns that create suffering.

Level Three: Counteract or mitigate overwhelming sensations and emotions

You feel anxious, and it develops into intense fear, with tightness in your stomach, trembling, and sweaty palms. You’ve tried just experiencing all the sensations, emotions, and thoughts just as they are, but stories and emotions keep grabbing all your attention. Don’t try to stop the sensations and feelings and thoughts, but using the breath as an anchor, slightly emphasize the exhalation to enhance the relaxing and calming effect of the breath. Feel the weight of your body on the floor, chair, or cushion. These calming and grounding techniques may give you a bit more stability and allow you to experience a bit more of the challenging sensations and feelings in attention.

When certain sensations, feelings, or emotions are too intense, when they consistently distract your attention out of your body and away from the space around you, it can be helpful to open awareness to the entire field of experience. For example, if your back muscles are tense or burning, focusing closely on those sensations can make them even more intense. Instead, try experiencing the sensations within the field of the whole body. Your back and shoulders are burning, but how do your feet, legs, and arms feel?

One way to bring awareness to the whole body is to feel the soles of your feet, the palms of your hands, and the top of your head simultaneously. Whole-body awareness may allow you to experience the pain in your back muscles within a larger sphere of experience.

You can also apply skillful emotions to balance intense reactive emotions. If you are angry, counteract it with equanimity or lovingkindness if you can access those, or reflect on the suffering caused by anger. Don't suppress the anger, but counteract it with positive emotions or use reflection to balance the bodyheartmind.

Level Four: Avoid the trigger by changing your behavior or external circumstances

If someone or something is consistently upsetting your temper, and you are unable to work with your reactions in attention, take a break in the conversation, or avoid the person altogether for a while. If alcohol is an overwhelming trigger of addictive behavior, avoid situations where alcohol is available. If sitting for an hour brings up overwhelming sensations and emotions and derails your ability to experience what’s arising in attention, cut your meditation session back to 45 minutes.

Using what works

In practical terms, the boundaries between these levels of practice are not clear-cut even within a single meditation session. For instance, a session may consist of a period of shamatha to settle surface busyness and reactivity, guru devotion to raise the level of energy and attention, and mahamudra, which is a direct awareness practice.

Habitually avoiding every difficult experience is not helpful, but letting reactive patterns run without attention just reinforces the patterns. Neither suppression, repression, nor trauma are helpful. As Ken McLeod says, the power of meditation comes from resting in stable attention. Regardless of how long you’ve been practicing, if you are working your edge, there will be times when you are not able to maintain stability with simple direct awareness. In the long run you’ll come out ahead by transforming, balancing, or mitigating reactivity -- or temporarily avoiding situations that you cannot at present experience fully.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A Cure For What Ails

The buddhadharma is a collection of medicines for various dis-eases -- traditionally, 84,000 teachings for 84,000 kinds of suffering. Let's take a look at a half-dozen.

Recognizing our struggles and suffering leads us to taking refuge in awareness and compassion. Without that, no practice.

Stable attention undermines cognitive distraction and emotional turmoil. Stability can be cultivated in different ways, including concentration on one object (focus), returning again and again to an aspect of experience, such as the sensations of breathing, and resting attention in that experience (resting), and various energy-raising methods (devotion, qigong, yoga, etc). Stable attention can interrupt distraction and turmoil, but these are just symptoms of self-construction, which is really only undermined by insight.

When attention is somewhat stable, one can look deeply to see the true nature of self and experience. Looking is the practice of insight. The sense of self, when believed to be solid and in need of defending, is the seed of emotional turmoil and suffering. In the short run, because the sense of self tries to defend itself, insight practice tends to undermine srable attention; stability is the prerequisite and foundation of insight practice. There are many methods of insight practice: choiceless awareness and embracing of whatever arises; looking into specific aspect of experience, such as a reactive emotion or a belief; holding koans or questions that can't be answered by the conceptual mind; and many others. Each Buddhist tradition has its methods of looking.

Kindness and compassion
undermines apathy and self-centeredness. True compassion requires both stability and insight. Tricky, and essential.

Dedicating the benefit of our practice counteracts grasping after pleasure or status, transforms poverty mentality, and undermines the sense of a separate self. And dedication helps us appreciate the benefits of practice; without fully appreciating the benefits, our practice isn't likely to last long.

All of these are essential aspects of Buddhist practice, but the appropriate emphasis at a particular time depends on the disease that needs easing. Teachers often prescribe practices that seem to exacerbate our patterns of reactivity -- but medicine is sometimes bitter. A hundred days of practice can clarify how a practice works and give a glimpse of its effectiveness.