Friday, July 31, 2009

Is Spiritual Practice Emotional Catharsis?

In my meditation practice I've had some dramatic experiences, and also some not so dramatic, as habituated patterns are revealed. In the end, if freedom is the goal, it doesn't seem to matter how dramatic the meditation experiences are. Neither freedom, not the effort to free oneself, have a particular emotional tone. I'd like to explore this because getting snookered and snared by emotions is a common challenge for many (all?) of us.

The capacity to experience discomfort is essential, but discomfort is not a sign of success in spiritual practice. Emotional catharsis might occur, but not necessarily. Catharsis certainly isn’t the method. Discomfort can just as well be a sign of ineffective effort, of fighting one’s own experience, of perpetuating long-standing habits of struggle and suffering.

The nature of habituated patterns (as “just” patterns of experience and behavior) is sometimes revealed without severe emotional distress. It’s the clear seeing that heals, that returns us to wholeness, by revealing a pattern to be a tiny part of a never-ending stream of experiences and possibilities. As we get used to seeing that, and living from that seeing, it begins not to matter so much whether the pattern is arising. Something is changed, but what that is, and how it unfolds, is hard to predict.

Sometimes my path has been through grueling emotional swamps, alternating between poor me the victim, stupid me why can't I get this right, pride for all my brave persistence and hard work, fantasies of how great life would be when I was enlightened, and confusion about whether it was all worth it. Other times it's been very different. One day in retreat, I stood up and something fell off. I felt it fall and I was 30 pounds lighter. I looked around, and didn't see anything on the floor. I looked and looked into my emotions and memories, and couldn't identify what it was that had fallen away. It was weird, but the only emotions were "wow!" and "great!" Years later I still feel lighter, and I still don't know what I lost. Good riddance.

I don't know how typical my experience has been, and don't see myself as a great model to follow. But I have learned there’s no set sequence of events, and there are no particular emotions that have to arise. Patterns may lose their hold in a flash, with or without great pain or effort. Or patterns may fade gradually, over time, and one day we look around and wonder what happened. Or patterns as internal experiences may continue to arise, within an accommodating awareness that embraces the quirks of humanity. Or patterns may just plague us throughout life, and we learn to live with them, and no longer torture ourselves or others with our expectations about how things ought to be.

Habituated patterns are as much perceptual and behavioral as they are emotional. A focus on the emotional, and the dramatic, may itself be another habit. A heart may not need to be ripped open to heal a wound; healing may begin when we stop ripping. Passivity in regards to patterns takes many forms. Freedom can arise in any number of ways.

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man,
but coaxed down-stairs a step at a time.
-- Pudd’nhead Wilson

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Calm Abiding

Shamatha is often translated as "calm abiding". It's the capacity in attention to abide with, hang out with, be in the experience of, whatever arises. Returning and resting in sensations and feelings again and again as attraction and aversion arises, we learn not to repress or act out. Eventually we see, we really know, that every experience is just an experience and we don't need to react. That seeing/knowing is vipashyana, insight.

Some practices and teachers emphasize the resting in experience; resting is good when you're habitually busy trying to understand or manipulate things.

Other practices or teachers emphasize the looking into specific experiences, for example the ones that cause us particular trouble; looking deeply is good when you're habitually passive.

Whether you emphasize resting in attention (shamatha) or looking deeply (insight), the two come together and happen simultaneously. We can rest, without distraction, in experience, and know its nature.

Everyone's got their own unique cluster of conditioning, but the flavors and particulars of one's emotions and behaviors don't really matter -- the practice is always about returning and resting in experience, so that you don't repress or act out so much, so that one can see/know the nature of experience, so that more choices are possible.

Buddhism is often thought or taught to be a problem-solving practice, but the practice is to rest in the problem, not try to make it go away. Things relax and become clear over time as you stop approaching experience as a problem. That's a paradox, but the profound things in life are. Easy problems are fixed with easy solutions, but Experience-And-How-to-Respond isn't easy. It gets easier as you cultivate a capacity in abiding.

People often give shamatha the once-over and try to jump into insight, but that's a mistake. Trying to analyze and problem-solve without the capacity to rest in experience is useless at best. At worst it's just a new version of the same old futile strategies that create the suffering we're trying to avoid.

You may benefit by devoting every other day's whole session to shamatha, so that insight practice doesn't slip into analysis, and digging into death, or karma, or reactive emotions doesn't stir things up beyond usefulness. As Ken McLeod says, deep capacity to return and rest in whatever's arising is what gives insight practice its power.

Here's one way to do it: on the alternate days, spend 15-20 minutes just returning to and resting in the breathing body.

Then for 5-10 minutes look into one particular emotion or behavior. Hold the question:

What is this? [craving, or aversion, or confusion, whatever you've chosen]

Touch, feel, taste every sensation and feeling that arises. When you get lost in a story, or you come up with "insights" or "answers," just gently return to holding the question What is this? and looking into the experience itself. As you hold the question, feel yourself breathing in and out.

After 2-5 minutes, give up all effort and just rest again in attention in the breathing body for 5-10 minutes. Feel your body sitting there, its weight, its shape, the space around it in the room. Just rest like that for a few minutes.