Monday, January 18, 2010

Levels of Meditation Practice

In recent sharings, it came that it might be worth sharing an outline of the different levels of meditation practice. The Buddha had said that the process proceeds step by step, with the more advanced steps dependent on integrating and mastering the lessons of the previous steps.

The first level of meditation practice is called "samatha practice". This is a basic calming meditation. This is where you focus on breathing and letting go of thinking. There is a meeting with the basic "fact of suffering", over and over again. This direct experience of suffering is very important, because in Buddhism we do not come from any dogma whatsoever. The entire process, including the understanding of the dharma, is about what we learn from our own experience. The teachings of the Buddha are not meant to be believed because the "prophet Buddha" has said that it is true. Everything that the Buddha taught is something that we can potentially verify in our experience. If we have not yet verified it, then we are not meant to believe it or disbelieve it, but simply see it is a hypothesis that we can not confirmed and which may not be true. When the Buddha visited the Kalamas, they were confused because many spiritual teachers gave them many different teachings which contradicted each other. The Buddha did not appeal to any authority as a prophet of the "one true god" or asked anyone to take anything on faith or said that he was superior to any of the other teachers. But instead he invited the Kamalas to focus on their own personal experience and what they could learn from their own personal experience.

In the first level of meditation, you meet "suffering and its ending". You experience how suffering is related to craving, related to negativity, and related to delusion. You meet this fact, over and over again, until you get it. Then you begin to ask how can craving end, how can negativity end, and how can delusion end. These can end in when you see, moment to moment, the kind of attention you are bringing to your experience. When you are able to simply see what is, without trying to change anything, without trying to hold on to anything, and without trying to push anything away, then the momentum of all those habits of craving, negativity, and delusion start to dissolve.

On the samatha level, you notice how the processes of craving, negativity, and delusion are sustained by thinking. So you let go of thinking, except for simple practical thinking focused on doing day to day chores, focusing on simply watching the breath in meditation. You notice how much you get caught up in thinking, lost in thinking, and want to compulsively think about certain things. When you notice, then you stop thought and return back to the breath. You learn to return again and again to the breath whenever you notice that you wander.

The more relaxed and quiet our mind becomes, then the more acutely we feel our sorrow, our fears, and our anger. We learn to watch, in the beginning, with a feeling sometimes of being almost helpless to stop ourselves from feeling all our sorrow. We might be tempted to shutdown our feeling by narcotizing, by numbing, or by stimulating ourselves with pleasurable sensations (that overwhelm and cover our emotional experience). At some point we surrender to whatever we are feeling and do not fight what we fight. We do not try to make ourselves feel differently than how we feel. This kind of "surrender to what is" relaxes us deeper. We find that our emotional experience deepens and flows. We have periods appear where we experience noncraving, nonnegativity, and nondelusion. These periods are small enlightenments where we can understand the depths of the dharma, understand what Buddha meant by the "unborn, unchanging, undying". This is Samatha meditation becoming Vipassana meditation. You notice the processes that the Buddha mentioned in the Abhidharma (higher dharma). You especially notice the nidanic process where sense stimulation causes sensory experience causes a reaction of craving, resistance, and delusion, then an impulse to do, then action, and then the process becoming a habit force or conditioning that can be activated by sense stimulation again, the larger process is that all these reactions and reactions to reactions causing stress, aging, sickness, old age, and death, and these outer states becoming stimulations that cause more processes to get activated inside us. The process, in a sense, ripples in on itself, so that we are reacting to reactions of reactions, and then reacting with deep depression that we are eternally caught in the cycle of birth, childhood, adulthood, old age, death, bardo, and rebirth. It is not that birth, life, death, bardo, and rebirth is good or bad, but that the whole process is like a compulsive wheel of cause and effect that carries us along with a feeling that it is against our will or that our choice does not matter. It is the automaticity of the process, how samskaras get triggered and carry us away, that makes the cycle of birth and death feel like problem.

During this time, we feel waves of "sukha" and "dukha", waves of pleasant experience and waves of painful experience. We notice how these waves are tied to how we are craving, resisting, and numbing ourselves to various kinds of experience. We learn to just be present and to "remain with the sensation" without reacting to what is rising, but instead to simply and fully experience what is arising without feeling a need to do anything with our experience. When we are able to do this, then the old momentum of the wheel of death and rebirthing slows down and eventually ends. The three poisons get weaker and weaker, and then we find we are happier, calmer, and more grounded in our inner being.

On the level of our outer experience, we commit to wholesome and loving actions towards ourselves and others. By doing so, we set in motion good karmas that manifest a higher level of life. If we keep on being generous and compassionate towards others, then we attract more of the same to ourselves. We "use the law" to raise our life condition, rather than set up more painful experiences to undergo. In our meditation, we are noticing cause and effect, noticing how universal law in action. We become "one with the law". We use the law consciously to create our lives, rather than unconsciously set up painful experiences under the power of delusion. Everyone thinks that they are creating pleasant future experiences when they do things like lying, stealing, cheating, narcotizing, and hurting others, but all we do is create pain for ourselves, both immediately and later on. We then resolve to not do these things and close yet another gate of painful experience. This becomes "living the path with eight branches", the organic unity of the basic buddhist teachings, which represents a conscious and compassionate way of life.

After working on this level for a while, we begin to feel yet another layer to explore. There is a seeing that all our sorrow is due to "self clinging". There is a kind of self created by all the "thoughts of self", created by us identifying with the "I" thought in every sentence that we think. This identification with the thought of self loosely links all the thoughts that we think with this word within it. This creates a "network of thought". It is a loose mass of personality energy that can hold contradictions in the form of thoughts that cannot be true simultaneously. These contractions cause sorrow. The word for sorrow that Buddha used was "dukkha" which means contradiction, or "split action", two self generated actions conflicting with each other, usually taking the form of "wanting what we do not have" or "having what we do not want". On this level, sensual craving is felt more strongly and a subtle or overt arrogance appears. It is the artificial thought created self exalting itself. It is a delusion intensifying and amplifying a basic sorrow. Sensual craving is a subtle biochemical addiction that can drive us and cause deep withdrawal symptoms when not fulfilled.

The level of practice is summarized in Dogen Zenji saying, "To study Buddhism is to study yourself, to study yourself is to forget yourself." When looking at this level, the identification with the "I" thought is not continuous. There are gaps, usually 2 seconds for every 12 second period. If we are sensitive we can notice those natural "moments of freedom" and even learn to expand on them. During those gaps, we "forget self" and fall into our Buddha nature which is a silent radiant awareness presence that does not need to self reference through any thought whatsoever. If we can unify the knowing aspect of consciousness with the being aspect of consciousness, then we can experience a deep enlightenment.

There is a point where every "I" thought rises as a kind of delusion that we have believed. We become alert in a state of neither knowing or not knowing, and enter into a kind of direct seeing that is directly knowing but does not need to formulate its knowing it words, and usually in the beginning cannot. There is a kind of dullness in this "I" thought trance. We feel it lifting when we rise up in "crystal clear awareness". It is like waking up from sleep, from dreaming, or from a drunken haze.

The question arises on this level is how do we sustain this wakefulness. The more correct question is how do fall from this natural wakefulness into the ego trances that we have lived. The natural wakefulness does not need to be sustained. If we merely value this state, it remains. But we have valued many external things and have cravings and attachments to them that lead us back to sorrow. When we "do not value the valueless" then we can remain in this state for longer periods of time. Also feeling the bliss of being is not the same as understanding and knowing that we are radiant awareness. If we merely feel this state and become attached to it, then we have not yet realized that this is who we are. When we realize this, then we cannot lose this state. But if we objectify it and attach to it, then we lose it immediately.

The next level is the Dzochen level where you understand through "pointing out instructions" your primordial presence, and then immediately enter into this state. The "Anthem to Primordial Consciousness" that I had composed is one such pointing out instruction. This level is beyond any strategic effort to end sorrow. You instead realize what has always been beyond sorrow. You learn to "rest in presence" rather than to attach to the transitory and suffer when it changes. You learn to not identify yourself with passing thoughts, emotions, sensations, bodily states, and actions, and rest in the constant within your experience (awareness).

The next level is "working with energy". This level is harder to explain, but makes sense after the Dzogchen level is reached. Awareness is energy. It is a field in which the body, mind, and heart arises in. Inside this field, a lot of thoughts, emotions, sensations, impulses, and bodily states arise, abide, change, and pass away. All this is what psychotherapy calls "the subconscious mind", but are considered layers of energy that we are either aware of or not aware of. There is a way of working with all this to "refine the state" and deepen our realization of being. It is on this level that we evolve. We were already changing indirectly from all the other levels of meditation, but at this point we are evolving more intentionally and directly from a basis of living understanding that has grown within our experience. The ability to be with and accept what is becomes growing and evolving into a light body. On this level, the body becomes a "chemical factory". There is a focus on visualization of "bindus" and "seed vibrational syllables" in different locations in the body to open up energy flows, activate energy centers, and eventually shift the whole organism to a new level of functioning. The body becomes an expression of the Dharmakaya or Quantum field. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is working with the unity of appearance (body) and emptiness (Quantum field). On this level, we can invoke "dieties" and have their wisdom energy work within our field, helping us to burn away karma, and remove obscurations to fully feeling our true nature. All of us are present within the Dharmakaya as wisdom energy essences and we are interconnected with each other beyond physical form. These intentional processes need to be grounded in the other levels of meditation. Occasionally we need to be "retuned" to these other levels and learn to "bring the mind home" on those levels. The active meditation forms need to be grounded in the passive and pure awareness processes. Occasionally balance is lost and we need to retune and realign. It takes both sensitivity and intentionality to keep flowing on this level.

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