21. A Clear Goal

20. What Went Wrong   |  22. Harnessing the Energy of the Defilements

Many of the possible reasons that people can get so into “Buddhism” in every way except clear, well-defined, focused, and precise practice are directly related to not having a clear goal. If you have no clear idea of what you want or why you are doing something, then the results are likely to be just as murky, vague, and fragmented. Why are you doing all of this? This is a very important question.

People may wish to go on a retreat and have the whole thing be relaxing and blissful. This can be attained temporarily if they gain some mastery of concentration practices, though their clarity will almost certainly shatter the instant they leave the retreat, as concentration practices on their own produce no long-term stability nor do they address the deeper roots of the suffering caused by ignorance. However, they may think that they wish to get enlightened by doing insight practices, which involve hard work and a clear, unanesthetized examination of suffering. Thus, these two goals of securing perpetual bliss and developing insight are in direct conflict, and the meditator’s practice will surely be conflicted. This is just one of many possible examples.

Having a clear goal is fundamental to the practice in more ways than may be initially obvious. In fact, if you understood your actual reality right now clearly enough to get to the root of why you are doing all of this and where all this mental movement comes from, you would be highly realized. You would penetrate to the heart of compassion and suffering, of ignorance and emptiness, and wake up to something extraordinary about your own experience.

I do not write this lightly. It is vital that your motivation be as clearly understood as possible and that all its energy be channeled into realizing your goals. Wishy-washy practice brings wishy-washy results, and determined, well-guided, brave, and wholehearted practice can eventually bring the desired results.

Knowing what is possible, what each of the trainings can and cannot accomplish, helps. I will spell out the details in Parts Three through Six. The specifics of our goal may change with time as we become more familiar with the realities of these trainings, but the core motivation for practice never changes. That is quite a statement, given that all things are impermanent, and about as big a hint as can be given. Whatever ultimate truth you want on the spiritual path is to be found in the sensations of the wanting itself.

Thus, don’t look out there except to find wise guidance about how to look in here, for what you are looking for is “nearer than near”. It is in the looking. It is in the motivation. It is in the suffering, which is why this was the first noble truth that the Buddha taught. He went right for the heart of the problem. It is in the question itself, which is why koan training can work. The experience of the sensations of the question contains the answer to the content of the question. It is in the love that drives our every wish for happiness.

Strangely, the process of creating the illusory sense of a self arises out of compassion, but it is a confused compassion, which is grasping. This may sound odd, but it’s as if there were an eddy in perception that befuddled empty compassion, which might be conceptualized for the moment as an intrinsic functional aspect of things. Thus, somehow it seems that there is something to defend, some self apart from it all that must be protected. Due to confused compassion, barriers and defense mechanisms continue to be erected to defend this territory, this illusion of a separate self. Spiritual practices are designed to systematically debunk this illusion and penetrate these barriers by providing clarity, whereas all the traditions can easily contribute to and further the barriers, becoming cultures to defend, knowledge to assume as self or owned by self, and so on.

It is as if reality got caught in an unfortunate loop, and this is what we have to work with, as this loop of illusory duality thinks it is “us”. The natural tendency, given “our” lack of clarity, is to continue to defend this “self” out of distorted compassion and a lack of understanding that there never was such a self to defend. This defense is the process of identification. If we identify as x, we must defend that shifting x against some shifting y. As the identifications fall away, space opens and integrates. Interestingly enough, all of the phenomena that make up this process, that is, all the “defilements”, are themselves empty, intrinsically luminous, and non-dual, though they seem otherwise by their own contrivance due to distorted perception. Slippery teachings such as “you are already enlightened, but you have yet to realize it” point to this (see Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, for a particularly profound discussion of this dangerous point of view, a teaching best counterbalanced by useful Zen teachings such as, “Don’t just sit there like an idiot!”). Thus, realization is not something created or acquired but instead is discovered or unveiled as being an intrinsic aspect of phenomena.

[Luminosity is a term sometimes used in this context to point to the experiential fact that sensations contain the “light” of their own awareness within them where they are.]

With enough stability and clarity (concentration and insight), this natural, compassionate process of manifestation can begin to function more skillfully, as it now has better information to go on, and can begin to see that creating the illusion of a separate, unchanging self was not at all helpful (though it seemed to be). At this point, “it” will then let go of the illusion it has been perpetuating and return to understanding its natural state, which is freedom and non-duality.

This is something that cannot be accomplished by an act of will alone, though in relative terms the set-up and conditions for awakening often seem to have been created by what in the unawakened state appear to have been many acts of “will”. Awakening arises only when the level of basic sensate clarity is developed enough, which usually takes lots of work, and the heart accepting enough of things as they are. We might say that grace favors the well-trained mind. The pronounced tenaciousness of this process of defending an illusory and arbitrary “self” demonstrates clearly just how much confused compassion and how much delusion there is in this. Work at perceiving your sensate world clearly so that the knot may begin to untie itself.

I include all of this in the section called “A Clear Goal” because the very sense of a drive to find something is the thing it is seeking. The motivation is looking for itself. In those sensations is something very powerful and amazing if they are clearly comprehended. However, to see this, a shift must happen in which the drive becomes driven to understand the sensations of that drive itself rather than looking to future sensations for satisfaction and understanding. As straightforward as that sounds, it is a completely unintuitive thing to do, and this is one reason that meditation practices can seem so awkward at times.

However, the fact that the drive or the goal contains its own solution is the reason there is such relentless emphasis on being present to what is happening now. If we can get this drive to just chill on its past and future fixation, insight is close at hand. Aspects of this “drive” are patterns of sensations such as those that make up wondering, frustration, investigation, effort, suffering, expectation, anticipation, analysis, trying to game the system, trying to force insights, mapping, practicing, and the like.

Thus, if you feel frustrated that your practice has not been as energized or as clear as you wish it to be, first sit with the sensations of the urgency of that wish, with the fullness of that frustration, with the fullness of your fears, your hopes, with the fullness of that suffering and compassion, as clearly and bravely as you possibly can until you understand them to their very depths as they are. Channel all this energy into clear, precise, kind, and focused living and practice.

Since this whole book is clearly goal-oriented, I thought that it would be appropriate to add guidelines about formulating specific goals and working towards mastery that can help reduce the problems that poorly conceived goals can cause. Goals tend to involve a heavy future component. That future component, poorly related to, can fry insight practitioners. The trick is to add a component that relates to the here and now as well.

For instance, we could wish to become awakened. This is a purely future-oriented goal. We could also wish to understand the true nature of the sensations that make up our world so clearly that we become awakened. This adds a present component and makes the whole enterprise much more reasonable and workable. We could simply wish to understand deeply the true nature of the sensations that make up our world as they naturally arise and vanish in that practice session or throughout that day. This is a very immediate and present-oriented goal, and a very fine one indeed. It is also method-oriented rather than result-oriented. This is the mark of a good goal.

Similarly, we could try to be kind, honest, or generous that hour or that day, try to appreciate interdependence that day, or try to stay very concentrated on some object for that practice session. These present and method-oriented goals are the foundation upon which great practice is based. Purely future-oriented goals are at best mostly worthless and at worst very dangerous.

Wishing to become awakened or more awakened is only helpful if it leads us to live in the present as it is. The same goes for training in morality and concentration, as articulated in Part One. An old dharma friend of mine once forgot these basic rules of goal-oriented practice and strived with great energy for months to attain a goal that had nothing to do with the reality that he was experiencing at that time. The results were disastrous, and decades later the dark consequences of his error ring on, the best consequence of which was providing a striking example of why purely future-oriented practice is a terrible idea. Don’t get burned by the shadow side of goal-oriented practice. Avoid competition and comparing your practice to others. Stay present-oriented whenever possible, and always avoid purely future-oriented or results-oriented goals!

Thoughts of the past and future occur only in the present, which is natural and straightforward. These sensations are worthy of investigation. “Future mind” is only a problem if the sensations that make it up are not understood as they are. A fun practice to try is to think consciously those thoughts whose content is purely past- or future-oriented. Notice that they are occurring now and are part of this sense-field, this space here and now. There is something  profound about this sort of practice that might be missed on first inspection, and doing this well enough can deconstruct how the sense of time is created, which is liberating in and of itself.

It is also worth keeping in the front of your mind the three characteristics, the most profound and important of which is no-self, meaning that all phenomena occur interdependently, causally, naturally, and lawfully. By remembering this essential characteristic and keeping it in our minds, we can notice that reality already shows up with comprehension built right into sensations. Sit quietly and notice this most fundamental and liberating aspect of things again and again, realizing that just sitting involves sensations, and each of these sensations is naturally revealing its true nature. Return to this paragraph when you feel you are frying yourself and read it a bunch of times to help it sink in as, strangely, this very easy and natural message can be a hard one to really integrate.

While discussing goal-oriented practice, I should say a few words about how to avoid overdoing it. First, if those around you, particularly those with a lot of experience in meditation and the spiritual life, are telling you that you should chill out a bit, they are probably saying it for good reason. Ask them why they think that and take their opinions into consideration, but without using it against yourself. While it is true that occasionally people may tell you to chill out on your practice a bit just because of their own envy of your determination and diligence, I haven’t found this to be a common occurrence.

When on intensive retreats, there are a few basic ways to sail too far out there too fast. The first is to stop eating. It is true that there is a long and glorious tradition of people fasting when doing spiritual practice, but generally they do so because they want to bring on extremely altered states of consciousness. Fasting when meditating is an effective technique for doing this. Should you be doing insight practices, altered states are not your intended focus, and so these are more likely to be distracting than helpful. Further, severely altered states of consciousness can sometimes be very disruptive and hard to process and integrate, leading to what might be considered by some to be temporary insanity or other psychotic episodes. If you are the sort of person who would drop LSD when out in public, then the altered states that fasting might bring on might not be a problem for you. On the other hand, if you are on retreat with other people, consideration for the fact that they may not want to deal with the potential side effects of your vision quest is warranted.

Another way to go off the deep end is to stop sleeping. Sleep deprivation can eventually lead to very altered states of consciousness and visionary experiences. The exact same considerations that come into play with not eating apply here as well. While it may be true that, when doing intensive practice, the need for sleep may go down to perhaps four to six hours or less at a time, try to get at least some sleep every night. I would strongly advise against going more than forty-eight hours without sleep while doing intensive practice (or most other things, for that matter).

Some people are such macho meditators that they will try to sit for very long periods of time, say ten to twenty-four hours. While this might seem like a brave thing to do, a real tribute to our determination, I don’t see the point. I have managed to make very rapid progress when on intensive retreats where the longest sit I did was about four hours and most were less than ninety minutes.

However, if we sit long enough and really push the investigation with heroic effort, we can get into states of consciousness that are quite volatile. It can be very difficult to get grounded again and integrate what comes out of that sort of extreme practice. We might assume that if we dial back the power after the trouble starts that the excessive and imbalanced energy might rapidly drain out of our practice, but this is not always the case, at least in the short term, so don’t count on it. Again, out of consideration for your mind and body, as well as for those around you on retreat who may not want to deal with your potential inability to integrate and control the volatile energy that can be unleashed from that sort of practice, consider moderation in sitting.

Lastly, there are some who will try to mix mind-altering substances and meditation. This can seem like an easy and fast path. In fact, there are many traditions that use substances as an integral part of their path. I must also admit that a non-trivial number of my meditation co-adventurers and teachers got into meditation or spirituality more generally due to experiences with entheogens. However, there are many strong warnings against doing this at all, or against doing so without the guidance of those who really know what they are doing, such as seasoned traditional shamans, who can help keep you safe and recognize the many experiences that can occur and how to handle them. It’s important, in addition to being properly guided or supported, to experiment in a safe setting and without dangerous elements nearby, such as weapons or cliffs. Many of these substances are also illegal in various countries, so make your own choices wisely.

Given that there is some significant overlap between those who use entheogens and those who get into deep meditation, I have gotten to hear many reports from people of the effects of various entheogens on meditation practice and life in general, and the results are all over the place, from profound heart openings to those who years later were still trying to put their shattered minds and hearts back together, and everything in between. Correlating the effects of the entheogens and the results of meditation practices is not always easy, and the degree to which the maps I will later describe fit with the effects people describe from entheogens is hotly debated.

I know people who claim to have dropped literally hundreds of hits of acid over their lifetimes who clearly don’t have any profound insights to show for it, but I must also admit that I have a few friends who did get some useful low- to mid-level insights from doing similar substances. This demonstrates that whether substances will expedite or yield insights is highly unpredictable, so don’t for an instant take this as my recommending that you do any such things. You are presumably an adult and any decision to do anything rests totally on you. As a good friend with extensive personal experience with the heavy end of hallucinogens once said, “Doing hallucinogens is like trying to fix a Swiss watch with a sledgehammer.”

[The website Erowid is a resource for reports of the effects of various substances, and the book Secret Drugs of Buddhism, by Mike Crowley, is a scholarly treatise on the subject.]

I have found that simply doing insight or concentration practices consistently and well can quickly produce altered states and strange experiences that have taken me to the very brink of what I could skillfully handle and sometimes beyond. Further, there are reasons to learn to see things from different perspectives on our own power so that these may become a part of who and what we are rather than some transient side effect brought on by tinkering with our neurochemistry.

In short, those on the path of heroic effort can easily get sidetracked into various ritualistic displays or other extreme methods and practices that seem like heroic effort. Heroic effort on the insight path means heroic investigation of the three characteristics of the sensations that make up our experience, whatever they may be. Thus, my advice when on an insight meditation retreat is to power the investigation skillfully all day long, whether you are sitting, walking, reclining, standing, eating, washing, etc., until you get stable enough to realize that reality is happening on its own and just gently be with that. Take care of your body, particularly your knees and back.

While some students of Buddhism can fixate on the loathsomeness of the body, it is the vehicle we ride to awakening, so care for it appropriately. As spending years working in emergency departments has taught me, by showing me both what people who live long, happy lives do, and also what happens when people do otherwise, your best hope for good physical outcomes results from putting good, nourishing things in your mouth in moderate quantities, avoiding putting bad things in your mouth, exercising in non-damaging ways, driving safely, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, having a good attitude about life, having meaningful things to do with your time, and having good social support.

When on retreat or practicing hard in some other context, should those with more experience in these matters than you consistently tell you to back off on the effort just a bit, give it a try. I have occasionally stubbornly done otherwise and sorely regretted it. William Blake wrote that we do not know what is enough unless we know what is more than enough. Unfortunately, most insight meditators will not put forth enough effort to know either. However, should you find that you are frying yourself through too much effort, learn from your mistakes and follow the middle path. Should you find yourself way out there in Crazyland and unable to figure out how to get back to balance despite the skillful help of good teachers, seriously consider relying on standard medical psychiatric services and treatments for support. Remember back in the Foreword and Warning when I said that some people would unfortunately ignore the various paragraphs that tell them to avoid frying themselves? These are some of those paragraphs. There will be many more specific details about mental illness and adverse practice side effects later to help flesh out the points made here.

The last point about having a clear goal I make reluctantly, as I am afraid that I will justify the very thing I wish to speak out against. Here goes …

I heard someone speculating that Zen might have developed as being very austere, strict, and drab because of how colorful and unstable Japan was during its development, and likewise the Tibetan tradition was very colorful and complex because much of the landscape of Tibet was so alienating and bleak. Burmese Buddhism might be so extremely technical, goal-oriented, straightforward, empowering, and efficient because their country is such a chaotic mess politically. Perhaps in just this way, those of us in Europe and North America have some of the most goal-oriented, workaholic cultures in the world and yet tend towards the least goal-oriented, least practical, and least effective take on Buddhism I have found anywhere.

It is an unfortunate shadow side of our culture that many of us can barely tolerate one more goal to attain, one more hoop to jump through, one more exam to pass, one more certification or degree to obtain, one more SUV to buy. Perhaps we are crafting a Buddhism in which we don’t have to ever accomplish anything to find a refuge from our extremely neurotic and short-sighted fixation on “achievement” as driven by prevailing social norms. This might explain why we often fixate on teachings such as “effortless effort”, “there is nothing to attain”, and postponing enlightenment through a mistaken understanding of the bodhisattva vow. Believe me, as someone with two graduate degrees who is actively involved in a profession that requires what feels like constant reading, recertification, and training, I am often sick and tired of the whole achievement trip as well.

On the other hand, I have found that goal-oriented practice combined with good instruction and a few good conceptual frameworks is largely unstoppable barring extreme circumstances. Thus, if you are sick of goals to the point that you can’t make any room for those that will soon follow, strip down your daily life to make room for the drive to master the states and stages of the path. Take more vacations, back off the career climbing a little, and make time to really bust out some serious meditative accomplishments. The Buddha was known for saying that there is nothing so valuable in this world as mastering the dharma. I could not agree more.

20. What Went Wrong   |  22. Harnessing the Energy of the Defilements