24. From Content to Insight

23. Right Thought and the Augean Stables   |  Part III: The Samatha Jhanas

In the previous chapter I explained a method of cognitive restructuring designed to help us stop following distracting or unhelpful thoughts. As those sorts of techniques have an agenda for what happens, rather than an agenda for perceiving something fundamental about whatever happens, they are an aspect of training in morality or concentration. However, if we are willing to realize that we can also take an insight-oriented perspective on difficult or distracting thoughts, on the cushion or off, then we can begin to make the transition from content to insight.

As you would expect, this method is grounded squarely in the three characteristics, as well as the other basic assumptions of insight practices, such as our current sensate experience being the gold standard for reality. This method is probably best shown by way of examples, in this case of a few people with a Big Issue who are on an insight meditation retreat and reporting their experiences.

The first example is of someone who is completely buying into the content. “So, in my practice I have been working through my Big Issue, you know, really trying to deal with it. It just seems to come back up again and again. Every time I sit on the cushion, I find myself thinking about my Big Issue. This Big Issue is such a big part of my life, such a huge issue. I am afraid that if I look too closely at my Big Issue it will overwhelm or destroy me. I wish my Big Issue would just go away. I have been doing so much practice, and yet I still have to deal with this darned Big Issue.”

Notice that the person assumes the permanence, solidity, and continuity of Big Issue. Also assumed is that all thoughts about the Big Issue are either self, the property of self, or separate from self. Further, this person is not working at a sensate level, trying to see the true nature of the thoughts and physical sensations that make up the Big Issue and the rest of his or her reality. In short, the “practice” is something other than insight practice. Let’s try again.

“I sat down on the cushion, and I had barely begun to practice noticing my breath when a thought about my Big Issue arose. I tried to ignore it, but then more thoughts about Big Issue arose, and my stomach began to feel queasy. I tried to focus on the breath again (which had quickened, as had my heart rate), but then I found myself thinking about the Big Issue again, thought after thought, mostly the same old thoughts repeating again and again.”

This person is already making progress towards using the thoughts and physical sensations around Big Issue as a basis for insight by beginning to apply the assumptions of insight practices to direct experience. He is trying to focus on a physical object, trying to notice the individual sensations that make up his thoughts and physical sensations. However, he has poor concentration and has not learned to see the true nature of the sensations that make these up.

“I sat down on the cushion and tried to see each of the sensations that make up the breath. Interspersed with these physical sensations were mental images of the breath. Interspersed with all these sensations were also thoughts about the Big Issue. They were quick and seemed to also involve some mildly painful or disconcerting physical sensations in the region of my stomach. I could see these come and go and that they were observed. I could feel as they arose that there was something irritating about these quick sensations.

“I noticed that most of my experience was made of sensations that didn’t seem to relate to that Big Issue. Sometimes I noticed the three characteristics of the sensations that seem to be related to the old Big Issue pattern of sensations, and sometimes I could stay with the sensations of breathing. However, regardless of which sensations arose, I was generally able to see some aspect of their true nature. Thus, I find that I can keep practicing and not get lost in old, circular thoughts about that Big Issue that do me little good and have caused me much pain.”

These are the sorts of descriptions that really light up a meditation teacher’s eyes. They can see that this is a person who is really getting a sense of what insight practice is and how it can be useful. The meditator not only understands the focus and assumptions of insight practices but is also actually able to do fairly consistent and strong practice. Even being able to do this when we are walking around and dealing with our stuff can be helpful. Shifting to the sensate level reveals things about our stuff that can be very helpful for keeping it in perspective and not getting overwhelmed or engulfed by it. It also develops habits that make it easier for us to shift to a sensate level when we do formal insight practice.

Thus, if you have an issue that keeps bugging, consuming, or overwhelming you, try taking the time to see the three characteristics of the sensations that make it up as you go about your day, thinking, “The pattern of sensations that make up this Big Issue are quick, transient, and observed. They are a very small part of the broad field that is my actual sensate experience. They arise on their own and vanish on their own. I will do my best to notice this as sensations occur. When speaking of the Big Issue to others and to myself, I will try to keep my descriptions at an insight-oriented level. By seeing this Big Issue as observed and transient phenomena, I will not be lost in, and thereby not perpetuate, negative and painful thoughts about Big Issue. I will bring more clarity and spaciousness to my Big Issue, bring more intelligence and gentleness to my Big Issue, and bring more common sense and balance to my Big Issue.

If I can do this, it will be of great benefit to me and therefore to others. If I continue to wallow in my circular thoughts about this Big Issue (which should by now be shrinking to Issue) that get me nowhere, I will simply experience unnecessary pain to little good effect. This is my plan and my resolve. Though I may fail again and again to be able to do this, eventually I will break the habit of not being able to see the true nature of ‘Big Issue’ and thus will grow in wisdom and happiness!” That’s the way the game is played.

Just for fun, I will give two more examples from even more advanced practitioners and how they might describe their practice. “I sat down on the cushion and began noticing the three characteristics of the sensations that make up experiential reality. There were physical and mental sensations, all arising and vanishing quickly and effortlessly. I could perceive perhaps five to fifteen sensations per second, primarily in the abdominal region, but there were many other little sensations coming into awareness from all over, colors on the inside of my eyelids, sounds from other meditators’ breathing. Occasionally, there were some quick sensations interspersed with these about the Big Issue, like little phantoms vanishing in a sea of flickering color and form. They caused no interruptions to my investigations, being just more sensations for investigation.”

This is obviously a strong practitioner with solid insight skills. They know exactly what they are looking for and find it. They are willing to make time for bare sensate investigation. We cannot instantly make the transition to this sort of practice, nor can we merely parrot these sorts of descriptions, but I am a firm believer that making clear exactly what we are looking for can make it much easier to make the transition from content to insight. By observing what we can do and looking at what someone at the next higher skill level can do, we will be able to proceed with more confidence that we are on the right track.

This last example is a description of practice from a particularly strong and advanced practitioner: “I sat down on the cushion and the cycles of insight presented themselves effortlessly. There was a shift, and very fine, fast vibrations arose instantly, dropping down quickly with the out-breath, and then vibrations shifted out, getting vague for a few seconds. Concentration restabilized and revealed the quick ending of sensations one after the other, perhaps five to ten per second, and then things began thickening somewhat, getting somewhat irritating, but vibrations remained the predominant experience. It was just that their unsatisfactory aspect became more predominant, and there were a few sensations relating to the Big Issue.

“I may have noticed a few hints of what dualistic perspectives remain and the basic pain and confusion they cause. There was a shift, and a more panoramic and easy perspective arose, accompanied by more coherent and synchronized vibrations including most of sensate reality, including much of space, with a more flowing and open quality than before. There was a short period of barely noticeable but mature equanimity in the face of these as the fluxing of space and its textures became more inclusive. Any sense of practicing dropped away entirely.

“A minute later, two of the three characteristics presented completely in quick succession, including the whole background of space, revealing something incomprehensible about the nature of subject and object, and ‘reality’ vanished. ‘Reality’ reappeared quiet, clear, beautiful, and easy. I solidified space in that afterglow so as to enjoy the formless realms for a few minutes, rising up through them and back down to Boundless Space. A vision relating to the Big Issue arose.

“I stabilized on the vision, noticing the feeling of it, and before I knew it I was out-of-body, traveling in a strange realm, having interactions that replayed Big Issue in symbolic or mythic form. I saw something about this issue that I never had before: how an old, unexamined, and fictitious train of associations led to my inability to come to some more balanced understanding of this issue. This epiphany broke my concentration, and I returned to my body. I then dropped out of the formless realms, allowing a new insight cycle to begin again. When I got up off the cushion, I noticed that the psychological insights that arose in the other realm gave me an increased sense of humor and a more compassionate perspective towards those involved in this issue. They were just trying to be happy, just as we all are. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.”

This practitioner has talent and a wide range of skills. She is not only an advanced insight practitioner, but also has strong concentration skills and can even chance into some of the more unusual concentration attainments. Further, she seems to be able to use her ability to “travel” out-of-body to gain relative insights into the content of “her” stuff, which is not necessary but can be very skillful if consciously done. Last, she is on the lookout for the subtle signs of the limits of her insights. She is not only skilled, but acknowledges what she does not yet know. She is well on her way to mastering the core teachings of the Buddha.

23. Right Thought and the Augean Stables   |  Part III: The Samatha Jhanas