Describing Your Practice

71. More Practical Tidbits   |  Dependent Origination Revisited

It is easy to imagine, given all the terms for states and stages of the path that I have laid out here, that we could easily dive into the world of using these terms to shoptalk about our practice with teachers, co-adventurers, friends, partners, and students, or at least those who speak in a lexicon like ours. Unfortunately, while it sounds easy in theory, it is not so in practice, as years of people attempting this has shown. Even in online communities that attempt a strong degree of standardization of terminology, we have learned again and again that people will still use words in radically different ways, assign different terms to similar experiences, map their own and other people’s practices very differently, and, in general, often diverge greatly from one another when talking about practice.

Take a simple descriptor, such as “bliss”. For some, a subtle pleasant feeling may be “bliss”, whereas another practitioner might not call something “bliss” until it is blowing their doors off. This gets worse the further we get from the bare phenomenology of experience. By the time we are talking about profoundly deep concentration states and the world of awakening, the potential for misinterpretation is massive. So, don’t be afraid to ask polite, open questions about the specifics of how people use the terms they use to describe their practice, and try to use more clear descriptors in your own reports when possible.

People will often judge their own practice and those of others based on totally different factors that are largely unrelated to the specifics of that practice. Reality testing shows again and again that those vying for power in a community are significantly more likely to disparage and, undervalue the practice and accomplishments of their rivals subtly or overtly regardless of the bare phenomenology. Similarly, those who wish to attract the friendship, approval, and even love of other practitioners are more likely to view their practice in a more favorable light, often leading to overstating attainments. Given that nearly everyone is subject to these sorts of distorting forces, assessment of relative levels of practice gets to be a very slippery business. Getting a straight read by a disinterested but skilled party is difficult, as there is almost always some degree of interest or agenda.

Further, if we are talking with people who are not from our tradition, or from a similar tradition that may diverge even subtly on the usage of various key terms, as is common even within the major sects of Buddhism, then the problems get magnified since, not only are people likely to be waging some subtle or overt battle for their preferred definition of the term, they are less likely to appreciate anyone who is not a part of their core tribe of practitioners, leading to the perennial phenomenon of very accomplished members of different schools of practice misjudging the actual attainments of those of another school.

So, if you wish to have deep, accurate, helpful, empowering communication about practice with any other practitioner, you are likely to have to first make sure the foundation of your relationship is on some mutually respectful ground, take a lot of time to discuss and explain any dharma terms you use that you haven’t already established as being well-defined between you, and politely agree to disagree on terms about which you can’t come to some mutually acceptable definition. Also, when describing your practice and asking about that of another, the more you can stick to basic phenomenology over the use of more specific dharma terms, the better. This can often take substantial time to establish, so, if you wish to attempt deep dharma conversations that avoid the perennial quagmires that dharma terms can create, be willing to spend hours and hours in conversation.

Beware of assuming when you use a more advanced summary term that they will understand what you mean. Similarly, when they use an advanced dharma term, be openly curious about what they mean rather than just presuming that you know exactly how they are using that term and what they mean by it, as this is a set-up for trouble. It is not that deep dharma conversations can’t happen in short periods of time. They can. But there is nothing like having the time, willingness, openness, inquisitiveness, and respect for other people that allows for deeper levels of dialogue to blossom and grow.

Bringing this back to this book, if you go on a retreat or are part of a dharma community, be careful with using terms found here or in any other source until you have explored them deeply in your own practice and mutually established with the people you are conversing with that you have come into a clear, explicit, and harmonious alignment regarding their meaning. Until that is mutually established, stick to very simple, straightforward, clear, ordinary sensate terms to describe your practice.

For example, don’t say to a meditation teacher you don’t know well, “All right, just cranked it in the A&P and now plunging down into the third vipassana jhana.” That sort of thing will annoy most meditation teachers, even those used to this terminology, as the potential for misinterpreting experience and thus misapplying terms is so large. Particularly if you do something such as going on a three-month retreat at, say, Panditarama Lumbini, don’t be yet another one of those meditators who comes in spouting dharma map terms, not following instructions, incessantly theorizing, quoting this or some other book to defend some intellectual dharma-theory point, and thus not grounding your mind in your sensate awareness and the true nature of experience again and again.

Unfortunately, the first edition of this book created plenty of practitioners just like this, so try your very best to avoid being one of those. This second edition, while likely to contribute to that same problem, has tried to build even more specific sections to prevent this sort of misapplication of dharma terms and concepts. I cringe inside when I recall the number of stories I have heard about impatient, disrespectful meditators who went on retreat with competent teachers, failed to heed the teacher’s skillful practice instructions, failed to trust in the process, and failed to let the meditation and the organic process development of positive mental qualities do the work of moving them along the path rather than trying to force it with map theory. My sincere apologies to those teachers, such as Sayadaw Vivekananda (and many others too numerous to mention), who have had to deal with this sort of obnoxiousness.

I ask you to do your best to help support the view that people can use maps responsibly by using them responsibly yourself, otherwise you just reinforce the arguments of teachers who keep people in the dark about them. The more map theory you use, the less map theory you are likely to get from teachers who will naturally try to counterbalance your overemphasis on theory over practice. You want to get to those conversations some day? Prove yourself through very good practice that leads to clear insights and describe those in very simple, straightforward terms.

When on retreat, practice according to instructions. Trust the process. Be at once an active practitioner and yet be grounded in the immediate moment. Some degree of patience and acceptance is required. Avoid fixation on future goals. If you find yourself swamped by dharma theory and future fixation, reread the chapter “A Clear Goal”, take it to heart, and implement what it recommends. Pay a lot of attention to the seven factors of awakening, making sure you have enough tranquility, concentration and equanimity to balance investigation and energy. Rapture will help keep you in that moment. Be sure you carefully balance wisdom and faith.

Specifically, instead of being some argumentative, dharma term–spouting brat, try, “For the last few days I have had lots of strong vibratory sensations in my body that were very pleasant and tingly in a delightful way, my breath has been very clearly composed of many fine sensations, attention has felt very strong, posture has been unusually straight and sustainable, I saw a bright white light that lasted about three minutes about two sits ago, and now sensations are falling away, vague, and it feels like I am sinking into the floor and yet it is cool and pleasant, and my posture has sagged somewhat and energy is now significantly down from what it was.” This way of describing practice is likely to go over much better with your teacher until you have established between you both what more advanced dharma terms mean and that you both know how to use them in a way that skillfully matches the other person’s understanding of theory.

Further, when talking with people from very different traditions or those who are not dharma practitioners or skilled in more technical language, simple descriptions of stages will usually go over vastly better than those laden with lots of fancy dharma terms or advanced phenomenology, particularly when it comes to unusual experiences. For example, when telling your non-practitioner partner about Dark Night experiences, ordinary emotional descriptions of what you are feeling, such as, “I’ve been feeling much more afraid and anxious than usual. I apologize if I have been edgy and needed some reassurance from you that everything was okay,” is likely to go much better than, “I entered stage six, saw an array of strange demons in my visual field, noticed a shamanic-drum pulse with an emphasis on endings, got really paranoid, and then had a strange, distorted vision of you in the arms of your ex-partner.” I am not advocating for dishonesty but for language that still conveys key points, which I can tell you leads to better outcomes for all concerned and, having typically gotten this wrong in my own life, I hope to pass on some hard-won lessons to those who come after me.

How we describe our practice will also impact that practice itself. For example, let’s say you decided to really take on the seven factors of awakening for a practice session. Just having that frame of reference will impact your practice. Describing your practice in those terms will also most likely have beneficial effects on your practice. For example, let’s say you were doing a daylong sit with a meditation teacher, and they directed each of the seven one-hour sits to focus on only one of the seven factors and then expected reports that emphasized its qualities. You are much more likely to get really good at identifying each of those qualities and then to balance and strengthen them because you are practicing that way and because you are expected to describe practice through that lens. Similarly, were you on a retreat where the noting technique was being used, describing your practice in terms of what you could note and how well you noted it will help you frame your practice that way and likely help you get more out of the noting practice.

For those who have been paying attention to the advanced ñana- and jhana-based notation, it can be used by skilled practitioners with additional qualifiers to explain what is going on in their practice and help identify those qualities in the practices of those with whom they are speaking about the dharma. However, just saying “ñ11.j2” (the second subjhanic aspect of Equanimity) isn’t nearly as complete and informative as saying something like “ñ11.j2 that lasted about three hours during which I felt free as the wind and had this brilliant sense of effortless, flowing transcendence in which I noticed lots of wonderful correlations between the mystical teachings of various traditions, had a few lifelike visions of all my fellow dharma practitioners glowing with the light of the dharma, like it was connecting them all together, all while noticing flowing formations starting to become the clear, predominant experience.”

Good descriptions can also help end the “term wars” over words such as “jhana” by similarly adding lots of descriptors that clarify what we mean. Saying, “I was in the first jhana,” is not nearly as clear as saying something like, “Finally, attention stabilized on the breath, the mind got quiet, and, being removed from the defilements, was free to concentrate on the object, which occurred in nearly unbroken fashion, breath after breath, with a moderate degree of a seemingly steady, pleasant feeling in the body that gradually grew stronger as concentration deepened during the sit due to continued steady effort.”

This might be contrasted with some other description of the “first jhana” by a very strong practitioner inspired by the likes of those such as B. Alan Wallace or Ajahn Brahm—who set the bar for the first jhana extremely high—who might say something like, “After three months of hard work on retreat for sixteen hours a day, I finally entered the first jhana, meaning that the body was totally gone, a bright white glow pervaded everything, and this stable, perfectly silent experience lasted four [or twenty-four] hours without wavering at all.” Obviously, those are very, very different experiences conforming to radically different visions of practice, though both potentially in the vast territory of the first jhana. Clearly, what we call the first jhana can have many ways of presenting, depending on the strength of various factors and the emphasis of the practitioner and how they tune their mind. So long as we get comfortable with good descriptions, those of us who practice jhana and talk about jhana can all get along, or so I naively dream.

Similarly, the maps of the territory of awakening, specifically the paths and bhumis, involve terms to which various texts, traditions, practitioners, and teachers attribute wildly different criteria and ideals. If you are going to use these terms to describe some aspect of your practice, it is probably a good idea to clearly define what criteria you are using. I go way out of my way to define as clearly as I can the real-world performance testing and characteristics of the way I use those terms for various stages of practice, such as the perennially controversial term “arahant”, but this degree of specificity is not yet common, though I hope one day it will be. So, if you encounter someone who is using a term about their practice that you are sure you know the correct and only possible definition of, try keeping an open mind and asking them exactly what they mean by that term. Language is a tool to communicate ideas, and, in this case, ideas to try to promote good practice in those hearing them; language does a lot better in this role than in the role of a battleground of territory to defend. Try to model this skillful metacognitive wisdom when discussing the language of the dharma.

71. More Practical Tidbits   |  Dependent Origination Revisited