Just believing that the world is a riddle with no answer and then getting on with life does not remove the ache.
My attitude towards meditation is that Awakening (aka “enlightenment”) is possible.
Awakening from what? one might ask. Consider the mystery that crops up from time to time — say, you know, when you wake up groggy and in an unguarded moment you make eye contact with yourself in the mirror. A slightly dizzying sense of looking into a hall of mirrors. Existential groundlessness, you could call it.
When faced with this mystery, for many years I tended to shrink away, sometimes I’d shiver involuntarily. It was like a slight concussion for a few moments, until the question faded. Then I brushed my teeth, or had a shower, and returned to my normal life.
But maybe you get away from the city and all around you is evidence (wildlife, geography, sunshine, starlight, seasons) of a process taking place, and that this process is much larger than we normally realise. Intuitively we know that we are part of that great mysterious process. Yet we continue to think of ourselves as a protagonist in our own story. Our narrative feels crucially important to us, yet we shall all be dead for much longer than we are alive. A lifetime rarely registers on a global scale, and our individual selfhood is vanishingly tiny on a cosmic one.
One can be an atheist and still suffer the vertigo of this groundlessness.
Albert Camus, French philosopher of the mid-twentieth century, begins his startling essay The Myth of Sisyphus with the statement “There is but one serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.”
Which is another (admittedly intense) way of phrasing things.
It seems likely that there is no answer to Camus’ question. Suicide implies a narrative — a self, who chooses to either continue in the confusion of existential groundlessness, or cease existing. There is a third alternative. If the narrative is seen through as a simplification of reality[TED Talk, opens in new window], then it is no longer considered central to the experience of life. Instead we submerse our “self” in the larger mystery that we are part of.
It is the illusion of being a separate self that we Awaken from. Just thinking about it isn’t enough — that’s like dreaming about waking up. Or as Donald Hoffman says in the TED Talk I linked to above, you’re still on the desktop. We must experience the illusory nature of the self, viscerally, in repeated glimpses, repeating this process over and over until it echoes through our subconscious and emotional programming. Then that existential groundlessness becomes, in the words of Pema Chödrön, positive groundlessness (not an affiliate link).
Now, I’m pretty sure others had found ways to unravel the “self delusion” before the Buddha did so. And many others have done so since. The true brilliance of Siddhartha Gautama — the Buddha — was that he discovered a way to repeat the process in others. Apply the instructions, put in the effort, and Awakening follows. It is easier to miss the ground as you take a step, than it is to miss Awakening, provided the instructions are good, you understand them, and you put them into practice.
Today I am much more deluded than that. I can write these things, but if enough shit hits the fan, I will forget and the habits will take over. But I’m in process like all else 🙂
Today I want to present the path to enlightenment (also called Awakening) as a series of insights into the world around us.
These insights can be generated
by being alive and paying attention
(arguably) by undertaking certain religious contemplations
most reliably by vipassana meditation
(If you’re not sure what I mean by vipassana, the below article will make more sense if you read Tools of the Trail first).
To attain Awakening, any of these approaches must lead us through progressively more disconcerting realisations to correspondingly more practical wisdom.
That wisdom is not the kind that leads to renouncing society, living in a cave and letting one’s hair grow long (although you can do that if you wish). Nor does it mean living in an ivory tower surrounded by books. The kind of wisdom that Gautama taught is practical; there is also deep irony in it. With it comes resilient love, abiding friendships and compassionate humour.
Enlightenment in a Non-Religious Context
Enlightenment is a subject that people veer away from. It brings a sense of discomfort to both religious circles and secular meditation groups. In the first group, enlightenment has been elevated to a supernatural feat that makes it seem out of reach. Anyone aiming to pragmatically achieve it in this very life is perceived to be flouting the dogma. In the second group, Awakening is misunderstood as a superstitious notion with no cognitive or neurological basis.
Traditionally, Buddha and his followers taught that enlightenment was a definable event, accessible to all, the endpoint of a process with a beginning, middle and an end 1.
Enlightenment is sometimes interpreted to mean the end of ignorance. This means the same thing as to gain knowledge; but knowledge of what, exactly? Not of all things, which would be impossible; nor do we mean accumulating information about planets or atoms or becoming a historian. There are endless fields of study, and meditation is not a data-collection exercise 2.
Vipassana exposes us to certain fundamental aspects of reality that underlie all experiences (their “true nature”). These aspects of reality are known as the three marks of existence, to be explained shortly. Most of us either do not realise, or choose to willfully ignore them during the majority of our daily lives. Through vipassana we can not remain innocent, nor can we ignore. It is our unawareness of, or our refusal to accept these fundamental aspects, which is the ignorance that is ended by enlightenment 3.
Vipassana is a Pali word (pronounced vee-PASS-er-nah) that literally translates as “to see clearly”. Gautama diagnosed most of humanity as suffering from either or both of two problems:
Ignorance of how things are
Failure to accept how things are
Vipassana is designed to overcome both of them by repeatedly exposing our awareness to reality as it is — not as we would like or fear it to be — so that eventually we have no choice but to learn and accept.
Earlier I defined vipassana as reflective samadhi (using sustained attention to investigate sustained attention, see last week’s post). That is an accurate and catchy way to define it, but when we turn samadhi on itself, we notice almost immediately that our attention is not continuous. It constantly comes and goes with each new phenomenon or event that arises.
Sustained attention is an illusion. This is the first insight on the path of vipassana. So the practice quickly turns into something more slippery than my definition makes it sound.
In ordinary samadhi, we ignore the discontinuity and create a sense of stable attention around some anchor like our breathing, or the tip of a sword, or our body’s balance centre. This illusion can be cultivated, and has its own benefits 4. But in vipassana, we do not try to control what arises, which would be out of line with the first goal to overcome ignorance of how things are. So we embrace the discontinuity and expand our awareness to include all possible interruptions; that is, all the sensations of being alive right now — conscious thoughts, hearing, touch, taste, and so on, as they are from moment to moment 5.
The past has already occurred and the future is uncertain. We take the pragmatic view, shared with modern science and philosophy, that what we experience at any given moment within the sensory field (physical sensations plus thought) is the sum total of our existence.
The three marks of existence
From childhood we are taught to see relative things like excitement and pleasure, learning new skills, or acquiring new toys as the source of lasting happiness. As we age, we put forth greater and greater effort to have these things, invest much time and struggle. Yet even with adult knowledge and skills, happiness is fleeting. The bliss we feel after prayer, gratitude practice or yoga asana dissipates. Skills become obsolete or our minds and bodies can no longer grasp them. Objects decay. Even while they are new, we suffer the fear of losing them through theft or absent-mindedness.
The “true nature” of all things, from the cosmically large to the very small such as an itch on our skin, is that they arise and then pass away. This nature of arising and passing away is called in Buddhist language impermanence and it is one of the three marks of existence.
We see bliss or pleasure as a source of happiness, and its loss as a source of misery, but the things that bring us bliss are impermanent to their core. Even bliss itself is impermanent. If we do not face up to this during the arising of an experience, then we feel dissatisfaction every time it passes away. Dissatisfaction, stress and suffering is the second mark of existence, and it comes about through our attachment to impermanent things as the source of our happiness.
This suffering reaches new lows when we also assume that the passing away of a desirable thing was due to some mistake of ours, or an enemy’s conniving, and not a natural feature of reality. Under this delusion we strive harder than before to make the next time different.
If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way“Hurt” lyrics by Trent Reznor / famously performed by Johnny Cash
This compounds our stress and suffering because we have set ourselves in opposition to reality. We may dominate others to protect our stuff, even stockpile weapons and money. Or we may turn our hatred inward and destroy our sense of self-worth. A more subtle form of this is when we refuse to see the suffering in life. “Speak to me only of love”. In all of these examples, we have split life into those parts we tolerate and those parts we do not. This split is artificial. Seeing through it is necessary so we can make rational, caring choices in life.
Buddha challenged his followers: find what you mean when you say “I”, “me” or “mine”.
Now that is a trick question, because in samadhi we cannot find any permanent, separate thing in the field of our senses (thoughts and body sensations) to point to and say “this is me”. Instead we find an ever-changing procession of events that arise only to pass away 67.
This insight is called no-self in Buddhist language and it is the third of the three marks (sometimes also caused the three characteristics). No-Self is the end of all dualities between “self” and “other”.
Experience is everything
Intellectually, the three marks of existence are not revolutionary. Well, they were to me but no doubt you the reader have been nodding your head. Novelists and poets write about them 8. But when we meditate we contact the three characteristics through our senses, and not just intellectually through entertaining thoughts. We experience them. This writes insight on our awareness; no matter how alien at first, we progressively become familiar with “oneself” as not a permanent or separate entity 9.
Another way to look at the path of vipassana is that we are progressively untraining our minds from seeing things as separate entities, and instead to actually experience reality (including oneself) as a web of interlinked processes undergoing constant change.
At defined points in this progression, specific delusional dualities become permanently eroded 10. From direct experience, deep integration of the three marks into the flow of consciousness arises. When it does, that is called enlightenment.
Enlightenment or Awakening is not reliant on any knowledge of facts or philosophy (which at the end of the day are just more thoughts). It goes beyond the library and the lecture notes. No belief in doctrine or an external entity is needed, whether moralism or divine providence, psychic phenomena or blessings from monks. It is based only on experiencing our own mind and body clearly.
Any day now 🙂
There are as many ways to talk about enlightenment as there are people striving for it. It is doable for most of us with a little forbearance and hard work. But just as reading a carpenter’s handbook will not teach one to cut straight, reading definitions will not teach one to see clearly. We ourselves must strive.
If you want to know more, break the silence and submit your comment now 🙂
Alternatively, try the Further Reading section or send me some feedback. Always good to hear from fellow consciousness cowboys.
Other than the links embedded in the article, check out the following resources.
A dogma-free and way more bolshy rant about Four Stages of Awakening, that also happens to be relevant to Secular vs Religious Buddhism in general, in Daniel Ingram’s book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.
I realise that this makes the progress of insight sound horribly linear when of course it is not. There is no actual end to the development, even after Awakening. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. But such simplifications are unavoidable in the space of this article, or in any conversation about enlightenment. It is closer to the truth than saying that the progress of insight is directionless or without landmarks, which is a frustrating and dis-empowering notion that tends to be promoted by people who have neither the experience nor the theoretical knowledge to make such statements.↩
“Enlightenment is an understanding of both the relative mode of existence (the way in which things appear to us) and the ultimate mode of existence (the true nature of these same appearances).” What does Buddhism mean by “Enlightenment”? by Matthieu Ricard.↩
Mostly to do with developing powers of concentration, relaxation and joy.↩
Buddhists add “sense of thought” to the usual five senses. That itself is an insight from early-stage vipassana.↩
“Were this form my self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.'” Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Anatta-lakkhana Sutta. AccessToInsight.com↩
There are too many to list all of them, but some I find noteworthy are Doris Lessing, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, T.S. Eliot and Leonard Cohen↩
The Tibetan word for meditation is gom. It literally translates as to familiarise or habituate. It means coming to accept the three characteristics — what are at first quite disconcerting ideas about reality — on an experiential level.↩
These are the “stages of Awakening”. South-East Asian Buddhism recognises four stages of Awakening, Tibetan Buddhism slightly more.↩
But before we talk about it we need to step back and look at meditation itself: what meditation is in general (sustaining attention on one thing), and how that can be used to cultivate wisdom (by turning sustained attention onto itself).
Next week will cover the question “what is enlightenment?”.
At its simplest, meditation is the art and skill of putting your mind’s attention on one thing and keeping it there. Other qualities such as tranquility, joy and equanimity mix well with meditation, but in simple terms when you meditate, you put your mind’s attention on one thing and try to keep it there for a length of time 1.
Some people are natural artists, and some people take to meditation more easily than others. But luckily for the rest of us, being able to direct and sustain our attention is a totally trainable thing, and this makes meditation a universal skill that anyone can develop 2.
Three Levels of Sustaining Attention
Even just the everyday ability to pay attention is critical, from rock climbing or surfing, to competing in a sport or athletics, piloting a jet fighter or practising surgery. We take it for granted, but all of these activities require our long-running, undivided attention.
I have noticed there are three basic levels of sustained attention.
“Woah dude I totally got in the zone all the way down the mountain.”
“I was awake all night coding and fixed everything.”
“It feels as though you and the horse are one organism.”
These are all examples of what psychologists call “flow state” 3. You find an activity so engaging that some kind of shift in consciousness takes place, that you barely notice until you look back. Then you recall a state of total immersion. You felt in control, and perhaps a bit high. If you noticed your breathing, it was probably smooth and rhythmical. You produced some good work, and probably forgot about things like hunger. 4
Flow states naturally include a lot of sustained attention. But no matter how intense your attention may have been during that, it was all a result of doing some activity. You didn’t deliberately create intense focus per se, you just did your thing and boom, flow state happened and with that came sustained attention. It was incidental.
2) Samadhi: Deliberately Sustained Attention
“Visualise your arm extending to the point of your sword.”
“Generate movement from your tan t’ien.”
“Breath smoothly and rhythmically.”
These practices are designed to deliberately cultivate sustained attention. You can find such instructions in many fields — fencing, athletics of all kinds, martial arts, yoga, and Buddhist meditation. These are referred to in Buddhism as samadhi practices.
Samadhi (pronounced “sum-MUD-dy”) is a Sanskrit word sometimes translated into English as “concentration”. But compared to everyday concentration, with samadhi we deliberately increase the intensity and duration of the focus, until it becomes effortless and can be maintained for minutes or hours.
One of the qualities of samadhi is that it can elevate an activity beyond the mundane to an art form. Think Chinese calligraphy, Japanese tea ceremonies, or any number of physical pursuits like Olympic diving, yoga or martial arts.
Within these practices, the practitioner does not just rely on flow states or chance to induce a pinpoint, sustained focus. They have trained themselves to deliberately bring it on.
As opposed to Flow-Induced sustained attention, techniques for deliberately inducing samadhi are cognitive technologies.
But like all technologies, cognitive technologies are morally agnostic. They can be employed by an assassin in carrying out their kills just as much as a monk in memorising teachings on loving-kindness. Warrior classes of many cultures have used them as a way to empower and improve on their abilities 5.
There is no human activity that cannot be performed more effectively, more efficiently or more powerfully with this quality of sustained attention.
Focus on the sensations of breathing at the tip of your nostrils, and when your attention wanders, return to the breath.
In contrast to the other examples, this most basic of Buddhist meditation instructions may seem mundane or even pointless when you first hear it. Most samadhi techniques focus on sustaining attention on some practical activity. What is the point of sustaining attention on breathing? Shouldn’t we do something more useful with all that attention?
But in fact this deliberately uncomplicated practice makes it possible to “do” something very profound: take concentration to the third level.
3) Vipassana: Reflective Concentration
The third stage of samadhi is when we use the sustained attention we have developed to look at sustained attention itself.
Using intense and deliberate attention to examine our minds in this way debunks many illusions we previously suffered about our mind, our body and the world in which we find ourselves 6.
The first thing we notice when we turn sustained attention on itself is that it is not actually sustained. What we had taken to be a continuous, persistent mind flickers and wavers and wanders. There are big gaps in our consciousness. Intense focus is revealed as an illusion. This knowledge turns out to be helpful in two ways:
By noticing ever finer levels of mind fog, you can learn to eliminate them, narrowing and sustaining your attention even further. Some heights of perception you attain this way will make your flow state of skiing down the mountain look like low-alcohol beer compared to a single malt (or a tab of LSD).
What your attention is doing when it is not sustained turns out to be pretty interesting, and universal to all humans.
Vipassana is a Pali word that translates as “to see clearly”. The path of vipassana is basically all the insights that arise from examining number 2 in a state of samadhi7. These insights are secular, and mostly similar across ages, cultural backgrounds and historical context. As such, they point to something deeply human in us all.
Number 1 is a tool that deepens samadhi, and this can deepen vipassana.
Taking vipassana far enough results in seeing clearly the true nature of all things that arise within our experience, what is called enlightenment, or Awakening.
More on that to come in next week’s post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment or send me some feedback 🙂
The “softer” attributes like tranquility and joy become important later because some of the insights on the path to Awakening can be disconcerting (in the manner of illusion-shattering). Being tranquil etc in the midst of that helps oil the wheels.↩
As Shunryu Suzuki said, “usually those who can sit physically perfect take more time to obtain the marrow of Zen — the true taste of Zen — actual feeling of Zen. Those who find a great difficulty in practice of Zen will find more meaning of Zen. So sometimes I think the best horse is the worst horse and the worst horse is the best one. Sometimes.” Los Altos, California, Haiku Zendo. 1965-1966.↩
An example of a universal human activity that induces flow states could be something to do with music: chanting, singing, playing an instrument or dancing. Whether they have their roots in the modern age (a punk drummer, a rave dancer, a rap artist), the classical era (a folk fiddler, a monk chanting, a church-goer singing Bible hymns) or stretch back to the dawn of history (a shaman reciting tribal lore), all of these activities share this ability to bring on a hypnotic feel.↩
e.g. Samurai, Crusader knights, and Shaolin monks to name just a few.↩
I mean literally suffered. This is the further subject of next week’s article.↩
Different schools within Buddhism approach this in different ways, but they all eventually result in getting a practitioner to sit still and pay attention for long enough that they can no longer avoid noticing, with clarity and precision, what is going on their mind and body.↩