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.↩
There is a cumulative “happiness benefit” that comes from habitually noticing joy. In this On Point Share Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s employee number 107 (job title Jolly Good Fellow) introduces a three second practice we can use to reconnect with things that bring us that feeling of joy. 1
As with all nano practices, it takes a bit of remembrance effort at first. But eventually it will establish a virtuous cycle of habit: the more you do it the better it feels and the better it feels the more you do it. But unlike some habits, there’s no Breaking Bad-style drug addiction looming in your life if you take this practice on.
Soon you will not need to work at it, and little experiences like the smell of brewing coffee, or a warbling bird at dawn will be more vivid, and enough to trigger the noticing of it. The subsequent joy is your reward.
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.↩
Flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.
This is the first in a series of posts about two different aspects of Buddhism that I am calling secular vs. religious Buddhism.
Secular Buddhism is the main teaching of a man called Siddhartha Gautama, aka ‘The Buddha’. It is practical and gives instruction on developing morality, powers of concentration and insight into reality.
Religious Buddhism has mostly sprung up in the millennia since Gautama’s death. It is belief-centric and involves things like prostrating before golden statues, praying, burning incense, chanting and receiving blessings from monks. Though culturally rich, such practices turn many people away; they may close a person’s mind to meditation for years, even for life.
That’s ironic because as we’ll see, if you find yourself interested in meditation but balking at religious ceremonies, that may actually be a very good thing.
The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism.S.N. Goenka1
Buddhism: technology or religion?
Even the most devout of the Buddhist monks today would agree that meditation is the main thrust of Gautama’s teachings. And meditation, as opposed to prayer, is a practical skill that can be learned and improved upon.
Bear with me and let us briefly go back to the historical life of Gautama himself. Nowhere does he claim to be a supernatural being. Nor does he try to bestow blessings on others. Clearly he had some remarkable qualities: he renounced his noble birth, was notoriously impossible to goad into any kind of anger or spite, touched the heart of multitudes and developed a system of meditation that had never been taught before. For most of his life he taught that system to a growing number of practitioners.2
These exhortations have not been forgotten. In modern Buddhist temple life as centuries ago, monks spend long hours meditating. Monasteries throughout Asia nominate meditation masters within their order to teach young novices. Lay people of all backgrounds, myself included, receive instruction within their walls in exchange for only donations.
The process is to firstly eliminate distractions through living simply, secondly to develop concentration power by taming our mind, and finally to use this combination as a tool for investigating our reality. That describes a methodical series of practical steps and has no recourse to faith or belief-oriented invocations. It describes a technology that can be undertaken by most of us, a set of related techniques, skills, methods and processes. Since this is the main point of Buddhism, it can be argued that Buddhism is not at it’s heart in fact a religion.
Penetrating investigations into the minutiae of a simple life leave us fundamentally changed as people. This has given rise to some wise and potent human beings over the centuries and continues to today. Speak with any accomplished meditation master and you will find those same qualities of generosity, even temper, compassion and rational thinking as Gautama did. Perhaps not to the level of full enlightenment — but sometimes, it may even be just so.
This gives rise to respect, and sometimes, to awe. As we’ll see, that can be dangerous.
How rituals help
The main thrust of my argument is that religious Buddhism can and should be de-prioritised in favour of meditation. But it would be unwise to dismiss these rituals entirely.
Being in the presence of a modestly accomplished meditation teacher can help to guide us in times of difficulty.3 We can call on that help even when they are absent by bringing to mind their teachings and positive qualities. In ancient times, this was done through chanting (the culture was mostly illiterate). Vedic customs were also common in Gautama’s region, so gestures like bowing and burning incense arose naturally after his death as a way to keep the memories fresh.
From these humble beginnings, ritual was formed.
If we are not discomfited by these rituals, they can generate helpful qualities in our lives such as equanimity and compassion, just as they did for the ancients. We can adopt peaceful conduct by remembering the Buddha’s humility or that of our meditation teacher. By showing respect and generating feelings of connection and community, we can impress upon ourselves the things we admire in others. This can be a powerful adjunct to any technique that develops insight.
From a modern meditator’s perspective, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this.
“Speak to me only of love.”
But writing has long since replaced chanting. And bowing to a Buddhist idol will arouse skeptical thoughts and discomfort for those with a modern scientific background or a non-Buddhist faith. These matters make the acts unlikely to have the intended benefits. They will just cause distraction and resistance.
Even for those who do not flinch at them, such as those born into Buddhist cultures, these rituals should not be considered a replacement for meditation itself. However in religious Buddhism that’s often exactly what happens: ritual, originally a side-dish to meditation, ends up becoming through a sense of awe the whole meal. Or at least, the main course.
That is a big problem, and here’s why:
The good side-effects of ritual and remembrance don’t last.
Equanimity- or compassion-by-association is transient. At night we may make our peace before the altar and (if we’re lucky) fall asleep unworried about what we did or did not achieve. Yet the next morning, we wake with a to-do list that worms around inside us.
Think of the New Age trend of making affirmations in the mirror. “I am worthy of being loved.” But the resulting magnanimity quickly turns into out of line reactions when our buttons are pushed. We cut out the trivia nights at the local pub because we cannot resist the temptation to drink excessively. Over-zealous yogis and new religious converts may withdraw from their friends and family to avoid cynical remarks (the “yoga bubble” effect).
This is a tragedy. In the name of world peace, we shrink our world to just the bit we can tolerate. “Speak to me only of love,” goes the song. We limit our interactions because we cannot keep our hearts open when the shit hits the fan.
Meditation, practised often and well, does not just temporarily remind us of the qualities of peace and compassion; it causes permanent changes in how we perceive the world. As we progress on the path of insight, those changes bring increasingly more peace and compassion to every situation, no matter how fraught.
An accomplished meditator need not avoid the local pub because they will no longer be swayed by habits and addictions.
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. As they came around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross at an intersection.
“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
Meditation is experience practice
On the path of insight, ritual and remembrance practices are unnecessary. In fact, they can be a hindrance even to those who accept them. They are helpful to some people; but insight, not remembrance, is what liberates. We create insight by experiencing our own life clearly, not by trying to make our behaviour reminiscent of another person’s, whether they are enlightened or not.
Meditation is “experience practice”. It is dedicated time where your only goal is to experience life without resistance. That is, to experience your life clearly.
This teaches us to be generous and feel things completely even after we end our meditation session. The lessons from meditation remain with us in the most trying of circumstances.
It is not easy, but it really is that simple. That was the Buddha’s great genius and his gift to the world.
If your goal is to live a happier, calmer and more loving life, then rituals like bowing, chanting, burning incense, or a morning run all help to smooth the ride of meditation, providing fresh energy and inspiration when motivation starts to flag.
But if you don’t meditate in the first place you may be smoothing a ride that hasn’t started yet. Many people perform their individual rituals daily, and yet nothing much changes in their reactions when life gets complicated.
On the other hand, lucid experience is what liberates and therefore meditation alone is enough to both start the ride, and once started, to keep on truckin’.
This will be not only beneficial in your own life but also that of your loved ones.
Heard of a practice that has similar goals as meditation? Mention it in the comments!
Let me leave you with a quote from that wonderful, rational, human being, the Dalai Lama.
If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.Our Faith in Science by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama 4
Afterthoughts: Is there no other way?
I’ve established that insight comes from experiencing life clearly. Given that, shouldn’t it be possible to attain all the insights of meditation simply by being alive and paying attention? After all, that must be how the great saints and sages of the past arrived at enlightenment without access to meditation practice.
It is common for people with an observational nature, with high levels of concentration and a passion for understanding life, to take some steps on the path of insight. But I would say that for most of us the chances of getting enlightened without some kind of formalised practice are very small.
Other forms of “experience practice” exist in other traditions; anything that helps us watch the movement of our own minds is going to lend itself to insight. I’m convinced that there is plenty of overlap with other practices (and have experience with eight-limb or Tantric yoga and t’ai chi). But not being a practitioner of many others I cannot speak to their efficacy or their efficiency (which are not the same thing).
I take a pragmatic approach here: if your goal is enlightenment then no, meditation is not essential; but it helps immensely.
The tradition states that Gautama didn’t create vipassana meditation, he only “rediscovered” it, after it was lost for thousands of years. An intriguing legend; if you have any information on this please leave a comment.↩
By “modestly accomplished” I mean twenty+ years of dedicated practise with plenty of long-term retreat experience.↩
Three months ago, I did a thirty day challenge of writing daily blog posts about my experience using neuroplastic techniques to come out of persistent pain. At the time I had no definable cause for the pain. In the subsequent two months I’ve had scans that confirm whiplash-associated arthritis where my head joins my spine.
Despite the lack of updates in that time, I have mostly kept up the pace with visualisation. My routine is a thirty minute sit (visualisation not meditation) before anything else each morning, another sit after breakfast and one more before bed. These are scaffolding. They keep the imagery fresh enough in my mind that I can recall it as needed while going about my daily tasks for the rest of the day.
Yes, the pain spikes still happen. I still have damage to my neck. I use a subjective scale of pain from one to ten, one being pain free and ten being dropped in boiling oil. And the pain spikes are still at the 6/10 that they were before starting the visualisation.
(Of course, comparing levels of pain is where a subjective scale becomes unreliable but it has to suffice, given that pain is a perception. There can be no objective measure of pain.)
That’s where the similarities end, however. In other ways, the most astounding changes have occurred:
I can get the pain to stop. If I’m diligent and prepared to prioritise visualisation whenever a pain spike hits (any time of day or night, even if this means sacrificing the task or timeline I’m running with) then I can get rid of it. There are exceptions, but generally the pain recedes. After a ten minute break, I can carry on with my day. (Major flare ups are a whole ‘nother ball game that still require me to drop everything for a day or two. I have other tactics in place to avoid them, see below).
Two-hours pain free is now a daily occurrence. I can now be pretty much guaranteed of a period in the afternoon where I can work, move around, talk etc without needing to stop and visualise or take breaks. It’s like I’m back to my old self for those couple of hours.
Note that both these effects are occurring while completely free of painkillers 🙂 No paracetamol (aka acetaminophen for my US readers). No ibuprofen. No codeine and definitely no tramadol.
To me, this is worth any amount of slow-down, drop-everything-and-visualise type behaviour that I need to undertake for the rest of the day in order to attain the pain free states.
That’s the good news.
Major Pain Triggers
Six months ago I had to limit my activities to avoid what I’m calling “major flare ups”. Usually lasting two days, but sometimes up to four, even visualisation brings no relief during these periods. Restorative yoga and sleep is about the only thing for me.
Those limitations persist — that’s the bad news. Unfortunately for me (and my erstwhile yoga students) they include actions that are commonplace in many asana. Downward dog or plank pose shoot whole body pain and headache into my eyes, confusion, nausea, visual field like a broken mirror, tiredness. Shortness of breath. Ringing in my ears. So I’m still not back on the regular teaching circuit. I don’t know if I ever will be, now that we’ve discovered the arthritis.
My physio gave me an ingenious set of exercises. Attach a laser pointer to your glasses frame, and use it to draw around door frames etc from a distance of three metres. This is to retrain the tiny muscles at the base of your skull. If you have a laser pointer, try it! But they’re no good for me. It’s great training for those muscles, but the actions flare up the actual joint itself so I’m in bed the next day. For a couple days.
I’ve also had to limit or eliminate heavy lifting and hammering (so no DIY for me), computer use for more than half an hour without a break to move around, driving for long periods. Even just being in a hurry can start me on a spiral that can lead a strong burst of long-lived pain. So I’ve had to slow down my life a lot just in general.
Speaking loosely, I wouldn’t call it “normal life” yet, but it’s heading that way. I can approach each day with more optimism, just knowing that each afternoon I will get a period of relief. And knowing that, if I am sensible and realistic about my activities through the day, then I’ll be able to head off pain spikes as they occur. It feels manageable.
It’s tricky to remain realistic with those activity goals after so long being on tenterhooks. Staying realistic without stifling the optimism — that’s the next phase of this recovery journey.
I’m fumbling my way a bit. In the past I relied on my gung-ho attitude to get me through just about any confusing situation (“fake it till you make it”). That won’t cut it here. I need to develop the patience, persistence and self-awareness to chip away at tasks without going into hyperfocus mode on them. An hour here, an hour there and plenty of walks and breaks in between.
If you have any tips to share with me about realistic recovery please share them in the comments. I’m particularly looking to learn more about my warning signs when I’ve overdone it, ways to structure a day so I can get the most out of them while remaining true to my capacity. Useful activity worksheets, for people in recovery. Forums or blogs to follow … I’ll collect any suggestions, plus what I learn from my own experience and research, and put them into a future post to follow soon.
Because the visualisation is now an integrated part of my day, I have less need of a ritual around composing a daily blog post on the subject. The main purpose of these posts (as I mentioned a while ago) was to serve as a social hack that helped me build a habit of visualising relentlessly. But I’m starting to feel established in the technique now. So, thirty days of blogging later, I feel like I’m coming to the end of these daily updates.
Not that the visualisations have run their full course. Far from it. Although I see promising signs every day now that the technique is starting to work (especially on Friday when I was completely pain-free for two hours), still the full benefits won’t be known for months yet, possibly even a year or two. I have a long way to go yet, and plenty of content in mind on this topic and others, so you’ll continue to hear from me fairly frequently I’d say.
I’ve had contact lately with a few people who are working with this technique. Some of our chats have made it into articles here on the site, in some form or other. I hope this diary can continue to serve as a resource for others who are putting neuroplastic visualisation into practice, or at least as a starting point for conversations.
In the meantime, why not get in touch at my Facebook page or on my blog (links below)? Let’s hack our brains together 🙂
When you’ve been in constant pain for a long time, it’s pretty weird when the pain suddenly disappears. It’s like when snow begins falling after promising all day to do so … there’s no fanfare, no flashing lights. Occupied with walking, soft whispers of cold touch your cheeks, your throat. Whirl into your eyelashes. You pause transfixed and watch the motes appear from grey-brown sky.
I who had forgotten wonder, only to have it fall in countless drifts, each tiny moment fresh and precious. Gone, but followed by a million, a trillion more, endless snow descending with silent life to Earth.
Great soul of the sky, lend me strength through thrill of your touch but lead me not to clutch your wonder too tight. Let me be afraid not of snow nor summer sun but free to spin instead with every gust of air that fills your gulf.
Section Two of Moskowitz’s book goes beyond visualisation to the sense of touch. This is particularly helpful when the pain is long-running. Sometimes, I’ll do visualisation and that pain is gone by the end of it. Was it the visualisation that caused the pain to diminish? Impossible to say really. But when the pain doesn’t decrease, I’m using some of the techniques in Section Two as a way of flooding the brain with other input.
Some of the suggestions are very simple. Rub your thumb-pad with your forefinger to stimulate touch sensations in the brain that are not painful. He also advocates brushing the skin over a painful area very lightly with a finger, or a cold glass, or even things like feathers and shaving brushes! All to stimulate nerves in the area other than pain receptors. Some of these suggestions are more in the realms of traditional advice you’d receive from your friend. You have a back ache or a “crick in your neck”? Take a warm bath.
Gently rubbing an area where there has been almost constant pain is not a small deal. In fact, when I take two fingers and just rest them lightly on the skin in my left-hand-side clavicular fossa, I feel a high-pitched throbbing down the underside of my left arm, through my elbow into my little finger, and a circle on the top of my head and the orbit of my left eye both set up sympathetic aches. In this case, Moskowitz recommends placing your fingers just to the side of the painful area, as near as possible without firing off the nerve that is hypersensitised.
We are not taking a warm bath or rubbing a painful area to achieve temporary relief but in order to reduce the dominance of pain processing in our brain. The idea again is to approach it with the MIRROR acronym in mind:
The key is to stay Motivated. Have the Intention of changing your brain. Be Relentless in opposing any and every pain intrusion into your consciousness. Rely upon your brain’s ability to adapt and make considerable initial efforts automatic and seamless. Approach each pain intrusion as an Opportunity to hone and master this proactice and make it automatic and effortless. Expect your brain to Restore itself and work on these approaches until it does so.
Michael Moskowitz MD 
So we don’t need to be discouraged when the pain doesn’t go away, or returns immediately. We weren’t expecting any relief in the first place, necessarily. Just as in the visualisation we used imagery to “access” the pain centres and direct them to process other input, so now with the sense of touch we are starting to use the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord (the peripheral nerves) to access the brain for the same purposes.
A further suggestion that Moskowitz makes is to receive regular gentle massage from a skilled therapist . As a trained massage therapist myself, you’d think this would have been obvious!
Visualisation now is more refined again; colours fade gradually through all the colours of the rainbow including indigo, violet to black. I’ve two versions. One of these versions — we’ll call it the “full-cream” version — I use just for the more focussed sessions (when I stop what I’m doing and close my eyes). It has a lot more detail, eight different regions of colour fading through all colours of the rainbow and each colour in between to black. Whereas when I’m more active and moving around, I go for a more “lite” version. I mentally zoom in on just one of these regions and fade it through as many colours as I can before distraction sets in. Often that’s just red through orange to yellow. Or sometimes I start with violet and just let it fade from there to nothing.
I’m writing absent-mindedly at present because I’m visualising at the same time.
Another setback today, which I’m using as an opportunity to practice my visualising “in anger” as they say — in the extremity of a strong flare up of pain, after an awful gapping sensation in C3-C4 region on the left-hand side of my neck.
Was all chill, sitting before the fire, warm as, reached up with right hand to adjust my hairtie and turned my head as I did so to provide more leverage. As you do. Weird graunchy clunk that my son heard from across the room and zing, pain in the origin of my left-hand anterior scalene over Rib 1 and 2 and sudden body bracing from top of torso to bottom. Last night and all today — drop everything and visualise, constantly. Takes an hour to wash a small load of dishes because I keep pausing to hallucinate haha.
I’m not sure if it’s recommended to visualise so intensely as I’m doing, it takes 2-3 minutes each time I do it if I go the full version. Perhaps it’s better to have a lean, quick little visualisation more often, than less frequent visualising for a longer duration? A bit of both perhaps — I guess that’s what I’m doing with my “lite” version and my “full-cream”.
But when I do the lite version, I don’t get the same level of pain relief — often, pain is still intruding on consciousness. So by Moskowitz’s “Relentlessness” rule, I should visualise again… That kind of repeated visualising eventually uses as much time as the “full-cream” practice. But the difference is, I can get things done at the same time, albeit slowly.
I stopped for a couple of minutes for every line of the last paragraph. Just did it again.
I’ve noticed lately that there’s a rhythm that the colours emerge to — sometimes the colours cycle rapidly, other times it’s slow. Until now I’ve always tried to slow that down so I can get more high-resolution in the fades, but just now I went with the natural pacing and it felt more calm, relaxing, helped with the pain and went more quickly too. So I’ll go with the rhythm it seems to want from now on.
I just did some trigger pointing of my upper trapezius – often the only thing that gives me relief during a flare up of this magnitude. Usually when I have acute LHS neck pain they’ll be eye-watering to the touch. Today, hardly noticeable when I pincer-grip them.
Trigger points work by being adjacent to pain signalling neurons within the “body maps” of our somatosensory cortex. And they’re often firing due to neuronal spillover from the “neuroplasticity gone wild” of chronic pain. I they’re not online today, especially given how much pain I’m feeling just in general, could that indicate I am slowly shrinking the spillover?