The Meditator’s Mission Statement

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. Perhaps, you could say, that I mean to awaken from the apparent paradox of being a tiny self in an infinitely large cosmos. To resolve the contradiction between self and other.

Consider the mystery that crops up when, in an unguarded moment, you make eye contact with yourself in the mirror. Or when you really appreciate the consciousness behind the eyes of another person. For me, there is a slightly dizzying sense, like stepping into a hall of mirrors. Why am I me, and not you? What does that question even mean? These are all aspects of the greatest mystery — what is existence? Why is there something rather than nothing?

Let’s say you get away from the city and all around you is evidence in the form of wildlife, of geography, of sunshine, starlight, and seasons — evidence of a process taking place, a process that is vaster than we normally appreciate, and yet for all that vastness, also fundamentally more intimate and immediate, urgent even, than the mental chatter and entertainments with which we usually occupy our time.

Intuitively we know that we are part of that great mysterious process. Yet we continue to return to a narrative that puts ourselves into a role of protagonist in a story that revolves around us. Despite the advances of science, our experience is still mostly informed by what we desire and what we wish to avoid. This narrative feels crucially important to us, yet a lifetime barely registers on a global scale, and our individual selfhood is vanishingly tiny on a cosmic one. It cannot be denied that every evening we are one day closer to death. Faced with that scale, how can we continue to pursue our own desires and aversions as though they are the most critical thing? How about the desires and aversions of others? Of those who have not yet been born?

Where do we position ourselves in all this cosmos, such that we are both sane about our perspective and yet retain our human essence, that feelingfulness towards our experience and the experience of others, so that life keeps its vibrancy and wonder? How do we appreciate vastness without becoming a cynic about the value of human experience? How do we recognise all existence as a process without becoming indifferent to its twists and turns?

This mystery stems from a kind of existential groundlessness. One might enjoy the prose of a mythology that explains creation of the world in human-centric terms — and yet, when looking into the eyes of another, if we are truly honest with ourselves there is an enforced agnosticism, in the true sense of that word as meaning to to Not Know what reality is. To Not Know what precisely we are experiencing. We are unable to hold and appreciate each moment without missing the next as it slips past.

It is this vertigo of Not Knowing that I believe we can awaken from, although I should probably say “awaken into”, since the real resolution seems to come when we stop resisting our fundamentally agnostic situation. Awakening is not about acquiring some kind of knowledge around facts.

One can be an atheist and still suffer the vertigo of this groundlessness.

Touché, NASA.

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 rather intense) way of phrasing things.

I posit that there is no answer to the question Camus poses for us. For suicide implies a narrative — a self, who chooses to either continue struggling with the confusion of existential groundlessness, or cease existing. I perceive that by dropping that very narrative of selfhood, there arises a third alternative. If that great epic drama, which we tell ourselves from sunrise to sunset, is seen as a simplification of reality[TED Talk, opens in new window], instead of a true representation, then selfhood becomes less and less central to the experience of life. Instead we progressively submerse our “self”, through practice in daily life and meditation, in the larger mystery that does us. It is the illusion of being a separate self that we can Awaken from.

However just thinking about experience as a process isn’t enough — amounting merely to dreaming about waking up. Or as Donald Hoffman says in the above video, “you’re still on the desktop”. We must experience the illusory nature of the self; viscerally; we must glimpse it in our desires, our aversions, our body, our emotions, our relationships; our triumphs and defeats … we must repeat this process, over and over, until it echoes through our experience with each upwelling moment of the constant change that is reality.

Then, that existential groundlessness can become, in the words of Pema Chödrön, positive groundlessness (not an affiliate link).

These are the teachings of the Buddha-Dharma, which I follow. I’m pretty sure that others had found ways to unravel the “self delusion” before the Buddha did so. And many others have done so since, both with and without access to his teachings. But the true brilliance of Siddhartha Gautama — the Buddha — was that he discovered a way to teach others to undertake this visceral, experiential training, such that they, too, could Awaken. 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 the process of waking up, just like (I believe) all else is that exists 🙂

This attitude informs my approach.

Posts about Secular vs. Religious Buddhism

Buddhism for Non-Believers - Flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.
Secular Enlightenment Part One: Tools of the Trail - Using intense and deliberate sustained attention to examine our minds debunks many illusions we previously suffered about the world in which we find ourselves.
Secular Enlightenment Part Two: Defining Characteristics - 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.

Secular Enlightenment Part Two: Defining Characteristics

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.

This is the third in a series of posts about secular vs. religious Buddhism. Here are the first two:

Secular Enlightenment Part One: Tools of the Trail - Using intense and deliberate sustained attention to examine our minds debunks many illusions we previously suffered about the world in which we find ourselves.
Buddhism for Non-Believers - Flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.

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.

In this image it is the lay person on the left who appears to be meditating, and not the monk on the right, who is reading.(Ghosh/Tapasphotography/flickr).
In this image it is the lay person on the left who appears to be meditating, and not the monk on the right, who is reading. (Ghosh/Tapasphotography/flickr).

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 Defined

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:

  1. Ignorance of how things are
  2. 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.

Rubbish piles up in refuse stations around the world. All of it was once considered useful or pleasing by its owners.
Rubbish piles up in refuse stations around the world. All of it was once considered useful or pleasing by its owners.

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.

Further Reading

Other than the links embedded in the article, check out the following resources.

  1. 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.

  2. In Gautama’s own words: the parable of the Simsapa Leaves.

  3. “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.

  4. Mostly to do with developing powers of concentration, relaxation and joy.

  5. Buddhists add “sense of thought” to the usual five senses. That itself is an insight from early-stage vipassana.

  6. “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth” — Alan Watts

  7. “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.

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. These are the “stages of Awakening”. South-East Asian Buddhism recognises four stages of Awakening, Tibetan Buddhism slightly more.

Secular Enlightenment Part One: Tools of the Trail

Using intense and deliberate sustained attention to examine our minds debunks many illusions we previously suffered about the world in which we find ourselves.

In a previous post, I showed how one can be Buddhist and non-religious at the same time. Now I will show how enlightenment (also called Awakening) can be a valid notion and even a feasible goal for the non-religious.

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?”.

Sustained Attention

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.

1) Flow-Induced

  1. “Woah dude I totally got in the zone all the way down the mountain.”
  2. “I was awake all night coding and fixed everything.”
  3. “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.

"Know thyself" is a saying that dates back to the ancient Egyptians (the temple of Luxor in Egypt contains the engraving "the body is the house of the Gods; therefore Man, know thyself"). Plato also gives much attention to the proverb in various works. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain.
“Know thyself” is a saying that dates back to the ancient Egyptians (the temple of Luxor in Egypt contains the engraving “the body is the house of the Gods; therefore Man, know thyself”). Plato also gives much attention to the proverb in various works. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain.

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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 samadhi 7. 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 🙂

UPDATE: Secular Enlightenment Part Two is now available. Enjoy!

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Components of Flow States. Wikipedia.

  4. 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.

  5. e.g. Samurai, Crusader knights, and Shaolin monks to name just a few.

  6. I mean literally suffered. This is the further subject of next week’s article.

  7. 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.

Buddhism for Non-Believers

Flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.

silhouette_of_buddha_sitting_clip_art_19688 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.

If you've been to South East Asia and seen temple-goers worshipping then you will know what I mean by religious Buddhism.
If you’ve been to South East Asia and seen temple-goers worshipping then you will know what I mean by religious Buddhism.

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

But he was born a human and eighty good years later, he died. Instead of claiming to be any kind of saviour, he teaches that enlightenment is for everyone. He encourages us to work on our own insight and attain the same freedom he did, the exact same way.

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

Lay-people visiting a temple in Thailand on Buddha Day make offerings. Technically, they are "making merit" -- performing meritorious acts in the hopes of improving their lives through "karma", the law of cause and effect.
Lay-people visiting a temple in Thailand on Buddha Day make offerings. Technically, they are “making merit” — performing meritorious acts in the hopes of improving their lives through “karma”, the law of cause and effect.

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.

There is a wonderful Zen story about the Soto Buddhist monk Tanzan that illustrates this beautifully.

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.

  1. Retreat Code of Discipline

  2. 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.

  3. By “modestly accomplished” I mean twenty+ years of dedicated practise with plenty of long-term retreat experience.

  4. *Our Faith in Science*. New York Times 2005.

Psychological Responses to Neuroplastic Visualisations for Chronic Pain: Day 11

Intensity of pain relates directly (and negatively) to level of concentration. When the pain is just moderate (5/10, most days for me), the visualisation itself is easier to focus on and I’m less likely to get pulled into distraction. The imagery is more vivid and less broken up. I’m working on a theory that this equates to the early stages of vipassana insight.

But when the pain is more severe — 7 or 8/10, like the day before yesterday — then I’ve noticed that the visualisation suffers. Despite repeatedly trying, the visualisation regions just won’t engage for any length of time. My stream of consciousness goes something like: images of red blobs … pain … distraction into some other conundrum. Wait while spinning in distraction for a few breaths, then repeat. Additionally there is a sense of desperation that goes along with that — as though the visualisation will spare me pain if only I can get it “perfect”. This feeling doesn’t occur on days when the pain is only 4-5/10. On those days, I’m far more laissez-faire about how the visualisation unfolds — almost preferring it to be asymmetrical, random. Messy, chaotic, wild and arty. Intuitive, like life. The desperation, perfectionism, rigidity around the visualisation being “good enough” the intensity to “get it right” are strictly phenomena from the realms of 7/10 and above.

Those thoughts do crop up even on days of moderate pain, but they’re easily laughed off, soothed with feelings of balance, and intuition that (in the words of the Desiderata) “no doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should”. Executive function and intuition, from the prefrontal area, the final brain region to mature in our early twenties. The adult shrug at misfortune that is frequently the only thing we have left to teach our teenage offspring.

Being swamped by that striving for perfection, that rigid feeling of the visualisation not being good enough, seems distinctly an artifact of strong pain.

“Damn it, I wasn’t seeing a whole half of that pain map, I forgot to transition through blue and violet, FML!” That kind of desperation arises because of seeking relief from the pain. This is ironic because, as Moskowitz writes “If focus is merely on immediate pain control, positive results will be fleeting and frustrating. Immediate pain control is definitely part of the program, but the real reward is to disconnect excessively wired pain networks and restore more balanced brain function in these pain processing regions of the brain.” [1]

Desperation to perfect the visualisation, out of fear of pain continuing, then turns that very fear into reality, creating what’s often termed a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. The act of predicting a result creates the result. I wonder how many irrational thought patterns, these kind of self-fulfilling prophecies, are frequently side effects of chronic pain flare ups in many people, both diagnosed and otherwise?

How does neural sensitivity (in physically compressed brain stem, hypersensitised pain circuits) relate to mental health and anxiety? And what other brain regions aside from pain processing may be involved in similar fashion with the manifestation of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, learning disabilities… ?

Further research required on my part, as I’m sure there are much more learned minds than my own who have thought of this already and pursued it beyond a mere thought experiment.

[1] Michael Moskowitz, Neuroplastic Transformation Workbook,

Vipassana Retreat #1: A Contraband Diary

Yep, I went on a 10-day retreat and ruined it for myself by writing a diary the whole time. Goenka-style vipassana retreats have clear rules about the use of a diary (don’t), reading (don’t) and doing yoga (well, you get the picture!) and I broke them all.

A dubious honour perhaps! But here’s the thing: there are few things that I’ll never give up, but that small list happens to include journal writing, reading and yoga. All three are against the retreat Code of Discipline, which (me being me) I saw as a set of rules to be broken. Despite this, I loved the retreat and look forward to doing another one. But there remain some aspects of Goenka’s vipassana teachings that I don’t agree are necessary. The rule against journaling is one of them.

As you’ll see, I was not in fact a model student. For this first retreat, I was approaching it more as a “dip your feet in the water” type fact-finding exercise to learn what the hell this whole retreat notion was all about. I didn’t really take it too seriously (maybe that’s not such a bad thing with a new experience). I also have to admit to being a smart arse, and second-guessing pretty much everything that someone tells me. Especially if it’s expressed in terms of Rules. So much so, that when we received instruction from Goenka where he says “start with a calm mind. Balanced and equanimous mind…” it made me quite mutinous. At first I thought he was joking! But I’m getting ahead of myself now 🙂

Retreat begins with Day Zero, the arrival:

Day Zero :: Arrival :: 27 Dec 2008

Have arrived at Vipassana course. No room of my own: I am in a barn with 12 other men! Very dormitory-styles, although there are sheets strung between each bed and in front, to make curtained cubicles and give a little privacy.

The Men’s Manager reckons the barn is quite an experience and though I asked about rooms he sounded doubtful. I guess this course is especially busy being holiday-time for everyone.

I will not let it stop me from remaining open to whatever comes along. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to practice & has already yielded a lot of feelings that I can watch.

At least there’s a flush toilet 🙂

Day 1 :: 28 Dec 2008 :: 7:30am

OMG. I can completely understand how Dave (note: not actually Dave) went manic in this place. I want to break every single rule and precept purely because everyone is acting so bloody devout! It’s like: give me a friggin’ break! You guys are just ordinary like me! Get over it!

All walking around as though already in pain, slumping in the shoulders and trudging. Trudging!

It’s a freaking miracle that we are here, alive, able to learn … and people take it like martyrs. Maybe I’m not getting something, but it’s driving me nuts.

This place is beautiful. Why so miserable?

Day 2 :: 29 Dec 2008

Things I like about this retreat:

  • Technique of teaching Anapana works for me — extended sitting is great for discipline and I already feel much closer to my practice.
  • Being only supported through dana removes all questions of “is it a cult”, “is it a bird”, “is it a plane”.
  • The food is delicious!
  • Plenty of insightful dharma instruction around impermanence

[Edit: there are plenty of other things to like about these retreats, but I didn’t list them in this journal entry. They are embedded in the later entries.]

Things I don’t like about this retreat:

  • Very little content / dharma discussion around around no-self/True Self.
  • Some of Goenka’s statements are confusing/distracting. E.g. “You are bound to be successful, bound to be successful”. I found this statement quite misleading. Define “success”.

Day 3, Day 4 :: 30 Dec 2008 — Nothing to report

Day 4 :: 31 Dec 2008

Further things I don’t like about this retreat:

  • Rules against reading and writing without justifying it. This gives a bootcamp feel. Reading and writing are important to my sanity. I’d like a bit more explanation around why the rule is in place before I’m prepared to honour it.
  • The retreat leader (aka the “Assistant Teacher”) doesn’t seem to add much value. All the instructions and dharma discourses are recorded video and audio from Goenka himself. Although Goenka has a good presence, I think more active teaching from the retreat leader (e.g. pause the tape, give a few tips and some interpretation of the more confusing instructions, restart the tape) would create a more “well held” atmosphere.
  • No walking meditation.

The Day 3 discourse is brilliant! Inspiring stuff about Gautama’s life. Loved the deconstruction of reality down to wavelengths, wavelengths, wavelengths. I don’t buy all the pseudo-scientific clap-trap about kalapas tho 😉

“Today you are angry because your wife dropped hair in your soup, but last night you were saying ‘Oh, such beautful hair. So wonderful.’

“Where is beautiful?”

Goenka makes it plain that we must experience directly the Three Characteristics to attain “right understanding” of insight. This is in line with other Buddhist teachings as far as I can tell.

What’s my middle way?

Me: v conceptual, intellectual, escapist. Lack emotional integration.

  • Strict discipline is good, because I’ll do it in an escapist manner and not get carried away thinking enlightenment means “to follow the rules”.

Dave has good ability to integrate emotional swings already, developed through his habit of pushing to the limit and beyond to see what will happen. A bit short on the conceptual stuff perhaps.

  • Studying of scriptures good because he’ll duck back into the realm of direct experience (vipassana/zazen/asana/daily life) when necessary. Won’t try to think himself to enlightenment.

Unresolved questions:

  • Does Yoga have the same result as Buddhist meditation?
    • What about pranayama?
  • Zen emphasises posture more than Theravada — is the Zen emphasis similar to Yoga full-body awareness?
  • Is posture the Yogic object of meditation? Or the breath? Or both?
  • Does mindful awareness of controlled breath (ujayyi/pranayama) and posture give the same results as mindful awareness of natural breath and bodily sensations?

Day 5 :: 1 Jan 2009

I’m so tired! Struggling with the vipassana technique. Strong feelings of being not good enough 🙁 I don’t know if it’s ADHD or not, but I can’t keep track of where I’m up to on the body scanning, and can’t even feel anything in most areas. It takes me ages, like half an hour, to scan through my body just once.

During self-directed meditation periods I will use a clock, so that I stop at an unpredictable place on the body: good for developing equanimity. Otherwise it becomes a race to reach said part so I can rest my mind.

More positive reinforcement from teacher or Goenka would be helpful here. I wonder how many other people have these problems as beginners.

Obviously Goenka has a great depth of experience in these matters. But I find that his teaching methods for vipassana are not entirely suitable for me, struggling with a lifetime of Western-style thinking. Instructions such as “have a balanced mind”, “remain perfectly equanimous” are too much a temptation for the perfectionism that lurks within me. Within most of us modern souls, let’s be honest. From what I’ve read, this is a peculiarity of our culture. So our meditation practices could perhaps benefit from an approach that takes it into account.

Especially in an atmosphere like this retreat, which is so goal-oriented already. He should explain:

  1. How realistic it is for a beginner to have “perfect equanimity” (not very)
  2. How suppression can easily be mistaken for equanimity
  3. Some tricks to help people approach equanimity instead of just being told “remain equanimous”. It’s like: ok, but HOW?

E.g, for me the following help:

  • Use a clock so that I am not rushing to reach a certain number of scans through my body, but instead “I will sit until 11am and during that time I will scan”
  • If at a blank spot, don’t strain further. Don’t try to study harder. Don’t call it a blind spot! (“Blind spot” is Goenka’s term for areas that have no apparent sensation). Don’t try to attain freaking “perfect equanimity” at the same time!
  • I’d love to have a few more for this list… *significant look at Goenka*

On the topic of blind areas, his instruction is to wait one minute on that blind area then move further. This is the reason why it takes me about half an hour to make a body scan (so many blind areas). It also leads me to a kind of droopy-eyed boredom and then I forget where I was up to and must start all over. Nevertheless, I do find that the one minute idea is helpful, because some blind areas are starting to “come online” and I can feel sensation where previously there was none. But I’ve had to ignore the way he words it. He says “if no sensations after one minute, maybe next round. You will soon reach the stage where you can feel sensations over the entire body”. OMG!

My mind interprets this as “I must reach the stage of feeling sensations over my entire body”, completely contradicting what he said earlier about remaining equanimous. I’m sure that’s not how he intends it to be taken, but I’m finding the technique so hard! And statements like that just feed right into my feelings of inadequacy and self-criticism.

Instead I deal with blind areas by having a very matter-of-fact, on-the-job conversation with myself. “Got anything at your left temple? No? Ok. How about now? No? Ok. How about now? No? Ok. How about now? No? Ok, fine. Time’s up. Next… ”

Like a supervisor of longshoremen, going through a manifest. Tick tick tick cross (wait a while, cross, cross, cross). Cross. Tick tick tick tick. Neither the longshoremen nor their supervisor particularly care about the crosses or the ticks … they care about an accurate inventory. Missing cargo is the responsibility of the Customs officials! Same as missing sensations — leave it to dharma (the law of nature) as Goenka would say.

Some further gripes (Jeez I’m such a moaner!)

  • Schedule is gruelling (bootcamp feel again) and from what I’ve read quite extreme compared with most Zen or Tibetan retreats, which break the sitting every now and then for a bit of walking meditation
  • One-size-fits-all: how would a low-IQ person fare? Someone in a wheelchair? This may be a problem with Theravada or Buddhism in general…
  • Rules against Yoga… I mean come on! WTF? Why not incorporate some gentle yoga practice? Some of the people here need to relax & strengthen their back muscles. Myself included lol.
  • Reading and writing not incorporated because it would mess with the (IMO far too gruelling) schedule and “impair progress”. OK, I get that writing can be a distraction (here’s looking at me, not exactly meditating right now) but surely sometimes it can help to avoid getting caught in emotional loops and circling needlessly for a couple days. Maybe some structured writing or worksheets would be a good idea. So we can get it out of our heads and move on. I dunno. Automatic writing could be great way to unclog after a long tiring sit.

Day 6 :: 2 Jan 2009

Aversion from aversion.

Problematic. How to prevent aversions without averting from them?

So I have finished my meditation due to aversion from pain. Not because the timer rang, or because of any other reason than because I hurt. The awareness of having done that, in turn has sent me down a rabbit-hole of self-doubt and regret — “oh, I’m so useless at this stuff, why did I let myself stop just because my body was sore…” This is literally how my thoughts roll. They are averting from the fact of my aversion.

The important thing is … not to try and “prevent” anything. I have awareness of that happening. I observe the thoughts. I do not in turn react to that aversion from aversion by deepening my fear of aversion to aversion from aversion … this is classic anxiety. Fear of fear. If I had ended my session due to time and not pain, with equanimity, then that would have been one thing. But since I did not, that was another. No problem. No need to fix. Reality is. Awareness and how one reacts (or not-reacts) to the unceasing occurrence of Buddha nature … that is all.

When one seeks freedom from all sankaras, it means your mind will get stuck in a fixed pattern of “I should not react”. When the mind does react because we have not yet attained to enlightenment, what should we do? We see misery — we need not react to our reaction. But if we do? Then, maybe we need not react to our reaction to our initial reaction. At some point it becomes possible to just rise above it and say “all of that stuff? I allow it. I’m just going to accept it, and watch it change.”

Respect oneself and ones effort… do not kick at yourself for strengthening sankaras from time to time. It is natural. Just be aware. Just observe. And if you forget this instruction and you kick yourself anyway, if you become aware of it, just observe. Just be aware.

In fact, to think “I should not react” is the wrong understanding. There is always a reaction — one should just do the non-action of not-to-react!

To think “I should not react” or “I should not have sankara” is the same as saying “I wish I had no sankara”. None of this is living in the moment. It is not-nowness, which is itself a sankara.

Even if you got rid of all other sankaras by doing this, you would still have this fundamental sankara towards sankara itself. And because that aversion to sankara is the tool you have used to apparently rid yourself of all other sankaras, then that final, fundamental aversion to aversions and cravings carries with it all the weight and investment of all previous cravings and aversion with it. Like a giant tree whose roots are all tangled up in the huge forest that surrounds it.

To exterpate the root of the final, deep deep sankara, you would have to learn to react again. Learn to be one with the chaos and randomness out there, one with your own cravings and aversions and the feelings of atta (self) that go along with them. Without averting your gaze and without recreating all those sankaras that you thought you’d escaped from.

Escape. That’s what we all want and can never have. The good news is that you yourself are already full of freedom, you just have to accept it. Which is the final freedom.

To unravel the sankara of sankara you may have to undo all the work you have done. And you may become a tyrant to your own mind and others long before then. Better not to be so bothered by things… follow the path of spontaneity and allow your reactions to happen naturally without either amplification by sankara or suppression by sankara to occur. Live in the pure moment. There is no “I wish that…”

All things in moderation, including moderation.

Your Free Choice is the expression of Buddha nature that is fore-ordained.

Day 7 :: 3 Jan 2009

I really should stop writing in this diary so much 🙂

(I should not-write while here).

Craving abstract success (or aversion to abstract failure) aka perfectionism is a bane of the mind. It amplifies all the other attachments by adding a secondary chenpa.


  1. “Never generate new sankaras”
  2. “Come out of misery”
  3. “Do not crave a particular sensation or you will create deep deep sankara, that means deep deep misery”

Good discussion of the alternative viewpoint in Zen Mind, Beginnner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzukiroshi (Chapter “Repetition” esp. pp. 53, 54).

Chapter “Excitement” is also of a different flavour to Goenka. Practice zazen once a week!? At first I thought Suzuki was joking, but he means the rest of the time just practice what you are doing, your everyday routine. I will continue with daily meditation practice, but I can appreciate the attitude Suzuki is illustrating: you already have a life. Don’t live for your practice.

Chapter “Right Effort” speaks of putting in too much effort, and getting prideful in our practice, which he calls being “Dharma-ridden” or “practice ridden”.

Being Dharma-ridden could also mean taking Suzuki’s dharma too seriously and being prideful of having no pride 😉 Spontaneous practice could be the goer… set aside time daily or weekly and do or not-do on the spur of the moment, without gaining ideas or attempts to achieve things … mostly 🙂

Non-achievement is dharma and as such it refers to itself and is paradoxical. Non-achievement should be understood to contain “Achievement” within it as a spontaneous side-effect.


I am now officially over it. “Do this, do that, perfectly calm mind blah blah blah…”

I would like to see some of Goenka’s reference texts and whether he uses appropriate English translations of Pali.

But mostly I’m just over this retreat’s style of learning. Not afraid of hard work, but I would benefit from a less hurried training. It feels a bit like a production line. Why not learn anapana only on the first retreat? Take home, practice for a year or two, then come back and learn vipassana afterwards? Take that home, practice regularly and return for guidance.

Instead of this you-must-practice-for-12-hours-a-day-or-you’ve-failed rubbish. I quote: “continuity of practice is the key to success.” Define success for me.

That’s posted on the dining hall noticeboard every day, in the most prominent position. And the endless rules…


A handy tip: if you are sneaking fruit back to your room in contravention of the Rules, don’t do it via the meditation hall for evening discourse unless you have a handy sweater to wrap it in. Hiding oranges up your trouser leg becomes quite distracting after a while.


I don’t dislike vipassana — I’ll practice it for a year or two, just because I can practically feel myself growing new brain cells and taking medicine is wise. but I’ll do it in a way that I can practice sincerely — once a day, say, 30mins. Instead of this sankaras-up-the-arse style of practice.

Like Dave said also (except that’s not his actual name. I don’t know a Dave): I’m glad to be doing this and I’ll see out the camp to save money changing airfares if for no other reason 🙂 Nah, I will also make an effort (a sincere effort, not an OTT effort) to enjoy the remaining time here. I’ll do the 3 additthana each day (what Dave jokingly called the “Hour of Power”). I’ll go to the hall this afternoon for teacher (sorry Assistant teacher) guidance, but other than that, maybe the 4:30am practice because it’s so quiet and nice… could do 4:30 — 5:30 then watch sunrise!

9-11am is now optional.

Take a nap from 12-2:30 if I feel like it (wake briefly at 1:30 to take final medication).

3:30-5pm is now optional.

Can’t get out of 6-7pm additthana or the discourse, but they’re quite fun anyway.

This means I will make good effort at the times I choose to meditate, instead of driving my brain into rebellious states out of mental exhaustion and failing to be sincere about the practice.

I’ll still donate. I think that Goenka is a good man and his retreat centres are a force for positive change, that will benefit a lot of people. Have benefitted me too in a fairly brute force way, so I am grateful. And I’ll pay for the next person’s place. But I think that this is not going to benefit me as much as I might have wished. That’s not arrogance or humility speaking, I just have to trust my own instinct about it.

It’s not like I’m coming into this blind. I’ve experienced huge chunks of suffering and impermanence and felt insignificant in the face of the Big All. I’ve battled addictions to many things, and phobias.

I became aware of these experientially, by just being alive and paying attention (as Daniel Ingram would say) and OK I still have plenty of work to do — all good. The blooming Universe is one big lumbering snotty turtle anyway.

I’ll for sure continue to practice vipassana and anapanasati, but on my own terms. I can definitely see that having an understanding and familiarty of the touch door can help unshroud the mysterious spontaneous push that so fleetingly arises and passes… but even if not, if I remain caught up in all the aversions and cravings I currently carry, even adding more as I go… that is ok too. It all adds up to an enlightened universe.


The Sakyamuni Buddha (as in, Gautama, “The Buddha”) chose to never be reincarnated … Where did he go? Was his misery so great that he chose annihilation to escape it? That is what Goenka tells us. Isn’t that an ultimate suicide?

I do not think I would do such a thing. Perhaps I have been too sheltered, or have not grokked the weight of misery around me, but what price existence? Is that grasping of me, to crave existence? I suppose it could be … but is it aversion to existence that led him to not reincarnate?

But I’m not sure I believe in reincarnation anyway, so to me it’s just a philosophical question, not a real gut-wrenching truth. Perhaps that’s why I don’t understand. One thing’s for sure: existence exists. If anything matters, we do; existence does. If nothing matters, then why am I still writing this?

You pop into my head though I
Stop my ears and
Block my mouth and
Squeeze tight my eyes to
Keep from screaming
I cannot stop that
Caustic soda pops
Into my head

Day 8

Recurring Dream: Surf Beaches and Whitewater Rapids

  • Rhythmic feeling of water rising and falling
  • Swimming in this current, it catches me, flows around, over, through me
  • I feel out of control but completely fearless
  • Water rising higher and higher,
  • Dream ends with a seemingly limitless surge of power, the water bursts its banks or overflows the dunes
  • I am washed into a Strange New Land, garden-like and mysterious
  • First occurred at age 13, repeated monthly for six months or so, then tapered off. Nowadays I have them about once per year

Potential A&P Events?

Fever Dreams: Fast-Slow events, Big-Small objects, Unglowing Lights

Blasting Ecstasy:

  • Complex intuitive grokking about universe during the rush phase
  • Masses of bodily sensations
  • Collapsed on bed in a postmeditation-like state
  • Arose declaring I knew the meaning of life: to live a long life, and to help our “host universe” live a long life

Acid Trips:

  • Liquid sky, black snow falling, experiences of fear un-nameable: perhaps heralding entry into Dark Night. It would fit with subsequent life events (separation from long-term girlfriend, descent into paranoic feelings and loss of sense of self)

Datura: definitely was not an A&P Event. I am still sorting out the meaning of that one.

At about age 14 I fell into periods of dissolution, fear, misery, disgust, desire for the end. This would have been just after the first occurrence of the Surf Beach dream. I’ve been cycling ever since, with disastrous results in my personal life, and it shows no sign of letting up, except perhaps recently with my intensified focus on yoga and recently-started practice of Buddhist meditation. Ask any of the people I’ve hurt in this time about how quickly and witheringly I can: point out their futility or my own, their hatred or my own, play to their worst fears, reverse course or apparently become a different person from one moment to the next. I now recognise the pain I’ve caused to others during this time, and I also have some compassion for myself. It’s been no fucking cakewalk.

Of course it’s always possible that I’m just a psychological basket case 🙂

Regarding the beach dreams, it feels almost as if the ocean has a consciousness that is not entirely benign. Not malign either, but simply rigorous and uncaring (for me personally) yet very much consistent and caring about some larger scheme of which I am unaware and unprepared. A feeling that here is something larger than I am, and I may participate in that, in fact I should participate in it. But I am not in charge.

Getting a lot from pp 61-63 of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

You are living in this world as one individual, but before you take the form of a human being, you are already there, always there. We are always here. Do you understand? You think before you were born you were not here. But how is it possible for you to appear in this world, when there is no you? Because you are already there, you can appear in the world. Also, it is not possible for something to vanish which does not exist. Because something is there, something can vanish. You may think that when you die, you disappear, you no longer exist. But even though you vanish, something which is existent cannot be non-existent. That is the magic. We ourselves cannot put any magic spells on the world. The world is its own magic. If we are looking at something, it can vanish from our sight, but if we do not try to see it, that something cannot vanish. Because you are watching it, it can disappear, but if no one is watching, how is it possible for anything to disappear? If someone is watching you, you can escape from him, but if no one is watching, you cannot escape from yourself.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind pp 61-63. Shunryu Suzuki.

Looking forward to return home and get something of a normal routine happening. 30mins meditation before (after?) pranayama. Work, errands, simple walks. Gardening. Maybe get to the beach now and then. Spend holidays together.

I think my path involves at some point the equanimous generation of new sankaras and equanimous reinforcement of old sankaras. But I’ll settle for the non-equanimous generation and reinforcement if it is the only alternative to ultimate suicide. No amount of suffering seems worth annihilation of the spirit. And I’m equanimous with that right now at least 🙂


If sneaking food back into your room or contravening the Rules in any other way, and it makes you feel:

  1. Unfazed: great! Long may it last.
  2. Guilty, sad, scared, disappointed … lonely … etc: go easy on yourself. Welcome to Equanimity 101.
  3. Defiant, angry, powerful, excited: wait a few days, then goto 2.


Just now I walked past a server who was packing up to leave early (servers can leave early if they wish). I felt a sudden urge to leave as well. When I spoke to him, he got twitchy, started looking over his shoulder and sent me to see Ben (male manager) who was very nice and got me an interview with the assistant teacher, also very nice.

Walking to the teacher’s private meditation room, I suddenly realised I have been intimidated by the teachings all this time. My retreat into the safe territory of my journal, and the defensive entries herein… like a mediocre way of consoling myself for the future failure I considered a certainty, without even knowing it. Before I even reached the room, I had tears in my eyes. Didn’t want to leave. Felt unworthy to stay 🙁

As if it’s possible to fail something like this.

During my interview with the teacher, he said I was welcome to leave if that’s what I truly want, but also pointed out there are not many days left, and I’ll have a better feeling afterwards if I see it through. Also made me realise I was being perfectionist. That self-doubt was one of the enemies of practice (Goenka talked about this just last night).

In the words of my wise and foresighted yoga instructor: “feelings of inferiority and superiority come from the same place.”

The assistant teacher’s advice on dealing with the perfectionism was to just be aware of it, and have a “little chuckle” with myself. Also, advised that vipassana goes quite deep, and to wind down the vipassana to anapana for the rest of the retreat.

Going to follow his advice. Makes sense.

After the interview, it was time for another aditthana, so I went to the hall and spent the whole hour silently leaking tears. No uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability when everyone around you is meditating 🙂

I’m scared of going home a changed person because of the unknown effects it might have on my life. But don’t want to go back with all the same weaknesses I brought with me.

Unfortunately both are inevitable!

[Edit: the diary ends here. I’ll leave it to stand on its own without any interminable discussion. It’s been good to type this out and go over it with fresh eyes. There are some good insights in here, buried amidst the bad-arse self-defensive fear-of-failure stuff 😉 it seems that’s pretty much how it goes for most people.]