Notes on a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity, Toronto, February 5, 2012
Meditation practice: how to work with thinking? When doing sitting meditation it’s important to choose an object of meditation. This object is something you can come back to over and over again when you wander away in thoughts. Here at Gravity we’re using two primary objects: breath and sound. When the mind drifts into storyland, you can come back to the steady reliability of the inhale and exhale.
If you’re meditating, and all that’s happening is that one thought is arising after another, try to make a commitment to follow the inhale and the exhale and don’t let go. Follow the entire thread of the breath, from the top of the inhale, to the space, the small space, that is the breathless bottom of the exhale. Keep the body perfectly still and at lease.
What happens over time, even if your technique isn’t five star perfect, if you keep coming back to the breath, patterns of thinking start to settle. Once you notice this settling, this foundation can give rise to a second practice called labeling. When a thought arises you can leave the breath for a moment and label the thought: thinking, and then come back to the breath. Or when the thought arises you can label it: past or future. As soon as you see the thought arising you can say: past. If there’s a thought that’s hanging around you might say: Past. Past. Past. The thought might get shy, even embarrassed, and retreat back to wherever it came from. In order to do labeling or noting practice, some stability is necessary.
When a thought arises and you label it, try and stay with the thought a bit longer, and observe how it changes. The thought can move from occupying your full attention to diminishing in size and compulsive intensity, and slowly fade, moving down the peak, until another thought arises. Can you watch the passing away of thought? The goal is not to identify with thoughts. We often think we are our thoughts, but we’re trying to loosen that relationship, to breath some space into it.
The calm state, the valley between the peaks of thought intensities, and this quiet runs through the entire practice. This space is the small ‘g’ gone. But when you watch a thought break apart, and completely dissolve, you watch past this space into the Heart Sutra sense of gone. This might be named the capital ‘g’ Gone. Out of this Gone energy a new thought can arise. Imagine you had a microscope you could look inside the space of gone. This energy grabs language and creates new thoughts. The big Gone doesn’t happen in usual time/space. It’s possible to look at a thought dissolve and ask: what is it made out of? Perhaps it’s only air, and space, and a sense of humour. The energy that is in Gone is what would have been a self if it had kept going up the hill. The little energies create a sense of self. In labelling practice – when you’re calm and can feel thoughts disperse – can you feel in your body where thoughts begin?
Be a good host to your thoughts. Let them all come in and let them all go out. Keep looking at thoughts to see them disintegrate. Not just the inhale which compels our attention, but also the exhale. The exhale of the thought. Is the end point a clear and perfectly open mind? No. The end point is compassion. The sad truth is that going into the space of Gone (concentration practice) doesn’t bring us any closer to insight or compassion. Instead it’s a space of radical inquiry where we can ask (and know the answers for ourselves, out of the truth of our own lived and embodied experiences) what are thoughts made of? Who is having this thought? We’re doing vipassana practice. Vi is an intensifier, it means to go in, to look more closely. We can use the calm space to look inside. Passa means an eye. We are looking more closely. But we can’t do vipassana unless we have shamata practice – stopping and calming. We use the breath to become calm and stable, and then we use that stability to look closely at something. We inquire.
Chapter Three: The Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life
In the first chapter we learned that the most treasured quality of a bodhisattva is the passion for awakening. This is called Bodhi citta. The second chapter states that if we want to find Bodhi citta, we have to stop and admit our mistakes, the harms we’ve caused, our human destructiveness. In the same way that our suffering is boundless, our love and our compassion are also boundless. We’ll never run out of love. We practice in order to feel our way into the trouble we cause ourselves and others, to see how our wounds open us to others in a deep way. This process of admitting negative karma is named: taking refuge.
The third chapter is called commitment. The Dalai Lama notes that this chapter is sometimes chanted. What is being committed to? There is a commitment to a path of compassionate action. We take a vow to be in relationship and to go all the way. There’s an old Zen question that asks: How do you go straight on a path with many curves? Each thing we encounter can be met with a mind that can connect and go forward.
My teacher Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara just married her partner Barbara. They’ve been together for 28 years and they decided to go to city hall to get married. In her vows she said, “My long relationship with Barbara has been a path with many curves, a path of awakening. I have tried to keep going and keep learning from every aspect of our relationship. I love the word attunement. She taught me that word. I understand that as being tuned in. Responding with my heart, my body and my mind to what’s unfolding. The quality of being attuned to myself, the other, and what’s going on around us. All the joys, irritations, struggles and delights of human life. To me the best practice of attunement is to work with the one who is nearest. What’s the work of relationship? To be willing to enter the dragon’s cave over and over again. Because the dragon is awakening. Why is awakening the dragon?” She ended her vows with a question, it’s as if she’s asking herself, and everyone assembled: why does awakening have to be a dragon?
She seems to be saying: do exactly what you love, and drop into what you love in a way that you can do it fully. What she’s describing is a full combustion practice. Meaning: you, the other, and your circumstances. You can’t just be with yourself, you have to tune into the other, and the other’s circumstances, otherwise you’re just tuned into your own theories and feelings which you might mistake for facts. How do we tune into our experience, or another’s experience and circumstances?
I rejoice in the awakening of the Buddhas
And also in the spiritual levels of their children.
And with gladness I rejoice
In the ocean of virtue, for developing an Awakening Mind
That wishes all beings to be happy,
A well as in the deeds that bring them benefit.
With folded hands, I rejoice
In the ocean of virtue, for developing an Awakening Mind
That wishes all beings to be happy
As well as in the deeds that bring them benefit.
With folded hands I beseech
The Conquerors who wish to pass away
To please remain for countless aeons
And not to leave the world in darkness
It’s saying to all Buddhas: don’t pass away, you need to be here to help others. The goal in early Theraveda Buddhism was to be enlightened, to get out of the cycle of birth and death. But this passage is saying: please be reborn so you can continue to help guide us.
May I be reborn as mac and cheese for someone who is hungry.
May I be reborn as a wool blanket for someone who is cold.
May I be reborn as a beer for someone who just needs to relax.
Perhaps we could contemplate death itself as a practice of generosity, as a place of service. As the last thing we have to chip into the pot. Instead of thinking of death as only loss, loss of this life, this body. The dying place can also be a giving place. Giving away your body. We’re all so attached to our bodies. We need to take care of our bodies, we need to practice yoga every day. But also you can’t get too attached. You need something else to take refuge in. In meditation there is an urge not to identify with the usual narratives, but to work with something deeper than the central form of your own body. Perhaps we could rewrite one of the bodhisattva vows this way: I can give away my body, but if I go too far and it causes harm (to my body, to others) then I’ve gone too far, then I’m not being compassionate anymore. Has anyone done this? Loved so much that it isn’t beneficial to your body?
Just like a blindman
Discovering a jewel in a heap of rubbish,
Likewise, by some coincidence,
An Awakening Mind has been born within me.
A Chinese sage said this about the mind:
Whatever confronts you, don’t believe it.
When something appears shine your light on it.
Have confidence in the light that is always working inside you
XXX goes to his teacher XXX and says that I’ve experienced awakening but I still have nasty habits. “Oh yeah,” his teacher says, “what are you doing about it?” “Not a thing! I’m not even practising the four noble truths.” “Are you happy?” “I’m like a blind man shoveling shit and discovering a jewel.”
There might be a lot of shit in your life, it’s important to remember that there is a jewel in there somewhere. And what is the jewel? Your life. Your ability to awaken and to help awaken others.
Ask yourself this question: what is your light, and how do you know it? (What should I do with my life? How do I feel (what some call) God in my heart?)
In that pile of shit that is your personality, there’s a jewel. What is it? And how have you experienced it lately?