Thursday, August 16, 2012


The image of waves is helpful in understanding the happenings we observe while we meditate.

Everything that comes to be passes away.  In terms of consciousness or the mind, this is easily observable.  Sensations, thoughts, images and emotions appear and disappear.  This ceaseless change is a fundamental truth in Buddhism.  Without training, we tend to see whatever happens as being more or less continuous.  We may realize that our sensations, thoughts, imagery and emotions come and go, but we think that they last for a noticeable period of time, perhaps a second, minute, hour, day or even several days.  I am angry, and I have been angry for days.  I am happy, and I think that my happiness has been with me for some time.  But in Buddhist psychological theory, all these things occur in moments of extremely brief duration, on the order of nanoseconds.  Furthermore, there can be only one happening in consciousness at any given time.  So if we think that any of these happenings occur over an extended period of time, we are mistaken.  A happening comes to be and quickly passes away to be replaced by another happening, which may be so similar to the previous happenings that we do not realize that it is a discrete happening.

The image of a wave is useful because it captures the rising and falling of these discrete happenings.  Waves have properties of amplitude (how big they are) and frequency (how fast they occur).  There are big slow waves, small slow waves, big fast waves, small fast waves and everything in between.

We can think of the discrete happenings that occur while we meditate in terms of these waves.  We have to be very alert to see the rising of the wave and to observe the passing away.  If we push away the happenings as they appear, we do not see them pass away on their own.  The time frame is crucial.    In the beginning of practice, a thought or emotion may seem to be present for several seconds or minutes.  Perhaps they linger.  We could push them away, but that would be a form of avoidance or suppression.  We should let them go as they fade away.  This makes letting go so much easier.

In terms of waves, these happenings are very small in amplitude and very fast in their frequency.  But the untrained mind tends to experience them as big and rather slow waves depending on how strongly experienced they are and how long they seem to hang around.  The trained mind with wisdom would experience them more as they are, as discrete and momentary (although it may be nearly impossible to experience them at the speed in which they actually occur).

As you meditate, see if this idea of waves is helpful.  You can practice with your breath or abdominal movement or with any of the happenings that arise and pass away.  You will find that noting is a way of catching the wave, and, as you note, you should see the wave fading away, in which case you can return to focusing on the breath or abdominal movement or you can catch the next happening wave.

Happy surfing!


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Curiosity versus detachment

What is the attitude to take towards what shows up while we meditate?

Several academics, following the tradition of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, have put forward a two-component operational definition of mindfulness (Bishop et al, 2004).  In this definition, the first component involves paying attention to immediate experience "in the present moment."  The second component involves adopting a particular orientation to our experiences, an orientation that is characterized by "curiosity, openness and acceptance."  The idea of curiosity being essential to mindfulness meditation is itself curious. 

Curiosity implies some kind of interest in the object before one.  I once had a client who showed a lot of curiosity.  I told her a story of how I had once been on retreat and had a remarkable experience of having a whole series of connected events from my life unfold before me as if on a video-tape.  She was a professional fiction writer and was clearly intrigued by this idea.  She reported to me in subsequent sessions viewing virtual video-tapes of her experiences as she meditated.  After several sessions in which she reported her experiences, I said to her that I thought she was a little too interested in these video-tapes and should let them go.

Nyanaponika Thera, in his classical work, The Power of Mindfulness, describes mindfulness as involving both activating and restraining forces. Mindfulness makes the mind active and alert, but it also restrains.  As he states, in its restraining aspect, mindfulness makes for "disentanglement and detachment."  He focuses the remaining discussion on this restraining aspect of mindfulness.
Curiosity, in contrast to detachment, appears to lack this restraining force.  It goes beyond the root function of mindfulness, which is to remember or recognize the object of meditation.  One can think of what shows up in meditation as having a wave-like character of coming to be and passing away.  We should be quick to see the rising of the wave and quick to let go as the wave subsides.  Curiosity is not a letting go or releasing, but an engagement with the phenomena that appear and, as such, would interfere with the process of letting go.

On the other hand, recommending curiosity about what appears while we meditate may have a useful pedagogical function in the initial stages of learning.  I use the "Mind Watch" exercise to introduce the concept of observing the mind.  Those who have never meditated may not have noticed or given much thought to how active their minds are, how there is a churning, buzzing, turmoil just below the surface.  When they turn inward to observe the mind and tune into it with curiosity, they are often amazed by what they discover.  This often motivates them to start a meditation practice in the interest of quieting the mind.  This attitude of curiosity continues for some time to have a function as a motivating factor in discovering the essential character of the mind.  However, over the long term, curiosity needs to be replaced with detachment.

Detachment has several bad connotations in English.  In some of its connotations it is associated with indifference or even callous disregard.  Clearly, mindfulness is neither.  This can be shown by an analysis of equanimity, which is one of the other wholesome mental factors that arises with mindfulness.

Equanimity has a number of different meanings in Buddhism.  The most relevant in this context is that of calmness in the face of whatever shows up, in other words, imperturbability or non-reactivity.  The constant change, the continually shifting of ups and downs, can be a source of suffering and reactivity.  However, with equanimity, you simply see things arise and pass away.  Bhante Khippapanno in Experiencing the Dhamma uses the example of pain:  "When painful sensation arises, you note “pain, pain.” You will see that the silent mind is neither saddened nor angry with that painful sensation. It just makes a note of that painful sensation and lets it go. If you keep practicing like that, gradually the silent mind will become more balanced, steady and stable. That is the mental state called Equanimity."  Bhante Khippapanno's remarks clearly illustrate that equanimity and the detachment of mindfulness are closely allied.

In a broader sense, equanimity is distinct from indifference in that, with equanimity, we understand that reacting with excitement or irritation is inappropriate, whereas with indifference we do not respond because we are unaware, don't care or can't be bothered.  Whereas equanimity comes from awareness, indifference comes from ignorance and selfishness.  

Sometimes the term non-attachment is preferred to detachment to describe the appropriate attitude in meditation.  It is thought that this avoids the unfortunate connotations of detachment.  However, the terms attachment and non-attachment carry with them all sorts of connotations both negative and positive.  In fact, sorting out what attachment means and why we should be non-attached is one of the more difficult tasks in explaining Buddhism.  For that reason alone, I am not sure the term non-attachment is an improvement on the term detachment .  I will leave the task of analyzing the nature of attachment to a future post.

Bottom line:  Let's be careful about curiosity as part of the operational definition of mindfulness.

Please note:  Your comments are always appreciated and make this blog more interactive.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Being perfect (2)

Is it possible to be enlightened?  Within the Theravada tradition, there are four stages of enlightenment.  The first stage is that of stream entry, which offers the adept a glimpse of Nibanna and the assurance that no more than seven rebirths are ahead.  The next stage is that of the once-returner, which involves at most one more rebirth.  The third stage is that of the non-returner, which involves no more rebirths in sensory abodes but rebirth in a pure abode.  The fourth stage is that of the arahant, who will not be reborn and thus will be released from all suffering.

I once was studying with a very senior monk.  I told him, I thought rather modestly, that my aim was stream entry.  He agreed with me; that was his aim as well.

When I first started meditating in the Soto Zen tradition, my aim was satori.  I was sure if I tried hard enough, I would attain enlightenment.  However, I quickly realized that this meditation thing was a bit more complicated than I thought.  I got discouraged after about a year of working on it and abandoned my practice.  I came to understand in my later years that aiming for enlightenment may not only be unrealistic but counter-productive as far as keeping up with the discipline of daily meditation practice.  When I started meditating again, I decided that all I really wanted to do was to improve myself:  to be less distracted, to be a little wiser, and to be a little more virtuous.  This motivated me to continue to meditate.  Once I realized that these goals were attainable, I was able to sustain my practice and keep up the discipline of daily meditation.

In the Mahasi tradition, there is a strong message that enlightenment or some stage of it can be attained "in this very life."  On retreats, especially prolonged ones, this goal at times seems possible, especially when there is an inspiring teacher who exhibits the qualities associated with being an enlightened person.  However, at other times, when one encounters the chaotic, confused and obsessive mind, it seems very much out of reach.  At times like these, I remind myself of the modest goals of being somewhat more focused, somewhat wiser, and somewhat more virtuous.  Because meditation is demonstrably beneficial in these ways, I continue with my practice.      

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Being perfect (1)

Buddhist arahants are a vision of human perfection; these individuals have purified themselves so totally that they are immune from the vices of ordinary mortals.  Yet is this ideal attainable?  It has been argued, for instance, that no true arahants exist in the modern age, that this ideal was only attainable in the Buddha's time.  

Buddhist teachers, even those who are seen by others to be enlightened, often point out that they are not perfect and have failings.  The history of Buddhism in the West is rife with stories of Buddhist teachers who showed that they were not perfect in the most egregious manner by indulging in sexual misconduct with their students. Many have been disillusioned by this kind of behavior of teachers whom they previously revered. 

I am sometimes surprised by the reaction of those to whom I teach meditation when I admit to my own failings.   I acknowledge that I am a leaking boat that requires constant bailing just to stay afloat.  One of my clients once asked, "Is this all just salesmanship then?"  My reply:  "You should have seen me before I practised meditation!"

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

High interest rates

What do high interest rates have to do with meditation?

When I meditate, I often find myself distracted by thoughts that pull me into them.  Why?  Because, at some level, I am interested in them and where they will lead me:  the solution to a problem, an answer to a question, a memory from the past, a plan for the future.  I have to remind myself that I am not meditating for these purposes.  I have to refuse to pay the "interest rates" these diversions cost me by disengaging from these thoughts, by letting them go.

Sometimes I encounter clients who seem to be going over and over the same ground, such as a loss, trauma, or injustice.  There has to be a motivation behind this; perhaps at some level they hope that by continuously going over the same ground they will achieve some insight and with it a sense of satisfaction or closure.  Perhaps they believe that they can think away the problem.  Maybe it is just a desire to impress upon those who listen how deeply affected they have been and to experience the sympathy from others.  Whatever caused their suffering initially tends to be compounded by a secondary form of suffering in the form of this repetitive spinning and the emotions that it generates.  But many people have great difficulty breaking out of these cycles, of disengaging from them, and letting them go.  They seem to have a stake in going over and over the same content, an interest that keeps them engaged and bound.  Thus, they continue to pay exorbitant interest rates at the cost of their mental health.

To break these cycles, it is first of all necessary to recognize the cost of them.  It is not that we cannot think about our issues or tell others about them, but we have to be able to break out of repetitive cycles once they have become a secondary source of suffering. This can be done at the level of mental training or the level of action.  The level of action is perhaps easiest.  We can keep busy and thereby divert ourselves from the repetitive thinking.  We can recognize when we are getting caught up in these cycles and use that as a cue to act and do something that is important to us.  

Breaking out of repetitive cycles can also be done through mental training and meditation is especially effective for this.  This requires an awareness of the purpose of these cycles, a willingness to let go of them, an ability to recognize when they appear, and the disciplined use of noting to disengage from them.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Report on the retreat with Sayadaw Thitzana

In June, I attended a retreat with Sayadaw Thitzana at the Dharma Centre in Kinmount, Ontario.  I stayed only a few days as I had to work that week.

The Sayadaw is very learned and emanates loving kindness.  He spoke to a group of us in Peterborough the day before the retreat began.  His English is quite good, and he presents his talks in a well thought-out manner.  At the retreat, he took time to teach a bit of Pali grammar.  He has written a Pali grammar book and is planning to translate it from Burmese to English.  His teaching style is very inspiring, and he made it sound like learning Pali would be relatively easy.  

After the retreat, the Sayadaw went to Laval, Quebec to lead a ten day retreat.  If you have an opportunity to attend one of his retreats, I think it would prove to be most worthwhile.  

Here is a description of his retreat in Kinmount:

Friday, July 6, 2012

Link to equanimity blog

I have another blog that focuses on the concept of equanimity and explores it from Western (Stoicism) and Eastern (Buddhism) perspectives:

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What's wrong with thinking?

There seems to be a lot of confusion about thinking and its relationship to meditation.  I remember when I was first learning to meditate in a Zen context as a mere lad of 19.  Thinking seemed to have a really bad rap in that context.  I won’t blame my teachers for my misconceptions, but I was under the impression that thinking was not a good thing.  That was a problem since I was a philosophy major at the time.  For that matter, in whatever I have done since, I have had to do a lot of thinking.  In fact, it could be said that I have made my living by thinking.

Certainly thinking is not a bad thing.  We would be in serious trouble if it were.  Being symbol using beings is what presumably separates us from “lower” beings.  It has enabled us to become  problem solvers who have command over our environment.  (On second thought, that may not have been an entirely good thing.)

Sometimes people have the idea that meditation is taking time to reflect and thinking about their issues. But meditation, at least the form of meditation that I teach, is not mentation, however helpful that may be at times.

Thinking certainly shows up in meditation; in fact, it is pretty much the dominant thing that goes on when we are meditating.  In the Mahasi style meditation that I teach, we are supposed to note thinking in all its varieties and to let it go.  The noting actually works most of the time, although sometimes we can get trapped in some kind of obsessive train of thought and we have to deal with it in deeper ways.  What we are trying to get to is sometimes described as “bare attention,” a mode of awareness that is more sensory than cogitative.  It is sensory in that it is an immediate apprehension of its object, whereas thinking is by its nature mediated and so is not in direct contact with the object.

I sometimes illustrate for a client the difference between mediated and immediate apprehension of an object with whatever furniture is handy.  I may take a table and start talking about the table, what it is made of, where it was purchased, my experiences with it, how I feel about it and so on.  Then I stroke the table with my hand and close my eyes to shut out distractions so I can really feel the table.  For me to really feel the table, I have to stop thinking about it since the two modes of apprehension are incompatible.  The sensory apprehension itself may not be bare attention, but it is largely free of thinking.

I made a brief list of the adjectives that clients often use to describe their thinking processes.  It is not complete, but it will do: racing, repetitive, intrusive, unbidden, obsessive, random, ruminative.  These are clearly unwanted forms of thinking, examples of over-thinking.  Meditation is a great antidote to over-thinking.  However, it is not designed to rid us of thinking altogether.  Remember we need to think, but we don’t need to think while meditating.  When we meditate, we begin to be able to let go of thinking.  We focus on the breath and then acknowledge whatever else shows up briefly and let it go.  As we do so we gain a form of control that is not one of exclusion but one of awareness of whatever is happening at the present moment.  We learn to focus and concentrate.  And, guess what, when we are not meditating, we concentrate better and are not subject as much to the kinds of unwanted over-thinking to which we were formerly disposed.  So when we need to think, when it is intentional and directed, we can do so.  Meditation, which is not a form of thinking, is an aid to thinking in this positive sense.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Letting go versus getting rid of

When my clients experience negative emotions, they are quite eager to see them go away.  They often associate therapeutic procedures with getting rid of these emotions.  Meditation is seen in the same light.  When they hear of "letting go," they think they are going to get rid of these troublesome emotions.

I frequently demonstrate the difference between letting go and getting rid of something by holding a pen in my hand.  To illustrate getting rid of the pen, I throw the pen forcefully on the ground.  To illustrate letting go of the pen I open my hand and incline it slightly so that the pen gently rolls down my outstretched hand and falls to the ground.  Letting go involves opening the mind and inclining it towards the release of whatever shows up (whether it be negatively or positively charged) so that it falls away of its own weight.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Wandering and desire

I have observed my wandering mind and have detected the role of desire in my getting caught up with the topics that pop up.

Let's suppose I am meditating and I start to wonder if the change I got at the store today was correct.  I start calculating the difference between what I gave the clerk and what I received back with my purchase.  Then I remember that I am supposed to be meditating.  I should let it go, right?  I note "calculating, calculating, calculating..." and the calculating stops (if for no other reason than that the energy involved in noting takes away the energy required to obtain an answer).  However, let's suppose I really want to know the answer and so I continue calculating until I get the answer.  When I get the answer I may be relieved (I did get the right change after all), which is what I hope will happen, or not (the clerk made an error or, perhaps, intentionally cheated me).  The critical point in the process is when desire gets the upper hand and prevents me from letting go.  What ties me to the calculating is the desire to get the answer, and, with it, to provide relief that I did get the right change or, alternatively, to confirm my suspicion that I did not get the right change.

Planning is probably one of the most common afflictions of meditators.  Substitute planning for calculating in the example.  The same process takes place.  It is the desire to resolve things, to have a good plan, and the relief that we think it will bring, that gets us caught in planning while we meditate.  To let go of planning we should note it.  However, more importantly, we should see behind it the desire to resolve things, to get to the plan that will solve all problems, to get to the peace of closure.  Meanwhile, we get caught up in and spin around with planning and forego the peace of being focused and mindful at the present moment.

Theravada Buddhism in Burma (Myanmar) -- video

This is a very well done video on Theravada Buddhism in Burma (Myanmar):

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cultivating mindfulness

AN 3.91
PTS: A i 239 
Thai 3.93
Accayika Sutta: Urgent
translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu
"There are these three urgent duties of a farming householder. Which three?
"There is the case where a farming householder quickly gets his field well-plowed & well-harrowed. Having quickly gotten his field well-plowed & well-harrowed, he quickly plants the seed. Having quickly planted the seed, he quickly lets in the water & then lets it out.
"These are the three urgent duties of a farming householder. Now, that farming householder does not have the power or might [to say:] 'May my crops spring up today, may the grains appear tomorrow, and may they ripen the next day.' But when the time has come, the farming householder's crops spring up, the grains appear, and they ripen.
"In the same way, there are these three urgent duties of a monk. Which three? The undertaking of heightened virtue, the undertaking of heightened mind, the undertaking of heightened discernment. These are the three urgent duties of a monk. Now, that monk does not have the power or might [to say:] 'May my mind be released from fermentations through lack of clinging/sustenance today or tomorrow or the next day.' But when the time has come, his mind is released from fermentations through lack of clinging/sustenance.
"Thus, monks, you should train yourselves: 'Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened virtue. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened mind. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened discernment.' That's how you should train yourselves."
 "Accayika Sutta: Urgent" (AN 3.91), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 10 December 2011, . Retrieved on 24 May 2012.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Loving kindness (metta) meditation

Loving kindness or metta in the Pali is one of the four noble virtues, along with compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  Although each of these virtues can be practiced as meditations, metta meditation is by far the more commonly practiced.  Loving kindness meditation is distinct from mindfulness meditation because it is a tranquility meditation in which specific objects are the focus.

In doing metta mediation, you focus on a person or being and wish them well.  The scripted words are as simple as "May X be happy, healthy, and peaceful."  The important thing is the intention, not the feeling of loving kindness itself.  In other words, don't try to force the feeling but do try to generate a genuine intention.  The feeling of loving kindness may or may not arise but do not worry about that.  The object of loving kindness should be held in mind while generating the intention.  A visual image or a felt sense of that person is best.   The usual sequence is to direct loving kindness towards yourself, first of all, and then go on to an admired person, such as a teacher or benefactor; a friend or loved one; an acquaintance about whom you have neither strong negative or positive feelings; and, finally, a difficult person or an enemy.  There are certain cautions.  If you direct loving kindness towards a loved one, it should not be mixed with sexual feelings; better to avoid that "hot" someone and choose someone with whom you have a more platonic relationship.  You should not direct loving kindness toward a dead person since grief will likely arise.  Directing loving kindness to a person with whom you are having significant difficulties can be quite challenging; this practice should probably be practiced only when you have had success with the other objects of loving kindness.  The most difficult thing for many is directing loving kindness towards themselves.  This can be for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes people have feelings of self-loathing that are difficult to overcome.  Sometimes people feel that it is unseemly to direct loving kindness towards themselves and think it selfish or proud.  Often the simple problem is that, while it is relatively easy to conjure up an image of another person or have a felt sense of someone else,  it hard to do this with yourself.  Ven. Khippapanno recommends that you have a recent photo of yourself and look at it while directing loving kindness to yourself and then see if you can retain the image when you close your eyes and direct loving kindness to the image.  You can do this repeatedly until you can form the image easily.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mindfulness "in" or "at" the present moment

I am currently assisting in editing a series of talks by Bhante Khippapanno for publication.  In the talks,    Bhante repeatedly refers to being mindful "at the present moment" rather than with the more commonly used phrase, "in the present moment."  What difference does a preposition make?

The prepositions "in" and "at" can be used as prepositions of place or of time. As prepositions of place, "in" implies an enclosed space, whereas the preposition "at" implies reference to a position.  As prepositions of time, these prepositions are distinct in terms of the duration of time involved.  The preposition "in" is usually used for longer stretches such as days, weeks, months and so on;  whereas "at" is used with respect to a precise time.

Mindfulness always has an object of which it is mindful, and it arises as a mental factor accompanying wholesome mental states (e.g., a moment of kindness or generosity) or may arise after the passing away of an unwholesome mental state.  I am mindful of anger at the present moment, but I am not mindfully angry.  When I was angry, just a moment ago, I was not mindful since the anger and mindfulness are incompatible.  Strictly speaking, the mindfulness of anger is "present" only when the anger has passed away.

The preposition "in" in the phrase, "mindful in the present moment," is inappropriate in two ways.  While the spatial sense of the preposition is only metaphorical,  it suggests that mindfulness is enclosed in a space that includes its object, which certainly cannot be the case when the object is an unwholesome mental state.  In the temporal sense, it implies that the present moment is of much longer duration than it could be in terms of mind moments, which are extremely brief.

The preposition "at" in the phrase "mindful at the present moment," on the other hand, is appropriate both in spatial and temporal terms.  Again, the spatial sense is metaphorical, but it is appropriate since it implies a position with respect to the object of mindfulness.  In the case of a wholesome mental state, the position of mindfulness is together with, that is, concurrent with or simultaneous with the object; in the case of an unwholesome mental state, the position of mindfulness is next to the unwholesome object, that is, it can arise in a succeeding moment. In the temporal sense, "at" captures the precision of the timing involved with the extremely brief mind moments in which mindfulness and its object arise.

Equanimity and the sense doors

MN 137 Salayatanavibhanga Sutta - The Exposition of the Sixfold Base

4. “Herein, what are the six kinds of equanimity based on the household life? On seeing a form with the eye, equanimity arises in a foolish infatuated ordinary person, in an untaught ordinary person who has not conquered his limitations or conquered the results [of action] and who is blind to danger. Such equanimity as this does not transcend the form; that is why it is called equanimity based on the household life.
“On hearing a sound with the ear…On smelling an odor with the nose…On tasting a flavor with the tongue…On touching a tangible with the body…On cognizing a mind-object with the mind, equanimity arises in a foolish infatuated ordinary person, in an untaught ordinary person who has not conquered his limitations or conquered the results [of action] and who is blind to danger. Such equanimity as this does not transcend the mind-object; that is why it is called equanimity based on the household life. These are the six kinds of equanimity based on the household life.
15. “Herein, what are the six kinds of equanimity based on renunciation? When, by knowing the impermanence, change, fading away, and cessation of forms, one sees as it actually is with proper wisdom that forms both formerly and now are all impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, equanimity arises. Such equanimity as this transcends the form; that is why it is called equanimity based on renunciation.
“When, by knowing the impermanence, change, fading away, and cessation of sounds…of odors…of flavors…of tangibles…of mind-objects, one sees as it actually is with proper wisdom that mind-objects both formerly and now are all impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, equanimity arises. Such equanimity as this transcends the mind-object; that is why it is called equanimity based on renunciation. These are the six kinds of equanimity based on renunciation.

More on equanimity at

Monday, May 14, 2012

Meditation on eating

The practice of mindfulness should not just be for special postures but should generalize throughout our days.  One of the examples that is often given is meditation on eating.  This is a great example, but usually the emphasis is on the sensual treat of really paying attention to what you are eating.  The standard exercise is eating a single raisin and doing so very slowly, noticing all its sensual qualities, its texture and taste, and noticing each stage from chewing to digestion.  When this exercise is done in a workshop, for instance, those new to the exercise marvel at how much they enjoyed it and what a treat it is to pay attention to that single raison rather than to gobble it down with a whole bunch of other raisins.

Although it is great that we see the difference that attention can make to an experience, the true value of mindfully eating is deeper.  When we eat, all the sense bases are involved–seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and knowing.   We see the food, we smell it, we touch it, we hear it, we taste it, and we are conscious of these activities.  Throughout the process, intentions arise as preludes to our overt actions. We have pleasant and unpleasant feelings, and, if we are not mindful as we eat, from our liking and disliking. attachment and aversion arise as well.  To be mindful while eating, we should be aware of all phases of the eating process, from the sensations of hunger that motivate us to eat, to seeing the food, to bringing the food to the mouth, to chewing, to swallowing, to the awareness that our desire for food has been satisfied.  Throughout we note what is happening at each moment.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Reflections on a retreat

I recently returned from a retreat at the Pannarama Meditation Center in Laval, Quebec.  The center where I go keeps to a schedule starting at 4:30 in the morning and ending at 10:00 at night.  There are two meals, one in the morning and one at about 11:30 AM.  There is a talk by the monk leading the retreat (Ven. Khippapanno) at about 7:30 PM, but since it is in Vietnamese, I don't attend it.  The rest of the time there are alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation and a chance to go for an interview with one of the monks every other day.

Even monks get sleepy during talks
I have always found that the first two or three days when I am on these retreats, I am extremely sleepy.  I am constantly falling asleep while I am doing sitting meditation, and I often cannot sustain walking meditation for more than about 20 minutes without wanting to sit down again and rest.  There is a period between 12:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon for a rest, so it is possible to fit in a substantial nap.  However, despite all these opportunities for sleep and rest, I am very sleepy.  However, about the third day I suddenly wake up.  I no longer fall asleep while meditating, and I don't feel the need to take such a long nap.  From that point onward I am energized.  When I leave the retreat I face a five to six hour drive to get home.  But I am totally energetic and find it hard to go to sleep until 1:00 in the morning when I return.

What is going on?  This phenomenon is not unique to me.  I have discussed it with others who have much the same experience.  I used to think it was because I was super stressed before the retreat and did not get enough rest, and I needed the extra sleep and rest to recuperate.  However, I was not super stressed this time. I had stayed with my daughter near Ottawa so I only had to drive about two hours to get there.  And I wasn't stressed in general since I am now semi-retired.

I have long realized the difference between being on a retreat and being "in the world."  When on retreat, there is not a lot of external stimulation.  We are supposed to observe "noble silence," but people do talk, although much less so than they would in ordinary life.  The meals are all prepared for us (and they are very good, by the way).  You have to do a few chores, but nothing very onerous.  You are not supposed to read or write.  Although no one enforces that rule, I don't feel the need to read or write and I recognize how it can interfere with meditation.  There is no internet to surf or email to follow, which is a big shift for me.  You can use the phone only in emergencies.  I generally stay at the center, although I occasionally take a walk in the neighborhood around the center.  But I don't buy anything in the stores in the area or interact with the people I encounter.

When on retreat, the big change is from an external focus to an internal one.  I think the explanation for the exhaustion of those first few days is simple.  Keeping up the external focus required for being in the world is exhausting.  When the need to keep it up is gone, we have to recuperate before we can tune into what is going on internally.  Once we rest and recuperate, we have the ability to focus inwardly and to meditate.  And having that ability to concentrate and focus comes with a burst of energy that carries over into the days following the retreat, provided you are not overwhelmed by the stress of a return to "real life."

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Guarding the sense doors (part 3)

The simile of the ant hill (as quoted by Ven.  Samahita):

One should dwell like the snake, which sees the mouse hide in ant-hill with six openings! By lying rolled up on the anthill - constantly watching - the snake remains on the thought: Out of which hole may this mouse appear ?! Even so one thinks: Through which sense door may the next contact appear ?!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Guarding the sense doors (part 2)

The tool that we use to guard the sense doors is noting.

Consciousness arises when there is contact between a sense object and a sense organ.  Blue's seeing, for instance, arises because a sense object (what we conventionally call the propane delivery truck) is in contact with his sense organs, his eyes, under suitable conditions such as the right amount of light.  His barking is an indication that seeing has taken place.  But for him to bark something more has taken place, and that has to do with his interpretation, for instance, that the object he is seeing may be a possible threat and, with this interpretation, all sorts of instincts and habits kick in leading to barking.  If Blue had truly been mindful he would have simply (and silently) noted "seeing, seeing."  He would have been a truly mindful dog but not much use as a watch dog.    

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Guarding the sense doors (part 1)

When we are mindful we use restraint and guard the six sense doors--hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and cognizing (e.g.,thinking, knowing).  What this means is that we are watchful for what is arising at the doors, we note it, and we don't admit it in the sense that we don't get caught up with it and all our associations to it.  One can think of a guard who protects a household against intruders.  When an intruder shows up, the guard alerts the household to the presence of the would-be intruder, thereby ensuring that the intruder does not get past the door.

The other day I was observing my dog Blue.  He is an old dog and has lost his hearing. Our house is in the country and quite a ways from the road in front.  Blue used to start barking whenever a car or truck came down our driveway long before he could see it.  Now he spends much of his day sitting on the front deck staring at the point at which a vehicle would first be visible when it came down the driveway.  This day I heard a truck coming long before he did.  However, once it was visible, he started barking.  It was a propane delivery truck.  Although he puts on a good show of fierceness, he is actually a very sweet dog.  His basic friendliness is betrayed by his tail wagging.  I guess that the propane delivery man knew Blue because he went about his job without any evidence of fear even though Blue continued to make perfunctory barks for a while before he resumed his post on the deck.

If I had not already heard the truck, I would have first known it was there by Blue's barking.  He was doing his job, although somewhat belatedly.  He was alerting me to the presence of the truck by barking as if to say, "Look, something has arrived!"  In his way, he was practicing a bit of mindfulness for me.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Standing meditation

Standing meditation involves standing with your hands grasped behind your back or in front of your abdomen.  You should close your eyes.  Try to feel your body in space, from head to toe, and note, "standing, standing."  You can focus on the abdomen rising and falling as you do in the sitting meditation.  At some point you may find that heaviness moves up your legs or you feel them becoming warmer.  Note these sensations until you no longer wish to stand.  When you are finished, you can move into another posture, such as walking or sitting, and alternate with these postures being careful to maintain the continuity of mindfulness that you have developed.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Basic instructions for walking meditation

Find a level path approximately 20 steps long away from distractions.
Specify a length of time for the meditation.
With a softened gaze, look about six feet ahead of you.
Without looking, put your mental attention on the movement of the feet, the home object.
Note “right, left” or “lifting, pushing, placing.”
If secondary objects arise, note them only as long as necessary, and then return to noting the home object.
Stop if a secondary object becomes too dominant and interferes with your focus on the home object.  Note until it passes away.
At the end of the path, note “stopping” and “turning” and then resume walking and noting the home object.

Stages of meditation

The accompanying diagram shows the stages in meditation that we have outlined from simple awareness of the abdominal movement and progressing to the open awareness of fully developed mindfulness meditation.  
In the first stage, there is a simple focus on the abdominal movement.  Attention is focused on the home object and when wandering occurs, attention is brought back to the home object.  In the next stage, simple noting is introduced, so that “rising” and “falling” are noted along with “wandering” when attention strays.  In the third stage, attention is paid to what the mind is doing when it wanders and that is noted.  If thinking is present, then “thinking” is noted; if anger is present, “anger” or “angry” is noted.  If the mind is attending to sound, then “hearing” is noted.  If a tingling sensation is felt, then “tingling” is noted.  Then attention is redirected to the home object.  In the fourth stage, attention is paid to the predominant object and noted until the object is released, is no longer present, or is displaced by another object.  In the next stage, attention shifts from one predominant object to another, only returning to the home object if no other object is more prominent.  At any stage, attention can be redirected back to the home object if you are overwhelmed, you lose focus, or you simply need a respite.  Choiceless awareness occurs when the shift from one object to another is done effortlessly.
These stages are progressive, but in any given meditation session you may go back and forth between the very first stages and the most advanced stages.  You should observe your meditation and see what stages you go through.

Basic instructions for sitting meditation

Here is a stripped-down set of instructions for meditation in the sitting position:
Find a suitable place and time, and establish how long you will meditate at the outset.
Establish a stable and comfortable sitting position that you can maintain for the entire length of time you have set aside for your meditation.
Close your eyes and focus on the home object, the rising and falling of the abdomen, noting, “rising” and “falling.”
When your attention is drawn to a stronger object, note it until it passes away or another stronger object arises.
Note the most prominent object at the present moment; return to noting the home object if there is no other stronger object present.

The value of a special sitting position

Traditionally sitting meditation involved sitting on the ground with the legs positioned in a special way.  The lotus position, which involves overlapping the legs, was the standard position. However, this position and even its modifications (e.g., the half-lotus) are difficult for most people who are used to sitting in chairs for most of their lives.  Fortunately, there are alternatives that are every bit as effective.
But why meditate in a special position anyway?  Why not just get in a comfortable chair or even lie down?  If you are too comfortable sitting in your favorite easy chair or lying down in your bed, you are likely to fall asleep.  The traditional meditation postures are designed to allow you to be comfortable and yet alert for long periods of time without moving.  Those who sit in these positions generally report that they feel more balanced than they do sitting in a chair.  The very specialness of the posture is itself a benefit.  If you meditate in your favorite chair or in bed, all the habits that go with that position can end up affecting your meditation.  When you sit in a special position, on the other hand, you are likely to associate it with meditation and find that it is conducive to getting more readily into a relaxed and focused state.
Even though it may appear that assuming a special position for sitting meditation is awkward and a lot of extra work, try it (unless, of course, you have physical limitations).  You will probably find that it is a lot easier and more satisfying to meditate in the special position.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Audio instructions

Here is a link to instructions on meditation by the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw.  It provides precise guidance to insight meditation and, in particular, to the practice of noting.  

Practical Meditation Instructions ("Mahasi Lecture")

Play below or Download MP3

Sunday, March 11, 2012


One of the most basic instructions for meditating in a sitting position is keeping still, not moving for a period of time.  Ordinarily we sit for long periods of time, and we assume that we are not moving.  Actually, if you sit in a chair at work or at home watching TV, your body is constantly in motion, although the movements are very slight and usually pass without explicit awareness.  Your body is in constant motion to avoid any discomfort.  Being asked to sit still and not move while meditating goes against the grain.  It seems unnatural.  Within a short time, you may feel the urge to move,  you may experience pains in familiar and unfamiliar places, or you may have itches that cry out for a scratch.  If you resist the body’s demands to move, these feelings may increase for a time.  However, if you stay still for long enough, you may notice that these demands subside.  This can be a powerful lesson in impermanence, that things arise and pass away.  

This is an analogue for what happens with the mind too.  If we resist reacting to what happens in our mind, we will see impermanence there too.  Sensations, thoughts, emotions, feelings all come and go, and we don’t have to do anything about them.  This is how real stillness happens.

Of course, if you are really uncomfortable as you sit there, if the pain becomes unbearable, the itch too irritating, then by all means adjust your position or have a good scratch.  But do so slowly and mindfully, observing each movement you make so as to minimize the disruption to your mindfulness (still-fulness).

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Noting and mindfulness

If you have followed the instructions I have given for the meditation on the abdominal movement, you are already using mental labeling or noting.  You silently make a mental note “rising” as you inhale, “falling” as you exhale, and “wandering” when your mind wanders.  As you gain greater concentration, you will likely find that you pick up on the mind’s wandering more quickly and you note the wandering almost as soon as it starts.  In that case, your mind really has not had much room to wander, so it is time to note what the mind is doing in that moment.

This is where the discipline of noting becomes a most powerful tool for cultivating mindfulness.  You can now note the processes that are occurring.  If your attention has turned to a sound, you note “hearing,” or if it is turned to a smell, “smelling,” and so on for tasting, seeing, and touching.  If you are sensing a specific bodily sensation, you can note it more precisely as “tingling,”  “warmth,” “pressure,” and so on.  If you are experiencing an emotion, you can note it as “anger,” “fear,” “sadness,” “joy,” and so on.  If you are thinking a thought, you can note “thinking,” or some more specific version of thinking such as “remembering,” “anticipating,” “planning,” and so on.  The idea is to note the process but not the content, not what you are hearing, but the fact that you are hearing, not what you are thinking, but just that you are thinking.  You don’t have to come up with the perfect label, just slap one on as quickly as you can.  The note should be concurrent with what you note, in other words, you want to be noting what is occurring in that moment or as close as you can get to it.  You need to put your full attention on what is occurring, and you will likely have to note it more than once, so you might say to yourself, “thinking, thinking, thinking,” until you see that the thinking has passed away.  Similarly, with a sound, for instance, you note it repeatedly, until you know it clearly and can let go of it.  It is all about recognition, and you will find that as you get better at noting, you get better at recognizing what your mind is up to and how it works, so that then just a few notes are enough.

There are lots of reasons why noting is effective.  The chief reason is that it takes all that energy that you usually expend in thinking in words and uses it to come up with a single word for what you are experiencing.  Another reason it is effective is that noting keeps you from getting caught up in the mind’s random activity.  Instead of thinking about something or other, you simply observe that thinking is going on.  This is very helpful in quieting the over-thinking that you likely encountered in the “mind watch.”  Also, noting keeps you in the present. You may be thinking about the past, but the thinking is going on in the present, and it is this activity that you are noting.

When you start using noting, you may find it difficult.  Chances are you will often forget to note.  Don’t get discouraged, just keep at it until it becomes second nature.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness has become a buzzword that is applied to everything from enjoying the sensual pleasures of eating a desert to the kind of attention deployed when you sit on a cushion on the floor and focus on your breathing.  Being “mindful” has crept into contemporary language so you might hear someone say, “I was mindful of my anger” or “I ate my lunch mindfully.”

Given the wide usage of the term, a more precise definition of mindfulness would be helpful.  One of the most often quoted definitions of mindfulness is that of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”  This captures much of the meaning of mindfulness but also omits some elements that are critical to understanding what we are cultivating when we meditate.

The term mindfulness has it roots in Buddhism and has a very specific meaning in that context.  Mindfulness is an English translation of sati, a word in the Pali language in which the Buddhist scriptures were written.

The word’s original meaning had to do with memory or recollection.  This is puzzling since the concept of mindfulness as it is currently used implies being in the present moment.  So what does it have to do with memory?  One answer is that mindfulness has to do with being aware of something in the sense of making a mental note of it and, in that sense, remembering it.  In a future post, I will go into greater detail on this concept of noting.  

In Buddhist psychology, consciousness is not a continuous process but occurs in discrete mind-moments that are extremely brief, on the order of millions a second.  Within each of these mind-moments, consciousness arises and passes away like a wave.  Because of the speed with which this occurs and the impact of one instance of consciousness on the succeeding instance of consciousness, there is an illusion of a “stream of consciousness.”

Any given instance of consciousness is accompanied by mental factors that impart to it certain qualities.  There are mental factors that occur with all instances of consciousness (universal mental factors) and others that only occur with certain instances of consciousness (occasional mental factors).  A further division can be made with respect to the remaining factors according to whether they contribute or detract from well-being.  These additional factors are either wholesome or unwholesome factors.  (Sometimes the words “skillful” and “unskillful” are substituted for “wholesome” and “unwholesome” in an apparent attempt to soften the ethical dimension of these factors.)  Wholesome and unwholesome mental factors cannot coexist in the same mind moment; they are mutually exclusive.  

Mindfulness is one of the wholesome mental factors and arises in every wholesome mind-moment along with several other universal wholesome mental factors and, sometimes, with other higher level mental factors.  Mindfulness is not an ordinary kind of attention.  As a wholesome kind of attention, it cannot arise at the same time as unwholesome mental factors are present.  For instance, if you were paying very close attention to what you were doing as you stole something, you could not be said to be mindful.  Likewise, you could not be mindfully greedy, but you could, in one moment, be mindful of greed in a moment.

Mindfulness itself is a quality of attention characterized by present focus, non-forgetfulness, and stability of focus.  It is built on mental factors such as energetic, focused, and sustained attention.  When mindfulness arises, other wholesome mental factors arise that have to do with being even-minded (i.e., equanimous) and not caught up in (i.e., non-greed) or repelled by (i.e., non-hatred) the objects that arise and pass away.  This lends to mindfulness the non-reactive and non-judgmental quality to which Jon Kabat-Zinn refers.

If you meditate to be mindful, you try to create the conditions for mindfulness to arise.  You cannot force it.  If you are doing sitting meditation, you relax the body, stay alert and focused, and note the object that is most dominant.  By sustaining these conditions, mindfulness may arise.  Although mindfulness comes and goes, by cultivating it one can establish it from moment to moment.  As you become more proficient in this type of meditation, you learn how to cultivate mindfulness as you would a treasured plant, feeding it, watering it, and weeding it.  

Khippapanno, B., (in print), Experiencing the Dhamma. Riverside, CA:  Sakyamuni Meditation Center.

revised May 7, 2012

Focused attention on the abdominal movement

Maintaining attention to the abdominal movement as you breathe develops your powers of concentration.  It is also inherently calming.  You breathe without thinking about it at all, and in this practice, you do not make any effort to control your breathing.  You breathe naturally, in other words.

The first step is to become acquainted with the abdominal movement if you are not already.  Lie down and put a hand on your chest and the other hand on your abdomen.  See which hand moves more as you breathe.  If your chest moves more than your abdomen, don't worry.  The abdominal movement will become more prominent as you relax.

It is best to do the meditation sitting up in a comfortable position, either on the floor on a cushion, or on a comfortable chair.  You should sit in an erect fashion.  However, if you have pain issues and can't sit comfortably, it is fine to lie down provided you don't fall asleep.

With your eyes closed, sense the movement as you breathe.  Remember, try to avoid interfering with the natural breath.  Try to sense the movement in all its phases, from the beginning to the end.  Notice the feelings of expansion and contraction and the pauses in between the movements.  It helps to label the movement, silently to yourself, "rising" as the abdomen expands and "falling" as the abdomen contracts.

Now, in short order, your mind will probably wander.  You notice that you are no longer focused on the abdominal movement, but you are paying attention to a sound, thinking about what you have to do, or feeling an unpleasant sensation in your body.  As soon as you realize that your mind has wandered, acknowledge it, label it "wandering," and, when you have regained control of your attention, gently lead it back to the abdominal movement.

You may find yourself wandering a great deal.  Not to worry.  What is important is that you notice the wandering.  By doing so you are developing greater skills in monitoring your attention.  There is no need to beat yourself up over all the wandering.  What is important is that you notice it.  Congratulate yourself on being mindful!

As you practice this simple form of meditation, you will gain in concentration, become more tranquil, and develop your attention monitoring skills.  When you are able to pick up the wandering almost as soon as it starts, you no longer are really wandering.  At that point, you are ready to move on to open monitoring meditation, which I will discuss in a future post.

Mind Watch

Whether you have ever meditated or not, you should try the “mind watch.”  It is very simple.  You don’t really have to do anything.  Actually, that is the hard part. 

The idea is to get comfortable, either sitting or lying down, close your eyes, and observe what happens.  The tendency may be to try out all those things you’ve heard about meditating like trying to empty the mind or focusing on the breath.  But that is not the idea--way too much interference!  You would be trying to control what happens and, as a consequence, working at it much too hard.  You really are to do nothing except observe.

First time out, you should set aside about 10 minutes for the exercise.  When you are finished, write out what you observed.  Feel free to enter your observations as a post or a comment.  

Overview of meditation

In India cave drawings of people in meditation postures were found.  Long before written records were kept and long before the advent of religions as we know them today, people meditated.

There are many types of meditation that have been practiced over the years.  A very basic classification of meditation is into two types:  focused attention and open monitoring. 

Focused attention meditation or concentration meditation involves focusing on one object, such as the breath, a name of a sacred figure (e.g., Buddha, Christ), or a mantra.  Open monitoring meditation, sometimes called mindfulness or insight meditation, involves being open to whatever comes into awareness and monitoring it in a non-reactive way.  These forms of meditation have different purposes and different ends, but often they are combined.  In practices that emphasize open awareness, focused attention meditaiton is often used as preliminary to open monitoring.

In the way I teach meditation, focusing on the breath or the abdominal movement is used to build concentration, and there is a progression towards open meditation.  However, I ask beginners to try a “mind watch” exericse as a preliminary exercise.  This is a kind of open meditation, but the difference is that it is done prior to the development of concentration through focused attention, and is usually experienced as chaotic mind wandering.  Once beginners have become acquainted with this state, they are presumably motivated to work on concentration.  After a period of practice with focused attention, they are ready to develop a more inclusive form of awareness, and this is when I introduce open monitoring meditation in steps.

In future posts, I will describe the teaching sequence in greater detail. 

Introduction to the blog

My book, The Attentive Mind Workbook:  Self-healing through Meditation, provides a complete introduction to meditation in the vipassana or insight tradition with a focus on dealing with mental suffering.  The book can be obtained from my website:,, or from major online booksellers (,, etc.).

A bit about me:  I am a psychologist in rural Ontario.  I am semi-retired and live with my wife in a forest setting.  I have practiced meditation in the Zen and Theravada traditions.  The teacher whom I currently follow is Bhante Khippapanno, a Vietnamese teacher.  He teaches within the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition, but he places emphasis on meditation on the mind (cittanupassana).  Much of the content of this blog is based on my interpretation of his teachings.

This blog covers much the same ground as the workbook, but it is free and interactive.   Comments on the instructions and your experiences with the practices are most welcome.   I sometimes revise what I have posted based on the comments I receive and further reflection so please revisit the blog and reread the posts that have been revised. 

Feel free to email me with any questions or comments:

revised July 15, 2012