Sacred geometry

From Feelings to Freedom (Exploring Vedana)

This retreat was jointly taught by Rob Burbea and one or more other Insight Meditation teachers. Here is the full retreat on Dharma Seed
Date4th November 2006
Retreat/SeriesNovember Solitary 2006


Okay, so Christina, I think, spoke about the breath a little bit on the first morning. And then yesterday, Yanai spoke about the body, the first foundation of mindfulness. So I'd like to just give a final piece of instruction about the first foundation of mindfulness, in terms of working with bodily pain and difficult sensations in the body. And of course, as we all know, this is an almost inevitable part of practice to come up at some point. Sometimes, if we're sitting, and we're with the breath, or if you're doing mettā practice or whatever, pain is arising. Sometimes it's possible that the level of steadiness with the breath can just, in a way, keep the pain at bay. So it's almost like the birds outside: just something on the edge of consciousness. And sometimes that happens, and if it's possible to just stay with the breath, stay with the mettā, whatever it is, and the physical pain doesn't seem to intrude that much, then that's fine. That's completely fine. Just keep working that way.

Sometimes, of course, that's just not possible, and the pain really does intrude into consciousness and demands attention. So the first thing to say is that meditation should not be an endurance test. Okay? We're not, you know, here to develop our machismo. And we're not going to give out any medals or anything for how long we can sit. So that's quite important. That was quite a change in my practice when I heard that. It's just, it's not an endurance test. It's not what this is about.

If you're sitting, and there's really a lot of pain, like sitting after sitting, it's just becoming tiring, it's taking up all the energy and all the attention, please think about just alternating postures. So if you're sitting on the floor, sit, you know, one sitting on the floor, and then a sitting in a chair, and then on the floor, and on the chair. Can be really, really skilful, really, really helpful. And maybe just a question: "Am I attached to a certain image of what it needs to look like when I meditate -- what my legs need to look like?" It's actually quite common.

Sometimes, though, and very much part of the practice, is to explore, to find the willingness inside to explore the difficult aspects of having a body. So to be human, to be embodied means that at times in our life, without question, for all human beings, there will be pain. And that won't be in our control. And it's part of our life, so to find in our practice, as I said, the willingness to turn towards that, and to explore it, to bring an openness to it, and a curiosity, even, to it. To explore one's edge as well. Where's my edge in relation to pain? Where are my edges?

So if one's exploring pain, to know, also, that when it gets too much, to change the posture. "Just, it's too much now. I'm not really learning anything any more. I'm just kind of gritting my teeth and bearing it." Just change the posture. It can be done slowly, with mindfulness, and noticing also the relief that comes. So there's, "ugh," suffering, and then we move the posture, and there's relief. And to actually just keep the awareness open through that whole process, and feel the relief.

So when we're actually working meditatively with difficult sensations in the body, first sort of port of call would be to see if you can notice, be aware of: is there any tension in the rest of the body? Is there a kind of recoiling, from the fear? So this is very, very normal, completely understandable. Pain arises somewhere in the knee, in the back, wherever it is, and the rest of the body kind of crunches up in relation to it. There's a recoiling, a moving away from, even a fear. So first port of call: is it possible to just step back a little, see the bigger picture, and relax any tension, any recoiling in the rest of the body? So maybe check in with your shoulders, with the belly, and just see: "Ah, tensing there. Can I just relax? Or just a little bit, can it just be relaxed?"

Then perhaps to also stay with the slightly bigger picture at first, and just see: this pain can seem all-consuming, can seem, just, the body is on fire with pain. But just to check: how is the tip of the nose, for instance? Is that in pain? Or my earlobes: are they in pain? Or my fingers -- usually fingers are okay. Just to get a sense of -- well, in a way, a sense of perspective, that this pain is actually not the totality of the experience. To explore, perhaps, to the edges -- the edges of the pain, of the difficult sensation. Say it's in the knee. Where exactly is it? Does it stop, you know, halfway up the thigh? Or does it extend the whole length? Where exactly are the edges of the pain? Are those edges sharp edges, or do they kind of fade out slowly? To bring this curiosity, this sensitivity of attention to the whole actual experience of pain. So checking out the edges.

Then, one may want to, in a way, get underneath the label "pain." "Pain" is a word. It's a label. It's what we put on the experience. One way of working would be to make the attention quite microscopic, almost. So it's almost like looking at what we're calling "pain" under the microscope of very fine attention, really investigating that with the same kind of care that we would bring to the breath, really sensitive to what's there, the bare experience. So "pain" is just a label. Let me see actually what it feels like. Usually with pain, we want to go the other way. Can we just turn around and actually begin to penetrate it with the attention?

So when we get underneath the label "pain," what do we actually begin to notice? Maybe there's heat, maybe cold, maybe a sense of pressure, maybe a kind of throbbing, maybe a steadiness to it, or flickering, pulsing. This can be really helpful, because the label "pain" is often already quite charged. We don't actually take the time to get underneath and find out: what actually is the experience? So this more microscopic attention is one way of working.

The other way, sort of the other pole, would be, in a way, a very spacious awareness. So rather than looking at the pain under a microscope, opening up the awareness in as large and expansive a way as possible. I think tomorrow morning, Catherine's going to talk about sound. Because sound comes from all over, it can be quite helpful in opening up the awareness in a spacious way. [8:46] And then there's a sense of space and awareness, and this pain that's happening somewhere in the body, it's actually just one thing occupying a small part of this space of awareness. And this somehow makes it easier to handle. It has a context for it. The sensations of pain, they arise and they disappear in this space of awareness. Microscopic and spacious: two very skilful ways of working. And as we develop in meditation, to feel quite free moving between these two.

Pain, as I said, is part of having a human body, and in our lives, if we're too caught up in the movement away from pain, and hanging on to pleasure, we'll tend to miss something of the profound mystery of what it is to just have a body, to be embodied, that this body is part of nature. And the very recoiling from pain, the very unwillingness to look at it, which is completely understandable, but that unwillingness also closes the doors of the heart and of the deeper eyes of the being, so that the sense of mystery, the mystery of nature, the mystery of body becomes a little bit closed to us. Sometimes people, you know, when there's quite an openness in practice, there's a sense of that mystery running right through pain as well. So one's sitting, watching pain in the body, and it's still imbued with a sense of mystery, because there's an openness and there's a willingness there. [10:50]

Okay, end of part one. What I really wanted to talk about [laughs] was the second foundation of mindfulness. So body is the first foundation. Second foundation, second area where the Buddha really encouraged human beings to pay a lot of interest is what's called vedanā. These four foundations, what the Buddha's saying, yeah, pay attention to everything, but these four in particular, because this is where our suffering lies. This is where we tend to get entangled, and this is where we can realize a really deep freedom. So certainly around the body, and then the second area of vedanā. Vedanā is a Pali word. And there's a little problem in translation here, because it usually gets translated as "feeling," which in English we think of as "emotion." But that's not actually what vedanā means. We'll be talking about emotion in the next few days and later on in the retreat. So it really means something like "feeling-tone," which is basically something very simple -- just whether some experience is felt as pleasant, or as unpleasant, or as somewhere in between pleasant and unpleasant, what we'd maybe call neutral or neither pleasant nor unpleasant. So it's just that, very simple. It's something pleasant, felt as pleasant, unpleasant, or in between.

All moments of our life, every experience at every sense door has a feeling-tone with it -- every moment. So we may be sitting with the breath, and sometimes the breath feels, you know, very stuck or tight or constricted, blocked, or unpleasant in some way. It just doesn't feel like it flows well. At that moment, the vedanā associated with the breath is unpleasant. Sometimes, it can happen that the breath feels very lovely. There's a real fullness or flow or subtlety or warmth, even, to it. And a lot of the times, the breath just feels kind of in between, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

But it goes, as I said, through every sense door. So with taste, you know, you taste something. It's pleasant, or it's unpleasant, or a lot of the times, actually, if you pay careful attention to taste, a lot of the times there's actually not much taste happening. It's quite interesting, with food and with the eating experience. With the body, as we've just been talking about, then we have pleasant sensations in the body and difficult sensations, unpleasant. With sound, too -- sometimes a beautiful songbird sings outside, and it's a very pleasant sound. Sometimes we have the rooks going crazy, and some people love it, and for some people it's really an unpleasant sound. If I had long nails, and there was a blackboard here, and I ... [laughter] Some people are shuddering. For most people, the vedanā associated with that sound is very unpleasant.

Thoughts -- every thought that passes through the mind actually has a vedanā. It's either pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. Mind states. When we're walking in meditation, just the touch of the foot on the carpet sometimes can feel soft and warm and very pleasant, or just subtly pleasant. Sometimes, you know, it's cold, or pressure, or something. It feels unpleasant. So everything, everything, everything has these vedanā terms attached to it.

Now, most people, I think, when they hear this, the general reaction is, "Uh, yeah? So what?" Which is understandable. I was talking with a friend a little, maybe a couple of weeks ago about this, and she said, actually when she first heard this many years ago, it was -- she loved the sound of it, because suddenly, all the complexity of her suffering, and the complexity of the emotional life was suddenly -- it's like a light shining on it, and it was made to seem so simple. "Oh, it's just this: it's just pleasant, unpleasant, neutral." Everything that had seemed so entangled and complex was seen to be simple. So it was a real sort of gratitude and love for this teaching.

When I first heard it many years ago, I was outraged. I thought, "This is completely cold, and reductionistic, and over-simplistic, and cutting off areas of the being, and those Buddhists!" And I stopped practising for four years. [laughter] That wasn't the only reason, but ... And then when I calmed down a bit, four years later [laughter], I came back to practice. I realized that actually, this is a very beautiful teaching. There's an enormous amount here. Something really, really is the gateway to freedom. Somehow, in its simplicity, it can lead us to really a sense of loveliness, beauty, openness, warmth, and freedom.

You might have been on twenty week-long meditation retreats, and we go through these four foundations of mindfulness, and often, you know, people, there's so much information, it just kind of goes in one ear and out the other. And this particular area of vedanā is often exactly one of those that we just forget about. Recently, I was teaching this retreat somewhere else, and there was a woman who had spent three years -- it was quite amazing -- three years, all she did was mindfulness of the body. That was her whole practice for three years, every day for three years. And I thought, "Great!" And this week retreat was the first time, when I gave the instructions on vedanā, that she'd actually heard the vedanā instructions. And she sort of like, "Wow!" And then she said, "For the next three years ..." [laughter] And I thought, "Brilliant!" And it was actually the first time that anyone had ever really shown much interest in vedanā. So it's an odd thing. A little bit what I want to go into today is, just highlight some of the actual possibilities here, so that we have these options for our practice.

The first thing, if we want to practise with vedanā, is that what we're really practising is a sensitivity to it. It's interesting. I took a class many years ago, when I lived in America, and we spent quite some time on vedanā. And it was a class for experienced meditators. And some people in the class understood right away what was being spoken about. Other people -- it's just a personal thing, whatever -- it took them many weeks to understand even what was being talked about. So this is just a personal variation. There's no judgment involved. It's just some people get it, and others, it takes a little longer.

But for everyone, I think what we need to do, the first thing that needs to happen is that we practise a sensitivity to vedanā. So some vedanā is very obvious: someone punches us on the nose, whatever, and it's obviously unpleasant. But a lot of vedanā is very subtle. So for instance, when we're walking, and the foot just touches the ground, is that pleasant or unpleasant? Like my hand right now: it's actually subtly pleasant, just there on the carpet.

So the first thing that we practise is to develop a sensitivity to this area, because it gets subtler and subtler and subtler. And a lot of what this insight meditation practice is about is developing sensitivity. It's a huge part of this practice. So a wonderful thing to do is just to develop one's sensitivity to vedanā. Just to notice: what's the vedanā right now? Or with a certain experience -- the breath or the hearing or whatever it is -- what's the vedanā right now? What's the vedanā? And slowly, a sensitivity deepens to this. [20:06]

Some of you might be here with the sort of intention to develop some samatha this retreat, some calmness, some collectedness of the mind through the breath or whatever. I'll be speaking about this, I think, maybe the next talk, but this vedanā is actually quite important in calming the mind. It becomes quite significant. When there's a pleasant vedanā, if that's one's intention, to calm the mind through samatha, you really want to include that pleasantness in the meditation. You really want to open to the pleasantness. The breath feels pleasant, the body feels pleasant, whatever it is -- really want to include it, be very aware of it, and at some point, even focus on it, to develop that pleasantness. So the vedanā is quite significant if you're working in any way on samatha meditation in this retreat.

Also, if you're working on mettā or compassion, this vedanā is also quite significant. Sometimes -- can never be always, but sometimes, mettā and compassion feel quite pleasant. There's a pleasant vedanā associated with them. And again, you really want to open to that. Open the being to that pleasantness, letting oneself enjoy it, in a way, mixing it with the mettā, mixing it with the compassion, so that part of what we're radiating out in the mettā is that pleasantness. It becomes part of the love. I'm actually not sure what's the proportion of who's doing what practices, so I just put that out there. But perhaps most people are doing insight practice. I'm not sure.

But for insight, how do we approach this from an insight perspective? First thing: in the Buddha's talk about the foundations of mindfulness, he says something very odd. He keeps repeating this very odd phrase. And he says, "See the body in the body." Then when he comes to vedanā, he says, "See the vedanā in the vedanā. See the feeling-tone in the feeling-tone."

At first you think, "What's he talking about? 'Seeing the feeling-tone in the' -- what's that mean?" There are probably different interpretations. I think a big part of what's meant there is, what happens is, we're meditating, and there's, say, unpleasant feeling. And instead of seeing the feeling in the feeling -- "It's just unpleasant feeling. That's what it is. I need to pay attention to the fact of unpleasant feeling" -- what happens? Self gets involved, and starts wrapping itself around, and defining itself in relationship to this feeling. "Unpleasant feeling? It's because I'm a crappy meditator. I'm useless. I should probably not even, you know, waste everybody's time, and just go home," whatever. The self just gets involved. Don't see self in vedanā. That's what the Buddha's saying. Don't see self, don't see self-esteem or self-judgment or any of that stuff. Can I just see vedanā in the vedanā? Just that much is a huge chunk of freedom. [23:35] So the first thing, to practise sensitivity. It's just the vedanā. And can we develop this sensitivity to it?

Second thing: once one has developed a sensitivity, to begin to notice the typical reactions we have to vedanā. Typically -- very human thing; actually not even human, just part of anything with consciousness -- when there's pleasantness, we want to move towards it, we want to hold on to it, we want to grab it, we want to grasp it, we want to keep it. Okay? Pleasantness, and we pull it towards ourselves. Unpleasantness -- we want to get rid of it. We push it away. Neutral -- we tend to just not be interested. It's just pretty boring. We either get frustrated or look elsewhere or kind of go to sleep. How much of our life is actually neutral? A tremendous amount of the actual moments of our life, the experience of our life, are actually quite -- neither particularly pleasant nor particularly unpleasant -- huge chunk. And how much of that are we actually present for? Or are we kind of spacing out and losing interest because of the neutrality, because it doesn't have that much interest for us, because it's not particularly pleasant, not particularly unpleasant? To notice these reactions: pushing away the unpleasant, pulling towards or holding the pleasant, and kind of spacing out or getting bored with the neutral.

A really important thing to understand is that we're not trying to get rid of vedanā. It's actually impossible in our life to get rid of vedanā. There's no such thing as, really, life without vedanā. So we might think: "Oh, I want to move towards only having pleasant, or at least getting rid of the unpleasant." Actually it's not possible. So the nature of life, the nature of consciousness itself -- the actual nature of consciousness is to be wrapped up with vedanā. What's needed is, instead of a getting rid of, is an understanding -- insight. What we're looking for is insight in relationship to vedanā.

So if you feel like you already have some handle on this, and you have some sensitivity to the vedanā aspect of experience, next step is, "Okay, what's the insight here? What's to learn?" And the Buddha recommends looking in terms of what's called the three characteristics of experience. First one is really focusing on the fact of impermanence. If we are noticing vedanā, and we just keep the attention on the vedanā of an experience, tuning the mind in a very deliberate way -- all that's important to notice right then is the impermanence. All I'm interested in seeing is the arising and the passing, the coming and going. Not interested in anything else. Just focusing, focusing, focusing repeatedly on the change, the changing nature of experience in one place -- say it's somewhere in the body, or a thought, or whatever. Just the impermanence. That's all I'm interested in. That's the first characteristic.

Second characteristic: not-self. One sees these vedanā as just coming and going, coming and going. I have very little control over it. I can actually see, if I hold my attention with it long enough, it's just coming and going by itself. It's not me. It cannot be me, because it's just coming and going by itself. It cannot be mine, even. I have no control over it. It's just happening. It's not me, not mine, not-self. And in this second characteristic, to look at the experience through that lens of not-self. So to look at it and just see, just keep reflecting: "This is not me. This is not mine." Just see: "It's just happening. It's just happening." It's an extremely powerful way of practising. And it might not sound that way when you just hear it, but very powerful, very beautiful way of practising: to look at the vedanā and just regard it as not-self, not me, not mine.

So impermanence, not-self. Third one: the unsatisfactoriness of it, meaning, if it's impermanent, even if I have a pleasant vedanā, how can I look to it for a sense of fulfilment, a lasting satisfaction? It's just coming and going. And if one hones the attention quite carefully, it's coming and going [snaps fingers repeatedly], twenty, you know, a hundred times quicker than that, just coming and going, coming and going. There's no point, there's really no point, it's completely futile to try and hang on. And rather than giving a sense of futility, actually that brings a sense of freedom, of liberation. There's a space: "Ah, what a relief. I don't even have to try and arrange all this stuff. I don't have to hold on."

Second way of working with the third characteristic, with this dukkha, it's a little bit more subtle -- just a little bit more subtle. There is the vedanā: pleasant or unpleasant. Let's take the example that it's unpleasant. There's a vedanā. And then there's the reaction to it. If it's unpleasant, that reaction will be pushing it away, rejection, aversion. Beginning to see -- this is, in a way, the next step of working -- beginning to see if you can notice: can awareness separate out the vedanā from the reaction? So there's the unpleasantness, and then there's my reaction to it. And can I see that they're two separate things? This reaction, if it's pushing away, if one is quite sensitive, one will notice it in the rest of the body. The sense of the body will contract somewhat. There'll be a sense of contraction there, of tightness in the body. This is telling us that there's some kind of aversion going on.

If I can separate it, if I notice that much, then is it possible that the reaction can be relaxed? Can I relax the reaction and just see: "Can I just not push it? Can I just not push it away? Can I relax the aversion or the pulling?" Sometimes we actually relax the body where we sense the pulling, and the aversion relaxes. Sometimes we find a way, inwardly, of just relaxing the aversion. This turns out to be really significant. What we begin to see and really feel -- and it becomes extremely obvious, not at all abstract -- we really begin to feel: suffering goes, there is no suffering if the relationship is okay. If the relationship is one of non-aversion, non-grasping, the suffering has gone from the experience. There can be unpleasant vedanā, or pleasant vedanā, or whatever it is, but the suffering has gone, because the relationship is okay. Sometimes we sort of know this intellectually, but working in this way, in a very physical way with the body, it's like we begin to embody that wisdom. We begin to feel it and know it for ourselves, in our cells. The vedanā, the feeling is not the problem. It's not at all a problem. Unpleasant feeling: not a problem. Neutral feeling: not a problem. Pleasant feeling: not a problem. The problem is in the aversion or the grasping. [32:39]

So just that much is hugely significant, to really, really take in that insight -- hugely significant. Might seem simple or kind of, "So what?" But it's very deep insight into: "Where does suffering come from, and how can we be free from suffering?" I'd also just like to say, when working with the vedanā, you can, again, work in a very microscopic way, or you can work in a spacious way. And there's something to be learnt with both. So feeling free to experiment.

Okay, so I know there's a lot of information, but just, in a way, to take it to the next level, and if it feels like, "This is not relevant to me," just, it can go in one ear and out the other. But some people have been practising with vedanā, so just to take it to the next level. If there's a sensitivity, and one has practised, you know, noticing the impermanence, etc., what then?

In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the talk on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha uses this word samudaya. It's a Pali word, samudaya. And it's interesting. This gets translated in different ways. What it really means is the origin -- sounds complex in English, but origination and dissolution factors of something, which means what it is that feeds something, and what it is that kind of allows something to fade. So every time, he goes through with each -- with the body, the feeling, the emotion. And then he has this little chorus kind of thing. And every time he says: "Notice what it is that feeds this, and notice what it is that allows it to fade. Notice the samudaya." Okay? Sometimes this is translated as just "Notice it coming and going," but actually I think the translation's a bit different. So we ask with vedanā: "What is it that's actually feeding the sense of pleasant, unpleasant, neutral? And what is it that calms it?" Again, this actually turns out to be one of the questions that was most central, that the Buddha kept asking himself in his period of practice before his enlightenment: "What is it that feeds? What is it that feeds, and what is it that fades and calms?"

So again, it turns out to be hugely significant. What feeds vedanā? One thing we can see is, mood feeds it -- my mind state. You know, this is quite obvious to see. If I'm irritable, if I'm in a bad mood, I'm basically looking at the world through the lens of that mood. And everything becomes irritable: the bird sound, your neighbour sneezing, coughing, everything -- you know, the body doesn't feel right. Everything sucks. Mood feeds it. And similarly, when the mood is open and spacious, how imbued the world is with lovely vedanā. So mood feeds it. To notice these relationships.

What about this question of microscopic/spacious? Is that a neutral factor? Or does the spaciousness of awareness actually influence the vedanā? To explore this, to explore this. When we work with what I was talking about before -- relaxing the aversion or the craving, relaxing the push and pull -- we push away what's unpleasant, we pull towards us what's pleasant -- when we relax that, relax the push and pull, we notice something else really significant. It's not just that the suffering goes out of experience because we've relaxed the push and pull -- something else. Something else happens. Relax the push and pull, and actually, the vedanā itself begins to calm, begins to fade a little bit.

And so if one practises in that way, just noticing the vedanā of experience, and just keep letting go of any push and pull that one notices, just keep letting go, and just keep letting go, what can happen is this calming of the vedanā, opening of the being, as a real sense of beauty and loveliness. So again, sometimes, I think, when we talk about vedanā, it just -- like my initial reaction -- just sounds so dry. If there's one thing I want to say, there's really a lot of beauty here, really a whole different sense of life, a whole different sense of being alive, and of experience. Just letting go and letting go and letting go, there's an opening and a calming of the vedanā.

Also, when I reflect on the vedanā as "not me, not mine, they're just happening," what effect does that have on the vedanā? Again, it usually brings a calming, a loveliness, a quieting of the vedanā. So this, again, what's the significance of that? What's the insight here? First of all, it means that the feeling-tone is not inherent in the object. So oftentimes we get, you know, this thing, and there's this food, or this person, or whatever it is -- they're just unpleasant, you know? What we begin to see, if we work this way, is that the feeling-tone is not actually inherent in that person. They are not inherently unpleasant, or some other event at the sense door. The feeling does not inherently belong in the object. It arises dependently. It needs a lot of conditions to come together for that particular vedanā. So we begin to start getting an insight into dependent arising. Nothing exists on its own. It's always a dependent arising -- always. So by itself, an object cannot give rise to a particular vedanā. [39:50]

If we go even more with this, if we take it a step further, there's something very, very odd, in a way, here. If you practise in this way, in this very lovely way to practise, just keep letting go, just keep relaxing the aversion, relaxing the grasping, just noticing, becoming sensitive to the aversion and the grasping, just keep relaxing that, what we begin to notice -- the vedanā, as I said, begins to calm. Why? Because there's a relationship between relaxing the push and pull and the vedanā. So the vedanā, the feeling is actually dependent on the push and the pull. But the push and the pull is dependent on what? It has to be dependent on the vedanā, because without the vedanā, there's nothing to push and pull. It's unpleasant -- I'm pushing that away. The push and pull needs the unpleasantness to push against. Push and pull needs feeling. Feeling needs push and pull. They're mutually dependent. Mutually dependent -- which comes first? What's going on here? This is dependent on this, and this is dependent on this. Something very odd is going on.

This is the beginnings of very deep insight into the groundlessness of all things. One of the aspects of the word "emptiness" is "groundlessness." We tend to think that things have a base, a ground. The teaching of dependent origination, on a very deep level, is pointing towards: all things -- inner, outer, whatever -- are groundless. There's no one thing that rests on anything by itself. Everything is somehow resting on each other. [42:08] The mind cannot really even begin to get around it, cannot begin to get around the nature of things, the true nature of things. Nothing is really standing on anything. Nothing is really existing by itself.

One also begins to see vedanā and the push-pull -- what, earlier in my practice, I spent maybe months patiently practising, learning to separate the two, and developing that kind of sensitivity, as I go deeper into practice, I find I actually can't separate them. If I look carefully, I actually cannot find where the vedanā ends and my reaction to it begins, where the push-pull ends and the vedanā begins. They're interpenetrating, mutually dependent, and inseparable. Vedanā is unfindable. My reaction is unfindable. All things are unfindable. All things are inseparable. So unfindability and inseparability -- also aspects of the word emptiness. Can't find anything at all, anything at all in the universe, outer or inner -- so-called outer, so-called inner -- that is really findable, really separate, really has any ground.

Another aspect of the meaning of the word emptiness is in relation to duality and sort of relativism. So we talk about pleasant and unpleasant, pain and pleasure. They are a pair, in the same way that, say, left and right are a pair, in the same way that up and down are a pair, in the same way that hot and cold, or right and wrong, or good and bad are a pair. They exist together and in dependence -- in dependence on each other. So left only has a meaning in relation to right. Up only has a meaning in relation to down. Pain only has a meaning in relation to pleasure. Good only in relation to bad. But somehow -- and this is very deep in the nature of what the Buddha calls ignorance itself -- in the nature of what is the fundamental delusion of consciousness is believing that things really exist independent of each other, as in, exist by themselves, that they really have a real meaning. And it seems that way. Of course it seems that way. I'm sitting here, and something's painful: "Of course it has a reality, of course it has an independent reality!"

If we can begin, actually, just to start questioning or admitting some doubt into the independent reality of something that seems so obvious as pain and pleasure. If you can just admit that they might be relative in the same way that left and right might be, it may be that through that -- maybe what's only a sliver of doubt -- through that, we actually begin investing pain and pleasure with less significance, and with less meaning, because we're seeing their relativity. We believe in them less as real things. I believe in pain and pleasure less as a real thing. I'm investing in it less. What happens? I actually notice them less. When I believe in them to be real, and I invest in them because of that belief, that investment is part of the perceptual process. It's part of perception, and the perception actually brings out pain and pleasure. They actually stand out really markedly to the consciousness.

This is what we're noticing in life: pain and pleasure. It becomes something. We're sitting in meditation, noticing pain and pleasure. They become very clear, very marked. If one consciously brings into mind the doubt that they have a real, independent existence, a real, inherent existence, what happens? Something very odd starts to happen. They actually begin to fade from consciousness, to fade from perception, because perception is not bringing them out. It's not drawing out that duality of pain and pleasure, of pleasant and unpleasant.

So this also is really strange. If I see this, if I feel this happening, what I see, what I understand is, I need to conceive, I need to have the conception of pleasant and unpleasant in order for them to appear. Usually we tend to think our conceptions, we conceive of how things are in the world, but the insight here is, we're seeing, what's actually appearing is dependent on the conceiving. If I don't conceive of pleasure and pain, they don't appear so strongly. We can see this to different degrees, you know. It's not necessarily a black or white thing.

So when I conceive of them, they're brought out in appearance by craving and aversion. What does this imply? It means ... or the question: is there a world? Inner or outer, is there a world? Is there the appearance of things apart from my conceiving, apart from conception? This is completely counterintuitive, completely and utterly counterintuitive. Of course we believe in the world independent of my conception! It's possible that practice can actually begin to turn that most basic assumption about the nature of reality, completely turn it on its head. Where is the world without my conception, without my conceiving? [49:45] It's empty.

Okay. Typically we give instructions, and in a way, there are two ways of working, just finally, two ways of working. One is to hear the instructions, basically moving through, just kind of moving towards: basically be aware of everything. So one can be sitting, being with the breath, and the practice is open to whatever comes up, whatever seems prominent, what some people call choiceless awareness. That's one way of working, just then including the vedanā in that. That's a possibility.

The way that the Buddha more often taught is, he would say, "Develop some calmness, to some degree," and then he says, "Take up your theme." And so the theme being either the body, or the vedanā, or whatever. And actually see: "Let me turn to this now, and deliberately keep my attention there, and explore it, and see what I can understand about that." Those are just two ways of working, both valuable.

So like I said, with the instructions, generally, an enormous amount of information. Just take what's useful, you know, take what seems like, "Ah, that's a piece that spoke to me, or that seems relevant to my practice right now," and the rest can leave for another time. So not to feel confused in one's practice. Just take what feels helpful.

Shall we just sit together for a minute or two?

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry