Sacred geometry

Attitude, Effort, Achievement, and View

Date20th December 2019
Retreat/SeriesPractising the Jhānas


I would like to talk now about effort and achievement, attitude and view. And a lot of what I'm going to say will keep its relevance, should be applicable, whatever level you're at, whatever stage of development you are through the jhānas. And as I said, the effort thing never goes away. It just becomes more subtle. But the attitude thing and the whole view -- all this is so important. And so it should apply -- maybe not all of it, but a lot of it should apply to any level we're talking about.

I meant to say this other night, but I'll throw it in now: it's interesting to look up the word samādhi in a Pali dictionary and in a Sanskrit dictionary, because it's actually a Sanskrit word, and see some of its historical uses. So samādhi almost always gets translated as 'concentration.' And I hope you can sense right now, I feel it's a great translation, and there are some problems that come with that translation: a kind of implicit, and then repeated, and then entrenched indoctrination that comes. We tend to think of it as meaning something, right? You've got that message, a little bit.

If you look up what the word means, it actually means 'agreement,' or like a reconciliation, like a group of people agree on something, or two people become reconciled. Or 'harmony,' like harmony in a village or something like that. That's one of its principal meanings. What does that imply about that word? What does it imply about your view? What does it imply about your conception? What does it imply about what you emphasize? I'm not going to say anything about it, but again, this is the invitation, the reminder to listen on your toes.

So, effort -- it's a constant question. We can talk about it at a very gross level. We can talk about it at a kind of macro-level and a micro-level. We can talk about it at extremely subtle levels. Effort and attitude and view -- I want to go into some of this. Sometimes what happens, often what happens, when a person loves the path and loves practice, and really has a good desire and eros for all this stuff, in the course of a retreat, in the course of practice, very easily we put too much pressure on: too much pressure on the practice, too much pressure on ourselves. Sometimes there are people who would do better with a bit more pressure. They're just a bit like, "Eh, it's cool. You know. Things come and go, and whatever. You know. It's not ... whatever," and actually could do with turning the heat up a little bit, working harder, more time on the cushion, etc.

But most -- I don't know [if it's] most -- maybe very common, especially in this kind of retreat, is somewhere along the line, it gets a bit too pressured. We put too much pressure on. And a lot of that is unconscious. So how can we take pressure off, if that's the case, in different ways? One other thing I just want to reiterate: body needs to relatively comfortable, certainly at this point in jhāna practice, in your journey in jhāna practice, for most of you. We don't want to put too much pressure on the body by thinking, "It's better to stay cross-legged. It's better. And I need to be in that over and over for hours and hours, and sit through the pain," etc.

As I mentioned, the first -- I don't know how many -- years of my vipassanā practice were mostly spent looking, being with, tolerating, working with, as best as I could, physical pain. It was sitting after sitting, hour after hour, month and year after year of retreat, etc. I would say that developed a lot. I mean, I look back at that youngster, and I think, you know, that's quite something, to just put up with all that and be willing to do all that. A lot got developed in terms of patience and will and resolve, and I'm not sure how much insight -- some insight, but I wouldn't say that was the primary thing. At one point, my teacher Narayan -- I can't remember the context -- I was telling her this, or we were discussing a retreat I was going on or something. And she said, "You know, it's great, and it's great that you're able to do that. But your practice might be getting a little narrow." Because if you asked me, what about the exploration of emotions and all kinds of other stuff, or samādhi, or this -- it was mostly just being with the pain. And as I mentioned, Christina [Feldman] suggested, "Why don't you try alternating postures?" And then, it was at that point that something opened. The pressure was taken off the body, and the samādhi could really, really then develop. So, pressure off the body.

Another way is through the view of what we're doing and the idea of what we're doing. And this is so much of what I want to talk about. [5:38] Sometimes, of course, "I'm on a jhāna retreat. I want to develop the jhānas. I want to develop my concentration," etc. Sometimes we have to reflect, or maybe oftentimes we have to reflect on the bigger picture of what we're developing here. I mean what you are developing just by trying, for instance, to keep your attention at the tip of your nose. So "I'm failing because I got distracted in thought again" is a view, and then a whole emotion and papañca and dukkha that's coming out of too narrow a view of what you're trying to develop. So as I said, if I include the fact that the hindrances and their arising have all kinds of potential for insight there, it enlarges the scope of my view, my picture of what I'm trying to do. That makes a huge difference. Then, when they're there, I'm not all upset. It's not a failure. I don't judge myself as a failure as a meditator or whatever. I'm developing sensitivity and all this. And maybe that's more important than focus and concentration. I'm developing all these resources, as we've said.

And a lot of this is not black and white. Sometimes another problem with view we have is everything's so black and white. Actually, where is the black and white, in terms of resources that one's developing, of well-being or patience, or whatever it is? I am developing concentration, but even that's not black and white. Patience, as I said, resolve, responsiveness, discipline -- all this is in the big picture of what's being developed, and when it's not going well in terms how well I'm sticking to these sensations, I need to open that view. Or at the beginning of a sitting, I really need to have a sense of the bigger picture of what I'm doing, what's being developed here. This makes a big difference. I'm, of course, developing mindfulness. Every time the mind wanders off, it's mindfulness that notices that the mind has wandered off. So it's a moment of mindfulness, and I have to see that. That's also part of what I'm developing. Don't let the view get too narrow, because like we said with the table analogy with only one [leg], too narrow is not enough base, and things will capsize very, very easily. [8:09] The wind blows a little bit, things get a little difficult, and we get very dejected. Something falls over.

Hopefully, I'm, over time, letting go of judgment. So every time the mind wanders, I judge less. And not only am I developing concentration, but maybe I'm developing, I'm taking care of working on that, too, just as a sort of integral, woven-in factor. All of these things are really, really important. And for some people, they're going to be -- the development of patience, the letting of self-judgment, the development of discipline, the development of resolve -- all this is actually going to be more important, more significant for your liberation and the healing of your heart and your life than attaining some jhāna. I really mean this. Some people, it's like, "Yeah, jhāna, great. But what about this?" What about that self-judgment? What about whatever it is?

I mentioned yesterday this kind of micro-habit -- remember, this kind of like, "Oh, it's not quite as good as it was yesterday. Could be better." That's also in the bigger picture of what's being developed. The influence of that kind of subtle, micro-level aversion or negative viewing -- the influence of that on our lives is huge. And so, if that's part of our bigger picture of what we're developing, that also expands the container of what we're doing, the view of what we're doing, and hence, the stability of our vessel. One more thing about that micro-habit: can I learn to let go of that micro-habit of "It's not good enough" and still work and play in the moment? So they're not contradictions. How can we have a direction that we're working or playing towards, and yet not have that negative "not quite good enough," or not let that run the show, cast its pallor and its flavour over the whole of the proceedings?

When is that a hindrance and a kilesa, this "It could be better"? When is that a hindrance, and when is it actually just a wise discernment that's actually part of this opportunism? When is letting go of this "Oh, it could be better" -- when is that a skilful shift in attitude, and when is it just laziness and inertia? "Eh, it's okay." We're actually just putting up with something, but it's coming out of laziness and inertia. [11:18] This is a really subtle question, really subtle inquiry.

Doing a jhāna retreat or practising jhāna long-term, developing that, it's going to really develop our steadiness, our capacity to stay steady long-term with whatever we're committed to, whatever we care deeply about in life -- the projects we want to see through, the service we want to give -- because we have more capacity, more resource. We're also training this moment-to-moment steadiness, of course, but it takes a lot of steadiness to just keep showing up and keep intending to do samādhi practice. So the steadiness you need to show up and to keep putting your mind in a certain direction -- you're actually cultivating the kind of steadiness it takes to be there for your long-term intentions, and stay steady with them, and your goals and projects, and what you really care about, and manifesting in your life in a way that works towards that. So steadiness, that capacity for steadiness, is certainly a result of jhāna, but it's also a cause. It's part of the causal, supporting conditions. All that's involved, and all that, I think, needs to be in the bigger picture. If the picture gets too small, we'll get miserable much more often, and self-judgmental and tight and everything.

Okay, so talking about taking the pressure off. Sometimes at the beginning, the beginnings of sittings are quite interesting moments. Sometimes, of course, you get right in, get right to work, get right to play, you know, just, "Okay, let's go." And sometimes it's just, you know, you can come in and just hang out for a while, just sit there, and there's a sort of light mindfulness, and really what you're doing is just relaxing, hanging out, just checking that you're not too tight about the whole thing. Sometimes, for some people, or for dedicated meditators, just adopting the posture automatically brings in a whole set of views and a whole bunch of tightness. It's just associated with coming into a meditation hall or sitting on a cushion in a certain posture, and we bring all this sometimes subtle, sometimes less-than-subtle psychological baggage with it. So at the beginning, sometimes it can be fruitful -- just hang out. Relax. Look around. It's taking the pressure off. And sometimes, in that, the energy body is actually allowed to become more harmonious, just naturally, organically, to some extent, because the pressure -- oftentimes unconscious pressure that we bring -- is actually squeezing the energy body in a certain way that's not helpful. [14:17]

And again -- I mentioned this on the opening -- I think sometimes open the intention: "Why am I here?" It gets so much about 'me' and 'my practice,' and 'my achievement,' and then 'me compared to someone else,' and all the rest of it. Can I actually keep opening it up so I'm actually not doing this just for myself? Maybe I'm not doing it primarily for myself. This kind of thing can be very, very significant, very pivotal in terms of its effects. And again, if I come and say, "I've got a three-week or twenty-three-day jhāna retreat," whatever it is, or "I've got a week retreat," or "I've got a month," or "I've got a year," or whatever it is. And then we can sometimes -- often consciously, and sometimes semi-consciously -- kind of have a timetable of achievement: "I guess by the end of the second week I'll be in there." And if it's a year, then you really go ... you know. [laughs] Or three months, or whatever it is. Timetables are really not helpful in this. Well, the help is suffering. [laughter] So if you want to suffer, give yourself a timetable of achievement, of what you hope to achieve when, or what you're pretty sure you're going to achieve when, or even what you're intending to achieve when. It's a form of hindrance, in a way, actually. Let it go, and work and play -- work or play, whatever you prefer.

What is it to work towards? So often, what happens in some spiritual contexts is, there's so much pain in the idea of a goal or achievement, or attaining this or that or whatever, that it's so painful, especially for Westerners, etc., they just throw it out. And then we get a teaching of "nowhere to go, nothing to do, da-da-da-da-da." And it's either this or that. Our life is not like that. There are places to go in our life. There is stuff to do. There's stuff that we care about. We need to have goals. We need to do stuff. We need to make stuff happen. It matters to our souls. How do I do that? How do I relate to working towards what I love, what I feel is important, playing in that way, and still not having a timetable, for example? Letting go of that. I don't have to get tight around it. Or it's an art to have a goal and work towards a goal, and be aware of where the tightness comes in. Maybe that's a better way of saying it. It will come in, if you love this stuff. You will suffer. You're going to suffer on this retreat with exactly that, if you care enough. If you don't care, you probably won't suffer. But if you care, you're going to suffer.

And the Buddha talked about this: "the distress of the contemplative," he calls it.[1] If you're not, something is wrong. Something, I would say, is wrong in your larger view, in your attitude. So it will come, and part of the art is, "Ah, there it is," and noticing, even at really subtle levels, what's feeding it? What view is feeding it? What way of going about things is feeding it? This is part of the art.

And related to that, again, this achievement thing: "Is this it? Have I got it? Is this the first jhāna? Am I in it? Am I out? Have I achieved it? Have I got it?" And that's, of course, related to this question that I've talked about several times: what qualifies as a jhāna? "Have I got it? Is this it?" depends on how I define "it," right? So again, oftentimes, this question of "What actually qualifies as the first jhāna? What qualifies as the whichever jhāna? What qualifies as jhāna?", it's often -- how to say it? -- just to dial down my inner language here -- it could often be posed in more intelligent ways, I think. It could often be posed in more fruitful ways. Oftentimes it's not. [laughter] What is important? What's important? Don't lose sight. Let your questions, and let your emphases, and let your attitudes, and let your practices -- everything comes from "What is important? What do I want? Where am I actually trying to get to?" And it's interesting, if you think about it. There's such a tension and tizzy and fuss around what is and what isn't a jhāna, either internally for a person, or in terms of polemic and argument and all that stuff.

If you think about, I don't know, something like mindfulness or another factor on the eightfold path, do we have the same kind of fuss about that? Or the seven factors of awakening? Most people, with all this other stuff -- "What is mindfulness? Is this mindfulness? Or is this not mindfulness? Is that a moment of it?" It's not so black and white. Or mettā is an even better example, because we were talking about it before. Yes, we have to acknowledge, it's helpful to define mettā. What are we talking about? We're not talking about, like, "If you don't love me back, I'm going to jump out the window." That's not mettā. So it's good: "Okay, mettā is this. It's unconditional. It's non-attached. It's universal." This is good, you know -- wishing for well-being. It's good to define what mettā is. But the practice of mettā, you know, sometimes it's stronger, sometimes it's weaker, as we were just saying. It has all kinds of sub-emotions or flavours. It's a complex of lots of different -- or sometimes there's no emotion there, and it's just an intention. All that is mettā, you know. Sometimes, at different times, it's more or less purified of its near enemy, attached love. Right? It's a spectrum, and all of that is included. And all of it counts as mettā, right? It should.

Why are we thinking about jhāna -- first jhāna, third, whatever it is -- as something in any way different? Why has that one -- what's going on? Somehow, so tenaciously and unquestioningly, we're conceiving of jhāna as something different, like this one word has got so charged. And as I say, I just put this question: is it possible to think and relate to all this stuff with a little more intelligence? Let's just say that. So yes, sometimes it's better to just drop that question, if one's fretting about it. And the fretting can be completely non-verbal. I'll come back to this at the end. I'm fretting over, "Am I in or out?" And I'm not even thinking, "Am I in or out?" Just get into it. Just enjoy it. Just work or play or seek to maximize your enjoyment. [21:43]

With respect to view and attitude and emphasis and all that, did I say, yesterday, quality over quantity? I did say that, right? Yeah. Oftentimes, mostly, I would say it helps it to prioritize the quality of attention over the quantity of attention -- meaning, "How long in time before I get distracted?" It's still important, that sustaining the attention or holding it on something. But I would say most people do much better putting that secondary in importance to the quality. And what do we mean by quality? Wholeheartedness is part of quality. How wholeheartedly, in this moment, can I open to, and give, and become intimate with, and become interested in, and give myself to whatever it is I'm paying attention to? And this is one of those things -- okay, so it's really important at a micro-level here. It's also really important in life. You know, the capacity, the ability, the willingness to be wholehearted -- sometimes that's what's missing in a person, not just in their concentration practice, but in their life as well. It's an important thing. How wholehearted can I be in this moment, with this thing, with this person, whatever it is, with this passion, with this issue, with this whatever?

So quality means wholeheartedness, but also some of the things we talked about yesterday: this modulation of intensity. Quality doesn't just mean intensity on '11' all the time. It means the responsive tuning of the intensity of the attention. And if you say, "I'm actually not sure I know what that means, intensity, or I can feel what that means," it's something I would encourage you to experiment with. Play with it. Get a sense of shifting the gears or turning the dial up and down of the intensity of the attention. Because again, back to this issue of inertia: sometimes it's like, "I'm paying attention. I'm paying attention. What's that? I'm just paying attention. Okay, there's nothing to talk about. I'm paying attention." "Are you with your breath?" "Yeah, I'm paying attention to my breath." But the inertia, there, is not taking the trouble to actually play with this, to get a sense of, "Oh, this is what it is, this is what it feels like for an intense attention. This is what it feels like to back off the attention." And sometimes we just haven't explored that because there's a certain amount of inertia. We just think of attention, mindfulness, whatever it is. So delicacy, lightness of attention -- this is all related. We talked about it yesterday.

The relative spaciousness also is part of the quality. What kind of spaciousness of attention helps? So back to when we talked about pīti earlier today, you know, which mode? This is all part of the quality, being willing to play with the relative spaciousness of the attention.

Just to throw out a little bit, sometimes, at some points (talking still about quality of attention), there's really a place for a kind of poetic or even imaginal sensibility in relation to whatever it is I'm paying attention to -- the breath, for example. Sometimes, for most beginners on most retreats, we tend to [say]: "Pay attention to the sensations, the bare sensations. Don't imagine. Don't think anything," etc. Then when we introduce the energy body, then we say, "It's okay to imagine. And it's not really about sensation. Well, it's a kind of sensation, but it's a different kind of sensation." But actually, what about if it's neither just sensation nor just energy? What would it be, sometimes -- on this kind of retreat, it's like adding a spice to the meal -- what is it to breathe the breath of the All-Merciful Allah? What is it to breathe God's breath? Now, I just have that view lightly in relation to the breath. What happens?

Now, of course, that might not work for you at all. There's no formula here. The point is about, there are ways of sensing whatever it is you're sensing, whatever it is you're concentrating on, and sensing it with more poetic or imaginal sensibility. The breath of the beloved, the breath of the divine, the breath of the Buddha-nature -- these are just examples. Or the breath tinged, somehow: I'm breathing mercy. I'm breathing in and out compassion, whatever it is. It may be, in that (and for some of you that know the imaginal practice; I'm not going to explain it), may be that the whole sense of self at that point becomes imaginal. That may be okay. Again, we're back to intention. What's my primary intention here on this retreat? We don't really want to get into a whole imaginal thing, etc., but it's almost like titrating how much of that imaginal sense or poetic sensibility there is in the mix of what's going on. So as I said, just a little bit of this spice in -- it can ignite something, instead of a humdrum "Nothing's really happening." A little bit of that can change the whole relationship. Why? Go back to what I said before: what's most primary in pīti arising? Open-heartedness, openness of being -- that's actually kind of what makes the most difference.

[27:59] Years ago, Kirsten and I went to visit -- we had a friend who's a scholar in Berlin, the guy I was learning Sanskrit from. And he gave me these texts from caves in Afghanistan, Buddhist caves in Afghanistan, in Sanskrit. And they were versions of the Ānāpānasati Sutta, the Buddha's mindfulness of breathing. But they had all kinds of things like, "Imagine breathing a blue breath," or with colour and imagery in them. I lost them, unfortunately. [laughter] They weren't the originals! [laughter] But anyway, that sort of thing is in the tradition. So a little bit of this, a little bit of this, titrate a little bit, a drop of this essential oil or whatever -- it can spark something. A dash of spice in the meal. But it's all very delicate, very subtle. Sometimes when people talk about, like, tonglen, breathing in and out compassion -- sometimes when people practise that way, it's all very heavy. It's all very clunky and kind of gross. I'm talking about something much, much more subtle here. It's really like a little drop of something into a mixture.

[29:17] Okay, back to this -- I probably won't bash it much after this talk. But again, so easily we can come -- from our past, from our indoctrination -- to think of, "What are we doing here? We're developing our focus, developing our concentration, or somehow trying to be or get into a state where there isn't thought." And then we measure the whole thing with, "How long have I been on this object? How much is thought arising, etc.?" Could that view be part of our inertia? Could we have inertia around that view? As I said, some of those things that get emphasized are actually, if you look at the whole totality of what the Buddha said about all this, they're just a phrase here and there. Somehow they've got extracted, repeated, emphasized, indoctrinated. What would it be to emphasize at times, or instead, or even primarily, this idea of actually seeking to cultivate and to maximize, even, pleasure and enjoyment? The exploration of subtlety, the exploration of the whole territories anyway, just exploration and love of exploration, and love of what opens? What would it be if those were the primary intentions and emphases, rather than focus, concentration, being thought-free, etc.?

Earlier, I think I said, depends on how much experience you have, but some people, at some points in their practice, might be really good to drop the whole jhāna framework, the whole framework of ideas of jhānas for a while, and actually maybe just think about insight practice and samādhi practice. And the intention with samādhi practice is not so much focus and concentration, but as I said, this well-being, cultivation of well-being, pleasure, enjoyment. Going back to "What does samādhi mean?", harmonization, agreement, reconciliation. What does that suggest? What does it feel like? And in dropping the whole jhāna framework, we're also dropping this question of (or it's much less) "Is this it now? Have I got it?" Sometimes what that does, that question, is it creates a kind of subtle over-excitement in the moment, or a grasping or a snatching. And the Buddha actually says in the suttas when he describes the jhānas: "Don't snatch. Without snatching at the first jhāna, without snatching at the pīti."[2] But the snatching comes out of a certain attitude, out of a certain view, out of a certain mind state. [32:33] It's something that happens in the moment that comes out of a view. Do you see how important view is? And in dropping all that system of the jhānas, [there's] actually less self-judgment, because the self doesn't have this whole scale, this ladder by which to grade itself, of measurement, and the whole achievement mentality. A lot of these views will actually just work against the samādhi deepening and against the jhāna kind of coming together or opening.

So sometimes, for some people, at certain stages of their practice, actually just drop the whole framework of eight jhānas, and just think of, split it in two: there's insight practice, and there's samādhi practice. Samādhi is about having a really good time. [laughter] Actually, insight is as well, the way I teach it. So it's just slightly different how you go about it. I'll explain the difference. In insight practice, it should be really nice. It should open up a really nice time, because in insight practice, what we're doing is, we're letting go of clinging in the moment. It's clinging that causes dukkha. An insight way of looking, in my definition, is something that releases clinging. It therefore should bring relief, release, and it feels nice. But what we're primarily interested in, then, when we're doing insight practice, is that whole process: where's the clinging? How do I let go of it? What ways of looking work to let go of clinging? And what happens in my sense of self, world, dukkha, reality when I let go of the clinging? So all that -- it's definitely a good time, but it's a certain kind of good time.

Samādhi practice is more about, well, here's this lovely quality that's arisen. And there can be many different ones. Let me really, as I said, nuzzle into it, or open myself to it. Let me really get into that. And I'm less concerned with these other questions, primarily, about clinging and reality and all that. So they're both -- it should be nice. [laughter] Okay, so if a person lets go of the jhāna framework for a while, and then they can kind of begin to notice, gradually, the different shades in their experience. Just thinking about samādhi and these lovely qualities, and enjoying them, slowly, slowly, I begin to discern between these different shades and qualities and frequencies. And then at some point, you can reintroduce the jhāna framework in relation to that, with Post-it notes.

Other people, as I said, really need to discern more. It's really the time in their practice where they need to make more discriminations, more discernments between "This is this kind of pleasure. This is this kind of realm. And this is this. And how is it different? And what are the different territories? And what are the sub-territories there?"

And let's go back to this thing: what's my playground? What does it mean to develop mastery? If we don't discern with all these territories, the fruit we get out of it will be much, much less. And I know meditators who can get well-being, and they can sit in the well-being for hours, actually. And they've been sitting in the same well-being for about twenty years -- I mean, not without interruption, you know, but twenty years of their practice, because they didn't want to discern, when they could have discerned when it first came up between, say, pīti and happiness, or the different shades of happiness. And so what happened was it just became kind of like, over time, all these qualities got mixed together. It was a nice soup, but it was just a soup. Here at Gaia House, a few years ago -- I don't know if it was in your time as a coordinator, but they used to have leftover soups. So basically, all the leftover lunches, at the end of the week, would get mixed into a pot, heated up, and that would be ... [laughter] And of course it didn't taste of anything. It just tasted of nothing, really. People would still be very appreciative, but ... [laughter] It was nice, but it's not that you could differentiate any flavours in there. If we don't discriminate, the real danger is you're just left with a soup of niceness that actually never really develops. It never really develops and brings the liberation and the opening of certain territories. So again, I contradict myself. Different people have different needs at different times. [37:25]

With regard to effort as well, in relation to everything we're saying, sometimes less effort is more productive in the moment, actually backing off. So that's kind of implicit in a lot of what I've said. Sometimes even a slight over-efforting can disturb things in different ways. Sometimes that disturbance can be extremely gross, in fact, when the effort is too much. We'll maybe talk about that sometime soon. And sometimes the disturbance can just be really, really subtle. But over-effort has an impact. I go back to this analogy of a potter crafting a vase or a pot on a wheel. Sometimes, with the hands, you're going to press with more pressure, and sometimes with less pressure. And that's what's appropriate to what I'm trying to shape right then. In a way, the hands are always pressing. So it's just that -- if the hands on the clay are the analogy of attention -- the attention's always there, but how it's pressing affects what arises. How much pressure affects the shape that's created. And that's responsive, and it's variable, and it's improvised.

It might also be that (again, stretching the analogy a little bit) the size -- so I could have my whole span of my hand shaping this big vase or this particular area where it curves, and I've got it like that. Or maybe there's a certain area where I just want a little kind of place where it narrows. Then I just put my fingers there. And that's going to do something. So again, the size, the pressure, all of this -- it's going to shape what arises. And all of it's improvised, responsive, sensitive, variable. [39:37]

The Buddha gives several images. He talks a lot about right effort, balanced effort. You probably know these similes, but I'll mention them again. He talks about trying to hold a quail, which is a very small bird, and holding that in your hands -- too loose, it flies away; too tight, and you're going to crush it.[3] Or another analogy he gave to a musician, a lute player -- he said it's like tuning the strings: too tight, you snap the string; too loose, you can't play anything. Well, you can, but it's going to sound ... not very good. So there's always this question, and -- I've said this before -- it's always a kind of sensitive, responsive question: what's the effort? But if we talk about effort, as I mentioned a while ago, we can talk about a kind of micro-level of effort, which means, in this moment, what does the intensity need? What does the delicacy need? All that.

But also the view in this moment. Sometimes we talk about view, [and we] think, "Oh, it's up here." What I really want to communicate is, whatever view you have up here about the big picture of practice and where you're going, it inevitably filters down, or its implications filter down to your micro, moment-to-moment decisions in practice, and navigations, and what you do. We want to see this and understand this, and understand the power of views. So part of the micro-level effort thing is also the sensitivity and the playing with: what view am I having right now about what I'm doing, what I'm emphasizing, etc. -- my attitudes?

And there's a macro-level, the question of effort on a macro-level. That means, like, "Do I get up and just go for a walk now? Is it enough? Do I need a rest? How many hours a day am I engaging in formal practice? Is it too much? Am I squeezing too much?" Or actually, is it like, "I could do more"? You know, the hall's open, really, really, 24/7, and the walking room as well. So you might have, like, everyone else is on breakfast wash-up, and you could do a number of things there. But you could come and either sit or walk. Sometimes we just get into, "I'm used to being on retreat, and I sit this much." And actually, it might be more. So this whole macro-level of effort, you know: "Do I need to back off? Do I need to do more?" And again, the larger views are part of the macro-level as well.

In part of my description or definition of what mastery involved, I mentioned that at a certain point, it involves being able to walk around in a jhāna, or practising doing that. So this is an interesting one, because if you get to that point, or when you get to that point, you say, "Okay, I'm going to do that," and you might walk around and go for -- whatever it is -- a twenty-minute walk or whatever it is. And you're in the jhāna, or an hour walk, and it felt like, "Wow, that was great. I was really there, and I was really in this, whichever state of well-being it was, and right with the energy body, and that was where my primary focus was, and the feet were able to just find their way." And then you come back with the subtle view, "This sitting is going to be amazing now." And it might be! It might, really. I'm not speaking so much about, "Careful of that." That's what you usually hear on insight retreats: "Oh, careful of that." I'm not speaking so much about that. I'm speaking just about, we don't always know, because it's an energy question. So it might be, it might indeed -- the fact that you've been in jhāna might really put you in a different kind of springboard for the next sitting or walking, formal walking period. But it also might be that having done that actually takes a lot of energy. And then you come and, actually, you realize, "Oh, I'm a bit tired now." Or the mind doesn't quite have the energy. So it's still really worth experimenting with, when you get to that point, being able to do that and practise that.

But it's an interesting thing. So effort, energy -- jhānas bring energy, unquestionably, but they also take energy. It's a lot of work. You're putting in a lot of work, just again and again and again, working in these ways, playing in these ways. That's part of the whole art of being on retreat, and part of the whole art of practice is getting a little bit wise and sensitive to energy levels. And it's not always possible to predict it in advance, when there's going to be a dip or when "Now I'm actually tired from the work I've done, and I need to rest." Sometimes the mind will need to rest. It really needs to rest from these kind of efforts.

Another interesting thing -- and again, this is perhaps something that you will run into after you have, or once you've had, quite a bit of experience with different jhānas. It's possible you're in a jhāna, and then you lose it a little bit, or you space out, just for a couple of moments or something, a few moments. And then you bring the mind back, and in bringing it back, after your couple of moments of spacing out, it comes back at a deeper level. That's interesting. I would say, two conclusions or ponderings to take from that. (1) One is, maybe spacing out is not always necessarily a disaster. So if I'm too quick with the self-judgment, then say, "Hold on. Let's see. Let's see." Don't immediately assume that. (2) The second thing to wonder about is that, if that happens, might it be an indication that I was, without realizing it, just subtly over-efforting in the first place? And when I spaced out, actually what happened is I just loosened. The effort got loosened, and it was that that allowed the deepening. I don't know, but to me that's very worth thinking about. So it might be an indication, and that should tell me something: "Okay, well, let's maybe try going back in, and having a little bit more looseness for a while, in terms of the effort, a little bit less on the effort pedal."

And again, this probably applies more to once you have had different experiences of jhāna, but it might also apply to working with energy body experiences: sometimes what can creep in is we come to expect to be able to access this or that experience or jhāna or quality of energy. And in a way, that's actually good. It's fine and good that we can expect that. And that's part of practice maturing, that one can go and have a reasonable expectation of this or that arising, and being able to get into that. But easily that expectation can then become a kind of subtle, subtle demand for this or that to arise, or to be as good as it usually is, or how it was yesterday. And there's a subtle stance. It might not involve a lot [of thought] -- it might not involve any thought. But it's just a subtle kind of demand or stance there.

Again, just a slight, subtle shift of view: rather than that, again, why don't we think about picking up on, noticing, becoming sensitive to, and then attuning to whatever frequencies are there in the mix, in the mix of the energy body, of the emotion, of the lovely stuff that's there? And that's different. So it might be a slightly different mix, but the question is, "What is there? And what can I attune to?", rather than a demand. The very tuning to frequencies in the energy body mix, the very tuning to frequencies in the mix of the citta, will amplify the frequency. [48:38] So I have to notice it, which takes a certain sensitivity. I have to be willing to tune on it -- that's the responsiveness. And then I have to attune to it. And the attuning will amplify. And that's a different thing -- I'm not demanding; I'm seeing what's here. What's possible here? What actually is here? And then attuning. That's different than demanding something. That demand can, as I said, be very, very subtle.

Going back to what I said about pīti, which actually also applies, certainly, for different factors of the primary factors in the first four jhānas, even -- actually, no, all the jhānas, perhaps. In the meditation, part of the work and play that we talked about, part of this kind of direction of increasing, maximizing pleasure, that licking the honey out of the cup, or whatever it was, you could say, in soulmaking terms (I'm just throwing this out very briefly; it doesn't matter if you're not familiar with this), there's actually an eros for that quality. But it's eros in the small definition: it's this wanting more contact, wanting more intimacy, wanting to penetrate, wanting to open. Those of you who know the soulmaking, you recognize that. It's eros, but it's eros in the small definition, because we're not, at that point, letting it go into an image -- too much of an image, or a whole big [image], where it expands the psyche, logos, and everything. But it's eros in the small definition. Outside the meditation, you can have eros with the fantasy, with the image, etc., eros in the bigger definition, i.e. eros that is allowed to stimulate psyche and logos and the whole soulmaking dynamic.

If that doesn't make any sense, forget about it. It doesn't matter. What matters right now, in the moment-to-moment meditation, it's the seeking of the pleasure, the enjoying it, the getting into it. Get into it. In the larger, outside of the meditation, and actually in the meditation, both, the view of the self on the path is absolutely crucial. What's my view of my self as a practitioner, as someone walking the path? So I've known people with all kinds of actually deep experiences in meditation over the years, and something's not right in the view of the self on the path, the view of self as practitioner. And there's very little liberation that comes from it. The whole way their psychology is construing or holding the self as meditator: have this experience, that experience, da-da-da-da-da-da, understand the idea about emptiness, even had certain fading, etc. -- something's not working. Some connection is kind of jammed the wrong way.

Sometimes in relation to jhāna (I don't know if I've said this in a talk before; I've certainly said it in certain interviews), we can get so tight around the achievement-oriented[ness], and then self-judging. And you know, one way [to] kind of take the pressure off -- and then I'll say something opposite -- one way of taking the pressure off is: okay, what we're doing here (with the jhānas business, and the pīti, and the pleasure, and all these different wavelengths of pleasure) is something akin to, okay, you're tired, and your back hurts. And at home, or wherever you are, there's a sofa, and it's got lots of cushions on it. And you're just kind of arranging these cushions so that they feel as best as they can feel. And I say, "Oh, now, if I shift this one, that's better. Now, oh, that's better." That's what you're doing. Are you going to get into a big self-judgment thing about that? That's essentially what we're doing. That's one way of thinking about it. Take the pressure off in the view. We're just kind of like, "Okay, here's this body experience, here's this mind experience, here are these, you know, everything involved in that, and here's this energy body. What will help to make it feel good?" And it's just not a big deal. And you play with that until it feels good, or to maximize how good it feels.

At another level, and coming back to the eros thing, the view of the self on the path -- we do want that, or it's possible that that can be a real sense of blessedness, of gift, humility, desire, love, image of the tradition, image of the Buddha, image of the teachers, image of self on path -- all this becomes imaginal in the fully soulmaking sense of the word. And as the Buddha said, it will still have pain at times. There will still be distress, frustration, disappointment, tightness. "The distress of the contemplative," he calls it. But that can be there, and it's part of the cut of eros. It's part of the bigger soulmaking fantasy. For those of you who know about soulmaking (I'm not going to explain all that now), we need to have a sense of the self on the path, an image, a construal of the self as practitioner on the path, in a way that's nourishing, in a way that really makes sense, that holds us well through all the ups and downs. So all this that we're touching on today -- all this is relevant to, and even causes the different and various difficulties we encounter in practice. Again, we tend to have such a narrow view of what we need to do.

But all this business is oftentimes actually causal of the difficulties, and more causal than what we tend to think of as the problem: inability to access jhāna. Again, I can think of one meditator who was actually meditating for decades -- decades, decades, decades, lots of retreats, etc., and she wants to develop her samādhi, which means, for her, 'concentration' and 'focus.' "Oh, my concentration is so bad," which almost everyone says. She says, "My mind wanders, and thoughts come," and again, she's measuring in terms of exactly what I said. Maybe not put those things as priority: "How much thought comes? Is my mind wandering?" But she is measuring that way. She says, "I need to really get into this before I can do any other kind of practice. I really need to develop my focus. I really need to develop my concentration."

And actually, knowing her fairly well as a student, she actually needs, I would say -- much more important than she needs to develop her focus, and keep her mind steady on something, and all that, actually what needs to happen is an inquiry, an exploration, or a development in practice of being able to give herself fully to something. That's a very different thing. What is it to really show up? I give myself. Now, there's a kind of, "I give myself. I really care about this." There's a kind of macro-level. And there's this micro-level, like when I did the sunbathing thing: opening, surrendering. The issue, I would say, is more with that. It's not about keeping the mind steady and her ability to do that. The reason she can't do that is because there's something in her that is holding back -- energetically, heartfully, in terms of her soul, in her life as well, in terms of opening and surrendering. And so for her, there's very rarely any kind of build-up of energy in the being. Something's just blocking it. Something won't open to it. Energy is not permitted to gather. And actually, those are the primary issues. Those are the primary causes of inability to deepen in samādhi and access that. But just seeing in a very different way. So it's a different view.

But you can also see, one can also see (and we've talked about it), you see some of these very same issues manifesting in her life. It's not like, "Oh, that's just a problem of focus and concentration." These kinds of issues -- about allowing energy to gather, about being wholehearted, about really giving herself, getting behind something, about really opening -- actually manifest in her life too, and cause all kinds of, let's say, limitations. So a shift in view, a shift in understanding, then a shift in the emphasis of, "What am I actually practising here? What would make a difference? What's important?"

Again, sometimes, oftentimes, human beings -- the body isn't open. The energy body, as a sort of habit, is not so open. So most people wouldn't [notice] -- it's not obvious. I mean, you get people with really hunched-over, contracted postures; I'm not talking about that. I'm talking something much more subtle that's just palpable, but not obvious to, let's say, most people. And sometimes this has to do with trust. And sometimes it has to do with, and it's related to, sometimes you see, "Oh, the person like that, also, for instance, it's very hard for them to feel something like devotion." All these things are related. You say, "It's about the concentration." It's maybe not about the concentration; it's about something else, about the heart and the soul, and how the heart and the soul, over time, shape or limit a certain typical stance or typical way that the energy body is. Energy body always moves; it's always opening and closing. But there can be a sort of -- typically, it's just a little bit closed, so certain things just are not possible. And again, maybe to learn to practise trusting in the opening, trusting in surrendering, just slowly, slowly learning how to do that with the energy, practising that.

Or as I alluded to before, sometimes what happens is, people get quite a tightness, or over-excitement (which might be very, very subtle) creeps in, right when, actually, there's a lot of focus, there's a lot of concentration, there's a lot of pīti. They're maybe right on the edge of the first jhāna, if we even talk about edges. But what I want to say is, they're thinking too much about edges. And that view, it's too black and white. "Over there -- if I can just get over there," even if over there is like, metaphorically, two inches, "that will be the jhāna." Again, it could be a verbal thought. It could be not a verbal thought. And that very black-and-white view is allowing a tension to creep in, an impulse to snatch and grasp, which causes a problem, a tightness. What about instead just getting into it? Getting into what is there that is lovely, and enjoying that, and not worrying about where the boundary is? Relishing, really relishing what's here, versus the idea of attaining something, and then measuring whether I've attained it. [1:01:06] What I'm interested in is just relishing that honey.

Last thing. I mentioned that the Buddha talked or described the jhānas at times as 'perception attainments.'[4] And what we are doing, I would say, the most fruitful, the truest, the most ontologically valid, and the most liberating way of conceiving what we're doing in all this, is that we're playing with perception. And in that playing with perception, certain 'perception attainments' will be opened. And that way of viewing, I would say, is much more significant than "We're practising an unwavering attention," "We're practising an intensity of a laser-beam attention that dissects or magnifies things, like looking at things through a magnifying glass," or that "We're simplifying," or even that "We're playing with energy."

I do talk a lot about energy when I teach. Sometimes, like I said, it seems to be helpful for a lot of people. Some people really don't like it because it doesn't resonate at all for them; they don't get a sense of it. But you know, then, we can relate all this to qigong and all that, and it makes sense to talk about energy. But very often, then, we can think, we can kind of get locked in a certain view: that "We're really doing something here with the energy, or with the energy body, or with the body, or with the chakras," or with the whatever it is. Or "We're getting the energy body to this or that state of energy," or whatever. And that becomes locked as a view. "I'm working on this contraction," whatever it is. "I'm opening the energy here." Sometimes that's really, really helpful as a view, and we can talk in energetic terms. And some of these examples of difficulty, it's actually easier to talk about them in energetic terms, and how they relate to life. And sometimes, a person is just -- they've had enough of that kind of thinking, and it's not the final truth of what's going on. It's just a certain way of conceiving of it, a way of construing it, a way of perceiving it.

So this idea of perception attainments, and the idea of playing with perception -- that's the most radical shift of conceptual framework, and the most important shift of conceptual framework that you could make, and really understand what that means, and use that in a way that's actually fruitful rather than just a "Yeah, yeah, yeah." It has everything to do with a radical and deep understanding of emptiness. The jhānas, what we're doing in the jhānas -- I didn't explain. I rushed through it at that point in the talk. We'll come back to it. But if I start to understand the jhānas as, "We're playing with perception, and then perception attainments are opened through our playing with perception," this integrates completely into our understanding of the deep emptiness of all things. That's the most important thing in the Dharma, I would say. The most important thing in the Dharma is perception: understanding perception and playing with perception. And you can construe of the whole Dharma as actually being primarily interested in that: playing with perception. Everything -- even things that sound like they have nothing to do with that -- you can understand the whole Dharma as basically an exploration of playing with perception, and then a taking of certain conclusions and certain liberations from that.

What do I mean by 'perception'? Perception -- saññā is the Pali word. Often it gets translated as something like 'labelling.' That's not at all what I mean when I say 'perception.' By 'perception,' I do not mean labelling: 'green,' 'Sarah,' 'cushion.' Actually it's not a 'cushion'; it's a 'bench.' By 'perception,' I mean, it's an equivalent term for 'experience' or, better, 'appearance.' I use these three terms -- and 'phenomenon' -- interchangeably: perception, appearance, experience, phenomenon. So a 'perception attainment' is not a 'labelling attainment.' If I were to say, if I were to label Sari 'banana,' and Kirsten 'pomegranate,' and Julian 'kiwi' ... [laughs] I'm not playing with labels here! I'm playing with the fabrication of experience, the fabrication of appearance. 'Energy' is a fabricated perception, a fabricated appearance. It's not 'energy.' It's a fabrication. It's a certain fabrication of appearance, experience. This kind of energy is this kind of fabrication, this kind of conjuring, this kind of weaving and sculpting of appearance and experience. The first jhāna is this kind of weaving, conjuring, fabricating of experience, appearance, perception. The eighth jhāna is -- actually, that's a bad example. We'll come back to that later. [laughter]

Papañca involves a certain fabricating of experience. Just the normal, everyday consciousness is a certain fabrication of perception, experience, appearance. Life is the fabrication of perception, experience, appearance. Meditation is the exploration of the fabrication of perception, experience, appearance. Skill and art in meditation is skill and art in the fabrication and the various fabrications and what they lead to. Do they lead where we want to go? If I want it to lead to unfabricating or skilful fabricating, or this kind of liberation, or this kind of state, or that kind of quality, or that kind of energy, or that kind of jhāna -- perception attainments. And that has everything to do with emptiness, which basically is related to the fabrication of experience, the fabrication of the sense of existence at different times.

So the jhānas are completely woven into the whole sense of what's most important in the path. It's a way of conceiving of the whole of the Dharma. Seeing it that way, with that kind of view, is very different than other ways we can conceive of what we're trying to do here. And as I said, for some of you -- okay, I do talk a lot about energy, and some of you are very happy with that language, but it can sometimes get too ... as if it's a real thing. If you're one of these people, what would happen to just rethink the whole thing, rethink your practice, rethink energy, rethink jhāna, rethink Dharma in terms of perception -- which, as I said, doesn't mean labelling?

Okey-doke. It's 5:45. Would you like to end now, or are there some questions that it might feel helpful to ask? Does it feel like there might be? Just get a sense of who might feel like they might want ask. Why don't we take just a few questions? This will be part three. And then, yeah, let's see how that goes. Yeah.

  1. Cf. "distresses connected with renunciation" (nekkhammasitāni domanassāni) at SN 36:22 and MN 137. ↩︎

  2. Source unknown. Cf. the similes of the water snake and the raft at MN 22, as well as the simile of grasping at branches AN 4:178. ↩︎

  3. MN 128. ↩︎

  4. AN 9:36. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry