Notes on ‘Taking a Moment’ – fourth dhamma talk in the 2011 Dhamma Talk Series: The Dance of Emptiness.
Talks kindly hosted by the Dance Centre, School of Performing Arts, Sukhumvit 24, Bangkok.
Below are notes, quotes, links – in case anyone who listened to the talk would like to follow up on any of the topics. It is not a transcript of the whole talk. The video will become available one day, when we get the hang of video editing software….
Topic of this talk:
Taking a Moment (or the Stainless Deconstruction)
Nothing you can do will make the world ok. There are too many facets, too many problems. But there is a way to deconstruct the world, by staying in the present moment. This doesn’t mean you ignore responsibility, nor does it mean to pay attention to what you are doing. Everything gets reduced to a size you can handle, and the Exit Strategy becomes clear
The eight talks in the series this year are all about Emptiness. There are lots of teachings in Theravada (original) Buddhism. They are to be taken as a number of models – that may or may not be mutually exclusive. But one common theme with all these model/teachings is that they are designed to take you towards emptiness. They are always pointing backward to the observing mind, rather than outwards to the relentless obsessions of ‘the world’.
Emptiness is not a zombie state. You do not switch off, or get absorbed in a meditation object until you know nothing else. To the contrary, you feel brighter and more alert as you empty out. Like most Spiritual rules, it works in paradox. The more you empty out, the more fulfillment you feel.
It also takes effort. The Buddha said you make an effort like a man who’s hair is on fire works hard to put that fire out – that’s how much effort you should be making. If you want to see this in action – youtube has plenty of clips.
This is in stark contrast to many modern teachers who are always advising people to calm down, let go, make the mind peaceful…. Perhaps there is something to be said for this approach with Westerners who have busy minds. Though eventually, just calming the mind down is not the right way. It takes a vibrancy and wakefulness to be Empty. Summed up by one one word – Equipoise.
This is something experienced in meditation – not a character statement. A great meditator may not be one who displays equipoise in daily life and v.v.
The first thing that has to go is your conceptual world. Emptiness views things as they really are in the present. It does not work through the conceptual mind.
Concepts are really cherished by people. And they have a true value – you can’t get by without them.
Research shows that the feeling of tackling a conceptual problem and working it out gives you a chemical (hormonal) rush. It is a physical addiction, that runs deep.
A fun example of the conceptual world raised in the Dhamma Talk was the discussion on whether it was humans who domesticated the dog, or if it was dogs that domesticated humans. The argument is about evolution, and how the dog’s behaviour (they are descended from silver wolves) came to evolve into something so human friendly.
Another example was the ‘Monkey Gland‘ craze. In the 1920’s a surgeon named Serge Voronoff was trying to reverse effects of ageing, such as senility, by grafting slices of monkey testicles onto humans. It was believed to improve sex drive, memory, energy and prolong life. Thousands had this procedure, and claimed benefits. It turns out the benefits were purely placebo. It was just the concept of adding virility by grafts from animals, that was effective. The concept stuck for many years despite much evidence that it did not work.
But the story is curious. Back then it was thought that the glands (hormones being yet to be discovered) simply ‘did their job’, and they ‘knew what to do’. Later it was found that this is not the case, and that much of the activity of our glands is governed by a ‘master gland’ – the pituitary. When this gland secretes it switches the body between the ‘normal’ mode and the ‘fight or flight’ mode. In the latter digestion is stopped, the lungs dilate, the blood flow focusses on the muscles rather than the brain, and a raft of other physiological responses. Actually in the modern day we talk of it in terms of ‘stress signatures’ as we know that there are many differences in this ‘fight or flight’ response depending on the stimulus.
But later it was found that the pituitary was controlled by the Hypothalamus – an area of the brain. This in turn, is not independent – but fires up dependent on certain neural firing profiles – i.e. thoughts, perceptions and both the conscious and unconscious conceptual framework.
Concepts are an integral part of our whole being.
The Thought and the Real
It has long been thought that it is only humans who have conceptual thought. This may still be true, but certainly animals have concepts too, even if it is not exactly thinking (which many psychologists take to be dependent on language).
The mind is working something like this. It thinks of something, and then reacts as if that thing is real. A zebra will engage the sympathetic nervous ‘fight or flight’ mode when it encounters a stimulus that warns it of a lion, but a human can merely imagine a lion and get that same reaction – just from the thought. The mind treats the idea of something, as the real thing itself.
With an animal this can be seen in their dreaming. They are living out the mental representations of events, which presumably they take to be real. Here’s an example.
By the way, most animals have ‘REM atonia‘, which is where the brain shuts off the connection between thought and physical movement. This is to stop the animal from acting out the dream, which would cause it (or the hapless wife) to waken suddenly. REM Behavioral Disorder is where this function does not work, causing much suffering. If you are mindful as you wake up, you might well get a few panicked moments where you cannot move – in fact you are paralyzed by the REM atonia, and it takes a few minutes to wear off before you can move again. Sometimes this experience blends in with your dream, making it a little unpleasant. In Thailand they say this experience is a ghost sitting on your chest (often a female ghost that is trying to mate).
The mind finds it hard to separate a thing, from the thought of a thing.
Arturo Tuscanini is another case study. He would have an increased heart rate, blood pressure and a whole raft of physical effects of exertion, while conducting. But it turns out that he would have the exact same physical response when listening to a piece of music, and imagining himself conducting.
Regarding Bizkit dreaming – might it be possible that our human thought is an evolved form of dreaming? A wakeful dream in which we can play through various scenarios and choose between them for the best outcome? We do know that evolution does not invent new things, but only adapts pre-existing mechanism for new jobs.
In the previous talk we looked at the way that the physical form of something (a sight, sound, feeling, taste etc..) rises together with mental elements and ceases with them.
When you put your attention on something it comes into the conscious mind together with your background mental state, liking/disliking, perception and the feeling of consciousness of that object. Note that there is no subject/object here. And there is no Cartesian split of Body/mind (despite what many Buddhists teach).
Now when something comes in to the conscious mind like this, there is an attraction towards it. Say the idea of a new computer comes into your mind. You have the image or thought (i.e. mentally reproduced sound of the word) come into the mind’s range. It comes with the other factors mentioned above. But to keep this cognition in mind you have to move around its details. What can you do with the computer. What features does it have etc.. You can’t keep it in mind otherwise. It will fade, unless you feed it with thinking.
In Buddhism thinking has the job of finding a target (vitakka) and then repeatedly ‘throwing’ the mind onto that target (vicara).
But what if you do not dive into that original image? What if you hold the mind in check?
So here is how Buddhism was actually taught by the Buddha, before the ‘Buddhists’ got hold hold of it.
A moment of cognizing something arises, and you have the choice to follow it or not. Many of these moments arise, and the natural tendency is to dive into them, whether you like or dislike, you pick up the idea and follow it with thinking, which picks about the objects characteristics. If you look at a camera (the exercise we did last week) then you will have to look at its qualities in order to stay with the object. You will have to start noting the colour, the memory of other cameras, the size, the cost …. this is called papanca, ‘diffused’ or ‘scattered’ thinking.
If you hold yourself in check however, you have more choice to follow or not. This is mindfulness – you are remembering yourself, or put another way, are aware of your awareness, and then have more chance to examine and choose what is a good perception to follow, and which is not.
This the Buddha called the ‘Gatekeeper’, because mindfulness is like the gatekeeper of a city. He simply chooses who to let in and who to not.
Just as the royal frontier fortress has a gate-keeper — wise, experienced, intelligent — to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does, for the protection of those within and to ward off those without; in the same way a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. With mindfulness as his gate-keeper, the disciple abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless, and looks after himself with purity….
Just as the royal frontier fortress has ramparts — high & thick & completely covered with plaster — for the protection of those within and to ward off those without; in the same way a disciple of the noble ones is discerning, endowed with discernment leading to the arising of the goal — noble, penetrating, leading to the right ending of suffering. With discernment as his covering of plaster, the disciple of the noble ones abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless, and looks after himself with purity. With this seventh true quality is he endowed.
The gatekeeper metaphor is very sharp. The gatekeeper (or you might prefer the idea of the bouncer at a club!) does not have to worry about how things are going in the city. The tax policy, the criminal justice system, the transport system … all he does is keep watch on the gate. In the same way, you do not have to sort out your ‘ego’, or fix up your personality/character. You don’t need psychology. Afterall, deciding you are not perfect, and thinking up schemes to change into a new ‘you’ is more ego at the end of the day. All you need to is pay attention in the present moment. Let your neurosis, childhood, fears, and other character flaws look after themselves.
This means then, that you do not have to solve deep psychological problems. Something like ‘my childhood’, or ‘my relationship’, or ‘my health’ … these are the kinds of problems that you can never fully resolve.
Relationships with people are another – most thinking that a human does is in the form of conversations. Usually you are running over past issues, which is called scripting in psychology, in the form of conversations in your head. Have you noticed though, that the person you are talking to never answers back in your head?
Here you only need worry about what is arising right now. And as a perception arises, you have the choice to engage or not. If you let go, it is only one small thing you are letting go of – just one small moment. But you are training yourself. Usually people get interested in letting go only when there is something big.
Satisfaction, Misery and Escape
So here is one of the very common teachings the Buddha gave, but which is rarely talked about by modern teachers.
In anything you can look at, any moment of cognition, you will find you can view it in different ways. There is the attractive, and the unattractive.
Look at chocolate. The first piece is nice, but each following piece is less nice, until it starts to make you sick to look at it. Look at the hair of a beautiful girl, then imagine a piece in your soup. Look at a nice car, and then think of how much gas it uses, how much work you would have to do to earn the money to buy it. Etc.
Pretty much everything in the world can be seen either way, if you choose. Buddhist monks are given 5 meditation objects to reflect on – hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth and skin. These are to be seen as unattractive – they need to be continually cleaned. Some practises even have you not washing or cleaning yourself for 3 days to see these 5 in that way. It is a method of breaking the lust and desire for the human body, both yourself and of other people.
But there is a third aspect, according to Buddhism – the Nissarana, or escape/refuge.
Looking at any cognition (5 khandhas) there is also the option of non-engagement. Now you stay aware of yourself, without being drawn in. Naturally something else crops up to grab your attention – after all this is how you have trained yourself since being a child. One thing after another you dive into. Your mind is trained to be leaping outside of itself (and thought counts as ‘outside’ in Buddhism, as it is another cognition that you are getting absorbed in). This is the ‘worldly’ habit. The restraint of this habit is the Holy Life, and is why it necessitates some renunciation.
The thing is, what you gain is far purer and sweeter than being absorbed in your various concepts. Bit by bit you get flashes of freedom in the mind, when there is no cognition trying to grab your attention, and the mind turns back in on itself. This is the true beginning of the path. You know what direction Enlightenment lies, without relying on scripture or teachers. It is Nissarana – independence, freedom, escape, refuge.
Satisfaction, Misery, Escape
Satisfaction: – That condition in the world owing to which pleasure arises, is satisfaction.
If there were no satisfaction in the world, beings would not be attached to the world.
Misery: – That impermanence, that suffering, that changeability in the world – that is the misery of the world. If there were not misery in the world, beings would not be wearied by the world.
Refuge: – That restraint, that riddance of desire and passion in the world – that is the escape. If it were not for this then beings would not be able to escape from Dukkha.
In so far as beings do not understand this, just so far have they not dwelt free, detached, and released from the world…… in my opinion they should not be regarded as recluses among recluses….
When one surveys the enjoyments of the 6 senses it is like adding fuel to the fire, adding to the grasping. When one surveys the misery of the six senses, so the process is brought to a halt.