Notes on ‘Shut Up and Dance‘ – eighth and final 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:
Shut Up and Dance (or that first fine careless rapture)
Finishing off this year’s dhamma talk series with stillness as a methodology. The entry point is Cessation – the overlooked but pivotal 3rd Noble Truth of Buddhism. Developed, you move into the silence between thoughts, the space between the breaths. As everything is emptied out, you experience the wholeness of Complete Emptiness, of meditational rapture.
This is the last talk in this year’s dhamma talk series – all that effort, months of planning, printing, taxiing around town, attention to details: The talks are the easy part!
So the last topic is to sum up. And to give some indication on why we should ’empty out’ at all! Of what value is Emptiness anyway?
So we return to the continual theme that we began with each week – the conceptual world. Coincidentally a few days before the talk there was a quite stunning new experiment completed by psychologists in mapping the imagary of the brain.
By using MRI imaging techniques to monitor people’s brain activity as they watched the footage, researchers were able to create pictures from information processed by the brain.
Although blurred the reconstructed images bear a remarkable resemblence to the footage that the person is watching.
Scientists are not able to read our minds yet, but the technology could eventually move towards translating our memories onto screen.
Professor Jack Gallant, one of the authors of the study, said: “This is a major leap toward reconstructing internal imagery. We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.“
There is a more detailed description of the experiment here.
The really interesting thing for our perspective is that the occipital lobe in fact ‘lights up’ in exactly the same way when the subject is imagining something as when they are seeing directly. The brain can hardly tell the difference between a real sensory input, and one that is imagined.
This is probably a necessary thing. When we imagine something, we also include all the 5 khandhas that were the topic of several previous talks. For example, you see a camera, and you have the form (the sight), perception (what it is, what it is used for), liking/disliking, background mind states/moods, and consciousness on that object (you are not listening to sounds at that moment). But you have exactly the same if you simply imagine the camera. This is the 5 khandhas in Buddhism (aka Skhandhas). Below we will call this process Sampling. (thanks Cathy for this great word!)
The mind literally re-sentiments its thoughts – it adds in the way that it feels and perceives even if it is only a thought. This is the origin of the word ‘resentment’ by the way.
The classic example is if someone insults you. They only do it once, but yo repeat that insult to yourself a hundred times. Each time you are ‘re-sentimenting’ the feelings.
The brain finds it very hard to tell what is thought up (conceptual) and what is direct experience.
Constructing the World
When you are young you don’t know that things exist, but when you are experiencing them. After a while, you gain the sense that just because something is not directly in front of your eyes or ears, it is still there. You build up a concept, such as ‘mother’, ‘toybox’, ‘hot radiator’ etc.. AS you go on, more and more concepts are added, until you don’t really see what is real anymore, you see what you ‘expect’ (=constructs).
Language is a good example. Babies can recognize hundreds of different sounds, but by 2 years, they break sounds up into the sounds and syllables that they have learned. Then it is hard to hear all the Chinese aspirated ‘z’ sounds etc.. You see your memory, you organise data into what you have learned before.
Here is a theory – not Buddhism, but related to this topic. A few weeks previously we looked at a dreaming dog. You can see it acting out its dreams.
We know that dreaming helps to ‘work things out’ from daily life. It seems animals do this also, judging from the above dog. Could it be that humans have evolved this ability by bringing it into the waking world? When we ‘think’ could this be a highly evolved form of dreaming? We know that evolution never invents new things, but just adapts the old to new uses.
Compare to a monkey – they have a high degree of ‘insight learning’. They can watch or do something and learn quickly. But only a human can look at a problem and re-enact various solutions in our heads, and then make the course of action.
The problem is, these thousands of concepts of the constructed world can never be harmonised. While the mind counts its constructs as real, it cannot be at peace.
This is what we are continually trying to do. Bring this vast conceptual world into somekind of harmony, some kind of peace. But there are too many parts, one of which is your ‘self’ which you defend. If your constructs are reasonably operational, then you get by ok. If they are delusional or neurotic, you have more problems.
Trying to bring about this harmonisation is, and you might disagree, ART.
Trying to just capture that moment, that thought, that feeling – when in fact it is too fleeting! The mind jumps about so fast, that any kind of solidity is only a notion. ART is trying to pin something down. Put it in its place and rest.
In part of our attempts at harmonising the world, we get caught up in stories – going over old ground, old conversations, future conversations (that will be nothing like we planned anyway). You can see this – take a look in an airport, bus station or busy street :- you can literally see people’s faces caught up in their stories. Why all this obsessive thinking? Why can’t we just sit and munch or lie in the sun like animals do? Anyone who has practised mindfulness will know just how much time is wasted thinking thinking thinking our endless stories.
The sampling process, where the attention sticks with one thing at a time, has a number of properties.
First, when you give up the conceptual world for mindfulness, you see this sampling process as it is. First you think of one thing, then it is gone. Then you hear something and you forget about what you were thinking of. Then you feel a physical feeling etc…. the mind jumps from one thing to the next. Even ‘seeing’ – you see one thing in the room, you are not noticing the colour of the ceiling. The mind holds one thing at a time in attention.
This means that the process is one of continual renewal. And that is great news. Because if you had to give up all your greed to get enlightened, you could not do it. If you had to eradicate desire/aversion/delusion – you could not do it. Try to empty all the attachments out of your life – impossible. But even trying that, is just more fettling with the conceptual world.
If you watch the sampling process stop, for just an instant, the whole edifice of the conceptual world comes down. This is what Buddhism called – cutting off at the root.
Of course, things quickly return to normal. But bit by bit, you get a sense that there is a different way of being. That consciousness does not end when it is empty, but to the contrary, it is quite beautiful.
Watch the gaps in the Sampling process. When one topic leaves the consciousness, there is often a pause before the next thing grabs your attention. If there is nothing particular coming into attention, you often look around for something to think about, something to engage with. Don’t. Let the sampling cease for a moment. Pay attention to the cessation, to the ending. This will give you a lot of power – you know that nothing but nothing is going to stay in your attention. The more you watch cessation, the more the real insight into impermanence will grow.
Cracks appear in all kinds of activities – cracks in the conceptual world, which is still real so far as it goes, but there are spaces opening up everywhere. As your identity goes towards the space, and less to the content, your relationship to the world changes. The ‘self’, which we might (wrongly) call the ego, is not so important anymore.
It will still go about its habits in the way that you have trained it. Even if you become enlightened on the spot, your character will still keep functioning the way it is accustomed to. If you were cantankerous before, the ‘self’ still will be. If you were patient before, you will be still. The character is like a karmic wind-up toy, that will keep rolling according to its mechanism. Meanwhile, you are spending more time with the silence. Your home is when the conceptual world has ceased.
You still have to work at it though. And to rest in the silence, you have to stop thinking.
It is something of a controversial issue – because most Vipassana teachers tell you that you leave thinking to carry on, just don’t engage. This is kind of right – but to get to the silence, the cessation, then thinking will have to stop. The point is that you can’t make it stop, because the making is another form of thinking. You have to let it stop. But anywhich way you cut it, it will have to stop. You can’t let thinking run along forever. The stronger your mindfulness, the more the mind will come together naturally.
Two Kinds of Thought
One sutta, called the Dvedavitakka Sutta, talks on this topic of stopping thought. In short, the Buddha describes how he looked at thinking. He split it into 2 groups – wholesome (skillful) and unwholesome (unskillful).
“As I noticed that it leads to my own affliction, it subsided. As I noticed that it leads to the affliction of others… to the affliction of both… it obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding, it subsided. Whenever thinking imbued with harmfulness had arisen, I simply abandoned it, destroyed it, dispelled it, wiped it out of existence.
On the unwholesome side he put thoughts of greed, ill-will and violence (harmfulness). On the opposite side he put renunciation, non-ill-will, and non-violence (the famous ahimsa that Gandhi taught).
The unwholesome side, he reasoned, afflicts oneself and others, leads to ignorance, and not to nibbana. On realising this, he ceased from all unwholesome thought.
The wholesome thought, one can think on all day long without blame. It does not afflict onself or others, leads to wisdom and is part of the path to nibbana. BUT, if you were to think on this for long, the body becomes tired, and the brain becomes scattered, and there is no concentration. When he realised this, the wholesome thought stopped also.
When the body is tired, the mind is disturbed; and a disturbed mind is far from concentration.’ So I steadied my mind right within, settled, unified, & concentrated it. Why is that? So that my mind would not be disturbed.
It is pretty clear then, that thinking has to stop. Just not be brute force and ignorance, but by wisdom.
Now that the mind is silent and empty. What is the use?
Here are three aspects of the silent mind (personal reflection)
1. Your intelligence is still there.
One aspect that critics level against meditation is that you are giving up your rational thought. This makes you stupid, and prone to being misled. Many people really worship their thinking, learning, studying… (yet you can still do these things and be a meditator).
Now, there are two kinds of memory – the declaritive, which is recalling what day it is, when your doctors appointment is for and such. Items you fish out of your mind for consideration. Some degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s deplete this system. It becomes hard to make new memories, or to fish out old memories. The most famous case was a man called HM (not HP as wrongly stated in the talk), who had his hippocampus removed as an extreme measure in treating epilepsy. He could not make new memories, but he could still act in the world – he could still speak for instance.
The second kind of memory is the procedural. This is things you have learned to do with your body, that no longer require conscious effort. Changing gear in your car, speaking a language fluently…
In our case, when the mind is empty, you still have all your procedural intelligence with you. In fact, emptiness fosters increased wisdom as you are not being driven by attachment.
2. Emptiness is healing. Everything starts to unwind itself. Rather like Lao Tse said – who can make muddied water clear? But leave the clear water will present itself if you stop stirring up mud.
As noted earlier, the character might take some time to change externally, but inwardly you can tell right away, that harmonisation.
3. Confidence. Whatever Enlightenment is, it cannot be another concept, it cannot be more mind fabricated states of being. When the heart empties of concepts, and you are with Emptiness, then you know for sure what direction the goal is. The harmonisation points to it, the insights into the regular ‘world’ point to it, cessation points to it.
There are many weird practises in Buddhism. mantra recitations, complex visualisations, secret ‘higher’ teachings … In fact in Theravada Buddhism – the Way of the Elders which is the closest to original Buddhism we know, there are no secrets. The teachings were all laid out for anyone to follow. They go all the way to Enlightenment. Nothing else is necessary.
And as you sit with emptiness, you know for yourself, even if you were the last meditator in the world, what you have to do. There is no more need for books, gurus, vizualisations, breath counting, noting … all these are ok practises to hold on to as you empty out. But eventually they have to be let go of. There is no practise as perfect as the pristine mind.