Saturday, 30 November 2013
Friday, 12 July 2013
I’m not arguing for or against altruistic action in particular here. Personally I would like to take the fastest route to enlightenment and during this time help others as much as possible. Here I explore the implications of two points. Firstly, how the ‘hinayana’ and ‘mahayana’ goals are in fact different. Secondly, and in connection with this, what it means that we can gain enlightenment without having been of much, if any, use to others.
It’s important first that I clarify my terminology, so you know where I’m coming from. Otherwise it could seem like I’m using different words for the same thing, i.e. enlightenment, which I am not. This could lead to the feeling that ‘it’s all just words’, which it is not.
I’m limiting myself to a comparison of ‘hinayana’ with early ‘mahayana’, rather than later developments. For what I mean by early mahayana please refer to Jan Nattier’s book, ‘a few good men’. When I say goal of the mahayana I mean the goal of becoming a full buddha, or Samyaksambuddha. By this I mean someone who has gained enlightenment without first hearing the teaching, and then was able to successfully communicate this to others, etc. I am using ‘bodhicitta’ in the sense of establishment on, or dedication to, this path to becoming a full buddha, or at least towards that direction. By the hinayana goal of ‘arahant’, or ‘sravaka’, I mean the goal of full enlightenment, where greed, hatred and delusion have gone, but without the special abilities of a buddha, as described above. If you examine the inconstancy in the use of these terms - with enlightenment and buddhahood being used interchangeably – you may find it contains a subtle downplaying of the goal of early Buddhism, and of the Theravada.
I ask whether we have to be of much use to others in order to gain enlightenment? May the attempt to help others sometimes get in the way of our path to enlightenment? How could altruism be problematic, since isn’t compassion part of the goal? To understand all this we need to look carefully at distinctions within our ideas of altruism.
From the Buddhist records we have examples of people having much or little ability to actually benefit others alongside their enlightenment. For example, the buddha being of great help to others and some of his enlightened disciples being of little help, perhaps some not even being able to teach effectively.
In the story of Angulimala the buddha did not advise him to get a job to raise money for the families of those affected by his killing; the least he could have done we might think. But this may have been for a good reason – as it may have hindered him from gaining enlightenment. In contrast to this Anathapindika, the chief lay disciple of the Buddha who was known as the "foremost disciple in generosity" and a great benefactor of Buddhism (even though he had great reverence for the Buddha) still seems to have been unable to gain full enlightenment himself. Results won’t be the same for everyone, but perhaps this gives us a clue that we can over-do altruistic activity.
Since we’d naturally like to respond to the many needs of others, whether or not this forms part of our path to enlightenment, the question becomes - what limits if any should we put on our altruistic activity if we do not want to delay our enlightenment? Could the attempt to help others get in the way of our path to enlightenment? Is any amount of altruistic action by us also what we need for our own liberation?
Then we have to consider whether we are talking about altruistic action before enlightenment as a part of our path, or after enlightenment as a result of our path, I think we can tend to mix these up. We have to consider that the even the Buddha wasn’t of much use to anyone before he was enlightened. We could even say that the Buddha actively just walked out on people during his approach to enlightenment; for example his family, his first teachers, and his first spiritual companions. If he’d put others’ needs first, like staying to care for his family, maybe he wouldn’t have gained enlightenment at all.
I think it is vital that as Buddhism in the West grows we have a clear understanding of the place of altruistic activity, if we are to reduce the danger of becoming a group of social workers who never quite deepen meditation enough. I think examples of people suffering ‘burn out’ which we have seen are symptoms which merely reveal the tip of this iceberg; they may well arise from a misunderstanding of the place of altruistic action.
It seems to be clear now that the mahayana did not start as a mere re-emphasis based on polemic. This understanding, described in the work of Jan Nattier, is now becoming common knowledge. At some point we will need to integrate the understanding of this, and its implications.
I suggest that the main principle involved, which exists whether or not one talks of traditional Buddhism, is that one can gain full enlightenment alongside much or little ability to benefit others and after having benefited others much or little. This means the path of Buddhism contains a full spectrum of possible altruistic activity and the goal of Buddhism contains a full spectrum of possible altruistic activity.
So in traditional Buddhist terms two possibilities of ‘much or little ability’ could mean becoming a full buddha or a mere sravaka (or arahant) respectively. These two goals I suggest represent two possible extremes on a spectrum of how much one is of actual benefit to others alongside one’s liberation. I.e. someone who has fully developed the ability to help others alongside their enlightenment and is of much help to others, and someone who has only just managed to get themselves enlightened and may not be of much use to others.
Bahiya of the Bark Garment would be an example of an arahant who did not benefit others much before his enlightenment. After his enlightenment he didn’t have much of a chance to be, though he could have been more useful if he’d been able to keep himself alive. He certainly did not pass on his insight to others before he died. However, the mahayana is about actually helping people in the end; effective altruistic action, and learning how to be useful to others. Altruistic activity may not be the direct path to enlightenment in the early mahayana because it is not meant to be; but rather it is a path which involves more preparation so at the point of enlightenment one is more useful to others and this means it could take longer. The original mahayana goal of buddhahood means gaining enlightenment without hearing the dharma and then successfully passing that on to others, which involves far more than just getting yourself enlightened. So becoming a buddha (like our buddha Gautama) is more challenging to achieve.
I wonder if some of the misunderstanding around what the place of altruistic action is could come from using the word altruism in too many ways. The Oxford dictionary says for ‘altruism’; ‘disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others’, which talks about a concern rather than an action, and follows with; ‘some may choose to work with vulnerable elderly people out of altruism’. So here it is described as a concern on which an action can be based. This is ideally how we should be using these terms. However we can often talk about altruism itself as action– in this way we can conflate these two aspects (people in general might not think of the possibility of solitary meditation retreat being suitable for developing altruism, but this seems to represent the original mahayana approach). For example we may tend to consider the Bodhicaryavatara more as a guide to action than meditation, which I think is not the case. Would we even have heard of Santideva if he’d done all his day time work duties and dropped his idea of night time meditation?
If we think that altruism not quickly manifesting in action is a contradiction in terms, we should then reflect on whether this really fits with the teachings of Pratitya Samutpada. We also need to consider that altruism and selflessness are actually not the same thing. Selflessness, altruism and altruistic action must be distinguished. If we confuse these we may think someone who is fully enlightened (i.e. fully selfless) is also going to be well developed in altruistic action; displaying much usefulness to others. But no one said getting enlightened guarantees you any special powers or skills. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to run a business, or even pass a GCSE in English. Everything arises from conditions; it is the same with this.
The mahayana goal of buddhahood involves altruistic action which actually benefits others, not merely altruism as intention or an attempt to benefit others, and actually benefiting others can be extremely difficult. I think this is why it involves action or effort which goes beyond what is necessary just for gaining enlightenment. If this were not the case all who gained enlightenment would also be buddhas with the ability to communicate enlightenment to others, which obviously hasn’t been the case; since we have not seen an exponential growth in buddhas in the world. It follows that we have choice about which goals we choose ourselves. Misunderstanding originating in our views about altruistic activity will also affect the choices we make.
The main problem which comes from a failure to distinguish the goals may be that it leads us to confuse the conditions needed for full buddhahood with the conditions needed merely for our liberation, which has historically been called arahantship (i.e. enlightenment without necessarily much usefulness). Not clearly distinguishing between effort which is necessary for progress to enlightenment and effort which is more than needed for this could mean that we end up, because of our busy lives, becoming useful to others but not becoming enlightened. I have no problem with people choosing this. I do have a problem with people choosing this without any understanding of the distinction involved, and I have a problem with the path to enlightenment turning into the path to social work.
It seems to me that someone who is enlightened cannot be more selfless than someone else who is enlightened, because otherwise we introduce a duality into what is non-dual. The difference is not in the ‘transcendental’ realm but in the mundane realm, and mundane abilities which go along with it. This is one reason why there is such a distinction between the two goals of enlightenment (arahant) and enlightenment plus abilities to help others (buddha). It seems to me a clear mistake to use the terms enlightenment and buddhahood interchangeably.
Most importantly, our failure to distinguish this may mean we train in much altruistic activity thinking we are doing just what is needed for our enlightenment when it is not the case. In fact we may be extending our path to enlightenment or just putting off our enlightenment because we are not getting away from the world enough. We may certainly not be on the direct path to enlightenment. This might particularly be a problem view for us modern people living in the west, where success comes through doing. The question isn’t doing or not doing, it’s not black or white. It’s about how much you do. Success in enlightenment does not come in the way we are used to it in the modern world.
It occurred to me that Buddhist tradition tended to stick to negative formulations of the path and goal for a good reason. We can start to think of the path too much as ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’, as an addition rather than a reduction. This is where the problem comes in. How generous should we be? Is it ungenerous to spend a year in secluded retreat when millions of children are starving in Africa? Is it ungenerous to spend a whole hour meditating at home when you could be spending time with your children or grandchildren? Of course it’s ungenerous. If we did not understand why the buddha to be had to leave his family, it may be because we didn’t understand this point. Framing the precepts as ‘doing’ rather than as ‘reducing’ is subtly problematic because it leaves us open to doing too much.
It seems to me that the real principle underlying the distinction between the two traditional goals, of early buddhism (sravaka or arahant) and early mahayana (buddha), is that they can represent two extreme ends of a spectrum. It is a spectrum of how much actual ability to benefit others we have developed by the time we gain enlightenment; enlightenment without, and enlightenment with, much ability and usefulness to others. This has a precedent in the Kitagiri sutta, as shown below.
It seems to follow that there will be a dividing line between altruistic training needed for our liberation and altruistic training which is more than needed for this. I think this line can be said to divide the ‘hinayana’ from the ‘mahayana’ approach. This line will change for each specific person because of the needs of that individual. Psychology, and even how much (as in Milarepa’s case) one needs to work to counteract one’s karma, will play a part in this. However, below this line includes all altruistic action which also provides what one needs for one’s own liberation; i.e. altruistic activity which helps us build the conditions necessary for our enlightenment. It is not essentially about how much we have helped others but the conditions in our own mind, and these factors are not always easy to separate. Sometimes the ‘mahayana’, whether knowingly or not, may just be being used for the purpose of the ‘hinayana’ goal, for example when we say that someone needs to work for others for the sake of their own spiritual progress, as we can tend to do. As I’ve said earlier the original mahayana meant doing more than just getting yourself enlightened.
One implication of this awareness in terms of the path is that it shows us the boundary between altruistic action which moves us towards enlightenment (towards the ‘hinayana’ goal), and altruistic action by us which is more than we need merely for our own enlightenment (towards the mahayana goal). Adding more means our path to enlightenment can get longer. For example, the recommendation for a bodhisattva to train in languages, medicine or the arts, and other things useful to others. These are more than we need for our path to enlightenment. It is in fact not necessary to master any of the arts or sciences in order to gain enlightenment. Most importantly, this activity is not intended to speed bodhisattvas to their enlightenment, the mahayana means adding to the path. It seems that this was what the early mahayana was all about; not re-establishing the goal of enlightenment. I think of it as ‘enlightenment plus’.
I think this could be described as one path with any amount of ‘additionally’ involved activity. This would lead to somewhere between two ends of the spectrum I have described. It would make sense that the path simply to one’s liberation (at one extreme) is likely to take less time than the path to full buddhahood (at the other extreme). However, it is unlikely we will be completely useless to others at the point of our enlightenment. We are likely to be somewhat useful even if we are not a full buddha, we may fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. We could call this spectrum the 'bodhisattva spectrum' or ‘spectrum of usefulness’. I think this may be the true distinction between hinayana and early mahayana. If so it will be the correct basis for integrating the two approaches.
This sheds light on something perhaps not many of us have hear of; ‘One who is liberated in both ways is an arahat who has completely destroyed the defilements and possesses the immaterial attainments. The commentaries explain the name ‘liberated in both ways’ as meaning ‘through the immaterial attainment he is liberated from the material body and through the path (of arahatship) he is liberated from the mental body’ (MA.ii,131)’
Analayo discuses this in his book Satipatthana in the section on calm and insight pg 88 – 91, where he also mentions that in the Susima Sutta some monks declare themselves to be merely liberated by wisdom. This doesn’t mean that there are two separate kinds of liberation goal. Monks were liberated alongside various levels of mundane ability: the immaterial attainment being one such mundane ability.
This could be an early example, found in the Kitagiri Sutta, of the underlying principle I talk about here. It’s basically a distinction between enlightenment without and enlightenment with certain abilities; here involving the ability to access the formless dhyanas and siddhis. Mentioned in the Sutra S.II. 124-8, where the buddha is asked why not all enlightened disciples had special abilities. We find that the second of seven types of noble persons, who are arahant but not liberated in both ways, ‘have none of the first five of the six ‘higher knowledges’. These are the higher knowledges which a buddha might employ in order to help others.
It’s interesting that the early distinction of seven noble persons exclude the specific abilities of a buddha, which are rediscovering the path and re-turning the wheel of the dharma. It seems to me that this was corrected later by the new mahayana approach. It does seem to be an early attempt to explore distinctions in the path and goal. In any case it shows the basic underlying principle I want to make clear: a distinction between enlightenment with much usefulness and enlightenment without much usefulness.
Enlightenment is not dependent on how much, or how many, people we actually benefit. Awareness of ‘the spectrum’ means having the power to choose. Without this awareness the choice of whether or not to lengthen our path becomes blurred, and will be influenced by our unconscious or cultural assumptions. The main problem is that doing lots of altruistic activity can get in the way when it leads us to be busy, pushing out other elements of the path we need when we’re still unenlightened.
The ‘spectrum of usefulness’ or ‘bodhisattva spectrum’ represents a natural possibility in the universe, rather than something artificial. It may explain the hinayana/mahayana distinction. It may be that the lack of this understanding has contributed a subtle hindrance to enlightenment within Triratna. If this is the case it is a very serious issue for Triratna and should be investigated further to avoid that possibility in the future.
What makes effort necessary or not depends upon the goal we want to achieve.
Monday, 15 April 2013
In drawing out implications of my ‘path of relaxation’ idea, May 2012 Shabda, I also experienced one of the implications to be a new approach in meditation, or even a new meditation in itself. I would call this a reducing unnecessary effort (or RUE) meditation, even a relaxation meditation if relaxation’s nature as reducing unnecessary effort was more widely understood.
Relaxation really means reducing unnecessary effort rather than reducing any effort, making it central to Buddhist training; it is also essential to success in any activity. It just hasn’t been very explicit in the past, probably for similar reasons that stress wasn’t so much of an issue in the past.
To understand the RUE approach to meditation we should first look at how the four Satipatthanas are a process rather than four separate areas of mindfulness. After reading Bodhipaksa’s ground breaking essay ‘the four foundations of mindfulness as a dynamic process’ I realised that Satipatthana and relaxation could be intimately connected. When we see this we can see how a spiral process of reducing unnecessary effort unfolds on the basis of engaging first with what is going on in our body, after this our feelings become apparent, then our emotions, and mind objects. Relaxation will be proportionate to awareness because engagement with our tension is vital before we can choose to affect any change in that tension.
The Method: The general training of RUE meditation is using Satipatthana to become aware of and drop unnecessary effort at each level, which is experienced also as relaxation. For example, dropping physical tension or the five hindrances, which are both forms of unnecessary effort. Relaxation starts with awareness; we all naturally practice Satipatthana to some extent when we attempt to relax fully because we need awareness of what to relax and what not to relax. So in detail, awareness of our body reveals tension there (experienced as uncomfortable), awareness of this tension reveals deeper emotional conditions (also an activity we make ourselves) and awareness of this emotional level reveals mistaken uses of our mind and unnecessary effort in the form, for example, of the five hindrances and wrong views. Dropping each level of unnecessary effort refines and calms our mental and physical experience and allows us to refine this process further. In this process we see directly how our experience is conditioned. Seeing this conditional spiral process in light of the Four Noble Truths can be described as the fourth Satipatthana. We then drop the unnecessary effort, or asravas, with which we can see we cause our own suffering.
Satipatthana may have been called ‘the direct path’ because of this relaxation process. Certainly relaxation as described here is central to the path, and the most direct path is the one which makes the least unnecessary effort. The RUE approach is a direct path first to dhyana, since the dhyanas can be described as increasing levels of the absence of tension and unnecessary effort, and then a direct path to Enlightenment. Clinging to greed, hatred and delusion can be seen as unnecessary effort which we are making ourselves, and self-clinging the deepest form of tension at the core of our concentric layers of unnecessary effort.
Method of Using Feedback for RUE: The rate and quality of our breathing is accurate feedback for our level of unnecessary mental and physical effort, because it is fuel in direct proportion to the demand of that activity. Relaxation is then guided by this feedback by watching and asking the question; what unnecessary mental and physical activity is stopping me from relaxing the breathing fully? We will discover that we are tense somehow or doing something which demands the higher breathing rate. This process (of Satipatthana) will take us directly and naturally into absorption. In the light of reducing unnecessary effort Satipatthana takes on a new training dimension.
Something Subhuti mentions in his talk on just sitting and which is also important for this approach is the use of positive signs, and I think he mentions the Buddha as a positive sign. However, I think nimitta (sign) is more primarily a positive sign in terms of positive feedback. The nimitta (or subtle counterpart meditation object) appears only when we start to access the super-conscious state – and hence is feedback indicating engagement with dhyana. Many qualities can be used as feedback in this way; indicating where we are in the meditation, for example reduction in the tiny movements our eyes and mouth make when we think. In deep absorption the breathing may seem to stop altogether. We can continue engaging with the breathing as a meditation object now only through its subtle counterpart (nimitta). The nimitta of the breath arises when the physical breathing is no longer perceivable. Likewise the body memory of dhyana, or of this level of relaxation when the breathing is effortlessness, guides us very quickly into absorption. Samapatti, the experiences we can have as we disengage from having six points of awareness to having one-pointed awareness, also represents a sign of reducing unnecessary effort in a slightly different way. Although we wouldn’t tend to use it as a new meditation object because of its transitory nature, it does give feedback of leaving behind coarse activity.
Just as in the Mindfulness of Breathing, our meditation object here starts as an experience in our body, which in this case is relaxation experienced through Satipatthana. As we progress the meditation object can become the nimitta experience or even the body memory of dhyana directly. If we don’t straight away have a sense of the enjoyment of relaxation, then we need to wait like in Subhuti’s five stages of just sitting, allowing the body and mind to start calming down. Boredom is a lack of enjoyment which comes from disengagement. As we relax into engagement boredom fades and becomes enjoyment. Samadhi, happiness and relaxation are ultimately different words for the same thing.
Postural Issues: To engage with this process of awareness of the subtle me
ntal and physical tensions it is better first to reduce the course tensions which come from the physical exertion of moving around or holding up a poor meditation posture. We can of course reduce unnecessary effort completely and enter an absorbed state whilst sitting upright, standing, or even during martial arts training, but increasing the demand on the body also increases the challenge of full relaxation. Because it can take a long time RUE meditation for many of us is best in a reclining posture, and there’s no point boiling a kettle for thirty seconds a day unless it’s a very fast kettle.
The attempt to meditate in an upright posture when we have trouble fully relaxing means that, as well as meditating, we are actually also doing an intense physical training - like Qigong. [bold]Meditating upright is also a physical training exercise.[/bold] We can remove this physical exercise, and any associated distraction or tension, simply by swapping to a fully externally supported (reclining) posture. We could meditate whilst doing weight training, for example, but probably the first step would be to stop weight training.
The Importance of Enjoyment for RUE Meditation: The forth dhyana (and the arupa dhyanas if we include them) could be described as the highest level of relaxation in mundane existence, where unnecessary effort is reduced to the minimum level possible. This also represents the highest potential level of energy and satisfaction possible. Here we can be aware of our most subtle activities and energy not normally perceivable. Training in the four dhyanas has been described as Buddhist Qigong by Shaolin Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit.
As Sariputra said, the hardest thing once one has gone forth in the spiritual life is to find enjoyment. Calming the body and mind takes time. If we gradually become uncomfortable, with the build up of soreness or tension, we won’t want to sit so long, perhaps we won’t want to meditate at all. However the posture naturally becomes perfect as soon as we enter dhyana since the body’s tension, which is a form of unnecessary effort, is released. This is like Vajradaka’s ‘provisional’ and ‘real’ posture. Another benefit of this approach is that relaxation can provide instant gratification. A treat given to a dog loses its effect as an incentive if it’s not immediate. We might tend wrongly to think of meditation as merely giving delayed gratification. Instant gratification, however small the amount, is essential. Relaxation can be deeply satisfying and is always accessible; we can always let go of unnecessary effort, even if it means just stopping the practise we are doing and waiting, or engaging outside help.
Happiness is vital for meditation; we can only be as relaxed as we are happy. Because the process of RUE meditation involves the provocation of deeper emotional trauma, for example through investigating ‘defensive tension patterns’, it can be a challenge to enjoy it.
Success Through Reduction: The RUE approach can also be equated with the reduction of asravas. We do the asravas ourselves so we can’t stop them merely by making an additional effort, only by reducing effort. I was put onto this by Subhuti in his talk on just sitting, which was formative for my understanding of relaxation. The asravas are a form of effort we make which makes our experience less satisfying. In fact merely making an additional effort to stop them would be the sign of the continued presence of asravas; a bit like arm wrestling yourself. This has similarities to Asangha’s ‘ninth mental abiding’ where the last and only antidote necessary is called ‘the desisting from application of antidotes’.
A New Approach for the Modern World: The RUE approach also touches on the therapeutic, and this is explained well by Boyesen’s description of how sedative relaxation (i.e full relaxation) becomes provocative. This has similarities with Sangharakshita’s horizontal and vertical integration in meditation. In Satipatthana we become more aware of our emotions and some off-loading exercises might be necessary when we encounter un-abreacted and repressed emotion or trauma, which is likely to be there if we are letting go of defensive tension patterns. Tension is mostly subconscious, with only the tip of the mountain appearing to us. Reducing this form of unnecessary effort may mean radical change to our own character or personality. Thus this process, in addition to awareness, requires much courage and a firm anchor of positivity.
The RUE approach describes to everyone the higher goals of relaxation, which are dhyana and Enlightenment. I don’t see a better way to integrate the popular modern idea of relaxation into the Dharma. Its most important feature may be that it perhaps clarifies Satipatthana’s nature as the ‘Direct Path’ and comes at the right time to address our modern need for relaxation.
Tuesday, 29 January 2013
“A meditator who makes letting go his main object easily achieves samadhi” The Buddha (SN 48,9)
This is a condensed draft of my exploration of what relaxation means for the spiritual life, where I am experimenting with some new ideas and ways of looking at various aspects of Buddhism. I also wanted to fully ‘Dharmify’ the idea of relaxation, as the Buddha did with the idea of the Brahmin. This study has also lead me to map the beginnings of a renaissance in relaxation, starting in the 19th Century’s meeting of east and west and percolating down into modern society, and that only now, with the introduction of Buddhism along with Qigong, Tai Chi and Yoga, into the west, is that renaissance finding full blossom (more on this in another article). The path of relaxation can be correlated with the five levels of Going for Refuge: Various and often unhealthy approaches = Cultural Relaxation, Various healthy approaches = Provisional Relaxation, Dhyana = Effective Relaxation, Stream Entry = Real Relaxation, Enlightenment = Ultimate Relaxation.
What Relaxation Means:
Cohen in ‘The Way of Qigong’ makes the point that we don’t have a word for Fang Song Gong (the complete Chinese term for the art of relaxation) in English. Our word ‘relaxation’ does not actively distinguish what is to be relaxed, but Song is to give up unnecessary tension and is a greater aliveness, an active relaxation which has an attribute of effortlessness. He goes on to say ‘We cannot get rid of tension if we are not aware of
1. Training the Mind. Relaxation Requires Satipatthana: Whilst reading Bodhipaksa’s article on Satipatthana as a process I realized that Satipatthana was essential for relaxation and that he was describing what I naturally do when I relax. We can train in Satipatthana as relaxation by constantly becoming aware of and dropping unnecessary effort, for example: physical tension and the five hindrances. Relaxation starts with awareness: we all naturally practice Satipatthana to some extent when we attempt to relax because we need awareness of what to relax and what not to relax; continued awareness of our body reveals tension there (experienced as uncomfortable), continued awareness of tension reveals deeper emotional tension and continued awareness of emotional tension reveals mistaken uses of our mind and unnecessary effort in the form of the five hindrances and wrong views. Seeing this connected process of the four satipatthanas in the light of the Four Noble Truths we experience the conditional sequence of the four Satipatthanas: we can then drop the unnecessary effort with which we cause our own suffering. This requires seeing the four Satipatthanas as a spiral process rather than four separate aspects of mindfulness.
Satipatthana As Relaxation
2. Training of posture. What Happens When Meditation Becomes Qigong: When we have tension or some problem which causes misalignment of the body and we try to maintain a correct posture in meditation for long periods, while trying to relax, we will in effect be practicing qigong and we may experience what is known in qigong as ‘happy pain’. This happens when we try to maintain a correct posture and the deficiencies of our body are highlighted. This can be a distraction for meditation but also shows us where we have been making unnecessary effort. In qigong there are three trials or stages to traverse as we progress, which are: 1, discomfort, 2, fire and 3, boredom. Depending on one’s initial health there may be many years of this ‘happy pain’ training before the posture can become naturally correct and aligned. Many people who don’t realize why they are experiencing discomfort of this nature while sitting could be put off meditation by this. This experience of ‘happy pain’ ends when we break the attempt at correct posture and meditate using external support for our whole body. Some may be tempted to slump in an upright posture: however the tension caused by holding the slumped position will hinder fully letting go into one’s body because it’s not possible to relax the muscles used to support the slumped position. The body automatically assumes a perfect posture when tensions are fully released in Dhyana because it is not pulled out of natural alignment by tense muscles. Effective relaxation is a full release of physical and emotional tension on the horizontal level (allowing perfect natural posture) and represents our integration on the horizontal level which then stimulates vertical integration, which equates to provocative relaxation (described below). Fear of the provocative nature of effective relaxation may hinder this deeper level of relaxation for some meditators.
"The more an individual advances his development the greater will be his ease of action, the ease synonymous with harmonious organization of the senses and the muscles. When activity is freed of tension and superfluous effort the resulting ease makes for greater sensitivity and better discrimination, which make for still greater ease in action. He will now be able to identify unnecessary effort even in actions that formerly seemed easy to him. As this sensitivity in action is further refined, it continues to become increasingly delicate up to a certain level. In order to pass this limit there must be improved organization of the entire personality (Is he talking about Dhyana?). But at this stage further advance will no longer be achieved slowly and gradually, but by a sudden step. Ease of action is developed to the point where it becomes a new quality with new horizons." - Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement, p. 87.
Relaxation in Meditation Posture: Vidyaruci pointed out that we really have only two options for correct relaxation of the body in meditation; to relax by being supported internally by our own natural and correct postural alignment or to relax on external support, which means the whole body, including the head, i.e. a reclining armchair or the floor. If we are unable to relax fully using the ‘internal’ support of our skeletal alignment we may experience problems from the accumulation of tension and may need to occasionally meditate using external support to keep us in touch with the experience of full physical relaxation in our meditation. However if we never meditate in a correct posture we may never have some physical and emotional problems highlighted in the first place. Long periods in incorrect posture may also be harmful for health; it’s best to have a balanced approach.
Being An Armchair Buddhist: Discomfort isn’t inherently spiritual (like poverty, or being of help to others, isn’t inherently spiritual), our intention and our creative response to feeling is the active ingredient; sitting in pain may feel like burning off bad karma but it isn’t that simple. Ideas like this may form part of our protestant conditioning: an order member once said to me ‘if you’re not working with the hindrances you’re not meditating!’ What is important for us is pleasure and comfort – so we can meditate undistractedly for long periods and access absorption (the lotus position was primarily a means to this end). We all naturally tend to have a strong desire to look the part and fit in but in fact this activity doesn’t help us towards enlightenment. It took me a while to realize that meditating in an armchair, or even lying down, is still real meditation, however this is not always recognized by ‘the group’. Enjoyment is the holy grail of meditation, helping us start to give it the time it needs.
3. Training In Integration: How Meditation Can Become Therapy: ‘Relaxation can be provocative as well as sedative’ says Gerde Boyesen (1970). Both types of relaxation arise from a single process: ‘a sedative relaxation so profoundly sedative that it crosses the borderline and becomes provocative. This means that underlying emotional patterns are provoked by the freshly loosened muscular defense system, and that the vegetative elements in those repressed patterns are aroused again. To put it another way: the organism once more finds itself in an unresolved emotional emergency situation, which it had originally tried to escape from by use of repression.’ And Boyesen concludes ‘it seems to me that there are no real psychic means of repression without the corresponding muscular means’.
Boyesen also says ‘besides causing pains, the visible manifestation of this build-up of tensions in the organism – which results in muscular armour – is that changes in the body posture occur both in the lying down and the erect positions, and that these changes become fixed due to a definite shortening of the relevant muscles. When psychic energy is no longer needed to sustain the shortenings, because the ‘muscles are so lacking in elasticity’ even when the psychic defense system should be able to give in, ‘the organism is still in a condition in which it holds back relaxation of the muscles, with their inbuilt emotional tension. This process may not involve repression of ideation content as well: ‘it may happen that, in a trauma situation, the emotional elements only are repressed. Thus pattern upon pattern of remembered, though un-abreacted vegetative nervous energy can be built up in the body in terms of small, residual unrelaxed startle reflex patterns’ [and their corresponding emotional patterns]. ‘By loosening the armour, the emotional content of the repressed material is provoked again –
This will have direct relevance in meditation in two main ways: for how we relax in meditation and how we tend to stop ourselves from relaxing in meditation. Provocative relaxation as described by Boyesen must also happen in meditation where we attempt sedative relaxation no less deeply, and may account for some of our problems attaining deeper relaxation. Meditation has become our therapy when it becomes provocative (at the level of absorption). In which case it may be that to sit still in a fixed posture might be part of the problem since movement and expression is important for abreaction (reliving an experience in order to purge it of its emotional excesses): Dr Kai Kermani points out that ‘if you do not do them [offloading exercises] when unresolved feelings and emotions emerge, and if you try to re-bury or ignore the feelings, you may well find that it will take you a lot longer to get into deeper states or you may not get there at all’. In this way fear of contacting what was formerly repressed will form a hindrance to the level of absorption which activates provocative relaxation (dhyana). Also once brought into consciousness this material adds to the amount that we will need to integrate (horizontally) in order to gain access to absorption again. Hitting ‘the wall’ (of all our repressed material) tends to make meditation much harder – we are then accessing a mass of contacted but unresolved emotion: our basic unconscious samskaras perhaps. This entire process hinges on relaxation; holding ourselves in (rather than relaxing into) a meditation posture may hinder by both unknowingly maintaining and adding layers of muscle armour (compounding our inability to relax in meditation) and by holding at bay the complete muscle relaxation needed for full sedative and provocative relaxation (repressed emotional material equates to tension in our posture and muscles we are not yet even aware of). We need courage, emotional positivity, and a safe context – like a retreat, for provocative relaxation. Further layers of tension in our character armour might be added by willfully overlaying a meditation technique on top of our experience.
4. The conditionality of Relaxation:
The Spiral Path isn’t just conditioned by the Karma Niyama but by all five Niyamas: As Subhuti points out each Niyama is an emergence on the basis of the previous Niyamas. There is only a single unified conditionality not two or more separate conditionalities. That’s what Sam (perfect, whole, together) might mean for Pratitya Samutpada; it gives a pointer to the true nature of conditionality, its ultimate nature is non-dual, hence ‘form is no other than emptiness’. The naturalness of the Spiral Path goes against the grain for us because it’s something we can’t force. It’s not always as simple as the three-fold path of ‘ethics-meditation-wisdom’ might suggest, and this is one reason why I might suggest using a four-fold path of ethics-happiness-meditation-wisdom (which is closer to the positive Nidhana chain); we may need to work on more than just our ethics. Inability to access Dhyana and deep relaxation may mean our meditation seat is wrong (physical inorganic), we may be ill (physical organic), our conditioning tells us we shouldn’t be happy (psychological), we are angry about something (ethical) and we don’t see a reason to evolve beyond ourself (self transcendent). The Alaya Vijnana doesn’t exist in some hidden mysterious place separate from our world, it’s more like it is our world. Where else could the Alaya’s information be stored and processed than in the five niyamas.
Personality and Relaxation: Each individual will approach relaxation in their own way, since everyone is different, however it might be useful to look at individual typology as a factor in relaxation. Perhaps thinking types like me, having more tendencies to spend time in their thoughts than their feelings, may have a more obvious need to relax than feeling types. We need to work towards tailoring the most suitable practices to the particular individual, and Myers Briggs can help for this.
Altruism and Relaxation: We need to distinguish between all categories of altruism: altruism which is or isn’t for our benefit, which does or doesn’t benefit others, which is physical or just mental, and is perceivable or otherwise. Since intention is primary for ethics, whilst bearing in mind one’s capacity and needs (not everyone is ready for long solitary retreats), one kind of altruism may be more or less conducive to relaxation than another. This must be considered when we are thinking about the Bodhisattva Ideal: If we think that altruistic activity can always be equated to progress on the Path we misunderstand the spiritual life at a principial level, and an advanced bodhisattva could be described as ‘a loner engaged in solitary practice in the wilderness in rigorous preparation for his
future Buddhahood’ (Nattier,
In our altruistic effort also we need to distinguish what effort is necessary and what is unnecessary, it relates directly to this issue of relaxation. This means to correctly distinguish the boundary between what we previously called the Hinayana and the Mahayana, and also the boundary between the effort which helps us to gain enlightenment and the effort which helps others but is unnecessary for our own enlightenment. The two traditional goals are really two extreme ends of a spectrum of ability to benefits others we have developed by the time we gain enlightenment. This explains why the Mahayana path is said to take longer.
Engagement and Relaxation: Films, for example, can offer us easy access to relaxation only if we can engage. Sometimes a film can seem to engage our whole being, all our worries and tensions have vanished and it’s as if we are right there in the film, and we relax. If we didn’t relax this easily then films might be much less popular! But we have to be interested in the film for this to happen, and sometimes a film doesn’t meet our expectations here. Watching a film is only relaxing if we engage with it:
we relax to the extent that we are
engaged, and engagement is a quality of awareness and
concentration. Sometimes we may not be in the right space to engage with a film
or a film may not really be interesting to us. In the hierarchy of engagement
watching a film comes fairly low, since it must exclude one-pointed awareness
and hence even this level of relaxation will be limited. But since happiness
(and interest) is an important factor in engagement it may sometimes be our
Placebo Effect and Relaxation: How can we best make use of the Placebo Effect in our spiritual lives? It has been popular recently to try new practices from other traditions. This is one way we can attempt to activate the Placebo Effect; we think that this new practice is better for us so we approach it with more faith and openness, and we think the practice will give us something and perhaps we can relax our willfulness a bit and relax into our experience more, which means we will naturally be able to make less unnecessary effort. We find that we can more easily get into the new practice because of this. Sangharakshita was not aware of anyone previously talking about using the Placebo Effect in the Spiritual life, however he did recognise it: used in the story of the dog's tooth, and the tantric guru relationship. Dr Herbert Benson has already explored the cutting edge science behind this.
5. Using Relaxation Biofeedback To Access Dhyana: Listening to Bhante’s talk on ‘Stages of the Spiritual Path’ it really hit me how important Priti is here. Do we make the mistake of thinking of Priti as merely a feeling (Vedana)? How could mere feeling be a conditioning link on the Spiral Path? Priti is a form of tension release; it is active relaxation, this gives us a sense of how the Spiral Path is flavored by Relaxation and shows us also how relaxation is an action and how relaxation and action are closer to each other than we may normally think. Priti and relaxation (with its body awareness) are a requisite if we are to make any real spiritual progress; No relaxation and happiness = no Samadhi and Insight.
Bio-feedback: Breathing, Health and Relaxation: The breath can be used as a kind of Bio-feedback which leads us to higher levels of consciousness. ‘Everyday tension produces over-breathing’ (L. C. Lum 1977). Hypertension is more an unnoticed everyday occurrence rather than the emergency employment of the paper bag we see depicted in films. ‘One of the first signs of increased tension will be increased breathing rate’ (Muir 2011). This is one side of a spectrum of effects of unnecessary effort which we become more aware of the more we deepen meditation. In deeper meditation experience I myself have experienced the breathing seemingly stop altogether, in fact the breath has just become too subtle to be experienced physically (thinking can also stop altogether). This means that a more subtle breathing will correspond with experience of absorption and we can do what is necessary to allow the breath to become subtle, i.e. stop making unnecessary effort of thinking and body movement. In these states we can experience directly how much breathing is needed to provide fuel for unnecessary effort and tension. We can see how much fuel our thinking tends to use when we introduce a coarse mental hindrance during a state of absorption; suddenly the breathing, along with other systems of the body, jumps up into action. The Mitochondrial activity which generates electicity for thinking requires a surprising amount of our energy (We may feel energised after revving up the body or mind, in the gym for example, but actually we end up with less energy rather than more. In qigong, ethics and meditation we are 'revving down', which leaves us with more energy, and we are left truly energized). Not only does the distraction of coarse breathing prohibit the higher levels of concentration but this unnecessary effort must be abandoned as a prerequisite for Dhyana. ‘The outcome of even a low level of hyperventilation is of great significance, more carbon dioxide than normal will be exhaled producing change in the body’s delicate chemical balance.. involving every area of the body’ (Muir 2011). Naturally we can’t calm the breath through will power but only by removing the unnecessary effort which requires the higher breathing rate – which in meditation is tension and unskillful mental events or merely thinking itself. ‘Hypervenilation, one of the more significant, yet often unnoticed, physical changes accompanying increased tension, can become a multi-symptom health problem which will go away when the breathing is brought under control’ (Muir 2011 pg 87).
Relaxing The Sense Organs In Absorption: In my experience the eyes are the last part of the body, the last part of the jigsaw, to relax before entry into absorption, I suppose this may differ for different types of people depending on which sense organ we cling to most. How much eye or mouth movement do you make while meditating? As Muir (2010) says ‘As we have our everyday thoughts in our head, these are usually made up of words, and the muscles of speech make tiny movements’ and it may be similar for the other sense organs, particularly the eyes. We can use our experience of relaxation in the eyes (and other senses) as biofeedback to lead us deeper into absorption because use of the eyes, and tension involved in that use, will fall away. Also for example, as we let go of thinking in the second level of absorption. Using body memory of dhyana as the meditation object to lead us back into dhyana might work partly by making use of this as we remember how our body felt in dhyana without its usual tension, this is not dissimilar to how body memory is seen to function in Jacobsen’s ‘Progressive Relaxation’ (1929).
Relaxation in The Nine Mental Abidings: Looking at Geshe Gedun Lodro’s book
Calm Abiding and Special Insight
where he talks about The Nine Mental Abidings from Asanga’s
Grounds of Hearers, we can see in detail
how relaxation progressively deepens in meditation. The process culminates in
‘setting in equipoise’ where one has achieved the power of familiarity
(paricaya) (which seems to be the ability to return to this level through the
power of body memory, in which case the object of concentration might be the
body memory of equipoise). Until this point much of the practice involves
balancing ‘laxity and excitement’, like balancing a see-saw, via the
application of the eight antidotes. The only antidote necessary for the ninth
abiding is ‘desisting from application of antidotes’ (an antidote being now
unnecessary and counterproductive), this I would call fully effective
relaxation. It is described as having spontaneity (anabhoga) because it ‘does
not depend on the exertion that observes whether laxity or excitement’ (sinking
or drifting) has arisen. Just as Feldenkrais says, purely appropriate effort is
experienced as a feeling of effortlessness. You can’t be stable in Dhyana
without effective relaxation, and you can’t be in effective relaxation without
Dhyana because effective relaxation means no unnecessary effort is made, and
the five hindrances are one example of unnecessary effort.
6. Ultimate Relaxation Is Cool!: We can offer a transformed image of relaxation to one which is more realistic, as well as more attractive to men, and this is one of the things I’m attempting to do in this article. For example, some people don’t know that Tai Chi is a martial art, and there is a similar wrong view about Buddhism as being soft or palliative. The central and most important principle of Tai Chi is relaxation because this is where the real power comes from! (just watch one of our icons of cool like the James Bond, or The Fonz, in action). Supreme power comes from relaxation in Buddhism no less than in Tai Chi. Power depends on relaxation and relaxation depends on awareness, so these are the stages in another spiral path; awareness – relaxation – power.
Ritual And Devotion, And Energy: Bhante says in ‘Ritual and devotion in Buddhism’ that our emotions may not be available to us in the spiritual life because they are blocked, wasted or too coarse. Sudden tears in meditation can mean tension in the form of energy blockages is released. He describes unnecessary effort in terms of wastage as negative thought or speech, for example nagging. Coarse energy is refined through ritual and devotion and the fine arts, or both. Communication exercises help to free up energy which is trapped in tension. It is important to remember that we will need to actually bring energy to the puja for the puja to work on refining it.
Relaxation Of Our Hold Onto Views And Ego Stories: We tend to hold on to wrong views about the Lakshanas. As we go deeper into relaxation another very important way we will have to relax is by relaxing our hold on our personal stories and views which we use as a defense for our ego. This is much easier than completely dropping the hold on the actual myth of the ‘Self’. The Path is a gradual one. Vital for engaging in spiritual friendship, in which we receive help and advice on the path from others, is to be able to put aside defensiveness – otherwise we build up walls against not only our friends but reality as well. Who will knock them down again? Ratnaprabha’s ‘Loosening left over attitudes’ (at the 11/11NOWE) is very good.
Relaxation At The Ultimate Level: To relax fully means to be fully at home with ourselves, to start really accepting the truth of our existence. It’s an existential relaxation - it means in particular to be at home in the true nature of ‘how things really are’. This starts by fully being able to sit with the awareness of dissatisfaction; the Buddha’s first Noble Truth of Dukkha. This means the first stage of the Spiral Path can start to overflow into the second; the stage of Shraddha. Relaxation means staying with ourselves and not shying away from the higher evolution when it pops up, it means easing that grip on the worn handrails of our old self when we are scared that there is more happiness or positivity than we are used to and it means giving up that hold on the habitual self when we start to evolve into the direction of the unknown. It means having the strength, positivity and courage to be at home in the true nature of reality itself. It means to transcend all dualities of time and space, to laugh when we realize that enlightenment was always just here and now and it had been that way all the time, while all that effort was the work of someone asleep, caught in a dream they had considered real. When we transcend awareness born of self clinging we transcend the real distinction between effort and relaxation. Only then when we no longer feel the need to relax, because in a sense no one is really there who needs to relax any more, does one’s ability to relax finally become unshakable. In terms of the Dharma Niyama the path of relaxation represents our letting go into its flow, increasing our Spiritual Receptivity in its horizontal and vertical aspect and as an aspect of each of the other four paths. The more we do this the more we can progress towards the goal of no more effort and spontaneous compassionate activity. This is the goal of the path of relaxation.