by Tim Burnett & Robin Boudette, October 2019
LECTURES FROM THE FALL 2019 ROOTS OF MINDFULNESS RETREAT
In October 2019, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett co-led a 7-day retreat on the Buddhist teachings of the Seven Factors of Awakening with visiting teacher Robin Boudette, PhD.
Note that talk notes, when included, are just that: notes. They are not what the teacher said in that talk verbatim.
The Seven Factors of Awakening in Buddhism:
- Mindfulness (sati, Sanskrit smrti). To maintain awareness of reality (dharma).
- Investigation of the nature of reality (dhamma vicaya, Skt. dharmapravicaya).
- Energy (viriya, Skt. vīrya) also determination, effort
- Joy or rapture (pīti, Skt. prīti)
- Tranquility (passaddhi, Skt. prashrabdhi) of both body and mind
- Concentration (samādhi) a calm, one-pointed state of mind, or clear awareness
- Equanimity (upekkha, Skt. upekshā). To accept reality as-it-is (yathā-bhuta) without craving or aversion
Talk 1: Overview and the Five Hindrances by Robin Boudette
Talk 2: Overview and the Factor of Mindfulness by Tim Burnett
I really appreciated Robin’s talk yesterday. I loved the way she just reminded us of our actual experience in life that we’re often aggitated and sluggish, we’re constantly grasp for one thing, and pushing something else away, and we have to very much doubt. About everything!
And then she brought out the VERY good news that this isn’t just how it is for you – you aren’t the only one who’s like this and you’re stuck with it. Actually it’s a universal pattern. And it’s also something we can study and work with and have a healthier relationship to. And…super cool news…this was described 2500 years ago and there’s a traditional Buddhist teaching on it.
So that’s a great way to consider these Buddhist Roots of our modern mindfulness pratice which we all know helps us so much. To see if we can shift out of a kind of academic focus or even worst a kind of acquisition focus: if I just grab onto some new information or some new techniques it’ll all be much better.
What we love about the Buddhist teachings is that in that they describe our reality. Our everyday lives. And they describe it from a usefully different perspective from our habitual one and they make suggestions about a path forward. But they are talking about our lives. About our everyday lives in bodies with hearts and minds. And when we find ways to take them fully in they can be so helpful.
So I thought Robin’s talk about the 5 hindrances did that so well and I hope you’re taking this stuff to heart as best you can. That said it is TOTALLY FINE if you forget everything we say up here. It’s not about new info, it’s about your own experience. Our broken record suggestions to just see how it is right now are very sincere. The truth is actually there. In experience itself. In your engagement with experience itself. Not in some old book from another culture and time.
And yet these old books do help.
Just to remind you the five hindranes are:
desire, aversion, sloth-and-torpor, restlessness, and doubt.
Yeah sloth-and-torpor is kinda of a weird 19th century translation into English but Robin is right it is accurate. The original Buddhist term for this is two terms: thīna-middha. And thīna means sluggishness or dulness of mind, and middha means sleepiness or drowsiness. Maybe my issue is more with the English word “sloth” – when we were in Costa Rica on retreat, Robin and I and Jim and Beth where there too, saw a sloth be released into the jungle and she moved quite quicky actually! They are just wise creatues that once they’re settled in the tree and have had enough leaves to eat just choose not to move. Keeps them safe. Predators look for movement so they don’t move. It turned out that strategy is tricky in the modern age though. The sloth that was being released had apparently stumbled across a road and felt threatened. So she did what sloths do for safety: scurried up a tree (very quickly mind you!) and then froze there. Problem was the particular tree she choose was actually a utility pole and then the utilty crew came along to do some work and she had to go. There’s yet another example of a strategy that’s usually quite adaptive being a bit non-adaptive in a different time or setting!
In all of the teachings in Buddhism and I think in all teachings in general that’s an interesting dynamic between acceptance and improvement.
So I want to touch on that a bit before I speak about the seven factors of awakening.
On the one hand we are full of desire for things to be different, resisting how things are, feeling all drowsy and sluggish, getting all antsy and distracted, and then doubting everything under the sun is a big problem for us. And problems are always in search of solutions the moment we label them as problems right?
So Robin offered some fine solutions. And I love the way the essence of every solution in Buddhism and in mindfulness is always awareness and understanding. Always we start there, we return there. What’s really happening here? How do it feel? Am I perceiving this as accurately as I can? Might there be a different way to look at it? And we receive encouragement to get out of our limited frame: Tell me, Buddhist teaching how do you suggest I look at it?
We can be so quick to start solving the problem we think we have. But what if we’re climbing the wrong tree? What if it’s really a power pole? So these teaching always start there: are you sure you have it right about what the problem is? Pause there a minute before you open up your tool kit. You might be about to jam a flathead screwdriver into a phillips head screw. You’re gonna strip it no matter how hard you press and turn.
So we feel, we identify, we’re curious. And we’re curious about all the extra layers we’re adding too. Maybe those are more of a problem than the so-called central problem. We feel a little restless or a lot sleepy and we’re then telling ourselves how NOT OKAY that is. We should be better at this. We’re distracting our neighbors. They are clearly very excellent meditators. What’s wrong with me? And then something small becomes something big.
Is the problem there the restlessness or sleepiness or the story we’re telling about it?
But yes we can zoom in on our problems, understand them better, and gradually re-wire things. This is true. It takes a while and it’s never perfect but yes over time with practice there is less of all of this on the whole, most of the time. Some strong new stimuli can still show up and fire off mega desire and resistance, but I do notice on retreat and, I think, the rest of my life that I’m a lot less reactive to things than I used to be. And I’ve been through a lot of retreats and a hell of a lot of reactions and I know Robin has too. One of the things I love about Robin is how open she is to sharing about her struggles. But yes gradually whether we always quite realize it or not be become more accepting, less reactive, more just seeing clearly. Robin’s been talking about “clear seeing”: It is how it is right now. How could it be any other way? And it’s all kind of perfect in an odd sort of way. Until I lose it about something that blindsides me! We are all works in progress.
So knowing and improving is a part of this path. For sure.
But so too is accepting.
And this is a really deep thing, this accepting. The five hindrances are a helpful teaching but it’s also helpful to forget about the five hindrances too. To not keep trying to parse everything out like we do – is this this? is this that? what’s supposed to be happening here? does this fit that suggestion the teachers made? what was that suggestion anyway, darn it I forgot? why don’t they write stuff on the white boards to help us remember?
To just meet every moment of experience with all of it’s flavors as complete and perfect and exactly what needs to arise on this moment. Deep, deep acceptance. The universe sent you this moment. All your history and everyone else’s history brought you this moment. Buddha brought you this moment. God brought you this moment. There’s a beauty to this side of the practice too that’s very very powerful and deeply healing.
We say “Buddhist Roots” in talking about this reterat but actually there are many Buddhisms. The Buddhism Robin studies is in the Theravada/Early Buddhism branch and they emphasize more the wise analysis of the problems, and the Buddhism I study is in the Mahayana branch and we emphasize the understanding that there are no problems – that’s just the way you’re looking at it, that’s the real problem.
Both are super valuable so I’m so happy we can have both perspectives. And that’s part of what keeps us teaching together: we learn so much from each other. These teachings on the 7 Factor of Awakening and the 5 Hindrances are studied and known in my Buddhism for sure but they are deeply studied and practiced in Robin’s so I get to know them more deeply by hanging around with her. It’s cool. So that’s a little back story in case you’re interested but the relevant bit is this:
Always take a moment to consider: is this a problem I need to understand and respond to more wisely, or a problem I need to simply deeply accept? In fact is it even a problem at all?
And the answer in essense is to that choice between wisely improving and accepting is: YES!
Yes it’s a problem you will benefit from deep study of the things you perceive as problems and finding wiser ways to meet them, no question. AND, yes, you will benefit deeply from letting go of the idea that it’s a problem at all and accepting your moment to moment experience just exactly as it is.
To hold these apparent opposities I love this Suzuki Roshi quote, “I think you are all perfect just as you are, and you could use a little improvement.” That’s us. That’s our world. Actually perfect as it is, believe or not, but could use a little (or a lot) of improvement. If we hang out only on one side of this equation nothing works.
If you’re always trying to fix everything – even doing it the wisest and most subtle way you can with all that great stuff I said a minute ago about re-examining the problems, seeing deeply, seeing what you’re adding, working through all the layers, applying just the right kind of effort and intelligence to wisely shift things in a good way, even you’re wisest problem solver in the universe: if your life becomes nothing but problems you’ve lost your life.
And if you’re too far the other way same problem. Everything is fine as it is. I can deeply accept it. I am at peace and one with the world. I am enlightened. Ahhhhhh…. I dunno maybe you inspire someone to meditate or something but you’re missing the richness and possibilities of playing and working and meeting the other amazing beings in this messy and wondrous world, including the amazing beings inside you. And you’ve also lost your life.
Zen is full of odd little stories that point to this. Here are a few, I’m not going to unpack these much so just receive them in an impressionistic way. There’s a lot of coded language in Zen.
Great Master Ma was unwell. The temple superintendent asked him, “Teacher, how has your venerable health been in recent days?” The Great Master said, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.”
The Sun rises, the sun sets, the moon rises, the moon sets, it’s okay to be well or unwell. It’s a natural thing not a problem. And Buddha – awakening, things just as they are, fundamentally meeting reality is in ever moment. It’s in moon moments and sun moments. It’s when we feel well and when we don’t feel well. Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.
There’s another just for fun:
Great Master Yunmen said, “I do not ask you about the fifteenth of the month. Come; give me a phrase about after the fifteenth.” And he himself responded, “Every day is a good day.”
The fifteenth of the month on the lunar calendar they used then is the full moon so let me know do a little quick replacement there, and as you hear this again know that the full moon also represents enlightenement:
Great Master Yunmen said, “I do not ask you about the full moon. Come; give me a phrase about after the full moon.” And he himself responded, “Every day is a good day.”
So don’t focus so much on fixing your problems – reaching enlightenment – you can do all the deep spiritual work you want, that’s okay with me. How about after that? Every day is a good day. And we could also have him ask us the same thing the other way ’round and I’m sure the great Zen masters would approve:
Great Master Yunmen, said “I do not ask you about the full moon. Come; give me a phrase about before the full moon.” And he himself responded, “Every day is a good day.”
Every day is a good day. This is a powerful tool too. Does it help you figure anything out? Maybe. But it helps with your attitude and approach. It helps to heal the divide we can make between problems and acceptance.
Try it out: when Ruth trots by with the bell tomorrow morning and you wake up maybe you’ll remember to say to yourself, “ahh….every day is a good day.” And then when you get bent out of shape about something a little later it’s not a denial thing but it changes how you see it: “yes this is happening, yes it’s hard in this or that way, and every day is a good day.”
Isn’t that helpful? So anyway I go on about this a bit because I find it so facinating and also so important to unpack our very approach to experience: is this a problem? if so how to I meet it more wisely? but….wait a minute is is a problem partly just because I’m thinking it’s a problem? As Robin said: if it’s in the way it is the way. Your way. She was quoting a poem that I don’t remember if she read yet (I hope I wasn’t in sloth and torpor and just missed it when she read it) but here’s the poem:
Alison Luterman – Because Even the Word
Try to love everything that gets in your way:
the Chinese women in flowered bathing caps
murmuring together in Mandarin, doing leg exercises in your lane
while you execute thirty-six furious laps,
one for every item on your to-do list.
The heavy-bellied man who goes thrashing through the water
like a horse with a harpoon stuck in its side,
whose breathless tsunamis rock you from your course.
Teachers all. Learn to be small
and swim through obstacles like a minnow
without grudges or memory. Dart
toward your goal, sperm to egg. Thinking Obstacle
is another obstacle. Try to love the teenage girl
idly lounging against the ladder, showing off her new tattoo:
Cette vie est la mienne, This life is mine,
in thick blue-black letters on her ivory instep.
Be glad she’ll have that to look at all her life,
and keep going, keep going. Swim by an uncle
in the lane next to yours who is teaching his nephew
how to hold his breath underwater,
even though kids aren’t allowed at this hour. Someday,
years from now, this boy
who is kicking and flailing in the exact place
you want to touch and turn
will be a young man, at a wedding on a boat
raising his champagne glass in a toast
when a huge wave hits, washing everyone overboard.
He’ll come up coughing and spitting like he is now,
but he’ll come up like a cork,
alive. So your moment
of impatience must bow in service to a larger story,
because if something is in your way it is
going your way, the way
of all beings; towards darkness, towards light.
Even saying “obstacle” is an obtacle, if something is in your way it going your way, the way.
So the seven factors of awakening are:
And the great early Buddhists and their modern descendants see this as a causal chain which I didn’t understand before. In Zen we tend to see any one thing as equally containing all the others in more of a web or a network than a chain of one thing leading to the next. And I think theres a kind of both-and reality there too.
First is mindfuness. Mindfulness in traditional Buddhism is a little narrower than how we use the term in the mindfulness movement. It means the firm and steady remembering to bring awareness back to what you were intending to bring it to. We set the intention to notice each moment of experience as directly a we can and our strong mindfulness helps us remember that’s what we’re doing. If we forget of course we aren’t doing it much. There are other mental factors in Buddhism that come into play whenever we do that. That are activated and cooperate together to make this all workable but we can just say mindfulness for now. Mindfulness of what is. Here is it. Here is it.
And then the first factor of mindfulness makes the second factor possible: investigation.
Then we get curious: what is this really? how am I experiencing it? how am I perceiving it? what’s arising in me in realationship to it? Is this desire or aversion? Oh look it just faded away, I don’t see it anymore. Ah it’s hear again.
This piece is important and deeply helpful: to really see that everything comes and goes. That’s a deep wisdom and an idea that’s so obvious right? Everything is impermanent, everything comes and goes. And yet we try to fix things with our minds. Investigation helps us to learn this experientially which is a much different form of learning that just in our intellect. I mean we all KNOW full well that everything impermenant and yet we get upset when things change or we try to make thing not change even though we know they will.
Oddly we seem to especially like to fix difficult mind states to make them stick around a long time. We do that mostly by identifying with them. I am angry. I am angry. Here’s why I’m angry. Let’s replay that scene again. Yes: I should be angry, absolutely, can’t believe how angry that makes me. And then half the time when it starts to fade away or the mind basically starts to lose interest in our anger story what do we tend to do? Wait a minute! How am I again? Oh right! I am angry! That’s how I am. So angry. But actually it’s not that the anger shows up and is a fixed thing in the mind, it’s that we keep regenerating it right?
So investigation is all about studying these patterns once there’s enough mindfulness to have some stability in the mind. Investigation is different from thinking things through although thought is involved for sure. Invesitgation uses all of our layers and faculties and senses to tune into experience. What is this? That’s a great question and the answer does not have to be in words. Just “what is this?” and then open to the feeling of it without neededing to put it in the right category. Or imagine explaining it to a friend later on after the retreat. Do you have those imagined future conversations going in your head?
So we have mindfulness helping us be here with what’s arising, and we have investigation helping us see what’s here.
The third factor is energy. A natural thing that happens is we get interested! I often say this about breath awareness: the breath isn’t just a clever tool or an object to help you be more present. The breath is interesting in and of itself. So rather than MAKING you attention go to the breath why don’t you invite your mind to get interested in the breath. What does it feel like? How does the body move exactly? What feelings seem to cascade through your nervous system with this kind of breath or that kind of breath. It’s really interesting to me. And in that interest is an enlivening.
A Zen teacher friend of mine is super fond of the term, “aliveness” – can you feel the aliveness of this breath? Of this moment. I never get bored in meditation retreats actually. I have some challenges sometimes for sure but it’s never boring. It’s really interesting even when it’s painful. Here it is, what’s this. Wow! So it’s the wow at the end there. Energy.
My Zen teacher likes to call this factor “enthusiastic energy” and encourages us to invite enthusiasm. Woah: a whole week hanging out in this body and mind! That is exciting. Can’t wait. I wonder what I’ll see!
And then this system of teachings points to something really interesting that’s kind of great. Joy arises! In it’s full form it’s a quality of joy that doesn’t need to be attached to any particular sensory experience. It’s not that the breath is joyful or the thought of Laura’s berry sauce on the oatmeal is joyful is just joy. Ahhh…..just joy…..
We tend to think of the whole process of meditation as very cool and calm and collected. And my Zen tradition has a seriously bad case of this that I actually messed myself up with this a bit. I got too cool and calm and collected and repressed my emotional range and in the the course of that repressed joy too. This can come around and bite you later is my experience so that’s not a good way to practice.
And it DOES help us and is very important to calm down. Oh my goodness. When we’re so agitated all the time running around and moving fast it’s super hard to be mindful or to investigate and we cut off the arising of this joy. We’re just too frantic for this process to unfold.
But it becomes a problem when we make any one outcome The Thing. So I ended up making calm The Thing and overdid it. I got too good at calm. It shut off certain parts of me and I’m on a long quest, which periodicaly takes another big twist or turn, to open up to the whole me. I was just writing to a friend that I think I’m feeling more of Whole Tim lately and he’s not just calm. He’s also passionate and vibrant and even turbulent and confused too! But he’s more whole than Calm Tim. So many layers to this thing. So mamy.
So joy. We warm up. Maybe it’s the kind of smiling joy. As I said the joy in the ancient teachings is actually objectless but a wonderful pathway to joy here at Samish on retreat is through the senses. Open the sense doors as Robin was saying earlier. I once had a huge joy experience tuning into one of the little English field daisies in the lawn. They are tiny scruffy little things. Not sure we can see them this time of the year. But I was doing walking meditation and looked down and really saw a little daisy. They are woundrous and complex. I was completely enthralled.
As so is everything. Everything is wondrous and complex. So tuning in is a quality of investigation that supports the emergence of this joy. Take your time moving around the grounds. Look up. Look down. Listen. Smell. We are in paradise right here and right now and when we use our mindfulness and investigation energy and joy arise. Maybe they arise together really: energy-joy, joy-energy.
But no matter about the exact mechanics. The old teachings say it’s energy then joy not energy and joy together, but they could be really really close together. in this system here are 65 moments in one finger snap (appologies to the teacher training cohort I was a few orders of magnitude off earlier). So maybe these four mental factors happen in a very fast sequence that feels like a co-arising: every 65th of a finger snap we can cycle through mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy!
But then we might get a little elevated. I was just preaching against getting too into calm but there’s there are similar problems if we get too into energy and joy.
So the next factor is tranquility. We coooool down. We’re peaceful and content too. But I’ll say more about that tomorrow.
So you might have noticed we have been stealthily suggesting this little sequence in the meditation instructions.
Robin is good at this so I’ve left that mostly to her: with mindfulness we can investigate, what’s here, with investigation we can connect with interest and energy arises, as we connect with interest and energy arises joy can just flow right in.
Isn’t it wonderful to be present? Isn’t it wonderful to be alive? Regardless of what mind states are happening. Here we are. Wonderful. That’s, in the end, what all this is about.
Talk 3: Investigation and Energy by Tim Burnett
Every day’s a good day. Have you tried bringing up this phrase. It’s interesting to see if you can work with a phrase like that without seeing it as just a platitude. To plumb it’s depths a bit. To say some wholesome words with conviction and just see how they land.
The Buddhist tradition does have a wonderful element of being a skillful and remarkably detailed “science of the mind” – these great meditation masters really plumbed the depths of their own minds and came up with some fantasticly helpful descriptions of how minds work. They described distinct mental factors – which is why our list this week is called the Seven Factors of Awakening. It’s saying that among the 51 different mental factors that can arise. Yes, one of the most well know lists has 51 factors, of those 51 factors it’s good to encourge these 7. These 7 are crucial to awakening.
Which of course brings us to the confusing question of what do they mean by awakening. And I notice as a teacher I do try to shy away from talking about that. So confusing. So easily overwhelming. So easily dismissed. Are there incredible wondrous states that some people attain? And how to they attain these states? And if there’s something wondrous well, I want that. And if there’s something wondrous that I want that I am now understanding I can’t have because I’m not good enough then I really suffer. So should we dangle some something called awakening or enlightenment out there?
Maybe it’s just a religious thing. And with our Western modernist attitude we relegate religious things to a kind of private hidden area – unless we’re within a religious community when maybe they switch to being a sign of our in group membership if we believe them. So maybe Buddhism is bang on about these very skillful descirptions of how the mental machinery works but then we just will ignore the ultimate goal of the whole system. We can bin that as religious stuff – I’m sure the adherents who believe in it do have an experience of it. I mean we have our weird stuff. Consider the placebo effect for instance. This is so well documented now as I understand it. If you give people a sugar pill and tell them it’s a sugar pill but it’s part of a study of a medication and you want to see if the placebo has a similar effect ot he medication: well it does. How is that any weirder than enlightenment?
So to understand awakening you need to understand one more thing about the traditional Buddhist world view. And that is that the big division our experienced existence is NOT a division between mind and matter. They don’t have those categories. There are many aspects of mind, they of course had an idea of mind. But the idea that mental objects are fundamentally different from physical objects was not the case. We have this big split right? Although we are starting to see that mental objects – our thoughts, emotions, worries and so on – do have an effect on physical objects – we get a stomache ache – we see the stomache as very real and the worry as what….just a thought I guess. Insubstantial and unreal. These physical objects are real and I guess we see mental objects as kind of semi-real. And we have all kinds of assumptions and very little actual understanding of the mental objects while we have an amazingly sophisticate understanding of physical objects. Send men to the moon, etc.
The division instead in Buddhist is between the conditioned and the unconditioned. They would say conditioned mental factors and unconditioned mental factors. For the Buddhist geeks here the mental factors are the dhammas or dharmas with a little “d” – the kind of atomic analysis they did of the different perceivable phenomena that can arise which is really a bigger spread than “mental factors” sounds like because again we have the mind/matter split but they don’t.
Anyway the conditioned world is the world we perceive. The regular world. It’s the world where one event conditions another. It’s the complex world of cause and effect. A leads to B. But sometimes A leads to C because you didn’t realize that D was present, right? And this is very harmonious with the idea of psychological conditioning so it’s a pretty comfortable concept for us. Although they take the idea of conditioning much further than we do in the West.
For instance we would say that there is some essential “me” here – some self. It’s a complex phenomena that’s for sure, every changing, can’t really be understood, seems to arise constituent of our 100 billion neurons and the trillion plus ways they can network together but there is a self.
However that self isn’t as separate from the world is we like to think it is we would say. I’m noticing this more and more: how very influenced I am by the environment, by the conditions, by my knowledge and beliefs about what’s going on. So influenced by others around me. In one setting I act this way, in another I act that way. And interestingly I can be a bit embarrassed by that – do you know that feeling? – there’s clearly a strong view that this shouldn’t be happening. The my stable separate and defined self I call Tim should be the same Tim in all situations or I’m somehow not holding my end up. So this believe in self seems to collide with the reality of conditioning.
And things beyond the self are also clearly conditioned. We tend to think everything has stable attributes. That’s big, that’s small. That’s red, that’s blue. That hard, that’s easy. That I like, that I don’t like. That’s just how it is right? One example of this is I went on a hike to find a hot springs last year up in Steven’s Pass. I was on my own and the directions were a bit vague. And it was towards the end of the day so I didn’t know if I had enough daylight. And it seemed to take forever and I was nervous the whole time, I kept checking and rechecking the directions and I formed the view “woah this place is so hard to find!” and I had thoughts arising about how I should just turn back, it wasn’t worth it, what if something bad happened and so on. But in that I had a strong idea that this is a hard place to find. And I was physically very tired from climbing up the mountain. I was exhausted. So body and mind agreed: hard hike, very difficult. Finally I made it what a relief. And then I got to soak in the tubs too. Whew.
Well the funny thing was the next day I went back. It was late morning. I knew where to go. I started up. It took almost no time and was easy. My legs weren’t tired. What was my problem the previous day?
Looking at this from a Western materialist frame, presumably the physical slope didn’t change and the trail was no easier or harder to follow. So we would say the hike didn’t change but my perception of it did. But the funny thing is with our mind/matter split we have an easy time accepting that it felt easier in my mind and I was not scared this time and I wasn’t worried about running out of daylight so of course it SEEMED easier. But we have a harder time accepting that it actually felt physically easier in my legs. Legs are physical stuff. The energy to move the muscles is physical stuff. There is a relationship between amount of energy and amount of muscle use and amount of tiredness and 4 miles with a 1,200 foot ascent that should not greatly change from one day to another right? Because physical stuff is stable and has unchanging attributes. Or maybe slowly changing attributes? The huge different in difficulty would make sense if I went back 20 years from now and at 73 years old I found it a lot harder than I did last year at 52 years old. But to have that big difference happen overnight? Where we depart from the Buddhists.
The Buddhists are not surprised by my story because they don’t see the mountain or my legs as have this fixed and stable existince. They focus fully on the moments of experience and that every moment of experience has a host of causes and conditions – factors – flowing into it as it generates itself. And every moment really is a new moment with slightly or very different set of causes and conditions pouring into it. So the factor of fear interacts with the factor of physical exertion and the factor of perception of the trail and so on and so on to result in the outcome. The fruit of all of those conditions they would say. And then it all happens again.
And back to our idea of a more or less separate inviolate self than THEN gets changed and influence by conditions. They don’t see it that way either. They see that idea, that experience of a continous self, as just a mistaken perception that arises out of the our many moments of emmanation from this body-mind. That it’s not the least surprising that I feel differently in different situations and this is not because I am a stable kind of Tim being influenced by those conditions. It’s because it’s an totally brand new Tim in every situation. Every moment a new being is here. And of course many of the causes that produced the Tim of the last moment are the same or similar so of course this moment’s Tim might appear to be the same Tim as the last moment’s but he’s really not. Brand me. Welcome your new self right now if you like. Hello! Welcome to the universe. You weren’t hear a moment ago and now you are. Wonderful.
But here’s the problem, the Buddhist also see some pervasive not wonderfulness in this causal, conditioned existence. Their analysis was that it’s laced with suffering. An easy way to gloss that for now is to think about the negativity bias of the brain which is well understood right? The way we tend towards negative perceptions, self-protection, fear and anxiety to prime the nervous systemt to keep us alert and ready to jump so we stay safe and survive (and pass our genes on to the next generation which is why sex feels so urgent from an evolutionary perspective I guess: you’d better get those genes passed on right now before something bad happens and you lose your chance!).
But the Buddhists take that too a huge step further. It’s not just that we tend towards the negative in our mind: they say a life that’s only within the web of causality has an inherently unsatisfying vibe to it. We’ll never, ever, be fully happen living in the conditioned world. We for sure can get a bit happier by improving conditions but the entire enterprise has that rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic fatal flaw to it. The ships’ going down.
So the solution is to understand that existince is NOT just an immersion in conditions there are also unconditioned factors and when we live in deep harmony with these unconditioned factors. When we release ourselves from the world of conditions and immerse ourselves in the world of the unconditioned then we’re free. So that’s awakening. A life free from conditions. At least that’s early Buddhist awakening. Later Buddhism glosses this more as a remarkable deep insight into the nature of conditions – that those conditions also have the nature of being unconditioned – and you stay withint he conditioned world to help other beings.
So what are these unconditioned factors and how is all of this relevant to us you might ask? Well there are three uncoditioned factors from the list of 51. And I’ll try not to go too long on this as there are more layers of difference in world view here. There are two kinds of nirvana and space. Nirvana is more or less a moment of total ease and release. The traditional metaphor is it’s like blowing out a candle. Poof! A cool peacefulness as you watch the smoke dissapate.
For our purposes this points to the great virtue of the deep acceptance side of the coin of the stable, nonreactive open peaceful states of mind. And the orientation to practice it points to is in the foundational attitudes of modern mindfulness as coallated by Jon Kabat-Zinn: non-striving, non-doing, non-attainment. A deeply settled beginner’s mind that’s not already pre-activated by how things are supposed to be. A mind that’s at rest but not a passive mind or a kind of slugging or dead mind. A mind like a clear forest pool that’s ready to respond instantly to reflect the passing clouds and to make ripples when a pebble is thrown in. But once the cloud passes, once the ripples subside – back to stillness.
So that’s enlightenment or awakening more or less that these teachings are pointing to. In early Buddhist it’s especially seen as a very cool peaceful state. In later Buddhism they see enlightenment as radically active and engaged but imbued with this same peaceful quality because in later Buddhism the idea is to deeply understand that even the conditioned factors all also have the nature of the unconditioned so that we can be engaged in the world without being caught by the suffering of the world. That’s kind of like the last phrase of loving kindness where we say, “may you live with ease” – this implies not just chilling out but feeling the easefulness that runs through all things including things we categorize as stressful things.
The problem with the storyline that goes around about enlightenment is that it’s some sort of magical state. But in Buddhism there are no stable states. So like everything it’s a process and it has many levels and degrees of engagement and mostly within my Buddhist school much as we love and appreciate the many stories of enlightenment that are floating around we don’t really think about it so much as a goal but as a point in a much richer process.
And we do our best to make touching the unconditioned part of our lives a much higher priority. Because you don’t have to be a Buddhist scholar to realize that a life that’s nothing but cause and effect, nothing but doing, nothing but projects, nothing but solivng problems, is not going to be a happy life. We all know that.
But where this takes our understanding a useful step deeper. Is that we don’t get to a happy and whole life by just adding more rest but otherwise, sure go for it: solve the world of causes and conditions with your great intelligence and determination. Just remember to take breaks and you’ll be fine.
No, these teachings on the unconditioned invite us to much deeper than that. To pause sure, but to pause in a deeper way than taking a rest. To meditate deeply and regularly not just to refresh and let ourselves immerse in that still forest pool that is also what we are but to help us see that even what we are perceiving so busy also has a peacefulness and spaciousness right in the middle of it. To see that busy isn’t inherently stressful that’s something we map onto it when we get spun around by the conditioned world. Busy is just motion, just effort, just happenings. And we add the stress, we add the strain, we add the suffering through our conditioned minds.
So our practice is to touch deep peace and start to see that even what looks like the opposite of peace also has a quality of peace in it. An easefulness. It’s a matter of practice and clear seeing and infinite patience. And a lot of kindness with ourselves and others.
As we advance through the factors from midnfulness, investigation, energy and joy into the last 3 of tranquility, concentration, and equanimity this will start to make more sense.
And this quality of peace-in-all-things isn’t an idea or a concept or something you can figure out or read in a book in a way that changes your life. It’s a felt sense. It’s subtle but it’s right there. In a Zen poem we say all you need is a hair’s breadth attunement. We’re habitually tuned into to seeing things a certain way and we mostly don’t like that way and think we need to shake it all up and figure out a totally different way of seeing ourselves and our world. That might be true. But it might also be true that we just need the finest of little tweaks in how we conceive of this world. And the so very powerful and important idea from these Buddhist teachings is that how we conceive of the world isn’t just a perception of a fixed world out there, how we conceive of the world is generative: we create the world we live in. Each of us do. So our project this week ins’t just to reduce stress and calm down, it’s to generate a better world for everyone. Wild thought huh?
Well lest you think Buddhist is just all about micro analysis of mental factors and then somehow this huge leap to creating a world of peace all through our dilegent meditation practice here’s a story about another aspect of Buddhism. Buddhism also includes gods and goddesses and all the rest of the wondrous mythic stuff that humans also live in the middle of. One big batch of gods and godesses are called bodhisattvas. The word means awakening beings. So here’s another gloss on awakening I think you’ll enjoy. This is a modern story by an American Buddhist teacher who like most of us has always loved the usefulness of Buddhism but been a little skeptical of mystical stuff.
Talk 4: Joy, Tranquility, and Concentration by Robin Boudette
Talk 5: Equanimity by Tim Burnett
Today’s topic is the last of the seven factors of awakening. Something Robin said yesterday made me realize that in our usual way of thinking we could hear something like, “if you practice these 7 factors you will awaken.” and that another and very valuable way to look at it at the same time is, “these are the 7 ways that an awakened mind looks” – and awakened mind has mindfulness and investigation happening. It emminates energy. It’s joyful and it’s also tranquil. It’s stable and concentrated and it’s balanced and equanamous.
So it’s helpful I think to see this teaching as both a treasure map as Robin said but also as a precise description of something natural. Something sensible. Something clear. It’s not just an ancient Buddhist formula. Which as I said earlier is what we both love so very much about Buddhism – it’s in a particular language and format – you have to learn how to read it and practice with it which takes some time – but at it’s core it’s not adding a new layer of stuff on top of reality that you have to mix in: it’s a description of how things actually are for us and for our world.
So here to be curious about the natural appearance of the 7 factor all around us and in us but also to carry your 7 factors toolbox around with you and bring them out one at a time as tools of healing and growth too. Our work is always both awareness and acceptance AND skillful action to make things better in our lives and our world.
And isn’t it cool that the 7 factors as tools or as a road map actually work! If you awaken mindfulness it’s pretty natural to awaken curiosity and interest in what’s happening and investigation is there, when investigation arises we come to life a bit more and there’s energy, when there’s energy and engagement – even if things aren’t all pleasant and lovely there’s still something imporant and energizing about that connectedness isn’t there. A sense of I’m here! I’m really here. And that’s a warm and joyful state.
Joy here doesn’t mean yahoo! It means…mmmmm….this matters, this is imporant to be connected to…this is real….yes. And that sense of yes or importance is a wholesome quality. The mental factors are grouped as wholesome or unwholesome. Wholesome means leading to more awareness and awakening, it doesn’t neccessiarly mean “good” or “I like it.” And unwholesome factors lead to more suffering. It’s a “proofs’ in the pudding system” not a good and bad or good and evil system.
And these investigations of mindfulness, investigation, energy and joy totally fits the first study that Robin was talking about yesterday. So maybe I’ll go a little more deepy into that important study as it’s a such a great fit here.
The study was Matthew Killingsworth published in 2010 – is was his PhD thesis, which he did with his advisor Daniel Gilbert at Harvard. And Dan Gilbert is a really interesting scientist and author about happiness. I love love loved Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness – it taught me a lot. He had a PBS show on the science of happiness for a while too.
This study Killingsworth and Gilbert 2010 is where they got a whole lot of people to agree to be interupted at random times on their phones and answer three questions: what are you doing right now? how happy do you feel? and were you paying attention to what you were doing, or was your mind wandering when this went off?
They somehow did an amazing job promoting this study and got thousands of people to participate building up a data set of 250,000 some entries. The science geeks in the room know this helps protect us when we analyze data that any particular finding we pull out wasn’t just a coincidencem that there really is a consistent connection between A and B or A and C.
And here they were interested to compare two connections. The first is: Is there a connection between doing the kinds of activities we like and happiness like we assume there is? Don’t you think that’s basically our theory of happiness? I want to do the things I like to do more and do the things I don’t want to do less, and then I’ll definitely be happier. Pretty simple theory really.
Well the data said….pretty much. There was a connection, a correlation, but it wasn’t actually a very strong one. Activities like talking to friends, exercising, and listening to music tended to more associated with higher levels of happiness than working, using the computer, or commuting. So that does fit our theory. But the happiness differential was actually pretty small. We’re not a TON happier all things considered when going on a walk than we are driving to work. Just a bit happier.
And the second connection they looked at was: is there a connection between paying attention to what you’re doing and happiness, regardless of what the activity is? And here’s the big viola reveal where science and ancient Buddhism again line up great and mindfulness teachers will still have work: the connection between happiness and paying attention was signficantly STRONGER regardless of the activity.
Let’s go full geek on this: here’s a quotation from their results:
What people were [doing with their minds] was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing. The nature of people’s activities explained 4.6% of the within-person variance in happiness and 3.2% of the between-person variance in happiness, but mind wandering explained 10.8% of within-person variance in happiness and 17.7% of between-person variance in happiness.
There are some fancy stats here that I don’t really understand but we all know how to compare numbers. Not worrying about the units, what you’re doing has an effect size of 3 to 5 depending on whather the activity is one you do alone or with someone else. But the effect size from paying attention to what your doing is 11-18. So according to this data paying attention matters to your happiness than doing your preferred activities about 3 1/2 TIMES more.
Mindfulness -> Investigation -> Energy -> Joy.
There is not a mental factor of awakening of “pick your favorite activity and get all of your preferences organized” in order to awaken your mind. You might notice there is also not a “sit in a totally silent room with no noises factor either” but on that note: a bow of gratitude to everyone for their great care in opening and closing the doors quietly. It’s very generous when people make that extra effort. I noticed at one point yesterday two people came in through the door and BOTH of them paused to gently guide the door back home. Four hands tenderly easing the door into place it was lovely.
And we aren’t just trying to give anyone a hard time: when you react to something – when you react to anything – that reaction is truly a powerful opportunity to practice. To study reactivity. To feel how it goes for you. And little by little you really do soften around the idea that it’s just natural and automatic that some sounds are distracting and annoying and should not be happening while other sounds (which we often don’t even notice) are pleasant and good sounds and they can be allowed to continue. Is that really automatically always true? Is it really in the actual nature of the sounds or…is it something we add when we perceive the sound. Remember our super famous quotation attributed to Viktor Frankl? “Between stimulus and response there’s a space. In that space is our freedom to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” That might be a great teaching to apply an experience like “annoyed by slamming door” – the stimuli we know, but where’s the space, and is there a response that supports growth and freedom here? Is there? Or does that maxim apply only with some stimui and not others. Some stimuli are just useless and should be excised from reality with all due dispatch.
Which brings us squarely to our last factor. Equanimity.
Equanimity has the same root as equal. It means to deeply understand the root equality of everything. Pleasant sounds = distracting sound. This not to lose our discernment or just dumb down. Sounds do indeed have very different qualities to them and the way we respond is for sure, like everything in this conditioned world, conditioned by all kinds of factors. But the idea of equanimity is to recognize the root equality of things. Deep at their core. Sound is sound. And when we feel that in our bones we don’t have to be so tweaked out by things we like or don’t like. We feel the experience of hearing the sound, we watch the every present mental factor make it’s quick assessment of pleasant/unpleast, and then we notice that we have some degree of choice around which thoughts and opinions we build up around that experience. This pleasant/unpleasant coloring affects that of course. But so does our training. So does our wisdom. So does our compassion.
Oh one initial side note is there’s a mental factor for the first thought that arises called vitarka. Remember how the mental factors are divided into ones that are always there and then the good wholesome ones and the troublesome unwholesome ones. Well this factor of the first thought, vitarka, is neutral – it’s not wholesome or unwholesome. So that’s very interesting for us I think. The first thought arises is truly just a thought. The poweful question for us is: then what. What do we do with that initial seed thought. What do we attach to it? How do we build on it?Do we plant a lovely garden or start a toxic waste dump? Or do we just let it fade back away again.
This last choice – to just see it and let it go – becomes more possible during retreat practice. Maybe in the sit this morning you had a few moments like that. A thought arises and there’s no need to add to it or judge it or elaborate on it, at all, just it arises and then it goes. You don’t even need some internal action called “let it go” – it just comes and when unsupported by the props of additional mental factors it just vanishes again. Was it ever here at all? Who knows.
What makes that possible is concenration, the 6th factor. And the 6th factor of concentration helps to allow us to experience and reveal the 7th factor of equanimity.
I think of equanmity like the trees in the wind as I was saying this morning. Equanimity is not fixed or solid. It’s not a barrier. It’s not pressing down on your vibrant tendencies. It’s not dumbing you down emotionally – that’s a whole different thing – it’s allowing the winds of the world to move you…a bit….but then naturally you come back up to center. It’s a dynamic kind of balance. But the tree could never do this if it wasn’t rooted.
So that’s an aspect of what we’ve been doing all week. Putting down roots. And that really fits the experience we usually have of “progress” in mindfulness trianing doesn’t it? You might not feel any different or look any different than you used after you put down deeper roots. We just see the tree, we don’t see it’s roots. If one tree had super strong roots and the other tree had really weak shallow roots we wouldn’t know until one of them fell over right?
That’s like my famous story of the woman in the 3rd class of a series asking me, “So I’ve been doing all of the assignments and coming to class and I don’t feel any different, but my husband says I’m much calmer. Do you think that’s true?”
The only way her husband could have noticed her increase in calmness was if something pushed her a little right. Like daily life for instance. The hustle and bustle and pressures of work. the children crying. Keeping up with the finances. The whole deal there are many winds. She didn’t feel so different but those winds weren’t ruffling her as much and her husband has been watching this particular tree for a while presumably and he could see that instead of whiping around in the wind like crazy after some minor disaster in their lives she just swayed a little and came back upright.
These winds of the world are traditionally divided into 8 categories in 4 pairs: loss and gain, good-repute and ill-repute, praise and blame, sorrow and happiness.
As we deepen our equanimity roots they just don’t blow us around as much. They aren’t as important as they used to be. It’s not that we don’t still prefer gain over loss, having a good repuation, being praised, and being happy. But our deeper wellbeing – our joy and tranquility gradually become less affected by these things.
It’s a path. It’s a process. And we don’t always recognize our progress without help. A powerful way to get interested in equanimity is to think about which of the 8 winds of the world are blowing you over the most and get really curious about when they come around. Sometimes you might notice that your tree starts flopping over before the wind of blame arrives. You read the subject of an email from some you have some difficulty with say, and before you even have opened the message the wind of blame is like a hurriacaine. it’s a wonder your roots will hold at all.
And this is partly a process you can think about and describe which I’ve been gamely chugging away at, but I think more importantly it’s a process you feel. It’s that sense of dropping into your practice, dropping deeply into your body, dropping deeply into your life. We say “grounded” in everyday language. The pracitce of equanmity is grounded practice. It’s earth practice. But it’s also not rigid, it’s flexible, it’s open, it’s responsive. The tree knows to let itself bend. If it’s too rigid it will snap in the wind right? But it’s also very very strong. We are very very strong.
And you can’t really do equanimity on your own. Well I don’t think you can do anything really on your own, that’s a kind of trick of the light of the self to think we can do things independent of others. So we need other human beings but maybe we also need a bigger scope of the world than just a giant glass bowl full of busy human beings. Like one of those old ant farms you could get and watch the ants through the glass.
I left my last talk with a teaser about the gods and godesses of Buddhism. Where here’s a nice contemporary Bubdhist story about one of those godesses. In Mahayana Buddhism – the later Buddhism of China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan some of the energies and ideas of the early Buddhism which persists in Thailand, Burma and also Sri Lanka that Robin studies – those of those energies and ideas were personified in god-like beings called bodhisattvas. The word means awakening-beings. So these are the beings that the 7 factors of awakening describe and they work in the suffering world to try to help. People call on them and pray to them and make offerings to them. (Yes, Buddhism is a religion with all of that stuff).
So this a story about the bodhisattva of compassion – who is usually depicted as a female figure. She has a different name in each culture she’s passed through: Avalokitesvara in India, Guan Yin in China, Kannon or Kanzeon in Japan, Chenrezig in Tibet and maybe more names. And having many names fits with bodhisattvas: their great skill is to show up in whatever form is most helpful. This story uses her Chinese name – Guan Yin – but here she shows up in Oakland, California. It’s by a teacher named Sandy Boucher.
[read Kwan Yin: Meeting the Friend She Always Knew from Tricycle Magazine] Kwan Yin: Meeting the Friend She Always Knew – Tricycle
So that concludes our 7 factors. Mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. Tomorrow Robin and I will do something a little more creative together during the talk time so I’ll just leave you again with a teaser there!
Thanks for listening.
Talk 6: Summary and Questions by Tim Burnett & Robin Boudette