Friday, October 12, 2012

This experience

Are you aware of the experience happening in this moment?

Okay, trick question.

The experience isn't happening. It is.
The experience isn't in this moment. It is this moment.
You aren't aware of this experience. You are the awareness that is this experience.

Yes, you are this experience.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Resting concepts

Are concepts required for meaning and intention?

Thoughts seem to be what guide our understanding and behavior. For example, suppose you see a truck barreling at me. You think "there's a truck barreling at me!" (meaning) and "I better get out of the way!" (intention).

Two questions worth investigating are:

(1) Just how much thought is required in such a situation? Certainly not the full verbal manifestations given above. Does the concept "truck" need to be formed?

(2) What about for less reactive situations, where deeper thought seems to be required?

Is a conceptual overlay of reality necessary for survival (or for thriving)?

You know the computer in front of you exists "in reality," right? And yet, you cannot be sure that you are not living in a simulation (a la The Matrix) or an elaborate dream. How do you reconcile the two?

Is it possible to have a conventional belief in physical reality without having an absolute belief? Given that you can't be sure of the existence of a physical reality, wouldn't it make sense to remain agnostic about such a thing? Or would that somehow impede your ability to act normally? Could there be any benefits to such a strange personal philosophy?

If you were willing to give up conceptual overlays, how would you even do that?

It's pretty hard to figure out on your own. A few brilliant people seem to figure it out. Most brilliant people end up ensnared much more deeply than when they started. Trying to think your way out of concepts is like trying to fight your way out of quicksand.

Here's a brief outline of how it might be done.

First, where does the visual experience of dreams take place? Is that mental screen the same as or different from the one where the image of physical reality resides?

What about the other senses? Can you find a sense in which they take place on "mental screens"? How are these screens oriented with respect to each other? They don't seem to intersect. In fact, they don't seem to occupy physical space at all, so the concept of "orientation" doesn't make sense.

Now notice that thoughts, memories, emotions, and everything else we think of as "mind" takes place on a screen as well. Does this screen have special privilege over the other 5?

These six "screens" seem to be subdivisions of a larger "space" in which all perceptions arise. If you had another physical sense (say, echolocation, like bats), another such screen would appear. And just like smells are never confused for sights (unless you're a synesthete), the perceptions on this new screen would be distinct from those in all the rest. Is there any limit to the kinds of perceptions that could arise?

What are the characteristics of this "space"? It seems cognizant, or in other words, it illuminates perceptions. It is the perceiving quality itself. But characteristics belong to the realm of perceptions, not to the space itself. This space has no characteristics of its own.

This space is the nature of mind, sometimes called an "empty cognizance." If you could find a way to rest in the nature of mind, instead of on particular phenomena, you might find a way to rest the conceptual overlay.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Stages of meditation

Here's a summary of what I've discovered so far about the progression of meditation in various traditions. At the end is an idea of my own.

1) Shamatha with object

Sometimes this is done with a physical object (e.g., a pebble). Usually, it is done with the sensations of breathing. This is true in Theravada (anapanasati), Mahayana (Zen has "susokukan" as the introductory zazen), and Vajrayana has it too.

In Theravada, anapanasati alone is considered enough to attain enlightenment (from Wikipedia).

2) Shamatha without object, "with attributes"

This is variously called "shamatha without a sign," "unsupported shamatha," "awareness of awareness" etc. One rests one's mind without any particular support. This can be practiced in informal settings to some extent, for example while walking one might think "I am maintaining presence of mind." As such, there is still a subtle clinging to a meditative state, and a definite subject-object duality (I am meditating on something).

3) Shamatha without attributes

Sometimes called "released shiné" (by Dzogchen Master Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche) or simply "resting in the natural state." Similar to the previous, except there's no longer an explicit sense of resting on or in anything.

In Dzogchen, this is sometimes accomplished by first resting in shamatha (Tib. shiné), then investigating into "who is resting," and then releasing. For some time, one is able to rest in rigpa (which has already been pointed out by the master in the Direct Introduction, which is essential in Dzogchen).

In Mahamudra, the Direct Introduction / Pointing Out Instruction is optional. Alternatively (per Lama Gendun Rinpoche), one may simply practice by releasing all fixations (including the sense of meditating or a meditator) and rest in "the natural state." As one progressively relaxes deeper, one comes to know one's true face. Another approach (Thrangu Rinpoche, Vivid Awareness) is to do analytical vipashyana to determine that the essence of mind is a cognizant emptiness (that's the "who" that's resting), and then just rest in that. The key point is to abandon all hope and fear, all idea of something to get and someone to get it.

In this way, one practices "undistracted nonmeditation," where one's self-aware presence of mind simply sustains itself for some time. Over time, it starts occurring spontaneously while off-cushion, and eventually the barrier between meditation and post-meditation blurs more and more. At its culmination, one is spontaneously (non)meditating all the time, and there is no longer any sense of a subject as distinct from objects. This is the first realization of emptiness of phenomena, which marks the dawning of the first Bodhisattva bhumi.

How does this happen? Basically, all distraction is distraction from awareness. Since awareness is the (non)thing doing the "watching," this means that distraction is awareness distracted from itself. It is characterized by determining phenomena to be external to awareness, and then awareness entering into a dualistic relationship with them. This is what gives birth to the ego, and is known as grasping. As it becomes clearer that there is nothing apart from awareness itself, there is no longer anything to grasp, and hence no possibility of distraction.

This practice seems similar to Zen's shikantaza ("just sitting"), although without careful guidance one runs the strong risk of meditating (stage 2). This is also known to be a major stumbling block for those trying to practice Mahamudra / Dzogchen without guidance.

4) Sky-gazing

Sometimes called "mingling the threefold sky" or "namkha arted." This is an important Dzogchen practice to enhance one's released shiné. Basically, one mingles one's consciousness with the infinitude of the sky, thereby actively undoing the subject-object duality.

Here's where I try something of my own invention. In sky-gazing, one has to have a clear and unobstructed view of the sky. Even clouds are obstructions. Since that's not easy, I'm considering experimenting with the Ganzfeld Effect, where one's visual field is immersed in a white haze. One site describes the effect as "Ganzfeld creates the illusion of an open field of vision of infinite depth." Bingo! Typically this leads to hallucinations, but I suspect most people aren't practicing released shiné while wearing them...

So I'm going to build my own Ganzfeld Goggles (swim goggles augmented with glass frosting spray) and see what happens.