Class 3: October 17, 2006

Barbara: I'm giving very brief instructions before we sit. I want people to start with some dzogchen and then move into some vipassana. Then reflect on what leads you to make that move. In my own practice, when I sit, I start with my eyes open. Let's not call it dzogchen, let's just call it pure awareness practice, presence, whatever you want to call it. Nada becomes very strong. The sense of a subject and object separation disappears. For me, luminosity usually becomes very strong. There is a clear sense of occasional objects pulling me out of this space, the notice of them and they just…they stay there but any contraction around them dissolves. There's just a spaciousness and ease with whatever is there. Big picture.

At that point that I decide to close my eyes. I choose one predominant object. Sometimes it's the luminosity itself. Sometimes I come back to the breath. Sometimes it's simply nada. It differs, from time to time. So as I make that shift, I come back and bring my attention to one object. Usually there's a strong focus on that object, a good deal of equanimity with it, and depending on what it is, whether it's a mundane object or nada or luminosity, I will watch it arising, becoming stronger, and passing away. Or I'm there with the nada and it's just there. And then obviously something will come, either a sensation in the body or something will come, a mundane object, and dissolve, and I'm back with nada or luminosity. For me, at that point, access concentration comes very quickly.

I've gotten some interesting emails from a number of you, some of you saying, 'Help! I don't know what access concentration is!' Some of you say that you are not sure of the difference between access and pure awareness, that you're feeling stuck with what we're talking about. Some of you very appreciative of what we're talking about and how it's deepened your practice.

You're all different; your practices are all different. There's no one right way to go through the material in this class. Simply, I want you to at least conceptually, and hopefully experientially, understand these different states of consciousness. If you only get it conceptually and are not sure of it, that's okay, you still have a bit of a map. And as your experience deepens, you will have these experiences and then be able to say, 'Oh, this was this. Now I understand it.' Especially about access concentration where, as everything is dissolving, slowly the whole body and ego may start to dissolve, and we come to a stage where there can be a lot of fear. At that point it's so important to be able to take the fear as the object. But you need to understand what's happening so that you can say, 'I know this, this is okay. We've talked about this and other people have experienced this. Here is fear.' Just take the fear as the object—what is this direct experience? See it arising, see it dissolve, or see equanimity with it.

I've gotten love notes and hate notes—I'm exaggerating—about the vocabulary. I'm giving you a lot of specific vocabulary and some of you are just applauding and saying this is wonderful, I'm so happy to have this, and others are saying I hate this, all these Pali words. And so forth.

It's okay. Understand what they mean and then drop them from your vocabulary if they're not useful to you. We're after the experience, not the word, not the label. But I'm still going to use the words because I want you to understand them. I have a handout today that's got a slew of Pali words in it. You will wade through it or not, as you choose.

So this is where I want to start. We'll sit for half an hour. Start with your eyes open doing dzogchen practice. No special time, I'm not going to ring a bell and say, 'Switch now.' When it feels right to you, switch. If you end up sitting the whole half hour with dzogchen, that's okay. If you end up sitting 30 seconds with dzogchen, and then move into vipassana, that's okay. Whatever works for you. But we will talk about it in groups—when did you shift and what prompted that shift, so bring awareness to that shift, don't just fall into it.

Any questions? (No)

(Meditation) (group discussions)

Barbara: Go around and hear a summary from each group…Group 1?

Q: One of us said that starting with the dzogchen helped just open the heart and the senses to the oneness and the feeling of open flow, from which point moving into vipassana felt easy to do. Another of us said, and both people kind of agreed, there's not a whole lot of difference between vipassana practice and dzogchen practice, but just incorporating both together, the spaciousness, the sense of connectivity with the watching things come up, fairly similar, each included the other.

Barbara: I want to know, was there a specific impulse that led them to change from dzogchen to vipassana?

Q: Not anything huge.

Barbara: Group 2?

Q: We had a variety of answers, probably a different answer from each person about changing to vipassana. One person, nothing was happening with dzogchen so they just switched. Another person, they kind of just drifted into vipassana because the experience was similar to dzogchen. Another person, they were kind of sleepy and so their eyes closed and they just moved into vipassana, noting the sleepiness.

Then we talked about the difference between dzogchen and vipassana. One person kind of felt they were pretty similar, and a couple of us were talking about how dzogchen feels more open, with more awareness of the space in the environment. More sort of a physical awareness of the body in space; vipassana feeling more like their internal experience of sensation and mental and emotional kinds of objects, and less a sense of the body in space.

Barbara: Thank you. Group 3?

Q: My memory of why people shifted from dzogchen to vipassana was, eyes getting tired or light coming in too bright. Just mundane stuff. We talked about characteristics of access concentration and characteristics of pure awareness and came up with things like, access concentration is a more focused view. That in fact in access concentration you're looking more at foreground whereas in pure awareness you see background. Access concentration occurs in time whereas in pure awareness time is moot. The difference in the sense of separate self, whereas in access concentration there is an observer and observed and they're distinct. In pure awareness, that distinction's dissolves.

Barbara: I'm glad to hear there was discernment of these distinctions. Groups 1 and 2 didn't speak to that but perhaps you spoke of it in your groups, I don't know. Group 4?

Q: For group 4, the common denominator for moving from dzogchen to vipassana was just tiredness. In terms of some of the descriptions and the difference between dzogchen and vipassana, one person said that in dzogchen there was more of a unified visual field. And another point that was made was that in dzogchen there aren't specific objects, but that in vipassana we seem to create boundaries and make distinctions, that was a difference that was pointed out. One person made a very good point that at times in vipassana practice, in the space between the thoughts and sensations and feelings, in that space, that she found pure awareness in the space between objects, just boundaryless presence with objects.

Barbara: Thank you. So in vipassana there is that going in and out of pure awareness as we hold the space as the primary object, or even as the space becomes predominant.

I'd like you in the coming weeks to look deeper at these two things. Continue to look and see for yourself, what do you experience as the distinguishing features of pure awareness and of access concentration, and begin each of your vipassana sittings with some, however brief or long, period of dzogchen, and try to be aware of what invites you to shift from dzogchen to vipassana.

I understand the eyes get tired, but please go deeper! For me there's such a strong feeling of energy, and I realized I've kind of come to an end of where I can go. I'm just resting in this space, immense clarity and presence, no sense of a self or other, no boundaries, and I can either just hang out there and enjoy it, get high on it, or I can, the thought comes in, 'Okay, if I want to go deeper in a wisdom direction, it's time to shift.' And at that point, when I shift, usually access concentration is almost immediate.

I know one can go deeper with Pure Awareness, but it's not my primary practice so I shift into vipassana at that point.

Watch this also. When you shift, is there access concentration? If not, what is the experience? Is the mind quiet or racing around? If you truly are in pure awareness and there's spaciousness, and you take that spaciousness or the energy or the light as the primary object, mind should immediately be focused into that as the primary object, when you move to vipassana. And that focus should probably move you quickly into access concentration.

If it's not doing so, then look at it and see where you are, what is happening. If a lot of thoughts come back, and there's a busyness of thoughts as soon as you come back into vipassana, then take the thoughts themselves, not the thought content but the thinking, the movement of mind, as the predominant object. See what settles you into access concentration.

Any questions about this?

How many of you are coming to the retreat? Anybody who's not coming? Just 2. So in the retreat we're going to do a lot of work with this. John is reading all these transcripts and John and Aaron and I have been talking about what we will teach in the retreat. We're not going to overload you with talking in the retreat, just working deeper with all of this. The next time I see you is going to be at the retreat and all of this is foundation for it. In each sitting we'll ask you to start with dzogchen and then move to vipassana.

Now we're going to stir another ingredient into the brew. Jhana. (giving handouts)

Leigh Brasington is a very well known and respected American teacher of jhana, probably the foremost American teacher of jhana. A vipassana teacher also, but his specialty is jhana. In spring of '03 I did a month-long retreat out at my cabin on jhana. I had never worked with the jhanas in any formal way. I had stumbled into them at times and knew how to access first and second jhana stably, and had stumbled into the higher jhanas at times, but didn't really know my way through them at all. So I used these instructions and of course Aaron's instructions. Mostly Aaron was guiding me. But Aaron is not a jhana expert either.

So through my retreat, I emailed back and forth with L. What I have here is some compilation of several different emails—my questions, his answers. There was a lot more material, but I didn't want to give you 40 pages to rumble through. So I cut it down to what seemed most important.

One of the questions that came up in talking to L is the difference between moment-to-moment concentration and access concentration. He and I use somewhat different vocabulary for this. What I experience as access concentration is what I've been teaching you as access concentration. There's complete focus and presence with one object, seeing it arising and seeing it passing away. Then there's a space and you see the next object arising. There's no going out to anything, there's no pulling back from anything, so there's deep equanimity with it. But I'm not absorbed into it to the exclusion of anything else.

I don't know if our page numbers are the same because this is a slightly different version, larger font for me, but it should be pretty close.

On the bottom of page 3… (reading email conversation)

Barbara: The texts call the moment-to-moment concentration I've used khanika samadhi. This is the mind fully with each arising and passing object, with the factors of vitakka and vicara. (By the way, vicara, hard c, is the correct pronunciation. We've got it straight.) With some practice, there is equanimity with it all, no ripple of disturbed energy holding anything away or holding on to what passes. As far as I experience, this is access concentration. If there is a difference, I don't know it.

L: I take moment to moment concentration to be a mind that is distracted into discursive thought, but that does not take a single object as its focus, just as you describe above. Access concentration does take a single thing—breath, body sensations, metta—as its object. It excludes all objects except the breath or other chosen object, with vitaka and vicara observably holding the mind to the object. The difference is one of fixating to a single object for access, being open to whatever in moment-to-moment concentration.

There are some small errors and typos I have not corrected; remember these are just email dialogues, we weren't taking care to be 100% accurate. He's saying being open to whatever arises is moment-to-moment concentration.

Barbara: Mind is bright, clear, present, and unattached. There is a sense of joy. There are no hindrances.

L: Correct, in both cases.

A little further down the page.

Barbara: Is my experience something beyond access concentration?

L: I'd say it's deep moment-to-moment concentration if the objects are changing.

Barbara: If so, what is access concentration:

L: Non-distracted concentration upon a single object. Any thoughts are wispy and in the background. They do not pull you away from the object. Vitaka and vicara keep you steady on the single object.

Now, we had more dialogue, I could not pull all the different dialogues out of my old emails. We didn't come to a complete agreement on it. But what I consider to be access concentration, he calls moment to moment concentration. He says access concentration is more fixed on the object. I understand what he's saying, that there's complete presence with that object. However, the object does fade eventually. It's impermanent like all objects, and when it fades, the mind picks up the next object and is completely present with it. There are no thoughts, one is just completely present with it.

For me, what he's describing is more an absorbing into the object and is jhana. So I can't give you any absolutely right definition, only for me the experience of access is what he's calling moment-to-moment concentration, but totally with what's there in that moment, and it fades. It's gone. Totally with the space. Totally with the next object that arises and into my attention. I may be with it for 3 seconds or 3 minutes. I'm wholly with it as long as it's predominant. Vitaka and vicara, just holding and penetrating. Completely with it.

But from my perspective, if I absorb into it to the degree that I sink into it completely, I move into jhana. Jhana is translated 'absorption,' absorbed into the object. From jhana, if I absorb into it enough, the feelings of bliss and rapture and so forth are what become predominant, and if I take those as the object, then I'm in the next jhana.

So from my perspective, the not-absorbing is an important part of the access concentration. If you absorb, you've got to come back to this place where the mind is receptive to new objects. Does that make sense? Some yes, some no. Questions?

Q: I feel like I'm not absorbing then I'm not working hard enough. So I feel like it's just deeper when absorbing…

Signer: Let me say this out loud: I feel like when I'm absorbed into an object, my concentration is deeper.

Q: Yes, and that's sort of good.

Signer: And that feels good (like) what I'm trying to accomplish. Is that right?

Barbara: It's what you want to accomplish for jhana. It's not access concentration. It's that string too loose, string too tight, string just right. If you're absorbed into it, yes, your concentration is deeper. But insight cannot arise from that deeper state of concentration, which is really jhanic absorption. You have to come back to access. Leigh and I, I think, basically as we discussed this back and forth, I think we were in agreement and were using different vocabulary. We're certainly in agreement that access concentration is the place from which the further vipassana insights arise. And you can't absorb and have these insights arise.

Jhana does feel good, but that's why it can become a trap.

Q: My experience is that I feel a certain annoyance about access, like, I just want to avoid everything. And then when I have to experience a new object, it‘s painful.

Barbara: Look at that as the predominant object, annoyance itself. Or wanting to absorb, this wanting to push everything else away. Take that experience as the predominant object and see what happens with it. Because basically with access there's equanimity, no trying at all to make it be this way rather than that way.

Q: Does absorption have the quality of vicara in it?

Barbara: It goes way beyond vicara. Vitakka and vicara are like sitting on the edge of the swimming pool looking into the water. Absorption is falling in.

Q: But when I'm looking at the edge of the water, the water changes, the water disappears, the water isn't an object that I can focus on.

Barbara: Please explain it further.

Q: When I'm approaching access concentration—using vitaka and vicara to approach access concentration—if I make the choice to absorb into an object, whatever object I choose tends to dissolve, tends to change, tends to be fluid. And I'm unable to absorb into it because of that, because it's not a concrete object.

Barbara: So at that point there's nothing solid. The access concentration is already taking you to impermanence and nothing is solid. To try for jhana then is to step backward. You can do it but only with effort, and why would you want to?

But if everything is changing and there's equanimity with that change, you can absorb into equanimity, for example. If there's equanimity with the object of impermanence and the equanimity is predominant, then as you take equanimity as the predominant object, basically you can absorb into it. But why do that? If you don't absorb into it, the equanimity is also seen as conditioned, impermanent, not self. It takes you further into dissolution, and then deeper into equanimity, but with a difference of the wide open mind that sees the big picture and can open to the Unconditioned.

Q: Can I interject here? Barbara, I think there needs to be an important clarification in all this. Access concentration describes a depth of concentration. It is pretty instantaneous. Then from access one then moves into either absorption or momentary concentration. Access is a depth, not a particular kind. It is the doorway to jhana or momentary concentration. Does that make sense to everybody?

Barbara: Thank you for that clarification. Very helpful. Let us call access concentration and this moment-to-moment full presence synonymous for now, but they aren't quite synonymous. Access is a depth as S has said. We need to talk more about the insight path beyond access.

Q: She's calling it synonymous because we're doing vipassana that when the depth of access is achieved, we're moving into the insight path as vipassana practitioners. We are not doing absorption concentration. We experience moment-to-moment arising and passing of objects.

Barbara: It's a fork in the road. Access concentration is as S just said, just this specific just-right amount of concentration. If you go deeper, you absorb and it becomes jhana. If you don't go that deep, the mind is still scattered and not fully present.

From this place of access, one can choose to absorb and move into jhana or one can move into the vipassana insights. But if you find yourself absorbing into it, this is not going to take you into insight. So this is the string turned a little bit too tight. If you're absorbing into it, it's necessary to take that pull as the object, the actual experience of moving in, basically to feel that energetic pull and note it. As soon as you bring the noting mind back, you come back into more string—just-right, into the insight track. It's the noting mind—when I say 'noting mind,' I don't mean you have to be formally noting with words but sati is back.

Q: We had called it fluid concentration.

Barbara: Fluid concentration, this full presence and mindfulness, sati. Sati is what distinguishes. There's no sati in jhana. Sati is mindfulness but it's very specific, fully present mindfulness with equanimity. Awareness. It touches on the pure awareness experience. But there's more sense of an observer and the objects temporary quality until you go deeper into these insights.

I would just like to hear some wider discussion here.

Q: In our small group, some of us have practiced meditation for many years and have found that the vipassana insight is more useful after meditation, off the cushion, in relationship with the people we live with. We get more skillful at living.

Barbara: This at the level of the more mundane insights, yes, but you also will move into these supramundane insights of insight into the nature of the Unconditioned and the relationship of conditioned and unconditioned. This is certainly useful in daily life, too, when you reflect on it and bring it back, but it's more life changing when you deeply experience the nature of the Unconditioned. So yes, the insights of insight meditation begin with the mundane, such as watching anger come up, or right now in this moment, watching fear or sadness, and being present with it, seeing the habit energies, but remember that this is not the end of the path.

I'd like you to read through the pages on jhana and reflect on them before the retreat. I'm not going to teach you jhana. I'm not capable of teaching you jhana, I don't know enough about it. I know how to get there myself, but I'm not a teacher of jhana. But I also don't believe that it's necessary.

Somewhere in here, Leigh says several times, well you go into jhana and you go deeper into jhana and it purifies and stabilizes and quiets the mind, and then you back up to access and move into the vipassana paths. But for me, once I'm there with access concentration, my mind is already clear and stable and present, I find don't need the jhanas. This doesn't mean they can't be helpful to purify and stabilize mind. Helpful and necessary are different.

On the other side of this, I've seen people get literally addicted to the jhanas because they're very blissful states. So I do not encourage anybody to practice jhana until they've had some very deep insight experiences and then, if they want to, it's okay with me. I still don't think it's necessary but I think it's fine, just as I was playing with it on this retreat. But this is the first time, 3 years ago, that I've really gone deep into the jhanas. Leigh, of course, disagrees. So you're hearing this, as you read this, valuable to hear it from two different perspectives.

One of the reasons I want you to familiarize yourself with the jhanas, especially those of you who are teachers, is that some people and some of your students even in the rec-ed class, will come to you with jhana experiences and ask you, 'What's this? What am I experiencing?' You don't have to experience the jhanas yourself to understand what the experience is and be able to help them shift back into that just-right concentration and back into insight. So it's very valuable to understand what the jhanas are.

Q: I can't tell for sure, but it sounds like your attitude toward jhana is changing a little. Is that true?

Barbara: Not really… Five years ago I didn't think they were necessary but I needed to experience them deeply to be sure of myself and to be sure that they weren't necessary. Having spent just one month, which is very little time, but one month, learning how to get strongly into 6th jhana and touch on 7th and 8th, I still say they're not necessary. They're very pleasant. It was a lovely retreat!

Q: Necessary for what?

Barbara: Necessary for liberation. I confirmed for myself that they're not only unnecessary but they can become hindrances. Later on, I think there's some use to them after one has had some deep insight experiences, some direct experience of the Unconditioned. Then it could be, it is not necessary but it could be helpful to investigate the jhanas a bit just to become clearer of the different directions consciousness can go. But it's not necessary for liberation.

Please remember, I am not an authority on this, I'm simply stating my opinion. For most of you, Aaron and I are your primary teachers, and Aaron feels the same way I feel about this. I asked him if he wanted to teach tonight because he was going to teach some of these classes, and he said, 'Me teach about jhana? No!'

Q: Would it be accurate to say that at the point of access concentration, the distinction of moving into the jhana state, in terms of moving into that state, that a choice is made to stop the flow and to hold whatever is there? The flow is stopped and what has arisen is held, and you move into it more deeply. Is that accurate? Is that the mechanism?

Barbara: At the point of access concentration there's a very joyful energy. One simply takes that as the primary object and absorbs further into it, and moves into the jhana. Or one notes that one is being pulled into that and sati, notes this, sees that this has just arisen from conditions and impermanent, and this recognition takes you into the insight path.

But there's a very clear moment of decision, which way to go.

Q: On the insight path, would it be correct to speak of an absorption into an unconditioned object?

Barbara: If you absorb into it… no-yes-? Okay—the very first time that I experienced the Unconditioned, I was absorbed into it, into the… cessation of arising and dissolution. Peace, space. I've seen that happen to many people. But then one comes out of that direct contact with the Unconditioned, and reflects on that experience and sees one has to keep mindfulness there. One learns to move into that space with mindfulness able to look around within that space. So the first time, yes, that happens. But it's not what you want to encourage. It happens and then you reflect on how it happened and how to keep mindfulness present.

It's time to end. Good night and I will see you at the retreat. We'll talk more there.

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