Insight Meditation Class, Fall 2007, Consciousness and Its Objects, Class 1: September 18, 2007

[Notes for Class 1 were sent to students as background reading.]

(I have lightly reviewed this transcript for major errors or omissions only; no attempt has been made to clean this into a written dhamma talk.)

Barbara: We will be touching on some new terminology, but the terminology is just a label for the experience. What I'm interested in is the experience. If you don't get the labels, it's okay. If you end up saying to me, 'I was experiencing that thing, you know, what you were talking about the other day, …' that's fine. I'm not worried about the labels….

I'm building on two things in this class. Many of you were in the class Consciousness and Its Objects last fall. Not all of you. I hope that everybody who was not in that class has read the transcripts. If you have not read the transcripts, please do so… (See 2006 class transcripts.)

So we're building on that. We will review some of that I don't expect that you got it completely the first time around, that's why we're doing this again. Because 4 weeks, 4 classes, is not a very long period of time to really internalize something. It's very important material, and I want you really to feel stable with it.

About half of you were in the class last year. About half were at the Teacher Training Intensive in August. We're building also on the material from that weekend; the opening talk from Aaron is on the Deep Spring website in the same area. The other talks have not yet transcribed. If we get them transcribed, we'll get them up. But the most important one that I'm building on is the first one.

We will be reviewing all of that. It's fine that you were not there. In that intensive, we talked about the phases of practice and how the primary object that we use in our meditation shifts as practice changes and deepens. This is the main factor that we will be drawing on in this class.

Consciousness takes different forms. It's especially divided into mundane and supramundane consciousness. Here at Deep Spring we use the term 'awareness' or 'pure awareness' as a synonym for supramundane consciousness, which is both a mouthful and, some people are not comfortable with the term supramundane. Basically we're talking about increasingly purified levels of consciousness in which a sense of a separate self dissolves.

I don't want to get ahead of myself. We'll go deeper into the different kinds of consciousness. We're going to start tonight with every-day concentration and build up from more mundane consciousness to access concentration. And then spring off from there. Next class, we're going to talk about pure awareness. I haven't decided yet what we'll talk about in the third class, it depends where you are after 2 classes. So we'll see.

We have a small group, 14; we have 2 more people… they'll be here for the next class. But we still have a small group and the opportunity to share deeply with each other. Most of you know each other but not all, so I'd like to go around and give you a chance to introduce yourselves.

(Introductions not recorded)

Let's start with what we might call ordinary mind. This is the untrained mind. It's kind of like a puppy or a young child. It's very easily distracted. It gets pulled into this and that. The child's clenching an apple, 'Mine! Mine!' But you jiggle the keys and the child drops the apple and goes after the keys. This is what are our minds are like before we begin any kind of training.

We suffer because we want the keys, drop the apple and we grab the keys, then, 'Where is the apple? I want it now!' We jump back and forth with this untrained mind and there's so much grasping and so much aversion, and the sense of a strong self that's in the center of everything. It's very uncomfortable.

At a certain point, we start to ask, how do we get out of this? The end of suffering. Where is the end of suffering?

In the teacher training weekend we talked about the interweaving of sila, panna, and samadhi. Sila is moral awareness. Panna is deepening wisdom. Samadhi is focus or concentration. They form a tripod, all 3 of these legs supporting each other. None can become longer unless the others grow in support.

The aspiration to live our lives more skillfully, with more kindness, more love, becomes the ground for our practice but also is a source of frustration because we don't know how to do it. Mind is still jumping in every direction. Samadhi isn't in place. Wisdom doesn't grow until we learn to focus the mind.

We're down here, deepening sila. Trying to live our lives with a bit more clarity. We take the precepts. We begin to meditate. Slowly we find a bit more focus. Mind is still all over the place, but we start to notice that objects arise out of conditions and pass away when the conditions cease. Wonder of wonders, I have nothing to do with this, it's just objects arising and passing away. I'm still responsible for what I bring into my experience and how I relate to it, but everything is arising out of a variety of conditions, not out of a central self.

As we begin to understand this, mind starts to settle down and see things as they are. In the Teacher Training Intensive, we spoke of the first two wisdoms, which would be in this broad section (holding up a chart; this chart hangs above the printer in the DSC office, for those who want to look at it more). The first is called 'The Delimitation of Mind and Matter.' Basically this is about understanding that what happens in the body is in the body. It's a body experience. Rupa, physicality. And what happens in the mind is a mind experience. Nama, mind.

When the bee stings, the sting itself, the flesh, this is rupa. And the feeling of unpleasantness, the aversion may come, the thoughts, 'Where did that bee come from?' this is all nama, this is in the mind. So we start to see that there's a distinction. The body is the body and the mind is the mind. And as this understanding deepens and our practice deepens, so that we watch objects rather than getting caught up in the stories they bring forth, we start to understand how everything is arising out of conditions and passing away. We see deeply into the impermanence.

So this level of our practice is really about knowing the 3 characteristics of conditioned experience: that they are not self, that is, they don't arise from any central self. They are impermanent. And when we get caught up in it as self, there's suffering.

Up until this phase of practice, everything that's come along has been seen as just one more object. Some objects hold our attention and others don't, but we've not paid a lot of attention to the nuances of these different kinds of objects. We find that our experience is much like mine was with the bee sting. I was very focused, looking at my notes, speaking to the squirrels in my back yard, giving the talk I'm giving now, practicing with what I need to share tonight, and suddenly, with almost no notice, sting!

Mind really jumped into this. Ajahn Chah gives a wonderful illustration of somebody falling out of a tree. All the branches go flying by and then thud. You can't really stop and note the nature of each branch with precision, it just all comes flying past, then, thud. So there was sensation and mind noted it to some degree: sensation, unpleasant, the perception 'bee', sting, aversion, anger. There were 3 or 4 yellow jackets flying around my head. I hadn't really noticed them, I was so absorbed in planning the talk. Swat! All flying around. Why me? So many thoughts and sensations come at once.

And then, the very clear insight, there's a sting. I have no choice about the sting. I have a choice in how I'm going to relate to the other yellow jackets that are flying around. Do I want to create karma or not? Do I want to create additional suffering or not? So it was obvious what I needed to do was just pick myself up and go inside.

But the body was reverberating. At that point, we learn in our practice to take whatever is predominant as the object. We've talked about this a lot. Our predominant object-proper object, proper attitude, POPA, we've called it.

First there is the sting, sensation, then the aversion to the sting. When the sting is predominant, we know 'stinging, stinging.' But then the aversion, or it may simply come as tension or contraction, becomes predominant, and we know that as object. Tension. Dislike. Anger. Each may come in turn, this whole string of visitors. We don't hold on to any one beyond the time that it's predominant. We also don't try to push one away because it's unpleasant, to get to a pleasant one. In other words, I don't push away aversion and say, 'Let's have some kindness, here.' When there's pain, there's pain. When there's aversion, there's aversion. Nor do we hold the aversion and push away kindness. Just to notice the aversion is kindness, but there's no force, only choiceless awareness, and intention to non-harm.

What arises is not that important. Objects are unpleasant sometimes, but that's somewhat irrelevant. What matters is how does this mind relate to each object that arises? As our ability to focus and stay present with whatever is predominant in experience settles down, we move into what we call access concentration.

This is development of one-pointedness, (pointing to the chart) and right here we have access concentration. By the time we have access concentration, we've come to understand these first two knowledges of mind and matter, causes and conditions. This has all become clear to us. It's not as clear as it will be, but there's quite a lot of clarity about it.

This whole string of higher knowledges that some of you have touched on with me at one time or another (pointing to chart), these require access concentration. In other words, they require us to be able to stay present and focused with one object, but not clinging to the object. We've talked here about jhana. Jhana is a very deep form of concentrated practice. It opens us to very blissful states, but no wisdom arises during jhana because we're so absorbed into one object that we can't see the relationship. We can't understand causes and conditions because we're just with one object.

The mind that's resting in access concentration is able to take each object as it comes, not hold onto it as it's passing, not be attached to it. But if attachment comes, to know attachment itself as the object. There is no self in which it arose. There is no self to be averse to it, no building stories and creating a self around the stories. But if aversion comes, to be able to take the aversion as the object. What is the experience of attachment or aversion? It's just an experience. A mind and body experience. Each arising in turn out of conditions, each passing away.

Last year in this class we talked at length also about pure awareness. This is another, I don't have the right word for it, another mind state, way of experiencing, which is free of contraction, which is able to watch objects arising without building a self and a story.

Next class, we will talk more about pure awareness. Tonight I want to stay with access concentration. Last year we spoke at length about access concentration and I did some guided meditations with you. We're going to do more of that tonight. Usually we start a class with sitting, but I want to use our sittings tonight as a chance to work with the specific mind quality that we're looking at.

I'd like to hear from you, here, to go around and ask you, what has your experience been with access concentration? Some of you have just briefly touched on it. Some of you find stable access concentration in many of your sittings. Some of you may feel you've never experienced it. That's okay. No self-judgment. You are wherever you are, and that's where we build from. Just because you've never experienced it doesn't mean you won't experience it. I don't want to try to set a hierarchy, here, only that as practice develops and the mind settles down, access concentration, I will phrase it in a very specific way, access concentration will open.

One of my own personal favorite metaphors for access concentration as comes from my days living in New York when I used to ride in the subway and loved to ride in the front car. Sometimes the train stopped at every station, sometimes it was an express train and just zoomed through lit up stations. I would watch out the window, darkness, darkness, then a light would appear, a flashing sign just as you went by, 82nd Street, on the train goes. Attention doesn't try to get off at that station and it doesn't try to avoid the fact that there's a station, it just comes and it's gone and then another comes and it's gone, the train goes around a curve and it's dark and it goes around another curve and there are bright lights. Everything arising out of conditions and passing away. It's a great place to practice. It's wonderful to watch any grasping that comes up.

I had the same experience traveling through Japan on a train, looking out the window. Beautiful vistas would come up. Oooh! I definitely wasn't in access concentration here. Ooh, I want more of that! And then there would be awhile with just flat fields, not very interesting, wanting more of these astounding views. Mt. Fuji for just an instant; that was a big one!

So here's the distinction. Access concentration just takes things as they come. There's no contraction in the body. When I say there's no contraction…if you're practicing in a place where suddenly rain starts to fall and it's very cold and icy, the body may start to shiver, but it's not built on a story of a self. Can you feel the difference? It's just the physical response, the knee jerk when the hammer hits the right place. This is an important part of it. There's no sense of a self so there's no held contraction.

So there are contractions but not self-based contractions. There's no story. With access concentration, the rain is just rain. Without access concentration, 'Oh, I'm going to get pneumonia! Why didn't they give me an umbrella?' Stories. So our practice leads us into this stabilization of access concentration.

I think that if you will go around and share, as I shared my subway metaphor, what your experience of access concentration has been, this will help everybody, because people will get a sense of different but related experiences. If you don't feel you've experienced it, share what is the closest that you've experienced. So together we can build up a deeper, a clearer understanding of access concentration.

Q: My way in is a very tight focus on the breath, initially. Then as my body quiets down, I begin to feel heavier, physically. And the breath becomes like a thread that I see and then don't see. I lose the feeling of the contact of my hands on my legs, or my legs on the floor. And I'm watching arisings from a very disinterested place, and every now and again the breath IS there, like a little silver thread. So when I hear things or feel things or think things…I almost feel like I'm turning into stone, physically. I haven't been stoned too often in my <career> (laughter)…. and I feel like I'm getting stoned… Very still, which is amazing to me. So that when I come out of it, I'm like drunk or coming out of anesthesia? No, I come back through some kind of foggy feeling.

Q: My experience with access concentration usually occurs in longer sittings. I rarely come to access concentration in a 20-minute sitting. I feel… basically, I think the defining characteristic for me is a lack of attachment to whatever arises. Like I am some sort of an observer but almost not directly involved or attached to whatever is arising, whether it's a physical sensation or a thought. Also I find that the bubbling up of thoughts slows quite a bit as well.

Barbara: A line which is interesting, you say 'I am somewhat of an observer,' but I would guess at that point, there's not much of an 'I,' there's just observer. A shift. And that a thought is no longer my thought, just an object, a thought. I think K's statement of 'attachment disappears' is an important one. There's not any specific attachment to any kind of object; objects just come and go.

J, I don't know much about your practice at this point, so I don't know if this is familiar to you.

Q: Well, those of us who have reached a certain age get up often in the middle of the night. We become practiced at finding our way to the bathroom in the dark. Two nights ago, going in that direction, I bumped my head on a partially open door. So I sat down on the toilet and went into a certain form of awareness that only today I would call access awareness.

I felt my head throbbing. I sat there paying attention in a very deep way to the resolution of pain. I didn't note anything. I didn't try to investigate it, as one might do in vipassana. I simply stayed with it, and only with that until the experience passed. It was not exactly 'I' who was having that experience. There was no sense of self present.

Barbara: This sounds like access concentration. Does this come up in your formal practice at all?

Q: Regularly.

Barbara: Good. Your description of that event is clear!

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Q: I read the transcripts from last year's class and I just find this a really difficult concept to grasp, for myself. <> easier. I do know that at times, particularly in longer sittings, that I reach a point sometimes where <>, things fall away. I don't feel I got it. I don't feel the knee that hurts, I don't feel the itching of the nose, it just suddenly all quits, and it's if I'm apart from my body but still able to be seeing what's going through my mind. And that slows down. My mind is usually very, very busy in most sittings. And it tends to slow down. It's like a very fast-moving train that suddenly slows down so you can actually see the cars on it. <> So if that's access concentration, I have seen that sometimes. I don't know.

Barbara: Access concentration is interesting in that mind does not necessarily slow down. If objects are appearing quickly, they still appear quickly. Mind doesn't get sidetracked onto, like a railroad track with lots of side tracks. 'Oh, let's go that way. No, it's a dead-end, let's come back. This way!' This is not access concentration. But if one gets pulled off, then that being pulled off is experienced as an object. Being pulled, what is the experience of being pulled? Being pulled is just being pulled. And then mind settles down and notes, 'This has arisen and it's passing away. And now attention is back present with the breath or whatever is the primary object.'

So at first it seems like you're being pulled off-center and then your realize it's just (sound effect). Really very direct. Don't think of access in terms of mind having to slow down. There can be a great many objects coming in fast progression and still be access concentration. It's rather, do I get into this self-story with each one, or does mind stay on track simply knowing the object as an object?

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Q: For me access concentration is a sense of waking up in the middle of all the objects of mind, instead of—it's kind of like, you know, when you're in the dream, things just happen to you, you can't control them, you exist in the dream… and so access concentration for me is like being present to the objects of mind as if awake, as if I'm just present, as if there's just the present and somehow the objects are not confusing me, they're not pulling me, I'm just awake through them.

Barbara: That's it. It's not even not confusing you, not pulling you…if there's confusion there's just confusion.

Q: …I always say, thank God I'm awake. It's a sense of having a more, a deeper awareness that isn't in the cloud of objects, isn't obscured by them. It feels more alive, awake, aware, present to.

Barbara: Thank you.

Q: I start my sittings with a scan of body <>. And spend quite a bit of time grounding myself in the body. Then switch to the technique of using breath as the object. Then very soon my awareness broadens, really almost physically broadens, not just in my head but my whole body. There's almost a blank slate that occasionally objects will arise on. I am aware the observer is there and as others have said, it's a very impersonal noticing of the object that arises. I think that's about it.

Barbara: These examples are wonderful because it's pointing out that we don't all experience it the same way. And yet we can see the threads that are similar in the experience.

Q: What strikes me most about access concentration is how quickly the objects come and go. Once during a retreat I was eating and there was just this rapid awareness of movement, taste, smell, sound, thought, smell, sound, taste, movement, just how fast it is going. But I was totally present with each of the objects. I guess I'm interested in where to go from there, how to expand the awareness around that.

Barbara: We'll come back to this. A very brief statement: it's not that awareness expands around anything, it's more about this progression of insights.. Objects are arising and we're fascinated, watching, and then we see that everything is dissolving. Fear comes up. 'I can't hold on to anything, it's all dissolving.' So at first it seems there's a wonder, how quickly the objects are arising and even dissolving, but you don't stay with them dissolving. But then as you begin to stay with them and you see everything dissolving, and there's fear, 'I will dissolve, there's nothing to hold onto.'

When the fear itself is then taken as the predominant object, watching the experience of fear also arising and passing away, no self. Arising and passing away of conditions. There comes a point where everything stops, everything is dissolving and then it's gone.

On one level, objects are still arising and dissolving, but mind breaks through into a space beyond arising and dissolution. This form of mind awareness is similar to the pure awareness experience, just much deeper. We will hold off until next week to talk about Pure Awareness and how it ties together, but it's why we do a practice of resting in awareness and using nada and other supramundane objects as primary object, not just the breath. Everything just stops. What's left?

I don't want to try to get deeply into this now, but we'll talk more about it. I just want to point out to you, it's all really right here, there is a path!

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Q: I'm not real clear on the difference between access concentration and spaciousness. I've had experiences of spaciousness where the mind just opens, unfolds like a flower, sometimes. And sometimes I bump into it like an elevator hitting the floor. When it happens, it's a very, very quiet place, like <timeless>. Objects flow through…

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Barbara: Access concentration is a form of consciousness, citta. Every consciousness takes an object. The object is right there with the consciousness. The eye organ touches an object, picture, and seeing consciousness arises. Without an object, or without the eye organ, seeing consciousness cannot arise. Access concentration is citta, mind consciousness, and takes an object. Spaciousness is an object. So pure awareness, or whatever level of consciousness is present, is holding spaciousness as the object.

Now, for the most part, we can't observe the object of spaciousness, or any other expression of the Unconditioned, from a conditioned level of consciousness. So when you talk about seeing spaciousness, to me it indicates the citta is open that's capable of perceiving the Unconditioned. Otherwise you would not perceive spaciousness.

So this is the relationship. The experience of spaciousness is an indication of lokuttara citta, the supramundane citta which are capable of perceiving the Unconditioned. They don't so much open or close, they're always open; our back is to them, in a sense. As we deepen into this level of consciousness and allow ourselves to move into it, it's there. It's not like a linear progression where we move from more mundane to supramundane consciousness so much as a vertical, just going deeper and deeper and deeper until we see through. It's like being in the sea. The bottom is always there but we tend to remain on top. When we dive down, we see what has always been there, in the depths. Does that make sense, at least conceptually?

We'll talk more about it. I don't want to go off on too many tangents now, but to hear each person's experience. We will talk more about it.

Q: My meditation starts with body awareness and then proceeds to awareness of the breath. Sometimes it stays there. Sometimes it moves to nada or sometimes what M was talking about, the broadening of awareness. Not seeing individual objects, I'm seeing the whole rather than parts. There is a timeless quality to it. Just coming and going, nothing personal. I'm sure that if icy rain came or yellowjackets came, my concentration would be blown to bits. No question.

Q: I doubt that I have experienced access concentration, certainly not in daily practice. Possible exceptions are experiences on retreats. For example, a retreat last December, there were some sittings that became extremely spacious, extremely quiet and peaceful. Very nice. But I would tend to guess they were more concentration states than access concentration.

Barbara: From what you've described to me, J, I think you've experienced access concentration… The most important thing is to get a sense of what access concentration is. T, do you have any experience of this? I don't know your practice at all.

Q: I'm not sure. I really haven't got beyond focusing on the breath.

Barbara: Okay. You're focusing on the breath. You've worked in the Tibetan tradition, have not done vipassana practice, you told me tonight. So, are you keeping a fixed focus on the breath, or if another object becomes predominant, do you acknowledge it?

Q: <lost...tries to maintain one focus...>

Barbara: Okay, this is a basic difference in the practice you've done and what we're doing here. We don't call it distraction. If a bee stings, the breath is no longer predominant in my experience, the sting is predominant. I'm not distracted by the bee or by the stinging sensation, I'm simply aware of it and fully present with it. I give it my full attention. As the stinging sensation is no longer predominant, then something else will be predominant. It may be aversion to the sting or I may simply come back to the breath.

Q: How do you not get carried away with the thoughts? If the thought arises, how do you not get carried off with the thought?

Barbara: We will talk about it later. It's something that the others here have worked with a lot. So you and I can talk about it later. It's not so much not carried away... Part of what I'm going to talk about after our break is precisely T's question but in more depth, So we'll come back to it.

Q: An imperfect metaphor came to me about it being like looking through a one-way mirror, although there's no separation between the awareness and the object. I'm also curious at some point how this experience in sitting meditation carries into awakening practice and how it would differ from mindfulness. I had very similar experience with my foot accident as J had the other night with the door. I was very aware moment by moment by moment of everything happening but was not really connected as a body to it.

Barbara: It could be at times that there's some, because of the shock of pain or something or just the suddenness of it, some separation of the body. So on one level, there's access concentration or something similar to it, and on another level there's something holding back, not fully allowing connection with the experience.

Q: There seemed to be a moment-to-moment awareness of the nerve sending signals to the brain, and the awareness of the fast breathing and…

Barbara: So in this case there was very deep body awareness?

Q: Yes, but not like, 'Oh, my foot is paining me…'

Barbara: No self, but awareness of sensation. This is access concentration. There's a point in access concentration where pain ceases to be pain and is just sensation. Was that how you experienced it, just as sensation? So that was access concentration. I was misunderstanding you. For me, I've had an experience where there was a sudden sharp pain, where I banged myself or something, and able to note it very clearly, part of the mind with what pretended to be access concentration but subtly using that as a way of separating the self from the unpleasantness of the pain. So that was not access concentration.

Q: There was no sense, really, of the word ‘pain'. There was awareness of the sensation…

Q: Within the next 4 times and curious about the sitting access concentration, and would you call it access concentration in daily experiences or mindfulness?

Barbara: Mindfulness is one level of consciousness, and access concentration is another more focused level of consciousness. It can be both. Access concentration involves mindfulness, but mindfulness does not necessarily mean access concentration.

Let's take a 5 minute break and when we come back, Aaron is going to present some new material and then we're going to do a guided meditation together.


Aaron: My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. I see new friends here tonight, will you tell me your name, my brother? (J and T) Happy to meet you both. Barbara is not here, I'm somebody different, so I need to be introduced to you.

The last time I said the word 'Abhidhamma,' I was greeted by groans. This is a deep subject. The importance here is that it not be intellectual but that you use it as a tool.

Let us imagine that you are moving through a vast maze. It has different parts. They require different skills, such as a place where you have to swim across and know how to swim, a place where there's a cliff 30 feet high so you must do some rock climbing. Perhaps a place where you must use your compass to pass through a great wilderness of trees.

If somebody were to say to you ahead of time, 'This maze is almost impenetrable,' fear would come up. If, rather, somebody said to you, 'This maze is going to demand each of the various skills that you have so carefully nurtured.' If as you come to each phase, know you have the experience to work with it. You know how to swim. Pull off your shoes and swim across; it's just water. Then you can recognize each phase and feel some certainty about your ability to deal with it.

Your incarnate experience is like passing through a vast maze with things suddenly leaping out at you, so that you feel yourself thrown off track. But when you recognize each stage just for what it is, then there's not any big problem with it.

You and Barbara were talking earlier about access concentration and about not being pulled out of the awareness, we call the observer or the one who knows, not being pulled into the self. That reaction, to pull off into the separate self, is so deeply habituated in you. Most of you have forgotten how to rest in the true self and simply take one experience at a time. So you have created this solid personality self, the ego, to cope with and control each of the experiences that come.

If you're a good swimmer, the personality self doesn't get involved, you just pull off your clothes, wrap them in a packet held above the water, and off you go into the river. Swim across and put your clothes back on. It's easy. There are no stories there.

With this in mind, I want to look with you at the citta and cetasika, the modifiers of consciousness. For consciousness to arise, citta, there must be an organ, mind or sense organ—eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind, one of the 6 sense doors—and there must be an object. I would suggest you not take too many notes. The email that Barbara sent last night contains most of this material. Listen with your hearts; don't worry about getting it all down precisely. We'll be glad to repeat if there are terms that slipped past.

Even if the sense object arises and the sense door is present, consciousness cannot arise without contact. In Pali, phassa. So there has to be contact. We need to understand what we mean by contact. It's a touching, a presence with. It's not absorption. This is where it differs from jhana. In jhana, you absorb into the object until there's no longer mindfulness. Mindfulness and jhana cannot co-exist.

Here there is simply touching. We've talked about vitaka and viccara, holding the object and penetrating. An example from the sutras, holding the bowl. As you try to polish it and you're not holding it, it just pushes away from you. (demonstrating) You have to hold it. You can hold it as long as you like but you won't get the tarnish off unless you polish it. Holding and penetrating deeply into the object.

So this is contact. With contact and the presence of the object and the presence of the body or mind sense organ , consciousness will arise. When consciousness arises, there will be feeling, vedana. Always, with any object, there will be feeling. All feeling means is the object is experienced with the feeling of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

When there is a strong feeling of pleasant or unpleasant noted with mindfulness, it's like coming to that river in the maze and saying, 'Oh, what's that?' It's just a river, this is the place where I swim. It's just pleasantness or unpleasantness. When I note pleasant or unpleasant, it's just pleasant or unpleasant. There's no story built upon it. There's no contraction with it.

If I do not know unpleasant as unpleasant, strong aversion can arise. When I know it simply as unpleasant, aversion usually will not arise. In access concentration, aversion will not arise. This is one of the definitions that was omitted in your discussion tonight. In access concentration, objects may be experienced as pleasant or unpleasant but there is no attachment or aversion. That's an important sign of access concentration.

We're not trying to avoid the experience of attachment or aversion. If it arises, it arises, and you are with it with honesty, simply knowing, 'Here is attachment.' Access concentration can open again, as soon as mind is able to know attachment or aversion, just as they are without furthering stories about them.

But let's say at this point that we've caught it as pleasant or unpleasant or perhaps as neutral. With neutral, not moving into boredom; just a neutral object. Next is perception of what it is. Perception is based in the current moment and old experience. When you see a tree, you know it to be a tree. You don't try to walk through it. You know it's solid. If you walk through it, crash! You also don't ask it to get you a glass of water, you know it's rooted in place and can't move itself. You may hug it. You may feel energy from it. But you know a tree as a tree and a water spigot as a water spigot because of past experience. This is perception.

The notes that Barbara sent out the last night go quite a bit deeper into these various cetasikas. In those notes Barbara also lists an excellent guide to Abhidhamma that's available to be downloaded on the web. It's a very clear book. For those of you who want to go deeper, I suggest that you look there. So first, the deeper writing included in the notes, and second, if you still want to go deeper, read the material on the website.

Q: We have Cetasikas by Nina von Gorkom …(in the new book section…)

Aaron: Thank you. So it is in the library or may be downloaded on the internet.

So we have contact, feeling, and perception. Each of them will arise seemingly simultaneously, but they're really in turn. When you are able to be with each, just as it is, knowing it as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, there's not so much of a sense of self and you're not so much pulled off by what you're experiencing, but stay centered as the observer, just watching objects arising and passing away. Understanding that these arise can be very helpful, so that when there's strong smell of a skunk, for example, Ew!, and suddenly there's aversion, disgust, you're able to note, each object has arisen out of the conditions, it's impermanent, it's not self, and the mind doesn't go off to chastise the self or the skunk. It just notes the experience.

Then we have concentration or one-pointedness, seen on your chart, here (pointing to chart), one-pointed concentration. This is vitaka, holding, present with the object. Vitaka is not somewhere else, it's right there with the contact and feeling. Present with the object. Present with the object so long as it's predominant, but not attached to the object.

Part of the concentration is interest. Interest doesn't mean, 'I'm interested in this, I'm not interested in that,' interest is a kind of openness, willing to be present with whatever is there. It's a basic attitude of open-heartedness and curiosity. It's part of the factors of enlightenment, attention and interest. The giving of attention.

So these will arise always with consciousness. Sometimes there will be stronger interest and attention, sometimes less. Those of you who said, objects come and they go quickly, you might want to observe your relationship to the object in terms of, 'Am I willing to give this object my full attention?'

At retreats, I sometimes ask people to take a piece of earth about the size of this poster and to sit on the grass and observe that piece of ground for an hour or two. Just watching that piece of ground, not the trees, not the sky, just that earth and what moves on it. Breathing and watching. People always say to me, 'Aaron, that's going to be so boring. There's nothing there, it's just a patch of grass.' And at the end of an hour or two, of course, they're fascinated. I come back in an hour and say, 'What did you see?' And they tell me everything they saw and I say, 'Sit with it for another hour.' And of course they see more. Seeing deeply. This is the factor of attention and presence.

This is a good training. You might want to try it at home. Just sit yourself outside on a pretty day with one square—take 4 little rocks or sticks to mark out your territory and just watch. If the ant crawls out of the square and goes off, don't follow him. Stay within the square. See what's there.

We're going to do a guided meditation and then a silent meditation. Acknowledging that each of you will have a different experience and that I am not trying to force an experience on you, I'm going to try to guide you to see the movement through contact and feeling and so forth, to observe when an object arises and what kind of presence you're allowing with that object. We'll see if there any body tension trying to separate from that object; if so, that body tension becomes the new object.

In this way, I do not aspire to lead you into access concentration so much as to help you understand the tools that can support access concentration. As we stated here today, 25 minutes is a very short time to open to access concentration. So some of you may, but that's not our goal. Our goal is just to understand these tools better.

Let me ask if there are questions about what I've said. I think you're all familiar with the specific points I made about feeling and perception and so forth. The whole idea of contact and what it is may be new to you. I want you to really watch that moment of contact.

Know citta for what it is, consciousness, and see how consciousness arises with contact. If there is no contact, there's no consciousness. And then, what is the texture of that consciousness? Is it consciousness with aversion, consciousness with joy, with ease, with strain? Is the experience pleasant or unpleasant? Is there any self there, or is it all just arising out of conditions and passing away?

Imagine yourself, if you will, floating down a river. You want to reach the sea. The river has a strong current and is moving toward the sea. There are some logs in the river. Sometimes when the water is rushing past, you might feel impelled to hang onto a piece of wood, driftwood or a log attached to the shore, for support. But you notice as soon as you hang on, you're not moving toward the sea anymore. You may try to swim past, thinking, 'I want to get to the sea more quickly.' But you tire yourself out. The current will take you. Trust it.

In this same way, I want you to trust your practice, not trying to force the practice, simply riding it as you would float with the water of the river, trusting that it goes to the sea.

Again, are there any questions about what I've said about contact and so forth? (none)

Aaron: For this practice period, We will use the breath as the primary object. Allow the body to be centered and at ease. Rock back and forth a few times, and sideways. Then let the body come back to center.

(pause; frequent further pauses are not written in)

Bring attention to the breath, the soft touch of the breath on the nostril and upper lip. Breathing in and breathing out. The breath is an object. What's really happening here? We don't analyze to bury ourselves in analysis but rather to do it once and understand so we can let go.

The sense organ of the body, touch, here specifically as touch at nostril and upper lip. The sense organ is present. And the breath is present as an object, the movement of air.

Allow yourself to know the experience of contact. Without knowing contact, could there be a consciousness of touching, which is basically what the experience of the breath is. I ask you to note it as touching, touching. Contact, and touching.

Be aware of all 4 elements. The sense organ of the body, the object of the breath, the contact, and mind and knowing touching, touching.

(longer pause)

Is the basic feeling tone one of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or is it neutral?

(longer pause)

I want to demystify access concentration. Even here, at the beginning of the sitting, there can be access concentration. There are just these objects all arising out of conditions, conditions that have formed this body with nerves, so that there is body sensation. The conditions that create the breath, the flow of the breath through the nostrils, and as it touches the upper lip. Contact. Touching consciousness. Pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. And the perception of breath.

To what degree is the mind able to focus attention, one-pointed, present with this object, as long as nothing else becomes predominant?

What is the quality of attention? Is it soft and open? Is there any judgment to it? Is there any force to it? If so, simply note that as a new object. Tension might be the name of the object. Trying to force the attention creates a kind of body tension. It's also a body object. The object is tension and the body is the sense organ experiencing the tension. Contact. Knowing the tension in the body. Feeling it perhaps in the belly, or the jaw. Pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Perception.

And now, what is the quality of attention? As the tension dissolves, bring your attention back to the breath.

With access concentration, objects do not cease to arise and dissolve. There's simply no going out to them, no trying to hold them or force them away. So the quality of attention is important.

I'm going to clap Barbara's hands, and make a small sound. The sound is the object. The ear is the sense organ, knowing the sound. Be aware that there is contact, that hearing consciousness cannot arise without that moment of contact, ear organ to sound object.


So briefly there was hearing. Of course there is still hearing because I am speaking. It's very hard to explain this and not bring speech in as the object. So the clapping has dissolved, but there's speech as object now, and hearing consciousness. Attention, knowing the object. Differing from our illustration of Ajahn Chah's tree, we fall slowly and we can see the branches. As attention deepens, it's like moving into slow motion.

No self in it. Just the sense organ or the mind, the object, contact and consciousness arising together. And then pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. And perception that tells you what the experience is.

Aware of the quality of attention. Touching the object. Taking contact as touching until the object dissolves, as my voice will in a moment. When there is no longer predominant hearing contact, return to the breath.

Each object comes in turn. (loud tapping noise) Hearing, hearing... Or perhaps more predominant was 'startled'. Mind consciousness. Or did the body react, did the whole body tense up at that sound? That sound is gone now, have you let it go or is there still some reverberation about it? If so, note that as a shift in energy. Again, it's a body object. Body touching, feeling that reverberation of energy or tension. As it changes and dissolves, come back to the breath.

Access concentration is nothing special, it's fluid. It takes what is predominant, is present with it while it's predominant, and lets it go. If something else is predominant, it moves to it. If nothing else is predominant, it can move to the primary object.

Tonight we are practicing with the breath as primary object. Most of you have worked with me at length to rest in the space that remains as predominant when the object dissolves. Many of you have used a supramundane primary object; it might be spaciousness/space or it might be nada. Access concentration can work with a mundane or supramundane primary object. I'm going to be quiet now. You may continue to use the breath as a primary object, or if in your practice you are accustomed to working with nada, or space, rest there. These are no different. There is a body or mind sense organ touching an object, contact consciousness arises. Just rest there. We'll sit now quietly for about 10 minutes…

(pause; bell)

Aaron: The recorder was not on. I just spoke to K's question about the experience of access concentration versus jhana. Access concentration is not an experience of bliss but simply peace and joy and at-one-ment. No separation, no suffering. J has a question.

Q: I prepared myself to receive your clapping sounds. I can reproduce them even now. (claps) I was very startled when the first clap came. One of them was softer than another. After the physical sound had completely subsided, the clapping continued in my head. It continued even when you did the clacking on the lamp pole. I began to get annoyed. I wanted this repetition to stop. I could have reverted to mindful breathing, but instead, I practiced causing it to vanish. After some efforts that I don't understand, I seemed to have succeeded, and then had a long period of silent observation and awareness. What's going on?

Aaron: There can be the error in practice to believe that you have to be with everything, and you can't do so. Something will be predominant. When there's the sound (tapping), you hear it. We talked about sense object, contact, consciousness, but almost immediately the unpleasant feeling is predominant. Because the unpleasant feeling was not immediately noted, because there was still some trying to hold to the hearing, it slipped quickly into aversion. The aversion was uncomfortable, but rather than taking the experience of aversion as the predominant object, there was some trying to change the personal relationship with it. I would gather there was judgment of it. 'I shouldn't be feeling aversion,' or 'I don't like the aversion. I don't want the aversion.'

In each instance one must be present with the experience with an open heart. Here is the experience of aversion. Here is unpleasant. Here is startledness and aversion to the startledness. What is the relationship with these? Is there an attempt at control, or can the heart be open and fully present? The object dissolves very quickly when the heart is open with deep presence. The approach that says it should be this and not that, is no longer choiceless awareness. There's force. And because there's not observation of that bringing force, not presence with it, it sticks. It deepens. So in lack of full open-hearted presence, that which you wish to see dissolve magnifies itself.

Kindness. The open heart. This is the practice of the open heart. It will lead you in your life to how to open your heart to the bee sting, to the fender bender, to the traffic jam, to the rude person on the telephone, whatever. And to the fender bender within the self.

Other questions? My brother, I hoped this touched some on your question about how to work with the mind that keeps running off in different directions. Just noting it, opening the heart to it. There's a difference between observing and getting caught up in the stories. When it's a story, simply note, 'story.' Note the wanting to go there. Maybe a memory comes up of something that somebody said that was rude or uncomfortable, and anger comes up with. And then the thought comes up, what could I have said? What should I have said? At that moment, what's predominant probably is tension. It's not the thought; as soon as you note the thought, the thought is gone. Just tension, tension.

What is the relationship to this tension? Is it one of trying to control or fix? Or can there be a relationship with kindness? Just holding space for tension the way you would hold the space for a frightened child who ran into your arms crying. You wouldn't say, 'Stop crying, now. Behave yourself.' You'd just hold and rock the child until the child stops crying. Can you do that with yourself? And then the thoughts will stop.

If there are no further questions, I'm going to return the body to Barbara so she can speak to you about the next class… Thank you for sharing yourselves with me tonight.

Barbara: Summing up quickly: meditate. I would really like to see you all have a daily practice if you do not already. Most of you do. If your lives are so busy that it's hard to sit every day, sit for 5 minutes on those days when you can't sit for longer.

Don't try to force access concentration, just relax. The quality of attention is so important. Aaron says he talked about this. Watch the quality of attention. Is it forced? You know the Buddhist teaching story of the monk who had been a musician. He is despairing and planning to disrobe, and the Buddha comes to him and says, 'When you were a musician, how did you tune your instrument? Did you tighten the strings very tight?' 'No.' 'Then did you tighten them very slack?' 'No' Then how? 'Just right.'

So this quality of attention is just right, not too tight, not too slack. I think this is the predominant factor in helping to invite access concentration. The thing that pulls most people out of access concentration is some object comes up like a strong physical sensation or a thought. You get pulled into that object briefly and then the thought, 'Oh! What happened to access concentration?' If that happens, just note, 'alarmed,' or 'briefly caught,' and come back. If there's access concentration and it's gone, it will come back. You don't have to run after it, relax.

So effort, but effortless effort. Relaxed. Just be with the practice and let it flow.

Please download the notes that I sent last night and look over them. Read especially from the book that I quoted from and can be downloaded. Aaron says he talked about this. It can be downloaded over the web. You can print the whole thing out if you want to or just this first chapter that I quoted from, depending how deep you want to go. But I'd like you to understand these 5 factors of contact, feeling, perception, attention, one-pointedness. Ask, 'What is really happening in this moment?' So pay some attention, read enough about it that you feel you understand it and watch for it in your practice. Try to see how paying attention to these factors can help support access concentration.

Are there any questions?

Okay, we'll probably sit right away at 7 when we come in next week. I usually start the class with a sitting. We'll see…If you do have questions in this period of time, please email me at I would especially like any questions or feedback that came up tonight because we're a small group and I want to address your questions and be supportive of your practice.

That's all. Good night.

(recording ends)

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