June 18, 2012 Monday Morning, Emrich Retreat

Basic practice instructions of vipassana and choiceless awareness; primary object and predominant object; resting in the space between objects;

Aaron: Good morning. My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. We'll begin with a three minute review of basics, and then onward.

Begin with presence whatever you use as the primary object. It might be the breath. It might be nada, luminosity, space, or energy. Perhaps you are present with that for three seconds, thirty seconds, or three minutes; then something intrudes and pulls your attention away. Our practice is not a fixed concentration practice. The work is to stay present with whatever is predominant in your experience, and bring attention to it.

We use noting at the beginning as a helpful way of focusing attention. But at a point where the noting gets in the way, you can drop it. It doesn't need to be a formal note. If there's sound, a loud jet flying overhead, there will be hearing. The ear organ touches the sound, contact, and then there's hearing consciousness. The consciousness itself will have a feeling of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. It's not about the object itself, often. Sometimes it is. Nose touching a scent of a skunk. Smelling. It's acrid. It burns. It's usually unpleasant. But if you're another skunk, it's probably not unpleasant. It's unpleasant to the human scent organ.

Barbara has a hot tub. She climbs in it on a chilly night. Ahh, warm, pleasant, pleasant. After about 5 minutes she starts to feel overheated. Hot, hot, unpleasant, unpleasant. The water temperature hasn't changed. First it's pleasant, then it's unpleasant. She sits up on the edge of the tub. Snow is falling around her, landing on her shoulders. Cold wind is blowing. Pleasant, pleasant. “I was so hot. Pleasant.” And after about a minute, cold, cold, unpleasant. It's always changing. How are you relating to it?

So, pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings arise. With neutral, there is often boredom. There's nothing strong holding your attention and mind wanders off looking for something else that's more entertaining.

When there is a strong feeling, pleasant or unpleasant, with pleasant feeling often grasping arises, wanting to hold on to it. With unpleasant feeling often aversion arises, wanting to push it away. These objects, grasping or aversion, can be felt in the body.

Imagine that I pull out of my pocket that which you most crave right now. Maybe a perfect fresh strawberry or a piece of chocolate. Maybe a bar of gold. Maybe a letter praising you and telling you how wonderful you are. Shall I give it to you? Maybe I won't. Should I give it to you? (teasing as he reaches out to people) Can you feel the subtle grasping energy? Reach out for it. How does it feel in the body? This is grasping. We're not talking about the stories that come with grasping but the direct experience: this is grasping.

Now, how about if I got a very stern and angry look on my face and I'm about to walk up to one of you and yell at you? (stern expression) Can you feel the tension? “What if it's me? What have I done wrong?” Tension. Feel the tension of aversion. I don't like this; I don't want this. Tension, tension. It's just tension.

The place where most people get stuck in their practice is either to hold on to an object, to push away an object, or to grasp at a different object to get away from an unpleasant object. Let's use body pain as an example. You've often heard it said to stay with the pain. As more and more unpleasant strong aversion comes up, with a lot of body tension, you might misuse staying with the pain to push away the tension, not to know the anger, the aversion, the tension. We want to shift easily to the object that's predominant. The physical sensation is no longer predominant. The aversion is predominant. But you can err in the other direction-- as soon as the aversion comes, say, “Oh boy, I can let go of the pain. I don't have to focus on the pain anymore. Here's aversion. Pain, just stay back there. Here's aversion.”

Our practice is not to push anything away, but to stay with whatever is predominant-- physical, emotional, or mental. When I say mental, I don't mean stories. The mind goes into stories of shame, inadequacy, unworthiness, remembering and feeling anger about a situation. The thought is just a thought. When you note the thought, it's gone. Mind is planning, for example, and you note “planning”. You're no longer planning. You come back to the primary object. Planning starts again. You note, “planning, planning.” It's gone, you're no longer planning. You come back to the primary object.

But looking deeply, you see the impulse “wanting to plan.” That becomes the new predominant object. Note I'm using two different terms: primary object and predominant object, the object that has taken attention away from the primary object. Wanting to plan. What is this wanting to plan? Here it is. How does it feel in the body? There's a grasping texture to it. Wanting, grasping.

We begin to look at it with more spaciousness. How does it feel? What does this planning protect me from? If I did not move into planning right now, what might I be feeling? Sometimes there's sadness or some other emotion-- feeling helpless, out of control. If I plan, I can get everything just right and it can come out perfect. So gradually you're led back to this human who's feeling out of control, who feels helpless, a sense of sadness, and that also comes into the practice. Everything is accessible to our practice. We open our heart to it. As I said in my talk last night, Milarepa turning to the demon and finally realizing he can't throw sticks at it, he can't throw dharma talks at it. He's going to have to learn to live with it, that it's there and it's always been there. And then he finally surrenders the duality he was creating and says, “Eat me.” Puts his head in the demon's mouth.

What does it mean to you to put your head in the demon's mouth? First you have to recognize the demon. You don't create a separate demon; you recognize, “This is and has always been part of this human experience.” These feelings of sadness, helplessness, of the judging mind, this body pain, this is part of the human experience. And instead of trying to fix it or control it, I let go. I literally put my head in the demon's mouth and say, “Eat me. I merge with you. I will not hold us separate. I will not cut off aspects of myself and put them in little boxes and say, ‘There's this and this that need to be fixed,' but open my heart fully to this experience. And in thus doing, I open my heart to all humans, with compassion.”

As you work with this and mind becomes stable and able to pick up objects easily, stay with them and watch them dissolve. Come back to the primary object. Increasingly we advise you to shift the primary object, as your practice stabilizes, from the breath to something that's a more unconditioned object: luminosity or nada, the sound of silence, energy, space. We begin to look at the object that has arisen, like the jet sound. It arose, and it's gone. We go into the space into which it dissolved. Body pain or sensation, it arises and it's gone. Instead of bringing attention directly back to the primary object, we just rest in the space. Nothing, just space, stillness. But if the stillness starts to fill up again, then note it. What is it filling with?

The learning deepens. Everything is arising out of conditions and passing away. It's impermanent. It's not of the nature of a separate self. I don't mean by that there's nobody there; you all exist. But who or what are you?

Are you familiar with the skandhas or aggregates? These are form, feelings, thoughts, perceptions and consciousness; the different aspects of your being. There is the physical body; feelings that come and go; the mental body of thoughts. Consciousness itself. Perception. These are different aspects of you, like the clothing that you wear.

Most of you have done this with me, but do it with me again. Hold your hand up. Wiggle the fingers. Here's the aggregate of form, of feeling, of perception, the mental aggregate, consciousness (pointing to each finger). They're all wiggling. Stare at them. You are not any of these. They exist, but there doesn't need to be a self-identity with them. So look through. Keep them wiggling and look through. See the vast space out beyond them all.

Now come back. Bring attention back. Here's the aggregate of form. Here's this body, and perhaps there's some pain in the back. Be aware of it, kindly. Giving it some kindness. And then, look past it again. “I am not my back. I attend to my back; I take care of my back.” Here is the mental aggregate, feelings of judgment. “I shouldn't mind the discomfort in my back.” Ah, is that so? It's just another judgment. Taking care of it and then moving past it into the spaciousness. We begin to balance, noting the arising physical and mental objects; present with them, fully present, and yet not self-identified with them.

Once again, as your practice deepens, the whole notion of a separate self begins to dissolve. It's just the aggregates experiencing. Then what remains? This is your great discovery for this week. What remains if you're not your body, if you're not your mind, if you're not even your stream of consciousness? What remains?

As your practice deepens, you'll find experiences where the body seems to dissolve, no sense of a physical body. The ego dissolves, no sense of a self. But there's still something that we call awareness. You're not asleep, with the body and ego dissolved. There's a very clear, present awareness. How does that relate to what remains? I'm not giving answers here; I'm just tossing out questions. If you have this kind of experience, fine. If you don't, that's okay, too. The practice progresses step by step; it unfolds. You're not trying to have any kind of special experience. I just want to speak about this to help those who do open into these experiences to understand them. It's all part of the progression.

The more stably you can rest in this “that which remains,” this awareness, the more you learn how to relate to the world from this space. It's the space of the loving heart, the compassionate heart; the space of deepest wisdom; the space from which you can live your life, truly with the highest good of all and harm to none. That is what I think you are all seeking: how do I live with harmlessness and with kindness?

Let me take some questions, if there are any, on these basic instructions, and then we'll have a 45 minute sitting. I want you to stay especially aware of this transition: an object becoming strong in your experience, such as a physical or mental object; feeling it as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral; and what we call the active moment, which is the moment where there's a shift from pleasant to grasping, unpleasant to aversion and pushing away. See that when you're aware of grasping, that which is aware of grasping is not grasping. That which is aware of aversion is not averse. Come back into that centered space without denial of the experience of grasping or aversion, if it should exist. You're not trying to stop anything, but to rest in that space that can see it clearly as, “Oh, here is this. It has arisen. I attend to it, and gradually it will subside and go.” Just that.

Are there any questions about the practice?

Q: With the teaching, you're not pushing away anything. But let's say, even in daily life, or I wake up in the middle of the night and there are thoughts arising, usually disturbing thoughts, not waking up and saying, “Oh, life is so amazing <>.”  So my question is, I choose not to stay in that thought. I note it, but I choose not to stay with it. I go into my body and I am aware of the sensation that this thought created. But if the thought is knocking again and again, I choose not to stay with the stories that come. So is this pushing away? Or is it working with the teaching?

Aaron: No, this is not pushing away. This is part of that right effort, “abandon the unwholesome.” Sometimes when you drive down a highway, you pass a scene of an accident. There are ambulances, cars, fire trucks, cars turned over. Some of you, at least, want to look. What happened? What happened? It stirs up a lot of emotion. Sadness for the people who may be injured or killed. Some fear, a little bit, or thrill or excitement; it stirs up all of these things. The wise person notes this contracted energy, and simply noting it, breathes with it and drives on. The unwise person pulls over and says, “What happened?” That's getting into the stories.

You want to just drive by, but you do not want to drive by saying, “There's nothing happening there. Ignore it.” The heart has to be open. Here is some kind of real pain, tragedy. Breathe in, sending metta to these people. Be aware of it, but not caught in the stories. Drive by.

So, similarly, when a repetitive story comes, note the repetition of it. Be with the tension in the body. If that tension resolves, you're just sitting quietly and then the story comes back, the story is a thought. As soon as you note the thought, like a planning or judging thought, it has ceased. It's helpful if it's recurrent, a thought or even an image of some sort that keeps coming back, after the sitting to spend some time with reflection, “What is this thought that keeps coming? What is it about? Is there something I need to know here?” But don't pick at it; ask and let go.

Let me use a simple example. Perhaps somebody is angry at you, has written you an angry letter or made an angry phone call, and it has stirred up some emotion. You're sitting, and the story of this person's anger keeps coming up as a thought. You work a bit with metta. You note the anger, your own anger about the other person's anger, but it still keeps coming. It even comes into your dreams at night. You might then ask, not during the sitting but as a reflection, “Is there something here that I'm not letting myself fully acknowledge?” Asking that, you might find, for example, shame. An awareness that you said or did something that triggered the other person's anger and that you have not taken full responsibility for it. Or perhaps a much older kind of shame, grown out of childhood and the emotions with a parent who kept saying, “Now, you shouldn't have done that. You shouldn't have said that.” There may be a feeling “I can't get it right.” So it might come up as a deep feeling of sadness in the self, “I always feel I can't get things right.” And that's why this image of the person who's angry keeps coming up, and the thoughts. What's behind it?

You're not doing it as a detective investigation. You're not trying to crack something open and figure it out. You're simply acknowledging, “There's something here, and I'm willing to open the heart to see it.” And then we trust the whole practice of insight meditation. The arising insights that come up. The deep moment of realizing, “This is what it's about. And I don't have to carry this anymore.” Seeing that the shame that has come up is based on the parent's constant story when you were child. “Why didn't you get this right? Why did you say that?” Feeling how angry you are at the parent. I'm not speaking personally to you, here, Q, I'm using this as an example. Feeling angry at the parent and realizing, “I've not let myself really experience this anger, and it's okay. It's safe to experience this anger. I don't have to be afraid of the anger. It is arisen from old conditions, impermanent, and not off the nature of a solid self. Breathing in, I am aware of the anger. Breathing out, I send love to the anger. I hold this human child that I was with love.”

As there's space for the anger, there's space for this person's anger that sent you the angry letter or phone call. There's space for your own anger. The whole issue begins to dissolve, and the thought stops being so recurrent.

So we don't dismiss it or push it away, and we don't get caught up in the stories. But we note that if it's recurrent, it's recurrent because there is something there that has not yet been touched with love, has not yet been healed; some place where the heart is still closed. And we invite the opening.

Q: You have also taught that we can then speak from our heart and ask that the anger from the other stop.

Aaron: You're talking here about a life situation rather than sitting meditation. If somebody is haranguing you, pushing at you, there's awareness that it's unpleasant, awareness of that person's anger and your anger. There's compassion for both of you, but out of that compassion there's the strength to say, “No, you may not hassle me this way anymore. Please stop. Sit down and be quiet or I need to leave.” So we don't have to stand by and let ourselves be abused by people. That's not compassion. It's very non-compassionate to let others harm you.

It's 9:45am. Let us move onto the sitting. There will be more time for questions later.

My blessings and love to you all, and my wishes for a good day of practice. I'll see many of you this afternoon.

(recording ends)