March 30, 2007

Hi _______,

Well, I must say, I’ve never gone into such deep discussions with someone I’ve never met much less taught or facilitated.  Since you are obviously quite earnest & ask such excellent questions, I will give in to my internal ‘mantra’ that prompts me to help clarify experience wherever I can.  I’m not sure why you’ve selected me to ask and/or if you send this to several teachers to compare answers (which might not be such a bad thing to do), but I will do my best to respond from my perspective for what that’s worth.

I will take your email and answer each question as you ask it below in green.  I’m writing quickly, so if something doesn’t make sense, just let me know.   Hope the answers are helpful for you. But in any regard, it’s good questioning – and what’s best is that you are attending to this at all.  Tis a good practice.
With Metta & Mudita,

Dear Miss Nash,
Having benefited greatly from your wise guidance in the past, I was hoping to ask you another Vipassana question that has been on my mind for some time.  
The question is as follows:  My first exposure to Vipassana was in the practices associated with the U Ba Khin lineage.  I attended one of S. N. Goenka's 10-day retreats about a year before discovering VSI and Shinzen.

A not-uncommom progression.

It appears to me that Goenka recommends body sensation (what he refers to as Vedananupassana) as his exclusive object of meditation.  

No shit.  (Not said in a derogatory manner.)

One practices anapanasati at first, and then moves one to body sweeping from then on.  The former is only used periodically to sharpen concentration power.  In William Hart's book on Vipassana according to S. N. Goenka, Goenka-ji is quoted as saying that body sensation is the only object of meditation necessary because any and all other subjective experiences will trigger some form of body sensation.  I heard him say as much on the videos played in the retreat and also on his website.  

Yes.  He also advocates celibacy.

Ok, I’m being flip.  (Although that’s true.)  
Yes, like when you get into the Wheel of Origination, you can get into a whole discussion of ‘vedana’(and what that is) but not to add more complexity to this discussion than necessary, I will say that yes, other subjective experiences will most often-if-not-always trigger some form of body sensation.  (I happen to love watching those body responses.)  That is not the same thing, however, as saying that body sensation is the only object of meditation necessary (or let me add ‘of value.’)  

Body, then, is a catch all object of mindfulness: by attending to body sensation, that aspect of experience will be observed directly, but image and talk will also be observed, if only indirectly.
That is probably the most common application of mindfulness practice.  

I know I can meditate with greater depth if I sacrifice breadth, at least for now.  

That is probably true for all.  ‘Tis the nature of the beast.  (And not a problem.)

It may be that later, my meditation will be sufficiently deep irrespective of the number of objects used.  

Yes and no....
The base level of mindfulness deepens (with practice) so that what was your deepest state can become your beginning (and/or walking around) state, but awareness will always be thinner on any individual activity when it is spread upon more activities.  That’s just natural.  

As Shinzen used to say, “There’s only so much real estate in consciousness.”  (And he used to go on to say, “So when emotions expand, your IQ contracts.”  Love that one.  i.e. have you ever done anything really intelligent with you were filled with emotion?  :)  

When you spread your awareness over more things, it will be thinner, there will be less resolution on each thing.  The purpose in a ‘coverage’ strategy of meditation is different than in a ‘specific domain’ strategy – each has different benefits.  So the focus can be narrow (the breath) or broad (all body/mind experience) or anything in between.

(And with ANY focus – even as narrow as the tip of the nose – depending on how it’s done (& other factors) one’s awareness can eventually  penetrate all activity/experience and you see through it to the Source.  And that, of course, can lead to a breakthrough into a new perspective that reaches far beyond whatever your object of meditation happened to be.  But don’t get attached to having that – or any  - experience.  It’s all good)

For now, though, I can go much more deeply into body, image, or talk exclusively then I can with all three taken together "stacked" or in noting BIT combos.  

Again, yes, that’s to be expected and actually, not a problem.  In fact, picking one and going deeply into is is part of the design & a good thing.  Don’t expect to always be holding all 3 in awareness.  You may never do that.  You may simply ‘check in’ with each – and then spend time wherever it seems appropriate.  That’s doing the practice quite successfully, actually.  That you are ‘going deeply into body, image & talk at all is fantastic.  (The majority of human beings – including meditators – never consider the possibility.)

Shinzen uses these categories to sensitize us to the ingredients in our experience.  By picking the mess apart into it’s component parts, it’s easier to ‘come in for a close up’ in each aspect of experience for clarity about the individual parts as well as the whole.  

My question, therefore, is whether it is really necessary or preferable to practice mindfulness of body, image, and talk, or is Vedananupassana in itself sufficient as a life-long meditative practice?  

Well, I imagine we could set Shinzen up with Goenka and listen to that discussion.  (That would be fun, wouldn’t it?)  If you haven’t listened to the interview I did with Shinzen yet, I highly encourage you to do so.  It’s on my website.  I’ve got two more that I haven't posted yet, but the one that’s on there should be of interest to you.)

Okay, my answer (again, for what that’s worth).....  

ANY object of meditation could be a sufficient life-long practice.  

You could just focus on your breath at the tip of the nose (first 3 days of Goenka) or on tactile touch sensations as you live your life.  Any time you are applying mindfulness (i.e. specific concentrated awareness) and equanimity (i.e. ‘not resisting, controlling, grasping, judging’, -- or -- allowing, accepting, observing, loving, etc.) to any ordinary experience, that could be considered a ‘sufficient’ practice.  Doing it repeatedly or continuously (as we do in formal practice) will develop muscles more quickly & efficiently – just like going to the gym will be more efficient at building biceps than lifting groceries into the car.  Systematic exercise is quite helpful for developing ‘strength & endurance.’

To say what is necessary is going to be arguable from any camp (as we define “necessary” for each person – i.e. If you are in chronic or acute pain, what is necessary for minimal functioning may be quite different than if you are healthy and happen to naturally fall into bliss states without meditation at all.)  

And, to say what is preferable depends on what you want.   By working with Body, Image & Talk, in my experience, you can gain tremendous insight & freedom in regards to the thinking process, habitual behavior/thought patterns & behaviors, and working with pain or discomfort, that simply watching body sensations doesn’t necessarily afford  - at least not as efficiently and effectively.   When we simply attend to the body and dismiss the mind or let it wander around in the background (like Goenka), we can gain great equanimity with the thought process (i.e. not attach to content), and even gain the ability to  focus away from the mind (i.e. Increase concentration).   

But what if we examine how the mind works in the first place?  and how the mind & body together create our emotional experience & suffering?  Wouldn’t that be helpful information for permanently detangling the habitual mess of wires that creates our day to day stuff, for more clarity & freedom?  So that rather than having to meditate on body and avoid pain in the mind, we can re-wire the circuits and the same habit patterns of destructive thought or feeling just don’t arise any more (to be dismissed.)

I can work with someone who’s in pain, has compulsive behavior, is having panic attacks, is totally stressed out, and by using the tools (and categories) that Shinzen has provided me (although I cook the ingredients in a slightly different way) - I can help these people be free & transform suffering into purification, insight & peace or happiness or satisfaction -  in an amazingly short period of time.  (Permanent relief, of course, takes longer and involves a commitment & execution of regular practice on their part.)  I couldn’t do that nearly as efficiently or effectively by having them do body sweeping or scanning or anapanasati.  

Ok, so does that make paying attention to this breaking down of mind & body preferable?  Well, to people who work with those issues, it seems to be.  But I wouldn’t assume that everyone has that preference.

Is one more likely to attain meaningful insight into annica, anatta, and dukkha by meditating on B, I, and T, than by B alone?  

Any practice will help that so some degree – and possibly completely.  
Again, what I love about Shinzen’s work is that it FACILITATES & acts as a CATALYST to this process – in the most innovative & amazing way – i.e. it speeds up the process (although the initial learning is probably more difficult than other practices – just like when you learn to play the piano or drive a stick shift – at first it’s a bit complicated, but eventually, you internalize those skills and do it automatically.)  Shinzen’s stuff can be a bit daunting for some people, certain kinds of minds love it’s clarity, others are drawn to the results but  overwhelmed by the technical complexities of options & strategies.   (And thus, my goal with this book I’m writing for him is to take those technical complexities and help them be digestible to an Oprah audience. Stay tuned on that front. :)

Okay, now all that being said, I happen to do A LOT of work with Body Sensation (and that breaks down into “Touch” & “Feel”, of course, in Shinzeneze) as well as with Sound, etc., so I don’t always make everyone travel to Talk and Image with every meditation.  Depends on the circumstance.  

I also, personally, happen to emphasize physicality & ways of having the body support the experience – i.e. something I call “Body Unlocking” - to let the body do what it’s designed to do (and thus help our ‘evolutionary’ step to freedom.)  I make people breath in their belly, relax their jaw, straighten their spine in a way that creates ease not tension, get the energy in the pelvis, who knows what I’ll have someone do.  I work with the body and the mind and use the meditation practice as a tool, as a medium, not the end result.   (And of course, any movement would be done mindfully, with as much awareness as possible on the body sensations arising moment to moment.) Thus I design the meditation that seems appropriate for that person in that moment, using these ingredients, when doing private sessions.  

But when teaching techniques on an ongoing basis to anyone, I always make sure they know & understand TFIT (Touch, Feel, Image, Talk) and know how to work with them — as well as different strategies of how to apply them before they are done with the course.  I feel that’s one of the greatest gifts I could give another human being.  Introduce them to the components of their body/mind experience in a whole new way.   Even if it’s just to introduce people to the notion – I often use the “Wizard of Oz’ for metaphors, and here I’d use two – one is that I want them to know there is a world of color, but mostly (and think of me as Glinda here) I want them to know that they had the ruby slippers (i.e. the ability to do it) all along, they just didn’t know how to use it.  And this formulation & these strategies are how to click the heels together 3 times.  If I just let people know that they have the slippers and clicking together 3 time could be helpful, that’s often more than they’ve ever considered, and I’m glad to have at least introduced it to them.

If the likelihood of such attainment is equal in either case, does it come faster and better by meditating on B, I, and T, then on B alone?

Well, I kind of addressed that already.  (And, of course, ‘attainment’ can sometimes be about getting ‘enlightenment’ - which of course can lead to a grasping game –which the Buddha had thoughts about...)
While I’ve read & studied Buddhist teachings, I’m more drawn to the practical aspects of the practice – and the freedom I experience in my life (which is what I believe the Buddhist teachings are going for.)

  When in doubt, I’d start with noticing suffering in your life (I call it “ick”) and letting that be a ‘flag down on the play – i.e. the place to pay attention to – whether it’s Body, Image or Talk – with as much mindfulness & equanimity as you can muster.  You can equally apply this attention to pleasure & pleasant sensation.  And whatever technique you use will simply be the means by which you do that.  In terms of ‘faster and better’, my thoughts on that are written above.  But the most important thing is that you sit/meditate at all.  Period.  Thus, I’d always encourage someone to do whatever technique they like or seem to benefit most from at that start.  Then there’s a more likely chance that they’ll develop a regular practice.  Then they can explore techniques that at first might have been off-putting but now really help delve into aspects of experience that they are ready to disengage from or explore more fully for insights into the nature of their experience & existence.

Thank you so much for any help you might have for me on this matter.

Hope it’s helpful.

With sincerely appreciation,

You are welcome.
In dharma & with mudita,