Anybody who observes the workings of the mind with any care will be aware of the strength of our mental habit patterns and conditioning. This conditioning continually pulls us away from awareness. Meditation is the practice of coming back to the place of awareness. When we react to our experience without awareness, with our habitual anger, greed or fear, we are actually strengthening those reactions. You might say that we are “practicing” our habitual repertoire of responses. If we don’t stabilize awareness in the mind, we continue to repeat and strengthen our conditioning. Not only are we not gaining freedom of mind, we are losing it. That is why practicing awareness is so important.
In his book Tracing Back the Radiance, Korean Zen master Chinul describes the essence of the teaching as “sudden awakening, gradual cultivation.” He explains that even after we awaken to the empty nature of mind, that awakening must be followed by the gradual strengthening or cultivation of that awakened state. The pattern of our conditioning is so deep that a moment of clear seeing is not enough to counter that force, and the mind easily gets obscured again. So meditation practice is essential.
There are basically two different models of practice. In one model, practice is seen as a way to acquire something we don’t yet possess. In the other model, practice is seen as a coming back to the innate awareness that is already there. Rather than argue the metaphysics of these two models, I think it is more helpful to see both as skillful means to free the mind. Whichever explanation we are attracted to is fine, and I don’t think that they have to be put in opposition to one another. In fact, after exploring both, I believe that they point to one common ideal or condition—a mind of no clinging. All of the metaphysics of dharma are directing us toward the mind of no clinging, the mind of freedom. The only differences are the techniques, the methods of practice.
In the Western world, we now have access to an amazing array of meditation techniques. I think it is useful for people, when they are beginning a spiritual search, to look around and experiment with different traditions or methods, to see which one inspires them the most. Once a student feels that spark of inspiration, however, it is important to devote him or herself to that particular practice and to explore its depth and nuances. After one gains a deep understanding and maturity in a particular practice, then again I think it is useful to explore other approaches in order to broaden one’s dharma perspective.
The danger of jumping from one practice to another is that we may not be facing our deepest conditioning. The mind is very slippery, and it can find ways of avoiding the most important insights. For example, if you constantly distract yourself by changing your practices when some discomfort comes up, then you may never fully understand the nature of that discomfort, whether physical or psychological.
Many practices have tremendous richness and depth to them, but it takes time to explore and develop their transformational power. We have an unfortunate cultural tendency to want immediate gratification, so we may do a practice for six months or a year and then conclude, “Oh, nothing’s happening, so I will try something else.” But practice is not like instant cocoa. In terms of a spiritual journey, six months or a year of practice is just the very beginning. Although we may have various liberating insights, full awakening is an incredibly vast journey. Practice is really a lifetime commitment. Some may find this fact daunting or discouraging, but we can also view the immensity of the journey as an indication of its profundity. The length and, at times, difficulty of the path then become sources of inspiration.
Vipassana practice has a universality and accessibility that I believe is unique in Buddhism. There is very little form and almost no ritual. Form and ritual can be great skillful means, and some people are drawn to them, but I love the great simplicity of vipassana. When I first studied with Munindra-ji in India, his basic teaching was that if you want to understand your mind, just sit down and observe. Vipassana practice is a way of looking at the nature of the mind and body in order to understand how suffering is created and how we can free ourselves. It is that simple. We practice the mind of no clinging.
Sometimes people get concerned about whether they are doing the practice correctly or not. That question is really a manifestation of the judging mind, and a big part of our practice is freeing the mind from identification with that pattern of judgment, which is typically quite strong. As people engage mindfulness and that judging tendency weakens, the practice actually starts to guide itself. The basic instruction is simply: “Be mindful. Be aware. Don’t hold on.” Everything else is just a footnote to that.
Of course, there are many subtleties and nuances as the path of vipassana unfolds. A recent example from my own practice concerns the classical teachings on craving. The Buddha says there are three kinds of craving: craving for sense objects, craving for existence, and craving for nonexistence. I had read this teaching countless times but had always understood it as a philosophical statement. Then I read it while on a meditation retreat and saw that this division of craving was a statement about my experience in the present moment. It became an instruction to see how these three kinds of craving operate in any given moment.
The craving for sense objects was fairly familiar to me, but as I began to see the craving for existence from a meditative perspective, I saw that a lot of my craving fell into that category. I experienced that kind of craving as a fascination with the process of manifestation itself. I would be watching whatever particular flow of experience was happening and find myself totally entranced by the process.
This insight became even more clear after sitting for several months on retreat in Burma. My mind was quite concentrated, and I was seeing each sensation in its gradual and incremental stages of dissolution. When I reported to my teacher, U Pandita, how clearly and exactly I was seeing this process, he said, “You are too attached to subtlety.” I had become so fascinated with how things were working that my mind was actually becoming attached to the fact of their happening. Rather than simply resting in the awareness of what was happening, out of interest I was leaning into the flow of phenomena. I saw that fascination as falling under the category of craving for existence. I was subtly attached to the next moment’s experience, the process of becoming.
The craving for nonexistence sometimes masquerades as the desire for enlightenment. This craving becomes another kind of attachment and can actually hinder any realization.
The increased sensitivity to where we are clinging comes out of the practice itself. I believe that the role of the teacher is simply to reflect back to us those places where we are getting caught, bringing us back again and again to the mind of no clinging.