When you are helped by the laws of the Dharma, you cannot but love the world. In connecting with the ground of being, your experience of the world grows deep and authentic.
When I am teaching I try to help connect students to a level where they get a touch of impermanence, a sense that everything is changing. Knowing this lets us be with what is true, and that alone settles the mind, lets us sink into the ground of being. Impermanence is my teacher. That was also U Ba Khin’s main emphasis. He taught that by scanning the sensations of the body, by being aware of them uninterruptedly, you can get to know impermanence intimately and effortlessly within yourself. Your sense of solidity breaks down this way and you see that you are a stream of energy. You see that you are change. Through continuous practice your mind gets trained to see not only the changing nature of things, but also the deeply ingrained tendency of holding on to what is changing and what creates suffering.
In teaching this aspect of the Dharma, I sometimes step out of the traditional sweeping pattern and invite students to try other psycho-physical experiments which seem suitable in a given moment. So we turn our attention to the sunset, its changing colors and forms, or try to see the change in our steps or in any other body movement. We watch the birds nesting, feeding their young, and the young getting mature and flying away.
In seeing impermanence as a natural law within and around us, we realize our biggest change—from life to death—with greater ease. We may see our lifetime as the wave arising constantly and passing away back into the ocean where it came from.
One way to learn about the impermanence of the body is to pay attention to the bones. We practice being aware of the skeleton—of our bones—when we are sitting, standing or lying down, jumping or leaping, or when we dance to the African drum. I try to teach students to awaken a quick mind—a mind which is aware at the same moment as the object arises. For example, we “capture” in our awareness the bones of the arm as the arm lifts itself. Or we may observe a real skeleton. Within our own bodies, we discover each bone that we see in the skeleton before us.
I ask my students, “Tell me, how do you experience your skeleton?” While we move, stretch or bend, letting our skeletons bounce and dance, we share aloud what we observe. One says, “My skeleton gives me a lot of flexibility.” Another might share, “My skeleton will end up in a beautiful jar.” And another, sings happily in a low key, “Right now, my skeleton is enjoying dancing and leaping.” Now that is the love for life. While we are alive, we enjoy the skeleton.
As we whirl around our body-skeletons to the beat of a drum, we realize that each of us has a skeleton that “will end up in a jar.” The longer we stay in such explorations—feeling and observing our bones in playful ways—the more we are able to accept what is true (which is not easy to do).
When we first begin to investigate the skeleton, we imagine we have to be grim and think fearfully or sadly of death all the time. But instead we can transform this experience into beautiful insights. When the mind sees what is true, it gives up everything to which it clings—the fears, the resistance, the battle! Joy naturally arises when we let go of whatever it is that prevents us from seeing the truth. Joy, or piti, is the fourth factor of enlightenment. We need piti to awaken.
Even being bored can become a source of happiness. In acknowledging and accepting boredom, in the meeting of awareness with the object (boredom), joy arises. In that merging, the sense of a separate self is weakened and the sense of wholeness arises; joy is a natural result.
How does this happen? We contemplate the phenomenon of boredom. There is the mind knowing that the boredom is there, that the boredom is being held caringly, that it is accepted. This happens while we are also cognizant of our body sitting and breathing. Boredom does not feel separate; it is integrated into the ground of being; that is, into the large spaciousness of awareness. The aware mind grows to know what it is doing. By seeing itself in its own action, by being present to the body, the mind is not thinking about boredom anymore. This moment of awareness can render the peace of detachment, and that is piti too. Where is the boredom now? Why were we so angry because of boredom?
Whether the object is boredom or sadness or anything else, when one meets the object with attention—and subject and object merge—all the rest of the mental and physical faculties come into a very deep, wonderful balance. No disturbing factors can step forward, can dominate independently, and say, “I love this,” or “I don’t like that.” All that falls away in the light of attention, and you find yourself being held in calm spaciousness. In that balance, the element of knowing can arise. It knows that it knows. Knowing is a very subtle and delicate element and difficult to find, but tremendously powerful. It is the most important faculty for awakening, for deep insight.
When knowing arises, the living process which I think of as “I,” “me” or “mine,” loses the observer; that is to say, knowing has replaced it! The process knows itself without having a knower or observer. We truly comprehend ourselves—without a comprehender. Whether tasting, hearing or thinking, all life now lives naturally without the corruption of the fake sense of “I”!
In the Buddha’s teaching, the “I” is seen as a concept and source of suffering created by the conditioned ignorant mind that seeks to live, to exist continually, by grasping at objects. This mind needs objects or concepts—the past, the future, sadness, hope, hatred—in order to sustain its existence as a separate self. If we do not offer an object to the mind it will create and grasp its own; it will manifest itself as the famous “waterfall” or compulsive-obsessive mind. It is very difficult to bring such a mind to a halt. But with the aid of psycho-physical exercises, or meditation in motion, we can shift attention quite easily from the mental concept level to the nonverbal level of body.
The late Mahasi Sayadaw, my teacher, said: “If corporeal processes are not comprehended completely, then mental processes cannot be seen. If corporeal processes are comprehended completely, then mental processes attain their maturity, their natural order.”
Since the body is the ground vehicle for developing mindfulness, we have to practice mindfulness of the body diligently, carefully, correctly, deeply. The psycho-physical exercises I have developed help actualize this while opening the heart and bringing joy and safety to our practice. When these factors are present, we feel a happiness and confidence which help us to more easily integrate mindfulness practice into our lives. Then our practice becomes a more skillful and happy event, one in which there is less struggling.
These open forms of developing mindful attention let us discover, quite tangibly, how to renounce all that takes us away from the ground of being. Great joy and relief arise from the realization that the “waterfall” of compulsive thinking, judging, wanting and resenting is interrupted and the interference of “I” has subsided. Being freed from the grip of “I” and “me” gives joy easily.
On one level, Dharma practice is hard work. But when we know that we work to protect our happiness and to fulfill our humanity, our roles as beings who have taken this human birth, then it isn’t dreary work. It is delightful and meaningful, a beautiful offering from yourself to yourself.
This article is based on an interview conducted by Barbara Gates, vipassana teacher Julie Wester, and Jain Hein, a student of Ruth Denison’s. Ron DeHart, a senior student of Ruth Denison’s, provided editorial assistance.