Insight Meditation Practice: It’s not about having a better experience.

What is it that moves you to engage in the practice of meditation? How many times do we come to our practice hoping to produce a particular inner experience such as calm, peace or tranquility? Given the very real challenges that we all face in living our lives, this is a very understandable human orientation, but it does not offer real freedom.

Jack Kornfield, one of the elders of the Insight Meditation tradition, once observed that we come to a retreat thinking it is like a visit to the store: where we can get some thing we want, but in fact it is more like a visit to the dump: where we can let go of what no longer serves our life and  wellbeing.

The Buddha’s recognition that this human life is subject to aging, decay and death,  led him to seek to understand and realize the fullness of human potential.  His question “Why should I who am subject to aging decay and death, seek that which is also subject to aging, decay and death?” is one we could usefully ask ourselves. And he went on to ask “would it not make more sense that I who am subject to aging, decay and death, seek that which is not subject to aging, decay and death…?” MN 26.13

Through his deep commitment to exploring the truth of his life, the Buddha came to understand the experience of dukkha – suffering, and its relationship to unawareness or ignorance, – the not seeing and not understanding the causes of suffering and happiness. He realized the possibility of inner freedom,  a release from suffering through understanding the way things are and aligning our lives with that truth and reality.

Fundamental to his understanding was the seeing of craving and attachment as the cause and conditions for suffering and with that the recognition that letting go is the basis of freedom.  This letting go is a deep renunciation of our investment in agency – the idea that we are, or should be, in control of our experience. Renunciation is not a popular concept in Western culture, often evoking a sense of deprivation or suggesting a puritanical rejection of self-nurturing. Correctly understood however, it is the foundation of peace, and freedom. Letting go is what is required to release ourselves from the compulsion of conditioning. From this perspective we can see that so far as there is any way to usefully evaluate our practice, it is not on the basis of our ability to perform a technique or sustain our attention on an object such as the breath, but much more a question of what we are able to let go of, and how deeply we can let go.

We have a strong conditioned view that happiness and satisfaction can be derived through some form of materialism – i.e. getting something.

This materialistic tendency can been seen expressed in three levels of activity directed towards:

  • Getting material possessions or controlling material and worldly circumstances: conventional materialism.
  • Generating, avoiding or controlling inner experiences: more subtle materialism.
  • Becoming someone who we wish to be, or avoiding becoming someone who we do not wish to be: the deeper materialism of craving and attachment with regard to identities and views of self.

If we consider how much of our activity effort and mental preoccupation is concerned with these areas of endeavor, most of us would find it is frequently a large part of what we are engaged with. All this in the conviction, that succeeding would bring satisfaction and fulfillment to our life, allowing our hearts and mind to rest. The Buddha pointed out that our habit is to seek stability and satisfaction in the content of our experience – what is happening in and around us, and that it is not capable of offering us this.

Attachment is the way we hold on to an inner position, founded on a belief which is often unconscious and unquestioned, that the arising or the continuation of the wanted thing or wished for experience is absolutely necessary for our happiness. The sense is that getting what we want will finally and permanently resolve the experience of inner lack or unease, and likewise that the presence of the unwanted experience or circumstance is what prevents us from being happy and at peace.

This gives the object, experience or circumstance immense power and holds us in bondage: in thrall we could say, and so we become enthralled with experience. We commonly use this word to suggest fascinated or enchanted, but to be “in thrall” is to be a prisoner and subject to the capricious nature of changing and uncontrollable phenomena. The painful effect of this attachment is the pressure we place on experience, on each other, on the world and on ourselves to conform to our desires and aversions, our preferences and our fantasies.

Letting go means relinquishing our demand that our experiences be different than they are, and deeply questioning our assumption that we are somehow defined by the arising, passing, presence or absence of particular experiences. Becoming aware of our reactions to the experiences of body, heart and mind, and giving ourselves permission to simply notice them, not having to straight away become involved in controlling them, we learn what it means to let things be. Often we can think letting go means the experience should go away – but with those experiences we find difficult, the expression ‘let it be’ is often more useful, as we can easily take the suggestion ‘to let it go’ to suggest that if we are practicing correctly the experience should go away or cease.

To let go of thinking and dwelling does not mean the stopping the minds activity, but no longer investing in the thinking process of the mind as the source of solutions to the suffering or our life. Nor setting up the mental activity itself as the experience which prevents us from being happy and making it into the problem. It is our understanding of the minds activity that transforms it and ourselves, and this understanding arises from watching what happens when we engage in meditation with the conscious intention to be present.

In learning to be aware of, and to not act on the habits and patterns of distractedness, craving and aversion that arise, we can see they are always part of our unconscious investment in building or maintaining a particular sense of self, but do not actually support our wellbeing.

What if we were to look at our practice as not so much an opportunity to get something, or to become someone? Not trying to be a good meditator or become a more spiritual self, but seeing the practice as on opportunity to offer something – to our experience and our world. To not follow the urge to act on the craving, aversion and resistance that arises is not an act of self-deprivation. It brings an immediate sense of relief as the pressure we can place on ourselves begins to fall away, and provides the foundation for offering a sensitive and wholehearted attention to what is immediately here.

In this way the practice of freeing our hearts and minds is one of again and again becoming conscious of what is happening in our heart mind and body, and letting go: letting go of what we think should be happening and opening to what is happening.

The fundamental understanding for us here, is to see that true happiness and lasting satisfaction are not found via controlling and manipulating our experience. Because all experience is changing and insubstantial, the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of the difficult are not effective strategies for real fulfillment. Seeing this leads to a growing disenchantment with the content of experience: no longer believing it is the problem or can be the solution.   As our focus becomes disentangled from the particulars of our experience, we naturally come to contemplate the remarkable and inexplicable fact, that this conscious experiencing is happening at all.

What happens if we allow ourselves to be curious about this? To not take this experiencing for granted. To ask perhaps, “what is the nature of this that experiences it all?”  We can not answer this question  from the conceiving mind, but if we do not define ourselves by what is happening, nor hold ourselves apart from the process itself, something in the heart opens up.

Whatever our experience may be in any moment, letting go into the truth of it opens us to the touch of the deeper truth, which is vast and open, mysterious and awake. This is the natural quality of the awakened heart-mind, that is not bound to the particulars of momentary experience, but rests in our innate capacity to encompass it all with awareness, understanding and acceptance.

Yanai Postelnik

“Luminous is this heart-mind, brightly shining, but it is coloured by the attachments that visit it. This unlearned people do not really understand, and so do not cultivate this heart-mind. Luminous is this heart-mind, brightly shining, and it is free of the attachments that visit it. This the noble follower of the way really understands; so for them there is cultivation of this heart-mind.”  AN 1.51-52