Kristine Crane, Huffington Post: Shrimati Bhanu Narasimhan, a petite Indian woman wrapped in a bright fuchsia sari, has a soft voice but a big presence. She holds the rapt attention of some 100 people who have come to learn how to meditate at the Art of Living Center in the District of Columbia. The type of meditation she teaches is called Sahaj, Sanskrit for effortless. It’s a mantra-based meditation she advises doing twice a day for 20 minutes — before eating. “Mental hygiene,” Narasimhan calls it. Sahaj is just one type of meditation. Others are based on compassion, mindfulness, yoga and transcendentalism, among others. While their …
Can you stay open to the pain of others?
Humans are an empathic, compassionate, and loving species, so it is natural to feel sad, worried, or fiery about the troubles and pain of other people. (And about those of cats and dogs and other animals, but I’ll focus on human beings here.)
Long ago, the Buddha spoke of the “first dart” of unavoidable physical pain. Given our hardwired nature as social beings, when those we care about are threatened or suffer, there is another kind of first dart: unavoidable emotional pain.
For example, if you heard about people who go to bed hungry – as a billion of us do each night – of course your heart would be moved. I’m usually a pretty calm guy, but when I visited Haiti, I was in a cold rage at the appalling conditions in which most people there lived. On a lesser scale but still real, a friend’s son has just started college and is calling home to tell his mom how lonely and miserable he feels; of course she’s worried and upset.
But then – as the Buddha continued with his metaphor – there are the second darts we throw ourselves: rehashing past events, writing angry mental emails in the middle of the night, anxious rumination, thinking you’re responsible when you’re not, feeling flooded or overwhelmed or drained, getting sucked into conflicts between others, etc. etc. Most of our stresses and upsets come from these second darts: needless suffering that we cause ourselves – the opposite of being at peace.
Our second darts also get in the way of making things better. You’ve probably had the experience of talking with someone about something painful to you, but this person was so rattled by your pain that he or she couldn’t just listen, and had to give you advice, or say you were making a big deal out of nothing, or jump out of the conversation, or even blame you for your own pain!
In other words, when others are not at peace with our pain, they have a hard time being open, compassionate, supportive, and helpful with it. And the reverse is true when we are not at peace ourselves with the pain of others.
So how do you do it? How do you find that sweet spot in which you are open, caring, and brave enough to let others land in your heart . . . while also staying balanced, centered, and at peace in your core?
Keep a warm heart
Let the pain of the other person wash through you. Don’t resist it. Opening your heart, finding compassion – the sincere wish that a being not suffer – will lift and fuel you to bear the other’s pain. We long to feel received by others; turn it around: your openness to another person, your willingness to be moved, is one of the greatest gifts you can offer.
To sustain this openness, it helps to have a sense of your own body. Tune into breathing, and steady the sense of being here with the other person’s issues and distress over there.
Have heart for yourself as well. It’s often hard to bear the pain of others, especially if you feel helpless to do anything about it. It’s OK if your response is not perfect. When you know your heart is sincere, you don’t have to prove yourself to others. Know that you are truly a good person; you are, really, warts and all, and knowing this fact will help you stay authentically open to others.
Do what you can
Nkosi Johnson was born in South Africa with HIV in 1989 and he died 12 years later – after becoming a national advocate for people with HIV/AIDS. I think often of something he said, paraphrased slightly here: “Do what you can, with what you’ve been given, in the place where you are, with the time that you have.”
Do what you can – and know that you have done it, which brings a peace. And then, face the facts of your limitations – another source of peace. One of the hardest things for me – and most parents – is to feel keenly the struggles and pain of my kids . . . and know that there is nothing I can do about it. That’s a first dart, for sure. But when I think that I have more influence than I actually do, and start giving my dad-ish advice and getting all invested in the result, second darts start landing on me – and on others.
See the big picture
Whatever the pain of another person happens to be – perhaps due to illness, family quarrel, poverty, aging, depression, stressful job, worry about a child, disappointment in love, or the devastation of war – it is made up of many parts (emotions, sensations, thoughts, etc.) that are the result of a vast web of causes.
When you recognize this truth, it is strangely calming. You still care about the other person and you do what you can, but you see that this pain and its causes are a tiny part of a larger and mostly impersonal whole.
This recognition of the whole – the whole of one person’s life, of the past emerging into the present, of the natural world, of physical reality altogether – tends to settle down the neural networks in the top middle of the brain that ruminate and agitate. It also tends to activate and strengthen neural networks on the sides of the brain that support spacious mindfulness, staying in the present, taking life less personally – and a growing sense of peace.
British Psychological Society: Servicemen and women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could benefit from trying breathing-based meditation, a new study suggests.
Research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, found that a practice known as Sudarshan Kriya Yoga can help sufferers better manage the condition.
This, it stated, is because this form of breathing directly affects the autonomic nervous system, which means it can have an effect on symptoms of PTSD such as hyperarousal – when a person constantly feels on guard and jumpy.
Richard Davidson, one of the authors of the study, is keen for additional research to …
Pauline Anderson, Medscape: Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can be a safe and effective means of lessening the effect of migraine headache and can be carried out while patients continue to take migraine medication, results of a pilot study suggest.
“Although the small sample size of this pilot trial did not provide power to detect statistically significant changes in migraine frequency or severity, secondary outcomes demonstrated this intervention had a beneficial effect on headache duration, disability, self-efficacy, and mindfulness,” the authors, led by Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, conclude.
“Future studies with larger sample sizes are warranted …
UNC, Chapel Hill: Based on New Findings, Researchers to Develop Online Training and Coaching to Help Head Start Teachers Improve their Well-being and Classroom Interactions
With significant implications for early childhood education, new research reveals that a mindful disposition is associated with alleviating lasting physical and emotional effects of childhood adversity. A team of scientists from Temple University, UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG), Child Trends, and the Rockefeller University conducted the groundbreaking study—the first to examine relationships between childhood adversity, mindfulness, and adult health.
Robert Whitaker, professor of public health and pediatrics at Temple University, said the findings are especially …
In the mid-1970s I worked as a tenants’ rights activist with poor families in Worcester, Massachusetts. Through organizing tenants’ unions we would try to pressure landlords into assuring fair rents and decent living conditions.
One of these unions was comprised of families renting from one of the most notoriously callous slumlords in the city. The union’s leader, Denise, was a forceful and articulate woman who worked hard to galvanize the group into action to fight a steep rent increase that no one could afford.
Over the many months it took to build the union, I had become friends with Denise and her family. I joined them for dinner, played with the children and was privy to their struggles. Their apartment had been vandalized several times, and there was no way to keep out the rats and cockroaches.
Denise’s oldest son was in jail; another was a drug addict. Her current husband was unemployed and they were in debt. Feeding and clothing her young children and keeping the heat on were challenges she faced regularly. I admired her willingness to put such a dedicated effort into her role as union leader when she had so much to handle at home.
Two days before we were about to begin a rent strike that Denise was coordinating, she left a note under my door, saying she was leaving the union. I was surprised and disappointed, but had an idea of what had happened. Landlords frequently co-opted tenant leaders as a way of crippling the unions. As it turned out, Denise had been bought off with the offer of a new double lock, a rent break, and a part-time job for her son.
The other tenants, feeling betrayed and demoralized, called Denise “two-faced” and “spineless.” Whenever they saw her on the sidewalk, they would cross to the other side of the street. They didn’t let their children play with hers. She was an outsider, one of “them.” In the past, when union leaders had been bought out, I’d felt the same. They were obstructing our progress.
With Denise, it was different. I understood how desperately she was trying to help her family. I’d seen how, like me, she felt anxiety about her life, how she too wanted love. The poet Longfellow writes, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” I had read enough of Denise’s secret history for her to be real to me; I cared about her.
On the other hand, while it was possible for me to feel openhearted towards Denise despite her actions, I certainly didn’t feel the same toward the landlords. They were in my “bad guy” category.
A number of years later, I had the perfect opportunity to face someone in this category and look more deeply. A friend of mine knew a CEO from a very large corporation who wanted to set up a mindfulness program for his company’s employees, and wanted me to discuss the program with the CEO over lunch.
The CEO fit exactly my rich white man stereotype. He’d been the focus of a well-publicized class action suit for systematically denying women the same opportunities for upward mobility as men. The discrimination was particularly egregious towards African American women. Reluctantly, I agreed to talk with him, feeling uncomfortable about the meeting, expecting that we’d be coming from very different and unfriendly planets.
Yet, close up, he turned out to be quite human and real. He bragged a bit and was obviously eager to be liked. His mother had had triple bypass surgery several weeks earlier. His oldest son had juvenile diabetes. On the weekends his wife complained that he didn’t play enough with the children. He was crazy about them, but invariably urgent calls on his cell phone would pull him away from the barbecues, games of ping-pong, or the videos they were watching together.
He wondered, “Can mindfulness help me to relax when everywhere I turn is another demand?” It didn’t matter that we probably disagreed on most political and social issues. I liked him and wanted him to be happy.
Even if we don’t like someone, seeing their vulnerability allows us to open our heart to them. We might vote against them in an election; we might never invite them to our home; we might even feel they should be imprisoned to protect others.
Still, our habitual feelings of attraction and aversion do not have to overrule our basic capacity to see that, like us, they too suffer and long to be happy. When we see who is really in front of us, when we can glimpse a bit of their “secret history,” we don’t want them to suffer, and our circle of compassion naturally widens to include them.
Rachel Gillett, Fast Company: Like most people with a brain and a pulse, my life can feel pretty stressful.
We may be lying to ourselves about how busy we really are, but the stress we feel from our always-on lives is real.
And while “mindfulness” has become more of a cliché than a real call to action in the business world, the core message to quiet your mind and focus on the present sounds like the perfect solution for a more productive workday.
The concept of occupying my mind with only one thing was especially appealing to me. I’ve wanted to try and …
You know that feeling when you’re with another person, and there’s an awkwardness — a sense that there’s something missing? And you find yourself scrambling around thinking of something interesting to say that’ll bring your connection back to life?
Sometimes this does in fact kick-start a conversation in which we can both become absorbed, but sometimes our anxiety prevents that from happening.
I realized recently that I’ve had that a lot in my life.
Now when I’m on my own, I know what to do with unpleasant feelings of awkwardness. I’ll simply pay attention to them mindfully, until they pass. And often, even as I’m in the act of noticing my discomfort, I’ll find that a sense of well-being arises, so that first I’m comfortable with my discomfort, and then once the unpleasant feelings pass I’m deeply content.
But for some reason I haven’t thought to do this when I’m with others, especially in intimate relationships.
Recently however, when I was with my girlfriend, and I noticed that sense of our silence being awkward rather than comfortable, I found myself happy just to be with the feeling of discomfort. Rather than trying to think of something clever to say, I simply noticed how I felt, and accepted it. There was the faint stirring of anxiety, but I just accepted that as well.
And what happened was, in a way, quite predictable. Just as when I’m on my own, I felt happier, and the anxiety passed. But in another way the experience was a complete surprise; I found that paying attention to the uncomfortable sensation reconnected me with my heart. It felt like my heart was blown wide open, and I felt an overwhelming sense of love for my partner. This feeling of love, expressed through body language, looks, physical communication, and — yes — words, brought about a powerful sense of rapport and intimacy. This is an experience that recurred several times while we were together.
And I love that simply being with my discomfort not only allows it to pass, but also connects me with a powerful sense of love. And I love feeling freed from the anxious need “to be interesting” so that I’m able just “to be.”
I suppose that in a way this isn’t profound, and I’m sure that many you are saying “of course, everybody knows that!” But I thought I’d share it since I’m a fan of showing my “work in progress.” So if this practice is something that’s new to you, then please try it yourself and see what happens. I’d love to hear from you.
Anant Naik, Minnesota Daily: Over the past several centuries, saints and mystics around the world have encouraged people to meditate to find inner peace. Even scientists have recently found evidence to suggest that everyone could benefit from more meditation. As a result, a practice once used as a mystical way to understand the forces of life is becoming a popular method to relax and to attain a peaceful state of mind.
Though there are many kinds of meditation, almost all of them involve concentrating on an object. The object might be a thought, image, internal energy or God. However, the act of concentration …
Mary-Lou Stephens, Huffington Post: This is a hard admission to make. After all I wrote a book about how meditation saved my job, changed my life and helped me find a husband. I’ve written columns and blogs about the countless benefits meditation brings. Meditation was a solid part of my life, like clockwork every morning. Even during the times when I was so busy I could only grant this life changing practice ten minutes at the most. So why did I stop?
Meditation is like a seedling. We plant it, nurture it and protect it from the things that want to destroy it …
Emma Seppala, emmaseppala.com:
Happiness – it’s an inalienable right, it’s even in the US constitution. You see it everywhere from sitcoms to couples walking by. But…do you ever have that gnawing feeling, or dark sense, that happiness is just… well…not for you?
Well you’re right. The data agrees with you. It’s not.
For One, it Makes you Contagious
It’s true, you literally infect others. Your well-being has an enormously influential impact on everyone around you up to 3 degrees of separation away from you! Research studies show that parents’ well-being improve their children’s, and people’s happiness uplifts their spouses. But did you …
Judson Brewer, Rehabs.com: Why do young mothers buy a daily pack of cigarettes instead of spending this money on nutritious food for their children? Why are treatments that help roughly 33 percent of people overcome their substance use and have a 70 percent relapse rate hailed as “gold standard” by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA)? In other words, why are addictions so hard to overcome?
Our brains are set up to learn. From an evolutionary perspective, when we come upon a good source of food or water, it is helpful to remember where it is. When we discover something dangerous, that memory is …
Derek Beries, Big Think: In his 1961 book, Psychotherapy East & West, the philosopher Alan Watts wrote,
If there is to be a battle, there must be a field of battle; when the contestants really notice this they will have a war dance instead of a war.
As is popular in South Asian poetry, such imagery aptly describes a social as much as a psychological state. For example, the slim volume of karma yoga lessons, the Bhagavad Gita, treats the metaphorical field of battle as both a reflection of Indian society and an introspective mirror held up to one’s brain.
Humanity’s battle against its …
Michael Taft, The Huffington Post: When I first started meditating, one of the hardest things was trying to stay focused. There were just so many things to do, people to interact with, noises like music or blaring car horns that shattered and upset my nascent meditative vibe. I felt like I was drowning. How could I focus in a sea of constant distraction?
The funny thing is that, more than 30 years later, the distractions are still the same. Sirens wail, the bladder complains, people demand my attention, life is moving along in just the same intense, chaotic, confusing manner. If anything, decades of …
Harshaprabha is making the second of his twice yearly visits to Ontario. The events, in Guelph and Goderich, are suitable for those with an understanding of, or even just a curiosity about, Buddhism.
Harshaprabha’s dream is to see the Triratna Buddhist Community established in the Province.
To realize this dream he makes bi-annual trips and leads events for newcomers and others. These give people an opportunity to experience being with other like-minded people in meditation and in discussing Buddhism as interpreted by the founder Urgyen Sangharakshita and his disciples.
In between his visits Harshaprabha keeps up his connections via e-mail, Skype, telephone, and Facebook. His dream is to be doing this work full time.
Details of the Ontario events are in the attached e-flyers.
Harshaprabha was ordained in 1982 in Tuscany, Italy, was a founding member of The Buddhist Hospice Trust. He ran a Buddhist Right Livelihood business called Octagon Architects + Designers for 21 years and was instrumental in setting up the Colchester Buddhist Centre, Essex, UK. He now co-leads a newcomers evening every week, facilitates a weekly Men’s Group, gives talks, and supports retreats at the Ipswich Buddhist Centre, Suffolk, UK.
Gary Gutting, New York Times: Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed …
Sabrina Eaton, Cleveland.com: Niles Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan — who has become a congressional evangelist for a meditation technique known as “mindfulness” and even authored a book on the subject — announced today that universities in Northeast Ohio and Philadelphia will get $3.6 million from the National Institutes of Health to study his pet topic.
Kent State University researchers David Fresco and Joel Hughes and the University of Pennsylvania’s Jeffrey Greeson will use the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute award to examine whether lifestyle modification like meditation can keep hypertension patients off medication.
The study called “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for High Blood Pressure” will recruit …
Stephany Tlalka, Mindful.org: Happiness is hot right now. You can’t visit major blogs like The Huffington Post and MindBodyGreen without running into tips and tricks for harnessing well-being.
That’s uplifting, says Emma Seppala, associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. But she says these blogs are missing one key ingredient. Facts.
“A lot of those articles are intuitively true, but because of my science background, I always look at an article like that and think, ground this in some data!” says Seppala, laughing. “I can’t take it as seriously.”
Seppala has engaged her science background …
Brian Parr, Ph.D., Aiken Standard: Mindfulness can be described as an awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. This is most commonly explored through mindful meditation, a practice that is credited with improving physical and mental health.
Beyond meditation, being mindful can help to improve attention and focus in nearly every aspect of life.
Thinking about your actions and the effect they have on your health and the health of others can be good for you and those around you.
It turns out that we engage in many health behaviors that are driven more by habit than conscious decision-making. This …
Jh?na — a progressive series of meditative states of absorption — is a controversial topic in Buddhism. This should be rather amazing given that the Buddhist scriptures emphasize jh?na so strongly. In the Eightfold Path, Right Concentration is consistently defined as the four jh?nas. The Buddha said things like “There is no jh?na for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks jh?na.” The jh?nas are enumerated over and over again in the P?li scriptures. They’re also implicit in teachings like the Seven Bojjha?gas, the 12 positive nid?nas, and the ?n?p?nasati Sutta, which mention various of the jh?na factors.
Despite the scriptural importance of jh?na, some teachers, like Thich Nhat Hanh, have argued that jh?na was something that the Buddha rejected, and that it was smuggled into the suttas after the Buddha’s death:
The Four Form Jh?nas and the Four Formless Jh?nas are states of meditational concentration which the Buddha practiced with teachers such as ?l?ra K?l?ma and Uddaka R?maputta, and he rejected them as not leading to liberation from suffering. These states of concentration probably found their way back into the sutras around two hundred years after the Buddha passed into mah?parinirv?na. The results of these concentrations are to hide reality from the practitioner, so we can assume that they shouldn’t be considered Right Concentration. (Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, page 29)
The specifics of this objection are interesting because they contain some fundamental misunderstandings, and I’d like to explore in this article the topic of the relationship of the so-called “formless jh?nas” (I’ll explain that qualification in due course) to the “jh?nas of form,” and the role of these “formless jh?nas” in the Buddha’s biography — specifically his training under ?l?ra and Uddaka, and the Buddha’s later realization that jh?na was the “path to Awakening.”
First, there’s the assumption that ?l?ra and Uddaka taught the Buddha the four jh?nas. Now, the Buddha never mentions that he learned or practiced the jh?nas with his two teachers. He says that he learned to attain the “sphere of nothingness” (?kiñcañña-?yatana — I prefer “no-thingness” as a translation) from ?l?ra Kalama, and the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññ?n?sañña-?yatana) from Uddaka Ramaputta. (Uddaka had apparently not experienced this himself, and was merely passing on Rama’s teaching).
“But,” many Buddhists will object, “if ?l?ra and Uddaka taught the Buddha how to attain these spheres, then they must also have taught the Buddha how to attain jh?na, since these spheres are the seventh and eighth jh?nas — part of the four ‘formless jh?nas’ that follow on from the four ‘jh?nas of form.'” (The first two “formless jh?nas” are the sphere of infinite space and the sphere of infinite consciousness.) But this is the very error that I am keen to address.
The suttas never refer to any “formless jh?nas.” What are nowadays called the “formless jh?nas” are in fact never referred to as jh?nas in the scriptures, but are referred to consistently as “?yatanas” or “spheres.” It’s only in the later commentarial tradition that the two lists are presented as one continuous list of “eight jh?nas.” They should really be known as “formless spheres.”
Now this is important, because the four formless spheres are in fact not jh?nas at all. Many meditators have discovered that it’s possible to experience these formless spheres without having first gone through the jh?nas. There has been much confusion for some who have had such experiences, because the assumption that the ?yatanas can’t be experienced without first having traversed the jh?nas is so prevalent. I am in fact one of the many people who has experienced that confusion.
There are suttas in which there is reference to experiencing the ?yatanas without first going through the jh?nas. Most people would tend to assume that in these suttas the jh?nas are assumed, without being mentioned explicitly, but there’s no need to make that assumption, and experience shows it to be false. Certain forms of meditation predispose to direct experience of the ?yatanas. Suttas discussing the six element practice and the divine abidings show those meditations leading directly to the formless spheres. I don’t disagree that it’s possible to reach the ?yatanas via the jh?nas, but there are other ways.
The fact that it’s possible to reach the formless spheres without going through the jh?nas helps us make sense of an important episode in the Buddha’s life. In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta the Buddha described how he intuited, prior to his enlightenment, that jha?na was “the way to Awakening”:
I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jha?na, with rapture and joy born from seclusion, accompanied by initial thought and sustained thought. Could that be the way to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the way to Awakening.’
That’s a strong statement. The Buddha had not just a hunch, or an idea, but an actual realization that jha?na is the way to Awakening.
Now, many people have struggled to make sense of this episode. The Buddha had previously attained the seventh and eighth “jh?nas” (in reality the third and fourth ?yatanas) under Uddaka and ?l?ra’s instructions, so how could a memory of first jh?na be so significant in pointing the way to Awakening? All sorts of explanations for this apparent contradiction have been made, but the simplest is one that may be least obvious: that the Buddha had not in fact previously explored the jh?nas with ?l?ra and Uddaka, and that he had explored the ?yatanas through means other than by going through the jh?nas. Confusion arises because we’re so conditioned by the commentarial belief that to enter the ?yatanas we must first go through the jh?nas, that we assume that the Buddha must have had experience of the jh?nas.
I see the jh?nas and the ?yatanas arising in different ways. Jh?na involves paying more and more attention to less and less. In going deeper into jh?na we progressively “tune out” first our thinking, then the pleasurable sensations that arise in the body as we relax, and finally joy. This leaves only one-pointed attention on an object of attention, accompanied by a sense of great peace. Jh?na is a form of progressive simplification — more and more attention being focused on a smaller and smaller subset of our experience.
The ?yatanas involve the opposite approach. Rather than “homing in” our attention so that it’s focused on less and less of our experience, we allow our attention to be all-inclusive, excluding nothing from our awareness. Speaking of my own practice, when I enter the ?yatanas, what I do is pay full attention to all of my experience: that which arises from within (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) and that which arises from outside (light, sound, space, etc.). I then maintain an awareness of both of these fields of experience, finding a point of balance of inner and outer. AS that balance is maintained, the mind becomes very still. At a certain point, the boundary between “inside” and “outside” is lost, and there is simply a single field of awareness. This process is speeded up if I consciously focus on the supposed boundary between inside and outside. In meditation this boundary is perceived to be very fuzzy, and in fact, the closer you look at it the less it seems to exist. Later, other distinctions are lost as well, and there is a loss of the sense that the body has a three dimensional orientation in space.
In the suttas, all of the entry points to the ?yatanas have one thing in common: equanimity. The jh?nas culminate in an experience of equanimity; having narrowed down our experience and brought the mind to a state of peace, we then broaden our experience once again and enter the formless spheres. (Or so I am told; I have never entered the formless spheres this way.) The fourth divine abiding is of course equanimity, which is also a springboard to an experience of the ?yatanas. And the sutta describing the six element practice says that it beings the mind to equanimity and thus into the ?yatanas. The formless spheres can be experienced from any meditation that brings about a state of tranquil equanimity.
The Buddha experienced the formless spheres to the furthest possible extent, but he didn’t manage to become enlightened by so doing. Instead, he intuited, jh?na was a more likely route to spiritual liberation. Why should this be? We can only speculate, but my sense is that the teachings of ?l?ra and Uddaka explained the ?yatanas in terms of unifying oneself with the wider universe. In the ?yatanas, certain discriminative faculties — those that produce a sense of spacial separateness — are progressively shut down. (These faculties are a function of the brain’s parietal lobes, which become less active in non-dual meditation.) This sense of religious union would fit with pre-Buddhist views of there being an atman (Self) that is part of a larger “Brahman” (a cosmic reality). ?l?ra and Uddaka may not have used those precise terms, but a sense of unity with the cosmos is a common religious trope, and it’s reasonable to assume that they saw that experience as the desired outcome of practice.
What does jh?na do? What is its function? It allows us to focus in exquisite detail on minute aspects of our experience. And that allows us to see that everything that constitutes the self — or what we take to be the self — is in fact an experience that is changing moment by moment. By repeating this minute examination of our experience, we come to the realization that there is no possibility of there being a separate self that needs to be unified with the cosmos.
The Buddha in fact was fond of saying:
I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering and stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.
Although we would often like the Buddha to be like a modern scientist, in some important respects he wasn’t. He didn’t seem particularly interested in what we would think of “cosmic” questions, and in fact saw them as distractions from the spiritual life. After all, at the Buddha’s time, when it came to questions of whether the universe was finite or infinite, had a beginning or was eternal, etc., there was no possibility of doing more than speculating. These cosmic topics are all matters that the Buddha thought of as being useless subjects for discussion. Rather than indulging in speculation, he preferred to put his attention onto matters where he could have knowledge arising from direct observation. In that regard he did, in an important sense, take a scientific approach. And his work was akin to that of a scientist who finds that in order to understand the nature of stars, we must look at how subatomic particles behave. The way to understand our place in the cosmos, the Buddha was suggesting, is to examine ourselves. And this is what jh?na allows us to do. Jh?na supports insight.
In the Buddha’s view, samatha (the cultivation of the jh?nas) and vipassan? (the cultivation of insight) were not mutually exclusive or antagonistic activities, which is how they are sometimes seen today. In the Samaññaphala Sutta, for example, the Buddha describes the practitioner moving deeper into the jh?nas and then, “With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision.” Jh?na makes it easier for the mind to observe impermanence through minute examination of our experience, and thus makes it easier for insight to arise. Conversely, insight also makes it easier for jh?na to arise, and so he says elsewhere, “There’s no jha?na For one with no wisdom (pan?n?a), No wisdom for one with no jha?na).” Samatha and vipassan? are complementary and synergistic.
If you want to know your place in the universe, it may seem intuitively obvious that you need to reflect on (or speculate on) the universe. So it was a radical departure on the Buddha’s part to withdraw from speculation on the universe, and to turn his attention inwards. It was also a radical departure for him to turn away from the experience of the formless spheres, which bring about a temporary sense of unification of self and cosmos, but which do not entirely remove our self-clinging. It was a massive leap of intuitive wisdom for the Buddha to arrive at the conclusion, “Jha?na is the way to Awakening.”
But why, having failed to gain insight through the ?yatanas, should the Buddha have kept them as part of his teaching? Wouldn’t it make more sense to jettison the formless spheres and focus exclusively on the jh?nas? I see two possible reasons for him doing this.
First, the assumptions that ?l?ra and Uddaka made about the ?yatanas (that they were an experience of a permanent self uniting with the universe) may have been the main reason that the Buddha didn’t find them conducive to insight, assuming, as is likely, that he’d picked up on the same assumptions. Stripped of those assumptions, experience of the formless spheres, he may have reckoned, may be more spiritually useful.
Second, the experience of the ?yatanas, even if it doesn’t lead directly to insight, does a valuable job in changing our sense of self. Learning that our sense of self is malleable may not directly help us to lose our attachment to that self, but it does help us to loosen such attachments. There can be less grasping after something that is fluid and malleable rather than something that is solid. Experience of the ?yatanas helps us to appreciate that our sense of self is not fixed, but can be dramatically different than it normally is. In my own experience, the altered states of self-perception that I experienced in the formless spheres did seem to have a bearing on my later experience of non-self.
A parallel is to be found in that way that experience of psychedelic drugs has brought many people to Dharma practice. Having had the experience that their “normal” sense of reality is just one possible configuration of their experience can lead some to wonder what other modes of perception there might be. Psychedelics have even been used experimentally to help treat anxiety and depression — conditions that tend to involve a very fixed sense of self — sometimes bringing about long-term positive change very rapidly.
So, the Buddha had no formal experience of the jh?nas until shortly before his awakening. He had not been trained in the jh?nas by ?l?ra and Uddaka, although he did have extensive experience of the ?yatanas. The intuition that jh?na might be the way to Awakening was the beginning of a process whereby he began to explore his experience in minute detail, learning to observe its impermanence. And it was through this means that he became Awakened.
It’s time to lay aside the notion that the ?yatanas are jh?nas, and that they can only be experienced by traversing the jh?nas. It’s time also to lay aside the very non-traditional notion that the samatha (cultivating the jh?nas) and vipassan? (cultivating insight) are mutually antagonistic activities, and to recognize them as synergistic parts of one path.
And lastly, it’s time to recognize the radicalness of the Buddha’s decision to turn his attention away from meditations that lead to an apparent unity of the self with the cosmos, the radicalness of using jh?na to hone the mind into a powerful focused instrument, and even the radicalness of refusing to settle for the blissful and peaceful experiences that arise in jh?na, so that he could enter into a minute examination of the nature of his experience and find that there was, in a sense, no self there.
Rather than jh?na acting to “hide reality from the practitioner,” as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, it is jh?na that allows us to lay reality bare, so that we may attain awakening.