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Student: I had a question about the five-step mindfulness practice.
Student: I’ll have a strong reaction to something and decide that I’m gonna work with it using that. And as I start, suddenly it’s like nothing. It’s like, okay, that must not have been a problem. I was just, you know, overreacting, it’s not a big deal. But instead of moving away from it I just stay and do step one and two a few times and then pretty much something comes up. But I don’t go to three, I just stay with one and two, and it seems to work, and then I move on to three, but should I be going through the whole process?
Ken: We call it a five-step mindfulness practice and there may be a better word in English rather than step. Because the idea of step is, “Okay, I take one step and then another step.” Or climbing a set of stairs, you move from one to two, to three, to four, to five.
This practice doesn’t really work that way. It’s that the steps evolve out of each other. So the first step is: “Breathing in I experience this reaction, breathing out I experience this reaction,” or pain, or difficulty, or problem. And as you do that, you naturally evolve into the second step, which is: “Breathing in I experience my reactions to this problem, breathing out I experience my reactions to this problem,” or whatever. And those reactions are, at the physical level how the body’s reacting; at the emotional level, all the different emotions that are coming up; and at the cognitive level or mental level, all the stories and associations and memories and distractions that come up. And you just experience those.
And what’s happening there is one is moving into a fuller and fuller experience of the problem, the pain or the reaction, whatever. And in that you find yourself just experiencing all of that. And now rather than reacting to all of that, you’re just experiencing it, which is actually the start of the third step, which is, “Breathing in I experience calm in the reaction,” or in the problem. And that’s something that evolves out of opening to the experience of the problem itself and the reactions to it. You follow?
So you may find yourself naturally moving into step three without actually deciding to. Okay?
Now, when you hit step three and particularly step four, as you rest in all of that stuff, you know, “Breathing in I experience calm in this reaction, breathing out I experience calm in this reaction,” that calm gradually evolves into ease or relaxation. So now you’re sitting with this problem and you’re actually relaxed. And as soon as we start to relax, then attention opens up, and we experience the problem more deeply. And often that puts us right back into step one again. But now we’re operating at a deeper level. So it continues to cycle around this way. And you can [do it] over decades, actually. [Laughter]
It very well may be none of you are as screwed up as me, [laughter] but, you know, it really can be like that, because you’re able to experience something progressively deeper. And all of this time you think, “It’s just a mess.” But that’s the subjective experience, that it’s a mess. What is actually happening is one is actually experiencing more and more completely what’s really going on in you. And the more that we’re able to experience that, the less we have to react. So though we may feel like it’s a total mess inside, other people think, “How can you be so calm?” Because we’re dealing with all the reactions inside rather than spewing them out into the world. You follow?
And so through this, then step five isn’t something you decide, “Oh, I understand this now,” or “I’m going to understand this now.” It’s something that evolves out of being in that experience. And what happens is that you find a clarity in the experience. And the understanding of the experience, of the reaction or the problem, arises spontaneously out of the calmness and clarity. And you realize, “Oh, I was looking at it this way, but now I see it this way.” And one’s whole relationship with it will have shifted.
But none of the steps are something that you decide, “I’m going to do this now, I’m going to do this now, I’m going to do this now.” It’s not those kinds of steps. You start off just breathing in, experiencing it, and then you become aware of the physical reactions, you become aware of the emotional reactions, you become aware of the cognitive reactions.
Where people get tripped up a lot is that as they sit with the problem, their level of attention is often swept away by the stories that come up, they start spinning the stories. But once you start spinning the stories, you’re no longer experiencing the reaction or the problem. You’re in the world of the stories, and this is why I consistently emphasize coming to the body. And becoming clear about the physical reactions that are arising. Because that grounds you in your present experience and you don’t spin off in the stories. When you’re able to stay in the body and the emotions, then you can experience the stories as stories and not get distracted by them. They’re just stuff, you know, that is flying around all over the place. Does this help?
Student: That was very helpful. Can I ask one more question?
Ken: Of course.
Student: The step one and two. For me they seem to just kind of be all in there together.
Ken: Yeah. I mean, particularly once you’ve started to practice, once you’re familiar with this practice, yeah, they come very quickly together. So, you really got angry at somebody the other day, say, just as an example.
Student: Good example.
Ken: Okay. [Laughter] And you think, “I got really angry at that person the other day.” And so you recall that and you go, and you start feeling the anger. Now, initially when one’s not practicing this, the first thing that’s going to happen is, “Well, he was really a jerk.” And then you start off—and those are the stories. But when you’re practiced with this, you think, “I got really angry. Ah, I could feel that grabbing me right here.” Okay, and now you’re with that physical sensation. And then you just progress from there.
Student: Thank you.
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Ken: Okay. Other questions.
Come on, you gotta make me work a little bit. Yes, Larry.
Larry: As one progresses along these five phases and one deepens in them, experiencing the mess or the feeling that arises, that’s really the central aim, versus naming?
Ken: Yes, basically. The vipashyana way of practice is to name what arises. And this actually is a very ancient principle of magic. You ever hear or remember a fairy tale called Rumplestiltskin? Okay. When you can name something, it loses its power. So and that’s one of the things that the Rumplestiltskin story is about. When she knows his name, he loses his power.
So when feelings arise, then you say, “Oh, that’s anger.” Now you have a whole different way of relating to it.
I remember I was working with a CEO of a pharmaceutical company many, many years ago. The CFO had exercised his options, which is a really bad thing as far as Wall Street is concerned. And without telling the CEO. So, I was talking to him about this and he thinks, “Well, he probably is planning to leave the company. That’s why he’s done it.” This is a very, very good CEO, but he’s a little shut off from his feelings. And so I said, “How do you feel about this?” And he looked at me like, “Huh?” I mean, literally, he went, “What?” I said, “Well, what’s your feeling about what your CFO’s done here?” And he went, “What do you mean, Ken?” “Well, do you feel angry, betrayed, ashamed, guilty?” I just started naming emotions and he went, “Oh, that one, that one, that one.” [Laughter] And naming them this way he was able to connect with what he was actually experiencing, and that allowed him to process it very, very differently. That’s kind of an extreme example, but you run into that now and then.
This is just what we do as human beings. We are told, “Okay, so name the emotions that arise,” you know, “Name what you’re experiencing.” People become obsessed with coming up with exactly the right name for what they’re experiencing. And this is not how the technique was ever intended to work. It was meant to be a very light thing, so that as you touched it, you changed your relationship with it, and that was it. And so it’s a progressive deepening of experience.
In Tibetan tradition, there’s no recommendation for naming things. Or you can put it another way, there’s one category for naming everything: “It’s a thought.” Which is to say it’s a movement in the mind, because that’s what the word rnam rtog (pron. nam tok) means in Tibetan. So basically, you just say, “movement,” or “thinking,” or something like that. You don’t need to do it. The key principle that’s important here isn’t the name so much as the recognition. And it’s just “Oh, this is what’s happening. Okay, my mind’s moving.” Or “There’s movement, there’s resting.” That little recognition is the seed of wakefulness and that’s what’s being cultivated. Okay?
Ken: Good. All right.
Larry: Thank you.
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Ralph: Thank you.
Ken: And then Claudia, and then we have breakfast.
Ralph: Often when I meditate I notice the stream of consciousness being thoughts, but at the same time I see internal images. And would you consider those images to be part of a body sensation or a mental construct?
Ken: Hard to say. They’re just visual thoughts. Do they reflect something in the body in the way that audio thoughts reflect something in the body? Quite possibly. They’re movement in the mind in the way that I was describing. That’s just how they arise for you. So sometimes they arise visually, sometimes they arise audially, as in words and language. It may also arise in smells or tastes or actual physical sensations associated with touch.
Ralph: So I treat them like any other sensation.
Ken: Exactly. Yep.
Ralph: Thank you.
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Claudia: Back to emotions.
Claudia: Over the years, there’s been a sort of shifting change in the way I experience processing some of this. In the beginning, it was about noticing when the emotion was arising, the physical aspects of it in the body so that you begin to notice it sooner, as it is arising in you.
And then there’s the process of sort of working with the layers of it. You notice that you have an emotion, but you’re only touching maybe a surface level of it. And so there’s that process of working with the emotions.
But over the years, I’ve noticed that the more that I rest in a deeper, more open field more consistently, what is arising is this huge, flowing surge of emotion coming up. It’s no longer gradual in stages it’s just like, pfoom, it’s there. And I’ve totally lost it a few times, which hasn’t happened in so many years. I’ve been stunned that that has happened. And I guess I’m just asking if you have any suggestions there. Because instead of that nice little gradual process I was used to, which allowed me time to work with it, it’s just there.
Ken: Well, are you in touch with your body?
Claudia: Yes. If I’m sitting and this happens it’s really not a problem.
Claudia: But if I’m working when this happens, which you know has been kind of the focus of my practice—resting in that open place all the time. The depth of what I experience all the time is increased and that includes the depth of the fire. So you know, it’s hard to say, “Excuse me, I need to go in the other room for a little bit. [Laughter] I’m having an intense experience here.”
Ken: Yeah, okay. I understand more clearly what you’re referring to. I don’t have any good news. [Laughter] I can relate to what you’re experiencing here. And I’ve been tripped up a few times along these lines.
The way I look at it is that now, one is actually experiencing what’s really going on. And here’s something that may be important. We tend to get caught up in the content of our experience. And forget the context—well I’m going to say “context,” but I mean it in a very specific sense—in which experience arises. By the context here I don’t mean all the explanations. I mean the space in which it arises. And one of the points important for everybody in this retreat—and this is one of the reasons why this is such a good location—one of the efforts one can be making throughout this retreat, is to be remembering the dimension of space in which experience is arising all the time.
So movement, even the movement of the body, arises in the space of stillness. Sound arises in the space of silence. Thought and emotion and sensations all arise in the space of awareness. The tendency as soon as something arises is we focus on that, and this is why most people view that context—which I’m not using in the correct English way, but just in this rather specialized way, here—view the space, or the context, as the opposite of what is arising. So we say sound and silence are opposite. But that’s not really an accurate way of looking at it, because, as we’ve discussed before, when sound arises the silence doesn’t go anywhere. We are distracted from it by the sound and cease to hear the silence. But if you make a point, and it’s actually fairly easy to do that, of listening to silence when sound is arising, then your relationship to the sound changes.
In the same way, if you make a point in your practice and in your daily work of experiencing the awareness or the space in which the thought or emotion arises, then you may find yourself not quite so carried away by it. Enjoy. [Laughter]
Okay. Thanks. Breakfast time.
|This transcript by Ken McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. This transcript has been edited to make it more readable. There may be minor differences between the audio file and the transcript.|