After the last post that used the allegory of life as an art gallery, I had the following feedback by email:
It sounds like you’re unwittingly putting distance between yourself and the unpleasant… [in] an actual art gallery you can take a step back, but how much of the unpleasantness in life is actually like that? You’re blocking things out in the process of letting things in. Can you really come to enjoy racism, misogyny, chronic pain, alienation, the destruction of the natural world for capital gain etc?
This is really useful feedback as it raises a number of important objections, as well as areas that I can clarify as best I can. I reckon practice is about embracing experience in the end, despite the strong emphasis that has been laid especially in clinical ‘mindfulness meditation’ on being the observer, taking the one seat, cultivating the Witness, and so on. As Kenneth Folk, one of my preferred vipassana teachers, puts it: you ‘dis-embed’ from your experience, not disassociate from it, if you’re doing this kind of practice. ‘Disembed and re-engage’ has been a pointer for me in the past and one that the clinical mindfulness lot would relate to, given the emphasis on gaining greater ability to choose your responses. Stepping back, in order to take a breath and step back in.
The difference between dissociation and disembedding, experientially, is that you are not actively pushing experience away when you dis-embed. Pushing it away requires a subtle but real mental action on your part, which is an incidence of aversion. When you wrest your mind off an unpleasant memory, when you pretend something isn’t happening, that’s dissociation. Dis-embedding, in contrast, is more of a non-action: you don’t do anything. You don’t try to focus down on the sensations, you don’t try to change them, you don’t try and extract insight out of them. Try having the intention to dis-embed; there are other tricks that I will talk about another time, since it’s so obscure.
What I will say, though, is that I didn’t (and often, still don’t) get this right, just out of force of habit. Buddhism sometimes splits people up into three types according to their affinity to the three great plagues of the world: the greedy, the aversive, and the delusive. The greedy might get practice wrong by trying to squeeze out more pleasure from their sits, afraid to face the nasty side. The delusive might just conveniently drift and not really ever hit anything on the head, not really getting that faculty of enquiry going. But the aversive type? That’s me, and ripping my attention off sensations instead of actually letting them be, letting them flow through, has often been my mistake. This is dissociation, definitely. It became obvious enough on retreat as there was nowhere to hide and as the aversion mounted due to repeated avoidance, it was trapped in my own body and mind. Believe me when I tell you that becomes painful enough that you eventually find yourself forced to face the music. But you will inevitably fall into the same trap again and again as you learn the ropes.
The trick is to have the stress tolerance to admit that unpleasantness in little gulps in a daily practice, or accept that you’re going to go on a crash course by hitting it head on. How much of unpleasantness in life is possible to actually face, asks our reader? Well, it’s a skill, to put it mechanistically. It also depends on being willing (and able) to step out of abstraction and into visceral experience, which again, frankly, is a skill. A bit of pondering helps here, if the mass of dukkha seems impossible to face. Critically appraise your concepts. What is your fixed idea here? It might be, as it was with me, that accepting suffering is somehow wrong- especially the examples the reader gives, such as racism, misogyny, chronic pain. Also, it might seem so painful that there is no chance of you getting around it. Mull these over. Is it possible, even slightly, that there could be a different perspective? I can’t stress enough how the questions give you the answers in contemplative practice.
The trick here can be to climb down the ladder of abstraction. Things like racism and pain are painful, but they are concepts, not experiential sensations. You are not performing vipassana on ‘racism’. You are performing it on the amalgamation of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are your response to the concept of being discriminated against, or the thought of others being so. It is classic ‘divide and conquer’ of the mess of suffering that is in your head. You are not endorsing racist behaviour by noticing your reactions to someone being racist; you are being real, saying to yourself: ‘Yes, this is happening. I am not going to avoid that in the slightest. I have impulses to react out of habit. Now, how do I want to respond to this?’
Imagine a huge knot, the proverbial Gordian one if you like. Where do you start undoing it? It seems like an impossible task. But there is a tiny, hard-to-locate, bit of give on some of the rope, and if you keep worrying at it, it will start to loosen up. You have to find the way in for yourself. Again, hit it head on or take the gentle approach – the latter I will always suggest these days, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair, since my own approach has been more like a bull in a china shop at the best of times, since I didn’t know how to be gentle! Very conventional mental skills of patience, flexibility and criticality are helpful. If you insist that things are black and white, that they cannot be other than the way you conceive them to be, you will find it hard work to learn.
Of course, if you are prayerful, you can hit the abstraction head on. You can pray for a helpful response to discrimination. You can pray for prejudice in yourself to become clear. You can pray for help in tackling these things without feeding into them. Simply doing so, mechanistically speaking, forms the same kind of habits of patience, thoughtfulness, mercy, non-violence and so on that could be applied by watching the phenomena of experience. You are creating intentions, and intention is far more powerful than many people seem to give it credit. Action only comes out of intention, and this is why the Buddha was so hot on the whole karma idea: the actual word means ‘volitional action’, which is an extremely telling translation, compared to the popular conception of karma as you getting what you deserve through some cosmic judgement.
As to the idea that we cherry-pick experience in vipassana, ‘blocking things out in the process of letting things in’, I can only say it has ever been thus with perception and it tells you a lot about experience itself. The privileging of certain phenomena over others is called ‘attention’. You attend to certain inputs and disregard others. You use a certain assumption as a foundation for your perception. You only notice one sensation at a time. If you choose one lens, then you are discarding others. An ability to go from conceptual thinking to the most bare experiential attention where they are most appropriate is the mark of flexibility and a recognition of how the mind works, not being wishy-washy or failing to make the mind up. Once again, the questions have the answers: look at attention itself, the desire to take everything in at once, how your practice goes when you try it out.
I was tempted to say that ‘enjoyment’ was the wrong word to use in my previous post, but it really isn’t. The idea that you could fully enjoy your life seems a little perverse at times, but then it is also perverse from a different frame of reference that we should want to not enjoy things. Not enjoying something is dukkha. Enjoyment of course is a specific word that is linked to the physical sensations of pleasure, and I am not claiming that I have come to get a little frisson out of having the flu or seeing someone badly treated. Appreciation or happiness would perhaps be a better word, but I think I’ll leave ‘enjoyment’. It feels like a radical challenge to throw out your preconceptions that there is no perfect happiness, that suffering is required, and to investigate whether the opposite is possible. There is a little homily about this that forever sticks in the mind: If you can change something you don’t like, be happy about that. If you can’t change it, there’s no point in suffering about it. Either way happiness is possible. Can you allow the possibility?
This turning on of my fears on their heads, into hope, is one of the things that I am really thankful for in my practice. This is love thine enemy: the possibility that everything I loathe, everything that seems unacceptable, might in fact be somehow held in love, accepted, transformed. The knowledge that I am mainly just beating myself up, that the world is not necessarily the way it seems to be from my limited perspective. It starts with the little mercies and there is the sense that it is beginning to grow into something much kinder.
- Choose something smallish you can’t stand and resolve to accept it for just one day, such as cigarette cravings or a radio station that plays music you hate. Notice your reactions. Did the day of acceptance cost you anything?
- Make attention your object. Where does your mind habitually go to: parts of your body and not others, thoughts rather than the environment around you, certain sounds and not others?
- Can you distinguish pleasure from appreciation? How do they manifest?