How does practice actually work?

Suffering equals pain times resistance, says Shinzen Young. I find that a really useful, plain formulation that reminds me what contemplative practice is all about: non-resistance. But the beginner is always going to ask: if you’re telling me that I can’t stop resisting off my own back, what am I actually doing when I sit down to meditate?

There are two ways of looking at the awakening process, broadly. The first, quite popular at the moment, is a scientific formulation. It describes a mechanism to practice, pointing out that forming habits literally makes new linkages in the brain. After all, how else could it be? There has to be a material process for these psychological changes. fMRI imaging, if I recall correctly, shows that advanced meditators have larger areas of the brain devoted to concentration, have different brainwave patterns, and even bypass parts of the brain that help to generate the sense of self. I’m not an expert and I’m not trying to sound like one, so I’ll leave you to look this up in detail yourself if you like. This is an appealing model to many, because instead of it seeming like you’re doing vague, archaic practices to possibly hit some magical enlightenment experience, you have a reasoned basis and so perhaps a strong motivator to practice. The meaning and the experience are somewhat secondary: we change the input, something happens in the black box, and a different output comes out. In fact, the very input changes the black box itself. Awakening is therefore best described as a change of perceptions by this model and a lot of the metaphysics is irrelevant.

The trouble with this is that it does not satisfy my desire to link the conventional with the Unconditional. All of the greatest contemplative teachers and spiritual texts talk about the Unconditional in ways that are contrary to science and reasoning. They talk about acausality, nonconceptuality, the absolute, penetrating the veil. How does doing a conventional practice suddenly make one come into contact with the Unconditional? How can perfection come from imperfection? How can conditionality sudden give way to the acausal? This is where it gets religious for me as I experience, more and more, the sense of being guided, the need to take the leap of faith. The only answer for me here is that there is grace as God, the Universe, whatever you want to call it, does the real work and shows this conditional, illusory self the nature of its own delusions and dissolves it. The explanation that this process is in itself empty sheds a bit of a light on it. We feel we need a cause only because we have the delusion of appearances, and appearances are conditional.

The best way to talk about how practice works is to talk about meeting people where they are. We can’t understand the Unconditional as separate selves. Fair enough. But if we live in appearances, then there will also be an appearance of a mechanism. I explained the experience of insights to myself in a way that I could comprehend; in fact, I was only aware of insights that I could comprehend. (I hope some of the circular nature of this is obvious and explains the internal logic of the self. The medium is always the message.) Therefore, it is unsurprising that the first few big meditation insights – the first three nãnas of Theravada Buddhism – are akin to the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy: concrete, explicable, and rooted in conditionality.

The first is insight into mind and matter: the recognition of the difference between physical sensations and mental states. Many self-aware people will be shocked that this even an insight, but many people lack the awareness of their body and mind, and so are very ruled by this thicket of undifferentiated perceptions, reacting blindly. It’s not a judgement- it’s just how it is. Seeing how there is a difference between the bodily experience of pain and the thoughts about pain is important therapeutically because it starts to untangle the narratives a person has around their experience. If there is a difference between mind and body, then there must be a relationship between them. This is the second insight knowledge: not only is there a relationship, not just chaotic things happening, but this relationship is causal. The person undergoing the therapy can start to see how certain thoughts, feelings and behaviour lead to others, and so start to take control over the input to affect the output. It really gets interesting because the person undergoing the therapy eventually realises that if there is this causal relationship, with one experience coming to an end and another beginning dependent on the prior one, then all of them are impermanent. There’s no need to act as if the world will be like this forever if it’s currently unpleasant: if the unpleasantness has created unhelpful panic, a hangover from times when day to day survival was not so certain, this panic it can literally be waited out until the sympathetic nervous system relaxes down. Similarly, a level of mature acceptance and proportionality can be achieved as these conditional experiences are seen not to last- ongoing effort is required to maintain wellbeing. Finally, it becomes a bit clearer that concepts are not absolute, and so some healthy flexibility around fixed ideas can be gained. Anyone who knows the basics of Buddhism (or reads this blog regularly) will recognise this as an insight into the three characteristics of existence, and so forming the third major insight knowledge.

So far, all very rational, right? The more I meditated, the more choice, flexibility and perspective I had in this imperfect, changing, uncertain world. It became clear that it was fighting the way things are that was the cause of my suffering: pain times resistance equals suffering, remember? Going on from here, the more I said ‘fuel for the fire!’ and had the tolerance to investigate experiences despite how painful they were to poke at, or how much I wanted to just marinate in their pleasurable nature, I found out that investigating everything as process provided even more freedom. The turnaround here, though, was that as everything becomes more clearly a process, the things themselves get less solid and more fragmented. Imperfection, change and uncertainty turned in many ways to dissatisfaction, lack of solidity, and complete unknowing. Things went from being nicely causal, defined and fluid to being inexplicable, inexplicable, unknowable, indefinable. That was the freedom that I had attained and, in many ways, I didn’t like it one little bit. The first major tipping point came when it became clear that these characteristics were so very much the case that the whole bloody thing had nothing to do with this self, but that the self was just part of the appearance. I couldn’t admit it to myself at the time in many ways, but that was what it was.

This is where it becomes hard to hold to mechanistic models of practice, because the self-defensive nature of the, well, self, became very clear: a lot of what I was doing in practice was subtly working to reinforce the self, or avoid damaging it, because I literally knew no better, and damned if I was going to disappear into the abyss of the acausal. This is known as the fourth insight knowledge, into arising and passing away of phenomena, in Buddhism. You won’t get there from a bit of cognitive behavioural therapy, as much as I recognise the value of CBT, because you’re starting to reach into areas that are not regulated by higher cognition, by the dictates of developing coping mechanisms for daily issues that fit into a conventional framework. These insights are blasting away all of your preconceptions and the only thing that made them less terrifying was a bit of faith. From this perspective, practice becomes more clearly a way of trying to control a process that is already occurring. The practice itself is just another piece of the jigsaw, and you are not the hand that is putting it together. If anything, practice is a completely understandable effort by the self at emotional, behavioural and cognitive regulation. The basis for these is being assaulted, but the self is ignorant that it has no special standing in the sea of experiences. It’s just another construct, but one that will defend itself to the end. The question inevitably arises: why bother practicing at all, if what happens to me is out of my hands?

At the moment I have two answers to this. The first is that you must continue to live in the real world even after you start to awaken. In some ways, the awakening process is an uncaring bastard, who has no interest in your tax credits, relationship with your wife, or your sleep pattern. Why would it? It is interested in something beyond these appearances. Nevertheless, I think these appearances are the sea we swim in, God’s playground, the vehicle for our liberation from it, and the people in it matter. (If you catch yourself thinking that the pain of others doesn’t matter as it is empty, or that you need to ditch your job to preach to people in the street that they need to practice, you’re seriously lacking in the compassion side that is part of the whole awakening gig. I prescribe a shedload of metta practice for yourself and others.) As such, using meditation skilfully for all the conventional benefits is absolutely fine. Become more calm, flexible, focused, determined, joyful, and do wonderful things in the world. My second answer is that the kind of practices you do can change, to fit with your changing views around what is required of you spiritually. Various people have found that their practice becomes more formless, freeform, or devotional in response to this increasing lack of control over their spiritual life; the responses in those cases are to create more submission, flexibility or engagement respectively in their practices. It might well be that it is simply the way that you practice may have to change: for example, I used to note very aggressively and do breath work, but now a wider focus and a receptive attitude help. If you do not, in some way, adapt and respond to your changing practice, you may well find that resistance begins to massively build as you keep trying to win the game through force of will, or simply a desire to keep doing things the way you want to.

Instead, there has been a lot of relief, fun and interest in going where I feel I need to go next in practice- though sometimes this has taken the form of being forced to go there, and simply choosing to engage as willingly as possible as a kindness to myself. Once awakening has started to come to the point where it feels like it is happening to you, rather than you creating it, then the resistance (and therefore suffering) that you experience will really depend on how much that practice accedes to the process.