Practice is more and more difficult to talk about in terms of discrete topics. This was frustrating me when writing the last blog post, because I was trying to isolate the factors of awakening in order to make them more easy to discuss. I was wondering if I was being overcomplicated or simply not articulate enough.
But the experience, and a bit of meditation on the topic earlier, made me think about it in a different way. The facets of awakening are indeed facets: trying to be a good person, abstractly, is a different concept to surrendering to the present moment, or asking God for help.
But in the end, concepts are just concepts. All of the above are required for the full practice experience/performance of any of the others: they are completely dependent on each other in reality. I feel like saying that practice is reality in it’s perfect fullness, but that’s one of those extrapolations forward that you learn to trust as a meditator but not arrogantly claim. I’ve not experienced this fullness, only seen little snippets: themselves facets of a whole that I suspect as a human I will have to keep sidling up to but can never experience as a limited entity.
To consider, say, viriya as separate to samadhi is like trying to remove a side from a pyramid so as to look at it more closely. Conceptually the side exists of itself. Experientially you cannot physically take off a two dimensional side from a three dimensional object to examine it. Experientially the complete entity collapses and it is lost to appreciation in its entirety. Therefore, I decided not to write a post discussing all of the factors of enlightenment in the light of the others, because it can be summed up less boringly as:
Each aspect of practice emerges as the sum of the others. If you are trying to fine tune one aspect, you must consider how you are balancing the others to produce it.
I have often found it hard to be mindful because my mind keeps slipping to proud thoughts about how mindful I am. I have often found it hard to concentrate on the present because I am overtired, worrying, guilty or obsessing. I have I have often found it hard to summon energy to meditate because it has been diffused into frivolous activities. The solution to all of these is not ‘try harder to be mindful’ as overefforting scatters the mind; it is to cultivate the other factors of enlightenment so that the desired aspect is strengthened. If overtired, stop staying up late. If lacking energy, give up something superficial. If proud thoughts occur again and again, note them and pray for humility.
There could very easily be a Buddhist sutra, using the lyrical, technical and repetitive form that the Theravada use, describing each factor in terms of the others. In fact, I would be shocked if there is not. (Side note: it is always very pleasing to work out for yourself, and know much more deeply, something that a tradition’s texts has spelled out for you but you have not fully grasped. The text serves as validation and confirmation.) Anyone who writes in telling me the chapter and verse wins this blogpost.
Many teachers talk about contraction and expansion. There are many many implications of this, energetic and experiential ones amongst them, but in terms of the progress of insight, a visual metaphor might work. If you have ever used a Computer Generated Design package, you can load up a sophisticated three dimensional drawing on your screen:
It looks very sophisticated, but very interesting. You want to know how it is put together, knowing that it isn’t just made of whole cloth, but you may not be able to see how it was created. You can then press ‘explode image’, and each part of it will fly outwards from a central point (or go back a few hundred years and let Leonardo Da Vinci do it for you, in this case):
This shows you the component parts. You can examine how they interlock, see hidden elements that weren’t immediately obvious, see the design behind the image. But it is no longer the image originally, which was far more pleasing. Whatever it was that was drawn, it no longer ‘works’; it is dissected, laid out pedantically. So you unexplode the image (or find a vaguely related gif on Wikipedia to make your point), and it is capable of movement again:
Lo! Having taken apart the object, its artistry and workings are appreciated all the more when it goes back together. But it has to go back together for that appreciation to occur. Once back together, despite the knowledge that it made up of multiple parts, it is again unified in the mind, not the same as the little array of exploded components- greater than the sum of the parts. With practice, the competent artist can visualise how the exploded image might look in their mind with effort, and play with the components more deftly to produce the required effect. The expert, though, might in a state of flow adjust this and poke that and create change with fluency and no great strain of the imagination. However, it might take some slowing down and re-examination to work out why something just isn’t working with the expert’s skills.
What am I trying to say here? That the beginner sees practice as this messy blob that cannot be broken into. Then, the intrepid practitioner who actually tries, begins to examine components of practice mechanistically, and then more and more. They see linkages of cause and effect. They may privilege one aspect over the others, doing mindful meditation or devoted prayer and this will be their one-pointed practice, the other aspects forming up behind it into an arrowhead, focused and driving. Then, no one aspect of the practice will be evidently the most important, but all of them simply parts of the same. Parts of the practice may suddenly come to the fore to be re-examined and re-balanced, explored more deeply, but it would be facile to report that this part you’ve just discovered is utterly new, or actually the most important, or to be focused on for the rest of practice. (Guess what I’ve done lots of? This!) At times, no particular part of practice will be most evident, but it will seem unified, mysterious, perfect. The practice will explode and reform, expand and contract, for inspection and consolidation. Practice will be more naturally easy to balance.
I can only presume that this lightness of touch with practice is the mark of a master meditator, but then I’m very far from that, so who knows?