Earlier this year Joseph Goldstein, co-founder and a guiding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), spent several months in silent retreat. Described below is an approach to meditation that came to him during this time. It is especially suited for those wanting to deepen their practice in the midst of everyday life.
Recently I was thinking about some close friends who are younger than I am, raising families, with busy lives in the world. I could appreciate that it might be quite some time before they would be able to sit a long retreat. So I started wondering if there was a way that people in those circumstances could integrate some kind of meditation technique into their daily activities that could really touch the transformative power of the practice. On longer retreats it’s easier to access meditative depths; but when we’re otherwise intensely engaged, it can be quite a challenge.
Before I describe the approach that occurred to me, some background might be helpful. The foundation of the Buddha’s path to liberation is known as Right Understanding, and it consists of two main strands. One is the understanding and application of the teachings on the law of karma – that is, that our actions have consequences. Seeing this we undertake the practice of generosity and the practice of the precepts. We take care with what we do so that we’re creating conditions for happiness rather than suffering, both for ourselves and others. This strand is frequently talked about, and covers a lot of what people who are committed to the path usually practice.
But, in the context of one’s daily life, the second strand is more difficult to work with. This is the basic understanding of anatta, or ‘no-self’ – the absence of an inherently existing self. In Pali, the language of the oldest written Buddhist teachings, the belief in some core notion of self is called sakkaya ditthi; this is sometimes translated as ‘personality belief.’ It’s said to be the most dangerous of all the defilements, more dangerous than greed or even hatred, because these are rooted in this mistaken belief. This wrong view of self is central to how we go about in the world, and all kinds of unskillful actions come out of it.
Of course, the Buddha is talking about the unwholesome effects of acting out of this wrong view – this personality view – not only in terms of one life, but of many lifetimes. It’s an extremely powerful conditioning force. And the aim of the practice, central to everything we’re doing, is to free the mind from this misconception.
So the question then arose, how can we really address this issue as lay people caught up in our day-to-day activities? Quite spontaneously a nine-minute-a-day plan came to me, a way to ‘turbo-charge’ our ongoing practice by doing three short meditations a day, each three minutes long. Each of these sessions targets a particular area of identification where the mistaken sense of self is created and strengthened.
Session 1: Who is Knowing?
During the first three-minute session we simply sit and listen to sounds, in whatever surroundings we find ourselves. It makes no difference whether we’re on a noisy street or in a quiet room. As we open and relax into the awareness of the various sounds, we ask ourselves a question, “Can I find what’s knowing these sounds?” Clearly, we’re aware of them. But can we find what is knowing? When we investigate, we see there’s nothing to find. There’s no knower, even though knowing is happening.
This seems a very straightforward way of loosening and hopefully breaking the identification with the knowing as a knower. All that’s going on is just hearing. There’s no ‘I’ behind it. No knower can be found.
So that’s the first three-minute exercise: listen to sounds, see if you can find what’s knowing them, and then explore the experience of not being able to find a knower, even though knowing is still there.
Session 2: Breaking Identification with the Body
The second three minutes helps break through the very deep identification with the body. For this there are two exercises that could be alternated, or the time could be divided between them.
The friends I had in mind had both lost one of their parents recently, so the focus of one session is to reflect on anyone we know who has died. If we were with them during that process, what was happening as they were dying, during their last days? Or if we don’t have this personal experience, we can reflect on the great sweep of generations over time, that birth inevitably ends in death. Really try to take in the truth of the body dying, take in what our bodies are and what happens to them. This is something that will come to pass for us all.
The idea of this exercise is to reflect on dying in as vivid a way as possible, and to apply it to our partner, to our children, to our friends – seeing that this is what naturally happens to all of us. It isn’t morbid, but rather a way of keeping front and center the truth that we all die. This can serve as a powerful reminder that our body is not ‘self.’ It’s simply going through its own process. One day, it’s going to decay and die – that’s nature. It’s just how it is.
The other exercise for loosening identification with the body is carried out in motion. When I walk somewhere, for example, if I’m mindful and really feeling the body moving, I notice that I’m simply experiencing sensations in space – pressure, motion, lightness. That’s all that’s happening. There’s not the sense of a solid body, and certainly not the sense of an ‘I’ that’s doing the walking.
When sensations in space are being known, through the act of walking or any other movement, we begin to get a sense of the body as a fluid energy field. This can be illuminating – it can free the mind from being caught in the notion of the solidity of the body.
These two approaches are a good way of weakening the identification with the body as being self.
Session 3: As the Thought Arises…
The last area where we get caught a lot in terms of self is the identification with our thoughts. We have thousands of thoughts a day, most of which are casual and low key. Often, we’re not even aware of them. And almost all have to do with self – our activities, our future projects, our memories and imagined events that involve us.
During an earlier retreat, I noticed that this more subtle stream of thought is like a dream state, and the thought arose, “I’m just dreaming myself into existence.” Reflecting on this since, I see that we’re continually dreaming ourselves into existence because we’re not aware of thoughts as they’re coming through. So the sense of self is continually being reinforced.
For the third three minutes, then, we simply watch for thoughts arising and passing, as we often do in meditation, but with a further turbo charge: we pay more careful attention so that we’re right there, precisely as the thought arises. If the awareness is sharp, we’ll observe a thought arise and vanish in the moment. That experience repeatedly weakens the identification with thought. We discover that there’s hardly anything there, just a wisp. In our normal lives, with our usual level of attention, we’re not conscious of this. But for three minutes we can bring enough focus so that we actually see it.
This is what I call ‘the nine-minute-a-day turbo-charged path to enlightenment!’ It’s important to add, though, that nine minutes a day by itself wouldn’t be enough. It needs to be built on the foundation of a daily meditation practice, together with the cultivation of the first strand of Right Understanding mentioned earlier: the awareness that our actions have consequences. If this nine-minute-a-day program is combined with other aspects of a daily practice, then I believe it can really enliven our understanding of how to apply the teachings in the midst of a very busy life.
*This article originally appeared in IMS’s Fall/Winter 2011 Insight Newsletter.
Joseph Goldstein is a co-founder and guiding teacher of Insight Meditation Society’s Retreat Center and Forest Refuge programs. He has been teaching vipassana and metta retreats worldwide since 1974 and in 1989 helped establish Barre Center For Buddhist Studies (BCBS). He is the author of A Heart Full of Peace, Insight Meditation, One Dharma and several other publications.
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