We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
Touch and Go
From the Buddha’s point of view, the existentialists only had it partially right. The sources of insecurity they describe—about death in the future, about aloneness and love, about meaning and the lack of meaning—are all ultimately bundled together into a much more immediate insecurity: that you are not quite real in any way that you can maintain securely in the face of constant change.
It is because of this unspoken fear that you experience the sense that your survival is at stake, even when it isn’t. Even a situation that does not actually threaten your physical survival can initially provoke the same visceral reaction as one that does. Furthermore, maintaining your project of constantly making something out of nothing requires a tremendous amount of energy. This is part of the energy that moves through you when you practice meditation. It is your actual life force, but it is in the service of your efforts to constantly try and protect yourself.
Sitting in the Fire
When you meditate, you stop trying to escape this unease and you stop trying to protect yourself from this energy. Instead, as my teacher put it, you “use survival as a steppingstone.” Rather than trying to ignore it or transcend it, you use the energy of this anxiety as a steppingstone to being more present, and more fully awake. In this way, the practice of mindfulness incorporates and makes use of your survival instinct. To understand this fully is to understand accurately what we mean by “developing peace” in shamatha meditation.
Somewhere along the way in your path as a meditator, you stop trying to manufacture an experience of peace that will somehow shield you from the unpredictable energies of life. You are no longer trying to be peaceful. According to the Buddha, manufacturing peace in this way would create a kind of spiritual ego—a safe haven in which you can hide and make your spirituality into a cocoon. Doing this cuts you off from your life force; it’s like trying to stop your heartbeat entirely so you don’t have to experience it racing.
Instead, like a skillful rider on a wild horse, you stay right with the energy of your struggle, and gradually tame it. To use another analogy, you do not try to put out the fire that you fear will consume you. You learn to sit right in the middle of it, because you realize that it was you who lit the fire in the first place. Therefore only you can eventually bring the flames under control.
Practicing Touch and Go in Nowness
Engage fully with whatever comes up in your practice. Let your struggle itself be the object of mindfulness; you don’t look elsewhere for your spirituality. The method for engaging the energy of your existential panic is called touch and go. This method addresses your instinct to survive very directly, as it meets your ego—that is, your habitual tendency to grasp and fixate on your experience—right at the moment it reappears.
When you practice touch and go, remember the first instruction for working with mental processes in shamatha—don’t suppress them as they arise, and don’t chase them as they go. What follows here is an expansion of this early instruction, down to the subtlest detail.
“Touch” challenges your instinct to evade the intensity of what is too threatening. When you “touch” an experience, you actualize your willingness to stay in contact with its rawness in the present moment of meditation, no matter what it is. When thoughts and especially emotions come up in practice, it is their energy you experience first. You actually experience it in the body before you have a clear consciousness of their content. By not suppressing this experience, you allow it to touch you. You stay with it, and accommodate it.
“Go” challenges your habit of holding onto your stories about what is happening in order to re-assure yourself that you’re still there. There is a crucial distinction here between the energy of your experiences, and the storylines you create about them. This distinction is a vital instruction for all levels of Buddhist meditation.
The experience of energy happens before you can articulate or conceptualize the meaning of what is happening. You communicate this meaning to yourself as a narrative, or storyline. One of the main discoveries you make in fully engaging the practice of shamatha is that you spend most of your waking life telling yourself stories. Not only that, but these stories have a repetitive quality, which reinforces their power to create emotional fixation.
When you “go”, you don’t cling to or cherish the storyline of any experience; rather after you have fully made contact by touching, you disown the experience and let it go. Because as thoughts and emotions become more fully developed, it is not their energy but their storyline that hooks you, makes you lose your mindfulness and give in to distraction. It’s as if you are watching a movie and you forget it’s only a movie, and then become so absorbed in the story that you even forget that you’re sitting in a theatre. By letting go of the storyline being played out on the screen of your mind, you come back to yourself again.
Familiarity Breeds the Cocoon
Your ego is equally adept at fixating on pleasurable and painful experiences alike. This is how the cocoon we discussed earlier is constructed. The reason for this is that, from the perspective of the cocoon, it is familiarity, not pleasure or pain in themselves, that is most vital to keeping it alive. Painful narratives have as much power to create fixation as pleasurable ones—if not more. Be it ever so painful, there’s still no place like home.
My teacher once said that we spend our lives making mountains out of molehills, and that meditation turns those mountains back into molehills again. The practice of touch and go dismantles the cocoon, one thread at a time. In the process, we learn that the stories we tell ourselves are not so solid and real as we believed them to be, but begin as mere sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise and pass away in nowness in shifty and dreamlike ways. Moment after moment, with gentleness and precision, we cut through our fixation on these stories, like popping soap bubbles with a feather.
Then we might even make the startling discovery that our pain is not a threat, and our pleasure is not a promise. Each stands nakedly by itself in nowness, without an echo of past or future, hope or fear, and then passes away.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner