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
The Insights that Lead to Enlightenment
Vipasyana is a Sanskrit word that means “clear seeing” or “direct insight.” Vipasyana is the practice that led not only to the Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment, but also the enlightenment of all the great practitioners who have lived since then. Vipasyana is the purest expression of the “sudden” intelligence that enables the Buddhist spiritual path to happen at all.
What Shamatha Trains You to Know
Shamatha is the foundation for vipasyana in the sense that shamatha tames the wildness of your mind over time. When your mind is tamed, you can begin to see yourself clearly and simply for the first time. Shamatha is not actually concerned with the true nature of that seeing. It’s only concerned with slowing the whole process down and stabilizing it.
The knowing developed through shamatha is still very much a dualistic knowing, in the sense that you are always checking back to evaluate the meditation. You are checking back to make sure that you are holding your mind to the object of attention—the breath.
You are checking back on the energy of your mental state, asking, “Is the meditation wild today, or is it dull? Am I alert or am I sleepy? Are there a lot of thoughts and activity in my mind, or is it relatively still?” In this way, shamatha knows what the mind is doing moment-by-moment, and whether you are present or not. It knows what the quality of your present experience is. It knows, “Sound of the car passing outside the window.” It knows, “I’m thinking, ‘how soon is lunch?’ because I’m getting hungry.” It knows, “That patch of light on the floor has moved since I last noticed it.” We could say that shamatha is the mere knowing of things happening on the surface.
Now in shamatha, we regard this knowing as an entity and refer to it as someone who knows. We call it the “meditator”, or the “witness,” or the “abstract watcher.” All of these terms convey the understanding that shamatha is strengthening your ability to see the activity and movement of the mind without being caught up in it, overly identified with it, or swept away by it.
In place of the scattered, anxious person you thought you were, now you feel yourself to be a more grounded, “together” person. This is the result of cultivating the witnessing mind through shamatha practice.
To further appreciate the profound importance of this for our quality of life, consider what psychologist William James observed more than one hundred years ago: “The faculty of being able to bring a wandering mind back to an object of attention is the root of all character, judgment, and will.” He added that training students to strengthen such a faculty should become the basis of their education, and that such an education would be “an education par excellence.”
An Even Deeper Knowing
Vipasyana is the gateway into a deeper knowing than this. In fact, all the teachings that the Buddha gave about suffering, the nature of suffering, and how suffering can be healed or transcended are the result of the insight gained through his practice of vipasyana.
As you practice shamatha, vipasyana arises as the recognition that there is no underlying self who is having this experience of being present, simply aware, and undisturbed by the flow of thoughts and strong emotions. In other words, vipasyana is the recognition that this meditator in shamatha practice—this witness who has finally become so still and stable through patient, diligent practice—is just another thought. It’s a very subtle and enjoyable thought, to be sure! But it is nothing more substantial than that.
To put this another way, when you look deeply into the nature of the meditator who is practicing shamatha, you will not find anything that you can pinpoint as substantial or real. There is just knowingness; there is not someone who knows. In shamatha there is always someone who knows; in vipasyana there’s just the knowing itself.
When vipasyana arises, the experience of meditation becomes extremely open and fluid, because you are no longer checking back to a reference point of any kind. There is no “I” or “me” who is having this experience.
The Path of Taming the Sense of “Me”
The “me” that you encounter when you first begin to practice shamatha is a wild, scrambled nexus of habitual patterns of struggle, neurotic speed, and hope and fear. Shamatha tames and soothes these recurrent patterns so that they have less painful influence or control over your moment-to-moment experience. If you stay with the practice, this gradual taming and slowing is a real, inevitable accomplishment. Traditionally, the mind of a practitioner is described in a series of metaphorical images of water.
At first, experiencing the mind is like standing under a waterfall. In the next stage, it is like sitting by a cool, swiftly flowing brook. Next, it is like sitting by a slow, broadly flowing river. Finally, it is like sitting next to the ocean on a calm day.
This gradual process of slowing and taming creates a more subtle experience of “me”. Rather than a confused me, it’s a calm, clear me. In Western psychological language, we could say that the practice of shamatha leads to the experience of a healthy sense of self. But inevitably there’s a fixation on that sense of health. As long as you’re dwelling on that chilled-out version of yourself that shamatha has enabled you to experience and enjoy, you are blocking deeper knowing and intelligence.
In other words, you could become addicted to shamatha, and stop there. Of course, this would not be a terrible thing or even a bad thing! Beyond the sense of well-being it brings you personally, a tamed, gentle mind is a wonderful tool to wield. With it, you can refrain from contributing further to the pain and chaos that already exist all over the world. But there is more to understand and realize personally, if you are so inspired.
How Stillness Leads to seeing Non-self
To use Western psychological terminology again, the healthy sense of self we experience in shamatha is a foundation, or gateway, for the experience of non-self in vipasyana. “Non-self” does not imply that you become a confused, dissociated fog of incoherent impressions, or a self-absorbed victim incapable of functioning in the world. On the contrary, this experience of non-self—which is the essence of the Buddha’s discovery of wakefulness—turns out to be the ultimate expression of clarity, aliveness, and responsiveness that a human being can realize. Here is an analogy for how shamatha leads to vipasyana:
Imagine a lake whose surface has been stirred up by strong wind. The surface is never calm or still, but constantly disturbed by waves and billows. Not only that, but sediment has been stirred up on the bottom as well, clouding the water and making it opaque, so that you can’t see into it.
This is an analogy for your mind before you practice shamatha. The winds and sediment together represent strong habitual patterns of neurosis; the resulting cloudiness and turbulence of the water represents the felt experience of living under their painful influence all the time. To take the metaphor a step further, the winds are your present experience of painful emotional patterns, and the sediment is the accumulation of past imprints of all those experiences.
Now imagine that the strong winds subside. As a result, the surface of the water becomes still, the sediment settles again to the bottom, and the water becomes clear so that you can see into its depths, perhaps even all the way to the bottom.
This is an analogy for your mind after you have practiced both shamatha and vipasyana. The practice of shamatha causes the strong energies of neurosis to subside and the resulting agitation and confusion to lift as your mind becomes more clear and still. With these conditions, vipasyana can happen because nothing is obscuring your vision and you can see into the very depths of the lake.
This is a traditional analogy. A more contemporary, very simple analogy might be defrosting the windshield on a cold morning in order to see the road and drive to your destination. Shamatha is the defrosting process. Vipasyana is the clear view of the road that results, which enables you to drive safely.
Nonself in Meditation Practice
During your meditation experience, here are a few simple things you can observe that show how vipasyana emerges from shamatha.
When Sense Perceptions are Labeled
While practicing shamatha, look at your experience of a sense perception. For example, you hear a sound. Your mind immediately knows that this is a sound, and it will also immediately identify precisely what the sound is by labeling it: “That’s a car going by the window.” Notice first how this labeling process occurs almost instantaneously after hearing the sound. You can observe the minute shift as you move very quickly from the pure nowness of the sound to identifying and labeling what it is, effectively making it part of your familiar conceptual world.
That observation of your mind’s activity offers a first glimpse of the direct knowing of vipasyana. It is recognizing that there is a difference between the immediate experience of your sense perception, and the thought-label by which you tell yourself what you have just experienced.
This ability to distinguish between direct experience and conceptual overlay is profoundly important at every stage of the path. My teacher called it the difference between first thought and second thought: first thought is your direct experience, and second thought is the interpretation you place on that experience.
When You Look for the Experiencer
But you can now take the investigation further. You can look to see if there is actually someone who is experiencing this sound. Can you find any actual dividing line between the experience of the sound and the one who is having that experience? Can you really separate the subject and the object?
No matter how often you investigate this perception, you cannot find a concrete dividing line of someone experiencing it and the experience itself. It is a single unitary moment of vivid knowing. The sound and the hearing of the sound are simultaneous. After the fact you say, “I heard the sound of the car passing.” But those are just conceptual labels. You think, “The sound of the car was out there and I heard it.” But the thought process is a dim echo of the original perception. In fact, the thought process by its very nature demands a subject and an object, a noun and a predicate. These are the embedded conventions of your thought and your language.
There is not an underlying problem with this, as long as you see them for what they are—mutually agreed-upon conventions by which you make the world you experience intelligible to yourself and others when you communicate with each other. But the moment you begin to assume that these thought-conventions are the real essence of what you know about reality, you miss the pure wakefulness that underlies them and that, in a sense, precedes them.
If you like, you can now take the curiosity of vipasyana even further with this simple experience of hearing the sound of the car. You can ask yourself, “Is there really a distinction to be made between the first thought—the sound itself—and the second thought—the immediate identification of that sound as a car passing by on the street outside?” If you consider it from within your experience of linear time, you can say, “Yes, the experience came first and the thought followed right after, so in that sense they were different.” And you would be right, as far as the convention of linear time goes.
When You See Beyond “Inside” and “Outside”
But if you ask the same question from the point of view of the essence of each of those experiences, you will arrive at a very different conclusion. You will recognize that both the first thought and the second thought are identical in the sense that they are moments of pure knowingness, pure awareness.
The first is traditionally called “appearance”, while the second is at the level of “thought.” The first seems to be coming from outside you—that is, the sound; the second seems to be coming from inside you—that is, the thought about the sound. But in their very essence they are the same flashes of pure awareness—nothing more and nothing less—and locating them “outside” or “inside” is, once again, just conceptual labeling.
When You See Beyond How Things Seem to How They Are
Look at the blue sky now. Notice your ingrained tendency to label what you look at, and try to simply look without labeling. If you catch yourself labeling it, see that the actual appearance of the blue sky does not depend on you telling yourself that it is blue. It doesn’t depend on your label. That’s going beyond concept to direct perception, and this direct perception is never based on “me”. It is based simply on the awareness itself.
One of the most powerful moments in the film, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, occurs when Jan Vermeer is teaching his housekeeper to see the way an artist sees. They are looking out the window in his studio and he asks her to tell him what color the sky is. She looks and immediately tells him, “It’s blue”. He tells her to look again more carefully. Gradually Vermeer brings her to see that what she assumed was blue is actually a whole palette of subtle colors—different shades of blue, grey, yellow, pink, and white. And of course they are constantly shifting and changing in nearly imperceptible ways.
Here we see the real power, the real point and importance of vipasyana. It is not merely a clever intellectual exercise. It is the way we distinguish between how things seem to us and how they really are.
All that the Buddha taught depends on grasping the significance of this distinction because it has profound consequences for how you live. Will your life with the myriad beings who share this world be based on understanding, or misunderstanding? Will it be based on what’s real, or what’s merely a fantasy about how we think things are?
When You Wonder: Who is Meditating?
Here is another investigation that may seem more subtle because the phenomena you are observing is happening seemingly inside, where you can’t “see” it in a palpable way like we can see the blue sky.
Look “inside” at your thoughts just as they occur, without seeking to change or alter them. If your shamatha is stable, you can do this without difficulty. But even if it isn’t, you can follow the logic of the vipasyana as you investigate the experience.
When a thought arises, ask: Is there a thought and a thinker who is separate from the thought, or are the thinker and the thought arising simultaneously, so that there is actually no real dividing line between them which can be found anywhere?
Once your mind has become still through your shamatha practice, and you can look at it for longer and longer periods without getting distracted, you begin to train in vipasyana. You do this by experiencing a dissolving of the boundary between what you imagine as the one who is having the experience and the experience that they are having.
Another way of practicing the same investigation is to look again at the witness, the one who isn’t caught up in thoughts during shamatha. Then this vipasyana practice can occur:
When you look into who this witness is, can you find anybody? Look for the meditator. Look for him or her as someone that you think is separate and real. What is his shape? What is his color? Where is her location? Look and look, but all you will find is another thought or cluster of thoughts. All you will find of that “witness” is a label, a thought-description that reassures you I’m in here meditating right now. But the question persists: Who is in there meditating, and where is she?
This is a powerful method of practicing vipasyana, which flogs the mind with this question until it gives up on trying to find anything continuous, solid, real, and existent.
All the teachings in Dharma about enlightenment, awakening and liberation are based on developing confidence in your inability to locate a self and stabilizing your recognition of this. The more you open yourself to these flashes of sudden intelligence, the more effortlessly they will keep coming to you, and the more deeply you will know the path of awakening as a direct, personal experience, rather than merely a marvelous rumor from books. Here’s a wonderful poem about this from Walt Whitman:
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left.)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand,
Nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
specters in books.
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take them from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them through yourself.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner