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
Clarifying Questions about Vipasyana
Is it true that if you fully engage the practice of shamatha, then the realization of vipasyana will naturally follow?
I think it depends upon how attached you get to shamatha.
It’s true that vipasyana can naturally arise out of stabilizing shamatha, but the potential problem there—which is referred to a lot in the Tibetan tradition—is that shamatha can bring you to powerful but temporary meditation experiences which you mistakenly interpret as the awakened state. Then you try to deliberately cultivate these experiences again and again, and never realize that they are not the true vipasyana.
These experiences are described as bliss, clarity, and non-thought. All of them occur when your mind has become calm, and your body relaxed, as a result of shamatha. But because you’re holding on to these experiences in a subtle way, there’s still fixation going on. As long as you’re clinging to your meditation experiences, your awareness is not fully free and not really wide open.
On the other hand, you could have a genuine vipasyana experience without ever having practiced shamatha at all. It would probably be brief, and without an understanding of its significance, the experience ultimately wouldn’t help you that much.
In fact, all of this highlights the whole issue of spiritual materialism once again. You tend to fixate on the ‘high’ of meditation experiences, instead of appreciating that real meditative accomplishment leads to a very grounded, open state of being which eventually becomes ordinary.
You talked about flogging the mind with questions until it gives up the search for a self. “Flogging” seems like a very aggressive term to apply to something as gentle and non-aggressive as meditation. Could you explain this seeming contradiction?
The method here is more of a persistent, sharp analysis of the way you habitually think about things. By doing this you use the sharpness of insight to gradually cut through these habits to arrive at an understanding that’s closer to how things actually are. The Buddha said that the experience of confusion is based on believing in the way things appear, and the experience of awakening comes from seeing the way things truly are. Vipasyana is the key practice by which you move from the one to the other.
Sharp analysis of our habitual experience is one way of practicing vipasyana. The mind is looking for the mind. We investigate the experience of that mind until we break it down into its smallest constituents and see that there is nothing solid and permanent there. We do that by intellectually pestering our ingrained assumptions about solidity and permanence, in much the same way as a physicist would experimentally reduce seemingly solid matter to its atomic or even sub-atomic foundations.
Is vipasyana something that you try to do?
In the beginning you do vipasyana practice, in the sense that you’ve studied it and you have an intellectual understanding and you can do some of the exercises that are taught to cultivate the experience of vipasyana. But over time vipasyana becomes more and more of a spontaneously arising experience. When that kind of openness happens, the instruction is just to let it continue until it ends. Don’t try to hold on to it, because unless you are a Buddha, it will probably end pretty quickly!
One of the greatest Tibetan masters has said that the only difference between an ordinary person and a Buddha is that an ordinary person has flashes of the insight of vipasyana, whereas a Buddha has the continuous experience of it. And since the awakened state can’t be fabricated, or faked, or fantasized into permanency, it’s obvious that whatever method there might be to encourage that continuous experience must be connected with letting go, relaxing, and opening, rather than trying very hard to make it happen.
An image that one of my teachers has given is: when you hit a gong, the moment when the sound happens is like the glimpse of the awakened state. But then you don’t keep hitting the gong. You just let the original sound continue. If you try to hit the gong again and again, then you actually end up pushing the experience further away because of your greed to keep repeating it.
This is described as recognizing and letting be. When you let the spontaneous strike of vipasyana ring out and reverberate into space—and you can simply be present with it until it fades—you’ve moved from the vipasyana of analysis and investigation to the vipasyana of direct experience. The first is a kind of gateway; but the second is the real thing!
Is vipasyana the intelligence that shows us we really don’t exist?
It’s more accurate to say that it shows you the ego doesn’t exist as a solid, continuous identity. But when you understand this, it’s not as if you come to the conclusion that there’s just an empty, dead blankness there where you used to be. On the contrary, discovering that your ego is fiction frees you to understand that you do exist in a way that is completely interconnected and interpenetrating with everything and everyone else. Then your life becomes much more of a dance than a struggle. It brings tremendous relief and joy to realize that you don’t exist in separation.
My teacher put it much more poetically. He said that you finally understand that you are nothing but a grain of sand with a huge heart.
Is there a danger that realizing we don’t exist might cause tremendous anxiety, or that it might even cause us to freak out and become psychotic?
The investigations of vipasyana can lead to very profound and groundless experiences. This is precisely why the foundation of shamatha is so important. You have to train first to bring your mind more fully into your body. You have to learn how to sit with difficult psychological material and painful emotions. You have to know yourself in a very grounded way before you can begin to explore yourself in a more groundless way. You have to experience a healthy sense of self before you can experience the freedom of non-self.
Wouldn’t it also be quite lonely? Even though we can talk all we want about our interconnectedness, it doesn’t seem to take away the loneliness.
The fruitional experience of vipasyana, a sense of interconnectedness, is not particularly a promise that someday you will feel mystical oneness with everyone all the time. The key point is what you just said: interconnectedness doesn’t take away loneliness. My own teacher made this point again and again when he talked about the warrior’s path. Somehow you experience both your separateness and your connection with others as being two sides of the same coin. They don’t contradict each other.
Definitely. There is a chasm between the words and the meaning. Vipasyana also involves a different way of seeing—with the heart rather than the eyes. It’s like the Little Prince, when the fox says to him that it’s only with the heart, not with the eyes, that we truly see things.
When I go to the parking lot later, I will get into my car as opposed to somebody else’s. Is there a non-dualistic way to choose my car? I mean, there are different cars and only one belongs to me.
No, you just choose. You know your car and you choose your car but you don’t get hung up on the fact that it’s not somebody else’s car. It’s just your car. Non-duality doesn’t mean that the individuality of things, and the precise distinctions between things, is no longer there.
I think the more potent issue under the surface here is your sense of ownership, as with “my” car. It gets sticky–this sense of owning things. Of course, it is your car, but what we’re looking at is the stickiness of that, which comes from forgetting that all of it is merely temporary.
One way to overcome that stickiness of the sense of ownership that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend is to have an automobile accident. I once had a bad one, and when I saw the car a few days later, it was just a twisted piece of metal. I didn’t have any pride of ownership anymore at all.
Is there a difference between the insights gained through vipasyana practice and the insights that come through psychedelic substances?
The second is not nearly as grounded. In the psychedelic experience there is an exaggerated sense that what you’re experiencing is a big deal. The insights come as if they are flashes of light, and you are almost blinded by the light because the insights come to you so quickly. There is a sense of “Wow, wow, yeah, yeah!” But eventually it just becomes mental speed, and addiction to what you imagine is peak experience.
It’s like the joke about cocaine: “I really love cocaine. It makes me feel like a new man. Trouble is, then the new man wants some too.” You keep trying to recreate an experience or an insight rather than patiently cultivating some kind of realization. At some point the experiences become stale and fabricated. You’re purely surviving on your memory, and you dull your wakefulness rather than deepening it.
The power of these things is that they may open your eyes to a much bigger world than you previously knew existed, which initially can be very inspiring. This has been true for many people. But at some point you have to face yourself more nakedly.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner