08 Insight into Impermanence, Dukkha and Non self by way of Settling the Mind in its Natural State

02 Apr 2016

Alan starts with an announcement regarding the practice on Sundays which has no schedule. There will be a shift of the day off from Sunday to Saturday, starting next week, to allow us to do some shopping in the village nearby.

Settling the mind in its natural state is taught as a practice to take the mind as the path until it dissolves into the substrate consciousness. Thanks to this profound practice, insight may arise into the nature of the mind. The practitioner may note that all phenomena are like pulses; all is fizzing, changing from moment to moment, nothing is static. When the mind dissolves into the substrate consciousness the three qualities of shamatha arise: bliss, luminosity and non conceptuality. They arise from our awareness with no external stimulus. Alan then explains the three dimensions of suffering: the “suffering of suffering”, the “suffering of change” and the existential suffering. He then explains the three marks of existence: impermanence, dukkha and non self. As we go deeper and deeper into the practice of Settling the Mind in its Natural State with discerning awareness, as emotions, aversion and anger come up, insofar as we can rest there we see that none of these nasty stuff are “mine”, they are just events arising in the space of awareness which is also not “mine”. And by being present when all these upheavals come up we allow the mind to heal itself. By remaining there with that quality of awareness, they will release themselves and you may have insight into impermanence, dukkha and non self.

The meditation is on Mindfulness of Breathing, combined with the theme of stillness and motion.

Meditation starts at 26:00

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O la so. So I’d like to begin with an announcement and that is, tomorrow will be our so-called day off. Sunday. But it’s really a day, in my anticipation or my vision, my wish, is tomorrow is a day that you just have all day to practise dharma, with no external structure, no demands on your time at all. So it’s a time really, you’ll have what, 7 or 8 of these occasions to have a solitary retreat, set up your own schedule. And after 8 times, I think you’ll really get a hang of it. You’ll know exactly how to do it. And so then when you return wherever you are going to from here, then you’ll already know, that you know exactly how to set up a one day retreat and follow a good schedule and have it very meaningful, right, because there’ll be no outside influence on it at all.

[0:55] At the same time, it is a day also to attend to tasks that may need to be done outside. For example, I have a Skype call I need to do and I put it off because I didn’t want to do it during the week. I want to be in retreat Monday through Saturday. But it is something that I need to attend to. So tomorrow morning I’m having a kind of Skype conference call. But it’s Sunday, so have then and I am finished. And then I can meditate all day.

[1:20] But also you may need to do a bit of shopping. And I did check with one of the staff here and she said that we know, there is a pharmacy, there is a market, there may be a couple of other stores, no mall. So sorry to disappoint you but there’s no mall in Pomaia. But should you need to do some shopping I was told that some of these stores maybe are closed on Sundays, so what I’d would like to do would be to shift the day off from Sunday to Saturday, starting next week. We started a little bit late this week. So Sunday is fine I think, but from now on, then the day off, a day off means no schedule, you know just wide open, free, nothing but dharma. From now, it will be Saturday. So sound good? Very good. Alright.

[2:11] So a couple of thoughts came to mind, again with regards to this very simple but actually very profound practice, or profundity arises from the practice because I am not saying that the technique is something really brilliant about it.

But the parallel again just kind of keeps on coming deeper and deeper to my mind. The parallel between settling the mind in its natural state and this mode of mindfulness of breathing - the Asanga’s approach. So to just come back briefly to this settling the mind in its natural state, it’s very clearly taught as a shamatha method within the Mahamudra-Dzogchen traditions, it’s very clear. And they will tell you exactly how you pass through. For example, four types of mindfulness, mind dissolves into the substrate consciouness and then you’ve achieved shamatha. It is very straightforward and that’s the purpose. You are taking the mind as the path, until the mind dissolves into subtle mind. Or in the Gelugpa tradition called the subtle continuum of mental consciousness.

[3:12] So there it is, but at the same time, many of you have some background, some of you a lot of background in vipashyana, and if you speak with many, and not, perhaps not all, but many, many vipashyana teachers, east and west, and describe this practice of simply being present with whatever arises in the space of the mind, single-pointedly focusing on that domain, but whatever comes up, simply attending to it, vividly, discerningly but non-reactively, non-judgmentally, without any identification, many would say, well, but that’s vipashyana. Or that’s a type of vipashyana. Technically it’s not. Technically. This is true of Theravada as well as much, Mahayana.

[03:54 ] I’m speaking now as a scholar, I actually know something. The distinction between shamatha and vipashyana is that shamatha is simply a placing of the awareness and vipashyana by definition entails some degree of enquiry. If it doesn’t, if it’s just bare attention, that’s not vipashyana. A lot of people teach that it is but they’re wrong. Or, ok, it’s pre-schooled vipashyana but it’s actually not vipashyana yet. And the simple reason for it and that is this bare attention, that’s common ground to shamatha and vipashyana. You need exactly that same quality of bare attention in shamatha, but then shamatha is not vipashyana, everyone knows that. If you know the words at all. So therefore bare attention is not simply being present non-judgmentally, open, it’s not vipashyana, never has been. So as they say, if you call the tail of a dog a leg, if you call the tail of a dog a leg, how many legs does a dog have?

[5:04] [laughter]

How many?

[student answers] 5.

[5:10] Boy, is she wrong, but it’s nice to be so clearly and eloquently, flamboyantly and black and white, unequivocably wrong.

Just calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg. [laughter] Thank you, Elizabeth, she was my prop by the way. But that’s the point. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg. A dog has four legs. Call the tail anything you like, it’s still a tail, because we agree on what the word, tail, means, right? It’s not up for grabs. Like suddenly a tail is a leg, no it’s not. Because there is a consensual agreement about what tail means. And likewise there is consensual agreement among all knowledgeable Buddhists about what vipashyana is. And calling bare attention vipashyana doesn’t make it vipashyana.

[5:55] I’m a Buddhist. I like granola. That doesn’t make granola a Buddhist food. [laughter]. Having said that, you see, I am a little bit hard-line, a bit tough, tough Buddhist, you know; on the other hand, now just let’s just kind of you know, chill, relax, Alan, you know, get off your high horse. And if you practise this settling the mind in its natural state, might insights arise into the nature of mind? Of course. We’ve known that for a very long time. Might insights arise? Sure. If you’re attending to the events arising in the space of the mind, the thoughts, images, desires and so forth, and you’re doing so discerningly, then you might just note that none of them last, you might note that none of them really endure, immutably over time. That they are all staccato, they are all like strobe, momentarily, pulses, pulses, pulses. If you attend very closely with a high degree of vividness, you remember qualitative vividness, high resolution, HD, HD attention, then you may see that this is all fizzing, the whole mind is fizzing . There’s just nothing there that is static, well, welcome to annica, impermanence.

[7:32] The next one’s interesting, and that is, start going to this practice, and over time, you can’t predict it, some people, it’s like the first week, they start having bliss arise. They are stinkers. [laughter] Can’t stand such people. But some people, bliss arises very quickly, you know. And other people, they wait years before bliss comes up. It is just constitution, karma, complex variables that are beyond the threshold of what we can obviously see or evidently see.

[08:01] But bliss arises, and sooner or later, if one perseveres in the practice, one proceeds along the nine stages, you will get spikes of bliss, mental bliss will be arising, and then it will subside, it will spike, arise, spike and longer and subside. And then you achieve shamatha, OK. That was the end of the story. You achieve shamatha and then mental bliss arises. And then it hits kind of a cruising altitude. It spikes, it surges on the day that you achieve shamatha.

[8:34] But the image, a very strong one that comes to mind is like boiling milk, remember how it just spills all over the place but then you turn it down and it just simmers. It’s very much like that in terms of imagery. And that is, when you’ve, on the day you achieve shamatha, you have just kind of like surge of mental bliss, physical bliss, but happily they subside, because if they didn’t ... [laughter]. Well, you’d just spend the rest of your life going like [gestures, makes sound] [laughter]. Nice but not very useful. You couldn’t practice vipashyana and compassion; are other people suffering I’m not quite sure you know, I doubt it, because my world is 100 percent bliss. Basically you’ve gotten onto a hooked on a narcotic that is not doing you well at all. But happily that’s not how what turns out to be the case. It subsides, it goes to a simmer and the simmer is very workable. Otherwise, with shamatha we’d have to be like a great big sandpit you know, beware, do not enter, there’d be signs all around it you know: danger, danger.

[9:41] So bliss arises in the mind when you achieve shamatha, and you’ll have spikes, some people earlier, some people later. But sooner or later, it comes up. Because these are the three qualities that are manifesting when you achieve shamatha, when your mind dissolves into this, I’m going to call it by the three names: the Bhavanga, ground of being, Theravada; substrate consciousness, not Chittamatra but Dzogchen; and completely compatible, Prasangika-Madhamikya or subtle continuum of mental consciousness; all three are synonymous. But when you achieve shamatha and you slip into that dimension of consciousness, three qualities, bliss, luminosity and non-conceptuality arise, and it’s going to be, and this is where there do need to be warning signs because it is very easy, since these are arising independent of any stimulus, you are not seeing something pleasant, you know you’re not, yeah, it’s just arising from your awareness, and I would say, symptomatic of a mind that is settled in a profound state of equilibrium. It’s healthy, it’s sublimely healthy. And so the symptoms are coming up. Well, it’s going to be very easy, extremely easy to grasp on to these as genuine happiness, true source of happiness, absolute happiness and then just to cling to it for dear life and never want to come out. That’s the biggest temptation, enormous temptation, it’s famous for centuries. People get to shamatha and then they suddenly become absolutely happy, happy campers. They just don’t want to move. 'Cos when they come out they see this world and they say that was easy, bye, and they just go right back in it again. They come out for a bit, they pee and they go right back in again, they don’t want to do anything else. Because this world just sucks compared to what they’ve had there. And all the pleasures of this world would just pale in comparison. It’s just nothing, any ... all of the hedonic ... it just has no taste, like offering a straw to a tiger. No attraction.

[11:52] So it is very easy to think this is real sukha. Because every time you go in, unlike any of the hedonic pleasures we experience, you can think about them, that if you just have had to experience them on and on and on, after a while they become less pleasurable. And if they just force-fed you that same pleasure, chocolate, you name it, whatever you really like, just imagine somebody force-feeding you that, hour after hour, after a while you’d just be crying, please, please stop, no more chocolate, no more anything. That is - that is stimulus driven. Because after a while, you just see, this is no longer fun. This is turning into torture.

Whereas unlike that, the bliss, luminosity and non-conceptuality of shamatha does not stale. It has a very long shelf-life. It lasts for as long as you can meditate and go into shamatha. So it looks like the real deal. It looks like - well this is what I have always been wanting, so why should I budge? You become little micro-Hinayana practitioners, you haven’t even achieved nirvana but you are already bailing out. And so it takes wisdom, it takes wisdom because we are now dealing with a second dimension of suffering, Glen can tell you, give you a very long discourse on this one, I am sure. And a number, perhaps a number of other people here as well.

[13:14] But there is manifest suffering, there is the suffering of change and then there is this existential suffering. Three dimensions. And the lower two, that is, the deeper two, the suffering of change and existential suffering don’t feel bad at all. When you look at it, they say hey, what’s the problem? This is not suffering, this is kind of nice, you know. But we are looking at the second dimension, the suffering of change, and that is, this is really genuine. This is genuine, this is genuine, this is not stimulus-driven pleasure, it is coming from a deeper source, but then you can ask: have I tapped into the ground, is this by nature, is it blissful, is it satisfying? And, well, tell me whether this is satisfying.

[13:50] Imagine you have an automobile and you look at the four tires—somebody has come out and put a spike in each of the valves of your tyres and you simply go to your car and all four tyres have gone flat, flat as a pancake and you say oh, and sigh, and then you pump. You pump up each tire and you get them all pumped up. And so the car can go, makes you happy, eh? Because you couldn’t go, it a was dysfunctional car, and now it is a functional car, makes you happy right? Relatively, hoo-hoo, my car works, except you note that not only did they stick a pin in the valve but they also stuck a spike through the tire itself and it’s got a slow leak. All four of them have a slow leak. If you recognise that, how happy are you now? That you can set out on the road, and you can get out on the road, but it’s only a matter of time before you are going to be on four flat tires again. And nothing will have changed. So if you see that, how happy are you, that your tires are now fully inflated, do you go ”whee-hee" like that or it’s like, good but … same old, same old. That was Gautama after he achieved samadhi, after he left home and achieved samadhi, very deep samadhi, hee-hee, samadhi, hoo-hoo, it’s got a leak, they’re going to taper off, they do not last. And you’re going to be right back where you were. That’s dukkha.

[15:28] So …but that takes insight, that takes some depth, to see that that which is so pleasurable, so satisfying, so fulfilling, so, oh boy did I always want this, and to have enough insight into it, to see that yeah, this too is dukkha, unsatisfying, right?. And then we have the third one, and that is, as you’re observing, and this is tough but this goes right to the core, this really goes core, this is where you’re really definitely flirting with the border between shamatha and vipashyana on a deep level.

And that these events are arising, well thoughts just come up, and images just come up, and memories just come up; false memories, valid memories. And also the subjective impulses, desires, emotions and so forth. And they just come up and insofar as you’re really resting there, in that stillness of awareness, not identifying with, not taking possession of, by simply being present with, and this is not dissociation, it’s right in-between dissociation and identification with, it’s that middle way. The dissociation, recoil, withdrawal, probably fear and anxiety, aversion and so forth, that’s dissociation, not that. And then the same old, same old is identifying with, it’s completely identifying with, I am thinking, I want, I feel and so forth. This is right in the middle, it’s the middle way.

[16:54] And insofar as you can rest there, relax, loose, free of grasping, then you see something, kind of obvious, none of these are mine, these are just happening, they are just happening, just like when I see the images of the leaves moving back and forth in the wind, they’re not my leaves. I see birds, they’re not my birds. I hear sounds, they’re not my sounds. And smells are not my smells, and so forth. They’re just events arising in the space of my awareness and my awareness doesn’t really have a ‘MY’ on it, it’s just awareness that I experience. So even awareness does not have my DNA in it, my seal, my ownership, it’s just awareness that I am experiencing, and then you see - well this is the same. None of these have any owner. They’re just arising. They’re arising and then they dissolve. And they arise without my doing it and they dissolve without my doing that either.

And so there we are—the three marks of existence: impermanence, dukkha and non-self.

[18:04] And now we apply this to the body. Of bringing the same quality of awareness, we’re simply attending to a different field of experience. This is the somatic field, single-pointedly focusing on it, as we single-pointedly focus on the mental field and settling the mind in its natural state. And then as we are doing this practice, which we are about to begin, and then I will need to speak very little during this session, then as we do so with discerning awareness, it’s not judgemental, but it is discerning, that’s a crucial point. As we are attending to this somatic field and these fluctuations within the field, corresponding with the in-and-out breath, where you can see that all of the sensations in the field, including the specific bandwidth corresponding to respiration. It’s kind of obvious, when you look closely, they are all in a state of flux. There’s just nothing there that’s abiding. And then some people, you know, early, some people late, then everybody when you achieve shamatha, you experience physical bliss, teeth chattering, rapture, ecstasy, overwhelming and then it subsides. But again, a kind of a simmering sense of physical well being, and that occurs even in between sessions, and certainly, well it’s in the background. If you’re simply settling in the substrate, then you are not aware of the body, but you come out and the body that you are coming out to, energetically on that level, it’s very well. But for the surges of physical bliss, that can spike up along the path of shamatha, and of course other practices, it’s the same thing now. And then when you experience physical bliss upon the achievement of shamatha, it’s the same thing. Yes, it’s not stimulus-driven, it’s not stimulus-driven, it’s not hedonic, it’s eudaimonic in the sense of it’s coming from a body-mind system that is settled in a very fine-tuned equilibrium and this is the symptom of it - the body feels light, buoyant and a sense of well being that permeates the body. But it’s the same thing then, and that is, you’re riding on four tires here and each one of them has a hole in it. And this too will not last, the body won’t last, so how can the bliss of the body last, and so therefore, dukkha.

[21:06] But then the final point, and this is the crucial one and actually the most important for this practice we are about to begin, after which there will be very little commentary while we do it. And that is, as we are seeking to relax more and more deeply, with every out-breath and here’s a crucial point, this is [Tibetan word for -], this is pith instructions, really be quiet mentally, just don’t miss an opportunity, we have a finite number of breaths in this lifetime, don’t waste these ones. They are quite precious. When you come to the very end of the breath, each breath - noble silence. Really, do not talk your way through there, do not chatter through, do not have mind wandering then. Because that’s the occasion, coming to the end, and coming to the end with such looseness, such surrender, really it’s as if you’re willing to die. Not that you want to die, there is no death-wish here, but such release, as if you’re giving, as if you’ve had a long and fulfilling life, you’ve used up your body, you have accomplished everything you wanted to accomplish, and you’re ready to go, and you breathe out your last [Alan takes a long breath] and you are quite content that’s the last one. Because you’ve finished with what you wanted to do. That kind of surrender, that kind of release, that type of fearlessness, that’s what you want at the end of each out-breath. Again it is not pushing out, but it is also not holding anything in reserve. It’s like having a glass of water, I am not going to do it of course, having a glass of water, let it turn over on the side and all the water spills out. You don’t have to push it, it will all flow out and the cup will be empty, right. So let it all spill out, let all of your air flow out.

[23:05] But that will happen if and only if your mind is really quiet, because if it is not, you’ll chatter right through it and you’ll pull it in the next one. Your breath will not settle in its natural state. It takes that deep sense of ease. That looseness. That letting go with every out-breath. And as in the practice of settling the mind, the knots of the mind, the tightness, the constrictions, the resentments, the judgements, the clinging, the anxiety, those knots that tie up the mind, in that practice, they loosen and they loosen and they loosen, and when they loosen, sometimes the experience of that is very unpleasant, very unpleasant. Because when it’s loosened, then it becomes [makes sound] fear, [makes sound] anger, [makes sound] lust, [makes sound] low self-esteem, etc. Or just misery or depression, grief [makes sound]. Still all along, this practice is not making you miserable, it feels like it, but it’s not. If the misery weren’t there it wouldn’t come out. . There is nothing miserable making about just watching your mind, I mean it’s neutral.

[24:22] So it’s powerful, difficult, it’s challenging to be so present with the mind when it is going through its upheavals. But if you can observe them without the identification with, without the reification, that’s worth every bit of pain you go through, because it’s liberating, it’s liberating. Same thing with the body. As long as we are embodied, the body and mind are entangled. Where there are knots in the mind, you can bet there will be knots in the body on this energetic level, prana level, the whole nervous system level. As so when you’re going deeper and deeper into this practice, then you will, as you are releasing, releasing, then the knots in the body will start to release, and the symptoms of that can be very unpleasant, very painful. Actually excruciating on occasions. You can be lying there totally mellowing out with no injury to your body at all and no medical condition whatsoever, and your whole body can just feel like a mass of pain. It’s quite interesting.

[25:35] And yet run after the doctor, you’ll get a diagnosis, the doctor says I don’t see anything wrong, go home. It’s what’s coming up. It’s an opportunity to just be with that, and not own it, not identify with it, be so loose, so relaxed, so at ease, so free of grasping, that it’s just like seeing a big dark thundercloud come up over the horizon and then just dissipate away. A big dark thundercloud of pain, of tightness, of clenching of gripping, of whatever can be in the body, it can be all types of pain and discomfort and weird experiences rising up. And if you can remain there with that quality of awareness, then they do release themselves. And in the process you may get a lot of insight. They can be liberating and be useful, in-between sessions as well.

[26:36] So, here, settling the body in its natural state, insight into impermanence, insight into dukkha, insight into non-self could come up. So people want to call it vipashyana. I am not going to arm-wrestle them about it. If it leads to insight, it does, ok. So please find a comfortable position.

Bell rings. [27:46]

[28:09] In our sequence of meditations in the afternoon, today is the day we’ll come to the third of the four immeasurables, empathetic joy. So let that be the keynote for entering into this practice, taking delight in this opportunity for those of us here in Tuscany in this wonderful environment, these wonderful lodgings, the healthy food, good companions, the good dharma, so rare and so precious, so full of potential. With a sense of rejoicing in our own opportunity and for those listening by podcast, you are not here, you are where you are, but you too, if you are listening you’re practising, you too have this rare and precious opportunity, the leisure and the opportunity to practise dharma, to set out on a path that truly leads to the fulfilment you’ve always been seeking. Now is the time, savour it, take delight in it. Never take it for granted. And with this sense of appreciation, settle your body, speech and mind in the natural state as you’ve done before.

[31:00] Then let the light of your awareness illuminate the whole space of the body, focusing in particular on the sensations correlated with the respiration. And I will simply emphasise again - with every out-breath, at the very beginning of each out-breath, relax deeply in the body, continue to release, to surrender your muscles to gravity, to soften with every out-breath.

[31:51] Release the breath, releasing all grasping to the breath, all possession of the breath, identification with the breath, release it all the way to the end, with a quiet mind, utterly present and silent.

[32:26] And in the midst of the movements of the sensation of the breath, let your awareness be still and silent. Whatever thoughts, images, memories arise, let them pass right on through, note them only to the degree, only to the degree that you don’t identify with them or allow yourself to be carried away by them. And remain single-pointedly focused, with the full force of your mindfulness, on the sensations throughout the body corresponding to the in-and-out-breath, and let’s continue practising now in silence. [33:18]

[50:10] O la so. Enjoy your day. Continue releasing the breath, letting it settle in its natural rhythm as much as possible throughout the whole course of the day. It will do you good. Enjoy your day.

[ends] [50:28]

Transcribed by Shirley Soh.

Revised by Cheri Langston

Final edition by Rafael Carlos Giusti


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