Three types of laziness

I don’t know about you, but I believe I am an Olympic medal contender in all three of these flavors of laziness described by the Dalai Lama. ~ Doug

“Laziness will stop your progress in your spiritual practice. Once can be deceieved by three types of laziness: the laziness of indolence, which is the wish to procrastinate; the laziness of inferiority, which is doubting your capabilities; and the laziness that is attached to negative actions, or putting great effort into nonvirtue.”

~ H.H. the Dalai Lama

Re-focusing the Meditation Circle of Charleston

Hello all. The Meditation Circle of Charleston is in transition and we welcome your feedback and attendance in the coming weeks. For a long while, the group has tried to be many things, open to all sorts of discussions and directions. But the result has been that it has not been any one thing, and has not had much focus.

To that end, we’re in the process of refocusing the group. Although there is no requirement of those who come that they be self-identified as Buddhists (Doug’s usual quip is that it runs a bit contrary to the Buddha’s teachings to cling too strongly to the label ‘Buddhist’), going forward we’ll be much more specifically a Buddhist meditation group.

We’ll be introducing Noble Silence as a practice upon entering the main hall of the Unitarian building where we hold meetings, we’ll be learning to sit a little longer (from 30 to 45 minutes), we’ll be introducing Buddhist pujas and chanting now and again — plus the Buddha himself will be in attendance in the form of a small statue in the room.

As we re-introduce listening to recordings by Buddhist teachers into the group (something we used to do), we’ll pick ones that deepen an understanding of how to meditate in the insight or vipassana tradition and how meditation fits into the teachings of the Buddha. We’ll focus more deeply on the Noble Eightfold Path, and impermanence, no-self and dukkha (or unsatisfactoriness, to use the least limiting definition of this complex word) which lie at the very heart of spiritual practice in the Buddhist tradition.

None of us facilitating these meetings are teachers, so the group will remain a kind of support group for people serious about a lifelong practice of Buddhist meditation and who seek an area sangha. We hope to renew the practice of bringing Buddhist teachers to town. In order to do this, and also to contribute regular donations to the Unitarians for their generous hosting of our meetings, we will be encouraging people to donate $1 per meeting or $5 per month, if possible. (If you’re going through rough fiscal times, don’t worry about this.)

We welcome you to our Tuesday meetings in the next couple weeks for your ideas on this transformation, as well as how to structure meetings so beginners may have some instruction without starting each week’s meditation sitting from scratch. We are also contemplating moving the meeting to Monday nights and would like to know your thoughts on such a move. Please join us!

With metta,
Douglas Imbrogno
Thad Settle

New directions for the Meditation Circle

Please come to the next few gatherings of the Meditation Circle and join in a discussion of some new developments and new directions for the group for those of you interested in meditation and in Buddhism. Given the constant but irregular flow of people of many traditions or no traditions to our Tuesday sessions, we’d like your input on the direction you would like to see the Tuesday sessions go. We will also be announcing some new opportunities for those interested in more deeply exploring how a lifelong practice of meditation fits into the Buddha’s teachings.

What Meditation Isn’t

At its Tuesday, Jan. 12 meeting, the meditation group  continues its discussion of excerpts from Bhante Gunaratana’s classic guide to meditation practice, “Mindfulness in Plain English.” As we consider the basics of insight or vipassana meditation in the Buddhist tradition, Bhante G discusses what meditation in this tradition does NOT encompass.

What Meditation Isn’t
Excerpt from “Mindfulness in Plain English,” Chapter 2

Meditation is a word. You have heard this word before, or you would never have picked up this book. The thinking process operates by association, and all sorts of ideas are associated with the word ‘meditation’. Some of them are probably accurate and others are hogwash. Some of them pertain more properly to other systems of meditation and have nothing to do with Vipassana practice. Before we proceed, it behooves us to blast some of the residue out of our own neuronal circuits so that new information can pass unimpeded. Let us start with some of the most obvious stuff.

Unless your life is immoral and chaotic, you can probably get started right away and make some sort of progress. Sounds fairly encouraging, wouldn’t you say?

We are not going to teach you to contemplate your navel or to chant secret syllables. You are not conquering demons or harnessing invisible energies. There are no colored belts given for your performance and you don’t have to shave your head or wear a turban. You don’t even have to give away all your belongings and move to a monastery. In fact, unless your life is immoral and chaotic, you can probably get started right away and make some sort of progress. Sounds fairly encouraging, wouldn’t you say?

There are many, many books on the subject of meditation. Most of them are written from the point of view which lies squarely within one particular religious or philosophical tradition, and many of the authors have not bothered to point this out. They make statements about meditation which sound like general laws, but are actually highly specific procedures exclusive to that particular system of practice. The result is something of a muddle. Worse yet is the panoply of complex theories and interpretations available, all of them at odds with one another. The result is a real mess and an enormous jumble of conflicting opinions accompanied by a mass of extraneous data.

This book is specific. We are dealing exclusively with the Vipassana system of meditation. We are going to teach you to watch the functioning of your own mind in a calm and detached manner so you can gain insight into your own behavior. The goal is awareness, an awareness so intense, concentrated and finely tuned that you will be able to pierce the inner workings of reality itself.

There are a number of common misconceptions about meditation. We see them crop up again and again from new students, the same questions over and over. It is best to deal with these things at once, because they are the sort of preconceptions which can block your progress right from the outset. We are going to take these misconceptions one at a time and explode them.

MISCONCEPTION No. 1:
Meditation is just a relaxation technique

The bugaboo here is the word ‘just’. Relaxation is a key component of meditation, but Vipassana-style meditation aims at a much loftier goal. Nevertheless, the statement is essentially true for many other systems of meditation. All meditation procedures stress concentration of the mind, bringing the mind to rest on one item or one area of thought. Do it strongly and thoroughly enough, and you achieve a deep and blissful relaxation which is called Jhana. It is a state of such supreme tranquility that it amounts to rapture. It is a form of pleasure which lies above and beyond anything that can be experienced in the normal state of consciousness. Most systems stop right there. That is the goal, and when you attain that, you simply repeat the experience for the rest of your life.

Not so with Vipassana meditation. Vipassana seeks another goal–awareness. Concentration and relaxation are considered necessary concomitants to awareness. They are required precursors, handy tools, and beneficial byproducts. But they are not the goal. The goal is insight. Vipassana meditation is a profound religious practice aimed at nothing less that the purification and transformation of your everyday life. We will deal more thoroughly with the differences between concentration and insight in Chapter 14.

Misconception No. 2:
Meditation means going into a trance

Here again the statement could be applied accurately to certain systems of meditation, but not to Vipassana. Insight meditation is not a form of hypnosis. You are not trying to black out your mind so as to become unconscious. You are not trying to turn yourself into an emotionless vegetable. If anything, the reverse is true. You will become more and more attuned to your own emotional changes. You will learn to know yourself with ever- greater clarity and precision.

In learning this technique, certain states do occur which may appear trance-like to the observer. But they are really quite the opposite. In hypnotic trance, the subject is susceptible to control by another party, whereas in deep concentration the meditator remains very much under his own control. The similarity is superficial, and in any case the occurrence of these phenomena is not the point of Vipassana. As we have said, the deep concentration of Jhana is a tool or stepping stone on the route of heightened awareness. Vipassana by definition is the cultivation of mindfulness or awareness. If you find that you are becoming unconscious in meditation, then you aren’t meditating, according to the definition of the word as used in the Vipassana system. It is that simple.

Misconception No. 3:
Meditation is a mysterious practice which cannot be understood

Here again, this is almost true, but not quite. Meditation deals with levels of consciousness which lie deeper than symbolic thought. Therefore, some of the data about meditation just won’t fit into words. That does not mean, however, that it cannot be understood. There are deeper ways to understand things than words. You understand how to walk. You probably can’t describe the exact order in which your nerve fibers and your muscles contract during that process. But you can do it. Meditation needs to be understood that same way, by doing it. It is not something that you can learn in abstract terms. It is to be experienced. Meditation is not some mindless formula which gives automatic and predictable results. You can never really predict exactly what will come up in any particular session. It is an investigation and experiment and an adventure every time. In fact, this is so true that when you do reach a feeling of predictability and sameness in your practice, you use that as an indicator. It means that you have gotten off the track somewhere and you are headed for stagnation. Learning to look at each second as if it were the first and only second in the universe is most essential in Vipassana meditation.

Misconception No. 4
The purpose of meditation is to become a psychic superman

No, the purpose of meditation is to develop awareness. Learning to read minds is not the point. Levitation is not the goal. The goal is liberation. There is a link between psychic phenomena and meditation, but the relationship is somewhat complex. During early stages of the meditator’s career, such phenomena may or may not arise. Some people may experience some intuitive understanding or memories from past lives; others do not. In any case, these are not regarded as well-developed and reliable psychic abilities. Nor should they be given undue importance. Such phenomena are in fact fairly dangerous to new meditators in that they are too seductive. They can be an ego trap which can lure you right off the track. Your best advice is not to place any emphasis on these phenomena. If they come up, that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s fine, too. It’s unlikely that they will. There is a point in the meditator’s career where he may practice special exercises to develop psychic powers. But this occurs way down the line. After he has gained a very deep stage of Jhana, the meditator will be far enough advanced to work with such powers without the danger of their running out of control or taking over his life. He will then develop them strictly for the purpose of service to others. This state of affairs only occurs after decades of practice. Don’t worry about it. Just concentrate on developing more and more awareness. If voices and visions pop up, just notice them and let them go. Don’t get involved.

Misconception No. 5
Meditation is dangerous and a prudent person should avoid it

Everything is dangerous. Walk across the street and you may get hit by a bus. Take a shower and you could break your neck. Meditate and you will probably dredge up various nasty matters from your past. The suppressed material that has been buried there for quite some time can be scary. It is also highly profitable. No activity is entirely without risk, but that does not mean that we should wrap ourselves in some protective cocoon. That is not living. That is premature death. The way to deal with danger is to know approximately how much of it there is, where it is likely to be found and how to deal with it when it arises. That is the purpose of this manual.

Vipassana is development of awareness. That in itself is not dangerous, but just the opposite. Increased awareness is the safeguard against danger. Properly done, meditation is a very gently and gradual process. Take it slow and easy, and development of your practice will occur very naturally. Nothing should be forced. Later, when you are under the close scrutiny and protective wisdom of a competent teacher, you can accelerate your rate of growth by taking a period of intensive meditation. In the beginning, though, easy does it. Work gently and everything will be fine.

Read ahead for Bhante G’s six additional thoughts on misconceptions about insight meditation. The group will consider the second part of the chapter at its Jan. 19 meeting. | READ ON

Starting off the new year year mindfully


Photo from The Wheel of Dharma blog

Welcome to 2010. During the course of this year, The Meditation Circle will be getting back to the basics of meditation practice in the Buddhist insight or vipassana tradition. We have begun reading excerpts from Bhante Gunaratana’s classic guide to meditation practice, “Mindfulness in Plain English” and will also be introducing some tapes by Ajahn Sumato at future gatherings of the circle. But for the first meeting of each month, circle member Robin Wilson suggested we also encourage an ongoing discussion about putting into practice in our daily lives compassion and understanding gleaned from spiritual practice. Robin offers the following as the seed for this Tuesday’s discussion:

“We agreed to focus our discussion on the first Tuesday of the month on ways of implementing the oneness we feel.  This is not a call to any particular kind of action but more an effort to encourage each other to act as each feels drawn to respond to suffering. For starters, next Tuesday I would encourage you to think about the three biggest manifestations of suffering you see and three general areas your are drawn to alleviate suffering.  We might start by painting the picture of suffering and what actions might fit for each of us — it seems a good place to start before trying to figure out the specifics of how to respond.”

We also encourage circle members to continue their reading of the first chapter of “Mindfulness in Plain English.” We wish for you a mindful and rich new year ahead.

“After realizing the intent of Zen . . . “

“After realizing the intent of Zen, people in ancient times used to spend decades polishing themselves thoroughly in order to free themselves from compulsions of conditioning and habit. This is called the work of maturation; the completion of maturation is called the attainment of unification.”

~ Muso Kokushi (1275-1351) ~ from the DailyZen for Jan. 1, 2010

“A tremendous reserve of patience…”


Image above from a Cafe Press page of likely unauthorized but entertaining ‘Dalai Lama Gear’

“The person who has a tremendous reserve of patience and tolerance has a certain degree of tranquility and calmness in his or her life. Such a person is not only happy and more emotionally grounded, but also seems to be physically healthier and to experience less illness. This person possesses a strong will, has good appetite and can sleep with a clear conscience.”

~ H.H. The Dalai Lama

The moment before thought is already wrong . . .

On that side, beyond the clouds,
The mountain is blue-green as jade
The white clouds on the mountain
Are whiter than white
From the spring on the mountain,
Drop after drop
Who knows how to see the face
In the white clouds?
Clear skies and rain have their times,
They’re like lightening
Who knows how to listen to the
Sound of this spring?
It flows on without stopping
Through thousands
And thousands of turns
The moment before thought
Is already wrong
To try to say anything further
Is embarrassing.

– T’aego (1301-13

(from today’s quote at the wonderful DailyZen.com)

“See for yourself…”| Reading excerpt for Dec. 22 meeting

HERE IS THE READING EXCERPT for the Dec. 22 meeting of the Meditation Circle of Charleston, from Chapter 1 of “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Gunaratana, which can be read in its entirety for free online or for purchase through Wisdom or Amazon. See this post for more on the Circle’s ongoing discussion in 2010 on the basics of a meditation practice in the Buddhist style of insight or vipassana meditation.

Excerpt from Chapter 1, “Meditation: Why Bother?” from “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (Wisdom Publications)

We are just beginning to realize that we have overdeveloped the material aspect of existence at the expense of the deeper emotional and spiritual aspect, and we are paying the price for that error. It is one thing to talk about degeneration of moral and spiritual fiber in America today, and another thing to do something about it. The place to start is within ourselves. Look carefully inside, truly and objectively, and each of us will see moments when “I am the punk” and “I am the crazy”. We will learn to see those moments, see them clearly, cleanly and without condemnation, and we will be on our way up and out of being so.

You can’t make radical changes in the pattern of your life until you begin to see yourself exactly as you are now. As soon as you do that, changes flow naturally. You don’t have to force or struggle or obey rules dictated to you by some authority. You just change. It is automatic. But arriving at the initial insight is quite a task. You’ve got to see who you are and how you are, without illusion, judgement or resistance of any kind. You’ve got to see your own place in society and your function as a social being. You’ve got to see your duties and obligations to your fellow human beings, and above all, your responsibility to yourself as an individual living with other individuals. And you’ve got to see all of that clearly and as a unit, a single gestalt of interrelationship. It sounds complex, but it often occurs in a single instant. Mental culture through meditation is without rival in helping you achieve this sort of understanding and serene happiness.

The Dhammapada is an ancient Buddhist text which anticipated Freud by thousands of years. It says: “What you are now is the result of what you were. What you will be tomorrow will be the result of what you are now. The consequences of an evil mind will follow you like the cart follows the ox that pulls it. The consequences of a purified mind will follow you like you own shadow. No one can do more for you than your own purified mind– no parent, no relative, no friend, no one. A well-disciplined mind brings happiness”. Continue reading “See for yourself…”| Reading excerpt for Dec. 22 meeting

A meditation group in the Buddhist insight tradition, based in Charleston, W.Va.