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Considerations on Potential Pitfalls of Samadhi / Vipassana Meditation

I just got back from a quick two day meditation at Wat Suan Dok (or an affiliated center) about 40 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. It’s a thing they do every week, and we decided to take our students there this year instead of trying to do our own like we did last year. It was fine last year, but this was a much more intensive experience that was more like a shortened version of a typical ten day silent vipassana meditation.

It was led by a young 24 year old monk who has been a monk since 12 years old – first entering the monastery in Burma and going to school there. He moved to Yangoon (Rangoon) when he was around 17 or 18 and then was involved in the Saffron Revolution, saw three of his friends die in front of him and ended up in Thailand shortly thereafter. He just graduated from university at the temple here in CM a few weeks ago. He was sweet, smart, tough, patient, kind, and unflappable. His English, his third language (Thai is is fourth), was fine. He has been tempered in the fire of vipassana meditation and it was absolutely obvious. Not the slightest hesitation in teaching people double and triple his age. I could write about him more, that’s not really what I came to talk about.

Sometime during the second day, he held a discussion. We broke silence and everyone got a chance to talk about his or her experience. For many it was their first time meditating. And for me and Michelle, many of the comments of the students were enlightening. A number of people said they had a hard time pushing away the thoughts and “emptying their mind” . Or that they did subdue their thoughts – my word subdue but that was the idea – and they had visions of blue sky. The monk, fortunately, corrected them, saying that the point isn’t to try to push the thoughts away, just to notice that they come and notice that they go.

But this fundamental misperception seems to be pretty firmly entrenched in the general culture – it’s probably the most common answer when you ask a non-meditator what meditation is. That the goal of meditation is to clear your mind, empty your mind, free it of thoughts, find peace.  However, as was evidenced yesterday, even a group of people who got instruction about vipassana still maintained this misperception. But what was really interesting was that during dinner last night, as we discussed this, I learned that a few students that I taught had this misperception as well.   And now I wonder if many of my former students have that misperception too.  Or even if they don’t have the misperception, they might still be struggling with their thoughts during their meditation sessions.

In the Vipassana tradition, we usually teach Samadhi meditation first, ie. concentration meditation, ie. concentration of the breath meditation. This, as Michelle pointed out to me at dinner, evidenced by the confusion, can be problematic. It can problematic because in teaching the watching of the breath as the primary object of attention, the goal is to always go back to the breath. In other words, thoughts are a distraction away from the breath and when we notice our thoughts we want to immediately come back to the breath. That’s fine in a certain way. But when we learn the next step, Vipassana, and we try to label and observe the thoughts as they rise, stay a moment and then pass away, we are still desiring to get back to the breath. That the thoughts are somehow lesser and that the goal is to watch the breath. So when a thought arises, we feel bad that we have left the breath, the sensation of the breath moving in and out the nostrils. We feel like we have made a mistake. Or that we are not good at this yet. Or that we need to try harder. This can have a strong contracting influence on the mind as we try to narrow our attention to just the in and out of the breath. And the irony is that the object of meditation is to relax and expand the mind. And to see things as they are. When the thought comes we see the thought coming. And when the thought is here we see the thought is here. And when the thought goes, we see that the thought goes. The problem is not the thought of course. The problem comes when we think that the thought is a distraction away from the breath. Or we judge ourselves for having thoughts or that our concentration isn’t very good right now or whatever.

And what I am starting to think is that even if I teach the importance of compassion for ourselves and not to judge ourselves for having difficult thoughts or not so difficult thoughts because after all, this is just habit and conditioning, people still will tighten around the breath. It’s just what the ego-mind does, regardless of what it’s been “told”.  I might talk about compassion and compassion and compassion for ourselves, but if they are doing Samadhi meditation, if they have been imprinted with Samadhi meditation, then they are always going to contract around the desire to get back to the in and out breath sensation.  At least that is what I am thinking now.

For me, it’s actually taken a long time to let go of the need to get back to the breath. Now, when I sit, I simply watch my awareness. Maybe my awareness is on a thought I am having. Maybe my awareness is on my breath. Maybe my awareness is on a sensation in my body. I just kind of let it float. I let my awareness float. I don’t know how else to describe it. Sometimes it’s on the breath, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s in my body, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it is on a thought or emotion, sometimes it’s not. It doesn’t matter where it is. I just follow. Observing all the way. This has been a great source of freedom for me in my meditation and it took me a long time to get here. It’s so enjoyable and so interesting. And there’s no goal. Nothing I have to “do”.

So my question right now is, does teaching / learning Samadhi practice to beginning beginners (and don’t get me wrong, I often practice Samadhi in order to strengthen my concentration) create difficulties and obstacles that need to be overcome later? Does the practice bog people down and set them up for failure? And if so, is there a way to teach / learn it that is more expansive and less contractive?

I’m sure I’m not the first to ask this question. And I’m sure many have answers at their fingertips, as there is one thing I’ve learned that as soon as there is two ways up a mountain, there are two groups of people who think they have the best way and are quite willing to toss stones dismissing the other and promoting their way. The ego can be quite wily, and spiritual discipline is no guarantee of it’s extinguishment. That’s pretty obvious, no?

Anyways, I’m not really looking for an answer to these questions so much as I’m just realizing that there is a question. I am fairly certain that I will find a legitimate way of perceiving this in my practice and then teaching can come naturally from that. That is the best way. But in the meantime, any level headed consideration of this would be interesting to hear.

  1. larry in milwaukee
    larry in milwaukee03-22-2012

    A couple of things from teachers that have been helpful to me in my meditation practice have been to think of my thoughts as clouds … they appear or float into my awareness, they exist for a moment and then they dissolve away … Some days my mind and awareness are full of clouds and sometimes there is more space between the clouds … I actually incorporated some Tibetan ribbon clouds into one of my tattoos to remind me of this … It helped me to have some visual imagery as a tool to use in dealing with my thoughts during my practice. Another tip that an early teacher shared with me was to apply about 33% of our awareness on our breath, 33% of our awareness on our posture and 33% of our awareness on our thoughts … i’m not sure what we do with that last 1% of awareness … ; ) the percentages were not really that important, just helpful to know that as we advance in our practice that we are actually sort of multi-tasking …

    • chicagoschoolofthaimassage
      chicagoschoolofthaimassage03-28-2012

      yeah – i like that. i remember reading ram dass talking about a thought that he had after many months of meditation and how it came in like a bubble – almost like a cartoon – appeared, moved closer, and then moved away and then popped and disappeared. He told his meditation teacher this later and the teacher looked at him and said, did the thought initiate on the in-breath or the out-breath? Ahhhh, the guru. Never satisfied!

      and yeah, i’m curious about that one percent. maybe that the one that dissolves all the others!

  2. Holly B
    Holly B09-24-2013

    I love this post. I definitely echo the idea, and I’m thinking deeper about it now. I wrote something a while ago about what “awareness” really means. Fumbling, but even that I just notice (if I lived up to my expectations).

    http://hollyhelps.us/2012-01-20/awareness-as-a-practice/

    In my classes, the first pain-coping practice I teach is also simple breath-awareness. I emphasize its place as a foundational tool, though. The next practice is something called Non-Focused Awareness. I’m not actually sure of the origin of it, but the point is just to observe what is without judgment or categorizing or fixing. I heard once that NFA is an ancient tool to train Samurai warriors. Ok, I’ll take that. I’m not sure what Vipassana is, either, but it sounds similar. With NFA, we begin by cycling through four “modalities” – Seeing, Hearing, Touch, Breath. This gives us a rhythm and a steering wheel to keep on the path. Eventually, they meld together to make one big intake of what’s-happening-now. When I practice it, myself, I notice my brain changing and shifting into a less linear place. The first time I did it, I felt immediately as I did when I was in labor.

    Of course, I have the extra benefit of teaching women something they will (usually) naturally experience with the hormones and brain changes of labor. Oxytocin, endorphins, Alpha-state – it all colludes to put women there naturally. But PARTNERS can use guidance, and women can benefit by getting familiar with the state of labor. They get permission to go to that crazy laborland where they are naturally detached and immediately present, and in an intuitive place.

    When I teach the pain-coping, I act it out as it often is in labor. I show my students what it can look like to practice breath-awareness in a calm, early-labor setting and then when she’s rocking and rolling and mooing and growling. Then with NFA, I verbalize what is happening in her mind when she’s spinning stories and trying remedy (say, with a drive to the hospital as an example), and what can be happening in her mind when she’s just observing (both herself and her surroundings). I think having that specific life event as a guidepost for teaching gives me an edge. At the very least, it gives me a frame of reference and personal understanding.

    So basically, Paul, you just need to birth a baby.

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