Buddhist insight meditation practice is the study of suffering. It is the study of exactly how suffering happens, in a very up-close and personal way, so we can come to see the conditions that support its arising and therefore discover how it ceases. The understanding and conquering of suffering is really the loftiest goal there is. To learn how to pass through this life, in an engaged and compassionate way, and then pass out of it, without mental suffering, is more important than any other discovery one could ever possibly make. When we are practicing insight meditation, it is important to remember that this is our goal – the understanding, and eventual conquering of suffering.
So mindfulness, or insight meditation, is not a retreat from suffering, but a meeting of it. If you try to run from suffering, you will be running your entire life. To be free, we need to face suffering, understand it, and bring it to an end. Of course, there are degrees of suffering. It has a range, from a mild sense of unease, to complete misery. The good news for us is that the process that underlies suffering is the same regardless of intensity. There is no need to try to learn by grappling with the more difficult instances of suffering in our daily lives. We can begin by just paying attention to the small stuff that comes up when we are meditating. What we learn on the cushion can then be transferred to the more serious problems we have, since the mechanism is the same.
If you pay attention, you will see that, when you are sitting on your meditation chair or cushion, suffering comes to visit you, even though you might not recognize it as such. People may not think of the things that come up in meditation practice as suffering, because the problems we have in our daily lives are much bigger, but the small stuff is suffering also, and it is easier to study. In meditation practice, suffering might be triggered by discomfort in the body. Or, maybe something external is bothering us. Perhaps someone is coughing, or breathing heavy, or they’re cutting the grass outside, or someone is sitting where we like to sit. It can also be something internal like a thought or memory that keeps popping into our heads, or maybe we’re wishing we weren’t so tired or distracted. If it’s not one thing, it’s something else. We need to be alert for when this happens, because it is how we learn and grow in our practice. We need to study the process that turns a sound out there into mental suffering in here.
If you look closely, you can observe how this process unfolds. First something comes in through one of the sense doors (the mind is a sense door too), and it has a feeling tone. It is experienced as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. In the case of noise in the meditation hall, it is unpleasant. There is an expectation that the room should be quiet and peaceful, and instead there is this sound. Based on the unpleasantness of this, craving and clinging develops – wanting the sound to stop. And based on that clinging, there is the development of concocting thought: “That sound is so disturbing. It would be so peaceful in here without that noise. How can people be so inconsiderate and oblivious? We need to do something about this.” The clinging, and the concocting thought strengthen, reinforce and sustain each other. So we now have these three factors: feeling tone, clinging, and elaborative thought coming together and reinforcing each other. They are like the three legs of a stool. Then suffering comes along and says, “wow, you’ve made such a nice stool for me,” and it plops right down on top of you. And, it can stay there a long time when it has such a nice stable place to sit. To get rid of suffering, we need to take apart the stool that is supporting and stabilizing it.
Of these three legs – feeling tone, clinging, and elaborative thought – this last leg, conceptual thought, is the most effective place to start. It is easier than starting with clinging. This is because elaborative thought obscures our vision of the present moment making it difficult to directly perceive the clinging in the here and now. The first leg, feeling tone, just is what it is, and there isn’t anything we can do about it. The need to begin with thought was an important realization that Luangpor Teean had, and I believe it is what sets his teaching apart from other insight lineages. Luangpor Teean laid out a very clear path that begins with learning how to properly deal with thought as a necessary first step in the conquering of suffering. In this regard, not all thought is problematic, just the proliferating thought that is conditioned by clinging (which is what most of our mental chatter is). To return to our simile of the stool, we need to remove this leg of the stool first. But, we have to be clear about how we go about it. We can’t just tear that leg off. If we try to make the thought stop or go away, we are actually adding more clinging to the picture by wanting the thinking to stop. Instead, just bring awareness back to the body, to bring oneself out from within the story of the thought, while doing one’s best to see the thought when it naturally drops away. In this first phase of our practice, we are working toward the ability to “see” thought as we would any other object that enters within the field of awareness.
Begin by just being aware of how the mind tries to build this stool of suffering moment after moment. And the mind is constantly doing it. Things are continuously impinging on our awareness, they are pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, clinging or aversion happens based on the feeling tone, and concocting thought springs up based on that. Don’t worry about trying to see the feeling tone or clinging initially. For now, pay attention to the arising of thought. Our practice is not to suppress this activity, but to get more and more skilled at noticing how that the mind is putting that third leg into the stool, and we pop it out by coming back to the present moment. This is why we don’t try to stop the mind from thinking in Mahasati meditation. Stopping the mind from thinking through concentration practice is a stopgap move. We can’t live our life with our mind at a standstill. Human beings need to think in order to function. When we can go through our day being aware of the mind trying to put the stool together, then we can still use thought, live our life, do our job, and take care of our family, without suffering sitting on our heads the whole time.
If one persists at this, one will get to the point where thought can be clearly seen as a sense object. It flashes up again and again, but the mind doesn’t engage with it, so it immediately disappears as soon as it has arisen. It is just like a sound arising and immediately passing away. Sound arises and ceases without a trace. Thought is the same when it is seen. When we can see thought in our practice, thought still arises, but it cannot proliferate, so that stable stool for suffering to sit on doesn’t get assembled. This is a very important point in one’s practice. When the mind can clearly see thought, it is no longer identified with thought. We can say that awareness is now no longer bound by thought. We can use thought when we need to, but the mind is no longer at its mercy.
This is not the end of the path, but it is an important turning point. When awareness is no longer bound by thought, the path naturally opens up before one. We unbind awareness from thought by bringing it to the point of being able to see thought, not by trying to suppress it. Suppressing thought is really a form of fear of thought. When awareness is able to see thought, it is completely independent of thought, and it is aware of that independence. At this point, awareness is able to see the clinging directly, and when it is seen, it too immediately dissipates. The truth is that every part of this whole edifice of suffering needs darkness to exist. It is like a fungus that only grows in the dark. All one needs to do is let the bright light of the sun in. The bright light of the sun is your unbound awareness. There is really no need for texts or gurus. Just allow the light of awareness to illuminate what is here.
Michael, this was beautifully articulated and really resonated with me.
Excellent image, thanks!
The image of building a comfortable perch for our own suffering is quite compelling and easy to understand and