Question: From Steve in Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Especially early on, I picked up little practices from Buddhist traditions other than vipassana, such as meditating on various images. What are your thoughts on integrating or experimenting with such practices?
Gil: It’s a good question. And it’s a question that’s relevant for many people who have been introduced to different practices and wonder how these different practices work together. Some practices are complementary and address different areas of our life than mindfulness does so it’s helpful to develop those. For example, loving kindness meditation is a complementary practice that’s very helpful to develop more of a sense of friendliness and openheartedness to support the mindfulness. And it’s good to do both. Some people like to do concentration practice that supports the mindfulness practice. Sometimes there are thematic issues that people need to address in their life. For example, the thematic practice of the contemplation of death and dying is a very powerful practice and so some people find it very useful to spend time with that practice. There are a few things about mixing practices: One is that in any given meditation session, you want to be very cautious about mixing. You want to be really clear if you’re doing mindfulness/vipassana that you understand what vipassana is. And what the purpose is so that you’re not bringing in other things that interfere with the direction vipassana is going. For example, if your vipassana practice has a lot to do with learning how to be really present to the way things are, then you want to be careful during your session about bringing in other practices that are there to change how you are. It is very common for people to want to feel better, and so if they feel a little bit lousy they switch to something that makes them feel better rather than turning toward what’s really going on for them and being present for it in a very direct way and working through it with the vipassana. Some people – every time they get uncomfortable – will find another practice to do. Then they never really face themselves in a deep way. Also, there can be confusion about the purpose of the practice where people can focus so much on attainment, getting some place, getting calm, getting concentrated, having some kind of blissful experience, such that if they are not having that experience they will latch on to some other practice which may be more likely to produce that. It’s fine to do those practices but I recommend that you do them at a different session than the session when you do mindfulness. Keep the integrity of the session of mindfulness. And deal with what comes up when you are doing it.
Question: From Adam in Vancouver, Canada: I’ve had a daily meditation practice for the last six months after following your online six-part introduction(for which I am very grateful). I started meditating primarily to aid my recovery from multiple addictive behaviors. I can say with complete sincerity that cultivating mindfulness is transforming my life. Although I can feel my practice deepening, I struggle to experience continual periods of extended mindfulness. Do you have any specific instructions on cultivating greater concentration, or is this something that naturally unfolds with the practice?
Gil: It tends to unfold naturally if the person is practicing regularly and it’s possible also to let it grow a bit faster as well, to do things that support it more. I think one of the first things to be careful about is not to be too idealistic. Some people expect a very high level of mindfulness or concentration and then think they are being successful only if they are completely mindful in every moment of the waking day. Or if they are always calm or concentrated. I think that kind of idealistic approach tends to come back and bite people; they tend to get discouraged or disappointed or angry with themselves. So one of the things to do is to trust the natural unfolding of practice and let it grow slowly rather than a sudden kind of “now I’m completely concentrated and present all the time.” But there are things that can be done to support the growth of mindfulness or concentration. It’s possible to meditate more, even short meditations. Three minute meditations can be meaningful if you do this four, five, or six times during the day. Maybe every time you go to the toilet you use that for a three minute meditation, and sit there and focus on your breath and concentrate and clear out the energy that’s been building in the course of the day. It could also be that you make sure you have some opportunity each week to sit and meditate with other people. Some people find it a big boost to meditate with other people. It can carry them through a week and support their practice. Inspiration can come from that. In the online course I give a lot of ideas about how to bring mindfulness into daily life so listen to that again and give some of those things a try. And then go on retreats. If a person has a chance to go on retreats, that is a wonderful way of boosting mindfulness. When you come back from retreat, there tends to be more engagement in the practice; it tends to be more present and fuller in people’s lives.
Question: From Meg in France: Would you explain the Buddha’s teaching on rebirth or reincarnation? How does this fit with what we know today? What is a useful understanding of reincarnation in the 21st century which is one that supports practice?
Gil: It’s a good question. I have been involved with Buddhist practice for 35 years plus and have been looking a little bit into explanations of rebirth that Buddhism gives. I don’t think Buddhism ever gives a really satisfactory answer about what’s going on with rebirth. When I’ve talked to a lot of my fellow dharma practitioners or to some of my colleagues that are teachers, the ones that believe in rebirth seldom give a very rational answer to explain rebirth or to explain why they believe in it. It’s usually more like it’s something that they feel is right to them, an intuitive knowing. So how to understand it? I don’t really understand what the Buddhist idea is. I haven’t found it for myself to be particularly helpful or interesting in terms of my own practice. Some people do find it very helpful to the practice because for some people it’s very motivating. The idea of coming back over and over again in endless cycles of rebirth seems kind of exhausting. Or not so appealing. Some people are very motivated to be finished with that and get off the wheel. Other people have the opposite idea. If there are multiple rebirths, then it can actually discourage them from practicing or limit their practice because they feel they have done enough this lifetime and so they’ll just coast and pick it up next time. So some people will focus on merit-making this lifetime so they can seriously meditate next lifetime. How is it motivating for some and not for others? It’s a very personal thing. It’s an interesting question and I think if the question is taken on seriously, the questioner might ask how it would be useful for her to believe in rebirth. How would it support her practice to do so rather than what the tradition might say? That’s mostly what I feel like saying. In terms of what the explanation says about rebirth, the best understanding that I have is that it’s kind of like the waves coming across the ocean. You could see the wave but we know that water particles don’t really move. Mostly they move up and down and hit the water particles next to them. So it’s the movement that moves across the ocean, not any thing, no particles that move. And there’s no thing that moves from one life to the next but rather the way that consciousness is agitated or goes up and down somehow or other strikes or creates a spin. The next moment of consciousness – when the person dies – the belief is that the spin then strikes the next moment how. So there’s no person, no thing that moves from life to life but it’s more like a momentum. How we live our life this time, the actions we live now, create that spin. If you are concerned about your rebirth, then you want to be very concerned about the spin you put – the behavior you live by, the intentions you live by, the attitudes you develop – because the spin that you have at the moment of death is very consequential for the next moment.
Question: From Rebecca in Belmont, California: I’m relatively new to meditation and I am curious about how much meditation practice is enough. Currently I meditate forty minutes in one daily session, which I have assumed is kind of the norm. Is there any great benefit to doing more than that?
Gil: I’m happy to hear that Rebecca is sitting forty minutes a day. It’s a wonderful length of time to sit. So the question is how much meditation practice is enough. The answer to that is very personal. And enough for what? You must have some sense of what you are meditating for, what you are trying to do. If you are trying to attain some high level of enlightenment, perhaps sitting forty minutes a day, it will take a long time. Perhaps you need to sit more. It depends also on your priorities. How important is mediation and the goals of meditation in your life. If it’s important enough and you want to orient your life around it, then maybe you want to sit more. When I was in my early twenties, I sat two forty minute periods a day, in the morning and in the evening, I sat. That was very important for me. I was motivated. So I think a lot of the answer to that question has to do with Rebecca’s intention, what she is trying to do. And to be clear about that, how important meditation is in her life. The other thing to say is that she can experiment. She might for a week run the experiment of sitting longer – maybe fifty minutes or sixty or add a second session of meditation in the day – and see what that is like, if it benefits her life, if it’s valuable for her, and then she will have first hand experience about the value of more sitting. And then she might be motivated to do so. If the benefits aren’t that great, then she can return to forty minutes.
Question: From Carol in Brooklyn, NY: I often feel that my breath is very subtle and not always easy to feel. What often happens when I sit down and focus on my breath is that I breathe, even though I have often heard that the breath should breathe me. I am not sure if I am exuding a subtle control or what. Do you have any advice?
Gil: My approach to something like this is to be relaxed about it and not be too concerned. One of the ways in practicing mindfulness is just to be mindful of how things are. So if you are being with your breathing, be mindful of how it is that you are breathing and if it happens that you are breathing with a sense of “I breathe” be content with that, be relaxed about that. But look at it more carefully; get to know it better, become a connoisseur of what it’s like to be the agent of breathing, the one who breathes. Try to let go of any judgment you have, or any expectation that it should be different, or any should that you have. Mindfulness doesn’t evolve too well when the mind is actively involved in shoulds or shouldn’ts. Study what is happening and if you really become a world class expert on what it feels like to have an “I breathe” breath, if something needs to change, it will change on its own. You’ll let go, you’ll get out of the way, you’ll notice where the holding or the tension might be related to that. Eventually it will relax. Also if you are just relaxed about how you are with breathing, then what needs to unfold unfolds so much easier than if you are concerned about it being one way or another. That is almost counter-productive. Just let it be. Be mindful of how it is. Don’t be bothered by how it is, but stay present and really see it and allow it to take its course.
Question: From Tim in Auckland, New Zealand: When I’m doing concentration meditation and when the concentration becomes deeper, two things tend to occur: First, my posture– my back bends and I slowly move into a slump. And also my eyelids are no longer closed tightly but are opened slightly, letting the light in. When I notice my posture has deteriorated, I tend to correct it while maintaining concentration. It is challenging but seems to work to some extent. However, the appearance of light I find to be quite distracting, usually taking my attention away from the breath just for a moment but enough to break continually. How should I deal with these issues?
Gil : Again, there are different approaches to concentration, the posture in meditation. When I was in Burma, the men who meditated – the Burmese men – all sat hunched over quite a bit. Many had strong, deep practices, strong concentration practices; and it seemed to work for them. My own kind of training has been in Zen where sitting upright has been very important, and I put a lot of value in sitting straight and upright. I think that overall in one’s Buddhist practice it is better to sit in an upright, aligned posture, even at the expense of developing concentration more slowly. The concentration which develops then is more holistic and is more integral in the person’s life. When people slump, they can lose touch with who they are physically. Even if the concentration develops more slowly, I think it’s better to be upright. That mimics the posture of the Buddha in statues. One interesting way of doing this is when you have slumped, very carefully bring your attention to the slump itself and notice where you feel collapsed, where you feel stretched, where anything may feel pushed down or pulling, or anything that feels like it’s given way. Really do a mindful exploration of the physical aspects of slumping. And occasionally if you do that, then something releases and the body will straighten itself out. If it doesn’t, then I think it’s good to sit up straight. In terms of the light, yes, I know that some people find that their eyes open slightly when they get concentrated. In fact, if you look at the Buddha statues, the Buddha is often sitting with his eyes kind of half or quarter opened. Other people find that as they get concentrated, their eyes tend to close. Some people sit with their eyes open to begin with and then as they get concentrated, their eyes close. I sat for years with my eyes open when I was doing Zen. It takes a while to get used to and not be distracted by the sights around you when you aren’t used to it. Chances are that if you kind of relax around the light you see with your eyes open, in a few weeks it will become ordinary enough that it won’t distract you anymore. Or you can intentionally keep the eyes closed. Sometimes it’s useful to maintain the eyes closed when you get concentrated because even though it might take a little bit more effort, it might actually help you develop stronger concentration. Seems like a good problem to have, Tim, and I’m glad you can be concentrated enough to have these kinds of issues. Take them as an encouragement and just continue. Things tend to unfold and change quickly if you practice regularly, and I’m sure that this is probably no longer the same issue as it was when you wrote your question.
Thank you, I love having these questions and having this contact with people all over the world. It’s a beautiful thing to have questions about practice. It’s one of the ways we develop wisdom and support our practice. Questions can open the door to our understanding. Thank you, everyone.