Online Community Q&A with Gil Fronsdal: November 2010 Transcript

From Tracey in Modesto, Texas: Sometimes I catch my mind finding ingenious ways to keep me stuck. Why is the mind so invested in resisting liberation?

Gil: It’s a great question and I think that’s really Tracey’s job to find out. That’s a big part of what the path to liberation entails. Having the mindfulness, the presence to look into the mind and see what the forces are that keep you distracted, to keep you caught up, to keep you distracted as she says. As we become more present as mindfulness gets stronger, it’s possible to see more clearly the forces that drive us. When we’re not very present, it can seem unconscious, confusing or unknown what is it that drives what we do. But as we slow down, we can see more clearly and so, not just to understand it, but to feel our way into this question. What is it that we are interested in? To study what the mind is interested in and then to study the emotional fuel for that. What emotions are driving the preoccupations? What are the beliefs that drive them? What are the sensations in the body that seem to come together with this? It is interesting to study the glue or the gravitational force between our interests and us. It is one thing to think about dinner, for example; it’s another thing to think about how interested we are in thinking about dinner. To study the strength of it, the nature of it; the glue is different than the thing we’re interested in. A lot of this question Tracey needs to answer herself.

From Renaldo in Brazil: Actually two questions in one. The simplicity of Buddhism is fascinating but when you like to study, it is a totally different ball game. My interest in Buddhism began four years ago when I read a book by Alan Watts. Shortly thereafter I met and I identified with the work of Suzuki Roshi, Ajahn Chah, Thich Nhat Hahn, Jack Kornfield, and you, Gil. This year I went to California to meet you personally and spend some time in San Francisco at the Zen Center and Spirit Rock. Then I realized that to have a better development of a practice it was necessary to focus my studies in a school and only one teacher. So I decided to focus on Thich Nhat Hahn and you. I think it’s a perfect combination but I miss listening to others, especially Alan Watts, because Buddhism for me equals a kind of leisure; but there’s not enough time so my question is how do you balance your study, your practice, your family? How do you organize as many exercises and practices as lovingkindness, meditation, the nine concentrations, body and impermanence meditation, and so many others? The other day you said that life is a bit short to study everything. What is the better way to enjoy these many wonderful teachings?

Gil : I think maybe the answer can be found in your opening statement about the simplicity of Buddhism. I think it is important to keep it simple because it’s like an hourglass. On the one side of the hourglass are all the things we can study and run around doing, keeping busy; and if we do too much, we clog up the narrow part of that hourglass. But if we keep it simple, then you can go through that narrow part and it opens into a bigger world after that. A lot of the things you had to study before become obvious in your own experience. You don’t have to study anymore to realize it. So I think there is danger in doing too many things. Too many dharma activities get in the way of the dharma. You have to be wise enough to simplify what you do so that you get the most out of what you are doing. Even reading, for example, I have found that when I am most strongly connected to my practice that if I read one page of a dharma book, or even one paragraph, it is enough for me to really live with that teaching for a whole day. I would encourage you to study less, do fewer practices, and choose the ones that come alive. Choose a few practices, bring them into your family and work and daily life and they can all be integrated and work together.

From Nico in the Netherlands: For a few weeks now I download all of your dharma files about meditation. I try to meditate but the only thing I do is sit. I have a serious back problem. The sitting upright is difficult for me. The only thing I can do is move. I try lying down but then I fall asleep. Concentration is my second problem. I try to memorize the metta sutta but I have problems with the first sentence. I must tell you that I have used marijuana for a long time and I know that it destroyed a lot in me. I am clean for about five or six years. I hope you can give me some instruction or lessons that can help me meditate or concentrate for more than one minute.

Gil: So, Nico, that is a nice question. I think and hope I understand from the question that you are new to all of this. You said you’d been doing it for a few weeks. So it certainly takes patience. One of the first lessons you need to learn when you are going to meditate is that it takes more than a few weeks to really settle into it. And in the beginning, maybe six months, you want to really focus on the basic aspects of meditation, such as your posture – finding a good position to sit in, slowly developing concentration step by step, and not to measure how it’s going after just a few weeks of sitting. Having said that, I wonder whether if you have trouble sitting and lying down, another option would be to do walking meditation. You will find on IMC’s website written instructions, maybe on the articles page, on doing walking meditation. It is a wonderful meditation in its own right; it’s very powerful for some people. It allows people to stay in motion, people who have back problems; and some people find it actually easier to concentrate when they are doing something. The other thing I wonder, you asked about a personal lesson, but I do wonder if before you can settle down into serious meditation practice, whether it would be good for you to develop a real strong and regular practice of physical exercise. Perhaps swimming can work really well; some people find it helps them be mindful and develop concentration/presence; people with back problems often swim. And there’s something very powerful that can happen. It also relaxes the mind. It opens up and clears out the mind, kind of heals something, especially for people who have taken drugs for a long time and the mind maybe is not as sharp as it could be. There is something about exercise and about eating really good food that can be a great help. I would encourage you that, in addition to meditation, you start a practice of regular exercise.

From J. in Gainesville, Florida: He asks what insight you can offer into the question of why breath and metta are especially recommended as objects of samadhi practice. I was surprised recently to learn that there are an additional 38 objects of meditation in the Theravadan tradition. Can you say why the other 38 are not recommended?

Gil: In the tradition it says that meditation on the breath and on lovingkindness are always useful. They are kind of universal practices. The other practices are useful in specific situations for specific people. So the tendency is to offer people the practices that are most useful to most people in all situations. Also, the breath meditation is one of 40 classical Theravadan meditations that not only works for most people but also it can take a person much further in their practice than some of the others that are offered. Some of the other 40 are, for example, contemplation practices – contemplating death is a powerful practice; contemplating the nature of the Buddha, dharma, sangha; and then there is a variety of what is called kasina(sp) meditations or specific concentration practices that involve focusing on a visual object and then developing concentration of that visual object. Some people do that practice; it’s a style of practice. The tendency in the history of Buddhism is that among these 40 different practices is different lineages, different teachers, different traditions specialize in a few of them and do those really well because they are very effective. It has to do with the different approaches to awakening. Some people focus mainly on mindfulness practice; some focus on concentration practice. In our particular tradition, we focus more on mindfulness than concentration; and so breath meditation has a virtue of doing both. So we need a certain amount of concentration but also need to develop mindfulness so breath works really well. Lovingkindness is possible to do for deep concentration. On retreats in our tradition is where we teach lovingkindness as a concentration practice. But mostly we teach metta as a way of developing greater friendliness towards ourselves and towards others because we have found that friendliness is a wonderful support or foundation for any kind of mindfulness practice we want to do. We find that those two work really well together. That’s why we focus on them.

From Ruth in Menlo Park, California: My question has to do with finances. How is it possible to stay in the moment and plan for retirement?  Money is the only area where I cannot be present. I am always worried if I will have enough. Should I be doing something different? Or be doing more? It seems wrong to let go of it because if I’m wrong I will be screwed in the future.

Gil: It’s a good question. I think it is easy to hear the teachings of mindfulness and interpret them to mean that the only thing you are supposed to do, allowed to do, is stay in the present moment. Some people put too much emphasis on the present moment; the real emphasis in Buddhism is not on being present but it is on not clinging and thereby not suffering. So the focus on being in the present is to do it just enough to the degree that we can help ourselves not to cling, not to cause trouble for ourselves. It isn’t necessary to always be in the present moment but to have enough present moment that when we are thinking about the future or are thinking about the past, we are sensitive to how we are doing it, sensitive to whether we are clinging, whether there is fear, anger or greed operating as we are thinking about past or future. If there’s not, there’s no problem. It’s possible to think about the future and be very cognizant that in the present moment what you are doing is thinking about the future. Then you are present, even as you are thinking about the future. In a wise life there has to be some consideration for the future, some planning; there has to be some remembrance of the past, lessons; to only be in the present moment without any reference to past or future is to live a pretty narrow, superficial life. Please think about the future, your retirement, your finances; but as you do it, really use your mindfulness to understand how you are doing it, what comes into play as you do it – the beliefs, emotions and fears that you have. You talk about your worry. Many people worry. Because of that it is a really rich area of investigation. To really look at what is driving that worry. What are the fears? What are the sources of them? Rather than thinking about your finances, really look clearly at the fear itself. Do mindfulness of fear: Fear in the body, beliefs operating around that fear. Finances involves a lot of beliefs —  about our life history, about rational concerns, about irrational concerns. Sometimes it takes a while and a lot of mature thinking about our situation to know how to think in a wise way about finances and to think about what we actually need to be secure and safe. There is no easy answer to this, but please give your financial life all the wise consideration you can; and while you’re doing it, try not to suffer, try not to cling.

From Chuck in Argyle, Texas: I have listened for a long time and I have many questions but I think this one is the root of most of them. What is that which is enlightenment?

Gil: I wonder why that is the root of the questions. What is driving the question and how it fits with everything. Generally for someone who becomes freer, who lets go of their clinging and becomes more awake, more enlightened, that is not really an interesting question and not helpful. What is helpful is understanding that we cling, and understanding how we can release that clinging, and who or what it is that releases that clinging, what it is that gets free or liberated. It’s an abstract question that doesn’t really help in the process of freeing oneself. But perhaps it’s somewhat simplistic to answer the question what is that which is enlightened. It is that which clings, whatever that is. So I hope this is satisfying enough. My hope is to offer you an answer that encourages you to turn around and look more deeply yourself at the source of the question. What drives that question? What is the root of that question?

From Francesca in Florida: Once a year I do vipassana retreat in the Goenka silent meditation program. The principal message I get from the program is that anapanasatti, the strict observation of sensation at the rings of the nose followed by the body scanning is the purest form of meditation. The technique that was preserved in Burma the last 2600 years and is the technique that the Buddha used for his experience of enlightenment. They also say that it is this technique which sharpens the mind in a way that is so strong that no other meditation technique can replicate. Is this true and how does anybody really know this or is this a form of branding/marketing?

Gil: Yes, I don’t think there is any evidence that you can point to that there has been an unbroken lineage of meditation in a way that the Goenka tradition says, that goes back to the time of the Buddha. I know that the claim is sometimes made but the evidence hasn’t been there for it. The evidence is that it’s a relatively modern technique that comes out of Burma, about a hundred years ago or so. The practice of Goenka – breath meditation and the body scan – this is very powerful practice. Doing it on a ten-day retreat or a thirty-day retreat, which they do sometimes, is a very powerful practice. People get very concentrated. There can be great depth of practice in that tradition so I have a lot of respect for it, but it has always struck me as very odd the way that they insist on the purity of their practice as opposed to other practices. It seems to go against the grain of how I have understood Buddhism where the focus has not been on the purity of practice but rather on what is helpful for the people who practice it. I am confident that the Goenka approach is helpful for some people and I am confident that other approaches are very helpful to other people. Different practices have different benefits in different domains of life. I don’t know if it’s true for all people who do Goenka practice, but a fair number of people I have known have found the Goenka practice helps them go deep but doesn’t help them very well with integration of the practice into their daily life. And they found that other forms of vipassana have helped them much more with integration. There are so many different approaches. The history of Buddhism has different approaches, letting the path unfold. One is to go deep really fast and then spend years integrating; another approach is to go slowly and do the integration practice all along the way. After five, ten, twenty years, they both come to the same place but the approaches are different. I don’t think there is any need to decide which one is better. Each person needs to find what is best, most effective for them.

From Los Altos, California. I am writing to ask for some clarity in the meaning of the metta phrases. What did the Buddha specifically mean in each phrase? It seems at times that other things have been read into your phrases and I’m not sure of the pure essence of the phrases in Buddha’s intentions. For instance, what exactly does “safe and free from harm and danger” refer to? Does safety mean from bodily and mental harm? Or does it mean free from delusion, free from clinging? Does this mean that you are wishing for another to take right action based on sila so that the conditions that arise in their lives are ??? and non-clinging? What is this wish for safety exactly that we offer to another? What specifically does ease refer to – mental stability, equanimity, wisdom, physical well being, non –attachment to aches and pain, nibbana? I notice that when I first started metta practice there was a me and other, different from, separation. Over time that separation, that gap has decreased. In experiencing the interconnection we share from the changes in perception that have come from the practice I am wondering that as I begin metta at prison if there is a way from the beginning to lessen the selfing when offering metta or is the lessenening of the selfing a byproduct of the metta experience itself. And let it be.

Gil: I don’t know if it’s possible to know the Buddha’s original intention. Many of the phrases are quite broad in scope and maybe they are meant to be all encompassing for any possibility. It’s a wonderful thing for people to feel safe in any and all domains of their life – in relationship to the world around them, in their inner life. Well-being is a beautiful phrase but somewhat vague and I think it means an inner sense of happiness that is not equated with pleasure. It comes from a sense of contentment, peace, well-being inside, not the kind of happiness that comes from winning the lottery or conquering your enemies or beating someone in a game. It’s the happiness of deep, inner well-being that we carry with us regardless of circumstances. And I think that the phrases are fine to understand in the widest scope. Each of us infuses the words with what is meaningful for us, what our heart wishes for other people. So if we have more specific understanding of what safety is or what well-being is, that’s fine because we aren’t supposed to fit ourselves into someone else’s model of what these phrases mean. Rather they are supposed to give expression to what is in our hearts, what inspires us, what moves us. So if we wish someone safety and well-being, we use as a reference point our understanding, our best understanding of what that means.

As you teach lovingkindness to others, how can you lessen the self/other divide? I think that just comes with time. I think mindfulness practice can help a lot but I wouldn’t worry so much about the self/other divide. Just as you found that that changed over time, there is a natural growth, which as both metta and mindfulness develop, it’s not possible to maintain a sharp divide of self and other. It’s fine just to let it evolve slowly. It’s very important to not leave people only doing metta for themselves but to always remember to practice metta for others as well. If it’s only for oneself, then it can lead to greater selfing; but if others are included, that hopefully will lessen it.