Transcribed from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, 7/23/07
This evening, I would like to give a talk that perhaps could be called right understanding. It will be a reworking or reformulation of right understanding, also called right view. Right view or right understanding is the beginning of the eightfold path. When the Buddha described the path of practice, he started with right view and right understanding. It is right there at the beginning of Buddhism, and in a sense, all of Buddhism arises from right understanding. It is something that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different practices have in common in the fundamental and simple way that the Buddha offered it.
The way that I would like to present the notion of right understanding is through a simple statement. That statement is that the means of practice should reflect the goal. The goal of Buddhist practice could be described in different ways or through different aspects. One aspect of the goal is to become peaceful, to attain a deep, abiding sense of peace, to be at peace in this world that we live in. For the means to reflect the goal means that there has to be peace in the practice—the practice itself should be peaceful. Another formulation people have used, even outside of Buddhism, is that if you want peace, be peaceful. If you want kindness, be kind. If you want compassion, be compassionate. If you want joy, be joyful. Peace, compassion, and joy are all the inner way that the goal of practice is experienced for someone who attains the goal. Subjectively it is marked by these inner qualities of peace, compassion, love, joy, and happiness. The practice should reflect that. That took me a long time to realize and understand.
The way that people practice may not be reflecting those qualities. For example, there were times when I strove, when I was greedy for some kind of attainment or some kind of result. Or there was some kind of aversion to the kind of experience I was having. I tried to push that away, to get rid of it, to not have that kind of experience. The presence of greed, aversion, or delusion does not reflect the goal. The goal of practice is to reach a place where the mind of free of greed, hate, and delusion. So in the practice of focusing on and being mindful of the breath, is there greed or aversion in the attitude we have and how we relate to the breath or how we relate to the attempt to be with the breath? No matter what our practice might be, whether it is breath meditation, loving kindness, chanting a mantra, visualization, right speech, washing dishes, working, or any activity we want to make a practice, we have to ask if it is reflecting the goal. In our relationship to it, we have to ask if there is the absence of greed and hate, or if there are some feelings of peace and ease. It does not mean that you have to be peaceful in some conventional way. Rather it means that the way you relate to your conflict or aggression or tension that you have with something reflects that you are at peace or relaxed a little about that aggression. It does not mean that you are not filled with greed, but it is about how you relate to that greed. Some things are really hard to stop doing. It is hard on a moment’s notice to decide to become peaceful in some usual, conventional way, and it’s hard on a moment’s notice to decide to let go of greed and hate. But maybe you can have a little more choice around your relationship to those things, and that is the foundation of practice, which is to find out how we are in relationship to anything. How are we in relationship to our greed, hate, and delusion, and how are we in relationship to our self-preoccupation? How are we in relationship to the path of practice? How are we in relationship to anything we do—washing dishes, doing our work, or whatever it is?
One of the ways we can relate to practice is that we can be content with the small steps of what we can do. So if we engage with meditation on the breath, maybe we are quite agitated, and it is very difficult to be with the breath. But can there be some, even just a little hint, of some peace, some ease, some acceptance, some non-conflict, some non-greed, and some non-hate? Can there be some compassion, some love, in relationship to that? Maybe at first it may be just a glimmer of peace, and whenever you have a choice to bring it up, you bring that up so that it has that quality there. Then, from that quality, something can grow. From that little glimmer or little seed that we have planted, the hope is that we can expand that and change. It is not the end of practice just to have a glimmer of peace. But can a little seed like that grow and become something much bigger?
Your practice, whatever you may do, may begin to have some quality of enjoyment, a quality of something you enjoy doing. If you are striving and pushing and demanding for something to happen in your practice, then chances are that you are not enjoying your practice, and chances are that you are destroying something inside of yourself rather than nourishing something and setting something free.
My idea of the notion that the goal should be reflected in the means is a built-in safety mechanism for dharma practice. You will not get in trouble if that is the case. You will not bury yourself in excessive zeal or aversion or conceit or self-deprecation. There are a variety of problems that can arise when you relate to the world or to the activities of the world. If you look for this quality of the means manifesting some of the goal, it will be a protection from going awry, from making the practice arduous and not enjoyable. That does not mean that practice is not sometimes very difficult, but there can still be some kind of joy there. If there is no joy in your practice, I am not sure about how much you can actually do, about how many seeds you are actually watering so that they can grow and develop.
When Lou Richmond, who is a Zen teacher here in the Bay Area, asked Suzuki Roshi: “If I do this practice, will I get enlightened?” Suzuki Roshi said, “If your practice is sincere, it is almost as good.” That’s pretty good, isn’t it? I think that is another way of saying what I am trying to say today. If your practice is sincere, then you have sincere qualities of how you are in relationship to the practice. That is actually very good, a wonderful thing. But your practice has to be sincere. If it is filled with conceit, with striving, with aversion, then it is not as good as becoming free. But if you can start having good qualities in your practice, then it is almost as good as being free, and certainly you have the satisfaction of having an enjoyable and sincere practice. You can carry that with you, and the fruits of that will follow you for a long time.
What all of this means is that a really important part of any practice that you do is self-reflection in which you become aware of the attitude that you have about how you are practicing. This includes that attitude you have as you practice. For me, this was a long time coming. I practiced for years and years before I paid attention to the attitude I had as I did the practice. For example, if the instruction is to stay with your breath, then I will try to stay with my breath. The breath seems to be the point, and by focusing on the breath, I am not noticing the attitude I have about focusing on the breath, because that is not the breath. So I can go along for a long time striving and pushing and demanding and judging myself negatively for not doing this breath meditation. I never noticed this because I was never told to pay attention to it—I was told to pay attention to the breath. But a very important part of the practice all along is to take that backward step and look at the attitude we have in relationship to what we are doing. This applies to everything we do, not just dharma practice. What is the attitude you have in relationship to everything? How we are is more important than what we do in spiritual practice, in dharma practice.
It’s nice that people find a lot of “whats” to do in their life, but I think that there is a certain kind of neurosis in California and this part of the world that proclaims that there is a right “what” out there for you: the perfect “what.” The perfect thing that you are supposed to do, like the perfect career—there is a career out there that is meant for you. There is a relationship out there that is meant for you—the perfect relationship. There is a “what” out there, and life is about finding the right “what.” What am I supposed to do with my life? Some people find wonderful “whats,” and they are lucky and it is very nice. Some people never find the right “whats” for whatever reason. It never occurred to them to look at the “how”. They can end up quite frustrated with their lives. There are some people who are blessed by never needing to find a “what.” The wisely understand either consciously or unconsciously that life is about how, how they are. They may not ever have a great, illustrious career that they are proud of and can show off at parties. People may ask, “What do you do?” “Oh, you know, I mop the floor at the local fast food restaurant.” That will not get you a lot of status at the parties. People often ask, “What do you do?” Would it not be interesting if people asked, instead, “How do you do it?” Or, “What attitude do you have towards what you do?” “How are you when you do what you do?” So for some people, they understand that, and that is what their life is about. The “what” is not so important but how they are in relationship to what they do is the important thing. I have known people who just shine, radiant people for whom how is more important than what. I know some people who are extremely poor. I know one person in this area who is poor for this area, but I think of him as the richest person I know, because his life is about how.
You might be a person who does not know if you are a “how” person or a “what” person. But even if you are looking for a “what”, Buddhist practice is much more about “how”. If you can focus on the how you are, then you will hopefully find out how to be at peace and happy and content with whatever you happen to do. Whether you find the perfect thing to do or not, or whether you find the perfect relationship or not, you will find some treasures of inner well-being and compassion and love that you can carry with you regardless of what happens around you. That is one of the goals of Buddhist practice, which is to find an independence that comes from having inner peace, inner well-being, inner security, inner fullness, or an inner knowing, that supports us, sustains us, liberates us, no matter where we go, or what we do, or whatever happens. This thing is here so that we are not looking outside of us for some thing, some “what,” some person, some teaching, some experience, that will prove that we are OK, or that will make everything OK for us.
One neurosis of American Buddhism is the experience neurosis, looking for that experience that will do it for you, the experience that will make it all OK. It’s very simple. I like to think of Buddhist practice as being a very simple and perhaps even a humble enterprise. It’s not about big experiences. In the beginning it is about right understanding, and right understanding begins with a simple thing, and that is understanding what the goal is, the qualities of the goal, and then, step by step, in small, little increments, studying your attitude and seeing how you can transform your attitude so that the means reflects the goal.
So now it’s your turn to speak to the World Wide Web. If any of you have any questions or comments that you now dare to say, please go ahead.
Questioner: Lately, the challenge in my practice is often just staying awake. So I don’t even have time to relate to anything except trying to keep upright. Sometimes I have not slept for a long time because of small children, and I wonder if that will get better, or is it just the nature of some people’s practice?
Gil: You don’t have time to relate to anything because you are sleepy, so then you ask yourself about how you are relating to your sleepiness. How are you relating to it?
Questioner: I usually just catch myself dreaming, and then I realize that I’m not awake, so I wake myself up.
Gil: Is it that innocent, that you just notice that you are dreaming and drifting and it is an interesting observation and you just carry on? Or is there discouragement or anger?
Questioner: No I’m just used to being tired.
Gil: So it’s ordinary for you.
Questioner: It is.
Gil: So you might do walking meditation.
Gil: Sure. You probably should go out into the hall and you are welcome to walk back and forth.
Questioner: Should I wait until I’m tired or just start that from the beginning? Do I try sitting first and try until I start getting sleepy?
Gil: If it is a real common pattern and you know it is coming, just start that way. Sometimes when you do walking meditation, it brings a nice kind of energy and it might wake you up. Then, if you want to sit, you can come in and sit. Or you can walk the whole time. Walking meditation is a great practice and is as valid as sitting.
Questioner: Thank you.
New Questioner: I was noticing in my meditation tonight that as I put my attention on my breath, it would change what I had been attending to, and that was really confusing to me, to have that thing of going back and forth.
Gil: Can you say a little more about why it was confusing, or was it a pre-existing assumption about the practice?
Questioner: I don’t know if it was a pre-existing assumption. It was as it the noticing of it brought up the question of ……I don’t know– it was just sort of odd to be able to see something from different sides.
Gil: It can be odd. Sometimes I think that I have two bodies; one where there is awareness of my body, and the other when there is no mindfulness of the body. Or two minds, a mind where there is real awareness and a mind that really does not have much self awareness. Or two hearts with and without awareness. Sometimes it can be as different as night and day. Sometimes it can get turned on and off. One example I have given here is about the night that I had a splitting headache driving home late at night. It did not really make sense to stop the car, but it was really hard. I was filled with self- pity—poor Gil. It finally occurred to me—after all, I teach this stuff—it finally occurred to me to start being mindful of the pain, of the head. When I did that, it actually lightened up and there was space for it. It did not go away, but as I brought that kind of attention to it, my psychological energy was not going into self-pity, but was rather going into paying attention and investigation. Then the self-pity dropped away and it did not hurt so much. As long as I kept the mindfulness it did not hurt as much and I could cope with it and I did not mind so much. But because I did not mind as much, my mindfulness would wane, and when the mindfulness waned, the self-pity and the pain and the contractions came up again. It was quite dramatic, and it was a long enough drive that I had a while to watch that.
One of the things that we recommend in mindfulness practice is to practice non-reactive awareness, where you are not interfering with what is happening. You see it clearly for what it is. But some people have as a pre-existing assumption that they are not supposed to interfere. Then they get a little confused when they notice that awareness itself, without any intention to change anything, changes the context enough that things begin to change. It is like an ecosystem. If you bring one element into an ecosystem, the whole system has to adapt. So when you bring awareness into the mental ecosystem, everything else has to adapt and change in relationship to it. This is a healthy change. It does not have to be intentional, as if you are trying to change anything, but awareness has the nature of changing everything.
Questioner: I guess what is confusing is the notion that awareness is somehow different or separate, or that it is some kind of creation that exists….I guess I’ll have to meditate more to articulate it.
Gil: It is a great line of articulation. Would you like to wait?
New Questioner: If it is your goal to be free from suffering, how might that goal manifest in your daily practice?
Gil: Maybe it is useful to start in small ways. Buddhism is a great world religion that talks about freedom from suffering, and some people suffer more from encountering Buddhism that if they had not encountered it. (audience laughter) So that is rather unfortunate and kind of ironic. One of the ways we suffer more has to do with how we relate to the practice. We might say, “I’m not good enough,” or “I can’t do this,” or “I can’t get concentrated.” Or we might have some expectations or judgments or we grasp on to it very tightly and cling to the practice. So there are many ways we can relate to it in which suffering is a part of it. To not suffer in relationship to the practice is to learn to let go and not bring those negative elements into the practice. So, in this way, in our encounter with Buddhist practice, we are not going to suffer more. We are doing it to suffer less. So one place to begin is to look at your attitude or approach to how you practice and find out if there is an attitude to how you practice that makes you suffer more because of the practice.
Another way, different from your relationship to practice, is that, as you begin noticing what is going on with you moment by moment, you notice ways by which you are resisting or judging or holding on or expecting. There you can maybe begin to lighten up around those patterns, and if you can’t lighten up and let go of them, maybe you can stop believing them and hold them in a more spacious way. Does that make sense for you? Is it helpful?
New Questioner: What you said was very helpful, that there is a difference between what and how. I have a meeting coming up with a colleague, and our relating causes some resistance in me. I was the whole time thinking, “What do I say? What do I say?” So when you say to look more at the “how,” that changes the whole pressure of having a result coming out. It is more of setting the flavor and the intention for the whole interaction, the whole conversation
Gil: Beautiful! So you can be in an intense conflict with someone—real conflict, real disagreement. But if you focus on how you are with them rather than the outcome or on what is supposed to happen, then perhaps you can be happily in conflict for a long time (audience laughter). As good friends you can agree to disagree, depending on your situation. For example, one small thing I have learned is that, often in conflict, one of the “hows” that is really useful, is listening to the other person well. And if the person feels really listened to and heard, that can make a huge difference in resolving the difficulty. Being a listener is in the category of how, rather than what is supposed to happen or an outcome. The idea that the goal should be reflecting the means has both qualities of the result in the practice, but you are not waiting for the result that is far in the future. You are finding the result that can be found here and now.
New Questioner: I’ve noticed that there are times when I think that I’m letting go of something, and then I discover later that I am really pushing it away, so I’m wondering how one discerns whether they are letting go or really pushing something away.
Gil: So when you did it, how did you do it so far? You said that you did it, and then realized later that you were pushing rather than letting go. How did you realize it later? What was the evidence?
Questioner: I guess partly because it kept coming back. (Laughter) And there seemed to be a difference in the quality. I assume that the feeling of letting go is a peaceful experience as opposed to pushing something away or avoiding it.
Gil: That’s beautiful. I could not have said it better. One of the things we do in mindfulness practice is to look at the quality of how we are—how our body feels, how our feelings and mind feel. If you are sensitive, you can feel the difference. You can feel that in a genuine letting go, there is an ease and a lightness, and hopefully a sense of joy. If it is pushing away, those good qualities will not be there. I learned this the hard way. There were times when I thought I was successfully letting go of something, but there was a kind of low grade neutral feeling. What I learned is that, if there is no joy in letting go, then you have not really let go. So there is a kind of litmus test, which is seeing if there is some kind of joy in letting go.
New Questioner: I have somewhat of a related question. Let’s say that you are clinging to something, and you find that you are having difficulty in letting go of this thing. At what point do you avoid this thing instead of facing it and trying to let go of it.
Gil: It is a good question, but it is a little bit abstract, so it is hard to know what to say. One thing is that, if someone is getting harmed, then it is sometimes better to avoid it. That’s one possibility. If someone is getting harmed, you or someone else, then it is best to avoid it. Sometimes by hanging in there with something that we can’t let go of and you just keep doing that behavior, it just makes things worse. Then maybe you should avoid it for the time being. Certainly there are times when it is healthy to just step away and avoid something. However, it is also very important to look at the inner quality, the intention. Then you ask the question: “When am I avoiding something in a healthy way, and when is it aversion—hate, pushing away? If you are sensitive, you will get the evidence very quickly.
New Questioner: I just wanted to say something that you have said before and that nobody has mentioned here. Luckily, this is a self-correcting practice. If you can’t get a notion of what real freedom is and what real letting go is, or what kindness to yourself is, then you keep doing it and it will happen to you, and then you will know how to do it. This is to encourage people to keep doing it and not worry about how you do it, but just keep doing it and it will just open up. I’m sure that is what happened to you. You sat for a long time and struggled and then what happened? How did you know that you could hold it lightly?
Gil: I think what you are saying is very important and is a wonderful addition to what I have said. I can imagine people being oppressed by what I said. They might think, “Now I have to be worried about how to do it right, and I don’t really understand what he is talking about, but the ‘how’ seems to be very important. I have to do some kind of mental gymnastics and get myself into the right ‘how.’ It was a lot easier when it was just a ‘what.’” So if it does not make sense, then, just as she said, this practice is self-correcting. Be content with the “what” and just do the practice. If the practice is paying attention to what is going on, then it is self-correcting. Sooner or later, if you are paying attention, you will get the evidence and the information that you need to learn, that something is awry, something is off, something needs to be learned or changed or shifted. If your practice does not involve self-awareness as part of it, then it needs some self-correcting. I have known people who have done meditation practices where they were not paying attention to themselves very much. For example, in the Zen tradition sometimes, there is a tremendous effort to concentrate on the breath or just be present in some kind of abstract way. When they feel a pain in their leg, they ignore the pain and just focus on the breath, and eventually they need knee surgery. It happens sometimes in vipassana that people end up with knee problems, but it does not happen as much as in Zen because we put much more emphasis on a very expansive awareness practice that is aware of everything that is going on at the same time. So if you feel pain in your knee, you bring that into your awareness and you can use that information to correct. Maybe that does not answer your question, but is that enough for now?
Questioner: Why can’t we all know how it was that you got to know that you were not looking at your practice in an expansive way? What happened that you became aware? Was there a time that you could say something happened and you became aware?
Gil: It happened in so many small steps and increments along the way and at so many different times, and for me these lessons had to be learned over and over again. It’s kind of embarrassing how many times we have to learn the same thing over and over again (audience laughter). I take an introductory course in meditation two or three times a year. I am also at the same time giving it (audience laughter). It’s very convenient to do both at the same time. I’m listening more carefully than some of the people out there so that I can find out what I need to know. Sometimes when I give talks here the audience I give the talk to is me, myself. It may sound like I am really wise, but really I am giving myself a pep talk. There are a lot of small increments. One of the ways is that there is a lot of learning that comes from suffering. I have learned from suffering and from having an attitude that is not helpful to me, so I took that in and was mindful of the pain and suffering that caused. From seeing that, I could learn from that and make a correction and lighten up. Suffering is one of the important teachers for us—not so we can suffer in a better way, but so that we can become free from that suffering.
New Questioner: I struggle with right understanding. I’m not sure, but my opinion is that neurosis can sometimes serve you. It’s a negative name for some activity that can serve you. So it’s good to pay attention to details, but with that attention you can sort of crush things by means of that dissection. One example is that of interpersonal relationships where you can really foul things up if you are always trying to figure out what is going on. So right understanding is kind of sensitive and I don’t know what you have to say about not letting it get out of hand but when it could be something that is part of your nature, something that serves you in other areas.
Gil: You have said a lot of important things and I don’t know where to pick up or tie it all together. But certainly there are times when having an unhealthy tendency or attitude or neurosis can also serve us. That does not mean that the first time you notice it you have to try to get rid of it. One of the ways this idea is talked about in Buddhism is that there is a kind of typology of personality types. Now we don’t have to make too big a deal of this, but it is said that there are persons who are greed types, hate types, and delusion types. Between the greed type and the hate type, it is better to be a hate type for the purposes of practice because the hate type has the energy of saying no, so you can use that energy to say “No, I will not do that, I will not go that way.” That ferocity can help you cut through attachments quicker than desires can. So if you get to choose what kind of personality to have, and you want to be a dharma practitioner, than having a hate personality is better than a desire personality. Yet you have to be careful because they also say that the hate personality can cause a lot more harm in the world than the desire type. So it shows that if you can hold your hate carefully, it can have its purpose. In terms of investigating and looking at what is going on and it being a hindrance in certain types of situations, hopefully the mindfulness is self-correcting in this way, and you will notice what the impact and the effect of your attention is. I spent eight months in Burma meditating intensely, and there you are supposed to do everything really slowly. You are supposed to think of the intention of lifting a glass and intend to stretch the hand, and stretch the hand slowly, and lift it very slowly, feeling it, feeling it, feeling it, touching it, feeling it—it takes ten minutes to have a sip of water. It’s a nice practice in certain kinds of situations and at certain times. So I did it, and I was very happy doing it. Then I came back to San Francisco and it was one of my first days back. I went to the Bank of America to open a checking account, and when I got to the door, I was practicing lifting, lifting, lifting (audience laughter), and I said to myself, “This is ridiculous!” It was good to do back then, but the close examination of every detail is not good now. The same thing is true with your friends. If you are doing a meticulous little dissection of every little nuance of what is going on in the relationship, you may lose your friend. That is not what is called for in that situation. You will get feedback, as when your friend says, “Will you stop doing that?” (Audience laughter.) Then you would make an adjustment and figure out how to be with your friend in a different way. If you go to a coffee shop with a friend, you have your wonderful, lively conversation, and here it is good to let go of meticulous mindfulness because it is so joyful to have a good time.
The hope in giving this talk is that you enjoy yourself more. Thank you.