Q. Is there a danger with reflecting on the ti-lakkhanas that one may not be emotionally positive enough to face what it is that these are telling us and meet with negativity? Is there a danger that one may take on this practice too early in one's path do you think, or is it never too soon? Should one be doing this practice without the support of a sangha or access to a teacher that themselves have made the journey?
A. The great advantage of using the lakkhanas in practice is that they have infinite levels of contemplation. To take on the basic truth of existence – that everything is impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self – can be seen as laying down an important part of the framework of practice anyway. So just to become familiar with them through reading and study, then superficially noticing the truth of these signs in our experience of life is a good and useful beginning. The result of a deeper insight contemplation is that it breaks up the tightly-held view of a permanent self, as it reveals that life as experienced is really no more than a collection of conditions that are in perpetual change. This undermines the firmly-held belief of a permanent 'I', which most of us are convinced we are. If a deeper insight practice using the lakkhanas is used before we are ready for such revelations, it could quite easily have a disastrous effect on our mental well being. In order to ensure we are ready for such profound insights we first need to put in place a proper framework of practice that is honed and fashioned over a good period of time. To make sure we do this properly, we should if at all possible take on a teacher that themselves have made the journey that will instruct and guide whilst we build this framework. Crucially a sangha should also be in place as this will act as a support and barometer as our developing understanding of the Dharma and practice deepens.
Q. What do you do when feeling all needy and wanting someone to hug and hold you? Sometimes it seems that us dharma farers must be stoic and mindful, staying with whatever is going on, not running from it into the arms of a comforting friend. Where on this noble path, the place for hugs and holding, the loving and accepting of sorrow, sadness, loneliness? Isn't the self and pity for itself at the root of all sorrow and not to be encouraged? Should strong emotions from whence the self arises be not indulged in at any cost? What do you do when blue?
A. Sangha and a teacher will help you bear with your emotions to a large extent, but when they are too powerful in the way you describe then, for example, find a friend and a shoulder to cry on. Let go, but try to observe the precepts as best you can. We can only do our best; there isn't anyone who can contain all the time in all situations. What is important here is to make friends with what you perceive to be your limitations and not get into negative thoughts about not being capable of doing this practice, etc. Don't beat yourself up; be kind and considerate to yourself and your present condition. Remember, we are all trapped by karma so entrenched that no one can let go by an act of will, and the process of change can be very emotional and fearful. Be gentle, but be firm and committed, so when the situation arises again you do your best to bear with just that little bit more than the last time. And no, self-indulgence is never a good thing.
Q. For the last couple of years or so I have regularly been experiencing the sort of physical jolts and strong rushes of energy when reaching a certain 'trigger' level of stillness, that you say in your latest book you learned of with some alarm from various meditators that you have spoken to. The general approach that you have taken in both your books impresses and makes a great deal of sense to me, and so I have taken to heart your advice here and have tried to dwell more in my hara, both during the mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana practices and also during the rest of my time. This has brought greater stillness and calm, less physical turbulence and just feels right. However, I am finding some difficulty in each practice, but particularly the mindfulness of breathing, in the latter stages when I move towards, or attempt to move towards, refining the object of attention. I find it difficult quite to know how to move towards one-pointed awareness of my breath at the tip of my nose whilst simultaneously maintaining and deepening my hara awareness. The metta practice does not present such an intractable problem, although again I have some difficulty being fully in my hara at the same time as cultivating ever deeper and stronger metta. Can you enlighten me as to what I am missing here, please?
A. A major feature of cultivating practice is one of familiarity. In this particular aspect of practice we need to cultivate the ability to return to our body over and over again. The most important time to practice coming back is during our daily life. Catching ourselves mentally wandering off and coming back into the form over and over again, and being wholehearted in what we happen to be engaged in. This takes great commitment and endurance but in time we start to become familiar with our new state of being. We know this is the true state of awareness to be in and so we just come back more and more until it becomes a habit. When this becomes something really familiar, we will take that familiarity to the cushion so that we will want more and more to abide in the body during formal meditation. To think you can just do it by an act of will when it suits you won't work. Practice coming back 'home' throughout the day, then you will find that whatever your meditation practice may be, your mind and body will be experienced in being mind/body, less and less dualistic. When they really merge in your meditation you will be in samadhi, and it is from this state that insight meditation can begin. So that when contemplating your insight subject it will almost certainly be true understanding that arises, because when truly united with the body that deceitful sense of 'me', that pollutes and possess understanding, cannot be.
Q. Sometimes one hears of dharma practice spoken about in terms of growth and development. Is this a valid way of approaching practice? Is there a danger of a western pre-occupation with the self and ego leading to a wrong take on practice?
A. When we practice correctly the eightfold path embraced by going for refuge 'growth and development', as you call it, will unfold naturally as the fruit of correct practice. If we try to shape it, and make it how we think growth and development should be (or rather, how we would like it to be), then you can be sure this will become delicious fodder for the self as it proceeds to reshape itself into becoming a wonderfully wise 'enlightened being'.
Q. Is it important to get the self into some sort of shape before true practice can be undertaken?
A. It is true we need to have a fairly good relationship with ourselves in order to cultivate the path. By learning (maybe with a particular meditation developed for this purpose such as one of the Brahma Viharas) to make friends with ourselves (and others) at the beginning of practice does help the path to deepen. But remember, as the whole of the practice of the Dharma is nothing more than a ongoing deepening process of making friends with ourselves, we will be engaging in true practice anyway, even in the infancy of day one.
Q. If I understand you correctly, (loosely speaking) you define right livelihood as being that which is supportive of one's practice, a livelihood that doesn'ts consume all of one's time and energy leaving one with little space for being with oneself and practising. Should right livelihood also have an altruistic dimension, so that one may 'serve the dharma', as it were?
A. I would say that right livelihood is a livelihood that is sympathetic to observing the precepts and developing ethics. As far as having time and space in your life is concerned, this is more to do with your ability to take control of your life rather than being its victim and does not necessarily relate to right livelihood. If you practise the Dharma correctly all your actions serve the Dharma.