Q. Living in a city environment where there seems to be a constant media and consumer stimulus towards dissatisfaction and craving , how can this be integrated into daily practice without becoming overwhelmed and restless?
A. Dealing with this experience is very much at the heart of practice in a non-monastic environment. If you are someone who considers your practice to be essentially a sitting meditation one, then you will soon come to see how difficult practice becomes within the life most of us lay people lead. It is because of this that it is essential we learn to work with these difficult and strong forces. I cannot add much more on this specific subject than I have highlighted in my second book, and therefore would refer you to that for my perspective on this crucial issue. Learning to live and practice in a city environment is essentially about commitment, guidance, sangha, and a willingness to open up to and bear with (contain) the powerful inner emotional forces that through habit get caught up in the incessant seductive stimuli of city life. I assure you it can be done.
Q. In DM WM you mention the Maha Satipatthana Sutra in the chapter on awareness. What advice would you give to someone taking on the practices of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as set forth by the Buddha in this sutra? A. All insight practices of Buddhist traditions have their roots in this sutra, as it lays out the path of fundamental insight that breaks the root of the delusion of self. Some insight practices may go beyond this and focus on "what is", and the Buddha nature. But "what isn't" has first to be worked through, else the blinding notion of self will always conceal complete insight. These types of practice deal simultaneously with both of these fundamental characteristics of insight, but the removal of self-delusion step by step will always be leading. To ask about the practices in this sutra is to therefore inquire about insight practice in general and the basic framework that needs to be understood before embarking upon this form of practice. As I find myself often writing, the best I can suggest is to refer you to the second book that I have written to find the tenets, as I understand them, necessary for the insightful spiritual journey practised in Buddhism.
If at all possible find a teacher who has walked at least a good way down the path of insight, so that they may help you in your time of need. If you can't find one, then you will have to compromise with books and advice where you can find it, but be very careful and is something I wouldn't advise Next we have the essential support of sangha. It is one of the three jewels and not an optional extra. If you think you can do this practice in the way it has to be done in order to enter the promise of permanent change on your own please forget it. You will wander off course, increase your delusion and may well get yourself into all sorts of emotional difficulties along the way. Insight practice has the power to encourage the emergence of the dark forces that are in all of us. Not knowing what to do with these forces can lead to serious problems. Study, and put into practice the eightfold path in totality. Nurturing the eightfold path (in a direct orthodox way or a "hidden" way, e.g., Zen) will be the active component that reveals the reality of self whatever method of insightful investigation you may use - including those of the Maha Satipatthana Sutra.
Q. Sometimes when I manage to still the mind whilst meditating, I may notice or remark a thought arising in my awareness and then in this same awareness, perhaps a sound arises and is remarked upon or noticed (say a dog barking). These both simply appear as phenomena arising in my awareness, yet upon reflection I associate, or "own" the thought, yet not the sound of the dog. I treat thoughts as being mine and can get all hot and bothered about them. But the phenomena that I 'experience' as sound, I can simply let go and not treat as belonging to me, as being outside of me. However, more and more I am coming to regard both so-called thoughts and so-called sounds as being one and the same. Justexperience registering on the radar of awareness. Is this an experience of non-self, I wonder, or am I fundamentally mistaken about what is meant by self and non-self ?
A. It is non-self if mental objects and experiences are allowed to rise and pass away, and self if you grasp at them and make them 'mine'. If you see outside experiences and inner experiences as just things on the 'radar of awareness', then the sooner you bring that understanding into your life the sooner you will go beyond suffering, but can you do that? If not, then it is to there you need to shift your "radar of awareness" throw yourself into the practice, so that you can fulfil that hint of insight. Thinking about it more won't do you much good at all.
Q. How do you practise with illness?
A. If you have a short-term illness such as a cold or "flu it is probably rather futile to try and meditate if your condition doesn't allow you to breathe or sit properly. Practice throughout the rest of the day may also not be possible because you feel under the weather. What is the use of struggling just for the sake of it, or do you think that you should practise in all circumstances, whatever they may be? I think a temporary incapacity such as this could unwittingly be presenting you with the opportunity to see just how attached you are to your practice and likely thoughts of making "progress". I"ve met people who like to say (with some pride?) that they haven't missed a day's sitting for months or even years. Is it this that drives them? - not to break that record even when the body (and common sense) is telling them they should be resting and taking it easy when they feel ill. A short illness could well be a golden opportunity to display non-attachment to "your" practice! Never lose sight of the fact that the practice of Dharma, which is a practice of learning to become unattached, can ironically become the firmest of attachments and possessions. A more long-term illness or even physical disability will be quite different, as you will have to learn to work with circumstances. The human condition is quite a remarkable one as we are the most adaptable of all animals on Earth. We can live in the hottest and coldest climates, in any type of environment, and adapt to whatever type of food is available. And so it is with practice. To accept and work with wholehearted commitment with physical limitations, and crucially the mental relationship with those limitations, will, I'm sure, bring abundant Dharmic fruit.
Q. After meditating exclusively in one position for a number of years (half lotus with hands in dhyana mudra), I have begun to experiment with small variations of that posture (either with hands loosely clasped or with hands on the knees). I find that this definitely seems to affect energy flow in the body -dhyana mudra is more tightly focused and disciplined with an emphasis on balance; hands loosely clasped is very relaxing, good when over-stressed but leads quickly to sleepiness; and with hands on the knees the concentration tends not to be as tight, but the heart is wide open and my ability to contain strong emotion is at its peak. I still tend to sit mostly with dhyana mudra, but use the other two hand positions judiciously. This seems to have the desired effect, but I do wonder if tinkering with posture could be just a symptom of restlessness in the practice, and if it might be better to have one position and stick to it. What do you think?
A. Your experiences of different postures is something that I personally haven't had, so there is little I can say about what is best. It would seem to make sense to suggest that you use the posture that you feel most comfortable with, however, you do have a good point about swapping and changing. It could be said that the totality of Dharma practice is nothing more that the taming of restlessness. If we take this to heart it should make us wary of wanting to change aspects of practice -in this case the posture used in sitting meditation. It is interesting that the hands are often held quite differently from tradition to tradition and sometimes from teacher to teacher, with each telling us why they use their particular style and why it is the best. Very confusing. It would make sense to follow the method of your tradition, but if you are someone who isn't committed to a specific tradition you will have to make a choice. Your awareness that changing around frequently could be just restlessness is well founded, and I'm delighted that you are concerned about this. Any sort of change can often bring a "honeymoon" period because of the novelty of what you are doing. When this period goes into change there is the temptation to change again, and so it goes on. My understanding of Dharma is to stick with things and for the most part let change take place of itself, whatever the aspect of practice may be. Letting yourself use different hand positions runs the danger of opening the door to other things, the 'thin end of the wedge' syndrome. All I can say is that it is not normal to change hand position regularly, so I would say stay with the convention . Pick one and resist the urge to change.