Q. I have a further question that has arisen having read your book. In relation to the Bodhisattva Path you mentioned that dwelling on wisdom whilst meditating can help to deepen one’s practice. Do you liken this to dwelling on the ‘appreciation’ of higher spiritual states and values? I would very much like to hear your views on this subject and what your recommendations would be to cultivate this wisdom in one’s practice.

A. The reference in the book (Dharma Mind Worldly Mind) to dwelling on wisdom refers to it as a ‘skilful means’ to recall your own insightful understanding, which can help deepen still further your concentration during meditation, not others’ understanding that you may have read about or heard. My recommendation, as ever, is to commit yourself wholeheartedly to cultivating the eightfold path embraced by going for refuge. If you pursue the path in the correct way, the values and qualities you mention will slowly mature within your own heart, and become self-evident. If it helps you, you can study books and then ponder these characteristics and qualities to orientate yourself in the Dharma, but be careful not to turn yourself into a parrot and merely think about and recite what you have read or heard.

Q. I wonder whether you have any thoughts on the need for solitude for those going for refuge. How important is it for the spiritual seeker to experience aloneness, or for that matter, even loneliness. Is aloneness necessary for spiritual progress, and therefore should intimate, companion-type relationships be renounced?

A. The aloneness of a retreat from time to time is essential for those going for refuge, for it is at times like these that we have the opportunity to get to know and understand ourselves to a degree not possible in our ordinary everyday lives. All Dharma practice is focused directly or indirectly on the human existential truth of loneliness, caused by the sense of separateness from what is. When we are alone we can open up to that greatest of all fears whilst in its grip, and see directly into it. Here we may discover that if we learn to open and stay with loneliness, we will see it for what it is and learn to accept and make friends with it. Whilst on this journey of transformation we may come to see that everything that we have ever done in our lives is just a deep sub-conscious search by our own heart, bound by delusion, to be reunited with the totality of what is. Our onward journey into understanding loneliness need not exclude companion-type relationships, for this sort of experience may well show us just how lonely we basically are, and how difficult it is to live with and accept that truth.

Q. My day-to-day practice is mindfulness of the breath and body, with the attention placed on the hara. In addition, I try to keep my attention in my belly as I move about during the day -with, of course, varying degrees of success. For some reason, I have a slight but steady sensation just above the bridge of my nose, between my eyebrows. It feels as though it is just below the surface of my skin, but does not seem to respond to massage or any sort of physical manipulation. I’ve had this for about a year. It seems to be connected with mediation, as it first appeared last summer during a 10-day vipassana retreat, and seems to intensify somewhat when I am meditating more often. It is not painful, just a small sensation like static electricity, with a faint pulse. It is always there.

A. This is a common experience and really should be nothing to worry about. It is about gathering energy from concentration that backs up in the psychic channels, due to impurities. It is an experience I am familiar with. If you continue to retain your awareness and emotional energy (see next answer) in the hara, and learn to live in your body, you will be keeping yourself in balance. This way it should not get worse as you learn to live with it.

Q. On a possibly related note, during meditation I often experience short energy bursts. They occur when I am well settled and concentrated, and able to settle the mind well into the body. They persist so long as I can maintain the particular subtlety of attention – usually just a few seconds, but they will occur again and again until the session ends or I become distracted. They are fairly neutral in feeling-tone, tending a little bit towards pleasurable. Sometimes they make my body twitch a little. When I was at Vajraloka, they sometimes came in short, single bursts while I lay in bed meditating – to the point it felt like they might knock me off the bed! If I have had a lot of stress recently and I lie down or sit up with the intention to ‘feel into’ my physical sensations, they will come up quite spontaneously.

A. It is all about living in the body. You mention in the previous question that you try to retain your attention in the hara. Whilst retaining your awareness down there you should also be retaining your emotional responses due to habits and conditioning, with the aid of that same awareness. By learning to bring this crucial aspect of practice into your daily experiences you will be promoting health and safety in your life, and also bringing stability to your meditation. This is very much to do with turning away from the chattering mind and its blinding consequences and becoming grounded in yourself. So that when you walk you know you are walking, when you stand you know you are standing. Your twitching suggests that it needs to be worked on, as it is indicating you have lots of errant energy. If you have a physical job, so much the better. if you don’t, then find something to help that energy on its way. If it gets worse you may have to consider cutting back on meditation for a while (a good way to test your attachment to sitting), because you don’t want it to cause physical complications, as it often does for those who insist that Dharma practice is about working everything out in the head.

Q . Because of my work, and having a baby daughter, at the moment I have practically no time to sit. But my train journey to work takes an hour each way, so I have started to use this time for meditation. I wonder though if the ‘quality’ (for want of a better word) is going to be a poor second to actually sitting in a quiet room? At present, this, and trying to spend the day mindfully, feels very useful, but I wonder if I am missing out on the ‘furnace of attention’ of formal zazen?

A. To make use of your circumstances in the way that you are doing is a very skilful thing to do. Of course, to be able to sit regularly would be a better situation to be in, but that is not possible for you just now. In your case, having dependants gives you the golden opportunity to nurture the fundamental reality of Dharma practice, which is one of selfless action. To live your life for others who depend on you can open you up to yourself in a very direct way that is often denied to those of us who are single and don’t have to live our lives for others. Us single folk can easily become blinkered and fall into the trap of self-indulgence.

Q. After studying an introductory course at the London Buddhist Centre last year, I had some strong opposition to it from my partner. Although I made it clear that I wasn’t about to take up the robes and leave her (!), but that it would continue to be part of my life, I have, intentionally or not, become somewhat of a closet follower of the dharma. Should I be concerned about this?

A. No, not at all. ‘Coming out’ can be very difficult and often takes quite a long time. Be in no hurry, and trust in what you are doing. Confidence will grow and you will naturally become yourself. It’s easy to imagine that because others have little or no knowledge of Buddhism, somehow they will become suspicious of you. Indeed, that may well happen. Let those around you slowly get used to your new interest. Often they may feel threatened by what you are doing, and if it’s a partner that feels uneasy it may be that they are concerned that you may change and leave them. Give these important changes in your life time to settle and become familiar to those around you, communicate with them and let them see that you are not starting to grow horns or are about to do something silly.

Q. David, I have a question for you. Would you say that Shraddha is, to some degree, an experience of pure awareness?

A. I’m sure that we all would agree that awareness comes in countless degrees. All sentient beings surely have it to some extent, however faint. We humans are different though, because we make the profound leap from having awareness to having self-awareness – a unique characteristic that is the precious gift that can unlock the door to eternal freedom. Unlike animals and other forms of life, forever trapped by their instincts and karmic outflows, we, having precious self-awareness, have the ability to resist our habits and change our karmic outflows. We possess the potential to break the wheel of becoming. For us Dharma practitioners this deeply profound state of self-awareness is the centre of our practice. Through training, we ‘polish’ our self-awareness – it becomes brighter and brighter as we understand more deeply who and what we are, what makes us this way, and how we can change. Through commitment to practice our awareness becomes so shiny and bright and alert to the present moment, it eventually shakes itself free, letting go completely the mind-made world that hitherto created the suffering and the dullness that blinded it to the truth of life. This we call enlightenment or awakening. On this journey of purification we employ many skilful means, one being the nurturing of faith. Faith brought into our awareness helps us to let go of our attachments, so that awareness can cleanse itself of the deluded mind still further. When finally our awareness is totally cleansed and freed, we can say it is pure. In that pure-awareness no thing whatsoever can abide, not even a Buddha – and certainly not faith.

Q. I recently met a ‘psychic’ who told me that I would progress faster if I did certain types of meditations (which she would teach me of course!) that would allow me to recall ‘my’ previous incarnations and therefore hold onto and use the experience and knowledge that ‘I’ have already gained. I am curious whether you recall any of ‘your’ prior lives, and what you think of this advice? Thank you!

A. This type of excursion into what we may loosely call ‘new age’ activities can never be thought of as useful for serious Dharma practitioners. It is so important to learn to open up to ourselves exactly where our feet are in this present moment. It is here that we get to understand ourselves, so that the potential for change can be realised. The Dharma is in the here and now, not in the past or future or in endless psychic ideas that cannot but feed mental notions and fantasies. Any practice on the path in previous lives will become a part of the sub-conscious framework that supports your practice in the here and now. It will be part of a wisdom that is inaccessible, and would never carry the pictures or experiences that it arose in and matured in during any past life. Let me suggest that you just forget all these ‘interesting short cuts’, put your nose to the grindstone, and deal with what is in front of you.

Q. Could I put this question onto the forum: Rather than getting caught up and over identifying (i.e. anxiety, obsessive thinking) with difficult emotions or feelings, my tendency is more to push them down and suppress them, as a way of ‘dealing’ with them. Often this action seems to happen unconsciously, the fullness of a particular difficult emotion is put out of my conscious mind. It then may come up, say, when in a quiet moment or especially on retreat. One side effect of this seems to be sloth, blocked energy, which then becomes freed when the emotion is finally fully experienced. Do you have any advice on how I can counter this tendency to push down, and sit more in the fire of my experience, pleasant or unpleasant, fully experiencing it when it arises?

A. We push these things away because we can’t/don’t want to face up to what they are and the fear and self-loathing that often results from these intense emotional experiences. To learn to open up to ourselves in a wholehearted and non-judgmental way is the key to change, but it takes a lot of practice – and the key to skilful practice is the understanding of the very important concept of familiarity. Familiarity means getting to know, over a good period of time, our emotional reactions, and learning to resist the temptation of falling into old and unskilful reactive habits. Facing up to what we are is a very difficult matter, and, when the experience is a powerful one, almost certainly impossible to pull off. So how do we go about dealing with these deeply-ingrained attachments? We start with the small attachments that we have, which are (emotionally) manageable, and learn to contain and take them into the Dharmic environment. Here we can learn to look into them and know and understand how all these things become the sticky messes that they are. With this knowledge in place, it will allow us to contain the volition driven by the emotions so that the habit/fear and notions of ‘me’ can return to their original state before this ‘pollution’ took place – that is, Buddha nature. Learning to work with the small things gives us that vital familiarity with practice; our fears then begin to ebb, giving us the courage to stay with other more difficult and traumatic experiences. Eventually we begin to see that actually there are no ‘big’ attachments to deal with at all, only an endless collection of little ones. As the old maxim states: ‘Take care of the little things and the big things take care of themselves’. This familiarity and understanding gives us the courage to open up more and more and accept ourselves for what we are. Accepting ourselves without judgment leads us to loving ourselves, and in that spirit of love transformation of samsara takes place, allowing it to return to its original nature.

Q. How does mindfulness relate to awareness? How do each relate to the practice of loving kindness?

A. I have tried to highlight the differences between the two in my second book, Dharma Mind Worldly Mind, so reading that should give you a good picture as to my understanding on this vital subject. As to the specific relationship to metta, in my view, the principles apply in the same way as for any other ‘subject’ that is in our presence. Mindfulness is the deliberate bringing of our attention to the moment and skilfully keeping it there. With metta we do that during the metta meditation. For example, musing over words, pictures, feelings and emotions, all retained with mindfulness. When we have reached that degree of familiarity (see previous question) we can bring to bear these experiences in our daily life and our relationship with ourselves, others, and life in general. This ‘skilful means’ can only be retained and nurtured with mindfulness as it ‘battles’ with the restless mind and self-interest. Mindfulness promotes a one-pointed mind; when we have this, the fundamentally pure and eternally bright jewel of awareness is freed from the veil of our emotions (which is intertwined with the chattering deluded mind), and shines forth. It is in these precious moments that we realise our fundamental humanness, and our unfettered heart can respond to circumstances without hindrance and bondage, and spontaneously care for and love all that lives.

Q. Buddhist tradition uses several images of the need for single-minded determination in Dharma practice (I am thinking of one in Zen of the sword about to rain down upon one’s neck). Simultaneously, Enlightenment is talked of as being always present, almost in quite an ordinary, simple, and easy way. Given that there must be value in both of these descriptions, how does one, or should one, apply effort in the spiritual life?

A. Spiritual practice is always full of paradox. We must be wholehearted with total commitment, as if there were no tomorrow. And yet the fruit of such practice is to realise the everyday ordinariness of reality. As the famous Zen saying goes: How wonderful! How marvellous! I sweep leaves, I drink tea. In order to realise what is in front of us we need to apply single-minded determination, but single-minded determination in a correct way -a Dharmic way. This ‘single-mindedness’ should really be seen in inverted commas, for it can be misunderstood as ordinary worldly, wilful effort. Dharmic effort is the middle way, and this is different and very special. Single-minded (Dharmic) determination is applied by not reacting in our familiar karmic-producing habitual way to our everyday experiences, whether towards ourselves, others, or life in general. To, as it were, ‘stand our ground’ (emotionally) and through experience learn to create the Dharmic environment that transforms your attachments (not you), thus returning them to their original state. This requires a commitment so serious and immediate we must accept the urgency to take this task in hand NOW, as it will be the only way to prevent our head being cut off and being forever lost in the death of samsara. To apply this immediacy we have to contain and just be our ordinary everyday selves, nothing at all special. When we are this unfettered ordinariness, nothing special then the middle way is attained, awakening takes place. We will return to the profound ordinariness of this moment.

Q. David, just a couple questions for the forum. Thanks: 1. How do you know if you are meditating too much? Too little? 2. Should the meditator be a teetotaller?

A. Not very easily is the answer to those extremes, simply because we are all different. There could be a case for too much sitting if it takes over your life, in the sense that you neglect other things that you know you should be doing in your daily routine and life in general. It could mean you may be treating meditation as an escape from your mundane reality. It can also happen that if you sit a lot, somehow the whole process of meditation seems to grind to a halt and becomes stale. I’m not saying that if times get difficult stop sitting, but rather, if you are getting sort of possessed by meditation and becoming too detached from your experiences of life, then this is something to look at. Too little meditation may be easier to spot. If you have an agreement with yourself to sit every day, then stick to that. That routine will soon let you know if it is too little. Sitting for just a few minutes may not be enough. If you build up to 30 to 50, even 60 minutes each sit,then this will be more than enough for a daily routine. The best way to avoid too much or too little meditation is to follow the guidance of a teacher and the tradition that, hopefully, you are following. I would suggest the answer to your second question is this: if you happen to like alcohol, then, as always, walk the middle way. Alcohol dulls the senses and confuses our reality, so this is hardly conducive to meditation and an ethical practice. But then again, if we enjoy a bit of relaxation with a drink, best not to take ourselves too seriously and deny ourselves this small pleasure.

Q . In putting my ‘ nose to the grind stone & working with what’s in front of me’, one of the largest areas of practice for me has been working with sexual desire. I’ve come to realise that if I could put even a little of the time & effort I invest in sexual fantasy & desire (every few minutes) into dharma practice I’d have a very consistent practice indeed. Once I get caught up in these lustful states I find it very difficult to maintain any kind of awareness & sometimes don’t even want to. These are strong habitual tendencies that cause me a lot of confusion & distress. Any advice? Thanks.

A. Your experiences are very common to practitioners, especially men, I would suggest. I myself had similar experiences to work with for many, many years. First thing you need to do is try and accept that this is the way you are, and don’t make a problem out of it by engaging in dialogue and beating yourself up with mental conflict. For whatever reason, you are like this, so try and accept and make friends with it. Not easy I know, but I know no other way forward. Speaking from my own experiences, I have always tried to incorporate my sexual drive, when it appeared during sitting, into my daily practice of containment, understanding and insightful meditation; and I would maintain awareness, investigate this almost uncontrollable drive, even during the physical act of fulfilling my sexual desires. This drive seems to be the most basic and unfathomable aspect of the human makeup. Most things that go to make us up we can usually get to the bottom of, or at least make good inroads into, but the urge for sex, from my experience, is a chasm that has no parameters. After years of trying to work out why I was like this, I finally learned to accept that maybe I was never going to truly understand, and so I let go of trying. When I finally gave up trying, maybe it was then that I found the best clue to the answer. There was the discovery that my sexual desire/drive was always at its strongest when I felt lonely and insecure, and much more in the grip of fear. We can work on fear, which manifests in countless mental and emotional forms, through the correct practice of the path. I discovered that in time and through the transforming process of practice, fear generally began to subside and die, and I noticed that my attachment to sexual desires also began slowly but surely to diminish. It seems to me that the desire for sex is the expression of fear, loneliness and insecurity, born of a sense of separation from life. With the gradual transformation of fear, our sex drive gets disempowered considerably. I am quite sure that whilst working on the totality of our greed, aversion and delusion, and well before transcending this totality to attain Buddhahood, our sex drive and its need for fulfilment will have profoundly diminished.And although this drive may not yet be completely dead, our enslavement to it and its possession of our minds and emotions will, I’m sure, have become but a fading memory.

Q . Lately my life has become quite hectic and stressful. Consequently, when I come to meditate, I’m seeking to have a pleasant time of it and to escape for a while (so to speak). In terms of Dharma practice, is this ok? I look on it as a skilful means, giving me time out so that I can keep some sort of positive emotion going in my life.

A. We all tend to do this when the escape brings us pleasure and a break from our reality, but at the same time we should be cautious. Hopefully, we are sitting essentially to get to the bottom of our condition and instigate change, so indulging in fantasies is not the way forward. Then again, our fantasies do indicate the sort of things that go to make us up, and therefore point to the things that we need to get to know, so in that sense it could be justified and considered part of practice…

Q. I’ve read that the Buddha in discussion with Ananda cited spiritual friendship as being ‘The whole of the spiritual life’. In certain quarters this seems to be taken to mean inter-personal relationships amongst spiritual practitioners and the dynamic of these relationships providing grist-to-mill of spiritual practice. Another interpretation of the statement that I’ve come across is that it is ‘friendship with all that is beautiful in life’ that the Buddha was speaking about, this being used to counter claims that Buddhism is a cold, distant and nihilistic ‘religion’. I wonder if you care to share what you think the Buddha may have been getting at in regard to this. What would you say is meant by spiritual friendship?

A. Let us first read the quote from the short Upaddha Sutta found in the Samyutta Nikaya XLV.2, which I think you are quoting. …Ananda approached the Buddha, paid homage, sat down to one side, and said, ‘Lord, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship. Good comradeship.’ ‘Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ananda!’ replied the Buddha, ‘This is the entire holy life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path’… To my way of thinking there are two key words here, ‘holy’ and ‘expected’, which we need to explore so as to better understand the meaning of this Sutta. I was a Theravada monk for a few years and I often heard that being a monk was to lead the holy life. But how exactly was this defined? To many, simply to don the saffron robes was enough to fulfil that ideal, but to most monks it meant a whole lot more. There are around 250 rules for monks to follow coupled with countless minor ‘rules’ that help them not only to stay within the main body of rules but refine still further the very basis of the monastic life, which is to nurture detachment from our tendency to grasp at life. These are the many little pointers that encourage the monk to build an optimum state of being, an optimum state of consciousness conducive to the unfolding of insight. This very refined way of living cannot successfully be put in place when pursued alone, if for no other reason than much of what they need to refine involves interaction and consideration for their fellow bhikkhus and community. Having a ‘good friend’, being given support, consideration and kindness, as well as being inspired by their company and exemplary conduct, becomes the bedrock of the ‘holy life’. From this platform the monk is then expected to develop and cultivate the noble eightfold path. That is, practise the complete Dharma path. Apparently two separate pursuits?Possibly so. They can be separated. A monk can just pursue the holy life and become a good respectful person with high ethical standards as well as being kind and helpful. But another whilst pursuing the holy life can move more deeply into the practice of the eightfold path. I have met and have known fine monks that many would consider without hesitation to be leading the ‘holy life’, who have had no inclination to practise the whole of the eightfold path at all. Sila yes, but that is all. Fine, ethical, kind beings that may study and preach and do fine work in their community and temple, but have never pursued meditation and the cultivation of wisdom into the reality of their own being. So leading the ‘holy life’ and being a ‘good friend’ cannot be seen as the complete picture of a spiritual pursuit. Footnote. Remember: Most of what you read in the Pali Canon is for the ordained monk. The so-called ‘holy life’ is letting you know that it is not possible for a layman to cultivate some of the more refined aspects of Buddhist practice. In my Theravada days I often heard this expression ‘holy life’ used to let the congregation know, in a somewhat coded way, that there is a definite (superior) space between the ordained and the lay, so we should always remember that. Assertions like this convinced me of my love for Mahayana, where no such distinctions exist. To answer your last question: You are suggesting this Sutta could be a way of expounding ‘spiritual friendship’. I think you can do this to a degree as long as you realise that a friendship that is ‘spiritual’ is not the same as any other type of friendship. Other friendships, however sincere and skilful, nearly always carry attachments that by nature will have self-interest and are karma producing – even if we consider our actions towards such friends as being ‘selfless’. Genuine spiritual friendship has non-attachment as its main characteristic – to help your friend without self-interest and attachments. A very difficult ideal to pursue and perfect, and quite impossible without a mature practice of the eightfold path in place. This then may imply more of a teacher/student relationship, and I don’t think this is the teaching of this Sutta. In fact, from my understanding of my days in Theravada the authentic ‘spiritual friend’ could only be either the Buddha or one of the arhats, as these are the only beings whose training has finished and are therefore qualified to teach.

Q . I wonder whether energy made available by spiritual practice can be mis-interpreted as sexual? I wonder whether because of our un-enlightened state, as we practise and become more ‘free’, is there a danger of blowing whatever is freed through apparent increased sexual appetite? Is there something to be looked out for on the path in this regard, and if so, what is it and what can one do?

A. Energy is energy, it is up to you what you do with it. Always remember we are creatures of habit, so it is best to use this energy in a skilful way rather than in an unskilful way. Dharmically skilful acts could well lead to more energy being available through insightful liberation. Using precious energy for self-gratification is unlikely to see energy being replenished for very long.

Q. Is it possible when doing this practice of pure-awareness that one could get it all wrong and reduce Buddha Nature to simply the experience of sense-based phenomena? Surely Buddha Nature is far more than just this mindfulness of the world of the senses!

A. It is not possible to practise pure awareness. Practice is what takes you to its threshold. Awakening to pure awareness is the fruit of practice. It is not possible to get Buddha-nature wrong, as you put it, because there is no Buddha-nature to get wrong. In order to awaken to Buddha-nature it is necessary that we train in and cultivate the right spirit of practice. This spirit is not a formula or anything that can be worked out. Rather, it is an attitude of opening up to something that is beyond ‘me’. This needs a spirit of surrender to be nurtured, a spirit that is, in my view, the true meaning of Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Because of emptiness, Buddha-nature is all that is, both samsara and nirvana, yet also neither. The deepest meaning of emptiness is interpenetration, and it is because of this truth all designations are false, yet there is always love. It is very easy for us to get lost in notions we have about practice somehow reducing reality -in this case termed Buddha-nature -to something akin to a formula or a metaphysical construction. We ought at times to remind ourselves that Buddha-nature would best be thought of as being alive, wise, warm and compassionate towards all living things, and with love for all that is. The all- embracing ever-present truth.

Q. Dear David, Here are two questions for the forum. Thanks: As part of your answer to a recent question you said: ‘We can work on fear, which manifests in countless mental and emotional forms, through the correct practice of the path’. Please could say more about working with fear, especially when the fear seems so irrational, e.g., panic attacks, phobias, etc.

A. For Dharma training purposes, trying to work out why we are caught by so much fear can be an unnecessary diversion. It’s not usually necessary to get to the bottom of the mental pictures that fear creates and the circumstances that we are caught in, to try and figure it all out. Fear in its ‘basic’ nature is emotional energy that a lot of the time is very powerful and seems to go to the very core of our being. For the most part it conditions our life and sets the parameters that we are trapped in, and is one of the reasons why so many of us never realise our potential as human beings. There are two insights that we put in place to work with fear. These, when applied correctly, will cause the fear to cease, and the energy that creates it will return to its original nature. The two insights that we put in place to work with fear are familiarity and accepting. The reality of fear is that it can only exist by our habitual reacting to the experience of it. Cease to react, and it will die. It is that simple. Easier said that done, no doubt. The familiarity comes first. To turn away, or run away, or hit out at fear will only feed it, leading it to come back stronger than before. Do your best not to react and begin to become familiar with an experience that you’ve probably never looked at or stayed with. Stay with the experience, and in that staying with, accept as best as you can without reacting. Of course, this can be immensely difficult to do, if not impossible, but do your best. Develop the strength of mind and body to come back to the experience of fear over and over again. Familiarity will allow you to have the ability to come back more and then, in accepting and containing, allowing it to be itself without you reacting or being carried away. This will starve the fear of the fuel of your emotional reactions, and given time it will fade away.

Q. How important is it to avoid killing insects? I’m usually happy ‘rescuing’ flies, wasps, bees, etc. when they come through my window, but I have problems with mosquitoes. They want my blood, and their bites are unhealthy. I find that if I don’t squash them immediately they hide somewhere in my room and get me when I’m sleeping.

A. As with all actions, it is your volition that is the important factor. To kill because one enjoys killing cannot be wholesome, and will have its consequences. If it is your health that concerns you, then take one of the numerous precautions that are available, that way you won’t have to kill them. Or you could reflect on metta and take the attitude that the mosquito has as much right to be here as you and let them have a spot or two of blood. It’s very unlikely that you will come to any harm and it will surely give them a few moments of pleasure and fulfilment in a precarious life that is short and full of anxiety.

Q. How should I understand the hindrances relating to Pure Awareness?

A. This is a very good example to illustrate the fundamental difference in attitude and application between the pure awareness approach to practice and the more usual approach to practice. With the conventional approach we see the so-called hindrances as being just that – something that we need to either avoid or deal with in order to nurture still deeper our understanding of the path. Because we see these experiences as blocking the path, we may indeed view them with some negativity and frustration and would dearly like them to clear off and stop making our practice more difficult than it already is. I suspect that it would not be too difficult to imagine they may even be sent to us from some outside agent such as mara, in order to deliberately impede the practice. A ‘me and it’ dualistic relationship becomes inevitable. We then give these hindrances a lot of attention as we work to eliminate them with the various ‘skilful means’ of practice available to us. But if we are committed to the pure awareness path, we have an approach to working with them that is quite radically different, even seemingly contradictory. The pure awareness approach is revolutionary. Instead of dealing with the hindrances as described above, in cultivating ‘Entering Pure Awareness’ or, as I like to call it, ‘Cultivating the Dharma Mind’, we actually do nothing. Instead of perceiving these experiences as something negative and dualistic, and perhaps even not ‘me’ at all, we embrace everything with a spirit of openness. We do this with the clear understanding that these so called ‘hindrances’ are a fundamental part of ourselves that have broken off into delusion and which we are no longer prepared to be in conflict with nor enslaved by. Now we willingly accept them for what they are, without any sort of reaction whatsoever. Acceptance means that rather than buy into the reactionary habit that we have developed towards these experiences over our lifetime, we now choose to embrace and contain them instead. No longer do we think of these so-called ‘hindrances’ in the manner that we used to, but rather they are now seen as a golden opportunity, something to make friends with, indeed love. We now know them as fundamental parts of our makeup that somehow have broken off into dualistic conflict, and only serve the purpose of creating the karma that keeps us bound to the eternal wheel of becoming. This accepting means that we not only resist getting carried away physically, emotionally, and verbally, but we don’t even mentally label the experience. For example, as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘skilful’ or ‘unskilful’. No judgments at all. Become like a reflecting mirror that impartially reveals what comes into its field without judgment and reaction. If it becomes an emotional experience, learn to carry that emotion and hand yourself into the present moment. Most crucially, carry in your body whatever is the emotional impact, and with it learn to function in a normal human way. Carry those ‘hindrances’ with a willingness and openness, and soon you will no longer be creating the karma that you once did and will cease to create the seeds of yet another unknown rebirth. Soon those so-called ‘hindrances’ will reveal themselves as being nothing other than the Buddha himself, as you awaken to your pure intrinsic awareness – that awareness which, not for a single moment, has ever been in conflict with or even been touched by your ‘hindrances’.

Q. What is this ‘revolutionary approach’ to pure awareness you talk about? Many Buddhist traditions, and indeed contemporary organisations, teach the do- nothing, non-judgmental and accepting awareness you talked about. Non- Buddhist teachers such as Krishnamurti have also explored this ‘pure awareness’ approach to awakening in great detail.

A. I do not pretend that the practice of entering pure awareness is something unique to Buddhism. What I mean by revolutionary is that for the first time in our life we turn away from self-interest, this self-interest which is unavoidable as part of our normal human condition.We learn to surrender, and to do so not by an act of will, but rather through authentic spiritual practice. The Buddha said that taking on practice is like being carried along by the current of a stream and making the decision to turn around and swim against that current. To ‘rebel’ against all the conditioning that makes me what I am and replace that with the true human being. Krishnamurti himself said that giving up the self is not just another revolution – but the only revolution. We often like to talk of revolution such as replacing capitalism with communism, but sooner or later either system will go into inevitable change. The real revolution of inner change, if done properly, lasts forever.

Q. Could you expand on what you mean by ‘cultivating the dharma mind’, and how it differs from those teachings already available?

A. The answer to this question follows on from the last. ‘Dharma Mind’ is the mind that no longer is goal-orientated or fuelled by self-interest (worldly mind). To come to this point requires swimming against the current of self-interest, which cannot be done by an act of will. Instead we embark upon Dharma practice, which can be stated simply as going for refuge and pursuing the middle way (eightfold path). Through time and commitment we are no longer possessed by self-interest, but rather live life spontaneously (selflessly) responding to what is in front of us. Or put another way, when the ‘Dharma Mind’ is fulfilled, we awaken to our intrinsic pure awareness. As for the second part of your question, the most common way to cultivate the path through developing understanding is via the eight steps of the eightfold path, generally reduced to three main components – ethics, concentration and wisdom. These are nurtured in various ways, depending on the tradition and specific practices. It is the deliberate use of these steps (often in specific stages) that allows the unfolding of insight and the seeing of things as ‘they really are’. We are taught in Buddhism that in order to go beyond suffering the crucial focus must be on the fourth noble truth and the cultivation of understanding through the eight steps or three components. But actually it is not the eightfold path that is at the heart of the fourth noble truth. The middle way is at the heart. For only by walking the middle way is it possible to go beyond eternal suffering. The Buddha ‘teased’ out the middle way and systematised it into eight steps to make it possible for most of us to understand this ambiguous concept, to make it possible for us to begin work on ourselves, to fulfil the promise of the fourth noble truth. For those that are of the mind and inclination, however, it is possible to aspire to the fourth noble truth (and the middle way) in a direct way, without going down the developmental route of using the stages and the many conceptual practices required to walk the path in that way. Two traditions that don’t concern themselves with the ‘bits and pieces’ of the path are Zen and Dzogchen. Zen, for example , rather than walk through stages on the path, positions itself at the end of the path (so to speak) where all concepts and developmental stages have dropped away. Zen nurtures a fundamental spirit of openness and completeness from the beginning (sometimes called ‘beginner’s mind’). This I have chosen to call ‘Dharma Mind’. It is like aspiring to the awakened mind right from the beginning of training, the awakened mind free from concepts, ambition and dualities, which abides in the present moment with complete openness and courage.

Q. Hi, I hope this e-mail finds you well. I’ve been practising pure awareness on the cushions every day for the last few months alongside metta bhavana and visualisation practice. I find the practice is enriching and seems like a necessary addition to my spiritual life. I find your comments regarding the hara very helpful and much of the practice seems to be bringing awareness ‘home’ to the hara. At times the experience of doing this simple practice is very energising, powerful and balancing. Sometimes I seem to be aware of my bodily energy in a very different, more alive way. Energy blockages in the neck, shoulders and heart areas start releasing. I find when this happens I want to bring my awareness to these areas to try and release the energies there, but then I remember that I need to bring my awareness ‘home’ to my hara. When I do that, the intensity of energy in the shoulders, neck or heart goes. I can feel a bit dull or disappointed as everything seems so ordinary again, and I wonder if I have missed an opportunity to integrate these energies, which are strong but not centred in the hara. Any comments would be appreciated.

A. You generally cannot release energy by just giving it attention where it happens to be. The best way to work with these experiences is to go to the area with your awareness and ‘drag’ the energy down to the hara with your awareness. By doing this you are returning the wanderer to its home. Once it is there, keep it there, and in this place learn to abide and return throughout your day. In time you will be able to cultivate your meditation in this place as well. This is integrating. There is nothing for you to ‘do’. Just be ordinary. If you feel disappointed, I can only think that you must be expecting something. Maybe somesort of reward or insight? Learn not to go down that route, because I can guarantee you will always be disappointed. Just cultivate the meditation and practice in general without seeking reward, this is the Dharma Mind. For sure, fruit will come from correct practice, but when it will come and in what form is something you will never be able to predict.

Q . I have some major issues with intimacy in my life (and fear of intimacy). It seems that intimacy with myself is as much part of this as intimacy with other people. Could you say something about this, please?

A. Here we have the very basis of our human predicament, the relationship that we have with ourselves. It is precisely this predicament that Dharma addresses and cures. We create duality soon after birth and from there we create a relationship with ourselves, the quality of which depends on many and varied conditions. As individuals we learn to live with that relationship but those of us that are not satisfied with it look for remedies to make it better. Dharma practice can be defined in many ways but for me the most human and accessible definition is to consider it to be a practice of making friends with ourselves. In fact it goes further and says rather than making friends with ourselves we learn to love ourselves. It is a practice that brings together the many conflicting dualities that we are. While we engage in the practice of Dharma we slowly awaken to the truth that the relationship we have with ourselves and our relationships with others actually mirror one another, and we begin to see self and other as not being two, but actually one. We then come to the obvious conclusion that if we like ourselves we cannot help but like others. In fact, it will be impossible for that not to be. The well-known and respected Sri Lankan monk Anandamitreya once said, ‘You cannot love someone until you love yourself – it’s impossible’. Your predicament with intimacy with others is a mirror of your relationship with yourself. Practise the Dharma and learn to go beyond duality, and you will not only be intimate with yourself and others, but the whole of life.

Q . I wonder if you have anything at all to say about the importance, within the context of Dharma practice, of overcoming the tendency to either control or manipulate situations and/or people?

A. For me your question hits right to the heart of what Dharma practice reveals, which is our will to power. It’s what makes the world go around and is the reason for all the suffering that exists. The will to power manifests most clearly in our normal everyday life when we try to control and even (sometimes very subtly) manipulate people or situations (or both) for our own ends. This is the fundamental characteristic of the sense of self. In practising the Dharma we are encouraged to look very closely at ourselves to see who we really are, how we are put together as a person. Thus we slowly come to understand why we act in the way that we do. When we open honestly to ourselves, we see there is nothing we do that doesn’t have something in it for ourselves. More often than not, we come to see that we do things so that they give us a sense of control over our experience. It is as though we are always trying to be on top and in control, for when we find ourselves not in control we feel vulnerable and fearful. With this sense of self we create our sense of separateness. Me here and the world out there. When we feel separate we feel lonely and frightened, and as a result we need to take control of life so as to avoid still more loneliness and fear. We try to manipulate and control life, which in truth can never be controlled and can never be the possession we crave it to be. Because your question hits right to the heart of our makeup, your query cannot be regarded as pointing at an aspect of our personality that we can target specifically and do something about. Rather, we need to see it as something that is addressed through the whole practice of Buddha-Dharma, whether it’s ethics, mindfulness, understanding, or the complete opening up and giving of ourself to the refuges. Like any aspect of our makeup, if you feel that it gets out of control sometimes, bring forth the ethical side of practice through restraint with containment. But to satisfactorily transform our desire to control and manipulate, we need to practise the whole of the path with complete commitment and whole-heartedness.

Q. Some spiritual paths emphasise practitioners receiving assistance (i.e., teachings, blessings, energy, etc.) from non-physical spiritual beings to help their meditation practice, for example, in the Taoist and Tibetan Buddhist paths, deities, bodhisattvas and yidams are utilised and are believed to exist (relatively speaking). What’s your angle on this? As I understand the Dharma, one is generally encouraged to be independent and not rely on these external beings at all.

A. The practice of the Dharma is full of skilful means on offer from the various traditions and schools that help us to engage in practice, which can often be very difficult to put into effect. Calling on the assistance of a deity is one example. Several traditions use them, with the Tibetan tradition the most prolific. We all need help and support, usually quite a lot of the time, in practice, and this highlights the importance of a teacher. The deities can be taken as teachers and have other functions as well when engaged with skilfully. They also have many of the qualities that we need to aspire to in order to break the delusion of self. All skilful means are a means to an end, not the end itself, and the use of deities can be a very potent one. In the context of Buddhism, to me ‘independence’ means not to attach to the world and the unwise, but provisionally attach to the skilful means (wisdom) of Buddhism. It would be impossible to go beyond suffering without doing this to some degree.

Q. There are spiritual paths which believe it is important to receive ‘transmission’ from a guru or spiritual guide (i.e., blessings, energy, etc.) to help their meditation practice. For example in some Hindu, Tibetan and Sufi paths, as I understand the situation, the student ‘surrenders’ and allows the teacher to ‘open them up’ spiritually using their psychic powers so they can have spiritual experiences. Again, what’s your angle on this and do you think it’s a safe and effective method of practice? Is this part of the Theravada tradition?

A. I can only talk from my own experience, and that was to have trust and faith in my teacher and, to the extent that I could, muster up courage to let go of my defences, opening myself to the Dharma that was offered. This I found had immense benefits. I would suggest that so called ‘psychic-power’ is simply the clear vision of a teacher who, no longer blinded by ignorance, can see what is the right teaching for you at any given time. They cannot prise you open like a can opener. It’s only when you open and surrender your entire being with trust that transmission can take place. If you can find someone who you can trust in this profound way, then you would surely discover this to be the best way to practise the Dharma. You empower your teacher by your surrender, but there is always the danger that the teacher will misuse this power. This is the risk you take. It is your decision. This type of spiritual relationship is accepted in all traditions, but not, from my knowledge, particularly emphasised in Theravada.

Q. Dear David, I wonder in your opinion what the relationship is between psychological ‘work’, maybe termed integration, and Awakening? For example, does one need to have dealt with all of one’s psychological stuff before Awakening happens? Or is it more of a case that a reasonable level of integration is needed, which enables a steadiness of mind? From this steadiness of mind we can see how things are sufficiently for Awalkening to happen. Hope the question is clear.

A. It is good to be able to dampen the idea, which many have, that sooner or later you have to go beyond all your ‘stuff’ and become ‘perfect’ before awakening can take place. I’m sure the reader will be relieved to know that you certainly do not need to have reached this lofty height — far from it in fact. Yes, it is true that we need to be reasonably balanced and integrated to be able to do this practice, but most people are. It is only a few that are not able to get themselves started. It is certainly true that much has to be transformed through practice over the years, but even quite ‘heavy’ karma won’t necessarily ‘block the path’ through the final stages leading to the collapse of samsara. Through skilful practice and gradually alighting to the profound state of the middle way, it is possible that many of our unresolved attachments will ‘suspend’ and return when the bodhisattva path is attained, providing you with rich fodder for practice that will take you through the ten stages.

Q. I wonder whether you can clear up some confusion I have regarding the pure awareness practice. I can relatively easily bring stillness to my mind when I meditate. The chattering mind becomes quiet and I can sit with an experience of my own presence and an awareness of the flow of my perceptions. However, there still remains a sense of ‘me’ doing something, i.e., being present and aware. Is this the ‘pure awareness’ practice that you speak about, or in ‘pure awareness’ should there be no longer a sense of a doer? I guess another way of posing this question is whether samatha is a prerequisite for doing the pure awareness practice? Not just concentrating the mind, but samatha in the sense of the cessation of the dualistic mind experience.

A. Not sure what you mean by ‘my own presence’, but the state we are coming into is to be aware without a ‘centre’ – i.e., an observer. We come to this state by being able to let go of all that comes into our experience. At first we start by bringing ourselves back from our distractions through an ever-increasing shining awareness that becomes that letting go. Ideally you don’t use any sort of ‘practice’ however, you may find a samatha practice useful at times to provisionally ‘get you started’. But by having some sort of ‘practice’, you will not be nurturing the true spirit of Pure Awareness, in which we are slowly becoming familiar with the subtle reality of not really doing anything at all. This may take time to mature, so in that time we are in the state you describe. Stay there and be still; there is nothing to do, so any sense of doing something will prevent maturity. The state we are moving towards is so very subtle. It is not a state of trying (or even sometimes forcing) our way towards a ‘goal’. Nor is it a slack state in which we become slothful and dull. We cannot create the true state. It will be there when we let go of all trying and not trying. When this profound state is present, we lose ourselves completely and become lost in our true state — our state before the ‘world’ comes into being — and we become the universe and all that is in it, going truly beyond time and space and birth and death.

Q . When you cry, is that a failure to ‘sit with’ something in the hara? I suppose there are different kinds of crying and some are more emotionally indulgent than others. When I was crying about my cat I felt like I was just BEING with how much I missed him very acutely, and it felt cathartic to cry, though if I was sitting with it I guess it wouldn’t feel cathartic.I’d have to sit with it?

A. In many situations it certainly is not a failure to cry. Crying is a wonderful safety valve and one I myself have made use of several times over the years. In emotional situations during sitting practice we do our best to contain our habitual reactions, but if the emotions become too powerful then we sometimes need to ‘let go’. Sometimes we need to grieve. This is necessary to be emotionally balanced, but when it crosses the line and becomes more like a self-indulgent expression of an ingrained habit, then we need to be careful. There may be a tendency to self-indulge and feel sorry for ourselves. This can be quite an unskilful habit, so it is always good to be aware at these times. If you see that you are crossing that line, then try as best you can to resist falling into what is often an immature state. Feeling sorry for myself was a strong tendency of mine. In pulling myself out of the habit, I felt I was cultivating inner strength, allowing myself to bear-with life’s trials more successfully.

Q. Your site is really a wonderful resource, especially this forum.I have a question regarding insight practice within the general “just sitting” or “open awareness” approach to meditation.(My understanding being that “pure awareness” is not something that can be described as a practice really, as there is no “doer”, but rather as the potential fruit of learning to contain and transform our emotional energies, or life force, as you call it, via opening to them w/o grasping or rejecting.)My question stems from something you mentioned regarding the ability of insight practices to severely undermine our basic sense of duality, of me here andthe world out there.You say for example that the realisation of selflessness (along with the other two “marks” of conditioned existence, dukkha and anicca) won’t come about except as the result of implementing one or another of the insight “tools” intended for burrowing deeply into the knots of our experience. This is clearly an intentional and therefore “willed” practice, and I’m wondering if you could describe the most appropriate approach within the “open awareness” method which you advocate (and which I’ve been practising for about 8 months) toward cultivating, or most readily allowing for the emergence of, insight (without, presumably, resorting to a more formalised approach).I guess my question hinges upon a bit of confusion relative to the basic “not-doing” of open awareness approach, as opposed to the more obviously deliberate approach of any of the insight practices I’ve been exposed to.I want very much to stick with the open awareness practice as I’ve understood it thus far, so would appreciate anything you could say about this.Thank you very much, and best wishes –

A. ‘Open awareness’, I think, may be better described as something more akin to a ‘spirit’ rather than a ‘method’. This to me is where the crucial difference lies between this approach to practice and a more formalised one.Because pure awareness practice doesn’t have an ‘object’ (and therefore no ‘subject’) of practice, how could it be described in any other way? So then how do we describe this so-called ‘spirit’? It is a willingness to open up to and accept all situations that we experience throughout our everyday life. Both during and outside our periods of sitting meditation. This acceptance is certainly not a passive one, but requires inner strength to work against our tendency to fall into old habitual and emotional reactions. To restrain these habitual impulses requires awareness, and, crucially, the spirit to practise through all situations without picking and choosing -carrying on and functioning in as normal a way as we can, so that those around us don’t even know that we are ‘practising’. There is nothing to do but respond to what is in front of us without trying to posses, manipulate or react, which are our normal everyday ways of dealing with things and life in general. This is where we get the notion that there is no practice. This way of practice – if we genuinely take it to all our everyday experiences without picking and choosing which ones we want to apply it to – is immensely difficult. The nature of this practice, like all Dharma practice, is that it will bring up karma from the depths of our being, often so strong, that being able to bring forth the spirit I talk about becomes impossible. Bearing with these ‘blockages’ is a part of what we do, so that in time they lose their strength and fade into the background, so they no longer possess us in the way they use to do. If some things refuse to shift, despite persistent effort and doing your best, making practice difficult or even impossible, you may need to focus on the particular attachment that is giving you this difficulty and give it ‘special treatment’ in order to free the ‘log-jam’. This is where the more traditional ways of practice can come to our aid. In my own experience I found the ‘three signs of being’ to be very helpful in ‘loosening up’ my blockages to dramatic effect. Most of the traditional practices may be helpful. Metta may be used to overcome anger and ill will, for example. Or the very useful formless practices of mindfulness of breathing can be used for several hindrances. In fact, these practices of the breath can always be kept at hand anyway, to help us settle and bring forth our awareness during meditation. So when do we employ one of these ‘skillful means’? This is where your teacher comes in, because a pure awareness practice requires a teacher more than any other kind. They will suggest a particular practice and crucially they will tell you how you need to practise with it in conjunction with the spirit of your open awareness (which will always be there as the supporting framework), and importantly when to drop this ‘expedient means’ and return exclusively to the pure awareness practice. One point worth mentioning here is to always remember that before we return to our own intrinsic awareness, there is first a long path of insight to travel. Slowly we unpick the delusion of self, and therefore much insightful deliberation into our makeup is needed. I would go as far as to say that I doubt there is anyone that would be able to go through their practice without needing a helping hand, at some time or another, from one of the deeply profound tools of orthodox Buddhism. I may also venture to suggest that it is only when in the latter stages of the ten bhumis that ‘just being’ becomes truly possible. But always remember the key is never to lose the open all-embracing spirit that one day will ‘pull the rug’ from under the spell of samsara.

Q. In your book and on retreats you talk of learning to open up to and accept painful negative emotions in a non-judgmental way as they arise during the day as being crucial to transformation in Dharma practice. In this way, you talk of these emotions gradually softening and burning out and of us gradually returning to the natural warmth of the heart, and ultimately our true nature. You also talk of simply containing these emotions and not meddling with or manipulating them when they arise. At the moment, when I meditate, I am experiencing a lot of frustration in the hara and abdominal area, which is sometimes quite painful, to be honest. In working with this, I’m not sure whether to get ‘more intimate’ with this frustration, which sometimes seems to lead to greater ‘wrestling’ with the frustration, or to detach and observe a little ‘back’ from the emotion and simply allow it to be with a ‘sky-like’ attitude -maybe this latter approach is not so effective as it is more dualistic (I am not fully at one with the painful emotion, and therefore less releasing of the emotion can take place). Is there a balance that the practitioner mustfind for themselves?

A. Yes, a balance is very important, especially if the experience in the hara is particularly strong. I would say that if you don’t retain your attention on the hara you run the risk of the energy running away with you, possibly causing trouble. On the other hand, forcing yourself to stay there may not be skillful either. A middle way is always best. Be aware and return to retain familiarity with what you are doing, but also live your life in a normal dualistic way, as you describe it. This way you allow the life-force to naturally feed itself into what you are doing and do its job of keeping you alive in a balanced and healthy way. After all, that is what we are trying to accomplish. The time that you can be most intimate with the energy is during sitting (?) meditation. Learn to take your awareness there and, if you have a subject-meditation, cultivate it from that position. If your meditation is a formless one, then use this experience to centre and ground yourself and from there allow your awareness to ‘fill-out’ and become brighter.

Q. In order for authentic practice to occur, must one’s teacher have attained to the first bhumi?

A. Finding the right teacher can be a bit of a strange and mysterious experience, because I think it is more of an organic and subjective phenomenon than checking someone’s ‘credentials’. I believe that ‘affinity links’ can, and often do, play a major part as we reconnect with someone we once trained with before this life. To me it is much more a feeling that we have found the right person, and that we have the confidence to trust and surrender to their greater wisdom and teaching. A teacher is someone you are able to say yes to when they suggest you do something you are not sure of or are afraid of doing. How much you are able to trust the helping hand of your teacher in your opening to the unknown is the best touchstone by which to judge.

Q. Even diverse traditions seem to agree that pure awareness is itself the path. Both Dogen and Milarepa are of one voice on this point. However, both engaged in many, many relative practices that are very different from one another. Why did they engage in koan study, deity yoga, subtle-body practice, etc, even after attaining to a clear penetration of emptiness? Were they simply mistaken?

A. My own conceit is still very evident, but even I would never venture to suggest that such great sages as these got things wrong! As stated in the answer to a recent question, I believe that pure awareness is more the spirit of practice that embraces all experiences without discrimination as we learn to surrender to that completeness. This to me is the real meaning of taking refuge. This is the framework, the background, the spirit of complete and open Dharma practice that leads to the deepest understanding of reality. Whilst cultivating this ability to just be, we will find from time to time that we will need to employ skillful means in order to maintain this most difficult of practices. What these sages engaged themselves in suited them and no doubt came from their tradition and culture. I’m sure they never saw these various practices as an end in themselves but as a means to assist them in their journey to the higher path

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