May 19, 2014

An Outline of Practice

UPDATE! Based on people’s comments and my own further ruminations, I somewhat revised and substantially extended the article described and linked to in this post. You can find the revised version here.

May 15, 2014

Duration Training

By Alec Perkins from Hoboken, USA (Mile 25.5, NYC Marathon  Uploaded by victorgrigas) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Two questions I frequently get asked are:

  • Is there a way to speed up my growth in mindfulness?
  • How can I maintain the deep place I get to during retreats after I return to daily life?

My standard answer for both of these questions is to suggest that people utilize what I call the Three Accelerators: Trigger Practice, Duration Training, and Challenge Sequences. The Three Accelerators have the effect of “pushing the envelope” of one’s practice.

I’ve described Trigger Practice in this blogpost and Challenge Sequences in this blogpost. I’d like to complete the triad by writing about Duration Training here.

Duration Training refers to learning how to maintain “practice in stillness” for longer and longer periods of time. By practice in stillness I mean formal practice where you don’t move much or at all. One traditional form of Duration Training is known as adhiṭṭhāna (strong determination sitting [which I talk about here] or “breaking through a posture”). In adhiṭṭhāna, you decide to sit for a period of time (1 hour, 2 hours, 3 hours, 4 hours, a day, a week…) with little or no voluntary movement. If you’ve never tried this, it may sound daunting if not impossible. But remember you can gradually work your way up to this sort of thing.

“Duration Training” generalizes the practice of adhiṭṭhāna by allowing more leeway for customization. With regard to postures, you can do it sitting on floor, sitting in chair, standing in place, holding a yoga posture, or even lying down. With regard to voluntary motion, the options range from absolutely no voluntary motion at all (not even re-straightening your spine) to allowing for small posture adjustments to allowing for moving just enough to relieve pain or even briefly using the washroom.

For most types of duration training, pain and other types of physical discomfort eventually become a major issue. I’ve spoken extensively on how to work with physical discomfort here, here, here, and here.

If you’re doing duration training in a lying down posture, there may be no physical discomfort but sleepiness and the temptation to move the body in small ways can become issues. If you’re able to avoid sleepiness and willing to keep the body perfectly still, you can do lying down Duration Training for very long periods of time (say, 6-8 hours) with relative ease. The lying down version of Duration Training may seem like cheating relative to the seated or standing version but it can take you quite deep and has a bit of a tradition. Lying down was the posture of choice for meditation in certain schools of Greek philosophy. The technical name for this was incubate.

Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when doing any form of Duration Training.
  • Do nothing that would objectively damage the body (if you’re limping for an hour after a sit, that’s a sign you should have allowed yourself some microadjustments or utilized some other posture).
  • You don’t have to push the duration envelope during every sit (or even most sits) but it’s good  to do so (at least occasionally). In other words, don’t never sit past your current comfort point.
  • The goal is to gradually work through all physical, mental, and emotional challenges that might arise as you extend a practice period, i.e., to reach the point where you could (in theory!) maintain the stillness posture indefinitely. (Don’t freak out! You’ve got years, decades, to gradually learn how that's done.)
Duration training is based on a freeing perspective about how to achieve unconditional happiness. The assignment: “Find happiness independent of conditions!” is a daunting one. Where does one start? What direction do you turn towards in order to make that journey? It’s difficult to get a tangible sense of how to go about getting unconditional happiness. On the other hand, the assignment: “gradually deconstruct all sources of unhappiness!” is tangible. You can do that through experiencing each source of unhappiness so fully that it literally becomes clarified, i.e., transparent and insubstantial. As pain, confusion, fear, and such, become transparent, the light of unconditional happiness, which was always there, can now shine through.

Recently at my retreats, we started designating a 4-hour block in the afternoon for (optional!) Duration Training. Surprisingly, it’s turned out to be quite popular. For years we’ve offered the option to sit part or all of the night. Such extracurricular sitting is called yaza (夜坐) in Japanese Zen monasteries (ya 夜= night; za 坐 = zazen = sitting practice). I wanted to have an analagous term for the duration training option, so I coined a Japanese neologism yūza (yū 雄= heroic; za 坐 = sit).

May 11, 2014

How To Be Comfortable With Everyone

It’s very common for people on a meditative or spiritual path to develop a kind of sensitivity to the poison and pain of others. Sometimes it’s formulated with the phrase “I pick up all this negativity.” Sometimes it’s formulated with the phrase “People drain my energy.” A closely related perception runs something like this: “Now that I've developed some spiritual maturity, I find it difficult to relate to old friends/family/ordinary people; they so cluelessly cause themselves unneeded suffering; I no longer have much in common with them.”

Regarding such sentiments, there are several things to keep in mind. First: They represent a temporary stage that the practitioner eventually grows out of. Second: When you do grow out of it, it’s replaced by its exact opposite: the more clueless and messed up people are, the more you enjoy being around them. You can make the transition from that temporary stage to its opposite by realizing this:
When we’re around other people, we pick up on where they’re at. If they’re in a bad place, we pick up on that. One might refer to that as exogenous discomfort. It's discomfort whose origin (genesis) is from the outside (exo), i.e., you’re feeling uncomfortable because of what is going on in someone else. The term exogenous contrasts with the term endogenous. Endogenous discomfort is discomfort due to our own stuff. The main point to remember is that the discomfort, endogenous or exogenous, typically comes up as some combination of mental image, mental talk, and emotional body sensation. To the extent that one can experience that sensory arising completely, to that extent it does not cause suffering. It doesn't matter one wit whether the source of suffering is exogenous or endogenous or some combination of both. By “experience it completely” I simply mean experience it mindfully, i.e., experience it in a state of concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity.
When the discomfort is endogenous and you experience it very mindfully, it doesn’t cause much suffering, it “tastes” like you’re being purified. When the discomfort is exogenous and you experience it very mindfully, not only does it not cause suffering, but it tastes like you and the other person both are being purified. In other words, how your consciousness processes another’s pain subtly teaches that person’s consciousness to do the same. The other person may not be aware that’s happening, but you’re aware of it. You’re aware that you are nourishing that person, and that subtly nurtures you. That’s why you eventually come to enjoy being around clueless messed up people. Paraphrasing the Blues Brothers, you’re “on a secret mission from God.” You walk through life like a giant air filter picking up the psychospheric pollution and automatically processing it, extracting from it energy and then radiating that energy as positivity. You know your job and you love it: recycling the karmic trash.

Collecte des déchets à Paris
By Kevin B

Needless to say, it may take a while to work up to this, but everyone on a path should aspire to this perspective.

This situation contrasts in an interesting way with the goals of psychology. In certain therapeutic approaches, the goal is to get the client to the point where they can distinguish “what’s me” from “what’s them.” In contemplative-based spirituality, the goal is to get to the point where you no longer care about that distinction!