Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Narration Cessation

To continue with my report on the Tejaniya-style retreat I attended at Spirit Rock earlier this month, when giving instructions the morning after we arrived, one teacher jauntily said something like, “You know how we normally choose an object, such as the breath, and focus on it? We’re not doing that on this retreat.” From that, I thought we were not supposed to attend to sense objects, but only to pure mind itself, which was perplexing: would I know it when I perceived it? Doing my best, I spent the day wholeheartedly trying to withdraw my attention from sense objects and notice the mind itself. Yes, that was a rather strange day, and I was glad to learn that was not what the teacher had intended to convey.

For one thing, we need sense objects in order to know the mind, by noticing the mind’s responses of liking or disliking. Besides noticing the attitude in the mind, we can notice whether our attention is restless or steady, tired or alert. We can have a general sense of knowing that we’re knowing something, but we can’t really study the mind itself for long in the absence of an object, such as a physical sensation or sound or sight. One teacher said that the moment when we awake from a reverie is a moment when we can know the mind without an object, but that this is fleeting. So, trying not to notice sense objects was not the prescription, but rather to use them as helpful, with the aim being to put equal or greater attention, or nearly all of our attention, on the mind’s response to objects and its manner of noticing them, or on the open sense of awareness underlying that.

But without a lot of noting! That was also challenging. I’ve gotten very used to noticing what I’m doing throughout the day, via or accompanied by quite a bit of narration: stepping, reaching, lifting …

But Sayadaw U Tejaniya says noting is not necessary, so I spent another day—fortunately, not the same one as the one where I was trying not to notice sense objects—attempting to eschew silent self-talk completely, and found that rather rudderless and disorienting.

Over the next days, I decided to eliminate two categories of self-talk and retain two others. I’ve been in the habit, when sitting in meditation, of making a note when I cease being lost in thought: “planning,” for instance. But by the time I apply this note, I’m no longer planning. It’s basically just a way of announcing to myself what I was doing a moment ago, and from the rather loud volume of these mental notes, it’s clear that they’re also a way of scolding the mind for doing what it does naturally. I know when I’m no longer lost in thought. I don’t need to announce it by noting “awake” or the like, and certainly don’t need to name what is no longer even happening, though it’s been worthwhile to do in the past in order to get an idea of where my mind habitually goes. I’m now very clear on that: It’s a whole lot of planning, including a whole lot of thinking of things to say in the future, verbally, or via email or blog post.

Another category of self-talk that doesn’t seem needed is to note what is going on in daily life: turning, bending, placing. This merely drains a bit of attention from the experience itself. I have also noticed, since returning from this retreat, that I’m in the habit of plastering over boring experiences, such as walking up or down stairs, or waiting for a glass to fill with water, with metta phrases. Aha!

A helpful form of self-talk, I think, is reminders now and then of what I’m intending to practice: relaxed continuous awareness. Also useful are questions that can stimulate wakefulness or understanding, such as, per a handout we were given at the retreat, do I want something? Do I want something to happen? Do I want something to stop happening? And, of course, in times of emotional distress, one will want to employ Ezra Bayda’s excellent questions: What thought am I believing? What do I feel entitled to?

(Ezra Bayda's books: highly recommended.)

It was mentioned by the teachers that this is a very simple practice, just being aware in a relaxed way, not trying to achieve a certain state or drill into a certain experience. They also said that when you get into noticing what the mind is up to, it can become quite fascinating. I don’t know if I’m quite there yet, but I did come to very much appreciate the simplicity and ease. One teacher said in a group interview that if you spent the day just noticing whether or not your mind and body were relaxed, you’d be doing this practice.

Since this style of practice was new to most of us, they lent us copies of one of Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s three books, which was helpful. To paraphrase, he writes something like, “Can you feel your hands holding this book? That is all the effort that is needed, but applied continuously.”

Another thing that was different on this retreat was no individual interviews, only groups. My group was the same seven people each time, and in the course of the retreat, we met once with each teacher. I really liked this approach, because it gave the sense of having a little meditation team within the larger sangha, and you got the benefit of hearing the experiences of others and what the teacher had to say in response, and it also seemed to cut way down on personal history review and the resulting upheaval. When you have a teacher to yourself for ten minutes or so, it’s very tempting to begin your answer to the question “How is it going?” with “Well, I have to start by saying that two years ago … ”

A final post on this retreat is forthcoming. Or maybe two!
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