A note posted to the email list for Eugene Cash’s San Francisco sangha recommended the book Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising, by Rob Burbea, a teacher at Gaia House in England. I looked it up on Amazon and saw that Joseph Goldstein, in the foreword, calls it “remarkable.”
Since Joseph Goldstein had praised it, I asked Modern Times to order it for me and I am working my way slowly through it. It is not as exquisitely written as Joseph Goldstein’s own exceedingly lucid works, but is perfectly clear and understandable, the more so due to Burbea’s helpful and frequent use of examples.
An early stumbling block was the author’s recommendation to orient formal practice toward samadhi, or concentration, though it is wisdom—insight—that ultimately liberates us from suffering. It is often explained that a collected mind more easily sustains its attention on phenomena for the purpose of gaining insight; Burbea mentions that, plus several more reasons why concentration practice—via metta practice or using the breath or whole body as an object—is beneficial.
This was a stumbling block because for the past year and a half, I’ve been practicing in the style of Sayadaw U Tejaniya, who emphasizes being aware of our relationship to whatever we’re observing, and how cause and effect are operating, rather than aiming for a steady attention on whatever the object is. He suggests that if you pay attention to the breath, you’ll know all about the breath, but won’t necessarily know how suffering is created and ended.
Accordingly, in my daily sitting practice, I simply sat down, noticed whatever I noticed, and noticed my relationship to it: did I like it, not like it, want it to go away, want more of it? To some extent I used my chest and belly area as an anchor, and I made a point of noticing if I was noticing anything or not—if I was tuned in or drifting off into thought—but by no means was I attempting to steady my attention on any particular object.
And I didn’t want to, because I have loved this Tejaniya-style practice, and I know that I am easily influenced: if I were to start conducting my practice as Burbea recommends, soon Tejaniya would be but a memory. However, there seemed no point in closing my mind to Burbea’s advice at the very beginning of his 421-page book, so I decided just to do what he said and either I will return to Tejaniya later or not.
I took my whole body as my object but was initially attending to the breath enough that I was getting headaches, which is what always happens when I attend to the breath, but Burbea emphasizes a playful, experimental approach, and I settled into a very agreeable practice of sensing the whole body in a general way, now and then reminding myself that my goal is relaxed, spacious, continuous awareness—words from Tejaniya—and always remembering that I’m not going for any particular experience, but simply to know my experience moment by moment. Continuity of knowing, regardless of what is known. In a way, it’s good when there is an unpleasant body sensation, as is frequently the case, at least in a minor way. (Howie lately observed, “The body has a ton of unpleasant sensations.” Yes, it does.) It’s good because it’s harder to ignore. It naturally draws the mind.
So far I have noticed three fruits from this practice: I feel much calmer during the rest of the day. My dreams at night have much more extended storylines, rather than a little snippet of this and a little snippet of that. (F. calls this “cinematic power dreaming.” As always, I have high hopes for my lucid dreaming practice.) And I finally have an understanding of what is meant by “appetizer.” (To be explained in next post.)