Insight meditation and the inner life

The following two talks were given to a daylong workshop in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand on 16 Feb 2019.

Session 1 • Satipaṭṭhāna – seeing the wood, not just the trees

On Wednesday evening, I raised some issues in my talk on secular Buddhism and the western search for meaning around the need to know thyself – the injunction that comes down to us from the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, right down to the benefits we attach to the inner life today, where our search for meaning takes place.

I suggested that the central Buddhist practice of insight meditation based on mindfulness (to use that problematic term for now) is a highly developed approach to opening up our inner lives in the interests of our personal development as reflective human beings, and pursuing our personal search for meaning. The Buddha’s foundational teaching for this meditative practice is the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta (the discourse on the focuses of awareness).

Some teachers – such as Anālayo, the German-born Theravādin monk I’ll return to in a few moments – feel that the Pali word satipaṭṭhāna contains too many nuances to be rendered in English, and they choose to leave it untranslated when referring to the meditation practice it proposes. Instead of that choice, I’ll follow another widespread tendency and refer to this practice as ‘insight meditation’. Note, too that some teachers of some forms of mindfulness meditation also see the discourse in question as the basis of their practice, and translate its title as ‘The discourse on the four foundations of mindfulness’.

What we see when we open up the discourse is a kind of word map. A graphic version of it would look a bit like a thinking person’s hiking map which contains all the features of a particular terrain to facilitate our picking our own way through it without getting lost. So it’s not a strip map, or one that simply stakes out ‘The One True Way’ to a given destination, like a Google map.
In fact, it’s a representation of the whole field through which our awareness might wander. Our attention is doing the hiking, and it’s stalking our mind wherever it goes in the seclusion and repose of a meditation session. Or we might equally consult the map while we’re going about our everyday lives. It provides lots of reference points to help us locate ourselves and our experience, including seeing where we’ve just come from, and what the options are for our next steps.

Today I’m inviting you to think of this discourse (or word map) as an aid to knowing ourselves and opening up our inner lives. But this isn’t how it’s usually presented.
Because of its salience in the Buddha’s tradition, monastic teachers have interpreted and reinterpreted the discourse, and repurposed it, to within an inch of its life. Almost invariably, it comes out the other side bent to a monastic agenda – an ascetic, other-worldly one of ‘purification’ as opposed to self-enlargement – a contrast we discussed on Wednesday evening.

This observation extends to laicised versions of Theravādin vipassanā meditation, which present it as a strip map to get us to a ‘goal’ (an end point and status variously called awakening, nirvana, or liberation) where the usual horrors and highlights of a human life no longer apply.

Before we return to that problem, let’s just get an overview of the discourse.

A glance at the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta

The discourse has a complex structure. To keep the map analogy running for one more step: it identifies four principal areas of human experience that act a bit like the cardinal points or quarters on a map. But instead of north, south, east and west, we have experiences of the body, feeling tone, mind, and conceived phenomena (aspects of experience that have been sorted and can be contemplated along conceptual dharmic lines). Any experience arising at any given moment can be located in one or more of these quarters.

Most maps show north at the top. In much the same way, awareness of the body functions like north on our meditative map. Whatever happens to us – whatever experiences we have – the body is always involved. We go through life as embodied sentient beings, so the body is the anchor at which our awareness rides. Whatever is going on in the other three quarters (or focuses of awareness), it will have bodily ramifications. Think of the needle on our compass – always reminding us where north lies.
Each of the four focuses of awareness (or ‘quarters’ in which experiences arise) has its unique substructure which highlights points of interest. Here’s a starter’s list:

  1. Body – postures (sitting, standing, lying down, walking); bodily activities (including ‘talking’); bodily sensations (including hot and cold); and what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch (the five physical senses); death and decay.
  2. Feeling tone – the instant, often subtle judgment – of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral – that we make every time we feel, see, hear, taste, smell, touch or think something.
  3. Mind – our gamut of moods, emotions and desires, including their presence or absence at any particular moment, and their ethical quality.
  4. Dhammas (‘phenomena’, roughly) – this category concerns how we process and understand our experience in dharmic terms. In the discourse this focus of awareness comprises a ‘list of lists’ – five basic teachings of the Buddha which he repeatedly presented in the form of lists, starting with the ‘five hindrances’
(forms of resistance to awareness); through the five aggregates (‘heaps’ of experiences – khandhas – that constitute human being), the six sense spheres, and the seven awakening factors; to the four tasks/noble truths.

The received version of the discourse that has come down to us ends on an odd note, which the German-born Theravādin monk Anālayo presents in his translation of and commentary on the discourse, Satipaṭṭhāna: the direct path to realization, under his heading, ‘Prediction’: depending on the intensity of the individual’s practice, s/he will arrive at the goal – or at an important staging post on the way thereto – within any time frame ranging from seven years to seven days.

Yes, this is the monastic, ‘purification’ model of human development coming in at the end of the discourse. It reduces this magnificent map to a strip map. The goal is defined in the standard monastic terms: ‘final knowledge’, ‘purification, ‘the end of sorrow and lamentation (dukkha)’, and the realisation of nirvana (nibbāna in Pali).

The choice of purification

We should note that Stephen Batchelor treats the ‘prediction’ section sceptically. It might have been added later, and thus be apocryphal. It reads too much like a promo. And the discourse as it now stands incorporates the doctrine of the ‘Four Noble Truths’ – which certainly seems to have been a later bolt-on onto the discourse as it stood at the time of the Buddha’s death.

As it stands, though, the discourse ends up in what analysts of religion call a soteriology: a doctrine of salvation or redemption that promises some sort of heavenly endpoint. As heavens go, this one isn’t particularly alluring. It’s not promising pink clouds, choirs of angels, occupancy of one of God’s many mansions, or even 72 virgins. It’s basically offering extinction: ‘Poof! Gone!’ as one prominent monk put it a few years ago.

Why? Because in this monastic framework, extinction means escaping the hell of human life as ordinary mortals experience it, and as they’re endlessly reborn into it, because of their attachments in it. Final purification from those attachments puts an end to all that. If we subscribe to a hell-on-earth view of our human destiny, then of course we’ll eventually see how all our worldly ties bind us to the endless round of misery and rebirth. So why not make a beeline for this promised escape hatch at the end of our spiritual development?

Needless to say, I don’t think we should buy the opening premise in this strategy. And if we don’t buy it – I’m suggesting – we need to keep treasuring the discourse, but be prepared to repurpose it. (Many have already done just that.) But before we go any further, I want to open a little parenthesis and put in a good word for Anālayo.

Anālayo’s Satipaṭṭhāna sutta

Since 2003, Anālayo has published three erudite books on the discourse. They’ve become more user-friendly each time. The latest came out just a few months ago: Satipaṭṭhāna meditation: a practice guide. It’s the best discussion I’ve come across of what the discourse has to offer someone seeking to know themselves through insight meditation. It brings the dynamics and conceptual treasures of the discourse to life in a highly accessible way. Without dumbing them down. I commend it to you wholeheartedly, but with the caveat that I’ve already signalled: the purification and soteriological model running through it.

That said, Anālayo makes clear the way the commentarial tradition diverges from the original Pali text of the discourse, and he illuminates aspects of the practice in helpfully striking ways. Perhaps the most important example of this is his riff on that crucial little four-letter Pali word sati – the first component in the compound word satipaṭṭhāna. Sati (awareness, mindfulness, recollective awareness) is the fulcrum of the whole practice. Like almost all Indo-European languages, Pali ascribes gender to nouns, and sati is feminine.

At the perhaps acceptable risk of essentialising gender, Anālayo suggests we cultivate sati as a constant friend always at hand, and a feminine presence at that. So sati – awareness – goes everywhere with us. She’s soft and gentle, but alert; highly receptive, and capable of giving birth to new and wiser perspectives – especially those that open the heart to compassion and bless us with reflectivity and wisdom. She readily forgives us when we blank out and forget about her. She doesn’t align with a forceful, dissociated sort of attention or hyper-attentiveness ‘that requires strained effort in order to be maintained’ (p.7).

A secular approach to satipaṭṭhāna meditation in brief

Let’s reframe our meditation practice to serve the aspiration to deepen and enlarge our humanity rather than leaving it and its life-world behind as an irredeemable vale of tears. We take sati’s hand and invite this human body-and-mind to reveal its contents. At first it might look like an uncharted jungle in there, but that’s the nature of the beast, and that’s okay.

We have the body as a constant, grounding reference point. Never leave home without your body! At the beginning, and at any subsequent stage, we can ‘check in’ to the body, by watching our breathing, taking note of our posture, and of what we’re doing in the physical realm. And sati holds the map.

We should pass up artificial navigation aids, such as technical instructions and supposed milestones on our way. We have no use for formulas. We follow our experience wherever it leads us, and we have the map to reveal to us where we find ourselves at any given moment.

We’re not heading towards a goal, or chasing any particular experience. We don’t need to be ‘redeemed’, or ‘saved’ – swept off to some post-human, post-suffering plane of existence that would in fact demean our human dignity.

Instead, we’re patiently exploring our inner world and getting to know its myriad inhabitants. We’re clarifying ourselves, becoming more connected, balanced and intelligent. We need to be alert to these processes. Gradually patterns will reveal themselves and ethical discrimination will arise, especially as we master the conceptual framework of the discourse – that is, of the dharma itself – in the course of our meditative lives. And our insights will have the supreme authority of our very own experience.

Session 2 • Old and new forms of resistance to the inner life

On Wednesday night, and in the previous session today, I was assuming that we were all on the same page in embracing the inner life. Why would any of us have come to this workshop otherwise? I imagine most of us would agree with Socrates in affirming the examined life as the only one worthy of a human being. What, after all, would an unexamined life look like?

It would look like going through the day – or year, or decade, or lifetime – putting one foot after the other, doing what those all around as are doing; making habitual responses to the demands of the moment; choosing, acting, speaking (or shouting) without reflecting; avoiding ever asking where it’s all headed; never evolving; never deepening or expanding; never tapping into a richer vein.

The Pali term conventionally translated as ‘rebirth’ actually means repetitive existence. Going round and round in circles, or ‘the wheel of life’ as the Tibetans call it. And wheels going round and round a circuit make ruts. Now that really is something worth giving a swerve! Which is what the inner life – the search for meaning – is all about.

Of course, meditation is just one way into the inner life. It can be summoned up in many other ways: walking in nature, listening to the sounds of nature or meaningful music, keeping a secret diary, intimate correspondence or conversation with people close to us, spending time with works of art, reading good literature, engaging in artistic expression ourselves, or even just living reflectively.

Perennial forms of resistance

The benefits of cultivating the inner life might make it sound like a no-brainer, but resistance to the inner life has been going on since time immemorial. Otherwise Socrates wouldn’t have bothered pointing out the importance of the examined life. In Hannah Arendt’s view (her Exhibit A being Adolf Eichmann), lack of reflection underpins what she called ‘the banality of evil’.

The Buddha dealt with resistance to the meditative process in one of his core teachings – already mentioned in the previous talk under the rubric of the fourth focus of awareness – in the form of the five hindrances: craving for sense contact, aversion in all its manifestations, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety, and shilly-shallying doubt.

Freud identified ‘resistance’ as the principal obstacle to the psychoanalytic process (another road into the inner life) as it manifested in free association. I’m pretty sure he was addressing the same problem that the Buddha did – the drive to skate along on the surface, no matter how thin the ice underfoot is.

Early Protestant theologians even raised resistance to ‘the inner probe’ to the dignity of a pious virtue, and their legacy is alive and well today. If people looked inside and pondered their wretched chaotic lives, the theologians argued, they’d become terminally depressed, if not actually disobedient. To avoid that, the pious Christian should remain perpetually busy.

God rewards busy people by making them rich – a surefire sign of His approval and blessing, went the argument. This was music to the ears of pioneering capitalists and their successors. So we find an archetypal busy capitalist, Henry Willcox, in EM Forster’s 1910 novel, Howard’s End, boasting: ‘I am not a fellow who bothers about my own inside.’

We still live in cultures that affirm busyness as a virtue in itself, and those under its spell brusquely dismiss any form of reflection and contemplation. ‘Don’t ask a busy man like me to think about life, death, and the meaning of it all! Let alone sit around on a cushion doing nothing!’ (The time-poverty of my fellow Sydneysiders is legendary!) I imagine that all of us who meditate regularly have come up against this sort of attitude, and found it difficult to justify ourselves in the face of it.

Another form of resistance to the inner life is distraction. Consumerist culture – ‘the greed and titillation society’, as Donald Horne put it – also self-evidently subverts the inner probe. In the case of the dharma at least, the inner probe depends on a degree of ‘seclusion and not clinging to anything in the world’, our friend Anālayo writes, channelling the Buddha.

Before we go further into the problem of distraction as resistance to the inner life, we might pause to consider the superficial unattractiveness of the inner probe that fuels the resistance, given the human condition itself.

Here’s the great novelist Iris Murdoch’s view of that condition, as summarised by the British philosopher and literary critic Galen Strawson:

We are limited, imperfect, unfinished, and full of blankness and jumble. We [are] unable to domesticate the senseless rubble aspect of human life, the ‘ultimately unintelligible mess’. We are divided creatures, distracted creatures, extended, layered, pulled apart, our minds are ragbags, as we struggle with fear and muddle (nothing is more evident in human life), with the invincible variety, the unmasterable contingency of the world, with moments of senseless horror and ‘scarcely communicable frightfulness’… Egoistic anxiety veils the world. It sets up a haze of self-protective illusion. The mind is ‘besieged and crowded’ by selfish dream life. It is hard to exaggerate our capacity for egoistic fabrication and ‘rat-like fantasies’. We cannot see things as they are.

Welcome to the tiger’s cave, my friends! Those old Protestant theologians had a point, then, didn’t they? Choosing to spend time exploring this inner landscape demands a certain amount of self-confidence and intestinal fortitude. A meditative sit isn’t always a dance on roses, even with our friend sati by our side. Fear and loathing of the inner world – of the mind itself – has become so intense that it has, according to Christopher Bollas, attracted a psychoanalytic name: psychophobia.

Resistance in the digital age

Thanks to our sped-up lives and new ‘information and communication technologies’, our distractedness has ballooned. In Net loss: the inner life in the digital age, a brilliant essay in defence of an inner life under threat, Sebastian Smee writes: ‘Today, being human means being distracted. It is our new default setting.’ When we occupy that default setting, inner life eludes us, making us different, drastically reduced selves.

To be clear: the new technologies haven’t forced the recent changes on us. The problem lies in how we deploy it and build it into our way of being in the world – allowing it to become a bad master rather than a good servant. As a good servant it can help us achieve skilful purposes – witness the #MeToo movement.

But as a bad master, the new technologies accelerate our pre-existing resistance to looking inside and to acknowledging ‘the whole catastrophe’ that awaits us in there. It encourages our propensity to split off aspects of our inner worlds that we find painful; that don’t fit some template or other, including our own self-preening delusions; or that we deem unfit for public consumption.

In the first instance, what we post on a social-media platform masks our inner selves by creating what Smee calls a performative self – in many instances a performer desperate for approval and applause – not just in editing what is revealed and concealed about her/his reality, but doing so in the debased language that these platforms support. This is a language stripped of nuance, doubt and ambiguity; it consists largely of clichés, platitudes, stock phrases (often reduced to their initials, like OMG), emoticons, and thumbs-up and thumbs-down signs. It’s a language that lends itself to the abrupt, ‘emphatic non-sequiturs’ that typify social-medial utterances, such as Trump’s tweets.

The tragedy is that over time we can gradually become these inarticulate caricatures of ourselves. They become naturalised. They become who we are to ourselves. Which is precisely what the owners of the platforms require. Those who use social media platforms constitute the platform-owners’ products to be on-sold to advertisers. These products need to be reduced to the labellable and quantifiable units that can be factored into algorithms and targeted for micro-marketing.

We can link the art critic Sebastian Smee’s alarm at what’s happening to our inner lives to that sounded (also last year) by the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. He embeds his diagnosis of the inner life’s current plight in a bold historical survey of successive, culturally induced ‘frames of mind’.

In our digital age, he suggests, we arrive at ‘transmissive selves’ who melt themselves into various sharing circuits, and receive and re-transmit so-called ‘information’, often intensively. There’s no search for truth going on here, just the need to remain networked in some sense to virtual ‘friends’. Which largely consists in sharing trivia and everyday logistics, and imposes conformity and the subliminal attitudes that underpin the process. Bollas refers to the conformism of the transmissive self as ‘normopathy’ – being abnormally normal.

Becoming hyper-connected transmissive selves doesn’t liberate us or add something to our lives – it reduces us, squanders our attention, and ties us to a standardised, hollowed-out way of being in the world. And of course, it militates against our delving into our inner lives.

The meditative life in the digital age

The Buddha thought it worthwhile to name the forms of resistance to the inner life that he encountered long before our complex societies and technologies arose. Maybe he was applying the strategy of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer.

The rewards of pursuing a meditative life are invaluable, but we do need to be alert to cultural factors that tend to obstruct our pursuit – as well as those on his original list. As many great meditation teachers have shown, the hindrances can be our teachers – they constrain us to look at negative aspects of the mind that we need to acknowledge and let go of. We can apply the same strategy to today’s cultural obstacles, including those sporting the blandishments of digital devices.