2021-04-23 Harmony of Zen and Vipassanā (5 of 5) Prescriptive and Descriptive
3:38AM Apr 24, 2021
new york city
My friends, we have come to the end of this week. For these days I have been presenting the basic, simplest way of teaching mindfulness that we do here at Insight Meditation Center and parts of the Western vipassanā world.
The so-called instructions in mindfulness practice – instructions to be mindful of breathing, body, emotions, and thoughts. Instructions to be aware of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: body, feelings, mind states, and what is called dharmas, the inner processes that either lead to suffering or to freedom.
There are other instructions – "This is what you do," "Focus here," and "Focus your attention this way." This can give the idea that we are doing. That this is a doing practice. We are doing something with awareness and attention, directing it someplace. It is a fine instruction to do that. It is wonderful to be engaged, fully involved in whatever the task is at hand. It could be for meditation as well. But the doing sometimes comes with extra baggage. There can be a lot of self involved in any kind of doing, even as simple as bringing awareness to something.
We are checking ourselves out as we do it. "Am I doing it the right way?" "Am I doing it well enough?" "I can't do this." "The person next to me meditating is probably doing it better." Or "I'm the best one," or something. All these can be very subtle, almost subconscious, these little attitudes like, "This is too difficult for me."
When I was a young student, I had the idea that if it was happening to me, it was not the right experience. I could never get it right, because I had this subtle, almost subconscious idea, that it was never right, because it was where I was. It was painful. It is painful even to say that I used to be that way.
Or the subtle idea that there was always somewhere else to be. Somewhere else that was the "It," the experience to have. Always this kind of dissatisfaction with what was happening. And that came along with that doing.
Other times I discovered that there was such pristine purity or simplicity in the doing. I would forget myself in the doing of all kinds of things: gardening, cooking, or different activities. The same with this simple mindfulness of breathing. I would give myself over to it completely. Any sense of me being the doer drops away. I am so completely in it. So simple, and there is so little attitude.
There are still instructions of where to bring your attention, what to do. Mindfulness instructions can be seen as prescriptive. This is what you do.
Another way of understanding these mindfulness instructions is that they are not prescriptive, but descriptive. They are describing what awareness is noticing. There is no actively searching for something, trying to do something, trying to get something or make something happen.
Rather it is like settling back in a nice easy chair, and just noticing – being aware of what comes into awareness. We are sitting quietly, and this loud sound happens outside and that has just arisen in awareness. The mindfulness describes what we are aware of, "Oh, that's what it is."
Not that we are actively describing. It is more like the instructions are describing. It is like, "Oh, okay." If the inhale arises, then we know the inhale. Not because we are practicing mindfulness of breathing, per se, as an intentional act. We just know that this is what is being known. We know that this is what has arisen.
The description of mindfulness being all encompassing means that there is an openness to awareness, openness to our sense of presence. That awarenss is, you could say, receptive. It receives whatever is coming and going, whatever is arising and happening.
To say receptive is already a bit too much of that prescriptive thing – like, "Okay, now I have to be receptive." It is more like the windows have been opened, and maybe you hear the sounds of the birds or the breeze comes into the house. It is not that we are intending for the breeze or wanting to hear the birds, it is just that this is what arises.
We have eyes, ears, nose, tongue and sensations of our body. As we sit, what is known? What is known here? What are we aware of? What comes into awareness? This way of practicing – where mindfulness is more a description of what we know, than a prescription of what to do – is how things begin to shift in practice. Awareness shifts when there is enough stability, when there is enough ability to not wander off in thought and the mind being scattered.
It may take a long time to settle down. To learn to recognize the forces of distraction, the hindrances, and the power of the desiring mind. And to let all that come to rest, to soften, let go and quiet. To be able to be here, fully in the present moment, in a simple, very ordinary way, nothing special. Not trying to do anything, except allowing ourselves to be here, and being open.
At some point the practice has more of a descriptive than a prescriptive quality. What helps to get there is that we know ourselves well. One of the strengths of mindfulness practice is that we are learning to pay careful attention to recognize many different dimensions of what is happening in the present moment.
If the Buddha popped into modern society, somehow he teleported from ancient India to a metropolitan city, say New York City, he was not prepared for the experience. However, he knows how to be present. He is there for the experience. He feels the experience, knows the experience, knows himself well. He walked all over India, so he starts walking through New York City. He does not know the difference between a curb and a road, what the lines on the road mean, or what traffic lights are. He cannot read English. He does not know what a one-way street is. There is a lot of stuff he does not know. He is going to get into trouble pretty quickly walking the streets of New York. It may be a silly example, but the same way with our minds. If we do not know aspects of our minds, we do not even know what we do not know.
When I was a new practitioner, I did not have an image of myself as being an angry person. There was a way in which I did not recognize when I was angry. It was outside of my blinders, outside of what I would notice. I did not recognize a whole range of emotions, or how to bring them into awareness. As I got the mindfulness instructions, in mindfulness of emotions, I started, "Oh, look at that, I didn't know that. All these things."
My ability to be aware – in a descriptive way, in this choiceless awareness way, just aware of what is there – expanded now into a new realm. The world was not so narrow of what I became aware of.
When I used to focus only on my breathing in meditation, sometimes I felt quite present and wonderful, sometimes free in good ways. But it was all within a narrow domain. Through my life I have learned to open up and see more that it is not that I actively, intentionally practice with all these realms. They are just there as part of the territory.
Just like for you, if you are driving through New York City, you are not consciously, actively studying the lines on the road to interpret what they are. Or looking at a red six sided stop sign thinking, "What is that?" It is second nature to see that as you are driving along. The same thing – as we learn the territory, learn the vocabulary, learn the letters, learn the map of our own experience – then the freedom we receive, the freedom that we have, in the awareness of all things, starts becoming more and more inclusive.
There is a balance between practicing to discover what is here, and practicing to allow what is here. These two practices go together well. They are mutually supportive. Sometimes it seems like I am doing more of one; sometimes I am doing more the other. The discovery part sometimes is a little more prescriptive like, "This is what I'm doing." The allowing part, just being free in the middle of stuff, is more descriptive. It is just, "Oh, this is what's happening in my experience."
I hope what I say gives you something to think about, explore and adds some richness to the practice of meditation, the practice of awareness. I hope it does not make you busy. Hopefully, you have this sense of the metaphor of the mind: awake, aware, clear, resting in an easy chair, aware of what is happening. Thank you.
I have a couple of announcements. One is that these 7am sittings will continue now for the next two weeks, in a wonderfully different way. This week that I taught was part of a three week series called the Harmony of Zen and Vipassanā. This week I was trying to teach Vipassanā in a way that harmonizes with Zen.
The next two weeks, my dear friends, Paul Haller and Fu Schroeder will give the teachings. They are Zen teachers. Both are senior teachers at the San Francisco Zen Center. Fu is currently the Abbess of the Green Gulch Zen Center. They are dear, wonderful friends. People I have tremendous Dharma respect for. Their Dharma and their practice is really inspiring.
I feel very fortunate that they will come here and participate in this, our 7am community. Paul will do it next week for these five days, and then Fu will do the last five days.
Because this is the last time I am going to be here, for the next two weeks, I wanted to say that on May 8th, Saturday morning, we are going to have a new, and I think wonderful event. There will be a a five week series called Mindfulness Meditation and Practice Circle for Black identified Practitioners. If you are Black identified, you can come together with other Black and African American folks with a wonderful teacher named Anne Royce. I met her this year. She is studying chaplaincy with me. She is a profound and longtime practitioner. One of the wonderful aspects of her background, in terms of the Zen and Vipassanā thing that we are doing this week, is she was a student of Suzuki Roshi, some 50 years ago. So she is a longtime practitioner and wise person. There is information about this on IMC website – at different places – the IMC calendar and in the What's New section.
Thank you all very much and and I look forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks. I also look forward to being here with all of you as my wonderful friends offer their teachings. Thank you.