Meditation, Mindfulness, and Technique…

General discussion of issues related to Theravada Meditation, e.g. meditation postures, developing a regular sitting practice, skillfully relating to difficulties and hindrances, etc.
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Meditation, Mindfulness, and Technique…

Post by mikenz66 » Sat Apr 11, 2009 9:11 am

I'm interested in views on to what extent meditators go off track by having the wrong view about their practice and whether much meditation practise is, in fact, counterproductive.

I've had discussions from time to time with Robert and other followers of Ajahn Sujin's Abhidhamma-based approach to the Path. This approach emphasises the development of Right View and it is sometimes suggested that almost any sort of formal meditation practise is necessarily misguided as the meditator is trying to "get something" or "develop something" and in the process just enhances a sense of self.

Abhidhamma in Daily life, by Nina Van Gorkom writes:
So long as one has not become a sotapanna one may deviate from the right Path, there can be wrong practice. There is wrong practice when, for example, one thinks that there should be awareness only of particular kinds of nama and rupa, instead of being aware of whatever kind of nama or rupa appears. People may for example believe that lobha, dosa and moha should not or cannot be objects of mindfulness. However, akusala cittas are realities which arise because of their appropriate conditions, they are part of one’s daily life. If one selects the objects of awareness, one will continue to cling to a concept of self who could exert control over one’s life. Some people believe that vipassana can only be developed when sitting in a quiet place, but then they set rules for the practice, and thus, they will not be able to see that mindfulness too is anatta.
My general response to such criticisms is that they do have a point, and presumably some teachers teach badly, but that the teachers I know recognise such problems. However, perhaps it is worth considering such warnings carefully.

Something that came up in a recent discussion with Robert and Alexander on E-Sangha was that what many teachers call “mindfulness” (sati) is actually “perception” (sanna) and that we can’t actually force sati to happen, it just arises due to conditions.

Interestingly, Joseph Goldstein points out exactly this in a talk I listened to recently - that paying attention to things (e.g. the “noting” in Mahasi-style practise) is sanna. However, according to the Abhidhamma, sanna is one of the proximate causes for sati (the other being sati itself).

It's the first talk at this link if anyone is interested...

When I talked to one of my teachers yesterday he said, basically "yes, the meditation instructions are actually for sanna so the instruction to 'develop sati' is misleading, since sati just happens, but it seems to be the normal way to describe it to beginners..."

I’ve often talked to him about the "wanting something" trap in meditation. When I mentioned that thoughts like "soon I'll feel relaxed and pleasant" still arise when I start walking or sitting he laughed and said "you know better than that...".

Hmm… but those thoughts arise dependent on conditions...


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Re: Meditation, Mindfulness, and Technique…

Post by Bhikkhu Pesala » Sat Apr 11, 2009 9:46 am

I remind my meditators that what we are doing is not, strictly speaking, insight meditation, but just arousing and establishing mindfulness = sati upaṭṭhāna. Insight will arise when the conditions are ripe, and not before all of the path factors are working in balance.

However, I also see a grave danger in misunderstanding the instruction that all mental states are not-self. It might encourage the meditator to make no effort for the removal of unwholesome thoughts such as lust and anger, which is clearly not right effort.

See the Vitakkasanthana Sutta
If evil, unskillful thoughts continue to arise in a bhikkhu in spite of his reflection on the removal of a source of unskillful thoughts, he should with clenched teeth and the tongue pressing on the palate, restrain, subdue and beat down the (evil) mind by the (good) mind. Then the evil, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate and delusion are eliminated; they disappear. By their elimination, the mind stands firm, settles down, becomes unified and concentrated, just within (his subject of meditation).
There are seven different methods for the getting rid of defilements, and the application of insight (dassana) is only one of them. See the Sabbasava Sutta
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Re: Meditation, Mindfulness, and Technique…

Post by Ben » Sat Apr 11, 2009 11:31 am

Hi Mike

An interesting thread! I agree with Venerable's comments above. One of the things that I've come to realise is that my practice of vipassana is really a set of mental exercises that when correctly practiced cultivates the mind that leads to the arising of vipassana.

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

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Re: Meditation, Mindfulness, and Technique…

Post by Jechbi » Sat Apr 11, 2009 5:19 pm

Hi Mike,

I think the points raised in your OP are helpful and worth considering, and many of them are right on target (although I don't agree that sitting practice is counterproductive).

I would be concerned that the notion that "sitting practice is counterproductive" is itself counterproductive, for many of the same reasons set out in the quote you offered from Nina Van Gorkom. In particular, there's no arguing with this: "So long as one has not become a sotapanna one may deviate from the right Path, there can be wrong practice." But practice ought to be regarded as practicing the entire 8fold path, including sila, samadhi and panna as taught by the Buddha. That includes samma ditthi, right understanding.

You see where I'm going: So long as one has not become a sotapanna, one has to be aware that all those cool Abhidhamma-based views are only as good as one's own understanding at this moment, and probably a lot of them are imperfect. So for example, if a person holds the view that " lobha, dosa and moha should not or cannot be objects of mindfulness," it may merely reflect views about lobha, dosa and moha that are incomplete or flawed in some other way. Does that mean such a person is not in any way mindful of lobha, dosa or moha while engaged in sitting practice as a non-sotapanna? Or is sitting practice just that: practice, with some small seed of mindfulness of these three akusala roots even if the "sitter" doesn't realize it?

Or this: "Some people believe that vipassana can only be developed when sitting in a quiet place, but then they set rules for the practice, and thus, they will not be able to see that mindfulness too is anatta." Maybe they will, maybe they won't. The thing is, the experience of seeing that mindfulnees too is anatta is not solely an intellectual exercise.

I may be off base here, but this Abhidhammic-based approach you're describing seems to be predicated on the assumption that a person can rely on his or her intellect to develop samma ditthi, with samma ditthi being (mis)understood as constituted of correct viewpoints regarding the Dhamma. Have I completely missed the point? Maybe so. Regardless, if you look to the suttas, you'll see that the beginning of samma ditthi is the recognition: this (whatever it is) is not right view.

Also, it appears to me that the Buddha clearly taught sitting practice. So in this Abhidhammic-based approach, is it understood that the Buddha's teachings about sitting practice were intended only for ariya?

But most important, I think it's absolutely correct practice to understand that one's practice is imperfect, and to understand in particular that it's not going to do any good to sit on a cushion and try to force wisdom or peace or something to come out, like squeezing a sponge. Yet it's also correct practice to understand that there is such a thing as dhamma-chanda. So when we sit, we sit as well as we can in that moment, and that's good enough. If some folks don't want to sit at all and don't think anyone else should either, then that's where they're at, and it's as good a place as any to start practicing (again).


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Re: Meditation, Mindfulness, and Technique…

Post by mikenz66 » Sat Apr 11, 2009 8:01 pm

Hi Jechbi,

Thanks for the post. I personally do walking and sitting practise. I just wanted to raise the objections that I've seen elsewhere. As Bhikkhu Pesala says, there is some subtlety involved.


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Re: Meditation, Mindfulness, and Technique…

Post by rowyourboat » Thu Apr 16, 2009 4:52 pm

I wouldnt say sati is sanna- but rather the object of sati is sanna (to begin with). However with continued attention sanna drops away and what is left is bare phassa/contact. Those with more refined faculties of mindfulness can reach even earlier stages of perception and see rupa (eye/visual object) arising with thier counterpart consciousness- which in turn gives rise to phassa. These are direct expereinces beyond the reach of Views.

So the idea that there is no getting beyond defiled sanna (defiled by wrong view) is wrong.

Right view grows only with progress. A sotapanna has right view but he also knows and SEES- the latter differentiates him from someone who only knows. The famour four factors of stream entry are:
1) engaging with spiritual friends (dhamma teacher, ariyas)
2) hearing the true dhamma (words of an ariya who -knows what he is talkng about, literally)
3) appropriate contemplation (yoniso manasikara)- about what has been heard and how it applies to reality -teachings leading to disenchantment,dispassion.
4) practicing according to the dhamma -contemplating things in this manner leads to continued mindfulness about reality as it arises.

these four flow down into the next step - the abhidhammists are stuck between 3) and 4) because a bit of wrong view has crept it.
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Re: Meditation, Mindfulness, and Technique…

Post by upekkha » Tue Apr 21, 2009 4:37 pm

Hi Mike,

This is indeed an interesting topic.

From my own experience I find that everything I do, even at times when I have 'other reasons', all I do is because of suffering.
So, when I sit to meditate, it is directly because of suffering! so naturally there is the will to 'escape this suffering', and when that is noticed, I investigate the very will to escape, to gain something, to achieve something.

So I think that those thoughts and wills arise, and are also phenomena to be investigated and the true nature of (anicca dukkha anatta) to be seen.

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