Ron Crouch wrote:How is it decided who is ready to do insight practice? Who should decides this?
Given that you teach people, what do you expect of them as a pre-cursor? What determines their readiness? Who would you not accept and why?
Thanks for all the welcoming and warm comments. Now, let me get back to stirring the pot a bit by responding to this quote by retro. Let me say up front that this might stir the pot a bit more than usual. Let me also apologize for the lengthy reply. As Mark Twain would have said, "I didn't have time to write a short one."
@retro - I do have an opinion about this, but since I suspect that my view is likely different from many here I was hoping to hear from others first. Otherwise it would turn into a discussion about whether I'm right or wrong. However, as you've probably guessed, I don't mind being questioned (or even grilled). And since you asked me directly, here goes:
Firstly, let me set the context by stating what I think will be a pretty controversial view:
It is my personal opinion that many of the Dharma scenes in the West treat students in ways that are outrageously patronizing. Students are not given much in the way of direct, down-to-earth information about what to do and what to expect when they do it. They are definitely not told what the path of insight is, even though "insight" is talked about ad nauseum and the path itself is right in the texts (if you know where to find it).
Often, when a student asks something like "what is the path?" or "what is enlightenment" or "I'm experiencing this - is it normal?" or even a natural and obvious question once they understand what is going on like "what was this insight like when you experienced it?" they are given answers that are evasive, like quotes from another teacher or sutta. In the most extremely patronizing situations students are told that their questions or concerns are "just another thing to let go of" or their motive for asking the question is turned around on them as a sign of delusion.
Nothing, other than direct misinformation, is less helpful to a sincere student. I can't tell you about the horror stories my students have told me about this, as I'm very strict about their confidentiality, but I will say that many of them feel like they have been dismissed or persuaded they were stupid or worse for wanting to know very basic and very important things about their own direct experience of the path that are explicit in the texts.
We would never accept this behavior from doctors, professors, psychologists, or professionals of any other type, but somehow this is acceptable for meditation teachers, especially if they are wearing a robe. What would you think of a professor who responded to student questions by always referring to the textbook? Or to use another example, if you asked a doctor about the side-effects of a treatment, would you accept it if you were told to just take the medicine and not ask because questioning the treatment and its effects were a symptom of the disease? I hope you would fire that doctor.
When I have talked, skyped or emailed with other teachers about this attitude or approach, most agree that it is a bad thing. But they don't really know what to do about it. Some simply explain that it is "tradition" and leave it at that. A few have defended it by telling me that they don't feel students are "ready" and "shouldn't know everything." In other words, they've bought into the patronizing social structure. And a tiny minority have broken with tradition and faced some heat for it. However, I suspect (and no one has told me this - it's pure speculation) that many of these teachers are actually afraid
to be completely frank, because it simply runs counter to the accepted culture in most dharma scenes. How did we get that attitude as a Western community? It seems wildly off-target to our professed values.
Weirdly, it is students, even more than teachers, who often defend and protect this patronizing attitude. They can be extremely harsh to other students who ask real and important questions. I really don't understand this, but my guess is that many of these students want to be a "good buddhist" and think that having a cryptic or evasive teacher (or just reading cryptic or evasive material) is what that means. That "not knowing" (to use a Zen phrase) means being a good buddhist.
I won't go into how I think it got this way (which is a whole discussion in itself), but the thing that bothers me is this: if we had a choice between a fully-disclosed, no secret, completely open-sourced dharma, or what we have now, what would we choose? Any rational person would choose the more open option (at least I believe that).
The core issue is that many people don't see that there actually is a choice. However, since the Dharma is still in its "landing phase" in the West, we actually do
have a choice. We can change how it is structured for future generations. Do we choose to go with what the Buddha called the "open-hand" approach, or what we have now? It actually is up to us.
This all brings me to my original question: How do we decide if a person is ready for insight and who makes that decision?
This is a very real issue in my teaching practice that I've grappled with. In a traditional approach, students are just given a practice and not told why and if they do question it they are dissuaded from doing so. But now that I've clarified the context in which I'm making this decision in my own practice, and the objections I have to the tradition, let me explain how I sort this out:
Ultimately the choice to engage in insight practice is up to the student, however, I see it as my job to make sure that they have all the information they need to make a fully informed choice about whether or not to commit to it. I provide all the information up front, in a completely open manner, and trust that once they understand what they are committing to, that they will make the best choice for them. I explain as frankly as I can what the pain of the dark night and the joy equanimity are like in real day-to-day terms, and the reality of liberation and what that is like in a real-life manner. For many students, it is the first time they've had that happen. They finally have the information to make a real choice. That by itself is pretty empowering.
I also share what I know about other approaches that I'm not qualified to teach, the potential benefits of those approaches (especially those that don't have an explicit dark night), and offer to refer to another teacher who can teach in those traditions if they are interested in pursuing that.
There is one exception to all of this though. If the person is suffering from a mental disorder then that changes the whole process, because it means that their decision-making ability may be impaired. Luckily, given my profession, I'm in a pretty good position to evaluate how debilitating their condition is and whether their capacity to make a fully-informed choice is impaired. If someone is suicidal or psychotic for example, I refuse to teach them insight techniques, explicitly warn them away from them (with a full explanation as to why) and offer to teach them metta or concentration instead or refer them to another teacher. It is a tough decision to make, but it is really the only ethical one and fortunately I've never had a student take offense. Usually they are relieved that I was so frank with them. If they stay on with me as a student I require that they receive therapy concurrently with teaching. Most are already doing this, so it is not a problem. This is the only situation in which I would assume to make a choice on behalf of the student: when they are not capable of making that choice themselves in a fully-informed manner.
This comes up much more than non-teachers might expect. A huge number of students get involved in meditation through self-improvement or therapy. They are told that meditation will stabilize their mood and make them happier. If they do the practice correctly but instead experience panic, great disgust and inexplicable grief, they are often on their own and think they are hopeless. Sometimes they go to a temple or center, or pop onto a forum and tell their story or describe their symptoms, only to be told... to just "let it go."
Hopefully you can see from this what my experience has been like as a teacher and why I think it is so important that people be given all information on the benefits and down-sides of meditation up-front. It isn't just a little thing to me - it is a central problem in our dharma communities and psychology profession at the moment. There are a lot of people out there going through terrible stuff on their own because of our great misunderstanding of the insight path, that "mindfulness meditation" (which is often a proxy for insight meditation) only leads to happiness and reduced stress, and that suffering during it is somehow bad or wrong.
We first need to normalize that this happens and it is part of the path. Then we need to work on being totally up-front with people about it before they even begin meditating seriously. I've tried to do that as much as I can in my own teaching, however, by the time students usually get to me, they have already made a lot of choices without fully understanding the consequences.
My hope would be that we could have the same ethical standards as meditation teachers that researchers are held to in universities - before anyone participates in research they are told of all the potential benefits and risks of doing so. It's a pretty simple and common sense requirement. We should have at least that level of respect for people who participate in meditation.