Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting--feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most clearly--either at the nostrils, or in the rising and falling your abdomen.
Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (There is no need to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the sensation of breathing.
As you focus on the breath, you will notice that other perceptions and sensations continue to appear: sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Simply notice these phenomena as they emerge in the field of awareness, and then return to the sensation of breathing.
The moment you observe that you have been lost in thought, notice the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath--or to whatever sounds or sensations arise in the next moment.
Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness--sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, and even thoughts themselves--as they arise and pass away.
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Those who begin to practice in the spirit of gradualism often assume that the goal of self-transcendence is far away, and they may spend years overlooking the very freedom that they yearn to realize. The liability of this approach became clear to me when I studied under the Burmese meditation master Sayadaw U Pandita. I sat through several retreats with U Pandita, each a month or two in length. These retreats were based on the monastic discipline of Theravadan Buddhism: We did not eat after noon and were encouraged to sleep no more than four hours each night. Outwardly, the goal was to engage in eighteen hours of formal meditation each day. Inwardly, it was to follow the stages of insight as laid out in Buddhaghosa’s fifth-century treatise, the Visuddhimagga, and elaborated in the writings of U Pandita’s own legendary teacher, Mahasi Sayadaw.
The logic of this practice is explicitly goal-oriented: According to this view, one practices mindfulness not because the intrinsic freedom of consciousness can be fully realized in the present but because being mindful is a means of attaining an experience often described as “cessation,” which is thought to decisively uproot the illusion of the self (along with other mental afflictions, depending on one’s stage of practice). Cessation is believed to be a direct insight into an unconditioned reality that lies behind all manifest phenomena.
This conception of the path to enlightenment is open to several criticisms. The first is that it is misleading with respect to what can be realized in the present moment in a state of ordinary awareness. Thus, it encourages confusion at the outset regarding the nature of the problem one is trying to solve. It is true, however, that striving toward the distant goal of enlightenment (as well as the nearer goal of cessation) can lead one to practice with an intensity that might otherwise be difficult to achieve. I never made more effort than I did when practicing under U Pandita. But most of this effort arose from the very illusion of bondage to the self that I was seeking to overcome. The model of this practice is that one must climb the mountain so that freedom can be found at the top. But the self is already an illusion, and that truth can be glimpsed directly, at the mountain’s base or anywhere else along the path. One can then return to this insight, again and again, as one’s sole method of meditation—thereby arriving at the goal in each moment of actual practice.
This isn’t merely a matter of choosing to think differently about the significance of mindfulness. It is a difference in what one is able to be mindful of. Dualistic mindfulness—paying attention to the breath, for instance—generally proceeds on the basis of an illusion: One feels that one is a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head, that can strategically pay attention to the breath or some other object of awareness because of all the good it will do. This is gradualism in action. And yet, from a nondualistic point of view, one could just as well be mindful of selflessness directly. To do this, however, one must recognize that this is how consciousness is—and such an insight can be difficult to achieve. However, it does not require the meditative attainment of cessation. Another problem with the goal of cessation is that most traditions of Buddhism do not share it, and yet they produce long lineages of contemplative masters, many of whom have spent decades doing nothing but meditating on the nature of consciousness. If freedom is possible, there must be some mode of ordinary consciousness in which it can be expressed. Why not realize this frame of mind directly?
Nevertheless, I spent several years deeply preoccupied with reaching the goal of cessation, and at least one year of that time was spent on silent retreat. Although I had many interesting experiences, none seemed to fit the specific requirements of this path. There were periods during which all thought subsided, and any sense of having a body disappeared. What remained was a blissful expanse of conscious peace that had no reference point in any of the usual sensory channels. Many scientists and philosophers believe that consciousness is always tied to one of the five senses—and that the idea of a “pure consciousness” apart from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is a category error and a spiritual fantasy. I am confident that they are mistaken.
But cessation never arrived. Given my gradualist views at that point, this became very frustrating. Most of my time on retreat was extremely pleasant, but it seemed to me that I had merely been given the tools with which to contemplate the evidence of my nonenlightenment.
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