“When a thought arises, the key is to look right at it.
When you know about mind, the key is to be right there.
Although there isn’t anything to cultivate, the key is to keep cultivating.”
– Longchenpa’s Thirty Pieces of Advice From the Heart
This is some solid advice from a long-dead Tibetan guru. I appreciate how straightforward it is as well. If you’ve ever read any Longchenpa, you’ll see that he can be extremely not straightforward as well.
That’s because much of Tibetan Buddhist literature is written in kind of a code, using abstract phrases that are difficult for the “uninitiated” to understand, requiring the guiding hand of a guru to untangle.
Abstract texts are great for laypeople too if we read them with an open, meditative mind rather than a busy, scrutinizing one. Gently passing through the words, such texts can naturally bring the mind to luminous states of calm clarity.
But, that’s not usually my bag; I’m as analytical as they come. If a text lures me into an altered state of consciousness, it’s usually because I’ve realized that I can’t analyze it and then I just slip into a receptive mindset.
This verse is highly pragmatic, though. There’s no need to drift into a clear, limitless awareness to comprehend it.
Vipassana, as it was practiced for thousands of years, was highly involved. Not like the soft-bellied versions we have running amok here in the West. I don’t mean to be an asshole, but I’ve earnestly tried out Western Vipassana methods and they just seem silly, and I’m worried that people are wasting their time.
The point isn’t to think, “Thinking, thinking,” when a thought arises and then return to the breath. The point is to look right at the fucker and investigate it, be it. That’s what samadhi means: being the object.
So, Vipassana is anything but a passive practice. It’s highly dynamic, and totally enveloping. I guess, to make things simpler (haha!) we can call traditional Vipassana Abhidharma Vipassana, or Analytic Vipassana. I’ll just refer to it as Vipassana for the rest of these articles though.
One instruction we’re given is to notice when a dharma (mental object) arises, hold it, zero-in on it, step inside it and see it for what it really is: a fluctuating net of associations without a core. One single thought is the appearance of hundreds and thousands of associated thoughts, images, feelings, memories and desires.
Ancient Buddhists discovered this firsthand and, like a lot of Buddhist realizations, it’s backed up by modern psychology.
The only thing you won’t find in a thought is the thought itself, the Gestalt. You can do it right now if you like. Just think something, anything, like “Apple.” Just think apple and then hold that thought in your mind, the same way you can hold your breath. It’s like pausing a movie and then getting really close to the screen to see the pixels.
If you need to, you can stretch out the thought: “Aaaaaaaaaaaaapppppppllleeeeeeee,” or repeat it over and over, “Apple, apple, apple, apple,” letting that one idea turn into a stream.
Then, while you’re holding it, push your attention into it. It isn’t solid, and it isn’t outside of you. This is all mind, so there are no limitations. Unlike an actual apple, the laws of physics don’t apply to the concept apple. You (attention and volition) can pass through it, like stepping through an open door. You can even think of thoughts as rooms if that helps, full of all the things that thought is built on.
You can crack it open like an egg. You can even imagine a cracking sound, or think the word “kah!” at the thought. Try to put every ounce of cerebral juice you’ve got into it. Holding the thought, penetrating the thought. You can even visualize the word APPLE if that helps, there’s literally an endless amount of techniques you can use including your own.
Then you’ll feel it, a kind of release. When you can’t hold the thought anymore, it opens up and in a flash you’ll see a flood of associations.
Memories of how apples taste, prototypical images of an apple. Maybe temperatures and smells associated with autumn. Maybe a memory of you and a parent shopping in the produce department at a store when you were very young. You might remember learning the word itself while holding an apple in your hand. You might experience all the associated feelings that are tangled up with the concept: “Apple.”
Everything is like this in the mind, including the sense of self. All uncountable bits of information folded together under headings, labels. Since we live in a world of Gestalts, we overlook the interconnected processes that are actually at work behind them.
This is just to get your Vipassana muscle conditioned. The real work is with the afflictions and wholesome factors. Just like the word apple you can hold a view or feeling and crack it open. You can even do this with things like stress and depression. In all cases, it becomes apparent that nothing is a thing-unto-itself, they’re all images, mirages arising from countless causes and conditions.
Another method is noting when one of them rises, even labeling them if necessary. Unlike the Western version of Vipassana, we aren’t being general in this more traditional method. A thought isn’t just, “A thought,” a feeling isn’t just, “A feeling,” is it? It’s something specific.
If there’s frustration, you can watch it rise and think, “Frustration,” and you can either mindfully watch it come and go, or hold it and break through it to get to know it better.
If you notice tranquility, equanimity or loving-kindness, you can do the same thing. The ultimate point of Abhidharma Vipassana practice is to mindfully work with positive and negative mental objects. The goal is to limit or totally dispel affliction, and cultivate and maintain enlightened qualities.
This isn’t an end unto itself, but a means for later practices that work with delusions. To effectively work with delusions, we have to first cultivate some degree of calm and clarity.
This whole thing begins with the Five Aggregates or the five Universal Factors: contact, attention, valence, perception, and volition.
Contact is that moment you experience something—including yourself. Vipassana begins with being grounded in contact, in non-judgmental seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, and self-awareness. Whatever we’re doing, we just remind ourselves to be mindful of contact. The easiest way is to note all the points of contact occurring.
You can start with whichever you like; I usually start with touch: being aware of touch, noting it as contact. Then joining it with hearing, noting it as contact. Then seeing, then smelling, tasting, and thinking. You can also see your attention move between those contacts, the mind focusing on whichever point demands the most attention. You can note that as attention.
When we’re mindful of contact with all those senses, we can start to focus on valence. Valence is the pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neutrality of an experience, a contact. So we can scan those points of contact and see what valence arises from them. The mind is always doing this, this whole process.
The only thing we’re doing in Vipassana is intentionally slowing it down and analyzing the steps that make it up the same way that we slowed down the thought apple in order to get to know it better.
We can look at touch, and note whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We can look at hearing, seeing, etc. The engaging and interesting area with this is thinking. Thinking, in this context, not only means our thoughts but also the enlightened factors and afflictions. Just like how sights are the objects of the eyes, views, afflictions and enlightened qualities are objects of the mind.
Tranquility is one that often rises up when we’re openly aware of contact. If it does, you can look at tranquility and see whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral and you can note it: “Pleasant.” Frustration is another common one, because all of this can be challenging at times if we’re striving for some kind of perfect meditation. We can look at that frustration and see its valence, and note it: “Unpleasant.”
If our attention wavers or floats off into la-la land, mindfulness naturally brings it back and we note, “mindfulness,” one of the enlightened qualities. If we’re really into the sit, extremely concentrated, we can observe that concentration and note, “Concentration.” And then we can look at the valence of those moments of contact: “Pleasant,” or, “Neutral.”
I think that’s enough for now. we can cover the last two Universal Factors in part two.
It’s vital to do all of this with the understanding that this is itself enlightenment. Working with all of this is the work of Buddhas. So, there’s really nothing to achieve, and nowhere to go but here. But even though that’s the case, we can try to keep growing and be enlightened. That trying is what it’s all about.
The whole thing is a paradox. If you’re searching for it, you’ve already found it. If you aren’t searching for it or think that you’ve got it, then it’s light years away.