Known to him they arose, known to him they remained, known to him they subsided. – The Buddha
Joel Groover: You were talking about your experience in meditation interviews with Sayadaw U Pandita at his monastery in Rangoon. Isn’t that what the traditional interview is all about, that feedback loop to help the student?
Kenneth Folk: Actually, no. The traditional interview is not a real-time feedback loop. In fact, on the very rare occasions when a teacher will ask for real-time reporting during the interviews, the teacher is hailed as a genius. “Oh, look. The teacher actually got this person to understand the technique by having the student report in real-time.”
We should be doing that every time. Talking about meditation is useless. You have to be doing it together and modeling it. You know, the way we transmit these techniques is so inefficient that it literally takes years to learn the basic meditation technique.
I was recently talking with another meditation teacher who said this very thing, unprompted. She said, “It’s taking people years just to get the basic technique. There has got to be a better way to impart this. It’s not that complicated.”
But the way we explain these things, together with all of the hoo-hah about spirituality, it all gets mixed up in a person’s mind.
Now, if you take all of the various traditions, instructions, ways to look at this–all of the ways to think about it and all of the legends and baloney about it–how does a student know what to do?
How do they know who to believe? Should they believe anybody? And it is remarkable if anybody actually does get the right information and applies the techniques for a few minutes and figures out what works and what doesn’t.
JG: Yeah, and there is also a problem in that half of what people are talking about is embedded existence and their own “stuff,” right? And I don’t know how you sort through that because some people are just at a level where that is what they want to work on and that is what their focus is.
When I was younger my life was way out of balance and in all of my meditation interviews, I’m pretty sure I never talked about meditation.
JG: You know, it was “Here is what is going on with this aspect of my life and that aspect.” There are certain Buddhist ways of handling situations that you can talk about that are helpful and have to do with paying attention more and so forth, but in terms of radically dis-embedding from your stuff…
KF: Yes. It is very important to make the distinction between psychology and spiritual growth as we are talking about it here. I once asked Bill Hamilton, my teacher, “Why don’t people make more progress? You see people meditating year after year and going to the retreats and becoming Buddhists. Why are they not making progress through the Paths of Enlightenment?”
He said, “They are doing psychology.” Now, nobody is saying that psychology is not useful. Bill Hamilton had a degree in psychology. In fact, psychology is extremely useful and essential for having a sane life. So it has to be done. But it is not the same as making progress through these levels of insight that you and I are talking about now. They are related. And actually, they are related all along the way because the truth is, you do become a better person. As you see your own mind, you get more insight into the minds of other people and that empathy is the basis for compassion.
So there is a synergy between meditative insight and becoming emotionally mature. That synergy continues throughout your practice and basically begins to accelerate in the higher levels of meditative practice, which is why the great sages insist that compassion and wisdom are inseparable.
But we have to make this distinction. So if somebody is sitting there embedded in their thoughts, however valuable those thoughts, they simply are not doing the practice that leads to enlightenment.
JG: Right. Yeah. And you know it is interesting–well, getting back to the idea of why people are not making progress–the folks in the integral movement would say people are not making progress because they are not doing enough bodywork, shadow work, mind work and then “Spirit” would be where they would categorize meditation. My take is that it is generally true that if you are overeating and not getting any exercise that there is an energetic toll to be paid there. But it is very easy to be embedded throughout all of those realms of work that you might be doing. Maybe there is not quite enough emphasis on the dis-embedding process, on the part of practitioners, when it comes to the spiritual work that they do?
KF: I think that’s an important point. Most of what we do in terms of self-improvement doesn’t require dis-embedding from our experience. You can do all of your psychology and all sorts of self-help, self-improvement, all kinds of bodywork, and manage to be embedded the whole time. So what you and I are talking about has everything to do with dis-embedding and nothing to do with content. We should give a passing nod to content because if your mind is coming up with one thing after another to torture you and you are completely at wit’s end—well, you are not even going to be able to do this practice.
But once you can do this practice, content becomes irrelevant because all we’re doing… for example, with thought we’re categorizing thoughts. When I say “anticipation thought” I may be anticipating some upcoming event that I’m excited and happy about or I may be anticipating with dread some horrible upcoming event. The content doesn’t matter; if I can look at it from the outside: “Oh, there is that thought over there. Here I am over here, looking at that thought over there.” I can see that it is a thought about anticipation.
That’s just a feedback loop. The fact that I know it’s about anticipation proves that I’m objectifying it. I can sense that there is dread involved with it and I note it. Good, I have objectified that level of mind state. I can see that it is unpleasant, and I note it. Good, I have objectified that. I can see that there is tension in my neck, and I note it. Good, I have objectified that.
From the point of being free, it’s not remotely important what the thought or sensation is, only that I see it clearly and note it.
JG: I guess it’s worth saying that we are really good at and predisposed toward embedding. And so, of course, in the integral literature, this point is made that you need to dis-embed. But it is just very easy to lapse into that mode of being embedded and turning it into, I think Trungpa Rinpoche called it “the project mentality.”
KF: The project mentality could be a project involving embeddedness. In other words, I could be thinking about ways to improve myself and that would be a self-improvement project. On the other hand, a project mentality could also be, “I’m going to get more enlightened.” Trungpa Rinpoche was all about exposing spiritual materialism in every form. So for him, I think he would have been very concerned that when you’re doing what I call 1st Gear, this is really all about self-improvement. We are going to dis-embed more and more and we are going to presumably become better and better and more transparent so that eventually, what? Eventually we become what? Are we back to the Superman myth?
JG: It seems to me more like you are painting the “I” into a corner with this, and so the ultimate joke might be on the “I.”
KF: That is a very useful way to see it. So we are willing to put up with the self-improvement project and the spiritual materialism. We will call it what it is: yes, spiritual materialism is what’s happening here and it’s OK because we’re painting the “I” into a corner and eventually it has no place to hide. Even better, in this moment of doing the practice–[notes in real-time] pressure… warmth… unpleasant… pleasant… curiosity… fear… anticipation thoughts… remembering thoughts… –in that moment there was no place for the “I” to hide.
JG: Yes, and you could also say–let’s say that something is going on and the practice is deepening and you notice, OK, “hoping”–you notice that you’re hoping for something… you can actually dis-embed from the impulse toward spiritual materialism itself, in the moment.
KF: That’s right. Everything becomes grist for the mill. That very impulse of hoping becomes the target: “OK, hoping. Oh wow, hoping has been objectified now.”
JG: You had mentioned that you had some stuff to say about access concentration. Early in Daniel Ingram’s book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, he says, “Look, what you want to do is get access concentration so that you can start seeing sensate phenomena at this sort of higher-level.” And then other teachers—you know, I’ve been interested in the subject of jhana and these more traditional concentration practices—other teachers also emphasize access concentration. The way I am conceiving it is as a hard absorption state, I guess you might say, one that then gives you access to the jhanas. But as you were running me through this process the other day, I had the thought, “Is access concentration just having enough background concentration to be able to dis-embed from objects as you move through the strata of mind?”
KF: Well, practically speaking, what we we’re doing, what you and I did when we just reported to each other in real time–that is doing the work. Now, whether we are getting into access concentration or not depends on how you define it. But the important thing is the process of dis-embedding in real time. Do we really care about the concept of access concentration?
My problem with access concentration is not that it isn’t a real and useful phenomenon, both as a tool and as a concept, but that it can become just another thing to get: “Oh no, I’m afraid I don’t have access concentration.”
I actually have a friend who told me “I have failed to get access concentration. I’ve been really demoralized and defeated by this. I just don’t see that I’m ever going to do it.” Well, that is not particularly helpful.
On the other hand, if you abandon for a moment the whole concept of access concentration and lead somebody through this process of dis-embedding from body sensations, feeling tones, etc., then if access concentration is relevant, then it is happening and you might not know whether you’re in it or not. You don’t care.
Now, there is a phenomenon that you will sometimes notice while you’re meditating where suddenly it is as though you were inside a car and the car windows were rolled up. Sounds become muted. You are able to stay with your meditation object better. One of my students came up with that car window analogy and I think it’s great. Well, that is access concentration. The problem is making too big of a deal out of it. It becomes just another thing that I have got to have so I can put another notch on my belt.
JG: I’d like to think that I have a more healthy relationship to it in that I want to progress. I want to know. I have curiosity about these phenomena. I guess that can be unhelpful. But you know, others are talking about all of this stuff like in your online community and people, they want to find out. “Well, what is it that they’re talking about here? What should I be doing?” I think even beyond just trying to get something, there is that aspect of it.
KF: I see what you mean. Sure. And I certainly talk a lot about jhanas and moving up and down through 20 strata of mind and noticing where you are in real time on the jhanic arc as you go up and down through these states. There are all these recognizable phenomena and the mind apparently is set up in layers, because every time I go up and down through this jhanic arc these phenomena arise in invariable order. It’s all very interesting. It’s fascinating and worth learning. And so as long as we keep a healthy perspective on it, that we are exploring our own mind and that if you can access these various strata of mind and explore them at various levels of depth and resolution, this is very worthwhile doing–I teach this and it can be done.
In some sense it should be thought of in a slightly different way from satipatthana [the four foundations of mindfulness], because satipatthana is something that I can do with almost anyone on the first phone call and we can continue to take it deeper. Learning jhana–and that is what we are talking about with all of these states–is something more like learning to play a musical instrument. This is something we develop over a period of years and the skills involved are very high-level skills that don’t come easily.
JG: And what do we want? We want the high-level skills now.
JG: It is much healthier to focus instead on–this is why I see so much enthusiasm, I think, from you when you will write something to someone like, “Great! You are identifying sensations in the shoulder. That is great! You’re getting really clear about these particular sensations over here.” That should be our focus, I guess. It’s the path to all that other stuff, right?
KF: Yes. I’m very excited that somebody can identify the sensations in their shoulder because then I know that they are penetrating the object and they are dis-embedding from it, and I know where that leads. That leads to freedom.
At the same time, as part of this package we always want to develop and refine the ability to access deeper levels of mind because those, too, have to be objectified. We are only free to the extent that things are not sticking. Things do not stick when they can be readily objectified. When we can slide up and down this whole rainbow of the mind from red all the way up through orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—mind you, the rainbow is just a metaphor—but when you can slide up and down that whole spectrum and not get stuck, you are free.
The more you develop the deeper strata of mind in addition to the more shallow strata of mind, the freer you are.
JG: And I guess that’s the point. It is a continuation of that process. It is a spectrum and you are actually doing the same thing but just at this more subtle level.
KF: That’s right. And so practically speaking it makes a lot of sense to start where we are. If a person does not have a lot of concentration, I’m not going to say, “Let’s wait five years until you have developed concentration and then start to be free.” I say, “Let’s be free from the strata of mind where you spend 90% of your day.”
JG: In my practice I had sort of been focusing on, “Let’s get access concentration and then we will understand vipassana at this deeper and higher level.” Meanwhile, I had not been doing any vipassana at all. It makes more sense to me to have a balanced approach with some pure concentration practices, and to just continue with the dis-embedding process that you have introduced me to.
KF: And also keeping in mind that these things reinforce each other. So the fact is, your concentration does build. It does get stronger every time you do the noting practice.
JG: Yes, and the pure concentration practices, I have noticed, do make mindfulness stronger off the cushion, just walking around.
KF: Yes. There is synergy.