On The Cushion: Q & A with Douglas Phillips

 


I’m sitting every day and I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. What should I do? Ideally, teachers respond not just to the question but also to the person asking it. We would want to know more about how long you have been sitting every day and for how long you sit. What happens during your meditation, and how have you worked with it? What motivates you to practice, and is your practice really designed to get�"I’m sitting every day and I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. What should I do?"

Ideally, teachers respond not just to the question but also to the person asking it. We would want to know more about how long you have been sitting every day and for how long you sit. What happens during your meditation, and how have you worked with it?

What motivates you to practice, and is your practice really designed to get you where you want to go? Does this question of getting somewhere arise only in regard to sitting or in other aspects of your life as well? Does it arise from an intelligence that points to something that needs to be changed, or is it indicative of a more chronic tendency toward doubt and self-judgment?

We are often attracted to the dharma because we want something - to be less angry, more relaxed, less fearful, more loving. We want to suffer less and live more expansively, with greater freedom and less constriction. In other words, we quite naturally come to contemplative practice with expectations. It is important to know the difference between the desire/aspiration that gets us to practice and the desire/craving that creates suffering, that unquenchable longing for life to be other than it is. The relationship between dukkha (suffering/unsatisfactoriness) and tanha (craving/aversion) can be understood as the difference between how my life in this moment actually is, and how I want it to be. The greater this difference, the greater the suffering. One may also see that an attachment to expectations arising from these wishes is directly correlated to suffering. Great expectations often lead to great suffering. So what does “progress” on the Great Way look like? How do I generate energy for this practice without creating desire, aversion, or confusion? What should be happening when I sit day after day?

Imbedded in this question of getting somewhere is the assumption that something should be happening other than what is actually happening. Maybe I feel there should be more calmness, less back pain, or certain mystical experiences. I may wish that the image I have of myself as patient, nonreactive, and loving would be how I act when my teenager yells at me or my boss is demeaning or threatening. After all, if I’m sitting like a Buddha, shouldn’t I behave like one?

Our practice is to meet life exactly as it is and to notice whatever fear, anger, or doubt gets in the way of direct intimate contact with this moment, bringing attention to that as well. Rather than changing something or seeking to get somewhere we imagine we should be, practice is about seeing clearly exactly how things really are and how we relate to them. Practice thus becomes an increasing intimacy with life just as it is, and there is nothing - including the ideas that we should be getting something or somewhere - that is unworthy of the clear, nonjudgmental attention we call mindfulness.

When we have developed a degree of concentration, our work is to then be fully attentive to exactly what is presenting itself in the awareness. This doesn’t require profoundly deep concentration states, but rather a genuine interest in what is happening right at this moment. There is no place to get to, no one to become, and nothing to do but bring full attention to the breathing, the tightness in the back, the nervousness in the stomach, the aversion, or whatever else arises. We often imagine that we have to solve or change what is there in our life, when the solution is found in the full attention to just what is here at this moment. The practice of moment-to-moment allowing - bringing full attention to when we are clinging and when we are not - is the practice of liberation. It is this full attention that heals the fragmentation of our lives. Can we begin to notice what happens in moments of clear awareness when we are not so obsessed with changing something or making it go away? What happens when attention and “what is” meet? Can we begin to learn about ourselves by seeing ourselves precisely as we are, not only on the cushion but throughout the day as well?

Full attention is both an activity of learning and the actualization of unconditional love. It is this selfless, choiceless love that heals the illusion of separateness, brokenness, and alienation, yielding a gratification, faith and confidence not dependent on external or internal conditions beyond our control. Practice-Life is the dynamic activity of bringing full attention to what is presenting itself most clearly in the awareness for as long as it is there, and with deepening simplicity and joy, knowing Just This Much!

If you have a question for “On the Cushion,” please send it to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, 92 Vandam Street, New York, NY 10013, or email it to: editorial@tricycle.com.

Douglas Phillips, ph.d., is a Vipassana teacher and psychologist in private practice in Newton, Massachusetts.

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