I'm continuing to enjoy the book by Rob Burbea, Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising. (First post about it is here.)
It's clear that Burbea knows a lot about meditation, Buddhist variety, and is skilled at communicating his knowledge both to his students in person and to the world at large through his book.
There's so much of interest in the six chapters (out of 31) that I've read so far, I find it difficult to decide what to share in my blog posts about the book. So I'll focus on some of what got special highlighting as I make my way through Seeing That Frees with pen and highlighter in hand.
In a chapter about "The Cultivation of Insight," I liked what Burbea had to say about the limitation of unobservable entities.
Third, however, it is important to stress that, as we are defining it here, only what is actually perceivable to a practitioner qualifies as an insight for that practitioner.
I may, for example, feel anxious when I check my bank balance and see that there is no money at all in my account. But refusing to believe the bank statement and simply choosing to believe instead that I have a million dollars in the account would not in itself constitute an insight here, even if it did have the effect of reducing my suffering.
More generally, any introduction of a belief not based on perception, or similarly, any introduction of notions of unobservable entities would also, strictly speaking, be excluded from this particular definition of insight.
Fourth, and related to this last point: Rather than being based on faith in the experience of another, or upon blind beliefs -- even 'Buddhist' beliefs -- about how things are, insight, as we are defining it, is based primarily on personal experience of what decreases dukkha [suffering].
When there is insight, the seeing melts dukkha, and that release of dukkha we can feel and know for ourselves.
Samadhi is a term that I don't often think about in my own meditation practice. Burbea is helping me to understand that while it sounds exotic, being in a foreign language, it's actually fairly simple. Samadhi is concentration, basically. With concentration comes pleasure, usually.
For me samadhi is a lot like flow -- absorption in doing something either mentally or physically to the exclusion of other possible doings. Here Burbea relates concentration to defabricating the stories our brain tells itself about what's being experienced.
This fits with how I felt driving my Subaru Crosstrek into town today along the six miles of twisty, hilly, two-lane road that connects our neighborhood with Salem, Oregon. When I was simply concentrating on how the car was moving under my control, there were no stories about driving in my mind. There was just driving. And that felt good.
It typically takes a good deal of samadhi practice and insight to reverse a misconception of what is actually happening in a state of 'concentration'. For at first it understandably seems that such an altered state of unification and well-being is arrived at by ignoring phenomena other than the chosen object, so that these other phenomena, both inner and outer, are repressed from the consciousness at that time.
It might seem too that, replacing them in their absence, with much 'huffing and puffing' and strenuous effort, an altered pleasant state is constructed.
Is that really what is happening though? A state of samadhi is indeed still a constructed, fabricated state. But keen investigation, reflection, and a pondering of the relationship it has with letting go suggest that it may be more accurate to understand samadhi as a spectrum of states that involve progressively less fabrication than a more 'ordinary' state of consciousness involves.
It may not be obvious for quite a while but any state of samadhi is to some degree a state of letting go, of reduced craving. And the deeper the samadhi, the deeper and more comprehensive the letting go that it involves.
As we shall come to see through the insight practices, less craving results in less fabricating. Therefore any state of samadhi is a state of less fabricating, less building of the perception and sense of the self and of the world. If we understand how to contemplate it, samadhi itself offers profound insights into fabrication and dependent arising.
Spaciousness is a powerful means of lessening suffering, pain, unease, discomfort. Here Burbea explains how that happens.
Whenever there is any grasping or aversion toward something, indeed whenever any hindrances are present, the mind is, to some degree or other, in a contracted state. It has, so to speak, been sucked in to some perception, some object of consciousness, has shrunk and tightened around it. Generally we experience this contraction in the mind as an unpleasant state, as dukkha.
We can notice this contraction, this constriction of the mental space, in relation to both internal and external phenomena. It will be evident, for instance, with regard to some unpleasant sensation in the body, like tiredness, or a difficult emotion, such as fear. And we may also detect it in social situations, if a certain relationship is charged.
The clinging mind contracts around some experience, and then, because the mind space is shrunken, the object of that grasping or aversion takes up proportionately more space in the mind. It thus seems somehow larger, and also more solid -- its size and seeming solidity both corresponding to the degree of contraction in the mind.
With the object appearing then bigger and more solid, and the experience of contraction being painful to some degree, the mind without insight in that moment will usually react unskillfully.
It will unconsciously try to escape the situation by increasing the grasping or aversion, in a way that only keeps it stuck or even makes things worse. For unfortunately this further grasping keeps the mind space contracted, or contracts it even more. This makes the issue, the perception, still larger and more solid, setting up a vicious circle in which the mind is trapped.
About all this, for now, we simply want to point out that it can be very helpful, when the awareness is unwisely sucked in in this way, to pay attention deliberately to a sense of space. Noticing space opens up the perception, and can begin to dissolve the vicious circle. Even attention to external physical space can help us open and ease the constriction of the mind, and can create a sense of space around an internal experience such as bodily discomfort or a difficult emotion.
As we have stated before, space is not emptiness, and emptiness is not a space of any kind. Rather, our investigation here is simply into how the mind gives solidity to experience and fabricates dukkha through the very ways we relate to, see, and conceive of things.
We are gradually learning to untangle the tangle of suffering. And again, like all deliberate shifts in the way of looking, the more we do it, the more accessible it becomes. The more we practise inclining the mind to notice space, the easier it becomes to actually open up some space in the perception and experience some relief.