Things are going to get a bit less new-user-friendly around here, I think. If you get really lost, ask a question or do a search. It’s all here somewhere.

When you’re dealing with the interlocking nature of prajna, sila, and samatha, the question arises; which one first? Which is preeminent? Of course, the answer is situational, and not really linear, in any event.

True, it’s pretty cut and dried that you need a baseline level of conduct to achieve a baseline level of concentration which is needed to achieve any kind of stable insight. But beyond that rudimentary level, it gets complex quickly.

To get stable changes in behavior or conduct usually requires some kind of insight into one’s situation to really make definitive change. To hold those changes requires concentration. It’s hard to make real life changes when you have the mind strength of a crack baby raised on kraft dinner, and the psychic hotline is your idea of ‘insight’.

Likewise, although jhana practice isn’t exactly an investigation-intensive enterprise, you do from time to time have to make certain observations that will fine tune your understanding of the object that forms your concentrative focus. It’s quite possible to take a very dry perception based approach to jhana, but I don’t recommend it, as it’s very abrasive. Feeling your way is best, generally, but even so, you do need to occasionally peek your head out to survey the terrain.

So really the whole process feeds backwards, forwards and sideways. The best bet is to work on the one that complains the most, or gets in the way the most. When in doubt, do some mindful investigation and if you immediately start crying, or your nervous system feels like uninsulated wiring sizzling in the rain, you might need to do some emotional housecleaning or chill in the second jhana for a bit.

For my part I’m dealing with lot of relationship stuff right now. There’s all this deeply rooted rubbish relating to self worth, loneliness, love and being loved etc. It’s very tempting to look for a solution to all this, particularly an external one, but 9 times out 10 when it comes to emotional stuff, looking for a solution is exactly the wrong thing to do. There isn’t one. There never will be one. Looking for solutions to emotional problems is how you perpetuate the mindset that creates emotional problems. It’s pretty much exactly like a gambling addict: you keep wanting to double down at the table, in hopes that it will all come up even in the end, but it never really does. There is no break even, there is no winning these games. They were never meant to be won. When you figure that out, and why it’s true, you’ve got some real insight going.

Emotional stuff all flows out of species of attachment. You can dress it up in any number of ways, but the end truth is that you have these emotions because you are attached to the phenomena they relate to.  Anything you do in relation to that can only reaffirm the attachment. It’s like one of those monkey traps. The only way out is to let go of the thing and pull out your hand. Full Stop.

16 thoughts on “the tail of the snake

  1. Welcome back! It’s great to see you boil back down to the basics & stop worrying about the worldwide catastrophes & get back into the real inner reality as it is moment-by-moment.

    It ain’t easy, but it’s the (only) right thing to do….

  2. “Emotional stuff all flows out of species of attachment. You can dress it up in any number of ways, but the end truth is that you have these emotions because you are attached to the phenomena they relate to. Anything you do in relation to that can only reaffirm the attachment.”

    Maybe I read this wrong, but it sounds like your solution is to dump relationships altogether and go it alone.

  3. Hi Zac; good to see you posting again. It’s good to see “the Dharma” being presented in a fresh manner.

    I assume that you’re deliberately not making a distinction between relative and absolute insight here? I say that, because I guess like the rest of the things you mention here, they’ll both feed into each other. Right?

    @Hamble — AIUI, that’d be very much a first turning of the wheel of Dharma answer–go live in a cave and look at your own experience until you see through it. Wheras at least some of the 3rd turning (Vajrayana) schools would emphasise being in the world, and indeed, some of the Tibetan schools have a good solid householder yogi tradition.

  4. you could make the distinction, yeah, but it’s really more of a context thing. an absolute insight into impermanence at the level of base sensations can be built up into a macrocosmic relative insight into a particular emotional attachment. or the other way around, which is how most people end up doing it.

    and yeah hamble, in some sense that is what I’m saying. it’s not so much important to go it alone, as to be *willing* to go it alone, which is the crucial distinction. it’s fairly extreme, but if you want to break the blockage, sometimes you have to use a nuclear weapon. at this point I am seriously considering an extended period of abstention from relationships.

    the thrust of a lot of what I’m saying is that most people will do almost anything to avoid a real change, and a real challenge to their egos. in the enlightenment game it is very much ‘go big, or go home’.

  5. Big, difficult issues.

    So if my girlfriend is shot dead before my eyes, the enlightened response is not to feel attached? Or not to have a girlfriend in the first place? Seems unlikely. More likely, perhaps: the attachment is experienced fully, but seen for what it is. It isn’t avoided, but felt 100% and understood for what it is. Karma stops, but not feelings, not relationships.

    And there often *are* solutions to emotional problems, but the solutions are not in insight or concentration practice, yet neither are they in everyday ideas or actions. I know a lot of people on this scene don’t like to admit it, but therapy *works*. And remember Wilber’s thing here about how you have to have made the experiment before you’re qualified to have an opinion! Before therapy I had no job, no relationship, and felt crap. Afterwards I had a job, a relationship, and felt okay (i.e. just as miserable as everyone else). My emotional crap was fixed by forming a relationship with a therapist in a way that enabled me to see how my relationships with other people were causing problems. The solution to my problems came through experience, not specific actions or even ideas. This process had nothing to do with dharma or enlightenment, but it did what it said on the tin – it enabled me to get past my emotional issues.

    Agree that you have to ‘get big’ in the enlightenment game, but that doesn’t mean the small stuff *can’t* be fixed. Fixing the big stuff sometimes fixes the small stuff, but often it just bypasses it. You can see through the small stuff, sure. But you can also fix the small stuff (using other, appropriate means), and do yourself the favour of having one less thing causing suffering.

    PS Has anyone seen Laboratorian? The last I heard from him was a comment that talking about stuff is pointless…

  6. I’m sure he’s fine. he just bunkers down once in a while. he’s probably trying to dodge all the bankers flinging themselves out of windows.

    I have no doubt that therapy ‘works’ occasionally, to the extent that it can work. just as many other forms of conduct training work. re-arranging your content is not the same thing as fixing the problem though. in many cases it is sufficient to simply move things around so you don’t experience the issue too often and can resume practice. that again is not the same thing as resolving the attachment that generates emotional turmoil. have you really resolved the issues that resulted in no job, no relationship and feeling crap, or have simply learned new skills that make it so you experience the downside of jobs, relationships and feelings less often than you used to? losing your job every five years instead of every six months is a relative improvement, as is arguing with your gf every couple months instead of every day….and I’m sure you still feel like crap from time to time. therapy is premised on making you adapt well to a context. every time you change context, you need therapy again.

    I never said you couldn’t or shouldn’t have feelings or relationships. but by definition, if you understand an attachment for what it is, it’s not really an attachment anymore. that is, if you fully realize a thing as being inherently transitory, not possessing a self generating nature, and not able to resolve dis-ease, then in what way can you be attached to it, except insofar as you continue to act out certain patterns of behavior which are seen as empty? if you develop foci to replace the old ones, these patterns are then easily superceded. this is where i think ingram falls down, as do a lot of contemporary buddhists. there is not much emphasis on developing the fundamental insights into functional behaviors. you just do what you did before and take your lumps in the dark night from time to time, and continue to act out your dysfunctional behaviors with equanimity. I find this lacking.

    and no, I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t ‘feel’ something if your gf gets shot, but most reactions would be based on delusional premises, and could be dispensed with. there is a difference between emotions and feelings.

  7. I agree on Zac’s take on the way therapy is usually used, but I think it’s got the potential for much more. Just because everyone’s running around hitting themselves with guns doesn’t mean you can’t still use one to shoot your “self”.

    Rather than just helping someone lose their job every 5 years or fight with their girlfriend only once a month, GOOD therapy can help to make sure they never loose their job (they just quit voluntarily), and, when arguing with a girlfriend, that they see through to the heart of the argument and disarm it, rather than letting the negative feelings linger.

    From my own experiences in therapy (oops, let that slip, did I?) I would say that therapy doesn’t have to just acclimatize you to a certain context. It can also make use of that context to help uncover your behavior/beliefs that lie at the heart of the matter and that are making you suffer. And, a lot like insight practice, once you see it, it no longer affects you. Properly used, the cause of the problem is completely uprooted from the self.

    The trouble though, is that as long as there’s a sense of “self”, there’s a sense of “I am someone who has suffered through those things in the past”. They linger on as part of the identity until that very identity is seen through as never having existed in the first place. “Show me your original face…”

    If used within the context of contemplative practice, therapy can help with understanding that the things you MOST need to realize as illusory and impermanent are those things that you hide from yourself. Hence the focus on “shadow work” in Wilber’s camp, and Genpo Roshi’s Big Mind Big Heart technique (which I am neither supporting nor mocking, never having made that particular experiment).

    Of course, realizing that there is no “self” is well and good, and reaching that understanding would, I think, help minimize the effects of these shadow aspects in everyday life. But maintaining that no-self state in everyday life isn’t easy. And the parts of “self” that are most apt to crop up now and then are the one’s that we won’t even acknowledge as being there to begin with.

    The trouble with mixing therapy and dharma though, is falling into loveydovey psycho-dharma, like Dan Ingram has complained about repeatedly on Buddhist Geeks. An I’m-OK-you’re-OK we’re all already enlightened anyway cop out.

    On the other hand, I agree that taking your lumps in the Dark NIght doesn’t seem like a final answer either, and I like Zac’s idea of developing fundamental insights into functional behaviors. Maybe you could explain a bit further?

  8. well, you guys have both basically confirmed my thinking; that real solutions whether in therapy or otherwise, require a move from specific conduct to insight.

    for me (and only for me) I need the break from relationships ( specific conduct) to get the more general insight.

    as for the rest, I’ll leave it for the next post…

  9. Zac wrote: ‘therapy is premised on making you adapt well to a context. every time you change context, you need therapy again…’

    I think that’s right and a really important point. Although the ‘really good therapy’ that Ian mentions seems feasible in theory, it is often geared toward a context, which is why in many cases people never move on from it and keep going back for more. But I can’t write it off as an unimportant contribution, given that for most people it’s precisely the neurotic non-issues that are actually the biggest impediment to any serious engagement with insight.

    But maybe what we really want to be talking about is this: how long a game is this thing we’ve got ourselves into?

    Okay, I’ve been doing insight practice a couple of times a day for a few years now. I’ve got Emptiness apparent in real time – but what the fuck I’m supposed to do with it, I still don’t know. I’m a good little Ingramista, so I’m working on the assumption that I might be up for awakening. But who can say *when*. And it’s not clear from the descriptions just how ‘awake’ this ‘awakening’ thing is supposed to leave me. There’s stuff to do afterwards, I’m told. So I’m working on the assumption this is a longer-term, slow and gradual process that I can carry out alongside the other stuff I have to do in everyday life. But what I think I’m hearing is that you’re fed up with playing it as a long game. You’re going to go away, sit under that tree, and not get up until you’re done.

    Cool… You can do that!

  10. So to speak.

    I also think the ingram definition is in some ways incomplete. in his reckoning an arahat doesn’t yet have mastery of concentration or morality. there are vast realms of concentration and psychic powers that can be developed and there’s a whole realm of possible skillful behaviors that he barely touches upon. true, it never becomes ‘impossible’ to experience ill will and lust, but you can eradicate the proclivity so completely it almost never comes up. I don’t see him or anyone else really tackling that possibility. neither of those two are necessary or sufficient for full enlightenment, but they are developmental implications that get overlooked or downplayed a lot. don’t tell me that substantially wiping out the delusional roots of fear and hate in the human being are not valid end points for practice, nor should hey be treated as unattainable ideals, either.

  11. Yeah. If enlightenment isn’t the top of a “pyramid of needs”, then what is? And if it isn’t, then what is the purpose of enlightenment?

    Can it even be contextualized as having a purpose, a way of bringing it back to the marketplace so to speak?

    Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself though. More practice first…

  12. I agree with Zac, while Ingram makes the whole thing much more accessible, in a way he understates it. Though if i understand he’s revised his take on some things since he wrote the book, e.g., he even suggests in the book that there are discrete states beyond the 8th jhana.

    It seems clear to me that “insight” can be mastered and completed, possibily relatively quickly. The Mahasi school gives you a 6-month retreat and after that you’re off to start teaching. What seems more nebulous is the “noumena” like the natural state of mind, the pure-subject state and the Mahamudra.

    And likewise, the psychic realms are unlimited.

    What always bothers me is trying to reconcile the possibilities of those things with practical application.

  13. Zac! Labster! Ah well, it looks like I’m the only Ingramista left in the house… The path of dry insight, let us remind ourselves, is to undo the knot of perception first (‘enlightenment’) then use that as your kickarse platform to sweat the other stuff.

    To know for sure whether Ingram has it right obliges us to follow these instructions and take the experiment to its promised conclusion. This is the model I’m following, mixed in with a bit of brilliant Western Occultism from my good friend Alan, because it’s the best I’ve found.

    I’d assumed there were three thrones with our names on, waiting for us in the arahat kingdom of Ingramland! But if you change your minds I’ll keep yours warm for you… 😉

  14. I don’t disagree with you. it is generally quicker to work from the insights downward. you do occasionally have to divert for some remedial concentration or conduct.

    the problem is that ingram doesn’t specify his end-game very well, at least not in terms that are easily replicable. his instructions are basically : ‘keep cycling…until you don’t.” that could be four fruitions, ten, twelve, twenty, a hundred… plus god knows how many repeated glimpses into the same insights. this makes me feel something is missing from his description. it’s important to recall that he is still young in this, as are we all. I know I’ve got a fruition or two under my belt, and there is discernible progress into unwinding the knot of perception, and sometimes it feels completely undone, but something is not quite falling into place yet.

    he is still vastly superior to most anything in the buddhist scene, but the best compliment is to take it and work with it. no need for thrones or a personality cult.

  15. The end-game is the tricky bit. In the recent Hurricane Ranch discussions [] Ingram as good as admits that the cycles are not the whole story. But if he were to issue specific guidance for the end-game, then people would reify that and try to ‘do’ it; or turn it into something. Whereas the end-game is about ceasing to do, ceasing to make a thing out of the practice. Partly, the process completes itself and partly you relax into it. This is where all that advaita Direct Path ‘you’re already there you don’t need to do anything’ crap comes from – from people (with good intentions) trying to make a practice out of the non-practice that is the end-game stage.

    The important thing, though, is that what’s needed for the end-game or fourth path doesn’t make much sense until you’re at third. At third, Emptiness is apparent in real time but seems to occupy part of the field of awareness or is set against self. At fourth it occupies the whole field and there is no distinction against self. Emphasising the ability to accomplish cycle after cycle ensures that people don’t get hung up on trying to find a shortcut to the process or trying to work out the shortest route. The understanding required to get from anagami to arahat is just not there at stream entry. It’s the role of the meditator to gain the understanding required to get from one path to the next, not the role of the model.

    I’m joking about the thrones, of course. But I am very grateful to Ingram and other teachers besides.

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