day four : afternoon


Q: Can you experience a “pure” sensation without perception or “pure” feeling without perception? Is it an unperceived or non-perception of the feeling?

A: You can consciously try not to perceive the feeling but then you will be relying on the perception of something else in order to do that. The only totally pure feelings are those that are felt by awakened people.

Q: You’ve spoken about the reduction of stress. What do you have to say about Centers for Mindfulness? Some of those among us have come here on the advice of the Association for Development of Mindfulness.

A: The answer to this question requires addressing two points.

1) One is using the word “stress” to define dukkha: There are three reasons why I use that word. The first one came from a reporter I knew in Bangkok who asked me, “Why do Buddhists talk about suffering all the time? I don’t have any suffering in my life.”

I asked him, “Do you have any stress?”

“Oh, yes, lots!”

“That’s what we’re talking about.”

The second reason is that when you get into subtle levels of concentration, there is still some dukkha left, but it’s too subtle to be called suffering, so “stress” is a better word for it. Otherwise, when you’re in a state of concentration like that, you say, “I don’t see any dukkha here.”

The third reason is that it’s very difficult to romanticize stress. There are no songs or poems or great novels about stress. Sometimes I hear people talk about their heroic suffering, but imagine heroic stress. The two terms don’t go together. So it helps to de-romanticize dukkha to call it stress. That’s the issue of stress.

2) Second, reduction of stress: Anything that’s good for cutting down the amount of stress in people’s lives is a good thing, but you have to realize that what’s being taught at mindfulness centers is not Buddhist, for two main reasons. One, the purpose of the Dhamma is not simply to reduce stress, but to put an end to it. And second, what they describe as mindfulness is not what the Buddha meant by the word sati. What they’re teaching is patience and equanimity, which is perfectly fine, but as the Buddha said, those qualities are only one strategy for putting an end to stress. There are lots of causes of stress that patience and equanimity cannot touch. We’ll be talking about that tonight.

Q: For permanent pains, do you deal with them as you would with those that arise and disappear as in meditation?

A: To deal with them, Yes. Then again, however, remember that the purpose of the skills we learn in meditation is not to cure the pain but to change your relationship to it. In fact, it’s through changing your relationship to the pain that you advance on the path. You understand the power of perception to create a good or a bad experience in the present moment, and it’s in understanding that power that you gain discernment.

Q: Do you use the same method to treat physical pains and emotional knots?

A: In general terms, Yes. You need a place in your awareness to step back and then, from that position, to look at the emotional knot from the outside. And you will also have to question it because—as with physical pain—what makes an emotional knot so intense, what makes it a source of suffering, is the way you perceive it. The Buddha talks about emotional states as being fabricated out of three things: what he calls bodily fabrication, verbal fabrication, and then mental fabrication.

Bodily fabrication is the way you breathe. Simply by learning how to breathe calmly around the emotional problem, you can begin to take it apart. Just two weeks ago, I was reading that some scientists had done a study showing that calm breathing calms the mind. How do you say “Duh!” in French? Mais bien sûr. Of course it calms the mind. We’ve been doing that for 2,500 years.

The more difficult parts are the verbal fabrication and the mental fabrication. Verbal fabrication is basically how you talk to yourself about the issue, which the texts divide into two activities: directed thought, where you think of a topic; and evaluation, where you think about the topic: making comments on it, asking questions about it. Mental fabrication has to do with feeling-tones and perceptions. These are the things that keep the knot tied. So you have to learn how to question them. Two questions you might start with are, one, ask them: Is this really true? And two, what if the opposite were true? These questions help to open your imagination, and that can help to untie some of the knots.

This kind of questioning will go through many levels until you finally get to the underlying perception that holds the knot together or keeps it tied together. Usually that perception comes from what’s called your lizard brain. That kind of perception can appear and disappear very quickly, and yet leave its mark. This is one of the reasons why we try to develop alertness in the meditation: so that we can see these things quickly. They’re like subliminal messages. Those are illegal in France, right? They’re supposed to be illegal in America, too, but they’re there, and nobody detects them except people who meditate. Once I was visiting a friend, and one evening there was a TV program on Fox called 24 Hours. Did they have that in France? It was about police trying to track down terrorists and prevent a terrorist attack. My friend wanted to see how a monk would react to this program. Well, this monk watched it for two minutes, and then went to the other side of the room. I didn’t want that stuff in my brain. Then they had a commercial break for the evening news. Now, Fox is a very right-wing network. There was a big white panel behind the newscasters, and while they were talking, a message flashed very quickly across the panel, “Be afraid, be afraid, be afraid.” My friend didn’t see it, but I’m sure it left an effect. Your lizard brain acts in the same way. So if you’re alert enough, you begin to see the messages that lie behind your emotional knots. That allows you to question those perceptions, so that you can free yourself from the knot.