The most difficult part in insight meditation is to realize that your mind always takes a stand. Otherwise it could not exist.
If you see, you took a stand on
a sight, a see-sensing, a seeing, a see-feeling
If you hear…smell…taste…touch…
and especially and most subtle: if you “think” there was already a taking a stand on. right now, gotcha….gotcha….gotcha!
a thought, a think-sensing, a thinking, a think-feeling – all in one moment, moment after moment…endlessly.
What do we mean by “to take a stand on”?
Right now, you watch a computer screen or a paper. A sequence of sights, sights, sights (the letters on the paper) sound, sound (surrounding sounds) and thought, thought (thinking of thoughts written in this text) appear with an amazing speed and unbelievable force.
What do they force?
They force you to “be” them. “What we possess that possesses us, what we catch, that caught us”.
Now, you might mistake tanha or “thirst” for some kind of emotion or craving like “I like this text”… or very well “i don’t like this text”.
But no, this is not what the Buddha meant by craving in this context!. Those thought-chains are already many many moments of individual thought-moments each of which are connected by a deep deep unsatiable thirst for life, for being, for continuity: tanha bhavanettika, as the Buddha defined, “a thirst leading to being” – it does not mean a connection of lives for rebirth. You do not need to remember past lives or look into the future to understand the Buddha’s teaching. No, it is shockingly much closer to you. Directly under your nose, in your eye, in your ear, between your thoughts. Each and every moment. It is so close that you cannot see it. Because for one, it is very fast…and there is no ordinary way for you to “see” and “directly witness” what is going on under your nose. Secondly, in order to “live” your mind needs to group and perceive heaps where there is just bubbles popping in and out of existence. How, do you think, could you walk, if you did not.
Now, if this number of thoughts which we usually tend to think about as “craving, longing” are not what the Buddha meant when he spoke about tanha, or thirst, what are they instead? You could flat and simply call them “mental defilements”… or emotions…kilesa. And the Buddha did talk about them too, but more so in the context of morality and initial mental training.
As an insight meditator, we need to go deeper, have to be careful, not to get stuck there. We might be very happy to be able to see how the mind acts and reacts as a whole. We might think: “Wow, now i see the craving in me. This is what the Buddha was talking about. Let me try to empty myself and avoid this”.
The trouble is…while we have such thoughts and entertain them, we are again taking a stand, holding on to moment after moment of sense impressions…all in the realm of thought this time, but nevertheless. We look for the movement of a train, but we ignore, at the same time, the movement of the wheels.
As soon as we are we – by necessity – take a stand on something. On a sight, a sound…a thought. There cannot be any being (bhava) if there was no prior upadana, or taking up. So the English term “grasping” might be misleading. It is not “grasping” of a number of thoughts labeled as “emotions” or “feelings” or “observations” = all of which are coarse, because they in themself mean that we did already “took on” or “identified in” 200+ sense impressions.
Now, bear with me, and have a look at this description found in a meditation instruction:
And right after that, there’s the thoughts about it. So, when you’re letting go of the thoughts about that feeling, you’re letting go of the clinging to it. When you open up and let go and allow that feeling to float, just like it’s a bubble in the air, and then relax that tightness in your head, in your mind, you’ve let go of the craving. Now you start to see this as a true process. There’s nothing personal about it. It’s just an arising, and passing away of different phenomena, That’s all it is. And this is a continual process of opening and relaxing, opening and relaxing, opening and relaxing, why? Because then you’re able to recognize more easily, when your mind starts to grab on to something, when the mind starts to close down around something, when it starts identifying so heavily with things, when it gets that emotional hold on it. That’s what the craving really is. It’s an emotional hold: “I like it. I don’t like it.”
Question to you: If you are simply given 6 building blocks to chose from – and not one more, and you have to translate the above statement into an uninterrupted series of six sense impressions, how many moments can you identify in which the meditator did not see the arising and falling of those objects but instead identified with them, explaining this “identification” of his even as meditative practice? There is a comedy in the tragedy.
I hope you can see or “imagine” where this is going. Even me, now, “i am” holding from one moment to the next onto sense contact experiences, racing along, while i write this text, while i type: think, think, think, see, see, hear, think, feel…
What if we were to “give up” the holding onto any of those appearing and disappearing sense impressions?
Buddha says: ” upādānapaccayā bhavo – Based on holding on to is being”.
So, you give up the holding and there will be no being. Would you “know about it”. No, because that entails at least one moment of thought-consciousness. Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw interestingly speaks about this moment of “forgetting”. You could also call it the deathlessness. Where there is nothing held onto which can appear or disappear, there is not death.
Now, we don’t need to go overboard in a fancy abhidhamma-like classifications of mind-moments in order to understand what is happening here. The Buddha said “world, world, o monks. The six sense spheres, this o monks is called the world.”
Think about it 😉
There is an alignment between a form, a sense-faculty, a see-ing and in the moment of their going together a positive/negative/neutral feeling accompanies the sense impression. Can you really point them out into separate objects? Ask venerable Nagasena and he will tell you no. This is just one moment. We can point out flavors in this moment, but experentially, it is one of those six sense spheres being active moment after moment.
The conditions of nama-rupa (name and form) with vinnyana (consciousness) come together and give rise to feeling. That is it. No need for any intellectual enumeration of abstract mental atoms, which, funny, in itself is in fact just a mere generation of never-ending thoughts after thoughts this time thinking about the Dhamma. Instead of being seen with right attention they lead to the manufacturing of books. Does this help to lead others from the not-knowing of this process to the knowing of how this magic show of the consciousness works? Well, it may, but those lengthy explanations are less precise and clear cut as Buddha’s direct and simply instructions in the suttas which usually ends in a direct indication of how to practice and realize for oneself. I am currently doing the same. Noted.
Now, be that as it may, the danger an abhidhamma scholast faces with regard to his own practice of awakening to the workings of the magic show of consciousness are real. And insight meditation is a process of refinement, where – with the right tools – one discovers subtler and subtler stuff which the mind is taking a stand on and completely identifying with, so that we do not even know, that we are grasping.
Here, at this stage, even the thought about grasping is a moment of “grasping” based on a thought moment which made us “to be” in this moment. If you don’t believe this try it a couple of seconds for yourself. Ask yourself: why made you one moment stop watching youself and follow past memories or any distracting thought? Try to watch your mind for a moment…you will very very quickly be gone finding yourself taking up, “being”, “following” other sensory information. Your “attention” is brutally swept away by this storm of grasping in each moment. This is why in insight meditation, as well as in samatha meditation, the intentional use of one thought will make all the difference.
Now there is this subtle subtle inclination, the thirst, which in this moment makes us grasp the next thought or sense moment. Thus tanha is bhavanetti: It leads to ‘be’.
The Buddha tells us, that if we work our way down with such a thorough attention (yoniso manasikaro), trying to “face” any object with equanimity (Q: how many moments, do you think, might one miss, while thinking: “i have to face any object appearing in front of me”?) we will eventually reduce tanha and get to a point where this very very dispassionate pure attending to EVERYTHING coming (even thoughts about our meditation) will lead to a cessation in thirsting for the “next”.
“taṇhānirodhā upādānanirodho, upādānanirodhā bhavanirodho.” MN 9. etc.
“Bhavanirodho nibbānaṃ” AN 10. Anisamsavaggo