written by Helen Jandamit
A tale from the Theravada Buddhist elders tells a story of a flea infested dog.
The dog is sitting on sandy ground near a makeshift fence. It shakes itself occasionally and lifts a back foot to enthusiastically scratch behind one ear. The dog is still for a short time, and then it gets up, stretches and walks towards a shady place at the foot of a nearby tree. It settles down with its chin on one of its front paws. After a few minutes, it shakes a bit then rolls on its back and writhes around trying to scratch a place near its spine.
The dog keeps moving from one place to another to get away from the fleas, only to carry them with it wherever it goes.On the level of relative truth, it is essential to engage with the proximate cause of discomfort or injustice. If you see that there is injustice, it is important to reveal it and root it out. On that level, you need to get informed and to stand up for your rights.
However on the level of ultimate truth, even if you have won court cases against massive odds, you may still be irritated by the unfinished inner business that you may carry with you wherever you go. If you realise that you carry your own version of ‘fleas’, you may choose to come into your latent spiritual warrior status and to delve deep within, to locate, know and allow the roots of the discontent that you have unknowingly carried with you for so long, to be uprooted and come to an end.
When that happens, a person is unshaken by, but still fully aware of, the changing nature of the physical world and all that is playing out around him. He knows it. He feels it – but he is not shaken by what he perceives.
Combining concentration with awareness of the present
Insight Meditation (also called Buddhist Vipassana Meditation) is a way of practising meditation that combines heightened concentration with authentic awareness of the stream of present moments. Although it dates from over 2,500 years ago, the practice of Insight Meditation is timeless and exquisitely relevant to the intelligent seeker of today. It is one aspect of a more inclusive path – or way – to wellbeing – The Middle Way.
When practising Insight Meditation you become your own experiment: You’ll be both the observing scientist and also the process being observed. You’ll be both the cat and the mouse.Insight Meditation involves stepping into life in all its fullness – yet not habitually reacting, as a result of old programming, to what occurs or experienced.
That path is traditionally called the Middle Way. It is usually associated with Buddhism but you do not have to be a Buddhist to practise it.You are not required to believe in it. Instead you are encouraged to give it a try to see whether it works for you or not.
As the Buddha said, “Believe nothing just because a so called wise person said it. Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held. Believe nothing just because someone else believes it. Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.”
Insight meditation is both an attitude and a practice: What is this attitude?
It is an attitude of open, direct experience of whatever arises in your experience of the ‘here and now’ – with as little prejudgement as possible.
How do you practise?
When practising formally, especially in a group situation, you ‘walk’ and then ‘sit quietly and breathe’.There are various ways to practice walking meditation from ’striding over the fields’ to maintaining a slow focused awareness on each step. As a general rule, if you walk for fifteen minutes, you then spend another fifteen minutes practising sitting meditation.
Although in the past and in Asian cultures, many meditators would sit in some version of a crosslegged position, it is not essential. What is essential is that you sit with your back straight (but not soldier stiff) in a stable position that you can maintain, at least at the beginning of the sitting, without pain.
Your blood circulation should not be restricted so fairly loose clothing is preferable.With eyes closed, you focus on a point about the size of a fingertip on the surface of your skin, just below your navel. Observing through feel, you note in mind the movements there that accompany breathing. You also note any sounds, sights, tactile sensations, thoughts and so on that arise.
They have a place in the meditation and you observe them – while directly experiencing – them as they arise, have being and change or fade away. As you do so, you gradually become calmer allowing clearer states of mind arise by themselves. The results that you can expect at the beginning are enhanced tranquility and greater general wellbeing. Over time with fairly regular practice, deeper states arise and you may come to experience profound insights into the processes of life.
Here is a description of an authentic experience: Slowly falling and coming to rest
On a recent Vipassana retreat at a contemporary meditation centre in the suburbs of Bangkok, a middle-aged English lady was listening to some additional instructions at the end of a long sitting session. She had long blonde hair and to loosen up after sitting still for a long time, she stretched her arms up and back, lifting her hair and letting it fall.
She was still focused on the moment and in a heightened state of awareness – so she moved slowly, feeling the movement with great acuity, noticing the muscles in her arms engaging and the rising movement of them as she stretched and then, as she later recounted, her attention zeroed in on the contact of her hair with her skin. She was able to distinguish each strand separately – and to feel them individually, slowly falling and coming to rest on her shoulders.
It was a world-changing event for her. It was a moment when she came fully into the moment, with awareness wide open. Her automatic pilot had no longer been functioning and she had tuned into her authentic presence and, as a result, awakened to a field of extraordinary clarity. When this happens, the previous familiar ways of perceiving the environment around you and your interaction with it seem, in comparison, to be washed out and lifeless.
Feeling elephants Let’s look at the well-known illustration of several blind men each touching different parts of an elephant and receiving different impressions of what the animal could be like. One of them might feel the massive flank of the animal and get the impression that an elephant was a wide expanse of rough skin with enormous ridges that moved slowly beneath the surface.
Another man might touch the tip of a tusk and get the impression that an elephant was made of hard shiny stuff that curved upward to a sharp point. Yet another man might wonder what kind of animal was made of leathery flapping sheets suspended several feet up in the air.It illustrates the misleading impressions a person might have as a result of incomplete information.
When a person in a darkened room realises that the curtains can be drawn back and does so, light floods into the room. At that illuminated point, the objects in the room gain definition. The quality of the colours increases exponentially. What had previously been a dim jaundiced hue – becomes bright dancing citron vibrancy.
There’s an intrinsic dimension of in-itself-ness that appears in the light of awakening. After the blinds have been drawn up, they can never be pulled down again in the same way.
Gradually, you come to know that this enhanced awareness is in fact, your true nature. It is not something that is added to you. The opposite is true. Obscurations and mental habits that may have blocked your direct experience of presence simply dissolve away when Insight is present.
If you would like to find out more about Insight Meditation conducted in English, you can email the author at [email protected] or visit www.houseofdhamma.com
Acharn Helen is a Vipassana acharn, an author, a visual artist, an editor and frequency healer. British born, she has lived in Thailand for more than 40 years bringing up her family and sharing her extensive experience and knowledge of traditional Buddhist Vipassana Meditation.
She was ordained with the Mook Rim Society (Korean Zen) for eleven years and now works as a spiritual independent running workshops and courses at The House of Dhamma. She worked with Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University – MCU. and the Young Buddhists Association of Thailand – YBAT for many years. On invitation, she has travelled to run courses and retreats in Austria, Australia and the USA.
In 2002, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, she was honoured as the Foremost Western Woman Meditation Master in SE Asia. Acharn Helen Jandamit at a retreat held at the YBAT centre in Pathum Thani.