Vipassana and Mindfulness Blog

Mindfulness is simply practicing awareness with what's here. That's meditation, whether you're on a mountaintop, at work, or on a roller coaster.


Achieving Enlightenment Before Lunch

A good friend sent me a picture a few days ago.

It’s a flyer for a meditation program that makes incredible promises, and I mean that in both senses of the word. (I’m not going to quote them here; suffice it to say that they literally claim to bestow god-like status.)

She said she’d “100% read a blog post by you on how this is presented.”

I considered it briefly before deciding against it. I’ll certainly express my thoughts on things like this if asked directly, but creating a ball of negativity and sending it out into the world just didn’t feel right. So I left it aside.

As serendipity would have it, a teacher in the UK took care of it the following day.

In The Dangers of Diluted Buddhism, Lama Jampa Thaye describes exactly this approach to practice that we often see in the West.

You’ve seen it. It’s the one that says “use mindfulness to get that promotion.” Or “follow me, I’ll be your guru and fix everything.” Or “three easy steps to achieve enlightenment before lunch.”

The Buddha himself taught that we each must find our own way, and that blindly believing his teachings without personally testing them showed a total misunderstanding of the teachings themselves. And if that applied to the Buddha, I think we can safely conclude that it applies to all teachers.

Insight meditation is riddled with paradoxes, none more crucial than this: the practice will give you everything, so long as you ask nothing of it.

You might find happiness. You may find peace. And yes, what you learn might even set the conditions for material gain.

None of these are bad. And none of them are the point. They are side effects, artifacts of a gift that has much more to give. They are they pretty presents under the Christmas tree.

The practice is the tree itself.

I can’t promise you anything. I don’t even know what I’ll find under my own tree until it shows up. The practice is about making that discovery. So how can any teacher (or “guru”) possibly know what you’ll find under yours?

What a good teacher can do is show you how to grow your own tree and where to look for those shiny presents (and presence).

Let’s do lunch.



Karma: More Now Than Zen

“That’s bad karma.”

Karma is often summarized as “what goes around, comes around” or “someday, they’ll get theirs.” These interpretations are based on justice and vengeance, which add baggage and mystique that are irrelevant to such a basic process. More importantly, they imply that we can’t watch karma unfold directly, let alone produce and experience karmic changes now.

Neither assumption is true.

To illustrate: one way we self-sabotage is through a pair of cycles that appear to actually reward our own dread.

In the inner cycle, we anticipate a stressful event and picture how we’ll feel when it happens. “Can I handle this? Will I be ok?” Our irrational fears paint worst-case scenarios in a misguided attempt to “be prepared.” Our subconscious mind and body do not distinguish imagination from reality; they react as if this nightmare is really happening. These physical and emotional signals form a feedback loop and mistakenly “confirm” for each other that we are facing an actual, immediate threat. What happens next?

Instead of finding a comforting answer to “will I be ok,” we trigger our fight-or-flight response. Sound familiar?

To relieve that turmoil, we do the worst possible thing: we REPEAT the process, hoping we’ll get a more reassuring answer “this time.” Unfortunately, the anxiety caused by each trip through this cycle snowballs into the next, and we dig ourselves in deeper. Lather, rinse, repeat. It doesn’t even matter how the event actually unfolds (or the fact that it rarely matches our relentless dread-filled rehearsals); our thoughts, actions, and relationships have been infused with our self-induced suffering all this time.

After experiencing this cycle enough times, we see it’s ridiculous and we stop needlessly worrying about things. Right?

Yeah, not so much.

Rather than dropping this thought pattern, our fear develops another cycle (lovely, no?). This outer cycle is based on faulty logic: “I always worry about events, and then they turn out fine, so if I just keep worrying, I should be ok.” (This is a classic “correlation does not imply causation” scenario.) As noted above, the inner cycle’s physical and emotional signals “confirm” an immediate threat; similarly, because actual events don’t live up to our worst-case scenarios, the outer cycle always sees “positive” results from perpetuating the inner cycle. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Wait, are we still talking about karma? How does all this relate?

We plant the seeds of our own suffering and nurture their growth. Such seeds can only bear bitter fruit, whose own seeds start the cycle anew. In our attempt to “be ok,” we ironically cultivate a garden of misery.

That is karma. It’s not off in the future; it’s the way we experience our lives RIGHT NOW as a result of our own intentions and actions (including how we use thought). It’s not cosmic justice; it’s basic cause and effect. It’s less “what goes around comes around” and more “if we do what we’ve always done, we get what we’ve always gotten.”

There are at least two great things about this. First, each person’s karma is their own business. We only have to deal with our own; by definition, we can’t affect anyone else’s. Second, making small changes at any given moment can improve our karma here and now. Mindfulness and insight meditation allow us to observe our unskillful patterns — and their immediate results — in real-time. This paves the way for developing skillful intentions and actions based on clear seeing. Oh, we still prepare for upcoming events; but we do so without causing stress and suffering for ourselves and others.

The process of observation and insight builds upon itself and becomes our new cycle. A sustainable cycle.

Now that’s good karma.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Recommended further reading: We Are Not One by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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