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The Buddha at Work - "Duly Noted: Getting My Ass Kicked By Meditation"

Kenneth Folk has me noting, noting, noting, and when I tell him I'm having trouble noting he tells me to note that too.


I've been noting for months, but we Skyped the other day and he gave me some new, fairly hardcore instructions for on and off the cushion––noting in specific patterns using the “bystander” POV and the four foundations of mindfulness. See how it sits, see how it feels coolness, pleasant, agitation, planning thoughts. See how it sits, see how it feels pressure, neutral, anger, scenario spinning thoughts. I told him I often can't find anything to note in the “mindstates” category and he hit me with this:

“What is your reaction to the inability to find something to note? Frustration? Annoyance? Complaining thoughts? Doubt? Petulance? Irritation? Wonder? Awe? All of those things are notable. As you get better and better at this technique, you will find that there is always something to note at each of the four foundations, even if it is confusion, uncertainty, evaluation thoughts, etc. Think of it as learning to play piano. There are no shortcuts, there is only mastery of the technique, one moment at a time. The payoff for the mastery of this technique is freedom and the happiness that is independent of conditions.”

Oh, just that.

So I've been practicing this on the cushion, at work, riding my bike to and from work, at the office, and on the train. And it is really, really hard. Kenneth warned me about the gambits the mind will generate to get me off track, but I'm shocked at my mind's creativity: This really isn't going to do anything for you. Why not shamatha? You should do a Dzogchen retreat, this Hinayana stuff isn't for you. And the body sensations, the visual stimuli, the hypersensitivity to sound. But maybe the fact that my mind is fighting so hard to avoid the noting means there's something to it.

And so it occurs to me that noting is simply articulating what's actually going on, and though our initial impressions might be quite surface-oriented, as we practice, we might have a clearer insight into what's actually happening. I'm reminded of Pema Chödrön: “Each of us has a variety of habitual tactics for avoiding life as it is.” How hard is it to actually be with what's actually going on?

But it seems necessary; the Buddha was quite clear on it, as he stated in this excerpt from the Satipatthana Sutta (as presented in In the Buddha's Words, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi):

“...when walking, a monk understands: 'I am walking'; when standing, he understands: 'I am standing'; when sitting, he understands, 'I am sitting'; when lying down, he understands: 'I am lying down'; or he understands accordingly however his body is disposed...

...when feeling a pleasant feeling, a monk understands: 'I feel a pleasant feeling'; when feeling a painful feeling, he understands, 'I feel a painful feeling'...

...a monk understands a mind with lust as a mind with lust, and a mind without lust as a mind without lust. He understands a mind with hatred as a mind with hatred, and a mind without hatred as a mind without hatred...”

How often do we not know our actual state of mind? I'm not angry, I've heard myself say from time to time, truly believing it. But it's always a belief that won't stand up to any investigation. How often do we walk and not know we are walking? I try to remember to use this practice when something feels  off  at work, when I feel uncomfortable, withdrawn, or I feel a lack of freedom in a given situation. See how it sits, see how it feels pressure, neutral, hurt, scenario spinning thoughts. See how it walks, see how it feels tension, unpleasant, inadequate, clinging thoughts. Our fixed thoughts are like vampires, withering in the clear daylight of mindfulness. 

Did I really use a vampire simile?

Seriously, though. When noting  anger , the anger doesn't tend to stick around all that long. But guess what? When resisting anger, it's got remarkable staying power.

Honestly, I'm not used to this “paying attention to what's actually going on” shit. So naturally, it's hard, and naturally, my mind wants to put a stop to all this nonsense. The great and wise Matthew McConaughey advises us to “just keep livin'” and Kenneth is ultra-clear no matter how much I complain that I should “just keep noting.”

Duly noted.

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The difficulty in ease

Just this morning I was listening to Gil Fronsdal talk about "looking for the ease" in everything, so I spent the day with that in mind... and found it to be incredibly difficult. Shouldn't it be easy to find ease? Jeez. A similar ass-kicking experience.

Lovely post. Thank you.

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