Insight Meditation Houston

Shaila Catherine’s ‘Focused and Fearless’ (3)

Tonight we’ll continue our discussion of Shaila Catherine’s book Focused and Fearless with a look at Chapter Three, titled “Happiness.”  First, I’ll guide you through a meditation exercise that Shaila suggests as a way to experience the happiness of nonattachment:

Relax into a comfortable but erect sitting posture and close your eyes.

Bring attention to the breath.

First feel the whole breath, sensing how the chest and abdomen expand and contract. 

Then, settle the attention on the sensation of the breath at the very tip of the nostrils; observe that initial point of contact with the breath. 

Note the sensations of breathing without altering or manipulating the breath. 

Let the breath come naturally, and observe it throughout the duration of inhaling, exhaling, and pausing; inhaling, exhaling, and pausing.

If the attention drifts off into thoughts, bring it gently back to the breath. 

The mind will probably stray many times.  That’s natural.

When you wake up to the bare fact that thinking is occurring, redirect your attention to breathing.

Be aware of how the mind tends to grasp at perceptions, and note when there is no grasping in the mind. 

When you feel the mind let go of grasping for even a moment, fully experience that quality of ease, sensing it spread from head to toe. 

Can you find happiness in this expression of non-attachment?

Relax into that state of ease that is beyond attraction or repulsion. 

Note the joy of pure detachment whenever you’re not struggling against the reality of the moment.

Notice when your attention becomes steady and not easily scattered by stray thoughts or by passing sounds, images and sensations. 

As the mind begins to compose itself in present-moment awareness, note any lightness or happiness that might arise.

Be aware of the ease and relief that comes from ceasing to react to sensory stimuli.

If this ease intensifies, it will eventually become the “delight and happiness born of seclusion” that is associated with the first level of mental absorption, known as jhana. 

Stay with the ease, knowing that this kind of happiness is completely wholesome—not based on craving nor dependent on conditioned states of greed, hatred, or delusion. 

It is a healing and joyous energy, intrinsic to the concentrated mind.

Shaila’s third chapter opens with one of the Buddha’s teachings:

Whatever happiness is found in sensual pleasures,

And whatever there is of heavenly bliss—

These are not worth one sixteenth part

Of the happiness that comes with craving’s end.

We all long to be happy and to avoid suffering.   The wish to be happy is not problematic in and of itself, but problems arise when we strive for happiness only in the realms of sensuality and personal comfort.  Spiritual practice includes the possibility of deep joy that is independent of sensory pleasure.

While he was immersed in the sublime happiness of deeply concentrated states of absorption, the Buddha realized the Four Noble Truths: the existence of suffering, its causation through clinging, the possibility of ending suffering through letting go, and the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering.  This liberating insight arose in the midst of contented concentration.

The Buddha was known as “the happy one.”   He lived simply, taking refuge in the calm clarity of meditation practice, and he found pleasure in pointing thousands of followers towards spiritual liberation.  As a teacher, his sense of humor was legendary, and he promoted harmony in the monastic community he led.  When King Pasenadi of Kosala visited the Buddha’s sangha, he recorded these impressions: “Here I see bikkhus (monks) smiling and cheerful, sincerely joyful, plainly delighting, their faculties fresh, living at ease, unruffled, subsisting on what others give, abiding with mind [as aloof] as a wild deer’s.”

According to the Buddha, “There are two kinds of happiness: the kind to be pursued and the kind to be avoided.  When I observed that in the pursuit of happiness, unwholesome factors increased and wholesome factors decreased, then that happiness was to be avoided.  When I observed that in the pursuit of happiness, unwholesome factors decreased and wholesome factors increased, then that happiness was to be sought after.”  As we mentioned last week, unwholesome mental states entail greed, hatred or delusion—often in the guise of five classic hindrances: desire, aversion, sleepiness (or dullness), restlessness, and doubt.

Instead of preaching against a natural attraction towards pleasure, the Buddha engaged his disciples’ interest in experiencing more refined and stable forms of happiness.  He described a threefold hierarchy of happiness: carnal, spiritual, and “more spiritual than spiritual.”  Carnal happiness stems from the sensual pleasure of sights, sounds, odors, tastes, touches, and thoughts that are “desirable, lovely, agreeable, pleasing, sensually enticing [and] tantalizing.”  The Buddha warned that, “Pleasure is a bond, a joy that’s brief, of little taste, leading to drawn out pain.  The wise know that the hook is baited.”  Although sensory pleasures are inherently brief, they are not bad or immoral.  It’s just that desire for sensual pleasure is not an effective strategy for finding lasting happiness.

Most people know no other kind of happiness, but beyond sensory delight are spiritual states of rapture, joy and equanimity, developed through concentration and clarified in deep absorption called jhana.  After a direct experience of higher happiness, which becomes increasingly refined in jhanic states, coarser pleasures lose their appeal.  Shaila’s spiritual teacher Poonjaji said, “Once you know the taste of bees’ fine honey, you will not crave coarse brown sugar.”  Deep concentration sets the stage for an even higher degree of happiness and liberation, which entails letting go of concentrated states themselves.

In Shaila’s words, “The highest stage of happiness comes from a liberated mind that is free from attachment, attended by insight, and not limited by the temporary boundaries of concentrated states.”  The Buddha described this unwavering form of happiness as “more spiritual than spiritual,” and more sublime than the temporary pleasures of either sensual pursuits or concentrated meditative states of absorption.  The happiness of freedom is not conditioned by pleasant or unpleasant feelings.  It doesn’t depend on comforts, ease, wealth, health, solitude or society.  Beyond rapture, joy and equanimity, the peace of liberation brings a release from suffering.

You may wonder how experiencing elevated forms of happiness can benefit our daily lives.  For me, concentrated states on long retreats have been the extent of my contact with the higher forms of happiness described by the Buddha.  But experiencing that, and merely knowing that even more sublime states of joy exist, have loosened my attachment to immediate sensory gratification.   Freeing ourselves from attachments that cause suffering is one practical reason for discussing these advanced jhana states.

On the day of our 32nd wedding anniversary last Thursday, Mark was in Boulder, Colorado, giving a lecture about Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy at Naropa University.  I had no complaints about his absence, because for many years I’ve been on silent meditation retreats during our anniversary.

This year, I enjoyed celebrating on my own, mindful of gratitude for a sweet note card that Mark had left for me, a walk in warm sunshine with our recuperating dog, a friend’s offer to treat me to lunch, and a dinner some other friends hosted to honor the occasion.  That afternoon, when two painters, who were supposed to strip and re-varnish our front door, arrived too late to do the work until the next morning, I let go of my agenda of surprising Mark with a freshly painted door.  One of the painters pointed to a big scar on his neck and told me that he’s recovering from a stroke due to a clogged carotid artery.  I responded sympathetically, recognizing that his health is far greater priority than the condition of my door.

Throughout the day, I felt wholesome sympathetic joy, which the Buddha called Mudita.  Vicariously, I could sense Mark’s pleasure in teaching sixty enthusiastic transpersonal psychology students, and I felt happy on his behalf.  When he returned home on Saturday, he navigated around the sticky first coat of varnish on our front door, and we agreed that our belated anniversary dinner at one of our favorite restaurants was well worth the wait.

One of the fruits of long-time meditation practice is being satisfied with the reality of each present moment.  Experiencing higher forms of happiness reminds us not to resist the way life is unfolding but to flow with whatever arises.