Sensory Experience and Neurotic Chatter

Sensory Experience and Neurotic Chatter

Discussion date: Thu, Sep 16, 2010 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

When I first went to Plum Village almost 20 years ago, I was eager to learn all I could, as fast as I could. I went to Thich Nhat Hanh’s dharma talks. I questioned and shared my understanding with monastics and experienced lay practitioners. I read. I wrote things down. I tried to bring order and coherence to it all.

After I was there for about two weeks, the Director of Practice asked me to stay after the evening sitting for a few minutes. We sat on cushions across from each other. She asked whether I wanted to gain something valuable from being at Plum Village. I excitedly answered "Yes."

"Here it comes," I thought, "an overarching principle that will bring clarity and insight." Her guidance surprised me: “Mitchell, if you want to benefit from being here, everywhere you walk should be walking meditation.”

I recalled that exchange recently while reading an article on practice by Andrew Olendzki (an excerpt of which is below). One sentence reminds me why I was so desperately in need of a different orientation to life.

As the human animal lives less in a rapidly changing natural environment filled with sensual nuance and permeated with danger, and more in a synthetic world with all its parameters defined, it becomes more adaptive to rely heavily on the mental realm at the expense of the senses.

That certainly describes my childhood. I lived primarily in a mental world. What little nature there was in the middle of Los Angeles – the grass, flowers, and shrubs – was briefly glanced at and ignored. It was the same with food: glanced at and swallowed. The quality of presence encouraged by Thich Nhat Hanh was never even hinted at:

Don’t drink your tea like someone who gulps down a cup of coffee during a work break. Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life. (from The Miracle of Mindfulness).

Another section of Olendzki’s article illuminates in a new way what the Director of Practice was pointing to in her very specific recommendation:

The Buddha offers an image of the mind like a water jug. If it is half-full of water, Mara can gain access and cause all sorts of mischief. This happens when one senses the world with half of one’s available awareness, and thinks about it with the other half. Mara, a trickster figure, represents the unseen (i.e. unconscious) neurotic habitual tendencies that usually direct mental chatter. But if the water jug is full to the brim, Mara can gain no access. Conscious awareness is fully engaged, but with direct sense experience rather than with mental narrative. By filling up the senses, one empties out the mind.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation, we will begin our discussion reflecting on sensory experience and neurotic chatter. Growing up, how much was the appreciation of direct sensory experience encouraged? How much do I let in now? (How full is my jug?) How much would I like to? What might I gain?

You are invited to join us.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


Quieting the Mind
From "Here and Now" by Andrew Olendzki

This ability to think about the past and the future yields tremendous learning, planning, and problem-solving skills, but it also comes with at least one major drawback. It is possible for people to dwell almost exclusively in the mental mode and have very little direct contact with the senses. Yes, one might check in with the other senses enough to navigate the physical world, but often as little as necessary to keep one’s bearings and provide basic input for the mind’s proliferations. As the human animal lives less in a rapidly changing natural environment filled with sensual nuance and permeated with danger, and more in a synthetic world with all its parameters defined, it becomes more adaptive to rely heavily on the mental realm at the expense of the senses.

But for many people this becomes a trap. What happens when you can’t stop spinning out threatening alternative futures, or you cannot help reliving past traumas? What happens when the pendulum swinging from past to future becomes a fiendish carnival ride you can neither slow down nor escape? At a certain point one can feel driven by the mind’s habit of churning over various scenarios, and this often results in a great deal of suffering.
The solution offered by the Buddhist tradition is systematic training in attending to the senses. The first foundation of mindfulness, for example, guides the meditator exclusively to the body door. Become aware of physical sensations—whether those associated with breathing, walking, or almost any other activity—and when the mind adverts toward thinking, as it will surely do often, simply re-direct awareness back to bodily sensations. It sounds simple enough, yet it has a huge impact.

The reason this is effective is that the mind can be aware of only one thing at a time. If it is a thought, then there is no sense cognition; but in a moment of sense cognition, there are no thoughts. At first, there may be far more mind moments of mental cognition than of sense cognition in the stream of consciousness; but over time, as the practice develops, one can actually have multiple consecutive moments of sense awareness uninterrupted by “thinking about” what one is sensing. To those who habitually think too much, this is experienced as blissful relief. And it is an essential starting point for growth in understanding.

The Buddha offers an image of the mind like a water jug. If it is half-full of water, Mara can gain access and cause all sorts of mischief. This happens when one senses the world with half of one’s available awareness, and thinks about it with the other half. Mara, a trickster figure, represents the unseen (i.e. unconscious) neurotic habitual tendencies that usually direct mental chatter. But if the water jug is full to the brim, Mara can gain no access. Conscious awareness is fully engaged, but with direct sense experience rather than with mental narrative. By filling up the senses, one empties out the mind. With the peace that ensues from quieting the mind in this way, dharma investigation can begin.

 

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Sep 16, 2010


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