The Five Helpers
Our consciousness always has a content and a coloring. We may see an ordinary like this eraser with calmness or with aversion. The calmness or aversion or whatever is the coloring, also called mind-state. The eraser is the content, also called object, of consciousness. Usually people are concerned with optimizing objects: one wants an attractive or reliable partner, a fast or compact car, and a large or comfortable house. The reason is that we think these objects give us joy. Often this may be the case, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying this. But also often this is not the case. Meditation is directed to optimizing the mind-states. Concentration meditation maximizes positive states, like tranquility, unconditional love, and flexibility. Insight meditation minimizes negative states, like restlessness, jealousy, and hatred. In this course we will practise both. One needs concentration for insight. Moreover insight is very helpful, but not absolutely necessary, for concentration.
The Deconditioning, also called purification, happens when we clearly see in our mind and body the mechanism of sensory input, affective valence (liking, disliking, or neither), thinking, mental states, and actions. This intuitive insight doesn’t come at will. In order to obtain insight one needs concentration. Concentration is the capacity to stay what happens here and now (staying away from thoughts about the past and future) also does not come at will. It needs to be developed, in a way similar to the development of muscles and stamina in an athlete. In order to abtain concentration one needs discipline. Now discipline can be done at will. Then starts the following path of mental development towards purification.
discipline –> concentration –> insight
The meditator can have smaller and larger forms of purification. It is a gradual process with at times, when the practise is mature, a sudden jump. This is not unlike studying, say physics, where one needs discipline, concentration in order to obtain smaller and bigger insights that come suddenly (‘Eureka’). A little bit of discipline, including patience, suffices for increasing a bit our concentration, which increases a little bit insight leading to some purification. This in term enables the path to be reiterated and strengthened.
There are the five hindrances that may come during the practise of meditation: desire, aversion, restlessness, sleepiness, and doubt. These are called ‘hindrances’, as they decrease our discipline. When there is desire or aversion, then we should learn not to be concerned with the object of our desire or aversion, but to the desire or aversion itself. One way to deal with this is to leave the basis exercise (attention to raising-falling or to the footsteps) and switch gears: one observes ‘O, desire’, or ‘O, aversion’, taking the mind-state as meditation object. One tries to do this in an equanimous way. For restlessness the walking exercise, with its built-in moments of ‘rest’, may be used. The restlessness may go away soon, or it may take a little longer. With patience one does the exercise of observing whatever happens. Sooner or later the restlessness will go away. But one should not wait for this. One surrenders to the exercise and has confidence that it will go. For sleepiness effort to stay with the observing mind may help. If it does not, one may sleep a few moments with the intention to wake up freshly. In a retreat more specific exercises will be given. Doubt can be countered by understanding and experience. If one does not yet succeed, then one just continues the practise.
A hindrance only needs to be addressed if it hinders. If one can observe the rising and falling well, but there is a slight desire, say for an espresso, then one remains with the breathing. If, however, the desire for the espresso becomes large, bigger than the noticing of the raising and falling, only then one switches to naming or noting the hindrance: ‘desire, desire’. Do not mention the espresso: not the objects (the espresso) of the mind, but the states (the desire) are relevant. The teachers say: “Observe the objects of the basis exercise, or whatever is the most prominent.”
There are the five helpers in our meditation: confidence, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and understanding. These corresponds to the fingers of a hand. Confidence and understanding with the thumb and the little finger: we need these but they should be moderate, otherwise they become dogma and intellectualizing. Effort and concentration correspond to the index and ring-finger: they should be about equally long, otherwise one is restless or sleepy. Finally mindfulness corresponds to the middle finger: it preferably is as long as possible. With the five helpers one counters the five hindrances with as temporary goal to obtain a mindfulness that is more and more continuous.
It may happen that we were able to observe well our breathing, or the hindrances, which often brings joy. But then during the next sitting or walking session, it seems that all is lost. This may be caused by discovering that being mindful, i.e. paying attention with impartial equanimity, helps us to remove unpleasant mind-states. Deep in us there is a feeling of: “Aha, meditating really works. Let me use it to get rid of all unpleasant things.” But then our intention is not equanimous: we do it in order to gain something. This is attention, but not pure mindfulness, which has to be without discrimination. The fact that we want to attain something makes the mindfulness corrupt! We may wrestle to get the pure mindfulness back. It usually does not work. We may become restless with a strong aversion. Etcetera.
How to get out of this? By surrendering: “This is not the way.” One restarts from scratch, using again the naming technique: raising, falling; right goes thus, left goes thus. One may need to use naming in a powerful way. After a while one can use it more gently. And after that one can use the noting again. One regains the power to be purely mindful.
The phases of building up towards mindfulness, it becoming corrupt, and restarting will repeat themselves possibly many times. Do not worry, this is part of the purification. Colleague vipassana teacher Henk van Voorst calls this the ‘washingmachine model‘: there is a phase of working hard to increase concentration and mindfulness; then there is a phase of enjoying it. By our ingrained conditioning to do what is best for us the mindfulness gets corrupted and we have to restart. This is to be repeated many times. The first phase is the ‘washing phase’, the second one the ‘rinsing phase’.
So keep it simple: just sit and walk and simply observe the rising-falling or the stepping without judgement, whatever may happen. In the same way observe the hindrances, in case they are more prominent than the basis objects of meditation. That is all there is to do. One is advised to meditate everyday at least 4 minutes (then there is no excuse that one doesn’t have the time). Doing it one will probably see that it feels good and one may practise longer. Sitting or walking.