Adaptation, authenticity and creativity in insight meditation


~ by Winton Higgins •


Insight meditation in general (and the recollective-awareness approach to it in particular) aims to harvest our own experience as a source of insight and wisdom, in a gradual process of liberation of mind.

This process demands of us complete honesty and authenticity in the way we express and reflect on our experience – how we represent it to ourselves, our journals, and to anyone we may choose to share our practice with. These requirements in turn demand that we are creative around our practice – that we choose a practice that allows us access to ‘the whole catastrophe’ of our experience – our life process – and that we creatively adapt it to the life we are actually leading.

Maybe this adaptation is the most difficult aspect of our practice, partly because spiritual authorities never seem to talk about it. It’s a significant silence. Spiritual authority itself rests on supposedly timeless and contextless forms of practice, and it claims the right to induct those subject to its influence into a settled practice as a condition precedent to their ‘authorisation’. Adaptation and creativity in the practice thus deny, at least in part, the conventional claims to spiritual authority and the organising principles of lineage and hierarchy, whose writ runs throughout religious versions of Buddhism.


The tradition we work in

We do our work in the tradition that the Buddha began 2500 years ago. We have considerable access to how he himself radically adapted meditation – a pre-existing discipline – to his own situation, and to his own work and teaching towards liberation of mind.

But this heritage has to be ferreted out from layers of other folks’ adaptations of his adaptation. Since the insight meditation we inherit today has come through the Theravadin school, we find Theravadin adaptations packaged as if they were the Buddha’s own adaptation, and each is typically propagated by its various champions as ‘the one true way’ on this basis, irrespective of historical and cultural context.

How can this claim to eternal validity possibly be sustained? For starters, the Buddha’s teachings on meditation practice are often quite precise, but they never prescribe techniques, and they leave a lot of room for individual adaptation. By contrast, the Theravadin adaptations are standardised and prescriptive about technique. One size fits all. They are quite different to the Buddha’s own adaptations.


Historical, cultural and institutional specificity

So let me introduce a sceptical note here – a most important one, I believe. Apart from certain invariable elements of the human genome, all humans are creatures of their historical circumstances, institutions and cultures. These things shape our subjective experience, our sense of ourselves and of the life-world we inhabit. We must emphatically challenge the implicit working assumption that the human mind is, for essential purposes, the same across times, cultures and places.

To repeat: our immediate experiences, and our adaptations in meditation practice – like all our other adaptations – arise out of our specific circumstances, that is, the contingencies of our historical context, and the culture and the institutions in which we practise. Here we have an important application of the Buddha’s central philosophical idea: dependent arising, sometimes called ‘contingency’.

One of the ways we can fuel our creativity is to compare how we live (and therefore how our minds work) with the way of life of those who created the standardised, off-the-shelf techniques for insight meditation that various Theravadin lineages teach.

The orthodox approaches and techniques of vipassana meditation are the adaptations of people living very different lives in very different circumstances and cultures from our own. These adaptors were men leading regimented, renunciant lives inside total institutions; they had turned their backs on intimacy, family, and the world of gainful employment, among other things. For us modern lay westerners, though, these aspects of life go to the core of our life-worlds.


Two paths: interconnective and dissociative

A comparative study of the verses of the earliest nuns and monks (Therigata and Theragata) would already show two contrasting approaches to spiritual life manifesting during the Buddha’s own lifetime. The nuns’ approach works through honouring human relationships and interconnectedness, while the monks’ approach renounces all affective connections apart from the universal emotions of the brahma viharas (loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity). And some even treated the brahma viharas as optional extras.

Throughout Buddhist history, the monks have exercised exclusive leadership in establishing orthodox doctrine and practice, not least the Abhidharma tradition and the formulaic insight practices based on it. Like all other innovators, they developed adaptations that reflected their own way of life. We should not be surprised, then, to find that their adaptations do not address our own affective lives, and treat the normal emotions of lay people – emotions rooted in intimacy, family and work – as outside the practice.

Yet throughout Buddhist history, the monks’ adaptations have been asserted as normative, because the ‘normal’ practitioner has been taken to be a monk. That is, the monk represents the universal in dharma practice, while nuns and lay people represent exceptional (and even aberrant) cases. We could thus characterise this way of orienting and adapting dharma practice as conformity to the male monastic norm. It derives from a peculiar, dissociative way of life, but it is paradoxically held out as being universally applicable, even for people leading quite different ways of life.

The monastic male norm is one of hundreds of subsets of the general male norm, whereby the male case stands for the universal human case, and the female thereby represents the exceptional, special and divergent case. Until fairly recently, for instance, human beings was referred to collectively as ‘man’ in English, and took the masculine pronoun.

Nowadays the normal politician, worker, citizen etc is still assumed to be a man, and to lead a male way of life with no non-negotiable familial obligations. We preserve the male norm in everyday language by distinguishing between cricket and women’s cricket, rock bands and women’s rock bands, etc. See Maria Wendt Höjer and Cecilia Åse, The paradoxes of politics: an introduction to feminist political theory (Lund: Academia Adacta, 1999).


Ontological and psychological selves

All dharmic practices (including inherited, formulaic techniques in insight meditation) set out to overcome or transcend our central ontological delusion that we exist as separate selves – what the Buddha called ‘the conceit “I am”’. A against that conceit, all things in reality are marked by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self, including each human being.

But while formulaic techniques and practices, which assume the male monastic norm, can address our experiences of being an ontological self, they don’t address a whole other area in which we modern western lay folk experience selfhood, often very painfully: our psychological self.

This is a distinction the veteran insight teacher, Jack Engler, emphasises. Our psychological selfhood encompasses our capacity for all-important healthy attachments (family, friends, lovers, community, good causes), as well as the effects of early childhood trauma, and anger, jealousy, desire, loss, mourning and self-loathing. And the list doesn’t stop there.

The short history of serious dharma practice in the west contains many stories of individuals who have made great ‘progress’ – some even becoming ‘realised’ – doing the traditional practices, and who are then technically ‘liberated’. But often their psychological suffering and disorders have been left unaddressed in this ‘liberation’.

Some of these individuals have even become powerful dharma teachers, have then acted out their unaddressed psychological issues by abusing their students’ trust, not least sexually; getting their fingers into the communal till; and developing addictions. Whatever has been ‘attained’, it has certainly not been integrated so as to suffuse the whole person.

Hence the traditional, formulaic practices might have represented highly successful – even creative – adaptations in terms of their monkish authors’ own experience and way of life. But when we try to apply them to our own very different way of life and experience, they can turn out to be maladaptations. If the end of suffering is to mean what it says, it needs to encompass our psychological suffering as well. If liberation of mind is to mean what it says, it has to include our psychological self, which the male monastic norm excludes.

If we don’t confront this problem, and don’t rise to the associated challenge to develop our own adaptations, we end up explaining our disappointment with our lack of spiritual ‘progress’ by pointing to the supposed superiority of monastic practice over our own lay way of life and practice.

Monastic life then appears to be the life one must lead in order to achieve ‘success’ – the royal road to liberation and the end of suffering – and lay life is very much a second-best option. Monasticism appears to be the fast lane to nirvana, and lay life the slow lane, if not the unsealed shoulder running alongside it.

Religious Buddhism is in fact organised around this deference towards monasticism as the one serious approach to awakening, and the consequent implicit disparagement of lay life and practice.


Should monastic practice be treated as normative?

Historically speaking, monasticism is today in decline in all religious traditions. Its claims to spiritual precedence and authority do not convince in the way they used to. People nowadays, not least here in the west, seem to want to develop all their human capacities, not a renunciant way of life that excludes most of them.

Nowhere did the Buddha indicate that this choice strove against the end of suffering and full awakening. Among modern lay practitioners, the male monastic norm no longer has a role in moulding our adaptations of insight meditation practice, and we need to be on the lookout for its implicit presence in the techniques we inherit.

In a fascinating, three-page memoir, ‘On transience’ (1915), written in the midst of the ravages of the first world war, Sigmund Freud suggests that those who baulk at living human life to the full do so because they recoil from the painful work of mourning. To love eventually leads to loss, which we are then called upon to bear and integrate into our psychodynamics. The alternative is what he calls ‘a permanent renunciation’ – a strategy of nothing ventured, nothing lost. I suspect that many monastics indeed live out this renunciatory temptation, which makes their particular adaptations unsuitable for our own spiritual practice.


The current creative and adaptive phase

For this reason, dharmic meditation practice in the west has now moved into a more creative phase. When serious practice began in the west in the 1970s, we were busy learning how Buddhism was ‘done’ in Asia. Many westerners trained in Asian monasteries, then came back to the west to translate and teach us the techniques and commentaries thereon that they themselves had learned at the feet of monastic masters.

Now we’ve moved into a new, adaptive phase that confronts our own way of life and all our experiences of self. For this reason, meditation teachers like Charlotte Joko Beck, Barry Magid, Toni Packer and Jason Siff have developed open-ended, non-formulaic approaches that encompass all these experiences.

In this way ‘the mind automatically appears and displays itself’, as Barry Magid of the Ordinary Mind Zen school puts it. The whole heart-&-mind: nothing is excluded. Whatever experience we have during a sit, it is affirmed as valid meditative experience – none of it is ‘wrong’, or ‘just psychological stuff’, or otherwise outside the ‘true’ practice. We move towards enlightenment by shining light into all the dark corners. For people leading our complex lives, developing the psychological complexities we do, this is the integrated path to liberation.


• This talk was given to Beaches Sangha, Sydney, in October 2009. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.


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