Problemness, No Problemness, and Elusiveness
Just for fun, I thought I would write about a part of meditation practice that has always given me trouble. Over time, I worked out a general approach that helps me keep practicing. Although I personally tend to map this domain using the Theravada “nanas” map (the Knowledges of Suffering — including Fear, Misery, Disgust, Desire for Deliverance, and Reobservation — through Equanimity), but I’ve generalized it enough that I think the ideas are fairly universal and familiarity of that map isn’t necessary.
The biggest territory to traverse in meditation practices are all the flavors of “having a problem”. In theory, we pick a time to sit when we have no other obligations and our only task is to attend to a simple meditation object, so we supposedly shouldn’t have any problems. In reality, what we experience during the sit seems to be many problems, one after the other.
During sits characterized by “problem” the most important thing is to experience the problemness. While we know we are supposed to be aware of whatever arises, it’s easy to forget that the sensations of having a problem >is something that is arising<.
By going into the experience, there are usually two aspects of problemness that are present. The first is our visceral reaction to the fact that a problem is occurring. This is a bitterness or “ill will” that we’re being forced to deal with a problem. We just want to reject or ignore the problem completely. The second aspect is the knot of sensations that characterize the problem itself and how we personalize it into “my” problem.
So we can have an ache in the leg and our first superficial reaction is to be mildly frustrated it and instinctually ignore it. Then we might realize this resistance and go into the experience. First we will experience as “an ache in my leg”, but soon it will un-compound itself into many different experiences of leg-ness, ache-ness, and my-ness.
The Therevada Nanas are really just labels applied to different flavors of the the first visceral reaction. In Fear, problemness is scary. In Misery, problemness seems to be long-lasting and unavoidable. In Disgust, problemness is an affront to our sense of the way things should be. In Desire for Deliverance, problemness seems solvable with the right technique or “good sits”. Once past this initial viewpoint, the work at hand is the same: to uncompound the problem into its “objective” and “subjective” sensations.
Reobservation is very similar to a Void/Space reaction in Mahayana maps. It’s basically a freak out. At the time, the most sensible thing to do when confronted by all of this problemness seems to be to quickly react in any way that comes to mind. We start switching practices, changing aspects of our life off cushion, dive into more study of texts, or start (or resume) partying hard, go on adventures, pick up a new hobby, focus on finances, go on a shopping binge. On the cushion, we might dedicate ourselves to an even more hardcore meditation practice. In many ways, Reobservation could be the easiest Dark Night nana: all you have to do is sit there and be entertained by watching your mind freak out. It will tire itself out. But this is hard to do because we think “I am” freaking out. We need to fix the problem! But actually, especially during a sit, we really do not need to do anything.
Any use of force or effort to fix problems during a Reobservation will just prolong it. Instead we need to sit there are get a good look at all of our neurosis and acknowledge the truth that they are there. Just like the ache in our leg, except they are wounds in our psyche. They won’t be – and don’t need to be – fixed on the spot. They might not be perminant wounds, just something that comes and goes. It might be the stuff we’ll need to keep working on in the future. It is the time to develop a respectful relationship to this kind of problemness. And, as always, it’s time to investigate the sensations of problemness, including the sensations of “my” problemness.
It can be shocking how quickly the “problemness” of Reobservation can break and become “no problemness” of Equanimity. It might take a little time for the body to settle into this calmer state. It might feel like we need to bandage our wounds a little. Equanimity is a wonderful, open and naturally joyful outlook. It has a flavor of universal love and caring. It has a flavor of freedom. It can be very healing. It should be enjoyed.
Unfortunately, like any other state, it goes away eventually. Then practice can be about trying to get back into this wonderful state (which is a new flavor of problemness to investigate). It can be helpful to remember that Equanimity emerges when we follow the path of experiencing and investigating problemness, not when we are “fixing” problems or “doing” good practice. It just happens by attending to the moment, one moment after another. Eventually that will get beat into our heads and we won’t make it any more complicated than that.
When “no problemness” becomes a stable experience, it is important to remember that it is a state. It is an experience like any other state. Even though equanimity can seem like what we have been searching for, it is actually a limited experience that can be characterized by discrete qualities (spaciousness, clarity, no problemness)… so it isn’t real freedom!
This can be very shocking to realize, but it becomes more and more obvious as equanimity becomes stable. It can seem a little dead or even dull. It also seems like “my” equanimity, which is very interesting.
Eventually the natural investigation and creativity of our mind wants a little more movement than the somewhat static nature of “no problemness”. Our attention will feel loose and will seem to drift off into daydreams. It can feel like our mind is falling back into “problemness” (low equanimity) when actually we are rising out of “no problemness” and into “elusiveness” (high equanimity and eventually path moments).
Although there is drifting and daydream, the nature of thinking itself is becoming more and more transparent. We can very clearly see thoughts as thoughts, which may not be obvious at the time. We can see thoughts against the backdrop of the openness of an equanimous mind. We can detect the very beginning of thoughts as primal kind of movement, almost pre-language. Looking more closely, we can even tease apart thoughts from “my-ness”. We can see the bubbling nature of the mind. Meditation with “the mind stream” as an object now becomes possible.
This is a fairly high level of practice… and even when we’re doing it well, it’s hard to say what we’re doing! Notions of progress or improvement or even practice itself is hard to define. “Where we are” is very elusive in this kind of practice. We can’t think about it because we’re looking at the thinking.
This isn’t something that can be maintained throughout a sitting practice, but it can be a worthy area for investigating. This is a place we can visit for a while during sits.
It’s not uncommon that it feels like something big is going to happen or for there to be moment of shocking insight that seem like enlightenment. When big spiritual experience happen, it usually means that there is a lot to integrate and we will have to go through a period of “problemness” to really digest it.
When important experience happen during “elusiveness”, they are usually small and are something that makes us say, “I’m on the right track” or “this is a worthy practice”. And that small bit of confidence can motivate our practice for years to come.
While the common thread to all of this is to go into the experience of problemness and investigate it, it’s possible to become very neurotic about this. We might want to get all of this work over as quickly as possible. We might think we need to spend every second of the day doing this kind of investigation. But actually this is just another trap.
It’s important to have the intention to use our sitting practice wisely, but it’s also important to let ourselves recover. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy the day and live our life when we’re not doing sitting practice. In fact, it will allow us to cultivate the energy we need for sitting. It isn’t easy to reverse our habits and actually go into the sensations of discomfort and problemness for the duration of our formal practice. It takes a special kind of persistence. It’s okay to let go of that kind of effort off of the cushion… if you’re back on the cushion soon enough!