Shinzen Young is currently leading our September retreat “What is Mindfulness?” Join the retreat here.
And until you know of this:
How to grow through death
You’re just another troubled guest,
On the gloomy earth.
—Goethe, Holy Longing
My students sometimes ask me, “Is there a quickest path to enlightenment?” My standard answer is “Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s currently known by humanity. In our current stage of spiritual science, different approaches seem to work for different people. That’s why I like to give you folks a wide range of contrasting techniques to choose from.”
Then, recently, I decided to do a thought experiment. What if I were only allowed to teach one focus technique and no other? Which technique would I pick? It was a difficult choice, but I finally concluded that it would be a technique I call “Just Note Gone.”
Most people are aware of the moment when a sensory event starts but seldom aware of the moment when it vanishes. We are instantly drawn to a new sound or new sight or a new body sensation but seldom notice when the previous sound, sight, or body sensation disappears. This is natural, because each new arising represents what we need to deal with in the next moment. But to always be aware of sensory arisings and hardly ever be aware of sensory passings creates an unbalanced view of the nature of sensory experience.
To practice the “Just Note Gone” technique, follow these basic instructions: Whenever a sensory experience—a sound, a sight, a body sensation—suddenly disappears, make a note of it. Clearly acknowledge when you detect the transition point between all of it being present and at least some of it no longer being present. You can use the mental label “gone” to help you note the end of the experience. If nothing vanishes for a while, that’s fine. Just hang out until something does. If you start worrying about the fact that nothing is ending, note each time that thought ends. There is only a finite amount of real estate available in consciousness at any given instant. Each arising somewhere causes a passing somewhere else.
So what? Why should we care about whether we can detect the moment when a particular burst of mental talk or a particular external sound or a particular body sensation suddenly subsides? Suppose you had to go through some horrible experience that involved physical pain, emotional distress, mental confusion, and perceptual disorientation all at once. Where could you turn for safety? Where could you turn for comfort? Where could you turn for meaning? Turning toward your body won’t help. There’s nothing but pain and fear there. Turning toward your mind won’t help. There’s nothing but confusion and uncertainty there. Turning toward sight and sound won’t help. There’s nothing but turmoil and chaos there. Under such extreme duress, is there anywhere you can turn to find relief? Yes. You can concentrate intently on the fact that each sensory insult passes. In other words, you can reverse the normal habit of turning to each new arising and instead turn to each new passing. Micro-relief is constantly available.
There are some reasonable objections to this way of looking at things. For one thing, it might seem too extreme to be relevant. After all, most people on most days don’t have to face all-encompassing horror. That’s true. However, most people will probably experience a deeply painful experience at some point in their lives. It would be a source of great comfort to know, based on one’s own direct experience, that there is a place of safety so deep that nothing can touch it.
How much can micro-endings help? It depends. Depends on what? It depends on three things: Sensory Clarity (the ability to detect moments of vanishing), Concentration Power (the ability to stay focused on moments of vanishing), and Inner Equanimity (the ability to allow sensory experiences to come and go without push and pull).
You can think of equanimity as the ability to quickly and deeply say “Yes!” to each new sensory arising. Quick and deep openness to an experience facilitates quick and deep goneness of that experience. This creates a positive feedback mechanism. The more equanimity you have at arisings, the easier it is to detect passings. The more you detect passings, the easier it is to have equanimity at arisings. This loop exponentially accelerates your learning.
With time, the “Just Note Gone” technique will sensitize you to detect vanishings more clearly. This combined with the equanimity loop makes it possible to concentrate continuously on vanishings. This in turn transforms micro-ending into mega-relief. Noting “gone” produces other positive effects in addition to a sense of relief. Some people find that noticing moments of vanishing creates a deep sense of restfulness. Visual, auditory, or somatic tranquillity may seem to propagate through consciousness whenever you notice a “gone.” Each moment of cessation points to absolute rest—the still point of the turning world.
Noting “gone” allows you to experience “This too is passing,” which will provide more comfort than if you just try to remind yourself “This too shall pass.” Noting “gone” creates a stillness and tranquillity within you; this is a natural consequence of the nature of vanishing.
But there is another effect that people often report and that seems to go against the nature of vanishing. Some people find noting “gone” to be rich and sensory-fulfilling. Where things go to is where things come from. Each time you note “gone,” for a brief instant your attention is pointed directly toward the richness of the Source. That is what’s behind the seeming paradox of satisfying nothingness. There is a word that means both “cessation” and “satisfaction” as a single linked concept. The word is nirvana.
Noting “gone” may also lead to a spontaneous spirit of love and service (bodhicitta). As you come to know the source of your own consciousness, you also come to know the source of everyone’s consciousness—the shared formless womb of all beings. Noting “gone” can lead to a spontaneous sense of oneness with (and commitment to) all beings. So goneness, although it may seem cold and impersonal, is actually deeply connected to the issue of human fulfillment and human goodness.
As you become more sensitive to detecting “gone,” you may come to a place where you note it so frequently that goneness itself becomes an object of high concentration. The gaps between the vanishings get shorter and shorter until goneness becomes the stable ground. Self and world become fleeting figures. People sometimes ask me why I don’t make breath the centerpiece of meditation, as many teachers do. There seems to be a general impression that the ultimate goal of mindfulness practice is to be able to stay focused on the breath. I sometimes parody that notion with the slogan “Real meditators are able to come back to the breath.” Actually, if you insist that I give you something to always come back to, I would say “Real meditators are able to come back to ‘gone.’”
Are there any possible negative effects from working with vanishing and the related themes of emptiness and no-self? Occasionally there can be. In some cases, the sense of goneness, emptiness, and no-self may be so intense that it creates disorientation, aversion, or hopelessness. Unpleasant reactions such as these are well documented in the classical literature of contemplation from Eastern and Western traditions alike. In the West, it is sometimes referred to as the Dark Night of the Soul. In the East, it is sometimes referred to as the Pit of the Void, or as the unpleasant side of bhanga [dissolution]. This doesn’t happen very often, but if it does, there are three interventions that you can use to transform the situation from being problematic to being blissful:
Accentuate the good parts of the Dark Night, even though they may seem very subtle relative to the bad parts. You may be able to glean some sense of tranquillity within the nothingness. There may be some sense of inside and outside becoming one (leading to expanded identity). There may be some soothing, vibratory energy massaging you. There may be a springy, expanding- contracting energy animating you.
Negate the negative parts of the dark night by deconstructing them through mindful awareness. Remember “Divide and Conquer”—if you can divide a negative reaction into its parts (mental image, mental talk, and emotional body sensation), you can conquer the sense of being overwhelmed. In other words, eliminate the negative parts by loving them to death.
Affirm positive emotions, behaviors, and cognitions in a sustained, systematic way. Gradually, patiently reconstruct a new habitual self through practices such as lovingkindness.
In most cases, all three interventions must be practiced and maintained for however long it takes to get through the Dark Night. It may also require ongoing and intensive support from teachers and other practitioners to remind you to keep applying these interventions. The end result, though, will be a depth of joy and freedom beyond one’s wildest imagining. Where things go to is where they come from.
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