I have received a few enquiries from some of you who have been meditating for a while with me now, about how you should plan the development of your practice over a longer period of time.
So I thought I would write a few guidelines for you. Forgive me for the length of the document, but I do feel that when you have time it will be helpful for all of you to reflect on this.
There first thing I would like to say is that it is clear that there is a tendency to assume that you have reached a certain level of accomplishment simply because you have received certain teachings. This is something to guard against. Remember that my goal as a teacher and hopefully your goal as yogis is to bring genuine transformation about through your practice. It is not enough simply to attend retreats and assume that you know what you have just been taught.
A few years ago I did an assessment amongst a group of my more experienced students. Many of them had attended 6 or more 7day foundation retreats and come on Vipassana at least once. What we learned from this exercise was that both they and I had assumed their progress in real meditation terms was more than it actually was. As a result there is a great tendency to meditate at the conceptual level rather than at the experiential level. There is little doubt in my mind that our foundation retreat is where most of you will continue to get the most benefit for a number of years. The real effects of meditating skilfully within the body with genuinely deep and stable concentration and direct perception, come about gradually and in subtle ways over a number of years. And indeed it takes us a number of years to fully appreciate.
Many people have asked to move on to Vipassana practice and I am keen that you should have the experience of attending a Vipassana retreat, but the real preparatory work that gradually wears away the deep egoic tendencies is brought about through the long term practice of meditating deeply within the body at the level of feeling and sensation. This is basically what has come to be known as Vipassana practice by a number of modern schools of Theravadan Buddhist practice. You should all understand that our foundation practice is effectively the same as what these days is taught as Vipassana. So please be willing to keep attending the foundation retreat over a number of years because from experience it takes three of four retreats to fully grasp everything that is actually being taught on this retreat. I normally expect people to grasp 25 percent of the content on the first retreat and to build on that by continuing to attend. So please do not be in a rush to move on from this practice or to assume that new instructions are what you need in order to mature your practice. Please note that in S.N Goenka’s school of Vipassana you would continue to attend the same retreat for many years and even when you advance to the Satipatana retreat your actual meditation remains the same.
The second point I would like to make is this. Please do not confuse the modern approach to the teaching of mindfulness as a substitute for the in-depth meditation on Material and Mental phenomena. The mindfulness practice of noting each of the four categories of experience is only a preparatory practice for the guarding of our ordinary mind against falling into ignorance, complacency and distraction of abstraction moment to moment. This is not the same as the in-depth meditation upon the nature of reality that you are asked to do with the preparatory work for Vipassana. Many people are attending retreat now with a tendency to mistake the mindfulness practice of noting material and mental phenomena as they come and go with the genuine investigation of states ( material and mental ) which is one of the factors of enlightenment taught by the Buddha. If any of you are in doubt about this please refer to Volumes One & Two of The Flavour of Liberation, and the relevant chapters of the Visuddhimagga where the thorough preparatory path for the practice is laid out as the framework for the development of Liberating Wisdom.
Please understand that I am teaching you the Samatha Vipassana path and not the dry Vipassana path. And for this the preparatory work in both the training of concentration and the investigation of states is considerably more rigourous.
Now you might ask why this is the case. In answer I would ask you to reflect upon how the Buddha himself practiced meditation. He spent many years developing sufficient concentration to break down the compactness of his experience to get beyond the realm of concepts. Having done this, his liberating wisdom arose in him swiftly and painlessly and performed the genuine function of cutting off at the route the causes of his suffering. This is what he then went on to teach his students in his lifetime.
In November 2017 a number of new students attended our yearly Vipassana retreat. I was very happy to see this. Some of you are still a little tender in your foundation practices and would benefit from continuing to attend the foundation retreat at least once a year if you would also like to continue to practice Vipassana with me. It was clear that there is a big difference between the practice of those who have completed the preparatory practices over a number of years and those who are now doing Vipassana with only the basis of one or two foundation retreats.
I genuinely want to encourage all of you, but I will point out that there is no substitute for laying solid and stable foundations. So with this in mind I will lay out the the practice that I am teaching in a systematic way so you will all have a reference to refer to when considering at what point in your training you are personally at.
So there is a detailed breakdown of the practice that is laid out throughly in the Flavour of Liberation. This is how I myself was trained and how the practice is laid out according to the Visuddhimagga. Be aware that I introduce the Dzogchen teachings at various levels along the way which deepens in resonance depth and nuance as your systematic practice matures.
Basic practices to establish preliminary foundations:
1. Establishing the basis of awareness to get beyond the instinctual tendency to meditate with the mind. This is THE single most important aspect of what I teach, for at least the first few years. Without exception all but the most experienced meditators who have come on my retreat regardless of how many years they have been meditating are still using the mind to mentally observe their experience. Breaking this habit pattern right at the beginning paves the way for much less confusing and “mind based “ attitude towards practice later on.
2. Training in skilful attention through the development of concentration ( sustained and focused) and right mindfulness ( ie. direct perception as opposed to mental noting. ) This stage of the training will continue over many years and progress will be determined by the emerging stability and depth of concentration and the quality of the way of attention ( emerging eventually at the “ Direct knowing” / investigation of states).
3. Stage 2 is developed in the process of establishing right view through the gradual breaking down of the compactness of the experience. This is done in stages;
1. Basic Anapana practice
2. Basic Body parts practice.
3. Four elements practice
4. Advanced body parts practice
4. Stage 3 Developing perception of the Subtle field of reality. This emerges gradually as concentration deepens upon the physical structures of the body. Leading to a deepening perception of the subtle field and its mechanics. ( subtle materiality, the karmic bases etc)
5. Stage 4 Once a thorough experiential knowledge of the mechanics and behaviour of the subtle ( consciousness produced materiality) field has emerged the ground is set for the investigation of the mental terrain ( ie. The mind reveals itself gradually through the detailed knowing of material phenomena).
6. Stage 5 Gradually emerging insight into Dependent Origination and its workings.
Stages 2-4 constitutes the Rupa (materiality) Kamathana.
Stage 5 constitutes the Nama (mentality) Kamathana ( investigation of mind and consciousness session). These 5 stages are the foundation for the practice of real Vipassana, even though we may have started to practice Vipassana at a preliminary level prior to completing these practices.
7. Stage 6 Samantha/Vipassana Practice. With this preparatory work having been done I begin to instruct individuals in the gradual and systematic development of higher insight ( Vipassana ) and higher concentration ( jhana / absorption samadhi) this then becomes the basis of our long term practice over many years, hopefully bringing about the gradual freedom from suffering and its causes. ( completion of the 4th Noble truth : The path that leads to the cessation of suffering).
8. Advanced concentration practices as support for advanced Vipassana practice. As and when appropriate I will instruct individuals in the Kasina meditations and the practice of Jhana ( absorption concentration). This then becomes the support to profoundly deeper capacity for the investigation of reality and the later stages of Vipassana.
Please note that stages 6, 7 & 8 will develop side by side. It is through our deepening Vipassana practice that our direct experience of Dependent Origination matures leading eventually to the liberating wisdom that sees and knows the causal/ creative process at work moment to moment and across the three time frames of past, present and future. This deepening insight is supported by our endeavour to deepen our capacity for concentration ( Samatha practice). At this stage individuals are advised to alternate betweens periods of Vipassana focused practice and Samatha focused practice.
I realise that in its entirety this is a serious endeavour. But please do not be daunted. If you are willing to work diligently on each step of your practice until it brings the necessary fruits you will, over a number of years find yourself progressing upon the path in ways you may not have previously believed were possible. There are a growing number of my students who have completed most of their preliminary practice through attending regular retreats and supplementing their practice by following the online course structure. So I advise and encourage you to play the long game and to not look for short term returns but rather commit to gradual progress over time. Be assured that what has been done by others can be done by you.
I hope this guideline is helpful to you.
From this year I have made the systematic practice more accessible and easy to follow by breaking much of the core practices down into three levels, each level with its corresponding retreat and online course. If you are committed to daily home practice and come at least once or twice a year on retreat you should be able to complete the three levels in three years by attending each of the retreats and completing each of the three online courses. Please refer to the curriculum page on our website and to our retreat schedule for more information to the Three Levels of Core Practice.