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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY WINTER 2 0 11 28 much less distraction than usual, so she continued this practice after the retreat. Though experienced in both meditation and yoga, she was not prepared for the roller-coaster ride that followed. First, pressure built up in her head and upper chest. Then headaches came on, migraines from which she had been free for years. Medication didn’t help. Then she started overreact- ing to minor disturbances, and became increasingly confused and disoriented. She wasn’t able to focus on her work, and felt uncomfortable and uncoordinated in her body. She found herself feeling trapped and claustrophobic and unable to sleep. Fortunately, she had the intuitive sense to ease up on the practice she had just learned. In the evenings, she spent an hour or so doing light yoga and then rested in open aware- ness. After a few days, the pressure, the headaches, and other disturbances subsided. She felt more balanced and connected with her body, and her normal functioning returned. “What happened?” she asked. “Did I do something wrong?” To understand what happened, it is useful to use the lan- guage of energy. People experience energy all the time, react to it, use it, but often don’t know it. What is energy? It’s a quality that pervades everything we experience and it affects how we experience life. In Sanskrit, energy is called prana; in Chinese, it is called qi. People experience it differently, but it is often felt as a slight tingling sensation. It is like air, in that you are aware of energy only when it is moving. Energy operates at different levels, from the basic levels of food and sex to the subtle yet powerful energy of awareness. The relationship between energy and attention is described in many spiritual traditions. In the Tibetan tradition, atten- tion is used to lead energy, and there are meditation methods that use this connection to precipitate profound experiences. The analogy of the horse and rider is often used to describe this relationship: energy is the horse and attention is the rider. Attention provides the direction, energy the movement. The particular meditation instruction the psychologist received is a method that transforms the energy of ordinary thinking to a higher level. With a higher level of energy, a higher level of attention becomes possible. When doing this practice, people typically experience less distraction and greater clarity in their meditation. However, the attention usu- ally dissipates after a retreat as the increased level of energy is dispersed quickly in the ordinary activities of life. Because of her previous experience and the kind of work she did, she was able to continue with this practice. With a higher level of energy and a corresponding higher level of attention, she started to touch old emotional material, such as feelings of claustrophobia and being trapped. She had been told to regard such feelings as distractions. Since she didn’t have a framework to understand what was happening, she did not know that she needed to include these emotional sensa- tions. The effort involved in not including them in attention created an imbalance in her system and likely brought on the migraines and other symptoms. In easing off the practice, she had, so to speak, taken her foot off the gas pedal. The transformation of energy tapered away. The open awareness and yoga practices redistributed the energy and restored balance in her whole system. Even though she didn’t understand what was happening or what to do, her intuition was right. After this experience, she made a point of learning how to recognize energy shifts, how to balance energy, and what adjustments to make in meditation when she touched deeper layers of conditioning. Energy Transformation When you practice meditation, or any discipline that requires attention, you inevitably transform energy. The four founda- tions of mindfulness illustrate the principle quite clearly. When you begin to practice, you become aware of thoughts. In the first foundation, you bring attention to form (Skt. kaya), first to the physical sensations in the body, and then to all sensory sensations. As you rest attention in the experi- ence of sensory sensations, energy is transformed. You are less distracted by thoughts and more aware of sensations, and you become aware of subtle feeling tones associated with each sensation. In the second foundation, you include these feeling tones (Skt. vedana) in your attention, pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, physical, or mental. Again, energy is transformed; your mind becomes quieter and clearer, and you become aware of emo- tional reactions as emotional reactions. In the third foundation, you include these emotional reac- tions and other mental states (Skt. citta) along with the physi- cal sensations and feeling tones. Again, energy is transformed. You experience them, but you are not distracted or disturbed