Gregory Kramer recently offered a talk to the Community Meditation Center located in New York City where Insight Dialogue Teacher Bart van Melik is the guiding teacher and Insight Dialogue facilitator Rachel Hammerman also teaches. Listen to it here: Gregory Kramer: Insights 3/26/23.
In the talk, he speaks about the intrinsically relational and intrinsically individual nature of the human experience and how the path and Dhamma are also individual and relational. Gregory offers some responses to questions that were not addressed during the meeting. They touch on various aspects of mindfulness and Insight Dialogue, from working with anger to mindfulness in daily life.
- Could you expand on the concept of remembering awareness?
GK: Mindfulness can be understood as simply knowing that we know. In that simple move of knowing that we are seeing, that we are hearing, that we are thinking, we de-fuse from identification with sensations and thoughts. Usually, we get swept away because we grasp onto the experience, and the knowing vanishes. Samsara becomes real and continuous and endless. But if we remember to ask, “What am I aware of? What is the object of mindfulness right now? Where is this awareness happening? (Here), When is this awareness happening? (Touching the sense of ‘now’).” In the moment of asking, we wake up from the fusion. We remember the awareness. The chapter on Right Mindfulness in my book a “Whole Life Path” has more on the five questions of mindfulness.
- Is there a chronology to experience – is the mind always “last” in the chain of “contact” – so first seeing and then this experience goes to the mind which constructs around?
GK: We need to unpack “mind” in your question. From my talk, the reference was to our conditioned reactions to the things we feel and perceive. In this case, “mind” is referring to sankharas, or mental formations-volitional formations. Think of the neural networks as a kind of beehive of resonant rooms. Every noise made into that space resonates across the hollows of those networks. From this, we think, feel, react, and believe we are experiencing things just as they are. But we’re just experience the resonance of the body-mind’s conditioning overlaid with present sensations. That’s ignorance, and it yields karmic results. At the same time, “mind”, or Nama, is functioning as a whole: the sense experiences co-arise at the moment of contact with feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness. So the whole world of experience comes into being conditioned by all these aspects interacting. And there is a feedback that happens in that our conditioning (formations) impact perception itself. That same conditioning actually yields feelings—pleasant, unpleasant, neutral—of different sorts not based solely on sensed input, but upon our history. In short, mind comes neither last nor first; experience is a co-rising and vanishing whole.
- I’ve found that after my first retreat, the experience of being here and mindful started to show up off the cushion and does continue outside of formal practice, but it took many hours of individual practice even to start to recognize what that felt like to start realizing when it shows up in partnership, walking in the park, in a meeting, etc. So isn’t that a natural progression for everyone- starting with individual, formal practice and then noticing when the scope widens?
GK: There is a natural progression for most but not all meditators to see mindfulness appearing in non-formal practice circumstances, including with other people. And of course, Insight Dialogue benefits from and is profoundly interwoven with individual, silent meditation. But Insight Dialogue also goes much further than this natural affordance of mindfulness that migrates to the interpersonal sphere. It intentionally harnesses the power of relationship to amplify, refine, and accelerate the development of mindfulness and other meditative qualities. At the same time, it is a channel for the wisdom of Dhamma to enter into people’s hearts and minds in an immediate and embodied and applicable way. So the power of relationship is amplifying and synergizing with the power of meditation and the power of wisdom teachings. Yes, Insight Dialogue also helps relational or social mindfulness, but it is much more than this.
- What do you do when past relational experiences have included deep unkindness, unmindfulness, etc. especially if you hope to continue a relational experience with people who have been a part of that history of harmful or painful relationship?
GK: This was addressed in the recording, so for this written response I’ll briefly say that you are naming a challenge to Insight Dialogue practice, and the corresponding opportunity to bring mindfulness, tranquility, and wisdom directly into that situation, that relationship. Advanced practice!
- My biggest stumbling block is when anger and irritation arise …. any help?
GK: This is exactly the right place to begin. Working with anger can be a very specific practice or set of practices. You might read my book, “A Whole-Life Path.” Specifically, the chapter on right intention. There is a framework that points to three time scales of intention: moment-by-moment, episodic, and over-arching. This framework can suggest a useful approach to observing and gradually transforming habits of anger (greed or lust, and so on).
- Thank you so much for a lovely meditation. You spoke about relating to the experience of sensory experience. Trying to be meditative “off the cushion” in my daily life, I am overwhelmed by sensory experience, especially that of greedy sight. I feel inundated, and it makes me very anxious. How can I cultivate “right view” at these times?
GK: Each of us is constructed and conditioned to be particularly sensitive to certain sensory channels. The visual channel is, for everyone, a super-rich information pathway. The amount of brain real estate allocated to it attests to this. At the same time, there are also people who are powerfully impacted by auditory and other sensory channels. A valuable concept in Buddhist practice called “guarding the senses.” Perhaps you have heard of this. Generally speaking, it’s the practice of noticing where the vulnerabilities are and arranging your life—to the extent possible—to keep away from those things that are most triggering, that lead to the unwholesome – turning the eyes away, not going places, and so on. But not only is this not always possible, but you also want to get to the root of reactivity. This is a deeper, more subtle process; it is supported by guarding the senses but involves intimacy with the dynamic experience of being a sensitive creature.
In your question, you referred to “greed.” Good catch. Get intimate with that. What does it feel like? When does it arise? Does it endure? What makes it fade? So you begin to bring a native wisdom to the experiences of greed, visual and otherwise. That practice will yield its own wholesome results. The body-mind (aka “you”) does not want the suffering, the stress, the fear, or the grip of lust. So when you see it coming up so often, you begin to change behaviors. Letting go happens because you are inclined towards peace. Right? And there’s another inquiry: are you inclined towards accumulating things and experiences in that flow of visual and other objects and events? Believing that chasing and clinging to pleasures, and avoiding pains, is a path of stress and grief. This is a solid form of what the Buddhist path would refer to as “wrong view.” But right view, that letting go, relinquishing, peacefulness, is the highest happiness—that’s powerful medicine, liberating medicine.
- I found Interpersonal practice does provide insights here and there, but how does ultimate liberation emerge from dialogue? The suttas suggest that most arhats enlightened while they were in solitude.
GK: There are countless episodes in the suttas of people being awakened upon hearing some words from the Buddha. Even when in big crowds. The question you ask is more profound than that, though. What degree of true insight—into anicca, dukkha, anatta—is possible in Insight Dialogue? It’s too much to go into here, but in an effort to provide something useful, I’ll note that many Insight Dialogue meditators who also have extensive vipassana experience, including vipassana teachers, report experiences they refer to as insights, by which they mean insights in the classical sense. This includes most often anatta. This is probably because the self, or our collection of “selves” is built in and constantly reinforced in relationship, and this is smoothly but powerfully—and naturally—deconstructed in Insight Dialogue. Probably the insight least often experienced in ID is anicca in the canonical sense of rising and vanishing. Certainly, the contingency, transience, and vibrating quality of all experiences are apprehended in ID, but the subtlest rising and vanishing likely needs the greater stillness of traditional silent meditation.
- How does one cope with the disparity between an intellectual knowledge of the Dharma and actually living it?
GK: Patiently, diligently engaging experience here and now, in the light of the “knowledge”, is a pathway to that knowledge becoming wisdom. I’ve written about this question, in unpublished pieces and woven through my book, “The Whole-Life Path: A Layperson’s Guide to a Dhamma-infused Life.” You could check out the chapters, especially on the six tenets of the Whole-Life Path, on Right View, and on Right Speech. In brief, those six tenets are: 1-Ground in the Dhamma; 2-Engage all the teachings as practices; 3-Exclude no moment, experience, or teaching; 4-Find each teaching in the here and now; 5- let all the teachings in fully; 6-Engage the teachings individually, in relationship, and socially. This is a whole life path, though, so a summary like this should be received with care.
- Can you say more about the role of the mind in constructing experience? It seems to play such a huge role and yet is only considered as one of the 6 senses in Buddhism (isn’t it?)
GK: The mind as a sense door is only part of the role of “mind” in Buddhist psychology. There is this basic problem: the English word “mind” covers all kinds of things that are too often smushed together. Some of those words: Nama, mentality. Mano: thinking mind. Citta: heart, or mind states-more associated with emotions, but emotions encompass the body sense—another smushing. Vinnana: Consciousness. And I could go on with thinking, thoughts, intentions, and so on. All of these functions could be seen as aspects of constructing experience. This includes the root-level tinting of sensations and perceptions; how we make sense of the world; how a self is formed around the tension that comes at the intersection of self and world; and so on.
- Can you say something about no-self as a lived experience within dialogue?
GK: The experience of not-self-in-relation is one of the most profound (and regularly experienced) insights that arise in Insight Dialogue. You might have a look at my book, “Insight Dialogue”, particularly the chapter on Open. This is a key meditation instruction for the arising of no-self. Samadhi, or some degree of stillness, is essential. The self is a fabrication born of tension, so as the body-mind calms down, the self-sense weakens. With other people present, or just one other person, that calming can happen quite effectively. At the same time, the spaciousness of practice where the guideline Open is well developed further softens the self-sense. There is much more to say, but that’s a start.
- Well, Insight Dialogue is practicing with people who know the same as you do in terms of Dharma. How does that then translate in relationship with people not practicing mindfulness?
GK: Wonderful advanced practice! You can do it, but you need strong intention, patience, and a commitment to cultivating metta and compassion.
- Awareness of Anatta has been very helpful to me off the cushion by not identifying with troublesome feelings. Can you comment more on awareness of Anatta?
GK: Anatta can be a helpful thought, an abiding contemplation. The direct experience of anatta, in Insight Dialogue or vipassana practice, can follow you off the cushion once there has been genuine insight. But for in-life experience, perhaps things like “flow” and immersion in nature will be more accessible ways of softening the troubled self. What activities generate flow for you? What conditions provide feelings of safety, tranquility, and quiet happiness? What is the sense of self like when you are in those circumstances, places, activities, or with the people you are most comfortable?
- Has Gregory had any thoughts on attuning to the emergence of unconscious processes operating during interpersonal experiences? I have begun listening to some of Gregory’s YouTube videos, which are helpful. Any guidance would be appreciated.
GK: The ID guideline “Pause” is far more than the temporal pause it points to. And even more than the general reminder to establish mindfulness in that moment. Over time, the Pause can become and has become for me, an immediate entryway to the wordless. Whatever I’m doing, including speaking with another person, or even giving a Dhamma talk, when I Pause, I touch the wordless then and there. You can do that, too. Attuning to Emergence, another ID guideline, points to the numinous, the empty and changing quality of experience. There is clearly no self at the core—no stable self, that is. Contingent “selves”, sure, and these can be kindly known. Work also with the guideline “Speak the Truth.” This is an invitation to more than right speech, more than truthfulness in the mundane sense. The “truth” of experience is ultimately wordless. What is that? How do you experience it? Express it? Dwell with it? Good luck!