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Shaila Catherine Retreat: Distracted Mind, Distracted Life

- a summary by Leslie Lewis

Shaila Catherine is an American teacher in the Theravada tradition (more or less). She is best known for her study of jhana (absorptively concentrated) states, although she works with metta and insight meditation as well. Her biography is here.

I attended the “Distracted Mind, Distracted Life” retreat she led at the FCJ Christian Life Centre in Calgary from June 17 to 23. Her teachings focused on mindfulness of mind, the third foundation of mindfulness as laid out in the Satipatthana Sutta. I’m going to reflect here on what she said during her main teachings, and also on some answers she gave during the question periods. If what I write seems at times to go against orthodox teachings, the problem is with my understanding, not her teaching.

We were given two suttas to study before the retreat began: MN19 - Two Kinds of Thought, and MN20 - How to Stop Thinking. They formed the basis for much of what she said. 

Lost in thought

Our minds are full of thoughts. We are always thinking - that’s what minds do. We can’t control thoughts. Most of the time (especially during meditation) thoughts are a useless waste of time. They are fantasies, stories that our minds tell us. 

During meditation we have an opportunity to look at our thoughts and see how they construct our idea of who we are. Mindful awareness of our breath and body anchor us to the here and now, giving us a chance to investigate what causes thoughts to arise and how they hook us. We can observe that thoughts are connected to attachment. 

There are four kinds of attachment

  1. To sensual pleasure (I want to get something; I want an experience)
  2. To views and opinions (This is the way it is, no matter what the facts say)
  3. To methods and techniques (This is the only right way to do it)
  4. To a concept of self (This is who I am, This is the root of all attachments)

Our job is to see thoughts as just thoughts, and watch them go by. Problems arise when we let them build themselves up into stories and construct our sense of “me”. When we watch our mind skillfully and mindfully we will see that there is nothing in there to cling to. A thought is just a thought. It arises and it passes away. Our mind becomes clear when we know this.

Two kinds of thought - MN19 

The thoughts passing through our mind are of two kinds: skillful (kusala) and unskillful (akusala) (actually there are also thoughts that are just trivial and neutral, too). As we look at passing thoughts  we should examine them and decide which they are. The skillful ones - thoughts of metta and compassion - we just enjoy and let go. The unskillful ones might need a little more attention, particularly if they are sticky and hook us in. 

We need to be aware that whatever mental patterns we perpetuate become our tendencies. So if we go along with unwholesome thoughts we need to recognize the choices we have made. Try to discover what makes them attractive. 

Proliferative thinking (papanca)

Sometimes it seems that we experience thought after thought after thought uncontrollably. Proliferative thinking arises from 

  • Tanha - craving - which invests things with the appearance of desirability
  • Mana - conceit - our sense of self produces pride, inferiority, competition
  • Dhitti - views, opinions, beliefs - we grasp them to gain a sense of self.

Is there a recurring thought, an obsessive theme? We don’t need to spend a long time on analysis, but it can be good to see patterns. 

  • Planning - even though it doesn’t usually work out that way! You can let yourself plan, but only three times, say - then toss it away. Repetitive planning just builds anxiety. Let go and connect with the here and now.
  • Rumination - triggered by sights, sounds, memories. We build them up into stories, which can become real in our minds. Mindfully ask - is it true? 
  • Rehearsing - imagining future conversations and events, which can lead to restlessness and anxiety. It’s useful to reflect before an important conversation, but that doesn’t need to be done during meditation.
  • Daydreaming
  • Problem-solving
  • Commenting on what’s going on in our meditation, instead of just observing

With time, patience, and mindfulness, thoughts will become lighter and we will take them less seriously. 

How to stop thinking (MN20)

This sutta gives some strategies that can be used when hindrances arise and persist. 

  1. Replace the thought. How, depends on which hindrance is most prominent.
    1. If your problem is greed or lust, contemplate negative features of the desired object (monastics are taught to think of the “head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin…” of the person they lust after; lay people might find it helpful to think of the insurance you’d have to pay on that fancy new car). 
    2. If your problem is anger, hatred, or fear of a person, think of things you appreciate or respect about them. Replace fear with awareness of your strengths. Replace anger with metta.
    3. For sloth and torpor, focus on specific aspects of your breathing. Labelling it forces some energy into it. Mindfully feel it in your body. Stand, open your eyes, remind yourself that you want to be present. Connect with something joyful and interesting. Get through the wave of lethargy. If all else fails, take a nap.
    4. For anxiety and restlessness, come back to the here-and-now and watch how your mind constructs this old familiar path. Try phrases like “It doesn’t matter,” “It’s okay”, “May I be at ease.” Use a mental image like a calm lake. 
    5. For doubt - if you are losing confidence or want to do something else - reflect on the potential of your practice to develop virtues like the Buddha’s. Our practice is not just for us, but to keep the teachings alive for future generations.
  2. Examine the danger of continuing to think like this. What are we getting out of it? Where is it leading? Like a fish, see what is the bait, and what is the hook - the danger. Remember your goal: letting go, freedom, peace. This should take very little time - then return to your primary practice. 
  3. Try to forget distracting thoughts. Withdraw your attention and energy, as if you are closing your eyes and looking away. When the sticky distracting thought is a painful memory, allow yourself to learn whatever lessons are there to be learned, then step away from that pattern of thought. We don’t always have to “deal with it.” It’s past and gone. 
  4. Investigate and calm causal formations. Examine what feeds them. If thoughts keep coming back, we haven’t really understood them. Try to understand the cause that triggered the thoughts - take five seconds to check how you got here. It almost always goes back to an insecure sense of self and an inability to accept non-self. There is nothing fixed and eternal about us. Adjust inner conditions that sustain the distraction. Ask “What happened?” Deep investigation is really a form of sensual pleasure. We’re not drafting a dharma talk. 
  5. Use the sledgehammer technique - the last strategy. Grit your teeth and crush it. Silently yell “No!” to yourself when you start in on that same old unskillful thought. Use this technique with compassion and wisdom, not aversion and anger - like a mother shouting at a toddler about to run into traffic. 

Perception

Be skeptical. Our perceptions are faulty and conditioned. Our perceptual acuity and skills are karmically conditioned. As soon as we perceive something, we conceptualize it and carry on with it, so thoughts proliferate, leading to a story affected by defilements. What we see after that is seen through the lens of story, which makes more selfing. 

Distortions of perception: 

  1. In the impermanent there is permanence. And yet all around us we can see decay and death. What will it take to make us really see?
  2. In what is unsatisfactory there is happiness. We don’t see the unsatisfactory nature of attachment to impermanent sensual pleasures. 
  3. In what there is no self there is self. We can feel we “are” a sick person, a failure, a meditator…  Really? 
  4. In the foul there is beauty. Things are not inherently beautiful. We construct beauty in our minds. 

“I, me, mine”

It’s useful to mindfully investigate how we make “I, me, mine” from simple bare experience. Most thoughts are about our obsession with ourselves. We tell our own story over and over again, with slight changes each time. We have to be careful not to believe this story and use it to “discover who we are.” Thoughts of “I am like that” are based on limited, unreliable evidence. The only truth is “I am”, not “I am this…”.

The five aggregates affected by clinging - 

  • Body
  • Feelings
  • Perceptions
  • Mental formations
  • Consciousness

- function together to build our sense of “me”. Insight practice takes these as objects, to see how they change, to discover if they are real, to see if clinging is occurring. 

Live this present moment free from concepts of what should be. 

Simile of the chariot: A chariot is composed of different parts, none of which is the chariot. What we take to be ourselves is a collection of different parts - body, mind, experiences - none of which is me or even really mine. Each part is out of my control.

Effort - viriya

The Buddha’s deathbed words were “Strive on untiringly”. Effort turns up in many lists of virtues. But our minds are lazy. We need to find balance. There should be no tension or over-exertion - then we resist and rebel. We need to have realistic expectations. We won’t be mindful for the whole 45 minutes, but push a bit, try a bit longer. Tune the effort we use like the strings of an instrument. We can’t force spiritual experience. We will mature in the fullness of time. 

Appreciate the good stuff when it arises.

Jhana and concentration

Jhana is not the only form of Right Concentration. It is absorption, a mind secluded from sensory data. It is not possible until all the hindrances are gone, after mindfulness is thoroughly developed. The Asian tradition teaches concentration leading to jhana first, but Shaila doesn’t teach it until after a few retreats, when you are aware of the hindrances and can overcome them. 

Jhana is very difficult for people trained in insight meditation to achieve. Advanced vipasana practitioners are so aware of anicca that they find it difficult to develop jhana. They get close to absorption and it falls apart. 

There is no liberation through jhana, only through insight, but full awakening needs jhana

Samadhi is a concentrated, still, unified mind. There are many types of samadhi, including jhana. Concentration is continuity of mindfulness.

Practical advice on practice

Have a primary practice and return to it. Focus can be on breath - at the nose or belly - or body awareness - body scan, meditation on the four elements. You can deliberately shift during a session, but return to your primary practice when you find yourself lost in thought. 

Watching the belly rising and falling is ideal for insight practice when you want to experience the whole body and how it changes. Nostrils are good for jhana.

Resolve for stillness. Decide not to move for a set time. 

Don’t be attached to techniques, but don’t discard them too soon. 

Walking meditation

Include all the sense doors to help you be mindful of your body and your environment. Stop when distractions arise. You can go so slow you feel every change in your body, or just your normal speed. 

These are some scattered recollections of the teachings during this retreat. As it was happening, my reactions were pretty negative, but it has helped to try to organize my notes. 

Leslie Lewis

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