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Buddhism offers an incredibly large number of tools and ways to approach mindfulness and wisdom.  At the recent Visuddhimagga retreat with Doug and Catherine Sensei this January, we practiced mindfulness of breathing (Anapanasati sutta), and explored a few of these 2000+ year old meditative tools and strategies in depth.  We developed the four foundations of mindfulness and observed the five aggregates (Skhandas) that make up our sense of ‘selfhood’.  We contemplated impermanence and struggle in detail. We looked closely at the relationship between ‘name and form’ or ‘mind and matter’ – which comes first?  What triggers what?

It was clear at the retreat that meditating for 7-10 hours per day, although a few did more, provided an immense opportunity for deepened awakening experience – day by day, step by step we developed greater levels of calm, concentration and insight.  We turned book knowledge into experiential understanding.

Visuddhimagga meditation retreat

I think I could safely say that all of us at the retreat tangibly felt the importance and power of meditation retreats for progress on the path of awakening.  However, the question was always with us, what happens when we get back to our busy, complex and challenging daily lives?  Doug and Catherine Sensei pointed to the importance of ongoing practice in the form of ‘awakening in action’ or karma yoga.

We used a lot of stellar tools on the retreat. So, what tools can we bring to karma yoga in the city?

Here are two excellent ways to strengthen your awareness in day to day life. They are checklists that can equally be applied while cooking dinner or at the office, as on the meditation cushion – they are five qualities of a good state and the five hindrances that interrupt a good state.

Five Qualities of a Good State

  1. Calm
  2. A feeling of being in Union
  3. Internal Dialogue Quietens
  4. Bliss
  5. Equanimity

Use these five qualities of a good state to gauge how you are doing with mindfulness in action.  Karma yoga as well as meditation will bring about these positive qualities.  With calm, the body settles into quietude. With the feeling of being in union there is the sense you’re with what is going on, you are there in it, with it, part of it, undistrubed by it and present. As internal dialogue quietens, the stories, worries, dramas and fears recede and slow down and dissipate into purer perception. As bliss arises you feel well being and elation. Finally, equanimity is a sense of composure, balance and equipoise regardless of the circumstances or phenomena within or around you.  It should not be mistaken for indifference which does not care, but as a passionate non-attachment.

These five qualities of a good state are an excellent ‘honesty check in’.  Sometimes I kid myself, saying or thinking I’m in a good state when really I’m not, especially when I am in dialogue or conflict with other people.  Running through this list helps me compare my current state to the states of calm and unification I know are possible.  If my current state is far off, then I can use the many meditation tools in the toolkit to improve my state.

Now lets turn to the question of what gets in the way of a good state?  The nature of ‘purification’ on the path of awakening is the process of seeing the obstacles, lack of clarity and attachments that cloud the wholesome which rests unhindered behind the ego’s machinations – like a clear sky behind the clouds. Thus this next list is vitally important to see what clouds the mind.

Five Hindrances That Interrupt a Good State

  1. Wishing for the moon (kama chando) / Wanting something that is present to not be present, or that isn’t present to be present.
  2. Aversion / Turning away from.
  3. Agitation and Restlessness
  4. Sleepiness and Boredom (Sloth and Torpor)
  5. Skeptical Doubt

The five hindrances are a beautiful tool to gauge the level of non-clinging awareness present in each moment.  Use this list throughout the day to notice when you are in a state of desiring something different than what actually is. It serves as a tool to help us pay attention to when aversion, agitation, dullness or unhelpful negative doubt (which is different from healthy questioning) arise.

Meditation retreat dining

Ask yourself which one is present whenever you feel bugged or are in an adult temper tantrum (yes we have them too). Can you trace each hindrance back to the actual moment where ‘wishing for the moon’ first arose? Or better still,  can you witness it before or as it turns into aversion? Watching the five hindrances at work is an incredible and profound study.

Remember also that as Doug Sensei often says ‘its not personal, even when its personal’.  These hindrances and our individual preferences and aversions are based on conditioning and circumstances – they are a weaving which we can watch and study with interest and without judgement.  The act of watching them makes them conscious, reducing the grip that habitual patterns and views have on us.

Doug and Catherine Teaching VisuddhimaggaTo recap, Doug and Catherine Sensei, during the recent Visuddhimagga meditation retreat, suggested that these two lists – the five qualities of a good state and the five hindrances that interrupt a good state- can and should be taken into our practice of karma yoga and daily living.  This is an excellent way to really apply meditation practice after retreat, transforming our daily lives with awakening in action.

PS: And yes, if you think desiring awakening is a form of Kamma Chando or wishing for the moon, you are right.  However as Doug and Catherine often say, we reduce all things to the one (the desire for awakening), and then we drop the one. Its also important to note the difference between absolute and relative truths.  For example eating rotten food just to prove you are not in a state of kama chando would be foolish and unproductive.  But being locked in preferences of only being able to eat certain foods would be a great place to practice – (see The Challenges blog for lightning fast spiritual progress).

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This blog post was written by Cara Conroy-Low.  Cara was a participant at the Visuddhimagga Retreat at Clear Sky Centre: Jan 1-16, 2016.  She also co-teaches at the Dharma Hub in Calgary.  Photos were also taken at the Visuddhimagga Retreat by Cara.