Sunday, August 19, 2018


My own big take-away from yesterday's day-long meditation retreat with Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Ajaan Geoff, is summed up in these two simple words: Step back.

For me they are a reminder rather than a whole new insight, although maybe taken in the context of a whole day's teaching, they amount to nothing less than an insight in themselves.

In the course of the morning, after a half hour of guided and another half hour of silent meditation, Than Geoff began by addressing the hindrances to a skillful practice and the session veered into questions and answers on the twin topics of greed and anger. Than Geoff's quietly insistent response in every instance: step back when you feel them arising in the mind as you work to settle it down into concentration.

My own question, based on the experience of difficulty sleeping the other night, had to do with fear. The room was packed with people, some of whom had traveled significant distances to spend the day in the presence of a man whose wisdom, humor and patience we have all come to respect and love. Many of them, I surmised, shared the anxiety that had kept me awake--the deep fear that our social and political environment--and indeed the natural environment of our planet--are slipping beyond our ability to maintain balance, let alone inner equanimity.

Than Geoff's advice, offered in his calm, seemingly imperturbable voice: step back. When you feel yourself approaching that brink of fear, step back. Which is not, of course, to deny its existence, but rather to be aware of it, to recognize its allure for the mind... and to step back from it when it presents itself.

I asked later about the jhanas. I have been experiencing what feels like an ability to reach a deeper level of concentration in meditation recently, and I have been mistrustful of it--thinking I have just been kidding myself, succumbing to the seductions of misplaced self-confidence. Listening to Than Geoff talk about the jhanas and their real approachability felt like a permission to place greater trust in myself; but still I pursued my concern with the observation that, when I reach this threshold and feel the desire and the ability to cross, I'm driven back by an untimely--and unwelcome!--urge to congratulate myself.

My observation provoked general laughter in the room, including Than Geoff's. I think--I'm sure--it was sympathetic laughter, suggesting that the experience was not mine alone. But the advice was the same as it had been all day: step back. Step back, I heard, in order to make the step forward, and across that threshold, possible. Step back from the mind that thinks, evaluates, makes self-judgment, so as to clear the path ahead.

A final question very close to the end of our day's session: I asked if Than Geoff could talk about the deathless. His answer, with another sympathetic laugh, was simple: "It's deathless." He went on to elaborate from there, equating the experience of the deathless with "stream entry", which I have seen defined as "the first of the four stages of enlightenment."

I asked the question because I have had the clear sense of having, in meditation, caught a glimpse of the deathless. My skeptical--rational?--mind insists this is impossible. I have not meditated hard, nor deep, nor long enough to merit such a revelation. In my life, I am far from shedding the attachments that keep me tethered to the mundane, the ordinary, the material. That "glimpse," my skeptical mind tells me is nothing more than the illusion that wishful thinking generates. Worse, it is the product of inexcusable arrogance and presumption

There was not time, nor was this the place, I felt, to pursue this feeling further. In any event, I will place my trust more firmly in my take-away: to step back from it, in order to move forward.

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