Every Buddhist tradition has multiple levels of practice. Over time, as one’s capacity in attention grows, it’s often possible to work at deeper levels. Of course our capacity in any moment is influenced by our circumstances and state of mind, emotion, and energy. Depending on what we’re in the midst of, we need to respond with a different kind of practice! Let’s look at four levels…
Level One: Rest in direct awareness of everything that is arising in experience
When the level of attention is higher than our reactions, we can rest in the direct experience of whatever arises, experiencing fully all the sensations, feelings, emotions and thoughts, without trying to control, manage, or create anything.
Direct awareness practices include mahamudra and dzogchen in the Tibetan tradition, shikantaza in the Zen tradition, bare attention in the Theravada tradition, and shamatha (calm abiding) without an object.
Level Two: Raise energy to transform experience
Attention is energy — an intentional, physical, emotional energy. Energy transformation practices include guru yoga and yidam practice, the basis of which is faith and devotion. Taking and sending transforms emotional reactivity into presence. We can also raise energy through yoga, qigong, and other body-based energy practices. A caution with energy-raising and energy-transforming practices: if the energy we raise does not go into attention, it will go into the habit-patterns that create suffering.
Level Three: Counteract or mitigate overwhelming sensations and emotions
You feel anxious, and it develops into intense fear, with tightness in your stomach, trembling, and sweaty palms. You’ve tried just experiencing all the sensations, emotions, and thoughts just as they are, but stories and emotions keep grabbing all your attention. Don’t try to stop the sensations and feelings and thoughts, but using the breath as an anchor, slightly emphasize the exhalation to enhance the relaxing and calming effect of the breath. Feel the weight of your body on the floor, chair, or cushion. These calming and grounding techniques may give you a bit more stability and allow you to experience a bit more of the challenging sensations and feelings in attention.
When certain sensations, feelings, or emotions are too intense, when they consistently distract your attention out of your body and away from the space around you, it can be helpful to open awareness to the entire field of experience. For example, if your back muscles are tense or burning, focusing closely on those sensations can make them even more intense. Instead, try experiencing the sensations within the field of the whole body. Your back and shoulders are burning, but how do your feet, legs, and arms feel?
One way to bring awareness to the whole body is to feel the soles of your feet, the palms of your hands, and the top of your head simultaneously. Whole-body awareness may allow you to experience the pain in your back muscles within a larger sphere of experience.
You can also apply skillful emotions to balance intense reactive emotions. If you are angry, counteract it with equanimity or lovingkindness if you can access those, or reflect on the suffering caused by anger. Don’t suppress the anger, but counteract it with positive emotions or use reflection to balance the bodyheartmind.
Level Four: Avoid the trigger by changing your behavior or external circumstances
If someone or something is consistently upsetting your temper, and you are unable to work with your reactions in attention, take a break in the conversation, or avoid the person altogether for a while. If alcohol is an overwhelming trigger of addictive behavior, avoid situations where alcohol is available. If sitting for an hour brings up overwhelming sensations and emotions and derails your ability to experience what’s arising in attention, cut your meditation session back to 45 minutes.
Using what works
In practical terms, the boundaries between these levels of practice are not clear-cut even within a single meditation session. For instance, a session may consist of a period of shamatha to settle surface busyness and reactivity, guru devotion to raise the level of energy and attention, and mahamudra, which is a direct awareness practice.
Habitually avoiding every difficult experience is not helpful, but letting reactive patterns run without attention just reinforces the patterns. Neither suppression, repression, nor trauma are helpful. As Ken McLeod says, the power of meditation comes from resting in stable attention. Regardless of how long you’ve been practicing, if you are working your edge, there will be times when you are not able to maintain stability with simple direct awareness. In the long run you’ll come out ahead by transforming, balancing, or mitigating reactivity — or temporarily avoiding situations that you cannot at present experience fully.