People frequently report being bothered by something when they try to meditate. It might be a noise or visual distraction, but often it is something internal like an annoying thought that keeps popping up, or some distraction related to the body. I’ve often heard people describe their practice as being completely derailed during a particular sitting because something like this is intruding on them. Of course, this not only happens during formal meditation practice, it occurs all the time in our daily lives. We are always being bothered by something. That is why many of us are so stressed out and unhappy.
As hard as we might try, we can’t really prevent bothersome things from arising in our lives. I think many people approach meditation hoping to get a break from the harassments of daily life. However, our insight practice is not about shutting out the things that bother us, but learning how to engage with them in a different way – without suffering. In understanding this, it can be helpful to review how suffering arises. According to Buddhist thought, we become aware of some experience arising at one of the six sense doors. That experience has a pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling tone. Based on that feeling tone, we get ourselves wrapped up in the experience through clinging or aversion, and then we are suffering. According to this formula, suffering develops based on how we respond to what is being experienced at the sense doors. It is not produced directly by the content of what’s there.
The sense doors are just the pathways or modalities through which we have awareness of things. Buddhist teachings describe six sense doors corresponding to six sense organs: the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, and the mind. It is through these doors, that we have awareness of visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, somatic, or mental experiences. Since Buddhist psychology uses the concepts of sense organ and sense door to describe the mechanisms by which we have awareness of things, the mind is also a sense door, as it allows us to have awareness of mental experiences like thoughts and feelings.
The Buddhist teachings use different terms like sense organs, sense contact, and sense consciousness, but I particularly appreciate the term “sense door” in understanding how it is that we suffer. Some teachings describe things as coming in through the sense doors, but in understanding our practice, it can be helpful to turn it around and see our awareness as exiting through the sense doors. It goes something like this: Some experience arises at one of the sense doors, and it appears as pleasant, annoying, or neutral. Our awareness then runs out through the sense door and gets involved with whatever is there (particularly if it is either pleasant or annoying). Something appears at the door, and our awareness runs out and gets lost. We are then stuck in suffering. Of course I am taking liberties here, and giving a metaphorical description of the process, but I think it can be helpful in bringing right view to our meditation practice.
With insight meditation, we are not trying to close any of the sense doors. They are left open. We can’t avoid suffering in daily life by closing the sense doors, so we don’t take up that strategy in our insight practice either. The sense doors are left open and things are free to appear at any of the doorways. In insight meditation, we retain, and maybe even sharpen, the ability to be aware of whatever might be appearing at one of the doorways. At the same time, we are teaching awareness that it has the ability to stay home and not compulsively run out the door and get lost whenever something appears. This metaphor of watching the doorways without going out through them can help one understand that, as far as our meditation practice is concerned, it doesn’t matter what is showing up at any of the doors, including the doorway of the mind. There may be some annoying thought that keeps popping up. It doesn’t matter what’s at the door, because it can’t make us suffer, unless we run out the door and get involved with it. Our practice is just this – cultivating the ability to know what’s at the doors and windows of our house, without running outside and getting involved with every visitor. It’s almost like we’re helping our awareness to become more mature. If someone were to appear at our window and stick out her tongue at us, a child might get up and run out to take her on, whereas someone with more maturity will decide to not pay that person any mind.
This practice is extremely useful. Of course in daily life we have to engage with much (though not all) of what is arising at the sense doors. We already know how to do that. We’ve been engaging with sense door experience all our lives. However, without practice, most of us don’t have the ability to see something at a sense door and hang back. Strengthening our ability to do this very quickly lowers the amount of suffering we bring on ourselves. It is also the path to awakening. When we continuously observe what’s coming and going at the sense doors, without running out and losing ourselves, we begin to understand the nature of phenomena. With our insight practice, we should pay particular attention to what’s arising and passing away at the sense doors of the body and the mind. This is because the phenomena that arise at these doors are typically misperceived as being the self. Practicing in this way disabuses us of this notion by illuminating the contingent and radically impermanent nature of physical and mental experience.