1. Introduction

Vipassana Dhura is an organization that offers Insight Meditation instruction. They have an online program that you can participate in remotely known as the "Dhamma Friend" program.

This document chronicles my participation in this program with the intent of helping future participants in the program.

2. I start the program

On 11/16/08 I started the program. Cynthia Thatcher sent me an orientation email. Now the key thing in this email is this:

As you may know, insight meditation differs from concentration (tranquility or samatha) practice. Instead of just calming the mind, through the practice of mindfulness you develop the insight and wisdom to see reality as it is. This results in a gradual purification of the mind, which culminates in freedom from suffering.

Since Vipassana emphasizes mindfulness rather than concentration, the experience and results are accordingly different than in concentration practice. With concentration (samatha) practice one can develop very peaceful or pleasant states in meditation. Although these occasionally occur in vipassana, often you may feel bored during practice or may feel that it isn’t working. (Actually, though, it will be). This is to be expected. It does not mean you are practicing incorrectly. The insight meditation method is just to observe whatever is happening right now, in the body and mind, whether good or bad.

Vipassana Dhura Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

Now, the words above should not be taken lightly because they predict precisely how I fell into a trap. Summarily put, one day I got curious in Ramana Maharishi’s Self-Inquiry practice and decided to try it. One thing they say in that practice is that happiness comes when thought stops and they stop thought by paying attention to the root thought which is "I am this body."

But let’s see what happened over this 4-week period as it certainly has some interesting effects.

3. Emotional drama

2 days after starting the program, I had a huge upset with a sexual partner. It set my head on fire. I kept doing the practice, but it seemed that my worries about this would never end.

At this point, it is worthwhile to note that you have to take some precepts for these 12 weeks, one of which is not to engage in sex outside of wedlock.

I decided (wihout prior permission of my Dhamma Instructor) to use something I read in Nyanaponika Thera’s "The Power of Mindfulness" to combat my jealousy. I would sit down and bring up the feelings of jealousy, misunderstanding, and mis-treatment and then apply bare attention.

What I didn’t realize is that I should’ve been doing that Cynthia says in the email below, even though it seems like it wasn’t working:


Good, I’m glad the section on emotions answers your question. Just notice and label whatever emotions arise, without clinging to them, using impartial awareness.

That’s very good that you practiced the hand motions exercise even though your mind was disturbed (that’s the right approach; we are not supposed to wait until the mind has calmed down to practice; that’s like a sick person waiting to take medicine until he’s better). It’s also very good that you were able to keep most of your attention on the exercise.

In daily life these thoughts and emotions will come up - that’s natural when there are still mental effluents (impurities) in the mind. You can apply the same technique to deal with them as during meditation. Just be aware of the emotion, but don’t get involved in it. Disengage the mind from it.

With Metta, Cynthia

11/18/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

4. Knowing the knower (mental factors versus mental objects)

I was reading Apprehend Reality by Achan Sobin Namto and had the following question:

Achan Sobin Sopako Bodhi states: """To practice insight meditation is be mindful of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: the body, feelings, consciousness, and mental objects."""

However, a bit earlier, he states: """Nama (mind) is similar: one aspect of mind is consciousness and the other is mental factors."""

So, my question is: is there a difference between mental factors and mental objects? Or, can we say that there are 3 foundations of mindfulness, body, feelings and mind. And that the mind aspect breaks down into consciousness and mental objects/factors.

11/17/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Terrence Brannon

The response was:


"Mental objects" includes a wider group than "mental factors." It’s a bit confusing because, according to the satipatthana sutta, the last foundation includes some rupa objects, i.e., the 6 sense-impressions: color, sound, etc.

"Mental objects" is sometimes translated as "dhamma objects." I don’t know that this is any clearer, however.

The important thing is not how we categorize the various objects, but just that we understand what they are. It’s important to understand that a consciousness object is different from a fourth-foundation object. When you observe consciousness per se you’re just observing thinking or you’re observing the knower. When observing mental objects you’re noticing either greed, anger, etc.: mental factors in the mind.

Feeling is pretty clear. Rupa objects boil down to the six sense impressions: color, sound, smell, tactile form and taste. But the main rupa we observe is motion, which can be included under tactile impressions. Posture also can be included here, because we experience it tactilely.

With Metta, Cynthia

Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

I will definitely re-visit this topic later in this review, but what is noteworthy is that you can know the knower. Right now, this is just a theoretical understanding, but this technique really does allow you to cut through tons of mental dross and know the knower, if you do it as instructed with no additional effort or additional embellishments on your point.

And certainly with no worries about outcome… just keep doing it!

And dont try to be "knowing" or "aware" or anything like that… most of that is just coarse mental activity and has nothing to do with fine-tuned geniune supramental mindfulness.

5. "Hey nothing is happening"

While the purpose of this meditation is not to develop tranquility, and you certainly will produce a ton of agitation during this practice, occasionally a pocket of relaxation will show up. During the rising-falling meditation, when this happens you may have a period after the exhale where the inhale does not start immediately.

When this happened to me, I was unsure about what to do. Cynthia had the answer for me:


If you mean there is a gap between the last falling movement and before the next rising movement happens, then you can add "sitting" in between falling and rising to fill in the moment, as it were. (please see website).

If you mean that you don’t perceive any objects whatsoever during that time, and if it does not happen necessarily during the space btwn fall and rise (i.e., rising-falling seems to go away completely for awhile), it’s a bit of a different case. This happens from an imbalance of concentration (again, I’m still not sure which condition is happening to you). If there are no perceptible objects, observe the fact there are no objects. Actually, in this case there is still mental activity going on but it is very subtle. There is mental activity b/c you are aware that you cannot find any objects. So that is what to observe until other objects appear again.

With Metta, Cynthia

11/18/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

6. My first raptururous realization

Now don’t think this was a legitimate realization. All the rapture I had then is not happening now. Neither is the turmoil and stress I encountered from that girl I mentioned earlier. Neither phenomonon has lasting presence.

But anyway, one day when I was doing the rising-falling technique I noticed how the fall of the abdomen inexorably follows the rise. I then began to mentally see thoughts as "mental inhalations" and realized that they would "exhale" on their own.

This led to much deeper and longer breathing and I got fairly blissed out. And of course I wrote to my Dhamma Friend confident that I had obtained the Nectar of Enlightenment.

But the fact of the matter is that both the rise and fall of the belly are rupa, or known objects of mindfulness, which means they will both come and go. As an aside, the world mindfulness is somewhat weird because in this practice all aspects of the mind can be rupa. Which to me means something other than mind is observing mind.

7. From coarse to subtle

Vipassana takes the simplest, most obvious physical actions as initial objects of mindfulness. It would seem like an insult to tell someone to do the hand motions. And for one single round of the hand motions, you might do them just fine. But try for even 5 rounds and you will be off arguing with your old girlfriend before you know it.

And that is when your golden opportunity kicks in. You simply label it. And then of course the mind will scream that you just failed. You did not fight back. But in fact you did, because you interrupted the habit stream, lightly and gently!

Vipassana does not go right for the root of the problem immediately. In truth, you are nothing but a collection of aggregates that you put together under the fundamental delusion "I am this body." And all of your worries stem from this lack of true self-knowledge. That being said, mental apprehension of true self-knowledge is just good for motivating practice, because your mind must be purified as well. Because Vipassana is basically disintegrating boulders via erosion, the results are not immediately obvious like some more active practices. And doing body practices when the deeper foundations of mindfulness (such as emotions) are giving you hell, can be tough and apparently non-rewarding, but you have to give it time and see. And before you know it, you may have a lasting stronger mindfulness to apply to the same situation.

Cynthia explains that and much more:


Yes, I agree you should not add "sitting" if it is confusing. If adding sitting is confusing, it means that it is not the case you perceive a "gap" between the rising-falling, or else adding sitting would have helped. So please just stick with the rising-falling technique, without "sitting".

It is important to understand the reason and procedure for labeling thoughts. If this practice is done correctly it will not give thoughts more "life." On the contrary, it will do the opposite. Labeling is simply a technique to help keep your mind in the present moment, on the objects occurring in the present. If it is not used in the beginning, it is very easy for the mind to wander around thinking all the time. This practice actually cuts down on thinking if done correctly, because it helps you to be aware as soon as the mind has wandered off, at which point you can return it to the primary object. If you aren’t aware early enough it will be very difficult to stop a train of thought before it builds into bigger and bigger emotion.

The arising and vanishing of phenomena is not the same as the rise and fall of the abdomen, although the latter also arises and passes away. We have to be careful about confusing these 2 terms.

If you are going to deliberately focus on jealousy for 20 minutes so as to see what it’s like, I recommend you do it outside of your normal meditation session. This may be a helpful technique in some cases, but in truth when you do this you are not staying in the present moment or with a present-moment object at all. To do this is to use an object from memory. It can be useful, but is not vipassana. Be careful, because when calling up a certain emotion deliberately to watch it, there is a real danger of making it bigger if you aren’t extremely careful and skilled. This is a case when you may ingest it with more life if not careful, as opposed to the labeling technique which, if done correctly, will not make the thought or emotion bigger at all but will do the opposite.

The way to "starve out" unwholesome emotions is by not feeding them with your thoughts and reactions, specifically reactions of liking and disliking. The Buddha clearly said this. To keep replaying something unwholesome is what he called "unwise attention." But if you patiently keep noting it every time it comes back naturally, just note it without any reaction, then keep returning to your principal object, it will gradually fade out.

The problem here is that you are not simply noting the jealousy. Every time it comes back you get upset about it. You are reacting by disliking it. This is to lose double. First there is the jealousy, then on top of it you are upset about the jealousy, which causes double the suffering. The more you want it to go away, the longer it will stick around. If you can let go of your desire to want to get rid of it, it will fade out naturally. With true noting there will not be a reaction to the emotion, but just a bare registering of it.

This is why we need stronger mindfulness, not simply concentration to block out the emotion. When mindfulness is strong it will catch an emotion at an extremely early point in its arising. When you can catch it this early, it will immediately disperse. You will not then be able to feel upset about the negative emotion because it will immediately vanish the instant you see it. Mindfulness disperses things instantly. This does not happen from intention, but from the power of mindfulness and insight. Achan Sobin says, "first you take care of mindfulness; then mindfulness will take care of you." But it takes a lot of training to get mindfulness this strong. Hence the training methods such as the labeling technique.

But sometimes talking to yourself wisely, reminding yourself about the true nature of the emotion - its impermanence, etc., can help. Just beware of confusing that with actual vipassana practice. The former is called "skillful means." So you could try observing the jealousy for 20 minutes outside of normal practice; then during vipassana meditation I recommend simply noting and letting go. This is what vipassana is all about; impartial awareness. You don’t note the jealousy so as to make it go away, but just notice whatever appears, good or bad.

It doesn’t matter whether you like the object or not. There is always a temptation to find a more active technique in which we can use our control or somehow force the objects to be better, to be the way we want them to, instead of patiently observing whatever arises, good or bad. Instead of just watching the jealousy whenever it comes up, you want to make it go away because it’s bothering you. The problem is not one of finding a better technique, but of seeing that you are disliking the jealousy. The suffering is coming from your aversion, not from the jealousy per se. If you remove your disliking for it, instead of worrying about removing the jealousy, there won’t be any problem. Mindfulness doesn’t care if the object is pleasant or unpleasant. It is only the defilements in the mind (greed, hatred and delusion) who care whether the object is pleasant or not. Mindfulness is happy to observe jealousy just as any other object.

It is very hard not to dislike painful emotions, I know. It has to happen from the strength of insight and mindfulness in order to be real, not just from intention. Still, it greatly helps to recognize our own dislike, which is a big step along the way of letting go of it. Vipassana is about seeing what is ACTUALLY PRESENT rather than trying to change the situation. So it will help if you can notice and label your aversion to the jealousy. When you see it just note, "aversion," or "disliking." If you can see it when it arises, your awareness of mental activity will have gone up a notch.

It is important to stay with knowing body-objects more (but not exclusively) in the beginning, because these will be more clear than emotional states at first. That’s why it’s important to note rising-falling.

It does not necessarily mean you are practicing incorrectly if you feel bliss; the problem comes if you like the feeling, which is to have become attached to it, instead of just impartially noting it.

Mahasi Sayadaw wrote: "The practice of continuously noting the object as it becomes evidentthat alone is the way of insight." This applies to everything, good or bad.

Good luck with your practice.

With Metta, Cynthia

11/20/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

8. Movement is the primary rupa. The hand on the belly helps

I was reading one of the articles and Achan Namto said that you could put your hand on your belly if you were having problems following the movement. This did wonders. It deepened my experience of what was happening. And thoughts were a completely different experience. I could clearly discern and label rising and falling versus thought.

Cynthia replied:

Yes. The "How to Meditate" article also mentions doing this. I’m glad it’s helping. It’s good you can now separate the actual movements from your thoughts. This is important. As I said in my other email, try to stick with movement as an object more than thought. Movement should be the primary object. But when you’re aware of your mind drifting into thinking, label "thinking" and come back to the movement.

With Metta, Cynthia

11/20/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

9. mental noting


To clarify the noting procedure: you don’t have to mentally note every single thing you experience during meditation (but you do have to "know" all of it with bare attention; there’s a difference.) Only those phenomena that make greed, hatred or delusion arise should be labeled with a mental note. Most of your attention should stay on the rising-falling movements, and you should label those. When other objects occur that do not disturb your mind or take it away from that primary object, it isn’t necessary to note them. For instance, if there’s a quiet background sound but it doesn’t bother you, just ignore it and keep your focus on rising-falling. Unobtrusive objects do not have to be noted. If you jump around too much you won’t be able to develop concentration with the primary object.

With Metta, Cynthia

11/20/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

10. What is delusion?

Again we see the coarse-to-subtle approach of vipassana. Before we saw it with the foundations of mindfulness --- most of our initial work is with the denser layers of being. Now, we see that we work with our obvious greed and hatred instead of going right for the delusion - taking anything to be the self when all things are non-self.

I suppose my hunger to destroy delusion led to me trying self-inquiry. And for one day, it was really satisfying to me. And the same day (see below) I quit the Dhamma Friend program. But the self-inquiry seemed to backfire after that. And I have not experienced any bliss from Self-inquiry since! Impermanence rides home to victory once more!

We have a lot of things that we have latched onto. Physically dis-avowing them will not necessarily eliminate our penchant for them.


Whenever we take something to be self, delusion is involved, because the Buddha taught that all things are nonself. You are right that suffering arises from delusion, because we suffer when we cling to various things as being self.

In Buddhism, in the broad sense, delusion means ignorance of the Four Noble Truths. Practically during meditation it means you can’t see each moment arising and passing away, which is the natural state of things; you can’t see the impermanence, suffering (dukkha) and nonself nature of rupa and nama.

But delusion is very difficult to see; it is the subtlest of the defilements and the last one to be eliminated. The main thing is to notice when greed or aversion arises during practice. When an object "hooks" you by causing greed or aversion, that’s when you need to label it, so that the desire or aversion does not increase. If the object is innocuous and does not trigger any greed or aversion, just ignore it (but you are still aware that it occurred) and continue noting the principal object, the rising-falling motions. There are many objects going on all the time during meditation but you should try to stick with the principal object unless, as I said, something "hooks" you and causes defilements to arise.

With Metta, Cynthia

11/21/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

11. Week 1 Summary

I include my Week 1 Summary and Cynthia’s response without comment.

When I do the hand and rising-falling exercises, I look at the target of mindfulness. I find that my mind wanders too much when I close my eyes and simply try to focus there.

This is a very uncomfortable practice. It is not a joyride. But it appears to be working slowly from the outside in. Some systems work from the inside-out. For example, Eckhart Tolle is a popular teacher of presence, as is Sailor Bob Adamson. They teach only about what the Vipassana Dhura website calls The Country of Now.

But I was never successful entirely with being given the absolute truth. And from studying the Vipassana Dhura website (actually more from doing this for the past week), it is clear why. Hearing about non-delusion is not the same as getting rid of your own greed, hatred and delusion.

Here I am slowly being shown how fleeting sensation can be if I simply keep paying attention. If I keep up Vipassana, I will be as free of the body as Quang Duc.

Now, I am running into a serious philosophical issue with Buddhism. A successful Vipassana practitioner develops the power to not gain rebirth. Now, to the New Age Community, to the create the life you desire community, and to many other spiritual communities, life on earth is a Good Thing, we just need to learn to be more wholesome. They think we are supposed to be here, but that we need to raise our consciousness.

Personally, I want to get to the point of where this body is a chess piece. Then it wont matter whether we are supposed to be here or not. If we are supposed to be here, then I can operate the body in a wholesome fashion, operating from the 4 brahma vihara. If we aren’t supposed to be here, then I simply leave the chess piece behind and dont come back.

Many people are trying to lose themselves in their senses. For me, that was never satisfying. But the struggle to climb out of the quicksand of sensory indulgence is not easy. But it seems necessary unless I want to remain a slave to former and potential mental imagery.

Being able to put your mind on something is basic test of sanity if nothing else. If I can’t sit somewhere and observe a process without getting lost in thought, I am clearly not in control of myself.

Dear Terrence,

Thanks for your update.

Just to clarify: please do not look at the abdomen when observing rising-falling. This is not correct. The practice is to just watch the motion with your mind. However, if it’s difficult to observe the movements you can put your hand on your stomach as you have already tried. If the mind still wanders, don’t worry about it. This is natural. Just KNOW it is wandering. This practice takes patience. If you keep doing it your mind will eventually be able to stay with the object better and better. Thinking and wandering will calm down. But you can’t force it. This has to happen naturally.

It’s ok to keep your eyes open if you want to, but don’t deliberately look at the abdomen when you do that. Don’t pay attention to what is being seen with the eyes at all. You need to focus your mind on the movements.

If you look with your eyes it will confuse mindfulness because you’ll have 2 objects in the present moment (a visual image and motion), and mindfulness won’t know which one to focus on. Mindfulness needs a clear object. It’s important to stick just with the motion object primarily until mindfulness gains concentration with that object.

In vipassana we always observe only one object at a time (that is, one object per moment.)

Can you please tell me: are you able to focus cleary on the movements (when your mind doesn’t wander)?

It’s good that you are understanding how fleeting sensation can be if you look at it in the present without elaborating or adding your own concepts or judgments to it. That’s the way things truly are.

Yes, this practice is sometimes uncomfortable. However, it will get easier. You don’t have to force yourself too much. You are correct that when we can’t keep the mind where we want to, it reveals our own basic lack of sanity. This is what the Buddha taught. This is due to the effluents (greed, hatred and delusion) in the mind. The problem is that we cannot get rid of these through mere intention. So it’s not correct to force your mind too much. But the fact that you can SEE the present craziness of the mind is already a very good sign. This is what should occur in the beginning. In truth, everyone’s mind is crazy until they eliminate delusion. Everyone is in the same boat. A beginning meditator will usually feel dismayed when he actually sees how out of control his mind is. This is a sign you are beginning to wake up. That’s very good.

But the approach is to eliminate delusion over the long haul. We have to be skillful in many ways because delusion is tricky and has all kinds of ways of fooling us. So you don’t need to use excessive force to keep your mind in the present or keep it on the object. The important point is to KNOW everything; to KNOW every time it wanders off. If it’s going to wander, ok, let it wander; don’t get upset about it or struggle. But you have to know that it is doing so. Just keep knowing what mind and body are doing at all times.

This in itself is already much different from what normally occurs in the minds of nonmeditators. If you try to force the mind to be better it will react even more. Vipassana meditation is a very delicate procedure, and we have to be careful to keep a balance. With practice you will learn what is the right amount of effort and when you are trying to force it too much. Remember to always let go. You have to know, but you also have to let go. That means that you let go of caring whether the mind is the way you want it to be or not and just know what is going on. Even if the mind seems crazy, all you have to do is know that it’s so. You don’t have to step in and change it. The change will happen automatically if you keep up the knowing and make it habitual.

If you continue this practice you will eventually feel that the body is a chess piece, exactly as you said. This will certainly happen. In other words, you will no longer take the body to be your self at all. You won’t need to get involved about it or feel bad when (for instance) it gets old or sick and dies.

Keep up the good work.

With Metta, Cynthia

11/23/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

11.1. Week 1 continued

I had a few questions about her response, so I wrote back:


Thanks for your email. I will check with the person who sends out the books and make sure yours have been shipped. I am sure we received your order.

Yes, we are a California 501c3 corporation. Our tax ID number is: C1529490.

I just wanted to add about mental noting: you were correct before when you said you don’t want to inject more "life" into certain objects by noting them. I think maybe I did not explain the procedure very well. If the secondary object is very innocuous, faint, and does not "hook" your attention, it is not necessary to label it with a mental note. Just keep noting the primary object and let the unobtrusive secondary ones be on the "periphery." But if a secondary object hooks you - i.e., takes your attention away from the primary object and causes liking or disliking - then it’s very important to note it w/ the mental note.

You can experiment w/ keeping eyes open or closed. It sounds like you have good concentration, so it might be ok to keep eyes open at times.

Your experience about noting the unrest is very good. That’s exactly correct. I’m glad you didn’t give up on the vipassana. In this practice we have to know whatever’s going on, even if we don’t like it. It is good that you were not attached to the bliss. In a case like that, when the mind is very agitated, you should use the mental notes: note the unrest, and especially note the agitation (desire) in your mind that wants to change the unrest. It is this agitation or resistance or wanting to change something that is suffering. The problem is the desire, not the unrest itself. That is the second Noble Truth: that desire is the cause of suffering (and, more than that, is suffering itself; is synonymous with it).

We cannot see that fact unless we also note unpleasant conditions of mind. If we’re always blissed out it’s impossible to see how desire causes agitation and suffering, which means we then are not motivated to "disband" the desire and free ourselves. Achan Chah wrote that the peace that comes from insight is very different from the peace/bliss of concentration. He said the peace of insight transcends happiness and unhappiness, so that no matter what kind of feeling (vedana) is occurring- pleasant or unpleasant - the mind can still be peaceful and free of agitation. This is a much superior but different kind of happiness from what we normally call "happiness;" the latter is only a matter of pleasant feeling. But vedana is never stable. It’s always arising and passing away. That’s why, when our happiness depends on pleasant feeling we’re really in for a lot of suffering. The goal of vipassana is to transcend these changing conditions and be able to free the mind, which results in "happiness" no matter what the conditions of body or what thoughts and mental factors are going on in the mind.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

With Metta, Cynthia

11/25/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

12. Predictive vipassana, why the mind wanders

I began to wonder why I should wonder what is going to happen next, when I know full well what is going to happen next. I also began to get some ideas about why the mind wandered. I wrote on these two things to dhamma friend. Cynthia’s reply had a direct warning about the trap that I fell into. She makes it clear that the mind will say: "vipassana is not as good as bliss" --- and nonetheless I fell prey to the trap 3 weeks later.

12.1. predictive vipassana

There are two ways to do anything. One is to simply stumble into it. The other is to set your mind to the task beforehand. Until last night, I was stumbling through these exercises. But last night I was preparing my mind for each step just before it began. For example, let’s assume that my belly has just risen. I then expect the fall and wait for it. I dont just sit there and wait for it to happen. I am actively preparing myself to observe falling in a second or two. Likewise, let’s say I have just turned the hand 90 degrees. Next, I set my intention to observe it rising. I dont just simply raise it and observe the raising. I set the intention for that observation first.

12.2. The Mind Cares About Survival

I just realized why my mind wanders when doing this practice. It takes the mind about 2 or 3 seconds of watching me do this practice before it decides that something else is more useful to its immediate survival. So then it distracts my attention onto that something else in the name of it’s own personal welfare. For instance, if I dont have enough vegetables to make soup, the mind will bring that up because the soup is more vital to its survival than sitting on the ground and observing motion.

So, what I do prior to each exercise is remember how you said that I can be happy even if the body gets old, sick, or dies…. in other words, I turn this exercise into a survival act of the highest importance because currently, I do not want to get old, sick or die… I am AFRAID of all 3 and this practice is a chance to master them all. So hopefully over time my mind will find an urgency about vipassana and cooperate with this process of no apparent survival value.

12.3. Reply to my comments on prediction and survival

Terrence, Vipassana is a very delicate balance. If we use too much intention it will actually slow down mindfulness and we will not be staying precisely in the present moment. Often it is important to give up trying to control the situation and, as Achan Sobin says, "just do it." It will not be perfect in the beginning, but it’s a matter of gradually developing mindfulness, concentration and insight over time until mindfulness is strong enough to cut through delusion by itself without any interference from us. Achan Kor writes that there is knowing that happens from intention and knowing that happens without any intention, automatically. It is this latter kind of knowing that is the valuable, genuine knowing of the higher levels of vipassana knowledge, and it cannot be willed. As a meditator your job is not to make each moment clear or this or that but simply to recognize whatever is going on, even if the thing going on is confusion, fogginess, or whatever.

You should not be trying to do anything to what you are experiencing. This is a difficult point to grasp because normally we are always interfering and trying to direct everything.

The point where effort comes in is that you keep just doing it, despite thoughts like, "this isn’t getting anywhere." In other words, you don’t need to inject more effort or intention into each individual moment of knowing; but over the long term you need to sustain the effort of simply knowing what’s going on. This is much harder to do than forcing a whole lot of effort in a few moments. If you do the latter you’ll be using too much effort and will unbalance the whole delicate procedure. On the other hand, if you just follow all your thoughts and moods, you’ll easily give up the practice. The effort needs to be made in the area of LETTING GO of various thoughts and desires instead of following them, especially the ones that whisper to you that vipassana is not as good as bliss, it’s pointless, it’s boring, and so forth. Just allow those thoughts to be there but resist following them. Keep practicing anyway, in a relaxed but persistent manner.

If you prepare yourself for the falling or rising movement, you are absolutely not staying in the present moment anymore, because you are anticipating. Even if your anticipation is only one second prior to the event, it’s long enough that it’s taken you completely out of the present. In vipassana we don’t want to anticipate anything, for any length of time. Eventually you want to get so you are right with each split second of the present, which cannot possibly happen if you’re anticipating. You have to let go and trust the method and trust that mindfulness will eventually be strong enough to handle whatever comes at you, because in time it absolutely will.

It is a little different with a deliberate action like moving the hand or walking. It’s true we say to observe "intending to walk" at the end of the walking turn. But in this case you are knowing something actually happening; that is, you are knowing the intention that is occur in the mind right in that split-second. Moreover, that is only done once at the end of each path, not before each step. The point of doing this is to see the connection between the intention and the physical movement. This is important for realizing the cause-effect relationship btwn. mind and body (but that doesn’t apply with rising-falling, because it’s an automatic movement.) In any case, to note the intention before every single movement is too much and will bog you down. When mindfulness is faster you will be able to see the intentions arise and disappear very fast, but without labeling the action.

It is very good to remind yourself prior to each exercise about the importance of vipassana; this is skillful means as long as you are not doing it often during the actual exercise. Beforehand is a very good idea.

Also it’s very good you can see the reason the mind wanders off. That’s very important. You could call it survival; in some cases that’s true, but most of the time it’s just desire, because a lot of the things we want have nothing to do with our actual survival. But the mind (rather, desire in the mind) always paints a dire picture and convinces us that we’ll absolutely die or somehow suffer if we don’t get this/that, no matter how small the thing is. It is amazing to see how tricky and stubborn it can be in this regard. Ironically, the reason we suffer is not at all because we fail to follow the urging of desire; in fact, desire is itself the very culprit. It is because we feel this pressure or mental agitation or mental burning called desire that we suffer. It is truly amazing that the thing causing our suffering somehow convinces us that it has our best interests at heart, when the opposite is the case. It tries to point the finger elsewhere while all the time being the source of the problem.

When you meditate longer you will be able to see this clearly; it is quite astonishing to realize. Right now you are using skillful means to convince yourself of the urgency of the practice. That’s a smart thing to do. But later, when insight is stronger, you won’t need to do this. You will actually see, right in the present, the way that desire is making you suffer. When this happens you will be amazed and feel as if you had previously made a mistake about everything about where you formerly thought happiness could be found. At that point you will readjust yourself and set yourself to eliminate this desire no matter what it takes. You won’t have to do anything to convince yourself then, because it will be very clear.

When we really see what is causing our suffering, it’s the most natural thing in the world to take steps to eliminate that cause. The Buddha gave a wonderful example in the suttas. A fisherman thought he’d caught an eel in his net, and pulled it out. When he looked at the creature clearly, however, he saw it was a poisonous snake, not an eel. Instantly he threw it back in the water. When you really see the trouble that attachment and desire causes, you will want to just drop or disband those things immediately, because you will see that to attach to this and that truly causes a lot of suffering instead of offering happiness as you thought before. Even if you cant let go of all attachments yet, you will be much more circumspect and keep making an effort to let go all the time, because you’ll see the danger there. Seeing this danger is a good thing, not bad, because it is the way to freedom. Then eventually, the suttas tell us, you’ll be able to let go of attachment to the body-mind and reach the stage of regarding it as a chess piece, as I know you want to do.

Well, keep up the good work.

With Metta, Cynthia

Dhamma Friend Program 11/30/08
— Cynthia Thatcher

13. Week 2

Here is my week 2 summary and response.

13.1. Summary

I started on the Week 3 exercises today. There are 5 topics listed below, in order of importance. If you dont have any comments about issue 4, then that is fine.

13.1.1. Willful Vipassana crumbles to the law of impermanence

It’s funny. I managed to do my practice for 1 day in that willful fashion. I basically forgot the willfull approach and also forgot to motivate my mind by telling it vipassana is a survival tool. Impermanence wins again!

13.1.2. Just sitting

I find the instructions for this exercise http://www.vipassanadhura.com/howtomeditate.htm#d to be contradictory in a few places.

First, the instructions for this say: """With your mind you are going to look repeatedly at the body’s posture in the present moment.""" but then later they say: """It’s not necessary to see the entire shape from head to toe. Focus on one point, such as your hands in your lap."""

I’m pretty sure choosing a focal point supercedes the initial instructions about body’s posture, but I did find it confusing.

In another place we are told /"""Observe "sitting" for one moment, let it go, then bring the mind back to it. Watch this action - i.e., the action of the mind as it turns to look at the sitting object, again and again."""/ but if you look at sentence #1 versus sentence #2, they are giving slightly different instructions. In sentence #1 there is no "meta-observer", there is simply a person focusing on the hands, then zoning out for a second and then going back. In sentence #2, there is a meta-observer: not only is the focus-let go cycle occuring, but there is a meta-observer of the focus let-go cycle.

13.1.3. Rising - falling of abdomen

I want to return to a former comment of yours: """

The arising and vanishing of phenomena is not the same as the rise and fall of the abdomen, although the latter also arises and passes away. We have to be careful about confusing these 2 terms."""

Yes, I agree with this, having read a bit of the text Moment to Moment Mindfulness. On p.107 to be exact. The rising of the abdomen rises and falls. And the falling of the abdomen rises and falls. It is for this reason, that I would prefer a different term for these two motions, such as expanding and contracting or opening and closing or filling and emptying. But those terms are second-order terms. In other words, they involve thinking about perception (which is a form of thinking). We want to stay as close to raw perception as possible. So, I dont see why just calling both abdomen motions moving is not OK.

But I really want to stay away from the terms rising and falling if at all possible.

13.1.4. Meditation in daily life

I have asked about doing insight in places such as the grocery line, driving, etc twice before and you have never answered! I’m not sure if you are missing the questions or just what. But personally, I am glad to only have to do this on the cushion for now. And actually, I am starting to disintegrate certain gestalts automatically. For instance, when I hear a fan, normally it is just one roaring sound. Now, I can hear certain rises and falls within that one sound. Or when water hits a bowl of liquid, I can hear individual splashes instead of just one continuous splash.

13.1.5. interference or the power to be the Creator

I would like to start this section off with a quote from your last writing to me: """

In vipassana we don’t want to anticipate anything, for any length of time. """

I would like to note that there are a number of spiritual systems where they mold reality to their liking by using creative visualization and imagination. The underlying philosophy of these systems is: """the creator wants us to live our lives with passion, integrity and purpose. He enjoys the cosmic play and wants us to create.""" In essence, every alteration of reality they are doing could be considered anticipation of interference in what would have happened if they had done nothing.

From their viewpoint it would seem that vipassana is trying to turn me into a door mat or lifeless sponge! Someone with no ability to control or create reality, but only to accept it.

On the other hand, even my short regular practice of vipassana is starting to make the creative arts look shallow. For instance let’s take a hit song. I realized that what people are doing when they enjoy a musical piece is hearing a bunch of notes and holding the notes in memory and piling up attraction after attraction (contrast with aversion or equanimity).

So the question(s) become: - are we supposed to be on this earth? It seems that the goal of a vipassana practitioner is to never take rebirth. I personally have to wonder if I would get bored of not having a body… I mean, no soccer. No movies. No birthday parties. Just pure awareness with nothing to do. I personally think that would feel limiting and boring after awhile.

Now, I can anticipate your answer: - people who want things are slaves of desire. Creating your reality, having a body are desires. Once you see that desires cause you to suffer, you will not follow any of them, including having a body. - people who want things actually are identified with their body. The same people who gain pleasure from getting certain things for their body will experience equal (or greater) pain when they are given the opposite thing or cant have what they want. They will whine like a little baby with the pacifier snatched from their mouth. They are just bigger more powerful slaves of desire, able to create pacifiers in the form of Lamborghinis, hot women, or large mansions.

But I’m really curious about the idea of having a body. Supposedly in the 4 heavenly realms there are beings with bodies as well. I’m really curious about what I am supposed to be, do and have.

13.2. Reply from Dhamma Friend


  1. Its good you are able to see impermanence.

  2. If it’s confusing, I think it’s best you don’t practice the sitting exercise now. Just stick with rising-falling and the hand motions. Instead of following the website schedule, we can just go week by week and do a more individualized schedule. The sitting exercise can help beginners gain more concentration, but you already have pretty good concentration because you said you’ve gone into bliss states.

  3. Yes, I agree the rising-falling terms can be confusing. That’s find if you want to use your own term: "moving," or "knowing." You are right we do not want to think or conceptualize about the perception, but stick as close to the raw sense-datum as possible. Actually, when the book speaks of "rising and passing away" it should be "arising," as in, coming into being.

  4. Sorry I skipped this question earlier. We can’t usually have the same detailed mindfulness in daily life as in vipassana practice. In daily life we can use more general mindfulness and clear comprehension. The latter means understanding the reason and purpose for our actions and speech; thinking beforehand about whether or not each action is worthwhile to do or is wholesome or not. This understanding helps us keep the five precepts in daily life. On occasion you can still observe the abdominal motions, such as when waiting in line or other occasions when you aren’t occupied with a complex task.

  5. The Buddhist doctrine of conditioned dependent arising is essentially opposite to the popular new agey "create your reality" through visualization and positive thinking idea. However, it doesn’t mean you become a doormat or cannot affect your future. Achan Chah said that a meditator looks the same on the outside, but inside he’s very different. Outwardly he can still be as active as anyone, yet in the mind he does not attach to things and therefore doesn’t suffer. We can mold our futures by having wholesome thoughts, speech and actions which always result in happiness of one kind or another, whereas unwholesome acts inevitably result in suffering. The actions we perform in the present give a corresponding result in the future. So we are by no means helpless. You might want to check out accesstoinsight.org, look up "karma" or "kamma" and read some of the Buddha’s suttas on this topic. He explained the specific paths to becoming, respectively, beautiful, wealthy, intelligent, healthy and influential in future lifetimes. Also there are some articles on kamma on our website; I recommend you read them.

What you said about hearing music and piling up attraction from moment to moment through the use of memory is quite a deep understanding. That’s exactly right. And it does seem shallow when one sees it for what it is. Yes, the ultimate goal of vipassana is to purify the mind of greed, hatred and delusion in order to be free of suffering, which entails not taking rebirth in samsara any longer. But this is a really far-off goal. We have to focus on the shorter-term first. Even those who’ve reached the first level of enlightenment continue to be reborn as human beings for as many as 7 lifetimes. Once you reach that level and have experienced Nibbana you will be able to know whether, in comparison, the happiness that comes from having a body is better or not. Right now you have nothing to compare to. So wait until you have a superior object or different object, then you can decide. Even reaching the first level of enlightenement is quite a lofty goal, but it is possible to attain in this lifetime if we work diligently. But as long as you still want to have a body, be assured you will continue to be reborn with one. However, when you reach the higher vipassana insights (even before realizing Nibbana) you might change your mind.

With Metta, Cynthia

14. Neigbor interruptions

About 1/2 way through my abdomen observation practice, my neighbor started with his music. At that point, I continued my observation. Once, I caught myself lost in internal thought. And then I went back to abdomen observation. However, a bit later, I got irritated by his music then went back to observation. Overall, I would say that last 10 minutes were not very productive.

I did not get a chance to redo the abdomen observation… or rather, I failed to remain vigilant and return to the practice later that night.

I dont think 10 "missed" minutes of practice is going to make or break me over a 3-month period. In fact, I learned a lot about time scheduling from this incident and I did complete well over 75% of the practice for that day

14.1. Dhamma Friend reply

That’s fine, Terrence. Don’t worry about the ten minutes. As long as you were aware - you knew - you were irritated, it wasn’t a waste. That means you had mindfulness to see the irritation. In any case, you were making right effort. It is good to see how anger or desire is directly triggered by objects, following laws of cause and effect.

With Metta, Cynthia

12/3/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

15. What is clinging?

I had been wondering about meditation off the cushion. I told Cynthia that I tend to not whether my mind is attaching or rejecting during day-to-day life… the response:

Dear Terrence,

Yes, what you are doing is correct. It is true that both attachment and aversion are forms of clinging.

With Metta, Cynthia

12/5/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

16. A breakthrough

The following happened on 12/5/08:

During the hand exercises, I was really flubbing. Many times I did not pause. And my mind wandered. But I did keep noting all this.

Then I got to sitting meditation. And I was doing nothing more than noting thoughts when they arose and noting the rise and fall of the belly.

Then this pocket sort of opened up. My mind was not working so hard to do this exercise. I was actually waiting for things to happen so I could note them instead of creating thoughts.

This was a very calming session. I know we are not supposed to fall into tranquil abiding, but I dont think my calm was because I assumed a mental state or emotion. I simply was doing my best to allow myself to observe what was happening.

That was a satisfying session for me.

16.1. The reply


Yes, that’s correct just to observe whatever is going on instead of trying to control it or anticipate what is going to arise next. But don’t expect your meditation will always be this way from now on. Next time it may change again. That’s one manifestation of impermanence. Even mindfulness is impermanent. So you don’t need to feel annoyance or aversion in case your next meditation session is less satisfying. Just know whatever’s going on.

With Metta, Cynthia

Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

17. Taking a phone call

I had to take a phone call during meditation on 12/8/08. I learned that it is best to start over if possible. If not, just continue from where you left off. If possible you should try to let the calls go to your answering machine or voicemail during practice. But thay not always be possible.

Metta, Cynthia

18. Week 3 Summary

I repeat my summary verbatim:

I find it unusual that the easiest exercise, requiring the least amount of concentration or insight (observing "sitting" by looking at the hands for 2 to 3 seconds at a time) is offered in the 3rd week. The hand exercise and rising falling are much more demanding exercises from my standpoint.

Anyway, I will take your advice and drop the observing "sitting" So given that I am in week 4, what should the time breakdown be? I’m guessing the 5 minutes for sitting gets moved to the hands, making 20 minutes for hands (10 each hand) and 20 minutes for rising-falling.

Also, it is amazing how relaxed I get from doing this even though I am glum most of the time.

What I am starting to see is that the depression is an active act, being re-created moment by moment by my tendencies:

  1. I think: "I dont have a job"

  2. I get depressed

  3. I think: "man, it’s cold here"

  4. I get depressed

  5. I think: "my friend has a job"

  6. I get jealous

And then the samsaric cycle repeats itself.

So basically I can throw some noticing of my footsteps in there or something as I’m walking to break up the apparent rock solid wall of gloom. It’s all good to say you arent the body as long as the body has a job (grin). Actually simply noting the sense of gloom is useful. Because later it will switch to a feeling of depression. Then hopelessness. Then sometimes I laugh…

And presumably the law of kamma is at work. Some time long ago, perhaps I made someone else suffer in the cold or lose a job. I couldnt tell you.

18.1. The reply from Dhamma Friend

Dear Terrence,

Again, I feel it might be better for you not to practice sitting as I mentioned in a previous email. I would recommend that for now you stick to the hand motions and rising-falling, because you already have strong enough concentration. If you want to try out the sitting exercise occasionally that’s all right, but for your regular practice I would suggest sticking with the other two exercises.

It’s good you were able to see your mind clinging, then labeled the thinking. That’s fine. You are doing exactly the right thing. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to do this. Sometimes we have to do it over and over for the whole session.

With Metta, Cynthia

P.S. I was sorry to hear you’d lost your job. I guess it’s very hard times for almost everyone right now, given the precarious state of the economy.

18.2. A further reply from me

I accidentally did hand positions before observing sitting this morning, but no biggie. Tomorrow, I start on Week 4, which means a longer time of observing the hands.

The sitting meditation is a joy to go to after doing the other exercises… it has so few moving parts, so you can really sink in.

Now today, unfortunately, my mind was trying to create the former states of open-ness it had experienced. And each time I would be focused, it would start clinging to that relaxation. So I had to basically label the mind thinking about being aware many times.

19. Bettie Page died at age 85

Sex symbol Bettie Page had a painful bought with disease in her old age and now she is dead.

Here is what I said about her death on 12/12/08:

I tend to think of superstars as immortal and disease-free. But Bettie Page had been suffering from pneumonia and then a heart attack and then was placed on life support. Now she is deceased. Her final years were spent in great pain. And also were a blow to her ego, no doubt. Her early years were nothing but "living it up".

She made her body her temple and filled it with adoration and pleasure. And then it broke down on her and left her in the cold, helpless and in pain.

Pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin --- I will never forget being told that, but it’s only theory as long as you can have more pleasure, like this tasty ice cream I’m having right now.

It’s such a shame that it’s so hard to decide to seek permanent bliss. It’s so easy to want the adoration of millions. Millions of dollars. Nice houses, etc.

But maybe it’s worth it. Maybe we are supposed to climb as high as we can even if we plummet to the chasm below eventually? Maybe the risks of reproduction (birth defect, death in labor, etc) are worth it to keep populating the Earth? We keep improving as a species. We have better cars. Nicer heating and air conditioning. The internet, etc. Evolution and the urge to improve quality of living is obvious. Clearly, we are all striving for comfort. Some do it by control of the senses. Others do it by giving the senses what they demand!

Well, I’m just staying the middle way for now. For 3 months, sexual impropriety is not allowed and I am not married.

— Terrence Brannon

20. A Very Significant Progress Milepost

On 12/14/08, I had an unusual experience.

I had done 7 minutes of one hand. Then 8 minutes of the other hand. And I was doing my 30 minutes of rising-falling. During the 30 minutes of rising-falling, I was away floating in these thoughts. This happens often and normally I just note them and return to the breath.

But what was odd this time is that I became aware of two apparently independant processes. I heard some voice in my head going: "rising-falling… rising-falling…" which was keeping track of the belly movements. And then there was the brain just rattling off thought after thought.

And then there was me there seeing both! And then I remembered how the Dhamma Friend instructor said that mindfulness must be gently cultivated. It cannot be forced, but can only happen over time.

So there is like this little me. But the little me will grow if I attach to the thoughts. Or the little me will trance out if absorbed in belly action.

20.1. Instructor Reply


This is good. You said, "And then there was me there seeing both!" This is the the knower or as Achan Sobin calls it, "the one who knows." It is very good you were able to see the knowing as separate from the abdominal movements, the labels for those movements, and your thoughts. You are definitely on the right track here. This is what vipassana is all about, as opposed to the feelings of bliss we can experience with concentration techniques.

When you attach to your thoughts, this knower disappears; it cannot be seen as separate, because it becomes the thoughts, so to speak. This happens when we get hooked by our thoughts and desires. We become completely involved in them and the separate knower is lost. This is what most people do all day long, their whole lives; they get completely involved in the object. At the same time, they cannot see that their thoughts, feelings, etc., are not their "selves" because they cannot separate them from the knowing. When you can see that a thought is separate from the knowing, it gives you a new perspective.

When the knower can stay separate, it is possible to view all objects with equanimity and not get involved in liking or disliking them. This truly protects the mind from suffering, even when unpleasant things are occurring. I’m glad you had this experience.

With Metta Cynthia

Dhamma Friend Program 12/15/08
— Cynthia Thatcher

21. Issues with labelling

The label of the action is supposed to cover the entire duration of that action. For instance, if you are turning the hand, the word turning should last as long as the turn.

The problem I was having was that I would note turning but only be 5 percent done with the actual motion!

21.1. Reply from Instructor


Instead of labeling each action multiple times, try stretching out the label so as to make it last as long as the movement by saying it more slowly. Most of your attention should be on the actual movement, not the word.

The purpose of labeling is to develop momentary concentration. Once you have more concentration with the movement you’ll be able to drop the label and your mind will not wander so much as you just observe the motion.

It is not bad that you have thoughts during the movement as long as you know they’re there. Now you can see more clearly how many thoughts there always are. They come very fast, in a split second. The wandering of the mind takes place in very short increments as you are finding out. That means you have more mindfulness now or you wouldn’t be able to see this.

You can keep experimenting with using the label and dropping it to see what the difference is.


Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

22. I meet my downfall

One day I spent all day reading a book on Self-Inquiry. It talked about how happiness occurs when thought stops. It said that all thoughts from an "I" thought.

I decided to try a bit of this meditation and was jazzed! I felt so good! And I noticed how I was not thinking.

I still had not done my vipassana for that day. I became very loathe to do so. I was thinking the very thoughts Cynthia warned me about: * "oh this vipassana isnt really working" * "there is no way I am going to spend a whole hour of my day doing this" * "vipassana is a big waste of time."

I had also forgotten about Cynthia’s warnings about bliss systems. I hastily turned in my resignation letter.

As always, Cynthia was very accomodating of my decision and responded with equanimity:


Good luck. I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help to you.

Metta, Cynthia

12/18/08 Dhamma Friend Program
— Cynthia Thatcher

22.1. How sad

Can you believe that? All the time and effort she put into me for FREE and she was sorry she couldn’t be of more help to me.

Of course I felt like an ingrateful pig for doing this.

The method will most assuredly work as Cynthia said. You just have to have the persistence. I had already made some useful breakthroughs. The windows into The Country of Now had been cracked open twice in just a 4-week period.

Just imagine how open it would be after 12 weeks.

You really have to have your sights set on EXACTLY what this program has to offer to begin with.

If you are thinking about quitting, instead do your practice for that day and COMMUNICATE with the instructor why you want to quit and listen to that advice with an open mind.

Don’t rush and quit. And don’t rush and get involved.

23. Conclusion

Be sure to get a copy of "Moment to moment mindfulness" because it has pictures of a lot of the practice positions.

A Dhamma Friend 12-week program is highly recommended for anyone who wants to get rid of the clinging mind once and for all.

I finished 1/3 of the 12-week dhamma friend program before falling prey to a mental trap. Therefore, it is not recommended for the following types of people (at least not by me)

Metta! Terrence