Is my finger pointing at the moon from where you’re sitting?

A form of mansplaining that covers the cracks in its own method with bluster

There is a practice that I am drawn to from Reggie’s teaching that I have a hunch is the key to everything and yet I have never quite found the right way to teach it. 

You can hear the practice I’m referring to (in it’s St Mary’s form) by clicking here.

I’m trying to be more open in discussing the ups and downs of teaching. In part to dispel the idea that I, as a teacher, know how things work in any definitive way. This unnecessary certainty is something that bedevils me (and Reggie, I think). And it is a unpleasant aspect of (usually male) authority. A form of “mansplaining” that covers up all the cracks in its method with confidence and bluster. 

I want to ‘show my working’

To undo that tendency, I wanted to explore my sense of teaching a little more open-endedly. In mathematical terms, I feel an increasing urge to “show my working”. 

For example, with the practice of “Three Levels of the Breath”, I have a vivid direct experience of something that defies words. In fact, the whole teaching points to the experience behind or beyond words. So how to convey that? 

Well, first let me describe the practice in as few words as I can. 

Track micromovements in the skeleton as we breathe

Lying or sitting, we use the breath to access the direct sense of the soma. We don’t need to refer ‘up’ to the thinking mind, we can access the body directly using the breath. 

First, we follow the purely mechanical movements that the breath creates in the body. We track the micromovements in skeleton, musculature, fascia as we breathe. Simple. 

Second, we tune into the ‘feeling event’ that the breath uncovers as we breathe in and out. What is going on in the body? What does the breathing body feel like? Direct.

Third, we tune simultaneously into the sense of awareness that pervades the body as we breathe. This is not the thing sensed but rather the sensing itself. Spacious. 

Trying to find the magic formula to unlock the experience

It’s interesting. Even in writing out those three sentences I stumble across the fundamental problem. Especially with the the third level. I can feel myself trying to enchant the experience out of you, the reader, with my words. 

This is also what happens when I am leading this practice. I find myself circling each of these experiences with my spoken words, trying to find the magical formula which will unlock the experience for you. 

Tracing the simple kinetics feels simple and good

This is the perennial dance that I do with my dharma work. The finger pointing at the moon. What I am experiencing, as I lie there in St Mary’s (for example) teaching, is my direct experience of this practice which I have been working with for many years. 

I do experience the first level as really delightful. Tracing the simple kinetic movements of my ribs, shoulderblades, diaphragm with my awareness feels simple and good. It’s like a nourishment for my system to tune in to this

The vividness of my ribs hurting feels alive and 3D

Likewise, the second level also feels incredibly nourishing. To use the in and out of the breath to access what I’m actually feeling in my body seems almost miraculous to me. I can access shocking tension or constriction, but it feels real. And because it feels real, I feel alive and plugged in. Previous to lying down to do this practice I was probably lost in the fug of my thoughts: dead and grey. BUt the vividness of my ribs hurting or a sore emotion in my heart space feels alive and 3D. 

And the third level is most beloved of all by me. Because the third level of the breath brings me into contact with the field of “pure awareness” as Reggie calls it. Other Buddhists find different words for it, ‘the unborn mind’ or ‘Rigpa’. The Quakers call it the ‘inner light’. Whatever you call it, it seems to be a universal and fundamental experience: the sense of Knowing. 

Not the thing that I know but the field of knowing that actually pervades my body, the room I’m in, other people’s bodies, the Universe, all the time. 

People don’t get it. Most fall asleep

I’m lying on the floor in St Mary’s, a church in Brighton, on a Thursday evening and for me this sense of pure awareness is very strong and very beautiful. But I’m aware that other people are not getting it. I’ve taught the practice over and over and I always find that afterwards people are perplexed and puzzled. They often fall asleep and don’t get beyond level one. But even when they are listening, my words are confusing to them. 

You can hear the practice I’m referring to (in it’s St Mary’s form) by clicking here.

It seems like my finger is all wrong. The moon is there, for sure, but I’m using the wrong finger perhaps?

Science is the prevailing paradigm of truth in Britain

One particular tack that might help is to point out before the practice that what we are cultivating here is what neuroscientists call interoception. 

Some people, especially those with a sceptical or atheistic bent, are often enchanted by scientific-speak. Since science is the prevailing paradigm of truth in our British culture and time, it feels less challenging to speak of interoception than ‘inner light’. 

All animals have the ability to know what’s going on inside them and outside them. It seems humans are unique in being able to ‘mentalise’ that knowing – but unfortunately we quickly stop knowing directly and only rely on what we remember from before. We sacrifice direct knowledge for the second-hand knowledge of our previous maps. 

Direct knowing is energetically cheap, fast and accurate.

The three levels of the breath is a practice that reminds us of how good we are at direct knowing. 

Direct knowing is, in fact, a much more accurate and efficient way of being. Rather than using the computationally-expensive and relatively slow process of scanning mental models of the world or our inner experience, we can just look there directly. It’s fast, it’s energetically cheap (thinking takes up a lot of blood sugar) and it’s accurate. 

We update our mental maps of ourselves and the world each time we sit and meditate. We tune in directly to our experience (sad, happy, angry, hungry, sexed-up, depressed) and know it from within. 

Are there tropical forests on the in-breath?

I teach other practices (weaving walking, for example) to tune into the direct experience of the world outside. But the three levels of the breath is a go-to practice for experiencing our inner reality more directly. 

Level one is the entrance. Tuning into kinetic movement of the body (ribs rising, collar bones sinking, muscles moving) is relatively easy. You can do it anywhere. These are the questions to ask yourself: “Where is my breath now – coming in or going out? How do I know I’m breathing? What body parts are moving ?”

Level two is the meat of the matter. What am I feeling today, really? What is the feeling-content of my breathing body in this moment? Is it black or dark-green? Does it hurt? If so: how? Is there a texural difference when I’m breathing in or breathing out? Do I get images of tropical forests on the in-breath? And is that a feeling of despair on the out-breath? Is my body like brick or is it like molten steel?

The lights go on. I become more and more aware.

On level two I’m interested in what is going on. And almost simultaneously, without my effort, the awake-aware quality of level three also arises. 

Level three’s field of awareness grows brighter and more noticeable the more I attend to level two. It’s being curious and differentiating things in my inner world that fuels the fire of awareness. The lights go on. I become more and more aware. 

Hey presto! The inner light is more established. Or from a scientific point-of-view, my interoception is markedly strengthened. 

Let me know how I’m doing…

Ultimately, a practice like ‘three levels of the breath’ only works when we do it. You might read these words and have a conceptual interest or understanding of the practice. BUt that’s very different from the vivid inner experience you will have if you do it. 

This is what fascinates me about the task of teaching meditation. 

I know that these practices really, really, really help. And I took a vow to help other people as much as I can and for as long as I can. So my task in a sense is to go on finding the words that can point at that moon. 

Let me know how I’m doing. I’m interested. 

You can hear the practice I’m referring to (in it’s St Mary’s form) by clicking here.

Get in touch

6 Comments

  • In my humble opinion,Alistair, nobody does it better. A great blog which I’m sure I will revisit often. I’m still struggling with “3” but I know I will get there with more practice.
    Patti X

  • Linda says:

    Words always fall short but your intention and presence count a great deal and communicate as much or more than words. Greatly appreciate your earnest and honest teachings

  • Trudy Morrison says:

    Such an interesting post, thank you, Alistair. This has long been something I struggle with – words, as gross instruments, used to explain the subtle experience.

    Your finger is always going to be YOUR finger. Your love of language shines through as you seek to craft your words into a vessel that will somehow convey your felt experience to a place of cognitive understanding – the students’ starting point. But, if we were able, we would all point at the moon differently because words are so damn fickle.

    I feel there is a tendency of teachers to adopt a common, “spiritual-speak” communication style that is altogether too pleased with itself. I often find myself rolling my eyes (I have such a long way to go!) and reading/listening to the words with a one, two, skip-a-few attitude. Armies, legions, of words that are given such little space to breathe that the meaning has no chance to transform and move into a place primed for the felt experience. This spiritual-speak invariably assumes the reader is already a native speaker. The beginner is left feeling stupid, frustrated and excluded.

    As students, we can only hope to find a teacher whose finger most closely resembles our own. Who uses and, more importantly, metabolises words in a similar way. We require simplicity, warmth and humour. We need the space between the words more than the words themselves.

    Your finger points directly at the moon, Alistair.

    • alistairappleton says:

      Hi Trudy. That’s very kind, I’m sure. But I wonder if the teacher’s finger does need to look like the student’s finger. I mean, do we have to use words that the student already knows? Or is it actually sometimes important to ‘shock/shake’ people by using unusual words? or irritating words?
      Or maybe, as Vicky suggests above, it’s much more about accepting that individual students are all at very different levels and that’s fine. Perhaps everything that is said with authenticity (or in my speak, from an embodied place) gets to the moon eventually?

  • Vicky says:

    Dear Alistair
    I am not sure what people have to experience first in order to get to the depth and subtlety you describe in relation to level 3
    People’s individual karmic and emotional obscurations present the obstacles.
    Throughout my years of teaching Mindfulness, the motivation and commitment of Participants is so varied, in comparison to those of students in a Dharma setting.
    I remember someone in a mindfulness group saying ‘I don’t think I have the vocabulary to describe what I am feeling ‘(at level 2 )
    I think It’s hard to give people the total Impact of all of ones own searching and teachings received. They have to do it for themselves, if it’s a spiritual quest they are on.
    Love and hugs Vicky P

    • alistairappleton says:

      Hi Vicky, that’s a very pertinent point. Of course, participants’ motivation and commitment make such a difference. Many of my students in Mindsprings are not really that aligned with Buddhism, and so sometimes the “Big Picture” might not be that interesting or useful. But nonetheless one of the good things I learned from Reggie is that, as a teacher, you should try and communicate the highest level, even if individuals might not get it immediately. He talked about “sign lineage” which is a teaching that exceeds the words. That way the seed (even just an aspirational seed) is out there.
      So, for example, level three might completely click for someone without any dharma explication. And, indeed, in their getting it, it confirms something for me as a teacher too…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

18 + 16 =