Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rest in the Nature of Alaya

There is a Buddhist meditation exercise that is translated as “resting in the nature of alaya,” or sometimes as “resting in unborn awareness.” The practice is relatively simple, though it does require a relaxed kind of precision. The experience of alaya is quite powerful—so much so that upon glimpsing it a novice may well imagine that he’s very nearly all the way to enlightenment. In reality, though, this is an instruction given to beginners, and arriving at a recognition of alaya only indicates an entry to more serious, fruitful path.

In the Buddhist psychological system, there are many types of consciousness—some schools list eight. There are the various consciousnesses of the physical senses, for example—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling. Then there is the consciousness of recognizing thoughts as they occur. And there is the consciousness that fully experiences the “waterfall”—the cacophony of all the other consciousnesses bumping off one another in cause-and-effect fashion. This seventh consciousness might be called an awareness of karma.

Behind all this, though, is a state of consciousness known as alaya, which is a “store” or “ground” consciousness out of which all the others are thought to originate. This is a state which makes no distinctions or judgments, but simply knows things as they are. It is non-dual awareness which makes no particular distinction between subject and object.

As anyone engaged in serious practice comes to understand, a lot of the focus and concentration practice—carefully following the breath in mediation, for example—is aimed at nothing more than bringing us to the preliminary recognition of alaya. You can practice for many years, hone your ability to focus intently on the breath, only to finally realize that you’ve reach a starting point where all this focus can be surrendered in order get to the real business at hand.

I’d like to say that after 30 years of meditation practice I rest in alaya all the time. This isn’t even remotely true, unfortunately. There are many meditation sessions where my jumpy mind never relaxes enough to rest there, and even during a very good meditation session, I may feel like no more than a few minutes of an hour session has really put me in this territory.

But even a few minutes resting in alaya can flavor your outlook for days to come. I will sometimes enjoy a full week of a remarkably peaceful and harmonious outlook on life after a good meditation session.

I think that everybody needs to develop their own means of courting alaya, but for me the process is something like this:

Once a basic breathing meditation has calmed and slowed the mind enough that I can easily recognize the various activities arising and falling there, I begin to pay attention to each and every instance where the mind judges or catalogs or distinguishes between this and that. I allow each of these value judgments to dissolve without clinging to them in any way. Gradually, as I stop gripping onto judgments of good or bad, desirable or undesirable, a consciousness of an entirely different form arises. My sense, when this arrives, is that I’m seeing things more as they truly are.

At first glance, you may dismiss the feeling as one of inner laziness, since there is utterly nothing to do, nothing to accomplish in any fashion. You are simply experiencing, and there is no goal whatsoever. However, there is also a laser-sharp clarity to this consciousness that is entirely unique. There is nothing drowsy about this state, at all, so you’ll recognize that it’s something entirely different. Your attachment to language, even, begins to be surrendered.

Occasionally, similes occur to me that indicate what my experience of alaya is like.

If consciousness is a sandy beach, alaya is present when the waves have erased all ripples in the sand, all footprints, all sand castles. Normal consciousness tightly defends footprints in the sand; alaya consciousness relaxes into the plasticity of sand.

If consciousness is an ocean, reaching alaya consciousness is to drift down beneath the turbulence of surface waves and foam, and dwell in the peace of the ocean depths, out of which waves come and go freely. It is, however, a kind of water which doesn’t drown you, but feeds your lungs.

And sometimes, peculiarly, I see alaya as vast, felt-covered billiards table. And rather than being obsessed and attached to the action of pool balls careening about in cause-and-effect geometry, I find it possible to rest in the background without concern for temporary things.

It is important, though, to understand that resting in alaya is just a practice in pursuit of the goal. It is not the goal itself.


sacred slut said...

What exactly is the point of this exercise? I hope that is part 2 of this post.

I just have to say that Buddhism leaves me cold, frankly.

Part of the problem is that they embrace doctrines (karma, reincarnation) that are completely unsupported by empirical evidence.

The other part is that it seems like an inordinate waste to sit around erasing consciousness, when, as fleeting as it is anyway, we ought to enjoy it as much as possible.

Also the whole enlightenment thing seems like a load of typical religious horse pucky.

Feel free to enlighten me, though. :)

Glamourpuss said...

Hmm, I kind of agree with the Sacred Slut to an extent. Personally, I think that fact we have incarnated is significant - we are in body, and so our challenge is to live in that body, to embrace the earthly experience and retain our divinity whilst living here. For that, Tantra is more my thing, and whilst I passionately value meditation, I struggle with much of Buddhism.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, I was really I was incredibly touched by the information you shared about alaya - I was looking for a good definition as I came across it in my studies - I have known this consciousness especially after a 28 day retreat I did a few months ago. I know this - and I truly benefited from your similes. Thank you so much

Future Doc said...

Things change when there is a practical application of Buddhist psychology. I entered a Ph.D. clinical psychology program (medical psychology track) and saw some fairly amazing things when Buddhist meditation techniques such as these were used in a biofeedback clinic in a hospital setting.

Patients with a crippling level of intractable pain, IBS, migraines, etc. felt considerable relief immediately. Most were healed within eight sessions

There is also the soothing aspect of retreating to this place during extreme times of stress, such as the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, a significant loss, etc. We all have a built-in resiliency that kicks in during these times but it takes time to recover and move on. Alaya (real or imagined) helps to get through it.

Thanks for the nice explanation.

Paul F. Stevenson said...

From sacred_slut's post: "Part of the problem is that they embrace doctrines (karma, reincarnation) that are completely unsupported by empirical evidence."

I agree somewhat with your issue. However, I am trying to keep an open mind (which is a handy thing in meditation).

Also from sacred_slut's post: "The other part is that it seems like an inordinate waste to sit around erasing consciousness, when, as fleeting as it is anyway, we ought to enjoy it as much as possible"
(And yes, this is not a beginner's practice, but with modifications can be.) Meditation is not about "erasing consciousness". (I don't think that is possible.) The "watching the mind" is more about learning and recognizing the true nature of mind and working from there. Who is watching? Awareness. Is Awareness part of the mind or what? You need to discover these things for yourself. Enjoy!