Thursday, March 11, 2021

Threefold Training


I've been getting a lot of diagnosis questions (where on the path am I and what practice should I be doing?) and my suggestions are consistent enough that I feel I should try to write them down.
I view the classic Threefold Training as a basic guide to the different areas of practice. Most of the problems people describe to me boil down to them only doing two (or, more usually, one) style of practice and being confused why this isn't working. When they encounter problems that are specifically the domain of a different kind of practice, they instead believe that they aren't doing their one practice correctly or hard enough.

Disclaimer: My take on the threefold training is idiosyncratic by majority Buddhist standards. So take with a grain of salt. Also, I'm just some guy.

There are practices oriented towards unifying experiences. These are the traditional concentration/breath/jhana/samadhi/shamatha/brahmavihara (metta, etc.) meditations that some people know as the 'main' sort of meditation. I'll call these broadly 'concentration practices', though that word has connotations of a certain kind of efforting that is often a hindrance. But a concentrated mind state is their goal.

There are practices oriented towards picking apart experiences into their constituents to see how they work. These are things like noting/vipassana/pointing out/satipatthana/contemplation of dhamma factors (such as the three marks of existence, five hindrances, skandhas, etc.) I'll call these broadly 'insight practices' as having more insights is their goal.
There are practices oriented towards engaging with the contents of our experience such that we lead a more harmonious life. These look more like psychotherapy, good conduct, habit change, goal-practice coherence, relational/communication practices, somatic work etc. In other words, all the machinery that translates between on-cushion insights and day-to-day life. I'll call these broadly 'integration practices' as their goal is to integrate the nice sounding/feeling spiritual things into the concrete stuff of daily life such that less suffering actually occurs, both for yourself and others.

These three practice types lead into one another in a cycle. Concentrated mind states make the mind quiet and calm while at the same time much more capable of precision than normal. This is the perfect state in which to do insight practices. Insight practices stir up mundane 'stuff', the various things that are causing suffering in the first place. Integrating this psychological material cleans up the obstacles encountered in concentration practice, as it's built from the same mental movements. Concentration then becomes dramatically easier, and the cycle accelerates. This is more obvious on retreat.

Concentration-only typically leads to either getting nowhere and feeling stuck, and/or peak state chasing. Insight-only typically leads to stirring up trauma and not dealing with it, which eventually becomes pretty destabilizing. Integration-only typically leads to endless analysis and working on oneself but never really getting to big shifts. The problems with each of these is exactly antidoted by processes that occur in the other two.

This doesn't mean all of these are happening every sit. One might very well be focusing much more on one of them at any given time. But if things are not humming along, it is a solid chance that it means one of the others needs to be brought up to speed.


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