In “Ordinary People Can Get Enlightened” (BG 156) and “Unifying Developmental Enlightenment and Timeless Realization” (BG 157), Kenneth Folk shared his spiritual journey and practical path to enlightenment with Buddhist Geeks listeners. In the interview below, the long-time Theravada practitioner and meditation teacher introduces his “Yogi Toolbox”—a straightforward approach to satipatthana vipassana that doubles as an effective way to chart progress on the path. Folk was interviewed by Atlanta-based freelance writer Joel Groover.
“As long as there is someone to suffer, they will.” –Joseph Goldstein
Kenneth Folk: I have been thinking it would be fun to talk about the yogi’s toolbox. The yogi’s toolbox is consistent with the idea that it is good to be dynamic in your practice. It is consistent with the Three-Speed Transmission that you should do whatever practice is appropriate in that particular moment. So one thing I tell people is that one of the techniques—there is kind of a meta-technique that you have to learn, and that is to know what to do in any given moment.
One of the metaphors I use is to imagine that there is a peanut in its shell floating on the surface of a bucket of water. And your task is to touch the peanut with your finger to maintain contact with it. If you push too hard, your finger just rolls off and you lose contact. If you don’t apply enough effort, you may never contact the peanut in the first place.
And to make it even more realistic, if you introduce some waves into the water, then you realize that this is a very dynamic process. It is constantly changing and if you are not allowing any flexibility of mind, your mind does not make contact with the object.
So one of the things we’re talking about is actually just making contact with the objects of perception.
So for example if you are doing vipassana and following the rise and fall of the abdomen, there is a certain amount of effort required to make contact and to identify whatever is happening. In this moment I can say there is pressure and there is tightness, softness, warmth.
In order for me to know that, to be able to answer the question “what is happening?” I have to apply the right amount of pressure of mind, as it were. So all of this goes together with the idea of the yogi toolbox. You have a whole arsenal that you are going to use as appropriate, and the yogi toolbox also lines up with a way of diagnosing—it is a way for me to diagnose where a yogi is in their practice. And it is a way for a yogi to diagnose himself or herself, once they understand how to do this.
So what I would like to do is model for you how this works, layer by layer, and ask you to give it back to me so we can find out what is going on with you, and then you will understand the process.
Joel Groover: OK.
KF: So the first thing I want to find out is whether I’m embedded in the most basic level of mind, which is body sensation. This is the first foundation of mindfulness that the Buddha taught. So I’m going to find out if I’m embedded. I know that if I can objectify the object–if I can kind of stand apart from it and look at it and say, “Oh look, there is the object,” then I’m not embedded. By definition, if I can look at it, it is not “I”.
So I am looking at body sensations right now and I’m going to report to you in real time: tension… pressure… warmth… heat… coolness… release… tension… release… coolness… pressure… pulsing… release. Notice that I’m slowing down a bit as we go. I’m kind of sinking into this, finding a groove with it.
JG: Are you looking at whatever bodily sensations are predominant, or is it like a full scan of all sensations?
KF: It is kind of both. I’m looking at the body as a whole and whatever jumps out at me is what I’m noticing. Now, if I were not quite sure what to look at then I would just look at the rise and fall of the abdomen and find sensations there. And some of the sensations I reported to you just now were from the abdomen.
OK, so now can you give that back to me?
JG: Pressure… touching… warmth… pressure. [Pauses of a few seconds between each label.] I have the sensations and I can have a sense of objectifying them, but I’m struggling with how to label them…
KF: Sure, and that is part of the training–just developing that vocabulary of labeling. But we see that you’re able to identify pressure and warmth and so we know that you’re not embedded at that level of mind, at least not in the moment that you are doing that.
JG: So it is that basic. It is, “Are you able to stand apart from physical sensations and see that sensate phenomena are not me?”
KF: That’s right, and we already know the answer to, “Are you able to see that it is not you?” That’s because it is not a conceptual thing. It is not like I’ve got to ponder whether it is “not me.” I know it is not me. Even if I do not understand the concept, if I can stand here and look at sensations “over there,” so to speak—-another way of saying it is that if I can label it, then ipso facto it is not me.
So it is not an intellectual exercise at all. If I were never introduced to the concept of the Three Characteristics, or if I did not have any Buddhist theory at all, if I could just say pressure, tightness, release, softness, warmth, I am dis-embedded in the moment of saying that. There is no way to label it without momentarily dis-embedding from it.
So now that we know we’re not embedded at that first level of body sensations, we are going to try the next level and see if we are embedded there.
So the next level is, in the Pali language, vedana, and it is usually translated as “feeling-tone.” This is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. So I’ll look at the sensations again but I will identify which feeling tone goes along with the sensation. This could be a sensation anywhere in the body. It doesn’t matter which sensation I’m reporting on, and you won’t know as I report, but I will report. So here I go: Pleasant… unpleasant… pleasant… pleasant… unpleasant… neutral… unpleasant… pleasant.
Now, we’re not trying to get to a time when everything is pleasant. That is completely impossible. We are taught by the Buddha that our birthright as humans is to have pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences throughout our life—enlightened or not, buddha or not, that is just what it means to be human. So we are not trying to do anything with it. We are just trying to objectify it.
If I am looking at it, it is not “I”, so I know I’m not embedded there. If you could give that back to me…
JG: Sure. Unpleasant… neutral… neutral… unpleasant… pleasant… pleasant… pleasant… neutral.
KF: Good. Now you had no trouble with that. That came trippingly off the tongue. That was easy.
JG: Yes, because I was not trying to go the next step and figure out the right way to label it.
KF: Good. So we know you’re not embedded at that layer. But if we ask ourselves, “Well, what happens each time I dis-embed and objectify one layer?” I’m actually being kicked upstairs to the next, presumably. And so my sense of “I”, this apparent sense of I, is probably just hiding in a more subtle level as we go up this… kind of climb the ladder of the strata of mind to ever more subtle levels. So we are just going to keep on going up the ladder and checking at each level until we find where it is difficult, if it does become difficult.
Now this is similar to a kind of evaluation that we give to children at school who are trying to learn—these are kids who are not native speakers of English. If we want to see how much English they know, then we start out by asking them questions we are pretty sure they can answer and we just ratchet up the difficulty each time. Eventually we get to a point where the child cannot answer the question. Now we have learned something very valuable: we know what the level of English proficiency is: it is somewhere in between the last thing they were easily able to answer and the one that they cannot answer.
So we get valuable information from this diagnostic tool. So we are going to kick it up to the next level, the next stratum of mind, and we are going to look at mind states. A mind state could be identified as the mental component of an emotion. Shinzen Young has pointed out that an emotion can be broken down into “something in the mind” along with “something in the body”—body sensations. One of the things going on in the mind is its ability to know what the emotion is.
JG: So just real quick. In that last situation there, I felt a little bit on the spot and nervous that I might not do it right. So one of the bodily sensations that I noticed was those nerves, which I labeled as unpleasant. Was that actually a mind state? Or I guess you’d say that was a physical…
KF: Well, all of that is happening at once. But we are just arbitrarily singling out one thing at a time to label just for the purposes of diagnosis. But as you say, you felt nervousness or anxiety. Well that is what we are going to look at now. And we will find out that these things actually change quickly.
So I will model this: curiosity, joy, investigation, confusion, amusement, dullness, sleepiness, amusement, joy, annoyance, dullness, investigation, curiosity, investigation, wonder, happiness, frustration, happiness, dullness. [identifies emotion changes rapidly, with about one label per second]
So we see how quickly these things change. What happens—usually if somebody asks you what your mind state is, if you’re not looking carefully you might say, “Oh, I’m sad. I have been sad all day.”
Well, actually that is not true. There might have been a lot of sadness, but there was probably almost the entire gamut or spectrum of emotions changing every few seconds. You just didn’t notice it. So that happens because we are embedded at that level. So give that back to me and see how easily that comes to you.
JG: OK. Let’s see. Interest… spaciousness… calm… nervousness… dullness… interest… investigation… investigation… spaciousness… [NOTE: pauses of a few seconds between each label, has trouble identifying and noting emotion changes]
Should I try a little more of that?
KF: Try a little more.
JG: Investigation… calm… amusement… amusement… curiosity… anxious/nervousness. [labeling proceeds somewhat faster]
KF: OK, so you have got quite a range there. You have got the anxiety, the nervousness, the happiness and curiosity. Good. We know that you’re not embedded there. What we do not know is exactly what level of competence you have there. And so let me introduce a concept for understanding competence. This is a concept from teaching and learning theory.
We can divide this up into four levels of competence. It begins with unconscious incompetence: “I’m doing it wrong but I don’t even know that I am doing it wrong.” That is the first level. The second level is conscious incompetence: “I know I’m doing it wrong, but I can’t do anything about it.” The third level is conscious competence: “If I really focus on it, I can do it right.” The fourth level is unconscious competence: “It is such a habit to do it right that I don’t even have to think about it; it just automatically happens.”
So if you think about this in terms of being embedded in your experience, the ideal is that it is just a habit to not be embedded—you automatically objectify everything that arises in the field of experience and therefore you are free all the time. Below that is the level of conscious competence—if you work at it and you pay attention and you keep reminding yourself to do it, you can.
That is a lot of what goes on in practice. So most of your days and months and years and decades of practice will be spent cultivating at that level—“I can be awake if I remember to be awake.” Now we saw that with you. You are able to… we know that you are at, at least, that level [of conscious competence]. When you pay attention and make the effort, you’re able to not be embedded in those three layers that we looked at so far.
So let’s look at the next layer, which is subtle mind objects. For example, thoughts. This is a very interesting layer, a very important layer because it is absolutely routine for us to be embedded in the layer of thoughts. Of course we think we are our thoughts. We spend the entire day being our thoughts and so it turns out to be this remarkable, precious vacation anytime you can dis-embed from your thoughts.
And there are a couple of ways to check for this. One of them is to kind of challenge your thoughts, as though you were talking to someone else. So you say, “Speak! I’m listening.” And you just watch. “What do you have to say, thoughts? I’m listening.”
A remarkable thing often happens. Your thoughts might not have much to say in that moment because you have objectified them and then there is this sense of “here I am looking at my thoughts, looking for my thoughts and they are not arising,” which in itself may be a thought. So you’re going to want to objectify that, too.
There is another variation on that theme, which is to say, “I wonder what my next thought will be?” And then you watch your mind the way a cat watches a mouse hole. Just to see if you can catch the moment that the mouse pops its head out of the hole-—the moment that the thought appears. “I wonder what my next thought will be?”
Now when you do that, what happens?
JG: Well, it is just as you say. The thoughts are wispier. They probably are there, but there is not a big vocalization because the paying attention seems to make thought fade somehow.
KF: It does often seem that way. Now it is also possible to watch thoughts come and go and let them continue to do whatever they do. There might even be a story going on and it continues, but you can still watch it. As long as those thoughts are objectified, you are not embedded. You’re good to go.
So there is another way that we can verify this in real time, and that is using a noting technique, which can be somewhat challenging just because you might not have the vocabulary to do it yet. But it goes like this. I will model it: Planning thoughts … remembering thoughts… thoughts of imagery… remembering thoughts… worrying thoughts… imagery… investigating thoughts… remembering thoughts… storytelling thoughts… remembering thoughts… coaching thoughts.
OK, Joel. Try that.
JG: [long pause]: Performance thoughts… performance thoughts… noticing thoughts… investigating thoughts… performance thoughts… investigating thoughts. [Does technique haltingly]
KF: Is there any planning or remembering or imagery? Any future-izing or past-izing?
JG: There are a tornado sirens going off in my neighborhood, so I guess hearing thoughts, noticing thoughts.
KF: You are probably visualizing what it looks like.
JG: Visual thoughts, yeah.
KF: Now as a diagnostic tool, that particular exercise is best when you’re not doing it for the first time because it does takes learning the vocabulary of objectifying thoughts. It is not entirely clear from what we have just heard whether you are embedded in that layer or not. Use your judgment on that.
JG: My sense was maybe I am embedded there because there … well, what I would say is I was having trouble finding the thoughts. It seemed to be very spacious and quiet, like I could not find planning or remembering thoughts, for example. But when you said “Image, what about image thoughts?” I realized, yes, there had been—I had actually pictured the sirens, but I had not noticed that. Is that evidence of being embedded, I guess?
KF: Yeah. That is a useful data point for us. OK. Now, let’s go up to the next level and do an exercise meant to dis-embed ourselves from the next level. This is an exercise that I have been calling, “See how it walks.” Just because when I first discovered it, I would mostly do it during walking meditation. This is an exercise where you look at all of the things that we have looked at so far and label them with a little bit of an added twist. We are going to pull back just one bit more and dis-identify from our experience with this phrase “See how it…”
I will model it now: “See how it sits. See how it feels pressure. See how it feels warmth. See how it thinks. See how it listens. See how it hears. See how it feels coolness. See how it feels joy. See how it feels excitement. See how it feels coolness. See how it sits. See how it feels pressure.”
So that is incorporating everything we have done so far, plus that extra little bit of pulling back—as though you’re looking down from on high at this odd creature that I would habitually think of as myself. But from that point of view, from the point of view of that exercise, it is not me. It is “it.” Ha ha. Look at it over there doing what it does.
Now, one of my dharma friends, AugustLeo, has dubbed this practice “the bystander,” which I think is a wonderful term. So I have begun using that terminology as well.
JG: I’m thinking of, there is a point in Monica’s case study where there seemed to be three things present: space, Monica, and then this bystander. So I’m familiar with that sense. I’ve had that at times.
KF: Let’s have you do “the bystander”: “See how it…”
JG: See how it feels pressure. See how it feels interest. See how it is looking. See how it is investigating. See how it feels self-conscious…
KF: Make sure you have your posture. It is similar to one of the suttas of the Pali canon where the Buddha says, “When the yogi is taking a deep breath or a long breath, he knows he is taking a deep breath or a long breath. When he is standing, he knows he is standing. When he is sitting, he knows he is sitting.”
JG: See how it sits. See how it feels pressure. See how it breathes. See how talks. See how it investigates.
KF: Good. Now see if you can cycle through all of those things that we have done so far. So we’ve got body sensations, feeling tone, mind states, subtle mind objects like thoughts, and then posture, etc.
JG: See how it feels pressure. See how it feels neutral. See how it feels interest. See how it investigates. See how it sits. See how it feels pressure. See how it feels unpleasant sensations.
KF: OK, this is great. So we are systematically dis-embedding. This is all part of the yogi toolbox. Once the yogi knows these techniques, he or she can apply them all day long and stay dis-embedded. Because of the nature of the exercise, you know that you are at least at the level of conscious competence, the third of the four levels of competence, anytime you’re doing it. You are proving it. This is real-time feedback that you are doing it right. And this is so important because yogis are constantly second-guessing themselves. “Am I doing it right? Am I making the most efficient use of my practice time?”
JG: That was the next thing I was going to say, was about this inauthenticity that I felt at times. It was this combination of being on the spot and wanting to do it well and show that I was doing it well, but there was also this concern that I was not doing it well. So “just note it,” I guess. [laughs]
KF: Well, exactly. You see—and you just said it—those are all objects to be objectified. You just take them and put them in the grinder and grind them up. So if you feel the inauthenticity and recognize it as such, in that moment you’re absolutely dis-embedded.
JG: Yes. You see the unpleasant feeling tone of the inauthenticity thought, right? And the body sensation is there as well.
KF: What this makes me think of is that device on the back of the professor’s DeLorean in Back to the Future. It was like a food processor. You could put anything in it and it would become nuclear fuel to power this car. Well, this practice is the same. It does not matter what you put into it. It all becomes fuel for awakening. Every time you notice anything, it goes in the blender and comes out awake.
JG: Even really subtle stuff that seems somehow undermining you can just dis-embed from that.
KF: Absolutely. Every little thing, no matter how subtle. If you can see it, just turn it into fuel.
JG: This to me just sounds like true vipassana. This is what interested me in vipassana.
KF: Yes, this is vipassana. Everything we have done so far is looking at objects of the mind. We have actually taken the whole spectrum of objects from gross to subtle and right up through the level of “the bystander.” We are doing what I call First Gear. This is all vipassana, looking at objects.