There are two kinds of people in this world: those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don't. (—Robert Benchley)
During my many travels through Burma I happened to meet a well-educated man who was a very devout Buddhist, and also very superstitious—the altar in his house was lavishly furnished, and rather like a small museum of Burmese supernaturalism. He was one of the few people I have met who still offered coconuts to Min Mahagiri, or "Lord of the Great Mountain," one of the chief deities in the Burmese "nat cult," an indigenous polytheistic paganism that predates the Burmese people's conversion to Theravada Buddhism many centuries ago. Pictures of wizard alchemists were also on his altar.
He was, as I said, very devout, knew his chants and scriptures, visited and supported monasteries and saintly old monks, and had himself been temporarily ordained many times—yet, even so, he was quite a rascal. He told lies like some children do, i.e. without any obvious reason, and with no apparent gain to be derived from it. And his conduct with women was notorious. I once heard him tell an obvious lie to an old sayadaw that he himself considered to be an arahant, an enlightened being; and he fibbed to me sometimes too, even though at the time considering me to be "at least a sakadagami," i.e. a being at least at the second stage of sainthood. (I'm really not complaining here; I liked the man well enough, and we got along well together. It's just that the strange combination of intense devotion and chronic rascality strikes me as very interesting. I like paradoxes. I write of him, bless his heart, as an anonymous anthropological case history. Let's call him Joe.)
One hint at an explanation of this paradoxical man came from the fact that when he would speak of religion his voice would often take on a peculiar sing-song intonation, almost as though he had a separate personality for dealing with religious matters. He reminded me of a Christian televangelist I would occasionally see on TV back in the 80's who apparently could not say the name Jesus with an ordinary tone of voice: it always came out sounding like "Jeee-ZUSSsss!"
My Burmese acquaintance is nowhere near to being an isolated case, as many religious people are similar, and many veteran meditators also are similar. There are some meditators out there, and I've met a few, who can sit like a rock in the full lotus position for three hours without moving, but when they get up and start moving around they're just as messed up as they were before. It seems that, for some people, practicing meditation has the sole effect of making them good meditators. They may even cultivate deep trance states, but it doesn't carry over very well into their everyday lives. At least they're staying out of trouble while they're sitting there like statues.
My theory to account for this phenomenon is that we humans tend to compartmentalize different kinds of information in our heads, as though under different subject headings, in different categories; thus a Religion compartment in one part of the mind, a Work compartment in another part, a Family compartment in yet another, and so on, and each of these compartments may have its own set of attitudes and outlooks on life. And some people have compartments that are quite isolated from each other, not well integrated. For example, some people's Religion and Science compartments are not on speaking terms at all.
Extreme cases of highly quarantined Spirituality compartments might be found in certain psychics and channelers. A very talented psychic may be just as psychologically messed up as the average person—maybe even much more so—yet still have somehow an isolated hole or window through their psyche opening out onto the infinite possibilities on the other side of consciousness. A channeler may divulge very profound, even enlightened, information while channeling some personality or other, yet be so dissociated from it that she or he remembers none of it after coming out of trance. According to my father, his second wife (not my mother) was an extremely talented psychic and channeler who easily could enter trances so deep that he pulse and breath would almost stop, and while in trance she could write in foreign languages she had never learned and even open and close doors without touching them—yet, also according to my father, she was a hardcore alcoholic with the sexual morals of an alley cat. My father, who was somewhat of an authority on such matters, used to say that the very best psychics are often women who are extraordinarily devoid of moral scruples, which may be one reason why witches have acquired such a bad reputation throughout history. But I digress.
At the other extreme of the spectrum are people more like me, who have different categories of knowledge filed away, but who have these various categories relatively well-integrated with each other. Thus we tend to be more hard-headed, more rational and less emotional, more "scientific" and less "artistic," and rather less likely to hold mutually conflicting belief systems—and if we do hold them, we're more likely to be aware of it, and to be bothered by this fact. When we meditate we don't just slip into "meditation mode," but have to bring all the baggage of our psyche with us, and thus meditation may seem much harder for us, and we may seem to make slower, much less dramatic progress.
The two orientations may be loosely compared, if you will humor me, to breeding cocker spaniels. Long ago my father ran a dog kennel and bred pedigreed cocker spaniels. At that time a pure white cocker spaniel did not yet exist, so whoever came up with the first one was liable to make a lot of money. He figured there were two possible ways of going about it: to start with cream-colored cocker spaniels (which already existed) and selectively cross the palest ones till one finally arrived at white; or, to start with white ones with dark spots (which also already existed) and selectively cross the ones with the fewest and smallest spots until only the white remained. He adopted the cream strategy, but later figured he should have gone with the smaller spots strategy. He failed to generate a pure white cocker spaniel.
Another possible analogy involves the digging of basements. It may be observed that there are two main ways of digging a basement: digging it down evenly, level by level; or digging all the way down in one place and then widening the hole. Although one method for producing a white cocker spaniel may have been more effective than the other, in the case of digging a basement it is pretty clear that either approach will work just as well. The method we choose is a matter of personal temperament.
Similarly, in Dhamma practice, either of the two psychological orientations, relatively compartmentalized or relatively integrated, may work as an approach to enlightenment. The compartmentalized approach, corresponding to the "smaller holes strategy" or the method of digging all the way down and then widening the hole, seems to be more in tune with samatha practice, and may work better for people who are relatively artistic and faith-oriented. The integrated approach, corresponding to the "cream strategy" or the even, level-by-level basement, seems more conducive to vipassana, and easier for those who are more reason-oriented. Theravada teaches that one should practice samatha and vipassana, and have a balance of both faith and reason, but still, different temperaments will tend to lean more one way than the other, to have different emphases. Although the compartmentalized orientation or temperament appears more conducive to Buddhist samatha practice, in actuality, in America, people of this tendency appear more likely to gravitate toward New Age spirituality, with the hard-headed integrated reason-orienters generally preferring vipassana, and with not a whole lot of Theravadin samatha practice going on.
Since either orientation may be conducive to Enlightenment, it is a good idea to Know Thyself and discern which, if either, personality type you naturally have, and adopt a practice that is most harmonious with it. One may find that one is naturally drawn to a suitable method—it simply feels Right. A hard-headed philosopher struggling to cultivate jhāna may spend his or her time more profitably by working on basic, unbroken mindfulness, while a person who easily slips into meditation mode may attain jhāna quickly, and then use that as an aid in cultivating insight.
Each orientation has its own peculiar difficulties. One big difficulty for samatha meditators is widening the hole. Simply meditating more is insufficient, as one cannot be sitting in meditation always. One relatively straightforward way of succeeding, if one is practicing ānāpāna or mantra meditation, would be to cultivate unbroken awareness of the breath, or unbroken mantra, no matter what one is doing throughout the course of the day. On the other hand, a major difficulty for the hard-heads doing vipassana is that, since they drag their whole personality into the meditation, a hectic, stressful lifestyle may effectively shoot progress in the foot. Only by living a meditative life is one's meditation likely to really soar. This is one reason why so few Westerners, even so few Western vipassana teachers, ever progress much beyond an elementary level of vipassana practice—they are chronically immersed in a lifestyle that prevents their whole mind from enjoying deep clarity. (Hence the value of renunciation for us hard-heads. By far the best meditation I've ever experienced was when I was living alone in a cave.) It appears that many who do appear to experience much advancement in vipassana are actually of the compartmentalized type, and make great progress in their "Vipassana compartment" with not much integration with the other compartments. Many meditators who consider themselves to be Ariyas would fit this description.
Ultimately, everything applies to Dhamma. It's good to bear that in mind.
However…it is also good to consider that neither path goes all the way to Nibbāna; no approach leads all the way to a white cocker spaniel. All paths, approaches, orientations, methods, and strategies are samsaric, and within the context of Samsara the First Noble Truth rules: Nothing is perfect. As the saying goes, no matter how many times you sweep the floor, some dust will remain. A path cannot lead right up to the threshold of Nibbāna because Nibbāna and Samsara are at two radically different levels of reality, absolute and relative. It's like a character in a novel striving to escape from the context of the story and to enter the Real World. No matter how we go about it, there is no small, final step through a doorway and into Enlightenment; there will ultimately be an infinite jump, a leap from the ten thousand things of this world to the non-dualistic Absolute. There is no clearly defined end of the Path, no final cliff-edge that everyone who reaches it must jump from. So we can make the infinite leap out of the "novel" from any point along the Path. Some apparently make the leap relatively early on, maybe even before they are aware of being on a spiritual path at all, while others, like some highly advanced Hindu swamis, keep traveling further and further down the Path, becoming more and more pure, breeding a cocker spaniel that is paler and paler or with smaller and smaller spots, without ever quite making the leap—very highly advanced saints that they obviously are.
One major reason why we don't make the leap is that we don't want to. We want to stay comfortably asleep, without having to accept so much responsibility over our spirit and our conduct. Another major reason is that we believe that we can't do it; we don't even realize that it is an ever-present option.
So beware of your own negative and/or limiting beliefs, as they condition the world you live in. If you think, "This is difficult," it reinforces the difficulty of whatever it is. If you think, "That person is bad," it reinforces that person's badness, at least in your world. If you think, "I can't do it," it reinforces your inability to do it. Every thought and feeling we believe creates karma which conditions our reality. Even if you can't help but have negative thoughts and feelings about the situation you've been in, it's a good practice to keep the negativity behind you, and the present moment open for something new: "OK, I've been limited and underdeveloped in the past, but anything is possible now." Really, anything is possible now, if we let it be possible.
Joshu asked Nansen: "What is the path?"
Nansen said: "Everyday life is the path."
Joshu asked: "Can it be studied?"
Nansen said: "If you try to study, you will be far away from it."
Joshu asked: "If I do not study, how can I know it is the path?"
Nansen said: "The path does not belong to the perception world, neither does it belong to the nonperception world. Cognition is a delusion and noncognition is senseless. If you want to reach the true path beyond doubt, place yourself in the same freedom as sky. You name it neither good nor not good."
At these words Joshu was enlightened.
(—translated by Nyogen Senzaki, in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps (Anchor Books, 1989))
(The reader may have noticed that I deliberately avoided identifying the opposite of hard-heads as "soft-heads," because it sounds too negative and rude. There, you see, I'm learning!)