This reflection appeared in the newsletter on January 23rd, 2023.
Note: as usual, feel free to read the whole reflection or just skim through the bolded parts.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about meditation as a practice that helps me “fabricate” less. In today’s reflection, I’ll be breaking down this word, “fabricate,” and why it’s relevant for our meditation practice & our life.
For starters, the verb “to fabricate” usually means “to embellish, to lie, or to make something up.” In technical terms, like in metalwork, it means to create something from raw materials, like taking scraps of steel and molding them into a little buddha statue.
These two these definitions capture a certain sentiment — that “to fabricate” is to take a basic experience and add a bunch of things onto it.
Fabrications in Real Life
In Buddhist psychology, the word “sankhāra” could be clunkily translated as “that which fabricates or is fabricated.” But to go more to essence, it is the part of our mind that reacts; that takes some basic experience and adds a bunch on top.
Sankhāra is listed as one of the subtlest & deepest forms of stress/suffering, as when we look closely inside ourselves, we see there is something agitating about never being able to settle, and constantly reacting to things.
In more plain speak, imagine there is someone jackhammering right next to your house. As you sit indoors, you have a fairly neutral thought, “that sure sounds like a jackhammer,” followed by another thought, “wow that’s really loud.” In turn, you feel the mindstate/emotion of irritability, along with some unpleasant feelings in your chest, and an intention/impulse to drown out the sound with music.
In the above example, all the thoughts, mindstates/emotions, feelings, and intentions/impulses are “fabrications.” The basic human experience was just sound striking an eardrum, but your mind added in a whole bunch of extras on top.
For an advanced meditator, it’s completely possible to hear a jackhammer and have no inner reaction whatsoever — no fabrications added on top.
And, the idea of Buddhist Psychology is that it’s considerably more peaceful to just let the sound pass on through, rather than have a whole big inner process in reaction to it.
***for an interesting intersection of trauma study and Buddhist Psychology, trauma is essentially a “stuck fabrication,” like those unpleasant feelings in the chest described above that weren’t fully processed, felt, or allowed through.
Fabricating the Self
It’s easy to see how we “fabricate” in response to real-time experiences, like the sound of a jackhammer. However, a subtler, more deep-hitting fabrication is “the sense of self.”
For example, imagine you had twenty minutes between activities, so you decided to sit on the couch and do nothing in particular, perhaps just gaze at the wall.
On a basic level, your experience is just a flow of passing sounds, sights, and sensations. However, within seconds, the mind is likely to “fabricate” a story of “you” on top of that experience.
Those fabrications might recall what you did yesterday and feel some regret about it, which could lead to a sinking feeling in your gut. Or perhaps they generate a feeling of “you” being bored, followed by impulses to fix that boredom by doing some activity, like pulling out your phone. Maybe they start rehearsing conversations with your boss, and on and on and on and on.
If you look closely, all of those thoughts, feelings, and impulses are extras added on top — they are “the sense of self” being superimposed onto the simple experience of sitting quietly on the couch. For an advanced meditator, it’s entirely possible to just sit on the couch in peaceful inner stillness for those twenty minutes.
To quote the great Tibetan Master, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, “If you could simply let go of that one thought of ‘I,’ you would find it easy to be free and free others too.”
And yet, the “fabrication” of I/me/mine/self is so deep hitting and so ubiquitous that it can at times feel almost unfathomable to imagine a few minutes without it, let alone a lifetime!
Some people just give up here, but when we keep looking, we discover two truths:
- Success isn’t all-or-nothing — it’s not you’re enlightened or you’re a lost cause; rather, even if after five minutes of rehearsing that conversation in your head, you realize it and then let it go rather than continuing, you’ve just saved yourself from 10, 20, or 30 minutes of mind-noise. The path forward is less, not none.
- The mind is trainable — through the dedicated practice of meditation, we train our minds to settle into the present and to fabricate less and less and less.
How to Train Your Mind
At some point of meditative practice, you start to notice that “fabrications” are a real thing, and also that when you do less of this reacting / generating inner noise, peace follows.
In turn, here are three classic trainings to “fabricate” less:
- The practice of non-feeding. While we could do this at any point of the day, the most common way to train non-feeding is practicing samatha meditation, where we focus on an anchor like the breath or body, and every time we get pulled off into our fabrications, at some point, we recognize it and gently re-orient to our anchor.
As we keep up this practice, we begin to realize much more quickly when we’ve gotten distracted; and, in turn, the more thousands of times we repeat this process of getting distracted and coming back to awareness, it gets easier and easier to stop feeding that juicy thought or strong emotional energy, and just come back to our anchor.
In other words, just a house plant will wither away if you stop watering it, fabrications will lose strength if you “feed” them less and less of your attention.
- The practice of seeing-through. While you do any wisdom or vipassana practice, one of my favorite ones is to use the metaphor of how awareness is like the sky, and all thoughts, feelings, impulses, and emotions are like pieces of weather temporarily passing through.
In other words, paired with a growing capacity to be present, we take on the lens of seeing all those “fabrications” of thoughts, emotions, and impulses as being just like empty clouds floating on through — nothing to get worked up over.
This practice doesn’t see fabrications as a problem — rather, it sees them just as another thing to mindfully observe, similar to observing the sound of a jackhammer or the feeling of the wind without reaction.
- Inclining your mind to stillness and contentment. As the Zen folks say, when eating just eat; when standing in line just stand in line; when conversing with someone just converse; and so on. Basically, watching the way you behaviorally add things on top of what’s happening, like reaching for your smartphone for the 8,000th time on the day, or always needing a little bit “more” to be satisfied.
To incline our minds this way is to choose a simpler mode of life, where we’re contented with what this moment holds and are a little suspicious of all the urges and drives to do-do-do-do-do.
If you take this reflection to heart, it won’t make you a bump on a log that just stares at the wall all day. To live a life, we need “fabrications,” like the intentions to go to work, care for our family, or to take time to meditate. We need to think about what groceries to get or how to manage our finances.
Likewise, it’s highly recommended to develop wholesome emotional fabrications, like joy, loving-kindness, gratitude and patience, among others. Even highly recommended deep states of meditative bliss are also considered “fabrications.”
However, if you look closely, you may notice that perhaps 98% of your inner dialogue is completely unnecessary, and a fair chunk of your emotional life revolves around a never-ending urge to correct.
In turn, we hold the following two instructions close to heart:
- Let go of all unnecessary and busy-making fabrications, like all that noise running through your mind all day long; instead, incline to stillness & contentment unless there is a good reason to do otherwise.
- Generate helpful fabrications, like useful thoughts, wholesome emotions, wise intentions, or meditative states.
In practice, this might look like ceasing to unwind with a mediocre TV show or a beer, and instead doing some art, meditating, exercising, chatting with a friend, or if nothing particularly important occurs to you, maybe just relaxing on the couch for a little bit with a quiet mind!
Similarly, this mode of being might actually mean doing a lot of similar things you already do, but with a stronger and more committed intention to being mindful all day long. In other words, you accomplish the tasks of your life, make a difference and nurture your relationships, but without all the extra fabrications added on top.
True peace is absolutely possible!