Saturday, March 27, 2010

Releasing Emotional Reactions – Method Three, Direct Awarness

Notes from a talk by Ken McLeod
Podcast available for downloading here

This method is from the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, known as Dzogchen or Mahamudra. In the Tibetan tradition, this method is shrouded in secrecy. Yet at the same time Ken found that lamas often found a way to slip these instructions into the first meeting with a student, though it may go right over the student’s head. (Ken translated for Kalu Rinpoche at many such meetings.)

In a sense, these instructions are “self-secret,” in that when you hear these instructions they don’t sound like very much, unless you already have some level of experience or understanding of context. Then they can truly open the door to you.

This was vividly illustrated to Ken during his 3-year retreat when the head of the Kagyu order came to visit and gave some teachings. His instructions felt powerful and intense, like being picked up by the back of your neck and thrown against the wall. And say, “Did you get it?” And then he would pick you up and throw you again. Although we were actually just sitting around. Later, I thought, what did he actually SAY? It could be boiled down to,  “Thoughts come, thoughts go.”

This is deep? I mean, of course, thoughts come and thoughts go. But how many of you are wrestling wth thoughts in meditation? Or think that thoughts come but don’t go? And yet, in that simple sentence, there is the key to freedom. A thought comes -- “I’m angry” -- and when that thought arises, frequently we don’t recognize it as a thought. It becomes a fact. So now, WE’RE ANGRY. And a lot of unhelpful things can unfold from that. If it is recognized as a thought, it comes, it goes. Just let it arise and do absolutely nothing. It wanders around and it goes.

So... thoughts come, thoughts go... is one of the doors to freedom IF you live it. It’s not enough to understand it intellectually.

So this method of practice is very much about living the direct experience of mind just as it is. The three traditions of this form of training are the Great Middle Way (Madhyamaka), the Great Seal (Mahamudra), and the Great Perfection (Dzogchen).

If you look in our chant booklets and see the Aspiration for Mahamudra prayer, you see these three approaches are characterized in one sentence each:
Free from mental constructions, it is called the great seal.
Free from extremes, it is called the great middle way.
Because everything is complete here, it is also called the great completion.
May I gain the confidence that, in understanding one, I know them all.
There’s a great deal of confusion rampant about these practices. You can't just do this practice alone. It is still necessary to generate goodness and clear away unwholesome actions. So many people get pointing out instructions and think they can “do Dzogchen” and don’t need any of that stuff.

The fact is, in order to practice with mind directly, you need to be pretty clear, and really have a pretty solid basis in resting attention and other things, such as assimilating death and karma deeply. In other words, you have to clear out a lot of the underbrush.

So I know that for some of you this is your first retreat experience, and I respect your courage and willingness to jump into something like this. But when you work with the techniques I’m going to describe today, you may find yourself a little bit lost in confusion. That’s fine, that happens to everybody.

My hope is that through our work you can get some appreciation for what the whole thing is really about, which now can help inform practice of resting in attention, resting with the breath.

In Buddhism, we have a wonderful array of approaches and practices. These methods are very powerful. Every effective method has its pitfall. And this is why it’s important to understand the method, the intention of the method, and one’s own intention, so these can all be in alignment. The truth is, some people work better with some practice than with others. We have notable examples of this in Tibetan history.

So we shouldn’t be concerned about getting the highest or most secret teaching, but to  seek out and practice a method that answers YOUR spiritual questions. It should be a method you can actually use.

Various Buddhist Approaches:

The observation of ethics leaves your mind clear. If you encounter a situation and you know what the right thing to do is, and it’s going to cost you something to do it, but you do it anyway, how long do you think about it afterwards? What if you don’t do it? This is the fundamental reason why ethics is important. It leaves the mind clear. However, the human tendency is to make a “thing” out of anything, so some people get really uptight about their own interpretation of “pure morality” and fall into a trap right there. We miss the actual point.

Another pitfall is we come up with a way of doing things and it becomes a formulaic approach to practice. It appears through Zen koans, the Tibetan graded path, and so on.

Then we have logic, reasoning, and philosophy. Being able to reason clearly and analyze things is very helpful for cutting through a lot of confusion, where we tend to wrap ourselves up in concept. But people make a “thing” out of it and we end up with horribly abstruse philosophies that are irrelevant to practice.

And then there’s the approach that everything can be solved through ritual. Ritual is a powerful method for training attention, but people make a “thing” out of it.

The same thing with behavior. I’ve run into a number of people who think if they can just behave the right way, everything will turn out the right way. The problem with this is figuring out what the right way to behave is.

Another approach is the use of symbol. They can be extraordinarily powerful by cutting through the operation of the intellect so that something can just happen. But making the symbol into a “thing” -- taking it as an object of worship or fixation -- misses the point.

Another very powerful technique is identification with an ideal. It’s a way of inspiring and evoking, coming from a deeper place. But once again, this can become a “thing” and induce a fixation.

Finally, there are energy transformation techniques, transforming the energies of the body into states of bliss or attention. The purpose of the energy is to drive attention so you can be more present, but people become fixated on blissing out.

These are all legitimate methods, but when they become an object of fixation, it works against what we are trying to do.

The key with the method we are exploring today is no fixation. Jamgon Kongtrul put it very succinctly when he said, “Where there is fixation, there is error.” So the technique we’re going to do today is about no fixation. And there’s only one way to do that... do absolutely nothing. Which is not as easy as it sounds, so I’m going to give you a method.

Ken attended a three-week retreat where the only meditation instruction was, “Go and do nothing.”

This is a five-step process for breaking up a reactive pattern.

1. Identify a reactive behavior and ask, “Why do I do this?”
You’ll have to ask why repeatedly.
“Because I’m angry with him.”
Why are you angry with him?
And you keep going.
“Why” questions are tricky.

Keep asking the question and at some point, you will say, “I don’t know.” You won’t know why you’re doing it. That’s the nature of reactive patterns. There’s no intention in reactive patterns; they’re just a reaction.

At that point, there’s going to be a feeling, right there. You may or may not be able to name it. It doesn’t matter. At first it will be there only fleetingly, and you’ll suppress it in the body or blank out.

But if you do it repeatedly, you’ll start to be able to recognize it.

2. You have this reactive behavior. Just imagine not doing it.
The reactive behavior exists in order to take you away from THAT feeling.
So when you imagine not doing it, that feeling will be there again.
Enter into the feeling completely.
BE the feeling. No separation whatsoever.
When you do this, you’ll find that the feeling is like a multicolored display, with threads and images and all kinds of facets. The first impulse will be to try to sort it out, understand it, explain it. Don’t do any of that. Just experience it.

Be in all the reactions – body, emotional, mental.

As you do this, the feeling will become more distinct and easier to identify because you’re progressively moving into a closer relationship with it.

3. Bring up the feeling deliberately.
Emotions don’t like this. They run and hide. So you evoke the feeling and it goes.
In order for the reactive pattern to work, you’re supposed to be asleep.
But if you’re at attention, it’s like, “NOPE!”
So you have to do it repeatedly.
At first it’s just a little flash.
Then sometime later, evoke it again.

Little by little, you’ll find you can evoke it at will.

Already, your relationship with this feeling has changed, significantly.
“You and me... this town’s not big enough for the two of us.”
It’s been running and hiding, and you tracked it down in the saloon and the brothel,
“We’re going to have this out”

4. Experience the world through the feeling, in awareness.
Don’t get lost in it.
But experience how the feeling presents the world to you.
This is very disturbing.
There may be times when you think, “They’re all out to get me.”
And at the same time, you know it isn’t true.

You’re actually seeing how the feeling projects a certain world. Relax in the movement of the emotion. (the world that the emotion projects)

When you can hold the feeling and the world it projects, you’re experiencing it but you’re not asleep in it, then:

5. Look at what experiences all of this — the feeling and the world.
Everything will go empty.
Because when you look at that, you see nothing. (STORY of teacher who asked three potential students to go away for a week and report back what color their mind is.)

Then... open to the totality of your experience.

You cut through the pattern of subject/object fixation and experience no separation from experience. So rest right there.

No separation = Emotion, emptiness, and what experiences are not different.

The emotion will continue to arise… continue to hold them all, emotion, experience, and what experiences it.

Ask the question, direct your attention, and rest in that shift. Don’t keep asking the question because that just churns up the mind.

The problem with this kind of instruction is that it all sounds – perhaps challenging – but neat. But when you do it, it’s NOT neat. It’s a mess.

This is a very profound method. It won’t work magically as soon as you try it. Each of these steps is likely to present its own challenge. And that’s what you work with.

At this level of practice, the instructions always sound very simple. Kalu Rinpoche: “Thoughts come, thoughts go. Look as soon as a thought arises, relax. When another thought arises, look, then relax.”

Much of our practice is about clearing stuff out of the way so that the simplicity of mind itself — which is our heritage and present in all of us — can simply express itself. Then things become quite natural.

Progress can be noticed when you see that in situations which formerly were difficult for you, you see directly what to do. As your practice matures, you’re able to do that, and it’s very natural... the obvious thing to do. As you move deeper, things become more and more natural. You don’t even notice it.

Chinese saying: When the shoe fits, you aren’t aware of it.

What you WILL notice is when you don’t know what to do or when your perception wasn’t accurate.

Trungpa: Dharma practice is one insult after another.

When you try this technique or any technique, you will run into bumps.

Each bump will point you to the right effort. For this reason, make very deep effort. But don’t fight experience either. Understanding how to do that is the mystery of practice.

The point is to break up a reactive pattern, which will take weeks or months.
You will know when it breaks up because the situations that triggered that reactive pattern won’t trigger it anymore. You’ll feel open and able to move in a way you couldn’t before.

If at any point everything suddenly opens up and falls away and you’re just there, then just rest right there.

What we do in practice is develop attention and momentum. Once there is some attention, increasingly whatever we encounter fuels the attention.

The key is to open wider and wider gaps between thoughts, between emotions, and between our perceptual framework. At some point these three will all line up and WHAM, we see directly.

Note: This method was also taught by Ken in an article which first appeared in Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2002, available here.