You can’t wake up by being a nice personDownload
The need for ruthlessness with patterns; using mortality as motivation; attention, intention, and will; the four steps to undoing reactive patterns; ways of working with patterns
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Well, I suppose the short version of this morning’s talk is you can’t wake up by being a nice person. [Laughter]
Student: Does it help though?
Ken: No, it doesn’t. It gets in the way.
The origin of the word nice—I’m not a hundred percent sure of this, but it’s one of the ethnological lines that I’ve come across—is from nescius, nescire in Latin, which is the verb to ignore. The original meaning of nice in English was to be clever, to cheat.
Ken: Yes. That was a nice trick.
Ken: That’s the old Shakespearean usage. He’s a nice chap, meaning he was a little too clever and you couldn’t trust him.
How it came to mean more or less what it does today, I’m not quite sure. But its original meaning, as far as I know, is to ignore. But even taking into consideration, its common meaning today, which is an agreeable person—nice means agreeable, pleasant, so forth—it doesn’t work when you’re trying to wake up. And the reason, very simply, is that you’re gonna have to deal with a lot of disagreeable things. And none of my teachers were nice people. They really weren’t.
Student: Were they kind people?
Ken: When it was appropriate. Rinpoche became more and more demanding the closer you got to him.
His own teacher was an interesting guy, Ngawang Lekpa—no, not Ngawang Lekpa—Lama Norbu [Drupon Norbu Dondrup]. This guy had phenomenal clarity. He was a teacher of the three-year retreat. That’s where Rinpoche did his three-year retreat. And when he met with them in the morning, he would say, “Well, you were dreaming about this, and you were dreaming about this, and you were dreaming about this.”
But if you weren’t in your cell to practice meditation when the gong rang, he would stand up on top of the roofs of the retreat centers, which is very much like the pueblos in the Southwest, and would say, “So-and-so is now entering his cell to practice meditation.” And if you didn’t get the message, then he’d hang you up by your thumbs for a day. Yeah. Is this a nice person?
Student: Is it because it creates conflict inside you, creates [unclear]?
Ken: Well, my point here is simply this. If you want to wake up, you have to be ruthless with your patterns. As soon as you start negotiating with patterns, they’ve won. That’s it. You have to be completely and utterly ruthless. And I love the word ruthless, you know. You know what ruth means? You never hear of ruth used anymore. It means pity.
Ken: Yeah. Ruthless means pitiless. But you never hear anybody talking about ruth, you know. I don’t know what happened to ruth, but we still have ruthless. Someone’s looking for her somewhere.
Scott: Apropos…because I was thinking about this thing, what is this [unclear], and I came back from a walk, and I came up with this haiku for Ken McLeod.
Student: Oh my god.
Ken: [Laughs] Do I run now or later?
Scott: No, no, no…
Gleaming dragon teeth
Buddhas sleep with open eyes
Batteries for breakfast.
Ken: That’s not bad. I like that. Thank you.
Ken: Okay. This may or may not be apparent to you, but the way that I wrote this book is actually very faithful to how Tibetan Buddhism is organized.
And in one sense we’ve left out a step, which caused some problems in the way that people were practicing and thinking about things. After you developed some basic attention that you need to do, the next step is to come to some understanding, some emotional understanding of your own mortality.
(Can I get some water, please?)
Now, the reason for this is that it’s by understanding our own mortality—that we are going to die—that we separate from the conventional notions of success and failure. The conventional notions of success and failure are what society relies on to propagate itself, and of course, conditions its people as much as possible in those values so that society continues. This is why I said earlier that Buddhism is asocial.
When you understand deeply that you are going to die, then you realize that, in the end, your life has no meaning other than to you.
Student: No meaning other than…?
Ken: To you.
Student: Well, then what’s the meaning of [unclear].
Ken: Yeah. It’s your life, in other words. It’s not anybody else’s. And it’s the only life you’ll know. I mean, whether you ascribe to past lives or future lives doesn’t make any difference, because whoever you’re born as, it’s a different person; it’s going to be a different life. This is the only life you will know. So that changes a few things. And as I pointed out earlier in our time together, what is this life? This life consists of precisely what we experience. And what we experience are thoughts, feelings, and sensations. That’s it.
Now, you know that this is your life and you know what life is. The question is, do you actually experience it? And the answer for most of us is most of the time we don’t. We’re somewhere else, caught up in something or other. We aren’t actually experiencing what is right now. And the reason is that we are swallowed or taken over by reactive patterns.
So now the next question is, well, who gets to live your life? You or your reactive patterns? And that’s the topic we’ve been working with. And one of the better movies to understand the nature of reactive patterns is the first Terminator movie. You like that? It just keeps going. It’s like the Energizer Bunny.
Reactive patterns, as I’ve said, have only one function: to dissipate attention. If you want to experience your life, then, as some of you’ve experienced—and I know I’ve talked with you in the interviews—you have to reclaim your experience from the reactive patterns that are eating it up. There is no compromise.
Now, one of the aspects of people’s practice I run into again and again and again is a certain kind of passivity.
Ken: Passivity. We’re all waiting for it to happen to us. What’s the line from Alexander Pope’s [An Essay on Man]—
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blest.
So as long as you think it’s going to happen to you, you’re going to be given something. It doesn’t really work that way. You have to be active agents in your own practice, and better yet, in your own life. This is far from easy. So to dismantle patterns requires attention, intention, and will.
Attention is the ability to be present—that’s a rough definition—and consists of mindfulness and awareness. Those of you who have studied the shamatha, you may know this is as mindfulness and alertness I can’t remember exactly the terms that Trungpa used in the seminary, but it has these two aspects. One is being with the object of attention, and the other is knowing what’s going on. This isn’t the big awareness. This is little awareness. It’s very important.
A rough analogy: You have a teaspoon full of water and you’re walking through a crowded room. There’s one quality of attention on the teaspoon, so you hold it steady, as simultaneously there’s another quality of attention which includes the whole room, so you know where everybody is so you don’t bump into anybody.
And we can all do this. But those two together comprise what we call active attention. Pattern functioning is the antithesis of that because there’s just a collapse.
Intention is the ability to direct attention. So it operates at the higher level. In Mahayana Buddhism, the first kind of bodhicitta is intention, the intention to awake in order to help others. That’s one example.
Will is the ability to direct intention. And again in the Mahayana, the second kind of bodhicitta, which is usually called bodhicitta of engagement, is an example of will.
Another way to think about will—and this is the link with not being passive, being active—is the willingness to use whatever arises in experience; your willingness to use whatever you encounter. So at the level of will, there are no obstacles: whatever arises, you have a use for.
Student: Can you build will?
Ken: Oh, yes, yeah. You build attention by keep coming back into attention. You build intention by directing your attention again and again. You build will by directing your intention again and again. So, yes.
And that’s precisely what we do in practice, until our practice starts to operate at the level of will. And then things start rolling along, because now we can use everything in our experience, if our intention is to wake up.
But you see how that translates as a kind of ruthlessness? Whatever there is. You know, somebody steals everything you own, including your identity. Well, that’s a real good place to wake up. You have nothing. Is it Uchiyama? Gain is illusion. Loss is enlightenment.
Several years ago, I was talking with a Buddhist teacher in another community. And the usual kind of disruptions had taken place, that a teacher changes direction and a whole group of people that were authorized to teach are suddenly disenfranchised. You know the kind of stuff that goes on.
Well, she was one of these. Not that she was de-authorized to teach, she just didn’t have the same standing in the community and everything had changed, and it’s all that disorientation. Anybody know any of this kind of stuff? Okay.
So we went for a long walk together. And I said, “Well, this is perfect.”
And she goes, “What do you mean, Ken?”
“Well, what are you experiencing right now?”
“I don’t know who I am. I don’t have any reference point. There’s nothing I can call home. Everything is just totally open.”
I said, “Well, that sounds pretty good.” [Laughs]
And she sort of looked at me, like, [Ken makes sound of disagreement] “Eh?”
But when you lose everything [Ken snaps fingers], you’re awake. Dogen said, “Mind and body drop off.” You know, if you think you’re gonna get something out of waking up, just forget it. You don’t get anything at all.
, you can actually use whatever experience arises to wake up. Those of you who studied The Seven Points of Mind Training will remember that there are many instructions in the seven points which say the same thing. When you encounter adversity, transform; when you encounter misfortune, transform adversity into the path of awakening. And then it goes through the various methods to do so.
When you transform confusion into the experience of the four kayas, for instance, that’s a deep method of doing it. It’s a kind of nice one.
Now, that sounds fine in theory.
Student: Yeah. [Laughter]
Ken: But when something untoward happens in your life, use it. That’s what the practice is about. And, very important, when something very favorable happens in your life, use it to wake up.
In the mahamudra tradition, there’s a certain point in practice which is called the fall. It’s when your attention and practice deepens to the point that all kinds of things get stirred up.
Now, one of two things happens at this stage in your practice. Everything in your life suddenly goes really well. You know, people think you’re great, and they think you’re intelligent, and they want to come around and be with you, and they think you’re the most wonderful person in the world, and they give you lots of things, and they take care of you, etc., etc., etc. Or, everybody thinks you’re an idiot and they don’t want to have anything to do with you, and you get kicked out of whatever organizations or societies you belong to, and your wife leaves you, and everything like that. And the one’s called the good fall; the other’s called the bad fall.
But it’s very clear that in terms of practice, people have a much easier time working with a bad fall than they do with a good fall. Again, when things go good, we tend to go back to sleep.
So good or pleasant situations trigger just as many reactive patterns as unpleasant or painful situations. And please don’t understand or take what I’m saying to mean that you have to avoid pleasant experiences. That’s not very helpful at all. Just stay awake in them. Don’t be seduced by them. There’s bad dreams and good dreams, but they’re both dreams.
So to undo reactive patterns, there are four steps, which interestingly enough—this is the kind of thing I really like about Buddhism—are actually based or connected with the four noble truths.
Now, the four noble truths is actually a very old Indian medical model, which goes back way, way, way back in the Vedas. And the medical model is what is the illness, what is the cause of the illness, what is the cure, and how do you apply it. And this was adapted into the four noble truths. What is the problem? Suffering. What is the cause of the problem? Emotional reactivity. What is the solution? Nirvana, cessation. How do you do it? Noble eightfold path.
In the context that we’re talking about today, the four steps are: recognize—and if you’ll excuse my English, dis-identify, which is probably not a word, but…anybody got an actual English word for that?
Student: Are you saying to disconnect your personal identification?
Ken: Yes. Dis-identify. The four steps are recognize, dis-identify, develop a practice, and cut.
Student: Develop a practice and what?
Ken: Cut. Cut.
Student: What was the third one?
Ken: Develop a practice.
Student: Thank you.
Ken: Now, the first thing is to recognize reactive pattern. And we’ve talked about various ways to do that. The main one is when what you experience as result is consistently different from your intention, that usually indicates that there’s a reactive pattern operating somewhere in the mix.
But there are other ways. One of my favorites is, What you don’t notice, what you don’t question, what you can’t laugh about.
Student: Once more, Ken.
Ken: What you don’t notice, what you don’t question, what you don’t laugh about. Queen Victoria’s, “We are not amused.” [Laughter]
Student: I think she had a very strong identity.
Ken: Only just a little. So, those are very reliable.
Now, of course, what we don’t notice, you’re going to depend on somebody else, your teacher or friend, your spouse, to point out to you. And that’s very helpful.
But you can observe what you don’t question. You know, this is where your beliefs are, and where your assumptions about life…
Student: Excuse me. These are four steps to what?
Ken: These are four steps for the dissolution of patterns.
Student: Noble steps.
Ken: These are very… [Laughter]
Student: [Unclear] the four noble steps.
Ken: No. The four noble truths, they correlate with them. [Laughter] We’ll call these the four ignoble steps. [Laughter] Well, or we could call these the four serf steps, or something like that.
Student: Does that mean you have to question all the time? Lest it become belief?
Ken: It’s a path of practice. That’s one path, absolutely. In fact (excuse me), the teachers teach various things. In a group of teachers that I used to meet with, we posed a question: What do you actually teach? And one of my colleagues, he’s very good—he’s in Portland, Oregon—and what he teaches is the joy of wakefulness. I mean, he teaches traditional dharma, etc., but that’s really what he’s teaching.
And what I try to do is teach you how to know what is true by questioning.
Student: So…but you could say get rid of the doubt, say notice everything, question everything, and laugh about everything.
Ken: Well, that would be kind of a neat way to live, wouldn’t it? Thank you. That’s good.
So, recognize patterns. Now, when you first recognize a pattern, it’s, like, “That’s me. That’s who I am. I can’t change. That’s who I am,” right?
Ken: [Laughs] Wrong. That’s not who you are. But it feels that way.
So you’ve got to get some distance and be able to see it as a pattern. And much of the work we have done over the last two or three days is looking at these things, these behaviors, and seeing that they aren’t what we are. They are a mechanism which runs under particular circumstances, utterly predictable, utterly mechanical, and it is not what we are at all. And that’s the process of dis-identification.
Student: So the fear is that when we lose our identity…
Ken: Exactly. I’ll come to that point in just a few moments. But you’re exactly right.
Now, the third step is to develop a practice, to develop a way of working with that particular pattern. Now, in Buddhism, there are a number of different approaches. There’s the log-cabin approach.
Student: What’s that?
Ken: And there’s the…I’m just making these up, but the [laughter]…there’s the…I’ll explain in a minute. You’ll see what I mean.
And then there’s the wood-carver approach, okay?
Now, the log-cabin approach, you know, when people settle, they only had one tool—an axe. And they did everything with the axe. They cut the tree down, trimmed off the bark, squared the timber, notched it, thus built a log cabin. They did everything with the axe. A lot of work, but they just had one tool.
And there are many traditions of Buddhism, very, very effective traditions, where that’s essentially how you work. You have one tool, and you really learn how to work it. That’s very solid and very reliable.
There’s a story of one Zen master [Jinhua Juzhi]—I can’t remember his name now—but when anybody asked him a question, he held up his finger. And that was his method. That’s the only thing he did. Had lots of enlightened students.
Student: Is that a reference to the koan of the moon?
Student: Look at the moon, not the finger pointing at the moon.
Ken: No, no, no, there’s no reference to that, no.
Student: It’s not that simple?
Ken: No, not that simple at all.
And then there’s the woodworker’s approach. As a woodworker, you’re doing a lot different things, so you have all kinds of tools. You know, so you have, like, fifteen different chisels of different shapes, and you have several different planes, and so forth, which you might say is the Tibetan approach. As I said earlier, I’ve never counted, but it’s probably up to one-hundred-fifty, two hundred different practices, methods of meditation.
So you’ve got—as one person said—a lot of arrows in your quiver. Now, that’s great, you know. You’ve got something for everything. There’s only one small problem. Which one do I use now?
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Maybe there’s a happy medium. I don’t know. But the big thing is to develop a practice. And you develop facility with that practice and you bring it to bear on a pattern.
Now, what I tend to do when I’m working with people is make up practices. So I had one person who is quite narcissistic. And so I said, “Okay, during your meditation, I want you to feel a plastic bubble around your heart. And during the day, I want you to imagine that you’re walking around inside a plastic bubble all the time.” Because this is exactly what a narcissist is doing. And it was a way of helping him to recognize what he was actually doing all the time.
That’s an example of making up a practice. And there are all kinds of things you can do. And you can use traditional stuff, and you can use other stuff. It’s fun. And there’s all kinds of traditional things you can use, too. But the big thing is to develop a way of working with that pattern.
As soon as you start doing this, of course, all kinds of stuff kicks up. Because as soon as you start working on the pattern, you’re bringing attention to it. And in particular, you’re going to bring attention to—sooner or later—the feeling that’s underneath the pattern, which is exactly what the pattern is…
Ken: …has developed to prevent, yeah.
Student: It’s like a guard dog.
Ken: Pardon? It’s like a guard dog, yeah. And so it’s going to growl. It will even bite. And, unfortunately, there’s some people with patterns that are so strong that they will kill them rather than change. So undoing patterns is non-trivial. And you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.
So, people don’t do this. I tried to do this with people, but there are the traditional warnings for doing this kind of work: death, paralysis, and insanity. [Laughter]
Student: That’s what you want to avoid?
Ken: No. Those are the possible results of your practice.
Student: Oh, oh, oh.
Student: Well, you can’t escape death…
Student: [Unclear] paralysis [unclear].
Student: All of them or just one? [Laughter]
Ken: First you get paralyzed, then you go crazy, and then you die. [Laughter]
Ken: Well, yeah. What I’m saying is that when you start into this work, you have no idea what you’re going to encounter and what’s going to happen.
And most people don’t give the traditional warnings, as you know. They say, it’s going to be wonderful. Well, if you survive [Ken chuckles].
Now, the patterns are going to rear up. So when you practice, you often feel more reactive. This is not a sign that something is necessarily going wrong. Maybe, but it’s not necessarily. And it’s why a capacity of attention and mindfulness is so important—so that you can stay present in what is arising, and you don’t get caught up by what is being kicked up. You actually experience it.
Student: [Unclear] you wind up feeling that it’s all [unclear].
Ken: Oh, yes.
Student: [Unclear] this window that suddenly has no perspective, no horizon.
Student: Like everything’s seems to be [unclear].
Ken: Yes. And then from there, you can actually recognize, “Oh, this is the pattern, running.” And when it’s running, that’s what you experience.
So you can have the very strange experience of, as you’re saying, seeing things this way, at the same time knowing that’s not the case.
I remember once in the retreat, I came into the shrine room for our evening prayer service, and I wasn’t feeling particularly well. I looked around at everybody, the other six guys in the retreat, and [Ken drops his voice] I knew they were all out to get me. I couldn’t trust a single one of them. And you know, I went, “This is crazy, Ken.” And I would look. But that’s how I saw it, even though I knew it wasn’t the case. The pattern was up.
And that’s why it’s very important to have a capacity of mindfulness. Because you start acting on this stuff, then you run into some problems. Yes?
Student: These patterns, you’re…in that situation that you were just talking about, then you come just into a feeling.
Ken: That’s right.
Student: And the feeling itself is horrendous, and you have to sit in the feeling. But there isn’t a pattern going on anymore. It’s just a feeling.
Ken: When you get down to the core feeling, that’s exactly right. You’re getting into the core feeling. And it is horrendous, because that’s what you’ve been avoiding for very long. And you’ll feel confused, etc., etc., etc.
But what’s very important here is you experience the feeling in attention. You don’t just relive it.
Ken: You know what it is as you’re experiencing it. When you relive it, you don’t know what it is—you’re just reliving it. That actually reinforces the conditioning.
Student: What do you mean by you know what it is? You know it’s…
Ken: You know it’s a feeling. You know it’s the pattern, and you’re experiencing it. It’s running, and it feels terrible very often. You see…
Student: But often you shift from the pattern into thinking the feeling is you.
Ken: Yes. And eventually when you have a sufficient capacity in attention, you can experience the feeling and know it to be a feeling.
David: [Unclear] the body [unclear]?
Ken: You’re quite right, David. This is one of the reasons why I do emphasize the body. Go into the body. And that’ll take you into the feeling, but it’ll also keep you in attention.
See, what happens in many, many people who practice meditation is that they sit and they develop sometimes quite significant capabilities in attention, but they never bring that attention to bear on internal material. In psychotherapy, on the other hand, they bring up all of the internal material, but there’s no capacity in attention, so they simply go through it again and again and again, and nothing gets resolved. Nothing changes. I know people who have been in therapy for fourteen years, and nothing’s changed. You have attention and you have the internal material. They have to meet, and that’s the purpose.
That’s the aim of your practice is so that you experience your internal material in attention. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing. That method I gave you yesterday, the five-step method and the whole Full Awareness of Breathing Sutra, this is exactly what it’s talking about.
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You can’t wake up by being a nice person (continued)Download
Releasing physical and emotional sensations behind reactive patterns; not protecting any area of one’s life from practice; keeping things in balance; closing meditation instruction
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So, gradually attention develops sufficiently so you can hold both the physical and emotional sensations in attention simultaneously.
For instance, I was in a body movement class about a year ago, and something in me started to kick up. There was some partner-work in it, which I usually enjoy, but I just couldn’t do it, and so I just withdrew. I was in just this really crazy, dizzy emotional space, didn’t want to have anything to do with anybody. So I just separated myself from the group and sat quietly, breathing with it.
And then I began to feel this intense discomfort about here. And eventually I realized I need a little help with this, so I went to one of the assistants in the thing and said, “I need some help.”
And so she came over and said, “What do you want me to do?”
I said, “Put your hand right there. Right there.” And what was very interesting is when she pushed with a certain amount of pressure, the physical pain [Ken snaps fingers] went away like that. It was just all of that emotional confusion. And when she eased up the pressure just a little bit, all the emotional confusion went away, and the physical pain was there. It was just like an on/off switch. I mean, it was just like that.
I have enough experience and practice to know that all you do is you sit and you experience it, both your physical and emotional. It’s not fun, but…
Student: And then what happened?
Ken: I’m going to tell you. When you can experience both the physical and emotional sensations simultaneously, then the energy that is locked up in the pattern begins to release, just in the same way that the energy in water releases and an ice cube releases when the sun shines on it.
That energy is experienced as highly emotionally charged thoughts. You have these thoughts which are absolute total insanity, but they’ve got tremendous power in them. And they’re very often, most of the time, connected with a sense of who you are. So you really feel like your identity is being stripped, and you don’t know who you are, and there’s all kinds of anxiety and stuff that’s kicked up around that. And now the world becomes kind of dream-like, because you’re feeling disoriented and confused. You feel as if you are losing something vitally important, so you try to strike a bargain. That’s why I say, you go through the stages of death.
But what you’re actually experiencing is the pattern breaking up. As the pattern breaks up, you now start to experience waves of raw emotion. Often these feelings just can’t be named. They seem to come from nowhere. So you’ll be sitting in your practice—maybe at work—and suddenly this, whoosh, wave comes over you. And you go, “What’s going on?” It’s kind of interesting when this happens in the middle of your teaching, and so forth. Like, “Oh, okay.” And there’s huge fluctuations.
In the latter part of the Torch of Certainty, not the part that was printed but the part that was translated afterwards, Kongtrul describes this, when you get extraordinary feelings of hope, you know, just, like, “Oh, I’m going to get there,” and despair, like, “It’s never going to happen.” So it’s a roller coaster.
In this chaos, you re-experience the core emotional dynamic of the pattern, and you may—it’s not a 100 percent—re-experience the situation in which that core dynamic was set up. So not infrequently, very vivid memories of particular events in your life will just arise.
Now, that varies a lot from person to person. I have a friend in L.A., and almost always when the pattern breaks up, he is able to name, “Ah, that’s where it was set up,” and very precisely. But with both his wife and myself, patterns break up without any particular association of memory. We just go through this process. So that’s not 100 percent the case, but that may happen.
Student: What page are you on?
Ken: Page 201.
When that happens, you feel lighter and freer. And when you encounter the situations which would previously have triggered the pattern, nothing happens, which is, like, “Oh.” So you’re able to be present in those situations in a way that you weren’t able to before. And that’s the dimension of freedom.
Now, this is exactly what Buddha experienced when he woke up. Remember, he sits under the bodhi tree, and then Mara comes along.
At first Mara brings his three daughters, who try to seduce Buddha—desire. And so all of those pleasant emotions coming up, and, “Do this and everything will be nice.” And Buddha sat there and just experienced it. Just experienced it.
And then Mara said, “Ah, it’s not working,” so sent his hoards of armies, you know, all of these demons and things like that. Well, this was all Buddha’s internal material. And he felt attacked and, you know, accosted and beaten and things thrown at him, and things like that.
The usual description is that Buddha’s attention was so deep that it turned into a rain of flowers, i.e., he just experienced it, and all of that negativity, that internal turmoil, just became experience, “Oh.”
And then Mara had his last little trick. This is very important. “Who gives you the right to sit there?”
Ken: And Buddha just said, “I’m here.” That’s it.
Student: Just that?
Ken: Yeah. And that’s where we get the earth-touching mudra. “I’m here.”
Student: Return to the body?
Ken: Yeah. In a sense, it’s a return, just right here.
Student: No identity?
Ken: No identity. And no need to refer to any external authority.
Student: No reference point.
Ken: No reference point, yeah. That was it. Done.
So, right in Buddha’s enlightenment, you have a somewhat carefully packaged description of exactly what I’ve been talking about here. Please learn how to read the traditional texts. It’s all there. But it’s in code. Get out your code-breaking rings.
Susan: Do we get them at the end of this then?
Ken: I’m dismayed to hear that, Susan. I’ve been giving them out all…[Laughter]
Ken: Charlotte, you had a question?
Charlotte: Oh, I was just thinking, these attacks by passion and aggression, ignorance must have been what he was [unclear].
Ken: The sequence is usually anger, then desire. But in Buddha’s case, it was attraction, then aversion, and then ignorance. And when Mara asked, “Who gives you the right to sit there,” that was ignorance. And no one. Right here.
Robert: In talking about this experience of re-experiencing traumatic or troubling things that happen in your life, so [unclear] in Los Angeles, went through and kind of felt the whole primal therapy idea.
Robert: People would re-experience. I have been connecting somebody who had gotten involved with that, and so she experienced all of this stuff again. So what…
Ken: Is this primal scream you’re talking about?
Ken: Yeah. Okay. Well, you have a number of techniques, like holotropic breathing and primal scream, and there are various other things out there.
What these techniques do is use a technique to artificially raise the level of attention temporarily. And don’t forget, holotropic breathing was developed by Stan Grof, and the only reason he developed it is because he was looking for something to replace LSD, since it was banned.
But these are ways that you temporarily raise the level of energy in the system. And when the level of energy is raised, it penetrates habituated patterns so you can become aware of them.
I do not like these techniques because there is no guarantee that the individual has a capacity of mindfulness to be able to stay present in the material that’s released. So I think they are inherently dangerous.
The methods that I’m describing here don’t have that problem because they depend on your capacity of attention. And when material is released, it’s because you have the capacity in attention to experience it. You may not feel that you do, but you actually do because it’s only because you’ve developed that capacity of attention that the material is starting to come out. So it’s inherently a balanced way of approaching.
Robert: Because I think this whole idea was that you just experienced it [unclear].
Robert: There was no notion of—
Ken: Mindfulness, yeah. And that’s one of the problems. So people go through it again and again and again, and actually that ends up reinforcing it.
Student: Could you talk a little bit about the balance between—I’m not really sure exactly what words to use—but between having sort of an insight and kind of seeing through, and being in a state of compassion? Because sometimes it feels like there’s too much compassion mush, and there’s just a lot of sorrow and a lot of sadness in the way that things appear, but no feeling of where to go with that.
And then that causes me to want to jump out of it. [Unclear] it’s just a feeling of seeing through things too much and not having the compassion to deal with what I see, and that makes me want to pull away from it. So are there any techniques for bringing those two together, or is that…how do you deal with that situation?
Ken: That’s a whole ’nother area, actually.
Ken: What immediately comes to mind is mind training, the Mahayana mind training. [Pause] Very briefly, you can tell when you’re out of balance. You know, something feels off, like it feels too mushy, or you can’t handle it. Those are indications that something’s out of balance, okay?
The way that you address imbalance is to move into the experience of the imbalance. And if you do that, I think you’ll be in good shape, okay?
Now, I think earlier I said it’s very important not to protect any area of your life from your practice. Here’s why. As you practice meditation, you raise the level of attention in your system. That’s what you’re doing, you’re transforming energy into attention and developing higher and higher levels of attention so that they can penetrate the areas of confusion. What’s crystallized and solidified in your personality can start to break up.
If you protect any area of your life from your practice, that you say, “Well, I’ll do it here, but I’m not going to think about that,” what happens is that the higher level of attention goes into that area anyway, because it’s just part of the system. So it’s activated.
Ken: Well, it’s activated. But because you’re blocking it, it now takes more energy to block it. So energy also goes into the blocking mechanism. So you become increasingly walled off from a part of you that’s become increasingly activated, and it begins to operate out of control. It’s like a loose cannon. You, in effect, are torn in two.
How this shows up [Ken reads]:
One part of you is capable of attention and response very, very precisely. The other part becomes increasingly rigid and inflexible. It takes over unpredictably whenever the repressed emotions are resonated or triggered by events and situations. Typically a person becomes more arrogant and self-indulgent, obsessed with power, money, sex, security, or other fixations, and acts in ways to control or amass the object of the obsession. Long-term practitioners and teachers who protect areas of their lives from their practice frequently run into this problem with unfortunate and sometimes tragic results. [Wake Up To Your Life, p. 88]
Student: What page is that?
Ken: That’s the end of the chapter on basic meditation. [Chapter 3: Cultivating Attention]
About a year ago I was at a conference put on by a publisher for non-dual teacher. You know, people like Ramana Maharshi and Douglas Harding. Douglas Harding is great, by the way, in On Having No Head, if you don’t know it. It’s wonderful. Eckhart Tolle was speaking at that conference.
But there was one woman—I can’t remember her name now—and she gave this talk. It wasn’t a bad talk, and there was a little bit of energy in the room.
Then at the end of her talk, a woman asked her a question about her child. And suddenly the whole auditorium was filled with anger. I went, “What the hell’s going on here?” I was there with a friend, one of my students. And I said, “What are you sensing?”
And she said, “There’s all this anger, Ken.”
I said, “Yeah.” And so we just sat and paid attention.
And as the dialogue between the questioner and the speaker played itself out, the questioner was having a disagreement with her husband about how they should raise their child. She had one idea and he had another, and she was asking how to deal with the situation.
Well, absolutely this was triggering something in the speaker, and there was just all of that anger in there. And she wasn’t aware of it, but people were getting up and walking out of the auditorium. It was just so palpable.
This is the kind of problem that arises if you do not bring attention to every area of your life. You cannot leave any stone unturned. To put it another way, “Whatever you don’t undo, you become. It will take you over.” Very, very important.
Leslie: Why did the audience take the energy of—
Ken: Because there was so much anger, but it was totally unacknowledged. And when a person is not experiencing it themselves, then everybody else experiences it. We were.
Student: Was the audience the ones that were reacting, or was it the speaker that was…
Ken: The speaker was the one. The anger was in her, but she wasn’t experiencing it. She wasn’t aware of it at all. So it was just out there. It was great. It was very strange. You know, when you don’t experience what arises in you, then that energy goes out in the world and people start resonating with it.
Student: So can you use that as a clue?
Ken: As a clue?
Student: Yeah. If you’re not experiencing something and suddenly everyone around you is—
Ken: Yes. Yes, you can. You know, if you’re sitting there quite quietly and everybody’s at each others’ throats, you think, “Hm, maybe I’m angrier than I thought.” Very definitely, yeah. Particularly if you’re in a leadership position or something like that, this happens all the time. Yeah.
Student: This sounds similar to, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” You know what I’m saying?
Ken: Well, you are as sick as your secrets, yes.
Student: You might even be sicker than that, but not you personally. [Laughter]
Ken: You have no idea. [Laughter]
Student: I was hoping that as a parting shot, you could let us in on some of your patterns. [Laughter]
Student: I would ask him that, too.
Student: You know, after…
Ken: I think I’ve been very open here.
Student: It seems to me you’ve [unclear]. I’d be very curious.
Student: What [unclear]?
Student: What’s the [unclear]? But anyway, my question is, how can you get to those parts [unclear]? I mean, if we really are protecting them that well?
Ken: By observing what you don’t notice, what you don’t question, what you don’t laugh about.
Student: So we may not be able to observe it directly?
Student: But we could start that way.
Ken: That’s how you start. I mean, I always have to smile when I think of what you don’t laugh about.
I have an older brother who takes himself quite seriously, shall we say. We were on a canoe trip a few years ago, and we camped at a place which is just a very little river between two lakes. But there was about a six-inch to one-foot drop. So the current was actually quite strong.
And we tried to paddle up it the day before, and one of the canoes got swamped, so we camped there. We lined the canoes, took lines and drew them up there. But after we were safely into the higher lake, I said to my two brothers, “Why don’t we just try it, just the three of us, and then unload the canoe, just try to paddle up this just for the hell of it?”
So we did. I think my younger brother was in the stern of the canoe, so he was calling the orders. And so there we are. [Makes paddling noises.] And we get about three-quarters of the way up, and the current’s too strong and the canoes flipped over, and we all go into the water.
And my younger brother, I think he came up first. And when I came up, he was laughing, I was laughing. Where’s our older brother? Where is he? Well, he came up underneath the canoe. So eventually he came up. He looked at us laughing, and he went [said in a gruff voice], “I thought we were trying to accomplish something here.” [Laughter]
Good laugh, it was wonderful. So…
Student: Is embarrassment a good signal? [Unclear] there are different kinds of embarrassment, too.
Ken: There are. In the Abhidharma, embarrassment is taken as one of the emotions that tends towards virtue. Because it helps to wake you up.
Now, I do want to distinguish between that kind of embarrassment, which lets you know that there’s something wrong with your behavior right now [chuckles], and the kind of deeply internalized shame that people have in dysfunctional families. That’s a whole different ball of wax, and is the basis of quite strong pattern behavior. And those are two different beasts. You know you have shame or embarrassment, and then you have what [John] Bradshaw refers to as toxic shame.
That, you work with in the way that we’ve been talking about. Just gradually open to that feeling until you recognize it actually has nothing to do with you. In my own work and in work with students, feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, self-loathing, all unlovability, etc., I’m quite sure, are all learned behaviors, learned feelings. They don’t arise naturally. Those are inherited from the family system. Very important to undo those.
And it’s very difficult for many people to do that because it involves some kind of separation from the family system. And that can be very difficult.
Ken: Not usually, not for most people.
Student: What are those again?
Ken: Self-hatred, self-loathing, unlovability, worthlessness. But those are usually the feelings that are underneath that shame. Those kinds of things, in my experience, they’re always learned.
Student: So [unclear] the way we’ve been socialized [unclear]?
Ken: Yes, that’s right. Oh, yes. James Joyce said any tradition or institution or system that teaches you that you were eternally damned before you were even born is inhumanely cruel.
Ken: Okay. So summing up, you’ve got the four steps: recognize, dis-identify, develop a practice, and cut.
Now, back at the beginning of our time together, I mentioned the four forces: regret, reliance, remedy, and resolve. This is simply another version of the four steps.
Regret corresponds to recognizing the pattern.
Reliance corresponds to dis-identifying. You rely on Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, which is simply a metaphorical way of saying you rely on your true nature, which is not the pattern. So that corresponds to dis-identify.
Remedy, of course, is developing a practice.
And resolve corresponds to cut. You just keep doing the practice until you cut through the pattern. You have that kind of resolution.
You find those four showing up in all kinds of ways all through Buddhism, different formulations and different traditions. The core here—and I mentioned this line the other day—is the only good line that [Herbert] Guenther translated, but he did this one very well: “Samsara is notorious for being without end.” That’s a quotation from The Jewel Ornament of Liberation.
This means there is nothing within the operation of patterns that inherently leads to their dissolution. Or, Buddha’s last words: “I have shown you the way. Work out your own freedom.” And this is absolutely true. It’s up to each one of us individually. We can benefit from the support, the guidance, and the instruction of our teachers, and our companions in the path, but nobody can do it for us. Nobody will do it for us. Nobody will save us.
All of us have a really wonderful opportunity. You know, somehow or other we’ve stumbled into it. Now it’s up to us. So make use of what you’ve learned possibly here, from other programs you’ve gone to, and other teachers you’ve studied with. Make use of it. Understand what you want from your practice.
And that goes back to the listening to the stammering voice which asks the questions, and being in touch with your own pain. These are the touchstones which are reliable for your practice. There are different approaches to practice. Some people can work very, very hard in particular areas and make great strides.
I found that that approach doesn’t work for me. I’ve learned that—for me, anyway—the best way to practice is to keep everything in balance. So, I don’t feel I go very far, but everything goes a short step. It’s not like one part is way out here and the rest are back here.
And in my work with students, that’s the approach that I take. So I’m passing that on to you as a consideration, keeping things in balance. I think it’s important for those of us who live and work in the world. Because we have to keep functioning as we do this. Practice as much in your life as you do on the cushion.
Seung Sahn Sunim is a Korean Zen teacher who wrote an article about lay practice and monastic practice. He said there’s a difference: As lay practitioners, it’s not our job to get enlightened. That’s not our job. That’s the job of the professionals, the monastics. That’s their job. Their job is to get enlightened. As laypeople, our job is to function properly. Then he says, “Mind you, the purpose of getting enlightened is to function properly.” [Laughter]
So, you bring attention and precision into your life. And I’ve suggested some ways to do that. In particular, watch for the areas in your life where you go passive, because where you go passive is where reactive mechanisms run. It’s where the karmic process of evolution is proceeding unhindered.
I also said that the way that we practice is great effort, no force. We have to be completely uncompromising, quite ruthless, but no force. When you apply force in your practice, it means you are ignoring something. It takes no force to move into presence in the moment. It may not last very long, so you do it again and again and again. That’s the great effort. You won’t get headaches if you practice this way. Your body won’t be strained. [break in conversation]
[Ken resumes]…now that you just turned over the tape.
Student: The last tape.
Ken: That’s good. [Laughter] So let’s do a short period of meditation together. I know I was only able to see a few people the second time. Are there any of you who have burning questions for interviews? Good. Okay. Then, well, let’s take a five- or ten-minute break and we’ll come back and meditate together.
[Laughter] You want to put something on that tape, I know. But…
Ken: Yeah, well. There may be some more later.
Student: We can tape some shamatha.
Ken: Yeah. Don’t do that. That’ll be labeled eventually as profound teaching.
In the whole picture, we’ve worked together for several days, and the level of attention in the system is consequently higher. So after we part, don’t be surprised if you have a little higher level of reactivity running in you for the next, oh, usually 24 to 48 hours. So try to have some space in your life.
We haven’t been doing that much qi gong. It’s only been about three times a day, right? So there isn’t going to be any problem if you don’t continue. But the qi gong is something that you can add to your practice, and it would be quite beneficial.
The thing about qi gong is you shouldn’t stop and start suddenly. If you’re doing, like, six or twelve repetitions a day, don’t suddenly stop or miss a day or something like that. You want to taper them down so you do twelve, and then go do six for a few days, and then do three for a few days, if you’re stopping. Otherwise the system is unbalanced, and it’s not good for you physically.
And the same as starting up. Don’t suddenly start doing a lot, because it’s hard on the system. Just gradually increase.
Roger: Is there a rate…is there a sense that you can do too much?
Ken: Yes, you can do too much. Because they’re energy transformation practices, and you can just get too much going so that you don’t have the capacity of attention to handle it, and also you put your body out of balance. So you need to be sensitive to that.
And everybody’s different. You’ll have to find the right equilibrium point for yourself. Okay.
Now, it’s 11:00. We are going to sit for one period of meditation. During this, your final assignment: After you let your breath settle, I want you to consider a very concrete change in your life that you are going to do within the next 72 hours, based on what you’ve absorbed from our time together.
Now, when I mean concrete, I don’t mean, like, “I’m going to pay attention to my life.” That’s way too general. It needs to be something very explicit. So, it’s a definable task which covers a specific area of your life. Because the tendency, when we have large generalized intentions, is that we forget about them as soon as we get up from our cushion. So make it very specific and very concrete.
We’re going to meditate for 20 minutes or maybe half an hour, and then ask you to voice that. If you’re not comfortable voicing it in public, that’s fine. But it’s a statement of your intention and how you’re going to continue your practice.
Student: Did you say that you’re going to—it’s a concrete change you’re going to make within the next…
Ken: Seventy-two hours. Now, the reason for this is that there’s a very large amount of research that shows that if you do not use the material from any form of training within 72 hours, you lose 95 percent of it. So…
Student: It’s just so incredibly quantitative.
Ken: But it’s true. There’s a lot of research to that. So the best thing you can do in order to ensure that you actually continue with this is to use it. And then it becomes part of you. And the way to really make it part of you, you use it three times. Then it’s yours, okay?
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