Teachings | Life
Introduction; how to live in power without being controlled by it; the three illusions — survival, control, being somebody; how they inhibit the exercise of power; five mysteries: power, balance presence, truth & freedom; primary practice; attention, intention and will.
The retreat is called The Warrior’s Solution. Of course, this means the warrior has a problem. And you might be curious what is the warrior’s problem. The warrior’s problem is how to live without being run by power. How to live in power without being run by it. So the aim in this retreat is to learn a set of practices and the associated philosophy that points to a way to live in the moment all the time, and to cut everything that keeps you out, or pulls you out, of the present moment.
Even though this retreat is very much about power, if you approach this retreat with the intention to gain power, you will fail in this objective. Because the very intention to gain power has already pulled you out of the present moment. On the other hand, being fully in the moment will, by necessity, bring you in touch with power. And through that you are going to learn how to access power by dismantling the conditioning that inhibits it, and experience power by moving into the direct experience of it.
In a certain sense, many of you who’ve been practicing for some time will be familiar with the central aim, but you will have approached it through compassion, or through loving-kindness, or through faith and devotion, or through insight.
Student: Through what?
Ken: Insight. The difference here is the approach is through power. And there are two reasons for that. Most people access power only through anger, because it is only through anger that they develop the energy levels that overcome the inhibitions that surround power in our culture. The consequence of that is that power is only exercised or expressed when you are in the hell realm, when you are viewing the world in terms of opposition. Some people access the level of power, the level of energy, through greed, but then power is exercised and expressed in the hungry ghost realm.
The aim here is to experience power not colored by such emotional agendas and consequent conditioning, so that you are able to do what the situation requires, not what conditioning determines, or what external expectations or internal demands precipitate.
A second reason why I think this is important is that modern society is seriously out of balance on many levels. Part of the reason is that conditioning has been so thorough about power that it has a bad name. Whenever I mention that I’m doing a retreat on power, particularly around Buddhist teachers, you know, a chill takes place in the room, quite literally.
And I was giving a talk as part of a Buddhist conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2001, and I made reference to the principles of power, and it was just a two minute talk, not long, and you could feel everybody’s hackles going up. Not allowed to talk about it. There’s a consequence to that. And the consequence is that power is largely exercised by people who have little concern with the well-being of society.
Ken: By people who have little concern for the well-being of society. Or by people whose conditioning prevents them from feeling or seeing the effects of exercising power. This is a recipe for abuse. So the consequence of giving power a bad name is the abuse of power.
The fact is that in our lives we will encounter situations in which reason and suasion, though very effective, will not be enough. One must be willing to know where one stands, and be willing to stand there, and know how to do it.
Three illusions inhibit that willingness—and this will be old material to many of you: the illusion of survival, the illusion of control, in which we seek to control our environment so that our emotional needs are met, and the illusion of being somebody. These are known in classical Buddhism as the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, non-self. In the Mahayana tradition they’re known as the three doors to freedom: no characteristics, no aspiration, and emptiness. So this is the subject matter.
In the course of our work together over the next few days, we’ll be working with five mysteries associated with this approach. These aren’t all the mysteries, they’re just the five associated with this approach. They are: power, balance, presence, truth, and freedom. These are mysteries because they can only be known by experience. That being said, I’m going to give you the definitions. But the definitions are simply pointers to an experience.
Power is the ability to be present in intentional action, [repeating] the ability to be present in intentional action.
Balance is the union of knowing, being and acting at the point at which experience arises. [Repeating] Balance is the union of knowing, being and acting at the point at which experience arises.
Presence: being in the full experience of what is arising — internal, external and awareness. From this perspective there are three components to experience. There is what is arising internally, which we ordinarily call emotional material and so forth, what arises externally, which are really the sensations associated with the various sense faculties, out of which we construct a sense of an external world. And then there is the awareness, which is the knowing of the arising. Presence is being in the full experience of all of that.
Truth: the definition of truth is what is. Truth is what is. There’s no abstract entity called truth.
And freedom: freedom is the ongoing release of constraints, [repeating] the ongoing release of constraints. Now, one can understand freedom from different perspectives. Another way of understanding freedom is, being nothing as experience arises. The being nothing refers to mind nature. And when you are able to be no thing as experience arises, then volitional action becomes possible.
Now, that’s the framework for the retreat.
During the retreat we’re going to be working with three components in practice. The first component is awareness practice. And these will be two or three different methods, which are simple methods of practice that bring you into awareness directly. Having said that they are simple isn’t to say that they’re necessarily easy. But the intention and function of the practice is to bring you directly into awareness.
A second component will be a series of meditations, which some of you have received from me in individual instruction, through which you will learn how to meet and cut through the internal material that keeps you from being present, or being able to be present. These are more complex methods to bring attention to and undo conditioning.
The third component will be a set of exercises that we’ll do in the afternoons, and they’re designed to bring you into the experience of power and presence, and in doing so they will bring you directly into the experience of the internal material that blocks presence.
And we’re going to start that work this evening.
In terms of exercise, from this moment on, form the intention to be in one thing, whatever you are doing. So if you are walking from here to your room, form the intention to be in the walking, in the experience of walking. If you are brushing your teeth, form the intention to be in the experience of brushing your teeth, and do it. If you’re going to sleep, form the intention of going to sleep, and go to sleep. So this is being in one thing completely.
That’s your exercise.
The awareness practice I will also introduce this evening—many of you had this before—it goes by the name the primary practice. And it is a method of coming into awareness. There are four steps: focus, field, internal material, presence.
So right now, pick a focus for your attention. It can be anything. It can be your breath. It can be an external object. It can be an internal sensation. It doesn’t matter. It’s simply a focus. And when you move into focus, you’ll feel a shift in your energy. Now, let the focus—or your attention, rather—expand to the field, the whole field of all sensory experience: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. All of it. And you’ll probably experience another shift in energy. And resting in that experience, now include all of the stories, feelings, valuations, beliefs, and perceptual frameworks in you. All of your internal material—all that you can be aware of in the moment—just include it all. And now, drop any sense of inside or outside. There is simply the totality of experience that arises in the moment. That’s presence. And you rest there. And when the sense of presence diminishes, return to focus, and field, and internal material, and dropping inside and outside, and presence.
In this work, do not try to hold states. That is a form of practice, but in the circumstances in which we live and practice, it doesn’t seem to be the best form of practice. The better form is when you feel the quality of presence or awareness fading, diminishing, being lost in confusion or cloudiness—however you experience it—then move into that experience through the primary practice, through the four steps. So there’s a constant returning and resting, rather than a sense of establishing and holding. Return and rest. And then return and rest. And return and rest.
Okay. Questions? Joe.
Ken: Doesn’t matter. I mean, you can actually, if you’re slipping into cloudiness, you can take the cloudiness as focus. But you must go: focus, field, so there isn’t a sense of clomping onto something. You just use focus to set the attention, and then open it to field, include the internal material and move into presence. Okay? [Invitingly] Yes?
Ken: No. Everything simultaneously. And that’s very important. If you’re moving from one sense to another, you are shifting the focus. Once the focus is established, that’s establishing the base of attention. Now, you use that base of attention and open to the whole field simultaneously. In a way, to practice this you may find it helpful to work with one sense at a time. For instance, sitting right here, I can open to the whole visual field. Follow? When I open to the whole visual field, what you’ll find is that even in opening to the whole visual field, there will be a tendency for the attention or the awareness to collapse down on a single object. And as soon as that does, you expand from that object to the whole field again. So you keep returning to the whole field. You can practice that way so you get a sense of holding the whole field. And when you can do it with that, then you can start doing it with sound.
You know, listening to music is a very good way to practice this, you know. Listen to a polyphonic music of some kind, until you can hear every instrument distinctly. A very good way to practice this is when you go to a movie and before the movie everybody’s talking in the theatre, you listen to everybody talking at the same time. You don’t listen to any one conversation, you listen to every conversation. It’s different. So these are ways of practicing this. But when you go from focus to field, it’s opening to the total field, the whole field of sensory experience. It’s practice.
Ken: The visual field first.
Ken: Yeah, sound. Right. Yeah. But, you know, everybody here is an experience, don’t be lazy. This is about just going. Just do it. Find out what you can do. Other questions? Thank you. Yes.
Ken: That’s about right. Pardon?
Ken: Yes. Don’t start thinking about it, because that’s just a story. What I was doing there was describing all the different levels of internal material. You may or may not sense that in any given moment. But, sometimes you’re just going to find yourself sitting in a belief. And you sit in that belief as an object of attention, rather than as a reality, you follow? It’s like a very deep-level story.
For instance, I remember one time in retreat—when I wasn’t feeling particularly well—we met in the shrine room every evening for evening service. And we sat down and I looked at everybody, and everybody was against me, everybody was out to get me. That’s how it was. And I knew this wasn’t true, but that’s how I was seeing it. So I just sat in that experience. Very weird. That’s at the level of belief and perceptual framework. That help? So sometimes you just sit in that experience. You don’t do anything with it, but you’re right in it. Paul? Okay. Any other questions? Yeah.
Ken: I’ll be talking more about intention. What more do you need to know right now in order to do the exercise? What do you need to know? Right now. Intend to ask the question, and then be in asking the question as the one thing you’re doing right now. So do it.
Ken: Okay. When you set an intention, you harden. Be in the experience of hardening. Do that, right now. [Pause] What happened?
Ken: Hmm? What happened?
Ken: In other words, the hardening is a form of internal conditioning which starts to operate. It’s something that is associated with intending. But it doesn’t have anything to do with intending, but it’s associated with intending. When you move right into the experience, then, as you say, it ceases to operate, ’cause that’s the nature. When you move right into the experience of conditioning, it ceases to operate as conditioning. It can’t. Attention and conditioning are mutually antithetical. They cannot coexist. Or rather awareness and conditioning. So you move right into it. And you can intend, but now there isn’t any hardening. Follow? That’s a very good example. Thank you.
No other questions? Why not?! [Laughter] You know it all?
Ken: Attention in a certain sense is the ability to direct energy. Technically speaking, active attention is being in a higher level of energy than the object at which the attention is directed. Intention is the ability to direct attention. So, you look at that water bottle beside you and you see it and know it. Now intend to pick it up. And pick it up. So you’re right in. Okay? That help?
Ken: Yes. Without attention you may operate at the level of intention, but it’s all conditioning, it’s all pattern. Without attention, there is no intention.
Ken: Exactly. There is no ongoing awareness. It’s just reaction. It may be very strong reaction, but it’s just reaction. To complete the picture, will is the ability to direct intention. But you can have people who operate at the level of will, and it’s all reaction, because they do not feel, see or pay attention to, or include in their awareness, the effects of their action.
Student: So the ground is attention.
Ken: The ground is attention. That’s why the primary practice, it’s the ground. Now that’s higher level. Another way to think about will—and we’ll cover this later—is that the level of will, you make use of whatever experience arises. You have a use for it. Whatever arises, you have a use for.
Ken: Perhaps. Perhaps it’s very quiet.
We did the practice of taking and sending last summer. Taking and sending in the Commitments and Guidelines includes several instructions which are really about operating at the level of will.
Whichever of two arises, be patient. Remember that one? Whether circumstances are horrible or whether circumstances are good, you make use of the circumstances to deepen your practice. That’s will. You don’t care whether it’s bad or good, you have use for it. That’s at the level of will. It’s the ability to direct intention into whatever’s arising. To make the differentiation: intention is like, “I am going to do this.” Will is, “Whatever arises, I can use it to do this.” Whatever arises. That make sense to you? Okay. Susan, did you have a question? Anybody else?
Student: Can I go back [unclear]
Ken: Well, it says there’s a few things about the teacher-student relationship. The teacher has to be able to see, to know, what is preventing the student from being present. The student has to trust the teacher, that when the teacher points the stuff out it’s because the teacher sees what’s operating in the student, it’s not the teacher working out something or trying to manipulate or take advantage of the student in some way.
I’ll give you an example. A person I’ve worked with likes to have friends over and cook for them, a very nice social thing, but he likes to cook good food. His instruction was to cook something that was just horrible, intentionally. The first two times he did this, or tried to do this, the internal material arose in a certain way and he maneuvered around the instruction. And each time he came back and told me his experience, I pointed out how his internal material had corrupted the intention. So, at a point I received the following report: “I had a couple of friends over for dinner and they really enjoyed the pizzas I make. I took your instruction to heart and just asked myself, what wouldn’t work in this recipe? So, I used eggplant based sauce ’cause that’s bitter and added peanut butter and hot dog relish [laughter] because I was quite sure that these two wouldn’t work. I added peppermint oil to the pizza [laughter] and used feta cheese.”
And of course he couldn’t tell anybody what his exercise was. This is what he served for dinner. Okay? And it was quite astonishing, because all his material was flying up inside, you know, just raging inside about. And he was waiting to get, you know, “This is horrible!” ’cause the whole intention was to be in the experience of doing something which was going to invite disapproval. To be right in it. That’s what he did. So, it was a very rich experience for him. His dinner guests, including his wife, when they bit into the pizza, there was a certain expression on all their faces. [Laughter] And then the guest wife said, “Did you do something different?” [Laughter] To which he replied, “Well, how does it strike you?” Nobody made any comment.
And he learned from this the rather dismaying fact that in his particular circle, social conditioning was so strong that he could have fed these people poison and they wouldn’t have made any comment. So it was a very rich experience, but he said afterwards all of his emotional material had no hard edges anymore, that his relationship with the emotional material had changed completely. Everything was much softer inside because now he’d done the worst thing he could do and had survived the experience. The whole approval thing didn’t matter anymore.
Student: He lost his friends.
Ken: No, the custom was that they split the half of the leftover pizza. So, he handed it to them, they accepted with all the alacrity of a dead puppy. But no damage actually to the relationship. The next morning the only comment his wife said on the whole thing was, “I don’t think feta cheese works for pizza.” [Laughter] That was it. Okay.
Ken: Absolutely. You have to do it intentionally. Because if it happens by accident, you don’t get anything like the same benefit from it.
Ken: You just don’t. Because it happened by accident. And I have seen this.
I remember when I was doing these kinds of exercises. I was practicing losing. And I was visiting my parents once, and they had a guest over, and so we started to play table tennis and I thought, “This is perfect, I’m going to lose.” We got up to 15-15. The next thing I knew it was 19-16 in my favor. Stuff had just taken over. It was just like that. [Snaps fingers] The internal material had just taken over. So after that I knew I really had to work at being right in the experience of playing the game, and moment-to-moment stay with the intention of losing. So I was doing this with my tennis partner, and you know, when the time came to lose, I literally had to serve so that I hit the back fence with my serve. No bounce, just straight into the back fence. It was the only way to insure that it wasn’t going to go in. And after the game, he just said, “You weren’t playing so well today, were you, Ken?” It’s astonishing what people don’t notice. It’s also astonishing how strong the conditioning is and how much attention you have to bring to the act itself, if you are going to go through it. Okay? Yes.
Ken: Well, there is always that kind of danger, but judging from the results, I think it’s safe. But something has shifted, and quite definitely—and you’re quite right—that’s a danger that can operate. And in those kinds of circumstances, you set it up so there is no possibility of getting the teacher’s approval, and I have set up situations like that, it doesn’t matter what the student does, they aren’t going to get any approval. And what happens there is the student feels totally abandoned, until they recognize that it’s not about pleasing the teacher, it’s about coming into presence themselves. That’s a very, very important shift in the student. Robert, you have a question? Oh, okay.
Ken: [Laughter] Well, you can wrap yourself up in those kinds of things, but he was making sure that it wasn’t going to be a good dish. That’s all.
Ken: I think you’re you’re tangling yourself up in words. He had a certain intention and he implemented it, that’s all. Question over here?
Ken: No, what I generally do is to find what I call a practice field, which is an environment in which you can break this pattern in a way that is not going to be damaging to others or to you. And sometimes that takes some hunting around to find a good arena, but you can do it. But no, I don’t recommend going around being nasty to everybody. But you may have to have the experience with something like being Mr. Nice Guy. There’s something you’re trying to get from the environment. And it’s not a case of being nasty, it’s a case of experiencing not getting that from the environment and knowing that you’ll survive, that you continue to exist.
For instance, Ajahn Chah was expert at this. And Ajahn Sumedho , who is an American in Seattle and is now one of the Thai patriarchs, very highly respected teacher, very accomplished person. When he was a junior monk, during one of the rainy season retreats, Ajahn Chah came up to him and said, “I’d like you to give the dharma talk this evening.” And he’s a very junior monk at this point, and he had all of these very experienced and well-established people, and he went, “[Gulp] Well, okay.” So he, at the appropriate time, took the teacher’s seat, the raised platform, etc., talked for about forty minutes. And concluded his talk, and before he could step down, Ajahn Chah who is sitting at the back, said “Keep going.” So he started to talk again, figured out something else to say, and when he finished that, Ajahn Chah said, “Keep going.” I think it was something like six hours later. And Ajahn Sumedho said, “It was horrible. I stuttered. I stammered. I repeated myself, over and over again. I said inane things. I kept saying the same thing over and over, ’cause I couldn’t think of anything else to say.” And then he said, “But I never worried about giving a dharma talk again.” And that was Ajahn Chah’s point. He wanted to break the expectation, “I have to give a good dharma talk.” So he could just talk about the dharma, without that expectation running. That was the practice field that Ajahn Chah chose.
Let’s conclude here for this evening. Are you clear about your practice assignment? Tomorrow morning in your meditation, work with the primary practice, which is focus, field, internal material, presence. Keep coming back into presence, in the same way you just keep coming back into awareness. It’s the same thing here.
And as you go about getting ready for bed and getting up in the morning, intend to do one thing and be right in what you are doing. Then intend to do the next. So you get the flavor of bringing that level of attention and intention into your life. Okay? Susan?
Ken: Yup. Not necessary. Because you can take the breath as your focus and just use it right there. Okay? All right. Good night, have a good night’s rest.