Teachings | Training
Primary Practice Download
Instructions for primary practice; primary practice: how to come into experience as it arises right now; being in the experience, as opposed to observing experience; relationship to shamatha and vipassana.
…they’re rather loose discussions. I’ll probably start each one off with some ideas usually coming from stuff that’s come up for people during the day—because in each day I’m having interviews with people—and also other questions that have come up.
So what I’m going to start off with this evening is Larry’s question from this morning, actually, about the primary practice. Now I brought a whole suitcase full of books with me. And, of course, I didn’t bring the one [The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation] that had the material that I wanted. Which is a book by Gunaratana on the four jhanas, which would have—
Student: Four what?
Ken: Four jhanas. Dhyanas if you want the Sanskrit. Which probably would have been useful for this. When people meet the primary practice they think it’s something very, very different from what they’ve encountered before. But if you scratch the surface you find that it is actually a different way of approaching the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. And that’s very important.
Probably the two most fundamental sutras in Buddhism are the Anapanasati Sutraand the Satipatthana. Did I get that one right? Sutra? Which are the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutra and the Full Awareness of Breathing Sutra.
Now, sometime ago a colleague of mind was surprised to find that deep in Zen tradition those are the fundamental sutras for the Zen tradition as well. We know that they’re fundamental for the Theravadan.
And what is interesting about both these sutras is they don’t talk at all about truth or awakening or enlightenment or even knowing. A little bit about knowing. That is, When the monk is cold, a cold monk—no that’s not even about knowing—a cold monk meditates. But they’re very important because they describe how to be present with experience.
Now the term present—I have no idea what the Tibetan is for that—in the way that we use it “to be present.” I wouldn’t know how to translate that into Tibetan. I probably should ask somebody about that. As far as I know that English phrase is borrowed from Sufi circles, I think. But it certainly becomes much more popular within Buddhist circles in the last fifteen, twenty years. And as always happens when something becomes popular, it starts to lose meaning. So I’m thinking it’s about time to get rid of the term. High turnover here.
Let’s take the expression, “I am present.” Well, you know, if you’re at a gambling casino—this is one of my friend Michael Conklin’s favorite billboards. Outside Portland there’s a billboard for a gambling casino which says, “You have to be present to win.” So, leaving that meaning aside, when we say use a phrase, “I am present,” or “I’m being present as much as I can,” what actually do we mean? What are we saying with that statement?
Hand Janet the microphone, would you? And just leave it on. Don’t switch it back and forth.
Janet: We’re attending to the sensations, impressions and thoughts that arise. When we do that we’re present.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else? Gary? Valerie?
Valerie: I’m not multi-tasking.
Ken: Okay. I like that one. Okay. Gary.
If you guys sat closer together it would be a lot easier.
Gary: Present moment.
Ken: Yeah. Just a second. What do you mean? What are you seeking to convey to me when you say that?
Gary: Basically a repeat what’s already been said in terms of being aware of sensation, thought, emotion as they arise and as they dissipate.
Ken: I know that’s the instruction, but is that actually what’s going on when you say, “I am present”? Or “I’m being present as much as I can.” This can go back to Janet, too.
Janet: Your sense of self disappears.
Ken: Well, this raises a very interesting question, then who’s talking?
Janet: Nobody. [Laughing]
Ken: But you see the problem? See I think very often it’s a subtle form of bragging. Go on. You can take issue with that, it’s fine.
Janet: Well, it can be. I mean—
Janet: But I think sometimes people are pointing to an experience. An unusually clear attentiveness, awareness, and they want to contrast that to our ordinary way of being lost in distraction.
Ken: Okay. So why that term? And, I mean, you’ve added another wrinkle here, another dimension to it. And so the intention, when you use that term, is to communicate some kind of experience. But why that choice?
Janet: Because we’re often absent. We often feel like we’re not really here. And I think that’s the contrast being drawn. At least—
Janet: …I’m quite familiar with not being really fully here.
Ken: Okay. Claudia.
Claudia: Well, I don’t like those definitions for the experience even, whatever we’re pointing to. Because saying that you’re aware of your thoughts and sensations and whatever, you can do that and be the observer and not really be in the experience.
Ken: So, being present for you, I’m inferring, denotes something additional, that you’re being in the experience—
Ken: …not separate from it—
Ken: …as an observer. Okay.
Ken: Anybody else. Gary? You moved Gary. It’s a dead give-away.
Gary: It was an itch.
Ken: Yeah, right. [Laughing]
Gary: From my own experience, it’s difficult to communicate what it is. It’s easy to get lost in it.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. Go on.
Gary: So we have these conventions of language and we have our preferences in terms of what words we might like to use to communicate experience.
Ken: Okay. So, in a certain sense it’s a shortcut.
Gary: Well, it’s always an awkward experience for me to communicate whatever it is. And for those that have the skill in it, maybe there’s a facility in doing that.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. Okay. Christy, did you have something?
Christy: Well, to borrow my husband’s words which jumped into my mind, “bristling with focus.”
Ken: Is he a poet?
Christy: But that’s the way he would describe himself when he was preparing for a wrestling match.
Ken: Ah. Bristling with focus. Well, it’s vivid. Yes, thank you. Okay.
So there are several points being raised here. One, not doing anything else. Being in the experience—not observing it. A sense of completeness in that it embraces everything that’s being experienced. And a vivid quality to it. Okay?
Now, I think you put all of those together and I think, yes, then we get something that this term is pointing to. I don’t think it’s always used that way all the time. But that would be what it’s pointing to when it’s being used to other than what I was pointing out as a subtle form of bragging.
Now, what all of this points to is a different relationship with experience. And in contrast to our usual relationship with experience which is one of fragmented attention, doing two or three different things at once often, very momentary, a sense of not quite being there or not being there at all. Lost in thought or emotion or what have you, and not particularly vivid or alive.
Now that is how we live most of the time. And what the Anapanasati Sutra and the Satipatthana—if I have the pronunciation correct—Sutra are both pointing to is how to bring attention or how to—how do I want to say this—how to come into the experience of, of what is arising right now. And they have two different approaches. And that is precisely what my friend, termed the primary practice, aims to do.
Now, the steps in the primary practice are…You can just put that down beside you if you don’t want to hold it [referring to the microphone]. You can number them four just to make it nice. Sometimes they’re numbered five.
But the first one is, open to the experience of all sensory sensations. What we see, and the experience of seeing; what we hear, and the experience of hearing; what we touch, and the experience of touching. One can include smell and taste but those are usually fairly ephemeral. So unless one’s sitting beside a garbage dump or a flower bed or something like that, then it would become quite vivid. That’s the first step. And there are a couple of different ways of doing that, which I’ll come back to in a moment.
The second step is to open to all of the emotions, all of the internal material: emotions, feelings and so forth. Stories, as well.
The third step is to open your heart to everything you’re experiencing. Now it’s very interesting—a little digression here—frequently when I say that people go, “Huh? How do you open your heart to experience?” And rather than give a long-winded explanation I usually ask them if they’re in a relationship. And they say, “Yes.” So so can you open your heart to partner, your husband, spouse, whomever? They say, “Yes.” I say, “Do that.” And they go, “Okay.” So now you see that cushion there, do the same thing. And almost everybody gets it. There is a way of just opening—and I’m not quite sure how to put it into words—emotionally heartfelt way or something like that. But it isn’t actually dependent on the object though ordinarily we think it’s dependent on the object. You follow?
So people get that quite quickly. What this reminds me of is a passage I read in a book called Against Essentialism, which is a 200 pages of high level sociological theory, which is a sustained argument for non-self. And one of the things he [Stephan Fuchs] points out—and I just love this—we ordinarily think, you know, this is a thing. And it’s glass or this gong or book and you are people. But what he points out is that peopleness and thingness doesn’t reside in the object, it resides in the relationship.
How many of you know people who relate to, say, a flower or a garden or a car or even a rock possibly, as a person? You all know people like that? And how many of you have been treated by someone or other as a thing. So it’s actually the quality in the relationship that determines peopleness and thingness. And this applies very much to this business of opening our heart to what we experience. Ordinarily we say, okay, we open our heart to people. Maybe pets too. But beyond that we don’t go. But it’s actually possible to open our heart to everything we experience. And it changes things. So that’s the third step.
And the fourth step is to open to the experience of awareness itself. That is usually done by asking the question, “What experiences this?” When that question is asked a shift takes place and one rests in the shift. One doesn’t seek to answer the question. One simply rests in the shift.
Now, something rather strange happened in Western thought. I don’t really know when it began, probably with the scholastics but I’m not a hundred percent sure. But awareness was appropriated by the individual. So you say, “I’m aware.” Which means that everything that I’m aware of is devoid of awareness or consciousness. So by associating consciousness with me I’m forced to experience a dead world. And we split the object of experience away from what is aware of experience.
Now, this doesn’t hold water at all in any kind of analysis. And you know we can go through the Twelve Ayatanas, the twelve sense fields to show that the object of awareness and awareness are mutually dependent on each other, etc.—not a big deal. I went through this with the Heart Sutra. But as long as we appropriate consciousness for the individual, then we necessarily regard everything else as being unconsciousness…not consciousness. I don’t want to use the term unconsciousness because that has a different meaning. And so we feel very alone in because we’re the only conscious thing and everything else is not.
When you ask the question, “What is aware of all this?” you look and you see nothing. Awareness is still present but it’s no longer appropriated in the individual. So it leads to a very different way of experiencing things.
You with me, Valerie? Chewing on this?
Ken: It’s over there, by Christy.
Valerie: I was with you at the end but I just don’t get how saying…I can’t even imagine how it could be that when I say,“I am aware” that suddenly cuts off everything else from having any awareness. I just can’t buy it. But it sounds good.
Ken: Jean-Paul Sartre, in my opinion, was a chicken. But he—
Student: I thought you were a kernel of corn?
Ken: Yes, we could go there, too. But he wrote a short monograph called The Transcendence of Ego. He started it off extremely well and then he completely chickened out. Okay. You go to a park, lots of parks in Paris. You look at everybody. Everybody is an object in your world. Right? Until someone looks at you. Now what? For Sartre this was a terrifying moment. Who was going to be an object in whose world?
Student: For me it’s a balance.
Ken: Yeah. And you get this. That’s what I’m referring to here. We see others, the objects of our things, as not having conscious. We’re the conscious element in our experience. Everything else is not conscious.
Valerie: I’m familiar with the sense of battle [Ken laughs] but I didn’t ever connect it to me…that being me assuming that there was no awareness there.
Ken: It’s not…yeah we’re talking about how it operates. There isn’t a conceptual process going on here. But because we’re so attached to the idea of being conscious of ourselves that’s how we inevitably regard other things. You getting it? Yep. Janet.
Janet: In some ways it feels to me as though when there is threat it’s precisely because I recognize the consciousness of the other.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. Yep.
Janet: And it’s not denying their consciousness, it’s feeling uncertain or distrustful that the world that they want coincides with the world that I want. So I can see his point about a moment of terror potentially arising. But I think it has to do with the recognition of them as conscious rather than the opposite.
Ken: Well, yes but what do we actually try to do in that situation? What do you do in that situation?
Ken: [Laughs] Notice—
Janet: Destroy or magnetize or—
Ken: Well, what we actually do—and there’s quite a bit of stuff in psychology on this—is we explain their actions as deterministic and we’re the only ones acting in free will. You know, well, he did that because of x, y and z. We leave ourselves out of that calculus completely [chuckling].
Janet: I can see that point, yeah.
Ken: Well, it’s, it’s, I mean we don’t often pay attention to this kind of stuff but it’s operating all over the place.
Now, let’s go back and do this a little more from an experiential point of view. So, I said there were two ways of opening to sensory experience. One is to pick an object. And that can be the breath, a sound, or an object that we’re looking at. And then expand the field of attention, first associated with that sense and then progressively to include all of the others.
So one way of doing this with the breath is you just open to the experience of breathing, which usually starts with an awareness in the nostrils and then become aware of sensations in the back of the throat, movement of the body, awareness of the body sitting on a cushion or a chair. And then expanding that to all of the movement in the body associated with the breath. And then everything that we’re seeing as we’re breathing, everything that we’re hearing as we’re breathing and so forth.
That’s opening to all sensory experience. That’s one way of doing it. And we could do that with a flower, or, you know, a particular part of the pattern on the carpet. If the air conditioning stayed on we could do it with the sound of the air conditioning, so forth.
Another way of doing it is to—this is slightly different but does the same thing—is to take a frame and open to everything we see within that frame. Sometimes practicing with a doorway or a window like this can be very helpful. It’s a way of training to see everything within a limited area. And then you expand that ability until the frame becomes the limit of your vision and so forth. Either way works.
And then when you can rest in all the sensory experience, and when we’re doing this what happens is that as we expand or open to everything you’ll find that attention collapses down on an object or a particular aspect, you know including the body. It may be collapsed down on an itch in the leg or a bright colored object, visually. And you just, we’ll find that we’re just looking at that.
And whenever we notice that the appropriate thing to do is to expand from that back to everything. What a lot of people do is they will try to ignore that and open to everything. That doesn’t work at all. But you expand from whatever you’ve collapsed down, you just expand back to everything.
Yeah, if you could bring it down a little bit more. That’s fine. That’s all that’s necessary. Thank you.
Now this is equivalent in The Four Foundations of Mindfulness to mindfulness of form, which is usually rendered mindfulness of body. But body in that sense means all sensory experience. Okay?
Then in the second step—and it’s good…let me say a little bit more about this. In this first step, it’s good to go out and practice this. Now there are a lot of ways you can do this. Walking along the road, you look at the road, and see every grain of dirt and every pebble in the road at the same time. Stand in front of a tree and see every needle, if it’s a pine tree or every leaf and every branch if it’s a deciduous tree. And just look at it until you can see all of it at the same time. We don’t have any waterfalls around here but waterfalls are great to work with and so you can see every drop of water falling at the same time. It’s kind of a neat experience.
You can do it with music. So, you know, with polyphonic music, so you can hear every instrument at the same time. You actually hear things differently that way. You can do it with a small object, you can do it with a big object, we can look over the valley until you can see absolutely everything. It’s one of the great features of this place, it’s very open and spacious.
And it’s good to practice this, not only in sitting but once you begin to get some ability to open to all of that experience then start walking and maintaining it while you are walking. In the beginning you’ll find that it’ll be easier if you walk slowly and turn your head slowly. But as you practice that way you find that it just becomes a way of experiencing the world.
The next step is to practice it with moving objects—where there are some moving objects because the tendency with a moving object and it’s physiologically conditioned is for the attention to collapse down on the moving object.
It’s also very good to practice it with people. Remember that from the TDP? I was working with the Teacher Development Program. We were doing this and then I said, okay, to do it with each other. And they found it so difficult to maintain that open experience because…and we’re physiologically and biologically programmed just to collapse down to focus on the face and the emotions and things like that. And you just [Ken makes collapsing noise]. So it’s really good to practice this. You know, in conversations. You find that it changes the dynamics a little bit. You don’t get hooked so emotionally and you actually experience a lot more of what’s going on.
So it’s a practice. It’s something you do and you’re developing or you’re building a capacity here. To a certain extent you’re developing a skill but it’s far more about building a capacity.
Ken: [Talks to the person recording the session] I just panicked and thought that was a…you’re getting all of this, right? Good.
Now, you go to the second step. Second step is opening to all of the internal material. This is roughly analogous to the second of the foundations of mindfulness, vedana, the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. But it actually it would be more accurate to say it’s combining steps two and three in the foundations of mindfulness. Because you’re not only including pleasant, unpleasant and neutral, you’re also including all of the reactions to that which comes up as the mental formations.
Now the same process takes place. When you begin to open to all of the internal material you find different things catching your attention. You’re collapsing down on that. And you do the same thing, you just expand back to everything. This goes against the grain of our ordinary conditioning because we’re used to being caught by something and then going with it. And then being caught by something else and then going with it. Including everything all at the same time is not something that most of us do. There are a few people, I mean, artists tend to be very open. But they don’t know what to do with it all. But most people restrict the field of experience because they don’t know how to operate it with everything clawing around at the same time.
Now one notices that there are different kinds of internal material. There are the subtle feelings of pleasant, unpleasant and indifference…and neutral associated with sensory experience. There are the emotional reactions to those such as attraction, aversion and indifference. The secondary emotional reactions like anger, hatred, desire, greed—you know, the usual culprits—pride and so forth. There are other emotions which have very different quality such as loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. There are values and ideals. And it can be a little bit disconcerting to discover how tenaciously we cling to some of those.
And opening to the experience of all of this changes our relationship with it. And this is the part that a lot of people have difficulty with because when we’re identified with something we don’t actually experience it. It’s us. When we aren’t identified then we actually experience it. And so some of our values, some of our ideals now become objects of attention. That’s a change in relationship. And it’s an important shift. Because in becoming objects of attention we’re no longer identified with them. We begin to see how that they have an arbitrary component to them.
And so even at this second stage you can begin to feel like somebody pulled the floor away. You’re not quite sure what your standing on or what you can lean against or rely on. And what one discovers as one continues to cultivate this way of experiencing things is that there is a natural stability which doesn’t depend on holding onto or relying on something. And one begins to form a relationship with that. If you want the technical term for that, that is balanced pristine awareness. But I’m not going to go into all of that stuff this evening.
Now even though you’ve opened to all sensory experience and open to all the internal…well, let me say. When you do those two things the sense of internal and external, or inner and outer, or inside and outside starts to become moot. There’s just a field of experience. And that’s a very different way of experiencing things. And you begin to see that sensory experience arises in the same field as emotional experience. Like “Hmm, I thought that stuff was out there, but it’s just an arising in mind.”
And then the third step aims at relaxing, let’s say, the defensive posture of separation. How’s that for a phrase? Pretty good. I mean we all know what it’s like to open to another person. Robert Bly translates a verse by Kabir saying, “Shall I tell you what it’s like to love someone else? To love someone, imagine cutting your head off and giving it to that person. What difference would that make?” I always wanted to use that line at a wedding but I could never find anybody [laughter]. I thought it’d be great but. I almost got one couple to go for it but they pulled out at the last minute. Not the wedding—the line. So—
So when we open like that there’s no defense. Anything can happen or anything that does happen we’re going to feel it. And it’s why most of the time we don’t go around like that. We like to have that wall up. So the point of the third step is to take down that wall. Not only with people but with everything that we experience.
I remember in the three-year retreat, and I was practicing meditation on loving-kindness and compassion quite deeply. And I read an account of somebody going to see Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. And as was typical with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, he was always reading texts because he just loved reading the dharma. And this person was under some time pressure to catch his plane and was waiting to get this final instruction from Dilgo Khyentse before he left. And there was Dilgo Khyentse reading away in Tibetan. And just before he really had to leave Dilgo Khyentse lifted his head, looked at him and said, through his translator, “Just remember, always be kind.” And then went back to the text.
And when I read this, it was just like [Ken makes penetrating sound] a knife going straight into my heart, just like “agh”. I’m not sure why. A lot to do with the fact that I was doing a lot of loving-kindness and compassion meditation. But it was very definitely an experience of being really open so and something coming up and just going straight in. Well, you see, that way there’s no separation from experience. And you know, if you don’t want to be separate from…I mean, if you really want to experience things, you better make sure you really don’t want to be separate from experience. Most people, they’re quite happy to be separate from experience because when you’re open this way stuff’s just going to go straight in ’cause there’s no barrier. You’re going to feel it, whatever arises. And that’s what we’re actually practicing in this third step—just opening the heart to what we are experiencing. And it’s just like opening, removing the barriers.
Now understandably, there’s a very, very strong emotional element in that step. And it may take a while to build the capacity so that you can actually do that. And, as is usually the case, you’ll find that there’s certain aspects of your experience you can open to and other things, like, “Nope. Not gonna do that. Can’t open to that.”
I was a bit surprised a few months ago because I was thinking about this sequence of steps in practice—someone had asked me about this. And then I recalled a person who had really been quite, quite unpleasant to me many, many years ago. When I say many years ago I’m talking about 25. So it’s a long time ago. And as I was going through this third step myself I realized I was completely closed to him. I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. I didn’t want to. And I, “Oh, okay.” Another thing to work on in my practice. I’d been carrying it around for all those 25 years. I was just really closed to that person.
So when you, we engage this practice that’s the kind of thing we’re going to uncover. We’re going to uncover the areas where we’re closed. And sometimes it would be very, very good reason for that. And there are going to be decision points. Okay? Do I open to this or do I have the capacity to open to this now? And you’ll find out.
In all of this I think it’s really, really important not to force anything. The image that I like to use is of a flower bud in the sun. You know, the warmth of the sun falls on the flower bud and the flower bud opens in its own time. So the effort in practice is consistent but gentle. It’s not harsh. And things open up when the capacity is there to experience them. That way things stay in balance and one doesn’t have psychotic breaks or re-traumatizing or things like that. Which I think is a little important.
And then the fourth step. In the totality of your experience open to it emotionally, and then you ask, “What experiences all of this?” And usually when we ask that question there’s a shift. Now the shift is very hard to describe in words. But it often has the quality of a sense of “I” dropping out. And the shift is into the experience of awareness itself.
Now that’s usually quite unstable at the beginning. And so what people often try to do is they sense the shift, it decays and they try to get it back. Never, never works. The only way that does work—and this is very important—is you go through the whole sequence again. You may be able to go through it a little more quickly—this is already trained to some extent. But you go through it again so you come into that total experience, again. It’ll last for, you know, a hundred milliseconds or whatever and decays. And you keep doing this you actually build up the capacity slowly to be able to rest in that shift.
Now, as you do this over and over again you’re building a capacity in attention which allows you to experience everything more and more completely. There’ll be a lot of bumps, a lot of stuff will come up but one doesn’t have the capacity to experience. And that’s just the next part of one’s practice. And, in the bigger picture, you’re first are able to stabilize a level of attention. Then as you continue you stabilize awareness. And then you stabilize what I’m going to call presence in the sense of our discussion right at the beginning of this evening which is the quality of being in, not observing. Or I mean to say the quality of being the experience—vivid but not consumed by it.
Yeah. Now this is probably a longer answer than you were anticipating, Larry.
Larry: No, that’s good. It’s very helpful. I wonder if you could speak to calm abiding and how calm abiding is—
Larry: …is playing out. Everyone, I would think, kind of begins their meditation practice with calm abiding.
Larry: And the first step there of opening to experience of all sensory sensations begins with that focus likely on something like the breath.
Ken: Yep. I’m very glad you asked that because I left out a whole section.
Ken: Calm abiding is the English translation of shamatha, which in the Mahayana tradition anyway is broken down into mindfulness and awareness. It’s not the big awareness, just small awareness. Now when you read the traditional definitions of mindfulness and awareness here you don’t get any sense of focusing, concentrating or observing. The traditional definition of mindfulness is the mind joins with the object of attention. And the traditional definition of awareness is knowing what is going on.
Most meditation instruction, as you just pointed out, Larry, is given in the sense of you focus on this object. So well all of you take a small object like this. I’m taking the striker of the gong but you could take a pen or anything, water bottle, doesn’t matter. And focus on the object. Focus your attention. And get a sense of that. Okay?
Now let that go. I want you to do this now. Open to the experience of that object. Okay, what’s the difference between those two? Larry?
Larry: It seemed like the awareness of the object became sharper.
Larry: I’ll have to work with this a little bit to see if it indeed happens.
Ken: Well, yeah—
Larry: When I focused on the object in its totality, I was still locking in on and objectifying parts of it and I kept jumping back and forth in order to calibrate at a higher level.
Ken: Yeah. But there’s also a distinct sense of I focusing on the object. Right?
Ken: And what happens when you open to the experience of it?
Larry: Yeah that’s where that it just kind of sharpened up. I could…I can see it much…no, I can experience it more fully because I wasn’t just working through one sensory channel.
Ken: Yeah. And it actually reduces the sense of separation.
Ken: Yeah. So this is why I encourage people not to use directed attention but inclusive attention. You include more and more. So you’re always going deeper into the experience of things rather than focusing on things. And so when you ask about calm abiding If I were teaching it I would teach it in the sense of opening to the experience of being able to rest in that. Rather than focusing on the object.
Larry: Subtle difference.
Ken: It is a subtle difference but it makes a very, very big difference—
Ken: …in what happens in peoples’ practice. Now the other component, which is the awareness, knowing what is going on. People get very confused by this. Because if we start with the breath, for instance, and we open to the experience of breathing. Mindfulness forms actually quite quickly. When I was teaching this way I would say once you’ve joined the three breath club you’ve experienced mindfulness. That is, when you experience the breath coming and going three times, and you aren’t distracted from it, there maybe other thoughts coming up but you aren’t distracted by them, you experience mindfulness. You’ve experienced the mind joining with the object of attention. It’s not a big deal.
As one continues with that and so that the periods of actually resting in the experience of the breath increase and also lengthen then completely naturally another quality of attention emerges. And it’s the difference between meditating in a closet or practicing in a closet and practicing in an open meadow. And then people suddenly find, “Oh, everything just opened up.” And that quality is awareness. Not the big awareness—just the awareness associated with shamatha. ’Cause when that opens up now you are aware of what’s going on. You’re aware when you’re distracted, you’re aware of all the other thoughts. You’re aware of emotions, you’re aware of it, just things like that. And you’re in the experience at the same time. You know what I’m talking about? Yeah.
So calm abiding, or shamatha consists of the union of mindfulness and awareness. Well, you can see how this is taken care of automatically in what we’re calling the primary practice here. You’re actually engaging that process and constantly opening to everything that’s going on so that you’re completely in the experience. So it’s a different way of approaching calm abiding. But, I think, actually it is potentially closer to how things may have been originally taught before the monasteries screwed everything up.
Larry: Would you care to build on this and speak a little bit…build on on what you’ve just talked about and speak a little bit about vipashyana.
Ken: Well, it’s all there. Vipashyna is usually translated as insight. It’s simply a higher level of attention. And it’s in the primary practice that higher level of attention is elicited by the question, “What experiences this?” And there’s a shift.
Now all of this falls, if you think of it in terms of the Tripitaka—that’s the canonical division of teachings in Buddhism—where you have morality, meditative stability, and wisdom. All of this falls into the category of meditative stability or stabilizing attention at higher and higher levels. What is really important here is that stability is developed not through trying to hold things. That really doesn’t work. Stability develops through resting. And people, often in their practice, push to higher levels of attention but as they do so their stability becomes weaker and weaker until they can’t hold it anymore. And then there’s kind of a crash. And often they will just try to hold it more. But whenever there’s that hardening of the holding, there’s always suppression. Something else is being squeezed out and basically the internal material that is destabilizing the attention is being squeezed out. And now you’re engaged in war.
In the approach that I’m trying to describe to you here, as you rest you become aware of stuff you don’t want to be aware of, just as I was describing of my own experience earlier. And that’s what destabilizes or fragments the attention. Well, once you start becoming aware of it, now you just start including it. Which is, of course, frequently the last place that we want to go. You know, it’s dark steps down into a darker basement when we thought we were going towards the light. But if we don’t bring attention into that then there is no possibility of developing stability.
And this, I’m almost embarrassed to say, I know extremely well from my own experience because I avoid a lot of stuff. Probably still do. I become aware of it in bits and pieces. This is what makes practice so very, very challenging because—I mean, one of the quotations I like from Thich Nhat Hanh is, and it’s kind of a reflection of Dogen’s saying that…
Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The practice of meditation is the study of what is going on. What is going on is very important.” And one has to underline there what is going on. You know, it’s not what we want to be going on but what is going on. And Dogen said, “To study the dharma is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” And you get the same sense of inclusion in that.
Now there’s one other piece I want to touch on here—I even made notes!
Bringing attention to precisely what we’re experiencing in each moment does three things. The first thing it does—and I don’t think these are in any particular order so. So let’s say one thing it does is it frees us from emotional reaction. Emotional reaction is always dependent on the sense of past and future. Hopes and fears about the future, disappointments and longings or aversions from the past. When we bring attention to precisely what we’re experiencing now, the past and the future disappear. And so we’re freed from emotional reaction and can relate to what is arising right now.
Second thing is that bringing attention to the present moment brings the freedom to act. If you look at situations in which you couldn’t act, you’re inhibited in some way. I think you’ll see that there was always some sense of the past or the future again.
But when you’re right in the present moment by bringing the attention…you know, bringing it down to that, you make it in a certain sense so small that you can actually do anything with it. It’s quite interesting then. I mean this technique is used in psychotherapy sometimes is by bringing the attention closer and closer to what people are experiencing they discover, oh, a freedom in that. Because they’re letting go of all the associations and fears and consequences and so forth.
The third thing that attention in the present does is it frees us from identity. When we are completely engaged in experience then the sense of an “I” apart from experience vanishes.
So that’s a little cheerleading for bringing attention to the present. Okay?
Questions or discussions points. Valerie? You’re sitting there like a big question mark.
Valerie: I guess I had a question about, because you used the term when you were talking about shamatha about this is small awareness or little awareness then is big awareness the thing at the end of your discussion of the primary practice?
Ken: Yeah, that question what is aware of all of this points in that direction. Now there’s a relationship between big awareness and little awareness.
Valerie: Can you say more about that?
Ken: Yes. Little awareness is the door to big awareness. ’Cause little awareness is it brings out the clarity aspect of attention.
Valerie: Is big awareness a moving target?
Ken: You remind me of a very clever joke. I think it was in one of these films about courtly France where you gained the appreciation of the king by cracking good jokes. And so the king says to this new nobleman whose just come to the court, “Make up a joke—about me.” Well, this is very dangerous territory, of course. So the new nobleman who’s very quick with it says, “The king is not a subject.” [Laughter] So, ask your question again. [Pause] Go ahead.
Valerie: Is big awareness a moving target?
Ken: It’s not a target [Ken chuckles].
Valerie: Yet like infinity is something that…
Ken: You see, when you ask the question is big awareness a moving target, what is the relationship between big awareness and you?
Valerie: Yes. [Ken chuckles] But as you described in your what I felt came from your experience in your discussion of the primary practice, there are things that are difficult for us that we continue to work with and open to and discover that we have not yet opened to. And I guess that’s what I mean that it’s a big field.
Ken: Okay. It’s an interesting point. Thank you.
In Dzogchen you have people talking about rigpa all the time—big awareness, direct awareness, what have you. You can’t—what’s the expression—yes, “You can’t wake up somebody who is pretending to sleep.” Okay? We are aware, right now. Right? What’s the problem? Right now.
Valerie: There is no problem.
Ken: Why do you practice, then?
Valerie: Because I suspect I will encounter a problem because things are always changing. There is no problem now. But samsara is notorious for being without end.
Ken: [Chuckles, speaks at the same time as Valerie]…is notorious for being without…yeah. So what’s the problem?
Valerie: There isn’t a problem.
Ken: [Laughs] Of course there’s a problem. We aren’t satisfied with our experience. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here. [Laughs] You wouldn’t have flown halfway, well, a third of the way across the country and driven for a couple of hours if you were satisfied with the way you were experiencing your life.
Valerie: But that dissatisfaction is a posture.
Ken: Drop the posture. Not so easy, is it. And that’s why we’re here, is to learn how to drop the posture. You with me?
Ken: Okay. No mention of big awareness here. No need to mention awareness. It’s all, “How am I experiencing right now? How am I experiencing right now? How am I experiencing right now?” And we very quickly find this is…you might think this is going back to basics but it’s really very important. That there are two persistent problems which arise. One is we can’t stay in the experience. And the other is it’s confused or dulled in some way. And we know that because sometimes we experience things more vividly.
So how do we learn to stay in what arises in experience? That’s the quality of resting. And sometimes it’s very difficult to rest in uncomfortable or very exciting or even very pleasurable experiences. So that’s one quality that we cultivate. And as I said earlier as we cultivate that quality of resting then a vividness or a clarity opens up. And it comes directly out of the resting. And that opens another possibility. So what we’re doing in our practice is through our own efforts discovering possibilities of experiencing things, we can say more completely, more vividly, less separation, etc. And all the other language like awareness, big awareness, etc. are basically referring to those kinds of experiences. They’re ways of experiencing things. This make sense?
So you rest deeply in your experience and see what’s there. Okay? For now?
Janet: Can you help me understand why it is that while you’re becoming more able to rest deeply these new layers come up which bring up more confusion and darkness.
Ken: They actually bring up old confusion, not new confusion.
Janet: But it feels new.
Ken: Oh yes!
Janet: Because if feels like things were vivid and then suddenly there’s more darkness and scatteredness.
Ken: Yeah. Well, in the course of growing up in our lives the way that we experience things evolved. And virtually everybody encountered various experiences in the course of growing up that they did not have the capacity to experience at the time. So those got walled off. And whole patterns of behavior, etc. helped to keep them walled off. You can regard them as survival strategies if you wish. Many…very few of them were actual conscious decisions. Maybe some of them were. But just things that evolved.
As we rest and capacity and attention increases then we can begin to experience what was walled off. Because it’s what was walled off that prevents us from experiencing things completely right now. So, we keep bumping into stuff.
And one of the things it took me awhile to appreciate is that when attention begins to penetrate another piece of that old material our subjective experience is that we’re incapable of practicing, that attention is scattered, etc. we feel like we’re back to square one, we have no ability. That’s the subjective attention because we’re experiencing the chaos and confusion that’s stored there. It’s not actually the case but it’s how it feels. Do you follow?
Janet: Is the very fact that this old material is arising evidence that we now have the capacity to experience it?
Ken: Yes. This is why I encourage this approach. Because the things like the primary practice and putting the emphasis on resting then you will only experience what you actually have the capacity to experience. You may not feel you have the capacity to it. That’s another matter. But you only experience what you actually have the capacity to experience. You use other techniques such as primal scream or holotropic breathing or drugs or any number of other techniques, you’re artificially jacking the level of attention up. So that you go into this material but you may not have the capacity to experience it. With a skilled practitioner it can be helpful but there is a risk of retraumatizing. And also you’re relying on artificial techniques. As one gains facility and skill then you can use other techniques to generate higher levels of attention. But that’s because you have the skill to be able to negotiate these things. Okay?
Janet: It helps.
Ken: All right.
Student: Is this like—I don’t know how to pronounce it—ngöndro, the….
Student: …in the sense that you do a hundred thousand something or anothers to build a capac—
Student: …yep, capacity. Otherwise, you…it’s pleading and the fruit isn’t going to be ripe.
Ken: Yeah. The practice of ngöndro is very definitely about building a foundation. It’s not focusing explicitly on cultivation of attention. That’s kind of a side-effect. But through this repetition of these practices over and over again…any form with repetition with attention is going to build a capacity. In ngöndro you’re—the prostrations—the way I look at it is you’re surrendering to the demands of awareness. ’Cause we’re taking refuge.
Vajrasattva—you’re coming to know that all impurities are incidental.
Ken: All impurities are incidental.
Ken: In mandala practice, well I’ll put it somewhat glibly, wealth is a function of attitude.
Ken: Function of attitude. And with guru yoga you’re using devotion to power attention very explicitly. So that they’re not particularly analogous to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. But it’s a different form of building capacity. Yep.
Larry: Returning to Janet’s question, in terms of this material that is surfacing and that we have the capacity to be with, the picture that comes to mind is an archaeological dig where the further down we go the more decomposed and strange the shapes take of things that in former times were very recognizable.
So my question is: as this kind of material surfaces that Janet was referring to when you were responding saying, “Yes that’s correct, this does happen”. That material doesn’t necessarily come with stories and clear labels on what they’re all about. It’s—and this is a question—they surface in rather amorphous shapes, colors, feelings, is that correct, from your experience?
Ken: It varies so much from person to person. I don’t think there is any rule. Some people, they get very, very explicit memories and associations. Other people, stuff comes out in their bodies. Other people, it comes out in their dreams. It can be any combination of that. Some people work through layers and there’s very, very intense feelings but it’s not clear what they’re about at all. So the actual form that it takes, I think—well, it does vary. And there isn’t a right way or a wrong way.
What is important is simply the ability to be in the experience.
Larry: Well it just occurs to me that regardless of what story may surface or what symbology or metaphor, there’s always this affect, coloring, shapes and stresses that surface that don’t have names. And that’s why I likened it to an archaeological dig.
Ken: Yeah, I like the image.
Larry: The further you get down there the less…it’s all turning to earth.
Ken: [Laughs] Yeah. Okay.
Ken: Gary. Larry, could you pass the mic.
Gary: Just curious, Ken, about how chö could be possibly—I mean, I know this is all individual but in terms of dealing with the walled-off material and looking at the primary practice and the steps you’ve outlined especially about, you know, opening your heart. I’m wondering if there’s any way someone can incorporate that practice?
Ken: In chö?
Gary: With…well, chö and in a certain step in the primary practice if that’s possible?
Ken: Well, let’s take a step back. The taking and sending, or tonglen—one way to view that practice is it’s a way of forming a relationship with elements of our experience from which we’re alienated.
Student: Can you say that again?
Ken: It’s a way of forming a relationship with elements of our experience from which we’re alienated. So, for instance, we don’t really like our anger so with taking and sending we take in the anger of all sentient beings and give joy to them. It’s a way of forming a relationship with anger. You follow?
Now, chö is a dramatic enactment of taking and sending. So those parts of our experience from which we’re extremely alienated, usually described as the “karmic debt collectors,” we invite and we give them what we’re most attached to—our own body. So it’s a way of forming a relationship with those aspects of our experience from which we’re most alienated. Follow?
Now if one looks at the cultivation of attention as the sort of central trunk of practice we may find, and often do, that we run into things in us—and sometimes very large portions—which we don’t have any way of accessing or working with directly. And then we use special techniques such as taking and sending or chö or yidam practice or four immeasurables or whatever to work on things quite explicitly so that certain qualities and certain abilities develop so that we can open to those experiences. And some people, those practices just speak more powerfully so they go with it. They work with those.
Gary: So the idea is to be able to stay relaxed and rest while your doing the entire practice?
Ken: Very definitely. Very definitely. The power of resting is extraordinary. If you tense your fist…or just say tense your hand and touch the table. And if you relax your hand and touch the table you’ll have two different experiences. And which of those do you have the more complete experience of the table? It’s the same principle applies.
And so whenever you find yourself hardening that actually is something to pay attention to. Okay? Because your hardening against something. One always hardens in order to avoid experiencing something.
Gary: Even while doing taking and sending or chö. Right?
Ken: Definitely. Yeah. I mean, if you’re hardening doing taking and sending there’s something over there you don’t want to experience. Yep.
Other questions. Okay. This helpful discussion this evening? Janet.
Janet: I know the instruction is to go to your body. And you’ve said again and again that it’s reliable.
Janet: And some of us have health issues and other experiences that make our body not feel that reliable. So I want to know how to work with that. I mean when your body has often been sort of the central problem in your life, then how do you work with trusting it more?
Ken: Many years ago a person came to a retreat at Mt. Baldy who had been studying dzogchen for quite awhile. And he’d memorized a poem about this mind broken and in the sea of samsara, etc. And he, in one of our interviews, he recited it. It was a beautiful poem. I said, “That’s great. But I’d like you to do, make one change. I’d like you to recite that poem and wherever it says mind, say body.” He got in through two lines and he was in tears because he could feel how he was ignoring his body pursuing this awareness and stuff.
Okay. So your body has been in a lot of pain. And it’s caused you a lot of pain. If you ask your body, how would you like to practice? What does your body say?
Janet: It wants to rest.
Ken: Okay. Ask your body, do you know how to rest?
Janet: It knows how to rest.
Ken: Then, are you willing to let your body rest?
Janet: I fight it. I fight it.
Ken: So, is the problem the body or you?
Janet: I get it. [Very softly.] Yeah. [sighs]
Ken: You see it’s—listening to the body that way—it’s very inconvenient because we’ve developed this whole way of relating to the world that ignores it. And now we’re beginning to see that that’s somewhat problematic. But your body seemed to know what to do here. Okay?
Ken: Yeah. More than these fixed ideas that we have. Okay. Anything else before we close for this evening? Okay.
Let’s just sit for a short period of time together. Thank you.