The Pattern ImperativeDownload
Recognizing reactive patterns, beliefs as fully crystallized patterns, recognizing choice points within patterns, how a pattern impacts all areas of life
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Several people have asked how do you recognize a reactive pattern. Well, one of the features of a reactive pattern is, as I mentioned, that they’re mechanical in nature. What’s one of the characteristics of a mechanical system?
Student: No variation.
Ken: No variation. It just runs one way. So, a way to identify a reactive pattern—and it’s very useful to do this—is, “Must be this way, can’t be that. Have to have this, can’t have that. Must have this, can’t have that.” Any time you have that going in you, chances are you’re running a reactive pattern. We run into this all the time. The retreat that I did recently in Santa Fe, there was a little confusion the first day, and there was no coffee at breakfast. [Laughter]
Student: Not a good move.
Student: Ah, love it.
Ken: See, there we are, right there. “Must be this way, can’t have that.”
Ken: No, no, can’t, you weren’t there. [Laughter]
Student: I was there.
Student: I have it on good authority that they have coffee in the bardo.
Ken: Yeah, so a nobleman once asked a dervish, “I’ve been a student of the path for many years but I feel I have gained no understanding at all.” And the dervish replied, “That is because you are too arrogant.” And the nobleman said, “If you weren’t a holy man I would take offense at that remark; however, I am willing to listen. I will do whatever you say.” And the dervish replied, “The situation is beyond hope. You will not do what I say, and so you cannot learn anything on this path.” And the nobleman said, “I don’t accept that. Give me your instruction.” And the dervish said, “I want you to take off your fine clothes, put on some rags, wear a horse’s feedbag full of oats in front of you and a sign saying ‘Kick me’ on the back.” “I can’t do that.” “Exactly,” said the dervish, “so you cannot learn.”
We run into this all the time—when you hear yourself say, and we have many ways of saying it, “Has to be this way.” Some of the examples that were given in earlier conversations: “Have to be peaceful, can’t have conflict.” Reactive pattern. You know, “It’s against the rules.” Other people, their conversations can’t be peaceful, have to be conflict. Same thing. It’s just the reactive pattern running in a different direction. So anytime you run into that kind of inflexibility—black and white, this way or that—you’re dealing with a reactive pattern. So, I’ve been asking you to go through your lives and identify some reactive patterns. How are you doing with that? Anybody got any fuel to work with? A few people. How many have no fuel to work with? Okay.
So, the next step here is I want you to go a little deeper and see if you can determine what we call the pattern imperative: “Must be this way; can’t be that.”
One woman that I worked with in the western U.S. was very concerned with her appearance. So I said, “I want you to dress to the nines one day and dress to the twos the next.” “I can’t do that.” I said, “Well, that’s your instruction. If you want to continue to work with me, you do it.” She still hasn’t done it. [Laughter]
Student: How long ago was that?
Ken: Yeah, that’s quite a while ago. I took in some other approaches when I saw that this wasn’t going to fly. But it’s very important because there’s a fixation there. “I have to look good. Can’t look bad. I have to look good.” That’s a reactive pattern. It’s a boundary issue. Interestingly enough, this takes us into a little different territory, but that’s what she’s willing to kill and die for.
Student: [Unclear] complete adaptability, and adaptability about one’s agenda.
Ken: If you’re awake, when you’re awake, what do you serve? The present moment. And you do what the present moment requires.
Student: So if there’s no coffee, then you drink tea.
Ken: That’s right, anathema as that may be. Or you drink water, and so forth. Whenever you come across, “Have to have this, has to be this way, can’t be that,” that’s a pattern imperative. Yes?
Student: Would that be the belief?
Ken: Yes, it’s very much connected with belief. Beliefs are fully crystallized patterns. You take us into a slightly different area, but I’ll just go over this briefly. We won’t do any meditation on it. You have open awareness, ideals—ideas and ideals—passion and energy, tacit understandings and feelings, and beliefs and rules of behavior. These are actually the five elements. Beliefs and rules of behavior—earth; tacit understandings and feelings—water; passion, vital interests—fire; ideas, ideals—air; and open awareness—void.
And patterns will crystallize to any level. When they crystallize down to beliefs, rules of behavior, they’re pretty stuck—they’re entrenched. And to undo them you need a high level of attention because so much energy has crystallized in that. It’s like ice; you need a lot of heat if you’re going to get it back to water vapor. You need a lot of heat. In the same way, when you have to undo your actual beliefs, to release them, that’s work. So yes, what you’re hitting with the pattern imperative is where the pattern’s crystallized in you to this level. Okay.
You can tell how solidly the pattern is crystallized by thinking, “What if I don’t do this?” and if the prospect raises sheer panic in you, or worse, if you can’t imagine doing anything different. I had this with a Buddhist teacher who’s really a fine person. I invited him to come to a retreat that I was teaching just to observe my madness and on the way up we stopped for lunch, and I asked him, “Why do you teach?” He’s trained in the Gelugpa tradition, which, as you know, is a pretty orthodox tradition. He said, “Well, to help sentient beings to become free of suffering.” I said, “Yes, I know, that’s the Buddhist propaganda, but why do you teach?’’ And he said the same thing. I said, ”No, no, no, no. That’s the words of the texts, etc., etc. I want it in your words, your voice.“ I knew why he teaches. And he just thought and he said, ”I’m sorry, Ken, that’s all I can come up with.“ Now, the reason he teaches—and I know this from knowing him—is that he loves the Dharma. He just loves it, and he has that kind of relationship with it and so when he teaches, you get that feeling of love.
Student: The compassion [unclear].
Ken: Yeah, it’s like that, but I mean, it’s just there. It’s just an open warmth, and enjoyment, and fulfilling, and that’s what he communicates. That’s why he’s a good teacher and that’s why he teaches. But the whole structure of belief has never been internalized; it’s there to the extent that he’s lost his own voice, so I felt very sad.
Student: Didn’t you say earlier that there are no sentient beings though?
Ken: We’ll come back to that later.
Student: But if that’s in the dharma, then how can you be teaching to liberate all sentient beings. I mean, it’s just…
Student: It’s a Zen thing.
Student: No, I know it’s contradictory…
Ken: I’m going to give you a question. I don’t want you to answer it, I want you to think about it, okay. You’re having a dream. You know it’s a dream while you’re dreaming it. A woman comes up to you holding a dead child in her arms. She is bereft with grief because this is her son. You know this is a dream. What do you do? That’s your question.
Student: I’ve had that dream. I really have.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. Okay, anyway, no discussion right now—we’ll come back to it. But you think about that.
Now, identifying the pattern imperative is not exactly straightforward because you’re bringing attention to a mechanism in you in which everything is set up for you not to see it. So it takes some determination and some honest questioning. So with the reactive…yes?
Student: [Unclear] in the example of the teacher who couldn’t answer the question about the…
Ken: The traditional formulation?
Student: Yep, I didn’t quite get—were you saying that was crystallized in him?
Ken: Yes, it was a belief system.
Ken: But this formulation was crystallized to the extent that he’d lost his own voice.
Student: He’d lost his own voice.
Ken: Yes. He still loved the dharma, but he couldn’t touch that love in himself.
Student: [Unclear] going back to these entrenched patterns that are crystallized…
Ken: Yes, that’s right.
Student: [Unclear] and they come back and in and say, ”Gotcha!“
Ken: Well, once you identify a pattern—everyone thinks, ”Ah, I’ve identified the pattern.“ Once you’ve identified a pattern, if you ever lose track of it, there’s only one reason: it’s eaten you. So you think, ”Oh, it’s gone.“ No, it hasn’t gone—you’re it. [Laughter] It’s very important. You know, people will come in to me and say, ”Well, I don’t have this pattern anymore,“ and I’ll say two words, and they’ll lose their temper at me. Well…
Student: [Unclear] like a vampire, you want to see it in action so you can continue to identify it as a pattern—
Ken: You continue to identify it and as you see it in operation, you begin to sense its imperative, you sense what it’s guarding, which is this undischarged emotion. And now your effort is to experience that emotion, which is a different practice.
Student: Is there a basic set of emotions that you can [unclear], like one to ten, one to five [unclear] you know…?
Ken: Sure, one through six—six realms. Every one of them has, at the basis, fear, but don’t worry about lists like that, just work with your own experience. You know, and that’s fine.
Student: [Unclear] not having a clue what I’m, you know, am I…?
Ken: Exactly. Work with your own experience. Don’t try to think your way into this. [Laughter] Thank you.
Roger: I have a question. First one of these…we were working with mind?
Roger: I had this experience where I got confronted or caught in a lie, like a full-on story, but basically I went to court to pay a traffic ticket, and I [unclear].
Ken: Bad place to get caught in a lie.
Roger: Actually it’s a great place because it’s so…there’s no way to go, you’re—
Ken: Yes, you’re there.
Roger: What was very interesting was, you know, the judge didn’t buy it, and like that, I had to pay the fine. But I had to drive an hour or two hours home from where I went to court, and that two-hour drive it came up, ”Where was I going? What pattern got me into this?“ And it was so clear for a while. This quality of getting caught—actually we should say ”caught is free.“ And it’s—
Ken: Caught is free. Yeah.
Roger: When you actually see the pattern and clearly if you finally glimpse it then there’s some kind of—
Ken: That’s right. Yes. Well, a friend of mine who used to work with people dying with AIDS in the late ’80s, one of his people that he helped, or was with as they died, said something quite similar. He said, ”Gates look like corners until you go through them.“ And one way to think about our practice, it’s to corner you, and to catch you in the mechanicality of the patterned operation. And when you’re caught, you know, and you can’t go here because you see what that is and you can’t go here with what it is, then a tremendous amount of energy builds up.
Now, if you can stay in that energy, which is basically dependent on your practice of attention, then you see. And you see that is not what I am, which I think is probably something that you experienced. And you went, ”What was I doing? That’s not what I am.“ That’s the opening. Up to that point you believed you were the pattern. You follow? But you know, ”That’s not what I am. Why am I doing this?“ And so it raises that question. Now you’re in a position to start working on it. Okay. So it’s very important. People don’t like being cornered but that is what this kind of practice does, and it’s very important.
Student: If you realize you’re being cornered it puts you in a position to disassemble that pattern, and then it almost becomes magnetic to find a place to be cornered. [Laughter]
Student: Well the hard part is being able to see where it is that you’re cornered.
Ken: Everything in you is to avoid being cornered, which is why there’s so many different approaches in the Dharma. Nobody gets cornered willingly. Now, when they are cornered, they can choose to work with it or not. And if they choose to work with it, all kinds of possibilities open up. But the reason a person can get cornered is because they are working hard not to get cornered. And all of our reactive mechanisms are set up that way So, if you are thinking, ”Oh, I want to be cornered, I want to be cornered,“ you’re already in the thrall of a different reactive pattern, and that is the idea that you are making progress. [Laughter] See, I’m getting cornered, and it’s all about having an image as a great dharma practitioner. This is one of the worst traps.
Student: Aren’t I special.
Ken: Yeah, another version of that one.
Student: Isn’t it…?
Ken: [Laughs] Did I hit a button here?
Student: I think there’s something that happens; for example, you might choose a teacher who you know that on an intuitive level is going to cut through all your shit, and you’re not going to be able to fool this person, therefore you pick this teacher as opposed to another because you know you’re going to get caught.
Ken: Yes, that’s true.
Student: So there’s that little insight that you may have—
Ken: But once that teacher starts cornering you…[Laughter]
Student:: How often do you find, let alone choose, teachers who are going to corner you?
Ken: That’s up to you.
Student: Sometimes you marry them. [Laughter]
Student: Isn’t sitting on the cushion a way to be cornered?
Ken: Yes, but you’re creating the conditions in which you can be cornered, but I know people who’ve sat on the cushion for years, and they don’t know anything. They’ve never been cornered.
Student: Why did they sit on the cushion then [unclear]?
Ken: They look good. That’s one of the reasons. Sometimes they have the old standby: they’re practicing, you know, and sometimes they just don’t know any better. Our cook in the second retreat worked with a very respected Zen teacher in Paris, and he was a good Zen teacher, just not for France. And when he started to practice with our retreat director, he realized that what he had learned in Zen—in his Zen training—was basically how to sit still for very long periods of time in a subtle dull state. And our retreat teacher took some pains to show him the difference between that dullness and the clear wakefulness of attention and awareness. He went, ”Oh my goodness, that’s so different.“
All right, Paul?
Paul: During the years when I drank I would be seized by an overwhelming desire to have a drink—[unclear] but when I took a drink then that would mean another one—an addictive—
Paul: And I know that and knew that. When I got sober, I began to not only listen to other people and their stories but to look at the same time at my own story. And I found that there was always a whole series of little tiny—I don’t know what you’d call them—clues that were going to lead…in other words, it felt like I was seized by the desire to drink, but it didn’t start there. It started often in little tiny waves, and then when I looked at that pattern closely enough, I reached the point where I could tell. If I go into a restaurant, and I smell the beer, wine, I can tell you what it is, and immediately I have a wave of desire to have a drink.
Paul: But I also have a choice. At any one of those earlier times I can choose, I can be aware of it, mindful of it, choose to get out of it.
Paul: I mean I don’t stay in this [unclear], but I could do that too.
Paul: And what I’m wondering is, if all of these patterns are like that? In other words, if you examine them really closely, are we going to find that there are little aggravations, or whatever you want to call them, in advance of the act at which we can have a choice and [unclear] out of it?
Ken: Yes, you’re actually leading into the next topic, which I wanted to touch on briefly. You’re quite right. In most situations, unless there’s just a very strong sudden resonance—and then it can just flare up like that—there are all those little indications, and we choose to ignore each one, until suddenly, whoomph, it’s gone. Okay, but most of the time, ”Yes, oh, that.“ And this is why mindfulness is so very, very important. Thich Nhat Hanh: The practice of meditation is the study of what is going on. What is going on is very important. What he’s talking about is what is going on in you, and if you’re totally aware of that, then you see all of these choice points. But if you don’t have that quality of mindfulness, you don’t, and you get swallowed.
Now, the other piece here, as you begin to observe a patter—once you’ve identified it, when you clearly identify it and see it—the next reward you get in your practice is that you see it everywhere in your life. And you see how it runs everywhere. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with fractals, self-similarity, holograms, so forth. The structure of the personality is like this. It’s what I call self-similar, so that you can take any area of your life, and if you look at it deeply enough, everything is there. It can be a relationship with your spouse; it can be a relationship with your colleagues at work; it can be what goes on in you when you’re doing sitting practice. It’s all there.
Student: Can you give a classical example?
Ken: [Chuckles] Well, some people have a pattern that goes, ”Can’t rely on others; have to do it myself.“ Anybody qualify for this one?
Student: Oh yeah.
Ken: Okay. How does this show up in your life? Well, you’re always the last one to leave the office. You’re always the one that’s organizing the next social event, and not only that, you go out and buy the food and do the dishes and clean up afterwards, and you feel all kinds of resentment because you don’t understand why people don’t help you. Because in different ways you’re telling them you don’t need the help because you gotta do it yourself. And it’s very difficult for you to take instruction from a teacher, because you really feel you should be able to do this yourself, and why do I need some instruction from a dumb teacher, because I really need to be able to do this myself? Do you want me to continue?
Student: [Unclear] now you identify the pattern, now you’re saying it shows up in multitudes.
Ken: Yes, so you can see, ”Oh, I have to do everything myself; can’t rely on others.“ And then the next day you notice that you bought some groceries, and someone sees you lugging them to the car and says, ”Can I give you a hand?“ and you say, ”Nope, nope, nope, nope.“ Well there it is, right there. And suppose you’re a schoolteacher, and there you are tidying up the classroom after class, and one of the students says, ”Can I give you a hand?“ and you say ”No, no, you go home, it’s perfectly all right, I’ll do it myself.“ And you just begin to see everything I do it’s like this. Little ways and big ways, and you begin to see that how your whole life has been shaped by that one pattern.
[Ken leafs through book]
Student: [Unclear] may be a karmic—
Ken: Well, you’re getting into a bit of a complication there. Where is this? There’s only one trouble with this book—you can never find anything in it. There we are, here’s what we want.
In the case of erosion we do not need to look for one mechanism that causes small gullies, a second mechanism that causes medium-sized gullies, and other mechanisms that cause still larger gullies. The mechanism is exactly the same in each case. The only difference is the scale on which it manifests. Like the gullies formed by erosion, the same pattern structure recurs over and over in many areas of our lives on different time scales and to varying depths of conditioning. We do not have to look for a cognitive explanation to explain our thinking, a psychological explanation for our feelings, a moral explanation for our values, and a philosophical explanation for our beliefs and worldview. All these different dimensions can arise from the operation of one pattern mechanism. Cognitive, psychological, moral, and philosophical explanations may, in fact, obscure the deeper perception that one pattern is at work. [Wake Up To Your Life, p. 171]
So, look deeply and see. Now, there’s a very significant, very explicit feeling that comes up when you identify a pattern, and you see how much of your life it runs: nausea. And the reason that you feel nausea is that by seeing this pattern and seeing how much of life…it’s like finding out that your boyfriend is in love with someone else. What you thought was your life is actually the patterns, and there’s a shattering of an illusion, and when an illusion is shattered like that, you feel sick to your stomach. So we have restrooms here.
David: I have a couple of quick questions. You mentioned that patterns, reactive patterns, don’t go away.
Ken: By themselves. Samsara is notorious for being without end. [Laughter]
David: So you know especially if you had to…I had this [unclear] idea of filing it away, okay major battle one, two, and three. But do they become more subtle perhaps?
Ken: Oh, you discover degrees of subtlety to them. They’re insidious, but can you take them apart? Yes. That’s possible. We’ll be moving into that tomorrow.
David: And the other question was…you just sort of hit on it. I have this question about return and rest, and you sort of hit on it that at some time I know that I’ve rested and I’ve been pretty dulled out, if you can imagine that, and so what is the way for maintaining that attention? I mean the attention on the breath without…I guess in the Shambhala I think they call it the, you know, sinking.
Ken: Yes. That’s the Tibetan term—bying ba [pron. jing wa], sinking, yeah.
[Ken examines book] Well, this one I know where it is. Famous last words.
Active attention has two qualities: stability and clarity. Mindfulness develops stability; awareness develops clarity. (Okay?) Busyness and dullness (and dullness is the sinking) are subjective experiences that signal the decay of active attention.
Stability is undermined by busyness. Busyness is the result of a reactive process that drains energy away from mindfulness. The reactive process works to distract us from the object of attention by bringing up other objects that absorb energy. The remedy is to relax, to let things be as they are, and not to react to the thoughts and images that fill the mind. [Wake Up To Your Life, p. 69]
This is why Suzuki Roshi says when the mind is very busy, meditate with a very large mind, like a horse in a pasture—gallops around for a bit and then settles down and eats the grass. So you don’t try to tighten up and force the mind. You just open and relax. It’s a little counter-intuitive, but it works.
Clarity is undermined by dullness. Dullness is the result of a reactive process that drains energy away from awareness. The reactive process works to dull our ability to be aware so that we don’t know what is going on.
And when you’re working with reactive patterns dullness will come up just as much as busyness.
The remedy is to energize…
Of course, it’s the last thing you feel like doing. You think, ”Oh I’m feeling dull and tired, I’ll just relax a bit.“ [Ken makes snoring sound]
The remedy is to energize, to see what is happening.
One of the ways I do this myself is to put attention onto the details of the breath, like, what is the temperature in the left nostril, what is the temperature in the right nostril? What is the difference in the temperature between those two? What is the difference in the temperature between those two and the temperature at the back of my throat where I can feel the breath going down? Okay.
Student: Does that wake you up? [Laughter]
Ken: When you go into that kind of detail in your attention? Yeah, because you’ve got to look. Okay, what’s the temperature there, and there, and there?
Student: [Unclear] leads to the question though, this fellow for several years had been sitting, and I can understand that where you’re just sort of perhaps in a dull state and it becomes a habitual belief system or crystallizes that far—
Student: And it takes that much time to [unclear].
Student: But just to make it get out of there.
Ken: Yes. Dullness is much harder to work with than busyness. So if you have a choice, have an overactive mind rather than a dull mind. Dullness, if it gets habituated, is really hard. I’m living proof.
Student: Can you talk of identifying the pattern of the imperative?
Student: You said that one would experience the emotions underneath the pattern. Did you want us to go through those?
Ken: As you go through, as you’re working with a pattern, just observe. What is it saying about how things have to be? You can experiment with this by imagining acting contrary to the pattern, or differently from the pattern. For instance, [Ken laughs] one of the groups I work with is a production unit in a company—film production—and one of the people there said, ”We always get the wrong assistants.“ I said, ”That’s because of the way you’re interviewing, the way you’re doing it. What you’re getting is people who can pass an interview, not people who can do work in production. So when they come in, have them do some work, just leave in the middle of the interview process and have somebody else cue them and say ’Could you do this while you’re waiting here,’ etc., and just see what they do. How they deal with unusual and difficult situations spontaneously.“ Immediate reaction—”We can’t do that!“ That was just it. That was the belief structure. ”No we can’t do that, we have to treat people this way. We can’t treat people that way.“ And so they will get the results they’re getting.
Okay, now we’ve gone considerably over what I wanted to do. Again, my apologies, but you do have a lot of questions so that’s a good thing.
Again, in your meditation, I’m inviting you to work deeper, so when you’ve identified a reactive pattern, then see if you can identify the imperative, and it’s always phrased as, ”Must be this way; can’t be that. Have to have this; can’t have that,” something like those lines, and it has that edge to it.
And the second thing that I’d like you to explore in this pattern you’ve identified, start looking at, you know, where else does this show up in my life? And you may be surprised where it shows up. So you just look at that—does it show up here, how does it show up there, so forth. So you begin to see more and more because all of this is about taking off the blinders that limit our ability to see our own behavior. Okay?
Let’s take a very short break to stretch and then we’ll come back for sitting practice.
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