Working with painful or difficult emotions is something everyone encounters in practice. This series explores ways to let go of reactions associated with powerful emotions so you don’t have to repress them or express them in the world.
Releasing through bare attention, part 2Download
Q&A based on students’ experience with bare attention, common difficulties and how to work with them, additional instruction on the four foundations
Ken: This afternoon, for the most part, what I’d like to do is to hear some of your experience with this technique. And, using your experience as a basis, expand and offer refinements to this practice. As I said this morning, we all start off with gaining ideas. But as our practice matures, we see that it’s not so much about getting something from the practice, but that the more that we are in the experience of what is, the less suffering arises for ourself and other people.
Our tendency is to postpone experiencing unpleasant things. We would prefer to postpone them forever. One of the great New Yorker cartoons is of an executive who’s on the phone and says, John, Thursday doesn’t work for me. Never works for me. Does never work for you? [Laughter] And that’s exactly the way we’d like to relate to a lot of these feelings. And as I’ve said earlier, it’s that attitude that creates imbalance in the world of our experience. And the effect of that imbalance, particularly if it persists over time, is the creation of patterns of behavior which create suffering for ourselves and others.
So this is a technique which allows you to move into a more complete experience, full experience, of what is arising. And this morning, I talked about two metaphors, ways of regarding this. One, you know, just take a fraction of the feeling. Or putting that a different way, you know, if you had a really, like a blast furnace or a firing kiln that’s very, very intense heat, but if you open the door just a crack, you can experience some of the heat without being burned. So that’s the idea of experiencing just a little bit of the feeling or experiencing the feeling at some distance. Whatever you can experience and stay in attention at the same time.
A third way is to think of your breath as a rope. And it gives you something to hold onto as you lower yourself into the feeling. And when you reach a point that you can’t go any further—you know it’s too uncomfortable—you just stop there. And you experience that. And as your ability to experience that develops, then you can start moving deeper into the feeling. So it’s a third metaphor for that. But all of these are pointing to the same thing: moving into the experience of the feeling. And when we actually join with the feeling—which is to say we experience it completely—then the feeling completes its reason for being, and it releases. And we find ourselves just present in a way that we may not have experienced before.
The irony is, if you approach this practice with the intention to work through or dispel the feeling, you won’t get anywhere. Because you’ve brought in the expectation. There’s an often repeated story, and you’ve heard me—many of you have heard me talk about this before—of Milarepa, who is one of the great Tibetan folk-saints who lived most of his life at very high altitude in the Himalayan wilderness. And one day he was having a tough day and he just had this vision of his guru. And he was making his way back to his cave, and he saw in his cave five demons going through his stuff. And he looked at them and went, “Mmmm. Well, I’ll have to get rid of these.” He thought, “I guess they’re probably manifestations of the local spirits. So, I haven’t been paying enough attention to them, so I’ll sing them a song.”
So he sang them a song of praise, and they ignored him completely. So he said, “Hmmm. These are tougher demons than I thought. Well, demons are manifestations of disturbed states of mind, so I should have compassion on them.” So he meditated on loving-kindness and compassion, and sang another song to them about all the compassion that he felt. And they looked up from their activities and glowered at him.
He said, “Oh, okay. These are really tough demons. We have to use higher methods, here.” So he invoked this wrathful yidam, these very powerful mantras to just cut through things. And this time the demons looked at him and laughed. He thought, “Hmmm. Something’s not working here.” And he went, “Oh, my teacher always told me that everything that arises is simply a manifestation of my own mind. These demons are just a manifestation of my own mind. So I can just engage them fully.” He said, “Okay guys. Let’s get it on!” And he rushed at them and jumped into the mouth of the first demon. [Snaps fingers] He disappeared.
And this is the way it is with our feelings. As long as we’re trying to get rid of them, trying not to experience, not deal with them, they’re going to be there. When you say, “Okay, this is what I am experiencing, let me experience it, whatever it is”. Pleasant, unpleasant, whatever, just experience it. That’s how we move into our life. And then they let go, because they’ve fulfilled their function. But it’s extraordinary, our human tendency: I don’t want to feel that; I want to feel this.
So I’d like to hear now a bit about your experience with this practice, and see where we go from there. Deborah.
Deborah: You said something a minute ago about the rope and opening the door a crack. And that came up in the exercise we just did. Also, I’m becoming aware that I’ve got two ways of going about this. I can go really deeply into it—into the emotion—in which case I tend to lose attention.
Deborah: Or if I go into it just a little crack at a time, I’m not really experiencing it. So do I need to go farther down the rope to find that balance? Or where’s the right spot?
Ken: Okay. So if you go into the emotions, you tend to get swallowed?
Ken: And if you hang back, it remains distant?
Deborah: Yeah. I’ve got both feet over here, and [Inaudible] touching.
Ken: Okay. Suppose the feeling’s over where Mary Ann is. How is that for you?
Deborah: Too far.
Ken: So bring it in to the center of the room.
Deborah: Still too far. It’s got to be pretty close.
Ken: Okay, well Karen’s the feeling right now. [Laughter] A little too close?
Deborah: No. [Inaudible] farther away [Inaudible]
Ken: Right. But is that too close?
Ken: I understand that, but is that too close.
Ken: Okay. Can you be there and not lose attention?
Ken: Okay. So that’s how you do this.
Deborah: [Inaudible] separation.
Ken: Well, of course there is some separation. But you bring the feeling close enough, or you open it up or you go down into it, so you begin to feel the disturbance of the feeling in you. You don’t have…okay, but just feeling that, and then that’s where you rest.
Deborah: So it’s the beginnings of it, the way you would sense the beginnings of it. [Inaudible] your activity, relating, interacting and it’s just starting to come up.
Ken: Yeah. And so you’re beginning to feel. And what you’re looking for is the edge.
Ken: And you go to the edge. If you go beyond the edge, you fall into chaos. If you don’t go to the edge, nothing changes. You go to the edge, and you rest your attention right there, with whatever is arising. And as you develop more capacity, you’re able to move deeper and deeper into the feeling without getting lost. But you have to find where the edge is for you. And that’s where you work. Okay Judy.
Judy: [Inaudible] When I’ve lost my attention and I need to kind of ramp the feeling up again, to come back to it, I’m finding that I need to make these little statements in my mind about the situation. You know, sort of story, thinking, to re-access it. Any suggestions?
Ken: Does this involve a person?
Judy: Actually, well, not so much. It’s more a history.
Judy: It began with something someone said very long ago, but it’s kind of taken on a life of its own.
Ken: How pervasive is it?
Ken: Well, I guess you can start from anywhere then.
Judy: So what would that—
Ken: You say it’s all over the place. Right?
Judy: Well, I guess when you said pervasive, I meant I can tap at it in my life, you know, in a lot of places.
Ken: Yeah. And so it doesn’t matter where you start.
Judy: Okay. But because it’s pervasive, you know, that distancing, space-out thing happens a lot and [Inaudible]
Judy: It’s a little like Deb is saying. It’s that it’s either really intense or I lose it and I’m just kind of spacing out.
Ken: So you’re having difficulty finding the edge, too.
Judy: I guess. But it’s more just that. To get back to it seems like I’m taking a kind of discursive path and I’m feeling like there’s a better way.
Ken: How are you feeling right now?
Judy: Well, just as you asked the question, I started feeling heat in my solar plexus.
Ken: That’s connected with this?
Judy: No. It’s connected more with knowing I’m about to be put on the spot. [Laughter]
Ken: Okay. What’s the flavor of this feeling that you’re working with?
Judy: It’s kind of like free-falling. [Ken’s cell phone begins to ring, people laugh]
Ken: I didn’t even know it was on. Sorry about that. So much for free-floating anxiety!
Free-floating anxiety. Ah. There’s your problem. Anxiety is not really an emotion. It’s the precursor. And so you’re trying to find something in what’s basically like a bunch of froth. Just feel the anxiety. And if it’s like that free-floating anxiety, it’s probably with you all of the time. Right? You don’t have to make it especially vivid or anything. Just move right into that, that anxiety. What are the physical sensations associated with it?
Judy: Well, my neck and shoulders were getting very tense.
Judy: Like, I was using that after a while to come back with, because it was so strong.
Ken: Right. Okay. What else do you experience in your body?
Judy: Sometimes like just edginess in the stomach.
Ken: Okay. [Cell phone rings again] I thought I’d turned it off. [Laughter]
Judy: [Laughing]. It was the right answer, wasn’t it?!
Ken: Clearly! Done! It’s an 800-number.
Judy: It’s your fear.
Ken: My apologies.
So just breathe and feel that edginess in the stomach. That’s the physical manifestation of the anxiety. Just experience that. And if it all goes away and there’s nothing there, rest right there. Your mind’s at peace, it’s open, it’s clear. Rest right there. When it arises, then work with it. You don’t have to spend all your meditation practice in pain. It’s not required, you know?
If the mind’s quiet and present, then rest in that. That actually is what we’re working towards. That’s why we are working at all of these difficult feelings; so we can rest open and present. And if that happens, fine. You don’t have to go hunting. Though it’s astonishing the number of people who do, anyway. “This is not too pleasant. I’m not comfortable with it.” And just rest there. And maybe when it feels calm and clear like that, you start to feel anxious.
Judy: It’s a possibility. When I’ve been trying to rev it up, it’s more when I’m in that spacey protectiveness.
Ken: Yeah. But when you’re in that spacey protective, just experience the spacey protectiveness. Don’t try to rev anything up. Just experience that and we discussed this a little bit before. And it’s very disorienting, because there’s no real reference there. It’s like, “ahhhhh.” But that’s what you are experiencing right then, and so that’s what you work with. Don’t try to make it…the key in here is, don’t try to make it into anything else. Okay?
Peggy, you had a question.
Peggy: I’ve been, you know—I’ll take resistance wherever I can find it. [Inaudible] I’ve been looking through my little paper. It’s an idea that I think originated in a therapist’s office. And having to do with this idea that one never can release those deep, deep emotional responses to, let’s say, abandonment or rejection or—and maybe this was the particular therapist I was going to and he wanted me to keep coming—I don’t know. [Laughter] But I remember this so clearly, hearing this as if this were truth. Like the truth you talk about in the recent newsletter, with a capital T.
Ken: I see.
Peggy: And so I think that I’m kind of coming to this retreat with that as part of my baggage. And sort of just for the first time thinking, “Can I really let go?” I mean is this really possible? What you’re saying? And wanting to take this leap of faith to go there. And yet…
Ken: Well, the question is not, “Can I really let go of this?” The question is actually, “Can I really experience this?” That’s the question. And, here is something, and I’m inferring that it’s a disturbance in your life.
Peggy: Umm hmm.
Ken: Okay. It’s a disturbance in your life because you keep pushing it out of experience. You keep pushing it away.
The story is told of Atisha, who, when he accepted the invitation from the Tibetan kings in western Tibet to come in the middle of the eleventh century—and Atisha was basically like the pope of Buddhism in India, very high-ranking individual— brought along this Bengali tea boy who was a complete brat. And just so obnoxious. And after he’d been in Tibet for a couple of years, patrons and students said, “We don’t understand. Here you are this really great teacher, and we’re really grateful that you came to Tibet, and you’ve been very helpful to us. But you could have brought anybody with you from India as your attendant. Why did you bring this…thing?” And Atisha replied, “Well, I heard that you Tibetans were very civilized, so I didn’t think I was going to get much chance to practice patience. So I brought him along. As it turned out, it wasn’t necessary.” [Laughter]
So here you have this thing which disturbs your life. And, like all of us, you’d just like this thing to go away. But this thing is really like an obnoxious child—keeps calling for your attention. Well, when are you going to give it the attention it’s calling for?
Peggy: Today. [Laughter]
Ken: I’ll hold you to it. Very good. Okay. But actually it’s calling for attention. And we don’t want to go there, because we don’t know what’s there. We’re afraid of what might be there. It feels…the whole reason that we’ve been pushing it away all this time is because there’s some unpleasant association with it, even if we can no longer remember what it is. And yet, until we just experience what is actually there, it’s going to keep knocking.
And this kind of thing is wonderfully symbolized in a lot of Vajrayana ceremonies. There’s a Vajrayana ceremony called an assembly of power. You may know it by its Tibetan name tsok or ganachakra. And basically, it’s a feast. And it’s a celebration of spiritual awakening and energy and things like that. But towards the end of the ceremony, you take a portion of all of the food and drink and everything, and you put it outside. You put it outside for the demons who aren’t able to be present at the feast. But what these demons symbolize are the parts of our own mind that are so screwed up and so disturbed that they can’t yet participate in our experience of awakening. Do you follow? And so, you feed them. You feed them, albeit the leftovers of this feast of awareness. And it’s a way of saying, “Yes, you, too, can come in.”
So in Theravadan tradition, ceremonies are not usually so elaborate, and things like that. But the intention in the practice is exactly the same. There are these areas within us which we are alienated from. And we’ll be talking more about that in the context of taking and sending tomorrow. And what you’re doing here is just saying, “Okay. I’ve ignored you for the last ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, whatever. Now I will hold you in attention and, you know, just tell me what you’re feeling.” That’s basically what you’re saying. “I will feel it. I will feel what you’re about.”
And this is courage, to go in that direction. It is courage. And often when we think of that, we go armored. You know, put on the armor like, “Okay, we’re going to do battle.” But here’s where the image of the obnoxious child [comes in]. If you go in armored against the obnoxious child, they just run away. They won’t deal with you. So you have to go into this with being completely open, and willing to hold them with a kind of tenderness that I was describing this morning. And that way, they can start to open, let off all of their frustration, etc. And if you think of your feelings, as—the really uncomfortable ones—as really hurt children, it can sometimes help to have the patience and gentleness just to be with them. And not require that they behave or fit into your world or whatever. This help?
Ken: Okay. Good. Steve?
Steve: Apropos of exactly what you’ve been talking about, it occurred to me this morning when we did the exercise, or this afternoon with the other person, that one way, it seems to me, that we, that I, I should say, I maybe would avoid feeling something I don’t want to feel, what we’re talking about, is to feel bad about something else.
Ken: Yes! A tried and trusted technique. [Laughter]
Steve: So I’ve realized in thinking about that, the thing that I picked, which is pretty easy for me to feel bad about, is probably just a way; it’s something I can handle feeling bad about.
Steve: That it’s disguising something that still is outside the door.
Ken: Right. And, by feeling bad about that, you don’t disturb the status quo. Okay?
Steve: So in the process of feeling the experience of the thing you choose, to not feel that, is there a doorway into…?
Ken: Well, when you’ve shifted that way, one of two things is likely to take place. One is, you’re in this other area. It doesn’t feel as threatening, and you sit with those feelings. They will actually dispel fairly quickly, because they aren’t really what’s bothering you.
Steve: I picked some pretty good ones—they’re bothering me.
Ken: Okay. But that’s one possibility. And the other is, you know you’re avoiding what’s important. Right? You know that at that moment your practice is a lie. You know that. That’s the natural knowing. It’s just there. I mean, you couldn’t be asking that question without that. This is where practice is very inconvenient. Because it penetrates those kinds of self-deception.
You know? “Yeah, I can feel badly about this, and maybe it’ll do some good, but I’m really avoiding that.” And we know we’re doing it. That’s the price of awareness. So the door that you’re looking for is actually already open. And this is the really challenging part of practice.
The three year retreat, it’s a very powerful experience. As one of my friends and colleagues said, It is simultaneously the most disappointing and the most wonderful experience of your life. And a question you get asked a number of times is, “Was it successful?” [Laughter] And I threw a family in France into some consternation when they asked, Why are you doing a second three-year retreat? And I said—because I was tired of this—Because I failed the first.
Through various conversations, I came across the Tibetan criteria, or one of the Tibetan criterion, for whether a retreat was successful. Were there any fights, and did anybody leave? And if the answer is no to both of those questions, then people go, “Hmmm, maybe something happened.”
But my own criterion is a little more involved. In the three-year retreat, because of the intensity of the program and the length of time, it’s a bit like…well, it’s a combination of boarding school, jail, seminary and graduate school.
Ken: Well, they all have their pluses and minuses. But it’s really like a combination of all of those. And sooner or later in this process—at least this is what I saw—you come face to face with yourself. You’re looking in a mirror. And there’s a point of decision. Do you work with what you see or do you turn away? I don’t know that anybody got enlightened—whatever that means—in the three-year retreat. But in the first three-year retreat, with one possible exception, the people I did it with looked in that mirror and worked with what they saw. In the second three-year retreat, there were three people who turned away. And you could tell.
All of these practices, at some point, are going to bring you to that mirror. And that’s essentially what you’re describing, Steve. And then the question is do you work with what you see in that mirror? Or do you turn away? And it’s probably the most important decision in your life.
There’s a tremendous amount of Buddhist teaching, the sole purpose of which is to encourage you to work with what you see. All the teaching on death and impermanence, and karma, and samsara, etc. All of that motivational teaching—even some of the teaching on bodhichitta—it’s primary purpose is to encourage you to work with what you see.
Because, as I think Pat said in reference to the exercise that we did this afternoon, there actually is no escape. There is nowhere to go. Any idea that you can avoid this is a delusion. All the same, even to look into that mirror, and even more to be willing to work with what you see, requires—and I will use two words here, maybe they’re the same, maybe they’re different; I don’t know—requires courage and faith.
Student: And what?
Ken: Faith. Now here, what I mean by courage is the willingness to endure. And it’s to endure that experience. It’s not gung-ho, “let’s man the barricades”, kind of thing. It’s the willingness to be face to face with that. And this is vividly illustrated in the story of Buddha’s own awakening. The way that it is usually told is that at one point Mara sent his hordes of armies to attack and try to disturb Buddha in his meditation.
And that was one aspect of looking in the mirror, all of this negativity, latent negativity. But when you actually experience it, you find the most wonderful thing: it’s actually just experience. And in Buddha’s life story, this is described that because of the power of his meditation, this attack of the demon armies and all of their weapons turned to roses and flowers falling from the sky. But then Mara—which is the embodiment of the force of ignorance—had one final effort to dislodge Buddha from his quality of attention. And said, What gives you the right to sit there? Well, this is a question every one of us faces every day. What gives you the right to be here right now? What is that? What gives you the right to be here?
Ken: You do, right? You give yourself the right. Which is basically what Buddha said. He just touched the ground and said, I’m here. There is no external authority to appeal to. There is none.
And this is where I’m not sure whether courage and faith are just two expressions of the same thing. Courage, I’ve offered as the willingness to endure, to endure what arises in experience. And both Steve’s question and Peggy’s question speak exactly to that. But there is also faith. And faith here—and Sharon Salzberg treats this very nicely in her book on faith—it is the willingness to open to whatever arises. This is not the faith in the sense of belief, which is by and large the attempt to interpret experience to conform to what’s already inside. But faith as the willingness to open, to be with whatever arises. And you find this sometimes very, very powerfully expressed in the lives of some of the Christian saints. Where their faith in God enabled them to do exactly that.
Buddhism? Well, it’s a little more difficult. We don’t have a god to place faith in. As Suzuki Roshi says, what we place faith in is our fundamental nature—what we actually are, which of course is no thing at all. And as we trust that, then we find ourselves able to meet whatever arises in experience, because there is nothing to defend. So I think the faith and the courage are quite closely related.
All of you, in coming here, have taken time out of your lives to spend meeting what the ordinary activity of our lives constantly distracts us from. So your very coming here is an expression of courage, or faith, or both.
Things never go as we intend in retreat. I remember a retreat I did in 1974. It was a one-month solitary retreat. It was on faith; it was guru yoga. It was very powerful, because I had to let go of any idea that I knew what I was going to experience next. Sometimes I would sit down for a meditation session, and I would be feeling fine and ten minutes into the practice, I would be just fighting for survival, and that would be for the next two hours.
And other times I would sit down, really gun shy, like, “What the hell is going to happen now?” and just be there. And there was absolutely no predictability. And I learned something about being willing to experience whatever arises, whether it is horrifically painful or blissful or sometimes, you know, astonishing. I mean, almost hard to be in clarity—just like the sun’s inside your head, or something. Or a fog so thick that you couldn’t think the next thought. It had that kind of fluctuation.
We never know what is going to happen in our lives, in our experience next. So any attempt to try to control things is absurd. And what we are doing to a large extent in practice, is learning how to be in the uncontrollability of experience. And at the same time, we can’t approach life as being chaotic, because there are many aspects of life which have an order and a predictability which we can’t ignore. And this is essentially the conundrum of human life. It is both ordered and chaotic. And there is only one way to be in such a world, in such a life. And that is by embracing both aspects—not trying to make it one or the other.
So in your practice this evening, in a certain sense you are sitting down and looking into the mirror of your mind, which is to say, the mirror of your being. The mirror, mirror of your mind, the mirror of your being. And what you see is what is there. We mistake what we see for other things. We mistake thoughts for facts. We mistake emotions for facts.
But if we look deeply enough, things become clearer; and we begin to experience things as they are. Which means when thoughts arise, you know that it’s a thought. It’s not like you’re saying, “Oh, I think this is a thought.” It’s just the knowing arises with the arising of the thought. And it’s the same with emotions. “Oh, I’m experiencing this feeling.” And it may not even arise to the conceptual level. You just know. And so there’s a kind of clarity in one’s experience. And as I talked about last night or yesterday, in that clarity there is also a knowing what to do which doesn’t come from conceptual formulations, but comes from not being separate from experience.
So this evening, you sit down—and tomorrow morning also—you look into the mirror, and just experience what’s there. The technique that we’re working with uses the breath. Uses the breath as a way of experiencing what’s there. It’s—maybe to stretch the analogy a little bit, but—it’s as if the breath is the mirror which reflects back what is there.
And some of you will find you can look into that mirror only for small moments, short moments. Others may find you can look in it for longer. It doesn’t matter. If you can only stay there for short moments, every time you’re there to the extent that you can, just rest in that looking. And you’ll find that those moments gradually open up. For those of you who can rest there longer, be careful about going to sleep. In the dzogchen tradition—which is jumping a little bit ahead—says it’s not only about how to engage meditation, it’s also about how to break meditation. So you don’t get attached. Because attachment is a form of sleep.
So you look, use the breath, be with what’s there, let yourself experience it. Let yourself experience your complete experience of life. Life. Leaving nothing out, because this is the only life you will ever know. This is it. As Uchiyama Roshi points out, you know, we have this [question]: What is life? Life, very simply, is what you experience. That is what life is. Nothing more and nothing less. And what we’re doing here is developing the capacity to experience our lives completely. Because this is all we will ever know. Okay.
Any last questions before we break for dinner? David.
David: In order to get a…if life is experience, when you look back at a trauma or…and try to feel what you were feeling then, or what you’re feeling now as a result of something…
Ken: To look back and try to feel what you were feeling then is really stepping out of the present. In the cases of trauma and of other factors, what happened in the past has sometimes a very significant effect on what is experienced now. So put the attention and the effort into what you are experiencing now. Which will likely include all the results of any trauma. But that way you stay in the present. Because you can’t go back. You can only learn how to be in what you’re experiencing now. You follow? Do you want to follow up on that?
When we do this—when we’re completely in the experience of now—things that weren’t experienced in the past but are still somewhere within us may arise in experience. And that’s where we experience the release. But we work from our present experience, not trying to recover the past, so to speak. Does that help? Okay.
Ken: Okay. Let’s break here for dinner. Please continue with silence. We’ve had a pretty full day. We’ll continue with the interviews. Jeff, you’re next. Is that right?