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 direct awareness, part 1 Download
Taking original mind, direct awareness, as the basis, all experience as the expression of awareness, instruction in a five-step process based on direct awareness (mahamudra and dzogchen), cautions and pitfalls.
This morning I talked a little bit about compassion and emptiness. And I gave you the technique of working with a kind of five-step process, taking and sending, which actually leads to emptiness. Take in the pain; open to your reactions to the pain; touch happiness within yourself and send it to the other; take joy in the process, and experience no separation.
Now what we discussed yesterday—the five steps—we talked about as five phases. And that can also hold here. The first step is taking in the pain, and as you take in the pain you will naturally become aware of your reactions to the pain. And for a while you will probably become lost in the whole jumble of the pain and your reactions to it. But if you stay in that jumble, that mass of confusion, sooner or later you discover that it is possible to experience more. And that’s where you begin to touch into the possibility of happiness which may take the form of calm, or peace or something in all of that jumble, and now you start sending that. So you are still opening to the pain, but now you are sending that happiness. And because this begins to dissolve the subject-object duality, you begin to experience a joy. And that joy opens up into the experience of no separation. Now that’s one way.
You can also be very clear about what experience is. For the most part, what we experience are descriptions of the world. So: book, light, floor, anger, love. Although we conceive of these as entities—one form or another—they are more accurately descriptions. If you look at this [holds up an object], what do you actually experience?
Student: A rectangular form, with colors on it, with pink things sticking out…
Ken: Right. Yeah. And you can say a certain thickness, it’s got a certain texture, and there is stuff on pages, etc. And what the term “book” refers to is that whole set. It’s a shorthand; it’s a description. And that’s primarily how we experience the world, with these various shorthands. But what happens though, is we take these descriptions to be things themselves.
One of the areas of life that this becomes very clear is in the case of organizations. You know, people talk about Exxon or Wal-Mart as if there is a “thing” that is Exxon. Well, if you are going to interact with this “thing,” say, write a letter, whom do you write the letter to? Just with that question the illusion begins to fall apart. Because what Wal-Mart or any other organization consists of is a group of people, some large some small, and a set of relations and a range of activities. But Wal-Mart is the description for that. But we regard it as a “thing.” Now, there we have all of these things, and these descriptions which we regard as things. And they seem very, very solid. And in doing this—that is, experiencing life in terms of things—we actually move away from the experience of life itself.
Of what does life consist?
Ken: Yeah. And even more explicitly, not just experience. Experience consists of three things: thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Everything else is a construction, an abstraction, or a description, however you want to look at it.
So, from this point of view, there isn’t anybody. What we call another person is a description of a set of experiences that arise for me. You know, if I look at Robert, it’s blue and khaki, and shiny head and glasses, and so forth, and so forth. And out of that I construct the concept “Robert.” But then, as I said before, then something subtle happens. I move away from my actual experience. I now start relating to this thing. And that’s fine until the set of experiences that I associate with Robert exhibit a behavior that I don’t associate with Robert. Then I have a problem. Robert may have one, too, but that’s not this story. Yet this happens all of the time.
Now, I am not proposing that you forget the descriptions. They are useful. What I am suggesting is to remember that they are descriptions. Because when I forget that they are descriptions, then I have this interaction with a person, and I’m actually all at the story level. Because that’s what stories consist of, the descriptions. And I can be quite far removed from the sensations, the physical sensations that are arising and the emotional sensations that are arising.
The purpose of our practice is to experience what arises without the projection of thought and feeling—or thought and emotion. Those projections are descriptions, are the stories. When we can experience what arises without that, then we are experiencing in the natural knowing that is our human heritage and does not rely on the intellect or conceptual framework for functioning. For that reason, many people find it a little intimidating, if not outright terrifying. Because the usual frame of reference, “I-other,” and all of these nice descriptions that we are so used to doesn’t operate. And some of you in the interviews have described your experience where you’ve been moved into the experience of a feeling, and experienced it so completely that all the descriptions including the description of yourself fell away.
Then a very interesting question arises: “What the hell do I do now?”. And don’t underestimate the significance of this question.
Buddha Shakyamuni sat under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya in India approximately two thousand five hundred years ago. And doing exactly what we are doing here today, moved right into the experience of what was arising and found nothing there. Non-self. And this occurred because of the power of his attention that he’d trained previously at a very, very profound level. He found absolutely nothing there. And when you read the traditional accounts, it says that he didn’t know what to do with this. And he walked up and down the length of paths for seven weeks. That’s where walking meditation comes from.
Well, if you read between the lines here, here was a person in profound shock. The whole structure and framework for ordinary experience had been blown. “What the hell do I do now?”. Although the structure or framework for experience has been blown, experience continues to arise. It doesn’t stop. There is knowing there, and you experience things. But now you have no idea how to relate to them because all the conceptual frameworks, the things, of things—the descriptions—you know to be false.
And so in Buddhism we have the two kinds of knowing. There’s knowing things as they are. And there’s knowing things as they appear. Knowing things as they are is to know that there is nothing there. And I’ll say more about that in a moment. Knowing things as they appear is to know them in the way that they appear, not in the way that we ordinarily think of them, as existing independently.
Now, on Wednesday afternoon, when we had the talk here with the Upaya community, I went through this with one person who was present. And you can do this with sight. It’s actually easier to do this with sound. It’s possible to do this with taste and smell, but they are regarded as too fleeting. You can also do it with touch. Let’s do it with sound today, because we did sight the other day.
[Ken sounds the gong.]
Okay. Is there anyone here who didn’t hear the gong? Ah, good, no real troublemakers here. I left a little opening in there, but nobody took advantage of it. Thank you, okay.
So you hear the gong. Now, all of you have the experience of hearing the sound of the gong. I’m going to strike the gong again, and when you hear this, I want you to look to see where the hearing takes place.
[Ken sounds the gong.]
Where does the hearing take place? Gail.
Ken: That’s your view is it?
Gail: So far.
Ken: Anybody else?
In the nineteenth century there was a great…two great teachers who were very close friends and associates, Jamgon Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye. And on one occasion, I think it was Jamgon Kongtrul sent three monks to study with Jamgon Khyentse. Jamgon Khyentse received them, after all they came from his close friend and colleague, but he wasn’t sure whether it was worth his effort. So he asked them “What color is your mind?” And he sent them off to meditate for a week. And after a week, the three of them gathered with Jamgon Khyentse again, and he said, “What color is your mind?” And the first monk said, “White.” And he said to the second monk, “What color is your mind?” And the monk said, “Black.” And he turned to the third monk, who at this point was visibly agitated, which is totally not protocol in the Tibetan tradition. “What color is your mind?” And the monk broke down and said, “I don’t know. I looked, and I looked, and I looked, and I didn’t see anything.” And Jamgon Khyentse turned to the other two monks and said, “You leave. I’ll work with this one. You are both lying. You didn’t see anything.”
So where is the hearing? Now you are really on the spot. Anybody else?
Student: It’s just experience. It’s my experience.
Ken: So, it isn’t anywhere?
Student: Well, I don’t know where it is. It’s my experience.
Ken: Where is that?
Student: It’s my experience—I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain—
Ken: Where is your experience? That’s the heart of the question. Where is that?
Student: I don’t know.
Ken: Oh. You’re not much help. Pardon?
Student: It’s everywhere.
Ken: Everywhere? So now we’ve got everywhere. Nowhere. Can we settle on some kind of compromise here? [Laughter]
Ken: Oh, now you are getting deep. It’s very difficult to say, isn’t it? Can you place the experience of anything really anywhere? No. What do we usually say about something that doesn’t exist anywhere?
Student: It’s an illusion.
Ken: Yeah. That’s what we say about something we can’t say where it is. We say it doesn’t exist. At the same time—[Ken sounds the gong again]—there it is.
This is the mystery of experience. And I am using the term mystery not to mean something that we don’t know or can’t know but to mean something that can only be known by direct experience. We can’t formulate it into words, concepts, descriptions, explanations, and so forth.
Now, we’ve just done this with hearing. It’s actually the same with everything. All of the physical sensations, the sensory sensations, seeing, touch, taste, smell, hearing, thoughts. You know, where is a thought? Can’t locate it anywhere. Feelings. But we rarely experience things in the world that way. Let’s go back to the sound of the gong.
[Ken sounds the gong again.]
There’s the experience, and there is the awareness of the experience. There is the sound of the gong, and the awareness of the sound of the gong. What’s the relationship?
Student: One’s an experience, and one’s a thought.
Ken: That’s a thought?
Student: Yeah, the awareness is.
Ken: The awareness is a thought?
Ken: People really want to get to that thought thing badly. Can you separate the hearing of the gong from the awareness of the hearing?
Ken: No, you can’t. But it is precisely what we do with every aspect. There’s me and there’s that. That’s the subject-object framework. And through this little experiment here, through this little investigation, we see that that subject-object framework is false. When we hear the phrase, “It’s all an illusion,” that’s often construed to mean that what arises in experience is an illusion. That’s not the illusion. The illusion is that we are separate from what we experience.
Now, this morning we talked about working with feelings in taking and sending. When anger, say, or desire arises, we say, “I experience anger,” “I experience desire.” And in saying that, we are expressing a sense of separation. There’s the desire, there’s me. The desire is acting on me. Wonderfully captured in that expression, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” You know? You know that one?
What if we dropped that separation? What happens?
Student: We experience it.
Ken: Yeah, but what actually happens in addition to experiencing it?
Student: Change occurs rapidly.
Ken: What change?
Student: The experience…[Inaudible].
Ken: Let’s do a little experiment.
A little experiment. Picture something, and it can be a person or an object, that you desire. You can close your eyes if you wish. Imagine them in front of you, or the object. And let yourself feel how much you want him or her or it. And just let that feeling of desire arise in you. And you may notice as you do this, how you keep yourself a little bit a way from it, so you have the feeling that the desire is acting on you.
Now, I want you to shift your attention from the object of desire to the experience of desire itself. And let yourself experience that completely. You are desire.
Okay. Now, return to the object or the person and look at them. How’s that? What’s your experience with this? Bonnie.
Bonnie: Where there is separation, there is struggle. Because I am not really accepting it.
Bonnie: But when I become the desire, it’s fine because there is no struggle.
Ken: And what’s your feeling toward the object?
Bonnie: There is no object, really.
Ken: Well, you still have the person or the thing there. It’s right there.
Bonnie: But when I became the desire, it just—I guess there was no separation. I was just the desire.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else? Judy?
Judy: When I was the desire, it was very vivid and amorphous in that there wasn’t any solid kind of structure.
Ken: Right. And when you looked at the object?
Judy: I couldn’t go anywhere.
Ken: Did you desire it in the same way?
Ken: No. What was different?
Judy: No. For lack of a better word, it felt kind of superficial, like it was about a kind of taking.
Judy: Rather than experiencing.
Ken: You mean earlier it was about taking?
Ken: Yeah, you saw that it was earlier about taking rather than experiencing, and now you could just experience it. Is that what you are saying?
Judy: When I came back to it the second time?
Judy: When I came back to it the second time, just having it sort of there created that separation.
Ken: Ah. Okay. Jeremy.
Ken: [Laughter] That’s—that’s right. Glitter. That’s a good way of putting it. Franca.
Franca: I used something that I love very much. A little cat that I have. And the second time, when I went back after I experienced the desire it was like—I still loved the cat, but it was just allowed to be itself.
Franca: It was a kind of a separation of the desire from the cat. And the first time it was as though desire and the cat were joined, and you wanted to experience the desire. And here—the cat was just there, and I still love him, it’s not like he’s not—but it was a very different quality.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. More open?
Franca: Yeah. It was like the cat could be—there were all of these images in my mind, of like possessing the cat, of holding him and stroking him and stuff. And then the second time, he could just be there, and that was okay.
Franca: And I didn’t love him any less. I think that’s the big fear—that you are going to stop loving.
Ken: That’s right. That’s right. But it doesn’t—the love doesn’t stop. But the possessiveness, which is the quality of desire—to own—when you experience it completely, that dissipates.
So in our practice this evening, you may find it helpful if you are stuck with an emotion to do taking and sending with the emotion. And go through the steps that I described with the emotion. Because as some of you described, there is that sense of separation. You don’t really want to feel it completely, because you feel you are going to be engulfed or something terrible is going to happen. You know, you will end up devouring the world or something. Or if it’s anger, you will end up destroying the world. So you keep it at some separation. But that very sense, that very separation itself creates the problem because there is something incomplete there. So if you think of your anger or your desire as something that you are alienated from, then you do taking and sending. And when you do taking and sending with something like desire you can feel all of that yearning in desire, that longing, that’s all pain. You know? Maybe the eagerness to possess, grab hold of. And that’s the suffering you take in. And you give your own understanding and clarity to the desire. And this way you break down the barriers so you can experience it completely. And when there is no separation, then experience is transformed.
And I want to say a word about this kind of transformation. Transformation is the result of an effort, it is not an effort itself. If you try to transform your experience, you are simply attempting to manipulate it. You are detached from it, and you actually reinforce that sense of separation.
The transformation of experience arises from the effort of moving into the experience. And yesterday, the technique we used for moving into the experience was the breath. Breathing in, I experience the pain. Breathing out, I experience the pain. Breathing in, I experience the reaction to the pain. Breathing out, I experience the reactions to the pain. And so forth. Progressively moving into the experience.
Today we’re using a technique which is based on the presence of compassion. You take in the pain, you open to the reactions to the pain, you touch your own happiness, and start the exchange which generates joy and dissolves the sense of separation.
And it’s a little different in emphasis. A little difference in approach. But it’s crucial that you understand in your practice that everything comes from moving into experience, with any of these techniques, not from trying to change experience.
During the exercise this afternoon, at one point you might have heard me say, “Don’t fight experience.” We have many different ways of fighting experience. One is trying to change it, another is trying to push it away, which we do by erecting barriers or walls. And we do this because we feel or fear that if we experience it, something terrible is going to happen. The irony is that what we actually fear is something that has already happened. Sometime previously in our lives we encountered an experience and it overwhelmed us and we were thrown into confusion. And now we set up all of those barriers. So in effect, when we are acting reactively, we are reverting to that old behavior. And we are no longer who we are right now.
As I’ve said before, Suzuki Roshi said, Our practice is about complete trust in our fundamental nature. Our fundamental nature is totally open. The capacity to experience anything that arises. Practice consists in one way of cultivating and exercising trust in that capacity.
So in the practice this evening, use this technique whenever you encounter something that you feel you can’t experience. Start doing taking and sending right there.
One other aspect here. For the most part, I’ve been emphasizing how to work with difficult feelings. What happens when there aren’t any difficult feelings to work with? Well, there are two principle forms of meditation. The most common, or the one that is the essence of the practice—is called the practice of presence. And there are many different techniques for it, Mahamudra, Dzogchen, bare attention and so forth and so forth; shikantaza, in the Zen tradition. And these are usually very simple techniques in which you just rest in the experience of what’s there.
And then another very large category, and actually a much larger category of practices remove what prevents you from resting in experience. So in a very broad sense, purification practices. All the things on death and impermanence, the five dakinis, karma and the four immeasurables, yidam practice, etc., etc., that all falls into that category. That as some people have described in their experience, you meet feeling, you experience it completely, it releases, now there is nothing that prevents you from being completely present.
You know what most people do at this point? They start looking for another problem. When something opens up like that, just rest there. That’s what you’ve been working for. Well, be there.
Now if you are anything like me, another problem will be along soon enough. You might as well enjoy it. Franca.
Franca: Can I ask you to talk a little bit about the way tonglen is usually taught? I mean—it’s something that just struck me when [inaudible]. It’s very easy to confuse it.
Ken: You want to give me a clue what you are talking about?
Franca: In practicing tonglen, as though you are taking in something and you are transforming it into happiness and sending it out again.
Ken: Ah. Yeah. Okay, thank you. Franca brings up a very important point here.
I spoke earlier about transformation. There is a transformation that takes place in the practice of taking and sending. Franca was using the Tibetan word tonglen. And as I said earlier, that transformation is the result of making a certain effort. And that effort is to experience completely the suffering that you are inviting in and to experience completely the happiness that you are sending out. What some people do—and unfortunately, some people are teaching the technique this way—is that you breathe in the suffering and then transform that into happiness and send that happiness out. Well, this way of practicing it may make you feel like a more powerful person, but it actually reinforces your sense of separation from experience. You become, in effect, a detached manipulator of other people’s experience. This does not move us in any way into no separation from what is arising in experience.
So, when you breathe it in, you experience that suffering. And what you breathe out is your own happiness. And that’s very, very important. You don’t, one doesn’t somehow magically or alchemically transform into the other. Thank you for raising that, Franca. Jeremy.
Jeremy: I have a similar question. When I get to the difficult person, and I don’t necessarily feel loving-kindness. It does seem like there is a forcing, an imposition.
Ken: That’s a little different, but that’s also important.
What loving-kindness is is radiant warmth. Now, there are to my knowledge two principle methods for cultivating this radiant warmth. In the Theravada tradition, for instance in the metta practice, which is the Pali term for loving-kindness, you say, “May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be free of difficulties, may I have the strength and understanding and courage to meet whatever adversity that I encounter.” Or some short prayer or aspiration of similar intent. And what you are doing there is developing a sense of radiant warmth for your own being. And then, as that develops, you begin to extend it to others. And the capacity for extension, for extending it to others, grows.
First, it’s easy to extend it to people we like and feel good about. We want them to be happy, too. But as this increases, you also think, well, there are a few other people where it would be nice if they were happy, too. And your own capacity to wish well for others eventually increases to the point that you can sincerely wish well for other people who are actually mean or nasty or hateful to you. And it’s very important that you don’t try to impose that loving-kindness on top of your difficulty with people. That results in suppression, and it really doesn’t work. It really has to come from inside. That you feel genuinely that even though this person has caused you a great deal of inconvenience and maybe even hurt and injury, you want them to be happy.
In the Mahayana tradition, loving-kindness is cultivated a little differently. And it is cultivated through remembering what it feels like to be on the receiving end of loving-kindness. In the Tibetan tradition, the archetypal figure of loving-kindness is one’s mother, who selflessly nurtures us when we are helpless. And it can be one’s mother or it can be a teacher, a counselor, a relative, but it is someone from whom you experienced loving-kindness, which means kindness with no strings attached. That’s what’s important.
And for many of us, there are impediments. It is uncomfortable to take that in. So part of the practice is working through how we are shut down, ourselves. Eventually that opens up, and you can just experience being on the receiving end of loving-kindness. And when you do that, you just so naturally, you feel a warmth toward the other person. And that warmth isn’t coming from any sense of obligation or need, or anything like that. It’s just pure appreciation. But now you’ve discovered the capacity for warmth in yourself, and now it follows the same procedure. Once you’ve discovered that capacity for warmth for another person, just out of appreciation, just wanting them to be happy, you begin to extend this to others.
In the Mahayana tradition that extension is made easier, because you have already done the equanimity practices, you have already broken down your personal prejudices beforehand. But both of these techniques, [it is] absolutely vital that you work within your capacity to feel these in your heart. This is not contrivance. And when you encounter a person that’s difficult—and you say, I just can’t feel any warmth for this person—then, in the way that we’re practicing, experience that inability to feel warmth. Or experience your own anger or resistance. And that’s where you place your attention—just experiencing that. And as you do that, in the same way that you experienced just a few minutes ago with desire, that whole complex of feelings can’t hold. It will fall apart, and now you will be able to extend warmth there.
Student: On a practical basis, if you are experiencing someone that is a problem for you, it takes an extraordinary amount of presence—in my opinion I think it does—to just do what you say in day-to-day life. You really have to be awake to feel that experience, and then you feel it and experience it, and you see, and you’re in the experience, and then you can touch into a pleasant thought and send that back. But on a practical basis, this is very difficult. I’m sensing, by the way, that if you keep running into these difficult people, you just distance yourself from them, because that effort that we are talking about is just extremely difficult, on a practical basis.
Dave: We’ve discussed people, you and I have discussed people that you just don’t want to deal with, period. [Laughter]
Ken: Does that prevent you from wanting them to be happy?
Dave: No. But you can only do so much with certain people. [Laughter] You can’t—you can’t help everybody. They don’t want your help. [More laughter]
Ken: We are talking about two different things here, Dave.
Student: How long have you two guys been sharing an office together, I’d like to know!
Ken: It’s been hell! [Laughs]
This is about cultivating the capacity to want another person to be happy. It is a matter of training. And yes, there will always be people who are difficult. That’s why Atisha took that brat of a tea boy with him, that Bengali tea boy with him. That’s why John of the Cross went to that [monastery]—because they knew that was the next step in their practice. So they were continuing to work with that.
It is one thing to want another person to be happy. It’s a very different thing to help them to become free of suffering. That is in the area of compassion. And that’s a bigger step. But both of these are the maturation of practice. And wherever you are, you work with that. There isn’t the idea that I do this practice and I love everybody, just like that. It would be nice if that were true, but I’ve worked with this for a while and there are still a few people I have some…And whenever that irritation arises, that’s my next step in the practice. What’s important here is not how far you’ve got, but it’s how you meet whatever arises in your practice.
And yes, you have to be practical here. If a person just sends you up the wall so that you lose all quality of attention, probably [it’s] a good idea to keep your distance until you can actually be present with that person in some reasonable way. Unless you want to actually work with that person to really drive your practice hard. That’s also a technique. Josephine.
Josephine: I just want to get your view.
Josephine: Having worked tonglen in a different way, and actually found it very helpful to find yourself in that position, actually the practice of tonglen allows you stay in that situation—and not move away. So that you actually…in a sense you could say you sort of crave the difficult situation because it presents you with exactly what you need to work on.
Ken: Yes. And what Josephine is talking about here is the willingness to use whatever arises in experience for practice. As opposed to wanting the world to be a certain way.
Josephine: But also in a practical level, on a very practical level, when somebody is really pissing you off, if you start breathing in this way, it does change a situation. And usually what comes out of your mouth does not condemn you for several lifetimes in hell.
Ken: Okay. Last question, and then we need to break for dinner.
Student: In just that situation, if I’m in a difficult interaction with somebody, is it skillful to think of an interaction with a different person that went well, and sort of draw on that to be more present in that interaction? Or am I distracting myself? Am I stepping away?
Ken: It could be helpful. What is most helpful, however, is when you are experiencing difficulty in an interaction, experience the difficulty that you are having. Move into that experience. And you’ll find that that changes things in the same way that we just did with the desire. And usually what we try to do is get away from the discomfort of the difficulty of the interaction. We say, “Okay, this is a difficult experience. I don’t like this. Let me experience this.” And just as Josephine was saying, that’s where you can use taking and sending very, very effectively so you actually experience all of the difficulty that you are having. That’s the most useful thing to do.
Okay. We’ll break here for dinner. Randy, you had one. I know I cut you off last time. Go ahead, go ahead.
Randy: Just on the same topic, what if you are the cause of suffering?
Ken: Then move into that experience. And “I am causing this suffering.” And when you really take that in, you’ll find that things will shift in you quite quickly. Because how many of us actually want to be the cause of suffering for somebody else? There probably are people who actually want that, but they are relatively few. None of us really want to be in that position. So by experiencing how we are doing it, and what is going on in us that’s propelling it, that’s going to lead to a transformation—a change quite quickly. Do the same thing. Right. Thank you.
So break here for dinner. And we’ll meet at seven o’clock for meditation. Okay?