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 2 Download
Q&A based on the students’ experience with direct awareness, simplified instruction in the five steps, common difficulties and how to work with them, connecting the three methods, how to use these in life, the student-teacher relationship, challenges in practice.
First, just so that you get a clear understanding of how this practice works.
[Ken begins reading.]
The fair was in full swing. And Nasrudin’s senior disciple asked whether he and his fellow students might be allowed to visit it. “Certainly,” said Nasrudin, “for this is an ideal opportunity to continue practical teaching.” The mullah headed straight for the shooting gallery, one of the great attractions, for large prizes were offered for even one bull’s eye.
At the appearance of the mullah and his flock, the townsfolk gathered around. When Nasrudin himself took up the bow and three arrows, tension mounted. Here, surely, it would be demonstrated that Nasrudin sometimes overreached himself. “Study me attentively,” the mullah [said]. The mullah flexed the bow, tilted his cap to the back, with his head like a soldier, took careful aim and fired. The arrow went very wide of the mark. There was a roar of derision from the crowd. And Nasrudin’s pupils stirred uneasily, muttering to one another. The mullah turned and faced them all. “Silence! This was a demonstration of how the soldier shoots. He is often wide of the mark. That is why he loses wars.”
“At the moment when I fired, I was identified with the soldier. I said to myself, ’I am a soldier, firing at the enemy’.” [Laughter.] He picked up the second arrow, slipped it into the bow, and tweaked the string. The arrow fell short, halfway towards the target. There was dead silence. “Now,” said Nasrudin to the company, “you’ve seen the shot of a man who is too eager to shoot, yet, who having failed at his first shot was too nervous to concentrate.” [Laughter.] “The arrow fell short.” Even the stall-holder was fascinated by these explanations. The mullah turned nonchalantly towards the target, aimed and let his arrow fly. It hit the very center of the bull’s eye. Very deliberately, he surveyed the prizes, picked the one which he liked best, and started to walk away. A clamor broke out in the crowd.
“Silence!” said Nasrudin, “but one of you ask me what all of you want to know.” For a moment nobody spoke, and then a yokel shuffled forward. “We want to know which of you fired the third shot?”
“That? Oh, that was me.
You can chew on that one. Okay.
Ken: This morning I gave you a fairly elaborate description of these five steps. This afternoon I’m going to give you a more concise one. So you can take these down. By the way, the more elaborate description that I gave is up on the website. You’ll find it in an article that I wrote for Tricycle on fear, following 9/11. So it’s in the articles section. Can you remember exactly where it is, Franca?
Franca: It’s under ”resources for students“ on the main website [unintelligible.]
Ken: I think it’s that one, anyway.
In more condensed form:
The first step: move into the emotion. The second: move into the whole complex of the emotion, that’s with all of the attendant reactions and sensations. So it’s not just emotion but everything around it. When you do this, the third step takes place. When you do this completely, that is. The emotion appears to disappear. It goes empty. And this is where you’re learning how to—the more elaborate one, here—you’re learning how to evoke it at will.
Fourth step: relax in the movement of the emotion. So the emotion arises. You move into it. Then you move into everything that’s associated with it, at the same time. When you do this, everything appears to go empty. Like, it seems to go away. Now you relax, and the emotion now can come and go, and you can be in it. And this corresponds in the earlier version to experiencing the world that the emotion projects. That’s the movement of the emotion. So you relax in that, but you’re awake. You are not lost in it.
And that matures into no separation, which we bring about by looking at what experiences. So emotion, emptiness and what experiences are not different.
Ken: No separation: emotion, emptiness and what experiences—those three things—are not different. And….
Ken: I think, well, philosophically not separate; experientially not separate and not different. And you bring that fifth step about by looking at what experiences. When you do that, initially there’s a—it opens in emptiness, and then when the emotion continues to arise, you experience no separation from it. So you have the emptiness, what experiences it, and the emotion all present and not different.
So you can work with either of those two formulations, whichever you find most useful to you, this evening… more useful to you this evening.
Now when Kalu Rinpoche taught, he frequently used the metaphor of—or transportation metaphors to describe different approaches. We have in the Buddhism the term vehicle, something that carries you from A to B. A being samsara, B being enlightenment, supposedly. And in the Tibetan tradition you had Hinayana and Mahayana and Vajrayana. The Hinayana never really existed as a school; it was a creation by the Mahayanists so that they could constantly say how better that they were. But philosophically it corresponds roughly—but really not actually accurately with the Theravadan. The Mahayana is the ethic of compassion, and the fusion of emptiness and compassion. The Vajrayana are specialized techniques which build on the Vajrayana [sic?] approach, but are designed to bring one into direct experience very quickly. And the transportation metaphors would be like the Hinayana is a Volkswagen, Mahayana is a big bus because it carries everybody to enlightenment, you see. And Vajrayana is like a rocket ship.
Now, I’m always… whenever I think of this, I’m always reminded of the section in Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. In one of the sutras, one of the Theravadan sutras, talk about the four horses. And the way Buddha describes the four horses is, there is the horse which gallops as soon as you ask him to. And then there’s the horse that doesn’t gallop until you raise the whip, he sees it out of the corner of his eye and thinks, “it’s a good idea to gallop now.” The third kind of horse doesn’t gallop until he feels the pain of the whip on his skin. And the fourth horse doesn’t gallop until he feels the pain of the whip in the marrow of his bones.
And the usual interpretation is—this describes four kinds of students. And when we hear this analogy of a Volkswagen and a bus and a rocket ship—you know, how many want to be on the rocket ship. You know? But Suzuki Roshi says something very interesting after he tells… sets this up. He says, when we hear this story, we usually want to be the first horse. We think the first horse is the best horse. But for our practice, the fourth horse may be the best horse. Because when you really have to struggle with something, you really learn it. And I’ve seen this.
I was listening to an account of Benny Goodman’s daughter. And the interviewer said, “What was it like being the daughter of this fabulous musician?” And she said, “It was terrible. Because I’d be practicing piano and he’d say, ‘It’s just like this! Just play it.’ And I couldn’t do it.” And in a similar vein, in Vancouver in the early days, in the early seventies, a number of people started to learn Tibetan. There was one person there who was very, very bright, and he picked up Tibetan extremely quickly. And so everybody asked him if he would teach. And he was the worst teacher of Tibetan, because he could not understand the problems, because he didn’t have any of those problems. So he couldn’t help them. And Einstein says something similar, too. He says, “Please don’t tell me about your difficulties with mathematics. I can assure you, mine have been much worse.”
So all of this is a way of saying, when you encounter real difficulty in your practice, and it feels like you’re up against a concrete wall and your fingernails are worn down to the quick, and absolutely nothing is happening and you’re going to be there for the next century or two. You may not know what you’re learning, but something’s happening.
And I found this very difficult to appreciate. A friend of mine, probably my closest friend in the second retreat, a wonderful Frenchman. And I had a lot of, really a lot of difficulty in the second retreat: I was quite ill physically and emotionally for long periods of time. And one day Daniel said, “You are so fortunate, Ken.” And I would go, “Yeah.” He said, “You learn from suffering. I mean, you really do. Suffering is nothing to me—I don’t learn anything from it.” Which is true. I mean, he had extraordinary talents, but he didn’t learn anything from it.
So when it’s really, really hard, you’re actually learning something. So, I very, very deeply encourage you: don’t look for what you think is the “best” path. Don’t even look—or go hunting—for whom you think is the “best” teacher. They’re usually inaccessible anyway. Find what works for you—what helps you to wake up.
In terms of a teacher: the best teacher for you is the person you will listen to even when you’re completely crazy. That’s the best teacher! The practice is yours. And this is such an important point. There’s a great deal of energy poured into continuing the tradition. So you see forms held for centuries. And I find Yvonne’s account of some of the things she’s witnessed in modern-day Zen I mean almost hilarious. Because for a tradition which started by dispensing with form, the forms that they have developed over the centuries are extr… beautiful and elaborate beyond belief.
And this is the way of the human spirit—it does this. And for some people, it’s a wonderful vehicle. But for you the real point is it is your practice; it is your life. And as Buddha says, which I put in… at the end of the chant booklet, “Everything that comes together eventually falls apart.” And that’s impermanence. “I’ve shown you the way.” And that was a very important way that Buddha characterized his role, not as a savior, not as any kind of expression of a supernatural being. But simply as one who showed the way to others. And in every generation, that’s really what the teacher does.
And then his final words were, and this is a loose translation, granted, “It’s up to you to work out your own freedom.”
Ken: Freedom. So find what works for you, what helps you to wake up. And then work with it very, very deeply, as deeply as you can pour your energy, your time, and your resources into it. If you do that, you will never regret it.
Now, in one’s practice, a teacher is very important. And the teacher-student relationship, like any other relationship, has its challenges and its perils as well [as] its rewards and benefits. In the Asian model, largely, and this has a lot to do with the feudal structure and the structure of the societies themselves, you placed—not in all Asian cultures, but in many of them—you placed your trust in the teacher. This is certainly true in the Tibetan tradition [in] which I was trained. And there is an understanding there. The trust that you placed in the teacher was held by the teacher, and in your placing that trust in the teacher, the teacher incurred a responsibility, an obligation. And the essential feature of that obligation was that the teacher never used — never uses that trust, the trust you place in him or her, for anything except your own awakening.
Now, the culture of this country is very, very different. We place a very high value on individualism. That has certain benefits, and it also has certain pitfalls. So, I’ve thought quite long and deeply about what are the appropriate forms for the student-teacher relationship in this culture. And the first thing is I think we have to understand that there are many forms that it can take.
America is a culture of extraordinary diversity, and just as there’s not going to be an American Buddhism, but many American Buddhisms, or forms of practice, because we inherit so much from the rest of the world. So too, there isn’t going to be one form of the student-teacher relationship; there are going to be many. But still, there is the matter of trust. And this comes up because not infrequently—not all the time, but enough to take note of—I’ve been asked to talk with people, or people have asked to talk with me, about where their own ethical values are at odds or seem to be at odds with their teacher. And this is a dilemma. It’s further complicated by both the fact and the myth that the teacher sees things that the student doesn’t. And I want to emphasize it’s both a fact and a myth.
Basically, at some point, and this is exactly what one is encouraged to cultivate in Buddhism, is to trust your own deepest knowing.
Ken: Knowing. Now, the path of the student is one of uncovering that deepest knowing, removing all of the debris and obscurations and confusion, conditioning, that prevent it from being known. And in the path, the student places trust in the teacher to point out those areas.
And a number of times, I’ve been working with a student, and I’ve said something to them, and the expression on their face becomes one of absolutely stone cold hatred. At which point I know I’m precisely on target. [Laughter.] Because now the path—that’s the face of the pattern. It is right there. It’s a little chilling but—so you know who you’re talking to at that point.
When the student’s identified with a pattern, they hate you—at that point. And I’ve been called “medieval bastard” and other things. But as the student recognizes the pattern, which is the whole point of the exercise, then it shifts. And for that shift to take place, the student has to have the confidence that the trust they’ve extended to the teacher is only being used to help the student wake up.
As your own… as your practice develops, then increasingly you rely on your own knowing. And that may very well bring you into conflict with your teacher, which becomes a very interesting experience. If you can trust your own knowing and the teacher, then you can engage that conflict fully. And if the teacher’s really there for your awakening, it can be an extraordinary experience. Because in that conflict you will both go empty. If the teacher’s hung up on his or her material, it has other consequences. And then you have to look at the relationship. Does this actually work?
There is no problem in feeling that you’ve learned as much as you can from a given individual. That happens all the time. One of the greatest Indian masters, Atisha, studied with a certain person, and then felt that he’d learned everything that he could and took leave. The teacher was very upset. Atisha went on and studied with Serlingpa and others, became very great. He was always grateful to his original teacher for what he’d received.
There is no problem in that. There is a problem, however, when you denigrate any of your teachers. Because then you are denying the validity of whatever you may have learned from them. And so you are closing doors to your own understanding in doing so.
By and large, if you smell a rat, there probably is one. [Laughter.] So if something doesn’t feel right to you about a situation, about an individual, or a group, check it out. Don’t abdicate your own intelligence or your own ethics. Because otherwise you’re compromising something deep within yourself, and that will become an obstacle in your awakening. I’m making a big deal about this, because it really is important.
In a certain way, the teacher is our contact with whatever awakening means to us. It’s why we go to this person. And it’s really important to keep that door open, so it’s very important to pay attention to that relationship. And keep it clear and clean at all times. I’m talking as if from the student’s point of view, but as a teacher I can say there is an equal obligation on the teacher’s part, to attend to that relationship and keep it clear and keep it clean.
And that’s one of the reasons why I developed the model that I did fifteen years ago, seeing people individually and working with people in small groups. And not actually creating a center but just working with people directly. Because by then I had seen so much confusion and turmoil and problems develop because of the organizational demands of the center on the students, and how it corrupted or distracted them from their practice, and so forth.
And this was a problem in Tibet also. Jamgong Kongtrul the Great was hauled out of a three-year retreat at a young age because he had to teach grammar to the Karmapa of that generation, because he was the best grammarian. So, a huge obstacle to his practice. Situ Rinpoche came to him and said, “I’m really sorry to do this, but you’re the best, so we need you.” He did extract a promise from him to be able to do three-year… three-years retreat at a later point, but it was about ten years later when he was able to do it. And so I elected to a model which there wasn’t any center or any organization or anything to get in the way of the teacher-student relationship.
Lots of other stuff got in the way, but there wasn’t that, anyway. And that has been successful, and the understanding that I’ve seen grow in some of the people that have been kind enough to work with me has shown me that some good things came out of that.
Now, for whatever reason, that model has run its course. So as many of you know, I’m taking a sabbatical from teaching. And this is very similar to what I did about fifteen years ago, when I gave up another model, a model I never had much enthusiasm for but I just gave it up. And I spent about three months thinking, Okay, how do… what’s the right model for me to be able to help people? And I knew it wasn’t a center and I knew it wasn’t a number of things. So I happened on this. And the time has come for me to do that again.
In addition, there’s a certain amount of writing that I want to do. Which means that apart from the retreat in the spring at Mt. Baldy, which Janaki and Carolyn will be joining me, they’ll be co-teaching that with me. And then the three week retreat on direct awareness methods in the fall which we’ll be doing here in New Mexico. Those are the only things I’m going to be teaching in the foreseeable future.
So as I say, if you have any questions—[Laughter.]— now is the time. This is the place! I’m—I enjoy teaching, I enjoy teaching very much, and I will miss working with many of you. Even in the relatively short time that we’ve been here, I’ve seen and you’ve told me in the interviews about your own experience and openings and… that you’ve had and coming in to touch with areas in you that in some cases you didn’t even know were there. In other cases, you knew were there but never felt you could touch. And the opening of other possibilities for you.
And this is really the point of the buddha-dharma. The last time, pretty well—Kalu Rinpoche’s last visit to Los Angeles, I went to thank him for… I knew that I probably wouldn’t see him again, because his health was frail. So I went, asked for some time with him. And I was very glad to have the opportunity to thank him formally for all that I had received from him. Because he was extraordinarily generous and he really—it was a good ten years before most of the other Tibetan teachers in what he was prepared to teach westerners. And I have the sneaking suspicion that he sort of planted Tibetan in me. I’m not quite sure but I… he needed a translator, and I was it, so it happened. And it was amazing what happens when there’s thirty people in a room who don’t know Tibetan and one person who doesn’t know English, and you’re meant to know both.
But I thanked him very much and I said to him at that time—one of Rinpoche’s favorite phrases was The purpose of the dharma is to benefit the mind. And I said to him at that point that “This is one thing I’ve learned from you, and for the rest of my life this is what I will do. I will use what you have given me to help the minds of others to the best of my ability.”
So while I am not going to be doing much formal teaching in the near future, and that is a commitment that’s very close to my heart. And I’m sure that our paths will come across in different ways in the future. I don’t know how. And I hope that your time here has been beneficial to you in this way. And that it continues to be as you go forward. Newcom?
Student: At Karmê Chöling, I’ve just been through the kind of political upheaval and distraction and so on, that I think you mention is involved in centers. And one thing that it did was really test the sangha. And I wonder if not having a center could have… undercuts the notion of sangha [unintelligible].
Ken: Well, not exactly. Because another of my intentions was, I’d seen all of that, and so I thought, “Okay, I’ll teach in such a way that no community will form.” [Laughter.] On that one, I wasn’t so successful. And there is a group of people that have come together through their work with me, I suppose, and right now they’re struggling in different ways. Art, do you want to say a word about this?
Art: Nooo. [Laughter]
Ken: I think that says it all. But — what… and there’s an on-going conversation here. And the conversation is really, what does a community of shared intention look like? Because most communities that form lose that sense of shared intention and become something else. Which is exactly why you’re experiencing all of that turmoil. And this is a question that’s very deep. But the sangha—the third jewel—is a community of shared intention, not a community of hierarchy or mutual dependence. But a community of shared intention. And what does that actually look like? And that’s a question I’m very interested in exploring. And that’s what Art and a number of other people here are very much in the middle of. That fair? Yeah, they’re actively exploring that. Okay. Other questions? Robert.
Robert: In the course of kind of talking with these guys in the interview I described kind of working on one of the exercises that you gave, and I actually felt I’d been quite successful. But I’ve had some difficulty with certain parts of it. As I understood and was able to work with part of it but I wasn’t able to bring up sort of the emotional thing, that’s just an area where things don’t flow [unintelligible]. So what you said was, “Huh, you blocked emotion.”
Ken: So helpful. [Laughter.]
Robert: Well I thought I would take this last point of opportunity to ask when I encounter that kind of obstacle, is there a way of sort of softening it up?
Ken: Experience the block.
Robert: I’ve tried that. There’s nothing there. You know, I’m not able to find anything.
Ken: Nothing is an experience. And what you say, “There’s nothing there,” it means you go dead. That’s what—and that’s the experience. You go numb. There’s nothing there. That’s how you experience it. Experience that.
Robert: So you’re saying to me that there’s something there but I’m going dead.
Ken: It’s… from what you’re describing, that sounds likely. But what I’m really saying to you is experience whatever arises. So if you’re working on a certain emotion and something else arises, experience that. It doesn’t mean think about it or analyze it, et cetera. But really be in the experience. Because remember, the purpose of Buddhist practice is simply to be able to experience what arises without the projection of thought and emotion. That’s all the practice is about. Wonderful things come from that. And you find them described at length in the sutras. But that is all the actual point of the practice is: to experience what arises.
One of the fundamental projections that we have is “I” and “other”. What is it like to experience things without that projection? And the way that you come to experiencing what arises without the projection of thought and emotion is at every step of the way, in every part of your life, move into what you’re experiencing, using any of the techniques that we’ve discussed this retreat.
Sam: You’re experiencing fully the reactive emotion of fear, since human being is a creature of [unintelligible] the associative fear is the logical consequences.
Sam: [Unintelligible] imagine the worst possibility, and you go into that fear so that you can experience it fully. Like the possibility of a [unintelligible] child going into a suicide—so I mean, how far do you go?
Ken: There are techniques in which you deliberately imagine certain situations in order to elicit emotions to work with. But they’re usually not necessary. You don’t need to make up a big story. The smallest things in life, seemingly the smallest things in life, trigger reactions. You know, a father hears his daughter saying, “Dad, I won’t be back until one o’clock.” This is the first time she’s going out by herself. Aargh! There it is, right there! And fathers react to that sometimes quite forcefully, because they can’t experience the fear.
So we don’t have to go particularly hunting for anything. It’s always there. And rather than going hunting for and making big stories to get very powerful emotions, put your attention on cultivating the quality of attention. So that whatever arises, you can actually be there. Okay? It’s less exciting, but…. Judy.
Judy: I have a few questions about your talk this morning. On the second one, when you said just imagine not doing that.
Judy: Some of the time when I do that I didn’t have the response that you said you’re supposed to have. [Laughter.]
Student: Give her her money back! [Laughter.]
Judy: Sometimes it was almost like just wanting to be done with the whole thing, and just free of the whole thing, and imagining not doing that was almost like opening a door and just getting away from it or something.
Judy: Like it had the potential to be free — I’m not sure if I was deluding myself or not.
Ken: Okay. Just take a simple example. A person observes that they talk too much. So the question there is, “What would you experience if you didn’t talk?” And it puts them right in touch with everything that the talking is getting them away from. That’s how that suggestion….
Judy: That’s how you explained it this morning very clearly. I’m sorry, but that just wasn’t my experience.
Ken: Okay. And that’s fine. So—here you think, “I think I understand it.” Here you have this reactive behavior, you’re sick of this reactive behavior and think, “Oh, good, I’m not doing it. What a relief!” Okay? Question: do you actually stop doing the reactive behavior?
Judy: [Unintelligible]. It’s still there but it’s, maybe instead of being here, it’s down here or something.
Ken: Okay. But you can still feel it lurking there.
Ken: Right. What is it protecting?
Judy: The fear of not doing it.
Ken: The reactive behavior. What is it protecting? You don’t have to answer. But you see where that takes you. That takes you to the same place. So that may be a better way for you.
Ken: Okay? And the key here—[Judy starts to interrupt]—just one second Judy—the… asking, I use a lot of questions with people, as all of you know. And there’s a great deal of value in finding the right question. Because the right question puts you in touch. That’s why there are many, many different questions. So, as part of your own practice, or when you are interacting with others, if somebody asks you a question that doesn’t elicit — tell them that. And just as Judy is telling me right now, “Okay. That didn’t work for me.” And finding the right question is very helpful for opening up the experience. What was your second question?
Judy: It has to do with the fifth one. Look at what experiences the experience in the world, in its totality. I was having a similar kind of feeling with that one, where I just tell myself that I was supposed to go there. And I could do that but when I would ask that question….
Ken: What are you experiencing right now?
Ken: What are you experiencing right now? What emotion?
Judy: I’m not sure.
Ken: Well, pick an emotion and experience it.
Judy: Okay, fear.
Ken: Fear. Okay. Fear. Right? I’ll help you here, okay. If you don’t get the next answer right, I’m going to be really upset. Okay? Now. Fear out there? No fear? Ah, she doesn’t take me seriously. [Laughter.] What are you experiencing right now?
Judy: Some confusion. And a little irritation. Because I want to….
Ken: You want some irritation. Yeah, okay. Can you experience the irritation? Right? RRRRR! Now. What’s experiencing the irritation? Ah, what happened right there? What happened?
Judy: I just sort of went blank.
Judy: So that’s the — that’s the idea, is just to go blank and then you go into….
Ken: No. You went blank because right now you don’t have the capacity to look right at it. And so you just go blank, and you get… and you get confused. Okay. What this means is you need to cultivate resting with the breath or other forms so you have a stronger attention. And then when you look at what experiences, you will experience a shift. And you still won’t see anything. But you won’t go blank in the same way. You follow?
Judy: Yeah. That’s really helpful. Because I thought it was one of those dzogchen tricks. Because there are [snaps fingers]—where you kind of go blank and then you go to this other thing. So—seriously—I was really confused about that when—no, I mean it sincerely. Because that is….
Ken: Okay. Good. Alright. Last question?
Student: Well, I think I experienced the dzogchen trick. During my interview, you said that I should—I told you that I had a fear, I felt a uncomfortable familiar feeling. And I didn’t really—it wasn’t very strong, and I didn’t have a name for it. And you said just to hang out with it. So I just hung out with it. And actually, you know, wanted to distract myself, I wanted to go get a cup of tea. I didn’t want to do [unintelligible] anymore, and I just said, “No, no—that means something’s happening, so you better just continue practice.” So I did that. And then something else happened, and all of a sudden I felt a very strong, very familiar….
[End of Recording]