Questions on the mind of the body and patterned tendency, keeping practice alive, and where do released reactive patterns go.
This question is from Thomas in Ohio. My question is about a piece of advice that I’ve heard from you, Ken, on numerous occasions, namely “in the face of confusion, go to the body.” This seems like good advice. Yet sometimes the body seems to be giving contradictory messages. On the one hand, most of the time, the body has an innate wisdom that knows just what to do. As they say, if it feels wrong, then it probably is, or first thought best thought. But on the other hand, despite the honesty of the body, sometimes what I experience feels more like reactive patterns than presence. For example, when I’m about to undertake a difficult action, the experience of the body is one of hesitancy, tension and anxiety. So it seems that if I yield to the counsel of the body, this would amount to a capitulation to fear. Of course, I understand that ignoring the fear isn’t constructive either and I know that the challenge is to lean into the experience whilst holding the fear as a portion of it. Therefore, my question is how is one to discern when the mind of the body is leading us to appropriate action and when it has been overcome by the force of pattern tendency.
Ken McLeod (01:56):
When I said ,”go to the body”, I didn’t say ,”do whatever the body tells you.” There is a small difference there. The body is giving you very accurate information about what you’re actually experiencing. So as you say, you are undertaking a difficult action and you notice that there is tension in the body. You say the experience of the body is one of hesitancy, tension and anxiety. While hesitancy and anxiety are emotional experiences, you’re not in touch necessarily with the body sensations. So there might be a heaviness or a sluggishness in the body. Maybe the muscles are very contracted. That’s producing the experience of tension. Maybe there are butterfly feelings in the stomach. Maybe the heart’s beating very quickly. Maybe there’s a feeling of pressure in the chest or the head. So when I say go to the body, I mean go to the actual physical sensations that are arising, and then you’ll get in touch with the emotional sensations.
This gives you very accurate information about what you are experiencing. I remember a call that I made which was a very difficult call for me. The upper part of my body was completely calm, but I noticed that my legs and my knees were shaking. I said to myself, “well, you may have shut down the fear in the upper part of your body, but your knees are telling you that you’re actually quite afraid in this call, Ken.” That was information that was very useful to me. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean I act on the fear, but it tells me, “okay, there is fear going on here.” Even if I’m not feeling it, that tells me something; I’m blocking it. So that’s how you use the information of the body, not just doing what the body says. But using that information so you can see what you’re blocking or what you’re opening and what you’re being likely to be carried away by ,what you’re likely to be thrown off by. So you use that information to move more completely into the experience.
I would also like to ask about in , Wake Up to Your Life, you refer to purpose, method, effect and result. In this context, what are the results of meditating on death and dying?
Ken McLeod (04:37):
Many and profuse! If you look in the chapter on meditation on death and impermanence in The Words of My Perfect Teacher, you’ll find a quotation by Geshe Potowa, who is a 12th/3th century Tibetan teacher, describing very clearly the results from meditating on death and impermanence or death and dying. It does a number of things. Initially it provides a very solid motivation for meditation and spiritual practice because the one thing that puts us in touch with the fact that this is our life and our life alone, is that we’re going to die. We come into this world alone, we leave it alone. We have the illusion that we aren’t alone. That it’s actually, this is our life. And we get carried off by socially prescribed agendas.
When we consider death, then we begin to question those socially prescribed agendas saying, “well, what do I want to do with my life?” So the first thing it does is it gives a very healthy motivation, basis for motivation. The second thing that it does is that it cultivates equanimity and even compassion. The reason that cultivates equanimity is that we all die. We’re all the same in that way. And everybody experiences anxiety and pain and suffering with respect to death. So those give rise to equanimity and compassion. Also it puts us in touch with the fact that there is nothing that we can hold on to. So it moves us into a relationship, an experiential relationship, with emptiness and through emptiness with what true freedom is actually about. At advanced stages of practice, when our practice is very mature, then death and impermanence actually precipitate moments of presence. Because as we contemplate that, we see that in a very definite sense, we are dying in each moment. The more familiar we become with a whole notion of dying, the easier we find it is to let go of the streams of thoughts, emotions, and emotional reactions that confine us to ordinary existence and cause suffering for ourselves and others.
So there are many, many results which come directly out of meditation on death and dying. It’s one of the reasons why it’s regarded as such a wonderful practice in Buddhism and people are encouraged to practice it at every stage of their practice.
This question is from Bertrand in Morocco: I have a question about practice and ghost practice. I often felt that when I was trying to get some sort of discipline or rather to set some sort of discipline to my practice, my practice faded to gray, so to speak, and became only a ghost of the actual practice. It felt like I was imposing it on myself in a way, and that some part of me resisted it very strongly. It felt very unnatural. At the end of each session, I would be filled with a mixed feeling of having fulfilled my duty and of having failed to be present during the practice, in my mind and in my heart. It was pretty discouraging and frustrating to some extent. Interestingly, I noticed this going on with physical exercise too. And I think it would probably apply to any repeating practice as far as I’m concerned. In the beginning, I’m fully into it and then as time passes, I still do it, but it’s almost like I’m not even there anymore. It becomes mechanical and soulless. It feels like I’m just performing a task to get it done with and any effort to avoid that seems to make it worse. So how do you keep your practice alive? How do you prevent it from falling into a lifeless routine and from becoming a ghost practice?
Ken McLeod (09:14):
Well, there are a couple of points here. I think the first one is as you say, when we start a new activity, we pour energy into it and then we learn how to do it. It doesn’t take as much effort or attention and now it doesn’t engage. I’m reminded of course of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Once we get past that beginner stage, how do we make the practice alive? Well, one way is stay a beginner. The way that we do that is by exploring our experience, whatever our experience is. It sounds as if you working with a practice in which there’s a certain procedure to follow.
And when we’re doing those kinds of practices, we think that just getting through them is enough. But what we aren’t paying attention to is what we’re experiencing when we’re going through the procedure. And we’re kind of ignoring that. So that’s the first thing I would suggest here is start putting some attention on, what am I experiencing at this stage of the practice, at this stage of the practice, at this stage of the practice. What am I experiencing in my body? What am I experiencing emotionally? What are the stories running through my head? You start to explore that way. I don’t think your practice will become routine. It’ll probably become more alive than you want it to be because you’re going to be opening the doors to the basement and the monsters are waiting for you. So, that’s one approach.
The other possibility here is you’re dealing with boredom. One way that I think about boredom is that it is too much attention with insufficient intention. By that, I mean that you’re able to do the practice or the physical thing but you aren’t clear about your intention. Why are you doing it? What do you want from your practice? And whenever we lose touch with our intention, then our practice goes stale and becomes routine. So that’s something to be asking yourself from time to time. “What do I want from this practice?” “What am I trying to make different about my life?” That’s going to bring you in touch, sooner or later, with the discomfort or the pain or the suffering or whatever it is that actually motivates us. Now, a lot of people take issue with me and they say, “Can’t practice, be motivated by something positive?” Well, it’s the carrot and stick approach. You know, you have a donkey and there are two ways of getting the donkey to move. You can either hold a carrot in front of the donkey, or you can hit the donkey with a stick. Now in the carrot approach, when you hold the carrot in front of the donkey, what do you do when the donkey starts to move? You move the carrot away. So from the donkey’s point of view, he never gets the carrot, he gets to move, but he never gets the carrot.
So his attention is always on something out there that he never experiences. I don’t think this is a good way to practice. The stick approach, on the other hand, is you get a nice two by four and you whack the donkey on the rear end with a stick. And the donkey feels the pain and decides this is not a good place to be. So he starts to move and if he stops, then he gets another whack. Well, the suffering in our lives is the equivalent of the whack with a stick. And as long as we’re relating to that suffering, we know exactly why we’re practicing and our practice won’t be a ghost practice.
There’s a lot of questions. Okay. This is my second question. I have now stopped practicing sitting meditation on a regular basis. I went to Plum Village last fall, and it was very unexpected breakthrough in my practice. I realized that I didn’t need to sit to practice, but that practice is in every moment, in every step. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, if you were present in every moment, (which appears impossible really) or in every action, then practice is alive and then peace sets in. And since then, I have to say that I feel more at peace and more present than before, because it has made me understand that there is no trying. It’s just about being in a way. It’s almost like before I was imposing a separation between sitting time and the rest of my life. And now this barrier is down and I don’t feel the need for sitting. So my question is, despite all this, I would like to resume a more formal type of sitting practice, but how do I do that without falling into the same patterns of routine?
Ken McLeod (15:13):
I think this was a very important breakthrough or understanding in your practice. That attention isn’t something that’s confined to the cushion, to the matter, to formal meditation. And it’s about taking that attention and actually practicing it in our lives. And as you say, practice is in every moment, in every step.
That being said, to really be present in that way, you have to have a certain capacity and attention. And that’s primarily the role of formal practice. If you want to be flexible and dextrous and strong, then we exercise regularly. The exercise isn’t something we necessarily do because we’re expecting certain results from it, certain experiences . It’s to develop our ability to be flexible, dexterous and strong. That’s why we exercise. And so that ability or capacity then becomes available for us in every situation that we encounter. So if we need to move a car we’re able to move a car. But the equivalent here is sitting on a regular basis, using that to cultivate attention unmixed with any activity, and then in your daily life, just as you described in your set up to your question here, then you employ that attention, mixing it with activity so that everything you do you’re present and awake for. So I would suggest that you sit regularly, but understand that the sitting practice isn’t the end, isn’t the aim or the end of practice. It is the means to practice. And it’s a very important means.
Roger in Northfield, Vermont asks: when you release a reactive pattern, where does it go?
Ken McLeod (17:40):
I have to first be a little sticky about language. We don’t release reactive patterns, reactive patterns release themselves when conditions are such that they can no longer hold together. It never comes about through me saying, “I’m going to release this reactive pattern.” I want to be clear about that. Asking, “where does it go?”, is a little bit, actually, it’s quite a lot like asking, “where does an eddy in water go?, or when water is all turbid and you let it calm down and go still, “where does the turbidity go?” A reactive pattern isn’t a thing. It’s a way things move and a way things are organized, in a certain sense. And so, when you bring attention to a reactive pattern you actually change the way energy is flowing and the turbidity or disturbance simply dissipates. To use another analogy, clouds form in the sky when the water vapor and condensation point reaches certain critical numbers. And so clouds appear out of the sky and disappear into the sky. Reactive patterns are like clouds. They arise in experience and subside in experience.