Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Verse 2.7 — outlook, practice, behavior and result

Therefore, don’t let hope and fear tie you up in knots.
Let go and forget about outlook’s razor-like edge.
Leave and forget about deep practice’s cozy cocoon.
Destroy and forget about behavior’s pretentious enmeshments.
Cast aside and forget about result’s grand expectations.

Up to this point, Jigmé Lingpa has been describing the ground, the basis for practice. Now he talks about the practice itself, which consists of the refinement of the fine art of doing nothing — absolutely nothing.

When I began meditation practice many many years ago, resting with the breath felt like I was doing nothing. And I couldn’t stand it. It wasn’t restful. I was far too agitated in my body to have any sense of resting. I didn’t see how it accomplished anything. It wasn’t productive. I quickly gave up and kept asking my teacher for something I could do. Eventually, he said, “Okay, do a hundred thousand prostrations.” And I did. That was something I could do, but I had to do that several times before I could even begin to think about resting.

In the three-year retreat, when we started direct awareness practice — mahamudra, it quickly became clear that I was going to go nowhere if I couldn’t rest deeply. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t rest at all, and I soon became completely tied up in the knots of hope and fear. It was more than frustrating. Any movement I made pulled the knots tighter. Whenever I thought I had untied a knot, I found that I had created several more. I didn’t know which way to turn, which was just as well as the knots were so tight that I couldn’t turn anyway.

In short, learning how to do nothing did not come easily.

Outlook has always made sense to me. It is a direct pointing to the utter groundlessness of experience. When you connect with this way of looking at the world, you can cut through all kinds of projections and confusion. Of course, a lot of people just do it conceptually, labeling everything as empty, which doesn’t cut anything at all. I always found that there was some relief, some release, when I remembered and returned to the direct knowing that what I was experiencing, no matter how painful or confusing, no matter how intense or banal, was just that, an experience that comes and goes. It was a like a razor that cut through the solidity of my own projections and that was a relief. 

As for practice’s cozy cocoon, I’ve certainly worked with students who related to practice this way, particularly people who have trained in the janas (the four levels of attention practiced in the Theravadan tradition). I have less ability here, but there is still a certain appeal in resting deeply. Mind and body are refreshed in a way that a nap or even a good night’s sleep doesn’t do. The experience itself is usually quite pleasant, if not blissful. And you have the satisfaction of feeling that you are meditating deeply. 

As for behavior, there are so many guidelines and, like it or not, they rub off on you. You may absorb them or you may reject them, but they still affect you, even if only by defining the context in which you practice. In my case, I tend to conform to expectations, whether my own (coming from the practices I aspired to) or from others (what is deemed “socially acceptable” behavior). What I noticed, over time, was that the constant conforming lead to subtle forms of suppression. My idealism and efforts to be responsive, not reactive, to others ending up freezing me from the inside out: I became an emotional iceberg. 

As for result, at this point, I really don’t know what the result of practice is or what it is meant to be. The lofty descriptions in the sutras and tantras are beautiful poetry, but I can’t relate to them in my own experience, even when I regard them as metaphor. At the same time, it’s a little hard to accept T.S. Eliot’s:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

But maybe that’s because I’m not there yet. I don’t know.

When I read these lines in Jigmé Lingpa’s poem, I’m struck by how they describe a subtle way to move in the direction of balance. I’m always going to be cutting through my own projections. That way of approaching experience has just become part of me. But I can cut too much, and that’s when I need to let go and forget about cutting. 

I enjoy the experience of resting deeply in practice. Why not? But I can grow too comfortable, and that’s when I need to interrupt my “deep meditation”, forget about it and just sit there. 

I know I’m unlikely to be free of that conforming habit of mine. When I notice the pattern running, I need to forget about any notion of “right conduct” or “right action” and just rest in the experience of what’s running the show. 

And I still live with expectations, even though I’m not sure what they are about. When they catch me, it’s time to cast aside any sense of achievement, now or in the future, and just relate to what’s happening now. 


Katherine Edwards said...

Hi Ken, today's blog resonated with my current situation, that is of certain learnt social expectations and conformity. i vacillate between tolerating it for a while, then actively move away from seeking approval and into a more authentic self. Some of this need for social approval from others is probably out of fear of being alone (as a single 38 yr old) as well as upbringing. Much of my frustrations with this automated behaviour is what led me to spiritual practice - finding awareness around it, as you state not trying to change current situation? It is a struggle with both internal and external benchmarks of how i should feel, behave, speak, present myself. As an artist i require stretches of solo time to allow creativity to flow. I struggle with feelings of vulnerability and have tendency for self-blame. I realise aspects of my negative thought patterns are from lack of present focus, (and yes dredging up past hurts) because ultimately this present awareness moulds your outlook too. I wanted to share as your teachings have been so helpful.

Anonymous said...

You say that you cut "too much" and then become an "emotional iceberg". But, instead of trying to "forget about cutting", why not cut into that?

Indifference is one of the three poisons, and so any "balance" which is emotionally unresponsive remains emotionally unbalanced.

Ken said...

Why not "cut into that"? This is one of those instances where one must consider Yogi Berra: in theory, there is no difference between practice and theory; in practice, there is.

Cutting involves a certain stance, an edge, and one can move out of balance with the resting and stability aspect by cutting and cutting. One ends up a bit like a dog chasing its tail. In this sense, letting it all go and just resting is how one cuts cutting.

As for the emotional iceberg, in the immediate context of practice, if you use the tool or method that produced the imbalance, you move even further out of balance.

In the bigger picture, I came to question the whole structure of teaching and transmission as it has evolved in the West. The degree of isolation it can induce is not terribly healthy for anyone, an isolation I noticed that Asian teachers were careful to avoid.

Courtney said...

I see the use of the words "I need to..." I have that same thing running for more than practice. To ask what you always ask, "What needs to?" That stops it temporarily, but it still runs.

I have to go insane in a retreat setting before I finally become aware of some deep belief. Then the the pattern stops. I LOVE the tying in knots description. It's like the agony is what finally pops the shroud around the hidden belief running my show. Insanity = death throes, and something to get curious about, for me.

Do teachers still have teachers? I find they know just how to get under my sore spots - probably inadvertently, I have a lot of them. It creates all sorts of roads in tho! :)

Diane de Ford said...

There is a sense of some kind of relief when I read the T.S. Eliot verse...

"And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

In terms of practice, this seems less a description of result and more a circling (or cycling) back. A re-examination of any point I might call a beginning, looking again at an old pattern with fresh perspective or the experience of deeper practice.

Knowing for the first time feels like present moment, maybe allowing the knowing without pre-conceptions this time.