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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Verse 3.3 — when reactive energy enters the life channel

Some people cut off the ebb and flow of thoughts and feelings
And construct an emptiness practice infected with goal-seeking.
Their forced and constricted practice wears them out.
Serious problems develop when reactive energy enters the life channel.

In the three-year retreat, it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that one of the essential abilities for mahamudra practice is the ability to rest. That became a big problem, because I simply couldn’t rest. I couldn’t rest physically and I couldn’t rest mentally or emotionally.

I became quite ill. By the end of the second retreat, there was no possibility of my continuing into a third retreat. My body had quit, utterly and completely, and I was pretty shaky emotionally. The illness took physical form, but it wasn’t physically based — a fact that I was more than a little resistant to accepting. I had had dreams during the retreat that indicated it was a karmic illness, a category of illness in the Tibetan tradition that cannot be cured by conventional treatments. Other dreams indicated a karmic block — again, a category of block that is not amenable to treatment, even ritual treatment. Nevertheless, after the retreat I continued to look for treatments of one form or another, all to no avail.

In retrospect, one way to describe my illness is that it was due to the stagnation of energy, energy that developed through practice but was not able to circulate smoothly. In energy transformation practice, it is important both to refine energy so it is not carrying a reactive charge and to open the channels through which energy flows so it can circulate smoothly. Energy transformation practices, if practiced effectively, bring unresolved emotional material to the surface. Often we do not know what emotional material is stored in us — we do not know what darkness lurks within. If not worked through (using methods such as Seeing From the Inside), the emotional reactivity creates imbalances that manifest as physical and emotional disturbances. I now know the emotional blocks that prevented me from understanding the messages that my body was giving me and inhibited me from taking appropriate steps. At the time, I just kept trying to make my experience conform to my expectations — a forced and constricted practice, to use Jigmé Lingpa’s words. 

The quality of resting is important for three reasons. It helps to create the conditions in which emotional reactivity can resolve itself — leading to a refinement of energy in the whole system. Resting also allows energy channels to open so that energy can circulate smoothly. And it makes it possible for us to listen to our whole system and sense imbalances before they become serious problems. 

In both mahamudra and dzogchen, we are essentially allowing energy imbalances in mind and body to resolve themselves at progressively deeper levels. To do so requires high levels of stability (resting) and clarity (insight), both of which depend on the level of energy in our attention. As those imbalances resolve, the energy locked in those blocks becomes available to us. We experience greater depth and breadth in awareness and we are also able to work at yet deeper levels. But if we carry fixed notions about how things are meant to be, we can, as I did, run into serious problems. It was only when I was ground into the dust that I began to see that my problems were in those fixed notions. Even then, it took over twenty years of slow and patient work to recover, with many setbacks along the way. I learned a lot about energy, about how it is generated in practice and about how important it is for it to circulate naturally in the mind-body system, particularly when engaging deep and powerful awareness practices such as mahamudra or dzogchen.

Two of my teachers, Kalu Rinpoche and Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, took considerable pains to impress on me that, in Nyoshull Khenpo’s words, “Mahamudra and dzogchen are two names for the same person.” They each had their own way of pointing this out to me, and they did a good job. Their message has stayed with me. Nevertheless, there is a subtle difference in emphasis. In mahamudra, the emphasis is on no distraction. In dzogchen, the emphasis is on relaxing and opening. Both are essential, but part of the difference in flavor between the two is this difference in emphasis. Thus, in dzogchen resting is, if anything, more important and an inability to rest is even more of a problem.

Is resting the key to everything? Probably not. After decades of teaching and working with students from different backgrounds and with different capabilities, I’ve come to the conclusion that each person’s path is unique. While there are important principles that apply in most situations, each person needs to find the appropriate way to work with those principles. Some people need to learn how to develop and focus attention. Others need to learn how to relax and open. Some need to learn how to stand in the face of their patterns and cut. Others need to learn how to let things unfold on their own. A good teacher doesn’t teach in just one way, but guides the student according to his or her needs and abilities.

For additional thoughts and information on these topics, please look at:


Anonymous said...

This is powerful and important information. Many thanks for your clarity.

Best in the new year,

Todd Johnston said...

Thanks Ken, this is rich stuff, and the links offer so much to work with. I'm very interested in the energy work and really know almost nothing about it, so I appreciate the links to the additional resources.


Mri said...

Twenty years to recover is a long time. It’s sad to me that there wasn’t sufficient support for you at the time when things were taking a turn for the worse. It’s clear we need better systems of training to prevent this kind of thing from happening.