In general, work and effort only create opposition.
When you practice, you stir up all sorts of pains and discomforts.
When you don’t practice, you forget what you are and wander in confusion.
In either case, you lose touch with what is straightforward and natural.
This is Jigmé Linpa’s description of the box. Any effort you make brings you into opposition with something. If you don’t make any effort, you just sit there in a dazed confused state. This is the classic double-bind — damned if you do and damned if you don’t — the most reliable way to drive a person insane (or psychotic)
In this section of the poem, Jigmé Lingpa has set out a number of subtle mistakes that we may make in this practice. In verse 3.1 he talks about a cage of inventions. The conceptual mind constructs a framework to interpret and understand experience, but the framework turns out to be a cage that prevents direct, immediate and unrestricted knowing. In verse 3.2 he describes how even the action of conceptualization keeps us from knowing experience directly. In verse 3.3 he talks about how problems arise when we try to control or force experience. In verse 3.4 he warns about the deadening effect of the dullness we easily slip into when we try to be present and do nothing. In verse 3.5 he alerts us to a subtle form of busyness, the busyness of tracking what is happening in one’s practice.
In summary, any concern with the content of experience distances us from direct knowing, any effort to force things creates problems and any degradation of the quality of attention leads to dullness and inattention.
It doesn’t leave much room for maneuvering, does it?
To touch what is truly straightforward and natural, we have to let go of all the ways of knowing that we are used to. This is no small matter. We do not let go of those ways willingly. Some people, it seems, can do so intentionally, but I am certainly not one of them. Kicking and screaming is what comes to mind, but that assumes we know how to let go of those ways of knowing. Most of us don’t. We do not and cannot see what is possible. For that reason alone, most of us have to be pushed, tricked or tripped into letting go.
In the Zen tradition, a question is put to us, and before we can say anything, the teacher says, “If you say anything, I’ll hit you. If you don’t say anything, I’ll hit you.” How to respond? This is crazy-making, of course, but the point is to push us beyond the ordinary thinking mind.
In the mahamudra and dzogchen traditions, we are given pointing out instructions. These are often interpreted as logic games, but that is not their intent. They, too, are designed to push us beyond ordinary thinking and into direct experience. Like the Zen questions, they only work if we are ready, if all the conditions are present.
Probably the most reliable method, the one that historically has worked for the largest number of people, is devotion. Through practice and prayer, through study and service, or through some other combination of practices and activities, we form a visceral emotional connection with a teacher or historical figure, someone who represents to us the possibility of being completely awake, even if we don’t know what that possibility actually means. That emotional connection enables us to be let go of how we are used to knowing. Again, when the conditions are right, the power of the faith and devotion flows into awareness. It lights up and we see — we know directly. Over the centuries, in tradition after tradition, it has been the most effective path for many, but in the modern world, unfortunately, it is misunderstood, suspect and abused.
In the next section Jigmé Lingpa continues his instruction, but he places this verse here for a definite reason. We cannot make use of what he presents next unless we have utterly and completely exhausted our usual approaches to practice and to knowing.
Texts such as these are quite misleading for the average Western practitioner, because we do not appreciate how condensed they are in terms of time. Each verse assumes months, if not years, of practice. How long does it take for our practice to mature through each of the eight pitfalls outlined in section 1? How long does it take to understand and appreciate the possibilities he describes in section 2? How much practice must we do before we recognize the problems outlined in this third section? How long does it take for us to exhaust the repertoire of tricks we think will get us out of the box?
Some of us are more stubborn that others. For me, it wasn’t until I experienced viscerally how conceptual understanding is indeed a cage and I simply could not rely on it. It wasn’t until my longing to transcend my limitations had left me bereft and abandoned and I had no place to turn. It wasn’t until every effort I made brought me up against one wall or another and I was left with no path, no door, not even a window. Only then did I begin to recognize what was there all along, the possibility of being straightforward and natural.
As for living there, well, that seems to be a life’s work.