Because these mistakes stop you from going beyond ordinary experience,
Be clear that the approach of practice versus not practice
Relies on an artificial distinction. Be in what you experience right now,
Without trying to reshape it in any way.
This is a tough one! How do you sit without feeling you aren’t practicing, aren’t working at anything at all?
By the time you reach this stage of practice, you have learned a lot: how to cultivate attention, how to bring that attention to bear on what prevents you from experiencing what arises, how to rest in the often difficult physical and emotional sensations of patterns unfolding and releasing, how to look at and see nothing, how to mix awareness and experience, and so on.
Not only have we learned these skills and built this capacity of attention, these kinds of efforts have become second nature to us, as they should.
But we still have the idea of practice, that there is something to do, there is an effort to be made. That idea is deeply embedded in our way of thinking and puts us into the box, the double-bind described in the preceding verse.
What to do? For this, I go back to one of the instructions in Mind Training in Seven Points, namely, “Let even the remedy release naturally.” One aspect of the genius of these instructions is that, as our experience and abilities evolve, we see how to apply them at ever deeper levels and in different ways.
We are used to thinking of practice as a remedy, but it’s not at all clear how to let that notion of practice release naturally. In verse 3.2, I described how to cut through the tendency to conceptualize experience. As soon as you notice any movement into conceptualization, cut the tendency (by taking a breath) and then just sit. This is, essentially, the practice of Chö (cutting, Tib. གཅོད). The same principle applies here. As soon as you feel you are practicing in any way, stop. Take a breath, and open to what you are experiencing, physically, emotionally, cognitively, without, as Jigmé Lingpa says, “trying to reshape it in any way.”
In the beginning, it’s a bit of a mess. It’s confusing. There’s a lot of second-guessing. I often end up like a dog chasing its own tail, but that’s just the conceptual mind going into overtime because I am not doing anything and it is compensating by revving up its activity. Nevertheless, the same principle applies: when I recognize that I’m chasing my own tail, I stop, breath out, and rest.
This one principle seems to apply over and over again: as soon as you recognize that you are doing something or that you are lost, stop, and start again. This is what Kalu Rinpoche taught, over and over again, with “just recognize”. This is what Karmapa XVI taught when he visited us in the three-year retreat. “Look,” he said, and the air crackled with the energy of his attention. “As soon as a thought arises, relax.” And a gentle wave of energy flooded the room where we all sat. “Then look again,” he said and lightning again charged the room. His teaching had all the subtlety of someone picking me up by the scruff of my neck and throwing me against the wall over and over again — I don’t know how many times. “This is what I’ve understood from my study and practice in Mahamdura, Dzogchen and Kalacakra,” he concluded, and then he left.
As I worked with this alternation again and again over many years, the looking and the resting gradually came together and I did less and less in practice. It seemed that there wasn’t anything to do and this not-doing culminated in an understanding that there was absolutely nothing to oppose. It was suddenly clear that I had the potential to experience anything, and thus, there was no longer any need to oppose anything. The very basis for reaction, the need to reshape what arises in experience, crumbled. I could just let things be and there was a peace, or a freedom, that was quite different from any other experience I’d had.
This understanding has brought me closer to the feeling that I am actually in my life and that, to me at least, is freedom. While my life has been shaped by many influences — my genetic inheritance, my parents and family, school and education, friends and colleagues, work, health, the societies and cultures in which I have lived — my life is just life. It doesn’t belong to anyone or anything, even me.