Notes on an event in a 50+ year attempt to learn and benefit from spiritual practices….
For some years now, I have been trying various meditation techniques from many world traditions, particularly techniques which meditation teacher Shinzen Young has modified in various ways to make more sense to and be more doable by modern people. A month ago, I was participating in one of Shinzen’s monthly telephone retreats. For these, 20 to 50 people telephone into a conference call number and Shinzen leads us in some guided meditation for 2 to 4 hours. There’s time for reports and questions at the end, and often individual phone consultation with him during a break in the middle of the period. These “mini-retreats” are a very useful way to stay connected to intensive meditation practice, and much more convenient, inexpensive and practical than flying off to some residential retreat site.
On this particular day, I was participating in a two-hour guided meditation session on a technique Shinzen calls “Do Nothing” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZ6cdIaUZCA). The basic instruction here is that you don’t attempt to do anything in particular, to have any kind of particular meditation experience, or to “correct” or guide what happens in your mind during the meditation. Indeed, the instruction is that if you sense that you intend to change something, relax that intention. You’re not actively looking for such intentions – that would be doing – but, if intentions are noticed, you drop them, relax them.
This is a technique I have not tried much and which I find rather difficult. But I also find it quite interesting, as I think becoming aware of intentions, especially subtle intentions, as they first well up my mind, is an important factor for my spiritual growth.
Fairly far along in meditation, after a little period of quiet, Shinzen instructed us that the search was over, we didn’t have to do anything, we didn’t have to try to make anything happen or not happen. As he said that, a deep feeling of sadness suddenly welled up in me and tears came to my eyes. I realized that I have never stopped trying! My entire life, from childhood on, has been spent trying to do the “right thing” at practically every moment! Even though I appear to be a relaxed and easy-going person, even though I think I’m actually quite relaxed compared to people in general, in the background I’m always trying to figure out what the right thing to do is and to do it. Not that this was and is a “bad” thing to do, but I just suddenly realized how very, very tired of trying I was! I hoped that someday I would be able to stop for a while and get some rest. But it was a very faint hope, I was always, always trying, why would anything change?
After a few moments the feeling passed, the tears dried, and I went back to the do nothing practice. At the end of this telephone meditation retreat I didn’t think anything special about it, other than that this insight about how tired I was of always trying, had happened.
Rancho Palos Verdes Retreat – Flow
Two weeks later, my wife Judy and I are at a Catholic nunnery and retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, for a 12 day retreat with Shinzen. While I know he will present a variety of techniques for people to try, with the aim of finding what works well for you or simply making your mind more flexible, I’ve already decided that I’m going to concentrate on meditation procedures for sensing “flow.” That is, whatever sensory channel I’m paying attention to, input from the five classical senses or the actions of my mind (visual imagery or internal talk), I’m going to try to be aware, with concentration, clarity, and equanimity, not only of the particulars of the content at any moment, but of the way it changes from moment to moment, its flow. Flow is Shinzen’s modern term, which he thinks covers most, if not all, understandings of the crucial concept of “impermanence” in Buddhism.
If I happen to be meditating with my eyes closed, for example, observing visual imagery on my inner mental screen, I might notice that it’s relatively restful at this moment, mainly black-and-white or faintly colored dots flickering on and off, like looking at static, “snow” on a TV set tuned to a channel which has no broadcast on it. But the flickering on and off of these dots can actually be seen as flow, one momentary pattern changing into another. Indeed, more specific imagery will almost certainly appear as I continue to pay attention, and one image will morph, will flow into another and another and other. A brief image of a car driving along a highway, e.g., morphs into a forest, which morphs into clouds in the sky, which morphs into a wall, etc., etc. Keeping aware of these changes, with equanimity, concentration, and clarity, is what Shinzen describes as meditating on flow or impermanence.
Peace – Resting in the “Nature of Mind?” Or?
To my surprise – except I didn’t really feel surprised at the time – I had five or six experiences, each 5 to 20 min. or so long, that were, from their own internal perspective, nothing special, but, from the perspective of my ordinary mind activity, were extraordinary! I didn’t do anything that had the intention of bringing these specific experience or states on, or to maintain them, or to prolong them.
While there is much formal meditating in the zendo (meditation hall) during Shinzen’s retreats, one can attend these or not, as one wishes, and I often skip a number of these formal sessions in order to meditate outside in nature. The retreat center is very pleasant that way, located in the hills above Los Angeles, and having a relatively undeveloped area off the parking lot with bushes, pine trees, etc. as well as more formal gardens and lawns. In these “extraordinary but nothing special experiences,” I would be sitting in a chair, looking off into the distance or at nearby pine trees or bushes, and practicing the previously described observation of flow meditation. With my eyes open there was always flow in the sensory world: the movement of tree branches in the wind, occasional people walking at a distance, changing automobile noises from cars passing on a nearby road, etc. With my eyes closed there was always plenty of flow in terms of morphing body sensations, morphing internal visual imagery and morphing internal talking.
Then I would notice, usually when my eyes were open, that I was “at peace.” That phrase doesn’t quite describe it accurately, but I’m at something of a loss for words here – which is unusual for me, a champion talker. I would be just sitting there, looking at the pine trees, for example, and find I was just contentedly sitting there looking at the pine trees. I was awake and alert, but no longer doing any kind of technique, I was not wishing for anything in particular to happen or not happen. I wouldn’t say I was practicing the “Do-Nothing” technique, rather I wasn’t striving to do or not do anything at all, I was just here, and now. There was no effort, no striving involved in maintaining this feeling of peace, of calm presence.
I’m tempted to describe this as an experience of Peace, capital P, but from the inside it simply wasn’t any big deal. It’s only from my ordinary perspective of knowing how incredibly rare an experience like this is in my life, especially one lasting more than a few seconds, that I realize how extra-ordinary it was.
I think I have experienced something like this only once before in my life. Several summers ago my wife and I were on a Dzogchen retreat with lama Tsoknyi Rinpoche at his country center, Rangjung Yeshe Gomde, in northern California. After one of the teaching sessions one afternoon, we found ourselves just sitting on the hillside, watching the clouds move, feeling the wind blow, and the touch of the sun on our skins. It was just so very peaceful and natural. Again I make that statement as if this were very special, a retrospective judgment, but at the time it was just natural to simply be there for a few minutes, enjoying the sun, the wind, and the sights.
Although Shinzen’s was a silent retreat, I did have my little pocket voice recorder with me, and since I was far enough away from others to not disturb their silence, I dictated occasional notes, trying to capture something of the essence of the experience. Here’s one dictated after several previous occurrences of this sort.
A moment outside that I think of as a Dzogchen moment. I’m relaxed and enjoying the touch of the sun on my skin, the warm temperature. The sound of a chain saw being used nearby is just the sound of a chainsaw, I’m not taking it as annoying, “What a horrible noise spoiling this peaceful place!” My mind is spacious. I’m not particularly trying to improve things. I wouldn’t say I’m Here and Now in any profound sense, I’m just here and now, quietly enjoying sitting or walking around. I didn’t do anything in particular to bring it on, except perhaps expected it, as it’s happened several times already on this retreat. I was doing a meditation, mainly on flow, a few minutes ago.
Rigpa, or Resting in the Nature of Mind?
Although I’ve been a student of lama Sogyal Rinpoche for many years, primarily trying to understand and practice his Dzogchen teachings about rigpa, the ultimate nature of mind, I’ve always had trouble, though, understanding what “rigpa” means, what “resting in the nature of mind” means. Sometimes I think I basically understand it, sometimes I’m not at all sure that I understand any aspect of it. The last few years I’ve felt that any intellectual attempt of mine to evaluate whether a particular experience is indeed “rigpa” or “resting in the nature of mind” always has the answer, “No.” If I’m trying to intellectually pin it down, I am in an ordinary intellectual state, not in rigpa.
As Sogyal Rinpoche’s translation of a Tibetan prayer, Dudjom Rinpoche’s Calling the Lama from Afar puts it,
Buddhahood is not attained by fabricated Dharmas;
Meditation made by the mind, fabricated by the intellect, is the deceiving enemy.
During these periods of peace, I felt that this was it, or at least a small manifestation of resting in the nature of mind…..
Because I hadn’t done anything specifically aimed at bringing these episodes on, one of my notes concluded:
So an important part of “resting in the nature of mind” is not wanting it to be anything in particular.
As I understand it at this time, one of the clearest understandings Buddhism has is that our thoughts often run wild and both delude us and create all sorts of unnecessary suffering. In my experience, though, this insight is linked to other teachings in many sources about thoughts that make it sound like a state with no thoughts at all is the ideal one. I know intellectually this is an extreme I think is wrong, for as Sogyal Rinpoche has often taught it’s not the arising of thoughts that’s a problem, it’s the “running after them,” getting identified with them and tangled up in them in maladaptive and crazy ways that’s the problem.
As I noted during one of these episodes at the retreat,
It’s not like I don’t have any thoughts. Thoughts come occasionally, but not steadily, not all the time. They’re not terribly “loud,” they don’t automatically dominate my mind. I still maintain some touch with the world around me, and can easily let the thoughts go.
One of the reasons I had decided to focus on meditation on flow on this retreat was that I thought developing more skill at it would be helpful in dealing with my chronic, daily headaches. If I could focus on various aspects of pain with concentration, clarity, and equanimity, and then see how these characteristics continually changed, either slowly or rapidly, I think the physical pain would create less suffering. And indeed, I have found this to be true to some extent, although I’m not that good yet at meditating on flow. The suffering is definitely reduced during a headache while I concentrate on observing flow. Unfortunately, as soon as I stop doing the formal meditation technique, the headache comes back with its previous intensity, but Shinzen agrees with me that there will probably eventually be carryover from developing skill in meditating on flow that will reduce headache pain. Here’s a note I made on this during one of these peace episodes.
As I sit here, mainly just being present, looking out at the trees and grounds, I feel a headache coming on. I can feel that the pain that kind of “squeezes,” contracts my head is also kind of “squeezing,” contracting my consciousness, reducing its clarity and scope. I don’t know whether it’s “squeezing” it directly, or just triggering worries that the pain will get worse, so I worry that I should hurry to take some medication. But it will be interesting to see if I can stay in this nature of mind – dare I use that phrase? ….. Wow, the pain still builds some…
It’s a few seconds later and I’d say yes, I can stay in this “nature of mind,” at least temporarily. I say that because it’s easier to just relax, to just let go of a train of thought and come back to the present moment.
Comparison of Peace and Self-Remembering
This is not like Gurdjieffian self-remembering, sensing looking and listening (SLL) usually is for me. SLL involves a deliberate distribution of attention, a small part of my attention keeping track of body sensations (usually those of the arms and legs), more devoted to listening to the qualities of whatever sounds occur, and, since vision is our dominant sense, most devoted to attentive looking at sight qualities. For SLL, there is a small effortful quality to it, you have to do it, and when you stop doing it, it’s effects (usually but not always aliveness and sensory clarity) stop. These peace experiences, though, were spontaneous. I didn’t “start” them, I didn’t “end” them.
What’s amazing to me now is how it (this state) just goes on relatively continuously, rather than being (when I make deliberate attempts to rest in the nature of mind at other times) just sort of a second or so long, being rather undefined, being hard to see whether I’ve made any change as a result of my making an effort to turn my mind inward. I guess I’m blest!
Dzogchen teachings, as I understand them, typically say that when you are resting in the nature of mind, there’s no need to do anything else, no need to apply some specific meditative technique, but that if you do engage in such a technique, it is more effective than if you are in your ordinary state of consciousness. I recalled this during one of these peace states, and decided to try a specific technique.
I just did the hundred syllable mantra, intending it as a blessing on the world, while I was resting in this nature of mind. It’s different than when I do it normally, it just flows more naturally, without being such a big deal. Yet it takes away from the resting in the nature of mind to some degree to try to do it deliberately, to do a directed practice like this. Perhaps it would get easier with practice, with “getting used to.” There’s that wonderful phrase that Sogyal Rinpoche uses all the time, “getting used to.”
Cessation of the Experience of Peace
Anything that starts also ends, and so
I’m now feeling, maybe half an hour after this clarity began, that it’s starting to fade. It doesn’t particularly matter to me, it’s just change….
But given how satisfying these experiences were, wouldn’t I very much want them to continue?
One of the curious things about my experiences of peace is that I’m not particularly attached to them. I sort of hope they will occur once in a while again, but it’s no big deal! It’s nice to know I can be like that. I don’t think I’d want to be like that all the time, though, I don’t think it would be very good for doing my primary work on bridging science and spirituality, writing, and so forth. Curious that I’m not feeling attached.
Knowing With Words and Intellect, Deeper Knowing
Finally I should note how intellectual knowledge can long precede direct knowledge. That’s not bad, but it’s not the same thing at all.
Many years ago, intellectually I had the understanding that it was good to develop an “observer” separate from the ongoing content of experience, as it increased your freedom, but that this observer could indeed ossify and turn into something rigid itself, which prevented freedom, so you later had to break loose from this. Perhaps I’m now ready to see it on a deeper level than just intellectually
All this reminds me of Gurdjieff’s admonition to work as if everything depends on work, pray as if everything depends on prayer. Do what I can and do it well, and be open to “gifts.” My intellectual mind that likes to understand things (on its own terms!) can’t see a clear reason why these peace experiences happened. Oh a vague one, yes, all these years of a variety of psychological clearing and spiritual development practices laid the groundwork, but that’s not at all specific. So perhaps I should just relax and accept that, in some deep sense, this was a gift? And while I want to continue my work of bringing science and spirituality closer, knowing that it’s possible to be at peace like this sometimes is indeed a great gift…..