How Do I Practice?

 I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the various spiritual systems and practices I’ve been involved with over the years, especially the forms of Buddhism I’ve been most involved with in the past decade or two:  how I relate, how I don’t relate, how I fit in, how I don’t fit in.  I started some reflection on this in a recent blog post, Am I a Buddhist? A ____ist? And/Or? Science and Spirituality, and this is some further reflection along those lines.  Hopefully it may have some value for the many people who are strongly dedicated to practicing in a particular system, but are not quite sure whether they belong, whether they should worry about that, or what.  With the world having changed so much in the last few decades, I suspect there are an awful lot of us who don’t think we fit in to traditional spiritual systems.

I’ve been involved with Tibetan Buddhism, particularly what are called Dzogchen practices, for more than two decades now, receiving many teachings, primarily from lamas Sogyal Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche.  The emphasis in Dzogchen approaches is on experiencing and cultivating “rigpa.”  So a friend that I’m trying to get to know better recently asked me what my attempt at “rigpa practice” looked like.  Here’s my initial attempt to clarify this for him and myself.


Good question!

My practice begins with my never claiming to do “rigpa practice.”  I have several reasons for this.

One is that “rigpa” is an important technical term within Tibetan Buddhism, and, being a scholarly and techie type, I believe in the importance of using technical terms precisely and correctly.  I may have had some moments of an experiential “feel” for “rigpa,” but since I can’t, at least with words, adequately describe what I mean by rigpa, it would be misleading of me to use the word.  Misleading to myself — I tend to think I know what I’m talking about, a delusion hard to overcome! — and potentially misleading to others.  Professors get too much respect from students and some students think I know far more about spirituality that I actually do.

A second reason is that I know “rigpa” is referring to something extremely important, and I’ve often heard that you should have been blown away by experiencing even a moment of rigpa, and since that hasn’t happened to me, I have to assume that, quite aside from my technical grammatical reservations, I don’t really know what it’s about.

I could quote formal definitions of rigpa, of course.  Here is one from the Rigpa Fellowship wiki:

Rigpa is the “self-reflexive awareness that cognizes Buddha-nature.”  It has also come to mean the “pristine awareness” that is the fundamental ground itself.  Erik Pema Kunsang translates a text which provides basic definitions of rigpa and marigpa in a Dzogchen context:  Unknowing (marigpa) is not knowing the nature of mind. Knowing (rigpa) is the knowing of the original wakefulness that is personal experience.

But I don’t really know what this means, grand as it sounds….

A third reason is that as a scholar and scientist whose job it is to try to advance knowledge and communicate it clearly, I find terms like “meditation” or its opposite, “non-meditation” (often used to describe the kind of “meditation” practice used in Dzogchen) used in so many different ways by various writers and teachers that the term “meditation” tends to create confusion rather than clarity.  If someone tells me, for instance, that they “meditate,” and I’m really interested in what it is they actually do, I will ask them to tell me very specifically what mental or physical actions they take and the results of those attempted actions.  So as a partial answer to the question about my practice, rephrased to avoid that term “rigpa,” I would say that most days I dedicate somewhere between 15 and 30 min. in the late afternoon to some form of “meditation.”  Late afternoon because my mind is intellectually very busy in the mornings, (and often all the rest of the day and night!), but usually by late afternoons it has satisfied its need to make words.  I then can engage in some activity that is not primarily word centered, such as some form of “meditation.”

What specifically does that mean for me in this context?  I’ve tried many different processes, with varying degrees of success.  Shinzen Young, a primary source of knowledge and practice technique about Buddhism and “meditation” for me, has created a classification system (Five Ways to Know Yourself, unpublished manuscript)(parts available on the web at The Basic Mindfulness System Practice Manual: ; The Full Grid from the manual, p. 130: ; and Historical Influences from the manual, pp. 147-148: ) that systematically describes almost all the world’s meditative processes, and I’ve tried a least a little bit of all of them.  The one that I’ve been focusing on lately is to try to observe, usually with my eyes closed, the changing flow of ongoing experience.  Ongoing experience includes any visual imagery (that I think of as happening in my head), any body sensations, sensations from the outside world through the classical senses, and “thinking” in the sense of hearing words in my head, whether that is isolated words or long trains of words that are what usually constitute my verbal thought.  I try to do this with concentration, staying focused that this is what I want to do, with clarity, trying to be clearly aware of what is happening moment by moment, and equanimity, not grabbing at or trying to prolong some things because I like them or rejecting some things because I don’t like them.

That’s what I try to do.  How well does it work?

Sometimes very poorly, of course, I’m sleepy and doze off, or my mind races with something I’ve been thinking about earlier in the day or some possibility that has risen or something someone said to me, etc., etc., etc.  Sometimes I experience the flow of things with concentration, clarity and equanimity fairly successfully.  I can see how one sensation morphs into another sensation which morphs into another sensation, which suddenly vanishes to be replaced by another sensation, etc.  I like Shinzen’s straightforward characterization of this practice as meditating on “flow,” although he told me that if I needed a fancier Buddhist term for it, I’m meditating on “impermanence.”  I usually won’t describe it as meditating on “impermanence,” though, that’s another one of those heavy-duty Buddhist technical terms that may well have a lot more to its meaning than simply being able to observe, with concentration, clarity, and equanimity, how one thing changes into another.  At the end of my formal practice.  I dedicate any virtue of the practice to the welfare of all beings.

That’s my formal practice, and sometimes I go on one to two week retreats to focus on doing these sorts of practices more intensely.  I don’t do classical Tibetan Vajrayana visualization practices, though, as I’m not a really good visualizer, in the sense of being able to visualize something steadily, and the classical Tibetan Buddhist images don’t have much meaning for me.  I do spontaneously chant mantras many times during the day, partly as a reminder to myself of spiritual values, partly as a kind of prayer, partly as a gesture of respect.

I also try to bring mindfulness of what’s actually going on in the present moment in life when I can remember to do this.  That, unfortunately, is a very small part of my day.  This kind of practice, primarily based on the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, was my main practice for years before getting involved in Tibetan Buddhism, and I’ve written about it extensive elsewhere (Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science).


Okay, there’s a basic description of basics of how I “practice.”

I’ve said I don’t know what “rigpa” is.  But I suspect (and  hope) being more mindful of what happens in everyday life and being able to watch how my mind does its things is useful in moving toward whatever “rigpa” is.

I also take as a working hypothesis that my main contribution in this life toward making the world a little bit better will be my scientific work, perhaps building some bridges between the genuinely scientific and the genuinely spiritual.  I’ve done enough “meditation” kind of practice that I think I have some feel for what it’s all about, so I won’t say anything about meditation that’s really misleading, but I also know that compared to those who are much more dedicated and have worked at it much more than me, I know almost nothing.


One comment

  1. This is so helpful. I have been around Buddhist and other spiritual communities for many years having jettisoned the Roman Catholicism I was brought up in as oppressive and incomprehensible. I have never really found another spiritual home and have recently questioned whether my meditation practice is actually taking me anywhere, and what exactly the point of it is. I have a sense of what Rigpa is though the nearest I’ve ever got is odd moments when my sense of self has disappeared momentarily which is quite uncomfortable. I’ve never stabilised this sense of no-self and I find the most rewarding states to be those when I’m really awake to nature, the sunlight on water or a bird in the sky which happen outside of meditation when I’m really not paying attention to anything.
    I like Dzogchen’s instruction to just ‘relax’ and that seems good advice as when I’m relaxed I’m open, friendly, kind and content. I’m not sure if that’s awakening but it would be enough for me as a dominant mind state!

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