Practicing on Two Paths

Once in a while I stop to think about what my spiritual practices are and where they might be going.  Not that my conceptions about it are anything final, but just as a guideline to myself, at the moment, and possibly of use to others.  So on the Rigpa Fellowship retreat last week, I was thinking that my current practices fall into two main lines of work.

One of these paths, centered around the vipassana-type meditations I’ve learned from Shinzen Young, is about exploring the deeper nature of my mind.  On it, typically I’m sitting still with my eyes closed, observing some set of internal reactions.  If I’m paying attention to external sensations, like sound, still, my primary interest is in the internal reactions that are created, and in learning how to observe them with concentration, clarity and equanimity.  On this path, I learned a lot about how my mind works, either in response to sensory stimuli, or how it functions when it’s not being driven by external stimuli, not being engaged in coping with the external world, but running on its own.  For example, I’ve learned how difficult it is for me to follow the simple instruction to simply pay equanimous attention to the qualities of sensation X, without getting lost in acceptance or rejection, or trying to change X, or trying to prolong or shorten it.  One of the most insightful things I see, even after years of practice, is that there are usually subtle biases to try to make my experience be of such-and-such quality, rather than simply observing it as it is.

I feel like this exploration of the inner workings of my mind gives me a deeper understanding of myself, and I have some faith that, as Shinzen says, paying equanimous and clear attention to these internal processes eventually clears out a lot of junk in the way the mind functions.  It also trains the skills of concentration and clarity.

The other main line is centered around my Dzogchen practice with Sogyal Rinpoche.  Now I should qualify what I’m going to say by noting that I consider myself a “poor” student in terms of what I think is the standard model of a “good” Vajrayana student.  I don’t do the various sadhana, mantra-type practices, simply because I have no real faith that they will somehow make me acquire a lot of merit which will automatically up the quality of my spiritual life.  It would take a lot of time and energy to do 100,000 of this, that, or the other practice, and I think that, for me, that time is better spent in my work advancing knowledge as a transpersonal psychologist.  These kind of practices undoubtedly work for other people, but they just don’t appeal to or resonate with me.  At times I worry that this means that I’m never going to make much spiritual progress because I am a “bad” student and I’m not following the basic instructions.  At other times I remember, because of course I’m motivated to remember this, that Sogyal Rinpoche says he offers a lot of practices, and while he recommends them all, he also strongly recommends that you find the practices that inspire you and work for you, and concentrate on them.

I should also add my usual qualification that my feeling of whether I understand the basic Dzogchen approach varies wildly, ranging from “I think I basically understand the main practice” to “I have no idea what they are talking about!”  So I need to occasionally evaluate what I think I do or don’t know, but not get too attached to such evaluations…..

The Dzogchen practice which is of most concern to me is that of suddenly turning the mind inward, instead of being lost in the ongoing contents of mind, lost in one’s “story.”  This is based on the traditional teaching that samsara is mind turned outward, lost in its projections, nirvana is mind turned inward, directly seeing its own true nature.  When I take a moment to turn the mind inward, there is usually a brief moment to a few seconds in which the ongoing stories and reactions I was having to various content before, my “story,” dies back down, and I’m simply here, now.  The vast majority of the time, my experience is that it’s nothing “special.”  I’m just here, now.

This is, in one way, a great disappointment to me in terms of my expectation that Dzogchen, touted as a fast path to enlightenment, would produce all sorts of wonderful spiritual experiences that would reassure me that I was on The Path and doing the right thing.  But I’ve decided that, in general, I’m not the kind of person who has extraordinary experiences, but I am a sensible, grounded person, able to be somewhat helpful to others.  Whether this is a rationalization for my inability to practice in a way that produces “spiritual” experiences, or whether it’s the truth, I don’t know.  Again a concept that is useful in some ways, but which I had better not got too attached to…..

On the other hand, since my usual state is to be lost in my thoughts and reactions to external situations, samsara, these occasional moments of simply being calmly here and now are rather extraordinary, extra-ordinary, outside or beyond the ordinary.

I’m seeing my current spiritual practice, then, as following these two main paths.  Usually I sit for 20 minutes or so each day to do eyes closed, vipassana-type meditation, and sometimes when doing this I learn something new about the nature of my mind.  Usually it’s just a calming, restful period of time.  As to its long-term “purification” effects, I’m not sure, I hope that’s what’s happening, as Shinzen believes.  The Dzogchen practice of turning the mind inward, on the other hand, I find useful primarily in the midst of ordinary life.

Although it would probably be a mistake to totally equate them, I find this Dzogchen turning inward practice (“resting in the nature of mind” or “rigpa“) to be like Gurdjieffian self-remembering practice.  In both cases I deliberately use my attention and intention to stop being caught up in the ongoing, unceasing story of reactions of my mind and come to the present.  As I’ve written elsewhere, when I first began doing this Gurdjieffian practice, for many years the immediate effect was a feeling of not only being here-and-now but of being much more alive, much more in contact with my environment and with myself.  Now it seldom seems that special, it’s just here-and-now, but that’s still quite good!

Okay, this is all very nice, but I must remember that the primary point is learning to be in the present, here-and-now, accurately perceiving what’s happening outside and inside, rather than coming up with more and more clever sets of words and concepts about what’s going on!

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