Tuesday, October 4, 2016

taking care of your relationship with your teacher

It's always a little humbling when you discover that something you have held as more or less sacrosanct isn't quite what you held it to be.

To be specific, I have long held that the teacher-student relationship, particularly in the Tibetan tradition, was an aspect of practice that had to be protected and maintained at all costs. I had originally intended to write a short newsletter about the sanctity of the student-teacher relationship, but when I did a bit more research, I failed to unearth any references that unambiguously supported this view. After I talked with a few colleagues, it became clear that this was just my view on the matter.

What led me to this view? I grew up, spiritually speaking, in the Tibetan tradition, where the student-teacher relationship is taken very seriously. The culture regards it as sacrosanct, even continuing from one life to the next, so it was easy to feel that there was something sacred about it. That view was also reinforced again and again by any number of comments and readings. Here are two that were particularly important to me.

First, in Mind-Training in Seven Points, Chekawa writes: 

Take care to prevent three kinds of damage.

In his commentary, Kongtrül explains that the first kind of damage is damage to your relationship with your teacher and this is to be avoided because "All the fine qualities of the mahayana depend on your teacher."

The second was a conversation with Kalu Rinpoche. He was telling me how happy he had been earlier in his in an isolated mountain retreat, living on roasted barley and tea and meditating the live-long day. After a few years had passed, he received a series of letters from the hierarchs at Palpung Monastery asking, and then demanding, that he return to the monastery to teach the three-year retreat. He told me that he ignored these letters. But then a letter arrived from his teacher:

"You can stay in the mountains if you want to, but if you don't come down and teach the three-year retreat, never come to see me again."

"What could I do?" Rinpoche sighed. "I had to leave the mountains and start teaching."

From what he said, Rinpoche had been compelled to give up his life's calling in order to maintain his relationship with his teacher. The story, especially the wistful tone in his voice, left a deep impression.

What Kongtrül says is true, at least within the latitude of poetic license. For most of us, whatever spiritual understanding we develop begins with our teacher's example and instructions. Like any meaningful and valued relationship, the student-teacher relationship requires attention and care. How this is done in today's world is not always clear. We are caught between two models, as Peter Sloterdijk points out in You Must Change Your Life

In the Indian world, the license to teach is dependent on the master's own complete realization. In Greek and Christian traditions, you have the imperfect teacher, who overrides his or her weaknesses by incorporating them into what he or she teaches.

In the Indian model, your teacher is never regarded or treated as a peer and the primary way in which you take care of the relationship is through service, reverence and obedience. In the Western model, it is more a peer-relationship, though obviously, you regard the teacher as someone who can teach and guide you in your spiritual practice. Here, it seems to me, the primary way you take care of the relationship is through making use of what you receive from your teacher.

simple buddha with vases
We live in a changing world. What were once generally life-long engagements -- marriage, career and spiritual practice, for instance -- are subject to change in ways that they weren't in traditional societies. Because your relationship with your teacher is an important relationship, if it has to change, make the change in such a way that you avoid unnecessary rupture and that leaves you feeling as whole and complete as possible. 

For this, I draw on a traditional model, that of Atisha. Early in his spiritual practice, he studied with a red-hot yogin (a loose translation, but it expresses the point) who was skilled in vajrayana, energy transformation and debate (debate being a necessary skill in Indian monasticism). After several years, Atisha had a number of visions that called him to pursue instruction in bodhicitta (awakening mind) and he realized that he needed to take leave of his teacher. His teacher was a bad tempered person and did not know anything about bodhicitta. Atisha went to him, presented him with generous offerings, thanked him for all that he received and took his leave. The teacher, from what Atisha writes, was not at all happy at losing a capable and talented student and he got quite angry. However, Atisha had taken leave of him in such a way that there was nothing he could do.

I have seen too many people who, for one reason or another, were not able to change their relationship with their teacher in a good way, and the rupture left its mark. I've also worked with a number of people who did want to change their relationship with their teacher, in some cases to study with someone else, in others because they felt they could no longer learn from this particular person. For various reasons, they felt trapped and did not know how to proceed and they came to me for advice. My role was to help them find a way of expressing where they were in a way that honored their teacher and the relationship, but also made it clear that the relationship was changing, or had already changed. Once they were clear about where they stood and how to put it into words, they were able to meet with their teacher and say what they needed to say. In each of these cases, the teacher responded positively and the relationship changed without rupture.

The teacher-student relationship is important. It may be one of the most important relationships in your life. But it is not necessarily sacrosanct. As in any relationship, it has its ups and downs. Differences emerge, some of which are reconcilable and others that are not. And, like all relationships, it will come to an end, due to death of the student or teacher or for other reasons. Take care of this relationship, as it begins, as it lasts, as it changes, and as it comes to an end.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

faith or blind faith?

In 1971, I met the Sixteenth Karmapa for the first time, at his monastery near Rumtek in Sikkim. He was a person of tremendous presence, yet he alternated between laughter and seriousness with bewildering speed. At one point, he looked directly at me and said, "Your faith in Kalu Rinpoche must be the same whether you see him fly in the sky or kill a dog."

The look in his eyes as he said these words has never left me and I remember it clearly to this day. I was taken aback by this directive, and it made a deep impact on me. Was he talking about blind faith, to accept unquestioningly whatever my teacher did? Or was he pointing to something else?

Blind faith is essentially belief, belief in a fixed idea. Belief is based in reactive emotion and usually centers around identity. It takes whatever happens and explains it in a way that conforms to fixed ideas that are already held inside. We see this process play out in fundamentalism, whether political, economic or religious. Blind faith has an explanation for everything. It does away with mystery. No matter the evidence presented, the evidence is always interpreted to reinforce the belief. As James Carse writes in The Religious Case Against Belief, it marks the point at which thinking stops.

It made no sense to me that Karmapa was advocating blind faith. By this point, I had met several teachers and their depth of thought and learning, their responsiveness and compassion, and their humility and lack of pride just didn't point in the direction of the rigidity or forcefulness one encounters with blind faith. He meant something else, I was sure, but what?

I've come back to this directive many times, and though I feel I know what Karmapa was pointing to, I have never been able to put it into words. A few weeks ago, I discussed the incident with a good friend, and asked him what he thought. His response was succinct. "It means that your faith has to be unchanging and to come from a place that doesn't involve reason or judgment."

Blind faith, again? I didn't think so. This friend is about the last person on earth to advocate blind faith, so he, too, was pointing to something else. 

When I reflected on his response, I found that it fit very well with my experience. The faith that I have in my teacher is definitely not conceptual. It is not rational, either, but neither is it irrational. I cannot give an explanation or a reason for it. It is just there. It comes from a place in me that does not use or need to use reason, so rational and irrational just don't apply.

"Was it always there?" you might ask. And my response would be, "No, it wasn't." When I started to study with Rinpoche in India, I had been told only that he was a highly respected meditation teacher and one of the few that was willing to teach Westerners at that time. Nothing magical or earth-shattering happened when I first met him. I simply attended his class, studied Tibetan and practiced as best I could. Over the years, a relationship formed, partially through practice, partially through my serving as his translator and seeing how he responded to people's questions and challenges. But I would be hard put to say at what point faith reached the point of commitment and I let go of a conventional life or career in Western society.

Nor does this faith involve judgement. I was never very interested in the supposed miracles and signs that meant so much to other people. Much more moving, I found, was when Rinpoche described his struggles with sleep in the the three-year retreat and how he slept leaning against the door so he would be woken up when it was kicked open in the morning. 

Nor did I judge Rinpoche's actions and decisions. On a number of occasions, I disagreed deeply with how he saw things or what he wanted me to do. When that happened, two principles were of primary and equal importance to me. First, I had to find a way to proceed that did not lead to a break in my relationship with Rinpoche (not always easy given the differences between our cultures). Second, I had to find a way that did not compromise my own sense of what felt right to me. When you hold two seemingly contradictory principles in place, you are forced to go deeper. In each case, by holding those two principles firmly in mind, I found something else that I could let go. In one case, it was my cultural biases. In another case, it was my status and position as a teacher. In a third case, it was what people people might think of me. And so on. Difficult as each of those situations were, I am grateful for them as they led me to aspects of freedom I might not have had to consider otherwise.

Karmapa's directive was in a way oddly prophetic. Once they matured, my faith and confidence in Rinpoche never did change. Even though there were periodic tensions in our relationship, when he died in 1989 I didn't feel any separation and never have.

It seems to me that there is a profound connection between faith that does not rely on reason and judgment and direct awareness practices, such as mahamudra and dzogchen. In direct awareness practice, reason can lead you to the door, as it does in the Great Middle Way, for instance. Likewise, pointing out instructions, such as you find in the Shangpa tradition (see Wake Up to Your Life, Chapter 9) or in the Nyingma tradition (see Buddhahood Without Meditation), can and do undermine the operation of reason and fixed ideas, but they don't take you over the threshold, or, to use a Tibetan phrase, across the pass. For that, something else is needed: a willingness to enter what is completely unknown and unknowable to the conceptual mind. That is exactly what the kind of faith I'm describing here does.

That faith has to come from a place that does not rely on reason. Reason and logic keep the conceptual mind in place. They can be used to negate the conceptual mind, but that is all. Many Zen teachers, for instance, place great reliance on "don't know mind" and are skilled in the use of koans and other methods to bring the student to that point. But then what? What makes it possible to arrive at the point of not knowing, and take another step?

Similarly, that faith has to come from a place that is free from judgment. This freedom from judgment is much more than equanimity, though equanimity is a good starting point. Like the "don't know mind", equanimity brings you to the threshold. Again, something else is required to step through. The opening lines of Hsin Hsin Ming's "On Trust in the Heart" apply here:

The Perfect Way is only difficult for those who pick and choose; 
Do not like, do not dislike; all will then be clear. 
Make a hairbreadth difference, and Heaven and Earth are set apart; 
If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. 

How do you find your way here? I wish I could tell you. This is, perhaps, the principal challenge of spiritual and mystical practice. It is a way that cannot be described in words. Each of us have to find our own way. For some, that way can be guided, if not illuminated, by faith, but not the blind reactive faith that won't brook any contradiction. To the contrary, faith must be awake, alive and responsive. Above all, it must enable the trust that allows you to step into the unknown.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

think of your teacher as buddha — really?

In the context of vajrayana in general and guru yoga in particular, you, the practitioner, are encouraged (told?) to think that your teacher is really buddha.

Now, in this context, teacher means a teacher in the role of guru. Several years ago, i wrote an article that mapped out the different roles of a teacher. You can read this article here:  http://www.unfetteredmind.org/what-are-you-looking-for-in-a-teacher/ 

The guru-student role is a particular relationship and is based on a spiritual connection. In some cases, the student recognizes something in the teacher that echoes with his or her own longing or calling. In other cases, the teacher recognizes a potential or a quality in the student, sometimes when the student had no apparent spiritual interest. In still other cases, the relationship evolves slowly over time. There is no rule. 

One of my colleagues heard a teacher speak and immediately recognized that this was his teacher, and has followed that teacher for his whole life. For others, they have come to appreciate that one of possibly many teachers has having a special significance for them, but that recognition came slowly. Still others have had a single meeting, in which nothing was said, but the meeting had a profound effect on them, and they have always regarded that teacher as their guru.

Needless to say, this whole area is fraught with danger. If your longing is based in unfulfilled childhood longings, then you are very susceptible to cults and cult leaders who know how to take advantage of those deep psychological desires. Because susceptibility ranges right across the socio-economic spectrum, education, wealth, etc., are not reliable safeguards. The best book I've read on this topic is The Wrong Way Home, by Arthur Deikman. The book has been reprinted and augmented to include a discussion of terrorism under the title Them and Us.

But let's assume you have found a solid teacher. What does it mean "to think that your teacher is really buddha"?

elephant at sunset 2As a first step, I find it helpful to consider a translation point, namely the use (or not) of a definite or indefinite article. English usage almost always requires the presence of an article, either "the" or "a". This holds for most modern West European languages, but it is not universal, by any means. Linguistically, particles seem to have evolved rather late in the game. They are not present in Sanskrit, Latin or Tibetan, for instance.

Further, when translating from Tibetan, most of us have habitually used the definite article. It makes things definite, it adds authority, and the Tibetan tradition is freighted with authority, as we all know. For instance, my first book was published under the titleThe Great Path of Awakening. The Tibetan does not have any article, however, so whether Kongtrül had in mind "the" or "a" is impossible to determine. If I were to republish the book now, without question I would use the title A Great Path of Awakening. The indefinite article opens up other possibilities where the definite article eliminates them.

Thus, when we come to this phrase in Tibetan, we could translate it in three ways:
  • think that your teacher is really the buddha
  • think that your teacher is really a buddha
  • think that your teacher is really buddha
Each of these three possibilities has a different meaning. Is one of them the right one? If so, which?

The first, "the buddha", implies some form of connection with Buddha Shakyamuni, or at least with a universal buddha principle such as Vajradhara (the tantric form of Shakyamuni in the Kagyu tradition). 

The second, "a buddha", says that your teacher has the qualities and attainments of a buddha -- quite wonderful if true, but given the traditional descriptions of buddha in the sutras, unlikely, if only because the traditional descriptions have been heavily mythologized. Of course, this raises the question What is a buddha?, but I'm not going to dip my toes into those waters today.

The third possibility is the one that intrigues me. Many years ago, I was part of a small informal conference of Western and Asian teachers (from all traditions) and this topic came up in the conversation. At one point Gelek Rinpoche quietly said, "For me, my teacher is buddha." Not "the buddha", not "a buddha", but "buddha". There was something about the way he said it that caught my attention. It seemed to me that he was not describing his teacher or claiming any special qualities for him, but simply describing how he related to his teacher. I was quite moved by the humility and reverence that infused his words. By omitting any article, he had transformed this instruction into an exploration, and exploration imbued with faith, devotion and commitment.

As I mentioned in an earlier newsletter, as Westerners, we are not used to having a symbolic relationship with someone we actually know. We are used to thinking in concrete rather than poetic terms, and, in today's world, in transactional terms almost exclusively. These implicit frames of reference do not serve us well when it comes to following the calling in our hearts. That calling often doesn't make sense in rational concrete terms, but it is the very core of our lives. And that calling, as I've said before, is not about getting something that makes our lives better. It is not a transaction at all. It is something we pursue, regardless of what happens to u. Usually, that calling cannot be expressed in words, and when we find a person who seems to be able to guide us in that calling, that relationship, also, cannot be put into words. 

Thus, we enter a mystery, as we do whenever we give our word, whenever we commit ourselves to a relationship and whenever we commit ourselves to a path. And that is what I think this instruction is pointing to. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

How am I meant to understand these teachings

In vajrayana, one is consistently encouraged to regard your guru as buddha, particularly in the context of guru yoga. In fact, the practice instructions are to imagine your teacher in the form of a buddha, i.e., Buddha Vajradhara in the Kagyu tradition. What does this instruction mean? How is it to be understood? 

I think it is fair to say that more than a few Western practitioners have puzzled over this matter. Does it mean that your guru is omniscient, infallible, perfect, etc.? Or does it mean that you regard your guru as omniscient, infallible, perfect, etc.? Such questions lead to a more fundamental question. "What is a buddha?" Is a buddha omniscient, infallible, perfect, etc.? Certainly, in the Tibetan tradition at least, a literal reading of sutras, tantras and other texts leaves one with the impression that a buddha is a superhuman figure with superhuman abilities. Are you to feel or think that your guru has these abilities, too?

There are several possible sources of confusion and my aim here is to sort through some them as best I can. Here are four:
  • how to relate to teachers and teachings in general,
  • cultural differences,
  • translation issues and
  • the nature of vajrayana practice. 
This week, I focus on the first, and to do so, I revisit some traditional advice found in this well-known four-line verse:

Do not trust the person; trust the teaching.
Do not trust the words; trust the meaning.
Do not trust the literal meaning; trust the real meaning.
Do not trust conceptual knowing; trust timeless awareness.

Even these instructions are prone to misunderstanding. For instance, if you have no experience of timeless awareness, then how do you trust it? Or, what does the phrasereal meaning mean? This is a translation of the Tibetan phrase nges.don, literallydefinitive meaning. One could also say actual meaning, I suppose, but the problem remains: who decides what the actual meaning is? 

Verses such as these contain both implicit and explicit messages. Because we are so used to literal interpretations in our culture, we often miss the implicit messages. One message imbedded in these four lines is that they describe a progression in practice experience. Thus, the 3rd and 4th lines are intended not for people who are just beginning practice, but for people who have a good bit of practice experience under their belt.

You start by trusting your teacher. You have to. People may start Buddhist practice or meditation practice by reading, etc., but, for the vast majority of people, practice doesn't start in earnest until they begin to work with another person. One of the main reasons is that it is quite difficult to give yourself the appropriate feedback about your efforts in practice and how to refine them. People usually find that their meditation practice changes substantially when they start reporting their experience to a teacher and receive feedback and guidance based on their experience. So that's where you start.

As your experience of practice matures, however, you start to distinguish what you are being taught from ordinary human interaction. Your teacher is both a source of guidance and a human being, and you find that you need to recognize and accept that distinction. You learn to trust the teaching and instruction and you learn not to get caught by the inevitable missteps and confusions that arise in any relationship between two people. (And, yes, I'll address the matter of pure vision in a future newsletter.)

In the context of vajrayana, for instance, one principle is to obey your guru. However, that principle applies only to the practice instructions your guru gives you, not to what you do with your life, though many people are not clear about this. Your teacher may have ideas about what you should do and you may even ask for advice, but it's your responsibility, and yours alone, to decide what course you take. This was brought home to me when I talked with a respected Tibetan teacher about decisions I had made about teaching in Los Angeles. He said, "Ken, how you teach your students is up to you, not Kalu Rinpoche." He said this not out of any disrespect for Kalu Rinpoche, as he had also studied with him, but to make clear to me where the responsibilities lay.

The second line describes a second stage in understanding, the stage when you understand that much teaching takes place through metaphor and poetry and you have to focus not just on the words, but on the intended meaning. For instance, in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Gampopa says:

Do not give up the dharma "through fear." For example, someone may come up to you and say, "If you do not give up the dharma I will order three hundred soldiers to cut five ounces of meat from your body every day." Even then you would not give up the dharma. 

When I taught this passage many years ago, the people in the class couldn't relate to it. Even if it was translated into modern idiom, that you were going to be tortured if you didn't give up the dharma, that situation was so removed from their lives that they just dismissed the example as having any relevance to them. But then I asked, "How many of you have faced those three hundred soldiers in your meditation?" Everybody in the class immediately related to Gampopa's instructions because, in their meditation, they had encountered those three hundred soldiers countless times. 

The third line continues this theme and describes even more explicitly how to understand teachings, whether oral or written. The myths that describe the origin of the protector the Six-Armed Mahakala (pg. 295-6 in Wake Up to Your Life) or Vajrakila are dramatic accounts of deep internal spiritual processes, as are the myths of the second-coming, the resurrection, Abraham and Isaac, Job, etc. The meaning of such myths becomes alive in you only when you have experiences that correspond to the shifts and experiences that gave rise to the myths in the first place.

And that brings us to the fourth line, which makes a strong differentiation between a conceptual understanding of a teaching, whether through myth, poetry or otherwise, and direct or experiential understanding, that is, when what is being described becomes lived experience. For instance, Trungpa once described the experience of compassion as "having no skin". Everyone can understand that, and even get a bit of the flavor, but it's still in the conceptual mind. When you experience compassion yourself, it is intensely yet exquisitely painful. It is so intense that you wonder how you can bear it. It is like having no skin, yet you wouldn't forfeit it for the world because, and I hesitate to use these words, it is so real and true.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

I'm stuck in my practice

A good place to start is to watch a stream run down a hill. At certain points, the stream encounters a hollow or a depression or a bunch of rocks that block its course. The stream stops there. It cannot go any further. You could say that it is stuck in its practice of running down the hill. What happens? Water continues to flow. The volume of water builds up. But the stream doesn't do anything. It doesn't remove the rocks. It doesn't fill the hollow with earth. A pool forms, perhaps. And, at a certain point, the pool overflows, or the water finds a way through the rocks. Then the streams continues to run down the hill. What is the subjective experience of the stream? Who knows? The stream doesn't think about it.
Practice is like a flowing stream. You make a consistent effort, and the consistent effort gives rise to a continuous flow of energy. Certainly, from time to time you encounter blocks, depressions and confusion. It would hardly be practice if you didn't. As long as the flow of practice continues, your system fills with energy and it finds a way through, over or out. Many people regard those pauses as an indication that something is wrong. Maybe. Maybe not. Subjective assessments of progress are notoriously unreliable. In fact, even being concerned with progress is a bit of a problem. It puts you into a goal-oriented framework in which you think you are responsible for how your practice unfolds. You don't get to decide that, any more than the stream gets to decide how it is going to run down the hill or a flower decides how it is going to bloom.
In today's world, we are losing, or have lost, a simple appreciation of different aspects of life. More and more we hear or read about everyday actions being justified in terms of their economic, evolutionary, medical or other value. Enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment, decency for the sake of decency, etc. seem to be falling by the wayside. Everything has to be justified as making us or the world better in some way. 

The same now holds for certain genres of spiritual practice. Many people appear to approach them because it will help them relieve stress or improve the quality of their lives. They approach practice with a definite objective or goal in mind.

Some spiritual methods may certainly have those effects, if that is what you are seeking. But ngöndro and other practices in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism do not fall into those genres. That is why the notions of progress and achievement have to be questioned. They don't apply. One engages these practices for a different reason. One possibility is that they are response to a calling. Where that calling takes you, no one knows. Thus, you are like the stream, that is called to flow down the hill, but it doesn't know where that will take it or how it will get there or what will become of it in the process.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Have you finished ngöndro?

The ngöndro referred to is the special groundwork or preparation practices -- a set of five practices, each of which is done 100,000 times, or 111,000, or 111,111. (I've never been sure what the right number is but I know it's very important to get it right.) 

This set of practices was originally developed as preparation for mahamudra and dzogchen practice, but it has become a kind of rite of passage. Teachers have used it as an indication of a student's seriousness. In the process, however, it became a sort of numbers game. 

One practitioner used to visit various teachers. When he asked for instruction, he was invariably told to do a 100,000 prostrations. He had become so used to this request that it took him only ten days to complete the 100,000. Needless to say, he devoted all his time to practice. He didn't have a job. And the physics worked in his favor: it's much easier, mechanically speaking, for a short person to do prostrations than a tall person.

Most people take months, if not years, just to do 100,000 prostrations (which is actually the practice of taking refuge). Then 100,000 repetitions of the bodhisattva vow. Then 100,000 repetitions of the 100-syllable mantra associated with Vajrasattva -- a purification practice. Then 100,000 mandala offerings, symbolic offerings of all the wealth in the universe. And, finally, 100,000 repetitions of a prayer to one's teacher, with the aim of uniting your mind with your teacher's mind.

undulating roadWhen they have completed the required number of repetitions, students are deemed ready for instruction in mahamudra  or dzogchen and/or empowerment for deity practice. A number of teachers have lowered the numbers to 10,000 of each, but in my experience, students would be better off going the other way -- doing more, not less. 

Initially, these were individual practices. Students did them until they had clearly learned something or some change had taken place in them. The teacher of one of my teachers, for instance, at the age of 39 gave up his role as the chief administrator of the monastic estates of a major monastery and went to live in a cave above the main monastery. There he did 100,000 prostrations 44 times, that is, 4,400,000. The numbers didn't mean anything to him. He was taking refuge, praying for refuge, in the way that I described prayer in the recent series of newsletters. That was his practice. Period.

Over time, however, in order to move students through the system (and this goes right back to Buddhism in India), teachers required only that students do a practice until they had certain dreams or visions, and these were taken as indications that the learning had taken place. Then the practices were reduced to a given period of time, or, as became more common, students had to do a certain number of mantras or repetitions to have "done" the practice. The idea, of course, was that some understanding or learning would take place in that period of time or during all those repetitions. Human nature being human nature, however, once the goal was set up, students focused on achieving the goal and the learning became secondary, or ignored completely. 

Many people now complete the required number and say that they have "done" ngöndro, but it is not clear what they learn in the process.

What to do?
For these reasons, when students requested to do ngöndro with me, I made it very clear that they would never be able to say that they had finished or completed it. They would start with refuge (prostrations) and do that as their practice. They would check in with me periodically, and when some real understanding or learning had arisen, then they would move to the next practice. Needless to say, very few students practiced ngöndro with me.

All in all, I think there is too much weight put on teachers. Learning is what is important. Learning can and does take place without teaching, in many different areas, from athletics to chess, from cooking to mathematics. A teacher can greatly facilitate, enhance and/or deepen learning, no doubt, but we all know from our educational experience that teaching can take place without any learning necessarily happening.

Many kinds of learning cannot be taught. Ngöndro is really about those kinds of learning -- things that can be learned only through your own experience, only through the experience of doing without goals or milestones or markers of achievement of any kind. Through these practices, you may learn what faith, commitment and devotion actually mean for you. That cannot be learned from a teacher or anyone else. That is why it is an important preparation for other forms of meditation. And that is why you never finish ngöndro, because there is always more to learn about faith, commitment and devotion.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I know I should be practicing all the time

Let's start with the different between principle and technique. Technique is way of doing something in a specific manner. Principle is a generalized pattern that can be applied in a wide range of situations. In soccer, to probe the defense of the other team is one principle. A technique for doing so would be to move the ball among your own players until you perceive a weakness in the opposing team's defense, such as a person who moves more slowly, or who leaves open space between him and the other players. The passes necessary to probe the defense need to be precise and quick, which is, again, a matter of technique. The ability to apply a principle in a given situation depends on the skill or technique of the players. If there is no technique, understanding the principles won't help much. 

A teacher taught her students how to write the numbers from 1 to 10. One young boy seemed to be having difficulty writing the number 1 but when the teacher looked at his work, she could not see a problem. "Good," she said, "you can write the number 1. Now start writing the number 2." 

"It isn't right," he said, and continued writing 1's on his slate. 

Eventually the teacher became impatient because he was holding the class back. "Off you go," she said, "and come back when you feel you have it right." 

Several weeks later, the boy returned to the classroom and said to the teacher, "I think I have it now." 

"Okay," she said, "go up to the blackboard and write the number 1." 

The boy went up to the front of the class, picked up a piece of chalk, and wrote a large number 1 on the board. As he finished, there was a loud crack and the blackboard split in half.

Mindless repetition does not train technique in and of itself. Technique training consists in repetition and learning from each repetition until the technique is right there. For instance, in the Locket Mahamudra tradition, there is a technique for placing attention on the breath. When you have trained this technique, attention goes straight to the breath and rests there, cutting right through distractions -- a bit like the young boy writing the number 1. 

Another misunderstanding, somewhat related, is the difference between training in movement and training in facility. Take reading, for instance. Most of us don't even remember learning how to read, but, it's probably a safe bet that in the beginning, we spent quite a bit of time spelling out the words and making the sounds. Our parents or teachers would correct us. Bit by bit, we learned various words, how to sound them and what they meant. But then something strange happened. We stopped thinking about how to sound them. We even stopped thinking about what they meant. We just read, and we could understand the meaning of what we read. We had developed the facility of reading. Now higher levels of learning became possible. We could notice and appreciate the rhythm of the words, the allusions, the metaphors, the lines of argument, etc., and our skill in reading became increasingly more sophisticated.

Many people, when they practice mindfulness in daily life, say, do normal activities slowly, so they can put their full attention on the activity. This is analogous to sounding out words when we read. It is not doing things mindfully. It's training in mindfulness. It may be a way of training the initial ability, but it is an ineffective way for negotiating the exigencies of life, just as sounding out words is an ineffective way for reading a novel or a contract. Yes, we have to become conversant with the vocabulary of mindfulness, but that is only the beginning, not the end. We haven't trained mindfulness until we can go about our day as any other person would, except that we bring a consistent quality of attention to everything we do.

A possible comparison is tai chi. In tai chi, one does the movements very slowly so that the body, right down to the level of the sinews and tendons, knows the movement. But in execution, one does not move slowly. The body is trained so deeply that the movement happens without thought, without even a first thought.

In addition, when you go about your life doing things slowly, you may actually be suppressing patterned reactions. The attention that goes into moving slowly blocks the patterns and you don't have to meet the material locked inside. This, of course, is a form of repression. When you move at a normal pace in your life, patterns of reaction arise. Practice in daily life means that you bring attention to the pattern as it arises, not to block it, but to experience it completely, the body sensations and impulses, the complex of feelings and the various stories that sustain and propel its operation. When you can experience all that and not fall into confusion, then you are beginning to live in attention.

In vajrayana, people engage in mantra repetition in much the same way. That, they have been told, is what it means to practice all the time. But that is just repetition. Nothing is really being trained, not even technique. The purpose of the repetition is to replace the habitual undercurrent of thinking in the mind with the mantra. Many people use it to block thinking. For it to replace thinking requires a consistent attention to the sound of the mantra, not just mindless repetition. When the mantra has replaced the undercurrent of thinking, you have a quiet mind, and continuous practice now becomes possible.

Many of the misconceptions about continuous practice arise because methods developed for monastics and anchorites living in pre-industrial societies have been unthinkingly taught to people like you and me who live in complex post-industrial societies where principle is often valued more than technique. In the medical profession, for instance, the adage for a new medical procedure is "See one, do one, teach one." This is hardly a way to develop mastery in technique and this kind of problem permeates our culture. 

In my business consulting, I once helped develop a robust team subculture based in collaboration, open communication and cross-functional teams where the dominant culture was authoritarian, secretive and communication was restricted to silos. How? By training the team I was working with in basic meeting skills: starting and stopping on time, setting an agenda, being clear about who was responsible for what actions, etc. As those skills became instilled in them, a different culture developed on its own. 

In order to practice all the time, we need to instill different behaviors, and to do that, we need to train in technique -- doing something over and over again until it becomes part of us. The ability to control and predict a wide range of phenomena has given us the illusion that we can control what we experience in our lives by an act of will. We feel we should be able to decide to be a certain way and everything will follow. But it doesn't work that way. On the individual level, we end up repressing patterns of emotions that return in unpredictable ways when we encounter difficulties. 

Practicing all the time is a result, not a method. It is a result of making specific efforts at the level of technique so that those techniques become part of you and the way you relate to the world. It takes time to change behaviors. If you try to do too much too quickly, you end up repressing unresolved emotions and subjecting your mind and/or your body to more strain than they can handle. One of the signs of too much strain is increasing rigidity, and if you go to far down that road, something in you will just break and it may or may not be reparable. 

On a related topic: Several people have asked me recently about pushing through physical difficulties in the practice of prostrations. I've had my share of physical difficulties, and I had great difficulty at various points finding a way forward. People vary tremendously, and some people are able to push through difficulties. For other people, that approach doesn't work and can be quite harmful. What I've come to is this: follow your heart and listen to your body. In other words, let your body and heart work out the right approach for you, and take your conceptual mind out of the mix. When you follow your heart, you follow your intention. Your body knows what it can and cannot do. And the two can understand and talk with each other in a way that the conceptual mind cannot fathom.

You might consider that working with heart and body together is a good way to practice in daily life. The effort requires attention to what you are feeling and what you are sensing in your body, and you begin to function from something other than the conceptual thinking mind.