Speaker: This question is from Rich in Buffalo, New York.
I started a daily meditation practice of twenty to thirty minutes (now thirty to forty minutes) last May. These meditations have been focused on the cultivating attention material from Wake Up To Your Life. I was about to start the impermanence and death meditations in Wake Up To Your Life, when I listened to the first podcast on the four immeasurables. After listening to the podcast, I was inspired to start meditating with the equanimity material, the four lines from the podcast. My question is, whether it is okay to stay with the four immeasurables meditations, or should I start on the death and impermanence meditations?
Ken: Well, there're many facets to this question. The first is, there are many, many different meditations in Buddhism and it can be difficult to know "Which meditation I should do now?" or "What should my practice be?" and so forth. And this is one of the reasons why it's very helpful to have someone with whom you can talk about your practice on a regular basis, a teacher who has the experience, knows what is helpful, and can guide you.
That's not always possible. And so many people are left to their own devices, so to speak. One of the things that I've found helpful was written by a twelfth or thirteenth century teacher in the Shangpa Kagyu tradition, a person called Kyergongpa, who said that there are really only three things you need to cultivate in practice of Buddhism. Understanding of impermanence, compassion, and devotion as a way into insight. We can call these the three great doors. And we find this going right back to the very roots of Buddhism in the Theravada tradition. We have the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, and non-self. And these three doors correspond exactly to that. Impermanence, of course, is impermanence. There's an intimate relationship with cultivating compassion and opening to the suffering of the world, and understanding that life--ordinary existence--is suffering. It's a constant reaction to experience. And devotion, insight, non-self are all connected. It is by developing a high level of emotional energy through such practices--devotion--that we come to be able to see that there is no thing which we are. There are other approaches, of course, but that's one of them. So in this sense, those are the three important elements.
What I've also found is that, you practice any one of these deeply enough, and you find yourself cultivating the other two. So that, for instance, with impermanence, as we cultivate a deeper and deeper appreciation that there is nothing which doesn't change--that we ourselves are going to die, and we don't know when that's going to happen--we come to understand that we're not the only ones in that situation. Everybody else is in exactly the same situation. And we begin to see how much energy we and other people pour into what are really not very important things in the light of death--in the end of our lives. And as we go even deeper into that, we cultivate a natural relationship with compassion by contemplating impermanence. And if we go deeper into that, we begin to enter into the mystery of being itself. There isn't anything which is constant, and yet all of this experience keeps arising. And yet there seems to be nothing to it. So we begin to open to insight. And an appreciation, which often takes the form of devotion, begins to arise for the teachings, which lead us into this wonderful experience of the mystery of being.
Or we can start with compassion. And as we relate more and more deeply with compassion--which is what the practices of the four immeasurables naturally leads to--as we relate more deeply with compassion, we begin to see that everybody is caught up in suffering. And people are caught up in suffering because they try to hold onto what is by nature impermanent. So we see our meditation on compassion, our cultivation of compassion leads us into an understanding of impermanence. And it also leads us into an understanding of non-self. Because we come to see that the only thing to be, the only thing that we are, in the end, is an ongoing response, rather than a reaction, to the suffering that arises in the world.
And we can start with non-self or devotion. Because as we come to see that there is no thing that we are, we naturally see that everything is impermanent, everything is constantly changing. And we naturally see that people are caught up into holding onto things that they don't need to hold onto.
So these are the three great doors in Buddhism, and if you go deeply enough, any one of them will take you through all of them. So, as we've discussed a couple of times in these questions, Buddha said, we have to work out our own freedom. So we find the practices which really speak to us, which really help us to become more present, to bring more balance into our experience. And those we work very, very deeply. And that, I find, is the best way to approach things.
Student: Ken, regardless of how stable my experiences and mahamudra practice, somewhere there's always a trace of an experience of self. What do I make of it and how do I work with it? It's really how do I work with it?
Ken: What experiences the sense of self?
Ken: No, what happens when you--
Student: I don't know, I go empty.
Ken: Right. That's how you work with it.
Student: And…but…And yet, it's still there.
Ken: Well, my sense, when we’re just sitting here, is when I asked you that question and you looked, it wasn't, and then it came back. Is that right?
Ken: Okay. And that's what happens. When our attention is at a certain level, often, in that first instance of looking, we see. And we see nothing. But the attention doesn't stay at that level for very long because we lead very busy lives, we're easily distracted. It decays a little bit. And then that habituation of a sense of self reasserts. And we look again. And we look again.
In any given meditation period you're probably only going to be able to look a number of times before you run out of juice. And then we just rest and come back. In this way we gradually increase the capacity of our attention so you can stay present in the looking, and the attention doesn't decay. But what you see in that first instance is what is there--nothing.
Student: In the course of practice and doing mahamudra, dzogchen practice, I have a capacity to sit and not do anything. And stuff happens, and stuff opens, and it's in there that the trace is. And I can have really remarkable and wonderful experiences, but at what point do I then say, "Who's experiencing?" Do you see what I mean? I mean there can be a real stability on some level and a real openness. And yet behind that, there's that trace. So at what juncture do I do that?
It's this niggling thing that just won't go away. And I actually kind of had a small insight into what part of it is.
Student: [Sighs] I just want to be someplace else. I mean it's like…[Sighs] I…I think I don't want to be human.
Ken: You want to be someplace else?
Student: This identity…that the effort is to lose identity, and there's something really off there in the way I'm approaching it.
Student: It's really getting corrupted.
Ken: You may recall the mahamudra instructions. No distraction, no control, no working at anything. It sounds like you're doing fine with no distraction, but you're trying to control your experience and you're working at something.
Student: [Inhales] Mmm…it's the working at something.
It's not the control. It's theworking, and it's very subtle, and it's right here in the back.
Ken: Yeah. So what if you just stop working?
Student: I don't know how. I mean, this is…it's this…it's like sitting…what are we saying?
Ken: What if you just stopped working?
Student: I don't know…
Ken: What happens when I ask that question?
Student: Well, it empties, it goes blank.
Ken: I also sense there is panic.
Student: I'm not experiencing it as panic. It's a little bit…it’s maybe more confusion.
Ken: Yeah. Usually that confusion is what follows the panic. Because for most of us, constantly doing something, constantly working something, we don't know what it is not to be doing something, however subtle. And the thought of not doing anything, of just being, is for many of us profoundly threatening. It's like we cease to exist.
Student: And there lies the contradiction, because my whole intention is just that.
Ken: Yeah. And this is the paradox at the heart of this practice. We have to make an effort in the practice, and we can't work at anything. Now, there's only one way out of this.
Student: I could die. [Laughter]
Ken: Well, in a sense, yes. It is by staying in that paradox, staying in that tension, that's the practice. And when we can stay there, something lets go. We can't make it happen. In this sense, that's what you're trying to do.
Student: I just want it to happen.
Ken: Yeah. It sounds like you are looking for an ideal state. Remember, the aim of practice, in Buddhist practice, is not to achieve any ideal state. It's simply to experience whatever is happening. Right now. Completely. So there you are with this niggling sense of self in the background. Experience all of that, completely.