Staying in the paradox

From: Unfettered Questions (UQ02)
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?

Student: [Sighs]

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?

Student: Yes.

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.

Ken: Oh?

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.

Ken: Yes.

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 the working, 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.