Teachings | Awareness, Life
Importance of clear intention; when translation problems arise in source material for practice, problems often result in practice; practice is developing capacity to experience whatever arises; constraints due to limits on willingness, capacity or know-how.
Okay. Now we can officially start. It’s almost 9:00, I’m not going to keep you up much longer.
You all set there, Jeff?
Ken: Great. Okay. Thanks.
So, welcome to the second year of A Trackless Path. As I said in an email, that quotation comes from altering a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote. Emerson was a salesman, so every one of his quotes irritates me because it has this sales quality to it. [Laughter]. So the original quote was,
Go where there is no trail and leave a path. Which is fine, but not nearly as interesting as, “Go where there is no trail and leave no path,” which is what I’m suggesting here.
Now, all of you here are experienced practitioners. The vast majority of you have done at least one retreat with me. There are three or four people here who this is your first time here, and for a couple people, this is actually your first retreat with me. But you’re here because you have a long experience with practice. And the intention that I had in setting this kind of retreat up was to provide an opportunity for people who have a lot of experience with practice to practice in the way that they find is most effective and suitable for them.
Now, for that there are a couple of requisites. You have to know why you are here and you have to know what you’re going to practice. And that’s going to be largely the subject matter of our interviews tomorrow, in that you can explain to me, one, why you are here, that is what is your intention for this retreat, and two, the forms of practice which you want to pursue. And I asked you to bring specific instruction material or practice supports for that, if you have it. I’m thinking of things like yidam practices or particular practice manuals. It’s just very helpful for me to see the source material that you’re working from.
One of the principal reasons for that is that translation errors or translation problems abound. And when I see the source material often I can help with some of the translation points.
I’m quite struck by how deeply people’s practices are being influenced by problems that are in translation. Unfortunately this is not a new problem.
There’s a certain teaching in Christianity called the three persons of God: the person of God the father; the person of Christ the son; and the person of the holy spirit. This is complete speculation on my part, but I’m willing to bet that person in the three persons of God, or the triune God, is a mistranslation of the Sanskrit term kaya. That is, the Sanskrit term kaya, K-A-Y-A, as in dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, nirmanakaya. It’s quite easy to understand how it could be translated as person. But a very strange thing happens—and this is the kind of thing that happens with translation—when you translate it as person, you introduce something totally different. Do you believe this is a person or not? And by regarding God as a person you actually introduce the possibility of atheism. All kinds of strange things happen with translation, so that’s why if you have source material with you, I’m very happy to look at it and see. Because so many problems in practice, I’ve found, come from not understanding the source material.
Equally important is your intention. You have a lot of time. We have approximately ten hours of practice scheduled a day. That’s an extraordinary opportunity given the way that most of us lead our lives. And I hope very much that you’ll make the most of this. It takes a lot of time and energy, not only on Claudia’s and my part to arrange something like this, but it takes a great deal of time and energy on your part to arrange to be here. Travel is probably one of the less problematic aspects of that. So it’s a very valuable opportunity and at the same time a very challenging one.
A number of you may have read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, in which he talks about how you get to these extraordinary levels of competence and expertise in various disciplines, and the figure 10,000 hours comes up. It’s interesting because that figure comes up in several other contexts, not the least of which is the three-year retreat. If you calculate ten hours of practice a day, 10,000 hours actually works out to about three years.
So, you can put in 100 of those hours in the course of this retreat. It may not seem like much, but actually that’s a pretty good chunk.
Gladwell’s figure is disputed in various ways, but what it points to is that there are certain levels of expertise and familiarity and ability that come when you invest a lot of time in a certain activity, whether it’s shooting hoops in basketball or practicing meditation or solving mathematical problems or whatever. This is where you become really, really good at it.
And what we’re doing in spiritual practice is becoming really, really good at developing this deep capacity to be able to experience whatever arises because that’s what frees us from reactivity. Any way in which you’re reactive in your life occurs because something is arising which you can’t experience or don’t know how to experience or don’t want to experience—one of those three. What one is doing in meditation practice essentially is developing the willingness, the know-how or the capacity to be able to experience anything that arises. That makes you free from reaction.
So, this requires an investment of time, but—and this is very important—time alone is not sufficient. One of the quotations that I have up on the website, the rotating quotes, which I really like, (and George put it at the back of the book, on page 44), is by Kenichi Ohmae:
Rowing harder doesn’t help if the boat is headed in the wrong direction.
And that is the main function of the interviews that we have on a daily basis. It’s why I started working with the interview as an integral part of how I taught twenty-five years ago, because I would find that people would practice, as I did, for very long periods of time with the boat headed in utterly the wrong direction. Sometimes it literally takes only a two- or three-minute conversation to discover that the boat’s headed in the wrong direction, and to say, “No, try this direction.”
That’s in order to make your time here as fruitful as possible, meeting with you each day to discuss what is arising in your practice. The objective of those interviews is for you to refine your practice so that it is clear and actually—I want to say less struggle—but not that word. There’s a lot of wrestling that goes on in practice, but there are better ways and worse ways of engaging that. And my intention is to help you find the ways that are most effective for you, and the experience and training that I’ve had are available to you in those practice interviews.
Having said that, if there is major stuff coming up and you would like to talk with me at greater length than the interview times allow, then slip Claudia a note and we will find time within the schedule to have a longer conversation. I’ve done that at every retreat and it’s usually not a problem. I mean, if everybody wants a longer session every day, that gets a little difficult logistically, but that never happens. So, you aren’t solely restricted to that and particularly if something’s deeply troubling or deeply challenging or deeply significant in ways that you don’t understand then I’m very happy to be available for that.
Give careful consideration to this. “Okay, what’s my intention for this retreat? What are the practices I’m going to be doing?” I suggest you keep it to a maximum of three, probably best one or two. This is an opportunity for you to take your practice as deep as you are capable of over an extended period of time. Part of that is creating an appropriate container, to use a somewhat psychological term. But the environment in which we practice is largely up to us. We create it here. And Claudia mentioned silence, I think, in her orientation, and that’s something I’m strongly encouraging. I’m going to go further than that.
Talking is for the practice interviews, or for really functional stuff that comes up, like emergencies and things like that. But for the rest of the time that you’re here, you’re going to get more out of your practice the less talking you do, pure and simple. Why? Because most of the time when we talk it is to relieve pressure from within the system. It serves no other function than that, it’s just getting stuff out so we don’t have to deal with it inside. And from that perspective, most talking is reaction. I know this because I have these people who are wonderful in their meditation, very clear in their presence, until they open their mouth. And then everything’s gone. It’s astonishing. [Laughs]
So, observe silence. This is going to require you meeting your internal material in a different way, and strangely enough, that’s exactly why you’re here. So, that’s it.
Now, there’s a lot of talk about the neurology of meditation and changes in brain functioning, and so forth. And it’s very, very difficult to know how reliable much of that is. But this I do know: When we practice, we areÖI’m not sure what the right word isÖevolving, training—it could be any of those words—a different way of experiencing things. In particular, in essence, it’s a non-conceptual way of experiencing things. The consequence is that in a period of time such as this, which is very, very valuable, the less conceptual activity you can engage in, the more you are supporting your practice.
So you don’t actually need to read anything while you’re here. Some people find it helpful to take notes as a way of absorbing information, and that’s fine. But I would keep your reading and your notes very, very closely related to practice, and practice experience.
One of the things that frequently happens in practice is that, as the mind becomes clear and you rest more deeply, you discover sources and creative abilities that you never knew you had, and of course you want to give expression to them. In Zen this is known as
Zen sickness[laughter], where people write volumes of poetry while they’re in retreat, I mean literally. In Tibetan tradition, one of the Trungpa Rinpoches was so inspired by his experience of mahamudra that he wrote 3,000 pages about mahamudra, took it to the Karmapa of that period, who looked at him and said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” [Laughter] So yes, you may uncover stuff and there’s that opening. Okay, now open to that experience, because channeling it into creativity or something like that instead is actually a way of avoiding the experience, strangely enough.
There’ll be plenty of opportunity after this retreat to give expression to your creative stuff. What I want to encourage—and I don’t want to be particularly rigid about this, because that’s against the whole tenor of the retreat that I’m trying to set up here—is to use this period to open as deeply as you can to different ways of experiencing things. Because we have ten days here, uninterrupted by ordinary day-to-day affairs and demands. So it is a very, very valuable opportunity to actually instill in ourselves the experience of implanting different ways of experiencing things, in ways which are free of the struggle with the reactivity that we ordinarily have to wrestle with. And that, I think, is getting close to the heart of spiritual practice, at least within the Buddhist tradition.
So, I think those are the main points that I wanted to cover. Any questions that any of you have?
Christy: This may seem counter-intuitive, but how do we sleep? And by that I mean, frequently, at least in the last retreat, I would be so overstimulated, overcharged, going at mach six and it’d be time to sleep, I couldn’t turn off and I’d go into this zombie mode. So is there a technique?
Ken: Yeah, a couple of things. You may recall in the Qi Gong practice there’s the dispersion technique where you imagine the energy collecting in the center of your body, in the dantien, dispersing evenly throughout the whole system and then coming out the pores of the skin to form a shield, an envelope of energy around your body. It’s a way of balancing. Dispersing here doesn’t mean getting rid of, it means spreading evenly so the energy is evenly balanced in the system. And you can do that two or three times at the end of the meditation in the evening before you go to bed. It may help.
If you have a lot of energy from the practice then you take the energy out further. So you take it out six inches, a foot, a yard, quite far. At the end of the third time—if you do it three times—leave the energy out there. You aren’t bringing it back in. This is a way of balancing energy out that may be helpful.
If you find that you aren’t able to go to sleep, and that sometimes happens because you are so awake, okay. Then it’s fine to continue practicing. You can come in here and practice in the evening by yourself or in your room, or what have you. When you’re practicing at that time, I would recommend that you not actually work at specific practices. It’s primarily about resting. You let the body rest, and you let the mind rest in the body. And you drop any concern about going to sleep. It’s conceivable you stay up all night. Well, if you actually are resting the body and the mind all night, you’re probably going to be fine the next day, number one.
Secondly, the body and the mind will actually have rested, and that’s what’s important. What happens is we start getting anxious about not sleeping. And that may be the challenge that you have to work with in practice. So that you’re lying in bed, say, you’re really wide awake, and now your practice consists of resting completely wide awake and allowing the body to rest while you are completely wide awake. My mind is clear and open. And you just let the body rest. And to do that of course, you have to continually let go of, “I’m not going to sleep. When am I going to go to sleep?” You know, things like that.
Because that’s the anxiety that churns things up. If the body actually rests like that for most of the evening or most of the night, you’ll be fine in the morning. But it’s the anxiety and the struggle with it that creates the problems. Does that help? Okay.
Other questions. Okay. Then I think we’re through for the evening. It’s 9:20. Get a good night’s sleep.
Oh, one thing we did not mention. Drink tons of water. After I got here this afternoon I had a short nap and then I realized I haven’t been drinking enough water. I drank five glasses in a row. And that wasn’t too much. And we can shut this off, Jeff, if we’re ready. We’re at 7,000 here? 7,000 feet. A lot of you are not used to being at this kind of altitudeÖ