Awakening From Belief 11b


So, gradually attention develops sufficiently so you can hold both the physical and emotional sensations in attention simultaneously.

For instance, I was in a body movement class about a year ago, and something in me started to kick up. There was some partner-work in it, which I usually enjoy, but I just couldn’t do it, and so I just withdrew. I was in just this really crazy, dizzy emotional space, didn’t want to have anything to do with anybody. So I just separated myself from the group and sat quietly, breathing with it.

And then I began to feel this intense discomfort about here. And eventually I realized I need a little help with this, so I went to one of the assistants in the thing and said, “I need some help.”

And so she came over and said, “What do you want me to do?”

I said, “Put your hand right there. Right there.” And what was very interesting is when she pushed with a certain amount of pressure, the physical pain [Ken snaps fingers] went away like that. It was just all of that emotional confusion. And when she eased up the pressure just a little bit, all the emotional confusion went away, and the physical pain was there. It was just like an on/off switch. I mean, it was just like that.

I have enough experience and practice to know that all you do is you sit and you experience it, both your physical and emotional. It’s not fun, but…

Student: And then what happened?

Ken: I’m going to tell you. When you can experience both the physical and emotional sensations simultaneously, then the energy that is locked up in the pattern begins to release, just in the same way that the energy in water releases and an ice cube releases when the sun shines on it.

That energy is experienced as highly emotionally charged thoughts. You have these thoughts which are absolute total insanity, but they’ve got tremendous power in them. And they’re very often, most of the time, connected with a sense of who you are. So you really feel like your identity is being stripped, and you don’t know who you are, and there’s all kinds of anxiety and stuff that’s kicked up around that. And now the world becomes kind of dream-like, because you’re feeling disoriented and confused. You feel as if you are losing something vitally important, so you try to strike a bargain. That’s why I say, you go through the stages of death.

But what you’re actually experiencing is the pattern breaking up. As the pattern breaks up, you now start to experience waves of raw emotion. Often these feelings just can’t be named. They seem to come from nowhere. So you’ll be sitting in your practice—maybe at work—and suddenly this, whoosh, wave comes over you. And you go, “What’s going on?” It’s kind of interesting when this happens in the middle of your teaching, and so forth. Like, “Oh, okay.” And there’s huge fluctuations.

In the latter part of the Torch of Certainty, not the part that was printed but the part that was translated afterwards, Kongtrul describes this, when you get extraordinary feelings of hope, you know, just, like, “Oh, I’m going to get there,” and despair, like, “It’s never going to happen.” So it’s a roller coaster.

In this chaos, you re-experience the core emotional dynamic of the pattern, and you may—it’s not a 100 percent—re-experience the situation in which that core dynamic was set up. So not infrequently, very vivid memories of particular events in your life will just arise.


Now, that varies a lot from person to person. I have a friend in L.A., and almost always when the pattern breaks up, he is able to name, “Ah, that’s where it was set up,” and very precisely. But with both his wife and myself, patterns break up without any particular association of memory. We just go through this process. So that’s not 100 percent the case, but that may happen.

Student: What page are you on?

Ken: Page 201.

When that happens, you feel lighter and freer. And when you encounter the situations which would previously have triggered the pattern, nothing happens, which is, like, “Oh.” So you’re able to be present in those situations in a way that you weren’t able to before. And that’s the dimension of freedom.

Now, this is exactly what Buddha experienced when he woke up. Remember, he sits under the bodhi tree, and then Mara comes along.

At first Mara brings his three daughters, who try to seduce Buddha—desire. And so all of those pleasant emotions coming up, and, “Do this and everything will be nice.” And Buddha sat there and just experienced it. Just experienced it.

And then Mara said, “Ah, it’s not working,” so sent his hoards of armies, you know, all of these demons and things like that. Well, this was all Buddha’s internal material. And he felt attacked and, you know, accosted and beaten and things thrown at him, and things like that.

The usual description is that Buddha’s attention was so deep that it turned into a rain of flowers, i.e., he just experienced it, and all of that negativity, that internal turmoil, just became experience, “Oh.”

And then Mara had his last little trick. This is very important. “Who gives you the right to sit there?”

Student: [Laughs]

Ken: And Buddha just said, “I’m here.” That’s it.

Student: Just that?

Ken: Yeah. And that’s where we get the earth-touching mudra. “I’m here.”

Student: Return to the body?

Ken: Yeah. In a sense, it’s a return, just right here.

Student: No identity?

Ken: No identity. And no need to refer to any external authority.

Student: No reference point.

Ken: No reference point, yeah. That was it. Done.

So, right in Buddha’s enlightenment, you have a somewhat carefully packaged description of exactly what I’ve been talking about here. Please learn how to read the traditional texts. It’s all there. But it’s in code. Get out your code-breaking rings.

Susan: Do we get them at the end of this then?

Ken: I’m dismayed to hear that, Susan. I’ve been giving them out all…[Laughter]

Student: [Unclear]


Ken: Charlotte, you had a question?

Charlotte: Oh, I was just thinking, these attacks by passion and aggression, ignorance must have been what he was [unclear].

Ken: The sequence is usually anger, then desire. But in Buddha’s case, it was attraction, then aversion, and then ignorance. And when Mara asked, “Who gives you the right to sit there,” that was ignorance. And no one. Right here.


Robert: In talking about this experience of re-experiencing traumatic or troubling things that happen in your life, so [unclear] in Los Angeles, went through and kind of felt the whole primal therapy idea.

Ken: Okay.

Robert: People would re-experience. I have been connecting somebody who had gotten involved with that, and so she experienced all of this stuff again. So what…

Ken: Is this primal scream you’re talking about?

Robert: Yeah.

Ken: Yeah. Okay. Well, you have a number of techniques, like holotropic breathing and primal scream, and there are various other things out there.

What these techniques do is use a technique to artificially raise the level of attention temporarily. And don’t forget, holotropic breathing was developed by Stan Grof, and the only reason he developed it is because he was looking for something to replace LSD, since it was banned.

But these are ways that you temporarily raise the level of energy in the system. And when the level of energy is raised, it penetrates habituated patterns so you can become aware of them.

I do not like these techniques because there is no guarantee that the individual has a capacity of mindfulness to be able to stay present in the material that’s released. So I think they are inherently dangerous.

The methods that I’m describing here don’t have that problem because they depend on your capacity of attention. And when material is released, it’s because you have the capacity in attention to experience it. You may not feel that you do, but you actually do because it’s only because you’ve developed that capacity of attention that the material is starting to come out. So it’s inherently a balanced way of approaching.

Robert: Because I think this whole idea was that you just experienced it [unclear].

Ken: Yeah.

Robert: There was no notion of—

Ken: Mindfulness, yeah. And that’s one of the problems. So people go through it again and again and again, and actually that ends up reinforcing it.

Student: Could you talk a little bit about the balance between—I’m not really sure exactly what words to use—but between having sort of an insight and kind of seeing through, and being in a state of compassion? Because sometimes it feels like there’s too much compassion mush, and there’s just a lot of sorrow and a lot of sadness in the way that things appear, but no feeling of where to go with that.

And then that causes me to want to jump out of it. [Unclear] it’s just a feeling of seeing through things too much and not having the compassion to deal with what I see, and that makes me want to pull away from it. So are there any techniques for bringing those two together, or is that…how do you deal with that situation?

Ken: That’s a whole ’nother area, actually.

Student: Okay.

Ken: What immediately comes to mind is mind training, the Mahayana mind training. [Pause] Very briefly, you can tell when you’re out of balance. You know, something feels off, like it feels too mushy, or you can’t handle it. Those are indications that something’s out of balance, okay?

The way that you address imbalance is to move into the experience of the imbalance. And if you do that, I think you’ll be in good shape, okay?


Now, I think earlier I said it’s very important not to protect any area of your life from your practice. Here’s why. As you practice meditation, you raise the level of attention in your system. That’s what you’re doing, you’re transforming energy into attention and developing higher and higher levels of attention so that they can penetrate the areas of confusion. What’s crystallized and solidified in your personality can start to break up.

If you protect any area of your life from your practice, that you say, “Well, I’ll do it here, but I’m not going to think about that,” what happens is that the higher level of attention goes into that area anyway, because it’s just part of the system. So it’s activated.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Well, it’s activated. But because you’re blocking it, it now takes more energy to block it. So energy also goes into the blocking mechanism. So you become increasingly walled off from a part of you that’s become increasingly activated, and it begins to operate out of control. It’s like a loose cannon. You, in effect, are torn in two.

How this shows up [Ken reads]:

One part of you is capable of attention and response very, very precisely. The other part becomes increasingly rigid and inflexible. It takes over unpredictably whenever the repressed emotions are resonated or triggered by events and situations. Typically a person becomes more arrogant and self-indulgent, obsessed with power, money, sex, security, or other fixations, and acts in ways to control or amass the object of the obsession. Long-term practitioners and teachers who protect areas of their lives from their practice frequently run into this problem with unfortunate and sometimes tragic results. [Wake Up To Your Life, p. 88]

Student: What page is that?

Ken: That’s the end of the chapter on basic meditation. [Chapter 3: Cultivating Attention]


About a year ago I was at a conference put on by a publisher for non-dual teacher. You know, people like Ramana Maharshi and Douglas Harding. Douglas Harding is great, by the way, in On Having No Head, if you don’t know it. It’s wonderful. Eckhart Tolle was speaking at that conference.

But there was one woman—I can’t remember her name now—and she gave this talk. It wasn’t a bad talk, and there was a little bit of energy in the room.

Then at the end of her talk, a woman asked her a question about her child. And suddenly the whole auditorium was filled with anger. I went, “What the hell’s going on here?” I was there with a friend, one of my students. And I said, “What are you sensing?”

And she said, “There’s all this anger, Ken.”

I said, “Yeah.” And so we just sat and paid attention.

And as the dialogue between the questioner and the speaker played itself out, the questioner was having a disagreement with her husband about how they should raise their child. She had one idea and he had another, and she was asking how to deal with the situation.

Well, absolutely this was triggering something in the speaker, and there was just all of that anger in there. And she wasn’t aware of it, but people were getting up and walking out of the auditorium. It was just so palpable.

This is the kind of problem that arises if you do not bring attention to every area of your life. You cannot leave any stone unturned. To put it another way, “Whatever you don’t undo, you become. It will take you over.” Very, very important.



Leslie: Why did the audience take the energy of—

Ken: Because there was so much anger, but it was totally unacknowledged. And when a person is not experiencing it themselves, then everybody else experiences it. We were.

Student: Was the audience the ones that were reacting, or was it the speaker that was…

Ken: The speaker was the one. The anger was in her, but she wasn’t experiencing it. She wasn’t aware of it at all. So it was just out there. It was great. It was very strange. You know, when you don’t experience what arises in you, then that energy goes out in the world and people start resonating with it.

Student: So can you use that as a clue?

Ken: As a clue?

Student: Yeah. If you’re not experiencing something and suddenly everyone around you is—

Ken: Yes. Yes, you can. You know, if you’re sitting there quite quietly and everybody’s at each others’ throats, you think, “Hm, maybe I’m angrier than I thought.” Very definitely, yeah. Particularly if you’re in a leadership position or something like that, this happens all the time. Yeah.


Student: This sounds similar to, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” You know what I’m saying?

Ken: Well, you are as sick as your secrets, yes.

Student: You might even be sicker than that, but not you personally. [Laughter]

Ken: You have no idea. [Laughter]

Student: I was hoping that as a parting shot, you could let us in on some of your patterns. [Laughter]

Student: I would ask him that, too.

Student: You know, after…

Ken: I think I’ve been very open here.

Student: It seems to me you’ve [unclear]. I’d be very curious.

Student: What [unclear]?

Student: What’s the [unclear]? But anyway, my question is, how can you get to those parts [unclear]? I mean, if we really are protecting them that well?

Ken: By observing what you don’t notice, what you don’t question, what you don’t laugh about.

Student: So we may not be able to observe it directly?

Ken: Right.

Student: But we could start that way.

Ken: That’s how you start. I mean, I always have to smile when I think of what you don’t laugh about.

I have an older brother who takes himself quite seriously, shall we say. We were on a canoe trip a few years ago, and we camped at a place which is just a very little river between two lakes. But there was about a six-inch to one-foot drop. So the current was actually quite strong.

And we tried to paddle up it the day before, and one of the canoes got swamped, so we camped there. We lined the canoes, took lines and drew them up there. But after we were safely into the higher lake, I said to my two brothers, “Why don’t we just try it, just the three of us, and then unload the canoe, just try to paddle up this just for the hell of it?”

So we did. I think my younger brother was in the stern of the canoe, so he was calling the orders. And so there we are. [Makes paddling noises.] And we get about three-quarters of the way up, and the current’s too strong and the canoes flipped over, and we all go into the water.

And my younger brother, I think he came up first. And when I came up, he was laughing, I was laughing. Where’s our older brother? Where is he? Well, he came up underneath the canoe. So eventually he came up. He looked at us laughing, and he went [said in a gruff voice], “I thought we were trying to accomplish something here.” [Laughter]

Good laugh, it was wonderful. So…


Student: Is embarrassment a good signal? [Unclear] there are different kinds of embarrassment, too.

Ken: There are. In the Abhidharma, embarrassment is taken as one of the emotions that tends towards virtue. Because it helps to wake you up.

Now, I do want to distinguish between that kind of embarrassment, which lets you know that there’s something wrong with your behavior right now [chuckles], and the kind of deeply internalized shame that people have in dysfunctional families. That’s a whole different ball of wax, and is the basis of quite strong pattern behavior. And those are two different beasts. You know you have shame or embarrassment, and then you have what [John] Bradshaw refers to as toxic shame.

That, you work with in the way that we’ve been talking about. Just gradually open to that feeling until you recognize it actually has nothing to do with you. In my own work and in work with students, feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, self-loathing, all unlovability, etc., I’m quite sure, are all learned behaviors, learned feelings. They don’t arise naturally. Those are inherited from the family system. Very important to undo those.

And it’s very difficult for many people to do that because it involves some kind of separation from the family system. And that can be very difficult.


Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Pardon?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Not usually, not for most people.


Student: What are those again?

Ken: Self-hatred, self-loathing, unlovability, worthlessness. But those are usually the feelings that are underneath that shame. Those kinds of things, in my experience, they’re always learned.

Student: So [unclear] the way we’ve been socialized [unclear]?

Ken: Yes, that’s right. Oh, yes. James Joyce said any tradition or institution or system that teaches you that you were eternally damned before you were even born is inhumanely cruel.


Student: [Unclear]


Ken: Okay. So summing up, you’ve got the four steps: recognize, dis-identify, develop a practice, and cut.

Now, back at the beginning of our time together, I mentioned the four forces: regret, reliance, remedy, and resolve. This is simply another version of the four steps.

Regret corresponds to recognizing the pattern.

Reliance corresponds to dis-identifying. You rely on Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, which is simply a metaphorical way of saying you rely on your true nature, which is not the pattern. So that corresponds to dis-identify.

Remedy, of course, is developing a practice.

And resolve corresponds to cut. You just keep doing the practice until you cut through the pattern. You have that kind of resolution.

You find those four showing up in all kinds of ways all through Buddhism, different formulations and different traditions. The core here—and I mentioned this line the other day—is the only good line that [Herbert] Guenther translated, but he did this one very well: “Samsara is notorious for being without end.” That’s a quotation from The Jewel Ornament of Liberation.

This means there is nothing within the operation of patterns that inherently leads to their dissolution. Or, Buddha’s last words: “I have shown you the way. Work out your own freedom.” And this is absolutely true. It’s up to each one of us individually. We can benefit from the support, the guidance, and the instruction of our teachers, and our companions in the path, but nobody can do it for us. Nobody will do it for us. Nobody will save us.

All of us have a really wonderful opportunity. You know, somehow or other we’ve stumbled into it. Now it’s up to us. So make use of what you’ve learned possibly here, from other programs you’ve gone to, and other teachers you’ve studied with. Make use of it. Understand what you want from your practice.

And that goes back to the listening to the stammering voice which asks the questions, and being in touch with your own pain. These are the touchstones which are reliable for your practice. There are different approaches to practice. Some people can work very, very hard in particular areas and make great strides.

I found that that approach doesn’t work for me. I’ve learned that—for me, anyway—the best way to practice is to keep everything in balance. So, I don’t feel I go very far, but everything goes a short step. It’s not like one part is way out here and the rest are back here.

And in my work with students, that’s the approach that I take. So I’m passing that on to you as a consideration, keeping things in balance. I think it’s important for those of us who live and work in the world. Because we have to keep functioning as we do this. Practice as much in your life as you do on the cushion.


Seung Sahn Sunim is a Korean Zen teacher who wrote an article about lay practice and monastic practice. He said there’s a difference: As lay practitioners, it’s not our job to get enlightened. That’s not our job. That’s the job of the professionals, the monastics. That’s their job. Their job is to get enlightened. As laypeople, our job is to function properly. Then he says, “Mind you, the purpose of getting enlightened is to function properly.” [Laughter]

So, you bring attention and precision into your life. And I’ve suggested some ways to do that. In particular, watch for the areas in your life where you go passive, because where you go passive is where reactive mechanisms run. It’s where the karmic process of evolution is proceeding unhindered.

I also said that the way that we practice is great effort, no force. We have to be completely uncompromising, quite ruthless, but no force. When you apply force in your practice, it means you are ignoring something. It takes no force to move into presence in the moment. It may not last very long, so you do it again and again and again. That’s the great effort. You won’t get headaches if you practice this way. Your body won’t be strained. [break in conversation]

[Ken resumes]…now that you just turned over the tape.

Student: The last tape.

Ken: That’s good. [Laughter] So let’s do a short period of meditation together. I know I was only able to see a few people the second time. Are there any of you who have burning questions for interviews? Good. Okay. Then, well, let’s take a five- or ten-minute break and we’ll come back and meditate together.



[Laughter] You want to put something on that tape, I know. But…

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Yeah, well. There may be some more later.

Student: We can tape some shamatha.

Ken: Yeah. Don’t do that. That’ll be labeled eventually as profound teaching.

In the whole picture, we’ve worked together for several days, and the level of attention in the system is consequently higher. So after we part, don’t be surprised if you have a little higher level of reactivity running in you for the next, oh, usually 24 to 48 hours. So try to have some space in your life.

We haven’t been doing that much qi gong. It’s only been about three times a day, right? So there isn’t going to be any problem if you don’t continue. But the qi gong is something that you can add to your practice, and it would be quite beneficial.

The thing about qi gong is you shouldn’t stop and start suddenly. If you’re doing, like, six or twelve repetitions a day, don’t suddenly stop or miss a day or something like that. You want to taper them down so you do twelve, and then go do six for a few days, and then do three for a few days, if you’re stopping. Otherwise the system is unbalanced, and it’s not good for you physically.

And the same as starting up. Don’t suddenly start doing a lot, because it’s hard on the system. Just gradually increase.

Yes, Roger.

Roger: Is there a rate…is there a sense that you can do too much?

Ken: Yes, you can do too much. Because they’re energy transformation practices, and you can just get too much going so that you don’t have the capacity of attention to handle it, and also you put your body out of balance. So you need to be sensitive to that.

And everybody’s different. You’ll have to find the right equilibrium point for yourself. Okay.


Now, it’s 11:00. We are going to sit for one period of meditation. During this, your final assignment: After you let your breath settle, I want you to consider a very concrete change in your life that you are going to do within the next 72 hours, based on what you’ve absorbed from our time together.

Now, when I mean concrete, I don’t mean, like, “I’m going to pay attention to my life.” That’s way too general. It needs to be something very explicit. So, it’s a definable task which covers a specific area of your life. Because the tendency, when we have large generalized intentions, is that we forget about them as soon as we get up from our cushion. So make it very specific and very concrete.

We’re going to meditate for 20 minutes or maybe half an hour, and then ask you to voice that. If you’re not comfortable voicing it in public, that’s fine. But it’s a statement of your intention and how you’re going to continue your practice.


Student: Did you say that you’re going to—it’s a concrete change you’re going to make within the next…

Ken: Seventy-two hours. Now, the reason for this is that there’s a very large amount of research that shows that if you do not use the material from any form of training within 72 hours, you lose 95 percent of it. So…

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Pardon?

Student: It’s just so incredibly quantitative.

Ken: But it’s true. There’s a lot of research to that. So the best thing you can do in order to ensure that you actually continue with this is to use it. And then it becomes part of you. And the way to really make it part of you, you use it three times. Then it’s yours, okay?

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