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When Energy Runs Wild

Energy in Meditation Practice

The Tale of Red Rock Jewel Valley, the first story in The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa (Tib. mila mgur ‘bum) gives a poetic account of what can happen with energy in meditation practice. To summarize, one day Milarepa went out to gather wood to cook some nettle soup. He was so weak that he was blown over by a gust of wind. He prayed to Marpa, his teacher, who appeared to him in a vision. He then returned to his cave where he found five demons. He had a very difficult time getting rid of them, especially the last one.

You have almost certainly had a similar experience. You practice and practice, but you seem to be getting nowhere. Something in you just gives up and the bottom drops out of your world. Your body and mind are suffused with ecstatic waves of bliss and you feel so light that you could fly with the wind.

This is all very encouraging, no? But then, a day or two later, you are going about your life and you completely lose it with a friend over something that had no significance whatsoever.

Where did that demon come from?

In meditation practice you cultivate attention, and the cultivation of attention is based on energy transformation. We saw how transformation takes place in the four foundations of mindfulness. Body scanning, holding a question, taking and sending—not to mention direct awareness methods such as shikantaza (just sitting) in Zen, Yidam practice and Mahamudra and Dzogchen in Vajrayana Buddhism, and “bare attention” in the Theravadan tradition—all involve energy transformation.

In the initial stages of practice, we are consumed by thoughts. As we continue, we gradually are able to experience thoughts as thoughts, and not be distracted by them. To be a little technical, when the level of energy in the attention is higher than the level of energy in what you are experiencing, say, anger, or love, then you can experience the anger or love without getting lost in it. When you experience it that way, energy is transformed to a still higher level, making it possible for you to experience deeper levels of clarity and stillness, and also deeper levels of conditioning.

With higher levels of energy (and, consequently, higher levels of attention) you are aware of patterns of emotional reaction that you couldn’t touch before. In the story of Milarepa, through his prayer and devotion to Marpa, the energy in his attention moved to a higher level, he had a spiritual opening (the vision), and then, he had to deal with a whole level of reactivity that he had not touched before (the demons).

Just as the warmth of the sun penetrates the crystal structure of ice and causes the ice to melt into water, higher levels of energy in your attention penetrate the structures of old patterns and they break up. Energy that was locked up in the patterns is now released and may lead to strange and apparently unrelated physical and emotional sensations. If it releases suddenly, you may experience deep clarity, emptiness, or bliss for a while, but the shift is unstable and dissipates, maybe in a few minutes, maybe after a few days or weeks. The experiences aren’t always pleasant. You may encounter anger, desire, and other emotional reactions, pains in various parts of the body, inability to focus, recurrence of old physical ailments, and so on. There is no rhyme or reason to them. These shifts are called energy surges (Tib. nyams) and one is generally advised just to let them come and go. My teacher used to say of such shifts, “Not good, not bad: keep going.”

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