When Energy Runs Wild

For Teachers

Do you remember when you started teaching? For many, the intensity, the aliveness, the energy, come as a surprise, if not a shock. In just taking a seat, you are suddenly far more aware of everything going on in you.

The very activity of teaching requires a higher level of energy. When you include in your experience the students in front of you, and respond rather than react to their energy, you are transforming energy yourself. You move into a higher level of attention. People in the room pick it up. That energy is often attributed to charisma, or charm, or projection, and it may involve all three. But a significant component is the higher level of energy going into your attention. It creates a field. In master teachers, those whose practice is deep and strong, that field becomes almost palpable, and enables students to experience insights and patterns that they would ordinarily not be able to touch.

Energy plays a vital role in transmission. In pointing out instructions, for instance, you, as the teacher move into empty clarity. The higher level of energy you experience there creates a field that opens possibilities in the student or students. In that field, you give them instruction on to how to direct attention. When the conditions are right, it is like a candle lighting another candle. Knowing arises in the student’s experience. Is something transmitted? Something happens, definitely, but exactly what is a mystery.

When people practice together, each person makes his or her own effort in attention. The accumulated effect of their efforts is the creation of a pool of energy in the group, a pool from which everyone can and does draw. In a group of experienced practitioners, you can feel the energy in the stillness. You can feel it in your body and it elicits a similar stillness in you, if you let it. People often experience deeper stillness, less distraction, or greater clarity in groups than they are able to experience on their own. As well, a hall or room where people have practiced over a long period of time will take on a charge, so that when you come into the hall, you feel the energy of practice in you.

In retreat settings, the retreat leader has a special responsibility to manage the energy of the group, as what happens with that energy affects everyone at the retreat.

For example, when a person with a fragile psychology taps into this pool of energy, he or she may touch into old patterns or old trauma and not be able to stay present in the strong emotions that arise. The person’s attention then collapses, or fragments. The original genesis of the fragility is reactivated and runs with increased intensity because of the higher level of energy in the retreat environment. This may result in a complete breakdown in the person. It is extremely damaging to the individual, and it is also damaging to the group, as the participants experience this as a black hole opening up and draining all the energy out of their practice. To return to the horse and rider metaphor, when there is no rider (i.e., no active attention) then the horse goes out of control.

Also, as a retreat progresses, people may become increasingly tense and rigid. This is usually the result of spiritual ambition, of people trying too hard, of pushing in their meditation and not allowing mind and/or body to rest in attention. You may observe the rigidity in their posture. The atmosphere in the meditation hall may become tense for no apparent reason. There may be an edge in people’s interaction, or an edge in the air, so to speak. Things may feel brittle, as if something could break or shatter at any time. If not addressed, something usually does, and what breaks is the attention in the weakest individual in the retreat. If this happens, you may have a replay of the first situation that I described. To counteract this buildup of energy in the wrong direction, it’s good to break the practice schedule and have people do something very different, something that allows them to relax and let go. A few hours disruption is generally sufficient. Suspend silence, have people interact with each other in ordinary ways, laugh, cry, go for a walk. Then return them to the structure and discipline of the retreat. They return to their practice with a renewed and clearer energy and the atmosphere in the meditation hall will be lighter, more open.

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