Stratified Care for the Hindrance of Dullness: Prevention First

Numerous ways exist to antidote mental dullness or sleepiness in meditation practice. Rather than dumping all of them here, I offer a stratified approach that begins with simple commonsense, pragmatic, physical-plane understandings and approaches that emphasize prevention. In short, prevention means planning toward optimal meditation set and setting.

Understand the Doctrine of the Five Spiritual Faculties

The early Buddhist doctrine of the Five Spiritual Faculties helpfully informs the more contemporary considerations I’m offering in this post. It also informs the broader notion that a viable path is a “laddered” map with levels of practice that require you to rebalance overall practice orientations to meet the challenges of each new level of practice.

The laddered path functions within the causal model of reality, which says, “If I do x, then y will result.” The causal model is eventually debunked both in theoretical orientation—view—and in direct experience. The constraints that are linear time and causality are, to use the dzogchen parlance from the Gyalwa Chaktri, “a great and powerful falsehood and lie” (Reynolds 2015, p. 145). So noncausality is absolutely true, but until that truth is directly realized, sufficient practice effort usually requires buy-in to the causal model. This buy-in is at first noncontroversial, and normally not even deliberated, because it comports with modern, western science as the default view.

The causal model leads you to the noncausal realization; then the noncausal realization reveals that there never was a doer doing a cause-and-effect “path.” From the perspective of the gradual, laddered path, in other words, noncausality is mappable as high realization; from the perspective of that realization, causality constituting a path is, or was, the final delusion. Thus, the relationship between the gradual path and spontaneous realization of spontaneity is profoundly paradoxical. Although this topic is endlessly fascinating to me, in the present context this is all just to say that I’m addressing practitioners who are still trying to master calm-staying practice and ply their efforts to realize the fruits of ordinary insight practice (vipassana).

If you are past that point, then you already know I’m not addressing you. It is worth noting, however, that normally practitioners of extraordinary insight think they have transcended the causal model when in fact true letting go of path unfolds in increasingly supersubtle, barely detectable stages that can be missed altogether. The supersubtlety can be easily missed because of the grasping known as spiritual bypassing. Thinking you are enlightened before you are is the stickiest temptation, and it results in being stuck, albeit at a mappably high level. I’ve written elsewhere at some length about the common phenomenon of the partially realized teacher.

So to turn back to where most practitioners find themselves, Shakyamuni Buddha taught that aspirants have five spiritual faculties, five orientations that potentiate enlightenment. These potentialities are best actualized by being held in balance. But what is balance? A final distribution? In truth, the faculties ordinarily are not in balance long—at least not in the early and intermediate levels of practice. It is the lead faculty of mindfulness—metacognitive tracking of variables across time—that must monitor and rebalance the other four faculties continually. Whenever you sense that you have for a while not been progressing toward your practice objectives, are regularly swamped by distractions on the cushion, or are sometimes undermined by dullness or sleepiness on the cushion, study closely the doctrine of the Five Spiritual Faculties and apply it.

The five faculties have traditionally been configured in various spatial arrangements to body forth specific dharma teachings. One famous configuration places the faculties as two pairs of horses, one pair in front of the other pair, with the horse representing mindfulness in front and leading both pairs. The five horses are working together to steer a wagon forward along a path.

The first pair of horses represents the faculties faith and discriminating insight. This pair represents poles capping the ends of a continuum. They mark the attitude of receptivity, faith, over against effortful penetration into experience, insight.

Parallel to the first pair but at a more granular level, the second pair of horses represents the faculties of concentration, on the one hand, and energy, on the other hand. Metacognition, or mindfulness, as the lead horse has to balance—and continually rebalance—each of the pairs so that your vehicle can be pulled straight. The faculty of concentration does not by itself drive effective concentration practice, which I prefer to call, after the Tibetan Buddhists, calm-staying practice. When the distraction-free calm unification of mind—concentration—far exceeds energy, then dullness results. This dullness not only impedes the shift to effective insight practice during a meditation session, but also stymies mastery of concentration practice itself.

The Five Spiritual Faculties is a doctrinal teaching on the relationship between the masculine principle (discriminating insight and energy) and the feminine principle (faith and concentration). Both men and women need both principles and the theoretical knowledge and pliancy to adjust practice when it is not balanced optimally for the current practice level. Initial stages of practice almost always require increase of the masculine flavor; the advanced practices after the gains of ordinary insight, conversely, require reorientation emphasizing the feminine. This sliding fulcrum under the gradual path, so to speak, is another reason that it is important to have, understand, and subscribe to a coherent and fully detailed map and model of enlightenment. A coherent map supports the spiritual faculty of metacognitive mindfulness so that you can track your day-to-day practice within a framework and steer yourself skillfully with these masculine and feminine sides of the whole conveyance well in hand.

Use Mindfulness to Track and Steer Your Four Other Faculties

One principle to bring to planning set and setting for your practice comes from modern research on attention reserves. This principle is that you have a finite allotment of willpower, as well as attention, to spend after a good night’s sleep. As the day wears on, your reserves are steadily depleted, regardless of your practice intentions and meditation method.

Now, I’m a night owl (delayed sleep phase syndrome). Moreover, I have always tended to be high on the energetic/agitation side of the fulcrum between excess energy and dullness.  I practice in the wee hours past midnight, after everyone in my home is asleep. I’m mentioning the excess energy counterpoint to dullness here to point out that practice solutions depend on accurate diagnosis of the individual. It so happens that most American practitioners have dullness and sleepiness as their all-t00-familiar hindrance. I rarely hear people complain about excess energy on the cushion, although it does happen.

That dullness is such a pervasive hindrance may say something about our society’s enforced dearth of unstructured downtime. Because of “convenience” technologies such as laptops, mobile phones, email accounts, social media, and even the electric light bulb, our downtime and deep time are no longer aligned with organic cycles. They are intruded on. In fact, any ostensible downtime is severely fractured by our over-accessibility. If our evenings and nights remain open to the same external stimuli that deplete our attention reserves during the day, then is it any wonder that most of us drop into mental dullness the moment we isolate ourselves in comfort on a meditation cushion?

I’m emphasizing here that effective self-discipline is not about time management so much as it is about energy management. You need to identify when to practice on the basis of your intrinsic energy-concentration imbalances, your idiosyncratic circadian variations, and your work schedule constraints. If you have more mental clarity and higher energy first thing in the morning, before office work, then do a single practice session and do it first thing in the morning. If, like me, your energy tends to naturally revive after a brief early evening rest, and if you tend toward excessive energy or agitation on the cushion in general, then practice at night.

The advice that follows was to a specific practitioner who through logging his practice results discovered he needed to stop practicing twice a day, both in the morning and at night. The main ideas here can apply to anyone needing to address dullness or sleepiness on the cushion. Some other versions of this advice appear in various parts of my book manuscript. This is just a quick-and-dirty summary for this man I regularly advise. I’m posting it here because a mutual friend of ours urged me to, saying that it might help others.

Practice Only after Attentional Reserves Are Restored by Rest

If you are in the insight stage of the Knowledge of the Arising and Passing Away (A&P) or otherwise have a burning desire to practice at the end of the day, it is certainly fine to do so for sheer pleasure and interest, but cross out with a big red X the plan to make nightly practice a perfunctory fixture in your life.

By the end of your day, your willpower and attention reserves are depleted. Practicing with brute force willpower at the end of the day will condition your mind in ways counterproductive to the goal of mastering concentration meditation, and counterproductive to objectives that support that goal. It will be unpleasant, tedious, and frustrating. The more often you associate being on the cushion with these negative emotional reactions, the worse for your faculty faith. In this situation, you must metacognize the problem, and then optimize for energy. 

Routinize “Unplugging” by Evening and Practicing Sleep Hygiene before Bedtime

The principle here is that your mind needs downtime to integrate, via the unconscious, what is happening on the cushion under directed attention. By shutting down dharma and other work efforts in the evening to prioritize care for your body, meaning adequate sleep, you are in fact “practicing”: As Carl Newport writes in Deep Work, “A shutdown habit . . . is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you’re engaged in productive work, but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy” (Newport, p. 146).

If you are feeling doubt arise as you read this pointer, then likely you have been unhelpfully programmed by dharma cowboys who equate number of cushion hours with attainment. I’m inviting you to prioritize precision over time-per-sit and time-per-day standards. For support, consider that the Dalai Lama instructs beginners to spend only 5 minutes in concentration practice here and there. He says to quit the session when the concentration begins to fail. The instruction is not practice long, but rather practice well.

This latter point suggests another item on the list.

Limit Pre–Stream Entry Meditation Sessions to 30 Minutes or Less

Yes, that’s right. Limit the length of your meditation session to 30 minutes, 15–20 if in the Equanimity insight stage. Close the session when dullness or thought-elaboration has emerged and your applying corrective strategies for, say, 3 minutes, hasn’t reversed the slide into dullness. In your practice log, record every day for a while how many minutes of meditation you finished before irreversible slippage into dullness or gross distraction occurred. See what you record for a couple of weeks. This will suggest how long your sessions can fruitfully be at this time.

I fiercely reject the “odometer” approach to meditation practice. Number of hours on the cushion in no measure correlates with reduced calendar time to x realization. In fact, if you think about it, you will discern that the truth is the opposite: Time and precision are usually diametrically opposed emphases, so a sliding scale needs to be observed. Driving yourself into the ground to concentrate when your natural attention reserves for the day are depleted will condition your practice mind to slip into compensatory dullness. When these experiences harden into habit, which they will, then dullness will infect your practice even at the beginning of the day when you are fresh. (My advisee has adversely conditioned himself this way for more than a year. We are now tearing down his practice and rebuilding it up from from the ground.)

It bears repeating: When you sit on a cushion in persistent thought-elaboration, analysis of your psycho-emotional issues, dullness, or slippage into daydreaming, you are habituating yourself to enter these distractions every single time you are on a cushion. Don’t do this!

Manage your limited energy and attention reserves metacognitively. Do so on a whole-day basis. When the reserves for a sit are depleted, close the session, log your information about the sit, and feel good that this change in overall emphasis from hours clocked to precision is positive practice, even if you have to make further adjustments around logged information later, which you will.  I’m not giving you targeted antidotes for dullness today. Try prevention and unlearning unhelpful attitudes first. I will address targeted antidotes another day. This is stratified care beginning with prevention.

The goal is precision. When you have some mastery, that will foster confidence. Confidence is conducive to faith, and faith aligns you with the automaticity intrinsic to realization. Although we can think of energy and faith as polar emphases in practice, it is important to notice how intricately connected they actually are. This interconnection becomes increasingly obvious as you advance up the path, but, as I have explained, it is operating from the very first sit. 

Focus on Whole-Body Breath Energy Flow instead of on Nostrils

Use a scanning and then whole-body breath energy as the object of attention. Doing so preempts dullness, facilitates entry to the bodily bliss characterizing second jhana, and establishes a direct link with vipassana—specifically, direct experience of impermanence. This broad, flowing focus is contrary to the popular one of  the breath at the nostrils. This narrow object focus is problematic. There are multiple reasons for abandoning this method the moment you read this sentence.

Consider analogous findings from research on attentional reserves: “This study, it turns out, is one of many that validate attention restoration theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.” (Newport, p. 147). Newport elaborates the connection between open flow and overdirected attention:

To concentrate requires what ART calls directed attention. This resource is finite: If you exhaust it, you’ll struggle to concentrate. . . . The 2008 study argues that walking on busy city streets requires you to use directed attention, as you must navigate complicated tasks like figuring out when to cross a street to not get run over, or when to maneuver around the slow group of tourists blocking the sidewalk. After just fifty minutes of this focused navigation, the subject’s store of directed attention was low. (p. 147)

The remedy is to emphasize and plan for undirected pleasure, rather than a draining obstacle course: “Walking through nature, by contrast, exposes you to what lead author Marc Berman calls ‘inherently fascinating stimuli,’ using sunsets as an example. These stimuli ‘invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish. (pp. 147-148).

My first point in abandoning the nostrils focus is that such focus is boring rather than pleasurable. It is never a surprise to me when people cling to that narrow object focus and never exit the dullness sand trap. To me, counting breaths, another popular technique, is also inherently boring. Moreover, it actually pulls my attention away from the breath and toward the counting task.

In my experience, the whole-body focus prevents dullness because it gives you a broadly flowing, organically stimulating experience, instead of one that requires that you drill top-down onto one narrow spot and jackhammer it for 30 minutes without flagging. The dullness that results from the inherent boringness and unnaturalness of jackhammering the same point for long duratins means you have to keep applying and reapplying directed attention. This need to redirect attention keeps people stuck at access concentration or, at best, at first jhana, which means the automaticity of second jhana is thwarted. Subsequent jhanas have a broader focus. Focus on breath at the nostrils is therefore the city walk; whole-body flow is the inherently unimpeded pleasure of a nature walk.

The first path objective when I advise people is to consistently attain and sustain second jhana (Elephant Path Stage 6 and 7), Without second jhana, pleasure doesn’t kick in and kick out the need for directed attention. Directed attention is a jhana factor for first jhana, and first jhana is relatively unpleasant. If you have ever smoked weed or taken hallucinogens, then you know that there is an unpleasant transition before the pleasure high kicks you into automaticity. First jhana is this transition. You must pass through it and learn what you can from it, but you need to enter second, master that entry, and consistently replicate its automaticity. Doing so is essential preparation for the path of ordinary special insight, for vipassana.

Traditionally, access concentration is considered adequate for beginning effective vipassana. The problem is that how teachers define access concentration varies dramatically. I define access concentration as a soft version of second jhana. Before you have the automaticity that is second jhana, you are still just trying to concentrate rather than concentrating.

There are many other specific reasons that whole-body-breathing-as-object is vastly superior to nostrils focus, but I won’t go  into them here because it would take me all day. But suffice it to say that to master distinction among the separate jhanas you need to be able to tell when a naturally narrow focus broadens, and vice-versa. You can’t do so if you have constrained and conditioned yourself to an extremely narrow focus only. People who focus on the nostrils are creating and reinforcing their own dullness and their own access concentration sand trap. Don’t do this!

Read Keeping the Breath in Mind Method 2
What I want you to do for homework, besides all the energy-management strategies delineated, is to read and begin practicing Ajaan Lee’s Keeping the Breath in Mind, Method 2. Log your experiences and time elapsed before dullness derails the session. The book is free in various formats:


Paragon Practice: A Foundation and Template for Relational Tantra

Stepped out here are meditation instructions for a westernized, modernized entry into what Tibetan Buddhism designates a preliminary practice, The practice steps constitute the framework for relationship-based tantras in general—for example, the traditional yidam deity practice. Here I discuss some of the western depth psychology reasons for embarking on this practice and how it fits into any given meditation session. In brief, this practice metabolizes psychological scars and increases what A. H. Almaas refers to in his works as basic trust. In the seven-chakra system, it may best correspond to the grounding root chakra; in the Five Spiritual Faculties schema, it best corresponds to the faculty faith.

The Meaning of “Preliminary”

When I began practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist Gelugpa tradition in 2010, a traditional version of this practice was taught me and other new students first, as is the custom: guru yoga. However, the potency of this practice is not only for the beginning of the path, but lifelong. The word preliminary therefore does not mean “for novices only.” Preliminary more properly refers here to the sequential “slot” of first this practice occupies in a template of slots that together compose a meditative session.

Specifically, all Buddhist traditions enjoin us to take the time to  set up our current chosen practice mindfully. This setup might be elaborate or minimalist, and my book covers numerous “plug-ins.” The minimalist template for a complete sitting meditation session is a three-slot template:

  1. to effectively set the motivation for the practice;
  2. to do the chosen main practice, which will of course vary over time; and
  3. to seal the results of the practice by dedicating them to a worthy cause. 

The tantra introduced here is “plugged into” the first slot, that of setting motivation. How does paragon tantra set motivation? By instilling faith in the inevitability of your own enlightenment. How does it instill this faith in the practice and Basic Trust in reality? By actualizing through visualization and feeling the fact that your nature and the paragon’s nature are one essence. The paragon is the invoked nature and set of qualities of a perfected being. In this practice you imaginatively conjure a sequence of interactions with a chosen paragon of the body, speech, and mind dimensions. The sequence, summarized, is this:

  1. projecting out in front of you the image or felt presence of an idealized being with perfected qualities
  2. elaborating a visualized scene in which you “watch” the being interact with other beings
  3. entering into face-to-face relationship with this being and directly experiencing this being’s understanding and love for you
  4. responding with profound gratitude toward this being and offering him or her gifts
  5. merging this being into your very being
  6. embodying with “divine pride” the qualities of this paragon
  7. beginning your other meditation practices from this basis or going into your day

By practicing these creatively visualized—as well as viscerally and emotionally felt—transactions first in any session, you then sit embodied as a goddess, mentor, parent, superhero, or other ideal being. From your transformed identity-view, you then engage in whatever other meditative or magical practices are on the menu. Alternatively, this practice may be the entire session from which you rise and go into your day. Results can be further accelerated and deepened, in fact, by practicing with the paragon off the cushion throughout daily life and during the night in lucid dreams. The possibilities for furthering your practice in reliance on relational tantra are virtually inexhaustible.

In Tibetan Buddhism, relational tantra is said to “take the fruit as path.” Because it starts by invoking the desired end result powerfully, It potentiates and accelerates the preliminary results of other practices that come afterward in a given meditation session. It is in this sense of potentiating and accelerating that I use the term preliminary, The higher your current path of practice, the more you have to lay aside forceful effort and the more you have to rest into self-deepening faith. I’m currently practicing Dzogchen, the completion and integration stage, and a more traditional yet still adaptable version of this tantra remains my daily practice priority, the indispensable feature of all formal practice for achieving enlightenment. From first sit to the threshold of buddhahood, you do well to make this practice your mainstay. 

Transformation as Distinguished from Insight

We spend most of our meditation practice time de-conditioning ourselves. First, we engage in Special Insight practices, vipassana, to debunk the Three Delusions that things have permanence, solid entity-ness, and ability to satisfy.  We debunk them by seeing, until we cannot unsee, the truth of the Three Characteristics of all conditioned phenomena:

  • transience
  • no-entity
  • unsatisfactoriness

Eventually, after early insight realizations have stabilized, we engage in Extraordinary Insight practices to debunk, to some extent, even the relative truth of the Three Characteristics. This level of practice opens profound insight into ultimate reality, as opposed to conventional reality. It not only ceases fundamental suffering, but also brings profound joy.

Both levels of insight practice are meant to progressively render our conditioned identity structures—which are actually continuously running identification processes—transparent. Insight practices de-condition us by weakening the illusion that our conditioned identity is our true nature. We see through identity and as a result experience our true self, which is the same nature of all enlightened beings. In other words, the version of no-entity traditionally called no-self, which might more accurately be called no-identity, is method for realizing true self, as Tenzin Wagyal writes in Wonders of the Natural Mind: The Essence of Dzogchen in the Native Bön Tradition of Tibet (2000):

Clarity means knowing ourselves, rather than knowing some object or thing or knowing ourselves as an object, Here the self, the soul, and the person are the same, and the inherent space of all three is emptiness. It is because emptiness is the inherent nature of the self that we say “absence of self.” There is no permanent or independent self in the self or in phenomena. . . . When we search for a “self” and do not find one, what we find is “no self”; this means finding our true self. (p. 133)

Dissolving the solidity of conditioned self-identity is what it means to free ourselves and to enter nondual relationship with the vast expanse.

In contrast to insight, a path of seeing, tantra is known as a path of transformation. Its means are those of reconditioning. The emphasis here is not on seeing our identity as illusory, but on rehabilitating the weak areas of our identity by imaginatively embodying the qualities of a perfected identity. Instead of gradually “seeing through” identity, in tantra we reroute experience around dysfunctional mental pathways, laying down and reinforcing newer, more positive pathways that serve us well in the real world, as well as in our insight practice.

Human Relationship and Fundamental Suffering

Most of our suffering happens in human relationship. Of particular importance for the psychical self structures, especially identity, is our early-childhood relationship with our primary caregivers, usually our parents, in the first three years of life. In the course of individuating, we venture away from our mother, for example, to explore the physical environment. Separation from the mother is both exhilarating and terrifying, so as babies we master what from Buddhist view is a delusion: object permanence.

Object permanence is the belief that objects are entities that remain in existence even when out of current sight, sound, taste, smell, and feeling. The first object to be set apart and imagined as permanent is the mother. Rendering her permanent involves internalizing her as an image. When we internalize that image so as to carry it around with us in all ventures, we also have to internalize an image of ourselves to maintain the experience of being in relationship despite actual separation. In this way, what depth psychologists call, after Heinz Hartmann, the undifferentiated matrix of the very early mother-infant union yields to an experience of the mother as what Heinz Kohut termed a selfobject and of the self as separate identity structure. 

It is important to contemplate, as A. H. Almaas does in his brilliant work. The Point of Existence: Transformations of Narcissism in Self-Realization, that both the selfobject and self-identity are indeed objects. From the point in development when we have successfully mastered object permanence, we never experience our subjectivity except through—and indeed as—our internalized self-image. This means we never know our true self or experience true subjectivity, but instead live fundamentally divided from ourselves, filtered and funneled narrowly through a conditioned false substitution for presence.

Practices that decondition us allow us to see through the falseness of the internalized self-image. However, “seeing through” often proves difficult when it comes to our deepest and earliest traumas. Such traumas are normally repressed or simply not remembered, after all, becoming “blind spots” in the developing and maintained personality. We cannot know what we do not know. Therefore, these blind spots can remain stubborn obstacles on the path of insight and meditation. They can manifest as signs of neuroses, or even personality disorders, that we cannot rise above and look down on, let alone through. We stand on and forth from these blind spots; therefore, they occlude our empty nature, which is our essential presence. While we are unliberated, we exist from—indeed as—that compensatory yet unsatisfying defense mechanism that memory has patterned. It is self-identity that in fact binds us in the first place. Relational tantra is particularly powerful for rerouting identity structure so that insight progress can resume. It enables us to internalize a perfected selfobject, and this substitution is healing.

I think of tantra primarily as triage, especially useful during the second cycle of insight stages and during the insight stage of Desire for Deliverance. It offers us a clinical remedy when we encounter difficulties while practicing or integrating insight. Despite this conceptualization of tantra as triage, all of us, without exception, have suffered early-childhood traumas in relationship with our primary caregivers. Although for most of us the wounds were never intended by our parents and never rise to child abuse or neglect, we all have suffered from defects in parent-child attunement and attachment. Even if we escape attachment disturbance, personality disorders, and neuroticism, we nonetheless experience ourselves falsely and others falsely. Binding to a false self and separating from all others is itself fundamental suffering. Consequently, the paragon practice is not only a preliminary practice, but also a mainstay.

As former children, and as beings who fulfill various roles in relationship with others throughout adulthood, most of us are familiar with how absorbing role-playing is. Quiet concentration, hypnosis, and “flow” states are adult versions of such absorption. Relational tantra is one such state of quiet concentration. Because the “object” of it is another being and not just the “it” of our “own” sensory data, the absorption engages us emotionally and therefore more thoroughly. Moreover, if the perfect being is reasonably well delineated before the “mind’s eye,” then the visual cortex is also activated. Human beings are visual creatures, so engagement of the visual cortex means engagement of a large area of the brain, which does not know the difference between an internal scene and an external occurrence. Add to this the power of daily repetition, and you can condition new habits of thought, regard, and conduct.

Preparation for the Practice

To prepare for this practice, contemplate, perhaps even research, the specific stressors and situations surrounding early and perhaps later childhood. Identify, in particular, what was lacking emotionally in your family’s home or in your caregivers’ relationship with you. Choose one or two characteristics that you want your paragon to embody in relationship with you. In addition, learn and head the warnings that generally accompany tantric practices.

Find One or Two Qualities to Work With

Two convenient lists to review for possibilities are the Ten Perfections and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Another framework integral to the vajrayana (tantric diamond vehicle) of Tibetan Buddhism is that of the Five Buddha Families (Table 1).

Table 1. The Five Buddha Families as Personality Typology

Although many dimensions and uses of the Five Buddha Families exist, the one considered here is its use as a personality typology. Traditionally, a master would assign a disciple practices in accordance with one of the five families. Although we all exhibit and experience tendencies of each of the families from time to time, you will likely discern that one is typical for your identity. If so, look at the wisdom aspect and the other buddha families to discern what quality or two you would like to develop in yourself to promote wholeness. Another idea, my favorite, is to spend some time learning the Enneagram, especially the Enneagram of Holy Ideas in Facets of Unity (Almaas 2000). Identifying your “type” can lend insight into what remains underdeveloped in your identity. You can discern qualities you lack and then develop them  through tantric practice. The Enneagram is a complex, stunningly insightful typology derived from the Sufi mystics. It consists of nine basic personality types, with the closest neighboring wings to the right and left being subaspects of the type. For example, Type 2, the Helper type, is flanked by the Reformer type and the Achiever type; one of these flanking subtypes normally colors the Helper type. Three centers of intelligence—heart-mind, head-mind, and body-mind—group the types (Table 2). Types 2, 3, and 4 have strengths and distortions of the heart-mind; Types 5, 6, and 7 have strengths and distortions of the head-mind; and Types 8, 9, and 1 have strengths and distortions of the body-mind. The distortions can be thought of as Jungian shadow sides, those blind spots that preclude growth. Beyond these basics, types connect to other types with various lines and angles that highlight various relationships among clusters of characteristics. The whole is a complex system of self-insight and self-development. One can begin the journey to wholeness and basic trust by integrating the type shown in the final column of Table 2, and progressively completing each facet of the circle of integration.

Table 2. Enneatypes, Their Distorting Shadow Sides, and the Direction of Integration

You can also simply brainstorm your own qualities by means of childhood memory and reflection. For example, I grew up with a father who suffered, as did everyone around him, from his severe alcoholism. Toward me he was alternately emotionally intrusive, which made me feel responsible for his illness, and emotionally absent, which made me feel abandoned. The household revolved around such volatility, and our powerlessness cast an ominous mood over the home. I had to parent both of my parents from an early age. Even earlier, before I was three years old, I was often confined to a playpen and had mobility issues related to problems with my eyes. What little Jenny needed but didn’t have was her parents’ fierce protection and lighthearted attunement. 

Because the confinement and volatility of my early “holding environment” felt unsafe, as a practitioner I eventually had to do much third chakra opening to unbind rage/fear polarity there. I deepened this work by working with fierce and wrathful archetypes so that I might cleanly and straightforwardly be my own and others’ powerful protector. I worked regularly also to bring a sense of freedom and lightheartedness into my being. So those were my two qualities: lightheartedness and fearless power.

The archetypal figure with whom you engage should be a towering figure, a father or mother figure, or an inspiring mentor. It should be a figure to whom you bring reverence and joyful self-sacrifice. Choose a fictional character, or make a composite character from the qualities of several. I made my own perfect father figure, for example, by combining the lighthearted attunement of Atticus Finch to his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird  with the stalwart wisdom and formidable power of the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.

Heed Warnings

Tantra is often characterized as fast and dangerous. You are cultivating divine pride in your own perfection—repeatedly. Doing so is not without risks for those who are psychologically unstable. I’ve sat with lamas who have related stories such as one in which a woman practitioner took on divine pride so thoroughly that she convinced herself she was invulnerable to fire. To prove it, she poured gasoline over her body and struck a match, with the unfortunate consequences that most of us would anticipate and avoid. This is all to say don’t engage in this practice unless you are mentally stable. If you suffer from psychiatric conditions involving episodes of delusion or psychosis, take medication as prescribed, keep all medical appointments, practice under the supervision of a qualified teacher, and inform loved ones before beginning this practice that you are doing so.

Choose only human or humanoid figures to work with, not animals, androids, robots, or sentient gelatinous cubes. It may seem funny that this warning is included, but I have a friend who started a relationship with a gigantic bird with piercing black eyes and non-cuddly aspect. This practice is to “rewire” early human relationship patterns, the key word being human.

Do not choose a potentially erotic figure for your paragon practice. A man’s merging with an attractive dakini, for example, will likely evoke adolescent sexual fantasies rather than organize his nervous system the way a mother does her infant’s. The chief feelings this practice should cultivate are innocence, reverence, deep gratitude, and complete trust.

Idealizing a parent and having that parent mirror us is a real but imperfectly met need in early childhood. The deficiencies and disappointments in that parent-child attachment play out repeatedly in our adult lives with substitute parental figures: friends, lovers, mentors, and family. The reenactment of this primal neediness is termed central narcissism, which is the “normal” narcissism of the developing human child. More extreme forms persisting into adulthood can be pathological or neurotic. The substitutions are a kind of role-playing whereby we keep trying to have our unmet needs finally met. Normally, we effect such transferences of our situation with our parents onto others unconsciously.

Avoid imagining real friends or family for this practice, because the idea is to project perfection. Such idealizing projections endanger real relationships not only because the other person is undoubtedly imperfect, but also because he or she has a need to be seen realistically. Projecting all your early unmet needs onto a scene that features a real loved one as superhero can threaten your attunement to him or her in real life. Idealizing transference and mirroring transference are actually the point of this practice, but remain mindful of possible effects on you, your loved ones, and your relationships with them.

Notwithstanding the traditional version of this practice, called guru yoga, you should also avoid projecting out onto your personal teacher in this practice, at least until you are sufficiently far up the path and mature in wisdom that the following are certain:

  • You know this person to be your heart teacher and have long been secure in the relationship.
  • You truly see this person as embodying the qualities you aspire to embody yourself.
  • Any messy complexities of psychological transference situations are safely behind or beneath you both.

If you fuse the role of teacher with the notion of friend and then take your teacher as the paragon of this practice, unhelpful complexity can ensue and threaten the primary relationship. Traditionally, the role of one’s teacher as teacher is sacrosanct, surpassing our western democratic ideal of friendship. The importance of this relationship cannot be overstated: Your teacher is, after all, guiding you toward enlightenment. Where the two roles could conflict, the role of the teacher must be protected, even if that protection altogether preempts friendship. Many teachers maintain what can feel to the student like aloofness, but the reasons for some distance and austerity in the relationship are sacred. Try to remember this.

Instructions for the Practice

Successive variations on this practice will be elaborated later, but the basic template follows. If you are at a sufficiently advanced stage of practice, then practice emptiness of self or drop automatically into emptiness before beginning.

1. Visualize a Third-Person Scene Featuring Your Paragon

Sit upright in a comfortable, secluded place where you will not be disturbed.

Visualize your perfect parent or mentor figure at a distance, in profile, interacting with other beings.

Take your time to elaborate the setting, the beings involved, and the occasion.

Engage other senses, as well as visualization.

Watch this being interact with the others as a paragon of the one or two qualities you have chosen.

2. Sit Face-to-Face with Your Paragon

When you feel ready, imagine that this being now sits face-to-face with you, looking into your eyes.

How close or far away is this being from you? Visualize this being at the distance from you that feels most comfortable.

Feel this being gazing into your eyes, knowing everything about you, knowing all your past lives.

Feel this being’s unconditional love for, and complete attunement to, you.

3. Make an Offering of Love and Gratitude

Allow feelings of gratitude to bloom. Imagine something precious or beautiful, and offer it to this being as an expression of your deep gratitude for his or her love for you.

4. Merge the Paragon into You

Recall the one or two exemplary qualities in this being. Then feel him or her merge into you in one of two ways: (1) The being’s body merges face-to-face directly into you, or (2) the being dissolves into a ball of silver or golden light above you and drops into your crown and down through each chakra, pausing to imbue each one with this being’s presence.

5. Sit with Divine Pride as the Paragon

Having absorbed the being’s perfected qualities, sit upright, regally embodying those perfect qualities. Feel divine pride and power. Extend from your heart center protection to all children on this Earth, all beings throughout time and space.

Contemporary Version versus Traditional Versions

As familiarity with and results of this practice mature, this modern version, which involves visualizing and feeling the presence of a chosen or created western archetype, can give way to a more traditional eastern version, or versions. Specifically, the western archetype can be replaced with a subtler and more refined paragon from the traditional Indo-Tibetan pantheon of gurus, dharma protectors, and dakinis. At that point, the practice becomes more than psychological reconditioning; it opens the magical dimensions that traditional tantras always do.

Despite my now fuller understanding and love of these magical dimensions, I came into Buddhism as an agnostic with no spiritual faith or practice for the 25 years preceding my beginning practice. Like so many secular westerners, I was attracted to Buddhism for its pragmatic deconditioning of the parts of my identity that caused me continual suffering. My first encounter with the traditional form years ago left me feeling puzzled and alienated—the opposite of the intended result. In 2015 I learned from my teacher this western entry to tantra, which for me finally brought this practice alive. As the Buddhadharma begins to take root and evolve here in the West, we do well find and innovate accessible entries into the essence of these time-tested practices, entries that cut through initially alienating artifacts of Asian and ancient cultures and make skillful use of  western mythic resonances.