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.

Dear friends,

Wow, what a day!

I reiterate: If you want to be done, this is the way to get from third to fourth. I’m amazed at how thoroughly this has been able to lead me into cleaning up my perception and field integration in just two days’ worth of practices. In fact, every practice, with the exception of one, had the desired result the very first time I did it. I came into the retreat already with luminosity–meaning the shining of awareness from that side and this side–like two oceans mixing. But now it shines through even “my” thought. What was missing before now? Nothing. It was simply obscured–it is, after all, the way reality is. All you have to do is follow these simple instructions and thereby “clear up uncertainties.”

“Uncertainty” is a key word here. One thing touched on, among other things, was that what takes Western students so long is not the spiritual attainments at all, but all the parental attachment problems they bring to the table–er cushion. And this is not a matter of psychologizing on the cushion. He is talking about the lack of faith that stems from lack of safe and secure parental attachments in early childhood for probably most of us.

I’m so close, so close! Do you know how Daniel talks about not being able to figure out what that last 5% is? Well, there are sealing-emptiness practices for finding out. It is usually a “core process,” as Daniel calls them. Basically it involves probing for obfuscating core processes running in the background and keeping us from awakening. We penetrate any core process that caught us, grabbed us, made us reactive during the previous exercise. I maintained imperturbable lucidity through that entire sit until this one phrase, speaking for what is in the “stuck” meditator’s head: “I must have missed something.”  When the teacher said this sentence, I felt something recoil in the heart area–it felt solid, so I penetrated it as a field of sensations until I was certain that it was empty of such existence.

The joke is that my assumption or subtle fear that I haven’t seen something I should have seen is precisely what I wasn’t seeing!

Otherwise, all boundaries have become permeable–the still, silent, vast luminosity and the field of sensations arising within it, as an expression of it, as it–they are now integrated. The boundaries between the sense doors–well, they are delusion too, so now all integrated.

What is left? This issue I have with trust. And that comes from the fucked up relationship with my alcoholic father, who should have been my first teacher. I may have to do tantric practices to address this issue before that last 5% flips. But maybe not. Maybe not. Anyway, I set up the view (luminosity) and the emptiness practices with a Westernized tantric image of the perfect father-teacher; humans, said the teacher, have a need to project–and better to use imagination to rewire those wounded pathways in the psyche, not a real teacher. In addition to Pop as the Exemplar Deity, we had U2 playing during a meditation–if you want an idea of the level of innovation that this retreat represents.

This last 5% is the last layer of duality, but it is the kicker. The task is for the central processor to deconstruct. You see, I have various levels of nondual awareness right now–but this last holdout is lack of faith, lack of trust, lack of certainty. There is likely a strong dose of guilt and anger there, too–because I “let” my father die, and he did that to me: Let me let him die. 

The teacher corrects many a retreatant for confusing what we are doing for psychotherapy. But he has not corrected me. I’m not talking about using meditation to get rid of my “issues.” Rather, it is that those issues manifest a habitual core process of distrust, a karmic holdout: “I must have missed something”–meaning I am assuming that awareness’s search for something solid, permanent, and separate must have missed something because I was (almost) successful in completing the meditation, even though, other than this assumption, the mediation was perfect.

Toward the end of this journey, you bring the speed of awareness (luminosity, clear light) to Everything (with a capital E) that is moving, fluxing, vibrating within that vast stillness, that “view” which is awareness regarding awareness. This search with awareness is much, much faster than vipassana. Vipassana is at the subtle level of mind, not the very subtle level. Vipassana requires attention, penetration. Awareness, once it is kick-started like an engine, runs by itself. It does not involve attention. You simply have to not try to do anything, including trying to not try. 

Awareness is not thought. It is so fast that it is outside time. At first you seem to have to deliberately “hold the view,” but it has been holding itself since lunchtime, which is called “automaticity.” Awareness shines forth automatically. The skillful teacher can point this out to you clearly in real-time., although all you will get is a series of metaphors until one clicks for you.

You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to let go–it is right here, already done. You just have to stop arguing.

So to finish this business up, you need to understand the three levels of mind (coarse, subtle, and very subtle). And you need to go beyond vipassana, which works at the subtle level but not the very subtle. This is why these Buddha-nature sects stress that you are already awake. Yes, you have to make effort, but toward the end, you have to ease up and let it do itself. This requires faith, and, as a culture traumatized by a long line of representatives of messed up parenting, our lack of trust and faith goes to the molten core.

The main thing I’ve learned from this retreat experience is that you have to have something that functions as Buddha-nature or God–though there is no God that is locatable. There is a God-function, and the way into that grace is through (1) emptiness practices to clear up uncertainties on the Wisdom side of things, and (2) on the Compassion side, you need love. So instructions by this afternoon were to soften everything. If you want to see luminosity, then you must look at objects with love and open to receiving back the love. It is about intimacy. It shines forth. The awareness is right here, it is timeless, it is boundless, and it is intensely intimate.

During the first few days, the teacher would shout “WAKE UP!” as a verbal equivalent of the zen sticks students are hit with. Today, however, the energy on retreat is running down a different channel. He sang to us, talked to us about love, and read poetry until there was not a sound in the room but weeping all around. This was very, very intense, and it felt like we were sealed up in a capsule outside time in some kind of psychedelic magickal chapel with no door. This man is magic. He is a gift come across the eons.  I’ve made the most of this opportunity and will do so tomorrow.

Many retreatants have been passing through the insight stages. I told some about Daniel’s book. They are looking for this edition whose teeth I kicked in last week. Ah, well. We will see what happens, but that book needs to get out there, one way or another. As for me, aside from having a bunch of back-to-back fruitions yesterday and today, I have not noticed the stages while on retreat. I’ve been immaculate–very concentrated and on task the entire time. 

Daniel would be proud of me; maybe he still is.

One more interesting phenomenon I want to mention: The energy of separate human beings that began this retreat started reorganizing itself into some kind of larger field a few days ago. Everyone in this beautiful house (owned by a Buddhist former exec of the company I work for) has become still and quiet. During breaks, we flow into the kitchen. One person puts on the kettle for tea, another brings in chairs, another sets out food–all without a word, like we all are parts of the same organism, in perfect harmony–so different from Days 1 and 2, when we were noisy and individual.

By the end of today, we were all singing together, laughing and crying. Everything is soft and radiant. I’ve made some new friends, and I have this awesome teacher. This has been a week-long peak experience. I never expected anything like this. Nor did anyone else. There are people here who have been on dozens of retreats. They all say that none has ever come close to the quality, authenticity, and effectiveness of this one. 

Now to hold the view into my dreams, as may you all.

Jenny

Working with Mahamudra: Center-Spaciousness Paradoxes

No boundary / liberated center

Some thoughts—snips of otherwise forgotten nighttime dreams, strange visions, notions of supersubtle transmissions—arise. I won’t write of these beyond just this.

Sit was rich, jhana-intense (3, 4), but with continual movement. I was reading from Clarifying the Natural State for about an hour before sitting. Even though I find this book difficult to process, of course, I am reading it slowly by reading small amounts of it over and over again across days and weeks. I read it the way I do poetry when I’m enjoying it and not planning to turn it into a tidy sniff of litcrit. I simply allow it to wash over and through me, again and again. I don’t really try to understand it (stand under it).

I think this book productively influences my meditation, but, then, almost any beloved dharma book does. Now I understand why the Gelugpa people have reading the dharma as part of daily meditation practice. I read somewhere, too, more than a year ago, that if one is dropping out of practice, one should simply read the dharma. (I think it may have been Thanissaro who said so.) I read much of the time before the A&P Event ofJuly 2013.

This morning’s sit was really all “about” not being about anything. One frustration I’ve had for weeks now is how long it takes me to “get somewhere” during a sit. I start out with much distraction, noise, and restlessness—like a beginner. And there is boredom, nothing to latch onto. It is so bad sometimes that I sit there a whole hour and find it difficult even to stay with these sensations. Noting, or Twirling Swords, or Ajahn Lee’s Method 2 seem to help, for they give me something to do.

Just Sitting, Clarifying the Natural State

But tonight I just sat. I mean really “just.” There were at first momentary shifts that were like Mind & Body: There was thought, there was getting lost in thought, there was remembering to peer into the thought, and then there was awareness of the peerer/mind, which felt local and physical and heady. I looked at this physicality and locality of vantage point with regard to something as ephemeral as a “thought” or stream of them. It makes no sense, really, that there would be a physically locatable point of view on thoughts, the latter having no location, physicality, extension, weight, or entity aspect whatsoever itself. 

Looking into mind, I see only thoughts and between-thought awareness. There is strong temptation to “delete” or “dissolve” those thoughts, to “vipassanize” them, as we say, but that is what Clarifying says not to do. And now I understand why. If I do I look for the 3Cs very deliberately, doing so becomes an application, effortful and premature. However, if I simply allow lucid awareness toward thought over and over again, without reaching for anything beyond seeing the thought, which then dissolves—this is crucial. “Over and over again” its just happening is crucial. Boredom is a trick. The Buddha sat under a tree and resolved to sit until he saw, no matter how long it took. Over and over again.

Another movement I noticed was that awareness seems to flow from my head but interspersed was the small of my back and other bodily fields in turn. Now, my head really was not flowing out to make the small of my back. The small of my back just suddenly was, and my head as instantly was not

Next everything automatically went spacious and the center was hard to detect at all. How can it be that I can feel this space? And why is it that I most feel it when the center seems to be gone? Well . . . this is really just like the head and the small of the back simply alternating, glittering across the way, on and off, in turn. The space is alive; the center is dead. The center is alive; the space is dead. Ah, this must be why Daniel often writes, “Go wide and through,” meaning, I think, that if one is going wide but nothing seems to be at center, then there is still a center, an “off.” Maybe? Maybe that is why the Twirling Swords technique is such a neat trick: It seems to sort of habituate one to pulling the space through that center. Effortful, yes, but after a while the swords disappear, and the sweeping through keeps going—or at least for me it did.

Today, however, I had resolved to just sit. What I think is “mind” shifts continually. It sometimes is the small of my back. It sometimes is the dark behind my closed eyelids. It is sometimes a sudden going-bright behind my eyelids. It is sometimes the velvety sparkling behind my eyelids. It is sometimes the sound of a car passing beneath my bedroom window—even though that experience is over there with the car. All this transpires across time. None of it is wholly anything in any given moment.

Opacity Replaced with Pale Copies

Vision is the sense door that most tends to confuse matters for me. There is here and over there. There is perspective and point of view. It is all rather insistent. Often, during a formal sit, I have a good deal of success “seeing” much of me/thought/mind over there. The key realization in August was that I existed only in relation to the object I was identifying with at the moment. But what I’m learning now is more radical than that. When I opened my eyes, everything was both roiling and gently strobing—the strobing was as if an image of what was kept replacing what was, over and over again. The effect was a kind of transparency overall. Hard to explain, but easy to see. And the whole room was doing this—strobing and actually rolling, and not just visually but viscerally and in some felt-space way. Felt sense and vision both present center-spaciousness paradoxes.

After the bell, I remained in jhana for a while and then rose, completely calm and alert. I reflected on how my sits have for a number of weeks now alternated between profound and shit. Tonight I think I figured out that I’m too high on energy/effort and too low on the faith side. I’ve been having a lot of doubt, frustration, waiting, and expectation, whereas the August cessation came after extremely strong faith arose and effort fell away. Not that I can make this a formula, exactly, but seeing is believing.

Equanimity Advice to a Querent

Sorry for the delay—I’m finally circling back around to this question of High Equanimity stage before stream entry. First, I’m not sure that I spent 2 months in High EQ. I think it would be more accurate for me to say that I spent 2 months in various levels of EQ. Low EQ felt just like Three Characteristics stage, with body aches, tingling, itching, just
pretty miserable, oddly, but still a relief from the Dark Night. 

Once I got to about Mid-EQ, if that makes sense, the Great Teeming Faith arose. All the stages that had gone before were so, so clearly “by the book,” that I just had no doubt that awakening was real, that I was on the ride toward it, and that now I was in EQ and all I had to do was have the grace not to pay either too much or too little attention to it.

I did not note during EQ. In fact, I was advised all around not to, though I don’t do proper noting practice anyway because I find that labeling sensations is too slow and distracting.

Equanimity is tricky, like a ever-retreating mirage. You keep feeling like you are practicing badly because you keep slipping into almost daydreams of sorts, and you feel like you should be doing something very effortful instead, like noting. That isn’t the case. It is more about being receptive, showing up and letting the thing unfold and present. So less effort, more just being there over and over again, every night, not pushing it, not striving to reach stream entry or anything else. Just observe and be curious. Let it happen.

About mindfulness in daily life, I wish I could say something about that! Mindfulness is a good thing, but I’m usually absorbed during the day in my editing work, which actually is a kind of mindfulness, I think, but heavy on the hyperfocus side. For reaching stream entry, I think mainly the thing is formal sits. I even shortened my sits during that time to about 20 minutes because High EQ sits can take out a lot of energy, even though you aren’t so much exerting effort as having the energy just siphoned off by the atmosphere. 

Consistency is key: Show up every day. Believe that it will come, because it will. But it will sneak up when you are looking at X, not when you are gunning for stream entry. If you feel doubt; fine, feel doubt. Sit with doubt. Just sit.

Response to Querent about Attaining Stream Entry

Stream Entry | Photo by Sarah Cervantes
Okay. The major aha for me was this, which happened a few nights before stream entry (SE). 

The Overlapping Multitudes of Blooming Nimittas 

I had been in mid-Equanimity for about 2 months. My practice at that time generally consisted of observing (with open eyes) these nimittas against the ground of my bedroom carpet. These would look kind of like blooms of color – bright violet. When they would pass away, they would look blank–black, really, like inverted blooms.

So I would just chill out and watch them form and dissolve. There would be multiple ones that overlapped, and the overlapping prevented me from getting a good look at the instant of arising and the instant of passing away (until the SE event, immediately before which they synced up perfectly for the first time). 

The Arising of Great Faith

The nights before SE, several things happened that I believe set me up for the event. One was simply intense arising of faith. I think this was spontaneous, mostly, but I do remember that I had been reflecting a lot on the A&P experience of July 2013 and remembering how powerful that was, how neatly it and the subsequent stages matched MCTB descriptions, and I just really felt that there was no way it was not going to happen. This said, I also felt distinctly no rush for it to happen. 

In fact, you might almost say that the main fruit of the faith was that I stopped looking for stream entry. I just enjoyed Equanimity, and that is, from one perspective, all I set out to do.

The MCTB “Equanimity” Chapter

The next condition was that I reread the MCTB chapter on Equanimity for some clues, a few nights beforehand, I think, and I fastened on this one statement, “Ask yourself what you still aren’t seeing clearly.” 

It was clear to me that I had not investigated my self. So, as tedious as I knew it would be, I started conducting a systematic interior search for those sensations that told me I was or had a self. Very frustrating! I was using an old Tibetan survey way of doing this type of meditation but quickly decided to give up because I couldn’t find “me” and the search was causing, well, suffering. This type of analytical meditation is sometimes called affirming the negative. It is a way to realize emptiness of self, which is to say the interdependent co-arising of all phenomena, transient instant by transient instant. 

The Object Field as My Perpetual Creator

Well, as soon as I tired of looking for my essence in my body-mind, I returned my gaze to the pleasant teal-colored walls of my bedroom (exterior object) – BAM! There was my sense of self! I suddenly felt very solidly and calmly “Jenny” as soon as I stopped looking for Jenny and just identified with something over there that I was in the habit of finding attractive.

This was the major insight that set SE up. Even with this experience, I didn’t quite know what I had until X_X said to me (via the DhO), “Yes, subjects and objects actually create each other.” These were the words for what I had just seen, and they locked in the realization. After that, when I sat, I noticed very clearly the continually shifting definition of “self,” dependent always on whatever I happened to be identifying with, which, by the way, could be a state of aversion, too.

Formal Resolution

Okay, here is another cause and condition. I was following a thread on DhO wherein DreamWalker told someone else trying to attain stream entry to make a formal resolution. I hadn’t done that, but I thought, “Can’t hurt.” So, the night before SE, at the end of the sit, when my faith was very strong yet not urgent, I made the formal resolution to attain stream entry.

Fruition

My next sit was at noon the next day at work. We have a meditation club of sorts at the corporation where I work – mostly Buddhist, but a few from other traditions. There are people in this group who have been serious meditators for decades, and the energy in that room we use is palpable. It was with them that I had my first-ever nimitta arise nearly a year beforehand. It is completely appropriate and right that stream entry would occur amid them, and that is what happened.

Does this answer?

Advice

So advice might be as follows:

♦ Make the only pressure you put on yourself be to show up at the cushion daily and enjoy. Your goal is not stream entry. Your goal is to keep Equanimity going.

♦ Know that however crappy your meditation “technique” may be, that is what it is supposed to be right now. It is doing you. Sit with it “as is.”

♦ Do not “note.” Simply feel into the surrounding space / vision / sounds / tactile / temperature aura with the gentlest curiosity.

♦ If something especially curious arises, don’t stop yourself from diving into the fascination of it, even if it feels like a daydream.

♦ Do not focus on vibrations. Allow grander swaths of movement to show themselves by relaxing and just being there when they decide to show up.

♦ Off cushion, ask yourself what you are avoiding looking at. It may be yourself. Or it may be some other big abstract background mode like “expectation” or “urgency.” Whatever it is, it is likely to be big/abstract and hard or impossible to localize. I suspect it is likely to involve some paradox that you aren’t directly seeing as such yet. It is likely to be a debilitating belief you have. On cushion move closer and closer to it. See it as empty, as part of the energy field that is noncausally manifesting as a whole instant by instant.

♦ Feel how pleasant it is just to sit in equanimity. There is ease of uprightness and openness, without pain. Enjoy this ease of upright perfect openness. Be completely it.