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.