The Risks of Masculine Practice Paradigms

Many “masculine” practitioners can advance quite far up the path by using meditation to widen and deepen a core split in the very personality structure they think they are thereby healing. This advancement up the path in fact advances pathological dissociation processes already at work in the organization of the personality.

The Dharma Overground and Prevalence of Schizoid Process

Not everyone has to suffer from diagnostically extant borderline or schizoid personality disorder for this pattern to be a ubiquitous one characterizing whole Western dharma communities, especially ones like the Dharma Overground, whose participating membership is overwhelmingly (95% or more) male and whose culture of participation is decidedly masculine and often enough aggressively masculinist – right down to the militancy set forth in its warlike name and initial logo design.

Although both women and men contain and express the feminine and masculine principles, it is also true, from a Buddhist doctrinal point of view, that embodiment as a woman or a man does affect the initial imbalance of these principles in terms both of general relational style and specific approach to meditation practice. The lack of participating women on the Dharma Overground is symptomatic of an unhealthy imbalance nonetheless institutionalized as a legitimate resource for enlightenment. The leader and other men there claim to scratch their heads in puzzlement over why women remain absent – or silenced. The trouble is that they have not looked within at the blind spot in their own practice and attainment.

Tantric Iconography as a Clue to the Antidote

Accordingly, in the Indo-Tibetan tantric yidam, sexual union of the female and the male represents union, respectively, of openness (wisdom) with skillful means (compassion). Although this union of difference may be mistaken as merely convenient sex-identity symbolism, tantra is nothing if not emphatically pragmatic, concerned as it is with our everyday human drives as the means of transformation and expression of an otherwise dangerously transcendent – removed – “enlightenment.”

Appropriately, in what may seem to most Westerners a nonintuitive archetypal reversal, it is the woman in this pairing who represents wisdom attainment and the man who represents the relational heart. The metaphor, not symbol, of their union is a mind-boggling – instructively so – ever-reopening site of deconstruction: aporia. It is nondual.

Perhaps this is why it is said traditionally (by Padmasambhava) that actual, nonsymbolic women are at a slight advantage over actual men in reaching full enlightenment. There is something about the purely relational, and even devotional, that constitutes the heart of wisdom. Perhaps more forthrightly engaging this feminine aspect of ourselves in service of our own wisdom attainment would be most pragmatic, taking pragmatic dharma practice past the current stopping point where so many on the Dharma Overground find themselves still suffering and inflicting suffering. 

It is with this hope that I write this practice manual as a nuancing of, companion to, and in some respects corrective to Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book.

The Necessity for Western Psychology in Western Buddhism

It is crucial that we understand Western practitioners as suffering from trauma incurred in the “holding environment” of early childhood and infancy. All of us, to some extent, are suffering from early childhood attachment issues, if not downright attachment disorder. The Buddhist literature of Asia offers no explicit compensation for this impoverished foundation from which we Westerners practice meditation.

Widespread parental attachment deficits create a lack of Basic Trust, a lack that permeates our entire culture at every level. At its worst, for the individual level this is not a mere matter of neurotic repression and defense mechanisms that can be recognized as such and gradually deconditioned through diligent meditation practice and a contemplative life; rather, it organizes the very personality in terms of at least two fundamental “splits” of the psyche.

This “splitting” defines schizoid process and at worst causes personality disorders such as borderline and schizoid, which impede or completely prevent progress to full enlightenment. One cannot dismantle what one cannot first see; one cannot see what is such an early trauma that one’s entire psychical organization stands forth from it, hiding the site of intolerable and continually reopening initial woundedness.

The Schizoid Process as Two Levels of Personality “Splitting”

In the schizoid process, all “bad” must be dissociated from the vulnerable core. One level of splitting involves a turning away from threatening outer relational objects and substituting fantasized infantile replacements that are safe. So, for example, if a man’s mother abandoned him in early childhood, invaded his autonomy, or did both in alternation, then all “motherly” women thereafter will be an intolerable threat to him. The trouble stems from the man’s own internalized early object relations, but he will engage in transference with any current real woman, projecting onto her his internalized early threats to wholeness. He will see the woman in black-and-white terms, alternately either as all good (fantasy) or all bad (projection): “This schizoid pattern creates external relations that are not marked by warm, live, pulsing feelings. Instead, when interpersonal nurturance is available, schizoid individuals fear a loss of self from being smothered, trapped, or devoured. When strong desire or need is aroused, they tend to break off the relationship. Hatred is often used to defend against love with its dangers and disappointments, a pattern that starts in early childhood” (Yontef 2001),

This alternation between need and hatred will manifest in a push-me/pull-me relationship dynamic, called in the literature the “in-and-out program,” whereby out of intimacy hunger the man invites her in, and out of the resulting drive to split off all his vulnerability, he demonizes her. It is a vicious circle. He will repeatedly shut out the world of real human companionship in favor of a rich inner fantasy world that he alone populates and controls. Then having internalized the whole drama on his own terms, he will continue to suffer intense loneliness and therefore begin the cycle again. 

He may engage in the schizoid compromise, crafting a public persona to display at onstage distances safe from true emotional intimacy. He may be a dynamic public speaker, for example, but agitated and avoidant during the subsequent Q&A sessions out on the floor, where he is not in control of all actors on the scene.

This first layer of splitting, whereby the internalized parent is projected onto the outer world as a threat to be defended against, is compounded by a second layer whereby the core that is to be protected from outer threats itself remains split into a punishing half and a “weak,” shame-based half that believes it does not deserve love. This abiding inner threat (the “weak” self), like the invasive/abandoning inner parent, puts the schizoid in an untenable predicament.

With the two layers of splitting, the personality thus organizes itself into a repeatedly opening wound over which it cannot gain new ground on which to heal, on which to build a healthy ego that can risk all the emotional pain that comes along with vital love. If this person then goes into practice and attains to no-self, he nonetheless has not fully realized nonduality, which in its full form is enlightenment. The double polarities of self/other and self/self constitute a holdout, in Buddhist terms, of duality. The continually opening wound is ignorance. It is the blind spot on which those with significant schizoid/borderline processes stand, the shadow side of any partial awakening they may have achieved.

The Split-Off Objectification of Emotions via Vipassana Practice

This blindness is a true risk attending vipassana meditation methods, like Burmese noting practice, which consist of labeling and therefore demote threatening emotions to the level of mere discharged sensate particles, each particle a little nonthreatening third-person “it.” The practitioner avoids relating to his emotions in the second person: as emotions.

Although I’m a fan of vipassana as essential to awakening, other meditation modalities must be brought onboard – the earlier, the better – to avoid strengthening the blind spot, to prevent the use of meditation and attainment to further pathologize the otherwise healthy human ego function. If the practitioner exhibits difficulty in or resistance to these other modalities, then at least that difficulty may serve as a clue that referral to a psychotherapist is in order.

The Schizoid as the Partially Awakened Teacher

When the subject is liberated, it is often spoken of and celebrated as having “dropped out.” Restless seeking for a perceptual vantage point vis-à-vis  objects has stopped. Often that cessation and correction of sensory misperception will seem to be all there is to be gained in terms of awakening. Anything beyond that, namely integration and embodiment of the perceptual realization in order to discover and empower a true self, will be declared optional side projects (”separate axes of development”).

Schizoid practitioners will compartmentalize not only their objects of meditation this way, but the gains therefrom: Whether consciously or not, they will define enlightenment as getting rid of that pesky weak self and its threatening emotions, which is really to retroject a far more insidious and recalcitrant “splitting” process into the personality than was even there to begin with. 

The schizoid process demands of the practitioner ever more in the way of a false self construction with which to engage the outer world.

Such practitioners may even become dharma teachers. They may claim that true enlightenment offers “no package deals” for ending all suffering and that anything beyond their own partial pathology-burdened attainment amounts to naïve idealizations.

Understand that this problem isn’t just a matter of stopping short of the final phase of enlightenment, buddhahood; it is to actually end up with more personality pathology than if insight practice had never been engaged.

So compromised, if such a practitioner then fakes compassion and social engagement by marshaling forth a moral code of conduct when “on display,” say when teaching, then he or she is counterfeiting a compensatory hollow image rather than truly connecting, truly relating, truly allowing vulnerability, basic trust, compassion, and their fruits to arise. This kind of living for image and substituting reputation for intimacy is the worst kind of confusion (avidya), the deepest form of suffering imaginable. To die without having ever known oneself is the epitome of human tragedy.

In this way, awakening is made to subtend pathology intensification in the West.

My New Dharma Practice Manual: The Critical Path to Awakening

My new pragmatic dharma meditation manual will surface these risks and design maps and practices that address rather than continue to bypass them. In so doing, I will bring online the very necessary and equally pragmatic feminine principle of openness, relation, and surrender that so many masculine “hardcore” practitioners have cut themselves off from to their own detriment, as well as to the detriment of those who seek with them a true communion.

Three Nondualities and Their Consequences

Some of the terms used in this post were introduced in an earlier post several weeks ago.

All right, to continue my discussion of some of what I learned Thursday while talking with my teacher and then reflecting on my own awakenings – there are three ways nonduality can be experienced, three “levels” of nonduality, as it were. The first two are unbalanced but good doorways into the real thing; the third is the real thing, the natural state

The next three sections take each level of nondual in turn.

Partial Nonduality as Clarity (Infant)

A practitioner can experience lucid awareness as “no more out-there-ness.” However, he or she may still have no sense of the totality, of open ground, or Mother. He or she has failed to seal the totality of what arises as empty and therefore has not yet opened up experience of the vast, unbounded expanse. 

Awareness that is nondual with one object at a time, what in the Dharma Underground we used to call luminosity, causes, as secondary effects, visual high-definition and color saturation. The main effect, though, is that one’s awareness is reflected off one object at a time. It is therefore, technically, attentional nonduality rather than true awareness. Although luminosity is more than just a temporary nondual experience, and although it is normally preceded by a permanent felt sense of spaciousness, it nonetheless is not as open as true rigpa

The lesser openness is because the practitioner has not yet realized the emptiness of his or her very consciousness. Specifically, the practitioner has not yet realized that awareness does not arise, does not pass away, and has no findable entity-ness in the present.

Awareness has to be realized as unfindable in the present, yet always already illuminating the totality. It has to be discerned as not subject to impermanence, as timeless. Opening the true rigpa removes one’s own consciousness from obscuring view of the Mother, the vast expanse. With rigpa, the subject’s awareness shines off not just an object, but off the entire field, which, like awareness, is empty.

Luminosity, the attentional form of the clarity aspect of rigpa, is not actual light: It is as though you can “see” the awareness of a visual object continuously emanating from the object’s side. The practitioner directly knows, just as clearly as he or she sees the object, that the knowing is with the object, and that knowing over there is not separate from this knowing it to be such over here. The “sides” interpenetrate, yet awareness never moves. This description approximates the experience, but words find all sorts of ways to fail. To me, luminosity is the most difficult phenomenon to describe, to even conceptualize, yet it is a dramatic attainment.

This attainment came on suddenly in February 2015 upon my reading an email Daniel M. Ingram wrote me about how the mark of existence known as suffering can just vanish, an experience which you can read about in my prequel journal, Dharma by Dark Night, whenever I get caught up with transferring my Dharma Underground entries. 

The consequences of rigpa’s not being united with realization of the Mother are, among perhaps other things, that (1) the subject won’t actually drop out for good, and (2) one will mistakenly think enlightenment has been attained when it certainly has not. I made this classic mistake myself. 

With respect to the first consequence, the experience of attentional nonduality is like “two oceans mingling” because the clod-like Subject and Object have seemingly dissolved into each other; however, at a metalevel there is still a Subject who is having this wondrous nondual experience of the two oceans mingling. And this is because the practitioner, at the fundamental level of perception, is still grasping, still running identification processes. The permanent dropping away of the perceiving Subject is the end of fundamental suffering, dhukka;

Even true Rigpa is not by itself this dropping away permanently of the Subject, not quite. 

Although beyond the scope of this entry, it is worth my mentioning, I think, that ending of dhukka, correction of misperception, imperfectly stabilized natural state, is not enlightenment. It is not enough. It is not embodiment of the gains. It is not ultimate compassion and therefore, by my contemplation, not wisdom. Many, many practitioners stop here. It feels so “done,” after all.

For example, I have had more than sufficient interaction with Dan Ingram to believe with zero doubt that he has opened this level of mind. He calls this level of realization arahatship; he claims, at least publicly, that this means he has taken awakening “as far as it can go.” This is error. Many in the Pragmatic Dharma community err similarly. This happens mainly because they remain hyper-masculine practitioners. They do not make the shift to knowing precisely what to not do next. They have not surrendered to the whole. Instead of meditating with diligence in the same old vein, they need to make a decision.

Partial Nonduality as Emptiness (Mother)

Alternatively, and in my experience even at the same time as the first nonduality, is a nonduality that consists of a sense of pervasive spaciousness, silence, and stillness that can subtly seem like some kind of container of experience, or a “superspace” as Ingram calls it. This is a calming and deeply healing nonduality. It actually began for me upon stream entry, August 8, 2014, when my bodily sense of dwelling in a “core” move beyond me and into the space around me permanently.

With this attainment, there will often seem to be no boundary between the centralized subject and space, but this attainment is relatively dull and somehow, somewhere still bound by ignorance (avidyā, ma rig pa) until rigpa and ground unite, until the Infant rests in the arms of the Mother. 

The consequence of settling for this level of nonduality alone is that one may posit “God” or something as transcendent or outside of direct experience, failing to integrate it with rigpa and tsal

A Theravadin pointer to the Mother/ground is the fifth jhana, Boundless Space, or the boundless aspect of the fourth jhana. I spent a year walking around in what felt like j4.5. Later, when I had opening of luminosity, I had the two prototype realizations (quasi rigpa and ground) running in parallel. 

I now understand that what happened at the Mahamudra retreat last July is that the two prior, parallel nondualities became nondual with each other. The result was that the center-subject born of perceptual seeking permanently dropped out. The sense of a subject has not a single time returned; however, the rigpa aspect of the natural state “wobbles” in intensity for me and has not yet seeped in to illuminate all dreams and sleep. 

True Nonduality: The Inseparable Union

The inseparable union of the Mother (ground) and Infant (rigpa) is the full measure of nonduality. This is the natural state, the end of views, beyond which there are no more views to attain and no more “deepening.” When this has been experienced it is called Unbounded Wholeness. When it is stable every single second of every single day and night, regardless of all circumstances, even physical torture, then Dzogchen’s “cutting-through” (trekchö) has been attained, which is also called the Ground. From the Ground the visionary experiences (tögal) arise and Buddha-training has begun.

Tsal (Energy)

Tsal is simply the manifestations in all their diversity, from matter to thought, all that arises and passes as an expression of unbounded wholeness.

The Trouble with Masculine Practitioners

Highly masculine practitioners will try to get (conquer) the real nonduality, the natural state, by holding rigpa alone as the View the whole fucking time, deliberately and often quite artificially. This burning-it-out approach can actually “work,” I’m told, but it can also reintroduce—however subtly—suffering in the form of striving and seeking, which are anathema to the natural state, as they are reification of the Subject. Conversely, the more familiar a practitioner already is with resting in the natural state, the more he or she will tend to criticize this kind of practice as feeling too artificial. 

That feeling of artificiality is certainly the case for me personally, but not many practitioners can just skip a series of standard “masculine” exercises like I am now; therefore, I reemphasize that this practice journal is just an example of one woman’s path. Understand that the further up the Path you go, the more individuated your living path becomes. So this journal is not a practice guide for anyone else, although I am in the planning stages of writing a pragmatic cross-tradition modern (western) practice manual. You may well need all the masculine exercises to stabilize rigpa; perhaps most do. 

When you enter the path of integration, when you engage buddha-training, or whenever you are unsure or “stuck,” it is crucial to have a qualified teacher who knows the maps, the territory, and many different kinds of students. There also needs to be trust, attunement, a heart connection.

Last Month’s Practice Prescription

My prescription last month was as follows:

  1. Sit in automatic emptiness with eyes open.
  2. Do Lion’s Gaze, which is an advanced Mahamudra exercise involving panoramic vision (taking in the whole visual field) and seeing all as mind only, awareness only, until rigpa flares strongly, effortlessly.
  3. Do Liveliness practice by easing off the meditation and allowing tsal to fully arise: visual objects, music, reading, throughts, emotions, or whatever.
  4. Close eyes and rest into the body as ground, as Mother, the idea being that now she will be fully illuminated by the Infant, rigpa.

Sweet-Spotting the Practice from the Mother Side

Now, during my talk with my teacher, it came out that I find Liveliness a very difficult and unpleasant practice to engage in, both on the cushion and off. My teacher said that, because it is artificial, it may be sending me back up into my head, which means the whole thing becomes intellectual, artificial, and dissociated from ground and body. So he told me the bit about how the more the natural state is integrated, the more unacceptably contrived such efforts will seem. 

So this month, I’m starting from the Mother side, the feminine principle. I’m practicing inclining ever so slightly toward increased sense of rigpa from within the Mother aspect. This is really simply intensification of the Mother. This means I practice on and off the cushion by resting into my body, staying grounded, and then “sweet-spotting it” from there, turning up rigpa from there very slightly, with only the very slightest inclination. Even this amount of doing is often unnecessary. The natural state is always already, after all.

Ways to Stop Sidetracking Buddhahood

Get a Highly Qualified One-on-One Teacher

In this past Thursday’s intense talk with my teacher, I gained more understanding of the variety of ways nonduality, in the domain of perception, can manifest in a given student. Catching the ways someone can go off too far in one direction requires a teacher with extensive knowledge of the tradition, extensive exposure to all kinds of student personalities and contexts, and true talent for teaching. I’m blessed to have such a teacher. You cannot go further with just books, maps, and dharma friends. The path becomes extremely individualized at this point, and navigation is a delicate undertaking.

Get Over the Delusion That You Are “Done”

At this point on the path, after one has slipped out of the suffering of individual consciousness and the tyranny of attention (as opposed to awareness, rigpa), one can easily believe one is fully awakened. The seeking has stopped, after all. If this is you, then the first point is to understand that you are not done. For example, MCTB fourth path attainment is not done. There is still far to go. The good news is that this next leg of the journey requires none of the striving and suffering that the earlier phases did. The true agent of awakening has been recognized, so all one has to “do” is be open and undistracted. You might practice just 15 minutes in the morning, a very simple sit, and then take that into your day. Awareness beyond individual consciousness will to the rest. But see my next subsection – on getting out of your own way.

Let Go of Maps, States, Stages, Siddhis, and Highly Artificial Techniques

This being the truth, why do some with MCTB fourth path not go further? Well, there are plenty of ways to get sidetracked from the natural state: 

  • If you keep micro-mapping every state, experience, stage – sidetrack.
  • If you start cultivating siddhis – sidetrack.
  • If you start employing “techniques” to gain lucidity in dreams – sidetrack.
  • If you chase after visionary experiences – sidetrack.
  • If you meditate with artificial means, as in jhana practice or even liveliness-of-rigpa practice – possible sidetrack

Accept That the Natural State Is All You Need

Artificial meditative activities and map mongering disrupt rather than stabilize the natural state. Keep to the Prime Directive: Ride the natural state to enlightenment, which is buddhahood.

There are three phases students go through with regard to Dzogchen:

  1. First experiencing the natural state,
  2. Coming to believe that the natural state is all that is needed, and
  3. Stabilizing the natural state so that it is the way of life every moment.

Get Out of Your Head and under the Feminine

What you need to do, after the subject perspective of individual consciousness has dropped away for good, which is where Dzogchen begins, is stabilize rigpa, the crystal clarity aspect of nonduality. But it is easy to overshoot fruition precisely by trying too hard from within your head.  If you are living in your head still, as many very masculine partly awakened practitioners do, you are likely to get stuck and stay stuck until you begin relating to your body and emotions, until you drop down out of your successfully dissociated head and into embodiment. Maybe this is why, traditionally, it is said that women are at an advantage for fully awakening.

More on the fruits of this talk in a few subsequent posts.