Answers to retreatant questions sent to Ken McLeod and his senior students
Thanks for this retreat. Just curious: how do you challenge your students in the way Tilopa challenges Naropa? Is this some kind of "tough love"? And devotion with its' emotional energy, does the teacher also need to be devoted to the student?
George's response: I've worked with several teachers, and my experience is that they've been tough regarding the principles and realities of spiritual practice, but not rough with me. They seem to let me know, with a word or two, a gesture, or a look, that they see I'm going astray from the practice—that I'm trying yet again to pull the wool over my own eyes. Likewise my sense of the teachers' devotion: their devotion to the practice, and to guiding their students, is total. Their lack of sentimentality toward me as someone deserving of special treatment is... well, I'll say it's not been completely satisfying to my sense of entitlement.
Ken's response: Shortly before entering the three-year retreat, I was asked exactly this question by one of the people who helped build the retreat. I replied that we in the West often don't recognize challenges. For instance, if you went to see a teacher and you were told, "She can't see you right now," would you wait, or would you go away and, perhaps, come back another day? How many times would you come back before giving up?
While a teacher does, from time to time, need to point out how the student's own patterns are undermining or corrupting practice, my own experience is that the teacher, more often than not, holds through their example the possibility of meeting the challenges we all face when we see and have to face our own negativity, confusion, and neediness.
The teacher embodies, to some extent at least, the qualities to which the student aspires. Hence, he or she feels devotion. The teacher cares about the student, particularly the student's spiritual growth, and does what is necessary for the student to grow. This is an expression of compassion, not in the sense of pity or superiority, but in the sense of being willing to help a person find a way through their struggles.
Claudia's response: My experience with my own teachers is that challenges can take many forms. As George points out sometimes it is just a look or a quiet word that turns the heart and you can see. Sometimes it is in instructions that feel like the blade of a knife going through you. There have been a few rare occasions when those usual methods did not penetrate and something a bit more fierce was required. The greatest challenges for me have come from observing closely the way a teacher meets his or her own life.The power of the teacher - student relationship is most effective when the student is challenged by simply being present and open as they meet with a teacher.
Dear Ken, thank you so much. This is great. My question: I have had experiences of emptiness (of clear vision, of quiet stillness, of some kind of understanding beyond my own understanding.) They are very powerful, but they pass. I cannot stay with them, they do not "stick". So, a momentary view or insight is great, but what do I "do" with them? What can I do in practice to cultivate the understanding I have glimpsed more or less by accident while sitting? Or is my question a way of cheating?
George's response: "Emptiness" in English is a noun, implying that there is some thing or experience of emptiness. There is no such thing. But every thing (and every experience) is empty of certain characteristics—namely, every thing is empty of permanence, empty of ultimate satisfaction, and empty of being separate from causes and conditions. It sounds like you've experienced stillness and clarity as fleeting—that is the characteristic of impermanence. Of course it's not just quiet stillness and understanding that are fleeting. Thoughts and emotions are also changing. And solid objects, while hanging around a little longer, are also not permanent. So don't try to make any experience or insight "stick." Insights arise in glimpses, arising and disappearing, like everything. Look and look again into internal experience and external phenomena. See what you can see and carry on, both in formal practice and in daily life.
Ken's response: All kinds of experiences arise when we sit. There is no question of cheating. You experience what you experience. When we have profound experiences of emptiness or clarity, there is a natural tendency to want to hold onto them or duplicate them. Often, because the experiences are so powerful and meaningful, we feel we have experienced "the truth" or "how things are." These experiences show us that there is a different way of living. Things aren't what they seem, and there is a lot more space (i.e., emptiness) than we were originally aware of. If you pay attention to how you view the world from the perspective of such experiences, you may see that you don't have to oppose or need anything. This is freedom, and it takes expression in your life as compassion.
Claudia's response: Approach your daily practice with a sense of curiosity, opening to whatever experience is arising. Some days you may experience deep insights only to be met with a distracted mind the next. By practicing opening to whatever is arising you develop flexibility and a sense of equanimity that will help you in your daily life. Insights may arise in any moment so carry that curiosity with you. The hard part for all of us is to let go of experiences and expectations that we like and to open to those we dislike.
Thank you for the meditation that you led us on. Resting in breathing without watching the breath, I find this difficult. There are sensations everywhere but they are not restful. I am open, I try to open up, but this causes a rise in anxiety. I want to shut down, quiet down, but I feel that that is incorrect. I try to sit in my experience but the noise level rises and my grip on my experience tightens or tries to, and then wanders away.... sigh.
George's response: What we call "anxiety" is a complex experience made up of sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Open just a little to one of those sensations—say, the breath becoming more rapid. As you open a little, can you also open to other sensations, at the same time? Sensing gravity and space are good ways to balance anxiety. Sense your weight resting on the floor or chair. Sense your body, its size and shape. Sense where in the room your body is located. Sense the space around you. And the chair or floor supporting you. So open a little to the anxiety, and then open a little to other sensations, alternating back and forth. No need to be busy; just let your senses explore. No need to hold anything in attention; holding generates tension and eventually numbness. Just notice the different sensations as they arise. With time and familiarity, your ability to rest in attention will increase, whether those sensations are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
Ken's response: The increase in the noise level is a reaction in your system to your efforts to try to control what you are experiencing. We might as well try to control the weather! A technique that I've found useful is a five-step practice I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh. It involves very gradually opening to experiences, particularly difficult ones. You will find brief instructions here (http://www.unfetteredmind.com/practices/fivestep.php) and more detailed ones here (http://umquotes.blogspot.com/2010/03/releasing-emotional-reactions-1.html).
Claudia's response: Both George and Ken make excellent suggestions. One additional approach is to begin with some type of movement such as walking meditation before you you sit. Let the the breath and mind calm in rhythm with the movement. I have found movement is especially helpful with strong emotional material and anxiety. Stay focused on your body as you do the movement. When things feel calm then try sitting.
My son is 22. He has chosen to become a "train rider" riding freight trains and vowing not to participate in society. He does not bathe and has been arrested for stealing and drugs. I love him but cannot accept his life stye. My husband is suffering greatly over this. He is depressed and unable to sleep. I am trying to surrender to his choice, love him but not some of his actions. I feel great grief and sadness over his choice. I am trying to achieve some peace around this by trying to stay in the moment and realize I cannot force him to change. It is so hard. Any words of advice? Thanks, Momcat
George's response: Compassion is the courage to open to and acknowledge pain and suffering, and the heartfelt wish that you and others be free of it. Equanimity is open clarity and balance in the midst of experience. Some of that clarity and balance comes from knowing and accepting that we cannot control others' actions. Mahamudra is the capacity to be present in all experience, recognizing that it is just experience, without having to apply antidotes or remedies. Equanimity doesn't mean you don't care, or that you don't respond. I don't have children, but as a political activist I wrestled with this for a long time. I thought my meditation teachers were telling me to relax and not do anything about the injustices and disasters I see in the world. Eventually, I've seen that my own peace, and my ability to help others, really does depend on my capacity not to react prematurely or unskillfully. If I actually want to be of help, I have to accept the situation—I have to be able to tolerate the intensity and pain of whatever imbalance I'm facing, so that I don't make things worse by reacting out of confusion and desperation. This understanding motivates my practice in the long run. It doesn't always arise in the heat of crisis or heartbreak. I wish you and your family safety, and happiness, and peace.
Ken's response: It is hard to put into words the pain parents feel when their child, even when grown, has difficulty finding his or her way in life. As parents, we naturally want our children to be happy and well. It sounds like there is little you can do for your son right now, except to keep your heart open and to provide him with help if and when he seeks it. As for your own pain, all I can suggest is to ask yourself this question, "How can I experience this and be at peace at the same time?" This question invites you into an exploration of your relationship with the pain. If we suppress it, we become ill. If we let it run our lives, we experience misery and incapacity. Thus, our challenge is to find a way to experience and be at peace at the same time.
Claudia's response: You are dealing with a very challenging aspect of parenting. The desire to help our children does not cease when they reach adulthood. We still want to "fix" what is occurring and keep them from harming themselves. I have found this quite difficult with my own adult children. Their choices have not always matched what I would have wanted for them. I have worked deeply to move into a way of being with them that is open, loving and free of expectations. This is a continual part of my practice and often I fail. As George points out compassion is being present with the pain and suffering of others as well as our own suffering. As parents we feel the suffering of our children deep into our very bones. I try to approach this opening with a sense that I am holding their pain and my own in my arms and I am giving them the gift of my awareness. It is the greatest gift I can possibly give. I wish you and your family peace.