22 Aug 2014
Alan starts off by giving a meditation on settling the body, speech and mind in its natural state. He then elaborates on practices of mindfulness of breathing which follows three steps in the Theravada tradition: Focussing on the whole body experience, being aware of the rise and fall of the abdomen and finally paying close attention to the sensations at the nostrils. Alan, however, presents a Dzogchen approach to mindfulness of breathing which does not follow these steps but proposes to let the awareness rest still. That way you do not explicitly focus on the sensations of the breath, but you are implicitly aware of them - just as in a lucid dream in which your eye movements as well as the rhythm of your “dream breath” correlate with the movements of your physical body. In such a state you are also simply implicitly aware of your physical body but you don’t explicitly focus on it. This then explains how one can transfer from the desire realm (in which you are focussed on your bodily sensations) to the form realm: by simply letting the body do its job without interfering in the natural flow of the breath (the body knows it better than you do anyways!) and letting your awareness hold its own ground.
Meditation starts at 01:18
O la so! So as is obvious we’re starting relatively late in the morning. I presume all of you have had some time for practice prior to our gathering together. So whatever kind of preliminary practice you do as part of your daily practice, taking refuge, bodhicitta, seven line prayer, other preliminary practices, whatever you’re doing, I’m inviting you to do all of that before. That’s what I’ve done. I’ve had some hours of practice before coming here. And so by the time we gather for our relatively short time in the morning then we just go directly to the main practice, okay? So, just wanted to make very clear that the preliminary practices, all of these are very important, but when we gather it’s for the main practice each time, okay. Please assume a comfortable posture; at any time it can be supine position, sitting position, as you wish.
[1:39] We begin this session as we’ll begin all sessions by settling body, speech and mind in the natural state; a core quintessential Dzogchen instruction that synopsizes the ground, the path and the fruition. It can be understood and practiced on so many different levels. But let’s begin by letting the awareness descend into the field of the body right down to the ground, where your body is in contact with the cushion, the floor, the chair. And let your mind rest in this mode of witnessing awareness, non-elaborating, attentive, quiet, in the moment. And simply attending to the sensations that arise within the field of the body where it’s in contact with the ground - the earth element, those sensations of solidity and firmness.
[3:24] Then like a fragrance filling a room, let your awareness fill the entire space of the body, this entire somatic field right up to the crown of the head and be mindfully present throughout this whole field, aware of the sensations that arise within this space. No need to visualize or think about the space. Simply be present quietly, clearly.
[4:31] And you may find areas within this space that feel contracted, tense. Gently attend to them as you breathe in. And with each out breath more and more deeply surrender your muscles to gravity. Release.
[5:11] Especially bring your awareness to the face. Soften all of the muscles of the face, the muscles around the mouth, the jaws. Let your forehead feel expansive, open. But let there likewise be a feeling of spaciousness between the eyebrows. Soften all the muscles around the eyes and soften the eyes themselves. Your eyes may be closed, hooded or somewhat open, as you wish.
[6:35] Set your body at ease in a posture of comfort and relaxation. And in so far as you are comfortable, you should find it very easy during the brief duration of this twenty-four minute session to remain very still apart from the natural movement of the breath. This will help you maintain the composure, the collectedness of your attention. If you’re sitting upright, let your spine be straight, slightly lift your sternum so that as you breathe in, while keeping the abdominal muscles loose and relaxed, your belly can easily, without constraint, expand during inhalation, fall back during exhalation. So sit at attention. Letting the sensations of the breath come down to the belly, even the lower belly, loose and relaxed.
[7:55] If you’re in the supine position, your body can be released into a state of total relaxation, in the savasana, in which you’re emulating the posture of a corpse, utter relaxation. But mentally adopt a posture of vigilance, and use this posture only for meditation, and thereby through association whenever you’re in this posture it will remind you, you must be meditating. This is the posture you adopt for that. It’s simply a new habit. Instead of lying down to take a nap, to daydream or do other things, this particular posture is only for meditation.
[8:57] So in this way we settle the body in its natural state, the state of dynamic equilibrium imbued with the three qualities of relaxation, stillness and vigilance.
[9:52] Upon the basis of settling the body in its natural state we move on to settle the speech in its natural state, one of effortless silence. I think you’ve already accomplished that in terms of the outer speech but then we turn inward to the inner speech of the mind, the chitchat, the commentary, the excessive flow of discursive thought. To let this inner voice rest in its natural state of effortless silence is clearly more challenging. To facilitate this we settle the respiration in its natural rhythm. In short this is allowing the breath to flow unimpededly and effortlessly without seeking to regulate it, control it or even to prefer any type of breath over another. To simply allow the body to breathe without interference, without intervention, breathing as if you were deep asleep, but clearly awake.
[11:50] The key here is the out breath, a natural time to relax, to let go. So with each out breath relax more and more deeply in the body. Fully release the breath all the way to the end and gently let go of any discursive thoughts, memories, mental images that may have come to mind. Release them so that they simply dissolve back into the space of the mind with every out breath.
[13:21] And the key to the out breath is the very end of the out breath. Without missing an opportunity, with every exhalation as you come to the end of the out breath let your mind become very still, non-discursive, very closely attentive to this final phase of the out breath as you continue to release and release with a total sense of ease and relaxation, of fearlessness, of giving all your breath away. And without taking the next in breath allow it simply flow in at its own time, in its own way. Simply receive it as the breath flows in like a wave washing up on shore. Simply accept it, without pulling it in, without resisting it, whether it’s a long or short, deep or shallow, whether there’s a pause after the end of the out breath or no pause, let it be. Let the body breathe. In this way the respiration settles in its own natural rhythm and the body from breath to breath receives just what it needs.
[15:40] Then we turn to settling the mind in its natural state and every step of this is to set your mind at ease, carefree, releasing all hopes and fears, all concerns about the future and the past. Just for the duration of this session let your awareness come to rest in stillness and in its own natural clarity in the present moment.
[17:23] Now cultivate this ability of letting your awareness rest in its own place, holding its own ground, which means not directing your attention to anything, neither to any sensory impression nor to thoughts, images, other mental activities or even to the space of the mind, no directionality, no target. Just let your awareness rest in its own nature without meditating on anything, without doing anything. Simply being present.
[18:42] Sustain this flow of present centered mindfulness, a mindful presence without distraction, without being carried away, without letting your awareness be set into motion obsessively. Sustain the flow of mindful presence without distraction and without grasping, without latching onto any object, either subjective or objective. Simply be present. Whatever thoughts come up just let them be without perpetuating them or grasping onto them, without following them. Simply let them dissolve of their own accord back into the space of the mind.
[21:06] And now within this context explicitly be aware of something you are probably already implicitly aware of and that is namely the rhythm of the breath. Without explicitly directing your attention to the sensations of the breath throughout the body simply continue to rest your awareness in its own state. Within that simple presence, awareness resting in its own place, take note of the duration of each in breath, each out breath, whether it is long or short. And let’s continue practicing in silence.
Meditation ends at [25:19].
[25:53] O la so! So I’m sure many of you, perhaps all of you are very familiar with the practice we’ve just done of settling body, speech and mind in its natural state. So on that one occasion I used a lot of words, just as a refresher. If this is at all new to you then what I would invite you to do is go back and listen to the podcast from this morning. You can always get a refresher there but I won’t use so many words in the future. I’ll just make it much more concise because I’m assuming you’re quite familiar with it.
[26:21] The one novel aspect at least for many of you will be just the last four or five minutes of the session, having settled body speech and mind in the natural state then we kind of tiptoed into mindfulness of breathing. Now you’ll know that from the many, many times that I’ve taught this in the past I emphasize three approaches. One is stemming from Asanga where you’re maintaining a full body awareness, the sensations of the respiration, really the flow of prana within the body, throughout the entire body. So there’s one classic presentation. And then I give the... I’ve often taught the practice of attending to rise and fall of the abdomen, called the Burmese technique. I have no idea how old it is, but it can be very helpful for grounding the attention, stabilizing, calming the discursive mind. And then [I] very commonly have taught, countless times, the classic Theravada method tracing back to Buddhaghosa. He in turn relies on generations of yogis before him where you attend to the sensations of the breath, the actual passage of the breath at your nostrils.
[27:25] But you’ll see in what we just did here for during the last few minutes of the session was none of the above. You weren’t really directing your attention to the body, to the tactile sensations within the body or to rise and fall of the abdomen or to the sensations of the actual passage of the breath at all. Rather the invitation here, the guidance was, to simply let your awareness remain still. Just be still. Rest in your own place. But resting there, unless you’ve already gone into very, very deep samadhi, simply resting there you’re just bound to be aware. You know implicitly there on the periphery of your awareness, you’re bound to be aware of the ebb and flow of your respiration, right? It’s kind of obvious. Without having deliberately to focus your attention on it, it kind of rises up almost like somebody brushing against you. You don’t have to specifically attend to them, you just kind of feel...You feel it, right? Because it’s in your space. Well, I’d like to continue with that one, with that approach. A very Dzogchen approach because you continue to rest your awareness in its own place without deliberately extending your attention, directing your attention to an object. It’s simply more in the field of your awareness, right?
[28:40] So this was an intuition that arose when I was in retreat. [It was] just [a] very brief but quite delicious one week retreat on this holy isle off the west coast of Scotland. I had an intuition there that you might very well be able to be aware of your breath, the rhythm of the breath, just the rhythm. That is whether the breathing is long, whether it’s short. You might be able to be aware of that, I strongly intuited, even if you’re not directly and explicitly aware of your body. And so I checked. And I checked among other things, I checked my own practice, but then I checked an old friend of mine, Stephen LaBerge, world expert on lucid dreaming. I’m very fortunate in my many friends, and he’s one of them. And, um, I had this intuition with respect to lucid dreaming in general, but lucid dreaming much more evidently, that when you’re in the midst of a dream, and then very pointedly in the midst of a lucid dream, where you know what’s going on. While on the one hand you’re not explicitly aware of anything going on in your body, you don’t know whether you’re lying on your back, on your side, whether you’re curled up. I mean I’ve had lucid dreams. I have no explicit awareness of what my body’s doing, what posture it is [in]. It’s just... I know that it’s there by inference, but no direct perception of anything in the body, right? It’s standard.
[30:02] But the question I posed to Stephen, just a few days ago and got the response, was, “When you’re in the midst of a dream might your dream breath, because you can be aware of your breathing in the dream, right? Why not? Might your dream breathing, the breathing of your dream body, which is purely mental, might the rhythm of your dream breathing correlate directly to the breathing of your physical body lying in bed?” Now for those of you have received teachings from me before and know Stephen LaBerge’s work, you’ll know something very intriguing, that if you track your eyes left to right, like following the ping pong, the table tennis match, left, right, left, right within a dream your physical eyes in your body, asleep, are also tracking left, right, left, right. Your dream eyes and your physical eyes correlated, right? So my question to Stephen is,"How about your breathing too? Is your dream breathing correlated to the breathing of your body lying in bed, such that for example if you held your breath in a dream, would your body lying in bed also have its breath held?” I had a pretty strong hunch what the answer would be. And lo and behold, I was right. [laughter] It’s one more correlation. It’s one more correlation. They’ve scientifically established that, right?
[31:27] Now there are differences. In a dream, if you teach yourself how, it’s pretty easy, you can dream under water. Excuse me. You can breathe under water. Because after all there’s no air in a dream anyway. Because it’s not physical, therefore you can breathe underwater. There’s no less air in dream water as there is above water in a dream because there’s no oxygen above the water or beneath the water, right? There’s no oxygen. There are no molecules. There’s nothing physical in dreams so you can breathe just as well underwater as above water in a dream, right? [You] can’t do that in a waking state, but nevertheless the rhythm of the respiration’s the same. Therefore, you see the logic, you may have no explicit awareness of your physical body, but you may be following mindfulness of breathing. All you’d have to do would be [to] follow the breathing of your dream body, which is purely mental. Cool, huh? [laughter]
[32:30] That actually solves a problem. It solves a problem that I’ve been, you know, attending to for a long time and that is when you achieve shamatha, as many of you know, you cross the threshold from the desire realm into the form realm, right? The desire realm is what we regard as reality. It’s what scientists have been studying for hundreds of years. It’s this physical world interfacing with mental states, processes and so forth, right? You transcend that when you achieve shamatha. You cross the threshold, you have access to the form realm which is another dimension of reality; transcends this one. In fact it’s more, more primal. It is a..., an ontological ground from which this world emerges like a holographic display. But it’s emerging from a subtler dimension of reality called the form realm. There are parallels by the way in modern physics. It’s not a goofy idea. It’s not goofy in Buddhism; it’s not goofy in physics either.
[33:24] But when your mind is immersed in the form realm, it crosses over into the form realm as it does in shamatha then you’re no longer explicitly aware of the desire realm. You’ve moved from one room to another. You’ve stepped out of the house of the desire realm and stepped into another house of the form realm. So, in the Theravada tradition where you’re attending to the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, which those sensations are clearly in the desire realm. That’s only the preliminary sign you might recall, remember, the preliminary sign. That’s just to get you going. But then sooner or later as your attention stabilizes, the mind calms, you become very focused, then in that domain of your mental awareness, kind of basically right there in front of you there will arise an acquired sign. You remember? An acquired sign which is purely a mental sign. And that’s what you focus on to proceed along the stages of shamatha until eventually you cross the threshold from the desire realm to the form realm.
[34:24] And it’s that point, exactly there where you cross the threshold that the counterpart sign arises, a hundred maybe a thousand times subtler than the acquired sign which is still very much part of the desire realm and that counterpart sign is arising from the form realm. It belongs to the form realm, right? And then if you want to proceed, following that trajectory, following that methodology of Buddhaghosa, the classic Theravada tradition, then you need to reestablish your stability, you need to get a lock on the counterpart sign. It’s very subtle but that’s your new object of meditation. You start with the sensations of the breath, move to acquired sign, then the counterpart sign. And the counterpart sign being located in the form realm, you get a lock on that and then that’s how you achieve the full first dhyana. And then you continue with that same sign, that counterpart sign which in the case of mindfulness of breathing is called the conceptual quintessence of the air element. That’s what you focus on almost like an archetype, an archetype of air, of air element. That’s your target. That’s your object of meditation. If you want to fully achieve the first dhyana, the second dhyana, third dhyana, fourth dhyana that’s what you’re focusing on, that’s classic Theravada, right?
[35:39] But in Asanga’s approach he makes no reference, number one to attending to the sensations at the nostrils, no reference to acquired sign, no reference to counterpart sign. He simply says be aware of the coarse and the subtle flow of prana. These kind of undulations in the field, this field of energy of the body. And you simply attend to those and it gets subtler and subtler and subtler. And he said that’s sufficient, you can achieve shamatha that way. But then the question does arise, but if you’re still focusing on sensations within the desire realm even if they’re very subtle, how do you disengage from them, separate from the desire realm to the form realm, right? And...pling! If you don’t need to attend to tactile sensations at all, if you’re resting purely in a mental space you may still be aware of the rhythm, short breath, long breath, long breath, short breath, even without attending to the desire realm, right? So, interesting.
[36:50] The really crucial point here, so Dzogchenish, to make an adjective out of it, is that you continue to rest, what is core for everything we’re doing here, for the shamatha, for the vipashyana, for the dream yoga, for the threkchö (the cutting through) is really holding your own ground. It’s really quintessential Dzogchen, holding your own ground, not getting caught up and carried away by objectification, by grasping, by latching onto, by reification, holding your own ground, really simple, right? Quintessential Dzogchen because that ground is exactly where rigpa is.
[37:32] So a little bit more. I said for the morning sessions I’ll often encroach beyond 9:30. But we know in the path of the... taking the mind as the path as we’re moving towards the dissolution of our minds, our psyches, coarse mind into substrate consciousness, that’s the end of the line of shamatha, of achieving shamatha, access to the first dhyana. And it’s said very clearly, Dudjom Lingpa’s marvelously clear on this point, that the substrate consciousness illuminates all manner of appearances within samsara, all manner of appearances, right? Samsara means desire realm, form realm, formless realm, all of it. No surprise there. It is that which makes appearances manifest. But the substrate consciousness while illuminating appearances does not enter into them. It doesn’t become fused with them. It’s of the world but not in the world. Of the world, that is very attentive, illuminating and cognizing, knowing all manner of appearances but not getting lost in them, not getting caught up in them, not fusing with them. Illuminating but resting in its own place. That’s just the substrate consciousness, right? That’s what it does, that’s its nature.
[38:55] The dualistic mind, the ordinary mind gets caught up and carried away by everything, right? We focus on some... Oh, and then we’re totally caught up there. The awareness moves out and then latches onto us craving, with hostility, with indifference. And then likewise attending to emotions, desires, thoughts, memories, images, the whole array. The ordinary mind, the dualistic mind is getting caught up in everything. It’s just like, you know, flypaper. Just whatever comes up we just stick to it. This is why this first bardo, the bardo which is the context for shamatha and vipashyana, the one we’re starting today is called rang bzhin skye ba’i bar do [Tibetan], the transitional process of grasping with respect to birth and becoming. Because it’s just saturated by grasping, right? Well, when we’re resting in the substrate consciousness, we’re not totally free of grasping, but we’re relatively free of grasping. Free of grasping in the desire realm anyway, right? Relatively free, relatively free, relatively nonconceptual, relatively not objectifying, right? But then the same theme of illuminating but not entering into, knowing but not entering into, that same theme then comes up in the teachings on rigpa, pristine awareness. Pristine awareness illuminates all phenomena of samsara and nirvana, right? It’s got a visa for the entire universe, you know. It illuminates all, but it doesn’t actually enter into any. Substrate consciousness illuminates samsara, it doesn’t illuminate nirvana, doesn’t illuminate pristine awareness, doesn’t illuminate emptiness. It’s locked into its own room. It’s called samsara. It illuminates that, but rigpa, oh, boundless. It illuminates tomatoes, [laughter] and substrate consciousness, and emptiness, and rigpa, and dharmadhatu, it illuminates all but without entering into, objectifying, reifying anything whatsoever.
[41:03] So what we’re seeking to do here, very much in the spirit of taking the fruition as the path, quintessential Vajrayana. Taking the fruition, the end result as the path is in the practice from the first day of our retreat. Seeking to let the awareness rest in its own nature, in its own natural luminosity, its own stillness, its own cognizance and illuminate the rhythm of the breath. Knowing when the in breath is long one notes that it is long, when the out breath is long one notes that it is long. And then as the whole system calms down, the whole body-mind system calms down, settles into more of equipoise, its samahita, samahita, equipoise, [Tibetan], right? As it settles into a greater sense of serenity, calm, peacefulness, equipoise, equanimity, then of course the body needs less air. We’re not burning so many calories, we don’t need so much oxygen so what happens to the breath? It’s common sense. You don’t need so much, which means then, over the course of time, it’s bound to take place that your breath would become more shallow. But you don’t try to make it shallow.
[42:21] This is really crucial. In other words, don’t be too clever; don’t try to outsmart your body. Your body knows how to circulate blood better than you do. If I say, “Please do it better.” What are you going to do, you know? Digest food? Do it better. Come on, take over. You’re a smart gal. Digest your food, you know? What are you going to do? There are just certain things the body knows metaphorically, anthropomorphically, the body knows how to do better than we do. We can solve math. Your liver can’t do that. Your lungs can’t do that. But the body knows how to breathe. Let it do its job, you know? Delegate, delegate. Body, you do your business. Mind, you do your business, and I’ll do no business at all. Put yourself out of business. That’s Dzogchen, [laughter] you know? So release all control, all regulation, all preference. And let the body in its own way... This is settling the respiration in its natural rhythm. Not that you have some idea, “This is what it would be like if my respiration were settled in its natural rhythm.” Put a cork in it. You don’t know what the natural rhythm is. You’re not that smart. The body figures it out from breath to breath to breath. It’s a new answer with every inhalation, every exhalation. It’s a new answer. It’s like one of those codes like in wartime. They keep on changing the code, right? That’s really good coding isn’t it, whatever they call that, you know? Encrypting! If it keeps on changing the encryption, boy that’s really hard to break, right? Well that’s what your body does. Every breath it changes the encryption. Every breath it’s got a new encryption. What’s the natural rhythm this time, this time, this time? And let it be fresh and unprecedented each time. Which means you’ll never outsmart it because it’s got the code and you don’t, right? So let the respiration settle and in its own way, at its own pace, as it goes from a long in breath, long out breath then let it settle. Short in breath, short out breath, and you simply witness it as your awareness remains like the unflickering candle flame without even deliberately attending to it. You don’t have to say, “Oh, breath, breath what’s happening?” Just it comes up, rises to meet you. It is like the air you breathe, you know? It’s there. It’s like water for the fish. They don’t have to send, “Oh, what’s water feel like?” Water’s impressing itself upon them. So likewise the rhythm of the breath, even without explicitly attending to tactile sensations in the somatic field, the tactile field.
[44:58] You can remain in the mental field. You can remain, out of those six domains of experience, mental and the five sensory, your awareness can remain, hold its own ground, be explicitly interested in and resting in only the mental. And still the rhythm of the breath will rise up to meet you as it does in a dream where your awareness is totally immersed in the mental. You’re not explicitly aware of anything outside of the dreamscape and the dreamscape is entirely in the realm of mental experience, dharmadhatu, remember? Out of eighteen dhatus, the domain of dharma, mental events, phenomena directly observed, perceived by mental awareness. So if you can be aware of the rhythm of your breath while you’re breathing, while you’re dreaming without any explicit awareness of your body lying in bed, then you may be [in] deep samadhi, resting single pointedly, your awareness resting in the space of awareness and still be aware of the rhythm. Then the whole problem of how can you still be aware of the breath when your mind is moving beyond the desire realm into the form realm - problem solved! You don’t need to attend to the desire realm. The rhythm is there. It seems to be a pretty deep rhythm, pretty deep rhythm, right? Breathing in, breathing out. So there it is. That’s it. That was a good retreat. [laughter]
[46:30] [Alan talks a little bit about the schedule]
Transcribed by Mark Montgomery
Revised by Rafael Carlos Giusti
Final Edition by KrissKringle Sprinkle