10 Why Go Through Unpleasant Meditative Experiences (Nyam)?

04 Apr 2016

This morning, Alan returns to the theme of parallels between the practice of settling the mind in its natural state and the mindfulness of breathing as taught by Asanga. He begins by making a crucial point: when the practice is going well, it is never smooth. Unpleasant bodily and mental sensations (nyam) are bound to arise. In fact, in the book “Stilling the Mind” (containing the shamatha part of Dudjom Lingpa’s Vajra Essence) there is a two-page long shortlist of the nyams. Even though some are truly awful (like paranoia), if they arise during authentic practice, they are actually signs of progress. However, one may ask why we have to go through all these meditative experiences. In response Alan reads a passage from “Stilling the Mind” where it is explained that even if people identify rigpa but do not continue practicing, they will succumb to spiritual sloth. In short: shamatha is indispensable for entering the path. Back to the topic of parallels between mindfulness of breathing and settling the mind in its natural state, Alan underlines the importance of the body (here: of the prana) which is often overlooked, but needs to be incorporated into the practice. In the method we follow, Asanga clearly indicates that the object of awareness is the prana (not the air, for example) circling from the nostrils down to the navel chakra. Some traditions recommend becoming one with the breath, fusing with it, but this is not the practice we follow. Alan stresses that in this tradition the awareness rests in stillness and does not fuse with the object of meditation. Alan draws a parallel with the substrate consciousness which illuminates the appearances but does not enter into them. So as in settling the mind in its natural state the mind attends to appearances but does not go after them, likewise in the practice of mindfulness of breathing we simply attend to the sensations in the somatic field without grasping at them (without cognitive fusion, without noting “this is my body, I’m breathing etc.”). Here Alan reminds us of the Buddha’s instructions: “In the mentally perceived let there just be the mentally perceived”. And accordingly: “In the felt let there just be the felt” etc. Going back to the topic of nyam, Alan stresses that if all we do is experience them, then we are back to our old habits. Instead, when resting in the stillness of our awareness, whatever comes up in the field of the body, we ought to try to attend to it without preference, without aversion, hope or expectation. In this way, we let the body take care of these sensations and heal itself.

The meditation is on Mindfulness of Breathing as taught by Asanga.

The meditation starts at 28:30

Please contribute to make these, and future podcasts freely available.

Download (MP3 / 24 MB)


O la so. Good. So I’m going to return to a familiar theme, and that is, highlighting the parallels, unpacking even further the parallels between two very profound and very simple practices, the settling the mind in its natural state and this mindfulness of breathing as taught by Asanga. A really crucial point to understand before one even begins, if one is going fairly intensively into such practice, is that when it’s going well, and you’re practising very authentically with a good motivation, it’s virtually never smooth sailing. That is it’s not to say that you never have any pleasant sessions, of course you do. But you must anticipate that this is going to be stirring up all kinds of things. In the psyche, that’s what it’s supposed to do. You can call it a kind of a depth psychology or a term I coined - cognoscopy. [laughter] If you go into your intestines, don’t expect to find flowers, and if you go into your mind, don’t expect it’s going to be a bed of roses. You’ll find all kinds of things, it’s not all bad, but do expect the unexpected. [1:28]

And in the book, Stilling the Mind, there’s what’s the real core of that, is about the first 30 pages of The Vajra Essence highlighting primarily the shamatha and settling the mind in its natural state and Padmasambhava, the speaker Dudjom Lingpa, this really, the scribe [Alan gives the Tibetan word for scribe] for this teaching, he gives about two pages, a short list of some of these nyam, anomalous experiences, somatic experiences, psychological experiences, that may very well be catalysed by such authentic practices. And he refers to these as signs of progress. Well, some of them are simply awful, you know. There’s a sense of paranoia, of misery, of grief, of nausea and so forth and so on. You’ll say - oh boy, if this is progress, can I have no progress please, you know. [2:29]

But they are signs of progress because of the context. Simply having paranoia, grief, sadness, rage and so forth, that’s not progress, that’s just mental afflictions. But if you’re practising like that, if you are engaging in the practice authentically, and these are coming up and you are aware of them without getting caught up and carried away by them, without the cognitive fusion, then in that context, these are really are signs of progress and you’ll see it for yourself, this is not just advertising or propaganda here. You’ll see that in fact this is a process of purification. If you have a very dirty cloth and you put it into the water, you might be, if you’re a very silly person, you might be very dismayed that the water gets dirty, you know. But that’s what’s supposed to happen when you cleanse a cloth, the impurities come out and you get to see them. They may really stink.

[03:24] And so you hear this on the one hand, that you know, some very troubling experiences, but they are transient, they are transient, they are anomalous, these troubling experiences in the body and the mind may very well arise, they almost certainly will. We hear this on one hand, and then in the same text, the Vajra Essence, then Padmasambhava, The Lake Born Vajra also says that if all you do is achieve shamatha and then you stop, you just experience that and enjoy that, then as he says, you have not moved one hair’s breadth along the path to enlightenment. You are a real nowhere man. You’re nowhere. Nowhere woman. And so then the question may arise quite reasonably -if it’s this troublesome and if you have still haven’t reached the path, do we really need to go through that purging process. And this was the question that was raised in The Vajra Essence, it’s there in Stilling The Mind, , but I’m just taking this one excerpt, I think it’s very very juicy, very important. And so then in this vision that Dudjom Lingpa’s having, with Samadrabhadra appearing in the center, surrounded by a circle of bodhisattvas all of pure vision, then one of these bodhisattvas in this pure vision named, Boundless Great Emptiness, they all have great symbolic archetypal names, not Jack or Fred. [laughter] They have really cool names, like Sophia, that’s a pretty cool name. Not many people get that, you know, wisdom. A lot of Tibetan girls are called wisdom, Sherab Yeshe. But you know, most of our names like Alan. (laughter]. It means ‘rock’.. Here’s to you.

[05:24] So then Great Boundless Emptiness, asks -, Oh Bhagavan, if all meditative experiences, that what’s he’s referring to, this nyam, these meditative experiences, these transient, anomalous, psychosomatic experiences that are triggered by exactly such practice as this. If all meditative experiences, whether pleasant or rough, are far from being the path to omniscience, they just don’t, if they don’t bring you onto the path and they bring no such benefit, they don’t bring the benefits of the path, then why should we practice meditation, specifically this type he just taught, settling the mind in its natural state, or taking the mind as the path. Teacher, please explain.

[06:03] The Bhagavan, who is The Lake Born Vajra, in this visionary experience, this pure vision, the Bhagavan replied, Oh, Vajra of Mind, that’s his nickname, it’s nice to have a nickname, Vajra of Mind, but again rather symbolic, Oh Vajra of Mind, when individuals with coarse dysfunctional minds agitated by discursive thoughts enter this path, OK it resonates, yeah. When you enter this path, this path of shamatha, of taking the mind, the impure mind, the mind you have, as your path, when they enter this path, by reducing the power of their compulsive thinking, their minds become increasingly still and they achieve unwavering stability. On the other hand, even if people identify conscious awareness, and conscious awareness in this context is rigpa, and it’s, but it’s interesting, conscious awareness, isn’t it redundant? I mean awareness, rigpa is rigpa. But when he says conscious awareness, you already have rigpa, you’re not going to get it one day, but right now you may very well not be conscious of your rigpa, because it is veiled by all kinds of other stuff, 5 obscurations, delusion, self grasping, reification, and so on. So yes, you are already have rigpa but is your rigpa, are you conscious of your rigpa?

[07:25] And so conscious awareness is what he is highlighting here, the conscious identification of your own pristine awareness, so even if people identify conscious awareness, conscious rigpa, but do not continue practising, they don’t then simply rest in that and sustain that flow of cognizance of rigpa, if they don’t do that, they will succumb to the faults of spiritual sloth and distraction. This is a very familiar thing. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe it very common in Zen. The people have a very profound breakthrough, it’s authentic, it’s real, and then it passes, it becomes a memory. It happens in Dzogchen, Mahamudra and if we look outside the Buddha’s context, you’re going to find it elsewhere as well. The breakthrough is real. It’s powerful and it’s the most meaningful experience you’ve ever had, and then it’s a memory. And then you wonder what can I do to get it back. And then you set out grasping, grasping, clinging, wishing, desiring, trying and walking backwards. And so they will succumb to the faults of spiritual sloth and distraction. And then even if they do practise, due to absent-mindedness, that is, they haven’t cultivated the shamatha, the stability of mind to able to sustain that awareness, and because they haven’t even if they do go back to practice and try to simply rest in rigpa, what happens? Even if they do practise, they try to rest in rigpa, due to absent-mindedness, they’ll become lost in endless delusion.

[09:31] The mind which is like a cripple and vital energy, the prana, which is like a blind wild stallion, are subdued by fastening them with the rope of meditative experience and firmly maintained attention. So I found this so fascinating. He’s given a complete explanation already of taking the mind as the path, exactly how do you do it, and what are some of the signs of progress that come up and how do you deal with those, and what type of signs arise for one type of person, a fire person, a wind person, and so forth. So he explains all of that and then he comes back to awareness and the prana of mind and breathing. And so in this regard, the mind is like a cripple, so you can easily imagine, this is easy. You have a stallion, a great powerful horse who is blind, which has a lot of power, but then he’s just running into things all the time and then the cripple has very good eyesight but can’t move. But you place the cripple on the back of the stallion, and then you have something that’s quite workable, because the cripple will guide the horse and the horse will empower the cripple. And so your mind is aware, your prana is not aware, your prana is not a sentient being, your prana is not aware of anything, but it’s very powerful. Just look at the martial arts, look at qigong, look at, oh I have myself seen some very impressive displays of prana. It’s powerful. I mean, it’s the energy of life, but it’s blind and it can be and is, frequently, dysfunctional within the body, all caught up, constricted, bound and not flowing where it should be right through the central channel.

[11:18] So put those two together. Let the rider of your mind mount the great stallion of your prana, do so with mindfulness and firmly maintained attention, in other words think that’s called the mindfulness of breathing as taught by Asanga. So do that. And let your mind be subdued in that way by fastening the mind and the prana with the rope of meditative experience and firmly maintained attention. Once people of dull faculties have recognised the mind, let alone recognising rigpa, simply really come to know the mind, recognise the mind, once they recognise the mind, they control it, with the cords of mindfulness and introspection. That’s how you subdue, just again, just like a wild horse, you subdue the wild horse of your prana, the wild horse of your mind together with such training of mindfulness and introspection. Consequently as a result of their meditative experience and meditation, they have the sense that all subtle and coarse thoughts have vanished. So that’s when you, your mind, the space of the mind subsides into the substrate, your mind dissolves into the substrate consciousness. They have all vanished. All appearances have vanished, coarse and subtle thoughts have vanished. And then finally they experience a state of unstructured consciousness devoid of anything on which to meditate.[13:32]

The substrate consciousness, okay there’s not any object you’re latching on to. But now, in a manner of speaking poetically, you’re just right next door, there’s not much between you, and all these words are misleading but I’ll still use them, when you are resting in the substrate consciousness, there is not much between you and rigpa. It’s not the same. But it’s a stone’s throw away. That’s what you need to break through, that’s what you cut through, you cut through your substrate consciousness to rigpa, you cut through the substrate to dharmadhatu. So you are resting there then when your awareness, then, there’s a sequence here, so finally there is the end of the road, of taking the mind as the path. Your path, your mind dissolves into the substrate consciousness. And again people with a Gelugpa background just don’t have any qualms here. It’s substrate consciousness, is simply referring to the subtle continuum of mental consciousness which all Gelugpas affirm and all Prasangika- Madhyamikas affirm.. [14:45]

But now on the basis of that, you’ve achieved shamatha, you are now dwelling in the subtle mind. Then when the awareness reaches the state of great non-meditation, now you are cutting through, non-meditation, great non-meditation, is cutting through to rigpa or the innate mind of clear light. Their guru points that out, so assures them, yes, now you’re cutting through, this is it, so they do not go astray. So he just wrapped up the whole path in that paragraph, okay? But that’s why you go through these stages of difficulty. Because if you skip things out, I just don’t want to do that, I just want rigpa, please, rigpa, rigpa, rigpa, yeah, maybe you can get a taste of rigpa. There are a number of lamas who give very fine pointing out instructions, you may be able to receive them; now can you sustain it? If not, you’ve just had a rigpa holiday. Not much more. For that to occur, to follow that sequence of recognising your mid, subduing your mind, dissolving your mind, resting in the substrate, cutting through the substrate consciousness, for that to occur, first one undergoes great struggles in seeking the path. Find out how many people are really seeking the path, nowadays, I’m a little bit dubious, you know, even if they’re practising dharma. I don’t know. Are they really seeking the path? Does that actually mean something? Or do they think they’re already on the path, just because they are doing daily practice, maybe even going to one month retreat, three year retreat, going to vipashyana retreat. All this is good. I have no criticism. But how many people really have the clear sense of seeking the path? I don’t know, there’s my answer - I don’t know. But this is what his teachings are all about. You may go through a lot of difficulties in seeking the path, finding a teacher who can lead you on the path, point out the path, lead you on the path, so first one undergoes great struggles in seeking the path, one takes the movement of thoughts as the path, you know that, now that’s taking the mind as the path and finally when consciousness settles upon itself, that is identified as the path.

[17:08] Until unstructured awareness or consciousness of the path manifests, and rests in itself, so until you are resting in rigpa, unstructured awareness of consciousness, that’s rigpa. That’s the path rigpa. There’s the ground, path and fruition rigpa. This is the path rigpa. Well, until that arises, because of the perturbations of one’s afflicted mind, one has to gradually go through rough experiences like the ones discussed. So I think he just answered the question. So here we are, we’re following exactly what he said. I think we all have some background to taking the mind as the path, but it’s kind of coming back to this practice of mindfulness of breathing, it’s kind of coming back and laying a foundation for that because when all is said and done, we are embodied. For the time being, we are embodied. And it’s very easy I find especially in buddhist practice, very easy to kind of overlook the body. Because it’s mind, mind mind, you know, and overlook the body. But as Gautama himself found out during his years of asceticism, that turns out to be not such a great idea, that the body has to be incorporated into one’s practice. And here it is very explicitly. So in this practice of attending to the breath, attending to the sensations of the breath, and Asanga was pointing out in particular it’s the sensations, the flow of prana from the nostrils down to the navel chakra. So it’s clearly not the breath air, because the air is just flowing down into the lungs, that’s way up here. But the prana is flowing right down here and that’s the core, that’s really the primary locus. You can be peripherally aware of the sensations of prana throughout the rest of the body even in the pores, as you go subtler and subtler. But the primary focus there is in this trajectory here, from the nostrils down to the navel chakra. Now some people when teaching mindfulness of breathing said your awareness should merge with the breath, kind of have a non-dual experience with the breathing. That’s not this tradition, that’s not this tradition. But rather let your awareness rest in stillness and not have a fusion, not have a sense of identity or unity, with emotions, so that your awareness is totally in motion with the breath that is in motion. That will be a non-duality. That’s not it. Not this practice. Somebody else can practise that, that’s fine. Not this one.

[19:52] This is stillness and motion. It’s stillness and motion, it’s everywhere. Stillness and motion. Let your awareness be still and experience the movements of the prana, the movements of the prana, corresponding to the breath but without the cognitive fusion. One comment again from The Vajra Essence, it’s a treasure trove, it’s unbelievable the amount of riches in that one text, but I believe it’s there, that it is stated, that Padmasambhava says of the substrate consciousness, that the substrate consciousness illuminates appearances but that it does not enter into them. That’s actually quite crucial, illuminates but does not enter into them. When we are caught in rumination, in wandering thoughts, we’re just thinking of somebody and there is cognitive fusion, I am thinking about this person, I am thinking of this person, then the mind goes to that object, it attends to that object, the awareness fuses with the mental process that brings you to the object, that’s ok. But that’s your mind activated whereas the process here is to approximate or to move in the direction of resting in the substrate consciousness and viewing from that perspective. And so it’s simply resting there, and a final point, again a parallel, is that, let all of this become clear just recently, there are parallels that is, and you all know that in the practice of taking the mind as the path, fundamental distinction between that and simply mind wandering, daydreaming, is that in mind wandering and daydreaming, your awareness as soon as there’s a thought arises, the awareness is coupled with it and it moves off to the referent of the thought, the memory, the desire and so forth. So you are thinking about a person, recalling an event from the past and it’s going off to that. So that’s fine, that’s called thinking. It can be conscious thinking, it can be semi-conscious daydreaming, rumination and so forth. But in the practice of taking the mind as the path, you don’t do that, there’s no cognitive fusion. So you’re not attending to people or events in the past or events in the future that might happen. But rather you’re attending only to that which is arising here and now in the space of your own mind. [22:47]

And these are appearances, thoughts, desires and so forth, in of themselves, that is - just as they are. As the Buddha said - in the mentally perceived, let there be just the mentally perceived, without going to the referent of the activities of the mind, right? Well, I would say that’s just classic teaching, that’s straight. Here’s an interpretation but I’m pretty sure it’s ok, and that in this practice, we are attending to just the sensations, right? Just the somatic sensations of the movements of prana within the body. We are not thinking about the body, we’re not conceptually designating the body, we do not actually have to conceptually designate the breath. As the Buddha said in the same discourse to Bahia, when he concluded by saying, in the mentally perceived, let there be just the mentally perceived, when it came to the somatic field, he said, in the felt, let it be just the felt, in the seen, let it be just the seen, in the heard, let it be just the heard, and so in each of these cases, keep it primal. Keep it primal, what is from moment to moment to moment, what is reality dishing up without your overlaying upon it these appearances, your conceptual designations, your labels, your categories and your objectification that - oh, that’s the sound of a bird, that’s the feel of my knee, that’s a thought about my mum [British informal for “mother”], and so forth. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but that’s not what we are doing in this practice, right? And so in this practice, I would suggest, in a way parallel to the taking the mind as the path, there you’re simply observing the appearances, the sensations, if you like, arising in the space of the mind and just looking at them without associating them with anything else. And likewise in this practice, in this close application of mindfulness to the sensations of the prana corresponding to the flow of the respiration you’re simply attending to those sensations, without grasping on to them as sensations of the breath, as sensations of the body, as anything at all, just spot on, be aware of them as they are. [25:12]

So in this way you can see, maybe you could imagine, if you’re doing this, and you are not kind of holding in the back of your mind - body, body’s breathing, I’m attending to my breathing and so forth, that conceptual grid, if you are loosening that and keeping it just here and now with whatever is being presented, in terms of these perturbations, these fluctuations, these immediately experienced sensations, that you might be able to imagine a little bit how you could follow that trajectory, and continue following that, following the rhythm even long after you’re aware of the body at all.

Because number one - it’s a true statement, unequivocally true, that in a dream, you can be aware of the rhythm of your body, of the body lying in bed even though you have no tactile awareness of your body lying in bed, you have no awareness of the sensations of your body lying in bed when you are in the midst of a dream. If you have any sensations of the body, it’s of your body in the dream but that’s not a physical body, it is purely mental And yet there it is, I mean it’s so, I find fascinating, that if you are practising mindfulness of breathing in a dream, you can do that, noting breath, long breath, short breath and so forth, you can do that. And you are in fact attending to the same rhythm of the breath of your body lying in bed, even though you have no experience, whatsoever of your body lying in bed. By way of one, you’re attracting the other because of the correlation. That’s already interesting, that you are out of the tactile realm and yet you are aware of the rhythm that is occurring unbeknownst to you in the tactile realm, that is in your body lying in bed. [27:26]

So final point then, if you are settling the mind in its natural state, and you are simply having a lot of emotions come up, desires, thoughts and memories, and that’s it, and you are just experiencing all of them, just oh - then you have this big emotion here and that big emotion there, and you want this and you remember that , and so forth, that’s not meditation, that’s just called hanging out with your mind, just doing the same old same old, nothing special there, you don’t need any special posture, you already been doing that for a long time. And so in this practice similarly, in this mindfulness of breathing, you’re bound to pick up, if you start going into this, start expecting maybe from day one, that some of the somatic experiences are not going to be so pleasant; eruptions occur, upheavals occur, nyam occur, and they can occur early. And that’s because there are already all these blockages, these knots and so forth in the body, and you may get introduced to these early on. If all you do is experience them, you know you’re mindfully breathing in, mindfully breathing out, and think boy, this sucks, oh my body is uncomfortable, breathing in it sucks, breathing out it sucks, oh I don’t like this, oh oh this is so tight, oh this is heavy [laughter] oh what’s the whole point, you don’t need to meditate for that, just go and walk around and feel bad all on your own, you don’t need any instruction from me. Because what you’re doing is the same old same old, it’s the cognitive fusion, my body, my feelings, my, my, my, I wish most of this would go away. I thought meditation was supposed to be fun, everybody else is having fun, what about me, you know? [29:15]

So then you’re just doing the same old thing. It’s just like daydreaming, the corresponding is just daydreaming. So let’s bring some wisdom to this practice and here it is, it’s a familiar refrain but now in the context of mindfulness of breathing. As you’re resting there in the stillness of your awareness, whatever’s coming up somatically, let it be. And the challenge here, and I know perfectly well what a big challenge this is, whatever is coming up in the field of the body, attend to it without preference. You can’t do that if you are identifying with it. But if you release the identification, then whether it’s unpleasant or it’s pleasant, it is what it is and just let it be an orphan. Let it just be arising and passing on its own accord. Just like memories, thoughts, emotions, and so forth. In the mind, somatic experiences, let them come and go, and you’re getting into the flow of this. When you can simply be resting there in the stillness of your awareness, aware of these fluctuations of the breath but also the surrounding field of what’s arising somatically throughout this field , and resting there without preference, without wishing the unpleasant feelings would go away, without hoping for anticipating that maybe some bliss will come one of these days. I hope the breath slows down, I hope the breath speeds up, I hope the breath gets rhythmic, I hope... No, stop. That’s it. Stop. And let the body sort itself out. [30:59]

This is what’s preventing the body from sorting itself out. All the grasping, the clinging, the hoping, the fear, all of that permeated by anxiety. How that’s going to work out. And likewise when one is aware of the mind, oh I hope these memories don’t come in, oh I had a bad dream last night, I hope that does not happen, oh oh oh. Again Vajra Essence says, look, this is just the nature of the mind, there are good days and bad days. An Arya bodhisattva probably has good days and bad days. You know, in terms of stuff happening to him or her, good days and bad days, you know, so get used to it, but don’t let that define your practice. Rest in the stillness, and there’s the path to liberation. Ok, that’s what we came up today. So now I can talk very little for the actual session. [31:51]

[Alan gives instruction to a student whose feet must be facing the altar] - Better turn the feet in the opposite direction. [30:40]

Meditation session.

Bell rings. [32:18]

[32:53 ] This afternoon, we’ll turn to the 4th of the four immeasurables - equanimity, so let’s apply this. This aspiration. The even-mindedness, impartiality, the inner calm, equipoise of the mind, free of the diversions and imbalances of craving and aversion. With this mindset, let’s enter into the practice, letting the awareness descend into the body and settle body, speech and mind in the natural state.

[35:25] Then resting your awareness in stillness, awareness holding its own ground, resting in its own place, let it illuminate the space of the body and selectively attend to those fluctuations, those sensations corresponding to the flow of the breath. Sustaining a non-conceptual flow of cognizance noting the duration of each in-and-out breath, whether it’s long or short. Arousing and focusing the attention with each in-breath, relaxing or loosening up with every out-breath.

[36:36] Single-pointedly focusing on the sensations of the respirations, such that whatever thoughts or other mental events arise, as they arise of themselves, let them dissolve away, of themselves, without intervention, without catching your attention, let them slip on by, leaving your awareness unperturbed, unmoving and let’s continue practising in silence.


[52:53] Oh la so. Enjoy your day.

Transcribed by Shirley Soh.

Revised by Cheri Langston.

Final edition by Rafael Carlos Giusti


Ask questions about this lecture on the Buddhism Stack Exchange or the Students of Alan Wallace Facebook Group. Please include this lecture’s URL when you post.