Learning to reside in being

During the spring I attended a course with Loch Kelly on what he calls “awake awareness.” I met Loch during a retreat last year with Mingyur Rinpoche, when he mentioned the course to me. In truth, I wasn’t terrifically open at the time.

Loch’s background is in the Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings, largely, though he speaks with more of an Advaita/Vedanta vernacular, and he’s been authorized to teach by both Mingyur and Adyashanti. What Loch offers is akin to pointing-out instructions, but without any required preliminary training. As someone who has done those trainings in relatively traditional Theravadan settings, it’s a big shift to practice in a satsang-style environment. But the conditions arose such that I was curious and open, and so I signed up.

At first glance, one of the most jarring differences in practice style is the (seeming) emphasis of speech over silence. After my first 6-hour class with Loch, I immediately went to a session with Adyashanti for another 2.5 hours, and by the end I felt like my head was going to explode. It was difficult for me to sustain that level of, I don’t even know how to describe it…perhaps that level of active and engaged inquiry. After the last class, it all felt a bit more natural and this body-mind wasn’t suffering from over-stimulation as much. I would suppose it was, on the one hand, a matter of becoming accustomed to a different practice style and on the other, a putting into effect the tools that Loch was sharing with us. Because practice in the Buddhist tradition so often is done in silence, I found it both challenging and rewarding to explore this “residing in being”–a term I welcome as meditating, in the sense of the word I tend to use, which is not dependent on particular conditions, a daily life practice–in the midst of so much talking, even from a place of talking.

As a related aside, I’d like to consider how we respond to the unfamiliar in our spiritual practice. So often if it’s a different form or language, we may be dismissive, or worse. Undoubtedly, when resistance arises, it’s a clear sign that there’s something worth exploring there. Whatever it is that’s causing the resistance may or may not offer content that is instructive in and of itself–that’s not the point, but if we can stay with the resistance we will probably learn something important. I remember when I was first introduced to Adyashanti, I wasn’t really up on the nondual Advaita scene, and I was in a meditation center in Burma when this other American yogi shows up with a bunch of Adya talks and videos. A few of the English-speaking yogis had been coordinating taped Dhamma talks every few days, since we only met with the teacher once a week or so. Until that time, we’d mostly listened to teachers from the Insight Meditation Society, the Vipassana Teacher’s Council, people who had perhaps studied with Sayadaw U Tejaniya, whom I somehow thought were automatically teaching something compatible. (Not necessarily so, of course!) So when the Adya tapes started showing up, and then didn’t go away, I was a little resentful. And I had a physical reaction to this man–specifically, “What a glossy, money-hungry, disgrace to Buddhism!” At the same time, I was thinking, “There’s definitely a lot of wisdom here, I mean, I like what he’s saying I just wish his voice were different and he didn’t look like that and there weren’t all those sheep in the auditorium cooing and cawing over him.” I’ve always been leery of cult of personality. Big surprise. So this Adya aversion took a long time to wear off, but it did. And I did my best to work with it in the meantime.

Given my proclivity for choiceless awareness, I generally don’t respond well to guided meditations either. But when I attended an event with Reggie Ray in the fall, I was surprised how much I appreciated his emphasis on somatic experience and the energy body. I found it very grounding and complementary to a formless practice approach. Similarly, by the time I made my way to Loch’s class, I was quite open to the exercises that he presented us. An example was his interpretation of Ramana Maharshi’s “cave of the heart” meditation–where he led us into that space and suggested that the effect of being there would be akin to deep sleep. When someone says, this is what your experience is going to be like–unless I suspend disbelief I will just go into total shutdown mode. And the reality is, the body was reacting, and contracting, as a result of ideas I have about what meditation is and a disbelief that anyone can know what my experience would be like. So while other people emerged from this exercise (which was one of our longer periods of “silence”–close to 10 minutes, though punctuated with Loch’s voice), with adjectives like “blissful” and “peaceful”, I felt on the contrary, contraction–closing. But at the same time, I felt a softening and a deep healing. And what was incredible was that during the exercise, I was truly able to focus on the heart center, to localize awareness. This is something that I really resist–this kind of concentration (especially if someone is telling me to), because it seems unnatural. I found Loch’s course to be really helpful in demonstrating just how much I actually use focusing techniques, although generally in a rather loose way, to ground my practice.

As a final exercise for each of our classes, we did partner inquiry. What this entailed was pairing up with another student and asking a series of koan-like questions (e.g., “Where is the hearer?” or “Tell me about that which is aware?”), and we then repeated the questions three or four times to each other, resulting in a different answer almost every time. Our objective was to speak from a place of pre-conceptual wakefulness. No easy thing to do. I’ve often thought language was virtually 100% dependent on thought. But it’s definitely possible to speak from this place of no-thought. As you engage in the exercise, you can observe the mind searching for familiar avenues of problem-solving at the same time as you can observe, feel, and be that which isn’t seeking at all. And that is where an answer emerges from. From both places really. There are of course no right or wrong answers and most were provided with one word alone. Clearly, the questions we asked by their very nature helped cultivate this state of mind, whereas everyday conversation might be a bit more challenging. Like the talking meditation that we engaged in at Shwe Oo Min (and perhaps our writing online) or Gregory Kramer’s insight dialogue, partner inquiry provides supportive conditions to explore interpersonal communication as a form of spiritual practice. It is an extremely valuable teaching and one for which I depend wholeheartedly on Dhamma friends. So thank you!

What I learn through these exercises is that the silence of non-resistance, of open-hearted interest, awakeness–whether it’s in the midst of activity or not–is unchanging and always accessible. Clearly, there are many ways for us to cultivate a mind and heart that operates from awareness and wisdom (as my teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya would say–I propose not different from awake awareness).

With gratitude and wonder, I honor all the teachers that have come into my life so effortlessly.

Incidentally, Adya has since become a favorite

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9 Comments

  1. I won’t pretend to understand the approaches you describe (the failure is mine, totally – not yours), but they sound similar in some ways to work I’ve been doing over the past 5 years. This work arises out of in-the-moment relationship – the ways in which we dance together. The “dance” serves to hold up a mirror, thereby illuminating reality.

    Now, what’s most interesting to me about this work is that sometimes I don’t want to look in the mirror – I turn away, using humor, rage, victimhood, misdirection, or other similar techniques. The beauty of this work is that others will let me know immediately when I’ve turned away. Then I can choose to look, or not. I find the direct honesty of this work exhilarating and unsettling, depending on what I’m seeing, and there are times when I hate it. But I’ve come to know myself (and others) with a clarity that I never imaged and had not experienced in 20 years of sitting on a cushion.

    So, yes, there are many ways to awaken. Thank goodness!

    Reply
    • Barry, I don’t think there’s really anything esoteric about this kind of work. I assume you’ve done koan practice. Just imagine instead of taking years to work through one, you cultivate that same kind of knowing right in the moment of hearing, speaking…Thank you also for the description of the dance you do…You always add value to the conversation here. Sometimes I think the whole of practice is actually relationship, for just what you describe. In gratitude, Katherine

      Reply
  2. Thank you Katherine. I appreciate your open-ness and embracing of these various practices. Different person, different time, different place, different needs . . . For myself, I find myself going more in the other direction, and simplifying the practice to only a few bare essentials. And realizing the difficulty of ‘just practicing’, and facing the wall from not wanting to feel what is not pleasant. Seeing deluded mind!

    Reply
  3. EBE

     /  July 10, 2011

    Thanks, Katherine for sharing. For myself, I feel that many teachers are not helpful for clarity, but this is a very personal feeling. I’m glad for you for all this generosity of the universe in your life and practice.

    Much Meta

    EBE

    Reply
    • Thank you EBE. Some of it is just being open to listening and learning, some of it is absolutely right teacher, right time, right practice. It’s all good. Even when I write on topics that don’t resonate as much, I so appreciate your continued presence here!

      Reply
  4. Hi Katherine. It is refreshng to hear from a committed practitioner from a Vipassana background who is open to other approaches. Particularly being open in an investigative and sincere way (as opposed to supermarket shopping).

    I don’t feel so alone when I encounter people like you who are from a similar background to myself and have the same questions, (healthy) doubts and explorations. And are brave enough to pursue them. I also love your vulnerability and honesty.

    I now realise the value of teachers who are actually awake (Adya etc). Prior to this realisation I didn’t properly comprehend thatt there actually ARE free and awake people who can teach and are open to relationship available. Instead I was simply generating projections and dreams of what an enlightened teacher would be like, based on my own wishful, self-serving thinking. I was not really up for encountering the real deal.

    I could read books forever or go on retreats forever and I suspect it would be just going around in circles. Something more is necessary.

    Having actually now encounterred a fully awakened teacher physically, there is no going back. It’s not easy, because all my fears, insecurities, false identity etc get glaringinly revealed in his fire. There is nowhere to hide. This is what is required though.

    My background, like yours was in Theravdan Insight Meditation. It was too easy for me to co-opt this though for my own game, my own agenda. I only began to see this when I investigated other teachings (with an actual teacher). It seems as well that often in Theravadan an dInsight tradition the power of transmission – the visceral and profound effect the actual presence of a being can have is not talked about (and or not valued).

    There is also a lot of emphasis on suffering, getting somewhere and progress. My ambitious mind loved that, my heart was left in the cold though.

    I can be an angry rebel and conforming to a particular practice (especially anything with a whiff of dogma por ‘rote’ practice) really goes against the grain for me. And this may be self-serving comfort….I take solace that what appear to be truly awake teachers/beings (Adya, Ramana, The Buddha, Dipa Ma, Anandamayi Ma, Jesus, Nisargadatta, Osho, Adi Da etc) are or were very much carving their own path. There is no going through the motions or tyring to be ‘good at something’ or ‘achieve something’. They are just there, being who they are. It was or is the people around them that try and turn things in to a structure or religion it seems.

    Have you read any Joan Tollifson (I see the link to her site is on this site)? She seems to have gone through a similar ‘process’ as well. Her book ‘Painting the Sidewalk with Water’ is superb and brutally honest.

    Thanks for your post.

    Reply
    • Dearest Karl, thank you for your rich comments. I regret not having responded sooner. You touch on so many things that really stir me – the idea of there being nowhere to hide and the importance of a physical teacher and community of spiritual support to ensure that; the tension between effort and effortlessness that manifests in the seeming contrast of say Theravada and Advaita approaches; the being a light unto oneself, the pure be-ING. I am familiar with Joan Tollifson’s writings, though only from her website. I appreciate the book recommendation and your thoughtful presence here. It is important to feel kinship. It surprises me how much not feeling a sense of belonging still smarts. May you be well, Katherine

      Reply
  5. Allison

     /  October 19, 2012

    Thanks for sharing this story. I also close when I hear ” this is what is going to happen” I went to a session with Loch this week and even though he said it I shifted from outer perception to perceiving from inside. So beautiful. I thanked him after and asked jokingly” why did you have to talk so mic in the beginning”

    Reply

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