September 17, 2003 - First Class

Aaron: My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. I want to give a few meditation instructions and we will sit for a few more minutes in silence.

Bring your attention to your breath.
Feeling the soft flow of the breath at the nostrils. 
Breathing in and breathing out. 
If something calls your attention from the breath, as right now this voice, don't try to stay with the breath and push away the object. Be with whatever arises and is predominant in your experience. 
Know it as "hearing, hearing". 
Or if it's an itch or pain in your back, know that. Perhaps, "burning", or "tension". 
If a thought such as "what next?" comes, know "thinking", or "wondering". 
As the object changes or dissolves, come back to the breath.

This is basic vipassana meditation. Most of you have had a fair amount of instruction with this practice. It will be a part of our work together this year and I want to be sure that everybody has the basics of practice, so if you do not, please let Barbara know after the class.

Let us practice this for a few minutes. Present with the breath and present, with kindness and with interest, with whatever presents itself in the body or the mind. Do not become lost in that object. To watch the mind thinking is not the same as to get caught in the stories of the thoughts. To watch the body tense and contracted is not the same as to shift into the mind obsessing with dislike of that contracted state. Several minutes of quiet and we'll continue.


My intention for this class is that I will talk for 45 minutes to an hour. On many nights we will then break into small groups so that you can share within a safe, small, familiar group the homework exercises you have done, or any exercises related to my talk. And then we'll come back together in a large circle so that I can answer your questions.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to present an ongoing coherent teaching., The focus will be the living of non-duality. What do I mean by that?

Ten days ago Barbara was in Florida leading a vipassana retreat. They were on the edge of a hurricane, so while the weather was not dangerous, it was quite stormy. A river flowed by the grounds of the retreat center. The storm seemed to open the heavens in such a way that it felt like the river was washing down from the sky. The grounds between the Center building and the river were flooded almost knee deep. While grass still showed, if you walked across it you sunk in a foot into deep wet puddles..

On the one hand there was nothing there but water. Whatever water there was on the lawn would sink into the ground within a few days and work its way into the river. We could use that as a metaphor for the ultimate level. Letting go of the labels "river", "rain" and "puddle", there is just water. Since the building was high and safe, there was no need for concern. Just water.

On the relative level, after lunch Barbara walked the perhaps half a mile of sidewalk, a large loop that led through the grounds and swung back around to the river, like a large letter C. She walked this after lunch one day, and during a break in the rain. She sat by the river for 2 or 3 minutes, when rain started again, so she thought, "I guess I need to walk back." But then, (clap!) suddenly an immense downpour, raining so hard she literally could not see through it more than a few feet. No danger; she knew which way the river was; she knew where the Center was.

On the ultimate level, just water. On the relative level, a human being getting soaked by rain. It is skillful to seek shelter. One does not seek shelter motivated by fear but by wisdom. Standing out by a river in a thunderstorm is not such a good idea. One seeks shelter. She didn't realize how deep the water was on the lawn because she could see grass growing; she thought it was just several inches of water, until she started to take the shortcut back to the center, and found herself in a foot of water.

In that moment, first her mind created a duality again. Ugh! Mud! Puddles! She was wearing sandals. How damaged could they get? The dual mind creates a self and an other, an object and subject. The non-dual mind simply notes, water. Water above me, water below me, water beside me, water.

The lightning was far away; she could see that. Her fear resolved itself quickly and she just stood there enjoying the rain, getting wet. There was a bench. She sat down on the bench in the downpour. I remind you, this is Florida. It was quite warm, not chilly at all. So she sat down on the bench there by the river, watching the driving rain, watching the water flow past, flow down, and she closed her eyes and began to feel the same water, the fluids of her own body, for the body is largely fluid. She became the rain, the rain became her. She spent a very wonderful 10 minutes just sitting on a bench in the downpour, fully connected to that water within and without.

The lightning was getting closer. The storm was becoming even fiercer. From the relative perspective, the wisdom voice said, "It's time to go inside." Not based on fear. No separation in it. Based on kindness. "Time to go inside." So she waded across the lawn and went in, showered, and put on dry clothes.

She noticed as she stepped into the shower how the shower was just the rain in another form. And then she had a cup of tea, more rain in another form: the elements, which are a part of everything.

Much of our work together this semester is going to be looking at the non-duality of ultimate and relative experience. The relative experience is real. There are real human beings sitting here. Cassie is not Martha. Kevin is not Colleen. But on another level there is simply one awareness gathered in this circle.

The difficulty so many of you have is not in seeing the relative or even an experiencing the ultimate, but in seeing them together. When you lose track of the ultimate, it's much easier for fear to begin to command the relative experience. You might also hide out in the ultimate and deny the relative experience. But when you stay grounded in the ultimate and connected to the realtive, it is much easier to approach the relative experience with clarity, kindness, and spaciousness.

There are certain clues that you have, and here is where the vipassana practice becomes so important. When you lose touch with that pure awareness, and move off into the separate self, one of the experiences that helps you note that shift into the separate self is a physical body contraction. I think you're all familiar with that kind of contraction. Often we do not note it. We just slip into that fear-based separate state without noting that that shift is happening. If you don't see the shift happening, then you forget that the ultimate state is also there and available.

Barbara likes to tell a story about jumping into a rapids in a river in Georgia. There were high rocks and large rapids. There was a deep, clear pool under a high foot waterfall. No rocks. Many people were jumping into that pool. It was safe. But the rock was perhaps 15 feet high, a big jump, and the water was tumultuous as it came over this large waterfall. When you jumped from the rock into that pool, the current caught you immediately and tumbled you head over heels, shot you downriver 20 or 30 yards, to where the river began to widen and became shallow. Finally, in another 30 yards, one came to a place where the water was only thigh deep, and the current not so strong that one could not stand up.

Barbara is a very strong swimmer. She worked up her courage and jumped. She felt the current grab her and turn her upside down. Because of her ears, she doesn't have a good sense of up and down, no balance mechanism in the ear, but she could see which way was up by the light., The water caught her, spun her around, shot her down the river, and then there was a moment when she separated, moved into a space of contraction and fear, for she needed a breath and didn't feel able to pull her head above the water and fight the current. That's just it--she was separate and fighting with something else, with water, with current.

So I said to her in that moment of tension, "just put your feet down". She was horizontal in the water. As she turned herself more vertical and put her feet down, the water was only to her hips. "Put your feet down and stand up".

When you are connected with the ultimate, you always have the ability to put your feet down and stand. When you forget that place of non-separation and move into the contracted space of the separate self, you forget, "I am connected with all that is. All I need to do is put my feet down and stand up."

Some of you will feel that move into separation as contraction in the physical body. Some of you will feel it primarily energetically, experiencing a different energy when you move into that separate state. Some of you will feel it by what seems to be a tension in the mind.

I had asked you as part of the preliminary exercise for the class to look at something that was an ongoing push for you, and to watch the way you move into separation with that push, and react to it from the small self, losing touch with your innate compassion, losing touch with your innate wisdom and intention to non-harm.

As we begin this class, you're going to work specifically with your catalyst, whatever each of you has chosen. You're not trying to fix something in yourself. You're simply trying to watch the process. What moves you into a space of separation?

When you move into that space of separation, that which is aware of moving into separation does not experience separation. Right there is non-separation. Right there is my voice saying, "Stop! Breathe! Put your feet down!"

The beginning focus for this class, then: you'll be learning to rest in that spacious observer that can watch the tension in the body, watch the tension in the mind, watch the energetic shift. I'd like you to use the simple note, "separating". It's not a judging or condemning kind of note, just an observation: in this moment, separating. I want you to become adept at knowing that experience of separation. That's step 1.

Step 2: when you move into that experience of separation, what is your habitual response to it? Some of you will note separating with some self-judgment and tighten further, thus further separating yourself. Others of you may note that experience of separating with more kindness, may be able to watch the move into separating. As I put it, "That which is aware of separating is not separate." Watch "separating" from this observer's stance. You are not disassociating with the experience of separating. If you deny fear, that is a way of further separating from fear. Our practice here is to become intimate with our fear, with our discomfort, or whatever has arisen, to become intimate with it but not to identify with it and continue the move into separation.

It is so important that there be no judgment, but if judgment does arise, that just becomes another push. Here is the experience of separation, and then, here is the experience of judging the self. If that is your habitual reaction, just watch it. Again, that which is aware of judgment is not judging. We can watch the judging mind without getting caught in its stories, without shifting into a belief, "I am a judging kind of person." The judgment is a result. In fact, the experience of separation is a result. They are the results of conditions. We watch the conditions. If we want to affect the result, we attend to the conditions. A primary condition for separating is fear. When we judge the fear, harden ourselves, we further separate.

So we have 2 parts to our work so far. First, to watch the experience of separation. If you get lost in it momentarily, that's okay. Whenever you see "separation," simply note the predominant experience, such as hardening in the throat or the belly, tension, or armoring yourself energetically. Then, second, what is your habitual reaction with this experience of separating?

Through both of these stages, the question lies behind, can you just put your feet down? You're still in the middle of the river. The water is rushing past. It may even knock you off your feet once or twice as you wade toward the shore, but it's not a problem.

In part 1 we saw separating as a result. It grew out of conditions. In part 2 we saw there is a certain habit energy, how you usually react to separating. This is also a result. How do you respond to the habit energy?

We come to part 3. When you feel yourself being turned head over heels, can you put your feet down and at the same time have compassion for yourself and all the humans that are caught in this rushing river we call incarnation? In short, can you remember that you are divine spirit as well as human? Part 3 acknowledges the tension of separating, the tension of negative reaction to the experience of separation, and knows there is a choice. That choice can only be brought forth when there is wisdom to know the choice and compassion for the human feeling tossed by the wild waters of life.

You came here to learn. You came here for the human experience. It doesn't do any good to deny the human experience, but if you get lost in the human experience and forget who you are, then your life simply becomes one of armoring, pushing and holding without any clarity or love, without any insight into the process with which you flow.

In the coming weeks, we're going to look very specifically at certain areas of body distortion. I'm going to have you each choose one area: the belly, the throat, the back, a place where there is recurrent pain or distortion. The distortion is not caused by a habitual reaction in you. It has many causes. Some of it is genetic, environmental, or based simply the way you move, your weight, your body proportions, or the kinds of food you eat. But we will also begin to see how we hold that distortion in place habitually.

I want to use the physical body as a way of deeply investigating karma and the whole flow of habitual tendency. It's sometimes easier to see in the physical body than the mental and emotional bodies.

In preparation for that, and as part of our current work, I would ask each of you to observe when you feel yourself falling into that turbulent river, what part of the body habitually tightens? When you're in a traffic jam, where do you hold tension? When someone is expressing anger at you, where do you hold tension? When you feel body pain, where do you hold tension? I simply ask you to be increasingly aware of this in the coming weeks.

And, what is your habitual response to that tension? To get caught in the story? To separate from it? To ignore it? To try to control it? To offer it kindness? If offering it kindness, are you doing it in order to fix it, or, let me put it this way, is there a self offering kindness as a kind of blackmail or are you allowing the innate kindness of the loving heart to emerge, touching the whole scene with kindness?

This investigation is not so different than the prior listed parts 1 and 2, but here we are looking especially at the body and the habitual place where tension is held.

We are going to get into these teachings gradually. Some of you have met these teachings before and others have not. For those for whom it is new, I ask you to read the transcripts carefully when you get them back, to digest any new words and definitions. There is a lot that I wish to cover here. I'm not going to repeat myself but ask you to be responsible for what has already been taught. It is our hope that the transcripts will be available within a week of the class, giving you another week to read and digest them before the next class.

For tonight, I want to offer 3 terms that are going to be basic to our work here. These could be said in English, but the foreign words are very precise in their meaning, and I think it simplifies to share these words with you and ask you to add them to your vocabulary, so that one simple word may cover a paragraph of conversation. Then when I use a word we all understand exactly what is said.

First, the word "kaya" simply means "body". Dharma means truth, thus dharmakaya could be translated as truth body. Other articulations of this are God and Goddess, That Which Is, the Unconditioned, the Ever-Perfect.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the word "nirmana" means "form". Nirmanakaya is the form body. Please do not think of nirmanakaya only as the physical body. Anger is an expression of a form body. Desire is an expression of it. Planning is a kind of form. These are the physical, mental, and the emotional forms which make up relative reality.

We can use the image of a pure underground spring as metaphor for dharmakaya. The water is absolutely pure. There's nothing that touches that water. In its source, it cannot become tainted there under the ground. But unless you go under the ground to it, you can't access it. It's as if there is a film covering it; you can't get into it.

The water spurts up through a crack in the rock and begins to run off down the hillside. It forms a stream. This is the outer expression of the spring, the nirmanakaya expression. Of course, it can pick up distortions from the air and soil. Insects can fall into it. Animals can wade in and muddy it.

And yet, there is nothing in that stream but the pure water and that of the relative plane that has touched the pure water. The pure water is still there. It hasn't gone anywhere. In the same way, the ultimate, the Unconditioned, God, is always there. And the stream with its relative plane distortions is always there.

We'll start with these two words, dharmakaya and nirmanakaya. There is a third body, a third kaya: sambhogakaya. This is what we call transition body. I'll explain this to you next week. For now, I want you to observe how in every moment in the relative world, the dharmakaya is there pushing through. Where do you put your focus? If you focus on the soil and the water, the oil slick on top, the trash, you can say the pure water is gone. You contract your energy asking, "How do we clean up this stream?" You forget that the perfect water is still there.

If you ignore the oil slick on top, and the trash, and drink the water, you're going to get a bellyache. You can't pretend that the relative is not there. To drink from the stream, you need to filter it. The perfect water is there AND the distortions are there. It is the same way in your life. If you contract and give your energy constantly to fixing the distortions, you forget the Ever-Perfect that is always with you. If you refuse to acknowledge the relative, you can't learn. There may be a profound experience of the Unconditioned, but you cannot bring that into everyday life. How do we learn this balance?

These are questions we'll work with in practice. For now, all I ask of you is to be aware: when you contract, forgetting the dharmakaya, forgetting the Ever-Perfect, to remind yourself, "Come back! Put my feet down. Reconnect." For those of you who tend to hide in the Ever-Perfect and want to push away the relative plane. Ask yourself, "How can I be more present in the difficulty of this moment? How can I open my heart and stay connected to both dharmakaya and nirmanakaya?"

I want to tell a short story here to conclude my talk. Last week Barbara was working in her garden. She has not weeded it all summer as she's been out at the lake. As she started pulling out weeds, suddenly she connected with a yellow jacket nest. They flew out angry, surrounding her. She had on only a bathing suit. They stung her on the thigh, on the shoulder, on the throat, on the face. And of course she started swatting at them. She turned to run, to try to run inside. As she got to the doorway, she realized that her dog was chained in the yard, and that if they stopped following her they would probably turn on the dog, as he was only a few feet away. So she knew she had to go back and get the dog.

There was pain, there was fear. There was the clear intention, "I cannot leave my dog to these yellow jackets. And the only way to walk back and get him is to stop swatting." So she stopped and stood still. She took a deep breath. And then she walked back slowly to the dog, unclipped him, acting precisely, not lazily, but not with panicked motions. She took the dog, led him inside. Yes, there was still fear. And, simultaneously, she invited herself to be aware that these yellow jackets were afraid, that she had disturbed their nest. They were just being wasps, protecting their territory. She asked herself to do metta with them.

She still got one more sting, but only one, although they were still swarming around. She walked inside. Yesterday she went back to that area of the garden to pick up the tools she had left there, and all the clippings. She did not know where the nest was but she made a point not to go directly into that area of the garden where she thought the nest was. She picked up a few things, and suddenly there was a swarm of yellow jackets again. Again, the impulse to bat at them. This time, she had left the dog inside, realizing that she might meet them again, and this time she wore a long shirt, long pants and a hat.

She stood still. She had a towel and covered her face. She got ten stings on her hand. She just walked slowly towards the house. The yellow jackets are going to be yellow jackets. They are defending their territory.

It did not make the sting any less unpleasant. It did not reduce the pain of the sting. But probably she got fewer stings because she didn't react with fear. She invited herself to stay connected to the Unconditioned while simultaneously acting skillfully to seek cover. Notice she did not just sit and meditate there in the middle of the yellow jackets! She did not try to pretend they didn't exist.

This is the balance I ask you to seek. We're going to break into small groups now. I think all or at least most of you received the talk that I gave and was transcribed several weeks ago, inviting you to look at this in your lives. In the small groups I want you to share your experience with the group. You'll find things that the group has in common. You'll find places where your response is very individual.

You all have a lot of wisdom and I invite you to share it.. For the most part in the group, I would like you simply to talk. Don't try to teach each other; just hear each other. But if you feel deeply moved to share something from your own experience that resonates with what another is saying, please do that. We will spend half an hour now in small group. Then we will come together in this larger circle to hear any questions about tonight's talk... That is all. 

Return to the large circle after the group meetings.

Barbara: Some of you have never seen this exercise. One group was doing it. Aaron says, let's share it so everybody has seen it. Here is a perfect unwrinkled sheet of paper. Yes? (Barbara holds up a clean sheet of paper; crumples it. unfolds it.) Where is the perfect unwrinkled sheet of paper? Can you see it right there in the wrinkled sheet? No denial of the wrinkles, the wrinkles are there. Where would the perfect sheet of paper go? Can you see that it's there?

Aaron: I am Aaron. This is your further exercise for these 2 weeks. When you sit in meditation, I would like you to try to connect with that perfect unwrinkled sheet of paper within, even if only for a moment. It is that moment of resting in non-dual awareness. It's not necessarily a moment when there are no thoughts or physical sensations, but there's no contracted energy chasing after those thoughts or sensations, trying to hold them or push them away. Thus, it is a moment of non-contraction, resting in the uncontracted state.

What I'm asking you to do is to recognize the existence of that uncontracted state. Some of you have done dzogchen meditation with us. We call this "seeing the view." Seeing the uncontracted right there in the midst of contractions. It's not a big deal, just that moment of noting, "Ah, that's it." Or that was it, it's gone. But that was it.

I also want you to notice the wrinkles. At times in formal meditation practice, and at times in the busyness of your daily life, with mindfulness, when there is such a wrinkle, a contracted energy, tension, I want you to ask, "Where is the uncontracted?" Earlier tonight I asked you to just note the experience of contracting, perhaps of separating, and the habit energy that accompanies that contraction. Adding to that assignment, our part 3, without abandoning contraction, without denying contraction, can you touch even for a moment on the Uncontracted? Sometimes it may feel like just theory, mental gymnastics. But if you're persistent, there will be times when you find yourself resting in awareness and aware of the push, aware of the tension, aware of the bee sting, aware of somebody's anger or the traffic jam. Not either/or but both/and. This is all I want you to do, to find the Ever-Perfect sheet of paper. And when you get caught up in identification with the wrinkles and lose the perfect sheet, to remind yourself to come back to it.

Other questions? I pause.

Barbara: He asks, is this clear to everybody? Any questions? He says we will be building on this all year. This is a basic foundation for all the places we'll be going with it this year. Many of you are already familiar with this, and that's fine. But he wants everybody to have this basic building block.

That's all, we'll see you in 2 weeks...

Copyright © 2003 by Barbara Brodsky