April 9, 2014 Wednesday, IMC Class, Vision is Mind Discussion

This is a partial transcript of the class instruction and discussions.

Dan and Ajahn Thanasanti have not reviewed their portions of this transcript.

Aaron: My blessings to you, Ajahn. (greeting Ajahn Thanasanti who is a guest tonight) I'm very happy to see you and spend some time with you. I look forward to an opportunity to talk.

Let's focus on basic practice. Objects arise into your experience because the conditions are present for them to arise. In themselves, they are empty. They are simply the flow of conditions. They may be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. They are just passing through your mind. We bring attention to whatever arises in the mind, the body. We begin to see the interrelationship of mind and body.

Looking at our present work, Vision is Mind. It has arisen in the mind, it has arisen in the experience, but it has no solidity to it. As Dan demonstrated last week with space, weaving the fingers around and seeing this hand, and moving around and the space, the simultaneity of object and space. Neither is more important than the other, but we begin to look at this object and see how it simply has arisen out of condition\ns, and then it dissolves and the space remains. The space is what we call a conditioned expression of the Unconditioned. In other words, the space in itself is not the Unconditioned, but it is one manifestation of the Unconditioned.

How many of you have worked with nada as a primary object? (some hands raised) This is a conditioned expression of the Unconditioned. How many have worked with luminosity? (some) How many have worked with energy? (some)These are all conditioned expressions of the Unconditioned, by which I mean they do not need any other condition for their arising. They do not seem to arise or pass away. And yet they are not the Unconditioned itself, they're one step back from the Unconditioned.

The value, then, is to perceive both the more mundane object, the physical sensation, hearing or touch, the thought arising, and so forth, and to simultaneously experience whatever expression of the Unconditioned is powerful for you in that moment. It may be space, it may be nada. We don't hold on to the space, to the nada, to the luminosity, and push away the object, but begin to experience the simultaneity of it. If the arising object is very strong, of course it will grab your attention and you may lose nada or spaciousness. And then you come back to it.

I want you to develop a balance where you start to see that whatever arises on the mundane level, in the mind and body, there doesn't have to be identification with it or any idea of fixing it or doing anything special with it. Just let it be. Be present with it. Don't ignore it, be present with it and simultaneously rest in awareness in whatever form that awareness takes, whether it's a strong object of luminosity or nada or experience of space or energy, or simply resting in the breath.

Does this make sense? Are there any questions? This is what I'd like you to do now for this half hour of sitting. Again, any questions? Let us sit, then.


Barbara: Good evening, and to those who came in late, we are very blessed to have Ajahn Thanasanti with us tonight. She lives in Colorado, and she's here to lead the retreat at Howell this weekend. We met 17 years ago at Amaravati, where she was living as a nun. I was there visiting and we connected, we became friends and deeply value each other's friendship. So whenever she's in town, I've always wanted her to come and speak to my classes, to share with my classes.

As I said earlier, we're putting aside some of our planned program tonight to leave room for Ajahn Thanasanti to share whatever she wants to share, but also we do want to follow up some with what's been happening with you as you worked with the Vision is Mind, Mind is Empty practice. We're reading the chapter in The Dalai Lama's Cat, where he has taken up residence and he's very comfortable and happy, and then suddenly he walks into the room one day and there's a dog there. People are paying attention to the dog, patting him and telling him what a good dog he is, and our cat is very upset. “He's stealing my attention. They always told me how special I am and now they're telling him.” So we see the envy coming up, and how he doesn't like the dog, and is questioning how long is this dog going to stay. How long doe our Lhasa Paso or our famous person stay around?

Then he learns that like himself, the dog was an orphan, or had been abandoned, and was found in dire circumstances close to death, and suddenly his heart opens to the dog. He begins to not see the dog as a competitor anymore. This ties in with the Vision is Mind practice, the famous person. For the cat, this dog was the famous person.

We asked people last week to look at this chapter and to look at your own famous person, and how working with the Vision is Mind, Mind is Empty practice helps to release some of the tension around it. It doesn't have to be a person. It can be an event, or whatever it might be. And what else helps to support. We talked about the Brahma Viharas and other supports. But especially, really seeing how the envy or anger or discomfort that's coming up is so deeply based on the conditioning of the mind. When we come into “Mind is Empty”, that we see that it's just conditions moving through. What remains when we're not attached to the conditions? So that was the assignment we gave at the end of class last time.

Let's just invite sharing, here. Dan, Amy, Ajahn Thanasanti and I may speak to some of what you share, or share some of our own experiences that relate to this.

Q: I have been completely unsuccessful with the famous person exercise because it automatically turns into tonglen. Tonight, within about 10 seconds of Aaron speaking, I had a download of emptiness and a bigger understanding of emptiness. And that's where I'm at right now.

Barbara: Tonglen can be a natural expression of emptiness.

Can you tell us more about the experience, the “download of emptiness”? Please share it; it sounds lovely.

Q: A big soft cushion of warmth, an experience of strong emotion, being... empty. And testing it on some other emotions while listening, and finding there's nothing there.

Barbara: This “nothing there” can be intellectual, but it sounds like you experienced it at a much deeper level. It would be helpful for all of us to share; it's something that's very hard to articulate. But when we really open into that emptiness, it's such an authentic experience. It really shifts things. What is this experience of emptiness? How does it feel? How do we know it, not as intellectual but something really in the heart? I'm asking anybody.

Q (adding to above): I just had trouble settling (in the meditation) and did not get back to that emptiness.

Dan: Tenzin Wangyal talks about the water and the ocean. If the waves are high or the waves are very low, whatever character the ocean is, it's still wet. And you can focus on the size of the waves, or you can focus on the wetness, and neither is more important than the other. But that's kind of the experience of Vision is Mind we're going for: what is the character of the mind, in the same way that the character of water is wetness. What are some of the things that you can say about the way that mind is.

(A follow-up question for Q by Ajahn, was she able to piece together what happened from the experience of download to the experience of unsettledness? Does she have a memory of what was going on in her body? Discussion.)

(Question: what does “Vision” mean?)

Dan: You bring to mind, you imagine, it's an imagination. You can choose any imagination you want, theoretically. But for the purposes of this exercise, he wants you to pick what he calls a “famous person,” which is someone who grates on you, someone you have difficulty with. And then you look at this, you get into the experience of this vision that you're having of this person that you bring to mind. And you realize that it's not the actual person, it's just your imagination of the person. And that distinction is very important because it's the basis for the rest of the practice. You go to vision, and you figure out the character of this vision. Then you figure out the Vision is Mind, and that it's your mind. What is the character of the mind? Well, it's empty.

Q: So the word relates simply to this exercise, this practice.

Dan: Yes. It's a vision. It can be a famous person or it can be your experience in the moment. It can be a part of you. It can be whatever you decide to imagine.

Barbara: (Offers example of imagining one is seeing a wasp nest in a tree, but it isn't really a wasp nest; the stories that come up are all happening in the mind: Vision is Mind. Seeing it's the outplay of old conditioning in the mind. It's all flowing, but who is experiencing this? Where is it solid? It's just the flow of conditions: Mind is Empty.)

We will go into the next stage, Emptiness is Pure Light. This is where we begin to get into the akashic field work, starting to understand what that means. This is all foundation for working within the akashic field. With the akashic field work, we see the simultaneity, the very real existence of something hanging from a tree and seeing: contact and consciousness. The very real experience of contraction based on a perception or misperception. And we also see the spaciousness, what Q just described as emptiness. We really start to know the experience of that emptiness and be able to rest there.

For those of you who have done pure awareness practice, it's just this resting in awareness, the spaciousness of resting in awareness, and not choosing to deny the object because the resting in awareness is strong, and not choosing to get caught up in the object and losing the awareness, but the simultaneity of both. At that place of simultaneity is where we can begin to access the akashic field and literally change things. So that seeing the wasp nest—fear, tension, staying with it, and then the deep realization, “Okay, once I was badly stung by wasps, but they're 25 yards away. They're not bothering me. Am I going out to bother them or are they coming in to bother me? I'm going out to bother them. My mind is, because I perceive they could be dangerous.”

This is perhaps a little bit confusing at first, but energetically when I send the energy out and say, “Wasps! They could come and sting me!” at some energetic level I'm inviting the experience of that sting. If there's somebody who's angry at me and I look at him and say, “He could pick a fight with me,” that energy that I'm sending out invites him to walk over to me with anger. But when I immediately see it's just wasps, it's just an angry face, and there's an authentic experience of compassion for the whole thing, I send out a very different energy that shifts the karma. (To Q) This is where your shift to tonglen comes in. And this is where we get into the akashic field practice. We'll talk more about this next class.

(Comments about vipassana practice being essential, and on the ego's experience of terror at emptiness.)

(Question: aren't the Brahma Viharas also kind of ego-supportive? Discussion. Each of them can be cultivated as a practitioner—me cultivating this—and each of them can be like expressions of our innate nature (not reinforcing ego).)

AT: I'd like to pause and take a slight digression, and describe something that I've been experiencing the last many years in contact with nature. In the year 2000 I went and spent two years living in the bush of Australia. That was the first time I learned how to relate to nature in a way where it was a mirror for my own mind, where I could see what was happening outside as an expression of what was going on inside.

In the last 4 ½ years I've lived in Colorado Springs next to the Garden of the Gods, which is a sacred site. There are rock formations that are 160 million years old. For thousands of years the native tribes would gather there and have a ceremony, even tribes who had been at war with each other. They had an agreement that that was a sacred place. So when I go into the Garden, I relax my body into the rocks. It's like my first effort is just to totally let go of having a body, of having any kind of identification with thoughts, or even being identified with the mind. I just let go. What I let go into feels like all-pervasive awareness and unconditional love. And in that there are no problems. Nothing is a problem. Everything that is known, that is arising, is seen, but it has no sticking capacity in something that's that vast. In that, it's really clear to see: I am not doing. There is <ressing/resting>, there is being, there is embracing, there is being in complete relationship, but the sense of me has dissolved enough that what is the predominant experience is something vast, timeless, and spacious.

Now, using nature and using powerful places in nature is a slightly different practice than Vision is Mind, Mind is Empty, where there is the interest to frame things in a particular way and let that framing be a stepping stone to the emptiness. There's no framing in this practice with nature, there's just letting go into something that I perceive or feel or connect with. And from that, have another way of relating to what is going on in the world, and my own world.

Q: Will any nature do? If we don't have the Garden of the Gods next door, just the Michigan woods would do?

AT: Just like the Casa is an energy field that's potentized so there are ways that healing can happen in an accelerated way, there, but it's not limited to the Casa, it's just potentized. And so I think any time we can genuinely connect with nature, whether it's a patch of earth or a rock or a tree or a flower, that has that potential.

(Further comments on experiencing nature from emptiness, nothing solid)

(A question about getting at the Unconditioned through awe-inspiring conditions-- a Garden, sunset, Casa—vs. a doorknob or a piece of concrete.)

AT: I experience life as a real interesting mixture between having deep insight and access and also working with a nervous system in a body that has conditioning that's quite contracted. What I notice in myself is that the more that I am abiding in that experience of expansiveness or essentialness, the more my nervous system imprints that as truth rather than the exception, which means I come from that experience. Then looking at a doorknob and looking at a piece of concrete is not separate from being in the Garden of the Gods. But when I'm not in that space, it is. So the experience of concreteness and doorknobness is dependent on the place of perception I'm viewing it. It doesn't have an inherent reality of its own. The more that I have access to what to me is timeless and vast and spaciousness, the more these structures that are tight and contracted can also be seen as just something that arises in nature and not something to believe in. So they are skillful means.

The contractedness, the idea of tightness or the idea of pain or the idea of being separate is something not to believe in. But the more my system can relax into something that's vast and spacious, the more that it translates into the various parts of my mind.

One of my structures is of insufficiency or lack, not enough. I'm going to see a chiropractor, and on the way to the chiropractor there are these huge piles of mulch, because they're doing mitigation from the flood damage that happened last summer. I pass them and I think, “I would like a pile of mulch that big, because I want to do all this gardening on the place that I am. That's a really lovely pile of mulch. It would be great to have a pile of mulch that big.” This has happened many times, I've passed these piles of mulch and I have this thought, “It would be wonderful to have a pile of mulch that big.”

So a few days ago, a truck stopped right in front of my place. Now, it wasn't on the street, it was as close to my hermitage as it's physically possible to get without actually being on the property. They were trimming trees, and they had a big huge mulch-maker on the back! So I said, “What do you do with the mulch?” They said, “If you'd like it, you can have as many truckloads as you possibly can have.”

Now, what I'm seeing, even though I can't see the mathematics of this, is that as I relax more into that spaciousness, that sense of awareness that pervades everything, that sense of love that's unconditioned that pervades everything and everyone, the more these structures dissolve and don't have such a tight fixed existence in my own body, heart, and mind, in my own body system; they start to relax.

(Comments about the practice being about relaxing; the cycle of contraction and non-contraction)

(Comment about observing the ego receding more in daily life)

(Comment on how the practice has helped lessen reactivity to and intensity of a painful memory)

AT: When I was in Australia, that was when the Twin Towers fell on September 11. I think just the next weekend it happened that one of the meditation teachers in Australia and I were doing a weekend on the Brahma Viharas. We had separated out the four, and the one that I was going to do was on equanimity. I don't have equanimity in my personality structure. It wasn't something that I could easily relate to. But I could connect with the earth; that was something that I had learned how to do. We were doing innovative exercises to help people feel these different qualities.

So, in Australia, people were really, really rattled, really rattled by 911. The whole city fire department had a procession through the town. There were candlelight vigils all over the country. There was a huge distress. And to take people into a visualization of imagining being different animals and then being a tree, being an ancient redwood tree, and then being the earth and what it was like to be something so old and ancient and having witnessed every single birth and every single death since the beginning of life. And what I feel and what I felt was that the group dropped into a physical experience of equanimity that had context, where the kind of agitation of something that otherwise seemed really shocking had much more context and much less capacity to agitate.

(Dan: Using memory and time as a way of understanding emptiness, easier to see the emptiness of a memory or a vision of the future than in a present object.)

(Sharing about dying pet and other personal experiences. Barbara: We see it's all in the mind, and yet there's pain and sadness. Acknowledge that with compassion, metta for self and pet. No stories, just sadness, empty, pain.)

AT: Many years ago I was visiting a friend who was also a meditation teacher. She had four animals and one of them was a cat, who had been on dialysis for a number of months. Every day she'd take the cat to get dialysis. I came in, and normally I say hello to all the people and all the furry people, it's just what I do. The next day the cat was in a very serious decline. My friend, the meditation teacher, was very anxious because she did not want the cat to suffer. She was agitated and wanting to take the cat to the vet to have her euthanized. And I said, “Let's just wait. Let's just see if we see any signs of distress, because there aren't any signs that I see that she's distressed.”

So over the few days that I was there, the cat emptied itself out. She became like a hollow vehicle, where her body was just a container for consciousness, but was withdrawing. She was dying, but it was the most extraordinary, exquisite, graceful, beautiful thing. It was incredible. But what I sensed was the cat sensed that the mom needed support. So when I showed up, she said, “Time to go.” Because the mom needed to be held.

So sometimes what might be asked for is, rather than you sort it out for her, you find somebody else to hold you. That it's actually a little bit bigger than you can quite hold yourself.

(Q expresses gratitude to those present.)

Dan: I had an experience. It's been a rough winter and we have a farm, and we have dogs and cats and chickens and horses and goats, and about 20, 25 alpacas. Whether it's through illness or exposure or old age, we had four die this year. That was a lot of heartache. My wife is really the one who takes care of them, so it was hard on her.

This Sunday it was 60 degrees. One of the things you can do with the dead alpaca is take its hide off. The pelts are absolutely wonderful, they're soft and beautiful. After a lot of difficulty, we decided that was the best way to honor it, to use it for the purpose for which it was born. The only thing an alpaca does is, you shear it and you take its wool.

So before, we would take it to a taxidermist to get the pelt off, and we didn't have to deal with the reality of the corpse. This time we decided we're not doing that. And it fell on me to skin the alpaca. I'm not a hunter, I don't want to be a hunter, I've never hunted, but I do anesthesia, so I watch a lot of surgeons. So I know how you take a sharp knife and you cut the skin and you lift up the skin, and you kind of separate the skin from the fascia. It's not hard. But there was a lot of heartache involved with it.

Then the other thing that happened this winter is that we had those horrible wind storms and ice storms. I don't know what it was like in Ann Arbor but at my house I lost four or five 60' trees, big beautiful evergreens, deciduous trees that had their tops snapped off.

So the animal was frozen and because it was 60 degrees on Sunday, it was that day or never to get the pelt off before it started to decay. It also was the day to take the chainsaw out and start to clean up the heartache from all of these trees that either are already dead or that I have to kill because they're going to die anyhow. Or there's a limb down.

I had two or three instances when I was cutting a big thing/limb off the tree. The sap is running. So I'd cut it off and the sap would start to drip. It was a tree crying. It was in pain, it was crying. I'd been thinking about this for months. It's a very difficult thing to do. It has to be done, just like the alpaca. I was the one to do it, and I was the one to cause pain. Even though that was true, I had to deal with that. It was a very difficult thing to do.

And it was very helpful to have Vision is Mind, Mind is Empty, although I had a little bit of practice because the alpaca wasn't suffering. It was me who was suffering because of this alpaca. But the tree, I was causing suffering. Trees don't have sentience in the same way that human beings do, and they don't have a nervous system in the same way people do. But I'm really not fooled by that. Being able to see the emptiness of the tree, the emptiness of my act, and the emptiness of the person doing the act, simultaneous with this person whose heart went out to the entire situation and the mundane aspect of this person who's just doing landscaping, it was a way of acting in the world that was much more helpful than what would otherwise be available to me.


(Question about the nature of emptiness)

AT: Emptiness means that it doesn't have anything that's solid and permanent. It doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. It doesn't mean that you don't feel things. It doesn't mean that there isn't an impression that's registered. It just means that there isn't anything that you can latch on to and say, “This is always this way. It's going to be this way, and it has this identity.” It's changing.

Q: If you look into it deeper and deeper and deeper, what is it?

AT: That's a very beautiful question, because if you do that not only as an analytical exercise but as a somatic exercise, what's left? When you dial in so deeply that it all starts to fall apart, what's left? That's a profound inquiry. And rather than use it as a way of grasping, using it as a way of letting go, letting be, letting love in and letting love through.

(About resistance to meditation because she might become one of those people who sits around all the time and doesn't care about mundane tasks, etc. Working with fear.)

AT: In my own life, I have time I set up in the day where I can drop in, and that's my job. Just like Mom, you've got a gazillion jobs. It's my job to drop in. And I know if I don't do my job, everybody pays the consequences.

So I set up time during the day where that is my job, to just drop in and relax and feel that deep, sweet, yummy nourishment. And I have to set it up so I'm at least approximating being able to get a fair amount of the other duties done that I could manage. In my life I have a day where I unplug, where I'm not on the computer and I'm not talking to people and I'm not answering telephone calls, I'm just dropped in. And then I have a period of time during the year where I'm on retreat for my practice, I'm not just teaching. Because I know in myself, with my own system, when I'm nourished then I have a huge amount to give. And when I'm feeling exhausted or depleted or stressed, my capacity is thin, and what I give isn't so nourishing.

But when I'm tired, I know that I need to rest. And I know that I need to rest even if I've got a lot of things that I need to do. But sometimes all I need is 15 minutes of rest. I don't need 3 hours, I just need to drop in. And when I do that, I can come back and give a lot.

So for me, part of it is learning to trust the process, like you said, of never knowing what happens the next minute. I can never predict what it's going to look like in the next minute. I don't know what it's going to be. But I have learned to trust the process. And so if I'm experiencing fear, like I'm tired, I need to pull all these things together, I'm going on a trip, I can't think, and I can't pack, and I can't organize anything, so how am I going to navigate this apparent conflict? For me, I know if I rest, then I have stuff to give. And this has happened so many times that I trust it. I trust that if I am responsive in the present moment to what is arising, it always works out.

But what I can relate to is that there is a fear that if I really completely let go into the process, that there's going to be something fundamentally out of control, that's going to disable me from doing what I think I need to do in order to make sure it all gets done. But that fear is the same fear that I was talking about when I first spoke about the terror of emptiness, because that fear is connected to the identity of me being Mom who has to make sure that all those things get done in order for everybody to be okay. It's the identity of losing control that is the place where the fear arises, rather than the genuine experience of incompetence or negligence or lack of capacity to see that they all get done.

So trust it, and use your discernment afterwards to see, was enough done that basic needs were met? That you can relax the identity of being the Mom who's going to make it happen. Because my experience with the practice is that I let go and it happens, whatever needs to happen... I don't have to be the one that's making it happen.

Barbara: It's valuable to keep at the forefront of our minds the highest intention to do no harm, to do only good, to be of service to others. That our practice is not of just some kind of enlightenment experience, our practice is to live our lives with love. And the enlightenment experience serves the living with love.

For me, one of the first really profound experiences I had 25 or more years ago, the first really deep experience of the Unconditioned. I was meditating in my living room from about 4AM on.  It got to be about 7AM and there was no self; the ego and  body had dissolved. There was just this vast spaciousness and light. Aaron's energy intruded into that and said, “It's 7am. It's time to wake your children and get them breakfast and off to school.” Everything in me said, “No! I don't want to come back and leave this bliss!” Aaron said, “If there's resistance, if you're caught in the resistance, you haven't understood anything.” You can't attach to that experience, you can't hold onto it. The experience serves; the one who is empty, the “nobody” gets up and just cooks breakfast. There's nobody cooking breakfast. Wakes the children, drives them to school.

It was very painful! I was attached to that experience. But I understood then and do understand exactly what Aaron meant: If I'm attached to it, then I've created some kind of false experience. I haven't really experienced that emptiness, because there's such a strong self saying, “I want to stay here.”

AT: I think that that experience is a common one, because the inclination to transcend out of identification with and experience emptiness like that is half of our practice. The other half is bringing that emptiness back into breakfast and kids and driving. And in the monastery, I could see how many of us had a preference for half of the experience!

Barbara: And it can work the other way, too; those who have the preference for being the one who's doing and doing and doing, rather than moving into the experience.

Dan: In dzogchen there are three different steps, if you will: There's view, there's meditation, and there's action. I'm not a dzogchen authority, but if you translate that into your experience, you've had a view of the open heart. You know what it feels like. You know the vast spaciousness that comes with the open heart, the yumminess. You have the meditation, because you can sustain it when you're calm and quiet for an hour, for as long as you stay in that space. It's not just a flash; it's something that is available to you.

But the next step is action. So the practice would be to be able to take that open heart out of your bed and walk around with it. And after you're able to walk around with it, maybe you can drive with it. And if you can walk around and drive with it, maybe, just maybe, you can interact with your kids with it. That would be learning to act in the world with that open heart. The two are not separate, they really, really aren't. You need to find the place where they're both together. And that's in action.

Barbara: Thank you for coming tonight... We'll see you in two weeks. Ajahn Thanasanti is here to lead the Howell retreat, and I'm off to Durham North Carolina to lead a retreat there.  Good night.

(session ends)