June 19, 2012 Tuesday Evening, Emrich Retreat, Barbara

Hongzhi's Cultivating the Empty Field: “Bright, Boundless Field” and “Simply Drop Off Everything”; non-duality teachings; tools for transformation; Barbara's personal story; intentions; receiving my spiritual name and how it has guided me; vipassana; Clear Comprehension; going into the unknown; “Das” is nobody; releasing our armor; letting go of our old myths; releasing the story of unworthiness; chakras; Brahma Viharas; shamanic journeying; liberation.

Barbara: Good evening to all of you. I can remember retreats where I would spend hours thinking about and planning a dharma talk. Recently I don't need to spend that much time, but I still like to spend some time and have a good sense of direction. Today, there was the morning group, all afternoon with you, and somewhere in a half hour swim I tried to figure out, what I'm going to talk about? So you will forgive me if it's not perfectly put together.

Basically I want to talk about practice and how it all goes together. This is a favorite book of mine, Cultivating the Empty Field by the 12th c. Zen master Hongzhi. (Tuttle Publishing; Aug. 2001. Taigen Dan Leighton, translator) The book is basically a set of “practice instructions.” The core of the book is 30 pages of these instructions. For a talk, I could almost just read this first one to you, the very first one in the book, and leave it there and let us meditate. But I will expand on it a bit.

“The Bright Boundless Field.

“The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning. You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits. Then you can reside in the clear circle of brightness. Utter emptiness has no image. Upright independence does not rely on anything. Just expand and illuminate the original truth, unconcerned by external conditions. Accordingly, we are told to realize that not a single thing exists. In this field, birth and death do not appear. The deep source, transparent down to the bottom, can radiantly shine unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds. The whole affair functions without leaving traces, and mirrors without leaving obscurations. Very naturally, mind and dharmas emerge and harmonize.”

We spent time together this afternoon exploring the akashic field. To me this is such a beautiful description of that field, this primordial purity out of which everything is expressing and radiating out. As mundane reality radiates out, we nudge it this way and we nudge it that way. It wavers here, and it wavers there. And then, seeing it shaking, we grab it and try to fix it. We keep creating one distortion after another based on nothing except our own habitual tendencies; basically, the tendency of thinking of ourselves as a separate self. As long as we live in that realm of separate self, we suffer, and we continue to create new distortion.

I'm reminded of the image of somebody who has painted a floor and painted themselves into a corner, and the only way is out is to walk over the paint, leaving footsteps on the paint. So they get to the end of the room. They grab the paint bucket and they go back to cover the footsteps they created. And that leaves streaks. So then they go back and try to fix the streaks, and they end up stepping on the paint again. When do we let go and open to the innate perfection of things just as they are?

We do paint ourselves into corners. When we find ourselves in the corner, can we just sit and let the paint dry? In other words, when we've brought up negative habitual tendencies that are doing harm to ourselves and others, instead of being like the cat trying to cover up its litter on the tile floor, can we just say, “Okay, shit is on the floor. Let's just sit here and be with it.”? Eventually we'll get around to cleaning it up, but that action will be from a place of an open heart and not from a place of fix-it energy.

So, for me this akashic field practice is a reminder to be with things as they are and to keep my heart open to things as they are. To always rest as deeply into in my intentions as I can. What is it I want to do? Know what I want to do before I do it. What do I want to bring forth? And, being as mindful as I can, to watch any traces that I leave behind me and know how not to panic over those traces, and how to do it more skillfully the next time.

I'd like you to consider an image with me. Let's take us all out on a big boat. We're in a beautiful Caribbean cove over coral reefs. These are magnificent coral reefs and there are beautiful, vivid fish swimming beneath us, hundreds of species, many colors. We had thought we could simply look over the side and see this entire scene. But the wind is blowing and the water is rippled; we can't see anything. We've heard about the coral reefs and the fish that are under us, but we can't see them.

Day after day, night after night, we go out on this boat, but the water is always rippled with wind. If you want to see what's there, eventually you're going to have to jump off the boat. But there are sharks down there. There are jagged edges to the reef. Is it safe? Nobody ever guaranteed us safety. The experience of incarnation is not safe. None of us is going to survive it. Can we be deeply present with it just as it is, with an open heart? That's the only way that we're ever going to, I don't want to say survive it, but transcend it.

So we jump off the boat. What does it take to jump off the boat, to get out of our safe little boat? When I imagine myself in that scene and I feel the security of that boat, it leads me to consider the security of my old habitual tendencies, which are uncomfortable but familiar. They lead to unpleasant results, but there's a certain safety to them. I'm used to doing it this way.

Perhaps I'm used to thinking of myself as unworthy. What would it take to give that up? Perhaps I'm used to thinking of myself as the one who must take care of everybody and control everything. What would it mean to jump off the boat of that tendency and really look at what it means to be the one in control, or not in control? Who has to control?

Aaron once likened our lives to those of skaters skating on thin ice; you've got to keep going faster and faster and faster because the ice is cracking all around you. At what point do we just stop and sink through? And what do we find when we sink through? One much beloved senior dharma teacher once called vipassana meditation “one insult after another;” looking at ourselves and really seeing ourselves. It is hard!

The word vipassana, passana means seeing. Vipassana means a deeper seeing. Are we willing to see that deeply? What allows me to be willing is my intention. We come back to clear comprehension. What is my highest purpose? And is what I'm doing suitable to that purpose? If I want to live my life with loving kindness and I end up bullying people, trying to control people, running from people, avoiding people, any of these unskillful ways of being, it's not consistent to my highest purpose. So what am I going to do about it?

So first I really have to know my intention. Each of us will have our own. My life purpose, if I could call it that, was dropped in my lap when I was 11 years old. I was a kid in summer camp, and we had hiked down to the end of the lake to camp. There was a place with several tree houses built with little platforms with low sides, about 8x8 feet, with straw on the floor, and a ladder going up 6 or 8 feet into them.

We climbed up into them to lay down our sleeping bags, and there was a litter of baby mice in there. One of the girls screamed, “Aaaa! Mice!” So a counselor climbed up with hiking boots and went (crushing), and killed these tiny newborn mice mice.. I was so upset by it, so angry. Everybody laid out their sleeping bags, and the counselors took them off to town, a mile hike, to get ice cream cones. I refused to go. I don't remember someone being with me, but certainly they would not have left an 11 year old alone in camp. So there must have been a counselor there, but not intruding on me.

I sat in meditation at the end of the lake. I didn't call it meditation, I just sat. There was a beautiful sunset over the lake. I basically said to myself, I don't want to live in a world where people kill newborn mice; where people kill each other in concentration camps; where people don't take care of each other. I'm so angry, I wanted to hurt that counselor and the camper who screamed.

I had had for many years a strong experience of my guru Karoli Baba, though I did not know who he was. So he said to me that night as I meditated, you can be part of the problem or part of the solution. If you're going to be part of the solution, it means you've got to let go of your hatred of others and judgment of others. That night he gave me my spiritual name, which I do not use in any public way but which I hold in my heart, Shanti Das, Servant of Peace.

At 11 I had no idea what the words meant, so I had to discover, what does Shanti Das mean? It took a few years to find a translation of the words. And then I became an adamant pacifist. I carried picket signs. I did acts of civil disobedience. I went out in a canoe with a picket sign, blocking the launching of nuclear submarines. And I was so judgmental. Servant of Peace!

So it's been a gradual unfolding, learning what it means. Once many years later Baba came to me. I was being “somebody” in my opinions, and he said, “Das, servant, is nobody. You've got to learn to be nobody. As long as you're somebody, you can't be a servant.” So this has unfolded through my life, giving me some sense of guidance: what is my highest purpose in this lifetime? What does it mean to be a servant of peace?

Unless I find peace in myself, I can't serve peace or support it in others. Equating peace with liberation, to some degree; unless I find that deep peace in myself, I can't teach a dharma of liberation. So my work was pretty clear-cut: what does it mean to be peaceful? What does it mean to let go of all the old judgments, opinions, the hatreds, the prejudices, and really connect with the world? It was a terrifying idea. As I meditated, I saw all the old armoring that I've carried for so long, all the places where I used judgment, fear, opinions, to protect myself, self-righteousness to protect myself. And each time I needed to let go of that in honesty, I felt naked and helpless. It was frightening. Then I had to learn how to be with that fear. How do we take off the armor? How do we literally stand naked in a threatening world? So we just keep going. It's not one step; it's like a dimmer switch. It keeps getting lighter and lighter and lighter.

As a child, I experienced two profound experiences of what to me then were abandonment. There was a nanny in my house who took care of me until I was five. I had loving parents but Nanny was the predominant daily caregiver. When I was five years old she got sick and had to leave. I was told, “Don't be angry. It's not her fault she's sick.” Okay, I won't be angry. So of course I turned the anger on myself.

When Nanny left, Viola, the cook,  took over as the person I turned to for support. She had always been there, but Nanny was the caregiver. But Viola took over when Nanny left. I would come home from school and sit in the kitchen with her; she would teach me things about cooking and talk to me, maybe play a game of cards with me or go out and play hopscotch or something with me. She was a friend and close companion.

When I was 11 she had a nervous breakdown and she left. So I grew up with this idea, “I'm poisonous to the people I love. Something's wrong with me.” A few years of psychotherapy with a very compassionate therapist when I was in my late teens, early twenties, got me to the point where I no longer had to act out this belief “something is wrong with me.” But I still felt it. So if I walked into a room, maybe a room with new people at a party, I would immediately feel, “Nobody's gonna want to talk to me,” and I would have to remind myself, “This is just my old fear. It's okay. I can walk in.” But it was so hard. I never could have sat in front of a group of people like this and talked. I was shy. I was afraid of making a mistake. I was filled with enormous self-judgment. And I had a belief that I would destroy the people I most loved.

After I met Aaron, he began to challenge me on this. I was teaching. I was coming out in the world. I was raising three children. I was a successful sculptor. I enjoyed my work. I taught at the University. I exhibited my work in major exhibits. So I was functional, but this pain  remained. Aaron said, “What is your highest intention? Is it to indulge this myth of unworthiness and being poisonous and perpetuate it? Or is it to live your highest truth for the highest good of all beings? There's no peace in perpetuating these myths. If you're going to be Shanti Das, Servant of Peace, it's time to let go of the myth.”

How do I let go of it? The first step was to acknowledge it is a myth, and also to hold my deepest intention in my heart; constantly to come to that question, what is my highest intention, and is what I'm about to say or do supportive of that intention? We're not talking here about that sudden feeling “Oh, they won't like me!” That just was triggered and came up. But to refuse know that as a story and to repeat  and enhance it is very contrary to my highest purpose. How do I not do it?

It takes an enormous amount of courage to let go of our old myths, our limiting beliefs, and step into this deeper truth of ourselves. For me I think the predominant support was simply in knowing, “This is what I choose. I do have free will. I do have choice. I don't have to keep getting lost in these old self-negating stories, because if they're self-negating, they're world-negating, and that's not what I choose. This is not my highest purpose”

The power of the emotional habits is very, very strong. Through vipassana I began to see, as Aaron says, that which is aware of feelings of unworthiness is not unworthy. That which is aware of anger is not angry. I began to rest more firmly in that awareness and see the simultaneity of the anger and self-negating thoughts, and of that which was open and radiant and loving, and to consider the possibility of the reality of that which was open and loving.

It terrified me. Each time I did it, I was letting go of a piece of that heavily laid armor, not just of this but of many lifetimes. But there was a very clear feeling: I do not choose to carry that armor anymore. It's been weighing me down forever. I cannot allow myself to be the radiant being that I truly am as long as I believe that the armor is an essential part of me. We don't ask ourselves to take it off all of a sudden at once, but just a little at a time, opening the heart a little bit more. There's no denial of our fear or pain or confusion, and no getting lost in stories about it, but we deeply open our hearts to ourselves and to all the world that experiences a similar kind of pain and confusion. Thus, we deepen in compassion. It spirals down, and suddenly one day we find ourselves standing on very solid ground, knowing, “This is who and what I am and who and what we all are.”

In maybe 1992 I went to a month-long meditation retreat. The feelings of unworthiness still came up. The retreat instructions were not to talk and not to make eye contact, not to connect in those ways with other people. I noticed when I walked down a hallway, even if I didn't try to make eye contact, the person walking toward me looked away. So I started trying to make eye contact, and that made them look away more. Then this huge pang of, “See? I'm unworthy!” came up.

So I did this again and again and again, probably 20, 30 times a day. I said to Aaron, “Well, if I'm not unworthy, I'm worthy.” And he said, “No, no worthiness or unworthiness. It's just somebody trying to look in somebody's eyes, and the other person following the retreat instructions and looking away. Don't build a story on it. But be aware of that that wants to build a story. All the old myths about the self—I'm not good enough. I poison others. These were things that I had broken through psychologically years earlier but that were still triggered almost in the cells of the body.

So I started to ask, as each person looked away, is there anybody unworthy here? No. Just the outplay of old conditioning. I didn't realize back then, 20 years ago, that I was working within the akashic field, but I see now that I was. That each time I asked, “Anybody unworthy here? No.”, and I saw literally the whole process whereby this conditioning had happened to this child and to beings that I had been in past lives, and how I was carrying that both as a mental concept and also really in the cellular level of the body, I invited myself to go into Hongzhi's boundless field, into that place of emptiness and clarity and love. Who am I when I am not carrying the myth of being somebody who's unworthy, somebody bad, somebody poisonous? Can I just allow myself to be that radiance?

I saw during that retreat the enormous responsibility of that, that if I acknowledge my own radiance, that I'm inviting you to acknowledge yours. I need to truly trust my own and your radiance, because if I invite you to acknowledge your radiance and I don't fully trust it, then I can damage you very badly. I needed to know, not just think about but know that radiance. But once we know it, it's unshakeable. Then we can invite it in others.

There were a number of senior dharma teachers at that retreat. There was one man whom I deeply respected; I had read his books. From the first meal I found a table on the edge of the dining hall by a window. That first day he came and sat across from me. So as he sat down, I looked up at him. “Oh, so-and-so,” and smiled. And he immediately looked away. Three meals a day he sat at that same seat opposite me. Every time I looked up at him and smiled as he sat down, he looked away. I felt shattered. I really respected this man. He won't even look at me as we start a meal! At the end of the retreat, he walked up to me and said, “I so enjoyed sitting across from you at the table every day.” Just a reminder: trust this innate radiance. Come back into the heart.

So intention, knowing my intention to live this name in the world, to really go as deep as I could into living the fulfillment of this name. I'm still exploring it. I still don't know what it means to the end extent. Each time I think I understand it, something new opens up. Finding the courage to figuratively leap off the boat and explore that realm where there are fantastic coral formations and fish and sharks and jagged edges of coral. Knowing yes, it can be dangerous. It's okay. I'm not here in incarnation to survive it. I'm here to live it to the fullest extent of my being. And I'm here in service for myself and all beings. Jump off the boat. Get my feet wet. Be willing to explore.

The power of the vipassana practice gave me the tool to look deeper. Also working with all the support practices. Learning to really feel the chakras and when they're open or closed. And, asking, what is my highest purpose? If the chakras are closed, that's another kind of harm, so if my purpose is non-harm I must attend to the closed chakras, not maintain them that way.  It's a habitual shutting down. If that is not supportive of my highest purpose, am I willing to look at the chakras and at what's closed, and allow myself to touch those places of the deepest pain?

There was a time, maybe 15 years ago, when I was working with how closed the heart chakra was at times. I saw a past life image of myself being caught by an enemy in a very, very long ago lifetime and tied down to the ground. This is what they did to captives in those days. There was a belief that the heart of your enemy would make you strong, but it had to be the living, beating heart. So he literally cut me open, carefully lifted out the heart still connected to my body; it was still beating and somehow I was still conscious. He began to eat this living, beating heart. There was so much hatred for him, feeling so vulnerable, so helpless.

I could see how this was a deep source of habitual self-centeredness and of separation with  other beings. I realized - and it took me several months of practicing with this - that I had to give him my heart. I couldn't just say, “Well, if you're going to take it, go ahead,” with bitterness. “I give you my heart. I offer it.”

In those same months, another clear past life image. Here I was captured and staked down to the ground and my belly was cut open, which was a way of putting your enemy to death. It was opened enough that the entrails, the guts, were coming out. Carrion birds came and started to feed, but there was still consciousness, with physical agony, rage, and helplessness. I'm dying. This body cannot be saved. Can I give myself, can I give these guts lovingly to these birds to sustain them? What does that take?

As I went through those months, I found that the work wasn't so much with the base chakra so much as the spleen and solar plexus and heart, I found that they could open. That I could look at the horrors of deep physical trauma, pain, death, helplessness, rage, and find right there with all that is that core of love in which stability can always be found; the ground that is always there.

It was transformative for me, because it helped me to know more spaciousness in my daily life when things happened that were very uncomfortable. I was still working in those years with my deafness and trying to accept the deafness and the isolation that I felt from the deafness. When I felt isolated, I could find this ground, not as an escape from the feelings of isolation, but right there with it. Within that ground is that which could never be separate, could never be isolated. I could stand stably in that ground and offer loving compassion to the human being who felt so cut off from the world. There's no duality. It's not one or the other; it's both; opening the heart deeply to the human condition, but without getting stuck in that human condition. The vipassana practice gave me the tools to do it,  and the Brahma Viharas, chakra work, and of course, working with my guide, with Aaron, and also with my power animal.

I don't know if any of you have done any shamanic voyaging. I found my power animal when I was a child. I had no idea it was called a power animal. Near my house there was a pond and on the pond there was an island. I made myself a little raft out of wood and would pull my way out to the island. The water was only 3 feet deep. I was only 6 or 7 but I was already a good swimmer. Kids in those days were allowed to go off to the woods and pull a raft in the pond. This was more than 60 years ago.

So I would meditate. I didn't call it meditation, I would just sit there in my special spot on this small island. Neem Karoli Baba was my teacher then. I didn't know who he was. I called him “the man in the clouds.” I was a normal little girl. I would go after school and play with dolls or play hopscotch with friends, or whatever, color in coloring books. But within after an hour or so I got bored and would go home, put on my old clothes, and go over to my island. And Baba basically coached me in meditation, deep concentration jhana practices and so forth.

So, sitting there on that island, while looking at some of the things that were frightening, there was this beautiful silver stag that came, my eyes closed, came into my inner vision. I could see him and feel his presence. He gave me courage. All my life he has given me courage. Whenever I've been in a frightening place, he's there. I can't say I hold his hand, nor hold his silver antlers, but his presence is there. He's not separate from me. I am that stag and he's me. He's one aspect of me. He reminds me of my own radiance, my own wholeness, my own courage. I didn't call it shamanic journeying in those days. I knew nothing of that in any traditional way. But doing this kind of journeying helped me uncover the strengths in myself.  

All of these practices have value. Some people are more called to one practice or another practice. None are better than the other. I won't say that—vipassana is the essential core. All the others are wonderful support practices, and none are better or worse than others. What do you need? If you're a carpenter about to build some furniture and you need to put some pieces of wood together, you're going to want a hammer. You're not going to try to knock that nail in with a pair of pliers. If you need to cut the wood, you're going to want to saw. You're not going to try to smash the wood into pieces with a hammer.

We develop a toolbox. We start to know all of these wonderful tools, and when we find ourselves in a shaky place, we almost intuitively remember which tool to reach for; when simply coming back to the breath will be helpful; when reaching out for guidance will be helpful. We check to see what chakras are open or closed and invite further opening. We look at whatever specific object like fear or anger might be present, and become willing to be fully connected with it, to know it deeply, and to see through it. We start to use these tools with great facility, and therein we find freedom.

So for me this has been the unfolding of the path. Freedom is a relative as well as an ultimate word. Ultimately we find complete freedom, the arahat who has no more karma of any sort, no need to return to human incarnation. Along the way we find relative freedom. When somebody is angry at me, I no longer need to defend myself or get angry back. I no longer feel shame that causes such need to defend.  I'm not saying that the impulse to defend never comes up, but I see it very quickly and ask myself, is this really suitable to my highest purpose, to defend in an angry way? Sometimes maybe it would be. Then I can express anger. I have no problem expressing anger, but I don't use anger as a way to hurt people or give myself power.

We learn how to be with what is triggered, and to see the karma that's not yet purified. For me at this point in my life, the first thing I do is to take it into this bright boundless field. To go into the akashic field and... The image that comes to me as I try to find a way to explain my experience — as if I had a diving mask and snorkel tube and I was floating down a fairly rapidly flowing river, the water fresh and pure and I'm just being carried down with the current. The water is sparkling and clear. And then I see something that frightens me, maybe a big fish, and I react to it either by trying to flee from it or to go after it with some kind of a weapon, thinking to protect myself. In that movement, I create numerous ripples of disturbance. I'm no longer flowing with the stream. I'm tangled up with this fish. I have some kind of a stick with me. I bang him because I'm afraid he's going to attack me. He had no intention of attacking me, but when I bang him, he turns to see what banged him and he starts attacking me. And then I'm caught up in a cycle with him.

If I'm not mindful, I just keep perpetuating that. If I finally get free of that fish, there's going to be another one and another one and another one as I go downstream. But if I stop with that fish and note the intention to thrust at him, the fear, see the whole karmic stream and the distortion in the akashic field that I'm creating as I get caught up in that ripple of disturbance— I can remember, “no, I'm not going to do that. If he's going to attack me, he's going to attack me. If he attacks me, then I can decide from my open heart what to do, what's appropriate. Otherwise, I'll just let him be and go on down the stream.”

I go further down the stream and I see a place where a factory is pouring pollutants into this clean stream. Anger comes up. I've got some dynamite with me. I think I'll stick it into this outlet where the water's flowing through. I'll show them, I'll blow up their plumbing system! I blow it up, and all the pollutants that were there in a big vat start pouring through. Again, I'm caught up in this karmic stream, this distortion of the akashic field.

The akashic field will have all of these ripples of disturbance that we pull to us depending on our karma. Each time I come to one, it's a reminder, this is a mirror reflecting back to me my own karmic tendencies. And this is an opportunity to purify those tendencies rather than to deepen and solidify them. Which do I choose? Clear comprehension. What's my choice? Finally there's no longer any reason to pause and ask, what's my choice? It is clear. Where is love here? So we keep cleaning up.

We've got so much karma that each time we clean up one bit, there's another bit to clean up. So we just keep going, with patience, with perseverance, with trust in our highest intention to find liberation. Gradually, releasing this and that bit of karma, releasing reactivity, releasing old negative beliefs, habits, and so forth, eventually we start to really live from our loving hearts. And no, we don't do it perfectly. I said the other night: ask Hal, do I ever blow up? Yes! If you ask somebody's husband, you're going to get the truth. “Yes, sometimes she loses it!”

I “lose it” far less often. I'm far faster to come back and apologize, ask forgiveness, try to balance whatever I've upset; and to be a little bit more careful of that particular distortion within the akashic field the next time I approach it. I try to stay in this clear flow, in emptiness and the open heart.

This one is another of the practice instructions called, “Simply Drop Off Everything.”

“Silently dwell in the self. In true suchness, abandon conditioning. Open-minded and bright, without defilement. Simply penetrate and drop off everything. Today is not your first arrival here. Since the ancient home before the empty kalpa”—kalpa is the Sanskrit for eons, the empty kalpa, the empty time of eons ago. “Since the ancient home before the empty kalpa, clearly nothing has been obscured. Although you are inherently spirited and splendid, still you must go ahead and enact it. When doing so, immediately display every atom without hiding a speck of dirt. Dry and cool, in deep repose, profoundly understand. If your rest is not satisfying and you yearn to go beyond birth and death, there can be no such place. Just burst through and you will discern without thought dusts, pure, without reasons for anxiety. Stepping back with open hands, giving up everything, is thoroughly comprehending life and death. Immediately you can sparkle and respond to the world. Merge together with all things. Everywhere is just right.”

Thank you for joining me here this week to deepen your own practice, to find liberation, to join me in being servants of peace. I appreciate you. I appreciate the deep work that you're doing, and know that it's not easy. I hold you with much love.

(session ends)