Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Unique Dzogchen Mindfulness and Vigilance

Everyone is familiar with mindfulness. Mindfulness is often described as focus or attention directed towards a particular object. We can be mindful of our breath, mindful of the way we walk or our daily activities, like washing the dishes. In this sense, mindfulness is synonymous with attention or focus.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention on purpose, in the present and without judgment. That is a useful definition, but again here the indirect meaning is that we are paying attention to some thing.

In Dzogchen we also employ mindfulness, but in Dzogchen there is no object of focus. The practice of Dzogchen is said to be without support

How do we be mindful, but not mindful of any thing?

We can define mindfulness in the Dzogchen tradition as an uncontrived, open presence free from judgment.

It is uncontrived because we are not directing our attention towards anything in particular and we are not trying to make anything happen. It is open presence because we are alert and aware, here and now. It is without judgment because we are not concerned with the contents of what is arising in our experience, whether it is good or bad, painful or pleasurable.

We simply rest in uncontrived, open presence free from judgment.

At first this takes a lot of effort. The habitual instincts of our mind is to be engrossed and fixate on our experience. We chase after sights and sounds. We follow trails of thought and get caught up in a web of stories. Our attention picks out objects, clings to them and gets caught up in distraction. This is where vigilance comes into play.

Vigilance is a clear, alert peripheral awareness that guards our meditation. Vigilance can be both extrospective and introspective awareness. We are aware of various appearances to our senses, but we also clearly see the array of thoughts and emotions coming up in our internal experience. In this way, vigilance is like a transparent looking glass, it sees everything but doesn't react to it. It is mindfulness which does the fine tuning, when it is necessary.

Vigilance notices when our attention has strayed towards an object or appearance. Noting that we have strayed, we use mindfulness to again rest in the uncontrived, natural state. As we train ourselves to rest in the natural state, the wandering of attention becomes less and less, eventually giving way to effortless mindfulness.

In effortless mindfulness, the strength of vigilance becomes further intensified and more powerful. It is like a sharp razor that cuts through appearances in all their variety. As we continue our training, eventually effortless mindfulness gives way to baseless mindfulness and the actual path of Dzogchen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A simple aspiration prayer.

Every morning as part of my practice I recite a few prayers before settling into meditation. There is one verse that encompasses my intention perhaps more than any other:

Please bless me to see the dharmakaya as my own awareness, 
Please let me take undesirable difficult situations onto the path,
and quickly returning the kindness of all father and mother beings of the six realms,
Bless me to come to the perfection of generosity. 

It is a simple aspiration. It doesn't involve any sort of big project or magical feat. It is within reach at this very moment, but also pervades all times, places and activities. 

Simple, yet its impact on your own life and the lives of others can be profound.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Symbols for awakened mind.

A mirror perfectly reflects anything that is placed in front of it. The various aspects of color, shape and qualities is complete just as it is. Because the mirror is clear, there is no distortion. Whether the object is pure or contaminated, the mirror is not improved upon or brought to ruin.

So it is with awareness.

Space is without support and never comes into existence. It does not abide in any way and it is utterly beyond all description. Yet, anything and everything comes and goes within the sphere of space. Space is not defiled by the arising of impure phenomena. Space is not made more pure by the arising of pure phenomena. It is unchanging, completely unbiased, and encompasses all.

So it is with awareness.

The sun is forever utterly lucid, unobscured and radiant. The sun and its rays are inseparable, they do not come together or separate. Where there are light rays there is no darkness and warmth is felt without bias or expectation.

So it is with awareness.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Spontaneous Presence.

Within the expanse of spontaneous presence is the ground for all that arises.
Empty in essence, continuous by nature,
it has never existed as anything whatsoever, yet arises as anything at all.
Within the expanse of the three kayas, although samsara and nirvana arise naturally,
they do not stray from basic space- such is the blissful realm that is the true nature of phenomena.

Longchen Rabjam, from the Choying Dzod
When we enter into the state of spontaneous presence in our meditation, we have arrived at naked awareness beyond mind. This is the actual introduction to rigpa. Our teacher introduces rigpa through language and signs, but the actual introduction is based on our own experience. That is the real introduction. 

The expanse of spontaneous presence is baseless. We say that it is baseless because there is no ground, there are no concepts about emptiness or the way things exist. The spontaneously present luminosity of the mind is not divided into subject or object, there is no distinction between meditation and post-meditation, no distraction by thoughts, appearances or emotions. Everything dawns as the ornament of awareness, which is itself nothing at all. Longchenpa's quote captures how this single expanse of awareness, which is timelessly pure and spontaneously present, manifests as all that appears and exists whether it is of samsara or nirvana. 

Once we have been directly introduced to this unique state of the natural Great Perfection, our own awareness, we need to gain certainty and perfect its potentiality. To stop here, having been introduced, is not enough. We need to resolve all doubts and uncertainty in order to be decisive about this unique state, not to mention the uncertainty with how to work with this within the world. Once we can carry on this conviction regardless of what is coming up in our experience, whether on the cushion or off, then we can continue with confidence in liberation. 

The great master Longchen Rabjam in his Choying Dzod, the Basic Space of Phenomena, skillfully lays out this path of resolution. He takes a look at questions like:

How do we account for ordinary and pure appearances?
How are we to understand different types of beings? 
How do we approach confusion and suffering?
How are we to understand this unique state of the awakened mind?
How do we understand karma and dependent origination from this unique perspective?
Where are the potential errors and pitfalls in this approach?
What brings accomplishment, what is accomplishment?
How is this different than buddhahood? How is it the same?

Once we have come to a decisive experience that everything is subsumed by the expanse of awareness, we continue with confidence in liberation. The way in which we come to that decisive experience is through the practice of trekchod and thogal, which are the two paths of training in the practice of Dzogchen. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


The four foundations of Dzogchen naturally unfold in our meditation if we are able to maintain the uncontrived natural state. Each stage is marked not by a sense of accomplishment or progress being made, but rather by what we are not able to resolve in our meditation or where we are getting stuck.

Initially, we are distracted by the play of appearances and the diverse experiences that arise in our meditation. As we gain agility in working with appearances, we can have a very clear appreciation of our meditation moving from the immovable state to single-pointedly abiding in rigpa. As we continue to cut through dualistic appearances and to not fall prey to subtle distraction or dullness, the single-pointed state becomes like a vast limpid ocean. This is the state of equanimity.

In the state of equanimity, stability and clarity are equal. Whatever arises in our meditation is equal in being the dynamic energy of awareness, or rigpa tsal.

There is no need for other methods. There is no doubt, no excitement. Everything is equal.

Clarity and dullness are equal in nature, equal in experience. Clarity and emptiness are equal. Stability and clarity are equal.

Often in meditation, too much stability can lead to dullness. Here, abiding in equanimity, stability induces clarity.

Often in meditation, too much clarity can lead to agitation. Here, abiding in equanimity, clarity induces stability.

It is here that the subtle Dzogchen mindfulness that we employed moves from effort to effortless. Mindfulness here is really mindfulness of the instruction, of the pointing out. While previously, as we struggled to resolve appearances, we employed a subtle mindfulness that allowed us to cut through appearances. Here, that mindfulness becomes completely effortless.

As we gain greater stability in the state of equanimity, we eventually cut through to baseless spontaneous presence, naked awareness beyond mind. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

A flash in the pan.

A formal meditation session is composed of three parts- intention, main practice, and dedication.

Our intention is the why of the practice. Why are we sitting? What is our aspiration?

The main practice is applying ourselves to the meditation instructions.

The dedication is sharing the merit and benefits of the practice with others.

It is good to have a formal meditation session each day. Generally the morning or evening work best, but whatever fits your schedule is fine.

There is another type of practice that you will find yourself engaging in throughout the day. That is the sudden or flash meditation. These are the moments in your day when suddenly, awareness lights up and you recognize the meditative awareness. You mind is instantly calm, clear and at ease. Your attention is focused, yet expansive.

You might encounter these moments in conversation, during commutes, walking, or simply drinking a glass of water.

These moments of clarity and insight are important to your practice. Try to give rise to them throughout your day. Can the next meeting you have be one in which you enter with an open, calm and clear mind?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Retreat Guide: Preparing for a solo retreat

A meditation retreat is an opportunity to immerse yourself in practice. A daily meditation practice is very powerful and can bring a lot of benefit, but doing occasional immersions can transform and deepen your practice in ways that a daily practice often doesn't accomplish. Many people that I know and have went on retreat with have shared a similar experience- it takes about two or three days to really settle into a retreat. If you cannot devote an extended weekend or a week to retreat, it can also be very powerful to do one day a week or one weekend a month. These shorter immersions can allow for greater depth and over time we are able to enter into the retreat with much more familiarity.

You don't need to go anywhere to do retreat. You can do it at home if your housing companions are supportive. You can also rent out a cabin or go to an actual meditation retreat center. I have done retreats in my bedroom, at cabins, and at retreat centers. They all work just fine. The best environment is one that supports your practice- ideally it would be quiet and peaceful, with all the resources necessary for your daily activities.

There are several key aspects to having a successful retreat experience. What does a successful retreat looks like? It is one in which we actually do the practice. We actually sit and meditate. We encounter all the resistance of not wanting to meditate. We struggle, let go, battle, and relax. A lot of stuff can come up during retreat, being prepared and having everything in order can improve the whole experience.

Preparation is one of the major keys to a successful retreat experience. Plan your schedule, your food, your activities. Have all your retreat materials squared away. Resolve all of your everyday tasks. If you have to send someone an email, do it before retreat. You don't want to scheme and plan while on retreat. Do your scheming and your planning beforehand.

Traditionally, meditation retreats follow a four-session schedule. You may adapt or adjust the times, and may change the focus for each session, but in general a four-session schedule keeps you focused on practice and not being idle or caught up in distraction. Here is a typical retreat schedule:

6-8am Morning Session 
8-9am Breakfast
9-12pm Mid-morning Session (15 minute tea break at midpoint)
12pm-2pm Lunch and Break
2-5pm Afternoon Session (15 minute tea break at midpoint)
5-6pm Break
6-8pm Evening Session and Dedication
9pm-5am Sleep

Keep it simple. Plan your meals ahead. You don't want to plan and think about what you are going to eat or try to find a recipe while on retreat. Stick with nutritious and easy to digest foods. Drink lots of water and tea. Coffee is totally fine. For breakfast, I like to do oatmeal with some fruit- quick, easy and satisfying. For lunch and dinner, think about making a big pot of soup before the retreat and live off of that for a few days. You may even consider only eating breakfast and lunch, which is one of the pratimoksha vows a monk would uphold. If you are going to cook on retreat, integrate it with your practice. Be mindful, relaxed, present. Don't rush, simply cook.

Sleep is important while on retreat. Go to be early and rise early. I usually try to go to bed by 10 pm and get up around 5am. Take a nap in the afternoon! Keep it short, but a 30 minute nap after lunch is refreshing and allows your mind and body to rest. You may find as you sustain your awareness into sleep that you will have more vivid dreams and sleep lighter. Retreat is a good time to practice Dream Yoga and to rest in the clear light nature of mind.

Retreat isn't a time for many activities, your time should be devoted to your practice. Turn off your cell phone and internet. Don't check email or your social networks. During the break between sessions, you may want to write, reflect, read, or simply be present and attentive to your surroundings. Sit outside. Today is a day for not doing.

Movement and exercise are both important during retreat. Most of us are not used to sitting in meditation for extended periods during the day. You will likely find that your knees, hips and back can feel pretty tight. When our body is tired, our meditation becomes like a thick fog and we end up constantly fighting our bodies. Spend some time during breaks walking outdoors. Do yoga, qi qong or tai chi. Stretch, do some muscle stimulating movements. Do prostrations. Spending twenty minutes twice a day on exercise and movement will dramatically improve your overall experience. If you already have a strong practice routine like yoga, you could do an hour out of the mid-morning and afternoon sessions and devote it to that practice.

A major component of retreat is slowing down and being more present and attentive. Taking a vow of silence or having silence play a part in your retreat can be very powerful. If you are doing a retreat by yourself, silence may seem easy, but we still may find that we are singing, talking to ourselves, listening to music or just making noise. Try to cultivate silence for at least a portion of the day, preferably the morning if nothing else. Pour your tea, stir your hot water into your oatmeal, and enjoy your breakfast in silence. Use your eyes, your ears, your nose, your taste buds, your touch, but not your words.

Your arrival to the retreat is a time of transition and change. Enter the retreat setting with mindfulness and presence. Unpack your stuff if you are traveling and setup your retreat space as planned. It is best to arrive the evening before your retreat officially starts, so you can take all the time you need to setup and get acquainted with the setting. It is also nice to do a brief session in the evening, making aspirational prayers and other offerings like Riwo Sang Chod to establish a positive connection and set the tone for the retreat.

Your retreat is finished and it is time to transition back to your normal routine. Dedicate your practice. Take some time to contemplate and write. Maintain your continuity of awareness and mindfulness as you return to your normal daily life. Retreat never really ends, it is we who eventually turn off and tune out. What does it look like to carry open presence, availability and responsiveness into your daily life? It looks a lot like compassion, generosity and kindness. Everything becomes practice, your life becomes the path.

A meditation retreat is often a very powerful and transformative experience. You don't need to live the way everyone else does. You can embody the teachings, even in our busy and distracted culture. If you have a teacher, consult them before the retreat for advice and some practice instructions. If you don't have a teacher, feel free to reach out to me or someone that you trust and feel comfortable discussing your practice with.

We all benefit through your practice. Thank you for your dedication and commitment.