Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on July 1, 2014

A quote from an old Willie Nelson song that my good friend Drew Howard drilled into me; this article is about what happens when we do get a little glimpse of what is beyond our own self.

Dharma practice is just that, practice, a learning curve. Successful dharma practice is like the proverbial tar baby, the more we struggle with it, the more we are stuck just where we are. In all truth, dharma practice is learning to relax enough until our mental straightjacket gives us up of its own accord. We can't force ourselves to rest, but we can learn to just let our mind rest. The result is that we are eventually freed up. Yet there is one major side issue I want to discuss and that is stabilizing our progress.

It is well known that if we have even a tiny bit of success in our dharma practice, we tend to fixate on that by expecting (or trying) to repeat the experience in the next practice session and then thereafter. We all should know by now that is a recipe for stalling any progress we might expect, plain and simple. I am not going to say more on that. By now it is pretty much axiomatic.

An even more subtle side-effect of successful practice is achieving some success in our meditation and then figuring out how to expand or universalize it. Once we get a glimpse of the nature of the mind, we have to expand on that. I don't have a name for it, but I am sure the Tibetans do. Let's just call it expanding the glimpse – stabilizing it.

I first experienced this when doing Insight meditation, which is really just a part of Mahamudra meditation practice in our lineage. We don't get to say when we are going to have a little mini-breakthrough. They just happen, and usually not as soon as we wish they would. It is about what to do when they do happen that this article is about.

Like the effect I pointed out above, when something "good" happens in meditation we tend to fixate on that. Not only do we fixate on it, since it is perhaps our only real meditation experience (at least so far), we may find ourselves repeating whatever we were doing in order to experience it again – a ritual sadhana. And while an experience (as I mentioned above) can't be repeated, at least on demand, any kind of small realization can be, which is an important point. That's the difference between an experience, which comes and goes, and a realization, which comes and stays. Once we get it, we got it. I won't belabor that here either.

What is nice about a realization is that whenever we go there, when we repeat the practice properly, we get the same effect, in my experience usually a clarification of the mind. And since this kind of clarity is wonderful, we go there again and again because we want the clarity it brings. And here is the rub.

After that glimpse of clarity, the only procedure we know, the only practice, is whatever we did to make the realization occur in the first place, so we repeat that. Yet, if we think it through we have to know that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Unlike meditation experience (which goes up and down), realization is never just local or restricted in scope. That first glimpse may be local. In time every true realization will universalize or spread throughout the whole body of our experience, because it is a view not just an experience that comes and goes. In that way it is like the proverbial Kundalini force that, instead of localizing, gradually infuses the entire body with warmth and light.

It reminds me of one of my earlier teachers, a Unity minister. She would say "The word of God must do one of two things. It must either die or grow and spread. Well, it can't die, because it is the truth, so prepare for it to grow and spread." Realization is like that. Sooner or later it must grow and spread, and this is where our dharma practice comes in. It takes time and practice to stabilize an insight or realization. Realizing that first glimpse is only the beginning.

As examples, I have only my own practice history to measure by, so I will use that. I practiced meditation and other dharma practices from around 1974 (when I first learned it properly) until the summer of 2005 when I actually had a little breakthrough. Now that is a long time.

Following that first little opening, I doubled-down on my practice, deepening my breakthrough and working to stabilize it. I began to practice not only on the cushion, but all through the day whenever I could remember to do it. I began to gradually mix my meditation with everything I was doing. That lasted until the spring of 2008 when I fell on hard times financially, broke ranks with the rat race of my life, and popped out-of-the-box for a bit. It was then that I had my first real insight into what practice is all about. Or we could say I stopped practicing meditation and just meditated.

Although I had done many years of practice on-the-cushion, this realization I mention actually happened in what is called post-meditation – off-the-cushion. It was the last thing I expected, but the shock of suddenly being without work, the break with my routine, and my extreme focus on close-up nature photography apparently created the perfect storm for a realization. What a surprise!

I soon became addicted to this new kind of insight meditation after years of practicing "because I should" and not always because I really felt like it. Suddenly I really felt like it all the time. As they say "Who woulda' thunk it?" I soon found that the clarity of mind I was now experiencing was addicting and now I am getting to the business end of this post.

As it turns out, my newfound clarity was not something I had been able to get by traditional means, by sitting on the cushion. There are many reasons for this and I have written about it quite a bit. But my years of practice did however set the stage. And what pushed me over the cliff was the sudden shock of losing my job as a senior consultant for NBC,
being shocked and thrown out of my normal life, and ending up peering through exotic camera lenses at tiny macro worlds and the critters that lived in them. Perhaps it was because at that time I had no expectations whatsoever, and my life had reached a point where I just did not give a shit. Pardon my French.

And this little breakthrough happened while I was photographing nature. In other words, if I wanted a clear head I had to go out photographing. And this is what I find funny. From the end of May of that year (unless it was raining) until the cold weather and frost forced me inside for the winter I was out before dawn each day crawling around in the wet grass photographing small worlds. I watched the sun come up for half a year straight. This should be testimony enough for anyone that something different was going on with me. I can't remember the last time I watched the sun rise before that summer. And then I did it for six months straight!

It was the only way I could get my mind straight, by taking photos. I had at last found something meaningful in my practice, but I could not begin to extract the dharma in it from the process of photography. I could not figure out just what was the baby and what the bathwater. That took time.

It was not until the following spring that I was able to separate my mind-training technique, which was a special form of Insight meditation called Mahamudra, from all my camera gear and the process of photographing through fine lenses. Eventually, with the help of a Tibetan lama friend I was able to separate out my meditation from my photography and transfer that meditation technique onto writing blogs like this, and other things without spilling a drop. And here is really the point of this whole blog.

It is one thing to finally achieve some insight into the mind and quite another to expand that realization beyond the particular situation in which we first experienced it. This is called deepening or stabilizing the realization and it can take a very long time to carry out. In other words, this is a whole separate dharma practice, universalizing any area that we master, spreading the realization throughout the body of our experience.

It is one of those things illustrated by that the familiar image of a drop of water when it hits a pool of still water -- ever-expanding concentric circles of inclusion. That is how realization spreads. It is what happens and has to happen, but in my case only with real effort and practice. Realization may eventually expand naturally, but like the birth process itself, in my case it required more than just time and materials.

I have become used to practicing in certain ways, as mentioned, originally with the camera and lenses, and later with writings like this, and other activities, but I feel like all this is poised on the lip of a great bowl into which I am about to slide.

Instead of using this or that technique (photography, etc.) as I always have, I sense that approach is about to be inverted – flipped. I have been looking at the mind through the window of photography, writing, and so forth. I feel like this idea of looking through a window won't last. Like Alice stepping through the looking glass, I believe that the techniques I am using will multiply and at the same time become increasingly transparent until I fall through the window or it embraces me totally. Either way I will take the plunge.

In other words, rather than having tools and techniques for meditation that I use, as I do now, someday everything I encounter will be a window into the mind, an occasion for practice. Every second of the day will be an opportunity to rest in the true nature of the mind. I will have internalized the techniques.

Today that is a far-away dream, but dreams have a way of coming true.