Reginald A. Ray: Dark Retreat
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Reggie Ray. Reggie is a teacher and scholar in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition with four decades of experience with the practice of meditation. He’s the founder and spiritual director of Dharma Ocean and an author whose writings include Touching Enlightenment, Indestructible Truth, and Secret of the Vajra World, as well as several audio programs including Your Breathing Body and Meditating with the Body. In the spirit of transparency with our listeners, Reggie is also a teacher with whom I’ve studied closely for the past eight years.
In this episode, Reggie and I spoke about his recent experiences in dark retreat as well as the true goal of meditation and Reggie’s view of the meaning of spiritual practice. Here’s my conversation with Reggie Ray:
TS: So Reggie, you’ve just come back from being on a dark retreat. I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about it. Really, actually, I’d like to know a lot about it, meaning the set-up: What does it mean to be on a dark retreat? So what’s it like, logistically, and also why would anyone want to go on a dark retreat?
Reggie Ray: Well, it’s true. I did just return, and still, sitting here with you, in some sense, I feel like I’m still in the darkness, so it’s an interesting experience being back in the light. Seeing with some other eyes, seeing with eyes that are not physical and visual, is so . . . I’m still in an adjustment period, so we’ll see what happens today. I think, in talking about darkness practice (which is something that is taught in Tibetan Buddhism, but also practiced in other traditions, for example, in Chinese Taoism and some of the more esoteric, forest traditions of Buddhism), I think it sounds rather arcane and removed from our ordinary life and even our understanding of what meditation is. Maybe in the beginning, what we should talk about a little bit is: What is the ultimate goal of meditation? And within that framework, how does darkness practice really serve us?
I think, within the Buddhist traditions and particularly within the meditative tradition that I was trained in, the purpose of meditation is to help us make a transition in life, beginning, on the one hand, with us being locked up in our habitual patterns, and in the pettiness, really, of our whole self-maintenance project. To be a human in the ordinary sense is to be looking for comfort and survival and to ward off whatever pain there may be out there. In the service of that project, we do all kinds of things. We construct this idea of a self-identity that we’re always trying to promote and protect, we use everything in our environment to try to feed our desire for pleasure, and really, we’re fending off an awful lot of what life brings to us, pushing it away and trying to avoid it. The purpose of meditation is to help us dismantle our armor and the self-protection that we put around ourselves so that we can experience our lives in a much more open and naked way—much deeper, much faster, much fuller—so that we can develop in ourselves, really, a sense of freedom from this ego prison, and not only freedom, but love for what is, and joy—joy in being alive.
Now you might say, “Why do we have to do that? Why wouldn’t it be enough simply to try to maintain ourselves and try to ward off pain and get pleasure?” The answer is that within us, always, always, the deepest longing of our soul is to experience our life fully and without reservation. We have, within ourselves, a kind of intuition that everything in our life is meaningful, and everything in our life is to be loved, and everything in our life is an opportunity for expansiveness and joy. This very deep longing is not served hardly at all by the modern world, and yet it’s still there. So many people that I meet are talking about the tremendous conflicts they have between the way they live and their deepest inspiration and longing as humans.
The purpose of meditation, really, is to help us dismantle the armor so we can live fully. Within that, darkness practice has a very unique role to play, because darkness is the sort of quintessential meditation practice. It’s the essence of meditation. It’s the highest and most stripped down and most naked form of meditation you could ever do.
TS: What are you doing in the darkness? Are you doing a practice? Are you just sitting in the darkness?
RR: Well, most meditation practice gives you something to do, as you know: follow your breath, do your mantra, carry out some kind of visualization, chant something, whatever. A lot of times, we confuse that relative method with the goal of meditation. The goal of meditation is not the practices, themselves, but it’s the state of openness that they can lead to. The interesting thing about darkness practice is there’s nothing to do. You are simply stuck in a situation—and I say “stuck” because you commit yourself to a certain period of time, (In my case, it’s usually a month each year.) and you go in, you turn the lights off, and there you are. It’s you and it’s the darkness, and there’s really nothing to do. If you decide that you want to anaesthetize yourself by going for a walk, it’s not available. If you decide you want to pick up a book and read it, or turn on the TV, or do any of the millions of things we all do to distract ourselves from our own experience and our own life, it’s not available. So the only practice in the darkness is simply to sit and open, sit and open, sit and open, and let go, let go, let go of whatever self-protective device you happen to come up with.
TS: But now, not to be contrarian, but to be contrarian: Imagine that you just took a drunkard and threw him in a dark prison for a period of time. They could just sleep. There is an attitude or a posture or something you’re bringing to the dark retreat besides just not doing anything. Do you know what I mean? You could just throw somebody in, and they could just spend the whole time daydreaming, planning what they were going to do, you know, thinking about all of the regrets they have in their life, or whatever.
RR: Well, that’s a very good point, and that’s why darkness is considered a somewhat advanced practice. Anybody could do it for a day or two and get a huge amount out of it, but you wouldn’t go into darkness for a week or two weeks or a month without a lot of training in meditation. The particular training that you bring in is that, through the practice of meditation, you learn the difference between your thinking process and the direct experience of being in your body. So, in the darkness, what you’re doing is: you start thinking, you come back to your body, you come back to the feeling of your body, you come back to the experience of the darkness. And then you start thinking again, and you start spinning out, and then you bring yourself back.
It’s interesting that solitary confinement actually, if people are put into solitary confinement without any technique, they go insane over a period of time. On the other hand, a trained meditator, being in a space by themself for weeks, actually grows hugely as a person. There is a technique, and you’re very right to bring that up. The technique is you don’t follow your thinking process. You simply bring yourself back, over and over, to the literal experience of being in your body, breathing, your heart beating, and your experience of the darkness all around you, which is a nonverbal, nonconceptual, totally literal experience.
TS: What, from your experience, happens to your brain, to your mind by being in the darkness for that long?
RR: Well, I would say there are two things that happen. One is that your mind opens in a very unique kind of way. You know, when we meditate, we often discover moments of stillness, moments of peace, and we may feel a kind of impending sense of freedom. In the darkness, those experiences become much more unconditional, meaning that they become more limitless. Initially, in the darkness, it’s as if your mind had walls, even if they’re way out there, you know, a thousand miles out, you have walls somewhere as a meditator, and it’s as if somebody takes down all the walls and there are no walls anymore. There is no boundary. There’s an experience of your experience being infinitely deep below you, infinitely vast all around you, and infinitely high above you. There’s a tremendous sense of joy that almost becomes frantic. You feel such deep happiness that such an experience is possible, and you can discover yourself as truly being a completely unimprisoned person, a person for whom there are no boundaries and no limits. You’re even free of the idea of a person, because that experience of the vastness of one’s own state of being, really, it’s a literal experience. It’s not a mental one. When you have let go, and when the mind opens abruptly, as it does, there’s not even a person there to limit the experience, itself. So it’s a sort of unbounded freedom, and it can be extremely . . . almost a terrifying kind of joy that comes along with it.
TS: Mm-hmm. Now you said there were two things. Did you tell me both of them?
RR: No. I was specifically emphasizing the first one because of what I’m about to talk about. (laughs)
The way I look at darkness is there are no brakes on the car at all. There are no brakes on your mind. One of the, I would say, most important spiritual teachings that comes to us from the Tantric tradition, which is the one I was trained in and the one I teach, is that simply experiencing the kind of freedom that I’m talking about and the kind of joy I’m talking about is really only step number one in the spiritual process. It’s only step number one because, if you experience that (Which you will do in the first few days of darkness practice, or the first week, you know. That’s going to come up, and you’re going to be there.) if you get up and walk out of the darkness retreat at that point, what is going to happen is you’re going to come back into your ordinary life, and all of the habitual patterns that we’ve all grown up with are going to be reactivated, and we’re going to find ourselves living back in our small world. We’re going to have the benefit of knowing that the freedom is there, but we’re not going to be tasting it as we go through much of our daily life, and the hassles and the crying babies and the work situations, difficult relationships, and whatever.
So the second step on the spiritual journey, at least according to the Tantric tradition, is that we have to dismantle the patterns of pettiness that are activated when we’re in our ordinary life. We have to dismantle them. Really, what happens in the darkness is, once the mind . . . once the mind really starts opening up, you start meeting some very interesting people. These interesting people are people from your past, but they’re people who are affecting you and actually taking you over right now as you live your life. These people are what I call, or what I might call undeveloped or incomplete parts of ourselves. They’re what Jung called complexes. They are little bundles of response, of conditioned response, that have developed in relationship to all kinds of situations throughout our whole life going back to probably when we were in the womb.
For example, in my case, I go into dark retreat, and the initial few days are very interesting, wonderful, and there’s a part of me that would like to say, “Okay, fine. I’m out of here!” but I stick with it because of this next step. What starts to happen is I will begin to encounter emotional responses that are very limited and very petty, and they arise in relationship to specific situations. I’ll give you an example. (We’ll see how far we want to go with this. You know, I’m not going to necessarily go through an archaeology of my personal psyche, but I want to give some examples.) As children, all of us have this experience of being very little and having these big people in our environment. The problem with the big people is, in our estimation, they were supposed to take care of us, and they had the power to resolve things that we couldn’t resolve—pain, hunger, fear, whatever—and they often didn’t do it. That experience is in us, and amazingly enough, as we discover through darkness practice, that experience of people who are bigger than us, and who could help us, but won’t do it, and the resultant response of resentment and anger and even rage, is activated all the time in our lives. It comes up all the time in relation to anybody we perceive as big. The problem with that response coming up is that we shut down. We shut down, and we actually live in the emotional state of that two year old. That’s how constricted our world is.
In my case, I’ve identified about sixty-five different what I call inferior personalities—inferior not in the sense of being bad, but just limited—and different situations in my life activate them. That’s what we call samsara: that we live from one limited state to the other, going from one to the other, depending on which external situation is going on out there. Do we feel betrayed? Do we feel undermined? Do we feel undernourished? Do we feel abused? Whatever it may be, we never get out. That’s what the prison is: It’s the kaleidoscope of these inferior parts of ourselves.
What happens in darkness practice is something will come up, and the interesting thing about darkness is, when they come up, they really come up! They take over the field of consciousness, and I become the two year old. The interesting thing is, usually in life when that starts happening, we go call a friend, or we’ll turn on the TV, or we’ll eat some chocolate, or we’ll have a drink, or we’ll get in the car and go shopping, but in the darkness, there are no breaks. In other words, when it comes up and takes over the field of consciousness, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re stuck! Amazingly enough, that’s how you resolve that person: by becoming that person and living through the experience that person had from the beginning to the end, and sometimes it takes a long time—six hours, twelve hours, three days later it comes back—but that’s how you resolve karma, by completing the experience that got started, but because of our infantile and weak ego structure, we couldn’t do it at that time, and now here we are and that’s what we’re doing!
TS: Now a couple of questions about that: You started by talking about meditation in general and darkness practice as a particularly advanced form of meditation. Do you think that resolution of these complexes, as you’re calling them, these incomplete parts of ourselves, reactive parts of ourselves, do you think that is what happens in meditation in general, and it’s just accentuated in darkness practice?
RR: Well, that’s a very interesting question. I would say, if you meditate in such a way that you stay very close to your emotions and your experience in your body, the answer would be yes. In regular meditation, it’s slower, because you have these techniques to fall back on, and you have the daylight. The daylight’s a huge distracter from our internal life. Unfortunately, the way most people meditate is to use techniques to ward off those kinds of experiences. Often meditation becomes, the way it’s usually practiced in this culture, it becomes a defense mechanism against resolving these fundamental karmic issues that really need to be resolved in order for us to grow as people.
TS: Okay. So it sounds like you do think that, if meditation is taught in an embodied way, close to your emotions, and if you stick with it, if you weren’t going out and being distracted left, right, and center, you might get deep into a lot of these unresolved issues.
RR: You do, yeah. I wouldn’t even say it’s . . . I mean, from a conventional standpoint, it’s not slow. As you know, the minute you get into your body, these things start coming up, and the instruction is, “Stay with it!” Stay with the emotions, stay with the body, stay with the process, and trust what’s going on. It’s really rather rapid. The difference in darkness is you go right to the bottom. In normal meditation, it’s a little bit more gradual. It’s not quite as abrupt.
TS: Okay, and then the other thing that occurs to me while you’re describing this—and you’re quoting Jung in terms of describing these parts of you as complexes—is it sounds like what you’re describing is the work of psychotherapy. That’s what psychotherapy does: If you’re sitting with a therapist, and they say, “What age do you remember feeling this way?” and you come up with the age, and, “Let’s go back there,” “Let’s bring that forward.” Isn’t that what good psychotherapy does?
RR: Yes, it is. It is, indeed, but I think the missing piece for most psychotherapy—in fact, all psychotherapy I know about, including some amazingly gifted people that I’ve had a chance to work with, both Jungians and Hakomi people, is that, through meditation, we develop a much greater capacity to experience those early states with clarity and confidence and effectiveness. For example, in Hakomi therapy, you work with the body, you’re working with a complex, and it could take you months or years to unravel it and eventually work through it. Having compared Hakomi practice with a dark retreat—and by the way, I think they go hand in hand, they’re very complementary—darkness practice, if you’re willing to engage things in that raw manner, is just a lot quicker. I think the other thing is, you’re coming out of an experience of openness and freedom and joy, and that gives you much more fortitude to encounter the darkness, whereas with conventional meditation or with conventional psychotherapy, the relative personality is trying to work with the relative personality, so the bigness of scope really isn’t there, and the depth of trust and confidence in the process isn’t really quite as strong as it is when you’re coming from what we call the unborn mind.
TS: But just to challenge a little bit further on this: If you have a therapist who is a loving, open witness, aren’t they providing a kind of support that could actually help the process unravel in a more accelerated way?
RR: I feel that’s true. I think the ideal combination is to have a person on the relative level—you could call that person a therapist, but somebody who brings that gift to you: brings the gift of being a mirror, the gift of loving you, the gift of creating an open environment—and within that framework, you’re doing spiritual practice, you’re maybe doing darkness practice. To me, you need both. You need the mentor, you need the loving friend, the witness, along with the practice. That’s what we talk about. You need the teacher, you need the therapist, and you need the community. Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree.
But one thing that’s interesting, that I’ve found (and this may come off as sounding terribly arrogant, speaking from the Tibetan spiritual perspective), my experience is that all of the therapists that I have met, if they don’t have that big meditative space (and some of them do), if they don’t have that big, open experience of their unborn, unconditioned self that they’re coming from, they’re limited. They can only go as far as their experience lets them go, and then it kind of hangs you up. That’s the only caveat: You have to really be aware that therapists are people and they have their own limitations.
TS: Mm-hmm. Now I want to go a little bit into these sixty-five little mini-Reggies that occurred. Did you actually count them, Reggie? Is that how you came up with the number, sixty-five, or were you just sort of rounding?
RR: No. Last year, I did count them. When I was in retreat last year, I came up with fifty, and this year, I believe I came up with a dozen or fifteen additional ones, so that’s where I get the sixty-five.
TS: Okay, and each one of these is like an image of you at a certain age, and you saw the place where this little you was? I mean, tell me more about what the complex actually looks like. What qualifies as “Okay, that’s one. That counts!” adding it to the list?
RR: What qualifies it is whatever takes over the field of consciousness is a complex. It’s one of these aspects. It takes over the field of consciousness. Now what do I mean by that? Let’s say that one of my things is betrayal. When I was two, a couple of interesting things happened. One is my mother had another child, my brother, and at the same exact time, my father left for the war. So, having been the darling of the family and the focus of the attention of these two people, all of a sudden, nobody was there. My mother was tied up nursing my baby brother. She wasn’t available. My father was completely gone. For me, at that time (and I know this very well, because in darkness, you get to go back and you get to go right back into that two-year-old state of mind), I felt completely betrayed, cut off. I felt unloved. I felt that there was nowhere to turn, and I felt a kind of loneliness and even despair. It’s interesting that such small children can experience so much, but you know, they do.
Now, as an adult, this comes up in love relationships, and it can be activated by, and is activated—this is really interesting—it’s activated by nothing. Absolutely nothing can activate it. For example, my partner is unbelievably loyal to me and loves me. This is not a woman who is problematic in that respect. There’s no evidence ever that there’s anything other than that, and yet, in dark retreat, (You know, when I’m in normal life, fine! This is a wonderful situation!) in dark retreat, my mind literally manufactures scenarios where I am betrayed. What happens is I go right back into that state of mind: I’m betrayed, I’m not loved, and all those feelings of loneliness and helplessness and despair and anger and rage all come up. They don’t just come up; they take over, and I become that little child. Looking out from my meditation cushion as that little child, the whole universe looks like that to me. That’s what I mean by “taking over the field of consciousness.”
Well, there are sixty-four other experiences of reality, if you will, with their own logic and their own pain and their own reactivity (because that’s what each has: a certain experience of pain, and then there’s the reactivity that happens, and then there’s the way the world looks), you know, there’s sixty-four other ones.
TS: And what does the resolution look like within dark retreat? And then is it actually resolved with a sort of period in terms of your emergence from retreat? I mean does this abandonment issue ever get resolved, let alone the sixty-four other issues?
RR: Well, you know, that’s a great question. What happens in the process is that first, that takes over the field of consciousness, and that’s a theme for me. I’m still working on that one after a number of years of doing this. What begins to happen is you start to have two minds. One mind is going through this whole thing as, “I’ve been betrayed! I’ve been abandoned! Who needs her, anyway? To hell with her! I’m going to live my own life!” which is part of the reactivity, the desperado approach. There’s another part of me that knows I’m doing it, and knows what she is, and knows that this is, in a certain level, ridiculous, and they’re both going on simultaneously. Now, that’s interesting.
What happens with me is I’ve developed a whole series of techniques. I’ll stay with the two year old, and at a certain point, it’s like enough. It’s enough already, and there are these body techniques that I teach. There are certain ones that actually help you soften the two year old and help the two-year-old open up. I’ll go back to those, and then I’m back in what I would call my bigger state of mind, where I know who I’m with, and I know who she is, and I love her, and I appreciate her, and I’m joyful because of her.
So you’re kind of playing back and forth between the two year old and, you could say, the adult awareness or the experiential awareness, and that’s what happens afterward. What’s happening now for me, being out of dark retreat is certain things (that particular one doesn’t get triggered, but there are other ones that do), I see that person, and I actually enter into a dialogue with him. (So far, there are sixty-five “hims.” I’m waiting for some “hers.” I really want some “hers,” but I haven’t come up with any yet. They don’t all have to be at all one gender.) You enter into a dialogue, and I’ll say to him, “What’s going on? What’s happening with you? Why are you being this way, and why are you trying to mess my life up? Why are you trying to undermine my relationship?” It really turns into a kind of active imagination at a certain point, both in dark retreat and also in the normal world.
TS: Now I can imagine someone listening to this, Reggie, and they might say, “Wow! Here’s Reggie! He’s been a Tibetan Buddhist scholar for so long, and he’s gone on solitary retreats for three-plus decades, and this all sounds very psychological.” I could imagine someone saying that in a kind of critical way, like, “Wow! This all sounds very, very psychological, these workings, having an interactive imagination dialogue with a two-year-old, split-off part of him: This is what his solitary retreat practice has brought him to?”
RR: And? (laughs) Well, you see, I think the reason that question might arise is that often, in the West, we tend to split spirituality off from psychology, and really, there’s a deeper and I think clearer way to put it. We tend to think of spirituality as engaging positive states of mind—what I was talking about before, you know, a sense of peace and openness and freedom—and then psychology deals with our relative life, you know, our relative experience, our neuroses, our emotions. That split, from the Tantric point of view, is completely and totally invalid. To do spiritual work is to engage the relative world of neurosis and pain and suffering and confusion and habitual patterns and emotions. The reason it is is that we spend most of our life evading our human experience, and that evasion takes a huge amount of energy. Whatever energy we put into avoiding our lives and trying to keep them at a distance locks up our awareness. The experience of freedom is going to be incredibly limited if you’re going to be spending most of your psychic energy basically trying to maintain your ego on the relative level. From the Tantric viewpoint, you have to liberate the relative. You have to liberate the locked-up energy of your habitual patterns and your relative psyche in order to be able to really be free. If the only freedom you ever feel is when you exit from your ordinary life and you go into the big space, that’s not real freedom. That’s just taking a break. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break, but you’re not really free, because you always have to come back to the relative world and deal with the claustrophobia that goes along with our ego situation.
So you have to really dig into the darkness in terms of tantra. You’ve got to dig into the darkness in order to really discover, as you’re doing darkness retreat, that there’s no difference between darkness and light.
TS: What do you mean by that?
RR: The experience of light is the experience of darkness. The experience of darkness is the experience of light. In other words, what is it like being in the dark? Being in the dark is—you can’t see. You can feel. You know, your heart is the organ of knowledge in the darkness. You feel your life, and you’re constantly waiting to see what’s next. The idea of any kind of plan, in some sense, requires the impression that you can see into the future, you can see into the distance, so that’s gone. You’re in the darkness: It’s an experience of waiting and then responding to what comes up. You don’t initiate anything in the darkness. When you come back to the ordinary world, you’re still in the darkness, at least for a period of time, because you realize that what life is about is waiting to see what comes up, waiting to see what life shows you, waiting to see the invitations and the opportunities and the obstacles to be dealt with. The idea of a self-generating ego that comes out of our fear, largely, and our paranoia and our attempt to control reality doesn’t really apply. In a way, even when you’re back in the light, you’re resting in that state of openness and freedom and non-caring, and then you can really respond to life rather than having the huge confusion we all have most of the time between what we want and what’s really going on, or what we think we want and what’s really going on out there.
TS: Now, when you were in dark retreat, you went to a particular cabin that was crafted or built for dark retreat, right? It was constructed in a certain way so absolutely not a shred of light could get in.
RR: This is true.
TS: Yeah. I’m curious, if somebody’s listening and they would like to experiment with being in darkness, they may find a closet or a bathroom or something, they can duct-tape some black tarp or something like that. What do you think about people experimenting like that? And if you were to give them some instructions that they could experiment with, what might those be?
RR: Well, first of all, I think the inspiration for the darkness is in all of us, and it’s a legitimate inspiration. I mean, we are inspired by it, and I think the reason is the darkness is the unconscious. The darkness, in a literal way, is our larger self. The darkness holds all of our journey. It holds all the possibilities of our person. In Western, dualistic thought, there’s physical reality and spiritual reality, but in the Tibetan tradition, especially in Tantric tradition, the physical reality, the true physical reality that we live in, actually is already spiritual. When we sit in the darkness, we are sitting face-to-face with our own unconscious, our own Buddha nature, our own larger self (and these are all identical terms). That’s interesting.
Okay, so we would like to experience some darkness practice. That’s very sacred. That’s a very noble aspiration, and we should do something about it. Now what could we do? Even if we never meditated, it’s very worthwhile to . . . You know, a bathroom is my favorite thing, because you have a toilet, you have running water, and often you have a blower you can turn on if you want to get the circulation going. You can go into your bathroom, you can go into your closet. That’s fine. Hang some dark blankets over the door, when you’re on the inside, you might want to run some black duct tape around the seams, and there you are. Try it for an hour, two hours, or three hours, and just be in there and see what you find. Practice a little bit of meditation. It’s good to go in with a technique like I said. You know, be in the body, follow your breath, be with the darkness, and if you start spinning out, bring yourself back, and see what happens.
What happens is going to be appropriate to your own journey, and that’s one of the extraordinary things about this practice. Often, we’re given a technique and twenty-five different people do the same technique, but it may or may not be appropriate to where you’re at and what you may need. The thing about the darkness practice, because it’s so naked and stripped down, whatever needs to happen in your state of being is going to happen. So give yourself an hour or two and see what happens. People that I work with, at beginning level, middle level, advanced level, everybody has got a lot out of it, so I’m very encouraging of you to give it a shot. Would I go into darkness for a week without much training? No, because I think you’d be wasting your time to do it, I think you’d probably just wind up spinning out the whole time, but you could work up to it. You know, for a year, you could try it for a day in your bathroom. In year number two, maybe you could go into a cabin for a couple of days.
Yeah, it’s definitely worthwhile to do even right up front, as a meditator.
TS: Mm-hmm. Something else that I wanted to talk to you about, Reggie, that I think is related, is that you are a teacher in what’s known as the Practicing Lineage, and I’m curious how you define spiritual practice, how you define meditation. You’ve defined it here or talked about it here in a pretty broad way in terms of this process of dropping our armor and opening to greater and greater freedom and liberated experience. What does it mean, actually, to you to uphold this idea of the Practicing Lineage?
RR: Well, one possible way to describe this is in terms of techniques—meditation is sitting down and following your breath, or meditation is doing a mantra—and to me, it’s not helpful, because you can either follow your breath, as I’ve mentioned before, as a way of really opening yourself to your larger spiritual self, or you can use following the breath as a way to shut down and defend yourself against your larger self. I don’t think talking about it in terms of technique is really very helpful.
Maybe what I can do is talk about this sort of goal of the highest practice of Tibetan Buddhism, and then really, what I want to say is that any technique that is in service of this particular goal, to me, that would qualify. What we could say is that, really, the practice of meditation is to develop, over time, an attitude of complete acceptance and openness toward all situations and emotions, and toward all people, because it’s in the situations of life that the wisdom of the universe comes through. It’s in the emotions and it’s through the people. It’s through the relative world that the wisdom of the universe and the liberating fire of the universe are communicated to us. It’s not in some abstract, empty state. It’s actually through our lives. The purpose of spiritual practice is to develop that unconditional acceptance and openness.
Now you know we do have the armor, and we do have the hiding places, and we do have the defense mechanisms, so when we do try to do that, when we sit and we’re in our bodies and we’re practicing meditation in some way, and we have this idea and this intention to really open, of course we run into all of the ways in which we don’t open, all of the ways in which we’re closed. We meet them. The genuine tradition of meditation is really focused on meeting the obstacles and letting them go, and opening, meeting the defense mechanisms and letting them go, and opening further. When we do that, there’s going to be, in the beginning, pain, and there’s going to be fear. How do we work with that pain and that fear? We open ourselves to the pain or to the fear, and we welcome it unconditionally. When we are willing to practice with that intention and that process, over time, we dismantle all of the barriers that get between us and our own lives, or that get between us and our larger selves. It’s a slow process, but it’s a process of opening and opening and opening. And, in the same way that the neurotic parts of ourselves can take over the field of consciousness, we begin to find that, actually, our larger self becomes the defining feature of our consciousness. We begin to live in a bigger and bigger world, and the universe, itself, appears constantly as bigger than we ever imagined, and more going on, and there’s more joy and more interesting experiences and further universes to explore.
So I would say a legitimate spiritual practice, or one that really fulfills the design of the Buddhist meditation teachings involves letting go of the false self and opening to the larger self, opening to the bigger world, and using the techniques in service of that process of opening and letting go.
TS: You know, at one point recently, I mentioned to someone that I know that you were on retreat, and interestingly, this person said to me, “God! Reggie’s on another retreat?” There was a kind of judgment in it that was something like, “You’d think, after all of these retreats, that he would have ‘graduated’ by now.” Do you know what I mean? Like you’d be done with having the need to go on a retreat. I think there’s also sort of a judgment about the practicing lineage in that. It’s like, “Wow! You guys are going to practice forever, huh? Are you ever going to arrive anywhere, or are you going to just keep practicing forever?” I’m curious what you would say to that.
RR: Well, the ultimate practice is the practice of life. The ultimate meditation is living in the world, daily life. The reason I go on retreat is the same reason I’m in the fire of a relationship. It’s the same reason I teach. It’s to find out what life is. It’s an exploration. It’s a discovery. Anyone who feels that they’ve discovered everything that there is to discover, then they don’t need to practice! They don’t even need to live! But if you’re interested in what reality is, and you also recognize your own limitations as a person, there’s going to be a fire in you that is going to burn you, and you’re going to be attracted to that fire. That fire is life, itself. Sometimes life will call you into the darkness, and sometimes it calls you into the light.
It was quite interesting for me this past weekend: I had the great privilege, and honor, really, to do a weekend with one of the great leaders of the Jewish renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter, and also one of the great Catholic theologians, who has done as much to open up the church in its thinking as anybody in the last fifty years, Matthew Fox. I came directly out of the darkness, right into that weekend, and the interesting thing was I came with a lot of questions, and I was, in a way, dreading it, because it wasn’t my program. It was this collective thing that I didn’t even know where it was going to go. It wasn’t even Buddhist, you know? It turned out that the nakedness that had happened during the darkness retreat enabled some things to happen that were completely mind blowing. I think that’s really how it works. I think one practices always. The Buddhist, Tibetan, Tantric point of view is that path is the goal, that there is no end point for humans ever, that as humans, before we were born and no doubt long after we die, the process for us is growing, changing, opening, experiencing life at deeper levels, seeing where we get stuck, and going further. Sometimes the practice is official meditation, and other times, in the Tantric tradition, it’s simply living life.
The problem with saying, well, you get to a certain point and then you’ve done what you’re going to do is it’s not very realistic, because we’re never going to get to the end, and there’s always more armor to shed, there’s always more openness of heart to develop, no matter who you are. I’d be interested to hear if your friend really feels that they’ve achieved everything they want to, and now they can just kind of kick back. To me, that’s inconceivable! In our tradition, it’s actually said that, when you die, it’s like any other moment, and you keep right on going, and the process, the path is the goal. You know the purpose of life is to change? Well, the practice of change just keeps right on going. That’s my point of view. Endless. The endless journey.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that eventually, we become stars, and then we become galaxies. Why stop here? Why not keep going? Why not fulfill the whole thing?
TS: Wonderful. I’ve been speaking with Reggie Ray. He’s the author of the Sounds True book Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body, as well as a twenty-disc series that we’ve created called Your Breathing Body. There is a set of ten CDs of beginning meditation practices, and then more advanced practices in volume two.
Reggie, thank you for sharing with us post your dark retreat. Thank you!
RR: My pleasure!
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey.