Sacred geometry

Emotional Healing

This retreat was jointly taught by Rob Burbea and one or more other Insight Meditation teachers. Here is the full retreat on Dharma Seed
Date16th November 2006
Retreat/SeriesNovember Solitary 2006


Today I'd like to explore a little bit the question, the area of emotional healing. It's actually a talk I've been wanting to give for a long time, but every time I reflect on it, I realize, "God, it's a huge subject, and there's so much to it, so many different aspects and dimensions and approaches," that I was like, "Oh, mañana." [laughter] So in this talk, I can only really touch on some aspects of it.

Second reason I was a little hesitant, or am a little hesitant to talk about it, is because this area, for a lot of people, and very understandably, is quite charged in terms of views, views and opinions and feelings about it. I remember in my practice, I actually stopped practising for a few years in the late eighties because I felt at that time that the difficulties I was experiencing in practice on a psychological level were not really being addressed by a vipassanā practice at that time and what was around in the vipassanā sort of scene at that time. And I stopped, and I worked very intensely for quite a number of years in psychodynamic psychotherapy. Because I was working in that area, I had certain views around it, and if anyone had tried to convince me otherwise, I probably would have bit their head off practically.

Looking back, I can understand how that was, but I guess the point I want to make is that really what I want to do today is to explore this whole area, and just see some of its complexity, some of the different aspects. And always, always, talks and the Dharma is under the umbrella of the question, the Buddha's fundamental question: what is it that leads to suffering? Can I understand that, and can I understand what leads to freedom? So it's just an exploration with that question as a guide.

I won't go into, in this talk, so much about how to work meditatively in terms of technique, when emotions are difficult and it feels like one's going through something very intense emotionally. There are, of course, tapes in the library -- I know definitely one, probably many tapes in the library -- that describe that. Or to talk to a teacher if you feel you need a little guidance in terms of technique.

If we talk about vipassanā practice, the sort of main thrust of the practice is this real intimacy of presence, okay? And this is what we go on about so much. Something's difficult emotionally there; what are we bringing to it? We're bringing this intimacy, so that we're really connecting with it. We're bringing an openness. We're really touching, touching what's there, touching what's difficult emotionally. And in this Insight Meditation tradition, a lot of the work is quite body-based, quite in touch with what's going on in the body. So the physical aspect of what's going on is very central to the way of working.

And alongside that, this sort of not getting too wrapped up, too involved in the storyline and the contact. So of course it may be there, but the way of working, in a sort of strict vipassanā sense, is not to get too involved with that, and to bring more of this raw openness, intimacy of attention into the body and the manifestation physically.

So this aspect of attention is really crucial, you know? It's a lot of what we go on about all the time: mindfulness, attention. Something's quite interesting here. When there's a difficult emotion, or an emotion that feels like a pattern or a very negative kind of set that comes over the being, when that's there, almost invariably, it has a tendency to -- what's the word? -- swallow up the energy of attention. So when this cloud of whatever it is descends, the attention energy is depressed, so to speak. It doesn't have the same energy. This has a lot of implications for working in practice. If we can somehow, on the cushion, in the walking, whatever it is, increase the energy of the attention -- in other words, make the attention energized, very attentive, really feed the attention -- then the energy of the emotion, which would otherwise swallow the attention energy, tends to decrease. They're basically like this -- they're inversely proportional or whatever scientists say.

So that if the difficult emotion that's present is a kind of depressive emotion -- you know, just down; everything's down and dark, and we don't seem to have any energy -- this revamping of the energy of attention will then bring the energy level of the being up. Or if the difficult emotion is very agitating, very hyper, almost, then the energy invested in attention tends to calm, to calm that. It's very significant, just seeing: how much energy is there in attention right now, and can I somehow invest or increase that energy?

So, as I said, I want to explore a little bit the views we have around healing. Oftentimes -- and it's certainly a view that I held for quite a while, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, was that if I just feel my old emotions, or if I just feel the emotions, just being there and feeling it, that's healing. Now, sometimes it may be, but oftentimes, I don't think it is, that just to feel the difficult will be healing. I think it's rather in the relation, in the relationship that we have with them in the present. That's a crucial factor, among other aspects which I'll go into. But it's the relationship in the present that we have with a difficult emotion. Just feeling, "God, this is really difficult," it's not enough, or it may be not enough.

A lot of what we're doing when we practise meditation is paying attention to, developing, nurturing a really healthy and beautiful and balanced relationship with what's there. So this relating and presence is something we learn. We learn it slowly and gradually in practice. Most of us, it really is a very gradual learning, because we haven't learnt it anywhere else, how to really relate well, how to be present. That's hugely significant, because then we're not compounding, we're not adding to the suffering of the difficult emotion. We're not adding to it with the suffering, with the dukkha of disconnection, which is so often the case -- something difficult goes on, and we'd rather just be somewhere else, just not connect. What happens then is a state of disconnection comes into the being, and that state of disconnection is a state of suffering. We're enlarging the dukkha.

What's very common for people of practice to realize at a certain point or gradually is that even when something's difficult, there can be a really lovely sort of wavelength of sweetness just in the fact of the connection, just in the presence. There's something about just being there, just softening around what's going on, just being open. Whatever it is is difficult, but that presence itself has a really lovely, healing sweetness. This is very tangible, very sensible in practice. So even grief or something, very difficult emotion, somehow we're just opening, being present, being soft around it, and there's a real sweetness there, almost mixed in with the grief.

Grief, actually, is quite an interesting feeling in the dynamic of healing. Oftentimes we feel in our life that we have become, somewhere along the line, somewhere along the years, we have become disconnected, cut off, shut off from some part of ourselves, and maybe also for years this has been going on without us even realizing it. It's quite common for people to wake up and think, "I've been shut off from my playfulness or my kindness or whatever it is for years." And in realizing that can come quite some grief, the grief of that realization. Grief's interesting in that context, because it can very much act like a glue. In a way, we're weeping, perhaps, for ourselves, for our lives, what has been missed, what has been lost, and the grief, though it's difficult, it can work as a glue to reconnect the parts that were disconnected.

In just talking about vipassanā practice now, what we're really doing, or one of the things we're doing, is we're gradually, slowly, developing the capacity to accommodate what's difficult emotionally. This is usually a slow process, but gradually, we really feel like we have more capacity to hold and to embrace, to accommodate what's difficult. That capacity to accommodate is a really important aspect of healing, just that -- the ability to hold, to be with, to embrace.

And seeing a bigger picture of what's going on, we're also developing a lot of other qualities. In just this presence, this opening to, we're developing courage, developing openness, developing confidence, which is often what we're really lacking in relation to really difficult emotions -- we don't have confidence in the face of them. Developing the inner resources to be with, to open to them, to ourselves, in a really self-nurturing way. So to see the bigger picture of what's going on, all these factors are going on. They're all very important aspects of healing. And no one, I hope, no one would say that this is easy at all when the emotions are difficult. It's not at all easy. It needs, to tread this path in this way, needs kindness. It needs patience. You can't force this. It needs interest, in a way. We really need to get interested in what's there, in our relationship with it. It needs compassion, because there's suffering there.

It actually also needs, if one's talking about balancing the practice, it needs periods of rest. So if there's something, if it feels like there's a lot of grief or a lot of difficulty coming up, maybe old feelings or whatever, not to feel like, "I need to work with it all the time. I need to be there all the time. I need to keep opening." It will be too much, can be too much, too tiring. Really, really helpful, really, really skilful to sometimes take the time away from that and just be with the breath, a place of rest, or with the mettā practice, or a walk in nature -- something that's a rest from what's difficult.

But generally speaking, the thrust of mindfulness practice is this being with, this opening to, this intimacy with. And, you know, I think most of us are aware, we're quite sophisticated in a way, psychologically: we can talk around, psychologically talk around our difficult emotions and what's coming up. We could talk for days on end, even, and whoever's listening is ... [laughs] Sometimes that's useful, but sometimes just opening quietly, just quietly being with, just a quiet, simple presence to, can be so much, in a way, more healing.

So the thrust of this practice, being with what is, opening to what is, and that means the fullness of life, which means what's lovely and what's difficult. A lot of the agenda of this practice is really opening to the fullness of life, which includes what needs healing.

Generally, you know, we go on and on about mindfulness, and sometimes there can be a sense that if I'm just mindful, if I just see the suffering, that will be enough, that will do it. But oftentimes, we realize: I've been mindful of this. I've been mindful. It's just not enough. I'm present to it. I'm bringing attention to it. It doesn't do it. Mindfulness is sometimes hyped up to be a sort of cure-all, as if it's going to really fix everything, and it's not realistic. Most people, my experience says, most people, when there's a problem, in body or in mind or in heart, whatever, when there's a problem, the attention goes to that problem. It goes to that problem. It's drawn to that problem. Sometimes the attention is actually part of the problem, and we don't tend to realize this. It's quite a subtle and deep way. The actual giving attention to what feels like a problem emotionally is actually somehow feeding it. I'll go into this a bit more later on. I very much feel there can be a real skill in a skilful non-attending, skilful -- I was going to say 'spacing out,' but that's not really ... Skilful ignoring! In a wholesome way. I don't mean going to the refrigerator, getting a beer, overeating, TV, Valium, whatever. [laughter] Wholesome. So what I was saying before: nature, mettā, friendship, breath, these kind of things. Really wholesome non-attending.

So the mindfulness is not enough. It's more, other qualities really have to come in. One of them is kindness -- absolutely crucial factor here in the relationship with what's going on is the kindness. Something difficult's going on emotionally; can there be a kindness for myself there? This is suffering. Can I meet myself in this moment with kindness? In this moment, we could say, that's not who I am; we could say, in this moment, that is who I am. Can I meet myself with kindness? Can I even meet the emotion with kindness, which means completely accepting that it's there, completely relaxing any wish to just scoot it out the door, hurry it on out? Hugely important, the place of kindness, and to explore ways we can kind of implement and enlarge that in our practice.

And of course, wisdom, the place of wisdom in all this. The Buddha, some of you were here when I talked about the vedanā, contemplation of vedanā. And the Buddha says a strange thing in the four foundations of mindfulness: see the body in the body, see the feelings in the feelings, see the mind in the mind. You think, "What's he talking about?" And he's talking about: don't see self in it. Don't see, "I have this emotion, this fear, this grief, this whatever it is. Therefore, I'm a failure. Therefore, I'm damaged. Therefore, I'm a spiritual whatever." Don't see self-judgment in it. Don't see comparing in it. It's actually quite difficult. But he says right at the beginning of the contemplation, just see it for what it is: mind in the mind, heart in the heart, we could say.

Actually, sometimes that's quite difficult. It's quite difficult for self not to wrap itself around and identify and measure oneself, and say, "Oh, I bet they're in a different place, and I'm stuck with this. This is my history," etc. It's quite difficult. But this aspect of kindness, of bringing in, bathing oneself and what's going on with love, is really significant in our ability to just see mind in the mind, just see heart in the heart, just see the emotion in the emotion. It acts as a softener. The love, the kindness, acts as a softener of the experience and of the relationship with the experience.

So all that, that's the sort of typical, traditional vipassanā approach, is the bringing of mindfulness, and the care of the relationship to it. In a way, we could say that's one part or one wing of the path. But the whole other wing that exists, like two wings of a bird that it would need to fly, the whole other wing is the aspect of cultivation, cultivation of what is beautiful, cultivation of the lovely. And oftentimes -- and especially in our tradition, because we put so much emphasis on being with and just opening to what is -- oftentimes we tend to overlook the huge importance of cultivation.

Cultivating practices like mettā, cultivating that quality in the heart; cultivating compassion; samādhi, we talked about the other day, cultivating that samādhi, that stillness, that collectedness of heart. For some people, devotion, opening to that, cultivating that, for some people. I don't know if we can talk about cultivating wonder, but something like cultivating the openness to wonder. Tremendous healing in the cultivation. It's not necessarily in the direct working with what's actually going on, but in the cultivation, rather, of the beautiful qualities. Enormous power of that. Not to overlook it, and see: am I viewing these things as two equally balanced aspects of practice, two equally balanced wings, the cultivation and the being with?

When we talk about cultivation, really to remind ourselves right from the beginning: it's never a linear process. Like when I was talking about the samādhi, it cannot be a linear process. It's also not easy. But generally, over a lifetime, we just keep cultivating these beautiful qualities. And slowly, gradually, what happens, as we cultivate more and more mettā, more and more compassion, more and more samādhi, etc., slowly, happiness starts to percolate into the being -- gradually, in a very non-linear way, because these beautiful qualities are builders of happiness. They are builders of happiness.

I find it quite interesting: when we do group retreats, and sometimes we do a guided meditation in the afternoon, and sometimes we make it a mettā meditation, and then the teachers get together, and they say, "Okay, what phrases shall we use?" There ensues a little debate. And then, at some point, someone says, "What about the word 'happiness'?" [laughs] And it's quite interesting. It's quite charged. Some teachers have the view, "We better not use that word." And some will say, "Yeah, let's use it." Because, I think, for some people, it's quite a loaded word, and it actually tends to push the wrong buttons in people, in some people. Maybe in our culture, it's come to have quite a superficial resonance: "Oh, happy, happy!" [laughter]

But this is quite interesting. I find this quite interesting. Again, if we talk about views of healing, if we talk about what's my view of depth of being, what's my view of what it means to go deep, I know that for a long time, I had a view that in the real depths is the real misery. [laughs] And the really hard stuff. I don't know that that actually bears out in reality, or that it was something the Buddha agreed with. Going back to what I said at the beginning, I don't want to come down on one side or the other with this; I just want to paint what's quite a complex, messy picture of the whole thing. Just to question: if I have a view of depth, what it means to go deeper, is it to uncover more and more stuff that's difficult? Is that what I conceive of as deep? Interestingly, the Buddha actually conceived of deeper and deeper happiness as what it meant to go deep. But it's complex. Just to see: what's my view?

I have a very good friend who was in psychotherapy for many years, and working, you know, very diligently, and we would get together, and I would say, "How's it going? How are you doing?" She said, "Well, I think I feel okay today," or "Actually, I think I feel a bit happy!" And then she'd go, "I must be in denial." [laughter] It was coming out of this very lovely sort of integrity, and wanting to sort of question herself. And I could see the same pattern in myself. It wasn't quite so marked. But what are we assuming? What are we assuming about happiness, about suffering, about depth, about reality?

And I also remember, in my psychotherapeutic process, at some point feeling really, really unhappy. I really, really felt like there was such a sort of blockage of personality stuff, such a wrongly made personality, some factors of personality that were just seemingly insurmountable, I'd just been made wrong -- probably my parents' fault. [laughter] But there's something so stuck. And then one day, feeling very unhappy, got up in the morning, and decided -- this was after I'd just started coming back to the Dharma, after a number of years away -- and decided, "I'm just going to do mettā, and I will do mettā all day." So I got up, dressed, "May I be, may you be," etc. Went, had to do some shopping, and I wasn't working that day, and I went and sat in the park, went and did this, did that, did whatever I had to do -- mettā, all day long: shopkeeper, da-da-da, mettā.

After about probably three or four hours [laughs], I started to feel really, really happy. Lovely, lovely happiness come. And because it was so stark, such a stark contrast, this was like just a lightbulb going on in my head, and I realized I had been labouring under the illusion (not explicit, unconscious illusion) that I could not be happy until these personality things were fixed, were changed, dissolved, rearranged, whatever language you want to use. It wasn't quite even a conscious thought: "It's hopeless for me. I cannot be happy until there's some reconfiguring." And yet, here, all I did was just plugged away at the mettā, plugged away and plugged away and plugged away, tenaciously. And then happiness. I realized, "Gosh, happiness has nothing to do with this idea I have of my personality and what needs rearranging, etc. It actually comes from the qualities that are in the mind, the qualities that are in the heart, in the present." And because it was so extreme, the unhappiness and the happiness and the sort of views I'd been in, it was just like, "Whoa." It's actually remained that clear since then. It was one of those rare moments where you just see something and it just remains clear. So the enormous potential of what can be developed through cultivation, through mettā, etc.

I also remember being involved in a class. It was a weekly evening class on mettā in the States. And at some point -- I think it was towards the end of the class -- one of the students asked my teacher, Narayan, she said, "You know, I just feel like kind of hunkering down in my own little cocoon of mettā to myself, and just huddling up there and giving mettā to myself." And she said, "Is that okay?" And Narayan just said, "No." It was a very short interaction. I was like, "Wow." And afterwards -- I can't actually remember what happened; I think it was just that short. Afterwards, I sort of reflected on it, and what I came to was that if I just give mettā to myself, valuable and beautiful that is, just to be careful, because too much self-attention, too much attention to self and the problems of the self, will actually increase the dukkha. It actually increases the suffering because, in a way, self-obsession -- I mean, that's a strong word, but it's too much self-attention. Something has to let go of the self-attentiveness and spread out to others.

So two very important aspects of the Dharma, this mindfulness, this being with, and this cultivation; hugely important. But I do think that sometimes, for some people, at some points in their practice, it may be necessary to work in a more psychotherapeutic way or more psychological way, or work in therapy or whatever, or in some modality that includes more of that, absolutely. And like any path, if we choose that path, at a certain point, like any path that we choose, it will have its benefits, its advantages, and its pitfalls. We can certainly say this of vipassanā.

In the late eighties, when I was in the sort of beginning years of my practice, what was quite common -- it doesn't happen so much now -- a person experiencing difficult emotion, and there was so much emphasis on sort of precision of mindfulness, just really look at it and really see exactly what's going on. There would be a difficult emotion there coming up, this laser beam of attention would go there and sort of connect with the thing and zap it out of all existence. And a person would say, "I don't have any emotions," because there was such a heightened precision to the mindfulness. For a lot of people, quite a hardness came into the practice, and a disconnection to the emotional. This tends to be very rare nowadays, because there's a lot more emphasis on mettā and working in more gentle ways. But if we talk about possible pitfalls and possible benefits, that's one of the dangers of a vipassanā path.

But also in psychotherapy, it can have certain -- or it seems to me, at this point -- can have certain wonderful benefits that may not otherwise be there for a person, and certain pitfalls. One of the things that we may learn in psychotherapy and in working in dialogue with a person, in relationship, that it's hard to learn necessarily so much on the cushion, is the whole skill, the skill that we learn in relating, in communicating. So again, when we talk about healing, what often really needs to happen is more that we're learning skills in communicating, learning skills in relating and intimacy, etc., learning skills in setting boundaries. It's not always about just connecting with something that's difficult, and sort of going through that, and then kind of everything will find its place. And certainly also defusing negative thought patterns and replacing them with positive, which can also happen on the cushion, of course.

One aspect that I felt -- just kind of sharing personally -- that I felt I got from working in a very intense psychotherapeutic setting, it's hard to put it into words, but it's a sort of, because it was reflected back to me from the therapist, a very lovely loving and almost celebrating of myself, my uniqueness, my beauty, etc. Now, this is nothing to do with ego and self-aggrandizement; nothing like that at all. More the sense of the way a parent might love and celebrate the beauty, the uniqueness of their baby or their child. And this is a little bit different sort of take or flavour than a typical mettā practice, but to me, that was a real, very beautiful and valuable gift that somehow came out of the therapy, this real -- it's hard to find words for it -- tender and loving celebration of myself.

I'm not sure now if it's still in vogue in therapy, but the whole work with the inner child -- this is very related to that. I found it extremely useful. One might say, if you're really gung-ho Dharma, "But isn't that all self-view? Isn't it all self stuff?" But it's completely okay. Self-view is not bad or even wrong in one level. It's just a view. It's a view that we can pick up, and we can work in that way, and it's completely appropriate. It's completely appropriate to talk in terms of me and you and my history and all of that. Completely appropriate, and a lot of healing to work at that level. The danger, or the possible danger, is that again, we go into this too much self, too much self, and the psychotherapeutic process can become just, "I've just got mired in another spin cycle of self-obsession." There's so much focus on the self, and just "my process" and "my, my, my, my, my." This is not uncommon, put it that way. It's not uncommon.

So a person might also feel that they -- and I know that I felt, again, just to share personally -- at the beginning of -- well, I wasn't actually clear why I was even entering therapy, but one of the things that became clear was that I wasn't very good at identifying my needs, or what I felt I needed emotionally or in a situation or in a relationship. I wasn't good at identifying it or recognizing it, and I was completely useless at communicating it. What happened -- and I think this is a real possible benefit, especially of psychotherapy -- is one actually learns to identify, "Yeah, these are my needs, and this is what I need in this situation, in this relationship," or whatever, and then one learns the skill of communicating that. Great. How often, though, might it go over into an inner environment of feeling entitled? And again, the self has kind of got a bit too big there. A person can do a lot of therapy, and feel very good about working through all this, but has actually gone to the other extreme a little bit, and feeling quite entitled in their relationships, in their dealings with the world, in their relationship with money, etc. And, in a way, you know, there's quite a "me" culture, and it just fits right into that.

To see, also, when we're looking a lot in terms of self, how much, because it's self, how much fear is coming in. It's interesting, working in a sort of psychotherapeutic way. We oftentimes look back at the parents or the upbringing, and can see, "I feel a lot of gratitude," and that's natural, or normal, maybe, there's some gratitude, "And there's also this anger," maybe, anger at the parents. Sometimes there's fear of feeling one of these. Again, this is quite complicated. Anger generally is not very helpful, but sometimes it might be helpful, because it might be what's real and what's needed to be felt. But just to see: if there's a lot of self and self-investment in the process, am I afraid to feel the anger? Which is very common for kind of spiritual-type people, because there's such a taboo about it. Or -- and what I've also seen, and a trap that I got into -- am I actually afraid to not feel the anger, and to feel the gratitude? Because again, "That will be some kind of denial, and I won't feel my anger, and it's necessary to go through this, to purify it," etc. There's all this constricting of fear around the self-view. So in the healing, just to see: how much fear is there? Am I afraid of this, or that, this option or that option? All kinds of options.

Going into these views of healing, what are views of the healing process, this turns out to be really important: the views we have of the healing process. Sometimes -- and again, it's a trap that I got into -- we tend to think, "If I just remember the past, if I remember what happened, if I know what happened, if I uncover what happened -- some trauma or memory or whatever -- or if I realize, 'Oh, I have this difficulty now because my mum did da-da-da, or didn't do da-da-da,' and I put this cause there, I put the cause on the parents or whatever it is, somehow assigning the cause in the past like that, understanding, there would be a healing in that." And I felt like, again, I laboured under this illusion for a long time. And it's not necessarily healing. It doesn't necessarily lead to any transformation. I just know something, or I think I know something about the past.

So for me, this was actually quite intense. There was a feeling of uncovering a lot of very early memories or trauma and abuse and things like that, or that's how I was interpreting it at the time, anyway. And just doing this -- a lot of catharsis, a lot of tears, a lot of opening, a lot of even fear in relation to it, to going through it. And yet, there wasn't this major healing. Some healing, some opening, and yet, still waiting. And I would think, "Just one more. Maybe the next memory. Maybe the next memory. Maybe the next knowing. Maybe that will be the one," and this sort of leaning forward. To be honest -- and it's a little bit weird thing to say -- the mind almost wanting to concoct a little bit a memory. Now, I'm just sharing what happened to me; I'm certainly not putting that on anyone else. But just to watch out: where's the healing coming from, and what's the whole relationship we're getting into with all of this?

So an extremely common view, extremely common in psychology, in the Dharma, in an everyday person on the street, is "stuff coming up," "stuff coming up from the past." So I sit on the meditation cushion, and you sit, and you're just quiet and still, and stuff comes up. Difficult stuff comes up -- either memories or just difficult in the body, the emotions, the heart, the mind. Everything, it's just stuff coming up. And some people actually teach, and you can hear it, or the view in psychology or whatever else, "Yeah, it's stuff coming up from the past. It's purifying. It's releasing itself." Very common. Sometimes we even hold that view without being aware that we hold that view. Again, just in the spirit, as I said at the beginning, of questioning, just to unpack: what are actually the views I may or may not have about all of this? Am I holding that view?

The Buddha was walking one day, and came across this guy standing in meditation. He was just standing there. And the Buddha said, "Hi. What are you doing?" And he said, "I'm standing here, and I've been standing here" -- I don't know what it was; three days or something. "And by standing here and not moving, I'm allowing my old karma, my old stuff to come up, and it just comes up, and thereby I'm purifying my karma. When it's all come up and gone through and purified, that will be enlightenment, and I will be done." And the Buddha said, "Really?" [laughter] "So, how's it going?" And the guy said, "Um. I'm not sure." "Oh. How much have you purified? What percentage?" "I don't know." "Oh. How much have you got left to do?" "I don't know." "How will you know when you're done?" "I don't know." [laughs] And then sometimes the Buddha is actually very judgmental, and I think, I can't remember the last part of the story, but I think he just went away and said, "This is a foolish way to practise" or something. But those might be my words; I don't know. Anyway, the Buddha didn't agree with that.

If we hold that view, it's quite likely that we'll get pretty fed up of that process. I have seen some people who are still plugging away after decades, but generally, most people get fed up and find some other path, find some other path that makes more sense.

This really is quite common, practice or no practice: I have several good friends, some of whom practise, some of whom don't, and have this quite common sort of -- I don't know what to call it -- constellation, difficult constellation inside, of a feeling that they feel at certain points of just really deep abandonment, really deep disconnection from life, disconnection from the universe, as if their very existence was a cosmic mistake, that somehow everyone else was meant to be, and they weren't. Really deep existential pain associated with this, very, very deep, and quite common as a sort of constellation that a human being is capable of finding themselves in recurrently.

But what's quite interesting is it's almost always the case that the person is assuming that this abandonment, this disconnection, is a constant underneath. It's actually going on all the time. It's somehow more real, in a way, than their everyday okayness or whatever else is going on, some happiness. It's going on all the time, and when they don't feel it, it's because they're spacing out, distracted or busy, or just not in touch, or disconnected from their emotions. When they do feel it, that's when they're being more real. And that view is there, and it's unquestioned, for decades, often -- unquestioned.

What we're missing with that view is seeing the dependent arising in the present, seeing that this thing comes up in the present, and somehow, in the present, when it's there, there are conditions that allow it to be present. If there's a fear of it, fear of that sense of abandonment, of disconnection, of emptiness in the non-Dharmic sense, if there's a distance from it, those -- fear and distance -- are themselves conditions that feed it in the present. Distance is a kind of disconnection. It's going to feed a sense of disconnection. There may be really strong conditioning factors in the present. So to see: how is this actually being conditioned in the present?

All of this, it begins to tie into the wisdom aspect, the paññā aspect, the insight aspect. We talk about mindfulness [audio cuts out] ... One aspect is to see: this thing arises and passes. And the Buddha says to see the presence of something and to see the absence of something. This thing has holes in it, it has gaps in it. It's not the solid block that we think. On a large scale and on a small scale, to really look and see that impermanence. And when it's not there, it's really not there. See. It's not hiding somewhere. It's really gone. When it's gone, it's gone.

So impermanence, emptiness. What does emptiness have to do with all this? Emptiness has a lot of different meanings, a lot of different ways we can approach it. Just to touch on a few little strands. Working psychologically in the present, we tend to give things a solidity, a reality. Sometimes that's helpful. I see: this is my structure, this is my pattern. In terms of meditation, in contemplation, all that anything can ever be, anything, all it can ever be is a sensation, an experience that's happening in the moment. All it can ever be is a moment of something. What happens is that self and the view of time glom onto something, and we tend to give it a solidity and a reality, which the actual experience of it does not give. All it can ever be is something very ephemeral. It's a brief impression in the moment, an impression in awareness. A moment is barely not there. To see this: it's almost not there. So we add self and time, and we make a thing, we make things.

One of the ways that the Buddha encouraged practising, again and again, is not just paying attention, not just being mindful, but after a certain point, after one's got used to being mindful, is then to add a sort of quiet reflection with the mindfulness. One of them was: whatever's happening, whatever's arising, is not me, not mine, not-self. Sensation in the body, thought, emotion, feeling, whatever: not me, not mine, not myself. It's really a practice. But just, I wanted to paint this picture, in a way to tell you a little bit what happens if one really picks up that practice and takes it onboard. It takes some time. An emotion or a body sensation comes up -- usually it's difficult. If I reflect, "Not me, not mine," what was difficult, the "not me, not mine," the disidentification, takes away the difficulty. So what arises is no longer difficult.

If we go really deep into this "not me, not mine," nothing that's happening is me or mine -- not even the awareness is me or mine -- things actually begin to stop arising, or if they're arisen, they begin to dissolve and fade. I'm just telling you for the sake of a point that I want to make. What begins to happen in a very deep practice, things actually stop arising or dissolve because we're not identifying with them.

A person is practising that way -- where's the purification then? If purification is supposed to be this experience of difficult stuff coming up, and I'm reflecting "not me, not mine," and either the difficulty goes out or the actual experience stops, where's the purification? And if, according to the Dharma, to see "not me, not mine" is actually more real, so to speak, than to see "me or mine," then to say when I'm looking in a more real way, there's no purification -- nothing is experienced as unpleasant or difficult; nothing's even coming up. So to say, when I look in a more real way, in a more true way, where's the purification gone? How can that be my view of practice?

Okay. You might hear that, and you might say, "Well, pff. That sounds like, you know, you're talking about ultimate truth and da-da-da, and that's all very abstract. You've got to kind of honour relative truth." And there's some truth to that statement, you know. There's relative and ultimate, and you have to respect the relative truth: things come up, and they're difficult. But this ultimate/relative, it's not then either/or -- it's more like a continuum. When there's a lot of self-view, if I'm really injecting my story into all this, and my history, and my parents, and my grandparents, and da-da-da, all that into what's difficult that's coming up, that's a lot of self. If I take that away, and I'm just viewing "this is my stuff coming up," that's a little less self. If I'm viewing "not me, not mine," that's a little less. Degrees of letting go of the self. And the amount of difficulty or the amount of stuff that comes up will rather be in proportion to the amount of self.

How much self, how much self-feeling, self-sense, is the real amount? How much self-sense, being the real amount (whatever that is), will then show me the real emotion, the real feeling, the real thing that needs to be healed? Who's going to say that? [laughs] It's completely ... So when we talk about emptiness, this is what it means. This is what emptiness really means: how a thing is, the view of how a thing is, depends on what's there in the mind, what's there, and the view is shaping the experience, and you can't say what's real. That's what emptiness means.

Sometimes you get another view of emptiness, which is more like, "It's just all atoms, and there's nothing there. When I look for the body, it's just atoms. When I look for my emotion, I just see: it's just these atoms of sensation." That's just a view, actually. That's just a view. That's not what real emptiness means.

We begin to see, all this is really -- I don't know any other word for it -- complicated. There are so many -- I don't know that I can really come to a conclusion with all this. If I look back at my own process, just to share personally, I think, God, I was involved in so much creating of the difficult and feeling it as a healing. And yet -- and I'm hesitant to say this -- and yet, I wouldn't swap that! [laughs] I'm somehow, paradoxically and mysteriously, glad to have gone through all the years of that catharsis and some of it not even being real. Somehow, out of all that, unwittingly creating a lot of stuff, there was a heart-opening. Somehow, other beautiful emotions -- a religious feeling, etc. -- came out of that. I don't know. There's just some mystery here.

As a teacher, I'm even hesitant in sharing all of this stuff about the emptiness and stuff, because sometimes, is it too soon to say that to a person? Is it too soon? Maybe a person needs to work in this way. You can't jump too quickly and say it's all empty. Maybe they need to go through all that. On the other hand, if someone's just trundling in the same cycle for years and years and years, and it's just going round in an endless way ...

The belief in stuff coming up is actually part of a view that will add to stuff coming up. I sit there with a belief: "Now stuff's ... That's what I'm doing in my life and in my practice: stuff is coming up." Actually, as a view, it will cause stuff to come up.

Again, just to make sure it's clear: not to say when there's been trauma -- some things really need healing, and tears and such, completely appropriate. This is, when you really go into it, this is a very interesting area. The release of stuff may be never-ending. It may actually be never-ending. And, you know, in some Dharma circles, they talk about past lives. Then you have countless past lives, and you're supposed to release all that. I mean, forget about it. [laughs] You know, how long is that going to take? [laughter]

It may be never-ending if we are unconsciously creating and contributing to it, continuing it in the present in very subtle ways, with the attention, with the awareness, with the view. In the process of very earnestly wanting to attend to, to be with, somehow we're creating it. We're just spinning it. And it will be never-ending, never-ending unless we turn the gaze round to look at what and how we are looking.

So when the understanding of emptiness goes deep or matures or whatever you want to say, you can actually see: the past, even something from the past -- say this or this happened with my parents or my childhood or my education, whatever -- even the past is empty of being this way or that way, really. It's empty of inherent existence. It depends on the mind state. Past with a lot of love looks a lot different than past with a lot of contraction and misery and confusion. That's partly why this aspect of cultivation is really important. When the cultivation gets very strong, the mind states move quite some degree. You can actually see how much the world and the past and everything is influenced by the mind state. When we see this emptiness of the past, then one can really genuinely feel a -- I can say -- complete freedom from any sense of burden from the past. It's a very real possibility. There's really no sense that the past in any way is something real or burdensome.

From the point of view of emptiness, instead of talking about the release of stuff, what might be more helpful or more appropriate is the release of views. Oftentimes what's got stuck, what needs healing, is the views we have of self, the views we have of other, the views we have of life, of the past. They have become crystallized. And as the insight into emptiness just gradually, slowly matures, it's those views that are released, those views.

So, as I said, I'm not really sure if there are any very clear conclusions from this. To go back to what I said at the beginning, the intention was really just to explore some of this. What I think is more important maybe than a conclusion is: can there be, in our lives, in our practice, an ongoing honesty about all this? Either way. That might manifest as a kind of fearlessness. Can there be an ongoing fearlessness? That might be the fearlessness of opening to what's difficult. It might be the fearlessness of questioning the reality of it. Can there be this ongoing honesty, fearlessness, questioning, and the deep commitment to the integrity of that?

Shall we sit together quietly for a minute?

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry