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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
33 WINTER 2 01 1 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY efforts is the creation of a pool of energy in the group, a pool from which everyone can and does draw. In a group of expe- rienced practitioners, you can feel the energy in the stillness. You can feel it in your body and it elicits a similar stillness in you, if you let it. People often experience deeper stillness, less distraction, or greater clarity in groups than they are able to experience on their own. As well, a hall or room where people have practiced over a long period of time will take on a charge, so that when you come into the hall, you feel the energy of practice in you. In retreat settings, the retreat leader has a special respon- sibility to manage the energy of the group, as what happens with that energy affects everyone at the retreat. For example, when a person with a fragile psychology taps into this pool of energy, he or she may touch into old patterns or old trauma and not be able to stay present in the strong emotions that arise. The person’s attention then collapses, or fragments. The original genesis of the fragility is reactivated and runs with increased intensity because of the higher level of energy in the retreat environment. This may result in a complete breakdown in the person. It is extremely damaging to the individual, and it is also damaging to the group, as the participants experience this as a black hole opening up and draining all the energy out of their practice. To return to the horse and rider metaphor, when there is no rider (i.e., no active attention) then the horse goes out of control. Also, as a retreat progresses, people may become increas- ingly tense and rigid. This is usually the result of spiritual ambition, of people trying too hard, of pushing in their medi- tation and not allowing mind and/or body to rest in attention. You may observe the rigidity in their posture. The atmosphere in the meditation hall may become tense for no apparent rea- son. There may be an edge in people’s interaction, or an edge in the air, so to speak. Things may feel brittle, as if something could break or shatter at any time. If not addressed, something usually does, and what breaks is the attention in the weak- est individual in the retreat. If this happens, you may have a replay of the first situation that I described. To counteract this buildup of energy in the wrong direction, it’s good to break the practice schedule and have people do something very dif- ferent, something that allows them to relax and let go. A few hours disruption is generally sufficient. Suspend silence, have people interact with each other in ordinary ways, laugh, cry, go for a walk. Then return them to the structure and discipline of the retreat. They return to their practice with a renewed and clearer energy and the atmosphere in the meditation hall will be lighter, more open. Transformation I remember talking with an old Tibetan lama, the senior chant leader at Kalu Rinpoche’s monastery in Eastern Tibet. He described how, after his three-year retreat training, he ran into difficulty with energy imbalances when he practiced tumo, or inner heat. He returned to retreat to do a purification prac- tice, reciting the associated mantra day and night for a year. During this period, he was unable to eat or drink anything more than a small ball of roasted barley and weak tea. He lost so much weight that he was reduced to skin and bones and his hair and fingernails fell off, but he just kept going. Then something happened. He was never able to say what changed, but his health recovered, he was able to eat more, his hair and fingernails grew back, and, afterwards, he was able to do tumo and other high-level energy practices that had previously been inaccessible to him. This is a very dramatic example, but it presents a key point. All we can do is create the conditions for the various tensions and imbalances inside us to resolve themselves. The rest, as T.S. Eliot says, is not our business. When we embark on the spiritual path, we have no idea what we will encounter. As our practice matures, the horse starts to run, but we don’t know where it is going. All we have is a commitment, a commitment to experience whatever arises. It is what Buddha Shakyamuni relied on when he sat under the bodhi tree. It is the essence of faith and it is the basis of compassion and awareness. In the course of our efforts, we will encounter difficul- ties and challenges inside us that we had no idea were there. The one additional principle, and this is perhaps the only principle that I know, is that it is best to move in the direc- tion of balance. That direction is constantly changing and it requires faith, awareness, and compassion to sense what effort to make in each moment. The optimum condition for awakening is deep balance in every area of life and when we move to address imbalances in our own lives, increasingly, we bring about balance in the lives of others. Some people seek out the positive energy shifts and surges. They get high on energy, and, over time, will experience many of the problems normally associated with addiction.