A Trackless Path 9

Section 1


Thursday, August 27th. Morning session.

Last night I talked about a number of things and afterwards I realized that I was actually jumbling two different topics which may have accounted for some confusion.

The two different topics are the institutional mindset and idealism. And the bulk of what I was talking about yesterday really had more to do with idealism, and how that plays out in spiritual practice.

I’ve often thought that Dante got it wrong when he had the inscription Abandon all hope, ye who enter here above the portals to hell. It’s actually much more accurate to put that in the portal to the spiritual path because it’s an essential method of abandon all hope. And idealism in many respects is a form of hope, and creates a basis of comparison which frequently people use to beat themselves up in various ways. On more than one occasion I’ve had to take baseball bats and whips and other things out of peoples’ hands, because they will insist on using them. Of course, I’ve never done that myself so it’s a totally foreign experience to me. [Chuckling]

Many people find it strange and disorienting to function without falling into idealism, and the four principles I was offering last night are really about letting go of idealism. But I think it’s actually quite important to consider, at least because idealism has a nasty tendency to slide into ideology. And The Story of Fire which we went over last night is describing how different forms of ideology develop, and the characteristic of ideology is that you become impenetrable. You can’t take in new perspectives because you are now set in making the external world conform to what you’re holding inside. And whether that’s in business circles, in political circles, economic circles, social circles, it all has the same effect.

And the fundamentalism is in all of those areas—we have market fundamentalism, and economic fundamentalism, and political fundamentalism and so forth, as well as Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, which are various forms of religious fundamentalism. These become ideological and there’s no flexibility. And that kind of rigidity generates an extraordinary amount of suffering internally and externally.

So I think it’s a very important point to keep our eye on, with respect to ourselves. Kongtrul, in his mahamudra instructions said, Where there is clinging, there is error. And so anytime you find yourself taking a fixed stance on anything, take that as a red flag.

Section 2

The institutional mindset is not unrelated to idealism and ideology. But for the way that I’m approaching it here it has more to do with the problems of group-think and losing your ability to be present in situations, because one is either coerced, or decides to conform to the situation around one. And so you lose the quality or the ability actually to be present. And probably the most powerful piece here in counteracting that—and I’ll probably talk about this at a greater length this evening—is compassion, because compassion is the quality that allows us to see suffering however it arises.

So that’s one thing I wanted to touch on this morning.

Just as rigidity or fixedness in our practice is a red flag for clinging, the ignoring of pain or suffering in your own system is a red flag for the institutional mindset.

Student: Would you say that…[unclear]?

Ken: The ignoring of pain or suffering in your own system is a red flag for the institutional mindset. So any comments or questions people would like to take up on either of those? Larry.

Larry: Let me see. The continuum—

Ken: Pardon?

Larry: The continuum of the mind. Do you hold that the mind has existed from beginning-less past?

Ken: [Laughs] Oh, hand the mic over to Claudia, would you?

Larry: She’s going to answer the question?

Ken: Yeah. [Laughter]

Larry: Thank you, Claudia.

Ken: I just wanna see what you gotta say.

Claudia: What arises in me with that question is that that question doesn’t matter. That it’s not really important. Because what’s important is what is right here and what you’re experiencing right now. That’s really all there is.

Ken: Such a better answer than I would have given [laughter].

What’s behind the question, Larry?

Larry: Well, I’m..

Ken: Just a sec.

Student: Wait.

Larry: Your second principle, I find problematic.

Ken: [Laughing] Yay! [Laughter] I’m so glad.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: I was very disconcerted when nobody took issue with any of them. [Laughing] What I’d like to do is to take this up this evening ’cause it’s a longer discussion. And I think it’s a very important one. I’m very happy to.

Larry: You see how the first question adds some bridge over to the second concern.

Ken: Oh, I can see a lot of possible connections and I’ll be interested in how they connect for you. Yes, very definitely. And this evening, I mean—and not just for Larry ‘cause I know Paul has a question on the table which I want to respond to as well—but things that I say and put in front of you, you know, absolutely question them. Do they make sense to you? Because, for goodness’ sakes, don’t just accept them. That’ll be the worst thing you can do. You roll them around and see what pops up. And that’s exactly what you’ve been doing which I think is great. And so no. I mean, what’s this business about we’re not evolving anywhere? That doesn’t make any sense.

And for some people at various stages in their practice, you know, working within the structure that has been set up is very, very helpful. And some people choose to live and work within such a structure, whether in their professional lives or in their religious lives the whole time. So, what’s this nonsense about the institutional mindset being a problem? You know, there’s lots of legitimate questions in here.

I really encourage you to dig around and see, because what I’d like to come out of this for you is you’re clear about your own path. And all I can do is offer the ways that I’ve come to be able to work, and certainly much to the consternation of many colleagues and friends. My thinking has changed very significantly.

I remember a very good friend of mine who’s in the three-year retreat with me. And—he’s a French guy—and he’s just a wonderfully sweet person, and very, very capable practitioner. And we’d have these discussions and he’d come away from these saying, “Ah, yeah, this is right.” And then we’d run into each other a couple of years later and I’d be in a completely opposite place. And he would say, “What are you doing, Ken?” And so we’d have another long discussion. And he’d say, “Yeah, yeah. Oh, that makes so much sense. Thank you.” We go off on that and two years later…

And, I mean, I went to Bodh Gaya at Rinpoche’s request to participate in a translation project, and at that point—this is late 80s—very, very down on many of the traditional forms. And Daniel and I—he was in the similar place—we’d have these long discussions, and then much to his consternation—’cause he really took this up with me after I turned around and did this big offering in the temple with all the monks and everything like that—and he said, “But we just had all these discussions, Ken. Why are you doing that?” And consistency isn’t a strong point here.

Section 3

One other thing—yeah we’re a little late—that I wanted to touch on ’cause I haven’t mentioned it except to a couple of people, but Christy reminded me of it yesterday.

There are many forms of walking meditation and one that I want to throw out to you for your consideration, experimentation. When you walk, imagine that as you walk, or feel that as you walk you are standing on a log and rolling the log under your feet. It just happens that the log is the world. So you’re not going anywhere. But as you walk you’re rolling everything towards you. Now this fits very well with ecstatic practice—opening to everything.

When I was up in BC several years ago, a very old friend of mine had come to the retreat. He just had an operation which made sitting excruciatingly painful for him. And after a day he said, “I can’t do this, Ken.” I said, “Come on, let’s go for a walk.” And we just went and did this together for half an hour, and he spent most of the rest of the retreat doing that, and just found that his mind became very, very still and open and we just…

The reason for this is that when you imagine this you’re putting your attention into the soles of your feet as they contact the ground. And the consequence of that is—since we have our eyes up here and we’re including the sensation of the feet with the ground—is that we become completely aware of the body. And we’re completely in the body as we walk. And then you’re receiving everything through the senses as you walk. So it’s a way of opening attention to everything. And all you have to do is to imagine that you’re rolling the earth under your feet. That’s all you need to do. Okay?

See you this evening.

[Tape cuts and restarts for evening session.]

Section 4

Thursday, August 27th, evening session, A Trackless Path.

Paul, let’s start with your first question.

Paul: My first question is how do you practice being no one when you’re in a leadership position?

Ken: Well, in the Tao Te Ching, depending on the translation, one of the chapters [chapter 17] which are basically short verses, says:

The best leaders are only known to exist because the people think they’ve done it themselves.

The next best leaders are loved and admired.

And the worst leaders are feared and hated.

Machiavelli wouldn’t agree with all of that. But when you consider what leadership is, in a certain sense as a leader you’re the point-person. A lot of people think that when they’re in the leadership position they get to decide what is to be done. But that’s not completely true. There is actually a very important dialogue that goes on between a group of people and their leader. Because if the leader takes them in a direction which is harmful or against what is called for, then everything goes to hell. So if the leader doesn’t listen, he or she gets into trouble pretty quickly. And that’s when they generally resort to force which leads them to being hated and feared.

When one’s in a leadership role, traditionally—like in the business world—you’re given a larger office and support staff, etc., etc. In religious communities, spiritual communities, different forms but the same idea. And many people regard those perquisites as their entitlement for being the leader. What they don’t understand is that those perks were originally regarded as essentials in order for a leader to lead effectively. Because the additional space, the freedom from the immediate pressures of life and the organization or nation, tribe, country, whatever, allowed the leader to listen not only to people he or she’s responsible for but more broadly and more deeply as to what was happening. And that’s the function of those perks is to create that space so that the leader can see and hear, and from that know where things need to go and how to get there.

And I think you can begin to see from this how if the leader thinks of him or herself as that leader, they’ve already got a problem. They take that identity.

Section 5

There’s been some stuff written on leadership as servant which could be quite helpful—serving the group, the team, the people. Again that runs the danger of evolving into an identity, a different identity, probably a more useful and beneficial identity but still the same thing.

The way I look at it, the leader’s responsibility is to create the conditions in which the people that report to him or her can do their work best. That’s the job. There are a lot of facets to that job. They may include defining or expressing or articulating a vision as well as gathering the resources and providing the materials and so forth. But when you take that attitude to a leadership role, then you begin to see very quickly how it does involve being no one. You follow? The job is to provide the conditions in which people can do their work best.

In the same way—and I’ve come to the same view of teaching—that the actual job of the teacher—and it’s one of the things I’ve tried to do here—is to provide the conditions in which people can learn best. And it takes away the whole identity of being the teacher, or being the leader.

There’s—which book is that?—I think it’s The Art of War and Tom Cleary’s translation. He opens his introduction with the Emperor falling ill and summoning a very, very famous physician. And the physician comes and heals the Emperor. And the Emperor says, “I hear you have two brothers. Are they also physicians?” And the doctor says, “My older brother,” the oldest in the family, “is able to sense illness before it manifests at all. And he takes appropriate steps. Consequently very few people know anything about him. My next brother is able to sense illness as soon as it enters the person. He takes steps. So there are quite a number of people who know about him. For me, I’m only able to sense illness when it’s actually manifesting. So I prescribe potions, do surgery and things like that. So, unfortunately, a lot of people know about me.” Okay?

I think you had another question. But you’re allowed a follow-up on that one if you wish.

Paul: Well, I guess, the main thing I was thinking on that one is that sometimes you have to, like project some sort of leadership, leader sort of image for people. So, I guess, that’s what I—

Ken: But you have to know that it is the appropriate thing to do in those circumstances. The very best leaders are able to adapt their leadership style according to the needs of the situation.

Paul: Okay. I understand. Okay.

Ken: Yeah.

Section 6

Paul: So my second question was, you spoke about idealism last night. And then ideology. And I was wondering if aimlessness was a possible cure for this?

Ken: What do you think?

Paul: I think yes.

Ken: Say more. Somebody hand him a shovel, please.


They’re stored in the shed out back.

Paul: Well, you said idealism is a form of hope. A basis of comparison. So, the practice of aimlessness, which I admit I don’t understand that well but, seems to be pointing in the direction, kind of you have no sort of attachment to—how can I say it—to the results of your actions, I guess.

Ken: So, how do you know whether to turn left or right?

Paul: I guess you have to know where you’re going.

Ken: And if you have no aim? Have you studied Alice in Wonderland?

Paul: No.

Ken: Next retreat, required reading for everybody. So Alice is coming along—I think she’s left the White Queen’s party, I can’t remember—she’s pretty disoriented by now with all the ups and downs, and ins and outs, and backwards and forwards of through—I think this is in Through the Looking Glass, I can’t remember. She runs into the Cheshire Cat who’s sitting up in a tree with a grin. Have you ever seen a cat grin? This cat was grinning. “Please, sir, which way should I go?” says Alice. “Well,” says the Cheshire Cat, “That all depends. Where do you want to go?” “Well, it doesn’t really matter,” said Alice. See? Aimless, right?

Paul: Mmm-hmm.

Ken: Then the Cheshire Cat said, “Well, then it doesn’t really matter which way you go, does it!” And Alice says, “Well, as long as I get somewhere.” To which the Cheshire Cat replies, “Well, if you go far enough you’ll be somewhere.”

What do you think?

Paul: I guess she wasn’t very idealistic in the first place.

Ken: Well, that was a jump. How’d you get there?

Paul: She wasn’t like, “I have to go to this particular place. And that’s the only place I can go.”

Ken: And so do you think this works for her?

Paul: Which?

Ken: You know, being aimless.

Paul: From what I know of the story, no.

Ken: Okay. When we’re trying to change how we approach the world we have to be quite careful. One of the things that’s good to keep in mind is that: the opposite of a reaction is still a reaction.

So, I had a student—this is so absurd. He always made it a point to be first in line. So I told him, “I want you to change this.” You know what he did?

Paul: He always went last.

Ken: Exactly.

Paul: He always went last in line.

Ken: That’s exactly what he did. He was always the last in line! So I said—and this is where it got really absurd—“First, clearly defined position, last. You gotta do something different here.” You know what he did? He made sure he was exactly in the middle!

So, the pattern that’s running in this case is: I have to be in a special position. And he just kept redefining it. Okay?

Now, if you think of a pattern or a reaction as a set of train tracks and the train’s going, [Ken makes steam engine sounds] “choo choo choo choo choo choo choo choo choo choo choo choo” people think, I’m gonna change the behavior. They pick up the train, they turn it in the other direction. And now it goes, [Ken makes more steam engine sound] “choo choo choo choo choo choo choo choo choo choo choo choo” The problem is it’s running on the same set of tracks.

So having a name? Being aimless? Same set of tracks. Now what? The real challenge here is how do you get off the tracks? How are you going to do that?

You’re so glad you asked this question, aren’t you?

Section 7

Well, let me give you a little help. There’s a book which—I can’t remember how it came to me now—it’s published under various titles. The current title is How to Cook Your Life. And there are a couple of books by that title but the one that’s important is by Dögen and Uchiyama. Dögen writes the root text. It’s instructions to the [tenzo] head cook in the monastery. Commentary is by Uchiyama. And I think it is one of the best books I’ve come across that really describes how to live in awareness. You might find it helpful. You have the book? Yeah. How many times?

Paul: Three or four.

Ken: Good. Yeah.

So there’s a section in which he’s commenting on Dögen’s instructions, you know, When all of these matters are taken care of then the officers meet and can set the menu for the next day and prepare tomorrow’s gruel. Say, oatmeal.

And Uchiyama’s commentary goes something like this: When you are preparing tomorrow’s oatmeal, you are not setting up a goal for tomorrow because you have no idea what is going to happen. In the night there could be an earthquake, fire, riots, whatever. So you actually have no idea whether that gruel is actually going to be served or not, or anybody’s going to eat it. But you prepare tomorrow’s gruel as tonight’s work. You do what needs to be done. Not with any aim for the future but because it is tonight’s work. Because the human condition is there is an order to life, there is structure and so forth. And it is subject to disruption at any time because of impermanence. The order you can review is…you can view as the karma element. The disruption is the impermanence element. And we live in this absolute paradox which, in traditional terms, is we’re definitely going to die and we have no idea when. Or in more everyday things, yes I need to plan to do this and yet I have no idea whether I will experience the results of my efforts.

This is quite different from clinging to an aim and the result, and being aimless and having no result. You follow? So, whether it’s in family, or in our work, we think about what is necessary—to take care wife, family, so forth—or our responsibilities at work, but we do so without any expectation of experiencing those results.

And that becomes quite powerful. Because when we are not attached to the experience of those results which most people…that’s the direction most people go, then we find we’re able to…we’re much freer to see what really needs to be done. If you see what I mean? Okay? This help?

Paul: Yeah. Thanks.

Section 8

Ken: Okay. Gary, could you hand the mic?

Student: Not to be contrary, Ken, but one of your four points last night was about every action has a consequence.

Ken: Yes, exactly. And that’s why we have to plan and do things because, you know, if you don’t put money in your 401(k) then that has a consequence.

Student: But you’re saying at the same time to let go an expectation of any result.

Ken: Yes, you put money in your 401(k) and you may never get to use it.

Student: So why worry about one’s actions?

Ken: Because not doing an action is an action and it has its consequences. We don’t take care of the body, we get sick. If we’re mean to people we’ll end up isolated and alone. If we steal from people, nobody will trust us. Now, actions have consequences.

Okay. Other questions? Joan.

Joan: I’m wondering [unclear]

Ken: Yeah, that’s okay.

Joan: [Unclear] question for you [unclear]

Ken: Well, your microphone’s coming to you anyway. You have to run the risk, because I may just jump in there.

Joan: I’ll take the risk.

Ken: You just have to let go of the expectation of the result that the group is going to save you. [Laughter]

Joan: Last year at this retreat I experienced the labyrinth here for the first time. And since walking the first time I’ve made it a part of my practice ever since. Periodically there’s a labyrinth near me at home so I use that. And I’ve been able to do it every day since I’ve been here. And for me it’s a really powerful experience every time I do it. I do use it in different ways. If I’m really agitated I just do walking meditation. If I’m holding something really difficult I walk the path just holding that—gently, slowly. I’ve walked it noticing whatever senses I could pick up—sights, sounds, air passing my face, and things like that. And I was just wondering what other peoples’ experiences have been with labyrinths.

Ken: Now, how many of you know about the labyrinth here? Okay. It’s out that direction. Yeah. And, Tom, why don’t you say a word.

Tom: Well, I had my first experience with the labyrinth last year also. And I got hooked on them as well. And I combine the labyrinth with a trick you taught me which is, you know, the log-rolling?

Ken: Yes.

Tom: Just spin the labyrinth.

Ken: Ah.

Tom: Which is interesting.

Ken: So that was your [unclear]

Tom: And you’re walking it. Instead of like the earth going under it you’re spinning the labyrinth.

Ken: Yes.

Tom: Which is kind of fun but I think…[Laughter]

Ken: You don’t get dizzy?

Tom: No. But it’s, you know, in the Zen tradition which I practiced for many years, Kinhin

Ken: Yes.

Tom: It’s just a very consistent. And I think it’s a great, great practice.

Ken: Yes. Mmm hmm. Janet.

Janet: I’ve been doing the labyrinth walk from time to time but I’m too goal-oriented. And I start, you know, recognizing all the signs that “oh, I’m getting close and I know what this turn is gonna mean. I know that rock. That rock signifies…” So it’s not as opening as the log-rolling just walking on the path or just on the carpet, for me. Yeah, we’re all different, I guess. We’re a mess.

Ken: You’re here for a little while, aren’t you? [Laughter]

So next time you walk the labyrinth—and Gayle gave me this, and it’s a traditional method for walking—three steps forward, one step back. Pause. Three steps forward, one step back. Pause. You make sure you wear a hat and take water ’cause it’ll take you about an hour and a half to go all the way in and all the way out.

Janet: Will do.

Ken: Okay. Joan, please.

Joan: I just wanted to say that that particular practice is incredibly powerful. If there’s something difficult going on, at least when I did it, stepping back was like relief. And I didn’t have to move forward until I felt ready. And there was something about that that just made a huge difference.

Ken: Thank you. Okay.

Other questions or comments? Leslie.

Leslie: I wasn’t going to admit it but I was in a very rebellious mood today and I just went and walked all over the labyrinth. Broke all the rules. So that’s another way to use it.


Ken: Well. That was very open. [Chuckle] Okay.

Any other questions about anything? Comments? Okay.

Section 9

Ken: I want to talk a bit about something which a few of you have probably heard me talk about directly and probably a few more have picked up on the podcasts. I’m going to add a couple of dimensions to it. And this is the topic of mind killing.

And this is, in a certain sense, an elaboration of comments I made earlier on institutional thinking. The main emphasis I want to put—and what I want you to bring attention to in your own work—is how this operates inside you. Everything I have to say also applies to organizations, institutions—whether they’re families, workplaces, governmental systems, nations, media—what have you. But I want to put the emphasis on how this works inside us.

Now there are six methods which I got from the book from Noam Chomsky called Manufacturing Consent. And in some work that I was doing not too long ago, I came across another four which go back a lot further than Noam Chomsky; which go back to Francis Bacon. So I want to discuss these ’cause they all operate.

The first six come in three sets of pairs. The first pair is marginalize and frame. Now George Lakoff has written quite a lot on framing. He has a couple of big books on it but the two that are intended for more popular audiences are Don’t Think of an Elephant and The Political Mind. I’ve read them both. I think Don’t Think of an Elephant is actually clearer than Political Mind but Political Mind touches more points.

When I say to you, “Don’t think of an elephant,” what do you think of?

Student: An elephant.

Ken: Yeah. And what framing refers to is how a topic is framed. And you can frame topics in a lot of different ways. Each frame will allow certain ways of thinking to proceed and certain kinds of questions to be asked, and will not allow other kinds of questions to be asked or even other ways of thinking to be entertained.

Section 10

Ken: So, for a very long time—I’ll give you an example from my own experience—having read and studied a number of texts in Tibetan Buddhism about the importance of posture, in particular the seven points of posture of Vairocana, I became convinced—this is an example of framing—that you couldn’t meditate unless you use that posture. Most of the other people in the retreat didn’t have too much trouble with it. But I did. And I managed to make myself extremely ill, really quite ill, trying to do this. Of course, I didn’t stop there. I continued to insist in trying to meditate that way. And it wasn’t until my body just really was lying in pieces around my apartment that I thought well maybe I should try meditating in a chair. That’s how deeply that frame set in me.

And so one of the things I’d like you to explore is what frames, do you present the whole notion of practice, to yourself? What does it allow and what does it not allow? Now very similar to Paul’s question earlier—and it’s one of the reasons I was pushing him a bit on that—is that you get into this, “It’s this way or this way!”, and so that’s what’s allowed. You can either go this way or this way. That’s it. And you can’t see the other possibilities that go in other directions. And that’s why studying these frames, becoming aware of them in ourselves, can be quite important. And I’ll give you a couple more examples.

Section 11

Many years ago a Buddhist teacher that I knew a bit, moved to LA and I invited her to come to a retreat that I was teaching at Mt. Baldy. Now her background was in Theravadan and Zen. Actually Rinzai Zen which tends to be fairly strict. And she would see people at Mt. Baldy reading in the dorms. And they weren’t Buddhist books. She’d see people going jogging at lunchtime. And jogging at a retreat? Right, Nancy? Unthinkable, isn’t it! And we’d do these insane interactive exercises in the afternoon—stuff I’d make up to illustrate various points.

And early on she just said, “Ken this is all…what’s, what’s going on here!?” But in the meditation hall she came to appreciate, from the energy, that there’s some pretty serious practice going on. And at the end of the retreat, she came to me and said, “You treat people like adults. [Laughter] You don’t treat them as children to be kept in line. I thought that was really weird when I first got here but it works.” And you can feel the frame operating there. You know, this is the way it has to be done. And all of these other things aren’t allowed.

It works for some people but it doesn’t work for everybody, and she’s absolutely right as you can probably tell from this retreat. There’s nobody standing with sticks, whips, or machine guns saying, “You have to practice now.” And yet it’s pretty evident that there’s a lot of serious work going on. And when we sit together, there’s a lot of energy in the room. And I know from the conversations I have with you in the interviews, that there’s very definitely non-trivial emotional material being met. So the work’s taking place.

So this is another example of frames. And internally, whenever we find ourselves thinking things have to be done a certain way, or this is the way that you’re meant to be or something like that, this is the operation of a frame. Now many frames developed because they supported practice. But it is good, I think, from my perspective to question, “Is this actually supporting practice or is it doing something else?”

Julia, you have some experience with this. Would you mind saying something? Mic’s over here.

Julia: I’m…

Ken: I’m sorry to put you on the spot.

Julia: That’s okay. I’ve been working on and off over the last couple of years with a particular practice. And I’ve found that I find myself in a dynamic where I’m driving myself. And the practice becomes a tyrant and I am submitting. Or it becomes something I have to do because if I don’t do it, there will be some kind of terrible consequence. And then I stop. And I came up with the idea a while ago—we haven’t had a conversation that we’re going to have about how one avoids this kind of dynamic in practices that are intended to be done fairly intensively—but this idea of this sort of relentless drive that can take over, how one can avoid that. And the model I’ve had in my own head has been a sort of an agricultural model where you, you know, sort of cultivate and plant and weed and tend and harvest and then rest. So I’ve been doing it rather cyclically. But we’ve yet to have, you know, the conversation that we’re going to have about this.

Ken: Yeah.

Julia: But it took time for me—and very closely with what I think of as, you know, what I call the machine culture that we live in—where, you know, we’ve moved from an agricultural to an industrial society. And, you know, machines never go to sleep. And we’re all being required to live our lives because of the way the machines work rather than the other way around, it seems to me. And so I know for myself and for many people I see, there’s a dynamic of just this relentless driving. You know, da dum [Julia is making machine sounds], and this and this and this, you know, 60 hours a week, you know, 24—whatever that is. And that definitely got into my practice.

Ken: And I want to point out something that Julia’s done here. She found herself working in the frame defined by machine. And she’s explored changing the frame to one defined by agriculture. And it changes the whole relationship with the practice. It may not be the right frame for the practice but it’s a very clear example of how shifting the frame changes the relationship, changes the way you approach the practice, etc.

So what many of our internal patterns do and what they did when they formed was to set the frame. And that initial frame was a way of approaching the world so we could get through what was a very difficult situation. But now we continue within that frame and it limits and denies and actually kills other possibilities. That’s why it is a tool of mind-killing.

Now, with that as a basis I’m sure you can look at lots of the stuff that’s happening politically in this country in terms of healthcare debate and economic things and see how—even with the Iraq War, etc.—how framing was used simply to eliminate all kinds of discussion.

Section 12

Ken: Another technique which is used—and it’s quite closely related to framing—is marginalize. In marginalization, ideas or perspectives that threaten the operation of the system are dismissed as unimportant or inconsequential.

So one of the ways that that can play internally is: “My body’s in pain when I’m meditating. That doesn’t matter. Keep going.” And what it does is, it kills the possibility of actually listening to your body. A number of people have come to me from various forms of Theravadan training—and this isn’t universally true in Theravadan training of course but frequently enough that I’ve run into it a number of times—where emotional material has come up and they’ve been told, “Ignore it. It’s not important.” That’s an example of marginalization. And sometimes, yeah, it’s a little bit important. [Ken chuckles]

So in terms of internal processes, when you find yourself saying to yourself, “Nah, that’s not important” or “That doesn’t matter,”—get curious about that sometimes. You’ve heard me talk about the small stammering voice that is asking the questions. Well, this is usually how the small stammering voice is treated. “Nah, don’t worry about that. Not important.” Marginalization.

The next pair…

Claudia: Can I ask a question?

Ken: Please, absolutely. Tom, could you pass the mic, please? Right in front of you.

Claudia: I’m interested in the relationship between language and the words that we use and framing. I mean we talked a little bit about that, I guess, I can’t remember what night now—

Ken: Yeah. There’s a very—

Claudia: Metaphor. In terms of metaphors but—

Ken: Yeah. Well, we think in metaphors, actually. Logic is above the level of metaphor. There is quite an astonishing episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Picard encounters an alien whose language is all in metaphor. It referred to various literary metaphors. And they couldn’t figure out how to communicate. So, philosophically it was just, I thought, brilliantly done. Maybe you can buy it on iTunes. I don’t know.

But you’re absolutely right. Language plays an extremely important role here. It’s one of the reasons why I pay so much attention to language. We reveal the metaphors and the ways of thinking and how we’re marginalizing things and how we’re framing things by the language that we use.

Claudia: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking—that sometimes it’s hard to see your own frames.

Ken: I think it’s often very difficult to see your own frames.

Claudia: And one way to go at that is by looking at the language that you use when you talk about things because, you know, that can make you curious.

Ken: Yes. I would actually go a step further and ask yourself the question, “What questions does the language I’m using prevent me from asking?” And to take this one step further, this is one of the reasons why it is very important to have interaction with someone else around your practice, because both people have their set of frames, their ways of thinking, etc. And it is only in the interaction—what you were referring to earlier, Claudia, about sutra—that the frames are called into question and actual connection can take place.

And that’s where real learning comes in. And it’s one of the reasons I’m asking you at the end of the retreat to stand up and speak because now you interact with everybody else. And it’s different. It’s no longer just inside. It’s now out and interaction. It makes it come alive in a way that it can’t come alive if it’s just held inside.

Okay. Any other questions, comments?

Section 13

So the next pair is seduction and alignment. Seduction says if you want to realize your dreams do this. And what’s happening there is the system is presenting you with the illusion of realizing your dreams to get you to behave in a certain way.

So, I have a very good friend who, by her own admission, loves to live in the story. And I’ve known her for many years. She’s been very helpful to me. But when she dies she’s gonna be Snow White in the glass case. And people will come from miles around to…[Ken giggles]. This is the dream. And it got her into really, really serious trouble a couple of years ago. Really serious trouble. And it’s been very difficult for her ever since because now she knows she can’t live in the story. But she’s had a very successful life up to that point from living in the story. But it’s all about this internal operation of seduction.

One of my students, a stockbroker, and he was in a group I did in Orange County on basic meditation. And he came in one meeting and said, “You know, I just got another award, you know, for some very large amount of sales as a stockbroker, and it doesn’t mean very much to me. And I can’t figure out why.” So I looked at him. I said, “Congratulations.” He said, “What?” I said, “Congratulations.” He said, “Why?” “Now you know. They lied.” He said, “What are you talking about?” “Weren’t you told that if you sold this very large amount of stocks you would be happy and feel fulfilled? And your life would be rich? And everything like that?” He said, “Yeah.” “Do you feel that way?” “No.” “So you know. They lied.”

That’s the dream. That’s what seduction’s about. You’re presented with the illusion that your dreams are going to be fulfilled. If you behave according the the demands of the system. We do this internally to ourselves all the time.

Alignment in one way isn’t as extreme but in one way it’s more extreme. With alignment you’re told you have to do this in order to survive, in order to exist. And I run into this many, many times with people, that they’re doing something and I say, “Well, why don’t you stop doing that? It’s not working for you,” and, “Why don’t you do this instead?” And they say, “Well, I wouldn’t know who I was.” Their very definition is locked up there. And it’s a prison. And it kills the ability to see other alternatives. You run into this very frequently in people who’ve worked in a single job for many, many years. And it becomes their raison d’etre.

So seduction and alignment.

Section 14

And then you have reduction and polarization.

Student: What’s the first one, Ken?

Ken: Reduction.

Student: And?

Ken: Polarization.

In reduction, complex issues are reduced to a single emotional issue. So a person comes, and says, “I’m having a lot of difficulty with my practice. My body hurts, etc. My mind’s all over the place. I’m not sure this is the right form of practice for me, you know, doing this very complex visualization, etc. It’s really hard and I just can’t hold the image, etc.”—like that. And the teacher says, “Well, you want to get enlightened, don’t you?!”

[Ken makes exasperated sound.] One single emotionally charged issue. Anybody experience something like this? That’s reduction. And there are many other forms. Very often we’ll do this to ourselves internally. And it eliminates any possibility of discussion and negotiation, exploration, etc, etc. I mean this has happened to me many times, actually. I remember one teacher that I was talking with, and I was saying I was having a difficult time with certain meditations, and I found that resting with the breath just really helpful. Reply, “There’s no breath in the bardo.”


So, reduction.

Jeff, please.

Student: Got these people in the middle. [Passing the mic]

Jeff: But reduction can be a good teaching method. I’m thinking of a couple of years ago here…

Ken: Oh, dear.

Jeff: As you explained, I was having waking nightmares as I was walking around. And you said, you looked at me, “Well, you gonna quit?!” [Laughter]

It was effective.

Ken: You’re quite right. All of these can be effective in helping people to move. At the same time they can be, and frequently are, used by parts of us and by other people to kill the ability to explore and come to terms with our own experience.

And so when I said that to you it wasn’t with the intention of getting you to conform to a system or my way of thinking. It was intended to give you a shock so you’d really take a look at where you were in your practice. And I’m glad it was effective because whenever you use such a technique there is always a risk. If the person isn’t able to make use of it then all the experience is being hit or being cut. If they are able to make use of it, then it becomes an opening—or a renewal or something like that. But there’s always that risk when you use such techniques.

Okay, anything else you want to say on it, Jeff?

Jeff: No.

Ken: Okay.

So reduction. Any of you can recognize this? Do you want to say a word about that, Gary?

Gary: Well, not as to practice but I had a friend who—well, actually died about six months ago, but—he got me involved in an email debate regarding politics, and he accused me of being a socialist. And so once that happened the discussion pretty much was over.

Ken: Yeah. And I read in an online community—I think it was connected with Wired—the very perceptive comment, that in this community the first person to bring up Nazi Germany in an argument, it was a de facto recognition that they had lost the argument. ’Cause now it was going for reduction. See? I thought it was a pretty smart community.

Section 15

Okay. Polarization. It’s a little different from reduction in that complex matters are split into just two choices, and the limiting of it to those two choices prevents any other discussion or any other consideration. So, right and wrong is one way to polarize things. And it precludes any possibility of a nuanced discussion or even a nuanced response. So it’s this or that is polarization.

[Static] That was me hitting the mic accidentally.

Yeah, did you have a comment, Lee? No? Okay.

So, those are six methods. And as I’ve said, look at how these operate inside you. In particular, look at how patterns or a particular pattern presents things to you. Does it say, “Do this and you will know happiness beyond your wildest dreams?” Or is it saying, “This is right and this is wrong. You can’t think about anything else.” Or any of these other four.

Section 16

The second grouping here—this is from Francis Bacon. The first one is called the method of the tribe. In the method of the tribe, your ability to think on your own is limited or killed because you assume that there is more order and structure present than actually exists, i.e. you’re belonging to something. And you need to belong to it. But the something that you belong to isn’t as solid as you think it is.

This happens to people all over the place. It happens in families, it happens in businesses. It happens whenever you identify with a group. And a lot of that identification can be projection. Oh, there’s a delightful Sufi story on this, that a person came to a Sufi teacher and he was dressed in a patchwork robe and had a long beard, and said to him, you know, “I really feel like a Sufi now. I’d like to study with you.” And the teacher said, “Well, Sufis haven’t dressed like that for hundreds of years.” “Yes, but it makes me feel like a Sufi.” I’ll leave it to you whether any of you can identify with that. [Ken chuckles]

Then there’s the method of the cave.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Cave. This is not Plato’s Cave. This is a very different cave. It’s a cave in which you’re imprisoned by the idiosyncratic beliefs and passions, and something you may be fervently invested in, but it prevents you from being able to consider alternatives or even to see how things actually are. It’s like a prison. This happens not infrequently in organizations where the head of the organization has a passionate idea that things should be done this way, and everybody in the organization has to do them that way whether they work or not. And they usually don’t.

I’ll give a probably apocryphal—but it’s quite delightful—instance of this. Supposedly in Silicon Valley where there was a very demanding CEO, and a rather junior programmer got on the wrong side of him and was summarily fired. A little annoyed with his treatment he went into the system and planted some emails, the origin of which he disguised very well. Which told the senior executives other than the CEO, that the CEO had a penchant for dog biscuits. [Laughter] And a relatively short time later all of the senior executives had boxes of dog biscuits. And one time the CEO walked in and saw this person munching on dog biscuits and said, “What are you doing!?” He says, “It’s dog biscuits. Would you like one?” “Good god no!!!” Cave.

Though, I suppose, this was possibly an illustration of the next one—the method of the marketplace, where you come to believe in non-existent things. Obama’s death panels. It’s called the marketplace because people, through their eloquence and rhetoric, are often able to convince large numbers of people, get very, very passionate about things that don’t exist at all. And so the crowd goes in that direction and everybody goes along with the crowd.

And the fourth one is the method of theatre where there is acceptance of assumptions without question, or you’re taken in by misleading demonstrations. It’s about theatre.

Now these are different in tone from Noam Chomsky’s in that they describe ways that our ability to see and experience things as they arise for us is distorted or killed by wanting to be part of something—a tribe, a group led by somebody, a throng, or where we’re in a group where something’s being demonstrated.

And there’s some quite deep biological and sociological stuff operating here. What I found quite consistently is that the quality of discussion in a group is inversely proportional to the number of people. And one of the reasons that I think this is the case is that biologically we are programmed or conditioned to conform to a group. And so the larger the group, the stronger that operates. And the consequence of that is that the people who are able to and willing to ask questions in a large group often are people who are a bit strange, or their questions are really kind of extreme or provocative or something. And so you can’t have a good discussion unless the group actually develops a level of attention, a level of trust where you don’t have that kind of stuff operating.

And that’s something to take note of within oneself because groups very often don’t make the right decisions. And if you don’t develop the ability to see and even speak what is true for you in those environments, then you may find yourself doing things which may not be consonant with your own set of values or with your own path.

So I take these things as being really quite important, working them internally and externally.

So, do you have a question, Pam? No, okay.

Questions or comments, examples or anything you’d like to pursue here?

Section 17

Now is this helpful to you at all? Okay. So, I’d like to hear from you some of the ways in which you find this helpful. Tom.

Tom: What you’re describing is a whole series of ways that we can be deceived or that we deceive ourselves.

Ken: That we can be controlled.

Tom: Controlled. So I’m sitting in my practice and some material comes up. And my understanding is that I’m to sit in awareness with that material. How can I get to the bottom of this without doing a bunch of thinking and noodling on this?

Ken: The way you get to the bottom is not doing thinking.

Tom: Okay.

Ken: And the reason is that most of the time thinking is in service of habituated patterns. The Age of Enlightenment suggested that reason trumped emotion. It’s absolutely not true. Emotion determines the framework in which thinking takes place. And so when something comes up in your life, if you think about it—and we’re all intelligent people—we find ourselves where we can think of arguments on this side and arguments on that side and arguments on three or four different sides. And, you know, there are all of these wonderful schemes about—you know—weighting, things like that. I don’t know about you but whenever I try these, I’m always cheating in the weighting. And that’s the emotional stuff running. You know what I mean?

So this thinking process is extremely unreliable. To give you an idea of how unreliable it is: World War II. The British Admiralty resisted the use of convoys for a very long time, because their statisticians assured them that convoys made large numbers of ships subject to attack. And so it would be less effective than single ships trying to sneak across the Atlantic. But the U-boats were being so ineffective that they eventually said, “The hell with this,” and they started using convoys cause that wasn’t working. And they found that large numbers of convoys would get through. When they went back and examined their data and analysis, the statisticians had made the error that the probability of finding a fleet of a hundred ships in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean was for all intents and purposes the same as the probability of finding one. This is the kind of thing that if you just rely on thinking you can get into.

So something comes up and rather than relying on thinking, what I’ve suggested to you is you go to the body first. And you become aware of, and open to the physical reactions that arise in connection with that issue. Now what happens is that as we do this we start hitting those physical reactions, story number one pops off, story number two goes off. We’re just flooded with stories. And the function of those stories is to dissipate attention so that the issue is not actually felt or experienced.

Now what we do in practice then is as soon as we notice we’re off in another story, okay, come back. Come back to the body. And as we do this over and over again we’ll begin to be able to stay in the experience of the physical reactions which may be various kinds of tension, discomfort, openings—all kinds of things are possible. It can be pleasant, unpleasant. They’re aren’t any rules.

As we develop the capacity in attention to be present with those body sensations, we’ll then find ourselves beginning to experience the emotional sensations associated with that. And that’s similarly challenging, especially if it’s a deep issue. And again there will be lots of stories. But they won’t quite have the same power ’cause you’ve already taken a step.

Eventually we’re able to be in the body sensations, the emotional sensations, and all of the stories and associations. Now we are in the complete experience. Being in the experience this way we know the stories to be stories, not true. And that is how we get out of the mind-killing. And that’s essentially what’s outlined in Seeing from the Inside—is that practice. That is actually how you get out of mind-killing—is by coming as deeply as you’re capable of into your own experience. Because what mind-killing is doing is shutting you down from the possibility of experiencing what is arising for you.

This help?

Tom: Yes.

Ken: Okay.

Section 18

Ken: Other questions or comments or…yes, Leslie.

Leslie: How important is it to drop the thinking when you’re also deeply aware of the body sensations and…and the emotional content? Like in a retreat situation you can get quite intense body stuff going on and it continues whether I’m thinking or not.

Ken: Mmm hmm.

Leslie: So I’m not sure how much energy the thinking is using up, I suppose.

Ken: Well, many people, when something comes up, there is no body awareness, there’s relatively little emotional awareness, there’s just stories running. And you know this when you talk to them ’cause they just talk a blue streak. [Ken mimics talking a blue streak] You know, this well then somebody said this, and this, and this, and then this happened and then [blah, blah, blah]. It just goes on and on. That’s what’s going on inside their head.

In training this way, whenever you become aware of the thinking you come back to the body. Depending on what you’re working with, the thinking may go on, but you’re placing attention and opening to the experience of the body. And so you may be aware of that even as the thinking is going on. But the thinking is kind of like a strong current. You know, as long as you’re standing beside the river it’s okay. You can still notice what’s on the bank. But you put one foot in the river and choo [Ken makes swept away noise] off you go. And particularly with powerful issues, that’s what it’s like. You come to the body but you keep getting sucked back into the thinking.

You keep coming back to the body, the way I was saying to Tom. Then gradually you also start opening to the emotional material. And as you start opening to the emotional material, if you’re trained in this way of practicing, then generally speaking the pull into the thinking isn’t so strong at that point. It may still be going on but it’s now kind of like the wind.

And this is partially because you’re familiar with opening to emotional material even when it’s difficult. So you know how to go there. For people who aren’t well-trained in it, they’ll still be pulled into the thinking, because again the function of the thinking is to dissipate attention so that physical and emotional stuff is not experienced.

Leslie: Well that gets deeper into the question because I’ve been wondering if in purposefully dropping the thinking, if I’m actually avoiding some of the material. Like sometimes it seems like it’s all one thing coming out altogether, and if I’m trying to avoid the thinking part of it, am I trying to control my experience?

Ken: Well, I mean if you’re shutting down the thinking—you know, saying, “I’m not going to think about this,”—then yeah, I think there’s a problem there. The way I’m describing it, it’s that whenever you notice that you’re thinking you come back to the body. The thinking may or may not stop. Initially it doesn’t feel like it stops. As you do this over and over again and start resting in the body and the emotional material, then the thinking does subside. But that’s very different from shutting it down.

And that’s why I said a few moments ago, the thinking becomes like the wind. It’s going on but you’re not caught up and carried away with it, you know. But there’s certainly times I can recall where I would keep coming back to my experience and then fwhoo [Ken makes wind sound] off into thinking again. And coming back, and off into thinking, and just go back and forth like that—not trying to stop the thinking or shutting down. It’s just that I didn’t have the capacity to stay in the experience. I kept going off into thinking again. But that’s what is involved. That’s how you develop ability and skill.

Leslie: If your level of attention is high enough to contain the thinking and the body sensations and the emotions at a higher level than they were originally experienced, it seems like it’s developing that. Whether I like it or not the process continues on its own. Like I don’t…I don’t have to quite work at it as much as I used to, because it’s like it’s doing its own thing. Could I be fooling myself?

Ken: Without a specific example it’s difficult for me to tell. So yes, you could be but not necessarily. And what I was going to say is you’ll know by the results whether you’re fooling yourself or not, ’cause that’s how it comes out. And if you’re fooling yourself you go, “Oh, I thought I was present and now I feel really stupid.” [Ken chuckles] It happens, you know. Okay.

Section 19

Ken: Other comments or questions? Other ways you find this discussion helpful? ’Cause you all nodded your heads so you all have something to say. Larry, just curious.

Larry: Yes. Well, I need to think about this. [Laughter] The thoughts are very complex, this river that you’re talking about sweeping along. And any given situation that unfolds in one’s life that prompts a lot of thinking has a lot of different facets to it. It isn’t just one amorphous blob of emotion or affect is it?

Ken: No it’s usually about 6,500 different blobs of emotion.

Larry: Right. Right. So one still has to think, decide, choose, act. And certainly there are situations in one’s life where you do have time to, so to speak, pull the car over to the side of the road, and get with the feeling or the affect associated with this set of thoughts that you’re having. I’m just trying to put this in a real world kind of—

Ken: Yeah. Here’s what I suggest. To a considerable extent it’s a matter of training. In the beginning, yes, you have to pull the car over to the side of the road and sit. But you do this again and again. So that when something comes up, you’ve trained yourself to go to the body right away. So now when something comes up—in organizational work or other situations—your first question is, “What’s going on in my body?” not “How do I think about this?” Or “What do I think about this?” “What do I sense in my body here?” And so you’re training yourself to actually work a different way. And then a second question is, “Oh, okay. That’s what’s going on in my body. What emotions are coming up in connection with this? Oh.”

And if you train in it you’ll find that you can actually do this, maybe not completely but quite quickly in situations. And it is a very, very different way of working. I was giving a presentation, I think I mentioned, a couple of weeks ago to a coaching organization and I was actually showing them how this worked, where if instead of thinking what you are going to say you went to your body first, then your emotions, and then let something speak. And they were quite surprised at how consistently it was more effective and more appropriate. Because thinking is actually the slowest of the three forms of knowing there. The body knows much more quickly and the emotions move much more quickly than thoughts.

Larry: My experience is that oftentimes—and I hope I don’t take ridicule for this statement but—that women are much more in touch with their bodies than men. And I know that in my life the women around me seem to be in touch with this and I’m just completely…So what I’m getting at is that there’s a lot of crap to be worked through here from years of conditioning—

Ken: Oh, yes! But also—

Larry: In order to see the sixty-four and a half pieces of affect that are floating up around this area that I”d rather just make a decision on.

Ken: You know, fair enough. But I’ll say women don’t have a monopoly on this.

Larry: So you’ll take the ridicule.

Ken: I’ll take the ridicule, yeah. Quite happily. Rob.

Rob: I just wanted to say that the part on the mind killing was a big help to me, personally, for my practice. And also this last part on getting in touch with the body. I’ve heard you talk about this many times, but the more I hear it, the more I get it.

I feel like for me I’m just really tired of living in the thinking world. [Ken Laughs] And I’m just…yeah, I mean, it’s just complete burnout. And so I mean, I don’t want to go there. I don’t find myself trying to cut it off. But this aspect of, you know, no effort and just sitting with being in the body, I feel like I’m beginning to pick that up. But I have a question. And I heard Claudia make a comment when I said that. Do you find that there’s some point where people just get…I mean part of it is they are so sick and tired of what’s been going on in their head and that becomes part of the impetus?

Ken: Yes, basically. It doesn’t work for them anymore. And quite a few people reach that point, but most of them have no idea what to do about it. And so they try all kinds of things. But they just can’t get away from—as many of them say—the stuff in their head. They just don’t have connection with any tools or perspectives which allow them to approach things in a different way. So I think a lot of people reach that point. But not everybody has the opportunity to learn how to do something different. And even of those who do have that opportunity, some people just have a great deal of difficulty giving up old ways.

Rob: Well, I’ll just say I feel like I’m in the right place, and I’m ready for a new game. That’s my metaphor.

Ken: Yeah, okay, good.

Oh, we’re 9 o’clock already. Okay let’s sit for a few moments, close.

Creative Commons LicenseThis transcript by Ken McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. This transcript has been edited to make it more readable. There may be minor differences between the audio file and the transcript.