Awakening From Belief 10a


This evening I want to talk about two things: one possibly briefly; the other’s a little more complex. The first is about attention in life, and the second is the pattern process—process depending on how you pronounce it—and tomorrow we’re going to talk about the process of pattern dissolution, or unmaking the pattern, how that’s done and what happens.

I think it’s fair to say that at the heart of any spiritual practice there is a way of training attention. In the Christian contemplative traditions it’s through the practice of prayer—technology that was largely lost between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. And there have been a number of Catholic contemplatives who’ve taken major steps in reviving and recovering contemplative prayer as a practice: Father Keating, David Steindl-Rast, Basil Pennington, among them. In Buddhism, one method that has been used to train attention is the use of form, and one of the best examples of that is the Zen tradition where there is a pretty precise form defined for everything. From the readings I’ve done, I suspect that this was a significant element in some of the traditions of Indian Buddhism. If you read the Vajrayana texts, they told you how to do everything. You know, you do it this way, you do it this way, especially in terms of the lower tantras where form is very important.

Now, every mode of training attention has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages of training through form is that it’s quite easy to transmit. Fill the bowls this way. Empty the bowls this way. Wipe them this way. Eat this way. You know, something really concrete about that. And people—“Oh, I see how to do that.” “No, no, you’re not doing it right, you do it this way.” “Oh, okay.” But you can actually refine it; it’s something very visible and tangible. There are two—that I can think of—potential disadvantages. One is people start to worship the form and come to feel that the form is of value in and of itself.

In the last retreat—one retreat I did not too long ago—I had somebody ringing the bell for the meditation sessions, and they had their own way of ringing the bell. I mean it was done correctly, but there were two or three people at the retreat who’d been trained in ringing the bell in the Zen style, and one from the San Francisco Zen Center and another under Thich Nhat Hanh, and their skin would crawl because it wasn’t being done that way. They would come up to me, “Can I say something?” I said sure, if you wish. And they went, “Uhh….” But they didn’t. But that’s the kind of attachment that can form, and it can become much more extreme than that—“You can’t ring it that way! It has to be done this way.” So it becomes a thing; and there are good and bad points to that, but that’s another story.

Another potential weakness in training in form is that the student thinks that if they do the form correctly, that’s it. And they never actually learn attention, they just learn how to do the form correctly. Now, there are ways you can work this. Gurdjieff, who some of you may have heard of—rather interesting character who lived at the late nineteenth up to the middle of the twentieth century—the way that he got around this, is he kept changing the form. So you actually had to be in attention; that’s how he worked, and even that didn’t work completely. Some people just got very versatile at learning new forms, and they still didn’t have any attention.

If you use form to train attention, then the effort is in what you are experiencing when you are doing the form, and that’s what you’re bringing attention to all the time. And the form is like a mirror or a sounding board, more like a mirror. But if you aren’t bringing attention to what you’re experiencing when you’re doing the form, you aren’t training in attention. The result when a person has trained in form, trained attention in form, is that when they do the form they are totally relaxed. Totally relaxed. The form is utterly precise and there is no tension.


Student: Are they not being in attention?

Ken: No, that’s when they have trained properly. And you can observe that.

Student: No attention or no tension?

Ken: No tension. [Laughter] Okay. They are right in it. There are other ways to train attention and I’ve mentioned those, some of them. And that is to be in attention in what you are doing. Now, the way that you do that—don’t try and do it with everything at once. You will end up—if you are able to do it at all in everything—you will end up usually within a 24- or 48-hour period feeling very disoriented, because you will be running into habituated patterns all over the place and getting smacked around. One person I worked with in L.A., was a very talented person in spiritual matters and matters of attention, and I said, “Your exercise right now is whenever you open a door, take a breath.” That’s an attention exercise, and then experience opening the door. Well, since she was a bit of an eager beaver she did it with everything. She called me up and said, “I can’t find my car.” Just like I’d sent her a CD—“Just the Doors!” [Laughter] That took a little while to sink in. [Laughter]

So, you train in one activity. That’s a very good technique. Whenever you open a door, take a breath. It’s what in this way of training you call a mindfulness alarm. So you come to a door, take a breath and then you open it and walk through. There are car doors, there are refrigerator doors, there are cupboard doors, there are door doors, there are elevator doors, you know, you get the picture. Now, when you get good at that you start to lose attention. You just automatically take a breath, so then you have to change it. So now whenever you open a door, you walk through taking the first step with the foot that’s closest to the hinges. You have to be there. In this way of training attention, unlike form, there isn’t a right way of doing it, not in terms of, “This is the proper way to open a door.” You know, first you put your hand and you turn it three-quarters of the way and then you push it forward three inches, and—you…they don’t have any of that. But you can tell when a person is doing something in attention. You can tell when people walk in attention.

At a retreat I was teaching outside L.A. a couple of years ago, I was pretty unhappy with the way people were walking. So when everybody was seated in meditation, I walked down the length of the meditation hall un-mindfully. Now, people are sitting stock still in meditation with all this clomp, clomp, clomp. And then I walked back the length mindfully. When you walk in attention you make little or no noise. Why? Because you are in the experience, which means that when your foot touches the floor, you immediately sense the floor—it doesn’t hit the floor. In the dining room that we use we have these plastic dishes we use, a kind of informal oryoki style. I can always tell the quality of the retreat by the amount of noise that people make when they’re moving their dishes. You know, it’s hard plastic dishes on wood tables so clatter, clatter, clatter. A good retreat, there’s very little noise in the dining room. A bad retreat: clatter, clatter, clatter.

So, this is a different way of training attention. It’s not about doing things right; it’s about doing things in attention. Which way you choose and which way you’re trained, that depends on the tradition you’re being trained in and your own proclivities, and so forth. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. One of my friends we went for a walk outside L.A., and about halfway there it finally got to me, I said, “You have no attention in your feet. Clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp the whole time. ” He says, “Yeah I know I’ve go no attention in my legs at all.” I said, “Well, start doing it.” When you walk, you want to bring attention into walking, feel the ground rolling under your feet. That’s all you have to do—just feel the ground rolling under your feet. You can try it. I mean,you can have all of this fancy stuff like heel, toe or put your toe down first, and things like that—I can never remember it—but if you actually feel the ground with the soles of your feet, even if you’re wearing shoes, you’ll walk in attention. The first thing you’re going to do is start bending your knees more because if you’re legs are straight you can’t feel the soles of your feet, that’s just all there is to it. And everything will change; and you’ll end up walking in attention. In the same way that I suggested earlier, if you want to talk in attention listen to the sound of your voice as you’re talking. How many of you have been trying that? What’s it like?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Pardon?

Student: Very hard.

Ken: Oh? Hard to do or hard to listen to?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Aah. There you go. Yep, well thank you for the effort. Keep going. This is what it means. When you live in attention you’re not doing anything reactively. I know that’s a complete drag, but that’s how it is. And you’d be surprised, it feels hard but it’s actually much harder living the other way. Yes?


Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Yes. A basic relationship with reactive patterns is an addictive one. It’s an addiction, and there’ve been studies on what happens when people step out of reactive patterns in terms of brain pattern and things like that, it’s identical to addiction. There’s this compulsion, and something physiological and something emotional has to be fed all the time, so yes, that’s true. Well?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Mmm-hmm.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: That means you’re fighting your experience when you get into it that much, and that means you’re actually fighting against that, so relax and listen to your voice.

Student: I thought that was mindfulness.

Ken: Tension? No, mindfulness, as I said, when you’re really in mindfulness you are relaxed.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Yes.

Student: So I’m not particularly relaxed [unclear].

Ken: Relax moment-to-moment. That’s what we forget to do. You know, we sit, we sit straight and then we think, “Oh, I have to sit straight,” and we get tenser and tenser and tenser until we’re sitting like this, and we think this is meditation. When you’re learning how to sit and practice, set the posture. The habituated patterns of your posture will assert themselves and I’ve seen people, you know, as they sit they end up like this. Now, when you notice that, just move back and rest. And again, and then when you notice it, relax and move back. So every time you notice, you relax and return and rest there. It’s the meditation instruction I gave the first evening, and that business of resting in attention is key—every aspect of practice. And if you do that, then you aren’t going to generate the headaches. The headaches come when we go like this, we feel the urge of things, “No I’m going to hold myself here, I’m going to hold, I’m not gonna move, I’m not gonna move. Oh!” That’s when we get the headaches and the corresponding…

Student: But when I do the corrections and then there’s this tension, “Oh, I’ll go back to what’s familiar!”

Ken: Well, yes, but when you are sitting like this, there’s tension in that sitting. You’re deeply habituated to it so it feels familiar, but there’s actually tension in it. You see what I mean? Look at me. You can see the tension in my body. Sitting like this, there’s no tension. It’s not familiar. My body keeps wanting to go back to that way because it’s habituated, and you’re undoing that habituation, but you don’t undo that habituation by fighting it. You undo that habituation by resetting and resetting and resetting, over and over again. So, you can think of meditation as just starting again and again and again; over and over again you’re starting again. One of these days you’ll get it right [chuckles], and then you’ll wake up.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: You don’t need to. Roger.


Roger: [Unclear] one of the things that can happen was that at two o’clock the other day [you spoke] about the dzogchen retreat and doing nothing? You said, you know, Drom Tonpa or somebody did nothing for twenty years…

Ken: Longchenpa.

Roger: Longchenpa. You don’t have to do nothing for twenty years, you just have to do nothing for this moment.

Ken: That’s right.

Roger: Again and again.

Ken: That’s right.

Roger: [Unclear] you have to—[mimicking a very strained voice] this is it I got to do it once, and for all for the rest of my life, and I’ve got to do it now!

Ken: You only can do nothing moment-to-moment. [Laughs] Yeah, that’s right. And this business of not fighting the experience is really important. There needs to be ease in practice. You know, and it can take a long time to learn that. I mean I’ve spent seven years in retreat and I pushed. I pushed and I pushed and I pushed. At a certain point my body said, “Ken you want to get enlightened, that’s fine, go ahead. I’m not coming!” [Laughter] Because I hadn’t been listening to it. I’d been fighting. Fighting, fighting, fighting. And it just collapsed, and I went, “Damn.” And it took me a very, very long period of time because I’m a little thicker than most. A very long period of time to learn how to relate to the body. So I’m trying to save you a few years here.

Okay, any questions about that? It’s extremely important that you practice in your life, so I’ve given you a number of tools, and if you want I can give you a few more. You want more… [Laughter]

Student: [Unclear]…the doors…

Ken: Okay then. Thich Nhat Hanh’s very good at this. There’s the telephone meditation.

Student: Oh God.

Student: What’s this?

Ken: Answer on the third ring, never on the first, the way Thich Nhat Hanh does it—and I love it—it’s great. On the first ring you say “calm,” because what’s the first thing we do when the telephone—“Oooh!” Right? Okay, and you just say to yourself “calm.” The second ring, you say to yourself, “smiling.” The third ring you say to yourself, “present.” “Hello?” Now, what do you think? Is the conversation going to go better or not?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Of course it’s gonna go better. You know, you can do what one of my friends does with telemarketers—

Student: What’s that?

Ken: Keeps them on the phone as long as possible. [Laughter] “Oh I’m so glad you called.” [Laughter] By the way, we have the Do Not Call thing [National Do Not Call Registry] which works quite well actually. All you have to say is, “I’m on the list,” and they go click real fast.

Student: Only in California.

Ken: No, it’s a federal thing.

Student: I know but…

Ken: All you have to do is say “I’m on the list and if I receive another phone call you will be reported,” and dang, they’re off and they take you off the list real fast. It’s an $11,000 fine per phone call. One good piece of legislation.


Student: What would you say is the fundamental difference…there are people who for a variety of reasons lead very precise lives—trapeze artists, for example. [Laughter] Yeah, surgeons. Yeah, I mean lots of people who have OCD. Our daughter went through a period with that. Holy mackerel, you would’ve thought she was enlightened or being a Zen monk but it wasn’t enlightenment at all. And you know there are idiot savants—I’ve met people who are—Asperger’s syndrome—what, what…

Ken: Okay, right.

Student: What qualifies a person as a spiritual person on a spiritual path as opposed to somebody who’s driven to perfection? You know, knocking on a door, stepping with the right foot—I mean that could be [unclear] [laughter]…

Ken: I think you can answer this question yourself. What’s the difference?

Student: Intention.

Ken: I think you can go a step further. Intention’s a start, but you can go a step further. What’s the difference between being a perfectionist and being a spiritual person?

Student: [Unclear] relaxation…

Ken: Yeah, relaxation. There’s a saying in the Tibetan tradition—Rinpoche used to quote it all the time—and I found it very, very useful. The mark of learning is calmness and restraint. The mark of practice is no emotional confusion.

Student: No emotional confusion?

Ken: Yes. The mark of learning is calmness and restraint. The mark of practice is no emotional confusion. When you really master a subject, you don’t have to prove your knowledge to anybody. Somebody says something ridiculous, you don’t get upset and say, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong!” You’re calm, and you say, “Well….” So you’re calm and restrained, not in a forced sense. And when you’ve practiced deeply, you know how reactivity works intimately. You’re very, very clear about it, and you’re very clear about what you feel and what you’re doing. No emotional confusion. It’s very simple.

Okay, pattern process. This is a little complex, and of course, the first topic wasn’t brief after all. I could give you instructions here. It would be interesting to see how it turns out. Take a large piece of paper, draw a circle.

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.