How Do We Know if Our #Meditation Practice is “Working”?

How Do We Know if Our #Meditation Practice is “Working”?

man sunrise meditatiion

So many of us learn to meditate and then wonder: how we are supposed to be able to discern the effects of our practice?

More specifically, how can we tell if we are doing it correctly? Or, how do we know if we are meditating for enough time each day? How do we know whether we have the “right” practices and if these the ones we ought to continue doing?

Many of my Tibetan Buddhist meditation teachers have given talks in which these and similar questions arise. The teachers’ responses are usually to turn it around and ask us practitioners to consider these simple “measures” of our practice’s effectiveness:

  • Am I more patient?
  • Am I angry less often?
  • Does compassion arise in me more often and spontaneously?
  • Am I kinder more often and more easily?

Then, if we are studying with a meditation teacher, we are asked to contemplate these questions:

  • Do I have strong faith in my heart in my teacher and in the dharma?
  • Does my teacher come to my mind spontaneously while I am in a sleep state, while dreaming and/or in times of crisis?
  • Do I have less hope and less fear?
  • Do I experience clarity more of the time?

How are YOU doing, by these measures, with your meditation practice? If the answer to most of these questions is “no,” please find a qualified meditation teacher to discuss your practice with you and get you on the right track.

Maybe you need to meditate more time per day or keep your practice time and session length more consistent. Possibly, you need to “mix it up,” change what you’re doing. Get up and walk or go sit outside, change your shrine or altar around.

If you’re chanting or visualizing, maybe you need to return to calm abiding (shamatha). If you’re unfocused, maybe vipassana or mindfulness practices are better for you for a while.

There are over 80,000 methods of meditation and practice for “taming the mind.” One or more of them is right for everyone at some point, but many of us need to change our practices throughout our lifetimes and changing circumstances.

meditation better than nothing

We need a qualified meditation teacher, someone we can trust to guide our practice and help us keep it fresh and effective. Books and groups are great and support our practice, but nothing takes the place of having a spiritual guide.

It is said that the spiritual teacher that fits us best has the key to open our hearts. Merely to hear the teacher’s name or see his/her face, even in a photo, can have a profound effect. I hope you can find the right one for you.

Here is mine: Lama Padma Drimed Norbu (Lama Drimed).

Lama D laughing 2012
May all beings benefit. May he live long and flourish. May all practitioners be so fortunate as to find your living teachers and be able to study under their guidance.

How to choose a spiritual teacher, what kind to select, and how to know if your relationship is worthwhile and effective as well as healthy? Read my review, then get the excellent, comprehensive book by Alexander Berzin, Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship, on Buddhist Door, from last fall (2015): http://www.buddhistdoor.net/features/wise-teacher-wise-student-tibetan-approaches-h

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How Having a #Buddhist #Spiritual #Teacher Changes Me

Some of you may remember I began an at-home, mini-#retreat to study and practice in the #Tibetan #Vajrayana #Nyingma tradition of preliminary practices for #T’hödgal—the #Rushan exercises—with meditation, contemplation and study, in October, 2013. I planned to end this sequence by Tibetan New Year, Losar, March 2, 2014. I have written a few posts about some of these experiences and my reactions to them (the ones I’m allowed to publicize).

My spiritual teacher’s schedule is very full and it is often difficult to arrange to see him. Luckily, I found out yesterday that I was able to receive an appointment to see him February 26, which means my retreat ends in a week.

Immediately upon having the date and time for our next meeting confirmed (called an “interview” in this tradition), I could feel the familiar internal reactions that signal other responses that will occur over the next week, in anticipation and preparation for our meeting and my receiving the next teachings. Physically, I feel internal tremors, “butterflies,” flutters of fear and excitement in my mid-section and heart. My heart rate speeds up, my breathing gets shallow and I have to remind myself to take deeper breaths.

Mentally, my mind starts racing around to gather up what I might want to ask, tell, find out in our meeting, which is always too short no matter how long it is. I keep a notebook and start writing down my questions and reactions to the practices during my retreat and always moreso in the days right before we meet. The time with my teacher is precious and I want to use every moment well.

Last night, I again have lucid dreams and more dreams that I remember. Lucid dreams are the kind that occur when I, as the dreamer, know I am dreaming during the dream, waking up to some extent while having the dream experiences and notice that I am awake. Remembered dreams are the ones that wake me up completely or that are with me when I first get up in the morning.

LucidDreaming
image from givnology.com

Sometimes I remember dreams from the night before at random moments during the day as well. In each of these dreams, lucid or remembered, I’m having some conversation or encounter with my teacher.

In my dreams, we are talking about my experiences in this retreat. Or, I am asking questions and he is teaching on some related subject. Or, we are walking, preparing food, washing vegetables or dishes, cleaning a room together.

I had a dream that we were swimming in the pond at our retreat center together at night. Somehow, we could both go underwater and still breathe, talk, and relate to each other for many minutes without difficulty, all the while the moon shone through the water, lighting us.

I dreamed we were in a hot tub together, naked but unembarrassed, talking about accomplishments and experiences in one type of meditation (often termed experiencing “naked awareness” in English translations).

Many times in the “ramp up” to a scheduled interview, I hear him talking to me in my sleep.His speaking voice wakes me up. He is instructing, explaining, teaching on a relevant topic but not one I have actually heard him talk about before in our actual encounters. Although it wakes me up, I try to go back into the dream to hear the rest of what he’s saying, but that never works. I lie there, recalling what he said and what I understand of it. When I have a pen and paper handy, I write down what I can remember.

Also in the days or weeks preceding a scheduled interview with my teacher, I am more keenly aware of my faults and flaws. I try to remember to bring compassion to my self-critique. I also notice any small progress signs I might have and note them down.

Chagdud Rinpoche
H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche and his reincarnation

Our teacher (his teacher and, for a while, mine), His Eminence Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, often told us that there are several sure signs of progress to watch for which he offered in a series of questions to ask ourselves:

“Am I more patient?”
“Am I less angry?”
“Am I more kind?”
“Does compassion arise spontaneously within me?”
“Am I more generous?”

If the answers to any or most of these questions is “Yes,” then we can be assured that our practice is having good effects. If not, we need to adjust/rectify: our practice, our motivation, our commitment, our understanding.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the spiritual teacher is said to hold the key to one’s heart. Opening the heart (or, in Tibetan terms, the heart/mind) is fundamental to becoming receptive to the spiritual practices and their impact on us, allowing us to change, inviting the methods to work within us without impediment.

A teacher may play many roles. The only limitations to the impact of a qualified teacher are in our own minds.

Teacher-Roles
image from http://www.unfetteredmind.org

The story of how I “found” my spiritual teacher is a bit unusual in that I knew him before he became a Lama. However, I hadn’t seen him in ten years, only talked with him twice on the phone, before coming to accept teachings from him in 1999 and decide with him if he could be my teacher. He had told me on the phone that people who knew him “before” had had difficulty accepting him as a teacher and was warning me that it might not work for us, either.

I told him that I had already had many dreams in which he IS my teacher and I was confident it would work. Secretly, though, I was nervous and a bit doubtful, myself. I knew what he meant because the first person I had considered as my teacher was also someone I had known before and things were very difficult for both of us.

The day the retreat started that June day in 1999, we were all gathered in the shrine room (large space for meditation practice and teachings), waiting for him to arrive. I had no idea how the retreat would be structured, what went on, even where he would sit. There were thrones in the front of the room, but I had a hard time imagining that he would actually sit on one. Because Rinpoche then lived in Brazil, Rinpoche’s picture was framed and occupied the highest throne, in the center. There was one on the right side of it that was empty.

There was a curtain, a drapery wall, separating the shrine room from the porch eating area. It rippled and a man entered. At first, I didn’t recognize him as the man I had known. His hair was down past his waist and flowed as he moved. Last time I’d seen him, his hair was barely to his ears.

Even more different was the way he moved. More startling and unexpected was that I felt my heart burst open. My eyes filled with tears. In total silence and surprise, half bowed along with everyone else, I stood there staring at him. There was a glow around him that I could not actually see with my physical eyes but which I could perceive nonetheless. He emanated peace, confidence, warmth.

My heart was pounding and the tears increased as I watched him glide smoothly across the room carrying a single, long-stemmed rose in one hand.

He walked up to the throne with Rinpoche’s framed face on it. Gently and reverently, with immense love that I could feel from across the room, Lama Drimed placed the rose in front of the picture. Then, he gracefully stepped back several paces and did three full-body prostrations in front of that throne, offering respect and devotion to his teacher. I felt his devotion as pinpricks in my heart and my tears flowed.

long stem red rose

He finished his prostrations and walked over to the empty throne. Climbing up onto it, I could feel the rightness of it: it was his seat, his rightful place.

As soon as he sat down, the room of about thirty students erupted in motion: everyone began prostrating to him as he had done to Rinpoche’s picture. I stood there, trembling. Up until then, despite having attended several teachings, one retreat and several empowerments with other teachers, including Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, when I had done prostrations, I hadn’t felt anything. I did them out of respect, but without my heart engaged.

This time, as I bent to the floor to join the others in this ritual, tears fell on the carpet and my heart felt as if it would burst. The English translation for the words to the prayer we say as we do the prostrations echoed in my mind with new meaning:

“From now until I reach the heart of enlightenment, I take refuge in the Lama, who is the Three Jewels.”
Not “the” Lama: THIS Lama. I felt gnosis resonating in me as I prostrated.

My devotion and dedication awakened that afternoon as it had on no other day in this lifetime, yet it felt as if I were coming home. I had found my teacher, my spiritual guide and friend, the key to my heart/mind. Right there, that day.

Now, almost fifteen years later, I am even more devoted, dedicated, grateful and certain of my good fortune to have Lama Padma Drimed Norbu as my teacher. He scares me, he amuses me, he teaches and guides me. We argue, we talk, we laugh, we discuss. Lama Drimed as a Lama represents the embodiment of enlightenment. As a man, puts kale into his juicer and talks to me about my being a new sci-fi author. He makes me cry in gratitude, frustration, discouragement and awe.

I stretch, I learn, I grow. So does he.

In other times and now, in Tibet, India, Burma, Nepal, many Buddhist students have (had) to endure much hardship, danger, long journeys and infrequent opportunities to be with their teachers. Sometimes only once in a lifetime are they physically in the same places; being able to have an interview is even rarer.

snow travel
image from http://www.ornotmagazine.com

I am so lucky that he is alive and teaching, willing to have me as a student. The grace, good karma, great coincidence of our living in the same geographic area after many years of living other places allow me to see him next week just by driving my car about ninety minutes on good roads.

May all beings benefit. May all find their spiritual teachers and meet with them in this and every lifetime.

Thank you for being the key to my heart/mind, Lama Drimed. May you have a long, healthy, wonderful life filled with benefit and happiness.

Lama Drimed
Lama Padma Drimed Norbu

When #Spiritual #Teachers Respond with #Countertransference

I do not have good #karma with spiritual teachers. I must start with that understanding, as a #Buddhist who does believe in karma. However, that recognition does not absolve the #spiritual #teachers who have wronged me.

I have had several teachers relate to me from their own psychological troubles (reliving their family histories) or who believed and then acted inappropriately and unfairly on the basis of unsubstantiated and inaccurate lies or rumors about their students (including, but not limited to me). These teachers are human, yes, but they are established (sometimes self-established) in significant roles of power and authority. I expected better. I needed them to be better.

India Tibet Dalai Lama

Let’s be clear: the power in these types of relationships is held by the teachers (spiritual or otherwise), not the students. Just as: parents have the power and children do not; bosses hold power, employees do not (unless they unionize…); therapists wield power, patients do not (until they’re ready to terminate therapy); clergy retain power, parishioners do not.

While it may be true that we in the underling role “give” or cede that power to those “above” us, more typically, the power differential is institutionally installed and our acquiescence required. Or, these power dynamics are emotionally unavoidable and we all succumb. In any case, the power lies with the “upper” level role inhabitants, not the “lower.”

What happens, what has already happened, when “good” teachers go “bad”? Sexual impropriety, financial greed and theft, many types of favoritism and other painful outcomes for students in the spiritual community of these wrong-headed teachers have occurred when these teachers abused their power. Most abuses have become exposed and even well-documented, eventually, but many remained hidden by students and teachers alike for far too long, to everyone’s detriment.

I’m not writing today about the boldest, most overt abuses. I want to focus on my experiences of some of the more subtle kinds of problems between teachers and students, caused chiefly by the teachers. These #counter-transference dynamics have occurred all too often. The results? Destruction of the delicate balance that generated good will, trust and faith, ruining the community cohesion and causing unhealed and unforgivable schisms, to the point of permanent alienation between me and those teachers and the rest of their students.

Contributing factors: I am the same age or older than most of my spiritual teachers. I am a parent of an adult child, now, and a very strong personality in my own right. I am outgoing, intelligent, assertive, strong-minded and opinionated. I am courageous and able to speak up to “authority” in ways most adults are not. I am an experienced teacher and leader, myself. Many see me as competition or posing some kind of threat even when I do not present any such danger, having no motivation to be that way with them.

What types of responses do my traits evoke? My relationships with spiritual teachers and fellow students start positively enough. Early on, teacher and students begin to rely heavily on me for my organizational or leadership skills, my experience, my willingness to serve. They flatter, “support,” defer to me, giving me more and more responsibility, visibility, community roles.

Then, the negativity sets in, first among the students. I become the target of others’ envy or grudging admiration in public and private sniping. Peer conflicts like these I am used to but do not much like. Unpleasant but commonplace, I weather these minor storms. These skirmishes are not the difficulties. In fact, they are to be expected. Furthermore, we are taught to honor our sangha members and continue to ask forgiveness for our own minds’ foibles. We aim to see our ego-clinging as the source of any interpersonal difficulties: “Drive all blames into one.”

When teachers raise their voices at students in the Buddhist tradition, students are supposed to believe their teachers are expressing compassionate, enlightened wrath to help us with reducing pride and attachment. When teachers ignore us, we’re supposed to see our inner pique as a sign of our tenacious ego-clinging. When a teacher criticizes or praises a student, we’re supposed to see those actions as equal, not to care which is happening, not favor one experience over the other, cultivating the attitude of all experiences, all phenomena as “all one taste.”

Wrathful diety

Sometimes, those are the ways teachers operate. That fidelity to tradition can be excellent for students’ learning and spiritual growth. Students can thrive and develop our practices under these circumstances; students have been doing so for thousands of years.

Sometimes, unfortunately, teachers are just screwed up people with personal issues that they’re working out unconsciously, complete with seductions, anger and power plays, on us students. These behaviors are not acceptable.

The problems begin each time for me when my teachers succumb to counter-transference, unconsciously confusing me with their parents or other adults from their childhood, the people with whom they had/have troubled relationships and concomitant unresolved issues. Just my presence in their lives triggers old resentments, fears, angers and hostilities. They begin to publicly lash out, threaten and accuse me, yell at or blame me unfairly, or they ignore me completely.

All of their inner insecurities, cowardice and inadequacies arise, eventually to engulf them. They blame me.

red_tibetan_mastiff_201123201611343778027

Because Buddhism focuses upon annihilation of the ego, techniques such as those listed above are often utilized for reducing one’s pride, loosening attachment to status or positions of power. We students are taught to continue to hold our teachers with “pure view,” seeing them as embodiments of enlightenment no matter what they say or do. We are supposed to strive to have unblemished and complete faith in our teachers, to trust them unflinchingly, regardless of their outward displays.

We are also, however, supposed to utilize discernment and good judgment. We are not asked to nor should we abdicate our own adult responsibility just because of the time-honored model of spirituality we subscribe to and believe in and how well it usually works. The model works; the people do not, always.

Even on the rare occasions when I’ve had the chance to discuss these interpersonal problems with the offending teachers and they understood what was happening, they chose not to attempt to work on this, not to enter therapy or try other methods to end the counter-transference. They chose, instead, to limit or even cut off contact with me.

Not your mother

These are not deployments of compassionate, enlightened wrath, but rather, the actions of confused individuals who are exhibiting mean-spirited, unkind, disrespectful mistreatment.

I know; I know: these decisions run in opposition to the very teachings they profess to offer. You don’t need to tell me that!

It is devastating to a community and each individual student suffers enormously when a teacher goes “off the rails,” as we’ve seen. Personally, I can attest to the pain, sorrow, disappointment and disgust I experience each time I witness or am the target of such failures in our teachers.

Counter-transference

Being the target of a teacher’s counter-transference robs the student of a chance to have an authentic relationship of any kind with that teacher because the student is not able to be seen clearly by that teacher. The filtering creates a haze of confusion that the teacher puts between him/her and that student which prevents the actual character, words or behaviors of that student from being given untainted attention or fair value.

The ones selected to be lovers of those teachers actually suffer just as much as those, like me, who are blamed and vilified. None of us is seen as ourselves. None of us has a “good” teacher to rely upon; that teacher has checked out.

I never had a chance with some teachers to be seen as me, to be treated fairly and respectfully. Instead, I was viewed with negativity, deemed to be “irritating” or “difficult,” cast out or forced to leave to escape this treatment.

Yes, by the time this happened for the fourth time, I conceded that this is my karma. However, I don’t have to like it. I am saddened, isolated, hurt and frustrated each time. It doesn’t get easier, just more familiar.

There is no easy or, sometimes, any solution, short of wishing/praying that the offending teacher will get some therapy and deal with their issues more thoroughly, hoping they will get their mother’s or father’s face off mine. So far, this has not been the trajectory of these ruined relationships: few apologies and no repairs have occurred. Broken has stayed broken.

Each time, I hope (but do not much believe) my/our karma will change. I am a skeptical optimist.

What are the odds that THIS teacher, THIS time, will deal with his/her stuff and become the teacher I need and want him/her to become?

Not so good. I wouldn’t bet on it. I’ll just keep practicing and put my faith in the teachings, not the teachers.

Let me know when you find a confident one. I’ll give him/her a try.

For more information: <a href="http://goo.gl/tKUCoz&quot; Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship Originally published as Berzin, Alexander. Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 2000; Reprint: Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010title=”Relating to a Spiritual Teacher” target=”_blank”>http://goo.gl/tKUCoz