There can be a backlash after a period of meditation going well. What to do when your ego mandala fights back?! How can we work with the thoughts and feelings that arise?
A student writes: I have worked through section D, Book One, in Discovering the Heart of Buddhism and have been working through to ‘Valuing and Letting Go’, section E – Indestructible Heart Essence. After a period of breakthrough, I seem to have been experiencing a period of backlash! Or is it just ebb in the progress?
Lama Shenpen replies: It is normal. Nobody I ever met just kept feeling they were making progress all the time without any kind of reaction, doubt, hesitation, recurrence of the same bad habits that they have always had and so on and so on.
What is also normal is to have a very strong backlash after feeling everything has just gone particularly well… such as after a retreat or a very inspiring teaching session or whatever. Rigdzin Shikpo calls this ‘the backlash of the departing ego’ which I think is a great name for it.
It’s as if we open to the Dharma and a whole new possibility opens up and then the grasping mind suddenly realises it can’t grasp this and use it to secure itself. So it reacts and tries to say ‘It’s all rubbish anyway. There is nothing to open up to, it’s all fantasy, I am all right as I am, I don’t need to change’ and so on.
It lasts for a while and the best thing to do is just recognise it for what it is. It’s just thoughts and feelings that you don’t have to take seriously. They come and go and try to sound very authoritative while they are around.
They talk as if they know what is what and your Dharma side is just fantasy. Of course everything we cling to is fantasy and Dharma is the opposite of fantasy so this voice of lordly judgement is just an empty illusion. We don’t have to believe it.
Student: Feelings like: I’m enjoying life, I don’t want to let go of it! I still swear – I must be a bad Buddhist, or not a Buddhist at all! I have feelings of not wanting to put my head above the covers, into the daylight and awaken. It’s cosy under here! Dulling out is a cosy place to be!
Lama Shenpen: That describes what I have just been talking about quite well, I think!
Student: My heart feels as if it’s covered over and it would hurt to uncover it – as if I need to just let it open in its own time.
Lama Shenpen: It will only open a little at a time actually … it’s a natural process. You just need to keep up a gentle persistent effort at remembering to return to it.
Student: Do I just ‘let those feelings be’, give them the space to be?
Lama Shenpen: Basically, Yes.
Student: Life really does seem to take on the qualities of meditation in that case, just letting this period of relatively less progress ‘be’. I notice the fear of being all alone without noise, distraction or chocolate! This too, I must allow to be.
Shenpen: It is important to notice that fear. It is good to challenge it often in short sessions.
So you feel the build up wanting to grab a whole lot of chocolate and comfort and dulling down of awareness and it kind of starts to drive you and you don’t want to look at it because you don’t want that big battle with yourself.
It’s as if you fear the battle more than anything. You feel as though if you don’t think about it then perhaps the sense of battle will subside, but it doesn’t. You end up feeling really fed up with yourself indulging all that drive towards unawareness. It leaves you nowhere.
So the trick is to do a trade-off. Bring in the awareness to brighten up your experience even when feeling driven to duck for cover. Stay with it for five minutes or for however long you can without getting into a battle about it.
Really notice the fresh invigorating feel of awareness and the full, live quality in the heart, even if it feels incredibly sad. Let the sadness be there. Notice it and then notice the sense of wanting to just turn away from all that.
Promise yourself to come back to that awake awareness as soon as you can and then relax. Then do what it is that you feel driven to do. Just let yourself be with yourself as you do all that … loud music, chocolate or whatever it is.
Then notice when that drive has played itself out. How does that feel? How about another five minutes awareness practice? How does that feel? Just keep noticing it all … in a kind way.
Like you would with a child – gradually get that whole side of you to accept what is going on and feel its choices and what it really wants. It takes time. If you go at it with too much force, that side of you just reacts and closes down and you are left with the endless battle.