Have you noticed that you’re filling up every moment with doing something or deliberately distracting yourself when there’s a gap? Lama Shenpen explains why noticing this habit and establishing ‘gaps’ as part of our daily life is important for our Dharma practice.
An important part of the Living the Awakened Heart Training is ensuring that our practice and training contain both a sense of a focused foreground and relaxed background, that we are giving space and importance to both and that they are working properly together.
This dynamic of focusing and relaxing, moving from foreground to background, is the nature of awareness. In ‘Discovering the Heart of Buddhism’ it is introduced as the dynamic of ‘EVAM’: of E (relaxed background) and VAM (focused foreground). Learning to work with it, both in our meditation and awareness practice, and in our whole attitude to our lives and practice, is fundamental to the training.
We can start to notice the impulse to fill up every moment so that there are no gaps – the disease of our age – and we could let that go sometimes. Instead, we could start programming gaps into our day. For example, instead of leaving it to the last minute to get to appointments, you could aim to get there early so that you have to wait around for a bit and then really relax into that gap. It is tempting to try to fill up our whole Dharma life, rushing from one thing to the next.
We tend to think that it is only when we are focused on our practice (only when it is really in the foreground of our awareness) that anything is happening. So it is as if, in between nothing is happening. Such an attitude is a great obstacle, both to understanding the nature of awareness in meditation and to being able to set up a powerful practice mandala.
There are many different aspects to this subject, but I want to focus mainly on two of them here. Firstly, that it is fundamental to Dharma practice to learn to relate to relaxed, unfocused awareness, as this is the very space that is the ground of our being. Secondly, that it is important that we do have periods of focused practice.
Relaxed unfocused awareness is the very ground of our being; it is that space that we both long for and are terrified of. We must be careful not to use our Dharma practice as another way to distract ourselves from this great ‘nowhereness’ that is right under our noses and that we are trying to deny.
It is important to value those in-between moments, those moments when we might just be staring out of the window or when we suddenly switch focus. That is also awareness. It is the background awareness out of which everything else springs and in which everything else has its existence.
Once we realise that this relaxed aspect of awareness is important and always present, then we can understand how it might be possible to cultivate continuity of practice. we can keep returning to awareness practice by treating gaps as aspects of awareness itself, rather than as dead space.
So learning to relate to what seem like gaps in awareness is absolutely essential to deepening our practice and to developing the confidence to rest in the unbroken continuity of awareness. By turning towards these gaps with relaxed confidence, again and again, our whole view of what they are changes. We begin to see that awareness is unbroken, that it is always there without any holes at all.
What we call gaps are unfocused, background moments in the Openness or ‘nowhereness’ of experience, the indestructible ground of our being in which we are developing confidence. So in our everyday life it is good to notice those anxious moments when we think we are wasting time.
Maybe you have to wait for the computer to boot up, or the phone to ring, someone to finish speaking, or the train to start, or whatever it is. By noticing the anxiety or pressure to get on to the next thing or to fill up the gap, we can turn towards it and notice that this too is awareness. There is no break in awareness. So in this sense there is no such thing as wasted time. Appreciate the spaciousness of those moments, lean into them and relax.
Sometimes, especially in our society, we have so many ideas about what we should be doing with our time that we feel almost guilty to stop. Somehow we should be trying to achieve something, get something, improve or fix something. Just to relax and do nothing seems like a sign of failure.
We easily carry this attitude over into our Dharma practice and we start to feel that this is yet another thing we should be filling up our time with, yet another thing to do, or to fail to do. It is yet another source of pressure. So it is important to think that gaps, when there is no pressure, are your Dharma practice.
They are important and are, in themselves, awareness. You don’t have to do anything to them. They are perfect awareness in themselves. You just need to notice and have confidence in them.
Tibetan teachers often talk about not being distracted, not wasting a moment. But this doesn’t mean that our practice should be constant effort and pressure. It doesn’t mean it should be ‘VAM, VAM, VAM’ and no ‘E’. The important point here is to recognise the need to develop a sense of on-going practice through both the background, unfocused E periods and strong focused VAM moments.
For example, when the time comes to die or at moments of deepest suffering, it might simply be a background sense of confidence in the nature of awareness that sustains us, even though our thoughts and feelings are in turmoil. It is possible to structure our daily life in such a way that we nurture confidence in the simplicity of the awareness practice at all times, remembering to keep coming back to it in a focused way as often as possible.
We not only need to cultivate the focus of foreground awareness, but also to make sure we have confidence in and respect the background awareness at the same time. We cannot learn to rest in our true nature by rushing around trying, struggling and pushing to keep focused on the foreground. If we remain simple and relaxed, the E and the VAM (the movement from foreground to background) occurs naturally and we can rest in it with confidence.
As soon as we lose this simplicity and try to make awareness be as we think it should be, we interfere with the naturalness of the EVAM, either getting lost in the background or struggling with the foreground. You may find that you need to make it part of your daily, weekly or annual routine to put time aside to relax. This might take quite a lot of care, since the temptation might be to take time off to ‘do’ something else. In other words, you simply extend the old pattern by just changing the name of what you are doing.
There should be times in which you are not latching onto some kind of distracting entertainment, not trying to accomplish some kind of goal, not guiltily feeling you should be doing something else. Depending on who you are, you may find this the most challenging part of your practice of all!
It is more a way of being than a matter of what you actually do. It may be the way you sit down and drink a cup of tea. It may be the way you go and potter in the garden or water the flowers. It may be the way you lie in bed at night before you go to sleep or in the morning when you wake up. So often we spend our time counting up and measuring, comparing and worrying about what we have and have not accomplished. However, in the end, the practice is to simply be.”
Lama Shenpen Hookham
The Living the Awakened Heart Training is a structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at www.ahs.org.uk/training
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