New Departures in Dharma Teaching and Practice

This article introduces significant new departures (originating mainly in the United States) and reports my own experience in implementing them in a variety of sangha settings.

Emotional Awareness

In recent years there has been a growing output of books advocating a practice centred on an emotional (and cognitive) awareness-in-the-body of the vicissitudes of everyday life. This, however, in no way discounts the value of meditation and retreat in sustaining the clarity essential to such a practice. These books are from highly regarded teachers across the spectrum of Buddhist traditions. Typical titles are After the Ecstasy the Laundry (a Jack Kornfield favourite), Bringing Meditation to Life, Turning Suffering Inside Out, Tools for Living Your Life, Finding the Marvellous in the Ordinary, and Everyday Life as a Spiritual Path. These two quotations give something of the flavour of this writing:-

If you grab every opportunity to work with your mind – at home, at school, at work – you’ll end up with more chances to work with strong emotions than in one hour of sitting on your cushion with some vague idea of ‘meditation’. In fact, your practice of working directly with your mind moment to moment will be much more powerful, because it will really change your mainstream. When you recognise an emotion with mindfulness, and penetrate it with some recognition of the nature of mind, that process is self-transforming. There’s nothing more you need to do. When you can work with your mind in this way, you will clearly see its effect, not just in you, but in your environment – on your family and on your community. (1)

What is the sharpest fact in your life right now ? Take a moment to consider your most haunting terror, your most persistent aggravation or relentless criticism of yourself, or a deep pain you have taken upon yourself. Feel it in your body. That terror, aggravation, shame or sadness is your dearest enemy … all your creative power for the Way is to be found right there … so turning that way is turning toward your true freedom … Such is the blessing to be found in a curse. Practice is not just a matter of breaking through the fact of suffering, but realising that suffering is a Dharma gate which lies open to you. (2)

Through a variety of practices each student directs his or her enquiry into her self: its evolution and telltale characteristics. For the Buddha did, of course, preach belief in a separate self as the cause of dukkha, and for Zen Master Dogen “to study Buddhism is to study the self”. Personally I find Hubert Benoit’s metaphor of the lifelong and unwinnable lawsuit with reality as a helpful overview -- the ultimately unavailing struggle to consolidate and experience a sense of self that is sufficiently strong and enduring to deny the impermanence and insubstantiality of all phenomena – including ourselves.


The students’ enquiry is based not only on the traditional agenda of solitary meditation, talks by the teacher, clarifying questions by the student, and individual interviews. Several teachers have published “explorations” devised to help students internalise, in the context of their own lives, the key ideas presented in the Dharma talks. Prominent here is A.H.Almaas, in his book The Unfolding Now ( Shambhala, 2008), the foundation of his “Diamond Approach” and of the work of his Diamond Sangha. Here is an example -- an exploration of what it might be like to dwell in suchness.

Select some area of your life, such as a relationship, your job, your physical environment, your financial situation, your health, or your achievements. How would it feel to live that part of your life without any longer being needy about how you want it to be or not to be ? How and why might you find that difficult ?

The following example is taken from Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart, on the theme of turning straw into gold:

Sit quietly, allowing yourself to become calm and receptive. Reflect on the difficulties and afflictions in your life as being your most valuable aid to cultivating fearlessness and peace of mind.

Then think of a difficulty, affliction or pain in your life. As you sense this affliction, how does it feel, and how affect your body ? Holding the feeling carefully, begin to ask yourself these questions, listening inwardly for their answers. (Note that it is not necessary to reveal to others the origin of your affliction; we are concerned here only with what it feels like)

1. How have I emotionally responded to this affliction so far, and how have I suffered from my response and reaction to it ?

2. What does this problem ask me to let go of?

3. What difficulties, if any, am I having with becoming deeply aware of my emotional response to this affliction ?

And this is an exercise I devised myself:

Life as an unwinnable lawsuit against reality….

Please reflect on the course of your life and then respond to either A or B below:-

A – What have been the main emotional needs and impulses that have shaped your life ?


B – In the past week what underlying feelings have been most significant for you? Do these different feelings have something in common – some underlying impulsion ?

Again, here is Donald Rothberg, in his valuable book The Engaged Spiritual Life (Beacon Press, 2006) with an exercise for “Developing an inventory of your views” of which the following is a simplified version:

1. What are my strongest views (fixed opinions, attitudes, positions) ?

2. What feelings, emotions, maybe even bodily sensations, lie beneath my expression of these views ?

3. Do I tend sometimes to exaggerate, the evidence which supports these views?

4. Why is it so important for me to win the argument ?

5. What might I learn from the other’s views?

Similar approaches, with specific exercises, can be found in Gregory Kramer’s Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom (Shambhala, 2007) and Vajragupta’s Buddhism: Tools for Living your Life (Windhorse,2007), a rare British contribution, aimed at beginners, but with lots of DiY exercises that can be quarried by the resourceful teacher. Almaas and Kramer each present their exercises in the context of their own comprehensive systems of Dharma training, but, for my part, I have taken whatever I needed to support my own approach to Dharma and how to teach it.

It may be objected that all this may amount to no more than conceptual play. Here I follow Dogen’s argument that ideas, whether written or spoken, are by no means mere “fingers pointing at the moon” –- a misleading dualistic notion. No sharp and absolute distinction can be made between understandings and insights, and between thinking, feeling and bodily experience (which is why the Hsin Hsin Ming is sometimes translated as Trust in the Heart-Mind). It follows that, given sufficient meditative nurture, concepts like “suchness” can, over time, deepen into insight. This is the path of a gradual ripening of wisdom. It is a path which passes through the initial stage of belief in the Dharma as something confirmed by the student’s own experience. My concern is to help belief ripen into faith – that liberating and empowering acceptance which brings profound ease of mind and makes us truly serviceable for others.

Interpersonal work

Solitary meditation surely remains the principal means of bringing about a ripening of wisdom and compassion, through exercises like those above -- supplemented by more conventional practices. However some teachers are now moving beyond the conventional interpersonal activities of question-and-answer following the Dharma talk, and the interactions which take place in the interview room. A variety of more potent “interpersonal meditations” may be inserted into the retreat programme. Two which my students have found particularly helpful are working in pairs and small group work. Work in pairs may be informal or structured. In the structured version each takes it in turn for seven minutes to ask the other a question. Thus, in a retreat introducing emotional awareness practice the question might be “Tell me, Jane, how does it feel to be you ?” The questioner may address nothing other than this to their partner, but is encouraged to use a wide range of non-verbal communication to elicit a fruitful response. Their role combines those of seducer, midwife and dancing partner. The partner can make any response or none at all. This is, of course, derived from the Western Zen Retreat, but differs significantly from it both in practice and in its limited use as one among a variety of methods deployed on the kind of retreat I have in mind.

As to the discussion in groups of between four and six this is invariably stabilised, controlled and given a grave and meditative aspect by the use of a “speaking stone”. This rests in the middle of the group, and only someone who picks it up has the right to speak so long as they are holding it. Sometimes students claim it helpful to have groups of the same gender, but for me this is still an open and interesting question.

Initially I was motivated to introduce such interpersonal episodes as a means of raising energy in the face of the staleness and fatigue which a heavy meditation programme can induce. However, Almaas, Kramer and Fischer, and above all, the testimony of my own retreatants, have convinced me of the deeper and more varied benefits of introducing this practice of so-called interpersonal meditation as a major feature of retreats.

First, experiencing the heartfelt pain and discomfiture of others within a supportive group arouses strong feelings of compassion or, at the least, the encouraging discovery that “we’re all in the same boat”.

Secondly, insights and understandings about a topic can emerge from a group interaction which for some retreatants were not accessible when reflecting on their own. In particular, the experience of emotionally charged interaction with others can itself nurture insight and deepening understanding about the powerful but hidden process by which we construct a self-image.

Gregory Kramer makes the crucial point that “many people find that the wakefulness, ease and even love they feel while in formal meditation does not integrate well into their lives These formal practices can be quite pristine, and therefore distinct from our very busy everyday lives. There is no clear path for blending formal practice with everyday living” (op.cit. p.265). He finds the answer in “insight dialogue”:-

The dynamics of interpersonal meditation are similar to those of traditional, personal meditation: we gradually cultivate mindfulness and tranquillity; these qualities allow us to apprehend the moment-to-moment nature of experience; what we then realise, frees us. But because interpersonal meditation works with the moment-to moment experience of interacting with another, it brings the liberating dynamic of meditation into our everyday lives easily and naturally (op. cit. p.4)

Perhaps the most eloquent argument for the foregoing kinds of interpersonal work, and indeed for the whole innovatory shift of which they are a part, is the following from Norman Fischer:-

These days, as I continue to teach Zen outside the traditional context of monastic life, I am trying to see what will work to bring ordinary people in the ordinary world to the sort of deeper, fuller living that Zen promises. I have found that it is of crucial importance for people to be able to express themselves fully … In recent years it’s become clear to me that students need to do more than absorb teachings and ask clarifying questions. They need to speak their hearts….. Expression is healing. It opens us, propelling us forth into our lives. It’s not so much a matter of ideas or even of feelings, for expression is more than a cognitive or an emotional act. Yet somehow the simple act of speaking truly, out loud and to others, inspires us finally to point our prow out to sea as we set forth onward for the journey. (Sailing Home, Free Press, 2008, p43).

I have endeavoured to embody these new departures into an appropriate retreat format. The retreat is a silent and disciplined event apart from the interpersonal episodes and other necessary communication. The practice periods on the programme are left open, to be filled depending on the current mood, aptitudes and energy levels of the retreatants. Although sitting meditation is the default position, there may be a talk, followed by or preceded by an exploratory exercise (as above) pursued interpersonally or alone. And for when bodies begin to dangle from the ends of minds I have a repertoire of interactive physical activities, to relax and energise, to take care of each other, and to release a playfulness which I rate high in the spiritual perfections. What we do next may also depend on the weather, since I believe landscape can be a valuable resource in Buddhist training.

(1) Pema Chodron in the Shambhala Sun Sept.2009.

(2) Susan Murphy Upside Down Zen. (Wisdom, 2006).