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Giving and Receiving Practice—Compassion Meditation

Streamed live on May 12, 2022

Meditation

So what I want you to do to begin with is, as you get into your meditation posture, I want you to just check in with how you’re doing right now, okay? So it’s literally, the question is—how am I doing right now? And I want you to check in with your thoughts and your emotions and your, just, regular body and be really, really honest. How am I doing right now? You know: maybe I’m a nervous wreck, maybe I’m depressed, maybe I feel kind of great, maybe I’m just neutral, maybe I’m skeptical, maybe I’m cynical, maybe I’m feeling all inspired, who knows? Or like, “oh god, my hip just hurts so much that’s all I can notice.” Or maybe I’m just planning, planning, planning—all of it’s okay. So, regardless of how, you know, the results of your check-in. Decide right now that’s all fine just the way it is. Like, let it be that way. Let’s say your mind is spinning with anxious planning and you’re just filled with all these emotions that are really unpleasant and your body really hurts. Even under those conditions just really tune into how okay that is—that’s just the way it is right now. And just let it be that way, give it all the room in the world to just be that way. 

We’re not going to be aggressive towards our own state. So whatever the state is that you’re in, we’re going to be okay with that, welcome that, let it be that way. Because adding aggression on top of that and trying to change it, change it, change it is actually just making it worse. So see if we can come into a fundamentally welcoming, open mood towards whatever our state is right now. And let’s say you’re like, “no, I can’t welcome it, it’s too… I just hate it, I hate it, I can’t welcome this.” Okay, well welcome that and if you can’t welcome that, then welcome the fact that you can’t welcome even that. Get to the place where you are fundamentally welcoming whatever is the current status. 

Now let’s tune into our fundamental spaciousness. Fundamental, just notice a deep, deep, deep sense of spaciousness, openness like the sky. The part of your experience that is just like an empty, beautiful sky. And into that space we’re going to now use our metaphor. You know, a couple weeks ago we were meditating as a goddess, and sometimes we meditate as a mountain. The image for tonight is—we’re going to meditate like the ocean, okay? So I want you to just, into that empty sky, picture, literally picture an ocean, with an infinitely distant horizon and no bottom. It’s just a vast, vast, vast ocean. And you can either picture it or you can feel it, feel like an ocean. Or just in whatever way you imagine, be like an ocean. But this ocean does have some properties. This ocean is tremendously still. Like, at the very top, on the water, it might have currents and ripples and stuff. But it’s so big and so deep that most of it is just absolutely, perfectly still in a way that feels really good. It’s an open, relaxed stillness, so notice the stillness of the ocean. It’s also so deep and huge that it’s very, very quiet. Again, way up at the surface there may be just a normal amount of hubbub and noise but this is a very, very deep ocean. Deep inside it, it’s very quiet. 

Now this is a very big ocean but it’s not empty, it’s got all kinds of life in it. It’s very alive, it’s very vibrant with life and energy and color and all that. And yet, the ocean itself is not bothered by any of that, in fact it welcomes it. No amount of movement or brightness or stuff going on with the various life forms ever bothers it. It really, really likes all that variety, all that beauty, all that life, all that energy, all that generativity and yet it is not disturbed by it in any way—simply welcomes it, loves it. So just sit as this still, silent, beautiful, peaceful ocean that’s filled with life, filled with energy, filled with variety and yet utterly unbothered, utterly unperturbed and imperturbable.

Now letting go of the image of the ocean. Stay with the qualities of stillness and silence, imperturbability, vibrancy and also vastness, tremendous vastness. And into this vastness, the only thing you’re noticing, you’re just resting as vast awareness. Notice the rising and falling of a single wave of breath. We’re not really focusing hard on the breath with tight awareness. This is vast awareness that just notices this rising and falling wave of breathing. A very relaxed, open way, very easy. Awareness is already aware, it’s aware of the breath. So just let awareness effortlessly stay with the rising and falling breath. 

As usual, if you want a little bit more to pay attention to there, then just make sure that awareness notices the end of each in-breath and the end of each out-breath. Don’t miss those moments. 

This vast, open, clear, bright awareness is completely awake, completely aware. Just resting in its own wakefulness without effort, noticing the rising and falling of the breath with total ease. Just the easiest thing in the world. 

If you’re having trouble staying awake, just open your eyes and sit up straight; meditate with your eyes open, usually solves the issue.

Very good. Now let’s come back to the fundamental sense of spaciousness: openness, fathomless, boundless, spaciousness. And notice that very clearly, outside of mind, outside of feelings, outside of everything there’s just endless halls of space in all directions. And from this place of tremendous spaciousness we’re going to do Giving and Receiving practice. Giving and Receiving practice goes like this: I’m going to start with someone we know and this vast spaciousness that has infinite room and infinite resource is going to breathe into itself all their problems, all their worries, all their difficulties, all their suffering, all their pain. Because it’s vast space, it’s not a problem, there’s more than enough room. Vast space will not be disturbed. And then on the out-breath this infinite, vast resource gives back to that person kindness, love, caring, healing, support, beautifulness, whatever they need. And this works because we’re coming from vast space, so we don’t have to worry. But be very specific, breathe into the vast space all, every last bit of their problems, their suffering, their pain, their despair, their difficulties. And breathe back everything good, with holding back nothing, don’t keep some back, give it all over. Because this infinite space has infinite resource. So, in-breath we’re taking it on, out-breath we’re giving back love, caring, kindness, joy, support, health, whatever they need, holding nothing back. So let’s work with this for a little while. 

This works quite a bit better if we really imagine the suffering and difficulties that we’re taking on, very vividly. Either as, like, a visual or a physical sensation or a sound. Many people visualize some kind of, like, black, gunk, like tar coming in or some kind of pollution, or whatever. And then on the out-breath the healing is usually like beautiful light or something lovely. So don’t do it in an abstract way as an idea, do it as a physical sensation or a visualization or something, so it’s more concrete—If you need to you can switch people. 

Now again, on that in-breath really make it kind of gross. You’re taking in the worst stuff in the world, the pain, the suffering, the illness, the difficulties. But because it’s infinite space taking it in, it’s no problem. It’s not sticking anywhere, it’s not building up inside. Really see that very, very clearly. And then on that out-breath it’s just this beautiful wave. However you picture a beautiful light or beautiful wave of love and kindness and caring and comfort and healing and joy, make that very vivid for yourself. 

And really see it helping them, see it healing them and bringing them joy and transforming. Don’t get lost in thought about the person or about their life. Just keep with this very simple practice. 

Notice if there’s any part of you that’s holding back or resisting or trying to keep a boundary there and completely let go of that—give it all over and be willing to take it all on.

Good. Now let’s switch to doing this for the whole world instead of just single individuals. Take in all the suffering of the whole world, all the pain of every being in the whole world, all the fear and anxiety and despair of every being in the whole world. Because we have infinite space, this boundless space, there’s more than enough room, with tremendous room left over. It doesn’t even make a dent. Breathe it all in as some kind of gunk. Really feel it coming in and then breathe out this beautiful wave of healing and love and light to the whole world—to every being in the whole world, every suffering child, every injured animal, every person in an impossible spot—the whole world. Take it all in and give out perfect relief, tremendous, loving relief. 

Stay with it, keep the visualization going. On the in-breath, taking in all the war, all the starvation, all the pollution, all the abuse, all the damage. Taking it all into this vast, loving space, removing every last bit from the entire universe. And breathing out perfect love, total kindness, caring, healing relief. It’s this wave of love and light, the whole universe. I’m touching every being, everywhere. Stay with it very clearly. 

Very good. Now you may have left out one being in the whole universe, you might have left out one, which was yourself. So now let’s do this same exercise for ourselves, taking in all our own pain, all our own suffering, all our own illness, all our own sadness, all our own troubles into this vast, infinite space where they just vanish. And breathing back to ourselves this loving, kind, healing, joyous energized light, pure compassion. 

Very good. Now you can let go of the Giving and Receiving and just come back to resting as basic space, simple, vast space of awareness. Awareness that is very awake, alive, bright, clear, boundless, timeless. And simply resting as that. We don’t need to do anything to generate that awareness, it’s already there as part of every moment of experience. So we simply rest as that. 

If you want to, if it feels good, you can notice the rising and falling of the breath within that awareness or simply stay with being awareness itself. But the activity here is total rest, doing nothing at all and yet being wide awake. 

Typically we do this part with our eyes open. You don’t have to. You have them open and maybe just kind of gazing at the floor in front of you, not really looking at anything. 

No matter how much thinking arises in this vast, boundless space, the space of awareness is not disturbed at all. It remains perfectly still. No matter how much emotional difficulty or physical pain arises in this space, awareness itself is not bothered or harmed in any way. This vast space of awareness is not something we create or generate, it’s already there from the very beginning. I would say we just have to notice it, except it’s what’s noticing. So we don’t even have to notice it. It’s always there, all along in every experience. 

What’s noticing right now? 

What’s noticing right now? 

Right now?

Very good. Let’s end the meditation there, feel free to, at long last, move and stretch.

Dharma Talk

So we did this practice called Giving and Receiving and it’s—(laughing at the flickering lights) are those blinking on or off or am I having a seizure? Yeah, okay—and it’s an unusual practice in that, you know, you’d think the practice would be, “well, let’s get rid of all the bad stuff inside us and breathe in love and light,” and all that. And that is, you know, a way that a lot of meditations go. And so you’ll notice that this turns that whole thing on its head. And it, if we’re imagining that we are, you know, in our limited minds, in our limited bodies then that visualization can be a little uncomfortable, right? “Oh, I don’t want to take in all this gunk.” And that’s why I mentioned several times that what makes it work is that we’re coming from a place of boundless space like an infinite sink, right? So much room that no matter how much you took in there would always still just be infinite room left over.

So, you know, it’s really important that we start out by really resting as infinite space and noticing that, or let’s say boundless space, endless room, right? Where there’s just room to take all that in and it doesn’t, there’s nothing for it to stick to, right? If, to use this language, we could say we first noticed the emptiness of self, right? And as long as we’re coming from a place of spaciousness, emptiness of self and so on, then there’s more than enough room for all that to come in and it’s just not a problem. And in the same way that vast,  boundless space has limitless resource, so there’s enough love, there’s enough compassion, there’s enough kindness, there’s enough caring to give without any holding back and there’s always infinite left over. 

So, we want to make sure when you start the practice and when you end the practice you come to a place of real spaciousness. Because otherwise it can feel really unusual. So we started there and ended there. Another thing is that, you know: why are we doing this? If we’re talking about it in the traditional way, it does actually, you know, help people, help beings, help the world and so on. But in a more mundane sense it totally breaks down that sense of egoic isolation, that sense of “I’ve got mine and I’m here in my little, you know, coffin in a body bag and I’m safe, you know, and everyone, I got my stuff, you know.” And instead it opens it up and breaks it down and we come more into, let’s say, unselfish, relational mode. And it’s really good at doing that. That’s a couple times I said, “notice if you’re holding back and don’t hold back,” right? Because that’s the mood. You want to just open wide

So maybe the most difficult part is just sticking with the, you know, concentration aspect of it, to keep the visualization going. If we’re doing it kind of full force or with, you know, kind of total engagement then we really are visualizing. Or if you’re not good at visual visualizing then somatic visualizing, like all this gunk coming in. And it can really be, like, repulsive. And so you’ll feel yourself kind of resisting it and it’s, like, it’s going to push you into that place of real spaciousness where it doesn’t matter how much of that comes in, it’s not disturbing. And in the same way, you know, the visualization of, let’s say light, or whatever, that felt like, that real joy and love and compassion and healing coming out, you know? That can take a lot of effort to do these, the visualization part. And so if you get tired you can always just come back to breathing as space for a while and then go back into it, okay? 

So that’s the practice called Giving and Receiving. Usually it’s referred to by a Tibetan name which is Tonglen which actually means ‘giving and receiving’ except reversed—‘receiving and giving’. And so you’ll hear it referred to as Tonglen. But interestingly it’s not original, even though it’s very widely used in Tibet it’s initially, just like most Vajrayana type practices, it’s originally from India. Probably the first person who wrote about it was Atisha, a famous teacher from India who did both Mahayana and Vajrayana stuff, so it’s quite an ancient practice. And, you know, millions of people have done this for at least a thousand years, so it has a long history of practice. And so we know that it works and we know it’s safe and we know that you can, you know, like dig into this in a deep way and really get the benefits out of it, okay? And so it’s something that if you’re used to, let’s say, metta practice this does something similar. It’s kind of, see half of it is sort of exactly metta practice and then the other half is this sort of boundary breaking thing. But you would use it in a similar way that you might use metta practice. So for some people that would be your whole practice and that’s a perfectly wonderful practice. For other people it’s something, let’s say you were on a retreat and you were doing eight or ten hours of meditation a day, that would just be one practice. 

But it’s good to keep it in there, it’s very powerful and also, like I say, it kind of keeps, in a funny way, the energy of it keeps welcoming you into your vast, spacious nature, right? And if we were talking in Buddhist language we would say it keeps welcoming you into your Buddha nature, right? Because it’s the Buddha nature that has that ability to heal the universe, that’s what it is. And that mood of, like, I’ve got that confident, infinite resource, that’s bodhichitta, right? That’s the mood of the enlightened mind or the awakened mind. The thing that is interesting is, that’s not something we create, that’s not something we generate, it’s not something we learn to build or somehow, like a flywheel that we just keep building the momentum on, or something like that. It’s totally not like that, it’s already here—it’s always been here. It’s just something that, after a while you notice more clearly in yourself, okay? So that’s what we’re doing with Giving and Receiving. Any questions or comments about that? Reports?

Q&A

Michael: Yes, what’s your name? 

Q: Laurel.

Michael: Laurel or Laura?

Q: Laurel. 

Michael: Laurel. What’s going on?

Q: I just want to make sure my brain, or I’m rocking around this. So it felt like I was in the soup and possibly channeling the soup but at no point was I the soup. I’m supposed to be the soup, or I’m going for the sense of being that open energy. I’m not so much channeling, I was really focused on channeling but that felt like the body bag you were talking about and was disturbing some of the time. 

Michael: If I’m going with your metaphor correctly, it’s you are the space? 

Q: Yeah. 

Michael: Yeah, just very boundless space. Stuff might be coming into that space but there’s so much room it doesn’t even affect it. And then love and kindness is coming out of that space. But again there’s so much there it’s not emptying anything out, so we’re being the space, okay? Did that answer your question? Yeah? 

What else? Was that terrible? Did you hate it? What kind of experiences did you have? This is a good moment for sharing. Yes?

Q: I found it very interesting when you said towards the end of the meditation to focus on yourself. That portion of the meditation felt very different, I felt my belly getting sticky because I was holding on to those, like the stories that, you know, defined me. Like I, yeah, oh I’m letting go of this pain, like, what am I?

Michael: So it’s going right towards the direct awakening thing, right? So you see how it’s not some kind of fluffy practice we do off the side to be nice, to pretend to be nice people, or something. It’s really getting in there, right at the core of our own neurotic fixation. 

Q: The more that I relaxed and softened, that it shifted into more open space. But one thing that I get hung up on in the meditation is the language that’s used. 

Michael: English. You’re hung up on English? 

Q: Your English. Like, “you notice the one who…” how did you say that?

Michael: I said, “Be the one who’s noticing.”

Q: Can you say that in a different way?

Michael: First of all, what’s wrong with saying it that way? 

Q: Nothing happens. There’s no movement, no openness.

Michael: And how do you know nothing happens? What’s the thing that—what knows that?

Q: It feels more like a thinking than a being.

Michael: Okay, so right now—what knows that? Look. I don’t want you to know, I want you to notice. 

Q: I don’t feel like I can notice.

Michael: Okay, how do you know that you feel that way? Something’s noticing it. This actually isn’t hard. Just do exactly what I’m asking. What you’re doing incorrectly is you’re searching your mind trying to find an answer or a memory or an idea about it and instead can you—are you having an experience right now, yes or no? Are you having an experience?

Q: Yeah. 

Michael: Yeah, okay. What’s having that experience?

Q: This experience or that one in the past? 

Michael: Whatever’s happening right now.

Q: I’m noticing what you’re saying to me. 

Michael: What’s noticing?

Q: [inaudible]

Michael: Yeah so just keep pointing at that. It’s not a brain, it’s not a body, it’s not a spot in space, it’s just this thing that’s aware. Or, and ‘thing’ isn’t even… there’s the word that I would get hung up on. It’s not even a thing, it’s just aware. We could say, to put it another way, you know, what’s experiencing right now?

Second Questioner: I think if I may, make a rephrasing. 

Michael: Oh, you’re going to rephrase it? What’s your name?

Q: I’m Sam. 

Michael: You’re going to teach today? Okay great, tell her. No please do, I’d love you to, go ahead.

Q: The rephrasing, I think I heard this from Sam Harris, is to turn attention on itself. Like, notice how you’re paying attention and then, like, in sort of an instant for like, when he says to notice what he’s experiencing, try to turn attention on to what’s giving attention.

Michael: Thank you for sharing that, however. Good. What else? We can open it up to any other questions about anything about meditation.

Hi, Tatiana. Just talk loud. 

Q: Yeah, I feel like we’re having this, like, Buddhist discourse. 

Michael: We don’t have to, we can just have meditation discourse. 

Q: Yeah for me what we just talked about, it’s kind of like dropping the attention all together.

Michael: Can you actually do that? Or are you contrasting attention and awareness?

Q: Well I guess you need to define what attention is. But it’s like I guess your attention becomes so broad it’s no longer attention in [inaudible] sense.

Michael: Yeah, if we imagine that attention has to be like a focused part of awareness then we’re moving attention further and further towards zero until it becomes—so it’s either total attention or total inattention but the awareness part is fully there. That’s right.

Q: [inaudible]

Michael: Right, I’m having trouble hearing you. So I think I got that though, you said there’s nothing that’s not in focus, right? Very good. 

But the point is that we tend to conceptualize ourselves, we make ourselves into a conceptual object. So I’m always thinking, like—oh, I’m a brain in a body and the brain is doing this stuff and there’s some eyes there and so the sight’s coming in the eyes, the brain must be picking up on that. And then that’s my experience. But notice that’s a bunch of ideas. I’m not saying it’s not true but that doesn’t matter, none of that is your experience, that’s some shit you learned in school. 

Your experience is that, there’s just experience. That was happening before you knew anything about brains or eyes or bodies or anything. The lights are just on. There’s an experience. And so you don’t need to know any of that other stuff for experience to directly notice itself. In fact, you got to throw all that away for a second. 

And even though the way you were describing Sam Harris described saying it is true—turn attention back on itself. And that’s a very common and very good way of talking about it. Even that, what happens is you start having a mental idea of turning around somehow. And you’ll get into this weird thing in your head of trying to turn around. And so that becomes problematic in a different way. 

Experience is just awake. It already is having the experience of itself very, very directly, without any effort. 

Close your eyes, everybody close their eyes. Now what we’re going to do is in a minute I’m going to say “open your eyes” and I want you to open your eyes and notice what you see, okay? 

Ready—open your eyes. Here’s my question: did you do anything when you opened your eyes, to see? Did you do anything? Did you have to somehow figure out how to see right then or was the experience just suddenly present, okay? And that’s just one part of it. 

But that’s what all experience is like, you’re not doing anything at all, it’s just present. And when you let go of the concepts about it, like—oh, it’s in a brain and the brain is, you know, inside this box of bone and then there’s skin stretched over it and then there’s some hair in there. It’s like, all of that is just added layers of ideas. And without, if you just drop those ideas, the experience feels boundless. And I don’t mean like—oh, I can see what’s happening under a certain rock on the far side of mars, or something. Just saying it feels boundless. It’s a very specific flavor when you’re letting go of all those concepts. You don’t have to get rid of them, I’m not saying, like, unlearn anything. I’m just saying notice your experience directly and it’s very different than the kind of conceptual cocoon we’re wrapping everything up in all the time.

We were looking at this, like, sacred verse from a thousand years ago the other day and the image of that it gave was, like you’re wrapped up in concepts, like a bug wrapped in or encased in its own spit. And I was like, okay, this is one of those metaphors that doesn’t really translate that well. So we’ve been looking for a better metaphor but the only one I can think of is, and this is probably a worse metaphor, but it’s like, just imagine being, you know, covered in mattresses. You know, like all just a pile. There’s a lot between you and it. And all of it is—that’s why the bug is in its own spit—you’re making those mattresses. And you can just kind of effortlessly let go of it and suddenly it’s just breathing the free air directly. It’s very, very, very straightforward and talking about it just makes it more and more convoluted. 

So just for a minute I want you to just drop it and notice that you’re experiencing. So experience experiencing, right now—do it.

Okay, maybe now the brain snaps back and it starts thinking about it. So do it again—just drop. 

Once you get used to it, it’s the easiest thing in the world, yeah? It’s the most obvious thing in the world because it is experience itself. Nothing’s more obvious than experience itself. 

Other comments or questions? Yes, what’s your name again?

Q: Jason. Yeah, I have extreme leg pain. 

Michael: So next time sit in a chair.

Q: Oh, okay.

Michael: No one requires you to sit on a mattress on a cushion. Just sit in the chair, that solves the whole problem. Does that make sense? 

Q: Yes. 

Michael: You feel okay about that? Okay. Otherwise, you know, practice sitting on a cushion at home until you can sit for an hour. It’s just a matter of getting used to it and I don’t mean getting used to extreme pain. I mean eventually your body adjusts and you learn how to sit. But if you’re not spending a lot of time sitting like this but you’re spending a lot of time in a chair, just sit in the chair. This does not magically give you more awareness, right? Does that help? 

Q: Yes. 

Michael: Good. Yes, what’s your name?

Q: Ethan. Thank you. Doing practicing online—in this sort of vast, open state of awareness, was really helpful to, kind of. I noticed that it was easier to be equanimous about both phases of the practice.

Michael: That’s exactly what that’s supposed to do, yeah. Right, it’s the—my famous—I have some famous metaphors that, you know, I patented and, you know, to use them you have to pay me a fee. And one of them is, it’s like the jar of hornets, okay? That’s, you’ll see that everywhere, the jar of hornets. So if you have, like, 20 hornets in a jar and you shake it up, you don’t want to put your hand in that jar, right? But if you, let’s say open the jar, you know safely somehow, and it’s in a massive field, hundreds of miles on the side. Now those same 20 hornets, same thing exactly, 20 angry hornets aren’t a problem anymore. Because there’s just so much room, right? There’s just so much room. And then imagine it’s not just 100 miles on the side, it’s a billion miles on the side. Are the hornets really a problem? Not really, right? So that’s the idea.

Yes, Allison? 

Q: This was a really good day for me to be doing Tonglen. Sometimes when I start trying to picture a person there’s like a frenetic identification process of, like, who’s going to be the person? That no one springs to mind, and that was not a problem today. 

Michael: Yes, I noticed by your makeup. 

Q: Yeah, I was totally, “Should I put on mascara the first day I came back here?” Which was, in retrospect, I noticed in the first five minutes of the sit, an error in judgment. At least you know I was really present. 

I had an interesting thing to happen towards the end, after we did the piece of sending and taking with ourselves and went back into the awareness mode, I noticed this thought pattern that I know very well and I’m often very reactive to, in myself. But I just noticed it in this very gentle way and I was like, “Hh yes, there it is, doing that thing again.” And I don’t always have that gentle reaction to it. So it was just interesting to kind of have that experience right after doing that practice, and noticing how much more compassion and space I had to offer myself right afterwards. 

Michael: Absolutely right. More compassion, more space to offer yourself, that’s the idea. If your, you know, heart is kind of closed off and you’re sort of armored up, this breaks open the armor. If, on the other hand, you’re kind of too naked, you know, and too sensitive and too open, it gives you a lot more sense of resource with that. You know, where it’s like, you don’t, you feel like you’re not quite so on the edge of, you know, being overwhelmed, or whatever. So that’s the idea, okay? Kati, you’re on.

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