Charlie Awbery and Jared Janes, January 10th 2021, online at The Stoa
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Transcribed by Tanner Holman
Jared: Welcome everybody. Thanks for joining us. I’m sure that most of you know that this is the fourth session that we’ve hosted as part of our Evolving Ground community and project. I am your facilitator today. I wanted to quickly thank Peter for giving me the keys to the kingdom, in some sense. In both of our past [sessions] we gave more expanded self-intros but for those of you who don’t know me, my name’s Jared Janes. I’ve been in the meta/intellectual/Stoa atmosphere for quite a few years, but then went pretty deep down the meditation rabbit hole. So that’s where my focus has been past couple years – or predominantly, my focus has been there for the past couple of years – specifically, moving more into Vajrayana practice. So that’s largely what we’re going to be covering here.
I don’t know if there’s anything else that’s super relevant for me at this moment, but I think I’ve given different intros every time so if you went back to those you’d probably see different aspects of who I thought I was at the time. But, yeah.
Charlie: Thanks, Jared. Another short intro from me as well. I’m a Vajrayana practitioner. I’m Charlie Awbery. I’m interested in what Vajrayana has to offer that’s distinct from other practices and traditions that we’ve inherited here – Eastern, and Western ones as well.
I do think that Vajrayana does have distinct value. In particular, I think it’s a life affirming, worldly-oriented practice. At least, in Evolving Ground we’re emphasizing that worldview. Vajrayana combines a variety of perspectives and stances and attitudes and many of those I think can be very individually supportive and helpful. Also socially, which is somewhat connected to our topic today.
A little about Evolving Ground… We’re establishing a community of practice there. That is, a community of contemporary Vajrayana practice. So these sessions at The Stoa, they’re in some sense laying out the foundations of the particular approach we’re taking to learning and to practice and to community. I think that’s all I want to say as an introduction.
Jared: Talking a bit about the community… So the first Stoa session that we hosted was the thing that decided for us that this was something that we should try and do. That was like four months, six months [ago]..? I don’t know – somewhere around there. So right after that session, we set up a way for people to fill out a form and join a Slack server and get to know or to compare their contemplative experience to what we’re talking about, (Vajrayana), from a historical perspective. And we’re quite practice oriented, so very experiential – “what’s happening in your experience,” and some philosophizing. We’ve got a lot of big brains in our Slack as well – so we’re not afraid of using them from time to time.
Shortly after we launched, we created a few different levels of engagement. So anybody can join that fills out the form, but we’ve had a few people that opted for more personalized engagement so we have a group of pupils who are working hard to really deliberately understand Vajrayana – going through books, approaching certain topics like the one we’re covering today in smaller groups, and talking a lot about individual practice and getting feedback in a relational way. And then we have a smaller group of apprentices who we’re also working with one on one.
[5:11] Right now we’re managing all that on our Patreon page which will eventually be replaced by a website but is kind of the minimal viable launch product. So evolvingground.org is our home base and right now it points to that Patreon. You can see some of the different roles of involvements and things like that. We’ve actually just opened up a few more slots for a new cohort of pupils and apprentices now that we’ve established community norms and have some idea of what newcomers would expect – both from our expectations and their expectations and everything like that. So we’re starting to establish some of the ground of Evolving Ground (laughter).
Charlie: We’re evolving the ground a little. There’s a big emphasis on peer support there as well. There are peer groups that meet up and there are opportunities for people to meet up to practice together or to talk together or to talk about practice together, go meta… So that’s working very well, we’re very happy with how that’s going.
Jared: So yeah, today. I guess just a quick outline on what the agenda is… Charlie is going to give a bit of a presentation on our topic, which is confidence. And then the two of us might riff on some themes a bit – related themes and how it might relate into day to day experience; some things like that. Then, we’ll open up for some questions. That being said, if questions do come up as we’re going through please do type them in the chat. Todd is going to help us keep an eye on things. And I know I’ve seen in other Stoa sessions a “+1” on any of the questions that seem very relevant for you too, is a good way for us to see which of the topics have the most gravity. So, that’s always appreciated. Any questions about format before we launch into things? Cool. All right, Charlie.
Charlie: Yeah, confidence. Confidence. So I’m going to riff on how I perceive confidence in this particular setting – the setting of practice.
It’s a big topic and we’ve only got a little time today. We are thinking that eventually each of these topics that are really specifically meaningful in terms of practice and in terms of society and in terms of relation could turn into a whole weekend. So that’s just to give you a flavor of how much there is here that we’re not going to see.
Confidence has many meanings. So today I wanted to look at a very specific, very particular sort of confidence—an experiential, felt sense.
I think it’s important to talk about this now, actually, at this point in time. It seems like en mass, culturally, we’ve lost confidence. There’s a sense of groundlessness. There’s a sense of not knowing. And there’s a lot of fear, there’s a great deal of fear. And when this happens, you tend to see extremes. You see polarization into anxiety at one end; you see people LARPing certainty and confidence at the other end of the extreme – but I think the fear is obvious.
You can see the fear, you can taste the fear. It’s pervasive. I think it’s pervasive at this moment in our culture. For good reason, you could say. There are many real threats; they’re all coming together. And this fear is a lack of basic confidence in the face of dealing with all of this crap that is being thrown at us at the moment – unexpectedly, somewhat.
LARPing is an interesting thing… Sometimes I think you can LARP a thing to get closer to it, but not in this instance. That doesn’t work here. LARPing certainty doesn’t bring you to this kind of confidence that I’m talking about: [the confidence] that I want to invoke.
[10:12] A few sessions ago, (a few Stoas ago), Jared and I were talking about the move from Sutric practice to Buddhist Tantric practice, and the differences between the two there. Interestingly, when you approach Tantric methods you’re probably going to have some kind of LARPing of the method before you find the thing itself. That’s very characteristic of Tantric practice because the method doesn’t click as given. You take a while to move around the form of the practice to get to understand what it is. And hopefully you have some help with that as well. That’s because in Tantric practice you’re always moving towards form. In Sutric practice that is not the case. What we’re requiring socially and culturally is quite Sutric in some senses. And it can be terrifying. Sutric practice can be like that. The renunciative flavor of Sutric practice is quite challenging. It can be really terrifying.
The situation that we have here is more Sutric because what’s required is that you drop your strategies for dealing – you just drop them. In Buddhist terms, it’s much more about emptiness, finding emptiness experientially – this confidence that we’re looking to find.
So there are different sorts of confidence - there are different kinds, but there’s this very particular sort of confidence. It’s a type that I’m going to talk about today.
It’s something that we’ve lost individually. We’ve lost it culturally. I think we’ve lost it because we’ve forgotten. We’ve forgotten how to be fundamentally okay with uncertainty, with not knowing. We’ve forgotten about death always dancing in our faces, because we’ve been in a little bit of a cozy cave for a while.
This confidence… It’s the experiential knowledge; the basic experience of being fundamentally okay with the threat of insubstantiality, groundlessness, precarity, uncertainty. You’re experientially understanding that as the basic condition for life that is there, that uncertainty is always there, and you’re fundamentally okay with it. That’s confidence.
This isn’t to say it’s impossible to have control; to take control of circumstances. Of course, there’s usually some possibility of that.
What it’s about is being at first okay with the impossibility of complete control—the nebulosity of experience. If the only approach is fear-based, if you’re trying to get things to change and to work and to keep control of the world, and it’s coming from the terror that you’re losing grip… then that confidence is going to be elusive.
So I think this is really pertinent now where we find ourselves. It’s time to come out of hiding. It’s time to face this groundlessness; not look away from it. I mean after all it was always there. We don’t have any choice about this. Actually, we have to do this now. It’s imperative. We need to find this kind of confidence, the sort of confidence that keeps you sane when everything else is chaotic and changing and unpredictable. You know, that almost sounds like a bit of a cliché but it is a thing and we’ve forgotten how to do that.
When you think about it, it’s a little odd that we’ve forgotten how to be confident in this way because that’s who we are. We’re adapted to survive in the face of limited information and intuitive sensing of unpredictable environments. You know, we’re very good at that. That is who we are. We’re impermanent, we’re always changing, we’re moving, we’re unpredictable beings. We know that! We know that already. I mean, why would we imagine that there’s certainty, that we can have complete control over our lives and over what’s happening? Of course we can’t. There’s always ambiguity. Random shit happens. That’s what makes alive: this ability to adapt creatively to all the random shit that life throws our way.
[15:10] It can be a little painful, of course. That’s why we like to hide away from all that variety, try to gain it, try to keep on top of it all. But to move away from that compulsion-to-hide, we actually need to find this particular confidence that we’re talking about. That’s the base. You find it, then you nurture it. You can’t develop it, you can’t fake it, you can’t LARP it. Remember, it’s an experience that you’re finding. It’s not a cognitive kind of knowing. (I think the cognitive reinforcement comes later.) First, it’s about finding.
So, meditation is a method – or it’s one method – for finding this felt sense individually. It might not be the only way. I think there are probably other ways, many other ways. But the openness and connectedness that arises from this particular meditation practice, from opening awareness leading into spacious presence, this kind of meditation that were training in Evolving Ground… That’s a very good direct way to find this confidence that we’re talking about.
We’ve talked a lot about how to do that already. That’s really the first part of the training that we’re engaging in.
So, when you meditate in this way you become… There’s a sense in which you become close to yourself. Not distanced. You’re not dissociating from the basic experience of being. There’s an intimacy; you’re becoming intimate with yourself.
And just as an aside, if there are any enlightened arhats in the room, just forget about no-self. It’s actually not going to be very helpful in this situation. There’s work to be done. So long as you’re a living, breathing being – you’re a self. You’re moving in relation with other selves and your environment. This isn’t a problem. You’re continually self-ing. There’s no need to escape from yourself. You can’t anyway. Forget that illusion. It’s just an illusion. Unless you want to become some kind of unsensing and unfeeling, detached zombie-person. But anyway, that’s not what we’re talking about here.
In this case, this isn’t dissociation. There’s an immense intimacy here. Here, you’re so intimate with your sense fields you have no trouble understanding the limits of your experience as a sensing being. That’s who we are. You’re not in cloud cuckoo land. You’re right here. Quite alive. You’re quite alive in your presence. You’ve differentiated and related both of those by the sensation of being in the world, and that is okay. That’s okay.
So meditation familiarizes you with the experience of groundlessness – with that nebulosity and that ambiguity – through the process of loosening the reliance on referentiality, particularly conceptual referentiality. And by that I mean referentiality in the form of thought processes, internal narratives, ideation, wish fulfilment, self and relationship stories – all that kind of thing.
This familiarity with being able to rest without referentiality, without the gravitational pull into that kind of narrow filtering of experience – that gives rise to a kind of relief. It’s a relief from all that. It’s an expansive experience of loosening up of the stories about how things are.
And then, in that space you can very clearly see the anxiety. You see the anxiety and the fear that gives rise to all of that. It’s quite simple. It’s quite simple. You see that fear and you see all the convolutions that come about from it and you’re okay with that. Once you see that mechanism at work you’re much less driven by it. You can rest there. You can rest with that awareness and it’s okay. And that’s where you discover that felt sense. That experiential confidence is the knowledge that comes from intimacy with your own experience. You’re fundamentally okay with how you are. You’re basically okay with your experience of being in the world. You can handle it. You know you can handle it because you’re here right now doing just that.
[20:22] So, being fundamentally okay about uncertainty, about nebulosity, about constant change, all of that… That is to experience confidence. And that is because it’s the basic nature of who you are. This connection is at the felt level. It’s very important because you’re connecting with that precarity. And with that vulnerability you’re discovering your natural condition as a felt sense – that’s where the okayness comes from. There’s nowhere else to go. You’re right here.
You discover it as an expansive, very fresh place to be. And it could be quite unexpected – it’s expansive and fresh because you just kind of popped out of your cave of referentiality and you discovered it was okay to relax. You open the door a bit.
Discovering this confidence, finding that you’re basically okay with your natural condition… Finding what that is like… That could be the most important thing in your life.
I think I’d like to talk a little bit about how that could easily become mistaken or become misinterpreted. So this isn’t a project. When your self is a project there’s always somewhere else to go. There’s always something else to do. And now there’s nowhere else to go, there’s nothing else to do. That could be a terrifying prospect, but it could also be a relief: just to sit. Even for a few minutes, to begin with. Also, I think when “your no-self” or “your enlightenment” or whatever it is, when that is a project, there’s this idea that you’re actually wanting to get away in some sense. To be honest, if you’re after enlightenment you’re after some kind of certainty; in a way you’re looking for something else. So you can drop that idea. You can just drop that. This isn’t a project.
So it’s not a project… What is it? It’s a relationship. I think it’s a relationship. You’re getting to know yourself as you are. And like with any relationship you may be kind of shy at first. Maybe there’s some vulnerability there, maybe a bit like you’re making a new friend.
Another way this can be mistaken is that there’s no “therefore.” There’s no “therefore” in this experience, this particular experience of confidence. It’s not a justification in anything. It can’t justify anything. There’s no justification to be had.
It’s not a cognitive justification – “Oh, I’m okay so I can eat the pie” or “I’m okay so I can ignore that person” or “I’m okay, fundamentally okay, so I can do what I want.” “I’m okay so my behavior must therefore be okay.” It’s nothing like that. That’s not what we’re talking about here. There’s no “therefore,” there’s no follow on – no fixed follow on; no predictable follow on.
This experience of confidence, it’s much more about knowing who you are. It doesn’t make everything okay in the world [or] in your circumstances. It’s not some kind of Pollyanna-ish naïve belief that everything is going to be okay. Of course it won’t. I mean everything isn’t going to be okay. You’re going to die anyway. You’re okay with that. That’s the starting point. That’s the base. That’s where were at. That’s how things are now. Everything is not okay and you have the personal knowledge; you have the fundamental experience of being okay with that. And you can step up to it. You understand that the world is on the verge of some kind of crisis in multiple domains, we can see this, and you’re not panicking. It’s this opportunity to find the creative energy and the basic sanity to deal with this situation.
[25:08] And you know, I think that’s maybe another topic for another day – how there’s this very natural unfolding from this confidence which ends up with very powerful, very directed creative activity. Now that’s Tantric practice. That’s Vajrayana method. But we’re not there yet, we’re not talking about that today. That does come very naturally after this phase, after this experience.
So another thing that can be misunderstood about this is there’s no “what if I’m fundamentally a bad person?” A lot of people… So many people have this sense of helplessness or worthlessness that’s somehow pervasive these days. I really feel that – the sense that a lot of people have a felt sense of just not being up to it, not being good enough, not being worthy in some sense. This is a real problem in the aggregate. It’s an obstacle to getting stuff done. It’s a real obstacle to having a robust, functioning society. This actually matters, it matters a lot. A lot of people have said to me, “I feel worthless, how can I be fundamentally okay with myself when I actually just don’t feel that way?” I’ve heard that so many times. So look. Just as there is no justification, there’s also no judgement. You just experience who you are. Maybe for the first time since you were a baby there’s no cognitive interference. That’s where this meditation can lead, or other forms of just dealing; just resting. It could feel like you’re a baby at first – very open, very vulnerable, without the protection or referentiality. That’s why there’s this tenderness. There’s a tenderness there… There’s a friendliness. You’re seeing yourself, you’re seeing yourself very fresh. Just like a baby. You know, babies aren’t morally good or bad. That’s just the natural condition; and we don’t agree or disagree with nature. That doesn’t make any sense at all, it’s just as it is.
But so often it comes up. People say to me and Jared, when we’re chatting, “How can I trust that I’m not going to go wrong or that it’s not all going to collapse or that I’m going to be okay or that I’m going to do okay for others around me?”
These are real fears. They’re not going to disappear overnight. There’s no guarantee that things aren’t going to go wrong either, but this experience that I’m talking about… It’s not about behavior and activity yet. It’s always impossible to have all the information – that’s just how it’s going to be. That’s the condition of being sentient. We can only ever have some of the information, you know? There’s always going to be unpredictable circumstances. We don’t know if we’re going to make the right decision. But we’re coming from a base of just being okay with that.
Anyway, today, mostly I just wanted to introduce that possibility. That’s the way that opening awareness can begin to take effect in meditation. And then in your life and in your general experience: that’s the ground. It’s establishing the base. That’s what we’re doing.
There’s a very natural set of experiences which grow from that ground – from this confidence. It leads to trust. There’s a kind of trust, a grounded being. Trust very naturally begins to grow from that, because you can begin to develop trust once you’re confident in that place. Once you have that, you begin to trust your capacity; you trust your capacity to navigate tumultuous precarity. Eventually, you trust your capacity to do that with some skill and possibly even with some panache. All of those grow together.
[30:05] And then the fruit of this practice – I think I mentioned this earlier – as it all starts to manifest in your life and in your activity, then the fruit is powerful energetic creativity. Creative action; at a social level as well. Very functional relationship, small group relationship, and then socially being functional; confident in that arena. So once you develop basic confidence – or find it, I should say, not develop exactly… Once you find it, you nurture it, and get more familiar with that then there’s a lot you can do. There’s a lot you can do but the base has to be there first: the familiarity with this spacious, wide, open, undefined nature of being and the sense that we’re fundamentally okay with that.
That’s probably mostly what I want to say about confidence.
Jared: Yeah. Something that was coming up for me, Charlie, as I was trying to… So, this confidence we’re talking about, another phrase that I put in there that I like with what we’re describing is “finding security in insecurity.” And in the Buddhist context we’re talking about becoming experientially okay with emptiness.
And we talked about Sutra as well. Technically, Sutra is very interested in doing the same thing in the sense of discovering emptiness. And yet, its approach can lead to a little bit more of a rigid discovery of that or a conditional discovery of that. The obvious example is that a lot of Sutric practice is done in monasteries where things are safe and you don’t have to worry about any kind of insecurities or things like that. And as you were speaking before, the culture seems to be coming out of a moment of being like, “Yeah, for a long time we felt like everything – all of our basic needs – were met. We can rely on our institution to take care of us…” and things like that. So this feels very present right now for me as a cultural moment. Similarly, finding emptiness in the midst of insecurity and messiness is markedly different. Charlie: Yeah, I think so. You know we’ve talked a lot about atomized society and about “how do we deal with this very, very different situation that we have?”
A lot of it is about navigation rather than reliance, you know? I think in that very systematized society that we were relying on – that actually just doesn’t exist anymore. We’ve discovered shockingly quickly that our institutions actually don’t function anymore. So we had this kind of reliance on a sort of solid, systematized understanding of how things are and an expectation that that’s how they are, and I think we have to move beyond that in some sense to deal with it. There’s much more of a sense of navigation; some sense of reconstruction maybe, out of the debris. We’re going to have be doing a lot of that. And maybe it’s a lot more about building temporary structures that are good enough and moving between both individual levels and social levels; figuring out how to do that.
Jared: And I do think the fundamental okayness we’re talking about is indeed part of the equation. And like you’ve mentioned before, sometimes that can sound – the “therefore” move – like seeing this as some sort of rationalization or justification for inaction or something like that.
But really, from my perspective, I look at in the sense of combat sports. Like, if somebody has a stance that is open and receptive and not from a place of fear and ready to include anything that’s going to be thrown at them… Their capacity to act congruently is going to be markedly more available. And yet, never guaranteed. That’s the kicker [laughs], right?
[35:02] Charlie: Right, right.
Jared: So, yeah. While this does sound, in some sense, it can sound passive – it’s the passivity or openness that is required for effective action.
Charlie: It’s the base, yeah. I think so. It’s the base for effective action.
There’s a sense in which, (because of the situation that we’re in now culturally/globally) there’s inevitably going to be a sense of meta-systematicity, as well as a sense of being able to have some kind of overview and then dive in and understand the functionality, understand the principle of how things work, how things have stopped working, and be able to find how that can be reshaped in some way.
I think we start practicing this at an individual level as well – in relationships and in our practice – then that is providing that sort of perspective that is going to be necessary.
Jared: Did you want to – the only other thing I was thinking is, do we want to talk a bit about the specifics of the method that we’re talking about as establishing this foundation? I know we’ve covered it before in some of our past sessions as well. The practice of shi-ne is the primary sitting practice that we’re talking about (or “opening meditation,” another synonymous term that we’re using.) Did you want to go more into that? Or, I know we have had a few questions that have popped up that we can jump on as well.
Charlie: Yeah, I think we’ve got quite a lot about shi-ne and about opening awareness in resources available so if anybody is wanting to take a look that personally… Head over to the website or contact us and we’ll make sure that you’ve got what you need for that.
Jared: Todd, anything? Did you want to help us do some filtering?
Todd: There’s been a lot of good discussion in the chat. Not a ton of questions. The one I’ve got marked out here is – there are two that have come up – there’s one question initially around – [loses connection temporarily]
– talking about in terms of renunciative worldview… And I think we’ve covered that in other discussions and maybe you could say a few words about that just to clarify, that might help.
Jared: You cut out a bit… But clarification was on the renunciative worldview, is that what it was?
Jared: Oh, “renunciative for beginners.” Yeah, I put in a note here. No problem.
The most common connotation, like Western connotation would kind of like abstinence. Abstaining from engaging with certain aspects of life, whether that’s sex or meat or relationship or any of the above. In the frame of Buddhism, largely the things that are renounced are the form aspects of experience or the activity aspects of experience, or sensation. As we were talking about before, if there are any arhats they genuinely are disconnected in some fundamental way from emotions and the body and being an individual in the world.
[39:51]] Charlie: Renunciation is one of the principles you can work with. There are many different methods, many methods… And for a method to function it has a principle by which it works – a mechanism, and a result or outcome or intended desired effect. That is, the principle with which you are working leads to an effect. So one of the principles you can work with is renunciation. And in the whole field of Buddhism that renunciation – that principle – is associated with a Sutric style of Buddhism.
The path of Sutra is very broad, because you can divvy that up again into different paths, different methods, and different styles of renunciation. But a lot of what people encounter when they first encounter meditation practice or Buddhism in some form or another – secularized Buddhism, mindfulness, whatever – a lot of that is coming from a heritage of renunciative practices.
Historically, those would’ve been socially evolving around monastic principles. You would have a lot of monasteries where that would be the place where practitioners – monks and nuns – would go to practice renunciation. So in some sense, it’s a renunciation of society in that context.
In an individual context as a practice often it’s a – well, it depends. It depends whether you take it as a life practice in which case, like Jared was saying there’s renunciation of – you know, it’s a minimalization. It’s getting things “purer” and less interfering so you can just kind of clear your mind, eventually.
There are lots of different types of renunciation; different styles of renunciative practice. But how this relates to the confidence issue is that it’s almost like “turning renunciation on its head,” turning the principle on its head a little bit, because what you’re renouncing is your very strong desire to just go straight towards the safety thing. To just go immediately towards the familiarity of that kind of “cave of safety.” And one way of doing that is to just pretend that what’s happening isn’t happening. “I’m just going to carry on completely normally…” “I’m just going to do my little thing, as is.” “I won’t engage…” You know? And the walls are just going to come closer and closer. This idea that we’re renouncing… In a sense, we’re renouncing that assumption that everything’s going to be provided and sorted and okay. Jared: Thinking about on the cushion… Like, what does this mean experientially? And one of the big things – so, I practiced a more Sutric form of meditation with the same Sanskrit name. So, shi-ne is just Tibetan for samatha, and most of the samatha methods we encounter predominantly are based in some Sutric method and view. And in the Sutric presentation we rely a lot on “concentration.” “Concentration” means that you’re immediately creating a separation in your experience to say, “this is the part of experience that is okay for me to engage with and to include and everything else needs to be excluded in some way.”
You can’t do that heavy handedly – obviously it takes a bit of tact, but the result of that type of practice is that a lot of things that are commonly available in your experience like the sense of your emotions or your body or maybe your surroundings and things like that become less and less present and kind of downregulated. And that can become habitual to the point where you become more and more focused on this part of your experience that is okay. And it’s kind of a place to find refuge.
[44:50] In shi-ne, there is no such distinction, there’s no such thing as a distraction; it’s including everything in your experience. It’s not… It’s what we call remaining uninvolved with what is coming up in your experience. That remaining uninvolved is different in the sense that there is always the possibility for engagement. It’s not becoming less clear and more pushed away, it’s becoming actually more vivid. And yet, we learn what it’s like to not have to conceptualize and reify a certain perspective on our experience or something like that, and [instead] just allow everything to be. This is very much connected to the life-affirming aspect of this practice as a base and how it differs from renunciative view.
I think, Evan, you had a question about scaffold… It was, confidence cannot be scaffolded or…? I don’t remember what the exact message was…
Evan: Yeah. A lot of water has gone under the bridge so other things have come up, but perhaps I should just stay with that; when that question arose. Charlie, at least as I received it here you seem to imply… So I suppose I’m confused, I’m seeking clarification. You seem to imply that confidence couldn’t be “done” somehow. I forget. It’s a long way in the rearview mirror – how you described it – but there was something you said that brought that question for me. So I can stay with that. In the interest of clarity, there are a couple of other things that came up. What’s your preference?
Charlie: Let’s stay with that and then move onto other things after. I would love to hear you say more about how confidence could be done.
Evan: Part of the answer is, I don’t know; that’s why I’m here. But by way of trying to answer – you’re drawing me out…
I would say that given the circumstances we’re in, from the perspective of some, a lot of shitty stuff is happening. But from the perspective of others, quite possibly there’s great stuff that’s happening. And so I’ve come to – and I don’t believe it’s a mere rationalization of things, I do feel it reaches into a deeper level, but the four years of this current presidency – which many of us hope will come to a peaceful end – has been this huge spotlight on opportunity.
For example, from the perspective of this candy wrapper that happens to be darker skinned it’s like, oh, under the previous administration we thought we had reached a so-called post-racial society and we see that no, not under this current administration. There are perennial issues that ebb and flow, on and on. So it’s… I don’t know if that bleeds onto the terrain of competence but having that perspective has allowed me to say in terms of this basic, individual point of view – what’s the opportunity to deepen my practice? Because it is an opportunity because we thought it [society] was over here but now it’s right here.
Evan: So I go through the cycle of forgetting “oh, it’s an opportunity” then remembering. I go in and out of more constructively working with the groundless ground that this current situation is the opportunity for. So I don’t know if that really answers your question but I do think it does point toward something, at least from my point of view. This point of view that, being like a hunter gatherer: “what can I use here?” And since the title of this talk is [or] the theme is confidence… Okay, what can I use to “scaffold” my confidence?”
[49:55] Evan: Or the alchemical metaphor is, what is the dross or the lead that can be transformed into gold? Or can it? You know, is it a doing or an undoing? Is it a letting go?
Charlie: So first I think it’s an undoing. First, it’s a letting go. Then that gives rise to the doing. These things are always… They’re always inseparable in some sense but the base that you find is the “not doing.” The confidence is… So in Buddhist terms we’re talking about confidence as emptiness, the experience of emptiness. So in your practice, in your sitting, in your relationship, whatever – the spaciousness is where the confidence is found, in the spacious aspect of experience. And that is the “not doing.”
Then that very naturally gives rise to congruent, effective [action]. There’s much more space to see there. So the doing is the scaffolding. The confidence is the base, the foundation. The activity is the capacity to interject, to interrelate, to find appropriate activity.
Evan: Sorry, could you repeat that phrase again?
Charlie: The doing itself grows out of the confidence, which is your base. The doing is the capacity to find congruent interjection, scaffolding, building, making stuff happen, whatever… That is the path; the method. But first of all, to have an effective practice, to have an effective activity (because Buddhist Tantra is effective action, basically, that’s the method) the base for that is confidence and finding this confidence. You know, I think there are other sorts of confidence that you can sort of “work at” and develop in some way but this one is much more… It’s finding. It’s finding because that thing is actually already there, in some sense.
Jared: The big difference for me too is that finding is great because, like we said, if you can discover spaciousness in your experience the interesting thing about spaciousness is that it’s always the same, right? And it’s always reliably in experience to be found.
Whereas, if we do have that base or we’re not secure in that space then when we’re working with creating something or discovering something or learning about something – philosophy or something like that – then a lot of that process is looking to find security from it. And that means that you’re wanting to make it rigid and solid and everlasting. And as we know, everything’s temporary. So it calcifies [the process] in the sense that it can no longer be a living, creative expression, and when it does fall apart we then have lost our security, or something like that.
But as were building things there can be this sense of confidence that you get from seeing results; getting more fluency and skillfulness with how we do that. And yet if we’re looking for it to be permanent; a permanent place of security, then we’re acting from fear.
Charlie: I want to check back with Evan. Does what Jared and have been saying… Does that relate to your experience in any way?
Oh, the other thing I wanted to acknowledge as well is that yeah, you’re right. You’re absolutely right – there’s always good stuff, there’s always bad stuff. There’s a whole spectrum. I mean, that’s the nature of experiences – they’re a spectrum. So I want to acknowledge that it’s not all bad. So we’re just kind of leaning into this emphasis of social disintegration and social change and the felt experience of that.
[54:57] Evan: Yeah, so touching upon that… I feel it’s… I’ve come to understand it’s important here that I’m not – and I’m not saying this is what you did in your talk. But I know in my response to your talk, what can happen here is a sort of over pathologizing of the current situation and then falling into a spiral of… The brain gets primed to receive things, the nervous system gets primed to receive things in a certain way and the self-preservation network or radar is overtaxed. And sure, if we pay too much attention to the news or find ourselves walking by a demonstration where the other side is antagonistic to ours then you know, it’s right there. Trying not to lose the thread but that does resonate.
I’ve just found in my experience over time it’s very easy to forget that possibility for confidence as you say, is always there; is available; is accessible. Because it’s all too easy because they’ve been serving us a banquet of things that easily we can digest, and collapse into not seeing that possibility [of confidence] ever even existed.
Charlie: Yeah. Thank you for putting it like that. I think that just puts it beautifully.
Evan: Which part? The banquet or…?
Charlie: The banquet. I like the banquet metaphor.
Evan: So we’re being served this buffet. And we can perhaps – to tenuously try to draw out that metaphor – we can look at the buffet and see what’s on offer and we can say, “I’m not going to eat that” or maybe “I’m going to see its color and its smell and take a little taste… Oh, wow. That’s what that provokes in me…” Or we can say, “Oh, there’s all this shit on offer.” And that’s all there is. And I’m just going to shove it down because I have to eat, right? I can’t forgo any of that because that’s what the buffet is, right? So it’s this feeling – I think it’s more than an idea – that it’s possible not to just slather yourself in the buffet and say it’s a fucking food fight of shit food. Perhaps you could call it a “stepping back?” I don’t know.
Charlie: Nicely put. You said you had a couple of other questions that occurred later? Or ponderings?
**Jared:88 Charlie, we have quite a few questions. Maybe we could..
Charlie: Have we?
Jared: We have a couple, a few others for sure. (Just to make space). The other Evan, Evan McMullen, you have one.
Evan M: Sure, yeah. Let me scroll back up to it. Thanks. So my question was essentially that, (as I know you guys are aware), it’s very commonly spoken of that Tantric practice can be dangerous in certain senses. This [laughs] definitely matches with my own experiences of the territory. So I’d like to hear your thoughts about what sort of social structures, organizational structures, and other supports you think are most likely to lead to Westerners being able to practice Tantra in a way that has a decent risk to reward profile. I know this can’t be “safe,” nothing’s safe, but I know that you’re engaged with this project and I’m curious as to what insights you might have gleaned so far.
Charlie: Yeah, very much. I mean, that’s kinda what we’re all about in some sense. So thank you for the question. I think we’re frustratingly slow in some ways. A lot of people are very eager for this to happen because it’s exciting, you know? It’s exciting: the potential to bring contemporary Tantric forms into being. And you know, we’re in the “talking about” stage quite a lot. Jared and I, we’ve talked so much about this and we continue to take great care and to intentionally hold back while we establish the base of community and organization – a structure. So a lot of the way we’re approaching this – and maybe Jared can speak more to this too, but a lot of the intent here is that the base that we’re providing is a really good solid base in practice, particularly shi-ne practice. But also other meditations, other practices.
[1:00:26] We’re working a lot at the moment on a one to one basis with individuals – (we’ve got Pupils; we’ve got Apprentices) – because we feel that first of all, before we start looking at the structures for Tantric practice in a different context, we actually need to have a really good solid group of people who know each other very well, who are well bonded, who are peers, peers in terms of practice, and are in a place where that base is already provided. Then we can start looking at the principle of the other practices that come from Tantra and other Vajrayana paths. We take the principle; we understand from experience. I think that’s a really important thing. It’s not possible to re-present or re-manifest Tantric practice without already having some experiential sense of the effect and the method, and the result in some way. And to just kind of go in there and to pull things out and say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to do this” or “do that” or whatever – which is very tempting, of course. We want to do that, because we have all these ideas! It’s lovely, you know. But we really want to make sure that we have the experience; the experiential base. Anything else to say about that, Jared?
Jared: The first thing that came up is one of the things we talked about: this relational, group foundation as being key. And something I’ve noticed, especially because I’ve been involved with a lot of different spiritual communities (mostly of the Western adaptation kind) is [these communities] speak through the renunciative view and language and social norms, and things like that.
The most distinct flavor of our community, the Evolving Ground community, is that we really are embracing difference and disagreement and different perspectives and challenging pre-existing assumption and not reifying responses.
So instead of looking for some sort of “top-down” cohesion or sameness from all our practitioners, difference is really important. And we really see that being equally important for Tantric practice because Tantric practice is dealing with form and form is different. It’s different from each perspective. And so it’s just another way in which having that Vajrayana view from the foundation is going to lead to a different type of community as well.
Charlie: Speaking directly to that, there’s a lot about the community itself learning how to support each other as well. So there’s a big emphasis on that. There’s a learning curve in terms of the people who are regularly involved becoming more involved; actually being there as support for new people coming in. Getting some community norms there… It’s all very intentional, providing that support structure. Like Evan was saying earlier, “scaffolding.”
In a way, you [Evan] were providing scaffolding for practice, for exploration, for experimentation; making it possible for people to feel their way around practices and get to understand what they are, in a safe environment. So yeah, there’s that.
Jared: Charlie, I thought it might also be interesting… I know you’ve had a few times where you talk about some common connotations. The phrase, “Tantric practice is dangerous” comes up and I think usually that is pointing to the danger associated with psychophysical disruptions and maladies and things like that, but there’s another type of danger that I thought you might want to speak of: the danger of our sacred cows dissolving.
[1:05:01] Charlie: That’s kind of a good danger in a sense. I mean, there are various failure modes, which is very different to saying there are challenges and dangers and threats to one’s own practice or development or whatever. So, looking at failure modes… There are very typical ways in which Tantric practice can fail. And I think as we’re building community we’ve got to be very careful about that. One of the classic ones is big narcissistic ego trip kind of thing. If you engage in Tantric practice without having the base…
[The base of] which is experiential emptiness. You can get to that base in different ways. A lot of what I’ve been talking about today in terms of finding confidence… In the Tantric environment, that is the base. And [the base] is emptiness. So that is the connection there. It’s the base of empty experience – the actual experience of an uncluttered mind, in some sense. When you’re talking about the mental experience the relationship to the environment is being quite spacious in some sense.
There are a lot of ways of talking about this but yeah, the Tantric method can go awry if you don’t have that understanding and experience. So it’s both: the understanding of how it can go wrong and the experience of emptiness. You need that.
Another way that Jared picked up on is the big interest in psychophysical exercises and you know, it’s very appealing to want to go straight for that. And it’s very easy to explode when you do that. Well we’ve all heard of things like that happening.
But in terms of danger and challenge, in some sense, the danger and challenge of Tantric practice is very different. The threat or challenge to one’s sense of… The threat is to one’s sense of security, to one’s sense of certainty, to one’s sense of “I’ve got this now” or “I can handle this now.” “I’ve got this method and it’s going to be the way and now I see how everything fits into this.” Tantra continuously, constantly explodes that certainty. So you’ve got to be in a good place already for that to happen – a reasonable place. You’ve got to be aware that is the way that it’s going to work, and willing, and ready. Personally you’ve got to feel that yeah, I can take a little bit of that at the moment. Sutric practice has very different challenges, in a way. It’s getting at a different thing.
Jared: I know you had a follow up – but one little footnote here. We talk a lot about the distinction between Sutra and Tantra and it can sound like we’re making a huge value judgement here, but really we’re coming at it more from a principle of practice and the path that were on and the results of it – and understanding that.
Vajrayana creates the possibility of using any of these principles, whether it’s Tantra or Sutra or Dzogchen. It’s just whatever is appropriate. And again, the spaciousness is quite a valuable thing to have enough of a view; a broad enough view to know if renunciation is proper method to employ at this certain time, or if it’s transformation. Or if we’re getting into Dzogchen there would be another flavor, but we won’t open up that can of worms.
Charlie: Yeah, and there’s this sense that we’re emphasizing the difference as well. Emphasize the difference between the paths… And the reason for that is that it makes it makes it more apparent how the method functions differently – and you need to know to be confident about what you’re engaging with. A lot of what we’re doing in Evolving Ground is training that understanding of principle and function as different because that’s actually very useful in terms of individual practice, and in terms of relating to peers who are practicing, or entering new practices, or whatever. So we’re doing a lot of that. And it’s successful! People are doing that well.
[1:10:16] Evan M: So I did have a quick follow up, if that’s okay. It’s something that’s been really alive for me – looking back on the paths that I’ve taken and where I’m going, and what other people seem to be looking for and wanting.
For one, I deeply appreciate your work and people in a similar cluster clarifying the methods, bases; this sort of framework. We are in the world of form; emphasizing those differences of form. If people had been doing that more publicly years ago [laughs], it would have saved me a lot of time. So, very much appreciate all the work you guys are doing.
And on that note, one of the sort of semi-stable attractors you see in traditions (not just Buddhists) that deal with this sort of material is the sort of layered model of the exoteric, the mesoteric, and the esoteric – the sort of, layered container model. I personally tend to be pretty deeply allergic to hierarchy and stratification but I also find myself more and more understanding why that sort of structure tends to emerge. So I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that sort of thing and ideas of secrecy versus openness and all that kind of stuff.
Charlie: Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, we’re very much taking the approach that natural hierarchies emerge in different contexts; in different landscapes. If you use the landscape metaphor… I quite like that because you have many mountains, you have many valleys, you have many routes of exploration, and there’s not one single [route] leading towards one fixed structure. So, understanding that the structures are not fixed in that sense, and that there is more of topology of practice.
You know, this is actually a nicely Vajrayana way to go about things because you’re not… You don’t have a fixed staged, prescriptive progression. It’s more individually oriented, very much individually oriented. So one individual’s route through the network of practices is going to be radically different to another’s, and that’s fine. There’s no prescriptive path; the path itself is an individual path in that sense. And on that path there are going to be different people who have expertise in different areas or whatever, who are going to be in natural relationship to that practitioner as they’re engaging with that practice.
So we want that fluidity of path there as well. We’re doing our best not to prescribe an organizational path too. So even though we have created these involved roles of being a Pupil; of being an Apprentice… You could go straight into Apprenticeship, you could move from Apprenticeship to being a pupil, you could move in and out, or whatever. And there’s no sense of expectation that you would go one way or another way or whatever. There’s no obligation or expectation [of a particular path progression] at all.
And people come and go from the community too. We’ve been going for like, I don’t know, even less than six months; and it’s really lovely to have people moving in and out and feeling okay to do that.
Jared: One other little note there too… Speaking of the individual nature of practice a lot of what we do (especially in one on ones and then the smaller group sessions) ends up being talking about like, yeah, we all have our formal practice but what types of things in life are you engaged with? And how can we start to incorporate these directly into whatever you’re doing – whether it’s organizational design or art or science or anything. So, a huge emphasis on immediately making the connection to day-to-day experience; informal scenarios. It’s really big and a lot of what we talk about. Sometimes the formal practice is just a few minutes and then we spend the rest talking about how that’s manifesting in relationship or something. All right. Todd – who’s next on our questions?
Todd: Yeah, I tried to order them a bit here. I think we’ve got Doriel, he had a couple of +1’s. This goes back a little bit. It was asking about intuition. Doriel, do you want to ask that one?
Doriel: Sure. Thanks Todd, Charlie, and Jared. My question is: how does intuition interact with confidence? Does it manifest as following your intuition, but being okay with the lack of certainty of the outcomes? And I guess more broadly, what does intuition look like as it develops through practice and through being in this type of spiritual context?
Charlie: I think there’s a relationship there. There’s a relationship between the way that we go about practice as well as a lot of fine-tuning around a particular practice… A lot of method in Vajrayana – from Dzogchen perspective, the method is “finding congruent fit.” And to find congruent fit both in terms of your practice or in terms of your activity [or] your daily life, or whatever… To find that congruent fit – that’s a gradual process that you’re going to become more and more adept at being able to do.
So when you’re starting out with Tantric practice you maybe have your shi-ne and you have one other practice, and you’re getting to know that [second] practice. In that very specific context, you’re not moving around between lots of practices and knowing them all, and knowing what’s going to work where, or whatever. That is something that’s going to take years to build up – very naturally.
And in the same way, that intuition is sort of mirrored in life circumstances as well. Suppose you go into a new business setting and that’s your new job – you’re not going to have readily available the intuitive understanding of how this relates to that, or how you’re going to move around between “how does that person relate things;” “how does that boss do things;” “how does this all fit together.” There’s a lot to learn often when you go into a brand new situation. Then over time, you develop more understanding of how the forms of things fit together and then your intuition about being creative with that situation comes from that.
So in the same way with confidence: you’re first of all building that base, and then you’re moving into different situations – and you may or may not have a lot of experience in those situations. But intuition, I think, is something you gradually gather around familiarity in context. It’s always contextual. There are all kinds of contextual navigation. And the more that you understand a context the better you can exercise intuition within it.
Jared: Something that’s coming up for me, is that often [when] navigating between circumstances there’s a presented problem, and you’re getting ready to take an action. And in that moment, it seems like “Oh, I can approach this in a very systematic or rational point of view, or I can do it from an artistic point of view.” (Then maybe there’s five others or something like that that are in the periphery or part of the equation). The experiential familiarity with nebulosity can also give you – I like intuition (the name intuition) because it can kind of give you a general sense that’s non-specific of how these models relate to each other; which are overlapping and which ones have more gravity or which don’t. If you get too much into this conceptual thing where you’re looking at it like it’s a mathematical problem of choosing A-B-C-D it becomes very disconnected. And then, as soon as you find one you’re kind of contained completely in it – you can’t fluidly move between others or take influences from others, and everything like that. So just this experiential kind of familiarity with vagueness and subtle overlaps and relationships can give rise to that, what feels like intuition. Sailing is a good example. Kind of, feeling where the wind is going and not thinking you have to end up in one very specific direction or not. Who we got next, Todd?
[1:20:00] Todd: We’ve got a couple from Tyler I’d like us to get too. But first, we’ve got some +1’s for Karen – she had a question from a while ago around “confidence being a given.” Karen, did you want to go ahead and ask that one?
Karen: Yeah. It’s basically, I think I wrote… “Is confidence a given when you’ve ‘seen the light?’” Charlie: It’s not fixed… It’s not fixed, so you can become more familiar, I think. And the more familiar the more it might experientially feel like, “Yeah, this is just there. This is just my experience.” So that could be… In some sense it could feel like it’s just a given. But it’s not something that you can necessarily assume is always going to be there. It’s not like once you found it that’s it and it’s always there. It’s like, you know it and sometimes you find it and sometimes you lose it. And as you become more and more familiar, then it comes to be more of your regular experience, you could say. Does that speak to the question? Is that what you had in mind? [Pause]
Jared: I will say… It’s common for us I think, when answering questions, it’s like we always end up in this… “Well, it depends,” or “well, not always,” or “well…” Which can be frustrating in some ways. And that speaks to the gradual changing relationship with experience and relationship and everything; how we move through the world. And yet, I do also think, Karen, there are moments (like those “seeing the light” moments) that can be switches which do radically open up something that wasn’t there before, and then build momentum or a familiarity, a background familiarity. So there’s a gradual component and there is also sudden experience as well. But even the sudden experiences – the afterglow or the residual pattern – tend to evolve over time eventually, even if it is a “good boost” or kick in a certain direction or the awareness of something in experience that becomes more stable.
Karen: Okay. Can I say something?
Just because, maybe you can assume or maybe some kind of illusion that confidence is a natural state and that if you’re not confident then there’s something wrong with you. And your answers they imply to the fact that no, it’s not natural to be confident all the time. And also I just thought about fear. When you have fear… Well, you could actually be confident and fearful at the same time but there’s certain [laughs] challenges to the confidence in life.
Charlie: Yeah. I think being okay with the fear, feeling the fear sensationally; actually being there with the sensation of fear – that is what the confidence is, in some sense. Those two are very much mingled. That thing about doing it right and doing it wrong… You know, that comes up a lot. Trying to let go of the idea that you’ve got it right or that you’re not doing it right or whatever – that’s kind of important.
[1:24:47] It’s great when you’ve found it. When you’ve found that experience, that’s wonderful. You know that, and you know that it’s available as well. And you know because it’s an experience that it’s not always going to be there and that’s just natural. So it’s not like you’re doing it right or doing it wrong. It’s that there’s a sense that finding it is useful and helpful, or whatever. It’s like when you found a new food that’s really great and you think,
“Yeah, I know that thing now. I didn’t know that before. I’m going to have that sometimes.”
And you know, maybe I could even it have it every day because it’s so great.
Jared: It’s interesting, the thing that’s coming up for me is discovering that security in insecurity; touching it completely. Even if it’s temporary it redefines the territory. All of a sudden, the territory is so much larger.
So my example here is that I grew up and had a bunch of stomach issues. I always had indigestion and discomfort and it was just like, “this is the normal.” And that would vary, sometimes it would be extreme and sometimes it’d be moderate or whatever. And then in my early twenties I did some experimentation with diets and found this diet that all of a sudden, I was able to experience what it was like to not have any stomach discomfort. It was kind of mind blowing because it was like, “Oh my god, I didn’t know there was a zero.”
Like the fact that the spectrum goes that far… It remapped my whole territory. And so many more things became available and [there was] so much space to navigate and ways of judging my experience and just knowing that it could be okay – that there could be no discomfort. Just radically changed things. In a similar way, on the opposite [end of the] spectrum, I have had some kidney stones and those redefined what pain is for me. Like, “Oh, wow. Okay.”
“There’s a lot more severe aspects of pain.” And that changed my relationship to some of the things that before might have been quite extreme or something like that. Those moments can be quite… It can be a figure-ground reversal, with very drastic expansions and possibilities.
Charlie, I know we’re at 90 minutes: did you want to start wrapping up here? Usually we stay afterwards for bonus questions; I know there’s still some lingering things out there.
Charlie: I can see there’s some questions, there’s a raised hand… Yeah, let’s do that. I think it’s long enough for our recorded video.
Thanks to our future listeners [or readers]. Bye!
Jared: [laughs] A couple quick notes. Okay, let’s see here… Again, thanks to Peter. The Stoa is run on a generosity model so thestoa.ca at the bottom you can find a way of contributing what you feel, if you’re feeling generous and want to support the project. And yeah, if you want to learn anything more about us, evolvingground.org is the place to go. I’m sure that will constantly be changing. Right now, we’ll send you a link to the Patreon and there is a link to the form to join the Slack channel. Then once you get in there, you’ll see we have a lot of different possibilities with how to engage in what you’re interested in. So, see you soon.