Meditating with emotions

Not repressive

My Vajrayana students often ask about Dzogchen trek-chöd, a practice described in Spectrum of Ecstasy.1 This page compiles some of those questions with responses based in my experience. There’s more discussion in the Evolving Ground Discord server. Evolving Ground has a Spectrum of Ecstasy reading group which you can sign up for if you join the community.

How to start practicing Dzogchen trek-chöd?

“Hi Rin’dzin, How would you advise I start to make progress on using emotions as the path? e.g. this page is especially inspiring as a direction I’d like to develop in.”

The practice of Dzogchen trek-chöd is described in the last paragraph of that page you link (also in more detail at the end of the book Spectrum of Ecstasy). It works alongside opening awareness. You can engage with it as part of your sitting practice or whenever it seems useful during the day.

The idea is that you first locate the physical sensation associated with an emotion, e.g. you feel it in your throat, heart, your gut, your bowels, genitals, wherever. So you may need to spend a while bringing awareness to “feeling” the emotion rather than engaging with its cognitive associations.

Once you locate the place in your body that houses the emotion, you gaze into it. That is, you take your conscious awareness to the place of the sensation and let the sensation itself define the field of your awareness. You “stare” deeply into it, taking your awareness into the location of the sensation, without mental manipulation so that you experience the sensation fully, as much as is possible. And you just keep doing that, allowing the sensation to manifest however it does, without intentionally changing anything. Experientially it’s like you experience the sensation from inside of itself.

If that seems difficult, the first part of the practice is simply to start experiencing your emotions as physically located, rather than as thought stories. So you first recognize that you are having a particular emotion, then ask yourself where it is. One way to do that is body scan. Another is to simply stay still for a while and bring awareness to your whole body and sensations and notice where there are restrictions, tightness, tension, painful or pleasurable sensations.

Comparing two practices

“Because I am so familiar with “renunciative” Buddhist practices just because that material is so accessible and out there, the technique described in Spectrum of Ecstasy, Dzogchen trek-chöd, reminds me of the RAIN practice frequently taught as a mindfulness practice by Insight teachers. If you’re not familiar, RAIN stands for:

  1. Recognize what’s going on
  2. Accept it / allow it
  3. Investigate non-judgmentally
  4. Nurture with care, or sometimes Non-identification

In descriptions I’ve heard of this practice, it is aimed at lessening the sense of self, at loosening one’s identifications with emotions and preferences that form the self. This makes me wonder how this practice might be similar/different from the practice in Spectrum of Ecstasy. The first three steps especially seem to be similar. Maybe the whole thing is the same, it’s just the container within which the practice is deployed is different?

I’d be super interested to read a blog post looking at how renunciative or Vajrayana practices with emotions basically do or don’t do the same thing, or are practiced in different ways or with different intentions or whatever. Personally, I never resonated much with the descriptions of RAIN because it sounded too much like cognitive behavioral therapy. But I don’t see too much difference between the steps as outlined and what I’ve been doing.”

I love this question because the comparison can help understand how to go about practicing Dzogchen trek-chöd. I can see how you might think they are similar. They both have a four-step structure. Words like “recognize” and “familiarize”, “accept” and “internalize” might seem to describe the same thing. But in practice, the two methods and their results are significantly different. Other than the “nurture” part, the RAIN practice is Sutric in orientation. The description of trek-chöd is an approach to a Dzogchen practice with a Tantric worldview.

There are sometimes correspondences, or mirroring, between renunciative practices and their counterparts in Vajrayana. Sutric practices were reinvented in Tantric traditions. For example, both Sutrayana and Vajrayana include meditation practices called shamatha (shi-ne in Tibetan), but they lead in different directions. Similarly, the Vajrayana vipashyana (vipasssana, lhathong) meditation has quite a different purpose from the Sutric one.

Analogous to the RAIN practice, in Spectrum of Ecstasy, there are four practice stages: three preliminary steps, then the practice itself.2

  1. Familiarize with the view
  2. Internalize the view through experience
  3. Prepare to catch yourself out in the act of conforming to pre-set emotional patterns
  4. Stare into the face of the arising sensation

“View” refers to the understanding of the world as the interplay of the five elements.

Here’s how the two practices are different:

  1. “Recognize what’s going on” (RAIN) and “familiarize with the view” (SoE)

Both suggest understanding the premises for the practices—but the premises are not the same. “Recognize what’s going on” probably implies a personal, subjective understanding of the arising emotion. It could mean simply “notice what is happening in mind, energetically, and in the body,” or it could mean “note, give a label to the arising emotion, understand it conceptually.”

“Familiarize with the view” refers to a systematic analysis of how all emotions work. It is a way of symbolizing, categorizing, or mapping emotional experience using the five-fold symbolism of the elements. “Familiarizing” means becoming so acquainted with the elemental worldview that you don’t need to think about it. For example, if anger arises, you don’t need to stop to think to associate it with the water element and with clarity of perception. You would know, in the moment of anger arising, that the potential for clear perception is present. Some find that familiarizing the view helps them to understand their emotional reactivity. Others say they don’t need the specifics of the worldview for the practice of trek-chöd to make experiential sense.

  1. “Accept/allow” the emotion (in the RAIN sequence) and “Internalize the view through experience” (SoE).

Accepting and allowing imply resting with the emotion however it is. Don’t attempt to change it or to push it away. Become confident in the experience of having the emotion.

“Internalizing the view through experience” is the application of the given five-element framework to personal experience: it’s a way of testing your experience against the general description of how emotions work. It is pattern matching: learning through maintaining awareness of your emotional experience whether and how that experience fits the schema described in the book. This second step in the sequence is the long-term process of discovering how you personally consolidate, perpetuate, maintain, massage, and recreate your emotions, in circular, iterative patterns.

  1. “Investigate non-judgementally” (RAIN) and “Prepare to catch yourself out in the act of conforming to pre-set emotional patterns” (SoE).

Non-judgemental investigation is a practice of mindful inquiry. Investigation implies observation, attention to detail. Step 2 (RAIN) remains in place: accepting and allowing the emotional experience to be as it is, without interference. This third step adds attention, curiosity, interest. The emotion is object to open-ended inquiry, whether that is non-verbal or articulated, without criticism and without assumptions. So you get the impression this process could reveal something heretofore unknown, some new understanding. There could be an “aha” moment, perhaps about how the emotion served a particular function that is no longer relevant. There is some trust here: trust and confidence in one’s personal capacity to understand one’s emotional process.

Catching yourself out is quite different! It is not so soft in tone, it is a challenge to your ordinary way of being. It says: “there’s something about what you do and how you are that you don’t ordinarily see. Assume this is so. Be willing to notice it.” So there is also trust involved in step 3 of the Spectrum practice, but it is trust in the system and view (gained through the work that you’ve done in steps 1 and 2) rather than trust in your own process. The view is is a scaffolding that will enable you to see yourself from a different perspective. This doesn’t mean that you abandon or deny your experience for another perspective. It is a way to see your experience more clearly in relation with an expanded perspective.

There’s an element of alertness, sharpness, of being willing to intentionally undermine your conceptual patterns and cycles. Like with the non-judgemental investigation, there is some observation of personal process—but associated meanings through personal interpretations, memories, explanations are not relevant. The practice is to notice patterns that repeat. In noticing patterns you become meta to contextually defined content and see clearly the structure of perception and response. For example, suppose you catch yourself narrating a fantasy about how somebody is going to react to a suggestion you might make. Instead of questioning where that expectation comes from, how it might reflect a childhood trauma, or what is your underlying fear, you notice “I repeatedly anticipate an angry response. I imagine scenarios in which I am told what to do and not given a choice.” This is a pattern. Whether or not the expectation is accurate in context is irrelevant to the practice.3 Seeing the pattern repeat itself you may understand it in terms of one of the generalized five responses: fear of losing control (earth) for example, or fear of ill intent (air). The next step is to become familiar with the pattern’s associated somatic sensation. When you do that, the conceptual fantasy tends to dissipate. There is no need to ignore the conceptual content or push it away. If you have sufficient experience with shi-ne meditation then the narrative fades of its own accord when you find awareness in the associated sensation.

Seeing your own emotional patterns as examples of common, compulsive strategies can be unpleasant as well as liberating. It makes serious investment in the process less appealing than non-judgemental investigation, which is kind towards your habits and coping strategies. The potential failure mode with non-judgemental investigation is that the purely personal perspective accommodates itself: it risks continually re-justifying patterns within their existing constraints.

I think there is something unattractive about coming to terms with the Vajrayana view—and this is important. It is preparation for “cutting through” after all. It is not nice and cosy. There is necessarily some friction, some tension. It’s inviting us to intentionally entertain the possibility of the limitations of our own, subjective understanding of how things are. This requires maturity: reasonable curiosity regarding personal limitations, not blind abandonment to an alternative.

At a certain point the practices described in Spectrum of Ecstasy become easily available and funny. There is a process that I went through myself and that I’ve heard others describe too. You get to see your patterns of perception and response quite clearly and you “catch yourself” on repeat mode, like a broken record. Eventually you find yourself so predictable that you lose the fascination with your special, personal process and can’t help laughing. But this isn’t an experience you can force, it does take some years and it is important to engage with the practice when it is available and to apply other appropriate responses when it is not.

Trek-chöd disentangles the conceptual, mental experience of an emotion from its associated sensation. The practice itself (4. “Stare into the face of the arising sensation”) assumes that you have already done this, that you have a clear, spacious mind and that you have located an arising, embodied sensation. The first three steps are preliminary supports to being able to do that.

  1. “Nurture with care” or “non-identification” are alternatives for the final step in RAIN.

Having come to some understanding through non-judgemental investigation, one can relate differently to the emotion. Nurturing your emotion with care is a common psychotherapy method. There is some reverence for emotional needs and processes. Fully experiencing emotions and understanding them in relation to personal experience and relationships is healthy psychological development. I believe it is helpful to have this capacity before approaching trek-chöd. There is no ultimately “finished,” fully-developed, emotionally perfect being (contrary to all the Enlightenment hype)—but without a baseline of reasonable confidence in your capacity to process and understand your own emotional experience, any meditation practice can malfunction.

Non-identification, the other possible outcome with RAIN, has a strong Sutric vibe. The goal of Sutric practice is to experience separation from emotional attachment and the cycle of Samsara. Non-identification means viewing the emotion as impermanent, arising and passing, seeing that it does not define who I am, does not dictate any need for action or compulsive response.

  1. “Stare into the face of the arising sensation” is the practice of Dzogchen trek-chöd itself.

The first three steps are preparatory, they are the ngöndro, alongside shi-ne, for this practice of “cutting through”. At this point of practice, the conceptual scaffolding normally associated with the emotion has dissipated and there remains the emotion as sensation in the body. As the sensation arises, unconstrained by narratives, justifications, and fantasies, one takes awareness directly to the heart of the arising sensation, like a gaze or a stare.

To practice Dzogchen trek-chöd as described in the book, one should note the difference between observing arising sensation as an object and instantaneous liberation of the sensation. The phrase “stare into the face” could sound like concentrated observation and I think it is often taken in this way. However it does not imply observation so much as finding presence of awareness right in the heart of the sensation as it arises. Observation, separating from the sensation in order to look at it from a distance, or as though it were under a spotlight, leads to subject-object division. Intense observation tends to give rise to dissociative experience: sensation in the body might seem as though it were happening to someone else. By contrast, trek-chöd enables you to experience sensation “from its own perspective”. Without constraints this is often unexpectedly joyful, moving, and above all, “light”. The more spaciousness kinesthetic sensation has to move around in, the lighter and faster it becomes.

The practice involves no intentional generation of sensation, it is simply that awareness is strongly directed ‘into’ the heart of the feeling. Allow the physical sensation to instantaneously define your awareness, then see what happens. There is no attitude towards the emotion — it is not nurtured, rejected, or detached from.

Neither of these methods is better than the other. They are different and lead to distinct experiential outcomes. RAIN is more likely to be available for more people, more of the time. Trek-chöd requires some specific prior meditation experience. The result of trek-chöd depends on its base in non-conceptual spaciousness. Without this you cannot experience its results.

If trek-chöd seems inaccessible, a good approach to the practice is to start experiencing your emotions as physically located, rather than as thought stories. When you recognize that you are experiencing a particular emotion, ask yourself where it is. Stay still for a while and bring awareness to your whole body and sensations, notice where there are restrictions, tightness, pain, excitement. If you cannot locate an emotion as sensation in your body, see first if you can become aware of the timbre or texture of the emotion. Somatic psychotherapy or some form of bodywork can help you do this. Some somatic therapeutic work is quite similar to trèk-chöd in moving beyond the cognitive-emotional framework and centering on embodied emotion; but the interpretive frameworks are not the same.

Spectrum of Ecstasy’s framework of the five elements is a view associated with the Tantric paths. It provides a self-consistent explanatory method for understanding the conceptual relationship with emotions. The view supports the preparatory steps for the practice: it describes pattern types that you can look for in your internal world. At the point of the practice itself, whether in formal meditation on the cushion or in everyday life, there is simply awareness—categorization, interpretation, and analysis are dropped.

Does trek-chöd risk becoming disconnected?

“One worry I had when thinking about this practice was - is there a risk of becoming disconnected from your emotions (and thus your values) by experiencing emotions in this meta-fashion vs. the object fashion of just living them?

This is perhaps in general a worry about any form of introspection, although it’s not like I don’t introspect on emotions anyway (or could ever stop or want to stop introspecting)”

I think dissociative experience is particularly unlikely with this practice. My experience is that I become more connected to my embodied emotional experience, not less. But you can expect the texture of your emotional landscape to change.

To get a bit technical about it, it’s not exactly introspection, because you’re not analyzing or ‘looking at,’ so much as ‘gazing in’. The gaze is the route by which your experience becomes defined by the sensation. The practice itself doesn’t involve an observer-observed divide. At least, you’re working towards that not being the experience. You’re fully embracing the sensory field of the emotion as it manifests physically.

Finding space in the location of the sensation such that it has room to move is not the same as distancing from it. You’re giving the emotional sensation its natural, full range, without repressing, expressing or ignoring it. All of those three responses to emotions divert them from their naturally arising state. Habitually, our usual manipulative response to emotions as they arise prematurely stops them, or limits their movement.

Presuming that kindness is a generalization of your values then, no, you won’t become disconnected from your capacity to act with kindness. Actually, in my experience trek-chöd increases the range of options available in response to others. The times that I’ve had the most knee-jerk, emotionally turbulent responses were when I was out of touch with my practice. I have always been more capable of more congruent and spacious responses when I’ve been regularly practicing trek-chöd.

“This fear may more be coming from Culadasa/Thanissaro’s systems where the goal (especially in the latter) is to create distance and freedom from emotion.”

That’s not the intention here. The practice is to give freedom to the emotion (as sensation located in the body) such that it can manifest in its natural, non-contrived state. I’d call it “spacious integration” rather than “freedom from emotion.” You are bringing spacious presence to physical/kinesthetic experience such that it has a lot more room to move. Eventually this becomes what’s called “subtle body” experience, not dissimilar to the pleasurable jhana experiences, but maintaining connection with and involvement in your environment.

“Often when I feel stressful emotions rising I feel tightness around my heart, and I tell stories of the negative health effects of stress, and it feels like I need to make myself calm by relaxing… I’d figured out I could become calm while on retreat with Culadasa, but it’s not perfect, and I suppose that’s some combination of repressing/ignoring it?”

It’s a different method, coming from a different worldview/framework. I think it may depend a lot on individual personality and application as to whether repression and ignoring/distancing amount to the same thing and whether they are associated with a calm state.

There’s a way of just letting stuff arise without comment, allowing it plenty of space mentally and physically, that is neither deliberately repressing nor ignoring. I suspect that much of how people practice within Culadasa’s system is like that and is very good. Although he emphasizes ignoring in The Mind Illuminated, he also says “let it come, let it be, let it go”…which is not the same as ignoring.

I have a page about skewing the meditation experience with a purity/impurity vibe. Leaning into the “wholesome, positive experience” preference can be calming. I’ve also experienced it very subtly heightening an irritation response. I suspect that effect could be easily missed. This happened while I was deeply practicing TMI, more toward the end of the project when I did some immersive retreats. My experience was still, calm and constant but I could detect moments of something feeling not quite right, like a kind of subtle distaste. I think that might have been the taste of repression :-)

In the kind of Vajrayana I practice, emotional valence is like an ornament. There’s nothing particularly desirable about “positive” emotions or undesirable about “negative” emotions. The more you practice trek-chöd, the more irrelevant emotional valence becomes. Sensation happens; you stop putting a spin on it. That doesn’t stop you liking or disliking some aspects of experience, it’s just that whether or not you like your emotional experience becomes inconsequential.

That is quite different to equanimity. Equanimity isn’t particularly valued from this perspective. It could be a useful response if you’re unable to stop yourself from exploding all over a situation. I could certainly have done with more of it at times myself! But it’s not an end goal in Vajrayana. From the perspective of Dzogchen, equanimity is mildly revolting to the extent that it manifests as a limitation to sensation arising in its natural state.

  1. 1.Trek-chöd is a practice type with multiple versions. The Tibetan phrase literally means “hard/thorough cut” and is commonly translated as “cutting through.” The particular version of trek-chöd in Spectrum of Ecstasy relies on previous meditation experience, namely shi-ne (opening awareness), as you need to be able to experience the arising sensation of the emotion in the body without interference from thought stories and conceptual elaboration. With concept-free spaciousness, the method is to “stare into the face of the arising sensation.” To engage in the practice, allow the conceptual narrative that usually surrounds an arising emotion to dissipate. Then “stare into the face” of sensation as it arises.
  2. 2.Page 241, Chapter 12: “Method,” Spectrum of Ecstasy
  3. 3.It may not be irrelevant outside of the practice. Spectrum of Ecstasy clearly differentiates working with mindsets and habitual patterns versus dealing with practical situations.