Relating as beneficent space

Relationship is the essence of Vajrayana Buddhism.

This page explains a practical application of Vajrayana principles to unstick stuck patterns of personal interaction.

My five-week course “Kaleidoscope of Interaction” covers this topic in much greater depth. This page summarizes themes extracted from the course. It’s coauthored with David Chapman and cross-posted to our sites Vajrayana Now and Vividness.

A Dzogchen perspective inspires this discussion, but it does not correspond to any specific traditional Dzogchen texts, teachings, or practices.

A practical implication is that relationships consist of patterns in here-and-now interactions, and have no separate inherent existence. Therefore, changing the way we interact at the momentary micro scale can change the way we relate across the macro scale of whole lives.

This page explains how. The essence of the practice:

To liberate interaction from fixed patterns, remain uninvolved with mental contents, find awareness in perception, and respond as beneficent space.

That probably sounds like word salad, or at any rate highly abstract. This page will make the abstract terms increasingly concrete, driving toward practical application.

Patterns of interaction

Let’s begin with a simple model of interaction:

  1. Alice says or does something
  2. Bob perceives it
  3. Bob interprets what he has seen or heard as meaning something
  4. Bob responds to Alice on the basis of that meaning.

In a stuck pattern, Bob consistently interprets Alice’s actions in a particular way, and therefore consistently responds in a particular way. This may be functional or dysfunctional depending on whether Bob’s response has good consequences for both of them. Either way, it’s fixed, and therefore limited: it cuts off unexpected possibilities for better outcomes.

Typically in interactions you are mainly paying attention to your own mental contents. That includes: your conceptual interpretations of the meanings of the other person’s words and actions; your emotions, desires, intentions, hopes, and fears; and your guesses about what’s happening in their head. You are silently strategizing about how you will respond once they finish their turn. Your attention is limited, so all that gets in the way of perception of what is actually happening.

Stuck interactions often become scripted chains of actions, interpretations, and responses. Then, as Alice is speaking, Bob already knows how he will respond, and how Alice will interpret that, and how she will respond, and he’s planning several moves ahead, and he’s barely listening at all.

Still, Bob can’t help trying to figure out a different move he can make this time at that point in the script, hoping it will actually work and Alice will be defeated, and he will get what he needs for once. Sometimes figuring out something different to do can indeed produce a better outcome. Maybe for both of them, even.

But in a stuck pattern both players know the whole space of possibilities, and it turns into a game of tic-tac-toe.1 If you play that enough times, you learn that it can only ever end in a stalemate. This is too common in the longest-standing relationships, such as families.

Change is possible. Bob could interpret Alice’s action as meaning something different. Western psychotherapeutic theory takes for granted that mental contents determine action. Therefore psychotherapeutic practice intervenes in dysfunctional patterns primarily by altering interpretations. That may be effective, but it is not the method we describe here.

Rather, we suggest liberating perception by suspending interpretation. Then step 3 in the interaction drops out, and Bob responds “as beneficent space.” What does that mean, how do you do it, and why would you want to?

Beneficent space

You may be familiar with the pairing “compassion and wisdom,” whose combination is the path and the goal of Paramitayana (the Way of Mahayana virtue). Those correspond to form and emptiness, which the Heart Sutra proclaims are identical.

Beneficent space is that same theme, with Dzogchen flavor. “Beneficent” translates the Tibetan term thug je, which in Dzogchen means specifically active compassion, as opposed to just feeling something. The Latin roots of “beneficent” mean “doing good.” For Dzogchen, emptiness is not a mere negation or absence. It is “luminous” and “perceiving.” The word is long, which means means “vastness” or “space.”

For Dzogchen, we adopt the view that we are always already nothing other than beneficent space. This contrasts with identifying ourselves with some mental contents.

Mental contents: thoughts, ideas, memories, emotions, explanations, images, beliefs, desires, intentions, identities, subpersonalities, superegos, drives, fantasies, talents, habits, states of consciousness, judgments, attitudes, …

In opening awareness meditation, we remain uninvolved with all that stuff. The aim is not to get rid of it, but to find the space within which it arises and dissolves. That is long: boundless, non-conceptual, impersonal, unstructured perceiving awareness.2

So, for purposes of this discussion, what we perceive—as opposed to imagine—does not count as “mental contents.” Some meditation methods aim for cessation of perception; Vajrayana aims for heightened perception.

In Western psychology, awareness is considered one thing the mind does. In Dzogchen, the mind is considered one thing awareness does. Awareness is not among the mental contents. It is the unbounded container of all things.

We typically interpret an event as meaningful in terms of our mental contents. We bring existing contents to bear on it, and generate new mental stuff about it, add that to the pile. In opening awareness meditation, we develop a capacity for refraining from that.

When we find the space of awareness within which mental contents, and all of experience, arise, we find that it is the primary and natural mode of being. The continual presence of awareness was previously obscured by our attending to its contents, which are its derivative products.

In opening awareness, we discover basic okayness. When we remain uninvolved in the play of mental contents, ever-present compulsive response dissipates. This is not a fantasy world in which everything is perfect. It is finding the experience that being right here, right now is fully available on its own terms. Since there is no immediate threat to our existence, we don’t need to invent and act on protective strategies. Resting in basic okayness, we then find we can afford a default attitude of friendly curiosity toward others.

All this is done in silent sitting without interaction. Relating as beneficent space finds the same spacious, basic okayness in personal interactions, including tense and difficult ones.

From that we find ourselves acting spontaneously for the benefit of others. Or, this is not quite accurate: it is not “ourselves” benefitting “others,” because “selves” are mental contents. It is impersonal beneficent space whose open-hearted activity radiates omnidirectionally.3


This sounds like a psychological or metaphysical claim. Either would be implausible. It is neither: it is an inexplicit instruction: to adopt that view, in order to discover what it means. (“A non-statement ain’t-framework” explains the role of inexplicit instructions in Dzogchen.)

The method

Let’s return to the method sketch:

To liberate interaction from fixed patterns, remain uninvolved with mental contents, find awareness in perception, and respond as beneficent space.

Experiencing rests in (1) direct perception of what is happening now and (2) the space of awareness within which that is happening.

“Direct” here means vivid awareness of the unfolding details of the literal visual field, of what is heard as sound, of the sensations in the body, all unimpeded by mental interpretation.

“Direct” does not imply that you somehow turn off or bypass your brain. Perception and response do require neurons, and perhaps some amount of interpretation is necessarily involved. (If you balk on this point, we suggest replacing the instruction to drop interpretation with “refrain from involvement with interpretation.” You may be surprised to find how little is required to function well.)

Mental contents mostly concern matters elsewhere and elsewhen, and are often somewhat abstract. They perpetuate patterns because they are experienced as opaque, static, and enduring through time.

Perception, by contrast, is transient, transparent, always specific, always here and now. Every moment is unique, and so can provoke a unique response. Then you are no longer performing a script. You are liberated from fixed patterns.

This nowness is not necessarily the same as “being in the moment.” That phrase might be a subject interpreting itself as a mental object (“myself”) being in some sort of abstractly categorized moment (“a shouting match,” “oneness,”) and giving that some habitual meaning (“I shouldn’t be letting myself get triggered again,” “I am in touch with the holy Source”).

Responding as beneficent space, not from your personal psychology, is not something you can do. It is something you find, by getting out of the way. In preparation, there is locating openness and recognizing basic okayness. Then beneficent response manifests spontaneously, impersonally. Your personal, fixed, mental patterns subside, or at least seem transparent and irrelevant.

Building trust in space

We’ve all had the experience of saying something stupid, or hurtful, when blurting out whatever came in our head without thinking first. We sometimes regret that severely.

“Beneficent” means “doing good.” How can one trust that unplanned actions will have good consequences?

That can never be guaranteed. On the other hand, thinking can provide no guarantee either. In a stuck dysfunctional pattern, you already know it isn’t working. You could strategize about what to do differently, but if it’s an old relationship you’ve probably already done that to death. Whatever you do will come from relatively fixed psychology, and will be a predictable variant on the same. Either you resign yourself to the relationship being permanently frustrating, or you have to try a radically different approach.

The spontaneous action of beneficent space is not heedless, random, or impulsive. It has its own form of intelligence, distinct from intelligent thought. If that sounds like New Age nonsense, you can think of it as a particular form of unconscious mental processing. Apparently, more accurate perception enables more accurate responses. However, trust in beneficent space comes from experience, not a mechanistic explanation.4

Repeatedly applying the practice in low-stakes situations may show you that typically it works out well. Building familiarity with the distinctive sensation of unpremeditated beneficent response gives an intuitive, hard-to-articulate sense of how and why it works.

For some readers, all this may still seem theoretical, abstract, implausible, or incomprehensible. Others may grasp it immediately; or recognize that it’s already familiar. Some experience of dwelling in opening awareness is necessary for it to begin to make sense. That might take a hundred hours of meditation, or so.

However, the Kaleidoscope of Interaction course provides much additional, detailed practical guidance. It also teaches “scaffolding practices.” Those are not the method itself, but approximations to it which are easier to access at first. Building skill in the scaffolding practices supports development of the actual method.

Thoughts are brilliant

Adopting this practice does not mean abandoning conceptual thought, rationality, or planning. It means using those tools when they are helpful, and not when they’re not. In some situations, it is good to think through consequences before acting. During conversation, planning is more often unhelpful. At any rate, developing the capacity for beneficent response without reference to mental contents gives you new options.

Some meditation traditions reject thinking altogether, and aim for a permanent thought-free state. Vajrayana explicitly opposes that approach as nihilistic.

Vajrayana aims to recognize thoughts as transparent jewels arising within perceiving space. Then they have great spiritual value as wondrous creative play, while retaining their practical value as well.

Maintaining that form of awareness of thoughts is difficult. At a less fancy level, you can begin to practice by occasionally suspending interpretation in interaction for a couple of seconds. Allow more vivid perception in its place. You can then interpret that new information conceptually—or not.

Buddhist psychology theorizes a sense organ in the brain that perceives mental objects and brings them to awareness, in the same way eyes and ears bring physical objects to awareness.

With practice, you may find that meanings remain “in the back of your mind” even during vivid perception. They are not annihilated. Apparently the intelligence of beneficent space can take them into account without your needing to do anything. It is not heedless of meanings or of consequences.

You don’t need to get rid of even dysfunctional habitual interpretations. They are there within the space, as part of what you perceive in the situation, along with the other person’s facial expressions and vocal tension. You are just not actively manipulating them, so they aren’t actively manipulating you, and so you are not limited by them. You don’t add layers of meaning to them, creating interpretations of interpretations, and responding to those. (“Oh @#$%, I am interpreting this person’s anger as my fault again, that’s bad, I always do that, I should…”)

From selfish impulses to friendly curiosity

Spontaneous action is intelligent response to perception, so it is not random or impulsive.

Acting at random, if it’s even possible, would be senseless, and would often go badly.

Impulsive actions are driven by impulses—a type of mental content—rather than by perception. Typically, impulses are oblivious reactions to emotionally charged interpretations. Impulsiveness is acting from neglected bits of your psychology, not from beneficent space.

Distinguishing spontaneous action from impulsive action comes from experience with the practice. They feel quite different.

Often impulses manifest as defiant, immature risk-taking, and create bad consequences for you. Often they are selfish, so acting on them harms others. For example, you may be tempted to “say what you really feel” but have been keeping bottled up. That’s often unwise. You may have had excellent reasons not to: consideration of bad consequences for you, for the person you are blurting at, or both.

The mental contents that impulsive actions respond to may be cut off from the subset of contents we call self. “That was so unlike me!” we think, regretting having said something mean. But it was me, so it wasn’t unlike me. Instead, it wasn’t like what I wanted to believe was me.

Separating parts off as “not me” creates adversarial hostility among mental contents. In impulsive action, some antagonistic not-me bit escapes and may do harm. That motivates us to clamp down harder.

Inhibition and expression are both about your mental contents rather than perception and awareness. Meditation offers a better option.

In opening awareness, you perceive a thought you might ordinarily interpret as ugly and unacceptable, but you remain uninvolved. You don’t add any judgemental interpretation. You don’t try to correct the impulse, or get rid of it, or make it mean something. Beneficent space regards the thought with friendly curiosity, and leaves it alone. It passes away, and returns later, and this repeats, and you become familiar with it. It stops being a problem because you find you don’t need to react to it. Habitual inhibition and impulsive expression are both unnecessary.

Then what you thought were inner demons turn out to just be thoughts like any others. Freedom from fear of them contributes to discovering your basic okayness. That friendliness toward your mental phenomena extends outward as friendliness toward the world in general.

Beneficent space is visible, creative, and sometimes shocking

If you maintain beneficent awareness, it manifests in how you are. In interaction, the other person is likely to perceive that. (Whether they do depends on how solidly they are tied up with their own mental interpretations instead of being present to the space of interaction with you.) Their perception of your openness, beneficence, and intelligence may naturally lead them to mirror it.

Spontaneous action is not strategized, and is therefore unpredictable. Beneficent space is creative, and its creations may be surprising, or occasionally even shocking. That may cut through stuck patterns, and suddenly reorient both of you from dull, fixed psychologies to what is actually happening. Your interlaced spontaneous arisings from beneficent space stand out starkly.

Beneficence and openness do not mean blind trust. In potentially hostile interactions, you want to remain intelligently alert. More accurate perception of others may make hidden intentions obvious. Conceptual consideration of an adversary’s moves may be appropriate. On the other hand, shocking enemies with your openness, humor, and beneficence may explode their game and bring them back to reality.

In interactions with people you care about, there is a risk that the shock of spontaneous creativity may be hurtful to the other party. Again, there are never guarantees of anything. On the whole, this is unusual, though. In the shock, actuality becomes apparent, and your caring becomes obvious.

  1. 1.“Naughts and crosses” in British English.
  2. 2.Relevant traditional terminology here is sem (conceptual mind) versus semnyi (the non-conceptual nature of mind). Semnyi, literally “mindness,” is equated to rigpa: literally “seeing,” but in Dzogchen equivalent to enlightenment, and also equivalent to long, luminous empty space/awareness.
  3. 3.The Dzogchen term is lhundrup, literally “spontaneous accomplishment.”
  4. 4.We recommend not speculating about mechanisms. For example, it may be tempting to equate “beneficent space” with “System 1” in the dual process theory popularized in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Despite the superficial similarity, of omitting conceptual thought, they are quite different. Beneficent space is something you can only find in repeated experiences of applying the practice in interpersonal interactions. Making up theories about it obstructs that.