Defensiveness, Following, and Self Referentiality

January 31, 2024

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There's so many different levels of defensiveness. One is defending yourself against injury and death. Feeling that there's something here that must be protected at all costs and that is under threat just simply by virtue of being impermanent.

So, there's that kind of existential fear defense that people are more or less aware of. It can show up in one's life as excessive caution or timidity in certain ways. Trying to have narratives and do things that you are telling yourself are giving you some kind of safety that doesn't really exist.

A better way of relating to the actual fact that this form is going to go away and could go away at any minute, is to take reasonable precautions but recognize that anything can happen. Again, it's that trick that we have of holding both things at the at the same time.

That we live in a relative existence. There's a famous example that is often given in contemporary teachings about people who are non-dual bypassers—I don't really exist, so I'm going to stand in front of a truck.

And then they get run over, right? It's kind of ridiculous. We have this form, and we should try to enjoy it and keep it around for a while. So we can explore what's here in this form. And do our sadhana.

At the same time, we don't want to live with fantasy about, if I just get all of these things lined up, the perfect job, the perfect house, the health care, not taking too many risks, et cetera, et cetera. That's somehow going to protect me from illness and dying.

So that caution is one way of doing that. Another way, of course, is spiritual bypassing or God realm-y stuff. Where you think, well, if I do a mantra, I'm not going to get COVID. That is just flat-out fantasy.

So there's all kinds of ways that we develop fantasies to reassure ourselves that we're less vulnerable than we actually are. The idea is to recognize that we are vulnerable in a relative sense always and just take reasonable precautions.

But then to do sadhana so that we get in contact with the eternal. Once you have that experience with what is eternal, that alive, aware existence itself, then your whole attitude about being in the world changes.

I was thinking about climate change and how much everyone is suffering and there's going to be more suffering. I'm kind of thinking, well, I'm going to be dead in 20 years anyway. [laughs] Phew. [laughs] But then I was thinking, No, not really, because everything that's happening is still me.

And that wasn't an intellectual thought. That wasn't remembering a View teaching. That was just like, oh, right. I'll still be here. [laughs] I'm not getting out of this. [laughs] But I just have to become realized enough so that I don't feel like I want to get out of it. That's kind of funny.

And then there's the defensiveness about reputation and what people think of us, et cetera. And certainly, that's always been around in some form or another. Even the concept of honor.

But certainly in our culture these days, we are absolutely insane. Literally insane with worry about what other people think of us. Are we right? Are we smart? Are we good? Are we accomplished? Are we measuring up?

And if anyone questions any of those things, we have these huge reactions to it. And of course, many, many kinds of reactions. Sometimes we curl up in a ball. Sometimes we do this.

Sometimes we try to prove. We get even more aggressive about proving ourselves, or we just argue. But I think many people in our culture just spend most minutes of the day being in that defensiveness. It's that titan vigilance.

Am I doing my sadhana, right? I've heard this from students before. I'm worried that I'm not doing my sadhana right. I never once have thought that. I've thought maybe I didn't hear an instruction, right? And then I went to my teacher and asked for clarification, but it wasn't a worry.

What's the worry about not doing your sadhana right? If you do something wrong, then you're going to be punished by an angry God. What do you think Krishna would say, though? Or Ganesha? They'd be like, hey, you're already breathing.

This fire is God lighting an incense on the whole planet. You're already breathing incense. There's many, many rituals happening everywhere. Our rituals that we do, we're just getting in sync. That's what we're doing when we do ritual. Because everything is ritual, we discover.

I've said this before, but not a lot, and it's worth repeating for sure. But I went through a period of a year or two when I felt the beginnings of that feeling that guru is everywhere.

And that there was always a chance of making a misstep somehow in the face of all this wisdom. I was really freaked out about it. I felt almost paralyzed. I don't know if I'm going to get it right, meaning reading what's happening in the moment.

I went to see a friend of mine who is a really great Buddhist practitioner, much older than I am. I was crying. I'm so afraid of making a mistake, in reading what was happening.

He just looked at me like, you expect me to comfort you about that? [laughs] It's a form of egotism. Who do you think you are? Really? Of course, you're not going to be precise.

Think of the precision of God, and then your measure falls away. Think of Ma's precision. This is one of the functions of these beings that show up, like avatars.

They so embody something that is us, but we know we're just somewhere in the middle of a process. We have no hope of embodying the wisdom that they embody consciously. That should give you comfort. And it's part of modesty.

Just be like, yeah, of course I'm going to be imprecise. That's not to say be lazy. We still do our best, but it's modesty to know. It's like that apprentice approach.

So whenever you have a lapse or you know you've failed to do something in a good way, you just pick yourself up and do it again, just like an apprentice. Resolve. Give up this pride.

What if you were doing the old-timey ironwork and somebody came with a horse and they needed horseshoes? And you made the first one, you made a little mistake. You're like, [exaggerated crying sounds] I just can't do this anymore. [laughs] I did it so imperfectly. I feel terrible about myself.

Meanwhile, the guy with the horse is like, who is this person? [laughs] I'm going to the next shop down the street. This person's crazy. [laughs] Oh, I made a mistake. Just hold on a minute. I'll get it ready. I'll fix it. That's it. No drama.

Just understand how completely unrealistic it is to have these attitudes towards yourself, and that you learn them, and they're not an essential part of you. And give yourself a kick in the pants every now and then.

I've read a lot of writings by different practitioners in Buddhist and Indian Hindu traditions, Daoist traditions, other traditions. And when you read the poetry and the writings of people we consider to be the great practitioners, you realize they're all just schlubs like we are.

They're not so different. And you get to know more about the path by reading things like that. And also by observing your own teacher who makes plenty of mistakes. It's like observing. You go, oh, this is normal.

What did Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche say? Remember that saying? Mistaking, mistaking, I follow the unmistaken path. When you read something like that—okay, Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche is the most enlightened person I've ever met, IRL.

And then he writes something, mistaking, mistaking, I follow the unmistaken path. You're like, okay, this is just it. This is what it is. Get over yourself. I've said get over myself so many times to myself. It's like a mantra, get over yourself, get over yourself. [laughter]

If you follow divination, you only have to make one decision.

That's right. Which is to follow the divination. I mean, it's same with following the teacher, or following whatever you're following. That's the only decision you have to make for a while. And then you learn how to follow everything. That's the point about following.

I teach in a somewhat untraditional way, or I sound somewhat untraditional, the words that come out of my mouth or my references or whatever. But really, for those students that are actually studying with me doing sadhana under my direction, I'm very, very traditional.

And the reason I am isn't because I'm attached to anything traditional. It's because that's what's worked for me. Also, I've always just been completely head over heels in love with the whole guru-student dynamic.

I mean, from the very beginning when I had my first teacher, and that's just how I showed up. But it's hard in this environment where there's so much abuse that's been unveiled.

And I don't think that that abuse wasn't occurring in ancient times or further back. I just think it wasn't as revealed as it is now. And people are more aware of the way that patriarchy functions, and et cetera.

So there's just so much out there that would make a traditional approach to sadhana and working with a teacher and the whole concept of following, sound really dangerous to certain people. But this is what I'm doing. I'm following every minute of every day, the best that I can.

And as I've said many times before, the drama that I'm playing out here in this incarnation is the drama of the servant. And I love it. I think it's so beautiful, and that's what I want to do, and that's what I have to offer people.

I've been going through this process of meditating on, thinking about how I'm showing up in my role as a teacher, and I'm getting back to basics. I think I've tried to adjust a lot for how people are these days.

And in some sense, I've gotten a little bit off my center in terms of what feels most like home to me. I've given practices to people who, by any older version of a tradition, wouldn't really have been given those practices.

Because they weren't as firm as they might be in their commitment to sadhana and to following the teacher and following the teachings. Those kinds of things.

But it's hard to talk about these things these days because there has been so much actual horrible abuse. And people are trying to climb out of that, and trying to have a different experience with their teachers.

Anyway, just a thought. Slowly, slowly, making my way home. But following divination, for those of you that are newer, I was trained in doing a divination with an oracle called the Zhouyi, and it's the parent of the Yi Jing. It's an older version of it.

And it's a very important part of my life. And I've taught it to some of my students, and it's also an important part of some of their lives and their practice, too.

It's another way of learning the glories of following, the glories of listening for wisdom and following. And I just think it's the best and most beautiful way to live, but that's a hard thing to proclaim these days.

I was also thinking this morning about some people's attachment to this idea of being independent. And they really mean that in a very crude, literal way. And there's no such thing.

And if you want to realize, there's no such thing as independence. There's self-sufficiency of a certain sort, in a limited relative way. But we're learning to be porous and entering the dance with this whole world.

And it's the opposite of independence. It's the total alliance, total alliance. So it's against the grain of US culture, right? But I just find it so beautiful that I don't even have the words, really.

I was thinking about interdependence and how that relates to the singularity of God. And, how does God experience alliance if God is just experiencing oneself?

Well, first of all, it's everything. All of existence is alive and aware. Is that self. There's no countable anything. So There's no concept of being one, of being a singularity.

If we're talking about the absolute, it is everything that is. So this idea that the one and two don't really make sense. Like, When you say a singularity, it has to imply the possibility of two.

And since there's no possibility of two when we're talking about all of existence, then there's also no possibility of a self-concept of one. We just say that from our perspective because it helps us.

But the experience is not of one and two, or one and many, or one with many, anything. There's just existence itself, and there's no such experience of singularity.

I used to worry about this, actually. So, when I was younger, I used to worry that God was lonely. Because there was only one. [laughs] I mean, that was such a ridiculous thing, but that's what happens when we apply these relative ideas to all of existence, right?

What's happening here is that there's an appearing, we don't say an appearance, but an appearing of diverse forms and diverse circumstances. And that's where this existence gets to experience itself, having the play of diversity, the play of duality.

But there's no loss of continuity. It's just an appearing of that experience of many. And that's fun, right? That's what it's for. It's fun and it's self-expressive.

So you can think in your mind or you can go into your mind and think of anything. People, you're talking to people, you're doing this, you're doing that in your mind. But you don't have an experience of being more than just you. [laughs] Right?

I used to have a weird fantasy when I was a kid that I was living another life.

I just used to pray for aliens to come get me. I was very literal, get me out of here. [laughs] I just wanted off. But I didn't have any sense of God or anything. And so, aliens seemed much more interesting than God.

I was actually just frustrated because I was convinced, as I still am, that there was many, many, many worlds and many different beings and civilizations. And I felt trapped on the planet.

I felt [laughs] like this was just too little of the creation to have access to. And I was pissed off about that. And I wanted to get in a spaceship and explore other worlds. [laughs] That was my earliest religion.

I wonder if that God experience is sort of like what we at a really primitive small level experience as flow, when we are really engaged in something.

You're talking about being in the zone?

Yeah, being in the zone.

Yeah, it is like that. That's an actual echo of all of existence and what it is, how it's operating. So when you're in the zone, you're not thinking about yourself. There's no self-reference in our ordinary way.

There's just doing, there's just feeling, there's just smelling, there's just tasting. There's just interacting. There's just what's happening, and there's not all of this referentiality happening. And then, of course, the experience of time is much, much different.

So yes, that's a definite echo of, you could say, realization. Or you could say, just this state of existence, unconditioned. Abhinavagupta defined compassion as complete lack of self-reference, and all other focus. Everything's going out.

So self-referentiality, first of all, means that some part of the energy that you're relating to other people with is always being held close to yourself. So that you can define yourself, relate what's happening always to yourself.

That quantity of energy awareness that's being held means that parts of your perceptions of things are blindered. So if you are not like a big open window where all of your perceptions are moving into what's coming toward you, greeting what's coming toward you, the guest, the friend.

Then whatever that part of that quantity of awareness energy that you're holding to be worrying about yourself, thinking about yourself, saying, referencing everything in terms of your own experience, et cetera.

That self-referentiality. That quantity of perception and awareness is not going toward anything. And so it's like things just start dropping out of your perceptions.

I just feel like I'm at this huge open window. And everything that's happening is in this window. And I'm looking into it, I'm feeling into it. There's a sense of aliveness, but there's no self that's being referred back to when this has happened.

Self-referentiality is like holding your breath. And I think what Avi said earlier about being in the zone is apropos. When you're in the zone, there's no self-referentiality.

Someone like a basketball player who's in the zone isn't thinking, here I am dribbling the ball. Oh, I remember when I dribbled the ball before, I'm really worried about dribbling the ball. I mean, they're just in there with all their senses open doing that thing and moving through circumstances.

And feeling like circumstances are completely full. Even when we're moving through empty space, they're completely full of things that can be perceived by your senses, including your mind.

And if you're moving through that with all this inner dialog going on, an inner feeling, an inner reference, then that aspect of you is not feeling everything.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.