A recognized tulku in the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsoknyi Rinpoche has been deeply immersed in meditative practices since he was a young child. But when he began teaching meditation to Western students, he discovered that a traditional approach was not going to work. Although his students understood the teachings intellectually, many struggled to realize them in practice. He set out to adapt his methods to meet the needs of modern Western practitioners, helping them heal the disconnect between body and mind and tap into the “feeling world.” Over the past few decades, Tsoknyi Rinpoche has partnered with psychotherapists and neuroscientists to better understand the psychology of emotion. One of his partners is also his student, the psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman.
In their new book, Why We Meditate: The Science and Practice of Clarity and Compassion, Tsoknyi Rinpoche and Goleman blend Western psychology and traditional Tibetan practices to offer methods for breaking free from destructive thought patterns and reconnecting with our true nature. Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, sat down with Tsoknyi Rinpoche and Goleman to discuss how they balance innovation and tradition, what we can learn from Tibetan understandings of the feeling world, and how playfulness can free us of the trappings of the self.
James Shaheen (JS): You recently published a new book, Why We Meditate: The Science and Practice of Clarity and Compassion. So why do we meditate?
Tsoknyi Rinpoche (TR): Meditation is the only way you can truly see yourself and come to know your inner world. Sometimes on the surface what you see as your self might not be that pleasant, but underneath there is a true nature of luminous openness and love. Meditation is how you can connect with that luminous nature, and it’s how you can embrace challenges with love and openness. Everything is constantly moving and changing, and through meditative techniques you can provide space for your challenging patterns to become less fixed. As you practice more, you progress toward liberation.
Daniel Goleman (DG): I would answer very differently. I take a rather pragmatic approach: I look at the science. When I first started meditating as a college student, my original motivation was that I was uptight. I was very anxious, very competitive, and very self-critical. Meditation helped me to manage those upsetting feelings. So my original motivation was not the kind that Rinpoche is talking about; it was very much self-interest. I wanted to know, What will help me now? In the West, a lot of people come to meditation with this question in mind.
I started with a Transcendental Meditation master, and then I transitioned to vipassana. As my practice deepened, I became more interested in how meditation allowed me to change my relationship to my own mind. Then I began practicing in the Dzogchen tradition with Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s father, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. He had four sons, and each one of them has been a very important teacher for me, particularly in going beyond a fascination with meditative states. You can stop there, but I feel lucky that I continued on the path of self-development in the Tibetan tradition.
JS: Dan, how did you get interested in the science of meditation?
DG: When I was studying psychology at Harvard, I got a traveling fellowship to study in India. While I was in India, I met teachers like Neem Karoli Baba [who taught Ram Dass] and Khunu Lama, who taught the Dalai Lama about Shantideva and compassion. I realized that these people had qualities that I didn’t see in my psychology professors at Harvard. B. F. Skinner and Erik Erikson were very intelligent, but they didn’t have the same quality of presence. They didn’t radiate this ongoing accepting, loving feeling. So I wanted to bring an understanding of this quality of presence to Western psychology, and I figured the best way to do it was through the lingua franca of science, which is research.
JS: How was that idea received?
DG: My professors were very skeptical of the idea. Now, of course, research on meditation is everywhere. I’ve always been interested in the science of meditation because I think it’s a great way to introduce Westerners to these practices. Still, the science is just a motivator. It’s a way to get people to the door—you have to go through the door yourself. If you only read the science and never do the practice, that’s a big mistake.
JS: Rinpoche, you begin the book with recollections of joyfully jumping into your grandfather’s lap while he kept meditating and chanting mantras. So you grew up with the practice. Can you share more about your childhood and how it influenced your approach to meditation?
TR: My grandfather was a very accomplished meditator. When I was young, he was always meditating. In the wintertime, he would wear a dagam, a meditation cloak, and I’d jump into his lap and sit there wrapped in the cloak. Sometimes I’d sleep, sometimes I’d cry, sometimes I’d play. He’d just keep on meditating, letting me come and go freely.
Sitting there, I learned that between my back and his front there was a connection. There wasn’t much cognitive dialogue. My grandfather didn’t say “I love you; you’re so great; you’re so wonderful.” I would just lean back and know that someone was holding me with a loving attitude. In letting me come and go as he continued to meditate, he gave me the greatest gift: this sense of basic okayness, or what I call essence love.
“If you only read the science and never do the practice, that’s a big mistake.”
This experience taught me about what I call silent transmission. How do we transmit well-being to other people? This doesn’t happen through cognitive explanation. My grandfather didn’t talk much. But through our connection, I felt naturally secure. He radiated a sense of basic okayness through his very being. This feeling of basic okayness plays a very important role in our life, especially as children. We always have this sense deep down, but sometimes it gets obscured, so we have to learn to reconnect to it. This is where meditation comes in.
JS: You teach meditation to Western students. How do you meet their needs while remaining faithful to the traditional methods and practices that you grew up with?
TR: I think the core teachings of the tradition are very relevant to the modern world. But we need to translate the language to help it click. The message will always be relevant; it’s just how we teach that changes.
When I first started teaching, I used a more traditional style, focusing on theory and the fine distinctions within traditional texts. My students would ask sharp questions and grasp the meaning intellectually. But over time, I realized something wasn’t quite right. Even though they were “getting it,” they were stuck in the same patterns year after year.
I began to question whether the traditional methods were actually reaching these students. I realized that in the West so many people are disconnected from the body and the feeling world. Modern culture is so speedy, and Western education can be so focused on the head. This can lead to blockages in the channels of communication between the mind, the body, and the feeling world. When you understand something cognitively you know the logic, but the knowledge doesn’t come down into the body and the feeling world. Something is stuck.
Now when I’m teaching, I focus on healing these channels. I still teach cognitive knowledge, but I also try to open students up so that whatever they understand in their mind, they also feel in the body and the feeling world. It’s not that they know compassion; they feel compassion. It’s not that they know freedom; they feel freedom.
JS: What do you mean by the “feeling world”?
TR: The feeling world, or subtle body, operates between the cognitive mind and the physical body, and it’s made up of three elements: prana (energies), nadi (channels), and bindu (essences). The nadi are the channels that our energies flow through. These channels can be knotted or smooth; the energy can be trapped or free-flowing. The bindu, or essences, are seeds of joy, bliss, caring, and compassion. When our energy is overstimulated, it can get stuck in the upper parts of the body, and then it keeps buzzing around. This speedy energy can lead to anxious thoughts and chronic stress. We feel restless even when we’re resting. We keep buzzing, but we aren’t going anywhere.
JS: So when we’re full of anxiety or distress and we try to change our body or how we think, should we be connecting with the feeling world instead?
TR: We need to connect with all three: feeling world, gross body, and cognitive mind. They’re all linked. Sometimes when we feel restless, we try to slow down our bodies or slow down our thinking minds. But we don’t pay attention to the feeling world. We need to learn how to balance our energy so that the feeling world is relaxed, the mind is open, and the body moves smoothly.
JS: In your teaching, you bring Tibetan understandings of the feeling world together with Western psychology. Was this an adjustment for your Western students, or do you find this lens helpful for all your students?
TR: All students. We have two types of habitual patterns: karmic patterns and learned habitual patterns. Karmic patterns are imprinted deep within our consciousness, and we carry them from lifetime to lifetime. These patterns include our tendency to believe in a solid sense of self and to feel emotions like aggression and pride. Learned habitual patterns are what we accumulate in this lifetime. Through our relationships and conditioning, we develop internalized beliefs about ourselves and others. I think we have to address both types of patterns, and Western psychology can be important in understanding how our learned habitual patterns are formed.
JS: Is that framework something that you learned from Western psychology, or is it a part of the tradition?
TR: It’s part of the tradition, but it became clearer to me after studying emotions with Dan’s wife, Tara Bennett-Goleman. Tara is a psychotherapist, and she helped me see how the insights of Western psychotherapy can complement traditional Buddhist understandings of emotional patterns.
Talking with Tara also helped me understand the hollowness that so many people experience in the West. Deep down, instead of feeling a sense of basic okayness, a lot of people feel like something is not right. Something is missing. When that hollowness is there, we become devoted to filling it. We buy things; we consume things; we seek out gratifying experiences. Our basic okayness is obscured, though it never disappears completely.
Again, I like to call this basic okayness essence love. Essence love is where love is born. It’s what allows us to give and receive love. It’s a natural field of unconditional well-being, and it’s already there inside us from birth.
In the modern world, our intrinsic essence love can get covered up by layers of stress, self-judgment, and fear. Many people struggle to stay connected to their essence love because they’re disconnected from their feeling world. This is why it’s so important to strengthen the connection between the mind and the feeling world. That connection can help us notice that essence love, that sense of basic okayness, underneath any emotion. When we can connect with essence love, that sense of hollowness dissolves into well-being.
DG: When Rinpoche met with Tara, they discussed some of the thought and feeling patterns that can get in the way of accessing essence love, including unlovability and fear of abandonment. Rinpoche melded an awareness of these patterns with traditional Tibetan practices to come up with the framework of “beautiful monsters.”
JS: What are beautiful monsters?
TR: We all have challenging emotional patterns that make our lives more difficult. We might feel angry or unworthy or afraid. We often feel ashamed of these patterns, so we resist them. Sometimes we hate them and wish they would go away. On their own, these emotions are fine. But when we resist our patterns, they become distorted, hardened, and habitual. They cause us to get stuck. I call these distorted blockages our beautiful monsters. We can’t reject these patterns, and we can’t ignore or suppress them forever. They’re within us. So we need to learn how to connect with these monsters. We need to learn how to feel them.
JS: So you call them monsters because they can cause us to ruminate or obsess, and this can be disruptive to our well-being. But what makes them beautiful?
TR: Beautiful monsters seem ugly at first, but when we know how to heal them, we see their beauty. Ultimately, our monsters want to be free. They have the ability to self-liberate, and they carry their own wisdom. If we can let them heal, these beautiful monsters can help us have a greater sense of compassion. The more we understand ourselves through working with our own monsters, the more we can understand the people around us. Our monsters help us connect with others because we can see some of what they’re carrying. That’s why they’re beautiful.
JS: So how do we work to heal our beautiful monsters?
TR: We can connect to our beautiful monsters through what I call “handshake practice.” Handshake practice combines traditional meditation techniques with this understanding of psychological wounding and healing. The handshake is between the mind and the feeling world, and it allows us to meet our beautiful monsters with openness and awareness. We drop the judgmental mind so that the mind and the feeling world can come together. In this way, we begin to feel our feelings, and there’s a greater sense of trust and connection between the mind and the feeling world. Actual transformation takes place on the feeling level.
JS: The handshake practice is one example of how you both aim to go beyond mindfulness, offering techniques that are not typically included in standard mindfulness courses. Why do you think these methods are typically left out, and how can they support practitioners who feel stuck in their practice?
DG: Today, mindfulness is everywhere in our culture: in companies, in schools, in medical centers, and beyond. But as it’s been made more accessible, I think it’s been oversimplified. When mindfulness was extracted from a traditional Asian context, lots of things got left behind, including an ethical system, devotional practices, and a commitment to self-development. We’re hoping to bring back methods that help Westerners go beyond mindfulness.
“Meditation is the only way you can truly see yourself and come to know your inner world.”
Mindfulness is good. It can help you focus and find a sense of calm. But you can go deeper. Through the handshake practice, you can connect with your entrenched patterns, which then helps you reconnect to essence love. That’s the real goal of the practice. Rinpoche described the sense of being absolutely safe in his grandfather’s lap. The question is, can we have that sense of safety now?
JS: So why are we so disconnected from this sense of essence love?
TR: I think the modern lifestyle is quite harsh on essence love. We tell children, “Oh, you’re so great, you’re the best child in the world.” And then when they come home with bad grades or bad news, we still hug them, but our hug is a little different. It doesn’t express the same sense of unconditional love. Slowly, this basic okayness is missed. Love becomes linked with something, and children come to learn that they should be loved because of what they do.
JS: In other words, if a parent or a teacher says, “You’re brilliant, you’re wonderful, you’re great,” the implication is that you must be brilliant in order to be loved.
DG: Right. This conditions us to expect to be loved based on our merits. One of the mistakes we make with kids is that when they come home from school, we ask them, “How did you do in school today?” We don’t ask them, “Who was kind to you today?” It’s a completely different question. Parents will ask, “How did you do on the test?” That’s not the point of life. Who can you love? Who loves you?
JS: And we carry that into adulthood: “How was work today?”
DG: Exactly, it’s just a continuation of the same theme: “Were you sufficient to be loved?”
TR: This teaches us that our value depends on our productivity and that we have to be worthy of love. Essence love is different. It doesn’t depend on anything at all. It’s there whether you do well or not. If you keep opening up your beautiful monsters, then you will land in this space of unconditional essence love. Then, when you meditate, you shine. Why? Because you’re connecting with your true nature. That sense of hollowness dissolves. Nothing is missing. These practices are all oriented toward this goal.
JS: Ripoche, what did your mother ask you when you got home?
TR: She fed me. And offered me comfort. Not, “How did you do today”, or “What did you learn”, or “What did you make”, or “How do you feel?” Not so much talking. As with my grandfather, I learned from her a sense of okayness. I didn’t feel the hollowness so many people feel nowadays.
JS: I’m sure many of us have experienced the sense of hollowness you describe. What are the dangers of that hollowness if we don’t address it?
TR: We become stuck in our sense of “I.” The more we reify this sense of self, the more hollow we feel. It’s as if we’re being squeezed by the seriousness of everything: mind, body, and feeling world all feel tight. Our sense of self becomes more fixed and concrete, and we become more rigid. It’s harder to laugh. Then we sense something is missing, so we try to fill that hole with possessions, status, and attempts at happiness. Everything becomes oriented around what we want. Over time, as the sense of self hardens, we lose our intrinsic joy and become very lonely.
JS: So what is the appropriate way to relate to the self?
TR: With a sense of lightness or mere-ness. Mereness is the opposite of reification. Instead of squeezing too much, we hold everything lightly. With mereness, we can be in harmony with natural reality. We can allow things to come and go freely without getting fixated on the narratives we form around them.
JS: I’ve gone to retreats with your brother Mingyur Rinpoche, and you and he both teach with a sense of lightness and humor. How does playfulness influence your practice, and how can it offer a way out of the trappings of the self?
TR: Nature is very playful. In nature, everything is playing: trees, wind, mountains. But reification makes everything frozen. When we’re in this frozen state, then we can’t laugh at ourselves. There’s no humor. Meditation helps us cultivate a sense of openness so that we become less frozen and less fixed in our sense of self. Then we can let everything come and go. Everything—thoughts, emotions, phenomena, beautiful monsters—arises from openness, dwells in that openness, and then dissolves. When we observe this, humor is the natural response.
JS: In other words, when we’re frozen, we tend to take ourselves very seriously. When we have more spaciousness, there is humor. And yet the practice is very serious.
TR: It’s serious, but that doesn’t mean we need to take it so seriously. We need a light touch. With a light touch we can learn to let go. And that’s how we find freedom and liberation. That’s how we break free from samsara.
Step 1: Dropping
Begin by taking a relaxed posture. Spend a few minutes dropping the thinking mind and grounding awareness in the body. If it’s useful, you can lift your hands into the air and let gravity bring them down on the thighs with a good slap, along with a big breath out. Three things happen together: the thinking mind drops, the hands drop on the thighs, and you let out a deep breath. Then just rest there, in the body, with no agenda.
Step 2: Meeting
Now allow awareness to gently pervade the feeling world. Open awareness to moods, feelings, and emotions. Don’t hold any goal, any aim. Just meet whatever feelings and emotions are there. Don’t look for anything special, pleasant, or sublime; just be with what is arising. If you feel lousy, be with that. If you feel anxious, be with that feeling. If you feel angry or tense or tired, be with those feelings, and relax into them. If you feel great, peaceful, and relaxed, just be with that too. If you can’t feel anything, just be with the numbness, or be with the peace.
Step 3: Being
Stop looking away. Stop hiding. Turn toward it. Touch it. Feel it. Listen to it. As you adopt this attitude, you are allowing raw feelings to emerge. There is nothing special to do except be with them.
Step 4: Waiting
Continue to practice being; give it some time. Don’t rush into anything. There is nothing to accomplish. You are making friends, and it takes time. Once you can be, just keep being and wait. Waiting is also kindness, compassion. Practice patience. Here patience doesn’t mean an agenda like I’ll be patient with you until you go away and leave me alone. Such an agenda can sidetrack the practice. Here patience means You can stay as long as you want. I don’t care anymore whether you stay or go. We’re friends now.
Copyright © 2022 by Daniel Goleman and Tsoknyi Rinpoche. From Why We Meditate: The Science and Practice of Clarity and Compassion by Daniel Goleman and Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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