I finished reading Cave in the Snow a few days ago, the story of the Englishwoman Tenzin Palmo, who spent 12 years (1976-88) 13,000 foot up a mountain in the Himalayas, meditating. She had first trained for many years within the Kargyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. She was inspired by its founder, Milarepa, who spent decades in solitary meditation. Part of her mission was to prove that women also could do this.
In the chapter called ‘Yogini’ she reluctantly discusses some of her inner experiences during that time. As she says: “Frankly, I don’t like discussing it. It’s like your sexual experiences. Some people like talking about them, others don’t. Personally I find it terribly intimate.” The author, Vicki Mackenzie, had to press her.
“Of course, when you do prolonged retreats you are going to have experiences of great intensity – times when your body completely melts away, or when you feel the body is flying. You get states of incredible awareness and clarity when everything becomes very vivid.”
There were visions too, but as she says: “The whole point is not to get visions but realisations. And realisations are quite bare. They are not accompanied by lights and music. We’re trying to see things as they really are. A realisation is non-conceptual. It’s not a product of the thinking process or the emotions – unlike visions which come from that level. A realisation is the white transparent light at the centre of the prism, not the rainbow colours around it.”
“There are states of incredible bliss. Bliss is the fuel of retreat. You can’t do any long-term practice seriously unless there is inner joy. Because the joy and enthusiasm is what carries you along. It’s like anything, if you don’t really like it you will have this inner resistance and everything is going to be very slow. That is why the Buddha named Joy as a main factor on the path.
The only problem with bliss is that because it arouses such enormous pleasure, beyond anything on a worldly level, including sexual bliss, people cling to it and really want it and then it becomes another obstacle.
Once when I was with the Togdens [an elite group of yogis, trained from a very young age] there were two monks who were training to be yogis. One day they were standing up outside shaking a blanket and they were so blissed out they could hardly stand up. You could actually feel these waves of bliss hitting you. The Togdens turned to me and said: “You know, when you start, this is what happens. You get completely overwhelmed by bliss and you don’t know what to do. After a while you learn how to control it and bring it down to manageable levels.” And it’s true. When you meet more mature practitioners they’re not completely speechless with all this great bliss, because they’ve learnt how to deal with it. And of course they see into its empty nature. You see, bliss in itself is useless. It’s only useful when it’s used as a state of mind for understanding Emptiness – when that blissful mind is able to look into its own nature. Otherwise it is just another subject of Samsara [mundane, conditioned existence]. You can understand emptiness on one level but to understand it on a very subtle level requires this complement of bliss. The blissful mind is a very subtle mind and that kind of mind looking at Emptiness is a very different thing from the gross mind looking at emptiness. And that is why one cultivates bliss.
You go through bliss. It marks just a stage on the journey. The ultimate goal is to realise the nature of the mind. The nature of the mind is unconditioned, non-dual consciousness. It is Emptiness and bliss. It is the state of Knowing without the Knower. And when it is realised it isn’t very dramatic at all. It’s like waking up for the first time – surfacing out of a dream and then realising you have been dreaming. That is shy the sages talk about all things being an illusion. Our normal way of being is muffled – it’s not vivid. It’s like breathing in stale air. Waking up is not sensational. It’s ordinary. But it’s extremely real.
At first you get just a glimpse of it. That is actually only the beginning of the path. People often think when they get that glimpse it is the whole thing, that they’ve reached the goal. Once you begin to see the nature of the mind then you can begin to meditate. Then after that you have to stabilize it until the nature of the mind becomes more and more familiar. And when that is done you integrate it into everyday life.”
There was the occasion one spring when the thaw of the winter snows had begun and her cave was being systematically flooded. “The walls and the floor were getting wetter and wetter and for some reason I was also not very well. I started to feel very down. Then I thought: “Why are you still looking for happiness in Samsara? And my mind just changed around. It was like: That’s right – Samsara is Dukkha [the fundamental unsatisfactory nature of life.] It’s OK that it’s snowing. It’s OK that I’m sick because that is the nature of Samsara. There’s nothing to worry about. If it goes well that’s nice. If it doesn’t go well that’s also nice. It doesn’t make any difference. Although it sounds very elementary, at the time it was a real breakthrough. Since then I have never really cared about external circumstances. In that way the cave was a great teaching because it was not too perfect.”
She remained deliberately vague about the precise nature of the practices she was doing. “I was doing very old traditional practices ascribed to the Buddha himself. They involve a lot of visualisation and internal yogic practices. Basically, you use the creative imaginative faculty of the mind to transform everything, both internally and externally. The creative imagination in itself is an incredibly powerful force. If you channel it in the right way it can reach very deep levels of mind which can’t be accessed through verbal means or mere analysis. This is because on a very deep level we think in pictures. If you are using pictures which have arisen in an Enlightened mind, somehow that unlocks very deep levels in our own minds.”
In the end, had it all been worth it?
“It’s not what you gain but what you lose. It’s like unpeeling the layers of an onion, that’s what you have to do. My quest was to understand what perfection meant. Now, I realise that on one level we have never moved away from it. It is only our deluded perception which prevents our seeing what we already have. The more you realise, the more you realise there is nothing to realise. The idea that there’s somewhere we have got to get to, and something we have to attain, is our basic delusion. Who is there to attain it anyway?”
Back in the world again, had there been a transformation?
“There is a kind of inner freedom which I don’t think I had when I started – an inner peace and clarity. I think it came from having to be self-sufficient, having nothing or no-one to turn to whatever happened. Also while I was in retreat everything became dreamlike, just as the Buddha described. One could see the illusory nature of everything going on around one – because one was not in the middle of it. And then when you come out you see that people are so caught up in their life – we identify so totally with what we’ve created. We believe in it so completely. That’s why we suffer – because there’s no space for us. Now I notice there is an inner distance towards whatever occurs, whether what’s occurring is outwards or inwards. Sometimes, it feels like being in an empty house with all the doors and windows wide open and the wind just blowing through without anything obstructing it. Sometimes one gets caught up again, but now one knows that one is caught up again.
It’s not a cold emptiness, it’s a warm spaciousness. It means that one is no longer involved in one’s ephemeral emotions. One sees how people cause so much of their own suffering just because they think that without having these strong emotions they’re not real people.
Why does one go into retreat? One goes into a retreat to understand who one really is and what the situation truly is. When one begins to understand oneself then one can truly understand others because we are all interrelated. It is very difficult to understand others while one is still caught up in the turmoil of one’s emotional involvement – because we’re always interpreting others from the standpoint of our own needs. That’s why, when you meet hermits who have really done a lot of retreat, say 25 years, they are not cold and distant. On the contrary. They are absolutely lovely people. You know that their love for you is totally without judgement because it doesn’t rely on who you are or what you are doing, or how you treat them. It’s totally impartial. It’s just love. It’s like the sun – it shines on everyone. Whatever you did they’d still love you because they understand your predicament and in that understanding naturally arises love and compassion. It’s not based on sentiment. It’s not based on emotion. Sentimental love is very unstable, because it’s based on feedback and how good it makes you feel. That is not real love at all.”
Later we read: “There is the thought, and then there is the knowing of the thought. And the difference between being aware of the thought and just thinking is immense…. It’s enormous. Normally we are so identified with our thoughts and emotions, that we are them. We are the happiness, we are the anger, we are the fear. We have to learn to step back and know our thoughts and emotions are just thoughts and emotions. They’re just mental states. They’re not solid, they’re transparent. One has to know that and then not identify with the knower. One has to know that the knower is not somebody. The further back we go, the more open and empty the quality of our consciousness becomes. Instead of finding some solid little eternal entity, which is “I”, we get back to this vast spacious mind which is interconnected with all living beings.
Once we realise that the nature of our existence is beyond thought and emotions, that it is incredibly vast and interconnected with all other beings, then the sense of isolation, separation, fear and hopes fall away. It’s a tremendous relief!