An excerpt from Starting the Evolution, An Introduction to the Ancient Teaching of Dzogchen by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, compiled and edited by Alfredo Colitto, Shang Shung Publications, 2018.
Meditation and Integration
You are not always aware of that inner light that you experienced during or after receiving direct transmission from the teacher. But if you discovered your real condition, you have what is called the Base. This is the first step. Of course, just that first experience is not enough; we should try to have it more often, becoming familiar with it, until one day we will be in that state all the time. How do we do that? First of all, we can practice meditation.
When we say, “I do meditation,” it is always a concept. There is something on which to meditate. But in the Dzogchen teaching, we do not apply meditation in a conceptual way. We just train ourselves to be in our real nature: we sit comfortably in a quiet place, do Guruyoga and rest in that state. When you try to be in that state day after day, you become more familiar with it. In this way, you become more and more free. When you are in that state always, day and night, you are completely free from transmigration in samsara. This is called enlightenment, or realization. We are no longer slaves to our emotions and dualistic condition. This is how we should apply the teaching.
Although meditation is helpful, if we want to continuously be in our real nature, meditation alone is not sufficient. Normally we can meditate half an hour, or maybe one hour. Some people can sit for two or three hours a day, but that is it. During the other twenty-two or twenty-three hours we live in complete distraction, especially in this modern world, where we have to work, raise our children, and pay our bills. And we also need time to cook, to eat, to sleep. So how can we possibly remain in the state of our real nature twenty-four hours a day, week after week, year after year?
The answer is that we need to integrate everything we do in that state. Integration is a key Dzogchen practice, and it is integration that makes this teaching particularly useful in these modern times, when people do not have much time to sit and meditate, or to go to some cave and stay in retreat for years and years.
Integration means that while we go about our daily life, we are not remaining in a dualistic vision. Remember the example of the mirror. If we look in the mirror, see our reflection, and say, “Oh, this is my reflection,” this is dualistic vision. Nondualistic vision means to be in the nature of the mirror. We don’t see reflections, we reflect everything. This is just our potentiality, we do not need to separate ourselves from the reflections and judge them.
When we have this capacity, it means there is no difference between meditation and nonmeditation, because everything and every moment of our life is integrated into our real nature.
Presence and Awareness
Some people say, “I like Dzogchen because it has no rules and I am free to do whatever I like.” That is absolutely not the principle. Thinking in this way clearly shows that one has not understood the meaning of awareness.
First of all, we have to make a clear distinction between rules and awareness. Rules are established according to circumstances of time and place and they condition the individual from the outside; awareness arises from a knowledge possessed by the individual. So, if we are aware, we can obey rules without feeling constrained by them. Being free from limitations is something internal, there is no need to show it by doing some strange actions, like stripping naked in the street, for example. If we do that to show how free we are, instead of ending up enlightened we will probably end up in jail. On the contrary, if we are aware and present we will be able to live without problems under any kind of law, without being conditioned by it.
Many important masters have said, “Drive the horse of awareness with the whip of presence!” This knowledge is crucial, because if awareness is not accompanied by presence, it does not work. Here is an example of awareness: Let’s imagine a woman has a cup full of poison in front of her and is aware of it. Since she knows the danger of the poison, she does not need a lot of explanations about it. She will also warn those who do not know about the danger, saying, “There is poison in that cup. If you drink it you will die!” In this way, awareness has a chance of arising in others too, and people can avoid the danger.
Now suppose we are dealing with people who know about the danger of the poison but do not consider it important, or still have doubts about it, or who actually do not have this awareness. In that case, it is not enough to say, “This is poison!” It will be necessary to add, “Drinking this is forbidden, and anyone who disobeys will be punished by law!” This is the sense in which life is protected through the threat of the law. Law is in fact based on this principle, and although it is very different from the principle of awareness, it is indispensable as a means to help save the lives of irresponsible people who lack awareness.
Extending the example, we can also understand the meaning of “presence.” Let’s say that the woman, who as we said is aware of the poison in the cup it and knows the consequences of drinking it, lacks continuous presence. Then, in a moment of distraction, she might accidentally drink the poison. The point is that if awareness is not accompanied by presence it is difficult for it to produce the right results.
The Principle of Nondistraction
When we are in the state of our real nature, there are no limits, but when we are in a dualistic vision we have limitations. We are always distracted. There is always something that we are seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting. We perceive all those things as external (“I am here, something else is there”), and we judge them. What we like, we accept. What we do not like, we reject. In this way we accumulate the potentiality of karma, day after day. This is what we call dualistic vision.
So what should we do to not be distracted? Although the Dzogchen teaching also includes many formal practices, the most important is trying to remain in our real nature. After that, the next best is trying to be aware and present in every circumstance. To relax is vital as well, but if you are not present, you cannot relax. On the other hand, when you are present, you notice when you are not relaxed and then you can relax. So the main point is being present: every moment, every day, from the minute we wake up until we go to bed – and ideally even while we are asleep, as we will see later. Maybe you think it is impossible to be present at all times. But everything seems difficult in the beginning. Remember when you were learning to drive a car, how difficult it was?
At first, you just concentrated on driving, without being able to do much else. You looked at the road, you were a little tense, you watched out for other vehicles, and you did your best to arrive where you were going without having accidents. But after some months, it was not difficult any longer. And now that you are familiar with it, while you are driving, you are present. You relax, you see the landscape outside, you talk to the person sitting next to you, but you are not distracted; you are always aware of what is happening on the road, you know when to change gears, and so on.
In the same way we can learn to not be distracted when we are eating, walking, sitting, or lying down, and also when we are working or talking with people. You may find it difficult at the beginning, just like when you started to learn how to drive. But after a while it gets easier. Not distracted means that we observe what is happening. There is a kind of presence that is always observing. But normally we do not notice it, because our mind is busy following thoughts, emotions, and judgments.
So you can start to train, little by little. For example, when you have some free time, you can decide, “Today I want to learn how to be present.” If you do not have the whole day, you can dedicate just two or three hours to this training, or less, depending how much time you have.
You could make a kind of commitment to yourself, saying, “I will try to be present for the next two hours.” And then observe your thoughts, without being distracted. You just notice, “Oh, I am thinking that.” That’s it, there is not much else to do. Then at some point you might want to go to the kitchen for a glass of water. To do that, it is not necessary that you abandon your presence. So you notice “I’m thinking of going to the kitchen. Now I am getting up. Now I am walking.” Maybe you meet somebody who asks, “What are you doing?” and for a moment you are distracted. But then you remember “I am talking with this person now.” And you reply, without losing your presence, “I am going to the kitchen for a glass of water.” That person says, “Please, sit down, I will bring you water.” You reply, “Thank you very much,” then you go back and sit down, always noticing everything you are doing.
You can go on like this and you learn. It is always possible to apply presence. Of course, this is not the state of Dzogchen, it is not our real nature. The Dzogchen state is totally beyond time, effort, and limitations. Here, we are thinking; there is an effort to pay attention. This is called ordinary presence. It is an extremely useful practice, because when you know how to be in the state of Dzogchen, you can integrate that presence easily. Moreover, ordinary presence is also a great help in your life. If you are not distracted you can work better, enjoy more, avoid saying and doing things that you know you will regret. You can notice all your tensions and relax them. That is why you should learn to be present.
Traditionally, we say that our lifetime is divided into four moments: eating, walking, sitting, and sleeping. If we, as Dzogchen practitioners, succeed to be present in these four moments, we can have total realization. Otherwise, if we dedicate only a limited amount of time to practice, however extended might it be, we are never going to be able to integrate our whole life with the practice.
Also, very often we are not alone. Some people get disturbed or annoyed by noises made by others walking or talking; or they are distracted by external things and get involved in endless ordinary illusions. This defect is called “the difficult passage when vision appears as an enemy.” It shows that even though we know how to continue recognizing the calm state and the movement of thoughts, we have not succeeded in applying presence. Knowing how to be present in these four moments can help us.
Eating and drinking are just like putting fuel into our car to make it work. We should not be governed by our attachment to food and drink. If we are present in these moments, we can also understand how much to eat, how much to drink, and so on. But most important, if we are able to remain in our real nature while eating and drinking, we can enjoy any kind of food and drink without judging.
When we are in a state of contemplation, there is no need to change our position or do anything special. For example, while I am walking in the street, I can also be present in my real condition. I walk and I am in a state of contemplation. It does not matter what we are doing with our physical body, we can be present without modifying anything.
Sometimes we are working or doing something while sitting. At other times we are not doing anything in particular, but we are seated. In these moments, too, it is truly importantto apply the practice of being present. Sitting does not refer only to sitting in meditation, in a special position. I can be sitting or lying down on my bed, and as soon as I think, “Oh, I want to be in the state of contemplation,” then I am already in that state. I do not assume a specific position. If I do that, I am conditioned by the position and am just following my mental concepts.
The time we dedicate to sleep is almost half of our life, so if we break our presence in the nighttime we cannot have total realization. But how can we maintain presence while we are asleep? Just as for the practice of daytime, we need to train little by little.
The Night Practice
To have a continuous state of presence, we should practice day and night. In the day, as we said, we try to be present. And, if we have received the introduction to the state of Dzogchen from a qualified master, we work with the transmission through the practice of Guruyoga. But what should we do in the night? Basically, the same thing.
In general night practice is known as “dream yoga.” When our mind, which is associated with consciousness and all the functions of the senses, awakens while the body remains asleep, we say that we are dreaming. If we train to be aware that we are dreaming, we can use this time to practice. However, we should not even lose our presence when we are asleep but not dreaming. Nobody knows how long we sleep before the first dream arises. Sometimes we have a dream as soon as we fall asleep, at other times we may sleep a long time before a dream begins. In the Dzogchen teaching, the period from the moment we fall asleep until the awakening of the mind and its functions is called the state of natural light, when our real potentiality reveals itself nakedly. It is possible to learn how to not lose presence even during deep sleep, when we are not dreaming, because the flow of pure awareness always continues, uninterrupted. It does not depend on the activity of our mind.
The final goal of Dzogchen practice is to never lose presence. Many different methods of dream yoga exist that are related to the Tantra teachings, and sometimes they are a little complicated. But if you are a Dzogchen practitioner, the method is very easy. When you go to bed, you do Guruyoga and try to fall asleep in that state. That is all.
Of course, in the beginning it can be difficult. Maybe you have the idea to practice, then you go to bed and the next morning you wake up and think, “Oh, I forgot.” But the next night, and the night after that, you do not forget. Then you may forget again, but do not worry, because you have many, many nights to try again. The main thing is to keep trying. Otherwise, maybe you try two or three times, and if you do not immediately succeed you think, “I can’t do this.” Then you become indifferent and do not try anymore. That is bad, because the night practice is very, very important. When you acquire a little familiarity with
it, in your dreams you can do all kinds of practices. You can progress more than in your daytime practice. Daytime is quite limited and difficult for us, but in dreams time has a different value.
During one period in my life I was working at the university in Naples, but I lived in Rome. I worked all day, giving lectures, participating in meetings, and so on. When I returned home by train, I always felt tired and often fell asleep. Once, while falling asleep, slowly my head started to nod until it dropped forward and I woke up. The whole process took just a moment, maybe three or five seconds, no more than that. But between the time I fell asleep and woke up, I had quite a long dream. I was very surprised. How was it possible to have such a long dream in just a few seconds? This is just an example to show how in dreams time is different.