Dzogchen and Glennzgchen

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This is a guest post by Glenn Thomas Davis. Mark is not responsible for its content. Great to find your writings on meditation. I’ve been trying to find “meditation geeks” who talk about this stuff from a rationalist mindset, free of mystical trappings, so you are a breath of fresh air. I’ve been meditating seriously for almost a year. After recently reading a post by Sam Harris in which he says:

Consciousness is already free of the feeling that we call “I.” However, a person must change his plane of focus to realize this. Some practices can facilitate this shift in awareness, but there is no truly gradual path that leads there. […] Looking for the mind, or the thinker, or the one who is looking, is often taught as a preliminary exercise in Dzogchen, and it gets your attention pointed in the right direction. It’s different from focusing on the sensation of breathing. You’re simply turning attention upon itself—and this can provoke the insight I’m talking about. It’s possible to look for the one who is looking and to find, conclusively, that no one is there to be found.

After a bit of reading on Dzogchen, I came up with this practice, which I’ve been doing for a half hour in the morning, and often in the evening as well:

  1. Sit and breathe. Breathe deeply a few times if it feels natural to do so. Gradually allow your breathing to happen by itself.
  2. Pay attention to everything in your field of awareness, without preference or mental commentary. The question is: “what am I experiencing right now”?
  3. The most important thing to pay attention to is your own act of paying attention. Bring your focus to what is happening with you in the present moment.
  4. Gradually allow your attention to expand to your entire field of consciousness — to all the contents of your awareness at this moment. Follow your sense of “self” to where it begins (or disappears). Notice (without making a big deal out of it) that your consciousness is a “bubble” in which everything you are experiencing is taking place. Allow yourself to Just Sit, and gradually drop all commentary or mental activity aside from attention. Exercise the least amount of mental energy you can.
  5. As you do steps 2 thru 4, sometimes you may lose focus. This entails discovering that you’ve been following a train of words and feelings. You lost consciousness while “thinking.” (Surprising insight: “Thinking” is an [usually?] unconscious activity!!)
  6. When this happens, try to actively and consciously *inhabit and carry out* the mental, emotional and physical process you were carrying out while you were “thinking”. Try to be in this state of consciousness without adding anything to it.
  7. As you continue to do this, you may drop into a state in which there is no explicit verbal chatter happening in the foreground of your awareness. There may still be voices “bubbling up” from below your conscious awareness. Allow these voices to remain preverbal noise. Return to step 4 as necessary.
  8. See if you can drop *everything* you are mentally *doing,* including *”focusing,”* without just losing the thread completely.
  9. Anything that comes up is fine.
  10. Rinse and repeat.

This seems to take me very deep, very fast. Perhaps too fast (thinking of your admonitions about Dark Night Of The Soul), although I *think* I have tools to deal with that if it arises. Curious to hear what you think of this. Thank you for the opportunity to post/correspond/consult.

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7 thoughts on “Dzogchen and Glennzgchen

  1. Your meditation protocol is slick.

    Some ranty thoughts:

    >> Consciousness is already free of the feeling that we call “I.” However, a person must change his plane of focus to realize this. <<

    Bleargh, this kind of language makes me a little crazy. Maybe Harris has different inner phenomenology than most people. Maybe after enough of a particular kind of meditation one’s phenomenology changes and then one forgets things were experienced in any other way.

    I mean, I get it, I think, this “always already; gateless gate,” etc. kind of language. Supposedly “nothing changes” except that, indeed, one’s “focus” changes—the “I” is still an object in consciousness but it’s no longer mistaken for “you.” It’s seen for what it is: a referent that stands in for “you” to facilitate cognition about “you,” but is an impoverished representation of “you,” that makes it easier to have all sorts of painful, self-referential cognitions, e.g. “I am stupid.” (Thomas Metzinger has some sharp philosophy on all this. Another take: How To Realize Emptiness by Lamrimpa has a discussion from the perspective of one of the Tibetan schools about how there is no “I”. Robert Forman describes his experience with this state in his book.)

    Metzinger on his “Phenomenally Transparent Self-Model”:

    People say, I think, that it’s worthwhile to live having seen through "I" permanently. As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m a little skeptical that these sorts of neural changes are a good idea, says I in the face of thousands of years of precedent and exalted language. The closest “peek” experience I’ve had is when I catch glimpses of “all of myself, from the outside, all at once.” I don’t know if that’s actually what they mean; such experiences are quite beautiful. But one lesson I’ve learned is that, if you think you know what it’s going to be like, you’re usually quite wrong.

    Here are some of the “peek” experiences I’ve had, some very bad:

    (Robert Forman talks about some good and bad experiences in his book. Shinzen Young, somewhere on his blog, I think, talks about initially good and bad enlightenment experiences and how sometimes you need to digest it for a while before it becomes good.)

    And there’s other “aspects” to classical enlightenment from the latter half of my dark night post:


    Some more ranty thoughts:


    “no truly gradual path that leads there”
    “You’re simply turning attention upon itself”


    “Expand your awareness, if you can, to your entire field of consciousness”

    I would have the same ranty comment to both you and Harris. I don’t think it’s simple at all, it *is* gradual and it doesn’t have to be accidental, we can use better language, and, when it comes to meditation, manipulating attention properly is counter-intuitive.

    Re simply turning attention upon itself, ok, I guess this can be a good introductory exercise to shake students up. But, there’s a reason that the Buddha emphasized both concentration and mindfulness:

    When you do a basic attentional move, it’s as if a spotlight moves in a dark room, illuminating the object you’re looking at and dimming everything else in the phenomenal field. Further, the sense of “I” (and a bunch of other stuff) is always behind the flashlight. (“I” and object always arise together, they are both objects in consciousness, etc.) It’s slippery. What’s on the periphery always moves to stay on the periphery, in the “dimmed” area, on the edges of your “inner peripheral vision,” as it were. Therefore you can look forever and never be enlightened, you can be “mindful” forever and never get enlightened, unless you stumble on or are taught how to “look” the right way.

    With a touch of concentration, you can stabilize attention, and with the spotlight gently fixed, you can observe the contents of your inner peripheral vision. But if you accidentally try to move spotlight towards the periphery, this contents vanishes and you don’t get a good look at it. I use “inner peripheral vision,” Daniel Ingram in his book uses “out of phase” phenomena. Some of Brunce Mangan’s “non-sensory fringe” falls into this category.

    I believe the Tibetans have some technical term for this type of concentration. “Momentary concentration”? It doesn’t mean your attention always has to be anchored somewhere, it just means that wherever attention falls, you can “undim” the periphery and get a look at it before attention goes somewhere else and everything changes. I’m being a little sloppy with language, the periphery can include all of awareness, that “bubble” you mention in your step 4.

    And my same comment applies to all of awareness. It’s very hard to take in all of awareness, grasping all of it, all at once, without some stability of attention. Otherwise, one is doing the same thing one has always done, moving a spotlight around, maybe really fast, but it’s not the same thing as taking in everything, all at once. Moving the spotlight around really fast can be a stepping stone, but the next step is qualitatively different, imho.

    Ingram got there with “dry noting,” so it’s possible. But I did not. I didn’t make the jump from dry noting to “noting within a semi-stabilized attentional field.” I never stumbled on this myself. I had to take a different angle, which is part of the reason I started this blog.

    “Theravadin” says it better than me, and helped me clarify my thinking:

    And finally, all that being said, everything I wrote could do more harm than good. One should trust one’s experience, find out for one’s self, be skeptical of everything, and, especially, to experience more one should simply pay attention to the texture, the microstructure, the location and feel and dynamics of precisely what’s happening precisely right now, no more no less…

    Whew. Anyway, despite my possibly ranty-sleep-deprived tone, this was great. Glennzgchen: love it. Thanks for posting. Hope to see more.

  2. > Your meditation protocol is slick.

    Thank you! 😀

    Great comments about the distinction between “shining the flashlight around” and this other kind of “peripheral vision” attention. This is another area in which I just spontaneously started doing something that I *think* is what you’re talking about, or conducive to it, and it’s funny because I had considered putting it explicitly into my protocol, but I find it hard to describe.

    What I do is, when I get to the point at which I’m starting to “drop into” that beautiful “bubble awareness” thing (which then sometimes eventually morphs or flips into a sensation like I’m looking at a river of sensation, smeared across time, and the stability and coherence of my perceptions start to break apart — does this mean I’m playing with fire, “dark night”-wise? :-D) … anyway, just when I’m starting to have glimpses of that state, what I start to do is *assume that I have other, subtle senses than the ones I normally use, and that if I let go, they will kick in automatically.*

    It reminds me a bit of the trick of viewing 3D stereoscopic images. ( Like I usually have to stare, and unfocus my eyes for a while, and shift my focus in and out, and then finally I “drop in” to seeing the image, and once I have it, I’m able to hold it steady for a while.

    A comment about “enlightenment”: The way I’m using meditation now, I wonder how much use I have for this notion. I’m starting to think the answer may be None.

    Another thing I might say is that I have had “peak experiences” similar to what you describe when you talk about “enlightenment.” What I think about that now is that, at least for me, another perfectly accurate word for “peak experience” is: Manic Episode. My first one was brought about by having my consciousness stretched to the breaking point by my participation in an intense event (which, unfortunately, no longer exists) called the “est 6 Day Course” ( The second one was a side effect of nefazodone, which I then exacerbated and prolonged for a couple of weeks by abusing the drug… wheeeeee!

    I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world, but I (no longer) want to repeat them, either. And of course it would be glib to suggest that everyone who experiences “enlightenment” is simply having a manic episode, but I do wonder.

    Anyway, when I think about what I’m trying to get out of meditation now, it’s not mystical at all. I want better-quality metacognition. I want to lower my cortisol levels and experience less stress. I want to lower my blood pressure. I want to be happier. I want to defeat akrasia and have more Agency. I want to be less reactive, and therefore be a more skillful communicator.

    I am starting to think that, while it is useful to be able to use metaphor to describe subtle states of mind and “being” that are otherwise hard to talk about, we *might* be better off in some ways to cut off the mystical baggage of the inheritance from Buddhism etc., entirely, and just start fresh. Thoughts?

  3. >> and the stability and coherence of my perceptions start to break apart

    Good if you want to get enlightened, but playing with fire, yes. But… honestly… if you’re already getting a taste of that, it’s probably too late for you, anyway. 😦 🙂 You might not experience dark night phenomena. 🙂 Only a fraction of people do, though I don’t know what fraction.

    >> It reminds me a bit of the trick of viewing 3D stereoscopic images.

    Yeah, any tricky, deliberate deployment of attention, which your reflexes normally keep kicking you out of.

    >> “peak experiences” >> Manic Episode

    “peek” if it’s rare, “peak” if it’s good+rare 🙂 After you have one of these, the standard advice seems to be, give it a year, or five. See if the insight holds up.

    The wisdom traditions do differentiate between stages on the path, distracting light shows, and permanent enlightenment. There are stable platforms that you can reach and then build on. Of course, there’s plenty of messiness, the map is not the territory and all that. But, there are graduated, repeatable phenomena (usually-but-not-always) culminating in a handful of classical buddhist enlightenments. Daniel Ingram is a proponent of “the maps.” I believe him, based on limited personal experience, with qualifiers.

    >> I want to defeat akrasia and have more Agency.

    I’m pretty sure there’s research out there that meditation does not alter hyperbolic discounting curves. 🙂 Doesn’t mean that you can’t use meditation as a building block to get there anyway, though. I think there’s also research that meditation makes you more rational in at least one game theory sort of situation.

    >> I want to be less reactive

    Oh yes. IMO meditation will certainly do that. Though as your values and priorities change, you might get hungrier and grumpier. Personality and adult development is complicated, more complicated when you throw in transformative practices (over timescales of 5-10 years). I think if you’re doing it right, you feel more and more, not less and less. (It becomes safe to feel more and more.) I’m still a grumpy, kind, gentle, friendly, critical, warm, volatile, compassionate, safe asshole.

    >> start fresh

    I don’t think starting fresh is the answer. There is gold there. Diamonds. Amidst the dogma and humans playing human games, fighting for status and food across millennia. But let’s bring on board cutting-edge ethics, empiricism, neuroscience, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, and evolutionary psychology.

  4. Great answers, as usual.

    >> I don’t think starting fresh is the answer. There is gold there. Diamonds.

    Assent given. Having said that: If I had to read one thing (aside from your site) that INTELLIGENTLY sorts some of the wheat from the chaff in any of the meditation-advocating wisdom traditions, e.g. Buddhism, translating it into terms more amenable to a Western skeptic and increasing the signal-to-noise ratio, what would you recommend?

    Oh, and: Anything that reliably DOES alter hyperbolic discounting curves? (I’m a recent CFAR graduate, so I’m working through as much of that material as I can assimilate FWIW.) And p.s. I’m working through your akrasia posts, so you don’t even need to answer this last question unless you feel like adding to stuff you’ve previously written on the subject. (This SITE is a diamond mine. Very very glad to know you, sir!!!)

  5. Thanks, don’t take me too seriously. 🙂

    >> more amenable to a Western skeptic and increasing the signal-to-noise ratio, what would you recommend? <<

    ::sighs heavily::

    So there isn’t really anything, as far as I know.

    The best practical stuff is Upasaka Culadasa’s stuff, Shinzen Young’s stuff, Daniel Ingram’s stuff. (In no particular order.) But, for me, they were partial at best (I mean their consumable material, not them personally). I had to go very far afield, over and over and over again to personally make progress.

    Some pointers to the best theoretical stuff on the phenomenological / experiential side is below, in my opinion. But it’d all be be totally opaque for a beginner. has interviews with a gazillion contemporary teachers.

    On the objective side, well, I just don’t know. There’s this:

    But, “Meditation and transformative practice vis-à-vis rationality, phenomenology, neuroscience and {clinical, developmental, evolutionary} psychology because humans,” I’ve got nothing that blows me away, nothing that *nails* it, nothing that *gets* it.

    And then there’s the developmental aspect, the angle that shapes and reshapes one’s ultimate concerns… I don’t know if that will ever be fully integrated, but that will always be the bleeding edge, if that makes sense.

    So, yeah, let me know if you find someone. I’ll see if I can get the attention of some smart people on twitter and point them at this thread.


    Theoretical stuff in no particular order:

    Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning by Eugene Gendlin

    Maitreya's Distinguishing Phenomena And Pure Being: With Commentary By Mipham by Ju Mipham, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso and Jim Scott

    Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought by Bhikkhu Katukurunde Nanananda

    Thomas Metzinger’s stuff

  6. Actually, I will amend this a little bit. I do think Shinzen Young “gets it,” and there are smart people doing research on meditation, of course. Grateful they’re out there, and there must be others. Just that no one seems to be doing “all of it, all at once,” the bleeding edge of absolutely everything, all woven together, made accessible. That’s hard. Especially if you’re not independently wealthy.

    Listen to Young’s careful use of language, meticulous comprehensiveness, and neuroscience-aware reasoning:

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