The Somatic Approach of Dharma Ocean

I stumbled on a very powerful — in my opinion the most powerful — entry into the experience of unborn awareness, one’s awakened state. During a Naropa Buddhist Christian conference around 1980, Eido Roshi reported an incident in his own training as a young, aspiring Zen student. He said that as a Zen trainee, he was in a sesshin, sitting late one night on the porch of the Zendo. He was completely consumed by his superficial mind, his thinking ego mind. This had been a problem for some time, and he became increasingly frustrated and upset. There was something he just wasn’t getting. His teacher then gave him a simple practice that involved breathing into the lower belly, the region of the hara, in a particular way. And that, Roshi said, abruptly provided the gate that had been eluding him. Eureka!

Roshi showed me the practice. I began working with it myself and found the same thing happened to me when I became stuck. A door that had been closed suddenly and miraculously opened. At the same time, I was doing long Mahamudra retreats each summer, then moving to the Six Yogas of Naropa. I began to clearly see how the many somatic practices in these and other Vajrayana transmissions lead to the same exact place. It wasn’t the specifics of the practices themselves, but the mere fact of entering so abruptly into the body that seemed to be the catalytic agent. How could I have not seen this before?

I began looking for other somatic protocols, first in the other major Buddhist lineages, finding Dogen’s profound teaching and instruction on how to be in the body. Then I discovered some Theravadin forest teachings along the same line. I looked beyond Buddhism, first to indigenous spirituality, then to the evolving Western somatic psychologies and therapies, exploring a few in depth. Since then, over the past forty years, I have developed some two dozen somatic practices with a single intent: to provide direct and immediate entry points into the experience of the natural state.

I began using this approach in my meditation programs, even with relatively inexperienced people. To my amazement, I found students naturally dropping into their deeper, buddha mind. That experience, occurring over and over, provided an extraordinarily fertile ground for their inspiration to follow the path of meditation and their confidence in doing so. For many years now, I have said that the core of my own teaching is pointing out the natural state — pointing out, pointing out.

As our Western and world culture becomes increasingly disconnected and dissociated from direct human experience, as we all live more and more in a virtual, disembodied world, that disconnection is reflected in each new generation of aspiring practitioners. Within this context, this somatic approach to meditation, and the immediate gate it offers to the immaculate, awakening within, would seem even more important than when I began teaching it. While traditional Tibetan Buddhism reserved these teachings for a tiny elite, I feel that that kind of extreme restriction is not only unnecessary, it is actually counterproductive as it prevents modern people from direct, personal experience of the ultimate, inner awakening. And I have found that without that experience, it is very difficult for modern people to connect with and stay with the challenges of meditation and the journey it provides.

Over the past two decades, neuroscience, and especially neurological research into meditation, clarifies what I discovered in my teaching. We have two ways of knowing — first, and primary, is what we might call “right brain” knowledge — the direct, non-conceptual experience of our subcortical regions, everything “below” the thinking mind — the body’s innate knowing.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, it is said that this type of knowing is “naked” or “pure” because it is unfiltered and unprocessed by our egoic thinking mind. This is somatic knowing, what some people call “body knowledge” or “body wisdom.” Second is the abstract, conceptual knowledge of the left brain, consisting of all the labels, concepts, judgments, and narratives we overlay onto our naked, pure experience. The left brain cannot experience anything in and of itself; it can only label and categorize the actual experience of our Soma, or body. Thoughts, even thoughts of enlightenment, don’t liberate; only the direct, bodily experience of the teachings does.

The somatic protocols of our lineage enable even new students to drop immediately beneath the incessant thinking of the left brain into their Soma. When they do, they experience themselves in a completely unprecedented way, running into the natural state as their ground of being. Once this occurs, students suddenly experience the insight, power, and warmth they have been looking for in the inner depths of their own being. This experience is known in Tibetan Buddhism as “empowerment,” and that is surely exactly what it is.

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