Consciousness, meditation and mindfulness are increasingly popular themes and memes in our culture. Despite having completed a dozen retreats over the past 10 years with different teachers that could lead me to think I ‘know’ something about this topic, my participation in a recent Cheng Hsin Contemplation Intensive (CI) in the Netherlands demonstrated how little I know, and what great power there is in really, really not knowing.
Peter Ralston lead the CI with assistance from Kevin MacGee, one of his most senior students. Peter had his first enlightenment experience nearly 45 years ago and has been continuing to investigate and teach ever since. He’s authored several books in this field including the most recent ‘Pursuing Consciousness’.
My experience with Peter is of being very direct and providing guidance and feedback that is perfectly appropriate to the situation and person engaging with him. Relative to other teachers I am familiar with (esp. Vipassana /Goenka, EnlightenNext / Andrew Cohen, Gangaji, Genpo Roshi etc.) he and what he teaches comes across as being relatively free of any dogma, concepts or interpretations of experiences, rather focusing on the guidance to directly experience truth for oneself. He does communicate with a lot of personality, energy and his own views on particular teachings, teachers or other topics, and freewheels through some long and sometimes confusing (though entertaining) stories and writing.
Peter comes across as quite ‘original’ and his teachings don’t reference or align with a single (or few) lineages, traditions or teachers. He does draw on stories, methods and concepts from Zen, Charles Berner, Esalen and a range of teachers and movements that he learned with and from. What stands out is the emphasis on each person taking responsibility for their own inquiry, and seeking direct personal experience of the truth regarding whatever is encountered. It’s not just that Peter recommends that approach, it’s the approach he has taken and continues to take.
There were some introductory exercises in the first two days that both provided some foundational skills while also making me aware of how unskillful and inattentive I was! Exercises included:
- Practising focusing on one thing for some time e.g. a marble,
- Practising direct and honest communication e.g. asking and receiving,
- Guided meditations
The brochure accurately summarises the rest of the format, the only difference being that the actual intensive seemed to be for 5 whole days (not just 3). By ‘intense’ I mean that, every moment (or every one of the 86,400 seconds) of each day was focused on contemplating the question at hand.
I ‘held’ the question of ‘Who Am I?’ initially, then later ‘What Am I?’ through 12-14 rounds of 40-minute ‘Contemplation and Communication Exercises’ (CCEs) each day. These exercises are essentially ‘dyads’ with two people facing each other, taking turns to pose the question and listen to the response, or to contemplate the question and communicate what comes up. The questions were also held in every other activity: during stretching, walking, drinking tea, meals, waking, preparing for bed, Kevin would remind us to ‘hold your question’!
The format for the CCEs is described in the brochure, and is consistent with what are described in Wikipedia as ‘Enlightenment Intensives’ and whose current format originated with Charles Berner in the late 1960s in California. This format is used by other teachers too, including Yoah Wexler in Australia. It combines meditation methods with the structure of an interpersonal workshop, with a koan for contemplation, space for silent contemplation, and also the non-judgemental presence of another human being.
Relative to my experience of silent meditation, guided meditation of ‘collective enlightenment / dialogue / voice dialogue’ approaches, this format and process seems very effective and efficient at enabling direct experience of truth. Verbalising what comes up to my dyad partner required clarity, honesty and enabled me to quickly move on / move through whatever thought, distraction etc. it was and go further into contemplation. The presence of a conscious, human partner actively staring at you intently provides a presence for contemplation, and kept me attentive and engaged, which is different from meditation where ‘drifting off’ can happen more easily.
Facilitating these retreats seems relatively straightforward in the format, however the Q&A sessions and handling the these most subtle investigations and open, intense participants is perhaps the most skilful work imaginable. It's the bare focus, nothing else to do, absolute minimisation of distractions which seems to make this so powerful. And, the guidance of good facilitators: I went down some major rabbit holes for days at a time, and I experienced Peter and Kevin demonstrating mastery in their guidance of me and others. It's no small thing to trust something with life's most intimate and important questions.
This format is intense. I love it. It's mind-crushing and attention-focusing in a way that's hard to describe (but i will try!). The contemplation of the koan took over completely as the frame and focus for my experience in every moment. I've never taken something more sincerely and surrendered to the task at hand more completely ever in my life.
I 'got' who I am, directly, as in a direct experience of who I am. Doesn't sounds remarkable to say "I know who I am", but having gotten clear on it now pretty foundational for all of life, contemplation of further questions. And, while 'What I am' seems like an obvious and natural extension, it's also an absolute mystery.
Towards the end of the retreat, contemplating "what I am", I took what I called the "arsonist approach" to contemplation. To me, this meant focusing so intensely on really not knowing, really intending to realise the truth, really contemplating that any thought, emotion, feeling, experience, judgement, memory, person, concept that arose was burned in the fire of my attention the instant it appeared or was recognised. Going further, I would use the arising of anything to 'burn' everything related to it e.g. a concept about what enlightenment is would be the trigger for me to discard that whole category of distinctions and associations to do with enlightenment.
It is an extreme level of vigilance and attention on the question, not knowing and hard to describe even with metaphor or analogy. And, the other analogy I used is imagining a contemplation as a depression on an otherwise flat surface on which a "marble" as the object of contemplation sits. Anything that moves the marble (or attention) away from the depression is immediately addressed by bring attention back into the cradle of contemplation.
Really "getting" what contemplation is and how to do it, especially being 'open', not knowing and honest feels almost as important as the content of realisation or insights. I say this because it seems to create the foundation for further contemplation, relationship to live, and the possibility to live life as an expression of the deepest truth of my realisation.
And, there seems to be an endless variety of ways to contemplate. As in, the principle of contemplation may have many forms, as I experienced people in the dyads doing and thinking about all sorts of things. I noticed for myself that I am a really particular way, however don't have to be that way. As in, the Andrew that I am could just as easily be any other participant or take any form, but what's most enabling is trying to arrive 'not knowing' and 'present' in every moment. While knowing and knowledge and being habituated is relatively powerful, not knowing, presently is absolutely everything.
There were many more insights about life, contemplation, attention, perception, experience and identity. For 'me' and in the every day world, relationships and works these insights seem so important and are transformational, but are of a different category being subjective and relational, rather than absolutely true.
The bottom line is, I recommend a contemplation intensive!