This article is adapted from the Dharma Ocean podcast of a talk given by Dr. Reggie Ray at the Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.
In our culture, we hear about meditation in the service of relaxation, for helping us sleep at night, for helping us to manage the tremendous stress of modern life, and all of that is fine. But Somatic Meditation is a much more radical and fundamentally transformative kind of process. Meditation, as a tool or as a resource for our conscious mind and our currently existing life, is not a bad thing, but Somatic Meditation becomes a way for us to enter into a different world and a transformed way of being.
To use an analogy from the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, it’s as if the realm of ego is a stable, and we are living inside the stable, taking it to be reality. It’s dark and dank, and there’s straw on the floor, and there are windows, but they’re covered over with grime. We can vaguely see outside that there’s a world, but we think it is as dank and dark and closed in as the stable itself. And the only food is sawdust. We think that the life in this ego — a stable is the sum total of human life and its full range of possibilities.
But then we use meditation, having a vague idea that it might be worth trying because nothing else has worked. And so we meditate, but we don’t really know quite what we are doing or what we’re setting ourselves up for, and that is a way of presenting ourselves at the door to the outside of this stable of ours. Somatic Meditation is a way of presenting ourselves at the door to the outside of the stable and calling for help. The interesting point is we can’t open the door ourselves because there is no handle on the inside. The door has to be opened from the other side.
We meditate, and at a certain point, we sense there’s some light, and we see what might be a crack in the door. Meantime we’re sitting. We’re following our breath. We’re being in our body. And then the door starts to slowly open. In the beginning, we can only peer out. The crack isn’t big enough to step through, but what we see completely stuns us. We see lush, green, summer fields waving gently in the wind. We see trees, tall and majestic, and we see hills, and we see a blue sky that is so deep and vast, and we feel a breeze coming into our dank little stable world.
For the first time in our life, we know for sure that this dank stable is not the totality. We feel the longing of our heart to step into that vast, infinite, beautiful outside world, and we know that this dank little ego world was never meant for us. Meantime, we’re back in the ego world, but we can’t forget what we’ve seen, and we know it’s what we were born for. And that is the strange and amazing thing about meditation—we find out there is help all over the place if we are willing to call for it in the right way. And so we practice, and the door begins to open again; then it opens a little wider.
There are moments, looking out of that crack in the door, that we forget we’re in the stable, and we feel that we’re out in that world walking through the deep green summer grass, and we can look up at the sky and lose ourselves in it, and feel the majesty of the trees and the soft rolling of the hills around us. So we practice and practice and practice. And strangely enough, more and more we find ourselves outside the stable, and we find ourselves meeting old friends, but we meet them in a completely different way. There’s a kind of infinite openness and gladness here that is completely new and yet also feels very, very ancient.
Somatic Meditation is a process of the deepest kind of change you could imagine because we are entering into a different world; a world that is the real one. But then we have a problem, which is that we have a connection with that ego world, that dank, dark stable, and we feel we need to go back to help the others. We have stepped out and experienced the freedom and the stunning beauty of the true world. But we remember that there are thousands and millions and billions of beings who live in the stable and have not discovered the world that they were born for. Our question now is how do we fulfill our sense of connection and commitment to those beings who are suffering without knowing what’s possible for them?
We realize that the vessel isn’t quite ready—that somehow we don’t have the personal, psychological vastness that’s needed. We don’t have the absolute openness of heart we need to love others. We feel our limitations. The more we encounter this vast world outside the stable, the more we feel that to go back to the stable, we need to grow further. We are interested in unburdening our heart of all of the armor, protection, defenses, and fear of being vulnerable because we sense that we do truly have the capacity for unconditional love for other people.
We begin to experience our heart as being a bright beacon of love for others, but also, through doing Somatic Meditation day in and out, we’re changing our nervous system. If we train ourselves in a certain way, we are not simply experiencing a different way of being, we’re changing the neurological structure of our bodies, so we become more loving. For many of us, the idea that we could love other people in an unconditional way is shocking—it seems impossible. We think we have these problems; maybe we weren’t loved as small children, or we have this terrible story of trauma. But we start to realize everybody else has the same story.
Meantime, as we do these practices, our neurological structure changes so that the experience of tenderness is not just a random event but becomes who we are. We become more tender and open. And we begin to discover that we deeply love other people. We may still get activated, or triggered, and shut down—these things happen—but we come to realize that these are just surface disturbances. We discover, through our practice, that our true nature is fundamentally loving. That’s actually who we are. And that loving nature is indestructible. That kind of change is very much like the initial crack in the door of the stable, where we glimpse this beautiful world that we could live in.
The same thing happens with compassion. Initially, we’re closed-down, narcissistic people, just looking after ourselves. We’re self-absorbed. Even when we are engaged in “helping” people, it is still ultimately all about us. This is just how we are in the modern world. Then we start to see that crack widen, and that becomes a deep inspiration for us to continue with the practice; to widen that field of compassion in ourselves so that over time it becomes who we are.
We realized that there is, within us, far beneath the ego concerns for convenience and ease, a deep wellspring of love that will do anything to relieve the suffering of another person. That’s a shocking discovery—we’ve always thought of ourselves in such a low way. We never thought that we have this deep wellspring that yearns to help people. There’s a teaching about the bodhisattva path that if the bodhisattva were to see a person who is actually okay (which, of course, never happens), his/her heart would sink a little bit because there is this deep need to meet suffering and to relieve it. On the other hand, if the bodhisattva has his/her last piece of food and a starving person comes toward them, they feel a deep sense of joy because they can offer something to relieve suffering.
Through doing the practices and deepening our sense of connection with our own hearts, we discover this is who we are. When you step outside that stable, you realize that your life is Life with a capital “L” flowing through you, and your biggest problem is staying with the immensity of your life and the magic that is washing all over you and through you. How are you going to stay with that? That’s why we meditate. It’s why I meditate, because if I don’t, I can’t stay with the program, and I do want to stay with the program. This is a good program, and I’m talking about the big program, the cosmic program. In a way, it’s a huge relief for us. “Wow. All I’ve got to do is just really show up, and the rest of it is not my problem.” It’s a huge relief. But then you realize that showing up is not that easy. Somatic Meditation gives us the tools to show up, and continue to show up.
About Dharma Ocean
Dharma Ocean is a non-profit global educational foundation that focuses on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, by teaching them the importance of embodiment in both meditation and their daily lives as taught in the “practicing lineage” of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The foundation was established in 2005 by scholar, author, and teacher Dr. Reggie Ray, and is located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado.