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Dharma Ocean on Freeing the Prisoner Within Yourself

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This is an excerpt from a 2016 talk at the Blazing Mountain Retreat Center by Dr Reggie Ray. Dr Reginald ‘Reggie’ Ray is the Director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, dedicated to the evolution and flowering of the somatic teachings of the Practicing Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. 

One of the primary forces preventing us from living our lives fully is the fact that, in reality, we have a multitude of ‘prisoners’ we have within us. Within us are a multitude of beings, perhaps one being for every second of our life. Each second of our life, we have contracted because of the shock, pain, and vulnerability of being human, and that contraction becomes part of us. This fact has been recognised in Western psychology since Jung’s development of the idea of ‘complex’, and further thinking about ‘alters’. It has been further fleshed out recently in the Internal Family Systems idea of the ‘exile’. They are what we address in trauma work.

In the face of some pain or assault that we could not handle, we created a strategy to wall off the threatening experience and work around it in our conscious life. Those split-off parts, the complexes, live on in our unconscious but continue to exert a negative, sometimes catastrophic impact on our ability to feel, think, and act. This insight is reflected in Buddhism in the idea of karma: our threatened ego withdraws from experience and sets up patterns of evasion and ignorance. These continue to limit our life and cannot be resolved unless they are directly addressed and dismantled. In Buddhist terms, the karma created by splitting off is thus not resolved, and our dysfunctional ways of seeing, thinking, feeling, and acting continue indefinitely, producing great suffering. In our lineage, we call these split off but still active parts ‘prisoners’, for they are literally locked up in the dark dungeons of our unconscious. Moreover, these prisoners seek the light. As Jung said, these kinds of psychological dynamics want to become conscious; and sometimes forcefully demand our attention.

The prisoners, the split-off parts, represent complexes formed over a lifetime, perhaps from before birth. Perhaps there are millions of them or even billions. Over our life, we have probably experienced every threatening feeling and emotion that anyone has ever experienced.  In that sense, we have all suffering beings within us. This is what I think Thich Nhat Hanh means when he says that we are all being, the prisoner and the guard, the rich and the poor, the rape victim and the rapist, the murdered and the murderer. And I sense that is what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote that he contained the multitudes. And there is more: Trungpa Rinpoche said that when we work on our deepest neuroses – in our terms our complexes or ‘prisoners’ – we are, in so doing, working on that very same thing in all those who suffer similarly, wherever they may be. You save all sentient beings, the Mahayana aspiration, by saving the prisoners within yourself. 

The Vajrayana path is very similar to a shamanic process in this sense: we descend into the darkness and find the parts of ourselves that wait there to be freed. As long as there are prisoners in the dungeons and torture chambers that are in the depths, there can be no freedom for us because our current consciousness, which we may think of as being quite spiritual, is the warden of the prisons down below. Our current awareness is keeping all those prisoners in their locked cells and torture chambers. A huge amount of our psychic energy, our psychic awareness, is tied up in keeping them under wraps and keeping them down below because we don’t want to experience the pain, the unbearable suffering that’s going on.

But the point is that unbearable suffering is going on all the time, whether we know it or not. Again, as we know from trauma work, those parts of ourselves that we do not want to face continue to affect us in negative ways and prevent us from the intrinsic health that is within us. Strangely enough, those parts are in control because they’re in their prisons, and they are shrieking with suffering, and howling with pain, and calling to be free, and what we’re doing on the surface is trying to keep them down and shut them up. And so, so much of our life is tied up in trying to keep them in prison and keep them in their torture chambers.

Our body is, in fact, our unconscious. That is where the prisoners are buried. As is said today, our traumatic experiences are buried within our bodies, and that is why the resolution of trauma must begin with unearthing them within our bodies. When we sit in somatically grounded meditation, when we come into our body, we begin to hear the prisoners, and the sounds from the dungeons become louder. We find ourselves feeling them, and we find ourselves going down; going down those long flights of stairs, flights of stone stairs down into the dungeons and the chambers of woe. At first, we can smell the fear and the terror of the inmates, and then when we enter into their cells and torture chambers, we feel how it is for them, and then we begin to become them, and suddenly we are in the midst of the most unbearable torment, and confusion, and darkness, and pain. That gift of ours, of being willing to go down into those deep, dark, terrifying places, is an act of unbelievable compassion on our part. We are down there and we’re going through it, but in a different way because this time we’re going down as a visitor. We’re going down on a mission of compassion whereas before we were helpless, the helpless prisoners, helpless and confused in the midst of the most terrible overwhelm, and pain, and panic, and despair, and hopelessness, and we didn’t know why, to know why it was that way. We felt there was no one to help us. There was no one there.

We’ve developed the capacity to visit these infernal realms through a sitting practice that is grounded in the body. We’re sitting, being in the body, and at the same time being rooted in the unconditional freedom of our basic nature. In that rooting, we’re connecting with the fundamental witness, the completely open immaculate awareness in our own state of being, and that develops in us the ability to actually be there and receive what’s going on.  Without the basic witness, without the connection with the unborn aspect of ourselves, our fundamental infinite awareness, we could not go down to the dungeons and survive. We would be run down and overwhelmed, and we would die. When we go down to the dungeons and the torture chambers on our mission of compassion, we have the confidence to let ourselves feel taken over. We feel our whole consciousness has been taken over by the suffering we find there.

If we’ve done our meditation work well, there is no shred of hesitation in us about being taken over. We’ve developed the capacity to be taken over by the suffering we find there and to be the inmates that are chained up against the walls and curled up in despair on their stone beds. We can identify with them. That has to be; it has to be that way because if we’re standing apart from it, then we don’t really know. If we are keeping our little adult watcher up here and looking down at this pitiful remnant of a human being on the floor, it’s not going to work. Because the pitiful remnant of a human being on the floor needs to be seen, and that’s been the problem from the beginning: never seen, never heard, invisible and mute.

As we know, to see, the only way to truly see is to be, and so we become this tormented creature, hardly human, misshapen, dark, filled with suffering. So we sit here, and we go through it, each one in our own way. We find ourselves there triggered, activated. We use these words, but actually, it’s much more to it than that. Those are just words to indicate how for us, it’s not normal consciousness; it’s not normal life. It’s something very, very different. We can be with our friend, our intimate partner, our teacher, our therapist, and we can, and we must speak about it. We must talk about it. I am feeling the most unbearable pain. I am, right now, I’m so afraid. I’m afraid to even talk to anyone. I feel so hopeless. I feel so much despair. I feel like I’ve never lived. I feel like I have no life. I feel like I’ll never have a life. I’m terrified. I feel such terror.  Rooted in our fundamental nature, we have the stunning confidence to go there and to feel all those things and to speak about them to our friend.

That is a huge moment because what we’re doing is we’re giving the prisoners something, the prisoner has never had, which is a voice. In order to go down into the dark dungeons in the first place, we have to be willing to give up our adult pomposity and ridiculous posturing. ‘I’m an adult; I have it all together. I can handle my life. In that fact, I’m really quite great. I’m so capable and competent.’ We have to give it up, and that’s not an easy thing to do. We have to completely be willing to let it go in order to go down in the first place and to have the fortitude to allow ourselves to be taken over by the suffering we find there, and then to talk about it to our partner, to our friend.

It’s understood. We know. ‘Hey, I’m in a trauma field. I’m in the dungeon right now and this is what I’m feeling, and I want you to know.’ To do that, we have to let go of all of our pretenses and we have to be willing to be nothing and to be anything. That’s why the training that we’re doing here is so absolutely critical and important because, as you know, sitting in meditation, putting in those hours which add up to days and weeks and months, one of the things we are learning is that our persona, this person that we would like to be and would like to present to others, it comes and goes. It’s actually not that solid. We learn to actually sit in a way where we’re not constantly rehearsing our inner narrative all the time. We can actually periodically have a moment of silence inside. And then the miraculous alchemy of freeing the prisoners can occur.

That ability to be in a place where the ego narrative isn’t constantly reaffirming itself is an incredible capacity. It means that we no longer have to put all our energy and attention into constantly maintaining ‘me’ all the time and warding off, denying, everything else. It makes us relax, makes us realise that ‘OK, I’m me. I’m doing it. I’m confident. I’m great, and then there are other moments when there’s nothing going on at all; there’s no me. And then there can be other moments when I can be the prisoner in the dungeon.’ Until we can be those prisoners, until we can engage this ultimately redemptive process, no freedom is possible for us.  Nor can we free other beings either because, as we know, whatever we reject in ourselves, we reject in others. This is why the bodhisattva path to liberate all beings must begin with our own selves and liberating everything we fear and reject in ourselves.

This is the hero’s journey, the shaman’s journey into the darkness, and when we let go of our daylight adult personality, our persona, and we descend into the darkness, and we become the tormented, the damned, it is a kind of shamanic dismemberment and death of our adult persona. When we do that, time after time after time, sitting and going through all of these experiences, all of a sudden fresh air begins to waft through those dungeons and torture chambers. The prisoners begin to wake up, and we begin to develop a relationship with them through seeing them, being them, and giving them their voice.

Color begins to come into their faces, and they begin to breathe again. They begin to become companions, strangely enough, and they remind us, and they’re with us, and we need to meet them over and over and help them. It’s a long process, but the prison doors have been thrown open, and the damned have been redeemed to life, and things begin to change, and our adult persona becomes so much softer, and so much more tender about the whole thing, so much more sympathetic to how it is to be human, and more understanding of everybody. The ongoing jostling that we do as humans, and rubbing against each other, and bouncing off each other, and having problems with each other, and being activated by each other becomes not an unwanted and a condemned part of our life, but it becomes a cauldron that is teeming with life. It may sometimes feel like a muddy bog, but it is with life that is about to burst forth.

When we begin to see this very strange thing, that after we have been down in the dungeons and we return, something is different in us. It’s the strangest thing. I noticed it when I first met Trungpa Rinpoche, and he was the master of creating a space where you suddenly found yourself down in the dungeons. At that time, I don’t think any of us had a clue what was going on, and he made no effort to tell us. But the one thing that I noticed, and I’m sure other people did too, was when we returned to the surface, after going through all we go through there, I was different. I was more alive. I was more open and I felt inspiration that I didn’t know I had. So what could you say? What could I say?  How could I possibly think poorly of it?

That’s our process. It’s a process, as I say, in which ultimately we are rescuing from the depths sentient beings. To repeat this critical point: When we are down in the dungeon and freeing some pitiful soul who’s been chained to the wall forever, we are freeing that soul throughout the world. You’re freeing a part of yourself, and in freeing a part of yourself, you’re freeing a part of everybody else.

That’s how it works with us, and that’s what we’re doing. It’s world work. When we make these heroic journeys into our own darkness and are willing to open ourselves and expose ourselves to suffering, that most adult people would not do unless it’s forced on them by overwhelming tragedy or trauma. Nobody would. We wouldn’t. We have to have a special lineage that drops us into the dungeons, and we have to do a special meditation practice hour after hour, day after day, week after week, year after year. We have to really go to great lengths in order to arrive in the deepest dungeons of our being and to be able to do the work there. And then we get to be great bodhisattvas, and we get to save all beings.

Every time we come through the journey into the darkness, we’re discovering ourselves to be a new person. There’s a new birth. We have really truly become a new being on every level.  We can feel it, and we feel the lightness. We feel the openness. We feel the beauty of the world in a new way. We feel a tenderness for our brothers and sisters who are going through the same journey. We feel love and we feel a kind of courage and capacity growing within us that we can do this work. We can do this, we can free ourselves, and we can free all the prisoners everywhere.

About Dharma Ocean

Dharma Ocean is a global educational foundation in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, focusing on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, who are genuinely pursuing their spiritual awakening.  Dharma Ocean provides online courses, study resources, guided meditation practice, and residential retreats at Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.


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