July 18, 2011

Going Beyond Buddhist Psychology: an Interview with an American Meditation Master.

Moving Beyond the Narrative and Embracing Your True Self.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Reginald A. Ray of the Dharma Ocean Foundation.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Reginald A. Ray.

Reggie Ray has “four decades of study and intensive meditation practice within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, as well as a special gift for applying it to the unique problems, inspirations, and spiritual imperatives of modern people. He currently resides in Crestone, Colorado, where he is Spiritual Director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to the practice, study and preservation of        the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the practice lineage he embodied.”


In my opinion, the biggest misconception among western students of Buddhism revolves around the teachings on selflessness. People often think that Buddhism suggests that “they” aren’t there… Like everything is negated or dismissed as an illusion. It is a very nihilistic idea. Jung, in his forward to D.T. Suzuki’s, Introduction to Zen, said, “It is a matter of mistaking the ego for the Self.” In your book, Touching Enlightenment, you describe it as the difference between “impersonal and individual.” So I was wondering if you could take a moment and shed some light on this issue?

Reggie Ray: I find it helpful to talk about the “small self” and the “large Self.” When Buddhism talks about the ego what is meant is the small self, which is that very limited, paranoid, fearful, defensive, idea about who we are. We all carry it around—we all have this idea or concept about ourselves that we are trying to maintain. However, I wouldn’t say it doesn’t exist; obviously it exists. But it is irrelevant to the much larger, much more interesting Self, which is the large Self, and this is actually the totality of our state of being. So, when we say we need to eliminate the ego, we’re talking about eliminating the strict, imprisoning concept of ourselves.

As you mentioned, obviously the ego exists. We can see the consequences of it—all the tension and anxiety. Lama Yeshe once said, “The ego exist. It just exists as an illusion.” So would you agree that the ego enjoys only an illusory existence? Does ego exist as nothing more than a misunderstanding?

Reggie Ray: I think that sort of language is hard for westerners to understand. Now, the fact that we think the ego is solid and real, that is an illusion. It isn’t solid and real. Many times in life we have these experiences where it is not operating. All of us do, but we ignore those experiences, and we act as if this concept is the actual reality of who we are. When we see the concept of ego everything is fine. We see the concept, and we know that our true Self is much bigger and a lot more interesting than that concept. But when we take that concept to be reality, and start rejecting the parts of ourselves that don’t fit that concept, we have a major problem. Then we have neurosis and psychological illness.

So, you practice and notice your thoughts. You label them “thinking,” and return to the breath, the body, or your ass planted on the cushion. But eventually, you notice that labeling thoughts, “thinking,” is still just thought. You begin to realize that there are no resources at the ego’s disposal other than thought. That without thought the ego can’t observe anything. So, the term, “I” is nothing more than a collection of thoughts?

Reggie Ray: That’s right.

Well, if “I” isn’t anything more than a collection of thoughts, what is it that facilitates this opening up. If “I” is nothing more than an idea, then what is it that is on the path of realization?

Reggie Ray: When you meditate, in the beginning, one often thinks, “There are a lot of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.” It starts to feel claustrophobic. Then, you begin to sense that behind the thinking there is something else. Some people experience it as peace; some experience it as a sort of unconditional openness; sometimes people experience it as brightness behind the thinking. That is our basic nature. That is the underlying, fundamental awareness that is who we ultimately are.

It’s not that we are making a journey towards that. Rather, the thoughts begin to become more random. We start to see how dark they are. Then, we begin to tune into this awareness that has always been there, but we couldn’t see it. So in the vajrayana, the journey to enlightenment is paying so much attention to your thinking that it eventually becomes bizarre, ridiculous, and self-contradictory—it isn’t interesting anymore. Then you find that there is something behind it going on all the time.

Most people don’t ever allow themselves to look at their thoughts closely. So, they don’t really realize what’s going on. But what is going on is almost horrible, in certain way. The way that we are always trying to manipulate this, that, and the other. When you just see that, you get sick of it. Then, you start to sense this brightness that is going on behind the thinking, and you start to get interested in that.

Ken Wilber defines the ego as “a subtle effort.” And in “Touching Enlightenment” you define the ego as “a process of holding on.” Having realized that this “effort” is just a scam, where do you go? In Chogyam Trungpa’s, Journey Without Goal, when he was talking about the “cosmic pancake” he said that truth was so big that it was both “the problem and the promise.” So, is the illusion itself the answer? Having realized that the ego is illusory in nature, is the next step just to rest with that fact?

Reggie Ray: The problem with thought isn’t that we have them, and the problem with ego is not that it’s doing its thing. It’s that we are trying to identify ourselves with it, and we try to find a fulfillment and freedom within our thinking that is not appropriate.

It sounds like you are talking about discovering a mind that is so big that it isn’t even threatened by the ego.

Reggie Ray: Yeah, and the ego becomes a mechanism; rather than our identity.

In modern therapy there seems to be a lot of energy invested in the narrative—identifying some unwanted behavior, and then tracing it back to some point in your past. Now, I certainly see the value in being able to connect all the dots, but do you believe that Buddhism asks you to go further? To put the narrative aside and go deeper? And if so, at what point does it become appropriate to drop the narrative and begin to divest in the karmic patterns that keep us closed off and tucked up in ourselves?

Reggie Ray: The narrative itself is a socially, biologically, genetically driven part of the human person—it’s what we do. Even primates have their own version of a narrative, we know this now. So, there is nothing inherently pathological about having a narrative. And Buddhism would agree with this.

The problem comes when take the narrative too seriously. That is, when we begin to identify the totality of who we are with this set of concepts.

You have to have a narrative, but how do you have a healthy narrative? That’s an interesting question. Much of psychotherapy arrives at a healthy narrative by going over and over it—bringing up more information and talking to your therapist. But in Buddhism, a healthy narrative is a narrative that doesn’t interpose itself between consciousness and the vastness of our fundamental nature—the infinite space of our fundamental awareness. When we are resting in the infinite space of our fundamental awareness then the narrative rolls on, and immediately becomes a healthy one.

When you say that we often times take the narrative too seriously, do you mean that we fail to see it as a description, and tend to see it more as an excuse or a justification for our behavior? Or an excuse for what is going on in our head or how we feel? Just something that seeks to explain away responsibility for our circumstances?

Reggie Ray: Yeah, but both Buddhism and Psychotherapy agree with that process. The real question is, are we using the narrative to try and solve our problems of insecurity and vulnerability? Are we using work with the narrative as an attempt to find real freedom? Because that is what people really want.

The thing about work with the narrative, from a psychotherapeutic stand point, is you are substituting this narrative for another narrative. But you are still looking from a narrative stand point; you are still limited. This may help you feel better. It may help you a little bit, but the only way to truly work with the narrative is to come into contact with a larger sphere of being. So we can realize that our longing for freedom and openness isn’t with the narrative; that the narrative doesn’t have to try and carry that load.

People will tell you that they are going on vacation because they want to experience the world with a certain kind of freshness; they want to be a little bit surprised by reality. All these things that they are talking about are really spiritual goals, and there is spiritual longing in wanting to take a vacation. The problem is they get back from vacation and tell you that none of it was there! They are looking to the relative world trying to fulfill something that is already within us, and can only be found by relating directly with that larger Self.

This is part two of a three part interview. Click here to read part one. Please follow us on FB or twitter to be notified when part three is published.


Click here to read more about Reggie Ray. Or if you would like browse The Dharma Ocean Website, click here.

The Dharma Ocean Foundation has an online media store where you can download “theme-based affordable bundles of talks, as well as complete program recordings.” Right now they are offering a free MP3 or PDF download, a talk from Reggie Ray entitled, “Emotional Awakening.” Click here for this free download.


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