Thank you for this wonderful question. I found it helpful to look into this experience of being exposed or naked. It always surprises me how finding specific words to articulate an experience – like “nakedness” – can evoke so much learning and illumination.
I want to begin here with a story about nakedness.
Many years ago I went into a long retreat. I entered that retreat with a strict sense of boundary. In retrospect, it amuses me how rigid and tight I got about it. I didn’t want to see anyone else on the land and if I bumped into another retreatant (who was in my boundary) while getting water or propane, my instinct was to avoid them rather than just nod and go about my business in a relaxed way. Once, while I was standing with my teacher on the path that leads to my cabin I saw someone heading toward me and I leaped into the bushes! My teacher teased me relentlessly saying: “That’s not a very dignified way for a practitioner to act!”
Having spent many years in a retreat setting I have observed that there is a tendency for people to fall into two kinds of mind-sets: practitioners either try to engage with others to distract themselves, or else they become very closed and rigid about their boundary. I was obviously one of the rigid ones.
Time went on and I didn’t loosen up a bit. One day my teacher came to my cabin and said, “Follow me.” We walked down to the parking lot and he told me to get into the car and he drove for forty-five minutes (way out of my boundary) to a hot springs – a naked one. I didn’t want to get out of the car and I pleaded with him to take me back to my cabin. He said: “Well, you asked me to be your teacher and now you don’t want to listen to me. Okay…I’ll take you back.”
Confronted with his logic I had no choice but to give in and trust him. We walked into the hot springs and I felt so exposed…literally naked and away from the safe cocoon of my retreat boundary. I felt as if I had no skin. And of course, it so happened a friend was in one of the pools and yelled across to me: “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be in retreat?”
You get the point…
When I got back to my cabin that evening I had a lot to think about. Over time I came to understand that practice, retreat and life is not about protecting ourselves from the world. In fact, it’s about our ability to let life touch and change us…and seeing that we are a part of the great nature of interdependence.
I am not suggesting we walk around naked…or even become more socially engaged. I have great respect and love for retreat life and being alone. But I can see from having spent time in retreat that practice is not about isolating ourselves from the grandness, richness and poignancy of life. Practice is not about rejecting life, which we often find ourselves doing in the isolation of our retreat cabin. This is what my teacher was trying to show me.
I think the agitation described in this question has something to do with the way we brace ourselves against life, which is not unlike going out into the winter air and bracing against the cold. It is not just a conceptual experience but also energetic, emotional and physical.
Sometimes it is not as easy to work directly with conceptual mind, which, when there is a lot of self-protecting going on, can be fickle, deceptive, full of judgments – basically untrustworthy. The body however, is honest…so I recommend you focus on that.
When we brace against our experience in practice (or life), the body contracts and blocks experience and the breath doesn’t flow with ease. Our body or “persoma” (as my Structural Integration Practitioner friend David Davis calls it) holds and expresses the beliefs we have about our selves and our world. We may find it painful to see (in our persoma) how we push against life. But we will eventually appreciate the reflection because if we really look we won’t want to live in contraction anymore. We will want to move in the direction of change.
One thing that helps us when we are contracted or agitated is to focus on the breath. Having a focus reduces our tendency to try to escape experience through chasing after or pushing against experience. Watching the breath keeps us present and on the cushion.
When we feel ready we can turn our awareness to our entire body and begin to scan the body starting from the top of the head, slowly moving down, back up, and so on. While we do this we should observe the sensations in our bodies. There may be places in the body that are numb, blocked, or places where we feel repulsion or agitation. But if we keep moving our awareness up, down and through these experiences and let ourselves feel even the numbness (which is a sensation in itself), without making judgments, we start to see that these sensations are not static or solid. We will most likely find a lot of movement in the body – a kind of fullness – like the body is expanding from within or coming to life. This is a deeply enjoyable experience. It is a liberation of sorts that takes place, not just on a physical level, but also on conceptual, energetic and emotional levels.
It is interesting how we have so much aggression toward our experience. My teacher has called this, “aggression to the natural vitality of the mind”. When we start to practice we learn that we can let in more life…we don’t have to live in this pick-and-choose world where we have so much preference around our experience. Life becomes not something that happens to us, but rather we discover that we are part of life. Then we start to experience things – even the things we had aversion to before – in new and insightful ways.
After you practice scanning the body for a while you might want to venture “outside” of the body. We often assume that we live in the parameters of the body. But this is not the case. We cannot separate “body” from the air we breath, the food we eat, the ground we stand on, and so on. Every moment our physical, conceptual and energetic being is responding to input from the “outside.” Experience doesn’t happen in isolation, “inside” the parameters of the body. We are always in relationship with our world. All the information we take in through our senses affects our body, our energy, emotions and our conceptual mind. What we call “the world” and what we call “the body” are inextricably linked: not one and not two.
This is why the teachings on bodhicitta (that emphasize the practice of extending loving-kindness toward others) are so important. They move us out of our contracted state where we solely focus on cherishing and protecting our self, into the great nature of interdependence. So it is not that we have to get rid of the self at all. We just need to include others in the realm of care we usually reserve for ourselves.
So the purpose of bodhicitta is not solely to help others (although the longing to extend loving-kindness to others will naturally increase with the practice). The purpose of bodhicitta is also to increase our ability to include life in all its pain and glory. I say this because we often have as much resistance admitting pleasure into our life as we do pain.
So the practice here is to expand and include – to let life touch us. This is an emboldening experience that brings us into a balanced and sane relationship with our world.
After I read this question I thought a lot about the term “naked” and how it is used in Vajrayana literature. “Naked” describes the experience we encounter when everything extraneous to the essential nature of being falls away: all the grasping and rejection, me and mine, wanting and not wanting, hopes, fears and struggles. What would life be like if we could relax into our world rather than feeling like we always had to cherish ourselves with it or protect ourselves from it? What would it be like to have a “naked” experience?
My teacher has often described the absence of grasping and rejecting as “bliss.” We often associate this word “bliss” with spiritual trippy-ness or desire. But in this context it refers to an experience of conceptual, physical, and energetic enjoyment or wellbeing. It is not a weak or vulnerable state by any means. It is a sense of wellbeing where we find ourselves in a sane relationship with our world. In fact, this way of being is what we are all searching for: fearlessness, compassion, insight, confidence, sanity and deep contentment. Sounds good, doesn’t it?