With even a small degree of observation it appears obvious that people share a common, compulsive and insidious tendency to socialize. The sensitive observer will perhaps also notice that churches, synagogues, ashrams, yoga studios and dharma centers seem to be particularly attractive venues for socializing.
In the Christian tradition there is sometimes a recognition of this phenomenon and an effort made to spiritualize socialization into what is called fellowship. The ideal of fellowship is that the other members of the congregation are seen, and held, as brothers and sisters rather than as rivals or objects of potential exploitation. The Vajrayana tradition has very specific rules about how fellow practitioners should consider each other and behave toward each other. The essence of these rules is linked to the significance and nature of the karma that is established between people who have received initiation together from the same master. In Vajrayana, breaches of this samaya pertaining to one’s vajra-siblings is considered to be a very serious matter as it has the potential to block one’s spiritual path and cause all sorts of other problems. But even with the highest standards being met in either the practice of fellowship or the vajra-samaya, we must observe ourselves very carefully to notice the subtleties of what’s generally going on at the deeper levels of our social interactions. If we sincerely attend to such deep-level self-observation we will probably notice that all the various ideals, protocols and rules are only functioning on the surface. If we are able to see what’s happening beneath the surface, in the engine-room of the spaceship that is ourselves, we will see a well-oiled ego machine humming along without hesitation, fully fueled with the energy of our various negative emotions.
For about two-thousand five hundred years and up until less than a century ago, Dzogchen teaching and practice was kept secret. These days, it has become trademarked and commercialized. In some ways, Dzogchen is the new Zen, sociologically. And just like in the case of Zen, there is an inversely broadening shadow that results in the shrinking of access to real teachings being directly caused by the proliferation of commercial ventures using the word, Dzogchen, as a tag (or hashtag). But the secret practice of Dzogchen is still completely viable. First, we need to understand that secret, in this context, does not mean that it is something confidential. It means that it is something set apart from ordinary life. Ordinary life is ego-life — and ego is sustained by negativity. In fact, ego is none other than a psychic hologram of all the various strategies a person has acquired to defend against perceived negativities. The key point is that ego is something that is acquired, like a linguistic accent.
I had a friend from North Carolina who had a fine southern drawl. Then she went to England for six years and when she came back she sounded somewhat like a Brit. Later she moved to Boston and after a while sounded quite strange indeed. Now I think she needs to go to Zambia in order to round it all out.
So, the secret practice of Dzogchen involves a kind of consciousness that is capable of para-egoic cognizance. Since cognizance refers to one’s own experience, it is reasonable to ask, “What is there, that is me, that is beyond ego (not ego), that is capable of cognizance?” The ultra-simplified answer would be, personal essence. From earliest childhood memory until death, ordinary humans experience, almost exclusively, from the perspective of their ego. Since ego is an acquired affectation, experiencing from the perspective of ego is like a stage actor who has forgotten himself completely and actually become the character he plays — experiencing everything from the perspective of that character. If this actor would suddenly remember who he really is, the nature of his experience and the quality of his cognizance would be radically different. But as stated above, to simply say that essence is what is real is quite insufficient. Nevertheless, so long as we understand that this major differentiation between ego and essence is only the initial sift, it can serve us well.
Our compulsion to socialize is a product of ego but our capacity to socialize is actually connected to essence. So, here, the essence being referenced is the essential quality of the human emotional faculty — the emotional essence. It is not possible to identify with this emotional essence so, quite literally, ego can’t go there. All of the emotional content that pertains to ego, i.e., all of our every-day emotions, are non-essential because they are the emotions of fictional characters ignorantly assumed to be oneself. We cannot identify with emotional essence but we can, in fact, learn to be present in and as this essence. Being present as emotional essence affords an unlimited capacity for empathy. Being with others who are also in the state of their emotional essence unlocks the potential for a very different kind of spiritual practice. This is the purpose of the Dzogchen “small group”. For example, it is well known that Guru Padmasambhava had twenty-five “heart disciples”. Only eight of them however collaborated together as the nuclear small group. It was to those eight that Padmasambhava transmitted and entrusted the legacy of his esoteric teachings.
In the esoteric Dzogchen method of practice, there are different modes of practice and different phases of practice. There is no set rule or requirement in Dzogchen practice, other than to follow the teacher’s instructions. But there are different ways to practice depending on the interests and capabilities of the student. In the beginning students must learn to develop themselves in the context of their own ego-lives. Once the student discovers the real essence that has been obscured by ego/personality, nothing more need be done aside from getting accustomed to remaining and abiding as that essence, and re-integrating within the world as an essence rather than as a personality. However, there is also a way to work specifically with the process of integration. This is the work of the small group. The fundamental work of the Dzogchen small group (beyond the indispensable master/student relation) is to practice essential relation among the group members. This starts out as practicing (or at least attempting) the suspension of habitual social behaviors, inhibitions and anxieties, and eventually matures as a genuine capacity to relate to others without pretense, manipulation or strategy. This is indeed a very different kind of socializing that, when perfected, manifests as boundless compassion.
As intimated earlier, there are different ways to understand the meaning of essence in the context of Dzogchen practice. There is a Tibetan saying, “Butter is the essence of grass.” Likewise, essential oil is the essence of flowers. Consciousness is the essence of mind. Human beings can also be understood as having various levels of essences: corporeal, voltaic, psychic, cosmic and primordial. The practice of Dzogchen concerns that which is essential.