“Look in the Way of Not Looking:” Reflections from Retreat

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

In May 2020, I had the fortune of engaging in one month of solitary retreat, supported by a grant from the Hemera Foundation. I spent a portion of my time reading, studying and contemplating the writings of Machig Labdrön, the great 11th century Tibetan yogini. I chose “slogans” or pith instructions to bring into my meditations or muse over as I drank my tea. Again and again, I was struck by the piercing and unflinching directions of her teachings.

For five days at the beginning of my retreat, I stayed out on the mountain behind our house where I found a tiny, abandoned cabin just tall enough at the apex of the roof for me to stand upright. The reflections below were written during my time there.


Look in the way of not looking.

Your mind will not be seen by looking.

Not seeing in itself is the nature of phenomena.

If you see [something] it is not the nature of phenomena.

(Machig Labdrön, “Another Bundle” in Chöd: The Sacred Teachings on Severance, trans. Sarah Harding; p. 130)

It’s been raining for much of the day so I’ve been sitting and practicing in my little cabin which I just named “Yogini’s Temple.” It’s filled with old wasp nests, spider webs and the droppings of years of rat and mouse wanderings, but the walls are sturdy and the roof doesn’t leak – a temple indeed! I sit by the open rickety wooden door looking out at the sloping meadow with its vibrant May grasses. The branches of the little ponderosa by my hut peek past the door and as I practice I watch crystaline water drops form on the end of each pine needle. I’ve been doing a lot of looking, a lot of seeing. But I haven’t been looking for anything, at least not outside my door.

It’s a different story when it comes to my mind. I’m looking for all sorts of things – insights, moments of bliss, peace of mind, realizations, the occasional gift of a creative spark. It’s great when these show up, some sense of satisfaction – “this meditation is really working for me.” What’s so liberating about Machig’s teaching here is the permission – no actually, the directive – to stop looking. Whatever might be found in those nyams – those great meditational experiences – are only that. They are the sea star floating by, the colorful parrot fish, the glistening silver eel. All of which are indicators that you are in the ocean. But if you want to be aware of the ocean, counting fish is not the way. You can’t actually see the ocean because, Machig suggests, you are it. The harder you look for the essence of your being, your mind, the more mystified you will become.

One might come away from this teaching thinking it is better to turn away from the project of looking or meditating altogether, head down to town and just eat ice cream all afternoon. And yes, that’s certainly an option. The ultimate meditation involves no cushion or technique whatsoever. But within the context of practice this is a beautiful meditation instruction: “look in the way of not looking.” We can look, we can become aware and awake. The world can light up new shades of color when we sit in meditation, no? How wonderful! Look, see it, savor it.

The way of not looking is perhaps a way of total delight in the myriad forms that arise, pass by, and exit the stage. The way of not looking sees much, perhaps even more, because it looks for nothing. The way of not looking is like a mother lovingly watching her children play, hearing their laughter. It is enough. The way of not looking allows everything, dismisses no one. There’s incredible rest we can find here in the way of not looking, much like being the ocean itself I imagine. We are already there.

The deer came down through the trees just as I finished my practice. I sat very still, watching them eat the fresh wet grass. A young buck kicked himself into a frenzy, chasing off two of his mates. A young doe looked on, as though wondering what to do. In the end she was the only one who saw me, yet still too young to be afraid. And then, after the others had strutted away, she gently turned as well. There’s nothing left to see now, just the sloping meadow with its vibrant May grasses.


Pieter and I are offering an 8-week online course “Skymind: Machig Ladrön and Open Awareness” in which we’ll explore more of Machig’s pith instructions, as well as engage in awareness practices and meditation that reveal the vast nature of mind that Machig’s teachings point us to. Please join us!

Click here for more info.

Fridays, October 16 – December 11, 2020 (no class November 27)

9-10:30am Mountain Time

Sessions will be recorded if you are not able to attend live.

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