Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Privileged Environment

To facilitate the introspective focus required for awareness practice, we observe what we call the privileged environment. It’s a privilege to have the time and space in which to attend to one’s inner workings. It’s a privilege to have others support that environment through their silent, respectful, adherence to a set of guidelines, maximizing everyone’s opportunity to be present to and go beyond egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate and find freedom.

For as long as I’ve been offering sitting/awareness practice, I’ve held a firm line on “keeping the privileged environment.” Over the years I’ve spoken with countless people who have come to us from other sitting practices. The reasons given most often for their switch are along the lines of too much ego, too political, and too social. I’ve also heard many reports from folks in the Sangha that they nearly quit when first sitting with us because it was too weird and too unfriendly. (As my teacher pointed out, lo those many years ago, it’s the “too’s” that’ll get you.)

I realize it takes most people a while to see the value in such a thing, though not everyone. There are, in fact, those who sit with us for the first time and heave a huge sigh of relief that they don’t need to be social and don’t need to be a personality. What is true is that practice is not personal; it’s not about or for the personality. It’s not social, yet it is very friendly. The difference? It is heart to heart friendly, not ego to ego friendly.

I can certainly sympathize with the wish to have all the “people needs” in one’s life fulfilled by others who are pursuing a spiritual path, practicing conscious, compassionate awareness. If a person is single, what better place to look for a partner? If one is seeking a new or larger circle of friends, again it’s a no-brainer. If you want to start a business, what a great place to look for supporters, mentors, and partners.

It’s a no-brainer and a really bad idea.

The reason I’m so adamant about keeping the privileged environment is that egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate:
~ is constantly lurking
~ is always focused on sabotaging efforts to awaken and end suffering
~ finds an easy opening when people lose their focus of attention
~ knows people often lose their focus in interactions with others
~ knows it takes a long time for people to recognize when it (egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate) has taken them over.

The Buddha left us a detailed and specific roadmap for awakening and ending suffering. From the depth of his own practice and decades of guiding others, he understood and clearly communicated the steps we need to follow to “work out our own salvation diligently.”

During the recent New Year’s retreat, we explored five of the practices the Buddha taught us to employ in our journey:
~ the practice of lovingkindness
~ the practice of pure attention
~`the practice of ever-expanding faith
~ the practice of constant devotion
~ the practice of inquiry through correct dhyana.
Each of these serves us magnificently as we take those steps along the path of working out our own salvation. The one that speaks most directly to the subject of the privileged environment is the final in the series, the practice of inquiry through correct dhyana.

Inquiry through correct dhyana guides us to seek clarity directly from insight that arises in conscious, compassionate awareness. We don’t look to conditioned mind for answers; instead, we allow the intelligence that animates to inform us. The simple application for that is living in “I don’t know.” The procedure we follow in applying the wisdom of “I don’t know” is to allow the guidance from our practice to rest, koan*-like, in our consciousness, relying on “ever-expanding faith” to sustain us until the moment of clarity when our doubt or confusion is cleared away by the arrival of an edifying insight. (*A koan is a spiritual “puzzle” that cannot be understood intellectually but must be apprehended in a flash of intuitive understanding.)

For example: I know there’s something in our practice about “the privileged environment.” And, it’s always said like that, like it’s a “thing,” so I sense it’s important, though I can’t see why. I get “custody of the eyes,” not watching other people. That just seems polite. I get not talking to other retreatants when we’re on retreat; we’re meant to be silent. What I don’t get is why we can’t get to know one another. How will I ever feel like I belong in this group if I have no idea who these people are? Besides, I have a lot of questions and it takes forever to get information from the Monastery!

All perfectly understandable, yes? All perfectly understandable from the perspective of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. (If we’re honest, what that “getting to know people” often means is “finding out what’s wrong with them”!) So, here is a perfect chance to apply the practice of inquiry through correct dhyana. I don’t know what this is all about. I get it that egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate might not be the place to look for clarity. What I will do instead is to “sit with it.” I will hold that lack of clarity in my awareness, approach it like a koan, accept each insight that comes to me, and trust that sooner or later I will see. (And, to support that process I can avail myself of options such as Open Air.)

Now, a word of caution: One of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate’s most successful ploys is getting the human to believe something along the lines of “that doesn’t apply to me; I can handle this; I know what the privileged environment is and how to maintain it; I can be in relationship with people in the Sangha and it’ll be just fine.” The peril in which that that puts everyone—instigator, colluder, and Sangha as a whole—would take more than this communication to elucidate. (If anyone is interested, I’d be happy to give that elucidation a go.)

As we move into this year of deepening practice, talking more about Practice Plans, Sangha Market, stewardship, and other “group” activities, I want us to be as clear as we can be that stepping over the line from privileged environment to social interaction is a dangerous step we must all be cognizant of NOT taking. What we have as a Sangha is simply too precious to endanger. And that’s a “too” worth having!

In gassho,


  1. Dear Cheri,
    I love your articles and keenly follow your writings. I read your book - "How to get from where you are to where you want to be". That was a big blessing as it revealed my patterns through my ego-centric suffering in my life. As I meditated, followed my spiritual practice, I realized one day how beautifully I fit the pattern & how much of self-hate I see in myself.

    I love this article of yours. What I have observed is: The days when I let go, relied on the Love, relied on the One, letting go of my ego-centric thoughts, ideas about anything - were the days when I experienced "silence" - not just within but also the outer silence. I spoke less & spoke only when necessary. I felt like I was in balance. I could feel the truth within me while I observed the silence. The feeling is just beautiful. I always wondered why do I need this social interaction. Social interaction is good when done as an "Instrument" and not relying on our Ego. The line is so thin and it is a process of learning to be an "Instrument" of Love even through the social interaction which makes the interaction by itself a blessing, rather than an obstacle for our inner peace.

    Thanks so much Cheri.

  2. I just became aware of how much more dependent I am on others love, approval and etc and like you say what's wrong with them. I wonder how many different ways I've been informed of this. Something to be more aware of.

  3. Someone finally said it. Spot on Cheri; as usual. Thanks

  4. I too was one of the ones who thought the privileged environment felt a bit odd the first time I experienced it, but I so appreciate it in every encounter I've had with the Monastery, especially after the fact, when I'm "re-entering" the world.

    While I understand the perils you mention of being in relationship with others in the Sangha, I would also welcome your further comments on it.

  5. This article is very profound. It makes total sense in regards to protecting the integrity and effectiveness of the practice for all. In terms of pursuing "people needs" - it's nice to have a partner and friends - and I guess it's up to us to to be present and compassionate with whoever we are in contact with. Beyond that,I will leave it as an "I don't know " at this point.

  6. Privileged environment helps me see that the stance I habitually take with other people is unloving, and set up to make my right and them wrong.

  7. Though I completely understand - it is still a bit of a Koan for me emotionally. It appears that one's "people needs" must be obtained outside the Sangha to preserve the practice and the Sangha. And like another person alluded to - try make your social interactions a practice opportunity, i.e. come from the heart as much as possible.

  8. Do you know I just came across this blog, and it is as powerful now in 2016 as it was back then. It's very hard for me not to have the social aspects of Sangha through the center, and I slowly am coming to understand. Facing oneself and EKC is difficult, and anything other than the privileged environment is a distraction from tuning into myself first. Bless you Cheri

  9. Do you know I just came across this blog, and it is as powerful now in 2016 as it was back then. It's very hard for me not to have the social aspects of Sangha through the center, and I slowly am coming to understand. Facing oneself and EKC is difficult, and anything other than the privileged environment is a distraction from tuning into myself first. Bless you Cheri