Q. Is spiritual practice all to do with getting rid of the so called 'self' that keeps us separate from all that is?
A. Spiritual practice isn't about getting rid of the self, because there isn't one to get rid of. It's about transforming the habits that give rise to a sense of self. If you try to get rid of the self it will only come back. And besides, it may well be the self doing the 'getting rid of' anyway! Transforming the imbalanced emotional drive, which creates the environment for the sense of self to arise and attach in the first place, is the way to settle the paradox of self –that creator of all the worlds. This is the way of Dharma practice.
Q. In Dharma Mind Worldly Mind you talk about the importance of being in the hara. I must say that I experience consciousness more in my head and in my heart, on a good day maybe down to the solar plexus. I don't think I get as far as the point below the navel. If I try it in meditation I can get a non-specific sense of widening and opening there, but not a particular sense of consciousness. Do you think consciousness will just drop there with practice? What kind of emotions is the hara the seat of?
A. We experience consciousness inthe head, and it's here for the most part we think we are, and therefore where we live. But when we move our consciousness into the body, it crosses an apparent boundary and becomes awareness, and it is here that we alight on the threshold of the Dharma. Awareness is linked with and indeed caught by consciousness, but if we stay with our awareness (which is especially possible in formal meditation), our imprisonment in the narrow confines of dualistic consciousness begins to dissolve. From this point we begin to enter a vast expanse that has no limits, is bound by no 'person'. When we enter this expanse we can use the insight tools offered by Buddhism, that if nurtured correctly will transform and break through the limits of the samsaric world (which consciousness supports) into the infinity of our original nature. From what you say it seems a good idea to cultivate still more deeply your experience of that expanse (samadhi) over a period of time, and then to make good use of that precious emptiness, with guidance, and begin to familiarize yourself with an insight practice. As to your second query, all emotions originate in the hara.
Q. What advice would you give on practicing with doubt? How should one set about cultivating confidence in oneself & faith in the Dharma?
A. Doubt can only successfully be settled by practice. Take on a complete practice and learn to work with mental and emotional doubt, that is, don't be pulled around by those negative thoughts, but learn to stay with and contain them. Learn to carry around with you the emotional impact that doubt creates in the depths of your body, as you cultivate practice. Conviction will come from the fruit of practice; confidence in yourself and the practice will naturally follow. Don't fall into the trap of thinking all you need do is read just one more book (or two) to rid yourself of doubt. Faith will help disperse doubt, but always remember true faith comes from experiencing the practice and its fruit. So rather than having faith dependant on others, do the practice!
Q. I wonder if you have anything to say on the subject of renunciation. I may be wrong, but it doesn't appear to get any direct mention in your book (besides practice being all about letting go!) What is meant by renunciation in Dharma practice and do we Westerners face any particular challenges. Didn't the Buddha say that without renunciation progress along the path is unlikely? What do you think he meant by that?
A. I think you have already discovered the meaning of renunciation when you noted letting go. Giving up worldly possessions, shaving the head, putting on robes and living a simple and austere life is the first stage of renunciation that a newly-ordained monk commits himself to, but that is only the beginning. With the exterior renunciation in place he then starts to work on the inner renunciation of his inner 'possessions'. For example, his emotional attachment to likes and dislikes, his opinions of right and wrong, what should be and what shouldn't be, etc. All those attachments that give us so much of our powerful self-identity. That grasping that sets the wheel of karma and becoming in motion. This inner surrender of our emotional attachments and habits is the real renunciation, the real 'going forth', and is the transforming process that is the essence for maturing the Path. Without this there is no 'progress' – as some like to say. Whether you are ordained or not, the 'rules' for renunciation are the same. There are no particularly unique challenges that I can see for Westerners, other than learning to work with a very heavy self-view that we all seem to have.