• Home
  • John Baker Coaching




n the fall of 1970 Bob Lester, then Chairman of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Colorado (CU), invited the highly ranked Tibetan Buddhist lama Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche to teach a course on Buddhism to undergraduates. Rinpoche had arrived in the United States that spring from Scotland, establishing Tail of the Tiger (now Karmê Chöling) in Barnet, Vermont, where he gave summer seminars on the teachings of Milarepa, the Tibetan Buddhist saint, and other subjects. In August some CU professors had invited Rinpoche, then about 31 years old, to come to Boulder, and I and another student, Marvin Casper, both in our mid-twenties, had asked him if we could accompany him. So in October 1970 the three of us moved to Colorado, initially living together in a stone cabin with a potbellied stove and outhouse at 10,000 feet in Gold Hill but later moving to a modern duplex in Four Mile Canyon just outside town. Rinpoche’s wife, Diana, joined us after a few months, and the two of them stayed together in the first floor apartment, while Marvin and I inhabited the upstairs.

The CU course was to run in the winter semester of 1971. Rinpoche appointed Marvin and me as his teaching assistants, which meant helping him select readings, construct the syllabus, run the class, and conduct discussion groups. He, of course, determined the content and delivered the lectures.

At Tail of the Tiger, Rinpoche had given Marvin and me pointing-out instruction [the showing of the nature of mind by a teacher] and forged a bond with us stronger than any I had known in my relatively short lifetime. He had recently asked us to start teaching the students who were coming to him from the coasts and elsewhere, hippies mostly, without much money, adventurous and inspired by the dharma in general and by Rinpoche in particular. We knew very little doctrine, but Rinpoche had introduced us to the heart of the teachings. He felt it important for Westerners to connect to the essence of Buddhism first, so that they would not be dazzled and seduced by the many exotic forms that implied spectacular results, a problem he considered pandemic in America at the time.

John Baker and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche,


The university had a population of about 25,000, including staff and students—this in a town whose total population was about 100,000. The town had a prominent population of Seventh-day Adventists (thus no alcohol was sold within city limits), there were no malls, and hippies were arriving from the coasts to live in the town and in the communes that constellated around it.

CU in those days had the reputation of being a second-tier school with a few standout departments, such as engineering. It was known to be popular with undergraduates who wanted proximity to Colorado’s ski areas as well as the overall opportunity to play and party. So our expectations for the class were not high, and we were not disappointed. My memory is that 40 or so students sat slumped in their chairs (the kinds with an enlarged arm for notepads), giving the impression of sleepiness and apathy. (In fact, a few of them later became devoted students of Rinpoche. You just never know.)

The room was large, stark, bare, and brightly lit by both the overhead fluorescents and the Colorado sunlight streaming in through outsize windows. Rinpoche wore a sport coat and tie; portly with tousled hair, he stood before the class, blackboard behind him, the Flatirons visible through the windows, rising 1,800 feet into the clear blue sky. Marvin and I sat in the front row, to the side.

Rinpoche presented basic Buddhist doctrine, but with an emphasis on the teaching about “spiritual materialism,” which he felt was particularly relevant to his audiences at that time. America was in the throes of the counterculture revolution, protests against the Vietnam War, and the invasion of Eastern religions from India, Tibet, Southeast Asia, and Japan. Think Satguru, Maharishi and the Beatles, Yogi Bhajan, Hare Krishnas on street corners and in airports, Zen Beats, macrobiotic diets, and of course yoga and meditation and kundalini energy and so much more. We were all too ready to ape the cultures of these imports, hoping that, by adopting their to-us-exotic forms we would enjoy some benefit or release from unhappiness. Rinpoche spent a lot of his time debunking that notion: critical of our naiveté, he once said to an audience, almost apologetically, “If I told you to stand on your heads 24 hours a day, you would do it.”

But the lecture that most stands out in my memory—because it was so revelatory for me, personally, and so brilliant—was the one Rinpoche gave on the trikaya, a Sanskrit term that refers to the three (tri) bodies (kaya) of a buddha: the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya, which are to be understood at various levels. This was no lecture on spiritual materialism.

Most basically, the term nirmanakaya refers to the actual physical and mental manifestation of Shakyamuni Buddha as well as other enlightened individuals. Nirmana is usually translated as “manifestation” or “apparition” or “incarnation.” It is the idea that a person has taken rebirth many times—has died and been reborn over and over again—and that this current birth is the “nirmana,” or current manifestation/incarnation. The Tibetan translation of nirmanakaya is tulku, a term applied to reincarnate lamas, so the Dalai Lama is the 14th tulku (or nirmanakaya) in his line, and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the 11th Trungpa tulku.

In one sense we are all nirmanakayas (tulkus), because we all have been reborn many times. The term, however, is usually reserved for enlightened teachers who take rebirth deliberately, out of compassion and because they have taken a vow to work for the benefit of confused, sentient beings until they have all attained enlightenment. The rest of us unenlightened individuals take rebirth not deliberately but out of the force of our karma: habit and desire drive us forward in life and in death to continual and uncontrolled rebirth in various realms of suffering. We are fortunate to be human beings in this life—the human realm is the only one in which a being may traverse the path to enlightenment and freedom—but we may not be so fortunate in future lives. According to the Buddhist teachings, sooner or later we will be reborn in all the realms: god realms, animal, hungry ghost, and hell realms. In fact, we experience these realms psychologically even during the course of a day: the anger and panic of the hell realms, the pride and pleasure of the god realms, the hunger and sense of deprivation of the hungry ghost realms, or the stupidity, sloth, and fear of the animal realms.

Dharma is a Sanskrit word that has a number of different meanings, but here it refers first to the Buddhist teachings: the truth about who we are and what confusion and wisdom are, as well as the path to realizing enlightenment and release from suffering. In addition, dharma refers to the true action of an enlightened individual, a buddha. Dharmakaya, then, from the historically earliest teachings, refers to the “teachings” body of the buddha: the instructions he gave to his students to help them see what is real and to tread the path. Additionally, it refers to the buddha’s capacity to act in accord with what is true and real.

Sambhogakaya, a term that appeared in a later period of Buddhist history, is usually translated as “enjoyment body” of a buddha. It refers to the idea that (when one has the eyes to see) a world of celestial beings, buddhas and bodhisattvas, dharma protectors, teachers, and embodiments of energy, enlightened and not, is present here and now. In truth we are in the midst of the Akanishtha (“above all”) Heaven [the realm of awakened mind], but the sambhogakaya realm is hidden in plain sight from the unenlightened, who may become aware of it only in glimpses, if at all. It is a world of beauty, power, and meaningfulness, and it is completely available to individuals who have left confusion behind—bodhisattvas on the stages of the path and enlightened beings, or buddhas.

But there is another subtler way to understand the trikaya, and it is this understanding that Trungpa Rinpoche taught to us that winter day in 1971. He did it in this way.

Stepping to the blackboard, he picked up a piece of chalk and drew the figure seen on this page.

Then he stepped back and asked: “What is this a picture of?”

Of course no one wanted to say the obvious, and there was an extended silence until finally some fellow raised his hand and said, “It’s a picture of a bird.”

Rinpoche replied, “It’s a picture of the sky,” and in those six words he taught the entire trikaya.

Rinpoche was introducing us to the most profound Buddhist description of reality as it arises in the only place and time it ever arises: here and now. It is not a metaphysical explanation of reality; it is simply a description of what arises in the moment, now, the only time we ever have.

The past and future are mental constructs. Even the present can be conceptualized, but it can also be experienced. In fact, we choicelessly experience it all the time. It is merely a matter of whether we emerge from our dreams about the past, present, and future long enough to notice and see it clearly, truly.

In the present the six types of phenomena—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and mental events, which are referred to in Buddhism as the six knowables—arise and pass away, a constantly appearing and disappearing display, like a movie or like images passing through a mirror. These “things” do not endure even for an instant in the present moment; as we turn our head, as our attention shifts, as the light changes and things move, the display is constantly in motion, transforming so completely and continuously that we cannot even point to something that has changed. It is a continual “presencing,” as they say in the Dzogchen texts [according to the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism Dzogchen is the last and most profound of the six vehicles of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism]—a presencing of what we call phenomena. And this display has three aspects.

First, the dharmakaya aspect. All phenomena seem to arise from and pass back into nothing. Where did that sound go? That precise visual experience? That thought? That odor? They arose from nowhere, appeared in the midst of a matrix of conditions, and finally disappeared into nowhere. That fertile “nowhere” is, in this first pass at a definition, a meaning of the dharmakaya: absolute reality, the “womb” from which all appearances arise and the charnel ground into which they pass away.

And yet, some thing seems to appear and pass away. This “thing” aspect is the nirmanakaya. There is a “presencing” of phenomena (the six knowables appear). That presencing is the fact of seeming appearance, the “thingness” of appearances, and it is all that confused sentient beings know, because they are not paying attention to the present moment, not noticing that nothing truly exists as they think it does.

Confused sentient beings see the phenomenal world through the veil of static thought: we see a friend or hear a piece of music, and we are consumed with the pastness and futureness of it all; we are in relationship to it, an I-other proposition, fraught with past and future significance for “my” well-being. As long as we believe that other things and I exist, life must be experienced as a series of I-other problematic relationships. If the other is antipathetic to us, causes us pain and unhappiness, then we want to push it away from us: hatred. If the other promises pleasure, happiness, security, and so on, then we wish to pull it to us: desire. And if the other promises neither benefit nor harm, then we don’t care about it: indifference. In Buddhist doctrine, these are called “the three poisons,” and you can find them depicted at the center of the Wheel of Life, a heuristic depiction of confusion, as a snake, a rooster, and a pig, respectively.

But seen stripped of concept, nakedly in the present moment—in reality even beyond the present moment, which can be a concept in itself—then the nirmanakaya is an aspect of the presencing, of the display, its seeming “thingness,” and it is described as the display of compassion, because it can communicate with us in the form of a teacher (either an actual human being or simply life experiences that move us along our path).

And finally there is the sambhogakaya, the aspect whereby, as these “things” arise and pass away, they communicate to us what they are: the redness of red, the sweetness of sugar, the cold of ice, the sadness of sorrow. It is precisely because all phenomena are arising out of nowhere and passing away into it again, because they are utterly transitory, that they can and must express their qualities, so vividly and beautifully and meaningfully. This is the sambhogakaya, and it is the realm of magic: not magic in the sense of walking through walls or reading minds (although there may be that too), but magic in the sense of the extraordinary beauty and meaningfulness and value of this world seen nakedly, stripped of the false, ego-centered and emotion-laden thoughts/dreams through which confused sentient beings see their lives. Sambhogakaya is the world of deity—sacred world. In confused world things are of greater or lesser value in terms of what they can do for or to me. In sacred world things are of value for no reason at all; this life has intrinsic worth.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 9.30.51 PMAnd so, seen in the present moment, a bird is utterly insubstantial: a constantly changing presentation, a presencing from the ground of nothingness, coming into being and passing away so totally every instant that we cannot even find any “thing” that is coming into being or passing away. In fact, we cannot even distinguish between the bird and the nothing (symbolized here by the sky), which is its womb and its grave. So when Trungpa Rinpoche said that he had drawn a picture of the sky, there were two ways to take his assertion.

First: we are so focused on the thing that we do not pay attention to the background (temporal as well as spatial) from which it arises. Look! The bird is also a picture of the sky! Lost in concept, seeing the world through the veil of discursive thought, we have been ignoring the ground from which phenomena arise and into which they disappear. This is one meaning of the Sanskrit word avidya (usually translated as “ignorance”), the fundamental error that produces “unenlightenment” or confusion. Trungpa Rinpoche said that avidya means “ignoring” or not seeing (the literal meaning of a-vidya) the ground, focusing only on the figure and its significance for or against me.

Second: the bird and sky seem different and yet we cannot find the dividing line between them. They create each other and are each other. The bird, as it moves through the sky, is merely a recoloring of the sky in an infinite number of locations. The difference between them is merely seeming, just like an image in a mirror. In the highest tantric teachings the word sky is often a code word for and interchangeable with “space,” which signifies the unity of the three kayas.

In Vajrayana (tantric Buddhist) practice one often recites this two-line formula, or some variation on it: “Things arise, and yet they do not exist; they do not exist, and yet they arise!” The first is what Buddhists call the absolute truth; the second is what Buddhists call the relative truth.

Finally and always, the three kayas are merely different aspects of the same thing, which is what is meant when in the texts we find the assertion that the three kayas are one. The nirmanakaya and sambhogakaya, often lumped together and called the rupakaya, or “form body of the Buddha,” are in union with the dharmakaya, the absolute body, from which—in the present moment, here and now—everything seems to arise and pass away.

Things arise from and pass back into nothingness: dharma-kaya. Things arise from and pass back into nothingness: nirmanakaya. And as those things arise and pass away, they communicate their unique, brilliant, emotionally moving individuality: sambhogakaya.

To quote a line from Trungpa Rinpoche’s Sadhana of Mahamudra, “Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”

It’s a picture of the sky.

John J. Baker, a close student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939–1987), is the coeditor of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom. A cofounder of Naropa University and former CEO and faculty member, he is now a senior teacher at the New York Shambhala Center and the Westchester Buddhist Center, of which he is also a cofounder.

© 2012 John Baker

Article published at Tricycle Magazine as well as Shambhala Times.  Download the PDF here

Article: All Together in the Present

John Baker says that group therapy can offer the insight, immediacy, and self-awareness that is the goal of Buddhist practice.

By John Baker

One spring morning in 1971, my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, taught me how to teach meditation. We were outside the house my wife and I shared with Rinpoche and his wife in Fourmile Canyon in Boulder, Colorado. We sat facing each other across a picnic table in the bright April sunlight. What he told me had nothing to do with the technique of sitting  meditation, which usually involves working with the breath as an object of meditation and dealing with the mental events that lead us away from the present moment. Rather, his instruction was about how to be an ordinary human being in relationship with other ordinary human beings. It was about honesty and intimacy, and it was a description of his relationship with me. He said that the teacher sits across from the student and shows the student his openness. The teacher lets the student know that he is hiding nothing and that he does not judge the student, understands and listens to the student, is there as the student’s friend. He said that the teacher opens to the student—a bit.

This encourages the student to open to the teacher. When we are in the presence of someone who sees us accurately, without personal bias, and still accepts us non-judgmentally, we relax. We like the person and we are warmed by his or her uncritical affection. In the face of unqualified acceptance, we can drop our protective armor and show our hidden fears, our inner shames, our uncertainties.

This is something we all yearn to do—drop our self-protective masks and armor, exposing the “real me”—because so long as we feel we are not truly seen, we cannot feel we are truly loved. Trungpa Rinpoche called such opening on the student’s part “giving the teacher the gift of ego,” because the student is giving up the self-protective mechanisms that constitute ego. It is a process that requires one to suspend self-doubt and to trust in the other person, and it results in intimacy, friendship, and love. The teacher, seeing the student open a bit, in return displays more openness in order to encourage the student, who—further warmed and delighted—can open a bit more, and so on, back and forth. But the teacher cannot open too much or too fast, because then he might become a demon for the student and frighten the student away, which would defeat the purpose. Rinpoche likened the process to negotiation between diplomats, to dancing, to making love. And he said that this is the main job, the most important part of being a guru and, for the student, a fundamental aspect of the Buddhist path.

I came to realize that Trungpa Rinpoche was inviting all his students to communicate in this way. Following his death, some of us began looking for methods to recreate the openness and compassion we experienced with him and discovered Modern Psychoanalytic Group Therapy. We are working to bring it into the Buddhist path, because it offers the kind of insight, freedom, and intensely intimate interpersonal communication he inspired.

Frank is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous, is committed to the Twelve Steps, and two years ago joined a Buddhist center, where he has embraced meditation and a community of fellow practitioners. His involvement at the center has, by his own testimony, brought new support to his life. The victim of a traumatic, abusive childhood, he holds his body stiffly, his face expressionless as he speaks. Forty-five years old, heterosexual, he has been out of relationship since joining Alcoholics Anonymous and, despite his membership in AA and at the center, his life lacks intimacy. He is lonely and sexually frustrated. To deal with this alienation and detachment, he has joined our psychotherapy group.

Helen is an aspiring singer, forty years old, living in a failed relationship with a man who is verbally and emotionally abusive to her but who supports her financially while she dreams and hopes for a better life in Florida. He recently had an affair with another woman, but stays in relationship with Helen, and she with him, out of convenience. Intelligent, outgoing, physically attractive, she is emotionally volatile, easily hurt, and expressive with her face and body when excited, which is often. She too comes from a traumatic childhood: an angry, abusive father and an unavailable mother. She is easily provoked to anger by male authority figures, and she brooks no criticism of her risky lifestyle. She takes menial temporary jobs, working for low wages while she seeks opportunities to perform, which seldom materialize.

Frank and Helen are sitting next to each other this evening in a nine-member psychotherapy group, most of whose members come from a local Buddhist meditation center. The group is led by me and my wife, Natalie, in New York City. Frank has been silent since the beginning of the session, for almost an hour, but this is not unusual for him. With thirty minutes to go, another group member addresses him, asking if he is all right remaining quiet or if he would appreciate being drawn out. Frank replies that he has something he would like to discuss.

In his life outside the group he is encountering a difficult situation. He has met someone at AA and is falling in love with this person, a “newbie” to AA, and he knows better. By AA rules and guidelines, both of them are early in the recovery process and are advised not to enter into relationship with anyone, much less another new AA member. But Frank is lonely, has been single for two years, and he yearns for someone to love and be loved by. The two went to the movies together, held hands, kissed. But now she tells him she wants only to be friends, that she is determined to make her sobriety work, and that they ought not to develop their budding relationship. She is more determined than he to resist. Frank feels terribly sad but says he knows he too must draw boundaries. And even if he doesn’t, she will.

The other members of the group are startled by Frank’s candor and moved by his sorrow. Natalie, suspecting that Helen understands Frank, asks her what she feels as she listens to his story. Helen turns in her chair and addresses Frank. Speaking with sympathy and affection, she tells him that she feels touched and saddened by his story, that it resonates with her own unfolding story. A few weeks ago she reported that she had met someone new, that she cared for this new man, and that she had learned he has cancer. Now she tells the group that the doctors say his cancer is incurable. She is crying, because he is pushing her away and has become abusive as she persists in her efforts to maintain the relationship. The group is dismayed at her bad luck and amazed and shocked at her willingness to pursue a new relationship while living with another man, even though their arrangement appears destined to end soon.

Frank tells her that he feels affection for her and admiration for her courage and sorrow for her pain. Helen, surprised, realizes that Frank is crying. She places her palm on her chest, as though to quiet a rapidly beating heart, turns to him and says, “I’m so moved! You’ve always been so quiet, I had no idea you had such feelings for me! I love your tears and feel so warmly toward you!”

Frank, still with a wooden face and almost no expression but with tears coursing down his cheeks, looks at her and responds slowly, “You’ve always felt alien, scared me, because you’re so emotional. But I think you’re more like me than I thought. Perhaps we can be friends.”

There are many such encounters in our group, though they can also involve expressions of negative emotions—anger, hurt, jealousy, irritation—as well as positive ones, and such communications can be just as powerful as the one described above. In each case, we are following the methodology of Modern Psychoanalytic Group Therapy as it has been elaborated, taught, and practiced over the last forty years by the New York psychoanalyst Dr. Louis R. Ormont. This form of group therapy is a method for training people to be aware of their emotions and to use them to communicate skillfully, with heart and intimacy. It is a set of techniques designed to help people see, understand, and drop their masks, their habitual patterns, their armor. It is a way to “give the gift of ego.” Those of us inspired by Modern Group have been working to describe it in Buddhist terms, in order to make it more congruent with Buddhism and available to Buddhist communities.

I first met Lou Ormont in the summer of 1974 at the inaugural session of The Naropa Institute. I was the Institute’s CEO then, and I was also teaching a course in Tibetan Buddhism. One day after my lecture a man approached me, speaking excitedly: “This Buddhism, it’s …psychoanalysis!” He went on to explain animatedly a bit about his background, and I appreciated his enthusiasm, even though I knew nothing about Western psychology. Lou was prominent in his field and was unusual among psychoanalysts, in that he only did group treatment. He came out of the Modern Psychoanalytic tradition founded in the 1950’s by Dr. Hyman Spotnitz, a psychiatrist known for his curmudgeonly brilliance who did a lot of work with schizophrenics.

Lou had been teaching at Columbia and Adelphi universities and had a busy practice in Manhattan. That summer he and his wife, Joan, had decided to explore a new approach to human potentiation and came to Naropa, where Buddhism and the practice of meditation so inspired them that in succeeding years Buddhism strongly colored the development of what has become the Ormont Method of group psychotherapy. Lou and Joan impressed the Naropa faculty, and the following summers they returned to teach in Naropa’s nascent psychology program. Their influence endures today in Naropa’s Contemplative Psychology program, where the Ormont Method is still taught.

Lou Ormont is one of the foremost practitioners of group psychotherapy in the world. In 1998 he was designated Group Psychologist of the Year by the American Psychological Association, and in February, 2000, the American Group Psychotherapy Association named him a Distinguished Fellow, of which there are only six in the country. He holds a master’s degree in theater from Yale, a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia, and certificates from a number of psychoanalytic institutes. He is the author of two books, including the landmark text The Group Therapy Experience, co-author of two more, and has written more than thirty articles. He has taught extensively in a wide variety of venues and by his own estimate has run more than 21,000 ninety-minute sessions of group. He is still passionate about his work. Recently I asked him if he might retire any time soon. He responded, “Retire? Retire from what?”

Modern Analytic Group Therapy practice stresses “immediacy,” which corresponds to the Buddhist idea of “nowness.” Just as in sitting meditation we drift into dreaming from time to time and lose awareness of the present moment, so in group we can get lost in telling stories of the past or future, in discussing problems from times other than the present, and in trying to get other group members to do or be what we want. And just as in meditation the practitioner can awaken from dreaming and come back to the object of awareness in the present, so in group members are enjoined to put into words their thoughts and feelings toward the other group members as they arise in the present moment.

Staying in the present with others in this way can be difficult: it exposes our inner thoughts and feelings and can be revealing and embarrassing. It does not confirm our versions of who we are, the way discussion of the past and future does. So group members tend to fall away from addressing each other intimately, from revealing their inner thoughts and feelings about each other. They slip into storytelling about events, problems, successes, regrets, worries, hopes and fears outside the present moment, or they try to change each other’s behavior to make it more congenial to themselves. Mental health care practitioners call the ways we avoid the present “resistances.” Buddhists refer to them as “habitual patterns.” Hyman Spotnitz called them “mistakes in time,” signifying that we apply a lesson—appropriate behavior learned in the past—inappropriately in the present. As we live them out again and again, they deaden us to the power and intimacy of the present moment.

Trungpa Rinpoche taught that we have not “met our emotions properly” because our habitual patterns insulate us from them. He said that, instead, we are continually either “repressing or acting out our emotions,” and that both are ways of getting rid of them and resisting the often uncomfortable reality of the living moment. In a similar vein, Lou calls the work of group “emotional education.” The idea is, first, to be aware of one’s emotions (not an easy task), and then to put them into words instead of denying or acting on them. One of Lou’s slogans is, “Observe it; don’t fix it,” an instruction appropriate to meditation practice as well as group psychotherapy.

When someone decides to join group, they agree to follow the “contract,” a set of behavioral guidelines that is the main tool in group practice. Its basic points are:

  1. To express one’s thoughts and feelings toward the other group members as those thoughts and feelings arise in the present moment.
  2. If one is unable to do this (or to fulfill any other part of the contract), to discuss with the group why not.
  3. Attacking is not allowed. For example, an appropriate expression of feeling might start with a description of it and why one has it: “I feel…because…” An attack might start with, “You are a…” and will cause people to react with fear, anger, or guilt, stopping communication, which defeats the purpose. When an individual attacks, or in any other way seeks to influence or alter another’s behavior, the attacker loses awareness of what they are feeling and doing.
  4. To tell the emotionally significant story of one’s life (not an autobiography, but historical information appropriate to the moment, explaining why one acts and reacts the way one does).
  5. To take a roughly equal part of the talking time and to help others do the same.
  6. To understand the other group members and put that understanding into words.
  7. To put everything into words rather than physical action.

It is each member’s response to these points of “contract,” and other less significant points revealed in the course of time in group, that constitute and reveal the member’s resistances or habitual patterns. Even compliance can be resistance to openness in the present moment, as when, for instance, a member wants, for various reasons, to be “good.” Deviating from the contract does not make one bad; it is an occasion for study: “Observe it; don’t fix it.” It is the Modern Group analog to the Buddhist idea that enlightenment or nirvana lies in the accurate perception of confusion and suffering.

Most of us are aware only of our more obvious resistances or habitual patterns. Many are so ingrained, so taken for granted, that we live them out unconsciously. We cannot see them, just as we cannot see our own eyes, unless we look in the mirror. It is the group’s job to act as mirror, just as it is the guru’s, in order to help us identify and master our resistances so that we can live more intelligently, freely, and openly. When group members express their honest thoughts and feelings about one another (without judgment or attack), the group helps them to awaken from their states of unknowing, their protective ignorance.

To facilitate this process, the Modern Group helps its members develop their “observing egos,” which corresponds to the Buddhist idea of prajna, often translated as wisdom or insight. In the notion of observing egos, the term “ego” is not used in the Buddhist pejorative sense of mistaken belief in the self. Rather, it signifies a basic sense of being that is present in the moment and is capable of creative choices and action. Lou Ormont defines “observing ego” as that faculty of mind that is not fooled, a quiet intelligence that knows without any motion or action and sees things as they are. It is that faculty of mind, for instance, that sees how a certain person professing affection for you is actually trying to manipulate you. You might focus on this awareness or you might not, but it is always there, effortlessly, accurately, at least in the background. Usually we are so caught up in our beliefs about ourselves and the world that we are largely unaware of our observing ego, our prajna. We operate on auto-pilot, lost in reflection. But when we begin to reveal the workings of our minds to others, as we do within the group process, then we can receive feedback that points out to us when our thoughts and feelings are distorted, allowing our observing ego to come into play.

A group member, Thomas, has a domineering mother, whom he fled as a young man; he left England and came to the U.S. at least in part to escape her. She had constantly belittled him as he was growing up—his achievements were never enough for her and she was contemptuous of his masculinity—and now he distrusts women profoundly. He feels they harbor a secret contempt for men in general and him in particular, so when Susan, listening to his story of childhood suffering, tells him that she feels deep sorrow and sympathy for him and anger toward his mother, he does not believe her. The group is stunned, witnessing him read her heartfelt expression of affection and understanding as “condescension.” They tell him so, but he is powerfully invested in the lessons of his past and for many months does not believe them.

Eventually, encountering the group’s “observing ego” repeatedly, he begins to doubt that all women share his mother’s outlook, begins to see his fears and preconceptions for what they are, and opens to the possibility of female warmth, approval, and affection. He begins to understand the web in which he has been caught and how it functions, and his world changes profoundly.

When group members express their minds in this way, the communication is charged with power, genuineness, and intimacy. Such expressions require risk: one never knows how one will be received when revealing aspects of one’s mind previously thought unfit for communication. Trungpa Rinpoche called such risk-taking “taking a leap,” and encouraged his students to “just do it!” long before Nike developed the slogan. Lou Ormont enjoins his group members to “go toward the sound of the cannon,” an eighteenth-century instruction to soldiers lost in the smoke and confusion of battle.

This is not to say that we are meant to expose in a deliberate manner those aspects of our psyches we find most embarrassing or shameful. The power of the group process does not lie in confession, which is a one-way performance requiring an audience. Rather, group is about give and take, dialogue. Members risk saying what they usually hide from one another, expressing what they feel toward one another, and they are appreciated. Such communication drops walls and fosters connection.

When it occurs, this kind of risk-taking produces what in Modern Group is called “progressive emotional communication,” a polysyllabic phrase for what Buddhists would call upaya, the union of prajna and compassion. It occurs as one group member tells another his or her feelings for the other, and the second person, moved, responds in kind. The communication moves forward as the two or three or four reveal their feelings to each other and why they have them. It is “progressive” because it contains new information about what is actually happening now. It is “emotional” because it is primarily about feelings, not ideas or judgments, and it contains a great deal of energy. And it is “communication” because the communicants are addressing each other openly, without subterfuge or agenda, and they feel seen and heard. As Lou says, it is the essence of true art and successful love affairs and marriages. In whatever ways we come to this kind of communication, it awakens us and makes our lives worth living. Without it we live like zombies, encased in the webs we weave of habitual patterns, hopes, and fears that isolate us from the brilliance and vividness of the world.

On April 20, 1999, two teenage boys armed with guns and explosives entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and in less than thirty minutes killed twelve fellow students and one faculty member and injured another twenty-four, before taking their own lives. We all know this horrible story. I have thought about these two boys who were so isolated from their peers, plotting alone in a garage, who were so full of hurt and rage and delusional fantasy, and I have wondered what might have happened if they had been able to tell their fellow students of their feelings toward them. I like to think that, if such a thing could have happened, it might have defused their fury; created links of communication, intimacy, and understanding; and prevented the tragedy. This kind of tragedy breeds in the absence of progressive emotional communication and it can only occur in a vacuum of intimacy. If we are to mitigate the aggression that threatens to utterly overtake us all, it can only be by means of intimate communication, however we can make it happen.

Buddhism and Modern Psychoanalytic Group Therapy both teach us to recognize our habitual, defensive patterns and to leap beyond them into honesty, intimacy, and love. Both encourage us to discard our repetitive and unspoken agreements not to share our thoughts and emotions and instead to communicate openly, from the heart. A scary prospect—and difficult as well—but what are the alternatives? Sleeping in cocoons, dreaming right up to the very end, and taking politeness and discretion with us to the grave? In a world so increasingly and dangerously polarized by politics, religion, race, and self-interest, we need desperately to foster true communication, heart to heart, and tear down the walls of fear, hatred, and deception that separate us.


John Baker is a student of the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and was a co-founder and the first CEO of Naropa University. He co-edited Trungpa Rinpoche’s books Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom. John Baker is a life coach, teaches Buddhism and leads psychotherapy groups in New York City.



 Published in Lion’s Roar (Shambhala Sun), January, 2006


I first contacted John when I was looking for a coach with interest in coaching young women leaders and who shared a Buddhist worldview. At the time, I was taking a career step from a managerial role to an executive role with significant organizational responsibility during a period of turbulent change for my organization. John and I spent weeks reading about and discussing leadership and organizational theory, but the most impactful work was helping me tap into my natural instincts and lead without fear. Subsequently, John coached me through a career change, including the launch of a new entrepreneurial initiative. I have been so grateful for his thoughtfulness, genuine care, keen intellect, and encouragement. I can’t imagine a better coach for my early career and have referred some of my favorite people to him.

– Danielle Gram, Executive Director, World of Children and Co-Founder, Project 100


Working with John as a coach is an utterly unique experience. The combination of disciplines and perspectives he embodies – business, coaching, psychological, spiritual and plain old common sense – make for a very rich field of self-discovery. It’s somewhere between the council of a CEO and Yoda. Best advice he ever gave me: “Be like John Lennon. But just don’t get shot!” I think of it every day.

– N. S. (SVP Strategic insights + Research, MTV)

John Baker Coaching

Coaching reveals our brilliant, overlooked, but profoundly whole and wholesome selves.

Coaching frees us from false, limiting, and fear-based stories we carry forward from the past.

Coaching enlivens us and leads out of our hope/fear-based dreams of the past and future, into the awake present, full of color, vividness, and creative potential.

Coaching brings us to our goals, big and small. Whether we want to make more money, achieve career success, find a mate, lose weight, whatever our goals are, coaching will enable us to see them within the bigger, more wholesome, and self-affirming picture and will help us to achieve them.

Learn more about John Baker & coaching >