The Five Wisdom Energies: A Buddhist Way of Understanding Personality, Emotions, and Relationships

The Five Wisdom Energies: A Buddhist Way of Understanding Personality, Emotions, and Relationships

by Irini Rockwell

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book invites us to celebrate our strengths and work with our weaknesses by
learning to identify and utilize five basic personal styles or energies.
Written in a playful and accessible way, this is the first general-audience
book on a Tibetan Buddhist system known as "the five buddha
families"—an insightful way of understanding


book invites us to celebrate our strengths and work with our weaknesses by
learning to identify and utilize five basic personal styles or energies.
Written in a playful and accessible way, this is the first general-audience
book on a Tibetan Buddhist system known as "the five buddha
families"—an insightful way of understanding human behavior and promoting
personal growth.

of the five wisdom energies is associated with particular ways of perceiving
and interacting with the world and also with particular colors, elements,
senses, seasons, and times of day. With easy, fun, and engaging exercises and
stories, Irini Rockwell shows us how to identify which energies are active in
our lives, and how we can work with them in any situation to improve
self-awareness, communication, and creative expression.

to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, each of us has one or two dominant energies,
but these can shift and change over time, and we can manifest different
energies in different areas of our lives. Each of the five energies has its
unique wisdom, but also its neurotic tendencies. By learning to recognize which
energies we possess—and which are present in those around us—we can learn to
relax and appreciate our natural traits and those of others, and we can move
away from our neuroses toward the wisdom-aspects of our character.

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Shambhala Publications, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Discovering Energy


summer day in 1976, I was sitting in a friend's apartment in Boulder, Colorado,
where we were both assistant teaching at Naropa University, a school that
focuses on training in the

Buddhism, and contemplative psychotherapy. Naropa's founder, the Tibetan
meditation master Chögyam Trungpa, had written a book called
Through Spiritual Materialism,
I was reading. The following passage caught my eye: "In the Tantric
tradition energy is categorized in five basic qualities or Buddha Families:
Vajra, Ratna, Padma, Karma and Buddha. Each Buddha family has an emotion
associated with it which is transmuted into a particular 'wisdom' or aspect of
the awakened state of mind. The Buddha families are also associated with
colors, elements, landscapes, directions, seasons, with any aspect of the
phenomenal world."

those words aligned me with my world. It confirmed many feelings and
experiences that I had had in my life. Though I had not yet begun to practice
sitting meditation and knew almost nothing about contemplative traditions,
somehow I instinctively knew about the energies of which he wrote.

immediate connection came from my life as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher.
I was passionately interested in examining the dynamic qualities of expressive
movement. For example, I had choreographed a piece about animals called
"In Wildness," which explored how a prairie dog moves in contrast to
a deer, how the energy of a flock of birds contrasts with the feeling of a lion
coming in for the kill. In other dances I explored human emotions—the heat of
love, the strength of anger, the stiffness of pride, the sparkle of joy.

Chögyam Trungpa's words that day changed my life. It led me to a
contemplative tradition with an understanding of energy at its core that
acknowledged the inherent sanity and richness of my art discipline—and
life—while allowing me to step onto a meditative path. For the next few years,
the five Buddha families increasingly became part of my dance work. As they
did, my awareness of these energies began to color my perspective in other
aspects of my life, particularly my relationships with people. Why was it that
one man brought out my intellectual curiosity and another my physical desire?
Why did I feel at ease with one person and anxious with another? Why would I
feel powerful in one situation but inhibited and frustrated in another? What
was the energetic relationship between myself, these people, and these

years later I was able to begin working with the practice associated with the
five energies—that of taking postures in colored environments to heighten
their qualities. (See appendix B, "Maitri Programs.") At that time I
staffed a three-month program in which people practiced like this in depth.
Meanwhile, I had become the director of undergraduate dance and dance therapy
at Naropa. I was seeing dance students become extremely self-conscious about
their creative work when they began to practice meditation. It dawned on me
that to hear the message "Be who you are," which the five wisdom
energies work had brought home for me, might also be helpful for them.
Gradually I introduced energies work into the dance curriculum.

I realized that I had become more interested in my students as people than as
artists, I took a degree in contemplative psychotherapy and worked as a
therapist. As my work with the five energies evolved, I became more interested
in group dynamics and moved into organizational development work and education.
Today I train, consult, facilitate, and coach with the five energies work for
health professionals, leaders in organizations, educators in schools, artists,
and private clients. In writing this book, I drew from the teachings of
Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and from my own experience and
understanding, which is reflected in the examples, images, and exercises.

Five Wisdom Energies

five wisdom energies pervade our very being, our interactions with others, and
every aspect of the phenomenal world. They manifest in posture, emotional
tones, and personality types as well as in landscapes, seasons, and
environments. Each energy style expresses itself in some personality traits
that we commonly classify as dysfunctional or neurotic and in some that we
consider constructive or wise. Both troublesome emotions and pleasant ones
arise out of this energetic matrix.

energies are easily identified by their colors, which hold the essence of their
qualities. Just as light radiates, so does energy. The color of energy is like
colored light. The following descriptions of the five energy families capture
their colors as well as both their wisdom and their confusion:

  • The
    a blue energy like a crystal-clear mirror. Vajra energy reflects what it sees
    without bias; this is its wisdom quality. It also has a self-righteousness that
    can harden into cold or hot anger; that is its confused quality.

  • The
    a rich and earthy golden yellow energy that encompasses everything. The wisdom
    quality of ratna energy is richness, equanimity, and satisfaction. But it can
    also turn into greedy territoriality and puffed-up pride, which is its neurotic

  • The
    with the vitality of red energy. Padma energy's passion is, at its best,
    compassionate wisdom. At its neurotic worst, it manifests as grasping. In its
    wisdom it is finely tuned in to what is happening, discriminating experience
    without bias. However, when it is neurotic, it can cling obsessively to what
    gives pleasure.

  • The
    a green energy, swift and energetic like the wind. Karma energy is
    all-accomplishing action for the benefit of others; this is its wisdom quality.
    It can also become power-hungry, manipulative, competitive, and envious; that
    is its confused quality.

  • The

    radiates a white energy, spacious and peaceful. Buddha energy is an
    all-pervasive, peaceful space; this is its wisdom quality. It can also be
    solidly immobile with the density of ignoring or denying; that is its confused

    five energies work we often talk as if people were one type or another. Thus I
    refer to "vajra people" and "padma people." However,
    although certain individuals may manifest a particular family vividly, it is
    probably more accurate to say that Rebecca displays a lot of vajra energy than
    to say that she's a vajra person. Although someone's style of behavior might
    display one particular energy clearly, the

    energies are always at play. It takes awareness, time, and practice to really
    understand the full range of energies within ourselves. We are all very colorful.

    in any good novel, the people and their circumstances in this book are
    fictitious. Their stories are based on what I have observed, and sometimes I
    have simplified them to make a point.

    A Practice for Westerners

    the early 1970s Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche introduced a way of approaching
    the five wisdom energies, traditionally known as the five Buddha families, that
    made them accessible to non-Buddhists. His great friend and spiritual colleague
    Zen teacher Shunryo Suzuki Roshi was involved with the initial idea. The two of
    them observed that some people, especially those who were emotionally disturbed
    or confused, found traditional Buddhist sitting meditation difficult. They
    thought of creating a community where such people could live together and
    practice. The question was, what practice would they do? Unfortunately Suzuki
    Roshi died before the seeds of their discussion could bear fruit. But something
    was soon to happen to Trungpa Rinpoche that gave him an idea for putting their
    original inspiration into practice.

    teaching a residential program in a hotel, Trungpa attended a party one night
    in someone's room. One person was creating a scene—singing and dancing, trying
    to get everyone else to join in. As the energy became more and more intense,
    Rinpoche felt the room becoming claustrophobic. Suddenly he realized that, in
    fact, they were in a box—four walls, ceiling, floor—and that the box was
    becoming colored by a particular energy. It reminded him of a traditional
    Tibetan Buddhist retreat practice using a small room in total darkness.

    after that evening Rinpoche started drawing diagrams of rooms. Eventually he
    designed five rooms, each with its own color and window shape. In each room the
    student would lie in a specific posture. The combination of space, color, and
    posture evoked and intensified one of the five basic energy patterns. The
    process of taking a specific posture in a specific room would allow the student
    to work through that particular neurosis and find the wisdom and sanity
    inherent in that energy.

    Maitri Space Awareness
    for short—was born. The word
    Sanskrit means openness and friendliness. Space refers to the total
    environment—not just of the room but also of the world at large. Space is the
    totality of experience. It includes everything in our sphere: what we think,
    see, feel, hear, touch. Awareness is our attentiveness to what is happening in
    that space.

    was part of Trungpa Rinpoche's genius to present esoteric tantric teachings in
    an immediate and direct way that was accessible to anyone. With Maitri Space
    Awareness practice, anyone can experience and transform the energies of the
    five Buddha families. So although this practice is presented as a contemplative
    discipline, it is not presented in a traditional Buddhist format. (For further
    information see appendix B, "Maitri Programs," and appendix C,
    "Places to Practice Meditation and Maitri.")

    of Understanding

    we begin to become aware of the energies, we see how our patterns of behavior,
    emotions, intellect, and temperament correspond to one or more of the five
    families. This awareness can become the foundation for developing a practical
    way of working with ourselves, others, and the phenomenal world. It's not that
    we'll filter every minute of our day through the perspective of the five
    colors. However, we will find that some situations become clear and workable
    only when we connect to their energetic dynamic.

    children, Julian and Chandra, have been brought up on the five wisdom energies.
    As a result they better understand many aspects of their lives: their own
    style, their relationships with others, where they feel at home. They talk
    about the energies of their friends, teachers, and work colleagues. They also
    enjoy observing people's styles in movies and books. They are attuned to
    environments and how they react to them: earthy, more ratna Chandra loves to
    live in the country and care for animals; fun-loving, speedy padma/karma Julian
    loves cities. His padma passion dramas over the years have given us occasion
    for many a conversation about the energetic patterns of relationships.

    importance of developing a sense of loving-kindness—maitri—toward ourselves
    plays a big part in working with the five wisdom energies. It is a universal
    truth that we all want to love and be loved. Yet what we often miss in
    desperately seeking love from others or loving blindly without reserve is that
    what we most need is to love ourselves. It is only when we love ourselves that
    we can love others; it is through loving ourselves that we become lovable. No
    matter how many times we hear it or from whom, this message is all too easy to

    ourselves has to do with accepting, relaxing, opening, and feeling warmth. Even
    as I write and remember this, I feel the tension in my body unwinding; I feel
    gentler toward myself. As I open to myself, I feel gentler toward others as
    well. The space provided by relaxing my body allows me to open to my sense
    perceptions. Looking out my window, I see that it is a beautiful day; I almost
    missed it. Gentleness toward myself feels peaceful. I notice that I breathe
    more deeply and easily. I am no longer struggling against myself or what's
    around me. I feel comforted by the openness of my own heart. This nourishment
    is coming from within. This is maitri.

    with maitri in the context of the five energies is a way of tuning in to the
    energetic quality of life. When we experience loving-kindness, we allow
    ourselves to feel the energies without holding back; we have the potential to
    be brilliantly sane. With maitri we see that we and the world are fundamentally
    good. Maitri allows us to make friends with ourselves and our world.

    energies work is based on the premise that fundamentally we are good, sane,
    intelligent people. When we experience a sense of well-being, we know that,
    however bad we sometimes feel about ourselves, our sanity is intrinsic,
    fundamental. We discover that we accept more fully who we are and engage
    genuinely with every aspect of our lives. The unconditional friendliness of
    maitri is the key to the most powerful aspect of working with the five
    energies: transforming neurosis into wisdom.

    a frequent flier, I never cease to be amazed that up there, above the clouds,
    the sun is always shining—twenty-four hours a day. Too often we forget this,
    see only the clouds, and become convinced that they are real. We make the
    clouds solid and identify with them. However, with maitri we can begin to see
    the clouds as transparent and illusory. In fact, we can fly right through them,
    though the ride might get a little bumpy. When we identity with the sun, we are
    touching our intrinsic sanity. It is characterized by openness, clarity, and

    what the five energies are is only the beginning. To experience their
    transformative power, you need to tune in to them daily, refining your
    sensitivity and understanding. Direct experience speaks louder than words. So,
    please, jump in. This book requires your input, your engagement. Working with
    the five wisdom energies is not academic; it's experiential. The approaches
    offered here are intended to guide your experience, drawing it out as well as
    elucidating it. They encompass three stages: learning, contemplating, and
    embodying. In the learning stage, the five energies and ideas around them
    remain somewhat conceptual. In the contemplating stage, you start to feel
    affinity with the energies as part of who you are and spontaneously use them as
    a reference point. At the embodying stage, they become both psychologically and
    physically integrated, and there is no separation between what you understand
    intellectually and how you live.

  • Meet the Author

    Irini Rockwell is a senior teacher in the Buddhist lineage of Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa. She holds a masters in contemplative psychotherapy and is the director of the Five Wisdoms Institute, an organization offering training programs to enhance self-awareness, communication, and effectiveness. She is also the author of The Five Wisdom Energies: A Buddhist Way of Understanding Personalities, Emotions, and Relationships. For more information, visit

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