These days with all the changes in the world: climate change, change of government, wars, and other crises, it’s difficult not to get overwhelmed. In addition we have the Internet with news and media wherever we go almost 24/7. We also have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on to socialize, and to receive and express opinions with posts, likes, hearts, and even angry faces.
This is a world of almost no limits, but we might feel the need to step back, settle down, reflect, and rest the mind. In this respect, the tumultuous world around us is also an excellent and even necessary motivating factor for our meditation sessions. There is also a seemingly no end to all the projects we could be involved in: from home improvement, shopping, to whatnot.
When will all these projects stop?
Only when you stop …
Emotions are hard to handle, they are also deeply ingrained with habits, so not easy to change. Reflecting on words of wisdom is very helpful, but once or twice is probably not enough, repetition is always emphasized. The same is the case for meditation, letting the mind settle – giving room for direct inner experience.
Once on the cushion, the attitude is much more important than being technical:
Think of meditation as a way to give yourself a break,
Nothing is expected of you: just relax, but do not try too hard.
No need to worry: afterwards the world will still be there.
If you fall asleep – OK, but that’s not meditation.
If distracted, gently bring attention back to home.
Do the best you can, use methods as they’re needed.
No need to rush to get to main part of the practice,
But view all parts as guided meditation.
No need to hurry, relax your gaze and gently focus mind on objects.
Clear dullness, agitation with compassion and devotion.
At the end rejoice and give yourself a pat for having kept the cushion warm.
The longest journey is from the head to the heart.
Unfortunately samsara does not clear up by itself, so if we want liberation we need to study and reflect on the View, again and again. We need to thoroughly investigate and rest in meditation repeatedly – until real understanding sinks in and also becomes emotional understanding. Our lack of clarity, our emotions, and habits are so powerful. We need to reflect deeply on this again and again and again, and also apply a lot of skillful methods.
The Buddha spoke of the ultimate view that cuts through the root of the three poisons. If we want to bring an end to samsaric existence and cross the ocean of samsaric pain and suffering, we need to practice the precious Dharma that the Buddha taught. If, on the other hand, we are happy and content to continue in the three realms of samsara and we are not tired of undergoing endless suffering, of course we do not need to practice the Dharma. If we think, “I’ve been circling around taking birth, growing old, getting sick, and dying, taking birth, growing old, getting sick, and dying again and again endlessly, and I’ll just go on like that,” we can certainly continue doing so, and we don’t need to practice the Dharma.
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
That’s why we need to put the View into practice in both meditation and conduct. Unless of course, you are happy to stay the same, do not want to change, and do not long for liberation. But could you then call yourself a Buddhist or practitioner?
Meditation or gom in Tibetan means familiarization. This means getting used to resting the mind openly by repeatedly applying methods and then resting until it becomes natural. This kind of resting has many names: Rigpa, The Natural State of Mind, Thought Free Wakefulness, and so on, and is completely free from holding on to opinions or any other thought occurrences. But it is crucial to receive guidance from an experienced teacher in order to do this the right way.
Distractions or Laziness?
The more relaxed you are in meditation, the better it is.
The less method you need, the better it is,
But when distracted,
Use any method you know,
To bring your mind home.
In meditation, we usually fluctuate between applying too much method or too little method – we are either too tense or too lax. A meditator has to know how to handle these problems and also have enough mindfulness to notice either faults.
Beginners may not notice when they are distracted or dull, and it’s more difficult to correct. After more study and training it will get easier. But if it’s still a big problem after being a buddhist for many years, it may be because of laziness and lack of practice.
Of all mind poisons,
Which is worst? –
It is laziness …
If mindfulness is weak, so you don’t notice distractions, or you still don’t know how to deal with them, you probably need to spend some more time with study, reflection, and meditation. One of the most important thing to do, and even more so when engaging in Mahamudra and Dzogchen meditation, is reflecting on the four reminders again and again and again. Other good ways to get inspiration for practice are: reading biographies, anecdotes, and quotes of wisdom – whatever inspires you most.
To do, or not to do
The highest form of meditation is called non-meditation or the nine non-actions. These are extremely difficult, or rather impossible to do, because in non-meditation there is nothing to do – it’s too simple, and that is not how we are “wired”. We are used to do a lot of things, planning and scheming all the time – non stop. It seems that there are no way to stop our spinning mind either, and blocking thoughts is not advised. So we need some skillful means and clear understanding on why and how to proceed. (Where and when, is also quite important, but we will leave that for later.)
Don’t involve yourself in thinking
Of the three times – past, present and future!
Instructions like this is given, and even though it may be too difficult to do for now, it at least gives you an idea of what the goal of what all methods and practices are all about.
All these branches of the Doctrine
The Enlightened Sage expounded for the sake of wisdom.
Therefore they must cultivate this wisdom
Who wish to have an end of suffering.
The Mahamudra system talks about two forms of insight meditation (lhagtong): investigation (zhegom) and resting (jog-gom). Both of these are supported by calm abiding (shine), ngöndro and other practices. Instructions on how to do these should be received directly from an authorized teacher. Reading about it is helpful but not enough. If you are new to this, I recommend that you seek such instruction. Nevertheless, I will continue here on the essence and pitfalls of meditation. But when it comes to non-meditation it’s more relevant to speak about what not to do, since it is about non-doing.
Some meditators don’t like to be told what not to do. Even though the highest meditation is called non-meditation, with nothing to do.
Some meditators do not like to train the mind as needed, in order tame the mind and make it ready to rest in non-meditation. Even though they are still not able to rest, and settle their discursive thoughts.
Some meditators think that doing and saying whatever comes to mind without restraint, is being spontaneous, and some sort of higher practice.
One may think “I am a yogi”, while being rude and fooling self and others.
It’s important to remember that authentic yogis keep their practice hidden, are humble, kind and calm.
Outer appearance, drinking alcohol, and wild, rude conduct, does not make anyone a yogi.
Real yogis utilizes anything in life, but only as a way to tame their minds from mental poisons: reducing self-importance with bodhicitta.
There are no vajrayana, mahamudra, or dzogchen without devotion, bodhicitta, and the six paramitas. And since it’s also non-doing, here is what not to do:
Don’t dwell on the past!
Don’t invite the future!
And don’t meddle with the present!
Let come, let be, and let go.
If you don’t let come,
It will be very difficult to let go.
Don’t try to stop thoughts, you won’t be able.
Don’t repeat thoughts either. It’s not really healthy …
Don’t harm others and yourself by holding on to grudges, passions, and opinions.
Nor expressing them through gossip, nagging, swearing, and exaggeration.
Nor expressing irritations by your body language, face expressions, or other rude behavior.
If not refraining from all this, how can anyone then claim to be a dharma person?
If you look for result of meditation, just examine body, speech and mind, both when you’re alone and in the company of others.
But, since all of this is so simple to say, yet so difficult to do – or rather not to do, we need all the other methods – with a lot of things to do. Practices like ngöndro, shine, yidam, guru-yoga, rituals, practical work, and so on, are all indispensable skillful means for training and taming the mind.
All of these methods have the single purpose of reducing clinging to our thoughts and opinions, grudges, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears. And of course their boss: self-importance. Until finally, after many years of practice and retreats, we are able to rest, free from the control of the self and just let be, and also let it go as soon as you are holding on.
All thoughts and emotions are self liberated,
If you’re able to see, rest and let be.
That’s the main “secret” of all meditations …
“If any grasping arises, you don’t have the View.”
So, when irritated, annoyed, or just a bit impatient,
Know you lost the View.
Our mental clinging and grasping has to wear out like and old shoe, by training the mind diligently with all the other practices, like guru yoga, mantra recitation, and visualization. Without this support any experience we might have, will be very sporadic and unstable. There seems to be no way to get free from this strong habits of grasping, just over night.
You might have had experience
Of thought-free, open mind –
But is it stable all the time?
Although the highest meditation is called non-meditation and non-doing, it doesn’t mean: “no more work or activity for me”. Sitting still is only related to the meditations session: there, we sit still without any movement. And it’s not that moving in meditations is bad for you, but by sitting very still with a relaxed and gentle breath, you will become much more mindful of any subtle thought activities. Remember, body and speech does not move by themselves …
“Non-meditation” is merely relating to non-involvement in thinking – seeing how thoughts are bubbling up and then leaving them alone. It’s quite simple, but also quite advanced practice – the fruit of taming the mind through many years of dedicated practice and retreats.
When sitting sitting still in meditation posture, without fidgeting, with open eyes and steady gaze, relaxed without staring – meditation happens almost by itself. Nothing much to do except being relaxed and aware of anything arising, and using the breath as your support. Let thoughts come, let them be, and let them go. In addition to a gentle focus on the breath we also need the other skillful methods of mantra, visualization, and rituals. They are all very important methods for training the mind.
Intention, motivation and commitment
Mundane people think that I’m crazy, but I think that they are crazy. How I live and what I eat is unbelievable for them. So I understand why they think I’m crazy. But they are crazy to me – sorry to say – because they are only chasing and chasing, and never appreciate, so they are never 100% happy.
When we talk about attachment and chasing, it may not be completely clear what that entails. To spell it out: Milarepa and all the other masters talk about getting free from the eight worldly dharmas, which is what all dharma practice is aimed at. These are four pairs of hopes and fears, likes and dislikes to overcome through practice.
- Loss and gain
- Praise and blame
- Fame and shame
- Pleasure and pain
And the most important motivating factors to develop further are the following:
- Revulsion – longing for freedom.
- Unbiased love, compassion, and bodhicitta aspiration.
- Devotion, joy, and sense of humor.
The teacher is your trainer …
People training in sports, dance and music, benefits greatly from having a coach or personal trainer. When a coach points out our faults or weaknesses, it is not to criticize or put us down, but to show us where we can improve.
In the same way, your lama or meditation teacher should tell you when you are not sitting in the right posture or when you are not acting or speaking in accordance with the dharma. Otherwise they would not be doing their job – which is to teach us how to think, speak, and act, in a more skillful way.
The Noble Eightfold Path consist of right view, thought, speech, action, and so on. Implying that there are also wrong view, thought, speech, action, and so on. But if you don’t like to be corrected – I guess that’s just because of that old silly “self-defense” habit, and not yet used to being in training.
Defensive when I’m criticized,
Or even turning blame around,
Is only sign of untrained mind –
Wouldn’t training more be good for me?
Training in meditation is a bit like training a very untrained dog. One need a lot of consistency, patience, and a sense of humor. Sometimes a “treat” will do, other times we need the leash, but never the stick!
The most difficult thing for many people is to actually sit down on the cushion. The next difficulty is to actually let the mind settle. After some time one might feel the urge to get up, check the phone, look up something in a dharma book, get a cup of coffee or something, even in the middle of a session. So that’s why we need the “stay!” command. It’s important to keep the cushion warm – in other words, don’t allow yourself to interrupt the session.
“Sit!”, “calm down!”, “relax!”, and “stay!” are the most important command words also for our meditation training. But no need to shout to yourself. You’ve probably heard about the dog-whisperers and horse-whisperers, who tame and train even wild dogs and horses, with very gentle words, and gestures.
Need a break?
The treat here, is viewing your session as a break or vacation from all our tiring opinions, hopes and fears, that makes our minds spin in constant circles. Now, in your sessions, all you have to do is reading your meditation text, with it’s aspiration prayers, offerings, praises, visualizations, mantras, and so forth. Everything is there in the text, it’s like a guided meditation, and not much effort is needed. Let your meditation text or sadhana do the job.
All you need to do is to follow its instructions – one line at a time, one verse at a time. No need to linger on the line or verse you just did, no need to be apprehensive of what is coming up. No need to rush to get to the main part and no need to rush to get to the end. If you rush through your session to get it over with, is it then really meditation? Is it then really a break from a wordly mind set?
We might just do our sessions out of duty, samayas, or because our teacher told us so, but with no joy or inspiration. It’s important not to look our sessions as a chore, but rather as a great opportunity to challenge and overcome our demons. The resistance we may feel initially is a natural reaction, since we lack the understanding and discipline. But that is also what keeps us tied up and wound up. Wouldn’t it be better to loosen the knots and unwind?
You can think of the session as your “break” and the rest of the day as enhancement for your next break from ordinary mental spinning. Doing the session just because our teacher told us, is also a good start. Wouldn’t it be nice to view it as a medicine? The same way we would take medicine from a doctor, even if we don’t see immediate results?
Constancy, patience, humor, joy, and gentleness, as opposed to authoritarian style discipline, are probably of the most important factors in dog-training, and also in training the mind.
The following is adapted from a writers’ blog about writer’s block and procrastination (modified here for meditators), and is how the author talks to himself to get started:
“Quit dinking around!
Sit down, shut up, and MEDITATE!”
No puttering, no procrastinating.
Butt on the cushion, hands in the lap, eyeballs on the text.
This means that if meditation is a priority for you, then meditation should take priority over reading the morning paper, sharing joke emails, talking to a friend on the phone, watching game shows on TV, going to a movie, making scrapbooks of last year’s family vacation, playing with the cats (or dogs, or fish, as your particular case may be), cleaning the kitchen, or going shopping.
The other stuff can wait until you get your session done, and if you don’t believe that, then meditation isn’t your priority.
Procrastination is the meditator’s deadliest enemy. Learn how to spot when you’re finding excuses when you should have a session. Or – to use a technical term – ’dinking around’1.
This is of course just one style of talking to oneself, so whatever works for you is fine, as long as it helps you getting seated.
- Dinking around: to goof off for long periods of time when you should be doing important things. ↩