Where is that sound coming from?

Chisato Kusunoki reflection

Chisato Kusunoki reflectionA couple of weeks ago, in London, N and I were invited to a piano recital by an old friend of my parents, who is sponsoring the Japanese pianist Chisato Kusunoki. The elegantly attired audience were seated casually around tables in a dark and stylish lounge, though actually we were in the new (by London theatre standards) St. James Theatre; and Kusonoki’s virtuoso performance included works by Bach, Schumann, Medtner, Moszkowski, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff.

So, as you can see, I am a very cultured person ;-) But the real reason I am writing this is that the performance reminded me of the story of Sadaprarudita told in Heart of Wisdom, and how his teacher Dharmodgata explained emptiness to him using sound as a basis.

The Times said about Kusonoki’s performance: ‘wonderfully fleet and supple fingers, quick to locate the music’s inner voices, able to dapple and perfume.’ I don’t even know what that means, but I like it! Still, how are her fingers able to ‘locate’ the music?! How are they able to produce it? Where is it?

Chisato Kusunoki meditation pianoTo me, it sounded as if she had at least 20 fingers, there was so much noise coming from the piano, or wherever it was coming from, or, for that matter, ending up. But I could never point to the music even if I tried. Perhaps I could try pointing at it, but where would I start? I could point at her left forefinger, or her thumb, or the thumping key of the piano reflected in its shiny lid, or the waving of her elegant hands over the keyboard, or the smile on her face perhaps reflecting her inner enjoyment or astonishing creative memory, or to the composer’s mind, or the microphone, or the sound waves, or my ears, or the space traveled between the piano and the audience’s ears, or our ear consciousness (if it was physical), or… . For the music to appear to our mind, all these components, and more, are essential. Not one of them individually is the music, and yet take even one away and the music vanishes.

Where does each note come from? And where does each note go? What is that space between the notes? Where did one note end and the next begin? Trying to figure this out in St. James Theatre led me into a lovely reverie on the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of the music. The music was not ‘out there’ anywhere.

There is no real coming or going

Each elaborate piece was imputed on a stream of sounds, each sound coming from nowhere and going nowhere in order for the next sound to arise, and our minds imputing some kind of continuum on that, to end up with the haunting mellifluence of Chopin’s Nocturnes or the grandiosity of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes. (Ha ha, that’ll have to do for description, I’m not paid to be a music critic. You’ll have to read the fancy reviews for that. I watched a bit of Strictly Come Dancing for the first time yesterday evening and was mainly astounded by the florid verbosity with which the judges described each dance. I could just about come up with ‘That’s nice!’) But the point is, we describe a ‘thing’ as if it were really out there being a thing, we try so hard to label it and itemize it and make it even more of a ‘thing’ — when in fact it came from nowhere and went nowhere, and is completely empty of existing out there or from its own side.

rainbow and meditation on emptinessOn the train down from Liverpool yesterday there was a rainbow appearing out of the space of the sky. The reason it was appearing to me was because of the atmospheric conditions and the position of me, the observer. One moment of rainbow only appeared to cause the next moment of rainbow; that continuum was only imputed by mind. Moment by moment the rainbow was arising in dependence upon causes and conditions that were NOT it. So although it seemed as if the rainbow had a continuum from its own side, each moment of rainbow giving rise to the next moment of rainbow, that seeming continuum was projected only by my mind – in truth, each moment of the rainbow was appearing newly in dependence upon other causes, such as the sun and the moisture and me sitting in the train. None of these things was the rainbow, yet remove one and the rainbow would vanish. It is the same for the music. It is the same for EVERYTHING, even mountains and stars, even you and me. There is no inherently existent coming and going. We impute or project continuity on things with our mind, like perceiving countless still frames of a movie and projecting on them movement.

Where is everything?!

Dharmodgata asked Sadaprarudita:

Where does the sound of the lute come from and where does it go to? Does it come from the strings, from within the lute, from the fingers of the player, from his effort to play, or from elsewhere? And when the sound has stopped, where does it go?

Because Kusonoki’s music depends on things outside itself for its existence, it is empty of inherent, or independent, existence and is a mere imputation or projection of the mind. You cannot find it existing anywhere outside the mind, however hard you try. If you cannot find something existing outside the mind, or from its own side, you can know it doesn’t exist there. For example, we cannot find a dream existing outside the mind or from its own side, so we know it doesn’t exist there. So, where does a dream exist? Where does music exist? Where does anything exist?

Chisato Kusunoki

Where does she keep that vast memory?!

The power of effort and concentration

Everything depends upon the mind. Including of course, as N said during the interval, Kusonoki’s impressive mind. How amazing, he said, that she had managed to memorize every note of the composition and play it flawlessly for over two hours, oftentimes with her eyes closed. The sound flowed effortlessly from her fingertips (or wherever!); she didn’t need to ‘think’ it, more just ‘be’ it. It also made us think how, with familiarity, something beautiful that in reality has taken a great deal of effort and practice become entirely spontaneous and effortless – just like cherishing others or meditating on emptiness if we do it enough. Practice indeed makes perfect. Plus she was enjoying herself so much, even though we knew (from what her sponsor confided to my mother) that she had a head cold. Concentration gets us to this state of effortlessness too, reminding me of one of my favorite TS Eliot quotes:

music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

A virtuous spiral

Although music is empty of inherent existence, it can still appear in dependence upon many causes and conditions and, when they cease, it can no longer appear. Therefore, there is nothing solid or objective about music – it is a manifestation of its emptiness, with no more concrete existence than yesterday’s rainbow appearing from the empty sky.

Understanding this makes listening to music all the more beautiful and blissful. And in general, the more blissful the mind, the more blissful the music becomes, proving again that the object depends on the mind. (Even without necessarily contemplating emptiness, I could tell that as the audience gradually got into the music, becoming more concentrated and relaxed, they enjoyed the music more and so it sounded better, even though it hadn’t improved from its own side.)

Emptiness and bliss in fact go together very well, like water mixed with water, enhancing each other in a virtuous spiral. But that’ll have to be the subject for another day.

At the end, I thanked Chisato Kusunoki, and said I hoped she’d be able to bring the joy of her music to many thousands of people. She smiled enigmatically. I made a secret prayer that everyone who listens to her accomplishes the realization of bliss and emptiness, and therewith complete mental freedom.

Meanwhile, to test this out for yourself, please do an experiment if you can: next time you listen to music, see if you can find it, and report back.

New Year’s resolution to meditate more?!

keep calm and meditate

Did you happen to make a New Year’s resolution to meditate more?! If so, here is a little encouragement to hopefully help you keep to it.

(First though, this first article of 2012 is also Article #100! Thank you to all of you who’ve been following along, and especially to all subscribers of Kadampa Life. Writing this depends on your reading it :-))

Happy New Year Everyone!!

Over the past 30 years I’ve noticed that meditation classes in January are always packed because people have made the New Year’s resolution to learn to meditate, or to step up their existing practice. (January is also retreat season at Kadampa Buddhist centers around the world, the traditional time to focus on meditation practice.)  Meditation means familiarizing our mind with positivity, so we can do it anywhere all day long — I am talking here about so-called “meditation sessions”, where we sit down and close our eyes etc.

If you do want to devote some more time and energy to meditation, there are now quite a few tips and tricks on Kadampa Life to help keep you going — and with any luck even longer than January ;-) Sometime ago I talked about a simple breathing meditation taught by Geshe Kelsang, which anyone can learn to do. You can find a series of articles on meditation, including improving your mindfulness and concentration, here.

Off we go!

If you are new to meditation, to begin with it can feel quite difficult because your mind doesn’t seem to be following the instructions. Perhaps you have attended a meditation class where the teacher says, “Merge your mind with your breath”, in a really special meditator’s voice, and you think, “Well, that sounds nice and peaceful, I’m going to do that. And then afterwards I’m going to watch some TV. Oh, what about that thing I did earlier?” And we’re gone. We just go — our mind zooms off into the far reaches of the universe in an instant. It doesn’t really want to behave. In fact it sometimes seems perverse, intentionally insisting: “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to meditate on the breath. I’m going to think about this boring old thing again instead.”

The more you practice, especially if you are sometimes able to practice together with others, the more you’ll find that you are beginning to really enjoy meditating. After a while, you’re going to really want to meditate, and before too long you’ll find you can’t do without meditating. To begin with it’s like, “Oh I meditated today!”, as if that’s a really special thing, but eventually it will become like, “I haven’t meditated today, no wonder I’m so wacky.” This is because we start developing our own sense of centering our awareness and experiencing inner peace. We see for ourselves the deep healing effect it has on our body and our mind, and as a result how much better our relationships are with others. Everything improves when we get a bit of control over our mind, when our mind starts to get a bit peaceful.

Why is meditation difficult to begin with?

But meditation is quite difficult to begin with. Which, when you think about it, is a bit puzzling. Why should meditation be difficult? Why should placing our mind upon our breath be difficult? Fixing our computer, that’s difficult. Fixing our car, that’s difficult. Twisting our body into some upside-downward dog yoga posture, that’s difficult. But keeping our mind on our breath, surely that should be simple?! That should be like child’s play. What could be a simpler instruction?

And our breath is already here, we don’t have to invent it, we already have the first step. When we meditate on more contemplative objects of meditation, like love or compassion, we first have to spend some time seeking in order to awaken those states of mind, and then we meditate on those. We mix our mind with those to gain a deep pervasive experience of love and compassion. But that’s quite subtle. We have to cultivate love, we have to cultivate compassion. But we don’t have to cultivate our breath. It is already there. All we need to do is put our mind on it and leave it there, like parking the car. I find parking the car to be really quite easy – I just park it and leave it. But try and do the same thing with our minds, and they don’t behave, do they?! Our mind doesn’t stay parked, it trundles away.

In fact, to begin with, the meditator’s main task is to keep bringing the mind back to the breath. Our main task is not so much staying on the breath but reminding ourselves, “Oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be meditating. I forgot.” And then we bring the mind back. We do this over and over again. (Luckily, this is training in mindfulness and concentration.)

Heel!

It is like training a dog. We rein the dog in. The dog goes trotting off. We rein him in again. “Heel!” The mind keeps trotting off. Why? Habit. It is just a question of (bad) habit. That is why meditation is difficult. Our untrained puppy-like mind is used to being undisciplined and, when we begin to meditate, there is a sense in which we are beginning to exercise discipline over the mind. We are beginning to direct the mind.

Meditating on the breath is the beginning of learning to direct our mind to gain some concentration and control, and then we can learn to direct our mind in directions that are positive. Our meditations on love, compassion and so on will take us where we want to go and fulfill all our wishes.

Everything in our life hinges upon the mind. What we see is that, as we begin to gain control over our mind, we begin to gain control over our life. If we can transform our mind from negative to positive, we can and will transform our life.

Talking of transforming our lives, if you are new to meditation and would like to find out more, I recommend reading Transform Your Life ~ A Blissful Journey. Learning to meditate, and gradually getting better and better at it, is a really blissful journey in fact, especially if you stick at it for longer than the first week of January!

If you want to join in a meditation retreat near you, or attend meditation classes, you can find out where your nearest center is through Kadampa.org.

Your turn: Let me know if you want to add something to this, or if you have any questions. And please share this article with family and friends who might be curious about learning to meditate.

Where eagles fly … how to soar in the space of meditation

hand holding Modern Buddhism

High above, in the endless clear sky of the Brazilian Serra da Bocaina rain forest, I watched eagles fly. They soared effortlessly through the sphere of space, with barely a movement of their wings.

There is a picture of an eagle on the front cover of Modern Buddhism, her two wide outstretched wings symbolizing the path of compassion and wisdom, the book’s subtitle. These two wings of ultimate bodhichitta can and one day will fly us to enlightenment.

Bodhichitta is the wish to become enlightened by permanently overcoming all mistaken appearances so we can bring mental peace to all living beings each and every day. With this compassionate motivation, we meditate on the ultimate nature of reality, emptiness. We try to find ourself and other objects existing inherently (or from their own side), as they appear to exist; but — like a mirage — the closer we look the more it all just disappears. This meditation is explained with impeccable clarity in “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”, IMHO the best chapter on emptiness in the world. 

For example, my teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso summarizes how to look for our own body:

Normally I see my body within its parts—the hands, back, and so forth—but neither the individual parts nor the collection of the parts are my body because they are the parts of the body and not the body itself. However, there is no “my body” other than its parts. Through searching with wisdom for my body in this way, I realize that my body is unfindable. This is a valid reason to prove that my body that I normally see does not exist at all.

To demonstrate how to meditate on this emptiness of inherent existence, Geshe Kelsang gives the analogy of eagles, who …

… soar through the vast expanse of the sky without meeting any obstructions, needing only minimal effort to maintain their flight…

Once we’ve found the object — the mere absence of the body we normally see – we settle on it, without further distracting flapping-wing-like analysis.

Analytical and placement meditation

There were many colorful hummingbirds there too, at the pousada where I was lucky enough to be doing a six week retreat off the grid prior to the Kadampa Brazil Festival. Their little wings moved faster than my eyes could keep up with; they were more like bees than birds. Cute as anything, but all this flapping is not the way to meditate! Plus it looked exhausting.

Meditation involves two parts, analytical meditation (contemplation) and placement meditation (single-pointed concentration.) You can find out about these in The New Meditation Handbook or Joyful Path of  Good Fortune. In brief, during analytical meditation we bring to mind the object of placement meditation through reasoning, analogies, and checking the teachings in our own experience. When the object appears clearly we stop analyzing and concentrate on it single-pointedly.

Whether we are meditating on emptiness or any other object, once we have a rough idea of our object through contemplation, we rest on it for as long as we can in single-pointed focus, remembering it moment by moment without further analysis. Soaring, not flapping.

Don’t over-think it

When I started meditating I had a tendency to over-think in my meditation sessions, not daring to rest on the object (whether that was an object apprehended by mind or a state of mind such as a determination) until I was quite sure I had it perfect. But, as Je Tsongkhapa says, you cannot see the details of a temple mural by the light of a flickering candle. Once I figured out that it would never be perfect if I never allowed myself to improve my concentration on it, I relaxed into the meditation objects sooner and for longer in placement meditation. Almost overnight, I became far better at meditating.

Three valuable tips for good concentration

Meditation involves seeking, finding, holding and remaining on our object – not just seeking. We seek the object through contemplation until we find it – we have to stop once we have a rough idea of the object, be content with that, and focus on it, or we’ll never improve our concentration. Then we hold the object firmly but gently and remain on it without pushing.

(I find it helpful at the outset of my meditations to believe that I have already found my object of meditation, and I spend a few moments focusing on it. Then I start contemplating to make that object clearer and more stable. This way, because I have some sense of the object right from the beginning, I know when to stop looking for it!)

I extrapolated these three instructions from the tranquil abiding teachings as I find them really helpful:

(1)   Remember the object moment by moment. Just remember it, don’t do anything with it. And relax. Hold the object in your root mind at the level of your heart, not in your thinky head.

(2)   Hold the object clearly. It is rough to begin with, but you are still focusing on just that and nothing else, without pushing.

(3)   Overcome distractions. Do this by ignoring them. If you fight your distractions or try and think your way out of them, they have won. Thoughts are going to come up unless you are an advanced meditator, and it doesn’t matter that they do provided you pay them no attention.

Don’t think, “This is too difficult, I can’t do it.” Think instead, “This is not difficult and I am doing it.”

When we do this, our mind and its meditation object become closer and closer until they mix like water mixing with water.

Everything becomes wonderful

Next time you have a chance, look up at an eagle blissfully soaring in space… When we have some experience of emptiness, and a little concentration, and we can dissolve all appearances away into their space-like ultimate nature and stay there for a little while, we are at deep peace because we discover that there is nothing more we could possibly want. Why? Because we have it all already. Geshe Kelsang describes it like this:

In this experience, everything becomes very peaceful and comfortable, balanced and harmonious, joyful and wonderful.

Buddha’s mind of great bliss always pervades all phenomena because it is permanently mixed with their emptiness. In truth, when we have even the slightest experience of emptiness, and we combine this with even an imagined bliss, this experience is tapping directly into the bliss and emptiness of a Buddha’s mind. See Modern Buddhism for how to meditate on the union of the emptiness taught in Sutra and the bliss taught in Tantra.

Space and creativity

Out of this fundamentally creative experience, like a rainbow arising from the sky, we can appear anything we want — pure appearance or experience arising from the ultimate bodhichitta of bliss (our compassionate bodhichitta) and the wisdom realizing emptiness. (Pure appearance doesn’t just mean visual images, BTW, it means any conventional truth arising from the experience of bliss and emptiness.) We can even arise as a Buddha in a Pure Land if we want to, spontaneously suffused with those blessings. We can change the movie reel of our reality, choosing the movie we want this time. About time too. All this is explained in Modern Buddhism, which is the union of Sutra and Tantra.

Treat yourself!

Do you think there is anything better we could do with our life than realize emptiness motivated by bodhichitta? Geshe Kelsang requests us on the back of Modern Buddhism:

I particularly would like to encourage everyone to read specifically the chapter “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”. Through carefully reading and contemplating this chapter again and again with a positive mind, you will gain very profound knowledge, or wisdom, which will bring great meaning to your life.”

You could (re)treat yourself by carving out a couple of hours this weekend or soon to read the chapter, closing your eyes and thinking about it. Everyone has access to this book now… If you don’t have the book, you can download it for free here thanks to Geshe-la’s kindness :-)

Is something stopping you?

Finally, with Buddha Shakyamuni’s appearance in our world and his perfect instructions on emptiness, not to mention Geshe Kelsang’s constant heartfelt requests and attempts to wake us all up over the years, what is stopping us from wanting to spend all our time blissfully absorbed in emptiness?! Clearly something is or we’d be finding every opportunity to do it (perhaps you are).

Please leave your comments so I can write the next article, “What is stopping us?!”

Want quicker results from your meditation? Start where you are.

meditator

Earlier today I was drinking tea and half-watching my (borrowed) cats. One of them made her happy Meow sound at me, and I felt a sudden surge of love for her, thinking “May she find temporary and ultimate happiness.” I then felt like meditating, and my heart-mind was in just the right place for it to be a good one. Truth is, I always start my meditations by connecting to something immediately present and taking it from there, which could be why I never have any problem wanting to meditate.

Buddhist meditation is about training in happiness — authentic happiness that comes from a peaceful and positive mind as opposed to the excitement that arises from attachment and/or the ephemeral pleasant feelings from worldly pleasures that are actually changing suffering. (For more on changing suffering, see the beautiful big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.)

The Tibetan word for meditation, “gom”, literally means “to familiarize” – so meditation is familiarizing our mind with positive, beneficial ways of looking at the world and other people. We can do formal meditation sessions on our meditation seats, and — luckily for us in our crazy time-consumed lives — we can also learn to stay positive all day long whatever we are doing. We don’t have to spend hours and hours in meditation sessions or be fantastically proficient at single-pointed concentration to familiarize our mind with positivity; we simply need to watch our mind throughout the day and check that we are always coming back to our heart as a starting point of positivity and peace.

To be able to come back to a place of positivity and peace, we need to know what that feels like! In other words, we need to get happy as our first priority. Being a miserable meditator is a contradiction in terms. If you feel that you are a miserable meditator, you might want to change your approach.

Every morning before the day’s activities have fully kicked in and we have even five or ten minutes of free space, we can meditate on happiness in a meditation session. We can do this in any number of spectacular ways by meditating on the stages of the path, training the mind, or Mahamudra… slowly but surely over the years we fill a huge reservoir with blissful liberating nectar-like meditations that will always be there for us to draw upon.

But however advanced we feel we are along the spiritual path, it is always very effective to start each meditation session simply by connecting to a happy mind that we are already familiar with. (You can do the following before or after a simple traditional breathing meditation if you wish.)

If you have faith in any holy beings, you can invite them into your heart and feel that your mind flows into their cosmically blissful and loving mind like a small stream flowing into a vast ocean, and feel as blissful as you can. And/or, for example, you can manifest your mind of love, which is guaranteed to come with happiness.

We already have the seed of universal love in us and we can water it with no further ado by bringing to mind someone whom we love already. This can be anyone – a niece, your mother, your best friend, your cat or dog. Think about how lovely they are, how they look at you, and how much you want them to be happy. Allow a feeling of warmth to arise in your heart and hold it there for as long as you can. Identify with that happy affectionate feeling, thinking,

“This is me; this is part of my sky-like Buddha nature. All my agitated, unpeaceful states of mind are not me — they are like clouds in the sky, not the sky itself.”

Then do your meditation, however long or short it is, from that starting point. What a big difference it makes! In other words, use what you have inside already, which is a lot. Don’t feel the results you seek are somewhere else and you need to strain in contemplation and meditation to bring them about. That dualistic way of meditating is no fun and sooner or later you’ll tire of it as it is like trying to sail to an ever-receding horizon.

Then throughout the busy day, check just one thing: “Am I happy?” We have a motto in the Kadampa tradition:

“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”

If our mind is not happy, I think it is fair to say that we are not being mindful of any meditation object, even if we are superficially going through the motions of virtue. On the other hand, if our mind is relatively contented or happy (not excited, remember, but peaceful spacious happy), we can know for sure that we are practicing meditation and making progress.

Throughout the day we can adjust and fine-tune the mind so that we are relying upon — or only trusting — a happy mind alone. If we notice our mind becoming agitated, we know not to rely on the evidence that mind seems to present us with, because delusions distort reality like a storm destroying the accurate reflections in a still ocean. We can pause for a few valuable minutes to reconnect to whatever can instantly bring us joy, such as love for our dog with those big brown eyes. And then carry on.

Talking of dogs, my close friend and excellent Buddhist teacher uses the analogy of taking a dog for a walk. The main part of your attention is on walking along, enjoying the scenery and getting to where you have to go, but one part of your mind is always aware of what the dog is up to. It is possible that he will need to be called to heel before he wreaks destruction in someone’s flower bed or eats a pigeon. In the same way, in our daily life we need to focus on what needs to be done at work and so on, but with one part of our mind we are checking to see whether or not we are happy and, if we’re not, we can do something about that.

Comments most welcome! Please share this article if you like it.

(Have you downloaded your Free Modern Buddhism eBook gift!?)

Meditation: simple easy instructions for getting started

Transform Your Life

Recently the New York Times did another article on the benefits of meditation – along the lines of how scientists are finding it makes your brain bigger in all the right places. It attracted a great deal of interest and hundreds of comments. This is good.

But reading the article and especially the comments, I was struck by how many people don’t know how to get started with meditation and feel a little overwhelmed by the thought of what might be involved. And this reminded me of when I began 30 years ago this fall. Back then, in the Friday night meditation classes I attended, I felt encouraged to take baby steps, and that every little counts. Meditation is not as difficult as it may seem. In fact, it feels surprisingly natural, once you get going. Getting going is the main thing.

How to Begin Meditation

The advice in the book Transform Your Life, in the chapter What is Meditation?, (and specifically in the section How to Begin Meditation), is perfect. A lot of friends and family have asked me over the years to explain to them a simple 5 or 10 minute meditation so they can relax and get rid of anxiety, and I show them this chapter.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, my Buddhist teacher, is a completely accomplished meditator who has spent much of his life in Tibet, India and the West in meditation retreat. He has used his combined understanding of meditation and the exigencies of modern life to teach thousands of distracted Westerners everything they need to know to be successful at meditation themselves. So if you really want to start meditating, you could do no better than to consult this chapter. A lot of it can be found here: and I have copied/pasted from there.

“The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practicing a simple breathing meditation. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.

We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.

At first, our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.”

The 1980's

This is the meditation I started with in 1981 as a college student, just sitting on the end of my bed each day for the few precious minutes I could spare between the discos, pubs, and odd lecture. I’ve never looked back.

Step One ~ Sitting

As Geshe Kelsang teaches, the first thing to do is find a quiet spot where we won’t be interrupted. Mainly, these days, we need to find the will power to turn off all those gadgets!! Once we’re sitting in our comfortable position, we can relax our shoulders, rest our hands in our lap or wherever is comfortable, tilt our head slightly forward, and partially close our eyes to allow some light to come through the eyelashes (a lot of people also gently close their eyes). We can rest our tongue on the palate to keep our mouth moist.

(By the way, people sometimes wonder if it is ok to lie down to meditate — you can, but be wary that you are more likely to fall asleep if you do. Sitting with a straight back helps us stay alert.)

Step Two ~ Motivation

Before turning the attention to the breath or any other object of meditation, I think it is very helpful to think briefly about what we’re doing and why. The benefits of meditation are probably infinite, but I just pick one or two of my favorites, depending on the meditation. Geshe Kelsang explains the far-reaching benefits of breathing meditation here. Through this, our mind becomes light and happy, and we can make the decision: “This meditation will really help me and those around me. So for the next 5 (or 10) minutes I will focus on this meditation alone; everything else can wait.” Generating this good motivation makes it far easier to find the discipline to stay focused.

Step Three (optional) ~ Relaxing your Body

If your body is feeling tense, it can be helpful when starting out to spend a few moments deliberately relaxing your body (eventually, concentration on the breath alone has the side-effect of relaxing the body). We can do this by first dissolving everything outside our body into light (including the past and the future), so just our body remains. We become aware of the feelings in our body from our crown down to our feet; and then, as we become aware of any feelings of tension or tiredness in any parts of our body, we let go of them and imagine that they fall away –- as if dropping heavy luggage. All our muscles feel as if they are softening and relaxing. Our body then dissolves into light from our crown to our feet, so that just its merest outline remains. Our body is weightless like a feather in the breeze, clear and translucent like a hollow body, and so comfortable that we’re hardly even aware that it is there.

Step Four ~ Following the Breath

Geshe Kelsang teaches that “we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.” As we breathe in, we’ll come to notice a cool sensation at the edge of our nostrils or on our upper lip, and as we breathe out we’ll notice a warm pressure there. Just that. Once we notice this, we have found the object of meditation. “This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.”

Now, as Geshe Kelsang suggests, there are only two things to do for the next 5 minutes:

(1) We don’t forget the sensation of the breath, our object of meditation – resisting the temptation to follow other thoughts; (2) When we do forget the breath and find our mind has wandered to another object, we gently but firmly bring it straight back to the breath.

“We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.” I think it is important to know that it doesn’t matter how many times we have to bring our attention back to the breath – for as long as we are doing that, as opposed to following our other thoughts, we are training in mindfulness and concentration. In short, we are meditating.

Toward the end of your meditation, see if you can follow your breath for 3 or even 7 consecutive breaths (one breath being an inhalation and exhalation) without getting distracted by anything else! Believe your mind is settled on the breath, and indeed so close that it is as though your mind and your breath are mixed, as one.

Conclusion

If you follow Geshe Kelsang’s simple instructions, you will gradually feel your mind settling and the constant chatter of uncontrolled thoughts, feelings, worries, emotions slow down and even stop. As Geshe-la describes it:

“… gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.”

Enlightened beings are free from grasping.

Feel yourself dissolve into this clarity and peace at the level of your heart — drop from your head to your heart. Stay here as long as you can, giving yourself permission to really enjoy yourself. Know that you can always return here.

Before arising gently from meditation, resolve to bring the peace you have experienced back with you into your day.

Some Tips

Can I suggest that you get used to this idea from the outset: no pushing allowed in meditation. It doesn’t work. We bring our attention back to the object in a determined but relaxed manner, and stay light. We also don’t need to grasp at results — we do that enough in the rest of our lives. Meditation is the best way to let go of grasping and just be, and this naturally leads to incredible insights and open-hearted positivity, the manifesting of our potential.

In our busy modern world, preoccupied with yesterday’s memories and tomorrow’s plans, we may have lost touch with the immediate, what is literally right under our noses; but it is actually very natural and normal to follow your breath. This is another reason why it is not necessary or advisable to attempt to control the breath, as Geshe Kelsang points out, or to push. Even though distractions interrupt seemingly non-stop to begin with, don’t panic; it is only because we are not used to focusing on anything single-pointedly for any length of time, and so have little or no control over our thoughts. That is our problem, and skillful meditation on the breath will overcome it.

The other problem people new to meditation sometimes complain about is drowsiness – not surprising insofar as usually the only time we allow ourselves to really relax and let go is when we are about to fall asleep in bed at night. Concentration is the antidote to drowsiness, and in the meantime, until we have some concentration, it is a good idea to meditate at a time of day when you are relatively alert e.g. after morning tea, and to sit in a light space. Avoid meditating after a big meal or wearing heavy clothes.

In fact, if you are doing just 5 or 10 minutes meditation at a time, there is a good chance that you’ll avoid both distraction and sleepiness – so a good tip is to keep your meditation short but professional. If you are enjoying it, meditate again for another 5 minutes later in the day! You’ll see your capacity and enthusiasm grow naturally.

Geshe Kelsang also teaches variations on the theme of breathing meditation, such as, in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, first identifying and then breathing out all your problems and anxiety in the form of thick smoke, and then strongly believing you are breathing in all lightness, joy and blessings in the form of blissful golden or white light. Some people prefer to do breathing meditation this way, and the basic instructions remain the same.

I hope you get started soon. You’ll never regret learning to meditate – it is the most problem-solving, mind-freeing and happiness-inducing skill in the world. It has no adverse side effects. It is free! And no one can take it away from you. Here is that website, About Meditation. If you get a chance, do go along to a meditation class in your area – you can’t beat live instructions from a real person.

For two more helpful articles on meditation see Meditation in the Pursuit of Happiness and How to Use Meditation to Avoid Stress and Burnout at Work.

Postscript

I have recently had the surreal experience of unexpectedly reconnecting with my closest childhood friend, whom I played with in Guyana when we were 10 years old. Four days after we talked again, laughing at our memories of that different lifetime, she was diagnosed with cancer. She asked me how to meditate to find peace. This article is for you, Debra.

When the mind wanders, happiness also strays

distraction

A recent article in the New York Times reports the findings of scientists at Harvard that people are happier when their minds do not wander from what they are doing.

Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.

This is the other side of the coin from the article, Mindfulness is as good as antidepressants.

If we are not able to stay in the here and now, we are naturally not able to enjoy it. And so we miss out on a lot. As John Lennon put it:

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

Mindfulness is the ability to remember what we are doing without forgetting. If you check, when you forget something, it is because you’ve remembered something else — these are called “distractions”, and the job of mindfulness is to overcome distractions.  Concentration is the ability to focus single-pointedly on what we are doing. These two qualities of mind enable  us to stay in the here and now, and enjoy it, as opposed to missing out on it. Meditation uses both mindfulness and concentration and improves them both very effectively.

Buddha said: “From concentration comes peace of mind.” If we are peaceful, we are happy. People who meditate regularly do so because it makes them happier.

Enjoying, interesting, valuable…

This scientific study shows that we concentrate well on things that we really enjoy. (It also works the other way around, we enjoy the things we concentrate on.) No surprises with sex, it is generally more pleasurable than anything else going on around us at the time, so we are easily able to stay focused on it. Billions of people enjoy TV shows and movies because they draw us in, engage us, please us, such that we resent the distractions (namely the ads). Sport, acting, playing an instrument, art… all these activities have the power to hold our attention if we enjoy doing them more than whatever else is going on.

We also concentrate easily on the things we find interesting or fascinating. A self-described computer geek told me recently that, at work, software problems can keep him absorbed while the hours fly by.

Also, if we perceive something to be valuable or important, we do not find it difficult to keep focused — for example, people in emergency rooms saving others’ lives. Wild horses will not tear them away.

How to meditate well

So to be a good meditator, we need to enjoy our object, find it interesting, and/or find it valuable. In particular, we need to find the object of meditation more enjoyable, interesting and valuable than all the other thoughts that are bound to arise, or those other thoughts will definitely steal our attention.

You know how if you’re engrossed in a conversation, even if you are in a room full of other people talking, although the sound of talking appears to your mind you do not notice it? Whereas if you’re a little bored by your talking companion, you start surreptitiously looking over their shoulder, eventually exclaiming, “Ah, excuse me, there is someone over there I need to talk to.” Its a bit like that.

Before teaching how to do any meditation, Buddha would commonly explain the benefits of doing it. Our breath, for example, may not be sufficiently gripping to hold our attention if we do not know ahead of time how peaceful, relaxed, clear-headed and contented we will become if we simply follow our breath. If we understand the value of what we are doing, we engage in it fully, and concentration comes far more easily.

So because we are more likely to be motivated to stay on our object and not follow distractions if we understand what we are doing and why we are doing it, at the beginning of any meditation it helps to spend a minute or two reminding ourselves.

(To begin a meditation practice, see this article: Meditation: simple, easy instructions for getting started.)

Mindfulness is as good as antidepressants

depression
“Mindfulness is as good as antidepressants, study says”:

what to do about depression“Mindfulness therapy is gaining headway in many areas of psychology, and now there’s more evidence to back up its effectiveness. A new study published the Archives of General Psychiatry finds that depression patients in remission who underwent mindfulness therapy did as well as those who took an antidepressant, and better than those who took a placebo. That means that mindfulness therapy was as effective as antidepressants in protecting against a relapse of depression. Mindfulness generally refers to the concept of being present and in the moment, and comes from the Buddhist meditation tradition.”

When I first started meditating decades ago in Northern England, it was almost unheard of. So I found myself having to explain myself again and again…  “What on earth is “meditation”?! And the question behind the question, “Are you weird or something?” My preferred option: I avoided bringing the subject up. But in the intervening years there has been a rapidly growing number of studies showing its benefits as attested to by science and medicine, and so the answers are easy; I can just point people in that direction. “Yeah, it is a bit different, but it works and you can do it too.”

breathing meditation instructions

Click on picture for breathing meditation instructions

One reason meditation works is because it helps us control our mind such that we don’t have to think the thoughts we don’t want to think.

Mindfulness overcomes distractions — which are all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking if we have a distracted mind. And having to think negative and depressed thoughts all day is clearly no fun.

Being able to meditate on an object is a bit like parking your car home in the driveway after you’ve been on a way too long car journey and it has been hell, full of traffic, wrong turnings, road rage, bad weather, stress, accidents, exhaustion, boredom… Once you find your meditation object — whether it is simply the breath or something that transforms your mind from negative to positive — you can stop everything and relax into it. Really relax. Smile inside. Chill. You’re home.

Dealing with distractions may seem to be hard, especially at first; but that is only if we are more interested in the distractions than in the meditation object. Thoughts are a natural function of the mind and, until we are a very good meditator, will continue to arise in the background even when we are concentrating on one object. However, we don’t need to follow those thoughts, and especially we don’t need to fight with them (they always win. Once we’ve engaged them, they’ve already won.)

what to do about depressionWe just let our thoughts go, one traditional analogy being focusing on the clear blue sky without dwelling on the clouds. If we are more interested in absorbing into the spacious blue sky than busily following the scudding clouds, the clouds will not disturb our concentration, even if they appear.

Another analogy for our thoughts is water bubbles. They naturally dissolve back into the water from which they arose without our having to do anything, and thoughts naturally dissolve back into the clarity of the mind without our having to make them do it.

That same article remarks:

“One drawback with mindfulness is that it can be a struggle to find time for it, Segal said. You have to carve out 30 to 40 minutes per day to do the meditations on your own, according to this particular regimen. But it can become part of a plan to take care of yourself, he said.”

In fact, even ten minutes can make an astonishingly big difference. And the interesting thing is how much time we waste at the moment thinking thoughts we don’t want to think, which makes our time at work and at home unnecessarily stressful and unproductive. If we can think the thoughts we want to think all day long, we will find an incredible amount of space and time opening up in our lives, well worth the investment of time in meditation.

To begin a meditation practice, see this article: Meditation: simple, easy instructions for getting started.

See also How to meditate for other meditation articles.

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