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


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?!”

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 35 years' experience, I write about applying Buddhist meditation to our everyday lives. I try to make it accessible to everyone who wants more inner peace, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

22 thoughts on “Where eagles fly … how to soar in the space of meditation”

  1. I have recently tuned into your wonder-full Kadampa Life site, and will delve into your posts! Thank you thank you thank you.

    We don’t stop because we don’t have renunciation. We still don’t get it.

    We don’t get it that countless future lives await us and the ONLY thing traveling into those future lives is our precious continuously residing body & mind: our mental continuum!

    That our job is to PURIFY that very subtle wind & mind to insure that each consecutive life is leading us down the path of compassion & wisdom to great enlightenment so that we can help all of our kind mother sentient beings down this extraordinarily joyful and wonder-full path!

    We are addicted to our laziness of busyness.

    We just LOVE to be busy busy busy and constantly FORGET that by taking the time to SIT and train our mind, all the myriads of benefits of purification, accumulating merit and receiving blessings we naturally develop peaceful and blissful states of mind.

    This exponentially improves our life and that of all those around us.

    Many of us think happiness is a thrill, an adventure.

    We don’t GET IT that only a deep inner peace, based on the true nature of reality will bring us into a state of balance, equilibrium and LOVE that will enable us to confront any crisis or difficulty with wisdom and ease.

    Life becomes a dance of delight.

    We actually begin to wish for “problems” to test our progress along the path.

    OK how well can I dance through this one! Always with the underlying intention to benefit others.

    Our self-cherishing gradually diminishes. We taste the freedom arising from the weakening of the “me me mine mine mind”..

    Then our practice begins to soar, like the eagle….

    But only if we STOP from the incessant busyness

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    1. Thank you Sana, beautiful comment.

      It’s so true, we are addicted to busyness, maybe we think it makes our life more important somehow? We are human doings rather than human beings 😉

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  2. laziness of procrastination, laziness of attraction to what is meaningless or non-virtuous, and laziness of discouragement (of course, this is straight out of Joyful Path). Probably the trickiest for me is the laziness of discouragement. I think about Dharma frequently throughout my day and even remember emptiness often; however, I tend to overexert myself (in all areas of my life) and create expectations that are impossible to achieve. What helps me is to remember to apply joyful effort–when I remember that effort is a mind that delights in virtue, it’s easy to practice. It is easy to delight in virtue. When I delight in virtue, I’m naturally inspired and wish to practice. But if my expectations of myself as a spiritual practitioner are too high, then I get discouraged, and then it’s difficult for me to take even small steps. I have to remember: joyful effort, joyful effort, like a child at play. That helps me relax. In my experience, there’s nothing more relaxing than meditating on emptiness. What seems to get in my way of meditating on emptiness is a tight, tense mind that is expecting quick results.

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  3. My main obstacle with Dharma has been distraction by other academic, cultural, travel-related and professional activities. Being one of the ‘lost generation’ of the early 1980’s, when I discovered dharma in 1995 it became my first real mature activity, cheering me up and enabling me to think philosophically and clearly, particularly teachings about emptiness. I actively pursued lots of other professional and academic activities – I couldn’t restrain myself to a Dharma Centre! Unfortunately I left unprepared.

    Now I am older, I have many skills and dimensions of knowledge, and I have satisfied my thirst for knowledge and exploration. Unfortunately it has taken a recent unsatisfying job and a lonely life, triggering a depression, to wake me up and realize that I am making basic delusional mistakes once again. Over the last two months, I have walked into the land of dharma anew, with a beginners attitude, and I hope to achieve some basic contentment and some of the old good feelings I used to have within a few months. One observation is that I can clear away some of the old obstacles that used to bother me like they just don’t matter – like my ‘Buddha won’t help me find a girllfriend’ problem, or my ‘hardcore practitioners are annoyingly dogmatic’ attitude – these issues just don’t matter anymore, they were just youthful resistances and projections. But other problems have appeared – my Mahayana compassion-related practices are really degenerate and I lack the spontaneous and natural equalization I used to have (even before dharma), and my mind is still rough, unclear, rattling, and verboise, like a dirty busride with a lousy radio.

    The moral of this is that it is important to continue dharma practise even if we are fascinated by other things life has to offer, like academic study, travel, professional activity, or cultural experiences. I am sure I thought I had ‘moved on’ beyond Kadampa practice somehow, but this has proved to be a negative attitude that has fossilized into a dreadful obstacle. Another important lesson is that the analytic power that emptiness teachings bestow are to be seen as part of the path to enlightenment, not as part of some fascinating interaction with various worldly objects or language games. If this is remembered, one will not drift too far out of the context of samsara-escape or enlightenment-attaining, which is definitely the context envisaged by Shakyamuni, Manjushri, Nagarjuna, Buddhapalita, Chandrakirti, Tsongkhapa and all the other emptiness-advocates that have devoted their aggregates to spreading a realization of emptiness.

    Anyway, with practice I might even get away from this ordinary routine I have created for myself, whether actually or through transformation. May emptiness firmly in the context of dharma wisdom rain upon me like golden flowers.

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    1. Thank you for a very interesting comment. You have a way with words, and I’m really glad you’ve found your way back to your roots.

      Rain on, golden flowers 🙂

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  4. What is stopping me? Well things are going well at the moment for me, but it wasn’t always the case. I used to drink, and when I had had a pint or two, there was no way I could meditate for the rest of the day. And as my mind was fuzzy in the morning, the early hours was excluded too. Over about five years I gradually came to resent this lost time more and more. I used to ask myself why I was continuing to drink when it interfered with my wishes to grow spiritually. Eventually I reached a point where the disadvantages of drinking outweighed the advantages. But I still didn’t stop – I was so attached to the habit! But looking back I was ripe for a change – all it would take was a nudge. It was actually when a saw a post from a friend on Facebook that I stopped. It said ‘One year today since my last drink – don’t miss it one bit.’ This friend of mine used to drink heavily – a real beer monster. I had no idea that he had stopped. I thought that if he could do it, so could I. From there, I have stopped drinking and straight away I have about four extra hours per day with a clear head. I can read Dharma books and meditate whenever I like. It is wonderful! There are also mundane benefits – I can jump in the car anytime. I don’t get into stupid alcohol fuelled arguments. I don’t spend a fortune on booze, and I drink pints of soda water in pubs which are either free or £1 at the most! In a way I am glad I took so long to stop, because I don’t feel that I am missing out on anything. If I had stopped ‘because of Dharma’ while actually still wanting to drink, I think I would be in turmoil now. (and drinking and hating myself for it).

    My teacher says he used to like going to nightclubs. When he was new to Dharma he asked his teacher whether he should stop. His teacher said ‘No – just continue to study and meditate, and your behaviour will change naturally’. In time he simply lost interest in nightclubs and stopped going because he no longer saw the attraction.

    So what’s the lesson? I think if changes are needed in ones life to make time for Dharma, they must be made without the slightest reservation – willingly and whole heartedly. Otherwise we will just resent Dharma for interfering with what we actually want to do.

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  5. What stops or hinders me?

    A laberynth of true or perceived responsabilities that I haven’t managed to decrease and prioritize. In other words, familiarity and attachment to activities that my ego identifies with. I haven’t found my way out of this maze.

    In more common terms. I am self employed and employ two to four other people. I need to support myself and a daughter in college. So I try to balance my clients needs with those of my employees, family and myself. I end up working too many hours. I know this, but I remain caught up in it. I also need to take part in professional and social activities related to work. My doctor has indicated that my health requires exercise that I don’t do.

    I have control over my time schedule. I wonder how people with eight hour jobs plus 1 to 2 conmuting find time to meditate. BTW, I did read the two threads by the busy dad. If I get up earlier as he suggests I will just fall asleep sometime someplace.

    On weekdays I manage to meditate for about an hour, saturdays 2 or 2.5 I teach a GP on sundays that includes Heart Jewel and it takes me 2 to 5 hours to prepare the class.

    I guess my thoughts have derailed.

    In short, familiarity and attachment to other activities is what stops me the most.

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    1. Thank you, good comment.

      You seem to have a goodly chunk of time to do formal meditation sessions.

      I wonder if the key for all of us in finding a balance between our responsibilities and our meditation practice is to increasingly blur the distinction between them by finding ways to meditate all day! We do this by relying upon a happy mind alone, staying positive and kind. Thank goodness for the Kadam Lojong teachings.

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  6. Thank you so much for your articles. They are a lifeline for me for keeping the dharma alive in my heart.
    What’s stopping us? For me, when I have good karma ripening, I just wanna have fun enjoying this little bit of pleasure. When bad karma is ripening, I’m too overwhelmed to do much other than panic / get depressed. etc etc
    A creature of extremes it seems.
    Looking forward to the article!
    xxxx

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  7. For me a lot of times is lacking enough energy to do it. I feel that I need to rest for a while or have a nap before sitting in my cushion, otherwise instead of focusing on meditation, I will probably start dreaming. Also distracting thoughts are really hard to deal with.

    But from time to time, I’ve been able to have a small glimpse of what this is all about, and those experiences, not matter how weak or brief thay have been, are what keep my trying over and over, even if a lot of times I can’t overcome my ordinary thoughts and activities

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    1. Maybe you could try to keep your sessions shorter so they don’t trigger this reaction in you — just try closing your eyes whenever you have five minutes to spare, rather than making it into a grand production? Just a thought.

      It can help to start our session by remembering the benefits of what we are about to do so that we are more interested in that than in following our distractions — that way they have less power to intimidate or distract us.

      If we have a lot of distractions, meditating on the absorption of cessation (turning the mind to wood) is really helpful. Geshe-la explains that in Mahamudra Tantra.

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  8. I just taught emptiness in daily life from MB yesterday. I really wish I read this first. You have such a way of making it so clear and easy to access. I really rejoice in your writing ability, use of language and understanding and love of the Dharma.

    I can’t tell you how useful these posts are when planning a class. Thank you sooo much!

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