In the last article on Buddha and the Brain, I quoted from How to Transform Your Life on how our body and mind are different entities. If this is true, it has huge implications on our lives: for one thing it allows for the continuum of past and future lives and karma. It also means that our mind has infinite potential for spiritual development, unlike our meaty body (including brain), which necessarily has a limited shelf life!
In the beautiful Buddhist Mahamudra teachings, we learn to actually meditate on the nature and function of our own mind, the formless continuum of our awareness. I was taught this meditation early on in my meditation life and it is popular amongst both old and new practitioners in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition. So I know from experience that even if you are new to meditation it is possible to get a feeling for the clarity of your own mind, which in turn will give you an experiential insight into what the mind is and how your thoughts and feelings arise.
This is useful because happiness and suffering both depend upon the mind, and so if we want to avoid suffering and find enduring happiness it makes sense to understand how the mind works and use that understanding to bring our mind under control. In this way we will improve the quality of our life, both now and in the future.
This meditation actually has infinite benefits – from calming our mind and helping us to dissolve away distractions, worry and delusions; to improving our concentration and mindfulness; to preparing us for a realization of the ultimate nature of things, their emptiness of existing from their own side; to increasing our bliss and the ability to realize directly our own very subtle mind; and, finally, to attaining actual enlightenment. As Buddha Shakyamuni said:
“If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.”
I thought I would introduce this meditation practically and simply in the way that I have often done it with the hope that you’ll come to love it too, if you don’t already.
First a little background…
In Mahamudra Tantra Geshe Kelsang explains the location, nature and function of the mind so that we can meditate on these.
Our mind is principally located in the region of our heart channel wheel, or heart chakra. Its nature is clarity. This means that it is empty, like clear space, and that it is a formless continuum completely lacking shape and color, which possesses the actual power to perceive, understand and remember objects…The function of the mind is to perceive or cognize objects, to understand or impute objects.
The mind has the power to perceive objects. Geshe Kelsang has used “perceive” and “appear” interchangeably in many teachings, so the mind has the power to “appear” objects, or we can say to “project” them.
Nothing exists outside of our experience — to exist means to be known by mind. Mind’s function is to cognize. It knows, cognizes or apprehends the things it “appears”. (Our ignorance believes these objects are actually out there, like believing a movie is “out there” coming at our mind rather than the other way around). Everything is imputed by mind, even the mind itself.
In our meditation on the mind we stop the projector, so to speak, and let all these perceptions or appearances dissolve into the clarity of the mind. Its nature is still to appear or project/impute, but we’re looking at the mind itself now rather than the objects projected – this is also rather like looking in the mirror/reflector rather than at the reflections in the mirror.
The mind also has the power to create. Mind is the “creator of all” according to Buddha. This becomes clearer the more we understand how the world and its inhabitants are merely imputed by mind, and you can read more in Geshe Kelsang’s brilliant explanation in Mahamudra Tantra.
We meditate on our mind in the location of the heart chakra because that is where our root mind or very subtle mind is said to be “located”. This is because the inner energy winds that support or are associated with our very subtle mind are located here.
You can bear any of this in mind as you do the meditation, but do keep the meditation simple as in the guidelines below, especially if you are just starting out. In the meditation, we’ll dissolve all our thoughts away and meditate on the nature and function of the mind located at the heart.
There are lots of other ways to do this meditation too that you can find out from New Kadampa Tradition meditation teachers, including in Mahamudra Tantra pages 100ff. (Before you start, you might find it helpful to remind yourself of the instructions on seeking, finding, holding and remaining, including the advice on how to stay concentrated on your meditation object, outlined in How to soar in the space of meditation.)
You’ll need 15-30 minutes. I’ve left spaces where you can pause to follow the guidelines.
Sit comfortably with a straight back, gently close your eyes, generate a loving motivation, and settle your mind with a few minutes breathing meditation. (There is a simple breathing meditation explained here.)
Once you have overcome strong distractions and your mind is relatively peaceful and stable, turn your attention from your breath to the continuous stream of feelings, thoughts, and images arising in your mind. Simply observe these, without trying to control or follow them.
Watch your thoughts arising and falling away. Watch your feelings and sensations arising and falling away. Whatever comes up in the present moment and then disappears, watch this without reacting or intruding, clinging or pushing away.
Now ask yourself where these thoughts are coming from and where they go to. What is the space between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next?
You’ll notice that your thoughts, images, sensations and so on all arise from a deep formless clarity, like empty space, and that they also subside back into it.
Notice the clarity out of which thoughts arise and to which they return, like focusing on a mirror rather than on what is reflected in the mirror.
Drop your awareness from your head to your heart chakra so that you are experiencing this clarity or bare awareness at the level of your heart in the center of your chest. Meditate on your mind’s nature and function as described in Mahamudra Tantra:
“Its nature is clarity. This means that it is empty, like clear space, and that it is a formless continuum completely lacking shape and color, which possesses the actual power to perceive, understand and remember objects. Its function is to perceive or cognize objects, to understand or to impute objects.”
The mind also creates our reality through imputation by conceptual thought.
Simply put, meditate on the clarity of your mind free from all physical properties. Within that space you can recognize that it is awareness with the power to appear objects and know them, and that it is the creator of reality.
You can imagine that your mind is like a boundless clear ocean without shape, color or form. Gradually sink your awareness into this infinite ocean-like root mind at your heart chakra, and merge with it entirely. Think that it is peaceful and blissful.
Abide in this blissful space-like clarity for as long as possible. Any thoughts that still arise are just like bubbles arising in an ocean — pay them no heed, and they will naturally dissolve back into the ocean from whence they came. They are just mind themselves and have nowhere else to go.
Thoughts disappear if you don’t think them.
(When a thought arises you can also ask yourself “What is the mind? Where is the mind?” and you’ll find yourself meditating on the clarity of the mind. Geshe Kelsang taught this method a few years ago. You can even start your whole meditation like this.)
Know that you can return to this space whenever you want to. Know that you can dissolve any thought away, however troublesome. It only has the energy you give to it.
Before you arise from meditation, think: “I’ll bring this peace, serenity and clarity back with me into my daily life.”
You can finish by dedicating the vast good karma you have just created to the happiness of all.
For more on this meditation, Mahamudra Tantra has it all. If you want to find out more about the mind and its functions as explained in Buddha’s teachings, How to Understand the Mind is a great book for that.
If you have been doing this meditation for a while and have some extra tips and tricks, please do share them here with us.
Since I wrote this article, I have written a lot more on the subject of Mahamudra, in case you are interested in reading more.
Hello Luna, I appear to be 12 years late to the party here. Good job these teachings are timeless hey.
I wonder if you or any other practitioners could help me iron something out. I’m able to gain direct experience that everything is appearing in this empty formless space, this feels wonderful and freeing. The problem I encounter is when trying to ‘shift my awareness to the heart’. From my limited experience all bodily sensations, including the feeling of having a heart/head appear within the empty space of consciousness/awareness, so to say that I meditate from this place seems like a contradiction? When I try to achieve this my awareness switches from awareness of awareness itself or the screen upon which things appear back to one of the appearances within that space (the sensations around the heart) and identifying with the body again. Where would you say I am going wrong here?
Thank you Luna. Thank you Geshe-la. Thank you Buddha
Good question. It is not so much that our heart is appearing within the formless clarity of our awareness, but that we are energetically based in the heart. We FEEL centered peacefully in the heart as opposed to in the head. Hope that makes sense?
Beautiful thanks, Luna. The simplicity of your words and wisdom are so gratefully received as I fumble my way back into Dharma after such a long hiatus. Really enjoyed meditating on the clarity of the mind.
That’s great to hear 😊
Hi Luna. I love these articles, so helpful. Thanks so much for posting them. I like to contemplate “karmic appearance in awareness” because it avoids insertion of “I” into the equation. Then I like to meditate on karmic appearance as rainbow phenomena, having no inherent existence, dependent related, appearing in the vast clarity without identity, just name. Sounds pretty heady, but in meditation it becomes spacious and heart felt (relief, joy, surprise!)
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Wow this is beautiful Luna 👌🙏💜
Just inspired me to do go deeper in my meditation.
This meditation & your explanation of it are so beautiful! Thank you for sharing it!
Beautiful instructions.Off to do this meditation.I need this medicine x
Just reading through the meditation has left me calm and peaceful! Thanks Luna
I really like the images in this quote from Ocean of Nectar for helping get the mind calm and clear:
From Sutra Expounded to Hearers:
Forms are like bursting balls of foam,
Feelings are like bubbles of water,
Discriminations are like mirages,
Compositional factors are like plantain trees,
Consciousnesses are like magical illusions.
Thus the Sun Friend says.
Thanks Robert, that is one of my favorite quotes by Buddha too; it is so beautiful.
mmm 🙂 lush
i love this one too.
How are compositional factors like plantain trees?
Plantain trees don’t have a core — you can peel away layer after layer but never find the “trunk” or anything “solid”.
Immediate benefit from reading this blog and the comment from Robert Thomas 2011. I literally felt a ‘lightbulb’ moment…..thank you both for your kindness.
Wow! Terrific explanation of the most wonderful Mahamudra meditations. I’ve been practicing for over five years and what I have discovered is that all paths lead to Mahamudra meditation. Spaciousness and clarity, what a combo! I placed a lot of effort upon single-pointed concentration only to find out this was training for the Mahamudra meditation I would be taught later on.
I sit down on my cushion, sometimes it takes 20 minutes to calm my mind, and then I get a few minutes of Mahamudra meditation “Wowwee Kazowiee” is all I can say. Follow these wonderful instructions, your practice will be well served. Don’t worry or be concerned about results. One day it sort of kicks – in like the 5 years I tried to develop a good backhand in tennis. One day it worked! Hitting to my backhand is no longer a weakness and will not get you an easy point!
Thanks Ike. That tennis analogy is very apt, it really does seem to be like that — realizations just click! And meantime we can enjoy the practice.