As the experience arising from this meditation is so pleasurable, naturally our mind likes it. When we are experiencing bliss, it is easier to stay concentrated because our mind naturally wants to stay put, to absorb. Ordinarily, it is the opposite – our mind wants to wander. Distractions are overwhelmingly interesting to our monkey mind (even paradoxically when they’re boring or anxiety-provoking), and so concentration is difficult. Now concentration feels easier and distractions relatively powerless.
Buddha understood very well that we like bliss – we love to be ecstatically happy. Our problem is that our bliss is very brief. Ordinarily, we achieve bliss through stimulating ourselves with sense pleasures, from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching beautiful things, and this bliss is fleeting. Yet, we build our lives around it. We chase that high, which is about as successful as trying to grab onto a mirage. If we can give the mind pleasurable feelings, or even bliss, by itself, the attachment within us becomes redundant. We have what we want, so we no longer crave external objects to get us there. Who wants to go chasing after a pizza or a yacht or a boyfriend when we already have it all? The bliss can last. It can cause us to enjoy everything that appears to our mind.
Bliss is in fact in the nature of concentration and a state of mind – so the source of our bliss comes from within the mind, not from grasping at external objects.
Once we can dissolve our inner winds into our central channel through Tantric completion stage practice, we experience an unparalleled bliss and level of concentration. As it says in Modern Buddhism p. 194:
The stronger this bliss becomes, the more subtle our mind becomes. Gradually our mind becomes very peaceful, all conceptual distractions disappear, and we experience very special suppleness.
Use a blissful mind to meditate on other objects
We can use our blissful concentration, at whatever level we are at, to focus on any object of meditation that we choose. For example, we can generate bliss through this method and then meditate on love for all living beings: “May everyone be happy.” And naturally we’ll be able to hold that mind of love much more easily than with an ordinary, crunchy, distracted, non-blissful mind. Most of our objects of distraction are in fact objects of attachment — we want to be somewhere else. What’s for supper? The mind is going somewhere else so we have to keep reining it back in, even when meditating on something as beautiful as love. It is much easier with bliss to stay on our object.
The object that we mainly use bliss to meditate on is the ultimate nature of reality, emptiness, the actual dreamlike nature of things. There are many levels of bliss and, at its deepest most qualified level it is free from mistaken or dualistic appearance and utterly undistracted. Buddha taught how to use this concentrated mind of bliss to meditate on emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality, so that we experience the union of bliss and emptiness or Mahamudra. This mind of the clear light of bliss and its main object emptiness mix together like water mixed with water, they go together very well, they belong together. In fact, once you receive a Highest Yoga Tantra empowerment we have the commitment to generate bliss six times a day and then use it to meditate on emptiness. I have wondered what there is not to love about a tradition that obliges you to feel blissful six times a day?!
You can find out more about this essential practice — perhaps the ultimate meditation of the Buddhist Kadampa tradition, the meditation to which all other meditations lead — in the incredible book Mahamudra Tantra.
A guest article by a long-time Kadampa practitioner
Venerable Geshe Kelsang has said that the function of Buddha is to bestow blessings continuously upon living beings and cause them to experience inner peace. Often I take these words superficially without relating them to my daily experience; but on those rare occasions when I do …
My experience of peace now, at this time, is arising from the blessings or inspiration of holy beings affecting my mind here and now!!! …
… a completely new world opens up before me.
Such a difference between words to the ear understood by the intellect, and wisdom from the Spiritual Guide experienced, even just for a moment, within daily life.
A beautiful piece of advice that Kadam Morten gave in the New York Festival was to learn to recognise the presence of blessings in our lives. Whenever we experience some degree of inner peace, we should recognise that experience as moments of blessing, to enjoy those moments with an understanding of the deep and close connection we have with enlightened beings. As he said (according to my recollection, so please forgive mistakes):
When you experience inner peace, right there is your Buddha nature, right there is Buddha and Buddha’s blessings.
Often when we experience some inner peace (and I can only speak for myself) we can easily take these moments for granted and let them pass without noticing what is actually happening. When those fleeting moments pass and the clouds of disturbing conceptions have rolled back, covering the pure inner sky of our mind, we are once more unhappy and wondering where we can go to, what can we hold on to or push ourselves away from to return to that pure space. When the mind is peaceful – and thus blessed – it is easy to feel connected to holy beings and develop our relationship with them. By contrast – again I speak for myself – when the mind has no peace it is hard to develop faith in, or even remember, our connection with Buddhas and their unobstructed power to bless and transform our mind. The instinct is to immediately search outside the mind… and so journey further into suffering.
To me this shows a lack of deep understanding of where peace and happiness really come from. We need to take Geshe Kelsang’s teaching to heart – to develop a deep understanding and belief in the non-deceptive dependent relationship between Buddhas’ blessings and our own inner experience of peace and happiness.
The more I think about this dependent relationship and, more importantly, the more I learn to experience it in daily life, the more I start to realise that we are not the independent entities we normally perceive – unrelated to, and separate from, everything else in the universe. Normally it feels like our state of mind just is what it is, from its own side, existing as a discreet entity whose qualities of peace or disturbance do not come from anywhere but are simply inherent characteristics of our mind itself. However this feeling is mistaken. Just as a rainbow arises entirely from the gathering of different necessary conditions and cannot be separate from them, so our peaceful mind arises from the blessings of Buddha.
For me, learning to let go of my sense of independence and separateness goes hand in hand with learning to become more open and receptive to blessings. While on the one hand we long to feel more connected to Buddhas and be nourished by their blessings, our grasping at an independent self creates the illusion of a big gap between our self and these beings, undermining our receptivity. Our mind that we wish to change feels “in here” while Buddhas and their benevolent power seem “out there”. These two, which we yearn to experience as deeply related and connected, are held by our ignorance to be truly separate, different, unrelated. While we try to feel ever closer to our Spiritual Guide and develop powerful faith so as to receive the blessings of all the Buddhas, our inner ignorance always holds us at a distance, weakening the power of our faith. The ignorance in our heart doesn’t really believe we can change, let alone “be changed”, by the influence of a pure being so “different” and “other” to ourselves.
With faith we make sincere requests but ignorance makes it feel as if our prayers are telegraphed across a big existential gap and that blessings are received from some distant Dharmakaya or holy space.
Through contemplating the dependent relationship of our own experience of inner peace and blessings we begin to realize that we already have a deep, profound, powerful, and intimate connection with enlightened beings. That relationship is already there – we do not need to create it. But we can learn to recognize it and increase our trust and reliance upon this relationship as a dynamic and vital source of refuge and transformation.
When I recognize (on the basic level that I am able) that all that I am and all that I experience is entirely dependent on other factors, that every moment my mind and my self are being re-created and transformed by many conditions, I let go (however slightly) of my sense of existing independently, permanent, and separate. Instead I can begin to experience my self as a dependently arising be-ing, in connection with the universe and receptive to conditions of transformation. There is no real gap between myself and Buddhas, no space between my mind and their blessings. This wisdom opens the heart more and more to the blessings of our Spiritual Guide, which in turn further awaken our Buddha nature.
Likewise there is no real gap or difference between ourselves and all other living beings. We already have, right now, a profound, powerful and intimate connection with all the countless mother beings of the universe. We do not need to create this relationship. It is already there. Just by recognizing this relationship our heart begins to open with a natural, uncontrived love and compassion, through which the blessings of Buddha can pervade and transform the entire universe.
Mindfulness is about the present moment, being in touch with it, not forgetting it. Presence of mind. All of Buddha’s teachings, or Dharma, help us stay in touch with the present moment. For example, with love we focus on people who are here and now, wishing them to be happy, even if they are in another country, or even deceased (they are still somewhere). With patience we wholeheartedly accept what is happening in the here and now without thinking it should be otherwise. With wisdom we appreciate the moment by moment unfurling of mere appearance, which is arising, due to karma, like waves from our root mind.
Be here now, or we are quite capable of missing out on our entire life. As John Lennon put it:
Life is what happens while we are busy making other plans.
Where else can we be other than here? What time can we be other than now?
I’m lucky enough to be living near the Denver Botanical Gardens, and right now they are exquisite with late summer blooming and the Chihuly exhibition.* The other day I was sitting on a bench contemplating — loving just being there absorbed in the scene. A power couple marched past fast, hand in hand, furrowed brows, looking straight ahead, in earnest conversation about some plans for the future. They did not seem present, they seemed to be missing all the beauty and stillness and space around them; and it made me think that I also am often not as present as I would like, even when supposedly relaxing and enjoying myself, let alone when busy at work.
Without mindfulness we are distracted, which basically means we are remembering something else other than what is happening right here and right now. Another way to understand distraction is all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking because our mind is out of control.
Breathing meditation, focusing single-pointedly on the breath, is the way to let go of distractions. Through this, we automatically become more centered, peaceful, present, focused, and clear, and then we can transform our mind from there. Otherwise, just trying to think good thoughts on top of the dubious thoughts we already have can be just adding one layer of conceptuality on top of another.
We remember that in the context of this meditation anything other than the breath is a distraction. Distractions and stray thoughts will continue to float around for a while, until we have constant mindfulness, which is quite a high level of concentration (the fourth of the nine stages leading to tranquil abiding – you can read more in Joyful Path.) However, we don’t have to pay them attention, any more than we have to listen to the cacophony in a crowded room when we are focusing with interest on the person talking to us.
When we hit the sweet spot of concentration on the breath, and settle there, it’s a bit like tuning in the radio to our favorite song and dispensing with the static. We don’t want to spend ages tuning that radio knob, we want to get right to it; and nor would we want to spend ages settling into the breath if we know how enjoyable it’s going to be.
No negotiation, just single-pointed focus
We don’t negotiate with our distractions – as soon as we engage them in any way, eg, “I’ll just think you through and then you’ll go away and leave me alone”, they’ve won. Some of these stray thoughts might feel like genius, “Hey, I’ve got to remember this, what an insight!”, but, as a teacher once told me, “It is a disaster to have a notepad by your meditation seat.” We are trying to control our minds through breathing meditation, and for that we have to stay on the breath. We need presence of mind. We can set up the will power to do this from the outset by remembering what we’re trying to accomplish with breathing meditation. Then there is great hope that when the witty riposte to that annoying co-worker suddenly comes to us, we don’t indulge it.
In the Summer Festival, Gen-la Dekyong said we don’t need any fancy tricks to overcome distractions, we just need the will power, just as when we are driving. I thought this was brilliant, so simple and obvious (once it’s pointed out!) While we are driving, we want to be mindful – so we don’t have to negotiate with ourselves moment by moment, “Shall I focus on the road or shall I text my friend?” When we know what’s at stake, we naturally concentrate on what we’re doing.
It’s best to feel like we have plenty of time when we meditate. Even if we only have ten minutes before work, we can feel that we have all the time in the world, and that there is no place else to be. Everything else can wait ten minutes. Don’t meditate in a rush.
We need meditation
If someone told you to focus on your arm for five minutes without thinking about anything else, you might think, “That’s easy, I can do that!” Well, just try it.
As a child, Einstein had a club. To join it, you had to sit in the corner for an hour and not think about a white bear. As he put it himself, “There is no one in this club, not even me.”
These kinds of examples show that we have far less control over our mind than we think! This is why we need to start meditating asap.
Over to you. Comments welcome.
*I only really mentioned the botanical gardens as an excuse to scatter my Chihuly photos throughout this article.
“In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.”
6 to 15 minutes?! Apparently they reached for their Smartphones after only a couple of those minutes and, when these were denied them, they even administered themselves electric shocks — anything to stop themselves from being left alone with their own minds.
It’s true that people hate waiting in line, at airports, for friends, in traffic, in doctor’s offices, etc. What did we do in the old days, before we had our gadgets?
The study said people found it “unpleasant” because a lot of their thoughts were unpleasant or negative. There’s a lot of unprocessed sadness, loss, sorrow about. Louis CK does a very good riff on this in this video, worth a watch:
Extract: “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive.”
He describes sitting through his sadness one day, and coming out the other side actually happier, accompanied by a Bruce Springsteen song. Ironically, the day before seeing this video I was listening to “Philadelphia” and had a similar experience of a loss coming up and then subsiding, good old Bruce. You know how people say, “It’s okay to be sad”? There is truth in that. (As long as we are not identifying with the sadness, though – see below). If we let ourselves experience our thoughts, we see that they are not as scary as they seemed while they were still lurking in the shadows. The more we understand what our mind actually is — a clear formless awareness that is naturally peaceful — the more we realize that the passing shadows of clouds can in no way affect its spaciousness and natural freedom.
Give yourself a real break
In a readable commentary to the Science study called No Time to Thinkin the New York Times, Kate Murphy says:
“But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.”
Life is full of loss for all of us. I once heard a Tibetan Lama say:
“Anyone who lives a long life has a sad story to tell.”
But the way to deal with sorrow is not just to pretend that these things aren’t happening, try to change channels, try to keep ourselves insanely busy. If we don’t allow ourselves to observe these sad thoughts, we are not going to take responsibility for them, nor discover that they are not in fact as frightening or harmful as we dread. We are not going to process them. We are not going to accept them, see them as just waves arising from the natural clarity and peace of our formless awareness. We are not going to be able to let them go, or transform them, or become happy. They are going to be recurrent thoughts. This distraction doesn’t work anyway – as one psychologist says:
“Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.”
So in Buddhism, we do the exact opposite – we spend a lot of time with our thoughts, coming to know our own minds well through empirical observation so that we can transform them. We develop mindfulness, or presence of mind, to actually loosen our grip on the distractions and sorrowful thoughts as opposed to pushing them down like a jack in the box.
The patience of voluntarily enduring suffering
Actual problems or suffering are the unpleasant thoughts or feelings in our own minds, nothing outside. When we think compassionate or wise thoughts, for example, about the things we perceive, we inhabit a different world – there is no world outside of our perception of it. To transcend suffering, to think differently, however, we first need to be able to accept these problems wholeheartedly without wishing that they were otherwise. Pushing them aside out of fear or denial, repressing or suppressing them, just makes us more deeply tormented and unhealthy, and can perpetuate a vicious downward spiral due to their inevitable, insistent recurrence.
In How to Solve our Human Problems, there is a really helpful section on this so-called “patience of voluntarily enduring suffering” (pages 42 onwards in my edition), and I really hope you get a chance to read all of it. Here is an extract:
“Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourself the time to discover where these feelings actually come from… In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously…. Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings.”
Buddha said that the root cause of our mental pain is the two distorted ego-minds of self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing. The article would also seem to suggest something along these lines:
“To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally” said Dr. Kross of Michigan.”
As Geshe Kelsang succinctly puts it in a sentence that has helped thousands of people, including me:
“There is an enormous difference between the thoughts “I am feeling bad” and “Unpleasant feelings are arising in my mind.” ~ How to Solve our Human Problems
As soon as we stop identifying with our problems, “Oh woe is me!”, we can step back and look at them curiously, objectively even. We can practice transforming difficulties into interesting challenges, and experience the sweet taste of victory as the fear and sadness subside. Sometimes all in the time frame of one Bruce Springsteen song 🙂
And that’s not all …
The article also talks about empathy, or the growing lack of it in an over-stimulated society, when we don’t reflect on our own thoughts and feelings — for how then are we supposed to understand the experiences of others? In Buddhism, we use our own suffering to remind us of the suffering of others so we can wish them to be free – this is compassion, vital for spiritual growth and happiness.
Also, there is no sorrow if we have not actually lost anything. If we go further and use our wisdom to understand how everything is simply the nature of our mind, all appearances and their minds arising and ceasing simultaneously from the same karmic seeds in the clarity of our root mind, like waves arising and falling in an ocean, we can relax deeply. There is nothing really out there to grasp at or to lose. Check out Joyful Pathfor more on this (p. 319-320).
So, next time we find ourselves alone, perhaps all of us could put down our Smartphones and look inside our own minds for entertainment instead. We and society might be a lot better off for it.
Over to you. I would love to hear your insights into this subject and any solutions!