The meditation on the nature of our own mind has many benefits, the first being that it pacifies distractions. If we understand what we are meditating on, we’ll see how that works. For perfect instructions, please consult Geshe Kelsang’s beautiful new book, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra.
The nature and function of the mind
In Geshe Kelsang’s various books and oral teachings, he has used a one-word description to point out the object of meditation, the mind itself: “Clarity”. We meditate on clarity, and the implications of that term. In particular, two things are being implied:
- The mind is clear in that it has no form. It is the only thing that always lacks form. It is a formless awareness. A formless continuum. It has no physical properties whatsoever, it is not molecularly constituted. It has no shape, no size, no location. It has no color. You cannot touch it or squeeze it or look at it, and you cannot hear it. There’s already a lot there to contemplate. What does it mean for something to be not physical? We are looking for a non-physical thing. Or an inner empty space, as Venerable Geshe-la sometimes puts it.
- The second implication of clarity is that it possesses power – the power to perceive, to know, to remember, to imagine, to create. The mind is like an inner empty space that is aware. It is awareness itself.
In 2000, Geshe-la said:
Mind is empty of physical form. It always lacks form. It has no color, no shape, nor any other kind of form. Yet it has so many powers. It has the power to recognize objects, to perceive objects, to understand objects, to remember objects, to perform actions. In fact everything – the world, beings, objects – is created by mind. There is no creator other than mind.
The location of the root mind
That is the pointing out instruction for this meditation. And we can also consider the location, at the heart. (This means our spiritual heart, our heart chakra, not our meaty beating heart.) This is because we are meditating on our root mind, and we experience this in our heart chakra, right in the center of our chest, halfway between the left and the right sides of our body, nearer our back than our front.
If our mind is formless, you may wonder, how can it have a location? In a way our mind is nowhere (and everywhere); but it is connected to certain energies or subtle winds in the body, and in particular our very subtle mind or root mind is connected unbreakably to the very subtle wind at the heart. (Check out Clear Light of Bliss if you want to know more.)
This is why it can be helpful at the beginning of the meditation to drop from our head into our heart, or to do some breathing meditation to draw our awareness down into our heart, to feel we are meditating here. If we drop from our thinky head into our expansive, spacious heart, we will find it much easier already to overcome distractions; so it is good to try and do all our meditations here. It can take a bit of practice to get from the head into the heart because we are so used to being in our head — we are kind of disconnected from our hearts a lot of the time in our modern society, in exile from our hearts. This may be because we think way too much, heady stuff! But, and this is important, we mustn’t push it – we let our mind settle in the heart naturally instead.
When we hit that sweet spot, everything becomes vastly more spacious and open, less crunchy. And when we say the root mind is located in the heart, this does not mean that it is a tiny little thing in our heart. We feel we are in our heart meditating on our mind, but our mind is vast, dimensionless.
Using the example of light
Normally we latch onto objects, fixing all our attention on the objects of which we’re aware, for example the objects in this room or the objects of our thoughts. Rarely, if ever, do we concern ourselves with, “What am I aware with?”
Here is a useful analogy. When we’re walking around, we see a lot of things because of light. When the sun isn’t shining, we don’t see anything. That light is all pervasive, everywhere. It is illuminating everything. But we don’t focus on it — what we focus on are the things being illuminated. “Oh, look at the light!” we say sometimes, eg, when walking through the dappled woods. But most of the time we don’t, we only notice it relative to things eg, shining on the leaves, or brightening clouds.
This is similar to the mind. Mind is all pervasive, but we don’t focus on the mind itself, we focus on the things our mind is illuminating, the various things that our mind is perceiving, or appearing. It’s worth noting here that Geshe Kelsang uses “to appear” as an active word, with the same meaning as “to perceive.” Our mind perceives or “appears” things. Things appear from the mind from the inside out, as opposed to appearing to the mind from the outside in, as it were.
The point being that, normally, just as we are not aware of the light itself, just the things illuminated, so we are not aware of the mind itself, just the things we are aware of. In this meditation, we want to become aware of the mind.
What is it that is aware?
In brief, one way to gain insight into the nature of the mind is just to focus on clarity, not worrying whether or not it is crystal clear; and, when distracted, to keep asking, “What’s aware?”, seeing in our own experience that it is also clarity. We are not in any rush to gain some experience – we are just hanging out, checking it out.
By the way, when we meditate on the mind, and indeed whenever we meditate on anything, it is good to do so gently without expectation. We are not pushing for a result or a deep insight. “I forced myself to have an insight into clarity, to see that vast vivid inner empty space I’ve heard so much about. I put myself in a headlock, twisted my arm… waterboarding myself might help next time.”
Dealing with distractions
To begin with when we are meditating we are going to be hearing all sorts of sounds and having all sorts of thoughts and sooner or later our knee is going to hurt. If we are practicing with a combative attitude, then when someone coughs, our thought is, “I wish they’d shut up.” Or “Oh no, that episode is replaying itself in my mind.” Or, “I wonder what so and so is doing today? darn, wish I didn’t have to keep thinking about them.” And so forth. But rather than pushing away or rejecting these appearances, we can just ask: “What is it that is aware of these things?” And we’ll see that that awareness is also clarity, is also mind. Just as we can use the leaves to help us see the light, so, when focusing on our mind, if a distraction arises we can use it to bounce us right back into the mind by asking ourselves, “What is it that is aware?” Appearances remind us of the mind.
That’s why this meditation helps us to pacify distractions The appearances that pop up would normally distract us away from our object, eg the breath, but now it doesn’t matter, in fact they remind us of our meditation object – for example, we can enjoy the quality of the light even though there are all sorts of leaves around.
Or, to use another example, it’s like we’re enjoying the blue sky and then some clouds appear. We don’t think, “Well, that’s it then, I can’t enjoy the blue sky any more — that cloud is freaking me out!” The clouds will eventually disperse back into the clear sky, they have nowhere else to go. If we simply hang out enjoying the clarity, gradually the distractions will disperse into the clarity as they are themselves clarity; and we’ll absorb deeper.
Hopefully, these examples are showing how we can pacify distractions without fighting. If you like, you can try the short meditation outlined in this earlier article to see if it works.