Getting started with mindfulness

5 mins read.

Without mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, our unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts (aka delusions) will keep running the show forever. In other words, we won’t be able to stop our suffering.

crazy elephantCarrying straight on from this article, Improving our focus 

In Essence of the Middle Way it is said that we need to bind our elephant-like mind to the stake of our virtuous object with the strong rope of mindfulness and use the hook of alertness to subdue it. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

A “virtuous object” or an “object of meditation” can be a state of mind, such as love, or an object that is not a mind, such as impermanence or a mantra. (It is not an object of sense awareness such as a tree or a candle). You can read more about objects of meditation in Joyful Path. 

Breathing meditation, such as the simple one explained here, is a good place to start training in mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC). The objects of other meditations, such as love or impermanence, require contemplation to find and to hold; but we are always breathing, so even if we lose our object of meditation, the breath, we can get back to it immediately.

Mindfulness functions both to keep the mind on an object that has not been forgotten, and to bring back to mind an object that has been forgotten. ~ How to Understand the Mind

For example, if our object of meditation is the breath, (1) mindfulness lets us resist the temptation to follow our other thoughts so that we stay with the breath; and, (2) when our attention does drift and can be found wandering to pizza, mindfulness brings it back to the breath.IMG_5353-EFFECTS

I think this is an important point: it doesn’t matter how often our mind wanders — even if that is a hundred times — provided that we notice and bring it back to the next breath, for this is still strengthening our mindfulness. In other words, however busy or distracted your mind feels, you are still meditating and improving.

As mentioned in the last article. the ability to notice that our mind has wandered and has forgotten or is about to forget its object is called “alertness”. Alertness is said to be like a spy or lookout that reports back to the generals of mindfulness and concentration.

If we don’t notice and bring it back, that’s just business as usual, namely our regular uncontrolled thinking! But consciously bringing our attention back to our breath, breath after breath, and focusing clearly on it is training in MAC. And we’ll soon see how much more calm, clear, and peaceful our mind becomes.

Which is what we need, because most of our thoughts are not necessarily that calm or peaceful. Often, they are grumbling or boring or distracted or worried. We don’t want to think them, but we cannot help it.

If we are not in a state of deep peace all day long, or if we lack mental space and clarity, this is a sign that we need more MAC.

colorado mountains 1

It doesn’t take much to get started

It only takes 10-15 minutes a day training like this to make the difference.

You can be confident that it all gets easier and more effortless with practice – you’ll get better at it if you do it, for sure, not of course if you don’t. If you practice breathing meditation consistently — 10 or 15 minutes a day being plenty to start with — there will definitely come a time when you can plop your mind on your breath like plopping down a glass of water, and it’ll stay there till you decide to move it. Blessed relief.

With improved MAC, gradually you’ll be able to set your mind on any object you have learned about and keep it there, including loving-kindness, compassion, or emptiness, so that you are experiencing these peaceful, wise states of mind all the time! At this point, as Geshe Kelsang explains:

If we train in meditation, our mind will gradually become more and more peaceful, and we will experience a purer and purer form of happiness. Eventually we will be able to stay happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances.

You’re not a lost cause

Just one more thing, in case you’re wondering …  you’re not a lost cause

lost causeSometimes when people start out meditating they complain that they’ll never be able to settle on their breath, that they’ll never be able to get their crazy minds to meditate, that basically they are a lost cause.

So in case you are one of them, I would like to point out two things:

  • However busy your mind, every time you bring your attention back to your breath, you are improving at meditation, as discussed above.
  • Long before you get really good at single-pointed concentration, and even when your mind is still going a hundred miles a minute, you can also practice mindfulness, alertness, and concentration in your daily life, and this is still the practice of meditation. In fact, as we spend most of our time out of formal meditation sessions, it is arguably the most important part of meditation practice.

Meditation, “gom” in Tibetan, translates as gaining familiarity with positive ways of thinking, and this can be happening throughout our day. So, as an example, if we don’t get mad when someone criticizes us, but see them as suffering and/or kind instead, we are training in meditation.

We are using alertness to be self-aware of what thoughts we’re having, catching inappropriate attention or negative thoughts early so they don’t spiral out of our control. We are using mindfulness to remember a positive state of mind such as patience or love and to forget the inappropriate attention we’re paying to that person’s faults. We are using concentration to focus on that patience or love.

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And, eh voila, this is how we take control of our own mind and behavior, and this is how we stay peaceful and happy. It is also the practice of moral discipline, which in turn greatly advances our concentration once we’re back on our meditation seat.

Next part of this topic is here – how to keep mini-meditations going throughout the busy day.

Meanwhile, over to you. I would love to hear your experiences of employing mindfulness, alertness, and concentration both on and off the cushion.

Related articles

How to meditate – a selection of articles on breathing meditation 

Control your thoughts or they’ll control you

Twenty bits of advice for daily living

 

 

Improving our focus

6 mins read.

focus on the solutionWhen we first attempt breathing meditation:

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. ~ How to Transform Your Life

All we are asking our mind to do is focus on the in-breath and out-breath, how hard can that be?! But apparently we have an inane and endless talk show going on in our head. This is what we are dealing with when we close our eyes and try to focus on our breath — our uncontrolled mind has other ideas. A lot of other ideas. Some of them terrible ideas! Which is all the more reason why we need to bring it under control through improving our focus.

Mac n med

Concentration as explained in Buddhism is our ability to control our mind, to direct it at will, to focus on one meaningful object and eventually stay there for as long as we want. It allows us to think the thoughts we want to think as opposed to the thoughts that make us feel sad, bad, or mad.

Concentration makes our mind strong, clear, and relaxed, and we become more productive. It always makes us feel better, far more peaceful. It even makes us more physically comfortable. And, as mentioned in this article, we are not a moment too soon in getting better at it.

lotusConcentration goes along with mindfulness, which remembers our object by preventing forgetfulness or distractions. In How to Understand the Mind, where these mental factors or states of mind are all explained in detail, it says:

If we meditate with strong mindfulness our mind will remain on its object without distraction and we will naturally develop stable concentration.

Concentration also goes along with alertness, which is a type of wisdom or self-awareness that actually knows what our mind is up to, including wandering off to other things.

Meditation makes full use of all three – mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC for short 😉 ) – improving them steadily. If we are to have any hope of experiencing the lasting happiness and mental freedom we long for, we need to train in MAC both in meditation sessions and in all areas of our life.

And it doesn’t have to be hard work. Frankly, it is far harder work to spend all day every day having to keep pace with our uncontrolled thoughts.

Reclaim your mind

distractionsWe don’t need to go on courses to learn how to feel busy and have out of control thoughts. That comes pretty naturally already. What we do need to learn to do is control our mind so we can direct it at will, get it to do what we want it to do rather than the other way around.

We already try and control everything else – where we eat, what we wear, who we date, where we live, what we do for a job, who we root for in politics, and so on. Of course this doesn’t always work out – but, even those times we do manage to control other people or our external circumstances, it makes little difference to our peace of mind if we don’t have control over our thoughts.

It is frankly weird that we don’t have control over the thoughts in our own mind, if you think about it. It is torture to have to think stupid stuff all the time — yet it is also utterly “normal”. We accept it as normal. But it is the reason we are suffering. And it doesn’t have to be like this. With just a little effort, we can get a whole lot better at staying focused on peace and happiness.

(By the way, some people don’t really like the term “controlling the mind” as it sounds a bit too, well, controlling. So you can think of it as taking charge of our mind and/or having choice over what our mind does and/or mastering our mind. Being a real superhero.)

Bigger picture

duckNot to mention the bigger picture … where are all these uncontrolled, unchosen thoughts taking us? To more uncontrolled, unchosen life — more samsara. How could they be taking us anywhere else? With irritation and attachment, jealousy and confusion, and so on, and the confused intentions and actions that arise from these minds, we are busy creating the karmic causes to experience some form of future unease or pain in our body and mind.

Today I overheard a woman in the park saying, “In my next life I want to be a duck.” Although she was watching an admittedly laid-back duck sunning himself on a rock, I thought, “No. Mm mm. No, you don’t. Don’t even joke about it.”

Our conceptual thoughts and sense consciousnesses cease at death, along with our sense of self or our current personality; but our deepest level of mental consciousness continues after this body screeches to a halt, our karma going with it. If I die today without having controlled my mind and my karma, where can I guarantee ending up tomorrow? What choices will I have?

Single-pointedness

Concentration is the ability to stay single-pointedly focused on an object, a skill that is key in the pursuit of happiness. For example, we may be surrounded by all the necessary conditions to become upset, such as grumpy co-workers or scary politics, but if our bench and reflectionmental spot light is trained on patient acceptance, we will not experience any unhappiness. And we will be able to respond more constructively to whatever is going on.

Concentration is the focus in our mind that enables us to get closer and closer to the object. With strong concentration our mind mixes with the object, as if there is no space between the object and us. It is like that beautiful TS Eliot quote:

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

We’re actually already very good at concentrating on some things, namely objects of desire or aversion. When we’re attracted to someone, we call up all their features in ravishing detail with very little effort. When we’re angry with someone, we have single-pointed concentration on their faults. But this is not the concentration referred to by Buddha, which is necessarily positive or virtuous. To be happy, we want to be able to maintain these levels of concentration on wise and virtuous objects, which lead us in a positive direction. If we focus all our attention on, for example, the loving thought ‘May everyone be happy’, it’s like a laser beam trained onto a happy, powerful experience.

Buddha said that there is nothing more powerful in this universe than a fully concentrated mind. The reason our mind lacks power is because it is fractured. It is all over the place. We talk to ourselves, apparently, at a rate of a thousand words a minute: IMG_5328-EFFECTS‘What’s going on, who’s that coming in, what am I doing later, how should I respond to that insult?’ We rarely focus on one object. Our mind is currently in a state of constant motion, flitting onto anything that catches its fancy, then flitting away again.

Buddha likened the uncontrolled mind to a monkey scampering up and down a tree grabbing and throwing stuff, or a crazy elephant wreaking havoc on a village. For a modern-day example, I think that being trapped in an out of control, unfocused mind is like trying to drive a car without a steering wheel. Or without brakes. Or even while we are locked in the trunk!

Next installment is here: Getting started with mindfulness.

Over to you! Comments welcome below.

Related articles

How to meditate – a selection of articles on breathing meditation 

When the mind wanders, happiness also strays

Breathe your way to inner peace 

Aligning with reality

8.5 mins read

impossible jigsaw puzzleDo you ever find yourself attempting to fit all the jigsaw pieces of life together to make a perfect picture, the one they promised on the box, only to discover (yet again) that life is not remotely neat or tidy, much less perfect? Moreover, our outwardly-oriented desires are constantly bringing us into conflict with others, who have different ideas of which pieces should be placed first or go where, or — more often than not — have a different picture on the box!

On the other hand, when we drop from our head into our heart and experience some depth and peace, we can feel our inner energy winds starting to draw inwards, toward our heart, instead of flowing outwards. If we pay attention, we can actually feel some absorption or gathering of winds taking place (a bit like water absorbing into a sponge, or waves gathering or sucking back into the ocean).

Carrying on from the themes of these two articles, Deep healing and The most important journey of our life.

Why do we need to know this? Because, bottom line, we could all do with more inner peace.

Check this out for a moment: Where do you feel peaceful? Is it in your head? Where do you feel things most deeply? Is that in your head?

No, it all happens in our heart. Everyone knows this really (even those who insist the mind is the brain); which is why ❤️ is the universally understood symbol for love.

love uWe drop into our heart by simply believing we are now centered there, not in our head. Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are there, starting to feel that extra bit of space and peace.

We immediately start to feel less of a gap between “in here and out there” – and more peaceful. There is less of a pull toward sorting out everything and everyone “outside” and a deepening feeling of being sorted out already inside.

How do I do this???

The question on your lips now may be, “Okaaay, I sort of get it, but I am so used to being in my head! Do you have any useful tips for dropping into my heart?!”

Yes, I do, actually. One is feeling that our awareness at our head is like a dense drop of water that falls into a clear ocean-like awareness at our heart. Another is to imagine descending in an elevator.

Even a simple breathing meditation, such as this one, can help us drop into our hearts. As can the clarity of mind meditation.

Spending a few minutes turning the mind to wood, as described in this recent article, is another really good way to be heart-centered.

Mantra recitation and/or focusing on a seed letter at our heart is always very helpful.

Spiritual Guide at heart

And what I probably find most effective is to start all my meditations by dissolving a trusted holy being into my heart. He or she comes to our crown, facing the way we face; and then his body of wisdom light diminishes to the size of a thumb and he enters our crown, gradually sliding down to our heart. (If we want more detail on that, we can imagine that he descends through our central channel — like a drop of dew rolling down a blade of grass). We go with him, feeling this powerful holy being at our heart, and even feeling our mind mixing with his mind like water mixing with water.

Aligning with reality

Abiding in our heart, we come to rely less on the push and the pull of aversion and attachment, resting beyond the fray in the space of our own peaceful mind.

Gradually we come to understand that there is in fact no “out there” or, for that matter, “in here”. Our dualistic appearances subside and we come to experience how everything is the same nature as our mind. There is no gap between subject mind and object things, like a reflection held in a lake is inseparable from it, unextractable. Where the reflecting lake goes, the reflection goes, and vice versa.

Moreover, we can also come to observe and realize that everything is the same nature as not just an ordinary mind but as the bliss and emptiness of enlightened mind. Enlightenment is, after all, reality. Reality is enlightenment.

lotus from mud

In Tantra we can learn not only to recognize and experience the infinite bliss and emptiness of enlightenment, but to identify ourselves with it, thinking “This is me”, Buddha Heruka. Even more profoundly, we can learn to impute or label ourselves on the infinite bliss and emptiness of our Spiritual Guide’s enlightenment, Guru Heruka, mixing our mind with his.

The self or ego that we normally perceive, on the other hand, is conflated with a contaminated or inherently existent body and mind, aka a sore meaty body and a deluded mind. For example, when our body is sick, we think “I am sick!” And when our thoughts are irritated, we think “I am irritated!” No wonder we feel bad a lot, but it is pointless because, in fact, we are neither our body nor our mind.

Here is a brilliant quote from Kadam Morten Clausen, when he led a six-week retreat early this year at the new Arizona International Kadampa Retreat Center near the Grand Canyon:

Abiding in correct self-identification in alignment with reality is an essential part of our practice. We need to get to the point where we WANT TO BE Buddha Heruka—shining, instead of hiding and hoping no one notices how much pain we’re in.

Fall Festival

Where is my real, limited, painful self?

This self that we normally perceive — that concrete, limited, often painful self — is just the object of an idea, a really stupid idea at that, made up by our self-grasping ignorance. However, relating to it as if it actually exists makes us want stuff for it all the time and to constantly try to push its problems away with aversion.

mirage

Our Me or I cannot be found anywhere in the body or the mind – when we go looking for it, it disappears like a mirage, as explained in detail here.

So although we normally perceive it, upon analysis we can never find a self that exists from its own side, concretely, in and of itself.

To give you a bit more sense of what I’m talking about, here’s an example. I was looking at Denver recently from a great distance, being as I was up a big mountain. Someone standing a few feet away from me pointed for their friend, “There’s the city.”

But where exactly? I could see even with my eye awareness that none of the buildings in the distance was a city – each one was not a city, was not Denver, whatever we imagine Denver to be. We cannot find an actual Denver in any one of those buildings; it could never fit.

If we have a clear idea of what we think Denver is, we should then spend some time letting it sink in how each building is NOT Denver, because Denver for a start couldn’t fit in each building and there is far more to Denver than one building.

If we do take the time to let this sink in, then when we look at the collection of buildings we can see clearly that it is just a bunch of things that are not Denver — non-Denvers.

Yet, take those non-Denvers away, and Denver is not there either.Denver graffitti

So what is Denver? Just a name or label that we are smearing over those buildings, like mayonnaise or something. Denver is mere name, mere label, mere appearance, as explained more in this forest example. If we try to find something behind that label, we can’t. Denver disappears upon analysis, which means that it’s not really there, which means that it exists entirely in dependence upon thought/conceptual imputation/projection.

And since our thoughts are free and we are able to choose how we impute or think, we are free to impute or think something new and different, such as Heruka’s blissful mandala, and that will function for us. This is called correct imagination.

This is true of EVERYTHING. Nothing exists concretely, findable, from its own side. Everything depends on mere name. Including me. Including you.

Look, even this kitten has figured out that everything is mere name and so there’s no real problem …

Living from our heart

Some of you know all this, so for you (and me) all I’m doing here is encouraging us to be a bit more direct and to go for it. We can stop approaching Dharma from a timid place. We don’t need to keep being intimidated by our ordinary suffering deluded self – instead, whenever it appears to us, it can simply be a reminder that it doesn’t exist!

We can be very happy in the fact that our ordinary suffering limited self doesn’t exist, so nor do any of its neuroses or issues — which is by far and away the best thing about them. This leaves us free to relate to ourselves as a being with boundless potential instead. And I mean from the get-go.

After all, the inherently existent self doesn’t exist so it has no hope of changing or attaining enlightenment, so what is the point of even attempting to meditate from its perspective?

Therefore, before we do anything else by way of meditation practice, we can take a few minutes to dissolve this self away by realizing it cannot be found anywhere. Then we can start by already being who we want to be and who we need to be for our own and others’ sake, Denvermeditating from that perspective, bringing that result into the path. And we need to do it today, before ordinary appearances and conceptions close back in again, and because there is (literally) no time like the present.

For those of you who are newer to meditation and Buddhism, I’d just like to encourage you to get into good habits from the start – in particular, before you do anything else, by dropping into your heart to sense some depth and peace, and letting this remind you that you’re actually a being of boundless potential. Be confident in these methods you’re learning because they are not incremental but revolutionary, and can work very fast if you go about them the right way.

Over to you. Feedback and questions welcome.

Related articles

Unleashing our potential

Moving from the head to the heart

Relaxing in your heart  

Relax and reboot

6.5 minutes read

In this recent article on the absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought, cmon inner peaceEmergency aid for a troubled mind, I talked about the practical, easy, but also surprisingly effective practice for quickly overcoming disturbed minds and distractions so that we can go deep in meditation.

When we do this meditation we have a chance to shut down our gross conceptual thoughts, which seems to me a bit like switching off a movie projector.

In his Medicine Buddha teachings of 2006, when Geshe Kelsang explained this practice in some detail, he says that conceptual thoughts are our mind thinking, “This is a microphone, this is my friend, this is my body, this is my car, this is me”, and so forth, and then imputing a name. The verbal name comes from the conceptual thought. He goes on to say:

All our daily delusions — such as our anger, our attachment, our ignorance of self-grasping — are gross conceptual thoughts. When we awake from sleep during the day, we use only gross minds (including sense awarenesses) and gross conceptual thoughts. We have no ability to use our subtle mind.

(Just to reiterate, “subtle” means a deeper level of awareness and “gross” means as opposed to subtle — not as in “yuk”. My dad wanted me to point that out.)

Our peaceful subtle mind manifests when we fall asleep (and die), but our memory or mindfulness is really not much use at that time and so we cannot take advantage of it. Which is a shame because it means we are doomed in general to only being able to use our rough often uncontrollable waking minds. However, we can learn to do something about this, including this meditation:

We can accomplish this absorption through training in meditation. Whenever our gross conceptual thoughts cease, our self-grasping and other delusions also cease, because they are gross conceptual thoughts.

If we get good at this, we can even bring about a cessation of painful feelings related to being ill, which would be — to put it mildly — a very useful skill:

Normally when our body is seriously ill we experience painful feelings because we are grasping at it strongly. If we stop this grasping, there is no problem.

This meditation is therefore a wonderful method for bringing about a temporary cessation of delusions, providing us with some sorely needed relief, and giving us space and peace.

Deprogramming at a deeper level

relax and reboot

Of course, to get rid of delusions permanently we need to train in the stages of the path to enlightenment, and especially in emptiness. Combining this meditation with transforming the mind at a subtler level allows us to liberate ourselves quickly from deeply embedded painful habits such as anger, hurt, and compulsions, as well as our limited sense of self.

The meditation is explained here. As a quick reminder of how to do it, after relaxing into a good posture and dropping into our heart, we can follow Shantideva’s advice in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

First, I should check to see how my mind is;
And, if I see it is polluted with negativity,
I should remain unmoving,
With a mind as impassive as wood. ~ Guarding Alertness, verse 34.

We usually try to sort out our appearances or projections, solving our problems and finding happiness outside our mind rather than inside it, rather like wandering over there somewhere to rearrange things on the movie screen instead of simply switching off the projector at the wall. But now we are not thinking or feeling or projecting anything.

Normally the subtle mind manifests when we are falling asleep and the gross levels of mind dissolve away naturally – we stop projecting today’s waking world. It is not real, existing from its own side – it is just appearance with nothing behind it, so it can and does disappear.

absorption 4We think the things that appear to our sense awarenesses are so solid and real, somehow more real than the objects of our conceptual thoughts – but they are perhaps the flimsiest objects of all because our sense awarenesses are highly fleeting and unstable. Yet, curiously, almost all our objects of attachment and dread are sense objects, for example food, sex, movies, jobs. There is no deep pleasure to be found here, unless we combine our enjoyment with an understanding of their infinite empty nature. There is no depth other than emptiness.

Take a nap

By the way, while not a substitute for this meditation, and while we don’t have to go as far as suggested in The Week, falling asleep can sometimes help a bit:

Being awake is frequently a horror show! Thankfully, naps are the safest way to gently disengage from reality while also getting to recharge in a world that otherwise demands you run on all cylinders.

nap timeMy teacher’s teacher (my Grandteacher!) was a Tibetan Buddhist Master called Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, who was highly beloved and revered throughout his life. He recommended just falling asleep sometimes as emergency aid for a troubled mind — saying that whenever we are deeply unhappy and can’t do anything about it, just go to sleep, and naturally, when we wake up, our mind will have changed.

In this context, it is worth mentioning that the six stages of Mahamudra show us how to meditate in our sleep. Read Mahamudra Tantra for how to do that. And check out this guest article, Can I use sleep in my spiritual path? 

The imperative to overcome distractions

When Geshe Kelsang taught the six stages of Mahamudra in 2003, he said:

Distraction is the real enemy of inner peace, of concentration, of meditation. Distraction directly interferes with our inner peace. Although many people want to accomplish Dharma realizations, pure concentration and meditation, the good results of meditation, and so forth, the main problem is that it is difficult to control distractions. Our objects of distraction are the objects of attachment, anger, jealousy, or ignorance. There is no pure object in this world! All we see are the objects of either self-grasping or attachment or anger or jealousy, so it is very difficult to maintain mental peace, a peaceful mind. Therefore, there is no real happiness in this world.

Dissolving away all our sense awarenesses and gross conceptual thoughts allows us to dive below the surface waves & froth of our mind, accessing a deeper less distracted mind. Because inappropriate attention now has nothing to go on, delusions such distractionattachment and anger cannot be sustained. Even our gross self-grasping ignorance is decreased, bringing us at least temporarily closer to an experience of emptiness.

Within the six stages of Mahamudra, this is part of the important journey to identifying and realizing our very subtle mind and attaining enlightenment. But, as mentioned in the last article, we can also use it per Shantideva to overcome distractions in general.

With this respite from distraction, we can use our subtler more peaceful awareness now to meditate on Lamrim truths, healing our mental continuum at a deeper level. It’s like shutting down and rebooting the mind. If we don’t like the movie, we can simply learn how to project a new one.

Seems amazing, really, to still have this spiritual technology available for us to use whenever we want – if we would just shut down our overly thinky minds long enough to try it out 😉 Geshe Kelsang says:

From skillful wisdom, through giving skillful instruction, we have a special method for identifying our subtle mind during waking time – this is the close instruction that belongs to the Ganden Oral Lineage, which came from Je Tsongkhapa’s wisdom.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

Related articles

Emergency aid for a troubled mind

The relevance of inner peace

The art of letting go

Healing our mind