Doing meditation retreat

divingJanuary is just around the corner – which means for a lot of lucky people that they get to do extra meditation because this is traditional retreat month in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition.

So, I thought I’d say something about retreat in the hope that some of you can do some. I know a lot of you, probably most, have to work and are not able to take a month or even a week off for retreat; so this article is also a bit of encouragement simply to get meditating in general ☺️

On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. ~ New Guide to Dakini Land 

Starting several decades ago, when Geshe Kelsang first came to the West in 1977, up to six weeks each year have been put aside in the larger Kadampa centers for retreat. I personally benefited from this for many years, when I lived at Madhyamaka Centre and everything closed down for retreat. Sometimes we were even snowed in = bliss. We didn’t have Facebook back then to lure us away from thinking deep thoughts – heck, we didn’t even have the Internet. I count myself lucky that I didn’t need any will power whatsoever back then to turn all the gadgets off.the-internet

And I can honestly say that I have never gotten bored in retreat. Quite the opposite. It is those mindless habits of wanting or expecting endless distraction that really bore me. I tend also to have fewer delusions on retreat – and delusions are pretty tedious.

These January retreats engendered in me a love for using this bleak mid-winter time to go deep — to dive below the surface of the crazy ocean waves of samsaric suffering & overly complicated conceptual thoughts into clarity and bliss, into Lamrim and Tantra. They are the best possible way to start the new year, and my hands down favorite times.

We could all aim to do a few extra good deep meditations at home this month to get some control over these mad, mad times and set 2018 up in the way we’d like it to continue… how’s that for a new year’s resolution?

And if you haven’t learned to meditate at all yet, now could be a really great time to start 😊

2016

(I wrote this article last year — and 2017 has proved to be an even weirder year in many ways! Retreat is very needed in our world if we have the chance to do some, holding the space for others.)

If ever there was a good time to get some perspective and space from all the craziness, the beginning of 2017 would seem to be it. Still four days of the strange 2016 to go, and the last two days alone have brought us the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher (and just now her mother, Debbie Reynolds). Closer to home, this year, we lost Patti, Tessa, and Mimi.

This is all skirting dangerously close now to the one-by-one steady dropping off of everyone in my generation. Soon, not a person I grew up with will be left. And it is certain that I am no longer going to die young.

Plus, the number of celebrity and personally-known deaths of course barely scratches the surface of the millions of other deaths in the last few days, let alone in the last year. (An average of 55.3 million humans and untold billions of animals and others.) Any illusion we may be under that we are long-term residents of this world is just that, an illusion. We’re here on a month-by-month rental with nary a day’s notice.

Making the most of our precious time

george-michael-leaving-his-home-in-north-london-britain-17-oct-2012Our most valuable and rare possession is our precious human life, but we don’t have a whole lot of time left with it. All we have to look forward to, really, is spiritual realizations, insofar as everything else is dust in the wind. And to gain these realizations – actualizing our full potential and bringing about an end to suffering — we need time.

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time. ~ George Michael

To have time, we need to MAKE time.

This is what going deeper into our center, our spiritual heart, as explained here for example, can do for us – it can make us more time. It gives us a certain sense of timelessness in fact. Identifying with our pure inexhaustible potential instead of with our annoying off-kilter delusions makes us feel far more alive and present, and so time slows down. We might even feel for a change that we have all the time in the world.

I hear a lot of people, including me, complaining that life is too busy – and ordinarily it can feel that way; but I think that a lot of that feeling of busyness comes not from all that we have to get done but from not having sufficient mindfulness and concentration. These qualities, which improve on retreat, give us all the time, space, and freedom from surplus worrying thoughts we need to do what needs to be done.

We are none of us strangers to suffering, but Dharma gives us the ability to break free, and retreat gives us the opportunity to spend more time in Dharma. What’s not to love about spending several hours each day in freedom and happiness?! Even with poor concentration, we are generally more peaceful on retreat than in our ordinary fast-paced, externalized lives. We can become ridiculously happy.

dream-like-elephantIt’s very relaxing not to buy into the hallucinations of the gross mind for a while — to let these fevered imaginings die down, stop taking them quite so seriously. Meditation gives us the chance to see them for what they are and to let them go so we can enjoy the peace and bliss of our own mind in deep rest. I have yet to find anything more relaxing than giving up on trying to find this peace and bliss in objects of attachment or in getting one over my enemies.

Even one breathing meditation allows us to stop shaking our mind and discover that an unshaken mind is naturally peaceful. A whole week or month of doing this gives us invaluable insight and confidence.

I also think that when we meditate a lot our lives start to flow – we are not so much living second-hand through Facebook or the news or Netflix, trying to get our thrills vicariously, or even in the made up narratives of our own lives, the product solely of our conceptual thoughts. We start to abide in the reality of wisdom and compassion, our true nature, and freedomeverything flows naturally from there.

Silence is golden

Whether in retreat doing the traditional four meditation sessions a day, or in the space of our own house once a day or so during January, we can let go of the demands of our daily life and reconnect to the stillness within ourselves. We can be quiet, for a change, verbally and mentally. As it mentions here, and I’ll now loosely quote:

“Silence is powerful. It creates space in our mind and fundamentally changes the way we connect with the teachings and meditations. Observing silence is a powerful method to disengage us from busyness, and it leads us naturally to deeper levels of being. Our heart begins to open and we feel the blessings of all Buddhas pouring into and filling our mind.

Through deepening our experience of meditation we can take our spiritual practice up to the next level (and this will keep us going in the following months when we are back at work.) By integrating this meditative experience into our daily activities we will improve the quality of our life and bring happiness to our family and friends.”

I think diving deep below the froth of the ocean waves is also an incredibly important way to identify with our pure potential and disengage from endless feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, and lack of control that come from identifying with a limited, painful self. We need self-confidence during these difficult times if we are to be of any help to anyone. We don’t need discouragement.

Who am I?

In each of the stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, therefore, we can get into the habit of identifying with our Buddha nature and the result of that meditation, asking each time, “Who am I?” For example, instead of “I am angry”, “I am lonely”, “I am hurt”, “I am useless at this”, etc., we can think, “I am someone with a precious human life”, “I am someone who is on their way out from this prison of samsara”, “I am someone who has compassion for everyone”, etc.

In this way we can enter the Pure Land of Lamrim, enjoying ourselves each day with these beautiful minds, getting in the habit of identifying with them so much that we can then keep doing that the whole rest of the year.

Blessed monthheruka-vajrayogini

January is also Heruka and Vajrayogini month. Again, even if our concentration is not brilliant yet, there are a lot of blessings flying around this month, so we may as well tune in the radio receiver of faith as often as we can.

Check out this Onion article if you get a moment, ‘I Can’t Do This Anymore,’ Think 320 Million Americans Quietly Going About Day. Spoof though it is, it still shows how we can all fall prey to humdrum mediocrity, even when things are not going particularly wrong in our lives; and how mediocrity doesn’t make us happy. If you have a chance to do some Tantric retreat, this immersion can be a swift way to transform these ordinary conceptions and appearances into an experience of great bliss and emptiness, transforming your world into the real Pure Land of the Dakinis.

(All this makes me think it should be called “Advance”, really, not “Retreat”.)

One day at a time

I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist ~ Sia

Some of my best advice on doing retreat is to take one day at a time – once you’re in retreat you put up so-called “retreat boundaries” of body, speech, and mind, which basically means you’re not thinking of anything outside of the retreat; so there is in fact no need to plan. (And there is never any need to wallow in nostalgia). This means you have a good shot at living in the moment, remembering that today is your first and possibly also your last day. This is really quite unbelievably relaxing.

Practical plan

kailashIf you have lots of time, you could think about booking into one of the big residential KMCs such as KMC Manjushri or KMC New York, or into an other-worldly retreat center such as Kailash in Switzerland. And, now, in 2017, we have the incredible International Retreat Center (IRC) Grand Canyon just opening up, and the opportunity to do six weeks of Lamrim retreat with Kadam Morten.

These IRCs and KMCs all offer incredibly special retreat programs with experienced meditation leaders that “address the needs of anyone wishing to deepen their experience of Kadam Dharma in modern day times.”

If you have medium amounts of time — say a day here or there, or a few days, or a week — check out this link for retreats near you, including in Denver, where I live.

If you can’t take any whole days off, you could think about using January to get along to some inspiring meditation classes and establish a good meditation habit for 2018. Check out this link for meditation classes in your area.

Over to you. Do you have any encouragement to share from retreats you may have done in the past?

Related articles

Meditation: simple easy instructions for getting started

The force awakens

Want your meditation to flow? 

Drop into your heart and breathe

 

 

 

 

 

Want your meditation to flow?

What do you do when your meditation isn’t flowing as you wish?water flowing

Sometimes we feel disconnected. All these teachings and meditations sound good, great even; but they are out there separated from us.

First bit of advice: Never push for an experience, and never get caught up in a “should” mentality – “I should be feeling love! But I’m not! Therefore, I’m no good.” The aim is not to self-generate as a bad person.

So the first thing we have to do when the mind is not moving is to accept it. Rather than thinking “Oh no!”, we think “Oh yes! This is what I have to work with now, this is what is appearing.” Once we let go of the resistance, within that space of acceptance we just need to find our way back to our basic spiritual foundation. Rather than pushing forward, we can step back to find our way forward. You can try this if you like:

Disengage from the unhappy thoughts for a moment, enough time to allow yourself to relax a little. Follow your breath if it helps, or simply sit there in your heart. Then turn  your attention to something that is generally guaranteed to put a smile on your face, such as your niece, or some kindness you have received. It doesn’t have to be much, something simple, just enough to shift your attention. You stop focusing on the things that are agitating your mind, so the natural peace of your mind can reassert itself.

inner peace 3No pushing to peace

If we stop shaking our mind, our mind will stop shaking. We don’t press our mind into peace; we just stop agitating our mind and it becomes peaceful. We can build more peace from there. No point wrestling with unhappy thoughts like a dog with a bone in order to sort them out, “I gotta sort this out! It’s getting in the way of my meditation!” No need to apply any opponents to our delusions just yet. We just relax back to some peace, however slight, and the rest of our meditation can take place in the space of a basically peaceful mind. Identifying with the peace, we can then apply the opponents later.

How do I meditate to get some feeling?

Someone who has been meditating for a long time but not enjoying it as much as she might asked me the other day how to meditate to get some feeling. This is what I suggested.

We need to start where we are, with our own experience, not pushing for a result that is somewhere outside of us. Start by getting into your heart and simply imagining there is some peace there. Find an inroad into that peace by connecting to a thought of gratitude and love that comes relatively easily to you, that works for you — like the last time you saw your dog, or the appreciation you feel for a friend. Then understand that the peace is your own Buddha nature, it is you, it is Dharma, and it is also not different to the peace of your Spiritual Guide, Buddha. Basking in the feeling of faith increases the peace even more, and on that basis you can spread out the feeling of gratitude or the feeling of love to more people, bringing them into its orbit.

IMG_7957
Foster kitten works for me.

Only once you have relaxed in this way, feeling in your heart the confidence that arises from your own experience, start your actual meditation.

If you like, while abiding in that space of refuge, do some blessed prayers as a way to purify the mind, increase your good karma, and receive even more inspiration for the meditation you want to do. It can help focus the mind too if you briefly generate the object of meditation before the prayers, and then recite the prayers with the implicit request to deepen and stabilize that particular realization.

I think this is where we need to start if we are not to be overwhelmed by appearances/distractions or identified with delusions and pain. There is more meditation advice along these lines here.

Our mind is on our side

Always remember: Your mind is on your side. Happiness arises naturally by letting go and abiding. We don’t have to force happy thoughts back into our head or push our mind for an experience of peace; we just need to let go of the thoughts that are shaking our mind.Digital Camera Exif JPEG

Imagine getting out of a perfectly functioning Ferrari to push it along the highway. Crazy, right? But no crazier than trying to push your mind when it is already perfectly capable of moving itself.

So, in summary, we don’t identify with ourselves as being blocked, negative, not able to meditate. That’s wasted time. Our mind is on our side, and even the slightest peace indicates its nature and potential for lasting peace, indeed permanent bliss. So it indicates our unbelievable potential, our Buddha nature. We can always go back to basics and identify with our Buddha nature. If we connect to our potential, we can feel that we are fortunate, and our peace will increase. If we allow ourselves to just relax into the nature of our mind, sooner or later this peace expands, takes on a life of its own, is pervaded by blessings; and we will feel that we can meditate on anything.

More about our Buddha nature and acceptance in the next article. Meanwhile, your comments and shared experience of overcoming obstacles in meditation are very appreciated.

Exploring our potential for peace and omniscience

We all need to be able to let go of our unhappiness. This, to put it mildly, is a Very Useful Skill – unless of course we don’t mind hanging onto misery for a few more years, a few more decades, a few more lifetimes…

let-goConsidering that we probably do mind that, quite a lot in fact, why would we hang on?

Carrying on from this article.

No one ever wants to suffer and everyone always wants to be happy. These are the two most basic wishes of all living beings. Do you ever wake up and want a truckload of suffering? … I didn’t think so. We always want to be happy and we hate suffering, that’s why we call it suffering. But still we relentlessly hold onto it. Why?

One reason is that we have to think thoughts without control – for example frustrated thoughts, lonely thoughts, worried thoughts, jealous thoughts, depressed thoughts. We don’t particularly want to think these unhappy thoughts but we can’t help it, and that’s why we are unhappy.  When we are not thinking these thoughts, we are just fine.

The whole purpose of meditation is to understand our own mind, including which states of mind give rise to our chronic mental aches and pains. Buddhism teaches many meditations to dig deeper and see where unhappiness is coming from so that we can uncover and uproot those causes and cultivate our natural capacity for real happiness instead. We come to see how our so-called delusions have no basis in reality and we switch them out for their opposite, eg, switching out hatred for love. While we are loving someone, we are not hating them at the same time with the same mind – wishing them to be happy is opposite to wishing them to suffer, like turning on a dimmer switch extinguishing the darkness.IMG_6686

First step

Before we get to this point of transforming our thoughts, we first need to learn to let go of our distractions and deeply relax and enjoy the natural peace and space of our own minds. Then within that – as the second step, if you like — we can accept whatever is going on in our minds so that we can work with it.

The most common way to quieten our mind is breathing meditation (or we can meditate on the peaceful clarity of our own mind). Some space opens up – we can remember Buddha’s example of our mind being like a boundless clear ocean. Generally we are so caught up with externals, such as our body, our job, our relationships, and other things that are not our thoughts – constantly discriminating “Oh I like the look of that”, “Ooh he’s ugly”, “Hmm that’s pretty cool”, “Yeah, that sucks”, while neglecting to discriminate what’s going on in our own mind, “Whoah, that’s a cool thought! Yikes, that thought is ugly!” But it is only by discriminating what is going on within our mind that we can plumb our real potential – focusing on externals is like being caught up in just the froth, the waves, the bubbles, neglecting this enormous wellspring of power and freedom within us, failing to recognize that it is our thoughts that make our world, not the other way around.

IMG_6764We try to master the world we dualistically perceive to be around us, outside us, trying to get other people to behave (how is that working out for you?!), while neglecting to master our own minds. We identify with our passing emotions, our fleeting likes and dislikes, making them solid and thinking that this is what life is about; and meantime we neglect the extraordinary opportunity we find ourselves in at the moment to end all suffering. So we are not diving into this incredible thing we have all the time within us, our Buddha nature — our clear light mind and its emptiness — and because of this we are accessing a mere fraction of our spiritual potential.

Omniscience ~ a little digression
earth
Can you see Earth?!

And we have the potential not just for peace but for full enlightenment, for omniscience. Our mind is vaster than the universe, than all universes, including their time and space, which are all merely reflection of our mind that cannot be separated out from it. So by removing our ignorance and its imprints we can come to see fully and directly the interrelationship and totality of all phenomena; and how, because nothing exists from its own side, all minds and their appearances arise from the emptiness of the clear light.

When we realize the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of our own mind, we come to see also that it is not separate from the emptiness of the clear light mind of all enlightened beings and of all living beings; and that all phenomena, both their conventional and ultimate nature, including our individual and collective karma, are mere appearance to this clear light. We are not, nor ever have been, separated from any other being.

I have loved this William Blake quote since I was a teenager – it shone a light into my mind before I met Buddhism:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

magnified sand
Magnified sand.

Omniscience is not a gathering of facts and data outside our mind, as it were, or a knowledge describing all phenomena down to the finest detail, but the experience of an unobstructed mind that has understood the interdependence and non-duality of all phenomena, the union of conventional and ultimate truth.

At present we are hallucinating what is NOT there and we are overpowered by these appearances. We need first to stop being taken in by these appearances, which involves destroying our ignorance and other delusions (the obstructions to liberation). Then we need to remove the imprints of these delusions that cause everything to appear real (the obstructions to omniscience). At this point, we will see what exists. (I have a lot more to say on the subject of omniscience if you’re interested – like I said, I’ve been thinking about it for a while.)

Meanwhile, more in the next article about getting perspective on our hurt feelings.

How to feel less busy all the time

This continues directly from this article.

busy 1Time off?!

Also, if you actually itemize what many frenetically “busy” people do every week, my bet would be that they (we, you) have far more leisure time than they think, it is just that instead of using the time to unwind and recharge they just fill it up with more stuff and distractions, eg, surfing the internet, driving places, organized leisure activities, computer games, Netflix. Having fun on the outside, perhaps, but feeling preoccupied on the inside. So leisure time feels busy too.

Flying recently, the moment we touched down almost every single person on that plane grabbed their phone. That withdrawal and addiction – it’s a bit like smoking, only smoking has been banned from public places whereas everyone can indulge their addiction for digital data. Scratching that itch – where is the happiness in that? We can’t live like that. Here’s an experiment: how long can you last without wanting to pick up your smartphone?! (I am talking to myself here.)

So technology, for all its uses, has not helped in this regard. The fleeting world is always-on — texts, tweets, emails, and status updates. (Also, on another subject, we are not really “connected” — we are isolated because we have no time to think deeply about each other or reality.) Now of course you can even get an Apple Watch that gives your wrist a little electric shock to announce all the wildly exciting alerts that cannot wait, even if you are actually trying to have an interesting conversation with someone. (It’s a bit like when servers interrupt deep, meaningful conversations at restaurants to ask if everything is ok?! Is it just me who gets bugged by that?!) That watch sounds like torture to me. Apparently the average video etc screen also changes every 7 to 11 seconds – now how does that not constitute over-stimulation?! There may be excitement in it, perhaps, but there is no real happiness if there is no real peace.busy 4

Froth and sparkles

Peace comes from concentration, being able to stay on one object. Single-tasking, not multi-tasking. If we are identifying entirely with the froth and sparkles on top of the ocean, oblivious to the vast stillness and peace beneath, there is not much peace in that.

I reckon we have plenty of time to meditate and get in touch with who we are, really, if we want to. Certainly enough time. Is there anyone who absolutely cannot find 20 minutes a day to meditate? Although we may complain at first that it is just another pressure on our to-do list, the reality is that it will open up the space and time we need for the rest of our day. The time to meditate is when you don’t have time for it.

In this way, we’ll have more freedom. Otherwise we are a bit like mindless automatons — the opposite of meditators. (What do you do first thing in the morning – reach for Facebook or absorb into your heart chakra?!) I read a study recently about what happened when people lost their iPhone – out of 100 people, 73 experienced panic, 8 experienced physical sickness, 7 felt nervous, and only 7 were cool with it.

“But I’m too busy to meditate!”

And, as mentioned, I would argue that we are not necessarily doing more, or getting more things done, not in the grand scheme of things — but just feeling busier. My teacher Geshe Kelsang, for example, has thousands of centers and students and a universal feeling of responsibility for others — if anyone has a right to feel under pressure, busy, or overextended it is him, but he is the most spacious, blissful, relaxed person you’ll ever meet.

Busy BusinessmanSo if we learn to increase our inner space and peace we can have a life full of things we want to do, but we don’t have to feel so busy, as if there’s never enough time, as if there’s always something else that needs doing, as if we’re running behind the bus. We don’t need that feeling. The feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things we need to do comes from uncontrolled thoughts, a bit like a dog with a bone, not able to stay in the moment and abide in space while still getting things done. We are not able to let go of distractions and enjoy a feeling of peace, the natural peace of our own settled mind. More than anything else, we need relief from the time pressure by setting aside time to meditate to access that peace. Not being too busy to take the medicine! The objection “But I am too busy to meditate!” is precisely why we need to meditate.

If you are new to meditation it is good to keep it short and sweet – 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Our mind is like an out of control elephant! (that’s what Buddha said). The mind is the most powerful force in the universe – for destruction or creativity. If we have no control over it, we have no control over our lives. When people start meditating they can often only manage about 3 minutes before they even forget they’re supposed to be meditating – so don’t worry if you feel like that, I wish I had a dollar for every time some says, “I am too distracted to meditate!” It gets better quickly, but you have to want to do it. For example, you manage to concentrate on your driving for considerably more than 3 minutes, presumably as you want to stay alive. You don’t text when you drive.

“You’re not that busy.”

Another tip for not feeling so overwhelmingly busy is to stop insisting to ourself that we’re overwhelmingly busy, because the truth is that we are all much less busy than we think we are. We can say to ourselves instead, “You’re not that busy”, or even “I have lots of time”, and then calmly do one thing after another. Living in the moment gives us all the time we need.swimming in bathtub

Swimming in a bathtub

Someone the other day put a good analogy on Facebook (that fount of all knowledge!) of swimming in the bathtub — splashing around hurting our limbs, and not really getting anywhere. Whereas the same strokes in a vast ocean feel blissful and expansive. So we can do the same daily activities either in the bathtub or in the ocean of the clarity and stillness of our own peaceful mind.

In meditation, we can relax into the natural rhythm of the breath. We can experience a moment by moment presence of mind, or mindfulness. We can get in touch with the present moment by getting in touch with the clarity and peace of our own mind. So we can rest our mind in meditation, and then bring that peace with us into daily life. We don’t forget about it but keep tuning into it, and everything becomes lighter, easier, and less frantic.

Comments welcome! (If you have time.)

Learning to meditate in 2018

calvin and hobbes new year's resolutionDeciding to learn meditation is a really great new year’s resolution. Anyone can learn, if they want to.

Meditation means becoming familiar with positivity and wisdom, both on the meditation seat and off it in our normal daily lives; and it is a powerful way to become a happier, more fulfilled person. It also helps us to help others. Life is short, our time is passing, and meditation helps us get the most out of our remaining years, months, weeks, or days, as well as prepare for the future.

We can meditate anywhere and anytime, together with all our daily activities, as meditation simply means, for example, thinking kind thoughts instead of unkind ones, complimentary thoughts instead of snide, gossipy ones, peaceful thoughts instead of angry ones, generous thoughts instead of grasping ones, wise thoughts instead of blinkered ones – understanding that this is our choice and freedom. There are many accessible ways to think positive and stay positive if we want to. We can become a relaxed, kind person whom we like and respect. new year's resolution to meditate

And we can also meditate in so-called meditation sessions, where we can begin by sitting down and closing our eyes, gathering within, and doing some relaxing breathing meditation. We can let go of all troubling, neurotic, anxious, self-disliking thoughts and touch on, then dwell in, the peace and clarity that is the natural state of our mind.

“Are you sure my mind is naturally peaceful?!”

My aunt is over here from France at the moment, and yesterday she asked me how to meditate. When I explained something along the lines of what I just wrote above, she wanted to know why it is that our mind is naturally peaceful as opposed to naturally anxious and unpeaceful. It is a very good question.

get rid of delusions and find peaceWhenever we don’t have a delusion functioning, we can observe that our mind is naturally peaceful. When our mind is roiled by a bunch of negative, unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts and emotions, it is as if a vast, deep, boundless ocean is being churned up. We cannot see below the surface, below the huge, terrifying, disorientating waves, to the endless clarity and depth below. We are stuck on the surface just trying to stay afloat. We identify with that even, thinking that it is all that we and life are about. But whenever the waves die down, we can tell that the ocean is clear, vast, and very deep – this is the nature of an ocean. In a similar way, when our mind settles and those wave-like thoughts die down and disappear, we can sense immediately that our mind is vast, clear, and deep, and naturally peaceful. It is far better to identify with the natural peace of our mind (our Buddha nature) then with the adventitious neurotic unhappy thoughts that come and go and are not who we are.

ocean like clarity and peace of mindStress relief

How can you begin meditating? It is good to think about why you might want to do it. One of the main reasons people turn to meditation is to relieve stress. They want to find a way to turn off the anxiety and find a measure of calm and relaxation. They’re fed up with being fed up.

Stress kills happiness stone dead. I’ve recently met a hamster called Patch. He is the luckiest hamster I’ve ever met because instead of having just one or two plastic balls and connecting pipes to run around in, his kind mom has pretty much bought up the entire hamster shop for him. Still, although he is a relatively lucky little guy, as hamsters go, he is not without his problems, just like the rest of us. I was watching him running on his wheel the other day, trying to go fast enough to avoid falling off. When we’re stressed out, we’re a bit like that. No matter how hard we work to solve the stress-inducing problem, it never seems to get any better. We can reach the point where we are so burnt out that we cease functioning productively at all, spending our days pushing pencils across our desk. treadmill of life

Stress arrives at any income bracket. If we’re earning $200,000 a year but our overheads, including for example alimony and kids’ education, is costing us $300,000 a year, it can be just as stressful as earning $50 a day but having $75 a day in expenses.

When we feel stressed, we see the stress as something that is happening to us and not in any way as a reflection of our state of mind: “My situation is so stressful! That selfish person is causing me so much stress! The ghastly noise my neighbors make day in day out winds me up!” We feel stress is intrinsic in our situations, but stress is not out there, external to the mind – it is a troubled way of responding to what’s appearing to our mind. For example, two people can be in a traffic jam and one can be very calm not really minding at all, whilst another can be hugely upset. If we react every time in a troubled way, then stress builds up and leads to unhappiness, a growing inability to cope, and related physical problems. dealing with stress

According to CNN.com, 43% of adults suffer from stress-related problems or illnesses. Even children are increasingly stressed these days. Doctors say that for 90% of patients their conditions are either caused by or aggravated by stress. Stress has been implicated in six major killers, including heart disease, lung disease, cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholism and addiction often arise from or are exacerbated by stress.

Documented medical benefits of meditation

benefits of meditationMany medical studies now show how effective meditation is in combating both stress and sickness, including one by Dr. David Eisenberg and his colleagues at the Harvard Medical School that lists an increasing number of medical benefits from the practice of meditation:

  1. Reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, blood flow to skeletal muscles, perspiration and muscle tension, as well as improvement in immunity.
  2. Women with PMS (premenstrual syndrome) who meditate regularly reduce their symptoms by 58 percent. Women going through menopause could significantly reduce the intensity of hot flushes.
  3. In a study of a 10-week group program that included meditation (along with exercise and nutrition changes), women struggling with infertility had significantly less anxiety, depression, and fatigue, and 34-percent became pregnant within six months.
  4. New mothers who use meditation with images of milk flowing in their breasts can more than double their production of milk.
  5. Patients with coronary-artery disease who meditated daily for eight months had nearly a 15-percent increase in exercise tolerance.
  6. Patients with ischemic heart disease (in which the heart muscle receives an inadequate supply of blood) who practiced for four weeks had a significantly lower frequency of premature ventricular contractions (a type of irregular heartbeat).
  7. Angioplasty patients who used meditation had significantly less anxiety, pain and need for medication during and after the procedure.
  8. Patients having open-heart surgery who meditated regularly were able to reduce their incidence of postoperative supraventricular tachycardia (abnormally high heart rate).
  9. Medical students who meditated regularly during final exams had a higher percentage of “T-helper cells,” the immune cells that trigger the immune system into action.
  10. Nursing-home residents trained in meditation had increased activity of “natural-killer cells,” which kill bacteria and cancer cells. They also had reductions in the activity of viruses and of emotional distress.
  11. Patients with metastatic (spreading) cancer who meditated with imagery regularly for a year had significant increases in natural-killer cell activity.

Just recently, a study published in Psychiatry Research by Dr. Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, reports that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with stress stress was reduced and there was a noticeable increase in empathy and memory. The New York Times also wrote an article recently called “How meditation may change the brain.”

Our mind and body are closely connected. This mind-body connection is not so mysterious, we instinctively understand it. Why else would we say things like, “I worried myself sick,” or, “My head’s about to explode.” According to Dr. William Collinge, the WebMD on CNN.com, there is mounting medical evidence to support the role of mind/body medicine in promoting health:Buddha and meditation

At the heart of mind/body medicine lies the age-old practice of meditation, a quiet, simple technique that belies an almost extraordinary power to boost disease resistance and maintain overall health.

Two approaches to dealing with stress

As explained here, there are two types of problem. This means that there are two main approaches to dealing with stress: working to resolve the practical “outer” problems causing it as far as is possible, but, more importantly, keeping our mind positive to solve the actual problem, the “inner” problem. Maintaining a positive mind, even if it is challenging, will help us deal with our practical outer problems. Meditation overcomes stress by enabling us to cultivate relaxed, peaceful, happy states of mind.

So, why not get started!? Learning to meditate is not as hard as you may think, and you’ll never regret learning. Wherever you go, whatever you do, meditation will become your own tool for discovering peace and happiness in 2017. You could resolve to meditate ten minutes a day, every day this year. You will be taking matters into your own hands, and feeling a great deal better for it.

Here is a recent article on breathing meditation that you may find helpful.

Please share this article with anyone you think might like to learn meditation this year.

Comments etc welcome.

How is your meditation going?

Kadampa BuddhaMeditation is the way to access our own pure potential for mental freedom and happiness, gain deep experience of Buddha’s teachings, and really change for the better.

My tradition, the New Kadampa Tradition, is a meditator’s tradition – every sentence we hear in the teachings is intended to be an object of meditation, to be taken into the heart so that it becomes part of us. This Buddhist tradition stems from Buddha Shakyamuni, who clearly was the master of meditation. Later Je Tsongkhapa mastered all Buddha’s teachings of Sutra and Tantra, spent many years in meditation retreat, and taught immensely practical, experiential, and profound methods for gaining all the realizations of Lamrim, Lojong, and the union of bliss and emptiness (Mahamudra) revealed by Buddha. As a result of this, many of his disciples gained enlightenment in 3 years and 3 months.Je Tsongkhapa

The founder of the New Kadampa Tradition, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, has also spent about half of his life in meditation retreat on these same methods, much of it solitary, and has been meditating since he was a child. Many of Geshe Kelsang’s disciples are very proficient meditators too. We have no shortage of powerful examples showing how far meditation can take us.

Sometimes this tradition can be a bit talky – we talk a lot about the teachings but may not get round to meditating on them as much as perhaps we could. And over the years I have heard a number of people say that they find meditation hard and that they are not making as much progress in meditation as they’d like. They love the teachings, but find they can’t make them stick, and are sometimes discouraged to find they not really changing much. Some people even give up altogether.

Geshe-la meditating on a rock

I have thought about this quite a lot because I believe that we can make meditation harder than it needs to be even though, thanks to Buddha, Je Tsongkhapa, Geshe Kelsang, and their students, we, unbelievably, have access to the same liberating methods. I have always loved meditating, and I have already written a few things that I thought might be helpful here based on what I like to do (see end of article). But the other day in England, an old friend dating back to the early years of the NKT came to visit me. She told me that in the last couple of years her meditations had improved exponentially, and we discussed why. She volunteered all the things she had been doing “wrong” over the years and, with her permission, I thought I’d share this with you.

How not to meditate

(1)    Start by feeling inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed, and think: “I really should meditate because I am so inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed.” ie, identify with being a limited person from the outset, rather than identifying with your pure potential.

(2)    Do a few minutes half-hearted breathing meditation to try and settle the mind and get rid of at least a few of those strong distractions and delusions, but know really that it is a hopeless cause to try and get rid of all of them because, after all, I can’t meditate.

(3)    Perhaps do some prayers if we haven’t already done them distractedly at the beginning of the session – find it hard to stay focused on them as we’re not really in the zone, and thinking it doesn’t really matter as at least we’ll be creating some good karma.

(4)    Follow the guidelines for meditation – intellectually follow and repeat lines of reasoning that should lead us to our desired object, which is something we are not feeling at all at the moment; and, if we don’t get to our object, make it up. When the object fades, talk to ourselves some more. (Perhaps spend most of the meditation talking to ourselves and practically none of it absorbed.)

(5)    Push for blessings. I am inadequate etc and can’t meditate, but bless me anyway to get this object.

(6)    Feel slightly exhausted and make yourself a cup of coffee. Try and be good all day, but not from a natural place of deep inner peace and connectedness but because you know you’re supposed to be.

(7)    Result = no taste. Guilt. No fun. No progress. Commiserate with others experiencing the same thing. “I really can’t meditate!” “Don’t worry, nor can I!” Eventually stop trying at all.

Some solutions

My friend was not alone – she told me she found many people with whom to commiserate! Kadam Morten helped a lot of them when he led meditations in the new year at Manjushri Centre. As he and I have a long connection and practice in a very similar way, I thought I’d share some of these solutions. (Then please feel free to add your own ideas in the comments.) 

(1)    Tune in to what you have

Bear in car cute
Bear, recently died.

Relax into your meditation posture and then start where you are, allowing yourself to just sit there feeling positive and happy for a few minutes. Connect to any of the positive feelings you already have inside you, such as love for a cherished niece, compassion for a suffering animal you saw online, or a happy feeling you had when you understood that everything was dream-like. Enjoy that for a while. Don’t identify as a limited person and then take this into your meditation, “I am a terrible meditator, but here I am about to try and meditate”; this is self-defeating. Your good feeling is part of your Buddha nature, your endless capacity for kindness and improvement; you are going to meditate with this mind.

(2)    Settle the mind effectively

Start with one of the methods for overcoming distraction (see below), but to make this effective, recognize from the outset that you are just getting back to who and what you actually are. Your mind is naturally at rest and concentrated. Below your chattering thoughts, it is spontaneously pure, spacious, warm-hearted, vast, even blissful. But we don’t appreciate this. We are addicted to movement, skitting around on the surface of our minds with our constant inner chatter, babble, and anxieties, forgetting, if we ever knew it, who we really are and of what we are capable.

We are like droplets of water constantly thrown up on a vast, deep, boundless ocean, glinting and glittering and sometimes dancing around, but with no idea that they are water. We are so busy focusing outward that we forget or neglect the wellspring of happiness we already have inside. We have to remember this, our Buddha nature, if we are to allow ourselves to go deep and make progress. As Geshe Kelsang says in the chapter What is Meditation?:clear lake

“When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arises from within…. We shall experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well-disposed toward other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve.” ~ Introduction to Buddhism

Notice the expressions “naturally” and “fall away” – there is no pushing here, you are just allowing those droplets of water to dissolve back into the profound stillness and clarity of your own root mind.

There are various methods to settle the mind, such as the different types of breathing meditation, for example focusing on the sensation of the breath at the nostrils, breathing smoke-like problems out and light-like blessings in, taking and giving, or OM AH HUM; as well as clarity of mind meditation, turning the mind to wood (see Mahamudra Tantra), and transforming enjoyments. We can all experience relative peace of mind by just focusing on the breath for a few minutes and letting the mind come to rest — then we pay attention to this experience. This is your own inner peace, you don’t need to add anything.

(3)    Identify with who you are, not who your ignorance says you are

Identify with this peace and spaciousness at your heart, thinking:

“This is who I actually am. Any peace I have, however slight, is my potential for lasting peace and happiness.”

Buddha smileIt is the peaceful, happy mind we liberate, not the agitated mind. Our inner peace is our Buddha nature or Buddha seed. Give yourself permission to experience this inner peace. Then enjoy this mind and deepen the experience. (You don’t need to grasp at the experience of inner peace and get tense, or you’ll lose it. Just sit back and relax.)

The inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed you is not in fact you. This self is part of samsara, and is created by your ignorance. This self is just a thought, an hallucination, an idea – and a bad idea at that, so let it go. Don’t believe it. This is not the self that is going to become enlightened. Relate to yourself as inner peace and endless potential. Don’t relate to a limited self; you are limitless. You are not intrinsically a loser at meditation or anything else. Remember the lack of intrinsic characteristics, understanding that the only limitations you have are the ones you are creating.

(4)    Tune in to enlightened reality, blessings

Our peace and happiness are actually related to enlightened reality, its very seeds; and we naturally open ourselves to blessings if we understand this. Once you have realized your full potential you’ll become a Buddha, just like the Buddhas whom we can remember in front of us, around us, and/or inside us. Faith in the Buddhas necessitates faith in our own enlightened potential.

Also, others have this same potential and I want to help them realize it – you can remember that you are surrounded by living beings, those you’re already feeling connected to next to you, and tune into love and compassion.

As we’re in the presence of enlightened beings, we can think we are already in their vast, blissful, pure land, filled with offerings that we’re all enjoying. (This is included explicitly in the first 2 verses in Essence of Good Fortune, “May the whole ground become completely pure” and “May all of space be filled with offerings”.) If you do this, you’ll probably then have fun doing the prayers either verbally or mentally, and find it easy to focus on their meaning.

lotus reflectionIf you set your meditation up right, you will have no need to push for blessings because you’ll be receiving them naturally and can simply enjoy them. Your happy mind is a natural conduit for them. You can visualize them as lights and nectars if it’s helpful. Although Buddhas are blessing everyone all the time to bring them any measure of inner peace (it’s Buddha’s function), you can’t receive so-called “special” blessings to grow the seeds of your realizations if you’re holding tightly onto a limited sense of who you are and therefore feeling separate from them and miserable – trying vainly to feel the sun without opening up the shutters.

At any point in the meditation, right at the beginning even, as soon as it feels right and you’re ready, dissolve Guru Buddha into your heart, let your mind mix with his like a stream flowing into a vast, blissful ocean; and he can do the meditation with you.

(5)    Make it your own idea through contemplation and meditation

Feel you already have the object of meditation for a few moments, eg, “I think others are important and their happiness matters.” Pause to feel that. “Now I need to make this insight stronger and more stable.” We already have the seeds  for every single realization needed for enlightenment; through contemplation and meditation we are now watering these to grow them, not adding them from elsewhere to our mind.

Contemplate skillfully by asking yourself questions to make the meditations relevant to your own background, “Is this true for me? What examples do I have of this? Is today’s body really a result of others’ kindness?”, for example. Tune into your own experiences and build on those. Be creative in your meditations, use examples and analogies that move you. The idea is to make this your own idea, not just a good idea that someone else has had. Don’t dryly repeat things to yourself.

Although we know all our meditation objects through conceptual thought to begin with, this doesn’t mean that we have to over-think things or be exaggeratedly intellectual. When you want to protect your beloved dog, you are knowing him through a generic image; but that is not any kind of obstacle nor a dry intellectual thought — you still know him and love him viscerally, in your heart.

mirageA lot of our meditation objects are hidden in that they depend upon reasoning for us to discover them. So, let’s say you are meditating on emptiness, contemplating that all the things we normally perceive do not exist because they are analytically unfindable and whatever cannot be found cannot exist from its own side (and, if you like, throw in an example, like a mirage). We do gain our initial realizations of emptiness through correct beliefs and inferences, through such conceptual reasonings as this, but we still do realize our object and it does appear to us, and we need to stop thinking around it and just absorb into it.

For example, fire is a hidden object that we can know through the existence of smoke because we have reasoned correctly that wherever there is smoke there is fire. But let’s say you see smoke and know there is fire. Are you earnestly repeating to yourself: “Wherever there is smoke, there is fire; here there is smoke, therefore there is fire. Wherever there is smoke, there is fire; here there is smoke, therefore there is fire etc.”? No. You just know fire. You can stay with that knowledge; stop reminding yourself about how you came to know it. Also, its consequences are implicit, eg, you need to run get a hose! But in the case of emptiness, we don’t need at this point to run do anything, we can just sit with it and its extraordinary implications will sink in without the need for further analysis.

It is similar with all our meditations – as Geshe Kelsang says, for example, we start off by using the rounds of reasoning for realizing that death is definite and its time is uncertain, and we conclude: “I may die today, I may die today”, but then we concentrate on the feeling that it evokes. We stop repeating the reasoning and the words to ourselves and, like an eagle flying with barely a movement of its wings, we stay with the object in a spacious environment, identifying with it, enjoying it. Feel like you’re home. You’ve just arrived in your holiday cottage by the sea and can sit back and put your feet up. (And you’re not alone – the enlightened beings are right there on holiday with you.)

Bear in mind that it’s easy to generate any Lamrim mind when we are connected to our happiness and our potential. It is actually impossible to generate any Lamrim mind when we are identified with the self that we normally perceive, in other words when we are identifying with our limitations. See this article for examples.

(6)    Take your happiness for a walk

Charlie BrownIn the meditation break, keep connecting to that peaceful mind and insight so that when you return to your meditation seat you can quickly get back to it as there has been no real gap. Morten uses the analogy of walking a dog – take your happiness for a walk with you, remembering your happiness in and out of meditation. “Enjoy your mind”, he says, keep bringing the mind back to peace. Familiarize your mind with this source of happiness, then you’ll become a happy person. Don’t stamp on the small seedlings of peace/good experiences like a bad gardener stamping on tiny shoots of plants by identifying yourself with any delusions that arise. Protect your small seedlings of peace and happiness, go for refuge in them as your Dharma Jewel, and they will grow naturally.  As the Kadampa motto goes:

“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”

If you understand that your happiness is your inner peace and you identify where it is and connect to it, and then you combine this knowledge with your constant, spontaneous wish to be happy, you will naturally go for refuge in your own inner peace both in and out of meditation.

I hope this helps. If we become good meditators, we can help others become good meditators too, and what a gift that will be.

Your turn: please share your own methods for being a happy, successful meditator. Or if you have any questions or doubts you want to clear up, please spell them out too.

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Living happy

It seems to me that one major reason we get grumpy, irritated, depressed, or angry is if we feel that our happiness or freedom are under threat.

why we get grumpyIf we think that our happiness and freedom are bound up with external situations and other people, this means that we are going to get grumpy a lot, as we have so little control over these things. Sooner or later, the things that we were relying upon in life for happiness and freedom blaze out or else slowly fade away. And grumpiness of course is hardly the solution; it only makes things worse.

I was at a good friend’s 50th birthday party last month in Balham. My friend has the sensibilities of an English Woody Allen, and gave a wry, amusing speech, quite spontaneous, (and to the whole restaurant, not just his gathered friends), about how grateful he was for everyone coming to support him and commiserate at this time. The night before the party, I dreamt that he, me, and several other very old friends of mine were all turning 50 together and that our whole life was just the duration of a day… It was late afternoon already. In my dream I was considering how, even if we are thinking, “Ah, just a few more years left at work, then I can chill, relax, enjoy the fruits of my labor, meditate, sit on a beach or whatever”, this is like looking forward to that sleepy couple of hours in front of the TV before you crash into bed. It all goes so fast. Now is not the time to defer gratification but to enjoy every moment and make it count. Our next life is breaths away. 50 birthday ageing and meditation

I asked one old friend at the party whether having his three teenage kids made him feel younger or older, and he replied ruefully: “Older, definitely! The taller they get, the more they look down on me!” My generation may be concerned about bags under their eyes, yellowing teeth, expanding girths, deteriorating fitness levels, and kids who now find us ancient and embarrassing. Not only are we no longer turning heads, but the quirky behavioural patterns that were charming and cute in our smooth-skinned twenties are now creepy and eccentric. Senior moments are beginning their stealthy creep up on us as we forget people’s names and where we put our new reading glasses. But what does that mean for our parents’ generation?! As Bette Davis famously said,

“Old age is no place for sissies.”

Signs of transition are all around me at the moment – indeed they always are, Mayan predictions or not, but sometimes we take more note of them. I stayed with my parents over Christmas as they were writing out their Christmas cards – every year the list grows shorter and they receive fewer cards. My grandfather, who lived to 100, once told me that he was the only person left in his address book. An increasing number of my parents’ friends are also experiencing ailments and disabilities — these seem to pile up on us as we age. It is not enough just to have to go through gruelling treatment for cancer, we also fall over and break our frail shoulder. It is not enough just to have high blood pressure, we also suffer from macular degeneration and feel our freedom curtailed as our driving license is taken away. It is not enough to be increasingly vague, we also suffer the loss of confidence as we struggle to do things we used to do without thinking, or to learn new things. And so on. On Christmas morning, I went with my sister-in-law’s family to visit her very lovable mother Christine in the nursing home she has been living in since her stroke – she is frail and no longer recognizes her own hand (sometimes, to the kids’ amusement, mistaking it for my brother’s). I felt humbled not only by the reserves of patience this is bringing out in my sister-in-law, but also the courage and dignity with which Christine’s husband John, aged 82, is facing the destroyed privacy of their 60-year old marriage, as he sat eating Christmas dinner with his wife surrounded by people lolling and dribbling.

The Buddhist teachings talk about the sufferings of old age and we may wonder why they need to point this out; surely it is just toooo depressing. But ask anyone who is there already, old age happens anyway, and surprisingly fast; and the key is to find a way to grow old gracefully, happily, and meaningfully. If we don’t die first, we’ll grow old too. We can do older people the courtesy of recognizing that they are us and we are them; there is only the slight difference of time. The more we understand that happiness and mental freedom come from within, the more control we retain over it, and the easier it is to grow older with equanimity. This has also been my observation with certain older people in my life, including my 81-year-old teacher, who is timelessly blissful, and my grandfather.

So, as mentioned, if our happiness and freedom are tied up entirely in externals and other people, we are sure to lose them sooner or later and so get sadder and quite possibly grumpier as we get older. But if our happiness and freedom are inside, depending on our own states of mind, this is not the case, as they cannot be threatened by change. This is why I think it is so valuable to learn how to meditate, and why it is never too late to learn.

And for you young things…

And for all of you under 40 reading this, time to get your act together! (as the Buddhist teachers of old would say.) If you don’t believe me, ask anyone over 40 how they got so old and they are at a loss: “I was 20 only yesterday! What happened?!” Don’t live up to the classic grumpy old man adage: “Youth is wasted on the young.”

Happiness training

Happy Rd

I see meditation practice as “happiness training.” Old or young, there is never a time when we don’t want to be happy and free from suffering. Happiness and suffering are opposites, like light and dark. The happier we become, the less we suffer. Happiness is part of who we actually are, as well as a skill that we can cultivate.

According to Buddha’s teachings, happiness is a state of mind and therefore its real causes lie within the mind, not in external objects. Happiness is not some divine favor granted on whim to the chosen few. Nor does it depend on dumb luck (although, tellingly, the Scandanavian root of the Western word “happiness” means “luck,” implying we don’t have much say over it). We cannot buy happiness, nor indeed find it existing anywhere outside the mind. Yet each of us possesses the potential to be happy, and each of us can become happy and stay happy. How? By training our mind so that it is always peaceful and positive.

Meditation is the means for finding and keeping happiness in our mind; and if we’re happy in our mind, we’re happy everywhere. The Tibetan word for meditation is “gom,” which literally means “familiarize.” What are we trying to become familiar with? The positive states of mind that make us happy. According to this explanation, meditation is not something we just do on a cushion, but throughout the course of our lives. Like a doctor, Buddha identified the healthy, productive states of mind that make us peaceful, contented, happy, or blissful and the unhealthy, counterproductive states of mind (or delusions) that make us unpeaceful, discontented, unhappy and depressed. Examples of positive minds are love, compassion, patience, kindness, and wisdom. Examples of delusions are “the three mental poisons” of anger, attachment, and ignorance.

violinIn fact, whenever our mind is free from the mud of delusions, it is naturally peaceful and clear. We’re often so tightly wound up in our self and our problems that we fail to see that our natural default experience is actually being happy. By learning to meditate, we pay attention to the seeds of happiness within us. In a cacophonous urban din we may hear the strains of a beautiful violin; and by paying attention to this it becomes louder to our ear. In the same way, by paying attention to the small moments of happiness that are already within us, gradually and without forcing it our experience of happiness grows stronger and louder.

Over to you: do you agree that it is possible to get happier as you grow old? Do you have any examples?