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.

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Emergency aid for a troubled mind

9 mins read

bla bla meditation

Do you ever wish you had a quick fix for an unhappy mind? Like you even know what you could be doing to feel better, but your mind is just too roiled to be able to do it? The craving is just too strong and convincing, the irritation just too, well, irritating?

Well, I’ve been wanting to talk for ages about a really helpful meditation that has a lot of benefits, including being emergency aid for strong delusions (unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts). Called “absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought”, it’s surprisingly easy to do and takes as long as we have, even if that is only five to fifteen minutes.

In addition, we can also use this meditation to absorb deeply into our heart, into a subtler level of our consciousness, as explained below. And this happens to be perfect preparation for success in other meditations, so I hope it’s particularly good timing for those of you lucky enough to be doing Lamrim or Tantric retreats this month.  

I’ll talk about some of its benefits and then outline how to do it below.

Switch off unhappy thoughts

To bring about instant, temporary freedom from a very disturbed or deluded mind, Shantideva, the great 8th century Indian Buddhist Master, advises us to “remain like a mindless piece of wood” for a few minutes.block of wood

One effective way to deal with this strong arising of delusions is to remain for a short while as if we were a piece of wood: unmoving, non-reactive, and without thoughts. ~ Meaningful to Behold page 143

Briefly, after relaxing into a good posture and dropping into our heart, we imagine we become an inanimate object, as if made of wood or stone, devoid of thought and feeling. We switch off our thoughts like switching off the TV.

We should merely be as unresponsive as possible to the thoughts flooding our mind. By depriving them of energy in this way, we shall prevent our delusions from motivating our behaviour and they will soon fade away of their own accord. ~ page 147

A “technique of non-reaction,” as Shantideva puts it, this temporarily solves all our problems. And Geshe Kelsang explained it during the 2006 Medicine Buddha teachings in upstate New York:

Meditation on this absorption is very useful for solving human problems temporarily because through this method we can temporarily cease gross conceptual thoughts, such that there are no unpleasant feelings, painful feelings, unhappiness. This is a very special method, and very simple; and it can be practiced by both Buddhists and non-Buddhists, anyone.

Remaining impassive like wood for a few minutes will calm us down and give us a welcome break from unhappiness. Geshe Kelsang also said:

Practicing this is not difficult, it is very easy. The only thing we need is interest, energy, and effort.

You can stop reading the article here and try it out, if you need to!

It can also be a means to an end because we can then, optionally, advance to a second stage of the absorption of cessation (as described below).

Advance through neutral

absorption 3If we are driving 150 MPH in reverse, taken over by strong annoyance for example, it is hard to go straight from there to 150 MPH in the right direction, with, for example, loving kindness. If you’ve ever driven a shift stick you’ll know we have to go through neutral first. Breathing meditation, clarity of mind meditation, and this absorption of cessation meditation all bring us back to a peaceful center, so any of them is helpful preparation for productive meditation on a positive object.

Overcome distractions quickly

In the same Medicine Buddha teachings, Geshe Kelsang defines this meditation:

The absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought is a subtle mind that is single-pointedly absorbed or focused on the cessation of gross conceptual thought.

He explains that our various gross minds are “very rough, uncontrolled, disturbing, distracting, and interfering with our inner peace” whereas our subtle mind is “a very special mind” that is “very calm, peaceful, controlled, tranquil, without distraction, and so forth.”

creating peace in our mindNormally we only have subtle minds when we sleep or die, which is not that helpful at the moment because we don’t have the mindfulness to enjoy them. By becoming as impassive as wood, we can manifest a subtler mind even while awake:

At this point in reality we have established a cessation of gross feeling and discrimination on our subtle consciousness. Because we stopped gross feeling and discrimination, there is no gross mind. Therefore, only our subtle mind remains. ~ Geshe Kelsang, Sutra Mahamudra teachings 2003

So as well as temporarily giving us a break from unhappy thoughts, this method frees us quickly and effectively from all inappropriate attention and distraction, enabling us to experience a more subtle, spacious, mindful, and joyful mind.

We are calmed down and set up, if we wish, to meditate more deeply on whatever object we choose, including the mind itself, or a Lamrim object. As Geshe Kelsang explains:

With this subtle mind, this absorption, we can concentrate on any virtuous object, including emptiness, bodhichitta, or compassion.

planting flowers

 Journey to enlightenment

In Mahamudra Tantra, this meditation is included in the third stage of training in the six stages of Mahamudra, allowing our mind to become more and more subtle. As such, it is a time-honored part of a profound, blissful, direct journey to enlightenment itself, providing we’re doing it with bodhichitta motivation.

How to do the meditation

Step 1

We make a strong determination to cease our gross conceptual thoughts, self-grasping, and other delusions, remembering how they are the source of our daily problems. Then we follow the instructions in Mahamudra Tantra:

First, we stop paying attention to any object; we should not think about anything but remain like a stone or a piece of wood, without experiencing or perceiving anything. We remain in this state for few minutes.

meditation and inner peaceWe bring about a temporary cessation of our gross conceptual thoughts, or thinky minds, by thinking “I am completely inanimate, as if made of wood or stone. I am not perceiving, paying attention to, or feeling anything. It is as if the TV has been switched off. There is no more projecting going on. I am as if unconscious. All my thoughts have ceased, including all my delusions and anxieties.

We remain as an inanimate block of wood without feeling or attention for a few minutes.

NB: We can stop the meditation here if we only want to calm down and stop giving energy to our disturbed thoughts. Or we can continue to meditate on identifying our subtle mind as follows.

Step 2

And then we imagine that all our gross minds dissolve into our subtle mind like water bubbles disappearing into the water from which they arose. ~ Mahamudra Tantra

Through generating this cessation of all gross conceptual thoughts, these distracting, superficial thoughts subside like bubbles into water. As a result, a naturally quieter, deeper, calmer, more lucid, less distracted, and more blissful level of mind manifests or surfaces; and we understand this to be our subtle mind at our heart. buddha

Step 3

As it says in Mahamudra Tantra:

We then try to perceive our subtle mind by contemplating:

Its nature is the cessation of all gross minds, and its function is to perceive an empty like space.

With our subtle mind we very gently recognize the cessation of all our gross conceptual thoughts, including all delusions and unhappiness, and perceive an empty like space.

We have found the main object of meditation according to the third stage of the six stages of Mahamudra training.

We remember this cessation and stay in this deeply peaceful absorption for as long as we can, without forgetting and also without pushing, just very relaxed.

(According to his Sutra Mahamudra teachings in 2003, Venerable Geshe-la adds that as we gain familiarity with this meditation, “instead of observing the cessation we are observing the subtle mind itself.” And we can then also, if we wish, perceive that its nature and function are clarity and cognizing, like all minds.)absorption 2

We may only be able to focus on this meditation object for a few minutes or seconds to begin with. If so, depending on our time, we can rinse and repeat. If our mind starts moving and distractions re-emerge such that we lose our object, we repeat steps 1 to 3, seeking and finding our object through first turning our mind to wood and so on.

Step 4

Optional: I like to do my other meditations with this mind. As mentioned above, unlike our gross minds, which tend to be rough, uncontrolled, disturbing, and interfering of our inner peace, our subtle mind is very calm, peaceful, controlled, tranquil, and free from distraction – making it a great deal easier to stay concentrated.

Step 5

cosmic energyAs we prepare to arise from the meditation, we can think:

I will carry this deep experience of being still and centered, free from unhappy minds, out of the meditation and into my everyday life.

Our day then arises from a place of stillness within, rather than bombarding us from all directions in a stressful or aggravating manner.

As we gently relax our concentration, we become aware again of our body. Then we become aware again of the room, but staying centered at our heart. We can learn to carry this deep inner feeling of stillness and freedom into our everyday life. We are not in the world, the world is in us, is what I like to think.

We need to get in the habit of identifying with our deep peace, knowing that however weirdly life appears or however crazy our gross minds become, we can always drop into our hearts and return to this.

And, by the way, in case you were wondering, feeling peaceful inside doesn’t mean we stop trying to solve outer problems such as climate change and so on. As Geshe Kelsang put it, our main aim to solve all our inner problems, but:

inner peace outer peaceOf course, we human beings need external conditions. Of course, whatever problem we see, we need to solve it. For example if I have torn my yellow robe, I need to repair it. If I need anything, I need to prepare it. If I am sick, I can rely on a doctor and medicine, of course; this is normal. But no matter how hard we work to solve outer problems, our real or inner problems never reduce. So in this way we need to try to solve both our outer and inner problems.

And here is the meditation in brief
  1. Remain like a piece of wood for a few minutes.
  2. Our gross conceptual thoughts dissolve into the subtle mind, like bubbles into water.
  3. With our subtle mind, we very gently recognize the cessation of all gross thoughts and perceive an empty like space.
  4. If we like, we do other meditations now that our mind is peaceful and concentrated.
  5. We carry this peace into our day, as the background to solving outer problems.

More on this meditation here: Relax and reboot.

Over to you. Do you have any experience of this practice that you can share here?

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Transforming a great sadness: a Buddhist nun’s tale

Here is an article from a guest writer, Kelsang Chogma.

I will explain how Dharma transformed a very difficult situation for me. This may seem like an extreme situation, but hey, this is samsara and you have to work with whatever it throws at you.

A few years ago my brother was killed in Afghanistan, along with thirteen other soldiers. It was a horrendous death in which their bodies were apparently ‘fragmented’; which meant that they had to be repatriated to the UK before all their parts could be identified using DNA sampling. What this meant for my family, and the other thirteen families, was of course a lot of pain, but through it all I also learned an incredible amount about the truth of Dharma, Buddha’s teachings.

The first thing I learned is that we need to have a knee-jerk, reflex action of going for refuge to the Three Jewels. It needs to be the most familiar reaction to any situation, so that it’s instantaneous, spontaneous. For in the first few minutes when I saw my mum almost hysterical with the pain from hearing the news of her son’s death, I forgot to go for refuge. Those few minutes taught me a lot. They taught me how it feels to experience samsara completely exposed without it’s deceptive veneer; how people without any refuge experience such unbearable pain that you feel like your heart has been ripped out and you’ll just die on the spot; and how the moment we go for refuge and pray for others with all our heart, that pain subsides and we become a source of refuge for the people we pray for.

The coffins of the authors brother and his thirteen friends

Within a few days each family got to spend time with all fourteen coffins in a make-shift chapel on an RAF base in Scotland. I remember they looked quite beautiful all lined up together in two neat rows of seven, with Union Jack flags draped perfectly in line with each other; and the smell of the wooden coffins filling the room. As I sat there in silence with the rest of my family, we just gazed at the coffins. At first all the coffins were equal to me as I had no idea which one contained my brother’s remains, for all I knew it might be all of them. Each coffin was just as important as all the rest, and in turn my feelings toward the men who’d died felt equal and my mind felt surprisingly peaceful. I started wondering which coffin my brother was in, and I focused on the one nearest to me, wondering if it contained his body. Immediately my mind became unpeaceful and I started getting really upset. What upset me most wasn’t that here might be my brother’s body but that suddenly that one coffin was the only one that mattered and the other thirteen coffins were irrelevant to me, like they didn’t even exist. It came as quite a shock and it just felt so wrong – these were my brother’s friends, his colleagues, who’d died in just the same way; and yet suddenly they didn’t matter. I will never forget that moment when I realised how immediate the painful effect of delusion is in our mind and how horrible it feels to disregard people who really do matter. I reminded myself that I didn’t know which coffin my brother was in and how all these guys were equally important – and my mind became peaceful again. I realised that what I was experiencing was the beautiful peace of equanimity.

Another thing that struck me as I sat there is that the parts of the body are definitely not the body, just as Geshe Kelsang explains in his books. If someone had come along right then and shown me all the fragmented parts of my brother’s body all put back in the right places, it could never have satisfied my wish to see my brother’s body as a whole, solid, unitary thing. I wished to simply see my brother’s body, not it’s parts assembled together. Nothing anyone could ever show me would match up with the image in my mind, but isn’t it the same now with all phenomena?

Another thing I learned was that even simple meditations done for just a few seconds can have an amazing immediate effect. At my brother’s funeral I was asked to read out fond memories of him that family members had written. I remember sitting in the chapel with his coffin in front of me and a picture of him on the wall above. He was given full military honours and many of his RAF colleagues and other officers were present; with the flag draped over his coffin and his RAF hat laid on top. As the service progressed I could feel myself getting more and more anxious as it came closer to the time for me to get up. I could feel my legs shaking and I didn’t know if I’d be able to even stand, let alone speak. I tried to imagine that my brother’s photo was a picture of Geshe-la, like the one I have above my shrine at home, gazing at me, smiling and encouraging me. I suddenly remembered a meditation Geshe-la had taught at the festival that year, from Mahamudra Tantra, the meditation on turning your mind to wood – absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts – so I did just that. I stopped listening to the service, I stopped feeling anything, thinking anything, held my mind still, and imagined I was an inanimate object, completely without thought. Just for a few moments it felt like slipping the gearbox out of gear, like things were going on around me but I wasn’t engaged at all. Then I started listening again and found that it had worked! I was ok, I had my Spiritual Guide with me and in a very distressing, adverse condition I had remembered some of his instructions and I’d put them into practise and felt their benefit. I knew that I’d be ok, and I was. I got through it with a picture of Geshe-la and one of Tara on the lecturn with me, and with my mala in my hand and my Guru at my heart.

We did a Powa, transference of consciousness, for my brother and I’m certain he went to the Pure Land – he sure has helped me get a little bit closer.