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.

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.