Breathe out problems, breathe in love

The other day someone asked me: “I know we’re supposed to put others first – but I was taught that in the Girl Guides and its always just made me feel like a doormat.”Buddhism is not about being a doormat

Interestingly, someone else in a separate conversation on the same day also told me that they’d been taught that in the Girl Guides, but their take was different, they felt it was a Buddhist teaching for them in disguise, and they really liked it

What is the difference? The answer is what is going on in the mind. Putting others first has to come not from a sense of onerous, self-sacrificing duty but from a genuine cherishing of others, feeling that their happiness is important, even more important than our own. If we genuinely feel that way, we will naturally and happily want to put them first, there’ll be no self-flagellation involved. But that does not mean that our happiness becomes entirely unimportant. Happiness is our nature, our Buddha nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong, insofar as it doesn’t work, is seeking it outside when it is inside, and thinking that our happiness is more important than anyone else’s when it’s not.

Actually we need to learn to enjoy our own company a great deal, and it is no fun hanging out with a doormat! We have to like and respect ourselves, which means we have to have something good to like and respect about ourselves = and generally this is our positive and happy qualities, all of which come one way or another from cherishing others. Cherishing others is a win win for us and for others.

we are not the center of the universeThe great Indian Buddhist Shantideva famously said that all suffering in this world comes from self-cherishing and all happiness in this world comes from cherishing others. All of it. I’m not sure there is even an exception to this rule. What Shantideva says makes sense because self-cherishing is a delusion, an unrealistic mind – who else but your own self-cherishing attitude thinks you are the most important person in the world?! (Asked what he felt about death recently, an Australian comedian joked half-seriously that his main fear was who was going to take his place in the center of the universe.) Not even your own mum agrees with this assessment of your own importance, except maybe sometimes, and certainly none of the other 7 billion humans on the planet does — and don’t even think about all the animals who have no clue who you are and don’t care. When we are thinking and acting while taken in by an hallucination, it is no surprise when things don’t work out. Cherishing others, on the other hand, is entirely realistic because it understands that others actually are important, both to themselves and also to us. Others also think they are the only real ME, and we depend on them for everything.

Test the teachings like gold

We don’t need to take Shantideva’s word for it though. In fact we should never take even Buddha’s word for anything, he said so himself – advising people to test everything he said as they’d assay gold to see if it was genuine. We test what we hear and read about Buddhism in the laboratory of our own mind, reasoning, and life experiences in order to come to our own conclusions and decisions, our own good ideas. However much we admire or trust someone, just taking on what they say without thinking it through and making it our own idea has limited benefit, for sooner or later we’ll fall back on our own habitual thoughts and behaviors again. That’s one reason why I think in Buddhism we talk about listening, contemplating, and meditating – we don’t just stop at listening.

So, in this instance, we can look at our own lives to see whether self-cherishing causes us problems or not, and whether cherishing others causes us happiness or not. A simple experiment to get us started is to think of a problem we’ve had recently, such as today. Any problem will do.

Okay, I’ll go first. I work as a project manager for a medical journal and sometimes one doctor or another can be a bit big for their boots. One was complaining about the imposition of only being paid $1,500 for a few hours’ work, and I found myself wondering briefly what planet he lived on. I was a little miffed at his rather rude and condescending email and felt discouraged for a few minutes. Then I got over it.

So, let’s analyze what was going on, and, specifically, who was I thinking of when I was feeling miffed…

Why, me, of course. “How dare he be so insensitive to ME!! Doesn’t he realize what my hourly rate of pay is?!” As my thoughts began to run away with themselves, I started to project this worry into the future as well… “Oh no, I have to work with this guy for a whole MONTH, what if I can’t do it …?”

Then, how did I get over it? By thinking about him and how he wants to be happy but, in this instance at least, doesn’t really know how to – if $1,500 for 3 hours work can’t make you happy, you may be relatively hard to satisfy. His own irritation was doubtless stressing him out. Plus, his dog probably loves him, he can’t be all bad. I genuinely wished him happiness and the problem magically disappeared.

Ok, your turn. Who were you thinking of while you were having your problem? ….

…. Now, if you imagine cherishing the other person or other people around you instead of yourself, what happens to your problem? ……

breathing out problemsDid the problem disappear? Poof…!

If it did, you can extrapolate that the same thing will happen to all your problems if you move away from the poky space of self to the vast space of others.

(This is not just the case for relatively small problems, such as having to work with an irritating client, but with seemingly insurmountable, existential ones. Loren Jay Shaw, for example, was in Super Max solitary confinement for 3 years, and it was cherishing ants that stopped him going quite literally insane.)

Combine your understanding with breathing meditation

Then, what you can do next, if you like, is think that this problem and all other problems caused by your self-cherishing appear in the form of dark clouds at the level of your heart, in the center of your chest. Think:

“I don’t need any of this – these thoughts are just bad habits, and they are not me.”

Then with this decision, breathe the dark clouds out through your nostrils so they disappear forever. Do that for a while, feeling your heart becoming lighter with every breath.

After a little while, imagine breathing in blissful, clear light – like the sky, only infinitely clearer. It enters your nostrils and descends to your heart, or heart chakra — your spiritual heart located in the center of your chest. It looks like light, but its nature is love, cherishing others. You can also think of it as all the love from throughout the universe, including that of all holy beings, blessings. With every breath, feel your heart become happier.

Than spend a few minutes combining the two, breathing out the last of the dark clouds and breathing in the blissful clear light.

Buddha peaceWe can identify with this peaceful, spacious feeling at our heart, thinking:

“This is my Buddha nature. This peace and love I am feeling, however slight, indicates my potential for limitless love. This is who I am.”

We are not the clouds of our delusions, we are the sky of our Buddha nature. We can hang out in this blissful clarity at our heart for as long as we like, feeling at home there, thinking “This is me.”

Then, for the extra icing on this meditation cake, we can think that everyone in the world has this same potential at their heart. How wonderful it would be if they could remove self-cherishing and its problems and identify with their pure love instead. Then we can dedicate all the good karma or good fortune we’ve created so that we and others quickly accomplish this.

Before we rise from meditation, we can think ahead briefly to how we are going to remember this love for the rest of the day. One excellent way is to use the Lojong (mind-training) motto with everyone we meet or think about:

“This person is important. Their happiness matters.”

Over to you! Comments are most welcome.

Try a short meditation

Remember that new year’s resolution!? Here are two meditations you can practice at home. All you need is a comfortable chair or cushion and five to ten minutes’ free time.

Enjoy!

Meditation 1 – Finding a still point

Finding a still point in meditation – where busy mental activity subsides for a few moments – helps us to relieve stress and keep a clear head throughout the day.

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath entering and leaving your nostrils.
  3. Breathing normally, follow the inhalation and exhalation with your mind. Follow your breath, not your thoughts.
  4. Every time your mind is distracted by a thought, bring it back to the breath.
  5. Gradually you will feel the stress in your body and mind melt away and experience a deep, inner stillness and peace.
  6. Stay with this stillness for a while, giving yourself permission to enjoy it.
  7. Understand that this is the natural peace of your own mind when it is allowed to settle and relax. Identify with this peace, thinking “This indicates my boundless potential. This is me.”
  8. Throughout the day, remember the still point you reached in meditation and return to it as often as you can.
  9. Before you rise, mentally dedicate the good karma from your meditation to the happiness of all, thinking, “May everyone be happy. May our world be peaceful.”

You can find our more about this meditation here.

Meditation 2 – Clearing the inner energies

Most of our problems come from our negative states of mind, which depend upon negative energy inside us. This meditation helps to eliminate negative energy and build up positive energy.

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath.
  3. Breathing normally, try to follow the inhalation and exhalation.
  4. Follow your breath, not your thoughts. Every time your mind is distracted by a thought, bring it back to the breath.
  5. As you breathe out, imagine you exhale all your negative energy in the form of thick smoke, which completely disappears into space.
  6. As you breathe in, imagine you inhale blissful, positive energy in the form of clear light, which fills your entire body and mind.
  7. Continue in this way for a few minutes, then conclude by focusing on the clean, blissful feeling pervading your body and mind.
  8. Throughout the day, try to keep this clear, blissful feeling inside and make it the starting point for all your thoughts, words, and actions.
  9. Before you rise, mentally dedicate the good karma from your meditation to the happiness of all, thinking, “May everyone be happy. May our world be peaceful.”

You can find out more about this meditation in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, pages 51-2.

If any of your family or friends have expressed interest in learning to meditate, please feel free to pass on this article, and/or this related article.

The benefits of meditation

Positive Health Wellness have produced a fantastic infographic on the benefits of meditation, which I reproduce here with their permission:

The-Science-Behind-Why-Meditation-Makes-You-So-Much-Happier

Comments welcome below!

New Year’s resolution to meditate more?!

Did you happen to make a New Year’s resolution to meditate more?! If so, here is a little encouragement to hopefully help you keep to it.

Happy New Year Everyone!!

Over the past 37 years I’ve noticed that meditation classes in January are always packed because people have made the New Year’s resolution to learn to meditate, or to step up their existing practice. (January is also retreat season at Kadampa Buddhist centers around the world, the traditional time to focus on meditation practice.)  Meditation means familiarizing our mind with positivity, so we can do it anywhere all day long. Here I am talking here about so-called “meditation sessions”, where we sit down and close our eyes etc.

If you do want to devote some more time and energy to meditation, there are now quite a few tips and tricks on Kadampa Life to help keep you going — and with any luck even past January 😉 Sometime ago I talked about a simple breathing meditation taught by Geshe Kelsang, which anyone can learn to do. You can find a series of articles on meditation, including improving your mindfulness and concentration, here.

Off we go!

If you are new to meditation, to begin with it can feel quite difficult because your mind doesn’t seem to be following the instructions.

Perhaps you have attended a meditation class where the teacher says, “Merge your mind with your breath”, in a really special meditator’s voice, and you think, “Well, that sounds nice and peaceful, I’m going to do that. And then afterwards I’m going to watch some TV. Oh, what about that thing I did earlier?”

And we’re gone. We just go — our mind zooms off into the far reaches of the universe in an instant. It doesn’t really want to behave. In fact it sometimes seems perverse, intentionally insisting: “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to meditate on the breath. I’m going to think about this boring or torturous old thing again instead.”

It gets easier and easier …

The more you practice, especially if you are sometimes able to practice together with others, the more you’ll find that you are beginning to really enjoy meditating. After a while, you’re going to really want to meditate, and before too long you’ll find you can’t do without meditating.

To begin with it’s like, “Oh I meditated today!”, as if that’s a really special thing, but eventually it will become like, “I haven’t meditated today, no wonder I’m so wacky.”

This is because we start developing our own sense of centering our awareness and experiencing inner peace. We see for ourselves the deep healing effect it has on our body and our mind, and as a result how much better our relationships are with others. Everything improves when we get a bit of control over our mind, when our mind starts to get a bit relaxed, when we start to identify ourselves with that deep peaceful confidence-inducing potential more than the crazy fleeting thoughts.

But … why is meditation a bit difficult to begin with?

But meditation is quite difficult to begin with. Which, when you think about it, is a bit puzzling. Why should meditation be difficult? Why should placing our mind upon our breath be difficult? Fixing our computer, that’s difficult. Fixing our car, that’s difficult. Twisting our body into some upside-downward dog yoga posture, that’s difficult. But keeping our mind on our breath, surely that should be simple?! That should be like child’s play. What could be a simpler instruction?

And our breath is already here, we don’t have to invent it, we already have the first step. When we meditate on more contemplative objects of meditation, like love or compassion, we first have to spend some time seeking in order to awaken those states of mind, and then we meditate on those. We mix our mind with those to gain a deep pervasive experience of love and compassion. But that’s quite subtle. We have to cultivate love, we have to cultivate compassion.

But we don’t have to cultivate our breath. It is already there. All we need to do is put our mind on it and leave it there, like parking the car. I find parking the car to be really quite easy – I just park it and leave it. But try and do the same thing with our minds, and they don’t behave, do they?! Our mind doesn’t stay parked, it trundles away.

In fact, to begin with, the meditator’s main task is to keep bringing the mind back to the breath. Our main task is not so much staying on the breath but reminding ourselves, “Oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be meditating. I forgot.” And then we bring the mind back. We do this over and over again. (Luckily, this is training in mindfulness and concentration.)

Heel!

It is like training a dog. We rein the dog in. The dog goes trotting off. We rein him in again. “Heel!” The mind keeps trotting off. Why? Habit. It is just a question of (bad) habit. That is why meditation is difficult. Our untrained puppy-like mind is used to being undisciplined and, when we begin to meditate, there is a sense in which we are beginning to exercise discipline over the mind. We are beginning to direct the mind.

Meditating on the breath is the beginning of learning to direct our mind to gain some concentration and control, and then we can learn to direct our mind in directions that are positive. Our meditations on love, compassion and so on will take us where we want to go and fulfill all our wishes.

Everything in our life hinges upon the mind. What we see is that, as we begin to gain control over our mind, we begin to gain control over our life. If we can transform our mind from negative to positive, we can and will transform our life.

Talking of transforming our lives, if you are new to meditation and would like to find out more, here is a FANTASTIC FREE BOOK for you! Just click on this link: How to Transform Your Life ~ A Blissful Journey.

Learning to meditate, and gradually getting better and better at it, is a really blissful journey in fact, especially if you stick at it for longer than the first week of January!

You can definitely overcome these initial difficulties of following your distractions instead of your breath if you want to — really you just have to want to. Remind yourself daily why meditation will make you happier and more free as the months go by, then you’ll want to do it, like a child wanting to play; and your concentration and mindfulness will start to improve naturally. Keep your sessions short and sweet to begin with, 10 minutes is fine.

If you want to join in a meditation retreat near you, or attend meditation classes, you can find out where your nearest center is through Kadampa.org.

Your turn: Let me know if you want to add something to this, or if you have any questions. And please share this article with family and friends who might be curious about learning to meditate.

Related articles

Good beginnings

Learning to meditate in 2020

Doing meditation retreat

The relevance of inner peace

 

Breathe your way to inner peace

This is the last installment of the how not to worry articles.

Breathing meditations can help enormously in instantly alleviating our worry, and anyone can do them if they have a mind to.

Simple breathing meditation

Worrying affects us physiologically, from shallower breathing and the inability to relax through to full blown panic attacks when we can hardly breathe. When the mind is calm, our breathing tends to be deeper, and vice versa. So one way to confront the problem is to follow our breath and calm ourselves down that way. Here is a simple five-minute breathing meditation you can try anytime, even now!

You’ll get three specific benefits from doing this breathing meditation:

(1) There is a close relationship between our mind and our breath. Our breath is related to our subtle inner energy winds (Skt. prana). We can understand this by remembering what happens when, for example, we are anxious and our breathing quickens, or when we are calm or concentrated (e.g. threading a needle) and it slows down. As we calm the breath in breathing meditation, our mind naturally calms down too.

(2) The breath is a neutral object, so meditating on it temporarily pacifies our worries because we forget about them. It is like putting our car into neutral. We can then move into forward gear by meditating on a positive object such as patience.

(3) Our mind can only hold one object at a time. If we focus single-pointedly on our breath, which is not too difficult an object to find, our worries will naturally diminish and disappear.

Taking and giving mounted upon the breath

As mentioned in the previous article on overcoming worry, we can also combine our breathing meditation with taking and giving, thereby increasing our love and compassion at the same time as reducing our worry and stress.

OM AH HUM breathing meditation
OM AH HUM

And we can also get two for the price of one if we combine breathing meditation with receiving blessings from the holy beings in the profound OM AH  HUM meditation based on Tantric principles that renowned Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang explains in The New Meditation Handbook. This meditation also cleanses our subtle inner energy winds (chi, prana), upon which all our minds are “mounted”. As a result, so-called “wisdom winds” flow and our mind naturally becomes peaceful and positive. You can find out what is behind this profound meditation and how to do it here.

And now some final thoughts on the subject of overcoming worry in no particular order…

Focus on your precious human life and death
Click on picture for blind turtle analogy

Instead of thinking inappropriate thoughts itemizing all the things that can go wrong, we can count our blessings and current opportunities. Victoria Kaya says: “Only through my practice of putting others first before myself do I find the antidote to my worry. Not always easy — however I believe that if I contemplate the suffering of others, and realise how bad things could be, I am grateful for every moment of this very short human life.”

And we can recall: “If I die today, where do I want to be tomorrow?” Ironically, perhaps, remembering impermanence totally reduces our mental stress and helps us to relax. We don’t sweat the small stuff because it just doesn’t seem important any more.

Jb Christy told us of her rather radical approach to remembering impermanence: “Skydiving worked for me. For 9 months after jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, I’d get in situations that normally would cause me to worry, and I’d start to get anxious, and then I’d think “Hey, there’s no planet rushing up to pulverize me,” and then whatever was making me anxious really didn’t bother me anymore. After a few months of that, I got out of the habit of worrying, and really don’t worry much at all anymore. But that might not work for everyone :)” (Ed: and you didn’t read it here!)

Overcome attachment

Why do we worry so much more about our own cat or child than other people’s? Yes, love is in the mix, but the worry is not coming from the love (or the compassion) but from the attachment. It’s worth thinking about? And I am, in some articles I’m writing on whether compassion is a sad or happy mind, with help from Facebook feedback…

Emptiness

Who is worrying?! Where are they? What are they worrying about? Shantideva says:

If there were a truly existent I,
It would make sense to be afraid of certain things;
But, since there is no truly existent I,
Who is there to be afraid?

This is my favorite approach. You can recall the emptiness of the three spheres – the person doing the worrying, the worrying mind, and the object of worry. As mentioned in this article, the sharper our worry, the sharper our sense of a limited self, the bigger our target, and the freer we are when we knock it down in our meditation on no self! Mirja Renner puts it like this: “I tend to look at how worry is just a thought, and how the self that thinks it couldn’t handle the situation (should it arise) doesn’t exist.” Victoria Kaya says: “Interesting, only the realization of the way things really are could eradicate worry from my mind because it is only due to grasping at externals that we worry.”

To conclude…

As mentioned in the first of these anti-worry articles, all the stages of the path (Lamrim) have the side-effect of overcoming worry! As Fiona Layton put it: “Seems like we need to keep practicing the Lamrim and all will become worry free!” These are just a few ways of getting started with some different ways of thinking. As our experience of overcoming delusions, increasing our compassion and wisdom etc grows, our worries grow fewer and fewer until one day we can’t even remember what it is like to be worried about a thing. That’s the truth. In the meantime, we can use our worry to look at our minds and go deeper into its solutions.

Got anything to share? Have we missed anything crucial? Please add your comments in the box below, and share these articles with anyone who might find them useful.

Clearing out the clutter from our mind

Yesterday I met Steve, recently evicted from his mobile home and locked out from his possessions for no longer earning enough money from eBay to pay his rent. Living in his car for two weeks, he has just been rescued by my old friend Iben who lives next to him and who decided to buy his home for the princely price of $5000 (plus $40,000 for shares in the park). This means that Steve can get back into his house and retrieve his possessions and, his dignity somewhat restored, my friend is letting him take his time.

Steve’s house was musty and full of, dare I say it, junk. Junk to me, anyway. Not so much to him, though in a way it seems as if the penny is dropping and he’s got different eyes to see this stuff now that he is obliged to move on with only what can fit in a rented truck. He told me he is now a little embarrassed about all “this mess” and strangely relieved to be leaving most of it behind forever as he sets off on his road trip via Mexico, ending up in the mid-west (whereabouts and with whom is not so certain). He had drink on his breath, but he is a thoughtful man, who is well read in history and counts several globes amongst his possessions.

I find it intriguing how relieved he feels to be getting away again after 8 years of accumulating stuff – to leave all that behind and get on the road again. He is looking forward to it, even though he has no idea where the road will take him. For years before he was evicted he was hunkered down, and his neighbors say he was taciturn and surly.  Now he is friendly and talkative, optimistic. You can tell a cloud has lifted. He’ll probably shave off that long straggly yellow beard.

Buddhas in NY Temple for World Peace

Whenever we de-clutter our mind, I think we have a similar type of relief. We are encouraged to clean our meditation room before meditating to clear our mind and make our place welcoming for holy beings and sentient beings. As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

We know from our own experience that dirty and untidy surroundings tend to bring our mind down and drain our energy, whereas a clean and tidy environment uplifts our mind, making it clear and vibrant… Having physically cleaned our room, we should imagine that our environment transforms into the Pure Land of a Buddha.

And then we spring-clean our mind by letting go of thoughts, for example by doing a simple breathing meditation.

We live with the same stale thoughts day by day. They are familiar; we are attached to the coconut monkey or the shiny lacquered fish on the wall that Steve caught when he was 14 (“I would never go fishing again”, yet “I have to take that fish with me”). Both of these have followed Steve around for decades, along with his musty books, pewter glasses, bits of lace, and shiny pieces of porcelain. How many baseballs will he take with him?—he used to volunteer at a baseball stadium and has boxes, some of them autographed (albeit by rookies). He has to decide.

We too have to decide whether we want to lug all our mental stuff around with us forever. Do we really need it? Do we need to keep thinking familiar sagging thoughts about trivial things that give our life no real essence? Do we need endless imaginary conversations with all the people we feel have let us down? We are so strangely attached to the minutiae of our lives and, indeed, of our thoughts – yet anyone else privy to these thoughts would quite possibly disregard them as so much junk! That conversation we had  with that person 15 years ago still rankles. That daydream we had for some kind of success or acknowledgment, as yet unfulfilled, is still popping up. Those painful assumptions that if we let go of this or that worry, such as about finances or relationships, we’ll suffer in the future – just as if we don’t hang onto sufficient baseballs we’ll miss them later.

We apparently talk to ourselves at a rate of 1300 words per minute. What are we ‘saying’ to ourselves and how many of these conversations are worth the time of day? Studies accord with Buddha’s analysis that a lot of our self-talk is negative and self-defeating, giving rise to anxiety, stress and depression – and in our own experience we can see how easily we can talk ourselves out of a good mood and back into another funk.

Quite soon, at death, we will be forced to leave behind all our objects of attachment and aversion, and all their associated mundane gross thoughts behind, just like Steve leaving his stuff. Without any control we’ll be back on the road again, who knows to where. It seems to me that through the practice of meditation we have the chance to let go now so we have time to enjoy and make use of the wonderful space and clarity that opens up in the mind, and feel as though we have the wide open road of the spiritual path stretching invitingly before us. In particular, with meditation we can replace our tired stale old delusions with the fresh flowers of dynamic positive minds such as love, compassion, renunciation, and wisdom.

Space solves problems, not holding onto things and constantly tussling with them like a dog with a bone. Interacting obsessively with their stuff on a daily basis, the pile getting higher as they accumulate more and more, hoarders are blinkered and demoralized by old musty memories. Similarly, interacting with our same old thoughts day in and day out, adding to the dusty pile as the day goes by without letting anything go or replacing old stuff with fresh positive thoughts like fresh flowers, is stale and demoralizing. It both restricts our outlook and weighs us down.

And others don’t enjoy it or enjoy us as much as they might – I liked Steve but I still couldn’t wait to get out of his sour-smelling old-feeling junk-filled house. It was a glorious sunny day but you would never know it in that place, things piled high in front of the windows – what a relief to emerge into the clear light.

Steve himself is sensing that at the moment he has a chance for freedom, a chance to let go of a lot of this; his intelligent blue eyes are gleaming. He told me with a big smile that he is looking forward to moving on and traveling the open road. Are we ready for that too?!

Please share this article if you like it. I look forward to reading your comments.

Meditation: simple easy instructions for getting started

Recently the New York Times did another article on the benefits of meditation – along the lines of how scientists are finding it makes your brain bigger in all the right places. It attracted a great deal of interest and hundreds of comments. This is good.

But reading the article and especially the comments, I was struck by how many people don’t know how to get started with meditation and feel a little overwhelmed by the thought of what might be involved. And this reminded me of when I began 30 years ago this fall. Back then, in the Friday night meditation classes I attended, I felt encouraged to take baby steps, and that every little counts. Meditation is not as difficult as it may seem. In fact, it feels surprisingly natural, once you get going. Getting going is the main thing.

How to Begin Meditation

The advice in the book Transform Your Life, in the chapter What is Meditation?, (and specifically in the section How to Begin Meditation), is perfect. A lot of friends and family have asked me over the years to explain to them a simple 5 or 10 minute meditation so they can relax and get rid of anxiety, and I show them this chapter.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, my Buddhist teacher, is a completely accomplished meditator who has spent much of his life in Tibet, India and the West in meditation retreat. He has used his combined understanding of meditation and the exigencies of modern life to teach thousands of distracted Westerners everything they need to know to be successful at meditation themselves. So if you really want to start meditating, you could do no better than to consult this chapter. A lot of it can be found here: and I have copied/pasted from there.

“The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practicing a simple breathing meditation. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.

We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.

At first, our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.”

The 1980’s

This is the meditation I started with in 1981 as a college student, just sitting on the end of my bed each day for the few precious minutes I could spare between the discos, pubs, and odd lecture. I’ve never looked back.

Step One ~ Sitting

As Geshe Kelsang teaches, the first thing to do is find a quiet spot where we won’t be interrupted. Mainly, these days, we need to find the will power to turn off all those gadgets!! Once we’re sitting in our comfortable position, we can relax our shoulders, rest our hands in our lap or wherever is comfortable, tilt our head slightly forward, and partially close our eyes to allow some light to come through the eyelashes (a lot of people also gently close their eyes). We can rest our tongue on the palate to keep our mouth moist.

(By the way, people sometimes wonder if it is ok to lie down to meditate — you can, but be wary that you are more likely to fall asleep if you do. Sitting with a straight back helps us stay alert.)

Step Two ~ Motivation

Before turning the attention to the breath or any other object of meditation, I think it is very helpful to think briefly about what we’re doing and why. The benefits of meditation are probably infinite, but I just pick one or two of my favorites, depending on the meditation. Geshe Kelsang explains the far-reaching benefits of breathing meditation here. Through this, our mind becomes light and happy, and we can make the decision: “This meditation will really help me and those around me. So for the next 5 (or 10) minutes I will focus on this meditation alone; everything else can wait.” Generating this good motivation makes it far easier to find the discipline to stay focused.

Step Three (optional) ~ Relaxing your Body

If your body is feeling tense, it can be helpful when starting out to spend a few moments deliberately relaxing your body (eventually, concentration on the breath alone has the side-effect of relaxing the body). We can do this by first dissolving everything outside our body into light (including the past and the future), so just our body remains. We become aware of the feelings in our body from our crown down to our feet; and then, as we become aware of any feelings of tension or tiredness in any parts of our body, we let go of them and imagine that they fall away –- as if dropping heavy luggage. All our muscles feel as if they are softening and relaxing. Our body then dissolves into light from our crown to our feet, so that just its merest outline remains. Our body is weightless like a feather in the breeze, clear and translucent like a hollow body, and so comfortable that we’re hardly even aware that it is there.

Step Four ~ Following the Breath

Geshe Kelsang teaches that “we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.” As we breathe in, we’ll come to notice a cool sensation at the edge of our nostrils or on our upper lip, and as we breathe out we’ll notice a warm pressure there. Just that. Once we notice this, we have found the object of meditation. “This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.”

Now, as Geshe Kelsang suggests, there are only two things to do for the next 5 minutes:

(1) We don’t forget the sensation of the breath, our object of meditation – resisting the temptation to follow other thoughts; (2) When we do forget the breath and find our mind has wandered to another object, we gently but firmly bring it straight back to the breath.

“We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.” I think it is important to know that it doesn’t matter how many times we have to bring our attention back to the breath – for as long as we are doing that, as opposed to following our other thoughts, we are training in mindfulness and concentration. In short, we are meditating.

Toward the end of your meditation, see if you can follow your breath for 3 or even 7 consecutive breaths (one breath being an inhalation and exhalation) without getting distracted by anything else! Believe your mind is settled on the breath, and indeed so close that it is as though your mind and your breath are mixed, as one.

Conclusion

If you follow Geshe Kelsang’s simple instructions, you will gradually feel your mind settling and the constant chatter of uncontrolled thoughts, feelings, worries, emotions slow down and even stop. As Geshe-la describes it:

“… gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.”

Enlightened beings are free from grasping.

Feel yourself dissolve into this clarity and peace at the level of your heart — drop from your head to your heart. Stay here as long as you can, giving yourself permission to really enjoy yourself. Know that you can always return here.

Before arising gently from meditation, resolve to bring the peace you have experienced back with you into your day.

Some Tips

Can I suggest that you get used to this idea from the outset: no pushing allowed in meditation. It doesn’t work. We bring our attention back to the object in a determined but relaxed manner, and stay light. We also don’t need to grasp at results — we do that enough in the rest of our lives. Meditation is the best way to let go of grasping and just be, and this naturally leads to incredible insights and open-hearted positivity, the manifesting of our potential.

In our busy modern world, preoccupied with yesterday’s memories and tomorrow’s plans, we may have lost touch with the immediate, what is literally right under our noses; but it is actually very natural and normal to follow your breath. This is another reason why it is not necessary or advisable to attempt to control the breath, as Geshe Kelsang points out, or to push. Even though distractions interrupt seemingly non-stop to begin with, don’t panic; it is only because we are not used to focusing on anything single-pointedly for any length of time, and so have little or no control over our thoughts. That is our problem, and skillful meditation on the breath will overcome it.

The other problem people new to meditation sometimes complain about is drowsiness – not surprising insofar as usually the only time we allow ourselves to really relax and let go is when we are about to fall asleep in bed at night. Concentration is the antidote to drowsiness, and in the meantime, until we have some concentration, it is a good idea to meditate at a time of day when you are relatively alert e.g. after morning tea, and to sit in a light space. Avoid meditating after a big meal or wearing heavy clothes.

In fact, if you are doing just 5 or 10 minutes meditation at a time, there is a good chance that you’ll avoid both distraction and sleepiness – so a good tip is to keep your meditation short but professional. If you are enjoying it, meditate again for another 5 minutes later in the day! You’ll see your capacity and enthusiasm grow naturally.

Geshe Kelsang also teaches variations on the theme of breathing meditation, such as, in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, first identifying and then breathing out all your problems and anxiety in the form of thick smoke, and then strongly believing you are breathing in all lightness, joy and blessings in the form of blissful golden or white light. Some people prefer to do breathing meditation this way, and the basic instructions remain the same.

I hope you get started soon. You’ll never regret learning to meditate – it is the most problem-solving, mind-freeing and happiness-inducing skill in the world. It has no adverse side effects. It is free! And no one can take it away from you. Here is that website, About Meditation. If you get a chance, do go along to a meditation class in your area – you can’t beat live instructions from a real person.

For two more helpful articles on meditation see Meditation in the Pursuit of Happiness and How to Use Meditation to Avoid Stress and Burnout at Work.

Postscript

I have recently had the surreal experience of unexpectedly reconnecting with my closest childhood friend, whom I played with in Guyana when we were 10 years old. Four days after we talked again, laughing at our memories of that different lifetime, she was diagnosed with cancer. She asked me how to meditate to find peace. This article is for you, Debra.