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.)

Tantra: bliss and emptiness

In the previous article on Tantra, I explain a meditation for overcoming attachment and other delusions that is derived from Buddha’s Tantric methods. Now I want to say a few more things about why I think this meditation is so helpful, practical, and profound.

follow your blissBliss improves concentration

As the experience arising from this meditation is so pleasurable, naturally our mind likes it. When we are experiencing bliss, it is easier to stay concentrated because our mind naturally wants to stay put, to absorb. Ordinarily, it is the opposite – our mind wants to wander. Distractions are overwhelmingly interesting to our monkey mind (even paradoxically when they’re boring or anxiety-provoking), and so concentration is difficult. Now concentration feels easier and distractions relatively powerless.

Buddha understood very well that we like bliss – we love to be ecstatically happy. Our problem is that our bliss is very brief. Ordinarily, we achieve bliss through stimulating ourselves with sense pleasures, from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching beautiful things, and this bliss is fleeting. Yet, we build our lives around it. We chase that high, which is about as successful as trying to grab onto a mirage. If we can give the mind pleasurable feelings, or even bliss, by itself, the attachment within us becomes redundant. We have what we want, so we no longer crave external objects to get us there. Who wants to go chasing after a pizza or a yacht or a boyfriend when we already have it all? The bliss can last. It can cause us to enjoy everything that appears to our mind.

Bliss is in fact in the nature of concentration and a state of mind ­– so the source of our bliss comes from within the mind, not from grasping at external objects.

Once we can dissolve our inner winds into our central channel through Tantric completion stage practice, we experience an unparalleled bliss and level of concentration. As it says in Modern Buddhism p. 194:

The stronger this bliss becomes, the more subtle our mind becomes. Gradually our mind becomes very peaceful, all conceptual distractions disappear, and we experience very special suppleness.

photo 2Use a blissful mind to meditate on other objects

We can use our blissful concentration, at whatever level we are at, to focus on any object of meditation that we choose. For example, we can generate bliss through this method and then meditate on love for all living beings: “May everyone be happy.” And naturally we’ll be able to hold that mind of love much more easily than with an ordinary, crunchy, distracted, non-blissful mind. Most of our objects of distraction are in fact objects of attachment — we want to be somewhere else. What’s for supper? The mind is going somewhere else so we have to keep reining it back in, even when meditating on something as beautiful as love. It is much easier with bliss to stay on our object.

The object that we mainly use bliss to meditate on is the ultimate nature of reality, emptiness, the actual dreamlike nature of things. There are many levels of bliss and, at its deepest most qualified level it is free from mistaken or dualistic appearance and utterly undistracted. Buddha taught how to use this concentrated mind of bliss to meditate on emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality, so that we experience the union of bliss and emptiness or Mahamudra. This mind of the clear light of bliss and its main object emptiness mix together like water mixed with water, they go together very well, they belong together. In fact, once you receive a Highest Yoga Tantra empowerment we have the commitment to generate bliss six times a photo 2day and then use it to meditate on emptiness. I have wondered what there is not to love about a tradition that obliges you to feel blissful six times a day?!

You can find out more about this essential practice — perhaps the ultimate meditation of the Buddhist Kadampa tradition, the meditation to which all other meditations lead — in the incredible book Mahamudra Tantra.

Even more benefits next time…

What is Tantra?

ClarityI wanted to say a bit about what Tantra is within the Buddhist tradition, and how accessible it can be.

Buddhist Tantra is known as the “quick path to enlightenment.” Judging by my local bookstore and a quick Google search, a lot of people might be misunderstanding what Tantra is — for example, it is not about middle-aged couples in Hawaii improving their sex lives. Buddha was a celibate monk and he taught Tantra to many monks and nuns as well as lay people; so Tantra is not what we do with our bodies, particularly our gross fleshy bodies, but with our minds.

Still, Tantra does involve generating a lot of bliss. There are many things we can do with a blissful mind, and a blissful life. Bliss in our heart is a very concentrated state of mind. We sort of know this already from the ordinary bits of bliss we have now from a lovely smoothy or nice romantic encounter — whenever we are experiencing bliss, wild horses can’t pull us away. All we really want is to be blissful, we’d like to be blissful 24 hours a day, at least I would. But our current bliss is exceedingly short-lived. “Desire realm beings,” as Buddha Shakyamuni called us, are constantly searching for the bliss high, the excitement, and then trying to hold onto it; but it is hard to find or hold onto it for any time at all. This is because we’re looking for bliss in entirely the wrong place, namely outside the mind, when in fact bliss is a state of mind.

There are many different levels of bliss, and in Tantra we are aiming at the deepest and most transcendent – the clear light of bliss — which is associated not with our five senses or conceptual thoughts but with the most subtle state of our consciousness.

blissThis blog often talks about our Buddha nature, aka our potential for limitless happiness, freedom, love, and wisdom, our natural kindness, our potential to improve ourselves to perfection … Our Buddha nature is analogous to a sky free from clouds, where our delusions are the clouds that are obscuring the clarity and purity of our mind. Get rid of these bad habits and we would naturally abide in contentment, peace, and purity – this is who we are, it is just that the delusions get in our way.

Our Buddha seed or potential is associated with our most subtle level of mental consciousness that goes from life to life, our root mind at our heart, that one day will become the omniscient mind of a Buddha. We all have this very subtle mind. At the moment it only manifests in deep sleep or when we’re dying, and we’re not mindful of it because it is too subtle for us, we can only deliberately use our grosser levels of consciousness. And the thing is that our actual Buddha nature — our clear light mind, our root mind, our very subtle mind — is not just naturally contented, but naturally blissful.

In Tantra we learn to access this bliss, deeper and deeper feelings of bliss. If we can do this, many good things happen — for one thing we have a blissful life because there is no life outside of our experience of life and we are experiencing bliss. We are also able to concentrate on any object we choose far better because we are enjoying ourselves. If you are blissed out, and someone offers you some worldly enjoyment such as a slice of pizza, you don’t need it, you can take it or leave it; but if your mind is in a state of agitation or craving, it’s like, “Give me something, give me that pizza!” We search outside ourself for happiness, we spend a lot of time waiting; but if we are happy inside, we’re already there.

TantraFor this reason, generating bliss is very helpful for concentration, very undistractable. We can mix it smoothly with any object of meditation, whether that be love, compassion, or indeed the ultimate nature of reality, which is what we mainly want to use our bliss for. Understanding the real nature of ourselves, our world, and other people — that things are not as solid and real as they appear — overcomes our ignorance, the root of all our problems. A subtle, blissful, concentrated mind mixes with emptiness like water mixing with water, so we are quickly able to realize the ultimate nature of things and transform completely into a pure being, someone who is completely free from obscurations and who has manifested and grown all their good qualities. We can quickly gain deep spiritual experience, which is one main reason why Tantra is called the quick path to enlightenment.

Another main reason is because Tantra harnesses the creative power of our imagination. More on bliss and imagination coming soon.

Where is that sound coming from?

Chisato Kusunoki reflectionA couple of weeks ago, in London, N and I were invited to a piano recital by an old friend of my parents, who is sponsoring the Japanese pianist Chisato Kusunoki. The elegantly attired audience were seated casually around tables in a dark and stylish lounge, though actually we were in the new (by London theatre standards) St. James Theatre; and Kusonoki’s virtuoso performance included works by Bach, Schumann, Medtner, Moszkowski, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff.

So, as you can see, I am a very cultured person 😉 But the real reason I am writing this is that the performance reminded me of the story of Sadaprarudita told in Heart of Wisdom, and how his teacher Dharmodgata explained emptiness to him using sound as a basis.

The Times said about Kusonoki’s performance: ‘wonderfully fleet and supple fingers, quick to locate the music’s inner voices, able to dapple and perfume.’ I don’t even know what that means, but I like it! Still, how are her fingers able to ‘locate’ the music?! How are they able to produce it? Where is it?

Chisato Kusunoki meditation pianoTo me, it sounded as if she had at least 20 fingers, there was so much noise coming from the piano, or wherever it was coming from, or, for that matter, ending up. But I could never point to the music even if I tried. Perhaps I could try pointing at it, but where would I start? I could point at her left forefinger, or her thumb, or the thumping key of the piano reflected in its shiny lid, or the waving of her elegant hands over the keyboard, or the smile on her face perhaps reflecting her inner enjoyment or astonishing creative memory, or to the composer’s mind, or the microphone, or the sound waves, or my ears, or the space traveled between the piano and the audience’s ears, or our ear consciousness (if it was physical), or… . For the music to appear to our mind, all these components, and more, are essential. Not one of them individually is the music, and yet take even one away and the music vanishes.

Where does each note come from? And where does each note go? What is that space between the notes? Where did one note end and the next begin? Trying to figure this out in St. James Theatre led me into a lovely reverie on the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of the music. The music was not ‘out there’ anywhere.

There is no real coming or going

Each elaborate piece was imputed on a stream of sounds, each sound coming from nowhere and going nowhere in order for the next sound to arise, and our minds imputing some kind of continuum on that, to end up with the haunting mellifluence of Chopin’s Nocturnes or the grandiosity of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes. (Ha ha, that’ll have to do for description, I’m not paid to be a music critic. You’ll have to read the fancy reviews for that. I watched a bit of Strictly Come Dancing for the first time yesterday evening and was mainly astounded by the florid verbosity with which the judges described each dance. I could just about come up with ‘That’s nice!’) But the point is, we describe a ‘thing’ as if it were really out there being a thing, we try so hard to label it and itemize it and make it even more of a ‘thing’ — when in fact it came from nowhere and went nowhere, and is completely empty of existing out there or from its own side.

rainbow and meditation on emptinessOn the train down from Liverpool yesterday there was a rainbow appearing out of the space of the sky. The reason it was appearing to me was because of the atmospheric conditions and the position of me, the observer. One moment of rainbow only appeared to cause the next moment of rainbow; that continuum was only imputed by mind. Moment by moment the rainbow was arising in dependence upon causes and conditions that were NOT it. So although it seemed as if the rainbow had a continuum from its own side, each moment of rainbow giving rise to the next moment of rainbow, that seeming continuum was projected only by my mind – in truth, each moment of the rainbow was appearing newly in dependence upon other causes, such as the sun and the moisture and me sitting in the train. None of these things was the rainbow, yet remove one and the rainbow would vanish. It is the same for the music. It is the same for EVERYTHING, even mountains and stars, even you and me. There is no inherently existent coming and going. We impute or project continuity on things with our mind, like perceiving countless still frames of a movie and projecting on them movement.

Where is everything?!

Dharmodgata asked Sadaprarudita:

Where does the sound of the lute come from and where does it go to? Does it come from the strings, from within the lute, from the fingers of the player, from his effort to play, or from elsewhere? And when the sound has stopped, where does it go?

Because Kusonoki’s music depends on things outside itself for its existence, it is empty of inherent, or independent, existence and is a mere imputation or projection of the mind. You cannot find it existing anywhere outside the mind, however hard you try. If you cannot find something existing outside the mind, or from its own side, you can know it doesn’t exist there. For example, we cannot find a dream existing outside the mind or from its own side, so we know it doesn’t exist there. So, where does a dream exist? Where does music exist? Where does anything exist?

Chisato Kusunoki
Where does she keep that vast memory?!
The power of effort and concentration

Everything depends upon the mind. Including of course, as N said during the interval, Kusonoki’s impressive mind. How amazing, he said, that she had managed to memorize every note of the composition and play it flawlessly for over two hours, oftentimes with her eyes closed. The sound flowed effortlessly from her fingertips (or wherever!); she didn’t need to ‘think’ it, more just ‘be’ it. It also made us think how, with familiarity, something beautiful that in reality has taken a great deal of effort and practice become entirely spontaneous and effortless – just like cherishing others or meditating on emptiness if we do it enough. Practice indeed makes perfect. Plus she was enjoying herself so much, even though we knew (from what her sponsor confided to my mother) that she had a head cold. Concentration gets us to this state of effortlessness too, reminding me of one of my favorite TS Eliot quotes:

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

A virtuous spiral

Although music is empty of inherent existence, it can still appear in dependence upon many causes and conditions and, when they cease, it can no longer appear. Therefore, there is nothing solid or objective about music – it is a manifestation of its emptiness, with no more concrete existence than yesterday’s rainbow appearing from the empty sky.

Understanding this makes listening to music all the more beautiful and blissful. And in general, the more blissful the mind, the more blissful the music becomes, proving again that the object depends on the mind. (Even without necessarily contemplating emptiness, I could tell that as the audience gradually got into the music, becoming more concentrated and relaxed, they enjoyed the music more and so it sounded better, even though it hadn’t improved from its own side.)

Emptiness and bliss in fact go together very well, like water mixed with water, enhancing each other in a virtuous spiral. But that’ll have to be the subject for another day.

At the end, I thanked Chisato Kusunoki, and said I hoped she’d be able to bring the joy of her music to many thousands of people. She smiled enigmatically. I made a secret prayer that everyone who listens to her accomplishes the realization of bliss and emptiness, and therewith complete mental freedom.

Meanwhile, to test this out for yourself, please do an experiment if you can: next time you listen to music, see if you can find it, and report back.

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 35 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 — 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 longer than 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 old thing again instead.”

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 peaceful.

Why is meditation 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!

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.

Where eagles fly … how to soar in the space of meditation

High above, in the endless clear sky of the Brazilian Serra da Bocaina rain forest, I watched eagles fly. They soared effortlessly through the sphere of space, with barely a movement of their wings.

There is a picture of an eagle on the front cover of Modern Buddhism, her two wide outstretched wings symbolizing the path of compassion and wisdom, the book’s subtitle. These two wings of ultimate bodhichitta can and one day will fly us to enlightenment.

Bodhichitta is the wish to become enlightened by permanently overcoming all mistaken appearances so we can bring mental peace to all living beings each and every day. With this compassionate motivation, we meditate on the ultimate nature of reality, emptiness. We try to find ourself and other objects existing inherently (or from their own side), as they appear to exist; but — like a mirage — the closer we look the more it all just disappears. This meditation is explained with impeccable clarity in “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”, IMHO the best chapter on emptiness in the world. 

For example, my teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso summarizes how to look for our own body:

Normally I see my body within its parts—the hands, back, and so forth—but neither the individual parts nor the collection of the parts are my body because they are the parts of the body and not the body itself. However, there is no “my body” other than its parts. Through searching with wisdom for my body in this way, I realize that my body is unfindable. This is a valid reason to prove that my body that I normally see does not exist at all.

To demonstrate how to meditate on this emptiness of inherent existence, Geshe Kelsang gives the analogy of eagles, who …

… soar through the vast expanse of the sky without meeting any obstructions, needing only minimal effort to maintain their flight…

Once we’ve found the object — the mere absence of the body we normally see – we settle on it, without further distracting flapping-wing-like analysis.

Analytical and placement meditation

There were many colorful hummingbirds there too, at the pousada where I was lucky enough to be doing a six week retreat off the grid prior to the Kadampa Brazil Festival. Their little wings moved faster than my eyes could keep up with; they were more like bees than birds. Cute as anything, but all this flapping is not the way to meditate! Plus it looked exhausting.

Meditation involves two parts, analytical meditation (contemplation) and placement meditation (single-pointed concentration.) You can find out about these in The New Meditation Handbook or Joyful Path of  Good Fortune. In brief, during analytical meditation we bring to mind the object of placement meditation through reasoning, analogies, and checking the teachings in our own experience. When the object appears clearly we stop analyzing and concentrate on it single-pointedly.

Whether we are meditating on emptiness or any other object, once we have a rough idea of our object through contemplation, we rest on it for as long as we can in single-pointed focus, remembering it moment by moment without further analysis. Soaring, not flapping.

Don’t over-think it

When I started meditating I had a tendency to over-think in my meditation sessions, not daring to rest on the object (whether that was an object apprehended by mind or a state of mind such as a determination) until I was quite sure I had it perfect. But, as Je Tsongkhapa says, you cannot see the details of a temple mural by the light of a flickering candle. Once I figured out that it would never be perfect if I never allowed myself to improve my concentration on it, I relaxed into the meditation objects sooner and for longer in placement meditation. Almost overnight, I became far better at meditating.

Three valuable tips for good concentration

Meditation involves seeking, finding, holding and remaining on our object – not just seeking. We seek the object through contemplation until we find it – we have to stop once we have a rough idea of the object, be content with that, and focus on it, or we’ll never improve our concentration. Then we hold the object firmly but gently and remain on it without pushing.

(I find it helpful at the outset of my meditations to believe that I have already found my object of meditation, and I spend a few moments focusing on it. Then I start contemplating to make that object clearer and more stable. This way, because I have some sense of the object right from the beginning, I know when to stop looking for it!)

I extrapolated these three instructions from the tranquil abiding teachings as I find them really helpful:

(1)   Remember the object moment by moment. Just remember it, don’t do anything with it. And relax. Hold the object in your root mind at the level of your heart, not in your thinky head.

(2)   Hold the object clearly. It is rough to begin with, but you are still focusing on just that and nothing else, without pushing.

(3)   Overcome distractions. Do this by ignoring them. If you fight your distractions or try and think your way out of them, they have won. Thoughts are going to come up unless you are an advanced meditator, and it doesn’t matter that they do provided you pay them no attention.

Don’t think, “This is too difficult, I can’t do it.” Think instead, “This is not difficult and I am doing it.”

When we do this, our mind and its meditation object become closer and closer until they mix like water mixing with water.

Everything becomes wonderful

Next time you have a chance, look up at an eagle blissfully soaring in space… When we have some experience of emptiness, and a little concentration, and we can dissolve all appearances away into their space-like ultimate nature and stay there for a little while, we are at deep peace because we discover that there is nothing more we could possibly want. Why? Because we have it all already. Geshe Kelsang describes it like this:

In this experience, everything becomes very peaceful and comfortable, balanced and harmonious, joyful and wonderful.

Buddha’s mind of great bliss always pervades all phenomena because it is permanently mixed with their emptiness. In truth, when we have even the slightest experience of emptiness, and we combine this with even an imagined bliss, this experience is tapping directly into the bliss and emptiness of a Buddha’s mind. See Modern Buddhism for how to meditate on the union of the emptiness taught in Sutra and the bliss taught in Tantra.

Space and creativity

Out of this fundamentally creative experience, like a rainbow arising from the sky, we can appear anything we want — pure appearance or experience arising from the ultimate bodhichitta of bliss (our compassionate bodhichitta) and the wisdom realizing emptiness. (Pure appearance doesn’t just mean visual images, BTW, it means any conventional truth arising from the experience of bliss and emptiness.) We can even arise as a Buddha in a Pure Land if we want to, spontaneously suffused with those blessings. We can change the movie reel of our reality, choosing the movie we want this time. About time too. All this is explained in Modern Buddhism, which is the union of Sutra and Tantra.

Treat yourself!

Do you think there is anything better we could do with our life than realize emptiness motivated by bodhichitta? Geshe Kelsang requests us on the back of Modern Buddhism:

I particularly would like to encourage everyone to read specifically the chapter “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”. Through carefully reading and contemplating this chapter again and again with a positive mind, you will gain very profound knowledge, or wisdom, which will bring great meaning to your life.”

You could (re)treat yourself by carving out a couple of hours this weekend or soon to read the chapter, closing your eyes and thinking about it. Everyone has access to this book now… If you don’t have the book, you can download it for free here thanks to Geshe-la’s kindness 🙂

Is something stopping you?

Finally, with Buddha Shakyamuni’s appearance in our world and his perfect instructions on emptiness, not to mention Geshe Kelsang’s constant heartfelt requests and attempts to wake us all up over the years, what is stopping us from wanting to spend all our time blissfully absorbed in emptiness?! Clearly something is or we’d be finding every opportunity to do it (perhaps you are).

Please leave your comments so I can write the next article, “What is stopping us?!”

Want quicker results from your meditation? Start where you are.

Earlier today I was drinking tea and half-watching my (borrowed) cats. One of them made her happy Meow sound at me, and I felt a sudden surge of love for her, thinking “May she find temporary and ultimate happiness.” I then felt like meditating, and my heart-mind was in just the right place for it to be a good one. Truth is, I always start my meditations by connecting to something immediately present and taking it from there, which could be why I never have any problem wanting to meditate.

Buddhist meditation is about training in happiness — authentic happiness that comes from a peaceful and positive mind as opposed to the excitement that arises from attachment and/or the ephemeral pleasant feelings from worldly pleasures that are actually changing suffering. (For more on changing suffering, see the beautiful big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.)

The Tibetan word for meditation, “gom”, literally means “to familiarize” – so meditation is familiarizing our mind with positive, beneficial ways of looking at the world and other people. We can do formal meditation sessions on our meditation seats, and — luckily for us in our crazy time-consumed lives — we can also learn to stay positive all day long whatever we are doing. We don’t have to spend hours and hours in meditation sessions or be fantastically proficient at single-pointed concentration to familiarize our mind with positivity; we simply need to watch our mind throughout the day and check that we are always coming back to our heart as a starting point of positivity and peace.

To be able to come back to a place of positivity and peace, we need to know what that feels like! In other words, we need to get happy as our first priority. Being a miserable meditator is a contradiction in terms. If you feel that you are a miserable meditator, you might want to change your approach.

Every morning before the day’s activities have fully kicked in and we have even five or ten minutes of free space, we can meditate on happiness in a meditation session. We can do this in any number of spectacular ways by meditating on the stages of the path, training the mind, or Mahamudra… slowly but surely over the years we fill a huge reservoir with blissful liberating nectar-like meditations that will always be there for us to draw upon.

But however advanced we feel we are along the spiritual path, it is always very effective to start each meditation session simply by connecting to a happy mind that we are already familiar with. (You can do the following before or after a simple traditional breathing meditation if you wish.)

If you have faith in any holy beings, you can invite them into your heart and feel that your mind flows into their cosmically blissful and loving mind like a small stream flowing into a vast ocean, and feel as blissful as you can. And/or, for example, you can manifest your mind of love, which is guaranteed to come with happiness.

We already have the seed of universal love in us and we can water it with no further ado by bringing to mind someone whom we love already. This can be anyone – a niece, your mother, your best friend, your cat or dog. Think about how lovely they are, how they look at you, and how much you want them to be happy. Allow a feeling of warmth to arise in your heart and hold it there for as long as you can. Identify with that happy affectionate feeling, thinking,

“This is me; this is part of my sky-like Buddha nature. All my agitated, unpeaceful states of mind are not me — they are like clouds in the sky, not the sky itself.”

Then do your meditation, however long or short it is, from that starting point. What a big difference it makes! In other words, use what you have inside already, which is a lot. Don’t feel the results you seek are somewhere else and you need to strain in contemplation and meditation to bring them about. That dualistic way of meditating is no fun and sooner or later you’ll tire of it as it is like trying to sail to an ever-receding horizon.

Then throughout the busy day, check just one thing: “Am I happy?” We have a motto in the Kadampa tradition:

“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”

If our mind is not happy, I think it is fair to say that we are not being mindful of any meditation object, even if we are superficially going through the motions of virtue. On the other hand, if our mind is relatively contented or happy (not excited, remember, but peaceful spacious happy), we can know for sure that we are practicing meditation and making progress.

Throughout the day we can adjust and fine-tune the mind so that we are relying upon — or only trusting — a happy mind alone. If we notice our mind becoming agitated, we know not to rely on the evidence that mind seems to present us with, because delusions distort reality like a storm destroying the accurate reflections in a still ocean. We can pause for a few valuable minutes to reconnect to whatever can instantly bring us joy, such as love for our dog with those big brown eyes. And then carry on.

Talking of dogs, my close friend and excellent Buddhist teacher uses the analogy of taking a dog for a walk. The main part of your attention is on walking along, enjoying the scenery and getting to where you have to go, but one part of your mind is always aware of what the dog is up to. It is possible that he will need to be called to heel before he wreaks destruction in someone’s flower bed or eats a pigeon. In the same way, in our daily life we need to focus on what needs to be done at work and so on, but with one part of our mind we are checking to see whether or not we are happy and, if we’re not, we can do something about that.

Comments most welcome! Please share this article if you like it.

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