Change our thoughts, change our world

Let’s say a gardener wants to grow some plants, so he pays attention to the seeds, watering and fertilizing them, and sure enough little seedlings start to spring up. But then he gets discouraged, thinking, “Stupid little seedlings! You are so weedy, nothing like the big beautiful flowers I want.” And then he stamps on them.flower Dakas

(Carrying on from this article.)

Geshe Kelsang says we should not be like this with the seedlings of our spiritual realizations. Let’s say that since you started meditating and contemplating these subjects, you have a little bit more peace than you used to. Now is the time to love that little seedling — to nourish it, protect it, appreciate it, grow it. Now is not the time to stamp on it out of discouragement or impatience.

We can identify with our potential every day, never getting discouraged, giving ourselves permission to abide with it, identify with it, be happy with it. We come more and more to associate ourselves with those feelings of transcendence and inner freedom, however nascent.

Give ourselves time

To do this, by the way, we need to find at least some time each day to meditate on peace and clarity or we will clearly find it hard to become familiar with it.

We also can let the blessings in, they automatically give us some space and perspective. We can pray whenever we like to whomever we perceive to be a holy omniscient being who is looking after us, we can feel our peace connected to their peace, we can take refuge in that. Our inner peace is never different from enlightenment, for our peace is far more realistic than our delusions, and what is enlightenment other than reality? Recognizing this, we can naturally receive even more blessings. 

textingThen if we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed during the day, we can give ourselves a few minutes in the rest room to reconnect to this increasingly familiar clarity and serenity. There are plenty of natural pauses in the day if we know how to use them – if instead of pathologically filling them up with texting, FOMO, etc, we go in confidently toward the heart instead. For our heart is our true home and resting place, where gradually we will come to see that we already have everything we need.

Mindfulness

Then whenever anger or self-disparagement arises, we acknowledge it, but we know there is such a lot more to me because I‘ve seen it, and I remember it. (This is mindfulness.) I know it’s there. I am on a forward progression. I know where I’m headed. These feelings are not going to stop me in my journey even if, for now, they insist on coming along for the ride.

We need this patience with ourselves, for over-expecting is a recipe for disappointment. How long or short it takes to fully realize our potential doesn’t matter, we just keep going, it just gets better.

Within an appreciation of who we are, we accept what comes our way, knowing that life is full of challenges, big and small, and it’s the same for everyone; we are not going to be the exception.

Turning inward

At the beginning of Great Treasury of Merit, before we get going even on breathing meditation (let alone all the beautiful Sutra and Tantra states of mind), we are advised to look at what is going on in our mind:

12376793_1011315862240332_3829193927311312144_nOne of Je Tsongkhapa’s questions was “What is the most important thing to do at the beginning of a meditation session?” The Panchen Lama replied that we should begin by examining our mind. Sometimes the mere act of examining the mind, if it is done conscientiously, will pacify our distractions. ~ page 46.

We are not papering over what is in the mind or immediately expelling it by, for example, breathing it out with the dark smoke of breathing meditation (useful as that can go on to be); but just turning inward to watch it. And this alone can reduce the distractions of delusion, especially if we do it in the ways explained in these articles.

Patient acceptance

As mentioned earlier, there are many ways to transform our painful feelings, but the first step is to learn patient acceptance with whatever is arising – accept it is there and let it be without freaking out. If we can do this — if we can tolerate the thoughts in our own mind and stop identifying with them — then we can relax and they relax too. We see that they are not as solid as we thought, that they are empty. But for as long as we are holding onto them tightly, and making them solid, how are we supposed to let them go?Cc8D6cIWwAAMICS

We have to understand and accept what is going on with our thoughts because that is what is going on. Then, once we’ve relaxed, we can use what we have seen to discover where these thoughts are coming from, what they are holding onto (including some noxious sense of ourselves), how they upset our natural peace, and how we can change them to move in a new direction.

Freedom

As soon as our thoughts change, everything changes. It is amazing sometimes, after months of battling, to see how a problem just isn’t there any more, simply because the delusion has gone. The problem felt so real, so insurmountable, but now it is no longer appearing. At those times, I think it’s important to pause to relish the liberation we feel, understanding that there is plenty more where this came from. This is both encouraging to our self-confidence (and we need that), and a way to increase our wisdom. We realize that there is nothing behind our empty thoughts, and even our thoughts are empty – free — depending as they do upon their objects.

Hope you’re enjoying these articles on mindfulness, there are a few more on their way. Meantime, I am also enjoying your comments here and on Facebook, thank you.

Feel free to change your mind

FOMOWith attachment born of ignorance we are always splitting ourselves off from our actual happiness, the happiness of our own peaceful mind. Holding onto an isolated real “self”, distanced from “other”, happiness is now necessarily separate from us, other than us.

We distance ourselves from it in time – “Oh I was so happy back THEN!” Or “I won’t be happy until I get this thing! …” Or we distance ourselves from it in terms of space – which reminds me of this FOMO thing I read about recently, “fear of missing out”. An apparent modern-day epidemic where interesting things are always going on elsewhere and we losers are most likely missing out on all the action … (as evidenced by all that fun everyone else is having on their Facebook pages). We need to make sure we are not missing out on happiness, and we may just manage to catch it if we check our social media enough times (apparently the US average is at least once an hour).

We are massively distracted these days, are we not?!

As mentioned in this article, however, meditating on the nature of our own mind pacifies distractions very well.

What is a distraction?

The definition of distraction is “A deluded mental factor that wanders to any object of delusion”. We are constantly distracting ourselves from our meditations, and from our happiness, and from our actual nature and potential.

Interestingly, however, there are no objects of delusion from their side. For example, a person is only an object of attachment when we are thinking about them with attachment.

You ever look at a photo of you and an ex-lover, for example, that you’ve seen many times, but today it looks completely different, and you can’t even recall what all the fuss was about? Why you were so bothered by them?! You feel a sense of relief, like you too are a different person. The attachment has gone – and so of course has its object. As has the attached you, the subject.

FOMO 4Soooo, if we can learn to let go of our distractions, attachments, irritations, etc, by dissolving them into the clarity of the mind, we are then free to think about others and ourselves in non-deluded ways.

When we have a delusion, eg, attachment coupled with loneliness, that delusion has both an object and a subject.  We are holding not only onto them as being real and outside the mind, as a real object of desire, but also ourself as being a real needy person who has to have them.

Likewise, if we are irritated with someone, we are holding onto both them and us in a certain fixed way. Even seeing that we have an email from them annoys us, and we are suspicious if it is somehow a nice one – why? Because we have set them up as a real irritant and we have set ourself up as a real victim who is being put upon by them, etc.

BUT, and it is a big but, if we view that person with love instead of attachment or anger, our sense of self also changes for the better. They are no longer an object of delusion, and we are no longer a deluded subject. We can identify instead with being a loving person wishing happiness to other beings — this makes us very happy, is truer to our nature, and puts us in the driver’s seat of our lives.

“People always let you down!”

We complain all the time, don’t we, “Oh people are so unreliable!” And it is true, they are — if we have delusions. People are never reliable if they are objects of our delusions. However, they are always reliable if they are objects of renunciation, love, compassion, wisdom, or pure view. So, it is up to us.

Cherishing and protecting a limited self

I want to explore this development of delusions a bit further. Let’s say we suddenly remember something someone said that we didn’t like, 5 minutes ago, or 25 years ago. (It doesn’t make much difference! It still feels real!) That person appears to our mind, and we focus on their unattractiveness and turn them into an enemy. This is unbearable, and suddenly we are in pain. Where did that come from? It just arose out of our mind.

As mentioned, with every delusion there is always an object and a subject. On the one hand, we are exaggerating the object, the unattractive appearance becoming an intrinsic source of pain. On the other hand, we are also exaggerating our self — identifying with a self who cannot handle it, who feels overwhelmed. “I can’t bear that you don’t like me, that you didn’t look at me when I wanted you to.” This very limited sense of self appears to us and we believe it, “I am a person who cannot handle criticism.” This is self-grasping.

Now we feel the need to cherish and protect this limited self, and there we are, having a problem.ignorance

An unattractive appearance arose out of our mind due to karma, and then, instead of letting it pass, we grasped at and consolidated it, got lost in it, wrote emails about it, maybe even a book. We talked to others to affirm our view or to get some help. And we can get lost in this little drama for a long time, sometimes a whole life.

This is a shame. All our problems are like this, by the way. It is similar with attachment. One moment we’re fine, the next we remember some attractive person, exaggerate their desirability and make it real, and simultaneously buy into a painful sense of a limited self, ie, “I need this person, I can’t be happy without them”. Suddenly we have a problem because that person has no interest in us! Others may agree, “Yeah, you’ve got a problem!” but it’s all created by the mind.

What happens is that we then try to solve the problem while relating to the self who sees the problem. How is that working for you?

Isn’t it Einstein who said we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it?!

We cherish that painful self that doesn’t exist, and as a result get attached to the things we think will help it and averse to the things that seem to threaten it. And so delusions are born, and the unskillful actions motivated by delusions. We keep doing this, so samsara rolls on.

This is where the meditation on the nature of the mind is so helpful. We learn this skill of recognizing that although at the moment we are caught up in the waves’ appearances, rather than the ocean, these are just the nature of the mind and if I don’t get caught up into them they’ll simply disappear.

Bad idea!

When we are relating to a painful neurotic sense of self, thinking about it obsessively, have you ever wondered how it is that no one else ever sees it?! They may even think we are fine. Is this construct of self therefore inside or outside FOMO 3the mind? If we look into this, it becomes more obvious that it is just an idea – and a bad idea at that. A private, painful idea that we’re walking around nurturing. It is a painful sense of self, but still our self-cherishing wants to nurture it, protect it, serve it.

What happens to an idea when we stop thinking about it?!

Ven Geshe Kelsang taught a wonderful analogy from Buddha’s Perfection of Wisdom Sutras of a man going to a doctor who tells him he has cancer and will soon die. Overwhelmed with anxiety and sorrow, he goes home to share the news with his family, who are all very upset too.

But then he gets a second opinion from a reliable physician who reassures him: “It is 100% guaranteed that you have no cancer.” His sorrow vanishes. His family throw a party!

The point is that this man never had cancer; he only believed he had it.

In the same way, this limited self has never existed and so it is not the problem – it is our belief in it that is the problem. Buddha is pointing out that the object of our self-grasping simply does not exist, 100% does not exist. If we realize this, we’ll relax. Profoundly relax.

If you are somewhat new to the idea of emptiness, you can think “My self is just an idea; I can let it go.”

Moreover, at the moment all our cherishing energy is circling around that self that we normally see. Once we let go of it, our cherishing energy is free to radiate to others.

Clear mind

The meditation on the nature of our own mind has many benefits, the first being that it pacifies distractions. If we understand what we are meditating on, we’ll see how that works. For perfect instructions, please consult Geshe Kelsang’s beautiful new book, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra.

The nature and function of the mind

meditation at lakeIn Geshe Kelsang’s various books and oral teachings, he has used a one-word description to point out the object of meditation, the mind itself: “Clarity”. We meditate on clarity, and the implications of that term. In particular, two things are being implied:

  • The mind is clear in that it has no form. It is the only thing that always lacks form. It is a formless awareness. A formless continuum. It has no physical properties whatsoever, it is not molecularly constituted. It has no shape, no size, no location. It has no color. You cannot touch it or squeeze it or look at it, and you cannot hear it. There’s already a lot there to contemplate. What does it mean for something to be not physical? We are looking for a non-physical thing. Or an inner empty space, as Venerable Geshe-la sometimes puts it.
  • The second implication of clarity is that it possesses power – the power to perceive, to know, to remember, to imagine, to create. The mind is like an inner empty space that is aware. It is awareness itself.

In 2000, Geshe-la said:

Mind is empty of physical form. It always lacks form. It has no color, no shape, nor any other kind of form. Yet it has so many powers. It has the power to recognize objects, to perceive objects, to understand objects, to remember objects, to perform actions. In fact everything – the world, beings, objects – is created by mind. There is no creator other than mind.

The location of the root mind

That is the pointing out instruction for this meditation. And we can also consider the location, at the heart. (This means our spiritual heart, our heart chakra, not our meaty beating heart.) This is because we are meditating on our root mind, and we experience this in our heart chakra, right in the center of our chest, halfway between the left and the right sides of our body, nearer our back than our front.

If our mind is formless, you may wonder, how can it have a location? In a way our mind is nowhere (and everywhere); but it is connected to certain energies or subtle winds in the body, and in particular our very subtle mind or root mind is connected unbreakably to the very subtle wind at the heart. (Check out Clear Light of Bliss if you want to know more.)

human conditionThis is why it can be helpful at the beginning of the meditation to drop from our head into our heart, or to do some breathing meditation to draw our awareness down into our heart, to feel we are meditating here. If we drop from our thinky head into our expansive, spacious heart, we will find it much easier already to overcome distractions; so it is good to try and do all our meditations here. It can take a bit of practice to get from the head into the heart because we are so used to being in our head — we are kind of disconnected from our hearts a lot of the time in our modern society, in exile from our hearts. This may be because we think way too much, heady stuff! But, and this is important, we mustn’t push it – we let our mind settle in the heart naturally instead.

When we hit that sweet spot, everything becomes vastly more spacious and open, less crunchy. And when we say the root mind is located in the heart, this does not mean that it is a tiny little thing in our heart. We feel we are in our heart meditating on our mind, but our mind is vast, dimensionless.

Using the example of light

Normally we latch onto objects, fixing all our attention on the objects of which we’re aware, for example the objects in this room or the objects of our thoughts. Rarely, if ever, do we concern ourselves with, “What am I aware with?”

Here is a useful analogy. When we’re walking around, we see a lot of things because of light. When the sun isn’t shining, we don’t see anything. That light is all pervasive, everywhere. It is illuminating everything. But we don’t focus on it — what we focus on are the things being illuminated. “Oh, look at the light!” we say sometimes, eg, when walking through the dappled woods. But most of the time we don’t, we only notice it relative to things eg, shining on the leaves, or brightening clouds.

dappled leavesThis is similar to the mind. Mind is all pervasive, but we don’t focus on the mind itself, we focus on the things our mind is illuminating, the various things that our mind is perceiving, or appearing. It’s worth noting here that Geshe Kelsang uses “to appear” as an active word, with the same meaning as “to perceive.” Our mind perceives or “appears” things. Things appear from the mind from the inside out, as opposed to appearing to the mind from the outside in, as it were.

The point being that, normally, just as we are not aware of the light itself, just the things illuminated, so we are not aware of the mind itself, just the things we are aware of. In this meditation, we want to become aware of the mind.

What is it that is aware?

In brief, one way to gain insight into the nature of the mind is just to focus on clarity, not worrying whether or not it is crystal clear; and, when distracted, to keep asking, “What’s aware?”, seeing in our own experience that it is also clarity. We are not in any rush to gain some experience – we are just hanging out, checking it out.

By the way, when we meditate on the mind, and indeed whenever we meditate on anything, it is good to do so gently without expectation. We are not pushing for a result or a deep insight. “I forced myself to have an insight into clarity, to see that vast vivid inner empty space I’ve heard so much about. I put myself in a headlock, twisted my arm… waterboarding myself might help next time.”

Dealing with distractions

To begin with when we are meditating we are going to be hearing all sorts of sounds and having all sorts of thoughts and sooner or later our knee is going to hurt. If we are practicing with a combative attitude, then when someone coughs, our thought is, “I wish they’d shut up.” Or “Oh no, that episode is replaying itself in my mind.” Or, “I wonder what so and so is doing today? darn, wish I didn’t have to keep thinking about them.” And so forth. But rather than pushing away or rejecting these appearances, we can just ask: “What is it that is aware of these things?” And we’ll see that that awareness is also clarity, is also mind. Just as we can use the leaves to help us see the light, so, when focusing on our mind, if a distraction arises we can use it to bounce us right back into the mind by asking ourselves, “What is it that is aware?” Appearances remind us of the mind.

VajrayoginiThat’s why this meditation helps us to pacify distractions The appearances that pop up would normally distract us away from our object, eg the breath, but now it doesn’t matter, in fact they remind us of our meditation object – for example, we can enjoy the quality of the light even though there are all sorts of leaves around.

Or, to use another example, it’s like we’re enjoying the blue sky and then some clouds appear. We don’t think, “Well, that’s it then, I can’t enjoy the blue sky any more — that cloud is freaking me out!” The clouds will eventually disperse back into the clear sky, they have nowhere else to go. If we simply hang out enjoying the clarity, gradually the distractions will disperse into the clarity as they are themselves clarity; and we’ll absorb deeper.

Hopefully, these examples are showing how we can pacify distractions without fighting. If you like, you can try the short meditation outlined in this earlier article to see if it works.

More here.

Lamrim, Lojong, and Mahamudra

sky and cloudsFirst I thought it’d be helpful to give some context for the clarity of mind meditation, and then share some thoughts on why it is so effective at pacifying our distractions.

The clarity of mind meditation is part of Sutra Mahamudra. And Mahamudra is the heart essence of the Kadampa tradition of Buddhism.

A Kadampa Buddhist is someone who:

takes all of Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and puts them into practice in their daily lives.

Buddha gave 84,000 teachings, so how do we pull that off?! By practicing Lamrim, a cycle of 21 meditations (or 14 meditations in How to Understand the Mind) that covers all the stages of the path to enlightenment. Pretty much all the meditations we will ever learn in Buddhism fit somewhere in the Lamrim cycle!

Also, as Geshe Kelsang explains in Great Treasury of Merit (page 18), Lamrim and Lojong (lit. “training the mind”, a powerful method for developing bodhichitta extracted from Lamrim and given particular emphasis) are both preliminaries for Mahamudra.

Mahamudra, a Sanskrit word, means “great seal”. In Sutra it refers to emptiness, and in Tantra to the union of great bliss and emptiness:

Mahamudra Tantra is defined as a mind of fully qualified clear light that experiences great bliss and realizes emptiness directly. ~ Mahamudra Tantra page 55

All Kadampa Buddhist meditations are explicitly or implicitly aiming at this realization of bliss and emptiness, which, when perfected, becomes omniscient wisdom, enlightened reality. With practice, we can use deeper and deeper levels of awareness to meditate, and the deepest is our very subtle mind which, when manifest, is called clear light. This mind is naturally blissful. Inconceivably blissful. Ridiculously blissful. Think of the most blissful thing you can imagine and then multiply that by infinity. More blissful than that.

Buddha seed

sky and clouds 2It is also our Buddha nature or Buddha seed – this clear light mind itself will transform into a Buddha’s mind when it is fully purified and developed. So, best of all, we already have the very subtle mind! This means we don’t need to add anything to our mind to become enlightened. We have the seeds of love, compassion, bliss, wisdom etc. – it is all there. All we need to do is grow those seeds — not add to them but grow them. And remove the obstructions that get in their way. Buddhahood is not out there anywhere. The beginnings are already right here, in our heart chakra.

As Buddha said:

If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere. ~ Mahamudra Tantra page 100

If we recognize and realize our own root mind or very subtle mind directly, we will definitely become a Buddha in this life!

Geshe-la looking at Pure LandGeshe Kelsang is always saying that we can attain enlightenment in this life. Numerous past practitioners in the Kadampa Tradition have already done this; and at the moment we have, by some karmic marvel, exactly the same methods at our fingertips. Our problem is that we don’t believe him half the time (any of the time?!)

There are many reasons for this – one perhaps being that we are not identifying with this potential but instead with a severely circumscribed sense of self. So it’s no wonder we don’t make that great of an effort, meaning we don’t get a taste, meaning we don’t develop an appetite. This meditation on the clarity of the mind luckily can also help with that! (More in a later article.)

Get control

The only hurdle right now is that we cannot access our very subtle mind, it is too deep. It manifests naturally in deep sleep and as we die, and it is even blissful when it does; but we can’t recognize or use it because, let’s face it, we can barely use our grossest levels of mind, our everyday waking consciousness. We find it hard to stay out of trouble even for one day! Because we lack mindfulness and concentration our mind controls us at the moment, not the other way around.

Still, through Buddhism in general we learn to control our gross levels of mind, our more obvious delusions; and through Tantra we learn to manifest our own very subtle mind and use that. Once we can meditate with our clear light mind, we are almost there. We are almost enlightened.

You can read about all of this properly in Mahamudra Tantra, an enlightening book in the real sense of the word.

Also, you can try out this meditation for letting a subtler or deeper level of mind emerge: Absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts.

Sutra Mahamudra

Within Sutra Mahamudra, the meditation on the nature of the mind is the access point to meditation on emptiness. We take it as our object of concentration and mindfulness. It leads us both into emptiness, and one day into the great bliss of our own clear light mind.

Even if you are a beginner, this is where this meditation is headed.  Geshe Kelsang said in 2000:

Whenever we train in using our root mind as our object of meditation, it causes our realization of the very subtle mind to ripen. In reality, this is like the preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra practice of clear light. It is very special.

It’s good to know what Buddha’s mind is and what our mind is capable of. One day, every single one of us will attain enlightenment because everyone has the potential and sooner or later everyone will learn how to do it – and this is how.

I sometimes think that if we are going to get enlightened anyway one day, why not go for it now? Haven’t we been hanging out in samsara way, way, way too long already? What are we waiting for, exactly?

I think that is enough background for now.

Pacifying distractions

sky and clouds 3The meditation on the clarity of the mind, explained briefly here, has many benefits, “incredible power and benefit” as Geshe Kelsang said in 2000. Unbelievable supramundane phenomenal benefits. Maybe some of you are thinking, “Here we go again! I know I’ve got to do this meditation, I just need to sort out my real issues and/or get through six seasons of The Wire first.” That’s why we need to keep thinking about the benefits and the faults of not getting around to this meditation.

These benefits are very precise, describing what we will experience if we meditate on the nature of mind, the first being that it pacifies distractions. And that is even for us modern people who, let’s face it, are a little distracted. I will say just a little more about that in this admittedly long article before you all get distracted.

I sometimes think of distractions as all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking, like thoughts of sadness, or annoyance, or feeling our life is meaningless, or dissatisfaction, or longing, or fear of failure, or … you know the kind of thing. They distract us away from our natural peace of mind – yet we have no choice but to think them because our mind is so out of control. One of the things we learn in meditation is to let the delusions settle or temporarily disappear so that we can then more lastingly transform our mind. Different ways are taught to settle the mind, the most common being some kind of mindfulness of breathing. However, clarity of mind meditation is even more effective. It can take us all the way to enlightenment, but already at a basic beginners’ level it enables us to more easily let go of our distractions.

Have you ever felt that your meditation involves a struggle with your distractions? “I fought the distractions and the distractions won” kind of thing? This meditation helps us adjust our whole relationship with distractions. It no longer need be one of combat. We no longer need to feel besieged or overwhelmed. We no longer have to push our distractions away.

A distraction is defined as:

A deluded mental factor that wanders to any object of delusion.

sunset cloudsWe really need to know how to pacify our minds as there is always something that is troubling us. Does a day go past when it does not? There is always something. And we try to solve our problems day by day by trying to swat away this worry, then that worry; but those worries just keep on flying at us. We need to go straight to the source of that trouble, ie, unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds, without which we’d never experience another moment of pain. We need to learn the art of letting go, we need to learn how to drop our distractions.

To know how this meditation works to overcome distractions, we can look more at the object of meditation and how to approach it in a skillful way to reap this benefit. Next installment is here. Your comments are welcome.

Postscript: about the illustrations in this article, an excuse for me to share my pictures of the Denver sky, thanks. We don’t need to fear our delusions and distractions – they are like clouds that cannot pollute, much less destroy, the clear sky of our root mind. We can learn to dissolve away our delusions by always identifying with our clear sky mind.

Be here now

photo 4 (2)Mindfulness is about the present moment, being in touch with it, not forgetting it. Presence of mind. All of Buddha’s teachings, or Dharma, help us stay in touch with the present moment. For example, with love we focus on people who are here and now, wishing them to be happy, even if they are in another country, or even deceased (they are still somewhere). With patience we wholeheartedly accept what is happening in the here and now without thinking it should be otherwise. With wisdom we appreciate the moment by moment unfurling of mere appearance, which is arising, due to karma, like waves from our root mind.

Be here now, or we are quite capable of missing out on our entire life. As John Lennon put it:

Life is what happens while we are busy making other plans.

Where else can we be other than here? What time can we be other than now?

photo 3

I’m lucky enough to be living near the Denver Botanical Gardens, and right now they are exquisite with late summer blooming and the Chihuly exhibition.* The other day I was sitting on a bench contemplating — loving just being there absorbed in the scene. A power couple marched past fast, hand in hand, furrowed brows, looking straight ahead, in earnest conversation about some plans for the future. They did not seem present, they seemed to be missing all the beauty and stillness and space around them; and it made me think that I also am often not as present as I would like, even when supposedly relaxing and enjoying myself, let alone when busy at work.

Without mindfulness we are distracted, which basically means we are remembering something else other than what is happening right here and right now. Another way to understand distraction is all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking because our mind is out of control.

Breathing meditation, focusing single-pointedly on the breath, is the way to let go of distractions. Through this, we automatically become more centered, peaceful, present, focused, and clear, and then we can transform our mind from there. Otherwise, just trying to think good thoughts on top of the dubious thoughts we already have can be just adding one layer of conceptuality on top of another.

I explain here Geshe Kelsang’s very helpful basic meditation on the breath. I just wanted to add a few more observations. photo 4

Background noise

We remember that in the context of this meditation anything other than the breath is a distraction. Distractions and stray thoughts will continue to float around for a while, until we have constant mindfulness, which is quite a high level of concentration (the fourth of the nine stages leading to tranquil abiding – you can read more in Joyful Path.)  However, we don’t have to pay them attention, any more than we have to listen to the cacophony in a crowded room when we are focusing with interest on the person talking to us.

When we hit the sweet spot of concentration on the breath, and settle there, it’s a bit like tuning in the radio to our favorite song and dispensing with the static. We don’t want to spend ages tuning that radio knob, we want to get right to it; and nor would we want to spend ages settling into the breath if we know how enjoyable it’s going to be.

photo 2

No negotiation, just single-pointed focus

We don’t negotiate with our distractions – as soon as we engage them in any way, eg, “I’ll just think you through and then you’ll go away and leave me alone”, they’ve won. Some of these stray thoughts might feel like genius, “Hey, I’ve got to remember this, what an insight!”, but, as a teacher once told me, “It is a disaster to have a notepad by your meditation seat.” We are trying to control our minds through breathing meditation, and for that we have to stay on the breath. We need presence of mind. We can set up the will power to do this from the outset by remembering what we’re trying to accomplish with breathing meditation. Then there is great hope that when the witty riposte to that annoying co-worker suddenly comes to us, we don’t indulge it.

In the Summer Festival, Gen-la Dekyong said we don’t need any fancy tricks to overcome distractions, we just need the will power, just as when we are driving. I thought this was brilliant, so simple and obvious (once it’s pointed out!) While we are driving, we want to be mindful – so we don’t have to negotiate with ourselves moment by moment, “Shall I focus on the road or shall I text my friend?” When we know what’s at stake, we naturally concentrate on what we’re doing.

No rush

It’s best to feel like we have plenty of time when we meditate. Even if we only have ten minutes before work, we can feel that we have all the time in the world, and that there is no place else to be. Everything else can wait ten minutes. Don’t meditate in a rush.

photo 5 (2)We need meditation

If someone told you to focus on your arm for five minutes without thinking about anything else, you might think, “That’s easy, I can do that!” Well, just try it.

As a child, Einstein had a club. To join it, you had to sit in the corner for an hour and not think about a white bear. As he put it himself, “There is no one in this club, not even me.”

These kinds of examples show that we have far less control over our mind than we think! This is why we need to start meditating asap.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

*I only really mentioned the botanical gardens as an excuse to scatter my Chihuly photos throughout this article.