Meditation provides the essential tool for all our practices, including the ngondro practices.
To cultivate a steady mind independent of circumstances, we must work with the mind itself. Working directly with the mind uncovers the inherent quality of meditative awareness. Each ngondro practice differs in content and approach. But in each case, we work with the mind in a deliberate way.
To know true freedom of mind, we must meditate in order to recognize the nature of mind itself. Then we will not be carried away by thoughts, emotions, and circumstances. Stormy weather or sunshine, the mind stays steady.
Awareness is the natural, innate, knowing quality of mind that is with us all the time. We cannot function without awareness; we would have no experience of anything without awareness. However, we do not always recognize it. In fact, most of the time we don’t. Meditation teaches us to recognize the awareness that we already have.
There are three types of awareness:
(1) Normal awareness — that which we experience before we learn to meditate.
(2) Meditative awareness — that which comes with the recognition of awareness itself.
(3) Pure awareness — that which occurs when our recognition deepens and we directly experience the nature of awareness.
The most pervasive quality of normal awareness is that awareness itself goes unrecognized. We remain so preoccupied and identified with every idea and image in our mind that we don’t recognize awareness itself. Awareness is always present. We cannot function without it, but we can function without recognizing it.
There are two forms of normal awareness:
(1) One is attentive and present—characteristics associated with meditation and displayed by a good shepherd watching his herd.
(2) The other form is characterized by distraction.
Neither type of normal awareness recognizes awareness itself.
We can no more be without awareness than we can be without breath—but our awareness can be covered by distractions, by the mind talking to itself, with fantasies and daydreams. Awareness may become muddied, obscured—but not gone.
On the other hand, the mind may not be lost in distracted chatter. It is aware of its subject, and there is concentration and focus. However, awareness itself goes unrecognized.
Concentration and focus do not uncover the natural, original state of our mind, which is where we find true freedom. For that, we need to recognize awareness.
Meditation requires some degree of being aware of awareness itself. We become cognizant of the quality of the mind, not just of phenomena perceived by the mind.
When we begin to meditate, supports such as images of buddhas, our breath, or a flower can be helpful. We rest our attention on the support. But just paying attention is not yet meditation.
The two critical ingredients for meditation are intention and recognition.
We start by purposely resting on the support—that’s where intention comes in.
We also stay aware of what’s happening as it happens—that’s recognition.
In other words, when we rest our attention on the breath, we don’t get completely absorbed in the experience to the point that we lose touch with everything else. We are fully conscious of the breath, but we also know that we are aware.
Let’s say that we use a flower as support for awareness. We bring attention to the object and use it to support the recognition of awareness. This is what we mean by support.
The object of meditation supports the cultivation of recognition. Shakyamuni Buddha said: “A monk, when walking, knows that he is walking; when standing, knows that he is standing; when sitting, knows that he is sitting; when lying down, knows that he is lying down.”
This knowingness, this recognition of each moment and each activity, is meditation. Once we recognize awareness, we can continue using the support if it’s helpful, but not in a focused, narrow way.
Using a support for our meditation, such as the breath or a visual form, becomes a means to a more spacious, relaxed state of mind that remains steady in the midst of the mind’s activity. If you start off using a flower for support, don’t worry about whether or not you have awareness. If you intend for the flower to support your recognition of awareness, that will happen. The intention and motivation itself will bring about the recognition.
As meditative awareness deepens, we may begin to experience what we call pure awareness. This isn’t some extraordinary state of consciousness. In fact, one of its main characteristics is that it’s completely ordinary. It’s simply the natural extension of the first glimpse of awareness that comes when we start to meditate.
However, the meditation process itself connects us not only with the presence of awareness, but with the very nature of awareness. Once we recognize this pure awareness, the entire path of awakening—including all the ngondro practices—helps nurture and stabilize this recognition, and integrates it with every aspect of our life.
Learning How to Meditate
Since awareness is always present, it may seem that we should never fail to recognize it. Yet even after we set the intention and the motivation, our efforts might slide right off the tracks and leave us frustrated: “It sounds so simple, why can’t I do it?”
Because for all our intellectual understanding, we don’t really get just how simple it is, and we continue to stick with misguided views.
These views all share one misunderstanding: the belief that there is something wrong with the present moment. Maybe our meditation space isn’t quiet enough, maybe it’s too hot or too cold; maybe we have too many thoughts or too many emotions, or we think that we don’t have the right thoughts and feelings. Whatever comes up, we identify a problem with the present moment.
As we begin to experiment with uncovering aspects of the mind that we have not encountered before, once we set our intention, whatever happens is OK. We simply notice what arises and let it go. We do not fixate on it, or hold it in place, or judge it. We just watch the parade of thoughts and emotions as if we were standing on a viewing platform.
Rather than trying to construct an idealized mental or physical environment for meditation, the very best support takes advantage of our own body.
The Buddha said that our body is like a cup, our mind like water. When the cup is still, the water is still. When the cup moves, the water moves.
Quieting the body supports our efforts to work with the mind, making posture the first important step in learning how to meditate.
Having a particular area for meditation can be helpful, but don’t think, “Oh, I don’t have a meditation room with a perfect shrine and a picture window overlooking a waterfall.” Attachment to the perfect meditation place is just a distraction or an excuse.
We work with whatever situation we’re in. If we have a clean, quiet place, great—wonderful. If we live in a dirty, chaotic city, no problem. People practice meditation in jails, army barracks, homeless shelters, and hospitals.
The essential point is to work with our mind.
Anything else—favorable or unfavorable conditions—can be used in service to our practice. The biggest support for working with our mind is not an external location, but our own body.
We already know the connection between body and mind: when the body loses energy through sickness, our mind loses energy, too. If we have a cold or a headache, we might say, “I cannot think straight.” If the mind is troubled by rejection, the body too feels dejected, as if beaten down by life. With a happy experience such as a romance or a promotion, the body blossoms with confidence. Yet generally people might not be sensitive to how much the body can support the mind in meditation.
To develop a posture that supports our practice, we rely on a classic set of guidelines called the seven-point posture. The guidelines cover:
(3) Upper Arms
(5) Neck and Head
This posture symbolizes the qualities of enlightened form. The guidelines stabilize the body, create a foundational support for the mind, and bring into alignment the energy channels that help the mind stay alert, open, and relaxed.
Because each person’s body is different, each posture needs some experimentation. Don’t try to sit for long periods in the beginning. It’s more beneficial to hold a strong position for a short time—five or ten minutes, which can be increased slowly—than to spend forty minutes fidgeting or feeling distracted by discomfort or pain.
The Seven-Point Posture
Sit on the floor with your legs crossed. Most people sit on a cushion to raise their bottoms a few inches higher than their knees. This creates a three-point base of support, which provides a sense of rootedness in the ground and lends strength to the upper body.
If physical obstacles make it too difficult to sit on the floor, then a chair is fine, but keep your back straight and your knees at the same level as your hips. To create a level line, you can place a pillow on the chair to lift your body, or place a pillow under your feet.
The feet should feel firmly planted on the ground. You want a posture that creates a sense of strength and courage, not in an aggressive way, but not passive either.
When you sit on the floor, there are several different styles for crossing your legs:
(a) The vajra posture (also known as the full-lotus posture) offers the most stable base: the left foot rests on the right thigh and is closest to the body. The right foot rests on the left thigh. Not many Tibetan people use this position.
(b) Most meditators use the half-lotus posture, with one foot resting on the opposite thigh.
Or both legs are on the floor, one folded close to the body, and the other outside of it.
All these leg postures support the back and help counter restlessness in the body and the mind.
For people who did not grow up sitting on the floor or sitting cross-legged, these postures can be difficult or even painful. With time, this can change. Stretching exercises can help, and practice itself will increase the capacity for these postures.
But meditation is not a competitive sport. Sitting in the full-lotus posture should not become like the finish line at the end of a hundred-meter sprint. Intention is more important than posture, intention, and sincerity. So, experiment with genuine intention, and do the best you can.
The hands rest on the lap, or are held between the lap and the navel.
The lower hand rests palm up, and the other rests on top of that, also palm up. It doesn’t matter if the right hand or the left is on the bottom. In the formal position, the thumbs just slightly touch, forming a kind of oval-shaped mudra.
The hands can also be placed palms down on the knees. For someone with long legs and short arms, this may create tension in the forearms or shoulders. In this case, slide the hands back until they can rest on the thighs without tension.
(3) Upper Arms
Leave a little space between the upper arms and the sides of the torso.
To get the feel of this, imagine cradling an egg a few inches below your armpit. This helps keep the chest open and expansive.
Traditionally this posture is called “holding arms like the wings of a vulture.” But don’t raise your shoulders and bring the elbows out as if you’re about to flap your wings. This will create unbearable tension. Most importantly you want to give the chest maximum breathing room and not restrict it in any way, so don’t squeeze in with your arms.
Keeping the back straight is most important.
If your back is slumped, your chest will cave in and contribute to a slumped mental state with a mind that is not fully alive to its own capacities. Also, this mind is most vulnerable to sleep.
If the back is hunched over, then the channels in the body become blocked, creating restlessness and discomfort.
A back that is too rigid tends to be held in place with a tense body and a tense mind. This is exhausting. A person may sit in what looks like upright perfection for a while, but then suddenly fall over asleep, worn out from the effort of holding the posture too stiffly.
Tibetans say, “Do not sit as if you swallowed a yardstick.” Remember that each body and each spine is different. Tibetans compare the straight spine in the meditation posture to a pile of coins stacked in a straight line, or to vertebrae that are as straight as an arrow. But all spines have natural curves that must be taken into account. So “straight” is not an objective description of how your spine should be.
Straight means your own position for perfect balance.
(5) Neck and Head
When you allow the spine its natural forward bend at the neck, then the head will find its own resting place on the neck—not too far back or too far forward. Usually this is just a slight inclination, a tip of the chin toward the throat, which lengthens the neck.
For people new to meditation—and even for long-time practitioners—the mind in meditation often vacillates between agitation and dullness.
If the head falls too far forward, the result is dullness and sleepiness.
If the chin is slightly raised or is jutting out, this generally indicates too much discursive thinking or mental agitation.
Finding the right physical balance in the body will help counter these two tendencies in the mind.
To assess the correct alignment, hold an orange in one hand at about the height of your mouth, palm down; place the other hand, palm up, below the navel. Then just open the upper hand and release the orange. If the alignment is correct, the orange will land in the palm of the lower hand.
When you relax the muscles around the mouth and the jaw, both the upper and lower teeth and the lips tend to part slightly. This is the resting position of the mouth. Then allow the tip of the tongue to rest at the top of the palate, where the palate and upper teeth meet.
You can breathe through the mouth, through the nose, or through both.
Some meditation traditions suggest closing the eyes. Those new to meditation often find this the easiest way to eliminate distractions, but some problems may arise from this.
As you journey forth, you want to work with your mind in all circumstances and situations. Having the perfect cushion, the nice shrine, and even these suggestions for how to sit, how to hold the spine and the hands—all are time-tested supports for learning how to work with your mind. You cannot afford to discard these traditional aids.
But your goal is not to maintain a perfected meditation posture like a stone buddha. If you only practice in situations that are removed from daily life, or if you remove yourself through techniques such as closing your eyes, you may create obstacles in your ability to integrate your practice with everyday activities.
For this reason, I suggest that you experiment with keeping your eyes open. Three different gazes can be used when the eyes remain open:
(1) In the first, the gaze is down, lightly resting about two to three feet in front of the body.
(2) The second method is to look forward in a normal everyday way.
(3) The third method is to slightly raise the gaze.
It’s very good to alternate these styles. Using only one of the eye positions for a long time can become quite boring or tiring, while changing the eye position can revitalize the meditation. Also, don’t try to control blinking your eyes. When you blink, just blink. Trying to control blinking creates tension.
Tips for Meditation
Find a position you can hold for at least twenty minutes without moving. If you have to work up to this, fine. Hold the position for one minute or five minutes. Then increase it a minute every day. It’s helpful to pick an amount of time to meditate and stick with it, so that you do not spend your meditation asking: “Can I stop now? Is this enough pain? Is this too much pain?” Committing to holding a posture for one minute outweighs the benefits of twenty minutes of mental wiggling.
Once you have chosen a particular posture for your meditation session, take a moment to do a body scan for tension. Check on the jaw, the mouth, the neck, and the position of the chin. Try to release any tension.
Pay close attention to the shoulders. Often you need to pull them down in a self-conscious effort.
Check for tension in the hands, the fingers, the back, and the ankles.
Make whatever adjustments are necessary for stability and comfort. Try to relax 100 percent. This means that whatever you experience is allowed. If you still have some tension left in your body, that’s OK.
More important than a relaxed body is a relaxed mind, so do your best with your posture and then let your mind relax.
If you approach meditation as a sports competition or as a big-deal project, the body develops tension. If you associate meditation with sauna-style relaxation, then your body might cave in and you might fall asleep. The midpoint between loose and tight is what you want for your body and your mind.
The Two-Point Meditation Posture
When practicing meditation off your cushion, or if your circumstances only allow for practice while waiting in line or walking down the street or riding a bus, then you have the two-point instruction:
(1) Keep your back straight, and
(2) Keep your muscles relaxed.
Meeting the Monkey-Mind
People new to meditation commonly report that the minute they sit down, their minds speed up, and even more thoughts than usual flood in. This is the effect of meeting the monkey-mind, the mind that chatters uncontrollably, flitting here and there.
We might approach meditation with the expectation that our mind will become calm and serene, but when we sit down to meditate it’s as if we just drank espresso. The mind seems to fly in a dozen different directions, from food to fame, to winning a lottery ticket to buying a flashy car to eating an organic hamburger. It might feel like a roller-coaster ride—wild, crazy, and maybe even a little scary.
Actually this is a good sign, because the monkey-mind always acts this way, naturally caffeinated and kind of high-strung. That is monkey-mind’s habit. We just never noticed it before.
If we bring a monkey into a nice shrine room, within minutes the fancy Chinese silk will be shredded, water bowls will be thrown onto the floor, cushions will be torn apart, and everything will be made topsy-turvy as the monkey flits from one object to another.
This may not be such a flattering picture, but this is how our mind tends to function—never resting, reaching out toward one object after another, messing things up, and racing from here to there.
When we attentively engage in physical or mental work, like building a house, preparing for an exam, or doing our income taxes, we keep the monkey at the door.
But with a lot of free time, the monkey usually takes over. I once heard about a man who had been in solitary confinement for years and who had just been released after new DNA tests proved his innocence. He said of being alone in a cell: “Having only yourself for company is the worst company you could ask for.” This expresses the anguish of a mind torturing itself, without the relief of external distractions—let alone meditation.
The monkey cannot stand being out of a job, so to keep itself busy, it keeps the mind spinning.
Let’s say at the end of the month you discover that your bank statement is different from your own calculations by one dollar. The monkey is so happy! It convinces you to study all the statements and track down where the mistake occurred. Once you solve that problem, another arises.
In private interviews, I hear about problems with family members, partners, and employers. When you listen, the problems sound so small. But if you think about that problem again and again, it gets bigger and bigger. Making a mountain out of a molehill is the monkey’s specialty. This is the nature of the restless monkey-mind.
Generally, we do not observe the mind itself, so this encounter with the monkey can be confusing. But actually we are beginning to recognize awareness and all the thoughts, feelings, and impulses that are constantly moving through it.
If people come to meditation in order to get rid of thoughts, this encounter with the monkey-mind might be disheartening. But we do not have to get rid of the monkey-mind.
Ignoring this thought-factory never works, and suppressing it is impossible.
But we can befriend it. How do we do this? By hanging around. We’re not aggressive. We do not try to conquer or control our new friend, but if we want to get to know its qualities, we have to stay present for the encounter.
When we begin to meditate, no matter what style or tradition we follow, we will surely meet the monkey. But with awareness meditation, we give the monkey a constructive job to do.
Saljay Rinpoche compared our monkey-mind to the boss of a company, whose job is to make everyone work as much as possible, 24–7. The mind that bosses us around doesn’t let up. It constantly pushes us to think about one thing after another, without interruption, and mostly without any significant consequences. All these mind-activities are like the dozens of workers employed by the company, enslaved to whatever the boss dictates, while we, the servants, have no idea how to negotiate a better deal because we’re convinced that we are the boss, not the slave.
Our identification with the monkey-boss turns us into an ego slave: “Here is chocolate; I love chocolate! I must have it. I hate spinach! I like that fellow. I don’t like that one. That car is ugly. That one is beautiful.”
The monkey yanks the mind this way, now that way. This mind looks like turbulent waves on the surface of the lake without rest or tranquillity. We rush to respond from one order from the monkey-boss to the next. We might even think, “Wait a second! Maybe I could boss that monkey around once in a while!” But we do not know how.
Then Saljay Rinpoche explained that like and dislike, acceptance and rejection, aversion and attraction—all the messages that the monkey uses to keep us in a state of turmoil—are projections. These projections filter sense data, which then create attitudes that we superimpose onto the objects of our senses.
In this way, a smell is hardly ever just a smell, but a pleasing, aromatic sense experience that attracts us, or an unpleasant smell that triggers aversion. Birds make attractive sounds, barking dogs do not. These reactions respond to preconceived attitudes and ideas, not to the actual situation or object. “We are always responding to the projections, but we do not know how to work the projector,” said Saljay Rinpoche. “The projector is the monkey-mind, the boss.
It will not help to hate the monkey. That just traps the mind in negativity and gives the monkey more power. Trying to lock the monkey away will not work because it will always figure out how to escape. But do not become a slave to the monkey-mind.
The trick is to give the monkey-mind a job. Monkey-mind loves jobs, loves to work, and loves to keep busy. You make the monkey-mind your employee, and you become the boss.”
In the beginning of our dharma practice, the monkey cannot work at the same task for long. It gets bored and restless, and reverts to making a mess.
In order for us to stay in control, we not only give the monkey a job, but we change tasks frequently enough to keep it engaged.
As we gain more control, we can train the monkey to work for us full-time. But that doesn’t happen overnight, and so Saljay Rinpoche encouraged his students to keep the intention set on the recognition of awareness, but then to switch the methods of meditation and to shift the supports.
When we practice ngondro, we can alternate our supports for awareness. We can move from using the breath for support, to looking at a flower or listening to a sound.
And what happens when our monkey-mind pops up screaming, “Pay attention to me! We must replay this past episode and anticipate the future”? If we are using the breath for support, we come back to the breath. Without judging ourselves, without getting discouraged or feeling hopeless, we just come back to the breath and get on with it.
Various forms of shamata, or awareness meditation, teach us how to uncover our innate qualities of mind, and the most common will use the breath to support our recognition of awareness. This works with feeling sensation.
Breath is the most common support because it is available in all circumstances and conditions, which explains why we so often hear, “Come back to the breath.” If we (1) get lost in discursive thinking, if we (2) get lost inside a past experience or (3) disappear into a black hole of anger or jealousy: “Come back to the breath.”
The nature of the breath makes it the most reliable support, especially for new students.
Let’s try meditating using the breath as support for awareness.
But first, before purposely doing any particular meditation exercise, it’s good to start with just resting your mind. Just that. For now, remain in whatever informal posture you are in. To get a sense of how it feels to rest the mind, think about how you rest in daily life.
If you jog for a few miles, what happens when you stop or take a break? Imagine cleaning the house for an hour or two, and then stopping to rest. Imagine that first moment of taking a break. Or imagine coming home to an apartment tower in Hong Kong or Minneapolis and learning that the electricity has gone off. The generators aren’t working, so you have to walk up two flights of stairs, or maybe ten or twenty. Finally, you reach your apartment, get a glass of water, and sink into the couch. Aaahhh. Something like that. Think of an activity that requires extra effort, and then practice a silent version of this release. Just rest. Just relax the mind, even for a few seconds. Aaahhh. Try that. Then rest. Rest for a few more seconds. Then come out of resting. How was that?
Now I have one big secret: resting the mind this way is meditation. Yet if I say that beforehand, you might start off with some big expectation and become tense and anxious, and that’s not helpful.
Yet that sense (1) of resting, (2) of allowing whatever arises to just be, (3) without trying to control anything, that mind of “aaaaaahhhhhhhhh” comes close to natural awareness. We call this “open awareness” or “shamata without support.”
When I say that this mind comes close to open awareness, I mean that without the intention to meditate, you will not benefit much from just the experience. Motivation and intention help you realize awareness.
But if you infuse your intentions with too much hope and expectation, they may lead to disappointment. You want to combine your purposeful intention with the relaxed mind of resting.
This exercise can be repeated many times.
Don’t try to hold on to the awareness. When you find your mind wandering, just come back to the exercise and start again. Now let’s try a more formal approach to meditation. The practice is shamata, or awareness meditation. We use our breath as the object that supports our awareness.
An Awareness Meditation with the Breath
(1) Sit in a relaxed posture with your back straight.
(2) Your eyes can be open or closed.
(3) Take a minute or two to rest in open awareness. Perhaps bring to mind that feeling of sinking into a chair to rest after strenuous exertion: aaahhh.
(4) Now breathe normally through your mouth, nose, or both.
(5) Bring your awareness to your breath as it flows in and out.
(6) At the end of the out-breath, rest your awareness in the gap that comes naturally before the next inhalation.
(7) If your mind wanders, simply bring it back to the breath.
(8) Continue this for five to ten minutes.
(9) Conclude the exercise with resting in open awareness.
Breath is the most common object of awareness for people new to meditation.
But you can use anything that arises in your experience to support awareness: forms, sounds, smells, tastes, or sensations.
You can choose an external object such as a flower, a statue, burning incense—anything at all.
You repeat all the first steps as you did above, including taking a few minutes to rest in open awareness.
You use this to gather your body and mind.
If you have chosen a form, then just rest your eyes lightly on the form. There is no need to investigate, analyze, judge, or assess what you see. You are just seeing. If you have chosen a sound, then just listen.
Don’t try to block other sensory experiences, such as nearby movement, sounds, smells, or changes in temperature. All your senses are open. You can accommodate your recognition of any sense experience while maintaining a steady awareness of the object that you have chosen. You might want to try this for five or ten minutes at a time.
Even at the beginning stages of meditation, you can experiment with allowing your awareness to shift from the object to awareness itself. This might happen naturally, yet you still need to know that it’s fine to allow for it, so that you don’t try to block this shift. You may naturally fall into what is called open awareness—awareness that does not use an object to steady itself. Then when the mind wanders, you come back to the object as a way of steadying your recognition of awareness.
With more practice, you can learn to rely on daily life experiences for meditation. You are not restricted to ideas that you might have about supports or about place, or the appropriate time or posture for your practice. You become freed from attempts to “concentrate” or “focus,” and you trust more in a spacious, relaxed awareness that allows you to accommodate all of your experience and to use everything toward the endeavor to awaken.
Even when you work with the breath, try to make the shift from focusing on the breath to being aware of the breath. Whatever object you choose for “shamata with an object,” you try to make the shift from the object of support to awareness itself.
Once you can steady the mind on the nature of awareness, you might drop the object altogether. This becomes shamata without object, which is the same as open awareness.
You practice open awareness with 100 percent relaxation, meaning that whatever arises is perfect just the way it is. You just let the monkey-mind do its crazy monkey-mind thing. The monkey doesn’t need to relax. The monkey does not know how to relax. That’s its nature. The monkey might be running wild or taking a nap. But you are no longer one with the monkey. You are one with awareness. If you relax 200 percent, then you get pulled in one of two directions: you try so strenuously to force relaxation that you become more tense, or you become so loose that you slump over and fall asleep. So 100 percent is just right.
Every time you begin meditation, it’s helpful to start with open awareness. Just rest the mind for a few minutes. Just rest.
Here’s another secret: You know the real obstacle to resting meditation? It’s too simple. There’s no “wow” experience, there’s nothing added, and there’s no work to do. It’s as close as the tip of your nose, meaning it’s too close to see. Sometimes teachers tell us: “Stop meditating.” This does not mean to give up awareness, but rather: “Don’t use a flashlight in the sunshine.”
Assuming that we’re inherently insufficient, we use the mind’s equivalent of a flashlight to improve on the sun. Open awareness is like space. We speak of space and refer to it, but actually we don’t recognize it. We only see what is in space.
When we do talk about seeing space, we usually mean the valley, table, tree, or something that brings definition or perspective to an area, but not to space itself.
In the same way that we might not believe in the benefits of recognizing space, the practice of open awareness tends to lack credibility. We don’t really believe in its benefits, like the idea that we do not value what comes free. We seem to need to pay a price to guarantee value.
With meditation, we pay this price with exercises that actually require more work than open awareness does: awareness with objects. Here the mind cannot just rest with no job to do; it must extend itself to specific sense objects for supports.
It is always good to begin any meditation exercise with a minute or two of open awareness. This connects us to our basic state of mind. Even if the winds of anxiety, fear, anger, or jealousy churn up the surface of a lake, underneath it remains clear and calm. It is very important to understand this, because too often we think, “I am too agitated to meditate.” Or “My anger or jealousy is destroying my equanimity.”
Nothing can destroy our equanimity. We can lose touch with it, but it cannot be destroyed. How wonderful! However, we have not yet developed enough connection with our basic awareness to trust in its reliability—or even in its existence. If we are in a rage or stuck inside a knot of passion, we tend to experience it as all-consuming, as if the lake had turbulent waves at the bottom as well as on the surface. But it’s not like that.
We have this pristine, clear, luminous awareness when we are happy and when we are sad, when we are angry or depressed, or when we are joyful and energetic. Awareness is not tied to emotions or thoughts. It’s not contingent on circumstances or conditions.
Connecting to this awareness is essential for understanding what we mean by “basic goodness.” This awareness has no solidity, no fixity, and no measurement, yet it remains the ground of our being.
We have this awareness no matter how chaotic or preoccupied our mind is, no matter how much the monkey controls the show. This is why we say that we do not have to get rid of our negative thoughts or push them away. If we bring conscious awareness to the forefront of mental activity, the monkey-mind automatically loses its power.
Most of us have experienced being driven crazy by our thoughts. “If only I could stop thinking about that person. That incident. That fight with my boss, with my partner . . .” Endless thoughts, even when they lead to no benefit, just circling around like bees in a jar. Once these thoughts are identified as the problem, we want to get rid of them.
Thoughts can be a great ally to meditation, but we tend to make them our enemies. We think that during meditation, anything is better than having thoughts. “All day long I am thinking, thinking. But in meditation I can hang out in the deep, pure, thoughtless void. Bliss. Nothingness. Pure. Peaceful. How wonderful.”
Then what happens? Our mind spins as much during meditation as at other times. At that point, instead of realizing our hopes of bliss and peace, we start a little war with our thoughts: “Bad thoughts! Go away!”
Many strategies exist to annihilate thoughts, such as drinking alcohol, using drugs, overeating, needless shopping, or surfing the Internet—activities that narrow the mind through addiction and compulsion. Nowadays many people have the idea that meditation offers an effective, sane way to get rid of unwanted thoughts. Many people think that the goal of paying attention to a flower, for example, is to suppress or push away thoughts. This might work for a few seconds, but when we release our tight focus on the object, the thoughts flood right back into our mind. There is no lasting or transformative benefit.
Meditation does offer a sane way to work with our mind. But we do not meditate to get rid of thoughts. This is the number one misunderstanding.
Thinking, like breathing, is a natural activity. Trying to impose an artificial blankness is the exact opposite of how we work with the natural clarity of mind.
An incident from my first days at Sherab Ling introduced me to making friends with thoughts. At that time, the monastery was still more like old Tibet than modern India.
There was no indoor plumbing, and it took several minutes to walk from my room to the bathroom. One day I tried to push open the window above the toilet, but it was stuck. I started banging on the window, until suddenly it flew open and slammed into the outside wall, cracking the glass. My anxieties went out of control. I was afraid that people at the monastery would not like me, that they would think I was stupid, that my attendant and tutors would be angry with me, and that when my great crime was discovered I would be scolded. For two days I said nothing, and no one said anything to me. But the cracked glass was all I thought about.
Then I decided that before anyone noticed the broken window, I should turn myself in. I described the situation to the manager of maintenance, who said, “No problem.” He then explained that the window was old, and the wooden frame was rotted and needed to be replaced anyway. I left him feeling quite relieved. Soon, however, thoughts of my bad deed returned. When I was studying dharma texts, the image of cracked glass would suddenly appear and I would panic. The image haunted me, and my heart would speed up. I tried to get rid of it. Impossible. Then I would scold myself: “Don’t be so stupid. Even the maintenance manager said it was not a problem.”
Finally, I explained my situation to Saljay Rinpoche and asked, “Can I get rid of my thoughts?” Saljay Rinpoche told me, “You cannot get rid of your thoughts. But that’s OK. You do not have to. Maybe your thoughts can become your best friend. You can learn to make thoughts your allies.”
I did not fully understand, but I got this much: the difference between treating my thoughts as friends and treating them as enemies defined the difference between happiness and suffering. I still did not understand how to make friends with my thoughts. But I began to understand that trying to defeat these thoughts or wipe them out actually maintained the intensity of both the situation and the suffering. Normally our monkey-mind is in the driver’s seat. One thought leads to another and we cannot stop them, and often they drive us crazy.
When we cultivate awareness, we no longer fall into the river. Awareness itself allows us to stand at the river’s edge without getting sucked into the current. We are liberated from the tyranny of the monkey-mind. Thoughts are still there. They may be quiet or turbulent, focused or wild and scattered. But we have stopped identifying with them.
We have become the awareness, not the thoughts. With the recognition of awareness, we can stand back and watch thoughts, and know that we are watching them.
We no longer need to get rid of them because they are no longer pushing us around. Identifying with our natural awareness, and not the thoughts, dissolves their destructive power.
Using Thoughts as Support for Meditation
When we start to meditate, the breath or a bell or a flower are the most common objects of support. When our mind wanders, we come back to these supports.
But there is another option: using thoughts themselves to support the recognition of awareness. When we stay aware of our thoughts, we do not follow the story line, and we do not get pushed around by the monkey-boss, but instead we simply remain non-reactively watchful of the thoughts passing through the mind.
Let’s try doing this. Start with watching your thoughts as if they were a fly buzzing around your head. You keep your eyes open and jerk your head to the left, to the right, up and down, all the time watching monkey-mind quickly zip from one thought to another. Yada, yada, yada, pizza, plans, partner, airplane tickets, watching, watching. Try doing that for a few minutes. Many people find this exercise quite difficult, even though we are merely continuing what actually goes on in our mind most of the time.
But when we put the process under the looking glass, we seem to freeze up. Watching the crazy monkey-mind in an intentional manner tends to break the patterns, making the exercise difficult.
Now let’s try a somewhat more formal meditation using our thoughts as the object of support.
A Meditation Using Thoughts as Support for Awareness
(1) Sit in a relaxed posture with your back straight.
(2) Your eyes can be open or closed.
(3) Take a minute or two to rest in open awareness.
(4) Then allow thoughts to arise. Bring your awareness to the thinking itself. Observe your thoughts with awareness. Don’t try to change the thoughts or “try” to make them disappear. Just turn toward your thoughts with awareness. Don’t try to analyze, interpret, or judge your thoughts. Simply observe them.
(5) If thoughts disappear naturally, rest in open awareness.
(6) When thoughts return, simply use them as the support for your awareness.
(7) If you get carried away by thoughts, then gently bring the mind back to the process of just staying aware of thoughts.
(8) Try this for five to ten minutes.
(9) Conclude with resting in open awareness.
For many people, trying to stay aware of thoughts tends to make thoughts disappear. This is fine. Let them go. Don’t put energy into holding on to them. In fact, often this inability to hold the thoughts leads to open awareness, so just let that happen.
But the effect of this meditation over time is that even when your thoughts remain, they do not carry you away. Awareness channels the power of the monkey-mind in a different direction. As long as you are just watching thoughts and not getting sucked into the current, this is meditation. You are following your own orders to practice awareness.
In this way, you use thoughts to liberate yourself from thoughts. Thoughts do not stop. But you can stop rushing after them. The recognition of awareness now defines your mind, which reduces ego-fixation and clinging.
Anything that helps dissolve a solid sense of self or of an independent “I” works to your benefit. The mind that recognizes awareness is no longer “all about me.”
Placing awareness on awareness itself means that we stop identifying with and rushing toward the mind-movements of our thoughts and emotions.
When this happens, we can speak of remaining steady in any circumstance. That includes mental and physical circumstances, inside and outside circumstances. We can remain steady in the midst of a storm or in sunshine, or in the midst of pleasant or unpleasant sensations, wanted or unwanted thoughts, constructive or destructive emotions.
Setting the Intention
Whatever practice you do, specifying the motivation is crucial.
If you set a round object on a hill, such as a car tire, it will roll downward.
Realizing awareness works the same way: once you set your intention, the mind will go in that direction.
The target is not the object; awareness is the object.
This is why you call the “object” your support. You use it as a tool to access the mind of awareness.
Once you use your support to collect the mind, you set your intention, and then allow for a shift from object to awareness.
Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche used to tell me, “Whatever practice you do, the most important aspect is awareness. Awareness has everything. Once you recognize awareness, all the practices become important. If you have not realized awareness, then even if you practice all sorts of wonderful special or advanced methods, it will not really help your realization.”
Don’t worry if your mind wanders. Don’t judge yourself, or get angry, or think you are alone. Everyone’s mind wanders. That’s fine. When you get entangled with your thoughts, come back to your support—the breath or whatever you have selected. You wander away. You come back. This is how you learn. Coming back to the object—for example, the breath—provides the support you need to steady the mind so that you can recognize awareness.
When you use meditation to become aware of the breath, the mind that pays attention to the breath automatically realizes awareness.
To put it another way: using an object as support allows awareness to realize itself.
You do not have to push your mind away from the support. That will happen naturally, but you must allow for it by not fixating on the object and by maintaining the intention to recognize awareness.
Meditation is a mind-activity. Everywhere the mind goes, the opportunity for meditation exists. The idea that meditation is something that we only do sitting on a cushion in a particular way or at a particular time has created a lot of confusion.
Yet if we can recognize awareness anywhere, anytime, we may ask why we make such a big deal out of meditation, with our cushions and mats and seven-point posture.
The answer is that we have developed a very strong identification with our monkey-mind. In order to shift our identity to our natural awareness, we need aids, supports, and methods. We all need these strategies, but don’t confuse them with the true meaning of meditation. We are not training in order to learn about objects. We are training to learn about our mind, because our mind holds the source of all possibilities—good and bad, happy and sad, sane and neurotic.
Freedom exists within our very own heart and mind. The biggest obstacle for my own ngondro students is that they think that ngondro and meditation are two separate practices. They are not.
My students are always saying things like, “Actually I prefer meditation practice to doing prostrations or mantra.”
Once we start our path of dharma, every practice is an awareness practice. As we progress, every activity is an awareness practice—or at least an opportunity to practice awareness. Every waking moment provides this opportunity. To remain steady in the midst of chaos or contentment is a reasonable description of our goal.
But we need to make a distinction between process and result. The process of recognizing awareness definitely affects the monkey-mind. Our ordinary mental activity will not be as scattered and reactive as it might have been before. Cultivating the recognition of awareness definitely tends to result in a quieter mind. Yet our approach is to keep recognition of awareness as our target, and then to allow whatever happens to happen. This intention is of utmost importance. And actually, what tends to happen—when we allow it to—is that our mind settles down.
But we do not focus on becoming calm or pursuing a specific result. If we fixate on remaining calm, we cannot know this calmness in a lasting way.
But if we cultivate a sustained recognition of awareness, we comprehend that awareness itself is inherently calm.
This is the nature of awareness, no matter how turbulent our mind becomes. The steadfast calm of awareness is always with us. This allows us to discover a sense of peace and stability that is not dependent on the presence or absence of pleasant or unpleasant feelings. Once we get a taste of this, our mind naturally quiets down.
In this way, even though being calm is not the target, nonetheless it is the result.
With practice, we access the calm awareness within the turbulence of our mind.
Once we shift our perspective and stabilize our intention, even painful thoughts and feelings can function as pathways to this recognition.
This leads to a tremendous confidence in our ability to work with whatever arises. In the midst of internal or external turmoil, we trust in the flawless reliability of our own awareness.
Step by Step
Dharma practice develops gradually.
Let’s say that our first experience of seeing the moon is a flat, two-dimensional picture shown to us by a friend. Our friend describes the shape, the color, and the qualities of the moon. These are like the words that describe dharma to beginners. We use concepts to point beyond concepts.
Normally when we begin, our understanding of dharma involves words, images, letters, and feelings. We are here, and we point to the dharma over there.
As we practice, our experience transforms our capacity to see the moon, and then we can see the moon reflected in the lake. This moon image is more animated and has more vibrancy than either a flat image or words.
Our buddha nature is the moon. And we are using concepts to go beyond concepts.
The next level is direct realization. We see the moon directly—without conceptualization. Now there are no words, no descriptions, no preconceptions. Just naked awareness. We have become what we have been pointing to. There’s no separation between here and there, between “me” and dharma.
At first, we see a sliver of the moon. We have a little realization. This is the beginning of direct realization. We do not become a buddha at this level, but we are free from samsara, free from dukkha.
When we see our true nature totally, it’s like seeing the full moon. At that moment, we have completed the path of realization, which means: there is nothing more to realize. From then on, we practice dharma to deepen and stabilize our realization.
By using the language of our relative-reality mind, we make helpful distinctions—but words and concepts are only means to instruct us. This division of awareness into three categories—normal awareness, meditative awareness, and pure awareness—offers a tool to aid our understanding of the one, indivisible awareness.
There is only one awareness. This is our innate, natural quality of mind. Everyone has this. We speak of the western sky or the eastern sky. But there is only one sky. Awareness is as indivisible as sky.
Meditation and Daily Life
Nowadays people learn meditation for peace, for stress reduction, or for blissing out.
These efforts have some positive aspects, especially if one identifies the mind as the source of difficulties and the source of happiness.
But often these efforts fall into the category of meditation as an activity that has a beginning and an end: “Now I am meditating, and later I am not meditating.” The dilemma here is that any positive results of the meditation tend to be short-lived.
There’s little attention paid to integrating meditation with daily activities. Meditation has been separated from the view and intention of wisdom and compassion. A meditation muscle may be developed, but the purpose is not clear, so it remains difficult to discover genuine liberation.
The real measure is what happens off the cushion. If there is no sign of change in daily life activities, then the full benefits of meditation are not being accomplished. If our neighbor’s dog pees on our lawn, or the waiter brings our soup cold or our flight is canceled, and we become as angry or exasperated as we did before we ever started to meditate, then something is missing.
When we understand the view, we know where we are headed, and we can apply this to all our daily life activities.
The view is the understanding that our true nature, the essence of awareness itself, is fundamentally pure and whole and has all the wonderful qualities that normally we think we lack.
Without carrying this view into our activities, formal sitting practice may become dry and lifeless. We might end up like dolls sitting perfectly still on the shelves of toy stores. It might look like we’re doing everything right, yet somehow awakening remains beyond reach.
All the stages of ngondro involve the cultivation of meditative awareness.
The transition from meditative awareness to the third type of awareness—pure awareness—varies according to different traditions.
In my tradition, pure awareness is “pointed out” by a guide or teacher who has already recognized the nature of mind. We call these “pointing-out teachings on the nature of mind.”
We may have everything that we need to awaken, but pure awareness may elude recognition precisely because it is so simple and ordinary.
Often people assume that awakening involves some spectacular, new experience, so we wait for this miraculous event, and all the while we have never been separated from this pure awareness. The guide or teacher or guru introduces us to what we have not been able to recognize within ourselves.
In my tradition, pointing-out instructions on the nature of mind are sometimes given when students first begin the foundation practices, and sometimes not until the student has completed various practices.
If you have already received pointing-out instructions, then you can do the ngondro practices as a way to deepen and stabilize your recognition of pure awareness.
Whichever type of awareness we apply, each ngondro practice provides an opportunity for recognizing something about awareness that we might not have seen before.
Buddhism is filled with many wonderful ideas, but it is the recognition of awareness that takes us from samara to nirvana.
Source: Based on Mingyur, Yongey. Turning Confusion into Clarity: A Guide to the Foundation Practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.by