I will soon be starting to help instruct an online course on meditation from the Rigpa Distance Learning Program. Naturally, as the start of the course has come nearer, I have been thinking more and more about meditation lately and how to best help with instructing the course.
Since this is an introductory course, I have been thinking back to when I first began learning to meditate. I remember my first meditation course in the Rigpa center in London in the late 80’s. In every class we would do a couple of short sitting sessions of 10-15 minutes. Often I would get drawn into a chain of thoughts pretty much the moment the bell was rung at the beginning and only the bell that indicated the end of the sessions would make me realize that my entire sessions had been one long distraction!
I felt drawn to and loved to practice meditation from the very beginning but I haven’t found it easy to develop mindfulness and awareness and I still have a very busy and distracted mind. Sometimes I look back and ask myself why I find it so difficult not to be distracted in meditation. What comes back to me is that my biggest mistake is that when I meditate I am often trying to experience a state of peace and once I find a sense of peace try to remain in it. Even though I have heard it again and again in the teachings that meditation is not something we can create or fabricate in the mind, I keep falling into this trap again and again. The experience of a calm and peaceful mind in itself is not bad, and may actually be necessary at the beginning, but the teachings warn that if trying to remain in a peaceful state of mind becomes a habit it becomes an obstacle. Like a cup gets stained over time by being filled with coffee again and again, our mind’s natural clarity can get clouded and obscured if we keep trying to maintain a peaceful state of mind.
So, if you want a piece of advice. Don’t follow my example! Try to drop this instinctive tendency from the beginning. If you get this point that meditation is not about experiencing a special state of mind state of mind, I think you will progress smoothly.
Here is a little exercise to help us get the basic attitude of meditation right from the beginning. It is based on an exercise in The Joy of Living by Mingyur Rinpoche and quotes from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.
When we meditate the biggest mistake that we can make is to want to experience a special state of mind. We might meditate simply to feel good or to experience peace and calm. Then we often try very hard to experience that. And if we do manage to create it or make it happen then we try to hold onto it. The peace that is spoken of in the teachings of meditation is not something we can fabricate. It happens by itself when we allow our minds to rest in its natural state.
The teachings of this tradition emphasize that meditation is not something to do, but is simply about getting used to resting in a natural peace. Mingyur Rinpoche writes in The Joy of Living, that “the experience of natural peace is so far beyond what we normally consider relaxation that it defies description.”
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche describes the spirit of meditation as follows:
“Generally we waste our lives, distracted from our true selves, in endless activity; meditation, on the other hand, is the way to bring us back to ourselves, where we can really experience and taste our full being, beyond all habitual patterns. Our lives are lived in intense and anxious struggle, in a swirl of speed and aggression, in competing, grasping, possessing, and achieving, forever burdening ourselves with extraneous activities and preoccupations. Meditation is the exact opposite. To meditate is to make a complete break with how we “normally” operate, for it is a state free of all cares and concerns, in which there is no competition, no desire to possess or grasp at anything, no intense and anxious struggle, and no hunger to achieve: an ambitionless state where there is neither acceptance nor rejection, neither hope nor fear, a state in which we slowly begin to release all those emotions and concepts that have imprisoned us into the space of natural simplicity.”
The following poem also beautifully captures the spirit of what meditation is really about:
“Rest in natural great peace
This exhausted mind
Beaten helpless by karma and neurotic thought
Like the relentless fury of the pounding waves
In the infinite ocean of Samsara”
— Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche
This exercise helps to establish this understanding right from the beginning. It is called an exercise in non-meditation because it is not about doing something. In The Joy of Living, Mingyur Rinpoche explains this brief exercise in resting the mind as follows:
“This is not a meditation exercise. In fact, it’s an exercise in non-meditation” — a very old Buddhist practice that, as my father explained it, takes the pressure off thinking you have to achieve a goal or experience some sort of special state. In non-meditation, we just watch whatever happens without interfering. We are merely interested observers of a kind of introspective experiment, with no investment in how the experiment turns out. Of course, when I first learned this, I was a pretty goal oriented child. I wanted something wonderful to happen every time I sat down to meditate. So it took me a while to get the hang of just resting, just looking, and letting go of the results.”
It is helpful to spend a minute to establish a relaxed frame of mind before doing this exercise. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche describes the state of meditation as: “Quietly sitting, body still, speech silent, mind at peace, let thoughts and emotions come and go, without clinging to anything.” To describe what this state feels like, he quotes his master Dudjom Rinpoche who used to advise his students “to imagine a man who comes home after a long, hard day’s work in the fields and sinks into his favorite chair in front of the fire. He has been working all day and he knows he has achieved what he wanted to achieve; there is nothing more to worry about, nothing left unaccomplished, and he can let go completely of all his cares and concerns, content, simply, to be.”
As a preparation for this exercise now take a minute to imagine being like the old man or woman at the end of a day when everything has been accomplished and nothing is left to do. Imagine this even if it is 6 am in the morning, you have a huge to do list for the day, and haven’t done anything on it yet! The main point is to arrive at a sense that there is nothing to do in your meditation practice which will help you relax and just be!
Then begin with the exercise:
“First, assume a position in which your spine is straight, and your body is relaxed. Once your body is positioned comfortably, allow your mind to simply rest for three minutes or so. Just let your mind go, as though you’ve just finished a long and difficult task. Whatever happens—or doesn’t happen— is simply part of the experience of allowing your mind to rest.
So now, just rest in the awareness of whatever is passing through your mind. …
Just rest …
Just rest …
When the three minutes are up, ask yourself. How was that experience? Don’t judge it: don’t try to explain it. Just review what happened and how you felt. You might have experienced a brief taste of peace or openness. That’s good. Or you might have been aware of a million different thoughts, feelings and sensations. That’s also good. Why? Because either way, as long as you have maintained at least a bare awareness of what you were thinking or feeling, you’ve had a direct experience of your mind just performing its natural functions.”
Here are Step by Step Instructions for this exercise:
Step 1: Assume a position in which your spine is straight, and your body is relaxed. Feel your body sitting quietly for a moment.
Step 2: Remember the image of the old man at the end of the day. Just let your mind go, as though you’ve just finished a long and difficult task.
Step 3: If you have a timer start the time, otherwise just estimate about three minutes.
Step 4: Just rest in the awareness of whatever is passing through your mind – sensations, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. Whatever happens—or doesn’t happen— is simply part of the experience of allowing your mind to rest.
Step 5: When the three minutes are up, ask yourself. How was that experience? Don’t judge it; don’t try to explain it. Just review what happened and how you felt. You might have experienced a brief taste of peace or openness. That’s good. Or you might have been aware of a million different thoughts, feelings and sensations. That’s also good. Why? Because either way, as long as you have maintained at least a bare awareness of what you were thinking or feeling, you’ve had a direct experience of your mind just performing its natural functions.
You might want to do this introductory meditation exercise for a week. On the first day, do it once. If you wish, you can extend it to two or three times a day for the remaining days. Remember this exercise only takes three minutes, at most five with the preparation. So you don’t need a lot of time. It can be done wherever you are, at the bus stop, in the car when sitting in a traffic jam, in the bathroom at work etc. Let yourself be creative finding opportunities to practice it!
I find it very helpful to come back to this exercise every by and then. It brings freshness to my practice and reawakens a sense of “Beginner’s Mind”.
In my next post I will share how Mingyur Rinpoche describes the difference between this exercise and “real” meditation.