A few of the students in the online class I am helping to instruct are finding it quite difficult to get down onto the cushion. I sometimes have the same problem and this made me reflect on what I do when this happens.
The first question that came to my mind was why I find it so difficult to sit down at those times when my mind is scattered and I need it most. We are all different so this may not be the same with you, but when my mind is all caught up and wound up, it feels quite uncomfortable. Then somehow my mind tries to ignore and shut down this feeling of discomfort. It becomes a vicious circle because the only way I know how to avoid noticing my inner turmoil is to cover it up by being busy. Unfortunately this is like adding oil to the fire. I get more scattered and uncomfortable. Sitting down would mean to stop this ongoing cover-up and having to face the mess. I think, deep down on an unconscious level, my mind knows this and tries to avoid it at all costs, because it is afraid that it would be really painful to experience what is truly going on.
The funny thing is that when I sit down, what seemed like a dreadful un-faceable situation is just a bunch of thoughts, feeling and sensations. The fear of looking at them was completely unfounded, like when the tiger around the corner that one is scared of turns out to be a paper mask. This reminds me of a passage in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying where Sogyal Rinpoche quotes the Western poet Rainer Maria Rilke who has said “that our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures.”
What to do to slay the dragons? The most direct way has been described by the great master Longchenpa who compared samsara to a vicious circle. A circle seems to be endless. It has no beginning and end. It seems impossible to get out. However there is a simple solution: Simply cut the circle and the endless going around immediately stops!
So the most direct approach would be to simply stop and sit down. But we may not be able to do that. Sometimes we need to first unwind slowly, for example by first cleaning the room, going for a walk, reading a book or watching or listening to a Dharma teaching. It usually doesn’t help to try to force myself. I find that a gentle and creative approach works much better.
There are many other skillful means we can use and we probably all have to find ways that work for us. For example, we can strengthen our motivation to practice by reflecting on topics like the preciousness of human life, impermanence, karma or the defects of samsara. We can pray for help. We can simply schedule and block out some time for practice.
It sounds all easy but, to be honest, I often find this first step very difficult. My habits and my tendency to avoid myself at these difficult times is very strong. Maybe that’s why it is said the way to the cushion can be very long even if it is right in front of us! I keep telling myself that I need to just keep working with this and trust that the process will slowly work and bring about change.
Once I manage to sit down, the next challenge comes. When my mind is scattered and all over the place it gets easily overwhelmed by the meditation instructions. At times even the seven points of posture are just too much to set up and I get stuck in the process. I just need something simple. However I find that not using a method and just trying to rest my mind, or just being aware of whatever is going in my mind, even though extremely simple, is too difficult at that moment. My mind needs something to work with that is easy and simple.
When that happens I begin by sitting down and just taking a rest for a moment. Then, when I feel ready I start with the most basic and simple instructions.
The bottom line of the meditation instructions is to sit comfortably with one’s back straight.
Once that is established, the next step is to find a simple focus. One of the easiest ways to focus the mind is to focus your awareness on the breath. The most simple approach to this is to just be aware of the breathing. However, often I find my mind is too scattered to do this. It is too simple and vague. I need a more detailed method.
There are many different ways to focus with more detail. Every tradition seems to have a different approach. Some advise to notice the sensations of the breath going through your nostrils or mouth. Some say to focus about two finger width below your belly and notice the movement of your belly as you breathe in and out. Some tell you to count each breath and when you come to ten or six start again. You could even use a mala to count. I have tried all of these a bit but when my mind is unsettled I still get easily distracted with any of these methods. The one methods I find easiest is to count to four during each in and out breath and count to one for the pauses in between. Somehow that is simple and gives my mind enough to do.
Another method I have found very helpful is to use the “three methods in one practice” that Sogyal Rinpoche presents in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (pages 73-74). A simple form of this practice is to start with resting attention on an object like an image of Buddha, then listening to and/or chanting a mantra and then going on to watching the breath. It works with all the aspects of our being: form, sound and awareness and can bring the mind home very quickly.
Sogyal Rinpoche always stresses that the method is just a support and that we need to drop it as soon as our mind has settled and we are able to be present and simply aware of whatever is going on in our minds and our environment. I often notice I get stuck in the method for much too long, so lately I have tried to drop it more quickly and just come back to it again if I need to.
Once my mind has settled a little I let go of the methods and just try to be aware of whatever is going on in my mind as described in the meditation exercise by Mingyur Rinpoche that I posted a few weeks ago.
Or, if I feel I want to work more with a method, I slowly bring in more detailed instructions, like the seven points of the posture and go to a much lighter focus, like simply being aware of the breath without counting or focusing on the out breath and resting in the gap at the end of it. In theory the instructions are detailed and structured but in practice it doesn’t have to be all complete and in the correct order. The main point is that it needs to work for us and support our practice.