Emphasis on the inspiration

Image result for kadampa meditationThere are so many meditation practices, how do you decide where to place your emphasis?

I’m not going to tell you. I can’t: it’s something you have to work out for yourself.

To know what you need to be emphasising in your practice, you need to know your own mind. Geshe Chekhawa says ‘Purify your greatest delusion first.’ Work out what is your greatest stumbling-block: do you have a tendency towards anger, are you easily distracted, do you get discouraged? Our ‘greatest delusion’ will vary day to day, for example when you are with your parents you may tend to revert to a particular childish habit; but generally, there is also an underlying theme that we need to identify and tackle. E.g. your main problem may be a pessimistic attitude, and so your main emphasis will be working on seeing your own and other’s potential; then, when you visit your parents you can temporarily emphasise overcoming the bad habit particular to that situation.

Does this mean you should focus on your one special delusion to the exclusion of everything else? Again, your practice is personal so you need to work out what’s best for you; what is most important is that you continue to feel inspired. ‘Purify your greatest delusion first’ doesn’t mean getting obsessed with that delusion: it is all too easy to end up thinking ‘I’m such an angry person’ rather than ‘I want to overcome my anger.’ We will only be able to beat our bad habits if we are enjoying our spiritual practice, so it is important to always keep some of our emphasis on things that motivate and inspire us – this will give us the internal energy to tackle the harder aspects of our training. And remember to ask for blessings – we don’t have to face our problems alone. The Buddhas will always be delighted to help.

Although we may choose to emphasise certain things that are particular to us, it is still important to maintain a balanced practice – both so that we don’t get bogged down and become obsessive, and so that we don’t neglect those aspects of spiritual training that we don’t particularly like! The best way to do this is to maintain a regular lamrim meditation practice, following the 21 meditations in The New Meditation Handbook. With this, we can be certain we are covering all the bases, and it will help us to get to know all aspects of our mind better so that we can see clearly where our stumbling blocks are and what special practice we need to emphasise next.

A more in-depth introduction: How to Solve Your Problems half-day course

A daily meditation practice

‘How do I find the time?’

Before we can even start trying to meditate, the first hurdle is clearing the space in our day to do it. Most people claim not to have enough time, but the irony is that if you took some time for meditation you would stop feeling so busy. A lot of our busyness is internal rather than external: we don’t actually have more than we can manage to do, we just have so little mental space that we can’t plan or prioritize and so we feel a lot busier than we really are. If we started our day with just five minutes of meditation, we would feel like we had gained a lot of time.

To make sure we take that time for meditation, we have to really believe in the benefits it will bring. We only do the things we want to do. We can’t bully ourselves into a meditation habit, but if we remember how much more space meditation could create in our lives we will naturally develop a wish to engage.

What should we focus on?

There are many different objects of meditation to choose from, but I would recommend two practices for a basic daily schedule:

1A breathing meditation or similar to calm the mind. We can’t gain deep experience of any of the more contemplative meditations until we gain some ability to let go of distractions and enjoy some taste of inner peace. So it is really helpful to spend a bit of time – 5, 10, 15 minutes, whatever feels comfortable – just letting go and settling the mind.

The New Meditation Handbook - Front Cover2Secondly, we can add in a meditation to help us maintain that peaceful mind. We can follow the meditations presented in The New Meditation Handbook, a series of 21 meditations that we practice in a three-week cycle. After three weeks we have covered everything we need to reach our full spiritual potential; then we can start the cycle again, gaining a deeper experience each time we go round.

This presentation of 21 meditations – which we call lamrim – is particularly helpful as a way of integrating everything we learn about Buddhist practice. If you come along to weekly meditation classes, it can feel like we’re constantly getting new information: there are so many good ideas being thrown at us, but how do we remember and apply them all? If we are familiar with the 21 lamrim meditations, we will see that all the advice we’re given fits into one of these practices: the structure of lamrim is like a storeroom where can keep all of the spiritual instructions filed away in the more useful place, ready to come to our aid when we need it.

I think this would be the ideal daily practice: one session of breathing meditation, and one of lamrim. If you don’t feel up to meditating twice a day, that’s OK – start with just some breathing meditation and build up to doing more.

I also find it very helpful to combine meditation with some prayers to prepare the mind: the Liberating Prayer which we use at all our classes, or the Heart Jewel prayers if you have more time. I’ll write more about that soon!

More info: Meditation Classes | Learn to Meditate courseThe New Meditation Handbook

Quiet in there, I’m trying to concentrate!

Is this what you think retreat is about?

January is traditionally the time for retreat, so I thought we could take a look at what retreat is. In Heart Jewel, it says:

On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. There are three kinds of retreat: physical, verbal, and mental. We engage in physical retreat when, with a spiritual motivation, we isolate ourself from other people, activities, and noise, and dis-engage from extraneous and meaningless actions. We engage in verbal retreat when, with a spiritual motivation, we refrain from meaningless talk and periodically keep silence. We engage in mental retreat by preventing distractions and strong delusions such as attachment, anger, jealousy, and strong self-grasping from arising, and by maintaining mindfulness and conscientiousness.

I think most people think of retreat as being about getting away from external things, taking a break from distracting activities; but it’s easy to forget about mental retreat, which is the most important. We can cut ourselves off from all contact with work, for example, but if we keep worrying about the things we have left undone then work will still interfere with our retreat. In my experience, retreat is mainly a state of mind. To quote from Heart Jewel again:

If we remain in physical and verbal retreat but fail to observe mental retreat, our retreat will have little power. Such a retreat may be relaxing, but, if we do not prevent strong delusions from arising, our mind will not be at peace, even on retreat. However, keeping physical and verbal retreat will help us to keep mental retreat.

Of course it’s useful to have some physical space, some time off from our usual commitments and responsibilities so that we have the time we need to engage in focused spiritual practice. And silence is very useful: it really helps us turn inwards and pay more attention to our mental chatter. But we should remember that these are just tools to help us keep control over our mind.

On retreat we talk about ‘boundaries.’ Setting boundaries means establishing restrictions for ourselves that will help our meditation be more successful. For example, we may set a verbal boundary of silence for part of the day, or a physical boundary of not using our phone or the internet. We also need to establish our own mental boundaries. We need to make a firm decision not to let our retreat be de-railed by delusions. For example, we can set ourselves the goal ‘I will not think about work’ or ‘during this meditation I will not allow myself to speculate about what’s for lunch!’ Having these boundaries are what lets our concentration develop. We may moan about noises that interfere with our meditation (those blooming sheep!), but let’s face it, most of the noise is in our own head. Even in a perfectly quiet environment, we will still have to deal with that mental noise. Our boundaries are like building walls around that still, quiet place inside our hearts.

This understanding of retreat is also quite encouraging if you can’t find the time to go away someplace and do lots of meditation: retreat is mainly about your mental attitude. Even if there is no opportunity for you to establish physical or verbal retreat boundaries right now, you can still have mental boundaries – walls in our mind to keep out distractions – and these will make your daily life a kind of retreat.

Retreats at Nagarjuna Centre: January Retreats | Relaxation Weekends | Heart Jewel Retreat

Find the Missing Peace

The Buddhist Master Shantideva says:

Although living beings wish to be free from suffering,
They run straight towards the causes of suffering;
And although they wish for happiness,
Out of ignorance they destroy it like a foe.

We think inner peace is something difficult to attain: but if we really wanted it, it would be easy. The only reason for it to be so elusive is that, as Shantideva tells us, we are so often running in the opposite direction. We are so busy trying to squeeze some happiness out of our day that we don’t take the time to just be happy with where we are right now.

Peace of mind is just waiting to be discovered; it is the nature of our mind, if we would just take the time to look.  Instead of letting your mind run from one idea to the next, just allow your thoughts to subside like waves returning to the ocean and focus on the clarity of your mind. This vast inner space that we discover when our mind is free from conceptual thoughts is always clear and still; this clarity and peace is always there, no matter how crazy the surface of our mind might be. I find it very helpful to remember that during the day – right now I may be feeling frazzled, but the real nature of my mind is stillness.

The more experience you can get of settling into that stillness during meditation, the less you will feel the need to chase after happiness during the day. Why? Because you know the happiness you wish for it already there, waiting within your heart.

Take this further: Developing Inner Peace day course  |  Meditations for a Clear Mind CD

Dealing with distractions

We all like the idea of meditation, but the reality can be quite a different thing because all those pesky thoughts keep getting in the way of our nice calm mind. So what do we do about all the distractions?

As with most things, it depends mainly on our determination. If we’re honest with ourselves, we indulge our distractions rather than making a strong determination to overcome them. After a while (usually about 2 minutes…) meditation starts feeling like hard work, and a nice easy thought comes waltzing along and we’re off thinking about a TV show because it takes less effort.

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says ‘distraction is the worst obstacle to our spiritual development.’ Seriously, the worst? It doesn’t feel a little bit of mental wandering is that big a deal. But that’s the problem: it’s not a little bit of distraction, is it? It’s a whole whopping great lot of distraction! It’s very easy to let our meditation – and, indeed, our whole life – become nothing but following one distracting thought after another. That is why distraction is so dangerous.

So how do we fight this tendency? Well, we don’t. Fighting distractions doesn’t work: when we try to push them away, we are still focusing on them, and end up making the problem worse. It’s like saying ‘don’t think about a pink elephant.’ Rather than fighting against distractions, we have to simply loose interest in them. Instead of saying to ourselves ‘I must stop thinking this (really important and interesting) thought’ we say ‘it doesn’t matter.’ Just that: this distracting thought doesn’t matter, so we can let it go.

I know many of our distractions seem important, and saying they don’t matter sounds dismissive; but just try it. If we can stop being interested by and invested in those thoughts just for the brief period of our meditation, we can experience some real space and clarity in our mind: then we are in the right space to judge what is actually important. A lot of our distractions will turn out to be needless worries; others we will have to give some energy to, but now we can do it in a relaxed way without the same pressure we felt before.

What should I focus on?

Mindfulness is basically deciding what to focus on. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it really is the key to our happiness, because what we focus on dictates how we feel. When we dwell on something negative, eg the faults of a person, it causes a negative mind; if insted we make the effort to focus on their kindness, we stay peaceful and positive.

It is our choice: one object can be either negative or positive depending on where we focus our attention. Focusing on the negative is called inappropriate attention because it causes unpleasent feelings to arise in our mind; that bad feeling does not come from the object, it comes from our own unhelpful view. It is so liberating to realize that we have the freedom to choose how we feel: no-one and nothing has the power to make us feel bad, it all depends upon our mind. Simply, it depends on what we focus on.

We need to get to know our own triggers – what conditions encourage our mind to become negative – so that we can overcome these tendencies.

 

Appropriate attention means choosing to focus on things in a way that generates positive feelings. Shantideva compares our mind to a wild elephant; we need to use the rope of mindfulness to tie this elephant to the stake of our virtuous object. This way of training our mind is huge; our mind is very complex and there are many positive and negative impulses arising moment by moment. But if you want one thing to stick your attention to, you can’t go wrong with cherishing others. If we maintain a strong intention to cherish others, this will counteract all our negative tendencies and be the cause of only pleasent feelings.

There are so many things we can choose to focus on; in fact, I sometimes find it difficult to decide between all the wonderful possibilities… and so I end up not having much of a focus at all! Cherishing others pretty much covers all the bases. Geshe-la once said that the best way to keep all of our vows is to cherish others, because this naturally makes us want to behave in a pure way. So if at any time you don’t have a clear positive focus for your mind, then put in this intention, ‘I will help others in everything I say and do today.’ Keep repeating it to yourself until your attention is firmly stuck on, and you will be able to enjoy the beautiful peaceful feeling of love in your heart all day.

Contentment

My favorite story of the many in Geshe-la’s books is the one about a poor man named Telwa who finds a jewel and gives it to the King. He is not being a subservient subject: when he hands over the jewel, he tells the King ‘I am content with what I have; but altough you have much wealth, you have a strong desire for more. You are the most needy person can can think of, so I am giving this jewel to you.’ Telwa shows not just kindness, but wisdom: he teaches us that the real wealth is the inner wealth of contentment.

Contentment is something we can find without even looking: we just need to stop chasing all of our desires. Contentment is a feeling of being satisfied with what we have, thinking ‘right here and now, there is nothing else I want or need.’ If we let go of our many attachments, we naturally find that contentment. Shantideva says:

“A person who has no attachment to attractive objects
Will find contentment – the best of all possessions.”

Our uncontrolled desire makes us like a hampster on a wheel – we keep running and running, but never get closer to our goal. For example, we want to get our house fixed up just right, but whatever colour we paint the front room, by next year something new will have caught our eye and we will start to feel dissatisfied again. Protector Nagarjuna said that desire is like an itch – you scratch it and get some brief relief… but it just moves somewhere else. The only real way to get rid of an itch is not to have it in the first place. What? He means that the way to find satisfaction is not by fulfilling all our desires, but by not having those desires in the first place. In the absence of desire, we simply are content.

If we get rid of our attachment, if we stop chasing after that something or someone who can give us satisfaction, then we can allow ourselves to just enjoy things as they are. Non-attachment doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate things; we can enjoy any good condition without grasping onto it. And because we have let go of attachment, we do not need those good conditions in order to be happy; we are content, because that contentment comes from within.

Mindfulness again… and again… and again

I’ve written a post about mindfulness before, but that’s the whole point of mindfulness: it needs to be repeated. It’s all about familiarity. We place our attention onto a particular thought or intention, and maintain it. The more we do it, the easier it becomes. We need to keep doing the same thing again and again… without getting bored.

I was thinking the other day about the phrase ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ – actually, I was eating dinner with the community, and no-one was saying very much until a visitor sat down with us and I was all ‘ohh, exciting, new person’… and it made me realize how I was forgetting to appreciate the wonderful people I live with.

We get bored easily. You have now read about 100 words of this post: is part of your mind already off thinking about doing something else? I’m thinking about what picture will go with this post… and now I’m thinking I’m a bit peckish… The reason our mind wanders away from our object of mindfulness is because we get captivated by something new and exciting to fill our thoughts with. For the same reason, we find it hard to sit down and do some meditation every day – ‘I’ve done that loads of times before.’

So how do we prevent ourselves getting bored with the repetitive nature of our meditation practice? We need to be convinced that what we are holding in our heart is a real source of happiness. Whatever the object of our mindfulness is, check with ourselves ‘what good results will come from maintaining my mindfulness of this?’

We never forget our birthday, because when we were a child it became etched into our heart as it was associated with good things like presents and cake. If we consider our object of meditation to be special and precious, then we will never want to be separated from it, and will will not become bored with holding on and revisiting it again and again. It will be like our birthday every day of the year!

Imagine Better

This title comes from one of my favorite quotes by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling:

“We do not need magic to change the world. We have all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

The imagination is incredibly powerful: we all know how a seductive daydream can take us to a different place and leave us unaware of the world around us, or how running through a worst-case scenario can leave us sweating and anxious. We need to learn to harness the power of our imagination, because actually our imagination is creating our whole world. In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says:

“It is a remarkable quality of the mind that we first create objects with our imagination and then bring them into our everyday reality. In fact everything starts in the imagination. For example, the house we are presently living in was first created in the imagination of the architect. He or she then made a design on paper, which acted as the blueprint for the actual building. If no one had first imagined our house it would never have been built. In reality, our mind is the creator of all we experience. All external creations such as money, cars, and computers were developed in dependence upon someone’s imagination; if no one had imagined them they would never have been invented. In the same way, all inner creations and all Dharma realizations, even liberation and enlightenment, are developed in dependence upon the imagination.”

If we lack imagination, we live in a fixed world where everything feels inflexible. The first step towards creating a better world is to be able to see – and believe in – that world in our mind. Although Buddhism is supremely logical, we place a lot of importance in meditation on visualizing and creating a mental image of purer people and places. For example, we practice seeing beyond people’s present faults and limitations and focusing on their potential. That can require a lot of imagination! But by applying our imagination in this way, we are changing our reality just a little bit: the person we view in this way is encouraged to live up to the good we see in him, and so his experience and ours becomes a bit brighter.

I think the most beautiful example of using our imagination in meditation is the practice of taking and giving, where we envisage having the ability to take away the suffering of others and give them happiness. It may not ‘really’ be happening, but it does have an effect: it fills us with a joyful determination to fulfil our spiritual goals. The pure world we visualise may just be in our mind – but if we can’t hold something in our mind’s eye, how can we ever make it something real? Things don’t just happen; they must have a cause. And the root cause can always be traced back to the mind. First, we build a better world in our imagination: we revel in it’s beauty, we enjoy the belief that everyone is free and joyful, we rejoice that it is our actions that have brought this about. Then, because we have this vision of what the future could be, we strive to make it happen.

There is a real magic to be found in taking control of our imagination.

 

But it looks so easy…

Watch your breath… so simple. But, as you will know if you’ve ever tried, simple is not the same as easy. I think that’s why it’s so easy to get frustrated with meditation – because the idea is so simple, we expect to be able to do it. But ease only comes through familiarity – this is true of everything. I remember when I first started learning to drive: it seemed impossible that I would ever be able to co-ordinate all those hands and feet to do separate, seemingly disconnected, things. In fact, it carried on feeling that way for a long time – over two years worth of lessons and two failed driving tests – but it did eventually become easy. How? Just through familiarity.

It’s the same with meditation: we’re trying to do something very unfamiliar to us, i.e. relax. We try to relax all the time: we soak in the tub or go on foreign holidays, depending on our budget; but however much money we throw at the problem, relaxing is a lot harder than it sounds, because we’re simply not used to it. If our mind is busy, we will not feel relaxed. So although meditation might not be easy, don’t give in to the frustration.

Meditation would be a lot easier if we stopped having such hign expectations of ourselves, if we stopped thinking ‘but I should be able to do it by now.’ When I first started meditating, I would get so frustrated every time a distracting thought came up. Eventually, I strated to judge how well a session had gone not by how well I had been able to concentrate, but by how well I had been able to accept the fact that I couldn’t concentrate! When I learnt to be patient with myself, I was naturally more relaxed and therefore less distracted.

Trying to push distracting thought away doesn’t work; it’s better to accept they are arising, then gently let them go. And it is hard work – but that hard work will pay off. We will gradually develop familiarity with stillness.

Further practice: Learn to Meditate | Lunchtime Classes