Posts

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.

 

Holding on to rainbows

Do we want a life of meaning or a life of happiness?

A guest article by Michelle E Grimwood 

A friend was talking to me recently about an article she had read which posed the question of ‘What is more important in life, happiness or meaning?’ The inference was that people chose either a life of happiness or a life of meaning. The article she described considered these were two were separate and conflicting choices. People either worked towards securing one or the other.

This raised an interesting repose from me.  As a Buddhist and having studied many of the texts explaining the path to enlightenment, it was very clear to me that the question in itself was  flawed, it showed a lack of understanding that meaning and happiness are not  conflicting and contradictory terms, in fact they were co-dependent and inter related.  One was not in possible without the other. The fault in this line of this questioning in my view was mainly in understanding what happiness is, and what we mean by the expression a meaningful life.

In the extensive teachings Buddha gave, which he shared to help humans achieve their potential for both happiness and meaning, he asked the question of  “what is the most meaningful thing one could do with a human life?“ When he encouraged humans to contemplate deeply the point and purpose of their life, he asked “what is our deepest wish for ourselves?”  Expanding on this further he asked “when we think about others that we care for, what are our deepest wishes for them?“ He concluded that as humans we share a common wish, a universal wish, as humans our deepest and most consistent wish for ourselves and those we cherish, is that we wish for happiness.

He went on to explain that the most meaningful thing we can do with our life, the greatest meaning in  human life was to achieve our potential to be happy. In this way we could help others to never be separated from their happiness.  Therefore meaning and happiness were dependent related and one was not possible without the other.

It was from this understanding and motivation that he went on to give one of the most extensive and comprehensive discourses on human happiness  known as The Four Noble Truths.  In this he explained that if we understood the true causes for happiness we could develop it.  In order to do this he focused on the need to understand the things that stand in the way of our happiness, the nature and origins of human suffering.  Through having considered and understood these, then through developing wisdom, it was possible to follow inner methods that would eventually  release all living beings from these sufferings . In this way we humans can overcome the  inner obstacles  which stand in the way of  our happiness.

If we want success in our strive for happiness, according to Buddha compassion and wisdom are the two key principles to cultivate.

Compassion is the mind that helps us understand suffering and  is how we recognise our  deep wishes for ourselves and others. Wisdom is a mind that helps us consider truth and the true nature of things, which helps us overcome our mistaken views, so we can relate better to our self, others and the world.

Compassion in Buddhist philosophy is defined very simply as ‘the mind that wishes others to be free from suffering’.   Love is defined as ‘the mind that wishes others to be happy.’ Behind these simple definitions there are extensive method practises explained in order to understand and  cultivate minds of love, compassion and wisdom.  These include the  teachings on the six perfections.

In ‘Eights Steps to Happiness’ and ‘Universal Compassion’ the author Venrable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains the methods Buddha outlined in developing  love and compassion,  he explains how we can consider suffering in ways that are helpful in developing  both our own good qualities and our potential to be happy.  The key messages in these teachings are that there are many good qualities in suffering and through deeply contemplating these, we can learn more about the mind of  renunciation, affection, cherishing and  love.  It is love and compassion that will both protect us and motivate us on this path of finding happiness.

Wisdom and compassion are described in ‘Modern Buddhism’ as like two wings of a bird, just as a bird needs two wings to fly, we humans need both wisdom and compassion if we are interested in actual happiness, an enlightened mind that is free from suffering and its causes.  We may be able to develop the best intentions through cultivating compassion; however, compassion alone is not enough for us to be truly happy. We also need wisdom.

In the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, wisdom is defined as a mind that realizes the ultimate nature of all phenomena.  The wisdom teachings explore truth as a concept  and the true nature of all things.  Generally speaking there are two divisions in truth, conventional truths and ultimate truths.  The former relate to how things appear and the later relate to how things exist.

Buddha explained that as humans we make a fundamental mistake as we go about our daily lives, we believe the things that appear are real and true and so we  relate to this appearance accordingly.  That is why we get confused, continue to create suffering and in our search for happiness we are actually often destroying our chances of achieving it.  We are mistaken.

It is only through understanding our mind, that we can consider deeply the conventional nature of  all things and  understand what we see, how the things that appear to us differ from how they actually exist.

The wisdom teachings are as easy as they are complex.  The easily read version concludes, things do not exist in the way they appear.  Everything we experience is created by mind. There is no creator other than mind. Everything is dependent on the mind that perceives it.   Our experiences and perceptions are simply the result of causes and effect.  Conditions coming together and conditions dissolving.

Once we understand this profundity, that things do not actually exist in the way we perceive them, that the way things appear and the way things exist  differ, we are close to understanding the distinctions of conventional and ultimate truth. Once we understand this, we will no longer hold mistaken views.  Our happiness will then be possible as we will be able to relate to our world and all things in it correctly.

Ultimate truth, as set out by Buddha, is that all things lack inherent existence, there is no permanent phenomena to be found in the world we inhabit. All things are in a state of change, conditions are changing moment by moment.  Things appear when the conditions come together and then dissolve or cease when the conditions change.

There is no permanence. Everything is simply a transitory experience of conditions, causes and effects, things coming together, arising, appearing and dissolving.  This is the essence of the teachings on emptiness; things lack the solidity we ascribe to them. Once the causes are created, we experience the effect; therefore everything we know is in a state of coming and going, either arising, appearing or dissolving.

We do in part understand this, but also as humans we have a great skill in ignoring or denying this. This is our fundamental mistake in our search for happiness, meaning and real freedom.  We have a tendency to think this logic applies to some things, but we deny this applies to everything.

We know for example that when certain causes come together certain appearance will follow; on a sunny day when it also rains it is quite likely that a rainbow will appear in the sky.  Although we know that the rainbow is simply a transitory appearance, appearing through certain conditions coming together, what appears is a rainbow.   A rainbow appears to anyone who may happen to be looking in  that part of the sky at that time, for those in other places or not looking at the sky, no rainbow appears for them.  The rainbow will only appear to those who apprehend it and it is simply an appearance caused by certain conditions coming together.

If we are looking at the rainbow and it appears for us, we also know that the rainbow will dissolve, as soon as the conditions change, we recognise it is not permanent it is transitory,  it will dissolve, disappear as an appearance, at some point  it will no longer appear.

We also know that if we search  closely for the rainbow we will not be able to find it, it is just an appearance to the mind that apprehends it.  If we are trying to take a picture for example  of the appearing rainbow and we zoom our camera lens  in very closely, we will not find the rainbow, the closer our lens takes us, the more elusive the appearance becomes.

We may at a certain point find a coloured spectrum of light, but  if we continue to zoom in, the closer we  get to the appearing rainbow, the more elusive it becomes, the quicker it will dissolve. The more obvious its lack of existence becomes. Yet  when we take our eye from the camera, again a rainbow may vividly appear.  It is the same with the blue of a blue sky, the closer we get to it, the more we realise we cannot find it, it is but an appearance.

In understanding the way the rainbow appears, due to causes and conditions,  we also understand that the only thing for us to do is consider the appearance as it manifests,  enjoy it whilst it appears, and understand it is temporary and  will dissolve.

We do not get sad when the rainbow dissolves, because we understand that is its nature.  We do not  think  we could put the rainbow in a box and take it home to enjoy whenever we fancy, because we understand the rainbow only arises from certain causes and conditions.

This is how it is with all phenomena. There is nothing in our appearing world that is exempt from this. We can only realize this with wisdom. Wisdom helps us to overcome ignorance, and gives us confidence and logical methods to understanding the nature of truth,  this truth and all truth. The true nature of all things.  Ultimate Truth. With wisdom we understand  that we do not need to be angry or afraid of what we might lose if we accept the true nature of things.

With wisdom and compassion, happiness and meaning are not only possible but inevitable.  There is no contradiction between happiness and meaning just as is there no separation. With both we are more like a person seeing a rainbow and smiling, enjoying it while it appears. Knowing  and appreciating it for what it is.

Without wisdom and compassion, we are more like  a person wanting to  take the rainbow from the sky and keep it for ourselves,  foolishly thinking we can claim and hold on to the rainbow, put it in a box for own pleasure, only to be surprised  and disappointed, feeling it unfair that someone else had stolen our rainbow, when opening the box we find it empty.

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