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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

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

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.

Living In the Moment

We try to escape from the present moment because we are not happy with where we are; we feel like the past or the future can offer us something better. We are often so dissatisfied with our life and the choices we feel are open to us. But from a spiritual perspective, we are in the best possible position: we have the opportunity to change our mind, and learn from every situation we find ourselves in. The Kadampa teachings allow us to make anything into part of our spiritual path; because we have these teachings in our heart, we have the perfect conditions for spiritual growth. It doesn’t matter how busy we are or how many problems we have, we can make it all a part of our inner development. Because we have such perfect conditions for spiritual growth, our choices are actually limitless. So why would I want things to be other than the way they are? If we keep a spiritual perspective, we won’t want to waste our life being trapped in the past or worrying about the future; we will be glad to be in this moment, thinking ‘I am so happy to be exactly where I am right now.’

I find the teachings on karma to be very helpful in maintaining this perspective. That seems strange at first, because karma means thinking about our past actions and the future effects of our actions – how is that keeping us in the present moment? Remembering karma helps us stay in the moment because we realize that it is our actions in this moment that create our future. In each instant, I am forming my future experiences; every moment is a potential goldmine… or a minefield. I don’t want to miss a second of it.

Using mindfulness to stay focused on our present intentions and actions keeps our mind clear of all concerns about the past or future. We can still make plans for the future, but we won’t get caught up in them because we know it is the good karma we can collect now that is the main condition we need to fulfil our wishes.

 Further reading: Modern Buddhism

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!

You’re not coming in

In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says:

When we look at external things we can usually distinguish those that are useful and valuable from those that are not. We must learn to look at our mind in the same way. Although the nature of our root mind is pure and clear, many conceptual thoughts arise from it, like bubbles arising within an ocean or rays of light arising from a single flame. Some of these thoughts are beneficial and lead to happiness both now and in the future, whereas others lead to suffering and the extreme misery of rebirth in the lower realms. We need to keep a constant watch over our mind and learn to distinguish between the beneficial and harmful thoughts that are arising moment by moment. Those who are able to do this are truly wise.

If we use meditation to become familiar with the pure, clear nature of our mind, then we will learn how to distinguish between positive and negative states of mind from our own experience. Geshe Chekawa calls recognizing our delusions one of the ‘three difficulties’ because generally our negative minds come disguised as our friends: we think attachment is encouraging us to have fun, for example, when actually it is undermining our ability to enjoy the things around us. Really try taking a look at what your mind is doing: say you are contentedly sitting on a train reading the paper, and someone drop-dead gorgeous comes and sits down next to you. Immediately you feel tougue-tied and self conscious; you worry you have food stuck in your teeth; they ask your name and you can’t remember what it is. Attachment has destroyed our peace of mind.

How did that happen? We let it. We allowed attachment into our mind.

You’re not coming in!

When we decide good/bad with regard to external things, most of the time we’re just going ‘ohhh, pretty.’ We’re not thinking about nutritional value, we just like the coloured icing; the sun-roof grabs our attention more than the airbags. If something is ugly, we’re not interested. So, I think it would be useful to see how ugly our negative states of mind really are. Imagine your delusions were to take on physical form – what would they look like? What is the real face of anger or selfishness? My delusions tend to look a bit like the orcs from Lord of the Rings: not someone you’d want hanging out in your front room. But, when delusions come knocking at the doorway of our mind, what do we do? We let them in!

When a monster comes calling, learn to slam the door in their face. Once you’ve invited them in, they will be one of those house-guests who just won’t leave – we know how hard it is to shift a bad mood – so don’t let them in in the first place. We need to protect our inner peace by making delusions stay outside the door – just see our negative train of thought for the demon it is and say ‘no way am I giving you the time of day.’ Leave the monsters outside, and our peace of mind within.

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

What is Mindfulness?

Image result for mindfulnessMindfulness seems to be the new big thing, but although it’s popular it is also quite misunderstood. Essentially, mindfulness means staying focused on, or remembering, something. So the most important thing is choosing what to be mindful of. In Buddhist practice, we chose to focus our mindfulness on a virtuous object, a thought or feeling that gives rise to inner peace.

For example, in meditation we may try to generate a special feeling of cherishing love for others and focus on this feeling. Then, after we have finished our meditation, we remain mindful of this feeling of cherishing love throughout the rest of the day. So this feeling of love is our object of mindfulness: we try never to forget it, whatever else we are doing. Because we are being mindful of a virtuous object, we will stay peaceful and positive.

Simple, eh? Yes, it really is: we just chose a positive thought or intention to remember, and we hold onto it no matter what. Of course it’s not as easy as it sounds – mindfulness is like a mental muscle that needs exercise to become strong. But if we strengthen our mindfulness just a little bit every day, we will gradually improve our ability to hold onto a positive mind.

To help you practice: Mindfulness half-day courses