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Sharing challenges of practice

Sharing challenges of practice

Part of a series of teachings given during the Winter Retreat in November 2007 and from January to March 2008 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Even when doing Dharma-related work it can be distracting and intrude on my meditation
  • Compulsive thinking and distraction
  • Ripening karma and our reactions to ripening karma
  • What can you do when you have a lot of chatter during breathing meditation?
  • Thinking of the suffering of others
  • Watching your mind during meditation and during daily life
  • Doing visualization and mantra during the Medicine practice

Medicine Buddha retreat 2008: 03 Q&A (download)

Group discussions are kind of like check-ins. You can either ask questions, but mostly what happens is people talk a little bit about what’s happening with them in their meditation. And then I can comment on it and then if questions arise then comment on the questions, and if people have things they’ve been working on and somebody else has been working on the same kind of thing then it’s often helpful to exchange notes on what you have been doing. So how is everybody?

Audience: Doing well. [Laughter]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Good. And what’s happening with people in your practice?

Working with distractions in meditation

Audience: I can go first, so as I said the other day at the community meeting a few days ago, it’s an exciting time for me and so my mind is also excited by all this activity. [Another resident] has done a good job keeping me in line, with all these geeky gadgets and stuff, you know, cameras and cords and streaming and Internet work but my mind has gone a little bit bonkers. I’m sitting down on meditation cushion and thinking of different ways to store and to distribute them.

VTC: Ok, who has a question or check-in about distraction?
Even sometimes when you are doing your Dharma work, in your case figuring out how to record and film and stream the Dharma teachings and get them out to people, it can definitely intrude on meditation, So my guess is probably everybody in the retreat is having one if not more persistent themes that are intruding on their meditation, yes? You know, sometimes for variety you might think about this or that for distraction. Often there’s a few principal ones. Yours was a streaming one and videoing and other people may have other ones. Sometimes it’s this kind of thing of planning; something with all your widgets or sometimes it’s an issue of attachment, sometimes an issue of anger, you might be day dreaming about somebody that you just want to be with them or you might be remembering something that happened a long time ago and be upset about it. Sometime it’s a few persistent kinds of things that come. Are people seeing that? So what kind of things are the persistent ones that are knocking on your door?

Audience: What I’m going to make for lunch!

VTC: Oh, so yours is what you’re going to make for lunch. You know what? Everybody else is thinking about that too, they’re wondering what you’re going to make for lunch! [laughter] So maybe what you should do is assign a different person each day to think about what you should make for lunch, and then just make that, and then you don’t have to think about it. That would help her out a lot wouldn’t it? You know, everybody just figure out, assign a person for different days and then you figure out what the recipe is and the give it to poor [the cook.] Or fortunate [the cook], because she won’t have to think about it in her meditations. Then she’ll get to think about something else, some other distraction. What else is going on?

Working with compulsive thinking and behavior

Audience: Well, I’ve been letting go of Sergeant Joyous Effort, which has been really, really hard. You know looking at what everybody’s doing, and how they’re doing it and are they are doing it correctly, or are they are not doing it correctly. And it’s exhausting. So that was most of the distraction, she’s finally, I think she’s started to figure out that she’s on a little bit of a leave of absence.[laughter] The place isn’t going to burn down; the place isn’t going to fall apart. So what I’ve been looking at my distractions are just this compulsive thinking, this compulsive worrying, this compulsive making judgments about how things are going. But as the week has gone on, as I was telling them at the community meeting, sometimes I actually have to physically leave the house. I have to go outside, take a walk or go the barn, or go take a picture or something because I just refuse to, I really want be able to just relax and just let go. And see my mind and how it just can’t control itself and that the distraction itself is unnecessary. And a lot of times just not getting the story going, the planning, what’s going to happen and who’s got altar rota, who’s got chores, who’s doing what. And so the distraction has just been the compulsiveness of that kind of thinking. I’m sure it’s certainly prior to Sergeant Joyous Effort but as the week has gone on because I have been so vigilant, I think that I can see how much…. You had told me that part of my physical exhaustion is this mental compulsive thinking. And since I’ve been backing off and really, really quieting down, it’s amazing how clear my mind is getting and how relaxed my mind is getting and how at peace my mind is getting, because I don’t have all this compulsive thinking about what to do. And, it’s still around … it’s part of the compulsive behavior.

VTC: So when you’re talking about the compulsive thinking and the compulsive behavior, are you talking more about this thing of wanting to control the environment everybody in it and make sure they are all doing the right thing? Are you talking about that in particular or more that the compulsive thinking just takes any subject? And just goes on and on and in about it?

Audience: I think that’s what I’m discovering is that it’s not externally driven. It internally starts and then finds an object

VTC: Ok, so it’s internal and then it’s just whatever happens to come by. What everybody is doing at the Abbey, and making sure that they’re right is Sergeant Joyous Effort’s forte.

Audience: And I find that it’s the thinking that’s part of, is where it starts is the inside and that it just finds an object is what I’m discovering, it’s not the other way around.

VTC: Right, it’s not that everything is happening in the environment and so that distracts you. It’s you’re looking for something in the environment that will take up your mental energy.

Audience: And there’s a lot of mental energy, so you know my hope is I that I can then turn it into to, I’ve been really wanting to sort of …the self generation part, is to put all that wonderful energy into thinking about emptiness, thinking about reappearing as the Medicine Buddha, and use all that wonderful energy and put it towards something virtuous, rather than something that is compulsive.

VTC: So when you’re pulling back and disciplining the mind, not letting it run around to all the objects then you have so much energy to put into your practice. And that practice is not only doing the meditation on the Medicine Buddha but it’s also what you think about in your break time and where your mind goes in your break time. And that helps because when you keep your mind on the Dharma in the break time then when you go back and sit on the cushion it’s much easier to get into the sadhana.

Audience: When I find myself starting to think about external goings on…. I just call on the Medicine Buddha to give me a hand and to help me. I just come back to putting him on my head so that he’s there with me in my heart and that just puts a focus on the beautiful energy.

VTC: Ok so you’re finding (I’m repeating some of this for the people) that when you find your mind starts going outside if you just remember the Medicine Buddha put him in your heart, put him on your head and that helps you to remember what you are to supposed be doing in this moment, which isn’t all the compulsive thinking about whatever you happen to be getting distracted about.

Audience: And it’s really been helpful because, the fact that I’ve been able to call my mind up officially, the clarity gives me the opportunity, that I can cut it off soon enough, that clarity…I have visualization immediately in my heart. It’s so much clearer, it’s not filled with all these words and thinking and pictures that tends to be in my mind most of the time.

VTC: So the less distraction that you have, the clearer your visualization and the more of a feeling you get for the practice.

Audience: Which in November when I did this practice, I had hardly any feeling because I had so much going on in my mind.

VTC: Yes.

Audience: Noticeable.

VTC: So you’re seeing the difference … yes! [Laughter] How about other people?

Dreams during retreat and understanding karma

Audience: I’ve been dealing a lot with attachment, I was kind of having trouble with my dreams the last while. And I realized at some point that I was attached to them in a way that wasn’t healthy. It had become unhealthy. So I just decided to think about it differently, and I’m just doing this thing during the day where I prepare my mind. It seems to be quite helpful and a lot of it’s just this intention that whatever reaction I have, whatever thoughts I have, because I can’t really control those, is just as soon as I can move it to loving kindness. Just try to surround things with loving kindness. It’s taken the pressure off of … well first of all my dreams, I just don’t think about them in the morning much. It’s kind of like, ok, they’re very vivid, but I just don’t pay any … there’s not enough content there that is helpful to my life. So I just go into the prayers that we do in the morning instead. And achieve this kind of shift because it doesn’t seem so good. And I think just trying to surround things and give myself the space to allow my reactions that I really don’t want to have but they’re there and just as soon as I can move to something more positive. That’s pretty helpful, kind of more realistic for me. I’m not satisfied with my reactions.

I’ve decided well, the one thing that I read that’s been really helpful is that, Geshe Sopa said that the Buddha only talked about your experience in terms of karma. And so I’ve been thinking like, all my experience really is like the Wheel of Sharp Weapons. I really have to take that my reactions; everything that I experience is based in my previous karma. And this thing of what does it mean that it’s ripening? And so I can’t really control that. All I can do is deal with it, and create the causes instead of putting all this pressure on myself and getting dissatisfied with my additional reactions a lot of times to things.

VTC: Ok. Let me talk a little bit here and see…. What happens to us, the environments that we find ourselves in, the situations that we find ourselves in, those are due to ripenings of karma. Sometimes there’s a karmic component to the ripening of our reactions, in the sense that if we’ve done an action repeatedly in the past, there’s the karma to keep on doing it. But a reaction in the present to a ripening of karma, our reaction is the karma, the actual action that plants seeds in out minds that will influence what happens in the future. So that’s the thing that so often we are reacting instead of acting. Something happens and when we’re on automatic we react to it, without thinking and then that creates more and more karma. Sometimes if we’ve trained our mind in loving kindness or on some kind of positive thought, that can be a reaction too. It’s so familiar. Often our reactions are things that, it’s just our usual, same old, same old. Like a push button. Somebody looks at me this way and I get angry and somebody looks at me this way and I get happy. You know, just our old emotions, and reacting, and things like that. And a lot of times, like you mentioned your dreams, and not being satisfied with your dreams, or your dreams disturbing you in your life and then realizing that you are putting too much energy into trying to figure your dreams out. And they are only dreams. They’re only dreams. So, usually in retreat people will have all sorts of dreams; any of you having all sorts of dreams?

Audience: [Heads are nodding, people are making affirmative sounds/remarks.]

VTC: Yes, that’s very, very common. Every year in a retreat or doing a lot of purification, sometimes a lot of stuff comes out in your dreams. Sometimes you may have good dreams; sometimes you will have dreams that are totally off the wall. Sometimes people will be attacking you in dreams, or sometimes you will be attacking them in dreams. The thing to do with your dreams is, if in a dream you’re doing something nonvirtuous, when you wake up in the morning, just realize that, “Oh, I was doing something nonvirtuous in dream, I don’t want to do that, that’s not a type of thinking that I want to have, it’s not a type of action, I just don’t want to go there.” Anyway it was a dream, so it wasn’t a full action. What creates the karma is how you respond to it when you wake up so its just ok, that happened, let it go, I don’t want to do that in waking life and I’m not going to sit there and ruminate about why was this monster chasing me all night? Its like, ok, that’s a ripening of karma, its worth three eons in the hell realms, he can chase me all night, and then I’m done with those three eons in the hell realms and it’s ok!

Now if it’s like, I’m chasing the monster and I have all these weapons and I keep killing him and killing him well I don’t want to kill any living beings. So I regret having the impulse to kill when I wake up. But I’m not going to go and…. Just. drop it after that. It’s just not worth it.

The basic thing about dreams is: interpret them in a way that will help your Dharma practice. It isn’t like dreams have an inherently existent meaning that you’re trying to find out. You interpret things in a way that helps your Dharma practice. In the same way as what’s going in our life, people say things and do things and we interpret them in a way that helps our Dharma practice. Otherwise we interpret them in a way that helps our anger, and we get angry. Whether somebody did something or didn’t do something, we can still get angry. So the idea is training the mind to interpret things in a way that is beneficial for developing the kinds of mindsets that we want to have. And this regards our dreams and regards daily life.

Even in daily life, let’s say somebody comes up to you, and you know for sure, because they’ve told you, “I have a bad motivation, and I’m angry and I’m trashing you.” So they really had a bad motivation and they’re trashing you, so you know for sure they had a bad motivation. Still, you have the choice at that moment to interpret it in a way that helps your Dharma practice and dwelling on the fact that this person had a bad motivation and really wants to hurt you, that doesn’t help your Dharma practice.

Or you say, “Oh, they had a bad motivation and they wanted to hurt me, wow, that poor person, they’re really suffering and they’re creating negative karma by doing this and I don’t want them to create that negative karma and I don’t want them to have that kind of suffering that they are having now by having such anger towards me.” So you accept that maybe they want to hurt you. But the way you interpret that, the way you react to that, is a way that helps your own Dharma practice. Instead of the usual old way of, “Well, they have a bad intention to me, so I’m going to have a bad intention to them. Pop them in the nose!” So instead of that it’s, “Ok, they have a bad intention but they’re suffering right now, they’re creating the cause for more suffering. They’re an object of compassion.” So whatever happens you want to react to it and train your mind to respond to it in a way that helps you develop the kind of qualities that you want to develop. And it’s also more realistic. Because we feel oh somebody wanted to hurt me, then it’s just a fight: get angry. Oh boy, why just a fight to get angry? Or somebody might say, “I’ve got to get angry, my anger is going to help me. Anger is beneficial.” Why? How’s your anger beneficial? So to look at some of these automatic responses and challenge them a bit. Is that helping?

Audience: Yes….

VTC: What you’re talking about?

Audience: I think it’s very consistent. I think what is hard for me to see is, what it feels like … maybe it’s too automatic, it feels like there’s not really choice in the reaction. And I can work with it, but the emotional energy is so strong that it always feels like the antidotes are weak, and I just have to come at it, come at it, come at it all these different ways, and if I get confused, just do breathing meditation. I’ve got to look out for doubt, which undermines me. So it just seems like my process, that’s how it goes.

VTC: So you’re saying that your emotional reactions to things come very, very quickly.

Audience: Yes, and the power of them doesn’t just let up. I can think these things, these antidotes, but the emotional strain. It’s just like you know, I don’t know if I said that to you once but you know that little light that Venerable gave? That little beautiful light that made with the fan?

VTC: Oh yes!

Audience: That’s my good that I’m working with. But it’s fighting against like a hurricane. [laughter] So it jelled inside, it feels like I have these antidotes and these things I’m using, but like the force of what they’re going against, they aren’t going to just change it like on a dime. But you know I use that thought to help myself to be more positive to realize that you can change your thoughts in a moment. You just don’t always happen to change it in a moment.

VTC: You can change your thought in a moment, the thing is, that when things are very habitual and they’re strong, we can change them in the moment but then they come back in the next moment.

Audience: Find that one moment [inaudible].

VTC: So you just keep on calling that one moment back up. And it takes time. I think everybody works with that because when we have strong habitual emotional reactions, it’s going to take time to undo that habit. It’s like any bad habit we have; it takes time to undo it. So we just keep chipping away at it and don’t get discouraged just because it doesn’t vanish instantly.

Audience: I remember when I was doing my work, when I was new into the work I went into, I used to sometimes feel that the day was just so crappy. Then I would look at the patient load, and I would analyze it. Say I saw 15 people, and what would have happened was, one of those interactions was not so good, three were neutral and the rest were good. But I take that one, and it colors my day, and this is exactly what I do with my responses because I execute that same analysis. I look at my day (I’ve been doing that lately), I look at my day and there’s one small little thing that I let color it. And actually so many other things in the day were really, really good, and many were neutral. But I let that one thing color it, so that’s where I’ve been trying to be more aware of and just not let that happen,

VTC: What you’re saying about letting one small thing color your whole day, that’s kind of relating to what she’s saying about her compulsive thinking. This is like just latching on to one thing, and saying that’s the reality of everything.

Audience: Kind of….

VTC: Blowing it up.

Audience: Misery making.

VTC: Yes, definitely, misery making. I think you have a lot of company in that misery [laughter].

Audience: I find that exact same thing also in my dreams. I have to be very careful to not let the feeling that I carry with me from my dream, let it color the day. Like if I wake up and I have had a terrible dream, and I grasp onto that and then if I run with that, then my day is just shot.

VTC: Yes.

Audience: I don’t like dreams because of that reason. If they’re good, then I have to wake up from them and I hate that. And then if they’re bad, I’m stuck in them, and it seems like forever. I never really relate very well to them but…. I had a dream, the first day of retreat I think, where I was like breaking my precepts. But it wasn’t about my breaking my precepts, it was just about you know, sex and drugs. It had nothing to do with the precepts, it was just about that, the precepts weren’t even a thought and then it came into my mind like spontaneously that I was breaking my precepts.

VTC: In the dream?

Audience: In the dream.

VTC: That’s good!!

Audience: So I tried to counteract it in the dream, I visualized Chenrezig, and I was like well…. I think I’ll go back to the defilements. [laughter] I figured that was alright though, better than just not ever thinking of it. But then I came to the idea of actually purifying that and the practice is that suitable? I don’t normally dwell on it at all but if I’m like in the hall and I remember that, then I just go ahead and purify anything that I did in a dream.

VTC: Right. You’re doing something nonvirtuous in a dream, purify it. Confess it; purify it even though it’s not something you actually did. Confess it, purify it and then, let it go. Don’t keep it in your mind and tussle with it and react to it and proliferate about it. But if you’re dreaming and in the middle of your dream that you realize you’re breaking a precept, that’s quite good, you know. His Holiness always says that even in his dreams he’s a monk. So there’s always that remembrance, even in your dreams. That’s what you want to cultivate.

And what you can do is whatever you are dreaming about, you can think of Chenrezig and then you say I want to go back to that, have them all change into Chenrezig. It’s a very good meditation technique. If you are getting distracted in your meditation, some object of attachment just is coming up again and again or some object of anger is coming again and again and again, just make the whole thing explode into a million Chenrezigs. Or make the person you’re having a lot of attachment or resentment for, make them into Chenrezig. And you’re not going to have lust and anger towards Chenrezig.

Purification and anger and the 35 Buddhas practice

Audience: I have a question abut the 35 Buddhas practice. I was doing it and I was having some anger towards some people. I was purifying that. And they say in the practice to put them in front of you as you are prostrating. And it wasn’t really helping me at all to do anything for my anger for them. I was just looking at the backs of their heads. What’s the point? So then I kind if imagined that they were sitting looking back at me, is that alright?

VTC: So it says when you’re prostrating or when you’re taking refuge or whatever to put the people you are upset with or people you don’t like in front of you. The idea being that, to look at the Buddhas, you have to see those people. And here you are having all those animositous feelings, animosity, what’s the adjective for animosity?

Audience: Hostile.

VTC: Okay, all those hostile feelings towards somebody in the presence of the Buddha. That’s going to make it, “I don’t want to have bad feelings towards somebody in the presence of the Buddha. That’s not really what I want to do.” So it kind of helps you. That’s a good kind of shame. Kind of like, “Oh. I don’t want to do that.” So it reminds you to try and drop the anger. You were saying that just looking at the back of their heads while you’re prostrating was making you angry. And they weren’t even in the room. Probably good, who knows what would have happened then? [laughter]

So because you were finding that just thinking about them was revving you up, that you had them in your imagination, sit down somewhere. That’s fine.

Audience: No, I actually, it wasn’t revving me up, it just wasn’t doing anything. It wasn’t affecting me emotionally at all, so I just had them turn around and sit down facing back at me so that I was actually prostrating to the Buddhas but in their direction.

VTC: Oh, I see, so the people were still in front of you, only you were seeing their faces instead of the back of their heads, in your imagination.

Audience: Yes, and then I could feel that hurt my pride a lot, because then it was….

VTC: Okay, I get what you’re saying. So then instead of them in front of you, you’re all prostrating to the Buddha together, then they turned around and face you and you were prostrating to them as if saying, “I am sorry for getting so angry at you.” That’s fine.

You ever felt like that way, like you need to apologize to people you get angry at because you realize your anger is really uncalled for?


Audience: I have a really hard time apologizing, I think my pride really gets in the way. For me to say “I’m sorry,” is really, really difficult. I tend to, what I do is a little more subtle. I’ll do something nice for them and in my mind I do the apology with loving kindness, but they don’t know that. They’re probably more confused then, because the person who was angry is now being kind and they don’t know what’s going on. It’s pretty hard for me to apologize.

VTC: So you’re finding that saying the words to somebody “I’m sorry,” is really difficult for you. Might be a good thing to practice doing. I can just see it tomorrow morning, there’s going to be little notes on everybody’s place. [laughter] I’m joking.

How about everybody else? What’s happening?

Breathing meditation and mindfulness

Audience: During breathing meditation this just came up. I can see part of it is that I actually stopped doing everything, just to get the Abbey and that stopped when I sat down on the plane seat. The month of December was a huge rush. School, putting stuff in storage and then Christmas and then going back to clean the apartment and truly I stopped on the plane seat and then I could rest. So right now what I’m noticing is that, breathing meditation is just this constant dialogue. And so I tell myself, “Stop, right now, stop.” And then I’ll think I’ve got it. And a few seconds later it’s like…. So I’m trying to be patient now because I can see that the train came to a stop but this momentum you know…. Do you have suggestions?

VTC: Okay, so when there’s just a lot of chatter going on in the mind, I think it’s good to just say “stop.” But it’s like when you say “stop,” you can’t think that just saying “stop” is going to last for a long time. You stop, and then each moment, you’re stopping. Do you understand what I mean? So it’s not just that I’m bringing myself back to the breath right now, now that I’ve brought myself back, then I just can let my mind go again. It’s, I brought myself back, let’s renew my mindfulness of the breath, and pay more attention to the breath right now. Because sometimes we bring ourselves back, but we don’t renew the mindfulness on the object of meditation. So you’ve got to bring yourself back and renew the mindfulness. Some people find it easier to develop concentration on a visualized image. If that’s the case for you, just do a little bit of breathing, five or ten minutes just to calm the mind down or 21 breaths or whatever you want to do and then go to the image of the Buddha. And sometimes for some people holding the image, in this case of the Medicine Buddha … their mind is more attracted to the image of the Medicine Buddha than it is to the breath so it become easier to stay on that image than it does on the breath. So people are really different regarding that.

True compassion

Audience: I think that is true for me. Can I ask a question? Obviously my parents are a concern for me right now. Is it alright in practice to have them right there and send the light to them?

VTC: Sure.

Audience: That’s what I’ve been doing, well I wasn’t sure that’s the best thing to do but it seems to be the right thing to do since there’s confusion there in my mind.

VTC: Just don’t forget all sentient beings.

Audience: No, but I do that, but do I say “all sentient beings” or “people with these particular challenges?”

VTC: I think you say all sentient beings, and in the session maybe I’d focus on people with particular challenges. But instead of letting your mind just go round and around and around about your parents. Because why are you focusing on your parents when there are so many other beings that have that same challenge?

Audience: I’m acquainted with their struggle so I do try and include other people but it’s a good question.

VTC: Think about that a little bit. You don’t want to block people we know that we care about, out of our mind, and their struggles, but we don’t want their struggles to monopolize our mind. Because then we aren’t able to break out and really practice. Because all we’re basically doing is worrying on the meditation cushion. If you’re worrying a lot it’s good to have that person with Medicine Buddha on their head and everything like that. But it’s like you’ve also got to practice really enlarging the scope. And they have that problem and you know, you love your parents now, but you know they haven’t always been your parents and they aren’t always going to be your parents and everybody else who’s sitting in this room has been your parent. So you want to also kind of try to stretch the mind a bit so that we don’t just get so focused on the problems and troubles of the people that we care about.

Audience: But, isn’t that a starting place because otherwise, there’s not that same kind of warmth, it’s just masses of people and I don’t know how to….

VTC: To prevent it from being masses of people, you want to do the equanimity meditation. See all sentient beings as your mother and then remember their kindness, so that you’re including all sentient beings in this whole thing of seeing them as lovable.

See that all sentient beings have been kind to you. It’s not just your parents who’ve been kind to you but the road workers and the garbage men, and all these other people who’ve been so kind to you. So instead of just getting fixated on two people, remembering the kindness of a large number of people as individuals. Think about [her] suffering, and [her] suffering, and [his] suffering, [her] suffering, everybody’s suffering.

If you want to keep it from being this vague mass that you don’t relate to, think of other people that you know because it’s not like your parents are the only ones who are suffering. Remember there are three kinds of suffering. The first kind is the suffering of pain. That’s what your parents are going through, but everybody else has that sometime during the day too.

There’s also the dukkha of change and the pervasive compounded dukkha. Think about sentient beings having that. Think about your parents having that. Don’t just get stuck in the “ouch” suffering.

Because the ouch suffering, it’s just an ouch suffering for a short time. The physical pain that you experience is not limitless, it ends. The worst thing that people are going through is the fact of being under the control of afflictions and karma. That’s a much more severe situation. By being under the control of afflictions and karma, they’re going to continually create more and more causes for rebirth and more and more causes for the ouch kind of dukkha. That pervasive compounded suffering is much more serious, really. That’s why I don’t agree with always talking about suffering—suffering because then we only think people are suffering when they have physical pain or when they have mental pain. Physical pain and mental pain stink, but that’s not the worst thing that’s happening to us. You can recover from your physical and mental pain and be happy, but by being under the influence of afflictions and karma then the whole thing’s just going to happen again.

We really have to open our minds and broaden our perspectives. Otherwise we degenerate into this kind of weepy compassion for everybody’s physical suffering. We have compassion for people who have physical suffering but then for the politicians, and the CEOs, and the people in the military, we have no compassion at all until they get wounded and then we have compassion. But that doesn’t make any sense. Why do we just have compassion just because somebody experiences ouch pain?

Compassion has to be much more stable and broader spread than that—really looking at what is the real difficulty in people’s lives. Similarly, seeing all sentient beings as lovable, instead of just getting hooked in by a few people in this life. Of course our parents have been kind to us in this life, and we want to help them, and we feel grateful to them. But we can’t get where just our mind is knotted around a couple of people. What about everybody else who’s been our parents? What about everybody else, many of whom have suffering far greater than our parents suffering is?

Are you seeing what I’m talking about?

Think about the turkeys. Really, seriously. I look at the turkeys. My goodness, would you want to be born as a turkey? Imagine having that rebirth and being stuck in that kind of body, with the total inability to think. So difficult. Sometimes you even go out to feed them, and they don’t understand that you’re feeding them. They were having, something happened this afternoon, I don’t know. Maybe they were having their, what do you call it, their primaries [laughter] so they were out doing there campaigning at the last minute. Who was going to get the Democratic and Republican nominations for the turkeys?

Audience: Lots of Republicans showed up. [Inaudible]

VTC: Ah, so they were already at the election. Who was going to be in charge here? Imagine just being born as a turkey, my goodness. And here you are at the Abbey, here you are so close to the Buddha’s statue and can’t even recognize it as a Buddha. Can’t even know to create merit with it, can’t even know anything. How do you get out of that kind of rebirth when it’s so difficult in the mind to create any virtuous thought? And then just running around all the time.

If you’re thinking about everything the turkeys did today, that’s exactly like politics in an office when you get involved in politics in your work place. Just think, we’re like a flock of turkeys. It’s exactly the same thing. Cackle, cackle, cackle. Same thing, except they’re talking turkey. We’re talking English but the meaning is the same. I’m right, the other guys a jerk. Get out of here. It’s just that we make it much more complicated than that so we think we’re more intelligent. But I don’t know that that’s the case.

Dedicating personal happiness for all sentient beings

VTC: What else is happening?

Audience: I had this experience that was quite fun. I’d been inside too much for days and I went walking and ended up sledding down the hill. It was lovely to be out: I got a lot of exercise. It was quite joyful; I’m usually more reserved. I was by myself. My mind was really very happy. It felt good to be out there.

VTC: Good. Good. Nothing wrong with being happy.

Audience: But it was funny. I was just watching my mind. Not having this judgment.

VTC: Yes.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: You walk up there and you slide down, and you dedicate it for all mother sentient beings. May the happiness I feel doing this, may all mother sentient beings feel this.

Audience: I had this great thought as I came down. I kept going and I realized I went through right where the monastic hall was, because I could see the little sticks marking it.

VTC: There he went, right through the bedroom! [laughter]

Audience: It was really beautiful too being out in the meadow. It was stunning. The land is just so gorgeous.

VTC: That’s why it’s really good that people get out. Especially when it’s sunny, make sure you get out.

Not judging yourself

Audience: I’ve been having a pretty good time actually. I know I’m distracted in the hall. I’m distracted all the time. But I feel hopeful about noticing it and catching it and coming back sooner than I used to. I think what I’m experiencing is the effect of the Vajrasattva retreat. Like some fruits of that. This is so much more joyful and easy. Even the hard parts are easier. I don’t know how to explain that. In Vajrasattva, I don’t know what was happening. I look back: Wow, was that hard work. We were very joyful then too. But there’s something now like this kind of knowing it goes like this and it goes like that and like this. I had a really wonderful meditation yesterday. Then, I labeled it wonderful and then I got really excited. And, of course, the next one was horrible, it was just horrible, I couldn’t keep up anything. I fell asleep. I kept trying not to fart. It was the lowest of the low.

The minute you label it “a good meditation,” you’re doomed, you’ve just blown it. I saw that because I grabbed right at it. “Oh, that’s good. Now I’m going to do that every time.” Yeah right, but, I just really feel the effects of that Vajrasattva retreat. I just feel the effects of it very deeply—something got out of the way. Some big chunk of bodily aches and pains, that kind of chchchch thing.

I’m working with that book a lot that you recommended. It’s a lot about the main thing about distraction and then this “too loose,” “too tight.” What’s really interesting, I thought it was just looking at it in meditation and then as I’ve been off the cushion I see that whole scene in my whole life. Even when I’m mopping the floor, I can get really tight about mopping the floor. Then I get really loose, “Oh, I don’t care, I’m not going to go under there.” All of a sudden I get really tight. I’m going to get everything out of the corner. I just watch myself do this with everything. It’s really fascinating. I’m really enjoying it. Wow, too loose, totally give up, I don’t even care about this dust-bunny; then the next day I’m so tight. It’s very weird but it’s really fun. Not just seeing it on the cushion, but off.

VTC: And what’s nice is you’re seeing sometimes you’re too loose and sometimes you’re too tight, not only in meditation but also in your daily life actions. But what’s changed is you’re not judging yourself about it. That’s what’s changed. “Oh yes, I’m too loose. Oh look at me, I’m too tight. Oh look at me.”

But you’re not “Oh, I’m too loose. Oh God, I’ll never get anything accomplished. I always do this. Oh, I’m useless. Oh, I’m too … I’m so neurotic. No wonder I’m too tight.” You’re seeing it and then knowing, “Okay I need to get some balance in here.” But you’re not judging yourself.

That’s what makes the retreat so much more enjoyable, because all that self-judgment isn’t there.

VTC: Okay, what’s happening?

Audience: Oh dear. Well, as far as my meditation practice? Well, it’s been interesting but, you know, I have a few things to obsess about. And, I did something interesting the other day. I figured I kind of surrendered. All right, if I’m going to think about it, I’m just going to think about it all day I’m not going to stop thinking about it even if I want to stop, I’m not going to. I’m going to work with this, even if I’m bored with the scenario. I don’t have a home right now. I have places to stay, but I don’t have a residence and I don’t have any idea of where I’m going to be in the spring or what I’m going to choose for my life and that’s huge right now. That’s huge to plan but I don’t even know where my life’s going to be at in two months. It’s useless to plan because I have no idea.

So I did that. I made that the practice. The next day I was going to do the practice. One day of indulgence, and the next day I was just going to just start with my breath and look at my breath like (I have) a hot cup of coffee and I’m going through a crowd of people with it, and I don’t want to spill it on anybody. The crowd of people are all my ideas and thoughts. I’m going to keep my mind on that cup of coffee and not spill it. And it went so well. Yesterday and today have just been phenomenal. Like today I went outside and it’s just been phenomenal how much it worked and how much space I have now. A little bit this afternoon, the third set, I went back to lay life, and there was so much more space than two days ago. It was so remarkable. I think, Wow, if I do this the whole retreat, when I’m out of retreat, what would that be like? Just now I’m having a breakthrough.

But I have [inaudible] the opposite and I don’t know…. This always happens with me, except with Manjushri, for some reason, because he has the sword. I like the sword but I’m a very auditory person, and I like donuts, and I really can focus. Like right now my breath kind of came pretty easily once I have the determination to do it. But when I get into the visualizations, I don’t know, I’m an 80’s generation movie watcher, video gamer and I think that it ignites that in me. Honestly, I just start going into these movies and video games in my mind … like I’m a character in my video games. I can’t ignite that for me. But if I just don’t do the visualizations and I stick with the mantra or just the breath, like today, it works for me. I don’t know. I feel like I’m impaired. It’s all so visual.

VTC: Okay. So they’ve done experiments, some people learn better through hearing, some people by visual means and some people by kinesthetic by doing things. So I think if you’re more of an auditory person, then the visualization maybe can go a bit in the background, and you try and focus more on the mantra and the energy of the mantra. It doesn’t mean, don’t visualize at all. You might think of the sound of the mantra manifesting as the image of Medicine Buddha. Think that it’s sound, just becoming the Medicine Buddha. See if that helps you with the visualization.

But, it’s fine if you feel that the mantra helps you settle your mind more, to pay more attention to that.

What you’re doing in visualizing the Medicine Buddha—because it might seem like it’s also sparking all your other visualization and your movies and things like that—what you’re doing is you’re using that tendency to visualize, to combat the tendency to visualize. Our usual tendency to visualize is visualizing stupidaggios (It’s the one word in Italian I never forgot)—it means stupid things. So usually we can go off on all these visual things. You’re going back to Portland and you’re homeless with your backpack. “Where am I going to live?” On and on. You’re visualizing all the time. So here you’re just making a different movie but one with the Medicine Buddha, so instead of making a movie that has, where am I going, to live? I could live here and there, I could go here and there and that. That kind of movie doesn’t get us anywhere. So you make a movie with the Medicine Buddha and that’s much nicer. You hang out with the Medicine Buddha for a while. He’s there and light’s coming, purifying you, inspiring you and then Medicine Buddha dissolves into you.

It’s much nicer. Medicine Buddha is a really good friend. You don’t just sit there and you know, “Oh God, I have to call him back, otherwise he’s going to be mad at me. Maybe I said the wrong thing to Medicine Buddha, the relationship’s over. He’s looking at Nan across the room. Medicine Buddha’s not going to come to my visualizations anymore, too involved with her.” [laughter] It’s using the tendency to visualize, but you’re doing it in a really good way.

Audience: But it is okay to put it on the back burner if it’s creating distractions? You can build up to it?

VTC: Yes. Still do it, but don’t make your mind tight about it. At the part where you’re doing the mantra, you can focus more on the mantra and less on the visualization, that’s fine. But at the beginning part when you’re doing the prayers and everything like that, try and do the visualization then because that will help you.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: You want to feel like you’re in their [the buddhas’] presence. It’s the same thing. You might be looking at me, but you’re getting a feeling content when you look at people. The fact that your feeling content means more to you doesn’t mean that you close your eyes when you walk around. The same thing in your meditation. You don’t block out the visualization simply because saying the prayers and the thought and the feeling speaks to you more. You still keep that. You just don’t have to emphasize it as much.

Audience: I’m finding that I’m wanting to kind of laugh or chuckle more than usual times. The turkeys are good. You just look at their tracks in the snow and where they’ve gone. You think it’s so funny. Actually sometimes, there’s the prayer that we do—there’s one line that struck me as funny. It’s just the way my mind took it I’m sure. I just found that it’s kind of nice to feel that, the cats are always good to laugh. As far as having a really good meditation and then the next time I can’t even get the request without going off somewhere.

But I found that I have what I thought was a brilliant idea. I have my five fingers and if it was something to do with me fantasizing about what to do after—because I don’t know what I’m going to do either—that would be my little finger. I’d wiggle that little finger. If it was something about putting myself down, that would be the next one. This next one here would be, I don’t know, anger or something which is big one, so I’m using it on my fingers to try and get back.

I think what’s been really bothering me since I found out I had to lead a session, really trying to pay attention to the times everybody rings the bell, and what am I going to say? I thought I was going to be doing this in the lamrim and it turns out my lamrim is an older version so it’s going to be a different one. Anyway and then fitting my life into it. I have done so much work on myself, thinking about what I’m going to say. I wish I would have written some of it down. I’m sure I won’t be able to come up with them tomorrow. I don’t know what I’ll come up with tomorrow. But some of that stuff…. It’s almost like I feel safe in the gompa, in the hall. I feel really safe there. I feel like I can deal with what I’m doing. For me, the hard part of the retreat is coming out. My greatest example was having a shower. I was going to have it in that room and it was due at three days and there was a conference going on. “Well I’m going downstairs, I’m not supposed to go downstairs, I get told off for going downstairs but I’m going anyway!” [laughter]

VTC: Oh, what a terrible thing. Did you hear what she did? You can have a shower wherever you want.

Audience: Oh, is that okay? [laughter] The snow. I love the snow. The snow is so different all the time. “I’m going out to pee”—[she repeats MB mantra several times] as I’m going to the porta-potty. [laughter]. It’s a blizzard, and I’m thinking oh, if I can’t find my way, what if I get lost? But I made it and when I came back, there was so much snow. No, things are not perfect. I feel that I’m in a strange part of my life cause I’ve retired and things that made my life meaningful are not there any more. Wow.

VTC: You have a whole new opportunity to find a much deeper meaning in your life.

Audience: Despite that it’s hard, it feels really good. I really enjoy [two retreatants] they’re fooling around in bare feet running out to the gompa and here I’ve got my scarf and my coat and he’s going out there in bare feet. I appreciate that joyfulness that they have.

Audience: I don’t like taking my shoes off.

VTC: How are you doing?

Audience: Oh, I was just thinking that my energy field probably intruded on you and you probably caught my anxiety because a couple of days ago, I was reading and I don’t know why I’m so anxious, because I did do Chenrezig. And I agree with [another retreatant], it’s hugely helpful to have done a retreat previously. I feel like I’m really getting into this one just so much faster. But, I was really anxious. I think it’s because of my confession—actually I don’t really like to talk about personal things. I disclosed it—what I did—to you because I brought him to the retreat so I had to tell everybody. That kind of threw me off. So anyway, I just rushed, I rushed.

But I wish also, we had a community meeting that you could be with us someday and hear how quiet, I mean it’s curious, how quiet it’s been, it’s just wonderful.

VTC: Very good, very good.

Audience: Til I show up!

Audience: That’s not true

Audience: I don’t know, for me I found it very loud. But I’m also just flipping the pages, to me it’s excruciating to go schkschkschk (very slow, trying-so-hard-to-be-quiet noise). Or the zipper—when people do the zipper, they just do one little quick zip. [laughter] It’s just like a bandage, just rip the thing off, and nobody has to worry about it any more. That’s what I do in the hall, everything is just a band-aid.

VTC: Well, I don’t hear anybody complaining. Is anybody complaining?

[Discussion with laughter, difficult to hear]

Audience: Being in the hall, I had this whole thing today where my allergies were, well…. I’ll have a day where my allergy medication will work really well and then I’ll have a day where it kind of won’t. Today I really couldn’t breathe. I had to leave during breakfast. I got a Reiki treatment, which was very helpful, but I notice there was this physical aspect that was really, really uncomfortable, but then there was this whole mental aspect. I added all this mental suffering on to the physical suffering. Because I was having trouble breathing I was getting more stressed out. My mental suffering was making it physically harder for me to breath like the mental story. It didn’t last as long as it usually does. I could sort of stop the mental story sooner. But it was so…. I’m happy about the mental stories. Oh this is so horrible and I can’t be at the abbey because I can’t breathe. I’m happy that ended sooner. But still, it was so difficult to get through the whole, just getting to actually feeling the physical suffering and not staying stuck in the whole mental suffering.

VTC: Remember I spoke about that just recently. We have something physical and then our mind just spins off around it. So you’re saying that that’s what happened. You saw really how much the spinning of the mind made the physical suffering worse. But you said that you couldn’t even focus on the physical suffering.

Audience: I was noticing that later, afterwards it was really hard to breathe and so I was really constricted but I noticed afterwards that I had all this tension in my back. Sort of like, I hadn’t even noticed this tension in my back until I calmed down.

VTC: That tension in your back was probably making the feeling of not breathing. When that happens, everybody understands. Don’t worry about it. Just do what you need to do. And if there’s a way we can do it to prevent it.

Audience: Also, I was going to say if we have another blizzard and you need somebody to walk out there with you, I’m happy to go.

Audience: It was really beautiful last night and the blizzard had stopped, whenever I go, and I am the last one, I circumambulate on the platform and that paned glass was completely covered with ice and snow. It was a nice way to end the night and I cleared off the glass and turned off the lights. Beautiful.

VTC: Yes, it was quite beautiful watching snow blowing sideways.

Okay, let’s sit quietly.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.