Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Working with the mind in retreat

Working with the mind in retreat

Part of a series of teachings given during the Manjushri Winter Retreat from December 2008 to March 2009 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Working with the mind of anger
  • The Buddha’s virtuous qualities and emptiness
  • Identifying the basis of designation
  • How is a meaning generality a permanent phenomenon?
  • Relaxing as the antidote to falling asleep during meditation
  • What is lung?

Manjushri Retreat 09: Q&A (download)

Questions about the retreat? How’s the retreat going? People are coming out of retreat—how’s it been? People are going into retreat—how’s it going?

Taming a wild mind

Audience: The first thing that happened is I sprained my ankle very badly on the ice so I had to sit in a chair [in the meditation hall], which was not my picture of how this was supposed to be. And then yesterday, I got really, really sick in the hall like I was going to faint. I don’t know what that was about. So I was in bed most of the day. That wasn’t my picture of how things were supposed to be. And so then today I was mad about all that. Today I got so mad that the third session I just couldn’t even think of what to do with my mind. It was that wild. And finally, I think just going there, and just sitting; just like, “So what. So your mind is absolutely wild.” And I couldn’t focus on anything for the first 15 minutes except being mad at everything, everybody. Then, I just decided to do blue Medicine Buddha instead of trying to do the [Manjushri] sadhana again. It really cooled everything down. I just came out very happy. It was like, I just found, “Well, what could I do,” instead of what I couldn’t do.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): So, you were angry and upset because you sprained your ankle and you didn’t feel well. And that wasn’t your agenda for what was supposed to happen during retreat: “It’s all wrong. I have a complaint to file with the universe.”

Audience: I knew it was deluded thinking but it was so strong.

VTC: So strong, yes. The mind is just overwhelmed by it, even though we know it’s deluded.

Audience: Yes, I could logically see it but there was no logic to be had.

VTC: But it’s really good that you went in there and you sat anyway. Because then you were forced to work with the mind, rather than coming in here and slamming pots and pans, and throwing cat food in the air. [laughter] You had to stay and actually work with the mind. Then you did what you felt would help your mind at that moment, and that’s the skillful approach in dealing with the mind. We have to be a doctor to our own mind. So you have to do what you know is going to work, and what you feel is going to work, at that particular moment when there’s a very strong affliction in your mind. And it worked. Good. So that’s the meaning of practicing Dharma: when you’re able to transform that negative state and let it go, and calm the mind down, and have a more positive state. That’s the meaning of practicing Dharma.

A statue of a buddha covered in snow.

That’s the meaning of practicing Dharma: when you’re able to transform a negative state, let it go, and calm the mind down. (Photo by Roger LeJeune)

Audience: It also helped that there was about a one-minute exchange between me and Fredrick in between the sessions; where we just kind of looked at each other and went, “We have to go back in the hall?” [laughter] And we were making faces at each other, letting each other know that we were both struggling. Something started to shift there for me.

VTC: Yes, that’s nice. Because otherwise sometimes we get this mind that feels like, “I’m the only one who knows what I’m feeling.” We’re just stuck in our own thing. And, “Nobody else understands me. I’m the only one.” Sometimes it just takes that short exchange and we can bring some humor and understanding to it.

Be a doctor to your own mind

Audience: [My experience] it’s similar to that. Allowing [myself] to have a lot of flexibility in what goes on in the sessions. That’s been really helpful. So, maybe more mantra, more other [things]. And even though I come in with an agenda, I feel like I’ve got this container. If something seems like it is working or something comes up, I feel like I can stay there and not feel like, “Oh, I’ve got to do this now or “X” amount of that.” This has given me a lot of space. I feel like it’s been very productive, beneficial.

VTC: It’s always a tricky thing with that. Sometimes if you have that space, because you don’t have a required number of mantra or you don’t have to do such-and-such a meditation for so many minutes, then some people get really lost in it. They don’t know what to do. But for other people, like you were saying, it gives you the space where if you’re at some point in your meditation and it’s going well, you stick with it.

Whereas some people if they get lost with the space, then having a certain number of mantra to say, that keeps them doing something. So it’s really interesting and this is part of learning to be a doctor to our own mind. Is [to] know when something is working and stay with it, and when: “I’m getting lost, I’m too spacey, I’m not concentrated, I need to come back to the structure.” And then use the sadhana, or the number of mantra to say to get you doing something. It’s very helpful to know when to stay with something and when to move on. Because sometimes if you have this thing of, “I’ve got to do this sadhana with so many mantra!” you miss the real meditation. So it works both ways.

Inherent existence and perfection

Audience: I’m thinking about perfection, which is a Buddha. And I have this limited understanding of emptiness of things. But when you reach that state of perfection, is that a case of getting more and more subtlety perfect and refined? It’s just perfection then. So then why couldn’t a Buddha be also inherently existent with that perfection?

VTC: First of all, perfect is a weird word. [Your question is:] “But if we say all the Buddha’s virtuous qualities are complete, then why couldn’t the Buddha be inherently existent?” Well, how did those virtuous qualities get to be complete?

Audience: Through causes and conditions.

VTC: So if something is created by causes and conditions, is it inherently existent?

Audience: I get that part, but the qualities are complete, they don’t continue becoming more clear.

VTC: But are qualities permanent or impermanent?

Audience: Impermanent.

VTC: Can something impermanent be inherently existent?

Audience: Okay, [I get it.]

VTC: You’re thinking the qualities become complete, [but] you’re thinking of them as permanent actually, [as if:] “They’re complete. They have a circle around them. These are complete qualities. They don’t change moment to moment. They’re just solid.” But qualities change moment to moment, don’t they? They aren’t the same [each moment]. Love, compassion—those minds change moment to moment, so they’re impermanent.

Audience: Yes, I see the argument [or reasoning], but??

VTC: [You’re thinking:] “They’re really solid and I can draw a line around them; because once they’re perfect they can’t change.” But if they don’t change, then how can the Buddha act out of them? How can the Buddha act with compassion if the mind of compassion doesn’t change moment to moment?

Audience: Yes, okay, that makes sense. Thank you.

Beginning meditation with lamrim

Audience: It’s been feeling like a lot of meditation for me—this many sessions. It feels like going from a daily practice of the morning and maybe the night, to five or six sessions a day. It feels like a lot.

VTC: Well, it is. [laughter] But it’s nothing compared to the way some people do retreat because your sessions are short; one of the sessions is a study time. Compared to how some people do retreat, this is not a lot of meditation. But compared to what you’re used to doing in the city it’s a lot, so it takes some getting used to. Sure.

Audience: I’m finding that I spend maybe the first five to fifteen minutes, doing an unofficial, which sometimes is very beneficial and sometimes it’s not. I’m finding a lot of challenge in breaking that habit. I try to go straight to the sadhana.

VTC: Oh, there’s nothing wrong with doing lamrim at the beginning. Because you can do lamrim to help you generate your motivation. And you can do lamrim to help you take refuge. There’s nothing wrong with doing lamrim at the beginning. Lamrim can really make your motivation for the sadhana much stronger. That’s why if you ever go to a retreat with Lama Zopa, he spends most of the session leading you in a lamrim meditation and then you do a little bit of the sadhana.

Nonaffirming negative

Audience: I’m trying to have emptiness actually be empty instead of solid. I ran into this argument in my mind which is, “Emptiness is a nonaffirming negative. Isn’t that causes and conditions?”

VTC: No, a nonaffirming negative means that something is being negated and nothing is being affirmed.

Audience: But isn’t that a condition?

VTC: No, [for example:] there’s no sugar on the table. Okay? There’s no sugar here. It’s just, “There’s no sugar here.”

Audience: It’s not a condition?

VTC: No.

Audience: A condition of “no sugar”?

VTC: Oh, don’t use condition like that. Here, by condition, we’re meaning like a causative condition. In English, the word condition can have multiple meanings. Here when we’re talking about “condition”—it’s a “conditioned phenomena”—means that it’s produced by causes and it’s something that becomes a cause for something else. Often we use the word “cause” to mean the principal cause, and “conditions” to mean the auxiliary causes.

Meaning generality and permanent phenomena

Audience: In my notes from Jeffrey Hopkins’ teachings, I have stumbled onto this thing about spending a year looking at the designated object and the basis of designation. I’ve been doing that a lot. I’ve discovered that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m fine with forms that are visual or tactile. But when it comes to things like the smell of brownies baking, I’ve labeled it “the smell of brownies” but what’s the basis of the designation of the scent? So I’m having trouble with those, and also with concepts—like the appearance of Manjushri. Myself as Manjushri is a meaning generality, but what’s the basis of designation of that appearance?

VTC: So when it’s something you can see the basis of designation, you can take it and see its parts or something like that. But with the smell of the brownies cooking, the basis of designation is the moments of that odor or the particles [of the brownie that are in the air] because [with] smell, the particles are touching here [indicates her nose]. And also, it could also be that maybe it’s not a totally unified smell. Maybe different parts of the brownie give off different fragrances, but your mind’s putting them together into one fragrance.

Then the image of the Buddha: are you talking about the Buddha that’s being imagined, or are you talking about the image in your mind?

Audience: What’s the difference?

VTC: The basis of designation of the image of Manjushri in your mind is: you have the image of yellow, you have the image of a sword, you have the image of all these different things. So all of that appearance to your mind is what you’re labeling “the image of Manjushri.”

Audience: So it’s a series of concepts that are put together?

VTC: No, because they say a meaning generality is a permanent phenomenon. But it’s like you can’t hold on to the meaning generality. Maybe you would say it’s the basis of designation of the appearance to your mind. Hmm. [Thinking out loud] It’s the meaning generality. It would have to be, the causes, something about: whatever it was that brought about that meaning generality in your mind.

Don’t get yourself tangled up with the appearance. Just talk about what’s the basis of [designation]. Don’t think about the meaning generality right now. Think about the basis of designation for Manjushri—his body, his mind, things like that.

But the basis of designation for the meaning generality: It has got to be whatever is that appearance is to your mind. It’s just that appearance to your mind and then you’re labeling it “meaning generality” or “image of Manjushri” because you’ve had previous familiarization with what Manjushri is and what all these different things are and so you label it “image of Manjushri.”

Audience: It’s still the parts of the image then?

VTC: Well, the image, does the image have parts? You can look at different parts, true. Maybe it’s the parts: the color—the image of the blue color, the image of the red color, the image of the purple color, whatever it is that that’s the basis of designation for that image appearing to your mind.

But I think it’s more helpful to think about what’s the basis of imputation of Manjushri.

If you’re stuck on images, then think, “What’s the basis of imputation?” Because I’m thinking about this person and getting mad at them. So what’s the basis of imputation for the thing that I’m getting mad at, for that image in the mind?

Audience: That’s good.

Audience: How is a meaning generality a permanent phenomena?

VTC: This is something that I have trouble understanding. It seems to me that meaning generalities could very well be impermanent phenomena. And there is somebody who says it’s an impermanent phenomena. It was Gendun Chopel but they kicked him out of the monastery.

Audience: Was that the reason they kicked him out?

VTC: No, no, for a different reason. But they say that it’s permanent because you know the object through negating everything that isn’t that object. So when you’re having a concept mind, you’re getting at the object. If I’m thinking of telephone, that image in the mind is understood by being the opposite of everything that is not a telephone. So because that image is developed through this process of negation, therefore they say it’s a permanent phenomena.

Audience: Then why wouldn’t the telephone be a permanent phenomena?

VTC: Because a telephone changes moment to moment, doesn’t it? But the image of the telephone is not the telephone. That’s the point it’s making: the image of the telephone isn’t the telephone. The image of the person you’re getting mad at is not the person you’re getting mad at.

Audience: [Speaker giving the example of designing a car]. The model, the shape, and everything about the car changed over some years. The meaning generality changed so it wasn’t permanent.

VTC: But they’re totally different meaning generalities. You’re talking about designing a car, and so how each mental image you have at each process of the designing is a different mental image of the car.

Audience: Okay, but let’s say I’m eighty years old. When I was five, my meaning generality of a car was one thing. When I’m eighty, my meaning generality of a car is something different.

VTC: Right. Right.

Audience: But the car is involved.

VTC: Right. When you’re five, your body was one thing; and when your eighty your body is another thing. So they’re different.

Audience: Yes, they’re different but I don’t claim that they’re permanent whereas the meaning generality of a car, I claim that it’s permanent.

VTC: But it’s not the same meaning generality that you had when you were five and that you have when you’re eighty. Your image of a car—it’s not like you have one meaning generality and that meaning generality itself changed. That meaning generality was there with that consciousness. It ceased. Yes? And then another consciousness—the consciousness changed. But then the object of the consciousness is permanent because it’s gotten at through this process of negation.

Something that’s permanent, something that’s a negation, can’t change. Can it? There’s no sugar. You could say, “Well, that can change and there can be sugar.” But just the absence of sugar, there’s just no sugar. Sugar didn’t cause that absence of sugar. It’s something that the mind has generated through a conceptual thing. It’s an absence, it’s a lack of something. But I think there’s some debate about this too.

But it isn’t like: When you have an image of something—so I’m thinking, let’s use a flower. So I’m thinking of the flower when it’s a bud, and then I’m thinking of the flower and I’m watching it go from a bud. And then it’s opening. And then I have an open flower. Okay? Because you can imagine something changing in your mind, right? The mind that is perceiving each meaning generality is changing because the mind is impermanent. But the thing, the meaning generality, is perceived because it’s everything that’s not that object; and because the meaning generality is not of a real thing. It’s taking different features from different things and putting them together. Because it’s different than the real object, isn’t it. A meaning generality of a cat can’t sit in your lap. And a meaning generality of an image in your mind of a car can’t drive.

So it’s different than something that’s composed, that’s changing. It’s something that’s artificially constructed, that’s gotten at by being the negation of everything that’s not that. But I can’t say I understand it really well. So that’s probably why I can’t answer your question to satisfaction.

How about an easy question? [laughter] No, you can read up on meaning generalities. I find this whole thing of generalities quite tricky. Because the table is a specific table, but table can be a generality because table includes all the specific tables. But table as a generality, you can’t point to.

Audience: So when we talk about that then are we talking about just a single moment of the image of the meaning generality? That’s what’s permanent, that single moment?

VTC: Yes, it seems to be.

Audience: So there can be a whole bunch of glass-topped tables and your inner image of table is going to change because you’ve seen a whole bunch of different kinds of tables, and that’s a different instance of a meaning generality.

VTC: Right, because your mind’s constructed different things at those different times. It’s not like you had one image here and that image, itself, transformed. You had one image there. It ceased. And then ….

Audience: Like they’re different frames of a movie.

VTC: Yes. But then it seems to me like you could also say, “Well, but why can’t it change?” But then it’s so hard to get at, “What is a meaning generality?” You can’t put a line around it. You can’t say what it is. It’s just an appearance to the mind but it exists nowhere, does it! A meaning generality does not exist anywhere. And it’s not made of atoms and molecules. And it’s not a consciousness. So what in the world is it? We have them all the time, but what is it?

Audience: It’s an idea. Isn’t it an idea?

VTC: Yes, but here it’s interesting. Is the idea the consciousness or is the idea the object of the consciousness? Like when we say “thought.” Is thought the mind that’s thinking? Or is thought the object that’s being thought of. In English, we use the word thought or idea and when we examine it, it could kind of mean either thing, can’t it? I had a thought of a car. Does that mean that I had a consciousness that was aware of a car, or does it mean the image of a car appeared to my consciousness? Are we talking about the consciousness, or are we talking about the image that’s appearing to it? In English, it’s not so clear. And I think even the Tibetan word nang wa, which is often translated as appearance, can sometimes mean perception. It also isn’t very clear which side are we talking about.


Audience: When I meditate, I guess you’d call it sleepiness. I don’t know if that’s lumped together with sloth or torpor.

VTC: Yes, it is.

Audience: It’s confusing. You’ve got laxity and you’ve got lethargy.

VTC: Laxity is something different than sloth and torpor.

Audience: Is lethargy sloth and torpor?

VTC: Lethargy is different from laxity. It’s more on the sloth and torpor side.

Audience: Can that arise through a form of excitement?

VTC: What do you mean? Give me an example.

Audience: Well, it seems to arise spontaneously, without causes or conditions. I find that often the antidote to it is to relax.

VTC: To agitation? To excitement?

Audience: No, to sleep.

VTC: Oh, [the antidote] to sleep is to relax?

Audience: So I’m wondering if that would point to a cause of excitement, or if that relaxing would be an antidote to a form of scattering that isn’t necessarily excitement. It just seems odd that relaxing would be the antidote to falling sleep.

VTC: Okay, “Why would relaxing be the antidote to falling asleep?” Sometimes it could be that when our mind is tight, it exits by falling asleep. Because you can notice sometimes, your mind can go from excitement to falling asleep, [snap] like this. If the mind’s a little bit too tight usually we say agitation or excitement is caused by the mind being too tight and laxity by the mind being too loose, not apprehending the object clearly enough. But it could be on this gross level that your mind doesn’t know how to relax, so what it does is it falls asleep. It only knows how to be [gesturing: wound up or asleep]. It’s an up-and-down switch. And so maybe what you’re learning to do is: how to have a relaxed mind that isn’t scattered and grasping at something, but also that you don’t have to exit from by falling asleep. Maybe that’s what’s happening. But how do you relax your mind? What do you do to relax it?

Audience: I’m trying to put that into words. I haven’t really been able to describe it clearly to myself. It’s a sensation. Okay, this is going to sound weird. It’s a sensation in my head; it feels almost like blowing a balloon up inside of a t-shirt. It’s like there’s an expansive quality that has some sort of limit to it within my head. It has this kind of releasing. It’s really hard to describe.

VTC: When you’re meditating, don’t focus in your head. If you focus in your head, it’s very easy to get lung. I realize this thing, “Concentrate.” We go like this [she squints hard] and it seems to be our head—we’ve got to concentrate here. And I think relax has more of this thing of like: the object is just there. It’s not in my head, and I’m not in my head looking at it.

Audience: Yes, it’s not a tight sense; it’s more like that’s just my realm of awareness. It’s definitely a release. It’s very much a calm sensation. It’s not necessarily that the sensation is in my head, that’s where it usually begins. It’s almost feels like water or something like that, that can easily move. When the feeling comes, I can easily send it to other parts of my body. I’ve got this sort of calming sensation anywhere. It doesn’t have to be there, that’s just where it usually is. When I close my eyes, it’s like, “It’s right here, behind the eyes.”

VTC: That’s the way we often feel.

Audience: Yes. It’s not necessarily always like that. Sometimes when I’m more focused, the awareness seems to move very easily. The awareness as the sense of “I” almost. [It] seems to move easily throughout the body. It feels like, “Oh, I’m here in my body,” and there isn’t any thought of it. Concentrating the breath on my stomach and it feels like I actually am here. As though my eyes are here, and I’m seeing from here, and there isn’t any need to ….

VTC: I think what we want to do as much as possible is disband this thing of the “I” that is somewhere there looking at it.

Audience: Can you talk about how to do that, because I have that same problem?

VTC: I don’t know, I think this is what the whole thing of relaxing is about. Instead of feeling like, “I’m concentrating so there’s an ‘I’ in here looking out the eyes, concentrating.” Especially if you’re trying to visualize Manjushri, “I’m sitting here so there’s this statue of Manjushri is right about here. I’m looking at that statue.” “But my eyes are closed, so why do I have to feel like there’s some kind of ‘I’ in here. Why can’t there just be Manjushri?”


Audience: Do you mind explaining what lung is?

VTC: Lung is an imbalance of the winds. And you get it when you’re squeezing yourself, and when you’re pushing yourself, and when you’re mind’s being tight, and if you focus too much here [heart area]—a hard kind of focus, or if you’re in your head too much. Then the mind gets tight, and so then the wind inside the body—the air element—gets out of whack. And that’s why I was teaching you all my lung exercise, which works very well. Shall we all stand up and do some lung exercise? Come on everybody.

Okay, lung exercise. So you do the hokey-pokey—like this [very funny, very long demonstration.] [laughter] You throw your arms around and you jump up and down. This is very good. I do this several times a day and it’s extremely relaxing. Because you’re just shaking everything up. Do it before you go into the meditation hall, but not on the ice! Some yoga, or some tai chi, or some kind of movement can be very, very good. Don’t you feel better now? You just shake and wiggle. Your muscles move and your heart gets going. You get out of your head.

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.