Mindfulness and antidotes to hindrances
Part of a series of teachings on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book titled How to See Yourself as You Really Are at Sravasti Abbey in 2015.
- Reflecting on the kindness of others as part of our motivation
- Repaying the kindness of others by:
- Refraining from destructive actions
- Doing our spiritual practice to clear up any obstacles to benefiting others
- Chapter 9
- Laxity and excitement
- Length of the session
- Mindfulness and introspection
- Questions and answers
There are countless sentient beings having all sorts of different experiences, some having experiences that are outright painful, others having experiences that are delightful but that don’t last, and yet all these sentient beings have been kind to us in previous lives, in the present life, and in future lives. They’re looking for meaning. They’re looking for direction. They’re looking for peace, but they don’t know where to turn and instead of seeing that these qualities can be developed inside themselves, they’re seeking happiness, and the elimination of suffering, outside of themselves. And in that way, they wind up harming many living beings and harming themselves as well.
It’s definitely a situation that calls for compassion and bringing forth that compassion that we have in our own hearts. Let’s really make a decision to do what we can to contribute to the welfare of others. While we can do that now, in our own ways, according to our own situations and talents, we can also improve the quality of our mind, enhance our good qualities and eliminate obstacles so that we can be of greater benefit to other living beings.
The Buddha’s teachings show us the direction to do that. We have the fortune of having met those teachings, so now let’s examine them, test them to see if they work, and if they do, to really put them into practice, keeping our long-term view of being of the greatest benefit to other living beings through progressing on the path to full awakening ourselves. What we’re doing here today is one step on that journey.
We talk a lot about “all sentient beings” and it’s easy for them to become some kind of nameless, fuzzy class. But it’s very helpful to do the mediation on seeing the kindness of others where we really look at specific beings’ kindness to us, and we see that kindness as indicative of all the kindness that we often gloss over and don’t notice.
Yesterday, we talked a little bit about our self-centered thought and its feeling of entitlement that everything should be the way I want it to be, and how that sense of entitlement always leaves us feeling lacking. You know—we don’t have enough, we’re not good enough. The world should be different. So there’s always this dissatisfaction. And then, of course, an attempt to control other people to make them do what we want them to do.
It’s very helpful to change that perspective so that we really see the kindness of other living beings. So, if you’ve been on retreats before, you’ve heard this over and over again. And you’re probably going “Oh no, ugh, another time, to be reminded of sentient beings’ kindness.” But if you’re feeling like that, it’s because you haven’t really done the meditation in a serious way. Because if we do the meditation in a serious way, it really moves us to the depth of our heart to really see the kindness of others, and how much we’ve been the recipient of kindness in our lives. And how little we have appreciated that.
We may feel that we appreciate sentient beings a lot, but that’s only if they do what we want them to do. But to really appreciate not only the people we know who directly benefit us, but also the strangers. The people who worked at the gas station that enabled you to put gas in the car, or gas in the plane, or however you got here.
So, those people, including all those dreadful people at Shell Oil, who want to drill in the Arctic, and yet our being able to come here today is due to their efforts isn’t it? Are they mean, horrible people who just want to kill the environment? No! We may not like what they’re doing, and we may disagree and want to stop what they’re doing, but they aren’t mean awful people.
And the thing is, that our wish to travel is what energizes them to do their work. We’re all somehow interconnected with them, unless we want to walk everywhere, and have our food, you know, walk out to the farms and pick the food ourselves, so that there’s no petrol involved. These people put forth their life energy. I don’t think it’s a lot of fun working on an oil rig up in the Arctic. Has anybody here ever done it? I’ve had some people sometimes who’ve come who’ve done that.
You worked on an oil rig? Yeah, it wasn’t fun. Not a nice job. And in the Arctic in the middle of the ocean would be even worse. And yet, you know, because of these people’s labor we benefit, and do we ever think of what they go through? And even though we may say, let’s not drill oil, and let’s use, you know, some solar power and wind power and relocate those people from their oil jobs into energy efficient jobs, can we do that with a kind heart? Or, every time we disagree with somebody’s policies, do we hate all the people who are working for them, who are simply trying to support their families?
If you don’t live in this area, it’s quite easy you know–when you live in a city– to think loggers are terrible people, and when you come live in a place like this, you still look across the valley and see what they’re doing and you say “Aaagh!”
But you see that the people themselves are not terrible people. And we see that even the walls of the buildings we’re sitting in are made of logs. So, really seeing, you know, people’s effort and what they’ve had to do so that we have what we have in our lives.
It’s quite interesting when you have to build something from scratch, you learn all sorts of stuff. I’ve never owned anything, not even a car, well, a few things, but nothing big— and I ordained when I was only 26— so I had no idea about buildings, I just always took them for granted. So, when we got the land here, I, all of a sudden, had to think about where the water came from when you turned on the tap. And when you flushed the toilet where it went? And how many of us ever consider that and think about that?
And then we had to put it a new water system and a new well. If you walk to the top of the meadow you see the big tanks there, and you see what it takes to put in a water system, what it looks like: these guys working and driving up the hill with these enormous concrete tanks. And then getting the tanks up the hill, and then digging the holes and putting them in… and everything that takes. And then we just go in and turn on the water and don’t even think about all the people who were involved in our having water. And not only the people who did the work and built the system and laid the pipes and everything like that, but here at the Abbey we survive only on the donations of other people. So, how many people have given to establish that $147,000 water system that you use when you take a shower? So, $147,000 to take a shower! And it came from not one big donor, but from lots and lots of different people who, like you, who go to work every day and work hard, and then decide out of the kindness of their hearts to give the Abbey money.
And when you think about the number of people behind just taking a glass of water when you’re here, or taking a shower here. The people who donate, the engineers, the people who design the whole water system, the crew that put it in, the people who drove the trucks and brought up the tanks, and poor Venerable Tarpa, who survived it all as the construction manager at the Abbey.
Do we think of the efforts of these people and how we directly benefit from them? And yet, if these same people (who are strangers and we don’t know)—if they cut us off on the highway—we would yell and scream, and yet if we knew, if we recognize “Oh, these are the people who put in the water system that I am able to use,” then we probably would not have so much road rage. We’d probably have more appreciation for them.
And you look at the carpeting—who made the carpeting? Where does carpeting come from? And do you know what we went through choosing the color of this carpeting? That was nothing compared to what we went through choosing the color of the paint! [Laughter] And figuring out “Is the paint pink or is it peach?”
“No, no we still have some pink.” Yeah, it’s still there, and we’re still debating, “Is it pink or is it peach?” And the people who painted the building, but before we got to the paint, this used to be a garage. These windows were not here. The roof went down like that. It was dark inside. So, the people who tore off the whole roof put in a glulam beam across there that would support the new roof. And it was Venerable Semkye who saved the day, who realized that the guys on the crew were putting on the roof without the glulam beam being installed first because the contractor forgot! She saved the day by noticing that, you know, a little bit got dismantled…put the beam in and put the windows in and everything else. And the story doesn’t end there. This building used to be down the hill where Chenrezig Hall is.
Yeah, it was the garage for Ananda Hall, which was somebody’s house. When we wanted to build Chenrezig Hall that was the best place to build it. We didn’t want to destroy this building. So, there were people who moved the building up the hill!
Now, how much do we think of the kindness of those people? Have you ever seen them move a log building that doesn’t have definite walls that are all attached to the same place?! Yeah, it was very interesting, and lifting the building up (we have videos of it, you can go on YouTube and watch) and then dragging it up the hill. You know, the people who did this. And then having to pour a new foundation, and new walls, new stem walls, and then lowering the building on it and making sure that it was in the proper place. And how many people were involved in doing that? And worked hard for a long time, even in the winter, because we moved it starting late in the year? And then had to put the walls in and re-paint and re-stucco, and fix all the catawampus things because he clunked it, twice! So, there were corners that didn’t fit together anymore, and yeah.
When we moved the building, we had the altars actually attached. We had to take it off, store it in the barn. Move the building up here, come and attach it, and there were all the little holes. And at that point, by that time spring, we mowed the meadow out there, so then the mice said, “Oh! You’re taking away our grass, but you built us a nice new meditation hall to move into!” [Laughter]
[Talking to audience – inaudible]
When you think, we just kind of walk in here and take it for granted, and yet how many people—and mice—were involved in just having the building here. And then, also talking about other sentient beings involved in the building, there were all the yellow jackets who made their homes on the outside of the building between logs, and Venerable Tsultrim was the one who kindly helped them move without killing them. Took the nests out and moved them, so they could live happily ever after somewhere else!
When we look sometimes just at something that we see very ordinarily, there’s so much behind it that involves the kindness and efforts and generosity of so many living beings. It’s very helpful when we meditate to really sit and think about all of this and it helps us to see how connected we are to other living beings; that we’re not isolated individuals, but we’re the recipients of tremendous kindness again and again and again from so many living beings in our lives.
Sometimes the people we have the most difficulty with are family members. Ever since Freud, we kind of grew up thinking that we are entitled to blame our parents for all of our problems. But again, when you really look, our parents certainly weren’t perfect, but they also were extremely kind to us. I think to really—those of you who want to be parents yourself—it’s important to see the kindness of your own parents and make peace with that before having kids, otherwise it’s going to be very difficult; but to really see what our parents went through to have us.
How many of you are parents? So, you know what it’s like to have sleepless nights for years on end, yeah. They wake up in the middle of the night: “Waaaa! Waaaa! Waaaa!”
And you get out of bed and you feed them even though you’re exhausted. But you feed them with so much love and so much care. You wouldn’t think of letting the baby just continue to cry because it was hungry. I mean it doesn’t matter how tired you are, and how long it’s been since you’ve had a good night’s sleep. You get up and you feed the child. And we were all in the position of being that child. Sometimes once in the middle of the night, more often when the kids are younger, several times in the middle of the night, “Waaaa! Waaaa!”
Somebody woke up and fed us. And they changed our diapers. They rolled us over. We couldn’t take care of ourselves, so they rolled us over. They put on clothes when it was cold. They took our clothes off when it was hot, because we couldn’t do any of that for ourselves. When you really think of it, we were born totally helpless as infants. We couldn’t do anything.
Then of course we began to be able to move; then we got in all sorts of trouble. Many of us grew up before they “child-proofed” houses, and those electric plugs look really interesting when you’re a little kid. And there’s stairs around, and there’s all sorts of stuff to get into. And yet, somehow our parents kept us alive during that period of time. [Laughter] They often would warn us about dangerous things but we didn’t listen. We just did what we wanted.
I was talking to Venerable Jigme the other day about things we did in late teens and how it’s amazing we didn’t get killed. And even younger, things that we did as toddlers. I’m sure if you don’t know some of those stories, your parents can tell you. Times you almost choked on different things, times you almost fell down the stairs, and all sorts of stuff going on.
You know we did all sorts of stuff and they took care of us. I drove my tricycle into the back of a car which was parked in our driveway. I have another scar somewhere up here. [Motioning to forehead.] [Laughter.]
And then times when you got lost in the grocery store and they found us. So many different things, and people took care of us. And the proof is that we’re still alive. Because if nobody cared, if nobody took care of us, we would have died when we were two or three years old just from the mischief we got into.
So really sitting and thinking about this, and how talking—language is such an essential part of our adult life—we use words and language all day every day to communicate with each other, to learn things at home, at work, everywhere. We’re using language, and yet who taught us to speak? Do you ever think about who taught you to speak? It’s because people would pick us up and make noises at us, and show us how to move the mouth that we learned to copy them and learned how to make the sounds that enabled us to express ourselves.
And then, writing also: reading and writing we use every day. Those are also skills that other people taught us. Can you remember your first and second and third grade teachers and your kindergarten teacher? Did we appreciate at that time what they were teaching us? Or did we just take it for granted? Or sometimes we were even a little bit, or even a lot, rebellious.
And I remember my high school English papers and my freshman year college English papers—completely marked up in red ink. And yet, you know, I have to thank Mrs. Sloane. She was the high school English teacher. And my college, it was a TA, I don’t even remember her name. The books that you read are due to the kindness of those people. Because otherwise I had no idea how to write a paragraph, how to communicate a thought or anything like that. And Mrs. McKowski in seventh grade, who taught us how to outline things.
Do you remember learning how to outline? And then writing topic sentences—it was so boring! Oh goodness was it boring! But, you know, we really use those skills now and without them it would be very difficult for us to function. So you know really looking around and thinking of how we’re interrelated with others and how, without us even asking, time and again, people have done things that we have benefited from.
And it doesn’t matter—they don’t have to be thinking of us specifically—”I grew this piece of broccoli for you!” It doesn’t have to be for us specifically. But it’s the point that they put their life’s energy into doing something that enables us to stay alive and enjoy. Do we think of those people? What they go through growing the broccoli, or growing the barley? To really think about these things in a very deep way. And the feeling comes strongly then at the kindness of other beings and how close we are to them; and a tremendous feeling of gratitude then arises in our mind. When we feel gratitude, we automatically want to pay it back. It’s the way we human beings are. When we receive kindness we want to pay it back.
When we become really aware of the kindness we receive, then we want to pay it back. The first way to pay it back is to stop harming others. Because when we harm them, we cause them suffering; it’s not the way to pay back kindness. So, to stop harming as much as we can and to benefit as much as we can in whatever way we can. We don’t all have to be Mother Theresa. We just have to be who we are and work in our own sphere of operation and repay the kindness, give kindness to other beings. And when we do, we feel happier ourselves. We feel better about ourselves. We have more peace in our hearts, and we feel more connected to other living beings.
It’s a very important meditation I think, for us to do that affects us not only spiritually, but also psychologically. Because when we meditate on the kindness of others and make it a regular practice to feel and experience how much we receive from others, that self-centered mind that says, “I want! Gimme gimme gimme! Me first!” We begin to look at that mind and go, “Too much! Just be quiet!” To realize that that whining complaining child-like demanding mind is something that makes us quite miserable, whereas opening our hearts and caring for others makes us happy.
They’ve done all sorts of scientific studies about this, but it’s really something to think about because it’s also our own experience. Then we really see [that] we are intertwined and interrelated with others, and what we do influences other living beings; what we do influences the people around us. When we really feel their kindness to us, and we want to be kind in return, and we know that what we do influences them, then we care about our actions and we care about the effects of our actions. That helps us to restrain from destructive actions. Then we restrain from destructive actions because we want to, not because somebody else is making us, but because we want to. Because in our hearts we see, wow, I’m related to all these beings, and I don’t want to harm them.
I think that thing of realizing that our actions affect others is a very important understanding. It seems like we should all understand that, but actually we don’t. With the inmates that I work with, this is one of the big things that they often tell me is after they’re locked up, they realize, “Oh, my actions influenced other people.” Somehow that had not been in the conscious part of their mind before. And, of course, whenever we’re acting in destructive ways—whether you get arrested for it or applauded for it, we’re always doing it because we’re thinking primarily of ourselves. We never say, “Oh, I’m gonna harm you for the benefit of all sentient beings!” Okay?
So, that feeling of connection with others: we’re related to people, so let’s not take their kindness for granted and let’s not take them for granted, and let’s not cause them undue grief through our self-centered actions. This doesn’t mean that we become a “people-pleaser” and trot around trying to do what other people want us to do. Because you know, being a people-pleaser is a whole different ball game. Being a people-pleaser is also usually a self–centered thing. We please people because we want them to like us, we don’t want them to think bad. It’s not because we actually care about them. So, here we’re talking about really caring and wanting to do what we can, and sometimes small actions really speak very loudly and can have a very profound effect on other people.
When we meditate…when we’re cultivating our motivation, which is how this whole topic started, then it can be helpful to recall the kindness of others and to think, “I’m doing my spiritual practice as a way of repaying their kindness.” And somebody’s going to say, “What do you mean?! You’re sitting there looking at your belly button, how is that repaying anybody’s kindness? Go out there and work for a charity!”
The ways it’s repaying others’ kindness is we can see right now that we want to benefit others. I don’t think anyone here would say I don’t want to benefit anybody else. I think you know if asked, everybody would say, yes, I want to benefit others. But we see that we have limited ability to do so, and that there are many obstacles to doing so.
Sometimes, we don’t know what to do that’s helpful. Sometimes we want to benefit but we’re scared; or we’re scared of getting hurt ourselves; we’re scared of getting put in awkward positions. Sometimes, we want to help but then we’re not sure. “Well, is that actually going to be beneficial? Maybe they’ll take me for granted?” Sometimes we want to help, we know what to do but we don’t have the resources to do it; or sometimes we don’t have the inner strength to do it. We know somebody needs to go to a rehab program but it’s just too difficult to say that out loud and insist, so we let the bad situation ride.
We all want to help but there are obstacles to doing so. When we do our spiritual practice, we’re in the process of removing those obstacles. That’s how sitting here looking at your belly button, that’s how it indirectly benefits others in the sense that it helps you clear the obstacles, and then it helps all of us develop our compassion, and our wisdom, and our skill, and our knowledge to be able to be of benefit. And to be able to become more fearless in being of benefit.
Just as somebody [who] may want to be a doctor and cure people of sickness can’t just go out and start practicing medicine right away: they have to train first. In the same way, we want to be of benefit to others but we have to train first, and know what we’re doing, and really think deeply about what does benefiting somebody else really means. That’s why we come and do retreats; that’s why we do a daily practice. Because it really helps us to transform and gives us the ability to be of greater and more significant benefit to others.
That’s why we generate bodhichitta before we start all of our sessions: to really think of our motivation, to remember the kindness of others, to get in touch with our wish to be of benefit, and to remember that doing our practice and purifying our mind and developing our good qualities is the way to go about benefiting. And then we’ll see, you know of course, our ultimate aim is to attain Buddhahood, because that’s the best way to benefit others, but we’ll find as we practice that we’re able to benefit more and more just naturally, as an outcome of our practice. Okay?
So, that was the motivation, and we’ll start the talk. [Laughter]
His Holiness is going to talk to us again. We’re on chapter nine, “Tuning Your Mind for Meditation.”
A monk named Shrona was trying to meditate but his mind was either too tight or too loose. He asked the Buddha for advice. Buddha inquired, “When you were a householder, did you play the guitar beautifully?” “Yes, indeed.” “Was the sound right when you tightened the strings hard or when you loosened them a lot?” “Neither, I had to do it with moderation.” “It is the same here. To meditate you have to moderate the tightness and the looseness of your mind.”
What this is saying is [that] when we are meditating, if we hold the object too tight, if we are trying too hard to concentrate, then that makes the mind agitated and excitement arises. If we hold the object too loose, then dullness arises or laxity arises. We have to learn how to make the mode in which we are focusing or apprehending on the object neither too tight nor too loose. They also say it’s like if you’re going to hold a little bird. If you hold the bird too tight, you are going to harm it. If you hold it too loosely, it’s going to fly away. You need to hold it enough but not too much.
His Holiness says,
You are seeking to develop a meditative mind that itself is intensely clear, where consciousness is bright and alert. You are also seeking the stability of being able to focus single-pointedly on the object. These are the two qualities of mind you need: Intense clarity and unwavering stability.
The mind needs to be very bright so that the object is bright and vivid. And the mind also needs to be stable, so that it can really be with the mind without flitting all over the place or falling asleep or something like that.
What prevents these from arising?
The intense clarity and the stability.
Laxity, the mind’s being too loose prevents the development of clarity. And excitement, the mind’s being too tight prevents staying focused on the object.
First he’s going to talk about laxity.
There are coarse, subtle, and very subtle forms of laxity. In coarse laxity, the object is not at all clear and the mind feels sunken or weighed down. In subtle laxity, you remain on the object but the mind lacks intense clarity. In very subtle laxity, the intensity is just slightly lacking, the mind being just slightly loose. Laxity occurs when the mind is withdrawn inside, in the process of developing meditation.
When we are very distracted to outside objects, we’re trying to draw the mind inside. When laxity arises, the mind is drawn too much inside, so much inside that we’re going to start falling asleep.
Laxity is not lethargy, which is a heaviness and unserviceability of mind and body from dullness and which can occur even when attending to an external object. You can fall asleep when you are driving, or fall asleep when you are talking on the phone (that doesn’t happen too often), or when you are working machines. That’s not laxity, that’s out and out dullness or lethargy, headed towards sleep. Laxity itself is more subtle than that.
In lethargy, your body is heavy and your mind is heavy, trapped in darkness.
Sounds restful, right? Just joking. We’ve had that. We more often at the beginning have the very gross lethargy and dullness. It’s only when we begin to be able to stay on the object a little bit that we can even notice the laxity and how the object isn’t so clear.
Excitement is an agitated state of mind most often due to an attraction to an external object of lust. It can also be any scattering of the mind, whether the new object is virtuous, such as charity, non-virtuous, such as lust, or neutral, such as sewing. There are course and subtle forms of excitement. In coarse excitement, you forget the object of meditation and stray off into other thoughts.
So you start daydreaming.
Although in subtle excitement the object is not lost, a corner of your mind is involved in fast moving thought, like water flowing under the frozen surface of a river.
In subtle excitement, the mind is on the object but it’s kind of going like this (hand is shaking back and forth), and you can very easily go off the object.
In between sessions of meditation, it is important to restrain your senses, to eat a moderate amount of food and to maintain conscientious introspection of body and mind. Otherwise, these can serve as causes of laxity and excitement. Sleeping too much generally leads to laxity, whereas having unrealistic expectations about the pleasures of life tends to lead to excitement.
Here he’s really saying, and this is very important, what we do in the break times between our meditation sessions plays a very important role in how our meditation sessions go. This holds true whether you are doing retreat, or even in terms of your daily life when most of your time is the time in between meditation sessions. He starts out saying,
In between your meditation sessions it’s important to restrain your senses.
To be really careful about how we relate to the media. If we read a lot of magazines and look at TV and so on, we’re going to get drawn into the ads and we are going to start thinking that we need this and that and how nice it would be to have this and that. If you read a lot of novels or go to a lot of movies, your mind is going to get churned up, either by the violence or by the love stories, or by the ones that have both. Our mind gets stirred up, our senses do that. If you go into town and you window shop and you have nothing to do, so you walk down the street so you look in the store windows and, “What’s this and what’s that,” you’re going to start having a lot of desire. If you start reading People magazine, a lot of these magazines… you’re going to again have a lot of desire and a lot of anger because that’s what the stories are written to provoke in us. So, we have to be very careful about how we relate to the media and what we expose ourselves to. It’s very easy to see because when you then sit down, your mind is going to be thinking about all those beautiful things you saw, or your mind is going to be thinking about whatever you watched, a sports event, “Oh that guy trounced this one really good.” They just had some big fight between two guys, and so then you are sitting there, “Om mani padme HUNG,” (laughs and moves like she is punching), you are going to be re-running the thing in your mind in the middle of your meditation session.
So, be careful about what we read, what we look at. Then he says to eat a moderate amount of food. If we eat too much, when we sit down to meditate, we are going to be heavy, we are going to be sleepy. If we eat a lot of sugar, we are going to have a sugar rush, and then we are going to crash and that’s going to influence our stability when we are mediating. We have to eat healthy and we have to not eat too much.
Eat a moderate amount of food to maintain conscientious introspection of body and mind.
You know the mental factor of introspective awareness. Use it to see “What am I doing with my body, speech and mind?” I go to town to the hardware store, which is not too interesting. Well, some people like all that stuff. You go to run an errand, but then you are looking around at all the other things, looking for some beautiful thing to latch your mind onto. Then, that’s going to influence your mediation and make your mind quite restless, especially when you come to sit down to meditate again.
Okay? Then, sleeping. If we sleep too much, we usually think, “Oh, I just need to sleep and catch up on my sleep.” But if you sleep too much, you wind up being more dull, so it’s important not to sleep too much. And it’s important not to sleep too little either, so that you are not then strung out on caffeine all day trying to stay awake. They always recommend too, when you can, sleep less, then that’s good because that gives you more time to practice.
I remember at one of my first meditation courses, a teacher was talking about that and how we look at sleep as so enjoyable but we’re not even awake to enjoy it. And it’s interesting, when you think about it, when you first lie down in bed, maybe you feel, “Ahh, that feels good.” But then you sleep for however many hours it is and do you feel happy during that time of sleeping? We’re not even aware we’re sleeping, are we? We’re totally out to lunch. Whether we sleep a lot, or whether we sleep a little, it doesn’t really matter because at the end, during the whole thing, there was no pleasure, so why do we say, I had a good sleep? We weren’t even awake to enjoy it. Sometimes it’s true, you’re awake and you feel refreshed but sometimes you sleep enough and you awake and you still feel groggy.
Don’t have sleep as an object of attachment. Sleep for what the body requires but not more, otherwise, we spend a third of our life unconscious, basically. We need some sleep but not too much. It’s good to also get your body on a rhythm whereby you can get up early in the morning. Some people are night people, that’s true, but if you can wake up in the morning and do some practice, then it sets the tone for the whole day and it really makes your whole day a lot easier, and you also feel good because, “I did my practice.” There’s that feeling of “I did my practice,”whereas if you wake up late, you have to hurry and get to work or wherever you’re going, so there’s no time to put your mind on your motivation or check what you are doing and you just keep on saying, “ I’ll do my practice later…I’ll do it later… I’ll do it later…” Later, you get home from work, there’s something else do, and finally it’s like 10 or 11 at night and, “It’s too late, I’m too tired. I’m going to go to bed but I’ll do it tomorrow morning.” But then tomorrow morning we’re tired and the practice never gets done. It’s good if you can establish something where you are able to meditate first thing in the morning. Of course different people’s situations allow for some diversity but this is kind of a good thing to do if you can.
Then the length of the session. [Reads aloud]
If you are facing interference to concentration from laxity or excitement and cannot counteract it, rather than stubbornly persisting in long meditation sessions, try short but frequent sessions. When your performance improves and these problems diminish, then make the sessions longer. It helps to meditate in a high place if laxity is a problem and to meditate at dawn. Just after you wake up your senses have not yet become active but the power of thought is present and because the sense organs are not yet working, you will have fewer distractions. In my own experience, dawn is when the mind is clearest and sharpest.
His Holiness says he usually gets up around 3:30. It’s nice, everything is very quiet then. Then you can do your practice, everything’s quiet, when you are finishing your practice, then other people are just waking up.
Then, “Mindfulness and Introspection.”
Mindfulness is the technique for keeping your mind continuously on the object of your meditation. It is the antidote to forgetfulness.
Mindfulness. The word mindfulness is all over the press these days, but it’s a new definition of the word mindfulness put that way. The way mindfulness meditation is used nowadays is extracted from one particular type of meditation started by Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma. It’s not the general Buddhist meaning of mindfulness when we say mindfulness. In modern culture now, mindfulness basically means “bare attention,” just paying attention to what’s going on. That’s not the meaning of mindfulness the way the Buddha taught mindfulness.
The way the Buddha taught it, mindfulness is remembering. Here he said it’s the antidote to forgetfulness. Mindfulness is remembering the virtuous object that you are trying to familiarize yourself with. So if you are meditating on the image of the Buddha, you’re remembering that image so that you can hold it in mind and not get distracted. If between sessions you’re mindful of your body and speech, which means that you remember your precepts—what you want to do, what you don’t want to do, you remember your values—how you want to act, how you don’t want to act, and you’re aware of if you’re acting in accordance with what you want to do or if somehow you’ve gotten distracted and you’re going down another path.
Mindfulness enables us to stay focused on the virtuous constructive thing that we want to be focused on. It doesn’t mean just bare attention. Because otherwise it could mean, “I’m mindful that I’m furious with this person. I’m mindful that I’m getting even angry at them. I’m mindful that I’m opening my mouth and I’m going to scream. I’m mindful that the words I’m saying are going to hurt them.” Do you think that’s proper mindfulness? Just having bare attention on what you’re doing? That’s not going to help us. The kind of mindfulness done in therapy and pain reduction and all, it’s very good and it’s very helpful to people but just realize that that’s not the same as how we’re using the word here.
Since beginners have this ability,
in other words mindfulness,
…only to a minor degree, you need to train and enhance it by repeatedly putting the mind back on the object.
Mindfulness, getting your mind back on that object.
Frequently check to see whether your mind is on the object or not. By doing this over and over, you will come to notice immediately when your mind has become distracted by something else. Eventually, you will notice when your mind is about to stray from the object and you will be able to keep it there.
This ability is mindfulness.
The technique for recognizing whether laxity or excitement is preventing the mind from developing clarity and stability is called introspection.
We want to develop clarity and intense clarity and stability. Laxity and excitement interfere with that. Mindfulness keeps us on the object and so is one antidote to it. The other antidote is introspective awareness, which checks and sees what’s going on in the mind.
This frequent inspection of whether the object is clear and stable is done not with the full force of the mind but as if from the side, so as not to interfere with the mind’s focus on the object.
So you are meditating and the introspective awareness is checking out first of all, “Am I on the object or am I off the object? Is there stability? How much stability on the object? Or is my mind in LaLa Land?” And what about the image I’m focusing on, is it clear? Is there intensity in the clarity? Or, am I having a lot of laxity and dullness? The introspective awareness is done with one corner of the mind, looking at what the rest of the mind is doing. They say it’s like a spy on your own mind.
When you are carrying the cup of tea, the mindfulness is, you’re focused on that cup of tea and the introspective awareness is seeing, “Am I focused on the cup of tea, or am I looking at the cat?” It isn’t like introspective awareness comes in and takes over the whole mind and says, “Are you on the tea or are you on the cat?” Because then for sure you are going to be on the cat, you’re going to be off on something else. But you are on the tea, and the introspective awareness is just checking, “Am I on the tea or did I see Mudita out of the corner of my eye and I want to go pet her. In which case, if I do that, I am likely to drop the tea.”
Indeed, to achieve powerful mindfulness, you need to monitor whether you are staying focused on the object. But the special function of introspection at this point is to see whether the mind has come under the influence of laxity or excitement, not just whether it is staying on the object or not.
In the beginning it’s whether it’s on the object or not but here it’s really laxity and clarity, are they intervening?
As the Indian scholar Bhavaviveka says, “The elephant of the mind wandering wildly is to be securely bound with the rope of mindfulness to the pillar of the object of meditation, gradually to be tamed with the hook of wisdom.”
You may have seen that picture describing how you tame the mind. The mind starts out as this wild elephant and gradually gets tamed.
Within your own experience, you need to recognize when your mode of meditation has become too excited or too lax and determine the best practice for adjusting it as explained in the next two sections. As your faculty of introspection develops, you will gain an inner sense of the right level of tightness or tautness, like tuning a guitar string until the right balance is found, neither too sharp nor too flat. Eventually, as a result of your own accumulated experience, you will be able to detect laxity and excitement just before they arise and implement techniques to prevent their arising, tightening or loosening the mind’s mode of apprehending the object.
Then the reflection His Holiness gives us:
Place your mind on the object of meditation. Using introspection from time to time, check to see whether your mind remains on the object.
When you are placing it on the object, you are using mindfulness—then use introspection to see if it’s on the object.
Third, when you find that it has strayed, recall the object and put your mind back on it as often as needed. In this way you will develop the faculties of mindfulness and introspection.
We will continue this afternoon with the remedies to laxity and excitement.
I wanted to say also, yesterday, His Holiness talked about the objects for purifying the mind, like meditating on ugliness when you have attachment, meditating on love when you suffer from anger. So, I think it’s very helpful for all of us to do the lamrim meditations that are the particular antidotes to all of those different afflictions because we will have all of those afflictions come up in our mind sometime or another. So, if we learn these different lamrim meditations, and then do them, we will have them in mind and that will stop those negative habits of mind and then when we do get distracted by those objects it makes it much easier to come back.
Audience: Can the antidotes to the afflictions be used as objects of stabilizing meditation?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Well, sometimes it’s taught like they can become the actual objects you develop in stabilizing meditation, yeah, so they can be the actual objects, but whether they usually teach those objects and then say meditate on an image of the Buddha, okay, but it’s still good to know those lamrim meditations which are analytic meditations, so that you have those understandings because that will help when you start meditating on the image of the Buddha.
Audience: You talked about how nobody thinks, “I’m going to harm others for the benefit of all beings.” What about people like Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot?
VTC: I think those people, you know, in their heart, they thought what they were doing was good, and that indicates the depth of ignorance. When we talk about ignorance, sometimes we don’t realize how heavy ignorance is… how strongly it obscures the truth. But we can see in our own life, have you ever done things that you thought were okay at the time you were doing them, and after you realize that they were really mean, cruel things that were not so good for other people? I think most of us have had that experience. But at the time, our ignorance was so thick we thought what we were doing was okay.
Audience: If we didn’t have any relationship to the media at all, then we wouldn’t know about things like ISIS and be concerned about that. How do we have a balanced relationship with the media?
VTC: You need to learn something about those world events and so on. I think it’s a choice of what direction your practice is going in at any particular time. If you’re doing really serious practice to develop concentration, then you’re not going to have any contact with the media, unless your mind already has some development whereby when you read these things, it helps you cultivate compassion and it makes your intention to meditate stronger.
But for baby beginners, we don’t usually read the news reports and feel compassion afterwards. We read it and we feel despair, or anger, or attachment or something like that. And so, that’s not very helpful to us. Also, because the way reports are written now, they’re designed to evoke emotion in us, so, you know, we’re reading always about the negative stuff. Nobody writes a report about, you know, the wonderful things people are doing.
You’re talking a lot about doing the purification meditations with the Buddha, and the meditations receiving the light like we did Friday night, that purify and that give us the blessings. Those mediations, per se, are not the calm abiding mediations; they are not the serenity meditations. So, I think when you’re doing them, yes, you should be focusing on your internal experience, and the feeling that it evokes of letting go and releasing all of that stuff. It can be helpful at the beginning to spend even a minute or two focusing on the image of the Buddha, or whatever deity you’re using, but then after that the main thing is your internal experience of the light and nectar and coming, and how that’s transforming your mind.
Audience: How do we cultivate mindfulness in everyday life? I get distracted by the busyness of my workplace, and while commuting in the city.
VTC: That’s a good question! Where is our mind at that point? Because lots of times you can drive from here to here, and somebody can say “What were you thinking about?’” And you don’t even know. Because the mind is so active and we’re so spaced so much of the day, we’re not even aware of what’s going on.
The way to start that is to start by generating our motivation, you know, cultivating your intention not to harm and to be of benefit. And then to have bodhichitta throughout the day and make a strong determination in the morning. And then, I think it’s very helpful throughout the day to really check up. “Am I having a kind thought right now? Am I keeping my precepts? Am I being judgmental? Am I angry?” Just kind of checking up what’s going on.
Sometimes it’s helpful to use things that happen throughout the day to remind you. So, every time your phone rings or vibrates, pause. Come back to your kind heart. Or, every time you go to the bathroom, or every time you restart your computer, or whatever it is… you know… it depends what kind of work you have. One person said every time her child yells “Mommy!!” That’s like her mindfulness bell. [Laughter] You know, to stop and come back.
You can tie your mind to the kindness of others, or bodhichitta. You can also tie your mind to your breath throughout the day, and try and be aware of your breath. Being aware of your breath, if you really study the breath, it’s rather interesting because our breath changes according to our emotions. Sometimes if you can tell what you’re feeling, if you check how you’re breathing, that will help you see how you’re feeing inside. Sometimes, just if you watch the breath, if your breath is really rough, if your breath is short from up here [gestures to chest], try and lengthen it, it helps your mind settle.
It’s very interesting to watch how the breath changes according to what’s going on in your mind. We get so busy multi-tasking that we don’t finish the first project.
Audience: What does His Holiness mean when he says to meditate in a high place to prevent laxity?
VTC: Oh, he means if you [gestures to distant view] meditate here where you can see a long distance, that really helps your mind… to create a sense of space in your mind.
Audience: When I practice introspective awareness, my mind gets too focused and feels tight. How do I balance my meditation practice with my need for spontaneous and creative thinking?
VTC: If you start using introspective awareness instead of as a neutral observer, but as a critic or a tyrant, then you’re no longer having introspective awareness. It has become, “What am I doing? I’m doing this wrong…I’m doing that wrong.” Judge, judge, criticize, criticize. And that’s just all garbage. What you need to do is have real introspective awareness that notices you’re doing that, and then put your mind instead on bodhichitta, on the kindness of others, on generosity, on some other Dharma topic. Because what you’re having isn’t introspective awareness, it’s self-judgement. And self-judgment is not at all helpful. When you’re doing lamrim meditation, that isn’t the time to have your intuitive flashes of creativity. [Laughter]. That’s going to come in your post-meditation time, when you’re eating corn flakes. [Laughter].
When you’re doing lamrim, you’re staying focused on that topic, and that’s bringing you to a deeper level of understanding, which will really help you set your priorities in life in a very good way. Your creative thinking about your job and all that, that’s done in the break time.
Audience: When I’m thinking creatively, I can look at what I’m working on as a whole, but then I get overly focused on results and my mind gets tight again. Any advice on how to work with that?
VTC: I think that’s the thing of motivation, you know, you want certain outcomes and then maybe you need to question what those outcomes are? And then question, are they virtuous? Are they non-virtuous? How much time and energy are they taking in your mind? And then, if they’re virtuous outcomes, how do you bring them about but also remain as a balanced human being without this drive to succeed at all costs. I mean, we’ve got to learn to just relax and chill out a little bit, and not be so focused, “I’ve got to be successful!” And have this image of the great Oz of success before us.
Audience: Why do we put our left hand over our right in the meditation posture? Can I do it the other way around i.e. right hand over left? [Editor’s note. This question was transcribed incorrectly. In the correct meditation posture we have our right hand over our left, palms up, thumbs touching.]
VTC: It just has to do with the flow of the energies in the body. Yeah, try and do it the way it’s described.
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.