I once bought a shirt at the airport because I had been traveling a long time and was in need of a change. I found one in a nice deep blue color and put it on without looking closely at it. Then, when I was sitting on the airplane, I saw it had a fish on it along with a caption down the sleeve: “Catch and release.” I felt very good about that. It was like a message from the universe — somehow, I was wearing instructions for working with the mind in meditation. That was my teaching for that trip.
You can use that phrase in your practice of meditation, too. Catch your thoughts and release them. You don’t need to bang them on the head and try to kill them before throwing them back. You can just acknowledge each thought and then let it go.
The practice of meditation is basically a process of getting to know yourself. How do you do it? By becoming familiar with your mind. Normally the mind is a whirlwind of thought, and meditation is a practice that calms this down and helps us develop a peaceful state of mind. Not only is our mind busy thinking, we’re usually thinking about the past or the future. We’re either reliving old dramas or imagining what could happen tomorrow or in ten years and trying to plan for it. We usually aren’t experiencing the present moment at all. We can’t change the past, and the future is always ahead of us — we never reach it, have you ever noticed? So, as long as this process continues, our mind never comes to rest. The mind can never just settle down and feel at ease.
When we practice sitting meditation over time, we get better at catching our thoughts and releasing them. Gradually the mind begins to settle naturally into a resting state. This is great because it allows us to be fully present in our lives. When we aren’t being pulled into the past or future, we can just be right here, where we actually live. To be in the present moment simply means to be awake and aware of yourself and your surroundings. That‘s the beginning of peace and contentment.
One of the most effective methods of meditation is the practice of following the breath. To begin, you simply sit in a meditation posture and watch your breath. There’s nothing else to do. Your breathing should be natural and relaxed. There’s no need to change your normal breathing. Start with bringing your attention to your breath, focusing on the inhalation and exhalation at your nose and mouth. There is a sense that you are actually feeling your breath, feeling its movement.
When you do this, you’re not just watching your breath. As you settle into the practice, you actually become the breath. You feel it as you exhale, and you become one with it. Then you feel the breath as you inhale, and you become one with it. You are the breath and the breath is you.
As you begin to relax, you begin to appreciate nowness, the present moment. Breathing happens only in the present. Breathe out. One moment is gone. Breathe in again. Another moment is here. Appreciating nowness also includes appreciating your world, your existence, your whole environment, being content with your existence.
How to Begin
To begin a session of sitting meditation, first you need a comfortable seat. You can use any cushion firm enough to support an upright posture. You can also sit in a chair. The main point is to have a relaxed but erect posture so that your spine is straight. If you are sitting on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably, and if you are sitting on a chair, place your feet evenly on the ground. You can rest your hands in your lap or on your thighs. Your eyes can be half-open with your gaze directed slightly downward a short distance in front of you. The most important point is that your posture is both upright and relaxed. Once you’re sitting comfortably, the main thing is to be fully present — to give your practice your full attention.
Catching Your Thoughts
During meditation the chatterbox of mind will open up, and you’ll have lots of thoughts. Some will seem more important than others and evolve into emotions. Some will be related to physical sensations: the pain in your knee or back or neck. And some will strike you as extremely important — things that can’t wait. You forgot to respond to a critical email, you need to return a call, or you forgot your mother’s birthday. These kinds of thoughts will come, but instead of jumping up from your cushion, all you have to do is recognize them. When a thought tries to distract you, just say, “I’m having a thought about forgetting Mom’s birthday.” You simply catch your thought, acknowledge it, and then let it go. Sitting in meditation we treat all thoughts equally. We don’t give more weight to some thoughts than to others. If we do, we lose our concentration and our mind will start slipping away.
You may wonder why I’m talking about thoughts. We’re supposed to be focusing on meditation, right? Thoughts deserve a special mention because we tend to forget that the practice of meditation is the experience of thoughts. We might think our meditation should be completely free of thoughts, with our minds totally at peace, but that’s a misunderstanding. That’s more like the end result of our practice than the process. That is the “practice” part of the practice of meditation — just relating to whatever comes up for us. When a thought appears, we see it, acknowledge its presence, let it go and relax. That’s “catch and release.”
When you meditate, you repeat this catch-and-release process over and over again. One minute, you’re resting your mind on your breath, then a thought comes up and pulls your attention away. You see the thought, let it go, and go back to your breath. Another thought comes up, you see it, let it go, and go back to your breath once again. Mindfulness, catching your thoughts, brings you back to the present and to a sense of attention, or non-distraction. You can strengthen the power of your concentration with repeated practice, just as you strengthen the muscles in your body every time you exercise.
Remember, we’re working with mind here and your mind is connected to many different conditions that impact you in various unpredictable ways. So don’t expect your meditation to always be the same or for your progress to follow a certain timeline. Don’t be discouraged by the ups and downs in your practice. Instead of seeing them as signs that your practice is hopeless, you can see them as reminders for the need to practice and why it is so helpful.
It takes time to develop a strong state of concentration. Eventually, however, you will see that your mind stays where you put it. Meditating and developing strength of mind isn’t just a nice, spiritual activity. It is actually a big help and support to anything you want to learn or accomplish. As your mind becomes calmer, you experience more of what is happening in each moment. You begin to see that your life — your actual life, right now — is far more interesting than all those thoughts you’ve been having about it!
© 2010 Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is a widely celebrated teacher known for his skill in making the full richness of Buddhist wisdom accessible to modern minds. A lover of urban culture, Rinpoche enjoys writing poetry and creating art of various kinds in his leisure time. Based in the United States for the past 20 years, he devotes much of his energy to his vision of a genuine American, and Western, Buddhism, free from the cultural trappings that sometimes distort the Buddha’s essential message of wakefulness. Born in 1965 in northeast India, Rinpoche received comprehensive training in the meditative and intellectual disciplines of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism under the guidance of many of the greatest masters from Tibet’s final pre-exile generation. Among the many organizational roles he juggles, he is the founder and principal teacher of Nalandabodhi, an international network of Buddhist practice centers. His latest book is Rebel Buddha (Shambhala Publications) forthcoming in November 2010. For more information please visit Rinpoche on Facebook, Twitter and his Website.
More by Rinpoche in the Shambhala Sun (links open in new windows):
The Wisdom of the Body and the Search for the Self Erring and Erring, We Walk the Unerring Path Resting the Busy Mind This Very Mind, Empty and Luminous What the Buddha Taught