Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
If there’s a rock in your path, you have to move it, go around it, or climb over it. The same is true in meditation, says Sakyong Mipham. You can’t just pretend obstacles aren’t there. You have to relate to them.
In meditation, we are on a journey from here to whatever we are trying to accomplish, be it mindfulness, peace, or compassion. We are developing the ability to have a fuller experience of our lives. But as we gain understanding and insight, there is a buildup of residue, which in Tibetan we call döns, or obstacles. An obstacle is something that cuts the line of our intention. If, while sitting in meditation with the motivation of benefiting others, we realize we are thinking about work, then obviously our intention has been cut. We are no longer on our intended journey.
The tricky thing is that we don’t always know when obstacles are arising. To detect them, we have to know our mind and our intention. The point is to be vigilant as we practice. As we settle our mind through meditation, any kind of imperfection in our character becomes stronger. With awareness, we can manifest our own genuineness about any obstacle we face. Intention is important.
The first obstacle is fame. If you have a little ambition for fame, it can become stronger, and you can find yourself not actually practicing for your own peace or for the welfare of others but to be known as a wise and spiritual person who meditates a lot.
The next dön is pride or arrogance. There are two kinds of pride. The first is confidence in one’s buddhanature. With this kind of confidence, there is naturally a sense of vibrancy. With the second kind of pride—ordinary pride, the dön of pride—as much as you practice, your mind remains ordinary. In addition, as you practice, questions and doubts about others’ realization arise, whether that of another practitioner or the teacher. Your mind fills up with this discursiveness about others’ realization because no realization is occurring for you. Arrogantly demoting others becomes the only way to protect your ordinariness.
Next comes the dön of good old laziness. Obviously there are many categories of laziness. The outer ones—common laziness, disheartenment, and busyness—can keep us from ever even reaching the cushion. There is also laziness in the sense of mentally putting off your practice or not really being engaged in it, though still expecting results. We are there but not really there, and yet we still want something. If we’re feeling lazy, even if we somehow make it to our seat, we’ll spend the session avoiding the basic technique. We don’t have the energy to sit up straight. We can’t practice properly.
There is also the dön of ambition. If ambition begins to take over, your mind starts going toward external gain and loss. Instead of doing the meditation technique, you focus on work, your relationship, or your next vacation. Ambition is a sign that we are trying to appease our suffering by thinking that something external will make us happy. That approach is ego-centered and aggressive. It will never appease the suffering; it will always just fire it up.
Then there is the dön of delusional meditation. This “fool’s meditation” is based not on the teacher’s instructions on meditation or the appropriate subjects for contemplation but on your own personal concoction, your own little meditative brainchild. You can’t possibly know what you are doing because you are just now inventing it.
Another dön is envy, and we could include complaint. With this dön, you are not really focused on your own development. You stop working on your own faults and become envious of other people. In particular, you begin to blame others for your faults. The problem with blame and complaint is that it always leads to more blame and complaint. It’s endless; it fosters a continual sense of dissatisfaction. When our mind goes in that kind of loop, we can’t see our own projection.
We could consider döns as purely psychological, but these obstacles manifest, and they are not isolated scenarios. One dön arrives, bringing others along; they know how to set up a household. Even when the obstacle is very strong, it is important to keep meditating. Fear can paralyze us. We may sit there and imagine that the obstacle will just disappear, without realizing that we actually have to engage. We have to come out of that fear and start doing something.
If you are going up a mountain and there is a rock, you have to move it, go around it, or climb over it. If you are already on top of the mountain, the rock is behind you, so it doesn’t matter. However, if you are meditating and pretending you are on top of the mountain when in fact you are on the path, the rock still blocks your path. You have to relate to it.
Gentleness toward yourself is very important. Gentleness means nonaggression, which is the best way to keep going on our journey. The döns are going to arise, and we have to know how to work with them. Once I was talking with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, my meditation teacher. He said, “Rinpoche, relax.” Essentially, he was saying, “You are going to be doing this your whole life. There will be another session!”
To develop virtue or goodness on a relative scale, it is clear that you have to know what nonvirtue is. Seeing our döns provides that opportunity. The first antidote for döns is recognition. It is important to know that they are natural. We have to pay attention: “What am I doing? What am I thinking about?” We should not be shocked or embarrassed if we find pride or ambition arising. Instead, we can gently think, “Hmm, it’s interesting how that happened.” This is bravery: recognizing what is happening and dealing with it.
The second antidote is to come back to your intention, often felt as a sad and longing heart that leads us to realize “This moment is precious. Life is short. Everything is unstable. My good fortune is amazing.”
The third instruction is very simple—follow your teacher’s instructions. Meditation is a long journey. You cannot be both teacher and student. Thinking “I am the teacher and the student” is the delusional dön. You are making up your own recipe. If the teacher’s instruction to refocus your mind on the breath or another object of meditation is too weak an antidote, or if you find it effective for only so long before your mind wanders off again, then focus on your intention in doing the meditation.
Running marathons is a good metaphor for meditation. When you run a marathon, you reach a point when it is very hard, but you stay with the form and breathe. You don’t think much about whether you are going to make it or not. Then your body relaxes and you find a different level of exertion. To finish is a minor miracle—and what allowed it to happen is just staying with it.