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.
Uncovering our inherent peaceful nature and cultivating its qualities in our daily lives, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is essential for the survival of humanity.
The world is becoming ever more crowded, speedy, anxious, and intense. Under such conditions, our tendency is to become less compassionate, more aggressive, and more prideful. I feel that cultivating peace is the only way that the human race is going to survive.
How do we live a life of peace? By first discovering our peaceful nature. In “peacefully abiding,” or shamatha meditation, we train in continually bringing our focus back to an object such as the breath. We learn to gather the mind at deeper and deeper levels in order to relax in its innate peace, which manifests as stability, clarity, and strength.
Peaceful abiding meditation is not escapism; it is realism. Only the foolish think that they can find salvation outside themselves. When beings don’t trust their own nature, they become agitated. That turns into blaming others, which becomes vengeance and destruction. Even if we destroy something, in the end we are just left with our own mind. The path of peace is one of exertion and diligence in working with the mind.
It is said that our minds are inherently scattered in six ways, because each of the six sense perceptions—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mind—has its own consciousness. On top of that, fantasies and fears scatter our mind so far beyond our sense perceptions that it takes consistent practice to bring it back and place it on the breath.
Shamatha meditation gives us the skillful means to handle our mind. It’s as if we were training a wild horse. The first step is to develop some rapport with where we are right now. If we just sit down and grab the mind, it’s going to fight back. So we shouldn’t just blaze in and throw on the shamatha technique like a saddle on an untamed horse. First developing the quality of self-awareness—knowing who we are and what we’re doing—is very important.
So when we sit down on the cushion to meditate, we start by taking a look at what is happening in our life, which is the outer circle of our practice. Shamatha in everyday life is a feeling of things working, of orderliness, fluidity, and an absence of conflict. Without some degree of peaceful abiding in our daily life, there is always going to be struggle going on. That struggle might even keep us from going deeper in our meditation.
The next circle of shamatha is self-reflection. This is the first stage of formal practice. We begin by reflecting on how we’re feeling. We might ask, “Do I feel happy or sad? Do I feel anxious? What was my basic state of mind before I began to practice?” When we have emotional difficulties, it is often because we haven’t been paying attention to who we are. We might think we’re great practitioners, when in reality the same old neuroses are playing over and over in our minds. If we want to know the subtleties of the mind or hold an object of observation, we should at least be able to figure out how we feel.
Self-reflection can involve thinking as well. As meditators, we often have a puritanical view that thinking is bad. The reality is that we’ll sit on the cushion and think anyway. Why not think about something that will help us move in the right direction? “Now is my opportunity to train my mind. I have twenty minutes, and I am going to engage my mind and try to train it, just like working with a horse.”
Even after we’ve settled down and begun to place our mind on the breath, our mind can still be pretty wild. We have fantasies of surfing or eating lunch. Or we become fixated on anger or desire, and our emotions seem as solid as rocks. Fantasies and emotions are large thoughts that have the power to carry us far away, and getting to know them is part of the process of slowing down. But if we space out and let our mind roam, we aren’t really meditating, because we aren’t working with our mind at all. We’re just giving more oats to the horse and letting it run around, thinking that will make it tamer.
We have to watch how we handle ourselves. This is another level of self-awareness—being aware of how we’re meditating. Then when we notice that we’ve been swept away, that time hasn’t gone to waste, because as we note the patterns of movement, that allows us to recognize them more readily.
At this level we also see a lot of neutral thoughts. These can be the most dangerous to our meditation. Because they don’t consume us the same way as passion or aggression, we grow accustomed to them. We think, “It’s not that bad; I’m not spacing out that much.” That’s like saying, “My house is not exactly clean, but it’s good enough.” We don’t want to expend the extra energy, so we get used to living with a certain amount of dirt.
Then there are our discursive thoughts, which manifest as agitation, or a stream of chatter. In working with discursiveness, it’s important not to think, “My mind is really wild, I have a lot of thoughts, and therefore I’m a bad person.” We have to be aware of what’s going on in our discursive thoughts, and we shouldn’t try to get rid of them all. If we approach meditation too tightly, trying to be one-pointed at all times, we expend so much effort that we immediately rebound into even more discursiveness.
Instead, we practice watching the mind and seeing how it goes everywhere. It’s scattered and can’t settle or be happy with just one thought; it continuously brings things in. Of course, there will always be a certain amount of discursiveness. You can actually have a pretty good meditation session, say, for half an hour, having dribbles of discursive thought but never really losing the object of meditation.
One aspect of knowing where we are is that we can keep our expectations reasonable. If we say, “I’ve had a busy day. I’m totally wild, but now I’m going to sit down and stay right on the breath,” it’s not going to happen. Instead, we use our intelligence: “If I can simply feel the environment of the room and have a sense of my breath for half an hour, that will be a step forward.” Later, when we are a little calmer, we might think, “Now I can be a little more focused on my breath.”
The next level of thought we encounter is very subtle. These subtle thoughts are not fantasies that are taking us out to the newest restaurant or planning our next workout; they aren’t discursive thoughts creating mental buzz; they are just bubbly little thoughts. The mind percolates; that’s just the way mind is. But after we’ve practiced shamatha for a while, we might reach the stage where our mind is so stabilized in its own peace that these little thoughts dissolve like snowflakes in the sun.
My idea of success in meditation is longevity and consistency. We can meditate for a day and have a completely one-pointed experience, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve tamed our mind. The way we stick with meditation is to understand who we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. The mind is a wondrous thing. Happy and sad, all our feelings come forth from this mind. And as we feel all those things, we should try to relax. When we relax, we can feel our inherent purity, which gives us strength, love, and compassion.