Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche shares how personal practice allows us to understand the most important thing in our life — our mind and heart.
There is a trio of activities that lead to enlightenment. The first activity is hearing or contemplating the teachings of the Buddha. The second is meditating. The third is acting with wisdom and compassion. After hearing the dharma and becoming familiar with it through contemplation and meditation, we are able to take compassion as the basis of our daily activity. We are able to engage in what people call “meditation in action.” The Tibetan word for meditation is gompa, or familiarity. By becoming familiar with our own mind, we discover compassion and wisdom. We do this through personal practice.
Personal practice is a period in the day that we have set aside to meditate. Without personal practice, it is very difficult to proceed along the Buddhist path. If we try to engage in compassion without having found it in ourselves, the process weakens us. Through personal practice we become familiar with compassion and wisdom firsthand. We discover the tremendous fortitude in our own mind and experience its natural kindness, clarity and strength. We become familiar with our own potential, which may surprise us. We can regard our personal practice as a time for developing confidence and trust in our potential to become a completely enlightened being.
In personal practice we have a precise and potent way to understand the most important thing in our life, which is our mind and heart. We sit there day by day and watch something very private and intimate take place—the unfolding of our wisdom and compassion. Nobody else is watching. It may be that nobody even cares. We know there’s nothing more important we could do, and yet we don’t write home about it. We don’t need to boast. We can simply enjoy a quiet sense of contentment, knowing that we have set aside the time to do something incredibly kind for ourselves.
I am curious about people who do not give themselves a daily time of deepening. I wonder how they are able to cope. Without meditation as the bedrock of our sanity, how do we avoid being over-reactive, coerced by quick solutions to our problems? These quick solutions come in the form of anger and frustration that the world doesn’t act the way we want, simply because we ourselves lack patience. Our mind becomes irritated, consumed with trying to align the outside world with our desires. If we could simply develop a level of peace in ourselves, our relationship to the world would be that much more harmonious. As past practitioners of meditation have discovered, however, if we have not developed a well of patience and understanding to draw upon, it is difficult to have compassion on the spot.
I remember my father Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was a great meditation teacher, encouraging me to increase the amount of daily meditation I was doing in order to develop more strength and confidence. His wisdom and understanding did not come simply from good intention. It came from deepening and strengthening his mind through personal practice.
I was also fortunate to study with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, another great teacher of our time. One of the strongest aspects of his being was that even at an old age, he considered daily practice essential. Even though he seemed like someone who might not need to practice, he was always meditating. I remember sitting with him in the evenings in India after all the ceremonies were over and his asking me to join him for his period of personal practice. It was very simple, and also very profound.
I tell my students that personal practice does not have to last for hours and hours. Even a quick ten minutes is good, and half an hour is excellent. The important thing is that there is a period in every day in which we practice waking up to the fact that we are living, breathing beings capable of developing the qualities of enlightenment. Meditation practice is the basis of our sanity, of our happiness. It is the basis of sound and fruitful relationships with our friends and family, who themselves will benefit from our personal practice.
When we commit ourselves to personal practice, life becomes an experience of unfolding wisdom, like the blossoming of a flower. During this most important time of the day, more and more of our own wisdom is revealed to us. It’s as if we are creating our own well of wisdom and compassion to draw upon. We can always make it deeper. In Tibetan this deepening is called namshak, which is often translated as meditative equipoise. As our mundane distractions are reduced to the minimum, we are absorbed in the profundity of the moment. It isn’t that we’re spacing out or ignoring the world. Rather, we are experiencing firsthand the vastness and depth of our own mind.
Without a personal practice, our life is a series of mundane and often disorienting moments in which we are skimming the surface of our mind, living on the surface of our perceptions. We are absorbed in how things appear. Problems, issues and relationships appear to be real, solid and immovable. Everything appears to be stuck. A mind that is absorbed with the appearance of things without understanding the nature of appearances is a mind that is fundamentally weak, one that succumbs quickly to anger, jealously and attachment. Although these weaknesses cause us suffering, in a way they are simply symptoms of a habitual misunderstanding about the nature of appearances.
Most of our life we’ve experienced the world of appearances as solid. Most of the time we are fooled, but we are not fooled totally. Somehow in the back of our mind we know that things are just not adding up. We want to know how things really are. In the meditation tradition, this natural inquisitiveness, the yearning to understand the nature of things, is known as prajna—supreme knowledge and understanding. It leads to incredible wisdom.
As we deepen our mind through personal practice, we are able to dissolve our boundaries and rest in the netsül, the nature of how things actually abide. This personal time in which we experience the mind as fluid, unstuck and without boundaries begins to affect our view of the world as a fixed and immovable place. We are no longer skimming life or our perceptions. We have broken through.
With personal practice, our compassion and wisdom become readily available to us. As a result of what we experience in deep meditation, we begin to experience the world in a different way. It’s not that our compassion and wisdom manifest dramatically. They simply appear as the most natural way to behave and feel. When the sun warms our face on a cold day, it feels natural. Similarly, the warmth of our heart and mind comes through in our personal practice. We have a sense of getting just enough of our own warmth, but it does not come from the sky. It comes from our own being. When we know that little secret, we smile inside and happily engage in life. It is simply a further confirmation and understanding of what we have glimpsed in our personal practice.