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.
Our habit is always to return to a small view of our experience. meditation trains us to return again and again to a larger view of our existence.
We are always learning and remembering things that interest us (hearing); considering things that capture our attention (contemplating); and returning to those things that particularly hold our minds because they are familiar, if not always healthy, reference points (meditating).
What about using this dynamic to train our minds, so that we are able to choose what we remember, contemplate and meditate upon? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could control when and how we do these activities? The way to achieve that—to strengthen these powers of the mind—is to sit down on the meditation cushion.
In order to begin on the path of meditation, we need confidence in our understanding of the instructions. How do we develop that confidence? Through hearing those instructions from a reliable source, through contemplating them over and over, and through accurately remembering them. To sustain the path of meditation even when the mind feels difficult, boring or irritating, we have to understand firmly the significance of meditation. We develop this firm understanding through contemplating the meaning of the meditation instructions and how they could be helpful to us. Simply saying, “Oh, if I focus my attention on my breathing I’ll feel more relaxed,” is not enough.
If meditation were about stress relief, we could forgo having to understand our own minds and simply get a good massage. Instead, it’s crucial to consider the implications of guiding our mind away from the pursuit of every little thought that pops into our head. This is what we do in meditation practice: gently guide ourselves toward observing thoughts and emotions from an ever-larger perspective. We use the natural tendency we refer to as meditation to return us again and again to a more open view of our experience, rather than our usual habit to return again and again to a smaller view.
Initially, when we consider our habitual confusion, we see it as something happening to us. We think, “My day got ruined,” or “Such and such made me late.” Even if we’re not especially self-centered people, we tend to think, “Oh no, it’s raining, I’m going to get wet,” instead of something like, “It’s raining, what effects might the rain have?”
Whenever we begin meditation, we have to go beyond this view of things happening to us. It’s important to ask ourselves what we are doing. For most of us, the honest answer is that we yearn to be content. Finding contentment is hard, though, because so much of our existence is uncomfortable. Meditation practice helps us to see the thought processes we employ in a vain attempt to find comfort and satisfaction.
When we meditate, we acknowledge that we’re thinking but try not to follow the thoughts. Instead we bring our attention back to the sensation of the breath going in and out. We recognize we are caught in a thought or fantasy, and then we bring the attention back to the breath. That’s what meditation is—returning our attention to the object. The object is the breath, in the form of meditation I’m discussing here, but it could also be something you look at, something you visualize, or a phrase or mantra you repeat to yourself.
When we ask ourselves what we’re doing, we shouldn’t be afraid to be honest about the answer. We do want to feel good and to be happy. The honesty need not stop there. We can see that it takes a great deal of effort just to keep it together most days. Each day there are so many conditions that must come together in a certain way for us to feel happy. First of all we need water, food and sleep. Then the list starts to lengthen. “I went shopping and they had my size! I feel good.” We constantly fluctuate between feeling big or small, feeling accepted or rejected. Even though we are intelligent, our self-confidence is riding on the whim of chance. Will things go well today? We never know.
The untrained mind travels from thought to thought, from emotion to emotion. When we ask ourselves, “Who am I, what do I really want in life, what is the state of my mind?” then we realize how fragile the sense of peace is within our mind. We see how fragile our stability is. So how can we live in a way that is sane, humorous and dignified? We could start by viewing life as the phenomenal display of all beings trying to be content. Meditation enables us to take such a larger view and to understand that all beings are searching for the same contentment.
Once we can squarely recognize the condition we’re all in, it’s natural to say, “Well, I don’t want to drift at the whim of conditions coming together just right. I want to be able to feel content even when things don’t go exactly my way.” Stabilizing and strengthening the mind through a regular meditation practice can help accomplish this. The more we understand ourselves, the more chance we have of working our way out of the trap of our habitual tendency to look for satisfaction in all the wrong places. And the more we feel inspired to stay with the great journey of taming our own mind.
As we go on this journey, our perception of the meditation path—and of our own mind—changes. At first, there’s a tendency to think we need a teacher to give us a path. Although that is true, when we look closer we see that every situation presents us with the challenge of working with our mind. We see the display of the weather and we see the display of our own thoughts. That is the path. For instance, we could allow the changing weather to be a nuisance: “I want it to stop raining! I want the sun to shine.” This attitude keeps our possibilities small. It prevents freedom and it entrenches the fear that things won’t go our way and the hope that they will.
Instead, we could appreciate the weather as a display of uncontrollable beauty. The rain comes chattering down. It brings us an opportunity to open up and appreciate the simple quality of being, whether too cold or too hot or too wet. That experience is liberating—and that opportunity is always present. Meditation is our way to gain access to it.