The key to health and happiness, says Tulku Thondup, is a mind that is peaceful and positive. This respected Buddhist teacher and author offers insights and meditations to help us access the natural healing power of mind.
To find true well-being, the best place to look is close to home. We could travel around the globe a hundred times, turning over every stone on earth in the quest for happiness. Yet this would not necessarily give us what we seek. Money does not necessarily grant well-being either, nor does a youthful or healthy body. Health and money can help us, of course. But the real source of peace and joy is our mind.
The mind wants to be peaceful; this is really its natural state. But there are so many distractions and cravings that can obscure our peaceful nature. A characteristic of our time is the speed of our living, especially in the West. Everything is a rush. Meditation can slow us down so that we touch our true nature. Any meditation can help us. The object of our contemplation could be a flower, a religious image, or a positive feeling. Or it could be our own body.
One especially rich way to develop a peaceful mind is to meditate upon the body. By doing this we promote the welfare of our whole being.
Through meditation, we can learn how to encourage our mind to create a feeling of peace in the body. This can be as simple as relaxing and saying to ourselves, “Let my body be calm and peaceful now,” and really feeling that this is happening. It is the beginning of meditation—and of wisdom, too.
Meditation can slow us down so that we touch our true nature. Any meditation can help us.
This approach is a kind of homecoming. We are reintroducing ourselves to our bodies and establishing a positive connection between mind and body. Quite often, people have a rather strained and distant relationship to their own body. We think of the body as unattractive or ugly, or maybe our health is not good. Or else we like the body, cherish it, and foster cravings around it. But even if we cherish the body, we worry that it could be better than it is, or that it will get sick or grow old. So we are conflicted and ambivalent. The body is an object of anxiety.
Mind and body are intimately connected, and the relationship of mind to body in meditation is very interesting. When we see the body as peaceful and beautiful, who or what is creating these feelings? The mind is. By creating peaceful feelings in the body, the mind is absorbed in those feelings. So, the body is the object to be healed, but it also becomes the means of healing the mind. The healing of the mind is the ultimate goal of meditation.
The Peaceful Mind
True healing and well-being come down to enjoying an awareness of peace, the ultimate peace, the ultimate peace of existence. The mind is not passive in the sense of being half-asleep. Instead, the mind is open to the thought and feeling of total peace. An unrestricted and uncontaminated awareness of peace is the ultimate joy and strength. When we are truly aware of peace, our nature blossoms with full vigor.
Some people are so fully open to the true nature of existence that they are peaceful no matter what the circumstances. For the enlightened mind, peace does not depend on any object or concept. Awareness of the absolute nature of things, the universal truth, is not limited or conditioned by concepts, feelings, or labels such as good and bad. A mind that is free can transcend dualistic categories such as peace versus conflict and joy versus suffering. The enlightened mind does not discriminate between a subjective or objective reality, or between liking and disliking. Time is timeless, and everything in existence is perfect as it is.
Before this begins to sound too theoretical, I should say that there are many people who are enlightened, to one degree or another, and we can be inspired by tales of enlightenment, where peace is everywhere and even turmoil is okay. But for most of us, the goal should be to work with our ordinary minds and just try to be a little more peaceful and relaxed in our approach to life. If you are a little more peaceful, it will help you to better handle problems, even if big problems are still difficult.
It can be helpful to remember that the enlightened mind and the ordinary mind are two sides of the same coin. The mind is like the sea, which can be rough on the surface, with mountainous waves stirred up by ferocious wind. But at the bottom it is calm and peaceful. Sometimes we can catch sight of this peaceful mind even in times of trouble.
These glimpses of peace show us that we may have more inner resources to draw upon than we realize. With skill and patience, we can learn how to be in touch with our peaceful selves.
Noticing the Peaceful Mind
It can seem daring to open the door to healing. And yet cultivating peace of mind is actually not so strange or alien. Peace of mind is not something we save for meditation or for the contemplation of past experiences, as if it was some special feeling separate from everyday life. We can encourage the mind to be more peaceful all the time; this is how to improve our outlook and assure our well-being. In the ups and downs of life, the opportunity is always there to cultivate an awareness of positive feeling.
When I talk about peace, people sometimes mistakenly think that this means detaching yourself from the stream of life. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The way to truly heal your life is to be awake to its simple joys, and to develop an open, welcoming attitude toward all your activities and encounters with other people. We should enjoy ourselves and be fully engaged in what we do.
It is possible to feel calm and joyful for no reason at all, or under challenging circumstances.
Notice when you feel open and peaceful. Be aware of any feeling of freedom. Awareness is the key. If you are aware of peace, it has a chance to become part of your life. When you feel peaceful, enjoy it. Don’t force your feelings, or chase after them, or stir up false excitement. There’s no need to grasp. Simply be aware, and let the feeling blossom and open. Allow it to expand. Stay with any positive feeling; allow your mind to relax in it. You may find your body feeling peaceful too. If your breathing feels more relaxed, or you feel a sensation of warmth, pause to notice that as well and enjoy it.
It is possible to feel calm and joyful for no reason at all, or under challenging circumstances. The enlightened mind does not need an object or sensation for peace to spontaneously arise. For the ordinary mind, however, it is better to use positive feelings as a starting place, as follows:
Be Aware of the Positive: At the beginning, we should focus on positive situations and images, and rejoice in their healing power. It could be the sight of a toddler proudly taking a few awkward steps under the watchful eye of a parent. Maybe an open-hearted person has said hello with a cheerful smile, or you might have freely done someone a small act of kindness. The simple acts of taking a walk or enjoying a cup of tea can grant us contentment, and even joy, if our attitude is open and receptive. Develop an attitude of appreciation.
See the Positive Side of the Negative: After gaining some strength in our minds, we should focus not only on the positive objects but also on the positive qualities of negative objects. Look for the positive side of negative situations, the silver lining to the dark cloud. One excellent common sense approach is humor, which can shift our perspective and suddenly turn a supposedly negative situation on its head!
Many people have overly sensitive minds and therefore feel the negative more strongly. This allows anxieties to take root and grow. The remedy is to develop a less sensitized mind. We can actually decide “not to mind so much” when negative situations come up, in which case they will be easier to handle. The Third Dodrupchen writes, “If we are not sensitive, then because of our mental strength, even great pain will feel easy to bear, light and flimsy, like a piece of cotton.”
See All as Positive: See the positive in everything, and everything as positive. Then it is possible to realize true peace beyond positive and negative. Ultimately, everything can be a source of healing, without discrimination between so-called positive and negative.
The main support of healing for most people should be a focus on the positive situations and images. However, if we immerse ourselves in the positive, we can gradually but spontaneously embark on the second and third ways, first indirectly and then directly.
Pessimism can be so deadly. The habit of worrying about problems or seeing only the negative aspect of a situation hardly leaves any room for healing. When the mind becomes encrusted and rigid with this attitude, then everything that happens appears tainted by pain and negativity.
The mind can choose between positive and negative; it’s all in the perception. A central practice in Tibetan Buddhism is positive perception. It’s an approach that’s been proven over the centuries to yield an amazing harvest of spiritual realization, as well as happiness and health in everyday life.
Problems can become stepping stones on the path to freeing our minds. Even if we are not a great spiritual master, we can start by seeing small problems as acceptable. Try to see a difficulty as an interesting challenge. Then if you can solve it, or learn how to tolerate it, be sure to congratulate yourself on doing so. Feeling the satisfaction can bring a surge of joy, which has a positive ripple effect in the rest of your life.
If you can relax the obsession about happiness just a bit, then spontaneously you might be happier.
A spark of peace and joy can be found in every situation, if we care to find and apply it. Even if we are having a hellish life, there will always be some moments of peace that we could certainly use as the source of healing. So, even if our lives are painful, we can find something to use as our focal point of healing, the best out of the worst situations, if we care to look for it.
According to Buddhism, the nature of the mind is enlightened. So our nature is good. The big problem is the negative habits of the mind, how we look at everything. These mental patterns can get quite built up and rigid, and they color and influence our perspective. Everyone has the capacity to be happy, but you have to change the habits of your mind and way of perceiving things.
Try to reduce the degree of resentment toward the so-called unhappiness; that will be a big achievement. Change what you can to improve your situation, and don’t worry about what you can’t change. Be more accepting of things at this very moment. Find humor or a spark of enjoyment wherever you can. That begins to move you toward more happiness.
Don’t make happiness an obsession, like some object you simply must get hold of and keep. If you can relax the obsession about happiness just a bit, then spontaneously you might be happier.
Finally, when we deal well with a problem, it’s important to acknowledge this to ourselves. In daily life or meditation, any time we heal some suffering we have felt, we must recognize this. By such recognition, the powerful energy of joy can flare up. That could be a great focal point for further healing. The Third Dodrupchen writes, “You must recognize that the suffering has actually transformed as the support of the path. Then you must feel a strong and stable stream of joy that is brought about by that recognition.”
A Meditative View of the Body
Our physical body is a precious treasure. It’s an amazing machine: elegant, complex, and beautiful. It is also ours for a limited time. Buddhism talks about the body as a guest house for the mind, and takes a quite realistic view of the body’s aging and decay. Mind and body are together only for a while; all the more reason to treasure their true well-being while we can.
When we bring awareness to the body, doing so can call forth powerful positive energies. There are three reasons to meditate upon the body.
First, our own body is a very effective support in regaining the healing energies of the mind, since the body is so intimately connected to the mind.
Second, much of the time, the goal is to heal the ills of body. So, choosing the body as the object to be healed is practical. Meditation can be an effective remedy for these problems, depending on the skill of the meditator and the particular illness. It is also true that, compared to emotional problems, physical ills can be difficult to heal through meditation, especially for a beginner. But even if our physical ills don’t go away, they can often be eased. At the very least, our minds can learn to better tolerate the woes of the body and carry them more lightly.
Third, by bringing healing energy to the body, we can also improve our lives. The mind, the main actor in healing meditation, is absorbed in positive healing energies. This loosens the grasping of the mind. It becomes easier to develop a more open and relaxed attitude toward problems, including how to get along better with others. Our focus here is to simply become more accepting of our bodies as they are. In the West, the body tends to be worshiped unrealistically. Even “perfect” supermodels seem to worry that their bodies should be better than they are, ever more perfect, and never changing. In the East, the body tends to be viewed more as something filthy and unworthy. Asians are not friends with their bodies either. East and West, so much negative energy is attached to the body, and negative perception blocks the healing of body and mind. It’s better to take a more balanced view, and by making a practice of meditating upon the body, gradually and after many sessions, you can go beyond attachment or resentment of the body.
Most of us are so attached to our bodies; we identify so closely with them. It can help in meditation to see our bodies as boundless, like the sky. We don’t necessarily get attached to the sky. The sky is there, and when we think about it, we accept and appreciate it. If we began to see the body with something like this kind of relaxed appreciation, we could genuinely approach all of life with more enjoyment.
The healing meditations I teach focus on the technique of positive visualization. To that end, the mightiest weapons in our arsenal are the four powers of seeing, recognizing, feeling and believing.
The Four Healing Powers of Mind
The four healing powers are positive images, words, feeling and belief. When we bring these qualities of mind to our meditation, the power to heal our mental, emotional, and physical afflictions grows stronger.
When we visualize positive objects, the exercise of our imagination engages and absorbs our mind. If we can maintain the images in our mind for some duration, the healing will be more intimate and effective. The mind tends to wander about, especially if you are new to meditation. Practice staying with the image as long as you comfortably can, and eventually your concentration will improve.
Although visualization is a pillar of Tibetan meditation, many Westerners find it rather strange at first. Forming mental images is universal, even if we are not used to doing it as part of meditation. With few exceptions, we all visualize constantly in daily life. Most of the time, our minds are occupied with neutral images or negative ones. Instead, if we build a habit of seeing positive images, the peaceful nature of our mind begins to emerge and we give joy a chance to flourish.
By applying the four healing powers in a positive way, we can help ourselves now and also reap the benefits later.
One of the practices of Tibetan Buddhism is to visualize positive images at every opportunity throughout the day, except when practical business is being conducted. In your own life, you can bring meditation and its images and associated feelings into your life, during a short break at work, for example. This encourages the positive feelings to take hold.
Since many of us are predominantly visual, the focus is on positive images. Yet we could also use sound, smell, taste and touch as healing objects, if more appropriate. Some people are more auditory, so they could emphasize chanting, or incorporate music as part of their prayers and meditations.
Words can have great power, for good or ill. As thinking creatures, words and inner dialogues are constantly going on in our heads. We put labels on things and name them. It is our way of recognizing and confirming the quality of something.
Meditating upon an image is made all the stronger when we recognize it as positive, and even comment to ourselves on its positive nature. For example, if we are visualizing a flower, you might think about its positive qualities: “This beautiful flower is blossoming,” or “Its color is spectacular, the whole atmosphere is radiant with its brilliance,” or ‘‘The dew is dripping from its healthy, fresh petals,” or “It is so pure, as if made of rainbow light,” or “I wish everybody could enjoy such a feast for the eyes.”
Sometimes just the conscious recognition of positive qualities is enough, without a label. But a label can help open your mind to an image, such as just simply saying to yourself: “It’s beautiful,” or “It’s red.” The point is to confirm in your mind the power of the positive. In this way, we begin to transform the negative mindset we have built up. We can choose positive or negative perceptions. Recognizing the positive can be a strong ally in transforming our minds, both in meditation and daily life.
In addition to positive images, we can incorporate positive sounds and scents, or use gestures or touch. By recognizing the positive qualities of any of these means, we can expand their power.
The mind not only thinks and recognizes, it feels. If we involve our awareness of the positive qualities of an object through emotion, the healing of mind and body is much stronger.
For example, in meditation if we imagine a beautiful flower, we might just think in our heads, “How beautiful that flower is,” but then the positive impression is a shadow of what it could be. Instead, open up to the flower on the level of feeling. Feel the enchanting beauty, the freshness of dew dripping from it, the clarity of its colors like immaculate light. Feel the qualities of the flower in your heart and body and celebrate it, instead of just thinking of it intellectually.
You can bring this same open-hearted approach to appreciating the beauty around you every day of your life. Opening yourself to feelings in meditation can bring more zest and enjoyment to everything you do.
Generally we need to feel our emotions; it’s healthy to do so. But at times we may want or need to protect ourselves from harmful emotions generated by negative situations and images. To do this, try to deal with them at the level of thinking and intellect, rather than getting overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment. You don’t necessarily need to allow negative perceptions to be driven deep into your heart at the level of feeling.
In meditation and all of life, we can bring the awareness of feeling to the positive qualities as perceived through any of our senses: seeing, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. We feel the vastness of the sky, the refreshing power of the wind, the comforting warmth of the sun, and so on.
If you do not trust in the power of your meditation to heal, its strength and energy will be weak. Belief gives the meditation a firm foundation; it engages the mind in a way that is effective and total.
This is not blind faith, but a faith and trust based upon knowledge that the healing power of mind can be fully called forth with the help of images, words, and feelings. We need to believe that we actually can improve our lives in this way. Even if meditation moves you one step forward, you can fall right back if you are always harboring doubts in your mind.
Intellectual and material-minded people like ourselves can find it hard to trust and believe in anything. We need to remember that the mind is a powerful source of healing, and that the purpose of healing meditation is to awaken our inner resources. We need to rely on the help of mental objects, and believe in the power of the mind.
By applying the four healing powers in a positive way, we can help ourselves now and also reap the benefits later. According to Buddhism, the seeds of all experiences are sown in us at the level of unconsciousness, or universal ground. Our mental and physical deeds, both positive and negative, accumulate in what Buddhists call karma.
Karma is like seeds planted in our unconscious mind where it can hibernate, hidden in us. Eventually, karma blossoms in its consequences, for good or ill. Karma can take the form of physical symptoms, emotions, or memories. Meditation with the four healing powers is very effective as a remedy for a harvest of negative consequences.
The four healing powers are also applicable to daily life. We can see the positive in ourselves and around us, confirm this quality in our minds by recognizing it, rejoice in any positive or peaceful feelings, and believe in the healing power of this way of looking at the world. This approach to life can reap a great harvest of benefits.
Reprinted from Boundless Healing: Meditation Exercises to Enlighten the Mind and Heal the Body with permission of Shambhala Publications.