I want to discuss meditation. This is because meditation provides the essential tool for all our practices, including the ngondro practices [the foundation practices of Tibetan Buddhism], and because nowadays meditation means different things to different people. In order to establish a common understanding, I want to recount one of my own earliest introductions to meditation.
My father compared the effects of meditation to the behavior of a good shepherd. From the big window in his small room at the hermitage of Nagi Gompa, we could see a vast expanse of sky and the sprawling city of Kathmandu below. Sometimes we sat together and watched boys graze their flocks. “Good shepherds sit on the hill watching over their flock, alert and aware,” my father explained. “If an animal strays, they scramble down to provide guidance. They do not race around pushing their flock this way and that way, so that the poor animals cannot get enough to eat and become exhausted, and the shepherd too becomes exhausted.”
“Do good shepherds meditate?” I asked.
“They are not working with their minds in a direct way,” he said. “So they are not meditating, but they are relaxed and undistracted. They look outward to their flock while maintaining an inner steadiness. They are not chasing after the sheep. When we meditate, we do not chase after thoughts. A bad shepherd has a narrow view. He might chase after one sheep that strays to the left but miss the one moving to the right, so he ends up running in circles like a dog chasing its tail. When we meditate, we don’t try to control all our thoughts and feelings. We just rest naturally, like the good shepherd, watchful and attentive.”
One time my father pointed to a boy sitting in the sun with his back against a flat rock watching his flock below. The boy untied the cloth that held his lunch and ate slowly, raising his eyes to check on his goats. When he finished eating he took out a wooden flute, and my father opened the window to listen. Everyone seemed so happy: the boy, my father, and the goats. “Does that boy meditate?” I asked my father. He shook his head. “But still he’s so happy?” I asked.
“The good shepherd is free to make choices in his behavior,” my father explained. “He has a calm mind, which keeps his flock calm. Since he does not make the animals nervous, they don’t run away. This gives him time to sit down, eat lunch, and play his flute.
“But don’t confuse relaxed behavior with mind. Today the sun is shining. It’s not too cold, not too windy. The circumstances for this shepherd could not be better. What happens if they change? What happens to the mind if the owner sells those goats? To know true freedom of mind, we must meditate in order to recognize the nature of mind itself. Then we will not be carried away by thoughts, emotions, and circumstances. Stormy weather or sunshine, the mind stays steady.”
To cultivate a steady mind independent of circumstances, we must work with the mind itself. Working directly with the mind uncovers the inherent quality of meditative awareness.
Awareness is the natural, innate, knowing quality of mind that is with us all the time. We cannot function without awareness; we would have no experience of anything without awareness. However, we do not always recognize it. In fact, most of the time we don’t. Meditation teaches us to recognize the awareness that we already have. There are three types of awareness: normal awareness, which we experience before we learn to meditate; meditative awareness, which comes with the recognition of awareness itself; and pure awareness, which occurs when our recognition deepens and we directly experience the nature of awareness.
The most pervasive quality of normal awareness is that awareness itself goes unrecognized. We remain so preoccupied and identified with every idea and image in our mind that we don’t recognize awareness itself. Awareness is always present. We cannot function without it, but we can function without recognizing it.
There are two forms of normal awareness: one is attentive and present—characteristics associated with meditation and displayed by the good shepherd. The other form is characterized by distraction, with no resemblance to meditative behavior. Yet neither type recognizes awareness itself.
Let’s say we look at a flower. With distracted normal awareness, our eyes turn toward the flower while we might be thinking about pizza, partners, or movies. Or we drive to a restaurant with friends, and on leaving the restaurant disagreement arises about the return route. We do not forget the route because awareness disappears—we can no more be without awareness than we can be without breath—but our awareness was covered by distractions, by the mind talking to itself, by fantasies and daydreams. We remained aware enough to get to the restaurant, but not enough to know how we did it. Awareness may become muddied, obscured—but not gone. In this distracted state, we are like the bad shepherd. We eat breakfast while chasing after thoughts about dinner. At dinner we cannot remember what we ate for breakfast.
When we pay attention to washing dishes, driving a car, or solving math problems, we stay focused on the task. When we say that a person does a job well, this generally reflects a capacity for paying attention. For a shoemaker, the field of attention may be the details of stitching, gluing, and the pliability of the leather. Doctors must pay attention to their patients’ physical and emotional signs. To excel at any job, nondistracted normal awareness must predominate. In each case, the attention—and therefore the mind itself—is on the object of awareness: sheep, shoes, patients, or the road. The mind is not lost in distracted chatter; it’s aware of its subject, but awareness itself goes unrecognized.
Mental attributes such as attention and concentration can be beneficial tools for our dharma studies too, for memorization of texts and so forth. But concentration and focus do not uncover the natural, original state of our mind, which is where we find true freedom. For that, we need to recognize awareness.
Meditation requires some degree of being aware of awareness itself. We become cognizant of the quality of the mind, not just of phenomena perceived by the mind. When we begin to meditate, supports such as images of buddhas, our breath, or a flower can be helpful. We rest our attention on the support. But just paying attention is not yet meditation. The two critical ingredients for meditation are intention and recognition. We start by purposely resting on the support—that’s where intention comes in. We also stay aware of what’s happening as it happens—that’s recognition. In other words, when we rest our attention on the breath, we don’t get completely absorbed in the experience to the point that we lose touch with everything else. We are fully conscious of the breath, but we also know that we are aware.
Let’s say that we use a flower as support for awareness. We bring attention to the object and use it to support the recognition of awareness. This is what we mean by support. The object of meditation supports the cultivation of recognition. Shakyamuni Buddha said: “A monk, when walking, knows that he is walking; when standing, knows that he is standing; when sitting, knows that he is sitting; when lying down, knows that he is lying down.” This knowingness, this recognition of each moment and each activity, is meditation.
Once we recognize awareness, we can continue using the support if it’s helpful, but not in a focused, narrow way. Using a support for our meditation, such as the breath or a visual form, becomes a means to a more spacious, relaxed state of mind that remains steady in the midst of the mind’s activity. If you start off using a flower for support, don’t worry about whether or not you have awareness. If you intend for the flower to support your recognition of awareness, that will happen. The intention and motivation itself will bring about the recognition.
Within the ngondro practices, the supports vary from animals—such as cows or dogs—to god-realm beings, deities, and gurus . . . to entire universes. The sound of a mantra may be a support. But the process is the same as working with a flower or with your own breath. The support functions as a way to uncover and recognize qualities of mind.
As meditative awareness deepens, we may begin to experience what we call pure awareness. This isn’t some extraordinary state of consciousness. In fact, one of its main characteristics is that it’s completely ordinary. It’s simply the natural extension of the first glimpse of awareness that comes when we start to meditate. However, the meditation process itself connects us not only with the presence of awareness but with the very nature of awareness. Once we recognize this pure awareness, the entire path of awakening—including all the ngondro practices—helps nurture and stabilize this recognition, and integrates it with every aspect of our life.
Practice: Awareness Meditation
When we practice ngondro, we can alternate our supports for awareness. We can move from using the breath for support, to looking at a flower or listening to a sound. And what happens when our monkey-mind pops up screaming, “Pay attention to me! We must replay this past episode and anticipate the future”? If we are using the breath for support, we come back to the breath. Without judging ourselves, without getting discouraged or feeling hopeless, we just come back to the breath and get on with it.
Various forms of shamata, or awareness meditation, teach us how to uncover our innate qualities of mind, and the most common will use the breath to support our recognition of awareness. This works with feeling sensation. Breath is the most common support because it is available in all circumstances and conditions, which explains why we so often hear “Come back to the breath.” If we get lost in discursive thinking, if we get lost inside a past experience or disappear into a black hole of anger or jealousy: “Come back to the breath.” The nature of the breath makes it the most reliable support, especially for new students.
Let’s try meditating using the breath as support for awareness. But first, before purposely doing any particular meditation exercise, it’s good to start with just resting your mind. Just that. For now, remain in whatever informal posture you are in. To get a sense of how it feels to rest the mind, think about how you rest in daily life. If you jog for a few miles, what happens when you stop or take a break? Imagine cleaning the house for an hour or two, and then stopping to rest. Imagine that first moment of taking a break. Or imagine coming home to an apartment tower in Hong Kong or Minneapolis and learning that the electricity has gone off. The generators aren’t working, so you have to walk up two flights of stairs, or maybe ten or twenty. Finally you reach your apartment, get a glass of water, and sink into the couch. Aaahhh. Something like that. Think of an activity that requires extra effort, and then practice a silent version of this release. Just rest. Just relax the mind, even for a few seconds. Aaahhh.
Try that. Then rest.
Rest for a few more seconds.
Then come out of resting. How was that?
Now I have one big secret: resting the mind this way is meditation.
Yet if I say that beforehand, you might start off with some big expectation and become tense and anxious, and that’s not helpful. Yet that sense of resting, of allowing whatever arises to just be, without trying to control anything, that mind of “aaahhh” comes close to natural awareness. We call this “open awareness” or “shamata without support.”
When I say that this mind comes close to open awareness, I mean that without the intention to meditate, you will not benefit much from just the experience. Motivation and intention help you realize awareness. But if you infuse your intentions with too much hope and expectation, they may lead to disappointment. You want to combine your purposeful intention with the relaxed mind of resting.
This exercise can be repeated many times. Don’t try to hold on to the awareness. When you find your mind wandering, just come back to the exercise and start again.
Now let’s try a more formal approach to meditation. The practice is shamata, or awareness meditation. We use our breath as the object that supports our awareness.
Awareness Meditation with Breath
- Sit in a relaxed posture with your back straight.
- Your eyes can be open or closed.
- Take a minute or two to rest in open awareness. Perhaps bring to mind that feeling of sinking into a chair to rest after strenuous exertion: Aaahhh.
- Now breathe normally through your mouth, nose, or both.
- Bring your awareness to your breath as it flows in and out.
- At the end of the out-breath, rest your awareness in the gap that comes naturally before the next inhalation.
- If your mind wanders, simply bring it back to the breath.
- Continue this for five to ten minutes.
- Conclude the exercise with resting in open awareness.
Practice and text from Turning Confusion into Clarity: A Guide to the Foundation Practices of Tibetan Buddhism, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche with Helen Tworkov, © 2014 by Yongey Mingyur. Reprinted by arrangement with Snow Lion, an imprint of Shambhala Publications.