Self-awareness . . . is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even in the midst of turbulent emotions.

—Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence

Ordinarily, our minds are like flags in the wind, fluttering this way and that, depending on which way the wind blows. Even if we don’t want to feel angry, jealous, lonely, or depressed, we’re carried away by such feelings and by the thoughts and physical sensations that accompany them. We’re not free; we can’t see other options, other possibilities.

The goal of attention, or shamatha, practice is to become aware of awareness. Awareness is the basis, or what you might call the “support,” of the mind. It is steady and unchanging, like the pole to which the flag of ordinary consciousness is attached. When we recognize and become grounded in awareness of awareness, the “wind” of emotion may still blow. But instead of being carried away by the wind, we turn our attention inward, watching the shifts and changes with the intention of becoming familiar with that aspect of consciousness that recognizes Oh, this is what I’m feeling, this is what I’m thinking. As we do so, a bit of space opens up within us. With practice, that space—which is the mind’s natural clarity—begins to expand and settle. We can begin to watch our thoughts and emotions without necessarily being affected by them quite as powerfully or vividly as we’re used to. We can still feel our feelings, think our thoughts, but slowly our identity shifts from a person who defines him- or herself as lonely, ashamed, frightened, or hobbled by low self-esteem to a person who can look at loneliness, shame, and low self-esteem as movements of the mind.

The process is not unlike going to the gym. You have a goal—whether it’s losing weight, building muscles, promoting your health, or some other reason. In order to achieve that goal, you lift weights, jog on a treadmill, take classes, and so on. Gradually, you begin to see the fruits of these activities; and seeing them, you’re inspired to continue.

In the case of attention practice, the important point is to know that the goal is to establish and develop stability of awareness that will allow you to look at thoughts, emotions, and even physical pain without wavering. Bearing that in mind, let’s look at applying the following four steps.

Step One: The Main Exercise

The main exercise of attention practice can be broken down into three stages. The first involves simply looking at a thought or emotion with what, in Buddhist terms, is known as ordinary awareness—bringing attention to thoughts or feelings without any express purpose or intention. Just notice and identify what you’re thinking or feeling. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m lonely. We practice ordinary attention every moment of every day. We look at a cup, for example, and simply acknowledge, That’s a cup. Very little judgment is involved at this stage. We don’t think That’s a good cup, a bad cup, an attractive cup, a small cup, or a large cup. We just recognize cup. Applying ordinary awareness to thoughts and emotions involves the same simple acknowledgment: Oh, I’m angry. Oh, I’m jealous. Oh, I’m frustrated. Oh, I could have done better. Oh, I said (or did) something.

Sometimes, thoughts and emotions are not very clear. In such cases, we can look at the messages we receive from our physical bodies. Physical sensations could reflect a host of emotional or mental states— anger, frustration, jealousy, regret, or a mix of disturbing thoughts and feelings. The important point is to simply look at what’s going on and acknowledge whatever you’re experiencing just as it is, rather than to resist it or succumb to it.

The second stage involves meditative awareness— approaching thoughts and emotions as objects of focus through which we can stabilize awareness. To use an example, a student of mine once confided that he suffered from what he called a “people-pleasing” complex. At work, he was always trying to do more, to work longer hours to complete professional projects, which consequently stole time he wished to spend with his wife and family. The conflict became intense. He would wake up several times during the night, sweating, his heart beating fast. He felt he couldn’t please his managers, coworkers, and family at the same time, and the more he tried to please everyone, the less successful he felt. He was judging himself a failure, creating judgments about others as demanding, and casting those judgments about himself and others in stone. He had defined himself as a failure, incapable of pleasing all of the people all of the time.

This man had some experience with looking at objects, sounds, and physical sensations, so I advised him to apply the same method of meditative awareness during those moments when he woke up at night. “Watch the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations,” I told him. “Initially, ‘the people-pleasing’ complex might seem like one giant thing. But as you look at the complex it doesn’t seem like one big giant thing anymore. You’ll start to see that it has a lot of parts. It’s made up of thoughts, like ‘I should have done A, B, or C. Why didn’t I do X, Y, or Z?’ It also comprises emotions, such as fear, anger, and resentment, and physical sensations, including churning in the stomach, an accelerated heartbeat, and sweating. Images may also occur: people being disappointed in you or yelling at you. As you look with meditative attention, the complex becomes like a bubble—inside of which are many smaller bubbles.”

Whatever you’re feeling—whether it’s panic, anxiety, loneliness, or people-pleasing—the basic approach is to try to watch any of the smaller bubbles with the same sort of attention applied to watching a physical object or focusing on a sound. In doing so, you’ll probably notice that the thoughts, emotions, and even physical sensations shift and change. For a while, fear may be most persistent, or perhaps the beating of your heart, or the images of people’s reactions. After a while—perhaps five minutes or so—one or another of these responses, the bubble within the bubble, pulls your attention. Focus on that with meditative attention. In so doing, gradually your attention will shift from identifying as swallowed up in an emotional bubble to the one watching the bubble.

The third stage of the exercise involves a little bit of analysis: an intuitive “tuning in” to determine the effect of the practice. As I was taught, there are three possible results of applying meditative awareness to an emotional issue.

The first is that the problem dissipates altogether. Some of my students tell me, “You gave me this exercise, but it doesn’t work for me.”

“What do you mean?” I ask them.

“These thoughts, these emotions, disappear too quickly,” they reply. “They become fuzzy or unclear. They don’t stay in place long enough to look at them.”

“That’s great!” I tell them. “That’s the point of attention practice.”

Images © Image100/Corbi, Mingyur Rinpoche awareness
© Image100/Corbis

The second possibility is that the thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations intensify. That’s also a good sign—an indication that deeply embedded perspectives are beginning to “loosen up.” To use an analogy, suppose you apply a few drops of water to a plate or bowl encrusted with dried food. Initially, the plate or bowl looks messier as the residue spreads. Actually, though, the plate isn’t getting messier; the dried food is dissolving.

Focusing on form, sound, or physical sensations develops your capacity to look at long-term, overwhelming emotional states.

The third possibility is that emotions may just remain at the same level, neither diminishing nor intensifying. That’s also great! Why? Because we can use an emotion—and the thoughts, images, and physical sensations that accompany it—as strong supports for attention practice. So often, we allow our emotions to use us. Applying attention practice, we use our emotions as a focus for developing awareness, an opportunity to look at the “looker.” Just as we need sound to look at sound, form to look at form, we need emotions to look at emotions. In fact, intense emotions can be our best friends in terms of stabilizing the mind, giving the restless bird a branch on which to rest.

Focusing on form, sound, or physical sensations develops your capacity to look at long-term, overwhelming emotional states.

Step Two: Try Something Different

In the beginning, it can be difficult to immediately address strong emotions or the biases that have developed over long periods. Emotions can color perception, behavior, even physical sensations. They can seem so solid, so big, that we can’t bring ourselves to face them. As one student of mine commented recently, “Working with big emotions—the longterm ones like low self-esteem that kind of define your life—is like trying to climb Mount Everest before we’ve even learned how to climb a hill.”

So, bearing in mind that the goal of shamatha practice is to develop stability of awareness, I offer people the advice given to me by my own teachers. Rather than try to tackle powerful or long-term emotions, focus instead on something smaller and more manageable.

One method is to generate, by artificial means, another emotion, something simpler or smaller and not so intense. For example, if you’re working with loneliness, try working with anger. Imagine a situation in which you’re having an argument with a coworker who messed up your files or someone who cuts ahead of you in line at the grocery store. Once you begin to feel that anger, use that to focus your awareness. Focus on the feeling of anger, the words that cross your mind, the physical sensations, or the image of the person cutting ahead of you. Practicing in this way, you can gain experience on how to deal with emotions.

Once you’ve achieved some proficiency in dealing with artificially generated emotions, you can start to look at past experiences and deliberately recall situations in which you may have felt anger, jealousy, embarrassment, or frustration. Bear in mind that the point of trying something different is to develop a stability of awareness—to discover the looker rather than being overcome by what is looked at.

Working with artificial or smaller emotions builds up the strength to work attentively with larger or long-term emotions, such as loneliness, low self esteem, or an unhealthy need to please. In a way, this approach is like starting a physical workout regimen. When you go to the gym, you don’t start off by lifting heavy weights. You begin by lifting weights that are manageable. Gradually, as your strength improves, you can begin lifting heavier weights. Drawing attention to emotional states works the same way. While there is some benefit in addressing large or long-standing emotional issues directly, sometimes we have to build up our emotional muscles a bit more gradually, remembering that the goal of attention practice is to develop stability of awareness.

Another approach involves using the physical symptoms of emotion as objects of focus. For example, a woman attending a public seminar confessed that she had suffered for years from severe depression. She had been taking medication prescribed by her doctor, but she couldn’t escape the feeling that her body was filled with burning lead.

“Where do you feel this burning lead?” I asked.

“All over,” she replied. “It’s overwhelming.”

“Okay,” I told her. “Instead of looking at the overall pain, focus on one small part of your body. Maybe your foot. Maybe just your toe. Choose a small place to direct your attention. Look at small parts of your body one at a time, instead of trying to work on your whole body at once. Remember that the goal of shamatha practice is to develop stability of awareness. Once you’ve achieved stability by focusing on your foot or your toe, you can begin to extend that awareness to larger areas.”

Applying attention to smaller emotions—or simply focusing on form, sound, or physical sensations—develops your capacity to look at long-term, overwhelming emotional states. Once you begin to grow your “attentional muscles,” you can begin drawing attention to larger emotional issues. As you do so, you may find yourself directly confronting the underlying self-judgment and judgment of others as “enemies.” You may unravel the belief in being stuck, or the blind spot that inhibits your awareness of your potential. Almost certainly, you will confront the “myth of me,” the tendency to identify with your loneliness, low self-esteem, perfectionism, or isolation.

It’s important to remember that such confrontations are not battles but opportunities to discover the power of the mind. The same mind that can create such harsh judgments is capable of undoing them through the power of awareness and attention.

Step Three: Step Back

Sometimes an emotion is so persistent or so strong that it just seems impossible to look at. Something holds it in place. Another approach that can be especially helpful when dealing with particularly strong emotions, or mental or emotional habits that have developed over a long period is to take a step back and look at what lies behind the emotion—what you might call the support or “booster” of the emotion. For example, there were times when I would try to look directly at the panic I felt as a child, and I just failed. I couldn’t sit still, my heart would race, and I’d sweat as my body temperature rose. Finally I asked my teacher, Saljay Rinpoche, for help.

“You don’t want to feel panic?” he asked.

“Of course not!” I answered. “I want to get rid of it right now!”

He considered my response for a few moments and then, nodding, replied, “Oh, now I see. What’s bothering you is the fear of panic. Sometimes, the fear of panic is stronger than the panic itself.”

It hadn’t occurred to me to step back and look at what might be holding my panic in place. I was too wrapped up in the symptoms to see how very deeply I was afraid of the overwhelming emotion. But as I took Saljay Rinpoche’s advice and looked at the underlying fear of panic, I began to find that panic became more manageable.

Over the years, I’ve found this approach effective in counseling other people. If an emotion or a disturbing state of mind is too painful to look at directly, seek the underlying condition that holds it in place. You may be surprised at what you discover.

You may find fear of the emotion, as I did. You may find some other type of resistance, such as a lack of confidence in even trying to work with emotions. You may find small events, triggers that signal or reinforce a broader emotional response. Fatigue, for example, can often signal a depressive episode. An argument with a coworker, spouse, or family member can often trigger thoughts of worthlessness or isolation, reinforcing a sense of low self-esteem. When we work with the feelings behind the feelings, we begin to work more directly with the entrenched beliefs that perpetuate emotional difficulties.

Step Four: Take a Break

An important part of any practice involves learning when to just stop practicing altogether. Stopping gives you more space, which allows you to accept the ups and downs, the possible turbulence of the experience that may be generated by your practice. If you don’t give yourself an opportunity to stop, you may be carried away by the turbulence—and by a sense of guilt because you’re not “doing it right” or not understanding the exercise. How come even though I have these very clear instructions, you may ask yourself, they don’t seem to work? It must be my fault.

In general, when you engage in attention practice, you’ll encounter two extreme points at which you know when to stop. One extreme is when your practice begins to deteriorate. Maybe you lose your focus or feel disgusted with the exercise. Perhaps the method becomes unclear. Even if you step back, looking at the triggers or boosters of anxiety, loneliness, and so on, or try something different, your practice doesn’t work. You may think, I’m so tired of practicing. I can’t see the benefit of going on.

The idea of stopping meditation when the focus becomes too intense or your mind becomes dull or confused is actually an important and often overlooked part of practice. An analogy is often drawn from “dry channel” or “empty reservoir” irrigation practices implemented by Tibetan farmers who would plant their fields around a natural reservoir, such as a small pond or lake, around which they’d dig channels that would run through the crops. Sometimes, even if the channels were well dug, there wasn’t much water flowing through them, because the reservoir itself was empty.

Similarly, when you practice, even though you have clear instructions and you understand the importance of effort and intention, you can experience fatigue, irritation, dullness, or hopelessness because your mental, emotional, and physical “reservoir” is empty. The likely cause is that you’ve applied too much effort, too eagerly, and haven’t built up a sufficiently abundant reservoir of inner strength. The instructions I received from my father and other teachers urging short practice periods can’t be emphasized enough. In dealing with intense or long-term emotional states, we need to fill our reservoirs. Even the Buddha didn’t become the Buddha overnight!

The second extreme at which it’s important to take a break occurs when your experience of the practice feels absolutely fantastic. There may come a point at which you feel extraordinarily light and comfortable in your body or an intense state of happiness or joy. You may experience a boundless sense of clarity—a mental experience like a brilliant sun shining in a cloudless blue sky. Everything appears so fresh and precise. Or perhaps thoughts, feelings, and sensations cease and your mind becomes completely still. At this point, you stop.

Sometimes people say, “It’s not fair! I’m having such a wonderful experience. Why should I stop?”

I sympathize with their frustration, since I, too, have enjoyed such blissful experiences. I felt such greed, such desire to hold on to them. But my teachers explained to me that if I held on, I would eventually grow disappointed. Because the nature of experience is impermanent, sooner or later the bliss, the clarity, the stillness, and so on, would vanish, and then I would feel really horrible. I’d end up feeling like I did something wrong or that the practices don’t work. While the real goal is to develop a stability of awareness that allows one to look with equanimity at any experience, there is also the danger of becoming attached to blissful, clear, or still experiences as the result of attention practice.

They further explained that taking a break at a high point cultivates an eagerness to continue practicing, encouraging us to stabilize awareness and “build up our reservoirs.”

Strange as it may seem, stopping is as much an important aspect of practice as starting.

This article has been excerpted from Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom, © 2009 by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Reprinted with permission from Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .