As a small child I was chosen, in a traditional Tibetan fashion, as an incarnation of a highly respected and powerful meditation teacher. When I went to school in the monastery, my professors had big expectations for me. They put a lot of pressure on me to live up to the example of this great master from the past. But rather than rise to the occasion, I, like many teenagers, rebelled against all the expectations and pressure. I just became more and more angry about everything and everyone. Behind my back, the other monks called me the “anger ball,” and when I was in a bad mood everyone tried to get as far away from me as possible. It was no fun.

I thought, “Your idea that I am an incarnation of some meditation teacher doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t even know if I believe everything the Buddha says.”

Even though I was studying lots of philosophy, which I found gratifying to my intellect (it was like solving a difficult puzzle), I didn’t seem to be getting a direct experience of the meaning of the great works I was studying. This only angered me more and made me think I wasn’t really much of a Buddhist, let alone that revered old meditator everyone said I was supposed to be. In fact, the only use I had for philosophy was that I got better and better at debate, and so I could easily defeat my peers, which gave me a great opportunity to channel my aggression toward other people. I guess beating them at debate was at least better than punching them out, which was a constant theme of my fantasies when I was 17.

Eventually I couldn’t keep it all bottled up anymore, so I went to my main meditation teacher, a great master named Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, and told him how I felt. His response was to teach me a meditation practice on lovingkindness. He told me that every day I should strongly wish that everyone could be happy. And then, to take that further, imagine that everyone was becoming more and more happy. Not just one or two people, but every single person.

I practiced like that every day. And it seemed OK at first. My anger was subsiding. But then one day I asked myself, “Why do I need to wish for everybody’s happiness if they don’t really care about me? Why should I care about them? What’s in it for me?”

This way of thinking only managed to irritate me even more. I also noticed that while my anger grew, any feelings of contentment and joy completely evaporated. I was becoming more and more miserable. I took a close look at myself and started comparing myself to my teacher. My parents and my teacher’s generation were refugees who escaped Tibet and settled in exile in Nepal and India. They had to go through tremendous hardship, leaving their homeland and adapting to a new country. My teacher particularly had to leave everything behind and spent most of his life in extreme poverty, lived very simply, and had very challenging health problems. I, on the other hand, had a nice place to live, plenty to eat, and many of the creature comforts of modern civilization. Yet he was always radiating so much peace and joy that I loved to just sit in the same room as him. I figured it was worth speaking to him some more since not only did other people want to avoid me but I could barely stand being with myself.

I went to him and asked what I should do about my seemingly infinite capacity for anger and aggression.

His reply: “Stop behaving like a dog. Behave like a lion!”

“What does that mean?” I asked. “Should I roar? How will that improve my life and calm my mind?”

“When you throw a stone at a dog, what does he do?” he asked.

“The dog chases the stone,” I replied.

He said that was exactly what I was doing, acting like a dog—chasing each thought that came at me. I considered that for a moment. It was indeed true that when I had a thought— for example, “That person pisses me off”—I would chase after it. Without even noticing, I would dwell on that thought, looping it over and over again, justifying it, coming up with all the reasons to be angry, and, in so doing, I would become the thought. Rinpoche pointed out to me how I was chasing after my angry thoughts, just like the dog chases after the stone.

“When you throw a stone at a lion,” he continued, “the lion doesn’t care about the stone at all. Instead, it immediately turns to see who is throwing the stone. Now think about it: if someone is throwing stones at a lion, what happens next when the lion turns to look?”

“The person throwing the stone either runs away or gets eaten,” I said.

“Right you are,” said my teacher. “Either way, no more stones!”

Most people think that thoughts and emotions are the enemy. But we can use thoughts and emotions, even the bad ones, to actually bring us into the present moment.

After my teacher told me to stop acting like a dog and to be more like a lion, I was a little bit embarrassed that my teacher thought I was like a dog. But as I looked at my own mind, I noticed more and more that I was acting like the dog. I chased every single thought, especially the angry ones!

So I went back to my teacher and asked him what to do. He said, “Instead of chasing the anger, grabbing it, and holding on, just be aware. Just be very gently aware of the anger instead of getting involved. Don’t reject it, but don’t dwell on it either. Just turn your attention to look gently at the thought. At that moment of turning inward to just observe, the thought will dissolve. At that moment, just exhale and rest. Then after a moment or two, it will come back. So just turn to observe it again. It will dissolve. Keep practicing like that and the power of the anger to ensnare you will be weakened. Then it will be easier to forgive and, more importantly, forget. You won’t be overpowered by the rawness of the emotion because you won’t let it establish itself, you won’t cling to it.”

My teacher cautioned, “However, if anger arises, and you are aware of it, and it doesn’t disappear, that means you are still subtly holding on to it.”

I kept practicing, and gradually my anger became less and less powerful. I still would get annoyed, but I didn’t feel like I had to punch someone or shout at them. I was a teenage monk, and this practice saved me. Meditation made my mind much more flexible.

Most people think that thoughts and emotions are the enemy of present-moment awareness, and that negative emotions in particular are the enemy of interconnectedness. But we can use thoughts and emotions, even the bad ones, to actually bring us into the present moment. We can overcome our negative emotions not by rejecting them—trying to push them away—but by skillfully using them. Having thoughts is a natural consequence of having a mind. Since it isn’t really possible to block thoughts, when we meditate we don’t struggle against our thoughts by suppressing or blocking them. Instead we use an object to rest our attention on, neither pushing thoughts away nor engaging them further.

Related: Cleaning Out the Storehouse

Rather than using an object such as the breath as a support for meditation, however, we can actually use the thoughts themselves. This is a more direct method for treating thoughts with equanimity. By learning to place our attention directly on a thought without holding on to it, we can use a thought as support for meditation rather than an opportunity for distraction. We just watch each thought as it rises and then falls away.

For example, when we go to the beach we notice everything going on there. Maybe a family is having a barbeque picnic, or a group of teenagers is playing volleyball. Farther down the beach you might see a pair of lovers on a stroll. At that moment you don’t feel like you need to get involved in any of the activity. You don’t get up from your beach chair to cook burgers for the family having the picnic. Even if you like the game of volleyball, you don’t just jump into the middle of the game and spike the ball to the opposite side of the net. And for sure you don’t knock one of the lovers over to steal a kiss from the good-looking one left standing, no matter how sexy that one looks in that bathing suit. You are aware of everything, yet you don’t cling to any of it. You are not overly involved.

When we know how to look at a thought in meditation without thinking further about the thought, our relationship to the thought changes dramatically. First of all, in the state of meditative awareness, thought loses its power to distract us, just as when we see a picnic at the beach we don’t become involved in the picnic itself.

lion sitting in grassy field facing the wind; thought meditation
Lion Before Storm II, Sitting Profile, Masai Mara, 2006 | © Nick Brandt, courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Before I introduce the method I was taught for using thoughts and emotions as an object for meditation, there is something else I should mention that we gradually begin to notice when we practice in this way. Namely, when our meditation practice is a little bit stable and we turn our attention toward the thought, it immediately dissolves. A small space opens up between thoughts. In that natural space, we are still aware, still present and knowing, and we are not distracted.

At first, the space between thoughts disappears almost immediately because another thought arises to fill it. At that moment we can just turn our attention to that thought too and it disappears just like the previous one. When we practice in this way, the length of time between thoughts slowly grows.

Related: The In-between State

If we remain for a few moments in the natural space that appears between thoughts, in those moments we experience meditation without an object. In that space, we are aware, completely present, and not relying on placing our attention on an object. As we become more and more familiar with this state, the state itself becomes the support for the meditation. But in the beginning, we rest in the space between thoughts as long as it lasts—and for most of us the time will be very short. When the next thought arises, we react with equanimity and just observe it.

A thought might bring us to non-distraction, but at the moment the thought dissolves, it is simply the non-distracted mind itself that is the support for meditation. Nothing else is needed. When we have confidence in the method, even challenging thoughts and emotions strengthen our dignity. They strengthen our ability to rest our attention on the present moment rather than succumbing to negative thoughts and emotions.

Exercise #1

Using Thoughts and Emotions as an Object

If you have a hundred thoughts
pass through your mind in the space
of a minute, it means you have a
hundred supports for meditation.

Begin by focusing on the breath.

Notice what is happening in your mind; notice your thoughts. Don’t think about your thoughts, just notice them.

As a thought arises, just observe the thought. If you don’t start thinking about it, the thought will dissolve. For a moment there will be natural space; just rest in it until the next thought arises. If you find you are thinking about thoughts, at that moment of recognition, turn your attention to the present moment.

After a while, if you find you aren’t able to watch a thought without getting involved in it, go back to focusing on the breath.

End the session by considering your heartfelt aspiration for everyone to be happy, to have the causes of happiness, and to be free from suffering and its causes.

Exercise #2

Using Thoughts and Emotions as an Object—Watching the River

This practice is quite radical because instead of regarding our thoughts as an obstacle to remaining in mindful awareness, we take the thoughts themselves as a support for resting in the present moment. However, in the beginning, thoughts and emotions may come so fast and furious that it seems like there’s no space between them. That’s because we have a subtle habit of clinging to each thought or emotion as it passes through our mind. In this case, practice “watching the river” by watching the flow of thoughts, rather than the thoughts themselves. When you look at a river, your eyes don’t get distracted by each portion of water as it passes; it just flows by. The river is the flow. If there were no flow, we wouldn’t call it a river.

In the same way, just rest your attention on the flow of the river of thoughts and emotions, instead of following each individual thought as it passes. That way you will gradually become accustomed to watching a thought rather than clinging to it, habitually thinking about the thought as it arises. By contrast, as we get used to watching the flow, the spaces between the thoughts will naturally reveal themselves.

So in this way, thoughts themselves become remedies for subtle involuntary thinking; they are an antidote to the unconscious habit of thinking about thoughts, which is just a kind of clinging.

Don’t cling to or try to follow each thought.

Just observe.

Whatever arises in the mind, just watch it come and go, lightly, and without grasping.

When you do this practice, you don’t need to become like a cat waiting outside a hole for the mouse to show, ready to pounce. Don’t wait, ready to pounce on the space between thoughts as soon as it arises. If you practice in that way, you’ll succumb to thoughts such as “Oh, there is the space! I must rest in it,” which means you are filling the space with another thought. The best way is to rest in the space. Remain spaciously, whether there is any space between thoughts or not. Practice without any goal of finding a space. If a space comes, remain present in the moment. If a thought comes, remain present, observing it. Either way, you are relaxing the clinging.

You don’t need to do this only during formal meditation sessions. You can do this practice almost anywhere, especially when you feel overwhelmed by too many thoughts. Just take a mini-break. It is good if you can first get the hang of it in formal meditation sessions, because then it will be easier to take advantage of a mini-break. Try taking a few moments during your day to look at a thought instead of clinging to it.

As we practice these exercises and get used to resting in the space between thoughts, there will be no need for a meditation support (for example, focusing on the breath), because we are fully present and aware. That space is usually quite short, but over time we become more and more stable in it.

There could still be a subtle problem, though: we may start thinking that thoughts are bad and that we have to enter into a thought-free state to be really meditating. Or perhaps we feel we need a thought so we can look at it and then rest in its dissolution. Of course, when we think like this we are still under the influence of hoping for certain circumstances and fearing not getting them. Although by using thoughts and emotions as support we have begun to turn the mind toward the stone thrower, it is still a little indirect.

As we gain experience in meditation practice, we become more and more familiar with the awareness that notices whether we are distracted or not. We begin to see that we know we are distracted without having to have a thought such as “Yikes! I am soooo distracted.” The knowing quality of our mind does not depend on our thinking—we can be aware, know what is happening, without having to rely on thought. That moment of noticing that we are distracted is not based on thinking about whether we are distracted. That moment of knowing is a moment when we are free of distraction and fully present. In the beginning it may only last a few instants.

Like a lion not bothering to look at all the stones but rather turning to look in the direction of the stone thrower, instead of looking at the thoughts we can look at the maker of thoughts—awareness.

When you turn the mind to look at the knower of a thought, you are becoming like a lion looking at the stone thrower. At that instant of looking toward knowing, you can just

let go and rest;
let go of being present; or
let go of knowing.

At that moment of letting go, you are in mind’s nature— awareness itself. The nature of mind—awareness—is always available whether there is a thought to be known or not.

What does it mean to let go? It means to just let the mind be, however it is. Don’t concern yourself about whether or not you’re noticing the knowing or if there is a natural space. However it is, just allow the mind to be that way. One way to think about letting go is to use the analogy of someone who comes home after a long hard day of work. After a long day at work, completely exhausted, they drop into their favorite chair and let everything go. So just drop everything and rest like someone at the end of a long day of work. At that instant of letting go, you are aware, completely undistracted.

You need to have dignity to let go of clinging: the confidence that letting go is the way to practice, the confidence in knowing that what appears in the mind can be just like writing on water. When you write on water, it’s there for an instant and then naturally disappears. When you cling to thoughts and emotions, it seems like there are all kinds of disturbances. But when you have dignity—the confidence to let go—there is no disturbance; thoughts and emotions naturally dissolve without any effort.

When anger arises, instead of chasing it, look at the knowing of the anger, let go, and rest. You can learn to practice that way in any situation, while completely engaged in life. Engaged, but not forgetting that it is just writing on water, remembering to look toward the knowing and letting go. You look at the anger and see the baseless aspect of the anger, then let go into the space of not finding any basis for the anger.

Anger is sometimes the thought “I am angry” and sometimes it is just an agitated, restless sensation in our body. Either way, we look toward the knowing of the thought or the knowing of the sensation, then let go. Our habit is to chase the anger, to get right into it, justifying the anger or rejecting the anger. So we need to be aware of how it works, how the habit kicks into action.

When you are aware, you can catch the habit before it fully kicks in. Instead of habitually being like a dog chasing stones, you habitually become like a lion, using awareness as your object, rather than thoughts or emotions. When a thought or emotion comes, you naturally turn toward the knowing of it and let go.

Exercise #3

Awareness Meditation

This is meditation without the support of an object. We do not depend on any object to meditate, yet we are present and undistracted.

Start with your usual meditation method.

After a while, when you have settled into the practice, drop the method and allow yourself to be aware of whatever it is you are aware of. Maybe there is a loud racket outside the door, a fragrant aroma that entered the room, a tickle just under your shoulder blade, or even a rising thought.

Now turn your attention inward, toward what is knowing the sound, smell, or sensation. At that moment, let go and rest within the natural space of awareness. Allow awareness to be aware of awareness.

At that moment of turning toward knowing and then letting go, you are naturally present, not lost in thinking about thoughts. Awareness itself is free of focus, aware without being aware of something.

When you try to do this exercise, you may think, “I don’t see awareness.” But that instant of knowing you don’t see is awareness. Otherwise, how could you know? It isn’t that we are going to see some thing anyway. We just notice that we are aware. If we notice we aren’t noticing that we are aware, at that instant of noticing, that is awareness. This practice is only difficult because we want to see something. But that subtle sense of noticing that you are aware is the very essence of radical happiness.

As you do these practices, you will become more and more familiar with awareness—the nature of mind. This nature is not altered, improved, or stained by whatever appears to it. The capacity to know, even in dullness, is not made better or worse, by any thought, emotion, or sensation that is experienced. Clouds, rain, all manner of storms can appear in the sky, and yet the sky is never actually harmed or improved.

If you have a dirty washcloth, it may look like the dirt is part of the washcloth itself, and yet after the cloth is thoroughly cleaned you can see that the cloth itself was never touched by the dirt. In the same way, as we become more familiar with our own natural awareness, we can see that although many negative, stormy thoughts and emotions might arise, the knowing quality of mind doesn’t change.

This stainless quality of the aware aspect of mind is something you can gain confidence in. No matter what happens, there is a fundamental part of you that is never touched or harmed in any way. By learning to focus your attention on noticing awareness, you can experience this stainless aspect of mind for yourself. Dignity in your nature is having confidence in the stainless quality, the method of noticing awareness, and the experience itself.

Mastering this lion-like dignity is the heart of radical happiness. Most of us spend an entire lifetime chasing thoughts and emotions like a dog, never finding complete satisfaction. Yet, with a slight but radical shift of attention, we turn toward the stone thrower—awareness itself. Radical happiness is about developing dignity, becoming like a lion—understanding our natural awareness, gaining confidence in it, and turning toward awareness instead of toward habitually rising thoughts and emotions. It’s a little bit subtle and may take some time, but once you get the hang of it, it is a treasure no one can steal away. And that treasure is the result of a radical transformation in how we view ourselves and our world.

From Radically Happy: A User’s Guide to the Mind, by Phakchok Rinpoche and Erric Solomon © 2018. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.

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