It is very important that before meditating, we examine our motivation for engaging in practice. Sometimes we become so focused on the techniques of meditation that we lose the bigger picture—what kind of mental landscape we are creating for ourselves. We can also spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not we are correctly practicing a particular technique. But if we look carefully at the situation, the mental atmosphere we create—in other words, the basic attitude we bring to meditation—is more important than how accurately we perform some method of practice.

To illustrate this, we can look at a story from the biography of the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339), who was famous as a great meditation master and had many students reputed to have been accomplished meditators. One day someone approached the Karmapa and asked, “I’ve heard that there is a spiritual instruction that allows you to achieve liberation without practicing meditation. lf such a thing exists, please give it to me.”

Rangjung Dorje replied, “Yes, such an instruction on nonmeditation exists, but if l were to give it to you, l am not sure it would help you, because l am not certain you would be able to understand and realize it. You might practice some contrived meditation rather than the true intent of the instruction. So even if l were to give it to you, l do not think this teaching would help you.” When it comes down to it, meditation techniques are not that important. The main point of meditation is learning how to relax the mind within itself. Learning how to simply let go is the essential point of meditation.

In the practice of shamatha, or calm-abiding meditation, the main instruction is to allow our mind to rest one-pointedly on an object of focus. We concentrate the energy of our mind and direct it in a focused way. An analogy for this is pouring water through a pipe. These days in our modern world, and especially in busy cities, people’s minds are constantly distracted by all the outer objects in the stimulating world of urban life—the constant display of material things and mundane concerns steal away our attention.

To counteract this, the practice of calm-abiding encourages us to draw our mind inward, rather than letting it be pulled outside. We learn to let our thinking mind be settled and at ease in a state of peace. In sum, we do need to bring a certain effort into the practice of one-pointedly focusing our mind, but we do so in a relaxed way. This one-pointed focus, as well as being relaxed, is very important for the practice of meditation in general.

Meditation usually involves an object of focus, which helps our mind become more settled and our attention more directed. The object can be external, like placing a physical object before our eyes and directing our complete attention to it, or the object can be an internal image created by our imagination, to which we direct our focused attention. Working with these different objects are all methods for settling our mind.

The practice of calm-abiding can also happen in relation to our breathing. Used as a focal object, the breath has special advantages. For example, since it is always present with us, we do not have to search for it somewhere else, but just direct our attention toward it. Relating to the breath gives a simple and convenient reference point for meditation.

To meditate in this way, we focus our attention one-pointedly on the breath, involving our minds 100 percent; you could also say that we have full appreciation of our breathing or that we taste our breath completely. We then abide in the continuum of this practice, placing our attention on the breath and trying to be as fully attentive to it as we can without any interruption, appreciating one breath after another. If we cannot focus like this continually, there is no need to worry; we can just relax. It is important to be at ease while focusing on the breath. Some people think that they have to make relaxation happen intentionally, but this is not really what is meant here. Rather, the real meaning of relaxing is not to make an effort, because if we do, then, of course, we are not relaxed.

In the manuals for meditating on Mahamudra (chagya chenpo, the Great Seal) and on Mahasandhi (Dzogchen, the Great Perfection), we read instructions that encourage us to rest our mind directly within the movement of the mind or directly within the thinking mind or directly within the perceiving mind. Instructions such as these are teaching us how to relax in meditation. It can happen that if we are unable to focus in the beginning on the object we have established as our reference point, we worry and wrestle with our mind to get it focused again.

However, the Mahamudra and Mahasandhi traditions instruct that if we cannot focus on our point of reference, we can simply rest our mind in that very state of not being able to focus. If we find that we can focus, then we rest our mind in that very state of being able to focus. What we do not do is worry when we cannot focus initially. There is no need to panic when we discover that our mind has slipped away. If we can be relaxed within our mind, even when different objects appear, we will be able to remain in a state of mindfulness, and our basic awareness and attentiveness will continue uninterrupted.

Another misunderstanding that we might have is treating our mind as if it were a heavy object which we are squarely placing on our breath to anchor it. But this is not a beneficial approach. Some people have told me that when they practice this meditation on the breath, it stops, and since this is very uncomfortable, they have to quit. It seems that they are taking too solid an approach and treating mind as if it were a heavy object that presses down on the breath.

That kind of practice will not help us. Rather, we should experience our mind as something fluid like flowing air that is moving together with the breath. When we are breathing out and air is moving through our nostrils, we simply think, “Ah, the breath is going out,” and we let our mind flow together with the breath. So the quality of our attention should be pliable—not tense but free of fixation and stiffness. We can let the mind be as light as air flowing gently along with the breath. In contrast, some people treat the mind in meditation as if it were a sniper staring through the sight of a gun, tight on the target. This constriction is not what we are looking for in meditation; rather, our minds should be light and fluid.

Furthermore, when we meditate, we breathe naturally as we usually do. There is no need to make a special effort and force our breath into a special pattern—we just breathe normally. Also, many meditate by counting the breaths, numbering the rounds of breathing or how many inhalations or exhalations they have. I think that for the time being, it would be better not to emphasize counting the breath and simply relax while keeping a gentle focus on the breath itself. This is because counting the breath in addition to maintaining a focus can make the practice a bit too complicated and busy. For now, it is better to relax and not count.

To set up periods of meditation, the common instruction states, “Do short sessions many times.” This is a good practice to adopt; however, the situation is not so simple if we really want to practice in a very complete way and accomplish the qualities of calm-abiding as explained in the traditional texts. These qualities cannot be achieved merely through a light or casual relation to meditation. Properly speaking, calm-abiding and its qualities are achieved through months of intensive practice in retreat.

If we do devote ourselves to months of shamatha and really delve into it, we can come to embody the qualities of a mind that abides in a state of peace. Apart from that, just doing a little bit of practice on a daily basis will not take us that far. Of course, it has the benefits of helping to calm our mind and increasing our ability to focus, but it will not bring us all the way to the state of calm-abiding as taught in the traditional texts. Furthermore, these days, even doing retreat is challenging. The texts say we should go to a secluded, remote place, but now cell phone connections reach even isolated areas.

Another key point is to do the meditation correctly from the very beginning of our practice. If we can put our energy into practicing properly from the start, there is a good chance that our meditation will progress well. But if we start out with bad habits, they will set up tendencies that will eventually interfere with our practice, and it will be difficult to remove them at a later time. One of the most challenging things about meditation is that it can be quite boring; it is not exciting in the way that we usually like to be entertained. Actually, our mind is like a child, needing excitement and constant distractions. A child can focus for a short time but then runs off quickly to something else.

We should be aware of this tendency and head it off by setting a clear intention to be patient and persevere through those stages that might be uneventful or boring. Sustaining our meditation in this way allows it to progress. However, if at the start, we fall into bad habits and give into our distractions and cravings, it will be hard to eliminate these negative habits later on, and they will inhibit our practice. Instead of dragging ourselves to the cushion, we could feel excited about our meditation; rather than wanting to be entertained and thrilled by something else, we can develop a full-hearted enthusiasm and delight for the practice.

From Freedom through Meditation by The Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, translated by David Karma Choephel, Tyler Dewar, and Michele Martin (editor), published by KTD Publications 2018.

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters

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