A disciplined mind invites true joy.
- The Dhammapada,
translated by Eknath Easwaran
Rest without fixation.
- GOTSANGPA, Radiant Jewel Lamp, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
Now we will leave the realm of science and theory behind for a while and begin discussing practical application, which in Buddhist terms is referred to as the Path. I’d like to begin with a story I heard long ago about a man who’d been an expert swimmer in his youth and began looking for a challenge in his old age that would be as engaging as swimming had been in his early life. He decided to become a monk, thinking that just as he’d mastered the waves of the ocean, he would master the waves of his mind. He found a teacher he respected, took his vows, and began to practice the lessons his teacher gave him. As is often the case, meditation didn’t come easily to him, so he went to seek advice from his teacher.
His teacher asked him to sit and meditate, so that he could observe his practice.
After watching for a while, the teacher saw that the old swimmer was trying too hard. So he told the man to relax. But the swimmer found even that simple instruction hard to follow. When he tried to relax, his mind drifted and his body slumped. When he tried to focus, his mind and body became too tight. Finally the teacher asked him, “You do know how to swim, don’t you?”
“Of course,” the man replied. “Better than anyone.”
“Does the ability to swim come from holding your muscles completely tense,” his teacher asked, “or completely loose?”
“Neither,” the old swimmer answered. “You have to find a balance between tension and relaxation.”
“Good,” his teacher continued. “So now let me ask you, when you’re swimming, if your muscles are too tense, are you creating the tightness in your limbs, or is someone else forcing you to tense up?”
The man thought a bit before answering. Finally he said, “No one outside of me is forcing me to tighten my muscles.”
The teacher waited a moment for the old swimmer to absorb his own answer. Then he explained, “If you find your mind becoming too tight in meditation, you yourself are creating the tension. But if you let go of all tension, your mind becomes too loose and you become drowsy. As a swimmer, you learned how to find the proper muscular balance between tension and looseness.
“In meditation, you need to find the same equilibrium in your mind. If you don’t find that equilibrium, you’ll never be able to realize the perfect balance within your own nature. Once you discover the perfect balance within your own nature, you’ll be able to swim through every aspect of your life the way you swim through water.”
In very simple terms, the most effective approach to meditation is to try your best without focusing too much on the results.
WISDOM AND METHOD
When the mind is not altered, it is clear.
When water is not disturbed, it is transparent.
- THE NINTH GYALWANG KARMAPA,
Mahamudra: The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
The specific instructions the teacher gave the old swimmer were actually part of a larger lesson in finding a balance between wisdom, or philosophical understanding, and method, the practical application of philosophy. Wisdom is pointless without a practical means of applying it. That’s where method comes in: using the mind to recognize the mind. That’s actually a good working definition of meditation. Meditation is not about “blissing out,” “spacing out,” or “getting clear” - among the many terms I’ve heard from people in my travels around the world. Meditation is actually a very simple exercise in resting in the natural state of your present mind, and allowing yourself to be simply and clearly present to whatever thoughts, sensations, or emotions occur.
Many people resist the idea of meditation because the image that first comes to mind involves hours and hours of sitting ramrod straight, with legs crossed, and an absolutely blank mind. None of this is necessary.
First of all, sitting with your legs crossed and your spine straight takes some getting used to - especially in the West, where it’s common to slouch in front of a computer or a TV. Second, it’s impossible to keep your mind from generating thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Thinking is the mind’s natural function, just as it’s the natural function of the sun to produce light and warmth, or of a thunderstorm to produce lightning and rain.
When I first began learning about meditation, I was taught that trying to suppress the natural function of my mind was at best a temporary solution. At worst, if I deliberately tried to change my mind, I’d really just be reinforcing my own tendency to fixate on thoughts and feelings as inherently real.
The mind is always active, always generating thoughts, just as the ocean constantly generates waves. We can’t stop our thoughts any more than we can stop waves in the ocean. Resting the mind in its natural state is very different from trying to stop thoughts altogether. Buddhist meditation does not in any way involve attempting to make the mind a blank. There’s no way to achieve thoughtless meditation. Even if you could manage to stop your thoughts, you wouldn’t be meditating; you’d just be drifting in a zombielike state.
On the other hand, you may find that as soon as you look at a thought, an emotion, or a sensation, it vanishes like a fish suddenly swimming away to deeper waters. That’s okay, too. In fact, it’s great. As long as you’re maintaining that sense of bare attention or awareness, even when thoughts, feelings, and so on elude you, you’re experiencing the natural clarity and emptiness of your mind’s true nature. The real point of meditation is to rest in bare awareness whether anything occurs or not. Whatever comes up for you, just be open and present to it, and let it go. And if nothing occurs, or if thoughts and so on vanish before you can notice them, just rest in that natural clarity.
How much simpler could the process of meditation be?
Another point to consider is that although we cling to ideas that some experiences are better, more appropriate, or more productive than others, there are, in fact, no good thoughts or bad thoughts. There are only thoughts. As soon as one bunch of gossipy neurons starts producing signals that we translate as thoughts or feelings, another group starts commenting, “Oh, that was a vengeful thought. What a bad person you are” or “You’re so afraid, you must really be incompetent.” Meditation is really a process of nonjudgmental awareness. When we meditate, we adopt the objective perspective of a scientist toward our own subjective experience. This might not be easy at first. Most of us are trained to believe that if we think something is good, it is good, and if we think something is bad, it is bad. But as we practice simply watching our thoughts come and go, such rigid distinctions begin to break down. Common sense will tell us so many mental events arising and vanishing in the space of a minute can’t all possibly be true.
If we continue to simply allow ourselves to be aware of the activity of our minds, we’ll very gradually come to recognize the transparent nature of the thoughts, emotions, sensations, and perceptions we once considered solid and real. It’s as though layers of dust and dirt were slowly being wiped away from the surface of a mirror. As we grow accustomed to looking at the clear surface of our minds, we can see through all the gossip about who and what we think we are, and recognize the shining essence of our true nature.
Great wisdom abides in the body.
- The Hevajra Tantra, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
The Buddha taught that the body is the physical support for the mind. The relationship between them is like the relationship between a glass and the water it contains. If you set a glass down on the edge of a table or on top of something that isn’t flat, the water will shift around or possibly spill. But if you set the glass on a flat, stable surface, the water in it will remain perfectly still.
Similarly, the best way to allow the mind to come to rest is to create a stable physical posture. In his wisdom, the Buddha provided instructions for aligning the body in a balanced way that allows the mind to remain relaxed and alert at the same time. Over the years, this physical alignment has become known as the seven-point posture of Vairochana, an aspect of the Buddha that represents enlightened form.
The first point of the posture is to create a stable basis for the body, which means, if possible, crossing your legs so that each foot rests on the opposite thigh. If you can’t do this, you can just cross one foot on top of the opposite thigh, resting the other beneath the opposite thigh. If neither position is comfortable, you can simply cross your legs. You can even sit comfortably in a chair, with your feet resting evenly on the floor. The goal is to create a physical foundation that is simultaneously comfortable and stable. If you feel great pain in your legs, you won’t be able to rest your mind because you’ll be too preoccupied by the pain. That’s why there are so many options available concerning this first point.
The second point is to rest your hands in your lap just below your navel, with the back of one hand resting in the palm of the other. It doesn’t matter which hand is placed on top of the other, and you can switch their positions at any time during your practice - if, for instance, the covered palm gets hot after a long time. It’s also fine to simply lay your hands palm-down over your knees.
The third point is to allow a bit of a space between your upper arms and your torso. The classic Buddhist texts call this “holding your arms like a vulture,” which can easily be mistaken for stretching out your shoulder blades as if you were some sort of predatory bird.
In fact, one day, while I was teaching in Paris, I happened to be walking through a park when I saw a man sitting cross-legged on the ground, repeatedly flapping his shoulders forward and back. As I passed him, he recognized that I was a monk (the red robes are pretty much a giveaway), and asked me, “Do you meditate?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Do you have any problems?” he asked.
“Not really,” I told him.
We stood for a moment smiling at each other - it was a nice, sunny day in Paris, after all - and then he said, “I like meditation very much, but there’s one instruction that really drives me crazy.”
Naturally, I asked him what it was.
“It’s the position of the arms,” he replied, a little embarrassed.
“Really?” I replied. “Where did you learn about meditation?”
“From a book,” he answered.
I asked him what the book had said about the position of the arms.
“It said you should hold your arms like vulture’s wings,” he replied - at which point he started flapping his shoulders back and forth, as I’d seen him do when I first approached. After watching him flap for a couple of seconds, I asked him to stop.
“Let me tell you something,” I said. “The real point of that instruction is to keep a little bit of space between your arms and your torso, just enough to make sure that your chest is open and relaxed, so that you can breathe nice and freely. Vultures at rest always have a little bit of space between their wings and their bodies. That’s really what the instruction means. There’s no need to flap your arms. After all, you’re just trying to meditate. You’re not trying to fly.”
The essence of this point of physical posture is to find a balance between your shoulders so that one is not dipping below the other, while keeping your chest open to allow yourself some “breathing room.” Some people have very big arms or very big torsos - especially if they’ve spent a lot of time working out at the gym. If you happen to fall into this category, don’t strain yourself to artificially maintain a bit of space between your arms and chest. Just allow your arms to rest naturally in a way that doesn’t constrict your chest.
The fourth point of the physical posture is to keep your spine as straight as possible - as the classic texts say, “like an arrow.” But here, again, it’s important to find a balance. If you try to sit up too straight, you’ll end up leaning backward, your whole body shaking with tension. I’ve seen this happen many times with students who are overly concerned with having an absolutely erect spine. On the other hand, if you just let yourself slouch, you’ll almost certainly end up compressing your lungs, which will make it harder to breathe, as well as squashing various internal organs, which can be a source of physical discomfort.
The fifth point involves letting the weight of your head rest evenly on your neck, so that you’re not crushing your windpipe or straining so far backward that you compress the cervical vertebrae, the seven little bones at the top of your spinal cord, which is vital in transmitting neuronal signals from the lower parts of your body to your brain. When you find the position that’s right for you, you’ll probably notice that your chin is tilting just slightly more toward your throat than it ordinarily does. If you’ve ever sat in front of a computer for hours and hours with your head tipped slightly backward, you’ll immediately understand how much better you’ll feel by making this simple adjustment.
The sixth point concerns the mouth, which should be allowed to rest naturally so that your teeth and lips are very slightly parted. If possible, you can allow the tip of your tongue to gently touch the upper palate just behind the teeth. Don’t force the tongue to touch your palate; just allow it to rest there gently. If your tongue is too short to reach the palate without strain, don’t worry. The most important thing is to allow the tongue to rest naturally.
The last point of the meditation posture involves the eyes. Most people who are new to meditation feel more comfortable keeping their eyes closed. They find it easier that way to allow the mind to rest and to experience a sense of peace and tranquillity. This is fine at the beginning. One of the things I learned early on, however, is that keeping the eyes closed makes it easier to become attached to an artificial sense of tranquillity. So, eventually, after a few days of practice, it’s better to keep your eyes open when you meditate, so that you can stay alert, clear, and mindful. This doesn’t mean glaring straight ahead without blinking, but simply leaving your eyes open as they normally are throughout the day.
The seven-point posture of Vairochana is really a set of guidelines. Meditation is a personal practice, and everyone is different. The most important thing is to find for yourself the appropriate balance between tension and relaxation.
There’s also a short, two-point meditation posture, which can be adopted at times when it may be inconvenient or impossible to settle fully into the more formal seven-point posture. The instructions are very simple: Just keep your spine straight and the rest of your body as loose and relaxed as possible. The two-point meditation posture is very useful throughout the day, while going about your daily activities like driving, walking down the street, grocery shopping, or making dinner.
This two-point posture in itself almost automatically produces a sense of relaxed awareness - and the best part is that when you assume it, no one will even notice that you’re meditating at all!
If the mind itself that is twisted into knots is loosened, it is undoubtedly freed.
- SARAHA, Doha for the People, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
The same principles behind finding a relaxed and alert physical posture apply to finding the same sort of balance within your mind. When your mind is poised naturally between relaxation and alertness, its innate qualities spontaneously emerge. This was one of the things I learned during those three days I spent sitting alone in my retreat room, determined to observe my mind. As I sat there, I kept remembering how my teachers had told me that when water becomes still, the silt, mud, and other sediment gradually separates from the water and settles to the bottom, giving you a chance to see the water and whatever passes through it very clearly. In the same way, if you remain in a state of mental relaxation, the “mental sediment” of thoughts, emotions, sensations, and perceptions naturally subsides and the mind’s innate clarity is revealed.
Just as in the case of physical posture, the essential point of mental posture is to find a balance. If your mind is too tight or too focused, you’ll end up becoming anxious over whether you’re being a good meditator. If your mind is too loose, you’ll either get carried away by distractions or fall into a kind of dullness. You want to find a middle way between perfection-driven tightness and a kind of disenchanted “Oh no, I’ve got to sit down and meditate” type of dreariness. The ideal approach is to give yourself the freedom to remember that whether your practice is good or not doesn’t really matter. The important point is the intention to meditate. That alone is enough.