Look naturally at the essence of whatever occurs.
- KARMA CHAGMEY RINPOCHE, The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang
The Buddha recognized that no two people are exactly alike, that everyone is born with a unique combination of abilities, qualities, and temperaments. It is a measure of his great insight and compassion that he was able to develop an enormous variety of methods through which all sorts of people might arrive at a direct experience of their true nature and become completely free from suffering.
Most of what the Buddha taught was delivered spontaneously according to the needs of the people who happened to be around him at any given moment. The ability to respond spontaneously in precisely the right way is one of the marks of an enlightened master - which works quite nicely as long as the enlightened master happens to be alive. After the Buddha died, however, his earliest students had to figure out a way to organize these spontaneous teachings in a way that would be useful to the generations that would follow. Fortunately, the Buddha’s early followers were very good at creating classifications and categories, and came up with a way to organize the various meditation practices the Buddha taught into two basic categories: analytical methods and nonanalytical methods.
The nonanalytical methods are usually taught first, because they provide the means for calming the mind. When the mind is calm, it’s much easier to simply be aware of various thoughts, feelings, and sensations without getting caught up in them.
The analytical practices involve looking directly at the mind in the midst of experience, and are usually taught after someone has had some practice in learning how to rest the mind simply as it is. Also, because the experience of looking directly at the mind can provoke a lot of questions, the analytical practices are best undertaken under the supervision of a teacher who has the insight and experience to understand these questions and provide answers that are uniquely suited to each student. For this reason, the meditation practices I want to focus on here are the ones related to resting and calming the mind.
In Sanskrit, the nonanalytical approach is known as shamata. In Tibetan, it is called shinay, a word made up of two syllables: shi, which means “peace” or “tranquillity,” and nay, which means “to abide” or “stay.” Translated into English, then, this approach is known as calm abiding - simply allowing the mind to rest calmly as it is. It’s a basic kind of practice through which we rest the mind naturally in a state of relaxed awareness in order to allow the nature of mind to reveal itself.
Cut through the root of your own mind: Rest within naked awareness.
- TILOPA, Ganges Mahamudra, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
When my father first taught me about resting the mind naturally, “within naked awareness,” I had no idea what he was talking about. How was I supposed to just “rest” my mind without something to rest it on?
Fortunately, my father had already traveled a bit around the world and had met quite a few people and was able to strike up some conversations with them about their lives, their problems, and their successes. This is actually one of the great advantages of wearing Buddhist robes. People are more inclined to think you’re wise or important, and willingly just open up and start telling you details about their lives.
The example my father used about resting the mind came from something he’d heard from a hotel clerk, who was always happy to end his day, which entailed standing behind a desk for eight hours, checking people in, checking them out, listening to their complaints about their rooms, and endlessly arguing about charges on their bills. At the end of his shift, the clerk was so physically exhausted that all he looked forward to was going home and sitting in a nice, long bath. And after his bath, he’d go to his bedroom, rest on his bed, let out a sigh, and just relax. The next few hours were his alone: no standing on his feet in a uniform, no listening to complaints, and no staring at the computer to confirm reservations and look up room availabilities.
That’s how to rest the mind in objectless shinay meditation: as though you’ve just finished a long day of work. Just let go and relax. You don’t have to block whatever thoughts, emotions, or sensations arise, but neither do you have to follow them. Just rest in the open present, simply allowing whatever happens to occur. If thoughts or emotions come up, just allow yourself to be aware of them. Objectless shinay meditation doesn’t mean just letting your mind wander aimlessly among fantasies, memories, or daydreams. There’s still some presence of mind that may be loosely described as a center of awareness. You may not be fixating on anything in particular, but you’re still aware, still present to what’s happening in the here and now.
When we meditate in this objectless state, we’re actually resting the mind in its natural clarity, entirely indifferent to the passage of thoughts and emotions. This natural clarity - which is beyond any dualistic grasping of subject and object - is always present for us in the same way that space is always present. In a sense, objectless meditation is like accepting whatever clouds and mist might obscure the sky while recognizing that the sky itself remains unchanged even when it is obscured. If you’ve ever flown in an airplane, you’ve probably witnessed that above any clouds, mist, or rain, the sky is always open and clear. It looks so ordinary. In the same way, Buddha nature is always open and clear even when thoughts and emotions obscure it. Though it may seem very ordinary, all the qualities of clarity, emptiness, and compassion are contained within that state.
Objectless shinay practice is the most basic approach to resting the mind. You don’t have to watch your thoughts or emotions - practices that I will discuss later on - nor do you have to try to block them. All you need to do is rest within the awareness of your mind going about its business with a kind of childlike innocence, a sense of “Wow! Look how many thoughts, sensations, and emotions are passing through my awareness right now!”
In a sense, objectless shinay practice is similar to looking at the vast expanse of space rather than focusing on the galaxies, stars, and planets that move through it. Thoughts, emotions, and sensations come and go in awareness, the way galaxies, stars, and planets move through space. Just as space isn’t defined by the objects that move through it, awareness isn’t defined or limited by the thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and so on that it apprehends. Awareness simply is. And objectless shinay practice involves simply resting in the “is-ness” of awareness. Some people find the practice quite easy; others find it very difficult. It’s more a matter of individual temperament than of competence or skill.
The instructions are simple. If you’re practicing formally, it’s best to assume the seven-point posture to the best of your ability. If you can’t assume a formal posture - if you’re driving, for example, or walking down the street - then simply straighten your spine while keeping the rest of your body relaxed and balanced. Then allow your mind to relax in a state of bare awareness of the present.
Inevitably, all sorts of thoughts, sensations, and feelings will pass through your mind. This is to be expected, since you haven’t trained in resting the mind. It’s just like starting a weight-training program at the gym. At first you can lift only a few pounds for a few repetitions before your muscles get tired. But if you keep at it, gradually you’ll find that you can lift heavier weights and perform more repetitions.
Similarly, learning to meditate is a gradual process. At first you might be able to remain still for only a few seconds at a time before thoughts, emotions, and sensations bubble up to the surface. The basic instruction is simply not to follow after these thoughts and emotions, but merely to be aware of everything that passes through your awareness as it is. Whatever passes through your mind, don’t focus on it and don’t try to suppress it. Just observe it as it comes and goes.
Once you begin following after a thought, you lose touch with what’s happening in the here and now, and you begin imagining all sorts of fantasies, judgments, memories, and other scenarios that may have nothing to do with the reality of the present moment. And the more you allow yourself to get caught up in this type of mental wandering, the easier it becomes to drift away from the openness of the present moment.
The purpose of shinay meditation is to slowly and gradually break this habit and remain in a state of present awareness - open to all the possibilities of the present moment. Don’t criticize or condemn yourself when you find yourself following after thoughts. The fact that you’ve caught yourself reliving a past event or projecting into the future is enough to bring you back to the present moment and strengthens your intention to meditate. Your intention to meditate as you engage in practice is the crucial factor.
It’s also important to proceed slowly. My father was very careful to tell all his new students, including me, that the most effective approach in the beginning is to rest the mind for very short periods many times a day. Otherwise, he said, you run the risk of growing bored or becoming disappointed with your progress and eventually give up trying altogether. “Drip by drip,” the old texts say, “a cup gets filled.”
So, when you first start out, don’t set yourself a lofty goal of sitting down to meditate for twenty minutes. Aim instead for a minute or even half a minute - utilizing those few seconds when you find yourself willing or even desiring just to take a break from the daily grind to observe your mind rather than drifting off into daydreams. Practicing like this, “one drip at a time,” you’ll find yourself gradually becoming free of the mental and emotional limitations that are the source of fatigue, disappointment, anger, and despair, and discover within yourself an unlimited source of clarity, wisdom, diligence, peace, and compassion.