Niềm vui cao cả nhất là niềm vui của sự học hỏi. (The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.)Leonardo da Vinci
Nếu muốn đi nhanh, hãy đi một mình. Nếu muốn đi xa, hãy đi cùng người khác. (If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.)Ngạn ngữ Châu Phi
Tôi không hóa giải các bất ổn mà hóa giải cách suy nghĩ của mình. Sau đó, các bất ổn sẽ tự chúng được hóa giải. (I do not fix problems. I fix my thinking. Then problems fix themselves.)Louise Hay
Kẻ bi quan than phiền về hướng gió, người lạc quan chờ đợi gió đổi chiều, còn người thực tế thì điều chỉnh cánh buồm. (The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.)William Arthur Ward
Điều bất hạnh nhất đối với một con người không phải là khi không có trong tay tiền bạc, của cải, mà chính là khi cảm thấy mình không có ai để yêu thương.Tủ sách Rộng Mở Tâm Hồn
Sự giúp đỡ tốt nhất bạn có thể mang đến cho người khác là nâng đỡ tinh thần của họ. (The best kind of help you can give another person is to uplift their spirit.)Rubyanne
Chúng ta phải thừa nhận rằng khổ đau của một người hoặc một quốc gia cũng là khổ đau chung của nhân loại; hạnh phúc của một người hay một quốc gia cũng là hạnh phúc của nhân loại.Đức Đạt-lai Lạt-ma XIV
Nghệ thuật sống chân chính là ý thức được giá trị quý báu của đời sống trong từng khoảnh khắc tươi đẹp của cuộc đời.Tủ sách Rộng Mở Tâm Hồn
Chưa từng có ai trở nên nghèo khó vì cho đi những gì mình có. (No-one has ever become poor by giving.)Anne Frank
Con tôi, tài sản tôi; người ngu sinh ưu não. Tự ta ta không có, con đâu tài sản đâu?Kinh Pháp Cú (Kệ số 62)

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The Joy of Living
»» 11. Next steps: Resting on objects

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Sống một đời vui - 11. Bước thứ hai: Trụ tâm vào đối tượng

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Rest the mind by directing one-pointed attention on a specific object.

- THE NINTH GYALWANG KARMAPA,
Mahamudra: The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan

When I first started meditating formally, I found that objectless meditation was too hard because it was too easy. The simple awareness that is the essence of natural mind is too close to recognize. It’s there when we wake up in the morning, wherever we go throughout the day, when we eat, and when we get ready to go to bed. It’s simply awareness. It is what it is. But because it’s with us all the time, we don’t recognize how precious it is. And it’s just too easy to get caught up in all the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are the natural by-products of the mind in its natural state.

If you find yourself facing this problem, you’re not alone.

Fortunately, my father and my other teachers were well acquainted with the problem of resting the mind directly and were able to teach other, more gradual techniques. The simplest methods involved directly using the senses as a means of calming and relaxing the mind.

THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION

This whole world is mind’s world, the product of mind.

- THE NINTH GYALWANG KARMAPA,
Mahamudra: The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
- CHOGYAM TRUNGPA, The Heart of the Buddha

Like scientists, Buddhists recognize the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. In Buddhist terms, the five sense faculties are known as the doors of perception, an image based on the openings of a house. Most of our feelings and perceptions enter our experience through one or more of these five doors. But since the five sense faculties - or sense consciousnesses, as most Buddhist texts refer to them - can only register sensory perceptions, Buddhist science adds a sixth sense, the mental consciousness. There’s nothing mysterious or occult about this sixth consciousness. It has nothing to do with extrasensory perception or being able to talk to spirits. It’s simply the capacity of mind to know and discern what we see, smell, hear, taste, or touch.

The traditional metaphor for the six consciousnesses is a house with five openings, one in each of the four directions and one in the roof. These five openings represent the five sense consciousnesses. Now suppose someone sets a monkey loose in this building. The monkey represents the mental consciousness. Suddenly set free in a big house, the monkey would naturally go crazy jumping around from opening to opening to check things out, looking for something new, something different, something interesting. Depending on what it finds, this crazy monkey decides whether an object it perceives is pleasurable or painful, good or bad, or in some cases simply boring. Anybody passing by the house and seeing a monkey at every opening might think there are five monkeys loose in the house. Really, though, there’s only one: the restless, untrained mental consciousness.

But like every other sentient being, all a crazy monkey really wants is to be happy and to avoid pain. So it’s possible to teach the crazy monkey in your own mind to calm down by deliberately focusing its attention on one or another of the senses.

OBJECT MEDITATION

To counteract our tendency to constantly fabricate, the Buddhas taught us to rely on a support. By getting accustomed to this support, our attention becomes stabilized.

- TULKU URGYEN RINPOCHE, As It Is, Volume 1, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang

In the course of ordinary experience, the information we receive from our senses is almost inevitably a source of distraction, since the mind tends to fixate on sensory information. At the same time, because we’re embodied beings, we would inevitably experience a sense of futility if we attempted to disengage completely from our senses or block the information we receive through them. The more practical approach is to make friends with our senses, and to utilize the information we receive through our sensory organs as a means of calming the mind. Buddhist texts refer to this process as “self-antidote,” using the source of distraction itself as the means to attaining freedom from distraction. The metaphor derives from the practice common in ancient times of using the same material to work with a particular substance. If you wanted to cut glass, for example, you had to use glass; if you wanted to cut through iron, you had to use a tool made of iron. In the same way, you can use your senses to cut through the distractions of the senses.

In object meditation practice, we use our senses as a means of stabilizing the mind. We can use the faculty of sight to meditate on form and color; the faculty of hearing to meditate on sound; the faculty of smell to meditate on odors; the faculty of taste to meditate on flavors; and the faculty of touch to meditate on physical sensations. Instead of distractions, the information we receive through our senses can become great assets to our practice.

Once I learned how to observe my perceptions in a calm, meditative way, practice became a whole lot easier. I found myself getting far less emotionally involved in what I perceived. Instead of thinking, Oh, this guy is yelling at me, I was able to think, Hmm, this guy’s voice is pretty loud, his tone’s a bit sharp, and the sounds he’s making are probably intended to be insulting or hurtful.

In other words, just through learning how to rest my attention very lightly on the sensory information I was receiving, and disengaging from the emotional or intellectual content normally associated with the sounds he was making, he couldn’t hurt me. And by being able to listen to him nondefensively, I found myself open enough to respond in a way that defused his apparent anger without diminishing my own integrity.

MEDITATING ON PHYSICAL SENSATIONS

One of the easiest ways to begin object-based shinay practice is to rest your attention gently on simple, physical sensations. Just focus your attention on a particular area - for example, your forehead.

Start by straightening your spine and relaxing your body. If you’re practicing formally, you can assume the seven-point posture described earlier. If you’re someplace where it’s not convenient to assume the posture, just straighten your spine and allow the rest of your body to relax comfortably. It doesn’t matter whether you keep your eyes open or closed as you practice. In fact, some people find it more helpful to keep their eyes closed. (Of course, if you’re driving or walking down the street, I would strongly suggest you keep your eyes open!)

Let your mind rest for a few moments, just as it is. . .

Now slowly bring your awareness to your forehead.

You might feel a sort of tingling there, or maybe a sensation of warmth. You might even feel some sort of itchiness or pressure. Whatever you feel, just allow yourself to be aware of it for a minute or two. . . .

Just notice it. . . .

Just gently rest your attention on the sensation. . . .

Then let go of your attention and let your mind rest as it is. If you’ve had your eyes closed, you can open them.

How was that?

After you’ve spent a little time resting your awareness on the sensations in one part of the body, you can extend the technique by gently drawing your attention throughout your entire body. I sometimes refer to this extended approach to physical sensations as “scanning practice,” because it reminds me of lying in one of those machines that can scan your entire body.

Again, if you’re practicing formally, start by adopting the seven-point posture. If you’re practicing informally, just straighten your spine and let the rest of your body relax comfortably and naturally. In either case, you can keep your eyes open or closed, whichever is most comfortable for you.

Begin by just allowing your mind to rest in objectless shinay for a few moments. Then gently bring your awareness to whatever sensations you feel in your forehead region. Allow your mind to simply observe these sensations, to be simply aware, nothing more. Gradually lower your focus, observing whatever sensations are occurring in your face, your neck, your shoulders, your arms, and so on. Just observe. There’s no need to block anything else from your mind, or to change what you observe. Just keep your mind and body relaxed and quiet while simply recognizing sensations as they arise. After a few minutes, allow your mind simply to rest. Then return to observing your sensations, alternating between observing and resting the mind for as long as your practice session lasts.

Most sensations involve some sort of physical basis. Our bodies come into contact with something: the chair we’re sitting on, the floor, a pen, our clothes, an animal, or a person. And that contact produces a distinct physical sensation. In Buddhist terms, the kinds of sensations that result from direct physical contact are referred to as “gross physical sensations.” But as we become more deeply attentive to what we feel, we begin to recognize feelings that aren’t necessarily related to tactile contact, feelings that are referred to as “subtle physical sensations.”

When I first began to practice this sort of shinay technique, I discovered that when I tried to avoid a particular sensation, it increased. But when I learned to just look at it, whatever discomfort I felt became more tolerable. Being a curious child, of course, I had to know why this shift occurred. Only after watching the process for a while did I realize that when I simply allowed myself to observe a sensation, I was actively participating in what was occurring right then, at that moment. I saw part of my mind resisting a painful sensation and part of my mind urging me to just look at it objectively. When I looked at these conflicting impulses simultaneously, I was able to see my whole mind engaged in the process of dealing with avoidance and acceptance, and the process of observing the workings of my mind became more interesting than either avoidance or acceptance. Just watching my mind work was fascinating in itself. This, I think, is the most practical definition of clarity I can offer: the capacity to see the mind working simultaneously on many levels.

MEDITATING ON PAINFUL SENSATIONS

Feelings like being cold, hot, hungry, full, heavy, or dizzy, or having a headache, a toothache, a stuffy nose, a sore throat, or pain in your knees or lower back, are pretty much directly - though not always pleasantly - present to awareness. Because pain and discomfort are such direct sensations, they’re actually very effective objects of meditative focus. Most of us regard pain as a threat to our physical well-being. On one hand, when we worry or allow ourselves to become preoccupied by this threat, the pain itself almost always increases. On the other hand, if we consider pain or discomfort as an object of meditation, we can use such sensations to increase our capacity for clarity, simply through watching the mind deal with various solutions.

For example, if I feel some pain in my legs or lower back while sitting in formal meditation or even while just sitting in a car or an air-plane, instead of stretching, getting up, or moving around, I’ve learned to look at the mental experience of pain. It’s the mental consciousness, after all, that actually recognizes and registers sensations. When I bring my attention to the mind that is registering pain, rather than focusing on a particular area of pain, the pain doesn’t necessarily disappear, but it becomes a point of actively engaging with whatever I’m experiencing here and now, rather than trying to avoid it.

The same principle holds true for pleasurable sensations: Rather than trying to sustain them, I just observe them as manifestations of experience. In effect, my early years of training began to show me how to use sensations as a means of examining and appreciating the infinite capacity of the mind, rather than being used by sensations to enforce a sense of being bound by physical limitations.

Of course, if you’re experiencing chronic or serious pain you should consult a doctor, as these symptoms may indicate a serious physical problem. I’ve heard from some people, however, that after their doctors have ruled out any serious medical problem, the pain they experienced actually subsides. It seems as if fear of pain exacerbates the sensation of pain and “locks” it into place - which may represent a self-perpetuating “red alert” signal sent from the thalamus to the amygdala and other parts of the brain. If your doctor has uncovered a serious medical problem, however, by all means follow his or her recommendations for treatment. Although meditation can help you to deal with the pain and discomfort of serious medical problems, it is not a substitute for treatment.

Even while taking prescribed or over-the-counter medications recommended by a doctor, you may experience some pain, in which case you can try working with the physical sensation of pain as a support for meditation. If the pain you experience is a symptom of a serious medical condition, avoid focusing on results. If your underlying motivation is to get rid of the pain, you’re actually reinforcing the neuronal patterns associated with the fear of pain. The best way to weaken these neuronal patterns is to simply make the effort to observe the pain objectively, leaving results to sort themselves out.

I was never so impressed by this lesson as when my father had to undergo a minor operation while he was in Germany. Apparently, who ever was supposed to anesthetize the area to be operated on got caught up in other duties and completely forgot about my father. When the doctor made the first incision, he noticed that the muscles in the area began to twitch - which wouldn’t have happened if the area had been properly numbed. The doctor was furious with the anesthetist, but my father begged him not to cause any trouble, because he didn’t feel any pain. The sensation of having such a sensitive area incised, he explained, had actually provided him with an opportunity to raise his awareness to a heightened sense of clarity and peace.

In simple terms, my father had developed through practice a net-work of neuronal connections that spontaneously fired to elevate the experience of pain to an objective observation of the mind that experiences pain. Though the doctor did insist on anesthetizing the area before continuing the operation, at my father’s insistence he ended up not lodging a complaint against the woman who was supposed to have administered the anesthesia.

The next day the anesthetist came to my father’s bedside, holding something behind her back. Smiling, she thanked him for keeping her out of trouble, and then produced from behind her back a bag full of treats, which he found quite delicious.

The practice of observing physical sensations - whether “gross” or “subtle” - is so simple that you can use it either during formal meditation sessions or at any point during the day when you find yourself with a few spare seconds between meetings, appointments, or other obligations. In fact, I’ve found this practice especially useful throughout the day because it generates an immediate feeling of lightness and openness. Several people have told me they’ve found the practice quite useful at work, when they find themselves sitting for hours listening to a boring presentation.

MEDITATING ON FORM

The technical name for using the sense of sight as a means for resting the mind is “form meditation.” But don’t let the name scare you. Form meditation is actually very simple. In fact, we practice it unconsciously every day whenever we stare at a computer screen or watch a traffic light. When we lift this unconscious process to the level of active awareness, deliberately resting our attention upon a specific object, the mind becomes very peaceful, very open, and very relaxed.

I was taught to start with a very small object located close enough to see without strain. It could be a patch of color on the floor, a candle flame, a photograph, or even the back of the head of the person sitting in front of me in a classroom. It’s also fine to look at an object of more spiritual significance - often referred to as a “pure form.” If you’re a Buddhist, the object might be an image or statue of the Buddha; if you’re a Christian, you might focus on a cross or an image of a saint; if you belong to some other religious tradition, choose an object that has special significance for you. As you become more familiar with this practice, it’s even possible to focus on mental forms - objects recalled simply in your imagination.

Whatever object you choose, you’ll probably notice that it has two characteristics: shape and color. Focus on whichever aspect you prefer. You could choose something white, black, or pink, or round, square, or multiform. The object itself doesn’t matter. The idea is simply to rest your attention on either its color or its shape, engaging the mental faculty only to the point of barely recognizing the object. Nothing more than that. The moment you bring attention to the object, you are aware.

It’s not necessary to try to see it so clearly that you recognize every little detail. If you try to do that, you’ll tense up, whereas the whole point of the exercise is to rest. Keep your focus loose, with just enough attention to hold the bare awareness of the object you’re looking at. Don’t try to make anything happen or try to force your mind to relax. Simply think, Okay, whatever happens, happens. This is meditation. This is what I’m doing. It doesn’t have to be anything more than that.

Of course, it’s possible to stare open-eyed at an object without really seeing it at all. Your mind might be completely absorbed by something you hear in the distance, so for several seconds or even minutes you don’t see the object at all. How I hated it when my mind drifted like that! But, according to my father, this sort of drifting is entirely natural. And when you recognize that your mind has drifted away from the object or focus, just bring your attention back to the object.

So now I encourage you to practice.

Assume whatever physical posture is most comfortable for you and just allow your mind to rest for a few moments in a very relaxed, loose state. Then choose something to look at and just rest your gaze on it, noticing its shape or its color. You don’t have to stare intently - if you need to blink, just blink. In fact, if you don’t blink, your eyes will likely become very dry and irritated. After a few moments of gazing at the object, let your mind simply relax again. Return your focus to the object for a few minutes; then allow your mind to relax once more.

Whenever I practice using a visual object as a support, I’m reminded of something mentioned by Longchenpa, one of the great Buddhist scholars and meditation masters of the fourteenth century. In one of his books he points out that there is a great benefit to be gained from alternating between object-based meditation and the sort of objectless meditation discussed earlier. As he explains, when you rest your mind on an object, you’re seeing it as something distinct or separate from yourself. But when you let go and simply rest your mind in naked awareness, the distinction dissolves. And alternating between focusing on an object and allowing the mind to rest in naked awareness, you actually come to recognize the basic truth that neuroscience has shown us: Everything we perceive is a reconstruction created in the mind. In other words, there’s no difference between what is seen and the mind that sees it.

This recognition doesn’t, of course, occur overnight. It takes a bit of practice. In fact, as we’ll see later on, the Buddha provided some specific methods for dissolving the distinction between the mind and whatever the mind perceives. But I’m getting ahead of myself - which happens when I get excited about something. For now, let’s go back to basic methods of transforming sensory information into a means of bringing the mind to a calm, restful place.

MEDITATING ON SOUND

Meditating on sound is very similar to meditating on form, except that now you’re engaging the faculty of hearing. Start by just allowing your mind to rest for a few moments in a relaxed state, and then gradually allow yourself to become aware of the things you hear close to your ear, such as your heartbeat or your breath, or sounds that occur naturally in your immediate surroundings. Some people find it helpful to play a recording of natural sounds or pleasant music. There’s no need to try to identify these sounds, nor is it necessary to focus on a specific sound. In fact, it’s easier to let yourself be aware of everything you hear. The point is to cultivate a simple, bare awareness of sound as it strikes your ear.

As with form and color meditation, you’ll probably find that you can focus on the sounds around you for only a few seconds at a time before your mind wanders off. That’s okay. When you find your mind wandering, just bring yourself back to a relaxed state of mind and then bring your awareness back to the sound once again. Allow yourself to alternate between resting your attention on sounds and allowing your mind simply to rest in a relaxed state of open meditation.

One of the great benefits of meditation on sound is that it gradually teaches you to detach from assigning meaning to the various sounds you hear. You learn to listen to what you hear without necessarily responding emotionally to the content. As you grow accustomed to giving bare attention to sound simply as sound, you’ll find yourself able to listen to criticism without becoming angry or defensive and able to listen to praise without becoming overly proud or excited. You can simply listen to what other people say with a much more relaxed and balanced attitude, without being carried away by an emotional response.

I once heard a wonderful story about a famous sitar player in India who learned to use the sounds of his instrument as a support for his meditation practice. If you’re not familiar with Indian instruments, a sitar is a very long-necked instrument, usually constructed with seventeen strings, plucked like a guitar to produce a wonderful variety of tones. This particular sitar player was so gifted that he was always in demand and spent much of his time traveling around India, in much the way some modern rock bands are often away from home on tour.

After one particularly long tour, he returned home to discover that his wife had been having an affair with another man. He was extraordinarily reasonable when he discovered the situation. Perhaps the concentration he’d learned over the years of constant practice and performance, combined with the sounds of this lovely instrument, had calmed and focused his mind. In any case, he didn’t argue with his wife or lash out in anger. Instead he sat down and had a long conversation with her, during which he realized that his wife’s affair and his own pride at being asked to perform across the country were symptoms of attachment - one of the three mental poisons that keep us addicted to the cycle of samsara. There was very little difference between his attachment to being famous and his wife’s attachment to another man. The recognition hit him like a thunderbolt, and he realized that in order to become free of his own addiction, he had to let go of his attachment to being famous. The only way for him to do so was to seek out a meditation master and learn how to recognize his attachment as simply a manifestation of his mental habits.

At the end of the conversation, he gave up everything to his wife except his sitar, toward which he still felt a strong attachment that no amount of rational analysis could dissolve, and went in search of a teacher. Eventually he arrived at a charnel ground, the ancient equivalent of a cemetery, in which corpses are more or less deposited without being buried or cremated. Charnel grounds were scary places, covered with human bones, partial skeletons, and rotting corpses. But they were the most likely environments in which to find a great master, who had overcome his or her fear of death and impermanence - two of the fearful conditions that keep most people locked in the samsaric conditions of attachment to what is and aversion to what might occur.

In this particular charnel ground, the sitar player found a mahasiddha - a person who had passed through extraordinary trials to achieve profound understanding.

The mahasiddha was living in a ragged hut that barely provided him protection against wind and weather. In the way that some of us feel a strong connection with people we meet during the ordinary course of our lives, the sitar player felt a deep bond with this particular mahasiddha and asked him if he would accept him as a student. The mahasiddha agreed, and the sitar player used branches and mud to build his own hut nearby, where he could practice the basic instructions on shinay meditation that the mahasiddha had given him.

Like many people who begin meditation practice, the sitar player found it very difficult to follow the instructions of his teacher. Even spending a few minutes following his teacher’s instructions seemed like an eternity; every time he sat to meditate, he found himself drawn to his old habit of playing his sitar, and he gave up his practice and started to play. He began to feel horribly guilty, neglecting his meditation practice in favor of simply strumming his sitar. Finally he went to his teacher’s hut and confessed that he just couldn’t meditate.

“What’s the problem?” the mahasiddha asked.

The sitar player replied, “I’m just too attached to my sitar. I’d rather play it than meditate.”

The mahasiddha told him, “That’s not a big problem. I can give you an exercise in sitar meditation.”

The sitar player, who’d been expecting criticism - as most of us do from our teachers - was quite surprised.

The mahasiddha continued, “Go back to your hut, play your sitar, and just listen to the sound of your instrument with bare awareness. Forget about trying to play perfectly. Just listen to the sounds.”

Relieved, the sitar player returned to his hut and started playing, just listening to the sounds without trying to be perfect, without focusing on either the results of his playing or the results of his practice. Because he’d learned to practice simply without concern for the results, after a few years he became a mahasiddha himself.

Since not many of my students are sitar players, the real lesson in this story lies in learning how to use their own experience as a support for practice, without regard to results. Especially in the West, where the sounds, sights, and smells of rush-hour traffic can become an overwhelming source of preoccupation, the practice of simply observing the sensations of traffic rather than focusing on the goal of getting through congestion offers a tremendous opportunity for meditation practice. If you turn your attention away from the goal of getting somewhere and instead rest your attention on the sensations around you, you could very well end up becoming a “traffic mahasiddha.”

MEDITATING ON SMELL

Actually, we can use as an object of meditation whatever sensation draws us most strongly at any given moment. For example, using smell as an object of meditation can be especially helpful, either during formal practice or just while going about your day. In formal practice you can focus your attention on the odors around you - maybe the smell of incense, if you like that, or the smells naturally occurring around your practice area.

Meditating on smell can be especially practical if you’re involved in daily activities like cooking or eating. By taking the time to focus attention on the smells that arise from food, you can transform boring daily routines - such as cooking, eating, or simply walking through your office building - into practices that calm and strengthen your mind.

MEDITATING ON TASTE

It took me quite a while to realize that when I was eating or drinking, I barely noticed what I was doing. I was usually caught up in conversations with other people, or distracted by my own problems, conflicts, or daydreams. As a result, I wasn’t really engaged in what I was doing, and so I missed out on the opportunity to experience the richness of the present moment. Focusing on taste is an extremely practical technique that can be used to engage in meditation for a few moments at several points throughout the day.

When I was taught about using taste as a focus of meditation, I was told to begin as usual by allowing my mind to rest naturally for a few moments, then allow myself to focus my attention lightly on the tastes I perceived. I didn’t have to analyze a particular taste sensation, like bitterness, sweetness, or sourness. I just had to rest my attention lightly on all the tastes I perceived and then rest my mind naturally, alternating between bringing my attention to the sensation of taste and resting my mind naturally.

OTHER HELPFUL SUPPORTS

It is to guide students well that I taught different approaches.

- The Lankavatarasutra, translated by Maria Montenegro

In addition to working with sense objects, the Buddha also taught a few other techniques that could be easily used anytime, anywhere. One of these techniques involves using the breath as an object of meditation. If you’re alive, there’s a good chance you’re breathing, and the ability to direct your attention to the coming and going of the breath is always available. The second support is an old friend of mine, and one I feel especially grateful for, since it kept me from going crazy as a child. This support, with which I became acquainted purely by accident while sitting in a cave, is based on the repetition of a mantra.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

I was taught a number of different ways to use the breath as an object of meditation, but I won’t bore you with them all. Instead, I’ll focus on two of the simplest methods, which are also the easiest to practice without drawing attention to yourself in public. All you have to do is focus your attention lightly on the simple act of inhaling and exhaling. You can place your attention on the passage of air through your nostrils or on the sensation of air filling and exiting your lungs. Using your breath in this way is very similar to focusing on physical sensation, except that you’re narrowing the awareness of sensation to the simple experience of inhaling and exhaling. Because there is a natural split-second gap between inhalation and exhalation, you can also focus on the three-part process of inhalation, exhalation, and the interval between.

Focusing on the breath is particularly useful when you catch yourself feeling stressed or distracted. Internally, the simple act of drawing attention to your breath produces a state of calmness and awareness that allows you to step back from whatever problems you might be facing and respond to them more calmly and objectively. If you’re stressed out, just bring your attention to your breathing. No one will notice that you’re meditating. They probably won’t even pay attention to the fact that you’re breathing at all.

Formal meditation on the breath is a little different. One of the methods I was taught was simply to count my inhalations and exhalations as a way of focusing my attention more completely. Count the first inhalation and exhalation as “one,” the next inhalation and exhalation as “two,” and so on until you reach seven. Then just start the process again from “one.” Eventually, you can begin to accumulate even higher numbers of inhalations and exhalations. But, as always, it’s best to begin by limiting your goal to short practice periods that you can repeat many times.

My Old Friend, Mantra

Mantra meditation is a very powerful technique that not only cultivates clear awareness, but also, through the potency of syllables that have been recited by enlightened masters for thousands of years, clears away layers of mental obscuration and increases our capacity to benefit ourselves and others. This connection may be hard to accept at first; it seems too much like magic. It might be easier to think of mantric syllables as sound waves that perpetuate through space for thousands, perhaps millions, of years.

In mantra meditation, the focus of your attention is on the mental recitation of a certain set of syllables that appear to have a direct effect on calming and clearing the mind. For this exercise, we’ll use a very simple set of three syllables that make up the most basic of all mantras: OM AH HUNG.

OM represents the lucid, distinctive, perceptual aspect of experience; AH represents the empty, or inherently open, aspect; while HUNG represents the union of distinctive appearance and the inherently empty nature of the appearance.

You can start by reciting the mantra aloud, and then gradually slip into a more internal form of mental recitation. The important thing is to continue reciting the mantra mentally for about three minutes, and then just let your mind rest, alternating between recitation and resting for as long as you can. Whether you feel the effects immediately or not, you’ve set something in motion. That “something” is the freedom of your mind.

But freedom rarely arrives in the form we think it should. In fact, for most of us, freedom feels not only unfamiliar but distinctly unpleasant. That’s because we’re used to our chains. They might chafe, they might make us bleed, but at least they’re familiar.

Familiarity is just a thought, however, or sometimes a feeling. And to help us through the difficult transition between familiarity and freedom, the Buddha provided methods for working directly with thoughts and feelings.

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