To see the mountain on the other side, you must look at the mountain on this side.
—DUSUM KHYENPA, quoted in Mahamudra: The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
LEFT TO ITS own, the mind is like a restless bird, always flitting from branch to branch or sweeping down from a tree to the ground and then flitting up into another tree. In this analogy, the branches, the ground, and the other tree represent the demands we receive from our five senses, as well as thoughts and emotions. They all seem very interesting and powerfully attractive. And since there's always something going on in and around us, it's very hard for the poor restless bird to settle. No wonder so many of the people I meet complain of being stressed most of the time! This kind of flitting about while our senses are overloaded and our thoughts and emotions are demanding recognition makes it very hard to stay relaxed and focused.
The first of the basic practices to which I was introduced as a child - which most teachers introduce to beginning students - involves allowing the little bird to settle. In Sanskrit, this practice is known as shamatha (the th is a slightly aspirated variant of t); in Tibetan, it is known as shinay. Shama and shi may be understood in a variety of ways, including “peace “rest, or “cooling down” from a state of mental, emotional, or sensory excitement. Maybe a modern equivalent would be “chilling out.” The Sanskrit tha, like the Tibetan nay, means to “abide” or “stay”. In other words, shamatha or shinay means abiding in a state that is rested or “chilled out,” which allows the little bird to just sit on one branch for a while.
Most of us, when we look at something, hear something, or watch a thought or emotion, have some sort of judgment about the experience. This judgment can be understood in terms of three basic “branches”: the “I like it” branch, the “I don't like it” branch, or the “I don't know” branch. Each of these branches spreads out into smaller branches: “good” branch; “bad” branch; “pleasant” branch; “unpleasant” branch; “I like it because . . .” branch; “I don't like it because . . ,” branch; “could be good or bad” branch; “could be nice or not” branch; “could be good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant” branch; and the “neither good nor bad, pleasant nor unpleasant” branch. The possibilities represented by all these branches tempt the little bird to flutter between them, investigating each one.
The practice of shamatha or shinay involves letting go of our judgments and opinions and just looking at, or paying attention to, what we see from whatever branch we're sitting on. Maybe we'll see a screen of branches and leaves. But instead of flitting from branch to branch to get a better view, just look at each branch or leaf, paying attention to its shape or color. Rest there on one branch. Attending to our experience in this way allows us to distinguish our judgments and opinions from the simple experience of seeing.
This practice has profound implications for the way we approach difficult emotions and the various problems we encounter in daily life. In most cases our experiences are conditioned by the branch we're sitting on and the screen of branches before us. But if we just look at our experience directly, we could see each branch and leaf as it is, and our opinions and judgments as they are—not all mixed up together, but as distinct aspects of experience. In that moment of pausing to just be aware, we open ourselves not only to the possibility of bypassing habitual ideas, emotions, and responses to physical sensation, but also to responding freshly to each experience as it occurs.
This simple awareness is an expression of the clarity of our buddha nature: the capacity to see and to recognize that we're seeing, but without any concepts attached or clouding our vision. We can recognize the concepts of “I like,” “I don't like,” and so on, as distinct from branches, leaves, or flowers. Because clarity is unlimited, we can hold all these different things at once without mixing them up. Actually, clarity is always functioning, even when we're not consciously attentive to it: when we become aware of being hungry or tired, when we recognize a traffic jam, or distinguish a chili pepper from a package of cheese. Without clarity, we wouldn't be able to think, feel, or perceive anything. Shamatha or shinay practice helps us to develop and appreciate our inherent clarity.
There are many ways to approach shamatha or shinay practice. Many of the people I've met over the years have asked for a step-by-step guide. “What should I do first?” they ask. “What should I do next?”
In the following pages, I'll attempt to describe a step-by-step approach to each of the basic practices.
Step One: Objectless Attention
The most basic approach to attention is referred to as “objectless”—not focusing on any specific “scene” or aspect of experience, but just looking and marveling at the wide range of scenery as it comes and goes. During a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I'd often exercise by hiking through a tall, nearby hill that was covered in a jungle-like forest of plants and trees bearing various types of fruit. Halfway up the hill, I'd get tired, overwhelmed by the heat and humidity, the altitude, and the sheer variety of foliage. But at certain places, there would be a wooden chair or bench. I'd sit in the chair and just rest, simply aware of my physical fatigue and my surroundings.
You don't have to hike through the hills of Rio de Janeiro to accomplish this sense of open relaxation and awareness. You can experience it after washing a big pile of dishes. When you've finished washing the dishes, you can sit down in a chair with a big sigh, “Ahh". Your physical body may be tired, but your mind is at peace, totally open, totally at rest, and immersed in the present moment of “Ahh.” Maybe your children are making noise in another room or maybe you're watching TV—with all the changes in scenes and commercial interruptions. But neither disturbs your sense of “Ahh.' Thoughts, feelings, and sensations may come and go, but you just observe them. You pay light and gentle—or what we in the Buddhist tradition refer to as “bare”—attention to them, as you rest with an '“Ahh,” simply open to the present moment. The past (washing dishes or climbing through a South American jungle) is over, and the future (more dishes, more jungles, bills to pay, or children to discipline) has yet to come. Right here, right now there is only the present “Ahh.”
That's how to rest the mind in objectless attention: as though you've just finished a large, long, or difficult task. Just let go and relax. You don't have to block any thoughts, emotions, or sensations that arise, but neither do you have to chase them. Rest in the present moment of “Ahh.” If thoughts, emotions, or sensations arise, simply allow yourself to be aware of them.
Objectless attention doesn't mean just letting your mind wander aimlessly among fantasies, memories, or daydreams. 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. For example, while laid over recently in the Denver airport, I saw a lot of shuttle trains go by on a track overhead, taking people to different terminals and to different parts of each terminal. I sat there on my chair watching the trains go back and forth, content to observe them simply as appearances through my awareness. There was no need to get up and follow after every train, wondering, “Where is it going? Where is it coming from? How long will it take to get from where it started to where it ends up?” I just watched the trains go by.
When we practice on the level of objectless attention, we're actually resting the mind in its natural clarity, unaltered by the passage of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. This natural clarity is always present for us in the same way that space is always present. In a sense, objectless attention is like allowing ourselves to be aware of the branches and leaves in front of us while recognizing the space that allows us to see the branches and leaves in the first place. Thoughts, emotions, and sensations shift and quiver in awareness in the same way branches and leaves shift and quiver in space. Moreover, just as space isn't defined by the objects that move through it, awareness isn't defined or limited by the thoughts, emotions, and sensations it apprehends. Awareness simply is.
Objectless attention involves settling into this “is-ness,” simply watching thoughts, emotions, appearances, and so on, as they emerge against or within the background of “space.” Some people find the practice as easy as sitting in a chair after washing dishes; others find it rather difficult. I did. Whenever my father or other teachers tried to explain objectless attention, I was mystified and a little bit resentful. I couldn't understand how it was possible to just watch whatever was going on as if it were a movie, or, as the many Buddhist texts say, a “reflection of the moon in a puddle.” In moments of greatest anxiety, my thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations didn't seem like reflections. They seemed terribly, solidly real. Fortunately, there are other steps we can take in order to guide us through the process of simply being aware.
Step Two: Attending to Form
As a consequence of being embodied beings, much of our experience is filtered through one or another of the five senses; sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. But since the five sense faculties—or sense consciousnesses, as most Buddhist texts refer to them—can only register sensory perceptions, Buddhist science describes a sixth sense, known as mental consciousness. This sixth sense—or sixth consciousness—shouldn't be confused with ESP, an ability to see into the future, or any other mysterious capability. It is more akin to what neuroscientists describe as the capacity to organize the information received through the senses and form a concept or mental image.
Mental consciousness is like the restless bird described earlier-flying from branch to branch, taking in the view, so to speak, from each branch. It tries to make sense of the information it receives and is impelled to respond. But it's possible to teach the bird to settle for a while by deliberately focusing its attention on one or another of the senses.
In the course of ordinary experience, the mind already tends to fixate on sensory information. However, the information we receive through our senses is more often than not a source of distraction. Inasmuch as 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 this information and utilize it as a means of calming the mind.
As I was taught, this friendship is most easily established by focusing on the visual aspects of an object—for example, a rose. What we think or feel about it doesn't matter: “good rose,” “bad rose," “I-don't-know rose.” If we just look at it as it is, we can begin to separate our opinions from the simple experience of seeing. Our opinions aren't in themselves good or bad or confused. But when we collapse them together with an object, our minds become distracted. We start to wonder, “Is this a good rose or a bad rose? When was the last time I saw a rose?” The restless bird flies from branch to branch trying to “understand” the rose. Yet the rose itself is not to be understood, but merely seen.
The technical term for using the sense of sight as a means of resting the mind is “form meditation.” Sounds a bit scary, doesn't it? Very strict and precise. Actually, form meditation is quite simple. In fact, we practice it unconsciously throughout the day, whenever we look at something like a television screen, a big pile of dirty dishes in the sink, or a person ahead of us at the grocery store. Form meditation simply involves raising this unconscious process to the level of active awareness. Just by looking with bare attention at a specific object, the restless bird settles on its branch.
Whatever object you choose to look at—a rose, a TV screen, or the person ahead of you in the grocery store checkout line—you'll probably notice that it has two aspects: shape and color. Focus on whichever aspect you prefer. The focus itself doesn't matter: some people are more drawn to shapes, and others to colors. The idea is simply to rest your attention on either its color or its shape, engaging awareness only to the point of barely recognizing shape or color. It's not necessary to try to focus so intently that you take in every little detail. If you try to do that, you'll tense up, whereas the point of form meditation is to rest. Keep your focus loose, with just enough attention to hold a bare awareness toward whatever you're looking at. The visual object serves only as a reference point which allows your mind to settle, a cue for the little bird to stop fluttering from branch to branch—at least momentarily—and simply rest.
How to practice this method?
First, depending on your circumstances, assume whatever physical posture is most convenient or comfortable. Next, allow your mind to rest for a moment in objectless attention. Just observe all the thoughts, sensations, and so on, that come up. Then choose something to look at—the color of someone's hair, the shape of his or her haircut, or a rose, a peach, or your desktop—and just rest your attention on it, noticing its shape or color. You don't have to stare and if you need to blink, just blink. (In fact, if you don't blink, your eyes will probably become irritated and whatever you're looking at may appear irritating.) After a few moments of looking at someone or something, let your mind simply relax again in objectless attention. Return your focus to the object for a few moments; then allow your mind to relax once more.
Whenever I practice using a visual object as a support for resting the mind, I'm reminded of one of the earliest lessons I learned from my father. There is great benefit to be gained from alternating between object-based attention and the sort of objectless attention described earlier. When you rest your mind on an object, you're seeing it as something distinct or separate from yourself. But when we let go and simply rest our minds in bare attention, gradually we begin to realize whatever we see, and however we see it, is an image made up of thoughts, memories, and the limitations conditioned by our sensory organs. In other words, there's no difference between what is seen and the mind that sees it.
Step Three: Attending to Sound
Attending to sound is very similar to attending to form, except that now you're engaging the faculty of hearing instead of sight. Begin by taming your “horse'' through assuming whatever posture is convenient, either the two-point posture or the seven-point one. Then take a few moments to “tame the rider” by resting in objectless attention, simply opening your awareness to whatever is going on without attaching to anything specific.
Next, gradually allow yourself to pay attention to sounds close to your awareness, such as your heartbeat or your breath. Alternatively, you can focus on sounds that occur naturally in your immediate surroundings, such as rain pattering against a window, the noise of a television or stereo coming from a neighbor's apartment, the roar of an airplane passing above, or even the chirps and whistles of restless birds outside.
There's no need to try to identify these sounds, nor is it necessary to tune in exclusively to 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. Like visual objects, sounds serve merely as a focus that allows the mind to rest.
As with form 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 not uncommon and is actually great! That wandering serves as a kind of cue (like flopping over on your meditation cushion) that you've become too loose or too relaxed. The horse has run off with the rider; or maybe the rider has run off on its horse. When you find your mind wandering, just bring yourself back to open attention and then turn your focus back to sounds once again. Allow yourself to alternate between resting attention on sounds and allowing your mind simply to rest in a relaxed state of open meditation.
One of the advantages of sound meditation lies in the capacity to assist us in gradually detaching from assigning meaning to the various sounds we hear. With practice, we can learn to listen to what we hear without necessarily responding emotionally to the content. As we grow accustomed to paying bare attention to sound simply as sound, we'll find ourselves able to listen to criticism without becoming angry or defensive and able to listen to praise without becoming overly proud or excited.
One young man who had been attending a large event at Sherab Ling came to me to discuss a problem he was having with sounds. “I'm very sensitive.” he explained. “I need peace and quiet in order to practice. I've tried keeping my windows closed and using earplugs but noises still come through, and they disturb my concentration. It's especially hard at night with all the dogs barking.” (There are a lot of wild dogs around the monastery, and they tend to bark a lot and fight one another and defend themselves against predators).
“I can't sleep,” the man continued, “because, as I've mentioned, I'm extremely sensitive to sounds. I really wanted to join the group practice today, but I couldn't sleep. What can I do?”
I gave him instructions on sound meditation, using sounds as a means of focusing and calming the mind.
The next day, however, he came back to my room and told me, “Your instructions helped a little bit, but not much. Those dogs kept me up all night. As I've tried to explain, I'm really sensitive to sounds.”
“Well,” I told him, “there's not much I can do. I can't kill the dogs and I can't cure your sensitivity to sounds.”
At that moment, the gong rang for puja, a kind of group ritual of devotion similar to the ceremonies performed in other religious traditions. A Tibetan puja is often accompanied by drums, horns, symbols, and group chanting, all of which can be quite loud. It's a cacophony that used to terrify me to the point of an anxiety or panic attack. But when I looked across the room, I saw the fellow who was “so sensitive” to sounds sitting near the back of the temple with his legs crossed and his body slumping forward. In the midst of the loudest, noisiest part of the puja, he was fast asleep. At the end of the ceremony, we met at the door leading out of the temple. I asked him how it was possible that he could fall asleep during all that noise and commotion.
He thought about it for a moment and then replied, “I guess because I didn't resist the sounds. They were just a part of the puja.” “Maybe you were just tired after so many nights of not sleeping." I suggested.
“No,” he replied, “I think I've just learned that my sensitivity to sound was a kind of a story I kept telling myself, an idea that got stuck in my head, perhaps when I was a child.” “So what are you going to do tonight?” I asked. He smiled. “Maybe I'll listen to the dogs and hear it as their kind of puja”
The next day, he came to the room and announced proudly that he'd slept like a baby. “I think,” he said, “I may have lost my attachment to the idea that I'm overly sensitive to sounds.”
I like this story because it demonstrates an important principle. We're disturbed by sensations to the degree that we resist them. This young man, after some practice, discovered that the sounds we hear are like the music of a universal puja: a celebration of our capacity to hear.
Step Four: Attending to Physical Experience
Chances are that if you're reading this book, you live, so to speak, in a physical body. On some level, we tend to regard embodiment as something of a limitation. Wouldn't it be nice to just float freely without the constraints of physical needs and demands, without the demands of ignorance, desire, or aversion? But our embodied state is a blessing in disguise, fertile ground through which we may discover the possibilities of awareness.
One way to access these possibilities is through paying attention to physical sensations, a process that may be most simply accessed through watching your breath. 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.
Focusing on the breath is particularly useful when you catch yourself feeling stressed or distracted. 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 overwhelmed by situations, events, vivid thoughts, or strong emotions, simply bring your attention to the simple sensation of 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!
There's also a more formal way to use the physical sensation of breathing as a focus for settling the mind, which I found very useful very early on in my training, especially when panic or anxiety threatened to take over. Whether resting in the seven-point posture or the two-point posture, simply count your inhalations and exhalations. Count the first inhalation and exhalation as “one,” the next inhalation and exhalation as “two,” and so on, until you reach twenty-one. Then just start the process again from “one.”
Using breath as a focus can be extended to other aspects of physical experience. A lot of people I've met over the past several years live in constant physical pain, maybe as a result of an accident or a chronic illness. Understandably, the pain they experience makes it hard to concentrate on anything but the pain. But the pain itself can become a focal point that leads to a broader awareness of pain as an expression of the mind.
I saw this potential as I watched my father die. Pain wracked his body to the point where he couldn't void his bladder or bowels without assistance. But he approached each moment of pain as a revelation, a focus of awareness through which his mind became more relaxed and stable. Even in his last moments, he looked at the process of numbness in his arms and limbs, the congestion in his lungs, and the cessation of his heartbeat with a kind of childlike wonder, as if to say: “These experiences are neither good nor bad. They're just what's happening in the present moment.” Even in the extremis of death, whatever his physical experiences, he took them as opportunities to rest his mind.
He was fortunate insofar as he'd had a lot of practice in working with physical sensation as a focus for resting the mind. But watching him die brought back some of the earliest lessons he'd taught me about working with physical sensation as a basis for resting the mind—in other words, relying on physical sensation and relating to it not as a threat or an enemy, but rather as an opportunity to become aware of awareness.
As with other attention practices, it's best to begin by seating yourself in a steady posture and resting for a few moments in objectless shinay. Then turn your attention gently to the physical sensation in a specific area: your neck, your knees, your hands, or your forehead. Sensation in any of these areas may already be apparent, but our ordinary tendency is to avoid it, resist it, or attend to it as the defining condition of our experience. Instead, slowly bring your attention to this area of your body.
Maybe you'll feel a sort of tingling or warmth or perhaps some pressure. Whatever you feel, just allow yourself to be aware of it for a moment or two. Just notice it, gently resting your attention on the sensation without qualifying it as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. It is what it is, as it is. Slowly, through examining physical sensation in this way, you can begin to recognize that your opinions and judgments about the sensation are contributory factors, interpretations overlaid upon the simple awareness of sensation in itself. Alter a moment, let go of your attention to physical sensation and let your mind rest as it is. Then return your attention to your physical sensations.
Once you've spent a little time resting your awareness on the sensations in one part of the body, you can extend the process by gently drawing your attention throughout your entire body. In this process I sometimes refer to physical sensations as “scanning practice,” because it reminds me of lying in one of those MRI and fMRI machines that can scan your entire body. In this case, however, the scanner isn't some external machine, but your own mind, your own awareness.
When I first began to practice attention on the level of physical sensation, I discovered that when I tried to avoid a particular sensation, its power to affect me increased. I was actively participating in what was occurring right then, at that moment. I was struggling with my own awareness. My attention was divided between resisting a painful sensation and being overwhelmed by it. Through the guidance of my teachers, I began to observe these conflicting impulses simultaneously. I slowly—and by no means easily—began to see my whole mind engaged in a kind of battle between avoidance and acceptance. The process of observing this battle became more interesting than taking sides in the battle. Just watching it gradually became fascinating in itself.
Physical sensations like being cold, hot, hungry, full, heavy, or dizzy - or having a headache, a toothache, a stuffy nose, a sore throat, pain in your knees or lower back - tend to be directly present to awareness. Inasmuch as pain and discomfort are experienced so vividly, they're actually very effective means of focusing on the mind that is aware of pain: no pain, no awareness of the mind that experiences pain.
This is not to say that we should think that paying attention to pain will make the pain go away. If we do that, we're enhancing the power of hope and fear: hope that the pain will go away and fear that it won't. The best method is to observe the mind that experiences pain, which isn't always easy. In fact, the practice of attending to painful sensations is tricky. Sometimes the pain we feel may shift between various parts of the body. Sometimes it disappears altogether, in which case there's no support for meditation. Sometimes the sensation of pain can become so intense that it becomes overwhelming. Especially in the latter two cases, stop focusing on pain. Shift to some other focus, like sight or sound. Or just stop looking and do something completely different—take a walk, if you're able, or read a book, or watch TV.
Of course, if you're experiencing chronic or serious pain, it's important to consult a doctor. These symptoms may indicate a serious physical problem that requires medical treatment. Attention to pain doesn't mean that its physical causes go away. If your doctor has uncovered a serious medical problem, by all means follow his or her recommendations. Although attention to painful physical sensations can assist us in dealing with the pain or discomfort of serious medical problems, it's not a substitute for treatment.
Even while taking medications prescribed or recommended by a doctor, you may experience some pain. In this 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 mental and emotional habits associated with hope and fear. The best way to relinquish fixation on these habits is to simply make the effort to observe the pain objectively, leaving results to sort themselves out.
Step Five: Attending to Thoughts
Working with the activity of sensory perceptions is kind of a preparation for working with the restless bird itself—the multitude of ideas, judgments, and concepts that provoke the bird to jump from branch to branch.
Thoughts are a bit more elusive than flowers, sounds, or physical sensations. At first, they rush and tumble, like water rushing over a cliff. You can't really see them. But by paying attention to them, in the same way that you pay attention to sounds or visual objects, you can come to an awareness of their passage. In so doing, you can become aware of the mind through which all these thoughts appear and disappear. “Thinking,” as my father used to say, “is the natural activity of the mind, an expression of the mind's capacity to produce anything.”
Paying attention to thoughts isn't aimed at stopping thoughts, but at simply observing them. Like taking time to look at a rose or to listen to a sound, taking time to observe your thoughts doesn't involve analyzing the thoughts themselves. Rather, the emphasis rests on the act of observing, which naturally calms and steadies the mind that observes.
You can use your thoughts rather than being used by them. If a hundred thoughts pass through your mind in the space of a minute, you have a hundred supports for meditation. If the restless bird jumps from branch to branch, that's terrific. You can just watch the bird flitting around. Each leap, each burst of flight is a support for meditation. There's no need to become attached to the awareness of a thought or to focus on it so intently that you attempt to make it go away. Thoughts come and go, as an old Buddhist saying holds, like “snowflakes falling on a hot rock.” Whatever passes through the mind, just watch it come and go, lightly and without attachment, the way you'd practice gently resting your attention on forms, sounds, or physical sensations.
For most of us, thoughts seem very solid, very true. We become attached to them or afraid of them. Either way, we give them power over us. The more solid and true we believe them to be, the more power we give to them. But when we begin to observe our thoughts, the power begins to fade.
Sometimes if you watch your thoughts, you'll start to notice that they appear and disappear quite quickly, leaving little gaps between them. At first the gap between one thought and the next may not be very long. But with practice the gaps grow longer and your mind begins to rest more peacefully and openly in objectless attention.
Sometimes, the simple practice of observing thoughts becomes something like watching TV or a movie. On the screen, lots of things may be going on, but you are not actually in the movie or on the TV. There's a little bit of space between yourself and whatever you're watching. As you practice observing your thoughts, you can actually experience that same little bit of space between yourself and your thoughts. You're not really creating this space; it was always there. You're merely allowing yourself to notice it.
Whichever of these experiences comes up for you is okay, and no doubt your experiences will vary as you practice. Sometimes you'll observe your thoughts quite closely, seeing them come and go, and noticing the gaps between them. Sometimes you'll simply watch them with that little bit of distance. Practice—or method-is so much easier than most people think. Whatever you experience, as long as you maintain awareness of what's going on, is practice. That is the transformation of understanding into experience.
The only point at which observing thoughts shifts from meditation into something else occurs when you try to control or change your thoughts. But even if you bring some awareness to your attempt to control your thoughts, that's practice, too. It's your mind you're working with, so no one can judge you, no one can grade you on your experience. Practice is personal. No two people's experiences are alike.
If you continue, you'll inevitably discover that your own experience shifts sometimes from day to day and moment to moment. Sometimes you may find your thoughts are very clear and easy to observe. Sometimes they rush by like water flowing over a cliff. At other times, you may find your mind is dull or foggy. That's fine. You can simply observe the dullness or the agitation. Giving bare attention to whatever your experience is at any given moment is practice or method. Even thoughts like “I can't meditate,” “my mind is too restless,” “I'm so tired, do I have to meditate?” can be a support for meditation as long as you observe them.
Especially if you're new to meditation, it can be very difficult to simply observe thoughts associated with unpleasant experiences or vivid emotional content. This is especially true if those thoughts are related to long-standing beliefs: that we'll always be lonely, will never be attractive, or that an authority figure—whether a parent, a partner, or a manager at work—is an “enemy,” always holding us down in some way. Particularly when thoughts are unpleasant, it's best to avoid focusing on the object of these thoughts—the argument, the content of unpleasant memories, or the chain of events that led to the formation of certain thoughts. Just look at the thoughts themselves, rather than the causes and conditions from which they emerge.
There's an old, old story drawn from the sutras, in which the Buddha compared the futility of looking for the causes and conditions that give rise to certain thoughts to a soldier who'd been shot by a poisoned arrow on the battlefield. The doctor comes to remove the arrow, but the soldier says, “Wait, before you pull out the arrow, I need to know the name of the person who shot me, the village he came from, and the names of his parents and grandparents. I also need to know what kind of wood the arrow is made from, the nature of the material the point is made of, and the type of bird that the feathers attached to the arrow were taken from. . .” on and on. By the time the doctor had investigated all these questions and returned with answers, the soldier would be dead. This is an example of self-created suffering, the kind of intellectual overlay that inhibits us from dealing with painful situations simply and directly.
The moral of the story is to let go of the search for reasons and stories, and simply look at experience directly. Extract the poison arrow of pain right now and ask questions later. Once the arrow is removed, the questions are irrelevant.
The best way to work with thoughts is to step back and rest your mind in objectless shinay for a minute and then bring your attention to each thought and the ideas that revolve around it. Observe both directly for a few minutes, just as you would observe the shape or color of a form. Then rest in the simple awareness of bare attention, alternating between attention to thoughts and the broader field of objectless attention. In this way, you avoid clinging too tightly to observing thoughts, while renewing the observation of thoughts with greater openness and freshness.
Begin by aligning your body in a posture that is relaxed and alert. Next, rest in objectless attention for a few moments. Then start watching your thoughts. Don't try to practice for very long-only a few minutes—alternating between objectless attention and attention to your thoughts.
Rest your mind for a moment in objectless attention...
Watch your thoughts for maybe a minute...
Then rest your mind in objectless attention...
At the end of the process, ask yourself what the experience of observing your thoughts was like. Did thoughts rush by like water running over a cliff? Were you able to see your thoughts very clearly? Were they blurry and indistinct? Did they just vanish as soon as you tried to look at them? Did you experience any gaps?
No matter what you experience, the intention to observe is practice. Your thoughts might rush over a cliff; they may be blurry or indistinct; or they may be a bit shy and not appear at all. But your intention to watch these varieties of experience will, in time, shift your relationship to them.
Step Six: Attending to Emotions
Emotions are often vivid and enduring. But those same qualities can be very useful as supports for practice. Intensity and persistence can, in themselves, become a focus for looking at the mind. At the same time, those same characteristics of intensity and persistence can make it a bit difficult to work with emotions right away. Sometimes an emotion or an emotional tendency persists on such a deep level of awareness that we don't easily recognize its conditioning effect. That's why it's important to work with the first few steps of attention training first, in so doing, you can gain some familiarity with stabilizing awareness to the point at which you can observe whatever passes through your mind without too much attachment or aversion.
Early on in my own training, my father and my other teachers impressed on me that there are three very basic categories of emotion: positive, negative, and neutral. Each corresponds to the three main boxes through which we view ourselves and our experience: the “I like” box, the “I don't like” box, and the “I don't know” box.
“Positive,” or what we might call “constructive,” emotions, like compassion, friendship, and loyalty, strengthen the mind, build our confidence, and enhance our ability to assist those in need of help. “Negative'“ emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, jealousy, and envy tend to weaken the mind, undermine confidence, and increase fear. As such, they are often referred to as “destructive.” More or less neutral states, meanwhile, basically consist of the kinds of attitudes we might have toward a pencil, a piece of paper, or a paper clip.
The method of observing emotions as supports for practice varies according to the type of emotion you're experiencing. If you're feeling a positive emotion, you can focus on both the feeling and the object of the feeling. For example, if you're feeling love for a child, you can rest your attention on both the child and the love you feel for him or her. If you're feeling compassion for someone in trouble, you can focus on the person needing help and your feeling of compassion. In this way, the object of your emotion becomes a support for the emotion itself, while the emotion becomes a support for focusing on the object that inspires the emotion.
On the other hand, holding an object of negative emotion in attention tends to reinforce an idea of that person, situation, or thing as the cause of a negative emotion. No matter how much you try to cultivate compassion, confidence, or any other positive feeling, you'll almost automatically associate the object with the negative emotion. “That person (or situation, or thing) hurts. Resist it. Try to change it. Run away.”
I've also seen this tendency sometimes when people talk about someone toward whom they feel a romantic attraction. They feel this attraction quite strongly, but the more they try to pursue the other person, the more the other person tends to turn away. So the person who is attracted begins to feel that there is something wrong or unattractive about him- or herself. Or the person to whom he or she is attracted is cruel, unreliable, or flawed in some way essential to his or her nature. In fact, there's nothing wrong or bad about the person who is attracted and the person toward whom one is attracted. They're both expressing the infinite capacity of their buddha nature: to be attracted or not, to desire and not to desire. But we tend to take these expressions personally, as a way of defining ourselves and our relationships.
A more practical approach to emotions, similar to that of working with thoughts, is simply to rest your attention on the emotion itself rather than on its object. Just look at the emotion without analizing it intellectually. Don't try to hold on to it or resist it. Simply observe it. When you do this, the emotion won't seem as solid, lasting, or true as it initially did.
Sometimes, though, the object associated with a disturbing emotion—a person, a place, or an event—is just too vivid or present to ignore. If that's the case, by all means don't try to block it. Rest your attention on the sensory perceptions related to the object of your emotion, according to the methods of attention discussed earlier. In so doing, the object of emotion can become as powerful a support for meditation as the emotion itself.
So let's begin to use the method of attention to observe emotions. Keep your practice short—continuing perhaps for only a minute or two, shifting between objectless attention and attention to your emotions.
Start by “taming your horse,” positioning your body in a way that is relaxed and alert. Next, rest in objectless attention for a few moments. Then bring your attention to whatever emotion you're feeling. You may be experiencing more than one emotion at the same time, of course, so let your attention be drawn simply to the one that is most vivid at the moment. Inasmuch as certain emotions like jealousy, frustration, anger, or desire may be particularly intense, it's important to just look at them lightly. Don't try to analyze them or figure out why or how they came about. The main point is to simply allow yourself to become aware of them.
Rest your mind for a moment in objectless attention...
Watch your emotions for maybe a minute. . . .
Then rest your mind in objectless attention. . . .
At the end of the process, ask yourself what the experience of observing your emotions was like. Did they persist? Did they change? Were they very clear? Did they just hide when you tried to look at them? Did you experience any gaps between one emotion and another? Were they predominantly constructive or destructive?
As we look at our emotions in this way we begin to see the potential for every type of emotion as a basis for recognizing the mind that is aware of emotions. Sometimes we act out on them. In the case of positive or constructive emotions, as we shall discover, the beneficial effects can be immense, not only for ourselves but for those around us. Most of us, however, are caught up in some sort of mix between constructive and destructive emotions. These tendencies are more often than not layered, like the different layers of rock in a wall of the Grand Canyon. The benefit of looking directly at each layer lies in recognizing that each is an expression of our capacity to see.
The next set of practices offers a means of working with these layers to cut through their seeming solidity.