Chúng ta nhất thiết phải làm cho thế giới này trở nên trung thực trước khi có thể dạy dỗ con cháu ta rằng trung thực là đức tính tốt nhất. (We must make the world honest before we can honestly say to our children that honesty is the best policy. )Walter Besant
Mỗi ngày, hãy mang đến niềm vui cho ít nhất một người. Nếu không thể làm một điều tốt đẹp, hãy nói một lời tử tế. Nếu không nói được một lời tử tế, hãy nghĩ đến một việc tốt lành. (Try to make at least one person happy every day. If you cannot do a kind deed, speak a kind word. If you cannot speak a kind word, think a kind thought.)Lawrence G. Lovasik
Hãy lặng lẽ quan sát những tư tưởng và hành xử của bạn. Bạn sâu lắng hơn cái tâm thức đang suy nghĩ, bạn là sự tĩnh lặng sâu lắng hơn những ồn náo của tâm thức ấy. Bạn là tình thương và niềm vui còn chìm khuất dưới những nỗi đau. (Be the silent watcher of your thoughts and behavior. You are beneath the thinkers. You are the stillness beneath the mental noise. You are the love and joy beneath the pain.)Eckhart Tolle
Cách tốt nhất để tìm thấy chính mình là quên mình để phụng sự người khác. (The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. )Mahatma Gandhi
Tinh cần giữa phóng dật, tỉnh thức giữa quần mê. Người trí như ngựa phi, bỏ sau con ngựa hènKinh Pháp cú (Kệ số 29)
Kẻ thất bại chỉ sống trong quá khứ. Người chiến thắng là người học hỏi được từ quá khứ, vui thích với công việc trong hiện tại hướng đến tương lai. (Losers live in the past. Winners learn from the past and enjoy working in the present toward the future. )Denis Waitley
Đừng làm một tù nhân của quá khứ, hãy trở thành người kiến tạo tương lai. (Stop being a prisoner of your past. Become the architect of your future. )Robin Sharma
Người duy nhất mà bạn nên cố gắng vượt qua chính là bản thân bạn của ngày hôm qua. (The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.)Khuyết danh
Giặc phiền não thường luôn rình rập giết hại người, độc hại hơn kẻ oán thù. Sao còn ham ngủ mà chẳng chịu tỉnh thức?Kinh Lời dạy cuối cùng
Tinh cần giữa phóng dật, tỉnh thức giữa quần mê.Người trí như ngựa phi, bỏ sau con ngựa hèn.Kính Pháp Cú (Kệ số 29)

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Joyful Wisdom
»» 11. Making it personal

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Trí tuệ hoan hỷ - 11. Chọn phương pháp cho chính mình

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SÁCH AMAZON



Mua bản sách in

When you are face to face with a difficulty, you are up against a discovery.

WILLIAM THOMPSON, Lord Kelvin, Baltimore Lectures (In 1884 Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) delivered a significant series of lectures on physics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.)

I OFTEN TEACH in group settings. So when I explain how to work with thoughts and emotions using the three methods described in Part Two, I tend to use simple examples that most people can relate to, such as anger, fear, or—sometimes drawing on my own experience—anxiety. Almost invariably, however, someone will ask, “Okay, I understand how to work with anger and fear, but how do I work with jealousy”?” Someone else may ask for an explanation about working with depression or loneliness or low self-esteem.

Actually, the same methods can be used to work with any emotional or mental state. It's not as though one method is specifically appropriate for anger, another for grief, another for anxiety, and so on. If that were the case, we'd need eighty-four thousand different methods to work with each possible mental or emotional conflict! Even that many methods might not be sufficient, since no two individuals' experiences are exactly the same. For some people, a particular state dominates their lives over long periods. Feelings of depression, isolation, guilt, or fear of failure are vividly present and seemingly inescapable. For others, thoughts and emotions are more varied. Jealousy, sadness, anger, and so on, may linger for a while, alternating with periods of feeling relaxed and content.

Still others may not be at all clear about what they're feeling. As a student of mine recently confessed, “For a long time it seemed as though I was just moving day to day through a kind of fog or cloud, functioning—going to work, buying groceries, paying bills, and so forth—but I didn't really feel involved in anything I was doing. There were no real highs, no real lows. Inside, I was more or less blank, doing things because they were what I was supposed to do.”

Another type of fog can envelop us when we encounter an unexpected, acutely unpleasant situation. For example, a Taiwanese woman I met a while back told me about a terrible shock she'd received years earlier, when her husband announced that he was going to China on a business trip. A few days after he left, she decided that she would take some time for herself and visit a resort in the south of Taiwan. As she was entering a restaurant, she saw her husband with another woman. “I was stunned,” she said. “For the first few minutes I didn't know what to think or what to feel. And then all of a sudden, I had too many feelings. I was furious, hurt, and jealous. I felt betrayed and foolish. I wanted to run over and confront them and I wanted to just disappear into the ground. It took months to sort out all those feelings, and I still don't think I'm finished yet. Sometimes, they all come flooding back, and sometimes I find myself reliving that first moment of being absolutely numb.”

As I've listened to people describe their particular situations or ask for methods to deal with specific emotions, I've come to realize that it would be more useful to present the three practices of attention, insight, and empathy in terms of step-by-step process that can be applied to any mental or emotional state. The step themselves are simple and consistent across each of the three practices.

There are several benefits to adopting this step-by-step approach. The first involves a practical method of relieving the immediate conditions of mental and emotional pain. The second is to draw attention to the influence of deep-seated beliefs—the Buddha Nature Blockers—that hold certain mental and emotional patterns in place. The third, and most significant, benefit involves recognizing the Buddha Nature Blockers as creations of the mind. As we begin to recognize the mind's power to influence our experience, we can begin to work with that power and discover within ourselves a freedom previously unimagined.

To put it simply, when we take the time to look at the way we see things, the way we see things changes.

Over the next few pages, we'll examine the steps in detail. For the moment, they can be summarized as follows: The Main Exercise, Try Something Different, Step Back, and Take a Break.

Let's start by examining how to apply these steps in the context of shamatha, the most basic of the three practices, and the most important for anyone setting out on the path of meditation.

THE AIM OF ATTENTION

Self-awareness . . . is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even in the midst of turbulent emotions.

-Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence

Ordinarily, our minds are like flags in the wind, fluttering this way and that, depending on which way the wind blows. Even if we don't want to feel angry, jealous, lonely, or depressed, we're carried away by such feelings and by the thoughts and physical sensations that accompany them. We're not free; we can't see other options, other possibilities.

The goal of attention, or shamatha, practice is to become aware of awareness. Awareness is the basis, or what you might call the “support,” of the mind. It is steady and unchanging, like the pole to which the flag of ordinary consciousness is attached. When we recognize and become grounded in awareness of awareness, the “wind” of emotion may still blow. But instead of being carried away by the wind, we turn our attention inward, watching the shifts and changes with the intention of becoming familiar with that aspect of consciousness which recognizes Oh, this is what I'm feeling, this is what I'm thinking.

As we do so, a bit of space opens up within us. With practice, that space—which is the mind's natural clarity—begins to expand and settle. We can begin to watch our thoughts and emotions without necessarily being affected by them quite as powerfully or vividly as we're used to. We can still feel our feelings, think our thoughts, but slowly our identity shifts from a person who defines him- or herself as lonely, ashamed, frightened, or hobbled by low self-esteem to a person who can look at loneliness, shame, and low self-esteem as movements of the mind.

Its not unusual, especially in the beginning, to worry, Am I aware of awareness and at the same time aware of thoughts and emotions? Actually, there's no need to worry. Once you've received the instructions, you know that the goal of practice is simply to develop awareness. Once you recognize your goal, awareness of awareness begins to grow and stabilize naturally.

The process is not unlike going to the gym. You have a goal- whether it's losing weight, building muscles, promoting your health, or some other reason. In order to achieve that goal, you lift weights, jog on a treadmill, take classes, and so on. Gradually you begin to see the fruits of these activities; and seeing them, you're inspired to continue.

In the case of attention practice, the important point is to know that the goal is to establish and develop stability of awareness that will allow you to look at thoughts, emotions, and even physical pain without wavering. Bearing that in mind, let's look at applying the steps.

Step One: The Main Exercise

The main exercise of attention practice can be broken down into three stages.

The first involves simply looking at a thought or emotion with what, in Buddhist terms, is known as ordinary awareness—bringing attention to thoughts or feelings without any express purpose or intention. Just notice and identify what you're thinking or feeling. I'm angry. I'm sad. I'm lonely.

We practice ordinary attention every moment of every day. We look at a cup, for example, and simply acknowledge, That's a cup. Very little judgment is involved at this stage. We don't think That's a good cup, a bad cup, an attractive cup, a small cup, or a large cup. We just recognize cup.

Applying ordinary awareness to thoughts and emotions involves the same simple acknowledgment: Oh, I’m angry. Oh, I'm jealous. Oh, I'm frustrated. Oh, I could have done better. Oh, I said (or did) something.

Sometimes, as mentioned earlier, thoughts and emotions are not very clear. In such cases, we can look at the messages we receive from our physical bodies. If we can't sit still or experience physical tension, we can simply look at those sensations. Physical sensations could reflect a host of emotional or mental states - anger, frustration, jealousy, regret, or a mix of disturbing thoughts and feelings. The important point is to simply look at what's going on and acknowledge whatever you're experiencing just as it is, rather than to resist it or succumb to it.

The second stage involves meditative awareness—approaching thoughts and emotions as objects of focus through which we can stabilize awareness.

To use an example, a student of mine once confided that he suffered from what he called a “people-pleasing” complex. At work, he was always trying to do more, to work longer hours to complete professional projects, which consequently stole time he wished to spend with his wife and family. The conflict became intense. He would wake up several times during the night, sweating, his heart beating fast. He felt he couldn't please his managers, coworkers, and family at the same time, and the more he tried to please everyone, the less successful he felt. He was judging himself as a failure, creating judgments about others as demanding, and casting those judgments about himself and others in stone. He had succumbed to the first, second, and third of the Buddha Nature Blockers, and locked them in with the fifth. He had defined himself as a failure, incapable of pleasing all of the people all of the time.

This man had some experience with working at objects, sounds, and physical sensations, so I advised him to apply the same method of meditative awareness during those moments when he woke up at night.

“Watch the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations,” I told him. “Initially, 'the people-pleasing' complex might seem like one giant thing. But as you look at the complex it doesn't seem like one big giant thing anymore. You'll start to see that it has a lot of parts. It's made up of thoughts, like “I should have done A, B, or C. Why didn't I do X, Y, or Z? It also comprises emotion, such as fear, anger, resentment, and physical sensations, including churning in the stomach, an accelerated heartbeat, and sweating. Images may also occur: people being disappointed in you or yelling at you. As you look with meditative attention, the complex becomes like a bubble—inside of which are many smaller bubbles.”

Whatever you're feeling—whether it's panic, anxiety, loneliness, or people-pleasing—the basic approach is to try to watch any of the smaller bubbles with the same sort of attention applied to watching a physical object or focusing on a sound, as described in Part Two.

In doing so, you'll probably notice that the thoughts, emotions, and even physical sensations shift and change. For a while, fear may be most persistent, or perhaps the beating of your heart, or the images of people's reactions. After a while—perhaps five minutes or so—one or another of these responses, the bubble within the bubble, pulls your attention. Focus on that with meditative attention. In so doing, gradually your attention will shift from identifying as swallowed up in an emotional bubble to the one watching the bubble.

The third stage of the exercise involves a little bit of analysis: an intuitive “tuning in” to determine the effect of the practice. As I was taught, there are three possible results of applying meditative awareness to an emotional issue.

The first is that the problem dissipates altogether. Some of my students tell me, “You gave me this exercise, but it doesn't work for me.”

“What do you mean?” I ask them.

“These thoughts, these emotions, disappear too quickly,' they reply “They become fuzzy or unclear. They don't stay in place long enough to look at them.”

“That's great!” I tell them. “That's the point of attention practice.”

Many look at me with surprise, until I explain to them that what's happened when they watch thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations, and see them disappear, is that they've arrived at a state of objectless shamatha—a point at which one is simply aware of being aware. This objectless state may not last long. Some other thought, emotion, or physical sensation may come up. I urge them to approach the objectless state with the attitude, “Wow, I have another opportunity to develop my awareness of awareness.” I encourage them to identify themselves as the “looker.”

The second possibility is that the thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations intensify. That's also a good sign—an indication that deeply embedded perspectives are beginning to “loosen up.” To use an analogy, suppose you apply a few drops of water to a plate or bowl encrusted with dried food. Initially, the plate or bowl looks messier as the residue spreads. Actually, though, the plate isn't getting messier; the dried food is dissolving.

In terms of meditation practice, when thoughts or feelings intensify, there may be a reluctance to allow them expression. There is nothing wrong with allowing yourself to express an emotion. Perhaps you might want to pound your meditation cushion or say something out loud, like “How could I have done that?” or “Why did this person say that?” One student of mine, who had experienced anger at someone, eventually realized that the anger she felt was actually motivated by hurt that the person in question had acted in a certain way, and she began to cry. Expressing thoughts and emotions can be a great relief. The important point is to maintain your awareness as you express your thoughts or feelings.

The third possibility is that emotions may just remain at the same level, neither diminishing nor intensifying. That's also great! Why? Because we can use an emotion-and the thoughts, images, and physical sensations that accompany it—as strong support, for attention practice. So often, we allow our emotions to use us. Applying attention practice, we use our emotions as a focus for developing awareness, an opportunity to look at the “looker.” Just as we need sound to look at sound, form to look at form, we need emotions to look at emotions.

In fact, intense emotions can be our best friends in terms of stabilizing the mind, giving the restless bird a branch on which to rest.

Step Two: Try Something Different

In the beginning, it can be difficult to immediately address strong emotions or the biases that have developed over long periods. Emotions can color perception, behavior, even physical sensations. They can seem so solid, so big, that we can't bring ourselves to face them. As one student of mine commented recently, “Working with big emotions—the long-term ones like low self-esteem that kind of define your life—is like trying to climb Mount Everest before we've even learned how to climb a hill.”

So, bearing in mind that the goal of shamatha practice is to develop stability of awareness, I offer people the advice given to me by my own teachers. Rather than trying to tackle powerful or long-term emotions, focus instead on something smaller and more manageable.

For example, a few years ago a woman who suffered from terrible feelings of loneliness asked me to teach her a mediation technique to deal with the issue. When I asked her about her meditation experience, she told me she'd studied for many years under many teachers. I thought, Its okay to teach her how to use emotion as support, for meditation.

I taught her the attention technique described in Part Two, and she went away with a smile on her face. But a few weeks later, she returned. “I tried my best,” she told me, “but I just can't look at this feeling of loneliness. Whenever I try, I feel overwhelmed.”

I advised her to go back to the basic exercise of attention practice, turning meditative focus on form and sound. “I don't know how to meditate on form and sound,” she answered—a reply I was not expecting. Though, by her own admission, she had attended a lot of teachings, she either hadn't really received much in the way of meditation instruction or had “tuned out” during the teachings of the basic principles.

I gave her basic instruction on paying meditative attention to form and sound. After we practiced these methods for a while, I took a chance, and taught her to focus on smaller emotions—the irritation she felt standing in line at a grocery store or the frustration she might feel confronting a pile of dirty dishes in her kitchen sink. “Try this for a while,” I advised. “Then maybe you'll have the strength to look at the larger emotion of loneliness that is troubling you.”

A few months later, she wrote to me: “After working this way, I'm now able to start looking at my loneliness and make friends with it.”

How do we go about working with smaller or different emotions as a step toward dealing with larger issues?

One method is to generate, by artificial means, another emotion, something simpler or smaller and not so intense. For example, if you're working with loneliness, try working with anger. Imagine a situation in which you're having an argument with a coworker who messed up your files or someone who cuts ahead of you in line at the grocery store. Once you begin to feel that anger, use that to focus your awareness. Focus on the feeling of anger, the words that cross your mind, the physical sensations, or the image of the person cutting ahead of you. Practicing in this way, you can gain experience on how to deal with emotions.

Once you've achieved some proficiency in dealing with artificially generated emotions, you can start to look at past experiences and deliberately recall situations in which you may have felt anger, jealousy, embarrassment, or frustration. Bear in mind that the point of trying something different is to develop a stability of awareness—to discover the looker rather than being overcome by what is looked at.

Working with artificial or smaller emotions builds up the strength to work attentively with larger or long-term emotions, such as loneliness, low self-esteem, or an unhealthy need to please. In a way, this approach is like starting a physical workout regimen. When you go to the gym, you don't start off by lifting heavy weights. You begin by lifting weights that are manageable. Gradually, as your strength improves, you can begin lifting heavier weights. Drawing attention to emotional states works the same way. While there is some benefit in addressing large or long-standing emotional issues directly, sometimes we have to build up our emotional muscles a bit more gradually, remembering that the goal of attention practice is to develop stability of awareness.

Another “Try Something Different” approach involves using the physical symptoms of emotion as objects of focus. For example, a woman attending a public seminar confessed that she had suffered for years from severe depression. She had been taking medication prescribed by her doctor, but she couldn't escape the feeling that her body was filled with burning lead.

“Where do you feel this burning lead?” I asked.

“All over,” she replied. “It's overwhelming.”

“Okay,' I told her. “Instead of looking at the overall pain, focus on one small part of your body. Maybe your foot. Maybe just your toe. Choose a small place to direct your attention. Look at small parts of your body one at a time, instead of trying to work on your whole body at once. Remember that the goal of shamatha practice is to develop stability of awareness. Once you've achieved stability by focusing on your foot or your toe, you can begin to extend that awareness to larger areas”.

Applying attention to smaller emotions—or simply focusing on form, sound, or physical sensations—develops your capacity to look at long-term, overwhelming emotional states. Once you begin to grow your “attentional muscles” you can begin drawing attention to larger emotional issues. As you do so, you may find yourself directly confronting the underlying Buddha Nature Blockers of self-judgment and judging others as “enemies.” You may unravel the belief in being stuck, or the blind spot that inhibits your awareness of your potential. Almost certainly, you will confront the “myth of me,” the tendency to identify with your loneliness, low self-esteem, perfectionism, or isolation.

It's important to remember that such confrontations are not battles but opportunities to discover the power of the mind. The same mind that can create such harsh judgments is capable of undoing them through the power of awareness and attention.

Step Three-. Step Back

Sometimes an emotion is so persistent or so strong that it just seems impossible to look at. Something holds it in place.

Another approach that can be especially helpful when dealing with particularly strong emotions or mental or emotional habits that have developed over a long period is to take a step back and look at what lies behind the emotion—what you might call the support or “booster” of the emotion.

For example, there were times when I would try to look directly at the panic I felt as a child, and I just failed. I couldn't sit still, my heart would race, and I'd sweat as my body temperature rose. Finally I asked my teacher, Saljay Rinpoche, for help.

“You don't want to feel panic?” he asked.

“Of course not!” I answered. “I want to get rid of it right now!”

He considered my response for a few moments and then, nodding, replied, “Oh, now I see. What's bothering you is the fear of panic. Sometimes, the fear of panic is stronger than the panic it-self.”

It hadn't occurred to me to step back and look at what might be holding my panic in place. I was too wrapped up in the symptoms to see how very deeply I was afraid of the overwhelming emotion. But as I took Saljay Rinpoche's advice and looked at the underlying fear of panic, I began to find that panic became more manageable.

Over the years, I've found this approach effective in counseling other people. If an emotion or a disturbing state of mind is too painful to look at directly, seek the underlying condition that holds it in place. You may be surprised at what you discover.

You may find fear of the emotion, as I did. You may find some other type of resistance, such as a lack of confidence in even trying to work with emotions. You may find small events, triggers that signal or reinforce a broader emotional response. Fatigue, for example, can often signal a depressive episode. An argument with a coworker, spouse, or family member can often trigger thoughts of worthlessness or isolation, reinforcing a sense of low self-esteem.

When we work with the feelings behind the feelings, we begin to work more directly with the Buddha Nature Blockers-particularly the third, the entrenched belief that we cannot change, the fourth, which denies the possibility of our potential, and the fifth, through which we identify our emotional difficulties.

Step Four: Take a Break

An important part of any practice involves learning when to just stop practicing altogether. Stopping gives you more space, which allows you to accept the ups and downs, the possible turbulence of the experience that may be generated by your practice. If you don't give yourself an opportunity to stop, you may be carried away by the turbulence—and by a sense of guilt because you're not “doing it right” or not understanding the exercise. How come even though I have these very clear instructions, you may ask yourself, they don't seem to work? It must be my fault.

In general, when you engage in attention practice, you'll encounter two extreme points at which you know when to stop. One extreme is when your practice begins to deteriorate. Maybe you lose your focus or feel disgusted with the exercise. Perhaps the method becomes unclear. Even if you step back, looking at the triggers or boosters of anxiety, loneliness, and so on, or try something different, your practice doesn't work. You may think, I'm so tired of practicing altogether. I can't see the benefit of going on.

I met a young woman recently who had such an experience. She tried meditating on her perpetual anxiety. For a while, her practice seemed successful and she was happy about it. Then, it didn't seem to work. Her anxiety intensified, and her ability to focus diminished. One day, she attended a guided group meditation I was leading. At the beginning of the session she seemed fine; but at the end she was crying and shifting around on her meditation cushion. After the group meditation concluded, she made an appointment with me for a private interview.

“Your methods work for me,” she began, “but over the past few days, I'm unclear, confused, tired, bored, and at the end of the group meditation, I just felt myself collapsing. I'm done with this practice. I just can't seem to get it. I'm thinking of joining a support group, where they allow you to just cry your heart out.”

After she finished, I explained to her that sometimes it's necessary to stop practicing for a while—to just do something else. Take a walk. Read a book. Watch TV or listen to music.

She went to her room that night, slept, and in the morning felt a little bit better. She wanted to try the exercise again—knowing that she could stop whenever she needed to. She didn't have to keep going as if she were running a race or involved in some sort competition.

The idea of stopping meditation when the focus becomes too intense or your mind becomes dull or confused is actually an important and often overlooked part of practice. An analogy is often drawn from “dry channel” or “empty reservoir” irrigation practices implemented by Tibetan farmers who would plant their fields around a natural reservoir, such as a small pond or lake, around which they'd dig channels that would run through the crops. Sometimes, even if the channels were well dug, there wasn't much water flowing through them, because the reservoir itself was empty.

Similarly, when you practice, even though you have clear instructions and you understand the importance of effort and intention, you can experience fatigue, irritation, dullness, or hopelessness because your mental, emotional and physical “reservoir” is empty. The likely cause is that you've applied too much effort, too eagerly, and haven't built up a sufficiently abundant reservoir of inner strength. The instructions I received from my father and other teachers urging short practice periods can't be emphasized enough. In dealing with intense or long-term emotional states, we need to fill our reservoirs. Even the Buddha didn't become the Buddha overnight!

The second extreme at which it's important to take a break occurs when your experience of the practice feels absolutely fantastic. There may come a point at which you feel extraordinarily light and comfortable in your body or an intense state of happiness or joy. You may experience a boundless sense of clarity—a mental experience like a brilliant sun shining in a cloudless blue sky. Everything appears so fresh and precise. Or perhaps thoughts, feelings, and sensations cease and your mind becomes completely still. At this point, you stop.

Sometimes people say, “It's not fair! I'm having such a wonderful experience. Why should I stop?”

I sympathize with their frustration, since I, too, have enjoyed such blissful experiences. I felt such greed, such desire to hold on to them. But my teachers explained to me that if I held on, I would eventually grow disappointed. Because the nature of experience is impermanent, sooner or later the bliss, the clarity, the stillness, and so on, would vanish, and then I would feel really horrible. I'd end up feeling like I did something wrong or that the practices don't work. While the real goal is to develop a stability of awareness that allows one to look with equanimity at any experience, there is also the danger of becoming attached to blissful, clear, or still experiences as the result of attention practice.

They further explained that taking a break at a high point cultivates an eagerness to continue practicing, encouraging us to stabilize awareness, and “build up our reservoirs.”

Strange as it may seem, stopping is as much an important aspect of practice as starting.

BREAKING IT DOWN

The primordial purity of the ground completely transcends words, concepts, and formulations.

—Jamgon Kongtrul, Myriad Worlds,
translated and edited by the International Committee of Kunkhyab Choling


A woman who'd attended a series of teachings during one of my recent visits to North America confessed in a private talk that, while she had accomplished many things in her life, she felt a deep longing for a lasting relationship. This longing was so intense that she couldn't even look at it in meditation.

When asked what kind of thoughts she had when she experienced this longing for a relationship, she sat quietly for a few moments, and then replied, “I guess the thought that I'm unlovable.” After another pause she added, in a smaller voice, “And maybe the idea that other people will think I'm a failure because I've never had a long-term relationship.”

Continuing this line of questioning uncovered a variety of different thoughts and feelings-including memories of childhood (her mother telling her she was ugly) and adolescence (not being invited to dances and parties). There was, in fact, an entire storyline beneath her longing for a relationship. And when this storyline was broken down into its various parts, the heaviness of her longing began to lift. It didn't disappear right away, of course, but in those moments, it became lighter to bear. It wasn't the overwhelmingly huge, solid, muddy rock she'd originally been carrying around. It was really more of a bunch of stones clumped together in a way that looked like a big rock.

Without exertion, she began, spontaneously to apply method and wisdom to her sadness. This is a critical point. As she considered each aspect of her predicament, she was meditating, acknowledging on a direct level thoughts and feelings that had plagued her for much of her life. As she acknowledged them, some of the judgment she'd held about these thoughts and feelings began to lift, and she was able to break them down into smaller and smaller pieces. Over the course of the discussion, she experienced, at least momentarily, a shift in perspective. She wasn't someone trapped within the mirror of her loneliness and longing. She was the mirror.

Toward the end of the conversation, she gasped. “I just had a thought,” she said. “Maybe my mother felt the same way. Maybe she felt ugly and unlovable. I don't remember ever seeing her happy or smiling. I don't remember seeing my parents laugh together, or embrace, or kiss. And those other kids I grew up with, the popular ones, the ones who got invited to dances and parties ...”

Her voice trailed off for a moment.

“Were their lives all that great back then?” she asked. She chewed her lip, considering. “Are they happy now? Do they feel alone?”

It was extraordinary to watch this process unfold. Admitting her secret pain allowed her awareness to expand in a manner that enabled her to simply look at it with less judgment than she had while keeping it hidden. In turn, that awareness helped her break the pain into smaller pieces, so it didn't seem so fixed and releasing that fixation provided the opportunity for her innate compassion, capability, and confidence to begin to bloom. And at least in those few moments, her mythology of “me”- of being singularly focused on her own perspective-melted. She didn't feel lonely, unloved, and unlovable; and she began to experience a connection to others that transcended desire, jealousy, and fear. She befriended her pain, and in so doing arrived at insight and empathy. She'd glimpsed her potential, embraced the change in her perspective, and for a moment, at least, felt free. The smile on her face after this spontaneous breakthrough was a delight to behold.

This is the point of insight practice: the recognition that all phenomena are interdependent, impermanent, and made up of many different parts. As discussed in Part One, upon examination, we can't point to anything as solid, singular, or unchangeable. The more deeply we examine our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, the greater the opportunity we have to recognize their empty nature. Even intense or long-term emotional states are like bubbles. They seem to have a form but they're empty inside. In the end, they pop and you can see boundless space, free from conflicts and collisions. It's a joyful awakening, which, though you can't put it into words, is totally clear, an experience of timeless awareness.

How do we approach this awakening? By taking certain steps, just as we did in approaching attention practice.

Step One: The Main Exercise

Like the main exercise of attention practice, insight meditation can be broken down into three stages. The first involves looking at a thought or emotion with ordinary awareness-simply identifying thoughts or feelings without any specific purpose or intention.

Stage two involves a somewhat different approach. The main idea is to recognize the nature of the emotion, which is that awareness is inseparable from emptiness. How do we do this?

Begin by considering the impermanent aspect of emotion. When we identify an emotion—whether it's self-hatred, loneliness, a feeling of awkwardness in social situations, or a judgment against another person—we tend to think of it as a big, solid problem. A sense of permanence surrounds and infuses the feeling. I will always feel this way. I'm a loser. That person really is bad. Buddha Nature Blocker number three plays a prominent role here, enforcing a sense of endurability. But when we carefully examine such feelings, we find they're not stable or enduring at all. In a minute or less the thoughts associated with them change, the intensity wavers. Physical sensations—body temperature, heartbeat, heaviness in the limbs, fatigue, or agitation—are apt to shift. We may be surprised at the many different changes in the mind and body. Building on the process of attention practice, the essential point here is to observe and allow ourselves to become aware of the changes.

In the beginning we may be able to observe the shifts in thoughts, feelings, and so on, for only a minute or two. That's okay. As my own teachers advised me, it's important to resist the impulse to strive for a result. The main point of recognizing impermanence is to simply notice that thoughts, feelings, and physical changes are not static.

After looking briefly at the impermanent nature of emotions, consider their singularity aspect. As mentioned earlier, we tend to experience emotion as a big, solid, inherently existing thing. But if we look closely at the emotion—for example, anger—we can see that it is a combination of words or thoughts (I'm angry. I hate that person. That was a horrible thing to say), physical sensation (tightness in the chest or stomach), and the image of the cause or object of anger. If we separate all these out, where is the anger? Is it possible to experience anger without words, thoughts, physical sensations, or images of the cause or object?

Or, to take a different approach, suppose we look at the object of anger—for example, someone who says something we don't like. We can ask, What's making me angry? The person who said the words? The words themselves? We may think, I'm angry at a specific person because of what he or she said. But if we take a moment to break down our response, we allow ourselves the opportunity to reconsider, to take a second look. The bad words came from this person's month, so should I be angry at his or her mouth? That person's mouth is controlled by his or her muscles and brain. Should I be angry at the muscles and the brain? And are the muscles of the brain motivated by that person's emotions or his or her intentions? Should I be angry at those?

Examining singularity in this way, we can't find any object to be angry at. The object of anger does not have any nature of its own. Instead, we find that emotions and their objects arise interdependently.

I saw this for myself as a child, when a man came to visit my father. He'd had an argument with someone and they'd ended up beating each other with sticks. The man was very upset and asked my father for advice.

My father said, “It was the stick that hit you: why are you angry at the other man?”

“Because he controlled the stick,” the fellow replied.

“But he was controlled by his emotions.” my father told him. “So really you should be angry at his emotions. And who knows what might have contributed to his emotional outburst? Maybe he was beaten by his father. Maybe something happened that day to make him angry. So who can you be angry at? Maybe the man's father beat this man you argued with out of anger. But who knows what made him so angry that he beat his son?”

The man thought for a while, and I saw him begin to relax a bit, and even begin to smile. “I never thought about it that way,” he said.

“Most of us don't,” my father replied. “We have to look beyond surface appearances, and that takes practice.”

He smiled. “And practice takes time. Just because we talked today, your ideas, your emotions, aren't going to change overnight. Be patient. Be kind to yourself. You can't gain wisdom overnight.”

My father's words stuck with me, and I bear them in mind when I teach and counsel others. The main exercise of insight practice consists of examining the impermanence and interdependence of our own emotional responses and of the objects of our emotions— people, places, and situations. Even as we break down loneliness, lovelessness, social discomfort, judgment of others, and so on, into separate parts, we begin to see that even the parts cannot be said to inherently exist.

That is the goal of insight practice: to break down the illusion of permanence, singularity, and independence. If we look at emotion this deeply, eventually we'll arrive at the conclusion that we can't find any permanent, singular, or independent factor. The emotion or its object may dissipate with practice. More importantly, as we approach our thoughts and feelings with insight, we can discover the nature of emotion, an unlimited clarity and freedom, previously unrecognized. To be able to choose our responses, to loosen the boundary between experience and experiencer-what a discovery!

A traditional Tibetan Buddhist analogy likens this experience to a traveler wearing a wide-brimmed hat while walking up a steep hill that's lined with trees. Upon reaching the top of the hill he removes his hat and rests on the ground. He enjoys the sensation of the wind blowing across his head, revels in the capacity to see for miles and to stare at the wide, open sky. He cherishes the relief of having reached the top of the hill. The hat represents the aggregate of the concepts to which we cling when we think of emotions as solid, permanent, independently existing. The trek up the hill represents the process of looking at the nature of emotions. The removal of the hat represents not only the relief of letting go of the concepts, but also the unbounded awareness that results.

A note of caution is appropriate here, though. The sense of freedom and awareness you achieve through insight practice may last only a few seconds, a gap in the more-or-less continuous flow of conceptual awareness. Don't worry. Though the gap may be short initially, it actually represents a glimpse of the natural state of mind—a union of emptiness and clarity. With practice, the gap will grow longer and longer.

As with attention practice, the third stage of the insight meditation involves a little bit of analysis. When you look at the results of your practice you may experience, as with attention practice, three possible results.

First, when you look at an emotion, it may dissolve into boundless awareness for a short period, maybe just a few seconds. Then the emotion will return, possibly more intensely. You may think, I'm still here, I'm feeling the emotion, what's the point in trying to see this emotion as empty? That's normal. You can always return to the practice. There's no time limit, no instruction that forbids you from trying five, six, seven, or even a hundred times a day. In fact, my teachers advised me to keep trying, even if only for short periods of a minute or so. Gradually, through repetition, you'll discover that a particular emotion becomes less and less solid, and transforms into boundless awareness. One day, when the emotion arises, it will remind you of the freedom and spaciousness of what you've come to experience during practice. Rather than dragging you down, the experience of loneliness, lovelessness, anger, and so on, will lift you up.

The second possibility is that when you apply insight practice, the emotion becomes more intense. You may feel like you can't watch this emotion because its so strong or so real. I failed. I feel this emotion too vividly. That's okay, too. Its actually a sign of enhanced clarity. Don't try to get rid of the emotion. See all the different parts—how they change, how they are impermanent. It may not exactly become insight meditation, but it will be a more profound experience of attention.

The third possibility is that when you look at the emotion it just stays the same—neither intensifying nor dissipating. You may see emotion and the emptiness at the same time. When you feel desire, for example, or jealousy, and look at that desire or jealousy, you may discover a lingering “flavor”—an echo, so to speak, like the feeling you experience in a dream. A traditional Buddhist metaphor likens such experience to seeing a reflection in a puddle or a mirror. You can see your reflection but you don't mistake it for yourself. According to my teachers, this is the best result, a sign of liberation of emotion. Though you may still sense it, you have a clear understanding of its empty nature.

Step Two: Try Something Different

Of course, some emotional or mental states are very strong or persistent, as demonstrated by the case of the woman who had spent so much of her life longing for a relationship, or, in today's economic climate, someone's pervasive sense of insecurity. Sometimes rage against a parent or other family member - or perhaps a coworker - can last for years. I've found this especially true among people who have been divorced or are currently involved in divorce proceedings. Depression, anxiety, regret over past actions tend to extend over long periods as well. Any of these states can be difficult to tackle head-on.

Instead of trying to deal with these “heavy hitters” right away, try working with something that's a bit easier to break down. You might try to create an artificial sense of physical pain, for example, by pinching the fleshy area between the thumb and forefinger. Working with that simple level of discomfort is very simple and direct. (A side benefit, according to experts in acupressure, is that applying such pressure relieves headaches.) Or you might try working with sensations of extreme heat or cold, drawing upon memories of sensations to work with the discomfort of sweating, shivering, and the wish to relieve such conditions. Another possibility is to look at your desire for something, like a technical gadget.

Another approach may involve breaking down a large emotion into smaller pieces. A student who had suffered recurring bouts of depression described an innovative method of practicing insight. The trigger that launched most of her depressive episodes was a repetition of a message she'd heard from her mother early on in her childhood: “You're a mess.” When this statement repeated itself in her mind, she began to cut it into little pieces. 'You're a m-” “You're a.” “You're.” “You.” 'Y—” After applying this method, she found the freedom to question the meaning of her thoughts and feelings. What is “a mess”? What is “You are”? What is “You”? What or who was my mother to make such a pronouncement? Who was “she” to accept the definition of herself as a mess?

You might find it helpful to try a more analytical approach to breaking down large emotions into smaller pieces. For example when you're jealous, ask yourself, Who is jealous? Is it my foot? My hand? Where does jealousy arise? Does it endure? Is the jealousy interrupted by other thoughts or feelings? Who is the person I'm jealous of? Am I jealous of his or her hand or foot? His or her mouth? The words coming out of his or her mouth? Can I actually identify a permanent, singular, independent entity of whom I'm jealous?

A different approach involves looking at childhood memories, which are often more easily broken down than the complex thoughts and feelings that burden us in adulthood. You might, as one student I spoke with recently did, recall an experience of falling out of a tree and skinning your knee. He experienced not only physical pain but a sense of embarrassment that so many of his fellow playmates had seen him fall. What did the physical pain feel like? he asked himself. What did the embarrassment feel like? Did my heart race? Did I feel blood rush to my face? Did I want to run and hide?

The point of trying something different in terms of insight meditation is practice. Start small and use a focus that is somewhat easy. In so doing you build your strength—or, to return to the old Tibetan metaphor, fill your reservoir—so that you can work with larger or more persistent issues.

Step Three: Step back

Many people resist insight practice. Some find it difficult to break down emotions into smaller pieces. Others find the practice too dry or analytical. Some are simply too afraid to look at the underlying source of their emotions. For example, a student of mine recently spoke about a conflict he was having with his mother. Every time his mother needed to fill up the gas tank of her car, she would call him to come help her. On the surface the conflict seemed to revolve around his mother's helplessness, but when he finally confronted her, together they discovered that the underlying issues were a combination of jealousy and grief. His mother was jealous over the time he was spending with his roommate, and she was suffering from a sense of loss in the aftermath of her son moving out of her home to live on his own.

As this example demonstrates, one of the strongest factors in resisting insight practice is the fear of change, the fear of losing your identity—a reflection of the influence of Buddha Nature Blocker number five, the tendency to identify, for example, as someone helpless, lonely, anxious, or afraid. The mother in the example just mentioned was afraid of losing her relationship with her son. Other people have told me, “I need my anger to get things done.” Another student spoke to me recently about her relationship with a songwriter, who frequently engaged in arguments, repeatedly broke off his relationship with her, and then made efforts to repair the relationship. Their relationship was a constant source of pain and drama, love, and loss. Finally, she asked her partner, “Can't we just have a middling relationship, without all these ups and downs? Of course, we'll have disagreements, but do they have to be so dramatic? Does every upset have to be life-or-death?” He looked at her for a moment as if she were an alien from another planet. “I need emotional drama in order to be creative,” he replied. “The ups and downs of a relationship-I need them in order to write my lyrics.” Fortunately for her, she didn't need the drama to fulfill her own professional needs or obligations, and after that discussion she ended the relationship.

I found her story especially illuminating, however, because many people resist insight practice out of a misunderstanding of emptiness. More than one person has asked me, “If I'm empty, if everyone I work with is empty, if all my feelings are empty, how can I function in social life?” They're afraid that they'll have to abandon their identities or that their relationships and experiences will become meaningless.

Questions like these remind me of a couple of incidents from my early childhood. Most of my early years were spent in Nubri, an area in the Himalayan region of Nepal where winter storms can be very harsh. During one particularly severe storm when the north wind blew so strongly against the walls of our house, I was so terrified the house would blow down. I ran to one of the pillars in the main room and pressed with all my strength against the wind. (The house didn't collapse, of course, but I doubt if my puny efforts played any part.)

I then compare this experience to an incident that occurred a couple of years later, when I took my first bus ride. One winter, I traveled with my mother from Nubri, which at that time was an isolated village with no modern conveniences—no running water, no electricity, and no paved roads—to Katmandu, where the weather was warmer and we could spend the winter in relative warmth and comfort.

We walked for ten days through a pristine-undeveloped environment, sleeping at night in caves or in the fields and cooking our meals with supplies that we carried on our backs. Then we reached a place called Gorka. There, for the first time, I encountered trucks and buses.

My first impression was that they were giant animals. The head-lights looked like eyes. They growled as they moved. Their horn roared like angry tigers. As we approached one bus, my mother said, “We have to go in there.”

No way, I thought. But my mother was adamant, and she pulled me onto the bus. The first day of the ride I was terrified. I was sitting inside the belly of a beast! The roads on which we traveled were terrible—full of bumps and potholes—and every time we hit one, I was sure the beast would flip over. After a few hours, I got dizzy and vomited. At last we came to a stop, and my mother and I checked into a hotel. That night, I developed a fever and became dizzy again. I remember looking up at the ceiling fan, which wasn't turned on, and thinking I saw the blades turning. Gradually, the whole room began to spin.

The next day I felt a bit better, and my mother told me in no uncertain terms, “We have to go.” As we climbed aboard the bus, my mother settled us in the front seat. I began to tell myself—almost like a mantra—that this is just a horse, it's not a wild beast. Slowly, my experience of riding the bus began to change. I knew horses. I'd ridden them before. I opened the window and felt the breeze blowing across my face. I looked out and began to take in the view of green trees and grass as we traveled through the south of Nepal. It looked and felt like summer.

Through looking at my fear and shifting my perception, I made peace with riding on the bus. More importantly, the experience was one of my first exercises in insight practice, which is essentially a process of letting go of preconceived notions, embracing change, and breaking through the “blind spot” to discover inner resources that I never dreamed possible.

Step Four: Take a Break

Even if you try all of the steps described here, you can find that your practice becomes unclear. You may grow tired, frustrated, or bored. You may lose enthusiasm even for taking a minute or two out of your day to practice.

To use an analogy, people who take up jogging may be able to run for only five or ten minutes at first. Even during such short workouts, they may need to pause for a while; and if they want to continue longer, they can't, because their bodies are simply not used to the exertion. They have to stop no matter how much they may wish to continue. They may try the next day and the next, extending their workout a little longer. Eventually they are able to go on for many miles and might even be able to run a marathon!

Similarly, it's important to take a break when engaging in insight practice—especially if you become bored or uninterested, if the practice seems too dry or analytical, or if the emotions you're exploring intensify.

As with attention practice, it's also imperative to stop if the feelings dissipate or you attain a really deep experience of emptiness, through which dualistic perception dissolves. When they hear this, many people wonder, “Why should I stop when the practice seems to be working so well?”

I asked the same question of my own teachers, and I offer the same reply. It's so easy to become attached to the sensation of freedom that we may be tempted to manufacture it. Letting go of feelings of release or relief is the ultimate exercise of insight. We're letting go of letting go.

EXTENDING EMPATHY

Immense compassion springs forth spontaneously toward all sentient beings who suffer as prisoners of their illusions.

—Kafu Rinpoche, Luminous Mind. The Why of the Buddha, translated by Maria Montenegro

Several months ago, a student of mine broke her pelvis after falling off a horse. While she was recovering, her boyfriend ended their relationship. Through phone calls and e-mails, he criticized her for “playing the victim” and trying to gain sympathy. He told her that her accident was a result of “bad karma” because she had disturbing relationships with her family.

Throughout the process, she refused to talk about his response, making her ex-boyfriend into a “bad guy” in the eyes of friends and family, and reinforcing that judgment in her own mind.

In an odd coincidence, three months after ending the relationship, her ex-boyfriend fell from a tree and broke several bones in his back.

My student could have responded negatively when he called to ask her to return some devices he'd sent her to relieve her physical pain. Instead, she made a care package, including the requested devices along with homeopathic remedies that had helped her endure her pain.

Having recognized the emotional pain of being attacked while suffering severe physical pain, she chose to take what some people call the “high road.” Instead of asking him if he was playing the victim or if his accident was the result of bad karma, she recognized the emotional pain she'd felt and chose to extend herself by sending a care package.

Rather than fighting with her ex-boyfriend, she responded empathetically, experiencing a peace of mind while extending to her boyfriend not only the opportunity of peace but also the chance to appreciate the possibility of recognizing what he'd done in judging her. Had she responded angrily throwing his accusations back at him, its likely he would have closed his mind and become bitter or more harshly judgmental. By choosing to extend herself by preparing a care package instead of retaliating, she not only experienced an opening of her heart, she also offered her ex-boyfriend the opportunity to open his—that is, to recognize that attacking someone in pain is probably not the best approach to establishing and promoting healthy relationships.

Step One: The Main Exercise

As with the main exercise of attention and insight practice, empathy meditation can be broken down into several stages. While attention and insight practice can be condensed into three stages, empathy has a different flavor. It's a transformational process. So rather than three stages, extending empathy includes a fourth stage, as we shall see.

The first stage is similar to that of attention and insight practice—that is, to simply draw awareness to whatever you're feeling.

The second stage involves recognizing that other people suffer from overwhelming emotions or emotional conflicts, a realization, in effect, that “I'm not the only one who suffers.” As you understand other people's suffering in this way then you begin to feel that you and others are the same. Just as you want to be free from suffering, so do others; just as you want to achieve happiness, so do others.

Perhaps you may recall the analogy described in Part Two, in which you imagine your cheeks with two very sharp needles stuck in them, one in the left cheek and one in the right. The pain in the right cheek represents the unhappiness and suffering you experience yourself. The pain in the left cheek represents the pain and unhappiness experienced by others. The pain in both cheeks is equal.

The third stage of the main practice involves the practice of tonglen which was described in detail in Part Two. To briefly summarize this technique, you begin by drawing attention to your own suffering, recognize that others suffer, and then use your imagination to draw into yourself all the suffering and painful emotions and situations experienced by countless sentient beings. Then you imagine sending out all your good qualities, all your experiences of momentary happiness, to others.

Some texts advise imagining the suffering as a thick, black cloud, and the happiness and positive qualities as a bright ray of light. As a reminder, you can coordinate the taking and sending process with your breath, inhaling as you take in other sentient beings' suffering, and exhaling as you imagine sending out your positive qualities. Many of my students have reported that coordinating the visualization process with the breath produces a calming effect of its own.

The practice of tonglen has many benefits. The first, of course, is the recognition that you're not alone, which helps to relieve the personal suffering based on self-judgment. Second, recognizing the suffering of others helps to dissolve judgments against them, some of which may be long-standing. As you acknowledge your own pain and some of the words, images, and behaviors that arise as a result, you begin to recognize that some of the actions of others, which may seem hurtful or uncaring, arise from a similar well of unhappiness. Extending your positive qualities, meanwhile, helps to undercut the influence of Buddha Nature Blocker number four—the blind spot—gradually bringing to conscious awareness the fact that you do have positive qualities, and perhaps broader capabilities than you might previously have imagined.

Most importantly, however, by applying this particular approach to empathy, you'll gradually begin to develop a sense that your personal suffering is meaningful or has a purpose. As you begin to see your emotion as a representation of all sentient beings' emotions, you are deepening your commitment to connect and to help other sentient beings become free from disturbing or destructive emotions.

Stage four of the main practice is a little different from the analytical process associated with attention and insight practice. Here, we're looking at the transformational power of empathy. Rather than running from emotion, attempting to suppress it, or letting it overtake you, you can let it arise. As the emotion occurs, it becomes part of loving-kindness and compassion, and then it becomes productive. With practice, you'll discover a natural shift in perspective regarding disturbing emotions. They're not bad things, not harmful; these unpleasant emotions are actually beneficial to your pursuit of becoming more acutely aware of others' suffering. And by using them as a focus of tonglen practice you end up helping others.

Step Two: Try Something Different

As mentioned earlier in the discussion of attention and insight practice, it may not be easy to work directly with intense emotions or long-term patterns. If you find a similar problem when working with empathy, try working with a smaller emotion or perhaps only one aspect of an intense or long-term emotional pattern. Intense emotions or entrenched emotional patterns lie deep within us - like oceans that seem to have no bottom or end. Before trying to swim across an ocean, it may be more effective to begin to build your strength by practicing in a pool or a pond.

For example, if you suffer from low self-esteem, loneliness, anxiety or depression, don't try to tackle all the conditions at once. Focus on one aspect—perhaps your response to something said that triggered a sense of self-judgment or a feeling of hopelessness or fatigue that presages an onset of a depressive episode.

You might begin by using a smaller emotion, like the frustration or irritation you feel toward someone who cuts ahead of you at the grocery store checkout or the line at the bank. Another option may be to work with ordinary loving-kindness/compassion. A man who suffered from persistent anxiety chose this route. When he suffered an anxiety attack, he focused on his grandmother, who was a very anxious person. Through identifying with her, his own anxiety abated, and gradually he was able to extend empathy toward a wider range of people. Recalling a past emotion—such as fear or anger—or even the pain and embarrassment of falling out of a tree, as mentioned earlier—can also help you build up the strength to deal with larger emotions. Once you build up your strength in these small ways, you can begin to work with larger issues of self-judgment and judging others.

Step Three: Step Back

Normally, when we consider practicing empathy, we think we have to put aside negative emotions, ego, etc. But by using the practice of tonglen we discover that negative emotions have a whole different side or aspect.

For example, one woman told me during a private interview that she had a bad temper and asked me for a method to control it. I began by teaching her shamatha—developing awareness of her temper. She interrupted me, saying, “I tried that already; it doesn't work for me. I need something different.”

So I taught her tonglen meditation, and at first she was surprised. “What a nice idea!” she exclaimed. But after thinking about it for a few moments, she said, “I don't think that's going to work because compassion is the opposite of my temperament. I really have a hard time even conceiving of compassion.”

I advised her to just try it, “Come back tomorrow, and let me know what happened.”

The next morning, she returned, beaming. “I surprised myself. Normally, when I try to meditate on compassion, I'm fighting with my temper. I'm trying to resist and suppress it. But with this technique, I just allowed my bad temper to be there. I didn't change it, I changed the way I viewed it.”

Her response inspired me to look at why so many people resist extending empathy. The first problem results from a misunderstanding of the intention behind the method—using the technique to get rid of emotion. You may think, I have a problem with judging or blaming others. Now I'm going to practice so I can break free from this pattern, right now, right here.

But that doesn't happen. It doesn't go away. You think, Oh, no, I'm stuck! or I hate this practice, it doesn't work.

Such reactions are classic examples of the involvement of hope and fear—hope that the emotion will just go away and fear that no amount of effort will change your emotional state. As my teacher, Saljay Rinpoche, advised me early on when I was dealing with panic, you need to step back and look at hope and fear as focuses of empathy practice. We all hope for relief from suffering and fear that nothing we do can relieve it.

The second type of resistance comes from looking at the emotion itself. Loneliness, low self-esteem, the judgments we hold against others, and so on, may just seem too large or too deeply entrenched to confront directly. If that's the case, take a step back and try working with smaller emotions. Work with the triggers or boosters or perhaps childhood memories. Look at hope and fear.

Step Four: Take a Break

As with the previous practices of attention and insight, it's possible that you can become bored or tired. Oh, no, you might think, I have to try again. Perhaps the point of the practice becomes unclear and your enthusiasm diminishes. These are clear signals to stop. There's no need to feel guilty. Remember, you're building your mental and emotional muscles, and that takes time.

As I've advised when practicing attention and insight, it's also important to stop when your practice seems to proceed well. When you feel that loving-kindness and compassion have developed to fantastic levels—when you feel, From today on, I can serve all sentient beings forever; I'm really transformed; I can give all my goodness away—it's time to stop.

Why?

Perhaps an example drawn from Buddhist history may provide an explanation. During the nineteenth century, a great Tibetan Buddhist master Patrul Rinpoche—after spending much of his early life in deep meditation and receiving instructions from some of the most important teachers and scholars of his day—became a teacher.

After receiving basic teachings on loving-kindness and compassion, one of his students excitedly announced, “Now I understand loving-kindness and compassion! From today on, I feel a complete release from fear and anger. Even if someone beats me I'm not going to be upset!”

Patrul Rinpoche quietly advised him, “It's too early to jump to such a conclusion. Take it easy. Just practice.”

But the student didn't agree and began announcing his transformation to anyone who would listen.

One morning, he sat meditating by a stupa—a spiritual monument representing the enlightened mind of the Buddha. He was facing east, the direction of the rising sun, and wearing his outer robe over his head while he meditated with his eyes half-closed. At the same time, Patrul Rinpoche was circling the stupa, which is a devotional act. As was his custom, he abstained from wearing rich ceremonial clothes and was simply wearing ripped robes full of holes and made of cheap material. After his first circuit of the stupa he stopped in front of his student and asked him, “Sir, what are you doing here?”

Not recognizing his teacher in such poor garments, the student tersely replied, “I'm meditating on loving-kindness and compassion.” “Oh, how nice,” Patrul Rinpoche said.

After making another circuit around the stupa, Patrul Rinpoche again confronted his student, asking him what he was doing.

The student—still not recognizing his teacher—answered, a bit more curtly, “I'm meditating on loving-kindness and compassion.” “That's very nice,” Patrul Rinpoche replied. After one more circuit, he paused before his student and asked the same question. This time, his student shouted angrily, “I told you I'm meditating on loving-kindness and compassion! What's wrong with you? Don't you have ears!” At that moment, as the student shook with anger, his robe slipped from his head, he opened his eyes fully, and he recognized his teacher.

Patrul Rinpoche stood before him smiling. “That was your compassion?” he asked mildly.

In that moment, the student lost all his pride.

The moral of the story is that even if we achieve a little bit of intellectual understanding of empathy and achieve some small result though practice, we still need time to increase the capacity for loving-kindness and compassion. And that requires knowing when to take a break and practicing for very short periods—maybe a minute or so, several times a day—until our “emotional muscles of compassion” develop.

IN CONCLUSION

In meditation, as in all arts, there has to be a delicate balance. . . .

—Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying edited by Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey

A few years ago, during a long stay in the New York City area, I met a man who wanted to learn about meditation. His best friend had died a while earlier and, as a result, he was suffering from grief, depression, and constant fear about his own death. Over a few weeks during a series of private interviews, I taught him how to use form and other sensory supports for meditation and gave him special homework to improve those sensory aspects of meditation. Later, during a public teaching, he learned how to use thoughts and emotions as supports for meditation. Shortly after that public teaching, he asked for another interview. “I can’t watch thoughts and emotions,” he confessed. “Its too scary, like watching a tsunami coming at me.”

I knew a little bit about his background, and I thought his choice of image in describing emotions rather interesting. “Remind me,” I asked him, “what's your main occupation in life?”

“I'm a professional surfer,” he murmured.

“Yes, now I remember,” I replied. “So, what do you think about big waves'?”

“Oh, I like big waves!” he exclaimed.

I nodded. “So, tell me how you learned to surf. Did you like waves before then?”

The man explained that he was encouraged by some friends who were avid surfers. It took quite a while to persuade him because even small waves seemed threatening, like “tsunamis”—the same word he'd used to describe emotions.

“But with the help of my friends, I pushed myself past the fear and now I love waves. I can play in them. I can use waves as fun. Even the big ones, they seem like a challenge, a way to push myself farther and improve my skill. In fact, riding the waves is pretty much how I make my living nowadays, entering competitions and earning prizes.

I guess you could say,” he added excitedly, “that waves are my life!”

I waited a moment until he'd finished his story, enjoying the smile that had widened as he talked about his profession. Then I told him, 'Your thoughts and emotions are like waves. Riding waves is like watching thoughts and emotions. So if you know how to use waves, as you said, you also have a basic understanding of how to ride your thoughts and emotions.”

I then gave him a bit of homework. He was to start small and work slowly with his thoughts and emotions, just as he'd worked with waves when he first began to surf. “The practices are like your friends,” I said. “Their aim is to encourage you, to help you face the waves of thoughts and emotions as something to play with. You can't stop waves from rising, can you? But you can learn to ride them.”

I didn't see the man for another year, but when I met him again, he had a big smile on his face. “Remember when I told you that waves were my life?” he asked.

“Yes, certainly,” I replied.

“Well, now thoughts and emotions are my life! You were right; it's just like surfing.”

“What method did you use?” I asked.

“All of them,” he said. “Sometimes I switch them, just like I switch my approach to surfing. You know, sometimes long boarding or short boarding, floating, and curving, going off the lip.”

Since I'm not a professional surfer myself, I didn't understand any of the terms he mentioned. But I was able to grasp a key point of his explanation: the importance of switching methods.

As my own teachers pointed out to me early on, it's imperative to shift your focus—both in terms of method and the object or support—from time to time in order to keep your practice fresh. If you settle on one object or method for too long, you can grow bored, unclear, exhausted. A number of people I've met have lost their enthusiasm for practice because they've stuck so long with one method that seemed to work for them.

One man I encountered some time ago had been working exclusively for many years focusing on his breath as a calming exercise and a means of coming to grips with impermanence.

“The first year was great,” he told me. “But many years later, I don't feel the same effect. I don't feel like I'm moving forward or getting any deeper or growing. When I'm busy and a lot of thoughts come up, breathing meditation used to work so well to calm me down, but now it doesn't help at all.”

As we talked, I learned that he'd been taught only that one technique. So I advised him that he might find some relief by trying other methods. Over a few days, I taught him the basic steps of attention, insight, and loving-kindness/compassion practices. I further recommended that he periodically switch his approach. Every time we meet, he thanks me for opening his eyes to the fact that there are a number of possible ways to work with his mind.

“Don't thank me,” I tell him. “Thank those who came before. My teachers, their teachers, and the Buddhist masters of bygone ages understood that emotions arise and are held in place by Buddha Nature Blockers, which are essentially habits of perception that spring to life at birth and become stronger and more deeply entrenched as we grow.

These five perspectives lock us into a certain type of identity, a way of relating to ourselves and others that is at best disturbing and at worst destructive. When we work with different methods, we begin to understand their influence.

And in understanding their influence, we begin to recognize the power and potential of our own mind. That is the true basis of Buddhist practice: understanding the capacity of the mind to create its own perception of the reality in which we function.

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