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Of Hummingbirds and Garudas

September 17, 2013

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. – Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

Previously in this blog, we’ve discussed the monkey mind, that hyperactive, compulsive aspect of our mind that incessantly reviews the past and worries about the future.  “What could I have done?” the monkey mind wonders, “What should I have said?  Will they like me?  WHAT IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG?”

The monkey mind is involved in conceptual thought that draws us out of the here and now and into the realm of fantasy and commentary.  This realm of thought is extremely compelling to us. We can’t resist its fascination.  In fact, the Bad Lama says, we become addicted to thinking.  When a thought pops into our mind, we feel compelled to follow it. We feel that we have no choice. We even chase after it, eager to know where it will end up. The more we chase after our thoughts, the faster and faster our mind moves. We find ourselves unable to rest, unable to find peace within our own mind.

Running faster and faster in order to stay in place.

Running faster and faster in order to stay in place.

Our modern society exacerbates this tendency.  Thanks to technology, there seems no reason to ever stop and rest.  We can connect to one another 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  We never need to pause in our endless shopping and info-grazing.  We may find ourselves late at night, trolling through Facebook, not really wanting to scroll to the next set of snarky comments, but seemingly unable to stop.

Another traditional image for this hyperactive mind is a hummingbird.  A hummingbird’s flight is very erratic – it shifts direction, flying up and down and even backwards. Hummingbirds seem to be very busy in flight, very distractible; they do not seem to be very relaxed. (Of course this is an analogy that is meant to point to our own experience, not a hummingbird’s; we have no idea what a hummingbird’s experience is actually like.) When the hummingbird is flying, it has to spend an enormous amount of energy just to stay in one place. It flaps its wings so fast that they become a blur. Hummingbirds don’t soar – if a hummingbird were to stop flapping its wings, it would just fall out of the sky. So there’s no resting for the hummingbird when it flies.

It seems exhausting to be a hummingbird!  When our mind is like a hyperactive hummingbird, we feel worn out, ragged and harassed, but we also feel that we can’t stop.  We feel that our thoughts are racing and out of control, and that our worries are too much to bear.  We just want to find a place to rest.  Is there no twig on which our hummingbird mind can rest?

When we’re experiencing our mind in this way, the kindest thing we can do is to find a way to give ourselves a break. We might try various means of giving ourselves a break – alcohol, movies, video games or escapist fiction. (If you’re interested in trying those means out, you’ll need to find another blog for those methods – this blog is about meditation.) In the tradition of shamatha/vipashayana meditation, the practices that allow us to slow down and rest are described as shamatha meditation.  Shamatha can be translated as “calm abiding” or “resting peacefully.” Shamatha helps us to tame our mind, to soothe it as we would a frightened, restless animal, and allow it to settle down. When we practice shamatha meditation, we offer the hummingbird a place to land.

Using the physical body to bring the hummingbird into the here and now.

Using the physical body to bring the hummingbird into the here and now.

The place we offer to the hummingbird mind to land is here and the time we offer to the hummingbird mind is now. Since our physical body always inhabits the here and now, we can use it like a landing beacon to guide the hummingbird mind into the present moment. For instance, we might continually bring our awareness to our breathing or to our physical sensations.  Although it’s natural for us to be in the present (so where else would we be?), we’ve developed the mental habit of trying to inhabit the past and the future through the use of our conceptual mind. In shamatha meditation we gently release this mental habit by continually dropping our thoughts and returning to the here and now. By continually letting go of thoughts and coming back to our body in the present moment, we cut the speed of our thinking, and we cut the agitation that our thinking is creating.  Little by little, we calm down and rest.

When we begin to rest in the present moment, we may notice three aspects of mind: stillness, relaxation, and awareness.

Stillness is peaceful and calm.  Stillness is settled, not agitated. It is like a calm mountain lake so clear that you can see all of the rocks at the bottom.  When we’re still, even if a compelling thought arrives and yells, “Hey! I’m important!  You’ve got to deal with me RIGHT NOW” we’re still able to keep sitting, simply observing the thought as it arises, abides, and fades away.

Relaxation means that the stillness is not caused by tension; we’re not trying to hold ourselves still through great effort.  Instead there’s a sense of openness and easiness.  When the mind relaxes, it lets go of unneeded mental effort.  It doesn’t need to force stillness to take place.  It’s natural and easy.

Relaxation means the mind is not tense or frozen; there is a sense of flow within stillness. Imagine the settled-ness of the ocean: the ocean is not trying to crawl out of its bed and find a new resting place.  It’s just resting there, accepting all the streams in the world. But even though the ocean is resting in its place, it has many currents that move through it.  Waves and ripples dance over its surface. On a very calm day the ocean may seem to be without any movement.  But even then, it continually exhales vapor into the sky to become clouds. There is always some sort of movement within the vast settled-ness of the ocean.

Awareness means that the still and relaxed mind is conscious of its own stillness and relaxedness. We may have an idea that if we were truly mindful, we would be mindful of everything – every sight, every sound, every sensation. But this idea has a kind of striving to it that belongs to the hummingbird mind. Instead the mind can relax into the present, aware that it is settled and relaxed, and accept any thought or perception that might happen to arise.  The mind that’s still, relaxed and aware is not worried about experiencing the right thoughts or wrong thoughts.  It’s not worried about missing the right perceptions or being surprised by the wrong perceptions.


A Garuda.

Traditionally, the mind that is still, relaxed and aware is associated with the Garuda, in contrast with the hummingbird.   The Garuda is a giant mythical bird that is said to be born flying.  Flying is easy and effortless for the Garuda. It soars through the sky, seeming to rest on the air.  It barely needs to move in order to steer itself.  The Garuda has a vast vision that encompasses the world below it, the space above it, and the air through which it flies.

Like a Garuda, we can learn to relax into the here and now – not zooming after thoughts, but resting in the rich experience of the moment.  Just as the Garuda adjust its flight with very little effort, we can also learn to adjust our metal state by observing stillness, relaxation and awareness.  Both in meditation and in everyday life, we can notice when our mind is busy and agitated, and encourage it to rest in whatever part is most settled and peaceful.  We can notice when we’re tense and using way more effort then we need, and we can encourage our mind and body to move toward relaxation.  And we can notice when our focus narrows down so that we lose our sense of openness, and we can encourage our awareness to open up and remember its own peacefulness and relaxation.  We can practice in this way even if we are busy and moving quickly.  We can bring a peaceful and relaxed mind into whatever activity we meet.  Just as a Garuda soars swiftly through the sky in a relaxed way, we can soar through a meditation filled with many thoughts, or a day full of many tasks.

We can bring stillness, relaxation, and awareness to our own thinking. Thoughts will arise – that’s part of the natural function of mind, just as waves are a natural function of the ocean – but when thoughts do arise we can meet them with peacefulness.  Instead of zooming after them like a hummingbird, we can observe them while resting in the moment, like a Garuda can observe the ground while resting on the air as it soars through the sky.  When we do this, we can develop more freedom with respect to our thoughts.  We learn not to take our thoughts so seriously, and even when they’re painful, we can let them arise, linger and fade away. And when we’re no longer endlessly repeating our familiar thoughts, we can become open to new thoughts.  We might find that we have the mental space to observe and consider unfamiliar insights.  We might be able to consider the ideas of others.  (Imagine that!)

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