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Working with Pain

August 16, 2012

When you meditate, it’s likely that you will experience some sort of pain. It’s natural to want to do something to alleviate the pain. But in our meditation instructions we’re told to do something that feels unnatural: we’re asked to allow painful physical sensations to persist. Why should we do that?

We allow those painful sensations to persist so that we can familiarize ourselves with our relationship to them. When we allow painful sensations to persist, we experience how weak our mind is in the face of such sensations.  We are driven by those sensations: we do whatever they tell us. When we allow painful sensations to persist, we develop strength and stability of mind, and learn to be patient towards painful sensations.

In our everyday life, we might find that some discomfort arises when we start on a beneficial activity. That discomfort is like a barrier that we have to cross in order to help ourselves or to help someone else. For instance, you might want to start an exercise regime in order to improve the health of your body. But when you first begin to exercise, you experience some muscular pain from the exercise, and you also experience some psychological pain because you can’t do the exercises gracefully. You feel awkward and your body hurts. If you allow those painful sensations to deter you, you won’t continue to exercise, and your body won’t receive the benefit of the exercise.  But if you were able to be patient in the face of those painful sensations, you could persist in your exercise. Eventually, the exercises would begin to feel comfortable, perhaps even pleasant, and your body would receive the benefit.

The ability to be patient and to persevere in the face of unpleasant sensations is a mark of maturity of mind.

Psychological pain can also prevent us from taking beneficial action.  For example, perhaps there’s an issue between you and a friend that is causing friction between you.  You might feel that this issue really needs to be spoken about, but when you think about having the conversation you feel awkward and embarrassed.  When you begin to speak with your friend about it, those uncomfortable feelings seem too intense to endure, so you turn the conversation to a different, less painful topic. The psychological pain has deterred you from speaking about the issue with your friend.  But the issue won’t go away. Over time your friendship suffers. Now you begin to feel the persistent pain of estrangement from your friend.

When we refrain from taking a beneficial action because we don’t want to experience a small discomfort, we often end up experiencing a much greater discomfort later. So on a purely practical, day-to-day level, it’s good to become familiar with our response to discomfort, and to develop patience with discomfort.

Gil Fronsdal, a teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition, teaches a simple Thai meditation exercise that helps meditators become familiar with their relationship to discomfort. (You can find the instructions in this audio file at minute 21:00). Here are the instructions: Just sit in a chair, and notice how many times you change your posture.  Also notice why  you make those changes. Fronsdal points out that it can be almost embarrassing to notice how often we are unconsciously driven toward pleasure and away from pain.  He calls this “amoeba mind.” Try doing the exercise again. This time when you notice the impulse to move, just try staying still for a few seconds and then choose whether you want to move or not.

In a meditation session we can practice rising above our “amoeba mind” and learn to be patient with small discomforts such as itches, small aches, or limbs that fall asleep. If you experience and intense pain that indicates that something is happening that is damaging your body, by all means address that.

Lama Tenpa tells this story: Once he was meditating in a charnel ground, when he felt a painful sensation in his leg.  He decided to have patience, and simply experience the sensation.  The sensation began to increase in intensity.  It felt like a stabbing or tearing sensation.  When he looked down, he realized that a dog was gnawing on his leg. At that point, he decided that he no longer needed to be practicing patience.  He encouraged the dog to stop biting him and to go elsewhere.

We often hear the expression “No pain, no gain.” It’s true that most learning and growth includes some degree of discomfort.   If we always run away from pain, we won’t be able to learn and to grow. But that doesn’t mean that pain equals gain. An increase in pain does not automatically lead to an increase in learning or growth.

So in our meditation practice, we don’t try to increase our pain.  We just try to learn to be patient and present with whatever pain we might happen to experience. If the pain is too intense or if the pain is telling us that our body is being damaged, then we can make a change in our posture or in the meditation environment.  You’re allowed to make the dog stop chewing on your leg. Gradually, we can learn to be patient and present with larger and larger degrees of discomfort.  Then when we meet with some unavoidable pain, our mind will be much more relaxed and much less likely to freak out.

Our goal is to be open to all of the sensations that we experience. We want to expand our happiness so that it can include everything in our experience. We want to experience vast happiness that appreciates all sensations, not gated-community happiness that tries to limit the set of experiences that are acceptable.

Meditating on Physical Sensation

August 9, 2012

When we meditate, we place our attention upon an object (called the object of meditation) and familiarize ourselves with that object.  When our attention wanders, we bring our attention back to that object.  We do this again and again, each time letting go of our opinions about that object, each time  trying to meet the object just as it is in this very moment.  In this way, we gradually drop our hopes and fears and we allow healing to take place between our mind and our object of meditation.  By extension, we can learn to heal our relationship with all of the objects that populate the world in which we live. (Yes, people are “objects” in this view.)

Many of us have a troubled relationship with our body. On one hand, we act as if our body was some sort of unimportant possession. We ignore it for long periods of time while we attend to “important” work (such as playing internet sudoku); we feed it poorly and exercise it infrequently; or we demand that it work harder than it is capable of. On the other hand, we sometimes act as if we were slaves of our body.  We coddle our bodies. At the first sign of physical discomfort we look for some sort of relief:  are you a little bit hot?  Turn up the air conditioner! Are you a little bit hungry? Look for a snack. This kind of  relationship with our body is based on mutual demands, not mutual respect: we demand that our body perform certain tasks regardless of its discomfort; our body demands comfort regardless of the tasks we wish to perform. It’s like a bad work situation, and we alternate who gets to play the unreasonable boss.

But we can heal the relationship of our mind and body.  Through the practice of meditation, we can simply spend time being with our body.  We can grow familiar with it and caring towards it. We can pay attention to it without asking it to do something, neither ignoring its requests nor immediately trying to fulfill its demands. We do this by taking the physical sensations of the body as our object of meditation.

Meditation Technique: Open Body Awareness

Here’s a meditation technique that takes physical sensations as the object of meditation.  Take your meditation posture and allow your mind to settle. Then open your awareness to the physical sensations of your body.  Whichever sensation arises, just be with it. Whether it’s painful or pleasant, just notice it. If the sensation is painful don’t try to make it go away.  If the sensation is pleasant don’t try to make it stay. Sensations often come with a story about their meaning (“That itch on my cheek means that there is an insect that will surely bore its way into my brain if I don’t deal with it right now.”)  Let go of the story and just experience the sensation.

Be patient and pay attention to whatever sensation arises. It’s not our goal to create a meditation in which we only experience pleasant sensations.  Rather it’s our goal to be able to rest with any sensation that arises.

Meditation Technique: Focused Body Scan

In a focused body scan, we use physical locations to add focus to our meditation.

You might find that at times you have difficulty with the technique of open body awareness.  You may need more focus. In this case, you can use the technique of focused body scan.  This technique uses physical points on the centerline of your body as a focus of attention. As before, take your meditation posture, and allow your mind to settle. Then place your attention on the crown of your head. Notice any physical sensations that you might feel in that area. Don’t expect some special sensation; just be aware of any sensation that you might feel.  Remember that the goal is not to experience the right sensation, but rather to learn to rest patiently and alertly with whatever sensation arises. If you don’t experience any sensation, wait patiently.  If your attention wanders away from the crown of your head, bring it back.  When you notice a sensation at the crown of your head, move your attention to your forehead.  Again, rest patiently and alertly until you’ve noticed sensations on your forehead.  Continue in this way, moving your attention to the part of your chest over your heart; to your solar plexus; to your genitals; and to the base of your spine. The diagram on the right shows the points of focus starting with the top circle (number 7) and descending in numerical order to the bottom circle (number 1). Readers who are familiar with yoga will recognize that these points of focus correspond to the chakras of that tradition.

When you meditate on physical sensation, you may find that at first there appear to be many more sensations than usual.  All sorts of itches and small pains arise and demand relief. Sensations, especially intense sensations, challenge our patience.  We feel that if we have an intense sensation we have to do something about it right away. But when you practice meditating on physical sensations, see if you can extend your patience a little bit: don’t do anything about the sensations.  Just pay attention to them.  Then you can learn to be both sensitive to your body and patient with your body.

Over time, as you pay attention to your body, it will begin to relax. Your mind can create knots in your body.  The sensitive and patient attention that you develop in meditation on physical sensation can allow those knots to loosen and dissolve.


Comments, Please

August 5, 2012

The Bad Lama’s Guide to Meditation is meant to be both an electronic resource and the basis for a future book.  You can help us by leaving comments and questions.  Are there any posts that you found confusing?  Any posts that you found helpful? Do you have questions about anything that you’ve read, or questions about something that you’d like to read? Please let us know. You’ll help us make our book much better, and that will help the future meditators who might read the book!

Healing The Relationship Between Mind And Object

July 22, 2012

When we practice meditation on breathing, we place our attention on the breath.  In the language of meditation, we say that our breath becomes our object of meditation (that is, our breath is the object upon which we place our attention during our meditation practice.) The Tibetan Buddhist scholarly tradition has a technical definition for the term object: an object is “that which can be known.”  So an object of meditation is something that we can get to know by placing our attention upon it during our meditation. (This is reflected in the language used to describe our practice. The Tibetan word for meditation, gom, means “familiarize.” The English word “meditate” stems from an ancient  word that means “measure.”)

The Bad Lama likes to ask his classes, “Which is more powerful, mind or object? Is your mental and emotional reaction to any object due more to the characteristics of that object or more to the character of your mind?”  Many of us would say that we believe that the mind is more powerful than objects. But when we examine our experience, we find that we act as if objects have an extraordinary power. We feel as if we are pulled by some objects and pushed away by other object. Objects seem to control our mind! But objects are not intrinsically powerful, says the Bad Lama: we give power to objects. We create addictions to some objects and allergies to others.

Reflect for a moment: which objects have power over you?  Which of your possessions possess you? Which objects attract you? Which objects repulse you? Do you believe that you would be happier if you possessed certain objects? Do you believe that you would be happier if certain objects were banished forever from your experience?

We develop abusive relationships with objects. We try to keep some objects trapped in cages so we can play with them whenever we want. We don’t want to give them the freedom to leave us.  We heap abuse on other objects.  We call them bad names and try to make them go away.  We may even try to destroy them.  And there are some objects that we simply neglect; we never pay them any attention at all. And, just as in abusive relationships, we blame the victims – we claim that it is the object, not ourselves, that is to blame for our reaction.  “I didn’t want to get angry and yell at that stoplight.  It made me do it.”

The Bad Lama says that the ultimate goal of Buddhist meditation practice is to heal the relationship between our mind and the objects that it perceives. We may think that the goal of meditation is to become calm and settled, but that’s only a step on the path.  True calmness comes about because of a healthy relationship between mind and object. If we try to become calm and settled by pushing away certain objects and clinging on to other objects, our calmness will not last long

We begin the process of healing the relationship of our mind to objects by simply being present with our object of meditation. When we place our attention on an object of meditation (such as our breathing), we try to let go all of our projections about that object.  We notice when we have thoughts about the object.  We let them go. We notice when we have strong feelings about the object; if we feel that the object is somehow especially good or especially bad.  We let those feelings go, too. We just try to sit with the object, to get close to it, and to learn to experience it free of all of our projections, all of our hopes, and fears.

When we’re no longer scheming about what the object can do for us, or fearing what the object might do to us, then we can simply appreciate the object as it is.  We become free! This freedom is not freedom from an object.  We don’t have to make an object go far away or place warning signs and cages around the object in order to be free.  Instead we become free with respect to an object.  That object can come into our experience or leave our experience without freaking us out. When we have that kind of equanimity, then we can appreciate whatever comes into our experience. Then all objects become part of the richness of our lives, and we may begin to experience a vast happiness (which thrives in freedom) as opposed to a limited happiness that creates dissatisfaction as its shadow.

Taming, Training, and Karma

July 17, 2012

This blog is meant to be a guide to shamatha/vipashyana meditation. Shamatha (Pali samatha, Tibetan shine) can be translated as “peaceful abiding” and vipashyana (Pali vipassanā, Tibetan lhaktong) can be translated as “insight.”  So we could say that shamatha/vipashyana meditation helps us learn to sit calmly and peacefully in any situation, and it also helps us develop the wisdom through which we may come to understand our situation and skillfully work to transform it. The Bad Lama teaches that shamatha/vipashyana meditation includes two aspects: taming the mind and training the mind. Roughly speaking, we can say that the meditation techniques of shamatha lead to a tamed mind and the meditation techniques of vipashyana lead to a trained mind.

Taming calms the mind down, soothes its irritation and helps it become less wild. Especially when we first learn to sit, we may be unsettled by the wild antics of our monkey mind. But over time, we can learn to sit comfortably as the monkey mind displays its antics and then calms down (and then displays its antics again!) Taming the mind doesn’t mean ‘checking out’ or being indifferent to our experience.  When we train our mind, we help it recover its natural state of wakefulness and relaxation. A mind that’s well tamed is alert and interested, not sleepy and bored.

A mind that is tamed is also willing to be trained. Training the mind helps it develop (or uncover) wisdom and compassion.  When we train in some way – whether it’s lifting weights or memorizing vocabulary, we generally assume that it will lead to some desired outcome.  Training relies on cause and effect. In the Buddhist tradition, the working of cause and effect is explored in the teachings on karma.

Many of us have misconceptions about what the term karma means. We often use the term to mean something like “fate.” Our karma seems completely out of our control. But karma literally means action.  The Buddhist teachings on karma describe the way in which actions lead to results. The situation in which we find ourselves today is the result of past actions —  past karma – not only our own actions, but also actions of others.  This past karma is an inheritance of many different kinds of actions:  biological actions of our predecessors that gave us our genetic inheritance; cultural and historical actions that created the society in which we find ourselves; actions of our parents and relatives that created our family; and our own actions. All of these past actions – all this past karma — culminate in our experience of the current moment.

The Buddhist teachings on karma insist that we did not come to be who we are at this moment randomly; past actions and events brought us here. It is true that we have no control over these past actions – they are, after all, done and gone. It’s also true that these past actions have influence over what we experience next. But karma does not mean “fate.” We also have some degree of choice over how we respond to our experience. The action we choose to take in this moment becomes a new cause that has influence over future effects. Our experience of this moment is the fruition of past karma.  What we choose to do in this moment – the karma that we undertake right now — plants the seeds for our future experience.

The teachings on karma go together with teachings on change or impermanence. As individuals we are always changing, and that change follows the laws of cause and effect. Karma really asserts a very commonsense proposition: what we do with our mind and body and environment changes our mind and body and environment.

This can feel daunting.  Karma is like rust: it never sleeps. We’re always undertaking some action or other, so we’re always generating new karma.  Maybe we’ll be generating bad karma! Maybe we’ll be making our future worse! As the Bad Lama says, “Don’t worry about making a mistake.  Don’t make mistakes, but don’t worry about making them.” Worrying is an action (an action of mind) that has negative effects on our mind as well as our body. As with other actions, we have some degree of choice: we can put more time and effort into worrying or less time and effort into worrying.  The more time and effort we put into worrying, the better we get at it. If we practice worrying diligently, we could develop the ability to worry about things that others never dreamed of!

Don’t worry, be happy. The teachings on karma and impermanence can also be seen in a hopeful light. No situation is permanent; every situation is changing (even if that change is very gradual.) Therefore, in any situation, we can always make a change for the better.  Every little bit helps.  So even if you have neglected your meditation practice, you can still do just a little bit, right now, and that little bit counts.  It will have some beneficial effect.

Taming is, in a way, the reverse of training – it’s untraining! In order to sit peacefully and let our monkey mind rest we have to let go of the habitual patterns of thought and action that keep us stirred up. When we finally let those patterns dissipate, we may get a glimpse of our own natural wisdom.  In other words, the practice of shamatha may lead us to the experience of vipashyana. (Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche makes this point in his book Journey without Goal).  When we develop our wisdom through the practice of vipashyana, we begin to see more clearly the nature of our current situation. When we clear up our misperceptions about our situation, the fear that accompanies those misperceptions also clears up, and our mind becomes calmer. The practice of vipashyana may lead us to the experience of shamatha! (The Heart Sutra, describing very adept practitioners says: “Since there is no obscuration of mind [i.e. since their minds see completely clearly] there is no fear.”)

Rather than understanding shamatha and vipashyana as two completely separate types of meditation techniques, we can see them as two aspects of an awakened mind: shamatha cultivates the mind’s natural ability to rest peacefully and the vipashyana cultivates the mind’s natural ability to see clearly. When we reach a fully matured practice of shamatha/vipashyana we rest peacefully in the experience of that which we see clearly.

Posture: Sitting and Breathing

May 9, 2012

In the post Techniques for Meditating on the Breath we discussed the connection of mind, body, and breath. We noted that the way in which we breathe influences our mental state.  Since quality of breathing and quality of mental state are connected, we can help ourselves to  cultivate an easy, relaxed mental state by cultivating easy, relaxed breathing. We can do this by working with our posture. Posture affects breathing: good posture facilitates easy, relaxed breathing; poor posture constricts and impedes breathing.

In the post Posture: Sitting Like Vairocana we reviewed a traditional teaching of the Kagyü  lineage of Tibetan Buddhism that provides a checklist to help achieve good sitting posture. The relationship of posture and breathing gives us another way to check our posture. We can investigate whether our breath is being constricted, and if so we can change our posture to allow the breath to move more freely. It will be easier to do this if we understand the mechanics of breathing.

The ribcage and thoracic diaphragm

The muscle that is primarily responsible for breathing is commonly called the diaphragm  (those who strive for anatomical precision should refer to it as the thoracic diaphragm.)  The diaphragm  is attached to the bottom of the rib cage, as well as to the spine, and divides the torso in half horizontally. This division creates two chambers in the torso, one above the other.  The upper chamber, called the thoracic cavity, contains the heart and lungs. It is an open chamber, like a bellows; air can move in and out of the thoracic cavity through the mouth, nose, and throat.  The lower chamber, called the abdominal cavity contains the liver, stomach, intestines, and other organs. It is not open to the outside: it is more like a duffel bag then a bellows.

When the diaphragm contracts, it moves downward, lowering the floor of the thoracic cavity, and pushing the ribs up and out.  Since there is now more space (and lower pressure) in the thoracic cavity, air flows though the mouth or nose into the lungs. The diaphragm is the floor of the thoracic cavity and it is also the ceiling of the abdominal cavity, so when it moves downwards it compresses the abdominal cavity, and the abdominal wall  bulges forward.  When the diaphragm relaxes, it moves upward, allowing the ribs to move down and in, and raising the floor of the thoracic cavity. Since there is now less space (and higher pressure) in the thoracic cavity, air flows out of the lungs. Since the ceiling of the abdominal cavity is now raised, the abdominal cavity is no longer compressed, and the abdominal wall no longer bulges forward (at least it doesn’t bulge forward quite so much…)

Good posture allows the thoracic cavity and the abdominal cavity to expand and contract without interference. In this post, we’ll look at three different areas where many of us interfere with the easy motion of breathing.

The first area we’ll investigate is the top of the rib cage.  You  can check to see for interference with breathing in this area. Place one of your hands palm down on your chest near the  collarbone on the opposite side of your body. (If it’s your right hand, place it on the left side of your chest). See if you can feel the motion of your ribs as you breathe.  If you’re having trouble feeling any motion, you can breathe a little more deeply and see if you can direct your breath into the area beneath your hand. Let yourself  appreciate whatever motion you feel.

Dropping the head forward and down.

Now keep your hand where it is, and let your head move forward and down like the rightmost figure in the illustration to the right. Hold that posture. Can you feel a change in the motion of your ribs under your hand?  If there’s less motion, you can infer that this posture interferes with the easy motion of breathing in your upper chest.  Let your head move up like the leftmost figure in the illustration to the right. Can you feel a change in the motion of your ribs under your hand? If there’s more motion, you can infer that this posture facilitates the easy motion of breathing in this area.

Next, we can check the motion of the sides of the rib cage.  Place the backs of your fingers on the sides of your lower ribs, right hand on right side of your ribcage, left hand on left side of your ribcage. See if you can feel the motion of your ribs as you breathe.  If you’re having trouble feeling any motion, you can breathe a little more deeply and direct your breath into this area. Let yourself  appreciate whatever motion you feel.

Raising the chest and pulling the shoulders back.

Now, leave your hands where they are, raise your chest, and pull your shoulders back like the man in the illustration to the right. (Many of us think that this is what good posture looks and feels like.) Can you feel a change in the motion of your ribs under your hands?  If there’s less motion, you can infer that this posture interferes with the  easy motion of breathing in this area.  Lower your chest; let it soften and let the space between your shoulder blades widen.  See how this change in posture affects the motion of your ribs. If there’s more motion, you can infer that this posture facilitates the easy motion of breathing in this area.

The author, slumping

Next, we can check the motion of the abdomen.  Place your hands on your lower abdomen. See if you can feel the motion of your abdomen as you breathe.  If you’re having trouble feeling any motion, you can breathe a little more deeply and direct your breath into this area. Let yourself appreciate whatever motion you feel.

Now roll yourself backwards on your pelvis so you’re sitting on the back part of your pelvis.  Let yourself slump, like the man in the illustration to the left. Can you feel a change in the motion of your abdomen under your hand?  If there’s less motion, you can infer that this posture interferes with the easy motion of breathing in your abdomen.  Let your weight shift forward so that you’re sitting more on the middle part of your pelvis. Come out of your slump.  Can you feel a change in the motion of your abdomen under your hand? If there’s more motion, you can infer that this posture facilitates the easy motion of breathing in your abdomen.

Now let’s put all three together.  Take your posture for meditation.  You can use the seven points of the posture of Vairocana, or you can take whatever posture is appropriate for you. First bring your awareness to your upper ribs.  Allow your head to move up and balance on the top of your spine.  Enjoy the movement of your upper ribs. Next, bring your awareness to your lower ribs.  Allow your chest to soften and your shoulders to widen. Enjoy the movement of your lower ribs.  Next, bring your awareness to your abdomen.  Sit in the middle of your pelvis, neither arching forward nor slumping back. Enjoy the movement of your abdomen.  Finally, see if you can bring your awareness to both your ribcage and abdomen.  Enjoy the movement of breathing throughout your whole torso.

You can bring your awareness to these areas when you begin your meditation, and also occasionally during your meditation session, in order to be aware of any interference with your breathing.  Then you can adjust your posture in order to release this interference. Don’t try to make it perfect, just make it a little better. Then let go of this investigation and just sit.

Posture: Sitting like Vairocana

May 2, 2012

The basic method for taming our hyperactive monkey mind is to bring our awareness to our body and breath.  When we do this, we notice that the state of our body and the quality of our breathing both affect our mental state and that our mental state affects the state of our body and the quality of our breathing. Since this is the case, if we want to tame our monkey mind, it’s important that we use our body in a way that helps the taming process. This is why posture is important in meditation.

Good posture is natural and easy.

Many of us are confused about  posture.  We may believe that “good” posture takes a lot of effort; that it needs to be “held”; that it isn’t comfortable. This is not the case; just the opposite is true: good posture takes little effort, is comfortable, and allows for movement.  Good posture is not “held” or rigid. Good posture is natural.  In a good posture, your body is not rigid and tense, nor flaccid and collapsing. It is alert and alive; mobile, yet grounded — attributes we’d like to encourage in our mind as well.

This is not good posture.

Traditionally,  there are four postures recommended for meditation: walking, standing, sitting, and lying down (See, for instance, the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta).  In this post, we’ll discuss the sitting posture of meditation, since it is the posture most frequently used for meditation, and since it is the posture traditiononally used by the Kagyü  lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, which is the lineage to which the Bad Lama belongs.  Other lineages may emphasize different postures — for instance, Taoism and its related martial arts often employ standing meditation, and  B. Alan Wallace, in his book Minding Closely: The Four Applications of Mindfulness, advocates lying down while practicing meditation.

We might have noticed that when we try to just sit, we meet mental obstacles of our own creation that get in the way of our sitting.  (See the post Enter the Monkey for more on that.) Meditation techniques help us to recognize those obstacles and to let them go.  In the same way, when we sit down on the cushion, we meet physical obstacles of our own creation that get in the way of our sitting.  Just as we can learn to release mental obstacles, we can learn to release physical obstacles to sitting.  Postural techniques can therefore be understood not as something extra that we need to do, but rather as a means of doing less; of letting go of unhelpful physical habits and of recovering our natural physical uprightness and ease.

Within the Kagyü  lineage, there is is a traditional teaching called the seven-point posture of Vairocana  that helps us discover and release physical habits that interfere with our sitting. It’s very nicely described by  Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche in his book, The Joy of Living.

Vairocana demonstrates the posture.

Here are the seven points, as summarized by Mingyur Rinpoche:

  1. Create a stable base by sitting with your legs crossed
  2. Place your hands in your lap, palms up, one palm on top of the other or palms down on your knees.
  3. Allow for a bit of space between your upper arms and torso
  4. Keep your spine straight
  5. Allow the weight of your head to rest evenly on the top joint of your spine
  6. Allow your mouth to rest with your lips and teeth slightly parted
  7. Leave your eyes open and your gaze slightly down

As an aide to those who have difficulty keeping that many points in mind, Mingyur Rinpoche summarizes the seven points into two:

  1. Keep your spine straight
  2. Relax everything else.

The Bad Lama has his own three-point posture, that he learned from his teacher Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso:

  1. Allow your lower body (legs and pelvis) to be  heavy, like a rock, never separated from the earth.
  2. Allow your torso to be  light,  like a balloon. It is so  movable that you could almost fly!  Allow it to move like a tent in a breeze.
  3. Allow your head to be  is even lighter and more insubstantial, like a rainbow.

When you begin your sitting practice, you can check your posture using these techniques.  Adjust yourself as necessary.  Then let go of the postural corrections and just sit.

Techniques For Meditating On The Breath

April 24, 2012

“Meditating on the breath is effective, inexpensive and convenient: you always carry your breath with you wherever you go, and you don’t need a password to access it.”  – The Bad Lama

In our last post, we noted that our intention to sit is often thwarted by our hyperactive monkey mind. So if we want to sit, we need to learn to calm our monkey mind and induce it to stay in the present moment. Taming the monkey mind is like taming a rambunctious puppy – it’s not enough to have the intention to tame the puppy; you have to apply a consistent method or discipline as well. There are many different methods for taming the monkey mind. These practices are grouped together under the heading of shamatha (pronounced SHA ma ta) a Sanskrit word that means “abiding peacefully” (which is what we’d like the monkey mind to do.) The Tibetan term for this set of practices is usually transliterated as shine (pronounced SHEE nay).

Our fundamental taming method is to keep bringing the monkey mind back to the experience of the body in the present moment —  to synchronize mind and body. When we bring our awareness to our bodily experience, we may notice many different physical sensations.  Some sensations persist for a long time and others are very fleeting.  But there is one set of sensations that we always have present with us: the sensations associated with breathing. For this reason (among others) meditation on breathing is recommended by many different traditions.

Basic technique for meditation on the breath

Basic instructionsHere is the basic technique for meditation on the breath: Bring your awareness to your breath  — the outgoing breath as well as the incoming breath. Don’t expect to experience some special kind of breathing; don’t make this technique into a breathing exercise; don’t manipulate your breath. Just sit with whatever breathing you are currently experiencing. Appreciate it. Remember that breath only happens here and now – if you find yourself thinking about a past or future breath, or if you lose the breath entirely, just come back to this present breath. Appreciate this nowness; appreciate this present moment of breathing.

You can notice the movement of the breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils.  If you find that awareness of the breath at the nostrils doesn’t help your monkey mind to calm down, then try bringing your awareness to the expansion and contraction of your abdomen in the area of your navel. For some people, it’s difficult to locate the breath.  If this is the case for you, you can breathe a little harder until you notice your breath, or you can put your hands on your abdomen so that you can feel the expansion and contraction associated with breathing.  Once you’ve found your breath, let it follow its own natural rhythm.

Lengthening and slowing the breath

Our breathing is a mirror of our mental state.  How we breathe affects our mental state and our mental state affects how we breathe. For instance, it has been observed that hyperventilation can bring on panic attacks and that controlled breathing can be an effective tool for curtailing panic attacks.  So if you find if you want to help someone in mental distress (that person could be you), guide that person’s attention back to their body and breath. If you notice that your mind is very scattered and panicky, you can lengthen and slow your breath in order to help your mind calm down. Once your mind has settled, let your breath follow its own natural rhythm again.  Remember that meditation on the breath is a method to bring the monkey mind into the here and now.  If your breathing feels like it’s happening someplace far away, then you might not be putting your awareness on the actual sensations of the breath – perhaps you’re imagining the breath or visualizing it.  Keep bringing the monkey mind back to the physical sensations of breathing.

Counting breaths

You may find that although you can locate your breath, you have a hard time staying with it. If this is the case, you can use the technique of counting breaths. This technique introduces a conceptual activity (counting) into the meditation.  Since it gives the monkey mind something to do, it can help convince it to stay with the breath.

When you start your session, decide on the number of breaths you’d like to count up to.  If you’re new to the technique, start with a small number, such as seven or eleven. Each time you breathe out, count that as one breath.  (For example: breathing in…breathing out one; breathing in…breathing out two; breathing in…breathing out three and so on) Count each exhalation until you reach the number of breaths you decided on at the beginning. Count just before the inbreath occurs.  Don’t hurry the count.

When you reach the number of breaths on which you decided, stop counting and just rest for a little while. See if the monkey mind is settled and willing to sit.  If that’s the case, you can just rest without the technique.  Once the monkey mind begins to become active again, you can start counting again at one. If in the process of counting, you find that your mind has wandered and you’ve lost track of the number that you’re on, go back to one again. If thoughts come up while your counting, don’t fight with them and don’t entertain them.  Just let them go. Remember that awareness of breathing is meant to be your primary activity; counting is not.   Don’t get lost in the counting; don’t let counting become like a mantra; don’t let counting become the main event.: let it remain in the background as a natural expression of your awareness of your breath.

After several sessions of practicing counting breaths, if you find that you can stay with the breath relatively easily, you might increase the number you count up to. But remember, the primary goal is to be here now, not to achieve a high breath count.

Variation on counting breaths

The Bad Lama has a variation (of his own invention!) on the technique of counting breaths.  In this variation, you count up to your chosen number and then count back down to zero. If you lose track, start at 1 again.

Counting the breath can be useful in a number of circumstances. It can help settle a hyperactive mind that won’t stay on the breath. If you have the habit of breathing rapidly, counting can help slow the breath, and can therefore help you to release habitual tension and enter into natural relaxation. It can also serve to perk you up a little if you’re feeling pleasantly drowsy and prone to sleep.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that these techniques seem to be giving us a lot to do during meditation.  Why are we doing so much? Aren’t we supposed to just sit? Yes, of course, oh clever reader, you are right! We are doing something when we employ a meditation technique. The reason we employ meditation techniques is that we find that when we try to just sit, we can’t.  We have habits that drive us out of our sitting into some other activity. Meditation techniques are antidotes that are meant to help us release those habits of mind that prevent us from just sitting. Once we’ve released that habit, we must let go of the technique, otherwise we can become addicted to the technique, just as a patient can become addicted to medicine.

For this reason, the Bad Lama recommends that when you sit to meditate, you should first notice your state of mind.  If it’s already calm and settled, there’s no need to apply a meditation technique.  If you decide to apply a technique, drop it after a while and see how your mind is.  If it’s become calm and settled, there’s no need to continue the technique. Becoming good at a technique is actually a great danger for a meditator.  Beware of becoming proud of your technical ability; if you become proud, you may not wish to just sit, but rather to enjoy your technical skill. Then the rather than helping you to just sit, the technique will prevent you from just sitting.  It will be like golden chains: although those chains keep you from freedom, you do not want to rid yourself of them, because you consider them valuable.

Enter The Monkey

April 15, 2012

You may have noticed that when you sit down to meditate, your mind goes elsewhere. It skitters out of the present into the future or the past.  Without knowing exactly how it happened, you may find yourself planning the rest of your day, or reminiscing over the past or rehearsing a completely fictional scenario in which you are either the hero or the villain.

Your mind might also occupy itself in incessant commentary on your current situation. in particular, it might express strong opinions about your sitting meditation.  It may declare that sitting is pointless, boring and uncomfortable.  Or it may point out that although sitting, in general, is an excellent idea, sitting right now is not such a good idea and that right now you should be doing something else more important, like reorganizing the sock drawer.

The mind that restlessly leaps from place to place is traditionally compared to a monkey, and it’s often called monkey mind. The style of thinking that monkey mind prefers – meandering from topic to topic — is called discursive thinking. Monkey mind is less concerned with the actual experience of here and now than it is with interpretations of the experience of here and now. For instance you might experience a scratchy feeling in your throat.  Monkey mind will seize upon that sensation and play with it.  It might wonder whether that feeling is the beginning of a cold; and how that cold is going to affect your coming busy week; and how did you get that cold, anyway; and it must be your sniffling roommate; and why can’t he remember to cover his mouth when he coughs? Soon monkey mind is busy scolding the not-present roommate about a potential illness.

This type of mind that interacts with interpretations, stories and other thoughts is called conceptual mind.  We could define conceptual mind broadly as that aspect of mind that interacts with anything other than the immediate experience of the five senses. Here’s a description of the activity of conceptual mind given by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso (one of the Bad Lama’s teachers):

Conceptual mind takes the nonexistent and makes it existent. It takes things that have already ceased and makes them exist now. It takes that which has not yet been produced, that which will arise only in the future, and brings it into the present. As for what does arise in the present moment, as soon as it arises, it ceases. Immediately upon having arisen, it is gone. But thinking mind takes that and keeps it hanging around as if it were some kind of a thing, a hard and solid thing. That is the activity of conceptuality.

As we saw in the example of the scratchy feeling that leads to condemnation of the roommate, conceptual thinking can be triggered by sensations and emotions.  Conceptual thinking can also trigger sensations and emotions.  For instance, if you choose to think about a situation that made you angry in the past, you may find your anger arising again, and you may also find that your body tenses up and becomes warmer.  Although the conceptual mind deals in interpretations and stories – things that don’t exist in the here and now — those stories and interpretations can have effects in the here and now.  These effects could be either beneficial or harmful: psychosomatic illness is not just a “made up” illness; it is the body’s reaction to a persistent thought.

You might find that you are unable to “just sit” because your monkey mind wants to do something.  It wants to interpret your experience, compare it to other experiences, and then it wants to interpret those other experiences, too. On and on it goes, leaping from story to story. You may think that if you could just get just get rid of this monkey mind, your sitting would be perfect. But attempting to rid yourself of monkey mind is not a good idea for several reasons. First, if in your practice of sitting, you attempt to rid yourself of monkey mind, you are not “just sitting.” You are engaged in a monkey hunt. And if you undertake a monkey hunt, you may find that the monkey will try to bite you. (If you’d like to test this hypothesis, you can undertake an experiment: during your next practice session, rigorously suppress any thought that arises. Notice what happens.) Second, if you do manage to completely suppress the monkey mind during meditation, you haven’t managed to rid yourself of it for good.  It will reappear after meditation, and when it does, you will be unsettled by it, because you will have had no practice in working with it. Finally, the monkey mind is a natural component of your own mind, so attempting to kill it is an act of self-aggression.  Sitting should not be a practice of self-aggression.

Because the monkey mind appears to be the primary reason that we can’t just sit, we must learn to work with it. So we begin our practice of meditation by noticing the state of monkey mind.  If it’s very agitated,  we help it calm down. This process of calming the monkey mind down is called taming the monkey mind. Once it is calm, we can begin to transform it into wisdom.  This is called training the monkey mind.

We tame the monkey mind by working with its natural tendencies. Monkey mind loves to comment and speculate about everything, so we can give it something to chatter about. Since we want to stay in the here and now, we allow monkey mind to play with an object that’s in the here and now.  Our bodies are always here and now, so the basic method of taming the monkey mind is to keep bringing it back to the body — not to ideas about the body, but to the actual physical sensations of the body.  The monkey mind is very light and variable, the body is heavier and more stable, so as the monkey mind interacts with the body it begins to slow down and settle. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this process “synchronizing mind and body.” (This is a very nice phrase, as it points out that usually the mind exists in a different “here and now” than that of the body. When we tame the monkey mind, we bring it into the same here and now in which the body is dwelling.)

So here’s a meditation instruction: when you realize that you are no longer just sitting, but are actively engaged in the play of monkey mind, bring your awareness back to your body.  Let yourself be aware of the sensations of your body.  Don’t worry if monkey mind shows up again.  Let it rest on the sensations of the body.  This is the process of taming the monkey mind.

Repeat as necessary.

Taking a Dim View of Opinions

April 9, 2012

“All beliefs are mistaken beliefs.” – The Bad Lama

Modern society loves opinions.  If you have a particularly outlandish opinion and can state it in extremely colorful language at high volume, you could earn attention, praise and wealth as a pundit, blogger or talk-show host. You could even become a candidate for high office! We are all encouraged to hold opinions about any and every matter that comes to our attention. Claiming that you do not have an opinion is like claiming that you do not have a head. Of course you must have an opinion!

Here’s an experiment to try: the next time you hear some juicy bit of gossip, (you can count most news stories as juicy gossip) notice how quickly you form an opinion. Notice the amount of verifiable information you’ve received.  Note that you have not actually witnessed the situation described.   Notice how strong your opinion is. See if you can let go of that opinion.  If someone asks what you think about the juicy gossip in question, try saying, “I don’t really have an opinion about that.”  Notice their reaction.  Notice your own.

We might gather information to bolster the validity of our opinions, but oftentimes information is secondary; opinion is primary (see talk-show hosts above.) Opinions  help us make sense of the world and guide our actions. But once we’ve developed and nurtured an opinion, we might find it very hard to change that opinion.  We begin to bend facts in order to fit our opinions, rather than changing our opinions to fit facts.  Soon, we don’t really see what is actually in front of us: we just see our own opinions.

For instance, there are a certain people in my life that I consider ne’er-do-wells. (Perhaps you have such a list, too.)  I feel irritated when I see these people. I expect that they will do something annoying, and they usually oblige me.  Then I feel irritated, but I also feel smug and satisfied: I was right about them! But once in a while one of the ne’er-do-wells actually does something kind and considerate.  Then I feel disappointed, because they’re not helping me maintain my poor opinion of them.

At their worst, opinions are simply fabrications with no factual basis.  (These should be called “fantasies”.) Other opinions might be based on what other people have told us (cultural bias) or on a very limited set of facts (leaping to conclusions), or on old facts that are no longer relevant (grudges). At their best, opinions are based on many verifiable past events and accurately predict future outcome. When this kind of opinion is developed and tested over time, it may be called a scientific theory, or philosophical framework.  In Buddhism it is called a view.

Scientific theories, philosophical frameworks and views are useful guides.  Like the finger pointing at the moon, they can show us where to look, and even how to look. But even the best guide is just a guide, not the experience itself. Sitting is the experience of here and now. The experience of here and now is beyond any opinion; beyond theoretical framework; beyond theology or system of thought; beyond view. Therefore, while different views may recommend different techniques to access the here and now, the actual experience of here and now doesn’t belong to any religion, or any philosophy.

You don’t need education or money to sit. You don’t need approval from an authority in order to sit.  Blessings won’t make sitting any better.  Curses won’t make sitting any worse. Sitting doesn’t contradict any philosophical or religious system.

Let go of all theoretical elaborations when you sit; make your sitting simple. Whatever you’ve done before in terms of meditation, just drop it.  Have a beginner’s mind – let your preconceptions go and just sit. Don’t worry about right or wrong: Here and now is just here and now. There’s no such thing as a “right” here and now or a “wrong” here and now.

Be careful about forming opinions, beliefs and theories about your sitting. It can be helpful to sit with others – group sitting can help you develop a regular sitting practice — but avoid comparing your experience with anyone else’s.  When we compare experiences, we may decide that we want to experience what someone else has experienced. (We really have no idea what it was that they experienced, but we still feel that we want that experience.) We fall into the trap of “better meditation” and “worse meditation.” Then, when we sit we may begin gathering information in order to form an opinion about our sitting.  That is not sitting, that’s tabloid journalism.

The Bad Lama advises that if someone asks for information about your meditation — “How long did you sit?” or “How was your meditation?” — just smile. Don’t talk about the experience of meditation.  Since the experience of sitting is beyond words, when we talk about our experiences, we may become unsure whether we are really telling the truth or not.

Here’s a zen story that presents a good example of refusing to hold an opinion about sitting:

Yao-shan and his teacher, Shi-t’ou, were practicing together.

“What are you doing?” Shi-t’ou asked Yao-shan.

“I’m not doing anything at all.”

“Then you are just idly sitting,” Shi-t’ou said.

Yao-shun replied, “If I were idly sitting I would be doing something.”

Finally Shi-t’ou said, “You said that you are not doing anything at all. What is it that you are not doing?”

“Even the ten thousand sages don’t know,” Yao-shun said.

Remember: When we sit, we practice letting go of opinions, beliefs, and evaluations. Try not to develop too strong an opinion about your practice of letting go of opinions.