Meditation is the process of observing the stream of our consciousness with mindful and open presence in order to create a calm and peaceful space within ourselves, so that our emotional chaos and mental distraction can come to rest. Meditation is the application of our minds and sense fields in order to retain stability of mind and stability of emotions. We are maintaining a stable, open presence that holds sensual impressions in its space of awareness without being carried away, yet also without excluding anything. Meditation is also the process of developing a harmonious interlink between the physical, emotional, and mental dimensions of our being. Meditation methods found in the Bon practices of Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen have a common intention. This is to help ourselves and others to be free from the cyclic continuum of suffering.
Many of us want to know how we can use our meditation practice to really transform our lives from suffering and to move toward the direction of awakening. This is not possible if we do not have the strength, the willingness of heart and mind to look deeply into the afflictions and conditioning caused by our ignorance. We do this with the deep wish to change the habitual conditioning that our afflictions are based upon. Our acceptance and the recognition of our afflictions and their causes is key to actualizing the essence of the practice of meditation. If we come to our practice with the sincere heartfelt wish to transform ourselves, to become more selfless, even a short meditation session can change us deeply.
We need to be really clear why we are meditating. This is really important. If we don’t know why we are meditating, then our meditation can be a trap, rather than the doorway to liberation. We might think that we are doing something good for others and for ourselves or that we are saving all beings, while in fact we might be feeding our delusions. This can happen because we are not really aware of and accepting the parts of ourselves that we are less conscious of than our motivation to do good and to benefit others. Accepting all of ourselves, including our weaknesses and delusions, is so important in the path of meditation. It is also often difficult. In fact, we may be practicing because this acceptance is so difficult, and we are actually looking for a way to leave our weaknesses behind. However, in order to be able to touch into the awakened mind that is beyond the grasp of suffering, we need to first become close friends with our suffering and pain and its nature. We need to look deeply into the relationship between our practice and our afflictions, our suffering, that we would like to transform. We may think that we are working on transforming our suffering, but in actuality we may be pushing away the parts of ourselves that we do not like. This is very restricting to the birth of the awakened mind in us.
Getting used to Meditation
We have a saying in Tibetan: “gom pa mayin goms pa yin”. This means: “It is not about meditation, what it is about is to become familiar”. We become familiar with the nature of ourselves, both wholesome and unwholesome, and with the nature of reality. We become familiar with the stream of our consciousness and with its function, and we develop a quality of heart and mind that is able to perceive unfamiliar perceptions or situations without reacting with ignorance. And we become more and more familiar with the qualities of our true nature: compassion, generosity, openness, equanimity, joy, and innate purity. When we develop these qualities of heart and mind, our suffering is reduced. This will bring ease and joy into our lives on the physical, mental, and emotional levels.
When we take time away from external influences to be quietly by ourselves, we get to know ourselves in an intimate way. We become familiar with ourselves. We become familiar with our stream of consciousness and the way that our emotions are produced. We become familiar with the way that we live our lives. We become familiar with the process that happens in us when we become agitated, and with our weaknesses and strengths. We become familiar with what it is to be sitting with strength in the face of depression. We become familiar with our ego, our attachment to our physical body, our afflicted emotions, and our fear of death. And we become familiar with our addiction to our fear. Through becoming familiar with what causes us pain and suffering, we will be able to see what is subtly exhausting and killing us internally through jealousy, anger, fear, sadness, insecurity, embarrassment, or loneliness. Through this process we can develop the heart and mind to distinguish between what to renounce and what to accept. And we become familiar with our innate healing wisdom and our own potential of awakened nature. We become familiar with the Buddha within.
The Buddha said that you are your own best friend and your own worst enemy. The practice of meditation can give us the strength to see the qualities of a friend and of an enemy within ourselves. This can help us to observe the stream of our consciousness and its contribution to our physical, mental, and emotional distraction and instability. Also, meditation can help us to calm our minds. The practice of sitting still is essential.
In our lives, there is calmness and joy on the one hand, and arousal of anger, depression, sadness, passion, and desire-attachment on the other. There is so much chaotic energy coming in and out of our mind and body. This is why we need to learn to coordinate the calmness or stability of mind that we cultivate in our meditation with the movement of our energy. Sometimes we may think that meditation will take care of all our problems if we can generate enough calmness. Yet, this is not possible unless we learn how to integrate this calm state of mind with the chaotic movement of our energy. Just sitting by itself does not bring ease and eternal joy, although it helps to settle this monkey mind that constantly moves from here to there. The calming of our mind is not realization in itself. Our actual realization is of liberation from the cyclic continuum of suffering. This is only possible if we become familiar with our afflictions and know how to integrate our calmness and our concentration with the chaotic movement of energy of these afflictions.
Our meditation has the power to familiarize us with the qualities of our true nature. Through our steady, dedicated practice we become accustomed to its qualities, we become familiar with generosity, with the mind of compassion and awakening, and with our pure nature. The practice imprints itself onto mind and body in the form of qualities such as patience, openness, and acceptance. A beautiful gift of meditation practice is that it keeps us connected with the miracle of each moment. It allows us to see the beauty in each thing and in every moment, and how these small things affect us. It helps us to release our attachment to the projected idea of a result. It brings us closer to the reality of life by allowing us to use both suffering and happiness as part of our practice toward the realization of awakened heart and mind.
The interrelationship of successive stages of meditation
The practice of Calm Abiding is a powerful practice to help us develop a quality of mind that can hold a great sense of focus and presence. With this practice, eventually we will manifest the mind that cuts through all delusions, the mind that dispels the darkness that prevents us from seeing the other side of the shore. The stabilization of our wandering minds and the realization of self-awareness into open presence proceed in stages. In the first stage of meditation, also referred to as Calm Abiding, we become familiar with the wandering of our mind without grasping onto mental formations. This is carried out through the concentration practice of mindful attention. The second stage of meditation is about stabilizing the mindfulness that we begin to cultivate through the unification of concentration and our feelings or emotions. Here the practice is to realize self-awareness. This is also referred to as insight meditation. At this point, our concentration practice becomes unconditioned. The one who concentrates, the act of concentrating, and the object of concentration become one. The third stage of meditation is to realize open presence. Here, our feelings and emotions and self-awareness itself are being unified with emptiness.
We begin our practice of meditation with the proper body posture that allows mind and body to unify. The flow of our energy in the form of the circulation of our blood or the circulation of our breath links body and mind to each other. When body and mind become one, we experience a sense of relaxation. But when the body moves, the mind moves also. This is because of the intimate connection between body and mind. We could say that the body is a vessel that contains the mind. Our minds are used to reacting whenever our bodies move or are affected. It is therefore essential to settle the body first, and then work toward settling the mind.
Traditionally, the essential aspects of the body posture are to sit cross-legged with our spine straight, to gaze in a line that extends directly and very slightly downward from the tip of the nose, to sit up with the chest open, and to rest the hands on the lap with the tips of the fingers of the two hands touching, and the two thumbs touching the base of the respective ring finger. Yet, the most essential aspect of body posture is to find a posture with which we can feel at home. When there is a sense of alienation or resistance, it will be difficult to go beyond this; rather, it may take us in the direction of aversion. We are practicing meditation to nourish our lives and to reduce our suffering. And we are practicing to help others. We are not practicing meditation to add more pain and suffering into our lives and the lives of others, even if it is just a back pain or knee pain. Therefore, in our meditation practice we do not do anything that hurts ourselves, and others. Rather, we carry out our meditation in a very skillful way that allows mind and body to settle and feel at home. Through this we can touch into the essence of transformation.
Some of us are very new to the practice of meditation. It is essential to take it easy and slowly. I remember participating in one retreat with eight days of sitting meditation. Every day we began our practice at 5:30 in the morning and ended the last practice session at 10 at night, with just a short break in between. I liked it very much, just being with myself in a very intimate way. But there were many other participants who had never done such meditation practice before. The teacher asked us to attend the meditation sessions no matter what condition we were in. On top of the demands that these external conditions may place on us, our ego may be pressuring us with feelings of shame, guilt, and the thought that we are weak. We want to be strong in front of others, although our back and knees are in great pain. And we want to sit on the cushion just like others. We think that if we sit on a chair, this will make others think that we are not strong enough, or we think that this will make our practice less fruitful. In this way we force ourselves to engage in an action that goes against the capacity of our bodies and minds. When there is pain, there is duality, and when there is duality, the nature of the mind is divided and disturbed. It is very important to take a posture that is comfortable to us in the beginning. Then we can slowly adapt it as we get used to it. It does not matter whether we sit on a chair or on a cushion, in the full lotus or half lotus. The important thing is that we keep our body firm and grounded so that the mind can take refuge in the firmness of our posture.
Calm Abiding and The Stages of Concentration
Once we are well settled into the firmness of our body posture, the next essential aspect of Calm Abiding meditation is our focal object of attention and the development of concentration. We use an object of meditation in order to become familiar with the working of our minds. We can choose any object on which we can put our attention so that the mind has a place to rest. It can be of great support if we choose an object that we feel connected with. This will make it easier for us to pay attention, and we do not have to use a lot of effort to develop concentration. Also it is important not to change the object of our meditation too often but rather to stay in touch with just one object at the developing stage. In many meditation traditions, people use their breath as the object of their concentration. This is very effective and beautiful. Our breath is always with us, whether we are aware of it or not. We are deeply familiar with the process and nature of our breath. And we know how important it is to our very lives. It is also very helpful that our breath is something that we do not have to create by any means or method. It is already there with us from birth.
Concentration or Calm Abiding, which constitutes the first stage of meditation, is developed in four stages. In the first stage of concentration, we place our attention on the object of our meditation. We must do our best to clear all internal and external preoccupations and to allow ourselves to become one with this object so that we are really able to observe the subtleties of the interaction of body and mind. This very act of observation helps us to minimize the constant wandering of our minds and the resulting arousal of thoughts. This practice of single pointed attention, together with evaluating and distinguishing between the object of the mind and the mind’s wandering, leads us toward the progress of practice. The sign of progress in using an object of concentration is that the mind is stable and that there are fewer distractions by external objects or afflicted thoughts. Through this practice we enter into a state of mind that connects us with the calmness that is born from our practice of attention, and the withdrawal of our minds from wandering. We experience joy because we are in a state of our being that is free from the subtle distress caused by the process of distraction involved in the arising of discursive thoughts.
In the second stage of concentration we no longer need to discriminate and evaluate the thoughts that arise as much as before. We have become increasingly familiar with the nature of our thoughts and with the process of their arising and their influence on the arising of our emotions. This gives us stability and confidence in the focused state of our minds. And we gradually become able to just let be whatever arises, without grasping onto the peaceful state of our experience or rejecting the arising thoughts as unpleasant. Our state of mind is now characterized by increased focus and internal clarity, and a quality of concentration that is purified and uncontaminated by discrimination, evaluation, and rejection of thoughts. We enter into a state that is calm and even, without grasping, judging, discriminating, and rejecting.
This very even and calm state of concentration leads us into the third stage of concentration. Here, the mind has become familiar with the body posture and with the object of our attention in an intimate way. We begin to experience a feeling of our mind coming home as it rests on the union of our body, our mind, and the object of our attention. At this point we enter into the third stage of concentration, which is characterized by equanimity. Because of our single-pointedness and internal clarity, the mind is fully engaged. It is completely absorbed into the object of our attention. In the third stage of concentration we remain in equanimity, mindfulness, and alertness. In this stage of concentration we develop a quality of mind that is free from grasping and craving, and we truly enter into the state of Calm Abiding. Here unconscious grasping loses it nature and becomes awareness. This very awareness is the manifestation of boundless consciousness. Since consciousness exists, it is impermanent. Consciousness or perception is always supported by causes, and these are conditioned. Thus, any experience created by the mind is conditioned and impermanent. This realization is important in order to be able to live fully in the moment.
How do we do this? Do not follow after discursive thoughts, and do not reject them. Do not create discursive thoughts by inviting past experiences of any nature or by anticipating future plans. Simply stay in the state of being aware in the present moment. Here, quite naturally, the mind itself will become the object of our concentration. In doing this, we do not fall into a state of unconsciousness. Rather, we leave everything as it is with a strong presence of awareness. We do not try to fix or change anything. We just abide in this state of being for as long as possible. Even if it is just for a few seconds, we will experience the great gift of this practice.
Meditation and obstacles
There will be moments when the mind tends to wander under the influence of internal or external distractions. We might think that we are in a state of just being aware or focused, but later we realize that we have disconnected ourselves from the object of our attention quite a while ago. If we resist and push against that experience of constant distraction, it will cause us a great deal of exhaustion. This subtle unconscious mental and physical exhaustion can lead us to a point where we feel agitated or tired. When we are in this state, our conditioning can take advantage of our vulnerability and we might blame ourselves as failures and feel discouraged. This will hinder our practice. One of the most beautiful gifts of mind training meditation is that when the mind is distracted or has become carried away by one of our habits, we can use that very moment as an opportunity to cultivate a quality of awareness that is characterized by self-compassion, forgiveness, patience, and determination. If we can do this, it means that our meditation is developing. It is moving toward its essence. Self-compassion and forgiveness will put an end to our thoughts of blame and provide a space for confidence. This helps us to bring the mind back in a gentle way rather than forcing it. On the other hand, patience and determination will keep us on the path of practice with strength and dignity.
In the long run we might learn to place our awareness on the natural flow of our energy. This is very natural. Anything that we do against the natural flow of our capacity might cause pain and suffering in our lives. Furthermore there is a chance of becoming psychotic. This is because of the pressure that we put on our brains. In the meditation practice of concentration, the mind is forced to control its own functions along with the chaos of our emotions. On the one hand, we are trying to control the mind and its mental formations. On the other, we are using the mind itself to carry out this activity of controlling itself. It is necessary to be gentle and open when we do our practice of meditation. And it is important to receive proper meditation instructions from someone with extensive meditation experience and to have someone who can advice us on our practice also at later stages.
The Practice of Self-awareness and Open Presence
The fourth stage of concentration is the second stage of meditation, Self-awareness. In the practice of self-awareness we go beyond the blissful and joyful state of our minds. There is no grasping onto the bliss and pleasurable sensation of feelings, or onto sensational feelings of resistance or aversion toward any pain that we may be experiencing. Rather we abide in the pure equanimity of neither pleasure nor pain, and in mindfulness. This is the wholesome concentration which myriad practices of body, speech, and mind of the compassionate being rely upon.
Our meditation may proceed to the realization of Self-awareness once the quality of our concentration has become quite deep. During our concentration practice, our effort is needed to bring our attention to a single point. Our practice requires diligence, effort and the qualities of determination and persistence. Our concentration is not permanent. It is temporary. It can be broken or interrupted by our habitual conditioning, by habitual reactions or by external objects at any moment. In the practice of Self-awareness, we have an object of attention that is being observed, we have an observer who is doing the observing and we have the act of observing or of concentrating. However, as long as these three remain separate, our practice remains limited, and Self-awareness cannot be realized. This is because there is an act of grasping onto the state of being focused on the object of meditation and onto the corresponding sensational experience. This sensational experience may be a blissful state of relaxation. It may be a sense of seeing, of touch or the movement of energy within us, or an attitude of qualities such as love, compassion, or peace.
For example, when we are focused on one thing, we might not be able to perceive beyond that what is happening around us, because we are so absorbed in the act of focusing on the object of our attention. Awareness means that the mind is equally distributed. When everything is brought into the field of our awareness, the conditions for distraction are greatly reduced. If the mind is focusing without this quality of awareness, a sensational experience such as a sound caused by an external object that is stronger than our focus on our object of concentration will cause us to be distracted. In this case, instead of remaining focused on our actual object of concentration, the sound becomes the object of our attention without our being aware of this. The quality of Self-awareness is to be aware of such subtle internal activities of our consciousness and of what is happening around us externally without the distraction of judgment, aversion, or blame. Concentration brings the mind onto the object of its attention, but awareness actually has the capacity to understand the nature of the object that we are observing or experiencing. When concentration and awareness unify, insight is born. And this insight gives us a myriad of choices and a sense of freedom.
Once our concentration becomes deep enough so that it sustains itself without forceful effort, its nature becomes unconditional. At that point we are not just paying attention to one object as a focal point, but rather we are bringing the whole of our being, external objects, internal sensations, or experiences of the movement of the energy within us into the field of our awareness. When everything is brought into the field of awareness, the concentration of equanimity is born. This is where the third stage of meditation, Open Presence, comes into being. In this stage, the concentration of the mind becomes objectless. We are doing meditation without an object of concentration, and we do not hold on to anything. When there is freedom from grasping, we are actualizing the vast nature of reality. This is the realization of spontaneous concentration or Self-awareness that further allows us to gain insight into the innate awareness, the nature of the mind, which is unconditional and free from all afflictions. Self-awareness is like the sun that has the capacity of illuminating its surroundings but that also illuminates itself. It is self-luminous. Innate awareness on the other hand is the innate potential of our minds, the clarity that is the unification of emptiness and awareness.
In the practice of Self-awareness, we direct our attention toward the observer himself or herself to experience the innate quality of the nature of the mind. The observer himself or herself is selflessness or hidden wisdom. When we turn our attention toward the mind in the form of the observer, we go beyond the grasping onto our meditation experience of sensational relaxation, and carry out our inner journey of self-inquiry so that we can experience the true nature of our being. When we release our grasp onto the particular taste of our experience, this allows the quality of Self-awareness to unify with emptiness. This is Open Presence.
The true nature of our being is pure and not afflicted. Through the act of merely observing without reacting in the presence of awareness we clear the afflictions produced by our intellect. This is because the power of spontaneous concentration together with awareness brings the stream of our consciousness and its activities into a state of stability and equanimity. When the mind is in a state of equanimity, the activities of our consciousness that give rise to afflictions come to an end. For instance, if the mind passes through our eyes at the moment when we look at a flower, our eyes, the mind and the flower will become one. At that moment, our consciousness is in a state of equanimity. It is free of the afflictions of intellect such as judgment, resistance, or aversion, and its experience retains its nature without distraction. When meditation becomes spontaneous, the arising of wisdom becomes possible.
Self-awareness is the unbroken form of concentration. When all our afflictions, the chaos of our emotions and the wandering of our minds come to rest, that is self-realization. Self-realization abides in the heart of Open Presence. At this point, we embody great equanimity, and bliss arises because we are completely free from distraction and from mental formations, at least for the time being.
The stabilization of the mind is necessary for the practice of Self-awareness and for the realization of Open Presence. The stabilization of our minds is a genuine practice that can place us into the state of Open Presence. And it is the capacity of our minds that allows us to be more mindful in all our activities. Without this genuine practice of stabilizing the mind as a fundamental base, our practice of insight meditation or meditation of Self-awareness would be like a flower without a root embedded into the earth. It would be like a flower that is in a beautiful vase with water in it. The water can keep the flower alive for a while, but in the absence of its root, its life cannot last long.
By Tempa Dukte Lama (excerpt from The Intimate Mind by Tempa Dukte Lama)