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“Clarity of mind” meditation

kathleen mcdonald

Overview

This is a mix of Kathleen McDonald’s “Meditation on the Clarity of Mind” Part 3 chapter 2 in “How To Meditate” and Pema Chodron’s ‘Using Thoughts as an Object of Meditation’ in “How to Meditate” p. 70. Any benefit this meditation brings is a result of the understanding and realisations of these two experienced and revered practitioners.

The philosophy behind this meditation (you don’t have to read this, you can skip to the meditation practice itself just below)

Thoughts are not solid. They are not real. The argument you act out in your mind isn’t happening and may well not happen at all. The fine meal you are dreaming of won’t be occurring until next week and when it does it won’t be like the dream you are having about it now anyway. Seeing thoughts like this helps us to escape from the ‘catastrophisation’ that goes on in our head, where we start to believe the negative storylines we invent so they become solid and real to us. We don’t have to deny them entry or squash them deep down to try to forget they exist. Nor do we need to smash them with a hammer or fight them to the ground. Instead we can lightly touch these thoughts, say ‘thinking’ to ourselves and let them dissolve away.

If we are free ourselves of adding a sense of solidity to things that have none we can start to also start to loosen the ties of our ingrained mental habits. When someone mentions our boss we don’t have to run down that overworn path of tales we, without fail, recount of what she will do and say to us. We don’t have to get lost in dreams of “if only” and “how marvellous it would be if …” Seeing thoughts, emotions and feelings as dreamlike relieves us of so much burden. We can begin to understand how all that we create in our mind is less solid than we give it credit for and then we can see how restricted we were, how we made such a big deal about something that does not need to have a hold over us.

Consequently we begin to experience how vast our lives can be when we don’t attach or push away from all our experiences as though they were solid and real. Right there lies true freedom.

The Meditation Practice Itself 

1/ Take up the correct posture via the 6 points we have already learnt. (See previous meditation instruction here if it helps)

  • Feet/Legs
  • Seat
  • Torso/back
  • Hands
  • Eyes
  • Face

“Bring ease to your posture. It’s so important not to get into a major struggle but to simply try to be as relaxed and comfortable as you can. In each of these six points, you want to embody a sense of relaxation, openness and dignity; you want to embody an expression of being awake and confident.” Pema Chodron

2/ Become mindful of your outbreath. The instruction is “Just be aware of the normal and uncontrived outbreath. Follow it, be with it; be aware of it. “ Spend about 5-10 minutes doing this or until you are fully relaxed and aware of the outbreath.

3/ Once your awareness has become sharp turn your attention to the clarity of your consciousness. Your consciousness, or mind, is whatever you are experiencing at the moment; physical sensations, thoughts, feelings, emotions. The nature of each of these experiences is clarity (like a still glass of water). Focus your attention on this clear, pure nature of the mind.

Thoughts will still arise and when they do let them pass through. Thoughts come and thoughts go. Just observe them. Take the same approach with physical sensations, feelings and emotions. They are clear by nature and without substance.

If this is hard at first meditate on a mental image of clarity … Imagine lying on a hilltop and staring up at a sky that is completely clear and free of clouds. Concentrate on this vast unobstructed emptiness, Imagine that it flows down and embraces you and your surroundings; everything becomes empty like space. Hold this experience; feel that the nature of your mind is like this clear empty space.

 

4/ When you finish dedicate any benefit you may have gained from this practice either to all sentient beings or to people you know who themselves are struggling; let go of the result of the meditation as well.

 

Resources:

Kathleen McDonald’s book can be found here

Pema Chodron’s book can be found here

Other sellers other than amazon are of course available

how to meditate pema chodron

 

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An Attitude to Meditation

how to meditate pema chodron

My favourite part of meditation is when I am not “officially meditating” and I notice that gentle and curious awareness I occasionally feel on the cushion arise during a different part of my day. Consequently I loved the chapter in Pema Chodron’s How to Meditate where she talks about are the 5 qualities to bring to your meditation that as a result you should also be able to see develop in your daily life from your meditation.

I also like them because they are a more detailed version of the three approaches she discussed in When Things Fall Apart: precision, gentleness and letting go. (I wrote about this here )

Below is merely some brief notes on what Pema Chodron said with a couple of my own small additions.

Steadfastness

  • It’s like a loyalty to ourselves or more accurately our experiences.
  • It’s an  approach “that whatever comes up, that’s ok”
  • Maybe you sit down and for 20 minutes your mind is a rage. Don’t be hard on yourself, you stayed with that for the whole session, so well done!
  • It’s a gesture of compassion to yourself

Clear seeing

  • In meditation we start to notice when we start to spin off into one of our chains of thoughts. This is clear seeing
  • By being steadfast we begin to see ourselves so much more clearly
  • This clear seeing includes our judgements, our patterns, our opinions, our defence mechanisms and our ingrained habits

Courage

  • The first two qualities lead to this one, but it grows only slowly
  • The courage to experience and not bury and deny  your emotional discomforts
  • The courage to not to cower before your emotional discomforts
  • The courage not to shift into a fantasy or a distraction before your emotional discomforts
  • If we get this courage we can get an insight into how we are or how the world is
  • We can have a minor change in our world view
  • This courage means we can ‘loosen up our conditioning

Being awake to our lives

  • Being awake to the present moment and all the surprises this will always bring
  • We say we like surprise and thrills, but …
  • This is being awake to the next (because there is always another one) embarrassing moment when we lose our composure and patience.
  • It’s about being more flexible and tolerant to the present moment.
  • And with it as a by product comes humour

No big deal

  • Just like that calmness you have when you say ‘thinking’ during a meditation session
  • Don’t make your problems so big you end up running yourself down and wallowing in them
  • Don’t make any progress feel so great that your pride gets in the way and knocks the stuffing out of your practice next time


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How to Meditate

how to meditate pema chodron

I have been lucky enough to read quite a bit of Pema Chodron over the last few years and have come to use many of her suggestions and techniques to guide my meditation practice. I have gathered these below in case they are of use to anyone. If you do find them helpful then you should know they are taken primarily from her book “Wisdom of No Escape” and also “How to Meditate”. I highly recommend both these books. The former looks more at how our lives need meditation while the latter looks closer at meditation techniques first before applying it to the rest of our lives. If you already have a practice maybe “How to Meditate” would be the best of the two to go to first and if you do not meditate regularly yet then “The Wisdom of No Escape” has a more simple technique to get going with. However, if you are anything like me reading either one will have a hugely beneficial impact on your life and on the people in your lives as well.

I apologise for the instructions abeing rather wordy, but I found it hard to edit Pema Chodron’s original ideas. And indeed it is fair criticism to say that you would be better reading the original description and explanation as they are from someone with true realisations rather than from my amateurish experience. However, if you need a start (or restart) to your practice and you haven’t the books I leave this here in case it is of value. If you have any questions please just leave a comment.

Meditation Instructions

What to do

  1. a) Posture
  • Seat –Keep yourself balanced and stable with the back of the seat slightly higher than the front. This tilt helps your torso.
  • Hands – In your lap, face down. How far forward they are affects your overall posture or in a simple mudra; right on top of left with thumbs lightly touching.
  • Torso – straight and relaxed. Pema Chodron calls it “keeping your heart open”. Be aware of tension in the shoulders
  • Eyes – half open. Helps us to stay with the present and taking an “all inclusive” approach.
  • Face – relaxed, mouth slightly open. Be aware of tension in the jaw
  • Legs – crossed. But your knees should be lower than your waist. If this is not possible then a chair is best. Sit with a straight back your ands on your lap and you feet flats on the floor, directly under your knees.

Pema Chodron says

“Bring ease to your posture. It’s so important not to get into a major struggle but to simply try to be as relaxed and comfortable as you can. In each of these six points, you want to embody a sense of relaxation, openness and dignity; you want to embody an expression of being awake and confident.”

 

b)Be mindful of your outbreath (the precision, gentleness and letting go)

(i)Just be aware of the normal and uncontrived outbreath. Follow it, be with it; be aware of it. This seems simple, but this it the precision right here. That we always come back to it sharpens our mind and awareness; hence precision.

But our minds wander; it’s what they do and when this happens, we simply notice what has happened and say ‘thinking’ to ourselves – this label is also about precision.

(ii) We have already brought in an idea of relaxation to our posture and the gentleness follows right on in from this. Firstly, we don’t have 100% attention on the outbreath to the exclusion of all else. Our eyes are open and equally we are alive to what else is happening. Maybe we have ¼ of our attention on the breath as it goes out. We have a light touch on our outbreath. There is no goal here. We are not trying to rid our mind of all these thoughts. There are so many and we couldn’t do it if we tried. We just try to be aware.

We should also have a light touch when we say ‘thinking’. Notice how you say it to yourself. Don’t get angry; don’t chastise yourself. If you have just noticed that you were distracted then that is a good thing. Well done you. So if you say thinking in a judgmental way try saying it again more gently before returning to the outbreath.

(iii) We can directly work on being more gentle and maybe on being more precise but the ‘letting go’ only comes as a result of the other two. It is not really tangible in that way. This is also why this particular technique focuses on just the outbreath. There is a natural gap or pause between one outbreath and another. This is an opportunity to let go as the outbreath dissolves into the air and into the room. There is nothing to hold onto … and over time with practice we can realise we don’t have to be caught in the grip of our fears and our passions, of our anger and our anxieties, of our depressed thoughts and our addictions. How liberating is that!

 

And if this is too much to remember at first then just remember this:

  • Posture
  • Precision
  • Gentleness
  • Letting Go


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New School Year: one Breath at a time

Time for a fresh start, following 5 and a half weeks of relaxing, recharging, reflecting and more recently gearing up, its a New School Year. The last 2 Septembers have caused me much anxiety and even illness. This year I want it to be different and I have a little plan.

My meditation practice ain’t much (30 minutes of meditation will always struggle against 23 and a 1/2 hours of ego as Trungpa Rinpoche would say), but I hope to begin to use it to directly improve (i) the way I deal with my day and (ii) the way I deal with other people. When I practice mindfulness or shamatha on my cushion I try to notice when my mind has wandered and then gently and precisely bring it back to the present. A few moments later when it wanders once more I do the same thing, over and over and over. I make no claims to be a mindful meditator, letalone a mindful person, but I am practicing and I want to bring the practice of meditation more often into my daily life. Shantideva says at the start of the 5th chapter of “The Guide to a Bodhisattva’s way of life”

Those who wish to keep a rule of life

Must guard their minds in perfect self possession

Without this guard upon the mind

No discipline can ever be maintained

The ability to bring my mind back to the present will allow me to let go of my prejudices and petty disgruntlements. If I catch that thought early, or even as it rises, I can gently and precisely notice it and bring my mind back to the present. Then, seeing things as they are – without my prejudices of me and them, good and bad, acceptance and rejection – “all my fears will come to nothing” (also from “The Guide to a Bodhisattva’s way of life” chapter 5)

I am old enough to know I will frequently fail at this. I will be cursing colleagues, students parents and the world in general once the gap-free chaos of term time restarts. But I also know that underneath there is mindfulness and awareness available to me and that with it I can be more generous, disciplined, patient and enthusiastic. Hopefully too my concentration and meditation will in turn be deepened by the changes in the other 23 and 1/2 hours of the day. The last verse in the 5th Chapter says

But all this must be acted out in truth

For what is to be gained by mouthing syllables?

What invalid was ever helped

By merely reading in the doctor’s treatises?

Please note any understanding I have of Shantideva’s work is because I have read the wonderful Pema Chodron’s “No time to Lose” Which is available from Wisdom Books here


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taking the smooth with the rough

Most of my posts here have been about dealing with feeling down, feeling as though the world is against me and that there is no gap in the negative black wall around me. If you’ve read one post, you may glance at another, but I don’t imagine for one moment that it is a thrill-a-minute read.

Oddly, it is as though I am attached to these dark emotions. I am willing to follow either a long sad story of future bad things that may happen to me  or replay an unhappy past event over and over. When trying to use meditation to overcome some of the difficulties I have recently faced, I have been attempting to follow Pema Chodron’s technique of noticing the out breath When I find myself distracted, I try to gently notice this, say to myself as kindly as possible “thinking” and, with precision, return to lightly concentrating on the out breath again.

Last week though, after a real struggle in one part of my life, there was an upturn. I was complimented and appreciation was shown for (what I think were the considerable) efforts I had put in to fit in with what was required. At last I felt more valued, more worthy and even successful. I drove home shouting and screaming my delight in the car.

But if the way to cope with this dark mind is to gently let go, then also it must mean the way to manage the happier mind is exactly the same. I have kept telling myself those bad feelings are temporary, well it must also be that the more joyful ones too. Meditation is not for just the bad times. It is not just a replacement for those people not willing to take the happy pills. Its power lies in being able to transcend this mundane good and bad, happy and sad split that we all feel trapped by.

Which means just because I am happier at the moment than 2 weeks ago, I am not going to stop meditating!


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Where I hope Meditation might take me

I remember many wonderful people from my time spent in Samye Ling monastery in Scotland back in the 1990’s. I was lucky enough to be able to visit often then and stay quite long in the pre children days! One person I remember there was Ani Chudrun; she seemed  strong and clear about her practice. I recently found this marvellous video of her talking about her decision to become a nun. When I listened i saw how much more peaceful her practice appeared to have made her since I (admittedly only vaguely) knew her.

But what i also noticed here was what she said about being a nun. How she first chose the path because she knew it would benefit her.

“I knew it would do me good. I knew the training would do me good. I knew the meditation would do me good. Simple”

But then as Ani Chudrun became more accustomed and accomplished in her practice, she could see how her practice helping everyone else around her.

“I think me being a nun will do a huge amount. The state of my mind, if it’s clear if it’s calm if it’s kind, makes a huge difference to everybody…. It’s about kindness and love, really and being able to understand that everyone suffers and the wish to help alleviate that suffering, practically or profoundly , doesn’t matter….. In this life i don’t know how far I will get in that whole long journey, but it’s further than I would have got if i wasn’t trying.”

I hope my meditation will begin to move out from just helping myself primarily to benefitting everyone and every thing.


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Bad luck? No It’s just Biology

This week a very good friend of mine received some awful news about an illness he has. This has caused a lot of anguish and sadness amongst his friends. We have have pondered on how such a good man can have such an awful thing inflicted on him. My friend is a Christian. He has great faith and more importantly acts it out to all without prejudice and with compassion. Consequently, he is also a “much better Buddhist” than I shall ever be in this life.

I have thought long about how other people in my life have become ill and died. I am worried that he might do the same. I worry about his family and how hard that would be on them but most of all I think about losing my friend

We spoke the other day. He told me about working out how to tell people, who to tell, who his wife should tell and who he should and in what order. It seemed to me it was like some dark version of Christmas card writing my parents used to do. He told me of the strength he was finding in his memories of visits to Iona and their community. He had dug out a CD of songs and a book of prayer and stories. I shall be looking these up myself in the next couple of weeks.

I asked him how he was countering the feeling of unfairness the “Why me Lord” question. “Oh I don’t think its bad luck. Its just Biology. I can’t do anything about that. I have to concentrate on what follows on from it.” See I told you my good Christian friend is  a good Buddhist too. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact I am sure a good Buddhist would be a good Christian too.

So when I think about accepting things as they come to me in meditation, of not holding on, of letting go precisely and gently, of saying “thinking” when I notice I have moved away from the breath, I can see my good friend doing exactly these things in awful circumstances with great effect. So deep down, I know he is all right – though I am still crying for him