Dukkhaboy

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Mindful Walking

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I never got mindful walking. I was always a sit down on my cushion meditator, breathing in breathing out, getting distracted, returning to the breath and getting distracted again meditator. Then 10 days ago in a room with a view of the Nantlle Ridge Mountains in Snowdonia I found mindful walking to work.  Maybe it was Susanna’s wonderful guidance, maybe it was me settling the balance between my faith and doubt in having another go at it, maybe it was the supportive caring company – all of us trying together squeezed in to the room, maybe it was the cold floor keeping me alert to my toes and feet through my thin socks. Whatever it was, I got it.

And now I can feel it feedings in to my other practice. Walking flows more effortlessly into the next part of the day. When I finish a sitting practice, I stand up and move into the next room to carry on the day. It can feel like I am concluding the spiritual part of the day and then moving back into normal life. Walking more naturally avoids that threshold crossing; it is simpler just to carry on. Therefore mindful walking can help me spend more of the day mindfully. As I queue I can be aware of the feeling of my feet, as I walk from car to front door I can do so noticing the feeling of my feet on the ground beneath me.

And so I hope that now when I get up from my sitting meditation I can take some of it with me. Sat at my desk having just pressed send or save, I might feel my outbreath for a minute and when my mind wanders I might gently and precisely bring it back again.

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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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Your Less Than Perfect Holiday

pool

But my! Work is intense, packed to the gills, unrelenting and exhausting. Holidays are the beacon of hope; a future panacea of peace from the hurly burly of daily life.

But then the actual holidays are never just that. They are imperfect, frequently unsatisfying and most certainly not the answer to all our prayers. Even on the good days – those times we spent so long looking forward – nothing ever works smoothly. Reality never matches the future our internal monologue had asserted would be wonderful.

Buddha stated that this imperfection and dis-satisfactoriness (called dukkha) is caused by our grasping onto things, ideas and thoughts we think are solid and permanent but which never are. We have an active misunderstanding of how things are. Our thoughts come and go, they are just events, they are not solid and real. Now this is really good news: if thoughts are not me or you, it they aren’t actual things, then we can all be free from the overthinking that everyone does and no one properly admits to. Mark Williams says “This frees you up from the dislocated reality we have all conjured up for ourselves, through endless worrying brooding and ruminating.” (Mindfulness; finding peace in frantic world).

But it isn’t just the negative thoughts we can drop. A more realistic view of our mental activity doesn’t just mean we can begin to see debilitating self critical thoughts as just passing through. We can also avoid expecting everything to work out perfectly and imagining all will be well; that our holiday will match the brochure or the Facebook photos our friends shared from the poolside. If instead of clinging on to ideas we can learn to stop judging and comparing what is around us to how we think it should be, we can avoid narrowing our whole experience down to a competition our life can never win. Real freedom right there if we can begin to move away from being “compelled to draw only one preconceived opinion” (also Mark Williams from the same book) and allow ourselves the chance to experience what is around us just for what it is. Come on!  Leave those thoughts alone and be kind to yourself instead.

 

(Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book is available here )


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Noise

I came across this beautiful quote last week from Ajahn Chah

“If my mind doesn’t go out to disturb the noise,
the noise won’t disturb me.”

Was lucky enough to have week’s family holiday this Easter on the Dorset coast. So as not to be in the way of anyone else waking up I took to meditating on the beach. I thought it would be peaceful and quiet and conducive to some calm meditation. There was hardly any wind. However when I sat down on this all but deserted beach the first thing i noticed was that waves, even small lapping ones don’t ever stop turning over and over. With little sea noise I could also hear more gulls more clearly more of the time. This annoyed me

Fortunately, I was trying to get to grips with the basics of the ideas of emptiness and cause and effect, which I had been reading about in Geshe Tashi Tsering book “Emptiness” (preview here). I tried to reflect on the idea of all things being dependent on causes, parts and their relationship to other things and events. Because if you don’t go out to meet and disturb the noise by adding on your own stories and concepts to it then that noise is just a wave, just a gull calling. In the end neither has a concrete inherent part to it that I can get worked up about. Unless of course I choose to.


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Why isn’t my meditation working?

Firstly I bet you it is. May not in the way the amount or with the speed you want, but it will almost certainly be having a positive effect. So don’t worry.*

How long do you meditate a day? A week? How long each day are you NOT on your cushion? As Lama Zopa Rinpoche once said about our days, “30 minutes meditation and 23 and a half hours ego”. And unless you give up your job or go on a retreat this ratio is unlikely to alter much let’s be honest. So there are two options; 1) improve the quality of your meditation, which I am not skilled enough to write much on apart for the basics, which I already clumsily covered here or 2) Make your 23 and half hours become a support for your daily meditation.

Firstly, to be able to practice well it is necessary to have enough of life’s necessities not to have to worry about getting or having them. But also it is important not to have too much, or rather not to be too attached and involved with it all. To help concentration in meditation it is important to be content with life and possessions and not to have too much attachment to them. This will both lessen distraction in meditation and allow more  time for it to happen.

Secondly, a busy life will lead to a busy mind and a lot of conceptual thought arising. Personally, my job and family life means my days are packed and in the evenings I am worn out. Therefore I have found that a routine of morning practice before I leave for work can help lessen all that mind traffic. Also I like to have had breakfast before I settle down so that i am not worrying about my stomach!

Buddhist teaching also mentions leading an ethical life aids meditation. this of course is harder to change quickly. But to reflect on the motivation behind actions and words during the day greatly helps meditation by lessening strong emotions. This is best left for another day, but Lama Zopa Rinpoche wrote wonderfully about this here if you want to read more about that.

Finally, I was lucky enough to hear Venerable Robina Courtin talk earlier this year. (She has an excellent website full of good stuff and links here ) I got the chance to ask her a question I said,  “I had been meditating for years and felt I was getting nowhere.” She replied:

  1. If we notice bad things we are doing or saying or thinking, this is positive and is progress
  2. We all have deep seated attachment so if our mind is calmer or concentrating better or more compassionate or wiser we then think, “Why aren’t I doing even better?” we are never satisfied
  3. So don’t worry, we are doing okay 🙂

 

*But beware: Whereas many religious and spiritual traditions including Buddhism emphasise the importance of concentration, in Buddhism concentration is only a tool, not the end itself. Concentration on its own, without compassion and wisdom is just another reason to be reborn in Samsara.

The majority of the ideas for this were gained from Geshe Tashi Tsering’s excellent book “Emptiness” and especially chapter 2