Dukkhaboy

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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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“Set Free” by Emma Slade

set free

This is an excellent read. I loved it. Don’t worry if you think you will be following a  familiar plot; rich career type has road to Damascus moment and sees the error of their ways. This book is not like that at all. At first it seems being held up at gunpoint in a plush Jakarta hotel will be the driving force behind a story of moving from materialism to spiritualism. But the appeal of this story is the normality and honesty of it. It’s not a autobiography of a heroine battling against the odds, but of the author as a fallible yet determined woman learning from errors and trying to break ingrained habits. There are many false starts and choices that lead to dead ends. There are mistakes and compromises throughout. Even reflecting on the hold up Emma’s response is a mental muddle of compassion for the gunman and her own all-encompassing PTSD

Emma (or Pema – her ordained name) story moves back and forward  from quiet Kent and Bhutan to busy London and Hong Kong. Throughout it is a search to find a balance between all the competing demands and expectations of a modern life; between meditation and action, West and East, family and solitariness, physical and spiritual, success and happiness, being a mother and a nun.  Emma Slade has written a book that shows how we can keep all the plates spinning and still have a focus on compassion for ourselves and others. I highly recommend it to you.


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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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Waking Up

Ven Amy Miller

I heard the Venerable Amy Miller teach this week. She was talking about “Transforming Negative Emotions: Coping with Anxiety and Depression.” I really liked what she had to say about starting your day positively and thought it would be useful to anyone whether they were facing anxiety and/or depression or not.

She suggested four ways to set your mind off well early in the morning. Firstly, think about and be grateful for your life. Look at all the good things that are in it: you have a house, a comfortable bed, when you turn the tap water comes out and it is clean water free of diseases, there is food you can buy and you don’t have to dodge bombs and bullets on the day to the shop or market. Additionally, you have friends who support you, you live in an area with available health care. All these things (and you can probably think of many more) mean you have a fortunate life.

Then look at yourself. Think about your good qualities and abilities. Personally as I am British my culturally engrained modesty kicks in here, but she makes a good point. We all have things we contribute and do that make the world better for others. Maybe it is the skills you bring to your job that help others have an easier and more happy daily life or the care you give members of your family; young or old. These first two points are similar to a line of thinking and meditation in Buddhism called your “precious human rebirth”. Being grateful for all this, or even at first just aware of it, helps make the most of what we have and be happier in our own life and environment.

Thirdly she suggested we consider that we might die today. Now I am sure the first two suggestions make clear logical sense to all, whereas this one may seem at best odd and maybe even nuts to anyone not familiar with Buddhist philosophy. In the West and certainly here in the UK talk of and thoughts about death are avoided, shunned and left ignored. But if you can consider the fragility of your life in the first minutes of the day it lets you see how precious and wonderful it can be. By considering that this could be your final few hours on the planet you can make your day more purposeful and joyful. You can choose to live it with more awareness for how special and  invaluable it is. If you do this then you’ll not only be happier yourself but you will spread some of that joy around the people you connect with. Looking at the impermanence of our lives helps us live them more positively.

Finally she talked about setting a motivation of benefiting all people you meet during the day. This aim gives your time purpose and meaning and helps make yourself and others be happier. And if we were all able to that every day ….

If any of this strikes a chord with you Venerable Amy’s website with more talks, ideas for meditations (and without my misinterpretations) is here http://amymiller.com 


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The humility of learning

For the first time ever, HH the 17th Karmapa has visited the UK. He spoke in Battersea, London. And fantastically I managed to buy a weekend ticket to hear him teach. If you are kind enough to read this and if you take anything positive away from doing so you can be assured it didn’t come from me but from HH Karmapa and somehow survived my foggy, unqualified retelling of it.  I only want to write about one part of what he said here. He said much more than just this on the day.

There was one verse His Holiness explained that immediately struck me. He was talking about respecting other people. Instead of just a normal moral school assembly style ‘treat others as you would like to be treated – golden rule’ type thing, he explained why if it is done properly seeing others in this way, cherishing them even, benefits for us as well. The particular verse he was teaching is

“Wherever I am, whomever I’m with,

May I regard myself as lower than all others,

And, from the depths of my heart,

May I hold them as supreme and cherish them.”

Instead of merely going with a bland idea of respecting all beings or people, we can additionally try to be humble. If we have no humility then our inflated sense of self can get stuck on how great we are and how we are better than everyone else. HH Karmapa likened it to pouring water on a ball. No matter how much water you pour the ball is going to capture none of the liquid. Similarly, if we approach people whilst full of pride and see ourselves as better than them, then we cut ourselves off from opportunities of improving and of developing ourselves. I love this logic. It makes perfect sense. If we are looking down on someone then we won’t even consider the possibility they have any positive qualities that are better than we possess ourselves. So even when interacting with them there will be this barrier and we will learn nothing from the experience or from them. In effect we will be living in a bubble where at best we could stay as we are or, more likely become more negative and embittered with the world around us.

However if we approach people openly, looking for their attributes whilst admitting we are not the best thing going ourselves then our days, our individual moments and conversations will enrich us.

So far, so secular. HH Karmapa then looked at this argument from a Buddhist perspective. Firstly, he said it is important to realise too that ‘seeing ourselves as lower’ does not mean we should live in a permanent state of self degradation, having jettisoned our own self esteem. Misinterpreting it like this is called in Tibetan Buddhism ‘the laziness of self deprecation’ where we do nothing because we think we aren’t good enough to improve.

Secondly, a Boddhistattva (a person who works for the benefit of all living beings, who puts their welfare before her own) would therefore see no end to learning. Because a Boddhisattva sees himself as lower than others there is no end to their learning; no matter where they are or who they are, they would be open to their environment and the people around them.

Sounds a great way to be alive to me.