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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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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Talking to myself


Many times I sit on my cushion I spend the 20 minutes simply thinking about how things could be or should be; then the alarm goes and I have hardly even noticed, let alone paid attention to, even one breath.

This morning I was reading Pema Chodron in ‘When things fall apart’ on discursive thought. She explained how it is one of the things that we lean toward that stops us properly feeling how we are right now. We hook onto it and away we go endlessly chatting to ourselves, avoiding the ‘edginess of our loneliness’ as she calls it.

In meditation, we try to let go of that internal monologue and rest without moving left or right, without blaming someone else or playing our dog-eared victim card, without seeking resolution from this present moment. Because all our life we have sought  this resolution and never has it brought more than momentary satisfaction before the next urge to jump toward hope or away from fear kicks in.

Instead we could try breaking our habit and ‘sit and feel what we feel…. stay on the spot…. not judge or grasp at whatever arises in the mind’. Then we can ‘discover a fresh unbiased state of being’ (all from chapter 6)

I share all this firstly because what Pema Chodron says is wonderful and it can help us all who would like to be more mindful or improve our practice and secondly because by thinking, reflecting and writing about her work I can understand it all just a bit more even if at the moment my practice is more akin to this cartoon below then what i have just tried to describe.


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That isn’t me

Sitting down is rarely some marvellously peaceful happening for me. More often than not, I am replaying past perceived injustices (“she should never have said that to me”) or imagining how I could do better in the future (“…. and then they will all like and respect me again”)

There is one thing I am beginning to understand even tough it is only conceptually. It has come though hearing 3 similar teachings. Firstly, for a while now I have been attempting to follow Pema Chodron’s suggested meditation technique. I try to notice I am distracted away from my out breath, say to myself ‘thinking’ and without judgement return to the object of concentration. As this stands this is as much mindfulness as it is Buddhist meditation.

Secondly, earlier this year I heard Venerable Amy Miller talk. I remember her telling us to see thoughts as ‘mental events’ and not as who we are. So it’s not that “I am angry”or “I am jealous”. Rather you can view it as “there is an angry thought” or “there is a jealous mental event”. Immediately  there rises the possibility of a different and truer perspective on it all.

Finally, I have been studying Buddhist psychology through Geshe Tashi Tsering’s book of the same name In this he explains Buddhists say people have (i) a main mind that is all clear and all knowing and (ii) mental events that colour this. He compares it to a blank screen and the images beamed upon it. “We never really see the screen, because we are so caught up in the images projected on to it.”

Putting this together gives a fuller picture of how mindfulness works in Buddhism. It is more than just a technique for obtaining calm and letting go. Instead it can become a step to better understanding our mind and our misplaced sense of self. The mental events of our mind are less permanent and solid than we believe. So that when we are able to see this they immediately have less hold over us. Powerful stuff indeed.

 


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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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One way to Spend the Rest of Your Life

I just read this paragraph written by Pema Chodron and I thought it was beautiful

“With each meditation session, you could train in opening to whatever arises, and relaxing with the immediacy of your experience. Just acknowledge your pleasant and unpleasant thoughts without bias and let them pass away. Then at the time of death, you will be ready to let go of your attachment to this life and surrender to the process of dissolving.”

It seems to me she has just described how to live a purposeful life.

It is taken from her book “No time to Lose” in the chapter on enthusiasm. There are reviews of the book and where to buy it here

 


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Lazy Holidays – Trying not to be a monkey

So what do you do with yours?

I spend my work time imagining how great the holidays will be; how I will get down to basics, to what really matters and let go of all the crap. For a week or so, I won’t have to do those things that fill so much of my time. I will be able to read, sleep, meditate reflect and yes, even write a new post on this blog. But there again, on the weekly holidays Saturday and Sunday, I am no more likely to meditate than on a week day. right now, I have only sat down on my cushion on two of the first five days of this half term break.

I read this old article today in Tricycle magazine. It was an interview with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (nee Diane Perry). She nailed my problem when she said The crux of the matter is laziness. Even when we know what we should be doing, we choose what seems to be the easier path. We’re gods acting like monkeys.” 

I have the seeds of a plan though. Firstly, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo goes onto to say that “The thoughts are not the problem. Thoughts are the nature of the mind. The problem is that we identify with them.” This reminded me of how Pema Chodron described this fault in our lives “Its as if we have been kicking a spinning wheel all our life and it has its own momentum” The attachment to these thoughts is SO strong in my life. I identify with them. I consider them me. I want to protect them and my ego at all costs. This spinning wheel keeps turning in the early part of the holiday and only after a while can I properly turn to reflection and meditation.

The second part of my small plan is taken from the same Pema Chodron book as above, “Taking the Leap”. You can get a copy of it from here. Put simply it is to (a) get in the habit of noticing when we are hooked into these thoughts, into kicking that spinning wheel so it keeps turning so that (b) we can pause and “lean in” to the energy at that moment and “Abide with it. Experience it fully. Taste it. touch it. smell it. be curious about it”. In this way we don’t embrace or reject the thought or run with or feel guilty about our reaction to it. This means we can also (c) relax and move on so the whole process doesn’t become an “endurance test, a contest that you win or lose”

But I like this practise for another reason. It will keep me in touch with the meditation I (hopefully) did in the morning, so that its momentum is maintained, so that when the holidays come around I don’t at first feel such a strong desire to reject my thoughts and emotions (the shenpa as Tibetans call it) before I can get down to using the holidays in a much more productive and practical way.

After all, it is, as Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo said, practice that will help us most.