Purelands Meditation Retreat Day 3 - October 2013
Day 3: Taming the mind
We continue with Sumpa Lotsawa’s advice. The first piece of advice is that if you have a sense of abandonment then everything you do will bring happiness. Your mind suffers because it lacks this quality of abandonment. We looked at how we tend to misuse our opportunity and how we disregard impermanence and act contrary to the laws of karma and we tend to look for pleasure instead of happiness. So this is what we need to reverse to develop this abandonment.
The next piece of advice given by this emanation of Tara was: “If your mind rests where it is placed, oh lady, it will be ok even if you travel elsewhere. Your mind suffers because it cannot rest where it is placed.” What she is saying here is that it doesn’t matter where you rest your mind because your mind is with you wherever you are. If you are able to rest your mind you can be in retreat, you can be out of retreat, you can be in any environment and it’s ok. You can be happy because your mind can rest wherever it is placed. Your mind will do what it is told to do. And a mind that is able to rest where it is placed is a mind that is well tamed. If your mind is not tamed, then it goes anywhere and chases after anything.
This is about the need to guard our mind. It is about meditation, and how through our practice, and through mindfulness and awareness we are able to tame our mind and eventually recognise the nature of mind. The blessing that we receive from all of the teachings, instructions and meditation practises given to us by teachers with devotion to the lineage is inner freedom. It is nothing less than inner freedom. Inner freedom arises when our mind is so well tamed that it can rest wherever it is placed and we understand its nature.
So this is about training and taming the mind, developing and sustaining a mind that is carefree and joyful. This training is about learning how to sustain a carefree mind that can deal with all the ups and downs in life. So that when you are not in a retreat or a dharma environment, when you are at work or at home with your family, you are not overwhelmed by any difficulties that arise. You are able to prevent any difficulties that do arise from becoming overwhelming and taking over to a point that they become big or insurmountable obstacles.
“If your mind rests where it is placed”: what we are talking about is placing the mind. That is what you are trying to do when you watch your breathing. In the text it says that placing the mind is like a bee hovering in a flower. Our mind is like a bee, hovering in the flower, jumping from petal to petal until it finds the stamens where the nectar is and then it settles and stays. So the flower is our focal support. The mind doesn’t rest right away, you might find that a big part of your session is actually you hovering. Maybe you find at the end of your session there was no nectar at all! This image of the bee hovering in the flower illustrates how the mind has a tendency to hover and move about, it’s restless and it can’t really settle. So we have to allow it to settle. We have to allow it to find the nectar, to connect up with the nectar which is the focal support.
Here your focal support is the breathing, the breath but there are many different types of support. Those of you who are new to meditation may not know that you can look at an object or you use sound as well as breath. The breath is said to be a more profound and subtle focal support than an object because it is not solid. There is nothing solid to hold onto whereas we tend to get involved with solid objects.
A common object that one can start off with is a stone, like one that you find on the beach. Just a neutral stone, with smooth edges, a couple of inches big. Not a diamond or a precious stone but just a very ordinary stone that we find by the beach. Then you look at that: that is your focal support. You can forget about your breathing and just look at that and try to focus your mind and your attention. You try to see it as you have never seen it before. You are seeing it very fresh but without any projections or ideas about where it came from. You are not trying to see a face in the stone, or a pattern, you are simply seeing it there, using that object to hold your attention in the present moment. You should not stare too hard because then your eyes become very tight. You should have a relaxed but constant gaze. And when you first start using a stone in this way, you should gaze at it intensely. At the beginning you bring it into focus and then once you really see it you relax the intensity but maintain the awareness. Like when you are using a camera, you need intensity to focus on the object. Then you can relax the intensity, maintain seeing the object and stay with that. If you get distracted it will be like a film passing in front of your eyes, like sitting there watching your own thoughts being played out on that stone which is a canvas. But of course the intention is that you stay in the present moment. Don’t hold onto the past, don’t invite the future, and don’t think about the present, just stay with the object.
The texts say that as a beginner, but this means a long time, years and years and years, we are still beginners, our mind is like a child and when the parents are away, the child gets bored so the parents leave them a toy. You go away, you leave the child with a toy and they play happily with the toy. That’s how our mind is with the focal object. When our mind is not trained, when our mind is still wild, we are like a child without a parent. So the focal support is like the toy that keeps our attention in the present moment. The parent is not there to remind us to be there, to be present, not to get distracted or carried away. Our mind is like a child, still not fully grown up so it needs something to hold. If we don’t have an object we get lost, we get carried away. We don’t have control. Thoughts are so powerful that they take us away.
That is why a focal support is important. It is said that the focal support itself is a remedy for the gross thoughts, the strong and powerful thoughts. I have already told you that mindfulness is a remedy for the subtle thoughts. Without mindfulness our mind can still be very busy, we need to continuously bring ourselves onto this object. And the mindfulness has to have power and clarity. That is what you need to aim for in your meditation so that you don’t sit half asleep and you also don’t get completely carried away with thoughts. Those are the two main difficulties we all have from time to time.
The remedies are the power and strength of mindfulness and clarity of mind. Clarity and strength are two things that you need to aim for. You need to have a strong determination when you start your session that for this session, this moment I’m not going to allow the thoughts to take over. I’m really intent and determined that I am going to practise very diligently. You need a sense of diligence. If you just sort of settle in on the cushion and just allow things to happen that strength is lacking. So you need clarity and strength. Clarity comes when you have that strength and when your mind is not so busy with thoughts and when you are not sleepy. So through your diligence you should try to develop those two aspects of the mindfulness so that they deal with all of the busyness and all of the gross and subtle thoughts.
The most common focal supports are the breath, visual support and sound. You use the same approach with sound: you sit and focus on sound, hearing sound without interpreting, without bringing images to mind, without wondering where the sound comes from. A bird pops up, or an airplane, just try to purely hear the sound for what it is without conceptualising about it. Instead of focusing your eyes you focus all of your attention on hearing, all of your mindfulness is on hearing. Try to be with the sound fully without conceptualising. There are so many sounds. You think it is quiet but there are lots of sounds, it’s like a river of sound.
But here we are using the breath and it is said to be a more profound focal support because of its subtlety. Breath is insubstantial, there is nothing there. Some people don’t feel comfortable with the breath because they may feel a little bit tight with the breathing. If that happens to you try and breathe completely natural, almost unconsciously, like we normally breathe. We do it all of the time. If you are sleeping you are breathing, you don’t stop breathing when you go to sleep. You don’t have to make any effort whatsoever on your breath. Relieve your tension and let your breath be natural, subtle and silent. You should make a conscious effort to make it silent. If you breath is noisy it’s a sign of dullness of mind, especially if it goes into snoring!
At home you should choose the support that you feel most comfortable with and then stay with that for a long time. Don’t change your object all the time. If you feel that looking at a stone works much better for you, then you do that, stay with that for a long time. Don’t do one day a stone, one day sound, one day breath and in the end you are not sure what you are doing anymore. That doesn’t work very well. Stick for a long time, you could even stick with one forever, because it’s not really the object that makes a difference. It’s about how you deal with your mind, how you deal with thoughts. The support is just like you give the child another toy. They get bored with the dolls and they get a little car, they get bored with the car and they get something that makes a noise and you know actually it makes no difference. The purpose is the same, the function is the same. You can choose which one of them you feel more comfortable with.
Breath as focal support
Be aware that you are inhaling, be aware that you are exhaling, and then there is a little gap. Count: Inhaling, exhaling, 1. Inhaling, exhaling 2. When you count it’s like an extra support, an extra anchor to hold your mind. So try that today so the meditation. I think what can easily happen is that we feel quite comfortable with just sitting and being half with the meditation, being half with the breath, you can get into a slot. Maybe this does not apply to newcomers but for people who have meditated longer you can feel like, oh that’s too much effort, inhaling exhaling 1. But actually when we have meditated for a while we need to put more effort in because we can end up on automatic in the meditation session. It’s like you settle into the meditation session and you are half there and half not there, like a drowsiness, a dullness that takes over a certain amount of presence. So it’s very important to try not to allow yourself to go into that slot of a little bit laziness. So that’s the focal support.
Some people feel more comfortable feeling the breath in the abdomen, they are more aware of the breath in the abdomen than the chest. The abdomen and the chest are easier because they are bigger areas, but then when we refine it to the nostrils you try to have your awareness become finer and finer.
Counting is like a ship in the harbour, it’s sitting out in the water, and you want it to stay there and so you throw down an anchor, but there are winds, and so you throw down another anchor and that is the counting. The first anchor is the focal support, the breathing, so if there is a lot of wind, if your mind is very busy, then counting helps. If you feel that you can stay well with the breathing without the counting, without getting distracted, then you don’t have to count. But if your mind is agitated and busy then add the counting to hold you there
In the morning session I would like you to do what is called the Nine Blowings. This is very good to do in your first session of the day, by yourselves not in the shrine room. Here we will do that in the 6o’clock session. The Nine Blowings is a way of clearing up the dead air from the night and a way of clearing the mind as well at the start of meditation. I will explain this to you.
We talk about how the mind rides on the wind, lung in Tibetan, and it is said that there are 72,000 subtle channels in your body. From the time we are born, from before birth in the foetus all the subtle channels in the body have been developed. We call them energy channels. But within those channels the air, the wind is moving in interesting ways. Some of the Tibetan texts describe the development of the foetus from the time of conception until birth and it’s all due to these winds. They talk about the red and white elements: red from the mother and white from the father. The elements meet and consciousness of the bardo being, consciousness of the new being, merges with these. And then the mind stirs as it perceives it self and mistakes itself in the sense that duality starts to develop. Through wind the movements happen.. As the foetus starts to grow the texts talk about the upwards moving wind, the downwards moving wind, the all pervading wind, and the warmth producing wind. Every month there is a different major wind that starts to move. And with each wind different parts of the foetus develop: limbs, organs, lungs, everything. Then it says that the mind rides on this wind. In the West we think in scientific terms of the mind and the brain but the Tibetans talk about the mind riding the winds. And depending on how we feel and how we act the mind will move in different channels. When the wind enters our central channel all of our negativities are pacified. So wind is very much a part of the teachings on meditation, teachings on the mind. Everything is moving constantly: there is movement inside and outside.
In the Nine Blowings we are expelling dead air so that the wind that is in the body can move freely and our mind can be fresh. I will explain it first and then we can do it. So first you close your right fist and you put your thumb inside and you press it on your right thigh. Your hand should be on your inner thigh, as far up as you can get where there is said to be a warmth producing channel. You block that channel in your thigh
And then with your left fist you block your left nostril. You have to clear your nose beforehand. Then you blow 3 times through your right nostril, first time soft, second time harder third time quite hard and you imagine that all past obstacles, difficulties and results of negative actions leave through your nostrils like a black smoke. They leave through all the pores of your body but mainly through your nostril as black smoke. So your exhale black smoke and you inhale light that is like rainbow light full of blessing and qualities, freshness, purity and clarity. Do that to clear your right nostril and then do the same with your other side. This time you are clearing out all of the obstacles from your current or present life, here and now. When you do the third time you do it very strongly so that your belly presses all the way in against your backbone. And then you repeat the process a third time, and this time you use both fists. You breathe through both nostrils and think that all obstacles from the past present and future leave you through both nostrils as black smoke. You breathe in rainbow light and you breathe out dark smoke.
At the end of that you sit for a moment, rest the mind and then you make a strong determination, a real prayer or motivation that you will practice now for the benefit of yourself and others. You set the motivation for your practice. Practice as well as you can so that you can benefit yourself and others.
Remembering Sumpa Lotsawa’s advice about placing your mind, wherever you are is ok. If you are in a busy place it’s ok, if you are in a quiet place it’s ok. The reason we are suffering is because we are not able to rest our mind because we are so influenced by externals. Our mind gets so shaken that it doesn’t rest in one place, the wind blows. Of course it is important that we have the right environment to support us during the training period, to have as much peace as possible, to have supportive companions to give us strength but at the same time wherever we are it is the same mind we are dealing with. If you are on retreat you are the same person, the same mind is here, your habits are still here, the habits that you have when you are at home. There is less stimulation but it is the same mind. If you go to the mountains it is the same mind. So we need to learn to deal with and tame that mind. We should be able to manage our mind even in the middle of busyness when we are at work. That is the goal. And with more and more training we should be able to do that.
Now we are going to do a Milarepa practice, Milarepa was a yogi and poet in the 11 century, very famous for singing pithy instruction songs called dohas. On one occasion a Tibetan lady came to see him. He was aways moving from place to place, from cave to cave. If more and more people were coming to see him then he would move to another place, another area. One day a lady came to see him. Lay people in Tibet did not do a lot of practice, they would recite mantras, recite Tara but mostly they were very busy with work. The system was that the monks would be doing all the practice and pujas and the lay people would work and send supplies to the monasteries. So they didn’t get to do very much practice. This woman was a very devoted lay practitioner. She had taken vows to practice on special days (moon days) and the rest of the time she would work, looking after a family, working in the fields, looking after the yaks, sheep and goats. So when she came to see Milarepa she asked how she could combine her dharma practice with daily life. Because she said, that in the daytime she was working, slaving away like a servant cooking and cleaning, and at night she fella sleep because she was so tired. She asked: “How can I progress? What is going to happen when I die? I am concerned because I don’t really manage to practice very much.” Milarepa gave her some advice in the form of 4 analogies all pointing to the mind. That was all in song.
He said: Look at the mountain. It is unshakeable. You should train to be like a mountain, steady and stable.
Look at the sun and the moon: sometimes they are covered with clouds but their brilliance never fades, it is always the same. You should train to be constant like the sun and the moon without waxing and waning.
Look at the sky: space is empty. It is not made out of anything, there is no centre or edge. It is empty in itself. So train your mind to be without centre or edge.
Look at the great lake: even when there are ripples on the surface, the main body of the water is unmoving. So you should train your mind to be unmoving and unwavering like the lake.
He said: “Your mind is the most important. It is not the externals that are important, it is your mind. Settle into your mind. Look at your mind. Don’t get carried away with all different thoughts but be steady and meditate.” That was his advice to her. Very pithy and to the point: be steady, be stable, be constant, unwavering and without centre and edge. Go and meditate like that and look at your mind.
So she went away, took his advice to heart and tried to meditate, but she had some difficulties. She came back and saw him again and asked: “Sometimes I can train to be stable like a mountain, but then on the mountain there are all these trees growing and bushes and rocks so how do I deal with that? What do I do when all these trees get in the way, when all the shrubs get in the way? Sometimes I can practice in an unchanging way like the sun and the moon but what do I do when there is an eclipse? Sometimes I can train to be like space, vast endless, limitless without centre and edge, but what do I do when all the clouds gather? Sometimes I train to be unwavering like the ocean but what should I do when all the great waves come? When I look into my mind, sometimes many thoughts arise. At that time what should I do?!
Milarepa replied: ”When you practice like the mountain you should remember that all those trees, plants and bushes grow there naturally, they are not separate from the mountain. They sprout, they grow, they decay, they perish on the mountain. So they don’t change the mountain itself: this arising, dwelling, subsiding does not change the mountain. It is the same with all the other examples: if you practice and sometimes you are able to have this brilliance of the sun and the moon you should remember that the eclipse is not separate, it is not real. The eclipsing of the moon is not real and permanent it is a momentary event. The nature of the brilliance of the sun and the moon is that they shine naturally. When you are able to practice like the vastness of the sky, then when clouds gather they don’t change the space, they don’t change the sky. They are part of it: they appear from space, take shape and then dissolve back into space. The sky does not change, it is just like a display. There are many different displays: dark clouds, rain clouds, stormy clouds, white clouds. None of them change space. When you meditate like the ocean, even if the waves are in turmoil, they don’t exist as separate from the ocean. We should not give the waves a separate identity. When you meditate and thoughts crowd the mind, don’t give them a separate identity because they are not separate from the mind. They arise from the mind and subside back into the mind. They don’t have an existence apart from the nature of the mind. They are like all the different facial expressions: they don’t have a separate identity.”
Milarepa advises her that we should not give thoughts a separate identity, we should not see thoughts as separate from the mind. Thoughts have the same quality as waves in the ocean, they arise from the ocean and fall back into the ocean. Waves and the ocean have the quality of wetness, they are not separate. Their quality is the same. In the same way the nature of thoughts and the mind are the same. We should not give thoughts a separate identity. When you look at the mind you can’t find anything there, the nature of mind is emptiness and clarity. The nature of thoughts is emptiness and clarity. There is nothing solid there that we can hold onto, or that we can give a colour, location or identity. So when we meditate we should not give thoughts power or identity we should see them simply as arising from the mind and falling back into the mind. They have the same nature as mind. They have the same quality, radiance and clarity.
In some of the teachings it says that the mind perceives itself and mistakes itself, that the radiance of the mind is seen as other. The radiance of the mind is seen as thought, and thought is seen as other. Thinking is basically the radiance of the mind, the clarity of the mind but it is mistaken as other. And the emptiness aspect is mistaken as self. Then duality arises and we misunderstand emptiness for ourself and radiance for other. Duality, which is our main mistake, perpetuates suffering with attachment and aversion, grasping running away.
What this means for your meditation is that you should try to remember to relate differently to your thoughts. Don’t see them as something solid and give them an identity. See that they just arise and dissolve. There is nothing to fight, there is nothing to chase. They are part of the mind. You are not trying to get rid of anything, you are not trying to do anything, you don’t need to chase the thoughts. Simply stay with your focal point like that hovering bee. Try to settle on the focal point and sometimes if there are waves on the ocean, let the waves be, don’t give them identity, let those waves be. If there is wind and a few ripples on the surface, or big storms on the surface, let them be, because they are not separate from the mind.
When you have a technique you should not start thinking about whether it is right or wrong, that is more distraction. Don’t have doubts about your technique during practice, just go ahead with what you know as best you can. You can clarify questions outside of the session, but in the session you should not let doubts distract you because that won’t help you. Sitting and thinking about it is just another distraction.
Don’t get distracted by the imagery, but use it to help your practice. For example Milarepa’s image of a mountain refers to stablity, so you should try to have a mind that is strongly, stably focused on the object. Don’t let thoughts that arise distract you. Don’t see thoughts as separate from the mind and then get caught up in them as separate and external. The problem is that we see thought as something other: thoughts are not separate from mind, they are part of mind, they have the same quality of mind and they arise from mind. So if you relate to thought as not separate from mind, if you can resist getting caught up in what the thought is about but just stay with the breathing, then there is stability. So you are not thinking about mountains, sunshine, sky stars, try to be really with the breath. The images represent the qualities that you try to bring into your meditation.
The essence of mind is clarity and emptiness, or awareness and clarity, and this is the core of the teachings, to understand the nature of mind, and its delusions. We misunderstand how the mind perceives itself, how it solidifies itself and thinks that there is someone there. It comes back to the idea of duality and a belief in ‘I’, a self. Now for a non-Buddhist this may not be very familiar, it may be new, but all of our confusion and negativities are arise from this belief in ‘I’. Our practice is about diminishing ego-clinging and seeing the mind for what it is. This process is about looking for a self: where is this ‘I’ that says I am suffering, I am happy, I am sad, I am angry, I am confused? There is always a strong self but we can’t find it anywhere. All of the meditation that we do in Buddhism is about understanding the nature of mind: that is the goal. Not just about pacifying the mind, or pacifying the thoughts but really understanding the nature of mind, really seeing what is there. We call this insight, when we can see that we have built up this delusion of self through layers of concepts. When those concepts fall away then there is clarity and emptiness or voidness: empty of self, but full of qualities, wisdom and compassion. Not like an empty place, which doesn’t sound very appealing, but full of the qualities of a Buddha, wisdom, compassion, clarity and power.