Practice: Awareness Meditation
When we practice ngondro, we can alternate our supports for awareness. We can move from using the breath for support, to looking at a flower or listening to a sound. And what happens when our monkey-mind pops up screaming, “Pay attention to me! We must replay this past episode and anticipate the future”? If we are using the breath for support, we come back to the breath. Without judging ourselves, without getting discouraged or feeling hopeless, we just come back to the breath and get on with it.
Various forms of shamata, or awareness meditation, teach us how to uncover our innate qualities of mind, and the most common will use the breath to support our recognition of awareness. This works with feeling sensation. Breath is the most common support because it is available in all circumstances and conditions, which explains why we so often hear “Come back to the breath.” If we get lost in discursive thinking, if we get lost inside a past experience or disappear into a black hole of anger or jealousy: “Come back to the breath.” The nature of the breath makes it the most reliable support, especially for new students.
Let’s try meditating using the breath as support for awareness. But first, before purposely doing any particular meditation exercise, it’s good to start with just resting your mind. Just that. For now, remain in whatever informal posture you are in. To get a sense of how it feels to rest the mind, think about how you rest in daily life. If you jog for a few miles, what happens when you stop or take a break? Imagine cleaning the house for an hour or two, and then stopping to rest. Imagine that first moment of taking a break. Or imagine coming home to an apartment tower in Hong Kong or Minneapolis and learning that the electricity has gone off. The generators aren’t working, so you have to walk up two flights of stairs, or maybe ten or twenty. Finally you reach your apartment, get a glass of water, and sink into the couch. Aaahhh. Something like that. Think of an activity that requires extra effort, and then practice a silent version of this release. Just rest. Just relax the mind, even for a few seconds. Aaahhh.
Try that. Then rest.
Rest for a few more seconds.
Then come out of resting. How was that?
Now I have one big secret: resting the mind this way is meditation.
Yet if I say that beforehand, you might start off with some big expectation and become tense and anxious, and that’s not helpful. Yet that sense of resting, of allowing whatever arises to just be, without trying to control anything, that mind of “aaahhh” comes close to natural awareness. We call this “open awareness” or “shamata without support.”
When I say that this mind comes close to open awareness, I mean that without the intention to meditate, you will not benefit much from just the experience. Motivation and intention help you realize awareness. But if you infuse your intentions with too much hope and expectation, they may lead to disappointment. You want to combine your purposeful intention with the relaxed mind of resting.
This exercise can be repeated many times. Don’t try to hold on to the awareness. When you find your mind wandering, just come back to the exercise and start again.
Now let’s try a more formal approach to meditation. The practice is shamata, or awareness meditation. We use our breath as the object that supports our awareness.
Awareness Meditation with Breath
• Sit in a relaxed posture with your back straight.
• Your eyes can be open or closed.
• Take a minute or two to rest in open awareness. Perhaps bring to mind that feeling of sinking into a chair to rest after strenuous exertion: Aaahhh.
• Now breathe normally through your mouth, nose, or both.
• Bring your awareness to your breath as it flows in and out.
• At the end of the out-breath, rest your awareness in the gap that comes naturally before the next inhalation.
• If your mind wanders, simply bring it back to the breath.
• Continue this for five to ten minutes.
• Conclude the exercise with resting in open awareness.