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.
The truth is: without a genuine willingness to let in the suffering of others, our spiritual practice remains empty. Father Theophane, a Christian mystic, writes about an incident that happened when he took some time off from his secular duties for spiritual renewal at a remote monastery. Having heard of a monk there who was widely respected for his wisdom, he sought him out. Theophane had been forewarned that this wise man gave advice only in the form of questions. Eager to receive his own special contemplation, Theophane approached the monk: “I am a parish priest and am here on retreat. Could you give me a question to meditate on?” “Ah, yes.” The wise man answered. “My question for you is: What do they need?” A little disappointed, Theophane thanked him and went away. After a few hours of meditating on the question and feeling as if he were getting nowhere, he decided to go back to the teacher. “Excuse me,” he began, “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my apostolate during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?” “Ah, I see,” answered the wise man. Then my question is, “What do they really need?” Like so many of us, Father Theophane had assumed that true spiritual reflection focuses on our solitary self. But as the wise man reminded him, spiritual awakening is inextricably involved with others. As Theophane focused on the needs of those he had been given to serve, he would recognize their vulnerability and longing for love—and realize that their needs were no different than his own. The question the wise man suggested was wonderfully crafted for awakening in Theophane the true spiritual depth that comes from paying close attention to other human beings. Like Theophane, whenever we are caught in our own self-centered drama, everyone else becomes “other” to us, different and unreal. The world becomes a backdrop to our own special experience and everyone in it serves as supporting cast, some as adversaries, some as allies, most as simply irrelevant. Because involvement with our personal desires and concerns prevents us from paying close attention to anyone else, those around us—even family and friends—can become unreal, two-dimensional cardboard figures, not humans with wants and fears and throbbing hearts. The more different someone seems from us, the more unreal they may feel to us. We can too easily ignore or dismiss people when they are of a different race or religion, when they come from a different socio-economic “class.” Assessing them as either superior or inferior, better or worse, important or unimportant, we distance ourselves. Fixating on appearances—their looks, behavior, ways of speaking—we peg them as certain types. They are HIV positive or an alcoholic, a leftist or fundamentalist, a criminal or power-monger, a feminist or do-gooder. Sometimes our type-casting has more to do with temperament—the person is boring or narcissistic, needy or pushy, anxious or depressed. Whether extreme or subtle, typing others makes the real human invisible to our eyes and closes our heart. Once someone is an unreal other, we lose sight of how they hurt. Because we don’t experience them as feeling beings, we not only ignore them, we can inflict pain on them without compunction. Not seeing that others are real leads to a father disowning his son for being gay, divorced parents using their children as weapons. All the enormous suffering of violence and war comes from our basic failure to see that others are real. In teaching the compassion practices, I sometimes ask students to bring to mind someone they see regularly but are not personally involved with. Then I invite them to consider, “What does he or she need?” “What does this person fear?” “What is life like for this person?” After one of these meditations, a student approached me to report that a wonderful thing had happened since she’d begun doing this practice. When seeing colleagues at work, neighbors walking their dogs, clerks at stores, she’d been saying in her mind, “You are real. You are real.” Rather than being backdrops for her life, she was finding them come alive to her. She’d notice a gleam of curiosity in the eyes, a generous smile, an anxious grinding of teeth, a disappointed and resigned slope to the shoulders, the sorrow in a downcast look. If she stayed a moment longer, she could also feel their shyness, their awkwardness, or their fear. She told me, “The more real they are to me, the more real and warm and alive I feel. I feel a closeness in just being humans together. It doesn’t matter who they are … I feel like I can accept them as part of my world.” When we stop to attend and see others as real, we uncover the hidden bond that exists between all beings. In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes: Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive. We are all journeying through the night with plans, breathing in and out this mysterious life. And, as my student discovered through her practice , the more we can learn to pay attention to others, and truly see them as “real,” just like us, the more we can allow the “tender gravity of kindness” to naturally awaken and bloom. Tara Brach Adapted from Radical Acceptance, 2013
but in the expert’s there are few.”
~ Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
“The spiritual journey involves stepping into unknown territory with a hunger to know what is true. One of the essential elements of such a life is the understanding that everything we encounter— fear, resentment, jealousy, embarrassment—is actually an invitation to see clearly where we are shutting down and holding back.”
– Aura Glasser
“Evil is done by oneself alone; by oneself is one defiled.
Evil is avoided by oneself; by oneself alone is one purified.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.”
A continuation of nights of mindfulness at Bolton Congregational Church.
Saturday, 31 May
Bolton Congregational Church
(directly behind the church in the community hall–parking available)
229 Bolton Center Road
Please bring your own custion, a blanket and a friend!
Tea and treats will be provided.
Please RSVP to Tom Duva at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Dharma is deep and lovely.
“Being a slave to our concerns is like being in debt to them. When we’re in debt, we have no real freedom in our hearts. The more we pay off our debts, the more light-hearted we’ll feel. In the same way, if we can let go of our various worries and cares, peace will arise in our hearts.” — Ajaan Lee
- Distractions sort themselves out if we have the courage to turn toward what we love. Meditation practice helps us notice what we love.
- What’s here has its own life. What’s here is it. We don’t have to hurry through the now. Now is not on the way to something else.
- If you feel distracted, trying to get back to a previous state of mind won’t help. There isn’t a there to get back to. The only place available is in the distraction you are trying to get away from.
- Not only is there not a place to get back to, there’s not a me to get back to either. You can’t take hold of the past mind. That idea of myself was just made up anyway.
- It helps to allow room for the universe to come to meet us. The reason I stop texting or checking my notifications is so I can experience more life. It’s the same reason I don’t reach for a credential or an identity when I meet a stranger. A credential is a form of barrier.
- Even if you don’t stop texting at your uncle’s funeral, where you are is still it.
- We rush through the moment by working out of a story about who the other person is, or who we are. But we don’t have to put a story world in front of everyone we meet.
- Meditation is not about manufacturing a state of mind that’s clear, calm, or full of insight. It’s about interfering less and less with what is actually here.
- The nature of mind is to move. Your mind doesn’t always consult you before it moves. That’s okay, kindness applies to our own minds as well as to others.
- There is not anything that’s not meditation. You are the universe that you are in, so the thing you think you are not, you’re that too.
“The World Catches Us Every Time”
There will be a celebration of The Buddha’s Birthday this Sunday, May 18th at Phap Hoa Temple. Please join us. The celebration will begin at 11 AM and will include chanting, recitations and the bathing of the baby Buddha! The practice will be followed by a wonderful vegetarian luncheon, and fellowship. For more information, please call (860) 896-6999.