This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Meditation Class 4: You've Got it All So You're Good to Go.
Maybe you are just reading these lesson posts like a textbook or maybe you are reading them as an instruction manual and actually trying to follow along. So I need to tell you that in this endeavor, there is absolutely no substitute for experience. There are no crib notes or cheat sheets and it doesn't matter if you memorize every word I've written. You're never going to get it. Sorry. From the Buddha onward, great teachers have always insisted nothing is going to save you but yourself. Meditation is strictly DIY. So there is no God here to call upon for help. At least no external being hiding up in some mysterious heaven. No. Not even a son who showed up once. But...and here's the really big BUT of good news ...there is something sublime in you. And that's what we're trying to locate. That is why your personal experience of what happens during meditation is going to be all that you are going to have to go on, the only thing you can count on.. Only you will honestly know how you are doing, how far along the path to the end of suffering you have journeyed. And only you will be fooling yourself if you haven't budged for lack of effort.
So trust yourself. Give yourself a break. Buddhists don't put much stock in reading other people's ideas in books and taking tests to prove you've absorbed them, which is of course what we reflexively do in school. Buddha taught that there is a huge difference between education you acquire and experience you actually have. It's the difference perhaps between to do and to be. Somebody can tell you in excruciating detail about their trip to the Everest Base Camp and bombard you with their selfies and videos, but until you actually go there yourself, you have no absolutely certainty what and where the Everest Base Camp really is. Someone might warn you not to put your hand in the fire but that's academic, something you could have doubt about, at least until you put your hand in the fire and burn the hell out of it. That's how you learn beyond doubt. Experience is certainty. It's unimpeachable. The Buddha insisted it is the only thing we can ever wholeheartedly trust.
That's why he maintained that he was merely a teacher, just someone who could tell us what he did to get where he got--enlightenment, and encourage us to try it for ourselves. What he said, what he is saying, is that we can be just like him and get to the end of suffering like he did because we already have everything he had when he started: a body, a mind, experiences of suffering. Those are the only tools necessary for the trek to enlightenment.
Rinpoches-- that is a title of great respect for Tibetan gurus, sometimes refer to our Buddhanature, pointing out that every being inherently has it. What they are saying is we all have what the Buddha had within him: the ability to tame our mind and wake up, the ability to end every last shred of suffering from birth, life, old age, sickness and death. Here is how one of the earliest Tibetan Rinpoche's, Je Gampopa put it: Sentient beings possess the essence of buddhahood. . . . The actual way
in which they possess it can be exemplified by the way silver is present
in silver ore, the way sesame oil is present in sesame seeds or the way
butter is present in milk. It is possible to obtain the silver that is in the ore.
It is possible to obtain the oil that is in the sesame seeds. It is possible
to obtain the butter that is in the milk and likewise it is possible
to obtain the buddhahood that is in sentient beings.
So that's what we're trying to do here and why it's up to you to do it. Let the good news motivate you. You already have everything you need, everything worth having, so you're good to go. You are just perfect right now, just the way you are. We are not embarking on a regime of self-improvement here. We are not trying to wash away some original or more likely unoriginal sin. There is nothing wrong with you, no reason to have guilt. You just don't know how fabulous you can be because until now nobody has pointed that out to you. Nobody has told you that, with right effort, meditation can bring out the sublime already in you. So please try to sit still at least once a day and tune into your own mind. May all beings be freed from suffering and dwell with happiness and joy in the great equanimity
Oh my. It's getting harder and harder to see the Buddhanature goodness in other human beings, particularly in those behemoth corporations lawyers claim as the newest members of our ever evolving species. (Got that, Darwin?) This last week alone Comcast flexed its monopoly power here in the supposed epicenter of tech innovation, San Francisco, to raise my internet rate by almost 5% to over $75 a month for nothing new and nothing to rave about. Because I refuse to pay them an additional $100 to watch TV that has nothing worth watching, they prevented me from viewing the Winter Olympics. i do have a small TV with an HD antenna on which I get to watch Downtown Abbey, but I can't watch anything on NBC. Comcast owns it and thanks to money squabbles in San Francisco, the station picked up and moved to San Jose with a transmitter that deliberately doesn't reach the city. So if you don't meet their demands, no NBC, no winter Olympics, no SNL for laughs. This same week Comcast announced it wants to be gatekeeper to all communication and nobody except consumers like me flinched at being screwed with our own non-negotiable fees. As I was digesting this, the annual renewal for homeowner insurance showed up in the mail not only with a hefty unexplained premium increase, but an extra $230 payment for worthless terrorism coverage that is not legally mandatory but I am not permitted by the issuer to refuse. They can do this because there's not much competition in this particular niche market. You got another definition for extortion?
I went to buy a new batch of the See's Candy chocolate lollipops I distribute as small spontaneous thank yous for sudden acts of kindness and also take to the Tibetan monks who seem to love them. For at least four years, these treats were $.50 a pop so i could be very generous in handing them out. Then See's the corporation changed hands and its mission was not so much to sell candy that made people happy but, you know, "to unlock pent-up financial value." So despite stability in the price of basic foods and minimum wage labor, every few months over the last two years, See's Candy has increased the price of the lollipops by a nickel. They're now $.85 a pop, for the moment anyway.
And to top it all off, I went from the candy store to the pharmacy to fill a prescription, the only prescription drug I have needed in the last at least ten years except for the occasional generic antibiotic, and had to pay out of pocket $150 because the insurance company refuses to pay for the only available option of a drug needed by thousands if not millions of menopausal women. They know we have no options. I have been trying not to seethe and Dharma practice is a help with that. Yet I have been thinking more than usual about basic goodness and Buddhanature and the compassion supposedly buried in all of us. Frankly, and probably because one of my signs is Scorpio, what I have been thinking is that if I were trapped in a room with one insurance company executive and one Jihadi terrorist, and I had one shot at saving myself so I might benefit beings, I wouldn't need to hesitate to decide who to kill as the more evil. Life has become that twisted in the United $tate of America. To get away from it all, the insidiousness we have to live with, I've four times in six weeks re-read the entire collection of Peanuts comic strips given to me by surprise as a birthday present by the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, which I visited on my special day. It still tickles me that the most awful words in the world, according to Snoopy, are: "You stay home now and be a good dog." And that when Linus tells Lucy there's something she needs to know: "The world does not revolve around you", she looks at him and says: "You're kidding." What's so infinitely loveable about these comic characters, like the sitcom characters of Seinfeld who delighted everyone with a surprise re-appearance in a Superbowl ad, is not just their inner goodness struggling to shine through, but seeing the sweet fallibility this bottleneck produces. George and Charlie Brown, Elaine and Sally, Lucy and Jerry are all striving, struggling and conniving but--and it's the really really big but--they are all clearly sometimes mystified by life, often in fact a mess at meeting its challenges. They're allowed to fail and keep on going. Getting to see that is what makes us love them. We all used to be able to fail too and love ourselves and each other and keep going...before too big...you know...only monopolists and big money got to do that-- at our expense.
Meditation is, as you have started to discover, very much a mind/body experience. So it's useful to know there is a particular physical posture that benefits the mental effort, a posture people 2,600 years ago, without see-through machinery, devised to channel the energy and emotions of the body. It starts with being seated. Optimally this is on a cushion on the floor, but if you can't manage that, use a very comfortable straight back chair. It's critical for circulation that your hips remain higher than your knees. It's also critical that the back is ramrod straight, not slouched or slumped to block energy flow. We want our front, chest and gut, to be fearlessly open to the world and whatever it may offer. We are warriors, not wimps.
The head should rest comfortably erect above the shoulders, straight in line with the back, not cocked or slumped. It helps to spread the shoulders like an eagle ready to swoop, and to tuck in the chin just a little. Don't seal or pinch your lips: open them just enough to let air in. Everything should be as relaxed as possible.
At some point somewhere, you've likely seen an image of someone meditating on a cushion with legs folded like a pretzel. Maybe the soles of their feet were upturned on their thighs. Maybe you found this contortion frightening and don't want to go there. Well, you don't have to go that far. Since the idea is to keep the body relaxed to get the mind calm, torture is not an option. Still, if you are on a cushion, you need a stable base to keep you straight, and no shape offers more stability than a triangle. So you need to try at least to cross your legs, then lower them so your left foot is under or touching your right knee and vice versa. This is also a bit of mental trickery meant to erase the distinction between right and left so there's only straight up and straight ahead. If you are sitting in a chair, try to at least cross your ankles. The finishing touches on this posture are to rest your hands palms down on your thighs or your knees, whichever reach is most comfortable, and to rest your open eyes on a point about 1 foot in front of you-- on the floor is okay. Don't look for something to look at and think about. Just gaze forward.
So the practice is to sit like this, count your breathing cycles and discover what happens. You can try for five or even ten minutes a day. As we learned earlier, you're going to tune into a torrent of thoughts, an endless news channel. That's okay. It's always been there and now at last you're noticing.
Meditation is about discovering how that stream of thoughts has controlled us and how we can control it. This reversal is not going to happen in a day or even a month. How could it? You've been creating that news channel for lifetimes, so it's going to take some time to get it off the air. Every time you sit and meditate for five minutes or more definitely gets you closer to that achievement. It gets you more and more familiar with how you operate. Now if you are going to try this, it's useful to know there are actually two kinds of genuine Buddhist meditation and they are necessarily sequential. The first is called "shamatha", which means calm--perfectly calm, and it's the key to the second, "vipashyana", clearly seeing or in a word, insight. There's no point trying to jump ahead to that more fun stuff because we can't get insight into what makes us tick until we calm our mind enough to make it a steady searchlight. The traditional image for describing this situation is the ocean. Our mind is indeed a vast ocean of consciousness. Can you understand that? Well some times, the ocean can be very stormy, tormented by white caps, thundering rollers, even just a constant chop that means danger for many boats and swimmers. Traditionally thoughts are viewed as waves stirring up the ocean of your mind. They are part and parcel of your consciousness--they are coming up from the depths, yet they are passing over and through it, energetically churning it up until it's tough to be out on it. Everything is way too stirred up to see where the reefs and shoals are.
Sometimes, in contrast, when there is no wind, the ocean lies flat, calmly reflecting the sun or moon, even the landscape at its edge. It reveals what's hiding underneath. It's not a scary, unknowable expanse.
So to see into our mind, we need to calm it down. Just noticing your thoughts can do that. Just seeing them pricks them so they burst like a bubble or balloon-- when you remember to see them that is. And that's the trick here. So this is the basic starter practice: sit in that prescribed posture for at least five minutes a day and try to monitor your mind. That means: try not to get carried away on a train of thought. You will. Trust me, you will again and again. We all do even after years of practicing this. But you will get better and faster at realizing you've been thoughtnapped. Soon, at some moment of your life, you're going to be doing something or talking to someone and suddenly realize your not there: you've gone off on a train of thought. You're missing out, not seeing what's really happening.
And that should encourage you to keep making this effort. The teaching is very simple: as soon as you realize you've been carried away, take a deep breath to signal a fresh start and begin again to notice you are breathing. Notice, like that elevator sign says, you are here, on a chair or cushion or wherever you may physically be. Keep coming back to that. This is fitness training. Basic points to remember when you attempt this: it doesn't matter what you are thinking. Treat all thoughts with equal opportunity and let them go bye bye as best you can. As soon as you recognize you are thinking, the thought will vanish all by itself. Don't worry when another comes along. Inevitably it will. We never stop thinking, we will never stop thoughts from flowing like the current of the ocean. But we can stop from getting carried away by them. That's the goal here. To stay calm so we can carry on without making a mess of things. Please remember to share this with anyone who might be curious about meditation. And please ask questions by posting a comment. I'll do my best to respond asap. By this merit may all beings be freed of suffering.
Meditation Lesson 2: Tuning into your own 24/7 HD Channel
To understand what we're doing when we meditate, it helps to know the original Sanskrit for the effort, bhavana, can be translated as "mental development." When Tibetans imported the practice, they deliberately chose instead to call it gom, which translates as "to familarize" or, if you prefer, to become familiar with. In other words, meditation is simply the process by which we discover how our own private mind actually works. We just have to dive in.
We are clueless only because we haven't. We've never bothered to even tune in. Our lives have been entirely outward bound, outwardly focused on all the hubbub around us. We think of ourselves as control freaks, yet ironically, we have no idea what's really controlling us and therefore how out of control we really are.
In Lesson 1, when we just stopped for a minute, literally a minute, and for the first time ever peeked inside, we made the I bet shocking discovery that our mind is a runaway, a daredevil that doesn't want to stay
home and be with us. It lives on the streets. By running back to replay what we've already done, or racing ahead to imagine what we're going to do, our mind makes daydreamers out of us. It forces us through our lives like drivers who sit at a red light
and until horns start honking, don't notice the signal's green, drivers so distracted, they can't remember how they got where they ended up. Daydreaming makes us sleepwalkers; meditation helps us to wake up.
Why should we want to do that? Mainly because there are no limits on the glory that can be achieved when all the energy of the mind is working in perfect tandem with all the energy of the body. Mind and body as the same team is the essence of "peak experience." It's the meaning of enlightenment. Perhaps more importantly on an everyday basis, it's the cure for our subtle stress and sharp emotional pain. . Meditation is like a police hunt for the culprit who won't stop bothering us, the one holding us back. (Spoiler alert: we're going to find out that we are our own worst enemy.) Meditation shows us that when our mind runs away from where we actually are and what we are doing, we can't see straight and thus get into all kinds of trouble. We cause ourselves suffering because we cannot respond with wisdom and skill. The Buddha called his teaching medicine for the mind. He said it was the way to end our suffering. And in fact it is. Best of all, when we learn how to help ourselves stop suffering so much, we're going to be able to help others too. So there's nothing to do but be Inward Bound and familiarize ourselves with our very own mind. It's good to do the 60-second sit again to see what you can see this time. Try it for 2 minutes, even 3. Just notice how you start out counting your breathing cycle maybe one, two or three times and then what? Just try to discover what is going on. Just watch. My teacher says we should just watch our mind like a birdwatcher focusing their attention on the species they've spotted. They just watch it. They don't try to control it and they definitely don't judge it. They just watch to become familiar with its ways. That's how we should watch our own mind while we are learning to meditate. It's optimum of course to meditate sitting very quietly in a comfortable chair or on a fat floor cushion if you are able. The reason the Buddha suggested crossing ankles or sitting cross-legged is to blur distracting distinctions like left and right, so do that if you are able. Rest your hands palms down on your thighs or knees, and leave your lips slightly ajar so air flows. It will help immeasurably if you can sit erect instead of slouched. Sitting erect makes you a warrior unafraid to face whatever happens. It also helps energy flow more freely through your body to keep it relaxed. The point is to get your body situated comfortably enough to not have cramps or itches or pains that distract you from watching your mind. Try this simple mind watching meditation twice a day if you can. Just watch for a minute or two to learn. And never feel bad about anything you discover. It's all good because it's helping you get better at life. If it wasn't there, you'd have nothing to work with, no fertilizer to make perfection grow. This is very important to remember. Everything you need to reach perfection is right there inside you just waiting to be discovered. This is a practice in which all that toxic stuff works like homeopathic medicine to cure you. And by the way, here's more good news. Meditation is a very portable practice. You can try one minute of it while standing in the endless post office line, ignoring a commercial on TV, riding public transit, even lying in bed. Just not while driving, okay?
You're going to find your mind is a fascinating 24/7 running news channel you can tune into at any time.
Author of How To Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market, new edition published May 2011; and Veggiyana: the Dharma of Cooking, published September 2011 by Wisdom Publications. Founder and president of Veggiyana, a charitable effort to feed Buddhist monastics and schoolchildren in India, Nepal and Tibet. On Facebook as Prima Dharma Cook.
This is a blog of essays from the Buddhist perspective of Sandy Garson.
Visit my web site Yours In The Dharma, where I try to make sense of the bewilderment in daily life. I meditate aloud on how the teachings of my guru Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, the golden rosary of his Tibetan Kagyu lineage and the Buddha himself come alive in the headlines and heartaches to rescue us all from suffering.