All too often, we confuse meditation with concentration. Specifically, we attempt to lock our attention into a fixed, non-thought position. While there are meditation techniques that include one-pointed concentration on an object – the breath, a candle, a visualization, etc. – these techniques are mental exercises and alone do not constitute a complete path. Due to the oversimplification and commoditization of meditation and mindfulness, the word meditation has become synonymous with non-thought and the struggle to achieve that imagined state of mental stasis. Because it is quite difficult to fix the attention on one point without wavering or thinking, many meditators struggle with the practice, and either give up in frustration, pretend to meditate while inwardly feeling a sense of failure, or dedicate an enormous amount of effort in an attempt to stop mind from producing thoughts. None of those approaches are useful. In particular, if we do in fact set aside time to meditate, and then we spend all that time trying to tame the wild monkey of the mind by exerting the illusory mental effort of inner constraint and antagonism toward our own thoughts, then we are squandering that precious time in a practice that is ultimately fruitless. Instead, when we use our meditation time to practice present, fresh wakefulness, the benefits to ourselves and others become immediately obvious.
When a living being stops moving, it is dead. When a person ceases all thoughts, stops moving, and stops speaking, but remains alive, they are in a coma and we call them a “vegetable.” Dynamism is the mark of life, of energy, of function. Nothing in the universe ever stops moving entirely, and temporary stasis is almost always a sign of imbalance. Mental stasis is not the ultimate goal of meditation! The practices associated with letting go of thinking are exercises that we use to identify, on a very basic level, that we have the ability to choose what we are doing with our attention at any given moment. Because most of us spend most of the time thinking haphazardly and with no clear direction or attention, calm-abiding and mindfulness practices serve to introduce us to our capacity to direct the mind rather than be directed by fear and greed-based fantasies. Once we recognize that we can use our attention on purpose, then it is essential that we direct that attention somewhere useful, and not just shut it down entirely.
The effort to shut down the thinking mind often involves a kind of internal, concentrated self-suppression. We close our eyes and attempt to fixate on one thing, to the exclusion of all else. When we are meditating this way, distractions are distracting. We may hear sounds outside the room where we are sitting, and become distracted by those sounds. A person may enter the room and speak to us, breaking our concentration and interrupting our practice. We may become distracted by our physical sensations, our aches and pains, our hunger or thirst. We may fight the urge to make ourselves more comfortable, thinking, “I am meditating. I must sit still.” And of course, we are easily distracted by our thoughts. They keep coming up, and we keep shutting them down. Meditation becomes a battle between self – armed with the idea that thoughts are bad – and thoughts which arise like fast-growing weeds in our Zen garden.
Of particular interest here is the quality of that effort, the contraction of that concentration, the weight of that self-suppression. When we apply ourselves with willful, heavy effort to the task of suppressing our thoughts, we are engaging in a form of grasping – the very thing that meditation is supposed to help relieve. Meditation, at its root, is a practice to support us in letting go of control, letting go of the effort to shape ourselves and the world into a static ideal, and instead reside in ourselves and the world as is. The world, our bodies, and our minds, are all in a constant state of dynamic transformation, so the effort to stop the mind is in essence an essential expression of the mistaken view that we can hold on to things we like, and fend off things we don’t. The effortful suppression of thinking is a tiresome waste of our precious time.
When we are watching a Netflix movie on the computer, and the movie stops mid-frame, we give it a while to buffer, and then if it still doesn’t play, we refresh the browser. Imagine if a meditation instructor gave you a movie that contained the timeless wisdom of the Buddha, and then told you to put that movie on pause, and watch it on pause for days, months, years, to the exclusion of all else. Aside from the small benefit that is gained from learning to do something with diligence and consistency, watching a movie on pause, especially a movie that contains the wisdom of the Buddha, seems like a silly thing to do. We should watch the movie! When we meditate, if we find ourselves hunkered down, holding on to concentration, forcing mind to submit to mentally imposed stasis, we should refresh our browser. Look up, look out, look around. See the movie of life! It is everywhere, and in it there is the wisdom of the enlightened ones.
Many Vajrayana Buddhist meditation practices begin with the intonation of the syllable AH. This being a short sound at the beginning of a longer practice, it is easy to say it and then progress on to the rest of the practice without giving much thought to its meaning or purpose. However, when we look into it, we find that this single syllable represents the entire practice, the entire teaching, and the entire path. When we understand and embody the meaning of the syllable AH, it becomes the foundation of every thing else we do. Putting it at the beginning of a practice is one of the many ways that Vajrayana Buddhism starts at the end of the path with something utterly simple and then works circularly backwards thorough increasing complications, ultimately arriving at the beginning again with utter simplicity. Because the syllable contains so much meaning, any approach to explaining it will necessarily fall short, so bear in mind that this perspective is but one among many. May it be useful.
They way I see it, the sun rises, moves through the sky, and sets. It makes sense to me that for most of human history, we believed that the sun moved around the earth. It really does seem that way. Even though now it’s a well-known fact that the earth moves around the sun, when I look skyward, I see the sun move. I believe the modern scientific explanation of orbital mechanics, but I am choosing to believe that explanation – I have not investigated it on my own and so I do not know the truth of it on the basis of my own experience. The way I see it, the sun rises, moves through the sky, and sets. The way I see it is quite different from the way it really is.
One of the premises of Buddhism is that until we carefully examine reality, the way it appears to us is not the way it is. Like everyone who watches the sun move through the sky, the truth is directly in front of us, but our false concepts confuse our perception. I think that because Buddhism has religious and metaphysical aspects to it, many of us automatically assume that the Buddhist pronouncement that things are not as they first appear hints that there is a mystical or supernatural dimension of reality to believe in, and that Buddhism, like many religions, is an attempt to introduce us to that mystical dimension, or even to change us into supernatural beings. The concept of enlightenment, for example, is often automatically considered to be extraordinary, and enlightened beings are assumed to be special, even magical. But in truth, enlightenment is merely the ability to know things as they are, like knowing that it’s really the earth that is moving, and not the sun. Enlightened beings are those who, like Copernicus and the Buddha, are able to find reality, even when it is a reality that seems to contradict ordinary experience.
In addition to containing religious and spiritual aspects that can mislead us into thinking supernatural thoughts, Buddhism also looks similar to philosophy, and that comparison can mislead us into thinking that Buddhism is a set of ideas that we can think about and then either agree with or disagree with. Many of us are connoisseurs of good ideas, shopping around amongst many metaphysical and philosophical traditions, and then building personal collages of our own ideas mixed with the snippets we’ve gathered along the way. While these collages can be beautiful, useful, and profound, they are just as often based on ideas and preferences as they are on accurate observations made through the diligent investigation of reality. Buddhism is not a collection of good ideas introduced to us by the Buddha and subsequent thinkers of good ideas, and yet we often approach it that way.
For example, we love to discuss the concept of karma, asking things like, “Do you believe in bad karma?” But karma is not something to believe in, and it isn’t at all like the idea that most of us conjure up about having some sort of universal overseeing intelligence that punishes us later for the wrongdoings we commit now. Instead, karma is just a Sanskrit word that describes the law of cause and effect. We could ask, “Do you believe in Newton’s Third Law? Does every action have an equal and opposite reaction?” and then we would be having a coherent discussion about karma. It’s not a matter of whether or not we believe in Newton’s Third Law. Newton was just describing the way things are. Similarly, a discussion about essential Buddhist concepts should be a discussion about ordinary things as they are, rather than a discussion about things as they seem, as we imagine them, or as we would like them to be.
The earth seems relatively flat, the stars seem like a dome of pinprick lights over my head, and the sun seems to move through the sky. For tens of thousands of years, we believed the stories we told ourselves about those observations, because no one had figured out what was really going on. Then, curious people started making more careful observations, and discovered the truth. Their thinking was neither religious nor philosophical. They were not mystics following the machinations of their own creative impulses, but dedicated and educated scientists, who put in the time and the effort to carefully consider their subjects. When they discovered and proved that the earth was round, that the stars inhabit vast expanses of space, and that we orbit the sun, they were not expounding upon fantastical religious stories, nor were they coming up with grand philosophical ideas. They were just describing things as they are. But because their descriptions contradicted both the religious and philosophical stories of the time, as well as the ordinary observations of everyone who had ever lived and looked skyward, pioneering scientists were often ostracized. The truth is often quite difficult to wrap our minds around, especially when our minds are so wrapped around such convincing falsehoods.
Greek scholar Aristarchus of Samos had already developed a coherent theory of the planetary orbits around the sun almost two thousand years before Copernicus published On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres, which popular history often credits as first proof of the heliocentric orbit of the earth. Similarly, more than two thousand years after Siddhartha Gautama stated that he had carefully investigated the nature of reality and found it to both exist and not exist, quantum theorists are just starting to scratch the surface of that truth. Siddhartha himself based his investigations on the previous discoveries of at least three thousand years of the Vedic and Yoga traditions before him. These observations about the world and the way it works are not new discoveries, nor are they good ideas generated in the minds of special people. We human beings have been looking up at the stars and down into our own minds for a long time. Be it the arcane equations of an ancient Greek scholar, the rhythmic verses of the Dhammapala, or the radically insightful musings of Albert Einstein, we have been noticing and explaining natural reality to each other for thousands of years. As much as we’d like to believe that we are discovering something new, or becoming wise, we are more like people who have continued to believe that the sun moves through the sky, despite the ancient and enduring proof to the contrary.
Our religions tend to offer creative and supernatural descriptions of the way things are, and if we want, we can approach Buddhism as a religion. It will provide us with everything we need should we choose to use it that way. It can be a shamanistic religion, complete with divination, plant medicine, and animistic relationships with the natural landscape. Or, it can be a mystical religion, complete with chakras, mantras, rainbows, and reincarnation. If we’d like something more austere, we can wear black, think in riddles, and stare at the wall. We can even indulge in stories of immaculate conception, heaven, hell, demons, and sin, if we are so inclined. Buddhism takes the religious forms of the cultures that adopt it, and it does so because for as long as we’ve been around, we have created those religious frameworks. But we are not expected to believe the Buddhist religious stories, only to use them. They are allegorical, metaphorical, and mythical tools. They are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. The end of Buddhism in all its forms is not faith in the stories, nor the revelation of something supernatural, but personal awareness of the way things are. We may use the religious stories of Buddhism if they serve as effective supports to our development of awareness and discernment, or we may choose to proceed without much use of the religious stories, and instead concentrate on things that are more tangible, workable, and personal.
We can also approach Buddhism as a philosophy, and find a wealth of logic, debate, and semantics. Looking back to the origins of Buddhism from a philosophical perspective, we find that there is little difference between the philosophy of Buddhism and the many schools of Vedic and Yogic philosophy that came before it. Within Buddhism itself, there is a vast family tree of branching and even fundamentally contradictory schools. Reading of the distinctions between the schools of thought, it quickly becomes apparent that if we want to have elaborate arguments about very fine philosophical concepts, Buddhism and its cousins will deliver. But no matter what philosophical road we take, if it is authentic Buddhism, it leads not to a grand and final idea, but simply to awareness of the way things are. We may use the philosophical approaches of Buddhism to develop our capacities for logic, reason, and clarity, or we may choose to proceed without much use of philosophical thinking and instead concentrate on direct experience.
Here, we are not approaching Buddhism as a religion, and while we will use some philosophical thinking as a tool, our goal is not to prove a point, win an argument, or say something elegant. Our goal is to do what is necessary to see beyond appearances, into the nature of things. To that end, we are going to approach Buddhism more like a science than as a religion or a philosophy. Like diligent scientists we can design well-planned experiments, observe the results, and refuse to settle for anything but raw, natural truth.
If we want to understand orbital mechanics, we can put our minds to it, study the science until it becomes our own. Along the way, we’ll have to pick up some complicated math, and be willing to expand our perspective beyond our ordinary vantage point. Similarly, if we want to understand the nature of reality beyond mere appearances, we can study the science of mind until it becomes our own. Along the way, we’ll have to train our minds in quite subtle and sophisticated ways, and be willing to expand our perspective beyond our ordinary vantage point. A dedicated Buddhist may not know how Aristarchus of Samos figured out that we are spinning around the sun, but we can say that like Aristarchus, through careful observation and mind training, we have come to know, from both experiential and conceptual perspectives, that the nature of reality is not as it first appears. This isn’t something we do as a nice little hobby on the side. It is a sophisticated discipline, a refinement down to the essence of things.
As a discipline, science is rigorous, methodical, time-consuming, and relatively trustworthy. I am reminded of my friend who is a botanist. She set up an experiment at an altitude in the Rocky Mountains where the plants transition from lower elevation species to more Alpine species. She set up an array of infrared lights to simulate the effects of global warming, to see what will happen to those transitional species as the planet warms. Then, over a period of three years, she hiked out to the site, counted the leaves on each plant, measured each stem, etcetera, and carefully compared those results to the control group that was not heated. When she explained the experiment to me, I told her, “Oh my God. I’d never have the patience to do that,” which is true – methodical physical activities like that are nerve-wracking for me – but in retrospect, now I recognize that my meditation practice has required just that kind of patience, diligence, and much more time. I compare Buddhist practice to scientific inquiry because it takes real effort, real study, and real time.
Putting quality time into our practice is essential, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. While it is possible for an individual to conduct a thorough and insightful investigation into the nature of reality without ever encountering the works of previous explorers, in most cases it is useful to use the support of previous discoveries to bootstrap our process. We could perform all of the observations and calculations that Aristarchus of Samos did more than two thousand years ago, without ever consulting any work of any astronomer, and we’d ultimately come to the same conclusions. Or, we can use previous explorers’ work to save ourselves a bunch of time and effort. That’s why, like science students, we work on previously proven experiments until we understand the scientific process enough to do it on our own. Doing so, we bring ourselves into close contact with the wisdom and discoveries of the great pioneers. Eventually, their insights dawn within us, and then we may move on to make new discoveries.
The cannon of ancient and modern Buddhist texts that we have access to for our study and practice began as an oral tradition, transmitted directly from teacher to student, and to this day maintains an unbroken lineage of oral transmission. The words of the Buddha were first memorized and shared from teacher to student, and then eventually written down several hundred years after his death, establishing a written lineage. But despite having those written texts, every Buddhist culture keeps the unbroken oral tradition alive. This living lineage is maintained in two ways – by reading and memorizing the ancient texts, and by placing great importance on the teacher-student relationship. Buddhist teachings often point out that it is quite difficult to recognize the nature of reality without the support of a living person who has come to that recognition. I say “quite difficult” because being a rational tradition, Buddhism recognizes that we can make all of the necessary discoveries on our own, without the help of text or teacher, much like a person who looks carefully at the stars may come to understand their movement. However, in most cases, it is more expedient to rely upon the written lineage and the living teacher.
The Sanskrit word Dharma, when capitalized, is used to encompass the words of the Buddha and all of the subsequent Buddhist teachings that have emerged, including the words of our living teachers. The word dharma, when not capitalized, has a broader meaning. It refers to all phenomena, including mental objects. A simple definition of dharma is: “That which arises.” If something arises, be it an object or an idea, beneficial or harmful, wise or foolish, it is dharma. When the Buddha spoke, it was Dharma, the truth about the way things are, and what he spoke of was dharma, all that arises. In other words, he was like Aristarchus of Samos, describing the movement of the earth around the sun – not an idea, not something new, but something primordially true and presently available to everyone. It looks one way, they said, but really, it’s another. It’s just a matter of perspective. All perceptions and concepts are dharma, which is nature itself. The perceptions and concepts that are accurate are Dharma, the laws of nature.
Both the written and the oral lineages of Buddhist Dharma are language-dependent. The Buddha made his initial discoveries, and then shared them with people through the use of the spoken word. Subsequently, those discoveries were passed from one person to the next in the oral tradition, and then preserved and expanded in the written form. If not for language, each of us would have to rediscover everything ourselves, without assistance. Because of language, we have access to the wisdom of those who have come before us. The written repository of Buddhist insight gives us access to the entire tradition, from the words of the Buddha to these contemporary teachings. When only an oral tradition exists, the sum of the knowledge of an individual is lost when they die, except to the extent that the individual has transmitted that knowledge directly to someone else. With written language, we are able to store and transmit much more information from one generation to the next. We have, in essence, access to the collected information of many generations of experimentation and research. For this reason, we are able to build upon the work of previous generations, always pushing the envelope of discovery.
We can see the language-based exponential growth of human information gathering and exchange exemplified in the rapid development of technology. Nowadays, almost all of what we wear, eat, and use as tools is built upon a framework of technology that is so deep and so complex as to be greater than any one mind can encompass alone. No one person can build a computer from dirt. It is built upon a vast infrastructure of information that dates back to the origins of mathematical concepts themselves – information that we have passed from one generation to the next in written form. Similarly, the Buddhist tradition in its current form is the product of several thousand years research, experimentation, and application based on the database of information passed through the generations in both the written and the oral traditions. The sophistication of the Buddhist tradition is such that even the first word of this meditation practice, AH, is something like a computer chip in that it contains a wealth of stored information built upon the accumulation of thousands of years of study and practice.
Somehow, we manage to store information in our minds, turn that information into words, and then transmit that information to someone else. We can explain how to do something, and if the explanation is good enough, someone listening to or reading the explanation can do it themselves. I can say, “If you freeze a banana and then put it in your smoothie, it’ll be delicious.” Of course, you don’t have to believe me. Instead, you can take my suggestion and try it for yourself. You may come back to me after you’ve tried a frozen banana in your smoothie and say, “I didn’t like it.” While we may have different opinions about the outcome, we can both agree that there was in fact a frozen banana in both of our smoothies, and you tried it because I used words to suggest it. The information was successfully transmitted from one person to another. Language is a bridge between the experiences of two people. Through language we can share our experiences with each other, and learn from each other.
When we look at it more closely, we can see that language is a means by which one person uses phonemes, shaped vibrations, be they physical or imagined, spoken or evoked through the written word, to trigger specific associations in the mind of the listener or reader. For example, I can use the word banana to trigger an association with that particular fruit in your mind. Though I have not even made the sounds associated with that word, when you read it, the sound, or the function of the sound, arises in your mind, followed quickly by the association. There is no banana here where I am, and there is no banana there where you are, but now we are both thinking about bananas because that particular collection of sound vibrations or imagined sound vibrations gives rise to the shared association with the fruit in our minds. The phonemes ba-na-na have nothing at all to do with the actual fruit, which is why there can be so many languages with so many different sounds all meaning the same thing. The sounds’ meanings are not intrinsic – they only have meaning through our shared associations.
Here we are exploring the meaning and the purpose of the AH sound in meditation practice. We can start by considering our shared associations with that sound, and then build new associations with it, until it becomes rich and meaningful. Then, when we read it, say it, or hear it, those rich and meaningful associations will arise in our minds as quickly and easily as bananas. In order to accomplish this, in order to turn the AH sound into something useful, we must build up its meaning gradually through repeated experience. Reading this book will be part of that experience, but in order for it to develop into its full potential, we must engage in practice, contemplation, interaction with teachers and other students, and give time to allow a natural maturing process to occur. If you’ve never tasted a banana, no words will be able to give you the experience. To know the taste of a banana, you must eat a banana. Think of this as a treasure map to a banana tree – just reading it will not be enough. You’ve got to put on your shoes, walk to the tree, pick the banana, and eat it. In this case, you’ve got to engage with your own experiences in such a way that you find out for yourself what Vajrayana Buddhists are talking about when they say AH.
In many languages, the AH sound is the first sound of the alphabet. It is arguably the first sound that most of us make, the first cry of a newborn. It is the sound of insight, laughter, tears, and the root sound for the words mother and father, mama and dada, ama and apa. On a very basic, very animal level, AH is the fundamental sound upon which we build all others. First there is silence, and then there is AH. In Vajrayana Buddhist practices, the AH syllable represents something similarly fundamental – it looks to the beginning of things.
From a scientific perspective, it is theorized that long ago there was an event, the Big Bang, which appears to be the moment that all of the matter and energy in the universe came into being. Our most sophisticated experiments continue to bring us closer and closer to an understanding of the conditions at that moment, now with measurements of gravitational waves that appear to have been initiated just milliseconds after the beginning of everything. The Big Bang theory seems to be quite accurate. Without contradicting that theory, another field of scientific inquiry has come up with similarly conclusive evidence that time is a non-linear two-way feedback loop, wherein the past affects the future and the future affects the past. The fact that time is non-linear, that the past and the future are simultaneous and interactive, does not negate the real and accurate observations concerning the cosmological beginning of things. There was a moment when this universe began, and not only is that moment simultaneous with now, but it is also simultaneous with all future events. While the scientific discipline is yet to arrive at a unified theory that reconciles the apparent contradictions between its equally accurate observations about the nature of reality, it is indisputably evident that both are true. There was a beginning of time, and also time is beginingless.
Now let’s consider the beginning of things from a Buddhist perspective. As with the Western scientific understanding of things, Buddhism includes creation stories from the perspective of linear time, as well as an understanding of the non-linear interconnectedness of all things through all time. Also like the Western perspective, Buddhism comfortably considers both seemingly contradictory explanations to be statements of fact. Because the traditional Buddhist creation stories are blatantly mythical, religious, and magical, we are not concerned with them here, but it suffices to say that they work as allegories to the more rational, non-linear perspective on the always arising spontaneous continuity of all things throughout all time. It is that non-linear perspective that we will now explore, starting with a look at the role of conscious awareness in our experience of reality. To keep things from getting too philosophical, I’ll begin the exploration by speaking from my own personal perspective.
Looking back at my life, I can’t remember having had any experience that took place outside the realm of my own body-centered, me-centered perspective. I can’t even fathom the possibility of having an experience outside the realm of my own awareness. While I have been alive, awake and conscious, everything I’ve seen, felt, heard, touched, tasted and thought, I’ve experienced only in my own awareness. Maybe I exist, and maybe the world exists. All I know for sure is that I experience everything in my conscious mind. My mind experiences senses, thoughts and feelings, and then it labels those things as self and world. I experience life always and only in the field of my own consciousness.
I was knocked unconscious once after hitting my head on the ground. I remember falling, and I remember waking up, but I don’t remember the unconscious moments. Several times, I’ve hyperventilated doing breathing exercises, and fallen unconscious. Similarly, after those experiences, I don’t remember anything about the time that I was unconscious. I was anesthetized once to have my wisdom teeth removed. I remember the smiling doctor, and then I woke up in the car in the parking lot of a drug store. My mother was inside getting my prescription pain medication. In every case that I have ever been unconscious, whether I’ve been knocked out, passed out, or medicated, I have no memory of the periods of time that I was unconscious. When I’m unconscious, I cease having experiences. For me, no consciousness equals no experience.
When I’m asleep, sometimes I am completely unconscious, in which case I experience nothing and have no memory of it. Sometimes when I am asleep, I dream. Though I’m not aware of my body and my surroundings, I experience dreams as thoughts, emotions, and pseudo-sensory experiences, and it all arises within the same conscious awareness that makes it possible for me to have experiences while I am awake. In my dreams, I am conscious, though mostly only of my dream-thoughts. When I wake up, I can say, “I was dreaming,” and like all of my experiences, my dreaming experiences happen only in realm my own personal awareness.
In addition to my ordinary sense perceptions and thinking activity, I feel a feeling of being me. My sense of self seems to be linked to my body, localized here within my body. When I use the pronoun “I” it evokes a feeling, a sense of being myself within my body, though I can’t precisely identify where my self resides. When I get introspective, I can’t find my sense of self in any particular location. It’s most certainly not in my appendages, because I can easily imagine cutting them off, and not losing my sense of self. When I really think about it, I find that my sense of self is connected with my conscious awareness. When I’m unconscious, I no longer experience a sense of self. When I’m conscious, I feel a sense of self. Again, upon investigation, I find that like all of my other experiences, my experience of self arises only in my conscious awareness.
I might say, “There is a world, because I see it, and I feel it, etcetera. There are certainly other people in the world, because I interact with them. Also, those other people seem to be interacting with the same world that I am. When my friend touches a banana, I can touch that same banana, and we can agree that it exists.” The problem with that is that my friend, the banana, the world – all of it is taking place within the realm of my conscious awareness. All I can really say is that I am having experiences within the realm of my conscious awareness. I am stuck watching the world through my own eyes, in my own mind. All of the information I have access to comes in in the form of thoughts and senses arising in my conscious awareness. I can never get outside myself to verify my existence or the existence of a world other than that which I experience within the realm of my conscious awareness.
I’m not talking abstractly about the existence or non-existence of the world, and I’m not trying to say that we create the world in our minds. All I am doing is stating the bare naked truth of my own experience. In truth, I cannot talk about the world, only about my conscious experiences. I experience seeing, feeling, being, thinking – a vast and ever changing flood of experience saturates my conscious awareness. Every moment that I am conscious, I experience my senses – sight, touch, sound, all of it, flooding my awareness. And every moment that I am conscious, I experience thinking, conceptualization, ideation. All of it without exception arises within and only within the realm of my conscious awareness.
All that any one of us can claim to know is on the basis of our own experience. When we read these words, they arise in our experience. When we think about these words, the thoughts arise in our experience. When we are awake, it seems that we observe and interact with a world of objects, sounds, and energy. There seems to be a world out there. But when we look more closely at the situation, we can only conclude that all experience is in fact arising in what we call consciousness. When we become unconscious, be it through sleep, drugs, concussion, illness, and presumably death, we cease experiencing the world of objects, sounds, and energy. It may be that there is in fact a world out there, but all that we know is that which arises in consciousness. There is no means by which we can explore the world except through the vehicle of consciousness. Everything, it seems, arises in consciousness, and without consciousness, experience ceases, so we cannot conclusively say that anything exists or doesn’t exist, only that the totality of our experience of existence arises in consciousness.
Here is our first opportunity in the journey of this book to engage in genuine Buddhist practice. I’ve just stated that we cannot verify the existence or non-existence of a world – we can only verify the phenomena of experience within consciousness. Many of us, when encountering this idea for the first time will immediately reject it, saying, “But clearly the world exists. It’s right there. Are you saying that everything is happening in my mind, that I am not only the center of the universe, but in fact my consciousness is the only thing in the universe, and that you, and everything else only exists in my mind?” This is Buddhist practice, not philosophy, metaphysics, or religion, so when we have questions like this, we engage in the direct observation of our own experience to find the answers ourselves. After we’ve spent some time doing that, then we think about our experience, discuss it with others, and ultimately come to our own conclusions. In this way, we are not relying on impossibly complicated scientific experiments, lofty philosophical conceptualization, or unquestioning faith in the pronouncements of some mystical authority, but instead verifying everything on our own, leaving us with nothing but the irrefutable evidence gathered through the working of our own intelligent observations.
To practice experientially, we begin by noticing that we are awake, aware, conscious. Consciousness is a feeling that we can find in our experience. We can say, “I notice the feeling of being conscious. I am conscious.” In this way, we can engage in what is called meditation with an object of attention. The object of attention in this case is our feeling of being conscious. It is good practice to reside in meditation for a while, to learn how to keep our minds focused on the object of our attention, but for our purposes here it suffices just to generate the experience, identify the experience, and then progress forward to the next part of the practice. When we can say, “I am aware that I am conscious,” then we can move on with the practice.
Next, we turn our attention to our senses. We become aware of our sense experiences. “I am seeing. I feel my body. I hear sounds,” etcetera. This should be very easy to do, so after spending some time being aware of our sense experiences, we can move on to the next part. We ask ourselves, “Where do these sense experiences arise?” It is natural for us to think, “I hear with my ears, I see with my eyes,” etcetera. But a corpse has ears and eyes. What do we have that a corpse doesn’t?
“My sense experiences arise in my mind.” Through investigation it becomes clear that having sense experiences depends on being conscious. When we are unconscious, our sense experiences are either greatly impaired, as in sleep, or totally absent, as in general anesthesia. After some experimentation and some thinking, we can come to the conclusion that our sense experiences do in fact arise in our conscious minds.
Now we can begin to think about it. Has anyone ever been aware of anything outside of their own conscious experience? Was Aristarchus of Samos paying attention to the movement of the spheres or was he paying attention to his experience of that movement as it arose in his thoughts and sense consciousness? If we are stubbornly honest about it, we have to say that no one has ever paid attention to anything except that which arose in their conscious minds. When we look at anything, study anything, think anything, all of it arises in the mind. It’s easier for us to recognize that things like thoughts, dreams, and memories arise in our minds, and more challenging for us to recognize that sense experiences also arise in our minds, but it is not an abstract metaphysical idea. If it seems too abstract, practice and experiment until it doesn’t. Remember, there is nothing here to believe, only something to try. Try figuring out where your sense experiences arise. Try finding something, anything that is not something in your conscious experience. If you can say, “Hey! I found this banana over here, and it is not arising in my consciousness,” then the ideas here are inaccurate.
Reading these words about Buddhist practice, it is easy to slip into the habit of doing what we usually do when reading about philosophy, religion, metaphysics, and mysticism, which is to merely read and then immediately evaluate whether or not we agree or disagree with the concepts being presented. We don’t usually do that when we read about science. When I say that quantum physicists have discovered that the thing that determines whether or not a photon presents itself as a particle or a wave is the presence of an observer, we do not say, “I disagree,” just because that sounds like a New Age idea. Instead, we say, “Wow! That’s fascinating.” We trust the scientific process to such a degree that we are usually quite willing to take their word for it, even when they say that consciousness is a determining factor in the presentation of reality. And we are right to trust the scientific method – it does a fairly good job limiting the development of false conclusions.
Philosophy and religion tend to lack such a rigorous framework for the development of accuracy, and there are a multitude of ridiculous ideas to believe in. In Buddhist practice, however, there are methods by which we avoid both blind faith and creative thinking that is disconnected from reality, and primary among those methods is direct experience. In other words, we perform the experiments ourselves, and arrive at our own conclusions. However, because the habit is to engage in either agreeing or disagreeing, believing or disbelieving when it comes to things that fall into the categories of religion or philosophy, it may be helpful to repeat again and again that we are not here to do that, but rather to engage directly, now, with the practice. That means spending some quality time – years – practicing and contemplating this simple meditation on sense experiences arising in consciousness.
What we are trying to do is to verify that in fact everything that we have ever known and will know, everything we will ever think, feel, see, and touch, arises in the space that we call consciousness. The scientists who study the distant stars, who look back in time to the beginning of the universe, are really only studying their awareness of those things as they arise in their minds, and any experience that we have of those scientists and their discoveries is ultimately an experience that arises nowhere but in our own minds. Just as the sun does not move through the sky, we do not see things outside of ourselves.
Operating from that understanding, it becomes clear that the investigation of the world around us can only be an investigation of our own minds. Likewise, an investigation of our own minds is an investigation of the source of all experience – all the world as it arises in our minds. We don’t need telescopes, microscopes, complicated math, or particle accelerators to study the nature of reality. Since all of reality as we know it arises in our conscious experience, by studying our own minds we can come to understand the nature of reality. We have access to the totality of our conscious experience, and since ours is ultimately the only intelligence we have to use, the only genuine study that we can engage in is to turn the light of our intelligence toward the experiences that arise in our conscious minds. In fact, that is all anyone can ever do. All the world arises in the space that we call mind, and the only intelligence we have to work with is our own.
In a nutshell, this is the non-linear Buddhist creation story: From the luminous expanse of mind, which has no qualities but is the basis of all qualities, which has no form but is the basis of all forms, which has no sound but is the basis of all sounds, arises AH, the spacious, open, awake quality of mind in which all thoughts and experiences arise.
When we intone the sound AH at the beginning of a meditation practice like this one, there are a number of ways that we can approach it. Of course, we can simply say it because it is there, without giving it much forethought at all. Doing it this way isn’t entirely useless, because it builds an association in our minds between the sound and the practice. Gradually with repetition, saying the sound will remind us enough of the practice that when we say it, we will immediately shift our attention from worldly concerns to the matter at hand, which is the nature of mind. Thus, we begin to associate the AH sound with the nature of mind.
In that case, we use the toning of the sound to remind ourselves what the sound means. We sit down, ready for our practice, and then we say “AH.” Having explored the meaning of the sound previously, intoning it reminds us of that meaning, and so the sound is a trigger for us to recognize that all experience arises in the luminous, infinite, open space of mind. In this case, it may be useful to intone the sound three times, rather than just once. The first time gets us started, the second time is practice, and the third time we settle into it.
A slightly different approach is to carefully consider the meaning of the sound before we say it, until that meaning settles into us and becomes the state of our attention. If we’d like some help focusing our attention like this, we can read one of the many works from the Vajrayana tradition that describe the nature of mind. Reading the words of the great teachers who have stabilized their attention in the nature of mind can be an effective way to remind us that our minds are the same as theirs, especially if the words are presented in a way that is accessible and inspiring to us.
It is also useful to simply sit and think about what we are about to do, without consulting the words of others. Oftentimes, I just sit on my cushion and think to myself, “Ok Tobin. You are about to intone the AH sound,” and then I work to generate the internal felt sense of that. I harness my mind and pull it into the rich awareness and meaning that I have come to associate with that sound. Like catching the rope dangling from a hot air balloon and pulling it down to earth, this activity feels like effort for me in the beginning, and the benefits are worth the effort.
Once mind has settled into itself, then intoning the sound becomes an action, an expression of the function of the sound in the present moment. While subtle, the difference between using the sound as a reminder of its meaning and using the sound as an expression of its meaning is a profound one. To accomplish this, before we make the sound, we take as long as we need to cultivate the living, present, engaged meaning of AH in our attention. Once that meaning arises as a feeling in the body, once we recognize the nature of mind, once we feel our own attention as that open, welcoming, infinite space in which all things arise, then we become the first sound in the universe, the resounding AH that hums, vibrates right at the dividing line between being and non-being, form and formless, sound and silence. AH is what there is before creation, before the Big Bang – it is the moment before everything. AH is always here – it is the luminous expanse of our own minds.
Our experiences of the world around us are dependent on our capacity to sense vibrations. Sounds are vibrations transmitted through the movement of particles in the air. Light is vibration, waves of energy moving through space. Touch stimuli are transmitted to the central nervous system through the waves of the chemical-electric signals that run through our nerve pathways. Similarly, our ability to interact with the world outside ourselves is largely dependent on our capacity to generate vibrations. Speech is vibration. Our body language is shifting patterns in the vibration of light. Our movements and even our thoughts are the product of the waves and impulses generated in our brains. We are, in essence, vibration detectors and generators. Because of this capacity, we can generate sound vibrations that give rise to images in the mind. In the case of the AH sound, we are generating a vibration that is an expression of the space in which all things arise. Intoning the sound, we are like magicians casting the spell that announces unequivocally that the whole of creation is arising from the luminous spaciousness of mind.
Intoning AH at the beginning of our practice in this way sets the tone for the rest of the practice. We are no longer just a person engaging in a Vajrayana Buddhist practice – knowing that the tone is an expression of the basic spaciousness of mind, the rest of the practice arises out of that space, resonating into the sphere of physical existence as a pure expression of Dharma. We are saying, “All experience arises from the luminous expanse which is the fundamental nature of mind,” and from that point forward, we have the opportunity to engage with the world from that perspective. The purpose of engaging in such practices is to spend as much time as we can operating from that perspective, until it becomes our natural view. AH is the first sound, the first letter, the first utterance, the beginning of the story of being that is told in the spaciousness of the awakened mind.
Here’s the audio from our Tuesday Meeting on December 13, 2016. It is divided into 6 files for ease of downloading.
After we fall asleep, there is a period of time when we are completely unconscious, and then we begin to dream. Ordinarily, when we dream, we are not aware that we are dreaming. Instead, we believe that what is happening is real, even when it is illogical and outrageous. Of course, when we wake up, we are immediately aware that the dream was just a dream.
Sometimes, we become lucid, aware that we are dreaming. Usually, the dawning of lucidity is accidental. During a dream, it dawns on us, “Oh. This is a dream.” Oftentimes, we only become semi-lucid: we are aware that we are dreaming, but we still interact with the dream as if it is real, like an interactive movie. In any case, lucid or not, most of us agree that the reality that we experience while dreaming is less real than that which we experience while we are awake.
When we are lucid during a dream, instead of following along with the content of the dream, we have the opportunity to do a variety of useful and insightful kinds of meditation practice. Doing meditation practice while dreaming is particularly interesting because of how quickly and responsively our mental states are reflected in the content of the lucid dream. Also, after doing dreaming meditation practice, it is possible to recognize the similarities between dream reality and the real world. This correlation serves to reinforce our experiential understanding of the transitory nature of form and the flexibility of mind.
Preliminary Dreaming Meditation Practice
Some of us become accidentally lucid while we are dreaming. Whenever that happens, right away, try to do the dreaming meditation practices described below. Lucidity is a rare and precious mental state, so take advantage of the opportunity whenever it arises. In order to increase our chances of becoming lucid, we can do these preliminary practices. Preliminary dreaming meditation practices help to encourage us to become lucid more often while we are dreaming.
The concept behind the preliminary practices is quite simple: We tend to dream about things that are frequently on our minds during the day, so if we repeatedly bring lucid dreaming to mind during the day, we are more likely to remember it when we are dreaming.
My favorite way to do this is to tell people that I’m doing a lucid dreaming practice. People are quite curious about it, so we tend to end up having a conversation about it. That way, I’ve had an interaction with someone and we’ve talked about lucid dreaming. The more we talk about it and think about it, the more likely we are to dream about it.
Another simple exercise is to periodically say, “This is a dream,” out loud throughout the day. If you’re with company, you can also say it in your mind, although out loud works better. Similarly, you can repeatedly tell yourself, “I’m doing a lucid dreaming practice. When I dream, I’m going to become lucid.”
Lastly, for a more radical and direct approach, we can wake ourselves up with an alarm every hour during the night. Once awake, we reaffirm our intention to become lucid, and then fall back asleep. This practice gives us many opportunities to move through the transition from awake to total unconsciousness, and then either directly into lucidity or into a dream in which we may become lucid. Of all of the practices that I’ve done, this one produces more lucidity more quickly than any other. Surprisingly, I still feel quite rested in the morning.
For most of us, lucid dreaming is very inconsistent, and increasing its frequency requires a lot of preliminary practice. We tend to dream about things that are important to us, happen repeatedly, have a strong emotional component, and are associated with other people. For this reason, we need to commit to doing the preliminary practices for several months, especially talking about lucid dreaming with other people. This way, the practices have a cumulative effect that is more likely to produce lucidity. It is very unlikely that we will become lucid on the first try, or even for the first month or three.
The Lucid Dreaming Meditation Practices
Once we are lucid within a dream, we have a very short window of opportunity in which to do our practices. Oftentimes, we are semi-lucid. That means that while we are aware that we are dreaming, we still believe in and interact with the dream content. It is possible to do some lucid dreaming practices while in the semi-lucid state. Sometimes, semi-lucidity becomes full lucidity, sometimes we slip into the dream and lose our lucidity altogether, and sometimes we wake up when the lucidity becomes too clear. The tendency to slip out of lucidity for one reason or another is the reason why we have such a short window of opportunity to do the practices.
In a semi-lucid state, it is possible to alter the content of the dream. For example, we may be able to fly, conjure up people, and manipulate the dream in any imaginable way. Oftentimes, people use semi-lucidity to alter or stop unpleasant dreams. In speaking with people about lucid dreaming, I’ve found that many of us are semi-lucid all of the time, meaning that we regularly alter the content of our dreams. That’s a very fortunate situation. Others of us have never been lucid, and will need to work on the preliminary practices for a while first. Once we become semi-lucid, it is both fun and interesting to practice altering the dream content to suit our curiosity and desire. I love flying so much that I’m often willing to sacrifice my precious lucid time for a quick trip into the stars. I really like flying into space.
Instead of altering content at random, or for the sake of fun and sheer creativity, we can do specific exercises that strengthen our lucid dreaming capacity. Traditionally, these include: (1) making small things big and big things small; (2) making near things far and far things near; (3) making one thing many, and many things one; and (4) transforming categories and elements, from plant to animal, from solid to light, from water to fire, etc. This exercise gives us greater command over our attention in the semi-lucid state, ultimately leading to the ability to dissolve the dream-state entirely to reside in pure, subjectless lucidity. Also, the exercises serve to reinforce our experiential understanding of the transitory nature of objects and the role of mental concepts in the framing of our experiences.
When transforming objects in a semi-lucid state, it is quite easy to become distracted by the objects themselves. At any moment, the dream may become so interesting that lucidity fades, and we are swallowed into the story and content of the dream. When this happens, it is very interesting to bear witness to the process, noticing the sensation of mind slipping into delusion. In the dream state, when we get caught up in a train of thought, the thought manifests as a compelling reality into which we are inexorably drawn. Then, during the waking state, we can come to recognize that same sensation as we slip into strong fixation on the content of our lives. At some point in the practice, it is possible that we will recognize that the experiences of believing in the dream and believing in the reality are exactly the same.
It is also possible to become completely lucid. In that state, there is no longer any dream content. The easiest way to become completely lucid is to begin by transforming the dream as explained above. After some practice, it becomes easier to willfully dissolve the content of the dream entirely. It is also possible to transition from the total unconsciousness of initial sleep into pure lucidity without ever entering into a dream with content. This kind of transition usually only occurs after several years of diligent lucid dreaming practice, although it is also quite possible that it will happen accidentally at any time. For some rare individuals, pure lucidity is the natural dream state. For most of us, pure lucidity will remain entirely conceptual. For a few people, myself included, pure lucidity becomes possible only after many years of diligent practice. Once we have developed the skill, it opens us up to a whole new world of experience.
To develop our capacity for complete lucidity, it is also very helpful to practice basic calm-abiding meditation while we are awake. In the calm-abiding practice, we let go of every thought as soon as we notice it has arisen. This letting go is exactly the same mental activity as letting go of the subject of a dream. When we become semi-lucid, if we are accustomed to that mental gesture of letting go of thoughts, we can do the same thing within the dream, and the content of the dream may indeed fall away. Personally for me, the familiarity of calm-abiding meditation practice that comes as the result of more than 20 years of practice seems to be the key for entering pure lucidity. I use the gesture of letting go of a thought to let go of the content of a dream.
When doing this practice, I have a funny little quirk. Many times, when I let go of the content of the dream, I find myself suspended in an endless purple fog – neither flying nor falling – just suspended. The first time it happened set the tone for every subsequent time, leaving me stuck in an absurd loop of this silly dream habit. It used to be that whenever I found myself in the purple fog, I would immediately start trying to escape. The problem was my method: I’d think, “Oh no! Not the purple fog!” and then I’d start trying to dissolve it. This is futile, because so long as my mind is fixated on dissolving the fog, it is fixated on the fog itself. According to the function of the dream-state, whatever is strongest in my mind becomes manifest. Thus, my attempts to escape the purple fog result in my total captivity in the purple fog. At this point in my life, when I accidentally show up in the purple fog, I just start laughing, and usually wake myself up. My experience in the purple fog serves to illustrate some of the ways in which lucid dreaming meditation practice reveals truths about the function of mental fixation.
When we are successful at dissolving the subject of the dream and residing in subjectless lucidity, then the meditation practice takes on a new dimension. First of all, there is the state of subjectless lucidity itself. Subjectless lucidity is for me the most clear and most profound mental state I have ever been able to generate and sustain during any meditation practice, awake or asleep. Residing bodiless, without objects of reference, in neither darkness nor light, only as lucid mind is the experience of the unification of pure restfulness with pure awareness – purely awake within the open spaciousness that is the precursor to being. Before the dreaming state manifests subject matter, there is lucid spaciousness, and from the emptiness of that space arises every dream. From that perspective, it is evident that unlike a dream with content, which is clearly more ephemeral than waking reality, lucid spaciousness is exactly the same whether we are awake or asleep.
In addition to residing in the expansive simplicity of subjectless lucidity, we can also contemplate the nature of reality. In the pure lucid state, such contemplations take on a clarity and depth of insight that I’ve only experienced a few times while awake. Similarly, we can conjure up the presence of our teachers. This seems to be different than ordinary dreaming, and different than semi-lucidity. I can’t say that my teachers actually come visit me in my dreams, but rather that the wisdom essence of my teachers that remains within me as an experience-memory arises in a pure way within the lucid state. In this way, spending time with my teachers while in a lucid state feels very similar to spending time with them in reality.
In this context, we are not contemplating the meaning, symbolism, stories or feelings of our ordinary dreams. Since these ordinary, non-lucid dreams arise more often than semi-lucidity and pure lucidity, it is useful to understand a little bit more about them from this perspective.
The content of our ordinary dreams can tell us something about the progression of our lucid dreaming practice. Ordinary dreams are divided into three categories. In the first category are dreams in which the content contains people, events and emotions associated with that day’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences. For example, just before I go kayaking, I often think a lot and worry a little bit about my next day’s adventure. Because those thoughts and feelings are strong in me during the day, I often dream about them at night. This kind of dream is a perfect illustration of the function of the preliminary dreaming meditation practices: when we think a lot about something, we are more likely to dream about it.
The second category of dreams come from deeper memory and emotional impressions generated during important time periods in our personal development. These include dreams about long-term friends and family members, our childhood homes, and other important places. I often go back to high school, and almost as frequently end up cooking in a restaurant in North Carolina. This kind of dream is great fodder for psychological interpretation, but in the context of dreaming meditation practice it just means we need to increase the energy we put into our preliminary practices. So long as we are dreaming about the distant past, we are not calling our attention into the present dreaming meditation effort.
The third category of dreams are those that include nothing or very little of our familiar daily lives. For example, we dream of people and places we’ve never experienced, as well as surreal and magical situations that could never happen in reality. These dreams come from deep in our imaginations rather than from impressions that our experiences make on our psyche. While these dreams are similar to dreams of our past in that they do not contain current content, they are an easier gateway into lucidity. When we dream about something impossible or totally unfamiliar, it is easier for us to recognize that it is a dream. Flying, falling, and singing dreams are my favorite gateways into lucidity. Because I can neither fly to the stars, nor fall off of a cliff (I hope), nor sing like a pop star, whenever I find myself in one of those situations, it is an immediate gateway to lucidity. When a dream is so absurd that it must be a dream, the conscious mind can pick up on that, and become aware that it is a dream. Before doing lucid dreaming practice, I used to dread my falling dreams. They were so uncomfortable. Now, whenever I find myself falling, I immediately feel a wave of joy: “Yay! I’m dreaming.” I love dissolving my falling dreams into subjectless space. It feels like such a triumph over fear, and leads into a profound state of awareness.
The Overall Effect of the Lucid Dreaming Meditation Practice
Once we have developed our capacity for lucid dreaming, and especially the capacity to dissolve the subject matter of the dream, we have access to a universe where every mental inclination is manifest in pure form. When we choose not to manifest anything, but instead reside in subjectless lucidity, we have the opportunity to spend some precious time in the experience of pure mind. When we choose to manifest our teachers or contemplate their teachings, we have the opportunity to spend some precious time with the manifestation of natural wisdom. In either case, the pure lucid dreaming experience offers a rare and precious glimpse into the fundamental nature of the universe, where thoughts become form, either directed by our spiritual aspirations or by our emotional impressions and desires. After many such lucid dreaming experiences, the line between dreaming and not-dreaming dissolves, as we recognize that in both states, lucid, subjectless cognition is the basis of all experience.
Three or four times a week I go to the gym to exercise for an hour. I work hard. I sweat. It isn’t easy, but I really enjoy doing it. My body has changed significantly since I started exercising this way. I’ve gained weight, my muscles have gained tone and definition, and my posture has changed. But more importantly, my long-standing chronic back pain is almost completely gone. I’ve gone from having daily pain to having moments of discomfort only every few months. Also, I’m much stronger, so everything is easier to do. I can walk much farther without tiring. When I have to carry a heavy bag of chicken food, it feels easy, and I don’t worry at all about my back. In the gym, I can clearly notice the changes in my body. Consistently, I can lift more, and I can feel my body working much more efficiently. The more I do it, the better it gets.
My exercise routine is a practice. It is something that I dedicate a significant amount of time to each week. Other practices that I give a significant amount of time to include cooking, working, and caring for my family. In all of those arenas, I can clearly notice that the more I do them, the better I get at them. I’ve been cooking for myself for so long now that it comes very easily to me. The food that I prepare these days is both nutritious and delicious, but I wasn’t always a good cook. When I was eight years old, I got into a stint of making “bagels.” I mixed flour, water and salt into a dough, shaped the dough into a bagel shape, and baked it in the oven. My bagels were hard, salty, and nearly inedible. I loved them. With practice, I became a gourmet chef, and even started my own restaurant. Similarly, I’ve improved in my work and in my family life, simply by dedicating a significant amount of time to practicing them. After numerous failed relationships, I’ve learned from my mistakes, and now I am a much better partner. As a father, I learn and grow every day, changing as quickly as my daughter. As she transforms into a woman, I become a better man.
Human beings are learning beings. We learn through practice. When we are young children, we practice moving our bodies randomly, until through trial and error, we crawl, then walk. In school we practice reading and writing. At first, we don’t know a thing about letters, but then with practice, we improve, until eventually, we can both read and write beautiful things. At work, on the first day at a new job, we don’t quite know what to do, but with practice, we learn, and improve. Everything in our lives is like this.
Of course, we can also practice unhelpful things and get good at those too. Our bodies and minds learn whatever we practice, so when we practice things like worrying about things that are totally beyond our control, we get better at worrying about things that are totally beyond our control. The tension of that worry builds up in our muscles, and our minds become agile worriers, finding more and more things to worry about. We always get better at whatever we practice, no matter what it is. A person raised in an abusive household is more likely to become abusive than a person who was raised in a loving family, simply because we usually mimic whatever our care providers practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect – it improves upon whatever we do.
When we talk about Buddhist practice, we are referring to Buddhist things that we do repeatedly. In order to do Buddhist things repeatedly, we have to first know something about what Buddhism is. Then, once we know that, we practice it over and over again, several hours a week or more. In doing so, we get better at whatever we’re doing, and the practices begin to make noticeable changes. Reading about Buddhism is just like reading about going to the gym. Reading about going to the gym isn’t going to make us physically stronger, and reading about Buddhist practices isn’t going to yield the intended results either. That’s just not the way we work. We learn, we strengthen, we grow, and develop, and change by practicing things over and over again for long periods of time.
One simple Buddhist practice is simply to relax. Just sit down and relax. Slow down. When we find ourselves thinking or doing something that is not relaxation, then we stop doing that, and start relaxing again. Imagine being at the gym. If we just stand there and talk to our friends, we are not doing our exercise practice. Similarly, if when we sit down to do a relaxation practice, instead we just sit there thinking about stressful things that make our bodies tighten up, then we are not doing a relaxation practice. We are at the gym, but not actually exercising.
This metaphor keeps working. When we’re at the gym, if we exercise constantly without any periods of rest, we will tire quickly, become uncomfortable, and stop early. When we’re doing a relaxation practice, if we try hard to relax it turns into non-relaxation, into something we have to do, so we try harder, until we tire, become uncomfortable, and stop early. Instead, when doing a relaxation practice it works better to relax for a few minutes, then allow our minds to drift, then relax again. In this way, we give ourselves the opportunity to witness the contrast between relaxation and non-relaxation. Noticing the contrast helps us to more clearly identify what is relaxing and what isn’t. In that way, the more we practice relaxation, the better we get at it.
I think it is important to note that Buddhist practice, even something as simple as relaxation, is just like every other very sophisticated skill. Learning to walk, learning to read, learning to play a musical instrument, learning to navigate successfully through the world – all of these things are sophisticated skills that take many years of practice. Perhaps the musical metaphor is even better than the weight lifting metaphor, since everyone knows that classical musicians practice for many hours each day, and are constantly improving. I’d love to be a great musician, but since I’ve never had a strong inclination to practice playing an instrument, I remain a mediocre musician. Similarly, if we want to get the benefits that Buddhist practices claim to give, we have to practice, just like musicians. It’s nice to think about our minds and bodies as being like musical instruments. We can become as insightful and sophisticated in our minds as a masterful pianist is with a piano.
Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you will someday set aside ten minutes to do this exercise. You can learn something and benefit just from reading this article, so if that’s all you end up doing, that’s fine too. But in the event that you do actually do the exercise, then that will give you the opportunity to test and verify the truth of the ideas presented here. Reading an article about Buddhism is called study; direct verification through personal experience is called practice. If I were to say, “This Buddhism stuff is good,” I could only stand behind that statement if it implied that Buddhism includes both study and practice. Like I said, study on its own can be beneficial, but only in the sense that sometimes the wisdom in what we read accidentally seeps through into our activities and becomes actualized. Practice is the intentional actualization of that which we study. Intentional actualization is more thorough than the accidental kind. Perhaps, if I were to attempt to define Buddhism, I might say something like, “Buddhism is the practice cultivating insight through directly studying reality.” After you read this, if you set aside ten minutes to do the exercise, then you will be studying reality.
To do the exercise, you’ll need to completely clear your schedule for a half an hour. I know, I said ten minutes, but realistically, you’ll need some time to get started. A completely clear schedule means no chores to do, no emails to write, no phone calls to make or answer. Nothing to do at all except this practice for a half an hour.
Next, you’ll need a warm, pleasant space, where you will not be interrupted. An empty house is best. If you can’t do the exercise in an empty house, you can tell the people who live with you that you cannot be interrupted for anything other than a serious emergency. This can be hard for the people and pets who live with us, so the communication needs to be firm and clear. It also helps to put pets outside and hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door knob. In any case, no interruptions at all.
Once you have the time and the space, then you need to get comfortable. For many of us, lying in bed is the most comfortable place. This works, so long as you don’t always fall asleep. Actually, falling asleep during this exercise isn’t a bad thing at all. Many of us are so tired all the time that when we take a few minutes to stop, the first thing our bodies want to do is fall asleep. If that’s the case, then a nap is probably going to be more beneficial than doing this exercise! Enjoy your nap. This exercise works best when we have enough mental and physical energy to stay awake and curious, so if you’re so tired that sleep is the best thing, then sleep will ultimately prepare you for this exercise. See the logic there? On the other hand, if you’re not so tired, then you can continue with the exercise, sitting or lying down in a very comfortable position.
The key point here is that you are genuinely comfortable. Often, we endure unnecessary physical discomfort, especially while we’re sitting down. So if you are sitting down to do this exercise, find a way to sit very comfortably. I often sit on my couch, with pillows propping me up. Other times, I sit on a meditation cushion, but I’m physically very healthy and I have a lot of experience sitting on those cushions. I can sit on them comfortably, so I do. If you can’t sit comfortably on a meditation cushion, then don’t sit on a meditation cushion to do this exercise. Instead, lay down, or prop yourself up nicely with pillows, or find a very comfortable chair.
I’m making a big fuss about this comfort business because so often I see my students nod their heads, “Yes, be comfortable, I get it,” and then promptly sit there uncomfortably during the whole exercise. When we talk about our experiences afterwards, those students inevitably say, “I couldn’t relax or concentrate very well because sitting this way is uncomfortable for me.” In one ear, and out the other. So don’t be like that. Sit comfortably, or lay down comfortably.
We’re going to start with our eyes closed, and then after a few minutes, open them. Of course, don’t close your eyes right now, but when you do this practice, you will close them in the beginning. For now, just read, and imagine yourself doing it.
When we lay down and close our eyes, inevitably we start thinking. For this exercise, we are going to get out our swords and chop thoughts. In a previous article, Whack-a-Mole, I suggested that we don’t need to smash every thought as it arises. Simply allowing everything to arise is a different, very useful exercise. This exercise is also very useful, and ultimately leads to the same place. In this exercise, we chop every thought to pieces as soon as it arises, or as soon as we notice that we’ve been thinking for a while. When a thought arises, we slice it in half. Do that for about five minutes with your eyes closed, then five more with your eyes open. That’s the practice.
Here’s the thing: when doing this practice, we need to be unconditional in our swift destruction of every thought as soon as we notice it, no matter what it is. When you set out to do this, you will notice a very strong tendency to like a particular stream of thoughts. It could be a useful kind of thinking, planning, or preparing. You could benefit by continuing with a useful thought. You could think, “Oh, I really need to put the laundry in the dryer,” and that would be a useful thought, so why chop it up? Because you’re doing a specific practice, and it gets interesting when done unconditionally.
The truth is that while we’re doing this exercise, since we’ve set aside the time, and we’re all warm and cozy in the space, and no one is going to come in to interrupt us, we have ourselves held captive. There’s nothing we can do. We are stuck, without the power to do useful things. All we can do is either think or chop thoughts. Since we’ve decided to do the exercise, why not just chop thoughts for ten minutes? It won’t really do much harm. For example, that thought about the laundry, it can come back later. It will still be there. I think we can afford to lose the usefulness of ten minutes of our lives, and just chop down every thought no matter what it is. Chop. Chop. Chop. Indiscriminately, unconditionally, every one.
When we chop a thought, we also get a feeling of letting go. There goes another one. When we chop a thought, it dissipates quickly, like a puff of steam when we drop a little bit of water into a hot pan. Then another thought arises, we slice it with our sword, and poof, it dissipates too. With each dissipation, we feel a sense of letting go. Chop. Let go. Chop. Let go.
It gets both challenging and enjoyable when a so-called important thought arises, one charged with emotion or adrenaline. “Oh!” says your body, “This is an important thought. I really want to work on this one some more…” And then you chop it down. Every time. No matter what. Taking the sword to an important thought is a delightful experience. If at first you feel hesitant, after a good chop, you’ll eagerly away your next thought with mischievous intent.
The result of this practice can be a softening of the power of thoughts, especially important ones. After some time doing this, it becomes easier to chop up those thoughts that really don’t serve us, and just let them go.
Putting ourselves in a pleasant environment and resting our attention on the present moment, we give our bodies and minds a chance to recover from the stress of habitual negative thinking. For a lot of us, cultivating this as a practice can be a life-changing, and even a life-saving experience. Right now, mindfulness practices are becoming increasingly popular for stress-reduction, physical and mental health enhancement, and increased performance in the workplace. As a means to those ends, mindfulness practices are very effective.
In the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness serves as the preliminary practice that makes insight into the nature of reality possible. So long as we are constantly focusing on our mental constructs, so long as we are convincing our bodies that our worried thoughts are real, we cannot direct our attention to reality for long enough to learn from it. That’s why we practice mindfulness. The Buddhist tradition invites us to use practice mindfulness so that we can more clearly see the truth of reality as it presents itself to us all the time.
Reality is rich with the truth. To study reality is to become the student of a teacher who is as old as time, as vast as space, and as creative as all of the forms and movement in the universe. When we pay very close attention to reality – our own bodies, minds and environments are always available – we begin to learn how it works. Mindfulness is a preliminary practice that gives us the capacity to pay attention to reality long enough and with enough clarity to see what’s actually going on.
We often have some initial difficulty when trying to pay attention attention to reality because we are so used to paying attention to what we think. All that thinking seems to get in the way of our awareness of the present moment. But instead of smashing those thoughts, when we sit down to practice meditation, we have the opportunity to bear witness to the reality of the habitual activity of our minds.
Rather than attempting to quash every thought that arises, and rather than criticizing ourselves when we get lost for a while in a train of thought, instead we can take a look at ourselves, and see what we see. Some of us will notice that we tend to dwell more on the past, recreating past events in our minds, and thus conjuring up old emotional body-responses again. Others of us will use our minds to image possible futures, and experience those imagined events in our bodies. Looking inside, noticing what our minds are working on, we can learn about what’s important to us.
I’ve asked a lot of people what they think about during meditation, and in general, when it comes down to it, we think about money, love, and social position. Most of us spend most of our days doing things and thinking about things having to do with getting money, getting love, and advancing our social positions, so when we sit quietly, that natural mind activity is what we notice. Those thoughts and activities are important – if we didn’t work and plan and think and build relationships, we wouldn’t have food, shelter, family and society. Sure, there’s a lot of stress involved in those things, but they’re also the source of all that nourishes us and makes us who we are. Meditation practice does not aim to stop us from thinking about and doing important things, it aims only to give us the choice to direct our attention where we want, when we want.
Here’s where we find ourselves at a turning point. A lot of us are tired of using all of our energy, mental and physical, just focused on getting money, getting love, and advancing our social positions. While those things are important, there are aspects of ourselves that are unmet, under nourished, undeveloped. We create religious traditions to develop those aspects of ourselves that are not concerned with “worldly” things, but rather with “spiritual” ones. There seems to be an ancient and natural inner voice that tells us, “Things are not as they seem. There’s something deeper going on here.” Some religions tell us what that deeper thing is, and others invite us to discover it on our own.
One of the perks of living in a wealthy society is that we have a lot of free time. It may not seem that way at first – what with all the work and chores we have to do – but the truth is that even when we’ve got it pretty easy. A lot of people have to work all day every day until they are exhausted, they’re bodies are in constant pain, their freedom and dignity is not respected by the institutions of authority, and they don’t have access to something like a meditation book. If you’re reading this now, you’re most likely rich compared to most people on earth, relatively healthy, and you have tons of free time. As privileged members of a wealthy, free society, we may feel a sense of obligation to make good use of our free time. Throughout human history, people in our position have used their free time to explore matters of the spirit, God, and the “higher realms.”
From a Buddhist perspective, rather than exploring the thoughts and ideas of those who have come before us, and rather than staying always within the realm of conceptualization, story, and metaphor, we recognize that we also have the choice to study deepest truth of reality itself, as it presents itself to us right now. Right now, we can perceive reality through our naked awareness, and then subsequently allow our thinking, creative minds to do their jobs and describe it in beautiful and insightful ways. Notice first, describe second. Mindfulness, then insight.
The quieting of the mind is a side-effect of any kind of mental focus, not just that thing we call mindfulness or meditation. For this reason, we appreciate mental focus in many realms of our lives. Playing music, playing a sport, doing Yoga, doing our jobs – most coordinated activities require that we use our minds and bodies on purpose. We enjoy the moments when our attention is completely immersed in what we are doing. Those are moments of mindfulness.
Often we seek respite from our worries and cares in activities that require our mental focus because they take our minds off of our troubles. Our troubles are frequently rooted in negative habitual thinking. When we engage our minds in something other than fanning the flames of our worries with more worries, we feel better.
When we fan the flames of our worries with streams of more worried thoughts, our bodies believe those thoughts, and react to them as if they are real. For example, if I conjure up the mental image of my daughter getting hit by a car, I immediately experience an adrenaline rush. Right now, just writing that sentence, my heart rate increased and I started to feel anxiety. My daughter isn’t getting hit by a car right now, but my body believes my mind.
It’s an interesting experiment to watch all the worry-fantasies that we conjure up in a day, and then recognize that every time we think that way, our bodies are having real stress experiences. Because such mental activity is a prevalent form of habitual thinking, there are immediate recognizable mental and physical health benefits to doing anything that requires a redirection of attention and mental focus.
Upsetting thoughts trigger the release of stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. We all know the feeling of an adrenaline rush. Even if the stressful event is quick, the adrenaline rush still takes a few minutes to fade. When our habitual thought patterns are upsetting, our bodies are awash in stress hormones. When we use our minds differently, be it concentrating on our exercise routine, or sitting in meditation, it takes a few minutes for the stress hormones to wash out of our system. When they do, we breathe a sigh of relief. The trick is to pay attention to something other than our worried thoughts for long enough that the stress hormones can fade. It takes about 6 to 10 minutes.
If we want to enhance the process, we can put ourselves in a pleasant environment, make sure our bodies are comfortable, and do something that we really enjoy. Adding these positive qualities to our experience can trigger the release of what I call “happy-juice” – hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. These hormones make us feel safe, content, connected, and integrated. Just as stressful thinking, painful body experiences, and stressful environments trigger the release of stress hormones, pleasant mind activity, comfortable body experiences and non-stressful environments trigger the release of happy juice.
I think a lot of us do things that we don’t quite enjoy because we’ve heard they’re good for us. I know there are people who genuinely enjoy meditation, but I wonder how many people actually dread their meditation sessions. Likewise, I know there are a lot of people who really look forward to each Yoga class, but I wonder how many others just feel pain and self-criticism the whole time. There’s a big difference between doing something you dread and doing something that you really enjoy, and that difference shows up in the hormones that generate our feelings of stress and well-being.
If we want to raise our happy-juice levels, we can do things that we enjoy. Combining physical comfort, enjoyment, and child-like curiosity, we can change mindfulness practice from a dour, quiet, thought-smashing activity into something a little more interesting.
Most of us are born with the ability to see. When we wake up each morning and open our eyes, we see. Unless we have a problem with our eyes, we will not stop seeing. We can’t just decide to go blind. If those of us born with a functioning sight sense were to diligently practice turning off our sense of sight, I don’t think we’d succeed no matter how long we practiced. Imagine going to a meditation teacher for wise advice and the teacher says, “Your problem is that you see all the time. I will teach you how to stop seeing.” Hopefully, you would think that teacher wasn’t making sense.
Our thinking capacity is just like our sense of sight – we are born with it and so long as we are conscious and awake, it works. The notion that we can use mindfulness to turn off our thinking mind is just as absurd as the notion that we could decide to go blind. Mindfulness is not non-thought. Mindfulness is not the practice of turning off the thinking mind. If that was the case, it would be called mindlessness. Mindfulness is the practice of filling one’s mind with reality.
Usually, in reality, not much is happening – especially when we’re meditating. When we sit down to meditate in a quiet room, there isn’t much movement or sound, and there isn’t anything to do except sit there. Yet the moment we close our eyes, a lot seems to be happening. Words, images, ideas and emotions flood our attention. It seems at first that our habitual thinking gets stronger when we sit quietly, but really, it’s just that in the silence, we notice our natural thinking mind – the mind that operates constantly throughout our lives, just like our sense of sight.
Our minds work hard to make sense, figure things out, weigh options, imagine new possibilities, and generally seek the truth.
From the moment that consciousness arises in the human fetus, we become mindful scientists. Every new bit of information is stored, analyzed, compared with prior experiences, and categorized for future use. Watch an infant move her arm, and you will see that she is experimenting. A movement impulse shoots from her brain down her arm, and with a sense of wonder, she observes her arm moving. You can see her think, “Oh! I did that. Can I do it again?” In this way, we teach ourselves how to reach for something, and grab it, how to roll over, how to crawl, how to walk, how to talk, how to interact socially, and how to understand the world around us. Throughout our lives, our curious observing, thinking, categorizing and imagining minds work constantly as students of experience, and as creators of new movements and new ideas. Without the thinking mind, we would be as stupid and still as stones.
We can use our minds reach out into reality, grasp it, and bring it in for a closer look. Just as a child learns all the basics of life by feeling into it, we have the opportunity to learn the deepest truths of existence by curiously paying attention to what is happening right now, in the wonderfully full, empty space of our minds.