Many people seem to believe that meditation is extremely challenging and complex, but actually this is not the case. It is important to first ask ourselves the question, why meditate? Often when I ask my students, many respond that they believe the purpose of meditation is to stop thinking and to stop thoughts.
Recently, I walked to the beach with a younger student. Near the sea shore, we sat down and I said, “Let’s meditate”. He quickly sat cross-legged and closed his eyes. I told him, “this is too fast.” He said, “What should I do?”
I told him that with any kind of Dharma activity, take your time to begin. Reflect and ask yourself, why am I meditating. He said, “Oh, I never do this! Should I do this every time?” Yes; before beginning any sort of Dharma activity, we must think about the purpose of what we are going to do and check our motivation. If you have good motivation, then the action is positive. For instance, you can ask yourself, is this Dharma activity for the benefit of sentient beings? Even if you do positive activities, such as thousands of prostrations, but have negative intentions, you are committing a negative action. As Patrul Rinpoche said:
What makes an action good or bad?
Not how it looks, nor whether it is big or small,
But the good or evil motivation behind it.
Then he asked me how to meditate. I inquired, “How do you usually meditate?” He responded, “I meditate on nothingness and try to quiet the mind.” I asked him, “Do you only meditate just this one way?” to which he responded yes. This type of meditation, or dzogchen, resting in the natural state of the innately luminous and pure mind, is very difficult for a beginner and difficult to maintain for long stretches of time.
There are so many different ways to meditate, such as meditation on loving kindness, compassion, selflessness, impermanence, the difficulty of finding the human life, etc. If you are a Mahayana or Vajrayana practitioner, you can practice guru yoga, deity visualization, etc. Also, you can meditate on emptiness and an introspection into the origin of the self, that is, who is the self and where does the self reside.
As an example, I told my student at the beach, now that there are these destructive fires in California, you can practice a deity visualization: imagine a vast Buddha Amitabha above the land, in Carmel Valley, in Santa Cruz, wherever the fire is raging. Then, visualize nectar-like water streaming from Buddha Amitabha and extinguishing the fire.
When he heard this, he was so happy and began to smile, and he pointed in the direction of Santa Cruz. He then said, “I had no idea that this is meditation. This is very good right now because there are fires everywhere.” Afterwards we meditated and my student told me, “Wow Rinpoche, I really enjoyed this meditation.”
In Tibetan, the word for meditation is gom, which literally means to become familiar, to become accustomed, or to cultivate. Gom refers to familiarizing the mind to that which is true, and that which is virtuous. I think it very helpful to understand the etymology of the word Gom because it teaches you how to meditate! If you want to run a marathon, it would be impossible if you had never even run a mile before. You must start out running for 30 or 40 minutes a day, and slowly as your body becomes accustomed to the discomfort and your mind becomes accustomed to the challenge, slowly you can build up endurance and run 26.2 miles without an injury. Or if you want to cultivate a garden, you must properly prepare the soil and know the right seeds to plant at what time of year.
Meditation is learned and practiced in the same way. It is important that in the beginning, sessions should be short. If you have never meditated, try sitting for only a few minutes, 5 minutes or less. Initially meditation is very challenging, but gradually and incrementally, it becomes easier. As long as there is improvement, don’t give up meditation. If you are able to extend your time meditating from 5 minutes to 6 minutes, this is good and an improvement; what is important is to persevere! Eventually, try 10 minutes, then 15 minutes; progressively you will see that your mind is more positive and more relaxed. Turning your mind towards the positive will give rise to bodhichitta, to contentment, the desire to help all sentient beings, among numerous other benefits. As I often say, meditation is medicine for the mind.
Gom also does not refer to only one technique or style of meditation, but actually can refer to any kind of Dharma activity performed using body, speech, and mind. Making prostrations, repetition of mantras, or any kind of spiritual activity is gom. So it is not necessary to limit your meditation to one kind of activity. Anything done with positive motivation can be a form of meditation.
To begin with, there is object meditation. You can focus on an object, such as a flower, placed in front of you. Your eyes should be relaxed and gently opened as you focus on the object. As your eyes gaze at the flowers, see how long you can hold your attention on the object. This is stillness. Later, inevitably, the monkey mind will come in and take your attention away from the flowers. This is movement. Then, you must bring your attention back, realizing, I am meditating; do not move. Realizing and watching the shift of your own attention, both stillness and movement, that is called awareness, or rigpa.
In the beginning, you might experience 99% movement and 1% stillness. At first, object meditation may be almost completely movement with our negative monkey mind. This is because we never meditate. Slowly, meditating little by little, we achieve longer periods of stillness, from 1% to 2%, from 2% to 3%, and so forth, to the point where movement and stillness are equal.
These three –movement, stillness, and awareness– can be applied to everything that you do, and are not limited to Buddhism or Dharma. Stability of mind is conducive to all activities. Movement, on the other hand, is not. I see so many people, changing all the time and moving to and fro, back and forth.
Actually, we are constantly fighting with movement. All sentient beings have minds, and most human beings have a slightly negative mind. That is why they may think to themselves, “I don’t want this monkey mind,” and feel, “I need to rid myself of it.” In truth, it depends on how you use your mind.
The human mind could be likened to a horse. We are the rider of this horse, but most of us have no control over the animal. Unless the rider has control over the animal, it will not listen, and the horse could assert its own will, going wherever it pleases. In some cases, a wild horse could even be extremely dangerous to the rider, by kicking and thrashing, and can seriously injure or even kill his driver. Such is the case with our own mind.
One could say, horses are bad, and we don’t need them, but this is certainly untrue. Actually, if one is a skilled rider and knows how to control a horse, this animal is of great benefit, going great distances at speeds unimaginable by foot, and an excellent companion who could even become the rider’s best friend. Ultimately, the mind does become your best friend. Without the mind, we could not meditate; if your mind is focused, you can achieve anything.
As I wrote in A Dharma Gong to Wake Us from Ignorance:
This untamed mind of delusion
results in the suffering of samsara.
A subdued, peaceful mind
results in the bliss of Liberation.
Samsara and samsaric suffering comes from nowhere but our own mind.
Modern scientists continue to confirm what Buddhists have known to be true for thousands of years. A friend told me about a recent Harvard study that showed how 47% of the time, our mind is not on what we are doing (that’s around a third of our lives!) and found a causal relationship between more mental wandering and levels of unhappiness.
Buddhist thought maintains that we have one mind with so many different mental functions operating at different levels. The true nature of the mind is not negative; rather this pure mind is referred to as Buddha nature. Ignorance obscures our innate wisdom and creates suffering. This pure mind is covered by delusions and negativity, which is just like a house which has been cluttered with dirt and mess. You feel miserable living in this messy house and you cannot appreciate its actual beauty. When you finally get around to putting in the hard work and decluttering your home, you feel so light and happy seeing the natural beauty of the home that was just obscured. This “inner house” of the mental space has to be cleaned in the same way.
Don’t fill the stainless treasury of luminous awareness
with the garbage of delusion!
Don’t make this difficult-to-find
precious human life a slave to samsara!
Buddha nature is a wish-fulfilling jewel.
How sad that sentient beings like myself,
deceived by our hallucinations,
would throw it in the trash!
Buddha nature permeates our current state like butter permeates milk. We may see milk and think, I want butter, how can I extract it from the liquid? We must churn the butter; this requires work and effort. One day, after churning, you will find the presence of pure butter and the disappearance of milk.
To tell you the truth, all human beings are mad! The two types of madness amongst humans, though, are quite different.
The first group, representing the vast majority of sentient beings, are mad, desperately running outside after samsara. This is a very serious form of madness with dire consequences. These sentient beings believe in the reality of the outer world, holding their 5 senses to be true. As I wrote in A Dharma Gong to Wake Us from Ignorance:
Nobody takes care
of the wish-fulfilling jewel of mind.
Everyone chases the five senses,
one after another.
Actually, samsara is like a drug; we are addicted and seek more and more, but we don’t see things as they really are. Our suffering is just like grabbing a rock and hitting ourselves repeatedly in the head, crying out, “Where is the origin of our pain?”, when in reality, it is our own doing! This brings more suffering and does not bring happiness. As stated in The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva:
The practice of all the bodhisattvas is to turn away immediately
From those things which bring desire and attachment.
For the pleasures of the senses are just like salty water:
The more we taste of them, the more our thirst increases.
The second group of crazy people is far fewer in number. These are the beings unwaveringly seeking pure Dharma and inner peace within their own mind. These individuals are also seen by worldly people as crazy. Such with Buddha Shakyamuni, who left his kingdom, wealth, and family. Jetsun Milarepa was called a lunatic during his life. His extreme renunciation, reclusiveness, and unconventional behavior brought derision from local people. From Milarepa’s “The Song of the Lunatic” taken from The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa translated by Garma C.C. Chang:
Men say, “Is not Milarepa mad?”
I also think it may be so,
Now listen to my madness.
The father and the son are mad,
And so are the transmission
And Dorje Chang’s succession.
Mad too were my great-grandfather, the fair sage Tilopa.
And my grandfather, Naropa the great scholar.
Mad too, was my father, Marpa the translator.
So too is Milarepa.
Also, as I wrote in A Dharma Gong to Wake Us from Ignorance:
Don’t look for shows outside;
watch the show inside!
If you are lucky you’ll discover
a show like never seen before!
In conclusion, it is important to consider the purpose of meditation and to regard all activities with proper motivation as a form of meditation. Begin slowly, and gradually you will develop endurance and cultivate positive qualities. This can be summed up in the three supreme methods preliminary to Dharma practice:
Motivation: say to yourself, all sentient beings throughout all realms want happiness just like me, but do not know the cause of happiness. Therefore they suffer, wandering helplessly throughout samsara without any refuge or protection. I’m going to practice with the intention to help free all sentient beings of their immense suffering
Focus: we should practice with a concentrated mind, focusing wholeheartedly on whatever we are doing. Although your body may be sitting for meditation or prostrating, and your speech reciting mantras or praying, it is important that your mind is with you at all times
Dedication: dedicate the merit for the welfare of all sentient beings, praying that bodhicitta continually grows greater
If you have all three, your practice becomes Dharma. Without these three, although the efforts may support or strengthen your own mind, it will not be Dharma.
This mind of yours, which may now seem like your enemy, will eventually become your best friend. See samsara for what it actually is. Like all sentient beings, you seek happiness, but do not be fooled! Look in the right direction.
As I wrote in A Dharma Gong to Wake Us from Ignorance:
Don’t be like a mother, searching in the West,
for a child she has lost in the East!
Having turned the mind inwards,
don’t seek happiness outside!
I share this with you all because in this modern time, the word “meditation” is thrown about casually and without proper context. Thus, many sincere people new to dharma wish to meditate but have become confused about the meaning of the term as Buddhists understand it. My sincere wish is that all could experience the vast benefit that comes from meditation, which has been my own practical experience, and I pray the same for all sentient beings.
~Khenpo Karten Rinpoche, originally posted in his Blogspot, Sept.12, 2020