“Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. But you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.”

Ajahn Chah


Meditation Instructions for Calm Abiding (Shamatha) in the form of a painting with accompanying instructions. The idea of relating the mind to an unruly elephant along with the monkey and other elements in the visual example of Calm Abiding meditation originates in the writings of Asanga and then later in the meditation commentaries of Je Tsongkapa. It is thought that the artistic depiction of the practice is relatively late and possibly first arose in the 19th century as a wall mural. The image above is of a poster published in India in the early 1970s. An original Tibetan version of the painting has not yet been located.

Key Elements:

- The monk holding an elephant goad and a lasso is the individual.
- The flame represents effort.
- The elephant represents the mind.
- Black elephant colour - the mental factor of sinking - lethargy.
- The monkey is distraction.
- Black monkey colour - the mental factor of scattering.
- The Five Objects of Sensory Pleasure are the object of distraction.
- The rabbit represents subtle sinking - lethargy.

Source: Himalayan Art Resources.

Chanting the Heart Sutra [for Japan], and Sobbing

It seems that every time I try something new, something that is designed to open my heart, it doesn’t just open, it cracks into a million pieces.

Yesterday I received a message from Shambhala International (as did the thousands of everyone else on the mailing list) encouraging us to recite the Heart Sutra for the benefit of all those affected by the earthquake near Japan, and the Prajñāpāramitā mantra included therein 108 times.

First I meditated for 20 minutes. Cross-legged this time, not on the bench. Wanted to see how much numbness I could take. There was a lot of numbness.

Then I recited the Sutra.

I had only a vague idea of what the mantra meant. At least, I kept remembering it had something to do with emptiness. Turns out I wasn’t too far off.

oṃ gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā

“OM gone, gone, gone beyond, completely gone beyond, awake, so be it.”

Anyway, after the Sutra, including chanting the mantra the prescribed number of times, I thought I was done. I dedicated the merit, put my zabuton and zafu away, sat down on the bed, and began to cry. Just as before, it was wracking sobs, deep, shaking to the core. But only for a few seconds.

Then I sat with it for 5 minutes.

I thought that it shouldn’t happen this fast. That since I’ve been meditating every day since September I should be progressing along, but not this much. I think I must be doing something wrong. I think that I’m going off in the wrong direction, toward insanity.

But I feel very stable right now. Stable as in my mind doesn’t feel like it’s going to fly off into a rage or drop off into some other kind of craziness.

Other things came up: the utter fear of being lost, the fear that not only would my heart break, which it has been doing more and more lately, but that my mind would break. That I would lose myself.

I guess that’s the point.

But it scares the hell out of me.

This little part of me – I suppose it’s my ego talking – says, “Run away! Go back to your familiar habits and life! It’s comfortable!” Then some other part says, “That way was the way of depression, of pain, of getting angry for no good reason, of judging people, of doing whatever it takes to protect yourself. That way is the wrong way.”

And so I trudge on.

But I have no idea how long I will last.

Perhaps that’s the point.

Training the mind well is a useful activity. You can see this even in draft animals, like elephants, oxen, and water buffaloes. Before we can put them to work, we have to train them. Only when they’re well trained can we use their strength and put it to different purposes. All of you know this.

A mind well trained is of many times greater value. Look at the Buddha and his noble disciples. They changed their status from being run-of-the-mill people to being noble ones, respected by people all over. And they’ve benefited us in more wide-ranging ways than we could ever determine. All of this comes from the fact that they’ve trained their minds well.

A mind well trained is of use in every occupation. It enables us to do our work with circumspection. It makes us reasonable instead of impulsive, and enables us to experience a happiness appropriate to our station in life.

—  Ajahn Chah

The Nine Progressive Stages of Mental Development According to Shamatha Meditation Practice (Tibetan Thangka Painting).
The practice of Shamatha meditation develops the ability to focus the mind in single-pointed perfect concentration and is a prerequisite for the development of vipashyana or analytical insight meditation. Shamatha meditation should ideally practice in an isolated place and one should seat in meditation posture of Vairochana Buddha. The object of concentration is usually the image of the Buddha or a deity. The illustration of the development of mental tranquility is brilliantly depicted in this thangka in nine progressive stages of mental development which are obtained through the six powers of study, contemplation, memory, comprehension, diligence and perfection. The first stage is attained through the power of study and or hearing. The monk fixes his mind on the object of concentration. Here a monk chasing, binding, leading and subduing elephant whose colour progresses from black to white. The elephant represents the mind and its black colour the gross aspects of mental dullness. The monkey represents distraction or mental agitations, and its black colour, scattering. The hare represents the more subtle aspect of sinking. The hooked goad and lasso which the monk wields represent clear understanding and mindful recollection. The progressive diminishing along the path represents the decreasing degree of effort needed to cultivate understanding and recollection. The five sense objects represent the five sensual source of distraction.

Meditation Cushion

Meditation – What I was taught and what I wish I was told

Meditation will certainly come up more than once on this site as it has been one of my greatest teachers since I began to practice daily. I’m going to assume if you found yourself on this page you are already interested in starting this practice. What I’m going to do here is help you get started and try to demystify the process.

If you are looking to be convinced on why to practice you could visit herehere, or here. Or a million other different websites, books and articles. From what we know meditation has been used for at least 5,000 years so you’re bound to find something that speaks to you.

So this is an introduction to shamatha meditation. This simply means to sit with your breath and practice being in the present moment. What you do “on the cushion” will then start to influence what you do “off the cushion”.

Mindfulness Meditation The Way I Was Taught

·         Choose an amount of time you wish to sit for. I’m doing 20 minutes every day and an hour on Sundays, but you can begin with 5 minutes or more. Whatever will get you started is the best amount of time. Once you’ve chosen your time, set an alarm so you aren’t constantly looking at the clock and try to sit for the entire time.

·         Sit either in easy pose, half lotus or full lotus with your spine erect. You’ll find these poses allow your body to feel stable and thus do not distract your mind. If this is uncomfortable for you there is always the option to sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and back erect, not leaning against the chair.

·         Create a fist with each of your hands, touching the tip of your thumbs to the base of your ring fingers. 1) This gives you something to do with your hands and 2) I was told that it also helps to keep the energy coursing through your body instead of releasing out into the surrounding space. Then rest your fists on your legs/knees.

·         With eyes open, relax your vision and look down and out about a foot from your body. It should not feel like you are straining your eyes either in focus or looking too far in any direction. You want to feel relaxed during meditation, not tense. There is also the closed-eye method but personally I tend to enter a dreamy kind of pre-sleep state when I close my eyes. Experiment with this to see what you prefer. Read excerpts from others to see what their take is on it.

·         Adjust yourself properly and then begin your practice. Focus on your breath going in and out but don’t try to manipulate the breath. If – er WHEN — your mind wanders just let that thought go and return your attention to the breath. This may happen 1 million (or more) times during your practice, just continue to return to the present moment and understand that this is normal.

·         At the end of your practice you may dedicate the merit to the benefit of all sentient beings (this includes yourself) and thank yourself for coming to practice. Congrats!

What I Wish Someone Told Me

Meditation is not *magic*. Or – at least not in the sense of ABRA CADABRA type of magic. I think this was the biggest surprise to me once I started practicing. Before I started a daily practice I really thought it was this thing where people say “OMMM” and you went in to some sort of trance. The opposite of what I really needed or was looking for in my life. There are times when I have had some pretty powerful emotions and revelations during meditation. Thanks to the quieting of my mind these types of things were given space to arise within me. But I try not to attach myself to them as this would not be the point of the practice. It sounds counter-intuitive but if you can remain present and focused on your breath in a moment of rapture and bliss then you are really on your way to a state of contentment and peace.

Meditation is ordinary with extraordinary benefits. It really is you just sitting there with the environment, with your thoughts, with your feelings and with your breath. This is FABULOUS. It is meant to bring you into what is real. It is meant to slow you down. It is meant to make you realize your repetitive thought patterns. Which brings me to my next point…

…YES you will have thoughts during meditation. This is not bad. In meditation there is no good or bad. Eventually you will start to notice more and more space between your thoughts but that won’t happen right away. Minds think. That’s what they do and they’ll keep doing it even if you don’t will it to. Notice the thought and then return your attention to your breath. If it’s a really juicy thought and you don’t want to forget it when I first started meditating I would put that thought in an imaginary basket in my mind to be picked up later when I finished. Another method that worked for me was to just label the thought “thinking.” By doing this the thinking would typically go away on its own. I attribute this to my mind/ego trying to grab my attention, but by naming it for what it is with no judgments tend to make them go away on their own.

Give it time. Just because nothing happened the first day or two does not mean it’s been worthless. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, acquire a skill or save money you know that it takes more than 1 day to accomplish any of these things. Meditation is no different.

Meditation does not require anything special on your part. You do not need money. You do not need fancy clothes. You do not have to follow a certain religion or spiritual path. All you need is a place to sit, preferably a quiet place, and your breath.

Meditation is not the same for everybody and it is not the same every day. Some days you will drag your ass to meditation while other times you will be more than happy to sit for your practice. Some days you will be able to keep focused on the moment without any effort and other days you will be shaking your head trying to physically throw the thoughts out. Some people will meditate for an hour and others for only 5 minutes. Just remember that we are different every day so we shouldn’t expect our meditations to be the same either.

Finally, thank yourself every day after you finish meditation. There are always a million other things we could be doing. Work is never finished and there is always something new to learn. Sitting down for meditation practice will take a great amount of resolve and you should thank yourself for coming to practice every day. You are taking care of yourself which in turn will help others take care of themselves and that is no small thing.

The music in my head

Today I spent all day digging deep into Mahamudra practice. Without going into detail, and I’m sure this ability will fade, but as I walk down the street after the first day I find the normal chatter of my mind returning. But its substance seems less solid.

A tune arises and as I walk something reminds me to regard it without interest and suddenly it fades.

Reminds me of the folks who say, “I can’t get that song out of my head!”. Makes me want to say, “You could learn how if you wanted…”

And then I think to myself, “If you do the practice with that goal in mind, you’ll never attain it.”

Back to the drawing board I guess…

Stages of calm abiding (Tibetan: Zhine, Sanskrit: Shamatha) Meditation...

Sakin duruş-konsantrasyon Meditasyonun Aşamaları…

If this elephant of mind is bound on all sides by the cord of mindfulness,
Eğer bu zihnin fil'i her tarafından farkındalık içerisinde ise, 

All fear disappears and complete happiness comes…
Tüm korkular kaybolur ve tam anlamıyla mutluluk ortaya çıkar… 

All enemies: all the tigers, lions, elephants, bears, serpents [of our emotions];
Tüm düşmanlar bütün kaplanlar, aslanlar, filler, ayılar, yılanlar [tüm duygularımız] 

And all keepers of hell; the demons and the horrors,
Ve cehennemin tüm bekçileri, şeytanlar ve korkular, 

All of these are bound by the mastery of your mind,
Tüm bunlar zihninizin ustalığı tarafından dize getirilirler, 

And by taming of that one mind, all are subdued,
Ve bu bir zihni eğitmek suretiyle, onların hepsine boyun eğdirilir. 

Because from the mind are derived all fears and immeasurable sorrows…
Çünkü aslında tüm korkuların ve tarifsiz üzüntülerin kaynağı bu zihindir…

From Entering the Path of Enlightenment,
The eight-century Buddhist master Shantideva. 
Aydınlanma Yoluna Giriş eserinden,
Sekizinci yüzyılda yaşamış Budist Usta Shantideva. Çeviren: Tenzin Jigmey
Why do we do shamatha or mindfulness meditation? It’s said to increase two things. One is vividness. Our experience becomes much more vivid as detail and subtlety emerge in all the things we usually miss when we’re speeding through life. The other is stability. We train our mind to be less thrown around by the ups and downs of life. These two qualities mix well with anything we do and permeate and radiate out into our lives.
—  David Nichtern
Patience, Part Deux

My meditation this past Saturday revealed that I had quite a bit of unresolved emotion to work with. I have been trying to figure out how to coach someone who doesn’t want to be coached, and learned quite thoroughly that the approach I’ve been taking assumes some very wrong views.

First, that I should even be trying to coach someone who doesn’t want to be coached. It was an assumption I was unwilling to let go of. And, the times before when I would say, “Perhaps we should just stop – that’ll show him!” were still wrapped up in ego. I was protecting my feeling that I was right about how to work with my teammate.

Second, that working one-on-one with everybody on my team is even the right approach. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it seems that if I am an intimidating kind of person, and the team member is also of strong ego, then putting them in a one-on-one situation will make them feel less safe. Perhaps group activities are more appropriate for that kind of coaching.

Third, that I know everything. I am still learning about this whole leadership thing, and probably will be for the rest of my life. To assume that I know the right approach to working with someone is to assume that I am perfect. I’m not.

So, given all that, what will I change? Most of all, I will try harder to listen to what the situation is telling me. A lot of that is to endeavor not to take things seriously, even if they are direct insults pointed at me. I go back to this amazing quote:

If those who are like wanton children
Are by nature prone to injure others
There’s no reason for our rage
It’s like resenting fire for being hot.
The Way of the Bodhisattva, Chapter 6, Verse 39

And we mustn’t forget Patience. Except in this case, patience is not a thing I should be having with my manager, but instead something I should be having with the person I am leading.

Amazing how it all fits together like that.

If we have ambitions—even if our aim is enlightenment— then there is no meditation, because we are thinking about it, craving it, fantasizing, imagining things. That is not meditation. This is why an important characteristic of shamatha meditation is to let go of any goal and simply sit for the sake of sitting. We breathe in and out, and we just watch that. Nothing else. It doesn’t matter if we get enlightenment or not. It doesn’t matter if our friends get enlightened faster. Who cares? We are just breathing. We just sit straight and watch the breath in and out. Nothing else. We let go of our ambitions. This includes trying to do a perfect shamatha meditation. We should get rid of even that. Just sit.
—  Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
"On Mind Wandering in Meditation

by Marcello Spinella, July 19, 2011

Mind wandering is perhaps the number one obstacle to people starting a meditation practice. A surprisingly large number of people seem to have tried to meditate at least once in their lives. When I ask people about what it was like and what problem they ran into, frustration over mind wandering seems like an almost universal answer. I never heard anyone say “Oh, it was pure peace and bliss, but I just decided to stop.” When something is that enjoyable, we tend to keep at it. Ironically, all of this frustration is based on a mistaken assumption, something like: “When I meditate, my mind should not wander.” That’s completely unrealistic. The natural habit of the mind is to wander. It happens all day long. What makes us think it would be any different when we sit down to meditate?

An important point to realize is that we have absolutely no control whatsoever over when our minds are going to wander next or where it’s going to go. It’s as involuntary as a muscle twitch or the functioning of your spleen. Despite our best intentions, it’s guaranteed to wander and there is no way to predict when. So putting effort toward “not wandering” is like putting effort toward making a cloud not rain. Trying to control something you can’t control can only produce frustration and helplessness, which erodes motivation to continue practice.

In psychological terms, attention can be operantly conditioned. This type of conditioning was discovered by Edward Thorndyke and refined by B.F. Skinner. We have the popular cultural image of a pigeon in a cage who receives a pellet every time it pecks a lever. Before long it learns that pecking the lever gets results so it keeps doing it. Developing concentration not different from this. It involves conditioning systems in the brain that, to a large degree, are not under our direct voluntary control. In meditation, we choose some object to focus our attention on, like breath sensations or feelings in the body. We can voluntarily focus somewhat, but how well depends on the amount of distraction. And even in a quiet room, it’s not long before long the mind is off again. The most common response to this is frustration. We realize the mind is wandering and get frustrated that it didn’t stay put like a good doggie. Well frustration is a form of self-punishment.

There are at least two reasons why this doesn’t work. The first is punishment isn’t a good motivator. It works to some degree, but produces many unwanted side effects. If we try to beat the mind into submission, the whole process will become very aversive and we will start finding excuses to end our meditation session early or find other things to do with our time. The second reason is that it makes absolutely no sense from a behavioral point of view. The very moment we realize the mind has been wandering, attention has already returned. That’s good. So to get frustrated is like punishing the mind for doing what we wanted it to do. It’s like trying to teach a dog to roll over and whenever he starts to do it, you say “Bad doggie!” It’s a strategy that is doomed to fail.The only reason we do it is out of the habit of trying to correct our behavior with punishment. But taking a step back and considering the process shows us that this not a useful strategy.

One can neutrally bring attention back, and if that works, by all means do so. However, it has been recognized in recent years that “bad is stronger than good,” a term coined by psychologist Roy Baumeister. We tend towards negative emotion, probably because in evolutionary terms, it was a safer bet in the short run. It was better for our ancestors to get scared when they heard a rustling in the bush, than to ignore it on the off change it was a large, hungry predator. So the automatic tendency toward frustration has an unfair advantage. When developing a meditation practice, self-rewarding rather than self-punishing can counterbalance this automatic tendency. As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. If the verbal label (e.g. “good”) becomes cumbersome or unnecessary after a while, you can just drop it. But it can be a very useful technique to overcome the struggling that many experience.

A teacher named Upasaka Culadasa (pronounced “choo-lah-DAH-sah”; tipped me off to this simple but critical point. Whenever we catch the mind wandering and re-focus on the chosen object, feel good about it. I even would use a word like “good” or “yes.” Do this every time. Recognize that wandering is not a failure, but re-focusing is a success, every single time. Literally, every re-focusing is exercising attention pathways in the brain, reinforcing synaptic pathways. The more these pathways are exercised, the easier they become activated. With every single re-focusing, a person’s ability to stay focused becomes slightly better. Over time this is like putting money in a bank, it not only accumulates, but with compounded interest. Eventually, this results in unbroken attention and freedom from distraction for long periods of time.

With instruction, a person eventually learn to enter advanced states of concentration, states of deep absorption called “jhana” in Buddhist terminology, where the mind can stay focused without wandering for hours at a time. This sharpens a person’s concentration greatly, which generalizes to everyday life. Emotionally, there is an enormous sense of well-being and stability that comes with this. It also gives one an awesome too with which to practice mindfulness and develop insight.

The two general aspects of awareness in Buddhist meditation are concentration (i.e. sustained attention), and mindfulness (i.e. metacognitive awareness of one’s thinking process, emotions, and/or sensations). Any meditation develops a little of both, but some forms develop one aspect relatively more than the other. However, these two skills go hand-in-hand. When our minds wander so much that it’s hard to get a clear picture of what is going on in our subjective experience and develop insight. It’s like trying to read small text with a magnifying glass, but your hand keeps moving around so that you can’t get a good look at what’s there. Concentration practice is like exercises to steady the hand, so that you can use mindfulness to read what’s there. Together, these are like a cognitive microscope. The greater one’s ability to sustain focus, the more turbo charged one’s mindfulness practice becomes. That will lead to penetrating insights that will radically change one’s well-being for the better.  

I am not the same Trungpa you saw a few days ago. I am a fresh, new Trungpa –right now! And I will always be that way. I will be dead and gone tonight, and right now, this very moment, I am dying and being born. So the next time I give a talk, I will be entirely different.

You can’t rely on one particular reference point. In some sense that is extraordinarily fresh and feels good, but on the other hand it may be sad, because you wan to hang onto the past, constantly. Until there’s enough familiarity with the mentality of shamatha and vipashyana, you won’t understand this. And that pracitce of shamatha/vipashyana goes on, up to the level of vajrayana discipline as well.

—  Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche from “The Heart of the Buddha”, pg. 12
A return to Diligence

Diligence means joy in virtuous ways.
Its contraries have been defined as laziness,
An inclination for unwholesomeness,
Defeatism and self-contempt
The Way of the Bodhisattva, Chapter 7, Verse 2

Today I returned to my study of The Way of the Bodhisattva, and boy am I glad I did! Shantideva reminds me that I have been slacking off.

And he’s right.

While I’ve been good about practicing most days, I’ve lulled myself into thinking a small time on the train is enough. Or that I don’t need to practice Tonglen – Shamatha will suffice. But as I am reminded in this chapter, my aspiration is not toward solely helping myself, but helping others as well.

Do not be downcast, but marshal all your powers;
Make an effort; be the master of yourself!
Practice the equality of self and other;
Practice the exchange of self and other.
The Way of the Bodhisattva, Chapter 7, Verse 16

The reminder in this verse was the one that stood out the most. And so I will reinvigorate my practice, and practice more diligently – Tonglen in the morning, Shamatha in the evening. Perhaps start with the Heart Sutra and go from there.

I’m sure after I’ve gotten more training I’ll have more practices to work with, but these are all I know so far. And these I will work with until I get the next tool for training my mind.

And that will have to be, as a friend likes to say, “good enough for now.”