Turning the Mind into An Ally

February 12, 2008

When I started studying Buddhism some months ago, I naturally assumed that I would do a lot of reading. From what I’ve learned so far, there are other ways to learn that are just as effective, but I’ll make no apologies. I’m an academic. We read.

But which book (or books) to read? By that time, I already owned a few books by Thich Nhat Hanh, but I also wanted some other perspectives. The Portland bookstores contain shelves upon shelves of books on Buddhism. Where should I start?

I decided cheap was best, so I left the bookstore for the local library. This led me to A Path With Heart, a wonderful, but rather lengthy, book on “the perils and promises of spiritual life.” I could see that it would take some time to work my way through this book, so checking out more books from the library was out of the question. Then it dawned on me – visit my college library! I can check these books out for, well, practically forever – [faculty] membership has its privileges.

My first read was Turning the Mind into An Ally by Sakyong Mipham. This is a short, elegant book about the practice of meditation. Although the author is a spiritual leader/teacher in the Shambhala lineage, the book’s message struck me as universal. It was quite straightforward to fit Sakyong Mipham’s ideas together with those of Thich Nhat Hanh and Jack Kornfield. I was especially struck by the last section, Warrior in the World, which espouses an especially beautiful and inspirational message on how to express the benefits of meditation practice in daily life.

Since I need to return the book to the library, I have created a brief summary of it.

more …

  • Preface
    • Many people ask what it means to be content and happy. The seeds of happiness lie inside us waiting to be nurtured. The first step in this process it to train our minds through mindfulness.
  • Why Meditate?
    • 1.Although we may sincerely seek contentment and happiness, we usually fail to achieve these states. Our efforts, though well-meaning, are inevitably weak and vacillating. The problem we encounter is this: our minds are unruly and cannot support the spiritual states that we seek. We are given an analogy: expecting an untrained mind to move to a higher spiritual state is like trying to grow a flower on a rock. And a second: meditation cultivates the mind; it changes hard unyielding rock into fertile soil.
    • 2. Our minds exist in a state of continual bewilderment and suffering. We seek out change so that our pain will vanish and pleasure will appear. We try to achieve stability so that pleasure will remain and pain will be kept at bay. Each of these ‘wants’ is a temporary mind state that creates dissatisfaction and suffering (samsara). If we avoid or deny our suffering, the suffering increases. However, by recognizing the nature of suffering, as the Buddha did, we can start on a path that leads us away from suffering. The mind, then, is a fulcrum; it can lead us into suffering or happiness, depending on how we use it.
    • 3. Peaceful abiding (shamatha) meditation is how we can turn our mind into an ally in the search for happiness. The human mind is intrinsically “joyous, calm, and very clear,” but the mental habits of suffering cloud our awareness of this intrinsic state. When we practice peaceful abiding, we cultivate the ability to witness mental states calmly. We do not turn our minds off – thinking continues – but we are able to look at our thoughts without becoming wrapped up and lost in them. Peaceful abiding, then, is a foundation state for our minds. It gives us a solid platform for studying ourselves, unpacking emotions, and learning what thoughts and habits are helpful or hurtful.
  • The Art of Peacefully Abiding
    • 4. Shamatha is based on a few simple techniques: correct posture (anything that can be maintained comfortably without fidgeting: kneeling, sitting, standing, whatever), placing the mind on the object of meditation (anything, but usually the act of breathing), and returning the mind to this place each time you perceive that a thought has popped up and attention has wandered. The last point is crucial. “A certain amount of thinking is inevitable … when you lose your mind, come back” to the breath. Over and over. Gently. If you find yourself judging yourself (darn it, I’m thinking! When does this ever stop?), realize that this is just another thought and return to your breath.
    • 5. When we begin shamatha practice, we see that our mind jumps around, losing itself in one thought after another. However, mindfulness – the ability to hold our minds on one object – will develop with practice. As mindfulness develops, three qualities of mindfulness will manifest: the nature of the mindful state will become familiar, we will remember to hold our minds on our breath, and we will find ourselves less distracted by discursive thoughts. As our mindfulness matures, the separation between our thoughts and our surrounding will dissolve.
    • 6. It is helpful to recognize categories of thoughts and structure our meditation accordingly. Moving from most obvious thoughts to the most subtle, thoughts can be described as our life, fantasy, emotion, discursive and subtle. Thoughts about ourselves can be tackled directly at the start of a meditation session. Before we settle on the breath, we might ask ourselves, “Who am I? What do I dislike or like? What does it mean for me to be mean or kind?” Fantasies can command our attention and we may need to be looser when dealing with them. Rather than fight to focus our attention on our breath, we might do better just to bring our attention into the room where we sit. Emotions also require a flexible response. We may be able to release strong emotions and return to the breath. However, it may be necessary to contemplate an emotional state directly and dissect it into meaningful parts. Discursive thought (chatter) and subtle thought, on the other hand, require tighter, more precise, attention. We should not analyze or get caught up in these types of thoughts. Instead, we should only recognize that a thought exists, let it dissolve, and return our attention to the breath.
    • 7. Seated on the cushion we discover that nothing is happening. We are not being entertained. Boredom sets in. How can we deal with this? First, by noticing how boredom strikes us. If it deters us from meditating, we should loosen our practice. Try meditating on something other than the breath; we might spend a few mintes just thinking about what is going on in our lives, recognizing that, and then attend to the breath. On the other hand, if boredom appears as a thought, this is a breakthrough. We can settle in and learn to accept boredom as one part of our mental landscape. Meditation is not a form of entertainment.
    • 8. Buddhist lineages have centuries of first-hand accounts documenting obstacles to meditation and pathways around them. Laziness is a common obstacle and can take many forms. For example, we might begin to think that we don’t need to actually sit and practice, or we might begin to think that we needn’t follow the rules during practice. Whatever form laziness takes, it indicates clinging, an attachment to a small, habitual, and comfortable notion of “me.” Four antidotes for laziness: keeping one’s mind open, flexible, curious; maintaining faith in the practice; staying committed to practice; being willing to make the effort that practice requires.
    • 9. Meditation requires us to weave several threads together: posture, breath, placement of mind, intent, and view. When we lose one or more threads, we encounter another obstacle and our practice becomes a caricature of authentic meditation. Two antidotes for forgetting: reminding ourselves during meditation to be mindful of each thread; regular and consistent practice.
    • 10. As we become more proficient in our practice, we may encounter two more obstacles: elation and laxity, a mind that is wound too tight on a single topic or feeling, or a mind that has become dull. Both indicate that our meditation has taken a wrong turn. Awareness is the antidote to both conditions. Paying attention to what is going on in our mind, detecting problems, and loosening/tightening our attention as needed.
    • 11. The Tibetan lineages document nine stages of development that can be grouped into three categories. Developing stability – being able to place our awareness on our breath easily, quickly, and hold it there without distraction. Developing clarity – being able to sense our mind’s quality and potential. Developing strength – being able to sit in equanimity and expansiveness.
  • Turning the Mind into An Ally
    • 12. When we learn to stabilize our mind with shamatha, we can begin vipashyana or contemplative meditation. Begin with a few minutes of shamatha to stabilize your mind, then shift your attention from your breath to a specific thought, e.g., “Now I am placing my mind on the preciousness of human birth” or “Now I am placing my mind on the reality of impermanence.” Apply mindfulness to this thought as you would your breath. If you become lost in random thoughts, acknowledge this, let go of them, and return to the object of meditation. If you cannot experience the meaning of this object, bring in other thoughts or images to facilitate your contemplation. Ideas for contemplation are given in the next few chapters.
    • 13. To contemplate the ‘joy of being human,’ we can focus on the phrase, “joyful human birth, difficult to find, free and well-favored.” Each phrase can be used by itself to serve as an avenue for contemplation.
    • 14. Impermanence is the ‘river that runs through life.’ When we cling to a pleasant state or relationship, we deny the ‘unchanging truth of change’ and we create pain and suffering for ourselves. When we learn to let go, we become liberated and experience genuine happiness. We can contemplate these truths by holding our minds to the phrase, “everything is impermanent.
    • 15-16. The truth of impermanence, and the problem we have accepting this truth, become apparent when we look at our own lives. ‘First we get old …, and then we die.’ Westerners, especially, live in fear and denial of these basic facts. We can contemplate aging as a successful part of life by holding our mind on the phrase, “Aging is the nature of the human condition. I celebrate it.” We can liberate ourselves from our fear of death by contemplating the words, “Death is my friend, my truest of friends, for it is always waiting for me.
    • 17. Samsara is the wheel of suffering that we must endure through multiple lifetimes until we attain enlightenment. It can also be viewed as the ever-turning wheel of events and attitudes that keep us in suffering in our current life. We contemplate samsara in order to understand it, not to outwit it (we can’t!) or be overwhelmed by it. Karma is “action,” the law that says every outcome has a cause, usually many causes. We contemplate karma so that we can point ourselves in the right direction and understand the causes of suffering and happiness.
    • 18. Meditation teaches us that our version of reality, filled with emotions and desires, is an illusion. We want to be happy and an end to suffering. These desires are universal. Therefore, we can feel compassion towards others. We can want others to be happy and free from suffering without desiring anything in return. This is called bodhichitta or “awakened heart.” We can awaken bodhichitta by engaging in a step-wise meditation practice. We begin by resting in equanimity – our strong opinions do not have any hold on us – then we turn our meditation outwards, recalling that every person has, in another lifetime, had every relationship to us and has, at least once, been kind to us. From there, we make the object of meditation someone close to our heart, someone we automatically connect with, and say, “May this one know happiness” or “May this one be free of suffering.” As our feeling for our loved one stabilizes, we extend our compassion in a wider arc. We move it to someone not quite so close. Then, to someone we hardly know. Then, to someone we would normally dislike. Eventually, we might even extend it to “all sentient beings.”
  • Warrior in the World
    • 19. What is our motivation for meditation? Can we arouse it to a higher level? Our original motivation may be focused on improving our own life (or future life), but when we realize that others, like us, suffer and yet can awaken their hearts, our compassion grows. Our motivation grows. We can become a warrior boddhisattva and take the welfare and enlightenment of all beings as our responsibility. To take this step, we must slow down and realize that we have a motivation. Try this practice each day right after awaking; ask yourself, “What does my mind feel like? How am I going to approach this day? What’s driving me?” Spend several minutes learning your motivation and see if you can turn it to that of a warrior boddhisattva.
    • 20. Meditation always takes us farther along the spiritual path. We develop sheshin, awareness or presently knowing, the power to live in the present moment. This allows us to practice vipashyana, insight, and develop prajna, best knowledge. Prajna develops continuously and cumulatively, sometimes through conceptual understanding, but also through nonconceptual understanding, a direct experience of reality, in which we realize that the self does not except as a pattern. When asked where the self is, the Buddha replied, “What you see are skandhas, heaps, aggregates. They are form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness.” He gave this analogy, “The self is like this pile of rice. When you look at it, it seems to be one whole entity. When you look closer, it breaks down into grains of rice, and those grains can be broken down still further. Thus things appear to have form, yet they are empty of form.” Understanding this conceptually plants a small seed that can grow into a direct experience of true reality.
    • 21. Taming and gathering our mind, cultivating boddhichitta and prajna, allows us to ride windhorse, the primordial energy of basic goodness. Windhorse’s nature is uplifted, strong, exuberant, and brilliant. The Buddha taught six paramitas, courageous ways to live on Earth: generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation (samadhi or fully absorbed), and prajna.
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