Any Time, Anywhere!

September 2008

One of the great things about being a Buddhist is that no matter where you are or what you’re doing, and no matter how bleak—or how perfect— things may look at any given moment, there’s always something you can do to improve the situation. (This is no doubt true of other spiritual paths as well—I just happen to be familiar with Buddhist methods.) Below is a concise guide to a few of the techniques we can pull out in any setting to calm our own mind or send some positive energy to someone in need. Each of them is best cultivated in regular sessions on a cushion or chair; that makes them easier and more effective on the spur of the moment. But if you aren’t able to organize yourself to practice formally, any engagement with them is helpful.

    • Calm abiding (shinay) meditation. The basic instruction for this technique to settle the mind is: don’t engage in any thoughts of the past, present or future. Instead, whatever thought or emotion arises in the mind, rest relaxed and alert in its essence. You don’t need to analyze what this means; in fact, it’s beyond the grasp of the intellect. It will become clearer only through practice. You never actually need to know what it means, it works anyway. In short, neither banish nor follow the content of any thoughts that arise, but let the mind rest in the midst of whatever comes up, relaxed and aware. Don’t worry about whether you’re doing it “right” or not. Just do it, fearlessly. It’s that simple! Within this overall technique, you can use a device to anchor your awareness, so you know whether you’re distracted or not, such as counting your breaths, just noticing your breathing, or being aware of visual, auditory, tactile, or inner sensations; or you can just keep your mind wide open. It’s easiest to do when you’re not engaged in conversation or a demanding activity. I find it’s a good way to make use of time waiting in line or on hold or at the computer, driving, or doing tasks that don’t require mental effort. With practice, you can apply it almost any time, unobtrusively, without looking like you’re doing anything at all. You can do it for a few minutes or a few breaths, or just flash on it for a second or two. The only hard thing about it is remembering to do it.
      • Taking and sending (tong len) meditation. This is another simple, literal technique that doesn’t require much preparation or effort and allows for endless variations. For our present travel purposes, we’ll cut to the chase: You see or bring to mind someone whom you know or suspect is suffering physically or emotionally; you generate the intense wish to free them of this suffering by taking it upon yourself and to give them all your happiness in return; you put this wish into action by visualizing their suffering as hot black smoke that you breathe in from their heart center, through your nostrils and into your heart center, where it dissolves harmlessly into emptiness, and then visualizing your happiness as cool white light that you breathe out from your heart center, through your nostrils, and into their heart center. You continue this for as many breaths as it takes, and through this exchange, you imagine that they become free of suffering and filled with happiness. Your own happiness does not get used up, but is inexhaustible, constantly replenished by your compassion and good will and the innately joyful nature of mind. As I mention elsewhere this month, Jamgon Kongtrul urges us to do this practice even on our deathbed, when we are unable to do anything else but breathe. Keeping impermanence in mind, knowing that our last moment—our deathbed—could come without warning at any time, perhaps we had best practice it as much as possible! It’s a great way to take your mind off your own problems; and if you are suffering, you can even do it for yourself, adapting the visualization accordingly. You can try it as an antidote when you are caught up in anger or an argument, following a slow driver, or just got up on the wrong side of the bed. You can pull out taking and sending in an instant, any time you observe someone suffering, whether you are able to help them in some other way or not. There may not be any evidence that it provides relief (perhaps you will never know, and Chogyam Trungpa, in Training the Mind, says not to even think about it), but it raises our awareness and compassion and helps diminish our preoccupation with our own concerns—a major objective of all Buddhist practice.
        • Mantra recitation. Even if you don’t do formal meditation practices that involve visualization and mantras, you can recite mantras any time as you go through your day. The best all-purpose mantra is om mani peme hung (oh-m mah-nee pay-may hoong, in the Tibetan pronunciation, with each syllable equally stressed). This is the mantra of compassion, and saying it serves two principal purposes: it awakens our own compassion, which exists in each of us as a potential to be developed; and when other beings hear it, it is said to make a connection that will lead to their awakening as well. It is considered best not to impose our mantras on other humans, who may not wish to hear them; when we recite them in public, it is best to do so quietly and imperceptibly, for the benefit of tiny animals and invisible beings who may be near enough to hear, and for the general positive energy they disseminate. Like taking and sending, it is something positive we can do whenever we see someone suffering. When Kalu Rinpoche visited PTC in the 1980s, he was often observed walking the grounds and stopping to say mantras for any small animals and insects he encountered. Mantras can also be used as a focus for calm abiding meditation in the same way we might use our breath, to anchor our awareness as we rest our mind, thus combining two techniques for training and calming the mind. Each of these techniques can be further explored through numerous resources, or learned from a qualified teacher. But it’s fine to just try out these simple instructions. And if you remember to renew your motivation to practice for the benefit of all beings at the beginning and to dedicate any benefit from the practice to all beings at the end, whatever practice you do will become much more powerful, even if you only have a moment.

Programs and books for further exploration:

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