Losar Tashi Delek! Happy Tibetan New Year! (as of February 14)
I don’t know if our local groundhog saw his/her shadow on February 2. (As you know, every day is Groundhog Day here in retreat.) My bet is s/he didn’t, as it was overcast most of the day and it’s been wicked cold for weeks. But, groundhog or no, one thing this February is guaranteed to bring is:
Warning: Another exhortation to meditate!
In case you are still reading, I will share that a friend and fellow PTC sangha member in Virginia once said one of the most helpful things I’ve ever heard about meditation. It was quite a few years ago, and I don’t know if she’d still subscribe to this sentiment herself, but what she said was, it’s like brushing your teeth. Even when you really don’t feel like it, you’d never dream of going to bed without having done it.
At that point in my practice, what I really needed was to ratchet up the discipline and be consistent, and that really helped. So I am very grateful to her (thanks, Jean). There is something quite wonderful about looking back and knowing you haven’t missed a day of practice in months or years—even if some days it may have been a tad slapdash.
Over the years I have come to realize—largely thanks to the daily routine of my practice—that, beyond the aspect of simple discipline, meditation is really not at all like brushing your teeth. The best you can hope for if you brush your teeth every day is that they won’t fall out of your head before you die. Face it, once you’ve got them all, teeth are never really going to get any better. The challenge is to keep them from deteriorating too much too fast.
Meditation can surely feel like a drudge, just like brushing your teeth. Same old thing, day in, day out. No, noooo, not time to meditate, again! On occasion it can even be unpleasant; sometimes the last thing we want to do is immerse ourselves in what is going through our mind at a given moment.
The difference, and what makes it worthwhile to slog through the hard parts, is this: the purpose of meditation is to uncover something that does not deteriorate, that is indestructible and glorious, that will outlast and outshine our body and our teeth, however much money we may have sunk into cosmetic crowns and whitening.
As both Lama Norlha Rinpoche and Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche have instructed us, quoted in my December-January post, that indestructible something is the essential nature of our very own mind. We call it Buddha Nature, but everyone has it, be they Buddhist, non-Buddhist, our dentist or Punxatawney Phil.
What is Buddha Nature like? How does it make meditating even more rewarding than holding onto your teeth?
In his first book, The Joy of Living, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche tells the story of his “nervous breakthrough” in three-year retreat, which he entered at the age of 13. He had a history of anxiety and panic attacks, and the group chanting and activities in retreat were excruciatingly stressful for him. Finally, at the end of the first year, he fled into seclusion in his room and desperately applied the meditation instructions he had received from his teachers. This intensive practice triggered a series of insights over the next few days, which culminated in a direct experience of “the infinitely vast, infinitely open awareness that is the nature of mind itself.”
He goes on to say, “Any attempt to capture the direct experience of the nature of mind in words is impossible. The best that can be said is that the experience is immeasurably peaceful, and, once stablized through repeated experience, virtually unshakable. It’s an experience of absolute well-being that radiates through all physical, emotional, and mental states—even those that might be ordinarily labeled as unpleasant. This sense of well-being, regardless of the fluctuation of outer and inner experiences, is one of the clearest ways to understand what Buddhists mean by ‘happiness,’ and I was fortunate to have caught a glimpse of it during my three days of isolation.”
After that, he rejoined the group practices, and after two more weeks of focused meditation, he was able to stabilize the experience of mind’s nature—and has never had another panic attack. “The sense of peace, confidence, and well-being that resulted from this experience has never wavered. I take no personal credit for this transformation in my experience, because it has only come about through making the effort to apply directly the truth handed down by those who’d preceded me.” (Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living, 22)
Meditation is expressly designed to bring this essential nature to our attention. Ordinarily, it is obscured by constant identification with our stream of thoughts, emotions, and habitual patterns of reaction and perception, which we erroneously think of as who we are. Meditation gradually quiets all this down, allowing the underlying nature to begin to shine through, and then gives us additional methods for deepening our insight and experience. We might not notice much at first, but if we look back over months and years of regular meditation, we will definitely see that something has changed.
Of course, the caveat is the same as ever—in order to reap the benefits of meditation, we have to do the actual work of sitting and looking repeatedly at the mind. Otherwise, while we will surely derive some benefit from the teachings we receive and the books we read and our occasional practice, our meditation won’t develop in any consistent way. And before we know it—time’s up!
One surprising thing I have come to realize about meditation is that, once you get past the initial challenge phase of just getting into your seat and staying put: there’s really nothing more fun. Rinpoche likes to tease us about the emphasis in our culture on “having fun,” which usually means wasting time on things that will ultimately leave us as unhappy and unfulfilled as ever—sometimes more so.
But when I think about things that are “fun,” they seem to be activities that take us out of our uncomfortable thoughts and emotions and worries of the past and future, and rivet us into the present moment, allowing us to experience a simpler, happier, more spacious, naturally relaxed state. Just like meditation, only without the lasting benefit. While meditation may not feel like fun every time we do it, the benefit carries over into daily life, and, at least for me, life gradually becomes less stressful, less grave, less of a crisis—more “fun.”
In meditation, the route to fun is not to avoid or escape the thoughts and emotions that bug us, but to welcome them and immerse ourselves directly in them, no matter what the content. Pema Chödrön, in her audio seminar Perfect as You Are says that the benefits of meditation are just as present in our “negative” states of mind as in our “positive” ones. Beyond the superficial content, it’s all the same stuff. When we are able to sit with, or abide in, the experience that is going through our mind—say, the feeling of anger—while letting go (again and again) of the words that fuel it, we can start to feel, as Pema Chödrön puts it, its basic energy, its basic power, that is in some way no different from what we feel when we abide in a feeling of love or compassion.
Lama Norlha Rinpoche told us in the first year of retreat about ro nyam, equal taste: happiness and suffering are the same. The path to first-hand experience of this is to follow the instruction in his teaching in the December-January post: “Whatever arises, instead of being involved in the content of those experiences, look directly through what is arising and just rest within the essence of the mind’s nature.” Again and again.
What could be more fun than immeasurably peaceful, unshakable, absolute well-being? If we could get it at the cineplex, we’d all move in.
This month’s recommendations:
The Joy of Living and Joyful Wisdom, books by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Perfect as You Are, audio by Pema Chödrön (or any book or audio by Pema Chödrön, but her audio teachings are really “fun”!)