A vintage dharma quote popped up in my Facebook feed this morning with what turns out to be an excellent suggestion for constructive use of our social distancing time now that covid-19 has been declared a global pandemic and we are all urged to stay home to help contain it (though if you are a healthcare or other essential worker, overwhelmed with WFH, or have kids home from school, you may have to find your moments). As dharma practitioners, this may be the very best thing we can do with whatever extra time we have:
I feel that it is absolutely important to make the practice of meditation your source of strength, your source of basic intelligence. Please think about that. You could sit down and do nothing, just sit and do nothing. Stop acting, stop speeding. Sit and do nothing. You should take pride in the fact that you have learned a very valuable message: you actually can survive beautifully by doing nothing.
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:
“The three realms of existence are as fleeting as autumn clouds.” ~From The Extensive Sport Sutra, quoted in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa.
A few years ago, when I lived in rural New Hampshire, I was taking a walk on the most gloriously perfect early fall day you can imagine, just feeling on top of the world, la la la la la, when I passed a neighbor’s pig pen. Mr. and Mrs. Pig were friends of mine, and I always stopped to say a few mani’s if they were out and about. But today Mrs. Pig was standing there all alone looking very, very upset. Where is Mr. Pig? As I passed the driveway, why, there was Mr. Pig—laid out on the asphalt, freshly slaughtered and about to be hung up for bacon. Mrs. Pig was next on the list.
Lama Norlha once asked his students, “If you don’t practice now, when will you do it? When you’re a cow grazing in a field?” He always said the best advice he got from his first root lama in Tibet was, “Always remember impermanence.”
A Western teacher I studied Tibetan with back in the 1980s used to say, “We already fell off the building. We’re hurtling toward the ground.”
OK, our time on earth is limited and could end at any moment without warning. But while we’re still here, aka today, how to find the time to practice?
Circa 1980, the first personal computers were behemoths with one font, no graphics, no color, and no mouse, and the most popular game was Pac-Man. An innovative computer game came out based on the 1960s TV show The Prisoner about a renegade British secret agent mysteriously exiled to “the Village,” a relentlessly cheerful island designed to drive a sophisticated Londoner mad. In the computer game, the player typed in words and used the cursor keys to move around in order to solve a series of more and more complex and seemingly illogical puzzles and eventually “escape”—something Number Six, the hero of The Prisoner, never managed to do.
I remember clearly the moment we finally arrived at the solution to the last puzzle: “Unplug the computer.” So simple…yet we never thought of it on our own!
OK, so maybe you need your computer, but what if you just turned it off and meditated for a half hour, or even 15 minutes? Or, don’t turn it off—just walk away and meditate for ten minutes, or five, and come right back.
Or, stay at the computer and just swivel your chair around and let thoughts go for a few minutes. Or, don’t even turn around—just lower your gaze and focus on your breath. Don’t try to change it, just notice it, while gently letting go of any thoughts that arise. You can even look like you’re working!
If you don’t have five minutes, and I’ve been in that situation many times myself, maybe you could follow Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice and take three slow, mindful breaths, relaxing and letting all thoughts go just for that short amount of time.
If you don’t even have time for three breaths, then Mingyur Rinpoche has a suggestion: just rest your mind for ONE SECOND! He says we can do this any time, anywhere. Once while teaching meditation in New York City he stopped and talked to himself for a moment to see if it’s possible to meditate while conversing. He reported to his highly amused audience that yes, it is! In the one-second technique, you just focus for that second on whatever you’re doing; let all thoughts and feelings go, and be present where you are, vividly—feeling tactile sensations, hearing sounds, noticing your breath, or relaxing into the vastness of space.
Many years ago during a teaching at PTC, a student asked the great meditation master Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche how often we should meditate. Without hesitating, Rinpoche replied, “Whenever you realize you’re not meditating, then you should meditate.”
Listen! The banshee is already wailing on the mountainside! There’s no other time than now.
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.
Just a few days into three-year retreat, almost seven months ago, I was helping a fellow retreatant polish some shrine bowls. It was during the lunch break, the only time talking is allowed, and we discovered that we had both come up with the same metaphor to describe our experience so far: down the rabbit hole!
A number of good books exist that can help you get started meditating. We have studied several of them at Kagyu Samten Chöling in New Hampshire. Bokar Rinpoche’s Meditation: Advice for Beginners is our standard handbook. I recently read Mingyur Rinpoche’s Joy of Living and found his instructions extremely helpful as well. (The first part is about the correspondences between traditional Buddhist methodology and recent discoveries about how the brain works. It’s quite interesting, but you can go directly to part two for the meditation instructions.)
It’s best to supplement your study of a book with direct instruction from a qualified teacher, especially if you are interested in a particular spiritual tradition. As a reminder, or in case you don’t have any other resources handy, here’s a concise introduction to the basic procedure of what our tradition calls calm abiding meditation, the first type we do, which helps to calm our mind and train it to stay focused rather than zoom off after every thought that pops up.
Sit down. (You can also do walking meditation, but I’m not addressing that here.) Pick a place where you’re not likely to be interrupted, and a realistic time frame (five or ten minutes is good to start), and resolve that you will absolutely, definitely not get up from your seat during that time for any reason short of a certifiable emergency. If you accomplish this much, even if you don’t feel you did anything else, that is the first triumph of meditation: you have already gained a bit of control over your unruly mind.
Pay attention to posture, but don’t get fraught about it. There are traditional instructions on posture that you can get from a teacher or a book, and following them can help your mind settle down more easily. But according to Mingyur Rinpoche, the posture can be summed up in two points: keep your spine comfortably straight (including the neck) and the rest of your body as relaxed as possible. I am not able to sit cross-legged on a floor cushion, which is the traditional posture considered most conducive to settling the mind; so I sit in a chair, but I can still observe these two points (and most of the others).
Pick something to rest part of your attention on. It can be a visual object, or whatever sounds arise while you are sitting, or, probably the most popular and easy to use: your breathing. Just breathe normally, don’t try to manipulate your breathing in any way; it should be relaxed and natural, and your only job is to observe it. Whatever your focus, the goal is to keep track of it during the entire time you are sitting. However, it should only take up a small part of your awareness, just enough that you always know it is there; the rest of your mind is relaxed and wide open to whatever sensory input arises from without or within. During this time, keep your mind alert to notice each thought that appears; then: don’t engage your mind with that thought, just notice that it has come up—and let it go. (Do NOT kick it out; just let it make its own way to wherever it is going next.) This is not easy, and we may be able to do it only for very short periods—even a second at a time—but each time we let a single thought or emotion pass without getting caught up in it—even if we only manage it once per session, even if we spend the rest of the time completely caught up in one thought after another—that is the next triumph of meditation. If you meditate regularly, it will get easier and easier; and you may even notice that you are sometimes able to apply this skill just when you need it in everyday life—if even once you avoid a confrontation or stressful situation by letting a potential provocation pass, that is the next triumph of meditation!
Give up any idea that you are doing it wrong. This seems to be a pitfall peculiar to us Westerners, who think a) everything is complicated, and b) we should do it perfectly the first time we try it. As long as you are making a sincere effort to apply this very simple method according to your understanding of it, you are meditating, and you will definitely gain benefit from your practice. Or, as Mingyur Rinpoche puts it, the “intention to meditate” is what really counts. There are refinements you can learn from further study, but all you really need is to sit and do it. Don’t think about how it’s going—if you’re thinking, you’re not meditating; conversely, if you’re letting go of thoughts about whether it’s going well or not: you’re meditating!
Do it every day. If every day is not possible, do it as regularly as you can. “Every time you feel like it” won’t get you anywhere fast. It’s best to make a plan and stick to it. The benefits may not be apparent right away, so don’t give up at the end of a week when nirvana doesn’t seem to be in sight. Lama Norlha Rinpoche assures his students that if we keep at it, practicing regularly and attentively, we will start to notice an improvement in our mental and emotional well-being within a few weeks or months.
P.S. About walking meditation: There are a lot of ways to do walking meditation, but the simplest is to apply this technique (except for sitting part) while you are taking a walk. It’s very portable, and can make walks more spacious, relaxing, and vivid. But: don’t neglect sitting meditation; regular practice on your cushion or chair in a quiet, undisturbed place is the key to steady progress.
Suppose someone gave you a treasure map, with a guarantee that if you followed it, you would find a million dollars at the end, and it would be ALL YOURS—no taxes, no fine print, no legal hassles. What would you do? Who wouldn’t drop everything that could possibly be dropped and devote every spare minute to the pursuit of such a fortune?
Just before retreat started, a friend asked me why I wanted to do a three-year retreat. I didn’t give her a very good answer, because I hadn’t really thought about how to explain it. Most people don’t ask the question, though it must be in everyone’s mind: how can you give up friends, family, restaurants, hiking, driving, concerts and movies, email, the internet, teaching Latin, cell phones, the New Hampshire seacoast, etc. to sit in a room by yourself for THREE YEARS! A week, or maybe even a month…maybe…but THREE YEARS!
For me, there are five basic reasons.
First, in the spiritual tradition I’ve been part of for the past 27 years, the Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, three-year retreat is hands-down the best way to acquire all the basic tools you need to attain complete enlightenment, a.k.a. awakening, a.k.a. seeing everything the way it really is, with no confusion or errors. That sort of realization also enables you to help other people without accidentally making things worse, which is one of the pitfalls of trying to help others when you are confused yourself. It is what the Buddha discovered 2,600 years ago when he set his mind to end suffering for all beings, no matter what it took.
Second, even if I don’t attain enlightenment this time around—and I admit that may be asking a lot—the Buddhist path has many, many tools to help us develop emotional equanimity and tame our minds so we are not at the mercy of every little thing that happens to us. I’d like to not even bat an eyelash the next time someone starts yelling at me or I realize I forgot to buy the chocolate chips. There are a lot of studies now that suggest meditation makes people not only more focused, but also happier. If you want to explore this option outside retreat, a good place to start is any of Pema Chödron’s books, or my current favorite, The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.
Third, and you can stop reading now if you don’t want to think about this, one of the things Buddhism does best is to help us prepare for that inevitable moment of death we are all going to face whether we think about it or not. We learn in Buddhism that the moment of death and what happens after it are crucially important opportunities, and a lot of our practice is specifically designed to enable us to take advantage of them and help others do the same. That may sound far-fetched in a culture where old age is invisible and corpses wear lipstick; but…what if it’s true? (Look up “Pascal’s wager” for seventeenth-century Christian advice on a similar topic.)
Which brings me to reason number four: Why am I so sure three-year retreat can deliver on these goals? Because I have the example of my teacher, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, and other realized teachers I have met, who have traveled exactly this same path before me. You have only to be in a room with one of them for five minutes, maybe less, to know they are operating on some level of clarity, competence, and compassion that we can’t even imagine. I can’t hope to achieve that in three years or even this lifetime, but I do hope to get the process underway.